Skip to main content

Westminster Hall

Volume 601: debated on Wednesday 28 October 2015

Westminster Hall

Wednesday 28 October 2015

[Mr David Nuttall in the Chair]

Transforming Rehabilitation Programme

I beg to move,

That this House has considered implementation of the transforming rehabilitation programme.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Nuttall. It is now almost 12 months since the formal creation of the 21 community rehabilitation companies and the establishment of the new national probation services. It has since become clear that fundamental flaws in the former Secretary of State’s thinking are beginning to impact on service delivery. The CRCs were initially created to address new work arising from probation supervision being extended to clients leaving prison after serving less than 12 months in custody. The probation service supported extending statutory support to this group with adequate funding. Had a consultation taken place on how that could be best achieved, I have no doubt that genuine alternative methods could have emerged, but it was unfortunately evident from the outset that the Secretary of State’s predecessor was fixed upon the payment-by-results outsourcing model.

Prior to the reorganisation, probation trusts were highly successful, with a good record of reducing reoffending. They had won European-wide awards for public service and all the trusts had been recognised as either good or outstanding by recent inspections. Trusts had established good local partnerships with other agencies, including in the private sector, that had been producing excellent results. In a number of trusts—for example, West Mercia and the Willowdene project—these partnerships have extended into innovative work with the third sector, addressing and supporting the same group of clients whom the transforming rehabilitation reorganisation targeted. Indeed, a major review by the third sector review group indicates that the procurement process was incoherent and meant that third sector providers who were supposed to have opportunities to engage in TR were disfranchised.

It is not only politicians who have opinions on this subject, but the voluntary organisations themselves. The National Council for Voluntary Organisations sent us a briefing for this debate, which made the point that, despite the warm words of the former Justice Secretary, there is very little voluntary sector involvement.

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. The purpose of a consultation is to listen to the experts. In this case, the experts have described themselves as being used as “bid candy” to dress up the bids, rather than being involved in a truly engaged fashion. I agree entirely with my hon Friend’s point.

Significant challenges were immediately obvious. First, the marketplace was not interested in taking over the management of high-risk offenders for the limited profits associated with managing that target group. Further, the Ministry of Justice had been heavily criticised by both the Public Accounts Committee and the National Audit Office for its poor management of previous contracts in courts, community payback, electronic monitoring and the quality of some provision in private prisons and detention centres. There was therefore limited political support for privatising the whole lot, hence the “split” solution.

Several probation experts argued that splitting the probation service into two distinct groups was a far riskier solution than selling all the service to private providers. The split in the service creates challenges, some of which, with great patience, effort and commitment from all stakeholders, could be managed, but a world full of good will is not going to address the insurmountable structural flaws arising from the split. These include, but are not limited to: local service delivery and management of clients; bureaucracy and inefficiency, with additional processes generated to manage the allocation of cases and accountability; substandard internal communications, especially those founded upon outdated and unstable technology within the National Offender Management Service; and inefficient management of staff due to internal competition, which undermines morale and professional unity.

However, the greatest flaw was rushing the whole programme through to meet a strict political timetable without any adequate testing or piloting. The MOJ also failed to establish workable, sustainable contracts with the CRCs. These are already the subject of significant challenge from the new CRC owners. Equally, in its haste to successfully establish the CRCs, all efforts and energy were focused on the contracts share sale, and very limited evidence emerged of any serious planning or risk assessment of the future management of the newly nationalised National Probation Service.

With no piloting or credible assessment of what the new work meant or involved, the allocation of budgets and staff was largely guesswork. Initially, NOMS stated that 70% of work was expected to be transferred to the CRCs as only around 30% of total clients would be classified as high risk. This was not a scientific experiment, and it quickly became evident that it did not translate. The staffing split soon became 50/50, with ongoing confusion about where some work should sit. Current staffing levels and reliance on expensive agency staff are simply not sustainable, nor value for money for the taxpayer. A case needs to be made to the Treasury for emergency support for the NPS.

Does my hon. Friend agree that this sounds all too familiar? As with other privatisations led by the Conservatives in government, they privatise the profits and nationalise the debts, and long-term liabilities to the taxpayer become greater than they were before.

I do agree with my hon. Friend. It is important to put a system in place that works. The old maxim, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”, applies. We absolutely have to be open to new forms of innovation, working in partnership with both the third and private sector, but that was already happening. The new system that has been put in place has unfortunately caused a great deal of confusion. I hope that today we can make some progress on sorting that out.

The contracts allow the CRCs to pass back tough cases and still get paid on a fee-for-service basis. A further problem concerns the additional redundancy costs. The probation unions have recently had cause to lodge formal disputes with the national negotiating council on account of one of the CRC owners—in this case Sodexo—refusing to honour the terms of voluntary redundancy under the national staff transfer and protections agreement. Staff terms and conditions should be honoured, and the MOJ should police this as part of its contract management.

I now want to turn to the report by Her Majesty’s inspectorate of probation. It is expected that Ministers will cite the latest report from Paul Wilson as evidence that it is too early to form a judgment about TR and that it will be another two to three years before the public can see evidence of the effectiveness of the reforms. Although not disputing the valuable work of HMIP, we believe this is a wholly unsatisfactory analysis that will assist the Government in their attempts to gloss over the reality that is the failure of TR. I do not believe we can afford to wait two to three years for the situation to resolve itself when the consequences of a failing probation service are so critical to public safety.

A further vital point is about transparency. In a letter written to the Select Committee on Justice, the Minister claimed he was putting measures in place to improve transparency. We fully support the need for the performance of the probation services and the CRCs to be properly monitored and for the results of that monitoring to be made public. As such, we strongly recommend that private probation providers are made to comply with freedom of information requests so that they, too, can be openly scrutinised by hon. Members and the public. We also call on the Government to place the details of the 21 private contracts in the public domain so that they are open to scrutiny.

Finally, I want to raise serious concerns about service delivery. The MOJ is proposing a reduction in the number of full reports delivered to courts and a greater reliance on oral reports. Oral reports by their very nature do not allow for a full risk assessment to be carried out by probation staff, nor for any information that is held by other agencies to be collected. As such, they should be used on low-level first-time offences only. However, the push to use these types of reports in the majority of cases will see them being used for wholly inappropriate offences.

We are already aware that, because of pressures on staff and staff shortages, oral reports are being used for sexual and domestic violence offences. Such cases are complex, and there are underlying risk issues that must be investigated fully prior to sentencing. Children’s services and the police should be contacted to see whether there are ongoing risks to children and victims. Without that information, it is impossible to manage the case effectively or safely, or to propose to the court the most appropriate sentence.

I will summarise the seven key recommendations that must be implemented urgently. First, there should be open engagement between the unions and senior MOJ and NOMS management and stakeholders to identify ways to resolve some of the urgent performance issues arising in the NPS. Secondly, there should be a full post-implementation review of TR and the contracts and performance of CRC providers since 1 February 2015.

Thirdly, the NPS should be properly funded, sustainable and effective at managing some of the most dangerous offenders, and there should be funding for information and communications technology that is fit for purpose. Fourthly, there should be effective contract management, including a full analysis of CRC operating models, to ensure a safe delivery of service that focuses on public protection and rehabilitation, not just on cost-cutting exercises. Fifthly, all CRC owners should be made subject to freedom of information requests, so that their performance can be scrutinised by MPs and the public.

Sixthly, there must be robust and fully open contract management to ensure that providers are adhering to staff terms and conditions as underwritten by Ministers. Seventhly, a mechanism should be put in place to enable those in CRCs who are made redundant to transfer swiftly to the NPS at the same grade as they were prior to the split. That would not only ensure that skilled staff are not lost, but help to reduce the pressures in the NPS caused by staff shortages.

A wise person once said that what matters is what works. It is crystal clear to all concerned that the transforming rehabilitation programme conceived by the coalition Government is simply not working. We in the Labour party are pragmatists. As such, we urge the Minister and his colleagues to remove ideology and dogmatism from this matter in order to enable common sense to prevail. We call on the Minister to listen to the experts and fix this broken system before it is too late.

I thank the hon. Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock) for securing the debate.

It is important to get the rehabilitation of offenders right—important for the communities in which offenders settle or to which they return; important to the victims of offenders’ actions; important to the offenders themselves; and important because rehabilitation will reduce wider financial and social costs in future. Although we welcome and applaud the Government’s efforts to involve charities and the voluntary sector in the effort to reduce reoffending, Plaid Cymru strongly opposes any privatisation of probation services in Wales—and, indeed, beyond. Civil societies can do plenty of things in rehabilitation without managing probation services as profit-making businesses. Indeed, justice services, which are at the foundation of an equitable civil society, are surely ill served by the profit motive, and run the risk of being fundamentally compromised whenever the providers’ financial interest is challenged by the complex needs of individuals and the communities in which they live.

I note that rural areas can be particularly difficult to serve given the issues and costs associated with distances and scattered populations. I would expect there to be a particular focus on those areas because they are difficult to reach. The NPS has had problems in my area, Dwyfor Meirionnydd, in the past, so rural areas should have specific focus. On top of that, the Government must ensure that they abide by their own Welsh language scheme. Welsh language services should be available, whether provided privately, through the third sector or through charities. That is a statutory requirement.

If the Government do not do more to address the root causes of crime and the potential for reoffending, the transforming rehabilitation programme will be just another demonstration of their failure to deliver security and justice. The programme will simply be one of those easy neoliberal solutions to which the Government choose to retreat when faced with some of our biggest social problems. Surely the mix of poverty, mental health issues, addiction and low skills should be addressed as a whole.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock) on securing this debate. He said, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. In Neath we have an integrated offender interventions programme that is funded by the police and crime commissioner and NOMS. It is a perfect example of a community partnership. Since 2012, it has rehabilitated 800 prison leavers per annum and 600 people who have been referred by the courts. The programme concentrates on breaking the cycle of drug interventions and on an exchange system. Does the hon. Lady agree that such schemes are all the more important in areas of Wales where we rely on the support of the Welsh Government?

I do. The community approach is important, as are the roles of social services and local authorities. None of these actions is happening in isolation. Local authorities remain under financial pressure, and that is due to increase, which is an additional concern. These issues require co-operation across public sector organisations.

By privatising large parts of the probation service, the Government are failing to carry out their responsibility. Communities expect the Government to nurture and protect a safe social environment where families and individuals thrive, and where there are improved educational standards and reduced levels of poverty. The Government’s abdication of their responsibility to create that safe social environment not only affects communities but opens the path for recidivism. I appreciate that the proof of success must lie in whether offenders reoffend, especially within 12 months of sentencing, but given that aspects of the new arrangements were described by HMIP in May as “rushed and piecemeal”, the Government must commit to a politically disinterested, neutral appraisal of the rehabilitation arrangements, and respond in the spirit of that which best serves the public rather than the privatisation agenda.

Order. I propose to call Bob Neill next. I can see that many Members want to speak; if contributions can be limited to six or seven minutes, everyone will have a chance to speak before I call the Front Benchers.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Nuttall. I congratulate the hon. Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock) on securing the debate, as do my colleagues on the Justice Committee. It is a pleasure to see the hon. Gentleman here, because his predecessor but one was a great friend and mentor to me as a young barrister. I am glad that the tradition of an interest in the justice system is being kept on in that constituency.

As Chair of the Justice Committee, I had the pleasure last week of speaking about the progress in transforming rehabilitation to a conference of providers. There were people from a range of providers, including NOMS, the NPS, some of the CRCs, to which I spoke afterwards, and a number of voluntary groups. There was not a word of ideology in the discussion. Although people were frank about some of the work that needs to be done—that work has quite properly been referred to today—I say with every respect that I think the discussion was more nuanced in the picture it painted of the work on transforming rehabilitation, and I think it was fairer.

I will make a bit of progress first. In the previous Parliament, the Justice Committee published some work, which I imagine some Members have read, that flagged up some issues. I was interested in discussing those issues at that conference and listening to the feedback. Against that background, I will happily give way.

If the hon. Gentleman believes that there is no ideological motivation behind the introduction of this system, why does he think it was introduced so quickly?

First, because if one spoke to any sentencer, for example, they would say that the need to have a better approach to those being released from short sentences into statutory supervision was real and pressing. Those people are immediately at risk of recidivism, which leads to lost opportunities for life in every case. Secondly, the need to improve the “through the gateway” services was real and immediate. That is not to say that we should not review and improve the programme as things go along. Of course, that is right and sensible. The Select Committee recognised that point on a cross-party basis, and I think the Minister does, too.

When we drill down into the evidence and talk to practitioners on the ground, although there is recognition that things can be improved, there is also recognition that the scale and objectives of the programme are valuable and, when delivered, represent a real improvement. There is progress on the ground, and we should recognise that as well as the challenges and places where more needs to be done.

I will give way once more, but I need to make some progress, bearing in mind your strictures on time, Mr Nuttall.

I read that the pilot schemes were cancelled. Will the hon. Gentleman give us his opinion on that, please?

If the hon. Lady looks at the Select Committee’s website, she will see that we have published our correspondence with the Minister. I am very grateful to him for his detailed response, which goes into three or four pages of detailed text about the pilot schemes. Rather than taking up time here, it is worth referring hon. Members and the public to that. Because the pilots were cost-saver pilots, the view that was generally expressed was, “It is too early to tell. After all, things such as payment by results won’t come in until 2017.” None the less, there was satisfactory progress, and I think we need to review the pilots in that light rather than taking a sweeping view.

The previous Justice Committee raised several issues, as the Minister recognises. They have been alluded to today, and I hope the Minister can respond to them. One was the issue of IT, which is undoubtedly a real, ongoing problem. To be fair, it was a problem before the transforming rehabilitation scheme was brought in. Public sector IT has been an issue for virtually all my time in public life, but it is pressing because the joining up of information sharing is going to be more and more important, given the dual system between the national probation service and the community rehabilitation companies. It is a critical issue, and I hope the Minister can give us more detail about it.

There was a concern that the laudable objective of statutory supervision could, in the short term at least, place more demand on the system, because if people are found to be in breach, that could put them in a cycle of going back in and out of prison. I would be interested to know, albeit that it is at an early stage, whether the Minister has any evidence about how statutory supervision is working.

The report of the interim chief inspector of probation, which has been referred to, said fairly that there are significant operational and information sharing concerns across the boundaries of the national probation service and the community rehabilitation companies, and continuing frustration with the old case management systems. That was borne out by the practitioners I spoke to, and I hope the Minister can update us about what practical steps are being taken to rectify that issue. On the other hand, the interim chief inspector of probation specifically said that those problems are transitional and can be resolved. He pointed to an urgent and continuing need to support the necessary improvement in the quality of leadership. The point is that those problems are resolvable. To say, therefore, that the system is fundamentally flawed is wrong and not borne out by the evidence. That is not the feeling of those who actually work on the ground.

The issue of the impact on transparency and the local linkages was referred to. A fair point was made about how we deal with the move from the old system of probation trusts to a national system on the one hand, and the CRCs on the other. The CRC people I have met are committed, highly motivated, skilled professionals. I do not regard it as in any way improper to have that sort of private investment in the system. They work well with their colleagues in the NPS, many of whom they have known for years.

There is an issue to consider about join-up, and I hope the Minister can look again at how we ensure that the local linkages are not lost. The ability to work closely with other agencies, including local authorities, criminal justice organisations, social services and the health service—many offenders have multiple issues and will require multiple-agency intervention—requires careful liaison at a local level. I would like to know what we can do to ensure that that is recognised within the new framework. We need to bring in local granularity and nuance.

Another issue that was raised was about getting the information to sentencers and the courts, which value input from the probation service. There is a question about whether the CRCs, which deal with some offenders, have, in effect, a right of audience when dealing with sentencers, as the NPS does. What protocols can we put in place to deal with that? Can we ensure that the representatives of the service at court, who advise on sentences—I know from discussions with the judiciary that they are much relied upon—are getting the information across fully, and that it is properly fed back?

I am not pretending that there is not work that still needs to be done. I think everybody would agree that there is. Equally, we should not simply adopt a partisan stance. I am convinced of the Minister’s good will, and I am also convinced that there is real potential that should be taken on board. That is why the Select Committee wants to return to the issue in this Parliament. I hope we can get some balance on the progress that has been made and the work that we still need to do.

Thank you, Mr Nuttall, for giving me the chance to speak. I congratulate the hon. Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock) on bringing this issue to Westminster Hall for consideration. I want to give a Northern Ireland perspective and talk about what we have done in Northern Ireland, as I am conscious that this is a devolved matter. I also want to talk about what has been done in Texas—I have spoken to the shadow Minister and the Minister about this—as an example of how we can do things better.

Financially, this country cannot go on with the current system. It quite simply costs too much, so there is a financial issue. We are failing not only financially but socially, with overcrowding and rising levels of violence in prisons and stubbornly high reoffending rates. The levels of drug and substance abuse continue to be a problem. How can we fix this? I want to make a constructive contribution to this debate and talk about the steps we have taken in Northern Ireland.

We all need a fairer, more accessible and quicker justice system that will ultimately benefit all of us. It is time we had a rational debate across party political lines about the direction of justice. I want the Northern Ireland legal system to lead the way, just as Northern Ireland has done with sport—look at the Irish rugby team, the Northern Ireland football team and now the Irish hockey team.

The poverty trap and high levels of crime have a vice-like grip on the populace. Innovation in justice is one of the best ways to break the cycle. Northern Ireland is not limited to piloting modern justice systems; it can become a leader in developing them. It is time to have a bipartisan conversation about whether it is logical and feasible to continue with the age-old way of doing things. Is it just a case of, “Let’s do it this way because we have always done it this way and this is the way we understand,” or can we come together to have a pragmatic discussion? I believe that this Westminster Hall debate will give us the chance to discuss what is best for the country, citizens and ex-offenders.

The Northern Ireland problem is not exactly undocumented. According to the “Northern Ireland Multiple Deprivation Measure 2010” report, 30 of the 100 most deprived small areas in Northern Ireland are either in or around interfaces that emerged from the high levels of activity during the troubles. We have had some difficult times, as everyone in this Chamber will appreciate. Despite the promise of a peace dividend, life for people in those areas has not got much better, and for some it has become worse. Moreover, the majority of those 30 areas are also included in the top 30 areas for crime in the Province. There is a connection between deprivation, interfaces and the level of crime.

We need to move the conversation away from patchwork reforms and start talking about serious innovation in justice. Innovation should not be confined to the private sector. We seek to modify many of the pillars of Government and the public sector, not least our chronically outdated justice system. In that sense, it is encouraging to see innovation, or at least an attempt at innovation, from the Minister. Innovation will make it possible to have a positive social impact and make the savings in our public finances that we so desperately need. Mere reforms to patch up a broken system, while saving a bit here and there, are only temporary fixes. In Northern Ireland, examples of potential innovation include early interventions in education and health among the young people most at risk, along with work and education programmes that ensure offenders pay their debt to society and that equip them with skills to help them to turn their lives around once formal rehabilitation is complete. The Government’s rehabilitation programme has some promising aspects, and I am keen to see what we in Northern Ireland can take from it and what others here can learn from the exciting new approaches in Northern Ireland.

The Democratic Unionist Chair of the Committee for Justice in Northern Ireland, Alastair Ross MLA, has created justice seminars that provide the space for the sort of ideas that need to be heard, discussed and critiqued. I am glad that work on such changes has already begun in Northern Ireland. The monthly justice innovation seminars look at new approaches in justice and evidence-based, outcome-driven policy proposals.

Although we are discussing an exceptionally important matter and its by-products, does my hon. Friend agree that the two central issues for most in the community are that justice is seen to be done whenever an offence is committed and that reoffending is seen to be coming down? If those two criteria are met, these other issues, important as they are, will take second place.

As always, my hon. Friend’s contribution focuses attention on an issue. With more approaches like the justice innovation seminars, I am sure that we can find the solutions we so desperately need to benefit us all and achieve what my hon. Friend suggests.

We have seen some unexpected champions of justice reform—this is where the Texas connection comes in. Notably, Texas Governor Rick Perry has actively diverted non-violent offenders away from prison and into education and rehabilitation programs. If Members have the time, they should read about that: it is exciting and innovative and it works. Just one example of the success of Perry’s post-partisan reforms is the improved efficiency, reduced costs and improved outcomes of Texas’s drug courts. When Perry took office, Texas had just seven drugs courts. With poor outcomes from the incarceration of those who needed treatment and needless, astronomical costs, Perry committed to finding smarter ways to reduce crime. By increasing the number of drugs courts to 150 and opening 19 innovative veterans treatment courts, Texas has seen serious results, both financially and socially. Since 2007, an estimated $2 billion has been saved in new prison spending and three prisons and six juvenile centres have been closed. State-wide crime is at its lowest levels since the 1960s and Perry’s reforms have brought about a 39% reduction in the parole failure rate. Those figures are exciting and achievable, and we must take note of them.

In conclusion, choosing the right interventions saves the public purse by keeping people out of prison and saves society the trauma of high crime rates by reducing offending and reoffending rates.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Nuttall. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock) on securing this important debate on a central issue in our criminal justice system.

In my early years as barrister before coming to this place, when I practised in the criminal courts, few things were more depressing than the repeat offender. There were of course some people who came into the justice system, had one point of contact with it and were never seen again, but those who came back time and time again were far more challenging. The challenge was summed up by Simon Hughes, former Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark and former Minister of State at the Ministry of Justice, when he said in the Chamber on 17 March that 57% of offenders who received sentences of 12 months or fewer had reoffended within a year. That is the scale of the challenge we face.

As for the forthcoming changes, we have 21 community rehabilitation companies, the resettlement services and the National Probation Service, which, as my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon mentioned, deals with high-risk offenders. We must guard against fragmentation in this new environment. We cannot have offenders literally being passed around members of staff. There has to be a member of staff with whom they can build a relationship of trust and confidence. We must also ensure that the staff member with whom they deal is properly briefed about their case and aware of the background, because that relationship is absolutely crucial to the rehabilitation process going forward.

Staff morale is also a great problem. Ian Lawrence, the general secretary of Napo, the association for probation officers, said on 20 October:

“There’s a huge challenge to rebuild staff morale in both the NPS and the CRCs: it’s currently at an all-time low, and that’s not me just saying it ‘because I would, wouldn’t I?’ This is information coming back to us from our members on a daily basis. Certainly those facing the prospect of redundancy as the CRC owners start to implement their target operating models, are feeling let down by the last Government.”

I hope the Minister will take this opportunity to speak of the value that he places on probation officers and those who work in rehabilitation services and to talk about the dignity and respect with which they should be treated.

