Tuesday 1 December 2015
[Graham Stringer in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the rules of engagement and the use of armed drones.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. In all my time in the House of Commons, this is the first time that I have proposed a motion in Westminster Hall, so I beg your indulgence for any errors of procedure that I make.
The issue before us is hugely topical, particularly given the debate on Syria in the House tomorrow. Armed drones, unmanned aerial vehicles or unmanned combat aerial vehicles have been described by some as just another weapon system—a modern version of the rifle or the missile—and by others as offering unparalleled operational potential, but with associated strategic risks.
In the recently published strategic defence and security review, the Government proposed 20 new Protector armed drones to
“enhance our…global strike capability”,
by which I assume the Government mean inside and outside war zones. That distinction will come up time and again in what I have to say and, I hope, in the Minister’s response.
Reconnaissance drones—I will deal with these for a second without going into the armed element—give troops enormous advantages. They are an unblinking eye in the sky for 24 hours a day, with a very wide angle of view and great precision. They are enormously valuable to special forces and in counter-insurgency operations, let alone in conventional warfare. They are reliable, give real-time intelligence, and are able to replay events quickly so that troops can know what has just happened.
Last week, the all-party parliamentary group on drones and the Royal United Services Institute had a conference on drones, at which we were addressed by probably the greatest warrior of modern times, General Stanley McChrystal, and his English counterpart, Graeme Lamb, both of whom devised and operated the strategy against al-Qaeda in Iraq and destroyed that organisation. In doing so, one of the primary tactics involved using a drone to backtrack any suicide bomb attack on the green zone, signals intelligence to follow up on the origin of it, and special forces to arrest and stop the instigators. That allowed us pretty much completely to eradicate al-Qaeda in Iraq, so it was an incredibly important element of our operation there.
McChrystal talked about the use of drones as a force multiplier. For example, if 20 people were sent in to make an attack, 80 or 100 force protection soldiers were needed. Those are no longer needed because of the reconnaissance sight capability, so drones are an incredibly important weapon system, even just as a reconnaissance system. They are also incredibly precise strike weapons. They are apparently largely riskless, with very little chance of loss of human lives on our side, and have pinpoint-accurate strike capability. The use of drones can therefore provide a never-ending threat inside and outside war zones. I will come back to the difference between the never-ending threats in those two categorisations in a moment.
Drones consist of relatively accessible technologies. As a result, we might take it that proliferation is inevitable. That is one of the strategic risks that I want the Government to consider. Beyond that, there are other genuine concerns. The first was made clear by General McChrystal last week: on one hand, drones lower the threshold for and make it easier to enter into armed conflict, and appear to remove the risk to our personnel and to render warfare almost like a video game; on the other hand, there is an illusion of precision. For those reasons, drones make the propensity to go to war far greater for countries that are worried about, say, their casualties. Most countries will concern themselves about casualties. Casualties are the political price paid for going to war and, as we will see with the Chilcot inquiry shortly, they create a great back pressure against war. As I said, there is an illusion of precision. One forgets that many of the reasons for imprecise targeting are not the drones or the weapon system, but the intelligence on which the targeting is based. Very often there is a precise weapon system, but it is not more precise than the intelligence can make it.
The other point made by General McChrystal that is worth considering is that the use of drones may make accidental conflict more likely. He cited the example of the Turkish air force shooting down a Russian aircraft a week or so ago, and said that had the incursions by the Russians into Turkish airspace been made by drones, they would have been shot down much earlier because the price of the action would have been smaller. That may lead to a lower threshold for an aerial conflict, so there are other ways that the use of drones can reduce the threshold. As such, one of the strategic risks of the use of armed drones is an increased risk of armed conflict.
The second point that came up, which is not really a strategic risk but is a matter of concern, was the effects on drone pilots. There was a great deal of concern about the fact that drone pilots, as it were, go home to their families each night with no time to decompress after effectively being in the war zone all day. They witness the violence, whereas most people who are involved in a war are distanced, at least to some extent, from the people who suffer from their weapon system. The sheer fidelity of the drone systems makes the witnessing very close and personal, in some senses. The sheer number of kills that some armed drone squadrons achieve increases the stress. One squadron was attributed with 1,626 kills, which is far more than any normal aircraft squadron would carry out. There is a long-distance version of post-traumatic stress disorder.
However, one other element worried me even more than that. It comes back to the legalities, to which I will return in a minute in putting a question to the Minister. If we undertake drone attacks outside a defined war zone, the location from which those attacks are operated may become part of a war zone, and we may legitimise a counter-attack on that area. Since many of those places are in rear areas, that has real issues for the operation of our RAF bases, such as RAF Waddington.
The big strategic risk that was raised by a number of people, particularly McChrystal, at the RUSI conference was the damaging impact on hearts and minds in battle. For those suffering drone attacks, there is an inability to strike back, a fear of constant danger, and a never-ending threat that is always there. There is strong evidence that this syndrome radicalises and militarises civilians, and unites militants. Drones can act as a recruiting sergeant. The most obvious example is the American drone operation in Pakistan, which, although it has taken out a lot of Taliban leaders, has also acted to recruit a number of others to their cause. Again, I suspect that will manifest itself in the battle against ISIL, because such organisations recruit worldwide. Last year, ISIL’s estimated recruitment was 30,000, having climbed from 15,000 during the course of the American attacks in Syria. That is an incredibly serious element of the strategic risk of using drones. From that point of view, drones are perhaps the biggest risk that we undertake.
Was there any discussion at the conference of how soon it will be before terrorist organisations are able to organise attacks using drone technology, or at least a modified version of it?
No, not particularly. There was a reference to it, but it was a throwaway line, and I cannot tell you the originator of the reference because of Chatham House rules. As I said earlier, plainly the nature of the technology involved in drones is awfully straightforward: the aerodynamics are straightforward; the motive power is straightforward; and the guidance systems are straightforward. Of course, lots of commercial drones are now available. Making an attack drone would take more than that, but it is pretty straightforward to achieve almost every element of building a drone—perhaps not a terribly sophisticated Predator or Reaper drone, or whatever, but a drone that might be used for a single-shot attack, or that could get to a location that is otherwise well protected against terrorist attack. It is absolutely clear that, if that is not possible now, it will be possible in the extremely close future. Drones are an element of proliferation that I suspect is already out of the bag. There is not much that we can do about it except plan our defences against drone attacks. That is too big a story for this debate, but the hon. Gentleman makes a good point.
I now come to the nub of this debate. The legal framework we create for drones has implications for strategic risk, for the way drones are used, and for whether their use acts as a recruiting sergeant. All the elements that I have talked about can be affected by the legal framework, which needs clarity to maintain the UK’s international standing and to protect the pilots and the armed forces from prosecution. It is not fair to ask our soldiers to carry out tasks without absolute legal certainty. Most of us do not know the exact background of some of the recent drone strikes—I am sure the Minister knows, but I do not. After the Khan strike, a headline in The Sunday Times stated “Army chief demanded legal cover for killing”. The article claimed that the director of special forces asked for specific legal advice on the strike. I do not know whether that is true, but it highlights one of the issues for me, which is that when we are going into a controversial military technology, we must absolutely ensure that the officers who use it are properly protected and clearly understand the limits of its use and where they might cross the rules of war, international law and so on. That is one of the major drivers of my argument.
When Reyaad Khan and Ruhul Amin were targeted in Syria by a UK drone on 21 August 2015, the Government claimed:
“This airstrike was a necessary and proportionate exercise of the individual right of self-defence of the United Kingdom.”
The Government also said that there was “clear evidence” that these individuals were planning and directing armed attacks against the United Kingdom. There was a lot of debate about that at the time, and there were questions about how imminent the attack might be, and how it was possible for there to be an imminent attack when these individuals were in Syria and the attack was cited as being in the UK. Some of the events that were cited happened in advance of the air strike, so it is not obvious how they could have been prevented by it. There was a series of arguments, but the basic argument was imminent self-defence.
In a letter to the United Nations, the Government cited the collective self-defence of Iraq as the second argument for the strike. I am not a lawyer, but it seems self-evident that this is a little like someone turning up in court to face an assault charge and saying, “I wasn’t there, but if I was there, he started it.” One argument undermines the other. The presentation of two arguments to the United Nations weakens, rather than enhances, the claim. I do not know why that was done, but again it highlights why we need absolute clarity on such matters. This is not an area in which we can risk having doubt—in the interests of our officers, let alone in the interest of our national reputation—about whether we have done the right thing.
As it stands, an armed attack must already have been launched, or at least be imminent, in order for states to resort to force in individual or collective self-defence; that is one element. Action against past attacks, if not done during the course of a war, risks being categorised as reprisal, which is unlawful in peacetime. Action against future attacks, which might be considered pre-emptive or preventive, is also considered unlawful. There is quite a narrow gap for strikes, which must be necessary and proportionate.
The concern raised by the Khan attack, and indeed by the subsequent attack by the Americans, relates to what we might call “targeted killing”—some have used the phrase “extrajudicial killing.” The concern, which again was raised by General McChrystal, among others, was that that could be seen as an easier alternative to arrest or prosecution when dealing with terrorists. We had that argument in Northern Ireland 30 years ago, when we were accused of hard arrests, as it were. We do not want to revisit that argument, because it was pretty unedifying at the time. If we give in to temptation and such strikes happen, it may be morally right in the case of the individuals concerned, but it would be legally dubious. At the very least, it would amount to a significant change in the Government’s stance on what is legal and what is not, and it therefore requires careful consideration.
Those concerns are amplified by the recent change in the ministerial code relating to international law. I happen not to think that the change has any legal standing but, from a political point of view, it raises concerns that, again, could be used against us by our opponents. I have argued time and again that one of our strongest counter-terrorism weapons is the fact that we abide by a high moral standard. If we do not abide by a high moral standard, we lose one battle to our opponents straightaway.
I am driving towards the relationship between the rules of engagement and the legalities I have just mentioned. This is my direct question to the Minister; I understand that she may not be able to answer it today, but hopefully she will be able to indicate where she is going towards on this question. If the rules of engagement are properly drawn up, they must be within the law, within declared Government policy and within any parliamentary limits that have been set. The Syria debate will address the limits set by Parliament, but action must fit within all three areas. I would normally assume that to be the case but, after our conference last week, I got a memo from somebody who does not want to be identified, so forgive me if I do not identify him. The memo encapsulates the problem about which I am worrying:
“Following the conference last week, I came away with the distinct impression that the MoD is using a different lexicon to the APPG and academe resulting in us talking at cross purposes. Where the APPG and Human Rights Select Committee…are talking about war zones and so forth the MoD have very carefully couched their wording in terms of RoE and operational areas.
Typically RoE have an opening preamble covering the legitimacy of the operation involved…The wording for this will be sanctioned by the MoD legal advisers and endorsed by the law officers’ staff. The RoE then set out the area of operations and it was clear to me from the comments at the conference that this area included parts of Syria—hence everything being done (including 21 Aug) was within the RoE. Typically the MoD and lower formations take the law officers’ confirmation of legitimacy as gospel. They also then seek to make the rules as flexible as possible to allow commanders the greatest possible latitude.”
Essentially, he is saying that the MOD is using a set of language to explain the rules of engagement and the area of operation that is not the same as the law officers’ definition of what is and is not a war zone and the like. That seems important.
The relationship between the rules of engagement, international and national law and policy is the point where the rubber meets the road. One can expect soldiers and airmen to operate on the basis of the rules of engagement only, and nothing else. We must be very clear in this area.
The Joint Committee on Human Rights has begun an inquiry on the legality of the drones policy. There are three pages of questions—I will not read them out—that crystallise the inquiry. They are all good questions, but I finish on the point that drones are not just another weapons system; they are an incredibly effective weapons system subject to legal and technical proliferation, and to change in the behaviour patterns of both politicians and senior commanders. There is a great risk of acting in a way that is tactically incredibly successful but strategically dangerous. It seems to me that we need a clear and unambiguous legal policy, in the interests of our soldiers, our citizens and our allies.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. I am pleased that the Backbench Business Committee agreed that this was an important debate to have, and I thank them for that. I also thank the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis) for his contribution. He made highly relevant and pertinent points, some of which I might repeat. I make no apology for that, because we are discussing a serious matter. I also hope to consider the use of drones from the human perspective, including that of our service personnel.
I echo the sentiments of the right hon. Gentleman, who raised significant concerns about the operational parameters, thresholds and legal framework for the use of drones. Like him, I note the killing of UK citizens by British drones in Raqqa earlier this year. The UK Government have a clear desire at the moment to engage in a campaign of air strikes, which reinforces the importance of having debates such as this fully at the appropriate time. We need proper and clearly understood parameters and a legal basis for any military action that we take. Those parameters are most appropriately discussed and agreed before and not after we ask our service personnel to undertake action.
It is vital that we take the time in this debate to consider and assess the use of armed and unarmed drones and the legal and structural frameworks within which they are used. Because we are responsible for their use, we must also consider the impact upon the people against whom such weapons are used and understand that sometimes they are not the desired or intended target. We must also consider the impact on those whose job involves operating drones.
Clearly, technology is moving fast. Not only are military drones available to our armed forces and those of other nations, but the technology is becoming more accessible and advanced all the time. I understand that companies such as DHL and Amazon are beginning to research the deployment of commercial delivery drones for business purposes. We must assume that such technology will be available not only to our friends but, as the hon. Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan) noted, to those who wish us ill. We must consider that. I know that technology to counter such a situation is under development too.
We must consider those whom we ask to operate drones. It is our duty to look after military personnel operating within a conflict zone; that is equally relevant whether crews are miles away or have not moved from their desks during their deployment because they are engaging in the conflict by operating a drone. Clearly, a key decision-making factor will be the fact that the use of drones does not directly endanger our service personnel, which is important. The ability to control drones remotely means that our personnel can operate effectively out of harm’s way, and we must see the positive in that. However, Chris Cole of Drone Wars UK strikes a cautionary note:
“Drones swing the balance away from engaging in the often difficult and long-term work of solving the root causes of conflicts through diplomatic and political means, towards a quick, short-term ‘fix’ of ‘taking out the bad guys’.”
However, it may not be the bad guys who end up on the receiving end of drone strikes, which is surely a cause for concern and another reason to consider legality. Studies on US targets have revealed a number of flaws in how targets are identified, including during a number of strikes resulting from electronic communications that officials subsequently acknowledged as unreliable.
David Cortright, the policy director of the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, also raises ethical questions about drone use as a means of combating terrorism. He cautions that after 10 years of combat in Afghanistan and given the current high levels of threat from terrorist attacks, of which we are all aware, we ought to know better. We may need to consider that point. Additionally, former Pentagon adviser David Kilcullen has testified that drone strikes arouse anger, which coalesces populations around extremists. As we have heard, recent terrorist attacks in Pakistan are seen as a direct response to drone attacks. Reports from the federally administered tribal areas in Pakistan suggest that it is a matter of honour under the tribal code for the families of drone attack victims to seek revenge. The US drone programme, operating largely in declared war zones, counts nearly 90% of people killed in recent drone strikes in Afghanistan as not the intended targets of those attacks.
From a legal perspective, such statistics and reports cause concern. Yasmine Ahmed, director of Rights Watch UK, told the Joint Committee on Human Rights that clarity is required about the framework on which the UK Government rely in their use of targeted drone strikes, and I agree. Although the UK Attorney General suggested in September this year that UK Government actions on targeted drone killings complied with humanitarian law, serious questions still remain, including on the definition of a combatant and the assessment of those killings as militarily necessary.
In 2010, Sir Gus O’Donnell presented the parliamentary convention on when the UK Government are expected to provide Parliament with the opportunity to debate decisions to use military force. Except in an emergency, approval in advance is required. It is therefore concerning that the unprecedented use of a drone strike to kill a UK citizen in Syria outside the context of war was not notified to Parliament in advance. The facts of the incident have not yet emerged into the public domain, leaving the parameters within which the Government are working unclear to us.
The use of drones must also be considered in relation to those whom we deploy to operate them. I am pleased that we have discussed mental health provision for service personnel in this House recently; the issue deserves scrutiny, understanding and resource. In such discussions, it is imperative that we also fully consider the impact on mental health of being a drone operator.
In 2013, the US Armed Forces Health Surveillance Centre published a report noting that operators of unmanned drones can suffer the same psychological problems as operators of manned drones and similar problems to aircrew. In addition, it said that the negative psychological impacts do not present themselves only as post-traumatic stress disorder. Because of the level of emotional distance between operators and the reality of the human targets that they are pursuing, there are concerns that it might remove the human aspect of their work.
Last month, The Guardian published an article in which a number of former air force drone operators and technicians had come to the paper to discuss their opposition to the ongoing reliance on unmanned drones. One ex-operator described his experience this way:
“Ever step on ants and never give it another thought? That’s what you are made to think of the targets—as just black blobs on a screen. You start to do these psychological gymnastics to make it easier to do what you have to do—they deserved it, they chose their side. You had to kill part of your conscience to keep doing your job every day—and ignore those voices telling you this wasn’t right.”
Questions have been raised about the psychological effects of the very real distance between operator and target, which has sometimes been described as encouraging a PlayStation mentality amongst drone operators. That is a danger in having to remotely control the aircraft separately from the events on screen, as operators can disconnect from the reality of their control over the drones. The UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions raised the concept of a videogame mentality in a 2010 report to the UN Human Rights Council.
Recently, the BBC also highlighted the impact of the job upon the mental wellbeing of drone operators. It reported on the RAF’s 13 Squadron, which operates drones from an aircraft hangar in Lincolnshire. The operators there, who are all qualified and experienced military pilots, work in shifts, controlling aircraft thousands of miles away. The preparation and processes that they undergo are exactly the same as those required for flying a conventional aircraft, and once the door to the workspace is closed the pilots report that it puts them psychologically in that airspace, with all the emotions and thought processes being exactly the same as on manned planes.
One RAF crew member is reported as saying that the potential for psychological and emotional impact on drone operators was
“far greater than it ever was with a manned cockpit”.
He explained that the impressive resolution of drones such as Reaper means that operators know exactly what is on the other end of their crosshairs, and that this immediacy of targeting is also magnified by the fact that the drone crews are “airborne” for hours and hours. Also, unlike conventional crews, they do not have four-month tours but a year-round job, with a proportionately greater risk of suffering post-traumatic stress disorder.
Similar issues are being reported in the USA, with concerns regarding the psychological impact of drone crew experience, and difficulties with crew retention and recruitment. These difficulties are becoming a significant issue, with drone crew members keen to transfer to conventional crews, and consideration now being given to financial incentives to persuade pilots to remain on drone crews, where numbers are becoming critical because three times more pilots are aiming to leave drone crews than conventional crews. Studies have also indicated a concern about psychological numbing, which is attributed to crew seeing the very clear, direct video feed.
The hon. Lady is very eloquently laying out one of the major areas of concern about the use of this weapons system. Does she think that if the drone operators know unequivocally that what they are doing is legal, it would make their job easier and their chance of suffering stress lower?
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his intervention; he makes a very important point. If we expect our service personnel to go into any conflict situation, whether they are in a conventional aircraft or operating a drone, it is our responsibility to make sure that there is a legal basis for that action.
There is an ethical dilemma when drone operators are faced with their targets. In the USA, it is being considered whether it might be better to replace the images that crew members see with modified interfaces. It is possible to do that, but of course the concern then arises that it would potentially introduce an unethical level of emotional distance, which could lead to a lack of recognition of those affected by strikes as people, dehumanising them. I note that the right hon. Gentleman had heard General McChrystal express similar concerns.
That disconnect has also been reported as causing operators challenges in coming to terms with the effects of their actions on both combatants and civilians, and their working environment can contribute to that. After their shift, operators head home in their cars, thousands of miles from the results of their day’s work and—crucially—remote from the opportunity to assimilate their experiences with those of colleagues, as would be the case in a more conventional setting.
Looking to the future, it was recently disclosed that the United States military are using civilian operators to fly drones that are tracking suspected militants and other targets across the globe. This is part of a privatisation of job roles that were previously exclusively undertaken by military personnel. The Los Angeles Times reports that civilian pilots operate combat air patrols that daily fly through areas where military operations are taking place. These civilian operators provide video and collect sensitive information for the United States air force. Although they are not permitted to pinpoint targets or fire missiles at them, they are clearly operating military drones, which is prompting questions, because they are now part of what the USAF refers to as the “kill chain”, which starts with surveillance and ends with the launching of missiles.
