Wednesday 14 October 2015
[Mr Clive Betts in the Chair]
Gibraltar and Spain
I beg to move,
That this House has considered Gibraltar and relations with Spain.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts, for this very important debate. I wish to declare an interest, as chairman of the all-party group on Gibraltar. I also recently visited Gibraltar to take part in its national day of celebrations as a guest of the Gibraltar Government.
I understand that there were 285 unlawful incursions of Spanish state vessels into British Gibraltarian waters in the first eight months of this year, and more than 80 in September alone. I hope the Minister will update us on the current situation in his response.
There was also an extremely dangerous incident in August this year, when a Spanish state vessel fired live rounds at anglers on a Gibraltarian pleasure boat. The Royal Gibraltar Police apprehended the vessel and searched it, and no sign whatever of any illicit activity was found. Members may be surprised to hear that the Spanish Government denied the use of live rounds until video evidence of the incident materialised. All the Spanish authorities need to do is communicate with the British Gibraltarian authorities if they are chasing criminal suspects—a system that works well elsewhere around the world. Currently, Spain is putting lives at risk in a needless and seemingly casual manner.
On the matter of British Gibraltarian waters, Spain’s former ambassador, José Antonio de Yturriaga, has said publicly that Madrid’s position on British Gibraltarian territorial waters has no legal basis and that the Spanish Foreign Office has legal opinions that confirm this. According to published reports, the current Spanish Foreign Minister recently acknowledged at a university seminar that the Spanish position on the waters around Gibraltar would be very difficult to defend in court.
It is clear that the treaty of Utrecht in 1713 did not specify territorial waters, because the three-mile—later 12-mile—rule as far as territorial waters are concerned had not yet come into existence. The principle is today enshrined in article 2 of the United Nations convention on the law of the sea, which Spain signed. Although Spain attempted to exclude itself from that clause when signing the convention, it was not able to do so under the agreement.
Interestingly, I read recently that for most of the past 300 years the waters under British control around Gibraltar were much larger and stretched on to several hundred metres of Spain’s south-eastern coastline. Spain was aggrieved that the waters off a section of its coastline were under the jurisdiction and control of another state, and made frequent complaints to Britain. It seems it was under Franco in the late ’60s that Spain came up with the absurd idea that Gibraltar should have no territorial waters. Before that, the Spanish just wanted the equidistance principle—the internationally accepted standard line, requiring countries’ seas to be divided along a median line. Essentially, Spain’s view on and behaviour concerning British Gibraltarian territorial waters has no standing at all in international law, and Madrid is very aware of the fact.
As my hon. Friend rightly says, the incursions by Spain into Gibraltarian territorial waters have been going on for a considerable time. Spain has been throwing down the gauntlet with these provocative incursions and is clearly saying, “What are you going to do about it?” Is it not time for the United Kingdom to say what we are going to do about it?
I agree completely. The fact is that Spain— a NATO and European ally—is so consistently and flagrantly breaking the law that it is astonishing. Spain’s ban on NATO forces moving between Gibraltar and Spain, overfly rights and travel between ports is quite simply to the detriment of western security. The fact that the Spanish will not allow RAF aircraft to overfly Spanish airspace on their way to and from Gibraltar results, I understand from the last speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Sir Gerald Howarth) in the House on the matter, in a cost to the British taxpayer of an additional £5,000 to £10,000 for each flight. Our military resources are finite. Spain seems to feel it acceptable to reduce NATO’s defensive capacity by causing totally unnecessary extra costs, yet we are bound by article 5 of the NATO Washington treaty to expend British “blood and treasure” if Spain ever finds itself under attack.
At the same time, Spain continues to allow Russian naval vessels to refuel at its territory of Ceuta. The press reported that a state-of-the-art submarine had a three-day visit to the port of Ceuta in August this year. It was allowed to take on fuel and water while its crew enjoyed shore leave and Ceuta’s amenities. It is believed that the Russian submarine was headed for the naval base at Sebastopol, although the Russian military denied that. This is at a time when NATO insists that the alliance has suspended all practical co-operation with Russia. It seems Spain organised that with Russia directly against NATO’s and Europe’s position on Russia. Will the Minister explain how that is acceptable and allowed to continue?
Spain seems to be trying to wage some sort of economic warfare on Gibraltar with the ongoing issue of border delays. As the Foreign Affairs Committee report last year made clear, much of the evidence against the border delays came from Spanish workers who commute into Gibraltar on a daily basis. That is still a major problem, but Madrid is not being successful. Gibraltar is a fantastic economic success story, with impressive economic growth. Its GDP for 2013-14 increased by more than 12% in nominal terms, and I understand that forecasts for 2014-15 show a further 10.3% increase—a higher GDP per capita, which is a measure of living standards, than the UK and Spain as a whole, and greatly higher per head than its neighbours in Andalucia. GDP per capita for Gibraltar is forecast to be £50,941 in 2014-15, a long way above that of Andalucia, where GDP per capita was £13,300 in 2014, and higher even than Madrid’s, which was £25,000 per capita in 2014. It is unsurprising that up to 10,000 Spaniards a day cross the border to work in Gibraltar.
The Chief Minister said this week in London that the OECD has confirmed that in terms of financial regulation, Gibraltar is alongside Britain, Germany and the US as the best in the world. Spain’s oft-used propaganda insinuating the opposite about Gibraltarian business has been completely discredited.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. He talks about economic warfare. Would he agree that it is actually in the Spanish Government’s and the Spanish people’s interest to come to an accommodation, accepting the people of Gibraltar’s right to be there? Economically, they could then thrive, rather than attempt to marginalise the people of Gibraltar, penalising the thousands of Spanish workers who depend on Gibraltar for their livelihoods.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. This situation penalises Spain’s own people and damages its own economic prospects and success for the future. It is completely bizarre that Spain should behave in this fashion.
I turn to the matter of the Royal Navy. The two Royal Navy ships in Gibraltar are more than 20 years old and are, I understand, not the best modern option. The Government of Gibraltar have indicated that they would finance another Royal Navy vessel. Does the Minister think we should accept that offer? Regardless of that fact, the British Government should significantly increase their naval presence in the straits. That would send the clearest possible signal to Spain that we are absolutely serious about defending our strategic interests in Gibraltar and our people there.
As history has proven countless times, weakness is provocative. We should make the rules of engagement for our naval vessels more robust for clarity and to act as a deterrent. I fear there will be a tragedy sooner or later as a result of the aggressive, illegal Spanish incursions, with lives lost, if we are not clear about how serious we are.
Will the Minister tell us what the rules of engagement are for our forces operating around Gibraltar? We can draw our own conclusions about the fact that the Spanish do not harass or get too close to US navy vessels operating around Gibraltar. I would like to know how many times the British Government have protested to Spain about its hostile and illegal actions with regard to the British sovereign territory of Gibraltar. I know that since 2011, the Spanish ambassador to the Court of St James has been summoned at least five times. That puts Spain in the same category as North Korea and Syria—a completely ridiculous situation.
If the Spanish Government cannot start treating their NATO and European Union ally correctly, what can the British Government do next—recall our ambassador to Spain? Send its ambassador back? Spain’s position on Gibraltar is as if we did not accept the treaty between the US and the UK that recognised the outcome of the US war of independence. Gibraltar has been British for longer than the US has been a nation. It is time for the Spanish Government to stop using Gibraltar to mask their own problems and inadequacies and start behaving like a true NATO and European ally, with all the positive benefits that would bring for Gibraltar and the Spanish people.
It is a pleasure to be called to speak in this debate, Mr Betts, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke (Jack Lopresti) on securing it. There is interest in Gibraltar across the whole of Europe, but for us in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, we are aware of what it is like sometimes to be on the edge. We are proud of our Britishness, so it is a pleasure to speak on this issue.
It goes without saying that relations between the United Kingdom and Spain have been strained in recent times. With deliberate intrusions into Gibraltar’s territorial waters by Spanish vessels, it is imperative that Gibraltar’s position as an overseas territory is reiterated and that any Spanish attempt to undermine that position be firmly rebutted. The self-determination of the Gibraltarian people is at the heart of the UN charter, and that self-determination must be the focus moving forward in our relationship with Spain. We want good relations, but we want them to be sensible.
The recent visit by HMS Bulwark to Gibraltar highlights the continued strategic importance of the territory. This comes at a time when Spain continually seeks to undermine the right to self-determination of the Gibraltarians, in addition to recent incursions into Gibraltar’s territorial waters. Worryingly, we have seen continued interference from right at the heart of the Spanish Government. The Spanish Foreign Minister, José Manuel García-Margallo, has called for bilateral talks with the United Kingdom over sovereignty. This is the same Spain who is trying to deny Catalonia independence—it is always interesting to watch what happens with foreign policy in other countries and to compare what one country does at home with what they do elsewhere. It begs the question: just what does Spain understand about self-determination and sovereignty? What exactly are Spain’s aspirations, should such talks ever place, when there is next to no support for changes to sovereignty among the people of Gibraltar?
I support the Foreign Secretary’s comments in his keynote speech to his party conference this year. He warned Spain over its “unlawful and inexcusable” incursions into Gibraltar’s territorial waters—a clear statement that cannot be denied. The Foreign Secretary’s reiteration of the Government’s commitment to self-determination for Gibraltar’s people and the continued defence of the territory are comments that I am sure at least the vast majority of this House will support, if not everyone.
Having said that, the Foreign Secretary also hinted at co-operation with Spain in areas in which further co-operation could be mutually beneficial. It is always good to have relations, including economic relations, but I was reading in the briefing note for this debate that, such is Spain’s interest in developing those relations, it is intending to impose a charge of £43.40 each time someone crosses the border between Gibraltar and Spain. If a business owner frequently has to traverse the border, it would cost them a fortune. All their money would go on charges to get across it.
On my hon. Friend’s point about the threat to charge people leaving or entering Gibraltar, there is also a hint that the Spanish Government will ask taxation officials to investigate those who own properties in the regions of Spain, which will affect British people who own properties there and especially those living in Gibraltar. Again, there will be economic penalties against those who live there.
I thank my hon. Friend and colleague for that intervention. He clearly outlines, yet again, some policies that the Spanish Government seem to be adopting in relation to those who are British, those who live in Gibraltar and those who have a different passport.
I trust I speak for the whole House when I say that it is in the interests of our United Kingdom to see Gibraltar doing well and that, should further co-operation with Spain, where possible, help Gibraltar to prosper, it is certainly a route to be considered. However, I remind the Foreign Secretary and the House of the countless violations of Gibraltar’s sovereignty by Spain. I suggest that we err on the side of caution when engaging with Spain on this issue, because although co-operation can be positive, we need to be mindful at all times of Spain’s track record in this regard and remember that it is the British people of Gibraltar to whom this Government, this House and this entire nation owe our loyalty.
The Spanish Foreign Minister might have seemed well intentioned in his call for talks, but to contextualise those comments, it is imperative to remember what exactly Mr García-Margallo described Gibraltar as, because it puts things into perspective. In the same speech in which he called for bilateral talks, he said that Gibraltar was the last colony in Europe and that his Government wanted to discuss its decolonisation bilaterally with the United Kingdom. Are those the sort of comments we would expect from someone wanting to build an honest and friendly relationship; or are they, as I suspect, just further confirmation that Spain is willing not only to make incursions into Gibraltar’s territorial waters, but to continue openly to undermine the sovereignty of Gibraltar and its people’s right to self-determination?
We have been to many meetings in which there have been opportunities to support the people and Government of Gibraltar. My right hon. Friend the Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds) and I have attended quite a few where the issue of fishing rights in territorial waters have been discussed. It is clear that Spain has a policy of incursions into territorial waters, clearly ignoring the views of the people who live in Gibraltar.
In conclusion, I can only hope that the remarks in this debate have struck a chord with the House and the Members here in the Chamber. I trust that the Foreign Secretary and others will share my concerns and those of many others about the Spanish Foreign Minister’s outrageous and wholly unacceptable comments and that they will indeed challenge him on them.
It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke (Jack Lopresti) on securing this important debate. I, too, should declare an interest, as secretary of the all-party group on Gibraltar. I had the pleasure of visiting Gibraltar at the same time as my hon. Friend, along with several hon. Members from all parties. One of the important issues to bear in mind is that the strength of support for Gibraltar goes right across this House, and today is a good opportunity for us to reinforce that.
In opening the debate, my hon. Friend referred to the issue of incursions and the impossibility of reconciling some Spanish behaviour with what we would expect from a NATO friend and ally and a European Union partner. That is a matter of some sadness to me, not only as a frequent visitor to Spain and to Gibraltar over the years, but because, as a member of the UK’s delegation to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, I know that there are areas in which we work well with our Spanish colleagues. However, the relationship is clouded by the political obsession of some members of the current Spanish Government, and that stands in the way of our developing the normal sort of sensible and mature dialogue that we would expect two established democracies to have.
I very much welcome the proposal that Their Majesties the King and Queen of Spain might visit the United Kingdom in 2016. That would be a good step forward, but I hope too that we would not then see objections to members of the British royal family visiting Gibraltar. That would be a mature step forward in the relationship, and I hope that it would give us the opportunity to reinforce the Government’s position that there can be no question of bilateral talks, as suggested by Mr García-Margallo. There must be a tripartite forum involving the people of Gibraltar and their elected representatives. I am sure that the Minister will want to restate that position.
I want to touch on another matter that my hon. Friend the Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke alluded to: the economic war that is, in effect, being waged by Spain against Gibraltar. We have seen that in the delays at the frontier, which seem to come and go depending on the level of profile and what distraction the current Spanish Government wish to create from their difficulties with their domestic agenda. There are also the incursions and harassment by the Spanish customs service. However, there has also been a damaging and, happily, unjustified—indeed, demonstrably so—campaign of economic slander against Gibraltar by Spain and its allies. The suggestion has been made, wholly erroneously—on one or two occasions it has been swallowed by Members of this House, although not very many—that Gibraltar is some kind of tax haven and that its economic, legal and regulatory systems were in some way lacking in transparency. Nothing could be further from the truth, as a number of debates in this House have amply demonstrated. This was shown by the European Union’s removal of Gibraltar from what it calls its tax havens blacklist—a recognition that Gibraltar has taken all the necessary steps to comply.
While in Gibraltar, I had the chance to meet its Finance Minister and senior members of its judiciary. It is worth remembering that Gibraltar operates a British-style common-law system to exactly the same standards as we would expect here. Its financial regulatory bodies are organised on exactly the same models as our Financial Conduct Authority and operate to exactly the same standards. The professional bodies that operate in Gibraltar for all related professions also mirror British standards exactly. Against that background, it is no surprise that the OECD Global Forum on Transparency and Exchange of Information for Tax Purposes gave Gibraltar exactly the same score for transparency as Germany, the United Kingdom and the United States.
None the less, despite evidence that is as plain as a pikestaff, Spain sought to object to the EU’s removing Gibraltar from the blacklist. That was wholly irrational, but there is a risk that a degree of Spanish policy is sadly irrational in this matter. I hope, though, that the Minister will undertake to continue to press vigorously on Her Majesty’s behalf to ensure that other individual countries fall into line and remove Gibraltar from their own blacklists. Everyone accepts that Gibraltar is compliant and that all EU regulations are transposed properly, but some individual countries have probably not made it enough of a priority to remove it. I hope that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office will endeavour to persuade individual states to follow the EU’s line. Latvia, I notice, has recently done so, as have a number of others. It is important that we get complete consistency on that.
I congratulate our hon. Friend the Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke (Jack Lopresti) on securing this debate. My hon. Friend has just made a point about Spain’s position on the tax status being irrational, but is not its position also irrational in relation to the north African enclaves, which are Spanish territory? If those enclaves have the right to choose to be Spanish, it is only logical that Gibraltar’s residents have the right to choose to be British.
The point is entirely correct. No one in the United Kingdom wishes to see the people of Ceuta and Melilla handed over to Morocco against their wishes—of course not—and the same decency should be extended by the Spanish Government to the people of Gibraltar. All I will say is that, following my visits to Spain and my discussions with Spanish parliamentarians, I think that the current Spanish Foreign Minister has a particular, personal agenda. Who knows what the position will be after November? There are people in Spain, particularly those involved in the local and regional governments in the Campo, the area immediately behind Gibraltar, who know that enormous benefit will come to their own people from a relaxation—a normalisation—of relationships and the building up of stronger economic links, but they have not yet been able to persuade a majority in the Cortes of that. We should be prepared to make the case vigorously to help them to do so. Who knows what November’s elections may bring in that regard?
Does my hon. Friend agree that many ordinary Spanish people have a very different attitude towards Gibraltar from that of their Government? Many Spanish people work in Gibraltar and need to cross the border every day to go to and from work. They are the ones who suffer from the delays that are set up by Spain, quite unnecessarily, as a demonstration simply that it can do that.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Anyone who visits Gibraltar will meet dozens of people working in Gibraltar who are Spanish. Some of us have had the chance to meet Spanish trade unionists from the Campo and members of Spanish local authorities in the Campo who are very keen to improve relations, but suffer from an entirely different attitude coming from the Government in Madrid. It is therefore important that we in this House make clear our absolute determination to stand by Gibraltar, and use that, on a clear basis of evidence, as a means of persuading the majority of Spaniards that their current Government’s stance is not in their national interest, any more than it is in the interests of the people of Gibraltar, and that there will be real opportunities from a normalisation of those relations.
Both the hon. Gentleman and I have referred to the financial implications of the difficulties between Spain and Gibraltar, but other things have been concerning us as well, and it is important to put them on the record too. The buzzing of a commercial aeroplane by two Spanish jets in September 2014 was an example of the danger that can be caused. Also relevant is the use of the Spanish navy to harass fishing fleets and people on boats around Gibraltar. Those are just two examples of the use of Spanish military forces against Gibraltar. If Spain is not careful, someone will be either injured or killed as a result.
Absolutely, and my hon. Friend the Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke touched on those matters. When we are dealing with a very limited and constrained airspace, as any of us who have been in and out of Gibraltar know, it is extremely dangerous to behave in the way that the Spanish air force has or as some of Spain’s naval assets have. The irony is that these are two NATO allies. That is the bizarre nature of the impasse at which we currently find ourselves. I hope that the Foreign Office will continue to be vigorous and also ensure that we use our considerable soft power, as it is sometimes termed, in persuading other actors in the European Union and the United Nations—where Spain again, sadly, has mounted an entirely misleading campaign with the decolonisation committee—to set out the facts, to support Gibraltar very clearly and to ensure that there is both physical security, in terms of the integrity—
In terms of the current negotiations about EU membership and so on, and the certainty of a referendum in the near future, does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is important that the Foreign Office bears in mind at all times the interests of Gibraltar in all this and that, whatever the outcome of the referendum, Gibraltar’s interests are stood up for? If the United Kingdom decides to leave and Spain remains a member, that will clearly cause a lot of issues for Gibraltar. It is important that that is borne in mind very strongly by the Foreign Office in terms of the interests of the people of Gibraltar.
The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. I was saying that it is important that we continue to stress our support for the physical integrity of Gibraltar and its waters. The other issue is continuing support for the economic wellbeing of Gibraltar. I have alluded to some of that. From Gibraltar’s point of view, the other part of that will of course be the renegotiations. I know that the Minister is well seized of this. It is critical that Gibraltar maintains its access to the single market and freedom of movement, which gives it a legal basis to challenge the wholly unjustified approach adopted by Spain to the border. I am sure that that is in Her Majesty’s Government’s mind and that it is in the mind of the official Opposition, too. I am sure that the right hon. Member for Wolverhampton South East (Mr McFadden), whom we are all happy to see here, will want to restate his party’s unequivocal support for British sovereignty in Gibraltar—from the very top down, I am sure—and add its commitment to giving the Government full-hearted support in protecting the interests of Gibraltar, not only in the renegotiations but in all other matters going forward.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I congratulate the hon. Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke (Jack Lopresti) on this very important and timely debate on the future of Gibraltar.
I had the honour of attending the national day celebrations in Gibraltar very recently, on 10 September—a day when Gibraltar is awash with red and white and when people express their right to self-determination. It is a small nation of 29,000 people, but as we have heard from other hon. Members, their number is swelled on a daily basis by a huge intake of the Spanish people who work there.
I had the pleasure of speaking both with natives of Gibraltar and with Spanish people that day, and they are a friendly mix; they get on well. I would therefore like to underline the point made earlier. This is not a point of difference; the tensions do not exist between the Spanish people and the people of Gibraltar. The tensions exist because of the actions of the Spanish Government and, of course, the reaction or lack of reaction from the UK Government. It is important that we bear that in mind.
