Wednesday 11 March 2015
[Annette Brooke in the Chair]
Russian Membership of the Council of Europe
Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(John Penrose.)
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Brooke. I think this is the first time I have had that privilege and I fear that it might be the last, because of your impending retirement.
This is a great opportunity to discuss the importance of the Council of Europe and of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. I am delighted to see a number of my colleagues from the Parliamentary Assembly here today, along with the hon. Member for Portsmouth South (Mr Hancock), who was a long-serving member of the Assembly until he retired at the beginning of this year after some 18 years’ service.
The statute of the Council of Europe was agreed in London on 5 May 1949. There were 10 founding members. Today, 47 countries belong to it, and Russia is one of those, having joined in 1996. All have signed up to the aims of the Council as set out in chapter I, article 1(a), which provides:
“The aim of the Council of Europe is to achieve a greater unity between its members for the purpose of safeguarding and realising the ideals… which are their common heritage and facilitating their economic and social progress.”
Article 3 of the statute provides:
“Every member of the Council of Europe must accept the principles of the rule of law and of the enjoyment by all persons within its jurisdiction of human rights and fundamental freedoms, and collaborate sincerely and effectively in the realisation of the aim of the Council as specified in Chapter I.”
If one recites the text of article 3 and sets that against the recent actions of the Russian Federation, the question immediately arises of what sanctions there are against members that are in breach or violation of article 3. The answer is contained in article 8:
“Any member of the Council of Europe which has seriously violated Article 3 may be suspended from its rights of representation and requested by the Committee of Ministers to withdraw under Article 7. If such member does not comply with this request, the Committee may decide that it has ceased to be a member of the Council as from such date as the Committee may determine.”
My first question for my right hon. Friend the Minister, whom I am delighted to see is responding to the debate, is, has the Russian Federation seriously violated article 3 of the statute? My view is that it certainly has, which I think is a view shared by all 18 members of the UK delegation and the 18 substitute members.
What the hon. Gentleman is describing could have been the case on at least five previous occasions, but it would appear that this is the straw that broke the camel’s back, certainly as far as the UK delegation is concerned. We could have had this over South Ossetia, Abkhazia, Chechnya, the human rights issues relating to the death penalty and so on. All those have come up one time after another, so why now?
I will go on to explain exactly why. It is not just the view of all the UK delegation’s members that the Russian Federation has seriously violated article 3; it is also the view of a substantial majority of the Parliamentary Assembly, as evidenced by the decision in January this year to impose sanctions against representatives of Russia, and of the European Conservatives group in the Assembly, which I have the privilege of chairing. It also must be the opinion of the Committee of Ministers, which has made various declarations calling on the Russian Federation to do this, that and the other, all of which have been ignored.
I confirm that that is also the view of the majority of the Socialist group in the Council of Europe.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for putting that on the record. I know that within the Socialist group, strong, differing views have been expressed, but the UK delegation in the Socialist group has been solidly supporting the notion that we must have application of the rules of law to the Russian Federation’s membership of the Council of Europe.
What has the Russian Federation done to put itself in fundamental breach of its obligations? First, it has illegally annexed the territory of another member country of the Council of Europe through the use of armed aggression. To make that worse, its President this week finally admitted that he ordered that annexation, and that there was no free will involved on the part of those living in Crimea. However, as recently as January this year, Mr Putin’s poodles in the Russian state Duma were trying to equate Crimea’s referendum with that the one that took place in Scotland last year and to say that the annexation was equivalent to the Federal Republic of Germany’s annexation of East Germany in 1989.
The hon. Member for Portsmouth South asked what is new, and I have here an article from a Russian newspaper, dated 28 January 2015, with the headline “Russian lawmakers to consider declaration on 1989 ‘annexation of East Germany’”. It states:
“Sergei Naryshkin, the speaker of Russia’s lower house of parliament, has asked the parliamentary Committee on Foreign Affairs to look into the possibility of adopting a declaration which denounces the reunification of Germany in 1989”.
He goes on to say that the Parliamentary Assembly’s reference to the events in Crimea was unlawful and that
“‘97% of Crimean residents voted for reunification with their motherland’”.
The article continues:
“Following the logic of those who call this historical event an annexation, the Federal Republic of Germany annexed East Germany, Naryshkin stated.”
We now know, from Putin’s words a year later, that he ordered that, so all the subsequent bluff and bluster were lies, as we knew they were at the time, and as most of us on the Parliamentary Assembly realised.
The second thing that I hold against the Russian Federation is that it has deployed Russian troops across the border in eastern Ukraine who have used and continued to use heavy weapons against the Ukrainian people. I ask the hon. Gentleman, is that not enough?
Thirdly, Russia has brazenly defied the rule of law by harbouring Andrei Lugovoy, one of its own MPs, who was involved in the assassination of Alexander Litvinenko in London in 2006. As has become clear at the public inquiry currently taking place, Lugovoy achieved a score of minus 2 when asked during a polygraph test in Moscow in April 2012 whether he had handled polonium, yet at the time Russia claimed that the test had emphatically established his innocence. To add insult to injury, on Monday this week, President Putin awarded a state honour to Mr Lugovoy for what was described as “services to the fatherland”. That is putting the proverbial two fingers up to all the other members of the Council of Europe. What are those members doing in response?
The fourth charge that I levy against the Russian Federation is that it has refused to honour its obligations under international law to release from custody Nadiya Savchenko, who was an elected Member of the Ukrainian Parliament and a member of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. She was illegally abducted from Ukraine last July.
Then there is the Magnitsky case. That is a case of the Russians exercising impunity in relation to the killers of Sergei Magnitsky. A recently published book by Bill Browder, “Red Notice: How I Became Putin’s No. 1 Enemy”, is, according to the inside cover,
“a searing exposé of the wholesale whitewash by Russian authorities of Magnitsky’s imprisonment and murder, slicing deep into the shadowy heart of the Kremlin to uncover its sordid truths… With fraud, bribery, corruption and torture exposed at every turn, Red Notice is a shocking but true political roller-coaster that plays out in the highest echelons of Western power.”
On the back of the book, which, not surprisingly, has been banned in Russia, there is a quote from Bill Browder:
“I have to assume that there is a very real chance that Putin or members of his regime will have me killed some day… If I’m killed, you will know who did it.”
That is, sadly, rather reminiscent of what Boris Nemtsov’s mother said before his assassination in Russia last month.
In addition to all that, there have been multiple breaches of the accession document that Russia signed when it joined the Council of Europe. As Russia is still in deliberate breach of its obligations under article 3, why is nothing being done by the United Kingdom Government to trigger action against Russia under article 8? Indeed, one might ask what the purpose is of belonging to an organisation that manifestly shows so little respect for the values espoused in its founding statute.
There are precedents for suspension or expulsion from international organisations, and I want to touch on what happens in the Commonwealth. On Monday, Her Majesty the Queen, as head of the Commonwealth, attended the annual service at Westminster abbey, and her message for Commonwealth day was that the organisation’s values are
“more important and worthy of protection than perhaps at any other time in the Commonwealth’s existence.”
The same is true of the values of the Council of Europe. The principles of the Commonwealth were set out in the Singapore declaration of 1971 and restated in the Harare declaration of 1991. In essence, they talk about peace, democracy, liberty and the rule of law.
Nigeria was suspended from the Commonwealth in 1995 for breaching the Commonwealth principles. It was reinstated in 1999, when it had a democratically elected President. Fiji was suspended in September 2009 for being in breach of the principles and is still suspended. Indeed, I think it has now left the organisation. Zimbabwe was suspended in March 2002. That resulted in its leaving the Commonwealth in December 2003. There are well established precedents for exercising the power of suspension from an international organisation when a member of that organisation is manifestly in breach of the principles.
I have a word of caution for my hon. Friend, who is making a very powerful and correct point. I am a member of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, and one problem that we have had is that we are losing countries from the CPA because of the problems that we are facing. Australia is an obvious one. The problem in this case is that we may split the Council of Europe if we are not careful. The idea that my hon. Friend is putting forward is absolutely right—we have to have sanctions—but we do not want a polarised Council of Europe, in which countries feel that they are so bullied by Russia that they cannot continue to be within the Council of Europe. Does he see that that may be a problem, rather like what the Commonwealth has been facing over the last 20 years with the countries that we have had to suspend?
There may be parallels. I defer to my hon. Friend’s superior knowledge of what happens in the Commonwealth. However, if we and the other founding members of the Council of Europe do not stand up for our belief in the principles of the Council of Europe, we make things much more difficult for other countries, particularly those that were formerly in eastern Europe and part of the Soviet bloc. It is much more difficult for them to try to comply with the principles of the Council of Europe if they can see that the bully boy next-door to them is being treated with impunity, which is exactly what is happening with Russia at the moment. We could send a very strong message if we took effective action and used sanctions against Russia. We would be sending a message to those other countries that we were on their side and would help them to stand up against their bully-boy neighbour.
I am curious to know why the Conservative group stayed in the same group as the Russians for so long if it felt so strongly about Russian abuses that have gone on for the past 18 years or so.
The answer to that is that the abuses that I have been describing have not been going on for the last 18 years or so. What has happened is that things have got very much worse within the last year. That is why the European Democrat group, as it then was, decided to take sanctions against the Russians, as members of that group, for being in manifest breach of the Council of Europe. What was the straw that broke the camel’s back in that respect? It was the motion, passed in the Russian Duma by elected members of the Parliamentary Assembly from Russia, supporting the illegal annexation of Crimea. It was not a situation, as sometimes happens in the Parliamentary Assembly—this has happened with the hon. Gentleman and to an extent with myself—in which we as elected members say that we are not necessarily four-square supporting our Government but are standing up for the values of the Council of Europe against our Government. What happened in that case was that the members of the Russian Federation delegation and members in the European Democrat group were actively undermining the principles of the Council of Europe and actively engaged in supporting the illegal annexation of Crimea and were thereby breaching the principle that the Council of Europe stands for the territorial integrity of all its member countries. That is the short history.
But not Georgia.
The hon. Gentleman takes us back to what happened in relation to Georgia. He may recall that at that time there was a Labour Government in this country and one of the first international statesmen who spoke out in support of Georgia was none other than our present Prime Minister, so I do not think that we can be criticised for being slopy-shouldered in relation to what happened in Georgia. That was part of a continuing scenario. When it comes down to it, we have to face the fact that in Mr Putin we are dealing with a dictator and a tyrant. That is the scenario. In the same way, we have been dealing with a dictator and a tyrant in Zimbabwe. Eventually, patience ran out and Zimbabwe was expelled from the Commonwealth. It was not expelled immediately, because everyone was using the same arguments as are now being used in relation to Russia: “Isn’t jaw-jaw better than any alternative?” However, there comes a time when, if someone continues to be in complete defiance of the principles, we need to take, in my view, the only sanction that is available under the rules.
We are already in danger of being accused of double standards. When my hon. Friend the Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr Gibb) chaired the Joint Committee on the draft Voting Eligibility (Prisoners) Bill, the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, Nils Muiznieks, wrote to him on 10 October 2013:
“Thus, my message is clear: the Court’s judgments”—
Mr Muiznieks was referring to the European Court of Human Rights—
“have to be executed and the automatic and indiscriminate ban on voting rights for prisoners should be repealed. If the Court system is to continue to provide protection, there is no alternative to this for member states, other than leaving the system itself.”
He goes on to say:
“I think that any member state should withdraw from the Council of Europe rather than defy the Court by not executing judgments.”
Does my hon. Friend agree that, until recently, the committee on legal affairs and human rights of the Council of Europe had for some time seen Russia engaging more, explaining its views about judgments and following up on some of them? That seemed quite encouraging, so it is a great pity that we have got into the current situation. Would it not be best for the Russians to follow the ceasefire agreement and find an honourable peace in Ukraine, so that the progress that has been made could resume?
Of course it would be, but the point that I am making, and the reason why I have secured the debate, is that everything suggests that the reverse is true. In relation to the Court judgments, on 13 December 2013 President Putin praised the Russian Constitutional Court for upholding the Russian constitution by effectively stating that the Constitutional Court’s authority was superior to that of the European Court of Human Rights. As a result of that, did the Commissioner for Human Rights tell Russia that it should withdraw from the Council of Europe, as he told my hon. Friend the Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton that the UK should do? No, he did not. Has the commissioner said anything similar about the various actions that Russia has taken in defiance of its obligations under the statute? No, he has not, and that is where the double standards come in.
We are being told that, because of our failure to implement an interpretation of the European convention on human rights which is in breach of the original terms of the convention—originally, it was clear that they did not apply to prisoner voting, but the interpretation has been extended—the United Kingdom should expel itself from the Council of Europe. Meanwhile, the commissioner has not said anything to the Russians about their membership.
I am following the trend of the hon. Gentleman’s argument, but I am slightly unclear about whether he is against Russia, against the Council of Europe, or against our engagement with either.
I am very much in favour of engagement, but only with those who want to engage on the same page, if I may put it in such a way. My concern is that the Russians are not showing any willingness to do so. If we believe that there has been a fundamental breach of the statute, as I have set out, and if that is allowed to happen with impunity, it brings into question the whole purpose of this international organisation. What is the point of belonging to it? That is the question to which I hope we will get an answer from the Minister.
We are a member of the United Nations, in which there is a huge range of opinions, democracy and practices. How does the logic of the hon. Gentleman’s argument follow?
The Council of Europe is different from the United Nations, and the statute spells out that it is separate from the United Nations. The Council of Europe covers only Europe—European values and principles. I would be concerned if the right hon. Gentleman wanted to be an apologist for the Russian Federation, although I do not believe that he does. Until now, cross-party concern has been expressed in the House about the behaviour of the Russian Federation. If we are prepared to take economic sanctions against the Russian Federation, why should we not take the sanctions that are available to us under the Council of Europe statute? The answer may be because certain other members of the Council of Europe are too frightened to want to join in, but my answer to them is that the United Kingdom has traditionally taken a lead in such things. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Minister, in his response to the debate, will say that we are taking a lead and explain what we will do.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. He talks about engaging with people. Does he agree that we should encourage engagement with the sections of Russian society that have taken a stand against Putin, and that we should ensure that they have a voice not only in the Council of Europe but across the globe?
I agree, but how best can we do that? That is a question of judgment. I have heard it said, for example, that we must keep Russia in the Council of Europe because if we do not, it will reinstate the death penalty. In fact, however, we can see from recent events that the Russian Government exercise an extrajudicial death penalty by murdering enemies of the state in the United Kingdom and elsewhere. Do we tolerate such behaviour because we are fearful that Russia might reintroduce a judicial death penalty instead of the extrajudicial death penalty that is currently handed out by the President?
The extent to which we should impose sanctions is an eternal dilemma. Just as public opinion in this country is influenced by international events, if we took a firmer line against Russia on its human rights record and its breaches of the rules of the Council of Europe, we would support those in Russia who are trying to fight against the system. I know from having had the privilege of talking to Bill Browder that he also believes that it is better to try to sanction the regime in Russia than to continue to indulge it.
We owe a debt to my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) for securing the debate, because it encourages a useful exchange of views. He is the most distinguished leader of the European Conservatives Group on the Council of Europe. He has devoted himself body and soul to working on the Council in an often unsung role, and we are grateful to him. We all understand the depth of his feeling, and we can understand why he advances the argument that we should now expel Russia from the Council of Europe. I am sorry to say that I disagree with that argument. So far, Russia has behaved in an utterly lamentable fashion, and the Council of Europe has decided effectively to suspend it. In theory, Russia can turn up, but in practice it does not. It does not vote or speak.
Taking the next dramatic step of expelling Russia would be a mistake because, although my hon. Friend will not agree, as long as Russia is involved in the Council of Europe, whether on the death penalty, human rights or its position with regard to other countries, there is some sort of link and encouragement for it to make progress along the road of human rights.
Why was the Council of Europe set up? It is a very different organisation from the European Union. As my hon. Friend said, we are one of the creators of the Council of Europe. He referred to the famous remark of Winston Churchill in 1954:
“To jaw-jaw is…better than to war-war.”
That is what the Council of Europe is all about. I view it not as an executive body like the European Union; I view it as an inter-parliamentary assembly. I am a member of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, and one of the Council of Europe’s values is that we recognise that our powers are extremely limited—in fact, they are virtually non-existent, with the exception of voting for judges on the European Court of Human Rights—but it is an opportunity to meet Members of Parliaments from across Europe to exchange views. That is what the Council of Europe is: it is an inter-parliamentary assembly.
Article 1 of the statute of the Council of Europe states that its purpose is
“to achieve a greater unity between its members for the purpose of safeguarding and realising the ideals and principles which are their common heritage and facilitating their economic and social progress.”
As long as Russia is, albeit suspended, a member of the Council of Europe, we can hope to press it to mend its ways. Expelling Russia would be a considerable step. My hon. Friend mentioned suspended members of the Commonwealth, but it has been a rare step to expel countries from the Commonwealth—South Africa might have been expelled, and it might even have expelled itself in the early years of apartheid—and expelling a member of the Council of Europe would be a dangerous precedent, particularly in our vulnerable situation, as has already been mentioned.
As I understand it, in our Conservative party manifesto, we will proclaim the supremacy of Parliament. We will proclaim that, if our Parliament votes for a particular position, such as on prisoner voting rights, the Court cannot gainsay it. If there is a Conservative Government and if we pass such an Act of Parliament, there will undoubtedly be a move from some of our friends in Europe to expel us, but I am pretty sure that we will not be expelled. It is pretty foolish for us to set a precedent by now expelling Russia.
What Russia is doing by invading a sovereign country, its neighbour, is infinitely more egregious, more damaging to human rights and more lamentable in every respect than our will and desire to proclaim the supremacy of Parliament—I recognise that—but we have a problem, have we not? As some people will articulate, we have signed various conventions and, in a very real sense, the European Court of Human Rights is a supreme court, an ultimate authority of laws. Although we will undoubtedly want to stay in the Council of Europe—my right hon. Friend the Minister can confirm that—despite proclaiming the supremacy of Parliament, we will be in some difficulty. It is not entirely useful for us to set a precedent.
Article 8 outlines a two-stage process. The first stage states:
“Any member of the Council of Europe which has seriously violated Article 3 may be suspended from its rights of representation”.
That is what I am suggesting as a first stage. Article 8 goes on to say what can happen afterwards. My hon. Friend says that expulsion would be a very strong sanction, but my suggestion is that we should start off with suspension, using the powers under article 8.
I apologise if I misunderstood my hon. Friend. I argue with the position that we effectively have at the moment. Russia might not be formally suspended, but it is effectively suspended, which is a sort of halfway house. We are rapping its knuckles. If he is now saying that under no circumstances does he wish to expel Russia and that he does not view this as a process towards expelling Russia, I am sorry that I misunderstood his arguments. I am in favour of giving a message to Russia, but I am not in favour of expelling Russia. If he wants to make it clear that he is also not in favour of expelling Russia, I will happily give way.
