Tuesday 5 January 2016
[Andrew Percy in the Chair]
EU Membership (UK Renegotiation)
I beg to move,
That this House has considered renegotiation of UK membership of the EU.
May I say at the outset, Mr Percy, how delighted I am to see you in the Chair and what a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship? I can think of no one more suited to the role. What an excellent way to start the parliamentary year.
I thank Mr Speaker for granting me permission to have this debate and I thank the Prime Minister for his commitment to delivering an in/out referendum as part of the Conservative party manifesto. Let us not forget that if the Conservatives had not won last year’s general election, the Labour party, the Scottish National party and the Liberal Democrats would have denied us the referendum that the British people want to hold. There is a lot of speaking talent in the Chamber this morning, so I shall keep my remarks shorter than I would otherwise, because most hon. Members here know far more about this subject and are far more eloquent than I.
To keep things simple, the referendum question that we will face, either this year or next, is whether to remain in or leave the European Union. Repeated polls show basically the same pattern. About a third of people want to remain and about a third of us want to leave, whatever happens. In between, about a quarter to a third are uncomfortable with Britain’s present relationship with the European Union or are worried about the future, but they are also concerned that if we leave the EU, there might be bad consequences for their jobs or living standards. The lazy assumption of the establishment, the BBC and the CBI is that the UK will vote to remain.
I am privileged to represent the constituency of Kettering, which has the privilege of being the most average town in the whole country. I like to describe Kettering as middle England at its best. The people in Kettering will want clear explanations from both sides as to which way they will vote. It is true, I am sure we all agree, that people are wary of change, but a key point to get across is that whether we stay in the European Union or leave it, change will happen. My contention is that if we stay in, those changes will be bad for the United Kingdom, but if we leave, those changes can be made good. My central assumption this morning is that remaining in the European Union is the riskier option. Leaving and taking back control for ourselves is by far the safer choice, which is what we need to explain to the good people of Kettering and the great British public over the year—or years—ahead.
The first of the five main points I want to make is, I am afraid, that the Prime Minister’s renegotiation strategy has been unfortunately weak. It has been undermined from the start by the fact that he is in favour of staying in the European Union, whatever the outcome of those renegotiations. The reforms that we are likely to get, if any, will be too little and too late. For a start, it looks pretty certain that they will not involve any kind of change to the European treaties at all, so any proposed reforms will have the legal effect of simply being an unsigned contract. The Prime Minister promised us that we would have full-on treaty change, but that has effectively now been abandoned.
My hon. Friend is more attuned to European matters than virtually anyone else in this House, so he will be well aware that any treaty change will require a series of domestic referendums. It will clearly not be possible to get that worked out by the end of December 2017, when we are committed to having a referendum. It has always been clear from the timetable that we have in place that having fully fledged treaty change in advance of our referendum was an impossibility. Does he accept that?
If my right hon. Friend is correct, it strengthens the case for voting to leave. Why would we want to stay in the European Union knowing that treaty change is yet to happen, trusting in the judgment of European politicians to deliver what they say they will deliver? The safer choice is to vote to leave, and then we would have the upper hand in negotiating our successful exit from the European Union.
If there are changes to the treaty, it is likely to be another five to 10 years before they happen, and if they proceed along the lines of the infamous Five Presidents report, they bode ill for this nation. It would appear that we are not going to get an end to the supremacy of EU law over UK law. We will not get the United Kingdom out of the charter of fundamental rights, which gives EU judges huge powers over us. We will not get a restoration of the UK’s right to make free trade deals under the World Trade Organisation. We are not going to get any reforms to the common agricultural policy or the common fisheries policy—I hope the SNP spokesmen are aware of that. We might get some changes to the benefit entitlement rules, but most EU migration to this country is driven not by a search for benefits, but by the fact that the UK has the most successful economy in Europe and people are coming here to seek work.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right: one reason why we have so dismally failed to meet our migration targets has been the relative success of our economy. However, does he not also accept that it would be wrong simply to blame our membership of the EU for the fact that migration is at the highest levels ever? We have a huge amount of non-EU migration that comes in and, in many ways, we are all party to that; we all have constituents, particularly from the former Commonwealth countries, whom we represent when they want relatives to come to this country. It is that level which is unacceptably high and which has helped to ensure that our pledge to reduce the amount to tens of thousands has been fatally missed right the way through the last Parliament, and will be, I think, for many years to come.
Yes, I think the two main factors behind the massive wave of immigration are, first, our membership of the European Union and the principle of free movement within it, and secondly, the Human Rights Act 1998, both of which mean that we are effectively unable to control our borders. If we want to control our borders, however, leaving the EU is an absolute prerequisite. We now have the farcical situation in which an unskilled Romanian immigrant can come to this country without our being able to do anything about it at all, and they get a job perhaps as a cleaner, but a skilled migrant from India who has a degree in astrophysics will find it very difficult to come to this country. We are going to get a sensible immigration policy back only if we leave the EU and get rid of the Human Rights Act.
My hon. Friend is making a very good point, but there is another point to add. Take the example of Poland—there are something like 15 million Poles living outside Poland. It has one of the best education systems in Europe and yet it is exporting people to work in jobs well below their skill level in the UK and other countries like it. Is not the point that getting control of immigration is good for countries such as Poland, so that they can make sure that more of their people want to stay at home and contribute to their economies? This is about what is good not just for Britain, but for eastern Europe and other countries from which many people are coming to the UK.
As always, my hon. Friend makes an extremely good point. I think we want to allow into this country Polish people who have the skills that our economy needs, and we do not need in this country Polish people who do not have the skills that we need. At the moment, because of our EU membership, we are unable to control that and that will have implications, as he rightly said, for the Polish economy as well as for ours.
I am hearing a lot about immigration, but we are not talking in any sense about emigration and the almost equal number of people who have left the country to live and work across Europe, as opposed to those who have come in. I would argue that the situation is similar regarding the skill base of those going out, and that UK citizens are benefiting from the advantages of being part of Europe and being able to travel and work in such a way.
If we left the European Union, having negotiated our exit, we could have arrangements under which we would allow into this country people from the EU whose skills we need and the EU would allow into the EU British people whose skills it needs. At the moment, without those controls, we have massive net immigration into this country. It may not be an issue in Scotland, but it is a big issue in middle England.
(Shrewsbury) (Con): My hon. Friend is making an extremely good speech. The media are focusing on benefits to EU workers and they are not sharing with our electorate some of the more important constitutional changes that the Prime Minister is trying to get agreement on. How does he assess the importance of the benefits issue for migrants among his constituents in comparison with constitutional changes they would like?
My constituents are concerned about any migrant coming to this country and getting benefits to which they have not contributed, and that includes EU and non-EU citizens. The rules should be tightened and changed. For example, if a Polish person comes to live in this country and receives child benefit for his children back in Poland, that is clearly wrong and must change. The vast majority of EU migrants do not come to Britain for benefits. Some do, but the vast majority come here for work. It is important to change the rules, but in the scheme of things changes to the benefits system are not a massive issue.
Constitutional change is a big issue and would alter fundamentally our relationship with the European Union, but I am afraid that the Prime Minister will not deliver any fundamental constitutional reform. For both those reasons, it is likely that his constituents and mine will increasingly come to the conclusion that our future is better outside the European Union.
It has been suggested that the Prime Minister may be successful in getting the EU to drop a reference to “ever closer union” in the treaties. That would be great, but the principle of integration is embedded within all EU institutions and is a core principle of the European Court in all its judgments. Just tweaking the language will not change the institution’s philosophy or the Court’s practice. The European Commission has made it clear with the release of the infamous Five Presidents report and its proposals for a new EU army that if we stay in the European Union the prospects are for even more integration.
I am a committed outer, but many people in this country have yet to make up their mind. Among them is the British Chambers of Commerce, which wrote to the Prime Minister on 23 June 2015 setting out a very reasonable set of parameters for the negotiations. It stated:
“First…Britain must have absolute guarantees to protect our economic and other interests within the EU. Second, it is necessary to sort out the ‘common market’ so that it works for British business. The UK is by and large a service sector economy and yet there is no meaningful internal market in services within the EU…Third, we need a cast iron opt-out to make sure we do not sleepwalk into an ‘ever closer union’. Fourth, we need to protect our businesses from the regulatory burdens imposed by the EU…we need a clear and balanced approach to immigration taking into account the need for stability and social cohesion and driven by the skills requirements of our economy, meaning businesses can access the talent they need.”
I contend that none of those five parameters will be met by the Prime Minister in his negotiations.
The second big point I want to make is that the UK is a big hitter in its own right. I am confident about the UK’s ability and future in the world. We are the fifth largest economy in the world. We are a member of the G7 and the G20, a permanent member of the UN Security Council and a member of NATO. If we left the EU, we would get back our seat at the World Trade Organisation. We are a member of the OECD, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, the Council of Europe, Interpol and the Commonwealth. The idea that if we left the EU we would wither and die and have no international significance is absolute nonsense.
If there were a successful leave vote, the UK could negotiate a UK-EU deal based on free trade and friendly co-operation. That need not be acrimonious at all. The UK is the EU’s biggest trading partner.
I am sure my hon. Friend is aware that the Library has done some research that shows that if the UK left the EU, the UK would be the EU’s single biggest export market, bigger than any other country in the world. Is it not clear that if we left, and given that we have a £62 billion trade deficit with the EU, we would still be able to trade freely with other countries in the EU?
My hon. Friend demonstrates again that he is a very well read Member of this House and, as usual, ahead of the curve. He is right, because negotiating a free trade agreement with the EU should be fairly straightforward, given our status as the EU’s largest trading partner and the fact that we already meet all the EU’s requirements. One fifth of all the cars produced in Germany are exported to the United Kingdom. Is anyone seriously suggesting that if we left the European Union Germany would want to cease trading with us? With a successful leave vote we could negotiate a successful UK-EU deal.
Many countries around the world already have free trade deals with the EU but do not have to accept the supremacy of EU law like we do and do not have to pay the EU a massive £10 billion and rising each year as a membership fee. If Chile, Peru and Colombia can negotiate successful free trade arrangements with the EU, surely the UK, as the world’s fifth largest economy, would also be able to do so. Our membership of the European Union means that we are constitutionally unable to negotiate free trade deals of our own with other countries.
The EU has been in existence since 1957 and has yet to conclude a free trade arrangement with America or China because 28 countries are involved and getting them all to agree on every detail is proving impossible. I suggest that if we left the EU negotiating free trade agreements with the United States and China would be a top priority.
My hon. Friend talks about an issue that is very close to my heart—British export strategy—and he referred to the United States of America. Does he believe that if we were outside the European Union we could use our special relationship with the Commonwealth—Canada has an agreement with the EU—to get preferential trading agreements with those countries that are more preferential than those that the European Union has?
My hon. Friend is right. I think that many countries around the world that have been unable to negotiate a free trade arrangement with the EU would be all too keen to negotiate one with the world’s fifth largest economy. We would have an appetite for doing exactly that were we to leave.
It strikes me that the one group that would be pleased if we left on that basis would be the new breed of civil servants that would be required in vast numbers to negotiate all those free trade deals across the globe. My hon. Friend alluded to the fact that one of the bigger concerns is not the economic issues in the European Union but political ones. Would he not at least recognise the risk—if we left the EU, given how calamitous that would be for the European Union as well as, in my view, not being good news for the United Kingdom—of retaliation, particularly in areas such as the City of London, an area that we both know well because we both worked there before coming here? For example, euro-denominated business would be largely out of Frankfurt and Paris instead of London. Retaliation would be a significant risk and the smooth path he has presented would not come into place.
I am afraid that my right hon. Friend has been, as part of his constituency duties, spending too much time at too many big lunches in the City of London with the wrong crowd. I will give an example of what I am talking about. ICAP is the world’s largest dealer broker for financial institutions. The chairman of ICAP, Michael Spencer, has said that the UK can “thrive” outside the European Union. We were told by my right hon. Friend’s friends in the City of London that if we did not join the euro, all that euro-denominated business would go to Frankfurt, Paris and elsewhere. Actually, the City of London is today doing more euro-denominated deals than ever before in its history, so I do not take much notice of those scare stories, but I do suggest to my right hon. Friend that if his contacts want to continue to put out that sort of propaganda for our staying in the European Union, it demonstrates the weakness of their case. I do not want my constituents in Kettering, in middle England, to be unnecessarily scared by baseless scare stories from financial institutions that should know better.
I am always shocked and surprised by the argument about retaliation, because we are asked to believe that the European Union project is about suppressing nationalism—the kind of economic and other political nationalisms that lead to war—yet we are also asked to believe that if we chose not to surrender our parliamentary democracy to that set of institutions, we would suffer exactly the kind of nationalisms and retaliation that the EU itself was set up to avoid. Can they make their minds up which way it is to be?
I will not respond to that, but in the good-natured way in which we are having this discussion, I should perhaps point out that I have had many lunches in the City of London in the 14 or 15 years for which I have been the local MP, but my lunching activities go back a lot further, as my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) will know, because 30 years ago we began our political lives together as junior common room presidents in respective colleges and then as officers of the Oxford University Conservative Association. I have had lunch with him relentlessly over the last 30 years in the City and I do regard my hon. Friend as very much the right crowd, who I should be hanging around with, among many others whom I lunch with.
I thank my right hon. Friend for that intervention.
The fact is that the EU is going in the wrong direction. As we know, it is planning a new treaty to save the eurozone from itself and to give the EU more control. In many respects, that is the right response for the eurozone countries to make, but it would be bad for the United Kingdom. In truth, the EU cannot cope. In some parts of the EU, unemployment is already 25% and youth unemployment more than 50%—the worst situation since the 1930s. Debts are large and growing. Unfunded pension systems require large tax increases, immigration increases or both. Voting to remain would mean signing up to the new EU treaty currently being negotiated, which has been spelt out in the Five Presidents report. That will give the EU even more power over our economy and take our seat on key bodies such as the IMF. No new treaty has ever given powers back or saved us money.
My constituents in Kettering and people across the country will be increasingly alarmed to read the contents of the Five Presidents report, set out in July last year. Who are these pompous five Presidents? The first is Jean-Claude Juncker, the European Commission President. The second is Donald Tusk, the President of the Euro Summit. The third is Jeroen Dijsselbloem, President of the Eurogroup, whatever that is. The others are Mario Draghi, president of the European Central Bank, and Martin Schulz, President of the European Parliament. They do like to call themselves Presidents whenever they get the chance. Among their plans are a euro area Treasury and increasing control over Europe’s fiscal systems.
I was not going to interrupt the hon. Gentleman, but if he consults the House of Commons Library, he will find out that there are seven European Presidents, but only five of them signed the document to which he is referring. That just shows what an absurdity this organisation is.
My hon. Friend referred to Martin Schulz. Let me tell him that there is growing disquiet in certain smaller central and eastern European states about some of the language that Mr Schulz is starting to use in cajoling them on certain issues, particularly with regard to the crisis of immigrants from Syria. Will my hon. Friend join me in urging caution on this man in his interactions with sovereign nations along those lines?
My hon. Friend needs to realise that these people are impervious to criticism, and the smaller nations in the EU need to wake up quick, because what few powers they retain are about to be taken away should these seven Presidents get their way. They aim to complete that, at the latest, by 2025. Apparently, we are already in the first phase—“Deepening by Doing”—and in spring 2017 there will be a white paper outlining the extent of their plans. To hold a referendum in this country on our membership before the spring of 2017 would be a big mistake, because it would be misleading the British people by not telling them now what is just around the corner. If we stay in the European Union, the future as outlined by these Presidents is that it will be very much in charge of Whitehall.
Our membership of the European Union is bad for us. It costs us each week a net £230 million. That is something like a quarter to a half of England’s schools budget. That money would be far better spent either on reducing the national debt or on our NHS. Also, our influence in the EU is far less than it used to be. It is true that the Prime Minister has upped the UK’s game in opposing measures in the EU Council. For example, from 1996 to 2010, the UK voted against 32 measures in the EU Council; since 2010, the Prime Minister has tried to stop 40. However, we have lost all—each and every one—of those votes and we have only an 8% voting share.
Only 5% of UK businesses export to the EU, but 100% of UK businesses are subject to European rules. Four fifths of Britain’s economy has nothing to do with exports, but is in effect regulated by the European Union. We were told that being outside the eurozone meant that we would not be liable for propping up failing eurozone countries. That has proved not to be the case, with bail-out funds going from this country to Greece. Of course, if the global economy were a motorway, the European Union would be on the hard shoulder. The EU’s share of world trade was 40% in 1972, when we joined; it is set to be 20% by 2020. The accounts have not been signed off by European auditors since 1994. Of course, immigration is out of control, and that is set to get even worse. We can be sure that if Turkey, with a population of 85 million, were allowed into the European Union, the wave of immigration that we have seen from eastern Europe would be dwarfed by the wave of immigration from Turkey, and I predict that it would cause big social unrest in this country, but if we vote to stay in the European Union, there will in effect be nothing we can do to stop that.
Increasingly—we have already had a taste of this during the debate today—many bogus arguments will be made as to why it would be dangerous for Britain to leave the European Union. We have been told that we would lose 3 million jobs if we left the European Union. I would like my right hon. Friend the Minister to confirm today that that age-old claim is completely false and that 3 million UK jobs are not dependent on our membership of the European Union. It demonstrates the weakness of the case of those who want us to stay in that those scare stories are being put around. Of course, so many people told us that we would be disadvantaged if we did not join the exchange rate mechanism and the euro. In fact, Britain has been far better served by coming out of the ERM and by not joining the euro. We currently have the biggest amount of foreign direct investment of any country in the European Union.
I will conclude shortly, because I want other hon. Members to contribute to the debate, but it comes down to this: I am confident about Britain’s future. We are the fifth largest economy in the world. We are a member of many prominent international organisations. Our influence in the world would increase if we were to take back our seat at the World Trade Organisation. It is time for the UK to come off the global hard shoulder and go back to doing what we always did best—being a trading nation around the world. If we remain in the European Union, we will have access to its single market, as we do now, but we will have to pay at least £10 billion a year net as our membership fee; EU judges will have supremacy over UK law; and we will have to submit to the free movement of people, with no control over immigration. If we vote to leave, we will still be able to negotiate access to the single market through a free-trade arrangement with the EU, but we will not have to pay the membership fee; we will get back control over own laws; and, at long last, we will be able to control immigration, which is what constituents in Kettering and, I suggest, across the country want to see.
This country would be more prosperous, have more influence in world affairs and be able to take control of its own affairs as a sovereign Parliament once again if we left the European Union. I congratulate the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) on securing this debate so that we can explore the arguments that demonstrate the truth of those three desirable objectives.
First, we would be more prosperous if we left the European Union. At the moment, we are tied to the European Union, of which all but two countries are in, or have signed up to join, the euro. Quite frankly, the European Union is an economic basket case partly because of the euro. Many of the people who argue that we should stay in the European Union wanted us to join that terrible currency.
Secondly, we would have more influence in the world if we left the European Union. At the moment, the EU represents us at a number of world bodies, the most obvious being the World Trade Organisation, and negotiation between the 28 countries of the European Union dilutes any influence that we have. If we represented ourselves, we would have more influence.
Finally and self-evidently, I believe in parliamentary democracy and the fundamental principle that the people who make the laws should be subject to the electorate. In the words of the old phrase from American presidential elections in the 19th century, the people should be able to “throw the rascals out”. If we cannot do that, we do not have a democracy, and we cannot do that to the people who influence, propose and produce the laws in the EU.
Given the hon. Members who are present, one might think that only Conservative Members oppose our continuing membership of the European Union, but that is simply not true. Although a majority of Labour MPs are in favour of staying in the European Union, many Labour party members, perhaps a majority of Labour supporters, and ex-Labour supporters—people who have stopped supporting the party because of its position on the European Union—understand that we would be better off out of the European Union. There is clearly a left-of-centre view, in favour of democracy and control of our own rules, that we should leave the European Union. I have never understood, when there is a consensus across the Labour movement and the Labour party against extreme deflationary policies, why we would support the European Union when its policies of competitive deflation across eurozone countries are destroying its economy.