The people of Gibraltar live in a small nation bordered by a larger nation, a larger neighbour, but it still manages to be efficient, thriving, friendly and, as we have heard, an economic magnet—a very successful small nation. Despite the problems and constraints caused by its larger neighbour, it is able to contribute and work perfectly efficiently and well under its own steam. The people of Gibraltar have the right to continue to express their need for, and their absolute right to, self-determination. People who live there must be absolutely safe and able to conduct their business. The incursions into Gibraltar’s territorial waters, the problems that it has had to put up with and the manufactured situations that have been set up to put it under what can only be described as intimidation are not acceptable, and no small nation should find themselves in such a position.
We heard from the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) about the attempt to undermine the economic position of Gibraltar, and that is not acceptable either. Gibraltar is a nation that can survive perfectly well on its own and that performs perfectly well on its own. It has had to put up with incursions into territorial waters and manufactured border delays where people have had to wait for hours and hours to cross the border. Gibraltar has experienced incursions, in violation of its aviation rights. In August there was an incident, as we have heard, involving the discharging of firearms in territorial waters, which put at risk not only people from Gibraltar but citizens of other nations who were present, including UK citizens. That is not acceptable behaviour, and nobody should have to put up with it.
The people of Gibraltar have made and continue to make Gibraltar. Gibraltar is a nation with a right—I have said this many times, but I am not afraid to repeat it—to self-determination and to control its own affairs, as a nation does. Its constitutional future should be determined by the people who live there, not by their neighbour. The Spanish Government say that Gibraltar has no right to self-determination.
We are the people who defend democracy, and the ballot box is always the way to secure the constitutional position of any nation. I would certainly agree with that. The right to make constitutional decisions at the ballot box is absolutely paramount. The Spanish Government have form on the matter; they have ignored the will of Catalonia as well as this issue in Gibraltar.
When I spoke to people in Gibraltar who had been subject to incidents such as those I have described—I am sure we will hear about them later—I found that they have real concerns and fears, not only about those incursions, but about what will happen in future. They are deeply concerned about the question of EU membership. The Prime Minister must confirm what he will do to uphold Gibraltar’s right to self-determination and stand by it regardless of the outcome of the EU referendum. It is also important for the UK Government to say clearly what actions they will take to support Gibraltarians’ ability to live their daily lives safely. When Their Majesties of Spain visit in 2016, that would be an opportunity to assure support for Gibraltar and its self-determination into the future.
Finally, the Prime Minister has told us that he wants to undertake treaty negotiations ahead of the EU referendum. Regardless of the outcome of the referendum, during those negotiations the Prime Minister needs to take into account the views and concerns of the people of Gibraltar on the single market and the free movement of goods and services, and to make sure that those rights are upheld for Gibraltar in future. The people of Gibraltar have stated their will, and they are extremely motivated and concerned. They have democratically expressed their desire for self-determination, and it is the duty of this House and UK Ministers to support them in progressing that aim.
It is a great pleasure to take part in this important debate, which I hope will be heard across Europe. We see a great breadth of support in the House of Commons, and here in Westminster Hall, for the status of Gibraltar and the self-determination of its people. I would like to declare an interest of my own in Gibraltar. I have visited Gibraltar many times, and I am on the all-party group on Gibraltar.
This year, I was in Gibraltar again on national day. With some others here, I had the great pleasure of speaking in Casemates Square to a gathering of thousands of people. It was, as my hon. Friend the Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Drew Hendry) said, a sea of red and white, as Gibraltar quite rightly celebrated and marked its place in the world—a place that should be respected. That takes place on 10 September every year, which, as close observers will know, is the day before Catalonia’s national day. As has been mentioned, we know the spirit in which Spain treats both Gibraltar and Catalonia, and I find that to be a bit of an imperial hangover. I note from his excellent speech that the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) supports the self-determination of both Gibraltar and Catalonia. That is logically consistent, and I congratulate him on that. The people of Gibraltar will especially congratulate him on his full support for the position of Gibraltar and its people.
The debate was opened by the chairman of the all-party group for Gibraltar, the hon. Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke (Jack Lopresti). He mentioned the 285 incursions that have taken place in the past year, some 80 of them in September alone. For a country that should be, and is, friendly, Spain’s treatment of Gibraltar is absolutely appalling. On my visits to Gibraltar, I have got to know a young man, Dale, who was the victim of one of the most famous incursions by the Guardia Civil. They followed him into a Gibraltarian harbour when he was on a jet ski, and, if that was not bad enough, opened fire on him. That can be seen on YouTube, and the distinct crack of a gunshot is audible as Dale dodges around the harbour trying to avoid the projectiles being fired at him by the Guardia Civil. I am not sure whether they were live rounds, or rubber or plastic ones, but whatever they were, the Guardia Civil should not have been firing them. If they had hit Dale, even in the best of circumstances, the outcome might not have been pleasant at all.
I do not think that Dale, who is quite a friendly and fun individual, hung about for long enough to find out exactly what the Guardia Civil were firing at him, but it is an absolute outrage for those who believe that Gibraltar’s self-determination and independence should be respected that anyone, from anywhere in the world, could condone the behaviour of the Guardia Civil. For those who struggle to believe that the incident happened—I almost struggle to believe it myself—it can easily be seen on YouTube. [Interruption.] I can see hon. Members nodding.
I am glad to say that this year, I was fortunate enough to get a lift with Dale on his jet ski. We saw some dolphins out from Gibraltar and we saw the Guardia Civil, and I am even happier to say that they both stayed mercifully far from each other. That was of great comfort and relief to me on the back of Dale’s jet ski. Members will also be pleased to hear that Dale has got himself a faster jet ski and has since been untroubled by the Guardia Civil in any shape or form, but he should never have been troubled by them in the first place.
The hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill), who is very probably my cousin, distant though the connection will be—that might be the end of his political career, of course—[Interruption.] I am hearing mutterings from some of his colleagues to the effect that he is probably doomed. He brought a mature tone to the debate, and he set out and calibrated our position regarding Spain. Spain is a friend, and a place that we like. Spanish people like to be on our island. It is a place Gibraltarians like, as was noted by my hon. Friend the Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey in his excellent speech. The relationship between the UK and Spain is very mature in many ways, although there are occasional aberrations in it. I feel that the Spanish attitude to Gibraltar is part of an imperial hangover, and I am not quite sure how we can get Spain away from that. Trying to deal with such a hangover must create many headaches in the Foreign Office. They have to move on.
In the past, after queues at the border, I have asked for the Spanish ambassador to be brought into the Foreign Office and made to wait five hours to get a slight taste of what this policy is like for the people of Gibraltar, the people of La Linea and others who travel into Gibraltar for work. In the Guildhall on Monday, I noted that the unemployment rate in Gibraltar is something like 164 people out of about 30,000, which is phenomenal, but of course 10,000 people are going in for work. The Chief Minister, Fabian Picardo, has said that Gibraltar could create many more jobs if there was further co-operation, which would benefit both sides of the border.
It is a bit of a shame that this sort of machismo enters into what should be a mutually beneficial and positive relationship. That relationship is not fully happening yet but we hope for signs. I understand that this year—I am sure that the Minister will confirm this—the events on the border are not as bad as they have been in the past. Indeed, I am pretty sure that my blood pressure in the Chamber has not been going up as much as it has in past years when it comes to the behaviour of the Spanish at the border. [Interruption.] Of course, I am hearing that my blood pressure might be going up for other reasons in the Chamber.
We must all support Gibraltar’s place in the world and I pleased that people have done so in this debate. I am particularly pleased because on one of the national days in Casemates Square I called for UEFA to recognise Gibraltar. It did so shortly afterwards. I do not claim that I provided the push over the edge for that; the feeling generally was coming to the surface. Gibraltar is now on the world stage and certainly on the European stage. FIFA has to start to recognise Gibraltar as well, despite the noises from Spain that it would not. Gibraltar has been playing well in Portugal, so it has friends on the Iberian peninsula. Indeed, this week Gibraltar had a game against Scotland. I will not mention the score although luckily it was good for Scotland eventually. We have had a fright against Gibraltar as we were drawing at one stage in the game at Hampden Park. The important point is that Gibraltar is on the world stage and in people’s minds. It is recognised and accepted as, indeed, are many other places. I am pleased that it is playing its full part. That is a symbol of what Gibraltar is to many people—accepted. It is time that that was recognised by Spain.
I have been asked, as deputy foreign affairs spokesman for the Scottish National party—a party that, as will come as no surprise here, wants to get out of the United Kingdom—why I am so supportive of Gibraltar’s constitutional position. I always take great delight in explaining that. Gibraltar likes to be independent of its large neighbour, something that I, as a Scot, feel is particularly important. Also, Gibraltar is British but not in the United Kingdom. I would be quite comfortable with that situation.
Uppermost in the minds of everyone here is the self-determination of Gibraltar. At the outset of the debate, it was very well said by the chair of the all-party group on Gibraltar, the hon. Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke, that the United States of America dates from 1776 and that the treaty of Utrecht and the foundation of Gibraltar dates from 1713. Doing my arithmetic quickly, Gibraltar is a good 63 years older.
This year, I was pleased to be part of Gibraltar’s national day. I hope to be part of it at some time in the future. It is important that we send out a straightforward signal to Gibraltar. As the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds) said, we must be mindful, in any EU referendum, that we support Gibraltar in all phases, no matter what happens constitutionally in the United Kingdom. That counts for all parts within the United Kingdom and for our relationship with the EU. We must always remember to respect the self-determination of peoples—in this case, of Gibraltar.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I congratulate the hon. Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke (Jack Lopresti) on securing the debate. As he said, he is the chair of the all-party group on Gibraltar. I stand here as the Opposition spokesman on these issues but it is worth mentioning that my constituency predecessor, the late Dennis Turner, was a great supporter of Gibraltar so my constituency has a long tradition of involvement with the issue.
It is, I think, about nine months since the House last discussed the topic, when we debated the report of the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs. Many of the issues highlighted in that report continue to be relevant and are important to today’s debate. I will go through a few of those, beginning with the constitutional position of Gibraltar, which is very clear. Its people overwhelmingly want to stay British. It is a British overseas territory. The Government’s response, which the Minister will outline, is also clear. They will not enter into talks about the constitutional status of Gibraltar without the consent of the people of Gibraltar, or change that status. That position is shared by the Opposition.
From the United Kingdom’s point of view, the position is very clear and, as the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) said, is shared across the parties. It is just a pity that that position is not clearly understood by Spain because outwith the issue Spain is a European partner, a NATO ally and home to many British people. Many British people have businesses in Spain and it is a destination for a huge number of British holidaymakers every year. Spain is held in high and warm regard by most people in the United Kingdom. It is true that relations between Britain and Spain over this issue have blown hot and cold over the years. About a decade ago, there was a period when things looked brighter. There was a bit more interaction and co-operation, but the situation has got worse since then and things have become more difficult.
I will touch on a couple of issues that have become sore points in the relationship between Britain and Spain. The first is the lengthy delays at the border, to which many hon. Members have referred. People can wait more than four, five or six hours to cross to and from Gibraltar. Daily, it is a great inconvenience to people in terms of business and getting to and from work. We believe that it is an interference in the principle of free movement. I do not want to get sidetracked down a whole other discussion about this but, as things stand, Britain is a member of the European Union and Gibraltar is part of the EU on that basis. Spain is a member of the EU. One of the founding principles of such membership is the free movement of people.
Now, we are not part of the Schengen zone. We operate passport checks, as any of us who go to and fro on the Eurostar know, but they do not delay people for five and six hours. The checks are carried out properly by our authorities without undue delays. Could the Minister comment on what representations we have made to Spain and the European Commission about these unnecessary interferences to the principles of free movement? I will not go further into the EU negotiations on this and so on, except to say that I hope that all hon. Members here who are so passionate about Gibraltar will maintain their support for the principle of free movement throughout the negotiations. I am sure they all will.
The second issue is the countless transgressions—several hundred a year—by Spanish vessels into Gibraltar’s territorial waters, which are constant running sore. Part of the problem is that Spain does not recognise the concept of Gibraltarian territorial waters, even though it is clearly set out in the UN convention on the law of the sea. Britain or Gibraltar have not taken a maximalist interpretation of that convention but we believe that there is a three-mile zone of Gibraltarian territorial waters. The Royal Navy and Gibraltarian forces have a right to enforce that jurisdiction, which they have to do on a daily and weekly basis. I will not mention all the different instances but the hon. Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke mentioned one in his opening speech. In August, the crew of a Spanish customs boat fired what is believed to have been four shots at a civilian vessel. Such an instance is clearly serious and the Foreign Office responded with a protest at the time. There have been many other incursions. What can be done to make the calling of the ambassador and the lodging of such protests less routine? Hundreds of incursions are not a norm that should be accepted. It should not be regarded as routine that allies regularly have to lodge such protests or to call the ambassador to the Foreign Office. It would be welcome if the Minister could say a bit more about that.
I could talk further, but I want to give the Minister a chance to respond. In conclusion, the truth is that there is a clear pattern: Spain is trying to put the squeeze on Gibraltar through these measures. One of the values of such debates is that we can send out a signal not only from the Government but from Parliament that there is no point in putting a squeeze on Gibraltar because its status will not change unless the people of Gibraltar decide that it should change. This pattern of behaviour serves only to create unnecessary economic damage and unnecessary interference with people’s freedom to move, employment rights and the capacity of businesses in Gibraltar to function. It serves no positive purpose.
The third thing I would like the Minister to address is the military presence in Gibraltar. We have heard references to the age and condition of the naval vessels. Are there any plans to improve that presence or to make representations about the inconvenient and ridiculous situation in which RAF aeroplanes cannot overfly Spanish airspace on the way to Gibraltar? That situation should not exist between allies. What representations is he making to change the situation?
I am glad that the hon. Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke has secured this timely debate, which gives us another opportunity to make it clear that Parliament’s position is shared on both sides of the House. If one message should go out from this debate, it is that there is no point in continuing to put the squeeze on Gibraltar. Let us get on to a different agenda in which Gibraltar’s constitutional status is accepted. Many issues could then be discussed, including civilian flights and economic co-operation, which would benefit both Gibraltar and the neighbouring region of Spain.
As always, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke (Jack Lopresti) on securing this debate and on his introductory remarks. As the right hon. Member for Wolverhampton South East (Mr McFadden) said, it is appropriate that we should be talking about Gibraltar in the same week that we have celebrated Gibraltar day in London. My hon. Friend the Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke and I joined Members of both Houses from a range of political parties, and a couple of thousand other people, at the Guildhall on Monday night to see the Chief Minister and to demonstrate our continuing support for Gibraltar and for the wish of the people of Gibraltar to remain under the sovereignty of the United Kingdom.
I thank those who have taken part in this debate: the hon. Members for Strangford (Jim Shannon), for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Drew Hendry) and for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr MacNeil) and my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill). We have learned today of a family relationship across party lines, which came as a revelation to a number of us. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Wolverhampton South East on his reappointment to the Opposition foreign affairs team. I confess that I was glad to hear the news. I was slightly surprised, but I suspect my surprise was a lot less than his. I welcome his reappointment.
I intercede only to say that the families of my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) and I have both known the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr MacNeil) for several centuries, and we have known him as a traitorous little chap.
I had better move on to the subject of the debate. Although I want to concentrate on the border, the naval incursions and the economy of Gibraltar, which have been the mainstay of today’s speeches, I will first try to respond to a couple of other points that have been raised. I was asked about Gibraltar and the EU negotiations. As all Members will know, the Government have included the people of Gibraltar in the franchise for the proposed referendum on our membership of the European Union. The European Union Referendum Bill received its Second Reading in the House of Lords yesterday. Members are right to emphasise the importance of the United Kingdom Government’s consulting Gibraltar very closely on the negotiations to ensure that we take Gibraltar’s interests fully into account. I formally wrote to the Chief Minister at the start of the negotiations following the Government’s election in May—[Interruption.]
I apologise for arriving late. I will give the Minister a moment to catch his breath. I was also at the Guildhall celebration to which he referred. Does he feel that there is a new sense of confidence not just from the Chief Minister but from all Gibraltarians about their prospects for the future, which is clouded by their relations with Spain? I hope I have given the Minister a chance to find his voice.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I feel that on Monday night there was a real sense of economic optimism about Gibraltar’s future, based both on the economic success that Gibraltar has achieved and on the way in which Gibraltar has organised itself—I will return to this in more detail—so as to meet global standards, particularly in the provision of financial services, which match the best in the world.
Before the intervention, I was saying that I wrote to the Chief Minister of Gibraltar after the Government’s election in May to tell him that we were about to embark on the European negotiations and that he should let the Foreign Secretary and me know at any time of any matter in the process that is of concern to Gibraltar. Since then, there have been regular contacts at official level between the United Kingdom Government and the Government of Gibraltar, as well as conversations at ministerial level. I last discussed EU matters with the Chief Minister in Manchester last week. The Government will hold to that commitment.
I was also asked about the Government’s attitude towards Spanish hospitality to Russian warships in its Moroccan exclave of Ceuta. The fact is that that is ultimately a matter for the Spanish Government to decide. I find it extraordinary that such hospitality should be shown at a time when Russia is not only engaged in a campaign of aggression and destabilisation in Ukraine but has acted in a way that threatens the security of a number of our EU and NATO allies, particularly the Baltic states, but this is ultimately a matter for Spanish Ministers to consider.
The UK has promised to protect the right of the people of Gibraltar to determine their own political future. We stand by our assurance never to enter into arrangements in which the people of Gibraltar would pass under the sovereignty of another state against their wishes, and we will never enter into a process of sovereignty negotiations with which Gibraltar is not content. I want there to be no misunderstanding of our position: Gibraltarians will be British for as long as they wish to remain so. We regard Gibraltar as including the isthmus and British Gibraltar territorial waters, as well as the Rock itself.
Going back to security and NATO in particular, given that the Spanish are inhibiting NATO naval craft and aircraft from going to Spanish ports and overflying Spain, and the added dimension of their help to the Russians, can we do anything in the NATO Parliamentary Assembly or use Spain’s membership of NATO to put pressure on them? As the Minister says, the way that if behaves is astonishing.
We make representations about Spain imposing restrictions of the type that one should not expect of a NATO ally. In most respects and over most policy areas, we have a very constructive and co-operative relationship. I do not think that the Government raising such matters in a formal NATO setting will help. In the meetings of the North Atlantic Council and the like, the emphasis will be on what we need to do jointly in the challenges to the collective security of NATO members. We have not forgotten about the issue. We shall continue to press for changes. I can assure my hon. Friend that the armed forces have advised Ministers that although the Spanish restrictions are irksome, they do not adversely affect the military capacity or preparedness of the UK or of NATO collectively.
I want to focus on exactly how the UK Government works with and for the people of Gibraltar. When I last spoke in the House on the subject of Gibraltar, in January, Spain had only just started work on improving the infrastructure on its side of the border with Gibraltar. Those improvements were demanded by the European Commission, whose officials had visited twice to survey the situation at the border. Those visits were themselves a direct result of sustained and targeted lobbying by the UK, including by the Prime Minister, who raised the issue directly with the then President of the European Commission, José Manuel Barroso. Our lobbying, in close partnership with the Government of Gibraltar, is now paying off. Spain has completed the work at the border. I am pleased to say that delays have now dropped to levels comparable to those before the summer of 2013.
I understand that the Commission plans to visit again later this month. Obviously, we will continue to monitor the situation at the border closely, and we will not hesitate to raise our concerns again with Spain and the Commission if we see any further politically motivated tactics to create delays. As the right hon. Member for Wolverhampton South East and other hon. Members pointed out, one should expect passport checks and other proportionate checks at the Spain-Gibraltar border, but those should be no more and no less burdensome than the kind of checks that would be carried out on any other non-Schengen European border.
In turning to incursions, I pay tribute to the vigilance and sheer hard work of the Royal Navy Gibraltar Squadron, whom I visited on my last trip to Gibraltar, and the Royal Gibraltar Police and customs service, who ensure that the law is upheld in British Gibraltar territorial waters.
When the Minister visited the Royal Navy Gibraltar Squadron, did he look at the patrol vessels? They came from Lough Foyle and they are old, small and not powerful enough to deal with the strait of Gibraltar. The Foreign Office might consider advising the Ministry of Defence to up-gun our patrol vessels.
I not only had a chance to look at the vessels, but went out on patrol with one of those vessels, to see for myself the conditions that the Royal Navy experience.
We make a formal protest against every unlawful incursion by Spanish state vessels. The level at which that protest is made depends upon the seriousness of the incursion, which itself depends on, for example, how long the incursion takes and how deliberately ostentatious the incursion is. Some of the incidents that have been cited in the debate today are ones that we certainly regard as very serious indeed. The majority of incursions are subject to a protest by note verbale. We will sometimes take up the protest at senior official level and sometimes directly with our Spanish opposite numbers at ministerial level; it depends on the nature of the incident.