There are two separate issues: the Russian delegation’s membership of the Parliamentary Assembly and Russia’s membership of the Council of Europe as a country. I am saying that article 8 should be applied on that latter point. I am not talking about the situation within the Parliamentary Assembly, which has already been well rehearsed. I am talking about the Government’s responsibility to do something under article 8.
We now understand each other perfectly. I tell my right hon. Friend the Minister that I do not agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch. We have taken the right, measured steps within the Parliamentary Assembly. The process of suspension may result in expulsion, and there should be no route towards suspending or expelling Russia from the Council of Europe. I think we have done the right thing.
Does my hon. Friend agree that one thing to bear in mind is that the European Court of Human Rights is extensively used by citizens of Russia and human rights defenders who want justice? They find justice in the Court when they do not necessarily find it in Russia itself. Equally, Russia benefits from bodies such as the Group of States against Corruption, which is trying to improve standards across Europe. Pulling the rug from under Russia’s membership of the Council of Europe as a whole, or putting its membership at risk, would have damaging effects.
I agree entirely. I was thinking of intervening on my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch when he introduced this debate. Has he been in touch with non-governmental organisations across Russia? Has he been in touch with people who are appealing to the Court, as my hon. and learned Friend said? My understanding—the Minister can confirm this or otherwise—is that the Council of Europe is valued by some people in Russia. They still have the right to go to the Court, and starting a process to expel Russia from the Council of Europe and denying those people the right to appeal to the Court would be dangerous.
Time is running by, and we do not want to get bogged down on the invasion of Ukraine. I am not pro-Ukrainian or pro-Russian. All I seek is to understand the mentality of the Russian people and the Russian Government, and that is part of the importance of sitting on a body such as the Council of Europe. Seeking to understand our opponent’s position does not necessarily mean that we agree with that position. It belittles and over-simplifies the debate to say that, because the current President of Russia, Mr Putin, is a tyrant—he may well be a tyrant and an extremely unpleasant person—this is somehow all his doing and that, if we in Britain were to apply certain pressures on him such as starting the process of expelling his country from the Council of Europe, we would somehow influence him.
We have to understand the attitude of many people in Crimea, eastern Ukraine and Russia. Thirty-four of the Council of Europe’s 47 member states have recognised the forcible division of Serbia after Kosovo proclaimed its independence. That is often cited, and it was directly cited by the Crimean Parliament when it voted to leave Ukraine and join the Russian Federation. It blames us for double standards on Serbia, and it asks us, “Where were you, Britain, and what debates were there in the House of Commons, when Khrushchev forcibly, by diktat, removed Crimea from Russia and gave it to Ukraine in the 1950s?”
I do not want to comment on whether this is right or wrong, but there is a substantial body of opinion—a majority opinion—in Crimea and Russia that thinks that the people of Crimea and eastern Ukraine, who are ethnic Russians and Russian speakers, have a right to self-determination. We can have as many debates as we like, we can pose as many sanctions as we want and we can criticise Mr Putin as often as we like, but we are up against the absolute, convinced opinion of an overwhelming majority of Russian people, who think that the people of eastern Ukraine have a right to self-determination.
Does my hon. Friend extend the same argument to the Russian minorities in the Baltic states—Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia?
I am simply seeking to understand the Russian point of view. There is a difficulty with Latvia, because there are 300,000 ethnic Russian speakers in that country who are effectively denied their human rights. I am not going to get involved in a debate about whether that is bad or good, but my hon. Friend is right to say that it is often talked about in Russia. It is a real problem. However, there is a difference, because Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania are members of NATO. We decided to draw them into NATO, so we are bound by article 5 to defend them.
I must end in a moment, because I do not want to weary the House by speaking for too long. I believe—I have said this before and I will say it again—that Great Britain has an historic role. There is no history between us and Russia, so we are natural arbiters. We were allies in the two greatest conflicts of the 20th century, and in many ways we are natural allies. There is a way out of this impasse.
I spent an hour with the Russian ambassador recently, and I asked his opinion. Hon. Members may say that he is just another diplomat sent abroad to lie for his country. I did not believe everything that he told me, but he said that Russia’s position—take it or leave it, but it is not completely unreasonable, and it is the basis for some sort of negotiated peace—is that Ukraine should not join NATO. Apparently, we have no desire for Ukraine to join NATO. The Russians claim that they are reasonably relaxed about Ukraine’s moving further towards the European Union, but they would like that to be balanced with corresponding trade agreements with Russia, which is a perfectly reasonable position. They recognise that eastern Ukraine should remain part of the sovereign state of Ukraine, which should have self-determination. Those three points of view are not completely unreasonable; they are the basis for peace.
I believe strongly that we should keep Russia in the Council of Europe and that we should go on talking to it. We should seek a solution based on peace; otherwise, we will be in a situation of war without end. The Russian people, who suffered terribly during the 20th century, will not give up on this issue. It is not of massive strategic concern to the British people, although we have an interest and a role to play as an arbiter. I believe that we should go on playing the role of arbiter and be a proponent of peace in the Council of Europe.
I propose to call the winding-up speeches at 10.40 am at the very latest. Two hon. Members wish to speak, so that should be satisfactory.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Brooke. I congratulate the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) on bringing this challenge, which we have to face up to, to the House today. We should all be mindful of his words, but, like the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh), I think there is another side to the issue.
We ought to look at what the Council of Europe is about. We know that its main three pillars—its raison d’être—are human rights, the rule of law and democratic processes. However, all of us who have been in the Council of Europe for any length of time know that it also has two negative pillars, which it embraces with great enthusiasm: double standards and the lowest common denominator when it comes to getting something through the Council of Europe. Often, it is not the best argument that wins, but the one that the political bosses of the various parties decide they can carry in the Chamber.
A good example of the Council of Europe’s double standards is the situation in Ukraine. When was the last time we had a debate in the Council of Europe about the Turkish occupation of northern Cyprus? I cannot remember one in my 18 years there. When did we have a debate in the Council of Europe about the separation of Kosovo from Serbia, which is an idea I support? When was the last time we criticised Armenia for occupying a third of the land mass of Azerbaijan? We have not had those debates. Why not? Because we would have to take positive action against those countries. Do we really want to say that to Turkey, Azerbaijan and Armenia? I think not. We know that will not happen.
The Library produced a very interesting document, which states:
“A group of Conservative MPs led by”
the then leader
“led a charge to suspend Russia fully from the assembly. His amendment was defeated”.
It was defeated because those people were taking a step too far, as far as the Assembly was concerned. I have long held the view that we have to have a debate on whether we want Russia in or out. There cannot be any half measures. Suspending the voting rights of the delegation is totally irrelevant. It causes a bit of panic in the Hemicycle for the hour or so after the vote is taken, when the Russian press are there and the media are trying to get a quote from everyone and anyone. I am sure I have seen some of the cameramen giving quotes about the issue to other television stations because there were no politicians around to do it.
The Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe had the pleasure of having Boris Nemtsov at its meetings on several occasions. I had the pleasure of meeting him, having dinner with him and talking to him. The question I asked him at our group meeting was, “Do you think we should expel Russia from the Council of Europe?” His words were, “Most definitely not.” He then spoke for about half an hour about why he thought that was not the case. During his half-hour response, he made a number of points that a lot of us thought gave conclusive evidence that Russia should not be in the Council of Europe. Nevertheless, he said no.
Over the years, the biggest problem has been the way we have looked at Russia since it joined in 1996. I joined the Council of Europe in 1997. Since then, the Council of Europe has not taken action against Russia on at least five occasions. One was when we had the long, drawn-out debates over Chechnya, which went on for the best part of four years. I went to Chechnya twice. One of our former members, Lord Judd, was one of the leading players on that issue. He came close to recommending that Russia be suspended and then expelled, but he drew back from that. He would say that he drew back because he was put under pressure.
There was the situation in South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Once again, are we really saying that it was okay for Georgia’s land to be occupied and for two free states to emerge in a Council of Europe country? What action did we take on that issue? We are still having a debate. We have rapporteurs looking at the Russia-Georgia issue, but we have not made a decision, although it occurred in 2008. Six years on, the Council of Europe has done nothing. Why? Because, once again, it aims for the lowest common denominator to keep everyone in the tent.
Human rights in Russia was another issue on which the Russians flatly refused, until 2012, to agree to the very principles that they had signed up for. The abolition of the death penalty—
I am following what the hon. Gentleman is saying very carefully. Does he not agree that in diplomacy it is important to have some messages that can be sent and some sanctions that can be imposed, in an escalating fashion, to make one’s point? Taking away voting rights in the Council of Europe, which annoys the Russians a good deal, is a measure that one can use, and it is wrong to say that it is all or nothing. Those escalating sanctions are useful.
But there comes a time when the credibility of the Council of Europe is at stake. That is the issue, is it not? Sooner or later, we come to a line in the sand and say, “Is it really worth belonging to this organisation?”
I do not want Russia to leave the Council of Europe, but I want to call the bluff of those who agitate time and again to nitpick—not “nitpick”, as that is the wrong expression—and to take voting rights away. Who gets cheesed off about having their voting rights taken away? Probably the wives of the Duma Members, who can no longer go to Paris and Strasbourg for sittings. I do not believe the politicians are particularly bothered that they do not have their voting rights. They know that in January next year there will be a vote and they will have their voting rights back. I am sure of that.
How can that be the case? The hon. Members who intervened on the hon. Member for Christchurch—the hon. and learned Member for North East Hertfordshire (Sir Oliver Heald) and the hon. Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset (Mr Liddell-Grainger)—raised a point about Russia, saying, “Oh, well, if they agree to a certain line in the sand over Ukraine, that is okay.” Is it okay? Russia will never give up Crimea now, so where does the Council of Europe stand on the issue of Crimea? Forget eastern Ukraine; where does the Council of Europe stand on the issue of Crimea? I have friends who live in Crimea. They are Russian by ethnicity, have absolute faith that they are now back where they belong and are committed to staying there, and will fight very hard to do so.
I share the hon. Gentleman’s concern that people can be in a parliamentary assembly and have their rights suspended while they still remain members of the Council of Europe itself, because if someone’s country is still in the Council of Europe there is an argument for saying that their parliamentarians should be in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. That is why I am arguing that Russia should be suspended from the Council of Europe itself.
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point, and he presented his case extraordinarily well. I have no doubt about the merits of that case, but there is this other argument, which other Members have alluded to, that it is better to have people inside the organisation.
Would the human rights commissioner for the Council of Europe have the same facilities offered to them in Russia if Russia was out of the Assembly? I think not. Would people in Russia, who make up nearly two thirds of all the applicants to the European Court of Human Rights, have any access to redress if Russia was out of the Assembly? I think not. If the £24 million that the Russians put in, as a grand payer along with the UK, was removed from the Council of Europe, what would that do for the Court in Strasbourg?
The hon. Gentleman said that the members of the Russian delegation to the Assembly do not really care whether they have voting rights, so why do they continually campaign to get the votes back and why do they threaten in discussions in the Duma that, if they do not get their votes back, they will seek to leave the Council of Europe? Surely, voting rights are important and, as the hon. and learned Member for North East Hertfordshire (Sir Oliver Heald) said, the strength of the push towards getting the negotiation to the Council of Ministers, or to the UN or wherever, is the important factor here.
The simple answer to that is that the Council of Europe needs Russia more than Russia needs the Council of Europe. That is the real issue for the Russian Duma Members and I have read with interest some of the comments they have made in the Russian press since the issue in January; they make interesting reading. Those Duma Members genuinely believe that the threat to suspend Russia is a bluff, because they know that the track record of the Council of Europe on taking forceful action is pretty abysmal and they have a lot of evidence to support that line.
The hon. Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) raised the issue of Latvia. Interestingly, the 300,000 ethnic Russians in Latvia are classed as non-citizens. If the Council of Europe believes in anything to do with human rights, how can it allow that situation to persist? It is ridiculous.
It is pretty intolerable that a country that is a member of the EU and the Council of Europe is effectively denying citizenship to people, and the right for them to sit in Parliament and all the rest of it, unless they learn Latvian. Imagine if the boot was on the other foot and there were large numbers of people here who could not speak English, or they were Urdu speakers or whatever, and we said, “You can’t stand for Parliament and all that sort of stuff because you have to vote in English.” There is a real problem here. I am not defending the Russian position, but we have to recognise that that is what the Russians think.
Some people might suggest that we are getting pretty close to that in the UK regarding the ability of people to speak English, but how can people be classed as non-citizens in an EU state—or, more importantly from our point of view, in a member state of the Council of Europe—and nothing is done or said about it, except by those of us who believe passionately that everyone living in a country should be classed as a citizen of that country?
What do we do? We have a debate here. I am not sure whether the suspension of voting rights for the Russians will do much at all. Expelling Russia from the Council of Europe would undoubtedly harm the organisation; it would diminish the Council of Europe’s credibility for being able to speak on behalf of the 700 million people who inhabit the 46 member states in the Council of Europe, so it would be a mistake to do it.
We must continue to work with Russia. It is quite interesting to see who the rapporteurs on Russia have been over the years. In most instances, they have been leaders of the political groups, or senior members of those groups who have taken on that responsibility. None of them has ever recommended anything like the suspension or removal of Russia from the Council of Europe. Why? Because they believed that their efforts brought some reward for the citizens in Russia.
The best message we can send out today is that we do not like what the Russians are doing and that we will do everything we can to achieve a peaceful settlement to the issues of eastern Ukraine, but that situation will not be solved and the people involved will not be saved from further harm by expelling Russia from the Council of Europe. We should take a positive step today to say that we hope to see in January a different attitude from the Russian side and from the Council of Europe side.
More importantly, however, for those Members who are lucky enough to be on the delegation to the Council of Europe after the general election, I suggest that they need to get rid of the two things that undermine the Council of Europe time and again: double standards and the continual striving to find the lowest common denominator, instead of finding the right answer.
Thank you, Mrs Brooke, for calling me to speak.
It is a great pleasure to play a part in this thoughtful debate. It has been particularly interesting to be part of a debate in which a diversity of views has been expressed. Often, our relationship with Russia is seen in a monochrome way.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) on bringing this matter to the House. As he pointed out, the Council of Europe was established in the embers of the second world war and inspired by the need at that juncture to rebuild our continent. As my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) pointed out, it was Sir Winston Churchill himself who recognised that only shared standards and values on the law and human rights, alongside democratic development, would help to stitch Europe back together. However, I do not think there was any great naivety at that stage about those ideals. There was a recognition that the ideals would be perhaps honoured in part in their breach, but it was still important to be able to talk and to have some sort of relationship.
The hon. Member for Portsmouth South (Mr Hancock) made it clear that there are a number of glaring situations in our continent at the moment that do not pass muster, and that if we take this draconian step against Russia it would be very difficult to see that we would not do so against a number of other nations, given some long-standing issues. One that he did not mention that comes to mind is, as the Spanish would see it, the occupation of Gibraltar, which might also become an issue. However, perhaps it is better that we move on from that to something closer at hand.
The Council of Europe as currently constituted consists of 47 member nations, incorporating nearly all the European countries as well as the outliers in the Caucasus. It has, of course, become best known in this country for the European Court of Human Rights, which sits within its auspices. As hon. Members mentioned, it was almost 20 years ago, in 1996, that the Russian Federation was formally admitted as a Council of Europe member. Even then, its relatively dubious human rights record was overlooked, on the basis that it was making progress on implementing the rule of law alongside free and fair elections. That decision symbolised the west’s optimism, at that juncture, that Russia was on its way to a normalisation after the collapse of the Soviet Union only five years before. People were saying, “Give it time and patience. If Russia is brought into the international fold, it will eventually begin to act like an open, democratic state.” Or so we thought.
Since then, the relationship between the Council of Europe and Russia has at times been testy, particularly with regard to questions about legal supremacy. In 2014, the ECHR made more judgments against Russia than against any other country. The ECHR has been used by many enemies of the Kremlin, most notably the Yukos founder, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, to bring cases against the Russian state.
After President Putin’s intervention in Ukraine, the Council of Europe deprived Moscow’s delegation of its right to vote, a move that has sparked wider discussion among Russia's ruling class—not just the wives of those in the Duma, I suspect—about whether Russia would wish to continue its membership of the Council. Many in Russia believe it has a negative influence on their nation and would like Russian sovereignty restored on matters such as the death penalty. If Russia withdrew from the Council, that would likely sound the death knell for some of the naive idealism that has guided western policy since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
I had a lot of sympathy with what my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough said in quite a brave contribution that was not something one necessarily hears on the Floor of the House. He is right: the simplistic way in which Putin is portrayed as a dictator and a tyrant in much of our press fails to understand some deep-seated issues in Russia.
I have long cautioned against assuming that Russia is on a steady path to becoming a functioning, multi-party democracy. We have always failed to understand that many Russians, to this day, see the Gorbachev and Yeltsin era as a time of chaos, uncertainty and utter humiliation. Putin has been able to maintain some domestic popularity by retelling a more traditional Russian story, filling the vast ideological vacuum left by the disintegration of the communist ideal with the notion of a Russian civilisation based upon patriotism, selflessness and deference to an all-powerful state. In doing so, he continues to tap into a pool of resentment that goes beyond Russian borders, to encapsulate many of those who dislike the global dominance of the USA over the past two decades. Specifically in relation to Georgia, there is no doubt that the Georgian leadership in that period, up to 2007-08, was little more than a CIA front. That was going on in Georgia and it is perhaps one reason why we have rapidly moved on from discussing that issue.
We are now faced with the Crimean crisis—let us be brutally honest: there is no going back from Crimea’s being returned as part of Russia—and the ongoing hostilities in eastern Ukraine. This continues to baffle many here in the west who fail to grasp why Vladimir Putin would wish to re-engineer an old-fashioned, imperialistic land-grab that risks western ire and Russian company balance sheets. The Russian President may well be a nasty piece of work—I am not in any way defending what he is doing—but he is a master at fashioning strength from weakness. From a position of fragile financial and geopolitical clout, Putin has boosted his profile with a domestic and global audience as a champion for the interests of Russia and, more worryingly, the Russian diaspora, which we have touched on in relation to Latvia and Estonia. I agree with what my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough said: there is a fundamental difference between the way that we will look at Latvia and Estonia in years to come—they are members of NATO, and therefore protected under article 5, and members of the EU—and how we view Ukraine. The “one step forward, one step back” approach that has characterised western diplomacy in Ukraine in the past 18 months will endanger the countries beyond and give Putin a sense that we will not be serious about where a line is drawn to defend countries that are in NATO.