I start, in any debate on the EU, by looking at what is in the interests of my constituents. Their employment situation is threatened by more or less uncontrolled immigration. Unskilled workers are competing with people who have no history in this country, and they often fail to get employment. That is particularly true in areas where the legal jobs market overlaps with the illegal or black market, where many people hope to survive. Such people are increasingly at a disadvantage. As the hon. Member for Kettering has said, many skilled workers from Poland come over here and compete below their skill level, and that is not in the interests of my constituents. It is all right for Mr Rose to say that he can lead the in campaign, because he is financially okay and will be all right at the end of it, but that does not apply to my constituents, who are among the poorest people in the country.
I represent many constituents from parts of the Commonwealth, such as the Indian subcontinent and parts of Africa, which have a long history of helping and supporting this country, not least in the armed services. Why should it be more difficult for those people’s relatives to visit them, or to join them and find employment in this country when they have particular skills? As the hon. Member for Kettering has said, they find that very difficult, whereas people from Romania—I do not want to pick on Romania—or Croatia or Lithuania, which have very shallow links with this country, can simply walk in and out of the country. It is not often said, but it should be, that the EU’s immigration policies are explicitly racist, because it is usually Africans and people from the Indian subcontinent who are excluded from having a fair go at our employment market.
All the political parties recognise, and say explicitly, that the current operation of the EU is unsatisfactory, and therefore there needs to be renegotiation. The Labour party has a clear policy, which is at least consistent and honourable: whatever happens in the renegotiation, we will campaign to stay in. I will not; I will be on the other side of that debate, but the Labour party will do so. The Government’s position is much less honest. They say that there will be a fundamental renegotiation and treaty change to improve our situation. There is, however, no real negotiation taking place that will help my constituents and improve their economic situation.
I will run briefly—I am aware of the time—through four points. The first is the suggestion that we could have more parliamentary influence, because we could negotiate with other Parliaments and three, four or five Parliaments could give a red card to, or veto, decisions by the European Union. What an insult to parliamentary democracy it is to say that this Parliament has to negotiate with another Parliament before we can stop laws that might be against the interests of this country.
The second point is that there will be more competition, or that the competitive agenda will be increased. I was a Minister in 1999 when the then Prime Minister, Tony Blair, came back from Lisbon with a new competition agenda, which had zero influence. It was almost exactly the same as what is promised in these so-called negotiations.
The third point, which is at the core of where the future of the EU lies, is that this country needs protecting from being suppressed or oppressed by the majority of countries that will be in the EU and that may take decisions that are not in this country’s interest. Whether there is treaty recognition of our separate interest or not, there is bound to be a different set of interests from countries that are in a monetary union and that will eventually move, inevitably, into a fiscal union and greater political union. There are bound to be huge risks for this country in that we will always be in a minority position in the EU. I do not believe there can be any protection against that.
The right hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mark Field) made a point about the risks if we leave the EU. Of course there are risks if we leave the EU; there is always risk in change. The question is where the balance of risk is. There is a much greater risk to the future of not only democracy, but the country’s economy and influence in world affairs by staying in the EU, where we will be in a perpetual minority, with a different interest from the rest of the countries.
The fourth point is where most of the publicity has been aimed—at in-work benefits. I do not believe that those benefits drive immigration into this country. What drives immigration into this country is that it is a fair, decent country where there is a real chance of getting employment, unlike many of the other countries, particularly those that have come out of the communist bloc. To say that somebody who comes here for genuine reasons—to work—will actually be in an inferior position to somebody who they are working next to in a factory, public service, or whatever position it might be, is not a desirable objective. It is a deeply nasty and unpleasant objective, and it will not do what it says.
I am getting looks from the Chair so I will finish on this point. There is a real opportunity for the country’s future to be better by leaving the EU and having more influence. I hope this will be one of many debates that we have between now and whenever the referendum is held that will allow the real arguments, facts and figures to come out.
This morning shows that this year could be a time of great blessing, Mr Percy. We are blessed to have you in the Chair and the Government are blessed indeed that the people of Kettering have seen fit to send my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) here so that he could secure this debate and give the Government this opportunity, which I am sure is intended to be helpful, to review the renegotiation and take a really good look at where we stand before the Prime Minister’s statement later today.
What do we want from this renegotiation?
“We are very clear about what we want: British judges making decisions in British courts, and the British Parliament being accountable to the British people.”—[Official Report, 3 June 2015; Vol. 596, c. 582.]
That is what my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said on 3 June 2015, albeit in relation to the European Court of Human Rights. However, as the European Scrutiny Committee has reported, the charter of fundamental rights is now in EU law, which means that we are in a horribly complex situation where exactly the kinds of decisions to which my right hon. Friend was objecting are now increasingly subject to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice.
It seems that the Prime Minister’s heart is in exactly the right place—British courts, British judges, and a transparent and accountable British Parliament answering to the people—but that the only way that one can achieve those obvious desires of the Prime Minister is to leave the EU or, at the very least, to request a fundamental change to exempt wide areas of public policy from the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice, which is something that the Government are not doing.
The hon. Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer), who I am glad to follow, talked about the yellow card procedure. I just checked while he was speaking, and the current yellow card procedure requires a third of Parliaments to agree with one another. Well, my goodness, if a yellow card requires a third of Parliaments, whatever will a red card system look like? Presumably it would be a supermajority, which seems an entirely worthless way of trying to assert the rights of national Parliaments. So why have we got to a position where the Prime Minister’s heart is very clear on the issue of British courts, British judges and the power of our Parliament, and yet we end up with such a thin renegotiation?
Over Christmas I was reading Hugo Young’s history of the EU, “This Blessed Plot”. On page 170, he writes:
“Along with serial inconsistency, this discrepancy between deeds and words is the political style that infuses, time and again, the history of Britain-in-Europe. Fatally aberrant, often counter-productive, these are practices the political nation has regularly adopted as its only way of coping with the project that dominates its existence.”
That is the problem we have. Time and again, we are locked into this futile hope that the EU project would be other than it is. With just 15 seconds remaining, I will refer to Vote Leave’s research, which shows that nine out of 10 of the Prime Minister’s pledges on the EU have been dropped. We are shut into a situation in which the referendum will be held on substantially the basis of the Lisbon treaty. That is not good enough. We should leave.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Percy. As I said to you earlier, does your position in the Chair mean that you have mellowed? I am not sure whether you have or not, but it is good to see you there anyway. I thank the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) for securing this debate, which we will contribute to in this very short time.
In a political lifetime, there have been divisions within parties and within the nation over our relationship with Europe. Indeed, some of the defining issues of 2015 were directly related to the UK’s membership of the EU. When we started 2015, there was a financial crisis. As the year moved on, there was the migrant crisis, to which EU members responded in their own ways.
Over a period of time, I have noticed a clear change of mood. According to the survey of large businesses released by Deloitte just this week, business support for membership of the EU has narrowed from 74% six months ago to 62%. In total, 28% of those who were surveyed said that their decision depended on the outcome of the renegotiation of UK membership—up from 23% in the second quarter of last year. It is vital that the Prime Minister is as clear and transparent as possible about the renegotiation process. The public and the business community have to know what is going on. Uncertainty will only negatively impact upon business confidence.
Very quickly, in the short time I have, I want to mention some other points. The Prime Minister’s key aim is to get the EU to allow the United Kingdom to opt out from the EU’s founding ambition to forge an “ever closer union” of the peoples of Europe. I am at pains to understand just where the movement and the progress has been on that. It is hard to believe that one twenty-eighth of the political union would be able to opt out of a core founding principle of the EU project. The Prime Minister needs to be honest and transparent in what he says.
When it comes to the Prime Minister’s renegotiation of benefits, again we need clarity. On the aim of restricting access to in-work and out-of-work benefits to EU migrants, the European Commission has said that such a move would be “highly problematic”. Does that mean impossible? Is the Prime Minister giving us—the Eurosceptics—false hope, or is there an actual chance that he will achieve his aim on this aspect of the renegotiation? The Prime Minister is seeking greater powers for national Parliaments to block EU legislation—something I totally agree with. Hon. Members have referred to the yellow card system and the red card system, but it seems unrealistic to put that forward when we do not see any evidence of it.
I will finish by mentioning the common fisheries policy, to which the hon. Member for Kettering referred. If we want to retain control and ensure the long-term sustainability of the fishing industry, it should be under the control not of Europe, but of regional bodies and Administrations. If we want to help the farmers—I say this as the MP for Strangford, where there is a fishing sector in Portavogie and a large rural community—we need to take away the red tape and convince them that the money we are putting in from Europe can be used to help them. There is an argument and a battle to be won. I thank the hon. Member for Kettering for giving us all a chance to speak in the debate.
My hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) has given a consummate performance, in which he really summed up the arguments well. There is only time to give a few headlines. The first hero of this debate is, of course, our Prime Minister because, but for him, there would not be a debate. Even our heroine, Margaret Thatcher, never gave us a full referendum on Europe, so we should thank our current Prime Minister profusely for giving the British people the chance to make this historic decision. It will be a most interesting debate, and I will make one or two points about it.
First, the language should be relatively calm. Authoritative studies prove that leaving the EU, or staying in it, would make a difference of only 1% or 2% to gross national product, so leaving the EU would not be a great disaster that will cost 3 million jobs. If we leave the EU, I am not sure there will be an extraordinary nirvana. Let us have a measured debate and keep things in perspective.
Secondly, we do not want to have a debate based on nationalism. We Eurosceptics are not nationalists; we welcome political co-operation and friendship with all the nations of Europe. We welcome Poles, French and Italians coming to live and work here, but it has to be measured migration. Ultimately, when there is net migration of 300,000 into this country, the British Parliament has a right to try to make a decision on such matters.
This negotiation is a missed opportunity. My hon. Friend the Member for Kettering is probably right that perhaps a third of the population definitely want to leave, a third definitely want to stay and a third are in the middle. That last third probably want the comfort of remaining in some sort of relationship or partnership with the EU, but I believe they want to regain the supremacy of Parliament and regain control over fisheries, agriculture and, above all, migration. Given that we are the fifth largest economy in the world, and given that we are now a self-confident nation, we are no longer, as was the wartime generation, transfixed by the prospect of the loss of empire and the belief that we had to be part of a larger political union. We have moved on, and we are a self-confident, successful nation. I believe that we can create a dynamic, mid-Atlantic trading economy outside the EU that can move forward and increase prosperity for all our people. That is what I will be arguing in the EU referendum, and this debate is just one of the first steps along that path.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Percy. I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) for his brilliant speech. As usual, I agree with everything he said.
I will focus my brief remarks on the renegotiation itself to tell the Minister that we are not fooled, and that the British public will not be fooled, by the farce of this renegotiation. The Prime Minister has already pre-agreed all the things in his letter, and he certainly will not have risked writing a letter asking for things unless they had already been agreed. He has written a letter asking for things that have clearly already been agreed, but he knows that it would lead to more problems if the EU accepted it all straight away—people would say that he had not asked for enough, and all the rest of it—so he had to choreograph a farcical row with all these EU leaders: “Oh, he’s gone too far this time. He can’t possibly ask for all this. It is an absolute disgrace. He is going way too far this time.” And then, lo and behold, as the EU referendum approaches, we can expect that an equally choreographed agreement will be reached one by one in a domino effect across Europe. Hey presto! All these EU leaders will then say, “Actually, go on then. You can have what you’ve asked for.” The Prime Minister will come back saying, “This is a massive triumph for my renegotiation, and it goes to prove that if you battle hard for such things in the EU, you can get exactly what you want. As a result of my great triumph in these renegotiations, we can now vote to stay in the EU.”
If the Minister and the Prime Minister think that we are all going to be fooled by such nonsense, they are sadly mistaken. The Prime Minister underestimates the British public if he thinks they will be taken in by such choreographed, farcical renegotiation. We all know that it will all be agreed and that the renegotiation is just a farce. If the renegotiation is really meaningful, presumably the Prime Minister, who for years berated the previous Labour Government for giving up our rebate, would have made it a key part of his renegotiation strategy to get the rebate back by seeking a reduction in the amount of money that we hand over each year. He is the one who has been going on about that so much over the last few years, yet he did not even ask for it. It is perfectly clear that this is not a meaningful renegotiation; it is not covering all the things that the Prime Minister wants to see. The document that he sent is a request for things that have already been agreed by EU leaders so that he can come back and say that his renegotiation is a great triumph.
As it happens, I do not blame the Prime Minister for his strategy to some extent. I have never known a Prime Minister to come back from a renegotiation saying, “Do you know what? I gave it my best shot, but it was a disaster and I didn’t get anything at all.” Every Prime Minister comes back from a renegotiation saying that it was a great triumph. Even Neville Chamberlain said that his renegotiation was a great triumph, so I do not blame the Prime Minister for doing so—that is just the way it is.
Like my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh), I commend the Prime Minister for giving us the referendum that the British public have wanted for so many years. There is no question that we will fall out with each other—everyone has their view, and I respect people’s opinions. All I will say to the Minister is: please, do not treat us like fools. Please, do not pretend that this is a meaningful renegotiation. Please, do not pretend that the Prime Minister is battling hard to agree these things with the EU. We are not that stupid, and the British public are not that stupid. When the referendum comes, I hope the facts will win the day. We can survive and prosper on our own. We have a huge net trade deficit with the EU, and we would be the EU’s single biggest export market. There is no way that we would have an end to free trade. Ultimately, when people voted to stay part of the common market in 1975, that is what they thought they were voting for—free trade. We can have that for nothing, and we do not need to pay £19 billion a year to have something that we can have for nothing.
Britain’s contribution to the European Union since we joined has been massive, honourable and, from a fiscal perspective, extremely generous. I therefore believe that we are renegotiating from a position of strength. I take great pride in being the first British Member of Parliament to have been born in Poland, so I am one of these migrants. I regularly go to Warsaw and talk in Polish to Polish politicians, journalists and other people. I try to reiterate to them the extraordinary support that Poland has had from the United Kingdom for many years—whether it was during world war two, Solidarity in the 1980s, helping Poland enter NATO and the European Union, getting rid of Poland’s communist-era debts to the Paris Club or guaranteeing its borders after German reunification—yet I am extremely disappointed with the intransigence coming out of Warsaw when, for the first time, the United Kingdom is seeking support from Poland and other countries, with everything that we have done for them over such a long period of time. The intransigence and the difficulties are pushing me towards campaigning to pull out of the European Union. I have not yet decided but, when one thinks of what the United Kingdom has done for these countries, it is disappointing that their support for us is now so lacking.
The Prime Minister has asked me to advise him on the eastern European diaspora in this country, and I go around the United Kingdom meeting many Polish organisations. Poles are here not to claim benefits but to work. I am very proud of the Polish community’s contribution to the United Kingdom, and I am extremely disappointed and concerned that the media are focusing so much on the issue of benefits reform. That is why I asked my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) about his views on that issue. Our renegotiation should not boil down to whether EU migrants get the same benefits as our own citizens. No, I believe that what my constituents in Shrewsbury want— I know a little about what they want because I asked them about their views—is fundamental reform of our membership of the European Union to back up what he said earlier about who governs Britain and how Britain can make such decisions and be accountable to the electorate.
I am worried that Warsaw is trying to conflate the issues of potentially supporting us in exchange for our support for permanent NATO bases in Poland. What is the Minister’s view on that? I am a great supporter of NATO bases in Poland, and I raised the issue with the Secretary of State for Defence at the 1922 committee. We should be helping our NATO allies and protecting them from any aggression from Russia, but the two issues should not be conflated in these important EU negotiations.
Lastly, I have been to villages and towns in Poland that have been completely depopulated. The risk is that there will not be enough people to look after the vulnerable and elderly, because so many young and talented people have left Poland to come to the United Kingdom. If the free movement of people is to work, it must be more equal among the nations. Something must be done to address the massive flows of people coming to the United Kingdom, because it is a concern for my constituents in Shrewsbury.
Mr Percy, it is good to see you in the Chair. I wish everybody in the House a happy new year—or bonne année, if you will—and I congratulate the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) on securing this timely debate. We might not agree, but I congratulate him on the way in which he has conducted himself in this debate.
The Scottish National party would like to say to all Members, in the debate on European Union membership, that we believe that the United Kingdom can be a successful, independent country outside the European Union but we want to debate whether it should be outside it. Those are the parameters of debate within which we should work. I have several questions for the Minister that I will ask later, but I do not want to give him too much of a hard time; his own party is doing that already. We heard this morning—he can tell us whether or not it is true—that Ministers will be given a free vote in the European Union referendum. I look forward to his comments on that.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for the correction. Based on that, will the Minister tell us on which side he will be campaigning in the forthcoming referendum? Similarly, I do not want to be too hard on Labour Members. I sincerely hope that the right hon. Member for Wolverhampton South East (Mr McFadden) will be with us on the European portfolio by the end of today. I know how committed he is to the European perspective.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention, which leads me nicely on to the position of the only party in this House that is united on the European Union—[Interruption.]—notwithstanding our colleagues in Northern Ireland. The SNP has set out its position clearly. First, we are against a referendum, because we do not think that it would bring substantial change; Conservative Members seem to agree. The other reason, and a smaller point, is that it was in our manifesto not to have a referendum on the European Union. Since we won the election—it was the worst election result for the Conservatives in Scotland since 1865, 150 years ago—we have stuck to our manifesto commitments, revolutionary as that might seem, by voting against a referendum.
The SNP Government, joined by their partners here in London, have set out their position. The First Minister made a very good case in a speech on 2 June to the European Policy Centre. At the moment we see an opportunity for renegotiation, but as many Members have said, we think that the Government are doing a great job of losing friends and influence throughout Europe. Areas for renegotiation set out by the Scottish Government include public health; the Scottish Government have so far been unable to implement minimum pricing for alcohol. Whether or not others agree with it, it is the democratically elected Scottish Government’s way of tackling a specific public health issue.
Another area is fishing; obviously, although the Minister can confirm this, there will be no treaty change. Scottish fishermen can tell of the failings of the common fisheries policy; they were of course described by the UK Government when we entered the European Union as expendable in the pursuit of the UK’s broader interests, so they are well aware of the impact of UK membership of the European Union.
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. We say that an opportunity to renegotiate on that issue and more broadly has been squandered. We think there is another squandered opportunity, in that any renegotiation should be a two-way process. Yes, we should examine some of the powers that we have and institutional changes, but we should also consider working more closely with our European partners on some issues. Will the Minister discuss those?
I refer, of course, to issues such as energy. At the moment, we are on the cusp of spending billions on French and Chinese nuclear technology, while our renewables industry, in which Scotland could have led the way, is suffering as a result of UK Government policy. Energy union would have had huge benefits across the continent, not least for our economy. What about climate change? Does the Minister think that we should be working more closely with our European partners?
Finally, on security issues, no country—not the UK, and not Germany—can deal alone with the challenges of Ukraine, Syria, Yemen or the biggest refugee crisis since the second world war. We contend that we can and should be working more closely with our European Union partners, as well as our NATO partners, on those challenges. They are also issues on which the Scottish Government have a great deal more in common with many of our European Union partners than with our partners in the UK Government down in London.
On the issue of working together, our waters are teeming with fish. They are the most productive fishing grounds in the world. During the last two days of negotiations, in order to get support, Ted Heath gave away control of our fishing policy. Ever since then, we have had nil success in regaining real control of our own fertile fisheries. Although I wish the hon. Gentleman well with regaining control within the EU, he will find it difficult.
I concede that the hon. Gentleman makes a good point. As I have said, Scottish and other fishermen were described as expendable. It is a shame that that issue was not further up the agenda for the UK Government. However, he makes a good point. Can the Minister tell us what efforts were made on fisheries?
I have several other questions for the Minister. Members across the House will be aware that Angela Merkel has said that freedom of movement is non-negotiable. Can the Minister tell me what negotiations he has had with Germany and whether it is indeed non-negotiable? Can he also expand on chapter 20 of the European Union’s conclusions? I understand that numerous other things were going on, and that only one paragraph was given over to the United Kingdom. We concede that given everything else that was happening, there were other priorities, but can the Minister expand on the “substantive and constructive debate” that it mentions, and on the scope for more co-operation? He has already said that there is more scope; does that include issues such as climate change, energy or others?
What formal role will there be for the devolved Administrations? Co-operation with them has already been sadly lacking; goodness knows, the UK Government need friends and influence. The Scottish Government have already said that they are more than happy to help, as I am sure are our colleagues in Northern Ireland or in Wales. Finally—I will repeat my question so that the Minister does not dodge it—is it true that Ministers will have a free vote, and how will he campaign?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Percy. I wish you and all the other Members present a happy new year, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) on securing this debate. It is fitting and timely to begin the year by discussing this issue. If the referendum is held in 2016, it may well be the defining political issue of the coming year. It certainly dominated the media over Christmas and the new year, as various Conservative grandees came out either for or against EU membership, or gave their views on the issue of the application of collective Cabinet responsibility.