We treat the summons of the Spanish ambassador—indeed the summons of any ambassador—as a serious step. Other countries have a different practice and regard a summons to an ambassador as a routine measure. As was pointed out earlier, the Spanish ambassador has been summoned at a rate matched only by the ambassadors of Syria and of North Korea during the lifetime of the present Government and the coalition Government. I do not want to devalue the political and diplomatic weight attached to a formal summons by making the practice more general. The jet ski shooting incident on 24 June 2013 was raised immediately by me at ministerial level with my Spanish opposite number and raised subsequently by the Prime Minister with Prime Minister Rajoy less than a week after the incident had taken place. We take such events very seriously indeed and respond at the appropriately senior level.
This summer, there were several serious unlawful incursions by Spanish state vessels and aircraft. Those included a Spanish customs officer firing near a recreational fishing vessel, Spanish customs helicopters entering British Gibraltar territorial airspace and dangerous manoeuvring by Spanish state vessels on a number of occasions, which put at risk the safety of both UK and Spanish personnel. While any incursion is a violation of sovereignty, incursions do not threaten or weaken the legal basis of British sovereignty in Gibraltar or British Gibraltar territorial waters. However, such behaviour by Spanish state vessels is unacceptable. On each occasion, we have raised it immediately with the Spanish authorities. They have since reassured us that the safety of lives at sea is a top priority for all concerned and that their law enforcement agencies will operate with respect for that principle in future.
My hon. and right hon. Friends at the Ministry of Defence keep under constant review both the number and type of vessels available in Gibraltar. The nature of our assets in Gibraltar is subject to regular reassessment by the MOD, and that process of reassessment and review will continue.
My hon. Friend the Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke asked about the number of incursions. I will write to him with the exact number so far in 2015. However, I will try to give him and the House some idea of the pattern. In 2013, there was an average of 40.5 incursions a month; in 2014, the monthly average was 32.3; and by the end of August this year, which is the most recent period for which I have figures, the monthly average for this year was 37.4. That gives some idea of the number of incursions and, as I said earlier, the incursions vary in seriousness.
I am afraid that I cannot help the House on the question of the rules of engagement. For reasons that I am sure the House will understand, the Government follow a policy of not discussing in public the rules of engagement for our military, and I do not propose to depart from that principle today. It is not a policy that is specific to Gibraltar; we apply it across the board.
Spain has now agreed to our proposal of 28 August to step up law enforcement co-operation to fight against organised crime. We worked in close consultation with the Government of Gibraltar to achieve this agreement and all three Governments—Spain, Gibraltar and the UK—have an interest in tackling criminal activity in this area of the Mediterranean, and we all know that the agreement will be truly effective only if we can work together. Although the unacceptable incursions have continued, it is also a fact that, at the same time, there have been occasions in recent months when Gibraltarian and Spanish authorities have worked together to bring criminals to justice, and I warmly welcome that.
To give one example to the House, on 10 September a co-ordinated operation between the Guardia Civil and the Royal Gibraltar Police resulted in the arrest of suspected drug smugglers. We want to see more practical co-operation of that type, and I know that the Chief Minister of Gibraltar is very keen indeed that that kind of co-operation should be strengthened.
We will continue to press Spain to ensure that it honours its agreements, both to respect safety at sea and to work with us against organised crime, and I did that most recently on 12 September, when I met the new Spanish Minister for Europe, Fernando Eguidazu.
It would be remiss of me to let this debate pass without my saying something about aviation, because, as the House will know, there has been a long-running battle at EU level about whether Gibraltar should be included in EU aviation legislation. It is the Government’s view that the treaties of the EU are absolutely clear that, for the purposes of aviation policy, Gibraltar and Gibraltar airport are part of the EU. Therefore, it would not only be a political move but a breach of the European treaties themselves if there were to be any measure that purported to exclude Gibraltar from the ambit of such legislation. We will continue to oppose any further attempts by Spain to have Gibraltar excluded from EU aviation legislation. In the past 12 months, we have seen such attempts repeatedly, and they have all failed. We have delivered a very clear message that the treaties require that aviation measures must be applied to Gibraltar, and we shall continue to lobby both the Transport Commissioner and other EU member states to try to ensure that that principle is upheld.
A number of speeches today mentioned Gibraltar’s economic success. Frankly, I think that Gibraltar’s vitality and its determination to create economic success are the envy of the region. The Campo is an area of Spain that tragically suffers from very high unemployment and, as a number of hon. Members have pointed out, something like 30,000 Spanish citizens work in Gibraltar. Spain already benefits hugely from both enhanced economic co-operation with Gibraltar and the success of the Gibraltarian economy, and it could benefit even more.
The Minister has just hit on a key point about the deprived nature of the area surrounding Gibraltar. It is actually Gibraltar’s economy that gives hope to many thousands of Spaniards who are welcome to go and work in Gibraltar, and it is those Spaniards who will be the most affected if the Spanish Government carry on with their policies.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. One of the tragedies of the Spanish Government’s approach to Gibraltar is that it ends up denying economic opportunities and the possibility of jobs to more people in Spain who are currently out of work. I still hope that there will be a change of such policy.
It is also wrong for Spain to continue to level accusations at Gibraltar about its tax regime. Spain does so despite the fact that Gibraltar has received the same OECD rating on tax as Germany, the United States and the United Kingdom. Furthermore, Gibraltar has already achieved exchange of tax information relationships with more than 75 other jurisdictions, including—paradoxically —the Kingdom of Spain itself.
Our Government have worked closely with the Government of Gibraltar to push for the removal of Gibraltar from the few outdated tax blacklists on which the territory still appears. Together, we have successfully managed to get Gibraltar removed from lists in Italy, Bulgaria and other countries, and we will continue that work apace.
Of course, a better relationship would also be in Spain’s interests, as I have already said. Towards that end, it remains our aim and the aim of the Government of Gibraltar to return to the trilateral forum for dialogue between the United Kingdom, Spain and Gibraltar. However, the reality is that the current Spanish Government chose to withdraw from that forum. As a result, and with the agreement of the Chief Minister of Gibraltar, we have been talking to the Spanish Government, as well as to the Gibraltar Government, to agree a process of ad hoc talks that would enable practical discussions to take place about issues that matter in the locality. I am hopeful that we will be able to hold such talks in the near future.
I am sure that the House knows that the Government recently announced the appointment of the next Governor and Commander-in-Chief of Gibraltar, and I am sure that everyone here will join me in congratulating Lieutenant General Edward Davis on his next assignment. I know that his appointment will be widely welcomed in the House.
Last month, Gibraltarians marked the 48th year since the referendum to remain under British sovereignty. Last month was also the 75th anniversary of the evacuation of Gibraltar, which was a reminder of the sacrifice that so many ordinary families in Gibraltar made when they stood alongside the United Kingdom at the time of great peril during the second world war. As I said in the Guildhall on Monday, the bonds between the United Kingdom and Gibraltar are strong. We share a long and proud history—more than 300 years’ worth—and our relationship is based upon the enduring values of democracy and the rule of law, to which both the United Kingdom and Gibraltar are committed. It is a relationship that has stood the test of time and I believe that it will continue to withstand the challenges that face it today.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered Gibraltar and relations with Spain.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered safety at HMP Northumberland.
I am grateful to have the opportunity to bring to this place my constituents’ concerns about the safety of those involved in activities at HMP Northumberland. As the newly elected MP for Berwick-upon-Tweed and a long-time campaigner in the county, I have met and talked to employees at HMP Northumberland for more than 10 years. I have also met many individuals who form the voluntary groups that work in the prison providing literacy skills, addiction support, chaplaincy services and support for life after prison in its multitude of areas. I declare a personal interest as a trustee of the Oswin project, a charity that supports HMP Northumberland prisoners, creating second chances for them through training, support and employment as they become ex-offenders, in order to break the cycle of reoffending.
The prison has been under constant change pressures for the past four years, first from a merger in 2010 of HMP Acklington, a category C men’s prison, and HMP Castington, a category B young offenders institution, into one adult male prison on two sites that were physically merged into one unit in 2013. This has created one of the largest prison estates in the country: a site of some 800 acres with a perimeter fence of more than four and a half miles.
In December 2013, the newly formed prison was put into the private management of Sodexo Justice Services. Management changes have only now settled this year following a turbulent 2014 in which some 200 staff of nearly 600 were invited to take voluntary redundancy between February and April. During this time there was no change in the prison population; the prison continued to be 99% full.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on bringing this really important issue to the House. As she said, once Sodexo took over and the privatisation of the prison, there was a massive decrease in staff while the prison population continued to increase. That surely says something about the privatisation of HMP Northumberland. As a result, there have been some horrendous occurrences and serious incidents at the prison. Does she agree?
As I will discuss later, I am informed that the present staffing levels are what the National Offender Management Service would expect for the number of prisoners in the prison estate—or slightly more, owing to the new intake into the younger end of the officer grouping. Realistically, being in private hands or public sector ownership would have made no difference to the numbers, but there is a challenge for HMP Northumberland and I will set out why.
As I said, the prison has continued to be 99% full. It has a mixed population of some 880 main prisoners and 450 vulnerable prisoners—quite a complex mix. As a result of my many links with the prison, I have been privy to many conversations with staff about their concerns over safety issues. It is perhaps unsurprising that, following the loss of one third of the staff in the space of a few months in 2014, there would be immediate pressures on all those working and living on the prison estate. That certainly seemed to be the case last year.
Newspaper reports talked of the prison as a “powder keg” and as “failing miserably”. In my view, the use of social media to inflame the situation and spread discontent was real, and some in the Prison Officers Association have referred to the concerted media attacks as “Operation Certain Death”, which time has—thankfully—proved to be misplaced in large measure.
The new director, in post since early 2015, has brought stability and clear focus to the challenges of getting HMP Northumberland back on its feet in practical ways. Although the media storm has passed, continued anxieties reach me from those still working or volunteering on the prison estate. There seem to be good relations between management and the Prison Officers Association, which is most encouraging, and all the staff have a strong and committed work ethos.
However, according to the Howard League for Penal Reform, there has been a cut of more than 50% in prison officer grade staff over the period from 2010 to 2015. These reducing levels of experience among prison officers means that the difficult situations that the mix of main and vulnerable prisoners brings is quite challenging to deal with. Again according to statistics from the Howard League, there were three deaths in 2013, five in 2014 and four to date this year. Younger officers tell me that these deaths and the more frequent suicide attempts from vulnerable prisoners is traumatic for the staff who have to deal with such situations.
The Howard League states that there was a 50% increase in prisoner on prisoner assaults between 2013 and 2014, perhaps due in part to the destabilisation caused by the huge and sudden staffing cut creating the opportunities that some prisoners took to cause mischief. Staff tell me privately that there were noticeably increased levels of bullying among fellow inmates, leading to increased suicide attempts: a situation not only appalling for the prisoner, but really hard for the prison officers to have to deal with on a personal level. I have been hugely impressed by the caring attitude towards inmates that our prison officers show as well as their deep understanding of the local communities that they come from and of the problems resulting from chaotic and complex family lives.
There has been a history of drug use in our local prison for many years. Given the four-mile boundary fence, a half-decent cricketing arm can easily get a tennis ball or other object over the fencing to be collected by prisoners at an appropriate moment. Until the privatisation process, the prison used drugs dogs to scan visitors as they came into the visitor centre. I spent the day with this team a couple of years ago and it was an eye-opening experience. The dog handlers asked me to hide vials of a variety of drugs in my clothes and asked the dogs to indicate where they were in turn. It was an extraordinary thing to watch and they had a 100% success rate. An extraordinary relationship with and training of those dogs was a really vital tool in identifying and stopping the entry of drugs into the prison from visitors, as well as locating drugs falling over the perimeter fence through regular walking tours.
I am sure the hon. Lady, like me, would heap praise on the Prison Officers Association and the people and the staff in the prison who do a marvellous job under the circumstances, but there is a huge problem not only with illegal drugs being thrown over the fence, but with legal highs, which seem to be running amok through the prison system, particularly at HMP Northumberland. They cause huge problems.
The hon. Gentleman anticipates the next part of my speech.
Sodexo has recently invested in ion scanners, which have a good track record for identifying cocaine and some amphetamines, but they are considered less accurate at picking up heroin and legal highs. I am concerned that the continuing supplies of legal highs, most especially Spice, which are making it through to prisoners, despite regular hauls of drugs—through stuffed toys, inside mobile phones and the like—means that usage is prevalent throughout the prison, putting other prisoners and officer safety at risk.
The reality is that there is a violent culture between prisoners that is heavily exacerbated by the drugs trade. A prisoner who “buys” Spice from a fellow inmate will have strict instructions from his dealer to get his girlfriend or his mum to make payment outside the prison walls to a colleague of the drug pushers. Failure to make payments ensures that a drug-addicted prisoner’s life will be made a misery and his family will be put under pressure or assaulted.
The latest HM Chief Inspector of Prisons report indicates that in prisoner surveys, more prisoners than the comparator said it was easy to get illicit drugs and alcohol in the prison. The average positive random mandatory drug testing rate for the six months to July 2014 was 11.7%, higher than the national average of 8.9%. Illicit drugs such as Spice and illicitly brewed alcohol have been identified as problems. The inspector also praised the prison staff for the drug strategy, which firmly integrates drug reduction as a key target.
I understand that suspicion drug testing has been restarted following a break due to a lack of staff last year, but I am not certain that all requested tests are completed in a timely fashion. The inspector of prisons has recommended that mandatory drug testing should be appropriately staffed to ensure tests are completed within prescribed time scales, and I would be grateful for assurances from the Minister that he is now certain that this key recommendation is being fully implemented.
I ask the Minister to investigate whether the levels of drugs seized compared with the levels of continuing drug abuse are at an acceptable ratio. Will he consider bringing back drugs dogs to increase the chances of catching those poisons before they can get to prisoners? I am keen to hear from the Minister how the Department assesses whether any prison is managing its drugs problems in individual prisons across the country’s full estate of 136 prisons, and whether there is any best practice guidance or mandatory levels that the Minister expects his prison governors to achieve in reducing the quantity of toxic substances reaching our prisoners.
On my most recent visit to HMP Northumberland, prison officers showed me the new portable body cameras that they are trialling—it is one of 30 prisons to do so. There was a really positive vibe from the officers about their effectiveness in reducing antisocial behaviour among the inmates; the threat of being recorded seemed to remind them that poor or threatening behaviour is just not acceptable. Body cameras have been used by the police for some time now, and a recently published study found that equipping them with body cameras reduced their use of force by around 50%, while complaints against them by the public dropped by almost 90%.
Those startling figures were revealed by a research study conducted by the University of Cambridge, based on a 12-month trial conducted among police officers in Rialto, California. The dramatic results have led to calls from police chiefs throughout the country who are keen to equip their officers with cameras, especially in the light of increased tensions between police and local communities. The year-long study, which began in 2012, had its findings published in the Journal of Quantitative Criminology in November and answered the hotly debated topic of whether cameras can reduce both police force and the number of complaints filed.
I urge the Minister to look closely at the data from the prisons that are currently testing body cameras, and I encourage continued and extended use of the technology if the results are anything like as good as those for the police. I was pleased to hear from prison officers that Sodexo has purchased the cameras that are currently in use at HMP Northumberland. It absolutely wants to be able to continue to use them for the foreseeable future. What is the Minister’s assessment of the trial of body cameras to date? When does he intend to determine whether their use should be made permanent?
Although it is an excellent decision for the health of prisoners and officers alike, the impending ban on smoking in prisons is going to bring some serious problems to HMP Northumberland, and no doubt to every other prison. Most legal highs are taken by being smoked, so prisoners will stop getting not only their nicotine fix but other drug fixes. I am deeply concerned about the short-term risks to officers’ safety as inmates suffer from no doubt very real withdrawal symptoms, about the new culture of smuggled smoking paraphernalia, and about the health and potential fire risks. The cigarette, the box of matches, the lighter, the bag of loose tobacco and Rizlas will no doubt threaten to become new prison currency for prison officers to manage.
The Prison Governors Association has cautiously welcomed the move to ban smoking from 2016, but has called for the ban to be implemented in a safe and staged way, because 80% of prisoners smoke. Even as the ban on smoking in cells is due to come into force before the end of this year, it is of grave concern to all those who will have to manage these changes, knowing the behavioural impact it will certainly have. I have watched family members give up smoking, and even with all the support around them it has never been easy—sometimes it was deeply unpleasant for the rest of us—so how much harder will it be for those incarcerated, for whom a tab is a comfort and boredom-filler through the long days inside? I would appreciate assurances from the Minister, along with details of the tangible policy plans that are being set in place to manage the transition to a smoke-free prison estate.
Last, but definitely not least, are my concerns for the safety, both real and perceived, of visitors to the prison, be they chaplains, readers, educationalists, or support workers for those preparing to seek work when they leave HMP Northumberland. Over the past 18 months, I have received repeated calls and emails from individuals concerned about the level of officer cover during their visits.
For example, where two officers used to be present during chapel services, there is now only one. Historically, if a prisoner started to misbehave, he would have been removed, leaving other participants to continue their faith practice peacefully. With only one officer on duty that is no longer possible, so the calm and contemplative time supposedly provided by such services is broken and continues to be disrupted. As a result, fewer prisoners now come to chapel services and have less contact time with faith leaders, who have a vital role to play in supporting their spiritual and personal wellbeing.
My concern for the safety of volunteers is a challenging issue to solve, since the director of HMP Northumberland informs me that the current number of prison staff meets—indeed, slightly exceeds—the standard NOMS ratios for prisoners in the estate. Because of the geographical size and layout of the prison—a large RAF base in a former incarnation—the need for officers to manage the movements of prisoners and to monitor them means that there just are not the numbers to provide the level of cover to get prisoners to voluntary activities like faith services or to provide support at a practical level in chaplaincy activities and other provisions.
The huge reduction in staff numbers last year has also led to a decision to provide Manchester college’s education and training programme over four days rather than five. Although prisoners are still able to access the same number of hours per week, it is done over four days, leaving Friday, Saturday and Sunday without constructive activity to focus on. I can only imagine that three long days at a stretch with little to do is less than conducive to best behaviour, and the Sunday outing to chapel might easily seem like an opportunity to release frustration—an opportunity that was previously less abused. Given that HMP Northumberland is now supposed to have a working prison ethos, does the Minister believe that it is doing enough? Can it possibly meet the aim of five days’ full working and training opportunities with staff numbers that are so physically stretched by the nature of the geography and layout of the prison?
HMP Northumberland has some unique challenges to address. Although I am impressed by the steps now being taken, after four turbulent years, to move forward and find new training and work opportunities for the prisoners, will the Minister come and see for himself how difficult that will be to achieve in practice without continued investment in manpower and training for better safety and a sense of security for all those who work and volunteer there? I am grateful to have had the opportunity to raise this issue, which is of concern to many of my constituents. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response, with the hope that some of my concerns might be unfounded or resolvable.
As always, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I warmly congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mrs Trevelyan) on securing what I think is her first Westminster Hall debate. If I may say so, she gave a very polished performance, finishing exactly halfway through the time allotted for the debate. I will do my best to address all the points she raised. She spoke about the volunteers who visit the prison, and I gather that she is involved in helping at the prison herself. I thank and commend her not only for being a visitor but for doing something practical to support the prison.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right that safety is central to everything we are seeking to achieve in prisons. I welcome this debate as an opportunity to highlight the activity that is underway at HMP Northumberland to maintain safety and decency and to tackle violence. I am aware that my hon. Friend recently visited the prison—as she has over many years—and met the director and staff. Sodexo has been running prisons for many years and has responsibility for three other prisons in England: Bronzefield, Peterborough and Forest Bank. HMP Northumberland is a category C training prison. It is a very large site holding more than 1,300 adult male prisoners and, she said, it also holds a number of often vulnerable prisoners, mainly those with a history of sex offending.
I have met the Minister on numerous occasions and those meetings have always been positive. Is he aware that, because of the lack of staff, there is integration of the seriously vulnerable prisoners among the ordinary prisoners? That is causing great concern for safety—mainly for the sex offenders. One thing that has been reported to me on numerous occasions that is absolutely unacceptable is that the food given to some of these vulnerable prisoners has often contained human faeces.
I am really appalled to learn of that. The hon. Gentleman has raised some detailed points; if he will allow me, I will get back to him. In response to the request by my hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed that I visit the prison, I would be delighted to do so. That would give me the opportunity to look further into the specific concerns raised, quite properly, by the hon. Gentleman.