I should not be too surprised if Putin were now to engineer a similar victory by pushing for Russian withdrawal from the Council of Europe, making the case that continued membership is untenable now that the institution has become a vehicle through which western policy alone is exercised. Mr Putin has already suggested that neighbouring countries’ membership of the EU and NATO is equivalent to those nations existing in a “semi-occupied state”. He may also try to present an exit from the Council as a proud declaration of the supremacy of Russian sovereignty, as well as a defence of his nation’s distinct world view and political culture when it is under grave threat. In doing so, Putin will hope to sow the seeds of discord among remaining Council members, particularly when it comes to the ECHR, already a subject of hot debate on these shores. Why not try to fracture the consensus on human rights by suggesting that the ECHR has diminished national sovereignty, blunting members’ ability to tackle dangerous terrorists and the like? That argument is made on these shores and I suspect it may be made by Putin’s Russia as well.
For nearly two decades, the ECHR has enhanced Russia’s domestic legal system and provided an important outlet of dissent for those most at risk in Putin’s Russia. Without it—we should remember this in debates that we will, no doubt, have in this country on the ECHR in years to come—many opponents of the Kremlin would not have been able to gain the same level of publicity for their day-to-day plight. Naturally, if Russia withdrew from the Council of Europe, the repercussions for such individuals would be considerable. Many colleagues have spoken about those issues in detail this morning.
My hon. Friend is making a thoughtful contribution, but where does that leave us in relation to the enforcement of judgments? For example, it is clear that the Russian Federation is not going to comply with the Yukos judgment against it. What sanction will there be when it does not?
I accept that. That is, I am afraid, part of the frustrating battle of diplomacy, which we can look at from afar, but which my right hon. Friend the Minister has to deal with day to day. I think diplomacy within the Conservative party is bad enough, let alone having to deal with the other 46 members of the Council of Europe, but my hon. Friend will appreciate that that is the nature of the steadfast, patient way in which we approach these issues. We need to approach the issue of Putin in a steadfast and patient way.
My long-term belief is that, looking at what is happening geopolitically, including with the rise of China, for example—I know it pains many to even think in these terms—our relationship with Russia has to be part of our solution, not part of our problem in the longer term. Putin will not be there for ever. We need to recognise the importance of Russia as a place with which we have to have a working, workable relationship. That is in no way to justify what is going on. It is right that we should try to work with whoever is leading Russia to ensure that, if we cannot solve the real problems that we face, diplomatically, at least we are able to move steadfastly in the right direction.
My main concern with a Russian withdrawal is that President Putin will use it as a sparkling opportunity to stoke division and sow doubt among remaining members of the Council of Europe. No nation has ever resigned its membership, just as no country has ever left NATO, the eurozone or the European Union, and I hope that will continue for the foreseeable future, although one or two of my hon. Friends do not take a similar view. I fear that, by demonstrating that the post-cold war consensus on democracy, human rights and rule of law might be shattered, Putin could challenge at a stroke other international institutions that have so painstakingly been built to serve our best interests and foster freedom in our continent over the past 70 years.
I think this is also the first and last time I have served under your chairmanship, Mrs Brooke. We should record that it is 30 years to the day since Mikhail Gorbachev became the General Secretary of the Communist party of the Soviet Union. That set off, or was the catalyst for, momentous global change. Not all welcomed that change. Vladimir Putin and the hon. Member for Bradford West (George Galloway) lament the decline, demise and fall of the Soviet Union, but western Europe and the peoples of the freed countries of the Warsaw pact and the former Soviet Union do not—they welcomed that change. That is not, however, to proclaim the end of history, as was most unwisely done at the time. History has shown that she has a lot of resilience left in her yet.
Where are we now? The annexation of Crimea and conflict in Ukraine have undoubtedly focused attention, but they did not come out of a clear blue sky. Assisted by the previous escalation in oil prices, Russia had already embarked on a substantial programme of rearmament. I outlined that on Monday in the Chamber in the debate on the non-proliferation treaty:
“We need to be concerned about the expansion of Russian capability and a major modernisation of Russia’s strategic forces—involving the deployment of two new types of sea-launched ballistic missiles, a new class of ballistic missile submarines, a new type of intercontinental ballistic missile; and work on a new bomber and long-range cruise missiles.”
I also said that Sir John Sawers, the previous head of MI6, gave evidence that the Russians had indicated that they were
“prepared to use those weapons in certain circumstances.”—[Official Report, 9 March 2015; Vol. 594, c. 118.]
That rearmament has been accompanied by increasing activity and tension, especially but by no means exclusively on Russia’s western borders. The pressure on countries in the near abroad, especially the Baltic states, has already been mentioned. Cyber-attacks have hit Estonia in particular, and NATO is discussing its response to such attacks. There is increasing maritime activity, particularly from submarines—not only in the Baltic, but around our shores. We have seen numerous instances, as have other countries, of near incursions by aviation activity, which is very much about testing our defences and our responses. We have also seen wider diplomatic initiatives, with an evolving approach from Russia.
We do not have time to explore Russia’s involvement in the middle east, but her deepening engagement in Asia, whether multilaterally through the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation or bilaterally with the agreement with China, is interesting and of concern; it remains to be seen whether they will be allies or adversaries in the end. That engagement was aptly described, I think by The Economist, by the headline “Autocrats of the World, Unite”. The underlying question is whether Russia sees herself as a European power or whether she sees her future in Asia. In other words, this is about the comment from General de Gaulle that Russia was not left, but east. That evolving situation has implications, including for our discussions here.
The hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) outlined at some length the position in the Council of Europe, but I was still slightly unclear at the end on whether he had answered Vladimir Lenin’s question, “What is to be done?”, particularly by Britain and our European allies. Lenin asked that question in one of his pamphlets. Clearly, the isolationism of the left or right is not a realistic option—certainly not for Britain. As a member of the P5, a leading member of the Commonwealth and a member of the G7 and the G20, we are engaged internationally. We dealt with the isolationism of the left and the belief in unilateralism on Monday in the debate on the non-proliferation treaty. Interestingly, many of those engaged with the debate on the unilateralist side held the same views in the cold war about the malign intentions—they did not see them as that—of the Soviet Union and the need to resist them.
We also have to resist the isolationism of the right, which seeks to detach us from the institutions of Europe and, in particular, the EU. The hon. Gentleman gave a vigorous documentation of recent actions by Russia, but Europe’s response is crucial. Interestingly, my right hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton South East (Mr McFadden), whose portfolio this is, is addressing a conference on precisely that issue and our need for engagement. He will be saying that the EU has in recent months stood together to agree sanctions against Russia over its proxy war in Ukraine.
The security dimension of our membership of the EU is becoming more important. The hard edge of our security will continue to be provided by NATO, but the commitment to the common values represented by the EU is crucial. Eurosceptics seek sovereignty, but the security situation demands common action and resolve. If the EU was to splinter or split, no one would be more pleased than President Putin, which is presumably why he supports some of the populist parties of the right in Europe, financially and rhetorically. It is no accident that the political forces that he admires are anti-European, nor is it an accident that the Front National in France has received loans of millions of euros from a Russian bank. It is also possibly no accident that Mr Farage has singled out Mr Putin for admiration “as an operator”.
The hon. Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) used an unfortunate word—I do not blame him for it—when he talked about “understanding”. It has an unfortunate resonance. The Germans have a phrase—the Putinversteher—for those who understand Putin. Talking about being able to “comprehend” the argument might be better, because we have to understand the different landscape that is evolving. I would say that it is reverting to a previous era. In Ukraine, we are seeing the implementation of hybrid warfare, with irregular forces and a wide range of propaganda, which softens up the will to resist. All that is reminiscent of the cold war, when there was a wide cultural front that covered the arts, sport, non-governmental organisations and trade unions. The labour attachés of the Russian and American embassies were major players in the trade union movement in that period.
It is extraordinary that we are cutting defence expenditure at the same time as we are cutting expenditure for the World Service, but we need to look at how we respond across the wider complex and whether we stay engaged. That is the crucial point arising from today’s debate. The hon. Member for Christchurch wants to engage only with countries that are on the same page, but that is a policy for hermits. Russia is a fact and China is a fact. We therefore need to look at how we can engage, and we should not underestimate the impact of engagement and of channels of communication and dialogue.
There is good historical precedent for that. There was a lot of criticism by the Republican right of Republican officials in the Administration when they undertook the Helsinki accords in 1975, which were seen as legitimising Russia and its control over the near abroad. In fact, those officials provided the basis and the channels that started to trigger the break-up of the Warsaw pact and the Soviet Union. It is about widening those channels. As was rightly said by the hon. and learned Member for North East Hertfordshire (Sir Oliver Heald), we should not underestimate the value to Russian citizens of judgments by the European Court of Human Rights.
We need to work to ensure that Russia meets its obligations if it wants to remain a member or active participant in international forums. That is why we support the steps taken so far by the Council of Europe to increase the pressure on President Putin to change course. Nevertheless, it is important that we maintain channels of communication, so that there is a possibility of moving forward through dialogue: ultimately, jaw-jaw is better than war-war.
I echo the comments of my colleagues who welcomed you to the Chair, Mrs Brooke, and I wish you well after you step down from the House of Commons at the forthcoming election. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) on securing and leading what has been throughout an extremely serious-minded and thoughtful debate about not only Ukraine, but the more general relationship between the United Kingdom and the west and Russia and how we should address the challenges that we currently face.
I rather agreed with my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mark Field) when he said that there has been a tendency in the west to underestimate the extent to which people in Russia see the era of Gorbachev and Yeltsin as a national humiliation. Nevertheless, I do not believe that that suggests that the west has provoked President Putin and the current Russian Government in the way that he sometimes tries to claim. When looking back over the past 10 years or so, we see an effort by western countries to try to involve Russia in those international organisations that are the core of a rules-based international order. We have seen Russia brought into the G7, which became the G8; into the World Trade Organisation and the OECD; and into organisations such as the Council of Europe, which has been at the heart of today’s debate.
The right hon. Member for Warley (Mr Spellar) was correct to remind the House that we are looking not only at Ukraine, nor even only at Ukraine and Georgia, but at a number of areas where, in recent years, Russia has demonstrated a more aggressive pursuit of its national interests and posed a greater challenge to a rules-based international system—or at least, a system that we had hoped was rules-based. He mentioned cyber attacks and the increase in air and naval activity. I could add to that list the abduction of an Estonian official from Estonian soil. He is still in prison in Moscow, where he has been for six months without evidence being brought against him. I could also add the use of energy and strategic investments as a weapon of Russian power, the 2007 suspension of Russian participation in the conventional forces in Europe treaty and the fact that, only yesterday, Russia announced that it would suspend its participation in the Joint Consultative Group, the committee in Vienna that monitors the CFE treaty.
Perhaps the Minister could add to that list trade with Armenia. Recently, Armenia agreed to move closer to the European Union, resulting in a direct threat from Russia that if it continued to move away from the Commonwealth of Independent States, Russia would instead trade with nearby partners.
The hon. Gentleman puts the point well, and one could add other items to that list.
We face not only a crisis over Ukraine, but an issue of principle. After the break-up of the Soviet Union, the international community, including the Russian Federation, recognised the republics that then became independent states as sovereign and entitled to determine their own future. The question now is whether we believe that that is an important principle that should be upheld for both legal and political reasons, or that Russia is justified in trying to exert some kind of informal imperium over those countries that used to be part of the Soviet Union.
Will the Minister give way?
I am afraid I will not. I have just over five minutes left and want to respond to the points made in the debate.
Today, we mark the 25th anniversary of Lithuania’s recovery of its independence after half a century of occupation. We would be foolish if we thought that simply acquiescing in a breach of the principles of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of states would have consequences that could be confined even to Europe. Countries throughout the world are watching the crisis in Ukraine and drawing conclusions about how the international community might or might not react in other circumstances.
We welcome the Minsk implementation plan for Ukraine. It is not perfect, but it is the best hope we have of turning a fragile and incomplete ceasefire into an effective truce and then, I hope, into a peacemaking process. I am advised that the latest situation is that the ceasefire has led to significant reductions in fighting, but there are still localised outbreaks of violence, especially around hot spots such as Donetsk airport and Debaltseve. Heavy weapons withdrawal has begun on both sides. On Monday, President Poroshenko said that Ukraine has withdrawn the lion’s share of its rocket and heavy artillery systems and that the Russian-backed fighters have also withdrawn a significant amount.
On verification, the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe is still not being granted full and unhindered access to the crisis zone. It seems to me that letting OSCE monitors through to see what is going on is a key test of Russia’s seriousness of purpose about whether it will try to turn the Minsk agreement into something meaningful on the ground.
As is clear from the debate, the issue is not only Ukraine. We must look at the full range of tools of international diplomacy to influence Russia’s behaviour and hold it to account for its actions. Organisations such as the Council of Europe offer opportunities for doing that. It is an organisation within which Russia itself has signed up to exacting standards in the field of human rights, the rule of law and democracy.
My hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch asked a straight question: do the Government think that Russia is in breach of article 3? During the debate, I reminded myself of the text of article 3; I am no lawyer, but my political judgment is that I would feel pretty hard-pressed to argue that Russia is currently compliant with it. Nevertheless, it is a separate political judgment to decide what, if anything, should be done after that. As my hon. Friend knows, the Government’s judgment is that, on balance, despite its actions, it is currently better to have Russia inside the Council of Europe, where it can be held to account, than either suspended or expelled.
The European Court of Human Rights is a crucial mechanism for the protection of human rights against the most egregious abuses. The cases of disappearances and other serious abuses in Chechnya are important examples of where the Court must focus its attention. The majority of human rights NGOs and defenders in Russia tell us that the Court is the only chance they have of receiving some form of redress, which is why they value Russia’s continued membership of the Council of Europe. My hon. Friend mentioned the plight of Nadiya Savchenko: the Government strongly support the Committee of Ministers’ call for her immediate release on humanitarian grounds.
The Council of Europe has an important role in supporting Ukraine, not least through the advice of the Venice Commission on constitutional reform issues. I agree that we should not allow Russia free passes; it should be held to account. Depending on what Russia does in practice, I do not rule out the need to review and reconsider the Government’s current position. We do see a sharply deteriorating situation in Russia in respect of human rights, the rule of law and democracy.
We will continue to work in the Council of Europe, the UN, the OSCE and other international organisations to uphold our rules and values, and we will strive to bind Russia more closely to them. However, we should not do that at any cost. If Russia continues to flout those rules and undermine our values, that will bring further isolation, economic damage and hardship for the Russian people themselves. I very much hope that Russia will not choose that path. It is in her own long-term interests to embed the high standards in the fields of human rights, democracy and the rule of law to which the Russian Government have committed themselves through their membership of the Council of Europe.
British Hong Kong Servicemen
Good morning, Mrs Brooke. I am proud to be given the opportunity to address the House today in support of all those who served in Her Majesty’s armed forces in the former British Crown colony of Hong Kong, in particular the Hong Kong Military Service Corps and the Hong Kong Royal Naval Service.
Each and every one of us in the Chamber should salute with enormous pride the sacrifice made by all of Britain’s armed forces in defence of Queen and country over the past century, but none are more loyal servants to and truer guardians of the British Crown than the Hong Kong ex-servicemen. I am grateful that today we have the opportunity to bring into the spotlight a number of those who were prepared to uphold British rule in Hong Kong and to serve their country with bravery and dignity. In spite of that, they have faced grave injustice. They are servicemen who have been indiscriminately denied the right to claim citizenship of the nation to which they swore their allegiance, under the Crown that they served so gallantly.
In the final days of this Parliament I call upon Her Majesty’s Government to right that wrong and to recognise the ex-servicemen’s entitlement to full British citizenship. We should offer priority citizenship to all former Hong Kong soldiers of the British Hong Kong Military Service Corps and those who served in the Hong Kong Royal Naval Service.
Those proud people were born British, they lived as Britons, they fought to defend Britain and they paid into the British Treasury in the same way that we who live within the islands of the United Kingdom do. It was not the choice of those loyal people for the sovereignty of Hong Kong to move to the People’s Republic of China in June 1997—no self-determination for them, no referendum about their future. Indeed, Hong Kong was the only British colony where the inhabitants had no direct say over their own destiny. In such circumstances, it is only just for anyone who served in the forces of the Crown to be granted the British nationality that was always theirs.
As the Minister is aware, between 1990 and 1997, the British Government established a scheme that permitted a select number of British Hong Kong citizens to be granted full British citizenship. Only 50,000 persons were eligible, as per the recommendation of the Governor of Hong Kong at the time. What is regularly overlooked is the allocation of that 50,000 was more or less indiscriminate and the scheme did not pay the necessary or deserved attention to those who took the extra step to serve Queen and country.
Among the scheme categories, British Hong Kong soldiers were placed in the disciplined services class, or DSC, which was primarily based on a points system. Various factors were considered, such as the soldier’s army rank, qualifications, length of regular service and so on. In my firm view, that represents a remarkable error in the process. Beyond doubt, those servicemen should have been allocated their own armed forces class. They were serving in the conventional British armed forces and should have been treated as such, thus being afforded the privileges that they had fought for. All those who wished to do so should have been able to reside in the United Kingdom.
Moreover, it is totally unacceptable that only 500 passports were allocated to the some 2,000-strong Hong Kong Military Service Corps. Even more pertinently, repeated freedom of information requests have declined to state exactly how many of those 500 soldiers actually chose to reside in the UK and to become British citizens. It is wholly wrong that only 25% of the serving British Hong Kong soldiers in 1997 had access to UK citizenship and that so many men were forced to be left behind to suffer an uncertain future under the control of communist China.
The Home Office has stated in correspondence that the original citizenship policy was “fair and just”, but how could it be when only some 500 soldiers out of the 2,000 in the entire Hong Kong Military Service Corps could obtain UK citizenship, even had they all applied for citizenship? I understand and indeed acknowledge the reasons why the allocation for the entire Hong Kong population was capped at 50,000, but surely we must look after our armed forces first and foremost. We have a duty to those who have given their oath of allegiance to Her Majesty the Queen and who have performed their duty to Britain.
The Home Office has said that those men were only locally employed, with the status of locally enlisted personnel—since they were recruited locally, they would not have had the expectation of or automatic right to a British passport. If that is indeed the case, perhaps the Minister will explain why 500 passports were allocated at all? Why were any one of the Hong Kong ex-servicemen given British citizenship? Surely they should all have been treated the same. Those men were all born British, but some of them were denied the right to be British and to have the citizenship that they had every right to obtain.
Those veterans, whom I have had the honour to get to know in recent months, would tell you that they are British—they are more British than they would ever consider themselves to be Chinese. It was an appalling injustice to transfer their national status overnight from being British Hong Kong to Hong Kong Chinese, without even giving them the option to remain British subjects. The time has now surely arrived to correct that injustice and to grant those proud men the British citizenship that should rightly be theirs.
The Home Office has stated that, under existing legislation, individuals from Hong Kong may follow the immigration process and apply for UK citizenship. Such legislative provisions, however, by no means guarantee the outcome. They fail to acknowledge the seriousness of our failure of duty to those former servicemen and the debt that we owe them.