Since our debate began about an hour ago, we have been led to believe that the Prime Minister will make an announcement this afternoon confirming that collective Cabinet responsibility will not apply on the issue of the referendum, and that Ministers will be free not only to vote as they wish but to campaign as they wish. So, my first question to the Minister is whether those media reports, which are running as we speak, are true, and whether collective Cabinet responsibility will indeed not be applied on this issue.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman that Labour Members know a thing or two about free votes after our recent experience, and his intervention gives me a chance to pick up on some of the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer).
In the Labour party, we have a clear policy—passed by our conference—to campaign for the UK to remain in the EU. I am not aware of any Front Bencher who disagrees with that policy. There is a pro-Europe group in the parliamentary Labour party that has the names of 214 of the 232 Labour MPs, including every member of the shadow Cabinet. So that is where we stand regarding the balance of views on the issue. I do not deny that there are some Labour MPs who take a different view, as my hon. Friend the Member for Blackley and Broughton set out, but they are only a small minority of the parliamentary party. That is where we stand on this issue.
I will make a little progress before giving way again.
Regarding the terms of the renegotiation, which is the subject of this debate, we have had the exchange of letters between the Prime Minister and one of the “famous five” Presidents, Donald Tusk, who is the President of the European Council. Mr Tusk replied to the Prime Minister’s letter on 7 December, setting out his assessment of where other member states stood on this agenda. There are four items, or four “baskets” as they say, and we are led to understand that progress has been made on the first three issues—protection for non-eurozone countries, competitiveness and the rights of national parliaments—but that further discussions are taking place on the final issue, which we are led to believe is the most difficult of the four issues to resolve, and which is the issue of access to in-work benefits for workers from other EU member states.
I am grateful to the shadow Minister for giving way. On that point, could he clarify matters for us? Bearing in mind the way that renegotiation is going, what is the Labour party’s official position as to whether or not it is in our country’s national interests to have the referendum earlier—in other words, in June or September 2016—or later, in 2017?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. We have not expressed an opinion on the exact timing, other than to say, as we said during the passage of the European Union Referendum Act 2015, that we do not think it is a good idea to combine the referendum with other important elections scheduled for May this year or May next year, because this issue is of such import that it deserves a campaign and a vote on its own. That is what we have said about how the referendum should take place.
I will put a couple of questions to the Minister about the renegotiation. First, is it correct for people to conclude that there has been substantial progress on the first three issues that I have referred to, but that the fourth issue remains more difficult to make progress on?
On that fourth issue, which is the issue of tax credits and other in-work benefits for workers from other EU member states, the Government’s contention is that the availability of those benefits acts as a pull factor, resulting in levels of immigration that are higher than they would otherwise be. Consequently, the Prime Minister claims that if those benefits are curtailed in the way that he has set out immigration will go down. I disagree with a lot of the points that have been made today by hon. Members who wish to campaign to leave the EU, but there is one issue on which I think I am in some agreement with them, which is to be sceptical about this claim. What evidence do the Government have for the contention that these in-work benefits are affecting the level of immigration? By how much do the Government believe that immigration from other EU member states will go down if the availability of in-work benefits is cut in the way that the Government have set out?
The Office for Budget Responsibility, giving evidence to the Treasury Committee before Christmas, said that its view is that such a change to in-work benefits would make little difference to immigration levels. Also, is it not the case that the vast majority of people who come to the UK from other EU member states come to work hard, pay their taxes and make a positive contribution to this country, in the same way as anyone else?
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving way and I am pleased that he is sceptical about the basis of the Government’s policy in this area. However, does he agree not only that that policy will fail to do what it says on the tin, but that it is an offensive policy, which will be very divisive in the workplace?
I think there is a case for a discussion about the basis on which people have access to benefits, but there is a big difference between saying that and claiming that restricting access to benefits will make a fundamental difference to immigration levels. The truth is that people come to the UK because it is a great country, not because it is a “soft touch” on welfare.
We will probably see the results of the renegotiation soon, so I would also like to ask the Minister a question about timing. If he expects that there will be a conclusion to these negotiations at the European Council in February, what will be the implications of that conclusion for the timing of the referendum itself? The 2015 Act only says that the referendum must be held by the end of December 2017, but the Prime Minister’s new year message indicated that it was more likely to be held later this year. I ask the Minister directly: if the renegotiation is completed in February, is it the Government’s intention to hold the referendum this year rather than next year?
In one or two of the interventions on me, I was asked about my own party’s position. Our view is that we should not make the decision about whether or not Britain remains a member of the EU on the basis of this renegotiation. At the end of the day, the question on the ballot paper is, “Remain or leave?” It may be the case that the Prime Minister’s renegotiation has some impact on the public view of that question, but it may well not be the case, because there are issues concerning our EU membership that go well beyond the four items that the Prime Minister has set out in his renegotiation.
Our party conference quite clearly supported a position of being in favour of remaining in the EU and our campaign to remain in has already been launched, under the leadership of my right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Alan Johnson). We want to see what the renegotiation produces, but that is our basic position.
My final point in response to some of the arguments that have been put forward by Government Members is that we have been told repeatedly today that we can retain access to the single market without paying anything for it. I would like to ask a question about that assertion, which is perhaps more for the hon. Member for Kettering, who secured this debate, than for the Minister. On what basis is it made? If the British people are going to be asked to exchange more than 40 years of EU membership for a future outside the EU, they have a right to know—with some certainty—what that future will entail. What will it mean for access to the single market? What will be the price for access to the single market? What will that future mean in terms of our adherence to the rules of that market while we perhaps forgo any say about what those rules are? What will it mean for inward investment in this country, which in European terms comes at the rate of tens of millions of pounds every single day? What will it mean for our export industries? What will it mean for our research, our universities, our agricultural industries and so on?
Whatever the flaws of the EU, a referendum on it is not only a referendum on one future but a choice between two futures, and those who advocate leaving the EU need to do an awful lot more to say what being out would be like.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Percy, and I hope that this is but the first of a number of such occasions.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) on securing the debate. As he said in his opening remarks, he is a long-standing, open and honourable opponent of Britain’s membership of the European Union, and I know he will not take it with any sense of offence if I say that I would have been flabbergasted had there been any conceivable renegotiation by this or any other Prime Minister that would have come near to being satisfactory enough for him to support continued EU membership. My hon. Friend set out his case as I would have expected—lucidly and with conviction—and I want to spend most of my speech addressing some of his points.
As I suspect Members had anticipated, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister will make an oral statement this afternoon on the outcome of the December European Council, and the House will understand that I will not pre-empt what he may say in that statement and in his answers to subsequent questions.
My hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) expressed some scepticism about the current negotiation, claiming that everything had been agreed and it was all just a matter of choreography. His view of the choreography seems to have the same generosity of spirit as Craig Revel Horwood shows when assessing the skill of “Strictly Come Dancing” competitors. If only my hon. Friend had been with me at European ministerial meetings! I will even lend him a badge with the blue flag and the gold stars on it if that will aid his passage into the Justus Lipsius building.
I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley would recognise that the arguments of our right hon. Friend the Prime Minister are not being met with an unreserved welcome from our partners. They have made it clear that they wish the United Kingdom to stay in the European Union, and that the European Union itself is stronger for this country’s membership. At the December European Council, Heads of Government raised objections and difficulties in respect of all four areas of policy. In the eyes of our partners, the Prime Minister is pursuing an ambitious and far-reaching set of reforms that challenge a number of the ways in which the European Union has been accustomed to doing its business and thinking about its vocation.
My hon. Friend the Member for Kettering mentioned a number of concerns about which I hope to give him a measure of reassurance. He talked about the Five Presidents report. The report is explicitly and chiefly about the future of the eurozone, and there is a challenge for those of our partners who have decided to commit themselves to that currency union. We can take a view as to whether they were wise to do so, but it was their sovereign decision. It seems logical that a commitment to a single monetary policy, a single interest rate and a banking union has broad implications for the future conduct of fiscal and economic policy, and our colleagues in the eurozone may therefore wish to consider some of the ideas coming out of the report, such as a eurozone treasury function and a single eurozone—not EU—seat on bodies such as the International Monetary Fund. Such decisions would not bind, or create obligations for, the United Kingdom, and if the Five Presidents report were to lead to a new European Union treaty, that would require the unanimous agreement of member states and be subject to primary legislation in the UK. Were any such treaty to include measures that transferred additional competences from the United Kingdom to the European Union, it would also be subject, under the terms of the European Union Act 2011, to a self-standing referendum in this country. I would hope, therefore, that my hon. Friend could take some reassurance on that point.
My hon. Friend also mentioned Greece, and I can tell the House that the UK has, and has had, no liability in respect of Greece, either through the European stability mechanism or the European financial stability facility—EFSM—which are both euro-only. Greece has paid back its bridging loan through the EFSM, but the UK had, in any case, ensured that we would face no liability in the event of Greece defaulting on that obligation. Greece has IMF loans, to which we contribute our usual share, and our IMF liability would continue whether we were inside or outside the European Union.
My hon. Friend also mentioned Turkish accession, which is something that both Conservative and Labour Governments over the years have supported as a strategic objective. Although we are nowhere near such accession at the moment, it would require the unanimous agreement of member states and a treaty, subject to primary legislation here. The Prime Minister has said that he is not prepared to agree to any new accessions to the European Union without reform of the transitional arrangements for migration from new countries, to put them on a much more effective and objective basis than the time limit of five or seven years after which all restrictions fall away.
It is hard to argue both that the EU will be inimical to our interests, resistant to what we want to do and jealous of our freedom of national action and that, in the event of a British exit, it would agree to sign up to our continuing to enjoy all the things we like about EU membership without any of the things that might matter to other countries but which we find irksome. Whatever the outcome of the renegotiation, that will be something that people will have to weigh up. My hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) said that it will not be the end of the world if we leave the EU, and I agree, but the judgment that the British people will ultimately have to make is whether it is in the interests of the country’s prosperity, national security and worldwide diplomatic influence to be inside or outside the organisation.
When we consider trade, for example, we have to judge the likelihood of getting a free trade agreement outside the EU. In 2014, we sent roughly 44% of our exports to the EU27 but received only about 10% of that bloc’s exports. We would not be in as powerful a leverage position in the hypothetical circumstances as is sometimes argued, nor have Norway and Switzerland found that they can simply have all the benefits of access to the European single market without the obligation to apply EU laws—as the effect of that single market—and to contribute to the European Union’s budget.
I look forward, therefore, to the Prime Minister’s being successful in his renegotiation, to his getting a deal that makes Europe more democratic, prosperous, trade-minded and flexible than it is today, and to campaigning in his support when the referendum comes.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered renegotiation of UK membership of the EU.
[Mr Nigel Evans in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered regional theatre.
When we think of theatre in this country, many minds inevitably turn to one place: the west end. With its big musicals, high production values and ability to attract all-star casts, the London theatre scene dominates perceptions of British theatre, but we too often forget the importance of regional theatre to British cultural life. Although regional theatre has a broad definition, it is generally used to refer to theatre outside of the London heartland.
I called this debate for two reasons: to celebrate the success of Britain’s regional theatres and to raise awareness of the challenges to their long-term viability. The west end is often the showcase of our best theatre, but it does not exist in a vacuum; it exists because it is fed and sustained by the talent of regional theatres across the country. Regional theatre is the grassroots of the theatre system in this country, but critically it is also the home of excellent theatre in its own right. Innovative, challenging and thrilling theatre is being created to an exceptionally high standard, rivalling any nation in the world. Regional theatre is not and never should be second best. Yes, some of the work created regionally will transfer to London or the global stage, but there is so much collaboration happening between regional centres of excellence, from one region to another.
Regional theatre is so often where the careers of some of our best British actors and actresses begin and where some of our most innovative plays and productions start their lives. Sir Ian McKellen’s acting career began at the Bolton little theatre. Sir Antony Sher took his first acting steps at the Frinton summer theatre. Jonathan Pryce started his career at Liverpool’s Everyman theatre and Sheila Hancock began her work as an actress at the Kings theatre in Southsea and the New Theatre Royal in Portsmouth in the 1950s. Those actors and actresses are not only national treasures—a much overused phrase—but also reflect some of the many cultural exports shaping perceptions of British culture overseas. Indeed, Hugh Bonneville of “Downton Abbey”, “W1A” and “Paddington” fame took part in six productions at Colchester’s Mercury theatre in 1988 and 1989, long before he was a household name. The stint took him to roles as diverse as Petruchio in “The Taming of the Shrew” and the pantomime dame in “Dick Whittington” at Christmas. All great careers have to start somewhere.
Regional theatre is also the incubator of some of our best new plays and original productions. Some very successful new plays in recent years have started life in our regional theatres. The play “ENRON”, which is about the Enron scandal, started life at the Chichester Festival theatre in 2009 before being moved up to bigger venues in London, as did the recent smash hit “Gypsy”, which was filmed for TV this Christmas. “On the Shore of the Wide World”, a play about three generations of a Stockport family by Mancunian playwright Simon Stephens, opened at the Manchester Royal Exchange in 2006 before transferring to London’s National Theatre.
I understand that much of our regional theatre is not self-financing. It relies on subsidy from the Arts Council and local government to ensure its year-to-year viability. In Colchester, the Mercury theatre’s income is 30% grant income, with the other 70% earned, but as the previous director of the theatre, Dee Evans—she held the role for 14 years—once said:
“If you invest in the work and it’s good, people will come”.
Public subsidy helps sustain many of the great productions that our regional theatres put on. The Mercury recently underwent a £580,000 refurbishment, with £400,000 provided by the Arts Council. The funding refurbished the studio theatre, increased capacity to more than 580, improved disabled access and installed better soundproofing. It was the biggest investment in the theatre since its opening in 1972. The funding will help open up the theatre to more school and community groups and ensure that even more people can enjoy and participate in quality theatre locally.
My hon. Friend just mentioned the New Theatre Royal in Portsmouth, which also completed a major extension and refurbishment last year, supported by bodies including the Parity Trust, Arts Council England and the Heritage Lottery Fund. Its key partner is the University of Portsmouth, which is now sharing part of the site. Does he agree that that kind of collaboration between theatre and education is a great way to safeguard the future of our theatres?
My hon. Friend makes a valuable point. Regional theatres are the very best at collaboration, at working with local partners and, in particular, at getting young people involved in arts and culture locally, so I totally agree with her.
It was a great pleasure to be invited to speak on the stage at the opening of the studio. I am unlikely to make the west end after that performance, but I have instead fortunately found a calling in Westminster. They do say that politics is show business for ugly people.
No, my hon. Friend does not need to intervene. It is very kind of her. The thought is there.
Investment in our regional theatre is not just a sunk cost; it has real economic benefit in our towns and cities. The latest research from the Mercury theatre shows that every £1 of grant aid that the theatre receives generates £3 locally in Colchester. The economic impact of the Mercury theatre on our local area was £3.6 million —a not insignificant sum.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. In my constituency we have Buxton opera house, which is fabulous and well worthy of a visit by any Member. We also have the Buxton festival, which is an opera and literary festival that was graced by the Prime Minister a few years ago. The benefit that the theatre brings to the local economy is huge. It is not just the people coming to see the productions, but the people coming to see the theatre and the whole cultural aspect on offer in the High Peak. That is another benefit that regional theatres bring to rural communities such as mine.
My hon. Friend makes a valuable point about a trend that can be seen nationally. Recent research for the Arts Council in August showed that theatre subsidy helps support more than £2.2 billion of private sector activity. Although theatres are becoming better at sourcing their own moneys—regularly funded theatres are now earning 62% of their total income, which is six percentage points more than four years ago—the report said that very few regional venues could justify a claim to be profitable were all subsidies removed.
Investment in our theatres not only has a strong economic impact, but is critical to the health of the acting professions and the creative arts. Research from 2013 on the effect of publicly funded arts on creative industries found that 62% of those working in subsidised theatre believed working in the sector to be highly important to a successful career in theatre. Respondents were more likely to say that publicly funded theatre gave greater opportunities for presenting challenging work and new work and for providing sufficient time to experiment than big commercial theatre.
I have two major theatres in my constituency, and the Kings theatre is running a course on stage pyrotechnics this weekend. It is open to anyone with an interest in a career in theatre. It takes on a lot of apprentices, too. Does my hon. Friend agree that that kind of activity is a good thing for local theatres to be supporting? It is important that theatres appeal to people with an interest in what happens backstage, as well as on the stage.
My hon. Friend makes a valid point. The more locally skills can be developed and enhanced, the better. It is important that regional theatres offer those skills, particularly to young people locally. I totally support that.
Theatres are more focused on reflecting the local communities in which they operate, creating benefits for social cohesion and integration as well as for education, health and wellbeing. In 2015, Arts Council England published an excellent evidence review, which evidences the total benefit of the arts to society and the economy.
I thank my hon. Friend for securing this debate. I have in my constituency the only example of a regency playhouse in the country. We have the historic value of the building—it is 87% self-funded—and, as it reaches out, it is very hard to put a price on its social value. We reach out to Women’s Aid and work with them. We reach out to children with physical and mental disabilities and to Suffolk Age Concern. We also work with the YMCA, and young people who are homeless and without work have come to work in the theatre. Does my hon. Friend agree that a price cannot be put on that?
I totally agree with my hon. Friend that we cannot put a price on social cohesion and integration with communities. It is a crying shame that so many former theatres now belong to Wetherspoon and other pub chains or are now cinemas. Once we lose our regional venues, they are lost for ever to commercial ventures. I totally support the point made by my hon. Friend.
We are in tough financial times and the Government still have a sizeable deficit to eliminate. The pot of money that the Arts Council and the Government have at their disposal is not limitless. However, it was very encouraging to see the Chancellor increase the cash going to the Arts Council at the autumn statement by around £10 million a year. I hope this generous increase in funding will help the Arts Council to fund some great restoration and innovative projects in our subsidised regional theatres outside London.
Let us think about what the extra money could do in our regional theatres. In the previous Parliament, there were small cash cuts to theatres in receipt of more than £250,000 a year. However, BBC research on 62 of those subsidised UK theatre companies between 2009 and 2014 produced encouraging results. It found that those theatre companies were producing more plays, increasing production levels and introducing new writing. It is fantastic to see our theatres defying expectations and being innovative to boost funding streams and new productions.
Such good news is reinforced by recent box office ticket numbers from UK Theatre, which show that total audience numbers, performances and ticket takes are all up on the previous year. However, the report shows that there are still severe challenges ahead for regional theatre. The big family musicals that we all know and love dominate our regional scene, accounting for £1 in every £4 taken at UK theatre box offices.
Moreover, overall ticket sales for plays fell by 278,000 in 2014, and on average auditoria were only half full. Equally, the category of auditoria of principally producing theatres—theatres that produce most of their own work, like the Mercury in Colchester—saw a decline in performances and ticket sales in the past year. Although I am delighted to say that the Mercury bucks that trend with 10% audience growth in the past year, there is a national pattern, which we ignore at our peril.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on presenting this debate today. I was a frequent visitor to the Mercury in my early years, so it is a privilege to be able to intervene in today’s debate. My constituency has the Theatre Royal, which, like the Mercury, creates its own productions. Does he agree that the matter is not simply about subsidies, but about reducing subsidies owing to the current economic times? We need to look at the excellent work of the previous Parliament in allowing tax credits to enable productions to happen, thus enabling regional theatre to pump more money into local communities to educate people and also help younger people to access theatres.
My hon. Friend makes a really good point. There are innovative ways of funding regional arts and theatre, and Government subsidy is not the only option. Having said that, it will take time. We have already seen 6% year-on-year growth, so we know the subsidies are coming down. Regional theatres are doing better and better every year and doing more and more in their local communities, but for the time being, subsidy is still required to ensure that those excellent facilities and the service they provide are maintained.
