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Westminster Hall

Volume 598: debated on Tuesday 21 July 2015

Westminster Hall

Tuesday 21 July 2015

[Mr Christopher Chope in the Chair]

Human Rights (Saudi Arabia)

I beg to move,

That this House has considered human rights in Saudi Arabia.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Chope. I want to make it clear at the outset that I am Stewart Malcolm McDonald; to my right is my hon. Friend the Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald), whose constituency and first name are entirely different. We are not to be confused.

At just 31 years old, Mr Raif Badawi is currently in a Saudi prison following a sentence of 10 years’ imprisonment, 1,000 lashes and a fine of over 1 million riyal. His “crime” is that he dared to speak out for secular liberalism and to question the authoritarian rule of his country. It is no crime at all. Raif Badawi’s case has captured the hearts and minds of people right across the world—not only because of the brutal and medieval sentence that has been bestowed on him, to which I will return, but because his writings represent the values of freedom and progress that inspire so many across the world.

Human progress takes great strides forward when our ability to think, write, argue and present our ideas in an open discourse is honoured. However, Mr Badawi is being made to fight that battle with his life. Throughout history, people have had to do the same—fight the forces that want to keep silent those of us who believe in liberal progress. Artists such as Salman Rushdie, who is a personal inspiration, thinkers such as Galileo, political leaders such as Aung San Suu Kyi, feminists such as Emmeline Pankhurst and gay rights activists such as Harvey Milk—all of them fought for liberal progress and free thinking in order to advance humankind. All of them did so in the face of severe hostility, the threat of imprisonment or sometimes even death.

Raif Badawi and his fearless writings on human rights will surely join those great names in our history books, but he cannot join them just yet: he is too young and still has too much to offer our world and the cause of progress. He also still has too much love to give to and receive from his family. Raif’s wife, Ensaf, and his three children, Terad, Najwa and Miriyam, do not deserve to be robbed of their husband and father. Each and every time I see the photograph of Raif and his three beautiful children, who are happily wrestling for their father’s love, I am haunted to my core. What must they think of their father? What must they think of their country—of the world they live in and their future place in it? I secured this debate not only to give Raif some hope that people in this country and across the world are working to ensure his freedom, but so that his children know that their daddy’s freedom matters to this House and to people across the world, and that we will not stop until they are reunited with him.

The sentence that has been delivered is deliberately evil. Not content with a prison sentence and a fine that he could never hope to pay, the wicked Saudi regime had to go one further: 1,000 lashes to the back. Although the lashes have now been stopped, I want to illustrate the suffering endured by those who receive a lashing. Dr Juliet Cohen, head of doctors at Freedom from Torture, has said:

“When the cane strikes, the blood is forced from the tissues beneath... Damage to the small blood vessels and individual cells causes leakage of blood and tissue fluid into the skin and underlying tissue, increasing the tension in these areas… The more blows are inflicted on top of one another, the more chance of open wounds being caused. This is important because they are likely to be more painful and at risk of infection, which will cause further pain over a prolonged period as infection delays the wounds’ healing”.

The Saudi regime literally wants to whip Mr Badawi into obedience, believing that to discipline his mind, it is necessary to discipline his body. Although the involvement of doctors has halted the lashes for now, just consider the position a doctor is put in when assessing Mr Badawi’s wounds. The most fundamental guiding principle for any medical professional is that they shall not inflict harm. If a doctor were to declare that his wounds had sufficiently healed, they would do so in the knowledge that they would be sentencing him to another round of the most wicked punishment that he could endure—except he cannot endure it. Make no mistake: Raif Badawi has been served the slowest and most barbaric of death sentences.

More widely, Saudi Arabia is not known for its sympathy towards human rights of any sort or for its balanced approach to criminal justice. It does not matter whether someone is a liberal blogger, a human rights activist, a woman, a gay man or woman, or from a religious or ethnic minority. Last year alone, Saudi Arabia beheaded 90 people; this year, that figure had already been matched by the end of May. It is almost as though the regime has been caught off guard by the new kids on the block, Daesh, and is trying to show them who is top dog in the region when it comes to tyranny.

I want to compare our response to Raif Badawi’s case with our response to the death cult Daesh, which is making the headlines today. We have rightly condemned Daesh for the barbaric way in which it has swept across the middle east and how it has lured young people from this country and others to fight a fanatic’s war, something that has even touched my constituency, but—let us not beat around the bush—everything that Daesh has learned, it has learned from the barbaric regime of Saudi Arabia. The difference is that one group of fanatics has a state and the other has yet to be so successful.

If Daesh had a state to govern, do the Government really think that its forms of punishment would be any different from those being used in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia today? Why do we show these people—these fanatics—such respect? Why do we lower our flags when their dictator dies? Why have we become so deferential, almost submissive, when it comes to publicly shaming them—something that the Government freely do with countries such as North Korea or Iran?

Does my hon. Friend think that the refusal to condemn the use of the death penalty might be something to do with the fact that, according to The Economist’s ranking, after China and Iran, only Iraq stands between Saudi Arabia in the United States in terms of executions?

My hon. Friend makes my point for me. I was going to put it much more simply: the answer is money. While the Saudi Government value life so cheaply and lash their way to supreme authority over their people, our Government have no problem in doing serious amounts of commerce with them. Not only is Saudi Arabia our largest arms export market, bringing in billions of pounds to our Exchequer, but we co-operate on defence and—would you believe it, Mr Chope—on how it runs its prisons system. Is it any wonder that the Government suffer from such a lack of credibility on human rights in Saudi Arabia?

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. I am sorry that I cannot stay for the rest of it; the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs is about to meet. On the point about the prison system, it is surely a good thing that the Saudis are buying access to British standards and training to try to improve the very issues in the Saudi criminal justice system that the hon. Gentleman is discussing. That is surely something that we should be involved in.

As a former prisons Minister, the hon. Gentleman is most experienced in these things. I would be willing to accept his point if I could see any concrete evidence at all that our involvement with the Saudi Arabian regime through its prison system was improving human rights. That is not to say that that is not happening, but where is the evidence? I do not see it. That is why the Government face a lack of credibility and a growing scepticism among organisations such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International about whether anything meaningful and vociferous is being done.

I am not intervening simply to demonstrate that there is a McDonnell, as well as McDonalds, in the Chamber. I apologise that I cannot remain in the debate—bizarrely, I have a meeting with the current prisons Minister at 10 o’clock. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that our Government’s co-operation with the Saudi Government, and the fact that they have not condemned the case but only expressed concern about it, are interpreted by the Saudis as Britain condoning their behaviour?

It is almost as though the hon. Gentleman can see my speech. I am about to go on to that very point, which he made so well.

When the Government response to the case of Raif Badawi was raised in the House of Lords, Baroness Anelay asked her fellow peers

“to recognise that the actions of the Saudi Government in these respects have the support of the vast majority of the Saudi population.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 11 June 2015; Vol. 762, c. 890.]

Will the Minister tell us exactly how the Baroness would know that? Did she, as Francis Wheen suggested in The Independent, commission Lord Ashcroft to conduct a poll of Mr Badawi’s Saudi compatriots to ask what they thought of the lashings and beheadings carried out by their Government? If the Minister were a Saudi national and had witnessed a flogging such as that which Mr Badawi and so many others have been through, how likely would he be to speak out against his own Government? I suggest that the Baroness needs to rethink her words rather urgently.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. He is referring somewhat tongue in cheek to Lord Ashcroft and polls that might have been conducted in Saudi Arabia. Does he agree that if any such poll were to be contemplated, the prospects for those carrying out the poll would be similar to those of the person he is describing in the debate?

It would probably be the most undemocratic poll ever conducted. We can say a lot about polls in this country, but they are at least honest ones.

For the most part, yes.

Last week, at Foreign Office questions, I asked the Minister about two specific points. I hate to say this, but I received an answer to neither, so I want to press the questions now. First, I asked whether the Minister would instruct the United Kingdom ambassador in Riyadh to request a visit to the prison in which Mr Badawi is being held so that we might get a report on his mental and physical state and on the conditions in which he is being held. Will the Minister undertake to give such an assurance?

Secondly, will the Minister state without equivocation—there is plenty of precedent for this, although funnily enough not in Saudi Arabia—that Mr Badawi should be set free? He is a prisoner of conscience and he should not be in prison. Surely the Government agree with that. If so, will the Minister please state that in his response?

Last week in the main Chamber, the Minister sought to give me some kind of reassurance: he said that the Saudi supreme court was reviewing the case. The Minister is a reasonable man, so I am sure he does not seriously expect me or the House to find any reassurance in the fact that the same justice system that put Mr Badawi where he is today is now marking its own homework to determine whether he should still be in prison. The Saudi justice system is not a normal justice system and the Saudi Government are not a normal Government—and we should stop treating them as such. The Minister might be willing to turn a blind eye, but he cannot expect us to ignore the crimes and brutal human rights abuses of which the Saudi regime is guilty.

As my hon. Friend is aware, Saudi Arabia sits on the United Nations Human Rights Council and hosted an international human rights conference that resolved to combat intolerance and violence based on religious belief, even though the country has one of the worst records of abuse in the world today. The number of executions has been rising and stands at a startling rate: 88 people were executed last year in Saudi Arabia. Surely that cannot continue.

My hon. Friend makes an important point. The Saudi Arabian Government even sought to head the UN Human Rights Council. On the international stage, the Saudis are laughing at us and at human rights, so I hope to see some urgency from the Government. We must not become complacent, although I fear that that is exactly what the Government have become. Worse than that, coming back to the point made by the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell), we need to ask ourselves at what point we start to look complicit because of our own weakness and ability to turn a blind eye.

We have seen no evidence whatever—none at all—that the Government are taking the case of Raif Badawi seriously or that they are raising the issue in the most vociferous and public fashion with the Saudi Government. Our Government are not doing anything that the public or I can see. Instead, we lower our flags to half mast when a dictator passes away. For some, that flag might fly proudly over this building as a symbol of unity and strength, but it is fast becoming a symbol of impotence and obedience to the wrong people.

I am pleased to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Chope, and I thank the hon. Member for Glasgow South (Stewart McDonald) for proposing the motion and bringing the debate forward for consideration. I also look forward to the responses of the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy), and of the Minister.

I will speak specifically about the persecution of Christians, to which the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) referred a few minutes ago in an intervention. Many Members know that I have a great passion for the subject and a great wish to speak on behalf of our brothers and sisters, in this case in Saudi Arabia, who are subject to a mind-boggling level of religious persecution. In the background information for the debate, we were given some idea of other abuses as well, such as the number of people executed in the past year and, unbelievably, the fact that Saudi Arabia has employed yet more new executioners. That tells us a wee bit about where the regime is on human rights.

When most people think about Saudi Arabia, the image that comes to mind is of oil-rich sheikhs and beautiful buildings along with desert. As with most stereotypical images, however, there is a lot more than meets the eye. I will speak about the persecuted Church. The desert kingdom is defined by Wahabism, a purist and strict interpretation of Islam. I am the first to advocate freedom for people to practise their religion, as long as it is not harmful to society, but the worrying aspect in this case is that it is forbidden openly to practise other religions. To be a Christian in Saudi Arabia is to face persecution, limited freedom and liberties, and restrictions on what can be done. Apostasy—conversion to another religion—is punishable by death. The kingdom is also widely known to be a breeding ground for radical Islam, with allegations that Saudi funding is a major source of Sunni terrorism in the world.

Behind the idyllic interpretation of Saudi Arabia, therefore, is an underbelly or undercurrent of terrorism and the suppression of liberty and democratic process. Open Doors UK, an organisation that speaks on behalf of Christian people throughout the world, has said that converts from Islam to Christianity risk being killed or abused by their own families. House churches are often raided by the religious police. Only back in September, our national newspapers were publishing stories about the Islamic police in Saudi Arabia storming a Christian prayer meeting, arresting the entire congregation, including women and children, and confiscating their Bibles.

This week a report published by The Week outlined 12 things that women in Saudi Arabia still cannot do, including going anywhere without a chaperone, driving a car, voting in elections and wearing clothes or make-up to show off their beauty—I could go on. I suspect that a number of female Members would contend those points and would be aghast if we could not all enjoy equality in this nation. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the situation in Saudi Arabia is a travesty in this day and age?

I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention, and will put on the record that it is not just hon. Ladies who are offended by that; hon. Gentlemen are equally offended, including me. The fact that women are second-class citizens in Saudi Arabia and suffer all the deprivations that they do annoys and angers me greatly. We are holding this debate on their behalf as well.

At the time of the raid on the Christian meeting that I mentioned, it was reported that it was the latest incident in a swingeing crackdown on minorities in Saudi Arabia by the country’s hard-line commission—wait for this one—for the promotion of virtue and prevention of vice. Have we ever heard the like—the use of such words to describe the deprivation and restriction of religious liberty? The 28 Christians who were arrested were said to have been worshipping at the home of an Indian national in the eastern city Khafji when the police entered the building and took them into custody. They have not been seen or heard from since, and human rights groups are concerned about their whereabouts.

I know this is short notice for the Minister, but I ask him for a response on the case of those 28 Christians. I doubt it will be possible for him to give one today, but perhaps at a point in the future he will give the House some idea of what is happening to those people, who seem to have disappeared into the ether of Saudi Arabia, as their whereabouts are unknown.

Nina Shea, director of the Washington-based Hudson Institute’s Centre for Religious Freedom, told

“Saudi Arabia is continuing the religious cleansing that has always been its official policy…It is the only nation state in the world with the official policy of banning all churches. This is enforced even though there are over two million Christian foreign workers in that country. Those victimized are typically poor, from Asian and African countries with weak governments.”

If we want to sum the situation up, we can do so in five words—all in a day’s tyranny. That is the situation for Christian people, and in Saudi Arabia it is indeed all in a day’s tyranny.

Voice of the Persecuted has said that in March Saudi Arabia’s top Muslim cleric called for the destruction of all churches in the Arabian peninsula, after legislators next door in Kuwait moved to pass laws banning the construction of religious sites associated with Christianity. Arabic media have reported that, when speaking to a delegation in Kuwait, the grand mufti of Saudi Arabia, Sheikh Abdul Aziz bin Abdullah—my pronunciation of that was not bad going for an Ulster Scot—said the destruction of churches was absolutely necessary and is required by Islamic law. Where is the freedom and religious liberty for those practising Christianity?

Abdullah is considered to be the highest official of religious law in the Sunni Muslim kingdom. He also serves as the head of the supreme council of ulema, which is the council of Islamic scholars, and of the standing committee for scientific research and issuing of fatwas. According to Arabian Business, a news site, Osama al-Munawar, a Kuwaiti Member of Parliament, has announced a plan to submit a draft law calling for the removal of all churches in the country. Al-Munawar has since clarified that that law would apply only to new churches, and that old ones would be allowed to stay standing. If the churches are allowed to stay standing, give people the religious liberty to practise their religious beliefs.

These issues are very worrying when we consider how little it takes to break such strict laws. It seems clear that we must exert what influence we have with Saudi Arabia to ensure that those who want to practise Christianity can do so without fear. In his opening remarks, the hon. Member for Glasgow South referred to contracts we have with Saudi Arabia; I will come to that in a few minutes, but it is important to note that given our business and economic contacts with Saudi Arabia we should have discussions and make efforts on behalf of Christian minorities.

Does my hon. Friend agree that in every context of commerce, including work by private businesses supported by our national Government, every opportunity should be taken to raise with the Government of Saudi Arabia matters such as the persecution of Christians and other minorities, and the persecution of women?

I totally agree with my hon. Friend. As the Minister and others who were Members in the previous Parliament will know, back in 2013 the Democratic Unionist party took the opportunity of one of our Opposition day debates to raise the issue of the religious persecution of Christians on the Floor of the House. As a result of that debate, we hoped that Ministers in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office would use their influence wherever they could across the world when religious liberty, religious minorities and human rights were being abused by countries or by dictators. I wholeheartedly support what my hon. Friend said. We need our Government, and the Minister in particular, to take a more proactive stance.

We hear all this talk about raising the issues at the senior levels of Government, but does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is perhaps time to take more action, and, like Sweden, to start ending memorandums of understanding, looking at an arms embargo and perhaps even looking at the withdrawal of ambassadors? I am not seeing any progress whatever.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that. We should consider the idea he has put forward, and the Minister will respond to his point. I noted from the Library’s background note for the debate that Sweden has taken that proactive stance and decided to stop arms sales. We have to consider all those steps. We want to be an economic ally of Saudi Arabia and trade with it—we cannot deny that—but we also want to influence what is happening there. If we are not having the sort of influence we wish to—at this point in time I do not see that we are—perhaps we need to look at other ways of having that influence.

The world deplores the scenario in North Korea, but we seem to tolerate the same scenario in Saudi Arabia with barely a mention. Mention North Korea and everyone’s hackles will rise; we should be equally angry about the persecution of Christians in Saudi Arabia. Reading a report from someone who had been out there opened my eyes. I will read from it to give Members an idea of what it is like to be a Christian there:

“Visiting persecuted Christians in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, it’s the silence that strikes me most. British nurses hide crucifixes from view; Filipino nurses furtively read banned Christmas catalogues; Christian physicians whisper their weekend plans, referring to church services as ‘gatherings’ at diplomatic compounds;”—

because they have to try to hide what they are doing and when—

“Christian Pakistani matrons scheduling the nursing rota risk false accusations of blasphemy—charges which could result in death.”

That is everyday life in Saudi Arabia for Christian people.

I will quote something connected to the sense that we are looking the other way and leave the idea with Members as a thoughtful submission. It is attributed to the German Jewish essayist Kurt Tucholsky—I am doing well with the names today:

“A country is not only what it does—it is also what it tolerates.”

Let us think about those words very clearly. In Saudi Arabia there is no toleration for Christian minorities, for those with different views or for those who do not conform to its particular rules and regulations.

What are we tolerating in our relationship with Saudi Arabia? I have great respect for the Minister, but I must put this to him: how can we do better? How can we ensure that our nurses and teachers do not fear discussing church or asking for time off to worship their God in the way that He has ordained they should? What diplomatic pressure can be brought to bear to bring change? If the answer is that we have no leverage and can apply no pressure, we must ask ourselves why that is the case—that goes back to the point made by the hon. Member for Glasgow South both in his opening remarks and in his intervention.

There are more than 200 joint ventures between British and Saudi companies, worth $17.5 billion. Saudi Arabia is the United Kingdom’s primary trading partner in the middle east, and even our Prime Minister travelled to extend sympathy at the death of King Abdullah. I do not for a second say that he should not have done that, but I do ask, given the special relationship that we seem to have, what we are doing for the Christian people and other minorities. Have we no leverage despite that relationship? Some tough questions must be asked about whether we can do more to halt the persecution of Christians, and especially of British Christians, in Saudi Arabia.

I apologise to the House, Mr Chope, for missing the first few minutes of this morning’s debate.

The case of Raif Badawi highlights just how bad the human rights situation is in Saudi Arabia, but it is not the only case. I hope that the Minister will be able to reply to some short, simple points. The UN Human Rights Council has expressed many concerns about human rights, the judicial process and the plight of individuals in Saudi Arabia. That does not appear on the surface to have affected the British Government’s relationship with Saudi Arabia very much. As far as I can work out, it has not led to the Government making many remarks to the Saudi Government to try to bring about change. We need to ask about the link between substantial sales of British arms to Saudi Arabia and our apparent inability to criticise the human rights record there. Will the Minister confirm what controls are applied to the export of arms, how many arms licences have been refused, and how many of the weapons or items of equipment sent to Saudi Arabia have been used for internal repression, to suppress demonstrations or to control prisons?

Saudi Arabia’s activities in Yemen are extremely well known, and it is not a secret that it has been occupying quite large parts of that country to restore the original Government to power. There are also disturbing reports that it has been using illegal cluster bombs during the bombardment of Yemen. I would be grateful if the Minister would confirm whether that is so. If not, will the Foreign Office find out exactly what weapons that would be illegal under international law have been used by Saudi Arabia? The question of arms supplies has troubled both Germany and Sweden, which have at times either suspended or restricted arms supplies to Saudi Arabia because of human rights abuses, and because of their concern about what they would be used for; but apparently that question has not restricted the British Government very much.

The Foreign Office human rights and democracy report of 2014 said:

“Saudi Arabia continued to make incremental improvements on human rights in 2014, as the government carried on implementing its reform programme...but we continued to have concerns over the human rights situation, particularly in relation to the use of the death penalty, access to justice, women’s rights, and restrictions on freedom of expression, freedom of assembly and freedom of religion or belief. There was some progress in women’s rights and the death penalty, but significant institutional change in Saudi Arabia is needed to protect the human rights of its residents, especially with regards to the guardianship system and restrictions on freedom of religion or belief.”

In fact, the number of executions has gone up, not down, in the past two years. The report continues:

“There were significant changes in the justice sector. On 10 September, the Secretary of State for Justice…visited Saudi Arabia and signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the Saudi Arabian Minister of Justice…This should act as a mechanism for dialogue on human rights issues”.

We need to know from the Minister how many times meetings have been held with the Saudi Government, what has been achieved through that dialogue, and what improvements have resulted in the human rights record of Saudi Arabia as a result.

There are many disturbing reports, particularly about the plight of human rights defenders, who seem to have little protection in law. Often they are brutally silenced when they try to speak out about human rights abuses, particularly away from the big cities and in more remote parts of the country. The guardianship system for women means that women’s rights are extremely restricted all over the country, yet we carry on as though everything were normal with Saudi Arabia.

Government officials in Saudi Arabia have stated their blatant opposition to gay rights and have criticised human rights policies that guarantee freedoms and liberty. Recent police raids have evidently primarily targeted gay people, and several arrests have been made as part of the authorities’ latest crackdown on LGBT people. Does the hon. Gentleman join me in condemning that?

Absolutely; I thank the hon. Lady for drawing the House’s attention to that. The abuse of all human rights in Saudi Arabia is very serious, but the treatment of lesbian and gay people there is particularly appalling. In the UN Human Rights Council, the UK routinely takes up issues of systemic discrimination in many countries all over the world, but there seems to be an unfortunate silence where Saudi Arabia is concerned, and I do not believe that that is the way to act.

The hon. Gentleman is a long-serving Member of Parliament and no doubt over the years has been to many a protest outside the Saudi embassy. Off the top of his head, can he give an example of a meaningful public condemnation of the Saudi regime that has been made in the years in which he has been debating the issue in the House? Can he think of one, or perhaps two?

Ministers have often said to me that they are concerned about human rights in Saudi Arabia. Usually the narrative from the Foreign Office is that constructive dialogue is making progress. It is not obvious to me what progress has been made in the matter, but that is what is often said. The Minister, I am sure, can speak for himself.