Another often undervalued aspect of the probation service is the pre-sentence report. While it is important at the sentencing stage—because it provides a background to why the offence was committed, how the offender has responded, whether there is remorse and other issues—the report is also helpful for rehabilitation because it points at particular aspects of the case that could be helpful. The Justice Secretary has already spoken about the concept of earned release and reducing the prison population, and the pre-sentence report can play a part in that and in how rehabilitation is viewed.

Increased transparency in community rehabilitation companies would also be helpful. I see no reason in principle why they cannot be subject to freedom of information legislation. Limits of around five years on contracts would also be a step forward, as would giving the Secretary of State the power to terminate contracts in cases of sub-standard performance. Those are both pragmatic and sensible steps.

The Minister will be aware of the Harris review, which was published on 30 July and deals with the serious issue of deaths of young people in custody. It states:

“For those whose liberty has been removed by the Courts, the primary goal of the prison regime should be rehabilitation. At present, prisons are an expensive failure as far as this objective is concerned.”

That simply cannot remain the case. We have to face up to this challenge. The Government are keen on payment by results, and it is by results that we must judge this policy.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock) for bringing this debate to Westminster Hall. Effective rehabilitation must be at the heart of the UK’s prison system. The chief inspector of prisons, Nick Hardwick, said in his most recent report that prisons are in their worst state for 10 years. We lock up more people than any other western European country and have a reoffending rate of more than 50% within a year of release. We need a more effective rehabilitation programme.

The recent changes were a missed opportunity for effective reform. I am deeply concerned about the programme’s implementation, including the fact that the changes were rushed through, the model was untested with no evidence provided to support it, and the service appears fragmented. To quote the probation inspectorate report of December 2014, “Transforming Rehabilitation—Early Implementation”, splitting one organisation into two created

“process, communication and information sharing challenges that did not previously exist.”

Many will remain a challenge for some time to come.

I will focus on staff retention and morale—

May I first make a bit of progress, please?

On 8 September 2015 my hon. Friend the Member for Darlington (Jenny Chapman) raised in the House the issue of Sodexo laying off 600 staff, many of whom were experienced in providing offenders with suitable skills and learning placements. I am concerned that offenders are now not being adequately supervised, risk-assessed or monitored. Sodexo is the biggest provider of probation in the privatised service, and has been attacked by Napo for the staffing cuts.

It is not an underestimate to state that staff morale is at an all-time low. There was an overwhelming lack of support for the policy change among staff before its implementation. In September 2014, results from a survey showed that 98% had no confidence in the plans. According to an article published in The Independent, at least 1,200 staff will have left by the end of the year as a result of redundancy, retirement or a career change due to disillusionment. As Frances Crook, chief executive of the Howard League, has stated, there were only 9,000 probation officers to start with, so such a severe reduction in numbers raises important questions about the safety of the public—for example, victims of domestic violence.

Following the changes, I am concerned in particular about the morale of black, Asian and minority ethnic staff, 74% of whom were women. In May 2015 Napo’s national online survey of BAME probation service staff highlighted an alarming fall in confidence levels and morale: 80% of respondents experienced a decrease in their confidence in the probation service and 83% reported a decrease not only in the morale of staff, but in the service. A third of respondents believed that the probation service breached official guidelines during the transforming rehabilitation assignment process.

Radical and effective reform does not come through privatisation and autonomy. To prove that, we only need to look at the state of the national health service and education in this country or at a report by New Philanthropy Capital which shows that 28% of charity projects have reduced reoffending, compared with 19% of private companies.

I am deeply concerned about the impact of the changes on staff morale and the effectiveness of the rehabilitation programme as a whole. I call on the Government to respond to such concerns.

For the benefit of new Members, may I say that if they have not written in, it is important for them to rise clearly in their places so that we can see whether they wish to be called? I call Rachael Maskell.

Thank you, Mr Nuttall. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock) for setting out the importance of focusing on the Government’s transforming rehabilitation programme. The debate is highlighting the risks and confusion that are manifest as a result of introducing an untested programme and reorganisation affecting some of the most vulnerable people in our society. Getting prison and probation wrong fails victims, the public and the offender. The issue is too important. For Labour, therefore, penal reform has to be about evidence-based practice, to ensure that all interventions that are deployed have the highest opportunity of being transformative. Opposition Members will not be heard calling for nothing to be done when reoffending rates sit at about 47.5%—that figure has remained static for many years. Labour is the first to demand intervention.

In June I was the Member in charge of a debate in Westminster Hall that highlighted many of the serious issues in our prisons leading to the failure to help offenders turn their life around. Throughout the debate Opposition colleagues emphasised things that need to be dealt with to stem the reoffending rate. Intervention is vital, but intervention is very different from reorganisation.

The transforming rehabilitation programme has been about more than only reorganisation; it has also been about privatisation. As with health, education and so many public services, the Government’s main interests are political rather than purposeful. They have made it absolutely clear that they will be seeking the involvement only of private and voluntary sector organisations in their programme, not of the public sector—not of those with the highest expertise. We have scrutinised so many Government attempts to transfer the accountability of services from the state to shareholders, followed by cuts. That is what we are now witnessing across the probation service. With each such change, we see a shift in risk from the Government, so that when things go wrong they may simply point a finger—but they no longer have a responsibility to lift a finger.

The community rehabilitation company that serves my constituency and the whole of Humberside, Lincolnshire and North Yorkshire, Purple Futures, is a combination of Interserve—the main provider, which describes itself as a leading

“multinational support service and construction company”—

and three minor partners, social enterprise and charity P3, Shelter and 3SC, which manages the contract. None of those organisations boasts any expertise in the provision of rehabilitative services for offenders. They have worked together for only a short time and have not built up any evidence to prove that they can transform rehabilitation.

The fracturing of the prison, probation and now rehabilitation services has of course, as with all such arrangements, created serious issues, which also means risk. Predictably, issues of IT, communications—as we have heard—and barriers to information sharing have come to the fore. We have also seen increased bureaucracy. That is why it is so important to be able to scrutinise what is going on, but without access to information and without freedom of information making it freely open to the public, it is hard to scrutinise services and therefore safety.

We have seen the job losses that inevitably follow the privatisation of services. As a result, confidence in the service has fallen, and as we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Nick Thomas-Symonds), staff morale has plummeted to only 65%. Again, ideology was put before evidence. I want to contrast that with a successful prison-to-community service just outside my constituency. Askham Grange women’s open prison, provided by the state, has a very different story.

The national reoffending rate is 47.5%, but at Askham Grange it is below 6%, the lowest in the country. Askham Grange is an open establishment operating a resettlement regime for women. It provides support for up to 128 women at any one time, including 10 mothers and babies. Its ethos is built on the maintenance of decent and respectful relationships between all who live, work and visit there. Its focus is to provide support in achieving positive family relationships and to provide individual learning programmes that include education, work skills and personal development.

I am so pleased that the hon. Lady mentioned family relationships. If rehabilitation is to work, it is essential that while prisoners are in custody their family ties are maintained, so that they have a home to go to when they leave, whenever possible, and the best chance of not returning to detention later.

I thank the hon. Lady for emphasising the importance of family. That is why Askham Grange can be held up as a good example, which facilitates such family relationships.

Individual potential is also realised at Askham Grange, with progression through a resettlement regime and into community work and/or paid work placements that reflect the training and skills gained throughout the sentence, as well as those already held. Askham Grange enables women to participate in sport and provides health facilities, a strong chaplaincy service and a wide range of courses, from the Open University programme to creative writing, business administration and employability skills. A range of vocational training opportunities are also on offer, from gardening to service assistant posts, which can lead to City & Guilds qualifications. The Ministry of Justice rated that service as exceptional in all criteria. It is one of only three prisons to have such high commendation.

Her Majesty’s inspectorate of prisons provides consistently good reports of the prison. It describes how women feel “safe” there and says that

“Askham Grange continues to be an impressive…prison”.

Indeed it is. With such excellent services, the only shocking thing is that the Government want to close the prison. The independent monitoring board described that as “bewildering”.

The Government want to replace just about the best rehabilitation service in the land with an untried and untested programme—can you believe it? If the Government are really committed to the safety of our communities, turning around the lives of some of the most vulnerable women and truly transforming rehabilitation, it is time for them first to announce that Askham Grange will not close and, secondly, to use the 70 years of evidence-based practice at Askham Grange to provide excellence across our prison and probation services.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Nuttall. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock) on securing this important debate. According to the Ministry of Justice, the aim of the reforms was to ensure that offenders were not only punished, but better rehabilitated by offering them greater support in the rehabilitation process, reducing reoffending rates while continuing to ensure public safety.

Is it not the case that the reforms were untried, untested and rushed through at breakneck speed? The former chief inspector published his first inspection of the transforming rehabilitation reforms in 2014, which was critical and found that splitting the probation service caused significant issues with process, communication and information sharing. The major problems were rushed timing, the fact that the model was untested and, as we have heard, fragmentation.

The speed of the reforms caused real concern and their implementation caused operational problems that could have been avoided or mitigated. Most worrying is the fragmentation, which means that offenders are juggled between multiple members of staff before they finally meet their personal probation officer. Many of the new processes also take longer and are more complex than the previous arrangements. Surely changes are meant to bring more efficiency, not less.

Significantly, in the most recent report from May 2015, the chief inspector of probation said that the picture was “mixed” and that inspectors found that many of the challenges identified in the earlier report remained. The IT systems remain a barrier and a number of tasks at the pre-allocation stage are “time consuming” and “not streamlined”. Those wide-ranging concerns remain unresolved. The Government must take action, and I urge the Minister to address those concerns today.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Nuttall, for what I believe is the first time. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock) for securing this important debate. Probation can often get pushed to one side in favour of discussing prisons, but I believe that the probation service is the key to unlocking the reduction in reoffending that we all want to see.

Many Members have observed that the implementation of the programme was rushed. There were pilots, which Labour supported. One such pilot took place in Wales, and I think I visited every one of them as they were about to begin. It was hugely disappointing to find that the work put into setting up those pilots was to be for nothing, because the models tested in the pilots were not to be implemented by the Government. Therefore, great time and energy and some expense was wasted, but we are where we are.

The Government were warned by experts—my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon put this well—that we were losing an opportunity by abolishing probation trusts. They were not stodgy, stuck-in-the-past public sector organisations that did not want to change; they were one of the most entrepreneurial public agencies anyone could hope to find, with dynamic, charismatic chief officers and chairs, and boards with strong private sector representation, which were run competitively. They all wanted to be the best. As has been said, they were all good or outstanding. They were working well and had huge capacity to deliver many if not all of the outcomes that the Government sought to achieve through the ridiculous splitting of the service that they seemed determined to embark on.

I want to highlight the observation made by my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon about the split being born entirely out of political necessity. The Government knew fine well that they could never win public support for the wholesale sell-off of the service when medium and high-risk offenders were to be subject to supervision in the community—where we and our constituents live. The fear was that those offenders would not be properly supervised, and because the Government knew that was a risk, they invented the ridiculous, artificial split of the service along risk lines, when we all know that risk is dynamic.

Anyone who has ever worked with offenders will know that a low-risk offender does not always stay a low-risk offender. Risk changes. It can change quickly and unpredictably, and the people best placed to make such assessments are probation officers. They have the relationship with the offender and they have proven time and time again that they can spot such changes. When changes occur—they could result from a new relationship, drinking, a mental health issue or losing a job—the triggers must be communicated immediately.

I am getting to be rather fond of the Chairman of the Justice Committee, the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill). He is quite an avuncular character, but I would caution him against smothering the Minister with love.

The point I am trying to make is that the Minister needs to answer some serious criticisms about programme’s implementation. It behoves all of us, from whichever side of the House, to make problems known to him, although I have to give him his due. These are not problems of his making: he inherited the programme, and I like to think that he would not have liked to have seen this nonsense implemented, because I know he cares deeply about what happens in the community and what happens to offenders, and he cares about victims, too.

I agree that it is important to learn lessons from the process we have embarked on, but is not one of the key lessons to learn that, when we approach such issues, we must put dogma to one side and look empirically at what works? If that had been done, we would not face many of the problems we do now.

That is absolutely right. There was an opportunity to trial the programme. Labour was in favour of pilots, in which so many lessons could have been learnt and problems avoided. Everyone said that there would be a problem with IT—it does not take a rocket scientist to spot that. That was so predictable and so avoidable. With time and training, we could have avoided the problems we are now experiencing.

We cannot just say, “We’ll sort it out as time goes on, but it’ll take a couple of years to put it right.” Problems are being caused now, and problems in probation are a risk to public safety. The Minister needs to get his head around those issues urgently. If necessary, he needs to put in resources to deal with them—because, my God, he will be putting in resources if things go wrong! Let us not wait for that to happen.

My hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton (Kate Osamor) powerfully outlined the folly of splitting the service. The inspectorate agrees with her, and says that the speed of transition has left staff feeling that they have not been informed about new working processes. Many still do not understand the rationale behind those processes. To their credit, the workforce are hugely motivated and experienced, and have the very best values. They will work incredibly hard to make the changes work, but we haven’t half made their jobs that much harder by going about it in this way. There is only so much that even that workforce can take. I urge the Minister to address the problem of staff morale quickly.

My hon. Friend the Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Gerald Jones) was right that time is being wasted because new tasks are not being integrated with old systems. Staff in court do not have access to the information they need. Things are having to be done on paper and uploaded later, creating extra tasks and unnecessary administration. Information is having to be inputted repeatedly in different places. All that nonsense could have been avoided. Heaven knows, the IT was bad enough before we started this process and needed to be addressed, but imposing a new structure on a system that was already feeling the strain was simply reckless and unnecessary. The Minister could have got the same outcomes in a safer, better way.

There are significant staffing gaps, but efforts to fix them have been too slow. It is shocking that the service can be restructured at breakneck speed, but the hoped for gains, such as involving the voluntary sector and providing proper, meaningful supervision for short-sentence prisoners, appear to be happening incredibly slowly—so slowly that we cannot see them.

Many new processes simply take longer and are more complicated than the previous arrangements. Every serious case review I have ever read has looked at communication problems as a factor leading to that serious case arising. In probation, communication is not a luxury or something it would be nice to get right; it is at the very heart of it all, and probation officers, workers in the CRCs and anyone else working with an offender must be excellent at communication. They therefore need to be given the right systems and support, but that is not happening. That is dangerous, and the Minister needs to get on to it straightaway.

This debate is not simply a rehashing of previous debates between me and the Minister about how ridiculous this whole project was—it is not our greatest hits. Rather, it is about problems with implementation. The decision on the transforming rehabilitation programme has been taken, so now we must make sure that, however chaotic the system is, we can support the workforce to make the programme work and make it safer for our constituents.

I have asked the Minister many times—as I asked his predecessor, the current Attorney General, when the Offender Rehabilitation Act 2014 was in Committee—about co-location. I have had many assurances that NPS and CRC staff will be co-located. I thought that would be a good way of dealing with some of the problems with communication, as in the past those supervising an offender would have shared an office or have had a good relationship because they would have been used to dealing with one another. Will the Minister say how often co-location is not happening? I suspect that it is more the norm that staff are sited in differed locations. How quickly does he intend to address that? It is perhaps the key to making the system safer.

There are many current problems. Inspectors often find that they are identifying the same challenges now as in earlier inspections, and that the work to put those right, as was identified in the Minister’s letter to the Chair of the Justice Committee, is not having the desired impact. The Government need to do more than they have already said they will to put those problems right. The pre-allocation stage is not streamlined and so is too time consuming. What will the Minister do to streamline that stage, which is a crucial part of the process? There are now, effectively, two risk screening tools, the case allocation system and the offender assessment system. Many staff in both the NPS and the CRCs are expressing serious doubts about the value of completing the risk of serious recidivism tool at the pre-allocation stage.

That issue has been raised repeatedly with Ministers, including when the 2014 Act was in Committee. Unfortunately, at that stage Members were given no information about the new risk assessment tool and were forced to take it on trust that it would be workable and that we would not need huge investment in training on it. I am not convinced that we were given the most candid or well-informed responses in Committee. The Minister needs to add looking urgently at that risk assessment tool to his to-do list.

My hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Nick Thomas-Symonds) quoted Ian Lawrence, the head of the National Association of Probation Officers—we never know, he might just be listening—on staff morale, which my hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton also talked about. Morale is at an all-time low. The system is under huge pressure, with 98% of staff saying that they have no confidence in the Government with regard to administering the programme effectively. That cannot make the Minister feel too good about himself. I am not here to add to his woes, but he needs to consider the burden he is placing on staff in the sector. They have a breaking point, and I do not want to see any more good, experienced staff leaving the service because they have no confidence in the Government’s intentions on responsible supervision of offenders in the community. Will the Minister address those points?

Despite the gloss that the Chair of the Justice Committee placed on the mood in the voluntary sector, the National Council for Voluntary Organisations seems to see things slightly differently. The largest membership body for the voluntary sector, it has conducted a survey of how its members feel. We need to take the evidence of that survey very seriously. It found that the pace of change has been slow. Organisations have not been involved, leaving them unsure about whether they will be involved in service delivery at all, and so unable to plan strategically or make decisions on staff. Few voluntary sector organisations have said they have been able to secure contracts to deliver services, which is especially the case for smaller ones. All is not as it seems, and it is certainly not as was promised.

The Government promised to put the third sector at the heart of probation, but the promise was obviously false, as that has not happened. Will the Minister therefore let us know what he is doing to put that right and ensure that the voluntary sector plays a significant role? We want to get the benefit of all the talent in, and experience of, working with offenders that we have up and down the country, but many people who could offer a great deal are, frankly, being shut out. They were not shut out before, because trusts went to great efforts to work with smaller local providers.

I must ask the Minister to respond to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) about Askham Grange prison. I have visited it myself. The best governor I have ever met is running the prison, along with another prison, and is getting tremendous outcomes. We should support that establishment, expand its work and share the good practice there more widely. To close it would be an absolute travesty.

On freedom of information, there is one question the Government have not answered. During the legislation’s Committee stage, the Opposition argued for the Government to bring contracted providers within the ambit of the Freedom of Information Act 2000. We know how the Lord Chancellor feels about FOI, having shifted responsibility for it to the Cabinet Office, but I would be interested to hear the Minister’s thoughts. In moving an amendment in Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) said we needed extra scrutiny via FOI, but sadly the Government voted that amendment down. Has the Minister considered whether the issue needs to be looked at again and whether these organisations are making themselves as open and transparent as possible? I would suggest they are not.

To conclude, I want to pray in aid the words of my hon. Friend the Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn), who, to his credit, has showed huge interest in all things related to justice. He was a member of the Justice Committee, and he had some quite insightful things to say about the Government’s programme. He said:

“The losers are the ex-offenders, the community…all of us…who must pay the costs in reoffending, more prisons and more sentencing. Surely, there is a better way to go about this—one that would show some respect for those who have given their lives to the probation service and who in a decent and professional way try to improve people’s lives, rather than working solely for private sector companies whose main interest is making money out of the system.”—[Official Report, Westminster Hall, 13 January 2015; Vol. 590, c. 236WH.]

That was his way of putting it, and I would add that the system we have is simply chaotic. We knew things would take time, but it is dangerous to let too much time to go by without intervening. The plans were poorly conceived, and they have been irresponsibly executed. I therefore encourage the Minister to respond to my questions and to the seven or eight suggestions and requests made by my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon.

As always, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Nuttall. I warmly congratulate the hon. Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock) on bringing this important issue before the House. I think this is the first Westminster Hall debate he has initiated, and he conducted himself extremely well. I am also grateful to all the other Members who have taken part. I will begin by trying to address as many of the specific points Members raised as I can, before getting on to the bulk of my remarks.

The hon. Gentleman asked whether using oral reports was resulting in more risk. In all cases where a report is undertaken at court, a risk of recidivism assessment—a risk of harm screening—is undertaken.

The hon. Gentleman also asked about FOI requests and transparency. I can tell him and all other Members present—my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill), who chairs the Select Committee, and others also asked about this—that the Government have committed to publishing management information detailing the performance of the CRCs and the NPS. Members will not have to wait long for the next release of that information. We are committed to transparency, because we have to proceed on the basis of results and how we are doing, and we will take corrective action where necessary.

The hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) spoke very knowledgably in a debate we had on prisons earlier this year, and she has a serious interest in all these matters, which I greatly welcome. She asked a number of questions, but particularly about Askham Grange. The women’s prison estate is the responsibility of the Under-Secretary of State for Women and Equalities and Family Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Caroline Dinenage). However, I can tell the hon. Lady that any decision to action the closure of Askham Grange will be taken only when the new resettlement model recommended in the women’s custodial estate review has been implemented and we are satisfied that the new arrangements give women the opportunity to demonstrate their suitability for release. Having said that, I acknowledge the outstanding work that is clearly being done at Askham Grange. I also recognise the uncertainty felt by the staff concerned. Where prison establishments have closed, we have always taken good care to preserve skills and keep them in the system, and to give people the opportunity to transfer.

The hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts) rightly asked about the Welsh language. The Working Links service directory is being translated into Welsh, which I am sure she will welcome.

The hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Gerald Jones) asked whether there was confusion over the allocation of offenders. The pre-sentence case allocation system is based on a score for the risk of recidivism and harm. That score clearly defines whether an offender is to be allocated to the NPS or the CRC, so I do not fully recognise his description of confusion.

A number of Members asked about possible redundancies in the probation service. CRCs are contractually required to maintain a professional and appropriately skilled workforce to deliver the services set out in their contracts. That is being robustly managed by the National Offender Management Service. Furthermore, any probation staff who were employed as at 31 May 2014 will, if they are eligible for voluntary redundancy, be entitled to the enhanced voluntary redundancy terms, as set out in the national agreement on staff transfer and protections, where a voluntary redundancy situation arises. Those terms stand unless otherwise renegotiated in accordance with applicable employment law.

The hon. Member for Torfaen (Nick Thomas-Symonds), in what I thought was a thoughtful and good speech, rightly made the important point that the reoffending rate has remained too high for too long. He is absolutely right, and I can assure him there is no divide in the Chamber about that: we recognise that fact, and we are determined to do something about it, working first in the prison system and then in the probation service.

In an intervention, my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) rightly mentioned the importance of family relationships, and I want to reassure her that I do get that. My enthusiasm for the issue is shared by the chief inspector, who highlights it on page 62 of his annual report for very practical reasons. He notes that the majority of accommodation for those leaving prison is provided by family members, as are a lot of employment opportunities. If we keep those family links strong, it will help in rehabilitation.

The Chair of the Select Committee made a very balanced speech, for which I am grateful. He said he had recently attended a conference on these issues. I am sure he will, like all good Select Committee Chairs, proceed according to the evidence. I would not expect him to do anything else or to give me, as a Minister, an easy time. I know he will continue to hold the Government to account, depending on what happens.