That is not the situation that we are faced with now in the UK, but we are faced with a situation in which the thresholds of operation—the legalities and the parameters— are unclear. It is also a situation where, notwithstanding the potential for use of drones, unintended consequences reign supreme. For these reasons, I call upon the Government to debate this issue further, and I would be delighted to hear further information from the Minister about the points that I have made.
Order. I intend to call the Front-Bench spokespersons at 10.30 am. There are 25 minutes left for other speakers, so I hope you can do the arithmetic yourself.
I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis) for securing the debate. As ever, he made a thoughtful and insightful contribution. He is also a man of boundless optimism—after all, he suggested that we would hear from the Chilcot inquiry “shortly”.
Unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, have undoubtedly proved devastatingly effective. Militarily, as my right hon. Friend pointed out, their use has assisted in expelling al-Qaeda from large tracts of Pakistan—albeit not without some cost, and I agree precisely with what he and General McChrystal had to say—and from Yemen. Politically, drones have allowed the US in particular to pursue strategic objectives without needing to put boots on the ground in an era when, as we all know, there is very little appetite among western electorates for their countries to engage in further overseas military adventures.
Without doubt, the development of drone technology will continue apace in the years ahead. Drones will assuredly be an essential part of the furniture of international warfare and, as a consequence, their use will require a thorough overhaul of international law and regulation. That overhaul is still to come.
In the euphoria that surrounds the decisive deployment of drones to eliminate terrorist leaders from afar, it is also worth reflecting—as the hon. Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan) did earlier—that before the world is too much older our enemies will also enjoy access to this technology, with potentially calamitous effect. Terrorists and even criminal extortion gangs will soon be able to operate hardware of this sort, the cost and capability of which is rapidly coming within their range.
The use of drones by the UK military was first avowed as recently as September, when the Prime Minister announced the extrajudicial killings of two UK citizens, Reyaad Khan and Junaid Hussain, who had joined ISIL in Syria and featured prominently in a propaganda video that promoted and encouraged terrorist attacks on UK soil. Of course, the UK Government wished to place those deaths on the record lest details seeped out via a freedom of information inquiry, as happened in July regarding joint US-UK air strikes over Syrian airspace. Moreover, the US policy of routine avowal of fatal drone attacks created the risk that eagle-eyed observers might notice that the two operations resulting in the deaths of Khan and Hussain had not been similarly gazetted. It is better to take the initiative rather than allow lurid conclusions to be drawn. In November, Mohammed Emwazi—alias “Jihadi John”—was similarly dispatched in co-operation with the US military.
For as long as such ISIL-supporting British terrorists were at large on Syrian soil, it would evidently have been impossible to bring them to trial. To be fair, there is a distinction between the situation today and that in Ulster some 40 years ago. Of course there were ungoverned spaces in parts of Londonderry and Belfast, but there are massive tracts within Syria that make it impossible to bring people to trial. None the less, their terrorist activity was designed to cause mayhem on UK soil. We are de facto at war with the so-called Islamic State, and as a consequence Khan and Hussain might properly be regarded as combatants. However, the strong inclination in the post-Iraq war era to provide watertight legal cover for all military operations led, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden said, to the drone raid being classed as “self-defence” under article 51 of the UN charter.
That has opened up a series of contentious issues. For example, were the primary subjects of the drone attack “directing an attack”, and was such an attack “imminent”? As a consequence, our intelligence agencies will need to show after each drone strike that they have carefully considered the operation of article 51, unless we have the change in law that I will come on to. We need to keep the terms of such drone operations under regular, if not constant, review.
My right hon. Friend makes an incredibly important point. One of the difficulties with such a legal basis is the requirement of imminence, which gives us an evidential problem. Presumably there was some sort of terrorist cell in this country that was about to carry out a terrorist action, and the Government have failed or refused to answer questions about whether there have been any arrests in the follow-up to that strike. That gives us a problem. The Government may have good reason for not giving us the information, but when drone strikes are carried out they will have to be ready to provide an evidential chain of some sort to show that what they did was correct.
I very much agree with my right hon. Friend’s comments. It seems to me that we need to keep the terms of drone use under regular, if not constant, review, and that before seeking ministerial authorisation the intelligence agencies would have needed to conclude that the individuals posed an imminent and clear threat to national security. It is also essential that our security services satisfy themselves that a drone strike, rather than any attempt at apprehension, is both necessary and proportionate. The issue of collateral damage—the impact of a strike upon innocent civilians in the vicinity—has been incredibly controversial, especially in Pakistan and Yemen, where it has often been recognised that US strikes have necessitated discreet co-operation with host Governments.
In truth, the increasingly sophisticated monitoring of mobile phones, other telephony and emails has enhanced the ability to target suspects with virtually pinpoint accuracy—it was notable that the only other fatalities in the two UK strikes this summer were associates. That is a good thing; we should try as far as possible to minimise collateral damage.
Nevertheless, I agree with other contributors to the debate that there is now an urgent, and possibly unanswerable, case for updated legislation to govern the use of—not to mention the continued reliance upon—new drone technology. That would allow the Prime Minister and the Government of the day to act with the timing and precision required to wage effective operations, without first having to consider how to navigate the complex labyrinth of precedent, law and parliamentary approval that currently blunts us. The US War Powers Act goes some way to providing a template in that regard, bestowing on the Executive branch the ability to give the green light to action without congressional approval, while maintaining a series of vital checks, safeguards and balances.
It is worth recalling that US legal justification in relation to the use of drones on overseas targets has historically been markedly less strenuous. That has arguably caused difficulties in the ungoverned parts of the world where “Five Eyes” co-operation is often strongest—Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan and, more recently, parts of Syria. The UK security services’ knowledge that intelligence passed to their US counterparts is used to launch drone strikes without, for example, any clear imminent threat to national security, potentially places the UK military, and our own workers, in a legal quagmire.
Although a common protocol among western allies would be ideal, that would necessitate an open political debate about the desirability of adopting the hit list approach that the US military have for selecting drone targets. For the Obama Administration, that approach has essentially involved a rolling update of named individuals, with the list being refreshed whenever there is a successful drone attack involving the assassination of terrorist targets. Needless to say, such an approach is far removed from the necessity for the prior legal approval of each and every step under British law as it currently stands.
Thank you, Mr Stringer, for allowing me to speak for rather longer than my requisite minutes, but I did take some interventions. I very much look forward to the Minister’s response to the debate, and to her recognising that we need new legislation and some genuine thought about the matter, not just in the context of what is happening in Syria but, I suspect, for many years to come.
I broadly agree with all the contributions made so far, by Members on both sides of the House. My interest in the matter was sparked when the Prime Minister announced to the House that drones had been used by the UK in Syria to kill Reyaad Khan—a UK citizen, albeit one who had been radicalised and had chosen to go and fight for ISIL/Daesh in Syria. I realised that I had met the young man many years previously, during a discussion about politics with a group of young people at a youth forum in my constituency. At that time, he was an engaging young man who was interested in politics, and whose political views seemed perfectly normal. When he was a teenager, there was no sign that he would end up being radicalised, choose to go to Syria and join ISIL/Daesh, and come to the end that he did, perhaps inevitably. It provides food for thought when a constituent one happens to have met ends up meeting such a fate.
I will not go into too much detail, because that is not necessarily within the wishes of Reyaad Khan’s family, but I should make it clear that the radicalisation horrified his parents. Many months before the outcome that eventually befell Reyaad Khan, I had written to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to ask, at the family’s request—his parents thought he was in Turkey, perhaps on his way to Syria—for any assistance the FCO could possibly provide, through our consular services in Turkey, in finding a reason to intercept the young man and return him to the UK. I want to make it absolutely clear that the family, who were desperately concerned, were making efforts to prevent the young man from travelling to Syria. That is a tale for us all; as Members of Parliament, we need to be aware of what can happen to our constituents.
Our sympathy should, of course, principally be with the victims of ISIL/Daesh, but extremely difficult and concerning questions of ethics and legality are raised when the UK Government use a remote drone to kill a UK citizen in a country with which, technically, the UK is not at war, even if that citizen has participated in actions carried out by a non-state actor, such as ISIL/Daesh, that undoubtedly presents a direct threat to the UK’s security. Many of the legal issues have already been mentioned, and because of the time I will not go into any great detail. I am not naive enough, however, to believe that the justification used by the Government, and cited by the Prime Minister in the Chamber of the House of Commons, tells us the full story about what legal advice has been given to the Government, and what the justification for the targeting of Reyaad Khan and others has been.
I know that the Minister will not be able to respond to this—I have put it directly to Ministers before—but I have to put on the record that in my view there is in the Ministry of Defence a list of names of UK citizens for whom there is, in effect, a pre-authorisation in place. There would have to be a final signing off, but if those individuals became available to be targeted, they could be targeted. That does call into question, under article 51 of the United Nations charter, the justification on the basis of the imminence of attacks.
I will give way to the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis).
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, which impinges on the speech made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mark Field). One of the most worrying things for me about American policy is the idea that the President approves a kill list every Thursday morning, or whenever it is. That is the kind of area in which I do not think we want to go in the direction of the Americans. Politicians should not have the right to strike someone from the face of the earth, no matter what the logic. Does the hon. Gentleman agree?
I do agree.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I will just make a little progress. That is why it is so important that we have this debate, and why the Joint Committee on Human Rights inquiry is so important. I understand that my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman), who is not here today, has written to the Secretary of State for Defence expressing her concern about the Ministry’s lack of co-operation with that inquiry. Will the Minister, in her response, confirm that the Committee will get the Ministry’s full co-operation, obviously within the parameters of what it can say on this matter?
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I will, briefly, but I am conscious of time. If the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Kirsten Oswald) will forgive me, I probably will not give way a further time.
If article 51, which states that there has to be an imminent threat, is to mean anything, the security services—and, indeed, Ministers who are considering the issue—need to be in a position to update such a list constantly. The notion that an individual is on a list until such time as they are eliminated or assassinated seems to be at odds with article 51. There needs to be a process whereby the question of whether a person is still an imminent threat to the UK is regularly turned over in people’s minds.
I agree with the right hon. Gentleman. I will be interested to see whether the Minister illuminates that issue further in her response to the debate.
I want to raise one other issue, which is whether there should be an inquest into the death of Reyaad Khan. The case, it is fair to say, is fairly unique, but it has possibly led to similar cases. To some extent, an inquest might help establish some of the legal parameters in such cases. I have received representations on this—not from constituents, but from others. As I understand it, section 9 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 effectively grants global jurisdiction in respect of the potential unlawful killing of a British citizen. There is no question but that the issue of legality has been raised, and is under debate; we would not be here today if there was not a question mark about the legality. Can the Minister tell us whether the Government have a view on whether an inquest would be appropriate, if it is correct that the 1861 Act has global jurisdiction, and that the action that led to the death of this British citizen, albeit one who was acting in such a way as to be an enemy of the UK, was physically initiated in the UK, although the weapon used to carry it out was physically located elsewhere? Given the time constraints, I will not go on much longer, but I am interested to hear her response.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate. I thank the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis) for bringing the issue to the House and for putting a clear analysis on the record. Drones have become an increasingly integral part of defence, and their capabilities have gone far beyond surveillance. We have the ability to use drones for combat purposes, which is what the debate is all about. We have concerns about drones being indiscriminate, and worries about whether we can be specific in our targeting using such automated systems. However, while military systems have an increasing range of automated functions, no fully autonomous systems are in use. The operation of a drone still needs human input, so it is fair to say that there is still a large enough degree of control. There is no reason why drones should be more indiscriminate than air strikes, boots on the ground or any other method of combat. Humans control drones and work within the rules.
When it comes to surveillance, there is no doubt that drones have revolutionised our ability effectively to gather intelligence across all corners of the globe. We have already seen drones take out incredibly dangerous individuals and gather the intelligence required for forces to go in at ground level and take targets out. Clearly there have been positives resulting from drone use, but that does not mean we should not be mindful of the concerns about their use expressed by some Members. We can do more to address such concerns by taking formal steps better to educate stakeholders and the public as to what drones actually are. Contrary to popular belief, they are not indiscriminate, pilotless killing machines, but state-of-the-art, precise and remotely piloted military systems, controlled by highly professional, highly trained individuals. Decisions about how a drone behaves when on an operation are made by pilots, analysts and a whole team in real time, just like the crew of a traditional aircraft. All UK drone pilots have to follow the law of armed conflict and the rules of engagement in exactly the same manner as pilots of traditional manned aircraft.
The decision-making process leading to the identification and engagement of targets is identical to that for conventionally manned aircraft. More than that, as our drone pilots have greater access to information, through a combination of the aircraft’s on-board sensors and the ability to access off-board information, they are the best informed and least pressurised of all our aircrew who have to make critical decisions about when to strike.
In the real world, drones’ capabilities save the lives of our personnel, allies and civilians daily. The vast majority of civilian casualties in the middle east are caused by insurgents, terrorists and truly indiscriminate murderers. It is our remotely piloted aircraft that the terrorists fear most. They know just as well as we do that these systems contribute massively to our identifying them and their weapons.
In the time remaining, which I wish to share with the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan), I want to get to the facts. As of January 2014, Reaper has flown for more than 54,000 hours over Afghanistan. In that time, it has fired just 459 precision weapons. The sophistication of the weapons means that they can change course after release if innocent civilians stray into a strike area. That is one example of the many safeguards in place. We need to be able to harness that effectiveness in future conflicts, including those currently spiralling out of control in the middle east.
We know of one highly regrettable incident in which civilians were killed by a weapon deployed from a UK Reaper. Of course that is one incident too many, but in that case, a strike on two trucks carrying insurgent explosives resulted in four civilian casualties, in addition to the death of the insurgents.
This exceptionally useful tool contributes greatly toward protecting and defending UK forces and civilians. The Government’s use of unmanned and remotely piloted aircraft means that we have to safeguard information relating to our targeting and intelligence capabilities, and that applies across the board. The debate has given us an opportunity to provide the public with more information about drones and how, in reality, they are far from indiscriminate killing machines; rather, they are important and life-saving assets.
I congratulate the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis) on securing this important debate; I supported him in doing so at the Backbench Business Committee. He set out a number of concerns, which I hope the Minister will address, not least of which is the question of why Parliament was told that the reliance was on self-defence of the UK, when the message to the UN relied on collective self-defence of Iraq. People might say that that is an arguable or pedantic point, but the fundamental principle matters; it should matter to us in Parliament, and those of us with any concern for international law and the standing of the UN.
Members have touched on a number of issues. Some suggested that we should not relate the issue too much to the experience in Northern Ireland, but when we consider some of the decisions made in the formative years of the involvement in Northern Ireland of the British Army and the intelligence services in the early ’70s, and what then became normative, questions do arise for us. We cannot just casually accept, whenever we ask questions about this matter, people saying either “Don’t ask” or “Don’t expect a full answer.” The real answer is, “We know, and it is okay.” Many hon. Members accepted that sort of line down the years when we raised questions about the nature of operations in Northern Ireland; and many of them then declared themselves shocked when they read in the de Silva report that something close to a kill list was operated in Northern Ireland, and that Parliament was being misled. It is still not clear whether Ministers were misled or were part of the misleading. That experience of sleepwalking through the formative stages of a new situation or operational vista, and of other standards becoming normalised, means that we need to ask questions at parliamentary level.
We should also remember that the Prime Minister told us about this extrajudicial killing in the context of a wider statement about Syria and refugees. It is not clear whether we would have had a statement just on the killing. That sad statement came at the end of a recess, and it is not clear what the standard would be in future. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) said that the standards to be followed and the decision-making processes are identical to those for manual aircraft, but I do not think that, in parliamentary terms, we do know that. He may have been briefed to that effect, but we have not been told that. Many of us have asked questions, including on the all-party group on drones, and have not received full information. Let us remember that manual aircraft would not have been sent in to kill Reyaad Khan, so we are not talking about like-for-like at all.
The hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Kirsten Oswald) raised the question, as did the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden, of the protection of operators and of knowing exactly where they stand in the system. There is not clarity on any of those issues. If the hon. Member for Strangford is so confident of the answers, he should join us in calling for a much fuller clarification of the policy and practices, so that when we have a system, moving forward, it is not determined by default and drift, but by real deliberation, real design and proper delineation of standards, principles and procedures.
Before I call the Front-Bench spokespeople, I hope to be able to give the proposer two or three minutes to respond to the debate.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer, in this timely and critical debate on the rules of engagement and use of armed drones. I am sure all Members here will agree that the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis) and members of the all-party group on drones have ensured an in-depth and robust debate on matters of ethics, morality and fundamentally political choice.
My hon. Friend the Member for East Renfrewshire (Kirsten Oswald), the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden and others who have participated in the debate have made a convincing case for further debate, scrutiny and holding the Government to account for the political choices they make in deciding the role of the state in surveillance and in ending lives, especially the lives of UK citizens living in other countries. I take the point made by the hon. Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan) about future drone use and, as mentioned by others, their use by extremists and criminals. That needs to be looked at in depth to perhaps inform future policy.
As has been outlined, for some Members, the present lack of information relating to the rules of engagement leaves much to be desired, and for many it highlights our inability to comply with international human rights law—critically, particularly with regard to seeking to understand whether the European convention on human rights applies when physical power and control is exercised over a person via an automated vehicle controlled by a UK citizen. This is exacerbated, as was mentioned, by the Secretary of State’s lack of response to the Joint Committee on Human Rights. If the Secretary of State were able to attend the Committee, we could perhaps get a resolution and some clarity. I am sure that the Minister will wish to address that when she responds.
The efficiency of the present systems is an important issue. In some cases in the past decade in Afghanistan, drones did not hit their target. Given the increase in the use of drones in Afghanistan under the leadership of President Obama, this must surely throw into doubt their efficiency, and the ability of Government policy to limit the power of extremists at home and abroad, both now and in future. The Government’s present approach could arouse feelings of anger and lead to local populations coalescing around extremists, rather than removing them from the overall picture.
Fundamentally, this physical disengagement—the move from traditional warfare in the field, mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for East Renfrewshire, to being based in a bunker thousands of miles away—is a Pandora’s box that has been opened and will not be shut. If in the weeks and days ahead we find ourselves involved in an aerial bombardment over Syria, the use of drones, not only in surveillance but in the delivery of hardware, will be a military choice, not a political one.
The need for at least a statement or summary on the legal use of drones and supporting rules of engagement need to be published, as well as a definition of areas of operation. Now more than ever, my constituents—I am sure that I speak for my hon. Friend the Member for East Renfrewshire, too—seek a detailed policy and operational guidelines. We accept that those guidelines should recognise the security implications for our armed forces.
In addition, we hope that the Government will clarify the use of civilian operators and their possible role in delivering ordnance to the end point—that is, in using the firing button—in present and future operations. We also hope that mental health will be considered. In a recent Adjournment debate, we discussed mental health and the impact on veterans, military personnel and their children.
The Government must clarify our limitations. In which countries do we use drones? Will we become another United States, targeting countries such as Pakistan? If we do, we must consider the ramifications for some of our partners—including, critically, the Commonwealth family—and their relationship with the UK. Holding the Government to account requires us to have the ability to ensure that evidence is challenged and proven, and that includes the ability to prove the effectiveness of drones in military use.
I have a feeling that no matter the number of deaths, civilian or otherwise, the use of drones will continue and increase. In the light of that, will the Government consider that recent research has revealed that over the past 10 years, 61% of CIA air strikes have hit domestic buildings?
It is crucial that drone strikes are made with the utmost accuracy if they are to take place, and civilian casualties must be avoided. Is my hon. Friend aware of cases such as that of Fahd al-Quso, who was killed apparently in Yemen and Pakistan? Similarly, there are others who have been targeted by the United States who have apparently been killed several times. What assessment does my hon. Friend make of that in relation to accuracy and reporting?
I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s intervention. Her point recognises the limitations on intelligence. I will cover that in a moment.
