Wednesday 2 March 2016
[Mr Nigel Evans in the Chair]
Southeastern Train Services
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the reliability of Southeastern train services.
It is a pleasure to be here under your chairmanship, Mr Evans, and I welcome the Minister. We had hoped to meet her to discuss the Southeastern situation before this debate, but we are here now and perhaps it is better to discuss it in public, so that people know what is said.
The situation that we have found ourselves in since Christmas is not entirely the fault of Southeastern—Network Rail is responsible for more than 70% of the failures—but quite frankly my constituents do not care who is to blame. They want their trains to turn up on time, as stated on the timetable, and to take them where they need to go. Since Christmas, the situation has deteriorated significantly. Trains are constantly being delayed, cancelled or diverted, and the landslide took services out for about a week.
My constituents and those of other hon. Members are bombarding us with complaints and angry messages. I will give a few examples. One constituent complained about the
“appalling level of service provided by Southeastern on the evening of Friday 19...Trains reduced from 8 and 12 carriages to only four”.
“Terrible service on the Sidcup line…Constant complaints to Southeastern but no improvements despite repeated promises”.
One constituent said that when the first Bexleyheath service of the day was cancelled, he found that he could not use his season ticket to get the bus and tube from North Greenwich, because it was not recognised by Southeastern as a “reasonable alternative route”. Someone else complained about the
“appalling and deteriorating levels of service on the Sidcup line”,
which also serves part of my constituency. She regularly uses the delay-repay compensation scheme, which she found to be “clunky and time consuming”. I will come to that later, but I have received constant complaints about difficulties in claiming compensation for lateness or cancellations. Another person complained about constant delays after Christmas in a commute to London Bridge:
“Been commuting for 40 years and never complained before. Worst it has ever been.”
It just goes on and on, and I am sure other hon. Members could give similar examples.
To give my own experience during this chaos, on one occasion I managed to get a train in the direction of Eltham as far as Lewisham, from where there was supposed to be a replacement bus service. It was impossible to find the bus stop for the replacement service; the signage was appalling. I approached a group of staff, who were clearly beleaguered, and asked them when the bus service was likely to arrive, but they had no idea. I asked, “Where does it stop?” and they waved in the general direction of the outside of the station. I felt sorry for them, but they were not providing a good service, although that has to be because they had not been provided with the information by the rail company.
On another occasion—it was the same scenario—I went outside the station to get a bus and found a blind man wandering around the building works. I do not know if anyone else has had the pleasure of trying to find a way through the roadworks outside Lewisham station, but it is difficult for someone who is not blind. Yet I found that man just wandering around. I grabbed him by the arm and asked, “Where do you want to go?” He wanted to go in the same direction as me, but how is it that he was not given assistance? Why were the staff not on the lookout for people who clearly needed such assistance? He wanted to get to Bexleyheath; he could have been put on the replacement bus service, but was given no help whatever.
On another occasion, going home late in the evening on a Bexleyheath train, we got to Lewisham only to be told that the train was no longer for Bexleyheath, but for Sidcup. People on the train just got up and blocked the doors. They were so fed up with what was going on that they stood with their feet in the doors and said, “We’re not putting up with this anymore.” When they saw me—I had got off the train and was wandering across to see if a train was ever going to be going in the general direction of Eltham—they said, “We’re protesting: we’re fed up with this.” I do not know what the end of that scenario was, but it demonstrates the scale of the frustration that people are feeling about the standard of the service.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. The Labour party may be divided over its leadership, and the Conservative party over Europe, but what unites us all is Southeastern. It is fair to say that its service has deteriorated of late. Does he agree that Southeastern seems to have all but given up on getting its franchise renewed?
That is a worry and something the Minister should consider. If that is the case, the Government should take the franchise away now, because if Southeastern is going to look at its bottom line rather than the quality of the service, passengers will continue to suffer. That was a prime example of giving way to someone and them coming up with a better line in their intervention than I have in my speech, so I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on pulling all that together.
People in south-eastern London have suffered for decades. We had the disastrous privatisation that gave us the Connex franchise. We then had a period of relative stability, when the franchise was taken back in-house—in effect, nationalised—but that was followed by the ridiculous decision under the Labour Government to reprivatise it. I opposed that at the time, but we are where we are.
Passengers who use London Bridge station understand that the Thameslink scheme is bound to cause disruption. They have accepted that, despite the chaos at Christmas 2014. At the time, the Minister accepted that there had been an unacceptable deterioration in the service and she took action—I commend her for that—but this year’s performance has deteriorated to an all-time low. Passengers had accepted that train patterns would be substantially altered and that regular journeys had to change, because trains that people were used to catching might no longer be going to Cannon Street or Charing Cross, but the level of disruption they are suffering now is nothing to do with that. On the lines between Dartford and London Bridge, the service has failed, although when we had discussions before the Thameslink works started, we were told that the situation was under control. As I said, my constituents do not care who is to blame; they want to know that the tickets they purchase will get them to where they want to go.
I am grateful to the Library for an excellent paper it has produced to provide Members with information for this debate. It sets out how the public performance measure is calculated. The PPM shows the percentage of trains that arrive at their terminating station on time and combines figures for punctuality and reliability into a single performance measure. It is the industry standard for measuring performance, but it does not distinguish between extreme lateness and a brief delay. Southeastern’s PPM has fallen from 91.3% 12 months ago to 83.2% now. The average for all operators is 89.3%, so we are way below that. Another measure is right-time performance, which uses the percentage of trains arriving at their terminating station early or within 59 seconds of schedule. Southeastern’s right-time performance has fallen from 65.2% 12 months ago to 53.5% now. The average for all operators is 64.8%. Again, it is well below average.
The cancellation and significant lateness measure is for when a train is cancelled at origin or en route—this was my experience on the train that was going to Bexleyheath but then went to Sidcup—and when the originating station is changed or the train is diverted. A train is significantly late if it arrives at its terminating station 30 minutes or more late. On that measure, 2.4% of Southeastern trains were cancelled or significantly late 12 months ago, but the figure is now 4.3%—it has nearly doubled—while the average for all operators is 3%.
On every single measure we see poor performance from Southeastern. In autumn 2015, Passenger Focus showed that Southeastern’s passenger satisfaction was 75%, down from a high of 84% in 2013. In autumn 2015, the Chiltern franchise had the highest satisfaction rate, at 91%. The bottom three ranked operators were Thameslink, Southern—they are franchised as Thameslink, Southern and Great Northern—and Southeastern, which share the common factor of going into London Bridge. That must account for some of the dissatisfaction that people have with the service.
Last week, Which? published its annual passenger satisfaction survey. Southeastern was placed joint last, with an overall score of 46%; last year it was at 45%. Which? considers the impression of passengers over the previous year of the service provided. The difference between that and the Passenger Focus survey is that Passenger Focus considers the last journey that passengers made. That can be open to all sorts of factors, which can distort the figure. I would say that the Which? methodology far more accurately reflects the passenger experience than that of Passenger Focus, which is now Transport Focus. Those figures demonstrate just how consistently poor the service has been.
I am sorry that the fracture clinic will prevent me from being here for the entirety of the debate. I thank and congratulate the hon. Gentleman for holding this debate. Many of my constituents have experienced the same difficulties he has described. While I believe there will be better times around the corner once the track and station at London Bridge are developed, I am still concerned that we are short of capacity on these lines. Does he agree that it would be a huge concern if plans to give the Mayor of London wider powers for outer London were to affect the capacity further south? Does he also agree that to free up capacity we need a high-speed rail link from Bexhill and Hastings to St Pancras to create more capacity for his constituents?
I wish the hon. Gentleman luck in pursuing his scheme; I have got my own, which I will come to shortly. I have to say, Transport for London cannot be worse than Southeastern. It has had a positive impact when it has taken over other lines in similar circumstances, so hopefully it can achieve what Network Rail and Southeastern have failed to achieve in south-east London. Key bottlenecks such as Lewisham have to be overcome to achieve some of the things that Transport for London is talking about. I remain sceptical about whether it can achieve everything it says it can, but I am prepared to run with it and to be a critical friend, guiding it along the path of improving our train services in south-east London.
We need to hold people to account for what the figures demonstrate is consistent failure. The Minister did take action last Christmas when the service was appalling and there was a dangerous number of passengers on the concourse at London Bridge, but we must do more. To quote the Minister back at herself, on 28 January she admitted to the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) that
“Southeastern was not at the top of the list for overall satisfaction. It is not quite at the bottom, but it is not at the top either.”—[Official Report, 28 January 2016; Vol. 605, c. 526.]
It was actually second from bottom and it has been so consistently. The Minister was reluctant to call it how it is, but we do our constituents a disservice when we do not do that. We really need to call it how it is to hold these people to account.
One concern I have about accountability is that the penalties that the franchise operators are required to pay the Government if they fail in their obligations are shrouded in commercial confidentiality, as are the payments made if they overperform. I would like to see some examples of overperformance—it would cheer me up no end. Why is that shrouded in secrecy? It is public money and a public service, so there should be public accountability. The Government should be proud to say, “We have penalised this franchise” when it fails our constituents. They should say, “Yes, we have made them pay a price and forced them to reinvest this money in this way to address this failure.” We should not say to the companies, “You can come and run a public service. You can hide behind commercial confidentiality and not let people know the price being paid.” All too often we see these people paying themselves huge bonuses in public services after such failures and that is not acceptable.
I want the Minister to ensure that we can see how the companies are being penalised for failures, because of the effect of those failures on people’s lives. They are late for work, late for job interviews, late getting a connecting train. We have all travelled on these train services that get stuck, and we have heard people’s life stories on their mobile phones as they go into meltdown around us because of delays. It is not right that the companies are not held publicly accountable when their failure is on such a scale.
Given the scale of the problem, the compensation scheme seems to be underused by passengers. Something needs to be done about that, because if we can make compensation easily accessible the companies might start to consider the standard of their performance a little better. People are eligible for compensation after their train is delayed for 30 minutes. The compensation scale goes up to a 100% refund for 60-minute delays, but according to the Library’s document no figures are available for take-up. I suggest that take-up is extremely low. The Office of Rail and Road found that just 11% of passengers surveyed nationally always or usually claimed compensation when they were entitled to it; 15% said they rarely claimed; and 68% said that they never complained.
We clearly need to do more to encourage passengers to come forward. Rather than come to their Member of Parliament, because they see us as the only outlet to vent their spleen, perhaps they could by right claim their compensation and make their voices heard directly with the franchise operators. Which? is running a campaign to make rail refunds easier that calls for
“clear information on how to get a refund for rail delays…all train companies offering cash as the first option”
and for train companies
“to be held to account if they fail to encourage passengers to claim refunds.”
I commend that campaign to the Minister and urge her to support it.
The Minister said on 28 January:
“We effectively now have rail fares going up at the lowest level”.—[Official Report, 28 January 2016; Vol. 605, c. 526.]
Is that absolutely correct? I have figures that say an annual season ticket from Eltham to central London has gone up by £328 a year—33%—since 2010. I do not think my constituents would say fares have been going up at the lowest level. Would the Minister care to comment on that? I do not think it is true. People are being forced to pay more for a service that clearly is not up to the standard they have a right to expect.
I know that an announcement is pending about increased capacity on our rail services—12-car trains. I have been campaigning on that for 15 years and been fobbed off with “The electricity supply isn’t up to it. The platforms aren’t long enough. We have terrible bottlenecks at Lewisham and London Bridge. Twelve-car trains are such a drag,” and all the rest of it. The fact is that in south-east London we do not have direct access to the London underground. Most of our journeys are like the spokes of a wheel, going in to central London and the main terminals at London Bridge, Charing Cross, Waterloo and others. Our constituents rely heavily on those services and have few alternatives. Buses do not really provide an alternative for journeys of that length, nor do buses have the capacity for the number of people who want to make those journeys. There is a transport deficit in south-east London.
We constantly hear from the people at Transport for London about how much TfL must invest in the London underground and how important it is to increase capacity, and I get that. I understand how vital it is to London. However, TfL is even calling the new underground line going through New Cross the orbital route; that is how far TfL thinks London goes out—as far as New Cross. People outside its orbit are Pluto, or something. Because we do not have direct access to alternatives, our rail services are vital.
For too long people have been crammed on to overcrowded carriages, particularly at peak times. This morning, for example, I was waiting at the station at 7.35 at Eltham. The Victoria train came in and it was six carriages long, at peak time. It is not acceptable. The train that I caught to Charing Cross was eight carriages long. At those times of the day they should be 12-car trains. Trains are packed by the time they get to places such as Eltham, Kidbrooke and Blackheath; anyone getting on at Lewisham needs a crowbar. It is not acceptable. We have got to have increased capacity on our rail services.
TfL is very keen to take over the service and it would have my blessing, but as I said, I will be a critical friend. If it is going to increase the frequency of trains on the service it will have to deal with the signalling system. It is no good putting more frequent trains through with fewer carriages; we need more capacity. I will support TfL’s bid for the metro services on Southeastern, but we need to ensure that the Government and MPs scrutinise what it says about what it will deliver. We need to improve the service and increase its capacity significantly.
The landslide caused me great concern. I thought, “What if it had happened as a train was going by?” which was highly likely, because the vibration of a train could have exacerbated the situation and brought a landslide down. Some infrastructure was involved, so I want to know if a proper survey of the infrastructure has been done. As I said, more than 70% of the delays have been due to signals and infrastructure under the control of Network Rail. Does it survey the infrastructure to the point at which it identifies likely problems and puts them right, so that they do not become constant nagging problems and a cause of future delays? It seems that the system is creaking at the seams. Is Network Rail on top of that? I would like the Minister’s assurance that she is on top of Network Rail, and that she will ensure it tries to drive out the gremlins that cause all the problems for Southeastern and our constituents.
As I have mentioned, I want the penalties and rewards for train operating companies’ performance to be published and the people concerned held to account. I would like the Minister to put pressure on the transport operating companies to make people aware of compensation schemes. Above all I want the Government and TfL to recognise that south-east London has a transport deficit, which cannot continue to be ignored when the future expansion of rail services, including such things as the underground and the docklands light railway, is considered. The situation in south-east London is unacceptable. I look forward to hearing what the Minister intends to do about it.
Several Hon. Members rose—
Order. As we can see, seven hon. Members want to speak. I will start the winding up speeches at 10.38, which gives 10 minutes each, plus two minutes for Mr Efford to wind up. Please do the maths, but I think we are looking at perhaps just under five minutes each.
It is a pleasure to be here under your chairmanship, Mr Evans. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Eltham (Clive Efford) for calling this important debate. I stand here as the representative of two communities—the one that relies on and is tortured by the Tonbridge line, and the one that is tortured by the Maidstone East line. On their behalf I voice my displeasure at Southeastern’s woeful performance, not just in the past three months, which—let us face it—have been particularly awful, but in the 10 months for which I have represented my constituents, and indeed many years before that.
I have had the great privilege of meeting some people from Southeastern, and only this week I heard that they believed they were still meeting their franchise targets. I do not know quite to the smallest detail how the franchise targets are met, but if their belief is correct it tells me something simple—that the franchise targets are wrong. It cannot be right that one in five trains is coming in late, leaving workers late for meetings, leaving families without a father or mother at home for dinner, and forcing people to change plans—and that that is still somehow acceptable in relation to meeting targets.
I share my hon. Friend’s concern about Southeastern’s performance. I have travelled by train for the past 15 years, but now, as a Member of Parliament, I do so every day; and it is the regular day in, day out delay, even if it is a few minutes, that means a lot to my constituents. If Southeastern cannot perform it should do as c2c does. After two minutes, if there is a delay, there should be automatic compensation for constituents.
I agree entirely and thank my hon. Friend for his comments. I have spoken to the Rail Minister about it, and am delighted that she is in her place, because I know she is addressing those very points. I know I am not speaking against her but in support of her as she fights for all our constituents.
On that point about compensation, does my hon. Friend agree that the “delay repay” scheme should kick in far earlier than the 30 minutes that the hon. Member for Eltham (Clive Efford) alluded to? Perhaps compensation for passengers who are delayed should commence after 15 minutes.
My hon. Friend is right; we need to get responsiveness into the system, and the way to do so, I am afraid, is through the pocketbook, as we all know.
I was canvassing in Old Bexley and Sidcup this weekend for the Conservative party’s wonderful mayoral candidate, my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith). I know that he will be working hard on this issue and ensuring that the trains respond significantly better to his constituents, although perhaps not mine. In his seat as well, the pressure on the trains is great, so I hope he will forgive me as I take his name in vain and press for a better service in Old Bexley and Sidcup.
I have been calling for more rail carriages on the Maidstone East line in my own area. The carriages introduce at least an element—I know that is not all of it—of resilience and flexibility into the system. That is why I raised only this week with Southeastern the question of what more it can do. It said, “Well, we could have a few more drivers on stand-by.” I asked why it was not doing that, and it said, “It’s not about the money.” I ask Southeastern again here today: why is it not doing that? If this is not about money, and if more carriages and more drivers allow for a bit of resilience and flexibility, surely that is the right thing to do for people across our county.
This is a county-wide problem. Tonbridge is the heart of the Kent rail network and, as Members will know, is the most important rail exchange in the county. Indeed, it has running through it one of the longest pieces of straight track in the United Kingdom. It was built in days when the Victorians did not value the land around the beautiful weald of Kent or the extraordinary richness of our communities. However, that is not true today. Our communities are the most blessed and the most beautiful in our country, and those train lines now provide the opportunity for some of the finest people in our entire kingdom to get to work and to generate the income that pays for the schools, hospitals and, indeed, armed forces across our country. It is therefore essential that we look at these rail networks not as a luxury—they are not that—or as some way of getting people home or to work on time, with 15 minutes here or there being just a problem, but as a fundamental part of the British economy.
It is essential we get this right, and the only way to do that is by holding the people who run the rails and the trains to account. This is not a question of public ownership or private ownership. It is not an ideological question for us to discuss; I think one Member of the House of Lords recently described the Opposition as “croissant eating”. No—this is a very important question about how we deliver results for our people. I am adamant that we forget the ideology and focus on what matters: delivery, delivery, delivery.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Evans. I do not want to repeat the points that have been made today but rather touch in my remarks on three particular issues that affect my constituents: the overcrowding of carriages; the reliability of the service; and the poor communication from Southeastern about the delays and overcrowding.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Eltham (Clive Efford) on securing this vital debate. As other hon. Members have said, Southeastern trains and the lines that run through our constituencies are vital not only for getting our constituents to work and bringing economic benefits—with delays causing a loss of productivity—but for people’s general quality of life. There is a historical under-investment in public transport in south-east London. My constituents rely heavily on these lines and have suffered for too many years. We know the particular problems associated with the London Bridge rebuild, but as other hon. Members have said, this issue predates that and has got far worse since Christmas.
I now receive complaints about late, cancelled or overcrowded Southeastern train services nearly every day. As a commuter, I know just how frustrating not only major disruptions but the disruptions and delays that happen every single day can be. Whether it is two minutes here or five minutes there, it is often without explanation and causes immense frustration to the people waiting, who cannot get adequate compensation and are not regularly notified. The 7.39 train this morning from Deptford was cancelled without explanation, forcing people on to other lines or tube lines such as the Jubilee line which are already crowded.
The hon. Gentleman echoes a point I have made before. If there are constant daily delays, and if Southeastern cannot get its act together—whether that is through trains with more carriages or ensuring that trains run on time—it should surely give up the franchise to someone who can do it.
I think that Southeastern has lost the chance it had to restore faith and confidence in its service. The franchise should be removed. I would like to hear the Minister’s view on whether that should happen now or in 2018, when the contract lapses. However, Southeastern has lost the opportunity to recover that confidence.
The complaints and the frustration have given rise to a number of community groups in my constituency. I think of the Charlton Rail Users’ Group and the Greenwich Line Users’ Group, which exist solely to represent constituents’ concerns about the inadequate performance of Southeastern and to lobby for better services. Those groups are concerned with the three elements I mentioned.
The first element is overcrowded carriages. In late 2014, as a local councillor, I met the then managing director of Southeastern trains with my predecessor, the right hon. Nick Raynsford. We were promised that there would be 12-car trains by January 2015 on the Greenwich line. They did not materialise. I believe that that was because they were put on the Lewisham line, which if anything is more pressured in terms of capacity constraints. It is essential that we get those 12-car carriages, because on many occasions at the moment we do not even have 10-car carriages; as my hon. Friend the Member for Eltham said, they are often carriages with eight cars or even less.
Southeastern, to give it its due, has squeezed out as much as it perhaps can in terms of enhancements via changes to the timetable. It now comes down to a question of rolling stock. There has been a delay in the Government’s announcement on rolling stock. I will be interested to hear whether the Minister can shed any light on what may be coming forward, in particular for the Greenwich line.
It is indicative of how Southeastern has planned the improvements to its services that even if we get those 12-car trains, some of the stations on the Greenwich line in my constituency, such as Woolwich Dockyard, will not be able to have those trains stopping at the station because the station has not been fitted in a way that allows 12-car trains to stop, or if the trains are able to stop, it will be with selective door operating to allow people to get on and off at those stations. I would like some assurance that if 12-car trains do come online, the people who will be put out by that problem will get fair compensation if they have to travel onwards to another station, such as Woolwich Arsenal.
I turn to service reliability, which, as Members have said, is extremely poor on these lines. By the magic of social media, I asked my constituents if they had any thoughts or comments in advance of this debate. I asked them to keep it clean, which reduced the number of responses. You could not make up some of the responses I got back. One gentleman told me that the 6.01 pm train yesterday on the Greenwich line was delayed for 30 minutes because of problems with the announcement system; passengers learn that from the driver via the announcement system. That is quite a common example of the bizarre things that happen. I was once on a train that had to stop and wait outside London Bridge because the sun was in the driver’s eyes. That sort of service just irritates people, frankly, when they are paying a lot of money for their train journeys.
I will finish on poor communication. I made the case long in advance of the London Bridge rebuild that communication about the disruption that would take place because of the Thameslink programme was inadequate. My constituents still regularly think that the Charing Cross line is going to be restored on the Greenwich line; it is not. I think there are good reasons why it should not be, in terms of increased frequency of trains and reliability, but some of my constituents do not know that. Communication in general is poor and needs to improve.