My hon. Friend mentioned problems with ICT. It is fair to say that those problems were there before, and I will say a little in my remarks about what we are doing to address them. I have already mentioned the issue of transparency, which he raised.

In terms of being held to account, the Minister has undertaken to give us updated performance data, which I am sure the Select Committee will welcome. One issue the Committee raised was that, given the commitment to largely local delivery, the new arrangements should not disrupt local partnership arrangements that are working well, particularly where CRCs are covering quite wide areas. Will the Minister make sure that we also have up-to-date data on that, and that the issue continues to be monitored closely, because we clearly do not want things that work well on a multi-agency level to be disrupted?

I am grateful to the Chair of the Select Committee for raising that important point, which other Members also raised. What I would say to everyone here today and to all those who are listening to the debate, or who will be reading it later, is that the voluntary sector is a precious asset. We do not have a right to it. These people have shown good will, and many of them have given up their time and shown a serious commitment to helping us with these issues. We have a duty to nurture and treasure them, and I want to make sure that we use them as effectively as possible—and sometimes perhaps a little more strategically than we have done. However, I do get the importance of valuing the voluntary sector.

I want now to move on to my substantive remarks, about the reason for introducing the reforms. The reoffending rate has decreased by 2.3 percentage points since 2002, to 25.3% at the end of September 2013. However, the group of offenders with the highest reoffending rates remains those sentenced to less than 12 months in custody. Almost 60% of those adult offenders go on to reoffend within a year of leaving prison. They are the one group that previously remained out of scope for statutory supervision and rehabilitation in the community. As many have said and as I am sure we all agree, that statistic is evidence that a new approach was needed. We came to office in the previous Government determined to change that and, as a result, implemented the transforming rehabilitation reforms, better to focus the system on reducing reoffending, protecting the public and providing greater value for the taxpayer.

The key point is that we would not have had the money to introduce supervision for the under-12-month group without the reforms. No Member who has spoken has mentioned that. We could not have done what everyone has called on us to do without putting in a lot of extra money that was not available.

I want to put that right: the proposal that the Opposition made at the time was backed by the chief officers of probation trusts, who were willing within existing budgets to take on that responsibility, and in some cases were already doing so. What has been happening was not necessary.

I disagree with the hon. Lady that it could have been done within existing budgets, because it meant 45,000 extra offenders a year having probation supervision. That is why we needed to bring other players to the table.

The Offender Rehabilitation Act 2014 made a number of changes to the sentencing framework, most notably by providing that everyone released from short sentences will now receive 12 months of supervision in the community, which did not happen before. That, as I mentioned, represents some 45,000 offenders, so we needed to make significant structural changes to both the probation and prison services. Offenders who pose a high risk of serious harm to the public, or who have been convicted of the most serious offences, are being managed in the public sector under the National Probation Service, which sits within the National Offender Management Service. Medium and lower-risk offenders are being managed by the 21 community rehabilitation companies, which remained in public ownership until 1 February, when eight new providers took ownership of them and began running them.

The CRCs are being run by a diverse group, including a range of voluntary sector providers with experience in rehabilitating offenders. Those providers will be remunerated via a system that rewards them for reducing reoffending: payment by results.

I want to make a little progress, but if I have time later I shall willingly give way.

There was also substantial reform of the prison system. To support improved rehabilitation outcomes, the prison estate was reorganised to facilitate a through-the-gate model, whereby offenders are given help and support from within custody into the community that they will return to on release. We established a network of 89 resettlement prisons in what has involved a large-scale reorganisation and reconfiguration of the prison estate. Short-term prisoners and prisoners in the last 12 weeks of their sentence are being housed in those prisons where CRCs provide a through-the-gate resettlement service, including support to offenders for accommodation needs, employment brokerage and retention, finance and debt advice and support for sex workers and victims of domestic violence.

How is the new probation system performing? We have heard a lot of attacks on it this morning. Members will know that the transition took place on 1 June last year. Based on the wide range of information that we published this July, performance is broadly consistent with pre-transition levels. Probation staff in both the NPS and the CRCs have worked hard to implement the reforms and we will continue to support them as the new ways of working become embedded.

I want to do something that the hon. Lady called on me to do—to thank the probation staff who have worked very hard through a difficult time. Change is never easy, particularly if it is being applied to people under a new organisation. The staff continue to work hard and to engage proactively with the reforms.

The Minister said that we have been attacking the probation service. I want to make it crystal clear that we are not attacking the probation service. We are attacking him.

I mentioned that the hon. Lady has been attacking the reforms. I was explaining why we needed them, and that performance has been broadly consistent, which is no mean achievement through a period of substantial initial change.

I am going to talk a little about Wales, which I am sure the hon. Lady would like me to, as several Welsh Members have spoken in the debate.

The owners of Wales Community Rehabilitation Company are a shining example of collaborative working. The contract to run the CRC was awarded last December to Working Links, which is a public, private and voluntary company working in strategic partnership with Innovation Wessex, a probation staff mutual. I want innovative responses to causes of crime such as addiction and lack of housing, employment and skills, which the hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd mentioned. One of the keys to maximising innovation is through the widest possible participation of supply chain partners. Working Links owns the contracts for three CRCs in total, and in Wales has signed contracts with St Giles Trust and Safer Wales to support their through-the-gate services. Furthermore, Wales CRC has also continued with a number of existing supply chain partners, such as Turning Point and the Pembrokeshire Care Society, which were inherited from Wales probation trust. That kind of cross-industry collaboration will help to build a better justice system through the sharing of evidence and intelligence developed from innovations across the sector to deliver better justice outcomes.

Several hon. Members spoke about employment, training and education and we will continue to focus on those. In Wales a working group has been established to map employability provision across Wales. The group includes the National Probation Service, Wales CRC, the Department for Work and Pensions and other employment, training and education providers. It is another good example of the collaborative partnership working that the Select Committee Chairman and others have called for in the debate. We want to ensure that it continues in the same way.

I never miss an opportunity to celebrate the excellent work that our probation staff do. They are on the frontline, delivering services that help to keep us all safe. I would therefore like to highlight the fact that the 2015 Probation Officer of the Year award went to a member of staff from Wales CRC, Wendy Hyett, for her excellent diversionary scheme for women offenders. I was pleased to present her with that award.

The transforming rehabilitation reforms have made substantial changes to the way in which offenders get help, in the through-the-gate process and in the community. The reforms are still bedding in, and while they do that we are turning a greater focus on the rehabilitation of offenders in prisons. As the Secretary of State and I have said before, reform of our prisons is a key area of focus, and we have made it clear that our current prison system fails to rehabilitate offenders or to ensure that criminals are prevented from reoffending. Our prisons must offer offenders the opportunity to get the skills and qualifications they need to turn their lives around. That will be a continued focus for us, along with a focus on education and keeping family links strong.

I am grateful to all hon. Members who have taken part in the debate. I will write to those whose specific concerns I have not been able to deal with, and I assure the shadow Minister and all those present that we shall continue to monitor the progress of CRCs robustly. We have very robust contract management for every CRC and will hold them to account on what they have said they will do. We shall carry on publishing the data at quarterly intervals, and the next release of that data will be soon.

I thank the Minister and all hon. Members who have attended the debate, which has been excellent. The fundamental point that the Opposition would make is that there is nothing wrong with experimentation and innovation, but that there is a fundamental structural problem now: the splitting and fragmentation and the proliferation of providers have created lack of clarity and are increasing bureaucracy and inefficiency. The Conservatives are always keen to cut red tape and bureaucracy, but the reforms are having the opposite effect. The Government are applying a false economy and are playing with fire, with the risk to public safety. We urge them, constructively, to create a cross-party taskforce and work in partnership to build a streamlined—

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).

Harold Wilson

I beg to move,

That this House has considered commemoration of the centenary of Harold Wilson’s birth.

I am grateful to have been given the opportunity to introduce a debate on Harold Wilson. I have a great affinity with Harold Wilson, because he was born in my constituency and was educated in Huddersfield. I knew him well towards the end of his life, and I was privileged to have him campaign for me in the 1979 general election. I know many people in Huddersfield who knew him and thought he was a wonderful Yorkshireman and a wonderful national representative of the Labour party as Prime Minister.

Many colleagues have talked to me about the fact that Harold’s memory has not been very well documented. Some have said that his contribution to British politics, British Parliament and British life has been neglected, undervalued, underrated and forgotten.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again, Mr Nuttall. Does my hon. Friend agree that that is paradoxical? Harold Wilson retired only days after beating the then record of Herbert Asquith as the longest-serving Prime Minister of the 20th century. Since then, only Tony Blair and Margaret Thatcher have served as Prime Minister for a larger number of days. His Governments brought in great social changes in the 1960s, and the Open University truly changed society. Should Harold Wilson not be a figure who we honour? His “renegotiate and decide” approach to the European Union might be familiar to a modern-day Prime Minister too.

I fear my hon. Friend has stolen most of my thunder there, but I absolutely agree with him.

To set the scene, this very much neglected man was a great Prime Minister. People might remember the celebrations of Denis Healey’s life only two or three weeks ago. Denis Healey lived a vigorous life to a great old age and, in a sense, could look after and defend his record. He did that brilliantly right to the end of his life. I also knew Denis very well, as did some of my colleagues. Harold was cruelly struck down by a wicked onset of illness in his late 50s, when he was in his prime. He had to retire at the age of 60, stunning the political world and most people, who could not quite understand what was going on. He was a very ill man, and the nature of his illness was kept quiet out of respect for his wife, Mary, and his sons, Robin and Giles.

This is our opportunity, because 11 March 2016 will be the centenary of Harold Wilson’s birth. My colleague from the other side of the Pennines, my right hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley (Mr Howarth), is in his place. We share Harold Wilson between Yorkshire and Lancashire, because Harold was never a Yorkshire Member of Parliament. He was the Member for Parliament for Ormskirk, originally, and then for Huyton.

We have a unique opportunity next year to celebrate Harold Wilson’s life. A small committee of Members want to ensure that all parliamentarians are aware of that date and that we honour his memory in a significant way, not only through lectures or great events. Mr Nuttall, you might remember my campaign three years ago for there to be a proper statue of Harold Wilson in the precincts of Westminster. It failed, because the Speaker’s Art Fund turned us down. Let us do it again, because it is quite wrong that in the Members’ Lobby there is just a small head and shoulders of Harold Wilson. It is about time we honoured him with a full statue.

I warmly congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. I applaud and will support the work he is doing to commemorate this important centenary. Harold Wilson actually inspired my own lifelong devotion to the Labour party when I heard him speak at Reading town hall in the 1964 general election campaign. Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the many remarkable things about Harold Wilson was his combination of high intellect and political skill with the common touch and the ability to inspire the trust of working people?

My right hon. Friend, like me, was very much influenced by hearing Harold on the stump when we were young men. He had great repartee. I will come to that in a moment, but first I must remind everyone what a brilliant young boy Harold was.

Harold’s father was a works chemist and his mother was a schoolteacher. He went to Royds Hall school. In fact, he had a severe illness when he was a child, which affected his education but did not prevent him from going on to be a brilliant young scholar at Oxford. He started off doing a history degree and switched to philosophy, politics and economics. He became the youngest Oxford don at the age of 21—what a remarkable career. In his first year at university, he was recruited into the Labour party by G. D. H. Cole, one of the great founders of the labour movement. Later on, as a brilliant young academic, Harold, like much of that generation, gets involved in the war effort and becomes a key civil servant in it. He worked in a number of Ministries, including as a researcher for William Beveridge, the founder of the welfare state in so many ways. Harold was working on unemployment and the trade cycle, and worked at the Ministry of Fuel and Power.

When I first joined the House, I tried to look up Harold’s maiden speech, but he never made one; he was a Minister on the day he was elected. He was the youngest Cabinet Minister of the 20th century when he became President of the Board of Trade—what a remarkable man. Then, of course, when Hugh Gaitskell died, which was a great tragedy because he was a relatively young man, Harold Wilson, from the left of the Labour party, became the leader of the Labour party.

In that very year, 1963, he makes the “white heat of technology” speech to the Scarborough Labour party conference that transforms how people think about the future of our country’s economy. He tells us how unskilled and semi-skilled jobs are going to go, and that the future of our country is in science and technology. He talks about understanding how the future is going to dramatically change and how we must prepare Britain to be a modern country. He says, “Why are only 5% of people going to university? Why shouldn’t it be 10%? Why is the country run by a few people who went to public school and posh universities? Why can’t everyone have the chance to go to university? Why don’t we have more scientists, people who know about stuff and good managers to run our country?” That reminds me of some of the arguments we are having today in the House.

I was going to make that very point. My hon. Friend makes a powerful speech about the tremendous legacy of Harold Wilson for this country and for Opposition Members. Harold Wilson, when he was first elected, represented Ormskirk, as my hon. Friend mentioned. Much of that constituency is now in my own constituency, and people in that area are extremely proud of the legacy that Harold gave to us. The parallel with today is striking. Does my hon. Friend agree that we have much to learn from Harold Wilson about the need to develop our skills base in this country, not least the management skills he just mentioned?

Again, my hon. Friend is absolutely right. I was just going to say that Harold worked with Nye Bevan, his great friend, on the foundations of the health service. However, as well as that, he saw the need in this country, which was ravaged by war, for the houses that had still not been built. He was behind the new towns movement, building new towns such as Milton Keynes and building more housing than I think anyone has ever built in this country. We should remember Harold for that, but people should remember him for the other things that he did, too, such as the cultural transformation in this country in our attitude to homosexuality and the change in the laws on it. There were the changes in our attitudes to divorce and the rights of women in property. He had a very good Home Secretary in Roy Jenkins, and in this House at the time, with that kind of ethos, we abolished capital punishment. So many of the transformational things that made our country what it is today happened under Wilson’s watch.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. As the MP for Knowsley, which includes Huyton, I ought to have something to say on the subject. The only thing I want to add to what has been said, all of which I agree with, is that Harold Wilson is remembered very fondly in Knowsley as an outstandingly good constituency MP. To have held the high offices that he did and still be considered so highly as a constituency MP speaks volumes for his ability and commitment.

Again, my colleagues are making such good interventions that they are really overshadowing this poor speech of mine. I did not add, before that intervention, the change in the abortion law that took place during Harold Wilson’s premiership.

I talked to my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman), who told me a story about being in No. 10 with Harold Wilson when Lyndon Baines Johnson rang Harold. My right hon. Friend answered the phone, and Lyndon Baines Johnson begged Harold Wilson to send a token force to Vietnam to show support for the Vietnam war. The conversation went on for some time—these two men were great friends—and eventually, Harold said, “L. B., I will not send a token force, not even a Scottish pipers band.” That was a Prime Minister who kept us out of a war, which is quite refreshing, is it not?

Again, all congratulations to the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. I want to say, as a Scottish Member, that Harold Wilson is fondly remembered in Scotland across the party divide, both for his humour and for the fact that under his Government the first genuine elements of devolution occurred, with the creation of the Scottish Development Agency and the Highlands and Islands development board, from which everything else has grown. The hon. Gentleman is also absolutely correct to say that the one great thing that Harold Wilson did and should be remembered for is something that he did not do: he did not take Britain into Vietnam. That would have ended not with one pipe band, but with tens of thousands of people from this country dying.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention, too.

Harold was also a brilliant parliamentarian. People who can still remember his days as Prime Minister—before our time in the House—will know what a wonderful command of Parliament he had in the House of Commons. He had a brilliant ability for repartee, which was exhibited in his great speeches during elections. There was a famous occasion when he thought a Conservative supporter had thrown an egg at him during a speech at a big public meeting. He said, “In five years’ time, if the Tories win the election, people won’t be able to afford to buy an egg”, which although I thought it rather harsh, was very funny. He did not only have funny repartee. He said—these words leap off the page—that the Labour party

“is a moral crusade or it is nothing.”

That was matched by him saying:

“The only limits of power are the bounds of belief”,

which is absolutely wonderful. This week he is also particularly appropriate for the Chancellor of the Exchequer, because it was Harold Wilson who said:

“A week is a long time in politics.”

Does my hon. Friend know that there was a tremendous amount of controversy about continuing to send arms to the apartheid regime in South Africa? The controversy was in the Cabinet, apparently. A number of Harold Wilson’s Cabinet colleagues believed that however much they were against apartheid, arms supplies should continue. Harold Wilson encouraged the signing of an early-day motion by literally hundreds of Back-Bench MPs, of whom I was one. That swayed the argument to a very large extent, and Harold Wilson won the day in Cabinet.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing an apposite, timely debate. I can confirm the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall North (Mr Winnick); it was Harold’s intervention against the supply of arms. In particular, Simonstown base in South Africa was being used, and only his direct intervention prevented certain other Members of the Cabinet from doing that.

Like my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman), I am very grateful for the brief intervention by my right hon. Friend the Member for Oxford East (Mr Smith), who mentioned that he was brought into politics through Harold. I had a similar experience in the United States. He was on a tour at the time and I was studying for a graduate degree. He inspired a number of us on that occasion to come back and work for the party, as he put it to us.

Is not really the sum total of the points that my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield is making in this comprehensive review of Harold himself, his career and his Government that now is the time for a major re-evaluation, not so much of his reputation—his personal achievements are fairly well known—but of the Government at the time? It was a very fine Administration, and what my hon. Friend is leading up to is the need for a re-evaluation. May this be the start of it. I congratulate him, in that context, on a timely and correct choice of topic for today’s debate.

My hon. Friend has deep knowledge of this period of British politics and of Harold Wilson, and I very much appreciate his remarks.

We are opening up a broader debate about Harold Wilson, his contribution, and the effect of this brilliant young man when he got into politics, and having a broad debate will do us a great deal of good in Parliament, because we will celebrate not just a party politician but a great parliamentarian and a great public speaker.

I will, in two seconds.

We must remember that we want this centenary to be about more than just saying, “Yes, I have written to the Speaker and to the director-general of the BBC and others, and we are getting this concerted campaign to have a proper response.” We want to build something living. For example, the vice-chancellor of the University of Huddersfield, Bob Cryan, is launching 50 Harold Wilson scholarships during the centenary year. I hope that that will be replicated in other parts of the country and in different ways. Later today, I am meeting the vice-chancellor of the Open University, which, again, is something that Harold Wilson started. The list goes on and on.

I give way to my friend from Colne Valley.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman—I will call him my hon. Friend—on securing the debate. It is absolutely right that we celebrate and mark the centenary of the birth of Harold Wilson early next year. Does he agree that we should perhaps include his—and my—beloved Huddersfield Town? As a young boy, Harold Wilson stood on the terraces at Leeds Road with his father. We should include the people of Cowlersley in my constituency, as he was born on Warneford Road there, and include Royds Hall school, just on the edge of my constituency, because whenever I visit that school, I know how proud they are of the fact that Harold Wilson was educated there in his early life.

I have been blessed by so many interventions from knowledgeable people that I am now running out of time, and we want the Minister, whom I very much respect, to say something too.

Let me finish by saying that this issue is not party political. It is about the ability to recognise a man who was struck down by a vicious, aggressive form of Alzheimer’s. These days we are much more open about that challenge to health. There is more understanding of how awful it can be. One of the most brilliant young men of his generation had his mature life in politics snatched away by a form of that cruel disease. We are much more open than we were 20 or 30 years ago when he was ill.

I thank you, Mr Nuttall, for the opportunity today to talk about Harold and his impact on this country. I urge all parliamentarians to join us in celebrating his life on and around 11 March 2016.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Mr Nuttall. I congratulate the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) on securing this debate and on his excellent speech this morning. The many interventions from hon. Members across the House have made clear the importance of Harold Wilson in parliamentary and public life. Indeed, it seems that he was a key inspiration for many people, particularly Opposition Members, in entering political life.

This country, and indeed this Parliament, have a good record of marking anniversaries in a dignified and relevant way. The pessimists may say, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”, but I prefer the quotation, “Study the past if you would define the future”. I hope that Harold Wilson would agree, not least because he said of himself:

“I’m an optimist, but an optimist who carries a raincoat.”

This year marks a number of important anniversaries. We have commemorated 800 years since the sealing of Magna Carta in 1215 and 750 years since the Simon de Montfort Parliament in 1265. The 2015 anniversary celebrations have raised awareness of our democratic heritage, with Parliament at the heart of the story. This year also marks other anniversaries, such as 50 years since Churchill’s death, 600 years since the battle of Agincourt, 200 years since the battle of Waterloo and 600 years since the appointment of the first Serjeant at Arms. I mention those anniversaries as many hon. Members will have noted the innovative ways in which they have been marked, both inside and outside Parliament.

As the hon. Gentleman said, 11 March 1916 marks the centenary of the birth of Harold Wilson. Born in Yorkshire, in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, he first visited No. 10 at the age of eight and, of course, it later became his home on two separate occasions. I believe that there is a special photograph of his first visit, which was almost a premonition.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned many of Harold Wilson’s career highlights, which I will not reiterate in full, but I will note a few historic elements. As Labour leader, he won four of the five general elections he contested. All current parliamentarians will appreciate what a genuine and truly magnificent achievement that was for any party leader.

Harold Wilson was a social reformer—reference has been made to that—and enacted reforms in many spheres. He will largely be remembered for abolishing capital punishment in Great Britain.

It would be wrong not to have on the record, in this year particularly, that Harold gave the British people a choice in the referendum on the European Union. That was the only time that people in this country had that choice, and he provided it in an adept and clever way. He totally outfooted a man called Benn.

That was coming up in my speech. The abolition of the death penalty, although it was initially introduced in a private Member’s Bill—Mr Silverman’s—was put into a permanent Act by Wilson’s Government. They abolished the death penalty in Great Britain and later in Northern Ireland.

As has been said, Wilson’s Government created the Open University. Dare I say it, but Margaret Thatcher, when Education Secretary, made sure that it stayed open despite a movement at the time to reduce its funding.

It was, of course, Harold Wilson who sought to renegotiate the terms of EU membership and offered the people of this country a referendum. Roll forward 40 years and we could argue about what a different position the Labour party takes on referendums on that matter. Nevertheless, it was significant, and I am sure the hon. Member for Huddersfield appreciates that we will be having a further referendum in a couple of years.

Moving on to popular culture, while Wilson never managed to make the pipe de rigueur, he coined a phrase that has never gone out of fashion:

“A week is a long time in politics”.

I believe that the phrase “kitchen Cabinet”, although it may have originated in America, described the core of what happened in Downing Street during his time there.

When preparing this speech, I was pleased to discover that Lady Wilson, Harold’s widow, celebrated her 99th birthday in January. She is the oldest living spouse of a former British Prime Minister and the last to have lived for two separate periods at No. 10 as wife of a serving Prime Minister. As we look ahead to next year, there is much to celebrate. I wish her well, hoping that she will receive her telegram from Her Majesty this coming January.