I hope I have been able to do this important topic justice in such a short space of time. We should be proud of having such a strong theatre scene in our capital, but great culture and theatre is not only for the great and the good in London. When regional theatre does well, our whole cultural scene benefits. Audiences have greater access to quality theatre; budding performers and writers have the chance to innovate and partake in new material; and the local economy is boosted. No one could accuse the Culture Minister of missing an opportunity to take the stage, and I look forward to hearing his response on what we can do to develop regional theatre and ensure it gets its fair share of funding to inspire a new generation to visit and partake in our country’s theatre scene.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Evans. As we are talking about all things artistic, may I say that I thought you produced the most artistic Christmas card of 2015? The picture of you with a hot steaming mug of tea gazing over the Thames from the House of Commons Terrace took prominent place on my mantelpiece over the Christmas period.
Before I move on to the main debate, may I also pay tribute to the former shadow Secretary of State for Culture, the hon. Member for Barnsley East (Michael Dugher), who was sacked this morning by his leader, much to the annoyance of many Labour Members, which is perhaps why we do not see a single Labour Member here to take note of this important debate? I have lost count of the number of shadow Secretaries of State and shadow arts spokesmen that I have seen in my more than 2,000 days in this office. No doubt we will see another one shortly. However, at the moment cultural policy in the Labour party remains leaderless—not that it matters much, because cultural policy has strong leadership in the Government. It is a pleasure to see five of our most prominent Back Benchers showing that that leadership extends throughout our party.
I begin on an embarrassing note: I have not yet visited many of the fine theatres mentioned in the debate. That is extraordinarily embarrassing.
Among his many attributes, the Minister is a mind reader. An invitation is flying across the room towards him. He is more than welcome to visit either the regency theatre that I mentioned or the John Peel Centre in Stowmarket, which is a modern version of somebody really reaching out into my local community and giving good service.
I would be delighted to find the time to visit. I am embarrassed because I spend a lot of time visiting theatres in the regions. Equally embarrassing is the fact that the Mercury theatre is run by somebody I know well, Steve Mannix, who I bumped into at a round table that we held recently to discuss our forthcoming White Paper. Stephen Barlow, who runs the Buxton festival, is also a friend of mine.
All the different theatres cited by my hon. Friends the Members for Portsmouth South (Mrs Drummond), for High Peak (Andrew Bingham), for Bury St Edmunds and for Bath (Ben Howlett) deserve our recognition and congratulations. The debate was secured by my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Will Quince), who, as he pointed out in his maiden speech, represents the true capital of our country: it was Colchester long before Londinium. He is using this debate to highlight that Colchester is one of the cultural capitals of our country. The remarks made by him and my other hon. Friends chimed well with me, because I have returned fresh-faced after our two-week break to complete work on our forthcoming White Paper on culture.
I want to bring out two themes. First, culture does not begin and end in London. There is a lively debate about the amount of funding that goes to London’s arts institutions as opposed to institutions that exist outside the capital. It is good that my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester has highlighted the thriving artistic scene in Colchester. Also, my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St Edmunds talked about the work that her theatre does with Women’s Aid, children with special needs and Age Concern.
The other theme relates to how important culture is to so many different aspects of our lives. A thriving cultural scene not only brings great economic benefits to an area in terms of tourism and inward investment; it also brings immense social benefits in terms of being able to use culture to reach out to different communities.
On the national picture, it is true that although my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester was right to point out concerns about regional theatres, on the whole they continue to thrive. Box office takings in 2014, the last year for which we have figures, were worth more than £400 million, and 18 million tickets were sold. As a whole, theatre made a contribution of almost £5.5 billion to our economy. Interestingly, despite the debates over arts funding, that is a significant increase of more than 7.5% since 2008. The sector employs almost a quarter of a million people, and almost 3 million tourism visits a year include a trip to the theatre, musicals or the opera—twice as many as the number of tourists who visit a sporting event.
As I said earlier, theatres contribute massively to our regional cultural life, and the Government obviously play an important role in supporting regional theatre. My hon. Friend the Member for Colchester was quite right to point out that although many such theatres thrive and survive in terms of the audiences they attract, they also receive Government support. Last year, the Arts Council provided more than £150 million to theatres throughout the country through a range of funding programmes. About £100 million of that money went to theatres in the Arts Council’s national portfolio, including the Mercury theatre, which, as my hon. Friend pointed out, has recently benefited from a refurbishment of its studio that was partly funded by the Arts Council. I welcome my hon. Friend’s remarks about the Chancellor’s settlement for the arts. It was great to hear that he is prepared to maintain arts funding and, judging by the response from the artistic community, the words he uttered during the spending review were almost as valuable as the money he has given. He said it is a false economy to cut the arts and recognised the significant contribution that they make to our lives compared with the amount of funding they get.
The Mercury theatre receives more than £750,000 a year in public funding from the Arts Council and, as I said, it has also received a capital grant for its refurbishment. It is a significant local employer and a major driver of the restaurant and hospitality economy in Colchester. I was particularly pleased to see how the Mercury theatre and other artistic organisations in Colchester are now working together, which is perhaps the third theme of the White Paper. Artists, makers and designers are working together under the “Made in Colchester” banner, which is a fantastic idea that should inspire other towns and cities. The artistic organisations in Colchester have worked out that by working together they make a more effective contribution than they do working individually. The Mercury puts theatre at the heart of the cultural life of the community it serves and makes work in Colchester that reaches local audiences and its community while also generating critical attention regionally and nationally.
I congratulate the three theatres that have been nominated for The Stage’s regional theatre of the year award: the Royal & Derngate theatre, the Royal Exchange theatre in Manchester and the Chichester Festival theatre, which my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester mentioned. Of course, it was at the Chichester Festival theatre that “Gypsy” started its life. If you have not yet seen Imelda Staunton in “Gypsy”, Mr Evans, I urge you to find one spare evening to see that absolutely stunning show. That theatre is another good example of an organisation funded and supported by the Arts Council, including by its £12 million capital investment programme. Such investments help local theatres to develop resilience by giving them the right buildings and equipment to both deliver their work and become sustainable businesses.
It is important to point out that the regional theatre of the year for 2015, the Nuffield theatre in Southampton, also has strong ties to the local university. It is important that we recognise the contribution that universities make. For example, Derby theatre is supported by its local university. Sheffield Theatres is the only theatre to have won the regional theatre of the year award twice, in 2013 and 2014. It is the UK’s largest regional theatre complex, with 2,500 seats across three theatres, producing incredible theatre in Sheffield. I hope I have shown that there is a rich and diverse theatrical life all across the UK of which we should all be proud. It is also important to note that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester said, touring plays an incredibly important part in the theatre landscape. A lot of great productions start life in our regional theatres, and many of those theatres host great productions that start their life in London. The Arts Council continues to support that work through its strategic touring funding programme, the funding for which has been maintained.
An important and relatively recent innovation is the introduction of theatres tax relief, which has been available at 25% for qualifying touring productions and 20% for other qualifying productions since September 2014. It encourages theatre production throughout the UK and provides a strong incentive for touring productions. Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs has worked with UK theatres to undertake a number of workshops throughout the country to discuss the relief and how it operates, and they have been well attended, including by many regional theatres. It is too soon to say precisely in pounds, shillings and pence what contribution theatre tax relief is making to theatre production in this country, but I know anecdotally that many theatre producers are grateful for the tax relief, which is pushing their productions into profit. It is important that occasionally theatre productions do make a profit, because that encourages theatre producers to take the next risk and put on the next production.
I mentioned in my opening remarks that there is a lively debate about the amount of funding that goes into London and to other areas outside London. My hon. Friend the Member for Colchester made that point very effectively in his speech. It is important to say that when we came into office around 60% of lottery funding went outside London. That has now risen to 70%, and the Arts Council has an ambition to go further to reach 75% by the end of 2018. It is also following the same strategy with its national portfolio organisations. In 2012, 49% of funding went to London and 51% went outside London. By 2015, that had changed to 45% in London and 55% outside London, so there is good change there. It is also important to acknowledge the Chancellor’s work with the northern powerhouse, because that gives an indication of how culture is moving into the mainstream of policy. As part of the northern powerhouse strategy, culture has been put front and centre. For example, there has been a £78 million investment in the new Factory theatre and exhibition complex in Manchester.
This year I suspect there will be an ongoing debate about local authority funding for theatre and, indeed, other arts organisations. I reiterate how pleased I am to see so many of my hon. Friends talking about the success of their local theatres and other arts organisations. As I said earlier, they highlight the wide contribution made to local communities beyond simply artistic productions, important though they obviously are. I am very clear that any local authority that sees itself as having to make some Faustian trade-off between investing in one part of its activities and investing in culture is, to echo the Chancellor’s words, making a false economy. Investing in local theatre and arts organisations brings enormous dividends for a relatively small amount of funding compared with a local authority’s overall budget. To see a local theatre or arts organisation close is not simply to see a building close its doors; it potentially cuts off many different communities from the benefits that that organisation brings.
I conclude by thanking my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester for securing this debate. It has been a terrific start to 2016 for me to take part in this Westminster Hall debate, and I will be responding to the first Adjournment debate of 2016 as well. Now that the Chamber is filled with Opposition Members, I repeat my tribute to the former shadow Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, the hon. Member for Barnsley East, who will be sadly missed on the Front Benches because he was effective and passionate. My five hon. Friends who have participated in this debate show that there are many effective and passionate spokesmen for the arts in the House, and I welcome their remarks.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered regional theatre.
Safer Neighbourhood Policing: London
I beg to move,
That this House has considered Safer Neighbourhood policing in London.
Thank you very much, Mr Evans, for giving me the opportunity to make a contribution on the issue of neighbourhood policing. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. Those of us who have been in Parliament for some time will remember that we used to have an opportunity every year to discuss policing in London, which is a matter of huge concern to us. We no longer do that, but I am pleased that we have the chance to discuss the issue for the next hour.
When the London safer neighbourhood policing scheme was formally launched in two wards in Brent and north Paddington in my constituency in 2004, it marked a new era in the policing of modern London. It was widely accepted that fundamental changes were needed.
I hope that does not establish a pattern by which all my hon. Friends seize the opportunity to claim the credit for launching safer neighbourhood policing. In a sense, it does not matter. It was launched in 2004 by the then Labour Mayor of London, and I hope it prefigures important changes in policing by our future Labour Mayor of London, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Sadiq Khan), who is sitting to my right.
Safer neighbourhood policing was an important response to a flaw in the way that London was policed over a number of years. It was always about more than just resources. Of course, it was partly about policing numbers, which had been falling for many years and were of great concern to Londoners, but it was also about having a different approach and attitude. The most unimportant aspect of it, although it was not wholly insignificant, was the fact that the area-based policing—the closest thing to the neighbourhood model that existed before 2004—was an unwieldly and clunky model of relating to communities. It did not work effectively, in terms of community participation and setting local priorities, and did not give local police continuity so they could establish the relationships they needed.
The safer neighbourhood policing model, which was introduced in 2004, reflected a commitment to return to communities, in all of their geographical, social and ethnic diversity. That commitment was, in part, informed by the experiences of the 1980s and 1990s. It encompassed, at the extremes, the important lessons we learned from the Scarman report on the terrible riots at the beginning of the 1980s and the Macpherson report. The Met learned important lessons from those terrible events, too.
Safer neighbourhood policing teams quickly changed the face of London policing. Indeed, they even helped to change the face of the police themselves. The police community support officer role was an important route for recruiting Londoners. One of the concerns that some of my colleagues will always have is that many of London’s police are drawn from outside London for different economic reasons. We want London’s police to reflect the face of modern London. The safer neighbourhood team route and the PCSOs, which were a part of that model, were a means of doing that. As Lord Stevens recognised at the time, they helped us to change the face of policing. It was obvious; when we, as local politicians, began to develop relationships with our police, we saw that changes were taking place.
The other critical issue about safer neighbourhood police teams in the early years was the commitment to a core team. At that point, they used the 1-2-3 model, comprising the sergeant, the constables and the three PCSOs. There was a commitment not to remove members of safer neighbourhood police teams to provide aid and assistance to other activities, but to provide the continuity that is crucial in keeping them connected to their local communities and give them time and space to develop important relationships with residents’ and tenants’ organisations, local schools, mosques, churches and youth clubs. In addition to a dedicated sergeant in each ward, they had someone with the skills and experience necessary to make those relationships work. The mere fact of being a sergeant does not give a person the ability to do that, but reflecting a degree of seniority within those police teams is important and it says something significant about the way in which relationships are built and sustained in communities.
I can think of several individuals—I am sure my colleagues and other hon. Members have faces that they can call to mind—who demonstrated a real change in policing style at the neighbourhood level. Stuart Marshall was the Queen’s Park sergeant for many years. He ultimately transferred to use the skills and knowledge he built up in the Queen’s Park ward—a deprived ward that includes the Mozart estate, which is a very challenging community—to continue to tackle antisocial behaviour with City West Homes. Ken Taylor built up a superb track record in the middle of the last decade in countering crack houses, which had become a plague in parts of London and required a new model of relationship building so the police could act quickly and close them down.
Ian Rowing was a long-term sergeant in Church Street. Only a few months ago—he had been in post since 2004—residents fought to keep him in Church Street because of the excellent relationships and local knowledge that he had built up. The residents said to me, “There is nothing he doesn’t know. There are no people he doesn’t know. He knows every corner of his ward. He knows what is going on, and he has built up a trusting relationship with people.” He was taken off, against all our wishes and advice, to fill some of the yawning gaps in the custody service, which are a huge challenge for London police at the moment.
Lawrence Knight is still serving Maida Vale and Little Venice brilliantly. Paul Reading, a member of his team, runs a boxing club in Little Venice. Anybody who wants to see the face of top-quality community policing should see the work he does. Over time, he has worked with hundreds of sometimes very challenging young men in that corner of London, and he has built up an enormous number of relationships based on trust and knowledge. Some of the newer people working now—I am not able to mention them all—include Sean Marshall, Ian Armstrong, Jason Emmett, John Marshall and Mohammed Nouri. They are relatively new, but their work has been absolutely superb.
But the model has changed, and I want to spend a few minutes talking about that. The continuity of the relationships that were built up and of the police teams themselves has largely evaporated. Under this mayoralty, since 2008 the Met has lost 23% of dedicated neighbourhood uniformed officers in London boroughs and more than 2,400 PCSOs since 2010 alone, and it has closed 63 police stations—we were told that their closure would lead to a huge reinvestment in community policing—due to the £600 million of budget cuts over the past four years.
The hon. Lady and I have worked together in Westminster during the time that we have been Members of Parliament, and I accept much of what she said about the importance of neighbourhood policing. Equally, we are clearly under financial constraints. No one can deny that that is part and parcel of what is driving the change. Does she accept that we have a model that has been in place now for more than a decade? London is changing quickly, although the City of Westminster is probably changing less quickly than many outer suburbs. Is there not a risk that if we simply persist with that model without looking for a model for the next decade or so, we will run into the problems of the past and have a model that is not fit for purpose for London in the 21st century?
It would be foolish to argue for no change ever, and I am not doing so. Services have to change and adapt, and a number of different trends are going on in London. Our population is rising sharply, which has to be taken into account. Churn and turnover are also rising sharply, which reinforces the importance of community policing. Yes, of course we need to revise our model constantly, but, as I will describe, the changes to the local policing model were an error and took us completely in the wrong direction. Change, yes—but change for its own sake that undermines the core elements of community and relationship building, which is integral to neighbourhood policing, is a mistake.
I of course unreservedly welcome the fact that the autumn statement lifted the threat of a further £800 million- worth of cuts to the Met police, in particular to the remaining police community support officers. The Chancellor was right to heed the warnings of the devastation that cuts of that scale would wreak, but it would be completely wrong to say that we are now in the sunlit uplands. The settlement remains tight. Commissioner Hogan-Howe told the Greater London Authority police and crime committee last month that
“whatever we are going to have to cope with”
will be better than what was originally feared. He continued:
“There is no doubt that we still do have pressures. We have this £50 million for National Insurance that the organisation will have to find for pensions. We have a 1% pay increase baked into the budget… There is a series of other things. It is, no doubt, still challenging.”
On the threat of changes to the funding formula—the complete dog’s breakfast that we saw before Christmas—he said:
“That threat has not gone away because they said they will review it over the next 12 months and so we, on behalf of London, need to keep our eyes on that because London is unique.”
He also highlighted concern about the national and international capital city grant and said that
“we have a bid in. We normally get around £165 million. We thought that it is actually underpaid by about £200 million. We say that we paid £340 million on national issues that are relevant to the capital. They”—
the Home Office—
“accepted the case for £270 million.”
The Met in fact received £170 million. There is a continuing shortfall in national and international capital city status, which is highly relevant, because that underfunding leads to the undermining of the ward-based neighbourhood policing that is my concern.
We know that we remain under pressure and that budget cuts have had a serious impact on police numbers, which has been further complicated by the introduction of the local policing model and the redefinition of neighbourhood policing. However, we hear—we have heard it from the Mayor of London and will probably hear it from the Minister today—that neighbourhood policing in London has increased exponentially, not decreased. The Mayor has claimed that London has 2,600 additional neighbourhood officers, but that is a piece of sophistry. It is a definitional change that conceals a decrease of 2,500 dedicated borough officers and 3,200 dedicated borough PCSOs since 2010, reducing the ward teams from the 1-2-3 model to just one constable and one dedicated PCSO, and an increase in duties for the remaining neighbourhood teams.
I thank the hon. Lady for giving way. It is only fair given that the Mayor of London is not here to defend his record. She said that we claim to be increasing police numbers, but the sense was that we were going to redeploy those 2,600 into neighbourhood teams with a localised remit. I accept that that was a change from the remit that was introduced in 2004, but no one was suggesting for one minute that there would be additional police. It was a matter of redeploying police into neighbourhood teams.
As I will briefly refer to at the end, we have seen a redeployment of officers within a reduced total and rebadging, which has led to confusion and a dilution of what neighbourhood policing was originally about.
The Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime’s review of the local policing model stated last summer:
“Neighbourhood policing under the LPM is distinctly different to the previous ward based 1:2:3 delivery model which was identical across all London wards”.
The previous model’s critical defining element was a core service common to all London wards that could be enhanced or supplemented. Despite the uplift of officers into neighbourhood policing, as referred to by my neighbour, the right hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mark Field), the move to a single dedicated ward officer with a single dedicated ward PCSO represents a 77% reduction in ward-based neighbourhood policing when compared to the 1-2-3 model. In my borough of Westminster, we went from a total full-time-equivalent police strength of 1,632 in 2010 to 1,661 in 2012—there were changes in 2011 that meant that 2012 was a better base year—and then down to 1,327 in June 2015. The redistribution under the new service has led to a dramatic drop in our total police strength, which has led to the reduction in neighbourhood policing I have mentioned.
If I am lucky enough to catch your eye, Mr Evans, I hope to dwell on another aspect of neighbourhood policing that I hope my hon. Friend will comment on with concern, namely that the Met proposes to pilot the merger of borough commands, in particular Brent, Harrow and Barnet, about which my constituents will be particularly concerned.
I hope that my hon. Friend is able to catch your eye, Mr Evans, and to develop that theme, because it is a real concern. I suspect that he will also want to discuss the theme of leadership that I am developing. Borough leadership is important, but neighbourhood leadership, which was defined for neighbourhood policing team purposes as being ward-based, is also important. Relationships do not happen by themselves; they happen because people in leadership roles are equipped and skilled to build them.
We have already seen a dramatic reduction in police numbers. Underneath that and within a reduced total, we then saw a reclassification of what a neighbourhood police officer is. We have also seen a fundamental dilution of the original model of ward-based safer neighbourhood policing. The combined impact of that led the MOPAC review of the local policing model to conclude that the
“visibility of officers within neighbourhoods remains an issue raised by communities and key stakeholders”.
Well, it can say that again. As Commissioner Hogan-Howe told the GLA:
“The irony was…that we put more officers into neighbourhoods but people saw fewer people dedicated to their area.”
That is central to the point, and it happened because additional duties were given to safer neighbourhood police officers under the LPM. The MOPAC review states:
“Although the LPM has allocated… additional police officers to”—
the new definition of—
“Neighbourhood Policing, with a greater ability to flex resources, to realise the crime and ASB reduction, and respond effectively to community concerns, it has at the same time allocated additional functionality previously undertaken elsewhere.”
The review continues:
“There are a number of functions within the neighbourhood policing strand of the LPM which are required but which impact on the opportunities for officers to be visible within the…MPS Neighbourhoods.”