Turning to the future, I fully support the removal of the Southeastern franchise. There is a good case for Transport for London taking over these services in partnership with the Mayor. The way that that potential deal was announced a few weeks back was rather shabby and got mixed up with the election campaign, but there is general cross-party consensus on that. Some of us have been campaigning on it for a long time. We need to scrutinise that deal. In particular, we need assurances that in the years left to the Southeastern franchise up to 2018 it will not be allowed to let performance slip even further. It has an incentive, as part of the service groups, to perhaps bid for elements of Transport for London’s services once it is taken over in 2018. However, we need to know how Southeastern can be pressed in the years ahead, if it is going to lose its contract, to not let performance slip even further. I will be interested to hear the Minister’s views on that.
I will try to be brief and keep to your advised timing, Mr Evans.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Eltham (Clive Efford) on securing the debate and thank him for asking many important questions about infrastructure, compensation and penalties.
Like my hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat), since becoming a Member of Parliament last May I have received a steady flow of complaints about the problems with Southeastern rail services on the line that goes through Maidstone East in particular, and on the lines from Faversham and Headcorn. Since Christmas, however, that flow of complaints has accelerated, reflecting a substantial deceleration in the train services and their reliability. Regular weekly complaints from people have now become daily complaints, as day in, day out, their trains to and from work are delayed, and not just by two or three minutes, which is irritating and causes difficulties for people, but often by half an hour or an hour, with train cancellations, too. Many major events have also completely kyboshed the services for hours.
Other hon. Members have shared the data so I will not go through those again now, but as my hon. Friend said, we are now seeing about one in five trains running late. What the averaging of the data obscures is how often it is the same train that somebody is delayed on, day after day, and how very often they are the peak-time trains. That is not to say that other trains do not need to be on time, but we know that people on peak-time trains are rushing to get to and from work and to get to meetings, appointments and other commitments. The statistics mean that people’s lives are being affected badly by this experience of the train service. They are unable to be as effective at work and are missing meetings. They have to leave earlier and get home later, which is affecting their family life. Parents are unable to get home to put children to bed. All these things that people build their lives around and make decisions about are being affected so seriously by the problems with the train services at the moment.
My hon. Friend is making a very powerful point about the delays and what they mean for people’s lives. Linked to that point is the fact that if somebody gets to the station and their train is delayed, when they do get on a train, it is packed. They cannot even get a seat, so it is also about the conditions they face. The argument to be made to the Minister and Southeastern is that there should be the extra carriage. I see that from Victoria to Gillingham on a daily basis. Capacity is a key issue, along with delays.
I agree with my hon. Friend that capacity is an issue as well as the problem of delays.
I appreciate that Southeastern and Network Rail have made some effort to communicate with Members such as me, who have been in frequent contact with them, urging them to give us explanations. They have told us about the problem at Dover with the sea wall coming down and how that has made things more difficult for them. They have told us about landslips because of the extra rail, signalling problems with the upgrades and problems with de-icing. The Minister may well cover that in more detail. We understand that it is not always easy to provide a good service and that things happen, but still, that is not good enough. We also appreciate that they are making efforts to improve the services, with extra drivers, more engineers and de-icing at milder temperatures. Those are steps in the right direction, but still, I am afraid that I do not have confidence on behalf of my constituents that these services are going to improve sufficiently to provide a reliable and acceptable level of service.
I say that having directly asked Southeastern and Network Rail just a couple of days ago, face to face, how good the service was going to be as a result of the changes they are making. They were unable to say. They were unable to say even what improvement they are aiming to achieve as a result of the changes. There was a bit of a shrug of the shoulders—“We’re trying”—and that is not just not good enough. Along with their warning that the problems with the sea wall at Dover might continue through to the end of this year and with London Bridge work continuing through all of next year, this will drag on for two years at best. My constituents need to know that they will get a better service within that time.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling said, we also found it bizarre that, given all that is going on with the service—I appreciate that both Southeastern and Network Rail are involved, although that answer is not acceptable to passengers—we are told by Southeastern that it is compliant with its franchise. That suggests that something simply is not right with the way in which it is held to account.
Along with solutions to the short-term problems, we need to start seeing some plans for better service beyond the next couple of years. We are seeing enormous population growth across Kent—my constituency is part of that—and there is infrastructure there that is often 50 or more than 100 years old. It is simply not fit for the level of use that it is getting.
Although we have had High Speed 1, for my constituents that is largely a myth. They sometimes get trains that are called “high speed”, but after a short stretch of going at high speed, the trains just clunk along on the old infrastructure and are scarcely faster than the ordinary service, although they are more expensive. The high-speed service simply bypasses most of my constituents who commute on the Maidstone East line. Other parts of the country are getting High Speed 2, Crossrail and great investment. Given all this population growth and with the economy being so dependent on the productivity of all these people—their quality of life is an issue as well—we need to know that there is material investment coming down the line, no pun intended, in the train infrastructure, so that beyond the short-term problems, we will see an improvement in quality.
Will the Minister say what she is going to do to make sure that Network Rail and Southeastern get on top of the problems in the short term? We cannot let them continue all year and next year. We need to ensure better transparency for passengers so that they also know what is going on with performance. We need better communication and to know such things as the level of compensation that is paid out, as well as make sure that it is easy for passengers to get it. When possible, compensation should be automated.
I share the concerns expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman) that although it feels as though nothing could be worse than it is now, if the franchise for the suburban lines goes to Transport for London, we must not see passengers further out lose out as a result. Finally, I would like the Minister to provide reassurance that work is being done on how to improve the service further out, given the population growth. We know that London Bridge is being refurbished —trains from my constituency do not go into London Bridge—but there is no confidence that that will be a magical improvement, so what is going to be done further out to improve the performance, reliability, speed and quality of the services for my constituents?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Evans. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Eltham (Clive Efford) on securing the debate.
I have just one train line running through my constituency—two tracks, three stations, one train line. What could go wrong? Well, Southeastern could go wrong, that’s what. I was elected in 2010 and have used the train line since then, but I also used it a commuter for 20 years beforehand. Before Southeastern, we had Connex, which was terrible. We thought Southeastern would be better, but we were wrong.
I have a real appreciation, as many in this Chamber do, of the frustration of standing on a platform in the certain knowledge of the uncertainty of the train service—wondering whether the train will arrive on time, or at all; whether we will be told what is happening; whether the train will be full when it gets there; whether, once it sets off from the station, it will actually arrive at the other end at the specified time. Commuters have a feeling of being resigned to the inevitable about Southeastern. If they have to be at a meeting a certain time, they will aim for two trains earlier than the one they actually need to get, because they know that the timetable may, on many mornings, be a work of fiction.
During my first five years as an MP, complaints were of the kind that one would expect—they were about unreliability, late-running trains, overpriced tickets, a lack of information—and that discontent was borne out in the passenger focus surveys. There was therefore both some surprise and horror when Southeastern was re-awarded the franchise. At that point, we were told that things were going to improve and that, for instance, there would be more seats. At a meeting that the Railways Minister held in one of the Committee Rooms in Parliament about 18 months ago, I remember pressing Southeastern about those extra seats. I remember my hon. Friend the Member for Eltham also doing that, and at that point, Southeastern admitted that there were extra seats but that they were on off-peak services—so absolutely no use whatsoever.
My hon. Friend the Member for Eltham raised a point about compensation. Every time I contact Southeastern, it says, “Don’t forget to remind your constituent that they can claim compensation.” Compensation is fair enough, but people want a service; they want what they have paid for. If someone keeps going to a shop to buy something that breaks every time, despite the shop saying it will give them their money back, they will stop going there. What happens on Southeastern is that people do not have an alternative and that has a knock-on effect on the clogging up of the A2. People are taking to their cars because they cannot rely on the train service.
It is interesting that since saying that people should claim compensation, Southeastern seems to have changed its compensation for season ticket holders. It wrote to a constituent, a season ticket holder, setting out the formula it is now using: it calculates the number of journeys it thinks the season ticket holder will make in a year and divides the price by that. Southeastern is part of Govia, which divides the season ticket price by 464 journeys, but Southeastern decided to divide it by 546 journeys, which is less generous. The compensation is not generous anyway, but Southeastern’s calculation makes it even less generous. I believe Southeastern has decided to do that because it is getting more complaints and more claims for compensation. Will the Minister look at that to see why Southeastern is using a different formula from the rest of the group?
My hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Matthew Pennycook) referred to 12-car trains, saying that Woolwich Dockyard is a problem. I have been pressing for 12-car trains on the Greenwich line for a long time, knowing that Southeastern cannot run them on that line because of the Woolwich Dockyard problem, but there is an answer: selective door opening. When I originally wrote to Southeastern, it said there were 12-car trains on my line. I wrote back saying, “No, there aren’t, but what time do they run? I want to get one tomorrow.” Southeastern came back to me saying, “Oh no, actually they’re not on your line,” and then blamed the council, saying that it could not run the trains because the council had complained about Woolwich Dockyard. So it was saying, “We can’t run the 12-car trains that we don’t actually have.” Its responses were nonsense and typical of its disrespect.
Eventually, Southeastern said that if it gets 12-car trains it will not run them on my service even if there is no problem at Woolwich Dockyard, because although my line is bad, the Sidcup line is worse and that line will get those trains. It then wrote to me and other hon. Members asking us to lobby the Minister to help it to get 12-car trains. That just added insult to injury.
My hon. Friend the Member for Eltham said that it appears that Southeastern has given up, but in case it ever diversifies into bus operation, I want to illustrate a point. Currently, it is running a rail replacement bus service at weekends from Abbey Wood station because work is going on every weekend on the new Crossrail. I had an email from a constituent who had recently used the service. The journey from Abbey Wood to Woolwich Arsenal, which should take five minutes, took an hour. The bus did not arrive until 20 minutes after the scheduled time; it took my constituent to the next station, Plumstead, where they waited 30 minutes for a train, which was cancelled with no information announced. My constituent then gave up and took a bus to Woolwich. When I wrote to Southeastern to complain, its response was:
“I am sorry for the excessive delay on the replacement bus service. To be honest, I have no explanation as it would have been quicker to walk!”
That is no way to run a railway. Southeastern has given up. Complaints about its service are becoming more frequent than the services themselves.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Evans. I thank the hon. Member for Eltham (Clive Efford) for securing this debate. I know how important the train service is for his constituents. It is also important for my constituents, who live only 26 miles from London. Since being elected to the House, I have had to commute to London for the first time in 15 years. Hon. Members will have heard me say that I do not see an improvement in the delays to the service. It has been an eye-opening to see what my constituents face daily.
In Rochester, we have been lucky to have the wonderful investment of a £20-million station. It was much needed and long anticipated, and we are grateful for it. Sadly, however, the shine has been taken of it because since it opened in December, train users have seen the service decline rapidly, with delays, cancelled trains and lack of communication. One reason why my constituents were so excited about the new station was the hope of more train services, using the longer platforms and the potential for increased capacity. Sadly, that has been completely overshadowed by the events since Christmas.
People were hoping that the new station and the longer platforms would enable longer trains to be run, so that they could have seats on the train in the morning—like people in Eltham, my constituents in Rochester struggle with capacity. In north Kent, particularly the Medway towns, we are being expected to deliver high housing numbers over the next 15 years. In Medway we are looking at a 30,000 increase in 15 to 20 years. Southeastern agrees that it has had a 40% increase in capacity and use of its services. My plea for the future is about how we will tackle the growth in the south-east. The reality is that Kent and south London are extremely important in providing a workforce in the City of London and Greater London. How can we deliver that and keep up with the demand?
The hon. Member for Erith and Thamesmead (Teresa Pearce) referred to the A2, which is another significant issue in my constituency. It is true that people are getting in their cars to come to London rather than using the trains. Frankly, my constituents deserve a hell of a lot more. I need to get to London on time, as do my constituents, but we also need to get home on time. I support what my hon. Friend the Member for Faversham and Mid Kent (Helen Whately) said about the quality of people’s lives. People who work in London accept that they may be travelling for one or two hours to get to work, but they want to be able to get home, live their life, spend time with their children and do things other than work. Unfortunately, the service that Southeastern provides does not allow my constituents to have that extra time. I live only 26 miles from London and people further down the line in Kent will be experiencing even more challenging limits on their time.
I welcome this debate and want to hear from the Minister what plans there are for coping with demand and the increasing need for more capacity and longer trains. We want to know whether Southeastern will get its act together once and for all, so that we have a better spring and summer on the train service.
Several Hon. Members rose—
It is a delight to serve under your sagacious direction, Mr Evans. I start with an apology for having to leave before the end of the debate because I have an appointment later this morning at King’s College hospital and it has already been postponed twice. You will understand, Mr Evans, that when one gets to my stage in life, one does not take liberties with one’s cardiologist. I look forward to reading what the Minister says and I congratulate her on taking the problems not just of Southeastern, but of Southern and the whole debacle of the London Bridge redevelopment seriously for quite a time.
In my constituency there are seven stations served by Southeastern, and a further six on the borders are used by large numbers of my constituents—all the stations are in zone 4—so it is obvious how critical the Southeastern service is to the life of my community, not just economically but socially. The cost of an annual rail ticket between Penge East and Victoria starts at £1,280, and a zones 1 to 4 annual travelcard costs £1,860. Southeastern even has the effrontery to offer a first-class season ticket between Penge East and Victoria for a staggering £1,920. That is spoiled only by the fact that none of the trains that run between Penge East and Victoria actually has first-class carriages. The ever-increasing cost of rail tickets is a different debate entirely, but it is surely not unreasonable for the constituents of all hon. Members present—I join in the general wailing and gnashing of teeth about the service provided by Southeastern—to expect a reasonable service, particularly in light of the amount of money that they pay.
I wish that Southeastern would put as much effort into running the trains on time as it does into providing excuses for why it does not. I complained on behalf of a constituent about the service from Charing Cross to Hayes and received the following reply:
“The causes have been primarily infrastructure-related, i.e. track, signal, and power supply failure, fatalities”—
I personally would not call that infrastructure—
“the collapse of the Dover Sea Wall”—
other hon. Members have mentioned that—
“landslips on the Bexleyheath and Hastings lines, fatalities at Hildenborough and Dover”—
I think those were probably passengers who gave up waiting for a train—
“a broken rail in the Crayford area and only this morning, a track…failure at Gravesend. While these may seem unrelated to the Hayes line the complexity of our network means that disruption on one line inevitably has a knock on impact on another.”
Well, I would have great difficulty explaining to people at Kent House and in Sydenham and Penge why the collapse of the Dover sea wall means that they cannot get into London. That is just ludicrous.
Recently, Southeastern even blamed service delays on “strong sunshine”—my hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Matthew Pennycook) has already mentioned this—making it difficult for drivers to read signals. Of course, the rail industry once came up with the wrong kind of snow; now, the wrong kind of sunshine affects people’s service. It is, as many other hon. Members have said, a scandalous position.
I could quote at length what other constituents have said, because I get complaints about the service three or four times a week, if not every day. One constituent said:
“I genuinely cannot remember the last time the trains were running even remotely close to the timetable. This is hugely frustrating when juggling commuting and childcare commitments. It is not fair on my employer that my time of arrival at work is largely in the lap of the gods and not fair on my son when I have to work late to make up for my late arrival.
As you are aware, it is an expensive business commuting into London and it is absolutely unacceptable to receive such a shoddy service at such a high price.”
And so say nearly all the constituents who have contacted me on this matter. Another said:
“I board at Kent House on the 8.59 or 9.14 trains most working days and the trains have been late by 5-15 minutes every day this year, and some are cancelled on a semi-regular basis. As the services are costing more and more every year, the level of service…is not adequate.”
Indeed, it is going backwards. That is the experience of my constituents and those of most other hon. Members who have spoken. It is completely intolerable. As others have said, if Southeastern cannot run the trains, it should hand the franchise over to someone who can.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Eltham (Clive Efford) for securing this very important debate. This is the first time that I have spoken in a Westminster Hall debate, and my reasons for speaking in this one will not surprise anyone. Lewisham, one of the stations that has been mentioned quite a lot during the debate, is in my constituency and I am bombarded by constituents contacting me because of the numerous problems that many hon. Members have mentioned.
I intended to start by shining a light on some of Southeastern’s recent performance issues, but the problem with shining any light on Southeastern is that that is one of the excuses that is quite often used by the company. It has said that congestion in Lewisham is down to strong sunlight, so along with snowy days, wet days and windy days, Southeastern apparently cannot function on sunny days. As well as the poor performance that everyone has mentioned, it has poor excuses.
I have spoken to hundreds of people about their dissatisfaction with the state of the trains in south-east London. In my constituency, Southeastern operates six of the 10 stations. I will outline some of the concerns expressed to me. Oliver wrote to me in January, telling me that each time he used Southeastern trains in a two-week period he experienced monumental delays and cancellations, and often no explanation was given at all. Of course, there is a complaints procedure, but when my constituent Jos attempted to complain twice, after being dropped off in the middle of the night at a platform that she did not recognise because Southeastern had failed to announce that the train was no longer scheduled to arrive at her station, she received no response. One constituent even told me that she had considered moving because she was so miserable with the state of travel in Lewisham, Deptford.
I could go on—we all receive hundreds of emails and Twitter messages, and people come and speak to us every time we travel to work, about the poor customer service—but I will not. What I will say is that the current franchise system combines the worst of both worlds. It is definitely not a public system, but neither is it wholly privatised: the taxpayer still subsidises the operating systems to the tune of millions of pounds every year. Astoundingly, it costs the taxpayer much more since the railways were privatised than it did under a public system. Commuters are constantly met with rising fares and diminishing service, while Southeastern’s profits continue to soar.
Last month, Lewisham, Deptford welcomed the news that Transport for London will be taking over Southeastern routes and stations throughout south-east London in 2018. That is a great start, but as many hon. Members have said, if Southeastern cannot run the service properly now, perhaps it should lose the franchise sooner.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Evans. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Eltham (Clive Efford) not just on initiating the debate, but on the way he—and other hon. Members—brought to life the daily frustrations of travelling life. We all recognise the frustrations that hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber have expressed. I can vividly see passengers jamming their feet in doors in protest and frustration; I see that on my own train line. It should not have to be that way. And we can all recognise the collective groan when an aged train that should be 12 carriages long and turns out to be four carriages long comes into the station. We have heard from everyone who has spoken about some of the problems.
My hon. Friend the Member for Eltham, very sensibly, pointed to the Which? passenger survey. He is right to say that it gives an accurate representation of where we are at with Southeastern trains. Of course, he and many other hon. Members raised the issue of compensation. The Minister has spoken about that in the past, and I am sure she will say more about it this morning, but it is clear that it does not work for most people and needs to be strengthened. My hon. Friend the Member for Eltham also made a very important point about the decline in reliability since Christmas. Again, that point was echoed by many other hon. Members.
I also recognised very much the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Matthew Pennycook). He talked about overcrowding, reliability and some of the communication issues. Again, those points were echoed by other hon. Members. I join my hon. Friend in paying tribute to some of the user groups, which play such an important role on all our lines. Those people beaver away, amassing the information that we need to hold these companies to account. Another important point that he and other hon. Members made is that there is a real sense that passengers have lost confidence in the company, which raises some important questions about what happens next.
I thank the hon. Member for Dartford (Gareth Johnson), who is not here now, for uniting the Chamber in a vote of dissatisfaction with the current services. There are things on which we disagree, but I suspect we all agree on this.
My hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Thamesmead (Teresa Pearce) painted a vivid picture. A number of us probably got up earlier than we needed to this morning in order to get the train to arrive here on time. It should not be that way. People should not have to get a train that is two trains earlier than one that should get them to their destination on time just to ensure they reach their appointment. She eloquently outlined people’s frustrations.
The hon. Members for Faversham and Mid Kent (Helen Whately) and for Rochester and Strood (Kelly Tolhurst) raised important points about the challenges ahead in a growth region. This is not just about getting the problem sorted out for now, but about how we face the challenges of the future.
My hon. Friends the Members for Lewisham West and Penge (Jim Dowd) and for Lewisham, Deptford (Vicky Foxcroft) eloquently detailed some of the complaints and problems with which we are all familiar.
My hon. Friend the Member for Eltham made some opening points about customer satisfaction, which dropped dramatically for the Southeastern franchise from 83% in autumn 2011 to 75% in autumn 2015. A quarter of Southeastern’s passengers are dissatisfied with the level of service provision. Among commuters, that statistic is even starker, with satisfaction plummeting from 77% to just 68%.
My hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham West and Penge mentioned some of the excuses that are proffered. Well, sometimes Southeastern’s public relations department is even more bizarre. Some hon. Members may remember an article in Metro, in which one of Southeastern’s people said that the real problem was that people did not really want to go to work or pay their fares in the first place, and that people were grumpy because the service
“takes people somewhere they don’t want to be with money they don’t want to pay.”
That is not great, is it? Southeastern went even further, claiming that if the surveys had been carried out on a “sunny summer’s day”, the satisfaction ratings would be better because passengers would be more “upbeat”. From what we have heard this morning, passengers would need to be very upbeat to ignore some of the crammed compartments and torn up timetables.
Although it is a pretty tough job spinning for Southeastern, let us look at the collection of companies. All the franchises are part of Govia and therefore part of Go-Ahead, which reported that profits in its rail business had shot up by 30.5% to £25.7 million in the year to June. That is astonishing considering what we have heard today. The operator is reporting rocketing profits and is managing to hand out some pretty big bonuses at a time when services are declining. Rising profits should mean rising service standards, not appalling delays, overcrowding and severe disruption. Punctuality was only 87.7% over the past year, with 37% of those delays attributable to Southeastern, not Network Rail. The failures come despite Southeastern receiving £32.5 million in subsidy last year.
We have heard about some other problems, including the Dover sea wall and the landslips to which my hon. Friend the Member for Eltham made reference. I would welcome information from the Minister about whether any warnings have been raised with Network Rail about the condition of the areas in both cases and an update on the progress Network Rail has made in compiling its long-awaited register of the condition of its assets.
The Department for Transport gave the incumbent operator of the Southeastern franchise a four-year contract extension without running a wider tendering competition. The franchise began in April 2006 and was due to end in October 2014, but the Government gave the operator a direct award to continue running the service until June 2018.
That is a very good point, to which I am just coming. The extension until June 2018 was awarded even though Southeastern had some of the lowest passenger satisfaction scores in the country and even though the Minister knew that passengers on the route have not always received the service they deserve. The Government essentially gave Go-Ahead the go-ahead for four more years of misery for passengers. The direct award was nothing more than a reward for failure.
At the time, the Minister assured us:
“We have also totally changed the contract terms to make sure they deliver on their promises.”
Has Southeastern delivered on its promises? Looking at the most recent passenger satisfaction survey, it seems that the answer is no, and I think, having listened to their comments, that hon. Members would rather agree with that.