There is already much in Parliament to commemorate Harold Wilson. There are several paintings across the estate, and we pass a bust of him in Members’ Lobby on our way to the Chamber. In Portcullis House, the Wilson Room was named in his honour. In 2013, the BBC had an evening commemorating 50 years since he became Labour leader, so there may be opportunities there. He was certainly recognised as the first TV Prime Minister.

I understand what the Minister is saying, but will she please compare what we have in Parliament and in Westminster in memory of Harold Wilson compared what we have for other Prime Ministers? Thinking about statues and memorabilia of all kinds, what we have is very small and much less significant. Does she agree that the minimum we need is a proper statue of Harold and a full opportunity to pay tribute to him on the Floor of the House on the day of the anniversary of his birth, or as close as possible to it?

On the subject of recognition, such as statues and so on, the hon. Gentleman will be aware that it is for the House to make that decision through its committees. We should not denigrate the bust of Harold Wilson because it may be small, but I recognise what the hon. Gentleman says and I am sure that the House authorities will be listening.

As we approach the centenary of Harold Wilson’s birth, the hon. Gentleman is right to consider further opportunities to commemorate his contribution to public and parliamentary life. I am sure he will pursue them in his characteristic and engaging way, as he does on other matters. On the subject of further debate in the House, I am not aware of previous debates that have commemorated the centenary of the birth of former Members, but he may wish to approach the Backbench Business Committee.

This has been a worthwhile debate, recognising many of the contributions that Harold Wilson made to the country. As has been said, many of them continue to this day and will shape the future of politics as we move forward. I welcome this debate.

That is not the normal practice, as the hon. Gentleman will be aware, but on this occasion I will allow him to sum up this brief debate.

Thank you, Mr Nuttall. May I end by saying that I welcome the positive things that the Minister has said? I hope that Members throughout the House will take this anniversary seriously, because Harold Wilson’s was a very special retirement on medical grounds and we did not have the opportunity to do anything in previous years. This is a centenary, and there are precedents for special sessions after Question Time, perhaps even on a Wednesday, when we can pay tributes. I hope that the Minister is not closing the door on making a significant contribution and that we will not tuck Harold Wilson’s centenary away in some corner. Many of us will campaign for a high-profile event to recognise a man who changed Britain and ushered us into being a 21st-century, modern country.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.

Outdoor Recreation

[Mr James Gray in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the economic value of outdoor recreation.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I know that your interest in outdoor recreation extends to polar regions, and that if you were not in the Chair, you might be speaking in the debate. Thank you very much for all that you have done to support this cause in previous years.

I draw hon. Members’ attention to the register of all-party groups and my position as a co-chair of the all-party group on mountaineering, along with the hon. Member—my friend—for Bassetlaw (John Mann), and as secretary of the all-party group on national parks.

This is an important debate. I am delighted to have secured it and very grateful to see so many hon. Members supporting this cause. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister is also grateful for that. It is great to see her in her place. I am grateful for all the support that she provides as well, and we look forward to her response to the debate. The last time we discussed outdoor recreation in the House was in September last year. No doubt there will have been progress on which we can be updated since that time. We look forward to hearing the Minister’s views on that. I know that her Parliamentary Private Secretary, our hon. Friend the Member for South Derbyshire (Heather Wheeler), would also love to speak in the debate, given her interest in clay pigeon shooting. We all have these great interests that enrich our lives.

It is important to recognise that this is a key moment because the Government are currently reviewing submissions to the sport strategy consultation, which concluded on 2 October. The Minister will no doubt be navigating through many responses to it. She will be acutely aware also that the spending review is under way, so no doubt every penny spent within her responsibilities will be reviewed by the Treasury. If that does not help hon. Members to see the need for a long walk, I do not think anything will, but I am not sure that a long walk is best for the Minister right now—she will know what I mean—so I hope that this debate will help instead. That is not to say that the Minister needs any convincing of the physical benefits of outdoor recreation: she is probably the sportiest Sports Minister ever, given the work that she has done with local sports teams—football teams—and playing football herself. Not the least of her achievements was going up an Ecuadorian volcano with the hon. Members for Bassetlaw and for Leeds North West (Greg Mulholland).

Today, I want to highlight to Parliament and in Parliament the economic value of outdoor recreation. It is absolutely key. It is vital for improving physical health, mental wellbeing and of course—

I thank my hon. Friend for securing this important debate. Does he agree that, like other such clubs, Redditch Road and Path Cycling Club, one of the oldest in the country, provides great benefits for all sorts of people, but especially the youth of Redditch, such as through the Slipstreamers group?

Absolutely. Cyclists have been making great strides—[Laughter.] I am mixing my metaphors. They have been making great forward progress anyway in making the case for cycling. I think that this debate is helping to extend that to mountain biking, walking and all other pursuits, but yes, local groups are key.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing a debate on such an important issue. It is wonderful to see such a turnout and it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. My own constituency of Torfaen has wonderful opportunities for outdoor pursuits, including a world heritage site and a wonderful industrial landscape to walk around. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is even more important today that we emphasise the value of outdoor recreation, given the temptations that there are in indoor recreation, such as Xboxes and so on? We must continue to emphasise the value of outdoor recreation.

Absolutely. I cannot stress enough how important that is. One issue that I will mention is the importance of engaging young people in this agenda. It is all too apparent that too many young people spend too much time indoors and are not as physically active as they should be, so that was a very good point well made.

We need to highlight the economic benefits of outdoor recreation, not least in our rural economies. That is key in driving domestic leisure and tourism. It is key not just in attracting tourists from within the UK, but in attracting international tourists to Britain. We need to do that beyond the usual magnet of London.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. Does he agree that the Government could usefully consider reducing VAT on tourism? That has been allowed for since 2008 in the ECOFIN agreement, and many other countries have reduced the VAT to 5%, with very beneficial effects on the hospitality sector in general.

That is a very interesting point. I will not stray too far into that territory, because it is probably best left to my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer—it is well above my pay grade—but the hon. Gentleman has made his point and I am sure that others will pay due attention to it.

We now have some very important assets in place. I am thinking of, for example, the creation of the English coastal path. That will be critical to bring people to some of our coastal towns and villages that need increased visits. This week, we heard from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs the announcement of the extension of two of England’s most celebrated national parks: the Yorkshire Dales and the Lake District. That is very important. It is also important for them, so that they can compete better with my own beloved Peak District for national attention. It is certainly a very positive move. Indeed, our great outdoors is now, rightly, a key attraction in the Government’s GREAT campaign. I hope that recreation in our great outdoors will be helped to flourish for the sake of our national health, wellbeing and wealth.

Let us consider participation. According to evidence cited by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, those who play sport are healthier, happier and more likely to be successful in academic study and professional life. Meanwhile, ukactive has highlighted how, in some parts of the UK, more than 40% of the adult population are classed as inactive. Some 12.5 million people in Britain are failing to raise their heart rate for more than half an hour a week over a 28-day period. I am sure that colleagues will agree that that is a real concern.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this very important debate. There is a lot of focus on spectator sports in this country, so I am glad he is mentioning participation and talking about outdoor recreation. I am thinking particularly of the benefits of cycling. He mentioned the potential for increased longevity through different types of exercise. I understand that regular cyclists can live up to five years longer on average. In my constituency, we have Cyclesolihull and one of the most successful and long established cycling clubs in the country. It has produced many national champions and even Tour de France riders. Will my hon. Friend recognise the central role of cycling in outdoor recreation and health?

I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. Of course I support what he says. Cycling is key; it is central to the whole debate. In Macclesfield we have the Macclesfield Wheelers, and of course Team GB use the area of Cheshire and Dame Sarah Storey lives in the Macclesfield constituency. My hon. Friend is right: cycling is also key to the debate.

Although many would be reluctant to put on a pair of football or rugby boots, some 20 million people said that they would like to participate in outdoor recreation of some kind when they contributed to Sport England’s commissioned research “Getting Active Outdoors”. Some will need a nudge and others will need to be empowered or enabled to achieve their aspiration, but it will be worth it, because if we can inspire people and get more people off the sofa and active in one or more kinds of outdoor recreation, we can harvest considerable economic benefits in terms of health spending saved and productive value added.

I join in the congratulations to the hon. Gentleman on the debate. It is similar to a debate that I had in this Chamber last year about childhood obesity. He is coming to the nub of the issue now. Many people would like to become more active, but some of them feel they are the exception rather than the rule. What we really need to do is to get the younger generation, as a group of people, to understand that they are not exceptional or unusual; this is a lifestyle that they need to adopt, for the greater good not just of themselves but of their peers.

That is an incredibly strong point. We should look at the work that the Scouts do, for example—it is great to see Scouts and Guides doing so well—because what we want to do, as the hon. Gentleman has said, is encourage people into a healthier, more active lifestyle, which can carry on throughout the whole of their lives.

When I was preparing for the debate, the charity Sense got in touch with me with its excellent paper “The Case for Play”, which includes a review and describes the need to emphasise the importance of facilitating what it calls joyful recreation opportunities for children with often complex needs. That is a lifestyle choice that we have to encourage.

With Christmas coming, I am sure that a lot of youngsters will be demanding that their parents buy them the latest Xbox, or goodness knows what, which plugs into the back of a TV. That would be great exercise for their thumbs, but that is about it. Perhaps instead they should get a Fitbit or trainers and be encouraged to get out and do outdoor activities, to ensure that they are fit not just for one or two years but for the long term. We are living longer, so we want to make sure that people will be healthy when they reach 50, 60 and 70.

My great friend is a wonderful example of what a healthy lifestyle can do for a person, and I think that young people in Ribble Valley and far beyond should look at his Fitbit and his healthy lifestyle.

In each of our areas, bodies like Sport Cheshire help to bring together local interests such as businesses and local authorities. Recently, Sport Cheshire changed its name to Active Cheshire to reinforce what we have all been talking about—the importance of encouraging active lifestyles. That change of name signals a change in attitude and approach that we should encourage.

Let me move on to some of the health benefits, having mentioned some of the challenges. A study published in The Lancet in 2012 highlighted how inactivity is responsible for 17% of premature deaths in the UK every year and shortens a person’s lifespan by three to five years. Other hon. Members have commented on similar studies. The Government-sponsored paper “Moving More, Living More” states that the cost associated with inactivity in the UK is some £20 billion a year.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. I am sure he will recall that when we were out in the peak district a few weeks ago, we had a number of discussions about this. It struck me that although efforts are being made around Whitehall, we need to make sure that Departments work better together—particularly the Department of Health, the Department for Education and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport—so that we can encourage people, for health reasons and for enjoyment, to get out and take part in outdoor activities.

The hon. Gentleman makes a strong point. I will come on to the fact that I think we need a more cross-departmental approach. That is heading our way, but there is clearly more that has to be done. Just before I move off health, it is worth mentioning some constructive initiatives—I am sure that similar things are happening in each of our constituencies—such as “Walking for Health”, an initiative by the Ramblers and Macmillan. Such initiatives show that real health and mental health benefits come from that very low-cost outdoor recreation.

I am not simply talking about saving money on the health budget. Outdoor recreation makes money as well, and we have to give that proper focus. A workforce that is physically healthy and mentally well is more productive than one that is not, and the outdoor economy has real direct and indirect benefits. In the UK, world-leading British manufacturers of outdoor gear, such as Berghaus, Barbour and Brompton, are helping people to be active in areas from the highest mountain to the flattest cityscapes. In Macclesfield, we have the UK corporate offices of Mammut and Mountain Equipment.

The tourism sector, which has been referred to, benefits hugely from outdoor recreation. In fact, a great report produced recently by the Sport and Recreation Alliance, “Reconomics”, which I commend to the House, shows that the visitor spend associated with outdoor recreation is an annual £21 billion. That is a huge contributor to the visitor economy and rural diversification. We are always keen to encourage more visitors to the country and to our constituencies. We are fortunate in Macclesfield to have the “walkers are welcome” initiative in Disley and Bollington, which both make a big contribution.

We have come a long way in the past three years, as many of us have worked to make the case for outdoor recreation. A year or so ago, we came forward with six key proposals for Government action, and a broad coalition of support was brought together. I know that the word “coalition” is not necessarily the most popular these days, but we have achieved that in the outdoor space. The British Mountaineering Council, which has given huge amounts of support, the Outdoor Industry Association, the Ramblers, Living Streets, the Youth Hostels Association—YHA—the Campaign for National Parks and the National Trust have all come together in recognition of the importance of the sector.

One of the things that we should support is the money side. My hon. Friend has put it quite clearly: we have to get people to take part. My constituency covers Exmoor, and one of the biggest problems that we find with getting people to enjoy Exmoor and the Quantocks is that we have not got the money in the system to enable us to invest in bikes, canoes, yachts or whatever it may be. Perhaps I could add to my hon. Friend’s thoughts the need to ask the Government to come up with some sort of funding that we can ring-fence for areas like his, which are some of the most beautiful parts of Britain.

My hon. Friend represents a really beautiful part of the world, and I understand the point that he makes. It is important to make sure that funding is allocated, and the local enterprise partnerships have an important role to play in that dimension. There is also more that we can do to try to encourage more tourism outside London to the areas that many of us represent.

There has been a lot of progress. I know that the Minister, before her well-deserved promotion, played an important part in making progress on this agenda. If she does not mind, I have four small asks. Will she assure colleagues that outdoor recreation will receive the utmost consideration by her Department as she examines the contributions to the sports strategy? Will she pledge that outdoor recreation will be fully integrated in the final strategy, so that it is seen not as an add-on but as an integral part? This might require the Prime Minister’s approval, but could she change her job title to the Minister for Sport, Tourism and the Outdoors? It has a good ring to it, and we would love to see that. Finally, as the hon. Member for Halton (Derek Twigg) has said, the approach that we take to implement the strategy must be cross-departmental, and it is critical that we see such progress being made. I am sure that the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) will reinforce this point, but Northern Ireland, one of the devolved nations, has an outdoor recreation plan, which came into place in 2013, in which 117 organisations were involved.

DCMS does an important job in cross-departmental tourism initiatives to make sure that mechanisms are in place. I simply ask the Minister to ensure that she works closely with the other excellent Ministers who have a keen interest in, and enthusiasm for, the matter, such as the Under-Secretary of State for Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Jane Ellison), and the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart). The Department of Health has a keen interest in improving public health. In DEFRA, there is Natural England, the Forestry Commission, National Parks UK and others that want to drive the agenda forward. I hope that DCLG will be able to encourage more local authorities to provide funding not only in Exmoor but across all our natural areas that would benefit from such expenditure and investment.

We should not forget that the Infrastructure Act 2015 legally bound the Department for Transport to make walking and cycling integral parts of our infrastructure strategy. Many of the pieces are coming into place to make this happen. The conversation and narrative about the northern powerhouse show that there may be more we can do in a devolved setting as well. Sheffield has been promoting itself as “the outdoor city” and recently hosted the European outdoor summit, which was a huge success, with the support of the Outdoor Industry Association. There is much that many of us could learn from the work that Sheffield is doing in that space.

I am conscious that many Members want to speak in this important debate so let me conclude by saying that I agree with the Minister and her Department, but we now need a fundamental shift in social attitudes to being active so that it is more usual to take part and be physically active than to not participate. We need to interpret sport in the widest sense of outdoor active participation and recreation. It will help to improve physical and mental health and wellbeing, and productivity gains, and, as Reconomics shows, will add a huge amount to our rural economies.

Much has happened in the past year since our previous debate. The summit is in sight, and with the right consideration, co-operation and championing, there is an opportunity for us to make the final push to reach that summit and put outdoor recreation in its rightful place at the pinnacle of the Department’s new strategy for sport. Now is the time to seize the moment to get more people active and outdoors in the clean, fresh air that most of us here enjoy, and to enjoy the excellent hospitality and spectacular scenery of our green and pleasant gym.

Order. Before I call the next speaker, it is worth noting that quite a number of people are trying to catch my eye. While there are no formal limits on times, it would be helpful to colleagues if people would restrict their remarks to about five or six minutes.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Macclesfield (David Rutley) on securing the debate and on the way that he put across the case, which he did so effectively that I will attempt not to repeat anything he said. He put his case in very clear terms. His work, particularly in the previous Parliament and into this one, has been instrumental in moving the agenda on, and I am certain that will continue over the remainder of this Parliament. It is partly a tribute to his lead that so many Members from across the House are here. It is quite a remarkable turnout, and one that ought to resonate. I hope that the Minister will tell colleagues in other Departments what a significant turnout we have had from across the House.

On the health costs, a survey was commissioned by a rather excellent charity called StreetGames, which I know very well. It commissioned the Centre for Economics and Business Research to assess the potential cost of physical inactivity among the current generation of 11 to 25-year-olds. The economic conclusion was that

“when reductions in healthcare costs and the increase in quality-adjusted life years were considered, the levels of physical inactivity among the demographic concerned will cost the state £53.3 billion over their lifetimes in today’s prices.”

There are many more surveys including statistics, but the statistics correlate—£53.3 billion.

The World Health Organisation states that physical inactivity is

“the fourth leading risk factor for global mortality”

and that physical inactivity is the main cause of nearly a quarter of breast and colon cancer cases, more than a quarter of type 2 diabetes cases and about a third of the coronary heart disease burden. Health Impact of Physical Inactivity estimates that physical inactivity of those aged 40 to 79 in England leads to 37,000 premature deaths every single year. Those are startling figures.

The hon. Gentleman is making many important points. I particularly take his point about longevity. Another issue is whether someone who stays active stays in work longer and pays taxes for longer. In the long run, that makes a massive difference not only to their individual wellbeing, but to the whole country and economy.

The hon. Gentleman, who is new to the House, makes an excellent point and reinforces the cost to industry, families and individuals and the burden on taxpayers—money that could be better spent elsewhere. Investment in sport and the great outdoors is an investment for society.

The hon. Gentleman mentions sport. Does he agree that we need to support increasing outdoor recreation as part of sport and also as part of people’s daily routine, particularly through commuting—walking and cycling—to maximise the benefits to physical and mental health?

I certainly agree with the hon. Gentleman. Part of the case that we have been making in recent years—the Minister is very familiar with it—is that everything that relates to the great outdoors fits within the definitions of sport. Indeed, if one takes the British Mountaineering Council, one sees that there are no spectators; there are only participants, of every age. Sometimes there are people of extraordinary ages—not extraordinary ages for doing something, but people in their 80s and 90s are achieving feats that may be more difficult for some of us here today. It is a lifetime activity, providing mental and physical health benefits, and reduced burdens on the NHS.

Evidence from the University of Reading shows that if people buy a newspaper, they will live longer. Why will they live longer? Because some of the people who buy newspapers on a daily basis walk to buy them and walk home. By doing that, if people buy The Sun, the Daily Mirror, the Daily Mail or even The Daily Telegraph, they will live longer. I do hope the journalists are listening: that ought to be their banner headlines, because it is true. A bit of activity on a daily basis assists, which is the beauty of the great outdoors.

Getting outdoors is also about broadening people’s horizons. A third of the young people I surveyed in schools in my constituency go on holiday abroad every year. A third go to the seaside—Skegness, Mablethorpe and so on—and a third go nowhere. It is not just about the health benefits of physical activity, but about how people live and their opportunities in life.

I have some asks of the Minister. We have city regions—the hon. Member for Macclesfield mentioned the city of Sheffield, which soon could be the Sheffield city region. Who knows? Bassetlaw may be part of it. Powers and budgets for sport ought to be devolved to those city regions because that would make a significant impact in moving things on. There should be a proper debate across Government about all year 6 pupils, who are in their final year of primary school, having a residential week in the great outdoors. The Youth Hostels Association—I chair the all-party parliamentary group on youth hostelling—would provide the most perfect accommodation and benefits for those young people, showing them what is possible. It ought to be part of the offer to our young people. I encourage all Members present to participate in the events of the all-party parliamentary group on mountaineering, to get more physically active themselves, and to get into those debates. I appeal to the Minister to ensure, cross-departmentally, that outdoor recreation is at the heart of things. It is an investment for the future. She will save other Departments huge amounts of money.

It is a pleasure to take part in this debate. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (David Rutley) for securing an important and, for me, timely debate. It is important, just sporadically, to practise what we preach. Last weekend, I could be found on the mean streets of Portsmouth with my hon. Friends the Members for Fareham (Suella Fernandes) and for Eastleigh (Mims Davies), running the Great South Run. I think all of us, perhaps, are beyond 40, so we are in the age group that the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) mentioned as being most at risk of inactivity.

I vividly remember standing in Mottisfont abbey, a magnificent National Trust property in the heart of Hampshire, some 10 years ago, when I was a local authority lead member for leisure, and listening to the head of our local health authority talking about the health benefits of the great outdoors in our part of the county. She said that she wished she could bottle it and provide those benefits to patients who appeared at doctors’ surgeries across Hampshire suffering from depression or stress. We all know that exercise is one of the best remedies for those suffering from a mental health condition. Of course, we cannot bottle it, but I pay tribute to the National Trust, which is the owner of not only great stately homes but massive tracts of countryside such as can be found in the New Forest, a very small corner of which is in my constituency.

Other national parks have been mentioned, so it is important that the New Forest is also discussed in this debate. The New Forest is a fantastic location for all sorts of outdoor activities. Of course, it is one of our most crowded national parks, with seven visitors per square kilometre—I gather that it is the most densely visited national park in the country. The New Forest attracts 13.5 million people each year, and they do not predominantly come for formal recreational activity; they come for informal activities such as dog walking or kite flying. Families are visiting with their children and having picnics.

The New Forest also has some of the slightly competing elements of outdoor recreation: horse riders, trail riders and cyclists. I cannot pretend that those relationships are always easy and happy, but it is an enormous space. We have to ensure that there are opportunities for different recreational activities to happen not necessarily alongside each other, but within the same realm.

Other hon. Members have mentioned their APPG interests. As chairman of the all-party group for the horse, I might be expected to focus several of my remarks on equestrianism. The British Equestrian Trade Association highlights that the economic value to this country of the equestrian industry is some £4.3 billion a year, which is a massive sum. My hon. Friend the Minister has recently made her inaugural visit to the Horse of the Year Show, for which I commend her. I hope she enjoyed it but, much more than that, I hope we will see her at more equestrian events across the country to witness at first hand some of the brilliant sportsmen and women—of course, men and women compete on an absolutely level playing field. We have the reigning Olympic gold medallists in show jumping and dressage; our eventers only secured a silver—I use the word “only” advisedly.

It is not just about competition: some 96% of people who ride do so simply for pleasure. I declare another interest because I am one of those people, although I manage to ride barely once a month nowadays. The freedom and opportunity to enjoy riding, particularly off road, is an important part of people’s wellbeing.

