Wednesday 10 June 2015
[Mr Gary Streeter in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the UK’s relationship with FIFA.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. At the start of my remarks, I welcome my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch) to her position, for the first of what I am sure will be many sterling debates and sterling performances as the Minister for sport. I congratulate her on her appointment.
The purpose of this debate is to consider the UK’s relationship with FIFA: not just the English Football Association but the football associations of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland; not just the relationship between the football bodies and FIFA, but FIFA’s relationship with the Government and any other UK commercial interests, too. The timing of this debate has undoubtedly been influenced by the dramatic events that unfolded in Zurich just over a week ago, with the arrests of 14 FIFA officials in an operation led by the FBI and carried out by the Swiss investigatory authorities. It poses the question of what our response should be to those dramatic events and to the new timetable for the rest of this year, now that Sepp Blatter has announced that he will be stepping down from the FIFA presidency. In my opening remarks, I will address how we got to our current position and the responses to the crisis that the UK should consider.
The events in Zurich come as no surprise to people who have followed the FIFA saga for a number of years. Earlier this year, I became a founder member of a new international campaign group, New FIFA Now, to push for change and reform in FIFA by forming an alliance of politicians, business people and people in the media to create external pressure on FIFA. In April, New FIFA Now published the results of a global survey of well over 10,000 football fans from across the world: 97% of respondents had no confidence in the leadership of FIFA, and 69% of respondents felt that there should be a full and open inquiry and investigation into the allegations of wrongdoing at FIFA.
In 2011, when I was a member of the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport, the Committee considered matters of concern regarding the World cup bidding process completed in 2010 that awarded the rights to host the tournaments in 2018 and 2022. In that debate I used parliamentary privilege to raise concerns that had been brought to the Committee’s attention in evidence submitted by The Sunday Times Insight team. That evidence alleged that two FIFA executive committee members, Issa Hayatou and Jacques Anouma, received $1.5 million in payments to support the Qatar bid for the World cup, linked to their votes in the process to award the rights to host the tournament. Lord Triesman came to the same Select Committee hearing to make his own allegations about approaches that he had received during the World cup bidding process from other FIFA officials who had solicited either bribes or favours from him. He named Mr Makudi from Thailand, Jack Warner, Nicolás Leoz and Ricardo Teixeira.
It is interesting to note what has happened to some of those individuals over the past four years. Issa Hayatou was reprimanded by the International Olympic Committee for receiving improper payments from sports marketing company International Sport and Leisure in relation to the awarding of rights. Jacques Anouma was accused of receiving bribes by Phaedra al-Majid, the Qatari whistleblower who worked on the Qatar World cup bid and is now living in the United States after making her allegations about that bid. Jack Warner was involved in the scandal over the attempt to buy votes in the FIFA presidential election, and he is on Interpol’s wanted list following a request for him to co-operate with the FBI investigation that came to such a dramatic conclusion with the issuing of arrest warrants in Zurich just over a week ago. Similarly, a warrant has been issued for the arrest of Nicolás Leoz. Ricardo Teixeira, the former head of the Brazilian football association, who was named by Lord Triesman, was removed from his position in world football after being found guilty of receiving bribes that, again, were linked to the ISL sports marketing corruption case, in which payments were made to FIFA officials in relation to their support on contracts awarded for World cup broadcast footage and World cup marketing rights. Ricardo Teixeira, along with the previous president of FIFA, João Havelange, allegedly received $41 million-worth of payments in relation to ISL.
My hon. Friend is making a brilliant speech, rightly showing how the culture of corruption at FIFA, which he identified so early, has embedded itself over many years. By mentioning Mr Havelange, he points to its rising up the organisation—I hope he will discuss how that has transpired. Does he share my view that not only is FIFA rotten from top to bottom but that the response last week from Mr Warner in particular was a remarkable reaction to the revelations?
My hon. Friend is right. We are talking about a widespread, systemic failure of an organisation—widespread corruption—and the role of Jack Warner in this is key. He has said that he has handed to the FBI an “avalanche” of evidence, which includes references to Sepp Blatter himself. I think it is highly likely that Sepp Blatter will be asked to co-operate with both the FBI investigation and the Swiss authorities’ criminal investigation into the World cup bidding process.
My hon. Friend’s concerns about the systemic corruption within FIFA have been known for some time, but does he share my concerns about why the Football Association decided in 2010 to bid for the World cup in 2018? If FIFA is rotten to the core, why was British football having anything to do with this matter?
I agree with my right hon. Friend. It has been known for a long time that there are systemic problems within the organisation of FIFA. The England World cup bid, although it was commendable and carried out with a degree of vigour by all who took part, was always doomed to failure, largely for the reasons set out to the Select Committee by Lord Triesman: for their necessary support, members of the FIFA executive committee wanted to be rewarded in whatever way they saw fit. The allegation that Lord Triesman made about Jack Warner was that he solicited bribes so that he could personally profit from his role within football, which is also the case with most of the other allegations: people sought to profit personally from their positions in world football. The FBI has gone through that in some detail in its report.
I understand what my hon. Friend says: the bid was doomed to failure, which we can see even without 20/20 hindsight. The broader issue is why on earth the FA had anything to do with this organisation. It was well understood that FIFA was a corrupt organisation, and in a sense our own footballing organisation, which is not without its own problems, as we are well aware, is now complicit after trying to secure the 2018 World cup. Indeed, any talk now of a World cup being awarded to us at some point in the near future without cleaning the stables seems to be entirely wide of the mark.
We have seen allegations of corruption going back for almost the entirety of Sepp Blatter’s presidency of FIFA, and before that, too. The process that concluded in 2010 for the rights to host the tournaments in 2018 and 2022 was on a previously unseen level. The Football Association may have been aware of some of the murky waters it was getting into in bidding for the World cup but nevertheless thought that it could make a good, strong case. The fact that England had the strongest technical bid but received only two votes is testimony to the fact that footballing grounds were not the key defining factor for the members of the executive committee who voted. It should also be noted that seven of the 22 people who voted on where the World cup should be played have already had to resign from their positions in world football due to corruption, and others are still under investigation.
Order. Before Mr Campbell speaks, may I gently point out that seven Back-Bench colleagues wish to speak in this debate, and the more interventions that are taken, the less time there is for everybody? But let us hear from Mr Gregory Campbell.
Thank you, Mr Streeter, for that clarification. I will be brief.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins) on securing a very timely debate. He talks about “murky waters”. Does he agree that, somewhat closer to home, we have the issue of the Football Association of Ireland apparently using £5 million that was initially a loan from FIFA, but then became a donation, to help to rebuild the stadium in Dublin?
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. Again, that is a very unusual payment that was received by the FAI. It was kind of “cash for no questions”—for not seeking to make a complaint against FIFA because of the incident involving Thierry Henry’s handball in the World cup qualifying match against Ireland. It just shows the extraordinary way in which FIFA works that these sorts of irregular payment were made.
Before I move on to look at some of the issues that we have to address, another good example of FIFA’s behaviour has been provided by the recent revelations around the unusual $10 million payment that was made, linked to the South Africa World cup. A request was made for $10 million to support football projects relating to the African diaspora living in the Caribbean. That money was to be paid by the South Africans. They did not want to pay it, so instead FIFA took the money out of the budget that would have gone to South Africa as the host nation for the World cup. It would seem that that money was then paid to officials in the Caribbean, particularly Jack Warner. We now know from the evidence that he has supplied that he used that money personally, and potentially laundered some of it through a supermarket chain in Trinidad.
All that prompts some questions. Who sanctioned those payments? FIFA said that it did not know anything about them, but it now looks like FIFA Secretary General Jérôme Valcke did know about them. Why were they sanctioned? Clearly, there was absolutely no follow-up on how the money was spent—whether it was ever received by the people who were intended to receive it and whether it was ever used to benefit football development projects in the Caribbean, which was allegedly what the money was for, unusual though such a payment was. That is another reason we should be angry: not only have people have sought to make themselves rich from their positions in football and been greedy in doing so, but they have done it by taking money away from football development projects that should have been there to support some of the poorest people in the world by improving their life chances and access to sporting facilities. It is the poor who have been exploited by FIFA’s greedy officials.
The allegations have run for a number of years now. The allegations that I set out earlier, which were made in front of the Select Committee in 2011, were given pretty short shrift at the time by FIFA, which felt that there were no grounds for further investigation. Under pressure, FIFA then commissioned its own report, led by an American attorney, Michael Garcia, to look at wrongdoing in the World cup bidding process. Members will be well aware of what happened to that report. It was always a very limited report—Michael Garcia had no legal power to subpoena witnesses or evidence and he was very restricted in what he could do. Nevertheless, he was supposedly very critical of the culture of entitlement that existed in the FIFA executive committee, and he argued that it needed wholesale reform. FIFA’s response to that investigation was to seek to suppress the report entirely. Instead, it published a summary, which the author of the report said bore very little relation to the thrust of the arguments or the serious charges that he had made.
One or two other key issues also have to be considered, particularly relating to the World cup in Qatar. Many people were surprised that Qatar was chosen. The country had no football tradition or football facilities and was bidding on the premise of hosting the World cup tournament in the summer. During the 2014 World cup in Brazil, the average daytime temperature in Qatar was over 40° every day. Many people thought that the bid was clearly not a serious starter. However, there are now other serious concerns. First, there are concerns about the consequences for world sport—including our own football leagues and indeed all European sporting leagues involving winter sports, not just football—of moving the Qatar World cup to the winter. Secondly, there are the real concerns raised about the workers in Qatar who are building the World cup facilities, including many men from India and Nepal.
Reports have suggested that more than 1,400 workers have already lost their lives, and the campaign Playfair Qatar has suggested that 4,000 people could lose their lives building not only the football stadiums themselves but all the support facilities needed by Qatar to host the World cup. This is a matter of genuine concern. We know that when London hosted the Olympic games there was incredibly close scrutiny of the rights, including labour rights, and conditions of the people working here. Similar rights and conditions should apply to people working on projects linked to the World cup in Qatar. I was also very disturbed to read reports that, because of the kafala system that operates in Qatar, many workers have very few individual rights. Some Nepalese workers were not even allowed to return home to Nepal to attend the funerals of family members killed in the recent earthquakes. FIFA should be doing a lot more about this as well. We also have a role in asking why more is not being done by FIFA and the international community to insist on higher standards of rights in Qatar.
The World cup bidding process was flawed; it was corrupted because of the actions of people involved in it. The best thing for football now would be to order a rerun of the contest to host the tournament, inviting everyone who was part of that contest to rebid for the chance to host the World cup tournaments in 2018 and 2022, and then let us stand by a new process that is open, honest and clear. If that does not happen and FIFA does not do it, I believe we will end up having to reconsider whether those tournaments are played anyway, because of the charges arising from the Swiss criminal investigation into that World cup bidding process. It is notable that the Swiss legal authorities are the only people outside the most senior people at FIFA to have seen the Garcia report, and that, having read it, they have opened a criminal investigation into the matters covered by the report.
I will try to be as brief as I can, Mr Streeter, to allow colleagues to participate in the debate, but there are some serious questions about what the UK’s response to this situation should be. The first is about the Serious Fraud Office. In a debate in the main Chamber in December 2014, I raised the role of the SFO and I have corresponded with SFO officials on a number of occasions about their jurisdiction to act. FIFA clearly has commercial operations linked to the United Kingdom, as it sells broadcast rights to its football matches and tournaments here, so I believe it falls within the general jurisdiction of the SFO to examine matters relating to FIFA.
We know that the SFO can look at matters relating to the England World cup bid. It has been widely reported that a secret dossier was compiled by the Football Association that looked into the World cup bidding process, including the movements of members of FIFA’s executive committee and what other bid teams were doing. It has also been reported in the media that the FA has given the SFO full access to all the documents relating to the World cup bidding process, including those that have not been published before. Will the Minister ask her colleague, the Solicitor General, whether the SFO can now make a statement about exactly what actions it has taken, whether it intends to consider opening its own investigation into FIFA, and whether it can at least confirm that it is fully co-operating with the investigations being led by the FBI and the Swiss authorities? We should at least be clear about the role that the SFO is playing, because it clearly has a role. I believe that it has a role to play in launching its own investigation into FIFA, but it certainly has a role in supporting other investigations that are happening.
We should also continue to apply the pressure on FIFA’s major commercial sponsors—companies such as McDonald’s, Coca-Cola and Visa. Finally, in the last few weeks those sponsors have started to speak up about the need for reform, and suggested that without reform they will withdraw their commercial sponsorship. Many people believe that conversations behind closed doors early last week led to Sepp Blatter reconsidering his position in world football because of that pressure from commercial sponsors. They have a role to play in keeping that pressure on FIFA, as do our FA and the other major football associations around the world, including UEFA. The commercial strength of football in those countries, led by the football fans in those countries who pay to buy the merchandise, subscribe to TV channels to watch football being played and travel to watch matches live in stadiums is important. It is the money of fans in countries such as the UK that puts the money into world football that FIFA benefits from, and it will be the threat of the withdrawal of that funding by nations boycotting FIFA tournaments and by commercial sponsors ending their support that leads to real pressure for change.
We should not believe that, just because Sepp Blatter announced last week his intention to resign the FIFA presidency, there will be an immediate change in FIFA. FIFA has confirmed—it was reported by the BBC this morning—that the timetable set is that the FIFA congress will meet on 16 December to elect a new president. From now until then—for the remainder of this year—Sepp Blatter will be there, pulling the strings and managing the process of “reform”. He will be seeking to ensure that the next president of FIFA is someone who will look after him in the same way that he, for so many years, looked after Havelange, covering his tracks and mistakes and protecting the old guard. That is what we are seeing again now. It is like the dying days of some old Soviet republic, where the old guard are rallying round each other and trying to save the whole operation, and it cannot be allowed to happen. The external pressure that we can exert by debating matters relating to FIFA in this Chamber, and by questioning sponsors and football associations, is essential to keep the pressure on FIFA.
I have a final question for my hon. Friend the Minister. I know that she has already written to the Sports Ministers across the European Union. Will she use her offices to keep the pressure up on the Sports Ministers and Governments of other European nations to question their local football associations? We can work together to ensure that pressure on FIFA from Governments and the media continues until there is real change and reform. I believe that that change should include Sepp Blatter’s immediate removal as president, and an interim team of respected people in world sport should be brought in. Those people do not have to be from football. People from outside can come in to clean out the yard and lead a real reform process and set in place proper elections that involve people who are not tainted by the corruption of the past.
I believe that things will get a lot worse for FIFA before they get better. The FBI and Swiss investigations will go right through the organisation and expose any wrongdoing and incorrect payments. This could involve a large number of people who have been part of the Blatter years. It is time we had a clear-out and the UK has a role and a voice in making sure that happens.
I will try to keep my remarks brief, Mr Streeter.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins) on an excellent speech—probably one of the best I have ever heard. He proved that football at its best brings people together; it is clear, looking around the Chamber, that that means even the Tories and the Labour party. It must be the only thing that can do that. I also congratulate the Minister. I have known her a long time, since I was elected to the House. Sometimes she has been kind to me and sometimes unkind; I hope that today she is kind.
FIFA is rotten to the core and has been for a number of years. Stanley Rous was elected in 1961, Havelange took over in 1974 and Sepp Blatter became president in 1998, so FIFA has had only three presidents. During the same period, the United States of America has had 10 men as President and Great Britain has had nine men and one woman as Prime Minister. FIFA has been corrupt in full sight. Governments have come and gone and complained about its behaviour, but still the corruption has carried on.
As the hon. Gentleman said, as the FBI and the Swiss begin their investigations, there is a danger that FIFA will close ranks, as it has in the past, and continue to pay lip service to reform. I have sympathy with what he said about Sepp Blatter’s announcing his resignation but still being in post for four months. Someone who announces their resignation because of corruption should go straight away.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman that an independent body should now be set up to consider whether we have to re-vote on the 2018 and 2022 World cup. Anybody who has seen the bidding process for Qatar, whether involved or not, knows there is a serious problem. We are still unclear about when that World cup will be held. There could be severe disruption to the football season in this country, and in others, as we hope for the weather to be cooler.
Disciplinary processes are akin to those that Don Corleone might have used. Anybody who challenges Sepp Blatter’s power seems to find themselves suspended from FIFA. Even Prince Ali, who bravely challenged Sepp Blatter, said afterwards that he stopped his campaign because he did not want other football associations to get into trouble. He said that about a sporting organisation in the 21st century. That is a matter of concern.
A lot of people have said that the International Olympic Committee is the model to look at. Yes, there have been problems with the IOC in the past, but it has the seeds of a model that should be considered. During Olympic bids, people are forbidden from meeting the electorate. An expert inspection team is sent to the country to see whether it is fit for purpose and, if it is, it is put into the shortlisting system. That should be said. I also believe that the 209 members should be allowed to vote.
This is all just lip service and a talking shop at the moment. As the hon. Gentleman said, the Serious Fraud Office should be involved with the investigations by the Swiss authorities and the FBI. However, Governments can do only so much. There has to be a collective will. I should like FIFA to be disbanded and a new organisation to be formed. I would even go as far as to say that I should like the IOC to take over FIFA and carry on with a bidding process.
We need a completely new organisation without the Byzantine committees that seem to keep people in power. I am deeply concerned that, however much the Minister writes to other Sports Ministers or the FA threatens boycotts, the fact is that the French football association, along with other European countries, voted for Sepp Blatter’s re-election. UEFA and Michel Platini followed the line and supported Qatar. I will be honest and say that, although I admired Platini as a player, I do not admire him as an administrator. Even UEFA is not able to clean up its own act, let alone FIFA.
I should like the Minister to say what concrete action the Government are taking. But the issue is not just for this Government; there needs to be collective will among Governments around the world to bring about real change.
Football is not about the likes of Sepp Blatter, Jack Warner or the administrators of football associations taking bribes; it is about the kids who play on scrap land, wearing replica shirts, and about how a football—an actual ball—can bring people together. That is what is often missed. The people who are being betrayed are people like me, who had football posters on their walls at age 10 and wore the replica shirts. I was not the only one. Millions of kids all over the world are being betrayed by Sepp Blatter and his cronies. We need to clean up football now.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins) on securing this debate, which has attracted so much interest—and not just from hon. Members running for chairmanship of the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport. That shows how important this issue is. I also congratulate him on being involved, rightly, in the campaign for a long time.
In the interests of brevity, I will make one point and give five thoughts specifically to the Minister about things that the Government and other authorities could do in the coming months. There is a danger in saying that football is in crisis. Football is not in crisis: FIFA is in crisis. The love of the game all around the world is not diminished by this terrible crisis and this terrible, corrupt organisation. The situation just makes fans angry. I watched the champions league final in a bar in Italy on Saturday night and I can reveal that it is not just in this country that passions run high. It was a good place to watch the match. The bar owner was an Inter fan, so he was supporting Barcelona, which made it more complex.
The love of football is palpable around the world and will not be affected by these issues. However, it is vital for football fans around the world that the top of the game should be brought back to a position where we can all respect it as an institution.
Here are five thoughts for the Minister about what the British Government and authorities could do. First, they could check whether any UK institution or individual has been or is still involved in any corrupt activity. My hon. Friend mentioned the SFO investigations. Other bodies, such as banking regulators and financial services regulators, may wish to be involved as well, because it is unlikely that some of the money floating around has not passed through British hands at some stage. It is important for our reputation as a country that we are as vigorous as possible in pursuing any problems in that area.
Secondly, we could redouble existing efforts to ensure that we have systems in place to stop any potential for bribery and corruption inside the British game, because large sums slosh around British football as well, most notably in the award of television contracts. I should place it on the record that I am not remotely aware—and I do not think anyone else is—of any impropriety in any bidding process at any stage, but it would be good to be reassured that that will continue. Those efforts should also extend to the increasing prevalence of gambling, particularly in-play gambling on games. Anyone who watches football on television will know that most ad breaks are now full of gambling adverts. We know that gambling has led to corruption in other sports, so football fans deserve reassurance that that kind of thing cannot happen in the British game.
Thirdly, the British authorities could offer advice on long-term governance, either directly or through other institutions. I am sure that the Department for International Development has developed great expertise in recent years in trying to ensure that money is distributed as honestly as possible. We all know about the problems with corruption in aid money over the years, and certain practical measures obviously should be taken, such as term limits on the officials who have the power to grant money.
