Wednesday 8 July 2015
[Mr Andrew Turner in the Chair]
Southern Railway (Performance)
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the performance of Southern railway.
On reflection, I think I could have tabled a different motion and begged to move “That this House has considered the performance of Southern railway and found it wanting.” I could also have included Network Rail in the scope of the motion that hon. Members and I want to debate this morning: we should all accept from the outset that Network Rail bears its share of responsibility for the lamentable performance of Southern over the past few months. I want to focus on the performance of Southern railway, but I will not speak for too long as I am aware that a large number of Members wish to make points. I hope everyone will have an opportunity to do so.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Mid Sussex (Sir Nicholas Soames) has been assiduous in raising his constituents’ concerns about the performance of Southern; he very much regrets that he is unable to be here today, but I have undertaken to raise many of his constituents’ points for him. My hon. Friend the Member for Horsham (Jeremy Quin) is attending a Select Committee, but he intends to come along to this debate. If there is time, I hope it will be possible to call him to speak, Mr Turner, because his constituents are concerned about what is going on.
The plain facts of the matter are these: according to Transport Focus, which conducts an authoritative survey of passenger satisfaction, 82% of passengers were satisfied with the performance of Southern in autumn 2010. That still meant that about a fifth of passengers were dissatisfied, but let us leave that aside. By spring 2015—these are the latest figures—only 72% of passengers were satisfied with Southern’s performance. According to this authoritative survey, more than a quarter, one in every four, of passengers travelling on Southern are dissatisfied with its performance. That makes Southern officially the worst franchise in England. It has the lowest satisfaction rate of any franchise. The company should hang its head in shame at what passengers are saying.
Southern actually has ratings lower than that. The percentage of passengers satisfied with the availability of staff at the station, for instance, remains at a very low 58%. The figures are simply unacceptable. My first key point is that the one thing that passengers expect and need is a reliable train service to get them to their chosen destinations, particularly if they have flights to catch or if they are going to and from work.
I apologise, but I will not be able to stay for the whole debate. Like me, in the past 24 hours the right hon. Gentleman will have received in his inbox an update on Southern’s performance improvement plan; it has clearly been a bumpy ride.
Another thing that passengers want is decent compensation. Does the right hon. Gentleman think that paying compensation after a 15-minute delay, rather than a 30-minute delay, would be appropriate? Does he agree that getting the train companies to publicise how people can claim compensation when their train is running late, or at the stations where they are arriving late, might be a good way to improve passengers’ views of Southern and Network Rail?
I strongly agree with the right hon. Gentleman’s points, which were well made. I will come to compensation—as, I suspect, will other Members. The current compensation arrangements do not properly hold the companies to account, and they need to be sharpened up.
On punctuality, according to the Office of Rail and Road, in the first quarter of 2005, the year in which I was elected to the House, 2.6% of Southern trains were cancelled or significantly late. That is by the official measure, which does not include trains that are just a few minutes late—that is a point on its own: commuters expect absolute reliability and get it from other franchisees and in other countries. In contrast with the 2005 figure, 6.2% of Southern trains were cancelled or significantly late in the fourth quarter of 2014. Over that 10-year period, the number of Southern trains cancelled or significantly late increased by two and a half times. That is an unacceptable deterioration in performance and relates specifically to an important point: neither Southern nor Network Rail can wholly lay the problems at the door of the London Bridge improvements.
My right hon. Friend makes a valid point. My constituents have to put up with delays, timetable changes, short-form trains, extended engineering works and overcrowding far too regularly. Southern seems incapable of communicating effectively with its customers when those problems arise. Does he support my view that the Office of Rail and Road and the Transport Committee should hold inquiries into Southern’s performance and, in particular, into its management?
My hon. Friend has made her points effectively. She speaks up for a large number of constituents, hers and mine, who are absolutely fed up to the back teeth with Southern’s performance and want to see real action.
In 2010, the figure for trains arriving on time was 90.8%, but this year the average is only 82.8%, although that figure has improved to 86.5% in the second period of 2015-16. There may be some belated evidence of improvement in Southern’s performance. If that is true, it will be welcome, but it must be locked in and sustained.
I assure the right hon. Gentleman that Brighton commuters certainly do not see any improvement on the Southern line. They are fed up with the service they are seeing—not least the notorious 7.29 train that did not arrive on time once in a whole year. He is eloquently taking the battle to the doors of Southern and Network Rail, but does he not think that the Government have a responsibility to look again at the whole franchise system? We have such a fragmented rail system; time and again, the rail network and the rail companies are not joined up. One problem that that creates is that we are simply not seeing the improvement that commuters and our constituents rightly expect.
The hon. Lady makes an interesting point. I do not choose to attack privatisation in itself, which has resulted in significantly increased investment in the railways—there has been a huge increase in the number of passengers. However, given the split between the operating companies and the entity that owns the track and is responsible for signalling, effective co-operation between the two and effective communication to passengers are important. The very fact that I secured this debate singling out Southern is a reflection of the attitude that our constituents will have: first, they hold the train operating company accountable. The fact is that we need a joined-up service from the rail industry as a whole.
The hon. Lady rightly drew attention to the train of shame—the 7.29 from Brighton to Victoria, which was late every single day of last year. I think that train ran on 140 days, and it was never once on time. The Prime Minister himself was drawn to criticise that failure, saying that it was completely unacceptable.
The right hon. Gentleman’s speech has been one of the most fiery we have heard in Westminster Hall for some time, and I congratulate him on it. On compensation, surely the fact is that because it takes so long to get recompense for late trains, the general public do not even bother to claim any more. We should show them how and encourage them to do so.
I will see whether I can fire things up further and liven things up for the hon. Gentleman on Budget day.
While we are discussing the Brighton service, I should mention that my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Simon Kirby) is sitting patiently behind me listening to the debate. As a Government Whip, he has taken a vow of silence, but he feels equally strongly about Southern’s lamentable performance and the service it is delivering for his constituents. He wants to see improvements, and I know that he has fought hard for them.
I have dealt with how important it is for Southern to run a more punctual service. Secondly, there is the issue of overcrowding. It is unacceptable that commuters and others should so often have to endure an overcrowded service and be forced to stand for either part or the whole of a journey. The problems with Southern and Thameslink are exacerbated by trains that stop at Gatwick and pick up a large number of passengers, which overcrowds the trains. In part, that is a reflection of the significant growth in passenger numbers, in which case services must be expanded to accommodate demand. Regular overcrowding is adding to the frustration of commuters and others with the service.
Thirdly, all that is further exacerbated by the absence of timely information when there are problems with the service. The London Bridge improvement works have caused disruption, and some of the consequential timetable changes have been very unpopular. There will be incidents that are beyond the control of the train operating companies or Network Rail.
We all understand that such incidents—such as tragic accidents—will happen, but the travelling public’s tolerance for them is completely stretched given that so many other incidents are within the companies’ control. When it is clear that the companies could deliver a better service, people’s anger about what happens repeatedly is exacerbated by the absence of proper information about what is going on.
It may have been taking steps, but Southern must get better at providing information, particularly when there is major disruption, so that people are able to get home. On 30 April, during the election campaign, my excellent research assistant travelled down from London Victoria to Arundel to deliver some casework to me. The journey took her five hours because of significant disruption on the line. One issue she mentioned was the absence of good information.
Fourthly, the cleanliness of trains is a problem. A lot of the time, Southern trains are filthy, despite the introduction of new rolling stock. It is appalling for commuters and others to have to sit in trains surrounded by discarded food. The loos are often either disgusting or out of service. The cleanliness of trains is, in part, the responsibility of those who use them. Too many people leave litter, food and so on, but other companies are better at collecting it and ensuring that trains are clean. The situation adds to the poor quality of the service, and it is a constant complaint from my constituents.
I pay tribute to the Minister for her work to address the poor historical performance of Southern and Network Rail on the routes we are discussing. Along with other Members, I met her before the election, and she was already in the process of taking action. She chaired a meeting in the House between the Office of the Rail Regulator, Network Rail and Southern, and an improvement plan was put in place. Not content with that, she took further action, convening another meeting immediately after the general election to demand further improvements. No doubt she will tell us about that when she responds.
Nevertheless, those were remedial measures. To return to the point made by the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas), we need arrangements in the rail industry that automatically ensure proper performance and do not require Members of Parliament to complain or ministerial intervention, however effective. That is not how the system is meant to run.
That leads us directly to compensation. The right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) was right to ask whether compensation arrangements are effective. Compensation kicks in only when trains are 30 minutes late, and the arrangements are not very well known by the public. The take-up of compensation is low: according to the ORR, 68% of passengers say that they have never claimed compensation, mainly because of a lack of awareness. In July 2013, Transport Focus found that 88% of those eligible for compensation did not claim. One of the most effective ways in which we could sharpen the accountability of rail operating companies is by having more effective and automatic compensation arrangements, so that the companies feel pain when they fail to deliver an adequate service for passengers. Compensation arrangements must be improved.
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that there should be some focus on the fact that when a delay is Network Rail’s fault, it has to give quite a lot of compensation to the rail operating companies, but only a fraction of that is passed on to passengers? There is a real disproportionality between the amount of money the train companies get and what the passengers get. That ought to be looked at.
The hon. Lady makes a very good point.
Owing to Southern and Network Rail’s poor performance and passenger experience, all the good things that have happened have, in passengers’ eyes, been negated. That is a pity. There has been £21 million of investment in new signalling on the Arun valley line, which was meant to improve punctuality. The work at London Bridge will deliver improvements in future—no doubt the Minister will talk about them—and is the result of £6 billion of investment. There are new trains on the line, and no doubt staff are trying hard to improve the service.
None of that, however, will count for anything unless Southern can get its act together and deliver a better service to passengers on a daily basis. The whole concept of the rail industry being in private ownership is being undermined by this company, which is letting down not only its passengers but the very concept that a private company can deliver a decent utility to people in this country. It seems to me that that alone is a good enough reason for Southern to improve its performance.
In conclusion, the number of my constituents who have been complaining about Southern’s service has increased steadily over the past few years. People are absolutely fed up with the company’s performance, but they are also fed up with excuses. They want real action to deliver a better service. There are signs that such action is being taken, but it must be embedded and sustained. We need better arrangements to ensure that rail companies that fail to deliver pay the price and are held properly to account by the public.
I thank the right hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) for securing this debate on an issue that has a significant impact on my constituents. My constituents use Southern railway services to travel into Victoria from Sydenham Hill, West Dulwich, Herne Hill, Brixton and Gipsy Hill, and into London Bridge from East Dulwich, North Dulwich, West Norwood, Tulse Hill, Sydenham, Forest Hill and Peckham Rye. That is the metro part of Southern’s service, which has the lowest satisfaction rate of the three types of service that Southern runs.
Although there have been some improvements in recent reporting periods, average punctuality is still only at 76.1% as at 30 May. That is in large part due to the major changes at London Bridge station, which earlier this year saw passengers vaulting barriers to avoid a dangerous crush and the police called in to manage the crowds accumulating as a consequence of the delays. For any passengers who were disabled, frail, or travelling with small children, the journey to London Bridge station became an impossible ordeal.
There has been a marked deterioration over the past three years, which is a source of misery to many of my constituents, causing people to be late for work and to miss their children’s bedtimes. Constituents have got in touch to tell me that the unreliability of the service is making it difficult for them to hold down a job, and they are frustrated that delays are often without any explanation at all. Trains are often overcrowded, and only 64% of Southern passengers are happy that there is sufficient room for all passengers to sit and stand. At most of the stations in my constituency, passengers in the morning peak have no expectation at all of being able to find a seat on their train to work, and often the trains do not have the number of carriages that they are supposed to, which compounds the problem still further.
In return for such a service, regulated fares rose more than 20% during the previous Parliament and are still increasing above inflation at a time when most people’s pay has not been increasing. In some cases, journey times have actually got longer. For example, if someone took the 9.20 am service from Forest Hill to London Bridge in 2011, it took 17 minutes; today, the same train takes 21 minutes. It is therefore no surprise that satisfaction levels are low, particularly among commuters, only 60% of whom are satisfied with the service that they receive overall. I suspect the satisfaction rating in my constituency is even lower.
I have read the improvement plan in detail, and there are aspects of it that concern me, not least the very long timescale for improvement and the scenario whereby by 2018-19, the service will have improved to a performance level that is still not as good as that in 2012.
It is clear that the plan for investment in London Bridge station was put in place without any regard for its devastating impact on the Metro services, and all attempts to improve the situation to date have been insufficient in their impact. I should add that not all the dissatisfaction is on lines into London Bridge; there is dissatisfaction on the line into Victoria as well.
Today we will debate the Budget, and the issue of improving productivity in the UK is a key priority. A reliable commuter rail service for south London is vital not only for the comfort and convenience of my constituents but for the productivity of our economy.
The London Overground route, which shares with Southern part of the line into London Bridge through Sydenham and Forest Hill stations, has some of the highest satisfaction rates of any public transport service in London. Transport for London, which has responsibility for the Overground, has recently taken over the running of suburban rail services in north-east London, and I think it should be given responsibility for suburban rail services south of the river as well.
The complexity of London’s rail network means that it would benefit from strategic co-ordination by an organisation that is accountable to Londoners. I call upon the Minister to make the bold strategic intervention that is necessary to address the failures of Southern in my constituency, and hand responsibility for running suburban rail south of the river to Transport for London, which has proved that it can run services efficiently in the interests of passengers and our economy.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) on securing the debate. I am not sure congratulations are in order simply for winning the ballot, though, because I understand he was competing against my hon. Friends the Members for Croydon South (Chris Philp), for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman), for Wealden (Nusrat Ghani), for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat), for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully), for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), for Lewes (Maria Caulfield), for Brighton, Kemptown (Simon Kirby) and me. We were all competing for this subject today.
As my right hon. Friend says, he won. Given the number of hon. Friends who wish to contribute, I will try to restrain my remarks, despite the immense pain felt by my constituents because of Southern’s service. I have been president of the Redhill, Reigate and District Rail Users Association since my election in 1997, and I have never known anything like the situation that we face today. I do not say that Southern has been a beacon of excellence throughout that period, and my commentary on the performance of the company overall is that it seems focused on the interests of its shareholders rather than its customers. When service improvements such as increased train lengths during out-of-peak services are put forward, there is then an issue of cash and cost, and it appears that service levels for customers are a secondary consideration.
We face a company that has managed itself extremely tightly. The disaster over the introduction of the London Bridge upgrade scheme has seen company performance levels totally collapse, to the cost of the people we serve. My right hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs has already illustrated some of the highlights: the five-hour delay on 30 April and the 230 cancellations and significant delays as recently as last week, on 1 July. Southern’s performance in the heat was worse than any other company’s.
The daily commute has become a wholly unpredictable experience, with the consequences that the hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes) mentioned. Too often it is a nightmare for the people we represent, so Southern’s levels of satisfaction being at the bottom of the league table are not remotely surprising.
I want to turn to issues specific to Reigate and Redhill, given where my constituents sit on the line.
My hon. Friend points out that they stand on the line. My constituents are at the point of the service where, if they are taking a busy train—a quarter of which have been cancelled because of the London Bridge upgrade—and trying to get on at Redhill, which is a significantly longer journey than for the constituents of the hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood, the prospect of getting a seat is close to zero. At times, the prospect of getting on the train at all is now in doubt. Hon. Friends from further up the line will no doubt have more to say about the fact that they cannot even get on the trains because they are so crowded.
I stood for re-election in Reigate on a pledge to campaign for fair fares and compensation for rail users. It was a central part of my election campaign. I went to every single station to make the point about the campaign for fair fares and to meet the people getting on trains at 6 o’clock in the morning. There is no point in going at 7 o’clock, because it is far too busy, so people’s days have been extended because of Southern’s diabolical performance levels, combined with those of Network Rail and the botched implementation of the upgrade at London Bridge.
I want to focus on the milking of my constituents as cash cows for the system. Ours is a so-called negative subsidy area, so the people I represent pay not only for the rail service that they get, but for the rail service in the rest of the country. That adds insult to injury. For example, a Redhill annual season ticket holder who also buys zone 1 to 6 travel in London will pay £1,088 more than someone travelling from Coulsdon South, two stops up the line. Passengers from other stations outside zone 6, such as Dorking, Oxted, East Grinstead and Three Bridges, who have a greater or similar length of rail journey into London, pay less for the service.
Southern has enjoyed the second highest income among train operators, and unlike many other companies it has not received funding from the Government, because it is a negative subsidy area. There is a change to the franchise coming, with Govia Thameslink taking over the management of the contract from 26 July. From that point, unhappily for the Minister and her accountability, the Department for Transport will take the fare box. I strongly appreciate her moves to convene the rail bosses and oversee the implementation of a performance improvement plan, but I am afraid I have to put her on notice that we will expect a meaningful level of effort now that she is effectively taking responsibility, so that commuters will be given a decent level of compensation to take account of the deteriorated services until the London Bridge works are completed in 2018.
The opportunity for my constituents comes with the extension of Oyster to Gatwick, which is part of the requirement of the new franchise. Transport for London has been ready to roll that out for ages, but it is being blocked by the Department for Transport while it and Southern sort out their fare arrangements.
The Minister is now shaking her head, so I am delighted that she will be pushing Southern and Govia to deliver that instantly. Will she intervene so that the Oyster roll-out can go ahead as soon as possible?
Will the Minister also take the necessary steps to extend TFL zone 6 to Reigate, Redhill, Merstham, Earlswood and Salfords, and out to Gatwick, until the London Bridge works have finished? At this point I declare my interest as a commuter from Horley who, along with the people I represent, would benefit. Some 2,000 people have signed the Reigate, Redhill and District Rail Users Association petition to the Secretary of State calling for zone 6 to be extended as a fair and proper reflection of the poorer service. That zoning could then be reassessed once the London Bridge works are complete in 2018. I look forward to a one-on-one meeting with the Minister to discuss that further.
Finally, I turn to the issue of compensation for delay, which my right hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs touched on. DelayRepay.net estimates that if compensation were properly claimed, 15% would go back to customers in the form of money reclaimed. That is using a service level whereby a train has to be 30 minutes late for someone to be able to claim, and a 30-minute delay on a 30-minute journey is a pretty shocking level of performance. A 15% reduction would be a return to customers of more than £500 on their season ticket.
If I understand the Minister’s private views correctly, she, too, cannot see why customers have to be put through the hoops that they are put through by some of the companies to claim compensation money. It must be possible to make things far more automated—indeed, from her briefings, I know that that is the case in other parts of the country. It is technically possible to use Network Rail data to allow passengers to enter their journey details and to receive the compensation that they are owed. Compensation could even be paid out automatically to those with a contactless card. Has she considered requiring the train operating companies to tender for the technologies available to put that into practice? Will she introduce phased compensation for journeys delayed by more than two minutes, as the data and the technology would now permit?
Southern’s performance, and therefore the Minister’s revenue when she takes responsibility from 26 July, will be a significant problem for her and the Department given that more than half of trains are late. I recognise that, but it is right that such an incentive is placed on her, so that she can then place it on the rail operating company. The incentive will be to ensure performance levels that secure for the Department for Transport the revenues that it deserves from customers, not the revenue that it can rake in as a monopoly supplier when people have absolutely no choice about how they travel to work.
Passengers using the trains in my constituency are at the end of their tether. I look forward to hearing from the Minister about the actions that she will take to turn that appalling state of affairs around and to ensure that customers pay a fair fare for the service that they receive, which is definitely not the case today.
I congratulate my West Sussex neighbour, my right hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert), on securing the debate and on the robust way in which he introduced it. Other hon. Members have given the same reasons for complaint about the appalling service from Southern rail: poor timekeeping; cancellations; diversions; overcrowded trains; poor value for money; the rarity of refunds; the extraordinary coincidence that many delays seem to amount to 28 or 29 minutes, just below the 30-minute compensation threshold; and appalling communications when things go wrong. Problems are compounded for pedestrians as well. In my constituency and in Worthing West, delays while level crossing barriers have been down have meant pedestrians and motorists having to wait for 48 minutes out of every hour in some cases. Commuters on trains are therefore not the only people affected.
My constituents travel along the coastal strip—often having to change at Brighton—come into London and go to Gatwick airport. If that airport is to be expanded, when the issue is finally decided, having a reliable rail service will be an essential factor, but that is another argument for another day. The Southern rail problems go well beyond the ubiquitous, traditional excuse that always used to be trotted out of the signal box fire at Penge or the landslip at Balcombe.
I will not repeat everything that has already been said, but I will quote from two complaints that I have received from constituents in the past week. Last week a constituent left West Worthing at 10.32 am, heading for London Victoria. The indicator board stated that the destination was Haywards Heath, not London, but the train was cancelled due to electrical supply problems in the Purley area. She caught a later, stopping service to Brighton, but it arrived late, and the connecting fast service to London was announced as being delayed due to
“awaiting a member of train crew”.
Eventually she arrived at London Victoria some 23 minutes later than she had intended.
On the return journey, the 15.52 from Clapham Junction to Ore and Littlehampton was delayed because of the incoming journey, which had in turn been delayed by speed restrictions imposed because of the heat—that is the seasonal version of leaves on the line. Departure was at 16.12 and the service was 20 minutes late into Haywards Heath. A problem developed with the doors of the front portion of the train after splitting, so there was a further delay while the driver tried to reset the electronics. The late-running 17.03 Littlehampton and Eastbourne train arrived on the adjacent platform and detached, and my constituent says that
“we were advised to get off our train by our guard and board the Littlehampton part of the other train as that was going to leave first.
As we were boarding the train, platform staff were then telling us to reboard the train we had just got off because THAT one was going to depart first.
We then all reboarded the original train.”
Eventually, my constituent departed Haywards Heath at 17.11 and
“arrived at Preston Park where the driver announced that the Brighton signalman had decided to divert the train to Brighton and terminate it there, and passengers for coastal stations through to Littlehampton to alight at Preston Park and catch the following late running train (ie the one we had got on and got off again).
(How does diverting and then terminating a late service get counted in the ‘performance statistics’, or is it a canny way of not being counted at all?)”
I hope you are keeping up with “this farce”, Mr Turner, because then:
“Four carriages of passengers got off the train.
The indicator board and automated announcement at Preston Park then ‘advised’ us to ‘please stand clear of the platform as the next train will not be stopping at this station’,”
because that service was not scheduled to stop at Preston Park. Fortunately,
“it did, four carriages of people reboarding a train that they had already boarded once and then had to get off earlier in their journey”,
eventually arriving at West Worthing at 18.59,
“48 minutes later than scheduled.
Any apologies/communication etc. from Southern? Why bother asking—the poor guard knew as much as we did! Did Southern care or think about the passengers as we were being told to get off trains, get on others, only to then get off what became a diverted and terminating train, and reboard another, yet again. What about people with children, children in buggies, people with mobility problems, people with cases and large bags? Any thoughts about them from Southern”?
Of course not.
