Wednesday 16 March 2016
[Mr David Crausby in the Chair]
UNHCR: Admission Pathways for Syrian Refugees
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the UNHCR and pathways for admission of Syrian refugees.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Crausby. I am pleased to have secured this debate ahead of the high-level meeting on 30 March in Geneva, which was called for by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. The purpose of that meeting is to secure pledges for increased opportunities for admission of Syrian refugees, and I want to urge the Government to play their full part in that process.
This week marks the fifth anniversary of the Syrian conflict. On this day five years ago, the Assad regime arrested dozens of Syrians who had defied a ban on demonstrations and had protested in Damascus. The Arab spring had reached Syria and so had half a decade of violence that precipitated the rise of Daesh. The sheer scale of the human cost of the conflict is almost beyond comprehension. More than a quarter of a million Syrians have been killed, the majority of whom have lost their lives at the hands of Assad. As a result of that violence, 4.8 million Syrians have fled their country seeking refuge elsewhere. A further 6.5 million are displaced within Syria, many living in absolutely desperate conditions.
The Syrian refugee crisis must be considered in the context of the wider global situation. It is often said that, with almost 20 million refugees worldwide, the world is currently facing the worst global refugee crisis since the second world war. The impact of that crisis, however, is distinctly un-global. Figures from the UNHCR show that 86% of the world’s refugees are hosted by developing countries. That the responsibility for supporting refugees currently rests on a minority is evident when looking at where Syrian refugees are being supported. The vast majority are being hosted by countries in the region.
Turkey alone is home to 2.5 million Syrian refugees, with more people seeking to cross the border each day. Lebanon, a country half the size of Wales, is host to more than 1 million Syrian refugees, meaning that one in four of the population of Lebanon is Syrian. Our country should be humbled by the way in which Lebanon continues to welcome Syrian refugees, particularly given that the Lebanese also host 450,000 Palestinian refugees.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing the debate. She talks about neighbouring countries, a number of which have been exceptionally generous with their land, people and resources in taking in refugees. Does she agree that the one stark exception to that has been Saudi Arabia— a considerably large country with a relatively small population—which has taken a grand total of no refugees?
I agree with the hon. Gentleman. It is shameful that a country with such a huge amount of resources locally is not taking its fair share of refugees. Elsewhere, in comparison, Jordan is hosting more than 600,000 Syrians, while Iraq and Egypt are supporting 245,000 and 118,000 refugees from the conflict respectively.
As a member of the Select Committee on Defence, I have had the opportunity in the last few months to go to Jordan, which has an interesting system of integrating people. They are not in refugee camps; they are integrated into society. Jordan should be an example to the rest of the world of how to look after refugees.
That sounds like an interesting model. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for interjecting that into the debate, and I would be interested to look at it in more detail.
The point is that, despite the continuing hospitality of those countries and the considerable financial support that has been provided by other countries—and, to be fair, that does include the UK—as the conflict has escalated and the number of people fleeing has increased, the living conditions for refugees have come under ever more pressure. As a result, as we know, some Syrians are seeking safety in Europe. About half of the 1.1 million people who put their lives in the hands of smugglers attempting to cross the Mediterranean last year were Syrian.
The high-level meeting on 30 March has been arranged at the request of Ban Ki-moon, the Secretary-General of the UN, with the aim of securing pledges from countries around the world to create so-called pathways for admission—safe and legal routes—for Syrian refugees. The creation of those safe and legal routes for refugees to reach safety is a vital part of the response to the Syrian crisis. It is precisely the lack of such routes that forces refugees to risk their lives trying to reach Europe and that creates the demand for the unscrupulous people smugglers.
I believe that the answer categorically does not lie in attempts to contain the crisis in those countries that are already providing some kind of refuge to refugees, the vast majority of whom are Syrians. Yet, sadly, I would say that that is exactly what is being attempted through the proposed EU-Turkey deal. The apparent one in, one out element of that deal has been described by the European Council on Refugees and Exiles as being
“as Kafkaesque as it is legally and morally wrong”.
I agree with that assessment.
I agree with the hon. Lady about the design flaws that are baked into the EU-Turkey deal. Beyond that, does she share my concern that there is evidence from Human Rights Watch and other organisations that there has been a programme of returns from Turkey to Syria, so Turkey cannot be regarded as a safe place to be sending people back to?
The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. The evidence he has cited underlines the real flaws and dangers to human life in that programme. That is what makes it morally right that the UK should take greater responsibility for those fleeing the Syrian conflict.
I am glad that the hon. Lady has given the UK Government some credit. Our aid contribution and our leadership should be admired to a great degree. The one thing she has not touched on—maybe she will do so later in her speech—is where she sees the medium term for Syria. Does she see it as being a united state—which I know is still the position of Her Majesty’s Government—or does she see it as being divided? In other words, does she see the displacement of huge numbers of Syrians as a medium to long-term phenomenon, or can it be solved more quickly, if the international community has the will and can provide safe havens within the country that we currently call Syria?
Well, if anybody knew the answer to that question, they would be a very much wiser person than many of us here, and certainly very much wiser than I am. I would love to think that there is a solution in the shorter term. All countries need to redouble their efforts on the peace process. In reality, a solution is more likely in the medium term. I do not know whether that will be through splitting the country or keeping it coherent. I would certainly favour the latter, if it could be done in a safe way. Essentially, that decision needs to be made by the Syrian people. They need to make that decision in a democratic way, and we need to ensure that they are able to come to that kind of decision-making process in a safe and legal way.
It is important that we give some consideration to that. I accept that it is not our decision to make here in the UK: it will be a decision of the international community. To be brutally honest, if large numbers of Syrians are relocated—maybe hundreds of thousands, or millions—the danger is that they will tend to be the more educated people. It will be the very people who could make a real difference to Syria’s future who will essentially have no stake in it if they end up living in the United States, Canada or western Europe, yet they are the very people who would be needed to provide the backbone for a future sustainable Syria into the decades ahead.
I agree with the right hon. Gentleman’s point, but the priority right now—the overwhelming priority for all of us—must be ensuring that those people are kept safe so that they can go back, and I think the vast majority will want to go back: it is their home, where they have their roots, histories and cultures.
Let me make a little more progress, if I may.
I have paid tribute to the Government regarding the finance, as the right hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mark Field) acknowledged, but I do want to make some criticism, I am afraid, of the numbers that the UK is taking responsibility for. The UK should be taking a greater responsibility for those fleeing the Syria conflict. Despite what some people would have us believe, the number of Syrians being protected by the UK is pitiful. Since the conflict began, just over 7,000 Syrians have either been granted asylum in the UK or have been resettled here under the vulnerable persons relocation scheme—that is 7,000 out of nearly 5 million Syrian refugees—which means that the UK has provided protection to just 0.15% of all those who have fled Syria due to the violence.
The UK’s response to the Syrian conflict should have been to provide routes for Syrians to reach safety, but what has actually happened is that the UK has taken active steps to prevent Syrians from claiming asylum here, with the success rate for visa applications plummeting and the introduction of new restrictions on transiting through the UK. The aim of those changes is clear. When the Government introduced new restrictions on Syrians transiting through the UK on their way to the US, they did so without the usual 21 days’ notice. The reason for that lack of notice, according to the statement of changes, was precisely to prevent the potential for a significant influx of Syrian citizens and nationals travelling to the UK during the notice period to claim asylum.
Claiming asylum is a right, and we should not be trying to prevent people from doing so. The UK Government are rightly praised for their leadership in providing humanitarian aid to countries affected by the Syrian conflict. This morning we are calling for that same level of leadership on providing sanctuary to refugees fleeing the violence.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this important debate. She has been generous with her time. I represent the city of Sheffield, which was the country’s first city of sanctuary, making a positive statement that we welcome those fleeing persecution and war. That network has now spread across many towns and cities. Does she accept that the Government are out of sync with public opinion on this issue? Although there are genuine concerns about migration that need to be addressed, the public are in a different place on the refugee crisis caused by the Syrian civil war. We should be increasing the numbers currently settled under the vulnerable persons relocation scheme. Although the Prime Minister is right to focus on those on the frontline to avoid the necessity for them to make terrible journeys across Europe, we should also bear some responsibility for all those who have already made that journey.
I wholeheartedly agree with the hon. Gentleman. There is a discrepancy between the compassion being shown by the British public and the way in which the Government have responded so far—they are underestimating people’s willingness to make room for more refugees in their homes and communities. I salute what Sheffield has done. I am happy to say that Brighton and Hove is also a city of sanctuary, which demonstrates the willingness and commitment of ordinary people to welcome people into their homes.
The meeting on 30 March offers an opportunity for Ministers to step up a gear. Among the pathways being called for by the UNHCR is an increase in the number of refugees being resettled, and the Government reluctantly agreed to settle 20,000 Syrian refugees via the vulnerable persons relocation scheme by the end of this Parliament. The Minister with responsibility for Syrian refugees should be congratulated on managing to secure the resettlement of 1,000 refugees through the programme by the end of 2015, but the current commitment is equal to each parliamentary constituency providing a home to just six Syrians each year. We can and must do better. Twenty-thousand refugees should just be a starting point. There has to be much more urgency: the crisis is happening now; people are risking their lives now; the need for safety is now.
There are an estimated 26,000 unaccompanied child refugees in Europe. Although it is welcome that the Prime Minister has said that the UK will accept some of those children, it goes nowhere near what is needed. Will the hon. Lady join me in calling on the UK Government to be a responsible global citizen and proactively seek out refugee children in Europe with family connections in the UK so as to speed up the process of reunification?
I agree with the hon. Lady that the problems of unaccompanied children are particularly urgent. If those children are offered status here, we must also make it possible for them to sponsor their parents, if they are later found, or other family members to come and join them. Right now, the UK is one of the few countries that do not let that happen.
Let me put the numbers in context. During the Hungarian revolution of 1956, Britain, to its credit, welcomed 20,000 Hungarian refugees over just one winter. We need a co-ordinated and increased resettlement programme that works in solidarity with EU member states and our global partners. Like the British Government, I agree that people should not be making dangerous journeys to get to the UK, but our agreement departs at that point. It is not enough to say that people should not be making such journeys; we must ensure that they do not need to make those journeys.
If the Government take on board and implement the UNHCR’s suggestions, we could provide legitimate and safe access to the UK across international borders. For example, the UNHCR is calling for the flexible use of refugee family reunion rules. The current rules mean that refugee families are kept apart. For example, the rules mean that a Syrian father granted asylum in the UK would be allowed to bring his wife and younger children, who may have previously been sleeping several families to a house in Lebanon, to join him, yet his eldest child, if she happens to be over 18, would not ordinarily be allowed to come. We are arbitrarily splitting up such families. Her parents would be faced with the choice of either leaving her behind or seeking to pay smugglers to bring her to the UK. She would be at huge risk in either scenario, and it simply makes no sense under any definition of compassion or humanitarianism to be deliberately splitting up families.
I saw that at our border with France just last week, when I visited the camps at Calais and Dunkirk with the wonderful Brighton-based Hummingbird Project. I would need another whole debate to discuss how deeply the British and French authorities have failed the refugees at those camps, but I note that one of the things that came over in all our discussions with the refugees is how many of them have relatives already here in the UK. I spoke to a 22-year-old man whose wife is a British citizen. He has been at the Calais camp for five months, and he cannot join her. Similarly, another young man had half his family, including his father and brother, living in Birmingham, but again he is stuck in the limbo of the camps. Under the Government’s current rules, neither can apply for family reunification. Instead, they face an indefinite period of trying to navigate the complexities of the British and French asylum systems, often without financial or legal support.