My last point is about migrant workers. There are hundreds of thousands of migrant workers all over the Gulf states. They are doing the jobs that nobody else wants to do. They run the economy; they run the oil industry; they clean people’s houses; they fix the roads; they run the railways. They run just about everything. The whole economy relies on them completely. Generally speaking they are poorly treated everywhere, but 300,000 have been deported from Saudi Arabia, and others who have protested in any way about their conditions of work have been summarily removed from the country. We ought to be aware that that is a systemic problem across the region.

British companies are heavily involved in service industries and oil exploration and exploitation in Saudi Arabia and other places. I am not saying that British companies are particularly exploiting migrant workers, but I do say that Britain should not turn a blind eye to what is happening to many vulnerable people across the region. What is happening in Qatar has at last got some publicity, because of the number of migrant workers who have died on construction sites. Things are not that different in every other country of the region.

I hope that the Minister will be able to tell the House that tough representations will be made to the Saudi Arabian Government, and that we will suspend arms supplies to Saudi Arabia if it is shown to be using weapons illegally in the Yemen. There is also the question of past weapons use in Bahrain. I hope he will say that we will demand rights for women, an end to the death penalty, and rights and justice for the migrant workers in the region. We cannot just say that because Saudi Arabia is oil-rich and has huge amounts of money with which to buy arms from us and from other places, human rights standards should be lower. We should say that human rights standards should be the same throughout the world. The declaration of human rights is, after all, a universal declaration, not a selective one. We should make that clear in our foreign policy relationships with Saudi Arabia.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Chope. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South (Stewart McDonald) on securing the debate; he has been a persistent and passionate agitator on the issue since his election, and remains so. He reminded us of the case of Raif Badawi, a 31-year-old Saudi Arabian writer and activist, who is married with three children. My hon. Friend detailed his trial, conviction, horrendous sentence and punishment for the crime described as “setting up a liberal website”. I should declare an interest as a member of Amnesty International, which has been campaigning on the issue.

Following Mr Badawi’s arrest, Amnesty designated him a prisoner of conscience,

“detained solely for peacefully exercising his right to freedom of expression”,

and noted:

“Even in Saudi Arabia where state repression is rife, it is beyond the pale to seek the death penalty for an activist whose only ‘crime’ was to enable social debate online”.

Numerous other campaign groups, such as Free Raif UK, English PEN and other well known human rights groups, also deserve credit for keeping Mr Badawi’s case in the public eye. Doing that retains pressure on the Saudi authorities and provides support for the friends and family of Raif Badawi, Waleed Abulkhair, who I think is Mr Badawi’s lawyer, and various others. By securing this debate, my hon. Friend has made a further contribution to that important task and provided the hope that he spoke about. Whether even more can come from the debate is down to the Government. I support my hon. Friend’s simple requests that the United Kingdom Government call for Mr Badawi’s release and seek permission to visit him in prison. So far, the UK Government have had too little to say publicly about this issue. We wait with interest to hear what the Minister will say today.

None of this is to say that we fail to recognise the difficulties and complexities involved in international diplomacy. Sometimes diplomacy behind closed doors can work—indeed, the suggestion so far from the UK Government is that their approach to Saudi Arabia is to pursue diplomacy behind closed doors. However, in this case, public silence is no longer an option; in reality, it never was.

Concern is not enough because, first of all, people see an inherent hypocrisy that is far too large to ignore. As my hon. Friend the Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) highlighted in her intervention, the double standards being applied cannot be tolerated. At the start of this year, in the wake of the horrific Charlie Hebdo attack, our Prime Minister walked with thousands of others along the streets of Paris to protest in support of freedom of expression. Among the marchers was the Saudi Arabian ambassador to France. Both France and the United Kingdom have a strong belief in freedom of expression, but the same cannot be said about Saudi Arabia. Just two days before that march, Raif Badawi had received the first 50 lashes for his so-called offence—an offence of expression.

Secondly and even more importantly, to citizens of this country looking in from the outside the process of diplomacy behind closed doors just does not appear to be working or achieving anything, as my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South pointed out. The softly-softly approach is seen as amounting to not very much at all. It is simply untrue to suggest that there has been a substantial improvement in human rights in Saudi Arabia through that approach, as my hon. Friend explained. This year, the country has already executed more than 100 people. That surpasses the total for last year.

The slow burn of British diplomacy might even appear to be encouraging an aura or attitude of impunity in the Saudi Government, nurturing the idea that they can get away with human rights abuses if they talk a good game on human rights. As my hon. Friend highlighted, Saudi Arabia is considering seeking the chairmanship of the UN Human Rights Council next year, yet two months ago it advertised for eight new executioners, as the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) pointed out. Recently, it hosted a regional human rights meeting just three days before the supreme court upheld the sentence against Raif Badawi. When called out on its human rights record by the media, the Government of Saudi Arabia claim that it is

“one of the first States to promote and support human rights”

as if those words on their own are enough.

The case of Raif Badawi has proved to be a rallying point, casting light on problems that, as many hon. Members said, go much further than his own. He is a man whose bravery puts a human face on the statistics that we hear about the scale of human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia, but those statistics and the other stories that we have heard today continue to provide grave cause for concern.

As the hon. Member for Strangford highlighted, the persecution of Christians is extremely concerning. As my hon. Friend the Member for Lanark and Hamilton East (Angela Crawley) set out, the situation for women is also terrible. The few rights that do exist in Saudi Arabia essentially do not extend to women—in fact, “human rights”, in so far as they exist in Saudi Arabia, really means men’s rights. My hon. Friend also highlighted the persecution of LGBT people in that country. The hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) highlighted concerns regarding Saudi activities in Yemen and the exploitation of migrant workers in Saudi Arabia.

Worse even than the failure publicly to criticise and condemn has been the United Kingdom Government’s tendency almost to excuse. As my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South highlighted, it was recently suggested in the House of Lords that the treatment of Raif Badawi largely meets with public approval in Saudi Arabia. That is an objectionable argument on so many levels. Not only should we, as hon. Members have said, take such assertions with a large pinch of salt; most significantly, we can never say that human rights abuses are all right and should be ignored if a majority in a particular country agrees with them.

We argue for a new approach, and in Europe, as we have heard today, there are glimmers of hope. The hon. Members for Strangford and for Islington North pointed out that Germany and Sweden have started to speak out, with Sweden withdrawing from a security and trade agreement with Riyadh, effectively blocking arms exports. Meanwhile, Germany has ended an export deal for Leopard tanks because of Saudi Arabia’s human rights record and it warned that the sentence against Mr Badawi was damaging relations. We were just speaking of opinion polls, and opinion polls there show that the German public are against any form of trade with the Arab state, with a large majority against arms sales.

My hon. Friend makes an important point about Sweden’s trade deals with Saudi Arabia being ended and Germany’s refusal to sell tanks to the Saudi regime. Does he share my concern that the United Kingdom Government have not so much as refused to sell a single bullet to the Saudi regime?

I absolutely agree. In coming to a conclusion about what my hon. Friend has asked for today, I will say that we recognise the complexities of international diplomacy, but back-room bargaining is no longer enough—indeed, it never really was. At the very least, as my hon. Friend suggests, we require the UK Government to call for Mr Badawi’s release and to seek permission to visit him in prison. That is not much to ask. As the hon. Member for Islington North said, the United Kingdom Government need to rethink their approach to Saudi Arabia altogether. Our requests are modest, and we look forward to hearing what the Government have to say in response.

It is, as ever, a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Chope. I congratulate the hon. Member for Glasgow South (Stewart McDonald) on securing the debate. Understandably, he focused on the case of Raif Badawi, as did his Scottish National party colleague, the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald). Sometimes a case assumes totemic status in the human rights catalogue. We know that there are many horrific cases of human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia, but sometimes it takes a case such as that of Raif Badawi to capture public attention and focus people’s minds, so it is right that the hon. Member for Glasgow South raised it.

We heard from the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) about the persecution of Christians in Saudi Arabia. He has been a strong advocate for many years on the issue of freedom of religion and, in particular, the persecution of Christians, and he made a compelling contribution again today.

We heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) about a number of issues, which I will come on to, such as arms deals, the memorandum of understanding with the Saudi Arabian Ministry of Justice, and migrant workers. However, it is important that as well as focusing on the specific issues that have been raised, we look at the wider questions about what it means for Saudi Arabia to be a Foreign Office country of concern on human rights grounds. It is important that Parliament regularly revisits the question of human rights in Saudi Arabia and questions the nature of our bilateral relationship, as it epitomises the inherent challenges and contradictions in the UK’s foreign policy and flags up some of the very difficult questions that we struggle with and have to reconcile.

We heard today some of the reasons why the Foreign Office regards Saudi Arabia as a human rights country of concern: the restrictions on freedom of expression and assembly; concerns about migrant workers; reports of torture being commonplace in prison; and the crackdown on dissent, including legislation equating criticism of the Government with terrorism. Those are not simply internal, domestic matters but questions of international law and universal principles of human rights.

On the specific case of Raif Badawi, which I will return to throughout my response, the hon. Member for Glasgow South eloquently summed up the position. It is very difficult to imagine not just Mr Badawi’s plight, but what his family, who are now in Canada, are going through. His arrest and conviction expose Saudi Arabia’s disregard for religious freedom and freedom of expression, and his sentence breaches the convention against torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, which Saudi Arabia has ratified. I will refer to several such agreements during my speech, and we have to ask what it means for Saudi Arabia to have ratified them if we continue to see cases such as that of Raif Badawi.

Saudi Arabia is a signatory to the convention on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women. It is true that there has been a little progress. Women are expected to be allowed to vote in this year’s municipal elections for the first time, and 30 of the 140 seats in the Shura Council have been allocated to women. More employment opportunities have also been opened up to women. Those are, however, very small steps. Saudi Arabia still operates the guardianship system, and women are still very much subordinate to men. There is still a ban on women driving, for example. In December, two Women2Drive supporters were arrested and later charged with terrorism-related offences, for the crime of driving a car and being women.

The Government’s latest human rights and democracy report lauded Saudi Arabia for its participation in the preventing sexual violence initiative. It is true that there is a new law criminalising domestic violence in Saudi Arabia, but Amnesty International reports that women are still not adequately protected from sexual violence. Although it has not been raised today, we have discussed in the past the plight of the Saudi princesses, on which people seem to have fallen silent. Perhaps the Minister can update us on that. If that is what happens to women in the royal family in Saudi Arabia, what hope is there for ordinary women?

Hon. Members have highlighted the absence of religious freedom in Saudi Arabia, where the rights and wellbeing of minorities—not least Shi’a Muslims, as well as Christians and atheists—need to be protected. Apostasy is punishable by death and Saudi Arabia is one of the most prolific countries, behind only China and Iran, in the use of the death penalty. Last year, the number of executions increased significantly to 86. By June this year, however, Saudi Arabia had already surpassed last year’s total, and there have been more than 100 executions. As we have heard, the country has had to advertise to recruit eight more executioners for the public beheadings.

Does the hon. Lady agree that given that Saudi Arabia is advertising for more executioners, no progress is being made on that front?

The statistics I have just quoted speak for themselves. As I said, the number of executions that have taken place this year has already exceeded last year’s total. Clearly, Saudi Arabia is not moving in the right direction on the death penalty. People have been sentenced to death for sorcery and adultery, and they have been executed for confessions allegedly obtained through torture. Juveniles have been executed, which is in clear violation of international law. In that brief summary of just some of the human rights concerns, I have covered five of the Foreign Office’s six human rights priorities: freedom of expression on the internet, torture prevention, women’s rights, freedom of religion or belief, and the abolition of the death penalty. The Foreign Office has never listed lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rights as one of its six priorities, although that should be a priority, not least because in countries such as Saudi Arabia homosexuality is punishable by death, as several colleagues have mentioned today.

The Foreign Office’s sixth thematic priority is business and human rights. We have heard very little of the Government’s business and human rights action plan since it was launched in 2013. The previous Foreign Secretary assured us:

“The promotion and protection of human rights is at the heart of the UK’s foreign policy”.

By contrast, the Prime Minister spoke of his determination to place

“our commercial interests at the heart of our foreign policy.”

Therein lies the dilemma. The current Foreign Secretary did not mention human rights at all when he was appointed, and it certainly seems that the commercial heart has had a much stronger beat at the centre of our foreign policy than the human rights heart. I do not deny that we need to attract inward investment and promote UK exports, but we cannot do so at the expense of basic human rights for people in countries such as Saudi Arabia, or by ignoring our international responsibilities. The Foreign Secretary has said that

“Saudi Arabia is an important ally of the UK”.—[Official Report, 9 June 2015; Vol. 596, c. 1040.]

We would, therefore, expect the Government to use that relationship with a strong ally to discuss their human rights priorities.

Last year, UK arms exports to Saudi Arabia were worth £1.6 billion. Questions have rightly been asked about the inclusion of Saudi Arabia as a priority market for arms sales when it is also a human rights country of concern, but those are questions that Ministers have been unwilling or unable to address. Indeed, Defence Ministers recently told the House that they would not be reviewing the licences to Saudi Arabia, despite the UN’s warnings regarding the conflict in Yemen, about which they stated:

“The indiscriminate bombing of populated areas, with or without prior warning, is in contravention of international humanitarian law”.

I hope the Minister will be able to tell us whether he thinks the Government’s eagerness to sell arms to Saudi Arabia undermines any efforts to challenge the country’s human rights record or mutes discussion.

As several hon. Members have mentioned, there seems to be a significant reluctance on the part of the UK Government to speak out on human rights. The Government’s initial response to Raif Badawi’s conviction and flogging seemed rather timid, and the Prime Minister has been evasive when he has been asked about discussions on human rights with the Saudi authorities. I remember tabling a series of written questions some years ago, in which I asked about discussions. I kept being told that nothing was off the table and there was a broad range of discussion, which is what tends to happen whenever I ask what discussions the Prime Minister has had on human rights. Perhaps the Minister will be able to enlighten us a little more today.

The Minister will, no doubt, tell us that there is a difference between private and public diplomacy. I accept that public condemnation is not always the most effective, and I am not suggesting that it is always appropriate to divulge the details of private conversations with foreign dignitaries. I accept, too, the need to consider our national interest and Saudi Arabia’s strategic role in the region. There is, however, a difference between choosing the best approach and turning a blind eye to egregious human rights abuses.

The concern that the British Government has dodged questions of human rights was only reinforced by the comments made by the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski), the chair of the all-party group on Saudi Arabia, during last year’s debate on this subject. He stated:

“British officials were petrified at the prospect that I might raise issues involving Christian rights in front of the King. They do not like British Members of Parliament raising such issues”.—[Official Report, 24 June 2015; Vol. 583, c. 9WH.]

There is a danger that if the UK is perceived to be inconsistent on human rights and to demand higher standards from some countries than others, it will undermine Ministers’ attempts to promote human rights in any country. We cannot be seen to have double standards when it comes to universal, inalienable principles of human rights. The international community cannot selectively grant impunity for human rights abuses. Countries such as Saudi Arabia cannot be allowed to hide behind their economic power and strategic importance while the international community criticises other countries more strongly.

That is especially true when Saudi Arabia is a member of the UN Human Rights Council, a body that is supposed to be

“responsible for strengthening the promotion and protection of human rights around the globe and for addressing situations of human rights violations”.

Saudi Arabia has failed to implement the recommendations that it accepted in its universal periodic reviews, however, and it has rejected the recommendation to ratify the international covenant on civil and political rights. As we have heard, the country has ratified other agreements but failed to implement them.

The covenant that my hon. Friend has mentioned would also help to protect migrant workers, who, as I pointed out, are incredibly badly treated in Saudi Arabia. Does she agree that we should do more about migrant workers in that situation?

I absolutely agree. The situation in Qatar, which my hon. Friend mentioned earlier, has shone a spotlight on the plight of migrant workers in the middle east. We should not assume that that is a problem only in Qatar; it is certainly an issue in countries such as Saudi Arabia, and it requires international action, particularly where British companies are involved.

There is limited space for civil society in Saudi Arabia. Amnesty International is denied access, human rights defenders are prosecuted, and non-governmental organisations are required to register—something that few, if any, have managed to do. That all suggests an unwillingness to engage on human rights or to work with the international community, and it makes it all the more important for Saudi Arabia’s allies, such as the UK, to be frank with it. Perhaps the Minister will be able to tell us more about how the UK works with Saudi Arabia on the Human Rights Council.

The UK Government seek to work in partnership with the Saudi Government on some matters. The hon. Member for Reigate (Crispin Blunt) mentioned the memorandum of understanding that the previous Justice Secretary has signed with his counterpart, and the Home Secretary did likewise earlier this year. Given the concerns that we have heard about the criminal justice system in Saudi Arabia—including the use of corporal punishment and amputations—I hope that the Minister will be able to advise us on the conditions attached to those MOUs and the progress that is being made.

Does the hon. Lady support calls by Amnesty International for the British ambassador in Riyadh to visit Mr Badawi in prison to check on the conditions in which he is being held?

Yes, I certainly do. I am meeting Amnesty later this afternoon, as I do regularly. I hope that the Minister will help facilitate that.

We were told that the UK raised Raif Badawi’s case with the Saudi authorities at a senior level, but six months after his first 50 lashes and after three years’ detention, he remains in prison with the threat of 950 more lashes hanging over him. What assessment can the Minister give of the UK’s actual influence in this situation? King Abdullah was hailed by some as a reformer, but the slow pace of reform failed to prevent immense suffering and discrimination. Although the new king has taken positive steps, including small steps to protect religious minorities, little has changed so far in terms of basic rights and freedoms.

The UK must be prepared to discuss with Saudi Arabia the need for more fundamental reform if the kingdom is to meet its obligations to the people of Saudi Arabia and the international community. As I said, we recognise the need to work with Saudi Arabia and establish a strong relationship, but a bilateral relationship that turns a blind eye to human rights or silences a partner is inherently fragile.

I referred earlier to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s six thematic human rights priorities. I have heard reports that those six priorities have now been abandoned in favour of three vaguer work streams; I do not know whether the Minister is in a position to clarify that, but it is important. As I said, I would like to see the current priorities strengthened by the addition of LGBT rights. I am concerned that the abandonment of those six principles will mean less focus on human rights. It would be helpful if he could advise on that.

It is a pleasure to work under your experienced chairmanship, Mr Chope. I begin, as others have done, by congratulating the hon. Member for Glasgow South (Stewart McDonald) on securing the debate. I will not try to say which names are which, but I was grateful for the clarification at the beginning.

I will say as a general remark that this debate has been informative and constructive. From a personal perspective, it is good to see new Members of Parliament from the Scottish National party come here with such a depth of knowledge and interest, and such a commitment to these issues. It is healthy and important to have them at such debates, along with those of the older generation who are regulars at them; I am only sorry that there are not more Members from my party to match them. However, I am pleased that we are here to place on record our relationship with Saudi Arabia and the important human rights aspect of that relationship.

It is worth placing in context where we stand. The UK and Saudi Arabia have a long history of friendship, understanding and co-operation. That relationship is rooted in defence, security, trade and investment, as hon. Members have mentioned. There are many bilateral challenges and opportunities, as has also been said, including Iraq and Syria, ISIL and Daesh and the changes taking place with the new Iranian nuclear deal. As the Opposition spokesperson, the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) also mentioned, Yemen is also an issue.

It is important to remind ourselves that the people of Britain have strong bilateral links with Saudi Arabia. Millions of Muslims travel to Saudi Arabia every year to perform the Hajj and Umrah pilgrimages and to visit the holy sites of Mecca and Medina. I understand that 18,000 Britons completed the Hajj in 2014. The bilateral relationship is strong, which allows us to have frank conversations, often behind the scenes.

My speech has now been ruined by my scribbles in trying to answer all the questions that have been asked in this interesting debate. As I have done in the past, I will do my best to respond now, but if I do not, I will ensure that we scroll through Hansard and write to hon. Members individually to give them more details about the important questions that they have asked.

Saudi Arabia and Britain are essential partners and good friends. As a long-time friend of Saudi Arabia, we are able to have honest and meaningful conversations with the Saudi Arabian Government about all issues, including human rights. To be frank, sometimes those conversations are difficult. We remain deeply concerned about Saudi Arabia’s use of the death penalty, restricted access to justice, the women’s rights situation and continued restrictions on freedom of expression, freedom of assembly and religious freedom.

One issue that has not been mentioned is human trafficking, rates of which are extremely high in Saudi Arabia. The kingdom is currently designated by the USA as a country of particular concern. The Saudi Arabian Government do not comply with the minimum standards for eliminating trafficking and are not making significant efforts to do so; they have moved from tier 2 to tier 3 due to their lack of progress on anti-trafficking efforts, particularly their failure to protect victims and prosecute those guilty of involuntary servitude. Will the Minister look at that as well?

I will certainly come to those matters if time permits.

The Government’s view is a matter of public record, and we continue to make our views known in public and in private through multilateral and bilateral channels. We use the UN universal periodic review process and the FCO’s annual human rights and democracy report, which has been mentioned several times, including by the hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn), as well as our own diplomatic engagement with the Saudi Arabian authorities, to raise such concerns at all levels.

We can and do give tough messages, but we must recognise the crucial point that Saudi culture is deeply rooted in widely held conservative social values. We usually judge that our human rights concerns are best raised in private, and we will continue to work with the Saudi Arabian authorities and those in Saudi society advocating human rights reform, but we will continue to stand up for the full range of human rights. That is at the core of the strategy that we are discussing. Many—including, I think, the hon. Member for Glasgow South; I apologise if I misunderstood his tone—have advocated that we should somehow back away and not trade with that country because we should stand up for certain human rights issues. Forgive me if that is incorrect; if so, I will allow him to correct it. If we were to do so, would we give up an opportunity to have influence at the front line in favour of shouting from afar?

The Minister mentioned the UN Human Rights Council’s universal periodic review, which was very strict and raised many complaints about Saudi Arabia. What are the Government doing to monitor progress on that? Is the UN going to send any special rapporteurs to Saudi Arabia, and have the Saudi Arabian Government agreed to that process?

Again, that is a rather large section of my remarks, and I hope to come to it shortly, so I will continue to make progress.

On a more general point, the Minister says that representations are being made behind the scenes and that that is the best way to influence the Saudi regime. Can he point to instances in which he feels that British influence has actually made a difference to the Saudis’ record on human rights? What changes has he seen as a result of our representations?

Again, I need to make some progress, and then I will answer those questions. It is important, if we have these debates, that we can see progress being made. We must be able to see movement forward. I will give some illustrations of that and of instances in which Britain is trying to assist in that progress.