I am pleased that the British Equestrian Trade Association is being pushed. I hope the hon. Lady will also push disabled riding and donkey sanctuaries—that might not be quite her world of riding. I was in the cavalry a long time ago, so I know that horses are important. We should highlight the fact that riding teaches children the discipline of looking after animals and challenging their fears.

The hon. Gentleman is right that looking after and taking responsibility for an animal is crucial in teaching our young people skills that are not readily available in the classroom.

I thank my constituent Rob Powell, who contacted me this morning to point out the economic benefit of trail riding on motorbikes, not horses. I thought to myself, “How on earth could this be part of promoting physical wellbeing?” He educated me by explaining that motorcyclists who ride off road have lower blood pressure, lower levels of cholesterol and are less likely to suffer from heart disease if they ride their motorbike twice a week off the tarmacked road.

It is important that we find spaces that are available and accessible for different types of activity. We are lucky in Hampshire to have the country’s second highest number of green lanes available to the public, behind only Wiltshire, but it is the Government’s role to ensure that we have good networks available to ramblers, cyclists, horse riders, motorcyclists and all types of outdoor activity.

As president of the East Lancashire ramblers association, I congratulate my hon. Friend on raising that point. Will she join me in congratulating the Ramblers on its “big pathwatch” initiative, which is keeping an eye on the 140,000 miles of rights of way, including bridleways—this is not just for ramblers—across England and Wales?

I thank my hon. Friend for that contribution. Like him, I have received emails from constituents highlighting the effectiveness of the “big pathwatch” campaign.

As might be expected, given my interests, I want to conclude by saying that we have to ensure that activity is accessible to all and is available to both genders. I hope that the Minister will commend the This Girl Can campaign, which has been reinforced across Hampshire. Our sports partnership in Hampshire and on the Isle of Wight has done a great deal to promote keeping young girls active once they leave school. The biggest drop-off in female physical activity occurs when they leave school and go to college, which is when most girls hang up their trainers and stop taking part in the team sports they took part in at school. It is imperative that we find pathways into sport for young girls. I commend the work of the This Girl Can campaign, which has made it less of a stigma to get hot, sweaty and physically active. We have to keep pushing that agenda.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Macclesfield (David Rutley) on securing this debate. I think of him as a hillwalking friend, and I am pleased to be part of the all-party group. I can go one better than him, because I have shared a tent with the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) at 10,000 feet. I also shared a mountain hut with him and the Minister at about 15,000 feet. We may not necessarily wish to repeat those experiences, but they were incredibly valuable none the less.

On Saturday I was on the top of Skiddaw above Keswick at 3,000 feet. I have been going there with a group of friends for 25 years—it was our silver jubilee Keswick. Some of those friendships have developed as a result of that love of hillwalking. Those trips are very special. We spend money when we are there. We have meals in the local fish and chip shop or the local curry house. We go to cafés and have the necessary many cups of tea and coffee. Hillwalkers are hungry people, and we even pop into one or two of the local pubs, which might surprise colleagues. On Sunday afternoon I was delighted to have a pint with Alan Hinkes OBE, the only Briton to have conquered all of the world’s tallest mountains. He is a big friend of the all-party group.

My friends and I spent significant amounts of money, which is important to many areas of all the nations of the United Kingdom. Such spending is important to my constituency, which borders North Yorkshire. We have beautiful countryside in Leeds North West. We have the medieval market town of Otley, which is on the edge of the Nidderdale area of outstanding natural beauty. I say gently to the hon. Member for Macclesfield that the Peak district is wonderful, and part of it is in Yorkshire. Indeed, Yorkshire has two complete national parks and part of a third. When the wonderful expansion of the Lake district and Yorkshire dales happens, Yorkshire will contain parts of four national parks and will be the only county with anywhere near so many. Hillwalking is hugely important to the Yorkshire economy.

I am proud of the work of the Carnegie Great Outdoors faculty of Leeds Beckett University in my constituency. The faculty led with great distinction and patience the expedition on which the hon. Member for Bassetlaw, the Minister and I travelled. The expedition supported the excellent Royal British Legion’s Battle Back centre, a wonderful national facility that works to rehabilitate our servicemen and women who have been injured in conflict. We were all delighted to support that wonderful charity by going out in the conditions we did. It is hard to overestimate the social values, the sense of wellbeing and the social cohesion that people can get from such an experience. Our expedition was led with great distinction by the wonderful Dave Bunting MBE.

The debate is about the economic contribution of outdoor recreation, and Carnegie Great Outdoors, which offers days in the outdoors, makes a significant contribution to the Leeds and Yorkshire economy. There has been a huge growth in hillwalking and climbing, which is very welcome, but we want to see even more. I was delighted when the BMC asked me to do a Sport England fellowship and to become its hillwalking sports fellowship ambassador. I am still working with the BMC on that, and I am pleased to walk with its members; indeed, we did a wonderful walk in the Yorkshire dales to Simon’s Seat.

Again, that is an example of the economic contribution made by outdoor recreation, because we had to travel there and we spent money there. People have said, “Wasn’t it wonderful?” and they want to go back. The walk was part of the two-week Otley walking festival, which brings people from all around the country. The figures show that 210,000 people aged 14 and upwards now go walking once a month, while 84,000 people go once a week, but we can do more. The more we can encourage people to get out, despite their busy schedules, the better, and we have heard about the economic and other benefits.

I have a few asks of the Minister. First, I think the best title for her would be “Sport and Recreation Minister”, which would cover the outdoors and other forms of recreation, and I would ask for that title to be seriously considered. Secondly, will she convene a meeting between the DCMS and DEFRA, because those two Departments need to be absolutely locked together in bringing forward a strategy? Thirdly, I was pleased to support the cycling investment strategy and the Infrastructure Act 2015, but will the Minister accept that infrastructure should also extend to outdoor access and maintenance, which are important? Finally, will she liaise with Ofsted, which should include outdoor and adventurous activity when it looks at what schools are doing? I hope the Minister will take those things away.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (David Rutley) on securing this important debate. I should declare a new interest, because I was recently appointed the chair of the all-party group for the UK events industry. This is a hugely important debate. I say that not only in my capacity as the chair of the all-party group, but as the MP for Wells. I have the pleasure of having the Mendip hills, the Somerset coast and the Somerset levels in my constituency.

There is enormous economic benefit to be had from outdoor recreation, and there are enormous health and wellbeing benefits as well. As a former Army officer who organised plenty of adventurous training for his troops, I would add that there are also values that come from outdoor recreation, which we should note in this debate: confidence, independence and a respect for nature and the environment.

The tourism industry in Somerset is worth £1.3 billion per annum. Some £623 million of that is made from day-trippers. Some come for the food and drink, some for the shopping and some for the attractions. Many of those are outdoors, such as Cheddar gorge and Wookey Hole. Many people come for the hills, the coast, the waterways and the caves. That is a hugely important part of our economy, and it is important that the Government support it.

The hon. Member for Leeds North West (Greg Mulholland) said that nearly a quarter of a million people go hillwalking and climbing every month. That is worth £2.3 billion a year to the UK economy. I am therefore pleased to support the Walkers are Welcome campaign in Cheddar, and another that is getting under way in Burnham-on-Sea. Those will be really important initiatives as we seek locally not only to access some of the £2.3 billion walking and climbing economy, but to grow it by opening those activities up to new participants.

I make a plea to the Minister to push on with the investment in the south-west coat path. From the numbers I have seen, I understand that it might cost barely £500,000 a year to maintain, but that it would generate £435 million of economic activity. Those are encouraging statistics, which I hope the Minister recognises.

There are more activities beyond climbing and walking, all of which are worthy of mention. There are active cycling and sporting activities communities in my constituency and across Somerset. There is mountain biking, caving, sailing, pony trekking, fishing, canoeing and all sorts of other things besides. All those activities are relatively inexpensive for the Government or local authorities to support. Invariably the equipment is owned by individuals, clubs or businesses, but the Government and local government can play a role in meeting the small cost of marking routes, helping to market those activities and providing support, for example through local authorities’ various economic development and tourism departments, so that we recognise the outdoor recreation offering and promote it to the best of our abilities. If there is a way of incentivising businesses and clubs to commercialise further what they do, so that they can grow those industries, all the better.

When individuals or families come to Somerset to cycle, walk, climb or cave, that is great—that is two, three or four people who will buy a meal and perhaps stay overnight. However, the events industry is hugely important. When the Ten Tors is taking place on Dartmoor, every bed and breakfast and hotel is full; when the Three Peaks is going on, there is business across Wales, the Lake District and Scotland. Regularly, in my part of Somerset, there are amateur cycling sportives, which bring hundreds of cyclists from across the south-west to thrash themselves up Cheddar gorge—I know not why, but they do, and they spend money once they have finished. Such events matter enormously to communities and economies across the country, and I am keen to be an advocate for all they offer in my role as the chair of the all-party group.

It is important to mention the vital role played by search and rescue organisations, many of which are voluntary. In my constituency, the members of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, the Burnham area rescue boat, the coastguard, the cave rescue and the Mendip mountain search and rescue teams all make a commitment to keeping people safe without being paid, and they turn up at all hours of the day and night, in all weathers and in all terrains to do so. I admire them greatly for all that they do, and it is important, as we speak about the value of outdoor recreation to our economy, that we recognise that those people underpin others’ ability to pursue outdoor sports.

I commend to the Minister—I am sure she has already seen it—the “Reconomics” report, which is an excellent study of what outdoor recreation could mean for our economy. Outdoor recreation is hugely important financially and for our public health. As I said earlier, it is also about giving people values—independence, confidence and a respect for nature and the countryside. This is a pan-Government issue, and it would be great to see DEFRA working with the Minister to make sure that our AONBs, national parks and other areas of countryside and coast are properly resourced to meet the needs of the outdoor recreation industry. The bottom line is that we will get back far more than we spend, so this debate is hugely important, and I hope it means the Government will invest in this vital industry.

I, too, thank the hon. Member for Macclesfield (David Rutley) for securing this debate, which is of great significance to my constituency and to the wider leisure economy of Wales and Britain.

I would like to invite the Minister and Members to visit Blaenau Ffestiniog if opportunities allow—perhaps next year, during “Wales 2016: Year of Adventure”. In Blaenau, a combination of home-grown initiatives and far-sighted investors has excelled in adapting the town’s extraordinary backdrop of former slate quarries into a high-adrenaline adventure landscape, complete with downhill biking trails, zip wires and trampolines spanning cathedral-like caverns—I hope Members will forgive me, because caverns are not technically outdoors.

Wales has first-class mountain biking facilities—not only those managed so ably by Antur Stiniog, but also Coed y Brenin and the Mawddach trail, also in my constituency. There are many others throughout the nation. The longest continuous path along a nation’s coastline, the 870 mile-long Wales coastal path, has played a major role in extending the valuable visitor season beyond the traditional summer months. Nefyn golf course, like many of Wales’s outstanding courses, is located on the coast, and plays its part in the golf economy, which contributes almost £38 million to Wales.

On a different tack, I want to take the opportunity to assess the value of the equine industry, for personal reasons. Sometimes I wonder whether it is the fact that it is an activity with a strong gender bias—almost 75% of riders are women and girls—that means that that leisure pursuit perhaps does not get its proper appreciation. I understand from the same report that the hon. Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes) mentioned earlier that average spending on a horse comes to £3,600 a year; but I do not want my husband to know.

I can assure the hon. Lady that I have been trying to keep that figure from my father all my life.


Wales is ideally placed as a location to promote horse riding. Our native breeds of Welsh cobs and ponies are in great demand as show and riding horses across the world. We have excellent off-road opportunities, and surely we can safely accommodate Lycra-clad mountain bikers and more sedately dressed horse riders in the forests and mountains of Wales, alongside, of course, hillwalkers and mountaineers.

None the less, the competitive potential of Wales is undermined by the requirement to levy 20% VAT on attractions and hospitality. Reducing VAT to 5%, which is a long-standing Plaid Cymru policy, would give us a more level playing field compared with France, Ireland and beyond. Attractions and hospitality directly contribute 20% to the local economy in Dwyfor Meirionnydd and employ 4,400 people. My constituency would get an economic boost of more than £6 million from such a change, and the value to Wales as a whole has been estimated by campaigners at £167 million. That would be of benefit to young people, who are particularly likely to be employed in the sector, and it might prove an incentive to employers to pay above the minimum allowed by law.

I want to point out how great a role the public sector plays in promoting the leisure economy in Wales, and, given the non-statutory nature of those services, how vulnerable they are at a time of continuing public cuts. The prospect of a European referendum that might result in the UK leaving Europe would be disastrous to the Welsh economy as a whole, and also to initiatives such as Antur Stiniog, Plas Heli in Pwllheli and many others. Those employment-generating ventures would simply not exist without regional development funding.

Finally, I ask the Minister to consider how best to encourage overseas visitors, and perhaps home visitors too, to venture beyond the capital cities of England and Scotland. Search engines need to be able to direct potential visitors to outdoor recreation activities, events and attractions in locations across the United Kingdom, and thus encourage people to explore and spread economic value to areas where its impact is proportionately far more significant. The adventure, excitement and scenery of Blaenau Ffestiniog need to be accessible to people who do not—yet—know how to spell the name of the town.

I draw the attention of the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, particularly the item about outdoor learning, which has been a lifelong professional as well as personal interest of mine.

If nothing else, the debate secured by my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (David Rutley) has shown that although we are of course delighted to have the Sports Minister here, her place could easily have been filled by a Minister from the Department of Health, the Department for Education or the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. The Chancellor, indeed, could have attended, because most of what has been said this afternoon has shown that, as the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) put it, the issue is to do with investment that brings a healthy return, which the Treasury perhaps even more than any other Department should take seriously.

I want to make some observations, rather than raising concerns, about two areas. First, much as I welcome, admire and champion the adventurous theme of some of the speeches, and the emphasis on fit, active people, I think that the challenge for the Minister is to ensure that outdoor recreation and access to the outdoors is accessible to everyone—an 80-year old as well as an eight-year-old, a wealthy person as well as someone on lower wages, and families as well as individual mountaineers such as those we have heard about. That is a big challenge. There is compelling evidence that everyone gets some health benefits from access to the outdoors. Let us make sure that the Government see it not just as something for the fit and healthy, but something to which everyone can have access and that everyone can afford and benefit from.

Despite widespread support from the Government and non-governmental organisations, and colleagues on both sides of the House, and after all the years of agreement, it seems that there are still areas of barriers and conflict. The world of education is one that I have taken great interest in, and it seems that there is still some confusion, particularly in parts of the teaching profession, between outdoor education and outdoor entertainment. As long as teachers still believe that outdoor activity is a sort of alternative to education, we shall never make the progress we would like. It needs to be seen as just as important an element of a young person’s education and upbringing as work in a classroom or laboratory.

Perhaps the Minister can help us with the fear—sometimes justified, and sometimes not—of the consequences of litigation if something goes wrong when children are taken on some kind of outdoor experience. There is the refrain of “It’s health and safety; it gets in the way, causes added hassle and adds cost to the trip,” but sometimes it is not health and safety that is the problem but the litigation element, which may be a consequence of health and safety restrictions or of breaches, inadvertent or otherwise. The Government can help in those areas, and I hope that the Minister will help us as part of the pan-departmental approach.

The result of what I have described is the charitable sector and private enterprise soldiering on, doing fantastic work in the outdoor recreational arena, sometimes despite rather than because of Government. Many hon. Members have quoted examples from their experience, and in my part of the world we have a competition called Ironman Wales. It happens in my constituency and involves 43 countries. There are 2,000 athletes and 40,000 spectators. It does not happen only on one weekend a year in the county, because there is training throughout the year. It has spawned an enormous triathlon-based industry in west Wales, reaching way beyond the people in Lycra whom we all slightly aspire to look like but are probably never likely to. I restrict myself to the other private venture fitness effort in west Wales—actually, it happens across the UK—called parkrun. Almost everyone can do 5 km on a Saturday morning followed by a croissant and a cup of coffee. I recommend everyone to experience that, as I do, every weekend. The point is that the economic benefit from those events extends way beyond the weekend or day when they happen. It has a 365-day life that brings prosperity and jobs to an area.

In the area of education there are numerous charities involved. We all know which ones they are, but in my part of the world organisations such as the Field Studies Council now have compelling evidence that if children struggle to perform to their maximum capability in traditional classroom scenarios, taking them out of the classroom and educating them in a different, novel, adventurous and intuitive way not only brings them the pleasures of the great outdoors, and brings alive the world of nature that is often denied to them, but has positive benefits for the rest of their development. When they go back into the classroom they find that because they excelled outside, they begin to excel inside. It should not be left to the charitable sector to champion that approach, yet often that is what seems to happen. My plea to the Minister is to grip the Secretary of State for Education and say, “This isn’t just a pleasurable add-on; it is an essential investment that the Government can make, for which there are huge returns.”

Anyone who knows me will know that I am of course also going to ask for recognition of the country sports community’s enormous work and its value to the nation. Angling, which so far has not had a mention, is the biggest participation sport in the UK. I think that there are more than 100,000 jobs, or full-time equivalents, in the industry, and that is not to be sniffed at. It is not a question of what we can afford to do; it is more a question of highlighting the things that we cannot afford not to do.

First, I thank the hon. Member for Macclesfield (David Rutley) for securing this debate. I am grateful for the opportunity to participate in it.

The great outdoors is a great British tradition, and spending quality time outdoors has shaped us in many ways. Today’s debate is timely as the Department for Culture, Media and Sport has just concluded its consultation on a new strategy for sport, and the Government’s spending review is currently under way. We are all aware of the great opportunities of outdoors recreation from a physical point of view, but there are also economic benefits. As the Minister knows, I am one of those who enjoy country sports; the hon. Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart), who spoke before me, does too. I do not hunt or fish; shooting is my sport and the one that I want to speak about today.

However, I also want to quote Dr John O’Kelly, chairman of the Royal College of General Practitioners Northern Ireland and an active GP. He has said:

“GPs are definitely seeing growing numbers of both children and adults who are overweight and obese. It is just passing on to another generation. We are already seeing a significant increase in Type 2 diabetes and expect that to increase. It also has huge ramifications on the health budget.”

We are ever conscious of that situation; the cost of dealing with obesity in Northern Ireland is £370 million a year. With that in mind, we must encourage many people, young and old, to participate in physical activity, in order to address the growth in type 2 diabetes and obesity.

I will speak very briefly about country sports, to which the hon. Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire referred. I have engaged in country sports since I was about 18, or perhaps even younger. Shooting is a sport that gives me the chance to enjoy the country air, and to chase up pheasants; usually, my dog thinks it can catch them before I can shoot them, but that is just one of those things.

What I see in country sports is a great opportunity. I know that the Minister and I have different opinions about country sports—we both know that—but I ask her to consider the great benefits of country sports. Some 600,000 people in the UK participate in shooting sports; 74,000 jobs are created as a result; and in Northern Ireland 60,000 people are involved in country sports, with 12,000 people involved in angling and hunting. There are benefits for the countryside, with 3.9 million days of conservation and 16,000 jobs created as a result of country sports, which is worth £250 million to the economy. Those are the facts and figures about country sports, such is their appeal.

The benefits of country sports are not always physical; they can also bring peace of mind. Angling is too slow for me, but that is just my opinion; it gives other people great recreational opportunities.

I just hope that the Members here in Westminster Hall today clearly recognise that outdoor activities are not only physical activities such as mountain climbing, walking, cycling, motorcycling, quad biking or whatever they may be, but country sports as well, and I hope they recognise the benefits that country sports bring to all of us. Hopefully the Minister can appreciate that, even if it is from a different point of view to my own, and understand that country sports are very important, even integral, to the countryside and who we are.

Thank you, Mr Gray, for calling me to speak. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (David Rutley) on securing this debate. He is a great man and he made some powerful points.

In Britain, we are blessed with some of the most beautiful countryside and outdoor spaces in the world. Perhaps because of that, outdoor recreation is the UK’s favourite pastime. Four out of five adults in England regularly visited the natural environment in 2013-14. I am a keen amateur sportsman, participating in parliamentary football games, rugby games, cricket matches and tug-of-war events; I think people will get the general idea. And if I can do it, anybody can do it; there is hope for us all.

I am also the chairman of the all-party group on running. I encourage all Members to apply for the London marathon; if anyone is interested, they can see me later. I am also the father of three children, and I am keen for them to learn the benefits of sport at an early age. My hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart) mentioned parkrun. My children and I are keen, enthusiastic parkrunners every Saturday morning. I am interested to know whether my hon. Friend turns up to parkruns for the croissant and coffee, or whether he actually participates in the run.

Worryingly, I have learned in this fantastic debate that it costs £3,500 to keep a horse. My daughter, who is eight, keeps on talking about “having a horse, daddy”, and now people can see why I have got her into parkruns, because running is far more cost-effective than horse riding in my view.

In particular, I am keen for more people of all ages, shapes and sizes to take up running, or even walking in the hills. There are initiatives such as the excellent parkrun, and there is also the NHS’s excellent “Couch to 5K” scheme. I encourage colleagues to consider that scheme for their constituents.

Recently, I abseiled; I was persuaded to do so by my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield, the great man. Although I am a keen sportsman, I had never thought about mountaineering before. If anyone knows Helsby hill, they will know that it is a famous rocky outcrop on the M56 that is in the shape of a face; some people say it is in the shape of a female face, but I am not sure. I did as I was told when abseiling, and I am most grateful to my hon. Friend and to the British Mountaineering Council, which is an amazing outfit that puts safety first. I had never abseiled down a mountain before, but I felt relatively safe, and my 12-year-old son took to abseiling like a fish to water. I know that is not a very good analogy, but he abseiled down the hill perfectly, unlike me.

The countryside is a real opportunity for the local enterprise partnerships. I think the countryside’s power of attraction is underestimated; it could be important for our constituencies and for the regional growth fund areas. I do not think that people pay enough attention to the countryside’s potential to attract tourists from outside the local area.

Regular outdoor exercise is proven to provide both social and personal benefits, as well as to improve physical and mental health and wellbeing. The World Health Organisation and all four chief medical officers in the UK rate physical inactivity as the fourth largest risk factor for chronic diseases. Outdoor recreation can make a significant contribution to tackling the £10 billion cost of physical inactivity, crucially saving our NHS money, a point that was very well made by the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann). Outdoor recreation also drives the visitor economy, with an estimated £27 billion spent on visits to the great outdoors, providing vital investment in what are often our most rural communities.

Thank you for calling me to speak, Mr Gray. It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (David Rutley) on securing this debate.

I think it is a given that there is an excellent positive impact from outdoor recreation; I guess the question is how we can boost that economic impact. So I will concentrate on a theme that has come through in all the speeches that we have heard today, which is the cross-departmental work that is going on and which probably needs to be augmented in the future.