The criteria for refugee family reunion should be extended to allow refugees in the UK to be reunited with their parents, siblings, adult children, grandparents and other family members where there is a dependency relationship. The rules should also be expanded to allow British citizens, and those with indefinite leave to remain, to sponsor relatives abroad. We now have a crazy situation where someone who becomes naturalised, who becomes a British citizen, has fewer rights to access the rest of their family. That has been a concern in my constituency, where I have spoken to several Syrian refugees who no longer have the right to family reunification, as they have now become British citizens, yet who have family who remain in desperate situations.
While we are discussing family reunification, let me quickly address, as the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) did, the 3,000 unaccompanied refugee children. The UK is one of the very few EU countries that do not allow unaccompanied refugee children to sponsor their parents in order to be safely and finally reunited. The UK has opted out of EU directive 2003/86/EC, which allows unaccompanied refugee children to sponsor applications. I cannot see in whose interest that opt-out is operating. The Government need to rectify that as a matter of urgency. It is surely in the best interest of child refugees to be reunited with family members. I hope the Minister will specifically address that point.
Finally, the UK should also heed the UNHCR’s call to introduce humanitarian visas, following in the footsteps of Argentina, Brazil, France, Italy and Switzerland. The UK Government have never before implemented a humanitarian visa programme, but such a programme would allow Syrians and others with valid asylum claims to travel to the UK to claim asylum without having to take dangerous journeys to get here. On a wider point, the meeting on 30 March is one of a number of initiatives aimed at addressing the Syrian crisis, but we must not forget that it will also allow us to develop efficient and safe processes for any other large-scale movements of refugees. Oxfam has noted that 400 people have already died or gone missing trying to reach Europe this year.
Many refugees, including children, continue to be vulnerable as they embark on what can only be described as a march of misery through Europe. Unless European Governments offer refugees safe and legal routes to travel, we will continue to see the death toll rising and people left with little choice but to put their lives in the hands of smugglers and traffickers, which puts women and children at particular risk of exploitation, trafficking and abuse. We need to ensure that we are providing refugees with real solutions, rather than barriers. There is no simple, easy solution to this humanitarian crisis—there are no silver bullets—but we cannot continue to watch over a crisis of this magnitude without sharing a greater sense of responsibility.
Can the Minister assure us that the Government will take a strong leadership role at the meeting on 30 March? Will the Government ensure that we play our full part in providing safe and legal routes of access for refugees? I have outlined three particular demands. It is about giving refugee children the same right as adult refugees to be with their family; it is about widening the rules to allow adult refugees to be reunited with their parents, siblings and adult children in the UK; and it is about affording British citizens and those with indefinite leave to remain the right to bring to the UK their family members with international protection needs. The Government pride themselves on standing up for the family, but that has to be all families, not just some. I look forward to the Minister’s response.
Diolch yn fawr iawn Mr Cadeirydd; it is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Crausby. I thank the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) for securing this timely debate, given, of course, that the meeting she referred to is due to be held at the end of this month. I will speak briefly, because a number of people want to contribute to the debate.
As I am sure everyone in the Chamber would agree, the increasing number of refugees and migrants requires a global and high-level response. This is the most serious challenge of our time—it is a moral, practical and political challenge. It is deceptively simple in debate but it is immense in its implications for those millions of people who have been cast adrift.
First, I will mark my respect for Cefnogi Ffoaduriaid Meirionnydd Dwyfor, or Refugee Solidarity, which has urged me to draw attention to the situation whereby refugees with family members in the UK—that is, people who would be accepted on this side of the channel—are in no way enabled to travel from Calais. The hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion described many such incidents, which is the reality of many migrants’ experience. As I say, these are people who would be accepted if they were to arrive in these islands.
There is a grim irony in people having to take such risks to arrive in a country where asylum will be granted to them, but only if they run a dangerous gauntlet before arrival. The channel may be a convenient barrier, but it cannot be acceptable to condone quietly the risks associated with an illegitimate sea crossing by boat, container or tunnel as a matter of policy. We are fortunate to be an island, but that does not absolve us of moral responsibilities.
Secondly, I take this opportunity to draw attention to the ongoing plight of the Yazidi community in Syria. The world noticed them—briefly—two years ago, when Daesh attacked the region and city of Shingal. Over 60,000 Yazidis were stranded in a state of siege on the mountains as they attempted to flee. They had been given the option by Daesh of converting to Islam or the men would be killed and the women sold as chattel—as sex slaves. The Yazidis’ status as a minority is particularly vulnerable as they are not Muslims and in Daesh’s world view it is not considered rape to force Yazidi women to have sex.
In total, 35 mass graves have been identified in the Shingal region. It is believed that 3,100 Yazidis, mostly women and children, were kidnapped by Daesh in 2014. Some of those women will not return because they have been sold on again, sometimes to Saudi Arabia, or have borne children with Daesh fathers, but it is estimated that 2,000 could be rescued relatively easily by means of being “bought back”. I understand that the average cost of buying a woman her freedom is around $7,000.
Yazidi survivors such as Salwa Khalaf Rasho have recently travelled to London to tell their stories. Many of them have come from Germany, where the state of Baden-Württemberg is providing a two-year programme of therapy for the survivors of Daesh kidnapping and abuse. The community is seeking international support for redress to the atrocity—it verges on genocide— that they suffered in August 2014 and in the years since. Yazidi leaders and supporters have come to Britain with a list of 11 recommendations, which warrant an international response.
I understand that the 2012 recommendations by the United Nations High Commissioner included the need to do more to protect refugee and migrant women, and that members of the Council of Europe should sign and adopt its convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence. I further note that the convention has been signed but not ratified by the UK.
Of course, I support the calls that the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion has made to the Government and I take this opportunity to request that the Under-Secretary of State for Refugees agrees to meet Salwa Khalaf Rasho to hear her story. Individual voices, particularly women’s voices, are drowned out in the cacophony of war. I urge him to play a part by at least listening to her experience.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Crausby, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) on securing this debate.
I commend the work of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. As with other aid and relief organisations that are working in this most troubled region, the UNHCR has an incredibly difficult task. Its work is invaluable and I fear that the current crisis would be much worse if the UNHCR were not on the ground trying to co-ordinate the agencies’ relief efforts in very difficult circumstances.
One particular issue that is being a bit neglected within this humanitarian response is that of religion. I speak in my capacity as the Second Church Estates Commissioner. This conflict is one in which issues of religion are central, and religion is also central to how we deal with the crisis. There is evidence that suggests religious minorities may be avoiding the refugee camps in Jordan, Lebanon or Turkey. I do not undermine in any way the incredible efforts that those host countries have made in trying to protect the vulnerable, but it is the members of religious minorities who often do not find their way to the camps. Consequently, the camps may fail to house the full demographic of vulnerable Syrian refugees and therefore they may not truly represent the percentage of the vulnerable minorities in the wider population of Syria. We do not see in the camps a balance of the Syrian population similar to the one that existed in Syria before the crisis began.
It is hard to determine exactly why that is the case. It may be because of fear of persecution in the refugee camps, or that individuals do not wish to stop in the camps but wish to progress further, due to a fear that the persecution they faced in Syria will spread to other parts of the region. There is anecdotal evidence from those who are travelling towards Europe that that is one of the reasons why members of religious minorities do not want to go to the camps.
I thank the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) for raising the concerns that some religious groups, particularly Christians, have not entered the registration process with the UNHCR—the International Development Committee has also raised those concerns. I welcomed the Minister’s commitment at the last debate we had on this subject, when he said that efforts would be made to ensure that there was appropriate registration, so I look forward to hearing from him an update on the progress in that regard.
My hon. Friend makes a very important point. I think a number of us have challenged a number of Ministers about this issue, asking, first, what is the cause of the under-registration of religious minorities in the camps and, secondly, how do we go out and find the people who are not in the camps? That is the exam question.
I am not in any way knocking what I think was an inspired decision by the Prime Minister to focus on the safe retrieval of people from refugee camps to deter people from making the very dangerous journey across the Mediterranean. That was a very good initiative, but it is not sufficient to deal with some of the most vulnerable refugees.
I call on the Government to work with their partners in the region to promote a strategy whereby we are not content to allow groups fleeing from persecution to slip through the net of the humanitarian effort. Aid must reach all groups, and we must not, even inadvertently, let one religious group be privileged over another.
I am not for one moment suggesting that we should go down the route that is prevalent in places such as Hungary or Poland, whereby we would look to give preferential treatment to Christians. However, my right hon. Friend makes an incredibly important point about religion and the fact that religious minorities and Christian minorities in the region are perhaps being under-reported.
To be absolutely candid, I also think that a policy of helping refugees would get broader support—beyond central London, Brighton and Hove, and Sheffield—if the case were being made that there are significant numbers of fellow religionists, as well as others, who are being brought here. As I say, that is not to give preferential treatment to any group. None the less, it would be good if the British public were made well aware of the depth of this problem for Christian communities, some of whom have been in the region since the very birth of Christianity.
My right hon. Friend makes a very important point. My very last remark before his intervention was to say that we must be careful that one religious group is not privileged over another.
Religious literacy is incredibly important in this discussion. In a moment, I will speak about another minority—a non-Christian minority, the Yazidis—as the hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts) did before me.
In addition, it is crucial that we refrain from considering the refugee crisis just in terms of the immediate political response. Alongside considering the humanitarian action and the most effective way that it can be delivered, the Government must consider the long-term stability and prosperity of the middle east, and work hard to find the short to medium-term solution for Syria itself.
Freedom of religion or belief is enshrined in article 18 of the universal declaration of human rights. It is a fundamental right and one that is integral to the good functioning of any society. Evidence suggests that there is a correlation between freedom of religion or belief and security and economic prosperity. The freedom to practice one’s belief or religion in openness and safety is the hallmark of a society where there is understanding and tolerance between individuals and communities, and with that comes stability, community cohesion and an environment in which civil society, business and all other facets of a free society can flourish.
In conjunction with a number of other parliamentarians, I, too, met with the young Yazidi lady who came to Parliament yesterday. Her first-hand account was harrowing. As a female and a mother, I was concerned about the mental cost to this young woman of having to retell her story to us and other MPs over and over again. It is a disturbing story. She explained how she had been studying peacefully alongside other Arab groups in the city where she lived when suddenly her whole community was forced to flee into the mountains. She did not make it, however, and together with hundreds of women, she was turned back, kidnapped and taken by Daesh to Mosul, where she was sold into slavery and horrifically abused. She escaped only through chance. One member of the group had a mobile phone. In a brief moment of opportunity, she was able to give her father a call. He essentially paid the ransom to the people who smuggled her out of the country.
It is an appalling tale, and another 2,000 Yazidi women are still stuck in that position. They are the most vulnerable of the vulnerable in the region, and they are not on any pathway out of it. Sadly, they are not on the pathway that we have already commended the Government for creating, and the exam question for the Government is: how do we reach the most vulnerable women? That is a most urgent question. As we stand here, those young women are being beaten, raped and abused. Some are taking their own lives because of the misery that they are having to endure.
That is a difficult question, and I do not underestimate that, but one suggestion has been made on finding a way to get them out. The German Government made a commitment to do that and saved 1,000 of those young women. We have to try to think collectively of a way to achieve that together with UNHCR. It has a number of recommendations, and I urge the Minister to take them back to the Government. We need to gain recognition at the UN level for the genocide that the Yazidis have suffered, so that the criminals eventually can be brought to the International Criminal Court for their war crimes. As a civilised nation, we should be willing to support that perfectly reasonable request. Finding ways to repatriate these families—ultimately, it is what remains of their families, as so many have died—is going to be crucial in the recovery of the victims of the terrible genocide of their community. There is no doubt that this is a crisis of extreme complexity—no one would wish to oversimplify it—but as a lack of freedom of religion or belief is part of the problem, it must also be seen and considered as part of the solution.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) on securing this most important debate, which is timely given the meetings that are coming up at the end of the month. I hope that the debate, in its own small way, will help inform the Government’s thinking on their approach to the international discussions.