Other Members have already mentioned the ridiculous committee system at FIFA. Certainly ExCo is a FIFA body that should go. There should be on all FIFA boards non-executive directors who do not have any direct executive powers and an audit of disbursement for football development. For obvious reasons, the people who are voting on World cup bids should not be responsible for disbursing money. It may well be that other institutions, such as Transparency International, which has expertise in this field, should be involved.
Fourthly, it is important that we do not look as though we are just, as a country and in particular as a Government, getting involved as an attempt to revive our World cup bids. Of course we would all love to host the World cup—we could host a brilliant World cup in this country at short notice—but nevertheless, it is more important in the long term to clean up FIFA, and, to do that, we will have greater power and a greater voice in the world if it is obvious that we are not simply doing something for national self-advantage. It is absolutely right that we keep up pressure on whether the World cup should be held in Qatar, for all the reasons that my hon. Friend made clear. That terrible figure of 4,000 workers who may have died in constructing the stadiums contrasts with the London Olympics, where one worker tragically died in the building of all those stadiums.
The fifth point is simply that we should all redouble our efforts to ensure that we have a free and energetic press and media in this country. Along with the campaigning of my hon. Friend and the various organisations he mentioned, the existence of a free and vigorous press has played a significant role in exposing the corruption at the heart of FIFA.
Those are five things that the Government could do. As a final thought, they should work on the principle of not doing things that disadvantage football fans. Let us not talk cheaply about boycotts or withdrawals or other things that would not have much effect on FIFA, but would have a significant effect on football fans in this country. There is a huge job of work to be done, and the British Government can play a constructive role in helping that along. I am sure that the Minister will wish to do that.
It is a pleasure to speak on this subject. First, I congratulate the hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins) on securing the debate. Over the past three years, he has shown a deep interest in the subject. He was one of the first to promote it and ask questions on it in the Chamber, and those questions were followed up, so it is good to have this debate today. Everything he said has been proven to be true. I also congratulate the Minister on securing her new position. I had her over to my constituency, where she visited the local girls football team and had a chance to encourage them, and it is nice to see her in a role that relates to a subject she enjoys. We look forward to hearing her responses to our questions.
This debate is important and timely. We all share in the jokes about our football teams. Football crosses political, religious and social divides and brings us together. When we put on the red and blue scarf of Ards football club, or the blue of Leicester City or of Rangers, and get behind our team, it brings us together; that is what it is about. Looking back at what has happened, we cannot help but be saddened for the fans, the game and the future of football. I emphasise that we should not see the game of football as marred or muddied. We should recognise that the individuals behind the actions that have come to light do not reflect those who love the game, watch it with delight and participate; instead, they seek to exploit it and its integral competitive nature for self-gain and greed. Clear examples of that have been given by the press and Members in the Chamber today. We must look towards football fans the world over and ensure that they can be satisfied that football remains the beautiful game.
The past few weeks have perpetuated concerns and thrown FIFA into disarray. They have also thrown into contention the viability and integrity of the Russian and Qatar World cup bids, as the hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe said. Those bids are clearly questionable and have to be looked at. It is no coincidence that many players and associations are disillusioned with FIFA. I will mention one, because it is in the press, and that is Football Federation Australia. It has said that it will not launch a bid for the women’s World cup until there is a substantial overhaul in the governance structures of FIFA. The hon. Member for Livingston (Hannah Bardell) played football as a lady and was quite good at it, I understand. We understand the issues, which reach across the whole football world and all genders. It is hard to blame those who, like the Australians, want to get into the competition, but see that there is little likelihood of it being a fair game, and who ask, “Will we get a chance?” The issues have tainted the very fields on which our players endeavour to perform, and that is a sad state of affairs for football fans.
If I may, I will focus on issues a wee bit closer to home. The cases seem to be endless and growing each day. My hon. Friend the Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell) referred to recent revelations of FIFA’s financial agreement with the Football Association of Ireland not to proceed with legal action to overturn the Thierry Henry handball decision after a loan was made of €5 million. That is one example, but it perfectly shows two of the biggest issues in the overarching scandal: the lack of transparency and of sportsmanship. On the first, it is truly astounding that FIFA can advocate transparency and reform, and then begin to think that confidential payments are in tandem with that aim. How can that be? It is impossible to pull the two things together. It is an insult to football fans—and players, who claim that they were unaware of the sheer sum awarded by FIFA to the FAI. FIFA’s real lack of sportsmanship is evident. It is easy to assume, given that players have spoken out, that the players and the fans alike would have wanted a rematch in the name of sport, rather than a settlement for financial gain. The spirit of sport is to compete on the field on fair grounds, and FIFA has clearly lost that spirit.
That reminds me of the issue of how FIFA has handled relations with Northern Ireland. While Northern Ireland has worked tirelessly to eliminate sectarianism from matches, FIFA has never failed to be tough on us. It also changed the rules on the eligibility of players who committed themselves to Northern Ireland, giving an advantage to the Republic of Ireland. That was hard on us, and we feel hurt and annoyed by it.
We need to send a clear message that what has happened is inexcusable, and that those responsible must be held to account before the law, with complete even-handedness. The football associations can be trailblazers to restore the integrity of football and the faith of the fans, but sponsors also have powerful leverage. What is being done to engage sponsors in using that leverage? It is clear that there is cross-party support for reassessing the governance of world football, and that is promising. We need to move towards building a consensus across Europe and beyond on restoring the integrity of football, with FIFA governance based on transparency, democracy, fairness and real accountability. That will require real and decisive leadership, and I hope that in this debate we can see the first steps in that direction.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins) on securing this debate. He has pursued the case against FIFA with diligence and zeal and deserves great credit for his persistence. When the Blatter juggernaut looked unstoppable, he kept going. I welcome the sport Minister to her new post. She has a great affinity for the role, and I am sure she will be an excellent Minister and a champion for sports for men and women.
I share the widespread relief that Sepp Blatter is going. His departure so soon after his re-election truly proves that football is a game of two halves. His tenure as president has brought shame on the game, and his toxic legacy of corruption and malfeasance will take a long time to unpick and set right. The FA has been raising concerns for a long time, but we should all be grateful that the FBI, serving quite literally as the world’s policeman, has finally toppled the rotten gang at the top of the world game.
As has been said, there is a risk that the months that will pass with Sepp Blatter still in post will allow him to pull the strings, rig the election of his successor and fulfil his key priority: protecting himself and the others in his rotten gang. Will my hon. Friend the Minister tell us what we and the FA can do to try to ensure that that does not happen? Do we need to push, and how can we push together to get him out now?
The victory of getting rid of Blatter poses as many questions as answers. What steps is the Serious Fraud Office taking to assess whether criminal offences were commissioned via British companies and banks, and when can we expect it to report? HSBC, Barclays and Standard Chartered were all named on the original indictment released by the US authorities. We should be rigorous in ensuring that we play a full part in exposing exactly what happened and holding people to account.
The SFO has released a statement saying that it is
“assessing material in its possession.”
We now need full and frank disclosure of what the SFO knew about the scandal at FIFA, and when it came to know. If the SFO was in receipt of credible evidence of wrongdoing in FIFA before the FBI and the Swiss authorities proceeded to make their arrests, we also need to know whether it was conducting, or had conducted, an investigation of its own—whether it was co-operating with authorities overseas or simply sitting on its hands.
There are also important questions for the future. FA chairman Greg Dyke has called for the report on the World cup bidding process, compiled by the ethics investigator Michael Garcia, to be released in full ever since a summary of it was released last November. When will it be published? When will we see what the independent investigator found? What pressure can the Minister exert to make that happen? I would also be grateful if she commented on how the Government can work with fellow Administrations worldwide to ensure that FIFA is never tarnished in this way again and that its practices are rendered honest, accountable and transparent.
As a new Minister, does she think Governments have sat back too much and said, “It is up to football to sort itself out”? The new Secretary of State said something similar the other day, but I am not sure that it is entirely a matter for football to sort out itself. Criminal activity is criminal activity; it is for state authorities to do something about it. There are a lot of questions for a lot of states around the world, and not least for the authorities in the country that is the originator of football and has one of the largest financial centres in the world, if not the largest.
There are other important issues that must be discussed. My hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe mentioned the disturbing evidence that has surfaced in recent days that suggests that the awarding process for the 2010 World cup in South Africa may have been corrupt. If it emerges that the awarding process for the 2018 and 2022 World cups was influenced by corruption, will the Government press for those votes to be deemed void and held again? Do they support, as I do, the FA stating clearly, for the elimination of any doubt, that it is not seeking for England to take over the hosting of either of those World cups? That way, Sepp Blatter and his cronies will not be able to suggest that the British voice is influenced by self-interest or sour grapes about our 2018 bid—it is a genuine commitment to cleaning up the game. In any normal area of life, if a commercial tendering process was proved to have been corrupt, it would have been re-run automatically. Will that happen for the Russian and Qatari bids?
Football is one of the world’s great sports and is among the most powerful cultural legacies of our country. Like all sports, it should not only entertain but inspire. It should also foster an awareness of the importance of good sportsmanship and the need to obey rules. We need fundamental reform so that the global game is better run and better represented to the world. That process must now begin in earnest.
It is a joy to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. I join colleagues in congratulating my hon. Friend the new Minister for the brilliant start she has made in her role. I am particularly delighted, because her appointment shows that in this new, one nation, compassionate Government, all prior sins will be forgiven. I am rather hoping that that will extend to other colleagues in due course. [Hon. Members: “Declare an interest!”] Perhaps I should.
Colleagues are absolutely right to pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins). The truth of the matter is that for a long time this issue has not been front and centre in discussions in the House, but he has made it so. He has campaigned on it for a long time, and it is to his huge credit that he did so and built up such unmatched expertise, and also that he has highlighted the conditions of the workers in Qatar. As he made clear, this is only the beginning of the process begun by the US and Swiss authorities. It is clear that we can expect not only that the process will continue, but secondary lawsuits—for example, from defeated bidders. The repercussions of what has begun will resound for many years to come, and possibly for decades.
As colleagues have noted, if Mr Blatter is allowed to continue to run the process to select his successor, and to defend FIFA and his interests as vigorously as he has done so far, there is every possibility that little, if anything, will change as a result of any reforms made. This is an institution with virtually no transparency, accountability or oversight, as has been amply demonstrated by its failure to make public the Garcia report and any further reflections on it. In that context, the legal process is under way, but there is only one other solution on the table: cut off the money supply and target the commercial sponsors and broadcasters.
It is important to talk about sponsors, but the World cup reaches a worldwide audience, so if McDonald’s or Coca-Cola are not involved, some other company will take their place because they all want to get into people’s homes. The hon. Gentleman is a Conservative, so perhaps he will not like this, but has he given any consideration to players going on strike? If the World cup did not feature the likes of Lionel Messi or Christiano Ronaldo, it would be diminished. That would send a powerful message to FIFA.
That is a very interesting suggestion. The question to ask before that is whether, if it is shown that the bidding processes for the Moscow and Qatar World cups were in fact as corrupt as is widely believed, due thought should be given by sponsors and broadcasters to setting up a parallel organisation in order to bring FIFA to its senses. That is the move that we should make before contemplating a players’ boycott, which has not always proven effective in other sports.
The Bribery Act 2010 has rightly been mentioned. I have recently written in support of my hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe to try to clarify some details and ask for further guidance. The Act has a very wide jurisdiction: it applies to any commercial organisation that trades in the UK and fails to prevent bribery by a person associated with it, and that bribery can take place anywhere in the world. In other words, it gives a lot of potential for prosecution. It was supposed to update the law on white-collar crime, but the fact of the matter is that very few convictions have been secured so far, and there is little, if any, evidence that a prosecution has been brought under the crucial section 7.
I asked the director of the Serious Fraud Office questions that build on some of those already mentioned. I asked whether the sponsors associated with FIFA—Adidas, McDonald’s, Gazprom, Hyundai, Kia, Budweiser, Coca-Cola and Visa—might be guilty of offences; what specific measures the SFO has taken or will take, and what it knew; whether it has met employees or agents of, or advisers to, the sponsors, or has plans to meet them; and what steps have been taken to interview employees or agents who may potentially be subject to UK criminal prosecution. I have not yet received a response to my letter; I hope that I do, and I will make it public when it arrives. Politicians cannot be in the business of unduly influencing legal procedures, but it is striking that so few prosecutions have been brought under an Act that was supposed to clean up white-collar crime.
The next stage is to move on to the broadcasters. Broadcast rights money may also have been used in corrupt practices. If the broadcasters are commercial organisations under the law, they too may be subject to the 2010 Act—and, of course, they need not be British, but merely trading in this country, as all the world’s broadcasters do. After that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Beverley and Holderness (Graham Stuart) mentioned, we can move on to the banks, money laundering and other malfeasance, much of which we have heard about on the Select Committee on the Treasury.
I will close by reflecting on the bidding for the World cups in 2018 and 2022. Anecdotal evidence is starting to build to suggest that the processes were deeply corrupt. If so, there is little hope of those processes being unwound, but what is the alternative? The only alternative, which must balance European interests and those of the new markets for football, is that a pan-European World cup, covering every major footballing nation in Europe and using existing stadiums, be held in 2018. That could buy us some time. It could easily be hosted, as the stadiums and infrastructure are present, and it would allow more time for the Qatar World cup—an odd proposition in its own right—to be fully assessed. Many football associations across Europe backed Mr Blatter, and if we hold such a World cup, they can come together and start to bind up some of the wounds, and the whole of footballing Europe can then move on.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time in this Parliament, Mr Streeter. It is impossible to speak in this short debate, even with the exhortation that we should be brief, without paying an appropriate tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins) for having taken up this campaign and having the courage to run it when the rest of us, and indeed the Government, had frankly dropped the ball. He deserves considerable credit not only from football fans in this country, but from football worldwide for bringing this to the forefront of the considerations of those who love the beautiful game. The Sunday Times’ Insight team and “Panorama” also deserve credit for their investigations, which should have led to action much earlier.
It is also impossible to speak in this brief debate without expressing the genuine joy felt, at least among Government Members, when my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch) was absolved of the sins to which my hon. Friend the Member for Hereford and South Herefordshire (Jesse Norman) referred and promoted to Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport. She will do a fantastic job if she is anywhere near as successful in her new role as she was when she was running women’s football in her constituency.
How have we reached this position in relation to FIFA? The answer is simple: it is what happens when a gentlemen’s club that was designed a long time ago to run the game of football worldwide meets the billions and billions of pounds that now wash around in the game. Despite all the publicity that has surrounded the corruption for so long, it is apparent that FIFA is no longer in possession of the necessary structures to run the game in a transparent and anti-corrupt way in the 21st century.
I agree with my hon. Friend. The announcement is extremely welcome. If there is time, I will discuss the bidding processes for the 2018 and 2022 World cups.
It is important to recognise that we are sitting in the House of Commons in the United Kingdom. This House holds the Minister to account and the Minister can influence the Football Association and the other home nation associations, but she is not ultimately responsible for FIFA. All that we can do in this place is try to shine a light on what has gone on, raise the issues and seek to persuade the Minister that she and the Government can do more to ensure that the game is governed well not only in this country, but elsewhere in the world through international bodies. In that light, I venture to suggest to the Minister that the Government need to do certain things that they have not done in the past or at least have not done effectively.
The first is that better effort needs to be made at governmental level between the Minister and her counterparts in Europe, to whom I know she has now written, regarding the actions that they take regarding their football associations. The English FA is widely regarded in FIFA as pandering to this Parliament and to the media, in a way which other football associations are not. That is a reflection of the fact that the English FA and the associations of the other home nations do a good job, they are held to account through the Government, through this House and by the media, and they are, therefore, answerable to those whom this is actually about at the end of the day: the fans. That is not necessarily the situation elsewhere. In her reply, the Minister needs to indicate what actions she is taking with other Sports Ministers across Europe, and indeed the Commonwealth, to hold their football associations to account, so that ultimately the global body that is FIFA is held to account.
I also suggest that the Minister make clear the Government’s position on the continuing presidency of Sepp Blatter—because he is still the president. I am tempted to and will refer to FIFA as a “Sepp-pit” of corruption—[Hon. Members: “Boom, boom!”] Indeed. Sepp Blatter must step aside now. My hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe suggested that others could come in to run the organisation in the interim. That would be welcome. That needs to be the Government’s position, and the Minister needs to make it clear today that that is the Government’s position.
My hon. Friend also referred to the Serious Fraud Office, which does seem to have dropped the ball. I asked an urgent question in the House on FIFA in the first week of this new Parliament about the steps that were being taken in conjunction with the Attorney General to ensure that the corruption that has been endemic in FIFA for so long is properly investigated in this jurisdiction. It is perfectly clear that it can and should be investigated here, not least because some of the allegations made in the 161-page indictment filed by the United States Department of Justice make it clear that some of the corrupt behaviour probably took place here or in places where we could take action here. If we have dropped the ball, it seems that others, in particular the SFO, have dropped the ball regarding investigations and potential prosecutions. That must be remedied and the Minister must describe precisely what is happening.
I know that the Minister feels passionately and strongly about this issue and that she is doing a good job behind the scenes. I want to hear how she is diverting the relevant rivers to cleanse the Augean stables of corruption that has grown up around FIFA in Switzerland. I look forward to her response.
Sorry, I was looking at the wrong clock. Anyway, I will do it in six minutes and we can call it “Fergie time”.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. I congratulate the Minister on her promotion. Having neighbouring offices, I know of her love of football and I am sure that she will do a fantastic job. It is nice to hear her being supported by many of her colleagues here today, who may now be known as the “Crouchettes”, but we will see.
Football has been called the people’s game. What we have seen over the past few weeks has been a scandal and an insult to the interest and love of the game held by many of us at all levels, from “jumpers for goalposts” to non-league football, which I follow, and right through the game. Much of what I was going to say today has already been said, but I want to echo some of the points made. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins) on securing this debate and on the work that he has done. He has been talking about the issue for some time—as has been said, when nobody else was talking about it, or indeed listening, he was. He pursued the issue and has been proved right.
England is the birthplace of the game. We have hosted only one World cup. It was held long before the present Sports Minister was born and not long after I was born, but it was a long time ago. Although not a FIFA event, I remember fondly England’s hosting of the European football championship in 1996, and what it did for and how it energised the country. Some of the football may not have been particularly good, but the tournament inspired the nation. Those of us who are old enough still remember the 4-1 victory over Holland as one of the best England performances for some time. Why is it that the birthplace of the sport has hosted only two tournaments? We have bid for tournaments. We bid for the 2006 World cup and lost out to the German bid. We have discussed the bidding process for the World cups that have gone to Russia and Qatar. We were unsuccessful for 2018, even though we had a technically excellent bid that used grounds around the country, which would have taken the game back to the people. Football was coming home. In fact, it would have come to Home Park in Plymouth, which was one of the proposed grounds. That prompts the question: why have we been so unsuccessful? The problem is FIFA.
I was going to be circumspect in my comments even though we have parliamentary privilege, but, having heard what has been said, I might not be. Our face did not fit, and I would venture to say that our pounds did not fit in the right wallets. Palms needed to be greased, but we would not do that because we play an honourable game in this country. I am told that for the 2018 bid, the FA spent about £19 million. Why did FIFA allow that to happen when, with hindsight, it was patently obvious that we would never get the votes?
I completely agree with that excellent idea. I am sure that the FA could make good use of £19 million. If it were to get that money, I would urge it to put into the grassroots and let the people benefit from it.
FIFA allowed the FA to go down that road and spend all that money. People say that we will never win the Eurovision song contest again because we are not very popular in Europe. Without wishing to denigrate that contest, I would say that this is a lot more important. I am not sure that I subscribe to Bill Shankly’s view that football is more important than life and death, but it does run through the DNA of this nation. It is a tragedy that we have not held more tournaments and that is because of FIFA.
We have heard a lot about what FIFA has done and I will not beat about the bush: FIFA is bent and corrupt and it has been for a long time. My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Stephen Phillips) called it a “Sepp-pit”, but I would prefer to call it a “Sepp-tic tank”, because since Mr Blatter has been in place, anyone who has opposed him or given alternative views on what he is like in one way or another has been sidelined and prejudiced against. I think that that is what has happened to us.