Those functions included the investigation of neighbourhood crime, appointment cars, e-graded calls, hospital guards, crime scene management, custody constant watches, and aid, all of which were not previously undertaken by neighbourhood police teams.
Since that initial review was carried out, I am aware that some areas of additional functionality have been moved back to response teams, which has had a marginal impact, but additional functionality still remains a problem. We need only to talk, as I am sure all my hon. Friends here are doing, to local police teams to hear why they are unable to undertake the visibility policing or the relationship building and community work that they used to do. It is because they have additional policing duties to undertake.
The other critical change that took place under the LPM was to aid. One of the most important strengths of the SNT model was its ring-fencing, but the abstraction of staff from neighbourhood teams to other duties is now a constant element. According to MOPAC, neighbourhood officers undertook some 102,000 hours of aid over the 12-month period prior to the review. Assembly Member Andrew Dismore, the former Member for Hendon, obtained figures for the two boroughs that he represents. In just three months over last summer, Camden lost a total of 1,293 officer shifts to other boroughs, averaging 99 shifts a week, and Barnet lost a total of 951 officer shifts, averaging 73 shifts a week. I can also speak from local experience: I will not name the ward because I do not want to get the officers in trouble, but when trying to solve neighbourhood problems and talking to the police about dedicating some resources to help, I have been told:
“No joy this weekend as I was on my own. I had planned to be with 3 other PCs but they got put on AID at short notice.”
That is a regular refrain. Problem-solving work is often taken away.
Is the hon. Lady aware that the National Audit Office has produced a report highlighting that several police forces are not actually aware of the demand on their service and that replicating a model across every ward in London may not be the best way to carry out policing? It also states that if a local authority wants to continue with the model to which she refers, they are able to purchase extra police officers from the Mayor of London and avail themselves of the buy-one-get-one-free offer, which we have done in Kingston town centre to tackle crime and antisocial behaviour.
I have a terribly old-fashioned attitude: the police should police and the local authorities should run libraries and children’s and other such services. I am struck by the fact that a few weeks ago in Westminster the leader of the council said at a staff conference that the local authority was on the path of having its total funding reduced from £390 million to £90 million over the course of the two spending review periods, so I am afraid that it is facile to say that the local authorities, which are being slashed to ribbons, are the ones to take on additional policing roles.
Aid has increased and the continuity of relationships built up by neighbourhood policing teams has been undermined. The impact, according to the MOPAC review, has been that public awareness of police visibility in London has faltered; the neighbourhood confidence comparator shows that over the previous year, on average, it has reduced from an already low 53% to 51%. MOPAC challenged the Met to increase public confidence in the police by 20%, but levels remain broadly unchanged from the March 2012 baseline. The Mayor also set a target for public confidence in the police of 75%, but it is 67%. A review into safer neighbourhood boards by the London Assembly police and crime committee received evidence from those SNBs that some police safer neighbourhood ward panels were meeting infrequently or not at all, so the community relationship was not being sustained evenly simply because the police were unable to find the resources to continue their work. I have found, as I am sure colleagues have, that concerns have bubbled up in the neighbourhoods about the kind of problem-solving work that safer neighbourhood police were so good at doing.
I want to make a few remarks about three particular areas that reflect our priorities at the moment, the first being counter-terrorism. In particular since Paris, we are acutely aware of the critical importance of counter-terrorism work. We should all pay tribute, as I do in heartfelt manner, to the work of the intelligence and security services in keeping us safe. In that context too, however, the local knowledge and relationships built up by neighbourhood policing are absolutely irreplaceable. I can state with certainty that the local officers I know knew exactly who the families and where the areas to focus on were. Such officers were a source of information on and of trust in the police in the community, vital not only to help counter-terrorism work, but in reassurance and community confidence building. Immediately after Paris we, the police teams and the local authority were called together by our excellent borough commander in Westminster, Peter Ayling, to talk about exactly that—higher visibility for our neighbourhood police teams in London in order to reassure our communities.
The second area is hate crime, of which sadly there is soaring incidence in the aftermath of Paris. It has also increased over the course of the past two years, notably anti-Semitic hate crime given a couple of flashpoints, as well as the spike in Islamophobia after Paris. Again, the relationships built by our neighbourhood police with our mosques, churches and synagogues are irreplaceable. Such efforts need to be well led.
The third area is serious youth violence: last year 19 teenagers were killed, which sadly is a dramatic increase on the figure for 2014 and the highest figure for seven years. According to Scotland Yard, nearly 20% of all murders in London now have gang associations. Trident, as with our security services, is a critical specialist service, but I can also state from personal experience that the knowledge built up by my safer neighbourhood team sergeants on gang membership or the risk of that is totally irreplaceable, as are their relationships and their work on the ground, often directly with troubled young individuals. If we are to make serious progress in tackling serious youth violence and gang violence, we have to review urgently what has been done to our local teams.
I am delighted to see that others are present to speak. In conclusion, I want to reinforce the fact that our model of safer neighbourhood policing is not now what it was originally envisaged to be. It was always intended to be at the core of policing. I had a number of enhanced teams in my most deprived areas, I am pleased to say, but the model was never only about total resource, but about leadership—for community relationship building, networking, developing local knowledge and providing continuity. That has been diluted, the model has been changed and we have lost the previous safer neighbourhood model. I am relieved that we do not face further cuts to or the loss of our PCSOs, but I hope that the local commander, MOPAC and the Minister will hear a plea from the Opposition: we need to return to the core of a ward-based and, ideally, sergeant-led neighbourhood police team to restore public confidence in community policing, which was so valuable and hard won and is in danger of being lost.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck) for securing the debate and for her excellent speech to kick things off. She is a tenacious and passionate campaigner on behalf of her constituents. In this debate on safer neighbourhood policing in London she has clearly shown that she understands the big issues facing not only her constituents, but our citizens. It is great to see so many London colleagues present for this important debate.
I also pay tribute and put on the record my gratitude to all police and police community support officers, and to all who work for the Metropolitan police. They work day in, day out to protect us and to keep us as safe as possible, preventing crime, detecting those responsible for crime, playing a huge role in maintaining the rule of law and due process, and helping us to feel safer.
There is no point beating about the bush: the very future of safer neighbourhood policing in London as we know it is under threat. As has been said, one of the legacies of Ken Livingstone’s time as Mayor of London was the creation of dedicated community policing teams. I know from my own constituency just how successful and popular safer neighbourhood teams in London were and are. In some of the wards in and around my constituency, there were teams of at least one sergeant, two police officers and three PCSOs. As a resident, a ward councillor and a Member of Parliament, I saw at first hand their work to build community relations. They knew shopkeepers, vicars, priests, imams, neighbourhood watch co-ordinators, resident association members, head teachers and youth leaders. They actually spoke to and engaged with youngsters and made an effort to build relations with parts of our diverse communities that previously had no relations with the police.
The teams’ networks gave them a unique insight into what was happening on the ground and in their patch—proper, old-fashioned community policing: bobbies back on the beat, some would say, not only providing reassurance to the community, but acting as the eyes and ears for gathering intelligence, preventing crimes from happening and clearing them up when they did. That is what policing by consent is all about.
Over recent years, however, safer neighbourhood policing has been devastated in London. While we have had a Conservative Mayor and a Conservative Prime Minister, the number of officers has been steadily eroded. Since May 2010, the number of PCSOs in London has dropped by up to three quarters, with some boroughs—Brent, Ealing, Hammersmith and Fulham, Lambeth, Wandsworth and Westminster—seeing falls of 80% or more. I have with me some of the figures, which cover the period between May 2010 and September 2015. Hackney has lost 69% of its PCSOs and 29% of its uniformed officers; Harrow, 75% of its PCSOs and 24% of its uniformed officers; Hounslow, 75% of its PCSOs and 11% of its uniformed officers; Kingston—I am sorry that the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (James Berry), whose borough this is, has left the Chamber—75% of its PCSOs and 19% of uniformed officers; and Lambeth, 80% of its PCSOs and 32% of its uniformed officers. Across the whole Metropolitan Police Service, 62% of PCSOs and 11% of uniformed officers have been lost. In some areas, there is one officer left, or at best two. There is no longer the same dedicated team for geographical areas as there once was.
Although crime has been broadly falling over the past decade and a half, too many areas of London are still blighted by antisocial behaviour. Violent crime is up across the city and, worryingly, knife crime is on the rise again.
The right hon. Gentleman will recognise that the broader metric of crime is down. Does that not suggest, to a large extent, that, given the financial constraints that any Mayor or Government would have been under in recent years, the Metropolitan police has done a pretty good job of utilising diminishing resources to ensure that people are kept as safe as possible? While I very much accept some of the concerns about the breakdown of the neighbourhood model to which he refers and the importance of integrating with other agencies, broadly there is a good case for saying that, given those financial constraints, we have done a pretty good job, although we should not be complacent about the future.
The police service does a fantastic job under very difficult circumstances. However, internet crime is going through the roof, along with serious youth violent crime, knife crime, knife crime with injury, gun crime and gun crime with firearm discharge. I pay tribute to the remarkable work done by police officers and CSOs.
The right hon. Gentleman is generous in giving way. I pay tribute, as I will in my speech, to all the officers in England and Wales who I represent, and to those in London in particular for this debate. When we look at levels of crime, we see that internet crime and cybercrime was not recorded before, so we do not know what the levels were. We know that it is a major issue, but the previous Government did not record it. We are now recording it, so that we will have better knowledge of what is happening and can put resources in the right place. However, I want to put on the record that while he said—I think understandably—that internet crime is going up, actually we did not record it, nor did the Government of whom he was a Minister.
I am sure we all accept that technology is advancing and that evolution is a wonderful thing. I repeat the point that I pay tribute to officers, who do a remarkable job under difficult circumstances. However, the Mayor of London—he and the Policing Minister must accept this—aided and abetted by the Government, has filleted safer neighbourhood policing. We have heard some of the results of that in today’s debate, and we will hear more of that in Labour Members’ speeches.
I want to add two further thoughts into the debate. First, there has been a debate over a number of years about stop and search and the impact it has on keeping the city safe. I am one of those who believe that, historically, it has been overused and done so in too much of an arbitrary fashion, so that certain communities have seen strained relations with the police. Someone is unlikely to come forward tomorrow and provide invaluable information or give evidence that can help with a prosecution if yesterday they or a family member were wrongly stopped and searched, and treated discourteously or badly by the police.
Let me be clear: intelligence-led stop and search plays a crucial role in keeping Londoners safe. We should all be worried about the rise in knife crime over recent months. The deaths of teenagers because of knives deeply alarms me not simply as a Member of Parliament and a citizen of this city, but as a father of two teenage girls. However, we will not be able to pursue an intelligence-led approach to stop and search if we lose safer neighbourhood policing, because that provides the police with the intelligence they need to inform stop-and-search activities. Without safer neighbourhood policing feeding into police intelligence, stop and search risks becoming a blind and arbitrary action, with a resultant negative impact on community relations that would damage all of London.
Secondly, the horrific attacks in Paris were a wake-up call to all of us. It could so easily have been London. If we are to prevent a repeat of the Paris terrorist attacks here in London, we must always be vigilant and make the most of all the resources at our disposal. High level, technologically-led intelligence operations have a role to play. Our security agencies, who do such a sterling job, have considerable pressure on them to keep us safe, but community policing should never be dismissed.
Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, has pointed out that intelligence that leads to the investigation of people who may be responsible for acts of extremism or terrorism increasingly comes from people reporting suspicious behaviour to—guess who? To local neighbourhood police officers and PCSOs, who they know and trust. The hollowing out of neighbourhood policing is putting those relationships and that intelligence-gathering capacity at risk. If we weaken safer neighbourhood policing, we weaken our protection against terrorism.
I would like to end as I began by thanking London’s police. They do a remarkable job in terribly pressured circumstances, which is not helped, I am afraid, by the deep cuts inflicted on them by the Government and the current Mayor of London. Safer neighbourhood policing has been hit particularly hard. To lose that crucial community-facing aspect of London’s policing would be a terrible mistake. It is important that those of us who understand the importance of policing by consent for crime prevention unite to stop a further hollowing out across London.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Evans. I warmly congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck) on securing this vital debate. She clearly outlined why safer neighbourhood teams work, so I will not delay the Chamber by repeating that. I will just add that I fully endorse it. In my borough of Hackney, it was transformational in building relationships in the community. The community relations with the police were a byword for bad relations around the time that I was elected to the London Assembly. It was only with the installation of ingrained neighbourhood policing that we began to see a change. People felt that they were working with the police, rather than feeling that they and the police were on opposite sides.
It is important to remember that the police police us by consent and, for that to work properly, they need to know their community in a granular way and people need to know their police officers. As others have, I could highlight many local examples of times when people have passed on intelligence to the police, but I will give just one example. When I was out knocking on doors for one of my regular weekend surgeries, in two households in a row I spoke to parents who did not want to speak to the police or for me to report something, because they were afraid that an officer in uniform appearing on their doorstep could mean their teenage child being targeted by gangs. If they want to report something as simple as drug dealing going on in their area—simple in that it is easy to identify and relatively easy to police—I can act as a third-party reporting mechanism, but so can neighbourhood police teams, many of whom go around out of hours, not in uniform, to talk to people or find safe places for people to talk to them.
Along with other London colleagues, I recently met with the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe, and we raised some of our concerns about this topic. He understandably raised competing challenges and his challenge with the budget, as my hon. Friend highlighted in detail, and he reminded us that much of modern policing is not visible. Of course, dealing with historic child exploitation or cybercrime is important to our constituents, but it is important that we see police on the street and that they build relations with their community.
The hidden policing—the stuff that is not seen—should not take away from the vital community policing that we know works. The improvements in Hackney underline the importance of that regular, steady relationship. Every year there is a commendation ceremony from the borough commander, where we hear stories of the deep community engagement that others have highlighted.
We should be clear that, in political terms, this is an ideological battleground. The Government want to shrink the state and they hide that under the veil of austerity. We all want to see taxpayers’ money spent wisely, because every pound saved is a pound to spend on something else or to provide benefits to our constituents, but there is a point at which shrinking the state so far, under the guise of austerity, goes too far. I believe it has gone too far in the realms of neighbourhood policing. This is in area where the public want the state to be present.
The hon. Lady and I agree on many things, and we have worked together as neighbouring MPs on broadband and the like, but it really is nonsense to suggest that the Government are trying to shrink the state to any great extent. We are still living miles beyond our means—we are borrowing at the rate of £75 billion to £80 billion a year—and the notion that the Government have taken a slash-and-burn approach is quite wrong. I accept that, with some of the austerity agenda, there has had to be some reduction in public spending, particularly in the area we are discussing, but the notion that this is a state-shrinking Government is very far from the truth.
I think my constituents would beg to differ: this is an area where they do want to see the state visible and active on the streets.
Over the past five years in Hackney, crime has continued to drop. However, Hackney has lost 173, or more than a fifth, of its police officers—in October 2010, it had 770, but there are now 597. It has also seen a dramatic cut in PCSOs, from 100 to 37. There were recently plans to axe all our PCSOs, but thankfully those have been dropped. I echo the really important point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Westminster North that safer neighbourhood policing was a vital recruitment line for the police—the police in Hackney still do not look like Hackney, so that was really important. It is important that our overstretched officers are supported by good PCSOs.
Let me just highlight how our officers are overstretched. For more than a decade, Operation Bantam has provided an effective response to gang violence in Hackney, which is sadly still a scourge and a challenge for the police, the community and local authorities. There used to be a team of 40 dedicated officers; now there are six, and that is a real concern. I back Hackney Council’s campaign to bring 100 officers back to Hackney to make sure we deliver for the people of my constituency and my borough.
PCSOs were introduced under the last Labour Mayor of London, and I look forward to having a future Labour Mayor of London who recognises their importance. Previously, seven different uniformed officers and wardens patrolled my constituency. Many were funded by the Home Office or the Department for Communities and Local Government, while some were funded by the police or local authorities. There was a crazy mishmash—a multi-coloured rainbow—of different uniforms and different powers, and it made sense to bring those officers together. As a result, however, they were then at risk from these cuts and changes, because of the other pressures on the policing budget, and that is a regret.
There are two key benefits from safer neighbourhood policing. First, there are people on the streets, and having more PCSOs on the streets saves vital police officer time. Those three PCSOs in the ward also really got to know their area, and they often stayed longer than the police, unless they planned to become police officers themselves.
The hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (James Berry) mentioned the National Audit Office report on policing, which the Public Accounts Committee has looked at. We visited and had evidence from forces around the country. The hon. Gentleman rightly said that many forces do not have good enough data to know the impact of the cuts coming down the line or the needs of policing locally. What is really crucial and really unforgivable, however, is that when the Home Office makes a cut and sends it down the line to the police, it does not have the data to know what the impact will be. I would like the Minister to address that directly.
The funding formula is one issue, and we do not need to dwell on what a mess it was; that is now fairly well acknowledged, and I am sure my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey), who speaks from the Front Bench, will touch on that. However, there is also cost shunting, which is a consistent concern on the Public Accounts Committee. We see police officers, as the providers of first and last resort, picking up the pieces for other services, but that is not recognised in the funding formula or in cross-Government working. It is really important—I challenge the Police Minister on this—that the police service should not be picking up the pieces because Departments have cut funding and do not recognise the impact on the police. I would like the Minister to tell the House how he will challenge that.
If the hon. Lady had heard any of the speeches I have made in the House or outside it, she would know that that is exactly what I have been saying since I have been the Police Minister. All too often, the police are the first port of call, rather than the last port of call, for other services, which is fundamentally wrong.
Well, I hope the Minister actually has the power in Whitehall to bang heads together and to get this sorted. We will continue to see problems in London if its policing budget is squeezed because the police are having to pick up ambulance calls and to deal with mental health issues—for example, by tracking down mental health beds at weekends. There is a long litany of such issues. The Minister speaks the words, but if he could talk in more detail in his response about what he is actually going to do about this, that would be very helpful.
As with clothes and interior design, there are fashions in policing, and we are seeing a backlash against the current fashion. What is happening is not just about money, although money may be the principal cause, but about the fact that some in policing circles simply did not believe in the community policing model—the one sergeant, two PCs and three PCSOs model—as set out by Ken Livingstone when he was Mayor and by a number of Labour Home Secretaries, because it “de-policed” the police. However, it actually enhanced what the police could do, particularly in areas that are more financially challenged and that have more people who are excluded. We began to witness more people willing to talk to the police than ever before.
With those increasing police numbers came more police bases. There is a huge issue about the enormous waste of money that has resulted from closing local offices that were opened in order to place safer neighbourhood teams at the heart of their community. In my constituency, Mitcham and Morden, we have seen the closure of the Lavender Fields and Graveney team office in Wilson Avenue, which must have taken thousands of pounds to open to standards that the Metropolitan police accept.
Pollards Hill is a ward right on the outskirts of Mitcham and Morden, bordering Croydon and Lambeth. People there feel out on a limb and excluded from their local area, and the police office there showed a real investment in their community. People felt that the police were close to them and dealing with the problems they face. I am sad to say that some of those problems relate to gangs and stabbings. We do not have the same level of such problems as other hon. Members will in their constituencies, but the fact that that office is no longer there for people to turn to when issues arise is a real problem for that community. Again, there is the issue of the costs involved in opening these offices and then closing them, leaving memorials to a police system that worked a great deal better than it does currently. That is really sad.
There is an idea that we can point to crime figures and say, “Crime is down, so it’s okay.” However, if we consider confidence in policing, and we look at the figures for the fear of crime in my borough of Merton, we see that about two thirds of people now fear crime, when the figure was once the lowest in London. Mitcham has 41% of the crimes that take place in the borough, but 68% of people fear crime—the fact that people can no longer see their police officers has tripled the numbers.
When there was a stabbing in Pollards Hill, where would people go? They would go first to the police officer or the PCSO at the local high school. We can be pretty sure that within hours those officers would have had a very good idea of how the incident came about and who was involved. That would then allow the police response teams—Trident or whoever—to go into action and to deal with the issue.
When we have our police meetings, some in the police—I suppose this is out of frustration at their situation—tell residents, “You don’t have a crime problem here. Crime is not high. You live in one of the safest boroughs in London.” That really does not wash if someone has seen a young man stabbed outside their kitchen window. Although people can absolutely rationalise that that would never happen to them as a middle-aged woman, an older dad or a young child, they have seen it happening in their neighbourhood and they want it dealt with. Their fear is for themselves, their children and their neighbourhood. When they know that the police office that used to be open behind their homes is no longer there, there is a real and severe feeling that, given the level of policing in their area, the possibility of dealing with these issues becomes less.