The transition from a public sector prison to a private provider is complex and should not be underestimated. A transfer from a public to a private prison has happened only once before, with HMP Birmingham. Such change is unsettling and the transition takes time. As with the experience at HMP Birmingham, the transition at HMP Northumberland presented some challenges for the new provider, which I acknowledge. That was also picked up in the report by the chief inspector of prisons published earlier in the year. The prison has taken action to address the chief inspector’s recommendations, which included completing a review of its induction unit. That has resulted in moving the induction unit to a larger location in the prison, with improved capacity and improved classroom facilities. The National Offender Management Service and Sodexo have worked closely in partnership, particularly during the transition period.
I am aware that concerns have been raised about the numbers of staff at the prison. The merging of two prisons led to a duplication in some services, such as catering and facilities management. Since Sodexo became responsible for the prison, it has implemented new structures and new ways of working that have resulted in fewer staff being necessary to operate the prison. In total, 210 staff left the prison on voluntary exit terms and there were no compulsory redundancies.
In order to provide assurance, bidders were required during the competition to submit a detailed response, which was assessed by a team of assessors made up of operationally experienced governors. Sodexo had to show that it had built its staff profiles and to demonstrate the expertise of the team that designed them and the governance process that assured the design. It had to show that it had taken into consideration environmental and other factors and operational resilience.
Sodexo subsequently reviewed its staffing levels at the prison and decided that a further 16 permanent staff were needed, and I am pleased to say that it has now filled all those vacancies. As my hon. Friend said, the current staffing levels are considered to be sufficient to run a safe, decent and secure prison, and they are kept under review. Sodexo informed us that a total of 402 full-time equivalent staff are employed at HMP Northumberland, of whom 372 worked at the prison before the transition, so their valuable experience has been retained. The majority of the existing senior managers have a wealth of custodial management experience within public sector prisons, and the new director who joined the prison earlier this year, of whom my hon. Friend spoke highly, has extensive custodial management experience, including in the public sector.
HMP Northumberland continues to take staffing issues seriously. It is undertaking a consultation programme with staff to identify and address any further issues that transpire as a result of the transition to Sodexo. HMP Northumberland is addressing the transition issues positively, and I am grateful for the leadership, resilience and professionalism that staff have shown in maintaining delivery at HMP Northumberland under these changing circumstances.
My hon. Friend raised concerns about safety. I cannot emphasise strongly enough how importantly the Government take the issue of safety for all prisoners and staff. Violence in prisons is wholly unacceptable and we treat any assault extremely seriously. Any prisoner who commits an act of violence can expect action to be taken against them, which may include a loss of privileges or sanctions under the prison disciplinary procedures. Where appropriate, they may face criminal charges and prosecution.
We are under no illusions about the scale of the issue. Assaults in prisons increased from 14,664 in 2013 to 16,196 in 2014. Some of that increase is due to an improvement in the reporting of assault incidents following changes in data assurance processes, but those reporting improvements do not account for all of the increase. Serious assaults, including those on staff, rather than other prisoners, have risen even more. They have increased by 35%, from 1,588 assaults in 2013 to 2,145 in 2014. The increase in serious assaults is completely unacceptable. We are, however, holding a more violent prisoner population: the number of people sentenced to prison for violent offences has increased by 30% in the past 10 years.
In addition, the illicit use of new psychoactive substances, or NPS, has been a significant factor. I refer to them as “lethal highs”, and I encourage my hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Wansbeck to use that term. Getting the language right helps us in this incredibly important battle. There is strong evidence that the increase in the illicit trade and misuse of synthetic drugs or new psychoactive substances is linked to the recent increase in violence across the prison estate. HMP Northumberland is also experiencing the effects of such substances, as my hon. Friend said. It has increased its levels of target searching and enhanced its security procedures for visitors to help to address this issue. To answer my hon. Friend’s specific point, we will introduce mandatory drug testing for NPS for all prisons when new contracts are agreed early next year. In the interim, we will shortly trial NPS testing as part of mandatory drug testing in some prisons. NPS are also an increasingly prominent problem in the community at large, and hon. Members will be aware of the Government’s new legislation to control such substances.
During the transition period, HMP Northumberland retained its own drug dogs. All drug dogs at HMP Northumberland are accessed through the north-east drug dog scheme. Drug dogs will be provided to the prison in response to its individual needs. I can tell my hon. Friend that dogs have now been trained to detect new psychoactive substances. A meeting was held this month between the prison and the drug dog unit to agree the way forward and ensure that adequate drug dogs are available to the prison.
We have taken the decision to ban smoking in closed prisons. Let me assure my hon. Friend that banning smoking will be done in a way that ensures operational stability. We will draw on the lessons we can learn from elsewhere, including Canada and New Zealand, where smoking bans have been successfully introduced. The ban should also be a gain in tackling NPS misuse, and as the roll-out of the smoking ban proceeds we should see reduced NPS misuse.
Violence reduction remains a key priority for HMP Northumberland and activity to address that issue is reviewed on a regular basis. Sodexo has already made improvements, including installing CCTV in part of the prison. It has also introduced more structured interventions towards the perpetrators of violence. The National Offender Management Service has a programme of activity in train across both public sector and private prisons to tackle violence in prisons. Action taken includes issuing new guidance to governors to support the development of their local violence reduction strategy. There is currently a pilot of body-worn cameras across 24 establishments, including HMP Northumberland. We are building on the existing evidence of significant benefits in prisons that already have experience of using them. The evaluation report for that scheme will be available in March. When I have been to prisons recently and seen them, I have been extremely impressed. Staff and prisoners told me that they feel safer as a result of their use, but we must obviously wait for the full evaluation.
There were two new offences in the Serious Crime Act 2015: being in possession of a knife or other offensive weapon within a prison without authorisation, and throwing items over a prison wall without authorisation. The first of those offences is already in place and is actively being used, and the offence of throwing items over prison walls will be introduced shortly. It is aimed at the criminal gangs that are throwing packages containing illicit drugs into prisons. It will attract up to two years in prison on conviction. Both offences are intended to send a clear message to offenders that we are not prepared to tolerate that type of criminal behaviour in and around our prisons.
A joint national protocol conducted by NOMS, the Crown Prosecution Service and the police was published in February with the purpose of ensuring a nationally consistent approach to the referral and prosecution of crimes in prison. The protocol sets out a requirement for prisons to submit a prison community impact assessment, with each case referred to the police, which will explain the impact the offence has had on the establishment and will ensure that it is properly understood and taken into account in the determination of referred cases.
Deaths in prison custody have risen over time. With the overall ageing of the population, there is an increasing number of elderly prisoners. Of the four deaths in the past year that my hon. Friend referred to, three were from natural causes and one was self-inflicted. Of course, that is one too many. In every case, the prison has worked on the recommendations made by the prisons and probation ombudsman on the deaths, and action been taken. For example, the prison has reinvigorated its local personal officer policy to provide clarity for staff on their role in supporting individual prisoners who are at risk.
NOMS is also taking forward a programme of work to address the rise in self-inflicted deaths. A review of compliance and delivery of the assessment, care in custody and teamwork process has taken place and is due for completion shortly. Multi-agency work is being undertaken on the person escort record, which accompanies individuals transferred between police stations, courts and prisons.
We have heard some criticisms of the prison today. I can tell my hon. Friend that the hours out of cell are 10 hours on Monday to Thursday, with eight hours on Friday and seven and a half hours at the weekend. That is an average of nine hours during the week.
There have been some significant successes. For example, the prison has almost doubled the number of prisoner work hours since Sodexo took over. We should be grateful for that achievement. As my hon. Friend rightly said, productive work is important in ensuring that we have a safe and secure prison. The prison has achieved Red Tractor accreditation for its horticultural food produce and it undertakes various charitable works for the local Northumberland community. It runs a bicycle repair workshop on behalf of the Margaret Carey Foundation and refurbishes bicycles for use in developing countries, so some positive things have happened since Sodexo took over.
I absolutely accept the points that my hon. Friend raised, which we take seriously. I look forward to visiting the prison, hopefully with her, at some point in the not too distant future.
Question put and agreed to.
Welfare Benefit Changes
[Mark Pritchard in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the effect of changes to welfare benefits.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. Since this debate was scheduled, I have been inundated with offers of briefings from so many social charities that I could speak for the entire 90 minutes, although colleagues will be relieved to hear that I do not intend to do that. Several national charities have provided so much compelling evidence that this debate needed to be heard. I pay tribute to Barnado’s, Gingerbread, Crisis and The Trussell Trust, and we will all have names of local hard-working groups that are swamped with requests for help from those in difficult times. In my case, they are the Eastside food bank in Bonymaen and the Jesus Cares organisation, which deliver monthly food parcels to my office, allowing me to offer practical support to families in great need.
The changes to the welfare system have featured heavily on this Government’s agenda. Ministers repeatedly tell us that the reforms will tackle benefit dependency and incentivise people to work, but it is clear from the Institute for Fiscal Studies analysis of the summer Budget that, taken in the round, the measures are regressive. Even taking into account the new national living wage and the increased personal tax allowance, many families will be worse off.
As the Resolution Foundation made clear last week, the Prime Minister’s rhetoric on tackling poverty and disadvantage is in stark contrast with the reality: 200,000 more working households could be in poverty by 2020. What is too often missing from this debate is full consideration of the impact that cuts to benefits can have on children. We must remember that children are never responsible for their parents’ decisions or any misfortune. They must not be punished. I therefore want to concentrate on some of the aspects of the Government’s proposals and the impact that they will have on the UK’s poorest and most vulnerable children and young people.
The Welfare Reform and Work Bill, which is currently in Committee, contains several measures that will have a significant impact on some of our most vulnerable families. The Government’s impact assessment shows that an additional 224,000 children will be affected by the change in the household benefit cap. Of course, the Government’s response is that people affected will simply choose to move into work and therefore avoid the cut in income. As hon. Members will know from their own constituencies, however, the situation is rarely that simple.
In 2014, a judicial review examined the impact of the benefit cap on two single parents. In the Supreme Court ruling, three of the five judges found that the benefit cap did not comply with the United Nations convention on the rights of the child. Statements from the judges included that the benefit cap deprived children of the “basic necessities of life” and made them
“suffer from a situation which is none of their making”.
The judgment suggests that the policy is incompatible with the UNCRC and underlines the need for future assessment of the impact of the benefit cap on children’s wellbeing. The Secretary of State will be able to change the benefit cap levels without full parliamentary scrutiny. It is important that the wellbeing of children, particularly very young children, is taken into account. The UNCRC provides a framework for this scrutiny and the Children’s Commissioners hold the expertise about the convention. An impact assessment into the wellbeing of children by the Children’s Commissioners would provide the Secretary of State with the evidence to make an informed decision on future benefit changes.
In my experience, if families are relying on benefits, it is usually because they face significant barriers to work, not simply because they do not see the point in getting a job. Some lack skills or confidence. Others may have mental health problems or health issues. Young parents may be struggling to care for their children. Whatever the reason, the best solution is not a punitive one. This is not just about the cap. Depending on inflation, the four-year freeze in working age benefits could have a significant impact for those on low incomes. There are also the cuts to tax credits. That is a debate for another day, but it is important to register that over 4 million families, accounting for 7.5 million children, will see a difference between getting by on a tight budget and not getting by at all as a result of the changes to tax credits.
As I said, despite rhetoric to the contrary, the summer Budget is regressive. Poor families will get poorer and many on the edge could be driven into poverty. Barnardo’s has calculated that for some of the most vulnerable families, the cuts will mean a significant drop in income. I cannot see how that is right or fair, or how it is in line with stated Government policy. The Government tell us that work is the way out of poverty. Indeed it could be and should be, but we cannot ignore the fact that poverty also affects families where one or more adults works.
A Barnardo’s case study tells of a dad who asked staff for some nappies. When the project worker attended the house to see how things were going, she discovered only biscuits and crisps in the cupboard. The parents were missing meals in order to feed the children, and they had not asked for help because they were too proud. That family provides a window into the reality of life for so many people. The mother works at a call centre and dad looks after their three small children, one of whom is not yet in school. Their house was deemed too big, but no smaller one was available, so they were hit with the under-occupancy subsidy—the nice phrase for the bedroom tax. They are working people, but their income just does not cover the basics. Reluctantly, they eventually asked Barnardo’s for help and were pointed in the direction of a food bank.
The Joseph Rowntree Foundation stated that working single parents will be hit hardest by the changes in benefits. Under the current benefit cap, single parent households are disproportionately affected, particularly those with younger children. Since the introduction of the benefit cap, 63% of affected people were single parent households, of which 70% had a child aged under five. In May 2015, 76% of capped single parent households had a youngest child under five and 34% had a child under two.
According to Barnardo’s, a lone parent working full time on the national living wage for 37 hours a week with two young children could lose £1,200 a year from April 2016. For many single parents hit by the benefit cap, it will not be possible to reduce expenditure through budgeting or moving to cheaper accommodation. Gingerbread tells of a single parent with two primary aged children who phoned its helpline in June 2015. She is expecting a baby in October and was told that, when the baby is born, she will be subject to the benefit cap, causing a shortfall of £32 a week in her housing benefit. I urge the Government to consider how we can justify reducing support to such families. We must think again.
What about larger families with more than two children? Children in larger families are already 1.4 times more likely to be living in poverty. The Welfare Reform and Work Bill will limit support through both tax credits and the Government’s new system of universal credit, so that families receive help for only the first two children. As the Government’s impact assessment makes clear, the policy will disproportionately affect black and ethnic minority families, who are more likely to live in poverty and to have larger families.
We also need to consider the less obvious implications of the policy. What if a family with two children decides to adopt a third? What if a family with one child decides to adopt two siblings? We know that sibling groups often have to wait a long time for a new home. There is already a shortage of families able to take them. Given such difficulties, will the Minister not agree that such scenarios were not considered when the policies were drafted?
What about the withdrawal of housing support for 18 to 21-year-olds? In the summer Budget, the Government announced that from April 2017 unemployed 18 to 21-year-olds making a new claim for universal credit will not be entitled to support for their housing. Crisis has serious concerns that the removal of young people’s access to support for their housing costs will lead only to a further increase in youth homelessness.
For many young people, housing benefit is all that stands between them and homelessness. That includes care leavers and those who have experienced violence or abuse in the family household. Some might be unable to live with their parents because of a relationship breakdown, but are unable to prove that—for example, if a parent remarries or they have been kicked out for announcing that they are gay. All such scenarios for why young people need to leave home must be considered.
Young people who have already found themselves homeless might have been supported into accommodation funded by housing benefit. Between 2010 and 2014, Crisis helped to create 8,128 tenancies in the private rented sector for people who were homeless or at risk of homelessness. It is vital that young people should be able to maintain such forms of accommodation and that those at risk of homelessness should be able to continue to access them.
An example from Crisis is that of Ryan, who was in care as a young child and adopted at four. He never had a good relationship with his adoptive parents and as soon as he turned 16, in the middle of his GCSE examinations, they asked him to leave. Ryan spent the next four years living in a series of hostels, bed and breakfasts and temporary flats, with periods of homelessness. During that time his housing costs, when appropriate, were covered by housing benefit. He managed a college catering course, but found it too difficult when homeless.
The Government will introduce the cut to housing benefit for young people through regulation rather than in primary legislation. Perhaps Ministers anticipated resistance to removing support from vulnerable young people. Whatever the reason, it is outrageous to introduce such a change without giving hon. Members the opportunity to debate it.
The hon. Lady is making an important point, but she should remember that vulnerable young people will be exempted from the changes.
I thank the Minister and look forward to seeing the exemptions, because so far it has not been made clear to us what they will be. This debate is a good time for us to be told about them. I also hope that the Minister will commit to publishing the regulations in time for a full debate in the House when the Bill is on Report.
My final point is about the sanctions regime. The increase in conditionality is significant, primarily because it will mean that parents with three or four-year-old children will be subject to financial sanctions—in other words, a loss in their weekly income. Any sanctions on claimants in my constituency, where nearly 10,000 are dependent on out-of-work benefits, will be catastrophic for their families. Barnado’s, Gingerbread, the Trussell Trust, Crisis and in fact all the charities and organisations tasked with helping those most affected by sanctions would describe the regime as unnecessarily punitive and not fit for purpose.
The Select Committee on Work and Pensions and other organisations have already repeatedly called for a broad independent review of conditionality and sanctions. It is imperative that such a review should take place before sanctions are extended to families with three and four-year-old children. We know that sanctions can be hugely disproportionate—a single mother missing an interview because her child became ill on the way to school, or a father delayed because he is on the phone to a school and misses an appointment by 10 minutes. Those are examples of everyday occurrences that will result in sanctions for people dependent on benefit. The resulting loss of benefits for weeks on end will leave families struggling to feed their children and to heat their homes. Barnardo’s has reported that parents using its services because of sanctions are being driven to food banks or further into debt.
I hope that, as a result of what I have said and what others will say, the Minister takes a message back to his Department and says that the voices of those affected by such cruel, punishing and crippling benefit changes need to be heard.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on her excellent speech, which has covered so many matters, but I want to ask about a couple more. Does she share the concerns expressed by organisations such as Parkinson’s UK about, first, the appropriateness of progressive disease sufferers being placed in the work- related group and, secondly, how under the Government’s Bill employment and support allowance payments will be cut to the level of jobseeker’s allowance? There are serious concerns about people such as sufferers of Parkinson’s in that regard.
I agree. No such section of society will not be affected by such heinous cuts. No section is safe from what is about to happen.
Voices need to be heard and what they are saying needs to be considered, with appropriate action taken. The damage that the cuts are having on the lives of vulnerable families is devastating. I urge the Minister to look into the eyes of a child suffering the effect of the Government’s policy and to reassure them that it is in their best interest. Removing “child poverty” from the narrative does not remove the problem. The Minister should look to his conscience, have a heart and take action now to stop any further damage to young lives.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate, Mr Pritchard. It is interesting that those in the Chamber are from the Opposition Benches, although the Minister is present as well. I am pleased to see him and I look forward to his contribution. We are concerned about tax credits and such issues, but whatever we say is not meant against him—it is not a personal attack. I want to put that on the record.
I am in the Chamber because I am concerned about the impact of changes to welfare benefit—tax credits, specifically. Recently we have heard a lot about that in the news and the Leader of the Opposition asked about the issue during Prime Minister’s questions today. The news has been full of stories about tax credits so I want to touch on them; they are vital to people in my Northern Ireland constituency where, as of April 2015, 6,500 were in receipt of tax credits. Of that number, 4,500 were in work and 2,000 were not.
Such figures speak for themselves. The majority of people receiving tax credits are in hard-working families on low incomes, and they need some extra help to get by. What worries me, however, are—I will say this with respect to the Prime Minister’s reply today; he mentioned the increase in those who will be tax exempt—those in the £10,000 to £11,000 bracket. If tax credits are taken from them, they will feel the pain more than anyone.
Of the 4,500 in work and in receipt of tax credits in my constituency, 2,500 received both working tax credit and child tax credit, 1,300 received child tax credit alone and only 700 received working tax credit alone. As a clear result—this, too, was mentioned by the hon. Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) in her introduction—the Institute for Fiscal Studies estimated that the number of children living in poverty increased over the past three years from 2.3 million to 2.5 million: 200,000 more children in poverty, which is massively worrying. The IFS also estimates that the reductions in tax credits will see that figure rise to 2.8 million. Think about that number of children in poverty for one minute—up from 2.3 million to 2.8 million, 500,000 more in child poverty.
Only last month, I spoke about the importance of eradicating child poverty; it now seems like an ever-intensifying and uphill battle, in particular for those struggling to make ends meet. We must also bear in mind that two thirds of children living in poverty in the UK are from working families, which makes the situation much harder, especially given that the cuts could reduce working family incomes by an average of £1,400 per year—someone today mentioned that the figure could be £1,800. Certainly there will be a large reduction in the income of such families.
I have said it before and I need to say it again: the financial changes will make a huge difference to everyday folk on the street. The number of people coming into my office to get food bank vouchers has increased so much in the past year and indicates the trend. I have always felt that food banks contribute greatly to our society, bringing people together to contribute and to help those less able to look after themselves. By that very nature, food banks are positive—I want to put that on the record—but the fact that so many people are using them is another case entirely.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that. Unfortunately, that is probably the norm in my constituency as well. We are not seeing anything different anywhere else in the rest of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
We cannot be completely in shock about the cuts, given that such benefits make up nearly 40% of welfare spending, just shy of £30 billion. To put that into perspective, that is a lot more than the £2.5 billion that the Government spend on jobseeker’s allowance. It has been estimated that the cuts will save the country £5.37 billion a year by 2019. Given the huge hole in the budget we need to try to fill, that will certainly be a start, but I must ask the Minister: are we punishing hard workers on low wages to do that? I fear that we are.
The Government and we as a nation pride ourselves on helping those who help themselves, but we must bear in mind the reality for many: although they work extremely hard, they simply do not earn enough to make ends meet. That is the sad reality and this vulnerable group in society will be hit extremely hard—unbearably hard, in many cases.