An estimated 222 civilians have been killed in United States strikes, including the American and Italian hostages killed in recent drone strikes in compounds. The use of drones without robust and accountable rules of engagement removes not one additional extremist or terrorist, but acts as a recruiting sergeant for the most heinous of blood cults. The present policy of power to kill anyone anywhere in the world without oversight or safeguards is a failed strategy that perpetuates the illusion that military force is effective in combating extremists.
Will the hon. Gentleman accept that, as I suggested, part of the issue is that in Pakistan and Yemen there is co-operation between whatever authorities there are—I would not say there is a functioning Government in either of those countries—and the US military? That is part of the problem. Drones are a recruiting sergeant because of the anger in what is essentially a collection of civil wars with a lot of militias in place.
Strangely, I would not disagree or agree. We are seeing the continued emergence of extremists. The recent dreadful attacks in Paris and Beirut show the exacerbated position that we find ourselves in.
As my hon. Friend the Member for East Renfrewshire said, our mistake could be in believing that electronic communication or signals intelligence is infallible. We know from experience that this is not the reality we wish it to be. This was mentioned in detail by the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden. Our ability to scrutinise and inform the policies that improve intelligence should be welcomed—I hope the Minister will welcome that—as it seeks to improve conditions for armed forces and civilian staff who are at the coalface of engagement.
Finally, the future development of this technology will challenge our military planning and, critically, our own use of drones, especially the development of autonomous drones. Although there is a policy not to develop that technology, I urge the Government to agree to the UN resolution for a moratorium on the development of such technology until we better understand the ramifications on our society.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis) on securing this debate. We have had contributions from the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Kirsten Oswald), the right hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mark Field), my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan), and the hon. Members for Strangford (Jim Shannon), for Foyle (Mark Durkan), and for West Dunbartonshire (Martin John Docherty).
The right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden explained the use of UAVs. We must recognise that they are a new technology in a long list. The history of development goes back to Zeppelins and other types of weapons. He highlighted the issue of how UAVs are used. In my experience, for the majority of the time, they are a valuable tool in surveillance and intelligence gathering. However, as he rightly says, in some cases they have a capacity to deliver weapons to a target. He highlighted the issue of Baghdad, the defeat of al-Qaeda and the use of UAVs in operations, but he then made a very important point that we should not forget. That battle was won not only through the use of UAVs but by the brave servicemen of the US and the UK, and also—the important point he made—by the use of good intelligence. Much of it was secured not through UAVs but from other sources.
A number of speakers mentioned the legal framework for the use of UAVs, which is important. It is no different—nor should it be—from the framework for an attack by a conventional aircraft or, for that matter, UK forces on the ground. It is important that that legal framework is in place. If someone joins Her Majesty’s armed forces, one of the first things they are taught in basic training is the rules of engagement for self-defence. It is clear that even the most junior members of the armed forces know when they can and cannot use force by, for example, discharging their weapons. Whether delivered by a UAV or a conventional aircraft, the use of weapons is covered by a legal framework.
As a former Ministry of Defence Minister, I know that the same rules of engagement are used whether we are talking about a UAV or a Tornado using conventional weapons against a target. I accept that there is a lot of misinformation, and perhaps some ignorance, which the MOD needs to address. The idea is out there that the people operating UAVs are somehow isolated from the decision-making process. They are not. As I understand it, they are just as much part of that process as someone flying a Tornado would be. There are suggestions that they do not know the legal ramifications of what they are doing or about the intelligence around it, but that is not the case.
I know from my experience in the MOD that on a number of occasions in both Afghanistan and Iraq legal authority was given, whether in the form of advice given to the chain of command or an agreement by Ministers, but even when the missions had been agreed they were aborted. That was not because of an intervention in the chain of command, but because the operator saw that the situation on the ground was such that they would have to abort to avoid civilian casualties, or for some other reason. We need to be clear that UAV operators are not sitting in isolation. They have not just been given a set of instructions to carry out without any thought process; they are clearly thinking, which is important.
The hon. Members for Strangford and for West Dunbartonshire mentioned the idea of the autonomous use of UAVs. That is an entirely different situation from the current one. I agree that if technology goes down that route, we will require a new set of laws for how we set rules of engagement. An important point about the legal framework is that the MOD needs to do more to explain the rules of engagement.
The right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden spoke about the legality of using the rules of engagement outside a conflict zone, which is a legitimate point to address. During my time in the MOD, the use of UAVs was confined to Afghanistan and Iraq, and the main bulk of their work was in surveillance and intelligence gathering—vital tools for the fight in Syria.
My hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff West made an interesting point about the fact that the threshold for access to UAV technology is getting lower. There is, I think, already some information about terrorist groups acquiring the technology, which means that we will need to develop ways to counteract it—for example, through jamming.
The hon. Member for East Renfrewshire made an interesting point about mental health. A lot of anecdotal evidence has come forward, some of which she mentioned. Perhaps the MOD needs to look at that, because we have new technology. For example, the defence medicine department at King’s College might want to consider doing a longer-term study of the effects on those who are operating UAV systems.
In closing, I am confident in the legal framework around the people who operate these systems. Is it important to have this debate? Yes, it is. Should the MOD do more, not only by explaining the rules of engagement but by actually answering questions when challenged? I think it should.
I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis) for securing this important and extremely interesting debate, and I thank all the other Members who spoke and attended. I also thank my right hon. Friend for recognising that this new technology has great potential to keep our armed forces safe and reduce civilian casualties. He and other Members spoke about its capacity to be a decisive tool and a force multiplier, about its precision, and about its role in keeping our armed forces safe. An important point that has not been touched on is that because the crews who operate armed drones are not themselves in a combat zone—although there are unique stresses, which I will address later in my speech—and may build up many hours of experience in operating and flying missions, they might actually make better judgments.
I shall first try to answer some of the technical legal questions that my right hon. Friend focused on, after which I will address the other points that Members have made. Our doctrine and rules of engagement are compliant with international law—including international humanitarian law—and underpinned by the principles of distinction, humanity, proportionality and military necessity. We are confident that the existing provisions in international law are sufficient to regulate the new weapons systems.
Our rules of engagement—as opposed to our static doctrine—are tailored to specific missions and will include policy, legal and operational guidance. They are typically given in a series of permissions and prohibitions that must be followed during a particular operation. We do not put the rules of engagement in the public domain, because it would give our opponents a considerable advantage if they understood that aspect of our operations.
A lot of what my right hon. Friend was driving at and a lot of the assurances he wants are contained in our doctrine. In 2011, the Development, Concepts and Doctrine Centre produced a joint doctrine note on our approach to unmanned air systems, to capture some of the issues we knew about at the time. Although it was a thorough piece of work, it was meant to be only a temporary document. There has clearly been a huge evolution in our understanding of unmanned air systems and the related issues, some of which were touched on earlier. That document initiated a debate about a whole range of legal and ethical issues. The original note was agreed by a wide stakeholder group in 2011, and the next version, to be called the UK air power doctrine, is anticipated towards the end of next year. It will develop the concepts and framework that will underpin our rules of engagement and policy development, and will be the receptacle for a lot of the issues raised by my right hon. Friend.
This whole subject area is clearly complicated by the current wider debates about international humanitarian law, where it applies and in what situations. We are used to dealing with state-on-state conflicts, but we are moving into very different territory these days, and that is becoming the norm. I devote a large proportion of my time to the subject, and one of the first meetings I had as Armed Forces Minister was with the International Committee of the Red Cross, to look at how we secure the primacy of international humanitarian law and deal with the questions around non-state conflicts.
Will the Minister give an undertaking that the MOD will co-operate fully with the Joint Committee on Human Rights, which will hopefully provide information about exactly that issue?
Yes, I can give my right hon. Friend that assurance. If we have been tardy in responding to the Committee, I apologise, and I am very happy to follow that up. The Secretary of State is due to speak to the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman) shortly, and I will follow that up after the debate. We certainly wish to co-operate, because putting more information into the public domain about the seriousness with which we take such issues will reassure hon. Members.
We have focused on air systems, but there are all sorts of other systems. We are investing massively in underwater systems, for which there is another set of legal requirements. My right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden referred to operational areas and war zones. Clearly, we might have to use these systems and others to respond to a range of situations, including hostage situations and so forth. The picture is complex, but we take it extremely seriously. An enormous amount of time is going into developing the doctrine as the technology develops. We want to operate in a good framework with best practice, and we want our allies to do the same. There is wide international consultation, and we will be playing a full role in helping others to raise their game.
Let me turn to some of the other points that hon. Members have made. The particular weapon or platform type that we use has no bearing on our decision about whether to use force. I assure the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) that the targeting boards and processes are identical for these and other weapon systems.
Several hon. Members focused on the effect on pilots. That issue is often framed in terms of the emotional effect of taking a life on the pilots conducting the strike activity, whether they become detached from the situation and whether they have access to the same support—decompression and so forth—that people on more conventional operations can access. It is often about not what people do, but what they see. I have spoken to pilots who have said that most distressing and frustrating thing is to see something take place that they are unable to prevent, in part because of the strict restrictions placed on them, which cause stress. Of course, the health and wellbeing of our armed forces personnel is of the utmost importance, and we are mindful of the pressure and stresses that such operations cause. The personnel involved are carefully monitored and, where appropriate, have access to the highest levels of military physical and mental healthcare. Looking after them is key, and that is one of the main roles that our front-line commanders are tasked with.
The RAF stress management and resilience training team has delivered stress awareness briefs to units operating these systems, to make personnel aware of the subject and of the range of assistance and support that is available to them. We recognise the unique nature of such operations, and we have embedded TRIM—trauma risk management—providers in RAF Reaper squadrons. As hon. Members know, TRIM provides a model of peer group mentoring and support for use in the aftermath of traumatic events.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mark Field) and the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire (Martin John Docherty) asked about others having access to such systems and our ability to combat that. I assure all hon. Members that that was a key strand of our recent strategic defence and security review, and there will be ongoing work to ensure that the right defensive systems and practices are in place to prevent such technology from being used against us.
Hon. Members spoke about the effect on hearts and minds. We understand that whatever means we use to deliver precision weapons in conflict zones—air strikes, operations on the ground or remotely piloted air systems—there will be a negative effect on the civilian populations in the vicinity. However, we do not take the decision to conduct strikes lightly, and we take every step to minimise the impact on civilian populations, including using precision-guided munitions.
Before the Minister finishes, do the Government have a view about whether it is appropriate to hold an inquest if a UK citizen has been killed in that way?
I was coming to that point, but I will answer the hon. Gentleman’s question now. He dealt with the issues he raised in a sensitive manner. The Prime Minister was clear that in circumstances in which we have no alternative—hon. Members have outlined why we had no alternative in that situation—and we think we can prevent and disrupt an imminent threat, we will take action. I think that is the right thing to do. In the specific case that the hon. Gentleman asked about, there will be no inquest. Because it is outside the coroner’s jurisdiction, there will not be a coroner’s inquest either. The answer to his question is no, there will not be either an inquest or a coroner’s inquiry.
It is, of course, the terrorists who target civilian populations and induce suffering. That is why we have and use these systems. All civilian deaths are regrettable, but in more than 80,000 hours of UK Reaper remotely piloted aircraft system operations, only one known incident has resulted in civilian deaths. UK forces have strict operating procedures to minimise the risk of casualties.
Finally, like all hon. Members, no matter what their views on this technology, I pay tribute to the pilots and crews who keep our country safe.
Thank you very much for chairing this debate, Mr Stringer. It has been a privilege to serve under your chairmanship. I thank the Backbench Business Committee, and I hope we have justified its decision to give us this debate.
Let me quickly pick up a couple of points. I thank the Minister, who answered many of our questions well. My right hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mark Field) argued that we need a new law. Given that the UK air power doctrine will be published in 2016, what we really need more immediately is a robust and clear public application of the current law. That would be the most important outcome of this debate.
Some hon. Members argued that this is a new system, but it is operated in the same way as existing systems. The principle is the same, but the practicalities are different. To put it in physical terms, a Tornado can cross the length of a football field in one third of a second, but a drone can watch the same football field in orbit for eight hours. Clearly, there are differences in precision.
The rules of war were built around the fog of war and the doubt that it creates, so we have an opportunity to make them more precise and humane. However, as the hon. Members for West Dunbartonshire (Martin John Docherty) and for East Renfrewshire (Kirsten Oswald) said, in American strikes, each kill of a terrorist is claimed three times. That implies that at least two innocent people die as a result of failures of intelligence, so there are areas of concern.
That brings me to the most important aspect of this debate, which is the blurring of the area between war and peace. Drone operations in war zones worry me much less than drone operations outside war zones. That is where Governments will be tempted to do things that are beyond what we normally expect of a civilised western Government. I will look very carefully at the 2016 UK air power doctrine for an answer to that issue.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the rules of engagement and the use of armed drones.
Small Business Saturday
I beg to move,
That this House has considered Small Business Saturday
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. I thank the powers that be for selecting this topic for debate. I am delighted that we have the opportunity to discuss how vital small businesses are to the prosperity of the UK’s nations.
The importance of small businesses should be self-evident. Indeed, 99% of businesses in the UK have fewer than 49 employees, accounting for 48% of total employment and 33% of turnover. That amounts to 15 million people in the UK being directly employed by small businesses, with a turnover of £1.75 trillion. They are the drivers of economic growth, creating jobs and serving the requirements of our communities. Whether they are—in no particular order—local tradesmen, retailers, service providers or catering outlets, the benefits of small businesses extend beyond the employees they hire. Just under a fifth of all small and medium-sized enterprises in the UK operate in the construction sector and 15% operate in the professional, scientific and technical sectors, and those businesses complement the success of associated industries such as manufacturing. We should therefore recognise that the influence of SMEs cannot easily be quantified simply by looking at their own output as it extends into the wider economy and communities.
In bringing forward this debate, I wanted to stimulate the discussion around how we can continue to support small businesses and to highlight the challenges that they face. For the last three years, Small Business Saturday has provided the opportunity to focus the minds of consumers, business people and policy makers on the indispensable contribution made by small businesses.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on obtaining this debate. One issue that our small businesses, whether they are on the high street or are another form of SME, face today is that of business rates, which are crippling many companies. I am sure he would agree that they need to be looked at.
I certainly do, and that is a topic that I hope to cover later on.
Last year, 16.5 million UK adults supported a small business on Small Business Saturday, and I am sure that this year’s campaign will be equally successful when it takes place on Saturday 5 December. However, although it is important to raise awareness of the challenges small businesses face on the first Saturday of every December, we must ensure that the campaign leaves a positive and lasting impact on small businesses all year round.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. I want to pay tribute to the others, along with myself, who instigated the bringing over of Small Business Saturday from the US to the UK, including the Federation of Small Businesses, the Institute of Directors, the British Chambers of Commerce and the British Independent Retailers Association, and to thank Michelle Ovens and the team at Small Business Saturday UK above all for setting it up. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is important to acknowledge that Small Business Saturday is not all about shopping? Our small businesses do a lot more than just provide retail services and products and do so much more for our economy. Small Business Saturday is as much about people outside of retail as it is about those within it.
I absolutely agree. It is easy for us to focus on shopping and the high street, particularly pre-Christmas when that is what it is all about. Retail is a large part of it, but small businesses employ people in all sorts of sectors and many of them, such as my business in my previous existence, which I hope to touch on later, do not have the high visibility of the high street.
Other hon. Members will be able to relate to concerns about decline, as shop closures and empty retail units are an issue that stretches right across the UK. As in other constituencies, the situation in Inverclyde varies considerably. The largest town of my constituency, Greenock, is primarily served by an enclosed shopping centre populated by larger retail outlets which has struggled in recent years with closures and has failed to live up to the potential that the centre of Greenock has to offer. In other parts of my constituency, the smaller towns of Gourock and Kilmacolm have been comparatively successful in maintaining more vibrant town centres, mainly populated by small, independent businesses. However, they are not helped when large banks withdraw their high street presence and contribute to the reduction in footfall.
There are no easy answers when it comes to regenerating our high streets, but Inverclyde provides a valuable lesson: smaller, independent retailers are an integral part of creating thriving town centres.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate. Small Business Saturday is an opportunity to highlight the vital work of local authorities in supporting high streets. His point about empty shops is important and I congratulate the Vale of the White Horse District Council, which has halved the number of empty shops in Abingdon and has put on free parking for Small Business Saturday. It also helps to throw the important Abingdon extravaganza to support local shops. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that Small Business Saturday’s message is that we will see lasting improvements for small businesses only when local communities support them, whether retail or not, throughout the year?
Order. I remind hon. Members that interventions should be short and to the point.
I thank the hon. Lady for her point.
One business in my constituency that is contributing to the success is the Pirate and Bluebelle, a gallery operated by Heather McCulloch and Nick Summers. It is a small business in the very literal sense of the word. Their shop is just 2 metres by 4 metres and is one of the smallest galleries in Scotland, if not the UK. Heather and Nick established the business in order to sell artistic photographic prints and by doing so they are now supporting a number of emerging local artists and crafters. Like many small business owners, Heather and Nick are self-motivated, have been prepared to take risks and are driven by a desire to benefit not only themselves, but their local community. In the words of Heather herself:
“We feel that the rewards far outweigh the cash.”
I hope other Members today will join me in commending Heather and Nick’s community spirit in creating a successful small business. Their experiences should be noted by policy makers in this Parliament and elsewhere. For example, Heather and Nick are concerned that the business registration process was difficult to understand and noted that the guidance on what was expected of them on tax and national insurance contributions could have been more clearly stated. Furthermore, Heather and Nick feel that the personalised support from Business Gateway made a positive contribution to the establishment of their gallery. An adviser has been available to answer questions specific to their circumstances and that specialised knowledge has assisted in developing the business in its first year of operation. I would echo that sentiment as I ran my own small IT business for 12 years and the burden of the paperwork required by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs distracted from the enjoyment of being self-employed.
The UK has an annual business death rate of 10% and the Pirate and Bluebelle is an example of why pre-planning is so important. Heather and Nick tested the market by attending local fairs and measuring the reception of their product with customers. They followed that up by securing premises on a shopping strip suitable for a small independent retailer and the type of products they wanted to sell. Many businesses fail within the first five years, and it is vital that potential business owners undertake the necessary preparation before fully committing.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing such an important debate ahead of Small Business Saturday. Does he agree that it is important to encourage more women to start their own businesses, as they often fail sooner than their male counterparts? As the world of work changes, we must ensure that businesses such as Decadently Pure in my constituency, which is run by Ros Milligan who recently won a West Lothian chamber of commerce award, are able to develop and flourish.
I would not for one minute believe that women were more likely to fail at small business than men—certainly that is not my experience in my community, where many of the businesses are run by strong, vibrant and intelligent women. I am surprised to hear that. Despite the challenges, long hours and potential risks of running a small business, Heather is optimistic about her future operating an independent business in Inverclyde. She said:
“Setting up and running a small business has been one of the most challenging things we have ever done but also the most rewarding.”
I am aware that a range of support is already available to small businesses such as the Pirate and Bluebelle—I should point out that Inverclyde and, indeed, Gourock have many other good small businesses dealing in fine art. Assisting SMEs must be a collaborative effort across different tiers of government and various other organisations. In Inverclyde small businesses have access to a variety of support, including from Inverclyde Council, the Scottish Government, Riverside Inverclyde, Skills Development Scotland, Business Gateway and Scottish Enterprise.
At local authority level, businesses in my constituency have access to grants that assist with capital expenditure, staff training and structural improvements to business premises. Inverclyde Council provides a small business loan scheme to improve the small business start-up rate. A west of Scotland loan fund is also available, providing loans of up to £100,000 for established businesses operating for more than two years, while newer businesses may borrow up to £30,000 through the same fund.
Such schemes emerged in response to the small business concern of finding credit increasingly difficult to secure. Another local organisation, Riverside Inverclyde, has complemented the work of Inverclyde Council to tailor solutions specific to my constituency. It has promoted the establishment of small businesses by providing quality office space, which is an important task, because Greenock, formerly a town of heavy industry, did not have enough office space suitable for a modern, digitally connected business. In establishing or refurbishing six offices and business centres, Riverside Inverclyde has helped to secure more than 850 jobs.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. He is talking about the support needed by small business, which, as he said, is vital all year round. Does he agree that the Small Business Saturday team is becoming more of an all-year-round support and is securing support, not least with its bus tour, which has travelled throughout the country for many weeks, to show that support is needed every day of the year, not only on 5 December?