I understand that the FA questioned Mr Blatter’s re-election in 2011 and it supported the opposing candidate in the recent election, so the FA has been strong on this matter, but it cannot do it alone. Therefore, as a Government we need to look to help and play our part by asking other Governments across the world to speak to their federations. We cannot let this insult to a game loved by people at all levels go on. The International Olympic Committee went through a cathartic process a few years ago and FIFA must do the same.
On how we go forward, my hon. Friend the Member for Hereford and South Herefordshire (Jesse Norman) suggested that 2018 should be a pan-European World cup. I am quite attracted to the idea of spreading the competition around Europe and then we could look at what to do with Qatar. Mr Blatter, by being allowed to remain in place until December, is being given time to bury the bodies and cover it all up. Quite frankly, he must be out and dealt with straightaway. We need to get on top of this because we are fiddling while Rome burns, and the game that I and colleagues love will burn with it.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate. I thank the hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins) for calling for it and for his work in this area. I made my maiden speech just a couple of days ago, so I am still learning the ropes and I hope that Members will be kind.
I welcome the Minister to her position. I share her passion for grassroots football. I played football as a young girl growing up in Livingston, and I went on to play for the University of Stirling. A couple of my contemporaries in that team are now in the Scotland women’s team.
As we debate these issues, it is important to note that the FIFA women’s World cup is taking place in Canada. I note with some concern that Sepp Blatter plans to attend that tournament, so I ask the Minister and other Members to join me in calling for him not to attend. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!”] It is important that we send a strong message. As other Members have said, he should stand down from his position immediately. His attendance would send the wrong message and further besmirch the game and FIFA’s name.
It is important to note the work done here, but does the Minister think that this is an opportune time to look at the game across the United Kingdom? In Livingston I worked for a team behind the bar and at the reception, which funded me throughout my time at university. That grassroots club developed a number of players who are now in the Scotland team, but sadly it has been fraught with difficulty because of poor management. Other clubs in Scotland and across the UK, such as Rangers, have had similar financial difficulties.
We do not have the right checks and balances in our home game to ensure that the people who buy football clubs are right and proper. Therefore, while we have issues with FIFA, we should also look at examples of clubs in our country where things have gone wrong, because we are all very fond of football. It plays such an important part in life across the United Kingdom, so we should look at lessons to learn at home as well as in FIFA.
We need to support Greg Dyke’s comments about whether we will pull out, but we also need to go further and say that we will not support the next two World cups, given the circumstances in which their votes took place. I agree with Members who said that we should carefully consider whether we support those tournaments. We will have to stand united on that.
I thank the hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe again for holding the debate. In Scotland, we have had a number of fantastic sporting events in recent years, including the Commonwealth games, which came in under budget and has been an important part of Scotland’s sporting traditions. We should look to that for lessons to learn and I call on the Minister to engage with the Scottish Government, SportScotland and the other bodies that were involved and take those lessons to FIFA as good examples of how sporting events have been and can be run.
It is a pleasure to take part in this debate under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. I congratulate the hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins) not only on securing the debate but on his continued and tenacious pursuit of FIFA and Mr Blatter in particular. He has been a doughty campaigner and I commend him for it.
I also take the opportunity to welcome the Minister to her post. It is an unfortunate task for me to oppose her, because she is probably one of the most liked people in the House. I feel like a pantomime villain here—I will probably get attacked by my own side if I am horrible to her. I am genuinely pleased to see her in her place, because she will be good news for sport. I am sure she will do a very good job and I wish her every success in trying to convince her colleagues, some of whom have not always had sport in their DNA as she has, that we should give sport a much higher profile.
I congratulate those who have been campaigning for a long time and shining a light on the corruption in FIFA, such as the BBC’s “Panorama” programme and the journalist Andrew Jennings. They are now being proved right. Their work was dismissed by some as conspiracy theories, but for many of those people it is now coming home to roost.
The problem started in 1974 when João Havelange defeated Sir Stanley Rous as FIFA president. Havelange was a visionary who could see the power of football as an international force, but unfortunately he also saw it as an opportunity for corruption and bribery and to make money, rather than as the force for good that we know it is. Across the world it can promote peace, understanding and sporting endeavour, which we all highly value and respect. As the hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe pointed out, Havelange created his own Frankenstein’s monster: Sepp Blatter is very much Havelange’s placeman. I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman that we must not allow Blatter to do as Havelange did, and get his own gravedigger in to bury the bodies and make sure that they stay well and truly buried. We need to shine a light on the corruption in FIFA.
I commend all Members who have taken part in the debate for their contributions: my hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans), the hon. Members for Strangford (Jim Shannon), for Beverley and Holderness (Graham Stuart), for Hereford and South Herefordshire (Jesse Norman), for High Peak (Andrew Bingham) and for Livingston (Hannah Bardell), and the hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Stephen Phillips). We all agree that something needs to be done about FIFA, but although we all agree—many people across the globe agree with us, as well—what is lacking is a set of criteria that we can coalesce around to take the situation forward, so I have had a stab at a 12-point plan that people should campaign for to really reform FIFA.
We need FIFA to make a statement that it will open up its financial procedures and structures to independent international audit, and publish the pay grades and expenses of all senior staff and members of its executive and congress. It should write strong anti-corruption statements into all its contracts of employment and its terms of engagement for all executive and congress members. It should set out in a mission statement its goals to expand football across the globe, and then set out how it will measure its success against the goals in that mission statement. It should redistribute its resources to increase participation and improve facilities, in partnership with national, regional and local Governments, to develop the game at the grassroots.
I agree with the points the hon. Gentleman is making. Does he agree that it is vital that there is disclosure of the commercial and financial interests of not only the members of the executive committee but their immediate family members, so that we can rid the game of the scandal of people awarding contracts to those in their own close circle for their own benefit?
Absolutely. Mr Warner and Mr Platini are two examples of where the need for that wider scope of scrutiny is recognised. At least we have begun the discussion by trying to define what we should be looking to achieve.
FIFA should also make a commitment to set up a sub-committee of the executive to oversee the development of the game, scrutinise the distribution of funds and monitor performance against its criteria for the game’s development. Recognising football’s extremely powerful position in the sporting family, FIFA should commit itself to working with other sports to promote the general wellbeing of people across the globe through sporting activity and healthy lifestyles.
FIFA should recognise the power of football to promote peace and understanding across the globe and ensure that human rights concerns are considered as part of the bidding process for all major competitions, set up decision-making structures for all bids and allocations of resources to meet the highest standards of probity and accountability, and adopt stringent anti-corruption procedures. It should also challenge gender, racial, religious and homophobic discrimination, and strive to connect with football fans and to open itself up to public scrutiny by using new technology to communicate regularly with fans and others in the wider football family. If we set out the criteria for how FIFA needs to change rather than simply talking about that change in general terms, we will have more chance of success.
The situation is an absolute farce. The hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe read out the list of indictments against several FIFA members. Six people have had Interpol red notices issued against them; two are still on the run and no one knows where they are. No one has yet mentioned the film—talk about descending into farce. The idea that FIFA would fund its own film to write its history would stagger anyone, but that has actually happened.
It is inconceivable, and that is why it is extraordinary that Blatter is still in place. I am not relaxed about the fact that he is going to remain there until 16 December. He should have gone when he resigned. His desk should have been cleared and he should have been escorted from the building. That is what would happen if anyone in any other circumstances were found to have been associated with this sort of corruption, whether proven or not—they would not be given the chance to stay in their post, clear up the mess and cover up their misdemeanours. That would not happen in any other organisation, so I do not see why we should accept it when it comes to FIFA.
Members have commented on the 2018 and 2022 World cups. I do not think we should attempt to host the 2018 World cup. It would be an afterthought, and holding the world’s premier major tournament requires a great deal of long-term planning. We should be looking at a future bid, perhaps for 2026 or 2030. We certainly should not be a stopgap, as we would not make the most of hosting the World cup that way. The 2022 World cup, currently to be held in Qatar, would not come to Europe; Australia or the USA will bid for that.
The small ingenuity of my proposal to run the 2018 tournament across Europe is that the burden would fall evenly and so could be managed quickly. Also, we would not be in the driving seat arguing our own case but would be arguing for a pan-European solution.
That may be what happens, but it may be too late to unpick all the contracts for the 2018 World cup.
I also want to mention human rights. If there is any reason we should not go ahead with the World cup in 2022 it is the human rights issue. I have said this on several occasions and will do so again: the idea of multimillionaire footballers running around in stadiums built by people working in virtual slave labour conditions, so many of whom have died—more people than will take part in the tournament—is one that I find abhorrent. I cannot support it. That issue alone calls into question the decision to go ahead with the 2022 World cup.
In yesterday’s Guardian, the SFO said it is actively investigating FIFA. Will the Minister shed some light on exactly what it is investigating and when we can expect to hear anything? Bearing in mind that the US attorney’s indictments go back to 1991, what discussions has the Minister had with the FA about any misdemeanours that it may have committed in a previous guise? I commend our FA for having been innocents abroad in our bid for the 2018 World cup; the fact that we got only one vote other than our own suggests that we were very innocent, but we need to go back to 1991 and look at what the FA was up to back then to ensure that no one was involved in the early days of the corruption that has beset FIFA. Will she also give us a reassurance that at no stage has any money from UK broadcasters been used in any way to pay or facilitate bribes to any members of FIFA, or to members of FIFA members’ families, for that matter?
I am sure we will return to this issue. It is one on which we can all work together, as we have a common cause in cleaning up FIFA.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins) on securing this important and timely debate. I am aware of his tireless campaign for FIFA reform over a number of years and commend him for his work in founding New FIFA Now. That initiative was not a reaction to the events that have unfolded over the past couple of weeks but was launched many months ago, underlining the fact that this issue has long needed to be tackled. The phrase “new FIFA now” pretty much sums up what is needed; that has been the key message to come out of recent events and today’s debate.
This is my first Westminster Hall debate as Minister with responsibility for sport, and it is sad that it relates to a matter that has brought the game’s reputation into question. The debate was secured before the announcement that Sepp Blatter was stepping down as president of FIFA. As has been demonstrated, it has been an important debate and one that we needed to have. Before I respond in detail to some of the issues raised, I congratulate all colleagues who have participated.
It was unfair of the hon. Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) to say I was never nice to him; I am always nice to him. He spoke passionately, which demonstrates how important this crisis is. I completely agree that its impact is not necessarily limited to the institution itself; it affects the future of the grassroots game. That theme was briefly picked up by my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Damian Green). Having worked for him, I know he is also incredibly passionate about football. He put five challenges to the Government, and I will deal with some of them later, because others raised them, too. However, I want to refer now to his questions about gambling, which I am also responsible for in the Department. On the risks emanating from increased gambling linked to football and sport, I am confident that the UK has robust systems and processes in place. All the key stakeholders—the Gambling Commission, sport, betting operators and law enforcement— work together in the Sports Betting Integrity Forum to identify and address such issues. I hope that answers my right hon. Friend’s question. I will return to the other issues he raised.
I thoroughly enjoyed my visit to the girls’ team in the constituency of the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). Having spoken to its members, I know they are absolutely passionate about the game and determined to improve and grow it in Northern Ireland, which is still a little behind where we are in England. I could see the determination of those I met to ensure that everybody has access to the sport, and I commend the hon. Gentleman on the work he has been doing to develop the game in his constituency.
My hon. Friend the Member for Beverley and Holderness (Graham Stuart) rightly referred to trust in the game, and I will refer later to that and to the other issues he raised. Along with my hon. Friend the Member for Hereford and South Herefordshire (Jesse Norman), he mentioned the publication of the Garcia report. The Secretary of State and I are of the view, as we were in our previous life on the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, that the report should be published in full.
I am still working out what all my powers are, to be perfectly honest, but if I do have that power, I would love to see the report.
As an Arsenal fan, I am glad that my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Stephen Phillips) managed to recover in time to make such an excellent speech. It included some really brilliant points, which I will deal with in detail. My hon. Friend the Member for High Peak (Andrew Bingham) is a huge sports fan, and hon. Members will definitely want him on their quiz team.
It might be helpful, following on from the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Hereford and South Herefordshire (Jesse Norman), to say that the Serious Fraud Office could, I believe, ask the Swiss authorities for a copy of the Garcia report, to see whether the SFO has grounds to assist them in their investigation.
I will deal in some detail with the issues relating to the Serious Fraud Office.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Livingston (Hannah Bardell) on her electoral success, and I welcome her to Westminster. I am glad to hear of her football past; perhaps she can help me lobby the FA to make sure the parliamentary team is a mixed-gender team. I was previously banned from it, so it would be nice to have other women involved in that campaign. She made some interesting comments about Mr Blatter’s attendance at the women’s World cup. I should perhaps not comment on whether he should attend, but given his previous opinions on women’s football, I can say that although he may be going, I doubt he will be welcome.
To respond to the hon. Member for Eltham (Clive Efford), I will try not to be nice for too long, so that he can resume normal service. His 12-point plan raised some good issues. This is a cross-party issue—there is not much partisan debate about FIFA—and I am sure many of us would like to see some of his points implemented. The Government are looking into the issues relating to broadcasting and migrant workers. My hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe, too, raised the issue of migrant workers, and the Foreign Office is working closely on it with other Governments.
The allegations levelled at FIFA—the custodians of the game—and reported in recent weeks, months, and indeed years, are deeply disturbing. As Members will know, investigations into FIFA by Swiss and US authorities are ongoing. I cannot comment on the investigations or prejudge the outcomes, but I can reassure Members, many of whom mentioned the SFO, that it is actively reviewing material relating to the allegations, although it is not possible for me to go into detail.
The Bribery Act 2010 can apply only to conduct committed on or after 1 July 2011—after the FIFA bidding process was complete. In addition, the SFO has the power only to investigate cases of suspected serious or complex fraud falling within this country’s criminal jurisdiction. However, I am sure officials heard the comments about the Garcia report and are looking into the issue in more detail.
Until the current investigations have concluded I will not be drawn on whether Russia and Qatar should continue to host the 2018 and 2022 World cups . However, colleagues will have seen that the FA’s chief executive, Martin Glenn, has stated that the FA has no interest in staging either of those World cups, and its focus, along with UEFA’s, is on ensuring there is much-needed reform at FIFA. The Government fully support that view. Colleagues will also have heard my hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe say that Jérôme Valcke has announced that the bidding process for 2026 has been suspended, although it is not clear why at the moment.
I join colleagues in welcoming the work done by The Sunday Times Insight team and BBC’s “Panorama” to bring to light many of the accusations we have heard about. Those have received so much media coverage because of our proud heritage of a free press and investigative journalism, and because people in the UK feel so passionately about football. That is why we all want a fair and transparent process for future tournaments. We will find out soon enough whether corruption is proven to have taken place at the highest levels of FIFA, but it is fair to say that trust in the organisation has been lost, and whenever trust is lost, it is very difficult to win back. That is why we cannot rest on our laurels. We must make sure that proper reform takes place. Colleagues have said that although Sepp Blatter’s resignation is a welcome and positive step, it is unacceptable that it is taking so long for him to stand down. It has been reported this morning that his successor’s election is likely to take place in December.
The hon. Member for Islwyn mentioned FIFA taking a fresh approach that could see it learn lessons from Salt Lake City, and I completely agree. FIFA should look to draw experience from some of the many successful international sporting federations. It would also be possible to take the recruitment process away from sport entirely and to seek to recruit from within a successful business.
In the short time left, I want to respond to colleagues’ comments about what I can do as a Minister and what I am trying to do with my European counterparts. On 28 May, I wrote to them, setting out my concern about recent developments and seeking their support in pressing for reform at FIFA. I hope to get FIFA on the agenda for the forthcoming EU Sports Ministers’ meeting in Luxembourg in July. Officials are discussing that with the appropriate people in Luxembourg. My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham mentioned a potential discussion with Commonwealth colleagues, and I will shortly seek a meeting with the Commonwealth secretary-general to discuss a range of sporting matters, including how we can help to promote good governance in sport across the Commonwealth.
The allegations against FIFA have brought the game into disrepute. I do not think football’s reputation has ever been so bad. It is for us to ensure that proper reform takes place, and that we end up with a fully open and transparent FIFA. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe on all the work he is doing to try to ensure that that happens.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the UK’s relationship with FIFA.
St Ives First School
I beg to move,
That this House has considered plans by St Ives First School to become a primary school.
My constituents are fortunate in being able to choose from some of the best schools in the country—primary and secondary in the southern part of the constituency and first, middle and secondary in the northern part. They also benefited from the previous Government’s emphasis on driving up standards while promoting parental choice—policies for which the Minister deserves much credit, and which I am delighted he is taking forward in his new post in the new real Conservative Government.
Today’s debate centres on St Ives First School, a one-form entry first school, with a reception class, situated on the Dorset side of the Dorset-Hampshire border. It is rated outstanding by Ofsted, and has been for seven years. As a recognised national teaching school, it provides school-to-school support to other schools that seek improvement. Its head teacher, Mrs Laura Crossley, who has come to Westminster for today’s debate, is also an accredited national leader of education.
On 24 September last year, the Secretary of State agreed in principle to St Ives becoming an academy, and it has now been confirmed that the school will be a leading member of a multi-academy trust with five other schools, with effect from 2 November this year. For some time St Ives has suffered from turbulence and instability, because although it is geographically in Dorset, the nearest secondary school is about 1 mile away in Ringwood, Hampshire. Because Hampshire has a two-tier system, parents with pupils at St Ives have often opted to move into the Hampshire system early, to secure a Hampshire primary school place from which a transfer could be made to the Ringwood academy at the age of 11. Indeed, there are currently 141 children from the St Ives catchment area in years 7 to 11 at Ringwood academy. That shows how parents have been voting with their feet in recent years.
Prior to the new flexibilities introduced by the previous Government, the school could do nothing about that problem, but last year the governors decided to increase the age range, so that St Ives would become a primary school whose pupils could transfer directly into secondary education at age 11. After initial consultation going back to the autumn, a full proposal document was put forward to all relevant stakeholders on 24 February. I submitted a letter of support referring to the fact that 98% of the parents supported the proposed changes, which would also increase parental choice. A public meeting was held at the school during the four-week consultation period. Dorset County Council attended in the person of the cabinet member responsible for those issues, who did not say anything specific at the time. However, on the last day for written responses the county council put in its objection.
The governing body looked carefully at the results of the consultation and decided unanimously on 16 April, as it had the power to do, to increase the age range by one year in September 2015 and by a further year in September 2016. That reflected the finding that the parents of 19 out of the 23 pupils currently in year 4 would prefer their children to stay on at St Ives in September than to transfer to a Dorset middle school or a Hampshire primary. The St Ives governors recognised that that would mean that some children—perhaps as many as seven—who would normally have transferred to West Moors Middle School would no longer do so.
The local authority had suggested, wrongly, that 18 children were due to transfer from St Ives to West Moors Middle this September. The school’s records show that there are only 11 in that category. Two are going to West Moors Middle in any event and four have accepted places in Hampshire should St Ives not become a primary school. That means that if St Ives were to have its extra form from September, five children would no longer go to West Moors Middle School.
From the local education authority’s objection, one would think that the sky will fall in as a result. It talks about a middle school in Dorset having to close and about tens of millions of pounds of extra expenditure, and so on. That is complete hyperbole and an indication of how out of touch the education authority is with things on the ground. Indeed, we are now told that West Moors Middle School will be oversubscribed this coming September; parents of pupils who still show allegiance to St Ives are being warned that if they do not do something now, it will be too late for them to get into West Moors Middle in any event.
What was the response of the county council to the decision of 16 April? To begin with, the education authority tried to find fault with the proposed accommodation, site security, financial planning and the impact on the pre-school. It even threatened to issue a notice to improve. That led to a meeting at the school on 12 May when most of the grounds of objection were shown to be without foundation. Most fundamentally, the local education authority had to accept that St Ives was constructed as a primary school and operated as one until the county boundaries changed in 1974. It is also a strong school financially.
On 18 May, Mr Minns, head of learning and inclusion at Dorset, wrote to the chairman of the governors concluding that, following the discussion of the local authority’s concerns about the school’s management of the process to convert from a first to a primary school, those concerns had been satisfactorily addressed. That was subject to three caveats, one of which was to ask a local authority officer to
“undertake a new assessment of the space in potential readiness for September 2016”.