Like others, I commend the Government for the work they are doing in the region. They have shown commendable leadership, and I would like to see more countries follow that example. What pains me is that we seem to insist that that work is an alternative to helping people inside our own country. I see no reason why the two should be regarded as mutually exclusive. In fact, the efforts to bring people here and to offer them humanitarian, safe and legal routes to the United Kingdom would if anything strengthen the arguments that we must be making to other countries that they should be doing the same as us in the region.
The hon. Lady made reference to the countries in the region, particularly Lebanon, which has a long history of offering help and shelter to refugees. The Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon have been running for decades. In fact, when we go to the refugee camps in Lebanon or Gaza or elsewhere, we realise that to call them refugee camps is something of a misnomer. They are neighbourhoods and housing estates that are built with a permanency that is depressing to see.
Other countries—Turkey, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt—have all stood up to the plate, sometimes under very difficult circumstances. I certainly take the point about the failure of Saudi Arabia to contribute to the effort. Saudi Arabia is a country with which we have warmer relations than I sometimes feel comfortable with, if I can put it like that, but we should be taking advantage of that to make it contribute. The point is—this picks up on the last point made by the hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs Spelman)—that the situation is immensely complex, nuanced and difficult.
I was struck by the response from the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion to the right hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mark Field) about what will happen in the medium term. We would all love to know that. The only thing that I can say with certainty is that, looking at how these sectarian conflicts have developed in other parts of the world, it will be at least 20 to 25 years before we see anything like stability in Syria. We should not think that it will be a problem this year and next year, and then we will be able to move on; we may have to deal with it for a generation.
The question of the EU-Turkey deal and how that develops causes me significant concern. The lack of leadership shown in reaching that deal is significant and severely disappointing. One in, one out is no basis on which to approach a subject as morally and politically challenging as this. The impression that it leaves is of a man trying to bale water out of a boat without first stopping it coming in. It makes me feel that we and the EU are engaging not because we necessarily care for the suffering of these people, but simply because we care more about the potential impact the issue will have on our own countries.
We have spoken a lot about leadership, and I place on record my appreciation for the leadership given by a number of people outside Parliament and in particular the Refugee Council, which does tremendous work every day. I think it may have significantly informed the speech of the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion, and there was little in her contribution that I disagreed with. In the time available, I place on record my continued support for the campaign being run by the Refugee Council, particularly in terms of the need to increase the numbers who can be resettled under the vulnerable persons relocation scheme. Twenty thousand over five years is not to be sneezed at, but it can only be seen as a start. If nothing else, it also needs to be front-loaded, because the crisis is in the here and now. Trying to guess where it will all need to go in five years’ time and limiting the options is unrealistic and unworthy.
We need to make it easier for Syrian refugees to be reunited with those of their family who are already in the United Kingdom. The hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion made reference to the perverse way in which the rules can often operate in that regard. Finally, and most significantly of all, we need the introduction of a humanitarian or asylum visa. As has already been pointed out, that would allow people to travel safely to a country to obtain access to the asylum system there. In the background note to the 30 March meeting, the UNHCR says that Argentina, Brazil, France, Italy and Switzerland have all introduced humanitarian visas to allow Syrian refugees to travel safely and legally. That is what we want here. We should not be forcing people to put their lives into the hands of people smugglers and traffickers. There are ways in which safe, legal and regulated routes can be ensured and help given to those who need it.
It is a pleasure to take part in this debate, Mr Crausby. I welcome the Minister and his commitment and work in this area, and indeed his response to my parliamentary question to confirm his attendance on 30 March.
There is a widespread scheme that leads to the deliberate relocation of thousands of migrants and refugees. It involves thousands of adults and hundreds of children. The arrangements are made for relocation, and the promise is a home in the United Kingdom, where it is safe. Many will have a family relation in the United Kingdom. Europol informed the Home Affairs Committee that at least 90% use this particular scheme. It is not operated by the UNHCR, by the Government’s VPR scheme or by the European Union; it is run by people smugglers and it is exploited by traffickers. The people smugglers are the main beneficiaries of the flight and plight of individuals fleeing conflict and persecution. We in the international community who will meet under the auspices of the UNHCR on 30 March must do better.
Children are the most vulnerable. The independent anti-slavery commissioner told me that in the camps, such as those in Lebanon, they know about 80% of the unaccompanied children and 20% are effectively missing. As soon as they make that perilous journey into Europe, the stats switch to 20% known and 80% unknown—missing. In Europe we have perhaps 10,000 unaccompanied children who are missing, as Europol has said, and 5,000 are missing in Italy, despite the so-called hotspot for processing refugees, which is at risk of becoming a hotspot for trafficking. We must do better.
I saw a snapshot of the desperate situation facing these people when I visited Calais and Dunkirk a couple of weeks ago. It shamed and appalled me that on our European doorstep families were living in deplorable, inhumane conditions that were far worse than those I have seen in other camps, not least in the border areas of Kachin state in brutal Burma. We have a brutal situation on our doorstep in France. What I saw is repeated in Macedonia in the Idomeni camp, and it is even worse now with the bad weather.
Kurdish families from Iraq told me that they were smuggled by lorries via Turkey and that they paid to come to the UK. “Why the UK?”, I asked. “Because that’s where it is safe.” Such a view is only firmed up by French riot police, tear gas, rubber bullets and the like. The dispersal of people will lead to some going through a formal asylum process, which is welcome, in the new so-called reflection centres across France, but others going into the hands of people smugglers and traffickers, particularly when the last bus has already gone and the riot police are still doing their work. We simply must do better.
As Europe puts up its fences and borders, the migrants and refugees get more desperate, their journeys get more irregular, and the price for being smuggled goes up. Sadly, European countries are in a race to the bottom to be as unwelcoming as possible so that an application for asylum is not made in their country. It is sad that Denmark, for example, which has a proud history of providing refuge for Jewish people, is now trying to pass laws to seize refugees’ assets to pay for the costs of their refuge. Those who find their way to Calais or Dunkirk will try and hold out for the smugglers to get them into the UK before they eventually claim asylum. We really must do better than that.
So there is a market for refugees seeking sanctuary, but it is the smugglers and traffickers on the frontline who are the beneficiaries and who are doing the main trade. Rather than refugees or smugglers choosing their destination, host countries should have to do the choosing—we all need to step up—before they get to Europe. That is the point of the meeting on 30 March. We need safe and legal routes as the only legal game in the region, rather than the current game of either obstacle courses set by European Union countries or snakes and ladders, as it could be described, full of smuggler vipers and few ladders, which become a matter of life or death. Sadly, for many risking their lives trying to cross the Aegean, it is more like Russian roulette.
Therefore, I very much welcome the opportunity of the UNHCR meeting for countries to take the initiative and take it away from the people smugglers and traffickers.
From my experience, albeit dated, of working in the field as an aid worker, I found the UNHCR to be under-resourced and overstretched. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that we need the Government to make sure that the UNHCR, which we are asking to do an awful lot on behalf of this country, has the right resources to do the job?
I agree. We will hear from the Minister directly on that. The international community has accepted a responsibility in relation to involvement in the conflicts that have contributed to the current situation. We must accept a financial responsibility. Our great leading role in international aid must also involve the proper resourcing of the UNHCR.
Responsible nations, including our own, need to set out clearly in advance their likely threshold for refugees and their safe and legal routes. I say that we must do better, but in many ways this country has. Our international aid is the second highest, and other European countries need to step up to the plate in that regard. The VPR scheme, which is welcome, has increased to 20,000, which I see as a minimum. It should still be based on vulnerability rather than an arbitrary number. Whether it is one that comes from a campaign group or from the Government’s response to campaigns, it should be based on vulnerability.
I welcome the Government’s commitment on 28 January to provide safety for unaccompanied minors—Save the Children has said it could involve thousands of children, whether in the region, in the camps or in Europe—and to increase family reunions. The Government have made that commitment and I look forward to further details on it. We have resettled 1,337 Syrians in the United Kingdom. That is welcome, and it is far more than the European Union has managed to do, despite their being committed to a relocation scheme. The Government should take credit for that, but they should also see that as the minimum. It is important to recognise that these relocations are taking place not only in camps, but around the region. I look forward to the Minister’s response in relation to how particularly vulnerable people, such as Christians and Yazidis, are getting the help and processing they need.
It is important to recognise that there are other safe and legal routes. The humanitarian visa approach from Argentina, Brazil, France, Italy and Switzerland has a role to play. It is also worth recognising organisations such as the Barnabas Fund and Operation Safe Havens, which are working with churches, not least in eastern Europe, to provide relocation for vulnerable Christians. We should look at how we can work to facilitate and support that, in other countries as well as in our own, where there are churches and communities willing to provide sponsorship and support.
Whether it is VPR, humanitarian visas, family reunion, or a combination of all three, it is important that we and other countries set out up front those safe legal routes and provide incentives to use them. We should give priority to the most vulnerable: the children, the unaccompanied, and groups such as the young women referred to by my right hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mrs Spelman).
As the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) mentioned, we should also look at the criteria for refugee family reunion. We should look at extending the criteria and focus, in particular, on the dependency relationship—whatever the dependency relationship is, there needs to be an extension around it—as well as allowing children with refugee status in the United Kingdom to sponsor their parents to join them. The ability to reunite with family members must be a fundamental right of a refugee. As a matter of urgency, the Home Office needs to amend the rules for unaccompanied children so that they are in line with adults who are granted refugee status or humanitarian protection.
We must focus on vulnerability when providing refuge. That is where we need to go. Our Parliament should take a role in providing the appropriate authorisation for the threshold for safe and legal routes so that we can reduce the demand for smuggling and trafficking and increase our confidence in accepting refugees and providing managed integration.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Crausby. I congratulate the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) on securing this debate. She has spoken in detail about the excellent work of the UNHCR with regard to the resettlement of Syrian refugees and why the high-level meeting later this month on pathways to resettlement will be important for refocusing states on both the short-term humanitarian needs of refugees and their long-term integration. It is also important to recognise, as hon. Members have mentioned, the vital work that the UNHCR is doing on the ground in Syria, in utterly chaotic and hugely distressing circumstances. It is doing all it can in terrible conditions to ensure that victims of conflict have access to shelter, food and safety.
Family reunification will clearly be a prominent topic at the upcoming meeting. As my hon. Friend the Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) said, it is estimated that there are currently 26,000 unaccompanied child refugees in Europe. Our response as a country must be to ask how much we can do to help, rather than how little can we get away with doing. That is why I am particularly proud that in Scotland, people, charities and government at every level are doing everything they can to make Syrian refugees feel as welcome as possible.
Scotland has so far taken at least 400 refugees, with half of Scotland’s local authorities having welcomed individuals and families to their areas. The first Syrian families offered asylum in the north-east of Scotland arrived on the first day of this month—10 families arrived, with more to follow this summer. My home local authority, Aberdeenshire Council, has committed to sheltering 50 families. It has been working with community groups, faith groups, credit unions, universities and colleges to ensure that these vulnerable people are able to transition and settle as smoothly as possible. The proudly international city of Aberdeen has committed to taking 5% of the 2,000 refugees coming to Scotland over the next five years.
To further support refugees coming to Scotland, a refugee taskforce, chaired by the Scottish Minister for Europe and International Development, is overseeing arrangements for their arrival. That includes taking care of their immediate practical needs, such as arranging for them to obtain biometric residence permits and to open bank accounts, along with dealing with longer- term issues to facilitate integration, such as English language support. The Scottish Government have also recently announced amendments to existing legislation to enable Syrian refugees to benefit from student support in Scotland. I am proud that my former university, the University of Glasgow, along with other educational establishments in Scotland, is providing a variety of scholarships and fee waivers for Syrian refugees who come to Scotland.