“My overall journey was delayed by more than one hour, and according to the delay repay leaflet I should be entitled to compensation ‘made in respect of the OVERALL delay to the planned UK rail journey’.
Will I actually get that?
I suspect not, because on previous occasions when similar delays have occurred on my daily outward and return journeys, Southern have only compensated me for a single journey delay of over 30 minutes…Over the last few months the 10.30 and 11.06 West Worthing-London services, on the Tuesdays that I have to catch them, have all regularly been cancelled”
My constituent also asked:
“I would also like to know why the real time train running app from Southern shows those cancelled services as ‘running on time’. Another example of totally inaccurate and misleading information that passengers have to endure from a company that doesn’t know how to provide clear, timely, accurate, consistent information from its staff, indicator boards or announcements.
Southern rail services are beyond a joke for those of us who have to use them regularly and I think my experience from yesterday is a graphic illustration.”
My hon. Friend raises a valid point about customer experiences, which do not seem to be heard about at the top table at Southern or Network Rail. Will he join me in urging the Minister to call on Network Rail and Southern to convene regular meetings with passengers so that they can share their real day-to-day experiences on the line?
I absolutely urge that. Communication is the heart of the problem. If there were real reasons for the delays, and those were communicated properly, there would be greater understanding, and surely also better ways of getting around the problems.
I will quote one final constituent who wrote to me a couple of days ago:
“I am writing to inform you that I believe that Southern Rail has lost its strategic direction and has lost the respect of both its customers and its staff. The Performance Plan published by Southern Rail clearly shows a continuing and substantial reduction in the quality of service over a three-year period and the management of changes at London Bridge further demonstrates a lack of planning and the mitigation of risk. Credibility has been further lost by the recent publication of changes to services to improve performance by reducing the level of service being provided.”
Poor communication, poor timekeeping, poor value for money and a worsening situation: things are not getting better, and given the rising demands on our rail service and the increasing population in the south of England in particular, they can only get worse. Frankly, the rise in passenger numbers that the rail companies always quote to us as some sign of satisfaction has come about because our constituents have no choice but to catch trains if they are heading northwards into London. The fact that they do not get proper compensation payments only adds insult to injury. This has gone on for far too long, and our constituents deserve better.
I will not go over all the issues raised so far, as my experiences of Southern mirror those of a number of Members. Passengers in my constituency of Lewes include those travelling from Wivelsfield, which is not in my constituency but is used by a number of my constituents, Cooksbridge, Plumpton, Seaford, Newhaven, Polegate and Berwick. They are commuters going to London, air passengers going to Gatwick, business people trying to get to appointments and tourists trying to visit the South Downs national park and the coastal strip.
Although it is good news that fares are to be frozen for the duration of this Parliament, a season ticket costs £4,408, so let us not pretend that it is cheap by any means—and the service is poor. Passengers and my residents are fed up of game playing and excuses—national rail issues are often used as an excuse when the problem is actually a Southern issue. A number of Members have mentioned London Bridge station. Although the improvement works there are welcome, they are too often used as an excuse for Southern’s poor service.
There are improvements in the way that we can claim back fares, but that is not what people want. They would far rather have a decent rail service so that they can get to work on time. The delays are so frequent that, as the hon. Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson) said, people are not bothering to claim, because it is too time-consuming. People are missing flights to and from Gatwick, and are late for work. Several key problems are now happening on almost a daily basis.
Does the hon. Lady agree that the issue that has come up time and again in the debate is the frequency of lateness, the lack of information for passengers so that they can put complaints in at the time rather than several weeks later, and then the inability of the company to react to complaints immediately and resolve the issue?
I absolutely agree with those points, which replicate the experience of a number of my constituents.
On almost a daily basis there is no longer a rush hour, as people leave earlier and earlier for work and then leave later and later to get home, so that they can actually get on a train—never mind having to stand. Train drivers do not turn up on regular basis. As a commuter myself, I would say it happens almost two or three times a week; certainly I have heard that excuse on a number of occasions. As the hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes) said, the number of carriages is cut, often at very short notice—almost as people are getting on the train—leading to further overcrowding and congestion.
Southern has recently cut a train from the timetable to try to make the 7.29 from Brighton run on time, meaning passengers are no longer able to get on that service at Wivelsfield. The advice is to travel to Haywards Heath instead, which can take half an hour, and anyway there is no parking at the station for those who travel there. That is not an acceptable way of keeping to the timetable. I have also experienced elderly people, who cannot stand for the hour and 10 minute duration of the journey to London, being ticketed for being in first class. That is completely unacceptable when they have to stand because there are no seats for them in standard.
Instead of campaigning about complaints, I should be campaigning for improvements to rail services for my residents. We are trying to get a second rail main line from the coast to London, and more services for stations such as Cooksbridge, where passengers see the trains go through at high speed and have to wait at the level crossing, unable to get on, as my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) said. I am trying to get better access to platforms and trains for people with mobility needs, whether people with a disability or young mums with pushchairs. I am also trying to get better carriages so more bicycles can fit on our trains and people can commute onwards after they get off their train.
Instead, I am campaigning on a daily basis about the poor rail services my residents have to endure. It is not good enough. It has an impact not only on people’s purses, as they have to pay for extra journeys, but on their quality of life. It should not be the case that people experience such a poor rail service just because of where they live. I welcome the initiatives the Minister is trying to take, but we need to see improvement soon.
I add my voice to those we have heard this morning lamenting the woeful performance of Southern railway over the past year or two. There are four principal problems, which other hon. Members have already alluded to: consistent lateness; excessive cancellations; short trains that lead to the gross overcrowding we have already heard about, which is particularly difficult for pensioners and people with disabilities; and the practice of station skipping, when a station stop is missed out to catch up on journey time. I strongly suspect that station skipping occurs so that services can get just inside the half-hour delay repay deadline. My own local station, Coulsdon South, appears to be a particular victim of that insidious practice.
The figures tell their own story. As recently as three years ago, the performance and punctuality measure on Southern was around 90%—I know there are other measures, but that one is published most often. Over the past two or three years, that figure has consistently declined, month on month, and now sits at only just above 80%. That is far too low. If we compare that with other parts of the railway system we can see how woefully bad it is. For example, London Overground, a metro railway run by Transport for London, has a PPM figure of 95%. That shows what can be done with a well organised system.
Southern’s figure of 80% is the worst in the United Kingdom. We are not complaining about the structure of the railways in general, but about this particular line, which is the worst in the country. My hon. Friend the Member for Croydon Central (Gavin Barwell), a party Whip, is in the Chamber; I know he shares my views on this terrible service, which affects his constituents every bit as much as mine.
I deplore the fact that in the document on improving performance on Thameslink and Southern, published a few months ago, the targets for improvement are extremely unambitious. The 2015-16 target for PPM is only 81%, barely better than what we are experiencing at the moment; it is an unacceptably low aspiration. Even by 2018-19, nearly five years away, the aspiration is only for 87%, still below where the railway system was a few years ago.
The problem is perhaps best illustrated by a few tweets I have recently received. One is from a gentleman I know quite well, who tweets as MaximusThurbon—I think he is modelling himself on the guy from “Gladiator”. He says:
“Train late this morning by 10 minutes, train home cancelled. Another normal day on Southern”.
Another tweeter said that
“evening rush hour can only mean one thing…Southern network delays and cancellations!”
Another person said that
“Southernrail provides a horrific service”.
“It’s starting to turn into a full time job filling out the delay repay forms”.
It is no surprise, therefore, that when rail users are surveyed, satisfaction is very low. The consumer organisation Which? recently found that Southern railway had the second-lowest satisfaction rating of any train operating company in the country and the worst satisfaction rating for delays. Moreover, figures from Transport Focus, which my right hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) mentioned, have seen Southern’s passenger satisfaction rating slump from 82% to 72%—once again, the lowest level in the country. Most tellingly, however, the satisfaction rating among commuters using the line is just 60%. I contrast that with the figures for lines such as the Heathrow Express, which has a 94% satisfaction rating; the east coast main line, which has a 94% satisfaction rating; and a railway system called First Hull, with which I confess I am unacquainted, but which has a 96% satisfaction rating. So why does our local railway have only a 60% satisfaction rating among commuters?
I would like the Minister to reply to two or three points, because I know she is working hard to fix these problems. First, will she confirm that she is chairing weekly meetings of a taskforce with Southern railway and Network Rail to fix these problems? Secondly, will she consider improving the compensation system, perhaps by having better publicity and by reducing the threshold to 15 minutes, as the right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) suggested? I certainly endorse the suggestion from my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Crispin Blunt) that we have an automatic refund so that, where a commuter says, “I am always on the 8.30 train,” and that train is late, compensation is automatic.
Will the Minister also consider fining the operating company for station skipping—a problem that affects my local station?
Thank you for calling me, Mr Turner. I will be brief, because the points covered by many of my hon. Friends have been extremely clear and relevant to Southern railway users at the stations of Cowden, Hever and Edenbridge in my area, all of which suffer badly from a poorly run service. These people are not, of course, merely using the rail service for the hell of it or for recreation—it is a means of getting to work. People are paying £3,740 for annual season tickets so that they can do the jobs they are employed to do. Yes, some work in the City, but many work in schools and hospitals. I also know of one senior diplomat whose work is often affected by late running and failed trains.
I get a continuous litany of emails and tweets from constituents who are rightly angry. I am adding my voice to those of my hon. Friends and to that of the Rail Minister, who is doing so much to address this issue. I welcome her efforts. I am registering my complaint not so much with her, but with Southern’s operators. The rage they have caused among my hon. Friends and me is so great that they are putting their careers in jeopardy. I urge them to think hard before they continue this failure.
I have been working with my hon. Friend the Member for Wealden (Nusrat Ghani) for more than a year to try to address this issue, and we have discovered time and again that the operators are unwilling to address the basic problems. Working with organisations such as the Edenbridge and District Rail Travellers Association, we have begun to get some changes and accountability. However, there is so much more to do. I will leave it to others to speak now, because I have made my points clearly, and I very much hope the management have heard them.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) on securing the debate. I am pleased he has managed to ensure that things have not been conducted like Southern’s services—otherwise, half of those in the Public Gallery would have missed his speech.
In my area, as in that of the hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes), punctuality at Christmas was running at less than 50%, which is unsustainable. I am pleased it has now improved, but, at 76%, only three out of every four trains are running on time. For commuters, that is unacceptable.
During my election campaign, I saw one of my opponents tapping his watch in front of an indicator board at a station. I was amazed to see that it was showing that the only two trains running that hour were on time, which is very untypical of what happens in Sutton.
In the same campaign, I talked about extending the London Overground, which is run by TfL; we have heard a lot in the debate about the London Overground having good satisfaction levels and good punctuality and being well thought of. That point was well received during my campaign, and a lot of people said that increasing the capacity and frequency of trains in Sutton was great. However, they also said, “What we really want is to make sure that the trains we have run on time, that we can get a seat and that we don’t pay for something and then see no investment coming back into the south London metro lines.” Those lines seem to be one of the forgotten parts of the network, with satisfaction at 67%.
We need investment at Clapham Junction and in rolling stock in that part of the network so that we can have a service we are proud of and pleased with. I echo the fact that TfL should be well placed to take over the line through Sutton when the franchise is renewed. I say that not because I am harking back to the days of British Rail when everything was centralised, but because TfL has shown it can run a good railway system. In an era of accountability, transparency and rewards for good performance, TfL should be recognised for that. It should be able to improve the lines in Sutton and south London.
In conclusion, it is unacceptable that a train can take up to 50 minutes or an hour to do the 15 miles into central London from south London. That is about the same time it takes to get to the coast. In the modern day, when commuters are paying a fortune, they should be able to get into London in good time. Twenty-five minutes for the fastest train from Sutton is a good time, but 50 minutes to an hour for those taking the Gypsy Hill route is unacceptable. However, I will leave my remarks at that.
Given that the debate is about punctuality and timekeeping, I shall come well within the four minutes; otherwise, I will hand out my own compensation forms, albeit that, using Southern’s own ratio, I shall pay out only at six minutes plus.
I am also a daily commuter on Southern—I have been for the last nine years, and I continue to be one as an MP. I use the Uckfield line, which is in the constituencies of my hon. Friends the Members for Wealden (Nusrat Ghani) and for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat). I am also a member of the Transport Committee, so I take very well the suggestion that the matter before us would be a good one for it to discuss.
Perhaps I have become immune to the overcrowding I have suffered for almost 10 years on my daily commute, but my experience is that, although things are difficult, they are not perhaps as appalling as others may have found on their lines. The Uckfield line has one track, and capacity is, indeed, an issue. Twitter messages come through when people are rightly frustrated. I missed my child’s last-day-at-school performance, because I was stuck in Oxted for two hours. These things happen, and they are frustrating, but, today, the 6.43 am train came in on time, and I dare say there were no tweets putting that message across. It is important that we also consider the views of the majority who do not get in touch with us.
Capacity is, indeed, an issue, and it concerns me hugely that, as more housing is built in my constituency, the Uckfield line and the coastal line will become even more overcrowded. Those lines are served by diesel engines, so it appears that little can be done—certainly on the coastal route—to introduce more carriages.
Southern Rail takes the view that all its revenue goes to the Government, and that anything it adds on has to come out of its bottom line, so it refuses to add anything. I would like further measures and incentives from Government, to make sure that Southern adds those carriages on. The overcrowding that my constituents in Bexhill suffer at rush hour is incredibly difficult. Equally, however, at other times during the day those two carriages are not really used at all; so, again, I take a reasonable view of the circumstances.
The conclusion of the London Bridge building work will be an amazing experience, and I hope that many of the issues will then become a distant memory. The fact that the rail companies and, indeed, Network Rail, have continued to operate in the station during the largest station engineering project in Europe is testament to their hard work. There have been issues; I was there on the day of the overcrowding that was mentioned. It was incredibly difficult and frustrating, although it is fair to say that some people were making a leap for it because, frustratingly, they could see empty trains moving out, rather than because trains were that crammed. I was in the cram and can testify to that.
London Bridge will be amazing, and it is important to be positive. While we chastise where we should, we also need to give encouragement and welcome the work.
My hon. Friend mentioned Uckfield in my constituency; locally, the line is called the “misery line”. He must have heard news of the Southern engineers strike that may be called next week, because they have been unable to negotiate through the union. My hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat) and I wrote to the union and to Southern urging a cancellation of the strike. I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman) will join me in trying to make sure that they resume the negotiations.
I happily do so. I note the reference to the “misery line”; perhaps I have become immune through being a daily commuter for 10 years, but I tend to look on the brighter side. Things are sometimes incredibly difficult and frustrating, but for the vast majority of the time they work well. It is important to encourage people to see things that way; otherwise, there is a danger that we will become doom and gloom merchants, and we cannot then encourage people to see better times ahead.
I have now gone over four minutes, for which I blame my hon. Friend the Member for Wealden. I just want to make three points. First, it would be good to have more rolling stock. Secondly, it would be good to have a facility for dealing with the add-ons such as exorbitant rises in parking fees and the charging that now happens for duplicate tickets when someone forgets their season ticket. That is outrageous, in my view, because commuters should not be used as a cash cow. Thirdly, there is the issue of compensation. Why do we still have pieces of paper to get us through? Why can we not tap in with a smartcard that tells us when the train should arrive and automatically compensates us when it does not?
I thank the right hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) for securing the debate and giving me the opportunity to show common purpose with other Members. He has done much to raise the profile of the performance of Southern railway and to call for improvements to the service provision. I note also that Southern is committed to an improvement plan over three periods: May and December of this year and December 2018. Of course, although I welcome the planned improvement periods, it is our job to ensure that we hold service providers to account on behalf of our constituents.
For Scottish constituencies, Gatwick is a main link for tourists and for business and leisure travel. Consequently, many people from those constituencies, including mine in the highlands, use the services of Southern railway—mainly, though not exclusively, the Gatwick Express. From the point of view of my constituency, Gatwick is Inverness airport’s main business destination. Gatwick airport is Edinburgh airport’s second top destination, and Edinburgh is one of Gatwick’s top three UK destinations.
The issue is clearly one of management and accountability. The staff I have met on the services have been exemplary, helpful and pleasant, often working with passengers who are tired, busy, sometimes lost and often frustrated. They do their job well, and none of my comments is directed at the hard-working men and women deployed on the network. However, the management needs to hear the realities of using the company’s services.
Having become a regular commuter to London and a frequent user of the Gatwick Express, I know only too well how frustrating and disruptive delays and unreliable links can be. We heard about a “gladiator” earlier; people need to take part in some gladiatorial games to share the service, including the platform shuffle—the game of working out which train standing at Victoria will not leave the station. That usually involves passengers packing an overcrowded train and then, if they are lucky, finding a seat or wedging themselves into a corner. Often they simply sit on the floor or on luggage before the announcement is made that the train will not be leaving the station. The chase is then on to decamp, rush to the adjacent platform and join another train even more jam-packed with passengers. Then there will be the unscheduled stop to accommodate a broken-down train on another line.
Of course, a train and service that work to schedule and a seat are the basics. If I travel between Edinburgh and Inverness on ScotRail, I can at least get some work done using the free wi-fi on board. There is none of that on the Gatwick Express, which should be a flagship service. I am surprised that hon. Members can actually get tweets from their constituents; I do not know how they get out. If commuters on other parts of the network are sharing my experience, that is pretty desperate stuff.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for one thing: ScotRail has recently handed over some diesel carriages for the Uckfield line. I hope that when ScotRail has had enough of its old rolling stock, he will encourage it to allow our dinosaur of a line, the Uckfield line, to get access to something that the Scots have rightly upgraded from.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that worthwhile point. Of course, good rolling stock and engines on the network are important. I am pleased that in Scotland we tend to get good service, although there will always be some complaints and service issues. The hon. Gentleman and his constituents should be able to enjoy good service, too.
Last week I overheard some American visitors—this affects everyone here—sitting on the floor of the train discussing just how much they had paid for this “luxury”. It was not cheap, at least in terms of the cost. That reflects not only on the tourist industry here but on the experience of visiting Scotland. According to a recent House of Commons Library report, Southern railway’s moving annual average is, as we have heard, only 82.8%. That is the lowest of any train operator in the UK, and dramatically below the service levels that we experience in Scotland. That has come as something of a culture shock to me. We might ask what it means for rail users. The most staggering example I found was that the train from Brighton to Victoria was late every day of 2014. Simply put, every single day the poor commuters from Brighton to London did not receive the service they paid for. I do not use that service, but I understand their problems.
I will not go into more statistics, because other hon. Members have already covered a lot of them, but customers are paying for a poor service with their time and their pockets. That is unacceptable. The right hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs mentioned the “train of shame” and we have also heard about the “misery line”. It is too poor.
I do not accept that calculation for Scotland. I could give the hon. Gentleman a lengthy argument—a treatise—about it, but he will allow the fact that time is limited, and I am sure he will want the Minister to have time to speak. Perhaps we can catch up another day on why that does not apply to the situation.
Rail companies have a duty to ensure that customers are aware of their rights to compensation. I call on the Minister to review rail service compensation arrangements: first, to ensure that all franchised operators are moved to the DelayRepay scheme as a priority; and, secondly, to raise awareness of compensation rights so that rail users know exactly what they are entitled to. It is ludicrous that rail companies can profit from delays caused by Network Rail. They receive compensation but given the lack of uptake in compensation claims made by users they can, as has been mentioned, often profit as a result.
The 30-minute delay rule for compensation is unacceptable, as has been mentioned. Perhaps hon. Members will want to call on the Minister to establish an ombudsman-like body to ensure that rail companies are subject to appropriate scrutiny when they handle complaints. Perhaps it will only be when rail companies pay from their pocket and time that appropriate improvements to services will be made.
It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Turner.
I begin by congratulating the right hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) on securing this important debate. As we have heard in a number of powerful contributions, the declining performance of Southern is clearly a cause of major frustration and, at times, real anger for the millions of commuters and occasional travellers who rely on its services. Even after hitting ever lower ebbs, Southern’s performance has continued to deteriorate further.
The facts are stark: just 83% of trains were on time in the past year—the worst annual punctuality rate in 15 years. Only 70% of trains were on time during the morning peak, when thousands of commuters struggle to find a seat on increasingly expensive and overcrowded trains. The 6.35 am train from Caterham to London Victoria was reckoned to be one of the most overcrowded trains in the country at the time of the last surveys in 2013, with more than 200 passengers left standing. One in 20 trains were cancelled or seriously late. The operator reports some improvements in recent months, but overall, Southern missed its punctuality targets by almost 5%—the most significant gap between target and performance of any operator—which helped to trigger the regulator’s current investigation of Network Rail’s performance in 2014-15. Famously, of course, the 7.29 am train from Brighton to London Victoria did not run to time on one single day last year.
It is therefore not surprising that passenger satisfaction has fallen. As the right hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs said, overall satisfaction is down by 10% since 2010. Among commuters, less than a quarter of passengers say that they are getting value for money for their fares, which have risen by 23% on average since 2010, as my hon. Friend the Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes) noted.
This is a world away from the standards that passengers expect and deserve, and we have all seen the disgraceful scenes at London Bridge station. The closure of tracks and platforms may be an unavoidable consequence of the £6.5 billion Thameslink project, but the poor management of London Bridge station and the lack of information provided to passengers during periods of disruption are inexcusable.
We also have to look at how Network Rail and the train operators work with one another. Even after it was known that tracks would be taken out of service, the decision was taken to run 22 trains an hour during the peak period. As Network Rail and Govia later admitted,
“we have discovered that this number is not feasible.”
At a time when the planning of rail projects is under intense scrutiny, it is clear that that lack of adequate preparation cannot be allowed to happen again. Network Rail and Southern have produced a recovery plan, about which I will say more later. I know that the Minister has been meeting the responsible parties, but the Government’s involvement must be judged on the results that it yields, not just the number of meetings that are held.
As always, the shadow Minister is saying a lot of things that I entirely agree with, and I am looking forward to addressing those points. However, will she join me in condemning the rail unions, who are determined, across London and across the network, to maximise disruption at a time when we all should be working together to deliver the best possible service for our customers?
I agree that it would be very unfortunate if industrial action went ahead, because I know that it would cause extra disruption to passengers. However, as Government Members said, the way to avoid that is to get back round the negotiating table and talk about the issues at stake.
When the Minister replies today, I hope that she will give hon. Members an update on the progress that has been made against the short and medium-term goals in the recovery plan. When we look at the wider problems facing Southern, it is important to identify where responsibility lies. In spite of the best efforts of its engineering staff, Network Rail has not consistently provided reliable infrastructure services on this route over the last year, and indeed the regulator has identified Southern as a franchise where
“punctuality and reliability is below expectations”.
I note, however, that 31% of delays were attributed to the operator during the last year, so it does not escape blame. It is clearly for Southern to address issues such as the cleanliness of trains and the provision of information to passengers—including about delays, cancellations and compensation—but there are also areas in which the Government are directly accountable for the treatment of passengers. I will move on to that issue in the time remaining.