That was an implicit acceptance that the year 5 accommodation for September 2015 was readily available, as indeed it is. Understandably, the school believed that the education authority was, albeit reluctantly, accepting the decision, particularly when the 28-day period for objection laid down in the school organisation guidance for maintained schools expired. At page 10, the statutory process guidelines say that
“Any appeal to the adjudicator”—
in this case, the Secretary of State—
“must be made within 4 weeks of the decision.”
The Dorset County Council cabinet considered that issue on 8 April and concluded:
“The local authority will retain its right to refer to the Secretary of State should the decision by the Governing Body of St Ives First School, after consultation, not address the concerns raised by the local authority”.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for securing the debate. I, of course, accept the principle and benefits of parental choice, but does he agree that the St Ives proposal should be properly co-ordinated and consulted on, as he was outlining, so that neighbouring schools that are affected, such as St Michael’s in Colehill, can make the necessary consequential arrangements in a timely fashion?
I congratulate my hon. Friend on being elected. He is absolutely right: we obviously need to have proper consultation, and that is exactly what happened. I have a letter dated 20 March from the head of Allenbourn Middle School, on behalf of the Dorset Association of Middle Schools, thanking the governing body of St Ives for ensuring that an effective consultation process took place within an appropriate time span and providing all stakeholders with the opportunity to express their views. Therefore, there was a full consultation, despite the county council’s reluctance to provide the pupil number data, for which the school had been asking for many months. The school was eventually able to obtain them only through a freedom of information request. There has been good co-operation with other schools, but I fear that the breakdown has been with the local education authority itself.
After the four weeks expired, people thought the local authority would have to go along, however reluctantly, with the proposal. On 5 May, I wrote to the leader of the council, Robert Gould, attaching a letter from a parent of a pupil at St Ives that was typical of many others I received. I drew attention to the Conservative principle of promoting choice in education, and I reminded him of our Conservative manifesto, which states:
“We believe that parents and teachers should be empowered to run their schools independently.”
It also states:
“We will continue to allow all good schools to expand, whether they are maintained schools, academies, free schools or grammar schools.”
Indeed, St Ives wishes to expand by increasing its age range.
After referring to the enthusiasm of the parents, governors and staff at St Ives about the introduction of a new year group from September, I sought the assurance of the leader of the council that the education authority would not seek to restrict the ambition of the school to extend educational opportunity further. In his response, the leader of the council referred to the lack of physical space for extra classes and raised questions about future finances. However, he said:
“Officers at the Council are keen to keep open discussions with the School”.
The meeting at the school on 12 May, to which I have referred, flowed from that, and I followed up the matter with the council leader with a further email on that date. Having heard nothing further, on 26 May I asked what was happening, repeating my earlier suggestion that it would be better to have a meeting to discuss things than to engage in an adversarial situation.
On 27 May, the council leader wrote to me expressing his continuing concerns. He relied on a note from somebody called Jackie Groves. The content of that note was in stark contrast with the letter from Mr Minns. I was going to refer to its inflammatory remarks about the quality of education at Ringwood School, the criticism of St Ives school governors and the school authorities for being
“extremely difficult to work with and reticent to provide information”.
Fortunately, Mr Minns confirmed this morning in an email to Mrs Crossley, the head, that the document was merely an internal memo and did not represent the official view of the authority. However, that is the document on which the leader of the council was relying when he objected to the proposal.
On 27 May, a letter was sent to the Secretary of State objecting to the proposal, but it did not arrive with the Secretary of State until 3 June. A second letter of objection was issued a couple of days later. Those letters of objection raise fundamental issues relating to the ability of a school such as St Ives to increase its age range. They ask for the Secretary of State effectively to go back on the “School organisation (maintained schools)” guidance.
I hope the Secretary of State will make a quick decision on this matter. The quickest decision would be to say that the objection is out of time, which would enable the school to get on with planning for the future. It would also enable other middle schools that might be implicated to make decisions as well. We are now in the second half of the summer term, and a new school year is starting in September. The education authority has said it is concerned about the implications for everybody else, but it has been dragging its feet over the whole issue.
If the Secretary of State is not prepared to reject the objection on the grounds that it is out of time, I hope she will make a decision quickly on its merits and conclude that the county council’s case is unfounded in fact, is contradictory within itself and would run counter to all the new Government’s principles relating to expanding choice in education and ensuring that good schools—in this case, an outstanding school—are able to expand, where that is the will of the parents and governors.
The proposal enjoys the support of 98% of the parents of pupils at St Ives school. I hope the Minister will help them to have a happy weekend by giving them some warm words of encouragement.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship in this new Parliament, Mr Streeter. This is the first Westminster Hall debate I have had the pleasure of responding to. It is an important debate. I should begin by explaining, as my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) mentioned, that the Secretary of State received a formal request from the director of children’s services at Dorset County Council to use her intervention powers in this case, under section 496 of the Education Act 1996. I will therefore have to be a little circumspect in my response to ensure I do not cut across her decision.
I am particularly grateful to my hon. Friend for his supportive opening remarks. He is right to point out the last Government’s success in raising academic standards in our schools. Some 100,000 six-year-olds are reading better today than they would have done but for our reforms, and there has been a 70% increase in the number of students taking the core academic GCSEs that are so important for widening opportunities in later life. I welcome my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Michael Tomlinson) to his place. He is clearly keenly interested in issues of education, which are vital to our country.
My hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch has taken a keen interest in this proposal. In the previous Parliament, the Department for Education brought into force a package of new legislation and guidance for maintained schools and academies that want to make changes to their size and characteristics. A national consultation broadly welcomed the Department’s proposals, which introduced a simpler, less bureaucratic process for schools seeking to make certain organisational changes—for example, expanding their premises or altering their age range by up to two years—without following the full statutory process.
The changes delivered two important objectives. First, they gave more autonomy to maintained schools by enabling them to propose their own changes, without having to look to local authorities to make changes on their behalf. Secondly, they allowed new school places to be created quickly in response to local demand.
St Ives First School published a proposal to become a full primary school for pupils aged four to 11 in February 2015, and on 16 April 2015, following a period of consultation, it announced its decision to become a primary school from September 2015. As my hon. Friend said, that change will involve the school extending its upper age range by two years, which will mean that its year 4 pupils will remain in the school, if they wish to do so, for years 5 and 6.
The governing body of St Ives First School stated that its main reason for proposing the change was to increase parental choice and respond to the wishes of the vast majority of the parents and carers whose children currently attend the school. As an outstanding school, St Ives is clearly popular. The school, which sits on the border between Dorset and Hampshire, also claims that many parents would not wish their nine-year-old children to travel to a middle school in Dorset if they could remain at St Ives First School until they were old enough to attend a secondary school in Hampshire. The school serves broad communities with diverse needs, and proposals for organisational changes to schools’ characteristics are often met with different responses from different parts of the community.
On one hand, St Ives First School is exercising its autonomy to make a change that it believes will benefit pupils and parents, and parents seem to agree. On the other hand, there may be wider concerns about ensuring an appropriate supply of school places throughout the local authority area. Value for money is clearly an important consideration, as is the need to plan change in a way that avoids impacting negatively on children’s education—a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole.
We are aware that Dorset County Council has voiced concerns about the impact that St Ives’ proposed change might have on the wider system. The local authority believes that the changes proposed by the school will place it under significant organisational and financial pressure. It also believes that there is a need to operate a co-ordinated system in which children progress through its family of schools at the same time, and does not want to run a mixed economy. West Moors Middle School, the closer of two middle schools in the area, has expressed its fears for its future viability. The school believes that the change at St Ives may result in fewer children taking up places at the school, leading to financial pressures for the school.
It may be helpful if I describe the process that maintained schools must go through to effect a change of age range. Under the regulations that came into force in January 2014, this particular category of change is not subject to a statutory process. The governing body of a school is responsible for making a decision on its proposals and implementing them. The Department for Education has no role in the decision-making process, although it does ensure that certain requirements are met through its statutory guidance.
Before making any changes, governing bodies have to ensure that they have engaged in effective consultation, secured the capital funding, identified suitable accommodation and sites, and secured planning permission. They must have the consent of the site trustees—or the landowners when the land is not owned by the governing body—and of the relevant religious authorities in the case of faith schools. The admissions authority has to be content for the published admissions number to be changed, when that forms part of expansion plans.
Although governing bodies are no longer required to follow a statutory process for such changes, they are nevertheless required to adhere to the usual principles of public law: they must act rationally, take into account all relevant considerations and follow a fair procedure. The Department expects that, in making organisational changes, governing bodies will liaise with the local authority and the trustees to ensure that, where possible, a proposal is aligned with wider place planning arrangements, and that any necessary consent has been gained.
The Government are champions of school autonomy and will continue to support good and outstanding schools that seek to grow and expand to offer more choice to parents, which is why 1 million more children are in good or outstanding schools today than in 2010. However, we also expect that where change is proposed, it is planned carefully and ensures the minimum disruption to pupils’ education.
As I explained, the decision taken by St Ives First School is not subject to a statutory process. The Department has no direct role in the process. The decision was made as the result of a local process that officials and Ministers have no power to influence or prejudice. Additionally, the Department does not prescribe the process by which a school carries out its decision-making function, but decision makers must have regard to the principles of public law.
Would the Minister extend some of his words of wisdom and advice to education authorities? He has put the emphasis on schools that are coming forward with these proposals, but would he emphasise that there is a need for the education authorities to engage constructively and in a timely fashion so that, as far as possible, such issues can be resolved by consensus, rather than in the adversarial way in which this application has been dealt with?
My hon. Friend raises an important point. Local authorities have to take into account the wider impact of such proposals on schools, but they should not refuse the local discretion of a school’s governing body to expand if that school has conducted a proper consultation and believes that the expansion will have a beneficial effect on educational standards. I do not want to make any further comments on this proposal, because the Secretary of State has to conduct a section 496 determination.
May I come back on one other aspect of what the Minister said? He referred to West Moors Middle School having raised an objection, but as I pointed out, that school is over-subscribed for the coming year, which reflects the fact that it is improving. Its latest Ofsted inspection resulted in a change of status from being in need of improvement to being a good school, which has added confidence. The consequence of St Ives First School’s decision is that people who have children there would still be able to opt into the middle school system in Dorset if they wanted to. The decision is not closing down choices and options, but expanding them.
My hon. Friend makes a compelling case on behalf of his constituents and St Ives First School. I will ensure that the Secretary of State and officials see the transcript of this debate before they reach a decision on the section 496 determination. One issue that will be taken into account is any delay by the local authority in deciding whether it is appropriate to intervene in these circumstances. All those matters will be taken into account.
My hon. Friend makes a good point. The letter from Dorset County Council was dated 4 June. I think that we received it on 9 June, and we will ensure that the Secretary of State responds as soon as possible. It is unfortunate that these matters have dragged on for so long, creating an element of uncertainty for pupils and parents at that school and surrounding ones.
Question put and agreed to.
[Hywel Williams in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the closure of Carcraft.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Williams. I must begin by expressing my sympathy to all the employees and customers affected by the sudden closure of Carcraft last month. I congratulate the hon. Members who have turned up for the debate. I urge the House to take notice of the recent closure of the car dealer Carcraft, which was headquartered in Castleton, in my constituency.
Carcraft fell into administration in late April, leaving 474 people unemployed. This is the first time in the new Parliament that such a topic has been debated, and I hope that we will see some improvements in this field before such a debate is needed again. I would like to stand before you, Mr Williams, and say that the economy in the north-west is as strong and resilient as the people who live there, but that has not been the case for some time. Although the Minister may talk about an economic recovery and a long-term economic plan, there has been little evidence of them in my constituency of Heywood and Middleton—or, indeed, in the wider borough of Rochdale.
During the calendar year of 2014, unemployment in Heywood and Middleton stood at 8.1%, higher than both the regional and the national averages. More than three quarters of jobs in my constituency fall into the service sector, and almost one in six jobs is in wholesale and retail, including the motor trades. That means that the loss of an employer such as Carcraft has a large impact on the economy of both my constituency and neighbouring ones from which employees commute. In fact, with a generally low-wage economy and a shortage of new job vacancies to be filled, the loss of a business with a 60-plus year history in the area, such as Carcraft, could for some be catastrophic.
Carcraft was started in Rochdale in 1951 by Frank McKee, as a sole trader, and it became a registered company in 1964. It was later sold to his sons, backed by the Royal Bank of Scotland’s development capital arm, and was valued at that time at £50 million. The constituent companies of Carcraft were the UK’s seventh largest retailer of second-hand cars. They had an annual turnover of £120 million and were selling 225 vehicles a week. As well as the head office site in Castleton in my constituency, they traded from 10 other sites around the UK, and they were employing 474 staff when they entered administration.
In March last year, a management buy-out led to the resignation of the McKee family from the board of directors, leaving a Mr Robin Bridge as chief executive officer. Unfortunately, Mr Bridge resigned his post in September of the same year. Colin Houlihan was appointed chief executive officer and was still in that post when the company entered administration. Despite an annual turnover of £120 million, from 1 October 2011 until the end of April this year, Carcraft incurred losses of £26.9 million. As early as 2014, the directors reached the conclusion that the business was in difficulty. They are reported to believe that that is because their business has a poor reputation in a highly competitive marketplace. They also agreed that they held a high cost base, including significant rent costs, which they believed to be above market rate, a number of loan notes and an insolvent balance sheet.
It seems that Carcraft was known as a company that would give customers the hard sell, selling overpriced cars with additional extras that probably were not wanted in the first place. Indeed, there was a BBC exposé on its business practices, including having online prices that were not the same as those in the showrooms. It was well known to customers that they would not be allowed simply to take a leisurely look around the forecourt; there would always be an upselling salesperson around to apply pressure. That reputation, whether accurate or not, did not help the company in a crowded and competitive marketplace.
Something else that failed to help Carcraft was the lack of change in its business model in order to keep up with the marketplace. If I had wanted to buy a car when I started driving, I would have had to save what money I could and then buy a car within my budget. However, Carcraft was one of the original automotive companies that offered the opportunity to pay for a second-hand car in monthly instalments. Once customers were introduced to the idea of buying a car in that way, it was not long before they realised they could pay the same amount monthly to lease a brand-new car with 24/7 support. That change in the business model of the car market, combined with the issues above, made business increasingly unprofitable and difficult for Carcraft.
Another reason that the House should note for the failure of Carcraft is the amount of money that it had to set aside for payment protection insurance repayment claims. Given its reputation for the forceful selling of extra products, I think that we would agree that it is not hard to imagine customers being sold payment protection plans alongside their hire purchase agreements for vehicles. We are all aware that banks have had to set aside billions of pounds to compensate customers who were mis-sold PPI, and we know that PPI is the most complained-about financial product ever. Frequently, though, we forget that it was not just banks that mis-sold that insurance. Smaller businesses up and down the country were also involved in the practice.
I am most grateful to my hon. Friend for securing this debate on a matter that affects workers in my constituency who were employed at the business there. I am sorry that I cannot stay for the whole debate, Mr Williams. Can my hon. Friend say whether, to her knowledge—if she does not know, perhaps the Minister will be able to answer later—now that the company is in administration, any customers who might have PPI mis-selling claims to pursue will be able to continue with those allegations and to receive any compensation if that is due?
I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention. I hope that the Minister will be able to respond to that question. I am not sure whether PPI claims against this company will be able to be pursued.
I have no doubt that everyone in the Chamber has received unwanted calls, emails or texts from companies volunteering to help them to claim for PPI mis-selling. In my case—I am sure this also applies to others—that advice is for PPI that I have never actually taken out. However, the industry around PPI does demonstrate the numbers involved and the size of the marketplace for such claims. The House needs to note that more companies may end up involved in insolvency in the coming months and years because of PPI.
None of this is too surprising. Businesses, sadly, do not always succeed, and in every constituency companies large and small have gone into receivership. During the previous Parliament, 99,530 companies applied for insolvency. The things that concern me about the closure of Carcraft are the decisions taken by the directors, the timing and the lack of consultation with staff and customers. Given that the directors realised in late 2014 that the balance sheet was insolvent and Carcraft was moving towards engaging an administrator, I am surprised that it did not begin a consultation with its employees.
The Manchester Evening News has reported that staff were told only hours before the company entered administration. Staff have said that even after they raised concerns about the future of the company, management told them that everything was fine. Obviously, that was not the case, and staff had their fears confirmed when administrators arrived with redundancy letters for all of them. Even worse, at that point managers reportedly told staff that they had known for at least three months that that might happen. People had turned down opportunities to take jobs elsewhere because managers had assured them that their jobs were secure. Now those folk are left with no jobs, secure or otherwise.
I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate, which affects people in Enfield North and their work. I have found it very difficult to get any information from anybody—the administrators or the solicitors who seek to bring a group action—about the former employees, and I am concerned about what is happening to them. They were left high and dry and given no information by the company, and they will now need support to find employment. We cannot turn the clock back and bring the company back, but those former employees deserve some support. I have had difficulty finding out the number of people involved and what has happened since in order to be able to give them that support. Does my hon. Friend have any further information? I hope that the Minister will also address the matter.
I understand that the Carcraft outlets employed between 25 and 50 people, but I can get exact figures to my right hon. Friend after the debate. The major employment was in my constituency, where we have lost about 150 jobs. I will go on to talk about the support available, if she will bear with me. There is some support available for staff, but it is on a fairly impromptu basis.
My right hon. Friend referred to legal action. Some of the staff who have been displaced are consulting employment lawyers about bringing legal action against Carcraft. Although staff will receive their statutory redundancy payment, they will struggle to obtain notice pay and unpaid holiday pay. However, because that is now likely to form part of legal action, I do not intend to say any more on the matter at this stage.
When a business such as Carcraft enters administration, another important cost is that incurred by customers, who chose to spend their hard-earned money at Carcraft on vehicles or on packages—such as the “Drive Happy” guarantee—that included servicing, warranty, MOTs and roadside assistance. Customers who bought such packages now have to find those services elsewhere, and they are certainly not driving happy, especially if they were sold the packages only days before Carcraft announced that it was going into administration. Staff have confirmed that they sold vehicles and guarantee packages until the night before the administrators stopped trading.
I am troubled by the fact that Carcraft continued to sell goods in early 2015, despite knowing that administration was highly likely. Of course, it is illegal to continue to trade only after insolvency has been confirmed, but there is something unfair and slightly disreputable about a company that trades in the knowledge that it is highly unlikely to be able to provide the promised services. In the case of the “Drive Happy” package, 29,000 people across the country paid for services that they can no longer receive. Luckily, only a small number of customers bought cars and were unable to collect them, and the administrators have made arrangements with those customers.
Not everything in this situation has been negative. A number of organisations, formal and otherwise, have come to the aid of those most adversely affected by Carcraft’s entering administration.
As my right hon. Friend the Member for Enfield North (Joan Ryan) mentioned, it is important to talk about support for those who have lost their jobs. The devastating impact of the sudden loss of a job on family wellbeing cannot be underestimated. The administrators, along with ERA Solutions, which specialises in assistance on employee matters when a company goes into administration, have provided advice to employees and supported them in accessing help from local jobcentres. Rochdale Borough Council has been in touch with employees in my constituency who were directly affected, and other councils around the country have done similarly. Rochdale has given help and advice to those who wanted it on matters including how to apply for relevant benefits and support, and how to start up their own businesses should they wish to.
The industry has come together to attempt to offer support. The former CEO Robin Bridge, who is now a director of Vehicle Trading Group, quickly joined forces with Andy Coulthurst of Motors.co.uk to help employees of Carcraft. They have set up a Facebook group in which they encourage former employees to send CVs and ask companies whether there are jobs in the industry for those staff. As we might imagine, the response has been overwhelming. Several key members of the industry have provided support, and that is a promising example of a community coming together.
A further example of the industry helping to support its own members is the involvement of the Automotive Industry Charity, to which the administrators ensured employees had direct access. The organisation—once known as the Motor and Allied Trades Benevolent Fund, but now known simply as BEN—has informed those affected that it provides listening and advice services, and help with accessing support from the right organisations, through its helpline. BEN’s welfare and care services are available not only to anyone employed in the sector, but to their whole families. That takes its reach to an estimated 3.84 million people in the UK alone.