Asylum seekers are particularly vulnerable and we must ensure that they are treated with dignity and respect at every stage of the asylum process. I have outlined, briefly, how Scotland is a caring and compassionate country. We welcome people seeking refuge from war and persecution, and we recognise the importance of supporting them to rebuild their lives and integrate into our diverse communities.
As my hon. Friend said, it is hugely important that refugees are welcomed into the UK and helped to integrate into our society and culture. Will he join me in congratulating the Scottish Government and the Scottish Book Trust on donating children’s books and toys to refugee families throughout Scotland, and in congratulating any similar initiatives throughout the UK as a whole?
I will. My hon. Friend is completely right. Many groups are doing fantastic work like that. Charities in Scotland have been overwhelmed with offers of support from the public. If my email inbox is anything to go by, thousands of people across Scotland have offered their time and friendship to men, women and children who are desperately in need of compassion and solidarity.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate, Mr Crausby. I thank the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) for securing this timely and important debate. What with Russia withdrawing her troops just yesterday, on the fifth anniversary of the first unrest in Syria, massive gains for the anti-immigration Alternative für Deutschland in Germany off the back of Angela Merkel’s asylum policy, and thousands of people still stranded at borders throughout Europe, it is most appropriate that we have the opportunity to discuss these issues today in Westminster Hall.
The Syrian refugee crisis was without doubt one of the defining issues of 2015, and it continues to dominate the news in 2016. As the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) said, it will dominate the agenda for the next 20-odd years, whether we like it or not. Even with the peace talks and the Russian withdrawal, the abhorrent Islamic State, al-Nusra and other jihadist groups have no regard for such a process and continue their genocidal campaigns. Just yesterday, the US House of Representatives voted to condemn ISIL’s campaign of genocide by 392 votes to zero. I think that sums up the feelings of many of us.
We need to find the best way of getting a peaceful resolution between the Syrian Government and opposition. However, although desirable, even that would not stabilise the region. If we want a peaceful solution, it has to be found in Syria. Peace must come from there, for the sake of the refugees. We have all seen the images of what ISIS do: they behead, rape, murder and pillage. It is not hard to understand why any human being would want to get as far away as possible from such abhorrent things. More than 14 million Syrians in the country are in need of help, 7 million of whom are internally displaced. Nearly 5 million have fled abroad, including the hundreds of thousands making their way across Europe. Six-hundred thousand Christians have left Syria because of the “convert or die” ultimatum they have been given. Christians are clearly an ethnic and religious minority that has been targeted by Daesh, and that concerns us greatly. It would be remiss of me not to come to this Chamber and make the plea for my Christian brothers and sisters in Syria.
The hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion referred in her speech to Lebanon and Jordan, which, as I have said, I had the opportunity to visit as a member of the Defence Committee. With a few exceptions, Jordan has managed to integrate some 1.5 million refugees. Lebanon has taken in 1.2 million, on top of the Palestinians who are already in camps there. The pressure is on those countries, so we need an internal solution to come very clearly out of Syria.
The right hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs Spelman) and the hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts) mentioned the Yazidis in their speeches. All those who met the Yazidi woman yesterday could not fail to be physically and emotionally moved by the incredible stories we heard. Daesh kill all the men and young boys. They kill some of the children. They kidnap and imprison the ladies and young girls and use them as—there is no other way to say it—sexual slaves. They pass them around. We could not see any of the physical scars on the Yazidi woman who told her story yesterday, but we could feel the emotional scars.
I make a plea to the Minister. As those of us who sat through those stories yesterday will know, we need to do two things. The only people who helped the Yazidis when they were in trouble were the Kurds. They gave them physical help, food, medical help and aid, while we in the west—I say this of us all—did nothing. So, first, we need to ensure that the aid that goes into the Kurdish camps and areas under Kurdish control gets to the Yazidis. Turkey has to play its part in that as well. Secondly, as the right hon. Member for Meriden said, we need to follow the example set by Germany when it saved 1,000 Yazidi women.
In January the European Commission’s chief spokesman stated that some 60% of those arriving in the EU as part of the movement of people were indeed economic migrants. We have to recognise that some are economic migrants and some are genuine refugees. I want to put on the record that a leading NATO commander in Europe stated that more than 8,000 ISIL fighters are in the EU. We need to develop a system that can root out the potential criminal elements. If we do not, I am afraid that we have seen what can happen in today’s news about events in Brussels.
As serious as the concerns I have mentioned are, there are success stories. In Northern Ireland we have offered free English lessons to help vulnerable people. The Northern Ireland Assembly has set aside some £20,000 a year for that. In Sweden there are what are referred to as social instruction classes, which educate refugees and help them to understand better what is taking place. That might go some way towards improving integration and ensuring that we do not have another Cologne. It is important that we differentiate between economic migrants and asylum seekers.
We have to help as best we can. We have to look after the Christians and ethnic minorities. We have to look into settling the real problem in Syria, because that is where the solution is. There are examples of where the resettling and integration of refugees has taken place and been done really well, such as in Jordan. I pay tribute to the United Kingdom Government, who, through the Department for International Development and the Minister, have tried very hard to address these issues.
Immanuel Kant said:
“All our knowledge begins with the senses, proceeds then to the understanding, and ends with reason. There is nothing higher than reason.”
Let us do our best to help those who need help.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Crausby, and to follow the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) on securing this debate, to which there have been lots of excellent contributions. Like others, I was pleased to co-sponsor her early-day motion, the text of which powerfully explains the case for expanding safe, legal routes and makes a series of points about what we all agree is the greatest refugee crisis since the end of the second world war.
As the hon. Lady said, there is no silver bullet to this crisis, but key measures can make a significant difference. As other hon. Members said, it is beyond dispute that the UK Government have led the way in Europe in providing financial contributions to tackle the crisis in the region. They deserve credit for that, but it is regrettable that their leadership on funding is sometimes portrayed as a silver bullet, as the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) said, as though providing aid to the region means that we have done our bit and there is nothing more that the UK can and should do. Providing aid is simply not enough.
As the right hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs Spelman) said, although the countries neighbouring Syria deserve great credit for their efforts in sheltering refugees, life for refugees in Jordan, Lebanon and Syria is incredibly difficult. That applies not only to religious minorities—a number of hon. Members spoke about the challenges they face. Ninety per cent of Syrians in those countries are outside UN camps. The UN reports that they are more vulnerable than ever and have to take increased risks to survive and resort to dangerous survival strategies, such as child labour, early marriage or sexual exploitation.
As Filippo Grandi, the UN high commissioner for refugees, said yesterday:
“A tragedy of this scale demands solidarity beyond funding. Put simply, we need more countries to share the load by taking a greater share of refugees from what has become the biggest displacement crisis of a generation.”
Solidarity beyond funding and sharing the load is precisely what the EDM tabled by the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion demands and what several hon. Members have spoken about today.
We have argued repeatedly that the UK should share the load by taking part in an EU relocation scheme, which would mean sharing the responsibility for refugees who have already made it to Europe fairly around the continent. The hon. Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) made a similar, if not identical, point. We stand by that call. The disaster that is unfolding in Greece as we speak illustrates exactly why it is absolutely essential. Greece needs solidarity from its European allies, and not in the form of unilateral border closures.
Those refugees have already had to make horrendous journeys. However, relocation saves many of them from horrendous journeys within Europe, including to the dreadful camps at Calais and Dunkirk, which the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes) spoke about. My hon. Friend the Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) spoke powerfully on behalf of the children. Taking those two strands together, I want to dwell for a second on a recent decision of the Immigration and Asylum Tribunal, which ordered the UK Government to allow a small group of teenagers who have family here but were suffering in those dreadful camps to enter the UK. The Government appealed the principle behind that decision so that they do not have to admit others in the same situation. Citizens UK estimates that only about 150 teenagers would benefit if the Government simply abided by the principle behind that decision. It is outrageous that the Government have not done that. Rather than spending money on legal fees, they could send out a team to find those 150 children. It will be useful to hear how the Minister justifies the Government’s position.
This debate is about how we can help as many people as possible to avoid making journeys, including into Europe, and provide safe, legal routes or pathways. Those pathways, as the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion said, are principally in the form of resettlement, or expanded family reunion or humanitarian visas.
We welcome the expansion of the vulnerable persons resettlement scheme to accommodate 20,000 refugees during this Parliament. Good progress has been made, and I am always keen to praise the Minister for his work on ensuring that the scheme proceeds as smoothly as possible. The lives of the people resettled will be transformed, and they will not have to make hazardous journeys. My hon. Friend the Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Stuart Blair Donaldson) gave examples of schemes that are helping to transform people’s lives.
We share the concern, which was raised by a number of hon. Members, that 20,000 over five years is just not a fair share. As the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion remarked, it is pitiful. An Oxfam analysis shows that if just 10% of the refugees currently registered in the countries neighbouring Syria were resettled or offered other forms of admission to developed nations, the United Kingdom would receive about 24,000 refugees each year. The Government’s commitment is to less than a quarter of that. We will continue to push for the resettlement of greater numbers. That can be through alternative pathways, which I have referred to briefly.
We have heard a little about family reunion. Everybody would agree that those with family members in the UK will be determined to get to here, regardless of the route. As the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate said, we have a choice: will we make them go through people smugglers or will we give them a safe, legal route?
The restrictive family reunion rules that the Government apply mean that even a 19-year-old young woman living alone in Lebanon or stranded in Turkey would not be able to apply to reunite with, for example, a father who had managed to make it to the United Kingdom. I think everybody would agree that that is not a sensible solution. Will the Government look again at how the family reunion rules have been applied during this crisis? That argument has been made forcefully by the Refugee Council, the Scottish Refugee Council, the Red Cross and so many others.
The hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion made some strong points about citizenship, which can reduce people’s family reunion rights, and about the lack of rights for unaccompanied asylum-seeking children. It will be interesting to hear the Minister respond to those points. The right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland and the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate spoke about humanitarian visas, which other countries such as Argentina, Brazil, France, Italy and Switzerland have introduced. It would be good to hear whether the United Kingdom Government are interested in exploring that option.
We also need to look at what further steps can be taken to provide practical support for those who make family reunion applications, even under the currently restrictive scheme. When I speak to solicitors and non-governmental organisations that work for families here, they regularly speak of the impossible bureaucracy that those who approach UK embassies face, and the problems that families have here, such as a lack of basic support and the financial costs.
The hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion and the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland both highlighted huge flaws in the proposed EU deal with Turkey. The refugee convention for Syrians is little applied in Turkey, and it does not apply at all to Eritreans. It is utterly bizarre that there can be a safe, legal route for some Syrian refugees only if other Syrian refugees take a completely unsafe, irregular route to Europe.
Just as the London conference aimed to deliver a step change in funding to tackle the crisis, the Geneva conference on 30 March is a pivotal opportunity to deliver a step change in the provision of safe, legal routes and pathways to safety. We ask the Government to show the leadership there that they did in London to ensure solidarity beyond funding.
It is a pleasure to serve under you, Mr Crausby. I also thank the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) for bringing this issue before Westminster Hall. She spoke powerfully in support of the motion, as did many other Members. I pay tribute to those who contributed to this debate. Not all debates in Westminster Hall are of high quality, but the contributions today really were—particularly the points about the plight of the Yazidi women. Like others, I hope the points made today will influence the approach the Minister takes in the meeting in two weeks’ time. That would be the best outcome of this debate.