We have heard quite a bit about the length of trains. My own experience is with the Cambridge line, on which, under the Labour Government, trains were extended from eight to 12 carriages, which made a huge difference. When it happens, it really does help. Again, I will quote the Minister, who said just over a month ago:
“I am determined to review the business case for running the additional, bigger 12-car trains on the metro service in particular. I give the House an undertaking that there will be a decision on that in the next couple of months.”—[Official Report, 28 January 2016; Vol. 605, c. 523.]
I would be grateful if the Minister would let us know whether that decision has been reached and, if so, what decision has been made.
Another question that hon. Members raised is what will happen when the extended franchise comes to an end in June 2018. In January this year, the Government and the Mayor of London announced that they would consult on transferring London’s suburban rail services to Transport for London, which many hon. Members have welcomed this morning. Devolving routes in some areas of the capital has been transformative; indeed, significant investment is going into recently devolved routes to Enfield town, Chingford and Cheshunt.
We would welcome the devolution of control to ensure that passengers are put before profits, so that they get the level of service they desperately need and deserve. However, despite the headlines, that devolution is still a mere proposal. There has been no firm commitment from the Department. In 2012, the current Mayor of London attempted to get Southeastern services devolved and he failed. Despite what Government Members might say, there is no reason to believe that the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith) would enjoy any more success if he were successful in his mayoral campaign. The devolution of control might well be a calculated pre-mayoral election announcement, unaccompanied by any meaningful action to improve commuters’ journeys. It would be helpful if the Minister provided further information about the consultation and her Department’s consideration of the proposals.
Finally, with the Shaw report published later this month, it seems worth asking the Minister whether she really believes, after the disastrous precedent set by Railtrack, that breaking up and privatising Network Rail would improve services for passengers. Do we really want to return to the dark days of Railtrack? Passengers on Southeastern trains deserve better.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Evans. I am sorry that I have not been left with an enormous amount of time. I will endeavour to answer all the questions raised, but if I do not get to them, I promise that I will write to hon. Members.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Eltham (Clive Efford) on securing the debate. He is an assiduous campaigner for better rail services, and we work best on this when we work together. Many right hon. and hon. Members have attended and spoken, including the Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty’s Treasury, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford (Mr Evennett) and the Minister for Immigration, my right hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (James Brokenshire), both of whom were rendered mute by high office, but made a point of coming.
I want to step through a couple of the tactical questions and then go through some of the broader issues. The landslip and Southeastern’s response to it was mentioned several times. Heavy and persistent rainfall closed the Bexleyheath line between 12 and 15 January. A recovery plan was put in place by Southeastern and Network Rail. My officials stayed in close contact with the operator and Network Rail to ensure that those actions were carried out. I was disappointed to hear today some examples of partially-sighted passengers and others not given the care and support they needed. There was a plan to offer taxis to passengers. I will certainly ensure that the company receives those comments and responds to them.
Dover sea wall was mentioned. Of course, major issues happen. I have been asked whether Network Rail’s surveying and early warning system is adequate for those sorts of events. I went to see the Lamington viaduct, which washed out and broke the west coast main line for a period of weeks. I am assured that the surveying programme is proactive, comprehensive and appropriate. Extreme weather events are clearly becoming even more common, and there is an important question to be asked, in particular about the level of funding that is baked into the current period—which, again, I am assured is appropriate. I do not have an answer on whether early warnings were received, but I will ask and respond to the hon. Member for Eltham on that point.
The reason why we are all here is that, despite such one-off events, performance on these services is not where it should be, not where I want it to be, not where the operator wants it to be, and certainly not where anyone in this room, or the customers they represent, wants it to be. I would gently point out that if Members look at the overall performance schedule, it has dropped from 91% of trains arriving on time last January, according to the public performance measure—I want to say a word about that, because I think the hon. Gentleman and I agree on whether it is adequate—to 88.3%, which means that almost nine out of 10 trains are getting to their destination on time. It is important to bear in mind that sometimes the vociferous complaints that we hear are a response because a particular line runs very ineffectively, which is important, or because there are certain passengers who are just extremely unhappy and now have the ability to let us know.
As hon. Members know, after the election I set up the south-east quadrant taskforce, which brought together, for the first time, Network Rail, Govia Thameslink Railway, Southeastern, Transport Focus and my officials. I continue to chair that group, and the next meeting is tomorrow. The group is an attempt to sweep away all this blame game and accounting for who is wrong. Our constituents do not care who is responsible for a delay; they just want to make sure that they are going to get to work, or home to pick up their kids from day care, on time. It is complete nonsense that for generations that was not the case. By the way, this has nothing to do with who owns the railway: it has always been the case that the railway has argued among itself about whether the engineers or the passenger-facing bits are correct. Frankly, I am sick to death of that conversation. If there is a problem, I want all aspects of the industry to work together to sort it out, which is very much the message that we give through the taskforce. Indeed, things are starting to improve, which I will mention.
The hon. Member for Lewisham West and Penge (Jim Dowd) mentioned suicides. Let us not trivialise that. Somebody takes their life every 30 hours on the railways. It is a tragedy, it causes disruption to millions of people and it is absolutely ghastly for the train staff and train drivers. It is something that we must work to solve.
The taskforce is determined to sort out performance. I send a message to the industry that public performance measures, or right-time measures, that ignore the number of people whose lives are affected by disruption are irrelevant. There is no point comparing the PPM on a very lightly used franchise—say, the one north of the border—with the PPM on franchises running around London and the south-east. We are talking about the busiest parts of the railway. Tens of millions of people are travelling every year, and a delay for one train on those lines creates misery for millions, which is why I am working with the industry to try to ensure that these measures that we all like to throw about actually reflect the human experience of what is happening on the tracks.
We talk a lot about one of the fundamental causes of delay, which is the work at London Bridge. That is a real problem. It is a multi-million pound unpicking of a very tangled set of lines, some of which date back to the 1930s, and the rebuilding of what will be a fabulous station. That work is clearly putting immense pressure on the operators, and I am sympathetic. We are trying to encourage them to work much more closely with the Thameslink team to ensure that the works proceed without too much disruption. Let me flag for MPs in the room that, before the station opens, there will be a significant timetable rejigging for Southeastern customers in the summer. I want to ensure that everyone is aware and that that communication work goes out as effectively as possible.
My hon. Friends the Members for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat) and for Faversham and Mid Kent (Helen Whately) asked the important question of what “good” looks like once all this disruption works through the system. What is the level of performance at which we can hold up our hands and say that it is a high-performing railway? Many activities have already happened. New maintenance regimes have been put in place, and new bunches of relief drivers are stationed around the system to ensure that if a misplaced train arises, drivers can quickly get to it.
Right-time starts from stations and depots to ensure that trains leave on time are fundamental. A question has been raised several times about whether Southeastern is meeting its franchise commitments. When the franchise was originally let under the last Labour Government, and re-let under a direct award a couple of years ago, franchising tended to focus on processes and inputs. If an operator said, “Yes—tick—I have deep-cleaned my stations. Yes—tick—I have hired an additional number of drivers. Yes—tick—I have made sure that all my front-line staff have better information systems,” the Department, under all colours of Administration, would say that that franchise holder was doing its job. That is not good enough. Franchising should be about delivering outcomes, delivering performance and delivering customer satisfaction.
The hon. Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner) and I occasionally share a train ride, and it is much better than he likes to say, but there we are. The new franchise for the Greater Anglia area is focused on contractual outcomes on performance and customer satisfaction. It is not just, “Have you done the following things?” but “Have you actually delivered the results that we want you to deliver?”
The important issue of customer care and handling has been raised several times. Indeed, customer satisfaction is not quite at its bottom, but I admit that it is almost there, at 75%, which is actually the highest score in the last two years. The score for the autumn period is improving, but customer care on this franchise has to improve. Many right hon. and hon. Members have pointed out that there are still gaps. Staff have to be outward-looking, and they have to be thinking of people on the trains as customers who have a choice—they are not just units who need to be moved to and from their lives. Indeed, Southeastern is committed to pushing out more information to the frontline and upgrading customer information systems. All those obligations that were in the franchise agreement have been completed on or ahead of schedule.
Southeastern has also invested almost £5 million in improving stations. The scores on satisfaction with stations have gone up, which is important to see. Southeastern is liable under the terms of its franchise agreement if it does not meet its national rail passenger survey scores. At the moment, it is still meeting those scores, but it is liable for penalties if they should drop further. I also want to put into the mix the question of what we expect during major works, such as the London Bridge project. We will face that problem with HS2, and we have to make it absolutely clear what outcomes we expect from operators at those times of disruption.
I will not delight Members and say that we have made a decision on the rolling stock. I am bound and determined to get new rolling stock on the line by the end of this year. New rolling stock will add capacity, particularly on the very crowded metro lines. I do not need to bore Members with details about the departmental investment cases, but all of them are being worked through. As Members might imagine, I am pushing hard to ensure that I can make a positive announcement for capacity both later this year and again in 2018, because I understand the point and its relevance. I take the point raised by the hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Matthew Pennycook). We must make sure we know where we can use the trains effectively so that people can walk forward, with selective door-opening if necessary. [Interruption.] Oh dear: that’s thunder.
The other point that has been raised is about compensation. We have among the most generous compensation schemes in Europe. People travelling from the constituency of the hon. Member for Eltham have a journey time of only 36 minutes to Victoria, so compensation is not particularly relevant because it kicks in at 30 minutes, which is not terribly helpful. It is a manifesto commitment of my Government, reiterated by the Chancellor, to introduce in a relatively short time—I certainly want to do it this year—a compensation commitment on which the clock starts ticking at 15 minutes. Several Members alluded to the c2c scheme, which is now providing compensation per minute of delay after the first two minutes. That is possible because of the Government’s investment in the south-east flexible ticketing programme. That is being rolled out to Southeastern, which will have the capability to offer compensation for these minutes of delay when it goes live on the SEFT system with smartcard season ticket holders by the end of the year.
Fare increases have been mentioned. I am proud to represent a Government who have capped fares at RPI plus 0% not just for this year but for the whole of this Parliament, which on average is worth more than £400 to every season ticket holder in the country.
I have very little time left. I will write, in particular on the point that the hon. Member for Erith and Thamesmead (Teresa Pearce) raised about changes to compensation, because I am not aware of that and I want to investigate. None of us is satisfied with the performance of the franchise. The question is whether anyone out there could run it better. My considered judgment is no. This is difficult, and there are huge engineering works taking place on the line. The company and Network Rail are absolutely committed to driving up performance, to the extent that Network Rail’s operating director is now devoting 40% of his time to sorting out the performance problems on these very congested lines.
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).
I beg to move,
That this House has considered student volunteering.
It is good to have you in charge of this debate, Mr Evans.
As last week was the 15th year of National Student Volunteering Week, I am taking the opportunity in this debate to celebrate student volunteering, to thank the many student volunteers in my constituency and to support action by universities and the Government to build on the enormous contribution that student volunteering makes. I thank both the network development director at Student Hubs, Francis Wright, and the public affairs officer at the National Union of Students, Alexander Lee, for their very helpful briefings.
The value of student volunteering does not often get the credit or attention that it deserves. I suppose that is because good news is never as newsworthy as bad news. So we can bet that any problems that wayward student behaviour causes will get a lot more attention than the many thousands of hours of voluntary commitment by students who are helping to make our communities better places.
In Oxford, our local community benefits from hundreds of dedicated student volunteers from Oxford and Oxford Brookes Universities, who give time every week to help to meet a wide range of local needs. The local student hub currently supports over 30 student-led volunteering projects in Oxford that benefit local residents. There are 281 Schools Plus volunteers tutoring in 12 local primary and secondary schools across some 26 projects, helping pupil achievement in areas ranging from literacy to music to GCSE science. In many cases, of course, the student volunteers are only a few years older than those they are helping, and there is a particularly powerful mentoring effect when student volunteers who themselves come from disadvantaged backgrounds help to raise the aspirations and attainment of pupils in poorer communities. Another project, Branch Up, does that by running activity days for children referred by social services. It supports 30 young people, many of whom come from Oxford’s more deprived areas, through projects that tackle educational and extracurricular disadvantage.
Intergenerational support features too, through LinkAges, a student-led project that connects students with older people to tackle social isolation. LinkAges has a particularly strong relationship with Isis House, a care home in Florence Park, where around 20 volunteers help to run activity sessions and away-days. A number of LinkAges befrienders also support older people who live alone. And East Oxford Community Centre is home to Project Soup, a student-led initiative that runs micro-fundraising dinners for community projects by selling soup and bread that would otherwise have gone to waste. So far, over £1,800 has been raised there for local projects.
For a number of years, I have been in touch with KEEN—Kids Enjoy Exercise Now—whereby students from Oxford Brookes and Oxford Universities put on games and other activities for children and young people with special needs, providing real enjoyment for all participants and welcome respite for parents who know that their children are socialising and having fun with others of a similar age. I was privileged to present the medals at the KEEN Olympics sports day last summer, and to see so much joy on the faces of all those taking part was really heart-warming.
That project brings home an absolutely crucial aspect of student volunteering, namely that there is a huge three-way benefit. Of course, those being helped benefit from the activities that the students organise; the students themselves benefit enormously from the experience, in ways that will help their personal development and often their careers; and the local community and society gains from the social value and benefits of the voluntary activity.
I must also praise students’ voluntary political involvement. I go out nearly every Sunday morning, calling round the constituency, talking with residents and taking up their concerns, and listening to their views on politics and much else. Along with other local activists and councillors, in term-time I am always joined by students from Oxford University Labour Club or the Brookes Union Labour society. Getting up relatively early on a Sunday morning to help with community representation is not perhaps a stereotypical student activity, but the thousands of hours that those student volunteers have put in has enriched our politics locally, and I am sure the same is true of student volunteers for other political parties, those working on important campaigns such as the forthcoming referendum, and those involved in the enormous amount of work that goes into campaigning on issues such as equal rights, the environment and homelessness. Students care, and many of them channel that caring into purposeful action that makes a difference.
The experience of student volunteering that we are fortunate to benefit from in Oxford is replicated in various ways in every university and college. Across the country, there is many a food bank, many a faith group community initiative and many a charity that would founder without its student volunteers. As the NUS briefing for this debate points out, last week alone—the volunteering week—more than 16,000 students got involved in over 500 events across 125 colleges and universities. One way or another, more than 600,000 students will be involved in student societies, clubs and volunteering projects this year. That student contribution is a huge win-win resource for our society and merits support at every opportunity.
Student hubs provide invaluable facilities and networking. It must be more than 10 years ago now that those who came up with the student hubs idea—another Oxford first—were sitting in my advice surgery and explaining the difference that it could make in facilitating and expanding student volunteering, and how right they were. This is a success story, and one that commands support across the political spectrum. It is important that everything possible is done to sustain and build on that support.
I am timing my remarks to allow my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) to speak on points coming out of the all-party group on students, but there are some points that I will highlight to the Minister and others.
The first is to stress what a resource student volunteering is for the role of universities and colleges in our communities. Every bit of investment that they can make in helping to provide student hubs, and in supporting funding and sponsorship for student volunteering, reflects well on the role of higher education in the wider community, as well as benefiting students’ education. Therefore, volunteering should be seen not as an add-on but as a core part of universities’ mission.
The training and support that is available for those supervising student societies, volunteering and student projects is very much part of that process. It is important that the Government do all they can to support volunteering, for example by the Cabinet Office and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills making it clear to universities that investing in the provision of high-quality social action opportunities for their students is something that is expected of them.
Within four years, 35% of university applicants will be National Citizen Service graduates, so we need to consider how NCS can help to build bridges to the universities that have invested in community volunteering, for example by showcasing the best examples of such volunteering to people who are thinking of applying to university. We need to create a culture in the UK where community service is valued—it is much more valued in the US—as an indicator of future leadership potential and is taken into account in evaluating applications to university. We also need to ensure, through the support of universities and student hubs for volunteering, that the benefits of volunteering do not disproportionately fall to those who are better off at university because their time is less constrained by the need to do part-time work. The benefits should be accessible and available for everyone. Student volunteering does so much for our society. Let us thank all the students and all those helping them who make that possible. Let us do everything we can together to make it an even greater success in the future, because everybody benefits.
I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Oxford East (Mr Smith) for providing me with the opportunity to add to his comments. I echo them, because the landscape that he paints of volunteering opportunities and activity in Oxford is replicated in every town and city across the country that benefits from universities and colleges.
I speak as the Member with the highest number of students of any UK constituency. As of last week, I am also the representative of the student volunteer of the year, and I congratulate Liam Rodgers. He is a creative writing student at Sheffield Hallam University. He is the leader and founder of UpScribe, a project that helps homeless people to express themselves through creative writing, increasing their confidence and ability to work with others, as well as reintegrating them into society. That project not only demonstrates the breadth of student volunteering, but the creativity and innovation that students bring alongside traditional volunteering opportunities. Liam’s is a great good news story, and there are plenty like it across the country.
We should put on record our thanks, as my right hon. Friend has, to the almost one in three students who volunteer while they are at university and to the growing numbers in further education colleges who do so, too. Last Tuesday, to mark Student Volunteering Week we held a meeting of the all-party group on students, which I chair. That meeting was not only to celebrate that activity, but to look at the challenges.
As my right hon. Friend said, volunteering is a win-win. Local communities benefit hugely from the thousands of students involved in every town and city where they are engaged, and that is the main motivator for students. Four in five students responding to an NUS survey said that it was why they got involved in volunteering, but they also benefit, developing skills and improving their employability. We all know that in a competitive graduate market employers are increasingly looking for graduates-plus. Employers do not simply want a good degree, but experience and skills, too, and volunteering helps facilitate that. It is therefore doubly important that volunteering opportunities are available to everyone.
A joint report by Universities UK and the National Union of Students found that not having enough time is cited by students as the main reason why they are unable to volunteer or to volunteer as much as they would wish. The main pressure on time, apart from academic work, is paid employment. Research shows that 77% of students work to help fund their studies. The pressure to earn while studying is increasing with the cost of university. I worry that that pressure will increase further for the poorest students with the abolition of maintenance grants. If we limit volunteering to those who do not have to take paid employment to see themselves through university, we tilt the playing field—it is already tilted towards those with advantages—even further in their favour and in the wrong direction. We would be giving extra opportunities to those who already have an edge in the graduate market, while those from lower income families risk falling further behind. I am keen to get the Minister’s views on how we can ensure that volunteering opportunities are available to all, so that in future Student Volunteering Weeks we can celebrate moving from the basis of strength that we have now to having even more people engaged with an even greater impact on our communities.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Evans, I think for the first time. May I congratulate the right hon. Member for Oxford East (Mr Smith) on securing today’s debate? This is an important topic, as he laid out in his comments. I know what a strong advocate he is for student social action. In some ways, how could he be anything else, representing the constituency that he does? Also, many years ago he went to Reading School in my constituency. It is a top-performing academic school, but it is keen on the wider individual and ensuring that young people give something back to society for the great education they get at that school. I understand where his core values come from on this particular subject.
I am delighted to reiterate the Government’s commitment to encouraging young people to get involved in all forms of social action. I will take “student” in its wider context, and not just talk about university students, who we have heard a lot about in the comments so far. Youth social action is close to my heart, so I am delighted to be the Minister leading on this agenda for the Government. We want to see all young people having the opportunity to take part in social action and to go on to form what should be a lifelong habit—it should not just be for a few years when they are young; the habit should be embedded so that all through their life they are always giving something back to their communities. One of the ways that we as the Government want to achieve that is through the National Citizen Service. More than 200,000 young people have taken part in NCS since 2011, and the NCS Trust estimates that graduates have delivered more than 8 million hours of volunteering time already. Consecutive independent evaluations demonstrate that NCS delivers more confident, capable and engaged young people, and it continues to represent impressive value for money.
I want to expand the opportunity to every young person who wants a place on an NCS scheme, making it a rite of passage that young people look forward to. In January, the Prime Minister set out his ambition that 60% of all 16-year-olds participate in NCS by 2021. To achieve that, we have committed more than £1 billion of funding over the next four years to grow the programme to 360,000 places by 2020. NCS will become the largest programme of its kind in Europe. I am particularly proud of that, and all the young people who have been and will be involved should be, too.
We have already seen NCS graduates go on to achieve great things in continuing their social action journey. One such NCS graduate is now part of the Points of Light team at the Cabinet Office. He works as part of a small team identifying outstanding volunteers right across the country to receive recognition directly from the Prime Minister for their work. NCS graduates from across the UK are celebrating all things social action this Saturday. It is a chance for them to showcase their social action activity and to promote the causes close to their hearts. NCS is all about giving young people the tools, opportunities and respect to achieve amazing things in their community, so the NCS social action day will be a fantastic way to do that.
NCS is not the limit of our ambition in government. We believe in creating a social action journey pre and post-NCS. We want to encourage all forms of youth social action, and the Government are committed to continuing our support of Step Up to Serve’s #iwill campaign. That campaign is supported by all parties in the House of Commons. It aims to increase the number of 10 to 20-year-olds taking part in youth social action by 50% by 2020, because we recognise the importance of social action for young people. We know that participation not only develops vital skills for life and work, but helps young people to feel connected to the communities in which they live. Participation in NCS and Step Up to Serve helps to break down social barriers and adds to social cohesion in our communities. It enables young people to meet and work with others from different walks of life.
As part of the Government’s continued commitment to all forms of youth social action, the Cabinet Office has invested more than £1 million to grow youth social action opportunities across England, which has been generously matched by the Pears Foundation and the UK Community Foundations. The national fund is working with nine successful applicants to increase opportunities for young people from lower socioeconomic backgrounds or rural areas. The local fund concentrates on optimising opportunities in Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridge: areas previously identified as having low youth social action participation rates.
We have also seen other fantastic results through funding social action. Through our uniformed youth social action fund, Youth United has created 20,000 new places for young people to join groups in disadvantaged communities across the UK, and 90% of the units created are still running with no further funding from Government, which is a great example of sustainability and a really fantastic result, so I congratulate Youth United on doing that.
Part of the fund is to support innovative approaches to reaching the most hard-to-reach young people in our communities. The Boys Brigade has struggled to recruit adult volunteers in some of its more rural locations owing to the timings of meetings, but what is so great about this story is how recruiting NCS graduates as volunteers is really showing how this very natural social action journey can fit together between NCS and other organisations. This part of the uniformed fund is also enabling the Scout Association to be more accessible to young people with disabilities; the Woodcraft Folk to meet refugees and other young people with English as a second language; and the Volunteer Police Cadets to run a pilot programme working with young offenders.
Reports will be published later this year in relation to the fund, and I am sure everyone here will agree that this will be an exciting piece of research that we can learn from. It really shows the diverse range of social action projects that young people get involved in, and the Government are committed to supporting that journey.