It is often asserted that Ministers exercise influence through the franchising process, but Southern will cease to function as a traditional franchise by the end of the month, when it will join Thameslink and Great Northern under a single, combined management contract. As the hon. Member for Reigate (Crispin Blunt) noted, that contract gives the Department and Ministers significant new powers over the operator, including in relation to the setting of fares. Last year, the Government confirmed their intention to remove gradually cheaper “Thameslink only” tickets on the Brighton main line from 2016. The cost difference for annual season tickets to London was as much as £664. At the time, the Minister said:
“When we move from two operators to one on the line…fares will be gradually equalised.”
Will the Minister confirm that that is still the Government’s position, and will she set out what level of fare rises commuters will face when they return to work in January? Or has the policy had to be abandoned as a consequence of the Government’s last-minute decision to adopt Labour’s policy of scrapping the unfair flex loophole?
That was introduced under privatisation.
We have heard today that compensation arrangements need to be improved. The Minister has previously indicated that she is willing to consider an automated system for awarding compensation when services are more than two minutes late. That would certainly be welcomed by passengers, but it is worrying that the introduction of such a system appears to be explicitly tied to the franchising process. Does that mean that Southern passengers could have to wait until the early 2020s, when the next franchise will be awarded, before enjoying that benefit?
Equally, the Government could take action now to require train companies to provide cash compensation, in contrast to the inflexible national rail vouchers that cannot be used online. Our understanding is that the Secretary of State could make that change by authorising a revision to the national rail conditions of carriage. Will the Minister confirm that that is the case, and if so, why that authorisation has not yet been given?
Similarly, the Minister’s colleague, the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Andrew Jones), said that part- time season tickets—if they are ever created—will be implemented through franchise awards. Does that mean that Southern passengers could face a wait of at least six years before accessing those products, even though part-time season tickets could save some commuters hundreds of pounds a year?
Another issue, which is clearly of particular interest to a number of hon. Members, is the possible devolution of some routes to Transport for London. London Overground, as has been said today, has transformed services elsewhere in the capital, and significant investment is going into the recently devolved routes to Cheshunt, Enfield Town and Chingford. Southern’s punctuality, as my hon. Friend the Member for Dulwich and West Norwood highlighted, is poorest on its south London metro routes, so there is real interest in TfL taking over management of those services. What consideration has the Minister given to those proposals? Has she had any recent discussions with TfL on the devolution of those routes, either in whole or in part?
If Southern is to accommodate growing demand, further infrastructure improvements are likely to be necessary. The operator is running 700 more trains a day than the route carried 20 years ago, across some of the most complex and congested sections of the national rail network. There appeared to be cause for celebration in March, when the Chancellor promised
“a feasibility study into Brighton Main Line 2, speeding up journeys and relieving congestion”.
However, the Budget document itself mentioned only
“a further study into reopening the Lewes to Uckfield rail line”
and not into the whole of Brighton main line 2. Will the Minister say a bit more about whether the scope of that study will extend to the whole project or not?
I come to my final point. The recovery plan that I mentioned earlier stated that the quality of signalling equipment was
“under review, with the potential for investing in enhancements being assessed.”
However, the reality is that the status of Network Rail’s whole investment programme is now unclear and is unlikely to be clarified before the end of the year. Ultimately, better services will require investment in improved infrastructure, but Network Rail is facing enormous cost pressures on its enhancement, renewals and maintenance budgets. Will the Minister confirm today that while passengers face delayed and cancelled trains, rising fares and cramped carriages, essential measures to improve their journeys are now in jeopardy?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Turner, and I am sorry that the hon. Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood) did not adhere to the four-minute rule. I appreciate that she raised a lot of points, many of which I may not be able to answer, but I will write to everyone whose questions I do not cover today.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) on securing the debate. Many people in the Chamber have either been, or have replaced, Members of Parliament who are absolutely assiduous and dogged in their pursuit of a better transport system. It really shows—I extend this point to the shadow Minister as well—the importance that we now place on our national, local and regional transport infrastructure not only as an absolute agent of economic growth, but as an agent of human happiness. I was struck by the point made by the hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes), and I entirely agree. The worst thing about the whole situation would be to be that mother or father trying to get home to pick up their children from childcare, and month after month, week after week, day after day, being unable to say what time you will get home. That is an unacceptable burden on working families.
Sorting out the route will deliver potentially the biggest productivity gain in the UK. The Southern route carries the second highest number of passengers. It is the biggest franchise: it will, as my hon. Friends pointed out, be merging into the GTR franchise at the end of the month. It has some of the oldest and most complicated track layout in the country—there is a reason why the upgrade works have not been done by successive Governments. Some of the track is 176 years old. Doing this work is like doing open-heart surgery on a marathon runner. It creates delay, and misery when that delay becomes too great. There are serious lessons for the railway industry to learn about how works are done. Is it right to keep stations open and running, or is it better to use a blockade and have all the pain at once? Those are very important questions and challenges for the industry.
The work on the route is one of the largest investment programmes in the UK, and it is contributing to the problem—it is not the sole cause. It is not just about London Bridge station. There is the new station at Blackfriars, which has a wonderful layout and has added new capacity into the system. There is the introduction of new trains, which has started to happen on the route that my right hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs mentioned. I know that he has seen the 387s already introduced, but equally the class 700s that come in will double the number of people who can be brought into London during peak commuting hours. So much is going on, but it is true that performance is often unacceptable and sometimes inexcusable.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman) made the point that the majority of the time—I have the latest right-time performance figures—the trains are on time. It is not all doom and gloom, but we have got to a situation in which passengers have lost their trust in the operator and front-line staff have been left to deal with some unacceptable delay incidents themselves. It is not fun to work at London Bridge and not have the tools and information; to want to help deliver better performance for customers but be unable to do so; and to be spat at and abused. We should recognise that behind all these problems are often good people trying to do their best but lacking the tools to do so. I wanted to say a bit about that.
I have heard consistent themes in the debate, which I will try to address today. I am referring to reliability of service, communication and compensation. The reason why it is so important to get this right is that the Government have an unprecedented investment plan for transport infrastructure over the next five years. It is not jam tomorrow; the new stations and new trains will be delivered. I say to the hon. Member for Nottingham South that it is churlish to suggest that Network Rail’s £38 billion investment programme is in jeopardy. The only part of the programme that has been paused is the electrification programme. All the rest of the works are proceeding as scheduled, and quite right too.
Demand has increased by more than 60% in this part of the country, and of course passengers have expectations of a better service now. People do not want to be shuffled around and not given information. I think that one of my hon. Friends said that the guard had less information than he did, because he was able to dial into social media applications.
There have already been some improvements on this line. I know that hon. Members mentioned this. We have started to see a slow uptick in the various performance measures, whether public performance measures or right-time performance measures. We have seen driver recruitment increase. One big challenge for Southern was that it did not take on enough drivers when it took on the franchise. Its driver recruitment plans are now running ahead of where it wanted to be. It is losing drivers as other parts of the network grow, but it is recruiting. It is 50% ahead of plan, and training is proceeding apace. That is incredibly important.
My hon. Friend the Minister talks about the investment programme over the next five years. My commuters from Horsham and elsewhere are already focusing on the control period beginning in 2019 and the pinch points in Clapham and elsewhere. I hope that we will continue to have investment flowing in the next control period as well. I am not asking the Minister to commit herself completely right now on what will be going on in 2019—other events this afternoon will determine that—but I hope that that will remain a priority.
I appreciate my hon. Friend’s comment. I think that on the day of the Budget, it would be a foolish Minister who committed to longer-term spending, but my hon. Friend has my assurance that I will listen to him and his constituents on this important matter.
I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs for his kind comments about my involvement. I think the hon. Member for Nottingham South is possibly the only member of the shadow Transport team who is actually interested in transport. She shows up at every debate; her boss is too busy running various leadership campaigns. She knows the issues on the railways well, and I look forward to continuing to work productively with her, but this is not about the Department getting involved and Ministers trying to drive change. As has been said today, what we want is the industry to be able to do this itself, so what are the levers that we need to use?
It is reassuring, I am sure, for hon. Members to know that the chief executive of Network Rail, when he gave a presentation to the Department for Transport board, said that the recovery of the area of the country that we are debating was one of his top five priorities for this year. It is obvious to everyone that the system is creating millions of hours of misery for millions of people in one of the fastest-growing areas of the country. That is simply unacceptable, and it is not good enough to have one-off interventions, despite the fact that we have unprecedented levels of work going on. The industry has to learn how to do things differently. The challenge, in thinking about Euston, High Speed 2 and connectivity into London, is to learn the lessons now to ensure that mistakes are not repeated.
I think the hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood may have made a point about the existence of current passengers not being valued enough in the overall process. I cannot remember whether it was her, but that point came from the Opposition Benches. I agree. Understanding what matters to people now is crucial, so let me outline some of the things that are happening and will happen. I invite my hon. Friends to be part of the process.
The merger is happening, and that will bring in a raft of new performance measures that will hold to account those responsible a fair amount. Hon. Members may know that the franchise is currently in breach of some of its performance measures, and there has been a conversation with the Department about the implications of that. Performance improvement plans were presented back in the spring—I know that hon. Members saw them—and are already starting to be implemented. That is driving the slow and steady improvement in performance.
Beyond that, there are three main problems. The first is that delivering the London Bridge improvement programme will not solve all the problems on the lines in question, particularly the Brighton main line. The second is that although the public performance measure is improving, recovery from delays and the volatility of the service remain real challenges. As was mentioned by the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas), who is no longer in her place, some trains are always late, and that is simply not good enough. The third point is that rail customers—those who are paying for the goods and services—are consistently unhappy. They have lost trust. They do not see the improvements, and they do not think they will be sustained.
So what has happened? Network Rail brought in its chief engineer to do a deep dive on the real, underlying problems on the line, from both an operations and an infrastructure point of view. That has been turned into a short-term and long-term plan for real recovery. I know we talk a lot about plans, recoveries and summits. There is a war room at London Bridge station that all hon. Members are invited to visit with me on the 20th. I would be delighted if the hon. Member for Nottingham South would join us. It is a cross-party invitation, which I believe she has already received, to see the depth of planning and understanding that is going on on a joined-up basis between Network Rail and the operator.
I can confirm to my right hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs that I chair the weekly meeting. We have also invited in Transport Focus, because I am keen for improvements to be seen and felt by passengers. We are not just telling ourselves that things are getting better. We are tracking social media sentiment and how people feel about their journeys. We are tracking what matters to people and what is actually improving for people.
I want to mention some of the points that have been made about compensation. My hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Maria Caulfield) made a valuable point. Compensation should almost never be paid, because we should have a system that delivers people to their destination on time. Members are right that it is estimated that only 12% of people claim compensation. We have a manifesto commitment to deliver better compensation—and part-time season tickets—right across the industry. I continue to look at the problem of giving compensation to passengers from London Bridge. It is difficult, because it is hard to target those passengers in a fairly open network, but we continue to work on it.
Of course, there are already companies, such as c2c, that are delivering compensation automatically to people’s phones if they are more than a minute delayed. That is the sort of model that we want to see. I will also refer to DelayRepay.net, which is a way to take all the paperwork out of claiming compensation. There are already some important innovations in the industry.
Ultimately, we have to have an unswerving commitment to and focus on passengers—customers—in the industry. The industry does so much right, but when things go wrong, the fact that we have capped fares at RPI for the remainder of this Parliament almost does not matter, because people are frustrated about their journey. So I am determined, and the Department is determined, to hold the industry to account. I am agnostic on the structure—whether this is done through an alliance or in another way. Whatever the structure happens to be, I just want better services to be delivered. I believe that the best way to do that is through transparency, a continued focus on quality in the franchising process and all of us being involved in holding the companies to account.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the performance of Southern railway.
Norfolk and Suffolk Broads
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the Norfolk and Suffolk Broads.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Turner. I welcome the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to his ministerial post. I suppose that he is now responsible for, among other things, pigs and poultry. I would like to think that his previous experience dealing with tribal factions in Iraq and Afghanistan was easier for him than dealing with European Union bureaucracy.
I am sorry that the Minister has been unable or unwilling, either by omission or commission, to speak with Rosa McMahon of the Eastern Daily Press, who has pressed his office on several occasions for an interview about the Norfolk and Suffolk broads. I hope that as a consequence of this short debate, he might feel able to talk to her about the matter.
I am pleased to see a number of my parliamentary colleagues in their places—my hon. Friends the Members for Waveney (Peter Aldous), for North West Norfolk (Mr Bellingham), for Norwich North (Chloe Smith) and for South Norfolk (Mr Bacon) and the right hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb), all of whom have an interest in the matter. As the Minister is no doubt aware, the Norfolk and Suffolk broads comprise an area of 303 square miles, 120 miles of navigable waterways, seven rivers and 63 broads. They are the largest protected wetlands in the country. A significant part of the broads pass through or by my constituency. Indeed, my predecessor, Richard Ryder, now Lord Ryder of Wensum, took through the original Norfolk and Suffolk Broads Act 1988, which has since been amended.
I have secured the debate with two aims in mind. First, I want to press the Minister about the exact status of the Norfolk and Suffolk broads in their relationship with the national parks family. Secondly, I want to press him on whether his Department intends to resurrect the draft Governance of National Parks (England) and the Broads Bill, an England-only measure in the Queen’s Speech a year ago that would allow for direct elections to the authorities, particularly to the Broads Authority.
Perhaps I might suggest that my right hon. Friend should press the Minister on a third point as well. The broads are exceptionally important not only to the east of Norfolk, but to Norfolk as a whole. Surely, we would like the Minister to help to promote Norfolk as an incredibly important tourism destination, of which the broads are a jewel in the crown.
My hon. Friend’s very good point leads me on to another. As I am sure that the Minister is aware, the broads are significant and different from the rest of the national parks. First, although the environment had a hand in their creation, they were largely created by man. We found out as late as 1963 that peat diggings in the middle ages produced what we now call the broads. Secondly, the broads must encapsulate a number of interest groups, including the people who live and work on the broads and in the surrounding area; the farming community; everyone involved in protecting the environment; and, not least, as my hon. Friend mentioned, some 4 million tourists who visit the broads and the rest of Norfolk each year. It is very important to get that balance right.
There is a key distinction between the broads and other national parks. National parks take account of the Sandford principle, which balances the interests of conservation and natural beauty against enjoyment by the public, but if the two clash, conservation takes precedence. Since its inception, legislation governing the broads has been explicit about the fact that the interests of navigation must also be taken into account, so the broads can never be a national park in the same way as others are. Does my right hon. Friend agree that for the sake of tourism and the economy of Norfolk, that should remain the case?
My hon. Friend and I made that point in 2006-07 when another broads Bill was going through the Commons. He is quite right to say that the Sandford principle tries to balance the working side of national parks with the environment, but at the end of the day the environmental principle is more important. We have all been lobbied by people who are concerned that if the broads take the name of national park—which, it is argued, would not change the unique status of the broads—things would change. My hon. Friend is correct. The functions of the Broads Authority, which manages the broads, are:
“Conserving and enhancing the natural beauty, wildlife and cultural heritage of the Broads; Promoting opportunities for the understanding and enjoyment of the special qualities of the Broads by the public;”
“Protecting the interests of navigation”.
That balance must be maintained. Over the past 10 or 15 years, perhaps understandably, the Broads Authority and others have attempted to rebrand the broads as a national park. Indeed, many members of the public may think that it is a national park. There has been some confusion in the minds of many who live and work in the broads and elsewhere in Norfolk about the status of the broads as a member of the national parks family, and whether that has legally changed.
Lord de Mauley, when he was a Minister, explained in a letter that the Broads Authority could call itself a national park, but that that would not alter the legal status of the broads. That is a fine piece of sophistry worthy of Charles Dickens, whose great legal battle of Jarndyce v. Jarndyce will be familiar to many. It is not simply a debating point, however; it is a point of law. As my Norfolk and Suffolk colleagues know, two people are seeking a judicial review—I will not go into details—of the rebranding of the Norfolk broads as a national park. I want to press the Minister for a precise legal view from the Department, which is responsible for the overall governance of the broads, in relation to the rest of the national parks.
I hesitate to interrupt my right hon. Friend’s flow, but I want to ask him one question before he moves on from governance. My constituency neighbours his, and it is said to be home to the gateway to the broads in Thorpe St Andrew, so urban problems arise as well as rural ones. The Broads Authority is also a planning authority. Does my right hon. Friend think that it has the capability and capacity to deal with planning matters and enforce decisions? The Minister has received correspondence from me on that point.
I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. I completely share his view that it is important to maintain the current balance of interests and that any rebranding must not disturb that in law. I want to raise with him the question of the draft Bill from the previous Parliament, because I am concerned about the legitimacy of organisations that have no directly elected people on their board. There was overwhelming support in the broads, and certainly in my constituency, for the idea that the local community should have a say through a directly elected person, or preferably persons, on the board of the Broads Authority. That has been the case in similar authorities in Scotland for some years, and the world has not caved in. Does he share my view that it is important for the draft Bill to become law, so that we have directly elected people on the board?
That is the second main purpose of this debate. Indeed, the right hon. Gentleman’s colleague, the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron), was enthusiastic about the draft Bill a year ago, and my hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk and I raised the issue back in 2007. The issue goes back some time. Basically, since 1988 there has been considerable local pressure for direct elections, and there is no doubt that the case was strengthened by the passage of the Broads Authority Act 2009 and the rebranding of the broads as a national park.
Last year’s draft Bill would have resulted in direct elections to the Broads Authority, amended the political balance requirement on local authority appointees and allowed for a wider range of parish representation. As the right hon. Member for North Norfolk suggests, the draft Bill’s aim was to improve local accountability without necessarily increasing the number of representatives. If I were being harsh, which I am not, I might argue that the Broads Authority is a quango, because nominees are nominated either by local councils or by the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, with the noble objective of having a cross-section of interest groups represented on the Broads Authority. Ultimately, those representatives are all nominated, and now is the time to consider how we could have a truly elected part—although not necessarily a truly elected whole—of the Broads Authority. The arguments against will be that party politics could come into it and that there would be questions about how to define the electorate, and so on. Those issues could be resolved, and it would be a cross-cutting exercise as much as anything else.
Importantly, the navigation element makes the broads different from other national parks, which means the broads might be better represented if there were local representatives with an interest in navigation. When we talk about navigation, we are talking about a wide remit. We are talking about tourism and the boating companies of one kind or another, and we are talking about people who sail. A lot of material is still shifted by boat on the broads. All those factors come together, making the broads different from, and unique among, other national parks.
I hope the Minister will be able to address those two specific questions. He will have a speech drafted for him by his DEFRA officials and by the Broads Authority, but he should work on the assumption—I am not being patronising—that my colleagues here know all the background detail. First, does his Department have a definitive answer to the business of the broads being a national park as a brand but quite different from the rest of the national park family?
I thank my right hon. Friend for securing this debate, and I am grateful to him for emphasising that it is the Norfolk and Suffolk broads. I note that my colleagues have said that Norwich is the gateway to the broads or that Wroxham is the gateway to the broads; I would argue that Beccles is the gateway to the broads. Does he agree that, although conservation is vital, we have a tremendous tourism jewel that can play a vital role for our local economy? The Broads Authority should be working with local authorities, not just district councils but town councils, to make the most of those opportunities.
I agree with my hon. Friend. There are so many gateways to the broads that we could draw up a laundry list, but he is right to highlight that part of his constituency. As I have tried to say, there is always a balance to be struck, but that is addressed by the second issue I am raising with the Minister. Is his Department considering resurrecting the draft Bill? That would have a lot of support among Members of Parliament from Norfolk and Suffolk, and it would produce an interesting reaction from other national parks. At the very least, I hope he will say that his Department is open to considering the proposal and that we might have further debates on the subject. The bottom line is that it is necessary to have true participation not only by local people and local towns and villages but by local interest groups of one kind or another. As parliamentarians, we should be in favour of that proposal.
I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Broadland (Mr Simpson) for his contribution. Geographically, this debate represents a wonderful gathering of the many gateways to the broads, which seem to have more gateways than the fabled oriental city of 100 gates. We have here a great representation: North Norfolk, South Norfolk, North West Norfolk and Norwich North. We have a great Member representing Suffolk, my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous). Above all, at the centre of this debate about the broads is my right hon. Friend the Member for Broadland. This debate is a good example of the way in which the public can engage with such issues.
We have talked about the broads in technocratic terms, but of course, above all, the broads are a living space—a space for the cure of the soul. They are a unique creation that, as my right hon. Friend pointed out, are an example not exactly of a national park but of somewhere where the Sandford principle—the principle that conservation should dominate over leisure—has been explicitly rejected by the Broads Authority because of the important fact of navigation. Underlying that is the deep history that he, as a distinguished historian, has raised, which is the artificial creation of the broads through the medieval peat works.
In a sense, this debate is not just an extraordinary gathering of different Members of Parliament but a representation of the history of our nation: from Boudicca and the Iceni to the appearance of the Roman vessels; from the movements of the sea 2,000 years ago to those medieval peat works and to the contemporary phenomenon of people moving back and forth and looking at butterflies and bitterns while enjoying their boats. As a Member representing a national park in the north, I have the unique connection of Arthur Ransome, whose Swallows and Amazons jumped from my constituency down to my right hon. Friend’s constituency in their boats.
The two specific issues raised by right hon. and hon. Members relate to the questions of governance, planning and the park’s status, which I will take in reverse order. The Department was asked for a formal statement, which I will read before using my limited time to talk about the context underlying that formal statement:
“DEFRA are clear that the broads is not a national park and the Broads Authority is not a national park authority. However, we do recognise the benefits of the powerful, international national park brand”—
I do not like “international national park brand” as a formulation—
“and the value that utilising it in the broads could bring. We are clear these proposals should in no way detract from the Broads Authority navigation responsibility.”
In other words, we absolutely acknowledge that, in the central features of the broads—the incredible combination of habitat, environment, leisure and a spectacular historical landscape—we have the essential features that we attempt to protect across the country, whether through our national parks or our areas of outstanding natural beauty. As Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, I am proud to be responsible for the nearly 25% of the United Kingdom’s landmass that is protected in that way. Clearly, the broads must be included in the broad common sense of a protected landscape.
I am so sorry, Mr Turner; I apologise. I will stand back and face you when speaking. In fact, I will move my microphone to ensure that I am audible while doing so.
The central question that my right hon. Friend the Member for Broadland raises is about the status of the park. Underlying the slightly technical response from the Department is a fundamental distinction between the broad philosophical arrangements of the Broads Authority, which are to protect the landscape, and the exact legal status. National parks were set up under separate legislation, and, because of the issues raised by the Sandford principle and navigation, the Department does not wish to imply that the specific legislation relating to national parks should control the Broads Authority.
Governance was the second issue raised; the right hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb) particularly focused on it. It was addressed in a statement made by Lord Gardiner of Kimble in the other place. Lord Gardiner made explicit that the Government do not intend to bring forward the legislation necessary to enable elections to be held. I will explain, from the point of view of the Department, why that is our determination.