Absolutely. This coming Saturday is a focal point, which is all about raising awareness, as is the debate. As the hon. Gentleman says, it is all year round, because it is sometimes a day in, day out struggle for businesses to keep their head above water.
At national level small businesses have been eligible for the Scottish Government’s small business bonus scheme since 2008. Almost 100,000 businesses now benefit from having their business rates reduced or completely removed—a record amount since the introduction of the scheme. The scheme has provided indispensable assistance to businesses throughout extended periods of difficult economic circumstances. Since its 2008 introduction, the amount of money being saved by businesses throughout Scotland has more than doubled and because of that competitive advantage, businesses in Scotland can this year save up to £3,200 more under the scheme than equivalent businesses in England can. I welcome the First Minister’s commitment that the scheme will continue throughout the next Parliament, should the current Scottish Government be re-elected.
Cross-border collaboration also benefits small businesses, in particular on important infrastructure projects such as improving access to superfast broadband. Federation of Small Businesses research found that 99% of small firms rate the internet as “highly important” to their business. I note that the Scottish Government are ahead of schedule in meeting their target of 95% of premises covered by superfast broadband by 2017, so we can see in practical terms how collaboration between levels of government and other organisations is critical to giving small businesses the support they need to thrive.
If I may be allowed to indulge myself, I cannot end my speech without mentioning that Inverclyde has many advantages as a place to do business. It is within commuting distance of Glasgow, is a short distance from Glasgow airport and enjoys excellent rail connections. Anyone wishing to start a business in the area can expect excellent tailored support from Inverclyde Council and Riverside Inverclyde, in addition to the wider benefits that the Scottish Government provide.
I, too, commend my hon. Friend for securing this important debate. He talks about collaboration between different agencies of government, but does he accept that one agency, HMRC, has not been helpful to small businesses recently? It is planning to close down offices throughout the UK, making it much more difficult for small businesses to get their tax forms correct.
I touched on HMRC earlier and I echo my hon. Friend’s sentiments.
In the lead-up to this year’s Small Business Saturday my message is clear: let us create more local jobs and vibrant town centres, and invest in the future of our communities by backing our SMEs.
Before I call John McNally, may I check with the Minister that he has had permission to speak?
Thank you, Mr Stringer. I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Inverclyde (Ronnie Cowan) for securing the debate on a subject that is close to my own heart.
As a small business owner, being a hairdresser and running a business employing staff, I appreciate the commitment and training that goes into running a small business for more than 50 years. I appreciate the trials and tribulations of people running their own business and what a powerful driver the small business sector is for growth and competition across the economy.
As the vice-chair—soon to be the chair, hopefully—of the all-party group on the hair industry, I fully appreciate the work that has gone into the Hair Council, which I believe includes more than 250,000 hairdressing businesses in Britain. It supplies a huge amount of effort and employment, especially in support of local town centres. I welcome the opportunity to support the Small Business Saturday campaign and to highlight the business successes in my constituency and throughout Falkirk district.
Over the past two years alone, more than 1,057 new businesses in my constituency have been registered at Companies House. Falkirk has benefited from the steady increase in successful entrepreneurship and business development, with many successful businesses supplying other local businesses in the area. That is in no small part due to initiatives such as Small Business Saturday, a grassroots, non-commercial campaign that highlights small business success and encourages consumers to shop locally and support small businesses in their communities.
As my hon. Friend said, Small Business Saturday takes place on the first Saturday in December. It is my hope that the campaign will have a long-lasting effect on businesses and shopping habits in Falkirk and towns throughout the district, as well as Scotland-wide. Nationally, our small businesses are well supported by the Scottish Government’s small business bonus scheme, which has benefited more than 99,000 commercial properties in Scotland and helped the number of small businesses in Scotland to increase by more than 50% over the past 15 years.
Locally, Falkirk benefits from an excellent district business improvement team in the form of Falkirk Delivers, headed by Alex and Sarah. Their team have a similar ethos to that of Small Business Saturday and have the mantra of keeping things local, which is more than a “use it or lose it” message. It is about supporting businesses that have supported the town and have evolved the way in which they do business to benefit our communities and local people. It is about appreciating local knowledge, providing excellent customer service, and retaining money within our local economy to ensure that our towns are a thriving and vibrant place to shop, live and work, and providing a feel-good factor about them.
Falkirk benefits from a diverse range of businesses located at its core. The town has two covered shopping centres, Howgate and Callendar Square, in which national retail businesses are located, but what distinguishes Falkirk from other, larger towns is the diversity and range of smaller independent businesses. Falkirk also has a renowned and award-winning night-time economy, with a variety of pubs, cafés, restaurants and nightclubs, many of which are independently owned and managed.
Falkirk town centre, like many, has seen a change in the landscape over the past few years, as my hon. Friend the Member for Inverclyde mentioned. Some of our national retailers have moved away from their traditional high street presence, and vacancy rates have hovered around the national average, but our small retailers seem to have weathered the economic downturn of the past few years better than most. I will keep supporting those small businesses in the best way I can.
Small Business Saturday, on 5 December, is an ideal vehicle to remind people to shop locally—at Stenhousemuir, Larbert, Denny, Dunipace, Bonnybridge, Laurieston and Polmont. I hope I have not left anywhere out, or there will be hell to pay when I get home.
The Falkirk Delivers team has a marketing campaign using print and social media that features many of our local independents. For example, we have Gems Sweets, where we can still buy Spanish Gold, Chelsea Whoppers or Lucky Tatties—perhaps that does not fit well with yesterday’s debate about the war on sugar, but they are quite tasty. A fixture in our town for more than 100 years has been G.W. Smith cycle shop. We have Coffee on Wooer, a trendy new artisan coffee shop that always has a space for local musicians, poets and writers to do their thing. The town’s Howgate centre recently launched INDY, an independent marketplace with small unit space, ideal for the have-a-go entrepreneur. It offers the best of both worlds, because it is located in a busy shopping centre but is aimed at encouraging and growing unique and individual independent businesses.
Such businesses are the heart of our town centre community. They are known, loved and trusted by locals and visitors alike. However, Small Business Saturday is not only about retail. Falkirk town centre is home to lawyers, accountants and translators—and we even have a 3D printer—all of whom rely heavily on local businesses, so Small Business Saturday and the wider “keep it local” campaign play a part for those services as well.
Falkirk Delivers and its partners are working on a range of projects and initiatives to continue to support the town centre during a time of change. With the £5 million-plus investment through the Townscape Heritage initiative, the successful launch of our “can do” space and projects such as the Carnegie Trust’s TestTown, the message is that Falkirk is very much open and ready for business. I totally support my hon. Friend the Member for Inverclyde on this issue.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Inverclyde (Ronnie Cowan) for securing the debate and to everyone who has contributed to it. I will begin with some stats: 99.3% of United Kingdom businesses are small businesses. Small businesses employ 12.4 million people, which is 48% of total private sector employment. They have a combined annual turnover of £1.2 trillion, which is 33% of turnover in the private sector, and there are a record 5.4 million private sector businesses in 2015, which is an increase of 908,000 from the start of 2010. I say that to give context and to show that we should never underestimate the huge importance of our small businesses.
I also pay tribute to the hon. Member for Streatham (Mr Umunna) and others who brought Small Business Saturday to this country. It is a welcome American import that has been hugely successful. I was honoured to go to the launch of this year’s Small Business Saturday in July, where I learned a great deal. I was already a fan of it—it has been in place for a couple of years—but I had not appreciated this annual event’s importance for small businesses not just in having customers going along to celebrate and put their money where their mouth is, but in their relationships with each other. I was really struck by the fact that Small Business Saturday is a great opportunity for small businesses to develop and expand their networks and to learn much from each other.
The hon. Member for Inverclyde made the good point that Small Business Saturday is not just about celebrating retail, though there is nothing wrong with that. Small businesses in our high streets and towns encompass IT firms, accountants, solicitors, health providers and leisure providers—there is a long list.
I thank the Minister for her kind words. It is important to state that Small Business Saturday is not about being against our large businesses, because the relationship between our small and bigger businesses is symbiotic—they depend on each other. Small businesses are an important part of larger businesses’ supply chains, so overall this is a pro-business campaign for every business, whether big or small, because everyone benefits in the end.
I completely endorse everything the hon. Gentleman says. We should not forget that some small businesses are sole traders, while many will employ just one or two people. However, they are a critical part of the supply chain. Indeed, we should not forget the support that accountants and solicitors give to larger companies.
One of the downsides of being a Minister is that I am constrained about speaking in glowing terms about my constituency. All of us love to come to this place and champion our constituents, and rightly so. If I may, I will indulge my businesses and constituents with what I shall do this Saturday in celebration of Small Business Saturday, which is supported by the Government—goodness me, we all know that this is not a party political issue.
I shall probably begin at Bardills, which is an excellent garden centre—we forget how many garden centres are important small businesses—where I will order my Christmas tree. Then I shall go into Kimberley, which is one of three excellent towns. I shall enjoy a cup of coffee in Rumbletums and probably some cake over at Madhatters. I will go to a flower shop—I will be in trouble, because I could go to a number of good flower shops in my constituency, but the one in Kimberley is particularly good. I can buy fruit and vegetables in yet another great small business that, like so many, is family-run. Fred Hallam Ltd in Beeston goes back many generations, and while such families are running businesses they are providing a real service to their communities. We should not forget that.
When I go to the great shops and small businesses in my constituency, I really notice the level of care they give to customers. They know their customers and look after them by making sure that whatever they want is available. Such businesses are particularly keen to ensure that they provide an excellent service to older customers.
I will go into Beeston. The town unfortunately suffered because of the tram works that blighted it, but it is on its way up. Now we have got the tram, and we look forward to more people coming into the town and other people who previously shopped there coming back.
My hon. Friend the Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Nicola Blackwood) made a good point about the need for free parking. She talked about her own constituency, where there will be free parking this Saturday, and I am pleased that my borough council will have free parking throughout December. I have quite controversial views on parking, which we will not go into, but let me put it this way: the more towns that embrace free parking, the better. As I said, I shall go into Beeston and enjoy Fred Hallam Ltd—it has a fishmonger, which is rare.
To show the cross-party consensus on this issue, may I congratulate Sefton on providing free parking throughout December for the very purpose that the Minister describes?
I completely endorse that.
I will go to the deli and buy, if not fine cheese, some Blue Monkey beer called BG Sips, which I recommend to everyone. Microbreweries are another type of small business that employ people and contribute hugely to the local and national economy. Many are now stepping into exports, and the Government are keen to ensure that UK Trade & Investment looks at the benefits it can provide to small businesses.
No doubt I shall go into Relish, where I will have to have another bacon butty or some similar delight. That is another good example of a small business that is doing well. I shall finish in Stapleford, where I will go to an excellent small business that alters clothes—it has been going incredibly well and is now growing and leading the town team. No doubt, I will end up in Shabbylicious with yet another excuse to drink more tea or coffee and indulge in more cakes and mince pies.
I hope I have made a serious point. Small business are important to the economy, and the statistics show it. I want to finish on a hopefully positive note, which is about business rates: small businesses now pay less tax. We are supporting them by extending the doubling of small business rate relief in England to April 2017. More than 400,000 small businesses will pay no rates at all as a result of that welcome extension.
I know that all Members will be out there on Saturday celebrating Small Business Saturday. I am grateful to the Federation of Small Businesses, which brought the event to my constituency. I pay tribute to it, and to the Institute of Directors, the British Chambers of Commerce and everyone who supports this excellent initiative.
Question put and agreed to.
Employment Tribunal Fees
[Mr Gary Streeter in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the effect of the introduction of fees for employment tribunals.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. An essential part of any democracy is an economy that works for the whole population. That means there should be not only full employment, or as close to that as can be managed, but opportunities for everyone to make the most of that economy. There should be no glass ceilings. People from different backgrounds should all have the same chance of making it into their chosen job. Crucially, in the context of this debate, an individual should have the security of knowing that if things go wrong, they have a realistic avenue through which to seek redress.
To my mind, we have a system in place that puts security near the bottom of the pile in terms of priorities. Security should be the cornerstone of any settlement on how the workplace operates. No matter how imperfect the current system is, if there are workplace rights and protections that this place has deemed a necessary part of the social contract between Government and the country, we should be absolutely sure that those rights can be genuinely enforced, if we are not to have an illusory scheme of protection.
The employment tribunal system has a social benefit for everyone and should therefore be accessible to all members of society. It is worth reminding ourselves that tribunals took on their present character as employment courts to resolve disputes between employers and workers in 1971, as part of that year’s Industrial Relations Act, largely arising from the recognition that unresolved workplace grievances had led to a proliferation of official and unofficial industrial action. Those origins should serve as a clear warning that if we are to live in a just society, we need an accessible and fair system for resolving disputes.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on bringing this important issue to the Chamber. Does he agree that the introduction of these fees disproportionately affects women, particularly those who are pregnant or in part-time employment? That issue must be addressed.
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. I will address later some of the disproportionate impacts of the fees, but they are part of a bigger picture: they are part of a sustained attack on working people in this country. A lot of the legislation in the previous Parliament and currently going through the House is nothing more than an attack on basic workplace rights and protections. If our ambition is to have an economy and country where everyone has a stake in their prosperity, we should value the security and sustainability of jobs as much as the means of creating them.
It is widely recognised that losing a job is one of the major occasions in life on which people face extreme pressure and stress. Obviously, it is not quite as significant as some other issues, but for many, it can be a pretty traumatic experience. It can affect a person’s marriage, health, home, finances and, of course, family, yet we seem to be fostering a culture in which an individual is considered a disposable item to be cast aside with barely a second thought. While that culture exists, it is important that we have strong protections in place and—this relates to today’s debate—an effective and accessible system enforcing those protections.
Let us look first at the stark data, which show that the number of tribunal claims lodged has fallen off a cliff since the introduction of fees in July 2013.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate. One of the reasons given for the introduction of these fees was to protect hard-working taxpayers from having to contribute to the cost, ignoring the fact that the people bringing these claims are hard-working taxpayers. Does he agree?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention; his record on representing working people is one of note. He is absolutely right that everyone who takes part in the system contributes already through their taxes. As I will go on to demonstrate, there is little sign of any wider benefit to society. In fact, it could be argued that the fees are creating more problems than they solve.
Between October 2013 and September 2014, there were 32,671 fewer single claims brought by individuals than in the previous 12 months. That is a decrease of 64%. Over the same period, the number of multiple claim cases—those brought by two or more people against the same employer—was down by 3,527. That is a decrease of 67%. Comparing different periods can produce different figures, and an awful lot of different comparisons can be made. Indeed, some comparisons show up to an 80% drop in claims lodged. Whatever the comparisons or periods used, there is an average drop of around 70% in the number of claims lodged. It is therefore indisputable that there has been a significant drop in the number of claims since the introduction of fees.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. I held a debate in this room a few weeks ago on women and low pay, an issue that my hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery) just raised. The tribunal process is an important mechanism through which women can secure equal pay in their place of work, because if the claim is successful, their employer is instructed to carry out an equal pay audit. The financial barrier, however, means that many women are not getting to that stage, and therefore fewer equal pay audits are being done than could be done. Does my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) agree that tribunal fees represent a barrier to equality in the workplace for not only the women making claims, but those in workplaces where claims could be made but are not?
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s excellent contribution in the debate she referred to. She is, of course, right that there are significant issues of barriers to justice, and of employers not learning lessons about inequality; that needs to be put right. She makes a valid point about equal pay audits. Tribunals have additional powers beyond simply awarding compensation. We hear a lot of rhetoric from the Government about cutting down on the compensation culture, but tribunals have important powers that go beyond compensation. They also, for example, have the power to make a statement of an employee’s terms and conditions. That is absolutely basic, bread-and-butter stuff that we should expect to happen in an employment relationship, but occasionally it is necessary for an employee to go to a tribunal to get that basic statement of terms and conditions.
We can bandy the figures around in a number of ways, but the common thread is that there has been a 65% to 70% drop in the number of claims lodged. It is little wonder that, with such overwhelming evidence, Lord Justice Underhill stated the following when he considered in the High Court Unison’s judicial review of the fees regime:
“It is quite clear from the comparison between the number of claims brought in the ET before and after 29 July 2013 that the introduction of fees has had the effect of deterring a very large number of potential claimants.”
That is a very clear statement.
There has no doubt been a reduction in the number of claims made. Have employers suddenly started treating their employees better? [Laughter.] I do not think there is any suggestion among Opposition Members that that is the case. It is worth remembering that since the introduction of fees, the general trend has been an increase in the number of people in work, so the proportion of people in employment who are bringing tribunal claims is actually decreasing even more than is suggested by the raw data.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. I would like to make reference to the TUC’s submission to the Select Committee on Justice inquiry on tribunal fees, which stated:
“The EHRC and BIS recently funded a large-scale survey of the experiences of new mothers in the workplace...The survey findings suggest that 54,000 women a year (one in nine new mothers) are dismissed, made redundant when no other employee is, or are treated so badly while pregnant or on maternity leave that they are forced to leave their jobs.”
Indeed, I know women who have suffered exactly that. That is happening at a time when, despite all the joy of adding a new member to their family, they are under a huge amount of pressure. In 2012-13, prior to the introduction of fees, there were 1,593 claims for pregnancy-related detriment or dismissal.
Order. Interventions should be brief. The hon. Lady might wish to make a speech later, but for now, perhaps she will conclude.
I am sorry, Mr Streeter. There was half the number in the following year—790 claims. Does my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) agree that that is an unacceptable level for our society?
I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention and I understand the passion that led her to speak for slightly longer than is the norm. She is absolutely right that pregnancy discrimination is still rife in the workplace. Figures that I have seen suggest that of the 54,000 women who are dismissed on the grounds of pregnancy each year, only 1.5% proceed with a tribunal claim. Is that not a damning indictment of the difficulty that people have in accessing justice?
We need to examine the supposed reasons that the Minister may put forward for why the number of claims has dropped. I am sure that the Government would like to claim that the success of the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service early conciliation scheme is part of the explanation, but we should remember that the scheme was not in place for the period immediately after fees were introduced, so that cannot explain the number of claims dropping so dramatically immediately after fees were introduced. The figures that we have seen on early conciliation provide little comfort for those seeking to explain the reduction; indeed, as I will argue, the fee system can be seen as an impediment to effective early conciliation.
The figures on early conciliation tell us that of the 60,800 notifications made to ACAS in April to December 2014 as part of the early conciliation scheme, 15% were formally settled by ACAS and 22% progressed to an employment tribunal claim. That leaves a massive 63% that were not formally settled through ACAS but did not progress to an employment tribunal. Of course, it is not possible to identify how many of those claims had merits, but it is too large a figure to ignore, and the similarity between that figure of 63% and the figures that I have already referred to is too much of a coincidence for us to ignore.
Interestingly, if we look at employers taking up early conciliation through ACAS, we find that Government Departments are some of the worst offenders for not participating in early conciliation; that includes the National Offender Management Service, which is very poor at engaging. Does my hon. Friend have any comments on that?
My hon. Friend, of course, has great experience in this area. The Government should be setting an example. They should be leading from the front and be seen to be engaging in the processes that promote and encourage good workplace relations. Is it not really something when we have a Government Department potentially discriminating against someone or impinging on their workplace rights, then refusing to engage with the systems that that Government have set up to try to resolve that dispute? And then the Government charge that person to force their rights. What kind of situation is that? It is not a fair, equitable or just way of dealing with matters.
Let me turn to the significant amount of evidence submitted to the Justice Committee. I think my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral West (Margaret Greenwood) has referred to evidence that was given to the Justice Committee in respect of NOMS, and I recommend anyone who has not read those transcripts that look at that evidence. In it, multiple witnesses demonstrate the deterrent effect that fees have had; that evidence goes well beyond the data that have been referred to.