I agree with what the Minister is saying in this happily consensual debate. Has he had or will he have discussions with the Minister for Universities and Science, his hon. Friend the hon. Member for Orpington (Joseph Johnson), to ensure that every opportunity is taken to make the most of the potential to link together the broader social action initiatives he is describing with the opportunities that can be available through universities and colleges, which need to be encouraged by those universities?
Yes, of course. I am in discussions with not only the Minister responsible for higher education but with the Minister responsible for apprenticeships, the Minister for Skills, my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Nick Boles), as well. We want to ensure that we have joined-up Government and that the social action journey continues through life and gives every young person the opportunity to take part in things that they want to do in their local community. I have seen at first hand the great work being done by young volunteers in a variety of sectors and communities. I was particularly impressed to see the huge contribution that young people can make in the health and social care sector, for example. I visited the Royal Free young volunteers programme, where young volunteers supported patients, staff and visitors primarily in two roles: as satellite navigation guides around the hospital and as mealtime experience volunteers. The young people I spoke to aspired to have a wide impact in society, beyond the hospital, to inspire positive engagement throughout their communities. It was clear to see that those volunteers brought energy, enthusiasm and heart to everybody they interacted with.
The latest youth social action survey demonstrated that 42% of young people between the age of 10 and 20 years old have participated in meaningful social action in the past year. This demonstrates that young people have a real appetite to play their part. In January this year we published the outcome of a highly significant new study conducted by the behavioural insights team, which demonstrated a link between social action and improved educational attainment as well as enhanced employability skills, which is something that the hon. Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) mentioned in his comments. The study indicated that people who engaged in volunteering were up to three times more likely to get invited for a job interview than people who did not volunteer.
The Government are committed to supporting young people, giving them the power and opportunity to play a real part in their community and to build important skills for life. I am keen that the habit remains through adult life. The Government also support young people to have a say in the community and voice their opinions on issues that are important to them. Some of this work is delivered through a grant to the British Youth Council for youth voice activities. Last year, as I am sure hon. Members are aware, the BYC’s Make Your Mark ballot, the largest annual ballot of young people’s views, culminated in a record-breaking 970,000 votes cast towards key topics for young people to focus on. That is a remarkable achievement that would not have been possible without all those young people actively getting involved. That sum of nearly 1 million votes means that 16.5% of the nation’s 11 to 18-year-olds had their say. That is a great demonstration of young people’s interest, and a great vehicle for the collective voice of young people to be heard.
It is therefore even more important that we listen to the voice of young people who can bring a fresh perspective and innovative ideas to many of the challenges that we face. At the annual sitting of BYC’s Youth Parliament in November, I was impressed by the level of commitment and enthusiasm shown by the members of the Youth Parliament who want to make a positive change in society. It was truly impressive to watch young people debating important issues such as mental health and the living wage. Colleagues in Parliament have frequently expressed support for the UK Youth Parliament. As hon. Members may be aware, in June 2015 Parliament resolved that the UKYP should continue to use the House of Commons Chamber for its annual debate for the remainder of the current parliamentary term until 2020. In light of that, I decided to offer BYC a grant agreement to support it to deliver its youth voice activities for the remainder of the Parliament.
Last week we celebrated, as the right hon. Member for Oxford East said, the 15th anniversary of Student Volunteering Week. Delivered in partnership between student hubs, the National Union of Students and the student volunteering network, the week is used to discuss the challenges and opportunities in student volunteering. I had the pleasure of being involved in the celebration event where Liam Rodgers, a constituent of the hon. Member for Sheffield Central, was presented with the student volunteer of the year award. As the hon. Gentleman said, Liam founded UpScribe, a writing project for homeless people to express themselves through creative writing. Liam led on the creation and publication of a book created by people who participated in the project, many of whom are now published writers. It was impressive to hear that Liam had donated a third of his £1,000 award to a fellow shortlisted student of the year volunteer. This demonstrated his commitment to the widest elements of youth social action.
During Student Volunteering Week, I also visited one of the successful organisations under the national youth social action fund. Through the fund, an organisation called Whole Education plans to use its network of schools across the country to work with students who implement their own community projects and embed the culture of social action in their schools. I spent time with a small group of young volunteers who were developing an online platform for students to share their youth-led social action ideas, as well as designing a virtual social action badge, which I look forward to seeing later this week. I want to encourage more universities to harness the power and positive outcomes of student volunteering. I am keen to explore how to engage more vice-chancellors to support the growth of student volunteering, and I will speak to my colleague in higher education to see how we can do that. There is a great deal to do if we are to make social action a part of life for 10 to 20-year-olds under this Government, but I am firmly committed to making that a reality.
I will end by thanking all the individuals and organisations that support youth social action for their commitment and dedication. I also extend my thanks again to the right hon. Member for Oxford East for initiating this debate today.
Question put and agreed to.
Egypt: British Support
[Mark Pritchard in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered British support for stability in Egypt.
It is a great honour to introduce this debate. I refer Members to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I visited Egypt many times before I came to this place: I went there as a student and in 2008 I spent a month in Cairo trying to learn Arabic—very unsuccessfully, I should add. I have also had the honour of visiting Egypt many times on parliamentary delegations with the Conservative Middle East Council and others.
This is a timely and important debate, for a number of reasons. First, we need only open the newspaper every day or look online to see the absolute turmoil that much of the region has plunged into. I am also conscious of the fact that a lot of the turmoil and confusion that has crept into our world has emerged very recently. I recall travelling to Egypt for the first time in 1998. There had been a terrorist outrage in Luxor in 1997, a terrible incident in which dozens of people were killed, but when I visited—obviously this was all before 9/11—there was a real optimism about the place. It was a broadly secular country: people could walk freely, there was no real pressure for women to dress in any particular way and alcohol was served freely. It was a country looking towards a bright future.
It is not my place to go through the recent history of the region today, but as a consequence of what has happened there in the past 15 years since the events of 9/11, and everything that has been going on since the Arab spring, the need for stability in Egypt and its role in the world have increased. The mood there has been a lot more pessimistic, and its people and Government have gone through a very difficult past five years.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. The Egyptian people and nation are central to the middle east. Does he agree that it is crucial for the future wellbeing of the middle east and the wider region that Egypt restores itself to a position of centrality and stability in order to spread that across the region?
The hon. Gentleman has highlighted very pithily—more pithily than I did—the key fact that Egypt is absolutely central to the Arab world. We need only look at the numbers: something like 90 million people—well over a third of the Arabic-speaking people across the globe—live in Egypt. In Al-Azhar University, Egypt has one of the key centres of Islamic scholarship and learning. Egyptian media dominate the Arabic-speaking world. The Egyptian Arabic dialect is widely understood across the Arab world.
Egypt is also important for historic reasons. In the 20th century we need only look at the careers of Nasser, Sadat and Mubarak. These were huge figures in the Arab world who played a role in securing stability in this important region. As the hon. Gentleman said, Egypt is therefore absolutely central to any form of stability or solution to the ongoing problems in the middle east. I called for this debate because we need to recognise, in this Parliament, throughout the country and throughout the international community, that stability in Egypt is crucial and we should all be investing heavily in it.
Although Egypt has attained a modicum of stability, people will recognise that the degree of stability that has been reached is not complete. There are still dangers. We saw an appalling terrorist outrage in November, when a Russian civilian aircraft was blown up in the sky with huge loss of life. There are threats still lurking in the Egyptian scene. Although there is a terrorist threat, it must be admitted that the Egyptian Government have taken some very severe steps. As friends of Egypt—as people who are interested, in every sense of the word, in maintaining stability in and supporting Egypt—it is our job to ask probing questions about its Government’s treatment of political prisoners and people who have expressed doubts about or even opposition to the regime. It is our job to ensure that the Egyptian Government are held to the highest standards with respect to human rights and individual freedoms. I do not deny that at all.
Many people in Britain view some developments in Egypt with considerable concern. I need only mention the Italian University of Cambridge PhD student who was found killed, clearly murdered, in Cairo six weeks ago. We do not know what happened and we have not heard any definitive answers from the regime. The Egyptian Government cannot simply be given a blank cheque by their friends and allies in the west. I regard myself as a friend of Egypt—broadly speaking, Britain and the British Government are friends of Egypt—but being a friend does not mean that we blindly accept everything that the Egyptian Government do, nor does it mean that we should acquiesce or turn a blind eye to the outrages or abuses we have identified.
Recently, I was delighted to be able to join my hon. Friend, and other Members present, on an extremely informative visit to Cairo. He is making an important point about how the Egyptian Government operate, which is of concern to our constituents. Nevertheless, does he agree that for the Egyptian people—indeed, for the whole region—there is one thing of huge importance that probably dwarfs everything else: stability? He mentioned that Egypt is a very large country, with a population of 90 million. It has a huge history, unlike many other Arab countries. It has a big contribution to make, so stability will be an important factor, and we should be supporting the Egyptian Government in that pursuit.
My hon. Friend makes a pertinent point. At the centre of this issue is the fact that we have to deal with a very fine balancing act in Egypt, which is why this debate is so important. On the one hand, we have a fragile situation in the region and a country that has gone through enormous economic pressure and two destabilising revolutions in four years. On the other hand, it is a country that is crucial to the stability of the region. There is the need for order and stability, but there is also a Government who have a mixed record, if I can put it that way, on guaranteeing human rights and the pressure and force they have applied in domestic situations.
We in Parliament have to appreciate that very fine balance, because frankly we do not understand the immense pressures that the Egyptian people have gone through. One startling fact is that in 1952 the population of Egypt was 20 million. I have spoken to Cairenes who remember those times, and they remember a completely different Egypt. Cities such as Cairo and Alexandria were much smaller, yet much more spacious. In many ways they were much more luxurious than they are today. Over the past 60 years, the Egyptian population has more than quadrupled. That demographic pressure constitutes Egypt’s greatest challenge.
As can be imagined, in a country where more than 50% of people are under the age of 25, there needs to be employment, a degree of economic progress and a Government who recognise the ambitions and aspirations of their young people. In that context, government can be very difficult. Against that backdrop of a growing population and economic pressure, there is also the rise of, for want of a better phrase, political Islam and the complications that radical Islamic thinking—takfiri thinking, as it is called—bring to the political mix.
While I am talking about the demographics in Egypt, we also should remember that there are nearly 10 million Copts—Egyptian Christians who have been there for 2,000 years, since the birth of Christianity—who comprise something like 10% of Egypt’s population. They will point out that they have been there for longer than Islam has existed as a religion, so they have a deep historic connection to and experience of the country of their forefathers.
I have had the privilege of visiting Egypt a number of times in the last six years. In that time, I have seen four or five different Heads of State and three different Governments, and I have had the privilege of speaking to several Ministers. In the brief period after the Muslim Brotherhood took over and were running the country, it was clear to me there was huge pressure on the Copts. Churches were being burned and Coptic people were being attacked. No community breathed a greater sigh of relief when the Muslim Brotherhood was removed, as it were, from government than the Copts. No group of people was happier to see a restoration, as they would see it, of some kind of order under the form of General Sisi.
For us in the west looking at that development, we can quibble about the details and say that, like Mubarak, Sisi is some kind of military dictator, but that is to overlook a lot of the changes that have happened in Egypt. We had the privilege of meeting Egyptian parliamentarians, who treated us and hosted us incredibly generously and respectfully in their Parliament. They were very keen to adopt the best parliamentary practices from Britain and apply them to their new Parliament, which met less than two months ago. They are absolutely committed to building a form of parliamentary democracy. That process might take a long time. Egypt’s parliamentary democracy is certainly not perfectly formed, but few parliamentary democracies can claim to be perfect and fully formed. We have just been considering how the House of Lords operates in our country. Parliament has existed for hundreds and hundreds of years, yet we are still evolving and trying to look at the nature of the two Houses and how they co-ordinate with each other.
Does my hon. Friend agree that, although Egypt has had its unique problems since the Arab spring—or the Arab winter, as it is called in some quarters—the fact that the Egyptian Government are forcefully putting forward a democratic mandate is a good thing for the region?
I think my hon. Friend is right. People will dispute the extent to which Egypt is a full, participatory democracy—people can have different views—but it is clearly going in the right direction. We can discuss where along the road we think it is, but the movement is positive. Many of the elections that were held in Mubarak’s time were far more tightly controlled than the parliamentary election we have just witnessed in Egypt. The nature of political life in Egypt is evolving. That goes to the core of what I am saying. Stability—some degree of law and order in the streets—is absolutely essential. Anecdotally, we were told that at the time of the Muslim Brotherhood there was practically a self-imposed curfew in Cairo. Now people are beginning to go out—they feel a bit more secure and safer—and a civic society is growing.
I have talked briefly about political developments and aspirations, about structures and about Parliaments, but we need to think about a basic economic question, which I alluded to when I was talking about the population increase. Demographic pressures and the economy are absolutely crucial. Anyone who knows anything about Egypt will know that, broadly, about 20% of its economy is based on tourism. One thing that we can do directly to help Egypt to build up its economy is to help tourism. Our delegation learned that the suspension of British flights to Sharm el-Sheikh was a matter of grave concern to Egyptian businessmen and the Egyptian Government. I recommend that the Government look seriously at that—I know we are doing that and are inching towards lifting the ban and stopping the suspension of flights. If that were to happen, sooner rather than later, it would be an immense boon to Egyptian tourism and its economy.
I apologise for intervening again—I am not seeking to catch your eye, Mr Pritchard, as I have to entertain 101 Logistic Brigade from Aldershot shortly, so I will not be able to make a speech—but I want to pick up on this important point my hon. Friend has made. Does he agree that the British Government have moved heaven and earth to do whatever they can to ensure that we can resume flights to Sharm el-Sheikh, and that the Egyptians have come a long way towards meeting the British authorities’ safety requirements? It is imperative that both sides work even harder so we can resume flights in time for the summer season.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Something like 1 million British tourists go to Egypt every year, under normal circumstances. We have tried extremely hard to help in that regard—I know that my hon. Friend the Minister and others have spoken eloquently and tried hard behind the scenes—but this is a matter of critical importance. Egypt has a deficit of something like 10% or 12% of GDP, which is very high. It has a very high unemployment rate—it is something like 12%—and the demographic pressures that I have talked about are not getting any easier. The economy is critical to the stability of Egypt and the wider region. That is something that we can do directly to help Egypt.
I would not want to anticipate or prejudge any of the security considerations, because they are obviously paramount, but I want to put on the table the fact that directly supporting Egyptian tourism will have a knock-on effect. It will help the Egyptian economy and provide employment. That in itself will defuse a lot of the tension, militate against the attractions of extremism and prevent young people from going down that route.
In conclusion, I think we have a good and helpful relationship with Egypt. I would not want to inflate his ego too much, but we have a Minister responsible for the region who has a deep knowledge of and commitment to, not only Egypt, but other countries in the middle east—I know, because I have travelled with him. Broadly, our relationship with the Egyptian Government is very strong. I would suggest that we closely consider the issue of flights. Economic support will obviously be important in years to come. Lastly, while we have done many good things and built up a good relationship, there is some way to go. This is an evolving relationship and there will be challenges ahead, but I hope that in those challenges Egypt can find a solid and steadfast friend in Britain, the British Government and our people.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Spelthorne (Kwasi Kwarteng) for securing this debate. Instability in Egypt and across many areas in the middle east is a grave concern. It is one of the major global challenges faced by this generation, and such is the intricacy of the challenge that one fears that it may well be faced by generations to come as well. I am here because I and my constituents in Cambridge care deeply about the human rights abuses and political volatility that the people of Egypt are facing. I am also here because I want to tell the House about Giulio Regeni, whom the hon. Gentleman mentioned and whose appalling murder has drawn international condemnation.
Giulio was a 28-year-old Italian PhD student at Girton College in the University of Cambridge. He spoke five languages—Italian, English, Spanish, Arabic, and German—and was researching labour unrest and independent trade unions as a visiting scholar at the American University in Cairo. He went missing on 25 January, which was the fifth anniversary of the beginning of the 2011 uprising against former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. He was on his way to meet a friend at a restaurant near Tahrir Square—known, of course, as the symbolic centre of the Egyptian revolution—but nine days later his body was found in a ditch between Cairo and Alexandria.
I am sure that right hon. and hon. Members have seen the details in the news, so I will not avoid being explicit about the horrors of Giulio’s death. In the past few days, we have learned from the post-mortem that earlier accounts have been corroborated: Giulio had been stabbed, burned with cigarettes, bruised, beaten and mutilated; he had suffered broken ribs and a brain haemorrhage, and his nails had been ripped out. The Italian Interior Minister described his ordeal as “inhuman, animal-like” violence, and the senior prosecutor said that Giulio probably suffered a “slow death”, but initially there were conflicting reports about the cause of his death. Early reports about signs of torture were contradicted by claims that a traffic accident was to blame. People were rightly suspicious about these explanations—right to think it unlikely that a traffic accident somehow systematically ripped out his fingernails.
Giulio’s family and friends need answers. Italy wants answers. I suggest that we all need answers, not only because this case was brutal and because it was the first case that we know about of a foreign academic researcher working in Cairo being subjected to such sadism, but because it was not an isolated incident for the people of Egypt. According to human rights organisations, the torture that it appears Giulio suffered is a matter of routine for those imprisoned by state security organisations in Egypt. According to Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, Egyptian citizens are seeing
“repression on a scale unprecedented in Egypt’s modern history”.
According to the Al-Nadeem Centre for Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence, almost 500 people have died at the hands of Egypt’s security forces and over 600 people were tortured while in detention in 2015. According to The Guardian, hundreds of Egyptians are being “disappeared”, tortured and held outside of judicial oversight.
What can one do against such brutal barbarism? Why on earth did this happen to Giulio? Some have speculated that the politically sensitive research that he was undertaking on labour unions in Egypt was a factor, or perhaps his extracurricular journalism for the il manifesto communist newspaper in Italy meant he was targeted. We do not know, but that there are countries in this world where people are imprisoned, tortured, or murdered for their academic pursuits, their writing, or their political views is the sad truth.
We recognise that the situation in Egypt is complex and challenging, and like my hon. Friends I desperately want to see the region underpinned by stability and democracy. I hope the Minister will enlighten us about recent representations that the Government have made to the Egyptian Government regarding human rights issues. In a written answer on 11 February, the Government said:
“We are aware of the tragic death of Mr Regini, an Italian national, following his disappearance on 25 January and pass our condolences to his friends and family at this difficult time. We support Italian and Egyptian efforts to investigate into the circumstances of his death.”
I would welcome some clarification of what can only be described as “diplomatic language”. In what way are the British Government supporting the Italian and Egyptian investigative efforts?
I conclude by quoting from the letter signed by more than 4,600 academics from around the globe. They wrote of Giulio:
“Our community has been enriched by his presence. We are diminished by the loss of a young researcher whose work tackled questions that are vitally important to our understanding of contemporary Egyptian society.
“We…call on the Egyptian authorities to cooperate with an independent and impartial investigation into all instances of forced disappearances, cases of torture and deaths in detention during January and February this year, alongside investigations by criminal prosecutors into Giulio’s death, in order that those responsible for these crimes can be identified and brought to justice.”
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I refer right hon. and hon. Members to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
I too have been able to visit Egypt to inform myself about what has been and is now going on. I associate myself with and echo the concerns hon. Members have expressed about the tragic fate of Giulio Regeni and other human rights abuses, which I will discuss further later in my speech. Recent events in Egypt have fundamentally disturbed us and have challenged us to think about the dynamics underlying the Arab spring, posing basic questions to western politicians which have been played out in Egypt on a global stage. In many ways, events in Egypt fundamentally challenge our sometimes lazy notions of democracy and challenge us to consider the realities of the balance and tensions between freedoms and the merits of stability.
We should not underestimate the uniqueness of Egypt’s position. Look at its neighbours, which also experienced the Arab spring tidal wave in 2011. In Syria, horrific, blood-stained chaos is suckling the diabolical death culture of Daesh. It is a humanitarian catastrophe and a centre of global tensions, the effects of which include not only untold numbers of inhumane acts of cruelty against individuals, children, and homosexuals, but the destabilisation of the whole of Europe. Look at Yemen, sunk beneath a flood of war, and Iraq, struggling against the onslaught of Daesh. Libya is now a failed state and an arena of warring militias and jihadists. These are Egypt’s neighbours and it is important to consider Egypt’s actions and challenges in that context.
By contrast, look at Egypt. There was an uprising in 2011 and Mubarak was removed in February. In June 2012, Egypt held elections and Morsi was elected, but then the direction that Morsi began taking dramatically alarmed the country, including many of those who had thought that the Muslim Brotherhood would prove genuinely moderate. Between January and the summer of 2013 public protest reached boiling point, and on 30 June Morsi was removed. In May 2014, after some constitutional preparations and changes, General el-Sisi, a Muslim who was appointed by Morsi, was elected as president to serve as a Muslim who wants a secular state. At the time, the west described that as undemocratic, but this is one of those times when we should step back, take a reality check, and consider our priorities and where our judgment should lie.
A close friend of mine who is half-Egyptian and whose Copt family lives in Alexandria and Cairo reported to me the rapidly growing mortal fear felt by Copts, as members of their congregation began to disappear and churches were attacked. The culture of fear under Morsi escalated quickly and alarmingly. Egyptian Muslims have anecdotally told me that they also became frightened when the Muslim Brotherhood appeared not to be what it originally said on the tin. They became alarmed at Morsi’s attempt to make himself constitutionally unchallengeable. We can all think of a great leader—perhaps not so great—in the last century whose first challenge to Europe was to make himself constitutionally unchallengeable. In that growing fear and alarm about oppression, Egypt simply rejected the path to political Islam that it was being hurled down with brute force.
We have to remember that democracy was never going to happen in Egypt as it does in Tunbridge Wells. To think otherwise is to demonstrate the naivety that the west sometimes displays when it tries to impose on other countries standards and structures that took our countries several hundred years of bloody war to establish, and then becomes judgmental. When travelling around Egypt, I looked for the results of the process that Britain called undemocratic. I was lucky enough to be at the opening of the new Suez canal expansion, which was achieved in less than a year—necessary, but far from sufficient in aiding the Egyptian economy to stabilise and thrive. This is anecdotal, but in the city of Cairo I observed nothing but tangible relief that at last someone had taken control of a country people had felt was teetering over into oblivion. To my surprise, that feeling was expressed by conservative Muslims as well. That fundamental sense of relief was echoed by mothers, students and taxi drivers—yes, there was apprehension for the future, but there was fundamental relief that Egypt was finally under some kind of control. Ironically, although not democratically elected as the west might have preferred, Sisi, as far as we can tell, enjoys a popularity that many elected leaders in this country would do a lot for.