In the wake of the news about Carcraft’s going into administration, BEN was proactive in contacting the administrator, Grant Thornton, to make it aware of the services available to staff. Additionally, BEN was proactive in sharing contact information, website details and contact numbers on its social media and digital platforms. Although the details of contact made by employees are confidential, BEN has confirmed to me that it received a number of inquiries on the back of the Carcraft closure, in response to which details of the following services were provided.
Employment law and legal advice was provided, including details of the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service and civil legal advice. Advice was given on dealing with redundancy, including reference to Citizens Advice and the Money Advice Service and direction to online materials. Guidance was given on employee welfare rights and benefit entitlement through Citizens Advice and the jobcentre. Budgeting and debt advice was given through the Money Advice Service, Citizens Advice and StepChange. As it is challenging to talk about many of those issues in the work context, BEN supplemented the work undertaken by existing in-house or state-run benefits provisions. A spokesperson from BEN said:
“Given that many of the employees were only made aware of the situation when they arrived at work…a vast number will…be experiencing shock, stress, worry and an uncertain future. As yet, the full details of the circumstances and the long term future impact cannot be assessed.”
That stark fact cannot be ignored.
The sudden impact of job loss on an individual, their family and, ultimately, the community must be investigated so that people are not exposed to such difficult circumstances without prior warning. I urge the House to consider what the Government are doing to protect workers when an employer goes into administration. How do the Government plan to improve protections both for employees of companies facing insolvency and for customers of such businesses? Do the Government have any plans to legislate to improve workers’ rights in such situations? What can be done to ensure that the Insolvency Service amends the status of former employees to something other than preferential creditors?
It is also vital to ensure that, particularly in times of economic struggle, customers are given the maximum possible protections. What will the Government do to ensure that businesses with insolvent balance sheets or similar financial difficulties are more responsible in the selling of products and services that they may not be able to provide in subsequent weeks or months? The Minister will no doubt tell us all about the Government’s long-term economic plan and the number of jobs that have been created, but there is still a lot of concern about the nature of such jobs. Some 474 full-time jobs with a pension scheme and protections have been lost, and a high number of the jobs that may replace them will be part time, self-employed or on zero-hours contracts. All the talk of economic recovery is not reflected in the day-to-day lives of my constituents and, indeed, others across the country. We must use this opportunity to change that and improve the lives and livelihoods of the people of this country.
I look forward to the Minister’s response. I hope that, following this debate, I will be able to provide my affected constituents with some reassurance.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Heywood and Middleton (Liz McInnes) on not only securing this important debate but championing this issue locally and nationally. For those who are not aware, the constituencies of Rochdale and Heywood and Middleton are coterminous with Rochdale borough and, as she pointed out, Carcraft has existed in our constituencies since the 1950s, which is one reason for my speaking this afternoon. I declare an interest, because my wife worked at Carcraft’s headquarters when we first met a number of years ago—I thought it would be right and proper to put that on the record.
There is no doubt that the closure of Carcraft is a massive issue in Rochdale borough. I join my hon. Friend in saying that my thoughts go out to the staff who lost their jobs; it is a true tragedy for the reasons she outlined. The economic recovery remains fragile north of Manchester and in and around Rochdale, and the loss of so many jobs makes the situation much more difficult. It will not be easy for those who have lost their job to find alternative employment. Credit goes to the Government for many of the jobs that have been created, particularly in the private sector, but the situation is fragile. She is right to say that many of those jobs are temporary and, particularly in the area we represent, casual. It will be difficult for the former employees of Carcraft.
Carcraft was something of a local institution, and my hon. Friend gave a flavour of that. Some people loved Carcraft and some people loathed it. Most people have a story to tell about Carcraft. Some of those stories are good; some of those stories are not so good. We have to bear it in mind that, ultimately, the business sold used cars. That is an issue about which emotions run high, but some people clearly had an adverse experience when dealing with the company. Either way, Carcraft was generally seen as a positive for Rochdale borough. It created many jobs, and in some ways it helped to put Rochdale borough on the map. People were aware of Carcraft, and they travelled to it.
The McKee family established the business back in the 1950s, and the family have always made a big contribution locally—they regularly make a big contribution to charities locally—which is worth putting on record. I have met Noel McKee, one of the brothers who helped to run the business before it was sold, on a number of occasions, and one cannot help thinking that the business would not be in its current position if the family were still involved, and I do not say that lightly. The McKee family guided the business through many downturns in the economy over many decades. They guided the business through the last recession before the management buy-out. The McKee family seemed to have the business skills and ability to make the business work, and perhaps Carcraft would not be in its current situation if they were still involved.
I am pleased to hear that the Insolvency Service is involved in trying to establish what went on with Carcraft’s most recent management. I am also pleased that Rochdale Borough Council, as my hon. Friend said, has been doing what it can to assist those who lost their jobs, and to redirect customers to support and help, where required. I know from personal experience that it is not easy to close a business, particularly when it has been unsuccessful, but we need to examine the details. I hope the Minister will consider a number of my following points. Was the conduct of the directors involved right and proper? Were fair and proper practices followed? Was reasonable attention given to both employees and customers during the closure of the business? Carcraft was a major UK business that served thousands of customers. As my hon. Friend the Member for Heywood and Middleton pointed out, the sale of warranties, MOTs and financial services was exceptionally lucrative for the company; that was where it made a lot of its money. The business was not always about the sale of a car; it was about the sale of financial services. We have to ask questions about that. I am concerned that many customers may have been treated unfairly because of the directors’ decisions and actions.
Customers, employees and supplier businesses deserve answers. I am saddened that a business synonymous with Rochdale borough has closed. I am upset for the employees and customers who may have been treated so poorly, but I am hopeful that the Minister and her Government will help us to understand what went so terribly wrong with this business.
I am not sure that this issue would be on the agenda at all if it was not for my hon. Friend the Member for Heywood and Middleton (Liz McInnes) securing this debate, which is a matter of concern. I am keen to hear what the Minister, or her predecessor, knew of this situation. I was not here in the last Parliament, and we only got notice of this closure a week before the general election, so the timing is extremely difficult and it is very hard for anyone to be abreast of this situation.
This issue could have easily just disappeared, and yet we are talking about a big company and a lot of jobs. To echo what my hon. Friend the Member for Rochdale (Simon Danczuk) has said, on behalf of customers and employees of Carcraft, I am very concerned about the points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Heywood and Middleton about how long it was known that the company was in major financial difficulties, how little notice was given to employees and how little discussion there seems to have been with them. One would have expected the company to feel some smidgen of loyalty to these people; I am quite surprised at how cavalier it seems to have been. I might be harsh in saying that, and I am willing to be corrected, but on the face of it, and given the information we have received, it does not seem that I am being particularly harsh.
I hope that we will get a lot more information to take back to our constituencies, so that our constituents who are customers or employees of this company are not left high and dry. There is some local awareness of this issue, and interest in what is happening, and hopefully customers and employees now feel that there is somewhere that they can raise their issues. However, we need more information.
I pay tribute to BEN; I, too, have also been in touch with it, and I am impressed by its proactive approach and the support it is providing. If it was not for BEN, I am not sure that anybody would be providing any support, and if it was not for my hon. Friend the Member for Heywood and Middleton, I am not sure that anybody would be talking about this issue, which is of real concern.
Thank you, Mr Williams, for giving me the opportunity to take part in this debate.
I must declare the reverse position of other Members, if you like. I am the Member for Edinburgh West and a representative of the Scottish National party, and hon. Members will be aware that Carcraft had no branches in Scotland. Nevertheless, speaking as a shadow Minister for Business, Innovation and Skills, and coming from a business background, it is always a matter of regret when people’s jobs are lost, particularly from small businesses, which play such an important role in our communities; indeed, they are the backbone of our communities.
I have some points to make about the company’s balance sheet. I note that the company had been running consistently at a loss even in the lead-up to the management buy-out, which is usually a cause for concern. There was a loss of £6.6 million in the 12 months to 30 September 2012, and I note that the accounts for the year ending in 2014 included a “going concern” statement:
“The company’s Directors believe the business will continue for the foreseeable future and has the full support of the ultimate parent company. As such the directors believe the going concern basis of preparation for the financial statements is appropriate”.
However, I also note that the parent company was a so-called newco or new company that was set up at the time of the management buy-out. So, what test did the auditors apply?
Grant Thornton, a highly reputable company, will obviously look in detail at Carcraft’s financial accounts, and it will go through the right and proper process to establish which secured creditors are paid off first, using the remaining assets. However, I have also noted that £4.8 million went to Pennine Property Investments LLP in 2014; I am not sure whether that money was a loan. Again, I would like the detail in the balance sheet and all the accounts to be looked at rigorously.
Thank you, Mr Williams, for calling me to speak. May I begin by saying what a pleasure it is to serve again under your chairmanship, for the first time in this Parliament?
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Heywood and Middleton (Liz McInnes) on securing this debate. The whole House would agree that, since arriving here just a few short months before May’s general election, she has impressed everybody with her dedication not only to the needs of the NHS, which she has particular strengths in, experience of and passion for, but to the wider concerns of her constituency. She has demonstrated that again today with her excellent speech.
I also pay tribute to the excellent remarks made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Enfield North (Joan Ryan) and my hon. Friends the Members for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) and for Rochdale (Simon Danczuk) on the matters affecting their constituents following the closure of Carcraft.
I welcome the Minister for Small Business, Industry and Enterprise, the right hon. Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry), to her new position in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. It is an excellent appointment. If we must have a Tory in that position—I suspect that because of democracy we do—then I am glad that it is her. I wish her all the very best in her new role of ensuring that business and enterprise are championed and that the interests of workers and consumers are given sufficient priority. Those have been a key theme of today’s debate.
Mr Williams, I hope that you, my hon. Friend the Member for Heywood and Middleton and other hon. Members will indulge me for a moment, because my brother Paul and his wife Leanne had a baby earlier today. Oliver was born at 12.10 am, weighing 7 lb 1 oz and, thankfully, looks like his mother rather than my brother. Both mother and baby are doing well. Coincidentally, today is also the birthday of my son, Jacob; he is 19 today. I wish my son many happy returns and hope that these two cousins can celebrate joint birthdays for many years to come. I thank the House for that indulgence, Mr Williams, and having dispensed with the Wright family’s birthday matters, I will respond to the serious matters that my hon. Friend has brought to Westminster Hall today.
Carcraft was once seen as the UK’s leading car supermarket, but, as my hon. Friend has said, it went into administration very quickly, without any great notice, in April, with the loss of around 474 jobs. My first concern has already been raised time and again in today’s debate: it is about the people who have worked diligently and professionally for the firm but who now find themselves without employment. It must be a very difficult time for many former employees of Carcraft, especially because the company’s fall into administration would have come as a complete shock to many of them.
Given what has already been said by my hon. Friends, what assistance can the Minister provide in this situation, whether it is financial assistance from the Government or—more likely—the removal of bureaucratic inertia to ensure that the people affected by the closure of Carcraft are given help and information, and supported to return to employment as quickly as possible? What liaison is taking place between the Minister and her counterpart in the Department for Work and Pensions to ensure that Jobcentre Plus staff are fully aware of the importance of this matter?
My hon. Friend and others provide a hugely effective bridge between national, local and sectoral organisations; we have heard about BEN a number of times today. But can the Minister set out what will be done with local authorities? Given that Carcraft was a national organisation—colleagues from not only the north-west but London have spoken today—has the Minister sought to establish some form of taskforce to provide effective liaison and deal with the issues arising from its closure, many of which will affect its former employees, whether they live in Rochdale or Enfield?
My hon. Friends the Members for Heywood and Middleton and for Rochdale made an important point about their local economies, which are very similar to that of my own constituency. My hon. Friend the Member for Rochdale will recall the debate we participated in yesterday about city regions and metro mayors. City regions are incredibly important drivers of economic success, and there is probably no greater example in relation to the so-called northern powerhouse than Manchester. However, many of the small towns close to it do not have the same economic viability and are characterised by low-wage, insecure employment—the northern powerhouse seems a long way from the people affected by Carcraft. How can we ensure, therefore, that economic success is not just confined to the cities, but spreads to smaller, neighbouring towns such as Rochdale so that work is created and people can seek alternative employment?
There are broader issues at stake here. As the hon. Member for Edinburgh West (Michelle Thomson) said, the Carcraft group incurred significant losses in recent years: £6.9 million in the financial year ending 30 September 2012; £10.2 million in the 18 months ending 31 March 2014; and, based on current draft management information, about £9.8 million in the 13 months ending 30 April 2015. Grant Thornton, which has been appointed as administrator, has stated that the company was hit by a poor market reputation, a lack of investment and a high cost base. In addition, it suffered from expensive loan note financing and an insolvent balance sheet. Those assessments of the company’s financial position and performance in the run-up to administration are pretty damning.
As the hon. Member for Edinburgh West said, that raises the question of what on earth the auditors were doing; I speak as a member of the Institute of Chartered Accountants and as a former auditor myself. How on earth could the auditors allow the company accounts to be signed off, given the damning assessment we have heard? Crucially, how could the accounts have been prepared on a going-concern basis, reflecting the notion that the entity would be able to remain in business for the foreseeable future? The company had an insolvent balance sheet and significant losses over a number of years, and it was crippled by expensive debt, so how did the auditors provide it with a clean bill of health? Does the Minister think that changes are needed to the audit regime, particularly with regard to inspection? Will she take a look at that?
In many regards, the closure of Carcraft reflects many of the issues seen at City Link last year. Lessons should now have been learned from that company’s demise, and they can and should be applied to Carcraft to ensure that employees, creditors and consumers are given as much clarity as possible. Will the Minister outline what the Government have done to review the requirements for consultation on redundancies during administration to clarify what employees can expect and what company directors’ specific responsibilities are? On the various categories of creditor, does she think that a review of insolvency practice is required to change the order in which creditors—whether employees, customers with warranties or others—are paid?
All In One Finance Ltd was the finance arm of the Carcraft group. The company provided loan finance for Carcraft customers to purchase vehicles and the Carcraft “Drive Happy” package—a warranty that provided servicing, MOTs and roadside assistance. In the days leading up to administration, Carcraft customers were sold warranties, but they are no longer covered. That seems incredibly unfair: it goes against the consumer on three separate levels. First, Carcraft customers bought the warranties in good faith, even though it looks as if Carcraft knew it was on the verge of insolvency. Secondly, customers may have had insurance at a discount, as a result of mitigating factors such as having good roadside assistance, MOTs and servicing in place. However, those customers now face an uplift in insurance premiums. Thirdly, customers will face a further penalty if they break down or fail to get the servicing they paid for—they will be out of pocket yet again.
All In One Finance is authorised and regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority. Will the Minister outline what protections the FCA has in place to ensure that customers are not adversely affected? Does she think the arrangements in place are adequate, or do they need refining in the consumer’s interests, in the light of what is happening with Carcraft? Given the boom in finance and warranty provision, what is in place to ensure that the customer is protected?
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Heywood and Middleton for bringing this important matter to the House. It is right and proper that such matters are discussed, and, in the interests of Carcraft’s former employees and customers, I hope the Minister is able satisfactorily to outline the provisions the Government will put in place to ensure they are protected.
It is a pleasure, as ever, to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Williams. I congratulate the hon. Member for Heywood and Middleton (Liz McInnes) on securing the debate. It is absolutely right and important that we debate these matters. This is an awful situation, and our heart has to go out not just to the employees who have lost their jobs, but to their families. Many of these workers will have families, who will also suffer as a result of the redundancies. Few things are more unsettling and unpleasant than losing one’s job, especially when it is through no fault of one’s own.
There are a number of points of concern in this case and I will deal with all of them, but first, on a lighter note, I should say that I am looking forward to doing battle—and working too—with the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr Wright). I wish everybody in his family a happy birthday, although I should tell him that the traditional way for people to do that is to send a card or make a phone call—he knows what I mean. I am sure his family will be celebrating at various levels this evening.
Now to serious matters. Carcraft employed 474 people before the redundancies, including 152 in Rochdale, where the head office was located. Some 407 employees’ redundancy claims are continuing. Carcraft had 10 sites across England and Wales at the time of administration, and a further site in Merseyside which closed in March. I can assure everyone that the Government are focusing on supporting those affected so that they can find new jobs, and we are paying eligible employees redundancy pay.
It is alleged that Carcraft sold cars for cash or on credit that have not been delivered and that extended warranties were also mis-sold. Those are serious allegations. There are also concerns about the ongoing validity of a number of warranties. I certainly take those matters seriously. Given everything that has been said today, as well as the activities of local Members of Parliament, who are clearly taking a keen interest, I am confident that if there is any allegation of wrongdoing, the relevant authorities will be properly informed and the police will become involved if necessary. I should make it absolutely clear that if it appears there has been wrongdoing, there will be full inquiries, and if there has been wrongdoing, people will be brought to justice in some way or another.
A number of hon. Members have former Carcraft employees in their constituency. The hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green), who made an interesting and valid intervention, has 15—that is the lowest number, according to the figures I have been given. The hon. Member for Heywood and Middleton has 152 constituents who have lost their jobs. The right hon. Member for Enfield North (Joan Ryan) has 37 constituents who have been affected. I mention that because those Members contributed to the debate.
Let me deal now with the customers. Any administration affects the customers of the failing business. Many consumers had continuing loans or direct debits with Carcraft, and they will of course be worried about where that leaves them. Some consumers will have cars or services that they have partly paid for, and they will be wondering what rights they now have, given all that has occurred. The advice is clear: they should contact the administrator—we have heard that Grant Thornton has been appointed. They may also wish to review their position with Citizens Advice or other advisers. I understand that some loans taken out by customers with Carcraft’s finance arm, All in One Finance, are now owned by another finance company. The Government—that is, my officials—have spoken to the administrators, who have informed us that the majority of straightforward hire purchase agreements on Carcraft cars were provided by third party finance companies. Those customers are being advised to contact their provider directly about repayment.
It would be absolutely wrong of me to give any advice, because I do not know the answer to that question. I can make full inquiries and write to the hon. Gentleman, but I do not know the answer. Some loans were retained by the Carcraft group, and what happens to them will depend on the type of loan that the customer had. I understand that borrowers are being notified about that.
Additionally, as we have heard, Carcraft provided an MOT, servicing, warranty and roadside assistance package known as a “Drive Happy” plan. The administrators are not able to provide for continuation of that service and have informed my officials that they intend to contact all affected customers with such a plan, to make arrangements to reduce monthly payments so that they will no longer be paying for that service. If any consumers are worried about their payments or how services might be affected, they should speak to Citizens Advice or other advisors who can explain their options and give them the quality advice they obviously need.
Hon. Members have raised concerns about directors’ conduct, and there are obvious concerns about the effect of Carcraft’s closure on jobs and the local economy. I will talk briefly about the actions that Government can take if director malpractice is suspected. Whenever a company enters administration, the conduct of its directors is looked into by the administrators. If evidence of unfit conduct is found, a director can be disqualified from acting as a director for between two and 15 years. My officials have been proactive in contacting the administrators to discuss the directors’ conduct in this case; we have already raised the matter with them.
As I set out in my response to the written question of 27 May from the hon. Member for Heywood and Middleton, the Insolvency Service made early contact with the administrators to discuss the circumstances surrounding the closure of Carcraft’s business, including the conduct of the directors. The Insolvency Service takes those matters seriously, as do all Governments. The Government are also talking to the Financial Conduct Authority, which regulates the financial services part of the Carcraft group. If there is cause for concern, it will be identified and investigated and any appropriate action taken, as I have explained. It is too early in the administration of Carcraft to form a view on the directors’ conduct, but I would mention that last year the Insolvency Service disqualified more than 1,200 directors in circumstances where their conduct fell short of the high standards that we expect of them. That of course means that they cannot do such work, which is a genuine punishment and says that their conduct does not entitle them to occupy what is an important role in any business.
As for redundancy payments, one of the hardest-hitting consequences of any insolvency is the risk of job losses and the impact on people’s lives. Although it is little consolation for the nearly 500 staff involved, they can claim certain outstanding payments, including up to eight weeks’ arrears of pay from the Government’s redundancy payments service, which has a maximum £475 a week. To make that happen as quickly as possible, the Government have already set up a dedicated team for former Carcraft employees, and to date 407 people have made use of the service—I am assuming that that is from around England and Wales. Their claims are being processed and moneys owed will be paid out as soon as possible. I want to make it clear that if any hon. Members have a single constituent who is not receiving the money they are owed, as a matter of some urgency they should not hesitate to write to me or to grab hold of me around the parliamentary estate. I take such matters extremely seriously. It is bad enough for someone to lose their job, but then not to have money that is owed to them is completely unacceptable.