The determination was made for various specific reasons relating directly to the interests of the broads. One is that the number of people living within the Broads Authority area itself is relatively limited. When the Broads Authority was set up, a relatively narrow line was drawn around the edge of the authority. It crosses some population-dense areas, but the number of people who live within the authority and own boats for example—to address the question raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Broadland—is relatively limited. Approximately 10,000 people currently have licences to operate boats within the Broads Authority, but only a minority of those live within the Broads Authority area itself.
I have two questions. First, for the avoidance of doubt, is the Minister saying that the proposed rebranding of the broads will have no impact at all on the current legal status, which excludes the Sandford principle from the Broads Authority? I would like confirmation of that. Secondly, is he saying that the Government intend not to proceed with any legislation in respect of any of the national parks in England, thereby not following the route taken in Scotland where they have introduced direct elections?
I am saying both those things. Just to reinforce that absolutely clearly for the avoidance of any doubt, the broads are not legally a national park and do not come under the national park legislation, and nor will they. We are very comfortable with the broads describing themselves as a national park, but that is essentially to express in common-sense terms to the public that it is a protected landscape with many of the qualities of other national parks.
We are certainly proud of the Broads Authority. We do not expect it to be a second-class authority or its specific legal status to undermine the respect and the honour that we have towards it. It is not governed under the national parks legislation; it is governed under separate legislation, and that will remain the case.
The Government do not intend to bring forward the legislation that the right hon. Member for North Norfolk mentioned, and I shall explain why. It would not achieve the intention, which is to get more people involved in boats and navigation on to the board. We are achieving that at the moment. The two most recent Secretary of State appointments to the Broads Authority are of people who have licences. More than one third of people on the board are active users of boats and licence holders, and that is important. In so far as I am involved in Secretary of State appointments, I will endeavour to ensure that they include people who have an active interest in navigation as well as the environment.
Can the Minister explain two things? First, one year ago, under a coalition Government in which Conservatives were in the majority, the draft legislation was brought forward by his Department. His Department therefore must have regarded its merits and been prepared to take it through. It would be fascinating to get through a freedom of information request the advice that Ministers received at the time in favour of bringing the legislation forward.
Secondly, I know all the arguments against elections, but there still seems to be the prospect of some form of election, not only for local communities, but for other interest groups—wildlife, environment or anything else. That, I think, is the view of most MPs in the area.
I take that point strongly on board. The advice that I have received is that the democratic element on the Broads Authority is represented by the fact that the majority of people serving on the board are elected. Nine people have been elected as councillors. The two people who have been elected by the people with navigation interests are themselves elected.
The majority of the people on the Broads Authority are currently elected and they are balanced by a minority of Secretary of State appointees, which allows us to achieve exactly the right hon. Gentleman’s point; that would be more difficult to achieve simply though elections. It ensures that we have a broad range of people with both environmental and navigation interests.
May I assure the Minister that although I have had consistent pressure from my constituents on the issue of the broads for many years, that pressure has not been for elections? With respect to the right hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb), who has now left the Chamber, I do not think that it is the most important issue. The pressure from my constituents comes from the constant concern about the chiselling away of the boating interest. A large number of jobs and the tourist industry depend on boating. In answering those points, can the Minister let me know whether he will accept an invitation to visit my constituency—in particular Loddon, which is, of course, the true gateway to the broads?
“My Father’s house has many gateways.”
The question about boating interests is important and we need to look at it very closely. As my hon. Friend is aware, the Broads Authority is the third largest controller of navigable waterways in the country, after the Canal & River Trust and the Environment Agency. We try very carefully to benchmark the charges imposed by the Broads Authority against those for comparable canals and riverways. At the moment, the charges—certainly for larger vessels—are considerably cheaper than those imposed by the Canal & River Trust, but we will monitor the situation carefully.
I would be delighted to visit my hon. Friend’s constituency. The Secretary of State wants to make it clear that she is very much looking forward to visiting the broads herself—and, indeed, going through the gateway mentioned.
The right hon. Member for North Norfolk raised the question of planning, which is central. I believe that my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith) has been particularly interested in planning around Thorpe island. She has worked closely with the Broads Authority to ensure that action to ensure that Thorpe island is a responsible, aesthetically pleasing element of the broads is carried through—something that I believe local residents are strongly in favour of. A legal review is in process at the moment, so I do not want to get involved in that, but my sense is that the authority is broadly sympathetic to the position of my hon. Friend. Indeed, I am proud that the authority has so far had a good record on planning approval—95% of plans brought forward have been approved, against a national average of 87%.
I conclude by paying tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Broadland for putting forward the nub of the issue, which is the balance between the different values of beauty, tourism and navigation. Nothing illustrates that more than what has been happening in Hickling broad. My right hon. Friend, who has a strong interest in military history, will have been moved by the use of Hesco bastions and technology from Afghanistan in the creation of new mud islands for bitterns. That has allowed us to dredge sustainably to provide access to navigation while protecting the habitat. The Broads Authority matters deeply to us as a breathing space and a cure for the soul.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the Norfolk and Suffolk Broads.
UN Independent Commission of Inquiry (Gaza)
[Mr Philip Hollobone in the Chair]
Order. There is clearly a lot of interest in this very important debate, and it will be nearly impossible to get a quart into a pint pot this afternoon. At least 17 Members would like to speak. I will try to make sure that they all get a chance, but it simply will not be possible for me to do that if Members decide to intervene on each other during the debate. I know that is unfortunate, but to ensure that everyone has a chance to speak, please do not intervene on other Members, then you will all get your say. Speeches are likely to be able to last no more than two or three minutes if everybody is to contribute to the debate.
May I say first, Mr Hollobone, how delighted I am that you are joining us to chair the debate? I am pleased that time has been found for it, and I thank everyone who has joined us in Westminster Hall to take part.
I also thank a number of campaign groups, non-governmental organisations and think-tanks that have met me this week to help shape some of the arguments I am about to make: Labour Friends of Palestine; Palestine Briefing; Yesh Din; Medical Aid for Palestinians; the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Network; Forward Thinking; Pierre Krähenbühl, the commissioner-general of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency; and Ray Dolphin from the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
I start by saying how pleased I was that last week Britain was one of the 41 countries at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva to support the adoption of a resolution on the Gaza commission of inquiry report, which looked into the 2014 Gaza conflict and will now be referred to the UN General Assembly and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. Like many other people, I feel that is an important step in both highlighting and addressing the ongoing conflict, which has blighted lives for more than half a century. It is shameful that the international community has failed to make any real progress towards achieving peace in the region in that time.
Today marks a year since Israel launched Operation Protective Edge in Gaza, a conflict that lasted 51 days, claimed 2,251 lives, including the lives of 551 children, displaced more than half a million people, and destroyed 77 health facilities and 261 schools. Each day, an average of 680 tank and artillery shells pummelled the densely populated areas of Gaza, leaving barely anywhere safe. Although the report recognises that Israel issued warnings to people to evacuate, there was often nowhere for them to evacuate to and no means of escaping the conflict zone.
Gaza is a tiny strip of land, covering just 139 square miles. If we bear in mind that West Yorkshire alone covers 780 square miles, it gives us some perspective of just how small Gaza is, yet 1.8 million Palestinians live in what is increasingly becoming a densely populated open-air prison, and they have nowhere to go. In 2012 the World Bank published a report, “Gaza 2020”, which claimed that Gaza would become uninhabitable by 2020 as a result of the blockade, an increase in population size, and insufficient access to clean drinking water, electricity, and health and education services. After last year’s devastation, Gaza has reached 2020 five years ahead of schedule.
Currently, 860,000 Palestinians in Gaza survive on UNRWA food parcels. In addition to the destruction of health facilities, schools and homes, there has been massive disruption of water supplies, sewage disposal and electricity supplies, and they have not yet been repaired. One year on, not one of the 8,377 homes that were totally destroyed in the conflict has been rebuilt, and repairs have been carried out on only 5% of the 23,597 homes that were partially destroyed.
Much of the aid pledged at last year’s Cairo conference for reconstruction in Gaza has not yet materialised, and I hope that the Minister can update us about the UK’s contribution. The UN requested $720 million, but it has received only about $210 million. UNRWA faces a severe funding crisis, as it has a deficit of $100 million, which of course is having a serious impact on its ability to deliver essential humanitarian aid.
I hope the Minister can also say why, at a time of such turmoil in the middle east and when institutions such as UNRWA are delivering vital aid and support to vulnerable communities, the Government are proposing a 17% cut in the Department for International Development’s contribution. Given the fragility of the region, the mass displacement of people and, of course, the rising threat of terrorism, it is in our own interests to invest—both politically and financially—in bringing about a stable middle east, to ensure that Palestinians have a future within their own borders.
There is, of course, one glaringly obvious way in which we can ensure the effectiveness of UK taxpayers’ money when it is spent in Palestine, with a view to achieving long-term reductions. That is to stop Israel levelling projects funded by the EU, DFID and UNRWA, and institutions that are part-financed by Britain. Earlier today, the Chancellor announced, with renewed vigour, further cuts in and scrutiny of public spending. I would like to see the Government apply the same level of scrutiny and accountability to the destruction of those buildings and projects in Gaza. Perhaps the Minister will update us on that and say whether he will send Israel a bill for the damage.
We must consider what cuts might mean for Palestine at this time. UNRWA provides schooling to 500,000 students across the middle east in 700 schools, but it will be unable to do so if its current financial deficit continues. At a time of rising militancy in the region, we have to ensure that young people have access to a good education and have a future beyond schooling. Otherwise, they will inevitably look elsewhere for promises—false ones—of a better life.
UNRWA’s commissioner-general, Pierre Krähenbühl, said in an interview just last week:
“Palestinian refugees are facing their most severe situation since 1948. They have had 50 years of occupation, nine years of a blockade in Gaza and now five years of conflict in Syria. When you look at all of that, how much more can they absorb?”
That is a stark warning to all of us.
Of course, the UN inquiry will investigate actions undertaken by both sides, which is right and proper. Acts of violence committed by either side against innocent civilians are wholly unjustifiable, and those responsible must be held to account. Although the report finds that both the Israel defence forces and armed Palestinian groups failed to distinguish adequately between civilians and combatants during last year’s conflict, the scale of the arsenal available to the IDF makes their failure particularly devastating.
The commission’s report highlights the IDF’s method of issuing warnings, in an attempt to create “sterile combat zones”, as an example of the failure to differentiate adequately between civilians and combatants. Leaflet drops or “roof knocks”, which involved a drop of small missiles prior to a much larger strike, were used to warn civilians of an impending attack. The commission found that those attempts failed to have the desired effect, either because there was not enough time between warnings and the much larger strikes, or because, as was often the case, civilians felt that there was simply nowhere safer for them to evacuate to. The IDF then failed to recognise anyone who chose to stay in the area as a civilian, denying them the protections that would ordinarily accompany civilian status under international law.
The commission’s report also looked at the west bank during the same period in 2014. Between 12 June and 26 August 2014, 27 Palestinians, including five children, were killed and 3,100 Palestinians were injured by Israeli security forces. That was largely due to increased use of live rounds as a means of achieving crowd control.
The commission’s report calls on Israel to bring its systems for investigating alleged violations of the law of armed conflict in line with international standards, and I hope that the UK will also take this opportunity to demand that. The examples that I have given must be the basis upon which we find ways to bring about change. We would be naive to think that these injustices are not feeding into a rise in militancy and unrest right across the region, as well as much closer to home.
Gaza has been under blockade for eight years, and the Palestinian people have been living under Israeli occupation for almost 50 years. That is a damning indictment of the international community, and of our failure to secure peace and justice for the people of Palestine. It is now 21 years since the Oslo accord, and an entire generation of young Palestinians—the Oslo generation—have grown up to witness a worsening situation on the ground. There have been significant expansions of illegal Israeli settlements in the west bank, heightened security threats to both sides, the construction of an illegal separation barrier, restrictions on Palestinian movement, the suffocation of productivity, punitive home demolitions and a humanitarian crisis in Gaza, and there is no end or hope in sight. It is depressing that, 21 years since Oslo, both sides seem to be further away from peace and security than ever before.
I welcome Britain’s support for the commission of inquiry on Gaza. However, although the report identifies in great detail the violations against international law and makes recommendations about addressing those, it also recognises that we have been here before, time and again. The empty rhetoric about opening dialogue and, increasingly, getting round negotiation tables has now been ongoing for more than 50 years. It is time to think carefully about why the international community has failed and time to consider all the options available to us, to ensure that we are not still sitting here in five, 10 or 20 years’ time, discussing yet more reports on further conflict.
That leads me on to what the UK could do, unilaterally if we must, to take concrete steps towards peace. We have condemned the illegal settlements in the west bank, as well the collective punishment inflicted on the civilian population of Gaza, in breach of the Geneva convention, which has been described as a war crime by the EU, the Red Cross and the UN. However, we simultaneously continue to trade freely with Israel. We support the commission’s report, which outlines the deaths of innocent civilians in both Gaza and Israel, yet we continue to export arms to Israel.
I am aware that the Government are reviewing the sale of arms to Israel case by case, but in the context of the conflict, surely even the most limited attempts at evaluating risk would conclude that the potential risk of a breach of international humanitarian law would be too high, and that arms should not be changing hands. According to the EU code of conduct on arms exports:
“Member States will not issue an export licence if there is a clear risk that the intended recipient would use the proposed export aggressively against another country or to assert by force a territorial claim.”
Yet following the brutal conflict last year, Britain has approved new arms licences for Israel of up to £4 million. Furthermore, The Independent newspaper reports that the Government also approved arms exports to Israel worth nearly £7 million in the six months prior to Operation Protective Edge. Does the Minister agree that turning a blind eye to violations of international humanitarian law when an arms deal is on the table undermines our standing in the world and begins to compromise our integrity?
A new approach to diplomacy must be based on the protection of civilians, on equal respect for the human rights, security and sovereignty of both Israelis and Palestinians, and on the realisation and implementation of international law, beyond just the rhetoric. It is not enough to focus exclusively on negotiations while failing to hold Israel accountable for violating international humanitarian law. In 2010, on a visit to Turkey, the Prime Minister said:
“Everybody knows that we are not going to sort out the problem of the Middle East peace process while there is, effectively, a giant open prison in Gaza”,
and called for an end to the blockade, to allow a free flow of humanitarian goods and people. Five years later, under the stranglehold of an eight-year blockade, the situation in Gaza is still precarious and, indeed, worse. I welcome the remarks just days ago by the Minister responsible for the Middle East, who is in his place:
“The UK supports EU efforts to develop options for easing movement and access into and out of Gaza. This includes the possibility of EU assistance in establishing a sea-link from Gaza to another international port. The UK and EU have consistently called on the Government of Israel to ease movement and access restrictions, and will continue to do so.”
I hope that we all support him in making that a reality, beyond the rhetoric.
The crisis in Gaza must be understood in a wider context of a 48-year illegal occupation of Palestine. It is essential that the UK and the wider international community are honest brokers for peace and take practical steps towards addressing the root causes of the conflict, starting by ending the illegal occupation of Palestine and ensuring that Palestinians are able to enjoy their basic human rights and freedoms.
Some 64% of Gaza’s population is under the age of 25. The report recognises that, without any economic horizon or sustainable productivity, there is an inevitability about the cycle of conflict and unrest. That will serve neither Israel or Palestine, so it must be addressed. I am proud that the Labour party supported the motion last year to recognise a state of Palestine. Surely that would be an easy starting point.
In 2012, 135 countries voted in favour of Palestinian statehood at the UN General Assembly. Last year, a number of EU member states also voted in their Parliaments in support of recognising a Palestinian state. The argument that the recognition of a Palestinian state should come at a time that is deemed suitable is hollow. Israel should have no right of veto over the right of Palestinians to self-determination. Recognising Israel was not subject to negotiation, and recognition of Palestine should not be either.
We can and should do more with our European partners to hold to account those who commit violations of international law and to promote endeavours such as this report, which is a welcome first step. I hope that the Minster will consider and respond to some my proposals.
Order. I am going to be the most unpopular person in the Chamber, because I am only going to be able to allow Members to speak for two and a half minutes, so all their 30-minute speeches will have to be severely condensed. That way, everybody who stood will get to speak. We have three Front-Bench speakers, under the new arrangements—from the Scottish National party, Labour and the Government —and their speeches will start as near to 3.30 pm as possible. Leading us with the first two-and-half-minute speech is Bob Blackman.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate the hon. Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch) on securing this debate on an important issue.
Like many colleagues from all parties, I was in Israel at the time of the conflict. I witnessed individuals suffering indiscriminate rocket and mortar fire coming from Gaza. People were fleeing to air raid shelters to avoid completely indiscriminate attempts, made by a proscribed terrorist organisation from Gaza, to kill as many civilians as possible. The reality is this: I mourn any loss of life, but to compare what the Israel defence forces had to do in seeking to combat the terrorist organisation, Hamas—
Had to do—seeking to combat the terrorist organisation Hamas. It is ridiculous to compare the two. The reality is that no other army in the world contacts people in advance, warning them of legitimate military targets and attempting to minimise casualties, as the IDF does. While we are talking about the tragic loss of life in Gaza, we should remember that more people are dying in Syria almost every week, as a result of the disgrace.
I want to take up two issues in the brief time available. On the reconstruction of Gaza, it is clear that humanitarian aid has been allowed in, across the border, to assist the citizens of Gaza to try to create an environment in which they can work. Sadly, the terrorist group Hamas has diverted the construction materials and proudly maintains that it has recreated the tunnels of terror. Yet the UN report says that it is not possible to describe what these tunnels were for. Perhaps they were for tourism between Gaza and Israel—but I suspect that the military uniforms and military ordnance they contained demonstrates that they were used to kill the maximum number of civilians possible.
I challenge the Minister to respond to just one issue. Why did the British Government go along with this UN report, which is deeply and utterly flawed? We should have abstained or voted against, along with our traditional allies.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone; it was not a pleasure to listen to that contemptible defence of indefensible Israeli actions. The Israelis are murderers in Gaza. They have murdered thousands of people in Gaza. They have achieved nothing by doing so, except to make the lives of the people of Gaza total hell.
When I was in Gaza, I spoke to a girl who told me she was standing between her parents when an Israeli solider came up and shot her father dead in the head, and then shot her mother dead in the head. The Israelis use the holocaust: they use the murder of 6 million Jews to justify their murder of thousands upon thousands of Palestinians.
The issue is every single way in which the Israelis deal with the situation. An Israeli told me that when, in the summer, there was insufficient electricity for air conditioning in the luxury flats of Tel Aviv, the Israelis cut off electricity to Gaza to allow the people of Tel Aviv to be air-conditioned. The horrors mount up and the horrors have mounted up. There are children whose brains will never develop because their inadequate diet prevents them from developing physically and therefore mentally.
It is satisfactory that the Government voted for the UN report, but it is not enough. We have to take action. We have to impose an arms ban and economic sanctions on these murderers, who live a first-world life courtesy of America and the European Union. The Palestinians are a persecuted people and it is time that that persecution was brought to an end. We will not rest until the Palestinians are free.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate the hon. Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch) on securing this debate, but what a disappointment it has proven to be. We listened in silence to some of the views expressed by Opposition Members; it is greatly disappointing that some people could not do the same when my colleagues on the Government Benches made speeches.
We should bear in mind that the UN has a long history of criticising Israel, more than it has any other country in the world—so much so that many of us feel that its criticisms are no longer legitimate. In 2004, the UN General Assembly adopted 20 resolutions singling out Israel for criticism, but only three for the rest of the world combined. The Human Rights Council’s members include Qatar and Saudi Arabia—countries that perform human rights violations against their own people. We know that those things happen.
Only last year, the Prime Minister made three points about the UN. First, he wanted to see
“an end to the outrageous lectures on human rights that Israel receives at the United Nations from the likes of Iran and North Korea”.
I certainly agree with that. Secondly, he wanted.
“an end to the ridiculous situation where last year the United Nations General Assembly passed 3 times as many resolutions on Israel as on Syria, Iran and North Korea put together”.
Thirdly, he wanted to see.
“no more excuses for the 32 countries in the United Nations who refuse to recognise Israel”.
Israel has a right to exist. As my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) said, it is constantly under attack—that seems to be forgotten by the UN Human Rights Council and some Members here this afternoon. It is a great disappointment that we do not have more time to debate this issue, but I urge Members to listen to people from both sides of the situation. As my hon. Friend said, none of us rejoices in the deaths of any human being, but to claim that any country kills people as a result of the holocaust is not only despicable and disgusting, but disrespectful to the House.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch) on making a balanced introduction to the debate. Because of the time constraints, I will not respond to the speeches of the hon. Members for Hendon (Dr Offord) and for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) other than to say this: it might be worth it for them to listen to some voices in Israel other than the Israeli Government. They will find that there is considerably more free thinking about Israel’s actions in Gaza than the kinds of things they have said in trying to justify what went on last year.
In view of the shortage of time, I will restrict my remarks to some questions for the Minister. I congratulate the Government on voting for the Human Rights Council resolution last Friday, but the whole question is about what happens as a result. The background, as my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax said, is that we have been here before. The resolution bemoaned the lack of progress on the previous inquiry into the Israeli assault on Gaza in 2008-09. Given that the Human Rights Council has noted a failure by Israel and Hamas in co-operating with legal investigations and that the International Criminal Court is looking into this matter, what can the Minister and the international community do to force that co-operation?
My second question is about recommendation 6 of the Human Rights Council resolution, which:
“Calls upon all States to promote compliance with human rights obligations and all High Contracting Parties to the Fourth Geneva Convention”
to make particular efforts in that regard, particularly in relation to
“penal sanctions, grave breaches and the responsibilities of the High Contracting Parties”.
Britain is a high contracting party to the Geneva convention. What will Britain do to ensure compliance with the provisions of that resolution?
Thirdly, given that the resolution is all about what happens now and does not look back, will the Minister guarantee that a statement to the House will be made before the summer recess on what the Government suggest we should do, in conjunction with other countries, to ensure that that resolution is complied with and taken forward?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I commend the hon. Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch) for securing the debate. I want to speak briefly about the independent commission of inquiry and in particular about the points made in the concluding observations of its report. The fourth concluding observation mentions the use of live ammunition and
“the destruction of entire neighbourhoods…the policy itself violates the laws of war.”
I commend to everyone the concluding observations and recommendations. They are important for all the debates in this area.
The report recommends that Palestinians and Israelis should be
“refraining from and taking active steps to prevent statements that dehumanize the other side”.
Having seen the United Nations Relief and Works Agency director general, Pierre Krähenbühl, on his visit to MPs, I note the critical importance of the conflict. Daesh is in the area, and I want all the recommendations to be implemented. As the independent commission has said, the greatest challenge is to implement its fair recommendations.