I thank my hon. Friend for clarifying that. There was of course a democratic process after considerable institutional and constitutional preparations were made for the transition, which, given the context, was quite remarkable, particularly compared with the fates of other countries surrounding Egypt. I was referring to the fact that many people did not want Morsi to be removed; they wanted him to hang on and then elections to take place. From what I saw of people living in Egypt—I admit this is only anecdotal—the idea that elections would take place in a free and fair way in that culture of fear was optimistic at best.
I do not want anyone to think that I am describing a rosy situation—it is far from rosy. The younger population is very concerned and, interestingly enough, their concerns chime with the concerns about human rights abuses and clampdowns that we have heard in the Chamber today—concerns about the imprisonment of journalists and the appalling, tragic and diabolical treatment of the Italian Cambridge student. I do not have to take up valuable time in expressing how abominable that case is, because other hon. Members have done so far better than I could. Interestingly, students and young people said that it was not only abominable, but politically unnecessary, because Sisi enjoyed sufficient popularity not to need to clamp down in that heavy-handed way.
That brings me on to my next point: that such human rights abuses are not only fundamentally morally wrong, but dangerous for the country itself. Human rights abuses foster the kind of radicalism, extremism and takfiri thinking that Egypt is fundamentally pitched against. In looking at radicals such as Ayman al-Zawahiri, we see the detrimental effect that prison torture plays in radicalising budding or existing extremists. If we think that we have an incentive to crush extremism, look at Egypt’s neighbours and see just how urgent the crushing of that extremist takfiri mentality is to them. How can Egypt become more successful in eradicating extremism? My impression is that, in common with many countries that are facing modernisation and a perhaps already modernised younger generation, Egypt is experiencing the counterintuitive paradox of needing to grip less tightly in order to be stronger.
We had the great privilege and interesting experience of meeting many Members of the nascent Parliament. I remember the confusion in this Parliament—a great institution—when in 2010, for the first time in a long time, we had a coalition Government. Everyone ran around not quite knowing what was going on. Imagine a completely new Parliament, a set of 200 or so pieces of legislation that had to be reviewed in a short space of time and the establishment of much of the constitution—something we take for granted in this country. That is a Parliament that is really trying to get off the ground, so it would seem bizarre for Britain, which has such an established Parliament, not to take a lead in helping and nurturing that fledgling to fly and to become the solid institution that is so important to form a politically stable Egypt. The country is a brave and resilient one, trying to form a bastion of democracy amid a sea of hostility.
There are also deep concerns about Egypt’s economy. With oil prices falling, support from the Gulf is waning, and that is worrying. To create a healthier economy, Sisi has to perform a difficult balancing act by weaning the country off subsidies, while avoiding the public protests that would emerge to destabilise Egypt were prices of bread on the street to go up. Tourism accounts for 10% to 15% of the Egyptian economy—about 1% to 5% is from Britain. If we want Egypt to remain stable and to flourish, we need Sharm el-Sheikh flights to resume as soon as possible. The work there must be concluded quickly. In assessing the security of Sharm el-Sheikh flights, obviously we must put the safety of our citizens first, but we should also consider the security implications of not resuming the flights. An awful lot of Egyptian people depend on tourism. If they are left jobless and feeling spurned by Britain, we have to consider where they might turn for a livelihood and security. We do not want them to turn to extremism.
The stakes are high. If Egypt crumbles economically and social disorder breaks out, the ongoing migrant crisis in Europe that we fear now and this summer will increase dramatically. The exchange rate of the Egyptian currency is artificially high and floating the currency on the open market is a frighteningly risky prospect for the country. It would be a leap of faith, and in making any leap everyone needs to feel surrounded by friends who will help. Furthermore, if we do not help Egypt to modernise, social disorder will feed and nurture Daesh and other pro-Islamic State players.
We can do so much. We have a rich experience of democracy, so we can help Egypt to form a Parliament and functioning state institutions. Education is also vital. The broken-down education system in Egypt needs almost a complete revamp. That, too, is something in which Britain has expertise and experience. As we all know, education and forging a future for young people is one of our key weapons in preventing young people from falling prey to the predatory nature of extremist and takfiri thinkers. If we are not proactive in forming such a relationship with Egypt and in helping it to become the democratic nation that it is trying hard to be—not perfectly, but it is trying—other nations will step into that gap. I am not sure that we especially want Russia to in and to be seen as the primary friend of Egypt. We need allies in the region, so we need to support them.
When looking at the human rights abuses, which are appalling, we need to ensure that we are measuring carefully what it is that we are concerned about. If we are concerned about human beings and their suffering, the metric of our judgments and actions on human rights abuses must be the number of people enduring such suffering. It can be easy to focus blame on the locus of responsibility, whether a Government or an institution, but much less easy to blame a failed state, because there is no one there to blame. We are, however, concerned about human beings and their lives, so we need to look at where the most human rights abuses take place: in a stable state or in a failed state.
With respect to human rights abuses, it is important to mention Giulio Regeni, a research student who I believe lived in the constituency of the hon. Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner). I followed the case and it seems difficult to apportion blame directly, because not only are the Government responsible for some abuses, but there are rogue elements within the security apparatus. One thing that we have not mentioned is the fact that the Egyptian military is broadly involved in ramifying branches of economic and social life, business and so on. When people talk about the Egyptian Government, the notion is complicated.
My hon. Friend makes the case most eloquently. The more that we can help the Egyptian Government to stabilise institutionally and to have a better grip on its institutions, the more we can help the security services to operate in a way that we in the west like to see our security services operate. The more the security service and its activities can be aligned with the state, the more stable the country will be.
To go back to the point I was making, just because it is hard to allocate blame in countries such as Syria and Libya and to solve the problem that is causing untold numbers of human rights abuses, we should not let the fact such abuses are taking place under a Government deter us from tackling them where they are happening on an abominable scale. It is easy for us to put our own moral virtue, in liking to blame someone, ahead of our concern for human welfare.
My hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne (Kwasi Kwarteng) made a powerful case for the need for stability in Egypt. We owe it to the Egyptian people, to the British people, who are concerned about stability and the migrant process, to Europe and to everyone everywhere, whether moderate Muslims, Christians or of any religion, not to sit and condemn and carp at a country that is certainly not doing everything well and that certainly gives rise to much concern, but to help it to obliterate the things that cause us concern—to help one of the lone islands of stability attempting democracy that has not succumbed to instability and an Islamic takfiri alarming state to thrive and flourish. That is in the interests of all of us.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I thank the hon. Member for Spelthorne (Kwasi Kwarteng) for giving us a chance to speak on this matter. It does not seem like it is three years since we had a similar debate in Westminster Hall. Incidentally, I think the leader of the Labour party was part of that debate. Remarkably, we seemed to agree across the Chamber on all the human rights and equalities issues, and I do not believe it will be any different today, because the Members here are of the same mind.
For decades, Egypt has not only been a beacon of hope in the middle east and north Africa for freedom and liberty in comparison with its neighbours, but done well economically. The hon. Member for Bristol North West (Charlotte Leslie) in her last few words referred to democracy in Egypt. Co-operation with NATO and the west has been priceless; we saw how much that meant when Egypt suffered from instability following what was called the Arab spring.
It is pleasing to see the shadow Minister and the Minister in their places. I look forward to both of their contributions and I am quite sure that the Minister will be as positive as ever. He has the ability to understand what we are thinking and put that in his answers.
At the end of last year, my right hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valley (Mr Donaldson) was appointed the economic envoy to Egypt—the Minister will know that. We are pleased that someone from this House has direct input and can carry the banner, so to speak, for the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland—in Northern Ireland we are fond of carrying banners. That is fantastic news and we fully support him.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the very appointment of a trade envoy to Egypt—our current envoy is excellent—illustrates that the Government really want to engage? Does he also agree that in John Casson and Nasser Kamel we have two good ambassadors who are extremely good at engaging with their respective populations and acting together?
I can only agree with the hon. Lady on all those points. I will mention one of the ambassadors later on in my speech, because lots of good things have been done.
I want to look at the debate in a positive fashion, but I also want to highlight some issues. While we recognise the small and giant steps that Egypt has taken, we must look at some of the changes needed. I want to talk about them in a respectful fashion, which is important.
Relationships, which are proving fruitful, still exist as we seek to foster peace in the region. They are invaluable in the fight against Daesh. Egypt needs to be a lead nation in any coalition against Islamic State. We may not hear about it often, but Egypt’s borders are crossed on many occasions from Libya, where Daesh groups operate in units. They have attacked and in their activities a number of Egyptian soldiers and civilians have been murdered. They are on the front line, so let us give them the support they need. When the Minister responds, he will probably be able to tell us a wee bit more about what we are doing. I know it is not his remit, but perhaps he can say how we can support them militarily. It is important that we do so and that we are seen to do so.
We need to do everything we can to support one of our strongest allies in the region in its drive to return to stability so that it can not only use its military and diplomatic capabilities, but reignite as the beacon of hope that once shone in north Africa and the middle east. For all its problems, Egypt has shown itself to be a bulwark against the instability and chaos that plagues other countries not too far away in the middle east and the Arab world. Instability has swept over them like a tidal wave, but it has not to the same extent in Egypt.
Egypt is strong, Egypt is our friend, and it makes economic, political and strategic sense to ensure that it remains our friend to provide the stability necessary in the middle east, now and in the years and decades to come. Notably, al-Sisi’s top security concern is the presence of Daesh in the Sinai peninsula. Earlier I mentioned the attacks from Daesh groups in Libya, which illustrate that. That is dangerous from a human point of view, a regional and global security point of view and an economic point of view. It offers a new launch pad for the abhorrent Daesh disturbingly close to our other ally in the region, the state of Israel.
It should be remembered—no one in the Chamber will have any doubts about it—that Israel has been Egypt’s ally from the beginning of biblical times. In the past the relationships were strong, even with the Arab and the Jew. We still have that working relationship between Egypt and Israel, which is perhaps unique in the middle east, not only on economic things, but to combat Daesh and take on the threat of Palestinian terrorists. Egypt sees the threat, Israel sees the threat, and they work together to ensure that the tunnels that have been used by some, coming from Egypt towards Israel and the Palestinians, are closed off. We must recognise that Egypt plays a part in that.
Members should be aware that that is being taken seriously by our diplomats in the region. The hon. Lady referred to our ambassador in Egypt, John Casson, who last week addressed an Egyptian Ministry of Tourism conference in Cairo. All Members who have spoken so far have rightly referred to the importance of tourism, which we need to reignite. We need to provide security first of all. Ambassador Casson stressed the importance of the points I have raised: the economic, diplomatic, strategic, and defence and security ties.
As a married man, I have to be careful. [Laughter.] I am very loyal and dutiful to my wife, who I love, but if it was in a purely platonic way, I think that would be okay.
The ambassador praised the efforts of Egypt to re-emerge from the years of instability she suffered following the Arab spring and the Muslim Brotherhood takeover. Three years ago I had a chance to visit Egypt with the all-party parliamentary group on Egypt. I had always wanted to visit Egypt—I had a purpose. The APPG met President el-Sisi in his palace, so I had a chance to put to him issues about freedom of religious belief, which are important for me and for my Christian brothers and sisters in Egypt, and I was impressed by his response to the questions put—I could not say otherwise. He showed his commitment to the change he wanted to see and the society he wanted in Egypt. I was impressed by that. He also won the election shortly after that, and let us be quite clear: a democratic process was carried out and he was overwhelmingly elected. The people were not happy with the Muslim Brotherhood—although they were not happy with Mubarak either—but I believe that President al-Sisi delivered a democratic process to them.
On our visit the members of the all-party group had a chance to raise some issues. We met a pastor in a church in Cairo, called Pastor Sami. People often say to me, when I mention him, “Is he from Belfast?” I say, “No, he is not; he is from Cairo, and he is an Egyptian.” Seven thousand people attend that evangelical church in Cairo, but you will never hear about that, Mr Pritchard. It is one of those things that come out only from visits to Egypt or from having direct contact with places in the area. Pastor Sami wanted the changes. I expressed to him my concerns about people who had converted from Islam to Christianity, and a block being put on them, and asked about the level of direct representation at every level of the democratic process—not just with respect to President el-Sisi. There was a meeting about a month ago of the all-party group on religion or belief, which I chair, and we met some people from Egypt. There are a number of Christian MPs in Parliament in Egypt, taking part in the democratic process and making changes, as they should.
First, it is an improvement because people can pursue their religious beliefs without fear in Egypt today. There are still attacks, but there is a change, and I have seen that. When I visited I had a chance to meet the Grand Mufti. It was an opportunity to meet someone of Muslim beliefs at a high level and to ask him his personal opinion on the new Egypt that we would see shortly afterwards. He made a commitment to ensure that people would have the opportunity to express their religious belief without repercussions. I want that to come from the top, and to go all the way down; and I think there are levels further down that it has not yet reached. There are steps to be taken—small ones and big ones.
The Islamic groups that have infiltrated into Egypt are more violent. In the Sinai region, radical groups seem to operate with impunity. Christians are punished and pushed outside the proper legal process. Coptic Christians, as the hon. Member for Spelthorne mentioned, have been expelled from their villages. There is persecution and discrimination, and one example I know of concerns a schoolgirl whose name is Marina. She is 10 and the youngest of six children. Her mum and dad are illiterate, but they send all the children to school. As a Christian, she has to sit at the back of the class on her own, isolated and perhaps marginalised. It is such levels that must be reached if there is to be real change for people in Egypt. I know that everyone in the Chamber wants that to happen as well. Christian women have been kidnapped and raped, and involved in relationships that they find abhorrent. Christian buildings and churches have not been repaired in some cases, but in fairness there has been some change on that. There has been rebuilding of churches, and protection, in Cairo.
The response to the saddening and shocking events at Sharm el-Sheikh is an example of exactly what is needed on every level. Britain, Germany and Russia, to name a few of the nations in question, have taken steps to co-operate further with the Egyptian Government to ensure that Sharm el-Sheikh can be a model for security at airports and show strength and resilience in the face of terror and cowardice. There is a young girl who works in my office as my researcher, and when she got married she had her honeymoon in Sharm el-Sheikh. At the time there was not any bother, and she recommended it for a holiday—a honeymoon is of course a bit better as a holiday—and an opportunity to enjoy some special time.
There is great development potential in the Nile delta. On our visit we hoped to see some of that development. With the water source there is agriculture and agribusiness, which create jobs and enable food to be grown, moving Egypt, with its massive population, towards some sort of self-sufficiency, if that is possible. Among various issues there has been talk of Ethiopia building a dam, which might cause some problems. I do not know whether the Minister will be able to respond on that, or give us an idea of where things are in that process, but Egypt can develop and create jobs. The resurgence of gas and oil and access to Egypt’s vast energy resources are of interest to everyone, and helping an ally to develop those resources is much better than relying on enemies for energy, as the west too often finds itself doing. BP and British Gas have found Egypt to be an ideal business partner recently, and utilising our relationship with Egypt to further voluntary co-operation and trade across the region will open up the prospect of prosperity to millions of oppressed people—a vast population who need employment. We should remember that they need prosperity as well as the peace we all continue to work for.
I have outlined an array of issues on Egypt, including the concerns of the all-party group. I have mentioned the role of my right hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valley as an envoy to Egypt, and there is already an apparatus that we can build on to ensure support from the United Kingdom. I hope that will help to ensure that what was once a towering pillar of stability and a beacon of hope in the Arab world can come roaring back to its former self and sit again at the top table of global powers and economies, alongside the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
I am pleased to be called to speak in the debate, and I commend the hon. Member for Spelthorne (Kwasi Kwarteng) for securing it. I thank him for the brief background he gave us, from his own experience, reminding us what a great country Egypt is, and what a much greater country it can become. It is, I think, the 16th biggest country in the world, and often we do not appreciate that. Not too long ago different cultures and traditions, and people of different faiths and none, could mix comfortably, respecting one another’s traditions but with the freedom to carry on their own. Clearly, that is what we want Egypt to return to.
We must recognise that Egypt belongs to the Egyptians, so in our dealings with them we must be careful. By all means we should encourage them to move towards the kind of society that we think the citizens are entitled to; by all means we should use diplomatic and other ties to try to develop the interests of the United Kingdom in relation to Egypt; but at all times we should respect the rights of Egypt’s citizens to choose a Government and un-choose them should they see fit.
I think we can see optimistic signs even in the behaviour of President Sisi. A lot of what he has done recently is completely unacceptable and contrary to any interpretation of international human rights law; that must be made clear to him. However, he has the potential to change course. There has been some sign of a small but welcome softening of attitude on law and order, for example. It is unacceptable that hundreds of people can be taken and sentenced to death almost at one time. Some of those death sentences have been commuted, and that is something we should encourage. President Sisi received military command training in the United Kingdom and in the United States of America, so he knows where the boundaries lie between using military means to ensure security and abusing military power to oppress either his own people or anyone else. He knows what is acceptable and what is not. I think there is something there that we can work with, which perhaps we do not have with some of the other dictators or semi-dictators in the region.
The hon. Member for Bristol North West (Charlotte Leslie) rightly reminded us what can happen if someone who is elected democratically stops being democratic and is allowed to get away with that.
The persecution of religious minorities, to which the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) referred, is something that we cannot afford to ignore. We should remember that the persecution of Christians is an anti-Islamic action in exactly the same way as anti-Semitic or Islamophobic persecution is an anti-Christian action. All of those faiths teach fundamentally that we are all free to take our own decisions and that we will all be held to account for those decisions at some point. We should not allow our concern for persecuted Christian minorities in Egypt or anywhere else to develop into a claim that it is somehow Islamic actions or an Islamic group of people that are responsible for those crimes and that persecution.
We need to ensure that when we talk about stability, we do not mean the stability there has been in some countries in the past, where stability meant military dictatorship. Often, if there is a brutal military dictatorship, there is stability, but it comes at the cost of the violation of the human rights of tens of millions of people. That, again, is not acceptable.
The influence that the United Kingdom can exert in Egypt comes from our shared history, since a lot of the history of Egypt has been closely bound up with that of the United Kingdom, and from the fact that the United Kingdom is now the single biggest foreign investor in Egypt. There is an avenue for the Government to encourage businesses that are investing in Egypt to invest in things that will help Egypt, not hinder it, and in projects that will support the development of a democratic society rather than simply prop up a discredited regime.
The Government must also continue to remind the Egyptian authorities that the United Kingdom has—or should have—a policy of not investing in Governments whose human rights record is poor and not showing signs of improvement. The carrot of investment would then be there, but the stick—the threat of that investment being stopped—could be used, not to ensure that Egypt develops into the country we say it should, but to allow and encourage Egypt to develop the fundamental principles that cross international borders such as human rights, the rule of law, respect for democracy and respect for diversity in society.
I believe there is a good possibility that if we play it right, we can help Egypt to develop back into the kind of society that will be in the best interests of its 90 million citizens. That means, for example, that we need to encourage the development of Egypt’s tourist industry and see the air routes into Sharm el-Sheikh and elsewhere reopened, but we should not just do that to give our people a nice place to go on holiday; we should do it because it helps to stabilise Egypt’s economy. Once the economy is stabilised, it will become much easier for ideas such as democracy and the rule of law to be re-established.
We have to be very careful indeed that we do not allow tourism to destroy the extraordinary and ancient culture that people are going to see in the first place. We cannot allow tourism to cause the Nile valley, for example, to become one great big western holiday resort—partly because that would be morally and ethically wrong, but also because that kind of behaviour creates a climate in which young Muslims growing up in Egypt will readily believe the myth that the country has been taken over by evil western heathens.
We have to be careful to ensure that allowing opposition groups to flourish without persecution in Egypt does not mean that terrorist groups or groups that espouse terror are allowed to develop undetected. I have a concern about the way that President Sisi has been treating the Muslim Brotherhood. It may be that some of its members are resorting to or promoting terrorism; if they are, they deserve to be taken through the courts and imprisoned. However, we have to be very careful indeed if we are outlawing the single biggest opposition party in any country simply because all its members are accused of being terrorists. Going in too heavy-handed in that way will create a climate where if young people who want a more Muslim society—whether we agree with that ourselves or not—do not have the right to promote their views through peaceful, lawful and democratic means, there are other avenues open to them that they may want to pursue. As has been said, there are others in Egypt and elsewhere who will be only too keen to encourage them to adopt such other methods.
Mention has been made of the high-performing UK ambassadorial staff. I have not met any of the embassy staff in Egypt, but I have certainly been very impressed with the embassy staff I have met in the other countries I have visited so far. The fact that the UK ambassador was prepared to speak out against the treatment of the three al-Jazeera journalists is an encouraging sign. That is the kind of diplomatic pressure that we should continue to apply.
Just this week, we saw a TV presenter in Egypt jailed for mocking a woman who came on a television programme to be interviewed about a claim she had made of sexual harassment. It is appalling for a TV journalist to suggest to an alleged victim of sexual assault that it was her own fault because she went out wearing jeans and a sleeveless top; that is not an acceptable way for a journalist or anyone else to treat a victim of crime. However, throwing someone into jail for that is an overreaction. I do not condone making videos that mock someone else’s religion, but it is a serious overreaction for the Egyptians to have thrown three young Christians in Egypt into jail for producing a video that appeared to mock Islam. In that case, the teenagers said they were mocking Daesh, not Islam. I do not agree with anyone mocking another’s religion, but I do not agree with throwing people into jail for doing that. There are other ways in which we can encourage respect for one another’s faiths.
I am concerned about an apparent shift in emphasis from the UK Government. Whether it is through the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills or any other Department, concern for promoting human rights in the countries in which we do business appears to be moving further down the order of priorities, while the promotion of interests of UK business and UK investors appears be to moving further up. I understand and support the desire to let British businesses prosper in other countries, but I ask the Government to ensure that we never do anything that is seen to give succour to those in either government or opposition who want to undermine the rule of law and democracy and those who may want to turn Egypt into a country that is a significant danger for us and for those who live there.
It is appalling that a young Italian student who had previously lived in the UK was taken away, tortured and murdered. It is also appalling that hundreds—perhaps thousands—of Egyptian citizens live with the danger of the same thing happening to them. Many of them have died in similar circumstances. The torture and murder of an Egyptian citizen should appal us just as much as the torture and murder of an Italian or UK citizen. I want to see an Egypt where all 90 million Egyptian citizens can live in peace and harmony with one another.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I begin by congratulating the hon. Member for Spelthorne (Kwasi Kwarteng) on securing the debate. He spoke with great experience and knowledge of Egypt and set it in its proper context; I think we all benefited from that introduction. I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner), who spoke clearly and effectively about the horrific death of Giulio Regeni. I will say a little more about that later on.