I was recently granted a debate and addressed the House in Westminster Hall about Commonwealth visas and immigration. Much of my frustration in that debate is echoed in the sentiments that I am expressing in the debate today. We continue to tolerate uncontrolled and indiscriminate immigration from the European Union while neglecting those to whom we owe true allegiance and with whom we enjoy a shared history and friendship going back sometimes many hundreds of years. In this instance, the former British soldiers and naval personnel from Hong Kong who were prepared to lay down their lives in service to our country appear now, frankly, to be held in lower esteem than a citizen from an EU member state. How can that be right?
I remind the House of our obligations under the armed forces covenant, which stipulates clearly that we have a duty to our veterans and their families. The ex-servicemen from Hong Kong were part of the British Regular Army, working side by side with British troops both in Hong Kong and elsewhere. These men are now our veterans. The covenant involves an obligation for life, and the commitment and sacrifices made by veterans in the past, as well as their continuing value to society, should be properly recognised in the support that they receive.
To many, however, it seems that these veterans of ours now form a forgotten part of British history. They are soldiers who fought in numerous wars, who were awarded high honours and medals for bravery and were distinguished for their gallant service and sacrifice. It is surely a sad day when we find ourselves putting together bureaucratic excuses to push a matter such as this one under the carpet. We have no reason other than sheer defiance for turning our backs on our own veterans.
As I said to the House in the emergency debate on Hong Kong in December last year, Britain has no interest in interfering in the internal affairs and politics of China. But Hong Kong is different. Britain has a duty to the people of Hong Kong and we must not abandon them. The United Kingdom owes an allegiance to the people of Hong Kong, but particularly those who served bravely in Her Majesty’s armed forces. They should not be left behind any longer.
On 6 November last year, along with a number of the Hong Kong veterans, I delivered a formal petition to the Prime Minister at No. 10 Downing street. The research team involved with the campaign for right of abode for Hong Kong ex-servicemen managed to locate 302 Hong Kong Military Service Corps veterans, 301 of whom signed the petition—a pretty high percentage—asking for equal rights for those soldiers and military personnel. We are not talking about thousands of people; we are talking about a relatively small number of people who are over there, but want to be here and to have the right to be British. Why should they not have that right? They have served our country and deserve to be treated equally. I urge the Minister to examine the issue more closely and to find a solution sooner rather than later.
It is clearly time to reflect on the injustice that has been carried out. The situation is unique and the British Government need to address it. It simply cannot be right to stand idly by while fellow Britons who served diligently in Her Majesty’s armed forces are forced to remain in a country where they do not feel truly at home and where, as they have explained to me first hand, they often feel persecuted and discriminated against for their allegiance to the Crown.
We must take the opportunity to undo the errors of the past and offer these men what is a small token when compared with what they really deserve. It is deeply sad to have to say that successive Governments have opted to turn their back on these soldiers. I believe it is high time for the policy on this matter to change. It is time for those who have proudly served Queen and country from Hong Kong to be given the recognition they so richly deserve—time, indeed, for Her Majesty’s Government to do the right thing.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell) on securing this debate and on the passionate way in which he has advocated not only his case, but the interests of Hong Kong ex-servicemen who served with the Hong Kong Military Service Corps. He rightly underlined the service they gave to this country.
I am afraid that I will not be able to accede to the request my hon. Friend has made this morning, and I hope to explain some of the reasons for the approach that has been taken consistently by the Government. However, that should in no way be taken as undermining or casting any negative impression of the important service those people provided. I hope that I will be able to explain some of our thinking and some of the existing rights. I know that my hon. Friend will continue to make the points that he has in the way that he has. I honestly hope that he will be returned safely as the Member for Romford at the general election and so will be able to continue to make his case in the next Parliament as well, as the issue will no doubt be returned to then.
My hon. Friend has suggested that former Hong Kong servicemen should be given a right of abode in the United Kingdom. Under current legislation, the only people who have the right of abode here are British citizens and some Commonwealth citizens who had secured that right before the law changed in 1983. It has been a long-established practice in British nationality law for British nationality to be lost when a country ceases to be a UK territory. That has been the case since 1949, when countries such as Australia and Canada ceased to be colonies, and was so through the 1950s and 1960s, when countries such as Uganda and Jamaica became independent.
The normal practice is that those who acquired British nationality only through a connection with the newly independent country ceased to be such a national on independence. The only people who retained British nationality were those with a continuing connection with the UK—for example, through birth here or descent from someone born here. It was not the practice for nationality to be retained as a reward for service within the former territory.
We accept that the position with Hong Kong was unique. Before Hong Kong was returned to China on 1 July 1997, it was a British dependent territory. Therefore, persons acquiring nationality only through a connection with Hong Kong were British dependent territories citizens: they would not have held British citizenship, and thus had no right of abode in the UK.
The position with Hong Kong was also unique in that British dependent territories citizens with a connection with Hong Kong were given the right to acquire the status of British nationals overseas and to retain that new status for life. Therefore, when someone ceased to be a British dependent territories citizen in 1997, they could still hold a form of British nationality. The issuing of passports to people with the status of British nationals overseas began on 1 July 1987. British nationals overseas are eligible for British consular protection and services when travelling or residing abroad and are exempt under the immigration rules from any requirement to hold an entry certificate or visa to visit the UK. However, they do not have the right of abode in the UK.
It was not, of course, obligatory for British dependent territories citizens in Hong Kong to apply for British national overseas status, but they could apply even if they held another nationality. If they did not choose to apply and on 1 July 1997 had another nationality, they automatically lost British nationality. If on 1 July 1997 they did not have another nationality and would otherwise have become stateless, they automatically became British overseas citizens. Those arrangements ensured that no one was left stateless as a result of the handover to China. A large number of people in Hong Kong chose to apply for British national overseas status. We estimate that there are approximately 3.4 million holders of BNO passports in Hong Kong, the majority of whom are also Chinese citizens.
My hon. Friend has already referred to the British nationality selection scheme, which was introduced in 1990. That scheme was set up in recognition of the fact that the confidence of the Hong Kong people needed to be restored leading up to the handover in 1997. It was felt that granting British citizenship to 50,000 of Hong Kong’s best-qualified key people, together with their spouses and minor children, was a means of achieving that aim. Under the scheme, 7,000 places were allocated to the disciplined services class. Places were given to each service in proportion to their staff numbers. For individuals within the services, a points system was used to select applicants. There was also a framework to award additional special circumstances points in the disciplined services class to reflect the varying needs of each service. Registration under the scheme was optional. Those applying had to submit an application and fee before a specified date. We remain of the view that the route to gaining a British passport under the scheme was fair and that the criteria were clear. As such, it would not be appropriate to revisit the terms of the scheme, which was established in 1990, and to introduce additional measures for those who were not selected.
Members of the Hong Kong Military Service Corps played an important role in the British garrison in Hong Kong—a point my hon. Friend made clearly, effectively and passionately—but they were locally recruited, and the majority remained in Hong Kong for most of their careers, so there was a distinction, in that their service was conducted in Hong Kong, rather than in other places where British forces were deployed on active service.
We recognise the contribution of those who served in Hong Kong, and we are grateful for their dedicated service. However, it is not appropriate to single them out by granting them citizenship exceptionally. We recognise their service, but other groups who served under the dependent territory Government and who may also have demonstrated commitment in their line of work may equally have failed to be selected. Similarly, others may have served while their territory was a colony, but they may not have gained British citizenship—for example, Australian Anzacs in the second world war and those who served in colonial police forces.
Those who hold British national overseas status or British overseas citizenship through a connection with Hong Kong already have a route to British citizenship if they do not have another citizenship or nationality.
The Minister rightly mentioned Australia, but will he acknowledge that many former colonies have an ancestry visa that allows people to come to live in the UK if they choose to? Furthermore, all the other former colonies he may be thinking about are members of the Commonwealth. Uniquely, Hong Kong is denied the opportunity to be a member, because it has been taken into the People’s Republic of China. The people of Hong Kong are therefore hugely disadvantaged, compared with those of any other former British colony he may care to mention.
I hear my hon. Friend’s point. Hong Kong certainly has a unique status, but I underline the fact that we had the selection scheme from 1990 to 1997. Those who hold British national overseas status or British overseas citizenship through a connection with Hong Kong have a route to British citizenship if they do not have another citizenship or nationality.
Under the British Nationality (Hong Kong) Act 1997, a person who is ordinarily resident in Hong Kong on the date of application and who was resident there on 3 February 1997 as a British overseas territories citizen can apply to register as a British citizen if he or she has no other nationality. Similarly, section 4B of the British Nationality Act 1981 allows for the registration of British nationals if they do not hold any other citizenship or nationality and would otherwise be stateless and if they have not voluntarily renounced or relinquished another nationality. I accept that those provisions are available only to British nationals who would otherwise be stateless and that many former Hong Kong service personnel will have Chinese nationality. However, they can rely on that Chinese citizenship for travel, and they have a right of residence in Hong Kong.
The Government are committed to creating a fair immigration system and to righting the wrongs of history where it is appropriate to do so. In the Immigration Act 2014, we therefore created a registration route for people who would have become British citizens but for the fact that their British father was not married to their mother. I am pleased to say that that provision will be commenced on 6 April, and applications can be made on or after that date.
I want to come back to my hon. Friend on the Government’s commitment to supporting our armed forces. The armed forces covenant was published in May 2011, and it is based on the principles of removing disadvantage for serving personnel in accessing public and commercial services and of allowing special provision in some circumstances, such as for the injured or bereaved. Through the Armed Forces Act 2006, as amended by the Armed Forces Act 2011, we have enshrined in law the need to have regard to those two key principles and an obligation to produce an annual report on the covenant’s operation in a number of areas, including health, education, welfare and inquests. The covenant is an obligation on the whole of society. It includes voluntary and charitable bodies, private organisations and individuals, all of whom are asked to recognise our armed forces and to offer respect, support and fair treatment.
We have a positive record on providing for the armed forces in immigration and nationality matters. Nationality legislation was amended last year to give the Secretary of State discretion to overlook, in armed forces cases, the requirement to be physically in the UK on day one of the five-year qualifying residency period for naturalisation. Therefore, members or former members of Her Majesty’s forces on overseas postings at the relevant time will not have to wait longer to become British citizens. We have introduced processes to enable foreign or Commonwealth members of Her Majesty’s forces to apply for settlement in advance of discharge, thus smoothing the transition to civilian life. Both those measures were priority commitments under the armed forces covenant.
In addition, changes to the immigration rules in 2013 provided, for the first time, a single set of rules for the dependants of members of Her Majesty’s forces, regardless of the nationality of their sponsor. Those rules mirror those for dependants of British and settled civilians, but they contain some flexibility to ensure that the armed forces community is not disadvantaged through service life. For example, partners of members of Her Majesty’s forces can serve their probationary period outside the UK if they are accompanying their sponsor on an overseas posting, and they are granted a longer period of initial leave to prevent the financial disadvantage of renewing leave from overseas.
Let me return to the right of abode for former Hong Kong servicemen. It would not be right to grant citizenship to this group of locally recruited staff who were engaged by the UK Government, who remained in Hong Kong for most of their careers and who would not, at the time of their service, have had an expectation or automatic right of British citizenship.
This is a continuing concern to my hon. Friend and other Members of the House. Indeed, the Foreign Affairs Committee made recommendations about British nationals overseas in the report that it published last week— my hon. Friend is a member of the Committee—and the Foreign Office is giving due consideration to those recommendations.
We recognise the service provided by former Hong Kong military personnel, but I underline the fact that it is not appropriate to revisit decisions made as part of the selection scheme introduced under the British Nationality (Hong Kong) Act 1990 and to create another category of people entitled to become British citizens and to have the right of abode in the UK. My hon. Friend will continue to press the point—
Will the Minister give way?
I will briefly give way one final time because I know how passionately my hon. Friend believes in the issue, which I am sure he will continue to campaign on.
The Minister has clearly taken on board all the points I made, and he clearly senses that there is an injustice, which could be looked at. Is he willing to meet me and representatives of the Hong Kong ex-servicemen to see whether there is a way forward and to find a long-term solution?
As my hon. Friend will appreciate, we have little time left in this Parliament to consider further representations, although I know the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Mr Swire), has written to my hon. Friend about this issue. What I can say is that I note my hon. Friend’s representations, and I am sure we will return to the issue in the next Parliament to hear further representations.
HIV Treatment: Low and Middle- income Countries
[Mrs Anne Main in the Chair]
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairpersonship, Mrs Main. I and the other members of the all-party group on HIV and AIDS are extremely grateful to be granted this debate to discuss access to HIV treatment in low and middle-income countries. The debate is based on the findings of our “Access Denied” report, which our group has been working on for a long time, so we appreciate the chance to bring it to Westminster Hall today.
I am grateful to the members of the group who have come to join us today. They have shown great dedication to this issue, which has not been riding high in the public agenda in recent years. Nevertheless, it is still extremely important and I am grateful for their support. It is notable that the group has extremely active members from all political parties represented in the House of Commons, and we have many active members of considerable experience from the other place, too. The cross-party consensus has been consistent for the four years that I have been chair of the group, as I understand it was before my chairpersonship, and I hope that that will long continue.
The debate is about access to HIV treatment in low and middle-income countries, but many issues that we will cover today, and which were covered in the report, are relevant to various diseases of poverty. I hope that we are able to discuss some of those later in the debate.
Our report outlines the findings of almost one year of research conducted by the all-party group, which included visits to South Africa and India, and also many written and oral evidence sessions here in Parliament.
Despite the incredible progress that has been made in the battle against HIV, there remain many barriers to accessing medicines and treatment in low and middle-income countries. The latest estimates from UNAIDS—the joint UN programme on HIV/AIDS—show that there are around 35 million people infected and living with HIV globally. There are encouraging figures, too. New infections have reduced from a peak of 3.4 million in 2001 to 2.1 million in 2013, the most recent year that we have complete figures for. However, 2.1 million is still a staggering number of people, so we must continue to do everything we can until we reach the ultimate goal of zero infections.
AIDS-related deaths have fallen from a peak of 2.3 million in 2005 to 1.5 million in 2013. In the past three years alone, deaths have fallen by a huge 19%. The statistics show that incredible progress is being made, but those huge numbers also show that more must be done. Behind the statistics are real people trying to live fulfilling lives. Mothers and fathers are trying to provide for their families, and young people are facing the prospect of a lifetime living with a currently incurable, although treatable, disease. If they are to have any chance of a high quality of life, they must be able to access treatment.
We now have almost 14 million people across the world accessing ARV—antiretroviral therapy—compared with fewer than 1 million 10 years ago. That is a tremendous, unprecedented achievement, which is the result of the global community coming together and a campaigning movement unlike anything the world has seen before. Many of the people who access treatment are able to do so thanks to the work of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. I commend the Government for their significant commitment of £1 billion to the fund, and also for the utilisation of the UK’s influence on convincing other donor countries to contribute.
So, 14 million people on treatment is clearly a significant number, but that leaves us around 21 million people in the world still unable to access treatment. That is equivalent to three out of every five people living with HIV unable to access ARVs. If 60% sounds high, the figure is even higher and even worse when we consider paediatric care. Of those children and adolescents living with HIV, 80% are unable to access treatment; we covered that in depth in the report. We have reached a crossroads in the AIDS response. Progress has been made, but international aid and public interest in HIV and AIDS is no doubt diminishing.
According to figures from UNAIDS, international donor funding for the HIV response is stagnating, with funds remaining largely the same since 2008, despite the fact that we now have an increased scientific understanding of HIV. We now know, for example, that starting treatment earlier saves lives, and, thanks to groundbreaking research, we have proof that treatment is highly effective at preventing transmission of the virus in the first place. That new tool, combined with improved targeting of a range of effective prevention interventions, means that we could significantly reduce the number of new cases of HIV by scaling up our response.
To sum up my introduction, we have the tools at our disposal to end AIDS in a generation, so this is not the time for us to walk away from that important issue. This is the time when we have to scale up the response. The Government have been at the forefront of that so far, and I want that to continue.
The hon. Lady is absolutely right. We need renewed political commitment to keep the momentum going so that we do not lose it and undo much of the good work that we have achieved to date.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. He is an active member of the all-party group, and I appreciate his support in the work that we do.
I want to move on to the barriers to accessing treatment, which we have drawn attention to in our report. Various barriers were obvious to us at the beginning of our inquiry, but the impact of many came as a surprise. Barriers include the continued high cost of second and third-line treatments. The cost of first-line treatments has come down considerably, particularly due to the fantastic impact of the medicines patent pool. Indeed, the full impact that that will have is yet to come to fruition. However, second and third-line treatments remain very expensive for the poorest people living with HIV.
In our inquiry, we also found that there is completely inadequate access to the most effective testing and diagnostic tools, especially viral load testing. We found that continued weak and unsupported health systems in low and middle-income countries were having a direct impact on people living with HIV. Poor supply chain management is having an impact, although it is avoidable with technical support. Lack of investment in research and development is still having an impact. We found that particularly in lower priority areas and in less profitable treatment areas such as paediatric medicines.
In many countries there is still no political prioritisation of key populations most at risk, unlike here in the UK with our development work. We still see men who have sex with men, sex workers, injecting drug users and transgender people not getting the prioritisation that they need. They are being left behind, even in countries that are otherwise doing well in creating access to medicine. We also continue to see severe stigma and discrimination with respect to all people who live with HIV. That stops people accessing not only treatment, but advice on prevention and testing. That is causing people to contract HIV; it is not just affecting their treatment.
Sharp reductions in support—financial, technical and otherwise—to countries becoming classified as middle income are having a direct impact on the treatment of people living with HIV. To be clear, that is a much bigger debate in international development, but it is a clear example of the impact that is happening.
I will discuss some of those barriers in more depth, but I will start with the cost of treatment. Treatment prices remain one of the biggest barriers to accessing ARV treatment. From my experience in the all-party group and otherwise, the justification that we have often heard for high prices of medications has been the extremely high cost of research and development. Although that is a considerable cost and investment for many pharmaceutical companies, it was enlightening to hear, in one oral evidence session for the report, a pharmaceutical company representative admit that it is not the case that that determines the price. He was clear in saying that the price of treatments is primarily driven by licensing costs and decisions by pharmaceutical companies about what the market will bear.
Intellectual property rights grant exclusive rights to manufacture drugs without competition, and that lack of competition leads to high prices. That said, there is a globally accepted principle that IP rights and patents do not interfere with public health. That was not always the case, however, and in my experience threats to that principle have been overcome only by huge public campaigns.
Governments can bypass IP rights if there is a public health need by imposing compulsory licences. Alternatively, innovator drug companies can agree voluntary licences. Both those ways allow generic pharmaceutical companies to produce quality-assured generic treatments. We saw that first hand during our inquiry, when we visited India and South Africa. We visited generic companies and saw the work that they were doing, and we went to clinics to see the people who were being treated with those drugs, who otherwise would not be receiving any medication. We now have affordable first-line treatments that are available as a result of the voluntary licences, and that has been instrumental in increasing access to treatment.