The nature of the challenge is clear. Many hon. Members have already spoken of the figures, but it is worth reminding ourselves that 13.5 million Syrians are in need of help in-country, 6.6 million are internally displaced and 4.6 million or so have fled abroad. These are huge numbers and the UNHCR has made clear asks in response to them. Initially, it asked states to help 30,000 people to be relocated by the end of 2014. Then it asked for an additional 100,000 to be helped by the end of 2016, and in two weeks, the number is likely to go up, not down. Furthermore, to be clear, the UNHCR is asking for help with those individuals for whom there is no durable solution—those for whom voluntary repatriation and local integration are not possible: the most vulnerable, with nowhere else to go.
Against the scale of that challenge, the UK response has been slow, reluctant and limited. Just to remind ourselves, back in 2013 and 2014 the initial response of the UK was simply to provide aid to Syria’s neighbours, not to take any refugees ourselves. That was our starting position: assistance, but not receiving refugees.
Unfortunately, the hon. Member for Hove (Peter Kyle), who was an aid worker, is no longer present to support this point, but professional aid agencies will always say that in the first instance it is better to give aid in the region where the disaster has occurred, because people are then more likely to go back to their homes and to help to rebuild their country. I am sure that was the rationale that drove the Government’s initial response.
I accept that proposition—that has been the UNHCR position for many years—but I am now plotting the response to the UNHCR ask. It was asking specifically about individuals who cannot be dealt with locally—those who cannot be repatriated or locally integrated. I made that point before I came to the response, because it is only one thing to assist in-region, in the way the UNHCR has suggested; what we are discussing today is the response to the ask for countries to do something about those who cannot be dealt with in that way.
That was the initial response; early in 2014, the Syrian vulnerable person resettlement programme was set up, but it was limited and focused only on victims of sexual violence and torture. It was only extended in 2015—that was the next step—when the Government agreed to take 20,000 Syrians over five years, but none of them from Europe. There was another extension earlier this year, in January, when the Government agreed to look more carefully at unaccompanied children, but again not from Europe.
That is why I say that the UK response has been slow, reluctant and limited. We have been around this block before. I know that the Minister will say, “Well, that shows we’re listening,” but when we look back, we see that the changes in response have usually been a reaction to pressure inside and outside this House on particular issues.
I looked carefully at what was said in January, and I have followed it up since. I think it is fair to say that at the moment no scheme or plan is in place for taking unaccompanied children from Europe. I hope that is the next development and, if it is, I would welcome it.
Having criticised the Government’s response for being too slow, too reluctant and too limited, may I add this? Two weeks ago, I was up in Glasgow, where I met Paul Morrison, who heads up the Syrian resettlement programme, and two of the Syrian families who have been relocated. The work going on in Glasgow under the resettlement scheme is first class. The Government are to be praised for the scheme as far as those who have been relocated here are concerned. It is well run, children have been integrated into schools, the families have been found doctors, they have proper support in the community and the people of Glasgow have been welcoming and supportive. Where the scheme is operating, it operates well, and I pay tribute to the Minister and those working with him for that.
Does the hon. and learned Gentleman share my concern, however, about reports of substandard housing and inhumane treatment of asylum seekers in Glasgow? Will he join me in urging the Home Office to commission an urgent, independent inquiry into that?
I am grateful for that intervention, which anticipates my next point. Of growing concern is the sense of that there is a two-tier system. Those who are being relocated under the voluntary Syrian resettlement programme are being treated well and properly, and I commend that. On the other hand, I have met unaccompanied children, again in Glasgow, who had made their own way to this country and surfaced in Scotland, and their experience was very different. Initially they really struggled to prove their age—one was even detained—and then to obtain housing.
On a separate visit, to Oldham, I met a 26-year-old Syrian woman architect who had made her own way to this country. Although she has refugee status, she was struggling to get support for housing, so this is one for the future for the Government. The scheme itself is working well, but there is a two-tier system, because the conditions that others coming here to seek asylum have to endure are very different. That is worthy of another debate in due course.
March obviously offers an opportunity for the Government to go further. Of course the long-term solution is a reduction in the conflict in Syria—we must never lose sight of that. Today, we are debating what we do about the consequences of that conflict. In March, the Government can go further in four particular areas. First, there is growing pressure for us to take more than the 20,000 pledged so far. I agree with the comments about the Government being out of sync with the public mood on that. The public accept that we should be doing more for vulnerable refugees.
While we are on the subject of numbers, I also think it is wrong to have a fixed 20,000 over five years, because that does not allow flexibility for a changing situation. There is already a need to take more, and the position should be reviewed year on year, rather than committing to a five-year programme, which simply does not fit with the nature of a conflict such as that in Syria.
Secondly, it is time to move on the almost universal bar against anyone having reached Europe. The idea that if refugees reach Europe, they are a problem for Europe and we should not take them as refugees is wrong in principle. We must review that. There should not be a hard block on anyone who has reached Europe.
Thirdly, much more work is needed to reunite families. That has been touched on by a number of hon. Members in the debate. I, too, have been to Calais and to Dunkirk, and Dunkirk is even more distressing than Calais. The implementation of family reunification rules, even if theoretically available under international law, is simply not working on the ground. I have made the point before, and I will continue to make it. In Calais and Dunkirk I saw volunteers trying their level best to keep people alive, safe and well in trying conditions. By their own admission, they were unable to help with the reunification process, which is complicated and difficult, so it is not working on the ground and needs to be looked at again urgently.
The fourth area is of course unaccompanied children. In Calais, the volunteers have a sense of the number of unaccompanied children, but in Dunkirk the volunteers told me that they cannot even count them, because they do not have the resources to work out who the children are. Children there desperately need help. More work needs to be done on unaccompanied children in Europe.
Finally, there is the bigger picture, which is about safe and legal routes. I join with those saying that there is an exam question in relation to certain groups—the Yazidi women would be one. How do we provide safe and legal passage for very vulnerable people to find safety in Europe?
I hope that the Minister takes everything in the right spirit. The debate is intended to influence the position that he may take—it is a nudge, pull and influence situation. The Government have made moves; more would be very welcome.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Crausby. I commend the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) for bringing about the debate and everyone for their contributions. I appreciate the compliments about what the Government have done, and I listened to every single item said about what more the Government should do.
Those hon. Members who know me will know that, since I took on this job last September, we have been trying carefully to listen to everybody. Clearly, there is not a person in the country, let alone in the House, who could not fail to be moved by the plight of Syrians, both those trapped in the appalling conditions there and those who have been forced to leave home. That is not just clichés and platitudes; that is so obvious. For those of us involved in politics, if that is not part of why we are involved, we should not be in it.
I am proud of what the Government have done. In the same spirit as the comments were made, which was not negative, I will criticise hon. Members’ comments that the Government have done all of this stuff reluctantly because we were forced to. I will say, as everyone would expect, that that is not the case. I also stress that this cannot be viewed in any way other than in the round. Hon. Members have said, “It is one thing giving money—fine, thank you very much and well done UK Government—but there is a lot more to it than that: it is what we do here.”
Hon. Members talk about camps, but comparatively few people are in camps. The point has been made that people are in everything from what I would describe as the top-end, which are basically large corrugated iron buildings, down to tents in fields and crammed into rooms in apartments and houses. They are registered with UNHCR, which is how we make our distinction rather than the accommodation.
It is not just a question of giving money and the UK has done a lot more than that. We see a number of British non-governmental organisations working there, and young people who in their civil service careers probably could have chosen a comfortable job sitting in Whitehall are there, living in very difficult situations and doing a great job. The commitment of the Government and of the British people is very much more than just the financial side.
The resettlement bit—the narrowest part of the programme—for the most vulnerable families is important and I would not underestimate it. It is important, but it must be viewed as just part of the whole programme. Local authorities in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have been excellent. That is a good example of us working with the Scottish Government, the Home Office and Scottish local authorities—no one is playing political games. The hon. Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Stuart Blair Donaldson) made a good point. His area is a good example, but so are Brighton, Sheffield and all of the other places. The Government have done a lot of work on the voluntary scheme to try to persuade local authorities, some of which do not have the experience of those places of taking refugees, to take them. Many communities are doing it for the first time.
I will try to make progress—I realise I have little time—and try to answer some of the specific questions raised. My right hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mrs Spelman) and my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes) talked about the Yazidis. In answer to the hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts), I will be happy to meet with Salwa Khalaf Rasho—I hope she will excuse my pronunciation of the name and of the Welsh. However, I would like to put on record and make it clear that the UK has not done nothing about the Yazidis. Our aid has been reaching a lot of vulnerable women and girls across Iraq, including many Yazidis. For example, we funded the establishment of three centres in the Kurdistan region of Iraq that provide psychosocial and legal support for Yazidis and, through the Iraq humanitarian pooled fund, of which we are leaders, we are providing life-saving healthcare for women and children, child protection services and specialist support for those victims of Daesh terror. I will be happy to meet with Members to go into detail on that, but I did not want them to think that we were doing absolutely nothing. The Yazidi community are internally displaced people, so, unlike all the other refugees we are involved with, that work is not through UNHCR.
As far as the Christian and other minority communities are concerned, I say to my right hon. Friend the Member for Meriden that I have spoken to the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Bishop of Durham, the Catholic bishop and the Coptic bishop. We want examples. I have asked them and I will ask hon. Members to come to us with examples of communities that UNHCR cannot reach, because we will fund the UNHCR to go out to those people. I made that point to the Bishop of Durham last week. There is a lot of talk of stories that I am sure are valid, but we need to find those people. I would however like to say that Patrick Lynch, the representative of the Catholic community in this field, noted recently that there has been some improvement in the amount of registration of Christians in Jordan.
I am very sorry but I cannot because I have a very short period and lots to say. I will be happy to discuss this at any time, as my right hon. Friend knows.
I will move on to points made about unaccompanied children. The Government made a statement through the Minister for Immigration on 28 January that we are considering how best to provide protection for them. We have asked UNHCR for a comprehensive report on that. As far as UNHCR is concerned, the hon. Member for Hove (Peter Kyle), who is not in his place, said that, from his experience it was under-resourced. We are making it our business to ensure that it is not under-resourced for this project—I hope that things have moved on since his time. We have had roundtables with the Refugee Council and others, but we cannot have a knee-jerk reaction on these children. As hon. Members have mentioned, UNHCR’s main policy is to resettle unaccompanied children in the region with greater families, because it feels that that is better for them.
The Government are providing further resources to the European Asylum Support Office at border hotspots to help to identify and register children at risk when they first come into the EU. Kevin Hyland, the Children’s Commissioner, is going on behalf of the Home Secretary to investigate the position.
I am so sorry but I cannot. I have only two minutes to go and I have things I would like to cover. Again, I am very happy to discuss that on any other occasion.
On the children in France who have been spoken about, there have been many representations to the Government to expand the family reunification scheme. Children can be resettled here under family reunification in different ways. The UNHCR vulnerability criteria, which are one of the seven parts of the Syrian resettlement scheme, are one such way.
The Dublin convention allows for children to be given asylum. The example of France was given, and we are shortening the time between children getting advice on and applying for asylum and coming here under family reunification. I was advised by officials yesterday that that is down to four weeks—four weeks from registering in France, with proof of family reunion, they can come here. Things are happening on that.
I accept that many valid points were made and the Government are always looking at ways of improving the situation. What we cannot do is provide a vehicle for the people smugglers and traffickers to get children as far as France, then into this country as unaccompanied children and then produce parents. The people who produce those children are ruthless, and the refugees are vulnerable and desperate. I am sure hon. Members will agree that we cannot allow children to be used as a way of getting families here when we do have good schemes in place to get families over here.
Community sponsorship has been mentioned and we are finalising the details of that. The Government are focused on providing a wide response. We know that there are people who cannot be supported sufficiently in the region and it is those vulnerable people whom we are bringing to the UK.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the UNHCR and pathways for admission of Syrian refugees.