The hon. Member for Bristol North West (Charlotte Leslie) set out so well the context of Egypt in the region. She used what I thought was a very good phrase: “democracy was never going to happen as it does in Tunbridge Wells”. That was very telling. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), as ever, stood up for religious freedoms and, of course, blushed at the offer of a holiday with the hon. Lady in Sharm el-Sheikh.
As we have heard, Britain and Egypt have a long, close and often tumultuous relationship, but Egypt remains a key ally for us in the middle east. We are key trading partners, and as the hon. Member for Glenrothes (Peter Grant) said, the UK is the biggest source of direct investment into Egypt. More than 1,000 British companies invest in and operate in Egypt in sectors such as finance, energy, construction, pharmaceuticals and IT.
Of course, as the hon. Members for Spelthorne and for Bristol North West said, there are also the thousands of British tourists who visit each year, or would if they could get to Sharm el-Sheikh. I hope that when the Minister responds, he will be able to update us on the progress made on restoring flights to Sharm el-Sheikh. Those flights are vital for the Egyptian economy, which desperately needs the summer season, and for British holidaymakers, who are already making their plans. In fact, numerous holiday firms, including Thomas Cook, are currently offering holidays to Sharm from May, so is the Minister confident that the security measures will be sufficient by then for flights to resume?
Egypt is, of course, more than just an economic partner to the UK; it is also an important strategic partner in the Arab world and a key ally in the fight against extremism, against Daesh and Assad in Syria, and in north Africa and the Sinai. We need to work with Egypt to tackle extremism, and we want it to do more to tackle terror financing. All of that gives us a very good reason to work with Egypt and, for those reasons, we need a stable Egypt.
It is clear that over the past two years, the Government have improved relations with Egypt. Since the election of President Sisi in June 2014, albeit on quite a small turnout, the Government have gone out of their way to build relations with the Sisi Government, and I welcome many aspects of this Government’s work to improve those relations. First, as I have said, it is very important that we co-operate on security and countering extremism. Secondly, as an MP for Hull, which is a key centre for renewable energy, I was very pleased to see the memorandum of understanding signed on a multibillion pound renewable energy deal with a British company. Thirdly, I am very pleased to see that 2016 is the year of British-Egyptian co-operation on science, innovation and higher education.
However, we have to remain critical friends of the Sisi regime. To promote stability, we need not just to support the Government of President Sisi, but to encourage his Government to tackle some of the underlying issues that have caused so much instability over the past few years. Stability requires respect for human rights, for the constitution and for democratic participation. It requires corruption to be tackled and the rule of law to be promoted, and we cannot promote academic co-operation and innovation unless we also promote academic freedoms.
The Amnesty International report from 2015-16 paints a bleak picture for those aspects of Egyptian society. The rule of law has been undermined by mass detentions and mass trials, which are rarely fair. The relationship between the state and its citizens has been undermined by routine allegations of police brutality, torture, arbitrary arrest and enforced disappearances. The treatment of women is a particular concern in relation to sexual violence.
Respect for democratic institutions has been undermined by repeated attacks on freedoms of assembly and non-governmental organisations, and I am very concerned that those actions, as the hon. Member for Bristol North West said, are fuelling the disquiet that has previously led to problems and revolutions in Egypt, and are making it more difficult for there to be a transition to a fully stable democracy.
I am very pleased to have taken that intervention. I think that is a good sign—if there are more women in any Parliament, it is usually a good sign of progress, so I welcome that.
To get back to my point, it is important that the British Government should be prepared to make it clear to the Government in Egypt that we expect them to operate to a higher standard on human rights issues. It is in our interest to promote British values of human rights and democracy, and it is also in the interests of Egyptian stability for it to do the same. However, as an example of the Government’s reluctance to do that, I want to return to the case of Giulio Regeni, which was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge. He set out so effectively what happened in the horrific murder of this academic and talked about what has been described—the systematic ripping out of fingernails, the broken ribs, and the brain haemorrhage that happened to this man. It is just appalling.
I raised some parliamentary questions with our Government to ask what their response was. I was told that the Government support the Egyptian and Italian investigations, but reports suggest that the Egyptian investigation is seriously flawed. The Italian ambassador has complained of a lack of access. There are real concerns about whether Egypt has the capacity to conduct a genuinely impartial investigation.
I wrote to the Minister on 16 February 2016 pressing upon him the importance of this case and the need for Britain to intervene to ensure that an impartial investigation takes place and to offer British assistance. I look forward to receiving a response from him. In particular, given that we are in this year of co-operation on education and research, I would think that the Government have had many opportunities to raise this case. There have been press releases, partnership agreements and a visit from the Prime Minister’s special envoy, but academic freedoms seem to have been excluded from that academic dialogue. We appear to have had a situation in which the Prime Minister’s special envoy was in Egypt discussing academic co-operation, weeks after the body of a murdered British academic was found, but as I understand it, that was not raised.
Other countries have not remained silent. The Italian Prime Minister Renzi stressed that it was because of his Government’s “friendship” with President Sisi that he stood in a position to demand the truth and stressed that it was critical for the future of Italian-Egyptian relations. The UK Government need to realise that it is because of the strength of our economic, social and security co-operation that we can also be in the position of critical friends. Weakness from the Government in not taking the matter up is not helpful. I hope that the Minister, in his response this afternoon, will be able to reassure us that he is having those conversations with the Egyptian authorities. I also look forward to him responding to the other points that I have raised, particularly on tourism.
It is a pleasure to work under your chairmanship again, Mr Pritchard, and I echo the comments that have been made across the floor; this has been a very timely and important debate. I congratulate, as others have done, my hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne (Kwasi Kwarteng)—my good friend—on securing this debate and on opening it with an exposé of his knowledge and understanding of what is happening not just in Egypt but in the region itself, and of Britain’s unique relationship and the role that Parliament is playing.
I want to say thank you to colleagues; it is because we are able to visit the country a number of times and develop relationships to understand what is going on that we can speak with some authority about matters there and have debates such as this in this House. We are all the wiser for that, and the relationship is all the stronger, so I am very encouraged. I have visited the country a number of times as a Back Bencher and as a Minister, and I know that Egypt very much appreciates such visits and appreciates the dialogue too.
We have heard some excellent contributions, as the Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson), has said. The hon. Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner) raised specific points, and the link is understandable given the academic connection with Giulio Regeni. I will come to that matter and speak in a bit of detail.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol North West (Charlotte Leslie) spoke of the challenges in Governments and the changes that have taken place. It is fair to say that any country that had endured the decade of change that Egypt has had to go through would have been severely tested. It is pleasing to see the direction of travel that Egypt is going in but, none the less, a huge amount of work still needs to be done. That is why Britain must stand firm in providing that support.
I was pleased that the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) took a bit out of my speech by commenting on the importance and role of the trade envoy, the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr Donaldson); we are very pleased that the right hon. Gentleman is able to take on that role. It underlines the significance of having these trade envoy positions, which allow detailed knowledge to be exchanged and for that relationship to be pursued. The hon. Member for Strangford also spoke of some of the military support that we are providing as Egypt deals with terrorism, and I will come to that in my speech, too.
The hon. Member for Glenrothes (Peter Grant) spoke of the importance of the continuing governance of reform and I very much agree. I am sad to say that he also made this very binary: either we challenge the human rights situation and therefore the prosperity agenda stops, or we are happy with the human rights situation and therefore prosperity can start. I am afraid it is not as simple as that. I should make it clear that our work and our relationship, which comes not just from the commercial angle, allow us to have frank conversations to the frustration of those who would like to see more in the public domain. We often find ourselves having greater leverage in and influence on what is going on behind the scenes because of the manner in which we conduct our activities, which is not always on the front pages of the newspapers.
I certainly did not intend to give the impression that the choice is between human rights on one hand and economic prosperity on the other. If I gave that impression, I apologise. The point I wanted to make was that Egypt gives us the best possible opportunity to demonstrate that respect for human rights, diversity and economic prosperity can all happen at the same time.
I will come to that point as I develop my argument.
The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North spoke in her usual formidable style and clearly understands these matters. We spar on a number of issues across the middle east and I thank her for the tone she adopts in these debates when putting forward extremely important points. She spoke first about the flight concern, which I will come to, and the case of the Italian student, the importance of the economy and, linked to that, stability and the opportunities in front of us. I am grateful for the points she made. As always, if I do not cover all the points that have been made, I will write to hon. Members in due course.
In the limited time available, I want to take a step back and place Egypt today in context. It is worth reminding ourselves that it is a cradle of ancient civilisation and a very proud part of the world. It has gifted to the world some of the earliest forms of central governance, literature and major feats of engineering. It connected the world with the Suez canal in the 19th century and has been a centre of Arab culture and regional political leadership in the 20th century.
In the Arab world, Egypt sits astride the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation and the Arab League and occupies a unique position in international affairs. Despite experiencing some tumultuous times in the 21st century, Egypt has delivered another major feat of engineering through expansion of the Suez canal in just one year under President Sisi. That truly represents Egypt’s ambition in looking forward.
Although not as long standing as Egypt’s ancient history, Britain’s interests are also deep and long standing in modern times and include an historical British presence, close business links, more recent efforts to bring peace in the region and working together on the UN Security Council. President Sisi’s visit to the UK in November was an important moment in deepening our relationship further and an opportunity to have those frank conversations I spoke about.
Egypt is the Arab world’s most populous country, is on the frontline in the war against Daesh and in north-east Sinai, and has a critical role in bringing stability and security to Libya. Egypt is a vital partner in a troubled region. It is clear that its stability is in our interests. I am proud to say that since 2010 the UK has spent some £30 million in Egypt and we plan to spend a further £50 million between now and 2020. All this funding has the ultimate aim of helping to support the country’s continued stability. There are, of course, many aspects to stability. Our work in Egypt focuses on security, the economy, governance and education. I will take each in turn.
A number of hon. Members asked about security. The crash of the Metrojet airliner, the murder of a Croatian oil worker and the attacks on Egyptian troops make it clear that Egypt faces a real threat from terrorism, so security is key. To protect ordinary Egyptians, tackle radicalisation and safeguard tourists, we are working closely with the Egyptian Government, training bomb disposal officers and close protection officers, and welcoming military officers to Sandhurst and other prestigious military training establishments here in the UK. This will help to meet the threat emanating from north-west Sinai and the region.
Egypt’s greatest external security threat remains Daesh’s planning and launching of attacks from bases in eastern Libya. The UK is supporting Libyan efforts to finalise a Government of national accord, which is vital because only a unified national Government can begin the difficult work of restoring stability and tackling the threat posed by Daesh from the west of Egypt. In Gaza, the UK is providing aid and working to convince Israel, Egypt and the Palestinian Authority to take steps to improve conditions, which is in the interests of Egypt’s long-term security.
We are, of course, continuing our extremely close co-operation on aviation security so that we can resume flights as soon as possible. Sharm el-Sheikh is proven to be a clear favourite with tourists. Prior to the changes, almost 1 million visitors wanted to go to Egypt every year. I am unable to give further details, but huge efforts have been made. I spoke to the deputy National Security Adviser yesterday. Some final pieces of the jigsaw need to be put in place, but I hope it will not be too long before flights are resumed.
The hon. Member for Cambridge raised the very sad case of Giulio Regeni. I can only echo what I said in my reply to the question. We are very saddened by this tragic death and very concerned about the reports that he had been tortured. He is an Italian citizen and there is protocol on who can lead and participate in the investigation. Having said that, we have raised our concerns with the Italian authorities. We very much support Italian and Egyptian efforts to investigate and have requested that that be done in full to recognise what happened. The Italian police now have a team on the ground in Egypt. We will continue to raise the matter. I will be visiting the country very soon and will certainly ask further questions, but although the individual studied in the UK, there is a protocol on which country can lead and be involved.
Egypt has elected a President, has a new constitution and now has a Parliament, which is to be celebrated. We are working to help to make parliamentarians stronger and to encourage visits. I hope that the work with the Westminster Foundation for Democracy will continue. As the new Parliament beds in, we want to do more to strengthen this vital institution and I hope that Members with a keen interest in Egypt, many of whom are here today, will be able to play an active role in that.[Official Report, 9 March 2016, Vol. 607, c. 3MC.]
We are looking to President Sisi and the Egyptian Government to make more progress on human rights—that has been echoed today—and on freedoms. We are concerned about detention of political and civil society activists and journalists, deaths and reports of torture in police detention and prisons, and the continued narrowing of space for civil society to operate freely. We continue to believe that respect for human rights is vital to effective governance for the Egyptian people and long-term stability
A vibrant economy is a necessary precondition for security and democracy. I am proud that Britain remains the largest foreign investor in Egypt. British companies have invested over £25 billion in recent years. I was pleased to lead the largest trade delegation to Egypt for 15 years when we had the pleasure of meeting President Sisi.
Education has an important role and I am pleased that the British Council has taught English to over 90,000 Egyptians in the last five years.
I want to give my hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne a few minutes to respond so I will conclude. We remain a close and important partner of Egypt. I am grateful for this debate to underline our commitment to the country and pleased that other Members of Parliament have also been able to do so.
I am grateful for this wide-ranging debate in which we have hit many of the principal issues. The tragic death of Giulio Regeni stains Egypt’s reputation, but I am sure that with the Minister’s good offices our Government will do their part in bringing some form of closure and justice to the situation.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered British support for stability in Egypt.
School Provision: Christchurch
[Mrs Anne Main in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered planning for school provision in Christchurch.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main. I am grateful to Mr Speaker for this timely opportunity to discuss a very important issue in my constituency.
I wrote to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State on 30 December, requesting that he call in for his own determination the planning application made by Dorset County Council to itself—application 8/15/0665—to develop a site wholly within the green belt for the construction of a new school. The county council has accepted that the proposal is a significant departure from the local plan because it involves development on green-belt land that was reconfirmed as being within the green belt as recently as 2014. It is hardly surprising that the application has generated 688 letters of objection. There was, Mrs Main, an earlier plan to remove the land from the green belt for housing, as part of the core strategy, but following consultation, that proposal—to remove land from the green belt—was abandoned. I am sure that you can imagine the consternation of local people that it is now being revisited after such a short interval. That is creating anger and despair.
In response to my letter and a parliamentary question, my hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Planning, whom I am delighted to see in his place, told me that he would wait to see whether the county council granted itself planning permission before deciding whether to call the matter in. To the surprise of no one, on Thursday 18 February the county council duly granted itself detailed planning permission for a new two form entry primary school at Marsh Lane, Christchurch. I therefore wish to use the opportunity presented by this debate to press the Minister very hard, on behalf of my constituents, to call in the application and have a proper independent examination of the issue and, in particular, whether a suitable alternative site for a primary school is available. I say that because almost all those who have supported the planning application have done so reluctantly and on the basis that extra primary school places are needed in west Christchurch and there is no alternative place to put them. It is the great TINA—there is no alternative. That is why they support putting the new school on the green belt.
In my submission, the county council has failed to consider seriously potential alternative sites. It failed to look at two brownfield sites that are currently vacant and awaiting redevelopment. One is a site for which planning permission was given for a new Asda supermarket. That development is not now proceeding and the developer has sold the site, but no new plans have been drawn up. I am told that the site is available on the open market. The other site, on which I will concentrate, is the Christchurch town centre site variously known as the Bargates site, or the site of the former magistrates court/police station and the Pitside car park.
In the report to the planning committee on 18 February, at appendix 9, consultants engaged by the county council described the Bargates site as
“not big enough for the accommodation required for a two form entry primary school”.
That would have been correct if the site in question was only 2.8 acres, as they asserted in their report; however, the site is 4.74 acres and comprises land currently in the ownership of Dorset County Council, the Dorset police and crime commissioner, the Hospital of St Mary Magdalen Trust and Christchurch Borough Council. Under Department for Education guidelines set out in “Building Bulletin 103” of June 2014, the actual area would be more than sufficient for a two form entry primary school.
As co-owners of the site, the county council and the borough council must have known that the Bargates site is much larger than described in the report. Local people are wondering why they—and, I think, many county councillors and borough councillors—have been kept in the dark. The suspicion is that all the public authorities that own the land would think themselves financially better off if they used the Bargates site for more lucrative development than the provision of primary school education. It is therefore in their financial interests that the school be built on much less expensive green-belt land. As I am sure the Minister will agree, that pattern is repeated up and down the country. The cheapest land available is often the green-belt land, precisely because of its protection. If a local authority is proposing to develop green-belt land where the consequence is that it will save itself money, it is incumbent on my hon. Friend to be even more circumspect in deciding whether to allow that to go through without intervention from the centre.
It has taken some 12 years to assemble this unique town centre site. Plans for the development of the site have not yet been published, let alone been the subject of public consultation, but I understand from a meeting that I had at the beginning of last month that there are proposals for a 3,000-square-metre care home and 1,850 square metres of retail. The remainder of the site would be for housing, but there would be no community use.
Government policy on green belt is designed to encourage the redevelopment of brownfield land. The land at Bargates is exactly that. There are 221 car parking spaces there, on open land; there is a redundant magistrates court and police station; and there is a substantial residential building, currently boarded up, with a big adjoining garden, which certainly until recently was used for the keeping of pigs. That is being released by the Magdalen charity. That is the site, but at the meeting of the planning committee council officers argued that it could not possibly be used for education purposes because it was not mentioned for education in the core strategy. Of course, nowhere was mentioned for education in the core strategy, because the education authority was asserting at that stage that there was no need for any new sites in the borough for schools. Therefore, this site was not mentioned, nor was the green-belt site at Marsh Lane. If the county council had been more up front, the debate about the core strategy could, and indeed would, have included the relative merits of building a new school in the town centre as against building a school on the fringes of the town, on the green belt.
The advantage of building the school in the town centre is that it would form part of a new education cluster. It would be much easier for families with children at both the secondary school and the primary school to do the school run, because the primary school would be very close to the secondary school, Twynham Academy, for which it is the feeder and, indeed, in the grounds of which the primary school is currently housed. It will also be part of the Twynham Learning Federation, which is headed by Twynham Academy but will also include the new Twynham primary from this September. It would be easily accessible by public transport from both east and west Christchurch and it would be close to town centre car parks. The buildings would be available for community use during the evenings, holidays and weekends in a location convenient to the public. The school pupils would be within easy walking distance of town centre amenities such as the library, the Regent Centre, the Priory church and the playing fields and recreation ground on the opposite side of the road. Adequate undeveloped land on the site would be available for play space.
The report that went to the planning committee from the officers said that there would be no room for playing fields. However, in the letter sent to Councillor Jamieson by the principal planning officer, Mr Williams, on 17 February, Mr Williams says that the provision of playing fields would be very expensive. He does not refer to the fact that it would not be possible to provide playing fields on that site. That goes to the core of the issue. It is much cheaper to provide playing fields on open green-belt land adjoining the marsh and the flood plain but that is not what planning policy is, or should be, about.
At the meeting of the planning committee, the report to the committee from the county council officer also said,
“The current buildings would be unsuitable and would have to be demolished and replaced.”
Well, that is accepted. Everybody accepts that the old magistrates court with the cells down below and the police station need to be knocked down, but I do not see that as an objection to building a new school on the site. The county council officer raised other concerns including the one to which I referred earlier—that the site is too small. In other words, the council officers were misleading the councillors who were considering the planning application by providing facts that were not correct.
The officers went on to say that the school is geographically in the wrong location for the community it needs to serve. That is not correct either. The school that is proposed to be built on the green belt is currently temporarily housed at Twynham Academy, which is a few hundred yards down the road from the Bargates site.
Another objection raised by the county council officers is that because the Bargates site is in a town centre location, it is unsuitable for a primary school. Again, that is in defiance of local experience. One of the most popular primary schools in Christchurch is the Priory Church of England Primary School, which is on a small site in the centre of town and has the same catchment as the new school. The new school is already in temporary accommodation right in the centre of the town and there has been no suggestion that parents have been put off by the location. Indeed, many regard it as much more convenient for the school run.
From what I have said, the Minister may agree that the conclusion reached by the responsible officer in paragraph 6.14 of his recommendation is not consistent with the facts. Yet the officer went on to say,
“I am satisfied that there are no other sites of sufficient size to meet the identified development need that are available and should be regarded as preferential alternatives to the application site”.
As I have said, that conclusion was based on false information. That the Bargates site is not available is an extraordinary assertion to make, because the site is still owned by the county council, the borough council and the police authority. If the county council and borough council were prepared to recognise educational needs as a priority, the solution to the development of the site for a school would be in their hands. Public consultation on future uses of the site is not intended to start until May, with a view to a planning application later in the year. That consultation could easily be about using the site for a primary school, with a planning application later in the year to meet the timetable required for the new school.
The other issue worth mentioning is the size of the school. The new Twynham Primary Academy to which the Secretary of State for Education has recently given authority is one form entry. Expressions of interest were invited by Dorset County Council on the basis that,
“The projected pupil numbers have identified an immediate requirement for 1FE with a further growth to 2FE when population figures warrant it and agreed”
by the county council. The statement is reinforced in the county council’s January 2016 paper, “Christchurch pupil place planning strategy 2016-2019”. The paper is marked as a confidential document, but for the purposes of the debate it is important that everybody should know that paragraph 2.1 says,
“For west Christchurch, DCC continues to pursue the establishment of a new 1FE Primary School. The site/building will have capacity to expand to 2FE if required in the future.”
So the county council accepts that there is no immediate need for a two form entry school, which bears upon the issue of the timescale within which the situation should be sorted out properly.
The county council says that the area only needs a one form entry school with the capacity to go to two forms, partly because that would deliver six forms of entry for primary school places in west Christchurch. That takes no account of the new Parkfield School, a primary free school that opens in 2016 with two form entry and is located in the western part of west Christchurch, close to the airport. Yet the county council gave itself permission for a two form entry primary school with the potential to extend to three form entry. Why did it do that? It involves an unwarranted impact on the neighbourhood and intrusion into the green belt that is not justified even by the county council’s own evidence.
The implications are that the proposed design of the school, as approved, has been criticised by the borough council as being intrusive in the landscape. In response, the county council has said that the school needs to be in that position so that the council could make it into a three-form entry school in the future. The borough council’s criticism could have been addressed if the school were to be one form entry with the option of additional buildings to make it two form in the future. A one form entry school with the potential to be two form entry would obviously have much less impact on the green belt, the sites of special scientific interest and local traffic. It would also fit more easily on to the town centre site to which I referred, and on to some of the other sites that the county council said could not accommodate it because it needed a site for a two form entry school.