Turning to some of the specific questions that have been asked, the hon. Member for Glasgow South asked about the lowering of the flag on the death of King Abdullah. I should make it clear that it is a long-standing convention to half-mast the Union flag on Government buildings following the death of any foreign monarch. That is the convention; it was not specifically to do with that particular case.

Many hon. Members, including the hon. Member for Glasgow South, spoke at length about the Raif Badawi case. I give the hon. Gentleman the same answer I gave in the main Chamber: the case is in the supreme court and is under review. We therefore cannot interfere with that process, in the same way that the Saudi authorities would not interfere with our process.

The hon. Gentleman raised two specific issues, so I shall just make a couple of points, which might answer the questions that he might be about to ask me yet again.

Raif Badawi has been found guilty of various charges. We strongly condemn the sentence passed, but we must honour the judicial process. Once that process has been completed, we can then take stock and comment on the process itself, but we must be careful not to interfere with it.

I am grateful to the Minister. May I press upon him again, as I tried to do earlier, that it is not a normal justice system? He is asking me, and people across the world, to have confidence in the system that put Mr Badawi where he is now. Is the Minister seriously going to stand up with a straight face and ask us to do that? It is nothing short of a joke. It is the same justice system that bestowed upon Mr Badawi a prison sentence, a fine and 1,000 lashes. Minister, we can do better than this.

The case has returned to the supreme court, which reflects the fact that the leadership has taken stock of international opinion and what people have said. The punishment has stopped and is under review. Until that process moves forward, it would be incorrect to comment on another country’s judicial process. That would be interfering, in the same way that the Saudi authorities would be interfering in our processes if they commented on them.

The hon. Gentleman asked whether the ambassador should request to visit Raif Badawi. We will not advocate that; again, it would inappropriate. Raif Badawi is not a British citizen as such. Once the sentence is upheld, we can obviously look at making contact, but it is not appropriate for our ambassador. That would, again, be seen as interfering with the process. A non-governmental organisation would be in a better position to make that judgment, rather than another country’s ambassador going in to see a citizen to whom the ambassador has no direct connection.

Given what the Minister has said, will he ask the Saudi Government if it would be possible for Amnesty International to visit Mr Badawi in prison?

Absolutely; we can certainly put that forward. I would be delighted to make that request.

Religious tolerance and the situation of Christian and other minority religions have been raised in the debate. The British Government strongly support the right to freedom of religion or belief, which is restricted in Saudi Arabia. As the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) is aware, our views on the subject are well known. We must recognise that the restrictions on freedom of religion or belief in Saudi Arabia reflect widely held conservative social values in Saudi society. The key to increasing freedom is to focus on tolerance. We must work with Saudi Arabia to identify areas in which different faiths can work together, foster trust and build slowly in more challenging areas.

I referred in my speech to the 28 Christians who were arrested. Men, women and children have disappeared into the ether of Saudi Arabian society and into the prison system. I know that the Minister is unable to respond today, and I respect that, but could he respond directly to me, and perhaps to other hon. Members present in the Chamber?

I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman for the work that he has done in this area. He has raised such issues with regard to a number of arenas, not only Saudi Arabia. I do not have the information he seeks at hand, but I will certainly write to him with more details, if I may.

The hon. Member for Islington North raised the important issue of migrant rights. He also touched on Qatar, which I visited recently. I will not digress now, but I will write to him on that point; we have seen progress, in which Britain has been very much involved.

As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, the amnesty for foreign workers to regularise their status in Saudi Arabia came into affect in 2013. It led to many people—1.5 million, I think—leaving the country. The Saudi Government have now agreed updated bilateral arrangements with a number of labour-supplying countries for legalised workers to remain in Saudi Arabia. We also expect to see more accurate labour records, and recent legal reforms will improve the basic rights of migrant employees. Legislation requires workers to be paid at least monthly and have access to their own identity documents, and domestic workers to have at least nine hours’ rest per day and one day off per week. We welcome any improvement in the legal position of migrant workers. Those are steps in the right direction, but clearly there is more work to be done.

The hon. Member for Bristol East raised the question of the imprisoned princesses. I will write to her with more details, but we have received no further reports since King Salman’s accession to the throne in January.

Export licences are another an important subject, given the closeness we have to Saudi Arabia. I make it absolutely clear that we have a robust mechanism in the UK. All exports of arms and controlled military goods are assessed on a case by case basis against the consolidated EU exporting licensing criteria. Concerns about excessive use of force and arbitrary arrest by police and security forces are considered extremely carefully.

In answer to the question about what progress has actually been made, I put my hand up and say that of course serious barriers remain and we want to see a huge amount of progress. The Saudi Arabian Government have confirmed that women will now be able to stand and vote for the first time in municipal elections, which will take place in December 2015. There are already women on the Shura Council, and we understand that 80 women will be standing, across 285 municipalities. There is obviously a long way to go, and we continue to engage with the Saudi authorities, but that is an example of real progress.

Saudi Arabia has also ratified the convention against torture, but, as has been articulated today, allegations of torture continue to be heard, particularly from political activists. We are pressing to work together to implement the requirements of international obligations, particularly human rights conventions. The Saudi Government have recently allowed the quasi-independent body the National Society for Human Rights free access to all prisons and prisoners to assess claims of torture and abuse. That needs to be placed in its context, which includes Raif Badawi.

The Saudi Ministry of Justice continues to implement an ambitious $1.6 billion reform programme. More than $1.2 billion has been spent on new courthouses, technology and judicial training. Special courts in family, commercial and labour law are planned. The appeal court and new supreme court have increased access to justice, and a new arbitration department has been formed to reduce the number of trial cases. Nevertheless, the legal system continues to suffer long delays in bringing defendants to court, and delays due to the lack of codification of case law. We have raised our concerns about that, and there are signs that trials are becoming more transparent, with the media and diplomatic community being given access to some trials. We also expect people to be brought to trial more quickly as the number of judges increases.

We have a strong and important relationship with a key ally in the region. I thank right hon. and hon. Members for this thought-provoking debate. I apologise for the fact that I have not been able to go into all the details in the answers that I have given today, but I will certainly write to colleagues with a more informative response.

I wish to make it clear that human rights are at the heart of UK foreign policy. Asthe Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs has stated:

“It is in the UK’s national interest to help our international partners promote, protect and enjoy human rights; and to find effective ways to tackle violations wherever they occur.”

We have concerns about the human rights situation in Saudi Arabia, which we will continue to raise, but we also recognise that progress has been made. Clearly, more needs to be done. Our friendship with Saudi Arabia affords frank and open dialogue, and we continue to use our close relationship to ensure that the incremental process we are seeing is only the beginning.

I have found this debate both helpful and depressing at the same time.

I will begin by being charitable to the Minister by welcoming his remarks on requesting a visit to the prison by Amnesty International or another NGO, and I look forward to hearing when that request will be formally made to the Saudi Government. I press him to request that visit as a matter of urgency.

I thank other hon. Members for their contributions, in particular the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), the hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn), who speaks with great authority on these matters, and, of course, my hon. Friend the Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald), who I am sure has not been mixed up with me in the Hansard record of this debate. I also thank the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy), who made a most helpful contribution to the debate.

I began by being charitable to the Minister. He was helpful on the prison visit issue. We did not hear whether he believes Mr Badawi should be set free. What we heard was that he does not believe that it would be appropriate to intervene, given that the case is up for review by the Saudi supreme court. I have to say that I cannot find the news anywhere in the public domain that the case is supposed to be up for review by the supreme court. I cannot see any evidence of that, so perhaps he could furnish us with it. However, even if the supreme court is conducting a review, I still have no confidence in it. It is the same supreme court that has already reviewed the case, and it is the same justice system that has already lashed Mr Badawi’s back 50 times.

There were a number of contributions to the debate about human rights abuses more widely. In particular, the hon. Member for Strangford made an excellent speech on the plight of Christians in Saudi Arabia. When Britain wants to be a leader in human rights and freedom across the world, I wonder why we are so subservient to what is probably the biggest human rights abuser in the middle east. Indeed, it seems that not a brass penny is spared when it comes to developing the relationship of defence, security, trade and investment that the Minister mentioned. We also often hear that Saudi Arabia is a key strategic partner in combating terrorism, but when will we look at the victims of Saudi terrorism in Saudi Arabia, who themselves are Saudi Arabian nationals?

I fear that we have made little progress this morning. There is much more that needs to be extracted from the Government on what they will do, not only about the case of Raif Badawi but about much, much more.

I will end by saying that Raif Badawi visited my home city of Glasgow. That makes him a son of Glasgow, and so long as he is held Glasgow will not rest until he is set free.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered human rights in Saudi Arabia.

Sitting suspended.

Légion d’Honneur (UK Normandy Veterans)

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the administration of the award of the Légion d’Honneur to UK Normandy veterans.

It is a great pleasure to bring this subject before the House. It did not come as a complete surprise to me that this admirable scheme, in which the French Government have offered to award surviving veterans—not only from D-day, but from the subsequent campaigns to free France from Nazi occupation—has run into a little administrative difficulty. I hope that the Minister will give us a hopeful sign that the glitches and delays that have temporarily marred a brilliant scheme and a wonderfully generous gesture by the French Government can soon be overcome.

It was some years ago that some Normandy veterans had the opportunity to be awarded the Légion d’Honneur. I have in mind a remarkable gentleman, Bill Price, who will be 101 this Friday. He joined the Territorial Army in 1938 and served throughout world war two. On D-day, he was manning an anti-aircraft gun aboard a ship at Sword beach. He was given his award under a different scheme a few years ago, but it was in 2014, on the 70th anniversary of the D-day landings, that the Government of France made it clear that all surviving veterans of the landings, and of the subsequent campaigns to give France back her freedom, would be honoured in this way.

Does that apply to people in the Office of Strategic Services and to American forces? Does it apply to Canadian forces?

My understanding is that it does indeed apply to nationals of other countries, too. I suspect that there has been a bit of underestimation on the part of the French authorities, bearing in mind that most of the people involved would be in their 90s—the authorities probably underestimated the strength and resilience of the sort of people who stormed ashore on D-day and battled their way through France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany. The fact that we are dealing with some particularly formidable individuals means that there may be rather more nonagenarians left to claim the award than had originally been anticipated.

To its credit, when the Ministry of Defence prepared the application form for these awards, it did so in a straightforward, simple way: it is a single sheet of paper that asks for certain basic details and for a short paragraph justifying the reason for the award. However, some 3,000 applications have been submitted from the United Kingdom alone, and that is where problems have arisen.

The indication that all might not be well came in a letter from the Defence Minister in the upper House, Lord Astor of Hever, who stated in The Times on 19 November 2014:

“The MoD is undertaking administrative work on each application before forwarding it to the French embassy. Extra staff have been allocated in order to process most applications by the end of the year. We would have preferred to have completed this work more quickly but we must respect the terms under which the French confer this award.”

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for bringing this matter to Westminster Hall. As the Member of Parliament for Strangford in Northern Ireland, I am obviously keen for those from Northern Ireland to be recognised. Sometimes those who served are unassuming, although never shy; they may not necessarily wish to register. Have efforts been made to chase up all those people who might otherwise miss out? Many people in the Republic of Ireland, although of a different religious persuasion and tradition, served in uniform in the second world war. What efforts have been made to ensure that they are also included?

The Minister will correct me if I am wrong, but I definitely think that it is up to the individual to make the application, wherever they may now be residing. The Normandy Veterans Association, which was recently formally wound up, had membership lists, where records existed. However, there is no way of getting a comprehensive list because tens of thousands of people would qualify if they were still with us today. What has happened, therefore, is that the authorities—particularly the Ministry of Defence—have been doing a very good job of making the application process perfectly straightforward and the scheme well known, so that people know how to apply. There are no complaints about that.

I thank my very good friend for giving way. There is a problem with the special forces, with which I have quite a lot of dealings. It is that the Jedburgh teams of the Special Operations Executive, and 1 SAS, in particular—I have met a couple of them—are quite under the cover and remain under the cover. I have been encouraging them to come forward and get their names in, but there are still problems and people are still coming out of the woodwork. The Jedburgh teams, the SOE, 1 SAS and other special forces must be encouraged as well.

These people, who went behind the lines in advance of everyone else, are the bravest of the brave. They also take their obligations of confidentiality most seriously.

I am glad that my hon. and gallant Friend agrees. Those special forces members should really put this aside now; they are in their 90s, after all. We can say to them, “It’s okay, fellas! Come forward and get the public acclamation that you deserve.” Of course, I am sure that privately they know how much their brilliant, courageous activities are appreciated.

A spate of reports over the intervening months has suggested that there have been hold-ups and delays. A report in The Times in November 2014 stated:

“The MoD and French Embassy in London said there had been ceremonies held in London for the award. Both said the level of interest had been higher than anticipated.”

The same report quoted Margaret Dickinson, a lady of 92:

“I was all ready to go to London…Then I got a letter saying that the weather was too bad. They said they thought it would be too bad for a lot of people. I was taken aback. The weather was not that bad.”

All I can say is that it is just as well that the people organising that ceremony, who were put off by a minor inconvenience such as a rainy day, were not in charge of organising the Normandy landings. Before anyone intervenes, I should say that I know that the invasion was postponed by 24 hours because of bad weather, but I do not think the problem in London was quite on the same scale—and it did not justify postponing that ceremony.

I know that colleagues wish to contribute, so in the time remaining I shall mention a few individuals, to give the House a sense of the people we are dealing with and why it is so important that the French authorities, having made this wonderful gesture with the support of the British authorities, do not now turn a good news story into a catalogue of disappointment.

From my family’s own circle of friends, I know of Sergeant Peter Carne, Royal Engineers, who landed on Juno beach on 8 June 1944. He was primarily tasked with constructing Bailey bridges to enable vehicles to break out of the beachhead. Peter will be 93 in two days’ time. As it happens, he is in very good health; indeed, he often gives talks about the landings and would relish coming to London or even going to France for an investiture. He sent his form electronically to the MOD on 9 February this year. So far, he has had no receipt and the MOD apparently cannot confirm whether it has passed the form on to the French.

Cannot people such as the brave gentleman to whom the right hon. Gentleman is referring get some kind of reassurance that the system is working? Many people in the situation we are discussing will be reluctant to chase things up because of their character—they might feel that they are being a nuisance. If there was some kind of confirmation for them that things will be progressed, that would be terribly helpful.

The hon. Lady makes an important point. As will emerge from my other examples, people have for the most part had confirmation, but the fact that some have not is a cause for concern. I thank her for that helpful intervention.

Retired Royal Marine Stephen Roche, who is Peter’s son-in-law, has contacted the French embassy several times. He has been promised a reply, but none has ever come. I will give a few more cases from the recently closed New Forest branch No. 70 of the Normandy Veterans Association. I am particularly obliged to Roy Tamplin, who at the grand age of 91 has meticulously prepared many of the personal details that follow. Roy’s own contribution was as a lance corporal in the Royal Air Force. He began as part of the ground crew in the network of New Forest airfields, preparing the aircraft to cover the initial landings. On 17 June, he and his comrades were shipped by landing craft to Gold beach, from where they moved to a forward airfield near Caen to act as a staging post for the Hampshire-based squadrons. Roy survived all that, and campaigns in Belgium and Holland too. His application was made in August 2014 and acknowledged by the MOD on 15 December 2014. It was confirmed that the application had been sent to the French Government, but nothing more has been heard for more than six months.

Another RAF veteran is former Warrant Officer George Heaton, who is also 91. George was an air gunner in a Halifax bomber. D-day began just a little early for him when he was shot down on the night of 3/4 June while attacking targets in the Normandy region. Rescued by the French resistance, George evaded capture and eventually made it home. His application on 1 August 2014 was not confirmed as having been sent to the French until 19 March this year, more than seven months after the application was made.

I turn to the Senior Service. Able Seaman Sidney Slatter, 91, served on the battleship Ramillies on D-day itself, bombarding shore batteries and other targets in the vicinity of Bénouville with 15-inch shells, as well as tank formations later on. Sidney’s form was sent in August last year and was confirmed as processed and sent on by the MOD in December—since then, not a word. Sadly, Sidney’s wife died earlier this week, so she will not be seeing his award.

Veteran Ted Kingswell was an infantryman who landed on 6 June and went on to fight at Nijmegen in Operation Market Garden. Ted is now confined to a care home, but is known to have applied and received an MOD acknowledgement. Two days after Ted fought his way ashore, Rifleman Fred Newman landed on Gold beach. He took part in the long, hard slog through France and into the heart of Germany. Fred is now 93 and has a letter dated 15 December last year confirming that his application had been forwarded to the French. That was seven long months ago.

Then there are the artillerymen, such as Staff Sergeant William Chick, who fought in Normandy and later at Arnhem. Gunner Ivor Hopkins was at Caen, Falaise and later in Holland and Germany. The one I know best is the baby of the team, at only 90 years old. Gunner Tony Mott was recommended for an award at the time for his exploits, but nothing happened. It would be a pity if he were disappointed for a second time in relation to the Légion d’Honneur. Tony served with the 3rd Royal Horse Artillery and was a 19-year-old motorcycle dispatch rider when he came ashore at Arromanches towards the end of June. A few weeks later, he and his sergeant went out under shellfire to repair breaks in the cable to D battery. Sent to battery headquarters with a report, Tony was stopped by a civilian in great distress—many civilians had been wounded by German shellfire. As soon as he had delivered the message, he alerted the local doctor. That enabled help to be got to save the lives of those injured civilians; all the telephone lines had been knocked out, so otherwise they would have received no medical help. Tony’s form was sent on 3 July 2014. It was acknowledged in August or September 2014, but further queries on his place and date of birth were made as recently as March 2015. He is still waiting to know whether his award will be made.

Finally, I have been asked by the office of my hon. Friend the Member for Calder Valley (Craig Whittaker), who cannot be here today, to raise the case of one of his constituents. Mr Geoffrey Noble applied for his medal in June 2014 and has still heard nothing. Despite my hon. Friend’s writing to the Ministry of Defence and the French embassy several times on Mr Noble’s behalf, he is still waiting to hear. My hon. Friend’s office tells me:

“Mr Noble is not a well gentleman, is very frail and suffers, amongst other things, from heart failure. He is anxious as he knows that the medal is not awarded posthumously.”

With that in mind, can the cases involving particularly frail individuals be given priority? If they can, how do we let the Ministry know of the urgency of those cases?

I know that others wish to speak, so I will close with a final comment. Given his exemplary record of service in the armed forces, the Minister is ideally placed, if anyone is, to ensure that the scheme works and that these people—not superheroes, but ordinary people doing extraordinary things in highly dangerous circumstances—reap the belated benefit of a generous gesture by the French authorities. Let us now ensure that heads are knocked together and that the process is sped up in time for these 90-year-olds to receive the award—one that they so richly deserve and for which they have been encouraged to apply.

I congratulate the right hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) on securing the debate and thoroughly endorse all his comments. My attention was brought to this issue by my constituent, Ken Bright, whom I met a few weeks ago with his wife, Bunnie. He is a sprightly 92-year-old and another great D-day veteran. Ken and Bunnie are ever so keen that the medal be passed on to their 14 great-grandchildren. Sadly, many of his colleagues are no longer with us and one of his comrades from Cambridge died just a few weeks ago. The urgency is absolutely clear. I appreciate that hard-pressed civil servants are doing all they can, but I urge the Minister to do everything he can to ensure that the issue is resolved speedily.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) on securing this debate. He is right to bring to the House’s attention the individual cases that he mentioned. If I may do something similar, I will mention a constituent of mine by the name of Ronald Perry. He lives in Wilmington. His son contacted me about his application, which was submitted some four months ago. I had the honour of meeting Mr Perry and discussing some of his activities in Normandy during the second world war. He was a member of the 7th Battalion the Parachute Regiment. He landed with 649 of his colleagues on D-day and took part in the fighting there over the subsequent months. Remarkably, of the 650 men who landed as part of that regiment, only 96 came back without being injured, being captured or losing their life. That says something about the huge sacrifice that took place on the beaches of Normandy, and in the subsequent battles, and about the debt we owe those people.

I briefly pay tribute to the French Government for bestowing these honours on our war heroes. I ask the Minister to look at Ronald Perry’s case to see whether his application can be expedited so that he can get the recognition that he so thoroughly deserves.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Chope. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) on securing this debate and, of course, on his election as Chairman of the Select Committee on Defence. As we have heard this morning, he and other hon. Members are rightly passionate about this subject, as indeed are veterans and their families. Those who fought so valiantly to help free France from the grip of fascist tyranny, those who put their life on the line, deserve to be honoured, and this morning I hope to be able to offer them the reassurance that they seek.

It is fair to start by acknowledging President Hollande’s decision last year, 70 years on from the great D-day battles on the beaches of Normandy, to award the Légion d’Honneur to all living veterans of the campaign to liberate France, which began on 6 June 1944. The Légion d’Honneur is the highest state honour that France can bestow, and it remains an extremely generous gesture. Since then, as we have heard, there has been a series of regrettable delays. My intention this morning is not to apportion blame, but simply to try to ensure that we move forward positively and constructively so that these awards can be presented as soon as possible. There are two principal reasons for the delays, and it is right that I should explain them because veterans will want to know why.

The first reason is unexpected demand. Based on the numbers who expressed an interest in attending the anniversary events in Normandy, it was estimated that only a few hundred people would apply. A single MOD official was therefore assigned to deal with the applications. In the event, as we have heard, more than 3,000 applications were received, and more are coming in all the time. I am truly delighted that such large numbers of UK D-day veterans have come forward to accept this prestigious honour, yet the response was far greater than anyone on either side of the channel predicted. In the autumn of 2014, we increased the number of people working on the scheme, which meant that, by the end of 2014, more than 2,500 applications had been processed and sent to the French authorities for a final decision on the award, but those UK applications alone accounted for a larger total than the French authorities would expect to deal with for all categories of the Légion in any single year under normal circumstances. We must also keep in mind that those are just the UK applications. To answer the question of my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) directly, the United States, Canada and other allied nations have also been applying. It is easy to see how such an overwhelming volume of work seriously stretched the resources of the French authorities.

The second reason for the delays is sheer complexity. After all, not everyone who served in world war two is entitled to a Légion d’Honneur. The award is not comparable to a campaign medal, which can be handed out relatively quickly; it is an honour, and our nearest comparison is the OBE. There is a defined legal process to be followed, and each individual case must be cleared in accordance with the appropriate procedures laid down in French law.

My intervention will be very short. Does Her Majesty the Queen recognise that the Légion d’Honneur is one of the medals that can follow on from presumably British campaign medals and be worn on the chest with pride?

Absolutely, and of course the regulations for wearing the Légion d’Honneur without Her Majesty’s permission apply only to serving soldiers, so no permission will be required for these veterans.