EU Referendum: Northern Ireland
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the effect of the UK leaving the EU on Northern Ireland.
I am glad to serve under your chairmanship today, Mr Crausby, and pleased to see the Minister in his place. I am grateful to have this opportunity to highlight in brief the effect that the UK’s leaving the EU would have on Northern Ireland. I believe that all of Britain and Northern Ireland benefit from being part of the EU, but there are special circumstances in Northern Ireland that require thorough consideration before the vote in June. To put it simply, Northern Ireland uniquely benefits from our membership of the EU, and would be uniquely hurt by leaving.
The most obvious issue, for which there is no parallel in Britain, is the land border that we share with the south of Ireland. Anyone who lives in a border county will know for themselves that talk of a hard border in Ireland is not an abstract, scary story, but a living memory. I was reminded of that last week when I attended the launch of the Irish4Europe campaign in London. It is a campaign group set up to encourage Irish people living in Britain to engage with the referendum. During the questions and answers, someone told us about growing up in Quigley’s Point in Donegal, and an attempt to smuggle 4 lb of Northern Irish butter into Donegal. It was foiled by the honesty of his grandmother, who when asked by the guard whether there was anything to declare lifted her coat off the back seat and revealed the 4 lb of butter. We laughed but the story is less funny in the light of an official report from the Cabinet Office that says:
“Northern Ireland would be confronted with difficult issues about the relationship with Ireland. Outside the EU’s Customs Union, it would be necessary to impose customs checks on the movement of goods across the border.”
To be clear, that warning comes not from me or my party but directly from the Cabinet Office. The same report says:
“Questions would also need to be answered about the Common Travel Area which covers the movement of people.”
I thank the hon. Lady for giving way. She will understand that I come from a different point of view. The Stormont Public Accounts Committee recently concluded that Brexit would have little effect or impact on the Northern Ireland economy. Secondly, the hon. Lady will know that the fishing industry in Portavogie, Ardglass and Kilkeel is clear that it wants a viable fishing industry free from EU red tape, the quota system, days at sea and EU legislation. They want to be able to fish the seas round their area—
Needless to say, I do not accept that proposition—for a simple reason. I understand and appreciate people in the fishing industry because I represent fishermen from two of those ports, but I also understand that it would be possible to argue better for reform of the common fisheries policy by continued membership of the EU. There are people in the fishing industry, and senior people particularly, who have told me that fishermen have asked public representatives to be particularly cautious. Many of the regulations about discards and the landing ban originated in London, in Whitehall, and not in Brussels. People must be careful about that point.
Will the hon. Lady give way?
The hon. Lady is making excellent progress in her prosecution of the argument for remaining in the European Union. Upstairs, the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs is conducting an investigation of Brexit. We have just heard from the Ulster Farmers Union about why, for them, the case for Brexit has not been made. Its members have worries about the potential for 40% of their trade to the continental European beef and dairy market to be damaged by a Brexit scenario.
That was a very helpful intervention, and that story has been articulated to me by farmers, and the farming community and its representatives, including the Ulster Farmers Union. They are concerned about the free movement of products, produce and people across the island of Ireland. The north’s greatest export market is the south of Ireland. It is also here in Britain, and the wider common market of the 27 countries. We all know how long it takes for an export certification to be processed. It can take several years. Just look what has happened in China. We are still awaiting a certificate in respect of Taiwan. As for the export of poultry products to China, that has not yet been resolved. The nonsense being perpetrated by the no campaign should stop, because it is scaremongering to farmers, farming communities, and particularly those whom I represent.
To go back to the Cabinet Office report, I stress that it does not say that either the British or Irish Government would want to impose custom points. It simply says that it would become necessary. It highlights how, outside the European Union, managing the border could quickly fall outside either Government’s control. No matter what the wishes of the two Governments were, the border would become a victim of differing policies between the Common Market and the exited UK.
My hon. Friend touches on an important point, because borderism would become inevitable. We are not free of it at the minute, even within the current EU context, as wedding car businesses in my constituency can testify. Once those pressures or issues arise, border controls and border differences are emphasised, and that has an impact on trade.
I thank my hon. Friend for a helpful and informed intervention. His constituency has a clear border with County Donegal, and he articulates a particular fear: our concern that customs posts will immediately be put up, and will carry with them a major impediment to and restrictions on trade and people’s betterment. Far from improving control of our borders, leaving the EU would make it harder for the UK to manage the only land border that it has with the Common Market. That is a risk that we cannot afford to take.
We must remember that the south of Ireland is by far the north’s biggest export market. The latest regional trade statistics produced by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, released at the beginning of the month, show that a third of all exports from the north went to the south of Ireland, at a value of more than £2 billion. In the decades before the European Union made an open border possible, the hard border prevented north-south trade developing naturally, to the detriment of all communities in the north. By helping to open up the border, the European Union has enabled businesses to begin building a mature all-island economy that benefits and enriches everyone in the region.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on obtaining what is obviously a timely debate. She talked about reform being necessary, and I have heard her and her colleagues mention that before. Does she agree that, whatever negotiations the Prime Minister has done, and whatever reforms have been agreed, the deal will be that we have got what we have got and will have to accept it, with all its problems and faults, or else leave? She cannot have her cake and eat it—talking about reform after the debate has concluded and the referendum has been held.
The Social Democratic and Labour party and I strongly believe that we should remain in the European Union. If Britain were to exit, it would cause immense economic, social and political damage to Northern Ireland. Our political and peace processes were modelled on the European Union, when countries came together in a post-conflict situation. The European Union is good for political, economic and social cohesion. Already, we have had reforms to the common fisheries policy through regionalisation. There is nothing to prevent further discussions from taking place within the European Union, to enable even better deals on that specific issue.
I thank the hon. Lady for securing this debate. In the past two years, the Northern Ireland Department of Agriculture and Rural Development has received £635 million in EU funding, mainly due to single farm payments. Given the huge contribution of agriculture to the Northern Ireland economy, does she agree that that should be fully addressed by the Government before asking people to vote in the upcoming referendum?
I thank the hon. Lady for her helpful intervention. That is what farmers have been saying to me consistently. They want to remain within the European Union because there is certainty with the direct payments that they currently receive. There is absolutely no certainty in an exit about the type, form and nature of the moneys that those farmers would receive, because the UK is currently going down the road of austerity and cuts—we will probably hear about that later, in the Budget. I do not want to see the farmers whom I represent in South Down, nor those of my colleagues, subjected to such cuts.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way. Before she moved on to agriculture, she was talking about the political process. Does she agree that the cross-community support for peace won, and the role of the EU in the peace process in Northern Ireland, were essential in, and continue in subsequent programmes to be an essential component of, the peace process? The European Union has been positive for the peace process in Northern Ireland.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his helpful intervention. All the moneys that have come out of the peace programme have brought people together, right across communities; they helped to build that peace and political process and that delicate, intricate network of relationships.
The same has happened with the Interreg programme. I look at those cross-border programmes. I look at what has happened up in the north-west, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan), with district councils along the border there between Derry and Donegal; down between Fermanagh, Cavan and Monaghan; and also in my own area—the east border region—with the constituency of the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), my own constituency, Armagh, Banbridge and Craigavon, with Louth and Monagahan. Those relationships have borne money for many types of cross-border project and have allowed people to grow together in mutual understanding, through the benefit of the European Union. I wish others who think differently would stop being naysayers in this debate.
Much has been said about the impact on farm subsidies. It is an area where our economy is hugely reliant on our ability to export to and work with the south. Farming makes up a bigger proportion of our economy in Northern Ireland than it does in England, Scotland or Wales, and our smaller population means that we have no other option but to export. That means Northern Irish farmers are especially reliant on access to EU markets, including the south, and farmers in Northern Ireland receive more than £230 million a year in support from the European Union.
The Ulster Farmers Union has made it clear—it has probably already said so this morning in the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee—that that support has been vital in keeping our sector sustainable through tough times. I am certain that £230 million a year is more support than we would ever be able to secure from the British Government, should we vote to leave the EU. My certainty on that comes from the years that I and my colleagues before me have spent fighting for the interests of farmers in South Down and other constituencies.
Both the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Cabinet Office have made it clear that there are no serious contingency plans in place for how support for farmers would be replaced should we leave the EU. Every penny would have to be fought for, in competition with all of Scotland, England and Wales. For others to suggest the contrary is totally spurious. No matter what they claim, the only way we can be certain that the support for farmers will continue is to vote to remain this June. Of course, we have already heard some politicians promise that their good relations with the British Government will enable them to secure even more support for Northern Ireland should we leave the EU. I ask those politicians: where have you been for the past five years, as we have seen cut after cut to services in Northern Ireland?
The damage to agriculture will come not only from the loss of subsidies, but from the instability and confusion that transitioning away from the common agricultural policy would cause. One need only look at the massive problems caused for farmers by the ongoing delays in getting payments out in the basic payment scheme. Delays in the payment of European support have pushed many farmers into debt and hugely undermined the sector. Imagine how much greater damage would be caused by the wholesale loss of European support. In contrast to the instability and uncertainty we would face outside the EU, if we work with our neighbours in the south and with the greater Common Market—to which we can export our products, and which could be fractured if there were an exit—we can build an outward-looking, sustainable agricultural sector.
I would like to conclude with a few words on the founding purpose of the European Union and what it means to us in the north. The European Union was founded to bring peace to a continent that had been torn apart by war and conflict, and to enshrine respect for human rights throughout the continent. The duty to build a lasting peace may seem far removed in the UK-wide debate, where the memories and sacrifices of the second world war grow more distant by the year, but it is something that we in Northern Ireland understand all too well. For us in Northern Ireland, the EU’s principles of co-operation, integration and reconciliation are as relevant today as they were 40 years ago.
The EU has been a practical as well as a symbolic partner for us. We should not take for granted the money that comes to us when we look at the peace programme and at the funding from Interreg. Our membership of the European Union also helps to guarantee the human rights protections that made the Good Friday agreement possible. Those protections have since been further embedded, post-Lisbon, through the EU charter of fundamental rights, made binding on all member states since 2009. I therefore regret the decision of the British Government to scrap the Human Rights Act.
The EU might not be perfect, and we do not claim it is. We want more democracy, more accountability and more engagement, but voting leave will not get us any of that. Ultimately, voting leave would send a message to the world that we are more interested in looking inward than engaging with our neighbours. It would send a message that we have lost faith in building a better Europe and a better Northern Ireland within an island of Ireland. That would be a disaster for us. I still believe that dialogue, openness and integration are the only means to a better society, both in Northern Ireland and throughout Europe. Those, for me, are the principles of the European Union. That is why I will be voting to remain this June and why my party and I will be encouraging others to do the same—not out of fear, but out of hope and anticipation for the future that we can build together.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Crausby. I congratulate the hon. Member for South Down (Ms Ritchie) on securing this important debate. We can probably all agree that this will be a once-in-a-lifetime referendum. I certainly welcome the chance for the people of the United Kingdom hopefully to reaffirm their commitment to this country being a member of the European Union. I have always supported our membership, and the Government’s efforts and the reforms we have achieved mean that we can make a strong case for remaining within the European Union.
Since the general election last May, the Government have pursued an agenda of reform and re-negotiation to deliver change in our relationship with the European Union. Following months of negotiations, we ended up with a new settlement that gives the UK a special status within the EU, as well as setting the EU as a whole on the path to long-term reform. We have protected the UK’s rights as a country within the single market but outside the eurozone to keep our economy and financial system secure and to protect UK businesses from unfair discrimination.