We now have a price for first-line treatments of around $100 per person per year, whereas 10 years ago it was $10,000 per person per year, so there has been a huge drop in price. Unfortunately, however, if a patient’s first-line treatment is failing and second and third-line treatments are required, the cost of those treatments still remains high.
I genuinely congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this extremely important debate. Will she expand on the role of the pharmaceutical industry? On page 21, the report mentions that
“a leaked document outlining a lobbying plan for the Innovative Pharmaceutical Association South Africa (IPASA)—the representative body for pharmaceutical companies in South Africa—highlighted the industry’s plans to delay reforms.”
What does that mean?
We met the South African Government and lobby groups in South Africa on that issue. There was a war between the pharmaceutical companies and Médecins sans Frontières and other smaller groups about this, and it was part of a wider campaign from some pharmaceutical companies to prevent any legislation that might reduce their power to have higher prices. That included such things as “evergreening”, which we have seen in other countries, when patents are granted for a drug because there is a slight change in its chemical composition. Drugs are designed to have a new patent and therefore get round some of the existing patent legislation.
There has been a lot of experience of those companies trying to dodge that, but there are good examples of companies such as Gilead, which have been willing to be at the forefront of being part of voluntary licences and of the medicines patent pool. I do not want to stand here and paint the pharmaceutical companies as the bad guys, because without them we would not have those drugs, but we want to encourage responsible behaviour from them and ensure that they realise what a fantastic contribution they can make to the public health of the world and of people living with HIV.
As I said before the intervention from my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Jim Sheridan), there is still a clear problem with second and third-line medication being much more expensive than first-line treatment. In relation to the points that my hon. Friend made, issues have been raised about free trade agreements, in the inquiry and since with the all-party group.
The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership will certainly not be a stranger to the inboxes of most Members in Westminster Hall today. TTIP and the Asia-Pacific Trans-Pacific Partnership—free trade agreements that are under negotiation—seem to pose the risk of introducing additional property rights restrictions or extending patent exclusivity. Although TTIP and TPP do not have a direct impact on the low and middle-income countries that we are discussing, an impact will be felt by them. There is a reasonable fear that the precedent set by those trade agreements will have an impact and shape future agreements.
Any introduction of more onerous patent rules would hinder the ability of generic manufacturers to operate and reduce competition and drive prices back up. That would be disastrous for access to treatment, and our Government must do all they can to protect global public health within these and future agreements. I would be grateful if the Minister clarified today whether the Department for International Development shares any of those concerns and if he put on record his Department’s formal input into free trade agreements. I appreciate that some of that is private, but I am asking how the Department does that and whether he feels that has an impact on the Government’s view as they go into these negotiations.
I shall move on to middle-income countries. During the inquiry, I was particularly struck, more than ever before in my involvement in international development, by the squeeze on middle-income countries and particularly by the impact on the poorest people living in those countries. As I said, this is part of a much bigger debate in international development—it is not confined to HIV—but access to medicine is a clear example of where we might be going wrong.
In providing HIV treatment, middle-income countries in particular are facing a crisis of increased prices combined with reduced financial support. Many of those countries are excluded from the licensing deals that I just mentioned for first-line treatments that allow generic production and supply, forcing them to purchase from innovator pharmaceutical companies at market prices. Those prices are prohibitive and inconsistent. For example, prices for second-line drugs in Argentina are $2,570 per person per year, and the price in Mexico is similar. That is over 12 times the price that South Africa pays at $204 per person per year, which is double the price that I mentioned earlier of $100, which is available for first-line drugs in many low-income countries.
At the same time as they face increased prices, many middle-income countries are having their official development assistance withdrawn from bilateral and multilateral donors. As far as I can see, that has been this Government’s policy, not only in bilateral support, but in using the UK’s influence on the expenditure of multilateral donors to which we contribute, such as the global fund. In addition, we are, in my view, using outdated country classifications and pushing more and more countries prematurely into middle-income status.
When those factors combine, national Governments in middle-income countries are unable to provide services, leading to a treatment crisis. Classification of countries must move away from the current gross national income to a more nuanced analysis. Further support needs to be given to countries, as they graduate through classifications. Decisions about the provision of aid need to be based on need, not just country classifications, although it is completely correct that resources should be prioritised to those who need them most.
Of course, we should expect countries to take on an ever-increasing responsibility for their own development as they become wealthier, but we should not assume that a country with a label of middle-income status has the resources or the technical capacity to cope with aid being withdrawn. The inequality within middle-income countries must be kept in mind. Increasing GNI does not instantly equate to improved living standards or fantastic new health systems, particularly for the poorest and hardest to reach. In relation to access to treatment, funding decisions should be based solely on evidence.
As bilateral donors such as us are withdrawing funding from middle-income countries, so the burden falls on multilateral donors to plug the gaps until countries in transition can fund their services from domestic resources. However, we have seen multilateral organisations following the lead of bilateral donors and reducing support for middle-income countries.
I repeat to the Minister that we should not underestimate the influence that the UK has globally. I say that not with a conceited British ego, but from the experience of speaking to multilateral donors and the people who run those organisations and to people from donor countries and from countries that benefit. When we speak to them, they beg us to bring to DFID the view that this is a huge problem. If a solution to it is to be found, it will require political leadership from the British Government and DFID and a concerted effort to make this issue a priority to ensure that it receives the necessary political attention. Will the Minister tell us whether that is recognised by the Government and whether there is any change in the Government’s thinking on how we look at middle-income countries and their support, particularly on this issue but also more generally?
As I said, the current models of research and development are not delivering all the treatments necessary to meet public health needs. R and D is not prioritised based on need; it is prioritised according to the most profitable products. In our report, we found that there is a gap in relation to treatment for many HIV co-infections, paediatric treatment and diagnostics for small children. Existing models for R and D rely on pharmaceutical companies securing patents that grant exclusive rights to sell the drugs that they develop. If a potential market does not exist, there is currently no incentive to develop products. The need for market advantage reduces collaboration between researchers and increases delays in research into potential vaccines and cures and more effective treatment regimes.
At this point, I want to highlight the fact that in the report we note the disappointment in the UK Government for withdrawing 80% of the funding for the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative and research into an HIV vaccine. Will the Government reconsider that? If not, can the Minister explain why not?
On treatment, a key recommendation in the report is for DFID to play a role in developing new R and D models that are delinked from profits, based on open data sharing and reward people for the development of new clinical technologies, rather than exclusive sales rights being granted. We have recent examples of where what I have described could be a continued problem and where the solution that we have proposed could work. The Ebola crisis is a good example of the failings of the current global model, whereby a vaccine is developed only after a crisis has developed because there was no market incentive to develop one before. Médecins sans Frontières estimates that a vaccine for Ebola will emerge not from a private laboratory, but from publicly funded research.
Models for encouraging innovation in relation to HIV and neglected diseases can broadly be divided into push and pull mechanisms. Push mechanisms reduce the risks and costs of investment in R and D. They include direct funding of research and tax credits, both of which have already been used by the UK Government. The main drawback to push mechanisms, such as direct funding, is that they require funders to make a judgment about which research bodies are most likely to achieve the needed results. Clearly, more research is needed into who would be the best people to make that judgment.
Pull mechanisms, in contrast, create an extra incentive to achieve the result, such as a new medicine, with the benefit delivered only on achievement. Examples of such mechanisms include prizes for the first researchers to come up with a specified innovation, advance market commitments or tax credits on the sale of a certain product that has yet to be developed. There are examples of that already.
We have seen success in delinking R and D costs in relation to the meningitis A vaccine initiative. That developed an adapted meningitis A vaccine through collaborative research, which included the National Institutes of Health and the Serum Institute of India, a private vaccines company. The cost of the vaccine is approximately 50 cents a dose. Furthermore, delinked models of R and D are under consideration for the development of new antibiotics, particularly because there are no incentives for industry to develop products that are meant to be both affordable and conserved or tightly managed.
Our research findings show that the Government could be doing much more to explore the benefits of alternative research models, and I urge them to commission a paper analysing the costs and benefits of alternative R and D models. I ask the Minister whether the Department is considering that. It was a key recommendation of the “Access Denied” report and was previously communicated to the Department.
I want to touch on another finding of the report—the lack of access to viral load testing. We need effective diagnostic tools if we are to provide quality care, but we are seeing very limited investment in that area of research and provision. Viral load testing is the gold standard of diagnostic testing, with increases in viral load indicating treatment failure. If any of us in this Chamber were living with HIV in the UK, we would be undergoing regular viral load testing to ensure the effectiveness of our treatment. The idea is that if the treatment is not effective, people are moved on to second-line or third-line treatment as soon as possible.
In low and middle-income countries, however, viral load testing is limited, which leads to lower standards of care and delays in identifying treatment failure. There have been recent moves to reduce prices, but the tests are carried out only in specialist centres with limited capacity. When I was in India, we went to a clinic and saw the situation at first hand. There was very limited capacity to provide viral load testing. When someone was suspected of having a treatment failure, they had to go in front of a board. There were layers and layers of bureaucracy for such a person. The only justification that I can give is that people there just did not have the capacity and were trying to limit the number of individuals going for viral load testing because they could not afford to send any more. When we met representatives of organisations that were lobbying the Government and, indeed, us on this issue, they told us horrific stories of people who had died waiting to get a test to know whether their treatment was failing. That is something that we do not need to live with in this country, and we have the technology to stop it happening. I feel that we have a responsibility to try to increase the capacity for viral load testing across the world as soon as possible.
Even as the tests are becoming more affordable, there remains a challenge to ensure that these systems are in place. There is a need to develop affordable, accurate point-of-care testing to increase available testing and to reduce delays. That would avoid the need for patients to travel hundreds of miles to testing centres far from their homes and would significantly improve the quality of care received by patients.
Diagnostics are just one area where we see a disparity in treatment between rich and poor countries. We also see that across the spectrum of clinical settings. Distribution networks and health systems in low and middle-income countries are far behind where they need to be. Supply chains are vulnerable to a number of issues, resulting in poor access to treatments. Those challenges include significant delays in registering new drugs, poor demand forecasting and ordering, inadequate storage facilities, stock-outs, corruption and poor patient record management. I would be grateful if the Minister outlined what his Department is doing to address those issues and to support health system strengthening to improve access to treatment, particularly in terms of what we can do to encourage investment in making viral load testing cheaper and more accessible to low and middle-income countries.
The final issue that I will consider is that key populations are being left behind. That has been much debated in the main Chamber and in this room by the all-party group on HIV and AIDS and by our friends among other all-party groups. In addition to the practical, scientific and economic barriers that have been outlined, there are definite social barriers to treatment. The UNAIDS report on the global AIDS epidemic demonstrates that key populations are being left behind when it comes to access to treatment across the globe. The problem is not confined to low, middle or upper-middle-income countries, but it is particularly acute in some upper-middle-income countries—such as former Soviet Union states and countries in central Asia—because HIV epidemics are growing rapidly among key populations.
As MSF pointed out in its submission to our inquiry, the problem of pricing in such countries is compounded by the fact that the epidemics are not generalised but concentrated in marginalised populations. For the avoidance of doubt, I am talking about injecting drug users, sex workers, men who have sex with men, and the transgender population. As I outlined earlier, many global funders actively restrict funding to such countries. That inevitably creates barriers to access for the most vulnerable groups, because there is no political will in those countries to help the key populations that are most affected.
The UNAIDS report highlighted the barriers to treatment created by punitive and discriminatory legislation in many countries:
“As of 2013, 63 countries have in at least one jurisdiction, specific provisions that allow for the persecution of HIV nondisclosure, exposure and/or transmission. Criminalisation of key populations also remains widespread, and 60% of countries report having laws, regulations or policies which present obstacles to effective HIV prevention, treatment, care and support for key populations and vulnerable groups.”
Stigma and discrimination must be challenged wherever they are encountered, whether at a community or a state-wide level. If we do not remove social barriers to accessing testing and treatment, scientific advances will be ineffective. The thing I find most painful about this section of the report is that the position of key populations is not improving but getting worse. There have been many debates in this Chamber about the situation in Uganda and the change in its laws, and there has been much interest in what has happened in Russia. There is cross-party support in the House for fighting discrimination, and I am proud of our country’s record of working to do so. I hope that that will continue.
In conclusion, I am grateful to have had the opportunity to debate this important subject. Hon. Members may think that I have gone on a bit, but I could speak for hours about the detail of the report. It was born out of the huge impact of the report on access to medicines that our predecessor group published in 2009, which I have seen on shelves across the world in countries that I have had the privilege of visiting as chair of the all-party group. A huge amount of progress has been made in the past five years, and a great deal has changed, so I felt that it was time to look at these issues again. As I said at the start of my remarks, despite that progress, so much more can be done. We need to ensure that that happens by working together to tackle the barriers that are outlined in the report.
I want briefly to reinforce four of the many excellent points that the hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Pamela Nash) has made. First, I want to talk about access to medicine. Fifteen years ago, 70% of people living with HIV were located in low-income countries. Estimates now show that, by 2020, about 70% of people living with HIV will be located in middle-income countries. That dramatic shift means that a fresh approach is required to the AIDS response.
Recently, Governments and multilateral donors have withdrawn funding from middle-income countries, at the very moment when they are faced with increasing treatment costs. Outdated classifications of countries based on simplistic gross national income calculations need to be replaced with evidence-based approaches to ensure that the response to HIV/AIDS, and to other diseases such as tuberculosis, malaria and hepatitis C, is as effective as possible. The focus should be not on low-income countries versus middle-income countries, but on ensuring that the most vulnerable and marginalised in society receive the services that they require.
Secondly, we need to keep going. It is now possible to end the HIV epidemic as a public health threat, but at the very moment when that has become possible, HIV has fallen off the political radar as a matter that requires urgent attention. There is an ever-decreasing window of opportunity to bring HIV under control, and that can be achieved only with a renewed political commitment. Without such a commitment, we face losing momentum and seeing a reversal of the progress that we have made. We must not let that happen.
Thirdly, I want to mention HIV transmission. Access to treatment is a significant problem that we must solve, and we must consider what more we can do to prevent new HIV transmissions. Social factors play a significant role in reducing HIV transmission. If people know how the virus is transmitted, they can often take action to protect themselves—often, but not always, because social factors such as stigma, discrimination and inequality can reduce the options available to vulnerable and marginalised groups. Fear and lack of knowledge about how HIV is transmitted can lead to stigma and discrimination, which make people afraid to get tested or to reveal their status.
Fourthly, we must consider social barriers. Women and girls face a disproportionate risk of HIV, and it has a disproportionate impact on them, because of gender power imbalances that result in economic disempowerment, gender-based violence and the denial of their human rights. Others at high risk of contracting HIV—including those who use drugs, sex workers, prisoners and people from LGBT communities—often cannot access evidence-based prevention services because of punitive laws, stigma and discrimination. Young people are denied access to information on their sexual and reproductive health and rights, including information on HIV prevention. Those social barriers to accessing HIV services such as testing, counselling and prevention services, alongside the freedom to control life choices, must be addressed as part of a holistic approach. I joined the all-party group on HIV and AIDS nearly five years ago, because it is a considerable issue in my constituency. It is still a big issue, but there is a realisation that we need to continue to do all we can around the world to end the HIV epidemic. I welcome the report.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Pamela Nash) not only for calling the debate, but for her leadership of the all-party group on HIV and AIDS since she took over as chair after the tragic loss of our parliamentary colleague David Cairns, who passed away suddenly.
I have been a member of the all-party group since I came into Parliament almost 18 years ago. The leadership of my hon. Friend and the previous leadership of David Cairns have backed up a robust group of individuals who have worked long and hard in Parliament on the problem of HIV and AIDS. I have not visited some of the many places that my hon. Friend has visited, but a few years ago I visited Ukraine courtesy of UNICEF UK. I was asked to go there because I am also joint chair of the all-party group on street children.
UNICEF UK looked at what was happening in Ukraine. Children sleeping rough on the streets were taking drugs intravenously, with many then finding that they had become HIV-positive. That brings us back to the point about stigma and discrimination. Many of those young people were living in fear, because if they presented for a medical, and it was discovered they were carrying the infection, they would be reported to the authorities—the police. They were in a real dilemma: they understood something was medically wrong, but should they go for the medical, given the consequences?
I and the UNICEF UK person who went with me to Ukraine, along with a couple of people working on behalf of UNICEF in Ukraine, visited the British ambassador, and I have to say that I was bitterly disappointed. I came away from the meeting thinking, “I sincerely hope that that individual has arrived here only in the last couple of days,” because he had no perception of the problems on the ground or of what people were experiencing. I also met one or two Ukraine Government officials, and it was anything but heartening to realise that what was happening was not an issue for them.
At that time, Ukraine was heavily dependent on global funding and support. Less than 12 months after I visited, that funding and support were taken away. Just because certain countries fall into the middle-income category, that does not mean they are handling some of these problems better. In my view—it is only my view, although one or two people did share it with me—Ukraine was on the verge of being a basket case in terms of dealing with HIV/AIDS, because there was no real support for people. That goes back to the issue of stigma and discrimination.
The all-party group’s report mentions paediatric treatment, which is lagging behind adult treatment in terms of access and research. Our report indicates that the market for paediatric treatments is, regrettably, a low-profit market, which reduces the incentive for research and development by private companies. There is a real lack of adequate treatment regimens for children, which often leads to adult treatments simply being broken up and given to children. It must be recognised that children are simply not being given the proper treatment and dosage on many occasions. Treatment regimens need to be tailored to individuals because children are not all the same weight or same height. We need to ensure that the correct dosage is given if we are truly looking for these young children to get proper treatment. If incorrect dosages or unsuitable adult treatments are administered, children’s treatment is unlikely to be as effective, which could lead to resistance and the need to switch to second or even third-line treatments.
Any of us, with any condition, would want to know that whatever we were prescribed would meet our needs as individuals. Of all the conditions that exist in the world, HIV/AIDS needs proper treatment. As a starting point, we need to encourage pharmaceutical companies to deliver more suitable dosages for children, because this problem has existed for far too long—indeed, it has existed since I joined the all-party group almost 18 years ago.
There is also a gap in early infant diagnostics, and there are insufficient opportunities for testing children. That results in children living with HIV not being identified and given treatment, or in those whose treatment is failing not having their problems addressed.
I do not want to say much more, because my hon. Friend the Member for Airdrie and Shotts and the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Simon Kirby) have covered a significant amount of the report. However, I want to put on record that, in taking evidence for the inquiry, we were assisted by colleagues from the other place, as my hon. Friend said. Their support and assistance are invaluable. The oldest soldiers in the all-party group are Lord Fowler, who has done so much in the Palace of Westminster over all these years, and Baroness Sue Masham, whom I met when I first joined the group. They are absolute stalwarts, and it is fitting that we recognise the work they have done and the way they have assisted in maintaining such a robust group. I hope it will continue after the election on 7 May.