Many different Government Departments have an impact on how people can participate in outdoor recreation. There is the Department for Transport; we have heard about its cycling and walking infrastructure strategy. There is also the long-term preservation of our nation’s paths, trails, waterways, country parks and coastlines, which involves the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. We have also heard about the national park extensions. DEFRA really should be given a key remit to provide more co-ordination of the Environment Agency, Natural England and the Forestry Commission, to see what they can do to improve access to and participation in outdoor recreation.

There is also the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, because we benefit massively from tourism. The “Reconomics” report by the Sport and Recreation Alliance, which many hon. Members have referred, mentions “staycations”. Just one element of “staycations” struck my eye—overnight trips involving outdoor recreation by domestic visitors were worth more than £10 billion to the UK economy in 2013. That is quite an astonishing figure. We should be broadcasting more to the world about the wonders of Great Britain and any of the countries within it, because people can go to any part of Great Britain and find some fantastic things to do outdoors.

The Department for Communities and Local Government has a vital role in planning, conserving the existing outdoor environment that is used for physical activity and ensuring that places for such activity exist in any new-build environment, be they roads, estates or town developments.

Education is also important. Schools play a vital role in introducing people to new pursuits, and we need to encourage teachers to deliver a range of activities both inside and outside the curriculum, including learning outdoors. Hopefully we can allow school facilities to be available for community use, too, which is a problem that many academy trusts are struggling with at the moment. Ofsted was mentioned earlier, and it should recognise and encourage good practice in that field.

However, the most important Department in this regard is the Department of Health. My hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield mentioned many projects, and the mental health benefits of activity are just phenomenal. It also helps to tackle our obesity and diabetes problems. We need to move to a more holistic view of what sport and outdoor activity can do, to make the Treasury realise that it will get much more bang for its buck by investing in this area.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I congratulate the hon. Member for Macclesfield (David Rutley) on securing the debate. When I first came to London in May, two things struck me: first, every flat I went to see seemed to offer the opportunity of a gym as part of the complex; and, secondly, London has a lot less greenery than Glasgow. Of course, Glasgow means “dear green place”, and it is well known for that.

Glasgow, of course, also benefits from its proximity to the outdoors. In my previous life I was a teacher, and it is great to hear so many Members talking about the benefits of the outdoors to young people. One of the best parts of the job for me was to get young people out experiencing what we have to offer in Scotland. I did that in two main ways. First, I was heavily involved in the Duke of Edinburgh’s award scheme, which built up their confidence and showed them lots of skills. It definitely developed their employability skills, which have not yet been mentioned. I believe that education should not be confined to the classroom, so I agree wholeheartedly with the comments that hon. Members have made about that.

One of the lessons that the young people learned was, “Don’t wear jeans.” Another was, “Don’t hang jeans on a fence in Scotland in April if you have got them wet, because you will have to chip them off the next morning.” As a teacher taking young people away, one of the great things was that unlike on other school trips, when they are in the great outdoors there is no danger of them not going to sleep at night.

The second thing I did with young people was skiing. Skiing in Scotland is quite an experience. It teaches great technical skills, especially when the snow cover is not as good as might be hoped. Avoiding rocks, grass and the occasional sheep certainly builds up one’s technical ability. When we have good snow cover, the five major resorts of Glenshee, Glencoe, the Lecht, Nevis Range and Cairngorm can definitely compete with the best in Europe.

Scotland is definitely waking up to its potential. I was in the highlands a couple of weeks ago. Unfortunately we do not have the technical facilities for me to share my holiday snaps, but I stayed in a hotel that I had stayed in before. It was October, and the hotel would normally be quiet, but it was bustling. The manager told me that the hotel was going to be busy right through into the new year, which was fantastic to hear. Scotland has so many activities to offer: walking, climbing, sailing, fishing, canoeing—I could go on. There are also the activities for adrenaline junkies, one or two of which I may have tried.

The economic benefits to Scotland are massive. Some 82% of Scotland’s adult population have done some activity in the outdoors in the past year. Tourism in Scotland is worth £12 billion to Scotland’s economy and offers employment for 211,000 people, but I echo the remarks of other Members that VAT reductions would make a massive difference. One of the big issues that we have in Scotland is land ownership. Half of Scotland is owned by fewer than 500 people, and many of them are overseas landlords. Some are responsible, but others are not working for the benefit of the community. In the mountains north of Ullapool, there have been recent reports of signs on footpaths saying, “Mountain closed”. That is a challenge to the ancient right to roam, and we need to be aware of that. The Land Reform (Scotland) Bill, which is currently going through the Scottish Parliament, is about ensuring that communities living on the land have a greater say in how it is used and allowing them to reap the economic benefits of their land. The relationship between people living in Scotland and the land of Scotland is of fundamental importance, and the economic benefits are crucial to us.

I ask two things of the Minister and everyone else here. First, come and visit the great outdoors in Scotland. It is spectacular and has so much to offer. Secondly, can we look at the transport links to Scotland to allow better accessibility? To conclude, when I was looking at flats in London, I thought, “I don’t need a gym; I’ve got Scotland as my gym.”

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I congratulate the hon. Member for Macclesfield (David Rutley) on securing this debate. The number of Members here and the good-natured tone of the debate are a tribute to his work and that of the all-party group, and I hope not to undermine that tone too much. Let me start by declaring a personal interest in outdoor recreation. Growing up in a city with the glorious town moor at its heart, in what is undoubtedly the most beautiful county—Northumberland—with the most stunning coasts and the glorious Cheviot hills, how could I not have that interest?

Despite the beauty of our countryside, which several Members emphasised, we have an inactivity crisis in the UK. My hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) gave many examples of the cost and consequences of the crisis. Together with the hon. Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes), he highlighted some of the many mental and physical benefits that come from activity. It can reduce risks of cardiovascular disease and diabetes, and address moderate mental depression and anxiety. That helps to reduce pressure on the NHS and helps people to live longer, independent and healthier lives, as well as reducing the cost of days lost to the economy. In addition, physical activity can improve academic performance and educational attainment, as the hon. Member for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan) illustrated, and that can help to tackle youth unemployment. We cannot overestimate the benefits that come from the great outdoors, and we must not lose this opportunity to consider the social and economic benefits that come from sport.

We should also remember the many major tournaments and sporting events that we have hosted in the UK. The rugby world cup, which reaches its climax this weekend, has been a huge triumph for the organisers. It is predicted to generate up to £2.2 billion of output into the economy and has supported 41,000 jobs across the country. Sadly, it has not been such a resounding success for the home nations on the pitch, but—moving quickly on—the benefits of the 2012 Olympic games continue to flow, with the visitors to the UK and the businesses attracted to locate and trade here. More recently, the Yorkshire Grand Départ of the Tour de France provided a £128 million boost to Yorkshire, Cambridgeshire, Essex and London. I hope that a Grand Départ in Northumberland will one day provide a similar boost there. All those events help to inspire people to take part in pursuits, as well as generating economic activity.

Outdoor recreation is the UK’s favourite pastime. Along with tourism, it is a key economic driver, particularly in rural areas, as emphasised by the hon. Members for Wells (James Heappey), for Leeds North West (Greg Mulholland) and for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts). Just this weekend, I set out on a red ramble with 23 of my Newcastle Labour comrades around Ovington in the Tyne valley, and afterwards we contributed something to the local economy in the local pub.

Whether it is walking, mountaineering, angling, canoeing, off-road cycling, horse riding or any of the other outdoor pursuits we have discussed this afternoon, we need to ensure that more people take advantage of the opportunities afforded to us. The hon. Members for Daventry (Chris Heaton-Harris) and for Weaver Vale (Graham Evans) emphasised that point. Expenditure in the sector supports landowners such as the National Trust, retailers and manufacturers, outdoor clothing and equipment shops, and outdoor centres. It supports many in different sectors and brings economic activity to areas where it is much needed.

It is essential that the Government deliver a strong, coherent and joined-up sport and physical activity strategy, which is what the Labour party and those working in the sector have been calling for. According to the most recent data from Sport England, there are around 400,000 fewer people taking part in sport once a week than there were in 2011-12, including 275,700 fewer women. That is of particular concern. Also, the percentage of those in the lowest income groups who participate has fallen from 29.3% to 25.7%. Those figures are an indictment of the Government’s approach to sport, from removal of ring-fenced funding for school sports two years prior to the games to the decision to water down protections for playing fields.

I encourage the Minister to look at Labour’s “More Sport for All” policy document. I am encouraged by the Government’s recent consultation on sport, and I hope it signals a change in intent that the Minister will elaborate on. I hope she will take this opportunity to confirm a timeline for implementing a new sports strategy and let us know what commitments she has received from colleagues in other Departments to deliver a joined-up sports strategy going forward, and I hope she will respond to the many questions raised by hon. Members in this debate. I look forward to her responses to the proposals and to hearing how the Government look to address them in the upcoming sports strategy.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (David Rutley) for securing this debate, and for the constructive and interesting contributions that he and others have made today.

As I look around the Chamber, I realise that I have spent far too much of my recreational time with many of my colleagues here today, often with little economic benefit. A couple of hon. Members have mentioned that I climbed volcanoes in Ecuador—in the place of my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield—with the hon. Members for Bassetlaw (John Mann) and for Leeds North West (Greg Mulholland). It has scarred me for life, in both a good and a bad way, but I can assure my hon. Friends that what goes on on tour stays on tour, including who was sharing which tents when.

This issue is clearly of great importance to our nation’s economy and to the health and wellbeing of our citizens. I will try to respond in my speech to all the points made, but given the time limitations, hon. Members must forgive me if I do not. If I miss anything, I am happy to write. As a courtesy to my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield, who secured this debate, I will pick up on his key asks first, which were running themes throughout other Members’ contributions.

The first theme was about how outdoor recreation should be an integral part of Government strategy. The sports strategy is forthcoming—it will be published before Christmas—and the consultation in the run-up to it had 10 chapters, only one of which had a foreword from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, so I can absolutely reassure hon. Members that this is an important issue for all Government Departments, so we need to work together if we are to deliver an effective sport and physical activity strategy going forward.

Another issue that was raised on numerous occasions was about adding “outdoor recreation” to my ministerial title. I am actually the Minister for Sport, Tourism and Heritage, as well as for gambling and a whole host of other things. When I was originally asked to put “heritage” in the title, the early suggestion was that I would be the Minister for Sport, Heritage and Tourism. That was quickly vetoed for obvious reasons. Having sport, heritage, outdoor recreation and tourism in the title would make me the Minister for SHORTs, and I am not sure that would go down too well either. However, I can reassure my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield that I will look to see if I can add outdoor recreation to my overall responsibilities that are listed formally. There is however one confusing aspect to this, which is that, as many other Members have mentioned, both DEFRA and the Department of Health have outdoor recreation in their portfolios, so it is important to discuss that with those Departments.

Today we have heard in particular about the economic value of the outdoors. We know that the outdoors market is vast and brings real opportunities to the local and national economy. It brings jobs and supports spending. This can be particularly important for the economy of rural communities. The Reconomics report highlighted the value of the sector to be some £1.43 billion in 2013. It also showed more than 26,000 people directly employed in outdoor education, recreation, development training and outdoor sport development. That is a huge number of people whose very livelihoods depend on the outdoors, and it is my job, and that of Ministers across Government, to ensure that they have the opportunity to work in the industry they love, which offers so much to our country—it is absolutely correct to think of this as an industry; it is a massive part of the future of the British economy.

Indeed, the outdoors is a vital part of our tourism offer—another area of responsibility that I have. According to data from VisitEngland, the estimated spend by visitors undertaking long walks, hiking or rambling is around £1.8 billion a year. The figure for cycling or mountain biking is £520 million a year, while for fishing it is £274 million and for sightseeing or exploring the coast or countryside it is more than £2.5 billion a year. These numbers are a huge boost to the economy, and we need to ensure that we make the most of this important opportunity. The Government are committed to supporting the sector, and I was particularly delighted to see the launch of the three-year Countryside is GREAT campaign earlier this year, designed to grow international visits, as well as the Adventure is GREAT campaign. Such campaigns are re-energising international perceptions of the British countryside and encouraging overseas visitors to explore different parts of Britain.

Our five-point plan for tourism is all about getting people out of London, exploring and experiencing our great outdoors beyond these city walls. It will help to support the wider recreation industry, including in Somerset, Hampshire, Lancashire, Nottinghamshire, the south-west, Wales, Northern Ireland, Cheshire, Northamptonshire, Scotland, Northumberland and, of course, my own county of Kent.

Although the economic impact of the outdoors is of course important, we should not forget that outdoor recreation has many wider benefits and plays a huge part in delivering a more active nation, which the hon. Member for Bassetlaw and others spoke passionately about. The outdoors provides millions of people with the opportunity to participate in a diverse and interesting range of activities. It improves their health and, most importantly, it is fun.

I work closely with the public health Minister—the Under-Secretary of State for Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Jane Ellison)—not least because sport and physical activity is undoubtedly valuable for everyone throughout life. As we grow older, getting active can be even more important, helping to tackle social exclusion and loneliness, as well as leading to better health and self-confidence. As my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes) said, no speech about the outdoors would be complete without mention of our inspirational national parks. They are a vital part of our heritage, not only providing beautiful landscapes for us all to enjoy, but helping to sustain many rural businesses.

National parks receive 90 million visitors every year, supporting 68,000 jobs and generating £4 billion for the economy. The Lake District and Yorkshire Dales national parks are to be extended next year, which can only be seen as good news. I want us to encourage those who would benefit most to get out and explore the great outdoors. It should be accessible to everyone, regardless of age, gender or ability. As my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart) said, accessibility is an essential part of delivering that.

I am pleased that Sport England has already invested significantly in outdoor recreation so that people can engage in a variety of activities. To respond specifically to two colleagues who mentioned horse-related activities, Sport England has agreed a £6 million investment in the British Equestrian Federation to attract and keep more riders.

A cross-departmental approach is essential, but a joined-up approach at all levels of Government and governance is also essential. Clinical commissioning groups, local authorities, recreation facilitators and local enterprise partnerships all need to work together.

We have had a fascinating debate today. The potential for outdoor recreation is massive. I will publish the sport and physical activity strategy for the country by the end of the year. It is a cross-departmental strategy. I am keen that it takes into account the issues raised today and the potential that outdoor recreation has to deliver a much wider agenda, including the educational, environmental and health aspects raised in this afternoon’s debate. We are at a unique moment in time, and it is important that all Departments join together to recognise the importance of sport and physical activity to everyone.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the economic value of outdoor recreation.

Living Wage (Farmers)

[Andrew Rosindell in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the effect of the living wage on farmers.

Last week, on 21 October, it was apple day, a day on which we could celebrate the wealth and variety of apples available in the United Kingdom. I am a proud man of Kent, a county that produces a high percentage of the fruit grown in Britain, including 60% of its apples. I fear, however, that Kent’s status as the garden of England might be under threat from a Government policy with which, ironically, I agree: the introduction of the national living wage.

I called for this debate so that I could set out some of the worries of farmers in Kent, particularly those who grow soft fruit, top fruit and stone fruit, but I will begin by making a couple of things clear. First, agriculture and horticulture are not low-wage industries, as is often suggested. Indeed, only a very small proportion of farm workers earn at the level of the national minimum wage.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for bringing this important issue before the House. I declare an interest as a member of the Ulster Farmers’ Union, which shares my concern that the living wage has the potential to put farmers off employing those under 25 who do not have experience, which will have a knock-on effect. Does the hon. Gentleman feel that we should take that issue on board as well?

Yes, and I will come on to discuss how we might resolve that later in my speech.

The second thing I want to emphasise is that, like me, farmers in my constituency and beyond support the principle of a living wage. Nevertheless, they are concerned that, because of a number of challenges unique to their industry, they will be forced out of business, not by the national living wage directly, but because they will be unable to compete with cheap imports from countries where farmers will not have to pay their workers as much as their British counterparts.

I thank my hon. Friend from Kent for calling for this debate and setting out the case very well. Fruit farmers in my constituency are also worried about the effect of the living wage, although they also very much support it and often pay experienced workers well above it. They are worried that it will increase their labour costs by perhaps 11%, when they make margins of only around 1% or 2%. I feel strongly on their behalf that the Government must look at mitigating the impact if we want to maintain a successful British fruit industry.

I am pleased that my hon. Friend and fellow Kent MP has raised that important issue, because I will be dealing with it later in my speech.

Another problem faced by farmers is foreign competition, which has made things worse. Their main customers are supermarket chains that are notoriously hard-nosed when it comes to price negotiations: they always look for the cheapest suppliers, whether or not they come from this country. It is inconceivable that supermarkets will, without protest, allow farmers to pass on the increased labour costs they will be forced to pay. The supermarkets will simply buy cheaper, imported produce.

Many of the workers employed by farmers are seasonal. Traditionally they were students who, because they were generally under 25, would not be covered by the national living wage, but the supply of home-grown student workers dried up and was replaced by foreign workers, many of whom came to this country under the seasonal agricultural workers scheme. Sadly, two years ago the Government scrapped SAWS, a decision that will exacerbate the problems faced by farmers if they are forced to pay the living wage.

Some farmers will look into introducing even greater mechanisation in order to reduce their labour costs. There is little doubt that such a move will inevitably lead to fewer staff, so it is highly likely that an unintended consequence of the national living wage will be a rise in unemployment among farm workers. Of course, some farming sectors do not lend themselves to mechanisation, and horticulturists such as soft, top and stone-fruit farmers are in that category, which is why they face the biggest challenges. As I said earlier, some of those challenges are unique to farmers. For instance, they have to deal with the vagaries of the supermarkets, which, in addition to demanding unsustainably low prices, have been known to reject a delivery of perfectly good crops as imperfect, simply because they still had some of that crop in stock from a previous delivery.

Farmers have to contend with unpredictable weather, which can decimate their crops. They also have to contend with the additional costs associated with the sale and delivery of highly perishable products and, as I have pointed out, competition from foreign imports from EU countries such as France that are becoming even cheaper because of the fall in value of the euro against sterling.

Farmers are not like widget manufacturers: they cannot just buy in components to produce goods; they have to plant crops, nurture them and eventually harvest them. Top-fruit farmers face a particular problem, because when they plant trees they are unlikely to have a saleable crop for three or four years. When considering whether to invest in new trees, a farmer needs to be confident that he or she will be able to sell the eventual crop of fruit profitably. Such farmers believe that the national living wage will make that very problematic. There are farmers in my constituency who planted fruit trees last year based on the understandable assumption that, over the next few years, their wage costs would be in line with the trend in the minimum wage seen over recent years. Imposing the new living wage on those farmers, without consultation or warning, will put their financial stability in jeopardy unless mitigation is forthcoming from the Government.

I accept that it was announced in the summer Budget that the cost to employers of paying the living wage would be offset by changes to corporation tax rates. The problem is that in the horticultural industry a reduction in corporation tax will not have the beneficial impact that the Government suppose, because 95% of producers are sole traders or partnerships, for whom corporation tax is not payable. Similarly, although the increase in the employment allowance will reduce employers’ national insurance contributions, that will have little effect on horticultural businesses because, typically, they employ relatively large numbers of workers, and the change to the employment allowance applies only to a business, not to the number of workers employed.

Although horticultural businesses employ large numbers of workers, they are, in the main, low-turnover small and medium-sized outfits.

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

On resuming

As I was saying before we were so rudely interrupted, while horticultural businesses employ large numbers of workers, they are in the main low-turnover, small to medium-sized outfits, which leaves them exposed to the impact of the living wage. As my hon. Friend the Member for Faversham and Mid Kent (Helen Whately) pointed out, profitability levels in the industry are low and having to pay the living wage will push many producers over the edge and out of business. Unless the Government step in and help farmers, we are likely to see the loss of British-grown produce and an increase in imported food, which would have serious long-term consequences for not only the British economy but our country’s food security.

Farmers also face a couple of other problems. Accommodation provided by an employer can currently be taken into account when calculating the national minimum wage. It is not clear, however, whether that arrangement will continue under the living wage. If it does not, many employers who provide accommodation will face rising wage bills without the benefit of a reduction in the amount that they pay to subsidise that accommodation. It might help if the Minister confirmed whether and how the living wage will differ from the national minimum wage in that respect.

Another problem is that the introduction of the living wage comes at a time when farmers, like other businesses, are facing increased costs from other employment legislation, including pension auto-enrolment and an increase from 1% to 2% in the employer contributions that will come into effect in 2017. Farmers believe that the rise in wages under the living wage will lead to a growth in contributions to auto-enrolment pensions. Assessing a complex, changing workforce and calculating contributions for short periods for seasonal workers who stay with a business for just over the current 12-week postponement period will add to farmers’ costs.

To help British farmers in general, and my local farmers in particular, I want the Government to consider several possible mitigating measures. First, supermarkets could be encouraged to work with farmers to help ensure that they receive a fair price for their produce. Ministers could do that by convening a meeting between the management of our major supermarkets and farmers’ representatives to put together a long-term plan for the industry. Secondly, the exemption from the living wage for workers under-25 could be widened to include seasonal workers. Thirdly, employment allowance could be changed so it is based on individual workers and not a business. Fourthly, we could introduce staged increases for the level of accommodation offset that counts towards an employer’s payment of the national minimum wage and, presumably, the living wage. Fifthly, the cumulative and disproportionate administration burden associated with auto-enrolment duties could be reduced by extending the current three-month postponement period to six months to help capture seasonal workers in the postponement period.

Sixthly, the starting point for national insurance could be aligned with the starting point for income tax. In 2011-12, the class 1 NI threshold was set at almost 95% of the income tax starting threshold. Today, it is just 76%. Finally, the review cycles for the national minimum wage and the living wage could be aligned to reduce complexity. As I asked earlier, will the Minister perhaps confirm whether and how the living wage will differ from the national minimum wage? In addition, will he provide clarity on how the two wage rates will co-exist and whether the various rates can be simplified?

Agriculture and horticulture are important to Britain. They are particularly important to Kent, which, in addition to being the garden of England, just happens to be God’s own county.

My hon. Friend speaks for many of us who represent some of the fantastic areas of the kingdom of Kent. I am delighted to hear his comments, which forcefully express the importance of agriculture to our region. In my constituency is Hugh Lowe Farms, which grows the strawberries for Wimbledon, and the community there has done a great deal to develop not only the farm but the economy around it. Marion, who runs the farm, raised the possibility of considering the Australian piece rate, which is a concept that would see the average employee wage be 25% above the minimum. If my hon. Friend is not going to come on to that point, will the Minister consider it anyway?

I welcome that intervention because I was not going to mention the concept, so it is just as well that my hon. Friend did.