This is a serious issue. If we have a public inquiry, the inspector could look at the alternative sites to the green belt and could examine the evidence, which is contradictory. The county council is asserting that it needs a two form entry primary school, but the county council officers, in a confidential document, say that it only needs a one form entry school.
Many people have asked why the draft core strategy, which was adopted in 2014, did not envisage the need to propose or allocate a site for a new school. Christchurch county councillors were informed by Mr Williams in a letter on 17 February that,
“Late in the preparation process my understanding is that discussions took place between Planning Officers at Christchurch Borough Council and representatives of the County Council as local Education Authority over the possible need for a new primary school to serve West Christchurch. As the Draft Core Strategy was already at a very advanced stage, a decision was taken not to modify the Strategy to take account of the potential additional development requirement. The planning application proposal has, therefore, fallen to be promoted as a departure from the Development Plan.”
The problem is that as a departure from the development plan is decided by the county council itself, it is not open to the same independent scrutiny and examination as it would have been had it been dealt with as part of the core strategy, which is another reason that it is essential that this—
I am familiar with that, Mrs Main. I am using, say, 20 minutes of the 30 minutes available to put my case, because I know, having been a junior planning Minister in the past, that the Minister will not be able to give me a very substantive reply today. I hope he will be able to say that he has listened to what I have had to say, and then to make some other comments about the importance of preserving the green belt. I have not had an opportunity to put all the concerns on the record, and I thought it was important to do so in this debate, which I hope will not cause my hon. Friend, the Minister, any problems.
In conclusion, I hope that, taking all I have said into account, the Minister will call in the application for the Secretary of State’s consideration and will effectively have an independent public inquiry into the issue.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) on securing this debate and on putting so fully his case on behalf of his residents. I appreciate his concerns, particularly on the more general issue of development on green belt, which I know is of considerable importance to him, to communities including the ones he represents, and to other parliamentary colleagues.
As my hon. Friend has outlined, and as he understands, the proposal is currently before the Secretary of State to determine whether call-in is appropriate. As we have also received a request to intervene from my hon. Friend, it would be inappropriate of me to comment on the specific application, as that could prejudice any consideration of these matters. I know he understands that. I will, however, outline a few things more generally, as he rightly guessed I might, to give some background to the present situation.
To put the matter in context, about 475,000 planning applications are made to local authorities every year. Obviously, we have powers to call in some decisions, and the current approach is set out in a written ministerial statement of October 2012. To put it in context, in 2015 just 24 cases were called in by the Planning Inspectorate for inquiry. He will be reassured to know that the officials of the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government are currently considering the application on the Secretary of State’s behalf. Their assessment will consider whether the application, or the issues raised by concerned parties, justifies intervention based on the Government’s call-in policy. The Secretary of State or one of the other Ministers will decide whether to intervene.
The national planning policy framework is very clear that the purpose of planning is to deliver sustainable development. I make it clear that it is not development at any cost, nor is it development anywhere. Localism means choosing how best to meet local needs, not whether to meet them. Meeting local need is not just about houses; as my hon. Friend rightly outlined, it is also about the wider needs of the community, including educational needs.
We are committed to improving the education of our younger generation. We have worked hard to encourage efficient use of land and buildings to facilitate the schools we need. We have also ensured that the national planning policy framework makes it clear that local authorities should take a proactive, positive and collaborative approach to meeting educational needs. The framework and accompanying guidance are clear that local planning authorities should work with other providers to assess the quality and capacity of infrastructure, including education infrastructure, as part of their local plan. Such plans are important, and they should set out a positive vision for the area; they should also be realistic about what can be achieved and when, including with regard to infrastructure. In areas where there is both a county council and a district council, it is important that those bodies work together constructively to gather evidence of likely educational needs and to look for the correct and appropriate sites for any new required schools.
I congratulate Christchurch Borough Council on putting in place a core strategy in 2014. An up-to-date local plan, prepared through extensive public consultation, sets the framework in which decisions are and should be taken, whether locally by the planning authority or, I stress, at appeal.
My hon. Friend knows that the Government attach the highest importance, as he does, to protecting our green belt. Our new guidance in 2014 re-emphasised the importance of green belt and adds that the presence of constraints such as green belt can constrain the ability of a planning authority to meet its needs. We make it clear that green-belt boundaries should be established in local plans, which can be altered only in exceptional circumstances using the local plan process of consultation and independent examination. I note that Christchurch Borough Council decided and successfully argued for changes to its green-belt boundaries to allow for new development to go forward, which is why it was a locally led, properly calculated decision.
I understand what must be my hon. Friend’s frustration that, following that review of green-belt boundaries by the council in a proper and appropriate way, proposals are still being made for green-belt land. Our planning system allows people to make proposals for development in areas such as green belt, but most types of new buildings are inappropriate development in the green belt and by definition, therefore, are harmful to it. The national planning policy framework makes it clear that such development should not be approved except in very exceptional, special circumstances. Each planning case obviously has its own unique facts and contexts that have to be determined on their own merits.
When I am out visiting communities and speaking to constituents, I hear widespread support for the provision of more housing, more schools and more hospitals for our growing population, which I know my hon. Friend recognises and supports, but that support is often swiftly followed by concerns about where those homes, hospitals and schools should be built, with appeals to protect our open and green spaces and countryside. It is therefore important that new developments are located in the right place for each local area. We are committed to ensuring that delays in the planning process are kept to a minimum, but I assure him that we will be aiming to issue a decision on whether to call in the proposal as soon as possible. He has made his views clearly known today, and he will be formally notified as soon as that decision has been made.
Question put and agreed to.
Human Rights Framework: Scotland
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the future framework for human rights in Scotland.
The framework for human rights in Scotland is reaching a critical point, and determining its future has therefore become an issue that my colleagues and I have been attempting to bring before the Attorney General and the Secretary of State for Justice for quite some time. We believe that any future framework currently rests on a constitutional precipice, one that requires more substance from the Government than we have received up to now. I personally stated my concerns to the Attorney General and the Secretary of State on numerous occasions and in many forms—written questions, oral questions and through my duties on the Select Committee on Justice. My colleagues and I are yet to receive answers containing any kind of substance. For that reason, I am delighted to secure this Westminster Hall debate.
Our position, and the crux of this debate, is predicated on a sound legal assertion that human rights are devolved to Scotland, and not something on which this place can legislate for Scotland. The legal basis for that assertion is the Scotland Act 1998, which is in effect the Scottish Parliament’s constitution. We argue that it is as close to a written constitution as Scotland can acquire at present.
I will take this opportunity to explain exactly why, in legal terms, we believe that human rights are devolved to Scotland. Before I do that, I ask the Minister in his response to save us from the message repeated ad nauseam that he believes in human rights but that he just has a problem with their interpretation by the European Courts. We understand that point. I do not seek a debate on the rights and wrongs of human rights constituted here or in Europe; I want a debate surrounding the legalities of any action this Government could take on human rights and how that affects Scotland. If he fails to give those answers in clear terms, I will write to allow him an opportunity to consider his response further so that the issue of human rights in Scotland can be clarified and this damaging uncertainty on our citizens’ protection can end.
I will outline the legal basis for my argument. The Scotland Act does not specify which powers are devolved to Scotland; that is simply not how our constitutional settlement works. Schedule 5 to the Act actually lists the powers reserved to the Westminster Parliament, with the rest—de facto—being devolved to Scotland. So, for any matter to be reserved to the UK, it must—simply must—be listed within schedule 5 to the Act.
I certainly hope that the Minster is aware that human rights are not listed in any form within schedule 5 to the Act, meaning that they are—as a matter of fact and of constitutional law—devolved in their entirety to Scotland. I also assume that he is acutely aware that any attempt by this place to legislate on schedule 5 will require—again, as a matter of constitutional law—the explicit consent of the Scottish Parliament, through a legislative consent motion under the Sewel convention, and that convention has arguably been strengthened by the Scotland Bill that is making its way through this place.
Consequently, my next request of the Minister is this: can he please confirm, in clear terms, whether the UK Government agree with this analysis? It is essential that we put this matter to bed, once and for all, so that we all understand that human rights are indeed devolved to Scotland.
The UK Government have various proposals—mooted proposals—on the table. One of those is the potential withdrawal from the European convention on human rights. The rights contained within the ECHR are enshrined in the Scotland Act, in section 57, meaning that the Scottish Parliament cannot do anything contrary to convention rights contained within the ECHR, essentially enshrining those rights in the Scotland Act. Section 57 of the Act combines with schedule 5 to the Act to mean that no UK Government can remove section 57, meaning that the ECHR—even if the UK removes itself from its effect—will always apply to devolved issues in Scotland.
So my next question to the Minister is this: do he and the UK Government accept that even if they withdraw from the ECHR, they cannot remove section 57 from the Scotland Act, meaning that the ECHR will continue to have an effect on devolved matters?
I am very proud of the UK’s role in the creation of the ECHR and we should never forget the reason it was established in the first place—to prevent the atrocities of 1914-18 and 1939-45 from ever happening again. In my view, we fragment the ECHR at our peril; it sets out minimum standards. So I often ponder why we would even moot removing ourselves from those standards, unless—in effect—we wanted to dilute them.
The repeal of the Human Rights Act 1998 has often been mooted by the Government. Schedule 4 to the Scotland Act contains a list of Acts that the Scottish Parliament is deemed not capable of repealing or amending. It includes, most obviously and in my opinion regrettably, the Act of Union. The Human Rights Act 1998 is also listed in schedule 4 to the Scotland Act, and as a measure of comfort—or, indeed, otherwise—to the Government, I can assure the Minister that Scotland will continue to comply with schedule 4, as she has absolutely no plans to repeal the Human Rights Act or indeed the Act of Union. We understand that it would be ultra vires to do so.
If we combine schedule 4 to the Scotland Act with schedule 5, it is clear that the UK Government cannot repeal the Human Rights Act from effect in Scotland. If the UK Government did so, they would require a legislative consent motion from the Scottish Parliament, and I do not think that any Scottish Government of any party of any colour would agree to that. Nevertheless, if the Human Rights Act is considered capable of being repealed in Scotland by Westminster, the Scottish Parliament could easily legislate to enact our own Human Rights Act, which I stress would not be a desirable outcome, as we could not insist that any new Act passed in Holyrood could cover reserved matters. The Human Rights Act provides important protection to Scottish citizens in relation to the laws passed on reserved matters in this place.
It is also worth pointing out that the Human Rights Act merely ensures that the convention rights are applied by the UK courts. Perhaps that is why it attracted cross-party support in the 1990s; it was hardly controversial then, and in my view it remains uncontroversial in Scotland.
This Government have not only mooted repeal of the Human Rights Act and withdrawal from the ECHR but they have made clear their ambition for a British Bill of Rights. Although I accept that nothing of that kind has been published yet, a British Bill of Rights was a manifesto pledge and we expect it to come to the Floor of the House at some point during this Parliament. So my next question to the Minister is this, and it is a question that my party has asked many times since May: will any proposed British Bill of Rights apply to Scotland? The name would suggest that it would be intended to cover Scotland. However, our position—founded on schedule 5 to the Scotland Act—is that, as a matter of constitutional law, the UK Government cannot impose a British Bill of Rights on Scotland without a legislative consent motion under the Sewel convention, which we believe would be withheld.
Hopefully I have made it clear that, in our view, human rights are devolved to Scotland. Of course, the Scottish Parliament could legislate for a Scottish Bill of Rights, but it has absolutely no plans to do so. As yet, we have no idea what a British Bill of Rights would contain, but no one can seriously believe that this UK Government would take the opportunity within that process to strengthen our citizens’ protections.
The protections of the ECHR and the Human Rights Act are hugely important to our citizens: the right to life; the right not to be enslaved; the right to liberty and security of the person; the right to a fair trial; and the right to marry, to name but a few. As Lord Bingham memorably said in 2009:
“Which of these rights…would we wish to discard? Are any of them trivial, superfluous, unnecessary?”
We say that none of them are. We view the convention not as a ceiling but as a baseline—a minimum. We should be building on these rights and not diluting them. Indeed, Scotland can go further if she so wishes.
Repeal of, or withdrawal from, the ECHR would not strike a blow to lawyers, criminals or ambulance chasers; it would strike a blow to the poor, the vulnerable and the dispossessed. Scotland wants to increase our citizens’ protections. We want to put human rights at the heart of our domestic policy, as we pledged to do in our national action plan on human rights, which the Scottish National party Government launched a couple of years ago. For example, our dementia strategy in Scotland is based on agreed rights for patients, including the right to have access to treatment, and the right to have dignity and respect. We see this process as the way forward—strengthening our citizens’ rights, because we are here as lawmakers essentially to protect the citizens who put us here.
My view is that we would look rather insular to our partners in the wider world if we repealed or withdrew from the ECHR. When most countries in Europe have adopted the ECHR, what message would it send out to the world if we withdrew from it or repealed it, and diluted our citizens’ protections? It would be a sad day indeed for the UK’s reputation abroad.
I look forward to the sovereign people of Scotland coming together to draft a written constitution for Scotland, enshrining these rights forever in a future independent Scotland.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main, and I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries and Galloway (Richard Arkless) for securing this very important debate.
Last December, I had the great pleasure of tabling an early-day motion to recognise Human Rights Day 2015. As a lifelong advocate of human rights, one of the great privileges of being an elected Member is now being in a position to effectively defend them, and they do need defending, as they are under attack from the current Government. They will say that this piece of legislation—the Human Rights Act—is not one and the same as our actual rights and that the reaction to their plans has been overblown. I say that is nonsense. Plans to scrap the Human Rights Act are no less than a full-on assault on the rights that I hold dear. The dismissiveness of the Government betrays the seriousness of the implications of their plans. It is a decade since the Prime Minister set up a panel of legal experts to draw up a British Bill of Rights to replace the Human Rights Act. Ten years on and that plan is still met with the fiercest opposition. Ten years down the line, the Tories are still unable to spin their plans as favourable, useful or in any way feasible.
It is important to remember that the Human Rights Act received cross-party support back in 1998. It is just as important that the Prime Minister’s plans do not even have the full support of his own Back Benchers, let alone Members from other parties.
Is my hon. Friend aware that the Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights visited the UK in January and said:
“My impression is that the debate over the HRA in Westminster is not a true reflection of concerns outside England”?
With regard to the position in Scotland, does she agree with the Commissioner’s statement?
Yes, I totally agree with that statement. It is important, not only in England and Scotland but worldwide, that we support human rights and hold firm our thoughts on how important they are.
The tenacity of the Prime Minister in pursuing this wholly unpopular and unnecessary move is deeply unsettling. Like a hunting dog with a scent, he simply will not accept defeat. One wonders precisely what the motivation behind that staunch attitude is. After all, the plans are not only appalling, but risk a complete constitutional change and crisis in the UK.
Human rights are not reserved, and it is not conceivable that the Human Rights Act could be scrapped without legislative consent from the Scottish Parliament. I am proud that the Scottish National party will stand up to the Tories and will not buckle over our fundamental rights. I stood for election under the party promise that we were “Stronger for Scotland”. For me, our steadfast and unyielding opposition to this attack on human rights is our motto in practice. People in Scotland want a strong voice standing up to the unscrupulous attacks on our rights and core values, and that is what we are providing. Human rights are not Scottish, English, Welsh or Northern Irish—they are not American or Australian for that matter. Human rights are universal, and we will not stand by and allow them to be diluted wherever they face threat. Repealing the provisions of the Human Rights Act would be nothing short of a colossal misjudgment, as it would remove important protections for people in the UK.
It is important to point out that the Human Rights Act did not give any new rights to UK citizens when it became law in 1998. It ensured that convention rights could be interpreted and considered by courts here in the UK. The UK was one of the first states to ratify the European convention on human rights. It is only right and proper that those rights are upheld in British courts, without the need to take cases to the European Court of Human Rights, if we are still in Europe. Justice should be accessible, yet just as we have seen with the introduction of tribunal fees, the Tories seem hellbent on making it as prohibitive as possible, particularly for those on low incomes. Human rights are centred on fairness for all of us. Removing access to justice, or at least making it much more difficult for vulnerable people, is itself an attack on our rights. What does that say to the rest of the world? What message does it send if we are unwilling to stand up to regimes such as that in the Saudi Kingdom, and instead pour our efforts into degrading our own protections?
My early-day motion called on the Government to work constructively with other Governments to promote the universality of human rights. The convention on human rights remains as much the shining beacon of human achievement that it was decades ago when Winston Churchill was championing it. I want to see human rights protected not only in Scotland, but across the UK and beyond. I want to see our human rights strengthened, not diminished. I want to see fairness at the core of everything we do as legislators. We can only do that if we stand up against these plans, loudly and clearly, and say no.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Dumfries and Galloway (Richard Arkless) on obtaining this debate. I apologise for being a little late, but I caught up during the latter stages of his contribution. I was interested to hear the speech by the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier), who dealt with the threat posed by the discussion that is clearly going on within Government on the future of the Human Rights Act 1998. Without disagreeing with what she said, this is a moment where we might stop and take stock. If the Government are conducting a good-faith exercise, it need not be a threat, and it could be an opportunity.
Let us not forget that the implementation of the Human Rights Act brought a greater and more immediate degree of access to convention rights. The convention was written in the 1950s and the framework of human rights and wider jurisprudence was very different from the one we have today. Nowadays, there is a whole range of different rights, including employment rights and social and economic rights, that are worthy of protection and of being given the same status as the right to a family life, for example, which is an important part of the ECHR. Those are the sorts of rights that I would like to see brought in. If this is a good-faith exercise on the part of the Government—that remains to be seen, and I am prepared to give them the benefit of the doubt for the moment, because we have never heard much by way of progress, although perhaps the Minister will have something to tell us today—I am happy to engage with them on the basis of broadening and strengthening the human rights covered by the Human Rights Act.
At this stage, it is useful to remember the history of the debate that brought us to where we are today. Essentially, the creation of the Human Rights Act and the terms in which it was introduced were something of a fudge. Throughout the 1990s and back into the 1980s—and possibly before that, for all I know—there was ongoing and substantial debate about the creation of a British Bill of Rights. I say that it was a fudge because the creation of a Bill in the terms that were discussed would have brought with it a fairly substantial challenge to the conventional Diceyan view of parliamentary sovereignty and the sovereignty of this place.
The justiciability of decisions taken by Government and Parliament was something that Tony Blair just did not have the stomach for taking on, even in the early years of the 1997 Government. For that reason, he came forward with a fudge, albeit an elegant one. It compelled courts to bring consideration of convention rights in an immediate way that meant that citizens did not have to go through the whole rigmarole of taking things to the European Court of Human Rights. Indeed, it has worked well ever since. In the time since the Human Rights Act was introduced, we have seen a substantial revision of the Diceyan view of parliamentary sovereignty. If we were to start with a Bill of Rights today, it would not scare the horses in the way that it clearly scared Tony Blair back in the late 1990s.
Like me, the right hon. Gentleman is a Scots lawyer. Does he agree that the Diceyan view of the sovereignty of Parliament is very much a doctrine of English constitutional law? In Scottish constitutional law, there is a very strong foundation, recently reiterated by Lord Hope in the Supreme Court, in Jackson v. Attorney General, that the doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty is an English doctrine and that in Scotland the people are sovereign.
That was a debate that we enjoyed in the 1990s—I say “enjoyed”, but I use the word in the loosest possible sense—in the days of the constitutional convention. It was the underpinning of the claim of right that led to the Scottish Parliament being founded. There is a fairly long pedigree of jurisprudence in Scots law. Dredging my memory of the days of constitutional law, I go back to the case of MacCormick v. Lord Advocate, where that view was well-founded, albeit in obiter dictum.
The opportunity is there for something more to be done with human rights and a new Bill of Rights that would build on the Act that we currently enjoy. I hope the Minister would be open to that. More important and more fundamental to me than the Human Rights Act is that this country should remain a party to the European convention on human rights. If the worst predictions of the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West were to come true and the Human Rights Act were repealed, that would not deprive us of the convention rights; it would just make them that much more inaccessible. It would take us back to the situation we had before the 1998 Act, when citizens could access their convention rights, but it ultimately required going all the way to the European Court of Human Rights. That would be a genuine retrograde step.
To pick up the point made by the hon. Member for Dumfries and Galloway, that would also put us in rather poor company. In fact, leaving the convention on human rights would leave the United Kingdom sitting—I hope rather uncomfortably—with Belarus.
The right hon. Gentleman is putting a typically articulate view. What is his view on the potential legalities and problems that the UK Government might have in either an imposition of the British Bill of Rights, repeal of the Human Rights Act, or withdrawal from the ECHR? That is what I would like the debate to focus on.
To take each point in turn, the imposition of a British Bill of Rights would require an Act of Parliament. If that were to extend and build on convention rights, and if it were not in contravention or conflict with convention rights, I would see no difficulty with that. If we were to seek to withdraw from the convention, that would bring with it enormous problems. It would bring the political problems that I have already touched on and would put us in the company of nations that, frankly, I do not want to find myself with. Beyond that, it would put us in breach of treaty obligations, because the convention rights are built into the Good Friday agreement, which, above all else, is a treaty between ourselves and Ireland. It would also throw our own constitutional structure into disarray, because the Human Rights Act is hardwired into the devolution settlement in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Again, this is one of those things that was probably not given consideration when the Conservatives set up their commission 10 years ago. That probably explains the fact that this seems to have landed in a pile of things in the Ministry labelled “a bit too difficult to deal with; we’ll maybe look at it next month”.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his answer. He makes the position clear from a UK point of view, but I am interested in his view on whether a potential imposition of a British Bill of Rights would require a legislative consent motion from the Scottish Parliament and whether, in his view, that consent is likely to be given by any party of any colour or any Government in Scotland?
We would have to see what the terms of the Bill were before deciding whether it required legislative consent. There are a lot of social and economic rights where the Bill would of course cut across devolved areas and would need a legislative consent motion. Employment rights, for example, are clearly reserved. We would need to see what the terms were. Like all such changes—if I can expand the thought for a second—these things are based on building consensus before introducing a Bill, so that everybody knows exactly what it will cover. I am talking about my fantasy Bill of Rights and the things I would like to have in it, which are not reflected much in a great deal of what we have heard from the thinking of the Government. However, I am ever the optimist, so we do not know what we might we get from them.