Again, I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Airdrie and Shotts, as the chair, for pulling the report together and for securing the debate.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main. I start where my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries and Galloway (Mr Brown) ended, by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Pamela Nash) on securing this important debate. I also recognise her unflinching commitment and her leadership on this important issue, and the tremendous work she and the all-party group have done on the “Access Denied” report. We can tell from her contribution that she has a genuine passion and commitment on the issue, which she has championed in Parliament for the past five years, and which I hope she will be championing here for many years to come.
The previous Government and this Government have done constructive work on this important issue, and we require a reaffirmation of that commitment on HIV/AIDS as we move forward, but I start by mentioning a few things from the report that shocked me. Two thirds of adults with HIV do not have access to treatment or are not on treatment. Three quarters of children with HIV do not have access to treatment—that is completely unacceptable in the modern day, and something must be done about it. Children and adults in low and middle-income countries have seen support from the international community fall and prices from pharmaceutical companies rise, which is a stain on the international community. By 2030, 55 million people are expected to need HIV treatment. Last year, 1.5 million people died of HIV when that disease can be managed, although we do not have a cure. Again, that figure is a stain on the international community.
My hon. Friend the Member for Airdrie and Shotts said some thing that struck me—people need to come before profits, which is a powerful phrase. Treatments are available to help to manage conditions, but people do not receive them because they are too expensive, there is no health care system or stigma is attached to HIV/AIDS. That is completely unacceptable. We must remember that behind the statistics are real people, who have the basic human rights that we all share. They have the right to life, health, and dignity, and to contribute positively to their family and society.
It is easy to focus on doom and gloom, and obviously there is much that is negative, but there are also things to welcome. According to data, last year, for the first time, more people gained access to HIV drugs than were infected with the virus; the ONE campaign has called that the tipping point. In 2013, the most recent year for which data are available, 2.3 million people gained access to HIV treatment programmes, compared with 2.1 million people with new infections. That is a welcome statistic, but we cannot be complacent.
We do not want such progress to be reversed. The ONE campaign’s recent report noted that the US, France and the UK in particular have carried what it calls an “unsustainable” share of the burden in the international community. It is incumbent on the Government and their international partners to press donor countries, and indeed those developing countries able to provide support to those who need it, to do more. I look forward to hearing more details about that from the Minister.
The November 2014 UNAIDS report talked of a fast-track approach to end the AIDS epidemic by 2030, with a target to be reached by 2020, called 90-90-90. The target is that 90% of people living with HIV should know their status, 90% of those who know it should have access to treatment and 90% of those being treated should have suppressed viral load. That is a difficult but positive target, achievable if there is the will in the international community. It has been said that turning the target up to 95-95-95 would be tantamount to ending the epidemic.
A further report, “Fast track: Ending the AIDS epidemic by 2030”, also said that nearly 28 million new infections and 21 million AIDS-related deaths could be averted by 2030 if the target were met. However, it also warned that “business as usual” could mean missing the opportunity to end the epidemic for a long time to come. UNAIDS estimates that, by June 2014, 13.6 million HIV-positive people around the world had access to antiretroviral therapy, but an estimated 35 million need it. It will be interesting to hear the Minister’s response to the UNAIDS 90-90-90 target, what partnership work the Department for International Development is doing with it towards that aspiration, and what global leadership we are showing to get our bilateral partners and multilateral funding agencies to reflect those priorities.
It is important to talk about funding and to recognise the responsibility of the UK and the global community to support HIV and AIDS treatment. In 2012, the UK Government contributed 10.7% of all bilateral aid for HIV. That statistic is welcome, and so is the fact that between 2008 and 2013 DFID’s overall spend, including bilateral and multilateral funding, averaged £300 million a year. At the time of the recent global health fund replenishment, a commitment was given to provide £1 billion for 2014-16, which means that the annual contribution will increase significantly to £500 million. I am sure the Minister will confirm those figures.
I wonder, following the UNAIDS report, whether that funding and support have been reflected on. We have heard today, in the context of DFID funding, about budget spending that has been committed and unallocated funding. Might there be scope to look again at the funding and support we give to the global health fund, particularly given our withdrawal of funding for the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative, which my hon. Friend the Member for Airdrie and Shotts pointed out? I welcome the fact that we spend £300 million annually, and the £500 million commitment for 2014-16, but cutting by up to 80% our support to IAVI—the fund trying to find a cure and a vaccine—is unacceptable.
I look forward to hearing the Minister’s explanation for that cut. We should not give up on the dream and hope of finding a cure and a vaccine for HIV and AIDS. I would like to think that we could find those things in my lifetime and bring an end to a global injustice.
Although the UK has come in for praise from the ONE campaign, as have the US and France, there is still a hell of a lot of work to do. Global funding for anti-HIV programmes reached an all-time high of $19.1 billion last year, but that is still an estimated $3 billion a year short of the annual $22 billion to $24 billion that the UN says we need to spend.
By 2020, low-income countries will need $9.7 billion, lower-middle-income countries $8.7 billion, and upper-middle-income countries $17.2 billion for the fight to bring the epidemic to an end. However, the report says that if the money is forthcoming and enough effort is made to reach the 2020 targets, the need for more funds will decline. That is an interesting point: the fund could decline if we matched the UNAIDS aspiration. By 2030, the funding needed globally could drop from $35.6 billion in 2020 to $32.8 billion. If we make an initial big investment—not taking any wasted route, in terms of value for money, but investing in genuine care and treatment to help to save lives—the long-term positive effect will be not only those lives saved and a reduction in the proliferation of the condition, but money saved that can be used to fund other areas of work.
The hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Simon Kirby) and my hon. Friend the Member for Airdrie and Shotts noted the important point made in the report about middle-income countries. There are many issues related to extreme poverty besides HIV and AIDS, including access to education and other health care, such as drugs and treatment for TB and malaria. We still have a lot of work to do in middle-income countries: 50% of people in extreme poverty live in those countries, so the international community, and particularly the UK, cannot afford to ignore or pass by their challenges. We must still engage with them, and consider need, as my hon. Friend said, rather than classification.
We need to support people as those countries graduate from the low-income to the middle-income group, rather than thinking that that means our job is done. Quite the opposite: sometimes in those cases, even more support is needed, particularly when there is a lack of governance, although some people might think that the graduation to middle-income status means Government officials can think less about their obligations to the poorest citizens.
I have in mind two examples raised by my hon. Friend and in the “Access Denied” report, which have been the subject of much discussion and negotiation. South Africa and India, with their continuing struggles, still need our support—particularly technical assistance and help with strengthening health care systems. Currently, 58% of people who are HIV positive live in middle-income countries. By 2020, the proportion is expected to rise to 70%. We cannot ignore that 70%; we need to engage and work with them.
There are a couple of other issues. First, 52% of people suffering from HIV and AIDS in low and middle-income countries are women. One young woman contracts HIV every minute. The report also found that in sub-Saharan Africa the proportion of young women aged 15 to 24 living with HIV is twice that of young men. There are also cultural issues. Given that carers and people with caring responsibilities when loved ones are unwell are often women and girls, we have a responsibility to support people with conditions and to support people who support those with conditions. Perhaps the Minister will respond to that, too.
My hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries and Galloway rightly mentioned child treatment and transmission. When I read some of the stats in preparation for today’s debate, the stat that got me most was that, across the world, there are 3.2 million children with HIV and that 20,000 children a month are still being infected. Up to half of all new paediatric HIV infections occur during breastfeeding, which is a heartbreaking tale: a mother trying to do her very best to give her child the best possible start in life has, through breastfeeding, transmitted HIV and AIDS to that child.
In many cases, perhaps, the mother had to choose whether to breastfeed her child, knowing that the child would suffer because of her condition. That is heartbreaking indeed. More work needs to be done to ensure that we are giving adequate treatment to women and girls to prevent the transmission of the disease to children in the first place. If children contract the condition, they should get the support, medicine and treatment they need.
I have two further points in relation to women and girls. First, education is crucial. There should be education for all, and we should ensure that people know about the risks of HIV and AIDS. Secondly, we must address violence against women and girls. The Minister and I have talked about the important issue of female genital mutilation and violence against women and girls more generally, particularly in conflict. We have talked about putting women and girls at the heart of development, and putting women and girls at the heart of support for HIV and AIDS is also crucial and must be considered much more carefully.
Another issue raised in “Access Denied” that has perhaps been mentioned less in the debate is the support given to people who inject drugs. If we are to follow the “no one left behind” principle, we must ensure that we give adequate support to people who inject drugs, which means access to clean syringes, opioid substitute treatment and naloxone to prevent overdose and the spread of infections.
We have two good cases where treatment has helped to make a difference. Tanzania and Kenya have demonstrated good practice on those issues, but we must scale that up and ensure that we give them and other people in the region the same adequate support and treatment. UNAIDS estimates that $2.3 billion is needed annually to fund preventive measures for those who inject drugs, but all global donors combined spend only $160 million—that is $160 million when we need $2.3 billion every single year. How can we ensure that those issues are more fully considered?
We have heard colleagues talk about the obstacles faced in licensing and about companies putting profits before people. I welcome the progress that has been made on relaxing intellectual property rights to produce low-cost generic drugs for first-line treatment. I welcome the coalition of five big pharmaceutical companies that is granting licences for generic production to the UN-backed medicines patent pool, but more can and must be done.
Second-line drug combinations are far more expensive than the basic cocktail, which costs no more than $100 per person per year, although we have heard that in South Africa people are being charged exponentially even for first-line treatment. Granting licences for second and third-line drug combinations must be implemented much more efficiently than in previous decades. We must reduce the price of front-line drugs to a much more manageable level. That is the responsibility of the UK Government, working in partnership with the international community and other key development agencies, whether in country or through multilaterals. It is also for the drug companies to ensure that second and third-line drugs are available and affordable for all, irrespective of the income or the affluence of a person or a country. I emphasise the 80% cut to IAVI.
We can all get wrapped up in one fundamental issue, and I say that particularly in the climate of the discussions on sustainable development goals, which are ongoing and will continue—hopefully, they will conclude later this year. We see a lack of strong universal health care systems in developing countries. We see clinics popping up for tuberculosis, malaria and HIV and AIDS, but what we need is holistic care so that people, whatever conditions they turn up with, receive adequate support and the care they need.
There is no better example than our own national health service. We have a system that is based on people’s need, not their ability to pay. If we have that great system in the UK, it is incumbent on us to work with the international community to help to promote such a system of universal health coverage globally. That is why we have already said that we would set up a universal health coverage institute within the Department for International Development to provide technical assistance using the expertise of the Department, of the people who work with and for the Department, and of the NHS.
The institute would bring together the expertise of people who put together tax systems to help to create and build models in developing countries so that those countries may have universal health care systems that have the support they need, but are sustainable and able to raise their own funds. There is no greater example than the Ebola crisis. In Nigeria, where money has been spent on the health care system, Ebola was brought reasonably under control, which helped to save lives, and in Sierra Leone, which did not have such a system, the Ebola crisis worsened and up to 10,000 people lost their lives. I encourage the Minister to move forward with universal health care systems and access to health for all.
Today, let us resolve to do as my hon. Friend the Member for Airdrie and Shotts and the wider all-party group on HIV and AIDS have done and put this important issue at the forefront by talking about it, discussing it and debating it. We must put the solutions at the forefront, too, so that in my lifetime, and in the Minister’s lifetime, we can bring HIV and AIDS to an end.
It is always an enormous pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Anas Sarwar), particularly when he makes such a helpful and thoughtful contribution. I congratulate the hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Pamela Nash) not only on securing this debate and on introducing it so well but on the enormous impact that her all-party group has achieved with its two publications. It is extraordinary for an all-party group to be able to inform the public and the legislature in that way. I commend the other Members who have contributed: the hon. Members for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Jim Sheridan) and for Dumfries and Galloway (Mr Brown) and my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Simon Kirby). I owe my hon. Friend a particular debt because he drew my attention to this subject and engaged and interested me in it. He has worked very hard on HIV and AIDS in his constituency, where he rightly says that they have been a significant issue. I pay tribute to him.
I have been asked a large number of questions, so I will race through putting the Government’s position on the record, and then I will deal with the questions as expeditiously as I can. The hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts said that there are 35 million HIV-positive sufferers, but I think that one of the most worrying statistics is that 19 million of them do not know that they have the disease. We have to draw attention to that. Only 34% of those who are eligible for treatment under the World Health Organisation’s 2013 treatment guidelines have access to antiretroviral treatment.
We remain the second biggest donor in the world. We set out our approach in the document “Towards zero infections” in 2011, and we updated it in “Towards zero infections: two years on” at the end of 2013. In those documents, we clearly laid out a pathway for withdrawing from bilateral funding and transferring to a multilateral approach to this problem. Principally, we are going to work through the Global Fund, which represents about one fifth of the entire world’s contribution.
We have changed the way we operate, but we have not reduced it at all. I looked at the figures extensively this morning. From 2006-07 to 2009-10, we spent £849 million on HIV/AIDS, and from 2010-11 to 2013-14 we spent £1,070 million. The highest years for expenditure were last year and one a couple of years before that. Therefore, quite properly, we are maintaining the pressure on this important issue. We are not slacking or suffering from donor fatigue. The measure of that—the hon. Members for Glasgow Central and for Airdrie and Shotts referred to this—is our commitment of £1 billion to the Global Fund from 2014 to 2016, subject to a 10% burden share.
We see ourselves as the voice of the affected populations. I will return to that point, because a number of hon. Members have expressed concern about it. We are driving forward improvement and integrating HIV treatment with health systems in the countries where people are affected. The hon. Member for Glasgow Central drew attention to that important agenda. We are driving forward the centrality of women and girls. He was entirely right when he said that, every hour, 50 young women between the ages of 15 and 24 are affected. That is twice the infection rate of young men, and it represents 22% of new infections. In sub-Saharan Africa, 57% of sufferers are women.
We want to use market shaping to ensure that drugs are available at affordable prices, so we have committed £35 million between 2012 and 2015 to the Clinton Health Access Initiative. That money has been used effectively to shape the market and to bring about £1 billion of savings to the purchasing countries, which translates to 2.5 million more people being treated and getting drugs, so it is an important part of the agenda.
The hon. Members for Dumfries and Galloway and for Airdrie and Shotts spoke about children. I recognise that there is a gap in the market for paediatric care. The United Kingdom and France are the major funders of UNITAID, to which we made a 20-year commitment. As part of that agreement, we have committed an average of €60 million per year. UNITAID provided 400,000 children with fixed-dose combinations last year, and was instrumental in reducing the price of those doses from $252 per child in 2006 to $130 in 2011. Those actions contributed to the 52% reduction in child infections since 2001. That reduction has been accelerating in recent years.
UNITAID also funds the medicines patent pool, which has been performing well. I know that the hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts has an interest in it because she raised it with my noble Friend Baroness Northover. That model was designed specifically for AIDS, but it is reasonable to ask whether it can be expanded and used to deal with other diseases. It is an effective way of operating and it has been a success, so I hope it is going to be part of the agenda in future.
I am extremely grateful to the Minister for making that point, which will be good news not only for the all-party group but for the organisations that support us. I want to make one small point, which I have raised informally with the Department. The minutes of the UNITAID board meeting in December state that there was a reduced contribution from the UK Government. Can the Minister clarify that or seek advice from his colleagues?
The commitment of an average of €60 million per year for 20 years has been and will be met, but it is an average. There was a reduction, and my understanding is that it was made good with a €40 million contribution. The contributions are being met and we are fulfilling the requirements.
HIV treatment is linked to broader issues of health development, the strengthening of health systems, gender equality, and stigma and discrimination. All those things have to be addressed. We have to have a rights-based prevention and treatment regime. That remains a key policy objective in tracking how our contributions and investments deal with those issues. We need to be much better informed, and we must understand how to tackle stigma. Only when that happens will more people be able to access preventive programmes, get tested, and initiate and adhere to treatments.
The product development partnerships model has been very successful in bringing forward new drugs to the market. It has brought forward 43 new drugs in the past 10 years, and there are 350 under development. The Department for International Development is a strong supporter of PDPs; indeed, we were the first Government donor to them. I congratulate the Labour party on its initiative in 2008 and on driving forward that innovative agenda. It was an important contribution. We remain a globally significant player in that field, having committed £154.2 million between 2013 and 2018.
I was asked any number of questions. Let me start with those about vaccines and the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative. There has been no cut. We fulfilled the contract that we had with IAVI. All the money that we had committed was paid. We have a new contract now for £5 million, for which it competed, for a slightly different programme.
Let us be clear about what has happened. It is quite right that we have withdrawn from something that we were previously involved in, just as any organisation continually reviews its operations and does what it does best. I understand that some six vaccines went for field trials and we were funding that process. The results were disappointing, so it was back to the laboratory. We do not consider laboratory work as part of our comparative advantage. There are organisations in the world that are much better at dealing with that sort of scientific funding and do that work. Frankly, I believe that our funds are better expended elsewhere, where we have a comparative advantage.
Remember that we have not made a saving; we are spending more than we were spending before. We are spending it differently and I believe that we are spending it effectively, although we are not funding IAVI to the extent that we were in the past. That is a perfectly reasonable position to have taken, given the change in the situation.
The Minister mentions the six vaccines that went to field trials and the “disappointing” results. He does realise that we only need success once, but we need to fund that programme to be able to get that one success.
Absolutely, but the difference is this. Funding field trials is one thing but going back to the laboratory and working there is a different field of endeavour, one where we have no comparative advantage. [Interruption.] I think we will just have to agree to disagree about this one, but there has absolutely been no cut in our funding of IAVI. We fulfilled our contracts and entered into a new one—a quite different one—with IAVI.
Now we come to the big question of the middle-income countries. I accept entirely that, when a country becomes a middle-income country, it hits a double whammy: one, the funding is withdrawn; and, two, all the prices go up. But hey—they are middle-income countries, and we are trying to encourage people to invest properly and to step up, as they are richer countries, and fund their health systems properly and have properly integrated health systems. That is an important part of the deal.
I accept entirely that that is a bit like falling off a cliff. Perhaps we should have some system akin to, say, universal credit, where there is a taper, as countries move from low-income status to middle-income status. I accept that there is an argument—a case to be made here. I am open to that discussion. It is something that we would have to agree with our international partners; I do not think we would have leave to change the system ourselves. Hon. Members have drawn attention to a very clear problem. The way we get around it at the moment is through the funding of the Robert Carr network, to which we have committed £4 million until the end of this month, and then we will have to replenish it. That is underfunded; there is a £13 million funding gap in respect of the Robert Carr network. We have to work with our donor partners to try to see how that gap can be filled.