In conclusion, I want to see a thriving farming industry in Kent that provides food security for future generations. To achieve that, however, we need the Government to back British produce.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Gordon Henderson) for putting this important issue on the agenda. Food and farming is a vitally important industry; it is our biggest industry—bigger than aerospace and automotive put together. I am conscious that horticulture makes an important contribution, with an output of about £9 billion per year and employing some 12,000 people, many of whom are casual workers and many of whom are in Kent, the garden of England.

I declare an interest, because I spent 10 years as a strawberry farmer. As my hon. Friend described some of the challenges for soft fruit producers, I got flashbacks to difficult problems that I, too, encountered. He made the valid point that we are discussing perishable products. There are immense challenges in getting the crop harvested without the pickers bruising the fruit, getting it into a cold store so that the field heat can be removed and we can preserve the shelf life, getting the right orders at the right time, and getting the fruit on a lorry without someone tipping over the pallets on the way, so that it arrives in good condition. Those are daily challenges for soft fruit producers.

My hon. Friend also mentioned that producers can have problems with supermarkets. Again, he is absolutely right, and I have seen that happen. If there is a rainy day and sales in the supermarkets go down, supermarket buyers will look for excuses to reject consignments of soft fruit. That is a hazard of the industry. Another risk is weather, which I will come on to later. The risk has been reduced, but it is still there, in particular in the top fruit and stone fruit sector.

The biggest challenge of all is staffing. In the farm that I ran, we had 50 acres of soft fruit and employed about 300 people. Half of them were local people and the other half came from a number of different countries, mainly European Union ones, but also some Commonwealth countries such as South Africa, Australia and New Zealand—students who were on a work visa. So I know the challenges that farmers encounter with staffing.

I am, however, more optimistic than my hon. Friend on a number of fronts. He claimed that supermarkets will not pay a premium for fruit, but the evidence does not bear that out. English soft fruit has always commanded a premium. Consumers are tired of Spanish strawberries by March and April and are looking for quality, English glasshouse-produced strawberries. Those glasshouse and then tunnel-produced strawberries command a premium not only over Spanish fruit, because we have superior varieties, but even over Dutch strawberries. The Dutch use similar varieties to us, predominantly Elsanta or more recent ones, but even so English and Scottish fruit command a premium over foreign imports. I am more optimistic than he is about supermarkets paying a premium.

Another development of recent years has been the changes to production systems—a big transformation, which was starting 20 years ago when I was still in the industry. In fact, I was one of the first producers of glasshouse strawberries, and we used to be the first to supply the supermarkets, normally in time for Easter. We have had a huge change in production, so the season is no longer four weeks in the middle of summer, with Wimbledon fortnight smack in the middle; we now have production from March right through to Christmas.

We have also seen the development of table-top systems, which have lower labour costs. Few commercial soft fruit farms now produce strawberries in traditional beds, growing in the soil; most of them grow in a coir substrate, basically on a table top, which makes the fruit much easier and much cheaper to pick. The other advantage of moving to such systems is the advent of the so-called Spanish or French tunnel—temporary tunnel structures, which hon. Members can see in their Kent constituencies for most of the year and which protect the fruit from the weather. That has had a major impact in reducing weather risk. In fact, the greatest weather risk is now probably the effect on demand, with problems such as sales collapsing in the middle of summer because of a wet week.

There have also been big changes in the top fruit industry. Again, over the past 20 years the advent of new, more intensive systems, such as apples grown in spindle or bed systems, has lowered the cost of picking. They are now generally grown on M9—dwarfing—stock, which keeps the size of the tree down, makes the apples easier to pick and keeps the picking costs down. We have also seen big innovation in the top fruit industry with new varieties. In the case of stone fruit, who would have thought that this country would have seen a huge expansion in the production of apricots? However, we are seeing apricots and cherries grown in this country like never before.

The changes in production systems have made it easier for soft fruit businesses to manage their staff. In my day, we had to build from nothing to 300 staff within about 10 days. By the time all the staff issues had been sorted out—such as supervisors who could not do the job, endless recruitment or problems with training—and things had been perfected, it was time to start shutting everything down, because the season was over. Every soft fruit business used to have that challenge. The big change is that it is now possible for a soft fruit farm to offer employment from March right through to December.

Two years ago I visited one of our largest soft fruit producers, Hall Hunter, near Guildford, as part of the open farm Sunday project. The people there explained to me that about 60% of their staff are retained from the previous year. That was unheard of 20 years ago—every soft fruit business had to start from scratch each year—so now soft fruit enterprises are getting the bulk of their staff returning from one year to the next, and they do not have those huge costs of retraining.

I am aware of the concerns in the industry about the impacts of the national living wage, such as the potential increase in costs. We have to put that into perspective, with the coalition Government having abolished the Agricultural Wages Board. Twenty years ago I was campaigning for that, along with some of the larger enterprises. Strangely enough, at the time it was the National Farmers Union that stood in the way of the then Conservative Government, who were ready to sweep away that anachronistic organisation, and it did not happen. However, we have now scrapped the board. It is worth noting that in 2012, the final year of the Agriculture Wages Order, the level for a grade 1 standard employee was £6.96, so the change we are seeing is not so dramatic.

My hon. Friend was absolutely right when he said that we should not perceive the agriculture industry as only a low-wage one. In fact, it employs about 500,000 people. Our rough analysis suggests that the number of those affected by the national living wage will be fewer than 20,000—so the vast majority of those 500,000 are already earning more than the national living wage.

The other thing that we have to bear in mind is that the national living wage will apply only to those over the age of 25. As my hon. Friend pointed out, many soft fruit farms still rely on student labour—not only from the UK, but typically from other European countries—and they will be exempt from the national living wage. The national minimum wage rates will apply instead.

My hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat) mentioned concerns about the treatment of piece rates, but there will be no change. We already have an approach that allows for a fair piece rate to be set, which is a mean average of the output per hour that a farm’s staff can achieve, divided by a coefficient of 1.2, to ensure that those only a bit slower than the average will still hit the minimum wage. The provision of a fair piece rate, which is still used in many sectors of horticulture, including the flower and soft fruit industries, means that with staff who work intermittently—they might work for two or three hours and then want to take a long break before starting again—instead of having to record every minute that they are sat in a hedge having a cup of tea, there is the ability to set a fair piece rate. That will not change.

My hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey invited me to make a whole load of policy commitments that he well knows are issues for other Departments, such as aligning tax thresholds with national insurance thresholds or extending the employment allowance so that it applies per employee rather than per business. He understands that I cannot give such commitments on behalf of the Chancellor of the Exchequer or the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, but officials from BIS are present, so I am sure that some of my hon. Friend’s points will be taken into account.

I want to pick up on a number of issues that my hon. Friend raised. First, he commented that horticultural businesses typically will not benefit from the change in corporation tax. I am not sure whether that is largely correct. Even when I was in the industry 20 years ago, about 10 major enterprises controlled about 70% of UK soft fruit production. That has not changed; if anything, even larger businesses have come together. My hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling mentioned Marion Regan from Hugh Lowe Farms. I know Hugh Lowe well and I know Marion well. It is a strong, enterprising business, and there are others such as Angus Davison’s business in the west midlands. We have got some very large businesses that are limited companies and will benefit from the change in corporation tax.

Smaller businesses—perhaps not those in horticulture but those in broader agriculture sectors—will in the most part benefit from an increase in the employer’s allowance from £2,000 to £3,000. A small dairy farm owner who has perhaps only one or two staff helping them out on the farm will benefit from that increase in the employer allowance. That will help to offset any additional costs.

My hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey mentioned the seasonal agricultural workers scheme, which was discontinued a few years ago. I am keeping a close eye on this, but, in the conversations I have had with soft fruit enterprises, most tell me that they have not had difficulty in sourcing labour so far. Most still find that they manage to get all the staff they need from countries such as Bulgaria, Romania and other European Union countries. We must bear in mind that the scheme was brought in to enable students from Poland and the Czech Republic to come to the UK when we had only about 12 member states in the European Union. Now that those countries are in the EU and we have an EU of 28 member states, the rationale for it has somewhat diminished.

My hon. Friend asked about the accommodation offset. In October 2015—just last month—the offset was increased to £5.35 a day, which is a rate recommended by the Low Pay Commission. The rules for the accommodation offset will also apply to workers aged 25 or older who will receive the national living wage from 2016. The rules are therefore broadly the same, and the rate will be set by the Low Pay Commission. Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs will assess complaints regarding the accommodation offset for national living wage cases, just as it does now. There is no change: the offset will be based on a recommendation coming from the Low Pay Commission.

I am far more optimistic than my hon. Friend that the industry can cope. This is a vibrant industry that has seen huge growth in production and huge innovation in the past 20 years. That innovation has changed how it employs staff and means that, in my view, it will to cope with the coming change far better than he fears. The industry in Kent has a bright future. I was the most westerly outpost of Kentish Garden, the forerunner to Berry Gardens, and I spent many years in my 20s in Kent trying to deal with some of the challenges the industry faced. I believe that it has a strong future.

Question put and agreed to.

Chagos Islands

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the Chagos Islands.

Thank you, Mr Rosindell, for the opportunity to consider the many issues that confront the UK Government in respect of the Chagos islands. It is my privilege to serve under your chairmanship as a member of the all-party parliamentary group on the Chagos islands.

It would be remiss of me not to begin the debate by highlighting the presence of the Chagossians, other interested parties and Members from all political parties who have taken the time and trouble to be present here today; it is rare for a humble Westminster Hall debate to be so well attended. The interest in the debate reflects the widespread concern, and high levels of interest, from across the world for the people of the Chagos islands. Many here today have worked tirelessly to highlight the injustices perpetrated on the indigenous people of the Chagos islands over many years by a nation state that, quite bluntly, should know better.

On 8 November 1965—almost 50 years ago to the day—Harold Wilson, the then Prime Minister, authorised the creation of the British Indian Ocean Territory. That act was far from benign. The establishment of that territory was nothing less than a cynical and calculated plan to annex the Chagos archipelago, expel its indigenous people and deploy resources for military advantage.

The plan hinged on shameless exploitation. During a five-year period from 1968 to 1973, every single Chagossian man, woman and child was forcibly removed in secret from the islands. None has since been allowed to return. For the past 50 years, Chagossians have lived in poverty. To the utter shame of every UK Government and the 17 Foreign Secretaries since, that ethnic cleansing of an entire people has been variously ignored, glossed over or actively misrepresented.

The purpose of the annexation was to facilitate the leasing of the largest island in the Chagos archipelago, Diego Garcia, to the United States to allow the construction of an enormous military base. The base remains today. We now know that, in return for annexing the archipelago and expelling its people, the UK Government received a cash discount of £11 million on Polaris nuclear missiles, which is equivalent to about £200 million today when adjusted for inflation.

The story of Chagos has been a chronicle of abuse, naked greed and bullying on a grand scale. Indeed, it is a narrative of the hideous abuse of power and trust perpetrated against a humble people and an account of the success of a plan that hinged on the reprehensible neglect of a people’s inalienable human rights. Many believe that abuse of power falls within the International Criminal Court’s definition of a crime against humanity. That may be so, but we can be certain that human rights were sacrificed by the UK Government in a sordid deal to secure weapons of mass destruction. I am sure the Minister agrees that that is an appalling legacy.

Before 1968, more than 2,000 people lived on the Chagos islands, with many having family histories dating back almost 200 years. Chagossians had a thriving society, with numerous villages, schools, hospitals, churches and businesses, and a unique way of life. Unknown to Parliament, and in clear breach of United Nations charters, the UK plotted to deliberately destroy that society. The truth about the cleansing of the Chagossians, and the Whitehall conspiracy to deny that there had ever been an indigenous population, did not emerge for almost 20 years, until files were unearthed at the Public Record Office in Kew by the historian Mark Curtis, the journalist John Pilger and lawyers acting for the former inhabitants of the islands, who were campaigning for a return to their homeland.

I am not familiar with the geography of Diego Garcia, but is there enough room on the island for the military base to remain and the people to return?

The islands are an archipelago. There are hundreds of islands and more than enough space for everyone.

In 1982, when the truth leaked out, the islanders exiled to Mauritius were awarded derisory compensation of less than £3,000 per person. Those exiled to Seychelles were awarded no compensation. It was noted then that it had been

“entirely improper, unethical, dictatorial to have the Chagossian put their thumbprint on an English legal, drafted document, where the Chagossian, who doesn’t read, know or speak any English, let alone any legal English, is made to renounce basically all his rights as a human being.”

Was the annexation improper? Certainly. Unethical? I have no doubt. Dictatorial? Absolutely. Those are strong words, but that is exactly how the UK Government have treated and continue to treat the people of Chagos. That is what the Minister is here today to explain.

I understand that Diego Garcia remains the United States’ largest military base outside north America. There are two runways, over 30 warships, more than 4,000 troops and a satellite spy station located on the island. The base has been used as a launch pad for invasions, including those of both Afghanistan and Iraq. It is still in use, and that use is still encouraged by the UK Government.

In 1966, terms for the lease of Diego Garcia were agreed at $1 a year. On expulsion, the indigenous population were allowed to take just one suitcase each. They were forced into the hold of the SS Nordvaer and transported to Seychelles, where they were held in prison cells before being transited elsewhere, many to Mauritius. Wherever they were sent, they were left without financial support.

A Foreign Office memo on the subject at the time, from Sir Paul Gore-Booth to diplomat Denis Greenhill, stated:

“We must surely be very tough about this. The object of the exercise was to get some rocks which will remain ours; there will be no indigenous population except seagulls…The United States Government will require the removal of the entire population of the atoll.”

Denis Greenhill replied in August 1966:

“Unfortunately, along with the birds go some few Tarzans or Men Fridays whose origins are obscure and who are hopefully being wished on to Mauritius etc. When this has been done I agree we must be very tough and a submission is being done accordingly.”

It is impossible for the UK Government to hide behind that correspondence. The casual disregard for human life it evidences is chillingly calculated, unambiguous and staggering. Nevertheless that “tough” action provoked legal action that has ultimately led to all of us being here for this debate today.

It was estimated in 2007 that the litigation costs to the UK taxpayer for Government action against the Chagossians had amounted to over £4 million; that has no doubt increased after more recent legal proceedings. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is hypocritical of UK Governments to spend money in that way when many Chagossians have been denied fair compensation from the UK?

My hon. Friend has raised a valid point that I will come to shortly.

In 1975, a former resident of the Chagos archipelago, Mr Michel Vencatassen, initiated a claim for compensation in the courts of England against the UK Government. The claim was settled in 1982 in an agreement under which the United Kingdom would pay £4 million into a fund for the former residents of the archipelago. Together with a previous payment of £650,000 made to the Government of Mauritius in 1966, that £4 million was later held as

“full and final settlement of all claims”

arising from the removal or resettlement of the population of the Chagos archipelago—despite the fact that many Chagossians have received no compensation at all.

Other verdicts in the English courts went in favour of the Chagossians, in 2000, 2006 and 2007. But in 2008 the House of Lords overturned them all and ruled in favour of the UK Government. That bizarre ruling argued that the Chagossians were deprived of their right of abode lawfully. The ruling resulted in the formation of the all-party group on the Chagos islands, which has since met over 50 times and has attracted members of every single political party represented at Westminster. Full cross-party representation on such a group is very rare indeed.

Undaunted by the 2008 ruling, a group of Chagossians continued to pursue their claims before the European Court of Human Rights. In December 2012, the European Court judgment Chagos Islanders v the United Kingdom held that the claim was inadmissible, on the grounds that in settling their claims previously in 1982 and accepting and receiving compensation, the applicants had effectively renounced further use of legal remedies. Following the ruling, the right hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr Grieve), then Attorney General and speaking for the UK Government, said:

“we regret very much the circumstances in which they were removed from the islands and recognise that what was done then should not have happened.”

Fine words on a flawed judgement—flawed because, I note again, not all Chagossians were compensated.

Five weeks before the general election in 2010, parallel to the actions on deprivation of right of abode, the then Foreign Secretary, David Miliband—now, it is worth noting, president and chief executive officer of the International Rescue Committee, where he oversees humanitarian relief—ignored the advice of diplomats and rushed through the establishment of a marine protected area around the UK-controlled Chagos islands. That declaration was another significant, desperate and cynical attempt to anticipate legal claims on right of abode and to continue subverting the human rights of the Chagos people.

At The Hague on 18 March 2015, in its judgment Chagos Marine Protected Area Arbitration (Mauritius v United Kingdom), the Permanent Court of Arbitration ruled in favour of Mauritius against the UK Government concerning the declaration made on 1 April 2010 by David Miliband on behalf of the UK Government. The tribunal found that consultations on the marine protected area were characterised by a lack of information and an absence of sufficiently reasoned exchanges between the parties involved. It noted in particular that the UK Government engaged far less with Mauritius about establishing the marine protected area than it did with the United States. We need not speculate why.

More recently, on 4 August 2015, the UK Government announced a three-month consultation exercise on purported resettlement of Mauritians of Chagossian origin in the Chagos archipelago. That consultation period ended yesterday, when Mr Pierre Prosper, chair of the Seychelles Chagossians Committee, told me that although all Chagossians have responded to the consultation stating that they want to return, all have refused the terms of the UK Government’s offer,

“which reduces us to cheap labour for the military base, with no rights at all”.

Considering that consultation on resettlement, the Minister should know that the proposed conditions of resettlement amount yet again to a gross violation of the Chagossians’ most basic human rights.

The Prime Minister of Mauritius has also rejected the premise of the UK Government’s consultation and has demanded that Chagossians who wish to resettle on the archipelago should be able to live in dignity and enjoy their basic human rights. I support that view. The Prime Minister of Mauritius stated earlier this month at the United Nations General Assembly:

“The Chagos archipelago was illegally excised by the United Kingdom from the territory of Mauritius prior to its accession to independence, in breach of international law and resolutions of this Assembly.”

In the wake of that illegal excision, the Mauritians residing in the Chagos archipelago at the time were forcibly evicted by the British authorities, with total disregard for those people’s human rights. Most of them were moved to the main island of Mauritius. The Government of Mauritius are fully sensitive to their plight and their legitimate aspiration as Mauritian citizens to resettle on the archipelago. Mauritius welcomes the award of the arbitral tribunal delivered on 18 March 2015 against the United Kingdom under the United Nations convention on the law of the sea:

“We welcome the tribunal’s decision that the ‘marine protected area’ purportedly declared by the United Kingdom around the Chagos archipelago was established in violation of international law.”

That is an excellent summary of the current situation.

The current resettlement proposals offer no right of abode and stipulate that Chagossians must return to their islands as “contract workers”, with no right to buy land or property. Moreover, the resettlement is intended to be for a trial period, beginning with a two-year pilot, after which resettlement may be cancelled. During the pilot period, Chagossians will not be allowed visitors on their islands, despite hundreds of wealthy tourists visiting the islands each year, mooring their yachts, living in Chagossians’ abandoned homes and spending their time on the islands largely unmonitored. Similarly, unlike with Tristan da Cunha and Pitcairn, the UK Government’s resettlement proposals advise that no education services will be provided, thereby effectively excluding families with children from returning to their islands.

In short, the consultation and the terms of resettlement are transparent, unsatisfactory and quite obviously designed to scare the indigenous people and ensure that resettlement on the Chagos islands fails. The refusal of the consultation document to guarantee support for Chagossians if resettlement is cancelled after two years means that Chagossians face an unenviable dilemma, and an unattractive and very insecure future. Furthermore, many Chagossian groups in Europe—for example, in Switzerland and France—have not been consulted on the resettlement proposals at all. As an exercise in engagement, the consultation is therefore effectively worthless and should be viewed and condemned as such.

To be clear, the UK Government’s consultation fails spectacularly to address the key issues and should be roundly dismissed. It is, of course, welcome that the UK Government are considering how to make Chagossian resettlement a reality, but the terms of resettlement must be fair to Chagossians. The current proposals are not.

The basic premise advanced by the UK Government of there being “uncertainty” over both resettlement costs and demand is simply inaccurate. Indeed, recent freedom of information requests reveal that KPMG, which evaluated resettlement options and developed the costings, has described its own estimates as having been made with “pessimism”. It remains unclear who instructed that pessimism, but I am sure we will find out at some point. To put that pessimism into context, one estimate suggests “capital and training” costs of £267.5 million over six years to resettle 1,500 people. Another scenario is costed at £4.04 million per person to meet the capital costs of “resettlement and security” over the first 10 years.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned a figure of 1,500 Chagossians. Roughly that number of people were dispossessed in the first place. I would have thought the number was greater now, given everything that has happened with families. Is it still 1,500?

It is not 1,500. I think the number of Chagossians and their dependants is now approaching 5,000, but one of the scenarios put forward in the consultation document suggests that 1,500 people might be resettled.

There is, in fact, no consistency and no credible explanation for the overly high cost estimates of resettlement in the consultation document, but perhaps the Minister will take this opportunity to explain the pessimism included in the figures. KPMG’s pessimistic estimates suggest resettlement costs could start at £64 million over three years, which represents a tiny percentage of the Department for International Development’s budget. It is certainly far less than the £200 million cash discount achieved by the UK Government on the leasing of Polaris nuclear missiles in 1966. Indeed, £64 million seems a bargain by comparison.

Clearly, the report said there was no fundamental reason why the Chagossian people should not return to the Chagos islands. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that given the injustice, money should not be the reason for not giving these people the right to return? Money should not be an issue in this case.

Before the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Dr Monaghan) rises again, I point out that we only have between 15 and 20 minutes for the six Back Benchers who would like to contribute to this debate. The hon. Gentleman might consider that in his remarks.

Thank you, Mr Rosindell. This is clearly a complicated and important debate for the many people who are in the room today. I absolutely agree with the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey): this is not and should not be a debate about money. There are moral imperatives attached to the resettlement of the Chagos islanders.

As the UK-US agreement on the use of Diego Garcia approaches expiration on 30 December 2016, the UK Government find themselves at an opportune point to renegotiate the terms of the lease for a further 20 years. The relationship began with the UK Government abnegating their responsibilities, accepting a discount on Polaris nuclear weapons and implementing a programme of forced expulsion of the Chagossian people. It should end on 21st-century humanitarian terms. Will the Minister ensure that the United States support for the resettlement of the Chagos islands is a prerequisite for extending the current agreement? If the United States had fundamental concerns about sharing Diego Garcia with Chagossians, it would not have allowed resettlement to be considered in the first place.

Will the Minister confirm that Mark Simmonds’s statement on 19 November 2013 remains the position of the UK Government and that resettlement can be made compatible with the security needs of the base, as is the case with all other United States military bases around the world? If not, I am sure the Minister will want to take this opportunity to explain what differentiates the Chagos islands and requires the continued marginalisation of Chagossians and subversion of their human rights, because it is frankly absurd to claim that Chagossians are a serious security threat.