When we combine that with local authority cuts in youth services, we get a maelstrom. In Pollards Hill, in Merton, we do not have a huge youth service. The Pollards Hill youth centre was due to close in April this year. Luckily, we brought people together to build an alliance to keep it open. However, I suspect that, in areas more challenged than mine, a combination of police cuts, youth service cuts and the inability of services to take young people away from crime will create a legacy that will be with us for a long time. That will not save any more money, and it will cause far more challenges for many more vulnerable people.
I want to focus on the possible merger of borough commands in Harrow, Brent and Barnet and to set out my fears for Harrow under such a plan. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck) and to my right hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Sadiq Khan) for their wide-ranging analyses, but I hope you will forgive me, Mr Evans, if I am ferociously parochial in setting out my fears about what the pilot merger might mean for my constituents.
I have no reason to dislike the people of Barnet or Brent, and a merger may seem sensible—for example to those who think that reducing the number of chiefs would mean more resources to be allocated to the front line. I fear, however, that it is the thin end of the wedge. Barnet and Brent are very different from Harrow in policing terms and have higher crime rates. Brent has many of the characteristics of an inner London borough, as well as responsibility for Wembley stadium and all the major events that take place there, and those things give rise to complexities in policing. Harrow is an outer London borough and already many of its police officers are allocated shifts in other places to help to deal with rising crime—sometimes in inner London, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Tooting mentioned; they may also help with the policing of major events, as needed. I fear that if the merger happens a new tri-borough commander will be greatly tempted to shift the police on occasion into Barnet, and certainly into Brent, to help with their policing challenges.
It is difficult to see how the borough commander under the new tri-borough arrangement could continue to be based in Harrow rather than Brent or Barnet. I am relatively pessimistic about the prospect because, given the operational challenges in Brent in comparison with those of Harrow and Barnet, logic would base the new borough commander for the three boroughs in Brent. Clearly, there would also be a case for Barnet, given that many people arrested in Harrow are already transferred to its new and more modern policing complex in Colindale. The temptation would be for CID resources to be shifted to where the tri-borough police commander would be based. Operational challenges in Brent and the modern police station with its better cells complex in Colindale suggest, on the face of it, that a tri-borough commander would be unlikely to be based in Harrow.
Inevitably, resources shift over time to where the commander of a team is based. One of the first pressures will inevitably involve the shifting of CID resources to help to bring the teams together. One can see a logic to that, but I fear that the CID offices would be taken out of Harrow and that complex policing work to detect the perpetrators of crimes might not be immediately available in Harrow as it is at the moment.
Perhaps the biggest immediate concern, however, would be the loss of a visible experienced and accountable borough commander for Harrow. My hon. Friend the Member for Westminster North rightly focused on the requirements of neighbourhood policing at ward level, and issues such as the need for a dedicated sergeant, police constables and police community support officers at ward level; but there is also a need for a dedicated, experienced and highly trained police officer, who has the confidence of the chief constable, to run the police force in each borough. That officer needs to be someone of the calibre to engage with other stakeholders such as council officials, NHS workers and leading community representatives. I fear that if the borough loses a very experienced officer who can engage with Members of Parliament and senior councillors and direct resources quickly when alerted to problems, there will be a slowing down in the tackling of crime and antisocial behaviour. I pay tribute to recent borough commanders on my patch who, when I have gone to see them about particular crimes, have quickly grasped their significance and have diverted time to looking into them and responding more appropriately.
I worry that, in the long term, basing the borough commander for Harrow in Brent or Barnet will call into question the future of the police station in south Harrow, which serves the whole borough. It is not fit for purpose now and it needs investment; but I fear that with a borough commander based elsewhere that would not happen.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Evans. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck) on securing the debate and I congratulate my right hon. and hon. Friends on the excellent points that they have made in the debate.
Just before Christmas a pig’s head was left on a pavement in Hounslow alongside anti-Muslim graffiti. Among the first people on the scene were PCSOs who work on that beat. They saw the graffiti and could speak to local people, report the incident, give reassurance and act as liaison. They could act as the first point of call, to reduce community tension at a time when, as we know, such tension is heightened in parts of London. Police driving past in a car would not have seen the graffiti and might not even have seen the head. That is just one example of the importance of PCSOs and neighbourhood policing in London, and of why they need to be protected.
In Hounslow there has been an increase in the number of full-time equivalent police officers, although I think that clarification is needed with respect to the total number of officers and PCSOs and full-time equivalents. The number has gone up by 16 to 556 since March 2010—a small increase. In the same time, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Sadiq Khan) has said, the number of PCSOs in Hounslow dropped from 109 to 23 by November. There are now fewer than one per ward.
I have spent 25 years as a ward councillor, have been a deputy leader and cabinet member, and have served on my local ward panel, and I have seen the benefit of neighbourhood policing to my community and borough at grassroots and neighbourhood level. As has been outlined, safer neighbourhood teams are in regular touch with councillors, young people, headteachers, voluntary and community organisations and key people in all the main local public and community services. I am told that the police and PCSOs in Hounslow do not feel confident that neighbourhood policing has a future in London, despite the good words of the commissioner late last year. The drive towards car and computer-based policing means fewer links between the police and the community and less of the benefit that they bring in reducing tensions and improving community safety, and in counter-terrorism. PCSOs are the conduit between the police bureaucracy, the local authority and public services and local residents.
Londoners have built confidence in the police since the implementation of neighbourhood policing. None of us wants to go back to how it was before. I do not want policing to go back to the situation I experienced in my early years as a councillor, when it was impossible to get in touch with the police. There was no engagement on local issues and no consistent engagement; it was only as and when, as a reaction to an incident. There were no long-term links with community organisations and little understanding of local issues, local tensions and local people. I do not want to go back to that position, which is why I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Westminster North on securing this debate.
First, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck) on securing this important debate. It is an honour to be sat next to the next Mayor of London, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Sadiq Khan).
We know now that there are no immediate cuts to police budgets. Last time we debated this subject, there were worries about potential cuts of £800,000 to £1 billion. We now know that those will not happen, but there are worries among people on my patch that the devil is in the detail. I have some questions for the Minister about possible attempts to reshape London’s police force by stealth.
Members have already said that the safer neighbourhood team model was a great achievement of the previous Labour Government, welcomed by communities at the time. We also heard about the 1-2-3 model, so I will not go into that again. As far as I understand it, the headline announcement of no immediate cuts was against a background of £600 million of savings—that euphemistic term—already made between 2010 and this year. We have heard how London as a whole has lost 3,170 dedicated neighbourhood PCSOs since 2010, which is a 70% cut. What is the shape of the police to come?
In Ealing, we have gone from a ward-based model to clusters. There are brilliant, dedicated people such as Graham Durn from Acton, James Lenton from the Ealing Common and Northfields ward, where there has been a merging of wards, and James Bister from the Acton cluster. However, there is a worry, and I want to echo some of what my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow West (Mr Thomas) said. I actually have some good news about crime reduction in Ealing, where levels have been some of the best. Last time we debated this subject, we were worried we could lose PCSOs and police stations and that police office numbers could be cut. My worry, however, is that the borough model is in danger.
We have 32 boroughs in London, of which Ealing is the third most populated. We have 600-odd police officers in Ealing. I am worried about the dilution that my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow West warned of. There is a current programme to tackle the MOPAC 7 crimes, which include burglary, criminal damage, robbery, theft of and from motor vehicles, and theft from the person. Even under the new model, in which we have gone from safer neighbourhood teams to local policing, we can report a 27% reduction in those seven crimes in Ealing, with the most dramatic reductions being in robbery and burglary. I welcome that fact.
We all have to recognise that policing with and in local communities is about neighbourhood policing. Police officers in this country are not seen as Robocop. We have strong ties, and people know named officers. That is the difference between us and other nations, but I fear that that is endangered by the cuts by stealth, the reshaping, the shaving off of PCSO numbers and the threat of merging borough commands.
All the police I speak to say that they are in a position of not knowing what will happen next. They still do not know the future shape of the police force in London, and the amalgamation of borough commands is a worry. At the moment, all 32 boroughs have a chief superintendent, and that is why things have improved: there is a go-to person. The chief superintendent and the command team can liaise with all the authorities—for example, the chief executive of the council, the health services, the mental health services, the probation service, safeguarding, which covers adults and children, and third sector people. That could be lost.
We heard about the tri-borough nightmare in Harrow, where the borough command is possibly merging with Barnet, which is geographically quite far. I believe the idea of merging borough commands is still on the table. It has been discussed before by MOPAC, and I want some clarity on whether it is still an option. Will it go ahead? What benefits will it bring? What significant improvements will it make to local people in Ealing and Acton if you merge these forces in this way? [Interruption.] Does the Minister want to intervene?
My apologies. I am a rookie MP, so the terminology is still new to me.
The 27% reduction in the MOPAC 7 crimes in Ealing is good news for the Minister, and I am sure he will welcome it. However, communities and boroughs need dedicated PCSOs. That is vital to our police service. Each of the 32 boroughs in London needs their own chief superintendent and command team. We as MPs need to work hand in glove with the police dedicated to our patches.
I will be brief—I only intended to make an intervention, but it has turned into a speech. The money may have been found down the back of the sofa so that it can be said there are no police cuts, but there are lingering doubts about what the shape of the police force will look like and that the worst could be yet to come, so I would like some clarification on the issue of the borough model.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. I will do my best to stick to the timescale you outlined.
My first experience of working with the police as an elected local representative was as a local councillor working with my safer neighbourhood team, set up by the former Labour Mayor of London. I found the dedicated team of six officers to be hugely impressive, forging strong connections and relationships across the community and working in a way that was responsive to local needs and issues but also proactive and preventive. They also delivered results. We saw estates that had suffered episodes of gang-related violence have no such problems for years, and antisocial behaviour and drug dealing properly dealt with. We saw the perpetrators of spates of burglaries quickly apprehended and really valuable work, such as the detailed mapping of a large area of woodland in the ward, so that it was easier to find lost children. Most importantly, we saw the police out and about in the ward day in, day out, getting to know residents, understanding and responding to their concerns and preventing crime as well as responding to it.
I would like to pay tribute briefly to the hard work of the police in my constituency, which often goes above and beyond the call of duty. I was contacted on 23 December by a vulnerable elderly resident who had been the victim of a particularly nasty robbery in his home. He was calling to ask that I wrote to thank the borough commander because, in his words, the officers who responded to his call for help had been not only effective but kind, organising a small party and whip-round to show their support. We should not for a moment forget such excellent work when we debate policing in London.
The cuts to policing in London have been extensively covered by my colleagues, so I will not dwell on them in detail. I will simply say that the cuts have been devastating, and that the change from safer neighbourhood policing to the local policing model has been the most damaging of all. That reorganisation strips away one of the vital tools the police had for building deep relationships with the communities they serve, and we are seeing the impacts on the ground.
On one of the estates in my constituency, residents, many of them elderly, are not currently receiving any post because the postal worker who delivers there has been threatened and mugged, and Royal Mail has decided it is not a safe environment in which its staff should deliver. That could easily be resolved if the safer neighbourhood team could put resources on the ground, as it could previously. On another estate, problems of antisocial behaviour are not being dealt with as quickly as they could be before. On another street, a spate of burglaries running on for months and months culminated in a horrible attack, where the contents of a petrol canister were thrown over a local resident.
Our police have been forced by the cuts to become reactive instead of proactive, visiting the victims of burglary or robbery after the crime has taken place and responding to call-outs. However, a proactive approach through neighbourhood policing is vital to addressing some of the most serious and pressing challenges that we face—gun and knife crime, child sexual exploitation, radicalisation and terrorism, forced marriage and honour-based violence and hate crimes. Investigating and preventing those crimes requires the police to have the depth of knowledge and relationships with the communities they serve that cannot be fabricated in the heat of a rapid response, once a crime has taken place. As one community activist in Brixton said during a MOPAC roadshow meeting, in eroding safer neighbourhood teams
“you have taken the heart out of policing”.
Neighbourhood policing is vital to maintaining confidence and trust in the police. When communities know their officers and officers know their patch, the police have a public face at local level. When that is taken away, the public are left to rely on headlines and high-profile cases and the individual experiences of people who have sadly already been the victims of crime to determine their level of confidence in the police.
Finally, neighbourhood policing should not be regarded as the softer side of policing, but as the vital relationship-building bridge between the police and the communities they serve and the key to resolving and preventing many of the serious crimes that can threaten the security and stability of our communities.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck) on rightly bringing to the House—as one of the first debates we are having in the House this year—this debate on the importance of the safety and security of our citizens in London and, crucially, the role played by neighbourhood policing.
I also pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Sadiq Khan) and my hon. Friends the Members for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh), for Harrow West (Mr Thomas), for Brentford and Isleworth (Ruth Cadbury), for Ealing Central and Acton (Dr Huq) and for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes) for bringing to this debate the experience of their constituents and the concerns that are increasingly being expressed.
My hon. Friend the Member for Westminster North was right to remind us of the legacy of history. I will say two things about legacy. First, painful lessons have been learnt from what was a very different era of the policing of London—following Scarman, Macpherson and stop and search. Indeed, John Grieve said today, in a powerful intervention, “I got it wrong all those years ago and I feel ashamed of myself.” One senior police officer in London said to me, “Jack, we were like Robocops touring estates in cars, remote from the communities that we were responsible for policing and distrusted by them.”
The second thing about the legacy of history is that although the police themselves learnt lessons, including excellent police officers such as Sir John Stevens, that came together with what we did in government to create the British model of neighbourhood policing that is celebrated worldwide. That included 17,000 extra police officers, 16,000 police community support officers and, here in London, ward-based safer neighbourhood teams.
As my right hon. Friend the Member for Tooting said, rooted as he is in his community and in the great city of London, this is about the notion of patiently building good community relationships of trust and confidence, whereby people then co-operate in detecting crime, but it is about more than that: it is about preventing crime and diverting people from crime. Again, my hon. Friend the Member for Westminster North gave the excellent example of the boxing club in her constituency. It is about engagement between the police and young people, whereby the police come to be seen very differently by the young people they serve.
Sadly, a generation of progress that has been made in building trust and confidence is now being reversed. In the words of my right hon. Friend the Member for Tooting, today we are seeing the filleting of neighbourhood teams here in London, as a consequence of the last five years, with the £600 million of cuts, and of what will happen in the next five years, when there will be remorseless reductions at the next stages. These are the biggest cuts to any police service in Europe.
The first duty of any Government is the safety and security of their citizens. I therefore stress how important it is that the truth is told in this very important debate. First, it is not true that crime overall is falling. Crime is changing. There are disturbing signs, in the words of Sir Hugh Orde, the former chairman of the Association of Chief Police Officers, of a “tipping point” being reached; and, as the statistics are now cleaned up, we see police recorded crime up 3%, violent crime up 24% in London and sexual crime up 29% in London. In addition, we are seeing a rapid growth in cybercrime. That will now be included in the crime statistics from this year onwards, showing a 40% increase in crime overall. I therefore hope the Government will stop saying, “We cut police, but we cut crime,” in circumstances where the truth will be told.
Secondly, it is not true that the comprehensive spending review protected police budgets. As has been said, the pressures remain tight and resources will reduce. Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe has been absolutely clear about how that presents big challenges to the police service. The threat relating to the reform of the funding formula still remains. There was an omnishambles and that had to be shelved, but again, as he has said, “It makes it difficult to plan ahead in circumstances where we do not quite know what our income streams will be in two to five and five to 10 years’ time.”
Thirdly, as has been exposed today, it is not true to say that there are more neighbourhood police officers here in London. Suffice to say, the powerful case that Opposition Members have made shows that such assertions about statistics are as reliable as dodgy Del Boy promises that “All will be right if you buy from me now.”
This is the worst possible time for the Government to continue putting those resource pressures on our police service. It is not just about the tipping point being reached in relation to conventional crime, as it is sometimes called, but about the challenges relating, first, to child sexual exploitation and abuse. Rightly, this country is rising to the challenge of rooting out that evil and protecting children, but that is hugely resource-intensive. Secondly, there is the rapid growth of cybercrime.
Thirdly and crucially, there is the uniquely awful generational threat of terrorism that we now have in our country. Key to combating terrorism is good neighbourhood policing. Peter Clarke, the former head of counter-terrorism, said that neighbourhood policing was “the golden thread” from the locality to the global, where plots are hatched by terrorists. Mark Rowley, the current head of counter-terrorism said that, from their point of view, neighbourhood policing was absolutely crucial. Remember that we are seeing arrests for terrorism nationally at the rate of one a day, and here in London, Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe has said that the majority of leads in relation to those engaged in or plotting terrorism has come from neighbourhood policing—not from high-tech surveillance, although that plays its role, or international collaboration, although that is absolutely crucial. However, neighbourhood policing and the patient building of good community relationships are key to detecting those who are planning such outrageous wrongdoing.
In conclusion, as Opposition Members have said, it is welcome that within 48 hours of the comprehensive spending review the Government pulled back from the brink and did not make a proposed 22% cut on top of the 25% cut in the last Parliament. However, the facts speak for themselves: resources will reduce. Neighbourhood policing in London is being hollowed out. I say, with due respect to the Minister, that at a time like this, the Government need to think again, because it is true that the first duty of any Government is the safety and security of their citizens and the Government cannot say, “We backed the police,” unless they make the necessary resources available.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time in the new year, Mr Bone; I am sure we will have plenty more encounters.
It is good to see the shadow Policing Minister, the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey), in his position, and I hope that, as things progress, he stays in the job, because he is passionate and cares an awful lot—he knows me well enough to know I mean that.
I was wondering if I was on one side of a hustings for the mayoral election at one stage of the debate. I fully understand why the debate was called; in many ways, it was called prior to the announcement on the funding—[Interruption.] If I am wrong, I apologise, but it felt that way. This issue has certainly been part of the mayoral election campaign, and I would probably have done the same thing had I been on the other side. However, I would not be saying what has been said today, because anybody who is listening to this debate from outside the Chamber or outside London would think that crime in this country is rocketing and that terrible situations are happening across our country, but they are not.
Let me touch on some of the points that have been made. What was the cut in the number of police officers in London? It was 4%. That was the loss in the number of police officers, yet crime in London has fallen. Recorded crime has fallen by 11%—[Interruption.] The shadow Minister has said from a sedentary position and previously, during his speech, that things have changed. Absolutely: crime in this country is changing dramatically. Police officers and chiefs, and in London the Mayor, must make the operational decisions on where to put resources.
We asked the 43 police forces for which I am responsible around England and Wales to look at whether they could make 25% savings or more. Some, including London, said they could make 10% savings over this spending round. The Labour party and its spokesman said they could save 10%. No one listening to this debate would know that the Labour party had said that before the spending round, but it did. We looked carefully at how we could police in this difficult situation going forward—not only local policing and making people feel safe in their homes, but dealing with terrorism and so on.
That must be put on the record, because no one will have heard during the past hour and a half that the Labour party wanted to cut spending on the police in this country by 10%.
I think the Minister has misunderstood some comments from Opposition Members. We acknowledge that there are issues with funding. We are saying that one priority should be ingrained, neighbourhood community policing because, for all the reasons outlined by my hon. Friend the Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck), that has a beneficial effect all round.
I will give way in a moment if I can. It is not for us to say what police stations should be open. Those days have gone. We said we would not make the 10% cut that the Labour party recommended. We said no cut. In fact, there is a £900 million funding increase for London over this spending round.
I want to challenge the Minister on operational decisions. I have wanted this debate for some time. Resources are an issue and we can debate them, but fundamentally it is absolutely right for politicians to talk about the values and principles on which our city is policed. Many Opposition Members have expressed deep concern about the local policing model, even if that model has rested upon the same resources that we had in 2010. It is completely right and just for us to do so, and the Minister is totally wrong to say that we should not be discussing that.
The right hon. Gentleman has already presented his election campaign so we can wait a little longer for another press release.