The hon. Gentleman is making a number of excellent points. On fees, does he agree that there will be an impediment to cases in which a worker brings a case for an illegal deduction of wages, because the fee will be higher in some cases than the amount that the worker is looking for in their claim?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right on that point, which I will come to later. Speaking from personal experience as a lawyer before I entered this place, I have a number of examples of such situations, and that cannot be right in a fair and just society. Returning to the Justice Committee, it received evidence from Citizens Advice, which published a report called “Fairer Fees” in January 2015. It stated that 82% of its clients said that the fees deterred them from bringing an employment tribunal claim.
All the Government talk at the introduction of the fee regime was about weeding out vexatious claims. As I will go on to demonstrate, there has been no convincing evidence put forward that this system has done anything to reduce such claims, in stark contrast to the significant body of evidence suggesting that people with genuine complaints have not been able to pursue their rights as a result of the fee system. It may be that part of the Government rationale is that those who use the system should contribute to it, in which case far more equitable solutions can be found. It may be that despite everything else, it is and always was part of the Government’s plan to reduce the number of claims being made, in which case they have succeeded.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for securing this very important debate. Does he agree that one of the reasons given in the Beecroft report, which initiated the imposition of tribunal fees, was the desire to make business more efficient, and that the very notion that people being prevented from having access to justice within the workplace would increase productivity and make a business more efficient is completely misguided?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. The suggestion that workplace rights and treating people with respect and decency is somehow an impediment to a business running well is the stuff of nonsense. Having a stable and well-motivated workforce actually helps to improve productivity. The Beecroft report is really where all this is coming from. There is a view that employment rights are somehow an impediment to the good operation of business. If someone has the misfortune of having worked somewhere for less than two years, they effectively have no employment rights, so that has been got through almost by the back door.
Let me return to the reduction in the number of claims. Undoubtedly, that has been stark, and if that is the Government’s intention, it has been successful, but it is unfair, crude and a denial of basic justice. The Citizens Advice report stated that 47% of its clients who were potential type B claimants—those bringing unfair dismissal or discrimination claims—said that they would have to save all their discretionary income for six months in order to be able to proceed with a type B claim. And those are the lucky ones—many who have lost their job have no discretionary income. Keeping a roof over their head and putting food on the table will always take priority over pursuing a claim for which the outcome is uncertain and which will not be resolved for months.
Somebody facing a situation in which they may want to go to an employment tribunal is stressful enough, and they may well be thinking that they might lose their job or have to leave their job because they are so unhappy. With that in mind, there was the figure from Citizens Advice that four out of five clients they dealt with felt that the current levels of fees would deter them from even bringing such a claim. Does my hon. Friend think that is an acceptable state of affairs?
No, it is not an acceptable state of affairs. My hon. Friend makes a really pertinent point: if somebody is still working for an employer, the last thing that they want to do is take them to a tribunal. It does not help the employment relationship to improve, and it almost certainly leads to a parting of the ways one way or another. We should be there to help people if they have had a violation of their rights. There should be an easily accessible system to enable them to resolve things.
Let me go back to the startling statistic that those bringing type B claims would have to wait six months in order to afford the fee. Does that not tell us something? When the time limit for bringing such claims is three months, the fact that a person would have to wait six months in order to afford the fee is a complete exposé of how wrong-headed and unjust the system is, so if the Government are minded to make any changes, at the very least, they should look at the level at which fees are set.
I will say a few words on remission, because no doubt that will be used to justify the level of fees. However, do not forget that the comments that I just referred to have been made by people at a time when fee remission is available, so it obviously is not working for many. It is worth noting that when the Government first looked at the fee remission system, they estimated that about 63% of claimants were predicted to benefit from fee remission in whole or in part, but in reality, only about 21% have. The average monthly take-home salary in this country is just under £1,800. Remission is not available to people on that salary, but they are asked to stump up two thirds of that sum just to pursue a tribunal claim. Does that not highlight how unrealistic the fee remission system is?
We also have the completely indefensible situation in which an employer does not pay their staff, which is one breach of the law, but that is then compounded by the fact that the employer does not issue payslips and, because the individuals have not received payslips, they cannot access the remission system. How can that be a just situation?
If the objective of introducing fees was to weed out unmeritorious claims, the policy has been a failure. The success rate has not really changed, and I argue that the employment tribunal structure has plenty of well-developed measures to deal with unmeritorious claims, such as deposit orders, strike-outs and costs awards. Indeed, over the last decade or so, there has been a general ratcheting up of measures designed to deter and weed out frivolous, vexatious and misconceived claims. The rules are there, are clear and are perfectly capable of being applied, so I suggest that that is the route to go down if the concern is really about stopping people pursuing claims unreasonably or vexatiously.
While my hon. Friend is on that point, I want to mention the fact that under the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, legal help was available to advise clients on whether they had a claim that was worth pursuing at a tribunal. Would it not have been better for the Government not to mess around with legal help under that Act, and to allow people the opportunity to receive that legal advice, which often acted as a safety net?
I thank my hon. Friend the shadow Minister for his intervention. Of course he is absolutely right: that advice is an important safety net. I know from experience that the majority of people who are advised that they do not have a claim will take that advice on the chin and will not pursue the claim, so the fact that we have not been able even to maintain levels of access to advice has probably only made the situation worse.
As I was saying before the intervention, there are rules to deal with unmeritorious and vexatious claims. I want the Minister to tell us today whether he considers that those rules are effective, and if he does not, what he will do to change them.
Denying access to justice via a high fee level is arguably making no difference at all to the number of vexatious claims being lodged, because if this system was weeding out vexatious claims, the success rate would increase. The fact that it has not suggests that the fee system is a deterrent to all. Ministry of Justice statistics indicate that success rates have in fact remained broadly the same, rather than increasing. In the four quarters before fees were introduced, success rates ranged between 10% and 9%. In the four quarters after fees were introduced, success rates were broadly similar at 9%, 9%, 5% and 13%. Even the president of the employment tribunals, Mr Brian Doyle, suggested that only a very small percentage of claims can be identified as weak or unmeritorious and that we need to be careful about the way in which we bandy around the term “vexatious” when it comes to claims.
Can the hon. Gentleman confirm that those workers who have the benefit of trade union membership will find that a trade union also has a test as to whether to proceed with a claim to a tribunal?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. He is of course absolutely right. Trade unions play a vital role in ensuring that justice is served for their members, but they also play a wider role by not supporting or endorsing claims that are considered vexatious or weak. We really should mark out that contribution that is made. Of course the vast majority of people who work in this country are not trade union members. Perhaps that is one reason why the figures have not substantially changed as a result of these initiatives from the Government.
The myth that there is a vexatious culture out there has been perpetuated by parts of this Government and certain sections of the media. It is almost as if they believe that there is an army of litigious individuals out there who are routinely fleecing employers with spurious claims. That view has no basis in fact. As I said, there are already rules to stop vexatious claims proceeding. Each case is considered by a legally qualified judge. Most employers have access to professional advice on their case and far more are legally represented at tribunals than claimants—and all of that in a country that regularly appears near the bottom of the pile in any OECD studies of the strength of employment protection across the planet. It is far from the easy ride for employees that some people would portray.
In addition, it is simply not the case that there are hundreds of no win, no fee lawyers out there ready to exploit employers by bringing forth spurious claims. The clue is in the title: “no win, no fee”. If the lawyer does not think that the claim will win, they will not get paid for it, so why would they waste time pursuing a claim that they know will ultimately be unsuccessful?
The idea that employers are a soft touch in these matters is simply untrue. Most are professionally represented and should be able easily to spot someone trying it on. There is a question about how those who are not members of trade unions access affordable representation. We have dealt with that in some of the interventions today. Of course I would say that the best thing that anyone can do to protect themselves in the workplace is to join a trade union, but that is not a substitute for basic advice and support for people who find themselves in these very difficult situations. The Government have pulled the rug out from under them.
This system not only prevents access to justice, but feeds the myth that employment rights are some sort of undesirable impediment to properly functioning businesses. At its worst, it acts as encouragement to those rogue employers who think that employment protection and workplace rights are an optional extra to be ignored whenever possible.
There is plenty of evidence from those representing individuals in employment tribunals, including those who gave evidence to the Justice Committee, that some employers will deliberately decide not to engage in any kind of discussion about resolution of a claim until the very end of the process, even when they may very clearly be in the wrong. The pre-claim conciliation process run by ACAS can be and often is met by employers refusing to engage at all. They know that if they have dismissed an employee, they may not have the funds to pay for a tribunal claim. Even when one is under way, they still hold off until the hearing fee is paid before seriously considering whether they should engage in settlement negotiations. That can be as little as three weeks before the tribunal hearing. That wastes everyone’s time and the tribunal’s and the taxpayer’s resources. There is a category of employers who will not engage with anything unless they know that the employee has paid their £1,200, but even in the cases in which the lower fee applies, there is now a real dilemma facing employees, who are asking themselves, “Can I afford to take this on even though I know I am in the right?”
The starkest example—I referred to this earlier—is one from my own experience shortly before I was elected to this place. It involved an employer systematically refusing to pay their staff over a period of weeks. They refused to engage with ACAS in early conciliation and decided instead to sit back and wait for the tribunal claims that never arrived. The people affected whom I saw were all women and had all lost several weeks’ wages. There was no doubt that money was owed, but all of them questioned spending £390 to recover a similar amount and some of them were actually seeking to recover less than their initial outlay in fees, so for them the dilemma was even greater. Of course, there was no reason to suppose that they would not succeed in their claims, but it is a sad fact that employers, even if they do lose, do not actually pay the compensation due to the employee more than 50% of the time. Given the intransigence shown up to that point, I could not criticise those people at all for not wanting to take that risk.
How can anyone defend the bad employer playing the system and preventing very basic employment rights, including the right to be paid, from being enforced? It does not take a great feat of imagination to see how that attitude can inform an employer’s thinking on whether they should, for example, take steps to dismiss an employee fairly in the first place. After all, if they want rid of someone, why waste too much time on that process if they think that the person will not have the resources to challenge it afterwards? Far from the picture painted by some, this Government are actually creating a culture in which an employer can hire and fire with impunity.
Then there is the situation in which the employer becomes insolvent. The claimant has to apply to the Redundancy Payments Service for redundancy pay, but if there is no employer left to order reimbursement from and it is not recoverable from the national insurance fund, the claimant never recovers their fees. How can it be right that the state can profit from that situation? What kind of situation allows an employee to be, in effect, fined for attempting to exercise their rights in the already difficult situation in which there is an insolvency?
The GMB union has provided a very clear example of what amounts to a significant profit made off the backs of trade union membership fees. It was involved in a claim in Sheffield against a company that in February 2015 went into administration. The business was later sold to new owners, with the original company being wound up. There were redundancies, and the employment tribunal found in favour of the 48 people who brought claims in respect of a failure to consult and unfair dismissal. The claimants were supported by the GMB and three other unions, with fees totalling £13,200 being paid to issue the claims and have them heard. Although the tribunal ordered the respondent to refund the fees, there was virtually no chance of recovering them, as the legal entity had been wound up. Notably, it was only possible for those employees to bring claims because they were supported by a union to get their case before the tribunal. That is a tribute to the importance of trade union membership, but it cannot be right that trade unions or individuals have to make such payments with no avenue for recovering the cost. In that situation they were completely blameless, so why should the state penalise them?
On the question of costs, it has been suggested that one of the justifications for the fee system is that it will recoup some of the costs of the tribunal system. If that was the intention, the system has been a failure. The latest accounts from the Ministry of Justice show that in 2014-15, the net income from employment tribunal fees was £9 million and expenditure on employment tribunal services overall was £71.4 million, which means that the increase in net income from fees covers 12.5% of the cost of running the employment tribunal service. The Government seem to have been unable to quantify, in response to written questions, the extra administration and staffing costs in the tribunal service of having to administer the fees and the remission system. In reality, the gain in revenue is probably lower than 12.5%, and it has been achieved at the expense of a 69% drop in the number of claims.
There is no mention anywhere in any of the documents I have seen of the benefit to the taxpayer from the application of the recoupment regulations, which can result in an employer paying back to the taxpayer thousands of pounds—for example, in jobseeker’s allowance already paid to the claimant—which is offset against the claimant’s compensation. Such repayment is normally ordered where a tribunal has made a finding of unfair dismissal. Why is that clear benefit to the taxpayer not included in any considerations, and has anyone stopped to consider that the level of recoupment will have reduced as the level of claims has reduced—
Order. I am reluctant to intervene, because the hon. Gentleman is making a fine speech, but he has been speaking for half an hour. He might want to take into account the fact that several colleagues want to catch my eye.
I will be brief, Mr Streeter. As we have discussed, do not the participants contribute to the system through their taxes anyway? Is it not simply part of the cost of a civilised society? In the long run, we all benefit from stable and balanced employment relations. If the Government are so determined to recoup costs and if they are genuinely interested in ensuring access to justice, surely the obvious way to deal with the matter is to levy a fee or apportion a percentage of compensation at the end of the process, not at the beginning.
At the moment, if a claimant is successful, they can recover their fee from the respondent, but what is the respondent’s contribution to the costs of the tribunal? It is nothing. I suppose it could be argued that they indirectly contribute by recovering the fee and repaying it to the employee, but as we have seen, that outcome is not certain, and the burden disproportionately falls on those who seek to enforce their rights.
Employment tribunals play a vital role in ensuring the effectiveness of basic rights, such as the rights to the minimum wage, paid holiday, time off and maternity leave, and the right not to be unfairly dismissed or discriminated against. If we value those rights and think that they are important, we should also value the ease with which people are able to exercise them. Those rights are not just about individual dignity and respect in the workplace; they bring with them important social and economic benefits for the country. They ensure that most people can participate in the labour market without facing unfair discrimination. They give vulnerable workers more job security and stability of income than they would have. They encourage a committed and engaged workforce and the retention of skilled workers. They allow people to plan their lives and plan for the future, knowing that if they do a good job and their employer runs its business well, they are likely to remain in work. Employment rights are, ultimately, of benefit to everyone. The fee regime not only undermines those rights but actively encourages rogue employers to flout the law, and I say that the regime should be scrapped.
Order. The wind-up speeches will begin at 3.30 pm.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. I congratulate the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) on making an excellent contribution. Like him, I believe it is clear that the introduction of fees for employment tribunals has led to a reduction in claims, and we can only conclude that that is denying workers access to justice. In April to June 2014, the first three months after the introduction of fees, there was an 81% drop in claims. Discrimination claims, for which a £1,200 fee is required, have fallen, and sex discrimination cases were down by 91% in the first year. As indicated earlier, unpaid wages claims, which attract a fee of £390, are down, often because in those cases the fee is more than the amount sought by the worker.
There is no evidence that fees are needed to prevent unfounded claims from being made; on the contrary, evidence gathered by the Trades Union Congress, Citizens Advice Scotland, Citizens Advice England and Wales, the Law Society of Scotland and Bristol and Strathclyde Universities shows that workers with genuine cases are being prevented from lodging their claims by their inability to pay the fees. That can only mean that a growing number of unlawful employment practices are going unpunished, which is detrimental to the achievements of a fair workplace. As the general secretary of Unison, Dave Prentis, said recently:
“There is stark evidence that workers are being priced out of justice and it is women, the disabled and the low-paid who are being disproportionately punished.”
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that we are also talking about gender discrimination, because women who are suffering from pregnancy discrimination or maternity discrimination will be afraid to take cases with a price tag of £1,200, so they will suffer in silence?
I agree with that, and there has been growing evidence in the last few years of pregnant workers being dismissed unfairly. The hon. Lady is absolutely correct to say that the fee of £1,200 would be a natural barrier for women workers, particularly in sectors of the economy that are traditionally low paid, such as the retail sector. It would be very difficult for someone in such circumstances to progress. The hon. Lady’s statements are backed up by the legal affairs spokesperson of Citizens Advice Scotland, who has said:
“Employment Tribunals regularly include cases where people have been un-paid or under-paid for work they have done, or cases where they have been mistreated—including bullying, racism, sexual harassment. People who have suffered such treatment surely have a right to justice, and that right should not be based on their ability to pay.”
All the evidence suggests that the review of employment tribunal fees should include an equality impact assessment. As I have indicated, I am concerned about the divisive rhetoric that we sometimes hear on workplace and trade union issues. We are told that fees were introduced to save the hard-working taxpayer money, but those who are chasing a tribunal or who wish to submit a tribunal claim are, indeed, hard-working taxpayers.
In Scotland, the administration of employment tribunals is due to be devolved under the Scotland Bill. In the Scottish Government’s programme for government, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said:
“We will abolish fees for employment tribunals, when we are clear on how the transfer of powers and responsibilities will work. We will consult on the shape of services that can best support people’s access to employment justice as part of the transfer of the powers for Employment Tribunals to Scotland.”
That proposal is supported by Scotland’s “workers’ parliament”—the Scottish TUC’s annual congress—and by Citizens Advice Scotland. I will end with the words of the latter in welcoming the Scottish Government’s intention to abolish tribunal fees:
“So we are delighted that the government has addressed this issue, and has seen the urgency in putting it right. These fees should never have been introduced, and they need to be scrapped as soon as possible.”
I could not agree more.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. May I refer the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests regarding my previous occupation as a director of Thompsons Solicitors, which is a national firm of employment law specialists that conducts a substantial number of employment tribunal cases on behalf of trade unions and their members?
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) on securing the debate. Like him, I am deeply concerned about this issue. As he outlined, the impact of the coalition Government’s tribunal fees has been to price people out of access to justice. The Conservative party calls itself the party of working people, but if there is one single policy that totally exposes that statement as a myth, it is the introduction of employment tribunal fees. The Conservatives knew exactly what the impact of the policy would be, because they and their Liberal Democrat coalition partners at the time were told repeatedly and forcefully that the proposal would decimate access to justice. Just as with legal aid cuts, civil court fee increases, restrictions on judicial review, the Trade Union Bill, the proposal to repeal the Human Rights Act and the intended increase to the small claims limit that the Chancellor announced in last week’s spending review, employment tribunal fees were not introduced to solve a real problem. They were introduced to diminish the voice of ordinary working people, of trade unions and of their members.
I am sure the Government will try to say that the rationale for introducing the fees was to defray the cost of the Courts and Tribunals Service. If that really was the rationale, it has failed spectacularly, because so few people can afford to bring claims that the revenue has not been generated, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston said.
The Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General openly stated that the purpose of the fees was to deter people from bringing employment tribunal claims. In an article for The Telegraph website in March 2014, he wrote:
“Unscrupulous workers caused havoc by inundating companies with unfounded claims of mistreatment, discrimination or worse. Like Japanese knotweed, the soaring number of tribunal cases dragged more and more companies into its grip, squeezing the life and energy from Britain’s wealth creators.”
He went on to say that the tribunal system had
“become a system that in too many cases was being ruthlessly exploited by people trying to make a fast-buck.”
Where is the evidence for that? If the situation really was as he stated, the success rate in employment tribunal cases brought after the introduction of fees would have risen significantly, because the fees would have acted as a disincentive for unmeritorious claimants. What has actually happened? The success rate has stayed at the level it was at before the introduction of fees.
Preventing access to justice through high fees, therefore, weeds out not just unmeritorious cases—I accept there will be a few of those—but nearly all cases. In that respect, the policy has been tremendously successful. Fees have had a severe negative impact on the ability of people—particularly those on low and average household incomes and the more vulnerable in society—to access the justice system. That was a shameful intention. We had a Minister openly stating that he and his coalition partners wanted to prevent members of the public from accessing the justice system.
My hon. Friend will not be surprised by that attack on hard-working people in the workplace who want to seek justice. Like me and other Members, she has experienced the gagging Bill part 1, the gagging Bill part 2 and what is classified as a trade union Bill. All in all, they are a concerted attack on people who just want to get on in life. If there is a problem with justice in the workplace, they want to be able to challenge it.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I could not have put it better myself.
As we have heard, there has been a 69% drop in single-applicant cases since the introduction of fees. However, I want to comment on a couple of other statistics. There has been a 90% drop in sex discrimination cases and a 45% drop in pregnancy-related unfair dismissal cases. That is yet another example of the Prime Minister’s problem with women. He does not want public money spent on women, so they bear the brunt of 75% of his Government’s public sector spending cuts. He does not want to do anything about the grossly unfair VAT regime—the tampon tax. Instead, he cuts funding for domestic violence refuges and rape counselling services, and he makes women pay for those services themselves through the VAT on sanitary products. Furthermore, if any of us is subject to sex discrimination at work or sacked because we are pregnant, he prices us out of access to an employment tribunal to challenge that unlawful treatment.