I thank the Minister for her offer to be available, because I was a little worried about having difficulty in getting hold of the administrators. It is helpful to know that we can raise the matter on behalf of constituents who are in such a difficult situation.
I am grateful to the right hon. Lady, but that is the way I work. Some hon. Members will know that they can just come up and badger me; I do not have a problem with that, and if necessary I will go and badger whoever needs badgering. I imagine that it is very busy at Grant Thornton at the moment, which may be a reason it has not replied to the right hon. Lady’s request. If there are any problems, I do not have a problem with people coming to me.
We have set up our dedicated team, and that is the right approach. Claims are being processed, and 321 people have received or are about to receive their payment. The Government are in close contact with the administrator to make sure that there are no unnecessary delays in that payment. The redundancy payments service can be contacted either by phone on 0330 33100200 or by email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Where an employer proposes to dismiss as redundant 20 or more people at the same establishment within 90 days or less, the employer has to consult employee representatives about the dismissals and must also notify the Secretary of State of the proposed redundancies. A call for evidence is currently out for comment on what happens where employers are facing an insolvency situation and on how stakeholders think outcomes—forgive me, Mr Williams; I should have changed these words, as I do not like the word “stakeholders”. The question for comment is how anyone with an interest thinks that outcomes—results, in good plain English—might be improved in such circumstances. We want to hear from people. I would urge anyone with suggestions, including hon. Members, to contribute. Responses to that will be considered and next steps will be identified.
I want to talk about the important matter of the support that workers who have been made redundant are being offered by the Government in finding new jobs. We are helping them by ensuring that there is support to help them back into work. My colleagues at the Department for Work and Pensions have made contact with the administrators to advise them of the services available to Carcraft’s former employees. DWP will also support employees through its rapid response service. Depending on each individual’s circumstances, that can include help with CV writing and interview skills, help with identifying transferable skills and skills gaps linked to the local labour market, and training to update skills, learn new ones and gain industry-recognised certification that will improve employability. It all sounds marvellous, but if it is not out there happening in the real world, I would again urge hon. Members to badger me. We would then find out more and contact the responsible officials in the DWP. It sounds great, but it means nothing unless it is actually happening for the people who have lost their jobs.
Although the loss of jobs at Carcraft comes as a severe blow to employees and their families, overall the employment rate in Rochdale has been on the rise since 2011. Rochdale and the Greater Manchester area have also benefited from heavy investment in recent years. I do not really want to get into a party political squabble about all this, but I wanted to give some facts and figures. Two regional growth fund awards have been made to Heywood and Middleton, and that is just some of the £111 million of regional growth fund money that has been allocated to projects in the Greater Manchester area. The Growing Places fund supports key infrastructure projects designed to unlock wider economic growth and create jobs. Greater Manchester benefited from this fund, receiving £37 million.
Greater Manchester’s growth deal, announced on 7 July last year, sets out a £533 million investment programme that will support further economic growth in the area. That investment will go to the life sciences investment fund, creating apprenticeships and maximising skills investment, as well as providing major investment in local infrastructure. The growth deal also brings forward £140 million of additional investment from local partners and the private sector and will create at least 5,000 jobs by 2021. If it does not, I imagine that many hon. Members here will be holding the Government to account, and rightly so.
As well as this investment in the Greater Manchester area, the Government are committed to creating jobs and reducing unemployment across the region. The Government’s long-term economic plan—
I know, I just read it out. Do forgive me.
Our brilliant economic plan—in all seriousness—seeks to rebalance growth across the regions. We have the determination to build what is called the northern powerhouse, although I am not sure it should not be called the north of England powerhouse. Creating this powerhouse enables the northern region to reach its potential as a driving force in the UK economy and rightly gives the north a powerful voice. Even I, a representative from a constituency in the east midlands, can say that, and I promise hon. Members that I am not saying it through gritted teeth. This is an exciting new development in the way that we do growth, and I believe that it is welcomed by everybody. We are putting the emphasis on that in the north and, indeed, in all cities.
I saw a presentation on productivity, which we know we have problems with. The evidence is clear that one way to get real growth and improve productivity is to make real investment in our cities and turn them into magnets that attract investment. I was shocked to hear that some rents in great cities such as Glasgow are higher than in parts of Manhattan. We have to sort this all out. Cities are wonderful places and they can be the magnets that attract all the investment, including public money, to bring the growth and the jobs that we all want.
I was trying to make this point in my speech. City regions are important. Cities are important as drivers for economic prosperity. Rochdale is a good example, relative to Greater Manchester. How do we ensure that the city region approach, with Greater Manchester and particularly the city of Manchester driving forward economic growth, spreads to areas like Rochdale?
I will be corrected by Rochdale Members if I am wrong, but in my view they are part of the Greater Manchester conurbation. Rochdale Borough Council is part of the coming together of all the councils. These things only work when everybody comes together. If a few councils do not want it, it is not going to happen. When all local representatives—the chambers of commerce, and borough and district councils as well as city councils—are working together, buying into it, it will work. I cannot imagine that Rochdale Borough Council would not let its people benefit from the northern powerhouse. It has to be done like that because it cannot be imposed by Government. It has to be agreed and driven by local government. That is what has happened in the north and around Manchester.
There are some PPI claims against Carcraft and those are likely to be an unsecured claim in administration and can be pursued through the administrator, which is Grant Thornton. I wanted to address that point in particular, although a number of points were raised. I will, of course, write to any hon. Member on any point that I have not answered.
Although the closure of Carcraft will have caused anxiety and worry for all involved, I hope that I have reassured the hon. Member for Heywood and Middleton that assistance has been, and will continue to be, provided both for former employees and for consumers and that the Government’s wider economic policy will help ensure job creation and opportunities in the region.
I am grateful to the Minister for her full response to the queries I raised, and grateful to all my hon. Friends who have taken the time and trouble to attend and contribute.
We have had a good debate. I am grateful to my hon. Friends for their appreciation, which they have expressed to me, for my securing this debate. This debate arose as a result of a question I asked during business questions. I was more or less challenged and told, “If you want to discuss this further, call for a debate.” That is exactly what I did, and I am grateful for your excellent chairmanship of this debate, Mr Williams.
I feel more reassured. I feel that I can go back to my constituents and give them some new information about assistance that they can access. However, I am conscious that an investigation is ongoing, and I will be watching the results with interest. There are an awful lot of unanswered questions. Finally, I thank everybody concerned.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the closure of Carcraft.
Organophosphate Sheep Dip
I beg to move,
That this House has considered organophosphate sheep dip poisoning.
Although this is a short debate, it is certainly important for a constituent of mine and many others out there who attribute their chronic ill health to the use of sheep dip. I want to emphasise that I will be discussing events that happened in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s. Since then, other sheep dip treatments have been developed, and the advice given to farmers has been improved to help minimise the risk of exposure to the chemicals. I do not want to anticipate the Minister’s reply this early in the debate, but I gently point out that as long as we continue carefully to regulate and review such products, what I am talking about relates to what happened in the past, or advice that was not given in the past.
I pay tribute to the Members in this place and the other House, journalists and, most importantly, campaigners—not least the Sheep Dip Sufferers Support Group—who have doggedly pursued the issue of organophosphate poisoning over the years. I called for this debate on this long-standing issue to give a voice to my constituent Stephen Forward from Undy, and to raise questions early in this new Parliament, so that we can take a fresh look at the matter and give impetus to the ongoing campaign, which continues to try to provide answers and resolution for the 500-plus affected people. Those 500 are just those identified by the campaign groups; they are sure that more people have been affected.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this important debate. I thank her for this opportunity to give voice to the concerns of one of my constituents, Mr Edward Harding, who would strongly assert that his exposure to sheep dip has left him unable to work for the past 15 years. He is now dependent on industrial injuries disablement benefit, which is at least Department for Work and Pensions acknowledgement that his poisoning has caused irreversible damage to his body.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for making an important point, and commend him on giving a voice to his constituent. The Department for Work and Pensions has acknowledged OP poisoning, but we are still waiting for other bodies to do the same. The matter was raised with me at the end of the previous Parliament by Stephen Forward. Over the years, many arguments have been made about whether people’s illnesses can be conclusively attributed to using sheep dip. I am clear that there is no doubt in Stephen’s case. Blood tests carried out at the poisons unit at Guy’s hospital prove it, and he is one of the few potential victims to have medical evidence to back up his claim.
Stephen started dipping sheep in 1979 at the age of 17, at a time when the then Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food had made yearly dips compulsory. Biannual dips became compulsory in 1984. The first time that Stephen helped his father with the dipping, some of the sheep collapsed. They were assured by the Government inspector, who had to be present under the system, that that had happened before and that the sheep would come round in a few minutes, but it was an indicator to Stephen of the strength of what they were using. As Stephen and others affected will tell you, it is difficult to dip sheep without getting covered in the solution, as well as inhaling and swallowing it. It is the nature of the process. Stephen would spend seven hours a day, twice a year dipping 350-plus sheep.
Almost immediately, Stephen started to get flu like symptoms which got progressively worse, eventually leading to chronic fatigue syndrome and physical problems that meant he could no longer work on the farm. He is also open about the mental health problems that he has developed, including depression and anxiety. His symptoms would always be worse the day after sheep dipping and he was often bedridden for weeks. He went to his GP several times—there is the separate issue of GPs’ awareness of the condition at the time—before reading in Farmers Weekly in 1991 that he could be suffering from OP poisoning, because the symptoms listed were identical to those that he had experienced for 13 years. The article suggested that people with such symptoms contact the poisons unit at Guy’s hospital for a blood test. A series of tests confirmed that Stephen was suffering from OP poisoning. By that stage, however, the window of opportunity for providing treatment had long since passed and he was suffering significant long-term effects.
The symptoms of OP poisoning have been devastating for Stephen. At 53 years old, he is unable to walk 30 yards and has not been able to work since 1996, and the effects have severely limited all aspects of his life. The poisoning has also given him sensitivity to medicines that might have been able to help. Stephen’s medical records relating to Guy’s hospital were lost by his GP—that appears to have happened to others in a similar situation—but through his dogged persistence he now has some copies directly from hospital. Others are not so lucky. As the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr Williams) mentioned, that information is crucial for those making claims for benefits such as employment and support allowance or the personal independence payment. As a result of hearing Stephen’s story, I attended a meeting in Parliament with the Sheep Dip Sufferers Support Group. The group is led by Tom Rigby, a constituent of my right hon. Friend the Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham), who initiated a moving meeting for sufferers and is involved in the campaign—although he is, of course, busy with another campaign today. At the meeting, dozens of farm workers told similar heartbreaking stories of ruined lives and health.
It is worth reiterating that compulsory dipping of sheep was reintroduced in 1976 by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food to tackle sheep scab, a notifiable disease. The products used in the 1970s and onwards were stronger than previous products. They were single-dip products containing organophosphates and organochlorides, which were banned in 1984. Compulsory dipping did happen in the ’30s and ’40s, but farmers were never really told that the new chemicals might be dangerous and required better protective clothing to be worn, so farmers just carried on dipping in the same way that they always had. Concerns about the effects of organophosphate sheep dips on farmers have been raised since their inception, but they came to a head in the early ’90s as compulsory dipping was being phased out. It ceased to be compulsory in 1992.
OPs are toxic chemicals with known effects after repeat exposure. OP compounds were developed as chemical warfare agents, and a link exists between Gulf war illness in US troops and OP insecticides. As an aside, it was revealed just this week that British airlines are facing 17 individual legal claims of poisoning by toxic air, including organophosphates, circulating in aircraft cabins. As a result, Unite the union is calling for an inquiry on contaminated cabin air and whether it has been damaging to pilots and cabin crew.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on bringing this matter forward for consideration. I have worked alongside the Northern Ireland Organophosphorus Sufferers Association. One of my constituents, Ernie Patterson, was referred from Northern Ireland to Guy’s hospital here in London for treatment and tests. Unfortunately, his medical notes went missing and he now has no recourse to any help or assistance. Does the hon. Lady agree that the loss of such important medical records is a disgrace and requires investigation?
The shadow Secretary of State for Health, my right hon. Friend the Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham), has indeed called for an investigation into exactly what was known in the ’80s and ’90s before the use of such substances was finally discontinued, and into whether there was any form of cover-up, as the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) suggests.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. I will return to this at the end of my speech, but my constituent Stephen Forward found it incredibly difficult to get his medical records. Many others seem to be in the same situation as the constituent of the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), so the matter needs to be considered.
At the time of compulsory dipping, mild warnings were given on sheep dip packaging, but the Government and inspectors did not warn farmers about exposure to the solution or advise that any precautions or protective clothing be worn during the dipping of sheep. The sufferers of OP contamination believe that the Government should have provided explicit advice and rules on the safe use of OPs, including rules on proper protective clothing.
The crux of the debate, as has been said, is that while sheep dipping came to an end in 1992, the survivors’ groups and other campaigners suspect that the Government must have been aware of the risk earlier. In 1990-91 an inquiry was carried out by the Health and Safety Executive into sheep dipping on behalf of the Ministry. The full report was released to Ministers in 1991, but it was not made public until Tom Rigby put in a freedom of information request. As The Guardian reported in April, the FOI disclosure shows that Government officials did know of the dangerous health risks to farmers using this chemical, but they still did not end its compulsory use.
The report set out concerns about the cumulative health impact of long-term and repeated exposure to organophosphates and criticised manufacturers for providing inadequate protective clothing and unclear instructions to farmers. It is also said that at some time in the 1980s Ministry inspectors were told not to go within 14 feet of sheep dip when supervising, which also needs investigating. It is important to remember that at the time, the then farming Minister demanded that local authorities clamp down on farmers who refused to use the chemical. It was another year, though, until sheep dipping was no longer required by law. As Stephen said:
“We were given no training or advice about how to use the chemicals, just told to get on with it and, if not, we would be prosecuted.”
Today, my constituent, Stephen, and the Sheep Dip Survivors Group would like from the Minister full disclosure of all the documentation on this issue from that time, so that the campaigners can examine it. Campaigners also want a full inquiry, independent of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the Committee on Toxicity of Chemicals in Food, Consumer Products and the Environment, and the Veterinary Medicines Directorate, that looks at this matter afresh, so they can see who in Government knew what, when, and why they might not have acted on that information.
The hon. Lady is making an incredibly powerful point. Given the length of time this has been going on for, we almost need a royal commission. This goes back 30 or 40 years, so many of the people involved will no longer be here. Does she agree that we need to set up something, perhaps through the Minister, that this place can scrutinise, as well as something outside?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. It is crucial that any inquiry is independent of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. There have been studies over the years, but independent studies by University College London have come to different conclusions. To settle this matter we need something like his suggestion; that would be a good idea. We want a full inquiry, independent of DEFRA, to allow us to question why farmers might have been compelled to use this chemical with no guidance if governmental research pointed to health impacts. Was compulsory dipping stopped because MAFF knew it was affecting farm workers’ and farmers’ health? If so, why did it not say so? We need an answer to that question in particular.
We also need to examine what happened to the blood test results from the national poisons unit and disclosure of those that still exist. My constituent had a long battle to get his results, but he did finally get them, so there might still be some there. Even if the paperwork does not exist, medical staff should be invited to give their recollections.
Stephen was affected by this at a young age. He and others deserve an apology from the Government, as he has had to live with the effects for decades. Will the Minister also look at what can be done to help those who are suffering and want access to treatment and an acknowledgement of their health issues? Finally, as a result of this debate, will the Minister take this opportunity, early in this Parliament, to move this issue forward by agreeing to a meeting with the Sheep Dip Sufferers Support Group, so that we can go into this in far greater depth than a half-hour debate allows? That would be greatly appreciated by campaigners, so I urge him to do that as well as fulfilling my other requests.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I congratulate the hon. Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden) on securing the debate. She has championed this cause for some time and she made it clear towards the end of the last Parliament that she would seek an early opportunity for a debate. She has succeeded. Everyone here will have been touched by the story of her constituent and his ill health.
I am sympathetic to farmers suffering from ill health and I acknowledge that some of them associate their illness with the use of organophosphate sheep dips. There is a long history of research into the hypothesis that low-level and non-toxic exposure to organophosphates, sheep dips in particular, might have caused long-term neurological health conditions.
The independent Committee on Toxicity released a statement on organophosphates in March last year, following its earlier report in 1999. The COT reviewed the science published since the original 1999 report and in summary concluded that the reviewed evidence suggests that exposures to cholinesterase-inhibiting organo- phosphates that are insufficient to cause overt acute poisoning do not cause important long-term neurological toxicity in adults and that, if toxic effects on the nervous system do occur, they are minor and subtle.
I am sorry, but I really must take issue with that; that is not the case. My constituency covers Exmoor and one of my constituents, George Wescott, has suffered with this for more than 30 years. As the hon. Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden) and I have already said, the Minister should set up a commission so that we can get to the bottom of the issue rather than accepting what I suspect is slightly flawed science, although I hesitate to say that.
It is worth looking further at the science, because the committee’s statement was also endorsed by the medical and scientific panel, which is a sub-group of the independent Veterinary Products Committee. A cross-Government official group on organophosphates also endorsed it. It is worth highlighting some extracts from that detailed report. I have read the report, which is very scientific; I recommend it to anyone with an interest.
The report highlighted that, since 1999, 13 new papers have been published on the relation of low-level exposure to organophosphates and peripheral neuropathy, which added to the 13 studies already available at the time of the previous COT report. Having reviewed all 26 of those studies, the report concluded:
“The current balance of evidence suggests that there is no long-term risk of clearly demonstrable peripheral neuropathy from exposure to organophosphates”.
I know my constituent well and, having gone through his case in great detail, I am absolutely convinced that his health condition was caused by his exposure to sheep dip—the link is all too clear. Has the Minister also had a chance to review the independent academic research by Sarah Mackenzie Ross, an academic at University College London, who has reviewed all the existing studies and concluded that there is a considerable association between low-level exposure to organophosphates and impaired neurological function?
I am aware that that report was reviewed by the Committee on Toxicity and that, in fact, part of the COT’s report does concede that there may be some effects in some cases. I will return to that. However, just to stick to the COT report, it highlighted that 22 investigations published since 1999 had looked for neuropsychological consequences of low-level exposure. When the committee looked at those, in addition to the nine published previously, it concluded:
“Overall, there is no consistent evidence that low-level exposure to organophosphates has adverse effects on any specific aspect of cognitive function. If organophosphates do cause long-term neuropsychological impairment in the absence of overt poisoning, then the effects, at least in the large majority of cases, must be minor and subtle.”
In relation to Parkinson’s disease, the report concludes:
“The overall balance of evidence from 11 studies suggests no increased risk of Parkinson’s disease from exposure to organophosphates that is insufficient to cause overt acute poisoning”.
However, it did acknowledge that
“a small elevation of risk cannot be ruled out.”
The report does acknowledge—this links to the point that the hon. Lady was making—that
“Despite limitations of individual studies, current evidence suggests that there is an excess of multiple neuropsychiatric symptoms in people who have been exposed to organophosphates at levels insufficient to cause overt acute poisoning. However, it does not support the existence of a specific syndrome of ‘chronic organophosphate-induced neuropsychiatric disorder’, as has previously been hypothesised.”
In its conclusion, the report states:
“Collectively, the evidence reviewed is reassuring. It suggests that exposures to cholinesterase-inhibiting organophosphates that are insufficient to cause overt acute poisoning do not cause important long-term neurological toxicity in adults”.
The reason why I have outlined those points—with long medical words that I am not used to pronouncing—in some detail is that it is important to acknowledge that there have been dozens and dozens of studies about this issue for more than 20 years. After the first COT report in 1999, the Government commissioned additional research into the subject, which was considered along with all the other evidence gathered since 1999 as part of the COT report last March. The committee has reached its conclusion based on the science.
I will try to make some headway, and then perhaps give way later on.
The hon. Lady will be aware that in November 2001 a group of farmers took a case to the High Court seeking damages for OP poisoning. In the event, the case was struck out, because the claimants could not prove that their symptoms were caused directly by exposure to OP dips. The decision was upheld by the Court of Appeal in November 2002.