According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, 3 million families will be £1,000 a year worse off following the new cuts. Those are the figures, so it is hard to equate that with saying, “Actually, things are going to be better,” when all those who know tell us that clearly they will not. It has been claimed that families will be £20 a week better off because of the rise in the minimum wage and the cut in income tax. However, the IFS says it is “arithmetically impossible” for families not to be hit by the cuts. The Prime Minister has already conceded that different families will be affected in different ways. Unfortunately, it seems that, for the majority, the figures will be working against them.
The hon. Gentleman has referred several times to the Institute for Fiscal Studies and its observations on the overall impact. It has not given a regionalised profile of the impact, but it would do so if asked. My party has proposed at the Stormont House talks for it to be asked to provide exactly those projections on the situation in Northern Ireland. Given that he is so committed to quoting the IFS, will he encourage his party leadership for once to support that request, so that, when we discuss welfare reform, we can know what we are talking about? It is not enough for him to say that he opposes welfare reform here when his party colleagues vote for it in the Assembly on the basis that “a big boy made me do it.”
I am happy to reply to the IFS question. I have no difficulty with this. My politics are well known in this House. I am left of centre; I am interested in the person who needs help. That is my politics; that is where I come from and who I am. For me it is no bother whatever to ask the IFS to give those figures and I will make it my business to do so. I am as committed to opposing these austerity measures as the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan). However, my party has a realistic outlook and keeps that in mind.
How can I stand in this House today and not be an advocate for those in need in my own constituency? I am aware that there are those who take advantage and play the system, but I am also aware that a great number do not. It is for those people that I stand here today.
Cuts to tax credits are not the only problem that people on benefits face. There are a great many others that I have mentioned before. In my office I have a number of members of staff specifically trained to help people fill in forms for the disability living allowance, which is soon to change to the personal independence payment. I see those people every day and I am aware of their difficulties. They have benefits for a good reason. There are people who need extra financial help to pay for carers or more bedding and other resources while they cater for the day-to-day needs of their family, which they need help to do as well. It is not a matter of living it up and not working; it is a matter of just living. Sometimes it is a matter of being ill and needing help. We have a responsibility to these people and I thought that was what being part of the United Kingdom meant. That is what I thought it was to be British.
I am conscious that I need to allow time for others to speak, but in concluding I want to mention the tragic case of Michael O’Sullivan—we all know it. He killed himself after being found fit for work by the Government’s disability assessors. That case has briefly cast a welcome spotlight—if I can say that—on the utter disgrace that is the work capability assessment in relation to people with mental health problems. Despite providing reports from three doctors, including his GP, stating that he had long-term depression and agoraphobia and was unable to work, Michael O’Sullivan was taken off employment and support allowance and placed on jobseeker’s allowance. At the inquest last year, it was found that he killed himself as a direct result of that decision. According to the coroner, Mary Hassell,
“the intense anxiety which triggered his suicide was caused by his recent assessment by the Department for Work and Pensions as being fit for work and his view of the likely consequences of that”.
That cannot be allowed to happen again.
I fear that cuts that affect the people who are most in need could cause real difficulties for an even larger number of people. With that in mind, although I respect the Minister’s position, I have to put on record my honest, sincere issues and concerns with tax credits on behalf of my people in Strangford, who also share those concerns.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I give my apologies because, as you know, I have to leave before the end of the debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) on securing this important debate. I would talk about tax credits, child poverty and working families, but I am aware that a lot of people want to speak. We have already heard powerful speeches and I am sure that we will hear more. I will therefore focus on what is a constant issue at my constituency surgeries.
The Government’s new proposals build on existing failures that will further punish those in need of our help. In Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey, an ever-rising number of constituents get in touch with me about their personal independence payment claims. There is the gentleman who has just had a second stroke but been deemed fit to work, and the young man with severe disabilities whose benefits were removed because the very action of his carrying a letter handed to him by his carer from the assessment room was evidence enough for an Atos assessor to make a judgment on his reading abilities.
Four out of 10 decisions made by Atos are later overturned. The stress people are put through in those assessments is incredible. There is a woman who, having worked all her life, now holding down two jobs, faces eviction because her husband took ill but was deemed fit for work, despite his being housebound. They can no longer make their rent; they are currently three months in arrears and shortly they will be knocking on Highland Council’s door as homeless, leaving their private rental and joining the 10,000 people waiting on the Highland housing register.
Day in, day out I see the pain and suffering my constituents are put through just to get an Atos appointment, for the lack of a home visit is the first hurdle for many disabled people. I have listened time and again to people describe the process in the assessment room. They use words such as degrading, inhuman and disgraceful, which are repeated often. Each and every one of them faces a catalogue of questions when the primary aim seems to be to find a hook to remove or reduce their benefit entitlement.
Minister, why is it that 30 minutes in an assessment room counts for more than months and years of medical records, or indeed the medical advice of those who are treating people on a daily basis? Why is it that I constantly find myself astonished that those people have been even asked to make their way to attend an interview, given their severe medical conditions?
I am conscious that the hon. Gentleman will not be here for my response. The process takes more than an hour, and it is nothing to do with whether an individual is fit for work. PIP is different from ESA and the assessor is not making a decision on whether someone should get a benefit. Their job is to help the individual complete the forms to present the strongest possible case to the DWP staff. I feel that he is mixing up two benefits.
I encourage the Minister to come and speak to people in my surgeries who have had to go through this, because I do not recognise the procedure he describes and neither do my constituents.
Indeed, even those who have degenerative illnesses are asked to attend assessment and reassessment. By the very nature of their illness, those people are not getting better. Why on earth does anyone find it acceptable to keep reminding them of that while subjecting them to punishing assessments? Why is my office dealing on a daily basis with constituents who, because—often aided and struggling—they can walk 50 metres, are cut off from mobility support?
Under the old DLA system, 71% of people were given lifetime awards, but the conditions of one in three people changed significantly within a 12-month period. Without a reassessment, huge numbers of people were on a lower benefit than they were entitled to, which is why, under DLA, only 16% of people got the highest rate of benefits. Under the personal independence payment, that figure is 20%. It is right to make sure that people get the appropriate amount of support.
I thank the Minister for that intervention, but again I have to say that he must get out there and speak to people in our constituencies, because their experiences are not reflected in his remarks.
I will conclude, because I am conscious that other people should speak in the debate. The effects of benefit changes are wide-ranging and widespread. I urge the Government to reconsider those punishing changes. We have also heard about the changes to tax credits and the vulnerability of the working families who will be affected. A great number of people in my constituency will be pushed into further poverty because of those changes in the coming months. I urge the Government not to use vulnerable people and the disabled as scapegoats for what is, essentially, a failed austerity agenda.
I will be uncharacteristically brief because of the large number of people here from whom we will hear valuable contributions. The shame of the Government Back Benchers is eloquently displayed by their total absence. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) on a splendid speech and on raising this subject.
I want to make one point, on the question of equality in society. In the orgy of self-congratulation at the Tory party conference last week, we heard a remarkable speech by the Prime Minister. Rhetoric has rarely been so far removed from reality. He talked about getting rid of inequality. We know the overwhelming importance of equality to achieving wellbeing in society. A splendid book, “The Spirit Level”, examined 23 countries to discover which are the happiest and have the highest sense of wellbeing. It was not the richest countries but those with the smallest gap between the rich and the poor—that led to satisfaction in society. The happiest countries on that basis are the Nordic countries and Japan; the two saddest countries in the world are the USA and the United Kingdom.
Part of that is a result of what has been happening. Of all my time in politics I would regard the golden age as the time in the late 1970s when, at the end of a period of Labour government, the measure of pay difference was striking. In 1980, the salaries of the chief executives of the main companies in the land were 25 times that of their average worker; now, they are 135 times that of the average worker. Then, if someone was unemployed their benefit was 21% of the average wage; now, it is 11%.
We have seen various cuts. The Thatcher Government downgraded pensions by downgrading the state earnings-related pension scheme and then encouraging the sale of 6 million personal pensions that were a fraud and a cheat, to get people out of the solidity, assurance and certainty of national schemes. We have gone backwards in our social security legislation and are seeing all these attempts to downgrade the standing of the welfare state. After the health service, the welfare state is the one great achievement of politics in the last century, yet now we are attacking that edifice with a wrecking ball. As my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East said, every change is assisting the richest in society and disadvantaging the poor.
There was another remarkable report last week about a fringe meeting at the Tory conference run by a group called the TaxPayers Alliance, more accurately known as the tax dodgers alliance. A man called Alex Wild urged the Government, For goodness’ sake, cut pensioners’ benefits soon. Do it straightaway—you must do it early enough, because lots of them will be dead by the next election, and a lot of them will be gaga, so they will have forgotten whether it was Labour or the Tories who cut their benefits. That degree of cynicism was shocking even from the Tory party. It is shocking that such things are thought, let alone said, and I hope we will get assurances from the Minister that there will be no more cynical attempts to cut benefits.
The Prime Minister’s entire speech last week was a wonderful illustration of the fantasy of politics; that it is not about the reality but the way it is painted and presented—that it is the spin that matters. The country is beginning to see through that with our new politics, with what has happened today and what happened as a result of that speech last week. The public want reality. They want the truth—they do not want to hear hugely elaborate and exaggerated accounts about benefits that are just not happening.
Our society is growing more and more unequal by the year, and that means more and more unhappiness. We should ask the Government to make sure that they bridge that gap. As T.S. Eliot said:
“Between the idea
And the reality…
Falls the shadow.”
An immense shadow obscures the truth of what is happening in society. We are growing into a more unequal and unhappier nation.
Thank you Mr Pritchard; everyone mixes us up.
My concern about the changes is for two particular groups. As most people know, I am a breast cancer surgeon. I am anxious about people who may be recovering from illnesses, or have illnesses that are hidden, such as illnesses that affect mental health, or that may wax and wane, such as multiple sclerosis. Those people are very difficult to assess. Some—such as, we hope, cancer patients—may return to work. I met one today at a disability into employment conference. She has gone back to work early despite clearly not being ready—she has come through very aggressive breast cancer treatment —because she has no alternative. We are dealing with people who are losing £30 a week in the work-related activity group. Those people will be pushed to go back to work or they will lose money. It is wrong that a society cannot support people who are facing life-threatening illness, or progressive, varying or debilitating illness.
The other big group I am concerned about is children. We all know the song about how children are our future. That is absolutely true. If we do not invest in the children of the future, we will reap the whirlwind when the time comes. Over the years, lots of Governments have talked about eradicating poverty. This Government think they can simply expunge it by changing the names of things. The Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission is now just the Social Mobility Commission. The Child Poverty Act 2010 will disappear. Of all the things not to measure, we are now not going to measure income. Of course, other measures contribute, but to imply that lack of money is irrelevant is completely wrong.
The groups cross over. Women with breast cancer have children; so do disabled people. Children will be affected by changes for every single other group. We know that at the moment the NHS is in difficulty because we face an ageing population. The issue is not the age—my mum is 81 and as fit as a flea—but the fact that we are not living well. We are collecting illnesses from the age of 50 onwards. We doctors have got pretty good at getting people to survive things, so that they reach an age where they have four major illnesses. We know that a lot of this is contributed to by people’s start in life and their level of poverty. Health is massively impacted by wealth inequality and poverty. If the NHS is struggling now, what on earth will it be like in 10, 15 or 20 years’ time?
This is not a matter of the workless lying at home with the blinds shut. Two thirds of the children who are now in poverty have a working parent, and we are expecting 1 million extra children to be in poverty. They will face poorer life chances, poorer education, lower chances of getting a job and a lot of more of these debilitating illnesses that we will be trying to ameliorate through the NHS. They will also have a dramatically shorter life expectancy. For us to make decisions in this place that create generations like that in the future is absolutely unforgivable. The changes are very cynical, and we should be looking at them from the point of view of how they will affect children. If we do not give children a better start in life, we will be having even harder discussions in 20 or 30 years’ time.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) for securing this important debate.
We have heard a number of concerns about the impact of the Government’s reforms to the welfare system. I want to focus on one particular aspect. The Welfare Reform and Work Bill will introduce new conditionality for parents with a three or four-year-old child who are claiming jobseeker’s allowance. In the future, once a child reaches three, both their parents will be expected to look for and prepare for work. That measure should be considered in the context of the Government’s promise to increase the free childcare entitlement for working parents of three and four-year-olds to 30 hours a week in England.
As often happens, the devil of this policy is in the detail. Let us start with England. Thirty hours of free childcare will come into force in September 2016. The increased conditionality for parents will come into force under clause 15 of the Bill in April 2016. That is six months in which parents with very young children will be expected to work, but will not be entitled to the free childcare they need.
Members will know that a legal entitlement is not at all the same as full implementation on the ground. Serious doubts have been raised about whether there is capacity in the sector to provide that extra childcare and whether it would be adequately funded. A recent analysis by the Pre-school Learning Alliance showed that the current average hourly cost of childcare per child is £4.53, with the Government contributing just £3.88. When increased to 30 hours, that means that nurseries would operate at an annual loss of £661 per child. That is surely not sustainable.
It is far from clear whether parents in England after September 2016 will have the benefit of the new entitlement, and I challenge the Minister to respond to this: what consideration has been given to the impact of this policy across the UK? I am not as familiar with the situation in Scotland and Northern Ireland, but I know that the Welsh Government currently support 10 hours of free childcare for three and four-year-olds, and there is additional support in “flying start” areas. The Welsh Government want to expand availability once the financial consequentials of the plans for England are known, but that is against the backdrop of a significant cut—around £1.3 billion, or 10%—to the Welsh budget by the UK Tory Government.
That brings me on to the serious problem of access to childcare, especially in rural and semi-rural areas, including parts of my own constituency. It is clear that availability of appropriate, accessible childcare that meets the needs of parents and children must be in place before the increased conditionality is introduced.
Lack of childcare is not the only problem with the policy. Conditionality can be extremely difficult for vulnerable parents, as we have heard. Care leavers, young parents, those with addictions and others often lack the skills and confidence they need to fulfil work-related activity requirements. Many need support to return to work, which is not always available. We know that jobcentres often lack the capacity and expertise to provide that support and to enable vulnerable parents to transition successfully into work
Barnardo’s has raised concerns that many jobcentres lack the basic facilities needed, especially for parents with young children, including bathrooms, and that staff can sometimes be unwelcoming when claimants bring their children to appointments. That is especially challenging for single parents with young children. It goes without saying that when increased requirements come into force for parents of three and four-year-olds, it will become even more important for jobcentres to address those issues. Given those difficulties, will the Minister commit to taking action to ensure that jobcentres adapt to meet the needs of parents and their children before the conditionality extension comes into force?
Another concern I have been made aware of is about the online system, which is now being used more and more. The system apparently frequently freezes, causing horrendous frustration, and the early indications are that the helpline is struggling to cope. Will the Minister look into that?
I will end on the sanctions regime. I agree with the concerns expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East, specifically about the punitive and regressive impact that the sanctions regime will have on families with three and four-year-old children. We know that sanctions can be hugely disproportionate, and we have heard some horrendous examples of how bad they can be. We also know that the loss of benefits for weeks on end can leave families struggling to feed their children and heat their homes. Members will be aware that parents are being driven to food banks and into debt. For many families in my constituency of Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney, that is a reality. I urge the Government to take action.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I thank the hon. Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) for obtaining the debate and congratulate her on the powerful and moving speech she delivered.
I am pleased we have this opportunity today, particularly in the light of the wholly inadequate time we had to debate the changes to tax credits before the vote on the statutory instrument to push through the changes on 15 September. In the week of that vote, there was damning evidence in a briefing paper from the House of Commons Library on the effect of the changes on millions of people. It is important that we analyse the impact of these proposals.
A single-earner couple with two children, working a 35-hour week on the minimum wage, will see their tax credit award fall by £1,853 in 2016-17, while the impact of the new so-called national living wage will only modestly offset the impact of a fall in tax credit income, with net income falling by a huge £1,525. Let us reflect on that and the massive impact it will have on families in the UK. We know that the end result will be to push families with children into poverty.
It is disappointing to look round this room and see the Government Benches empty. We heard from the Tory conference that some Tory MPs have apparently voiced concerns about the changes, but where are they today? The Government need to listen to voices on the Opposition Benches and to those on their own Benches who seem to be questioning this as well. It is not too late to pause, reflect and change tack on the damaging changes that have been pushed through.
The attack on the working poor and low-income families with children flies in the face of the Government’s own rationale of making work pay. The Government argue that work is the best route out of poverty, yet it is estimated that 60% of children in poverty in Scotland come from working families. These changes will only make that worse. I say to Government Members: go back and look at the impact of these changes.
We cannot hit the pockets of so many hard-working families. The money must be found within the Treasury to ameliorate this. I ask all Conservative Members to think about the impact that these changes will have, to reflect on the details published by the House of Commons Library and to find a solution. We cannot and should not be hitting working families in the way that these measures will. We must question the moral compass of a Government who want to increase inheritance tax thresholds while the poorest in society are squeezed to such an extent. We hear from the Government that they want to help strivers. It is those in work who are badly hit by the changes to tax credits.
Perhaps we should ask what the logic of the changes is from an economic point of view. We are told it is about getting the deficit down. The reality, though, is that taking cash out of the pockets of the poorest means taking cash out of the economy and depressing economic activity. People on low incomes tend to spend what money they have. The changes do not fix the deficit; they leave us in a cycle of low growth. That is plain common sense. We can ask the philosophical question of whether there should be an effective support to employers who pay low wages, to excuse them from paying wages that offer dignity for all those in work. I would argue that we all want to get to a situation where work pays to the extent that all those in work have a decent standard of living.
The SNP fully supports the desire to make work pay, through a living wage—a real living wage, not the Tory construct. That must go hand in hand with an environment that encourages productivity, but we know that that has not been happening for the past eight years. Productivity has been flatlining and the Office for Budget Responsibility has forecast only a limited increase in productivity for the next four years. We can get to a high-wage economy only if we have investment in skills and innovation, and through business investment. We do not have those, so we need the safety net that tax credits provide. Let us have a broad debate about what we need to do to drive investment into the economy and drive up productivity. That debate is not happening.
That is why the Government now need to reconsider what they have voted through. Let us come back to the example of the family losing £1,525 of their income next year. What will the Government say to such families, who will face difficult choices? Family budgets are already tight. Something has to give. We can imagine what will happen if someone who is living hand to mouth has an unexpected problem. Perhaps over the winter their central heating boiler will need to be fixed or the fridge will need to be replaced. When income is cut by more than £1,500, those things become difficult choices. That is why the Government need to re-examine the issue. I appeal to them to listen to the many voices raising legitimate concerns.
The Government talk of being a one nation Government, but if that is their desire, it cannot be squared with the rise in inequality, which these measures will accelerate. The Prime Minister said at the Tory conference that he wants an all-out war on poverty. Well, actions speak louder than rhetoric. The Government must change course and show that they can act in the national interest. If they want an all-out war on poverty, they must not cut support to those working families who depend on it and who want a decent standard of living.
A report published by the Resolution Foundation on 7 October estimated that the tax and benefits changes will push a further 200,000 children into poverty in 2016. I ask the Government whether that is a price worth paying. We cannot accept that that can be right, and it will not just be those 200,000 falling into poverty next year. This will increase to 600,000 by 2020. Perhaps it is little wonder that the Government want to redefine poverty. The numbers being pushed into poverty are frightening. It is not a price that a civilised society can afford to pay.
I am grateful that we are having this debate today, but it must not end here. I wrote to the Leader of the House on 21 September and asked, given the limited time we had on 15 September, for a full day’s debate to enable us to reflect properly on what the House of Commons Library has put before us. I appeal to the Government to listen and have the moral courage to change tack.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) for securing this important debate.
In the political to-ing and fro-ing that surrounds the decisions taken in this place, the consequences for innocent children are all too often shunted down the list of priorities. I agree with the numerous calls from children’s charities for us to start to put children at the centre of our decision-making process.
Shortly after the Chancellor announced his Budget, I held a child poverty summit in my constituency. Participants included the deputy Children’s Commissioner for Wales, children’s charities, council officers and local groups that deal with vulnerable children. The overwhelming message that they wanted to convey was that child poverty was a growing issue, particularly in households where it had never previously been an issue—in-work households. Those are families whose incomes previously stretched to cover the mortgage and bills and to put food on the table, and still left enough to live comfortably. However, after years of pay freezes, increasing costs for fuel and food and the erosion of welfare support, those families were just one unexpected bill away from not being able to cover their costs. Many are too proud to ask for help, but we know they are suffering.