Once received, the French rightly and legally have a duty to ensure that each nomination receives an appropriate level of scrutiny. I am most grateful to the French authorities for the sensitive way in which they have ensured that the most pressing cases are handled first, such as those of veterans who are about to become centenarians or who are seriously ill—more of that in a moment. None the less, the process takes time. There is an additional complicating factor because, sadly, some veterans passed away after applying. In that regard, the French approach to honours parallels that of the UK. Awards are not made posthumously, hence the urgency, unless the recipient dies between the approval of their individual award and the date of its presentation.

Delays might be understandable for the reasons I have outlined, but I make it clear that that does not make them acceptable, especially not to the families and veterans concerned. One can entirely understand the hurt and upset caused to those still awaiting an outcome, but we are determined to remedy the situation. Our defence and diplomatic staff in London and Paris, alongside their French counterparts, have improved the assurance process for checking bona fides, thereby speeding up applications. To assist the Légion authorities further, we are resubmitting all cases in which awards have not already been made at an agreed rate of 100 a week to avoid over-taxing the system. We hope that those cases will be approved within about three weeks. We fully expect that process to result in a regular flow of awards. Although it will take some time to clear the backlog, we hope to reassure all applicants that the majority of veterans should receive honours this year.

Having spoken to veterans and read the large volume of correspondence received by my Department on this issue, I am under no illusion about the stress and frustration caused by the delays, but we are trying to put right what was wrong.

Will the Department consider advising veterans of when their case will be resubmitted in order to assure them that there will be progress on this important honour?

We have already received many submissions, and we are now processing 100 applications a week. We have flexibility within the system to fast-track applications where we feel that there is a particular need. Of course, the whole cohort of veterans who are receiving this award are, by definition, elderly and potentially infirm, but we accept that some applications are more urgent than others. I encourage anyone—either veterans themselves or hon. Members—who feels that a particular case should be fast-tracked to contact the MOD. I will read out the email address, which I am sure will magically appear in Hansard: Fear not, that address will be in Hansard. If people contact us directly to suggest an application that needs to be fast-tracked, I will ensure that the Department does just that, because I recognise that time is of the essence.

As my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East kindly highlighted, I have a particular interest in this subject, and I am determined to assure hon. Members that I will keep a very close watch on the process and do all I can to ensure a speedy resolution by working closely with our French colleagues. We are determined that those who have given their all for their country receive the honour that they are rightfully due.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.

Severn Bridges (Tolls)

[Mr James Gray in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered tolls on the Severn bridges.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I am grateful for the opportunity to debate probably the No. 1 issue on which constituents approach me. Obviously I am not alone in that, as the monster turnout here on the afternoon of the last day before summer recess shows. We have Members from Llanelli all the way across the M4 corridor to Monmouth, from Northern Ireland, and even the hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Drew Hendry). That shows how keenly the issue is felt across south Wales and in other places. I hope that other Members’ contributions will only strengthen the case for lowering the Severn tolls when the Severn river crossings concession comes to an end.

I should be clear from the outset that we pay the absolute highest tolls in the UK on the Severn bridges. With the concession coming to an end in a few years’ time, there is real strength of feeling about the need to reduce the charge to a maintenance-only toll, as recommended by the Welsh Affairs Committee’s excellent reports in the previous Parliament. There was cross-party agreement on the Committee that we could get down to a maintenance-only toll of around £1.50. I commend the Committee’s work over the years under the chairmanship of the hon. Member for Monmouth (David T. C. Davies)—we have looked at the issue in much detail and done a lot of work on it.

There is now a real need for clarity from the Government on the profits, operating costs and so on, and on where we are going in future. We urgently require some kind of strategy for the bridges, because we have only just over two years to go until they return to public ownership. We need to know the Government’s intentions for the future of the bridges. We must have clarity about what discussions the Government are having and what the direction of travel is. I hope that this debate will help us to flesh out those issues a little.

The Government have done incredibly well out of the bridges over the years. I will say a bit more about that later, but people really feel that they have been paying through the nose over the past few years. We need to redress the balance for the future. I know the Minister will argue that the Government are doing something to reduce the tolls—they announced in the comprehensive spending review that they were going to take the VAT off the tolls—but they are doing the absolute minimum. They know that they will have to take VAT off the tolls when the bridges come into public ownership; any Government would have had to do that. They are taking some measures on reducing the costs for cars and vans, but any Government would have had to do that as well. I want to see them go much further.

Along with other Members present, I have spoken in many debates on this issue over the 10 years I have been in the House. I think there have been eight Secretaries of State for Transport over that time, and numerous Transport Ministers. At this point, the Government cannot ignore the need to offer some light at the end of the tunnel for my constituents. Part of the reason why I have called for this debate early in the new Parliament is that, with the Government’s plans for English votes for English laws, who knows where Welsh MPs might be and what say we might have in future negotiations?

Three of the four legs of the Severn bridges are in England, with the other falling in my constituency, Newport East. Control of the Severn bridges and tolling rests falls completely within the remit of the Department for Transport. Aside from the assurances given in last week’s debate on English votes for English laws, I hope that the Government can reassure us today that Welsh MPs will have an equal voice on Severn bridge tolls, not least because the tolls are paid going into Wales and the impact is felt most keenly by Welsh commuters and businesses.

As I said, we have the highest tolls in the UK on the Severn bridges—[Interruption.] I think the hon. Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart) is demolishing the Chamber. Since the second bridge opened in 1996, the tolls have increased 19 times because of the inflexibility of the concession, which I will come to later. We are now paying £6.50 for a car, £13.10 for a van and £19.60 for coaches and lorries. By comparison, the undiscounted price of a single journey for a car at the Dartford crossing is £2.50, and for the Mersey tunnels it is £1.70. The Humber bridge currently has undiscounted tolls of £1.50 for cars, £4 for medium-sized vehicles and £12 for heavy goods vehicles.

Campaign groups, motorists and businesses have called for the Government to step in and help, but their calls have fallen on deaf ears. There is, however, an example of where the Government have listened to local concerns in the past and stepped in to help: the Humber bridge. In 2011, the Government reduced the debt on the bridge by £150 million, which halved the toll for cars to £1.50. On the Government’s own estimates, the accumulated deficit on the Severn bridges will be £88 million in 2018. Why will the Government not step in for a smaller amount?

I wholeheartedly support the case that my hon. Friend is making, as well as the recommendations made by the Welsh Affairs Committee, on which I also sat.

It is not only the disparity in the tolls that is so shocking; there is also the disparity in technologies. We have not seen the introduction of free-flow technology or contactless payment. Those of us who use the tolls regularly know, as do businesses, that a wait in the queue often lasts ages. It is only recently that credit card payments were introduced. Does my hon. Friend agree that the disparities in technologies are also causing problems for businesses and customers in south Wales?

I agree with my hon. Friend wholeheartedly. As I remember, it took a joke on “Gavin & Stacey” and the approach of the Ryder cup for things to get to where they are now. It was like pulling teeth trying to get the decision taken to accept card payments. I will come back to that point, but I agree that we need to consider free-flow technology, which would help the congestion in the run-up to the plazas.

Over the years, various Ministers have argued in their responses to debates like this that the impact of the tolls on the Welsh economy is not clear, but we know from the Welsh Government’s 2011 report that the total cost to businesses and consumers, once VAT is taken into account, is in excess of £80 million a year. Furthermore, they came to the tentative conclusion that removing the tolls could boost the Welsh economy to the tune of around £107 million.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this debate, and on talking about the Welsh economy as a whole. When the Federation of Small Businesses undertook a significant inquiry, “The Severn Bridge: Taking its toll on the Economy?”, it did not restrict its work to the economy in south Wales, but looked further west to Swansea, Carmarthenshire, Pembrokeshire and parts of my constituency, Ceredigion. Will the hon. Lady emphasise the effect of the tolls on the whole economy?

The hon. Gentleman is quite right. Although the effects are probably felt most keenly in my constituency and that of the hon. Member for Monmouth, the knock-on effect along the M4 corridor and beyond, and up towards places such as Ceredigion, is immense, particularly for businesses using that route.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. I agree with her point about the effect on businesses, which was also well made by the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr Williams), but there is also an effect on commuters. One issue faced by people in south-east Wales, including in my constituency, is that if they need to commute to work in Bristol, the tolls are effectively a weekly tax that must be taken into account. That can often act as a disincentive to people taking such jobs.

My hon. Friend is quite right. People in many communities in my constituency, particularly those with low and medium incomes, find it difficult to absorb that cost. Access to jobs in Bristol for which people might like to apply is limited by their having to pay what amounts to an extra tax.

The Welsh Government’s report is clear, and, having spoken to small and larger businesses locally, so am I: the tolls have a big impact.

In Northern Ireland, we do not have any toll roads or bridges—I thank the Lord for that—but that is because of their potential impact. Has the hon. Lady considered the effect of reducing the tolls on tourism, which is an important issue in Northern Ireland, and obviously for the hon. Lady as well?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. Various sectors, particularly transport but also tourism, are impacted by the tolls. Evidence from tourism businesses in the west suggests that the tolls make it more difficult to attract visitors from the south-west of England, for example. The charge also acts as a psychological barrier, as people have to pay to enter Wales.

Support for my hon. Friend’s argument is strong and broad and comes not only from the Welsh Government, small and medium-sized businesses and the CBI in Wales, but from Welsh local government. A letter sent to the Prime Minister by the leader of Neath Port Talbot County Borough Council only a few months ago also made the case strongly, which is indicative of the wider view of Welsh local government.

I agree wholeheartedly. There is probably now a case for a broader campaign to make such points, encompassing local government, business, chambers of commerce and so on.

Owens logistics, which is based in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith) but has a main depot in Newport, is a haulage company that has long campaigned for a reduction in the tolls, on which it spends half a million pounds a year. That money just comes off the bottom line. It is an extra cost that the business has to pay that it cannot pass on to its customers. Owens has been quite open with me that it is thinking long and hard about its business decisions, because if it transferred parts of its operation across the bridge, it would avoid the tolls. That is the sort of decision that businesses in our area are making, which is precisely why we need clarity from the Government about further toll reductions.

The South Wales chamber of commerce told me about the impact that the tolls have on the tourism sector and the logistics industry. As I said, if logistics companies choose to pass the cost on to the customer, it adds to the cost of goods produced in Wales, making them less competitive, or increases the costs for businesses buying goods from England. The chamber of commerce also said that its colleagues in Business West say that it is picking up the fact that businesses are choosing to locate on the English side of the bridge due to the tolls.

Small businesses are also affected. I received an email this morning from a business that rents out marquees and employs 38 people. The cost of the tolls to the business over the summer is an extra £1,000, making it difficult for it to compete with companies on the English side of the bridges.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. Does she agree that the policy for the bridges and their tolls is a classic example of a false economy? The tolls may well create revenue, but a huge amount of additional economic activity is being lost. This disincentive to cross-border trade and activity deprives the Exchequer of much-needed tax revenues through corporation tax, business rates and additional economic activity. If the tolls were presented as a classic example of a false economy, we may get some more traction with the Government.

I thank my hon. Friend for his well-made point. The Welsh Government certainly agree that lowering the tolls would help to stimulate the Welsh economy.

Other hon. Members mentioned commuters earlier. In my constituency, many people in Magor, Rogiet, Caldicot, Undy and so on commute over to Bristol for work every day. It is a strong commuter area and the tolls’ effect is keenly felt, particularly by those who are looking for work in Bristol but cannot absorb the toll cost. Over the years, I have met people facing a bill as part of the Child Support Agency process, for example, who have said to me, “I work for this distribution company in Bristol, but once I have absorbed the bridge costs, I am on fairly low pay. How am I going to survive?” People’s employment opportunities are being limited. The only concession available on the Severn bridges is the TAG system, which allows four free journeys out of 22 in a month. Taking bank holidays and annual leave into account, that is not much of a bargain. We could do a lot more on that.

Some 12,500 people commute to England from Newport and Monmouthshire. Many of them use the bridges, which restricts their access to jobs and acts as an extra tax. My plea to the Minister today is for a consultation. We are just two years away from decisions being made, so I ask the Department for Transport to give bridge users, businesses and hon. Members a say in how we move forward and help our constituents by getting the tolls down. There is not long to go, so it is high time that we had that conversation. Successive UK Governments have failed—the Welsh Government have done the same—to undertake studies into the bridges’ economic impacts. It is time that we asked the Department for Transport to collect further evidence so that everyone can have an input.

Moving on to the thorny issue of bridge finances, having lived with the Severn bridges in the capacity of an MP for many years I can say that the finances are as clear as mud. Getting clarity is terribly difficult, so I ask the Minister for some figures today so that we can have an informed debate going forward. The concession was established by the Severn Bridges Act 1992, which, in retrospect, was clearly far too restrictive. It allowed the company to whack up the tolls every year, with no one being able to have a say and the Government arguing that they have little flexibility to step in and reduce tolls without incurring taxpayer liability. However, as I said earlier, they did step in in the case of the Humber tolls.

As we know from previous Welsh Affairs Committee inquiries, the company has done very well over the years. In oral evidence given to the Committee in 2013, we heard that the costs of the bridges for Severn River Crossing plc were some £50 million, including depreciation at £38 million and operational costs of £13 million. That £50 million compares with an annual turnover of £81 million. Will the Minister confirm the latest position and update those figures? Having a clear idea of the company’s operational costs and profits would be helpful.

The Government also do pretty well out of the bridges. They receive significant tax receipts from VAT and from the removal of the industrial buildings allowance, which was a tax relief that Severn River Crossing plc used to benefit from. From the answer to a recent parliamentary question, we found out that Severn River Crossing plc paid £154.2 million in VAT to Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs between 2003 and 2014. However, we have been unable to get a specific figure from the Government on how much they have benefited from the removal of the IBA. Will the Minister commit today to providing that figure? Will the Government be straight about how much they have benefited?

I also hope that the Government will remedy as early as possible the situation whereby they and the company are protected from financial pain but my constituents and other users of the crossings are not. Users always end up paying, while the company is always protected. When the industrial building allowance was withdrawn, the company was allowed to extend its tolling mandate to compensate for that. The same was true of the VAT increase implemented by the coalition Government. In the spirit of fairness, I wonder whether the Government could reduce the tolling mandate given that the Chancellor has announced further reductions in corporation tax, which will further benefit Severn River Crossing plc. The first corporation tax cut will be in 2017-18, before public ownership. How will we ensure that taxpayers do not lose out when the company gets yet another tax reduction?

The main point on which my constituents would like an answer is about VAT. Given that the Government have benefited from the tax income—VAT of £154 million—why are they still arguing for tolling to continue after 2018 at a level high enough to recoup an £88 million debt? Clearly, the Government have done extremely well out of the bridges, so is it not time to pay people back a little by reducing the toll?

I want to allow others to speak, although hon. Members have already raised a lot of issues to do with the bridges. It would be incredibly helpful to know when the concession will end, because that has been a moveable feast—it was 2016, then 2017 and is now 2018. Will the Minister update us on when the Government expect the concession to end and the bridges to come back into public ownership, and on the maintenance of the bridges? A previous Minister said in reply to a similar debate to this that he would keep an eye on what he was inheriting. Will the Minister tell us a little more about what the Government expect to inherit when the bridges come back into public ownership?

May we have a discussion about free-flow technology? In various oral evidence sessions of the Welsh Affairs Committee, the company used to argue that the technology to differentiate between cars and vans was not available. Given that the Government are moving to reduce the cost for vans, surely implementing such technology will be easier. I want a maintenance-only toll, but I also want the Government to add into the mix a re-examination of what concessions might be given locally.

Will my hon. Friend express a view on the suggestion that control of the bridges should pass to the Welsh Government in 2018?

My honest answer is that I do not care who runs the Severn bridges, as long as the tolls come down. If the tolls were reduced to a maintenance-only rate, I would not care who was running them.

Among the concessions suggested by business are those for off-peak travel, or free travel for hauliers during off-peak times.

Finally, a more than strong suspicion locally among constituents and businesses, and certainly among hon. Members, is that the Government treat the Severn bridges as a bit of a cash cow. I do not want to see that in two or more years’ time, when the bridges return to public control. Will the Minister promise to engage with hon. Members, businesses, commuters and our constituents, to find practical solutions to all the problems and lower the cost considerably for my constituents?

I congratulate the hon. Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden) on securing the debate. I associate myself with every single comment that she and others made, with the possible exception of the one about whether we should hand control of the bridges over to the Welsh Assembly—I will keep out of that one for now. The Government should realise that Members of all parties from constituencies throughout south Wales agree on this and that we do not consider the existing situation to be fair. We are looking for more than has so far been on offer.

In fairness, the second Severn crossing has been a huge boost to the local economy. The tolling regime was well publicised, so the tolls going up by slightly more than inflation each year should not have come as a surprise to anyone, including the press, because it was all agreed at the time. However, it was also agreed that, once the original cost of building the Severn second crossing and the debt taken on from the first crossing were paid off, the bridges would revert to public ownership. The implication was that the tolls would then end. Now, however, that is not going to happen.

The hon. Lady talked about the impact on the economy. Welsh Assembly Government reports show that the tolls cost the economy of south Wales £107 million a year in lost business, which I can well believe, and there are other impacts. Companies that rely on transport to and from Wales will be put off investing in Wales—I am not in the least bit surprised to hear that anecdote from one of the haulage companies. There is an impact on tourism, which is vital to my constituency, and on people who are on low wages. They have to pay £6.50 a day simply to travel to and from their place of work—although they will all, I hope, receive a pay boost as a result of the Budget. The tolls are a big dent in people’s wage packets.

For the record, I welcome the Government’s announcement that the bridges will come back into public ownership. I do not often call for the nationalisation of industry, but in this case, given that it will lead to a big cut in tolls for constituents, I am all for it—I am a pragmatic man. The Government could do better, however, and I want to go back to the financial issues that the hon. Member for Newport East raised.

The Government say that they received an unexpected cost of £88 million for maintenance of the first crossing, and that is the case. In response, I suggest that all around the country, pieces of infrastructure have had unexpected amounts of money spent on them. I had a quick look on my phone now, and some kind of garden bridge in London will get a £30 million boost from the Treasury as the result of a miscalculation of how much it would cost and how much could be raised from the private sector. That is only one example. I am sure that, if I had the time, I could find dozens from all over the country. For the Treasury, £88 million is not a vast sum of money, but it is a vast sum for the users of the Severn bridges if they are expected to pay it back.

Be that as it may, I want to take the argument a bit further. As the hon. Lady pointed out, when the bridge was built it was assumed that VAT would not be payable. There was then some sort of court case, or the European Parliament was involved, and it was decided that, because the bridges were run by a privately operated company, VAT was payable. As a result, the Government began to charge VAT and received a windfall. We do not have the exact figure, but I have heard various ones, including £120 million, as well as higher figures. In fairness to all users of the bridge, the Minister should first find out exactly how much extra money the Treasury has received as a result of the European decision asking the Government to levy VAT. As the hon. Lady pointed out, it is perfectly reasonable to ask for that information.

With the industrial buildings allowance, again various figures have been floated. I have seen £20 million and £24 million, so presumably the exact figure is of that order. If we take the lower two estimates—only £120 million from VAT and £20 million from industrial buildings—that is still £140 million, which is a lot more than the £88 million that the Government are asking to have back. It is no good the Government’s saying, “Oh well, these things are not hypothecated and it could have gone somewhere else”, because we know all that. The reality is that the Treasury has received a windfall way in excess of the £88 million being asked of the users of the Severn bridge. If my figures are incorrect, I am happy to stand corrected, but I think that we are roughly right.

Furthermore, as the hon. Member for Newport East correctly said, the revenue drawn in is way in excess of the maintenance costs. I know that those costs are significant, because we visited the bridge ourselves. It is an incredible structure. I had not realised that it is constantly moving and that a whole team of people keep the thing safely upright. The managing director told me that it cost more to keep the bridge upright and to maintain it than it does to maintain a large chunk of the motorway network of south-west England—fascinating stuff. Again, total revenue brought in by the tolls is way in excess of the maintenance costs, and we calculated that a toll of about one third of the existing level would be more than enough to pay them. Again, if we as a Committee are incorrect in that calculation, please tell us that we are wrong. I have been using that figure for the past two to three years, and nobody has yet gainsaid it, so I assume that it is roughly right. If that is the case, although we welcome the fact that the Government will bring the bridge back into public ownership and remove the VAT, I speak for many from all parties when I say that that is simply not enough and we would like a much more generous offer from the Government. Wales, the people of south Wales and the users of the bridge in England and Wales have been treated unfairly, all the more so if one compares the situation of the Severn bridge with what is happening to bridges across the rest of the United Kingdom.

With all due respect to the Minister, the questions asked by the hon. Member for Newport East about the revenue that is coming in, the maintenance costs of the bridge, the amount of VAT that the Government received unexpectedly and the level of industrial buildings allowance are perfectly reasonable. If we do not get answers to them, it is unlikely that anyone will accept as fair any future settlement for the Severn bridge.

I add my congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden) on raising such an important subject in a timely manner. The beginning of a new Government and Parliament is the right time to look at what we can expect in the next couple of years.

Owens Transport is based in my constituency, but it has depots in Newport East and Aberavon, as well as in other parts of the country. It competes not only with companies that go to and from Wales, but with England-based companies that go to other parts of England or to the continent, and with companies that come over from the continent and take business in the UK. We are talking about an international, cut-throat business. If companies have to pay an additional cost to come back to their home base in Wales, they are at a distinct disadvantage, and £500,000 a year is no small amount of money.

Following the concession that has been given to vans, companies such as Owens Transport are disappointed that absolutely nothing has been done for hauliers. Several suggestions have been made over the years, such as off-peak concessions, but nothing has been done to help hauliers. The company is anxious to have a timetable for what will happen when the concession finally ends. If the Minister cannot give us this information today, we would like a timescale for when he will be able to tell us. When the concession ends, will he confirm that VAT will definitely come off? Can he confirm exactly what moneys are still “owed” to the Treasury? As the hon. Member for Monmouth (David T. C. Davies) succinctly said, it is questionable whether anything is owing when the scheme has been a cash cow for the Treasury in past years. How do the Government intend to recoup the moneys? In other words, will there be a timescale during which the money would be paid back? We have heard various suggestions for how that might work, involving dates from 2017 to 2023. When will we be able to move to a maintenance-only tariff? We would like some form of consultation to take place. Now would be a good time for the Minister to try to set out a full timescale for exactly what will happen and when.

I could not agree with my hon. Friend more about the importance of a timescale. Business requires investment certainty and clear timetables. That is true not only for existing businesses but for businesses that we are trying to attract to Wales. Given the news that we have heard during the past week about possible delays in the electrification of the south Wales main line, is it not crucial for the Government to set out a clear timetable for the road network and for electrification, so that businesses have the certainty they need to invest and grow?