Last year’s conflict in Gaza was an absolute tragedy for everyone who lost their lives on all sides. It is important to remember the context: a sovereign nation, Israel, defended itself against an attack by the terrorist group Hamas, which was raining rockets directed at Israel’s civilian population. I remind all Members that Israel left Gaza in 2005. It forcibly withdrew its settlers and all its soldiers, hoping that that would lead to peace. Instead, that led to Hamas rule and rockets. The report we are debating recognises that Hamas committed human rights abuses; in recognising that, it follows what Amnesty International found earlier this year.
When the terrorist organisation Hamas deliberately used the civilian population of Gaza as human shields in that conflict, it was tragic but not surprising when many of those people lost their lives. I note that the report from the high-level international military group on the Gaza conflict, whose members include Colonel Richard Kemp, said that in its experience and given the circumstances of the conflict—civilians were used deliberately by Hamas as human shields—Israel took more precautions than any other country to defend civilians.
What is to happen now? Yes, there should be negotiations to end the blockade of Gaza and to restore the area to normality, but what are we seeing? New terror tunnels are being built at this moment and more rockets are being fired, including the two rockets fired last week by an ISIS-affiliated group supported by Hamas. The international community should become more involved. It should recognise the terrorist nature of Hamas and the involvement of Iran in stoking the conflict, and it should realise that the solution to this long-running and tragic conflict is about two peoples being recognised—the Palestinian people and the Israeli people—and two states being set up side by side. The only way to achieve that is through negotiation, so that there can be a long-lasting peace with the rights of both peoples respected.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch) on her measured speech and agree with her that we should welcome the report, even though, in an attempt to placate the Israel lobby, it does not address the issue of asymmetry in last year’s conflict—or, indeed, in previous conflicts.
Israel is a state that is out of control, but this country and others are not prepared to criticise it. Israel is not only engaged in the longest occupation of Palestinian lands, but continues to colonise and settle those lands on an industrial scale. It is indulging in installing an apartheid regime in the west bank; it has not withdrawn from Gaza, which is under a full embargo; and, most shamefully, it engages periodically—I am sure that we will see it again before long—in the murder of civilians and the control and cowing of the Gazan population.
In the invasion last year, more than 500 Palestinian children were killed, compared with one Israeli child. Any death of a child—any death of a civilian—is to be mourned, but we cannot ignore the ratios. Five hundred times as much high explosive was dropped on Gaza as was fired into Israel. I went there after Cast Lead and saw the effects. I saw children who were traumatised, who were permanently disabled and who were permanently crippled by those actions. This is not only a state with which we retain good relations; it is a state that we condone.
During the attack last year, the Minister thought about the possibility of restricting arms sales to Israel, but, by the time he had finished thinking about it, the 50 days of invasion were over. I say it with great reluctance, but I am increasingly of the view that we are going to have to take steps. We are going to have to give encouragement to the Palestinian people by recognising Palestine. It is disgraceful that the Government are not prepared to do that and use every possible excuse. We must also look at sanctions, embargoes, not importing settlement goods and not selling arms to a country that is about to use them for another attack on children and civilians in Gaza.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch) on securing this debate.
I am aware of the need to be brief, so want to make only a few points. First, thousands of my constituents have contacted me to voice their concerns about both last year’s crisis and the current situation, particularly with regard to the UN report. Members from both sides have made some hot points, but I want to bring the discussion back to the report so that we can make some progress on how Parliament can move things forward.
It is important to recognise that although the report mentioned atrocities committed by both Hamas and Israel, it focused on the disproportionate and indiscriminate nature of the attack on Gaza. The report identifies many possible war crimes, including air strikes on residential buildings, the use of wide-area shells and heavy artillery in densely populated areas, and the targeting of civilians by Israelis, as well as the use of human shields and the execution of collaborators by Hamas and other armed Palestinian groups. That must be recognised as we move forward.
The report recommended that the international community support the work of the International Criminal Court, which is currently conducting a preliminary investigation into the war. Will the Minister lend his support to Palestine becoming a member of the ICC? I am pleased that we signed up to last week’s UN resolution, but will the Minister outline how the Government will be taking forward the elements that relate to the UK? When will the Government be in a position to recognise Palestine as a state? Finally, in September last year I asked about the review of UK-supplied arms and components, and I would be grateful for a response on that as well.
I thank the hon. Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch) for securing this debate. I express regret and sympathy for all those who have lost their lives as a result of the conflict in Gaza.
From the outset, I call into question the usefulness of a report that does not engage the interested parties. Why can America and Great Britain manage to engage with the Israelis, yet the UN, which is supposedly an independent body, cannot? I can well understand why the Israelis made the decision not to engage: the outcome was a foregone conclusion.
Having lived through the troubles in Northern Ireland and all too often seen one-sided, biased reporting, I feel that I am more than equipped to recognise it at play, and I believe that there are numerous examples in the report. I do not have time to go into them because of the time restriction, but there certainly is a difference between Palestinian and Israeli losses.
In the background information that I read before the debate, I found some interesting submissions. Colonel Richard Kemp, who is British, makes it clear that he has no affiliation with the Israelis, paid or otherwise, yet calls the report into question:
“In my opinion the actions taken by the IDF were necessary to defend the people of Israel from the ongoing, intensive and lethal attacks by Hamas and other groups in Gaza. It is the inalienable duty of every government to use its armed forces to protect its citizens and its terrain from external attack…As the Gaza Strip is effectively a separate state, outside of Israeli control, these actions amounted to an attack by a foreign country against Israeli territory…I know of no other realistic and effective means of suppressing an aggressor’s missile fire than the methods used by the IDF, namely precision air and artillery strikes against the command and control structures”.
It is clear that Israeli action is necessary to prevent the re-armament that will lead to further attacks by Hamas and other groups. It should also be noted that Egypt takes similar preventive action against Gaza. From the sources I am aware of, Hamas and Islamic Jihad used buildings and vehicles protected under the laws of armed conflict, including schools, hospitals, UN buildings, mosques and ambulances. Use of such facilities for military purposes constitutes a war crime.
If we genuinely want to contribute to peace and to improve human rights for the people of Gaza and Israel, we must have the courage to reject the UN Human Rights Council’s persistent and discriminatory anti-Israel programme and produce a balanced and fair report into these tragic events. I hope that the Government can do just that.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch) on securing this debate a year since the most recent invasion of Gaza, and I thank the Backbench Business Committee for allocating time for the debate.
In the short time that I have, I want to make a couple of points about respect for international law. It is precisely because Israel suffered no consequences for its earlier crimes committed during the operations in 2008 and 2012, which were referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter), that it was able to go on to commit even greater atrocities a year ago today.
International law is only as strong as the parties that are willing to enforce it. We have witnessed generations of failure because of a lack of political will not only to acknowledge but to take action against Israel’s violations. Over the past half century, Israel has placed itself above international law, breaching human rights and failing or refusing to adhere to the duties and obligations placed on it as an occupying power. Its position has been strengthened by an international community that, to varying degrees, has acknowledged significant and persistent violations of international law, whether they be human rights violations during military conflicts, as we saw last year, or the prolonged injustice of Israel’s illegal and brutal occupation and settlement policy.
If the Government are sincere when they claim that we, as a nation, support the rule of law and wish to see a peaceful resolution to the Israel-Palestine conflict, we should expect Israel to be held to account for its litany of crimes under international law. I am happy the Government supported the UN Human Rights Council resolution, and I certainly acknowledge that to the Minister, but if we are to make a positive contribution to resolving the conflict, our foreign policy should be to refuse to profit from the illegal activities of others. Without such a commitment, we will forever stand on the wrong side of history, in that we will be promoting injustice and undermining international law. If the two-state solution is to mean anything and to become a reality, the international community must be willing to take practical action to end the Israeli Government’s illegal behaviour.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch) on securing the debate.
I, too, welcome the fact that the Government voted in favour of the report at the UN Human Rights Council last Friday. I look forward to seeing how they implement the robust recommendations of the report, which highlights Israel’s targeting of residential buildings, including schools, hospitals and apartment blocks, the use of heavy artillery in densely populated areas, and the targeting of civilians.
Given the way in which Israel conducted its assault—it used 20,000 tonnes of explosives, dropping 120 one-tonne bombs and attacking residential neighbourhoods in one of the youngest and most densely populated areas in the world—the primary victims were always going to be civilians and children. The UN report found that 65% of Palestinian deaths were civilian, including more than 500 children. The images of the four boys killed by explosive rounds while playing on Gaza’s beach are the most enduring of the conflict.
Britain approved the sale of £7 million of arms to Israel in the six months before the offensive. That included components for drones, combat aircraft and helicopters. The Export Control Organisation, which is part of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, is responsible for assessing arms export licences, with each licence assessed on a case-by-case basis against the consolidated EU and national arms export licensing criteria. Those include consideration of whether the proposed export would
“provoke or prolong armed conflicts or aggravate existing tensions in the destination country…be used aggressively against another country…be to a destination where the behaviour of the buyer country raises concerns with regard to its attitude to terrorism or respect of international law”.
If the proposed export fails to meet one or more of the criteria, a licence will be refused.
If more evidence were needed that the Government had little commitment to their own arms export licensing criteria, it was recently reported that, in the few months between the end of hostilities in Gaza last August and the end of December, BIS approved 32 military exports, worth £3.97 million, to Israel. The first licence was granted just six days after the announcement of the Israeli ceasefire. If we play the role of honest broker in the conflict while selling the occupying power the arms it uses to occupy its neighbour, how can we hold our head up?
I commend the hon. Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch) for initiating the debate. Like other Members, I commend the Government for supporting last Friday’s resolution.
Unlike the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), I do not see the report as unbalanced. Paragraph 668 states that
“the commission was able to gather substantial information pointing to serious violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights law by Israel and by Palestinian armed groups. In some cases, these violations may amount to war crimes.”
That is what we should be addressing.
We should also be clear that we need to move forward. Other hon. Members have rightly said that arms sales continue. In the four months following the attacks, arms sales went to Israel, so more has been done to replenish its arsenals, which were depleted in these massive attacks, than has been done to repair Gaza’s battered, blasted and rubbled civic fabric. We also need to remember that the building of that civic fabric, which is now damaged, was supported by aid from this country and others. People have a right to defend health facilities, schools and civil infrastructure, which need to be protected.
The state of Israel needs to recognise that people in the international community are not making an anti-Israel case. Many of us totally oppose conflict and violence. I am not one of those who tries to pretend that there is military equivalence between the violence wreaked by Hamas and the massive violence wreaked by Israel. Equally, I do not pretend there is a moral difference between the violence of the two sides when it ends up killing innocent civilians and putting in dread people who should be living in peace together.
Today, however, we have heard the pretence that Israel has the right to treat Gaza as though it is a foreign state and to attack it on the basis that Israel is under threat from another state. That is from the same Members who then tell us that we in this House do not have the right to call for Palestine to be recognised as a state. How come people can recognise Palestine as a state when they want to justify violence—for military purposes—when the rest of us are not allowed to recognise it as a state for diplomatic and political purposes and to achieve a peaceful resolution?
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch) on securing the debate. I need to declare an interest because I am vice-chair of Labour Friends of Palestine. I plan to visit Gaza, God willing, this year.
I support a two-state solution, but it must be recognised by neighbouring countries, it has to be sustainable, and peace has to prevail. Part of that must be about educating and empowering a new generation of young people on both sides. Will the Minister tell us what plans the Government have in that regard, including working with organisations such as OneVoice? Palestinian statehood is not a gift to be given, but a right to be recognised. It should be recognised to kick-start the debate on this issue.
When we speak in the House, we must be careful, because we are speaking about the loss of many lives, and the numbers were very disproportionate. During the year of tension, cross-border rocket attacks led to a military offensive by Israel, resulting in the deaths of 2,100 people in Gaza, with 11,000 injured, as well as the deaths of 64 Israeli soldiers and seven Israeli citizens. We need to avoid all such deaths, and some Members need to be careful about how they talk about the loss of such innocent lives.
One priority, which the Minister could perhaps address in his comments, should be rebuilding the houses and hospitals that have still not been rebuilt. It must be the international community’s priority to make sure we provide humanitarian aid and rebuild basic infrastructure. Thousands of people from my constituency contacted me last summer, and some were crying—there was such devastation. We need to address this issue in the best way possible to ensure there is a sustainable two-state solution.
I echo the sentiments of my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch). I welcome the report, but it stops short on many points. I struggle to reconcile the Government’s position of arming Israel and breaking the EU restrictions, and of condemning the illegal settlements yet allowing free trade with the UK and EU markets.
We need to achieve a peaceful and sustainable settlement. In the current climate, without the recognition of Palestine, that will not happen. I call on the Government to go further and to change our position from one that allows arms into Israel and breaches international laws. David Miliband revoked five licences in 2009. Why are we not doing that now? Why are we allowing this arms trade?
Why are we trading with Israel’s occupied territories? Are we not, by definition, handling stolen goods if we recognise that that land is stolen and continue to trade with Israel? To me, it is common sense that we should stop.
Would the recognition of Palestine by the UK not help the peace process? The recognition of Israel was not subject to negotiation, and neither should the recognition of Palestine be. Israel should have no right of veto over the Palestinians’ right to self-determination.
We have an open prison in Gaza. When will the Government take bold and brave steps to recognise that this is not a race issue or a religious issue but a humanitarian crisis that we have a duty to respond to, rather than hiding behind language that is not conducive to the peace process?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch) for securing the debate.
It is 21 years since Oslo, and peace does not seem any closer. To put that in context, I am not the only Member of the House who was still at primary school at the time of the Oslo agreement. There have been 45 years of illegal occupation of Palestine, including the west bank and East Jerusalem, as well as Gaza. In Gaza, 80% of the population have been living in poverty and 61% in food insecurity since the blockade. That is the effect on the humanitarian situation.
As time is short, I will address my questions to the Minister now. Does he agree with Baroness Anelay, the Minister in the Lords, who said on Monday:
“All countries…have a legitimate right to self-defence”?—[Official Report, House of Lords, 6 July 2015; Vol. 764, c. 67.]
If so, when the UK finally joins the 137 countries that already recognise Palestine, will he recognise that it too has the right to self-defence when it comes under attack?
A new report by Medical Aid for Palestinians highlights the fact that 17 hospitals and 56 primary healthcare facilities were hit during the 2014 attack. How much damage was done to UK-funded projects in last year’s attack?
It is right that we should mourn the deaths of all those killed in last year’s attack; but is it possible truly to mourn and to continue to export arms to Israel in breach of the EU arms export rules? By ignoring Israeli violations of international law the Government weaken Britain’s authority and influence on the world stage.
As a former Oxfam aid worker for many years, I have worked for far too long on and in the conflict that we are debating, but I still believe that there will be a resolution in my lifetime—hopefully in the next few years.
Because of the time constraints, I will focus on three things. First, I would love a response from the Minister about what confidence-building action the Government are taking, particularly on Gaza. The Gaza reconstruction mechanism is clearly not working, but it is also not a substitute for easing the closure. There is a need for urgent expansion of access to Israeli markets for Palestinian exports. What measures are the Government taking to that end? We also need to remove the last restrictions on the export of Gazan products to the west bank.
I would like construction materials to be allowed into Gaza urgently. The facts are clear: only one home has been rebuilt in the past year, since the bombing, and the projections are that it will take hundreds of years to rebuild at the current rate. There is a need for materials to get into Gaza so that people can rebuild their lives. What is the Government’s view on that?
In addition, people need to get in and out of Gaza. In 2000 about 500,000 people were leaving and returning to Gaza, for work or to see family members. This year the number is 18,000, which is very low, and we need to raise it quickly. We also need the Israeli Government to continue to believe that there will be a cost to their allowing further settlement expansion in the west bank. I would love to know what the Government are doing to get that message clearly heard by the Israeli Government. I would be interested also in the Government’s view of the Israeli Government’s silent policy of retrospectively legalising illegal outposts.
Finally, the allegations—including allegations of war crimes—in the commission of inquiry’s report must be investigated fully by Israel and Hamas. Both sides of the conflict deserve access to justice and accountability. For the most part domestic mechanisms and investigations are poor; they are either rejected quickly or not run to international standards. Indeed, the report notes that Israel has a
“lamentable track record in holding wrong doers accountable”
and that investigation by Hamas is “woefully inadequate”. Following the UK’s welcome endorsement of the report last week, I would love to hear what the Government intend to do to support international mechanisms to pursue justice and accountability, particularly in relation to preliminary work by the International Criminal Court.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch) on securing the debate.
The report, much like the issue of Gaza, is about proportionality. Although its conclusions are 60% devoted to what Gaza endured, they are 40% devoted to what Israel endured. Yet those figures do not stack up. When we consider that 551 Palestinian children and one Israeli child died, we begin to see how massively the issue of proportionality figures not just in Operation Protective Edge but in the report. I am delighted that the British Government endorsed the report, but it does not reflect the proportionality of the situation.
Looking forward to how to rebuild Gaza, I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Batley and Spen (Jo Cox) that it is currently simply not working. It is pretty clear that Gaza is not going to be a viable place to live in. Why is the Department for International Development cutting its contribution to UNRWA by 17% in this budget year? UNRWA plays a critical role in the reconstruction of Gaza, so it seems a completely counterintuitive and counterproductive thing to do.
As to the broader issues around the future of the Israel-Palestine conflict, I had the pleasure of making a visit recently and it is clear to me that, with 700,000 settlers based illegally in the west bank, many of us would agree with President Obama, who said in June that the world no longer believes
“that Israel is serious about the two-state solution.”
Does the Minister believe that it is? Should we now start to look into the detail of the potential for a one-state solution? That is the elephant in the room.
The threat and application of EU sanctions proved very successful. What measures are we taking to ensure that they are applied fully and comprehensively to businesses that trade illegally in the west bank?
I, too, am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch) for securing this important debate.
The report makes clear the scale of the mass slaughter committed during last year’s war on Gaza, and the escalation of violence and disregard for life perpetrated by all involved. I am deeply concerned that those events, and the failure of Israel in particular to engage with the investigation into them, pose a great challenge to the chance of finding a peaceful solution to the conflict.
Let us be clear; the actions last year of the Israeli Government and their armed forces were criminal and murderous. They were committed with a complete disregard for the taking of civilian lives, including those of hundreds of women and children. The report is absolutely clear about that. Israel showed a callous disregard about who was being hit by its bombs, and that was emphasised by the fact that it did nothing to modify its behaviour when the results were evident to all.
The question that I want to ask, which I think is central to the debate, is why the Israeli Government are allowed constantly to flout international law and UN motions. Why are they allowed to act with impunity, not just in this case but in the illegal land grabbing on the west bank? The fact that they refused even to engage with the investigation speaks volumes about how they continually ignore international law. It is time for that to end. It is time that Israel was held accountable for its actions and those of its military.
The events of last year were, as the report makes clear, a worrying escalation with attacks by Israel on residential buildings resulting in the deaths of entire families, ground operations that levelled urban neighbourhoods, and a continued land grab. That escalation could happen precisely because Israel regards itself as somehow adjacent to international law.
The report makes some critical recommendations, in particular with respect to international human rights, but none of them will mean anything if they are not adhered to. Prosecutions, convictions and punishments must be applied, and must not stop with the individual soldiers involved; they must include those who are responsible for giving the orders, and the military and political establishment. Israel should address all the issues that fuel the conflict and impede respect for human rights. In particular, it should lift the blockade on Gaza and stop building illegal settlements.
Order. We have had contributions from 18 Back Benchers. We now move on to the Front-Bench speeches. Unfortunately, I am unable to time-limit the Front-Bench speeches, but the clock will be set for nine minutes. If you all speak for nine minutes, that will allow Holly Lynch three minutes to complete the impossible task of summing up the debate.
I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch) on achieving this debate; it is a pity that it could not have been larger and longer.
I must declare an interest. I worked in Gaza for 18 months as a surgeon in 1991 and 1992, just after the first Gulf war and during the first intifada, when George Bush was President of America. During the second Gulf war and second intifada, another George Bush was President, so we have all been here before. I was in Gaza at the time of the Madrid conference. The hon. Lady said it was 21 years since Oslo, when she was in primary school, and I find it a little depressing to realise that it is 24 years since the Madrid conference, when I was working in Gaza. Age catches us all.
On the morning of the Madrid conference, there was absolute chaos in Gaza, and we had no idea how things were going to go. I had five patients with chest wounds in A&E by half-past 7 in the morning and we did not know whether Hamas and Fatah were going to turn the situation into a total civil fight. By half-past 4 in the afternoon, the shebab, or young men, known at that time for throwing stones in protest at the IDF, were on armoured cars with olive branches. People saw this as their chance for change, 24 years ago.
The problem is that all of us—all of Europe and all the rest of the developed world, especially America—took our eye off the ball. We have been busy doing other things. We come back and we talk about the running sore of the Israeli-Palestine conflict. It was talked about by Colin Powell after 9/11, and four weeks later normal service had been resumed: Israel had the absolute right to do within its territories what it chose.
Like many people here, I was brought up to be pro-Israel because of what the Jewish people suffered in the second world war. However, living there and watching how people were treated—watching people being lifted; watching my hospital being raided and having to hide injured people in panels in ceilings and walls, like something out of a world war two movie—made me realise that one of the saddest things was that a lot of what is done to Palestine and Palestinians is like a pale version of what happened 70 years ago.
People in Israel want peace. There are many groups in Israel who want peace and want the attitude to change. We need to realise that that is not going to happen by itself. We also need to realise that we have a vested interest. I hate hearing how Hamas “seized power”. Hamas was elected. There have not been any new elections, but Hamas was elected because 11 years after the peace process, life was worse for people in Gaza. They had no work. Young people there know nothing other than how they are treated. They have zero future and no investment. Is it any wonder that they can be attracted to terrorism or extremism? It has been mentioned that recent rockets may have been associated with ISIS.
What do we expect? People in Gaza are trapped in a large open-air prison. We talk about the warnings that people got from the IDF, either from leaflets or roof knocks. I am still in touch with people in Gaza through the wonders of Facebook. The gaps to get out were far too short, and people fed back to me that they had no idea where to go because schools and vulnerable buildings had been bombed. They stayed put because they thought that going out on the street was probably dangerous.
The place is intensely populated. Almost half of it was being saturation-bombed. Where were they meant to get to following a five-minute warning? They had nowhere to go. If we look at the maps in the report, Shejaiya, which is at the east end of Gaza City, where I lived, was almost carpet-bombed. There is no way that those people could have got anywhere.
Proportionality has been mentioned. Of course Israel needs to be secure. We will never get Hamas to recognise Israel if there is no safety for Palestine. Hamas sees the situation as a war. I am no fan of Hamas—I was no fan of Hamas when I lived there—but we must realise that the more we do not allow a future for the Palestinians, the more we offer people into the hands of extremism.
If we were to go back to before 1987, before the first intifada, we would find that the Palestinians were one of the most educated populations in the world. They had lost their land, so people invested in education for their children. They sent them to eastern Europe. Doctors and engineers were their biggest production. I visited people and saw their wedding photographs with women in modern clothing and people travelling everywhere. They were very secular and pro-western. What drove them to the intifada were years and years of occupation and seeing no alternative.