Our new settlement confirms that the regulatory burden on businesses, and particularly small businesses, will be reduced and there will be a new focus on extending the single market to bring down the remaining barriers to trade within the EU. We have secured agreement that the treaties will be changed in future, so that the UK is carved out of ever closer union, and we have established a mechanism for decision making to return from Brussels to the UK. We have secured new powers to tackle the abuse of free movement and to reduce the unnatural draw of our benefits system in order to meet our aim of reducing immigration by creating fairer rules, while protecting our open economy. Our new settlement resets the balance in our relationship with the EU. It reinforces the clear economic and security benefits of EU membership, while making it clear that we cannot be required to take part in any further political integration.
The UK is stronger, safer and better off in the EU. It is better off, because Northern Ireland and its businesses need access to 500 million consumers to which they can sell their goods; consumers who can afford to buy our goods and who can trade their business or supply our businesses in Northern Ireland. It is better off because being part of the European Union puts us in pole position to negotiate free trade agreements around the world with other large trading blocs and other large economies.
I am probably one of the few people in this House who took part in the negotiations for the UK-US defence trade co-operation treaty back in 2006—it is an individual treaty between the UK and the US—which involved very long graft. Ask anyone in aerospace what actual concessions we got from the United States and they will say it was a bare minimum. I was also part of the EU-US trade treaty negotiations in the early part of the previous Government, when I worked for the then Lord Chancellor. It was clear at that stage that the United States was only interested in a free trade agreement with the European Union. That is where the game is; that is where free trade agreements are made. We are therefore better off being part of the EU, so that we can collectively negotiate at that position.
The EU is a whole range of things, but I think that at its heart it is about trade. The freedom to trade is the greatest driver of reform and of other people’s freedoms and rights across the world. Originally, the concept of the European Union, or its predecessors, revolved around trade. I believe that for Northern Ireland businesses, access to regulation-free, tariff-free trade with its neighbour in the Republic of Ireland or elsewhere in Europe is absolutely one of the benefits and is at the heart of why we should remain members of the European Union.
When the Prime Minister went to secure concessions from the European Union, he was unable to secure anything for the fishing industry or the agricultural sector directly. Remembering that we put some £19.7 billion into the EU and receive £15 billion in return, we are better off out of the Union; the fishermen will have control of their industry, as will the farmers, and the extra £4 billion that we will have can be used directly for those sectors.
I am afraid that I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman, and nor do many in the Ulster Farmers Union whom I have met to discuss the issue. In this modern world our farmers need access to markets and access to consumers. One reason why farmers in the Republic have a higher milk price is the efforts of the Irish Government to forge new export markets for their milk products. That is not about leaving the European Union; it is about helping our farmers, whether in England or Northern Ireland, to access new markets and new consumers. We have to remember that the consumers have to be able to afford the products. It is all very well trying to push products outside the European Union, but how many people in the rest of the world will be able to afford European products? There are a few in developing countries, but the idea that our farmers will get easier access to markets if we leave the European Union is just pie in the sky.
We have heard a number of interventions this morning, and clearly some people seem to believe that if the UK leaves the EU suddenly all the money that the UK sends into Europe will make its way to Northern Ireland instead, for the benefit of farmers and fishermen there. Does the Minister’s right hon. Friend the Secretary of State share the belief that there is a crock of gold for Northern Ireland at the end of the Brexit rainbow?
We are all grown-ups, I hope, in this House. We all know the pressures that every Department across Whitehall gets on an annual basis from Treasury Ministers and other Ministers alike. Our farmers, with their direct payments from Europe, are often in a position to resist pressures from other Whitehall Departments. Take the idea, for example, that we would have let previous Labour Secretaries of State responsible for agriculture to get hold of that money en route to farmers. How long would it have lasted? This Government will continue to support our farmers, but I cannot guarantee that that would happen if Members from other parties in this House got into government.
The Government believe that being a member of the European Union makes us safer. Co-operation on security is at the heart of a successful security policy. We all remember the days of wrangling with Irish courts about deportation and bringing people back to the United Kingdom for trial. Not so long ago I recalled someone under licence, and they will be brought back under a European arrest warrant. It was straightforward. There is no more of the long wrangling that often saw people walk free. The co-operation that we have around the table in Europe on security issues creates trust, and at the heart of a good security policy is trust. I believe that remaining part of the European Union will allow us to develop that trust and build on it, and I also believe that we will be stronger. We are part of the European Union, and we are part of NATO, the G8 and the G20. All those organisations—all those unions and groupings—allow the United Kingdom to amplify its voice across the world stage. They allow us not to stand alone on many issues, which is very important.
The hon. Member for South Down mentioned the border. It is a fact that if we vote to leave the European Union, we will be outside the customs union. If we are outside it, the EU will require the remaining member states to make sure that there are safeguards to protect that customs union. That will inevitably be some form of barrier to trade, to small and large businesses in Northern Ireland. I met some small businesses in north Belfast only a few days ago. They effortlessly trade and grow their business across the border, and they effortlessly make sure that they have new markets in the Republic of Ireland. I do not think that the whole border will be shut if we leave, but I certainly believe that there will be extra barriers to trade that we do not need or that are unhelpful.
I will make a final point. People will hear the debate about guaranteeing our borders and sovereignty. It is obviously true that within the European Union we have arrangements with regard to our borders, but let us not forget that we are members of the UN. We have obligations under a succession of treaties—the 1951 Geneva convention relating to the status of refugees, the 1967 protocol relating to the status of refugees, the 1948 universal declaration of human rights, the 1984 UN convention against torture, which prevents us from deporting people to countries where torture or harsh punishment exist, and the 1989 UN convention on the rights of the child. All that means that were we to leave the European Union, we would still be obliged to take into this country a huge range of people under our UN obligations. That is an example of where our sovereignty does not 100% lie. Are we saying that we will then leave the UN? Is that the next thing—“Stop the world, we want to get off”?
We should remember that were we to leave the European Union, our borders would not be as easy for trade as we may like, and they would not be as open to the hundreds of thousands of tourists that come to Northern Ireland every year. Our borders would also not be so easy for our air flights to and from Northern Ireland, so that people can arrive in the south, travel up through for tourism and fly out of Northern Ireland. All that is incredibly important to remember.
I have to say to the hon. Members for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and for Edinburgh North and Leith (Deidre Brock) that I am a Unionist. Many of the reasons for belonging to the United Kingdom are the same as the reasons for belonging to the European Union. I do not say that the reasons are all the same, but the freedom to trade, the shared culture and the removal of barriers are things that, in my heart, make me a Unionist. I do not understand the Democratic Unionist party’s view that by putting in a new border we will somehow guarantee ourselves all those investments and good trade practices that are important, and also the ability to be stronger in Europe, rather than weaker on the outside.
Govia Thameslink and Network Rail
[Mr Philip Hollobone in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the performance of Govia Thameslink Railway and Network Rail.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I hope that hon. Members will forgive me for saying that my heart sinks as I look around the Chamber. That is not an indictment on any hon. Member, but I have a horrible sense of déjà vu that here we are again to address an issue that causes such misery to so many of our constituents. Having said that, it is a pleasure to see the Minister in her place. I know that she is on the side of passengers and that she is acutely aware of the issues that will be aired in this debate. I am aware of her personal initiatives in trying to sort out the problems and the high priority and she and her Department attach to their resolution.
Notwithstanding the Minister’s hard work and the entreaties from many MPs, we still seem incapable of securing the service for which our constituents pay so much, and which they have every right to expect. Many colleagues wish to contribute to the debate, so I will not run through every email I have received from my constituents on the subject—that would take some time—but I hope you will allow me to mention just a few, Mr Hollobone.
A 23-year-old female constituent was left stranded with no money when the last train to Horsham terminated unannounced at Three Bridges. Another constituent has calculated that if his train service continues for the rest of the year as it has to date this year, he will have spent the equivalent of an entire working week on or waiting for delayed trains. Another constituent wrote—I assume with tongue in cheek—that he no longer minds the late running of his usual train on the grounds that earlier trains are routinely so late that he can always catch one of those.
My constituents’ correspondence is supported by hard numbers. Average performance targets across the country are for 89.3% of trains to arrive within five minutes of schedule. I appreciate that the southern region is complex. It has 180 million passengers and the trains go into London Bridge station, which is in the midst of a complex and welcome redevelopment, but that was presumably baked into the woefully low target of 80.2% that it set itself in February 2015. Alas, that low baseline has been consistently missed.
A public performance measure of 83% back in the third quarter of 2010 fell to 76% in the third quarter of last year. Across the national rail network, there is a two-thirds probability of a train arriving within a minute of the scheduled time. For Govia Thameslink Railway that falls to one in two, but for my constituents recently it has been as low as 30% and currently under 40% of trains arrive as scheduled.
For my constituents using the Brighton main line from Balcombe, which in 2014 was the worst service in the country, with one service arriving late every day during the year, there has been nothing like a sufficient improvement. Perhaps the Minister will comment on the practicalities. We hear a lot about 24 trains a day running through Thameslink and to the north, which is a wonderful aspiration, but if these practices continue, I do not know how practical it will be to achieve that.
Many constituents believe that trains are cancelled to meet punctuality targets. I do not know whether that is true, but it is shocking that over the past year one in 20 of all Thameslink, Southern and Great Northern trains were either 30 minutes late or cancelled. It is a regular refrain for all of us to hear about constituents stranded or left with long waits to complete their journey home. I will return to that theme, but I note that passenger satisfaction with how delays are handled was the worst in the country when measured last autumn.
I have tracked specific action points set out by the operators and Network Rail to improve the service since May 2015 and identified 40 individual points. In discussions with the operators and Network Rail, it seems that 31 have been achieved and a further five are in progress and getting there. It is bewildering that, despite a 90% success rate, there has apparently been so little impact on customer experience on the ground. I know that 84 drivers were recruited for Southern and 38 for Thameslink in 2015. I know that 286 drivers are to be recruited across GTR in 2016 and that 251 are currently in training. I know that the class 700 is coming in, which I am sure will be a great success. I know that engineering work continues on the line and that London Bridge station is being rebuilt, at a cost of £6 billion, which is all good news. What I do not know, and what none of us knows, is when all this positive activity will ever improve the service that our constituents experience.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. Does he agree that despite the great efforts of the company and Network Rail to carry out improvements—we all know how complex they are—there remains a real industrial relations problem? In some depots, the standards of modern manpower management are not nearly good enough. Does my hon. Friend also agree that the company needs to confront these issues and deal with them? If very highly paid drivers will not act in the interests of passengers, that is another reason why the company needs to get its act together.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his intervention. He raises an interesting point. I am not in the habit of blaming staff for the failings of management, but we need to know where the problems lie. I have quoted statistics about how many drivers are coming in and how many are going through training. I appreciate that the class 700 requires drivers to be taken out for more training and so on, but ultimately our constituents do not mind how many drivers there are. They mind about being able to get home. If the contracts mean that they cannot have a reliable service throughout the Christmas period and at other peak travelling times, that is a problem for our constituents.
It is not for the Chamber or the Minister to micromanage what the companies should be doing, but we need answers that work. The thrust of my point is that we hear so much about improvements and I believe that they are being made, but we do not see the evidence on the ground and the service continues to be far too poor.
My constituents have a sense of wonderment in a couple of directions. They wonder what can have possessed the train companies to think that now is a good time to close ticket offices outside peak times. The ticket machines at Horsham station are slow, difficult to navigate and do not contain the range of tickets that can be purchased over the counter. In the words of one constituent:
“As a Southern customer I receive a large number of delay repay vouchers. These cannot be used in the machines.”
Take that as you will. Another writes:
“why are Southern’s machine’s so difficult. I struggle with the complex menu navigation”.
That constituent professionally trains people in how to navigate complex software.