I feel that Dickensian conditions are creeping into society. One example given to me at the round table was of children being sent to school in dirty uniforms because their parents could not afford to put the washing machine on. Clothes-swap initiatives sprang up to provide them with clean clothes. In a different example, children in receipt of free school meals were going hungry during school holidays when they did not have those meals. Surely that should not be happening in one of the richest countries in the world. In my constituency 3,910 children are living in poverty and 2,407 of those are in in-work poverty. The Government’s latest round of attacks on working families announced by the Chancellor in July will adversely affect 9,400 children in Aberavon.
The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions recently defended his policy to restrict universal credit to two children as
“bringing home to parents the reality that children cost money”.
I am sure we all thank him for those words of profound wisdom, but we are not engaged in a teaching exercise; we are talking about children’s lives. Questions remain about how the system will detect, for example, fathers who have multiple children with multiple women. If each mother claims for her children, more than two of the father’s children could be in receipt of universal credit.
There are huge loopholes in the law, not just massive ethical and moral questions. I wonder what is happening to the party currently occupying the Government Benches, which claims to be a socially liberal party, in the old tradition of the term. The two-children policy might perhaps be described as government just large enough to fit into people’s bedrooms. There is nothing wrong with making work pay, but it should not be at the expense of children. If the state abandons children when they are in need, what incentive does that give them to contribute to society later in life?
I want to close with a quotation from the recent Conservative party conference:
“We must ensure that…we protect the hardest working and lowest paid.
Shop workers, cleaners, the people who get up in the small hours or work through the night because they have dreams for what their families can achieve”.
That was said by the hon. Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson), otherwise known as the Mayor of London. I wonder whether it was simply part of some complex leadership bid. It may or may not have been; the fact is that I think many of my hon. Friends would agree with those comments.
Does my hon. Friend agree that abject failure is the only way of describing the Government’s welfare reform programme, which puts headlines ahead of the impact on children, the disabled and other vulnerable people whom society should protect?
I absolutely agree; as hon. Members have said, the issue must be about the bigger picture and the sort of society we want to build—not tomorrow’s headlines in the Daily Mail.
The Conservative party claims to be a one nation party and the party of the workers. That is high-flying rhetoric, but the reality is a story of division, attacking the most vulnerable in society while inheritance tax for the richest 60,000 is cut. The gap between the Government’s one nation rhetoric and the divisive reality of their policies is fast becoming a chasm. I urge the Minister to reconsider those policies and to close the gap.
I thank you for calling me a second time, Mr Pritchard. I am pleased to take part in this afternoon’s wide-ranging debate, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) on bringing the issues forward so eloquently. The debate has, however, presented a sorry picture of the impact of the Government’s welfare reforms across the UK. Above all, it has brought home the point that austerity is not working; the Government are simply attacking low-income families, disabled people and those with long-term health conditions, while giving tax breaks to the very wealthiest.
We have heard today that children will be among those most severely impacted by the changes to tax credits in the new Welfare Reform and Work Bill, currently undergoing legislative scrutiny, but it is important to understand that the new measures are only the latest in a long line of assaults on the most disadvantaged people in our society.
Research on the cumulative impact of the reforms that have already been enacted, published by Sheffield Hallam University in February this year, calculated that by 2018 incomes in Scotland will have been reduced by £1.5 billion a year, or £440 for every adult of working age. According to the House of Commons Library, the current round of reforms in the Welfare Reform and Work Bill will take an estimated further £900 million a year from the lowest income households, and the heaviest losses will be sustained by families with children. As my hon. Friend the Member for Central Ayrshire (Dr Whitford) said so powerfully, child poverty has long-term consequences. It cannot be fixed some years later with a magic bullet; it has a long-term impact on people’s life chances and life expectancy.
In Scotland, almost 200,000 families and 346,000 children are going to lose out because of changes to tax credits. The Resolution Foundation has pointed out that the vast majority of those children live in working families, and it expects that across the UK the changes to tax credits alone are going to push 200,000 more children into poverty by 2016, rising to 300,000 by 2020. Far from making work pay, the changes to tax credits for people already on low wages are going to entrench in-work poverty, not address it.
It is important to remember that the welfare reforms that have been implemented are having a hugely detrimental impact on thousands of people already hit by earlier reforms. We are seeing some of those effects much more clearly than we have until now—certainly more than we did at the time of their implementation.
Arguably, the most distressing symptom of the failure of welfare reform is the explosion of food bank use right across these islands. In Scotland, food bank use rose by two thirds last year alone. The Trussell Trust distributed 36,000 food parcels to children in Scotland, and that represents only some of the food banks operating in our communities. I do not think that is a sufficient or acceptable safety net for children in 21st-century Scotland —frankly, I do not know how Ministers sleep at night. It is very telling that not a single Back-Bench Tory MP is here today to defend the Government’s record. That is shameful.
The two biggest drivers for the unprecedented growth in food bank use are the changes in support for disabled people and those with long-term health problems, and, connected to that, the changes to the conditionality regime. For years now, serious concerns have repeatedly been raised about the work capability assessment for employment and support allowance. It has been an utter shambles.
According to the DWP’s own recent statistical analysis, over half of appealed fit-for-work ESA decisions are overturned. That is an unsustainable and unacceptable level of poor decision making. Moreover, it has led to protracted and costly appeal and tribunal proceedings—processes that place enormous stress on and cause real hardship to sick and disabled people and those who care for them. In some cases, they have exacerbated people’s health conditions.
The story with personal independence payments is similar, as my hon. Friend the Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Drew Hendry) pointed out. A number of my constituents waited nearly a year for a PIP assessment, and so far, 20% of mandatory reconsiderations of PIP have resulted in a different decision being made. Under the previous contractor, Atos, the Government spent around £60 million a year on around 600,000 appeals against Atos decisions. A new contractor is now in place, but unless the Government actually change what they ask these companies to assess, and how, it is hard to see how Maximus is going to do any better than its predecessor.
A key problem has been that the complex medical histories of some claimants have not been consistently sought or considered adequately in a process that has been focused on functionality.
Given that the hon. Lady is on this point, I should briefly highlight that when there was a movement from the disability living allowance to the personal independence payment, there were instructions out that the Government expected 20% fewer people to be on PIP.
The hon. Lady makes an important point. Those people still have those conditions to live with, in many cases, and their condition has not got any better. It is just that it has become more difficult for them to deal with their condition. The problem has been particularly acute for people with fluctuating conditions and mental health problems—illnesses that are perhaps not immediately visible. The Multiple Sclerosis Society has pointed out that 39% of its members who were surveyed said that their ESA assessments had not taken account of additional evidence.
I have raised this issue with Ministers many times, particularly in relation to mental health. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) rightly raised the tragic case of Michael O’Sullivan, following a ruling by the coroner concluding that a decision made in relation to his ESA was a major factor in his death. This man committed suicide after having been found fit for work by the Government’s assessors in 2013, but sadly this is not an isolated case.
Some time ago, I raised the case of a woman known as Ms DE, whose suicide in 2011 was the subject of an investigation by the Mental Welfare Commission for Scotland. Ms DE took her own life after scoring zero points in a work capability assessment made in the absence of an ESA50 form and without any additional information from her clinicians. The only information her assessor had about her condition was a single word, “depression”, which in her case masked a long and very complicated psychiatric history. Both her general practitioner and her consultant psychiatrist considered her unfit for work at the time of her death, even though she had worked for most of her adult life and wanted to go back to work. The distress caused by her benefits assessment may have played a role in her suicide. The investigation concluded that there was “no other known trigger” for the events that took place.
Those two cases have been properly investigated and fully documented, but they are unlikely to be isolated. I have had to learn to deal with constituents coming to me expressing suicidal feelings because of their experiences in the assessment process, and I am certainly not qualified to give them the kind of support that they clearly need. As an MP, all I can really do is point them in the direction of the appropriate services and try to help them to work their way through state bureaucracy. However, just at a human level, I do not think anyone can fail to be moved or to understand that we have a fundamental problem in this process. It is not treating people with the basic dignity that they require.
The shortcomings of the assessment system are leading directly to the problems experienced with the new sanctions regime. There has been considerable evidence for some time now that, for example, those with mental health conditions are being disproportionately sanctioned. Again, that chimes with the anecdotal evidence that I am sure many MPs here today will have seen at first hand—of very unwell people simply falling through the social safety net.
Recent figures published by the DWP on the sanctions regime show that in nearly 50% of reviewed cases, decisions are being reversed. We see a system that is not working efficiently, and again, we see horrendous social consequences for people who are ill and, in some cases, really very vulnerable. Once again, taking better account of individuals’ medical histories and getting the decisions right in the first place would prevent the stress, hardship and anxiety of sick and vulnerable people falling foul of the sanctions regime and finding themselves stigmatised, vilified and castigated simply for being unwell.
We need a root-and-branch review of the sanctions regime. In the last Parliament, the cross-party Work and Pensions Committee recognised that, as have countless external bodies representing those living with health problems. Will the Minister today please just bite the bullet, go back to the drawing board on the sanctions regime and recognise the links to the inadequacies in the assessment process?
I have already talked about the Government Benches; when I look around the Chamber, I am also struck by the number of Members who have spoken from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland this afternoon. I think that reflects the differential impact that welfare reform is having on the devolved Administrations. I also think it probably reflects a very different political ethos, but we will leave that for another day.
The Scottish Government have tried to protect those most affected by welfare reforms, providing over £300 million to mitigate the worst excesses of the changes; notably, that has mitigated the bedroom tax, maintained council tax benefit for half a million people and established the welfare fund. However, what we really need are economic powers and the powers over social security fully in the hands of our Parliament so that we can tackle the causes, not just the symptoms, of poverty and disadvantage.
I am sorry that so far the Government have voted against any moves to devolve really meaningful powers, betraying the promises made just over a year ago, but I hope that when we do have chance very shortly to debate these matters again, the Government will take the opportunity to accept some amendments that have been proposed, if only to reverse the damage that is going to be done to poor households through changes to tax credits.
The Government’s welfare reforms have bitten very deep already into the incomes of very poor people. It is important to remember that this Parliament has a responsibility to all its citizens—not just the rich people and those old enough to vote. We have to make sure that we do not abandon those people, because we have a responsibility to them, and we need a fairer social security system.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard.
The dynamics of this debate have said a great deal. My hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) spoke with huge passion and absolutely from the heart. We could hear the voice of Swansea in what she was saying, and it was important to hear an authentic voice explaining the real effects of these changes to social security and what they mean to real communities and real people. We are not talking rhetoric; we are not talking learned lines that are copied down throughout the Conservative party. We are talking about what happens to people in their homes and communities—people who, as has been pointed out, feel demeaned by what has happened to them. It is difficult for people to discuss it and, as my hon. Friend said, she wanted this to be an opportunity for the voices of victims of the benefit changes to be heard. I congratulate all hon. Members who have had the opportunity to be heard and who have spoken authentically on behalf of their communities.
We heard the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) saying that we are punishing workers on the lowest wages and that that is unbearable for many families. We then heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Steve McCabe), and the voice from Birmingham said that the people who are using our food banks are in work. We heard from the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan), who said we need regionalised figures to explain the impact of the changes on our communities. Then we heard from the hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Drew Hendry), who gave many examples of people who had been assessed as being fit for work, including a man who had had a second stroke. He discussed those constituents’ pain and suffering and how degrading Atos assessments have been—they are degrading, inhuman and disgraceful. I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on that, because he spoke not only for people in Inverness, but for those across the country who have been assessed by Atos and feel the same.
I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) on securing this important debate. The Government’s study identified that more than 330,000 children from low-income families in England will be hit by the benefits cap and that a couple with two children will be priced out of being able to rent a two-bedroom property in almost all areas of the south of England and across much of the midlands too. Does my hon. Friend agree that this state of affairs will have a potentially devastating effect on the lives of hundreds of thousands of children, who may be forced out of their homes and away from their communities, and that it is likely to have a particularly severe impact on single parents, who rely strongly on the local communities around them for support in bringing up their children?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. Many communities, particularly in inner London, have already been affected by the first benefit cap. We have already seen young children ripped out of primary schools and moved out of London, as families try desperately to find somewhere they will be able to afford under the benefit cap.
Introducing a benefit cap makes a profound change to the way we pay benefits. The social security system used to be, and had always been, a safety net available to everyone, but introducing a benefit cap disconnects need from the amount that we are prepared to pay. Larger families, which are in most need, will be affected most. It is not their fault that they live in inner London or that they cannot live in public rented housing because there is not enough affordable public rented housing so they must live in the private sector. The Government have introduced an arbitrary, politically motivated cap that will have a devastating effect on communities.
Does my hon. Friend agree that, as well as the impact on working people on low wages and the poor, another surprising aspect of Government policy is its total disregard for those with long-term, progressive, degenerative conditions such as muscular dystrophy?
I fully understand, Mr Pritchard. Given the number of people who have not been able to speak in this debate, I made the decision that I would encourage them to intervene. There is a huge amount I would like to say, but I am reflecting many hon. Members here today who want to speak.
We heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn) about increasing inequality and attempts to downgrade the welfare state, which is being attacking like a wrecking ball—I thought that was an important way of putting it. We then heard from the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire (Dr Whitford) about the difficulty of assessing people with variable conditions, and it is perhaps even worse for those with degenerative conditions.
Two thirds of children in poverty have a parent in work. That is an important point; indeed, it should be written on the shaving mirrors and make-up mirrors of every Tory MP. If we are seeing an economic miracle, why is that happening? The Government and their Back Benchers should be thinking about that.
We heard from the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Gerald Jones) about parents of three and four-year-olds and the expected gap between the time when childcare is supposed to be delivered and the time when they will be expected to go to work. It is obviously nonsense, and the amount of money the Government have provided for that childcare is also clearly nonsense. The Childcare Bill has only four pages and says little more than the Conservative party manifesto. There is no delivery mechanism for this wonderful childcare they claim they will provide, so we wait to see whether it happens.
We heard from the hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford) about the tax credit cut. The obvious question is: why is that happening when the inheritance tax threshold is being increased and from a Prime Minister who says we have an all-out war on poverty? Ha, ha, ha. In what way does that work exactly? My hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock) talked very movingly about working people who used to be able to pay their mortgage and their bills generally, but who now, after years of a pay freeze, are only one meal away from disaster. He also talked about the increasingly Dickensian conditions. We then heard from my hon. Friend the Member for West Lancashire (Rosie Cooper) about how the Conservatives’ policy seems to be based entirely on rhetoric, not evidence.
The best social policy comes from looking at what is happening, how it will work and what its effect will be. The fact that we do not have an equality impact assessment for the Welfare Reform and Work Bill says it all. We know those who will be affected most: it will be women and people from ethnic minority backgrounds. Why is there not an equality impact assessment to help to spell that out? If the Government want to make proper social policy, why do they not base it on evidence? What a shame it is that we hear all these voices—it is like alarm bells going off across the country—saying, “Do not do this. Do not introduce these welfare changes. You are increasing child poverty. You are increasing poverty in this country. Stop, think, pause,” and yet there is no one in the Chamber from the Conservative party, with the honourable exceptions of the Minister and his Parliamentary Private Secretary.
Where are all the others? Is it that those who are against the Bill dare not speak out, but just want to whisper behind their hands or give unattributable briefings? Where are those who really believe that what the Government are doing is correct? Where are the troops loyally coming out and saying what a great thing this is? It is not a great thing. The Government are ashamed of themselves, but they continue to keep going, hiding behind rhetoric and their friends in the right-wing media, when those who are voices for real people in this country know that what the Government are doing is devastating this country.
It is an absolute pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris). I recognise that this is an incredibly important debate and that hon. Members have made constructive, thought-provoking speeches, often with personal stories, so I will not give a pre-written speech, but will try to address as many of the points as possible. I am the Minister for Disabled People and if the points raised relate to other Departments, I will do my best to cover them.
I pay tribute to the shadow Minister. It was helpful of her to encourage interventions, allowing everybody here to contribute, bar the hon. Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield). That was a real shame, because he is one of the Opposition’s most effective and measured Members of Parliament and has helped to shape Government policies in the past with well argued points. It is a shame that he did not have the opportunity to contribute.
I have a soft spot for Swansea East because, as the Minister for Disabled People, I celebrate, recognise and champion the fact that Swansea is the first city to be fully disability confident. It is a credit and an honour that the hon. Member for Swansea East represents such a wonderful town. One of my first media activities was to praise it, so she can be very proud of Swansea East. Leading on from that, she raised a point about barriers to work. I recognise that issue in my role as Minister for Disabled People. We have a commitment to halve the disability employment gap. In the last 12 months alone, 226,000 more disabled people have got into work, but halving the gap will require about another million, so there is still a huge way to go. We will be doing a huge amount of work through Disability Confident and our Access to Work scheme, through which we are now close to record numbers of people being helped.
The hon. Lady raised a point about sanctions. That has come up in a number of debates that I have spoken in, and the shadow Minister from the Scottish National party, the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Dr Whiteford), raised the point as well. The use of sanctions has fallen by 30% in the last 12 months. The Oakley review did recognise that that was an important part of the mix; it should not be something in isolation. This is about the claimant and the work coach coming together with a contract and both sides working to give that individual the best opportunity. The use of sanctions is an important issue. I recognise some of the personal stories raised, and we shall continue to look at that, but it is an important part of the mix.
The hon. Member for Swansea East also highlighted Parkinson’s UK. The issue was raised in a previous debate. I have since met Parkinson’s UK, and we have made significant changes to some of the practices in the personal independence payment based on its expertise and advice. I am very grateful that it was able to contribute to that. I thought that the hon. Lady’s speech was important. She highlighted the need for the voice of the vulnerable, and certainly the opportunity was taken with a very powerful speech.
I am going to be tight on time. Let us see whether I can get through these pieces of paper first and then hon. Members can feel free to intervene.
The hon. Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn) raised the concern that the TaxPayers Alliance was now setting policy. Fear not: it has not taken over the leadership of our party, so do not panic.
The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who for the second day in a row has been detained elsewhere when I have responded to his points—hopefully he will read this—raised the point about food banks. A number of other hon. Members also talked about that. We have argued in the past that we have made them more accessible. One thing we do know is that the proportion of people reporting difficulties affecting food is down in the UK from 9.8% in 2007 to 8.1% in 2012. This is an incredibly important issue. I recognise that concerns have been raised about even people in work sometimes having had to access such facilities. We will continue to look at the issue, but we know that the number of those reporting difficulties with accessing food is falling—something that we would all welcome.
The hon. Member for Central Ayrshire (Dr Whitford) talked about fluctuating health conditions. I stress that, in the proposed changes to ESA, the support group will not change—I just want to make that clear—but we have to recognise that people have fluctuating health conditions, particularly in terms of mental health.
That is exactly the point I am coming on to. We have to be more flexible. In terms of mental health conditions, we know that one in five people going for ESA will have a mental health condition as their primary concern. That increases to just below 50% on a menu of conditions. A mental health condition is one of many types of condition that fluctuate, which has to be recognised. That is why the principles of universal credit will make a considerable difference.
This is not just about support to get people into work, although that is incredibly important; it is also about keeping people in work. For example, 300,000 people a year with a mental health condition drop out of work. I know from having employed someone with a mental health condition that it is a lot easier to keep someone in work than for them to drop out, navigate the benefits system, rebuild their confidence and get back into work. We are doing a huge amount of work. There are lots of pilots and lots of lessons that we are learning. Rightly—this goes across the political divide—we all recognise the significance of mental health conditions and other fluctuating conditions. Life is not simple and the system has to recognise that.
That brings me to the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Gerald Jones). I am delighted to say that his local football team finally got promoted the other season, which stops his team knocking mine out in the play-offs every year. I have had too many long journeys that have ended in great disappointment. He, too, rightly highlighted the need for flexibility. With universal credit, we will be encouraging the coaches. We will be making the coaches build a flexible relationship with the claimant, recognising that each person is an individual and has different challenges and, crucially, different opportunities.
We have talked about childcare. Obviously, there was our announcement about going from 15 hours to 30 hours. Crucially, this is a devolved issue. We will keep a very close eye on what the devolved Assemblies are doing to see whether there are lessons to be learned and, as ever, we will seek to share best practice. Capacity is a key issue. I recognise that. Between 2009 and 2012, we created 230,000 places—an increase of 12%. We have announced £2 million of start-up grants to encourage more childcare provision. We are simplifying the regulatory framework. That is something we look at.
I thought that it was a fair point about the jobcentre environment. I have done many tours of jobcentres and I think that is something we need to look at. Again, we are doing pilots on how we can change the environment and the services that are offered—joined-up services. Those were fair points on jobcentres. I think we would all recognise that there is work to be done there.