I agree entirely with the hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts that viral load testing is the top end. It is exactly what we should be pursuing. I am glad that the price has fallen significantly as a consequence of the market shaping; it is down to a cap of $9.40, which is down some 40% in low-income and middle-income countries. The problem is, as she rightly pointed out, that that requires a developed network of laboratory testing. Again, I entirely share her view that we have to continue investing in alternative point-of-care technology, and in research and development in that area. I know that there have been more than 924,000 CD4 tests at point of care, but she is right that load testing is a much better and much more valuable tool. The way the Global Fund works is that it asks countries that are capable of supporting the network with laboratories for viral load testing to apply for that funding, and it asks other countries that are not able to support that to apply, certainly for the moment, for funding to deal with CD4 and whatever else may be brought forward. The work of UNITAID and the Clinton health foundation has been instrumental in reducing the price of viral load testing, which was one of the principal problems with it.
I come on to the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership and the impact of any trade negotiations. I was asked whether we have formal input into the process. The reality is that, as a consequence of decisions taken in 1975—decisions that might be reviewed if the election result turns out the way I want it to—trade policy is a European Commission competency. Within the UK Government, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills is the lead Department in relation to that, but DFID successfully ensures that issues such as access to medicines and intellectual property rights lead to joint discussions between our Departments. It is physically in BIS but it is actually staffed by DFID officials. Therefore, we do that.
On the issue itself, my own view is that it is down to the negotiations at the time, on a case-by-case basis. When we make a trading agreement, we have to ensure that we are absolutely certain that we are not compromising ourselves on intellectual property and that we are not going to restrict access to drugs as a consequence of the decisions we make. That is just down to being vigilant when we come to make these arrangements.
I was specifically asked about research and development. That agenda has been driven forward largely by civil society, rather than by nation states and Governments. Nevertheless, it is important. Frankly, it is unlikely that there will be a legally binding instrument for health research and co-ordination. The Government’s view is that any agreement needs to be built on existing mechanisms, such as that proposed by the expert working group.
The background to the issue is that for the past 10 years the World Health Organisation has convened a number of working groups to discuss and suggest solutions to the issues that the hon. Lady has raised, namely, funding flows, innovative funding mechanisms and co-ordination of health research. The latest of these groups—the consultative working group—suggested that we should establish a WHO global R and D observatory and a pooled fund for product R and D, together with a co-ordinating mechanism to support the fund.
The World Health Assembly is due to discuss that matter later this year. My concern is this: will countries wish to put more into this pool than they are putting in at the moment to contributions to R and D, particularly when the pool will be controlled by a mechanism other than the countries themselves? My estimate is that most countries would want to put research funding into a direct contribution that they control and to know where it is going. I will not go any further than that, because I was asked about 90-90-90 and I have one minute left to respond. It is a very interesting thing. It is far too soon to tell. My concern is that it adds a very substantial burden to the funding that already exists, and the emphasis must be on the poorest and the sickest first. I would want to see a little more about how the UNITAID proposals are brought forward before committing myself irrevocably to the 90-90-90 strategy.
In 2007, the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr Cameron), now the Prime Minister, said the Conservatives would shortly publish their policy proposals for a supply-side revolution in Britain’s schools system—a long-term response to various challenges and what he saw as educational failure. He said that he wanted to highlight one specific aspect of that revolution: the opportunities that his reforms would create for a new generation of co-operative schools. What better way to give parents direct involvement in their school than to give them ownership—not just as stakeholders, but as shareholders, and as shareholders not in a profit-making company, but in a co-operative built around the needs of local children?
The co-operative model reflects an important vision of social progress that Conservatives believe in: the role of strong independent institutions, run by and for local people. The right hon. Gentleman said that he wanted the Conservative party to take the lead in applying the co-operative ideal to the challenges of the 21st century, and announced the establishment of the Conservative Co-operative Movement.
I am absolutely tickled to join the hon. Lady in the debate. She has reminded me what a strong supporter I am of the Prime Minister and how delighted I would be if he completely fulfilled that vision.
I welcome the hon. Gentleman—a strong supporter of co-operative schools who has advocated for them.
Let us find out a little more about what actually happened as a result of what the Prime Minister said. When the coalition Government came to office, there were 87 co-operative schools in England. Today, there are 834. The majority of those are foundation trust schools established under the Education and Inspections Act 2006, passed by the previous Labour Administration. One might expect the Government to trumpet the growth of those co-operative schools. Sadly, nothing could be further from the truth. What is heralded instead is a hoped-for expansion of free schools: 500 in the next Parliament. That is where effort and money are targeted—not on the parent-owned co-operative free schools, despite co-operative trust schools excelling with parent involvement.
Clearly, the Prime Minister’s words have been forgotten by the Department for Education—and by him. Some might say, “But there are 834 co-operative schools, so the commitment is there.” However, the remarkable advance of co-operative schools has happened despite, not because of, Government support. In debates in the past two years, Ministers have said they have not prevented growth and that they are therefore supporting co-operative schools. However, that is not the same thing at all. I am beginning to think that there is an ideological block on the issue somewhere in the Department.
I have been trying to engage the Department for some time in removing a fundamental barrier to the expansion of co-operative schools. I proposed two legislative changes: enabling schools to register as industrial and provident societies and amending the 2006 Act to enable nursery schools to be established as school trusts.
Let me provide a brief history. In 2013, I introduced a ten-minute rule Bill. The two proposals were adopted as Labour party amendments to the Deregulation Bill in Committee in the Commons in February last year. The Labour team withdrew their amendments when the Government indicated that they were willing to work with the Co-operative party to put Government changes in the Bill. With the Co-operative party and co-operative schools experts, I worked with the Department to try to make that happen.
The then Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove), was supportive, but officials indicated that the Department lacked the expertise and resource to take the issue forward. Lord Nash, a Minister in the Department, then expressed limited support for co-operative schools and changes to legislation. Following the reshuffle, the Department indicated that it would not be introducing legislative change.
My hon. Friend is, like me, a Co-operative Member of Parliament. Perhaps this is not a question of detail or the Department blocking. Perhaps it is just that the political leadership of this Government is put off by those schools, which are in favour of equality, equity, solidarity, openness, honesty, social responsibility and caring for others.
I would like to know what is putting the Government off, because I spoke to the new Secretary of State for Education and she indicated that she was willing to consider the issue.
The Department said that it would work with co-operative schools to produce data on performance and look at a power to innovate to try to resolve the issue preventing nursery schools from becoming co-operatives. The power to innovate would suspend the relevant legislation for three years to test whether nursery schools wished to join co-operative trusts. However, since that offer was made the Department has not, despite repeated inquiries, responded to requests for an update on progress. On Second Reading and on Report in the Lords, the amendments were tabled again and ably moved by Baroness Thornton for Labour, but were not supported by the Government. Can anyone now believe that there is any Government commitment to co-operatives in the public sector?
Why does this matter? Leaving in place barriers to the growth of co-operative schools is simply an opportunity wasted. It holds back the possibility of lasting improvement in educational standards, which would benefit children’s education and local communities.
Many schools want to adopt the co-operative model. They have a desire to develop a self-improving school system, where a number of schools can work together and inculcate those co-operative values mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman): self-help, self-responsibility, democracy, equality, equity and solidarity. We know that some schools, working together in a group, are achieving outstanding results.
The Schools Co-operative Society believes that by encouraging everyone within an organisation to work together they gain mutual benefits. Performance improves and pupils are engaged in the life of the school. The best possible environment for young people to learn and develop is created. Stakeholders in the local community have a say in the way the school is run. The values of equality and equity ensure that the environment is free from bias and that everyone can be the best they can be.
When my hon. Friend and I were together on the Bill Committee—the Minister was there, too—we picked up on the fact that the quality of teaching matters in every school. Has she seen the high retention rates of staff and the contentment of teachers and staff working in co-operative schools? That trickles down to the students.
Of course, my hon. Friend is right: these are key issues. He is a great advocate of that approach. The hon. Member for Wycombe (Steve Baker) spoke extraordinarily eloquently about the schools in his area and he is, believe it or not, a Conservative, so there is still some support.
The hon. Gentleman is not a run-of-the-mill Conservative.
Listening to the hon. Lady describe those schools, I was reminded of the success we are seeing in Cressex school in Wycombe. The hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman), whom I work with occasionally, is a bit of a rascal, because Conservatives do support many of the values he described. The disagreement is probably on the margins. I say to the Government that it is time that we woke up to this message.
I agree. I am not for one minute suggesting that Conservatives do not support those values. In fact, the Cabinet published a document called “Making it mutual: the ownership revolution that Britain needs”, which stated:
“The conditions are right for a resurgence of co-operative mutual and reciprocal activity.”
That has been said not just by people in the Labour and Co-operative movement, but by Conservatives, so my puzzlement at why we are not moving forward grows ever more.
I hope the hon. Lady agrees that what is needed is another term of Conservative government so that we can put all those things fully into practice.
We are getting into the realms of fantasy now, are we not? The hon. Gentleman can hardly expect me to agree to that. What I am saying is, regardless of our party political affiliations and regardless of where we come from, why can we not get together around the issue of co-operative schools? Why have those schools become so contentious when there is support for them, and not just from the hon. Gentleman? In a previous debate, we also heard support for them from other Conservative Members. The Minister attended that debate.
Why can we not get together around something that is good for our children? Let us do what the electorate so often ask us to do and put party politics aside and say, “This is how we should move forward.” Whether the coalition remains in place after the election, or whether we have a Labour Government or a coalition of another type, the Department will still be there, so let us get the officials working on this now.
Getting back to my specific points on why we should move forward, encouragement is given in co-operative schools to supporting each other and the local community—to give back to others the benefits that have been had and to spread the positive learning experience. There is evidence that young people brought up in that environment continue to contribute positively to their communities long after they have left school.
Children benefit from a positive start in life. That was recognised when the academies programme was extended to primary schools. Children need the best foundation at primary level to realise their potential at secondary level, but we have to go further and ensure that we also get it right at nursery level.
Many co-operative school trusts are based on strong geographical areas. They aim to raise achievement by supporting young people through the education system from nursery age to school leaving age. We have to recognise that children do not differentiate between being looked after, being cared for and learning. Learning begins as soon as a child is born, so we need our nursery schools to have a co-operative approach that involves parents, and then the children can do so well. Would they not do even better if they were part of that co-operative ideal from the start?
While there have been failures with co-operative schools—it would be wrong to paint a rosy picture everywhere—there have also been failures in the academy programme. Co-operative schools have seen remarkable success. More than 80 have been judged by Ofsted as outstanding. That was achieved with no support from Government, financial or otherwise, which is in stark contrast to the many thousands and millions spent on the academies and free schools programmes. Co-operative schools do not want preferential treatment; they just want a fair and level playing field and the same engagement and support as free schools.
Action is being blocked by the Department. Why? What will the Minister do to ensure progress on the issue and, in particular, to ensure that actions agreed with the Department are implemented? I would also like him to put on the record the assistance the Department will give to fulfil his Government’s pledge to support co-operatives. That pledge has been given by the Prime Minister and two Secretaries of State. An incoming Government must support the growth of co-operative schools.
We need cross-party support so that swift progress can easily be made. Just two steps would go a long way. First, the co-operative model as defined in the Co-operative and Community Benefit Societies Act 2014 should be made available to foundation trusts. Secondly, nursery schools should be enabled to form or join foundation trusts by removing the restriction in the 2006 Act. The remarkable progress of co-operative schools proves that there is an instinct among many school leaders for co-operation as a means to drive up standards, rather than a dogmatic view that only competition can achieve improvement.
This may be the last Westminster Hall debate where my hon. Friend and I are together. It is so appropriate that she is talking about co-operative schools and she has had such a distinguished career in the House. I congratulate her on all the effort she has put into co-operative schools and so much else in Parliament over the years.
How could I object to that intervention? Before I finish, on the issue of co-operation as opposed to competition, I quote Franklin D. Roosevelt:
“Competition has been shown to be useful up to a certain point and no further, but co-operation, which is the thing we must strive for today, begins where competition leaves off”.
The Department’s vision is for a highly educated society in which opportunity is equal for children no matter their background. That is a vision I believe we all share. I thank my colleagues, my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield and the hon. Member for Wycombe, for intervening and showing that there is cross-party support for co-operative schools. I thank them for all their work to support co-operation and co-operative schools.
I want us to take an important step in helping to make that vision a reality. Let us put aside ideology and dogma, allow real choice in education and allow co-operative school trusts to flourish by removing the barriers that make achieving that vision difficult.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main. In the usual way, I congratulate the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Meg Munn) on securing another important debate on co-operative schools. I well remember the debate we had in October 2013, which I have taken the time to re-read. Other Members who are present today also spoke at that debate. What struck me was that through it shone a real shared purpose on the need to raise standards right across the education system. There was also a recognition that co-operatives are a part of the solution. I will remind Members of some my comments, which support my contention that the Government support the work that many co-operative schools across the country are doing. I said:
“We should, and do, cherish the values of co-operative trust schools”.
I also expressed the hope that I had given—I hope I will do so again today—
“a forceful indication that this Government hugely value the co-operative movement’s work in our schools.”—[Official Report, 23 October 2013; Vol. 569, c. 127WH, 132WH.]
I want to make it clear that those values, as my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Steve Baker) said in his intervention, are shared by all parties, which is demonstrated by the fact that there has been no attempt to prevent in an ideological way the growth of co-operative schools. In fact, they have seen their biggest growth in quite some time. We have more than 700 of them, and we will be close to 1,000 by the end of next year. That is a huge increase for the co-operative movement in education.
The hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) slightly stole my thunder in recognising that, in her time as an MP, the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley has, there is no doubt, been a huge force for good in ensuring that children of all backgrounds, but particularly the most disadvantaged, have their voices heard. It is a great loss to us all that she has decided to go on to bigger and better things in her future career. The service she has given and her commitment to the area is noted and should be applauded. In doing that, I hope that she recognises that we share the same endeavour. I reassure her and other Members that the Government continue to support wholeheartedly the role that school collaboration and partnerships play in achieving our goal of a high-performing, self-improving education system, which includes the role of co-operatives.
The Minister is the acceptable face of the Conservative party, as is the hon. Member for Wycombe (Steve Baker), but they are atypical. The fact of the matter is that we need a real commitment to change the law. That is what we want. We do not want to muck around. We have got 837 schools. We want a change in the law, for a faster expansion—
Order. Interventions should be brief and in the form of a question.
I like to think that I am typical of the Conservative party, and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman feels the same about himself and his party. It is clear that there is a determination to drive up standards across our education system. He will appreciate that we are in the last few weeks of this Parliament, so there will be no time to change legislation. Nevertheless, we must increase and better understand the evidence base, so that co-operative schools can show the impact they are having and we can possibly widen their remit and potential in future.
The hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley has met Lord Nash, and as part of her exchange with the Secretary of State for Education, she was invited to provide evidence on why we should accede to some of her suggestions, both legislative and otherwise. I look forward to receiving that evidence in due course.
Significant evidence has already been provided. With all due respect to the Minister, for whom I have a lot of time, the problem is that the evidence is there and the opportunity was there with the Deregulation Bill, but this has simply been blocked.
The hon. Lady received a letter from the Secretary of State on 11 February that set out the Government’s position on the legislation and the amendments that were tabled in both this House and the other place. She will appreciate that the position articulated by the Secretary of State in that letter makes it clear that additional evidence or arguments in support of the educational benefits are still required to reassure the Secretary of State that the changes would be worth while. The hon. Lady will appreciate that that issue falls outside my portfolio. The best I can offer is to take back her clear sense of the direction that we need to follow. If she wishes to provide any further and better particulars to support her argument, I will endeavour to ensure that they are shared as soon as possible.
We are seeking to ensure that we are able to deliver better results, year on year and right across the education system. Inspection data show that more schools are now rated as good or outstanding than at any time since Ofsted was created in 1992. Based on the most recent inspections, 81% of all schools are outstanding or good. Since 2009-10, the proportion of schools rated less than good has decreased from 33% to 19%. As part of that process, the values of co-operative trust schools are ones that the Government share. They are good values. They were given a strong airing in our previous debate, and I would reiterate them all today, particularly the importance of shared responsibility for problems and designing solutions and of the people involved in a child’s learning having a real stake in that learning.
I am pleased to note the role of the co-operative movement as a sponsor of schools that require extra support and the increasing number of co-operative schools that are choosing academy status, thereby becoming co-operative academies. Collaboration is a defining feature of the academies programme as well. The formal partnership arrangements for academies and maintained schools provide a framework for joint working in which the lines of accountability remain clear. The co-operative trust model is one of many that facilitate effective partnership working. It is true that the education system is increasingly diverse, and we are seeing many models emerge, such as multi-academy trusts and teaching schools. That is helping to increase the choice for parents and the support for schools. Parents are clearly aware of the co-operative movement in the education system because more of their children are being taught within it. There is clearly value for communities across the country, including my own constituency, in having that model available for education provision.
The hon. Lady asked about amending the legislation on maintained nursery schools—an issue that goes back to the previous Government and the Education and Inspections Act 2006—and I know that she has some regret that the opportunity to resolve the matter was not taken up at that stage. I am sure that, beyond 7 May, she will continue to fight to allow a co-operative trust to support a maintained nursery school in much the same way as it can a maintained school. The Government have supported collaboration in such institutions, with the sector already benefiting from the freedom to create partnerships, should that be the choice. Maintained nursery schools can already work with other local partners and the wider community, and they can federate with other schools and early years providers. A wide range of providers facilitate the parental choice that we all hold dear. That comes with a high degree of autonomy. Similar to our position on schools, the Government require more evidence of educational gain if we are to expand provision into the nursery arena, and we must look more closely at the fact that only a small percentage of overall providers could do that.
One thing that I struggle with is that the evidence base for free schools is nowhere near as robust as the evidence base for co-operative schools. For example, the excellence that has been achieved in a multi-school trust in Birmingham is there for all to see. Why is the Department so resistant to supporting co-operative schools as an alternative model?
We have, of course, seen co-operative free schools emerge as well. The free schools policy is benefiting the co-operative movement and helping to increase the diversity of choice for parents. There is no reluctance, and there is no attempt either to suppress or deny the expansion of any type of school. The issue is one of empowering parents to make the decision to expand provision if they feel that there are not enough good school places in their area. On Monday, I visited Cheadle Hulme primary school, a new free school that will be opening soon to meet the need in an area with mixed advantage but a particular lack of places. That is a good example of how the flexibility that we have provided to the education system is allowing parents, outstanding head teachers, charities, and others with an interest in boosting education throughout the country, the opportunity to do just that.
The hon. Lady opened her speech with a clear summary of what the Prime Minister has said. As Conservatives, surely we should believe in a dynamic process of discovery. Although I admire my hon. Friend the Minister’s noble defence of the Government’s position, is it not time that we allowed some of these schools to expand at nursery level to discover whether they will succeed?