Beyond all that, however, there is a human, moral imperative to resettlement. I have already noted that there are Chagossians here today. Some of them want to return to their homeland to live out their lives. Some younger Chagossians want to live and work in the land of their parents and grandparents. All of them want to see their homeland grow and prosper again. All of them want their right of abode reinstated, and, in respect of their right of abode, the decision of the Supreme Court is awaited. Regardless of the Supreme Court’s ruling in respect of the 2008 majority Lords verdict, all right-minded people must continue to argue for the most fundamental and basic human rights to be restored to the Chagossian people.

I urge the Minister not to rise at the end of this debate to recount yet another pitiable series of excuses as to why the UK Government should not, cannot or will not act to resettle the Chagos islands. Excuses, and we must be very clear on this point, are not acceptable. The UK Government’s continuing human rights abuses perpetrated upon the Chagos islanders are simply unacceptable. All of us in this room today know the truth about Chagos. We know what the islands are used for. We know who uses the islands. We know the ecology of the islands and the ecology of the ocean surrounding the islands. We know the rainfall pattern of the islands and that the islands are not dangerous, uninhabitable or sinking. We know the social history of the islands. We also know the true scale of the wrongs that have been perpetrated and the true cost of resettlement.

Rise today, Minister, and tell us—all of us here and those watching at home—what you are going to do now to right the wrongs inflicted upon this people. Rise today, Minister, to apologise to the Chagos islanders and to explain to all of us what you and your Government intend to do now to compensate Chagossians, particularly those in Seychelles. Explain how you will work to support the resettlement of all Chagossians, and how you will reinstate the vibrant society that they once maintained and which the UK Government so casually destroyed, and continue to deliberately and wilfully subvert today.

Minister, return to the Chagossians their human rights, as codified in the universal declaration of human rights, including their right of abode. Provide clarity on their citizenship status and their right to develop economic activity. Chagossians offer no threat to the operational activities of Diego Garcia, and I urge you to use the period in which the terms of the UK-US agreement on the use of Diego Garcia are being renewed to agree that both Governments will support the Chagossian people.

We only have 12 minutes left for six Back-Bench speakers, so I ask Members to keep their remarks as short as possible. I call Henry Smith.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship once again, Mr Rosindell. I congratulate the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Dr Monaghan) on securing this important debate.

There are more Chagos islanders in this Grand Committee Room than exist on the Chagos archipelago; that great injustice is visible here today. I first came across the issue of the Chagos islands when I was a teenager, reading a book about the remaining British overseas territories, and I was appalled then by what happened under the Wilson Administration in the late 1960s. It was the sort of appalling colonial abuse that one would associate with what happened 150 or even 200 years ago. Little did I know that, later on, I would have the honour and privilege to represent in my constituency the largest Chagos islands community anywhere in the world, first as leader of West Sussex County Council, where we were pleased to do what we could to support the community arriving at Gatwick and into this country. Latterly, over the last five-and-a-half years as a Member of Parliament, I have also been pleased to be a member of the Chagos islands all-party group and to advocate on behalf of the Chagos islanders.

The hon. Gentleman has set out many of the arguments, which I will not repeat because of the constrictions on time. However, it is important to state today that we cannot turn back the clock, but we can do the right thing now. He mentioned that people live next to airbases all around the world, and it should be no different in the Chagos islands. I commend this Government and the previous coalition Government on at least starting the process of a consultation, which of course finally ended yesterday evening. With the anniversary of the creation of the British Indian Ocean Territory in a couple of weeks’ time, now is the moment that the Government should follow through and agree to the resettlement. Funds are available, such as European Union funds or the international aid budget. We have one of the most generous international aid budgets anywhere in the world, and we should be using it for the benefit of these British citizens and their right of return to their homeland.

I want briefly to mention those Chagos islanders who would prefer to stay living in this country, although I absolutely accept the need to acknowledge that the majority rightly wish to return. I appreciate that this is an issue for the Home Office, but further work needs to be done on passports and visa issues, which are something that many of my constituents grapple with. I thank members of the Chagos community in this country for the respectful way in which they have fought for their rights, given the appalling injustice that has been done to them.

On sovereignty, I would probably disagree with the hon. Gentleman. I believe that the ideal solution is that the Chagos islanders should be allowed to return to their homeland and then, just like every other overseas territory, it should be up to them to decide under which sovereignty they wish to live in the future. I could say much more, but given the time, Mr Rosindell, I will finish, because I would like to encourage other Members to contribute as well.

I did not actually come to speak in this debate, but I would fully agree with what has just been said. We have to find a middle ground. Let me say to the Minister that the duty falls on us to find a way to get the Chagossian people back to their homes—a way that works with them there, living with schools, with their own religions and with their home around the base. That is all I want to say.

It is delightful to have you chairing this particular debate, Mr Rosindell, as I know you have been involved with this issue in the past.

I pay tribute to all the members of the all-party group, who, over a period of time, have really tried to keep this issue in the spotlight. In particular, I pay tribute to the new leader of my party, my hon. Friend the Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn), who chaired the all-party group for many years through thick and thin. He has done a huge amount, and I know that he would like to have been here today, but I do not think he can be.

To me, it is unbelievable to think that what we did to those people 50 years ago could happen today. We would not have let it happen, and the fact that it did and that they are still waiting for their human rights to be restored so many years later is shameful for all of us. Now is the perfect time to get this return-fare package, 50 years on, particularly with the negotiations with the United States coming up next year. We just have to be absolutely firm: this will not be renegotiated unless we have a fair return for all the islanders.

I have already spoken about the cost, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Dr Monaghan) on securing the debate and on outlining the history of the situation so clearly. Anyone who reads the history cannot be anything other than moved by the injustice of what happened to those people. We now have an opportunity, 50 years on, to really make their return happen. Money should not be the issue. It is there, and if the Government were to work with the people themselves on how they want this to happen, once we have made the decision that it is going to happen—I hope that has now been accepted, with the report from the independent study stating that there is no reason whatever why they could not go back—we have to make it happen as quickly as possible.

However, we have to work with the Chagossian people to make sure that when they go back, they do so under terms that they are happy with, and that they will not be misled again or sign up to all sorts of agreements that afterwards cannot be carried out. I am very supportive today of that return happening, and I again pay tribute to all the Chagossian people, who have shown such dignity over many years about this dreadful thing that happened to them 50 years ago.

I, too, commend the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Dr Monaghan) for bringing this very important matter to our attention. I also commend my hon. Friend the Member for Crawley (Henry Smith) for his contribution. I just want to add that I consider it a gross injustice to remove 1,500 people against their will. It is a gross injustice then to have an airbase, with a very questionable history in this century, on their land. It is a gross injustice to create a marine protected area without consulting the people who should be there, in their homeland.

I did not know about this matter when I was younger; I wish I had known. I owe thanks to my constituent, George Beckmann, who brought it to my attention. I am honouring a promise that I gave him as a candidate that I would stand up for the Chagos islanders. You deserve your home; you deserve reparation and an apology; and I am very privileged to be in the same room as you today.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell. As a member of the all-party group on the Chagos islands, I am pleased to be able to speak in this debate, but it would clearly be better for everyone concerned if there was no need for a debate to be taking place after all these years.

We heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Dr Monaghan) that the history of this starts in 1965-66. It was in 1966 that the agreement was made about the US naval base. That was before I was born, so I tried to imagine what drove the thinking at the time. There was the cold war. Did people believe that the actions were justifiable at the time? However, even if I try to put myself in the position of people then, there is no way to justify what happened—clearing the people from their homeland and trying to cover that up and justify it as involving only contract workers. Worse than that, we have had 50 years of cover-up and blocking since then. That is what is truly shocking.

I will give a flavour of the timeline. In 1971, the UK Government issued an immigration ordinance prohibiting return to the islands. In 1982, compensation was paid, whereby it was obviously hoped that the matter would disappear, but the compensation was paid only to Chagos islanders in Mauritius and not to those living in the Seychelles. That obviously forced the issue into the courts. In 2000, the High Court ruled that the ordinance was illegal, which the UK Government seemed to accept, but then decided not to accept—another shameful outturn. In 2004, new orders were issued prohibiting a return, which forced the matter back through the courts. In 2006-07, the Chagos islanders won in the High Court and then the Appeal Court, but unfortunately in 2008 the UK Government took the matter to the Law Lords and got a decision favourable to them, on a split decision.

The year 2009 is also very significant. The European Court had suggested that a friendly out-of-court settlement could be pursued, but that was not taken up by the UK Government. At the same time, the UK Government said that they had a moral responsibility to the Chagos islanders that would never go away. The Government actually said that the moral responsibility would never go away, but at the same time, behind the scenes, they were working on plans to create the marine protected area, so that was more double-dealing. Also in 2009, an immigration Bill was passed. The UK Government refused to accept an amendment that would allow special consideration for the Chagos islanders, so their dependants are not entitled to British citizenship. That is another strand of the story and it is very important now, because some of the people who were forcibly moved from their islands settled in the UK, but are now being told that UK descendants are not entitled to British citizenship.

In March 2015, it was ruled that the marine protected area violated international law. Unfortunately, we also discovered—from WikiLeaks of all things—that the MPA was, as was suspected, just a mechanism to prohibit the islanders from returning. That is more shameful deceit in recent times by a UK Government.

My hon. Friend touched on the KPMG report. At least, as was said, the recent Government commissioned a feasibility study in relation to allowing the islanders to return, but it is pessimistic about the costs. The estimates are £23 million for housing and public buildings for 150 people and £10 million for housing for a pilot involving 50. There is no doubt that those costs are designed to scare the Government and give them an excuse not to do that.

I will quickly conclude—apologies for having gone on. The Government now need to sort out three key issues: allowing a claim for resettlement; citizenship for dependants, who now, understandably, perhaps do not want to move back because they have been displaced for so long; and the future sovereignty of the islands. We need to get this matter sorted and remedy the wrongs of the past 50 years.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell; I know that you take an interest in these matters. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Dr Monaghan) on securing a debate on an issue to which he has long been committed and which is highly topical. I welcome the work of the all-party group and the various hon. Members who have spoken. I note that the honorary president of the APPG, the hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn)—I do not know whether he is right honourable yet—is with us. I welcome him to his place; it is a very commendable show of support and solidarity.

In his maiden speech in the main Chamber, my hon. Friend the Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross highlighted both the cause of the Chagossian people and the historical experience of people in his own constituency who were affected by the highland clearances. In my constituency, the clearances are commemorated by, among other things, a plaque on the wall of the Lios Mor bar. The plaque names some of those most responsible for the forced removal of people and what it calls a form of ethnic cleansing. I will leave it to hon. Members to visit my constituency to determine exactly where in the bar the plaque is located, but it is in a place where it invites male visitors to pay those whom it names the respect it says they are due. Whether exactly the same attitude should be applied to those responsible for the forced removal of the Chagossians is not necessarily for me to say, but what is clear is that the situation is an injustice for which a resolution is long overdue.

Having had some experience of it, I would say that this looks like classic ethnic cleansing, and the human rights commissioner of the United Nations should take more interest in it.

That is a very fair point well made. We will perhaps have the Minister’s response to it.

The Scottish National party has for many years expressed its solidarity with the Chagossian people, and I want to take this opportunity to do so again today. At our spring conference in 2015, we agreed a resolution expressing frustration with the ongoing approach of the UK Government in relation to the Chagossian people and agreeing that the behaviour of the UK Government has consistently been contrary to well established laws on decolonisation and self-determination. These are, admittedly, complex areas of international law, but certainly the tradition in Scotland is that sovereignty should lie with the people, so irrespective of territorial claims by the United Kingdom, Mauritius or any other third party, the fundamental right to live and work on the Chagos islands should lie with the people who lived there until their forced removal at the hands of a UK Government.

We can welcome what slow progress there may have been, but the terms and conditions of the pilot resettlement proposal are minimalist to say the least. My hon. Friend the Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross went into that in considerable detail and highlighted the views of the Chagossian community. I hope that if the Chagossians, supportive organisations or any other people come forward with alternative suggestions or proposals, the Minister will listen to those, and that what is in the current consultation will not simply be presented as a fait accompli. I know that the APPG has suggestions about possible sources of funding for resettlement and has questioned the cost of resettlement highlighted in the KPMG report. The highest cost that I can find is £267 million over six years. Although that is not a small amount, I imagine that it pales in comparison with the amounts spent on building, maintaining and running a US defence base—a defence base, of course, that the Government admitted was used for rendition of prisoners. That only compounds the injustice that has happened in that part of the world.

Time is extremely short, so I cannot go into all the detail that I wanted to. That shows that this matter deserves time on the Floor of the House, once the Government reach a decision—or, indeed, before then—so that the whole House can have its say. The debate raises a huge number of wider questions about the sovereignty of peoples and the role of current and former colonial powers—questions of geopolitical and military-industrial significance. If so-called developed countries can trample on the rights of small nations and communities out of military or political expediency, it makes it difficult for those countries to lecture so-called less developed countries or encourage them to smarten up their act on respect for human rights and the rule of international law. There are far too many historical—and current—examples of forced removal and migration of peoples, with the impact that that has on culture, economies, ways of life and the environment.

In the case of the Chagos archipelago, there are clear paths to restoration and the chance to right an historic wrong. If the Government can show some political will and make the kind of progress that has been called for, not only will some kind of justice be done to the Chagossian people, but there will be hope for other communities in similar situations elsewhere. If they cannot, the only conclusion that can be reached is that attitudes that should have set with the sun at the end of the British empire are, in fact, still stubbornly and unnecessarily at work at the heart of Government today.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell. I should let hon. Members know that I took on my new role only this morning, but I have long been familiar with the historic injustice done to the Chagos islanders. I defer to the expertise and passion of others, not least my hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition, the president of the all-party group, about whom my hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey) spoke. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Dr Monaghan) for his powerful, personal and thorough exposition of the appalling treatment of a people.

Does my hon. Friend believe, as I do, that the debate is timely as all hallows’ approaches? For 50 years, the Chagossians have not been able to mourn the souls of their dead adequately, because there has been no right of return.

My hon. Friend makes an important point. We have noted many historical dates, and that tragic celebration is an apposite time to have this debate.

The hon. Member for Crawley (Henry Smith) spoke passionately about his constituents and gave a stark illustration of the injustice that has been done to them. I have strong sympathy with his views on sovereignty: that fundamental choice in the future must lay with Chagossians. My hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall made a similar and powerful point. The people of Chagos must be at the heart of decisions about their future, and they have shown great dignity throughout the long decades of struggle on this matter. I commend many of the other comments that have been made.

I have absolute and deep regret, which I know is shared by the official Opposition, over the way in which the Chagossians were forcibly resettled in the late 1960s and early 1970s. I, for one, cannot justify those actions or excuse the conduct of a previous generation and previous Governments, whether they were Labour or otherwise. In my view, the UK Government have a fundamental moral responsibility towards the islanders that will not go away. I urge the Government to do all that they can to seek a resolution.

Hon. Members attending the debate will know that that is a view shared throughout the House, including by the Leader of the Opposition. Let us be frank; this is not the only episode of regrettable action or events in the turbulent process of decolonisation. Members will be aware that I have long supported the cause of Somaliland, which is also a former British colony. The difficult fact is that, as in that case, we as successor generations often find ourselves left with complex legal and practical conundrums involving other sovereign states, international bodies and treaty obligations, which often conflict, or at least appear to conflict.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of the original actions, the fact is that the base on Diego Garcia exists and there are agreements between the US and the UK, based, as we know, on the 1966 exchange of notes. I fundamentally believe that there must be a way of resolving that, and that is a common view among those who have contributed to the debate. The all-party group has said that any renewal of the 1966 agreement must be conditional on a commitment to facilitate and support Chagossian resettlement. I note what the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross said to the hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) on that point. There is a practical possibility of that happening, so why do we not get to it?

I have a series of brief questions for the Minister before I allow him to reply; I am sure that we all want to hear from him. First, will he update us on the status of the negotiations with the United States on the renewal of the 1966 notes and any views on the US’s amenability to resettlement alongside any base that might remain? Secondly, what is his reaction to the legitimate concerns raised by the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross about whether the current proposals for resettlement are adequate for the Chagos islanders? Thirdly, what is the UK Government’s position on the judgment on 18 March of the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea regarding the marine protected area? Do the Government accept that judgment, and how do they intend to deal with it? Finally, we understand that the Supreme Court heard core arguments in June about the 2008 decision, and that it has reserved judgment. I do not have a deep familiarity with the proceedings of the Supreme Court, but does the Minister have an update on when we might expect a decision? I think that is something that we would all like to know.

I finish by expressing my great sympathy with the concerns of the Chagos islanders. That is certainly the view of the official Opposition, and we seek to work with the Government to find whatever solution can be found to achieve the resolution of their desires and hopes for resettlement, and to right the historic wrongs.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell, particularly on this subject, in which I know you share a great interest. The fact that so many people have turned up to the debate shows the passion behind the views on this subject. I wager that this is the first time for a very long time—if ever—that the Leader of the Opposition has turned up to a Westminster Hall debate. I will be challenging the House of Commons Library to disprove that hypothesis. It is good to see him here alongside my new opposite number, the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty). I look forward to working closely with him on a number of issues.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Dr Monaghan) on securing the debate, and particularly on getting it today, which is timely for the consultation. He built on a passionate view of the Chagos islands and particularly reflected on the situation in the highlands. I was not there for his maiden speech, but I have read it and it was powerful. It was echoed in the comments by the hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) about the parallels between the problems in both situations.

The all-party group has historically been very active on these challenging issues, and I am grateful for its ongoing contributions. Although I have met members of the group informally, other Foreign Office colleagues have met the group formally in my absence, and quite rightly so.

In response to the debate, I would like to focus on the resettlement of the islanders and recognise the very real problems of their removal in the late ’60s and early ’70s. I begin by reassuring the House that I am considering the matter carefully, and that I plan to travel to the islands to see for myself the situation, to probe some of the issues that were raised during the consultation and to overcome some of the problems that are in the KPMG report, so that I am as informed as I can be before making recommendations and taking decisions on the subject. I hope to do that very soon, because I am acutely aware that this is a long-standing problem.

I apologise for not being here for the earlier part of the debate. I am doing what I have condemned many others for doing by turning up late and taking part. Please forgive me.

I declare an interest as the president of the Chagos islands all-party group and as someone who has been a passionate advocate for the Chagos islanders for a very long time. I am delighted that the Minister will be travelling there and meeting the islanders. I hope that he will—I am sure he will—understand the humanitarian hurt that the Chagos islanders have suffered, the justice of their right to return and the real possibility that that could be brought about.

I hope the Minister will agree, as soon as he returns from that visit, to meet the all-party group and have a serious discussion with it and the islanders, so that we can finally put to bed this horrible period in British history when a group of islanders, wholly innocent of anything, were so abominably treated and so brutally removed from their homes. They have suffered for so long and fought so valiantly for their human right to live where they were born and grew up.

I would certainly be happy to meet the all-party group after my visit, and, if time allows, perhaps meet one or two members of the group informally before then to gain some understanding of the issues involved.

A number of points were made, and I will try to move swiftly and cover as many as I can. This Government, like successive Governments before them, have made clear their regret over the wrongs done to the Chagossian people over 40 years. I will not seek to justify those actions or to excuse the conduct of an earlier generation. What happened was simply wrong. In the words of the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross, it is an appalling history. Therefore, it was right historically to pay substantial compensation. The British courts and the European Court of Human Rights have confirmed that that compensation has been paid in full and final settlement. Quite rightly, we are here today in the middle of another process.

Decisions about the future of the British Indian Ocean Territory are difficult. Occasionally, they are presented as being slightly more simplistic. Although cost is not the main issue, it is one of many issues and we should consider it. Successive Governments have opposed resettlement on the grounds of feasibility and defence. The House will recognise that there are fundamental difficulties, but we should look to how those could be overcome.

In 2000, the Labour Government looked at the practical challenges of returning Chagossians to the territory permanently and concluded that that would be precarious and entail expensive underwriting for an open-ended period. However, in 2012 under the previous Foreign Secretary, the then right hon. Member for Richmond, the policy review was announced, including the new study into the feasibility of resettlement, which concluded in January this year with the KPMG report. That independent study showed that resettlement could indeed be practically feasible, but that significant challenges remained. I hope that some of those challenges will be picked up in the consultation, in the work that Ministers have commissioned subsequently and by me in my visit and subsequent meetings. In March 2015, Ministers at Cabinet level carefully considered the KPMG study, which brings us to where we are now. We will continue to look at those issues in detail.

The consultation that ended yesterday was well received. More than 700 written responses have been received, and officials met more than 500 Chagossians in their own communities in the UK, the Seychelles, Mauritius, Switzerland, France and as far afield as Tasmania. It is important that we consult as widely as possible. While we know that many Chagossians do want to go back, it is important to recognise—as shown in the independent feasibility study and more recently—that some Chagossians are more interested in securing other forms of support in the places where they live. We should assess what we can do for everyone, not just those who are returning.[Official Report, 10 November 2015, Vol. 602, c. 1MC.]

The consultation looked at options that fall short of full resettlement. If it turns out that we cannot do that, we should not simply do nothing. There are other issues—financial, legal and social—and the question of the ability of the military facility on Diego Garcia to operate unhindered. The US Government have expressed concerns about operating alongside a community, but I recognise the points that have been made by strong advocates, some of whom have met people on the doorstep, such as my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Dr Mathias), and some of whom are long-standing advocates, such as my hon. Friend the Member for Crawley (Henry Smith), who has been bending my ear on the subject from probably the day I was appointed and will continue, quite rightly, to do so.

I will not give way, as I only have one and a half minutes left and I will probably not manage to cover all the points that have been made.

A number of issues about the Supreme Court were raised. I do not want to get into critiquing ongoing legal cases, but my understanding of the issue around the United Nations convention on the law of the sea is slightly different from that presented to the House. While UNCLOS found for the UK Government on sovereignty, it was only on the process of the consultation that it said the consultation with Mauritius was not sufficient. I encourage the Mauritian Government to engage in resettlement discussions with us but, to date, they have unfortunately refused to do that. It would be incredibly helpful.

I take my responsibilities as Minister very seriously on this matter, which is why I am allocating a lot of time to it. I have read every single word of the KPMG report. I will do so again on what I understand will be a very long journey out to the islands. If time allows and I am able to, I will try to get to the outer islands; that is an important element so that I can look at all the options before taking recommendations to more senior Ministers and before the Government come to a decision. In conclusion, it is an important issue, and I sincerely thank the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross and everyone here for their time.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the Chagos Islands.

Sitting adjourned.