Does that not make a mockery of the claim the Prime Minister made to me at Prime Minister’s questions that he is now a feminist? How does all this marry up with that statement?
My hon. Friend makes a valid point. Irony is alive and well in this House. I do not quite know where to start with my thanks to the Prime Minister for the way he treats women.
I turn to what I expect the Minister to refer to as the Government’s mechanism to mitigate people’s being priced out of justice: the fee remission system. Given that the affordability of fees is a central issue in the debate, the remission system’s effectiveness in addressing it is important. However, the reality is that the system is little more than a fig leaf. For each separate fee incurred, a separate application for fee remission, with detailed evidence of income, must be provided. The booklet to guide people through the process is 31 pages long, and the preparation of applications can take up to 30 minutes, increasing the costs of the case every time a court fee is incurred. That work also has an impact on the time of court and tribunal staff. It represents unnecessary bureaucracy, as well as a backward step in the Government’s stated intention to move towards deregulation, efficiency and cost cutting.
In a speech to the Engineering Employers Federation in November 2011, the then Business Secretary, Vince Cable, said:
“I want to make it very clear that for those with a genuine claim, fees will not be a barrier to justice. We will ensure that there is a remissions system for those who need help.”
The latest available information on remission comes from statistics issued by the employment tribunals. They show that, from July 2013 to June 2015, only 17.7% of issue fees requested were remitted.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston commented on the redundancy fund. Claimants are forced to pay tribunal fees out of their redundancy pay. I really hope the Justice Committee will address that issue in its report on access to justice. I also hope it will look specifically at the terrible problem of employment tribunal fees, which affect women in particular. I ask the Minister to take those comments back to his colleagues to ensure that fees are scrapped.
Like my colleagues, I can confirm that it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. Special thanks to the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) for securing what I, like his colleagues, consider to be an extremely important debate.
I rise as a member of the Scottish National party to put the SNP’s case, and I want to start by putting the issue in a Scottish context. The issues of employment law and employment tribunal fees are reserved to the Westminster Parliament. There is an expectation that clause 37 of the Scotland Bill will devolve the financial arrangements and management of employment law tribunals to Scotland. The Scottish Government have a clear policy of abolishing the fees as soon as we have the power to do so. To quote the Scottish programme for government, as my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens) did, that will be done
“when we are clear on how the transfer of powers and responsibilities will work.”
The devolution of any part of the administrative justice sphere in Scotland is done through a separate Order in Council. We are yet to see whether the Government will sign off the relevant Order in Council and whether it will include the right to adjust employment tribunals, but we are working on the basis that that is what will happen.
Why does Scotland have an interest in this issue? We could argue that, if these issues are devolved, it will be for Scotland to decide whether to abolish fees. Of course, that disregards the funding arrangements between the UK and Scotland. If fees are abolished in the rest of the UK, Scotland’s funding mechanism will be increased by the extra amount the Scottish Government will have to spend in future years on employment law tribunal fees. While we have a commitment to abolish fees, therefore, unless the fiscal arrangements are correct, Scotland will have to find the money to do so from the remainder of its budget—which we are willing, at this juncture, to do, because that is clearly the moral thing to do.
As I said earlier, the imposition of employment law tribunal fees follows from the Beecroft report. The premise on which it was based was high-handed. The report stated that business must be allowed to grow and to be more efficient, but that employment law impedes that. That statement is very contentious. As I said in my intervention, simply stripping a firm of its cost liabilities and potential need to spend money does not, in itself, make that business more efficient. I would argue that if a business treats its staff correctly, the staff will treat the clients correctly, and that will make the business more productive and efficient. The premise on which the imposition of the fees was based is therefore flawed at best. This is all being done to save the £82 million or so a year that was spent on employment tribunal cases.
The upshot is that someone with a simple claim for being refused time off, or for a breach of working time regulations, faces a £160 issue fee and a £230 hearing fee. For a more serious case of discrimination for wrongful dismissal, there is a £250 issue fee and a whopping £950 hearing fee. God forbid that anyone would ever need to go to appeal, as the combined cost is £1,600 on top of what has been paid for the previous hearing. It does not take a rocket scientist to figure out that this will be a material deterrent to claimants bringing their cases.
Every litigator worth their salt—I speak with some credibility as I used to be a litigator—understands acutely that quite often the way to win a case is not to win a substantive argument, but to pile cost pressure on the other side. This is the Government trying to use a litigious tactic to pile cost pressure on claimants who, ordinarily, just want their grievances heard. It is a disgraceful course of action. The result in Scotland has been a 92% reduction in redundancy claims, an 81% reduction in sex discrimination claims, and a 90% reduction in claims for breaches of working time regulations.
Legally, through free access to employment law tribunals, we went as far as we could in making rights that protect workers absolute; now, they are not absolute. The right to not be unfairly dismissed, to be free from sex discrimination, and to be consulted on redundancy is no longer absolute. I asked the Minister what kind of message this sent out. It sends out a message that it is okay to abuse workers because, essentially, they have no course of redress, and that it is okay for the rest of the workers in that organisation to feel that their fellow workers have been marginalised. That has a direct impact on their productivity levels, wellbeing, morale and, ultimately, the financial success of the organisation for which they work. With these changes, it appears that the lower someone is on the income scale, the more inaccessible justice becomes.
I will pick up on points made by previous speakers. The hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston was right to highlight that tribunals do not just award compensation. They can provide a statement of fact—of terms and conditions that give vulnerable workers clarity about their position in a company. He is also right that there has been substantial evidence to the Justice Committee—which, as a member of that Committee, I have heard—highlighting how much of a deterrent the fees are. He is right to point out that some employers will not even consider the claim until the issue fee is paid. That is piling even more cost pressure on to the vulnerable workers and works in favour of the employer. It tips the balance away from justice and towards employers for no good reason, as far as I can see.
My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South West rightly made the point that workers have been priced out of justice. The changes disproportionately affect women, minorities and those at the lower end of the income scale. He is also right to point out that there is wide support in Scottish civic society for the Scottish Government’s policy of abolition.
The hon. Member for Cardiff Central (Jo Stevens) made some excellent points very well. She is right to say that the policy completely makes a mockery of the Conservative party’s claims to be the party of working people, and it is not evidence-based. As with much of the legislative agenda that I have witnessed since becoming a Member in this House, particularly the Trade Union Bill, this seems to be an ideological attack with no evidence base whatever. That follows a consistent theme in the legislation that I have seen come before Parliament since joining the House in May.
The hon. Member for Cardiff Central (Jo Stevens) also mentioned the wealth creators. Does my hon. Friend agree with me that the genuine wealth creators in this country are low-paid, long-hours workers—many of them women—who are helping to keep the economic wheels turning, yet they are the ones under attack?
I completely agree with that. Any business that sees its staff as disposable units of production is headed for disaster. I go back to what I said: if businesses treat their staff properly, the staff treat customers properly. If customers are treated properly, the business will be successful. If a business is successful, there is a dividend for shareholders, which, no doubt, is the motivation of the Conservative party.
In conclusion, I urge the Minister to persuade the Government, when he takes this information back to them, that their review should conclude what the Scottish Government, Scottish civic society and Opposition party Members conclude: that they should abolish these draconian fees without delay.
It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) on securing this very important debate. He speaks with huge experience—far more than me. He was, I think, an employment solicitor from 1998. I ought to declare my interest: I am a lawyer. Prior to my election to this House, I was a barrister at Wilberforce Chambers in Hull. Since then, I have been admitted to the roll of solicitors, practising only occasionally on a completely pro bono basis. As we are discussing tribunals, including employment tribunals, I ought to declare the fact that my wife is a fee-paid judge in the social entitlement tribunal, and a legal aid lawyer. She does not practise employment law. If she did, she would not do so through public funding, because the Government took away the little public funding that there was for employment law in the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012.
Since the introduction of employment tribunal fees in 2013, there has been a massive decline in the number of cases brought to tribunals. The number of single employment tribunal claims has fallen by 69%, and the number of discrimination cases has fallen by a massive 80%. It cannot be said that that is a result of weeding out unmeritorious claims. It is beyond what is reasonable to suggest that the Ministry of Justice could have calibrated fees perfectly to deter 50,000 or more vexatious cases every year while ensuring that all meritorious cases were heard before tribunals.
It is important to look at a couple of cases that have come to my surgery. One is the case of Steve, who is a full-time forklift truck driver in Hull, working for a builders merchant. He had worked five consecutive Saturdays but had not been paid. A simple wage claim amounted to £280, but the fee was £390—completely prohibitive. He would have been entitled to fee remission had he been advised, but as the Minister knows, there is no longer legal help for employment law. In any event, the procedure for claiming fee remission is so complex and long-winded that it would put anybody off. The suggestion that a layperson could tackle the complexities thrown at them in applying for the fee remission is just ludicrous, and the Minister probably knows that. He might not accept or want to concede that, but it happens to be absolutely right.
There are three problems. One is the possibility that fee remission is not brought to the public’s attention. I do not think that people know about it, and even if they did, it is too complex to tackle without some legal help. The fee remission scheme is an absolute minefield. I looked at it briefly today. [Interruption.]
Order. We have a fourth problem: there is a Division in the House, so the sitting is suspended. I understand that we are expecting possibly two votes, so we will suspend for 25 minutes. If it is only one vote, please come back as quickly as possible, as we will suspend for 15 minutes.
Sitting suspended for Divisions in the House.
Before the short suspension for us to run along to the Division Lobby, I was explaining that there is a difficulty with the Government suggesting that the fee remission scheme is the answer to employment tribunal fees. I said that there were three problems. First, there is the possibility that the remission scheme is not being brought to public attention. As far as I understand it, most people do not know it exists. I have spoken to various law centre staff and citizens advice bureau advisers who have said that people genuinely do not know that the scheme exists and are sometimes surprised to find that it does. Secondly, the fee remission scheme is an absolute minefield. Thirdly and lastly, how can any individual without legal help know what their own legal position is and whether they might be entitled to a fee remission?
I mentioned the first case study, but another one has come to me as an MP. It is the case of Mary, who was employed as a personal assistant. She brought a sexual discrimination claim when her employer was not happy that she had become pregnant. She left the job and immediately found other employment. Even with the fee remission, she was still required to find £840. It is fair to say that she begged and borrowed to come up with that money. However, she said to me that if she had not had family members and friends who were prepared to help her out financially, she would have had a problem. She could not have gone to a loan shark, and clearly she did not want to borrow money, but she considered it and eventually borrowed from friends and members of her family. But for that, she estimated that it would have taken her three months, even on a reasonable salary, to save the money to pay for the fee. We know that the statutory bar for bringing an employment case is three months. Clearly, people are not managing to get the money together to get an application in on time.
Such examples show that since 2010 the Government have attacked the rights of workers. Under the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, employment cases were taken completely out of the scope of legal help; the Government have increased the time required to gain employment rights from 12 months to two years; we have seen the introduction of employment tribunal fees; and we have also seen the introduction of the Trade Union Bill, which further dramatically undermines the rights of working people. Any claim that this Government are on the side of working people is utterly disgusting, and I put that in the strongest possible terms. It is absolutely disgusting to suggest that this Government are on the side of working people.
The Government argued that the reason for introducing fees was to prevent vexatious claims, and then they argued that it was mainly to recover the cost of running the employment tribunal service from users who could afford to pay. However, the latest accounts from the Ministry of Justice show that in 2014-15 the net income from employment tribunal fees was £9 million, while the expenditure on the service was £71.4 million. That means that the increase in net income from fees covers 12.5% of the cost of running the service. That12.5% gain in revenue was achieved at the expense of a 69% overall drop in people bringing claims to employment tribunals—tens of thousands of workers deterred from seeking justice for breaches of their employment rights. The evidence must suggest that the Government’s introduction of tribunal fees is purely ideological. It is punitive and shuts thousands of workers out of accessing justice.
[Mrs Cheryl Gillan in the Chair]
I am conscious of the time, and I am keen for the Minister to reply to hon. Members who have spoken. As I said at the outset, they are probably an awful lot better informed on the subject than I am. I do not want to take up too much more time, but I have some questions that I hope the Minister will make a note of and try to answer.
What is the Minister’s assessment of the high expenditure of the employment tribunal service? If it is terribly difficult for him to come up with a full answer immediately, I am happy for him to write to me. Given that the volume of cases is down massively, will the Minister explain why there has not been a corresponding drop in running costs? We are all keen to save money—we all want to make efficiency savings wherever possible—but the evidence seems to suggest that there is no genuine saving from the completely unfair introduction of fees.
I just want to provide an anecdote. I was talking to an employment tribunal panel member last week. He is supposed to sit for 31 days a year, but in the past 12 months, because of the paucity of cases being brought to the tribunal, he has been able to sit for only nine. We have some expensive people sitting in employment tribunals having to string cases out because people cannot afford to bring claims.
I said that Opposition Members have a great deal of knowledge and experience in the field, and my hon. Friend has just highlighted that. Employment judges, who are paid—I will guess at the amount—probably upwards of £140,000 a year often sit idly without any work, as a result of what the Government have done with fees.
Finally, if, as the Government have claimed, the dramatic fall in the number of cases is down purely to the removal of vexatious claims, why have we not seen an increase in the percentage of successful claims? If the necessity to introduce the fee scheme was about preventing vexatious and unmeritorious claims, surely the success of the claims that are in the tribunal system should be going through the roof, but that is clearly not happening.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Gillan.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) on securing the debate. It is an important subject, and I know that in his case it is particularly so, given his background as an employment solicitor. I thank the other contributors, the hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens) and the hon. Member for Cardiff Central (Jo Stevens), and the two Front-Bench spokespeople, the hon. Member for Dumfries and Galloway (Richard Arkless) and the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull East (Karl Turner). I also thank the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston for allowing me the opportunity to put on record the Government’s position.
The Government recognise the crucial service that employment tribunals provide to those employees who have serious disputes with their employers. It is vital that people in that position have meaningful access to justice and an effective way to remedy their problems.
If it is that vital for ordinary people in the workplace to access justice, will the Minister explain why his Government introduced a £1,200 tribunal fee?
I ask the hon. Gentleman to bear with me, as I will turn to that issue, and also to the issue of working people that has been mentioned by a number of colleagues.
Hon. Members will be aware that the Government were elected as a majority Government with a clear mandate to eliminate the budget deficit during this Parliament. That requires a responsible approach to funding public services, which must include the courts and tribunals, both now and in the future. When the Government introduced fees in employment tribunals in 2013 it was estimated that the cost of running the service was about £84 million per year. Before the introduction of fees, the whole burden of that cost was met by taxpayers. Fees were introduced to reduce the burden, and to ensure that those who were using the service and benefiting directly from it were making a reasonable contribution to the cost, when they could afford to do so.
At the time the fees were introduced, we also applied Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service fee remissions. That scheme is there to ensure that those on low incomes are not prevented from lodging a claim. Under the scheme, those who qualify may have their fees waived, either in part or in full, depending on their financial means. I am a little disappointed that although much has been made of the employment tribunal fees, only a passing reference was made to the conciliatory scheme introduced by ACAS, to which I will turn shortly.
As far as remissions are concerned, I am grateful for, and have very much taken on board, hon. Members’ practical comments, and I can assure colleagues that my officials are looking at how applications are made to see how the process can be made simpler and more user-friendly.
Will the Minister reassure us that he will pay particular attention to cases in which there is a claim for an illegal deduction of wages, the amount of which is lower than the fee demanded by the service?
I will not make any instantaneous decisions. I will look at everything in the round. We are considering the matter, and the hon. Gentleman will be aware that we are undertaking a review—which I will come on to—of the whole employment tribunal fees structure, of which I am sure that matter will be a part.
The Minister mentions the review that is under way. The terms of reference for the review make no reference whatsoever to the question of whether the fees should be abolished. They simply say that the review will make
“recommendations for any changes to the structure and level of fees”.
Will the Government reconsider the terms of reference, and think about whether the fees should be scrapped?
The terms of reference are a little broader than the hon. Lady says. They are “to determine how successful” the employment tribunal fees have been in achieving “the original objectives”. There were three original objectives. One was financial, to consider transferring
“a proportion of the costs from the taxpayer to those who use the tribunal where they can afford to do so”.
The second objective was to consider any behavioural aspects,
“to encourage parties to seek alternative ways of resolving their disputes”,
and the third was to ensure that we maintained “access to justice”. We are carrying out the review in terms of those three broad original objectives.
May I take it from the Minister’s reply that the question of abolition of fees is not ruled out, in the context of the review?
As I said in reply to an earlier intervention, I am not making any decisions on the spot, much as the hon. Lady would like to tempt me into those waters.
I do not wish to labour the point, but the question is simple. We are not asking the Minister to make a decision today; we are simply seeking clarification and confirmation that he is not ruling out the abolition of fees altogether as part of the review.
It is important to appreciate that once the Government website publishes terms of reference, which have been there for many weeks, it is not appropriate to seek to change those terms of reference simply because one is in a debate, no matter how many times colleagues try to press me to respond in that way.
I will give the Minister one last opportunity: is the possibility of the complete abolition of the fees in the review?
I refer the hon. Gentleman to the answer I gave setting out the three objectives against which we are basing the review.
It is important to note that the introduction of fees was designed to encourage parties to use alternative ways of resolving their disputes. Colleagues will appreciate that such means can often be more effective, less stressful and less expensive than formal litigation. For that reason, the previous Administration introduced the new early conciliation service, under which anyone contemplating bringing a complaint to an employment tribunal must first contact ACAS, which will offer conciliation that is free of charge.
ACAS’s evaluation of the scheme during its first year shows that the early results are promising. Although participating in early conciliation is not compulsory for either party, the vast majority do so. In 75% of cases, both parties agree to participate. The scheme was used by more than 80,000 people in its first year. Recent research by ACAS shows that more than 80% of participants in early conciliation were satisfied with the service. Much has been said so far about lawyers acting for people, so it is important to note that we have a free option, without lawyers who charge fees, that will also be less stressful and in an environment that is constructive to arriving at a solution. Sadly, it is often the case that when lawyers are involved, it can be antagonistic. That is not always the case, but it can be the case when two sets of lawyers are acting.
I assure colleagues that it was always our intention to carry out a post-implementation review of the impact of fees on employment tribunals. As Members will be aware, we announced that review in June. The aim of the review is to look at how effective fees have been in meeting the original objectives, as I mentioned. Following their introduction, there has been some concern—it has been expressed today—about the impact fees have had on people’s ability to bring claims before the tribunal. Those criticisms have tended to focus on selected statistics, taken in isolation and out of context. In particular, the fall in the volume of claims issued in the employment tribunal has been pointed to as proof that people are being denied access to justice. That is too narrow a perspective when considering this rather broader issue. The fall in the number of claims is likely to be the result of a number of factors. Crucially, there is a failure to take account of the significant increase in the take-up of conciliation.
The Minister will be aware that conciliation was introduced some time after the fees were introduced. Will he explain why there was such a significant drop immediately after fees were introduced?
I maintain that it is too simplistic to say that the fees were responsible for the drop. If the hon. Gentleman will bear with me for just a moment, I will explain the other reasons that may have contributed to the decline in the numbers. As I have already mentioned, ACAS’s evaluation of the service suggests that the early results are promising. It is noteworthy that the trend was that the number of claims was declining before fees were introduced. It is likely that that was related, at least in part, to the improving economy, which has delivered higher levels of employment. The economy and employment have continued to improve, and it is therefore likely that we would have continued to see a trend of falling claim numbers, irrespective of whether fees were introduced.
The Minister says that there was a decline for other reasons. The figures that we heard earlier in the debate were of 60% drops and even a 90% drop in certain types of cases. Was the level of drop in claims that the Minister saw of that order?
I am giving a general analysis of the number of claims that were made to the employment tribunal. The trend of the total number of claims was declining. The hon. Lady seeks to talk about specific types of cases, and I am not going to go into that. I am talking about the general trend, because the debate and the numbers given so far have been broad and have related to the total number of applications received to employment tribunals.