I applaud the passion displayed by my hon. Friend not only today but on many other occasions when he has advocated the co-operative movement, both at Cressex school in his constituency and elsewhere. He will appreciate that I am not the man with the manifesto in his hands, so I cannot give him any reliable information about what reassurance we might be able to provide in that document. Nevertheless, I hope that I am able to put across the fact that, in the expansion of co-operative schools that we are seeing—they are set to get into four figures by the end of next year—there has been no holding back of those who want to take that step. Ultimately, it should be for the individual school or community to make the choice that they feel best fits with the need in their local area. That is the right approach. Through the expansion of the academies programme, with more than 60% of secondary schools and 17%—and rising—of primary schools now having academy status, we have seen a real movement that helps to support and complement the co-operative movement in driving forward quality and higher standards in the education system.
We could get to 5,000 co-operative schools in the next five years if we changed the law and made it easier. Why will the Government not sign up to give so many schools that opportunity?
No limit has been put on the expansion of co-operative schools under this Government; indeed, we have seen a huge rise. There is no cap and there has been no attempt to try to dilute that opportunity. With the hon. Lady’s huge influence in her party, I am sure that when she has some control over the manifesto that is being written, she will make co-operative schools a centrepiece of Labour’s offer. In saying that, I re-emphasise that the Government do hugely value the role of co-operative schools, but more importantly the people who work in them. They work extremely hard to ensure that children in their area get the best possible start in life. That should be the driving force for any of our efforts to support children into adulthood. I hope that we can do that in future.
Transport Management: Kent
It is a pleasure to have the debate under your chairmanship, Mrs Main. I am bringing before the House the issue of gridlock in Dover recently and the wider problems on the M20 and A20 through Kent.
The most pressing matter for my constituents is the gridlock in Dover. In January and February 2015, and indeed today, Dover has been experiencing a serious rise in gridlock on the roads through and into the town. Tailbacks and gridlock have been a constant problem for many years, but they have become more serious recently. They have the following effects: residents are unable to travel around my constituency or Kent in general; local businesses are hurt as visitors stay away or cannot access businesses in the town; access for emergency vehicles is restricted, as is access altogether to some parts of Dover, in particular for the long-suffering residents of Aycliffe; and vast amounts of rubbish and litter are left along the A20 by the drivers of parked heavy goods vehicles. Some of that rubbish is unhealthy or contaminated waste and does not belong on a roadside.
To give an idea of the gravity of the problem, a number of my constituents have got in touch to tell me their experiences over the past few months. On 20 December, Mr and Mrs Brown, residents of Dover, wrote to me:
“Dover has been gridlocked with lorries and traffic travelling to the Port constantly for 3 weeks. I dread to think what the fumes from the continuous running of the static engines are doing to our health, let alone the use of our streets as lavatories”.
On 15 January 2015, Rohan Sootarsing, a resident of Guston, wrote:
“Every night this week my usual 20/30 minute drive home from work has taken nearly two hours.”
Mr Parsons, a resident of Martin Mill, wrote to me on 20 January:
“I have taken nearly 3 hours to complete a road journey that would normally be completed in 25 minutes. There was a backlog of HGVs that started at Capel and continued to the docks. This area of the A20 was gridlocked entirely due to trucks blocking both carriageways.”
Mr Dowley of Capel-le-Ferne wrote to me on 24 January about the M20 between Dover and Capel:
“On 21st January numerous lorries were parked, without lights, on the hard shoulder. On 24th January on the M20 heading west, 15 articulated lorries were parked on the hard shoulder”.
On 30 January Mr Terry, a local businessman, wrote to me:
“I run a business in Snargate Street and the continual queuing of lorries is having a seriously detrimental effect on it. The Harbour Board Police block the roundabouts to prevent the lorries from cutting into the queue, but this also prevents us from getting into Snargate Street”.
Mr Wilson, another local businessman, wrote on 5 February:
“Last evening after leaving work I had to drive up the A20 to Capel-le-Ferne to get back into Dover via the B2011. An extra 7 miles or so on my journey home”.
On 11 February a Mr Williams wrote:
“Roundabout is blocked, and fire service answering a call at the school could not get past traffic”.
This morning Mr Dodd, a resident of Aycliffe, which is again cut off today, wrote:
“Lorries are backed up on the A20 and both lanes are blocked. The first roundabout at South Military Road to Aycliffe and lorries are continuously blocking the entrances and exit”.
This morning the chairman of community group Castle Forum, Denise Smith, wrote to me:
“Local and regular disruption happens many times a week and is not caused by extreme events, but by volume of freight traffic not being processed and taken into the docks. Therefore we would like to make it clear that this request is NOT about Op Stack but about Operation Open-Dover.”
I hope to set out the situation that my residents and constituents have to face and put up with constantly. The causes include, first of all, simply, economic growth—our long-term economic plan is working, and all too well for the port of Dover. The rise of international trade is greater than economic growth. In the past year freight traffic has risen 10% and it is forecast to grow further. So the problem is structural and it will not go away; it will become more serious unless action is taken.
There is also a structural problem around Dover, with restrictions on the flow of traffic through the town and the lack of space in the port zone causing gridlock. Poor management of one-off problems such as the fire in the Channel tunnel not so long ago, and Dover port ferries being away on maintenance because there have been problems, have contributed to the situation, as has a lack of investment by the Dover Harbour Board and ferry companies in IT systems or advance check-in for the management of inbound lorries. I want to focus on advance check-in as a way to deal with the problem through a longer-term, sustainable solution.
The first of my proposed solutions therefore is that Ministers treat this as a national strategic priority. The traffic situation facing Dover should be such a priority and the Minister, who has responsibility for roads, is best placed to lead on finding a solution, in particular because he has been the most proactive and energetic roads Minister on the matter in the past 20 years.
Recently, my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Damian Green), who is in his place, my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch), who regrets that she cannot be with us today, and my hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins), met with the roads Minister. It was great to see the difficulties being encountered taken up with such alacrity, for which all of us in Kent are extremely grateful. We urge the Minister to go further and to take the situation on as a specific national strategic priority.
My second solution is the necessary advance check-in system. The eastern docks have only 1,000 spaces, but with a park further up the motorway of 1,000 spaces, for example, we could do advance check-in and the sorting of lorries there, then stream them into the docks so that they can move swiftly through the port zone and on to the ferries for departure to the continent. That sort of dedicated lorry park for advance check-in before the lorries arrive at the port should be implemented as a priority.
It is ridiculous that lorries can simply head into Dover irrespective of whether there is space for them or a ferry is available. The issue needs to be dealt with and a site near Folkestone with the possibility of 1,000 spaces has been identified. Shepway district council tells me that it is keen to give planning permission for up to 1,000 spaces. The proposal is supported by the people I have spoken to in Dover and Deal, with a measure of consensus throughout east Kent and among the long-suffering residents along the M20.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. As he has acknowledged, the problem is not only a Dover one. My constituents in Ashford and many other people throughout Kent or passing through to do business find the clogging up of the motorways to be unacceptable, in particular during Operation Stack. Does he agree that the solution, as he is beginning to set out, is a series of lorry parks around both the M20 and the M2? A consensus Kent proposal to put to the Minister is now essential, so that we may facilitate his great desire to help us.
I completely agree. There needs to be a consensus solution. All of us are finding and building that consensus. More places for lorries to park at the tunnel and indeed the docks are welcome, but they are still constrained and not enough given the growth in international trade. A thousand spaces around Folkestone, at the site that has been identified as a leading candidate, would be a start, but it is not enough. We need to look at other lorry parks—not one mega-park, but a number of parks down the M20. In particular, we need to look at Detling; the Kent County Show ground offers great potential for a park to be used in Operation Stack. I will come on to that, as Operation Stack is less frequent than the literally nightly gridlock my constituents suffer.
My proposal is to have an advance check-in lorry park at Folkestone, which would clear Dover of the queues of lorries blocking the town centre and causing tailbacks. That would improve access to residential areas such as Aycliffe, where the long-suffering residents long to get out of their area and not be jammed in by lorries. Port and ferry companies need to work together to invest in advance check-in lorry parks; they should do their bit by taking responsibility for the problems that they contribute to. They need to invest in their IT to bring it up to date in time for the exit checks that will come in shortly.
Funding could also be provided through the HGV road user levy, which has raised over £23 million to date. Funding for lorry parking of £3 million has already been won from central Government through the local enterprise partnership. To that could be added another £5 million that the LEP has won to facilitate the expansion of the port. Port expansion should be conditional on there being lorry parking capacity so that lorries can go into the port zone and on to ferries.
My next solution is more proactive policing. Both Kent police and the Port of Dover police need to take more effective action to ensure that traffic is managed more effectively and more speedily whenever there is short-term disruption at the port and the channel tunnel. The police need to clamp down on illegal HGV parking to ensure that lorries do not cause gridlock or access problems to Dover. Kent county council ought to consider issuing traffic orders under section 1 of the Road Traffic Regulation Act 1984 to turn the A20 into a clearway, where no parking is allowed. It should also look at weight restrictions on outside lanes and other measures that could be used to ease congestion on the A20 and M20. Such measures are taken elsewhere, so we could do it at Dover as well.
I turn now to the related but separate issue of Operation Stack. Since 2010, it has come into effect four times, so effectively, on average, once a year. When it happens it is serious and problematic. That is why, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashford rightly says, there need to be further lorry parks further up the motorway, rather than the M20 being turned into a gigantic car park, which is what happens at the moment. When Operation Stack is in place the motorway in effect becomes single lane, causing congestion and massive difficulties throughout Kent. We need extra lorry parks further up the M20.
Finally, I turn to my requests to the Minister. First, will he agree to make this matter a national strategic priority and to take the lead on the issue in his capacity as roads Minister? Secondly, will he give an update on the progress of the review seeking long-term solutions to the problem? Thirdly, will he agree to support, if only in principle, a request made to Kent county council to introduce a clearway through the A20 by a traffic order? Finally, will he look to provide funding for the advance check-in lorry park, either from Government funds, from LEP funds or by leaning on the port and ferry companies so that they understand their need to take responsibility and to do their bit? That way we can bring forward the investment needed to ensure that traffic can move swiftly throughout Kent.
As well as being roads Minister, the Minister has had responsibility for ports, and has been instrumental, as a people’s champion, in bringing forward a people’s port at Dover, for which I thank and praise him. There is a real opportunity to extend that further by ensuring that people in Dover and across Kent are more able to go about their daily business, to enjoy their lives, to bear less of the burden of our centre of international trade, transport and commerce and to enjoy more of its benefits, for the future economic prosperity of Kent and of Britain.
I have not served under your stewardship very frequently, Mrs Main, so it is a particular delight to do so, certainly for me; I hope it will be for you, as well. It is also a pleasure to respond to the debate secured by my hon. Friend the Member for Dover (Charlie Elphicke). We have met a number of times about Kent issues, including about the port of Kent, which is closely connected to our considerations today. We have also met about road traffic issues in Kent. He is right to draw attention to the meeting I held with a number of Kentish Members, including him and my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Damian Green), who is in his place.
“The highest reward for a person’s toil is not what they get for it but what they become by it.”
In those terms, the assiduity of my hon. Friend the Member for Dover—his labour in representing the interests of his constituents—has turned him into a powerful advocate, an impressive campaigner and a sagacious voice in this House. I listen to him carefully about all such matters.
Before I respond to the specific points my hon. Friend has raised, it is perhaps worth me setting those comments in the context of the Government’s wider view about the strategic road network. I will speak about the questions he has raised, and I think I have good news for him, but I do not want to deliver that until the end of my speech, because otherwise I will blunt the excitement that is already beginning to percolate through the Chamber.
Let me instead say a few words about a subject that is almost equally as exciting—there are those who would say it is more exciting, but I am not prepared to say that in a debate on Kent, which, as my hon. Friend and others know, is very dear to my heart. The strategic road network matters for all kinds of reasons. Its strategic importance can barely be overstated. The arterial routes by which goods are moved around and businesses do business are vital to our economic well-being and to the success of our long-term economic plan, to which he drew the Chamber’s attention. Less frequently argued for, although of equal importance, is the effect that our roads have on societal interests—communal well-being and individual opportunities. The ability to get to where we need to go, whether for jobs, for public services or simply for recreational travel, plays an important part in all our lives and can enhance them or do the opposite.
Traffic congestion and any compromises on road safety do damage, so it is vital that the Government take seriously the considerations that my hon. Friend has brought to our attention, and also take seriously our duty—I use the word advisedly, as it is more than a responsibility—to plan carefully for the development of our strategic road network.
I think I can say without hyperbole that this Government have done exceptionally well in those terms, with the biggest road building programme of my adult lifetime—that illustrates how very young I am—and a strategic plan that in scale and character is genuinely impressive. There has been investment of £15.3 billion with schemes across the country that, when gauged in cost-benefit terms, on an empirical basis are as impressive as anything we have ever seen, and money following that strategy.
To forward-commit funds to a road investment programme of this scale is not something that Governments have typically done. Our statement of 26 June 2013 announcing the conclusion of the Government’s 2013 spending review made it clear that there would be a step change in road investment. Our more recent work, at the end of last year, with the publication of our road investment strategy, gave life to that investment plan. The plan will take us through to 2020-21, deliver improvements and put us on a path to achieving our long-term vision.
The scheme to improve our major roads will have a long-lasting and wide-ranging effect, but, as we discussed when we debated the Infrastructure Bill, which I was honoured to take through the House, I was determined that the Government should amend their thinking—I like to bring fresh thinking to all the jobs that I do in government—to include a legislative requirement to take into account route strategies. They should take into account the plans of local highways authorities for the roads that adjoin the main arterial routes in places such as Kent, Lincolnshire and elsewhere, because it seems to me that we can improve the major roads, but unless we take account of the roads that feed them and that are fed by them, the character of the investment and the nature of the improvements that I have described will not be fully realised. So, it is through the route strategies that we will ensure there are operational investment priorities for all routes on the strategic road network, which are consistent and coherent in as much as they involve those more local plans.
The Kent corridors to the M25 that encompass the area we are discussing, for the period up to March 2021, will be included in the strategy. The Highways Agency published a set of evidence reports developed directly from the work that we have done, and a number of routes in Kent are being considered as part of that work. Those studies are being finalised, and the Highways Agency aims to publish the second part of the route strategy shortly, which will include a number of schemes in Kent.
As part of the spending round in June 2013, the Government committed to funding the M20 junction 10A scheme, subject to finalisation of options and agreement being reached on developer contributions. The existing M20 junction 10 south of Ashford, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashford knows, suffers from congestion and delays, especially in peak periods, mainly due to conflict between strategic and local traffic. That is precisely why the relationship between the route strategies and our road investment plan is so vital. Improved access to and from the motorway via the proposed junction 10A is seen as a key part of delivering the proposed development in Ashford. As my right hon. Friend has made clear a number of times, the development in Ashford, which is substantial—31,000 homes and 28,000 jobs—will, under the local plan and the growth area agenda, lead to significant extra demand on the road network there.
In November, we changed the charging method of one of the worst performing parts of the strategic road network anywhere in the country, the Dartford-Thurrock crossing, leading to an immediate improvement in the performance of the crossing. I know that this is only a medium-term measure to alleviate the congestion that previously afflicted the crossing. In the longer term, a new Lower Thames crossing is needed to provide additional capacity. Without going into detail, the House will want to know that we are considering options. We are listening to local stakeholders, and we will say more about that in the next Parliament when the Government, led by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, and in which I will play a central and vital role, will, I hope, be able to put into operation an exciting new scheme there.
My hon. Friend the Member for Dover raised specific issues and I will deal with them in the way that he asked me to. He has, as other Kentish MPs have, made a strong case for Operation Stack. When Operation Stack is in place, great disruption and inconvenience are caused to the citizens of Kent, and we need to find a long-term solution. I hear what he and my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashford say about there not being a single solution. There is a strong argument for a series of measures across the county, which alleviate the congestion that arises from those occasional but none the less important happenings that were described.
When I had the meeting that included my hon. Friends the Members for Dover and for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch), the point was made to me that a regional solution was required precisely because the reverberating effect—the ripple effect—was so significant. Any solution must include managing the traffic better and minimising the effects of traffic as increased numbers of vehicles use the network. The proposal that my hon. Friend the Member for Dover makes regarding the use of Stop 24 in Folkestone as an advance check-in for Dover port is interesting and it will be given further consideration. I give him that undertaking today.
I recognise that Operation Stack must be a last, not first, resort and that the solutions are likely to include a mix of private and public sector actions. I commend all parties involved in this work for taking on this difficult task. I expect the public to see a real difference in the coming months and weeks. The issue has plagued the people of Kent intermittently for many years, and the Government have resolved to ensure it is addressed.
However, Operation Stack is a last resort, not a first resort. I want to see long-term solutions proposed and steps taken to prevent Operation Stack from being needed in the first place. The Government recognise the value of the port of Dover and Eurotunnel to the national and local economies, but we need to ensure that the communities of Kent are not inconvenienced by them. Those involved need to understand that, too, as my hon. Friend the Member for Dover suggested.
I will deal now with the exciting news that I promised. In principle, the Government could, through a traffic order, support any request made to Kent county council to introduce a clearway along the A20. That is something my hon. Friend has asked for. He made his case responsibly and clearly, and it is something I am keen to take forward. I understand that the A20 is a Highways Agency road, not a Kent county council road, and it would put the traffic order in place. However, I have been advised that the creation of a clearway would not necessarily solve all the problems of traffic queuing on the A20.
On the advance check-in lorry park at Stop 24, as my hon. Friend has suggested, this could be done through revenue raised through the HGV road user levy. I am not a great supporter of hypothecation, as I know he is not, either, because we have talked about that on other occasions in other forums. None the less, I think we would need the Department to take action alongside, as he has also suggested, the port and ferry companies to develop a funding strategy for investment in traffic management in the Dover area. We will continue those discussions, but I think we will do more than that.
As my hon. Friend says, we need to look at IT systems. We certainly need to look at lorry parks, and I will ensure that the various groups looking into the issue of traffic management in Kent take his proposal into close consideration. I am prepared to make funding available for this. I will say more than that. There are additional measures emanating from a different Department, which will have an effect on traffic movements in the near term, so we cannot afford to let the grass grow under our feet. We need a solution that will ensure that those additional measures that emanate from Government do not have a deleterious effect on the interests of the people of Dover and other parts of Kent, or on other people using the port.
We will introduce further proposals as a direct result of those considerations—stimulated by this debate, inspired by my hon. Friend’s commitment, informed by him and other Kentish Members—to address the issues, and I plan to do so before the end of this Parliament. I put this on the record: we will introduce those proposals in good time, in good order and in good shape.
WB Yeats said:
“Do not wait to strike till the iron is hot; but make it hot by striking.”
My hon. Friend described me in extremely complimentary terms—perhaps even more complimentary than I deserve—but I am the kind of Minister who makes the iron hot by striking.
Question put and agreed to.