My hon. Friend makes a good point, which I would have made myself, about certainty for businesses, particularly those that have to plan a long way ahead. Many businesses that invest in south Wales involve the transport of heavy materials, so they use haulage companies.

We need as much detail as possible. If the Minister cannot give us that today, I would appreciate it if he told us when he can give us a timetable for all the different parts of the process: the consultation, the ending of the concession, what will happen then, how long it will happen for and what he intends to do about moving to a tariff that reflects only maintenance charges.

We are so determined to move to a maintenance-only charge because it already seems unfair to pay even for the maintenance of the crossings when we do not have a pay-as-you-go system for any other roads, with one or two small exceptions in the UK. To make one road into a pay-as-you-go system when none of the others is seems totally unfair. It would be absolutely monstrous for it to become a cash cow, because that would be a tax raised on one small group of people, which would be totally out of kilter with any other form of taxation.

I would be interested if the Minister gave any indication of whether the Government intend to keep the matter as a UK Government responsibility, or whether he intends to open the discussion about whether it might be devolved. We really want to open a dialogue with the Minister and get as many answers as possible. We want a very clear timetable to be set out so that we all know where we are, and so that our businesses and industry know where they are and can make the necessary investment decisions. That investment would come to Wales much more readily than it will if businesses see no end to the “continual taxation” on the bridges.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I congratulate the hon. Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden) on securing the debate and on her opening remarks. We in Plaid Cymru have long recognised the importance of the Severn crossings to the Welsh economy, particularly to the public and businesses in the south of our country. The crossings affect the bulk of vehicular movements into Wales, and they are located on a key trans-European route. We believe that future decisions on tolls should not be made by the UK Government, and that it is essential that the tolls be put in Welsh hands following the return of the bridges to public ownership.

As always—as we have just witnessed with the delaying of the electrification of the Great Western line all the way to Swansea—the UK Government’s transport plans for Wales are cloaked in ambiguity. Rather than being straight with the people of Wales about what happens after the end of the concessionary period in 2018, the UK Government have said that they will continue to retrieve costs for an indefinite period.

Does the hon. Gentleman not accept that the old Severn bridge is entirely on English soil, and that quite a lot of businesses on the English side of the border have an economic interest in the matter? To commence his speech by simply saying that control should be devolved to Cardiff is to disregard completely those who have an equally strong economic argument on the other side.

I am grateful for that intervention from my constituency neighbour, and I will deal with that subject later. It is the policy of the hon. Gentleman’s party in the National Assembly for the Welsh Government to receive ownership of the bridges after the end of the concessionary period. Indeed, his colleague, the hon. Member for Gower (Byron Davies) made that case in 2013 when he was transport spokesperson for the Conservative party in the National Assembly.

The UK Government are entitled to continue to recoup costs, as I understand it, until 2027, which means that Welsh motorists may continue to be a cash cow for the UK Treasury for nine further years after the end of the concessionary period. As has been said many times during the debate, the people of Wales deserve some straight answers for a change from the Minister about the UK Government’s intentions in relation to the bridges.

Research from the Welsh Government set out that the primary impact of the tolls is on the economy of Wales, rather than on any other part of the UK. The research, entitled, “The Impact of the Severn Tolls on the Welsh Economy”, states that the Severn tolls cost the Welsh economy more than £100 million a year. We believe, therefore, that the Government of Wales should have responsibility for future decisions on tolling. The bridges are the gateway to the Welsh economy, and just as Wales is responsible for roads and economic development, so we should be in control of the bridges when they come into public ownership in 2018. The UK Government must move on this issue and commit to devolving it.

A Plaid Cymru-led Government, post 2016, would reduce the tolls to levels that cover maintenance costs. There are other overheads to consider, such as staffing costs, traffic information provision and other externalities. The Welsh Affairs Committee estimated, based on maintenance costs, that tolls could comfortably be reduced to around £2 from 2013. That estimate included the peaks and troughs of maintenance costs, and is not simply based on a flat rate per year. The figure would have to be updated and reviewed in future, but it gives motorists and businesses a close estimate to consider for the time being. Using that estimate, figures from Arup show that a motorist paying the toll once a week could save around £218 a year. It goes without saying that online and smart payments are essential for the future. If they can be introduced for tolling in a city such as London, there is no reason why they cannot be introduced for a single route such as the M4.

The option of abolishing the toll should be kept under review. I recognise that it could help stimulate the economy and tourism. We want it to be a policy choice that can be made in Wales, depending on the financial situation. We need to look at its costs, affordability, and impact on society and the economy. We would also have to bear in mind that abolition will have a more significant effect, in increasing traffic, than reducing the tolls. There would be an effect on the M4 around Newport to deal with; Plaid Cymru has already recognised that that would cost money. There would also be an effect on the amount of haulage using the crossing instead of rail.

People travelling home to see their families, as well as tourists heading to Wales this summer, will be charged £6.50. Smaller businesses with vans will be charged over £13 and businesses with lorries just under £20 a go. The hon. Member for Newport East gave the example of the huge impact the toll has on the business of the haulage firm Owens, a firm that is well known in south Wales. The toll goes against everything the Welsh Government and the UK Government should be doing to improve the Welsh economy.

Representative bodies such as the Federation of Small Businesses are “vehemently opposed”—that is what the FSB said—to any bridge tolls being used to fund Labour’s new M4 plan. As for relieving the part of the M4 that is part of the road infrastructure served by the bridge, Plaid Cymru prefers the blue route option to the expensive black route option favoured by both the Welsh Government and the UK Government. The debacle about that earlier this month shows that the Labour Government in Cardiff may yet be forced to row back on their decision and implement Plaid Cymru’s much more viable plan, which would allow future investment throughout Wales rather than pumping all the money into one project in the south-east corner of the country. With that in mind, I make a plea for the Llandeilo and Ammanford bypass in my constituency, which has been waiting many years for funding to progress.

The hon. Member for Newport East has done the people of Wales a great service in securing this debate. However, I fear that her colleagues in Cardiff Bay have no share in her efforts. During the previous Parliament, Plaid Cymru submitted a freedom of information request to the Department for Transport. Between May 2011 and the end of 2013, the Labour Welsh Government failed to raise the issue of the Severn bridge tolls with the Westminster Government on any occasion—a dereliction of duty if ever there was one. There is precious little use in complaining about the tolls if the Labour Welsh Government are not prepared even to bother making representations.

Labour’s failure in that regard is symptomatic of the wider malaise in Cardiff Bay. The Government there are tired, sclerotic and devoid of vision and ambition when compared with a Plaid Cymru team full of dynamism, ambition and ideas to develop the economy and benefit the people of Wales.

Plaid Cymru recognises that the Severn tolls have been a burden on motorists, businesses and the public. We want to see them taken into Welsh hands and reduced, for the benefit of the economy.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden) on securing the debate. In the hours she has spent on this issue I am sure she could have walked to the Severn bridge and back. I had to check for a flying pig when the hon. Member for Monmouth (David T. C. Davies) was speaking; I did not think I would ever hear him advocate nationalisation with a straight face and without coming out in a rash and a cold sweat. I also congratulate the hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr (Jonathan Edwards) on a speech that, once again, raised the ghost of Rebecca—he will know what I mean.

When the Severn bridge was debated in Parliament back in November 1990, it was spoken of as a link between Wales and the south-west of England, laying the foundations for greater growth for both, helping develop both economies to the benefit of all and providing the infrastructure Wales needed for internal and international trade. Today, sadly, the Severn bridge stands as a barrier to business. The tolls on tourists, on trucks transporting goods and on people travelling for work and for leisure are holding Wales back in an ever-increasingly competitive economy.

The Severn bridge is costing Wales a fortune. Tolls do not make sense for the people who have to pay to see relatives and friends or for the companies who lose hundreds of thousands of pounds each year. Put simply, they do not make sense for Wales. One study put the potential growth of the Welsh economy if tolls were abolished at £107 million a year. To put that in context, the bridge costs £15 million a year to run and raises £87 million a year in revenue.

The tolls are not just holding back potential growth; they are actively encouraging companies to base themselves in the Bristol area and the rest of the south-west rather than coming to Wales, where they are needed. That costs us in employment, taxes and, above all, prosperity. Per mile, the Severn bridge remains the most expensive toll road in the world to travel on, a record no one should be proud of. It is significantly more expensive than the Humber bridge and the M6 toll; it is even significantly more expensive than the next closest international example, the Akashi Kaikyo bridge in Japan—I should get a badge for pronouncing that.

The argument against the tolls is clear. I am pleased to note that, thanks to the work of my hon. Friend the Member for Newport East and others, the Chancellor has to some extent bowed to the pressure, as the category 2 tolls were ended in the March Budget. That was the beginning of the process, but it has been a slow one, and so more must now happen. The Government must once again accept what is needed to boost growth across Wales. Will the Minister say today that VAT will be removed from all tolls on the Severn bridge once it enters public ownership? That call comes not just from me, but from both sides of the House—the hon. Member for Monmouth called for it in his speech. It is eminently sensible, and I hope the Government listen to the Chair of the Welsh Affairs Committee. Conservative Members of the Welsh Assembly have also joined their voices to calls for a cut in the toll.

Beyond the political world, business leaders are also crying out for the change. In my constituency and in those of other hon. Members right across Wales, it is what business wants. I struggle to see why the Government will not commit to the change once the bridge enters public ownership. It is what businesses in Wales need.

Will the hon. Gentleman take the opportunity to reiterate the importance of the tourism sector? There has traditionally been a flow of people between the south-west of England and all of Wales—not just the south, but mid and north Wales. A speedy removal of VAT or, better still, scrapping the tolls would give a direct and immediate boost to the tourist sector in Wales.

I agree entirely with the hon. Gentleman. He does great work as chair of the all-party group on the tourism and hospitality industry in Wales. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) mentioned that in Northern Ireland there are no tolls. The Irish have been very good at selling their culture, and telling people to come to Ireland to see the fantastic beaches. How can we do that in Wales if we have a tax on friends and relatives coming to see how great Wales is? When we think of business, we tend to think of heavy industry and rarely think of tourism. I represent a valleys constituency and have always believed that we do not talk up enough the beautiful valleys in Wales. The hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr also represents a beautiful part of the country. How can we ask people to come to our constituencies if they are faced with what is clearly a tax when they get to the Severn bridge?

It is time to end the tax on entering Wales that the Severn bridge toll has become. The Conservative party often talks about its desire to rebalance the economy away from London and the south of England, to spread prosperity to all regions. There is merit in that idea, and I agree with it. The Minister today has a chance to put those words into action.

There are not many issues in our politics that unite the Labour party, Plaid Cymru, business, tourists and the Conservative party—the hon. Member for Monmouth sometimes stands alone in the Conservative party—and even rarer are issues that unite north and south Wales, but this is one. The bridge stands as a barrier to trade and growth. I do not often quote or paraphrase Ronald Reagan. He said:

“Mr Gorbachev, tear down this wall.”

I say, Minister, tear down this toll.

I too congratulate the hon. Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden) on securing the debate. As a former user of the bridge and as the Member for Loch Ness—with reference to our earlier monster turnout—I am delighted to take part.

As the Minister will know, transport and infrastructure are devolved matters in Scotland, and that fact has allowed the Scottish Government to abolish tolls. That has been vital for the local economy and has kept money in people’s pockets at a crucial time. The Scottish National party said in its 2007 election manifesto that it would abolish the tolls, and within nine months as a minority Government it achieved that. Incidentally, the Abolition of Bridge Tolls (Scotland) Act 2008 was the first primary legislation of the new Government and was passed on 20 December 2007.

Abolishing the tolls means that day-to-day running costs and the costs of long-term capital works are met by the Scottish Government. The Scottish Government also provided a one-off grant of £14.8 million to allow the Tay Road Bridge Joint Board to repay all its outstanding loans. The average commuter, working five days a week and with six weeks’ holiday a year, saves a total of £230 a year using the Forth crossing or £184 a year on the Tay crossing. That was widely welcomed by the travelling public and local businesses on grounds of fairness for all.

Will my hon. Friend explain why the Scottish Government decided to abolish tolls entirely, rather than to move to a maintenance cost level? Was it because tolls were at that level already, or were they set higher than the maintenance level?

The tolls were of varying costs across the piece. There were some very high ones. The Skye bridge toll, for example, was punishing—even more so than the Severn bridge tolls—but it was about £1 on the Forth bridge. The issue was fairness and the economy across Scotland, and it was about making sure that there was not inequality. That was why we decided to abolish all tolls regardless of the costs involved. There was no good reason for requiring people to pay out of their own pocket to cross over a bridge to work, or for shopping or leisure, just by virtue of where they happened to live.

The benefits have been clear. Abolishing tolls has helped the local economy and tourism, as people can access attractions, leisure activities, social events, shops and so on without being deterred by tolls. By doing that, as well as through measures such as freezing council tax, the SNP has ensured that money stays in people’s pockets. We ask not for whom the bridge tolls; the bridge tolls are free.

Because the matter is devolved, the Scottish Government were able to make the decision that most suited the local economy. The position of our sister party Plaid Cymru on the Severn bridges is to transfer them to Welsh Government ownership. Given the bridges’ position as the gateway to the south Wales economy, it makes sense for Wales to be in control of that strategic piece of infrastructure and to decide on appropriate levels of charging. It has the best understanding of the local economy and its needs. The Severn bridges have the highest bridge tolls in the country, and I believe that Plaid Cymru would like them to be cut to an estimated £1.50 to £2 per vehicle, to cover maintenance costs only. The hon. Member for Newport East has also proposed that.

Decisions about reviewing the price of tolls, what to do with the money raised from them—for instance, investing the surplus in public transport—or indeed whether to have tolls at all may best be made at local level. That has certainly proven to be the case for Scotland.

I add my congratulations to those that have been given to my hon. Friend the Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden) on securing this important debate and on her years of tireless campaigning on the issue. The same is true of other hon. Members, some of whom we have heard from today, including the Chair of the Welsh Affairs Committee, the hon. Member for Monmouth (David T. C. Davies), who made an important contribution. The hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr (Jonathan Edwards) praised himself and his colleagues for their dynamism, and my hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) managed to achieve what I would have thought the impossible feat of getting Ronald Reagan into the debate. Finally, the hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Drew Hendry) managed to work in Robert Graves, so that was great creativity.

This is clearly a cross-party issue. It is clear that the crossings are an important transport link between England and Wales, playing a vital role for businesses and the economy as well as keeping friends and families in our two countries connected. So it is unfortunate that the cost and experience of using the crossings has been a source of such frustration for so long. I had a sense of déjà vu when I heard about this debate; then I recalled that it was almost exactly a year ago when my hon. Friend the Member for Newport East last obtained a debate on the issue. Something that has come across clearly today—I hope that the Minister has heard it—is the frustration shared by many hon. Members about the fact that the debate seems hardly to have moved on in a year. Today’s debate is my hon. Friend’s third Westminster Hall debate on the issue in five years, and the issues that have been raised show that there is still a lot more to do.

The Severn crossings provide an important link in Wales’s transport and economic infrastructure, and they are essential to the Welsh economy. As we have heard, 80,000 vehicles use the crossings every day. It is important that the toll price should provide a fair balance between the cost of better infrastructure and the benefits to the people using the bridge. It has been made clear in this debate that the costs of the Severn crossing tolls seem unfair. Road users relying on the crossings have been hit hard by an inflexible system and an old-fashioned payment system with annual rises until 2018. The charges are the highest of any crossing on the strategic road network. As my hon. Friend said, the current prices are £6.50 for a car, £13.10 for a light goods vehicle and £19.60 for an HGV. On the Humber bridge, a car now pays just £1.50 and an HGV £12. That is a huge issue for people who are already struggling. Transport is a major part of household budgets—a point that my hon. Friend made powerfully.

The Government may point out their commitment to scrapping VAT on tolls and removing the second tier that penalises vans after 2018. However, that does not solve the problem for private drivers or businesses. Private drivers will still have to fork out thousands before VAT is scrapped in 2018. Even then the toll price will still be significantly higher, as far as we can tell, than comparable tolls in the UK.

There are precedents for things that the Government could do. Since 2014 local people eligible for the resident discount scheme at the Dartford crossing have been able to make unlimited trips across for just £20 a year, ensuring that a toll on the strategic road network does not hinder local mobility. In the debate in 2014, I and other hon. Members recognised that there would be a challenge in defining “local” in relation to the Severn bridge and deciding where any discount would start and end, but that challenge underlines why the UK Government must develop the right kind of dialogue and forum with the Welsh Government and local authorities, so that they can look ahead and find a solution to the issue.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Newport East made clear, such practical issues need to be addressed, and they are certainly not addressed by coming out with a lot of rhetoric about English votes for English laws. The situation is a practical example of the necessity of co-operation. The Welsh Affairs Committee also emphasised that in 2011. Will the Minister set out what assessment his Department is undertaking of introducing a local residents’ scheme or some other flexible payment system for the Severn crossings, and what involvement other authorities have had in the matter so far?

Obviously, the tolls not only affect commuters and private drivers but have a significant impact on local businesses and the local economy. Many hon. Members have made that point, including my hon. Friend the Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith). For local businesses, the excessive tolls are a cost that competitors elsewhere simply do not have to pay. We have heard claims that they can add up to £200,000 to a business’s bottom line. Sadly, the benefit of scrapping VAT will be minimal, particularly for HGVs and the freight industry, as they already claim VAT back on the toll. There will be savings only in processing the claims.

Again, the Dartford crossing is a good example of how we could develop best practice, in that it operates an off-peak concession for drivers at night, which benefits HGVs. Surely we can look at some kind of off-peak concession in the case of the Severn bridges. I therefore ask the Government what assessment they are making of waiving tolls for night-time crossings or devising an off-peak concession. I remember that in the debate in March of last year, the Minister’s predecessor, the hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr Goodwill), said that the Eurovignette directive currently imposes a 13% cap on discounts for HGVs, but that the discount currently stood only at 10%. I would be grateful if the Minister could update the House on whether those rates are still the same.

A number of hon. Members, including my hon. Friends the Members for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock) and for Islwyn, my hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly (Wayne David), who mentioned local government, and the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who brings experience from Northern Ireland, have said that tolls can have a big impact on economic growth. The Welsh Assembly has estimated an economic loss just for Wales of about £80 million a year. With the debt expected to be about £88 million in 2018, has the Minister received any representations about offsetting any of the debt with the toll rate in order to boost the local economy?

I have referred a lot to south Wales, but of course this is not simply about south Wales. The tolls have knock-on effects in England, such as congestion in places such as the Forest of Dean, which limit the whole region’s economy—something that the Government say they are trying to act on. Will the Minister therefore consider carrying out an economic impact study like the Welsh Assembly’s but including south-west England as well as Wales? Does he agree that when the necessary long-term strategy is being developed, it will be important to reach out to local enterprise partnerships and chambers of commerce as well as local authorities?

Next I want to consider the failure to modernise—a point made powerfully by my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty). We have heard today and in previous debates that the issue is not simply the cost of the crossing but the lack of convenience in how the tolls must be paid. More than a year later, road users without cash still have to enter their PIN into a handheld device, which takes time and slows transit. During last year’s debate, the Minister’s predecessor refused to consider technology enhancements that could speed up queues because, he said, the long-term future of the charging arrangements was not clear. That, I respectfully put to him, is the point that we have been making in this debate and previous debates—that is what needs to be sorted out. It is obvious that some form of toll charge will be in place after 2018 to cover maintenance costs, but I hope that the Minister will commit today to taking account of technological developments in considering how the tolls will be paid and in the long-term strategy.

Simpler solutions could be adopted. I have mentioned the Dartford crossing, and although I do not want to diverge too much from the subject of the debate, Mr Gray, I will just ask the Minister as an aside whether he has any news about the problems there, not with free flow itself but with unpaid notices. What discussions has he had with Highways England and Severn River Crossing plc on introducing contactless payment on the Severn bridge?

The questions that I have for the future are as follows. We have talked about reforms to pricing and payment that could benefit users, but they do not fundamentally address the main issue—that the concession will soon end. I reflected on the debt standing at £88 million. Can the Minister clarify that that is still the case? Can he also offer a more transparent breakdown of the debt, as well as the maintenance costs of both bridges?

The end date for the concession, as we know, is 2018. At that stage the crossing will revert to public ownership, and a decision about how the debt will be recovered and about future toll charges must therefore be made. When will the Government make those decisions? How, in practice, will they work in partnership with the Welsh Assembly and Severn River Crossing plc to prepare for that? The longer we wait, the longer users will have to endure the high charges and inconvenience that they have been enduring for too long.

I hope that the Minister will leave the debate having given us some reassurance on the important questions that my hon. Friends and other hon. Members have asked, and having given a commitment that there will be regular updates on what the Government are considering, whom they are talking to, what ideas are being developed and how the technology will be improved. We do not want to end up in yet another debate, at this time next year, asking the same questions but without any further information about what the Government will do in practice. The crossings are vital for the Welsh economy, the English economy and the co-operation that is so important between our two countries, so I hope that this time the Minister will give the House rather firmer information about how we will go forward than has been the case in the previous four debates.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again, Mr Gray. I congratulate the hon. Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden)on securing this debate about tolls on the Severn crossings. It has become extremely clear, from contributions from hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber, just how important the crossings are to the economy of Wales and to the whole of the west of England. The argument has been made very strongly, particularly with reference to the high volumes of people crossing for tourism or for the manufacturing industry, reflecting key strengths of the Welsh economy.

I am pleased to respond to this Adjournment debate on a subject of great importance to the hon. Lady and her constituents. I know that she has campaigned on the matter for a considerable time. I was quite surprised, but very pleased to find the interest from right across the UK. Lessons from different parts of the UK can always be considered. I was also delighted to hear colleagues argue for less cost on business as a driver of economic growth. That is music to Conservative ears. I also recognise how it links firmly with the Government’s plans to drive infrastructure investment as a key lever of economic growth. I will just say a little, if I may, about how that will work.

The Government have announced increased funding to deliver improvements on our road infrastructure network targeted entirely at delivering economic growth. Our commitment to deliver a step change in our transport infrastructure was made clear by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer in his statement on 26 June 2013, when he announced the conclusions of the spending review of that year. I am sure that everyone will be aware of the Government’s announcement on 1 December 2014 of the road investment strategy. As part of that strategy, the investment plan outlines how we will invest in the strategic road network between now and 2021 to make the improvements that will put us on the path to delivering all our long-term economic goals. In total, the Government are investing £15.2 billion in more than 100 major schemes, which will enhance, renew and transform the network.