I will give way first to the hon. Member for Glasgow South West.
Is the Minister casting doubt on the specific research on this matter carried out by Citizens Advice Scotland, Citizens Advice for England and Wales, the TUC and others? Will he write to me with the figures on the declining number of employment tribunals prior to the introduction of fees?
I am certainly not casting doubt on research. If the hon. Gentleman recalls, I said that I was not going to discuss specific issues and specific types of case. It is important to take things in the context of how the debate has been going so far. The hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston spoke in broad-brush terms about the fees coming in and the total number of reductions.
I politely ask the Minister, when he takes the information from this debate back to the Government and his colleagues, to point out to them that although there may arguably have been a small decline or a trend before the imposition of fees, since then the numbers have fallen off the edge of a cliff. The trend has not continued.
I take on board what the hon. Gentleman says. As I have said, we are undertaking a review at present.
Other policy reforms, including changes to employment law, which the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston referred to, are also likely to have had some impact on the figures. It is clear, therefore, that a wider range of factors needs to be taken into account if we are to have a proper assessment of the true impact that fees have had, and that needs to be considered in the round. That is why we are doing a review, and that is what the review will seek to evaluate. If, after the review has reported, the Government believe that there are compelling arguments for changes to the fees structure or to the operation of the fee remissions scheme, we will, of course, bring forward proposals for a consultation, to which Members may wish to contribute.
We recognise that fees are never popular, but in the current financial climate we have a duty to consider all possible ways of ensuring that the courts and tribunals are adequately funded, so that access to justice is protected in the long term. Let me be absolutely clear, however, that at every step we have ensured that the most vulnerable are protected through the fee remissions scheme, so that the burden falls on those who can afford to pay. The conclusions of the review will provide us with a clearer picture of how fees have affected the way people seek to resolve their disputes.
Turning to some of the issues that were raised by colleagues in the debate, there was a charge that the fees were a sustained attack on working people. [Hon. Members: “Yes.”] I do not accept that for one moment. I refer to something that the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston said in his speech—I will more or less quote him—which was along the lines of, “If you are still working, taking your employer to a tribunal is the last thing you want to do.”
That is exactly why an ACAS proposal and early conciliation is a lot better than going to the tribunal. I like to think that the proposal for ACAS fits in nicely in the context of that interpretation of his sentence. The conciliation system is free. Colleagues talk about considering the working man but it seems that, by proposing to scrap or not recognise the free early conciliation system, they are showing that they would prefer a system where lawyers are instead paid by the people whom they speak about.
I am glad that the Minister has praised ACAS and the service that it provides. On that basis, will he please therefore speak to his colleagues in government about the fact that Government Departments are not engaging in early conciliation via ACAS, and specifically, on the point that I made earlier in the debate, about the National Offender Management Service?
I take on board what the hon. Lady says, and I will certainly look into the matter further. On the remissions system, I have already said we are looking to see how it can be made more user-friendly, and we will continue to look at it. The hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston also quoted Lord Justice Underhill in the case in which Unison had been involved. I gently point out to him that both the cases brought by Unison to seek judicial review were rejected by the Court of Appeal. Unison is seeking permission to appeal from the Supreme Court, but let me put it on the record that we will object robustly if the appeal process is granted.
The Minister is being extremely generous with his time; Opposition Members appreciate that. As part of the brief that he gives back to his colleagues—I am afraid I have had a memory freeze. I will come back to my point. I apologise.
We still have about three and a half minutes, so I am happy to give way to the hon. Gentleman again if necessary.
On the issue of women and pregnancy discrimination, let me make it absolutely clear that it is unacceptable that women, pregnant or not—indeed, anyone—should be discriminated against when there are laws against it. We have strict laws and the Government take the matter very seriously, as do all Members of all parties. The reviews that have been referred to will certainly be taken into account by my Department’s review into the employment tribunals.
The hon. Member for Dumfries and Galloway spoke of the Scottish aspect. I can assure him that my officials are in contact with Scottish officials to ensure that, pursuant to the Smith Commission, there is a smooth transfer in the running of the tribunals. I hope I have managed to persuade colleagues that the matter is not simply about preventing vexatious claims; it is much broader than that and is intended to ensure that where there is a need to reach a settlement with an employer, it is done in an environment that is less stressful than the court environment. Given the financial climate in which we operate, it is right that those who use the court service should in some way contribute to it.
I will conclude by congratulating the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston on securing this debate. It is absolutely clear from the 90 minutes or so that we have had that it commands a huge amount of interest from colleagues. I am grateful to him for giving his colleagues an opportunity to air their views, and for allowing me to take on board their comments and views and put on the record the Government’s view.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Gillan. I will be brief. I am disappointed in what the Minister has said today. I do not believe that he has really taken on board our concerns. I am very disappointed that, despite having had four opportunities to confirm that there is a possibility that the review of the fees will lead to their abolition, he has declined to confirm that. So we have a consultation and a review of the system, but it is nothing more than a comfort blanket to justify the original decision. I am also disappointed that, apart from the Minister, who spoke as best he could in a difficult situation, no one else from the Conservative party was here today to speak up on behalf of the Government’s policy. Perhaps they do not want to defend the indefensible.
It is worth bearing in mind that the Government’s approach is all part of a strategy in a race to the bottom. It is not a race that we should take part in. In the long run, we will all be the poorer for that kind of mentality. Let us get a system that allows workplace justice. Let us have a proper consultation and take on board all the evidence—the weight of evidence from the Justice Committee that we have heard today—about how the fees have really denied access to justice. Let us get a system that really allows access to justice. The only way to do that is to scrap the fees altogether.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the effect of the introduction of fees for employment tribunals.
Post Office Closures
I beg to move,
That this House has considered service provision in the event of post office closures.
It is an absolute pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mrs Gillan. I am grateful for the opportunity to lead this debate about post office provision. I have particular concerns about post offices closing and not being reopened, or not for some significant time. This being a debate about post offices, I very much hope to receive your stamp of approval, Mrs Gillan. I am conscious that other MPs will wish to speak—mail or female—and I will leave plenty of time for them to do so. If I go on for too long, I am sure that Members will tell me in no uncertain terms, “Letters speak!” I shall leave behind the appalling puns and move on to the subject of the debate.
With the Post Office having moved towards a franchise model, local provision is increasingly reliant on private individuals providing a post office as well as running their own business. If those individuals decide to hand in the keys, the Post Office is left to try to find a replacement, and the community is without a post office until it does. I shall explore three areas in my speech. First, I shall provide a brief case study of the closure of my local post office in Heathfield in my constituency, Bexhill and Battle. Secondly, I shall assess whether the Government’s contract with Post Office Ltd obliges the latter to provide replacement post offices following closures. Thirdly, I shall ask the Minister what more can be done to ensure that Post Office Ltd is held responsible for better service provision.
Turning first to the case study on post office closure, Heathfield is a rural settlement serving 12,000 residents. It is the largest parish in the country by population. In most eyes, it is a town, although it is fair to say that I would be run out of town—or, indeed, parish—if I suggested so. As befits a population of that size, Heathfield has a high street with banks, supermarkets, and both national and local shops. Whereas high streets around the country may be struggling, Heathfield’s has strong footfall, with new national retailers opening for business.
In March this year, the postmaster running the post office branch expressed a wish to leave the business. Post Office Ltd identified a potential new postmaster, but he was unfortunately unable to secure a lease agreement on the site. Sadly, the branch closed on 1 April 2015. The Post Office employed an agent postmaster, but he could not agree a lease on the premises either. That leads to my first issue: Post Office Ltd will send in a temporary postmaster to run a post office only from the existing site, so people are at the mercy of the landlord when it comes to making this work. Post Office Ltd will not look at alternative temporary premises for the temporary postmaster, despite there being plenty of premises available in my Heathfield example.
By summer, the pressure applied by the community and our fantastic county, district and parish councillors caused Post Office Ltd to consider a temporary solution in the form of a portakabin post office. Despite the district council offering a berth in the car park adjacent to the existing site, Post Office Ltd decided that that was not logistically possible, so it opted for a different car park in Heathfield. Having delivered the portakabin via crane, time was taken waiting for BT and other suppliers to kit out said portakabin. That leads to my second issue: Post Office Ltd must have huge buy-in clout when dealing with its vendors, but there appeared to be an institutional unwillingness to drive BT and others to deliver the required capability, or to hold feet to the fire.
When the portakabin was finally ready to go live, Post Office Ltd engineers found that the site was not flat enough to provide safe access for customers. The portakabin was promptly removed, and no temporary solution has been provided. That leads to my third issue: there are more than 11,500 post offices in operation, so if my local one can close, I am sure that others can and have closed.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. I am sad to hear what has happened in Heathfield. I hope that the same will not happen in Bulkington in my constituency, where the Co-op gave notice of withdrawing its post office franchise only last week. That set all sorts of hares running in the village, with talk of the post office closing down. It is not the post office that is closing down; the Co-op has elected to take away the franchise and has not, at this stage, taken any steps to find an alternative site. My hon. Friend has raised an important problem, and I look forward to hearing from the Minister how the Post Office might deal with such matters.
I thank my hon. Friend for making that point. Indeed, Co-op was one of the retailers we approached in Heathfield to see whether it would be willing to take on the post office, but that particular Co-op franchise at least made it clear that it was not in the business of post offices anymore. That might add fuel to my hon. Friend’s fire.
I found it humorous when the hon. Gentleman mentioned post offices in portakabins—they would not last too long in certain parts of Northern Ireland. Does he agree that although the Co-op might have had some responsibility, so does the Post Office, because post offices are part of the fabric of the community, and are where pensioners and others meet? Surely the commitment needs to come from the Post Office.
I absolutely agree, and will touch on that when I discuss the effect on my constituents.
I thank my hon. Friend for securing this debate. I add my concerns to the others expressed, because the post office in Inkberrow in my constituency is up for consultation. The local shop was keen to have it, but the Post Office could not consult properly with local residents. It would be great if post offices could be sited in community facilities such as pubs.
I very much take my hon. Friend’s point. One of the challenges we have found has been in trying to find businesses that are willing to take on post office sites. The choice does not seem to be there any longer—at least, not that I can see from the situation in Heathfield.
Will my hon. Friend give way?
I will give way one more time, because I am a sucker.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. In my constituency we have exactly the same problem, with post offices closing and there being a long gap before they are replaced. There are problems even when people are willing to take on a post office. A sub-postmaster in my constituency wishes to take on a post office in another community, but he cannot because the Post Office demands that he goes through all these hoops, despite being a serving sub-postmaster. Often, because of the processes put in place by the Post Office, willing people will not accept the role, and we end up with no facility at all.
I very much agree with my hon. Friend. The compliance process is long and detailed. The current consultation in Heathfield means that we will not see a solution until February at the earliest.
Returning to my story, the portakabin was removed because the Post Office Ltd had no plan in place for portakabin roll-outs. If the closures that I believe will come do come, there needs to be a plan. The councillors realised that a permanent replacement was the only option, so they approached a number of national and local stores in the high street. I will give examples that show how difficult it now is to get businesses to take on a post office. Having previously hosted the post office, Sainsbury’s said no, despite losing footfall following the closing of the adjacent post office and having to compete with a new Waitrose. A WHSmith is opening soon, which is a good sign that the town is vibrant; one would think that the business would work well there, but it said no. As I say, Co-op said that it is not taking on post offices. The post office used to be sited in the sorting offices, but Royal Mail refused to accommodate even a temporary outlet. All other retailers declined to apply.
Finally, one local business, an off-licence, was willing to make an application. Thank goodness for that gentleman. That leads me to my fourth issue: the model now seems to be that neither village post offices—often called “locals”—nor main post offices in towns will operate as a stand-alone business now. That would be fine if existing businesses were willing to take on the operation, but as our experience in Heathfield shows, they are not. I question whether the commercial terms will stand the test of time for the other 11,500 post offices when renewal comes up.
As I said earlier, the Post Office is now in consultation with the community until January 2016. The expectation, if all goes well—touch wood—is that the new post office service will be in place in February 2016. That is almost a year after the doors closed to a post office that serves 11,500 to 12,000 residents.
Throughout the period of closure, the vast majority of customers have had to use services at a village a few miles from Heathfield. That is fine for those who have a car and can travel, but like many hon. Members here, I represent a rural constituency in which the bus service has been reduced. The proportion of over-65s in my constituency is 10% above the national average. The elderly cannot jump on a bus and then wait more than an hour in the cold to come back.
That leads me to my fifth issue and my second key question. Does the Government’s contract require the Post Office to provide a post office replacement following a closure if the branch serves a significant number of community members, or has been closed for, say, six months? It appears that it does not. Post Office Ltd must meet access criteria, as they are called, and overall branch numbers, but as somebody at the Post Office rather haughtily said to me,
“The way in which the Post Office meets the access criteria and branch numbers is an operational matter for the Post Office.”
That may be so, but it is also of great significance to my constituents and those of other hon. Members. The Post Office currently meets the access criteria, but I question how long it will continue to do so in the marketplace that I have described.
My concluding question is: what more can be done to ensure that Post Office Ltd is held responsible for better service provision? If the Government contract required either a temporary or permanent replacement to be in place within a set period, Heathfield would not have been without its post office for so long. I call for the contract terms to be amended to require a replacement post office to be in place within six months if the previous post office serviced a community of, say, 10,000 residents or more. If a replacement fails to be found, there should be financial penalties and ramifications on the career ladder. Although the Post Office staff have done everything they can, their roles are not subject to incentives, and there are no penalties if a post office closes, provided that the general access criteria are met. Those are the changes I ask for.
Four Members have indicated that they would like to speak, and we must accommodate the three Front Benchers’ speeches. I will not impose a time limit, but I hope that you will all bear that in mind.
It is a pleasure to speak on this issue. I commend the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman) for bringing it to Westminster Hall for consideration. This is a key issue in my constituency—as in, I believe, every other constituency. We have experienced a lot of changes to our post offices over the years, not all of them for the best, although some have been carried out constructively.
The post office is a national institution that has been at the heart of British society since its inception. The post office in my constituency is more than just a post office. The post office is a community hub for people in towns, villages and hamlets up and down the country. It holds together the fabric of society. My post office, although I do not visit it very often, is also a shop, and that is where the change has taken place. It is clearly the thriving centre of the village. For many of the people who go to the post office to post letters or whatever else, the social interaction they get there is vital. Without it, they would suffer.
On the issue of the other services that local post offices provide, over the past 20 years there has been a reduction of almost 50% in the number of branch post offices, and that trend looks likely to continue. We need a fundamental reassessment of the services provided by branch post offices, particularly in rural areas.
As always, my hon. Friend sums up the whole debate in about two sentences. He is absolutely right. Those are clearly the issues, and that change needs to take place across the whole Post Office.
Post office restructuring and modernisation will affect different post offices in different ways. In some places, there is concern that the post office, its services and its community value will be lost. In others, including my constituency, the concern is about the staff who face dramatically increased working hours for the same wage. That issue has to be taken into consideration. When post offices, their services and their provisions are lost, our role is to protect those who are adversely affected by those changes. Elderly people can be left vulnerable and isolated by the loss of what for many is a community hub.
Over the years, I have had the chance to work with post office counters. I want to mention Mark Gibson, who has worked hard to make the necessary changes. Over the years, with his help and the help of local people, we were able to move local post offices into shops in several villages on the Ards peninsula: Kircubbin, Cloughey, Portavogie, Ballygowan, Saintfield and Ballynahinch. The Scrabo estate post office was moved into the Ards shopping centre. Those are the things that can be done if we have the co-operation of the post office counters and those who own shops.
Changes can result in job losses in my constituency, as well as the loss of the community value of the post office. We need to put in place mechanisms, to which my hon. Friend the Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell) referred, to enable the post office to do more. For example, why cannot every post office deal with vehicle tax? That could be done in every post office across the Province. They could deal with benefits, banking and other things. I spoke to the Minister before the debate, so he knew that that question was coming. I hope for a full answer when he speaks.
We have some questions about the post offices in Ballywalter, Portavogie and Killyleagh in my constituency. They are coming into the new system. The postmasters and postmistresses are concerned about how the changes will take place, and the staff are worried about their working hours. Hopefully, relocating staff from closing post offices will alleviate that problem.
It seems that when the individual in charge of a post office decides that they no longer wish to trade, they simply shut up shop. On some occasions, post offices have closed. We were able to move all but one of the post offices I mentioned into other shops in the area. The hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle mentioned a post office that moved into a pub. That is unusual, but it is important that it was retained.
We warned about the drawbacks of the privatisation of the Post Office. Now that it has happened, the Government should do everything they can to ensure that the Post Office has plans in place to make adequate provision. I understand that the contract with the Post Office was geared towards requiring Post Office Ltd to find temporary or permanent replacements for closed post offices. We have to be careful about how the Government push Post Office Ltd. The Government need a hands-on approach to ensure that the major changes happen smoothly, that those who are adversely affected are protected, and that Post Office Ltd fulfils its contractual obligations.
In conclusion, the post office is an integral part of my society—the villages, estates and towns of Strangford, which I represent. People in those villages and estates need post offices for social interaction and for the services they provide. Post offices are the lifeblood of all the villages and estates in my constituency. My plea to the Minister is that he helps them to remain that way.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Gillan. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman) on securing the debate. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), whose remarks, as always, were considered.
I hope to inject some optimism into the debate. Our debates in this place are often full of doom and gloom about issues facing our constituencies. Of course, it is right that we advocate on behalf of our constituents, who need to access local services, but some good things have been happening to post offices that have benefited my constituents. I will refer to a few of those things and talk about the issue, which my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle raised, of the challenges that communities face when post offices temporarily close, often due to unforeseen circumstances.
Post offices are the lifeblood of many rural areas and of many of the shopping parades on the periphery of our larger town centres. That is certainly true of my constituency. The service that they provide to older people is particularly important, offering a focus in the village or community for people who have little daily contact and may otherwise be isolated. That is particularly true in rural areas of Suffolk. There is some cause for optimism, however, because the Government have taken supporting post offices seriously. At the beginning of the previous Parliament, as a result of the spending review, £1.3 billion was put into securing a modernisation programme for post offices both large and small, including Crown post offices, main post offices and local post offices. The programme is bringing benefits, certainly to my constituents. A further raft of £640 million was announced in 2013, £20 million of which is specifically for remote rural post offices. Residents in central Suffolk have benefited from that.
One issue that was flagged up when the modernisation programme was taken forward was that the Post Office needed to modernise some of its practices, recognising that we now live in a digital age. We need a Post Office that can benefit from economies of scale and from collocation with other community services. Post offices can benefit village shops by attracting more customers and helping to maintain the viability of shops and services that may otherwise be at risk as people move towards online shopping.
I hope my hon. Friend does not think that we are all being negative. The post offices at Pollington, Eastoft, Airmyn and Wrawby were all closed under the previous Government’s closure scheme, and we are pleased that that scheme has gone. The concern about the current positive policy is the huge delays when people are told that they are getting a new post office but then it does not open, meaning that people change their behaviour and start using other services or post offices elsewhere. That is the concern, and I would not want him to think that anyone who is criticising that is at all negative about what the Government have done on post offices. We have protected them in a way that previous Governments did not.
My hon. Friend makes a valid point. I am sure that the funding and investment that I have just outlined is welcomed by Members from both sides of the House, because it has gone directly to maintaining the viability of some of the most remote rural post offices. However, the challenge that my hon. Friend throws down, which was also raised at the outset by my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle, is a good one.
When a post office is temporarily closed, such as the one that my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle mentioned in Heathfield, a village with which I am familiar having spent some of my younger days in his constituency, the problem is that the closure can become de facto permanent. Even when a temporary closure is flagged up to the local community and the Post Office many months in advance, the Post Office does not always act quickly enough to put in place either a temporary or permanent solution. I am lucky to have an engaged parish council that considered a number of options for maintaining the viability of the post office in Stradbroke. I helped in that process, and I am pleased that we still have a functioning post office service.