We need to make sure that the public have the truth and are not scared—[Interruption.] I will not give way again, so hon. Members need not even try. We must make sure that public are not scared by these sorts of debate and the sorts of press releases that are being out here. Let me give an example of fantastic policing work being done in Westminster—in particular, in the constituency of the hon. Member for Westminster North, who did not mention this in her speech. Under Operation Trident recently, there have been 150 arrests, 15 knives have been seized, and nine adults have been charged with drug-related offences and given custodial sentences.
Part of the issue with Operation Trident, which does some excellent work—I referred to it specifically—is that we have a lot of difficulty finding out what it does. The whole point of this debate rests on the fact that our safer neighbourhood teams were conduits for local information and relationship-building. That in no way detracts from the quality of police work. We are addressing a different problem. Operation Trident’s success lies on the bedrock of ward-based safer neighbourhood teams.
I will have to write to right hon. and hon. Members, as I will not have time to deal with all the points now, because we are going over the debate that we have already had. However, Operation Trident has done fantastic work, with local information, in the hon. Lady’s constituency, so arrests and prosecutions have taken place. That is happening today.
I will have the honour and privilege in the next couple of weeks of going to Hendon for the passing-out parade, so more officers will be coming out of basic training. On PCSOs, the commissioner has already announced that there will be no reduction from the present levels. I think we would accept that that is right and proper.
Let me also touch on some of the points to do with representation. I think that is really important. Actually, this is one of the things that the commissioner has done that I think is really important, and the Mayor of London has supported it as well. The commissioner has said that recruits—people who want to join the police—have to live in their communities. There is an exemption, which is right and proper, for our armed forces. I was born and bred in Edmonton, but I went off and joined the Army at 16. When I left the Army, I would never have been allowed to join the Met police under the present rules unless there was an exemption for our armed forces. That exemption is right and proper.
However, I think we need to go further. I would say this as a Hertfordshire MP, but the Metropolitan police often recruit trained police officers from outside the Met area and bring them in. I do not think that that is great. I know there are some specialist roles that need to be done, particularly in relation to armed response and other areas, but actually officers should replicate the communities that they serve. I am determined that, throughout the ranks of the police forces in England and Wales, officers should replicate the communities that they serve and live in them. They do not now, and that is not something that has suddenly happened; it is something that we should have addressed years ago. How many chief constables are from a black and ethnic minority background? Very few are, so we must ensure that that happens.
The Chair of the Public Accounts Committee mentioned other duties that the police undertake. That is one of the things that I have been banging on about. I am sorry if she has not heard or has been sent to sleep by any of the speeches that I have made on that subject, but I know that the shadow Policing Minister has heard them. We now have an inter-ministerial group—it started under the coalition—so that we are stopping police officers doing something that they are fundamentally not trained to do, particularly in relation to mental health. I have been out on patrol with the police, like many colleagues here, and all too often when we say, “Where are we going?”, the reply is that we are going to see Mary or Johnny, and this is at 7 o’clock on a Friday night. “Why are we going to see Mary?” “Well, because social services phoned up and they haven’t seen her all week. She’s a very vulnerable lady, so we should go and see her.” No, we should not. It was because a phone call had come in earlier in the evening saying, “We haven’t seen her. Will you go and see her?” That is a social services responsibility. Of course we went, and of course the police would do that, but it is not the key role of the police.
The Minister might like to reflect on the fact that too often the police are the ones being called in because too many of these public services, such as social care and youth services, either are non-existent or have been cut back so far that there is no one to do that visit.
I would challenge whether that is true. I hear this from police officers all the time: when they ask social services when they realised that Mary or Johnny had not been visited and they have not heard from them, the answer is that it was earlier in the week. This nearly always happens on a Friday evening. I am not saying that the police will not respond—of course they will—but we should not be continually asking the police to do something that they are fundamentally not trained to do. Social services need to step up to the plate.
We have changed the rules, particularly on holding juveniles in cells. We were told that that could not work, but what was happening was fundamentally wrong and illegal. A place of safety for someone with a mental illness or a learning difficulty is not a police cell. It is actually and fundamentally an important place that they should be taken to. I was in Holborn recently and we did exactly that. Traditionally, people would have been taken back to the cells—section 135 or 136 of the Mental Health Act 1983 might have been used to detain them. We are changing that more and more as we bring in mental health professionals—paid for by the NHS in most cases—who may be embedded with the police in custody facilities, although actually more of them are triaging people out on the streets. That is the sort of thing that is required. We have to have other experts from other departments. We have to break down these silos to try to ensure—[Interruption.] Hon. Members ask from a sedentary position where that is happening. It is happening around the country now. We must not say that it is acceptable that the police are being used inappropriately, and they have been for many years—not just under this Administration, but prior to that.
It is fundamentally important to make this point. Yes, there is a debate—a discussion—but the British public are safer today than they have ever been from traditional crime, which continues to fall. We must ensure that we put all our resources into protecting them from the new types of crime, particularly terrorism. Of course neighbourhood policing is a very important part of that, but it is not about buildings or stations; it is about people delivering the help that the public need.
UK and Kazakhstan
[Geraint Davies in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the relationship between the UK and Kazakhstan.
Happy new year, everyone. It is particularly good to see staff from the embassy of Kazakhstan here. I declare my personal interest as treasurer of the all-party parliamentary group on Kazakhstan.
Kazakhstan is massive. The whole of western Europe would fit into the state. It is the world’s largest landlocked country, and it stretches from the Caspian sea to China. Some 16 million people live across its vast lands. Kazakhstan is so vast that, if those people were evenly spread out, there would be only six in every square kilometre. In 1991, Kazakhstan was the last former Soviet republic to break from the Soviet Union. The former Communist party leader, Nursultan Nazarbayev, has effectively ruled the country since its independence—he is now 75 years old. He was first elected as the secretary of the Communist party of Kazakhstan in 1989, but he was re-elected after the break with the Soviet Union in 1991. Practically unopposed, President Nazarbayev has won—
I declare my interest as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on Kazakhstan. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that one of Kazakhstan’s problems is that its wealth is very much in its oil and that it needs to import many products? One of the challenges that the political leadership will have is in governance and the country’s relationship with its neighbours.
I thank my good friend, despite her being in opposition, for that intervention. I entirely agree that that is one of the problems that Kazakhstan has to address.
The President is very popular with ordinary Kazakhs and is credited with presiding over successful political, economic and social changes through the 1990s and impressive economic growth since 2000. Corruption is undoubtedly a serious problem in the country, with perceptions of Kazakhstan in Transparency International’s annual index being almost as bad as the perceptions of Russia. However, I note that Kazakhstan is not listed as a country of concern in the 2014 Foreign and Commonwealth Office annual report on human rights, unlike its neighbours Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.
Clearly, President Nazarbayev retains a tight rein on power. In fairness, he argues that real democracy will come one day but that change must be gradual so as not to destroy the country’s stability. That makes pragmatic sense, considering the situation in many surrounding countries. Kazakhstan is doing its very best in a region where good governance is hardly endemic. After all, Kazakhstan is no different from countless other states across the world, most of which the United Kingdom considers to be both friendly and a trading partner.
With that in mind, I support Kazakhstan’s bid for a non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council in 2017, and I hope the Minister will do so, too. Kazakhstan has a great record on non-proliferation and disarmament, and it gave invaluable help to our Government during the withdrawal of British forces from Afghanistan. Kazakhstan also hosted two rounds of negotiations on the Iranian nuclear programme, which was important. Kazakhstan has also mediated in talks on Syria and Ukraine. Finally, the country has initiated the establishment of a nuclear weapons-free zone in central Asia—that treaty was signed on 8 September 2006 in Kazakhstan. In 2009, it was Kazakhstan that initiated the adoption of the UN resolution declaring 29 August as the International Day against Nuclear Tests. Kazakhstan has also closed down a nuclear test site, which was a legacy of the Soviet Union. That is an impressive record.
Oil is dominant in Kazakhstan’s economy. It provides a very large source of foreign investment, Government revenues and employment. Kazakhstan is the 17th largest oil-producing country in the world and has the 12th largest proven reserves of oil, too. Booming oil prices sustained Kazakhstan’s strong growth from 2000 to 2007, when the global financial crisis hit. GDP per capita, a measure of living standards, rose by 89% in real terms over those years. Growth slowed in 2008 and 2009, but picked up again in 2010. The World Bank notes that those rising income levels have led to rapidly falling levels of poverty, which is excellent news.
Our Prime Minister visited the Kashagan oil district on the Caspian sea in June 2013, taking with him representatives from 30 British businesses. The visit was billed as the beginning of a new strategic partnership with the United Kingdom. More recently, President Nazarbayev visited the UK last November to hold talks with the Prime Minister in No. 10 Downing Street. The President and Prime Minister discussed Russia and Ukraine. On Syria, they considered the vital importance of finding a political solution to the conflict and, concerning Daesh, the Prime Minister and President agreed that violent Islamist extremism poses one of the most significant threats to our generation and that there must be comprehensive efforts to defeat it. On Afghanistan, the two leaders agreed that rebuilding the economy would be a key guarantor of the country’s future stability. In short, Kazakhstan is clearly playing a full and responsible part on the world stage.
After the meeting, the Prime Minister announced that the two leaders had secured 40 deals worth £3 billion. The biggest deal was a memorandum of understanding with Kazakh state firm KazTransGas on the construction of a 1,500 km gas pipeline and four power plants in Kazakhstan. Will the Minister tell us about President Nazarbayev’s reforms and our partnership deals with Kazakhstan? What further plans are there to enhance our relationship with the Kazakhs?
I am told that there is a bit of a problem doing business in Kazakhstan. Consultant advisers such as McKinsey & Company suggests that it stems from factors such as the taxation system, lack of transparency, corruption and possibly the revision of original contracts, which is awful for businesses. Mindful that the UK is one of the top 10 investors in Kazakhstan, what are the Government doing to help fix such problems for our businesses?
As a member of the Defence Committee, I am particularly interested in how we can foster and grow a bigger military relationship between Kazakhstan and the United Kingdom. I gather that a certain amount of defence co-operation has taken place already, particularly on the UK’s withdrawal of troops from neighbouring Afghanistan. Just over two years ago, in November 2013, a military co-operation plan was signed between our Ministry of Defence and Kazakhstan’s. Matters decided included support for English language training, career courses in the UK and peacekeeping courses with the British military advisory training team based in the Czech Republic, as well as for programmes to professionalise the Kazakh armed forces and participate in KADEX, the Kazakhstan defence exhibition. Although I appreciate that the Minister is not part of the defence ministerial team, when he replies to this debate, can he update us on the status of our defence relationship with Kazakhstan?
In conclusion, I believe that the United Kingdom’s current and future relationship with Kazakhstan is of huge importance and will be beneficial to both. Kazakhstan might not be a democracy in the way that we experience democracy, but it is one in its own manner. We should help the country to evolve its own version of democracy even further, which will take time. Political, economic, social and military links between the UK and Kazakhstan will help each not only to understand the other better but to prosper.
Thank you, Mr Davies. I apologise for any confusion on our part. I wish everybody a happy new year and welcome members of the Kazakh embassy, and I thank the hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) for securing this debate.
Kazakhstan’s history, geography and economy make our relationship an important one. I understand that the Government’s position is to secure that relationship in order to become the country’s partner of choice and build on our strong position with regard to trade and investment. Given this Government’s woeful record on the balance of trade, I suppose that every bit helps in closing our current huge trade deficit. As the British Chambers of Commerce said last month, our poor trade performance will continue to be a drag on UK growth into the fourth quarter. I agree with this quote from the BCC:
“If we are to redress the balance and reverse our long-running trade deficit, more must be done to help support export growth, including improved access to funding for those looking to export.”
In the context of this debate, I agree that it makes strategic sense to work to become a key partner of Kazakhstan, particularly on trade. As the hon. Member for Beckenham mentioned, Kazakhstan is currently 126th out of 175 countries on Transparency International’s corruption perceptions index, which is significant. It signals to those of us in the SNP that we need to be a friend to the people of Kazakhstan, not just to its Government.
Kazakhstan restricts freedom of assembly, speech and religion, and torture remains a problem. In 2014, authorities closed newspapers and jailed or fined dozens of people after peaceful but unsanctioned protests, and fined or detained worshippers for practising religion outside state controls. Critics of the Government remain in detention after unfair trials. Recently adopted changes to the criminal code and a new law on trade unions contain articles that restrict fundamental freedoms and are incompatible with international standards. If we are to be a friend to the Kazakh people, as I believe we should be, we must make every effort to use our position of influence with President Nazarbayev to conduct serious reforms of his country’s democratic process and human rights legislation.
Press freedom is a case in point. Kazakhstan was placed 160th out of 180 countries in the 2015 world press freedom index, which noted that media pluralism is succumbing to increasing repression by the regime. Increased Government pressure on the press has shrunk the already limited space for freedom of expression. Media production and distribution are largely controlled by members of the Nazarbayev family or powerful businesses affiliated with the regime. Government propaganda dominates the informational space and systematically discredits independent voices. In fact, a London-based correspondent for the state TV channel, Bela Kudaibergenova, quit her job on 3 December, saying that she was “tired of lying”.
One particular human rights case that I want to raise is the detention of Vladimir Kozlov, a journalist and the leader of the unregistered political party Alga. It is a significant act that has rightly attracted attention from international human rights groups. He was sentenced on 8 October 2012 to seven and a half years in prison. The charges relate to Kozlov’s alleged role in violent clashes that took place in Zhanaozen following extended labour strikes. A month after Kozlov’s trial, a court suspended the activities of Kozlov’s party after the Almaty prosecutor’s office asked a court to designate Alga, the People’s Front movement and several opposition media outlets as extremist.
I am glad that the Prime Minister met the Kazakh President at Downing Street in November, and raised
“Kazakhstan’s progress on political and societal reform”
within a wider discussion of trade and international security. It would be most helpful if the Minister confirmed whether, during those talks, the Prime Minister raised the specific case of Vladimir Kozlov. What measures has the Foreign Office taken to ensure that promoting human rights in Kazakhstan stays at the top of our bilateral agenda?
The development of Kazakhstan’s economy presents a range of opportunities for organisations from the UK and Scotland, from the oil industry to our higher education sector. We must ensure that we use our favourable position to exert pressure on the President to address the serious human rights issues in his country at the same time. Consistency of approach on human rights is imperative.
For the sake of belt and braces, I repeat my interest as chair of the all-party group on Kazakhstan. I am beginning to wonder whether, whenever we discuss a country, we should start by being given a map showing that country in the centre. It would give us a bit more understanding of the geographical constraints and some of the problems and historical developments. In the case of Kazakhstan, that is particularly important now that we are establishing more exchange and relationship.
I think of a poignant quote from the chief executive officer of the Kazakh central bank, Berik Otemurat; I am happy to take pronunciation lessons after this debate. As someone whose name is permanently mispronounced, I am sure that it must be irritating for people to listen to us mispronouncing their names. He said of Kazakhstan’s current problems in the context of falling oil prices that the country has massive cash reserves, and it is a question of how to invest those; what is its relationship with hedge funds and all the new financial vehicles? He went on:
“I have always thought about ourselves”—
“as a newly-born giant kid standing on the shore of an ocean of opportunities for the country, being afraid to make our first steps without breaking a leg. Before you run you have to learn how to walk.”
What is imperative is reaching out both to the people and to the Government. As for our definition of democracy, we hope that this is not just the beginning, but that democracy will continue. The Government are the people, and the people should provide the Government. Therefore, it is not always helpful to draw those kinds of separations.
However, the best thing that we can do to help in terms of reaching out and allowing this process, which in many ways is one of learning to walk, is around governance, including governance of party political processes. We have fantastic organisations here, such as the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, where we work across parties. We must recognise that there is a real difficulty post-1989 for countries to establish political parties, including a process whereby loyal opposition parties that have different ways of thinking about how things should be done can be established.
At the same time, when there is an electoral result of 97% for one party we just know that something is wrong; not even someone’s own family would vote for them with a margin of 97%. That takes us to the processes of transition. One mistake that we sometimes make is that we think that just because someone has a ballot paper and because there are ballot boxes, that in itself means there is a democratic process; that may be one of my criticisms of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe when it carries out election monitoring. Kazakhstan has gone through the process, but to quote T.S. Eliot, “You had the experience but you may have missed the meaning”. For me, the meaning always is that the people actually change those in government in a peaceful process. So, it is not the first election or even the second election that matters; what matters for me is always the first peaceful transition from those who have been in power to the Opposition, which replaces them. In that sense, when we look at that whole part of the world post-1989, we see that most of the countries are, in some way or another, struggling with that process.
We need to do what we can to help with that process. There is a reason why I think Governments and bureaucracies are so important. I always say we need bureaucracy and such things as a civil service and all the other institutions because they are the organisations that stop things from going seriously wrong when there is a crisis. Therefore, we need those fall-back positions.
There are two areas that I plead to the Minister about regarding our relationship with Kazakhstan. One is financial governance. There are some serious problems if a country has huge cash reserves, is beginning to look at greater involvement with hedge funds and has a big national sovereign fund. We also read about the emergence of the Bitcoin market. If the financial markets are ungoverned spaces, we just know that something will go wrong.
The second area is about the times when a country experiences very high inflation while also experiencing falling oil prices. Those periods will have some economic problems, which—again—we can provide some significant help with, by supporting those structures that I have mentioned. What will hold us together is membership of the big international organisations, whether it is the World Trade Organisation, the International Monetary Fund or the United Nations. Those structures have rules which we all must comply with. Therefore, it is as much in the interests of the people of Kazakhstan as it is in our interests that such rules-based processes and a shared understanding of those rules are entrenched, so that the rules are not something that countries must learn to evade or avoid, but instead help people to govern their own country and to deal with other people.
Building that capacity—whether it is with the OSCE or the WFD, or through bilateral support of our businesses—is something that we must do more of, particularly in those parts of the world that will become increasingly important to us all. It is in relation to one of those countries—Kazakhstan—that I am glad that parliamentary colleagues, both in the Commons and in the Lords, have decided that an all-party group should be formed. Therefore, I hope that, in the end, we will learn from each other, and if we cannot do so I hope that we will at least understand each other better.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies.
I thank my very good friend, the hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart), for bringing this matter to Westminster Hall for consideration. It will be no surprise to Members here that I will focus on some of the human rights issues and the persecution of Christians in Kazakhstan. I mean to do so in a very constructive way. I hope that Members will view my contribution in that way, but it is also very important that these things are said; they need to be said. We have a very strong economic working relationship with Kazakhstan and we want that to continue, but the issues of human rights and equalities, as well as the abuses that take place, also have to be addressed.
Kazakhstan is often overlooked, but it is the world’s largest landlocked country; as the hon. Member for Beckenham said in his introductory remarks, it is larger than western Europe. Therefore, I suppose that we should not be that surprised to learn that the astronaut Tim Peake was launched into space from that central Asian republic. It has been ruled by the same president—Nursultan Nazarbayev—since it gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. Nazarbayev’s regime is heavily criticised by human rights groups for restricting freedom of speech and for its apparent lack of democracy. At the most recent presidential elections, Mr Nazarbayev obtained 97% of the vote, which is a majority that some MPs can only dream of.
As the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart) said, there has been a start to democracy in Kazakhstan, but there is a long way for that democracy to move, and it must move alongside the securing of human rights and equalities. The hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (Ms Ahmed-Sheikh) clearly outlined the human rights issues in her contribution, and I will do that too, as well as I can.
Kazakhstan is No. 42 on the Open Doors world watch list and suffers from both Islamic extremism and dictatorial paranoia. The population is 16.7 million, of whom 2.5 million are Christian, although the majority of people in Kazakhstan are followers of Islam. The Christians amount to some 12% to 13% of the population. Not all Christians are affected by persecution in Kazakhstan, but those from non-traditional Protestant groups or who are converts from Islam face the most pressure from both families and communities, as well as from the regime, which is constantly working hard to extend its influence in the country.
More and more sanctions have been imposed on the Church, and Christians are frequently fined for their activities, while pastors are often arrested and imprisoned. In 2014, at least 71 people were fined for worshipping in unregistered underground churches. When people are denied their basic human rights and cannot enjoy freedom of religion or belief, it is little wonder that they are forced underground. Also, a law passed in 2011 limits church registration to groups of more than 50 people, forcing more than 500 churches to close and making church planting nearly impossible. It is surprising that there are 2.5 million Christians in Kazakhstan when we realise the very direct effect that those activities have had upon them. In 2013, Pastor Bakhytzhan Kashkumbayev from Astana—such names never come out right in my Ulster Scots accent—spent eight months in prison and was given a four-year suspended sentence for allegedly serving a mind-altering substance to a parishioner, which turned out to be nothing more than herbal tea that was being used for communion.