Many of the points in the speech by the hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford) were from the tax credits debate. That is not really today’s debate. There will be an opportunity for that next week, but those important points have now been placed on the record. I say to all the people concerned that we cannot look at this issue in isolation. The introduction of the national living wage will help 2.7 million people. The ripple effect will filter through to 6 million people in total. The changes to the personal income tax threshold have made a significant difference to our lowest earners, taking 3.2 million of them out of paying any income tax at all. I particularly welcome the measure whereby that will lock in with inflation once we hit £12,500, so we will not start to see the creep of people being dragged back into paying income tax. I very much welcome that and of course the increased numbers in work. We support the principle that work is the best route out of poverty.
The hon. Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock) made some interesting points. I gently remind him, in relation to the quote that he used, that those were the very people who elected us to form this Government.
I understood the concerns expressed by the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan. I have made an offer before to meet to discuss those, because I know that she has a real desire to see an improvement in this area. I felt sometimes that there was a bit of confusion between the ESA system and the personal independence system; on some of the points, I felt that. I think it would be worth our having that meeting to discuss the issues in detail. I will say that there has been a complete transformation in the service that a claimant would expect through personal independent payment from when it was initially rolled out. There were well documented problems. I have done Westminster Hall debates on that before. We are now down to 11 weeks—median—end to end, and five weeks for an assessment. That is well within where we would expect to be, but it is a journey. We continue to meet organisations that help with the training and with improving the claimant’s experience.
Crucially on mental health, under DLA a disservice was done to people with mental health conditions. Under personal independence payment, all impairments are treated equally and the system is geared up to recognise them. That is part of the reason why we are now seeing 20% of claimants getting the maximum benefit, compared with just 16% under DLA. Rightly, the assessment has to be about dignity. The assessors are there to help people with their claims. I am happy to meet to discuss that further.
On ESA, let us remember that, on the WRAG group, only 1% of people are coming off that benefit. That shows that the current system has needed to be reformed. I welcome the extra £60 million that we will be spending on providing specialist support, rising to £100 million by 2020. That leaves me with just 20 seconds. I am sorry that I have not been able to touch my formal speech.
I welcome the Conservatives who have now joined us. We have been here since half-past 2; it would have been nice to see them earlier. I thank the Minister for his kind words, but I feel that I am leaving this room no wiser than I was when I came into it. The lack of his colleagues throughout the debate and the rhetoric in his answers have done nothing but confirm to me that this Government just do not care.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the effect of changes to welfare benefits.
House Business Committee
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the creation of a House Business Committee.
Welcome to the Chair, Mr Pritchard. It would probably be hard to think of anything more technical, boring or dry than a House Business Committee—that is what people would like you to think. But it is actually the heart of political power in respect of Parliament’s relationship to Government. It is amazing that in this day and age, at least 200 years since Montesquieu wrote “The Spirit of Laws”, which talked about the separation of powers, the good old United Kingdom still does not have a written settlement. It does not have something that we can all refer to so that we know what Parliament does, what Government do and what the judiciary does, and that keeps them separate.
The lesson learned at great cost in the French revolution, and enacted with some blood in the American revolution, has bypassed the United Kingdom. We still have a system that Charles I would recognise, in which the Executive have supreme control and what they say goes—only Charles I would see that instead of a monarch, we have a Government. They are benign, because we live in a democratic culture, and people are normally very nice to each other and quite polite. The reality, however, is that power is exercised by Government over Parliament, rather than Government seeing Parliament as a partner. That makes our system dysfunctional and incapable of providing a serious process of reconciliation or holding to account.
[Mike Gapes in the Chair]
Of course, many people have vested interests in keeping the system exactly the way it is. I put it to the Government, at both ministerial and official level, that that is an immature way of viewing our politics. It weakens our politics and our governance, particularly in this day and age when people are so turned off by politics in general. This is a moment where we can win people back, and say, “You know what? We are going to listen to people. We do not always want to do what they tell us, but we will listen to them and their elected representatives because that is part of the warp and weft of our democracy.”
By doing that, we could bring people together and command greater consensus on our decision making. The decision-making process would be less arbitrary and much stronger if we had that level of maturity in our politics—if the Government did not cynically laugh up their sleeve and say, “We are going to ram this through if we possibly can, come what may, despite what people think,” rather than, “I wonder whether any of these people in Parliament who are not in government have a contribution to make. Shall we listen on the off-chance that they have?”
Perhaps if we had a proper Report stage in the House of Commons, we could find a way of making better law. Perhaps it would save us time, because we would not have to come back to things, as we infamously did on, I think, five occasions during one Parliament on a criminal justice Bill. If we listened to people, we would not have to swallow, give in or U-turn, but we could distinguish the good from the bad and help to make our system better. Doing so would make our politics and our democracy stronger, and it would certainly make our Parliament and governmental relationship stronger.
That is not the way we have chosen to do things so far, however. The Wright Committee suggested that we should have a House Business Committee. Why would we want such a thing? It would bring to the table Parliament and the respective Whips. In addition to those who work for the Government and the alternative Government, it would bring to the table some people from the institution—perhaps the leader of the 1922 committee, the chair of the parliamentary Labour party, a couple of people elected from the Back Benches, someone from a minority party and a nominee of the Speaker. The committee could have a majority from the Government so that, having heard all the voices, the Government could still, if they wanted, ram through whatever they felt was convenient to their long-term interest, whoever was in power.
We would not lose a lot by having such a meeting once a week, and we would risk gaining an incredible amount. For instance, the 90 minutes allocated for the debate in the main Chamber tonight, which everybody seems to feel is incredibly important, on whether there should be a legally binding obligation on deficit reduction could be extended. We could use parliamentary time more effectively. Perhaps, Mr Gapes, someone of your distinguished history on that committee might say, “We are going to clear off early if we possibly can on Tuesday, and we will have only four people in the Chamber. Why don’t we use that time effectively to discuss important issues?” It would not be necessary to find a clerkly device to wangle one’s way on to the agenda and squeak in a few words to heckle the Executive steamroller; instead, we could have a proper debate on refugees, on the Redcar steelworks or on tax credits. We have just had such a debate in Westminster Hall, which is a well-attended but none the less secluded venue for something so important.
I do not raise this matter—yet again—in anger; I raise it in frustration at the fact that our governance is such that we would rather keep control than find a sensible way to conduct a modern and mature democracy.
Can the hon. Gentleman explain to me why in May 2009, the Prime Minister, then Leader of the Opposition, made a powerful speech about fixing broken politics, in which he said that there should be a business of the House committee; why he committed in the coalition agreement to establishing such a committee within three years of the Parliament; and why it never actually happened? What evil forces behind the scenes are stopping this?
I do not believe that there are any evil forces. There is a desire when in government not to be bothered with explaining things any more than one has to. Governments want to get on and do business. There is a feeling that parliamentarians can be treated with contempt, because Parliament is a holding pen for the sheep who will troop through the Lobby to enact measures that have been in a manifesto or on the Government’s agenda, and that is the way things are done. I do not think that people are evil, unpleasant or malicious; I think that they are simply missing an opportunity.
I want to mention the two most powerful people in the House of Commons: Roy Stone, the principal private secretary to the Chief Whip, and Mike Winter, the head of the Office of the Leader of the House. They are decent civil servants, but they could be told by an incoming Prime Minister, “This is simply not good enough. We are a laughing stock compared with other legislatures.”
We are elected on election day and the electorate give us legitimacy, which is sucked out of us by a Government who have no legitimacy of their own. They are not directly elected, so they have to get legitimacy from somewhere. It is rather like a scene from a science fiction film in which people are tied to a wall and pipes attached to their veins, so that they can give sustenance to a beast that sucks their blood. Government suck out the legitimacy that the electorate give to Parliament and leave us a shell, and we are the worse for it. Government stride off, pumped up with the legitimacy that is rightfully Parliament’s, because they have none of their own.
I do not blame any of the civil servants or incumbent Ministers, because that has been a feature of governance in this country—this includes Labour Governments and Labour Prime Ministers—for as long as I have been in Parliament. I am simply trying to put on the table yet again the fact that there is a better way of doing things, as a result of which we would not be held so much in contempt. If the Government involved Parliament and listened to people, they would act as a symbol to people out there that we are doing things in a different way.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on raising this important subject, as he has for many years. The lesson is that all Governments and Governments-in-waiting are power retentive, with an addiction to hanging on to every scrap of power. They think that, in setting up a House Business Committee through which the House decided its own business, they would lose a minute part of their power.
Because of the Petitions Committee, earlier this week this room was filled with members of the public, who were all allowed to use their iPads to send messages, intent on a subject of their choice through petition. That is one step forward but, unfortunately, it tends to end in disappointment because no decisions are taken at the end of those petition debates.
Yes, the petitions question is one that my Select Committee—the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, of which my hon. Friend the Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn) was a distinguished member—looked at, along with all the Wright reforms. Indeed, one of my anxieties is that new Members coming to this place just assume that some of those bits of progress are part of the atmosphere here and have been for several hundred years—not true. Select Committee Chairs and members, some of whom are present today, have just been elected for only the second time in parliamentary history.
Before that, the Government—the very institution that is meant to be held to account—decided who went on those Committees. What an absolute nonsense that was! I was in the Whips Office; of course the people who the Whips think will do more appropriate things were put on Committees. They are not going to put difficult people into politically tender situations. People are going to be rewarded with Select Committee Chairs and so on. That is no way to run a democracy.
Fundamentally, GCSE-level politics says that unless we have a plurality of institutions, each with their own legitimacy, independence and standing, we cannot say that we have the structure of a genuine democracy. That is where we need to get to and where we will get to, either by kicking and screaming as the Union is dismembered, mass cynicism pervades the electorate and the concept of democracy starts to come under threat, or by using our brains to try to get people to pull together and act in partnership, in a plural way, to build the democracy that the country deserves and needs.
I just managed to squeak in, Mr Gapes, moments before your good self because I was on the Floor of the House where we were talking about devolution, democracy and giving people power. I welcome the Cities and Local Government Bill and the efforts of the Secretary of State who has done a fantastic job on it, perhaps to the alarm of some of my colleagues. But we need to spread that further. We need to say to people, “We cannot do this in little isolated blocks. We actually need to renew our democracy.” That is my ask of Government Ministers and officials.
I know there is a speech ready. I know it will say, “Have we have passed the test set by Mr Lansley? Yes we have. Blah blah.” There will be a defence that although it appeared in the coalition agreement and was reneged on, there were reasons for that. There will, no doubt, be a statement saying, “It was in the manifesto but we didn’t do it. The Prime Minister himself committed to serious reform and certain things got in the way.” I am not interested, to be honest. I would like the Minister to get to her feet and engage me in debate about why we cannot build a better way of running the relationship between Government and Parliament without it being a relationship of subordination and domination. Why can we not get that fantastic added value that we all get in our family affairs by having a properly balanced relationship where discussions happen and decisions are made when people come to a consensus?
I will put this matter on the agenda again if I can. There is a lot more to be said. I could say a lot more but it would be very repetitive because we have raised the issue since the Wright Committee. In other words, we have raised the issue with all parties in government. We have raised this issue with coalition Governments, Labour Governments and Conservative Governments. At one point in this historical process—I hope I am still alive to see it and cheer: from afar, no doubt—the Government will accept that building an effective, honest and open partnership with Parliament is a better way to govern a democracy than what they do now, which is often to impose and to control.
Let a thousand flowers bloom. Let a debate take place. Perhaps a House Business Committee—minor though that may be, and technical and dry though it may sound —could be a symbol of that new start.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gapes, and to respond to the debate on the creation of a House Business Committee. May I start by congratulating the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen)on securing this debate? Although I recognise that I might not be about to relieve his frustration, I am sure that he will understand, as he said, the points that I intend to make.
The Government’s position on the creation of a House Business Committee remains as set out in an answer to a parliamentary question tabled in July by the hon. Member for Nottingham North, which it may be helpful to read out:
“There was an absence of consensus on this issue at the end of the previous Parliament, and there is still no consensus at the beginning of this Parliament. The Government therefore have no intention to bring forward proposals.”—[Official Report, 9 July 2015; Vol. 598, c. 448.]
That remains the Government’s position and although this could be a short speech, I want to add something to that response, including comments on some issues raised during this debate.
I will start by addressing the issue of a House Business Committee directly. During the previous Parliament, the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee proposed a House Business Committee, based around the idea of a consultative committee, from a list of several different options. I think that five or six options were put forward and one was plumped for. By its own admission, the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee recognised that each of its proposals for a House Business Committee had
“virtues as well as disadvantages”,
and it had concerns that it did not wish to do anything that
“would undermine the advances already made”
on the reform agenda.
While the principle of a House Business Committee has its supporters, agreement on its purpose, function and composition has been lacking. It is fair to say that a typical week in the House since 2010 gives the Government two days in the Chamber to progress their legislative agenda, with a day for Opposition scrutiny and another for Back-Bench nominated, House-controlled business. Those supporting the creation of a House Business Committee need to address the issue of its purpose and to answer the question of what deficiencies in the current system it would address.
When Lord Lansley was Leader of the House, he set out a number of tests that any Committee would need to meet to be able to operate effectively and add value to our current arrangements. Those tests are still valid. In particular, such a Committee must
“provide Government control of its legislative programme; respect the remit of the Backbench Business Committee; take into account the views of all parts of the House without becoming unwieldy in size; co-ordinate business with the House of Lords; and retain the flexibility to change the business at short notice in response to fast-moving events.”
As he said then, he was not able to identify a proposal that met those tests, nor did he suggest a means of doing so. The hon. Member for Nottingham North will be aware that we did not agree with the option that was suggested. There has certainly been a wide diversity of views in support of different options. Indeed, I recall the passing words of the former shadow Leader of the House, the hon. Member for Wallasey (Ms Eagle):
“All I would say is I look forward with a great deal of interest to how you square the circle of the House Business Committee.”
That remains true today.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way and not reading her prepared speech. The situation is that this was in the coalition agreement—the bible of the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr Clegg) and the Prime Minister. How on earth could it have got in the bible if it had not been thought through and agreed? I do not think that my hon. Friend’s speech is career enhancing if she is going against what the Prime Minister wants.
I am so pleased that my hon. Friend is interested in the future of my career. At the time, the noble Lord Lansley said that, yes, it had been in the coalition agreement but that he feared he would not be able to effect it because he had not been able to find a model that satisfied those tests. The tests are still valid. Could such a Committee co-ordinate the business of the House of Lords? How would a weekly meeting react to fast-changing events and the need to change business at short notice? How could it represent all Back Benchers without becoming unwieldy in size?
The current system gives every Back Bencher a weekly opportunity to hold the Leader of the House to account for the proposed business, to question him on that business and to make requests for future business. The previous coalition Government gave evidence to the PCRC on the large amount of consultation that had been undertaken and on the diversity of views that had been expressed, none of which fulfilled the tests or looked capable of securing consensus.
I remind Members of the positive reforms and developments in the last Parliament, which should be rightly celebrated. A PCRC report in the last Parliament considered the impact of reform and welcomed the progress that had been made since 2009—indeed, we voted for most of the reforms in 2010. The PCRC stated:
“There have been clear advances in the effectiveness of Commons select committees… The Backbench Business Committee has been a success and we welcome the good working relationships which it has established with the business managers”.
We should also consider our recent experience of scrutinising legislation. There have been an increased number of multi-day Report stages—there were 25 in the 2010 to 2015 Parliament, compared with 11 in the previous Parliament. There has been increased use of pre-legislative scrutiny, with 17 measures in the last Session being published in draft. We have allocated more time for scrutiny, but four in five Public Bill Committees, 83%, finished early last year, which is more than in the previous year. We have also implemented explanatory statements on amendments.
The House and the Government have not rested on their laurels. Ten of the reforms highlighted by the 2009 House of Commons Reform Committee report related to better engagement with the public. I am pleased that, following collaborative work between the Procedure Committee and the Government, this House agreed to a joint system of e-petitions, thereby meeting the public’s expectation to be able to petition their Parliament and to seek action from their Government in response. The Petitions Committee created in this Parliament as part of the joint package fulfils that expectation. Two debates have been organised by the Committee, including one on Monday led by the hon. Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn), which attracted wide attention.
I am disappointed by the reference of the hon. Member for Nottingham North—dare I say it?—to colleagues being lifeless clones who are just part of the machine. He referred to executive power, and he needs no reminder that the Executive are part of this House. This place may be unusual, although not rare, in not having a separate Executive and legislature, but I do not believe that this is a weak Parliament, far from it. Parliament does hold the Government to account. He referred to legislation being rammed through but, despite what people think, my party has a mandate from winning the election. Nevertheless, it has not been my experience, either as a Back Bencher or as a Minister, that the Government ignore other people; in fact, I find that the Government have listened to people’s views. Debates have been extended and Bills have been amended in Committee and on Report to reflect discussions with other MPs. That is mature politics, unlike what was suggested earlier.
There has already been a large amount of scrutiny on the subject of tonight’s debate, but I am pleased that we are debating it once again. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will decide whether some of his colleagues are mindlessly walking through one Lobby or another. The result will be interesting.
I hope that I have addressed the points about the coalition agreement by simply reiterating what the noble Lord Lansley has previously said to the House, but I recognise that the hon. Gentleman will still be disappointed. I conclude by assuring him, and other Members present, that we will continue to work constructively and positively with the relevant Committees and others on both sides of the House. Ultimately, we are all parliamentarians, and we all fought an election to get here. We are all proud of that and want Parliament to work, but we need to do something feasible that allows scrutiny while allowing the Government to enact their legislative agenda.
Mr Allen, this is not the appropriate time to raise that point. You should raise it after I have put the question.
The Chair’s opinion as to the decision of the Question was challenged.
Question not decided (Standing Order No. 10(13)).
Capel Celyn Reservoir (50th Anniversary)
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the 50th anniversary of Capel Celyn reservoir.
This October marks the 50th anniversary of the official opening of the reservoir that flooded Capel Celyn, a rural community in the Tryweryn valley in my constituency. The village, along with other parts of the valley, was razed and then flooded to supply Liverpool and the Wirral with water, primarily for industry.
A private Bill sponsored by Liverpool Corporation was brought before Parliament in 1956. By obtaining authority through an Act of Parliament, Liverpool City Council avoided any requirement to gain consent from the Welsh planning authorities. Despite 35 out of the 36 Welsh MPs voting against the Bill, in 1957 it was passed by Parliament.
The village of Capel Celyn was one of the few remaining Welsh-only speaking communities in existence. It had a school, a post office, a chapel, a cemetery—the usual things—along with a number of farms and homesteads. The culture and life of the people of Capel Celyn might not mean much to those who neither know nor love Wales. To members of the Liverpool Corporation, the farms that they were drowning were no more than convenient stretches of land along a remote valley floor, so the region as a whole—a convenient 800 acres—could thus be put to a more convenient and productive use. To Welsh men and women however, their very names ring like bells—Hafod Fadog, Y Garnedd Lwyd, Cae Fadog, Y Gelli, Pen y Bryn Mawr. But those bells now ring underwater and are heard by no one. It is an evocative image in Wales, which remembers the bells of Cantre’r Gwaelod, and the loss associated with inundation.
To understand the strength of feeling in Wales about the event, one must first know something, not of the agricultural potential or the landscape of the Tryweryn valley, but of the character of the community it supported and its place in Welsh life. The people of Capel Celyn were an integral part of the pattern of one of the richest folk cultures in Europe. Cynghanedd poetry was not an academic affectation, but the flower of a robust tradition with a sophisticated metrical discipline that was passed from generation to generation. It was a community with one of the oldest living languages in Europe. It is a language with an unbroken literary tradition, exceeded only by Latin and classical Greek, which was and remains under threat.
No civilised person would wish to see a community of such significance and such high artistic and intellectual attainment invaded and destroyed by an alien institution. Far greater schemes have been rejected by Government to protect wildlife or sites of antiquarian value. The Tryweryn valley was a living community of men and women, young and old, whose continued existence was of far greater moment to Wales, and indeed to Europe, than any ruins or wildfowl, important though those may be.
The value of what was at stake 50 years ago was described in a letter to the Liverpool Daily Post from Mrs Gertrude Armfield, an English woman resident in Wales:
“The way of life nurtured in these small villages which serve, with their chapel and school, as focal points for a widespread population—this way of life has a quality almost entirely lost in England and almost unique in the world.
It is one where a love of poetry and song, the spoken and written word, still exists, and where recreation has not to be sought after and paid for, but is organised locally in home, chapel and school.”
It was not a stretch of land that was flooded against the will of the people of Wales, but a community of people, a culture and a language. People saw the coffins of their parents and grandparents dug up and reburied at Llanycil and Trawsfynydd.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate and on the incredibly passionate speech she is making this afternoon. Does she agree that Tryweryn had a traumatic impact on the Welsh psyche? It is immortalised in the words of Meic Stevens, that great Welsh folk singer, when he says:
“Dwr oer sy’n cysgu yn Nhreweryn”—
it is cold water that sleeps in Tryweryn. Does that not say it all about the impact of Tryweryn on the Welsh psyche?