As my hon. Friend pointed out, the danger, and the evidence from elsewhere, is that a temporary closure can last for many months. The viability of the service is then lost and many customers start to take their custom elsewhere, which can have a knock-on effect on the potentially fragile local economy that benefited from having a post office. When the original £1.3 billion was provided, conditions were imposed to ensure that services remained accessible and viable. I am interested in what the Minister has to say about how we can better work with the Post Office to deal with the issues around temporary closures and to speed up the process, so that such closures do not become de facto semi-permanent and so that services can be put back in place. At the moment, it seems that a good policy that has benefited and encouraged the viability of many rural post offices, particularly through collocation, can be undermined in some communities by temporary closures.
Will my hon. Friend give way?
I will, but I am conscious of the time and the need to close my remarks.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way and congratulate all those who have contributed to the debate. I was not aware that other Members were in the same situation as me. My own village post office in Honley has now been closed for six weeks and I have been struggling to get any explanation from the Post Office as to why. Business has been migrating elsewhere. Only this afternoon, the post office in Meltham, which is where we were supposed to go, has also closed. I thank my hon. Friend for raising this issue, which I am now aware exists across the country, not just in my constituency.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right that any community could face temporary closures. The great tragedy of such closures, some of which can be unforeseen and happen at short notice, perhaps due to the death of a long-standing postmaster, is that they are often not sudden and are flagged up many months in advance when a postmaster wants to retire. We need prompter action and early engagement from the Post Office in such circumstances. Given the conditionality of the money in the £1.3 billion modernisation programme, I am interested to hear what further steps the Government can take to ensure that the Post Office gets it right. We do not want temporary closures to become permanent, and we must recognise that temporary closures can have a detrimental effect on the other shops in a village or community that relied on the footfall brought in by the post office.
The Government have taken some promising steps towards reinvigorating the Post Office. I believe that 150 new branches opened last year as a result of the modernisation programme. That is good news, but we need to address temporary closures properly. I look forward to the Minister’s remarks.
Order. We still have five speakers left, with half an hour to go. I call Dr Paul Monaghan.
Thank you, Mrs Gillan, for the opportunity to discuss the important issue of service delivery in the event of post office closures. I congratulate the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman) on securing the debate and on highlighting his case study, the features of which I recognise only too well.
Post offices play an enormously important role in the lives of communities across the UK, and nowhere is that more evident than in constituencies such as mine that have many remote and rural communities. Indeed, the post office is the heart and soul of many villages in my constituency, and for many people it is the only means to interact with the outside world. They do so not only through postal services and parcels but through banking and accessing business services, submitting identity documents, obtaining a passport or driving licence, accessing cash, building up a modest savings account, receiving pensions and collecting benefit entitlements. I appreciate the challenges that the Post Office faces in delivering that range of crucial range of services, and I appreciate that it is working hard to ensure that its services remain as accessible as possible, particularly for older and disabled customers.
Between March 2001 and March 2015, 531 of Scotland’s post offices were closed. That is equivalent to over 27% of all post offices being lost—more than one in four. Each of those closures is a disaster for the local community, depriving it of the means to interact with the world in the ways that I described. On 8 November 2015, just a few weeks ago, The Mail on Sunday published an article stating that there had been a large number of temporary post office closures in rural villages and towns of Scotland. Figures obtained by the paper showed that 90 post offices in Scotland are now officially registered as temporarily closed. I say “temporarily”, although a third have been closed for more than five years. Commenting on that sad fact recently, the consumer spokesman for Citizens Advice Scotland noted:
“Local Post Offices are vital for remote and rural communities as consumers and business there can face difficulty in travelling to alternative branches.”
The paper noted that new figures provided by the Post Office under the Freedom of Information Act demonstrated that as of 31 March 2015 there were 1,492 post offices in Scotland, of which 1,402 remained open. Of the 90 classed as temporarily closed, 77 were in rural areas. Several of those are in my constituency. Of the temporarily closed post offices, 34 have been closed for five or six years, six for four years, two for three years, seven for two years and 14 for one year. Within the past year alone, 27 post offices have closed temporarily throughout Scotland.
The effect of post office closures is dramatic, not least because many of the post offices have evolved to take on responsibility for delivering a range of banking and business functions, in addition to the traditional post office role. That evolution has taken place because many of the banks operating in the UK have implemented a programme of branch closures and reduced opening hours in many communities. In the rural areas of my constituency that often means that the local post office is the only available financial service provider within a 60-mile radius. It goes without saying that where the banks have closed and the post office follows, communities are left in grave circumstances. Such a situation is far too common, as we have heard.
To be clear, accountability for the post office network lies with the UK Government, who have a responsibility to ensure that post office services are available for Scotland’s rural communities. In those communities there is no alternative to post office services.
The Postal Services Act 2011 sets out the minimum requirements of the universal service obligation, on which the Post Office must deliver. The requirements are statutory and may be altered only with the consent of the UK Parliament. The minimum requirements are: at least one delivery of letters every Monday to Saturday to every address in the UK; at least one collection of letters every Monday to Saturday; postal services at an affordable, uniform tariff across the UK; a registered items service at an affordable public tariff; an insured items service at an affordable public tariff; a free-of-charge postal service to blind or partially sighted people; and free carriage of legislative petitions and addresses.
The Post Office, posts and postal services are reserved to the UK Government under the Scotland Act 1998, but the Scottish Government are committed to strengthening the long-term sustainability of the post office network in Scotland, consistent with the national performance framework. Recognising the importance of post offices, the Scottish Government have determined to provide funding to local post offices to maintain their crucial service delivery through, for example, the post office diversification fund for Scotland. The objective of the fund is to contribute to the regeneration of deprived urban areas by sustaining and improving post office branches on the margins of viability that provide socially important services and facilities and that act as an anchor for other retail activity. Such objectives clearly apply to rural areas as well. In 2011-12, for example, 48 post offices throughout Scotland received funding of upwards of £25,000, individually awarded to various outlets for a variety of improvements, including refurbishments, improved security, retail equipment and so on.
The Scottish Government recognise the valuable social role of post offices, particularly in deprived and remote areas of Scotland. That is why the Scottish National party continues to promote innovative approaches to delivering public services through post offices. We want to support local authorities, local enterprise networks and third sector organisations to work together to find sustainable solutions that place post office services at the heart of community-based services.
The UK Government must do all in their power to protect rural communities from the destructive impact of post office closures. Post offices perform a vital service in many areas of the UK. They have a pivotal role to play and are often the only place where letters and packages can be sent and received, bills paid, cash withdrawn and savings deposited. For communities that as often as not do not have internet connections, such services are essential in every meaning of the word.
Scotland has many remote and rural households and communities, and in common with communities in other countries in the UK, they should not have vital services taken away from them. I call on the UK Government to improve strategy and policy and to secure post offices for communities throughout the UK, but particularly in remote and rural areas.
I would like to start the wind-ups at 10 minutes past 5, with five minutes for each of the Opposition Front Benchers and, I hope, 10 minutes for the Minister. That is what I am aiming for, so I hope Members will accommodate it.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman) on bringing this important issue to the Chamber. It is not only important for rural communities, although I understand what hon. Members have been saying.
In August, the shop in which the post office was operating in the community of Newbiggin-by-the-Sea in my constituency went into liquidation—in a flash, just like that, the post office was closed. Newbiggin is a lovely seaside village of about 6,000 people where lots of them depend on the post office services. There is no bank in the area—the village is at least three miles from a bank or any other post office—and the area is in the top 10% of deprived lower layer super output areas, so a lot of people depend on benefits and there are a lot of elderly people in the village. To have the post office taken away means, almost within minutes, a devastating impact on families, individuals and isolated people. As has been mentioned, those people might not be able to jump into a car or have great transport links to get to the next nearest post office and, to be honest, a lot of those elderly or vulnerable people might not have a clue where the next post office is. The issue is really important.
It is easy to criticise the Post Office and everyone else concerned, but we have to think about the communities, the people and the devastating impact on them, not just in Newbiggin in my constituency, but in villages and towns throughout the country, as has been explained in the Chamber this afternoon. We have got to have some sort of reliable post office provision, and it cannot be that if the old lady or gentleman who runs the post office sadly passes away, that provision is basically withdrawn. People depend on these services and there has got to be some form of contract between the Government and the Post Office so that in the event of a liquidation, a death or something like that, people can still use post office services, the lifeblood of their community.
I urge the Government to think about how we can come together with a strategy—a community contract—between the Government, the Post Office and the community to ensure services whatever happens. Unfortunately, in life things do happen, and post offices have been closed not because of anything that the postmaster or postmistress has done, but because of circumstances outside their control. The Government should be ensuring that that provision cannot, even temporarily, be withdrawn.
I thank the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman) for securing the debate and I am pleased to serve under your chairmanship today, Mrs Gillan.
We have heard a similar story in all parts of the House: how vital post offices are in their communities and the extent to which they are more than just a service—they are about the community hub and their impact on a whole range of different sectors of society. I find myself fully in agreement with the speech just made by the hon. Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery). He highlighted the impact on people in deprivation when a post office is closed. Those are often the people who have less access to public transport, the internet and other vital services, which shows how vital post offices are in the community.
My hon. Friend the Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Dr Monaghan) highlighted the Scottish situation, which I am a bit more familiar with, and the good work done by the Scottish Government through its post office diversification fund. That is an example of what can be done. That fund has been key in saving post offices on the cusp of viability, certainly for larger communities of more than 10,000 people, which is a beacon for the way forward, because it has allowed those post offices to continue and act as an anchor for other services, which gives great vitality.
The hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman) talked about the problem of delays in getting temporary offices up and running, while my hon. Friend the Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross mentioned the impact of temporary closures that go on way beyond what anyone would think was in the realms of temporary. Upwards of five years is not temporary; that is semi-permanent. Perhaps the Minister might look for a way to address that blight. If we think a closure is temporary, we can accept a bit of grief for a few months, but we cannot accept that for years.
The hon. Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter) made many valid points, including on the impact of temporary closures. A strong message we can take from the debate is that we need something done about that. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) pointed out how vital post offices are as community hubs, which is a point everyone has made in the debate. They go beyond a service and while we might now live in a digital age, many elderly people who may not be as digitally competent are utterly dependent on those services, as are businesses who have poor broadband connections and need those services for general business and communication. That covers a huge range. I hope that I have not missed out any contributors to the debate, but I think we pretty much agree with everything said in all parts of the House. I look forward to the Minister’s response.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Gillan. I congratulate the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman) on securing this important debate. He is keen to ascertain what the Government will do to ensure that the Post Office has proper plans in place for provision and that, where there are problems, it acts quickly to ensure an available replacement, whether on a temporary or permanent basis.
The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) hit the nail on the head and spoke for everyone when he said that the post office is the heart of the community. Post offices are indeed an essential part of British life, providing somewhere for people not only to buy their stamps and post letters and parcels but, as the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Dr Monaghan) said, to access many other vital services. As my hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery) said, sometimes they are the only places where people can access such services—it might not be possible to go anywhere else.
Of course, things do change. Quite often that is as a result of technological change. The hon. Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter) summed that up by saying that we are in a digital age and, as a result, the number of post offices has fallen in recent years. Most post office branches are operated by franchise partners or sub-postmasters who are independent business people, so, in order for their post offices to remain open, they often rely on Government subsidy. Despite some reassurance, clearly there are still real pressures, which have not been helped by the controversy surrounding the Post Office’s Horizon accounting system.
Many hon. Members have raised cases in the House in which it appears that honest and hard-working sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses have had their reputation tarnished and livelihood threatened—in some cases they have lost their liberty—having been accused of improper accounting. Whatever the truth, in those cases computer software was responsible for the loss of large sums of money. Unquestionably, that may have acted as an off-putting factor for those who might have considered running a post office as part of their business.
In addition, as has been pointed out, some post office proprietors have been resigning from the business because they are concerned that their post offices are not financially viable. Local papers throughout the country are full of stories—I see them in my constituency—of postmasters and postmistresses struggling to stay in business. Often, that occurs where Post Office Ltd has changed the status of a local post office as part of national changes to the service, which leaves them having to rely on commission to offer what services they can.
When that happens, the survival of the post office is dependent on the viability of the shop in which it is contained and some complain that they cannot afford to run the post office, in particular owing to the extended opening hours demanded by Post Office Ltd. Will the Minister tell us how many sub-postmasters have resigned in the past year as a result of being unable to run their business profitably with a post office in their premises? What procedures do the Government expect them to follow when it becomes clear that a post office is in danger of closing?
Without proactive policies, thousands of constituents can be left without a local post office because Post Office Ltd is unable to rely on the good will of an individual operator. Does the Minister believe that Post Office Ltd is taking adequate steps to be proactive in preventing closure and acting swiftly enough to ensure that a replacement is available locally when a post office has to close? Indeed, does he believe that conditions put on replacements, such as very long opening hours, are unreasonable?
One thing that has not been mentioned but the Minister could take on board for his response is the possibility of incentivising financially those who want to take over a post office. Perhaps the Government need to offer a small financial bonus or incentive to enable people at least to consider that, based on a contract and proper conditions. That has happened in Northern Ireland and perhaps it should happen here as well.
That is certainly something to put to the Minister. The Government have committed £640 million from 2015 to 2018 to fund the network transformation programme and to protect branches where vital services are provided to communities but the post office is not commercially viable. Is the Minister content that sufficient funding is being provided to fulfil that task? What will happen when the subsidy runs out in 2018? Can he guarantee that after that point the transformation programme will have ensured that remaining post offices are commercially viable? I look forward to his response.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Gillan. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman) on securing the debate and the way in which he has championed this issue most effectively since his election to Parliament. He raised a number of points that it may be helpful to address at the outset, on whether this is a new model in the Post Office, to what extent it is commercially attractive and how the Post Office is being held accountable.
Like my hon. Friend, I represent a rural constituency and I have a similar change programme in my area. I am also aware of the challenges in areas such as mine on public transport, to which he alluded. As for whether the franchise model is new, it is not; it has been around since the 1990s and it is long-held practice to collocate a post office and a shop. What is changing to a certain extent is the number and scale of post offices being collocated, and while in the past we had post offices with shops that sold sweets, birthday cards and various other things—many of us will remember that from our childhood—now we more often have shops with a post office attached to them.
On whether running a post office is commercially attractive, the footfall generated is very attractive to many shop owners. Indeed, having one counter as opposed to two can mean that customers do not have to queue twice and can make managing staff in the shop more efficient. There are therefore commercial attractions to collocating a post office in another business nearby, which is part of the appeal for many taking that approach forward.
The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) rightly spoke of the social hub that the post office offers. That is why I hope he will support the Government’s manifesto commitment to secure 3,000 rural post offices and, as part of the arrangements with the Post Office, to maintain 11,500 branches as part of the network. The Government recognise, through the funding that has been allocated, the important social hub that post offices provide. Indeed, that is in stark contrast to the previous Labour Government, under which at least 5,000 branches closed as part of their closure programme. The Government have made a commitment to the Post Office in recognition of the exact point the hon. Gentleman raised—that post offices make an important social contribution to communities.
My hon. Friend the Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter) injected a welcome note of optimism to the debate, recognising that, in securing the network as the Government have done, we have increased significantly the hours that branches are open, often on Sundays, compared with the past.
Alongside the allocated funding, there is a specific £20 million community branch fund, which I urge Members to take advantage of. The fund encourages branches that may be the last shop in their community to bid for things they may need to make their businesses more viable, so measures are available within the funding mechanism to help preserve post offices where they are aligned with the last shop in a village or community. That is part of the wider £2 billion allocated since 2010 as part of this programme.
Before I come to the specific case in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle and the chain of events behind the post office’s temporary closure there, I turn to my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy), who raised the issue of the hoops that have to be jumped through, causing frustration and adding to the time taken to open a new post office or appoint a new postmaster. I think we all share that frustration, but there are good reasons for it, given the significant position of trust that postmasters and postmistresses hold within their communities and the large sums of money they often handle. It is therefore right that a thorough consultation process is part of those appointments, but that can have an impact.
I think any reasonable person would accept that. We could perhaps do better by ensuring that interim measures are in place while something else is being worked on. That is the problem. Everyone understands the importance of a postmaster’s job and the compliance regime that must go behind it, but the length of time between the closure of a post office and the opening of a new one is unacceptable, and we need to smarten up on that.
My hon. Friend raises a valid point. These things are looked at on a case-by-case basis, and each case tends to be different. That is highlighted in the case of the post office in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle, where a number of interim measures were tried. He alluded to a portakabin being used and the attempt made to look at whether that could be located close to the store or needed to be further away. The issue of temporary staff was considered. A mobile van was also considered, which is sometimes suitable, but the volume of customers at the Heathfield store was too high. There were specific issues with the portakabin, but that solution was tried.
Attempts are made to mitigate the time taken, but sometimes local factors work against that. Unfortunately, in my hon. Friend’s case, a chain of events has made it more difficult to put the interim solution in place. I hope that better news is imminent. I know he supports the proposal for a new permanent host for the post office in Heathfield: Unique Wine Ltd, which is on the high street. The consultation is ongoing, so I hope there is light at the end of the tunnel for him.
In terms of locating a post office in an existing business—in that case, an off-licence—there are plenty of examples around the country of such collocation working well, not least due to the longer hours in which it enables the public to access the post office. I take slight issue with the suggestion from the hon. Member for Makerfield (Yvonne Fovargue) that the Post Office is imposing unfair terms by asking for longer hours. She also suggested that the public are not getting access to post offices. I think most customers will welcome the fact that a post office, through collocation, is open for longer hours. That is part of the public benefit.
I will simply give the Minister an example from my constituency, where a local shop has a post office in it but is finding it difficult to maintain a profit with that post office because of the hours for which it has to maintain that particular counter. It is thinking of closing the service, rather than keeping it open for shorter hours.
Indeed, but the proposed new branch in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle would be open for 21 hours longer a week than the previous store. Notwithstanding the time taken to put the new branch in place, once it is in place, subject to the consultation, the collocation means that the post office will be open for an additional 21 hours, which I think will be particularly welcome to his constituents.
The Post Office is tasked by Government to maintain a network of 11,500 branches and to meet specific access criteria—for example, that 90% of the UK population live within 1 mile of a post office. The Post Office is meeting those criteria, as set out in the annual report it publishes. That agreement does not specify that every community must have or retain a post office. That is because the business needs the flexibility to respond to local circumstances in each case. Were we to require the Post Office to maintain individual branches or reopen them within a set period—an issue that my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle raised—it could lead, in extremis, to a new post office having to be built if a lease could not be secured on an old site. Such a restriction would be counterproductive to protecting the commercial viability of the network.
The economics of the Post Office is such that with the changes brought about by the internet and the digital world, small stand-alone post offices sometimes do not generate enough business to be sustainable on their own. The modernisation programme that the business has been following for the past few years has been about moving local post offices into a vibrant shop where the overheads of a business, such as property and staff costs, are shared with the host business, which is what we are seeing in my hon. Friend’s constituency.
The experience of the Post Office’s directly operated branches—the Crown branches—is illustrative. Collectively, those businesses have moved from making an annual £50 million loss to breaking even. That underlines the Government’s commitment to the Post Office network and a mix of modernisation, automation, labour reform and, in no small part, the franchising of weaker branches that are not delivering that performance. Were the Post Office to be forced to run more directly operated businesses with weaker turnover than in busy town centres, those branches would not be sustainable without greater public subsidy. Rather than force that on the business, we are allowing the estate to manage itself in a more value-for-money way, while protecting the 3,000 rural branches and the wider network.
It is regrettable that the Post Office has been unable to maintain service provision at Heathfield since April. However, that is not due to a lack of effort or expense by the Post Office. Unfortunately, local circumstances sometimes prevent the ideal outcome, as we saw with the portakabin example. In most cases, the business is able to find a way to maintain provision successfully. I am glad that a potential branch has now been found in my hon. Friend’s constituency, which I know he supports.
In seeking a solution at Heathfield, we should not lose sight of the fact that the Post Office is delivering a service that is open for more hours, with less public subsidy, and therefore offers a better, value-for-money service for the taxpayer. That reflects the Government’s commitment to maintaining the branch network and recognising the social hub that the hon. Member for Strangford described so well.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered service provision in the event of post office closures.