I turn now to the issue of the HSE report that the hon. Lady mentioned. The report was commissioned in 1990 and published in 1991; there has been some discussion of whether it has been covered up, so it is important to note that it was published at the time. Since December 2014 there has been increased media attention on possible health effects experienced by people who used sheep dips, focusing on what was known about the substances by Government at the time, as sheep dipping was compulsory until 1992.
An FOI request was received from Tom Rigby of the Sheep Dip Sufferers Support Group at the beginning of February this year, seeking a copy of the HSE report. The HSE was initially unable to locate one; it informed Mr Rigby, who then stated that he held a copy from another source and further requested sight of any correspondence between the HSE and the MAFF in relation to the contents of the report. As no such correspondence was found, the HSE sent a nil response. However, a misfiled copy of the 1990 survey report was subsequently located elsewhere and passed on to Mr Rigby.
I know Mr Rigby still has outstanding FOI requests relating to some documents. The documents in question are HSE-commissioned reports into cholinesterase and the chronic effects of dipping sheep in OP products dating from the mid-1990s. Some are publically available and Mr Rigby has been pointed towards those; the HSE is currently looking into the status of others. To clear up any concerns, I am happy to say that we will place a copy of the 1991 report in the Library for hon. Members to look at.
It is clear that there are significant documented records from around 1993 that indicate considerable cross-Government work taking place on the subject of OP dips at the start of the decade. The 1990 survey appears to have been prompted by reports from farmers that they believed dips were making them ill. The research was focused on the extent to which operatives were exposed to organophosphates, the efficacy of their personal protective equipment and the dipping systems used. Although the report refers to known toxic effects of organophosphates, it does not focus on whether dips were causing ill health, nor does it look at whether dips can cause the long-term ill health that is the focus of the existing sufferer groups.
The Government recognise that organophosphates are potentially dangerous substances whose use needs to be controlled to minimise the risks to humans. Government policy is, and always has been, based on the best scientific advice. Safety warnings on the products reflected the known risks at the time. It is Government practice regularly to review the controls in line with the latest scientific advice and to carry out research to provide more information where required.
Throughout the debate, Members have detailed the examples of their constituents. What consideration has the Minister given to the common denominator of those examples—namely, the organophosphates used by all those people, who are now suffering as a result? There has to be a common denominator and an investigation into that.
All I can say is that the Committee on Toxicity has looked at the matter exhaustively. It has produced a detailed report reviewing dozens of studies, and has been unable to establish a link. Its conclusions are very clear. Over the past decade, the Government have commissioned £4 million of research into the issue. Many, many people—experts in their field—have looked into the issue and reviewed all the available evidence to reach their conclusions.
The 1991 report—it is important to recognise that that report was published at the time—was a survey of farmers who self-reported symptoms. We should bear two things in mind. First, it was not a scientific report; all the reports that the Committee on Toxicity has looked at are scientifically robust research projects. The other thing to note is that the focus of the 1991 report was whether farmers had the correct protective equipment to prevent acute poisoning. We must make a distinction between actual poisoning—organophosphates are poisonous substances that cause tetanus-like symptoms if acute poisoning takes place—and the separate issue of whether exposure to low levels of organophosphates that does not cause overt poisoning nevertheless contributes to long-term conditions. The conclusion of the report is that it does not. We must make that distinction. The report of 1990-91, which as I say was published at the time, was about the concerns about overt poisoning, not possible long-term conditions.
The sale and supply of OP sheep dips have been restricted to appropriately trained and certified users since 1995, reflecting concerns at the time about their toxicity. In addition, the Veterinary Medicines Regulations 2006 introduced a requirement for dipping to be supervised by a holder of a certificate of competence; that requirement remains in force.
Sheep scab is a severe disease with profound and sometimes fatal welfare implications for affected animals. There are currently still two sheep dips containing organophosphates that are authorised for use in the UK. There are other authorised veterinary medicines available to protect sheep against scab, but dips remain the most clinically effective treatments for the mite that causes it.
Yes—I was going to conclude by saying just that. The hon. Lady put that challenge to me and I am more than happy to meet members of the group to discuss their concerns. I am also aware that she raised the specific issue of her constituent’s medical records, which she suggested were evidence that sheep dip might have contributed in his case. If her constituent agrees, I am happy to make that information available to the Veterinary Medicines Directorate, which regulates these products on our behalf, and the Health and Safety Executive, which has been the lead on the issue.
This has been a long-running saga. The interventions in the debate have shown that many hon. Members have constituents who associate their condition with OP sheep dips. I reassure Members that we are not hiding anything. The 1991 report was published at the time, but for the sake of completeness I am happy to ensure that we put a copy in the Library.
Question put and agreed to.
Gypsies and Travellers (Local Communities)
I beg to move,
That this House has considered Gypsies and Travellers and local communities.
It is a privilege for all of us to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. You take a close interest in matters to do with Gypsies and Travellers, and I hope I can inform you and the House about the difficulties being caused to my constituents by Gypsies and Travellers, whether they are travelling or have decided to set up permanent pitches in the countryside.
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
I want to explain the impact that Gypsies and Travellers are having on my constituency, Kettering, not only when Travellers travel, but when they decide not to be Travellers any more and to settle. In both cases, great problems are being caused to my constituents.
I welcome the Minister to his place and I know that he is keen to engage on this issue at an early stage in his ministerial career, which I know will be one of great promise. I know that we will not be able to change the law as a result of today’s debate, but he can signal to us the great heights that he will reach in short order by scrapping section 225 of the Housing Act 2004, which requires local authorities to conduct separate housing needs assessments for Gypsies and Travellers.
The Government are looking at scrapping the Human Rights Act 1998, which would also help to address the issue and I would be happy to support that proposal. I believe that the part of the Equality Act 2010 that applies to Gypsies and Travellers should also be scrapped, but if the Minister made a start with the Housing Act 2004, it would be a signal of real intent. I simply do not see why—and nor do my constituents—there should be any special provision at all within the planning system for Gypsies and Travellers. After all, something like 1 million eastern Europeans have just come to our shores, rightly or wrongly. Do we have special planning provision for the accommodation needs of eastern Europeans? No, we do not. Why should we single out Gypsies and Travellers as a supposed ethnic group for special treatment in planning laws?
I am not advocating that we should pick on this community. I am advocating, on behalf of my constituents, that the law of the land should apply equally to all of us regardless of our racial or ethnic background when it comes to housing needs and planning permissions.
The reason for today’s debate is that, recently, Daventry District Council—the neighbouring authority to Kettering Borough Council, on which I have the privilege to serve as a councillor—recently granted permission for two additional pitches for a piece of land near the village of Arthingworth in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Chris Heaton-Harris), which is near the village of Braybrooke in the Kettering constituency. For many local people on both sides of the local authority boundary, that really is a step too far, because there is now an over-concentration of Gypsy and Traveller sites in that part of the Northamptonshire countryside.
Let me describe the scene. The village of Braybrooke has 334 voters on the electoral roll and consists of 145 dwellings—it is situated halfway between the towns of Desborough and Market Harborough—and yet, within a small distance around it there are 67 Gypsy and Traveller pitches, which have completely overwhelmed the local countryside. Local people are fed up that there is such a large number of sites in the vicinity of their homes, not least because of the behaviour of the Gypsies and Travellers who live on those pitches. I will read some examples of constituents’ comments:
“We are wary of putting our name to a list of our problems with these people as they know where we live and farm and can be very intimidating both verbally and physically…We have known some of the ‘travelling’ families in this locality for over 35 years.”
They cause problems with fly-grazing, for example. Furthermore:
“Hare coursing has been a problem throughout all of those years…Fly tipping is an on-going problem along road verges and in gateways…Setting fire to straw stacks, we now do not put more than 200 bales in a stack. Also burning of electric cable and garden waste on their sites permitting smoke to cross the road…Theft is also an on-going problem. They call at the farm buildings asking for scrap metal or batteries—then within weeks items are stolen. We have diesel stolen on a regular basis, it is no good putting a padlock on the tank as they then puncture the tank and you lose the lot. Other items stolen are gates, buckets of minerals, electric fencing with posts and energizers, hand tools, electric saws, quad bikes, farm machinery and motor vehicles…We do not advise the police of every incident because experience has taught us that little is done and no one is ever caught or prosecuted.”
Does my hon. Friend share my bafflement that Travellers are treated as a vulnerable community when, in fact, most of them have far greater wealth than we in this room will ever have? The point is not about ethnicity or where Travellers may originate from, but about their behaviour. Our constituents are concerned not about the fact that they have chosen a nomadic lifestyle, but about their behaviour and disruption to the local community when they arrive. I have not yet met a serving police officer who does not say that when Travellers are in town, there is a spike in local crime.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right and he has demonstrated with those comments how he so ably represents his constituents in Devon, because he has put his finger right on it. Indeed, we have evidence from the 2011 census, which tells us that three quarters of Gypsies and Travellers live in permanent houses, bungalows or flats; only one quarter live in caravans or mobile homes.
As always, my hon. Friend is making a very powerful argument. My local authority of York proposed two new Traveller sites in my constituency and is he not surprised that when it was calculating the need for those sites, it counted Travellers in bricks and mortar—Travellers who are adequately housed—as in desperate need? That contributed to the requirement, as the authority calls it, for two new Traveller sites.
The name of my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer (Julian Sturdy) is well known in my constituency, because he is a hero to the horse-owning community as a result of his pioneering legislation to combat fly-grazing. That legislation has been widely welcomed in Kettering and throughout the land. Am I surprised by what he tells us from his own constituency? I am not surprised. Am I disappointed? Yes, I am, because the law is working against the settled community and in favour of Gypsies and Travellers.
Many of my hon. Friend’s constituents and many of mine who do not come from a Gypsy or Traveller background actually do far more travelling than the supposed Travellers themselves. Many of my constituents travel down to London and back every day for work. They do far more travelling than the supposed Travellers in the illegal encampments, but the law is biased in this respect, and this is something that the Minister could deal with as his second initiative in the Department. The guidance that his Department gives local authorities means that they need to make provision for a 3% annual increase in Gypsy and Traveller household numbers. That growth rate is far too big, yet by law local authorities are required to draw up assessments to provide pitches for that rate of growth. So not only is the number of Gypsies and Travellers as a baseline too high; the annual growth rate that the Department requires local authorities to respond to is also too great.
I was going to let this go, but I just cannot; I refer to the hon. Gentleman’s earlier point about whether Travellers travel as much as people from his constituency. He surely realises that Gypsies and Travellers are a known ethnic group and whether or not they travel does not take away from the fact that they are an ethnic group. Whether or not they are actually travelling does not matter in order for them to be recognised as a Gypsy or a Traveller.
The romantic notion of Gypsies wandering through the countryside, entertaining people as they go, is a myth from long ago, because many of these supposed Travellers are self-declared Travellers; they are not from any kind of Gypsy heritage at all. However, they are using, on a self-declared basis, their nomenclature as Travellers to get special privileges in the planning system. When they then use those privileges not to travel but to get planning permissions for permanent sites so that they can settle down, it is an absolute abuse. Now that we have got the first Conservative Government elected for 23 years, it is time that Her Majesty’s Government acted to stamp out that abuse in the countryside. The current system is also forcing local authorities such as mine to identify sites where pitches can be provided for that supposed growth rate in Travellers.
For example, Kettering Borough Council has to find 25 pitches by 2022. It has identified 17 so far and has another eight to find. Local constituents have been brought to tears because sites near their own homes have been identified as potential pitches. Only when there are determined local councillors, acting on behalf of their local constituents in their wards, who stand up and say, “No, we don’t want Traveller sites in our communities,” can these things be stopped. In Kettering, there was a proposal for a Traveller site near the Scott Road garages in the town itself, and it caused uproar among the local community, who knew that if permission were granted for Traveller pitches on that site, local crime levels would go through the roof. The idea that these provisions in the planning system are helping community cohesion is completely wrong; they are stirring up resentment and hatred between one community and another, and it is time that the new Government did something about it.
Let me give the House further evidence. This is a typical response I have had from a settled dweller in the countryside:
“Since moving to our current address in Braybrooke we have endured fly tipping, theft, many instances of intimidation, and fly grazing.
“horses removed from our land we have encountered almost daily instances of defecating in our gateway, known to be carried out by this family”.
I am talking about human defecation. That is as disgusting as it gets. The response continues:
“I caught one of them in the act one day. We dare not do anything about it for fear of reprisals.
We cannot leave anything lying around outside as approximately once a week a van with travellers in drives into our yard and out again without stopping, presumably to intimidate or for opportunist theft…My wife and her family can relate…many, many more instances over the last 30 years including hare coursing, theft of equipment, intimidation, fly grazing, dumping of caravans etc. They have given up reporting instances long ago as nothing has ever been done about it and it just seems futile.”
I hope you can see, Mr Davies, the despair and frustration of my constituents, who are really beginning to resent the Gypsy and Traveller community in Northamptonshire, because they are bending the rules of the planning system, which are skewed in their favour, to allow them to get permissions to set up encampments in the countryside. When the local authority refuses those applications, they go to appeal, and all too often the pathetic planning inspectorate allows permission—sometimes temporary permission. When the temporary permission expires after two years, five years or whatever, the local authority is unable to enforce the removal of those encampments, because they cite the Human Rights Act and the provisions therein to protect so-called family life. Also, the Department for Communities and Local Government has issued guidelines to local authorities that they cannot pursue such enforcement if the cost is excessive or disproportionate. It ends up with my village of Braybrooke, in a beautiful part of Northamptonshire and with 145 dwellings, surrounded by 67 inappropriate pitches and a further 27 legal pitches within a further three miles. The whole thing has got completely out of control. In Braybrooke, the primary school has closed, but when it existed, it was made up 100% of children from the Traveller community, because the Traveller children moved into the area and moved into the school, and parents from the settled community moved their children out of the school to go to other schools. Now, the school has closed down, yet in the Department’s own guidelines it says that the scale of such Gypsy and Traveller sites should not dominate the nearest settled community. That might be the wording in the guidance, but it is not having the appropriate impact to save villages such as Braybrooke.
It is only thanks to the good work of residents such as Karen Stanley and the North Northamptonshire Residents Against Inappropriate Development group, who are fearlessly championing the cause of the settled community against threats of intimidation from Gypsies and Travellers, that local residents feel they have any say in this matter at all. Yet it lies in the gift of the Minister to listen to those concerns from the heart of middle England, because he has the power to do something about them. I suggest that section 225 of the Housing Act 2004 should be at the top of his priority list. If he can abolish it, there is every chance that relative peace could return to the countryside, and we could start to rebuild relationships between the settled community and Gypsies and Travellers.
It is customary to compliment the Member who secured the debate on his speech, but I do so as a formality on this occasion. I honestly thought that the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) was better than the speech he made. I did not intervene because I wanted to hear his argument, but there is a central contradiction at the heart of it. He identified Gypsies and Travellers as “other”, and as being outside communities—the title of the debate makes that clear—but said that they should not be afforded any distinction because, for example, 75% of them live in bricks and mortar accommodation, as the census demonstrates. He is an intelligent and courteous Member of the House and I have a lot of respect for him, but he has done himself no service with that speech.
Let me explain what I mean by that. I objected to the original title of the debate—my objection was not to the hon. Gentleman, but to the way in which it appeared on the Order Paper—which was “Effect of Gypsies and Travellers on local communities”. Rather than trying to intellectualise that, I said that we should imagine replacing the words “Gypsies and Travellers” with the name of some other ethnic or racial group; I think that there would have been outcry in the House about that. I compliment the House authorities on the fact that when I raised that point, they took it very seriously. They spoke to the hon. Gentleman, and the title was modified to make it sound less offensive. I am not sure that it actually is less offensive, but it certainly sounds better than it did.
I do not excuse any individual example of bad behaviour—antisocial behaviour, littering or any of the examples that have been given—by a member of the Gypsy and Traveller community or by anybody else. I find it offensive, however, that an entire community or ethnic group should be tarred with the same brush. Let us try to get to the nub of the matter, because I believe that the hon. Gentleman is looking at symptoms and not causes. The problem is not new; Gypsies and Travellers as a community suffer the greatest social problems and social needs in the country. He seemed quite proud about the fact that we have a new Conservative Government, so let us look at how that Government are dealing with the problems. On almost any social indicator, such as long-term health problems or educational attainment, Gypsies and Travellers come lowest of all ethnic minority groups in the country. That is often because of how they are treated by society.
If we consider how Gypsies and Travellers fit into British society, according to the most recent census 66% identify themselves as English and 64% as Christian. Roughly three quarters of Gypsies and Travellers live in bricks and mortar accommodation. Often, they do so not through choice. Although many may be happy living in bricks and mortar accommodation, many others—whether the hon. Gentleman accepts it or not—would prefer to live a traditional lifestyle. The question is: is it reasonable for them to do so?
Levels of owner-occupation among the Gypsy and Traveller community are about the same as they are among the settled population. On economic indicators such as self-employment and employment, the position is not very different. However, some Members—I believe that they fall into error here—cannot move beyond such statistical analysis to consider ethnography and how Gypsies and Travellers live their lives, so they are unable to think of Gypsies and Travellers as a separate ethnic and racial group. I found some of the things that the hon. Gentleman said offensive in that regard.
The previous coalition Government took a number of steps that have simply exacerbated the problem. The previous Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the right hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Sir Eric Pickles), went through a phase of calling in and dealing with applications. That was deemed to be unlawful by the High Court in the case of Moore and Coates v. Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, because the Secretary of State was clearly calling in applications simply to turn them down. The Government have proposed redefining the terms Gypsy and Traveller, so that only if someone actually travels can they be called a Gypsy or Traveller. That would undermine ethnicity.
The coalition Government also removed regional spatial strategies and allowed local authorities to make decisions on this matter. As far back as the Caravan Sites Act 1968, history shows us that because of inflammatory rhetoric and local pressure, if we leave such decisions to local authorities, those decisions tend not to be made. It is reckoned that dealing with the shortage of sites will take at least 27 years at local authorities’ current rate of progress. I often refer to this statistic: it would take about an acre of land across the UK to provide the required number of fixed pitches. At the heart of the matter is the fact that there are simply not enough authorised sites. Most Gypsies and Travellers who do not live in bricks and mortar accommodation—whether they want to or not—live on authorised sites. A minority, who are effectively characterised as homeless, live on unauthorised sites. We no longer have authorised stopping places, as we had even before the 1968 Act, and we certainly have an inadequacy of authorised sites.
The problem is not difficult to solve. I do not believe that it is beyond the wit of the local authorities and central Government to come up with sufficient authorised sites to put an end to the terrible conflicts between settled communities and Gypsies and Travellers who stop. The Traveller community may behave in an unreasonable way, and the settled community may do likewise, but conflicts arise as a consequence of the lack of authorised sites and the lack of stopping places.
From the comments of the hon. Member for Kettering, I imagine that he will think that this is all hokum, and that nobody has a right to travel. He probably thinks that if they do, they are on their own and can sort things out, buy land and get planning permission in the ordinary way—they can do what they want. It would be a huge loss to the culture of this country if we lost the travelling tradition of many centuries of Roma, Irish Travellers and Gypsies. This country is big enough, rich enough and generous enough to accommodate those communities, as many other countries do.
It is a parsimonious and reductive view of the world that says we must always look for the worst in people and make things difficult for them. There is a response to the constant refrain I hear, particularly but not only from Conservative Members, that we must make life more difficult for Gypsies and Travellers, which is that that would be a downward spiral. We were beginning to get somewhere when the noble Lord Avebury’s Caravan Sites Act 1968 became law. That Act greatly relieved the pressure and conflict in the 1970s, and the last Labour Government were beginning to undo the problems created by Michael Howard. If we had continued with that, we would be in a much more harmonious situation. Again, we are now in a situation of conflict in which nobody is winning: local communities are not winning and Gypsies and Travellers are not winning. Some MPs might be winning because they can put out press releases and stories in their local newspapers, but I genuinely believe that the hon. Member for Kettering and other Members present are bigger than that and can look for better solutions than the one he proposes today.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. It is also a pleasure to see the Minister in his place, and I congratulate him on his appointment. I bet he is delighted to be here today to talk about this subject. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone), who caught some beautiful Northamptonshire sun at the weekend, on securing this debate.