The intifada has not worked, either. We are not far from a 30-year anniversary of the first intifada in 1987. Palestinians are being driven to become more and more extreme, and we need to see our culpability in that. We must not sell arms that we know will be used in that way. We should not import arms that we know have been tested by being used in the occupied territories. We absolutely need to stop settlements.
I went back in 2010 and I could not get into Gaza because of the blockade, but I spent time working with a doctor I had trained, who is now a consultant in East Jerusalem. I spent a day in the breast cancer clinic, because that is my specialty. At every appointment, half the time was spent on how the person had got through the wall and through the checkpoint, on how we were going to get them back, and on making sure we did the paperwork so that they could come back for their next breast cancer clinic appointment. It dominated everything.
The west bank is being eaten up into a Swiss cheese, and the two-state solution is not far from being totally unviable unless there is a withdrawal. When I visited Bethlehem, all I could see was tsunamis of modern buildings coming across the hills, and in East Jerusalem many settlements are being either purchased or possessed, because families do not have the paperwork that goes back to when the house was built. Little mini-settlements of three or four houses are being created. That allows the IDF to get on the roofs. The flags and barbed wire go up, and then the pressure on the people around starts. We need to see our culpability.
I commend the Government for supporting the vote, but we need to go a lot further. Only America can bring Israel to the table. One country that has the ear of America through our special relationship is Britain. We need to get America round the table, or we will not be talking about this problem, but about ISIS and the horrors that are coming out of the occupied territories, because the people there do not see anywhere else to go. We need to realise that the issue is for the people of Israel as much as for the people of Palestine. People in Israel want normalised lives. They will never get that while living next door to the largest open prison in the world.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Hollobone, and a privilege to follow the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire (Dr Whitford). I have taken part in many debates on this subject during my 10 years in the House, but hers is one of the most powerful speeches that I have heard, based as it is on her own experience of working in Gaza. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch) on securing this debate. She has chosen an incredibly important issue for her first Westminster Hall debate, as evidenced by the turnout today. I do not have time to refer to the many excellent speeches made in this debate, but I will touch on some of the issues that were raised.
Each and every death during this conflict on both sides was a tragedy. The appalling bloodshed underlined once more that there cannot be a military resolution. The only way forward is the diplomatic route and a negotiated two-state solution that recognises the state of Palestine alongside the state of Israel. As such, we welcomed the Egypt-brokered ceasefire last August. If we are finally to end the cycle of violence, we have yet again to ensure that the necessary lessons are learned from this most recent conflict. That includes holding accountable those responsible, and securing access to remedy for the victims.
As we have heard, the UK abstained on the resolution that initiated the commission of inquiry last year. The Foreign Secretary at the time said that the resolution was “fundamentally unbalanced” and would not help to achieve a lasting ceasefire. The UK Government subsequently encouraged all sides to co-operate, but I suspect that the Foreign Secretary’s initial rejection of the inquiry might have undermined the UK’s influence in that regard. It was certainly disappointing that Israel declined to co-operate and that that prevented the commission from investigating Israel’s claims. UK support for the resolution at the Human Rights Council last week, though, was welcome. I hope that the Minister will tell us whether he now feels that the report has made a positive contribution.
The report makes disturbing reading in identifying serious breaches of international law, by both Israel and the Palestinian armed groups, that it warned could amount to war crimes. Last summer the Opposition condemned Hamas’s rocket fire, tunnels and extra-judicial killings, and I reiterate our condemnation. The commission report conveys the sense of fear that the tunnels in particular stoked up among innocent Israelis. Rocket fire, however, by the very nature of such weapons systems, was indiscriminate and in violation of international humanitarian law. We recognise, too, Israel’s right to defend itself, but we agree with the commission that the conduct of Palestinian armed groups does not
“modify Israel’s own obligations to abide by international law”.
In that respect, there were clear differences between the Government and the Opposition last summer. We felt that the Prime Minister had remained silent and should have spoken out when the victims were predominantly civilians, in particular given the number of children killed. We felt that he was too unequivocal in backing Israel’s right to defend itself, despite the disproportionate manner in which it exercised that right. The commission concluded that Israel might have failed to do everything it could to adhere to the three principles of distinction, proportionality and precaution. The implication is that the terrible death toll could have been avoided.
The report documents some of the issues already touched on by other Members: how residential areas were targeted; how strikes came in the evening or at dawn, as families were gathering during Ramadan; how ineffective the roof knocks were as a warning system; and how artillery and mortars with a wide-area effect were used. The report attempts to convey the extent to which Palestinian civilians felt trapped. Even if they had received warnings, there was nowhere obvious for them to flee to where they would be safe, as we have heard. It is difficult to imagine the sense of terror that that would engender in such a densely populated area. There were also distressing allegations that civilians carrying white flags were attacked.
The cumulative impact of all that last year became evident all too soon. The Israel defence forces and/or the Israeli Government failed to re-examine their approach or to alter their tactics. In light of the report, I hope that the Minister will be able to reflect on whether the UK Government, and others, could have done more last year to press Israel to re-evaluate its response to the rocket fire. Does the Minister think that the Prime Minister could have questioned the proportionality, the legality and the morality of Israel’s use of force, and questioned at the time what it would ultimately achieve?
The commission noted that
“Israel’s interpretation of what constitutes a ‘military objective’ may be broader than the definition provided for by international law”.
I hope that that is one of the many findings that the Foreign Office will discuss with its Israeli counterparts, in addition to expressing concerns about such things as Israel’s choice of weaponry. Does the Minister believe that Israel could have done more to uphold those three principles of proportionality, distinction and precaution?
Several Members have touched on the issue of arms export licences. The Government, of course, chose not to suspend any such licences for export to Israel last year and sales have continued over the past few months. Members have no doubt received emails from their constituents concerned that £4 million in arms sales to Israel was approved in the four months following the conflict last year. In light of the commission’s findings, I hope that the Minister will tell us whether the Foreign and Commonwealth Office or the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills intend to review the licences, or Israel’s use of arms sold by the UK. Baroness Anelay, the Minister of State, said in the debate in the other place on Monday that we are “most cautious” when we issue export licences. She ruled out a blanket arms embargo. I will be grateful if the Minister touches on whether a case-by-case arms embargo, or the revoking of certain licences, has been or will be considered.
We cannot neglect the lasting legacy of last summer’s incursion and the humanitarian catastrophe that it triggered. As well as the loss of life, more than 11,000 Palestinians were injured, more than 3,000 of them children. It has been reported that 10% of them suffered a serious disability, and 1,500 children were orphaned. Furthermore, as we have heard, 18,000 homes were destroyed. I will be grateful if the Minister responds to the questions asked about the international support available to the victims of the incursion, about Department for International Development support to UNRWA being cut and about what we are doing to help people in Gaza rebuild their infrastructure and homes.
Looking to the future, the commission acknowledged that its report is only the latest in a long line of inquiries and missions seeking to aid accountability and end violence for the people of Israel and Palestine. The report rightly highlighted that there has been a
“persistent lack of implementation of recommendations”.
With Israel and Hamas already rejecting the report and the US voting against the Human Rights Council resolution last week, how can the international community ensure that the report is not yet another footnote in the history of the suffering of the Palestinian and Israeli people, or that last summer’s incursion was not simply another chapter in the cycle of violence in Gaza, which is doomed to be repeated? I hope that the Minister will be able to tell us how the Government will work with Israel, Palestine, and the Human Rights Council and UN to end the culture of impunity that has prevailed, to support new dialogue and to promote co-operation with the International Criminal Court.
Finally, the commission of inquiry recognised that it could not investigate the events of last summer in isolation; it also needed to look at the west bank. It rightly expressed its concerns about administrative detention, torture and ill treatment. I hope that the Minister will be able to update us on the UK’s discussions with Israel in that regard, on talks to lift the blockade and end the illegal settlements, and on efforts to strengthen moderate voices within Palestine.
Well, there’s a task! Thank you very much indeed, Mr Hollobone, and it is a pleasure to respond even in brief to the debate. May I express my frustration that this debate has not taken place in the main Chamber and that we do not have three hours for it? I am looking at the hon. Member for Easington (Grahame M. Morris), who I think is a member of the Backbench Business Committee. I feel frustrated that I have little time to reply and simply cannot do so properly.
As hon. Members might be aware, I try to do my best on such occasions, and I will certainly write to them with the details, but even to list all the questions would take all my time before I gave any reply. Such debates are important and should not be conducted in Westminster Hall for 90 minutes. We do not do the subject matter any justice, and if I feel frustrated, hon. Members who have been given only two to three minutes to speak must also feel frustrated. I hope that the usual channels—if they are listening, read Hansard or hear the debate—ensure that next time we have such a debate, we do it properly, because the world, the nation and our constituents are watching, and we need to do the subject justice.
I welcome, I think for the first time, the hon. Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch) and I congratulate her on securing the debate. She shows a grasp and understanding of and a genuine interest in the subject. I also welcome other hon. Members to Parliament—it is my first opportunity to do so for some—and their contributions to such debates as this. Britain thrives on international affairs, which is something we do well, and it is good to see that this Parliament is taking the issues very earnestly.
I, too, congratulate the Scottish National party spokesperson, the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire (Dr Whitford), on a formidable speech—I echo the comments of the Labour spokesperson, the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy)—and she is another person to come to the Chamber with real knowledge of the subject matter. She is most welcome here today.
I will outline the Government’s position on the vote and the report, on what Britain is doing in Gaza unilaterally and multilaterally on the humanitarian front and so forth, and on the longer-term aspects—although I will have probably run out of time by then. I will do my best.
We deeply regret the loss of civilian life during the Gaza conflict last summer and the terrible toll of the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict on citizens of both sides. The UN commission of inquiry report brings the scale of human suffering into sharp relief. It notes the victims’ continued hope that leaders will
“act more resolutely to address the root causes of the conflict so as to restore human rights, dignity, justice, and security to all residents of the Occupied Palestinian Territory and Israel”.
As many hon. Members have said, this is not the first time that we have been around this buoy—Operation Cast Lead, Operation Pillar of Defence—and it seems to be something that we do every two years, with Gaza getting destroyed and rebuilt. We must break that cycle if we are to hope to move forward. We continue to believe in the critical importance of a negotiated two-state solution to end the conflict once and for all. We strongly condemn the indiscriminate firing of rockets into Israel by Hamas and militant groups in the Gaza strip, as detailed in the report. On the seeming imbalance of munitions going from one side to the other, hon. Members will be aware of the Iron Dome project in Israel, which has stopped many of the munitions fired by Hamas. That is why there is the disproportionate number of fatalities or injuries on one side. I simply state that as a comment, not to justify anything.
As we have made clear, we recognise Israel’s right to defend itself. Every country, including ours, has a right to defend itself from terrorist groups and organisations, such as Hamas, and attacks. But it is a principle of international humanitarian law that the use of force in self-defence must be proportionate. The commission of inquiry report calls on all parties to fully respect the main principles of international humanitarian law and international human rights law that the hon. Member for Bristol East articulated—distinction, proportionality and precaution—and to establish credible, effective, transparent and independent accountability mechanisms promptly. We echo those calls.
I am afraid I simply cannot—it would be unfair to anyone else—but I will certainly speak to the hon. Gentleman afterwards.
We note that the report highlights
“substantial information pointing to serious violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights law by Israel and by Palestinian armed groups. In some cases, these violations may amount to war crimes”.
Those allegations must be fully investigated by Israel, the Palestinian Authority and the authorities in Gaza. We welcome the fact that Israel is already conducting its own internal investigations into specific incidents. Where there is evidence of wrongdoing by either party, those responsible must be held accountable.
The UK, along with our EU partners, voted in favour of the resolution on the report at the Human Rights Council last week. We would have preferred to see a text that gave more weight to Israel’s legitimate right to self-defence, and to the threat Israel faces from militant groups operating from inside Gaza, including Hamas. However, despite those concerns, we supported the resolution. I make it clear to hon. Members, who will be familiar with this from texts agreed behind the scenes in this place, that we need to find a balanced text to support; we found that resolution to be a balanced and appropriate text.
A number of hon. Members have raised concerns about the political and humanitarian situation in Gaza. We must do everything we can to avoid another conflict. The ceasefire agreement reached in 2014 holds, by and large, but there has not been the necessary progress toward a durable solution that addresses the underlying causes of the conflict. Indeed, worse than that, we are aware that the tunnels are being rebuilt and that Hamas is re-engaging and purchasing new weapons systems. We are also aware that other extremist groups such as ISIS are taking an interest. Where would it take this conflict if we were to see that extremist operation move into the area?
The current situation in Gaza is unacceptable. As has been articulated by others, the humanitarian situation remains bleak. More than 100,000 people remain displaced, there are power outages for up to 12 hours a day and 120,000 people across Gaza remain without a water supply. I am afraid, however, that the Palestinians have not taken the steps needed for progress on reconciliation and for the Palestinian Authority to resume control of Gaza. That is one of the main causes of frustration here: the Palestinian Authority are denied access because of Hamas. Israel has eased some of its restrictions, but far more needs to be done to ease the suffering of ordinary Palestinians, and there is more that Israel can do. Egypt, too, is wary of extremists in Sinai—the Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis—and is reluctant to reopen the Rafah crossing in the south. It opens it sporadically, but is further restricting the movement and access of both people and goods.
Hon. Members have asked what can be done. It is clear that there is an urgent need to do more to address the terrible situation now. We need bold political steps: without addressing the underlying causes of the conflict, we will never break the cycle of violence I alluded to earlier—there is no alternative that can deliver peace and security for Israelis and Palestinians alike.
We welcome the recent positive steps that Israel has taken in easing some restrictions, including doubling the water supply and permitting an increase in exports from Gaza. However, we want to see Israel go much further, as I have articulated on every visit I have made to Gaza, Israel and the west bank, and to visitors from there to the UK. We call on Israel to ease restrictions much further, on President Abbas to take concrete steps to return the Palestinian Authority to Gaza and on Egypt to show maximum flexibility in opening the Rafah crossing once and for all.
I will conclude, as I want to leave the hon. Member for Halifax time to respond to the debate. I reiterate my promise to write to hon. Members in more detail and apologise for not being able to answer them more fully in this debate.
I am grateful for the way in which the debate has been conducted and I thank the Minister for his considered words. Inevitably, some questions have gone unanswered but I appreciate his comments. This is a complex debate, and there are lots of issues that we could have explored much further. I hope we can all work together to try to take a debate on this subject to the Floor of the House for a fuller discussion later in the year. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy), and echo her sentiments about the wise words of the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire (Dr Whitford), who shared her personal experience with us.
I will reiterate some key points. A key concern for me is the young people of Gaza. We have already heard that the population is increasingly dominated by young people. At this point, they are without a future. While that remains the case, there is an inevitability about any unrest or increase in conflict. For as long as we cannot address that issue, we will be in the same position time and time again. There is currently no economic horizon in Palestine, and in the Gaza strip in particular. Productivity has been suffocated, there are no jobs and 860,000 Palestinians are reliant on food parcels provided by the UN Relief and Works Agency. That is unsustainable, and we have to look at how to reconcile some of those issues.
A number of hon. Members made the connection between Hamas and Daesh. That is precisely why we need a real commitment to a peace process. As we have talked about, it seems inevitable that the conflict will go in that direction, but that is why we have to look with renewed vigour to resolve the issue and find peace for the region, so that it does not slip further into turmoil that has an impact not just on the region but on our shores. It is in all our interests to work towards resolving the situation.
That is one reason why we need to look at all the options available to us, simply because of the international failure to bring about more progress through dialogue alone. We end up in this position time and again, so what other options are now available to us to make a real commitment and to make progress? Our commitments to dialogue have failed to make that progress thus far.
The report acknowledges that the warnings saved lives. I am not here to make excuses or give justifications for Hamas. The civilian deaths across the board are inexcusable. However, again, that is why we need a real commitment to investigative procedures on both sides and to look with more clarity at why so many civilian deaths occurred. Although the warnings saved lives, they failed to adequately create the sterile combat zone that Israel was looking to achieve, so we have to look at that again.
I echo the sentiment of my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock): 40% of the report focuses on acts committed by armed Palestinian groups, so it is not one-sided. It looks into atrocities committed on all sides. There will inevitably be gaps in the report, as one or two hon. Members pointed out. That is partly because Israel failed to co-operate with the UN and provide the evidence needed to plug some of the gaps and allow more informed decisions to be made and reported.
I will leave it there, although—like the Minister—I have much more I could say to wrap up the debate and pull it together. I thank all hon. Members for their contributions.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the report of the UN Independent Commission of Inquiry on the 2014 Gaza conflict.
Independent Living Fund
[Mr George Howarth in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the effect on recipients of the transfer of the Independent Living Fund to local authorities.
For many people, the protest in Members’ Lobby during Prime Minister’s questions a few weeks ago may well have been the first time that they came across the independent living fund, but right hon. and hon. Members will be well aware of its benefits from contact with constituents who are recipients. As I said a year ago, in June 2014, when I last had an Adjournment debate on the subject, the independent living fund does what it says on the tin. It gives severely disabled people their independence and lets them make choices about how they live—about things we take for granted, such as when to get up or go to bed, and when and what to eat.
The independent living fund began in 1988 as a national resource dedicated to the financial support of severely disabled people, enabling them to choose to continue living in the community. In March 2014, the Government announced that they would close the ILF in June 2015 and that responsibility for ILF users would be passed to local authorities. That has now happened, yet a year on from my last Westminster Hall debate on the issue, ILF recipients tell me that they are no nearer to getting answers to the questions posed then. Consequently, their worries about the future continue to multiply. The promises given that the changes would be well managed and that people in receipt of ILF would be consulted and kept informed throughout the transfer process do not appear to have been effectively delivered, at least from the viewpoint of my constituents in north Lincolnshire.
Ashley was diagnosed with cerebral palsy at 10 months old. This year, he will turn 31. A year ago, his mum, Jeanette, shared her concerns about the future, saying:
“The alleged ‘smooth transfer’ over to social services is already proving to be nothing of the sort. Each and every meeting we hold leave us having to justify Ashley’s needs as a disabled person. The assessments they ask us to complete are totally unsuitable for the severely disabled.”
Last week, Jeanette updated me. Sadly, her fears have not been allayed, and she is continuing to have to battle for her son. She said:
“We have only received a contract from the local council in the last week and went a year without any form of contact from adult social services. If it wasn’t for me fighting for Ashley there would be no contract and nothing would be in place for the changeover. There is no money in place for Ashley’s carer’s holiday, sickness or training pay; this cannot be claimed back from the Government. Every year Ashley’s situation will be reviewed and once again I will have to fight for my son.”
Another constituent, Jon, for whom the ILF has been a lifeline, had an accident 35 years ago that left him paralysed from the neck down. He told me last week about the contact he had had from social services this year:
“So far I have only received generic letters. I have had no contact, no visit, not even a phone call. I feel that decisions are being made about my life that I don’t know about. I have not been given any assurances about my carers and their jobs or their wages.”
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. Does he agree that there will be a bigger problem, given that local authorities that have already had their budgets cut by £4.6 billion are not receiving enough money to compensate for the ILF money lost? That will definitely affect our constituents.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to put her finger on that area of serious concern. If we believe the people who are experiencing the transfer—and I have no reason not to—the smooth transfer that was promised clearly is not happening. The reality on the ground is that many ILF recipients, their families and the people they employ to deliver their care still do not know where they stand, which is clearly unacceptable.
A number of my constituents have benefited hugely from the ILF. I am very pleased to say that the Labour-controlled council in Hammersmith—a well run council—is ring-fencing the money and making sure that there is a smooth transition, but most authorities do not know how much money they are getting, and the Government are only giving them about half the funds. Is that not a disgraceful situation and a terrible way to treat people?
That is very much part of the issue at the moment, and I congratulate my hon. Friend’s council on being one of those that are making the right stand.
Disabled People Against Cuts, which organised the demonstration last week, has argued:
“At the very minimum the ILF funding should be ring-fenced for the continuing care and support of existing ILF recipients when funding is transferred to Local Authorities and devolved administrations”.
That is not being done and, in an age of austerity and deepening cuts to local authorities, the funds will get lost in the wider budget. That is the key and crucial fear.
DPAC sent freedom of information requests to 151 different local authorities, asking how many are ring- fencing the funding. The response showed that only 21.43% were doing what the council in my hon. Friend’s constituency is doing, whereas 50% said they were not doing that. At the time they were asked, 28.57% still had to decide what they were going to do.
What will further budget cuts bring? As of now, Ashley is allowed to keep his carers, but in a year’s time, will that change? Will his family have to deal with a succession of strangers who do not have time to get to know them and understand their needs?
Leonard Cheshire Disability published a report in 2013 stating that in England, 60% of councils use 15-minute visits, which are not long enough to provide adequate care, with disabled people having to choose whether to have a drink or go to the toilet. Hopefully, things have improved since then, but it is understandable that such reports fuel ILF recipients’ concerns. Those fears are backed up by Disability Rights UK, which made the following observations last week on the eve of the fund’s abolition:
“The monies being transferred from the ILF to local authorities will not, in most areas, be ring fenced meaning that the money can be spent according to local decision rather than necessarily on those in receipt of ILF funding.
There is currently no indication of whether funding for ILF recipients will continue to be transferred from national to local government beyond 2015/16.
The level of social care funding in real terms has, and is likely to continue to be, cut overall outweighing many times the additional funds being transferred from the ILF.
The consequences are that some disabled people in receipt of ILF funding will no longer receive any support at all; and others will find their support package reduced.
We want to see equity of support that achieves independent living across all impairments and age groups—closure of the ILF in current conditions will not achieve this.”
That summarises the strong concerns out there in the community. Scope, Leonard Cheshire Disability, the Spinal Injuries Association and various trade unions are among many other organisations that share those concerns.
My hon. Friend is making a very powerful speech. Oldham, my constituency, is another local authority area that is promising to support families and make sure that the ILF budget is ring-fenced, but I am aware that that is not happening elsewhere. This is not only about the person who is disabled, but about the families, particularly when parents are the carers. They are extremely worried about the uncertainty, and hopefully the Minister will be able to respond to that point.
My hon. Friend puts her finger on the heart of the issue, which is the high level of uncertainty. Let me quote some heart-wrenching comments from ILF users and their families. They illustrate the concerns out there very well:
“I am really terrified of losing my home and being forced into residential care…I have never been so worried and scared of my future without the ILF...We are locked in a prolonged period of insecurity of worrying what is going to happen. We are all only too aware of how hard strapped local authorities are and the temptation to use ILF monies for purposes other than care support for current ILF recipients…The current situation is greatly affecting our health with increased stress levels and sleepless nights a regular feature of our current lives. Not knowing what will happen, how this may affect the team of personal assistants we employ to support our daughter and whether we will receive any respite care once the fund closes in June only adds to our anxiety.”