Of course, the strategic road network is solely in England and roads are a devolved responsibility in Wales, but the Government have also provided the Welsh Government with the borrowing powers to fund the new M4 relief road, which I hope will address the congestion that has long plagued that section of the M4. I am highlighting that, because it shows one way of working together—the principle of partnership that I consider to be very positive and that will be most important as we take forward the Severn crossings and their future.

More than 220 million Severn crossings have been paid for since 1992, and traffic has increased by more than 50% over that period. More than 13 million crossings were paid for last year, which is a significant increase of 3.7% on the previous year. We should also note that those figures cover only crossings into Wales—people pay a return toll—and not journeys in the opposite direction. It is reasonable to surmise that the total traffic figures are double the recorded tolls, which highlights the importance of the crossings to the economies of both countries and the role the crossings play in strengthening the bonds that already exist between the two nations, which is of course a key objective of many parties in this House.

The hon. Member for Newport East has raised several issues regarding the Severn crossings, including the tolls that are charged for using them. As she knows, for decades successive Governments of all persuasions have held the view that crossings on estuaries should be paid for by the user, rather than by the taxpayer. They have taken that approach because of the outstanding savings in both time and money that such expensive infrastructure projects make possible. It is important to make that point at this stage, and it should be remembered.

I hesitate to provide a historical context, because I know that the hon. Lady is acutely aware of all the history, but it is relevant. The first Severn bridge was tolled when it opened in 1966 to pay for its construction, and it enabled a direct link from the English motorway network into Wales. However, it was not long before the first crossing operated significantly above its designed traffic capacity, and it became clear that further capacity would be required. In order to fund a second crossing, a concession agreement was signed with Severn River Crossing Ltd, which took on the operation and maintenance of the first bridge and the construction of the new bridge. The second bridge subsequently opened in 1996.

As is the norm with concession agreements, Severn River Crossing Ltd is authorised to collect tolls to meet its financial obligations. Those tolls are in place to repay the construction and financing costs of the second Severn crossing, to repay the remaining debt from the first river crossing and to maintain and operate both crossings, and the tolls form the company’s only source of income. The concession agreement was structured so that certain risks, such as costs relating to latent defects on the first crossing, were borne by the Government, rather than by Severn River Crossing Ltd. By taking on those risks, the Government were able to finance the construction of the second crossing and the maintenance of both crossings at much lower cost than they could otherwise have achieved. If those risks had been included in the concession arrangements, the tolls that users have paid for many years would necessarily have been considerably higher, which would have pushed back the concession further than the current projected end date of 2018.

Members have asked when the concession will finish. That will happen when it has achieved total income of £1.029 billion at 1989 prices, so it is not possible to give an exact date for when it will finish. We are able to project ahead based on current usage but, as I mentioned earlier, usage is going up, so the date may come forward.

Will the corporation tax cut have an impact? Does the Minister anticipate that that will bring forward the date when the concession ends?

The corporation tax cut should be viewed as part of a broader economic package to drive growth. The more economic activity we have, the greater the use of the crossings will be. The corporation tax rates paid by individual companies are not part of this process, but the overall activity that the Government are seeking to create through a vast focus on economic growth will certainly bring things forward, as more economic growth means more crossings, and more crossings mean more revenue, which means that the target will be reached earlier.

The Severn Bridges Act 1992 sets out the tolling arrangements and the basis for yearly increases in the toll rates. New toll rates are introduced on 1 January each year and are increased in line with the retail prices index using a formula that is then rounded up to the nearest 10p. I stress that the Secretary of State for Transport does not have the authority to reduce Severn tolls without amending primary legislation and obtaining the concessionaire’s agreement. The concessionaire is extremely unlikely to agree to anything that would affect its net revenue without compensation and agreement from its shareholders and lenders. That is a key point, because we are talking about what happens after the concession ends.

At the end of the concession, as everyone has noted, the crossings will revert to public ownership. As the Chancellor stated in his March Budget, once the crossings are in public ownership, VAT will no longer be payable on the tolls, which will be reflected in the toll prices. Members have asked for clarity on that, and I am happy to confirm that VAT on the tolls is going.

The Minister will know that, as the tolls go up automatically in 2016 and 2017, by the time the toll increases are applied in 2018, taking off the VAT will return the tolls to about £5.60, according to my back-of-an-envelope calculation, which means that about 90p will come off in two and a half years’ time. Does he appreciate that that is no great shakes?

Removing VAT will result in a significant cost reduction. Of course, like all Members, I would like cost reductions in all sorts of areas of our economy, but to say that VAT reductions are matters of great insignificance is simply wrong. It should be remembered that further reductions in tolls for some vehicle classes once the crossings return to public ownership were also announced in the March Budget. The Chancellor announced that, when the concession to toll the crossings ends, the higher toll rate for vans will be reduced to the same rate as for cars, which will be a significant benefit to smaller businesses on both sides of the crossings. So we are considering some toll reductions, which is significant.

Our intention is to continue tolling after the projected end of the concession in 2018 simply to recover the costs that have been incurred in relation to the crossings that fall outside the agreement. The current projection of those costs stands at £88 million. We have not made any decisions about the operation and tolling arrangements for the crossings once the current regime ends. The road investment strategy contains the Government’s commitment to working with the Welsh Government and others to determine the long-term future of the Severn crossings. The Under-Secretary of State for Wales, my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Glamorgan (Alun Cairns), who is sitting next to me, has done excellent work in highlighting the economic impact that the toll reduction for vans and the VAT reduction will have on the area and in explaining the importance of the crossings overall. We have already met to discuss that subject, and I anticipate that we will meet again shortly.

The Minister says that the Government have not yet made a decision, and 2018 is not that far away. As hon. Members said earlier, business abhors a vacuum. Business needs certainty, and it needs to know where its costs will be. Can we please have clarity on when the decision will be made and why it cannot be made within a defined period of time?

Although 2018 is not that far, it is still three years away. Work on what happens next is under way. We are looking at a potential end date for the concession of around 2018. It is a financial target, rather than a fixed date, which means that we have a requirement to plan appropriately, and I will address that next.

As I said in reply to an intervention during my contribution, the Minister’s party in Wales is campaigning for the Assembly elections, which are less than a year away, on the basis that the Welsh Government will have control of the Severn bridges and that, under his party’s control, the costs will be reduced. He has clearly not made up his mind on the ownership of the bridges following the end of the concessionary period. Is it not the case, therefore, that the pledges his party is making in Wales are not worth the paper they are written on?

One aspect of devolved government, which is what we have now in the UK, is that the same party will hold different views in different areas, reflecting local circumstances. That happens throughout the UK, and I think that it is a positive rather than a negative that people are arguing, lobbying and making the case for their area. It happens, and we should get used to it, because it is here to stay while we have a United Kingdom with devolved Assemblies and Parliaments.

I mentioned that we have not yet made any decisions about the arrangements after the concession finishes, but the Government have been clear that we will need to make proper provision for the repayment of debt and for future maintenance.

I appreciate that we cannot expect to have all the answers today, and that there are difficult decisions to make and things to work out. However, can the Minister set a timetable in the very near future for when all those things will be done, so that come September, we will know what is likely to happen and when we are likely to get certainty? That is what we really want to know.

I cannot give the hon. Lady a final date, but I can tell her that that work has started and is taking place in the Department, with colleagues in the Wales Office. Let me leave hon. Members in no doubt that the Government are committed to the successful operation of the crossings. They are vital, and the economies on both sides have benefited greatly from their presence.

I think that the Minister may inadvertently have misunderstood my hon. Friend’s question. She was not asking him when the Government will make their final decision; we understand that that will take some time. She was asking for a timetable or road map of the process whereby decisions will be made. Who will be talked to at which stage? Which agenda items will be discussed at which stage—the debt, toll levels, the technology, off-peak reductions? In the autumn, can the Minister give some kind of timetable for when those things will be considered?

I mentioned earlier that we are already committed by the road investment strategy to work with the Welsh Government, and we are more than happy to continue with all the strategy commitments. As I said, I have already started work with my colleagues in the Wales Office. I am expecting more work to be done over the summer and in the early autumn by my officials in the Department, and will be more than happy to share it more widely as we go forward, but I cannot yet give a specific date. However, it is work in progress, and we are starting that work. It will certainly involve wide co-operation and consultation.

Can the Minister supply an answer in this debate to the questions about how much extra money the Government have received in VAT and industrial buildings allowance, and the costs of maintenance? If he cannot give those exact figures today, can he commit his Department to providing them before the autumn? Otherwise, I suspect that hon. Members might decide that they want to apply for another debate, and I will certainly support them if they do.

The annual accounts for the Severn river crossings will be published shortly, and I will consider what other information can be made available. However, we must be a little cautious about hypothecating the amount of VAT raised, but on general principles of transparency, I am more than happy to supply that figure. I cannot stand here and give my hon. Friend large amounts of data this afternoon, but we will approach all investment issues on principles of transparency and collaboration, including data transparency.

Numerous questions were asked; I will answer some of them now. It was asked whether the Severn crossings could be handed over to the Welsh Government. I have absolutely no plan whatever to change ownership, but I have every intention of working together on future operation of the crossings. We will take that forward in partnership and consultation. The publication shortly of the annual accounts was mentioned. Many requests about consultation have been made. I am happy to commit to all that and to hear from all parties, including from local councils in the area and any local enterprise partnerships. The key point is that nothing has been decided. All policies are still under consideration.

Several colleagues mentioned technology. The opportunities presented by technology are significant, and it can make an enormous difference. I have started to consider whether we can take lessons from other free-flow schemes in our country, notably the DART tag scheme, which has made a significant time saving for commuters on the Dartford crossing. We are considering whether that could be used on the Severn. I am also considering whether it could be made collectable both ways; technology frees up opportunity, and I think that it would prove popular.

When the concession ends, we have a significant opportunity. I am extremely keen to ensure that we take it, because the whole project matters. We know full well, as has been made clear in this debate by colleagues from across the House, just how important the crossings are to the local economy and nationally. The people of the area have been paying to cross the Severn, but I remind colleagues that we are in a period of significant infrastructure investment. This Government are delivering the most ambitious road investment scheme since the 1970s. I view the Severn crossings as an integral part of our transport infrastructure, which is why we are taking forward work in my Department. We have three years to ensure that we get it right and to improve the situation for the area. This is a fantastic opportunity, and I look forward to working with colleagues here and locally to ensure that we get it right.

I am grateful to the Minister for that response, although I suspect that hon. Members and Friends will have more questions to ask him. I thank colleagues for coming today; I counted about 15 in the Chamber, which shows the high level of interest in the topic.

In thanking the Minister for his response, I reiterate to him the list of points raised in this debate, and I suggest that he writes to all Members here to outline the answers to some of the questions asked, not least to spare him from having to come back yet again for another 90-minute debate on the Severn bridge tolls. To reiterate, the wish list from this debate includes financial information about the Severn bridge tabled for hon. Members to scrutinise—I am sure that the Select Committee on Welsh Affairs will return to that in its work—and a clear timetable about where we will be in future, as mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Llanelli. Perhaps the Minister will also commit to meeting groups of us to give us regular updates, not least to spare himself another debate.

I thank the Minister for that. To reiterate what the hon. Member for Monmouth and I said earlier, this Government have done extremely well out of the bridges; they have been a cash cow. The Government’s assertion that they might keep on tolling rather than reduce the high tolls after the concession ends—we know that although the debt will be £88 million, the Government have already recouped £154 million in VAT response—will not go down well. I would appreciate it if the Government reconsidered reducing the tolls further.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered tolls on the Severn bridges.

Avro Vulcan XH558

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the end of service of the Avro Vulcan XH558.

I welcome you to the Chair, Mr Gray. Oh no, you’re about to leave!

[Sir David Amess in the Chair]

I welcome you, Sir David, to the Chair. I also welcome my right hon. Friend the Minister. [Interruption.] It is only a matter of time before he is elevated to the Privy Council. I welcome my hon. Friend the Minister, with whom I shared some experiences at the weekend of which I will speak later, and his most excellent Parliamentary Private Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Oliver Colvile).

I am grateful for the opportunity to place on record in the House the story of one of the most remarkable heritage projects of recent years. In doing so, I am extremely proud to declare my interest as a trustee of the Vulcan to the Sky trust and president of the British Air Display Association, which represents the interests of those who organise and participate in air shows across the country. Essentially, Vulcan bomber “X-ray Hotel five five eight”, as it is pronounced in the phonetic alphabet, which I shall use throughout the debate, last saw service in 1992, and 15 years later she was restored to flight by a band of highly professional volunteers. Since then she has dominated the air show circuit, drawing massive crowds everywhere she appears. Incredibly sadly, this display season looks like being her last, but of that, more later.

The Vulcan was the brainchild of aero-engineer Roy Chadwick, designer of the famous Lancaster bomber, immortalised through its role in “The Dam Busters”. Only 11 years separate the first flights of the Lancaster, in 1941, and the Vulcan, which was then led by Stuart Davies following Chadwick’s death in 1952. What an extraordinary testament to British aeronautical ingenuity. Designed as a high-level bomber to deliver Britain’s nuclear deterrent through the tense years of the cold war, before the deterrent became submarine-based in 1969, the Vulcan, of which 134 were delivered to the RAF, was only deployed once in anger. That was during the Falklands campaign when it, too, became immortalised in that amazing operation—Operation Black Buck—to bomb the runway at Port Stanley. It involved a 6,800 nautical mile round trip, lasting nearly 16 hours, with 18 air-to-air refuelling operations. Although the Army tend to be rather dismissive of the one bomb that landed in the middle of the runway—

Objection not taken. I hope my hon. Friend is not seeking to intervene.

That bomb put the runway out of action. More importantly, it sent a clear message to Argentina that if we could pinpoint the runway in Port Stanley, we could rearrange Buenos Aires in a big way.

It is hardly surprising that with that pedigree, the public lamented the scrapping of the Vulcan fleet when, in 1992, XH558 made her last display flight in RAF service. A petition signed by more than 250,000 people calling on the Government to save her sparked a campaign that led to today’s feast of aeronautical brilliance. Sold for £25,000 in 1993, the aircraft was bought by C. Walton Ltd at Bruntingthorpe in Leicestershire. However, one man decided that the public should not be denied the chance to see XH558 take to the skies again. Step forward a nuclear physicist and IT company director, Dr Robert Pleming. In 1997, he and David Walton agreed to determine the feasibility of returning the aircraft to flight, based on sound management practice and a professional approach. Robert’s credibility won over the aircraft’s design authority, British Aerospace—now BAE Systems—which, in 1998, identified that Marshall Aerospace and Defence Group of Cambridge had the skills, capabilities, quality control and experience in one-off aircraft projects to satisfy the Civil Aviation Authority that the work required on XH558 would be done properly.

Obviously, we can look back on that era. The Vulcan signifies the triumph of British engineering, and that is something to be proud of for us as the nation of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. The British people loved it. The hon. Gentleman may be coming to that point.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right; it is a triumph of British engineering. I hope that he can see the Vulcan when she displays in Northern Ireland, for that is one of our most important displays.

Marshall Aerospace agreed to act as the engineering authority for the restoration project in 1999, supporting and overseeing the trust’s own professional engineering team, led by Andrew Edmondson, throughout. The race was on. Dr Pleming built a team that included Air Chief Marshal Sir Mike Knight, who commanded No. 1 Group during the Falklands war, and our former colleague—himself a Vulcan pilot—Keith Mans, then the Member for Wyre in Lancashire and now deputy leader of Hampshire County Council. Their professionalism resulted in the award of a £2.75 million grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund, which proved a major contribution to the eventual £7 million cost of restoration. In March 2007, I took Margaret Thatcher to see the project for herself and to introduce her to our chief pilot, Squadron Leader Martin Withers DFC—the man she had sent on that epic raid to the Falklands. It was a wonderful encounter.

The fundraising was always hard graft. Not infrequently were the team of engineers and support staff issued with redundancy notice threats. Things were particularly tight in about 2006, when I received a number of calls from Sir Mike Knight imploring me to solicit funds to keep the project going, and that moved me into action. I asked the then treasurer of the Conservative party, Jonathan—now Lord—Marland if he would give me the names of three wealthy Thatcherite Tories. In writing to the three, I suddenly realised the significance of the project. The aircraft had been at the forefront of the cold war battle to deter the Soviet threat and had been deployed only once in anger, in the Falklands. What connected the two? Margaret Thatcher. She played a huge part in ending the cold war and, as I mentioned, she ordered the Vulcan into the air to help recover the Falklands.

I had one response. That late and great patriot, Sir Jack Hayward, true to his “Union Jack” soubriquet, rang me late one night from the United States and said, “So sorry to hear that those chaps might be out of a job; count me in for half a million.” I immediately called Sir Mike and said, “Hold the P45s!” Sir Jack had saved the project. It was a magnificent tribute to individual philanthropy that Sir Jack Hayward just responded like that. I had never taken a phone call like that before, nor have I since, and I savour it to this day. The trust made me a trustee on the strength of that one contribution. I have enjoyed being there ever since.

Thus it was that on October 18 2007, Al McDicken, Dave Thomas and Barry Masefield took XH558 to the skies once more, where she has been the star of the air show circuit ever since, performing more than 175 displays before a total audience of 12 million people. Roads are blocked around the display sites, and my parliamentary colleagues text me excitedly that they have just seen the Vulcan pass low over their homes. Other colleagues ask if I can arrange for their children—and of course themselves—to visit the aircraft. Luke Osborne, the Chancellor’s son, is among those keen young supporters. The Minister will be delighted to know that I am not going to be asking Luke’s father for more money for the project.

It costs more than £2 million a year to run the Vulcan. The professional side of the operation employs just 20 people, including our team of six superb full-time engineers—all experienced on Vulcan work when the aircraft was in service with the RAF—and the aircrew of Martin Withers, Bill Ramsey, Bill Perrins, Kev Rumens, Phil Davies and Jonathan Lazzari, and Phil O’Dell, the Rolls-Royce test pilot. The money is raised overwhelmingly from the general public, masterminded by our fundraising man, Michael Trotter. As colleagues know, I constantly sport the Vulcan lapel pin and never cease to be amazed by the number of people I meet who tell me quietly, “I give a few quid to keep that aeroplane flying.” It is genuinely the people’s aeroplane.

The Vulcan to the Sky club has 5,000 members and a crew of some 60 volunteers, who raise money through selling merchandise, including such things as original engine compressor blades mounted on a small block of wood at a bargain price of £125. At the royal international air tattoo last weekend, we had to rush in extra supplies. The weekend’s takings topped £75,000. A long queue of enthusiasts paid £5 a head to get up close to the aeroplane.

There are also corporate supporters and original equipment manufacturers who must be included in this roll of honour: Airbus UK and its indefatigable former chief executive officer, Robin Southwell; Eddie Forrester of Aerobytes; Goodrich; Meggitt; Eaton Aerospace; Dunlop Aircraft Tyres; General Electric; Kidde Graviner; Martin-Baker; Serco; Ultra; and Beagle Aerospace. I could go on and on, but of course at the end of the list must be Marshall Aerospace, which supports us so magnificently on the engineering side. The Minister will be pleased to know that we also acknowledge the enthusiastic support that we receive from the Royal Air Force, which clearly enjoys seeing one of its own commanding such universal public respect.

The Vulcan to the Sky Trust recognises that over the eight years that Vulcan XH558 has been flying, she has generated a huge level of interest and support across the country, bringing a “once seen, never forgotten” experience to thousands of youngsters. When she stops flying, the trust plans for her to become the focal point for a number of skills initiatives at her home base, Robin Hood airport Doncaster Sheffield, formerly known to those of us with RAF connections as RAF Finningley.

The trust has announced plans to create the Etna project, an Eden project for aviation, engineering and technology, the first phase of which is already well under way in collaboration with the Aviation Skills Partnership. Why “Etna”, people may ask. Well, unknown to me before I became involved with this project, Mount Etna is the location of the mythical god Vulcan’s workshop. The Etna project will encompass an aviation academy, a heritage centre and the Etna centre, an innovative new facility aimed at inspiring youngsters in aviation, engineering and technology.

Under the leadership of the Aviation Skills Partnership, the Vulcan aviation academy will cater for all aspects of aviation skills across the ASP’s six areas of aviation: pilot; air traffic; airport operations; operations; crew; and aviation engineering. The Vulcan heritage centre will continue to provide the Vulcan experience for visitors and will introduce exciting new elements to the tours. The heritage centre will also represent a unique environment for business meetings and conferences. Vulcan XH558 will be maintained as a live, taxiing aircraft, and in addition, the trust aims to continue its involvement with heritage aviation by leading efforts to fly other iconic aircraft, to continue to inspire new generations of aviation professionals.

I want to put it on the record that I do not think any man could have done more than Dr Robert Pleming to epitomise an extraordinarily professional and competent approach to the management of complex former military aircraft, which has required the most amazing range of skills. The fact he was a nuclear scientist may have assisted him in developing those skills, but he has made a significant contribution. I do not think anybody could do better than to follow the example of how he brought this complex aircraft—the Vulcan bomber—out of disuse and back into the air, and then managed its operations in such a professional way. There is a lesson there for others who are engaged in the management of the warbirds that entertain the public around the country so much.

The objective of the exciting Etna centre is to help to solve the engineering and technical skills challenge that the country faces. The centre will build on XH558’s inspirational qualities to change the perceptions of the young, and those who influence them, about engineering and technology. Working examples of both heritage and modern technologies, and the stories of the people behind them, will show how interesting and rewarding careers in aviation and technology can be, for women as well as for men, and regardless of what an individual’s level of academic attainment might be.

The first phase of the academy and heritage centre is intended to operate within the current Vulcan hangar at Robin Hood airport. It is planned that from September 2017 all three elements will be co-located on a new single site on the edge of the airport, with access to the taxiways.

I hope you will agree, Sir David, that this has been a most astonishing story, and one with which I and my fellow trustees—John Sharman, our chairman; Sir Donald Spiers, former Controller Aircraft at the Ministry of Defence; Ken Smart, former chief inspector at the air accidents investigation branch in Farnborough; Dr Steve Liddle, senior aerodynamicist at Lotus Formula 1; Air Commodore Edward Jarron, who is himself a former Vulcan pilot; and Richard Clarke, the former supporters club chairman—are proud to have been associated.

As I have said, this season marks the end of an era. On current plans, XH558 will cease to fly in the autumn. It is not because we have no money; it is not because of a lack of spares; and it is not because of the Civil Aviation Authority¸ whose chief test pilot stated after flying the aircraft in 2013 that XH558 was in the best condition she had ever been. The reason is that the original equipment manufacturers—BAE Systems, the successor to the Avro company, and Rolls-Royce, the engine manufacturer—have decided that they no longer feel able to accept the risk, because the retirement of staff means that the companies lack the technical competence to certify the aircraft.