Those are some of the things that have happened in Kazakhstan, Mr Davies, and you can understand why we as MPs have to ask these questions and make these contributions. Hopefully we do so in a constructive way through this debate, while also having these things recorded.
On human rights, Kazakhstan heavily restricts freedom of assembly, speech and religion, and torture remains a serious problem. In 2014, the authorities closed newspapers, jailed or fined dozens of people after peaceful but unsanctioned protests, and fined or detained worshippers for practising religion outside state controls. Government critics including Vladimir Kozlov, the opposition leader who the hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire referred to earlier, remain in detention after unfair trials.
Recently adopted changes to the Kazakh criminal code, as well as a new law on trade unions, contain articles restricting fundamental freedoms, which is incompatible with international standards, and I am sure the Minister will refer to that in his response to the debate. Also, despite widespread calls to decriminalise libel and to amend the overboard criminal offence of inciting social, national, clan, racial or religious discord, the Kazakh authorities increased the sanctions for these offences in the new criminal code. We have to ask why they have done that, and why they restrict the freedoms of religion, expression and belief of the Kazakh people.
Independent and opposition media continue to face harassment and interference in their work. For example, in May 2014 a Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty journalist was jailed for four days on hooliganism charges. He was not involved in any protest; he was just reporting for the radio after covering an anti-Eurasian Economic Union meeting.
These are some of the things that have happened in Kazakhstan. I have asked some questions about Kazakhstan before; they are in the background information that I have. The Minister who is here today was the person who responded to those questions. I asked questions in relation to fundamental labour rights and exploitation of child labour. I also asked questions about human rights, and freedom of expression, freedom of assembly and freedom of religion. In fairness—I give credit where credit is due—the Minister responded that the previous Foreign Secretary had brought the issue of human rights before the Kazakhstan Foreign Minister. I am not saying that no one has done anything, but I do not see the response and the changes, and it is changes that I want to see, so I think that the issue needs to be brought to Kazakhstan’s attention again.
Despite the fact that the general public might overlook Kazakhstan, this central Asian republic is a hidden gem, with the potential to unleash a new wave of economic growth and co-operation between east and west. And it can do that, as the hon. Member for Beckenham said very well in his introduction. The ancient silk road that linked China in the east to us in the west ran through what is now Kazakhstan, and the potential for a new silk road has been talked about and can hopefully come to fruition. However, we must address the Kazakh regime’s shortcomings on human rights and democracy.
Britons can visit the country visa-free until the end of 2017. We are a nation that is in favour with the Kazakhs and I expect we will be top of the list for future co-operation, as the emerging powerhouse gains traction and begins to fulfil its true potential. Kazakhstan is underdeveloped, but it is sitting on an abundant wealth of natural resources and minerals and it is essential that we work with the country to move it towards a real democracy with which we can work. We can then truly begin to unleash the potential of a close relationship with what is sure to become the powerhouse of central Asia and a facilitator of even greater trade links with the far east’s emerging economies. The country is strategically placed, and we want to develop our relationship with it.
As we continue to advance our space industry and the stars become more and more within our reach, Kazakhstan, with its space capabilities, will become a central part of that. I am sure that Tim Peake will not be the last person to launch into orbit from such a place. The potential is there. Undoubtedly, Kazakhstan is one for the future.
I have outlined the potential for a new silk road, the abundance of underdeveloped resources and the huge swathes of undeveloped land, but we cannot fulfil the potential until we have progress on the key issues of human rights and democracy. With the election results I referred to being dismissed by the OECD as “largely indiscernible” and human rights organisations across the board continuing to raise the poor track record of the regime, with some of them feeling that it is getting worse, it is essential to put the necessary pressure on the Kazakh regime and let it know that such infringements are simply intolerable in this day and age. We need to get a balance between economic co-operation, human rights, equalities and religious freedom. Despite what Mr Nazarbayev’s public relations offensive would have us think, Kazakhstan continues to stand as a pre-eminent post-Soviet dictatorship, in which, in addition to the disregard for democracy, political opposition and independent media are routinely stifled. Events such as the 2011 Zhanaozen massacre, in which a dozen unarmed protestors were killed, have gone largely unpunished and, despite free speech being guaranteed in the country’s constitution, the reality is very different—I have given examples of just that. The potential for Kazakhstan is amazing, but we can begin to work fully with it to fulfil that potential only when the regime becomes a democracy that respects all human rights.
Thank you, Mr Davies. Bliadhna Mhath Ùr dhuibh uile an seo. Happy new year to all those present. I commend the hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) for securing the debate, and I apologise for the slight confusion about the speaking order. I do not think that either my hon. Friend the Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (Ms Ahmed-Sheikh) or I have got over the shock of discovering at 8 o’clock last night that we would be on now, rather than at half-past 4, but we got here on time.
It is interesting that most of the speakers agree on what we are looking for. Kazakhstan is clearly a country of enormous strategic importance, but it is not our country; it is theirs, and we have to be careful about interfering too far in someone else’s country. As the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) pointed out, it is a country that has not yet managed to shake off the chains of the dictatorship its people lived under in Soviet times. It is a country with massive mineral wealth, and that inevitably means that everyone wants to be its friend. The judgment call that the UK Government and other Governments have to make must be this: where do we balance out the desire to ensure development in a way that matches our interests with not ignoring the serious human rights issues that continue to emerge?
Other speakers have commented on some of the more serious cases, so I will not repeat the details, but it often seems that if a country’s press is not genuinely free, its human rights record will never be all that good. If no one is allowed to criticise, even if the criticism turns out to be unjustified, human rights abuses, corruption and the abuse of power will carry on, and even those who feel they should draw attention to and expose such criminal acts are scared to because they are worried about what the consequences might be for them.
It is noticeable that Kazakhstan as a whole is already starting to reap the economic benefits of the massive natural resources at its disposal. Economic growth is significantly higher than in many other countries. Its GDP per capita places it well above average and pushes it just about into the top quartile of the world’s countries—according to my good friends at the CIA, who I find are good sources of information on any country I want to check up on. By comparison, however, the lot of the typical Kazakhstan citizen is not all that great. It is 152nd in the world for life expectancy—almost into the third quartile—and 157th and 138th for health and education expenditure respectively. Those are figures we would expect to see from a country that did not have the resources to invest in its people. Compared with many parts of the UK, Kazakhstan has a relatively young population, with the majority of its citizens of working age—between 25 and 55—and a significant number of young people as well, so by investing in education and health it can start to improve life expectancy.
It may be that life expectancy has been reduced by the appalling environmental legacy of the former Soviet masters. There is no doubt that taking advantage of the oil and mineral wealth has left behind pollution on a catastrophic scale. Kazakhstan borders the Aral sea, which has been described by some as the world’s worst ever man-made environmental disaster. Because of a number of misguided policies of previous Soviet Governments, the sea is down to a fraction of its previous volume, which means that the pollution that flowed into it has now been left to blow around, affecting the health and lives of both the people and the livestock on which the agricultural economy of parts of the country greatly relies.
Some 59,000 children under the age of 14 are in employment in Kazakhstan. Why is that happening in what is a wealthy country?
Hon. Members have commented on the fact that there is, at first glance, a democratic society in Kazakhstan. People are allowed to vote in elections, but I do not think one needs to be too cynical to wonder whether elections are genuinely free and fair if between 95% and 97% of people vote for the same party. It is possible to get 95% of elected politicians from the same party without that—as my hon. Friend the Member for Ochil and South Perthshire and I can testify—but that is because of a flaw in an electoral system that is far from perfect. However, any election in which such a high proportion of the electorate is said to have voted in the same way makes one wonder whether they had a proper choice. The result is possibly partly explained by the enormous personal popularity of the President. If he is seen by his people as someone who has done a lot to manage the transition from what was effectively a colony of Russia to an independent nation and they are enormously grateful to him for that, we must respect that and their decision to vote for him.
Just a few weeks ago, Kazakhstan became the first and so far only country in central Asia to sign an enhanced partnership and co-operation agreement with the European Union. Interestingly, in the early stages of negotiation, the EU made it clear that progress towards such an agreement would depend on progress in Kazakhstan’s human rights record. If anything, that record has deteriorated over the time of the negotiations. The European Scrutiny Committee, on which you and I serve, Mr Davies, might want to return to that when the agreements on closer co-operation between the EU and Kazakhstan start coming through for UK Government Ministers to ratify or not—that is, if the EU is still relevant to the UK Government in a few years’ time. Will the Minister indicate what view the Government take on the agreement? Do they feel that Kazakhstan has made sufficient progress on human rights for us to sign up to that agreement, or should we be looking for more?
We have to recognise that progress has been made, but we also have to recognise that that progress has been far too slow. If anything, we have been regressing rather than progressing. I hope that we will get an assurance that, as well as looking for trade deals that would benefit our economy and provide export opportunities for the United Kingdom, we will set an example of what used to be termed an ethical foreign policy. I hope the Minister will assure us that we will not allow UK investment power or the desire for economic growth in the United Kingdom to come at the cost of the abuse of human rights and the exploitation of child workers in some major industries in Kazakhstan, or at the cost of our turning a blind ear or a deaf ear to the cries of religious minorities who are not allowed to practise their faith in peace, or of journalists and other media workers who are not allowed to express fair criticism and are effectively not allowed to disagree publicly with the party line. I am interested to hear what he has to say about that. I am also very interested to see what comes before the European Scrutiny Committee in the presumably not too distant future. It would be good to look into the area in more detail.
I understand the strategic concerns of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office about Russia and China wooing Kazakhstan hard. If we have a country that would not match our definition of a full democracy, but which has a substantial Muslim population and a leader who is absolutely determined not to allow his country to become a breeding ground for Daesh and its preaching of hatred and death, there are clear reasons why we should want to speak to that country and be friends with it. We may at times have to be critical friends, and sometimes that criticism may need to be severe indeed.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I will be very brief, because I know that the Minister will want a lot of time to respond to all the concerns that have been expressed. I commend the hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) on securing the debate. The fluctuations in the oil markets have brought the topic into focus and shown the importance of this huge country to that economic question.
In brief, a couple of the points that the Minister should cover in his response are: how we can further work together on the counter-terrorism strategies that were briefly mentioned at the beginning of the debate; and how we can come together around the work on the anti-corruption strategies—I know he is working on them in other parts of the world as well—and governance. We have had a good level of debate on the human rights questions, particularly the treatment of journalists, child labour and freedom of religious expression, but I would appreciate it if the Minister gave quite a bit of detail on the governance questions. I look forward to his response. I am keeping it nice and brief, as I am sure that the hon. Member for Beckenham would like to come back at the end.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I wish you and hon. Members a happy new year. It is a real pleasure to respond to this debate on our relationship with the important country of Kazakhstan. I congratulate my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) on securing the debate. I am pleased to see the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart) in her place. She is co-chair of the all-party group on Kazakhstan with Lord Astor. That is formidable cross-party representation and a reflection not only of the interests of Parliament, but of the bond between the two countries.
I pay tribute to the Kazakh ambassador, His Excellency Erzhan Kazykhanov. His hair went a little bit greyer, as did all of ours, in preparing for the presidential visit to this country and the Prime Minister’s visit to Kazakhstan in 2013. Both visits were extremely successful and were examples of how our two countries are working together far more closely. I had the pleasure of visiting the country last September. As my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham articulated, this landlocked country is the size of Australia—it is situated between Russia and China; it is where the apple is said to have originated and where horses are claimed to have first been domesticated; and it lived under the tsarist shadow and then the Soviet shadow—and there is no doubt that it is taking significant steps in becoming a regional and global power. The recent visit by the President is testament to the growing bond between our two countries. During my visit, the presidential visit here and the Prime Minister’s visit in 2013, the hand of friendship has been clearly extended to Britain, and we should embrace it.
For people who have not been to the country and are not familiar with the region, the chances are that when they think of Kazakhstan, their thoughts might be out of date. It is a proud, rich and extremely large country that has escaped the shackles of its Soviet past and is modernising. It is confident and willing to do business with traditional trading partners in Moscow and newer partners such as China, south-east Asia, the west and Britain. Commercially and politically, the Kazakhstan of today is on the verge of becoming a significant player on the regional and international stage. It boasts, as we have heard, an impressive range of mineral wealth, from oil and gas to ferrous and non-ferrous metals, and a space launch facility, which a Briton has taken advantage of to get up into the International Space Station—I pay tribute to Tim Peake, who I had the pleasure of serving with in the Royal Green Jackets, and I hope that Members will wish him well.
The country has changed hugely, and when I visited the capital I saw that its skyline was akin to that of Dubai, with many of the skyscrapers designed by British architects. Kazakhstan has also decided to fast-forward its integration into the international rules-based system on which the world’s security and prosperity depend, reducing the role of the state in its economy through a substantial privatisation programme. Furthermore, the introduction of English contract law as part of the development of the Astana international financial centre makes the country one to watch—or, for someone in business, a country to consider visiting before being beaten to it by competitors in other countries.
Kazakhstan is about to become a member of the World Trade Organisation, and it aspires to membership of the G30 and the OECD in coming years. As has been mentioned, an enhanced partnership and co-operation agreement with the EU will shortly be concluded, enabling a broader and closer partnership.
I am grateful in particular for the Minister’s comments about the WTO. Are contract law and WTO membership both things that will require anti-corruption measures to be addressed very seriously? We have a mutual interest in Kazakhstan meeting those requirements, which will also enable our companies to deal with the country.
I absolutely concur that a strength of our relationship with Kazakhstan will be, with our experience, to encourage the country to sign those agreements and to engage with the international rules that will allow and encourage further commercial activity and the bond between our two countries. Only when businesses are confident that there is that positive and transparent environment will we be able to enhance the commercial relationship that the right hon. Lady is espousing.
I am grateful that the President was able to make his visit to the United Kingdom in November, which confirmed the UK as a partner of choice as he seeks to implement governance and rule of law reforms, in line with universal rights reforms as well. Another important element of our bilateral relationship, which I know is of particular interest to my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham, is the military relationship, which he raised in relation to various matters. He articulated the need for political structures and mentioned President Nazarbayev’s reforms, the challenges in doing business and our commercial and military relationships. I will address those one by one.
First, the success of any country relies on good governance and reform. While acknowledging the continuing challenges faced, we should recognise that Kazakhstan has made great efforts to improve its governance structures and engage accordingly as the best way to promote reform. In May, President Nazarbayev launched a far-reaching programme of reforms. These included changes to the legal system, the civil service, the economy, and public accountability. These will be implemented through his 100 concrete steps—essentially, milestones for each of the five reform areas that hon. Members have mentioned today.
I recognise, as other hon. Members did in their contributions, that although Kazakhstan has made real progress on its human rights record, there is further work to be done, in particular to avoid the risk that progress in one area might be offset by retrograde developments in others. We rightly have high expectations for a country that is a leader in the region and seeks a greater international role.
During the President’s visit in November, the Prime Minister discussed Kazakhstan’s progress on political and societal reform, including creating a more permissive environment for non-governmental organisations. The President outlined some of his thinking on the reform agenda and spoke of the creation of new structures designed to tackle corruption. For our part, we plan to invite Kazakh Government representatives to our anti-corruption summit in May. Our embassy in Astana is one of a small number that contribute to regular meetings of the Kazakh Investment Council, where transparency issues are discussed. Hon. Members will be pleased to hear that, on taxation, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs is working hard on a revised double taxation agreement with the Kazakhs. Those discussions will be completed shortly.
On the commercial relationship, let me answer hon. Members’ questions about where we stand on the various partnership deals since President Nazarbayev’s visit to the UK last year. A wide variety of commercial memorandums of understanding were signed during the President’s visit, ranging from joint exploration studies to the forming of a task force to facilitate new partnerships between Kazakh and UK companies in the oil and gas sector. The target is to form 10 to 15 new partnerships in the sector by 2017. We are working hard across Government to follow up swiftly. For example, in the gas sector, UK Trade & Investment is offering in-country assistance to the British company, Independent Power Corporation, to help to take forward its programme.
To provide the maximum support to British businesses, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has appointed Lord Astor as trade envoy for Kazakhstan, so he is not just co-chair. I pay tribute to Charles Hendry for the work he has done. He will now work with the country as it hosts EXPO 17 and will act as the commissioner for the United Kingdom. Both will play an active role in the UK’s thriving bilateral relationship with Kazakhstan, and they are both planning to visit the country next month.
We will continue to support British businesses wanting to trade with Kazakhstan across sectors, from energy to infrastructure. The right hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston commented on the falling oil prices. That underlines the need to not rely on hydrocarbons, but to diversify. As my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham noted, the opportunities are many. For example, the two-way trade in the region is worth about £1 billion per annum. Over the next 10 years, expenditure on major new oil and gas developments in Kazakhstan is expected to exceed £60 billion. We want to be a part of this exciting investment. Indeed, the oil and gas programme is the highest grossing programme globally for UKTI, having already delivered £6.6 billion of business wins for the UK.
On military relations, the Ministry of Defence, through the defence attaché in Astana, has built an extensive network of contacts throughout the Kazakh armed forces. There have been reciprocal visits at the highest level of chiefs of defence staff, and a visit by the Kazakh Defence Minister in 2013. My hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham raised the issue of officer cadets from Kazakhstan being trained in the UK. Our MOD colleagues have been working hard on this. I am pleased to say that it is now making real progress and our embassy is currently following up with the Kazakhs.
The current focal point of defence engagement with Kazakhstan is the Steppe Eagle exercise, now in its 13th year, with the aim of developing the Kazakh forces’ capabilities to deploy on peacekeeping missions, which my hon. Friend mentioned. In July 2016, it will take place in the UK for the first time, and we look forward to Kazakhstan taking part in its first UN peacekeeping role in the near future. Exercise Steppe Eagle is clear evidence of Kazakhstan’s growing international ambitions and of the positive contribution it can make on the international stage.
I am conscious of the time; I want to give a minute or two to the motion’s proposer.
I want to come to the human rights matters, which are of interest to many Members. Human rights in Kazakhstan have not progressed at the speed and to the extent that we and others would have liked. When looking at human rights in Kazakhstan, we acknowledge that it is a relatively young country, only gaining full independence in 1989. However, progress has been made. For example, we have seen important progress on social and women’s rights, as well as on torture prevention. The development of a national preventive mechanism against torture is a significant step that is starting to have real effect. The rights of children have improved and progress against human trafficking has been made. Dialogue between the Government and NGOs critical of their activities is gradually improving.
I am afraid I cannot give way; there is not enough time.
Challenges remain, and, as I said earlier, there is a risk of advancements being made one way affecting efforts elsewhere. Time is against me; I will try to write to hon. Members if I have not answered their points. In conclusion, we have a deep and growing relationship and substantial mutual interests with Kazakhstan. These interests will not stop us raising sensitive issues, including corruption and human rights, as we would with any partner country. Kazakhstan’s ambition to take on a wider regional and international role is also leading it to take on associated responsibilities. I acknowledge what my hon. Friend said about the UN Security Council seat. It is a prominent role, which we welcome. We of course do not declare our voting intentions to do with any country. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham for securing this debate and for the contributions that have been made. If I have not answered all the questions—I know there is one outstanding question to do with a particular case—I will write to hon. Members in due course.
I want to thank some of my favourite Members of Parliament for turning up to support this debate. Kazakhstan is somewhere that matters a great deal. I am particularly grateful to the hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (Ms Ahmed-Sheikh) for saying that people matter just as much as Governments and we should do our best to get to grips with the people. I am very impressed, as always, by the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart), who always speaks so well and to the point. She made the point that democracy is not just about ballot boxes, but about a system, and I entirely agree with that. She was absolutely right about getting good governance in the financial system to spread the wealth of the country around.
My very good friend, the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), raised the matter of persecution and human rights, and the 2.5 million Christians in the country. I hope that our debate today will help protect them.
The Front-Bench speakers were excellent too. I very much agree with the speech of the hon. Member for Glenrothes (Peter Grant). He said that it is not our country, but we can have a bit of influence—if we can—in that country. We all agree that a free press is important, and I subscribe to the view that we should try to encourage the country to use some of its wealth to increase life expectancy among its population.
Motion lapsed, and sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(14)).