This is a tough one. We are here because, on 21 May, Daventry District Council followed the recommendation of its officers and granted planning permission for a small number of Traveller pitches on the Golden Stables greenfield site on the border between the district I represent, Daventry, and my hon. Friend’s Kettering constituency. For the past few years, that border area has been under much pressure from multiple planning applications for Traveller pitches. As he said, many of those pitches are now in place on his side of the constituency border, and some are in place in the Daventry district.
Local residents are up in arms. Strangely enough, they demand equality, which is what my hon. Friend asked for. They would have found the contribution of the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) surprising. They would see him as a Labour Member for a city seat who seeks to design the countryside in a certain way in order to find solutions to problems that simply do not exist in his constituency. He talked about offensive language, but he used the phrase “grim reaper” when referring to his local hospital in the run-up to the last election—it all depends on how we determine what is offensive. Traveller sites are a significant issue in rural communities across the country, and there is a solution. Yes, we can have a rational argument, but we have to base it on equality and fairness for constituents, both rural and urban.
Daventry district planners have been on a hiding to nothing in recent years. For them, as for all planners in local government, the cost of going to appeal to defend a decision has risen massively. At a time when public funds are not easy to come by, the natural reaction of all planners across the country is to become risk-averse and to recommend approval for sites that they might not feel are completely correct. In the past five years, Daventry district has found itself unwittingly on the naughty step of the Department for Communities and Local Government. The council has been criticised for turning down too many planning applications. I have an untrained eye—I am not a planning lawyer and never want to become one—but the council seems to have been put in that place for doing the right thing and being localist. The council has listened to local people’s views and rejected unwanted speculative developments, including a huge number of wind farms and Traveller pitches, and it is being punished by central Government for doing exactly that. The council now has a joint core strategy, with agreed housing numbers for the next 15 years and a five-year land supply, yet we now have the Planning Inspectorate allowing appeals for housing outside those numbers. I will return to that issue in this place at another time.
The National Farmers Union has recognised Traveller pitches as an issue, and it is widely acknowledged that there is a shortage of authorised Traveller sites, which means that Travellers sometimes camp illegally. More sites in the right places, where local agreement can be found, could go some way towards solving the problem. The National Farmers Union would like a more robust system for how councils assess the future need for such sites. My hon. Friend the Member for Kettering talked about the 3% growth that the Minister’s Department seems to require. Sensible, localist thought would lessen the problem, certainly in Northamptonshire. Landowners should not be adversely affected by the acts of the police or local authorities. Sometimes, for example, problematic and un-roadworthy Travellers are directed off the highway and on to private land. Official bodies seem to turn a blind eye to encampments, rather than moving them on.
There are many other issues, but the most important one is that the National Farmers Union, my local residents, my hon. Friend, a host of other Members and I want Travellers, settled residents and businesses to be equal before the law. The planning system must ensure that everyone is dealt with fairly and even-handedly.
On equality, during my time as prospective parliamentary candidate, and now MP, for Faversham and Mid Kent, the growth of the Gypsy and Traveller community has been one of the most frequently raised issues, especially around the villages of Headcorn and Ulcombe. Travellers have long traditions in that area, and they are a valued part of the community, but there has recently been such growth and constant development that residents have contacted me to say how frustrated they feel that there is one rule for them and another for the Travellers.
This is an hour-long debate, and I am running out of time. If I had more time I would re-emphasise that what we are after is equality. My hon. Friend the Member for Kettering came up with ideas for how the Minister could put equality back into the system, but essentially my residents, especially in the village of Arthingworth on the border with the Kettering constituency, feel very hard done by. They do not feel that they are being treated fairly by the planning system, and they feel that others who choose to reside nearby get better and fairer treatment.
When I first heard the original motion—I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) on this—I was absolutely astonished. The motion made me wonder what other ethnic groups and races could be grouped together and framed in a debate about their effect on local communities. I would like to think that such language was a thing of the distant past, so I was surprised, to say the least, that the House had allowed the original motion. I am pleased that the wording of the motion has been changed, albeit to wording that is only slightly better.
I hope we can use this debate to put to bed some of the myths or stereotypes about these communities and promote greater cohesion between the many ethnic communities in our country. I understand and appreciate some of the concerns that have been raised in this debate, but I counsel caution to Members present about grouping together different ethnic groups as a homogeneous whole.
In this country, Romany Gypsies and Irish Travellers are both legally recognised ethnic minority groups with rich cultures and traditions that go back centuries. They are groups with people as varied as in any other country, and it is entirely wrong, not to mention counterproductive to the desired outcomes of many Members here—especially the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone), who secured the debate—to stigmatise such groups and to seek to create further barriers between them and other parts of society.
Many of the problems that have arisen and that have been highlighted in this debate are structural issues that need our attention. There is a serious shortage of legal Traveller sites in England, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith said, and on current trends it will take decades for that deficiency to be rectified. This situation has forced thousands of Gypsies and Travellers on to illegal pitches, which not only annoys some local communities and further stigmatises Gypsies and Travellers in the eyes of many people, but harms the Travellers and Gypsies themselves, particularly their children.
I thank the hon. Lady for giving way, and I am sure that she is about to come on to the important issue of the welfare of children, on which we both agree. However, does she agree that, although she is absolutely right that members of the Traveller and Gypsy community have an expectation of, and a right to, equal treatment, there is also an expectation on them that they will bear equal responsibilities? When illegal Traveller encampments are created, as frequently happens in many of our constituencies, when properties are trashed for people to gain access to them, and when sites are left in an absolute eyesore of a state, with human waste being left and fly-tipping taking place, as happened in Southwick Green in my constituency just last week, and nobody is prosecuted, that is not equality of responsibility. It leads to the sorts of problems between communities that she is describing.
Again, the hon. Gentleman is making some valid points. This issue is about rights and responsibilities, and as a community and a country we have a responsibility to Gypsies and Travellers to ensure that there are legal places where they can live. They have rights and the responsibility, as all residents and UK citizens do, to treat those places—their homes—with the respect they deserve. However, we have come to a downward spiral, which is not helping anyone; it is not helping the local residents and it is certainly not helping the Gypsies and Travellers.
As I was saying, children in the Traveller communities already suffer high levels of racial abuse, with nine out of 10 of them experiencing such abuse, according to 2014 figures. We need to do all we can to help these people, and putting additional pressure on them will only make matters worse, deepening the divisions when we need to be building bridges. All people in this country should obey the rule of law, but equally all people in this country should be respected, and respect is what the Gypsy and Traveller communities require more than most. Only by giving them such respect can we bring about the positive changes that we all want.
The Government and civil society need to work towards boosting community cohesion, and towards promoting a greater dialogue and further understanding between Gypsies and Travellers and the rest of society. The Government must also recognise that dealing with these communities is a two-way street, and that it is only when we all work together in a joint atmosphere of respect and tolerance that we can hope to come together and put an end to many of the problems that appear to divide so many of us.
All local communities should be able to live in peace, and that goes for Travellers and Gypsies as well, so I hope that all Members here today will bear that in mind and will work with these communities rather than against them, putting aside divisive rhetoric and entering into discussions with open minds—
I am most grateful. In Cheshire West, Cheshire East and Warrington, there are 16 unauthorised Gypsy camp sites. Those sites are owned by the Gypsy community. They are not illegal sites; the Gypsies are the landowners. What those sites do not have is planning permission, and there are 53 such slivers of green-belt land with temporary planning permission.
The point that my constituents and others in the area make is that this issue is not about inequality; it is about fairness. If anybody wants to put in a planning application for those sites, it will be refused. The fact is that the Gypsies move on and set up caravan sites with no planning permission whatsoever, leading to communities being divided on fairness when it comes to planning law, and not on any of the other matters that the hon. Lady mentioned. The issue is planning law—the fairness between the Gypsy and Traveller community, and our own constituents.
I literally have only 20 seconds left, but I knew the hon. Gentleman had not spoken before, so I was happy to allow him to make his point. However, I probably do not have time to give him a long answer, other than to say that what he said brings us back to the point I made earlier about structural issues, which we need to deal with. My hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith said that all we need is an acre of land across the country to solve a lot of these problems. Following your advice, Mr Davies, I will end there.
Thank you, Mr Davies, for calling me to speak; it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I congratulate the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone)on raising this issue, in which he has a well known and well publicised interest.
I start from a position similar to that of my two hon. Friends the Members for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) and for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson): that members of the Traveller community deserve to have their needs met just as much as members of any other community. Theirs is a way of life and a culture that deserve recognition and respect, but the same is true of the settled community. They also deserve to live their lives in peace, without unacceptable levels of nuisance and annoyance. The key is to find a balance between the needs of the two communities.
As my two hon. Friends have already said, Traveller and Gypsy communities suffer significant levels of social exclusion, and many of the manifestations and problems that we have heard about this afternoon are the result of that exclusion. I will give some statistics: only 47% of Travellers are in work, compared with 63% of the settled population in England and Wales; and 60% of Travellers have no qualifications, which is linked to the fact that many of them find it hard to access education, and indeed health services. There are reports from some areas of GPs refusing to register Travellers or look after them. We also hear about instances of open discrimination —we have heard about some today—and I am sure that everyone involved in this debate would agree that those are wholly unacceptable.
Criminal behaviour should be dealt with by the police and the criminal justice system. If complaints to the police are not being followed up, that is a matter to be raised with the local police—and perhaps here in Parliament with the Government, who have imposed cuts in front-line policing and the criminal justice system that are making the jobs of police and judges harder than they might otherwise have been. However, that situation should not lead us to attempt to demonise an entire community; that would be absolutely the wrong thing to do.
Local and national authorities share a duty to identify sites for Travellers that are big enough to meet their needs and that also allow both the settled and Traveller communities to co-exist peacefully, without there being a domination of the settled communities because there is an over-concentration of Traveller sites in particular areas.
However, there is a big gap between the pressure on local authorities to provide appropriate sites and the lack of support they receive from national Government. The Government continue to make increasing demands of local authorities, while withdrawing from them the resources they need to properly meet those increased demands. It is that kind of failure that leads to some of the problems that we have heard about today from Government Members.
During the general election campaign, I had the opportunity to visit Harlow, where similar issues are being raised by members of the public who have experienced a significant number of illegal Traveller sites around that town, in what appears to be a co-ordinated action by a number of Traveller families. Does the Minister believe that there is any need to review the powers available to local authorities to deal with that kind of co-ordinated action? However, I would certainly not infer from that situation that there is any need to target or smear an entire community with the kind of accusations of mass criminality that we sometimes hear when this issue is being debated.
In February 2012, the Department for Communities and Local Government issued a document called “Creating the Conditions for Integration”, which made some reference to the Gypsy and Traveller communities. Clearly, more support is needed for the Gypsy and Traveller communities to enable them to co-exist with settled communities.
My hon. Friend the Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown) submitted a written question on 2 June, asking the Secretary of State
“what plans he has to fulfil his Department’s responsibilities for the promotion of community cohesion”
in relation to the settled and Traveller communities. Since my hon. Friend has not yet received a response—I understand that time may not have allowed it—I invite the Minister to share his views today on the point she raised with his boss.
Will the Minister tell us what his response will be to the consultation issued by his Department in September last year on proposals to change planning policy, to address the needs of Travellers in relation to settled communities’ needs where planning may be granted? How many of the 620 new pitches funded by the Homes and Communities Agency in 2013 have been provided? What assessment has he made of the resources councils need to build the new sites that are required and avoid unnecessary tension that leads to the kinds of issues that have been raised on behalf of communities in this debate?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) on securing this debate. He has a strong track record of speaking loudly and clearly on this issue, raising concerns on behalf of his constituents. I am sure that it is not the last time that we will have the opportunity to discuss the matter in this forum and in many others. A range of contributions to this interesting debate has highlighted the different opinions on this area of policy.
It is important that we seek to make our planning system fair, to ensure that it applies to everyone equally, and that we address concerns of communities, wherever they come from. At the same time, we must recognise the need to ensure that everybody in our society feels they have a place within it and that our systems—our laws and planning rules—account for those needs. I state that loudly and clearly, because it is important.
We recognise that Gypsies and Travellers are members of our communities and should be considered as part of the planning system. The Government want fair play in the planning system, with everyone being treated even-handedly. That goes to the heart of some comments made on both sides of the debate this afternoon.
I want first to talk about unauthorised sites. Although I want to address a number of issues that arose in the debate, the issue of unauthorised sites is important and a fair amount of work has been done on it in recent times. The Government’s desire is to see fair treatment. I share hon. Members’ concerns about unauthorised sites and the disruption and expense they cause for local communities. Too often, councils and landowners think they are powerless to stop unauthorised encampments, when in fact extensive powers are available, although their deployment and use can vary.
My hon. Friend may be aware that, in March, my ministerial colleagues the Minister for Housing and Planning and the Minister for Policing, Crime and Criminal Justice sent a joint ministerial letter, to council leaders and police and crime commissioners, expressing concern that local authorities and the police were not always seen to be doing enough to stop unauthorised encampments, which can have an impact in the areas where they are found. To accompany the letter, the Government re-issued a summary of the robust powers that councils and landowners have to remove unauthorised Traveller sites. The police can use their powers to direct trespassers from land when requested by a public or private landowner. Strong enforcement powers are available for local authorities to tackle breaches of planning controls.
The previous Conservative-led Government revoked the legislation that limited the use of temporary stop notices against caravans used as a person’s main residence. Through the Localism Act 2011, we limited opportunities for retrospective planning applications—an element that sometimes led to that feeling of unfairness mentioned by a number of hon. Members.
I also want to address the issue of authorised sites. I am sure that my hon. Friend recognises that although unauthorised sites cause particular concern, the way that authorised sites are handled also causes concern in communities. Indeed, examples of that have been raised in this debate.
The previous Government rightly did away with the Labour Government’s top-down approach to planning, where targets for Traveller pitches were forced on local authorities by unelected regional bodies. The 3% target has been mentioned by hon. Members who are concerned by it. Well, it is not a target; it is a guideline—not a requirement—issued in 2007 by the Labour Government. I take this opportunity to remind local authorities that the guideline is there to give them guidance, not to require them to act in that way. It is something that they can take it into consideration, but do not have necessarily to deliver when looking at the circumstances and factors in their own local area.
The planning policy for Traveller sites has returned to local authorities the responsibility to plan for their Traveller communities, just as they are required to plan for the rest of their community—for all communities in their areas. Our policy aims to focus Traveller sites in appropriate locations, in line with objectively assessed need: no more, no less. Our policy strengthens protections for the countryside and green belt that already exist by making it clear that Traveller sites are inappropriate development in the green belt, and that local authorities should strictly limit the development of new Traveller sites in the open countryside.
I mentioned previously that in Cheshire West and Chester the landlord and landowner is the Gypsy and Traveller community. Local authorities’ legal departments seem incapable of handling retrospective planning permission. They do not use the laws and regulations that provide them with the relevant powers. That is weak. The legal services departments of local authorities do not seem to be up to the job of enforcing the powers that they currently have. What can the Minister do to encourage local authorities to exercise the powers that they have to refuse retrospective planning permissions and rectify the green belt land that has been completely spoilt with tarmac?
I thank my hon. Friend for his contribution. He also has a track record of speaking clearly and strongly on these matters on behalf of his constituents. He raises an important point that goes to the heart of the question, “What is going to happen now? What can we do next?”
The shadow Minister asked how the Government would respond to the consultation on planning and Travellers, which took place before the general election, although there was no time to bring it into operation. There were more than 700 responses to the consultation, which advanced a number of possible actions that the Government could now take. This is a challenging area and, although I share a number of hon. Members’ concerns, the Government have to navigate it carefully and appropriately, taking into account the needs of all the communities that the Government are here to serve.
Planning permissions sometimes fail to find the right balance between adequate supply and protection of our landscape, as my hon. Friend the Member for Weaver Vale (Graham Evans) just said. Increasing authorised site provision should not be at the cost of the countryside. The green belt and other sensitive areas of interest and natural beauty must be protected and recognised, and local authorities need the power to ensure that that is the case.
The previous Conservative-led coalition Government consulted on the proposals to introduce more fairness into the planning system, strengthen protection for the green belt and countryside, and address the negative effects of unauthorised occupation in particular.
I welcome the Minister to his post and wish him success. I understand that he is responding to some Government Members, but the tone of his response is very negative. I would like to hear what positive message the Government have for Gypsy and Traveller communities. Previously in the House, Members such as Andrew George, the former Member for St Ives, and Julie Morgan, the former Member for Cardiff North, spoke up clearly for Gypsy and Traveller communities. I hope that the Minister will take on that responsibility in his new job. We have heard the negatives—the things that he does not want communities to do—but what is his positive message ?
I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman feels that my tone is negative; it is not intended to be. I am trying to be factual, to set out the direction that the Government are going to take and to comment on things that have happened in the past. I started by recognising the obligation that we have to all communities in this country, including the Gypsy and Traveller community, in respect of the planning system and more generally. Nevertheless, hon. Members have raised legitimate concerns and it is right that those are addressed. I listened carefully to the hon. Gentleman’s concerns, but I also want to respond to specific points made by my hon. Friends the Members for Weaver Vale and for Daventry (Chris Heaton-Harris) and particularly those made by my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering.
I was talking about the consultation document and the steps that the Government might now take. The document included proposals to give local authorities more control so that they can strictly limit new Traveller sites in the open countryside. The previous Government also consulted on whether the definition of a Traveller for planning purposes should be restricted just to those who travel. The issue of whether there can be a Traveller who does not travel has been raised. How do we meet the needs of those who are no longer living that way of life, but may consider themselves to be part of that community? The Government share the view that if someone has given up travelling permanently, their needs should be planned for as part of the settled community.
When we are planning for people’s needs, it is appropriate not to think of them by race or ethnic group or to see them as different, but to plan for the needs they should have. If someone is part of a settled community, it is right that they should be considered in that way and that plans should take account of the lifestyle they now lead. I assure Members that introducing greater fairness to the planning system and increasing protection for sensitive areas—including the green belt—is similarly a priority for this Government. We recognise that there is great sensitivity not only in the scope of this debate, but more widely about the protection that our countryside needs and the recognition it should be given in our planning system. That is why we intend to update planning policy on Travellers at the first opportunity.
We want to look at the lessons that can be learned from the consultation, taking into account other factors, including ongoing cases in law and the need to interact appropriately with the rest of the planning system and existing legislation. We want to make appropriate changes that ensure more fairness and equal treatment for the Gypsy and Traveller community and for permanently settled communities, whose concerns Members have expressed today.
I do not want to appear negative. I heard the comments of the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter), and all communities have an important role to play in this issue. We are a great and diverse nation. The traditions that together make us the great whole that we are often are stronger and more valued than any of the parts alone could possibly be. If we start to move against one community or to categorise people in groups in that way, we go down a dangerous path. At the same time, we must ensure fairness in our planning system and equality before the law for all communities. We should recognise the concerns expressed by our constituents in all sorts of different circumstances and brought before Parliament, the House and the Government in these debates.
Members have expressed legitimate concerns and raised issues on both sides of the debate. We have a consultation document that proposes a course of action, and I hope significant improvements will be made when the Government bring forward changes to the regime and the system. I hope that the next time we debate this topic, it will be recognised that progress has been made. We can, of course, look to address all the other issues, including those affecting Gypsy and Traveller communities. We need to ensure that they have proper and adequate access to healthcare and education and that their needs are met.
We want a fair system that treats people equally and we want to deliver it in a timely fashion and a sensible way. I hope that all sides in this debate agree with that. I thank Members for their comments, because they help to inform me in the Department with my new portfolio as we take forward an important area of business.
We have heard contributions from around the country in the past hour—from Hammersmith, Washington, Mid Kent, York, Daventry, Sussex, Cheshire and Devon—and the message from all those parts of the country, with two exceptions, is that there is a problem. The system is not working as well as it might, but we can all agree that the law needs to be applied equally to whoever applies for planning permission. Too many of my constituents are frightened to speak out on this issue for fear of being accused of being racist, and we had a flavour of that this afternoon. If MPs cannot articulate their constituents’ concerns on genuine issues such as this, there is not a role for Parliament.
I encourage the Minister to reissue the guidance on the importance of local authorities working collaboratively when Gypsy and Traveller site applications are on either side of a local authority boundary. I look forward to the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) campaigning for the acre of land that will solve this national problem to be located in the heart of his constituency.
Motion lapsed, and sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(14)).