Finally, a user said:
“I fear I will have my care time cut, and become a prisoner in my own home, unable to go to the toilet, go to bed, eat and drink when I choose—I fear my choice will be taken away. I fear being socially excluded and losing touch with my family and friends. I fear not being able to go to all the hospital appointments I have to attend. I fear I will lose my independence.”
That is the heart of the problem—loss of independence. The ILF has given severely disabled people real independence in their lives. At this point of change, and despite all the assurances that there have been in the system and the genuine messages of support from all the authorities, that concern is still very much there, and what is happening at the moment has not allayed the concern.
As those fears and worries illustrate, there is a real danger that attempts to save some money in one area, the ILF, will end up costing the state more in another area—the NHS. During the election campaign, when asked directly by one of the ILF recipients, the Chancellor of the Exchequer insisted that the Government would transfer all the ILF money and that there would be no cuts in their budgets. When pressed further, he made a commitment that money would be there in future years. So the Chancellor, who has been making the news today, is on the record on this issue. It is the duty of the House and the Minister to ensure that he keeps his word, so my questions to the Minister are as follows.
First, in the light of that, will the Minister discuss with the Chancellor how he intends to deliver on those promises, and will he report back to Parliament on the Chancellor’s response? Secondly, will the Minister be in contact with the 78% of local authorities that have said either that they will not ring-fence the money or that they are not sure whether they will ring-fence it, and are therefore not delivering on the Chancellor’s promise, and will he take steps to ensure that they do deliver on it? Thirdly, will he ask local authorities to report to him on what contact they have had with ILF users in their area and what feedback they have received from them in relation to satisfaction with the transfer? Finally, will the Minister make a commitment today to report back to the House in a year’s time on the impact of the transfer of the ILF to local authorities on the lives and wellbeing of recipients?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. I thank the hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin) for calling this debate. It is of great interest to a number of people.
I recognise the valuable role that the independent living fund has played in enabling severely disabled people to live independently over the last 27 years. The ILF was created in 1988 as a transitional arrangement to mitigate the impact of the end of domestic assistance allowances when supplementary benefit was replaced with income support. The fund was established for a maximum of five years as a charitable trust to make payments to people on low incomes who had to pay for personal care. It was expected to support about 300 people. At that time, there was no clear legal provision for local authorities to make such payments.
The original ILF charitable trust ran until 1992, when it was closed to new applications. A new extension fund was created in 1993 to receive new applicants, and the two funds ran in parallel until 2007, when they were amalgamated. Following a trustee decision temporarily to cease taking new applications, the fund was closed to new users permanently in December 2010.
The decision to close the ILF completely, which was announced in a written ministerial statement on 6 March 2014, followed careful consideration of the implications of a Court of Appeal judgment handed down in November 2013. The decision was based on new evidence and a new equality analysis, and reflected those changes.
I understand and acknowledge the depth of the concern shared by many former ILF users about its closure and the impact of that. It was incredibly important to the users. Human nature does not like change, but when it is something so important to someone’s independence, I absolutely get the strength of feeling. However, it was no longer appropriate to continue to fund care and support needs through a discretionary trust operating outside the mainstream system. The mainstream adult social care system has undergone radical changes since the ILF was established. The introduction of the Care Act 2014 in England means that the key features of ILF support, which contributed to its success—personalisation, inclusion, choice and control—are now part of the mainstream adult social care system. Broadly similar legislation has already been introduced in Scotland and will come into force in Wales during 2015-16.
Local authorities themselves have a statutory duty to assess and fund the eligible care needs of disabled people, and 94% of all former ILF users already received a local authority contribution to their care and support. Transferring full responsibility for adult care and support to local authorities ensures that the needs of all disabled people will be met within a single care and support system, thereby simplifying arrangements.
The Minister is right to draw attention to the fact that many users have received support from the local authority and the ILF. One reason why they are very concerned is that the ILF’s approach has been, they tell me, very enabling—allowing them to do things—whereas the approach of local authorities over the years has been very much to try to save money and to push them backwards. That is one of the cultural things as well as real things that is adding to the alarm that they feel at the moment.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I understand that point. I will come on to the funding that we have passported over, but I understand the point about the change in the system. I was surprised that the figure was as high as 94%. There is that point about change, but the vast majority already had some contribution from the local authority at that point.
At the point of closure, there were 16,000 users of the ILF, compared with 1.3 million users of adult social care in England alone. Transferring full responsibility for ILF users and amalgamating the funding with adult social care will ensure that support for disabled people is delivered consistently and effectively. As I said, the decision to close the ILF, announced in a written ministerial statement, followed careful consideration of the implications of a Court of Appeal judgment handed down in November 2013.
The current position is that the ILF closed on 30 June and full funding for the remainder of the financial year has been transferred to local authorities in England and the devolved Administrations in Scotland and Wales. Local authorities in England now take full responsibility for former ILF users living here. I believe that local communities are best placed to make decisions about how to use funding to support members of their community and that local authorities should have the flexibility to decide how best to provide funding and support at local level.
Scotland and Wales have also now taken full responsibility for the care and support of former ILF users living there. Scotland has decided to create a new organisation to manage the transferred funding for former users, and in Wales the funding has transferred to local authorities to administer while the Welsh Government decide what course of action to take in the longer term. Northern Ireland has always funded support for ILF users living there and continues to do so, but it has asked the Scottish Government to administer this funding on its behalf.
As part of the 2013 spending review, it was announced that local authorities in England and the devolved Administrations in Scotland and Wales would be fully funded in 2015-16 to meet their additional responsibilities towards former ILF users. A total of £262 million has been made available for ILF users in 2015-16. That amount was based on very accurate forecasts by the ILF and is the same amount that would have been available had the ILF remained open.
Since the ILF was closed to new applicants in 2010, the number of users has reduced year on year, meaning that spending has also decreased. Funding for 2015-16 reflects projected reductions in the number of users between 2014-15 and 2015-16. It is therefore not a cut in the level of available funding.
Funding has been distributed among England, Scotland and Wales in a way that reflects expenditure patterns at the point of closure, with funding in England being allocated to individual local authorities on the same basis. Before its closure, the ILF provided each local authority in England with detailed schedules setting out the allocated funding at individual level, ensuring that every authority has received accurate information about the level of support previously provided to each user by the ILF. Final analysis from the ILF shows that the funding allocated to local authorities in England will be sufficient to ensure that existing commitments to former ILF users can be paid in full for the remainder of the year.
I am coming to that. I am just setting the background, after which I will talk about the action that is being taken.
The potential implications of closing the ILF were set out in the equality analysis in very clear terms, focusing on the likely impact of the proposed policy on those with a protected characteristic and concentrating on assessing the impact of closure on people with the protected characteristic of disability and, in particular, users of the ILF. The equality analysis considered a worst-case scenario, even if it was not certain that it would happen, separately under each limb of the public sector equality duty.
In addition, we have made a commitment, as part of the equality analysis, to monitor the impact of the closure of the ILF on former users. I believe that that will be welcomed by all. A sample of former ILF users have already agreed to take part, and we have started planning the research, which will be completed before the end of the 2015-16 financial year.
Before the closure of the ILF, the Government worked closely with the ILF in partnership with ILF users, local authorities in England and the devolved Administrations to ensure that they benefited from a programme of extensive transitional support. As part of that support, all former ILF users received a detailed support plan setting out the level of support and the outcomes secured under their ILF award.
The information was shared with local authorities, and the devolved Governments all had access to the data transferred to them prior to closure. In addition, the ILF engaged directly with all authorities involved in the transfer of user care and support in 2015, and it held a series of conferences in October 2014 to provide local authorities with up-to-date information. One-to-one discussions were held with all 151 local authorities at those events. Similar events were held in Wales, and the ILF has worked closely with the Scottish Government to ensure a smooth transfer for all users across Great Britain.
The Department and I have worked closely with the Department of Health, the ILF and interested parties, including a number of significant stakeholder groups, to develop additional guidance for local authorities. We did so in recognition of the fact that, as has been highlighted, not all local authorities immediately displayed full confidence in the arrangements. That included points raised in earlier debates on the subject, which is why we developed additional guidance to ensure that we were prepared for the transfer of former ILF recipients to sole local authority care, underpinned by a new chapter in the Care Act 2014 statutory guidance. That will help to inform local authorities in the transfer of former ILF users to the adult social care system in England.
I have recently written to my counterparts in the Department of Health and the Department for Communities and Local Government, as well as to the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, because I want to ensure that the needs of all former ILF users continue to be taken into account. I have received assurances from the Department of Health and DCLG that future funding for former ILF users will be considered at the next spending review. It may be helpful to highlight the positive remarks of the Chancellor during the election, which are formally on record.
In addition, DCLG has written to each local authority that has former ILF users to draw attention to the agreed code of practice, which will be supported by the new guidance. In the meetings and conversations I have had with the Departments, it has been clear that they absolutely understand that and there is collective support for it. Ongoing support from my officials and me will continue, to ensure that we monitor what is happening and keep a close eye on the situation.
I am encouraged by what the Minister has just said. My constituent, Laurence Clark, received support from the ILF. Liverpool City Council has picked up that support, so he knows he has it until the spring of next year. He has asked me to raise his concern about what would happen were that funding not to continue beyond April 2016. He says that it is crucial to his ability to live independently and, in particular, his ability to go to work.
That is something that the devolved Governments and individual local authorities will consider. We trust local communities to shape the best services. I served for 10 years as a local councillor, and I remember the frustration caused when Governments did not allow flexibility. Each of the constituencies that we represent is very different. Each has different challenges, opportunities and ways of working with other agencies. We will have to look, over the next few months, to see what will happen.
The Minister is being generous with his time. I apologise, Mr Howarth, for not catching the beginning of the debate.
My constituent, Paul Taylforth, is in the limbo position of not knowing what will happen next year. I have written exhaustively to Lancashire County Council on the matter, but there has been a lack of clarity from that authority on what its position will be next year. That brings great insecurity, worry and concern to Paul, because the person he looks after needs a lot of care and it is important to him that he has a future.
We all recognise the anxiety and the worry of our constituents. Because the feedback we received demonstrated that, we reiterated what local authorities and the devolved Governments needed to do, reissued the guidance and tightened things up. It is fair to say, however, that of those who have had personal visits to set out their personal plans—and to provide reassurance, because they were going through a big change—97% were satisfied and responded positively.
I am very grateful. Lancashire is indecisive at the moment. What advice, regulations or guidance would the Minister give Lancashire to provide clarity to Paul and his family, and to all the other recipients of ILF? The county’s indecision is causing that anxiety.
The best advice I can give is to say that if the hon. Gentleman wants to share that individual experience with me, we can jointly contact the local authority and ask it to take personal measures to investigate the situation.
To conclude the debate, I thank all hon. Members for their contributions. We are discussing an incredibly important issue. I have set out the closure of the ILF in the context of the significant changes in adult social care over the lifetime of the organisation, including the measures in the Care Act 2014 that promote greater independence and increase choice and control for all disabled people. I should like to acknowledge the extensive contribution that the ILF has made to the provision of high-quality independent living support for disabled people. I am happy to report that lessons learned by the ILF over the past 27 years have been captured in its publication “twenty-seven”, which is available to everyone on the gov.uk website.
Finally, I reiterate that I and my counterparts in the Department of Health and DCLG will continue to work together to ensure that former ILF users and all disabled people are given choice and control over how their care and support are provided, to allow them to live full and independent lives.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the effect on recipients of the transfer of the Independent Living Fund to local authorities.
Cremation of Infants (England)
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the matter of the cremation of infants in England.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. Speaking as a father, I do not think that there could be anything worse in life than the loss of a child. I wanted to raise with the Minister and fellow parliamentarians the tragedy that some of my constituents have faced when they lost a child in infancy and were told by Emstrey crematorium in Shrewsbury that they would not receive that child’s ashes. Rather than the traditional burial, the parents decided to have their child cremated and were told that there would be no ashes. I am sure hon. Members appreciate that when families have been through such a traumatic experience as losing a child—just a few days previously in some cases—it was not an optimum situation for them to be robust in challenging that information. Some families went along with a cremation under those circumstances. There was a lack of clarity in some instances, which is clearly unacceptable.
I pay tribute to BBC Radio Shropshire for its tremendous work over the past year. I was first notified of the tragedy a year ago, and I pay particular tribute to Nick Southall, the Radio Shropshire senior reporter who has doggedly persevered with this story, not only in Shropshire but across England. We are starting to hear anecdotal evidence from other places where similar situations have occurred. This situation is not peculiar to Shrewsbury; we hear evidence of it happening in other parts of England. I look forward to hearing the perspective of other hon. Members.
One of the first things I did when I heard about this case was to contact the leader of the council, Keith Barrow. We have a new unitary authority in Shropshire that has taken over the running of our council, and the difficulties with the crematorium in question predominantly occurred under a previous administration and before the change to a unitary authority. Keith Barrow has done a superb job, and he called for an independent inquiry into the whole tragedy.
I will come on to some of the report’s findings later in my speech, but I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention.
I thank the chairman of the report, Mr David Jenkins, who has a lot of experience in local government and is an independent expert. Mr Jenkins and his research assistant, Mr John Doyle, have spent an inordinate amount of time engaging with many of my constituents with great sensitivity, professionalism and care. They heard at first hand some of the trauma that my constituents have experienced. Before the general election, I met some of my constituents in a church in Shrewsbury, and it was one of the most emotional meetings I have experienced in my decade as a Member of Parliament.
I made those parents certain promises. I promised them that they would have a meeting with the Minister, that there would be a formal parliamentary debate in the House of Commons on this issue and, most importantly of all, that if there were aspects of the report that I considered relevant for Parliament to investigate and scrutinise with a view to changing, updating and modernising legislation, those considerations would be aired and we, as parliamentarians, would have the opportunity to debate those points and make recommendations. I am pleased to be trying to fulfil my three promises to those parents.
I pay tribute to the Minister. She is new to her post and, if I may say so, the Prime Minister made a very good decision in appointing her. I brought some of the parents—some from Shrewsbury and Shropshire and some from other parts of England, too—to meet the Minister last week, and she was genuinely interested in hearing what they had to say. I am sure she will speak for herself, but I think she was moved, and I was extremely impressed with the way in which she interacted with those constituents. I thank her very much for her and her officials’ time and consideration. Following our meeting, the parents and I went to No. 10 Downing Street to present a petition signed by more than 63,000 petitioners from across our country.
My constituency neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Mr Dunne), is a Minister and is therefore unable to participate in this debate, but he has taken an interest in the issue because the Emstrey crematorium also serves his constituents in south Shropshire. One of the babies whose remains were not returned to her parents was baby Kate. She suffered a tragic, avoidable death in 2009 following a complex midwifery delivery at Ludlow community hospital. My hon. Friend supports the campaign to prevent similar suffering for other parents. He feels as passionately as I do about this issue, and he wanted me to put that on the record for him.
Other hon. Members wish to speak, so I will concentrate on some of the recommendations that I have picked out from the report and some points that have been specifically reinforced in my mind by my interactions with my constituents. Other parliamentarians may have other points of view, but these are the specific points from the report that my constituents from Shrewsbury want me to raise. First, they believe that there should be an inspector of crematoriums throughout England and that it should be a full-time position. I understand that there is a part-time inspector of crematoriums in Scotland, which has only 50 crematoriums; we have more than 250 in England. Many of my constituents believe that we should have a formal, independent inspector of crematoriums. We live in a society with ombudsmen and regulators, and many aspects of Government activity are rightly regulated and overseen by independent inspectors. My constituents believe that if we are to have a uniform level of service and professionalism across all crematoriums, we need an independent inspector who is able to investigate by going to see crematoriums to ensure that they comply with expected standards.
My constituents also expect that crematoriums should have to report to the inspector when they are not confident that ashes have been created in a particular case. That is important because it is a proactive step that the facility in question—Emstrey crematorium in our case—would have to take if, for one reason or another, ashes had not been or could not be produced. If a crematorium believed that to be the case, it should have to be proactive in informing the inspector so that the inspector had it on the record.
I spent an afternoon inspecting Emstrey crematorium in Shrewsbury, and it has subsequently invested a lot of money in new machinery and better practices. Procedures are now in place to ensure that babies are cremated later in the day, rather than when the machine is first switched on and is at optimum heat. The procedures ensure that babies are cremated at the end of the day, when the ovens are at their coolest, to maximise the possibility that ashes are delivered.
My constituents also want a national cremation investigation team that is able to investigate historical cases. If the Minister agrees about the need for an inspector, and if an inspector is created, he or she will be busy ensuring uniformity of best practice across the country. My constituents want an independent team that will help families like Mr Perkins and his partner, and the other families in Shrewsbury who have suffered in the past. They want more information and need more help to come to terms with what has happened. They also believe that greater transparency is needed with regard to cremation paperwork. I will not go through all the details now, because there simply is not time, but in some cases paperwork has been lost, destroyed or not kept for the appropriate amount of time.
I would be grateful if the Minister told us how we could update legislation and regulations for crematoriums on paperwork and other matters. The Minister may correct me if I am wrong, but we have had no legislation on the running of crematoriums for a long time, so this is an optimum time for us to discuss these concerns. The families believe that the Ministry of Justice and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs need to co-operate on changing the regulations and conditions on emissions from crematoriums at times when infants are being cremated—that is a technical point. I hope that the Minister has read the part of the report about how emissions and such things are regulated and is aware of that point.
The answer to the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell), is in the report commissioned by Shropshire Council, published last month, which says that poor training and out-of-date equipment were mainly to blame. I am pleased that more than £3 million has now been spent on new machines at Emstrey crematorium in Shrewsbury; I have inspected them and seen how the ovens operate. I hope that this tragedy will ensure that training for staff at crematoriums, whether run by the Co-op or councils themselves, is reinvigorated, and that all crematoriums in all areas are supervised to ensure that they are investing appropriate time and money in bringing new equipment to the fore.
About 60 families are believed to have been affected by failures at Shrewsbury’s Emstrey crematorium between 1996 and 2012. I do not yet know the final figure, because more people are coming forward all the time. To those Salopian families, I can only take this opportunity to express my sincere condolences for the loss of their children and my sincere sadness that they have had to go through this extraordinarily painful experience in their lives. Having spoken to them, I know that their main goal is to ensure that such a travesty does not happen again, so that no other family in England has to go through what they went through. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say in response to those points.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. I congratulate the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) on securing the debate today and on setting out so clearly the background to this very distressing matter. I pay tribute to all the families affected, who have to come to terms with and perhaps relive some painful and distressing circumstances. We should also pay tribute to the Action for Ashes group, led by Glen Perkins, who led the delegation to Downing Street with the hon. Gentleman last week. I wholeheartedly agree that we should thank the investigative journalist Nick Southall; he should be commended for ensuring that there has been a lot of attention on the issue. It is important that the media have played a very responsible part in this.
My contribution today will be about my constituents, Tina and Michael Trowhill. They contacted me earlier this year, and I commend them for their bravery and persistence in trying to find out what happened to their baby son William. William Michael Brian Trowhill was born on July 5 1994 at Beverley Westwood maternity hospital; very sadly, he was stillborn. He was cremated on July 12 1994 at Chanterlands Avenue crematorium in Hull. Tina and Mike were told that there would be no ashes from the cremation. They also told me that they were not required to sign any forms. It appears that the forms that were required at the time were signed by an administrator at the hospital. That the parents did not sign, and were not given written information about what was to happen, is one of the shocking things about the situation.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady and I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) for securing this important debate. Does the hon. Lady agree that the report’s authors were struck by the lack of authoritative national guidance or policy outside environmental protection? In other words, we are more bothered by emissions than the feelings of parents who have sadly lost children.
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. It is shocking that there was no nationally applied guidance on how parents should be involved, treated and made to feel part of the process at an obviously very distressing time. It should have been there.
Moving forward many years, my constituents were alerted to possible concerns about what had happened to baby William when the Mortonhall inquiry in Scotland started. That report was published in April 2014. In October 2014, Mike and Tina contacted the bereavement service in Hull and asked it to see what it could find. It took until 3 November for the service to return the call, and the parents were told that an investigation was under way.
On 4 November, they were told that William’s ashes had been scattered in a children’s garden of remembrance near the crematorium. On 5 November, the parents were told by the funeral director at Frank Stephenson & Son that it was not normal to receive ashes from a child’s cremation. On 6 November, they were told that the funeral directors had a document that stated “cremate and strew”; it appears that at that time the funeral directors had a blanket contract with Beverley Westwood maternity hospital to undertake cremations of babies and were given that instruction. On 6 November, my constituents called the NHS complaints line, but given the many NHS reorganisations, copies of the procedures or policies in use at the time were not available.
The family then came to see me. We wrote to the chief executive of the Hull and East Yorkshire Hospitals NHS Trust to find out what current policies are being used. We also wrote to and had a meeting with Councillor Stephen Brady, leader of Hull City Council, and asked for a local inquiry to be held in Hull. Tina particularly wants that to happen because she knows of several other families who have had similar experiences, and they also want to know what happened to their babies’ ashes.
I thank the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) for calling the debate and I apologise that I have yet to be so involved in the campaign. Does my hon. Friend agree that families have been left heartbroken and ignored in their bereavement for far too long? The Turnock family, who are constituents of mine, have sought answers about their son’s cremation at Bradwell crematorium for 22 years. That shows the scale of the issue, which is geographically disparate, as well as heartbreaking.
My hon. Friend makes the very important point that this has happened all over the country. In a few moments, I will say a few words about local inquiries and how they might fit into a broader national inquiry. However, these families deserve to know what happened. I know that many of these cases happened a long time ago, but local authorities and the Government should do whatever they can to find out what happened.
The Trowhills and I met Councillor Brady. At the time, we were waiting for the outcome of the Shrewsbury report, and Councillor Brady said that although he was sympathetic to the request for an inquiry, he wanted to see what the Shrewsbury report said.
Obviously, a few weeks ago we had the Shrewsbury report, and since then I have written again to Councillor Brady. Yesterday, I received a response from him and I will just read briefly from his letter. It says:
“As Mr & Mrs Trowhill reflected at our meeting in March, they believe that there can be no resolution for them in relation to William’s ashes and therefore, given that the information given to Mr & Mrs Trowhill at the hospital was that there would be no ashes and that the Council acted in accordance with the instructions received from the funeral director, I do not intend to hold a local independent inquiry.
However, the Council fully supports the call for a national code of practice to provide consistency in the way in which the cremated remains of babies and infants are dealt with across the UK and for a single government department to be responsible for the regulation of crematoria and their operations. The Council also supports many of the recommendations of the Bonomy and Mortonhall Inquiries and we will write in support of such recommendations to the Cabinet Office.”
“I therefore feel that a meeting with yourself and Mr and Mrs Trowhill could add nothing further at this time, but I can assure you that I will lend my support and that of the Council to lobbying for a national commission for England to be created.”