It does indeed. Another poet, Twm Morys, says of people who drive past the lake, which is of course strikingly beautiful:
“Be’ weli di heblaw dwr?”
There is more to the place than just the water that we now see and appreciate. The water was for industry in Liverpool, and, indeed, excess water for the Liverpool Corporation to sell at a profit.
But why Wales? Wales is a small country, whose language and way of life was, and is, threatened with extinction—inundation. England on the other hand was a country with 10 times Wales’s area, whose language and life were in no peril. It is safe to say that the English language was then, and remains, the most politically powerful and richly resourced language in the world. There were untapped resources in Cumberland and Westmoreland, where the water of many natural lakes was not being used by any authority. Why insist on flooding a Welsh community for its water? The answer has been given quite openly by those behind the project: they came to Wales, not because water was unavailable elsewhere, but because they could get it at a lower cost. It was purely a matter of business—profits. The issue was not whether Liverpool was to get more water, but how cheaply it could get it.
Another reflection of Liverpool’s attitude towards Wales was its lack of candour. Neither the people of Capel Celyn, nor the people of Wales as a whole, were informed by the council of its intentions. They were left to infer from reports of engineers that the work afoot in the Tryweryn valley would mean something significant to their lives. Those who lived in Capel Celyn facing eviction learned of their fate for the first time from the press. Their reaction was predictable. They put their names to a statement expressing uncompromising opposition. They established a defence fund, contributed liberally to it and, in the best Welsh tradition, set up a Tryweryn defence committee, to which representatives were elected by the public bodies directly concerned, such as the county councils, national park authorities and the Dee and Clwyd river board.
One of the committee’s first actions was to ask Liverpool City Council to accept a strong and representative deputation from Wales, which would put the Welsh case. The request was refused. The town clerk stated that though the water committee would be willing to meet the deputation, the council itself dealt only with important local matters. The rebuff captured clearly the mentality of those behind the scheme—that Welsh opinion was of small importance in comparison with local Liverpool needs.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing a debate on a significant matter for people in Wales, particularly north Wales. She will be familiar with the pictures of the march through Liverpool by the people of Capel Celyn and elsewhere. Women and children carried banners saying:
“Your homes are safe…Do not drown our homes”
to the council offices only to be met with a locked door. She spoke of Liverpool Council’s priorities; it is clear in this case that the fate of the people of Capel Celyn was not its priority, and that is certainly a lesson for us for the future as far as Wales’s other natural resources are concerned.
I thank my hon. Friend. I am aware that many people feel strongly about Capel Celyn, and were present and saw the events or were nearer to the events than I was. I find a certain irony in the fact that I am from south-east London, but it is a matter of pride to me that I am talking about this issue today.
Despite the clear and unmistakeable opposition, from not only the people of Tryweryn and the people of Wales, but every single MP from Wales, bar one, Capel Celyn was flooded. Those who advocated the flooding of the village spoke of the employment created by the reservoir. They spoke of the hundreds of jobs created temporarily during the construction phase and “about 20” permanent jobs. Almost any atrocity can be justified in Wales on the grounds that it creates employment. That justification is still used today, most recently perhaps in the case of the so-called “super prison” in Wrexham. Despite the number of prison places needed across the whole of north and mid-Wales being between 700 and 750, a prison to house 2,000 prisoners will be built in Wrexham to accommodate the needs of the north-west of England. The justification? One thousand jobs.
No Welsh man or woman can feel happy about the position of their country when it is possible for anybody outside Wales to decide to take Welsh land and resources regardless of the social and economic impact of that decision on Wales. As the private Bill was passing through this Parliament in 1957, the late Gwynfor Evans, who would be Plaid Cymru’s first MP, spoke of its being
“part of the crippling penalty paid by a nation without a government.”
He also said:
“Had Wales her Government, Liverpool would have had to negotiate with a responsible Welsh body for the resources it required. A unilateral decision to take Welsh land would be as unthinkable as it would be for an English authority to walk into Ireland and take a valuable part of the Gaeltacht.”
It was that blatant disregard for the social and economic impact of the UK Government’s decision on Wales that sparked the national debate about Wales’s constitutional future. Arguably, it led to the election of Gwynfor Evans in July 1966 to the House of Commons, who became, as I mentioned before, the first ever party of Wales MP—Wales’s first independent voice in this Parliament.
The combination of sadness and anger that the events at Capel Celyn caused in Wales also played its part in the demand for the creation of the Crowther commission, or the Kilbrandon commission as it was later rebranded. It sparked a realisation in the minds of the people of Wales that we were not adequately represented in Parliament.
I warmly congratulate the hon. Lady on reminding us of these events that took place 50 years ago. I think I am one of the few people in this debate today who has memories of it, because I was a mature politician at that time. The most remarkable figure that she has cited is that only one of Wales’s MPs supported the flooding of Capel Celyn. We had this extraordinary unanimity. Welsh MPs at that time agreed on nothing, but they came together on this issue, because it was an act that was insulting to the Welsh nation and because a language that echoed down the centuries—a 2,000-year-old language and culture—was given no power to defend itself. I hope that we have learned the lessons of Tryweryn, and its reverberations are carrying on now in our perception of ourselves as a nation and in the need to have our own independent voices.
Indeed. We learned lessons, of course, about what representation actually means and about the impact of not being represented sufficiently, and people came to understand that we were not treated as equal in this unique family of nations.
That understanding, along with the injustice dealt to the people of Wales and Scotland during the 1970s, eventually led to the people of both countries demanding a say in their constitutional future. The 1979 referendums, in which 20% of the Welsh electorate and 52% of the Scottish electorate voted for the creation of national Parliaments, was the first tentative step towards greater autonomy for both nations. Of course, neither country was given a Parliament as a result of those referendums but they laid the groundwork for what followed. And what followed was the historic vote of 1997, in which the people of Wales voted—very narrowly, but they voted—for devolution. That led to the creation, through the Government of Wales Act 1998, of the National Assembly, which was a directly elected democratic body representing the people of Wales.
However, even after the creation of the Assembly and even after the creation of a more powerful Assembly through the Government of Wales Act 2006, the people of Wales still have little say over their natural resources. Wales’s natural resources remain outside the remit of the National Assembly. And on the emotive subject of water, the Secretary of State still reserves the right to intervene on any Welsh legislation that
“might have a serious adverse impact on water resources in England, water supply in England or the quality of water in England”.
Such a section is not included in the Scotland Act 1998. Why? I suggest to the House that Wales is unique in being the only developed country on this Earth that allows a neighbouring country to hold such powers of veto over its legislative competence.
That situation cannot continue. The lesson of 50 years ago is that as long as the Welsh nation has no national freedom, and as long as she is shackled to this imbalanced institution and at a constant democratic disadvantage vis-à-vis England, there will always be another Tryweryn waiting to happen.
Today, in the context of debate about her natural resources, Wales has only the freedom to protest; the freedom to recoil and react, but not to take the initiative, act for herself and make her own choices. Our natural resources are our most valuable assets. The supply of clean, fresh water across these islands is limited and there is now a growing appreciation of its importance as an industrial resource as well as a residential necessity. It must be considered as much a raw material as oil or iron ore, and just as precious. It is one of the most important of Wales’s natural resources, and if we have been irresponsible in the past in our attitude to the rich resources of our land, we must mend our ways.
A resource taken by a city outside Wales is lost to Wales, with no fair exchange. That is a blunt statement of the obvious, but it is a truth that is too often ignored. We can little afford to ignore that statement. As we are so often reminded, Wales is the poor relation in this family of nations.
In the past, Welsh resources have enabled industry to develop in Liverpool, in Birmingham and in the rest of the English midlands, while Wales herself has been largely a stranger to such development. The people of Wales have had to follow her resources to find work, exacerbating the productivity gap between Wales and the rest of the UK. A responsible attitude towards Welsh resources will ensure that the people of Wales have the benefit of those resources in Wales.
It is right that Wales’s natural resources should be used for the enrichment of all the people of Wales, just as the natural resources of every other country are used for the enrichment of their peoples. Until we make the necessary changes to Wales’s constitution, Liverpool’s actions 50 years ago will remain natural, logical, constitutional and perfectly legal into the future.
There is an opportunity ahead of us to ensure that that situation is not allowed to continue; an opportunity to ensure that the people of Wales have full ownership of their natural resources, and to ensure that never again will we see a repeat of the mistakes of our past. We have yet to have sight of the Wales Bill, but we have seen the White Paper, which was entitled, “Powers for a purpose”. It proposes building Welsh devolution on the same foundation as that of Scotland—a reserved powers model. We welcome that proposal with enthusiasm. It is long overdue and Plaid Cymru welcomes it not simply for the clear practical improvements and legal clarity that it will bring, but for the shift in attitude that it will necessitate.
It is right that decisions that affect the people of Wales should be made in Wales by democratically elected representatives, unless there is a good reason for those decisions to be made elsewhere. The reserved powers model will put the onus on the UK Government to justify why a matter should be reserved, rather than justifying why it should be devolved. It will mean that the UK Government, in producing the Wales Bill, must give the people of Wales full ownership of their resources, or justify not doing so. In that case, the UK Government must justify to the people of Wales why they should not have full ownership of their resources, when the people of Scotland have ownership of theirs.
I doubt very much that any Member of this House considers the flooding of Capel Celyn to be justified; I know that Liverpool Council has since apologised and that apology should be accepted in the extensive way in which it was offered. However, the UK Government must now ensure that such an event can never be allowed to happen again. They must ensure that the law is changed, so that a repeat of the events of 50 years ago would be illegal today. Never again should the people of Wales be forced out of their communities against their will, against the will of the whole country and against the will of those who represent us in the directly elected National Assembly; never again should Welsh land, Welsh culture or Welsh communities be allowed to be so drastically undervalued; and never again should Parliament leave such a dark mark on Welsh history that it is commemorated here 50 years later.
Since the flooding of Capel Celyn, there has been a significant development in the national consciousness of Wales. There is no longer anyone in Wales who is not aware that the Welsh are a nation and that Wales is their homeland. While Wales’s voice has been significantly strengthened, her natural resources remain in the hands of a neighbouring country and there have been no developments to make a repeat of the sad event at Capel Celyn illegal. The Secretary of State now has a chance to make his mark on Welsh history. The Wales Bill is an opportunity to put this matter right and I urge him to take it.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gapes. We Welsh people—I do not dare say we north Walians—remember the words, “Cofiwch Dryweryn” or “Remember Tryweryn”, and the hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts) has spoken powerfully about that experience today. It was something that we never thought would happen. She described how the small Welsh community, with its school, post office, chapel, cemetery and farms, was suddenly underwater.
As we listened to the hon. Lady retell that history—of the Liverpool Corporation, the private Bill in Parliament and the small community of Capel Celyn—it almost felt as if we were hearing a David and Goliath story, only, on this occasion, Goliath won. I am not sure that he did, however. A year after that Bill, in early 1957, the Council for Wales recommended the creation of the then Welsh Office and the Secretary of State for Wales, and that changed the consciousness of so many people in different ways.
Those who have read Lord Elystan-Morgan’s autobiography will know the amazing story of Jim Griffiths, the former deputy leader of the Labour party, in conversation with Nye Bevan. Nye Bevan, of course, belonged to a different tradition from me and my hon. Friend the Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn). We have two traditions in the Labour party on devolution for Wales, and we can safely say that my hon. Friend and I are the ones who have the right views. On this issue, Nye Bevan had the wrong ones. Jim Griffiths spoke to Nye Bevan, and Nye Bevan said, “Jim, do you really believe that we should have a Secretary of State for Wales and a Welsh Office?” Jim Griffiths said, “Yes, Nye, with all my heart I do.” Nye Bevan said, “Then you shall have it.”
What is significant about Capel Celyn is that not one single Welsh Member of Parliament voted for the private Bill. One abstained and all the others voted against. Something happened that flagrantly disregarded the Welsh people. Of course, it was not the first time that a Welsh community had been displaced to provide water in this sort of way for English cities. It had happened previously in the Vyrnwy and Elan valleys, which were flooded in the late 19th century to create reservoirs serving Liverpool and Birmingham.
Something about Capel Celyn led to greater national consciousness, and that is why Goliath did not win. People considered things differently, and when the Wales Bill is debated, we will be considering things differently. I am delighted that there will be a model of reserve powers. That is right and proper, and it is where our constitutional settlement has taken us.
Some of the issues related to Capel Celyn are much more complex. The hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd mentioned the fact that, as well as being a north Walian, she is also a south Londoner. She and I—I think uniquely among Welsh MPs—can claim to be that. I lived in Elephant and Castle for several years. There are not too many Members of Parliament who are south Londoners and north Walians, and that helps us realise that, when we talk about the borders of Wales, things are that bit more porous. What was ironic about Capel Celyn was the number of Welsh people who lived in Liverpool. There has always been open migration across our borders.
When we speak about national powers, all of which are immensely important, we realise that, sometimes, even within those structures, there is a fear of big powers taking over little powers. That can be at county council level. I think sometimes of Denbighshire, and the closure of small schools. The hon. Lady will be aware of that with Gwynedd Council and the schools there, which close perhaps a little more often than she might like. Denbighshire is part of north Wales, and when I speak to anyone in Llandrillo in my constituency, they sometimes see the county council as a problem. These are not easy issues.
Today we remember the people of Capel Celyn and Tryweryn. Without quite going back to Cantre’r Gwaelod, we must remember those communities and say that if any good at all has come out of this issue, it is that greater debate on national consciousness. Some of us, including me, could never support independence for Wales—I am not being entirely serious, but if we were talking about independence for north Wales, I might be a little more sympathetic to the idea—but as we have this debate, let us remember what happened in Capel Celyn as we develop our great nation in whichever way we wish. Let us not forget. I congratulate the hon. Lady on an outstanding speech.
As always, Mr Gapes, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I thank the hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts)for securing this debate and pay tribute to her for raising such an important historic and emotive issue for the people of Wales.
Let me say at the outset that the whole situation was a shameful chapter in Welsh history and it should not be forgotten. In fact, the words “Cofiwch Dryweryn”, or “Remember Tryweryn”, painted on a wall in Llanrhystud, outside Aberystwyth, are instantly recognisable to people across Wales as they travel between the north and south. Those words remind us all of some of the darkest and most regrettable days in modern Welsh history. I am aware of the long-running campaign to have that sign declared a national monument, and I pay tribute to the work of the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr Williams), who has championed that. It is one for the Welsh Government, but the strength of feeling among people in Wales should certainly be heeded.
Those words, “Cofiwch Dryweryn”, speak of one of the darkest times in modern Welsh history, when members of one of the last Welsh-only speaking communities were forced from their homes to make way for a reservoir to provide the city of Liverpool with additional water for its people and industry, as the hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd highlighted. I welcome Liverpool City Council’s apology for its actions. I commend Lord Roberts of Llandudno for working with the council to ensure that that apology was forthcoming.
As the hon. Member for Clwyd South (Susan Elan Jones) mentioned, communities in Wales had previously suffered hardship to provide water. The village of Llanwddyn in Powys was flooded to make way for Lake Vyrnwy in the 1880s. During the passage of the Bill, there were protests from all corners of Wales—from local authorities, churches, individuals, community groups and the charitable sector. Members of all parties criticised the Bill and all Welsh MPs from all political parties, bar one individual, voted against it. The voice of the people of Wales was ignored, however, and sadly the Bill passed.
As the hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd said, Afon Tryweryn was flooded in 1965, despite a fight by the villagers and their supporters. Twelve houses and farms were submerged, as were the church, the cemetery, the post office and the local school, with 48 of the 67 people living in the valley losing their homes. Let me be clear: the flooding of Afon Tryweryn was a dark day in modern Welsh history, and I think it would be difficult, if not impossible, for anyone to try to defend it today.
Those incredible events arguably started the momentum for Wales to have more control over its own affairs. Last year, the Wales Office celebrated the 50th anniversary of the creation of the post of Secretary of State for Wales, a post that the Prime Minister continues to believe is required to provide a strong Welsh voice at the Cabinet table. Soon afterwards, the Welsh Office was established to complement the work of the Secretary of State, and it took on more and more responsibility for Welsh issues from other Departments in Whitehall.
In 1997, Wales took another massive step forward, voting to establish the National Assembly for Wales. This body, directly elected by Welsh people, took on responsibility in vital areas such as planning, water and the Welsh language. In fact, I can still remember, upon being elected to the Assembly in 1999, debating the details of the break-up of Hyder, the company that owned Welsh Water. It led to the sell-off and then the transfer to Western Power Distribution, which led to Glas Cymru. It was sold for £1. That allowed for an innovative model: Welsh Water has no shareholders, so any surplus can be reinvested for the benefit of Welsh customers. The model is unique to the United Kingdom. It provides greater diversity of business models in Wales and around the rest of the country.
In 2011, following an overwhelming referendum victory, the Assembly became a full law-making body. The provisions of the Wales Act 2014 provided for the political institutions to become more responsible and responsive. In what some might argue as appropriate timing on the 50th anniversary of Tryweryn, a new Wales Bill will be published shortly. It will deliver on the commitments to further devolution to Wales made in the cross-party St David’s day agreement in areas such as energy and the environment. The reserved powers model will also provide additional clarity over what the Assembly is responsible for and what this Parliament is responsible for. It offers to provide a clearer, stronger and fairer devolution model.
In the 17 years since they came into being, the Assembly and its Executive, now rightly labelled the Welsh Government, have developed into mature political institutions, elected by the people of Wales to carry out their will in devolved areas. Ignoring the views of the people of Wales in flooding Capel Celyn was and is still seen as incomprehensible by most. Put simply, it would now be impossible. I want to pay tribute to the hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd for securing the debate. I specifically want to refer to water in my response and address the calls that Wales does not have power over water as it stands.
The St David’s day agreement clearly stated that water is now being considered as part of the joint Government review programme following the second Silk commission. There are significant complexities because the Wales boundary does not tie in with the Welsh water boundary, and Welsh Water, ironically, has powers over some water supplies in Cheshire. Such matters need to be resolved and teased out. I do not want to reject absolutely the calls that the hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd has made, but the issues will be considered at length and in greater detail as part of the joint Government working review programme,
The debate has been extremely important. It has enabled us to reflect on some of the darkest days in Welsh history. However, I do not think we can deny the interdependence that we have across the border. Many comparisons have been made with Scotland, but there is a large geographical area between the urban conurbations of Scotland and those of northern England. In Wales, particularly north-east Wales, there is a free-flowing border, which adds to the complexity. So the model for Scotland is not necessarily the right model for Wales.
The hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd used the prison in Wrexham as an example, but I take that as a positive example. Our interdependence creates greater economic opportunity for us in Wales to provide the services and skills that are necessary to fulfil the needs of people in Wales, England and the rest of the United Kingdom. I thank the hon. Lady and other hon. Members for their contributions to one of the most powerful debates that I have sat through in Westminster Hall. It is something we will never forget.
Thank you, Mr Gapes. I appreciate the opportunity to wind up the debate.
To hear the words “Cofiwch Dryweryn” quoted by people from the other two parties present is a source of pride. It shows that there is a general appreciation of the impact that the event had on people in Wales during the 1950s and 1960s. We are still seeing the repercussions now.
I am delighted by the very wise comments of fellow hon. Members this afternoon. It was borne in on me in preparing for this debate that the act of remembering is integral to the wellbeing of a nation, and the debate here today denotes part of the remembering process for Wales.
One of the points in my hon. Friend’s speech that impressed me immensely was the call that she made for Wales’s natural resources to be controlled by the people of Wales. I do not want to introduce a discordant note into the debate, but does she share my disappointment with the less than fulsome reply from both Front Benchers? One would have hoped—
I would like to refer to some of the Minister’s remarks. I mentioned the Government of Wales Act 2006, which specifically provides that the water that England takes from Wales must not be in any way restricted, and I like to think that Wales will be able to make best use of its resources in future. Although I am delighted to hear about rationalisation and realignment of border arrangements with the various water authorities, I think we are possibly talking about different things.
To come back to the prison in Wrexham, and jobs perhaps being perceived as a panacea for all ills, I think that the people of Wrexham feel differently about it and there are concerns about the social impact of having a prison of that size, and about who will come to fill those jobs.
I am delighted to have had the opportunity to hold the debate today. My agent, Elwyn Edwards, who spent much of his childhood years involved—indeed, he got into terrible trouble for missing school to protest in Liverpool —will also be glad that we have held this debate. Some of us will speak in a rally on the dam in Capel Celyn on Saturday—weather permitting—and we will take the message forward. Diolch yn fawr.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the 50th anniversary of Capel Celyn reservoir.