That is disappointing for two reasons. First, we had asked only to complete the 10-year flight programme, which would mean that the last surviving all-British four-engine jet could fly through the 2016 season and, of course, display at Farnborough in my constituency. Secondly, there are many other vintage aircraft flying today that will be able to continue thrilling the crowds for years to come. Indeed, many people ask me how it is that aircraft far older than the 63-year-old Vulcan can continue flying while the Vulcan is due to be grounded. The Meteor, Britain’s first combat jet aircraft, the Vampire, not to mention the many Spitfires and Hurricanes, and that other Chadwick legend, the Lancaster, will all continue to enthral the crowds in their own way. And across the Atlantic, the B-52 looks like remaining in military service for 100 years.

Last weekend at the royal international air tattoo, XH558 taxied slowly to the runway threshold at RAF Fairford. As on so many occasions in the past, the 60,000-strong crowd stood up and moved forward as one to hear the famous Vulcan howl, as the four mighty Rolls-Royce Olympus engines wound up to propel this massive aircraft into the sky. They marvelled at the agility of this monster, with a wingspan of 110 feet; the magnificent wingover performed by Bill Ramsey and Kev Rumens; and her vast open bomb bay, which revealed her capacity to deliver awesome military air power. And they applauded loudly as she landed.

Our late colleague, David Taylor, the former Labour and Co-operative Member for North West Leicestershire, summed up the mighty Vulcan in an early-day motion in 2008 as

“an icon of British heritage and an invaluable asset in assisting today’s students to better understand British science, engineering and history”.

Alternatively, as XH558 proclaims on its nose cone:

“Honouring the Past—Inspiring the Future”.

Even at this late hour, perhaps we can persuade the manufacturers of today’s state-of-the-art technology that their masterpiece of the past, XH558, should serve one more year before we say farewell and the skies over the United Kingdom become a quieter place.

Sir David, I am sure you will join me in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Sir Gerald Howarth) on securing this debate and on paying such a moving tribute to this magnificent aircraft, which, as we can all tell from the tone of his remarks, he holds in very high regard indeed.

My hon. Friend also told us how he originally became a trustee of the Vulcan to the Sky Trust; I suspect that on the back of that public explanation, he may be invited to become a trustee of several other aviation charities in the future. He has been a doughty advocate for the trust. I share his respect and admiration for the dedicated enthusiasts, many of whom he named, whose tireless efforts returned this iconic aircraft to flying condition so that another generation might witness it in the skies over the UK. I met several of those volunteers at the royal international air tattoo last year, and was impressed by their dedication and commitment to this remarkable aircraft, which I enjoyed seeing again, albeit static, at RIAT this year.

The Avro Vulcan was introduced into service with the RAF in 1957. As we heard, 134 were produced for the Royal Air Force by Avro at its Woodford aerodrome site near Macclesfield between 1956 and 1965. It was designed as a long-range bomber capable of reaching targets far into the then Soviet Union. On its introduction, it represented the cutting edge of aviation and was a step change in technology from its wartime predecessors. It was a clear, iconic demonstration of the quality and vision of British engineering. The last operational Vulcan squadron disbanded in 1984, but the Vulcan continued with the RAF in a display role until it finally left service in 1993.

The Vulcan bomber was a stalwart of the so-called V-force, which comprised Vulcan, Victor and Valiant aircraft. The V-force provided Britain’s strategic nuclear deterrent during the dark days of the early cold war. The RAF’s Vulcan fleet was held in a state of continuous readiness to respond to any nuclear threat from potential aggressors. It required continuous training and dedication to maintain aircraft and aircrew at a constant state of peak readiness.

I want to challenge my very good friend the Member for Aldershot slightly on one point. My hon. Friend stated that there was only one operational attack by a Vulcan on the Falklands; as the Minister just outlined, the Vulcan fleet was operational from about 1957 to ’69, flying in the cold war on operations, defending our freedom and our right to exist. I should like to point that out. I slightly disagree on that small point.

My hon. Friend is right to emphasise the role played by Vulcan crews during the cold war, but of course my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot is also correct in saying that the aircraft was only ever used once in a strike capacity, during the Falklands war. I will mention that in a moment.

The state of high readiness continued for many years, until the nuclear role of Vulcan bombers was replaced in 1969 by the Royal Navy’s fleet of Polaris and later Trident submarines. It is precisely because of the deterrent capability that it provided to our country that the Vulcan was never called on to use its nuclear capability in anger against the Warsaw pact. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot agrees that that is precisely why the Government remain committed to the provision of a continuous at-sea deterrent today.

As we have just discussed, Vulcans did see action during the 1982 Falklands conflict. At that time, the Vulcan was already a 25-year veteran, approaching the end of its service life. There was no expectation that it would shortly be thrust into a critical role in the Falklands war. In the Black Buck raids, RAF Vulcan aircraft flying from Ascension Island carried out what were then the longest-distance bombing raids in history, covering a return distance of some 7,700 nautical miles. A total of five successful raids were made by Vulcan aircraft against the airfield and Argentinean radar installations at Port Stanley. A Vulcan bomber cratered the runway at Port Stanley and denied Argentinean fast jets a base from which to attack the taskforce. It also sent a clear strategic message to Argentina that Britain would take any necessary steps to defend its sovereign territory and protect the islanders’ right to determine who governed them—a policy that this Government still hold dear today. The House will be interested to know that Vulcan XM607, which completed the first of the Black Buck raids, is preserved at RAF Waddington, is much prized and can be seen by members of the public from the Waddington aircraft viewing enclosure.

The Black Buck raids were a testament to the courage of the men who flew all the aircraft involved and to those who supported them. I know that my hon. Friend will share my admiration for the Handley Page Victor tanker crews that assisted with the raids: a remarkable relay of some 12 tanker aircraft that ensured that the Vulcan was refuelled in mid-air five times per mission. That is a remarkable example of improvisation, professionalism, airmanship and military logistics.

Vulcan XH558 made its maiden flight in May 1960 and has flown more hours than any other Vulcan. It first served with 230 Operational Conversion Unit, providing training for pilots new to the Vulcan type, before transferring to front-line service with the Waddington wing. In 1973 it transferred to the maritime radar reconnaissance role and in 1982 was converted for use as a refuelling tanker. It finished its RAF career with the Vulcan display flight before making its final RAF flight in 1993.

Retiring from the RAF after many years of sterling service, the Vulcan was taken into private ownership, as we heard, thanks to the work of the Vulcan to the Sky Trust. It was returned to flying condition in 2007, since when it has been seen at many air shows across the UK. Although the preservation of the aircraft is not a core defence requirement, the RAF has in the past assisted where it could with this project to restore and maintain Vulcan XH558. It seconded a number of skilled RAF engineers to the restoration project and provided hangar space, notably at RAF Lyneham.

As I said, I saw the aircraft on the ground at RAF Fairford on Friday. Although it was static, it was the air platform subject to the greatest intensity of interest at the show. I saw the video of it flying in formation with the Red Arrows on Sunday, which must have been an utterly thrilling sight for the thousands of spectators present. I cannot think of a more fitting way for the RAF to mark its affection for this fine aircraft, with two icons of British aviation flying side by side. Even more appropriately, the Vulcan was once based at RAF Scampton in Lincolnshire, now home to the Red Arrows—evidence, if any was needed, of the great heritage of the RAF and the comforting ebb and flow of the past giving way to the future.

The MOD takes its commitment to the aviation heritage of this nation very seriously and is proud to do so. It is RAF heritage strategy, where possible, to preserve one of every aircraft type in the national collection at the RAF Museum. In the financial year that ended in April ’14, the MOD donated just over £9 million pounds in grant in aid to the RAF Museum, which preserves many of the nation’s finest military aircraft, including two Avro Vulcans, which can be viewed by all who visit the RAF Museum sites at Hendon or at Cosford, just outside my constituency in Shropshire—a good visit for all. The Imperial War Museum, which received a £21 million grant from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport last year, also has a Vulcan aircraft at its site at Duxford.

Many will share my hon. Friend’s disappointment that the Vulcan will not continue to fly and that we will not be able to spot it in the skies of the nation that it served and protected so diligently. But as we have also heard, it is encouraging to learn that the Vulcan will continue to play a pivotal role in the future, just it has in our past, albeit in a heritage capacity.

I was delighted to hear my hon. Friend mention the plans for the XH558 to be a living centrepiece for a Vulcan Aviation Academy and Heritage Centre at Robin Hood airport, near Doncaster, providing inspirational opportunities for the next generation to learn about aviation and help prepare them for future jobs in the aviation world. I am sure the House will welcome this admirable initiative, and I wish the project the very best.

I congratulate my good friend the Member for Aldershot on his fine championship of the Vulcan through his work on the trust. I also congratulate him on securing this debate and on giving us this opportunity to highlight the role that the Royal Air Force has played in serving this nation so well, using various aircraft types for close to 100 years.

Question put and agreed to.

Euro Area

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the UK’s relations with the Euro area and further Euro integration.

I am grateful to have secured this debate, because it is time that our Parliament discussed the big moves under way on the continent of Europe, which take the form of a major policy statement by the five presidents of the European Union on how they wish to make rapid progress to a more comprehensive union, including a political union. The document is a well-kept secret. It has been on the European Union website since the end of June. I have raised it a couple of times in the House and in interviews, but for some reason the British media do not seem to have realised that there is this radical prospectus, which is now official European Union policy, written and endorsed by the five presidents.

Some people in the United Kingdom will not have quite caught up with the idea that there are five presidents, but they are: the president of the European Council, who is the senior minister representing the member states’ ministerial teams; the president of the European Parliament, who represents the elected MEPs; the probably better known President of the Commission, who is Mr Juncker for the time being; the president of the European Central Bank, Mario Draghi, who is a bit better known thanks to the comings and goings over the Greek banking system and the Greek state debt problem; and the president of the Eurogroup, who is a little better known on British television screens because he has from time to time had to do the crisis response when we have had another difficult day in the relationships between Greece and the rest of the eurozone.

Those five very powerful men represent all the branches of the European Union. It is tempting to think that only three of the five presidents apply to the United Kingdom, because the UK, by common consent across the parties, is not a member of the euro and is therefore in a more independent position than EU member states that are members of the eurozone. The United Kingdom is a very small shareholder in the European Central Bank and has a non-paid-up, rather bigger shareholding ominously sitting there. Clearly the United Kingdom does not attend the Eurogroup meetings—it is right that we do not—but we have seen in the case of Greece that the Eurogroup cannot always deal with its financial problems. The European group of Ministers wished the UK to give consent to an emergency loan to Greece from outside the Eurogroup.

The problems that have emerged with Greece give the United Kingdom an important warning, as well as a sign that this period of change in the European Union gives us an opportunity. I hope our Prime Minister will utilise it to the full, both for the benefit of a happier United Kingdom in its relationships with the rest of the European Union and for the sake of the Eurogroup, which has its own need to drive further towards common financing and common decision making.

My first wish is that Her Majesty’s Government not be taken on a wild ride to political union. Some people in the proto-debate on what our relationship with the European Union should be seem to claim that staying in the European Union as it is currently constituted is a tolerable status quo that we need not worry about, because we know what it is like. However, there is nothing stable about it and no status quo. This is a wild ride to political union. The euro has been living through an intense and tragic crisis, which has highlighted to the custodians of the euro the need to go much further and faster in the direction of completing the creation of a comprehensive union that will look much like a federal state.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on securing this wonderful debate. His speech highlights to me and many others just what a disaster the eurozone is. On that issue and the plight of Greece, does he agree that the more the disaster unfurls, the more the eurozone tries to patch things together? Now, we have news of a eurozone parliament. That is exactly the sort of thing that my right hon. Friend is warning about.

Indeed. After I secured the debate, no less a figure than the President of the French Republic made an important speech saying that the recommendations of the five presidents of the European Union do not go far enough. I thought theirs was a blockbuster recipe for pretty comprehensive union, but the President of France has said that he would like them to go further and faster. He would like to supplant the current European Parliament, or put alongside it a euro area parliament, to provide some democratic accountability to the increasingly large and important decisions that the Eurogroup makes.

Will my right hon. Friend also note that, according to the press release I have here, President Hollande said that the eurozone needed a specific budget as well as its own government and parliament? In other words, they are going for political union or bust in the eurozone.

My hon. Friend is exactly right. The President of France has gone even further than the five presidents. I will briefly highlight what is in the rather lengthy and important report, because it has escaped most comment and attention in the United Kingdom. The five presidents say:

“For all economies to be permanently better off inside the euro area, they also need to be able to share the impact of shocks through risk-sharing within the EMU. In the short term, this risk-sharing can be achieved through integrated financial and capital markets”.

That is pretty comprehensive union, which they call “private risk-sharing”. Those markets would be

“combined with the necessary common backstops, i.e. a last-resort financial safety net”—

presumably that is public finance. They continue:

“In the medium term, as economic structures converge…public risk-sharing should be enhanced through a mechanism of fiscal stabilisation for the euro area as a whole.”

That is rather wordy and slightly opaque, but I think the meaning is clear. The five presidents have recognised that to have a successful single currency, taxpayer money needs to be standing behind the financial institutions—the banks and others—and the states involved in that financial union. That is exactly the issue that the tragedy of Greece has highlighted.

Euro banknotes have no symbols of French or German taxpayers in the way that our banknotes have the Queen as a representation of the full power of the sovereign in Parliament and the revenues going into the Treasury. Euro banknotes do not have that, for the good reason that the symbols could not be agreed and there was a bit of reluctance to put the full power of taxpayers behind the banknote. They have a misleading symbol on them: the European Union flag. One has to ask why that is, when the United Kingdom—the largest country in the “outs”—has made clear that we have no wish to put any taxpayer money or finance behind the euro, because it is not our project and we are not part of it. That illustrates a much bigger problem that the eurozone is grappling with: who stands behind its banks? Who stands behind the member states when they get into financial difficulties? That problem has come out in the Greek struggle.

The five presidents go on to say:

“Progress must happen on four fronts: first, towards a genuine Economic Union…Second, towards a Financial Union that guarantees the integrity of our currency across the Monetary Union and increases risk-sharing…This means completing the Banking Union and accelerating the Capital Markets Union. Third, towards a Fiscal Union that delivers both fiscal sustainability and fiscal stabilisation”—

that means sharing tax revenues, basically—and

“finally, towards a Political Union that provides the foundation for all of the above through genuine democratic accountability”.

They go on to say that there will have to be a lot more common decision making or shared sovereignty, although I would call that the gift of sovereignty to a higher body. They say that

“this would require Member States to accept increasingly joint decision-making on elements of their respective national budgets and economic policies. Upon completion of a successful process of economic convergence and financial integration, this would pave the way for some degree of public risk sharing”—

that is, countries using other people’s taxes to sort out their own problems—

“which would at the same time have to be accompanied by stronger democratic participation”.

My right hon. Friend is making some incredibly important points. Would what he just quoted not be more accurately described as the “United States of Europe”?

I hope that it would be the United States of Euroland, but my hon. Friend is right. I hope that the Minister will say that we will not be part of it and that a plan exists to negotiate a new relationship for the United Kingdom. We will clearly need such a relationship, because no party in this House wants the UK to risk-share on that basis, putting in British taxpayer money to help Greece, Portugal or whoever is in trouble due to the euro.

The five presidents want a euro area system of competitiveness authorities that will try and create commonality of policy and outturn across the Union. They claim to have largely achieved the goal of bank supervision with the setting up of the single supervisory mechanism, but the single resolution mechanism is not fully implemented, and they want to complete a financial union, launching a common deposit insurance scheme and a full capital markets union. They want to get on with those immediately and not await treaty change, which they will need for some of their other proposals.

The five presidents ultimately want a single European capital markets supervisor, which would have great implications for the City of London and the conduct of our markets and our regulatory system were we to take part. They say that

“regulation creates incentives to risk-pooling and risk-sharing and ensures that all financial institutions have sufficient risk management structures in place and remain prudentially sound.”

Even more importantly, they go on to say, referring to the capital markets union:

“Taxation can also play an important role in terms of providing a neutral treatment for different but comparable activities and investments across jurisdictions.”

Will the United Kingdom be able to opt out of this capital markets union? If we sign up to it, does that mean that we would have to accept common European taxation on this rather important business interest for the UK?

Last, but by no means least, the report contains a heading referring to a euro-area treasury, under which it states:

“The Stability and Growth Pact remains the anchor for fiscal stability and confidence in the respect of our fiscal rules. In addition, a genuine Fiscal Union will require more joint decision-making on fiscal policy”—

in other words, a euro-area treasury.

My right hon. Friend knows this, but there is benefit in getting it on the record. The Germans and the French broke the stability and growth pact three years in succession with impunity when it suited them. On the question of how far our Government would go in accepting the proposals, does he agree that the creation of a eurozone is only a de facto organisation and not a legal one? We are caught up in this. When the fiscal compact was proposed, our Prime Minister, having listened to us, decided that he would veto. Would we not want him to veto all this as well and to make it clear that that is the case now?

My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the legal complexities that the euro area and the EU face. He is right that there is no formal, treaty-backed legal entity of the euro in full. There is the relatively informal euro-group of Ministers, who meet monthly just before the full economic affairs council, to settle euro business.

The process has gone a bit further, because of course there is a separate legal entity called the European stability mechanism, which is a formal entity for bailing out or offering loans to euro states in need of additional money. It is currently the object of the entreaties of the Greek state as the Hellenic Republic seeks a long-term loan to replace the short-term loan that the European financial stabilisation mechanism has just provided to see it through July. Greece is currently in negotiation over €86 billion—Germany would like it to be less—of possible money from the ESM. There is a legal structure to do some of the financing but, as my hon. Friend rightly says, they probably need treaty modification and a firm legal basis for the euro. In recognition of that, the five presidents suggest that they may need to move towards having an elected-President of the eurozone, which I imagine would have full legal authority and would therefore give personality to the zone as a legal entity and which would make things easier from their point of view.

I am conscious that several colleagues have turned up to join in this debate and, with your permission Sir David, I would like to see whether they can be accommodated, so I will move rapidly on to my questions to the Minister. It seems that much of what the five presidents want is perfectly reasonable in the context of people who have set up a currency that does not yet have a country to love it or back it. They desperately need to make a lot of progress to create a political union, to create a flow of tax revenues and to provide the financial solidity that a main currency usually has, so I can see their agenda. We have already heard the French President say this week, “Let’s go further and faster”, so we know the direction of travel.

Will my hon. Friend reassure us that the UK could not conceivably travel that route? Having made the crucial decision not to join the euro, the British people and Parliament are not going to want to go down the route of political union. Will he also say where the British Government will now stand on the challenge or opportunity of full banking and capital markets union? There would be great hazards in the UK signing up to the full banking and capital markets union, because that would, by implication, drag us into the financing of the euro area and involve us in decisions that it would properly want to make for itself, as we are not a full member. I would be grateful to hear the latest Government thinking on how we can have our own independent markets but co-operate with and work alongside the euro area as it creates its capital markets union.

It seems to me that there will definitely have to be treaty change. The five presidents are suggesting that they can get by without treaty change until 2017, after which they will need it. From the UK’s point of view, that is an inconvenient date, because we would like treaty change as a result of our renegotiations. As the gap between the likely date of our referendum and the date for the euro area considering treaty changes is quite narrow, might one part of our renegotiation be to say to our partners in Europe, “As you need treaty changes quite soon and we would like them now, let’s bring the thing together”? Is it not the case that the treaty changes we need relate not only to the fact that the EU already has more power then we would like over aspects of our lives, but to the fact that it is about to take a lot more power to consolidate the euro? That is a step that we could not conceivably take.

The detailed issues under all that relate to who is responsible for recapitalising failing banks—for example, who is going to recapitalise the Greek banks? Are we fully insulated from all that? Are we now happy that the formulation from the European financial stabilisation mechanism is watertight so that there is no recourse to British taxpayers in the temporary loan to Greece? Can we ensure that all future bailout loans and other advances to euro states come entirely from euro funding and not from EU legal structures, which have added complications? Can we urge the euro area to ensure that it completes its banking arrangements as quickly as possible? It would be much to the convenience of not merely the Greeks but everyone else who needs to deal with Greece that its banks do not shut down for several weeks and can reopen, as they have done partially today, with a full service, so that they can be a proper part of the European market and the world economy.

This is a great opportunity for the UK from which the Prime Minister should take heart. I admire the honesty of the five presidents coming out with all this now, despite the Greek crisis and the knowledge that the UK wishes to negotiate a new relationship. I think it makes things much easier for us, and we should share that fact with the British public, which is what I am trying to do in my modest way today. We must say that there is a big plot afoot—a wild ride to political union that is not something to which the UK can sign up. We should not get in their way, but the price of our happy consent to their new arrangements must be a new set of arrangements for us to get back powers that insulate us from all this. We need to try to find a way to work alongside the euro without being part of it.

Order. The wind-ups will start at 10 past five. I want to call everyone who wants to speak, so I hope that colleagues will bear that in mind.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. Perhaps I should put on the record the fact that this morning I was re-elected as Chairman of the European Scrutiny Committee.

In a nutshell, everything that my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (John Redwood) said is completely true. The current situation represents both a massive challenge and an opportunity for the Government. On a number of occasions, when the Prime Minister has been confronted with such difficult, challenging questions, he has decided to do the right thing. This debate, however, demonstrates that there is another new opportunity because of the disarray in the European Union.

The question of the relationship between the eurozone and the rest of the EU provides us with an opportunity, in particular given what President Hollande has said about wanting a eurozone budget, Government and Parliament, as I said in my intervention. That is completely inconceivable for the United Kingdom, the Government and our Parliament. We would be driven inexorably into all the nooks and crannies of those arrangements, because we are bound to be affected by them, as we already have been in the crisis that has engulfed Europe for the past five or six years and that I believe has been apparent since the Maastricht treaty in 1990.

The question of what President Hollande said a few days ago is important. In my judgment, what is significant is that he has a real problem with Germany—I will come on to Germany—because the question for France is one of sovereignty and the question for Germany is one of sharing the risk. That will present a significant problem between France and Germany, which is why Angela Merkel and President Hollande clearly had severe differences of opinion. This is a moment when it is imperative for the British Government to make their position clear. With France and Germany at loggerheads over the question of sovereignty and sharing economic risk, we have a classic Waterloo moment, when we should simply go straight through with our cavalry and say through the Financial Secretary to the Treasury and the Prime Minister what we will not have, that we want clarity and that this is not the time for fudge. This is the time for decisive action and to make it clear what we cannot possibly accept.