I am very disappointed that we have not had the opportunity to have another meeting with Councillor Brady to discuss this matter. Although that letter is very much about the Trowhills, many other families could be affected by these issues and local authorities must try to find out what has happened in these cases, and be as transparent as possible.
The hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham talked about many of the very sensible recommendations made by the Shrewsbury report, and I particularly support the recommendation of a national inspector of crematoriums —that is an excellent idea—and national guidelines and training. Because more and more cases are coming to light around the country, there is a case for local inquiries to be held, so that families can find out what happened in their area, if possible. Nevertheless, the proposal from Action for Ashes for a national crematorium investigation team, which was also mentioned by the hon. Gentleman, is certainly worth considering.
Such a team could deal with the issue in two ways. First, it could investigate the historical cases that have been mentioned. Secondly, it could work alongside individual local inquiries to pull together the common themes and threads that I am sure will become apparent; the issue of training seems to be a key one. While my constituents and I fully support calls for a local inquiry in Hull, we also want to see a national inquiry.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her comments. When we had our own inquiry in Shrewsbury, it was very difficult and painful for the parents to relive their experiences, but it was also a very cathartic moment for many of them, and they really appreciated that, instead of a national inquiry, somebody in Shrewsbury was dedicated to their cases, spending time with them and hearing their experiences. I am very disappointed that in her area that has not been the case, and I reiterate that my constituents and other people concerned have really benefited from the independent local inquiry in our area.
I am a Sussex MP, so, again, I am a long way away from the hon. Lady’s constituency, but I know of another case—that of baby Jordan—in which a family was treated very similarly to the way that she has described.
One of the other advantages of having a local inquiry, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) referred, is that it enables many other cases to be considered. I fear that we are seeing only the tip of the iceberg here and that, despite the wonderful work of Radio Shropshire, many other cases have not yet come to light. I suspect that local inquiries would enable a lot of other people to be helped in the way that my hon. Friend described.
That is absolutely correct.
I welcome the written ministerial statement that was published this morning. It suggests that the Government are looking at the recommendations from the Shrewsbury inquiry, and I hope that they will be able to act sooner rather than later. I also hope that the Minister might be able to give us some idea today of how long it will be before we have a final announcement from the Government on their intentions.
Thank you, Mr Howarth, for calling me to speak. It is a pleasure to serve under you, and I will be as quick as I can.
I am very grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) for securing a debate on this important issue. On average, almost 20 very small babies die around the time of their birth every day in England and Wales. This issue is clearly significant for many families, and indeed for society as a whole.
I also have a constituent’s story to tell, which raises a related but slightly different problem. In 2009, my constituent gave birth to a baby girl who, sadly, did not survive. My constituent was told at the time by the funeral directors that there would not be any ashes, because the body of her baby was too small.
Following the media attention on this issue, which has been mentioned by several Members today, and the campaigning by Action for Ashes, my constituent was moved to contact Banbury crematorium in June. She hoped to find out details of their practice at the time when her baby was cremated. Imagine her enormous surprise and distress when she was told that her baby’s ashes were still at the crematorium, some six years on, waiting for her to collect them. She immediately went to pick up the ashes, as any mother would, and there was no difficulty in identifying them or in the crematorium handing them to her.
I understand that this is not an isolated case. I have written to crematoriums, because I understand that there are more babies whose remains are waiting to be collected; their families are simply not aware that their ashes are in crematoriums. Clearly, that is not acceptable—at the very least there has been a major breakdown in communication between the funeral directors, the crematoriums and the families. It is to be hoped that we can use these sad cases to inform debate and to consider how we can prevent such incidents from happening again.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Women and Equalities and Family Justice for meeting my constituent last week, and for the interest and sensitivity that she has shown in dealing with this difficult issue.
It is no longer necessary to have personal experience of the loss of a young baby to understand their importance in the eyes of their parents, grandparents and wider family. With recent advances in medicine, whereby some babies survive after only 22 or 23 weeks’ gestation, the perceptions of the whole of society towards these very important members of society have altered considerably. We may not be good at discussing death, but we all know that it matters how the bodies of these babies are treated.
The Scottish Government accepted all the recommendations of the Infant Cremation Commission and have established a national committee to ensure that they are implemented. I am keen that we learn from that work and move speedily to ensure that the rest of the UK does not lag behind in its provision for infant cremations.
I understand that both the leading professional organisations in the UK have adopted the wider definition of “ashes” to include remains from clothes, coffins and soft toys. This is good progress, but work must be done to ensure that the definition is applied in practice, and that small babies are always cremated in individual trays. A standard definition, and clear guidelines, would really help in this regard.
Clearly, work also needs to be done to ensure that funeral directors, crematoriums and families know exactly what is going on at each stage of the process. Care must be taken to ensure that both parents are involved in decision making. Obviously, many of the mothers who have given birth to these babies are unwell at the time, and enormous stress is placed on the families. It is very important that everybody is very clear at every stage of the process where the body of their baby is.
My hon. Friend is setting out the case most sensitively and powerfully. I am extremely grateful to her, as will be my constituents, Mr and Mrs Jones of Wigston Magna, whose son, Nicholas, died over 30 years ago. They have been living for the last 30 years with exactly the sorts of problems, traumas and distress that my hon. Friend is outlining. I am most grateful to her, on their behalf, for what she is saying.
The pressures on the couple, dealing both separately and together with the loss of their child, are enormous, as all hon. Members know. Clearly, specialist staff training is needed to make sure that parents are helped in the best way. Many of us, whether we have lost children or other relatives, know that the actions of funeral directors and crematoriums can really make a difference in helping the living survive a bereavement.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. I welcome the opportunity to contribute to today’s business and thank the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) for securing such an important debate.
I offer my sincere condolences to the families affected by these tragic circumstances. No parent’s grief should be compounded by the system that is in place to help them. It clear from today’s exchanges that this House and this Government must do all they can to ensure that this never happens again. Losing a child is an extremely traumatic experience and it is crucial that families are treated sensitively and given the support and information they need.
I place on the record my appreciation for the campaigners’ work in bringing this scandal to light, and hope that we can all learn lessons from the inquiries that are bound to follow. In particular, I offer my thanks to Glen Perkins, the campaigner who formed the Action for Ashes organisation and delivered a petition containing 61,000 signatures to the Prime Minister’s residence. To fight such an organised campaign in the face of such traumatic loss is commendable.
I assure the Minister that my motivation for engaging in today’s debate is not political; now is not the time for point-scoring. I offer my experience and the experience of my colleagues in the Scottish Government. If the Minister is open to learning from our experience of the Mortonhall inquiry, I may further educate the Government’s future inquiries, because it was only last year that we faced the same devastating situation in Scotland.
Stories of families losing their babies and being mistreated by local authorities were at the centre of the conversation across the country. It was heartbreaking to witness the events unfold and see how malpractice at crematoriums had impacted families’ right to grieve. The families’ pain is still real and the grief is still there, but because of decisive action from the Scottish Government, I am confident we will never find ourselves in this situation again.
The Scottish Government established the Infant Cremation Commission, chaired by the esteemed and independent former senator of the College of Justice, Lord Bonomy. The Commission’s report told us that there were variable practices across the country and that, in many cases in the past, the interests of the baby and the bereaved family had not always been put first.
The report was an important stepping-stone in resolving this problem and providing much-needed answers to the families involved. The Infant Cremation Commission made important recommendations to ensure that never again will any parent have to experience the pain of not knowing what happened to their baby’s ashes. It made 64 recommendations and the Scottish Government agreed to all of them. In fact, they implemented the proposals as quickly as they could, without waiting for new legislation to be passed.
That included establishing a national committee tasked with implementing other recommendations in the report, including the development of an overarching national code of practice; allowing parents to be represented on the national committee; appointing an inspector of crematoria, which they did in March this year, to ensure a route is in place for anyone who may have a concern about how a cremation is conducted; and consulting on a Bill to implement the legislative recommendations. The Scottish Government also established a national investigations unit led by Dame Elish Angiolini, the former Lord Advocate, to investigate cases where parents are seeking answers to questions about what happened to the ashes of their own child. Although they have never ruled out a public inquiry, a national cremation investigation will look into every individual case, delivering more for parents more quickly than a public inquiry could. Perhaps this is a route the Minister could investigate.
I direct the Minister to the comments of her Scottish Parliament colleague, Jackson Carlow, the Scottish Conservatives’ deputy leader:
“The Scottish Conservatives have previously called for a public inquiry, but in the light of the reports…we are now persuaded that, although a public inquiry should never be ruled out, the best possible hope for parents who seek a resolution of their personal circumstances lies with the independent national investigation team.”
The Scottish Government have also made up to £100,000 available for counselling services for parents affected who are most in need of support. I am sure this Government will make a similar commitment to ensuring that we do not witness a reoccurrence, and that consideration is given to the journey the Scottish Government has taken on this issue, which might help the UK find its own path in giving help and reassurance to families.
I close with a quote from one of my constituents, who lost their three-day-old son Lachlan, on the family’s reflecting on the short life of their loved one and on their experiences at Glasgow crematorium:
“This is exactly what we wanted. All parents deserve an answer, all families deserve an answer and that’s what we’re going to get out of this investigation.”
I hope the Minister’s actions and the actions of her Government will deliver the same result for the parents of William, Jordan and other children.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. I congratulate the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) on securing this important debate on behalf of his constituents, many of whom have campaigned so hard on this matter.
We have had a good debate and have heard some powerful contributions. Some important issues have been raised. This is the least appropriate time for any kind of political knockabout. I welcome our having this discussion here in Westminster Hall. I wholeheartedly support the Minister in her endeavours to move this issue forward. I know that she will approach this in the right way. She has the complete support of both sides of the House, and I am sure she knows that.
We have had good contributions from my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson) and the hon. Member for Banbury (Victoria Prentis). I particularly welcome the contribution of our colleague from Scotland, the hon. Member for Lanark and Hamilton East (Angela Crawley); I thank her for offering valuable insights and for the tone in which she offered them. That is very much appreciated.
I formally welcome the Minister to her post for the first time. I informally welcomed her to her post in the House of Commons hairdresser’s, but as exchanges in the hairdresser’s are not yet in Hansard—thank goodness! —I thought I should put that on the record.
It is good to see a woman back on the Ministry of Justice team; it has been a while.
It brings me no joy to respond on behalf of the Opposition, because as hon. Members have said this is a deeply troubling topic. It is good, though, that light is finally being shed on this issue. It seems that, as the hon. Member for Banbury said, attitudes are changing to neonatal death and stillbirth, and to miscarriage. That is a good thing. It is now being recognised as grief: it is grief. However, sometimes it has been dealt with in a slightly different way. It is good that attitudes are finally beginning to change.
The availability of ashes after the cremation of an infant appears to have been dependent, at least in part, on the equipment and cremation technique used, and on how the relevant authority defined “ashes”. Neither the Cremation Act 1902 nor regulations made under it since provide a good definition. That is one of the problems that have emerged as we have discussed the issue today.
As we have heard and know from subsequent media reports, in some cases parents were told that no ashes would be recovered when in fact there had been ashes. I find this particularly shocking; those ashes were disposed of without the parents’ knowledge or consent. That is clearly wrong. It should never have happened, it must stop and I have confidence that the Minister will approach the issue and get it to stop. I am sure that all Members will share my sympathy and join me in extending our total support to bereaved parents who found themselves in that deeply unsettling position.
Members have gone through the recommendations of the various reports, so I will not repeat them, but I make it clear that Labour agrees with the Emstrey report. The Government should take steps to ensure a single and authoritative code of practice for baby and infant cremations. The Secretary of State should exercise his powers under the cremation regulations to appoint an independent inspector with powers comparable to those outlined in recommendation 63 of the Bonomy report. It is notable that that has already happened in Scotland. The inspector’s responsibilities should include the promotion of a single national code of practice on cremator technology and techniques for infant cremations so as to maximise the chances of the preservation of ashes that could be returned to the family. The cremation regulations should be amended in England, as they have been in Scotland, to give effect to the Bonomy commission’s definition of ashes. This is a bald, uncomfortable thing to say, but there is no point trying to sweeten it: the definition is
“all that is left in the cremator at the end of the cremation process and following the removal of any metal”.
The minimum standards of professional training and for continuing professional development should be introduced for crematorium supervisory and operating staff. A single official, reporting to a single Minister, should be given responsibility for co-ordinating the Government’s approach to cremation law and practice and for drawing together into a coherent whole the policies—including environmental policies—of different Departments on the subject. Arrangements should be made within Government for the Bonomy commission’s recommendations to be considered more widely for their applicability to infant cremation law and practice.
I know the Minister has studied the recommendations, and I welcome her timely statement issued today, but will she update us on what the Department is doing to implement the findings of the Shropshire report? It is important that we have something to go and tell parents following the debate.
Speaking before the election in response to the report, the right hon. Simon Hughes, the former Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark and the Minister’s predecessor in her post, said:
“It is clear we need to have a much more consistent practice of burial and cremation across the country…We need to make sure we have absolutely the best standards in every part of the country and anything the inquiry recommends to me by the way of improved practice not just in Shropshire, but elsewhere, I would intend to follow.”
I have never agreed with anything he has said so much as I agree with that, and I hope the Minister agrees, too. Simon Hughes also indicated that changes would be made by the end of the year. Does the Minister’s Department still stand by that timetable? We know that a consultation has been proposed and could start very soon. Will she outline further details of the terms of that consultation? Which recommendations of the Shropshire report is she comfortable with going ahead on, possibly immediately?
In closing, I once again pay tribute to the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham for securing this debate. As we know, the issue was sadly not limited to Shropshire; it happened in many districts across the country. I am not sure we know how many districts and how many people have been affected. My hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull North has been campaigning on behalf of her constituents for many years. She mentioned one of those constituents, Mrs Tina Trowhill, who is demanding answers after she was told that there were no ashes following the funeral of her son William in 1994. I will finish on this point, because it sums it up well. Speaking to her local newspaper, Mrs Trowhill said:
“The crematorium system has changed a lot in the past few years but I don’t want it to ever slip back to how it was. There are still some changes I would like to see made”.
I pay tribute to her and all those who have been campaigning on this issue to try to ensure that no other parent suffers the misery they have gone through. I hope that the changes can be agreed and legislated for quickly.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. I begin by extending my thanks to my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) for securing this debate and for the fantastic way in which he has championed his constituents on this important issue. I also express considerable thanks to all the Members here today, who have represented their constituents so heroically and sensitively.
The issue has been at the forefront of many people’s thoughts, including mine, since David Jenkins published his report into the historical practices at Emstrey crematorium on 1 June. I have been considering the report extremely carefully and am grateful to have this opportunity to discuss his findings further and to set out the next steps that the Government will take to ensure that the tragic events at Emstrey cannot happen again.
As my hon. Friend set out, last week I had a very helpful meeting with him, along with the bereaved parents who are members of the Action for Ashes group, which was set up by the families affected by the non-return of their infants’ ashes. It continues to support them and campaign for changes in the law. I am hugely grateful to those parents for travelling to London from all over the country to tell me of their experiences. Listening to them, I was struck by how palpable their pain remains and by the fact that the ashes of their babies were either not recovered or not returned to them, often for many years and in some cases for decades. The pain has not elapsed and not diminished, and the meeting will stay with me for many years to come.
Meeting those parents has strengthened my view that bereaved parents and other family members affected by the loss of an infant should never have to experience what those families have gone through. My meeting with the Action for Ashes group, my ministerial postbag and parliamentary questions from many Members from all parts of the House have shown that what happened at Emstrey was unfortunately not an isolated occurrence, as many Members have said today. We now know that other crematoriums either did not recover ashes or did not return them to parents. Whether there were no ashes following a cremation or the ashes were not given to parents, neither of those things is acceptable, and the pain of those parents is unimaginable.
The Minister mentioned her ministerial postbag. Two of the letters in it came from me: one on behalf of the Jones family, whom I mentioned a moment ago, and another on behalf of Lisa Smith, whose daughter was cremated in the mid-1990s. Both those cremations took place at Gilroes crematorium in Leicester. Will she make a particular point of looking up those two letters so that she can reply to them as soon as possible? One of the parents of the Jones family met the Minister last week, but they would be most grateful for a personal letter from her, as would Ms Smith.
I will certainly do that as soon as I get back to the office. I will not spend too much time on the history, because it has already been outlined by a number of Members today. As the hon. Member for Lanark and Hamilton East (Angela Crawley) outlined, the Emstrey inquiry followed Lord Bonomy’s infant cremation commission in Scotland, which reported in June last year. It concluded that crematoriums in Scotland had not returned ashes to families. That report followed on from Dame Elish Angiolini’s report on the issue at Mortonhall crematorium in Edinburgh.
As we all know, David Jenkins’s report on infant cremations at Emstrey was published on 1 June this year. It established that between 1996 and 2012 the Emstrey crematorium did not obtain ashes to return to families after the cremation of a baby or stillborn child. As we all know, the report contains 12 recommendations, of which some of the important ones are: to introduce a statutory definition of ashes; to implement a national inspector for crematoriums; to make a single Government official responsible for all cremation policies; to ensure that there is one code of practice for crematoria; and to consider all 64 of Lord Bonomy’s recommendations. My hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Victoria Prentis) also raised the need for training for crematorium staff and funeral directors. All those recommendations are important, and we will consider them carefully before responding, but I can say now that I am determined that any regulations, both existing and future, must be followed and applied uniformly in all crematoriums throughout the country.
I am aware that many bereaved parents think that there should be a national investigation into the non-return of ashes, and I appreciate families’ wish to know. It is deeply moving to have read about and heard at first hand the experiences of such families. The Emstrey report highlighted the fact that the crematorium did not recover ashes in 51 out of 53 cases over the 13 years. In my view, not only is 51 cases too high, but one would have been too many. We are focused on ensuring that no other parent has to suffer in that way. The Government’s role is to ensure that in future two things happen: first, that there are always ashes in infant cremations, and secondly, that they are returned to parents. That would be the case whether there were thousands of affected families or one. The painstaking and insightful inquiries into Emstrey crematorium have led to very helpful reports with many important recommendations.
I am heartened to hear that some parts of the cremation industry now appear to be taking infant cremations seriously, and to hear of examples of good practice in dealing with families. There is a lot to build on. My hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham has already outlined the changes that Emstrey crematorium has made since 2011. Its ownership has changed and there have been changes to its machinery, and it is now working with Shropshire Council to review and progress the recommendations outlined in the report.
More generally, we need to ensure that the industry knows, in no uncertain terms, what good looks like, and that good practice must be installed across the country. I am aware that the Federation of Burial and Cremation Authorities felt that Lord Bonomy’s report, which came a year before the Emstrey report, had been a wake-up call for crematoriums. The FBCA and Institute of Cemetery and Crematorium Management codes of practice require crematoriums to recover ashes for families wherever possible. I also understand that crematoriums have been working with funeral directors to ensure good and consistent practice following both reports. The technology now allows for far more sophisticated cremation programmes for infants than 20 years ago, and such programmes increase the recovery of ashes after cremation.
We take very seriously the experiences of families who have encountered problems following the death of a loved one. They deserve services that are as sensitive as possible following a death. That is why I am encouraged that in the Budget earlier today, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced a forthcoming review of crematorium facilities, cremation legislation and coroner services, to ensure that they are fit for purpose and sensitive to the needs of all users and faiths. That may not be the Budget commitment that makes the headlines, but it is very important to me.
The previous Government planned for the Ministry of Justice to amend its cremation regulations to dovetail with wider death certification reforms planned by the Department of Health. It was planned to make any changes regarding infant cremations at that time. That is not good enough for me. Bereaved families deserve better. I felt that when I first heard of the Emstrey report, and I feel it even more having met the families last week. I have been considering that timetable again in the light of the reports’ recommendations. In particular, I have been considering whether it will be possible to progress the work on infant cremations before the death certification reforms are implemented. As I indicated to the families I met last week, I believe we should act now. As I announced in my written ministerial statement this morning, it is my intention to consult on a number of changes to the Cremation (England and Wales) Regulations 2008 later this year. In answer to a couple of Members who asked when later this year, it will be as soon as possible, because I have absolutely no reason to delay.
My hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham asked when the cremation legislation was last changed. It was changed in 2008, but we want to ensure that it does what it is intended to do, which is why we will consult on it. The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson) mentioned baby William from her constituency and the tragic events of 1994. That was before the implementation of the 2008 regulations. Now, parents, or another appropriate applicant, must sign an application form. Nevertheless, we will continue to look at all practices to ensure that they are being done properly. We will continue to work with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the Department of Health, the Department for Communities and Local Government, the Human Tissue Authority and the cremation industry stakeholders. We will consider all the report’s recommendations as part of our consultation.
I want to cover one final issue. I am aware of many cases in which parents have not received ashes even when ashes were recovered. The 2008 regulations say that after a cremation, the crematorium must give the ashes to the applicant or their nominee. If they do not want the ashes or have no nominee, the cremation authority must retain the ashes and either decently bury them or scatter them. But parents have told me that that has not been the case. Our consultation will consider further how the regulations can be improved.
I want to leave some time for my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham to sum up. I welcome both the publication of the Emstrey report and the important chance to debate it today. I look forward to announcing more details of the consultation in due course, as soon as possible. I will do whatever I can to make sure that I do not hear of grieving families suffering in the future as they have in the past. Specifically, I will do all I can to ensure that, in future, any parent who has already had to endure the unimaginable pain of suffering the loss of a baby does not have to suffer in order to be reunited with their child’s ashes.
I thank my hon. Friend the Minister for the way in which she has replied to the concerns we have expressed collectively today. I could not have asked for a better response. Families are watching the debate live in Shrewsbury. They have asked me to keep them informed of the progress we make, and, over the coming weeks and months, I will keep them updated about all the changes that we will hopefully make as a result of bringing this issue to the Minister’s attention.
The Minister has seen at first hand Members’ strength of feeling in the Chamber today. I referred earlier to my neighbour, the hon. Member for Ludlow (Mr Dunne), who was unable to be here. He asked me to read out a statement from him; many other colleagues in other jurisdictions in England have also approached me to say that they are interested in this case and that they know of similar cases. They have been looking to the Emstrey report to see what, if anything, can be done in their constituencies. I am very disappointed that the leader of Hull City Council has chosen not to conduct an inquiry. It has been extremely important for us to have one in Shrewsbury for the residents who are affected.
I would like to end by saying how delighted I was by the contribution from our colleague from Scotland, the hon. Member for Lanark and Hamilton East (Angela Crawley). As someone who believes in the Union, I do not think that we need to reinvent the wheel. If something very good is happening in another part of the United Kingdom—if they have already been through the process north of the border and started to put into place various safety measures to ensure that this does not happen there—I hope that the Minister will ensure that her advisers and officials take a trip north of the border to find out what is happening in that jurisdiction.
Thank you, Mr Howarth, for chairing this important debate. I very much look forward to hearing from the Minister in the coming weeks and months about the progress on this very important issue for our constituents.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the matter of the cremation of infants in England.