If we were to get a Bill of Rights that built on the convention rights, did not interfere with them and left us still a party to the European convention, I think that would be well received in Scotland. I would be disappointed to think that, just because such a Bill had been initiated here in Westminster, it would not be accepted by people in Scotland. The protection of human rights has been reserved broadly since the days of devolution, and people in Scotland would still respect that, having voted to remain part of the United Kingdom.
I shall be interested to hear what the Minister has to say. The last time we went round this course in Westminster Hall, he assured us that we would be hearing more. We have not heard quite as much as I had hoped we would; we have heard just as much as I thought we might. We shall wait to hear what he has to say. I hope that at some point we will get the answers to how the Government are going to get out of the hole they have been digging for themselves, in terms of the constitutional difficulties that any repeal of the Human Rights Act would bring.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairpersonship, Mrs Main.
My hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries and Galloway (Richard Arkless), who secured this debate, made it clear that he specifically wanted to talk about legalities. He has argued that human rights are integral to the devolution settlement, and he referred to the fact that the European convention on human rights is written into the Scotland Act 1998 in sections 29 and 57, which provide that the Scottish Parliament cannot pass any legislation that is contrary to any of the convention rights, and a Scottish Minister or a Member of the Scottish Government cannot pass legislation or carry out any act that is contrary to convention rights. Neither of those sections would be changed by a simple repeal of the Human Rights Act, because they are part of the Scotland Act.
My hon. Friend also made the point that if we look at the scheme of devolution that was devised by the late Donald Dewar, who was the first ever First Minister of Scotland, his plan was simple and, in my view, to be lauded: everything would be devolved unless it was specifically reserved. We find in schedule 5 of the Scotland Act a list of the matters that are specifically reserved to the United Kingdom Parliament, but one will search in vain for any mention of human rights in schedule 5, so in my respectful submission it is not correct to say that human rights are a reserved matter. They are a devolved matter. My hon. Friend asked the Minister to confirm whether he agrees that, as a matter of statutory interpretation, human rights are not reserved to the United Kingdom Parliament.
It must be recognised squarely that in terms of schedule 4, the Human Rights Act cannot be modified or repealed by the Scottish Parliament. The Scottish National party and the Scottish Government accept that. However, we argue, as my hon. Friend did, that because human rights are not reserved in terms of the Scotland Act, if the British Parliament wants to repeal the Human Rights Act and replace it with a British Bill of Rights, it will be legislating in the field of human rights, and under the Sewel convention it must seek the legislative consent of the Scottish Parliament. Hopefully, by the time we get to that stage, the Sewel convention will be on a statutory footing as proposed in clause 2 of the Scotland Bill.
I reiterate my hon. Friend’s question to the Minister: does he accept that for repeal of the Human Rights Act, and for repeal of anything in the Scotland Act, a legislative consent motion would be required from the Scottish Parliament? Also, does he appreciate that as recently as the end of 2014, more than 100 Members of the Scottish Parliament indicated that they supported the Human Rights Act? A cross-party majority was in support. Is he also aware that the First Minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon, has made it very clear that her Government, which has a majority in the Scottish Parliament, would never support repeal? So does he accept that, with regard to the future framework for human rights not only in Scotland but across the UK, the British Government could not repeal the Human Rights Act and replace it with a British Bill of Rights without the consent of the Scottish Parliament and that that is extremely likely to be withheld? The third question that my hon. Friend posed was the question of whether the British Bill of Rights will apply to Scotland. If it is going to apply to Scotland, does the Minister accept that there would have to be a legislative consent motion?
The First Minister of Scotland has been keen to emphasise on several occasions that she wants to preserve the Human Rights Act for the whole of the United Kingdom, not just for Scotland. There is no question of the Scottish Government doing a deal whereby Scotland would get out of the repeal of the Human Rights Act and leave the rest of our partner nations in the United Kingdom swinging in the wind. My hon. Friend the Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) stressed the universality of human rights, and the First Minister of Scotland has argued that it is important they are kept for the whole of the United Kingdom, so it is not the intention of the Scottish National party or the Scottish Government to do any deal. We would like to be involved in the cross-party movement to keep human rights for the whole of the United Kingdom.
That feeds into another point made by both my hon. Friends. The repeal of the Human Rights Act would send out completely the wrong message to the world about the United Kingdom’s direction of travel on human rights. It is striking to look at the testimony of Hossam Bahgat, the director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. He was involved in the Tahrir square uprising five years ago and said:
“The most important thing that the British can do to support human, rights in Egypt is to support human rights in the United Kingdom...It is significantly more difficult for us to fight for universal human rights in our country, if your country publicly walks away from the same universal rights.”
To his great credit, the former Attorney General, the right hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr Grieve), made a similar point when he recently highlighted the fact that Russia is already using the UK’s position on human rights to delay implementing European Court judgments and that the UK is being cited by countries such as Venezuela as justification for ignoring obligations under the American convention on human rights.
When the right hon. and learned Gentleman spoke in Edinburgh last September, he described the ECHR as
“arguably the single most important legal and political instrument for promoting human rights on our planet.”
He has previously stated that if the UK is
“instrumental in damaging its effectiveness it will sit very strangely with our settled policy of promoting human rights globally.”
That is a voice from the Minister’s party supporting the notion that it would be unfortunate if Britain sent out the wrong message about our support for human rights.
I very much agree with the hon. and learned Lady on the question of universality. When I went to Cameroon a few years ago to work on a Voluntary Service Overseas-funded project that provided legal aid to people who could not afford it, I was struck by the fact that when I went into lawyers’ offices and courts, there was the universal declaration of human rights. We always think of it as being quite high-flown and possibly even overblown, but they rely on it in courts of first instance. Does the hon. and learned Lady agree that the Human Rights Act need not be the last word in human rights? Legislation could be introduced in several areas to give protection that is more contemporarily relevant than that envisaged in the 1950s.
I absolutely agree with the right hon. Gentleman. As my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries and Galloway indicated, the Scottish Government are already attempting to hard-wire human rights into all their social policy—not only the human rights enshrined in the ECHR, but social and economic rights. For example, the Scottish Government have made it clear that when they have the additional powers they hope to get to develop a social security system for Scotland, respect for the dignity of the individual will be at the heart of the system. We are keen to move the human rights debate on in Scotland, which is why the Scottish Government brought in Scotland’s national action plan for human rights. When the Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights visited Scotland in January, he singled out the national action plan for support.
I totally agree with the right hon. Gentleman that socioeconomic rights are important. Many other countries in the world recognise that and have such rights in their written constitutions. The constitution of the new Republic of South Africa, which was drafted, at least in part, by one of the finest lawyers on the planet still living, Albie Sachs, recognises the importance of socioeconomic rights, which are embedded in it. Some of the Nordic states’ constitutions also embed socioeconomic rights. As my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries and Galloway said, it is our hope that when we become independent we will have a constitutional convention to write a constitution for an independent Scotland. We will look at the models and examples of other forward-looking democracies—not only in the west, but including examples such as South Africa—and seek to write socioeconomic rights into our constitution.
There is universal recognition among all those who have spoken so far of the importance and universality of human rights. We are of one voice, across the SNP-Lib Dem divide, in saying that socioeconomic rights are important and that the rights in the ECHR are only a floor for human rights, not a ceiling. The right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) expressed the hope that the currently proposed consultation might be brought forward and might look at socioeconomic rights. I am far less of an optimist than he is. All the noises I have heard coming from the Government Benches have suggested that it will be an exercise in reducing rather than bolstering human rights protections. Regardless of the purpose of the exercise, do the Government accept that human rights are devolved, not reserved, and that the legislative consent of the Scottish Parliament must be sought before there is any interference in the human rights regime that effects Scotland?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main. I, too, commend the hon. Member for Dumfries and Galloway (Richard Arkless) for securing this important debate. For him and for you, Mrs Main, these are obviously fresh and interesting developments, but for the rest of us there is an element of groundhog day. The Minister, the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry) and I were present on 30 June last year for what I think was the previous human rights debate in Westminster Hall, which was secured by the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael). One would have thought that in eight months we might have moved on somewhat, but we have not moved far at all.
First, I shall explain what we now know that we did not know then, and then I shall outline what we still do not know. The hon. and learned Lady made essentially the same point as she made in the previous debate:
“Ministers…suggest that they believe that the UK Government could repeal the Human Rights Act without reference to the Scottish Parliament. They argue that the Sewel convention would not be engaged because human rights are a reserved matter. That is wrong and legally illiterate. Human rights are not a reserved matter and are not listed as such in schedule 5 to the Scotland Act 1998.”—[Official Report, 30 June 2015; Vol. 597, c. 424WH.]
I do not have the benefit of the expert legal advice that the Government have to enable me to comment on that—I am not sure whether Minister himself does these days, as he and the Lord Chancellor are in that interesting lacuna in which the outers currently find themselves—but I can at least say that this is a hotly debated matter. This is one of the most intractable issues in which the Government have engaged in since beginning this rather sorry and unwise attempt to unravel the Human Rights Act, which was introduced by the last Labour Government.
If nothing else, the Lord Chancellor is candid and answers questions as honestly as he can. When called upon to give answers about this matter, he struggled and said that it was still under review. That is probably right. Given the proximity of the Scottish Parliament elections, there is an additional problem: we will shortly be entering a period of purdah. The former leader of the Labour party, now Chair of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman), wrote to the Lord Chancellor asking him to confirm that
“no part of the consultation period will overlap with the period where purdah applies or the Scottish Parliament will be dissolved”.
The response simply said that the Lord Chancellor will
“adhere to any Cabinet Office guidance”.
Can the Minister shed some more light on those matters? It might not be important now as it does not look like there will be any movement before the Scottish Parliament elections or, indeed, the EU referendum. Nevertheless, I would appreciate some clarity. If the positions of the devolved authorities—not only the Scottish Parliament but the Northern Ireland Assembly—are going to be significant in any legislation that is drafted, there will need to be a full consultation, which cannot be done properly during a period of purdah.
Let me throw one other thing into the mix. The Scottish Conservative general election manifesto—a rather recherché document that I am not sure we are all terribly familiar with—said:
“The Scottish Parliament will retain the final say on the role of the European Court of Human Rights in relation to the Scotland Act 1998.”
The Minister may wish to clarify the Government’s attitude to the European convention on human rights. From what both he and the Lord Chancellor have said recently, it is pretty clear that they now do not envisage our withdrawing from the convention, but that is always hedged with the phrase, “Nothing is ruled in and nothing is ruled out.” It would be helpful if the Minister ruled that out, because that would remove one of the major problems that we face.
That is the territory we are in and those are the questions that we can glean answers to. Although it is always valuable to run these issues around the Chamber again, until the Government actually bring something forward, we are all stumbling around in the dark.
I agree with what the hon. Gentleman said about the timetabling. It is unlikely that we will see anything this side of the purdah period for the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish elections. It is impossible at this stage to consult with the Administrations in any of the devolved regions before the elections. However, it would be exceptionally unwise thereafter to start a consultation in the middle of the referendum campaign. This discussion is best conducted in a period of relative calm and stability. I fear that the period between 6 May and 23 June is not going to be—
I apologise on behalf of the legal profession. Once we get going, it is difficult for us to stop.
I agree with the right hon. Gentleman. This will probably be my last or my last but one point, so the Minister has time to respond. If nothing else, we must have some clarity on the timetabling. I remind the Minister, although I am sure he engraved these milestones, that the Conservative manifesto said:
“We will…scrap the Human Rights Act and curtail the role of the European Court of Human Rights”.
Last year, the Prime Minister, writing in no less a paper of record than The Sun, said that it is
“one of the first tasks I set the new Justice Secretary”.
In May 2015, the Minister said:
“The Government will consult fully on its proposals for a Bill of Rights during this session.”
From what we read today in the papers, it may well be that the Prime Minister gets round that by simply extending the Session and pushing the Queen’s Speech back. Nevertheless, we need certainty.
Nothing could be clearer than what the Minister said in Justice questions on 8 September 2015:
“We will bring forward proposals on a Bill of Rights this autumn. They will be subject to full consultation. The preparation is going well.”—[Official Report, 8 September 2015; Vol. 599, c. 205.]
The Lord Chancellor modified that on 2 December 2015, when he said:
“My original intention was to publish the consultation before Christmas. It has now been put back. I expect it will be produced in the New Year.”
I think we can say that we are quite firmly in the new year now. It would be helpful if the Minister to give some clarity, because I am reliant on another authoritative source—The Mail on Sunday—which told us at the weekend that the Bill has been put off indefinitely to avoid an explosive new row over Europe. Specifically, it said that the work
“has now been completed by Justice Secretary…and is sitting on a desk inside No 10… Downing Street is refusing to publish the legislation, they say. Insiders believe the explanation is Mr Gove’s decision to defect to the Out camp in the referendum.”
We know that there are political difficulties for the Government, which may be why it has been convenient to postpone what seems to be the entire Parliament’s business, including the Queen’s Speech, until after the referendum. It would just be nice to be told that in terms.
Two weeks ago, we were told that there will be a sovereignty Bill, possibly published this week. What has happened to that? How does it relate to reform of the Human Rights Act? It may be that the boat has sailed and that, because the people whom the Prime Minister wished to keep within the tent—including the Minister—are already outside the tent, there is not much point in introducing a sovereignty Bill. It is extraordinary that we talked for so long about the European Court of Human Rights and the European convention on human rights, but we barely hear them mentioned now. Everything is about the European Court of Justice. I wonder whether it was just the words “human rights” that caused difficulty for some Government Back Benchers, and that in the hothouse atmosphere of the European Union referendum debate the caravan has moved on. That is no way to run a Government. If nothing else, I ask the Minister to give us some clarity on whether we are going to have a proposal, so when we next debate this matter we can have a substantive debate rather than run around the houses.
Let me end on this point. Although the have been some comic—or tragicomic—aspects to how the Government have handled this matter, in essence it is extremely serious. Other speakers talked about the universality of human rights and the importance of giving effect to international law and human rights in our domestic courts. That is not something to trifle with and it should not fall prey to internal disputes within a political party, even if it is the governing party.
I remind the Minister of what the director of Amnesty International said last week when its report was published —it is a shame that Amnesty needs to remind the Government of their duties on this matter—
“The UK is setting a dangerous precedent to the world on human rights. There’s no doubt that the downgrading of human rights by this government is a gift to dictators the world over and fatally undermines our ability to call on other countries to uphold rights and laws. People around the world are still fighting to get basic human rights and we should not let politicians take our hard-won rights away with the stroke of a pen.”
I know that the Minister is a sensible, intelligent man, and I hope he takes those comments on board and is not swayed by the passions of Europe, pro or anti.
It is an honour and a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main, for the first time, I think. We have stood shoulder to shoulder on many issues and you have steered us wisely thorough this debate.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Dumfries and Galloway (Richard Arkless) on securing the debate, and other hon. Members on their stimulating contributions. In particular, I thank the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) for sharing his fantasy of a British Bill of Rights with us. The serious point that he made is that the Human Rights Act is not the last word on human Rights: it is not the perfect incarnation of human rights in this country, and therefore it can admit of change. I sensed agreement on that point, so the real bone of contention is what that change might look like, rather than the principled question of whether the Human Rights Act has become untouchable.
The Government are fully committed to the protection of human rights across the UK. This debate is an important opportunity to reflect on what that protection looks like now, what it might look like in the future and how it might be improved. The Prime Minister made it clear that the Government will work in the interests of all four nations of the UK, and it goes without saying that I share that commitment. One of the things that unites us as a country is our shared commitment to liberty and the rule of law. Although that commitment has evolved though different instruments, from Magna Carta and the 1689 Bill of Rights in England and Wales, to the Scottish Claim of Right, the nations of the UK have evolved with a shared commitment to the common values that underpin human rights and, indeed, the Union.
As an Englishman, I am proud to pay tribute to the Scottish landmarks on Britain’s long road to liberty. I mentioned the Claim of Right, to which can be added the Criminal Procedure Act 1701, which established and entrenched the principle of habeas corpus in Scots law. Scotland has produced some of our very finest thinkers on the subject of liberty and the rule of law. I would single out David Hume and his essays on the liberty of the press and civil liberty. He regarded Government not as the enemy of liberty but as a necessary condition for liberty. As hon. and right hon. Members will know, his work came in the context of the period after the Act of Union, so it was part of the intellectual fabric that binds this United Kingdom.
We share not only the values, but the things that emanate from them—the practical products of a commitment to liberty, such as free elections, a ban on cruel and unusual punishment, free and fair trials, and free speech. Those values and their product found voice and strength in Scotland as in the rest of the United Kingdom and are shared across the UK. At the same time, we must reflect on the pluralism within the UK and that the UK is a union of diverse interests, history and legal traditions. Notwithstanding our shared commitment to rights and liberty, there are areas where we diverge. We can look, for example, to the right to trial by jury that exists in England and Wales. Jury trial is practised in Scotland, but it is not there as a strict right, which is perfectly legitimate and respectable. There is room for different applications of fundamental freedoms across the UK. That diversity is not merely to be expected; it is to be welcomed. It would be odd were the SNP, which is effectively committed to secession, not to think that that pluralism was a good idea.
I will just make a little progress and then I will certainly take interventions.
The balance between shared values and the different application of those values finds voice today in Scotland’s human rights framework. The protection of rights and liberty remains at the heart of Scotland’s devolution settlement—a point made well by the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry) and the hon. Member for Dumfries and Galloway. The compatibility of devolved legislation with fundamental human rights is central to the competence of the Scottish Parliament. While competence for the UK’s human rights framework remains with the UK Government and this House, the Scottish Parliament and the Scottish Government are responsible for the application of human rights in devolved areas and are free to act on human rights issues within devolved policy areas. The core substantive rights are common across the UK, but we have an element of pluralism in our approach to the procedural mechanism for protecting human rights. That variable procedural geometry means that the application of human rights admits some measure of variation across the UK.
We had lots of theoretical considerations of the human rights position as it applies in the UK and in Scotland, but let us discuss some tangible illustrations. Unlike in England and Wales, for example, the Scottish Government do not provide for mandatory fatal accident inquiries for unnatural deaths of persons detained under mental health laws, despite some criticism from the Scottish Human Rights Commission. Another example is the hourly rousing of detainees in police cells, which takes place in Scotland but applies only to vulnerable detainees in England. Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary in Scotland recommended reform in that area. A third example—again, this list is illustrative, not exhaustive—is the notification period for demonstrations in Scotland, which is 28 days compared with six days in England. That has been the subject of criticism by the UN’s special rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association. It is also highlighted in “Is Scotland Fairer?” the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s latest report, along with other areas that the commission concluded required improvement, such as violence and harassment against children and young persons and hate crimes perpetrated on grounds of disability or sexual orientation.
I should make it clear that the Government support the principle that Scotland should have the freedom to take action on rights in devolved areas, in line with its own priorities for implementation, and to decide how it balances fundamental human rights with the need to implement practical and sensible policies for the people of Scotland.
I mentioned in earlier that the Council of Europe’s commissioner for human rights recently visited the UK. Is the Minister aware that the commissioner complimented the Scottish Government on the fact that they are looking to go beyond the European convention on human rights by implementing other international human rights treaties directly into Scots law? Is the Minister aware that the commissioner also said:
“The Scottish National Action Plan for Human Rights is also a good example for”
the rest of the United Kingdom?
I read the remarks of the commissioner. Indeed, I met him in person and he seemed satisfied with the assurances I gave him that our reforms, proposals and what we have in mind will not see us turn into the basket case of Europe or become like Belarus, which is nonsense that is bandied around frankly rather irresponsibly. I did meet the commissioner and did read his comments about Scotland, and it is right to pay tribute to the improvements and to what the rest of the Union can learn from Scotland. Action plans and the theoretical stuff is fine, but it is what we do in practice that really counts for the citizens of Scotland and indeed the rest of the UK.
In addition, the more powers that the Scottish Government assume for the implementation of human rights for the people of Scotland, the more they can be expected to be questioned and evaluated on the degree to which they live up to the responsibilities that they acquire. We hear an awful lot from the SNP in this House about how the UK Government and Parliament are threatening human rights in Scotland, but I hope that that is not being used as a distraction from considering the degree to which the Scottish Government meet their commitments in reality in Scotland. It is not about brandishing action plans, to which the hon. Member for Dumfries and Galloway referred, and making pious policy statements about human rights in theory instead of focusing on delivering in practice. Perhaps the hon. and learned Lady would like to respond to that point.
I would not, because the Minister is here to answer questions put to him by us in this debate. I am conscious of the clock and that there is about three and a half minutes left. He has been asked a number of questions by my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries and Galloway (Richard Arkless) that he has not yet answered. He has also been asked some important questions by the spokesperson for the official Opposition about the purdah period. Will the Minister answer those questions?
We have made it clear that the Human Rights Act can be revised only by the UK Government, but the implementation of many human rights issues is devolved. The right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland neatly summed up the position on the Sewel convention and legislative consent motions. Scotland cannot responsibly take a decision on such things until it has its package. In relation to the European convention on human rights, which the hon. Member for Dumfries and Galloway also asked about, I do not know how many times I have said it in the House, but our current plans do not involve our withdrawal from the convention. If the hon. Gentleman has been in for Justice Question Time once over the past six months, he will have heard me say that.
In fact, the Scotland Bill, which is currently completing its passage in the other place, serves as a reminder of the Scottish Parliament’s role in deciding the right balance for Scottish people in Scotland. To take just one example, when competence for the franchise in local and Scottish parliamentary elections is devolved to the Scottish Parliament, it will be for the Scottish Parliament and the Scottish Government to determine whether the current ban on convicted prisoners voting ought to remain, as in the rest of the UK. The SNP has made it clear that it did not want the franchise extended to prisoners for the Scottish referendum. Nicola Sturgeon made that clear in May 2013.
I will not because I have so little time left.
Under the Human Rights Act, however, once Scotland has devolved responsibility for the franchise, the only way that the Scottish Government will be able to retain the ban on prisoner voting is by relying on the nationwide ban enacted by the UK Parliament here at Westminster. It is one of those things that SNP Members should remember, ’fess up to and be a bit more honest and straightforward about when they hurl around the suggestion that we are attacking human rights.
There is actually widespread support in Scotland for replacing the Human Rights Act with a Bill of Rights, which has been borne out by all the YouGov polling.
The hon. and learned Lady does not like the facts.
The truth is that the UK’s history of respect for human rights predates the Human Rights Act in all parts of the United Kingdom. That protection will continue to be totally central to our human rights framework in the years ahead. I look forward to many more opportunities to discuss the substance and detail of the framework with hon. Members in due course.
That this House has considered the future framework for human rights in Scotland.
The Chair’s opinion as to the decision of the Question was challenged.
Question not decided (Standing Order No. 10(13)).