Other matters to be looked at include the purposes that lie behind what Wolfgang Schäuble has been edging and pushing, nudging and driving, during the Greek crisis. My right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham and I each wrote essays in a recent book called “Visions of Europe II”, following on from “Visions of Europe”, which came out in 1993 and in which I quoted myself. I said, I hope not immodestly, that

“the answer to the German question lies primarily in Germany itself”,

but to

“hand her the key to the legal structure of Europe with a majority voting system gravitating around alliances dependent on Germany simply hands to”


“legitimate power on a plate.”

We can say that that is exactly what has happened since I wrote those words in 1990.

Furthermore, because I wanted to be positive, I wrote:

“Britain wants to work together with Germany in a fair and balanced relationship, based on free trade, co-operation and democratic principles. She does not want to be forced into a legal structure dominated by Germany. Plans for a united Europe stray into the darkest political territory, and must be firmly rejected.”

That was in 1990, and here we are now.

I added that

“if Germany needs to be contained, the Germans must do it themselves…now is the time for the Germans to prove themselves”—

I am afraid that they have. Given the treatment of Greece, irrespective of whether there was culpability on the part of the Greeks, the really big landscape—the manner in which the whole European project has been driven forward since Maastricht—the really big landscape—the manner in which the whole European project has been driven forward since Maastricht—is that the Germans are now in control of the eurozone. No one doubts that. I have a whole stack of cuttings here, from Germany, including from Bild, and from French newspapers. I do not have time to go through them all, but every single newspaper throughout the whole of Europe—rather curiously, there was a fairly muted response from the British press—has made the assumption that it is now effectively a German eurozone, if not a German Europe.

It is not in our interests to allow that, or to allow ourselves to be affected by this situation. We will be driven into the second tier of a two-tier Europe. The eurozone is part of the over-arching legal framework of the EU as a whole, of which we are a part. That is what is driving us towards the exit of the European Union.

I wonder, Sir David, whether, if my hon. Friend agrees, it might be helpful to know how many colleagues would like to speak, so they can all have a fair amount of time.

On that point, I will sit down so that others can have their shot. I simply wanted to get that point about Germany across.

I pay particular tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (John Redwood) for bringing this issue into the public arena. The words of the five presidents need to get out there.

The euro needs to work. It exists much as I foresaw, many years ago. In ’99, when the first 11 got together to have it as their currency—the number has expanded to 18—I foresaw the problems that would arise. On the Floor of the House this morning we heard that we have an adverse balance of payments situation, not least because sterling is strengthening thanks to difficulties in the eurozone. The situation may provide the impetus we now need even more to look rather further afield to our friends and the growing markets outside the EU, which are untainted by the euroland crisis and are more linked to the dollar world.

Some years ago, an insurance company had the strapline, “We never make a drama out of a crisis.” It seems to me that whenever there is a crisis, in the EU generally and in euroland in particular, there is an attempt to make an opportunity out of it. However, it is not used as an opportunity to argue for what we would say is sensible—that perhaps the EU ought to do less; the argument is always that the EU wants more. I suppose that is the new logic. If there is a single currency, then given the pressures and strains of such divergent economies, the logic will be what the five presidents have come up with: there has to be more of the same, and words like “divergence”, “difference”, “independence” and “democracy” have no place in that.

My right hon. Friend mentioned that there are five presidents across the EU. Dombrovskis is the Vice-President for the Euro and Social Dialogue—I must say I had not heard of him before—and his words encapsulate what the situation is moving towards:

“The Economic and Monetary Union has been strengthened in recent years, not least in the light of the financial and economic crisis. Yet it remains incomplete.”

These people want more. They want a competitiveness authority so that there are common wage agreements across borders and a European deposit insurance scheme. Then they claim that Europe needs strengthened democratic accountability. I truly wonder how the people of Greece can reconcile the idea of strengthened democratic accountability with what they have just gone through.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham made the point that we should not get in the way, because things are going down a path that he rightly identified as the correct one under the circumstances. Perhaps I am being naive, but should we not be screaming from the rooftops, “Stop,” for all the reasons my hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet (Craig Mackinlay) has just mentioned—should we not tell them to get out of this experiment before millions more suffer?

My hon. Friend makes a good point. Unemployment in many parts of euroland is now beyond any measure we have seen in respectable parts of the western world since the crises of the 1930s. For Greece, sadly, that unemployment is perhaps here to stay for a generation, if not more.

I mention Greece, but the people who need to ask themselves where they are going—perhaps they have not yet read the five presidents’ document—are of course the people of Germany. The recipe that the presidents propose is one of massive fiscal transfers guaranteed by the German taxpayer. Such transfers may work in the United States, and the people of Texas may be happy to support their colleagues, friends and family in Dakota, but I wonder whether that really holds true between Germany and Greece, which describes its supposed friends and colleagues in Germany in terms that I have not heard for a very long time.

I again pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham, but we need to recognise that what the presidents propose beyond 2017 requires a grand treaty change for the eurozone. If that is for them, fine, but it is certainly not for Britain. We have an opportunity to wrap together what we require, which is a proper treaty change to get a relationship that is in tune with the British people—a return to the free trade and friendship that we thought the EU was all about. Perhaps 2017 can be an excellent year for those who feel as many of my Conservative colleagues do, and they are in tune with many people outside this place and across the country.

I ask the Minister to consider that in the round. A crunch time has come, and it is obvious what our European colleagues want. They have not asked their people, and they dare not ask their people, but it is clear that this is becoming a Euro-state that is not right for Britain. I am in favour of a new relationship that I hope can be found for the good of Europe and for the good of Britain.

It sometimes feels like we need a new language in which to have this conversation about the European Union and our relationship with it. I am grateful that, over the course of his career, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has on many occasions given us that language by saying things such as:

“It is the last gasp of an outdated ideology…that has no place in our new world of freedom”.

I agree with him.

A new nation state is hoving into view, and people should be clear about what we are discussing. The question is: should we continue on the path into that new nation state? There can now be no doubt that that is the trajectory of the eurozone. Advocates of European Union membership on substantially the current basis are in danger of being blindsided. We can see from this debate’s attendance that people are not paying close attention to the important issue of what the five Euro-presidents have said. By the way, the “five Euro-presidents”—the ridiculousness of it is palpable.

The five Euro-presidents have set out a new nation state, and it is clear that those who advocate membership on a substantially unreformed basis have not kept up with events. Too often it seems that people complacently assume that there will be a yes vote and that things will go on as before in a kind of status quo, but there will be no status quo on the ballot paper when the referendum comes. The choice will be either to continue on a substantially unreformed basis, if the Prime Minister does not get what he wants, or to say no and continue on a fundamentally different basis. Of course, I hope that the Prime Minister succeeds in delivering everything that he has ever set out. When the day comes, I would like to see yes meaning a fundamentally different relationship with the European Union that we and the Prime Minister can wholeheartedly support, and I would like no to turn out to be something that we do not need to consider.

The five Euro-presidents have set out a path to a new European nation. I fear that the truth is that they will not be willing to allow us to move to a fundamentally different path and that, in due course, the choice will be either the wild ride to political union that my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (John Redwood) set out or the conservative, moderate choice of sticking with our Parliament, our British courts, our British Lords and our ability to govern ourselves in the way that seems fit to us and that is accountable to the British people.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, and to my right hon. and hon. Friends who spoke earlier, for their efforts in delving so deeply into the questions without completely losing the will to live, but can he explain to me how, despite all their sufferings, the Greek people seem to regard membership of the euro as the addict regards the use of heroin? It does them enormous harm, yet they do not seem to be able to give it up.

My right hon. Friend makes a good point, and it may be that through the euro system Greece has done rather well in the past, through the fact that money was very easy for Greece—probably much easier than it should have been—and a nation that had probably been quite parsimonious was encouraged to take advantage of cheap credit and get into bad debt problems. It may well be that that system encouraged Greece to believe that a new way of living beyond one’s needs was possible; but as good Conservatives we will recognise that one must live within one’s means and balance the books. One must have low taxes, small government and sound money. However, I do not want to divert my remarks too far down that path.

I want to pick up on something that my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Sir William Cash) said about Germany. It has been an interesting journey, considering how people reflect on Germany. I am inclined to think that German commitment to the EU project is not malicious or controlling. It is not a problem, except that, perhaps because the EU is perceived as an anti-war project, the German people and their leaders have pursued the project far beyond what was reasonable, just and right, out of a sense of war guilt and a historical sense of shame. We as good individualists, in rejecting collectivism, may have to look at today’s generation of German people and say that they are not responsible for the horrors of the past. They must forgive themselves and move beyond the corrupting view that they have the responsibility to take forward, in a way that is quite dangerous, a project that can now be seen to have failed. History may not repeat itself, but it sometimes rhymes. We have had a horrible financial crisis.

My hon. Friend made a funny remark about the apparent absurdity of the five presidents, but does he agree that they are not figures in a Gilbert and Sullivan opera, but are enormously powerful figures commanding billions and influencing the lives of hundreds of millions of people across Europe? Just as they took the exchange rate mechanism well beyond the point at which it did untold damage, they could do untold damage with their euro scheme. Is not that a reason why we should try to let them get it right, rather than making it more difficult for them?

My right hon. Friend is right, and it is not for us to choose the destiny of the other peoples of Europe. We might offer them our advice in different ways, but since they now have the euro as a currency they had better make the best of it—although, again, I do not want to be drawn too far off into ideas about money and banking. We are in a fix. I agree with my right hon. Friend that since those people are extremely powerful, they had better make the best of it, and we should not get in their way.

I was saying that history, while not repeating itself, sometimes rhymes. We had an enormous credit expansion, which broke the banks and led us into a position of desperation in several countries of Europe. We should not in such circumstances cast aside democracy and assemble a supranational state that is not accountable to its people. There we would be running the risk of a tragic rhyme in history—a cataclysmic mistake, possibly, should it go wrong—and it really might. The evidence of history is that it might.

I want to mention four things: we should undo what I would call the spell of Plato—the idea that a guardian class can look after us, free of democracy. We should get off the road to serfdom. We should make sure that we reject the omnipotence of government, and we should overturn this managerial revolution. I refer of course to books by Popper, Hayek, Mises and Burnham, all books written during the period of war in the first half of the 20th century. They are books that I would commend to anyone, lest, while not repeating history, we rhyme with the tragic events of the past.

The right hon. Member for Wokingham (John Redwood) has a track record on these issues. I might describe it as history, given that his first European rebellion occurred during my pre-school years. Indeed, the book mentioned by the hon. Member for Stone (Sir William Cash), “Visions of Europe”, was written almost before I was born, but I will be sure to read the sequel, the slightly unoriginally titled “Visions of Europe II”.

It is good to have the opportunity to explore the questions of the UK’s relations with the euro area and further euro integration. As Members know, the Scottish National party won the European elections in Scotland with a clear manifesto commitment not to seek to join the euro, and that remains the case. There was a time, I am told, when the SNP agreed with the then UK Government that a decision on future euro membership would be subject to democratic and economic tests: membership could happen only if it was right for our economy and the people voted for it. Clearly, times have changed.

I think it is important to give some context for the debate. At the weekend, the latest opinion survey by Panelbase was published. The poll of more than 1,000 people in Scotland and just under 1,000 outwith Scotland found that support for staying in the EU, along with eurozone and non-eurozone partners, is higher in Scotland than elsewhere in the UK: 66% of Scottish respondents supported continued EU membership, compared with 51% in England being in favour of British exit. Those numbers will please some right hon. and hon. Members, but they highlight the importance of having a double majority rule for the forthcoming EU referendum to ensure that Scotland, and other UK nations, cannot be ripped out of the EU against our will.

The EU is far from perfect, but we must recognise that some 330,000 people in Scotland are involved in jobs related to trade with the EU and the continuation of the single market. We value that economic link and will seek to protect it. As set out by Scotland’s First Minister, the SNP is focused on two areas of reform. The first is straightforward: the EU should focus on economic and social policies that make a tangible difference to the lives of its citizens. Member states should, for example, have more flexibility in areas such as public health. We should work to complete the digital single market and focus efforts on creating a more integrated and connected energy market. Getting those issues right will bring benefits across eurozone and non-eurozone member states.

The second focus for the SNP is regulatory reform. The SNP Government in Scotland have already demonstrated what that can mean with reforms to the common fisheries policy. The reforms involve changes to allow more decisions to be made at a regional rather than an EU level.

The hon. Gentleman is very helpful in allowing me to intervene, but I am not concerned about the things to come that he has mentioned. He must explain how Europe will head more in a euro direction over the next couple of years, just as my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (John Redwood) discussed, rather than talk about where we are now.

Order. Before the hon. Gentleman responds to that intervention, I must remind him that he has only a minute and a half left.

Given the short time remaining, I will continue my speech.

I mentioned the possibility of British exit, but, of course, much of the strains in the eurozone today are centred on the possibility of Greek exit, as Members mentioned. As the Scottish Government have said, it has been, and remains, incumbent on all parties to work together to find an effective solution that allows the Greek economy and the Greek people the time and stability required to recover, and that also avoids unnecessary damage to the eurozone. As the IMF has acknowledged, some debt relief is an essential part of the recovery package. Ultimately, the key to recovery will be promoting growth to ensure an end to austerity.

During the Scottish independence referendum last year, much was made of the idea of solidarity. The SNP certainly supports the idea of solidarity within the EU and the eurozone. We also look for the eurozone states to work to promote stability and opportunities for growth, because a successful eurozone area is vital for our own economic opportunity and success. I am sure that we can all unite in supporting that outcome.

Thank you, Sir David, for your chairmanship. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Wokingham (John Redwood) on securing the debate. It is a particular pleasure to end the term by debating some of these issues with my old friends on the Government Benches.

The right hon. Member for Wokingham chose his usual neutral language to describe the report of the five presidents as a plot to take us on a wild ride to a European superstate. I want briefly to discuss the report and pose two questions, not so much directly to the Minister but for consideration in the debate. First, is what the report outlines a threat to the UK, and secondly, will the measures in it happen? Let me elaborate on both of those points for a couple of minutes.

Of course, it is timely to be discussing how the eurozone moves forward in the wake of what we have seen in Greece in recent weeks, but it is also instructive, as has been said, that throughout all the difficulties, and even in the wake of the referendum that was held a couple of weeks ago in Greece, a majority of people both on the yes side and on the no side wanted to stay in the euro and the eurozone. That was not a referendum about breaking with the European Union.

The discussion about how the eurozone moves forward and tries to resolve some of the difficulties—weaknesses, one might say—in its architecture that have been exposed by the crisis is not a plot. It is not surprising that this discussion is happening. Indeed, the Chancellor of the Exchequer himself has said time after time that members of the eurozone will inevitably come closer together in the wake of the crisis and what it has exposed. The report does set out major changes—I will not detail them all, because the right hon. Member for Wokingham set them out—such as convergence, mutualisation, risk sharing and so on, but it is not a plot, and the direction of travel it sets out for the eurozone is not surprising in the wake of the crisis. As I said, the question for us is whether it is a threat. Surely it is in our interests that the eurozone sorts itself out, eases the unemployment that Members have referred to, secures better economic growth and becomes a stronger trading partner for our exporters and businesses. In fact, whether we were inside or outside the European Union, it would be in our interests for the eurozone to resolve its economic difficulties.

I would love to give way to the hon. Gentleman, and I do not want to be discourteous to him, but I have only a couple of minutes, so I ask him to forgive me for not giving way to him today.

The right hon. Member for Wokingham and many others Members who have spoken in the debate have used language about seeing all this as a dastardly plot and a threat to the UK. I will not comment on each of the specific items in the five presidents report, but I argue that in a general sense, it is in our interests for the eurozone to sort itself out economically and become a stronger trading partner for the British economy. I do not see this as a zero-sum game in which a stronger eurozone is somehow a threat to the UK—not given that we have been a member of the EU for 40 years and it is our biggest trading partner, our biggest source of exports and the source of half our inward investment. However, continued economic weakness in the eurozone and a failure to resolve the problems that have been exposed in recent years would certainly not be in our interests. I therefore take a different view from the right hon. Gentleman.

The second point, which is related to whether the report represents a threat, is that although most of the report concentrates on the eurozone, some of the measures apply to all 28 member states. An example is the capital markets union, to which the right hon. Gentleman referred. That is being governed by Lord Hill, our own Commissioner and his party colleague. The UK is the member state with the strongest financial sector, and it has a world-class cluster of associated services such as accountancy, so that poses opportunities for the UK, not just challenges. We must not see everything that happens as a threat.

Let me move on to my second question—whether all this will happen. To an extent, I echo the question that the hon. Member for Stone (Sir William Cash) asked. Germany may well resist mutualisation because it involves taking on risk in other states, and other countries may resist subscribing to common rules. Although the five presidents report has a grand title, I suspect that the issues that it raises will be debated for some time to come, and it is not at all certain yet that everything it sets out will happen.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (John Redwood) on securing this debate, and I thank all participants. It has been enlightening. I particularly congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Sir William Cash) on his election—I am surprised that anyone would dare challenge him—and am delighted that he has been returned in place as Chairman of the European Scrutiny Committee.

As previous speakers have said, the UK’s relationship with the euro area and further euro area integration raise important challenges. That is particularly the case in the context of the situation in Greece. By not joining the euro, the UK retained the economic flexibility to adjust to shocks. This Government cannot be clearer: we are committed to keeping the pound and staying out of the euro area. Under protocol 15 of the treaties, the UK has a permanent opt-out from the euro area, so we are

“under no obligation to adopt the euro”.

That said, it seems likely that the euro area—I stress “the euro area”—will need further integration to stabilise its economy. That is the premise of the recent five presidents report. Our position is simple: the EU must be flexible enough to meet the interests of both those inside the euro area and those outside it. The single currency is not for everybody, but the single market is, so it must work for all of us. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor has made it clear that, as the euro area integrates, we will need to reconcile the integrity of the EU as a collection of 28 member states with the integration of the euro area as a currency union of 19 economies. Our interests as a euro-out must be protected.

The immediate outlook for the euro area is improving. Its first-quarter growth was 0.4%, the fastest rate of quarterly growth since 2011. Nevertheless, the outlook for growth remains sluggish, which should be of concern to us all. The lesson from our own experience in the United Kingdom is that what is needed to embed recovery is a mutually reinforcing mix of active monetary policy to stimulate demand, maintain price stability and support the flow of credit to the economy, clear commitments to medium-term fiscal discipline that provide a firm anchor for market confidence and a focus on growth-enhancing structural reforms to rebalance and strengthen the economy. We therefore welcome the European Central Bank’s recent actions to stimulate the economy and tackle the potentially damaging threat of deflation. However, as the latest forecasts show, ECB action alone is not sufficient to change materially the euro area’s growth trajectory. Structural reforms are crucial to support the effectiveness of the ECB’s action.

The Chancellor has long made clear his view that there is a remorseless logic meaning that the euro area, like any currency area, needs closer economic and fiscal integration to secure its future. The recently published five presidents report is part of an ongoing process to identify next steps to better governance in the euro area.

Is it our Chancellor’s view that there should develop in the eurozone a single state with a single Government?

The logic of the position—this point was made by numerous right hon. and hon. Members before the formation of the euro—is that if there is a currency union, certain other things flow from it. Indeed, we are seeing the consequences of that. In a way, it is the background to the five presidents report. It is part of an ongoing process to identify the next steps to better governance in the euro area. There is a clear appetite for reform demonstrated by the process, which echoes the conversations that the Prime Minister and Chancellor have had in their bilateral discussions. The Government have submitted two written contributions to the five presidents’ process. We note the report’s proposals and have set out its content and implications in an explanatory memorandum. Therefore the Government do not currently plan to issue a further formal response. However, although the report’s focus is on the euro area, many issues it covers affect the interests of all member states. The UK will therefore remain fully engaged in discussions in this area.

So far, other member states have expressed a range of views on the report’s proposals. It is worth nothing that these reviews have been mixed. As I said, it is in our interests that the euro is a successful, strong currency area, so we do not want to stand in the way of the euro area resolving its difficulties. However, we will not let integration of the euro area jeopardise the integrity of the single market or in any way disadvantage the UK. The Government are pushing for further reform to improve the single market, focusing on the digital single market; further liberalisation of sector-specific services; and better regulation for small and medium-sized enterprises.

In return for supporting the euro area’s efforts to stabilise its economy, we want a settlement between the UK and the euro area that protects the single market, that is stable and fair and that lasts. This is in the interests of everyone—it is the basis for stable and sustainable governance of a reformed and prosperous EU—and is one of the UK’s important objectives in its renegotiation with the EU.

It has been 40 years since the British people last had a say on our EU membership. The organisation has changed vastly since then and it is time that we addressed this matter. The British public are clear that they are not happy with the status quo. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is determined to address those concerns. He has already talked about four areas where he wants change: sovereignty, competitiveness, immigration and fairness. For example, ever-closer union—a theme that runs through the five presidents report, to some extent—may be right for others, but it is not right for Britain, and change should include increasing economic competitiveness to create jobs and growth for hard-working families, and reforming welfare to reduce the incentives that have led to mass immigration from Europe. Those things are important to us. These reforms will improve fairness, which cuts to the heart of today’s debate: protecting Britain’s interests outside the euro. They will also improve the EU’s effectiveness as a whole. We want a dynamic, competitive, outward-focused Europe, delivering prosperity and security for the benefit of every country in the EU, with the UK playing its role.

In a nutshell, on current account transactions, the UK runs a deficit with the other 27 member states of well over £60 billion a year. Germany, on the other hand, runs a surplus in the same year. How on earth can we continue on that basis?

In the time available, I will not attempt to address that point in great detail. I hope my hon. Friend will forgive me.

A key part of the UK’s response to the five presidents’ process was the need to focus reforms, as well as the work of the institutions that the presidents represent, on the important priorities of delivering jobs, growth and stability to the European economy. Working alongside national Parliaments to drive competitiveness and streamline costly processes should be at the heart of the EU’s mission. That will be the foundation of public support and legitimacy for the EU.

Efforts to improve competitiveness go hand in hand with improving our own productivity. We support the euro area in sorting out its own problems so it can function more effectively. We will not allow further integration of the euro area to jeopardise the integrity of the single market, or in any way disadvantage euro-out countries like the UK.

I think that the debate illustrates that we need rather more time to do justice to these mighty issues. I hope that the Government take away from this short debate our enthusiasm for a new relationship with the EU and the opportunity that the five presidents report proposes. Let me reassure the Labour representative, the right hon. Member for Wolverhampton South East (Mr McFadden), that I said clearly that I wanted Labour to succeed and did not want to get in their way, but we ourselves must opt out of the wild ride to political union.

Motion lapsed, and sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(14)).