Too often, passengers realise that they have accidentally paid more than necessary for fares on the machines, but I suspect that more often they pay too much but are not aware of it.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful point about tickets, and perhaps he will forgive me if I am pre-empting him. A major problem on Southern’s Uckfield line is that there has never been a ticket office open anyway. We can rely only on the machines. Would it not be much more sensible, rather than having complex ticketing that no one can get the right ticket from, to have electronic ticketing so that people get the right ticket according to the journey they have made and, more importantly, are refunded when companies run their trains so late, so that they do not need to have a voucher or to put paper into the machine?
It is always a pleasure to be pre-empted by my hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat). He raises a valuable point that I hope the Minister will respond to, particularly in the context of delay repay. There must be a simpler way in this modern age for people to get their money back for journeys for which they bought a service but did not receive it. I am sure my hon. Friend is well ahead of me with the technical means for dealing with such things. There must be better ways of delivering that service.
I speak for a number of hon. Members here when asking those responsible for ticket offices to think again long and hard before proceeding with these closures, which I believe should not take place. In particular, I ask them, in the current environment of huge uncertainty faced by passengers and a poor service, how on earth reducing customer interface can possibly be in the interests of either passengers or the companies.
I will mention another sense of wonderment shared by my constituents. They look at the performance of our operators and Network Rail. They experience at first hand the chaos of what is the first step in a number of improvements that need to be made to the lines. They all too often stand cheek by jowl with other passengers on trains going through the deepest cutting anywhere in western Europe on their way to London. And they ask themselves in what parallel universe anyone could believe that the public infrastructure laid out in the 19th century to serve rural towns and commuters could possibly support Gatwick airport were it to double in size with a new runway to take the same number of passengers as Heathrow and were a far greater number of workers forced to commute from far afield to service the new facility. In fairness, I do not expect the Minister to respond to that point today, but I raise it to share with the Government the frustrations felt by my constituents. If anyone imagines that the existing infrastructure could cope with a minimum of an extra 90,000 passenger journeys a day, that shows a complete failure to understand the sheer inadequacy of the current service.
My hon. Friend makes a powerful point. With regard to Gatwick airport, he is absolutely right that the existing rail infrastructure can barely cope as it is, let alone were there to be an additional runway. Although I welcome the more than £50 million-worth of investment in upgrading the Gatwick station, in terms of line capacity Gatwick has not offered any assistance, and my hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that that means Gatwick is absolutely the wrong choice for runway expansion in London and the south-east.
I thank my hon. Friend for that point. He is absolutely right. If one looks at a possible alternative to Gatwick, one sees four or five main railway lines, Crossrail coming in and a potential spur to High Speed 2, as well as the tube network, faster journey times into London and a large number of would-be employees who are looking for employment absolutely on their doorstep, but we will not dwell on that; we will dwell on the subject at hand. I raised it purely because of the frustration that many of our constituents feel that their problems cannot be being taken seriously if people are seriously considering that they can throw all these extra passengers on to the same line.
I know that the Minister has put a huge personal investment of time and energy into sorting out the problems in this area. She has referred in the past to the massive productivity gain that could be gleaned were the problem to be solved, and she is absolutely right. We heard more in the Budget speech today about the productivity gains that could be had from transport. This is the basic work that needs to be put together to get real productivity gains for our economy. I know that the Minister is aware of that and of the human misery that entails from the problems on this line. May I offer three comments by way of conclusion?
First, we are all far too familiar with long and complex lists of the factors that need to be got right to improve the service. I have no doubt that those are provided in genuine good faith by committed managers, but they are simply inadequate for either solving the issues or reassuring passengers. Can we please hear less about the inputs and more about committed outputs that are deliverable and can be delivered on time? As part of that, I would like to see Network Rail, which seems a very distant organisation—according to the statistics, it is probably responsible for 57% of the delays on my line—far more customer-focused in the way it approaches its problems, and anything that the Minister can do to bring it closer to the reality of what its service entails would be welcome.
Secondly, I know that the Minister is a great advocate of more efficient, simpler and more generous refunds through delay repay, as so eloquently said by my hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling. I would very much like to hear anything more that she can share with us on that. It is a way of concentrating the minds of the train companies, as well as providing what are only the just deserts for passengers who have been affected.
My last comment relates to the structure of the service. I do not believe that nationalisation or stripping commercial firms of franchises is a panacea. However, this is by far the largest and most complex task to get right in the network. I hope that if the Minister decides that its sheer scale and complexity requires the attention of smaller and more nimble spheres of operation, she will not be afraid to start that process.
Order. Unlike some Thameslink services, this debate has started on time and will finish on time. I am determined that everyone should be able to speak, so I will impose from the first Back-Bench speech a time limit of five minutes. If hon. Members are sparing with interventions, everyone should have that amount of time. Very generously, the Scottish National party spokesman and the Labour spokesman have said that they do not need to take their full allocation. I know that the Minister will want to use any extra time at the end to answer points. I hope to start calling the Front Benchers at 3.34 pm, and then Mr Quin gets another three minutes at the end to sum up the debate.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate the hon. Member for Horsham (Jeremy Quin) on securing this timely debate. We are discussing Govia and the Thameslink, Southern and Great Northern franchise. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman’s constituents will not be too surprised to learn that many of the problems they face on the Southern railway are shared by commuters using the Great Northern routes in Enfield. It is quite an indictment of Govia that across the franchise, in both the south-east and the north of London and beyond, the service is totally unacceptable.
The stations that Govia serves in Enfield, on the Hertford loop, are Crews Hill, Gordon Hill and Enfield Chase. According to the rail regulator, there were 180,000 entries and exits at Crews Hill last year. There were 1.3 million entries and exits at Gordon Hill and 1.4 million at Enfield Chase. Those stations experienced a 9% and 5% increase in usage respectively between 2013-14 and 2014-15. With such a significant rise in numbers in the course of one year, the need for a reliable service becomes ever more important, and indeed that is exactly what Govia told us we could expect and it would provide.
In 2014, when the Department for Transport awarded Govia the Thameslink, Southern and Great Northern franchise, David Brown, chief executive of the Go-Ahead Group, which is the lead partner behind the Govia venture, said that the
“bid for the franchise was focused on improving customers’ experience”.
Well, if my mailbag and my own difficulties as I travel on the line day in, day out during the week are anything to go by, the performance is completely inadequate. I am almost wary of going on to the train platform. I do not know about the hon. Member for Horsham, but I could run an advice surgery on the train service while I am waiting for the train.
Trains run consistently late. On Monday 14 March, only half of Great Northern trains arrived at their destination at their scheduled time, with almost 20% arriving more than five minutes late. That is a little better than the experience of Southern, but by no means acceptable. Yesterday, four out of every 10 trains did not arrive when they were supposed to. Today, Enfield commuters had to travel into London by other forms of transport because of delays and train faults affecting services from Enfield Chase. They were not impressed by the lack of information provided by Govia. Sadly, that is typical of its distinct lack of customer service. Constituents have regularly reported trains running through stations and not stopping as scheduled, causing headaches for passengers who then have to travel further, and often via other means, to get home. And there are far too many instances of three-carriage trains being used, even in peak hours. Packing commuters into carriages with very little room to stand, let alone sit, is certainly not an example of the improved customer experience that they were promised.
I have also been approached by constituents who have raised concerns about Govia’s consultation on ticket office closures, which will affect Gordon Hill and Enfield Chase as much as the commuters on Southern. The consultation was poorly advertised, with little publicity about the proposals at the stations concerned. The residents who contacted me about the matter found out about the consultation not from Govia, but from leaflets handed out by those campaigning against the measure. Govia needs to be absolutely clear with passengers about what its plans might mean. Will commuters still be able to arrange season ticket sales, railcards, photocards, advanced discount fares and refunds at a station without a ticket office? How many job losses in Enfield and elsewhere will result if ticket office closures go ahead as planned?
I understand that Network Rail is responsible for almost 60% of delays on Govia, but Govia is therefore responsible for four in 10 delayed trains. I would suggest that to serve the commuters in my constituency and elsewhere properly, and to give them the fair deal that they deserve, Govia Thameslink Railway really needs to get its act together as fast as possible.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Horsham (Jeremy Quin) for securing the debate and agree with him that this really is déjà vu all over again. For all of us here, the issue is one of the single biggest annoyances in our constituencies at the moment. I get daily emails with progress or lack-of-progress reports from constituents, tweets and other social media. I have taken to having a “Trainwatch” section on my website, where I post, three times a day, the performance or lack-of-performance charts from Govia Thameslink Railway, which are usually a mass of red and yellow showing lateness.
On Monday, I visited the Three Bridges operation centre, so that I could see at first hand how it was dealing with all the problems. It is a very impressive facility where Network Rail works alongside Southern rail. I was taken around by the chief executive, Charles Haughton, and I am grateful to him for the time he took to show me around. However, it is very clear that GTR is still nowhere like on top of the problems. We were shown charts that were not just red, but pink, which is when it is in complete meltdown. The very morning that I was there, the whole signalling structure was outed for some 10 minutes, causing absolute chaos.
I then travelled in the cab with the chief executive up to London Victoria. Again, it was good to see at first hand some of the challenges faced by GTR. Fortunately, the train arrived into Victoria only 10 minutes late. I recognise the problems and challenges of the infrastructure going back to the 1930s, and we heard all about that at the heated meeting with the management and the Minister back on 18 January. We recognise that the responsibility for the problems is something like a 60:40 split, with Network Rail responsible for 60%. However, on the day I visited, it was quite clear that there were problems that were Southern rail’s own making.
I got an email just that morning from a constituent saying that they had just been told that the 7.31 am from Shoreham had been cancelled. At 7.35 am, they saw it shoot through Shoreham station. Later in the day, I found out that, in fact, the train had not been cancelled. There was a problem with the train crew at source. Southern had then chosen to shoot through some stations to try to make up that time, so, effectively, it had lied to consumers. It is no wonder that our constituents are getting cynical about the reasons for some of the delays. I said to GTR that it needs to be honest with passengers. Passengers will understand when major structural problems cause delays, but they need to be told the truth. If trains are to shoot through stations, passengers need to be given good warning of that and told exactly the reason why.
Some of the charts that I have posted on my website are quite appalling. One day, only 51 of 114 Gatwick Express trains actually arrived on time, and 30 were more than 30 minutes late or cancelled. Only two thirds of trains on the Brighton main line arrived on time that day. For people coming into Gatwick and getting on to the Gatwick Express, this is the “Welcome to Britain” sign, and that sort of inconvenience and hassle does not give a good impression of the services in this country.
I praise the social media that GTR is using to try to communicate more, but it needs to be much more transparent about the problems. The issue is having an impact on students in my constituency, who are arriving late at lessons as trains are overshooting their stops. Commuters are saying that they are going to move back to London.
In such a backdrop, the ticket office closures add insult to injury, with closures of the majority of 84 station ticket offices across the south-east. In Shoreham and Lancing, the ticket offices will close. At Worthing, it will be there for peak time only. The closures are supposedly based on a survey of ticket office usage. Nobody knows when that survey happened or how many people were involved. In fact, in Shoreham, the ticket office has been closed on many occasions because of staff illness. That information is not available for the three-week-only consultation that is closing this week. There will then be a week for Transport Focus to decide what recommendation to make but, in any case, it has no veto over GTR’s intentions.
I have had lots of emails, and some 2,300 people have signed a petition in 10 days. Tomorrow evening, I will be holding a meeting with Southern rail. Southern rail managers are coming down to Shoreham where constituents can see them at first hand and get the answers to why we have a shoddy service and why they have this ridiculous idea, in the interests of enhanced passenger experience, to do away with those station ticket offices and replace them with station hosts. Station hosts are there to tell people why the ticket machine is not working, and to deal with the trains coming into the station, and with maintenance and security. If people are lucky, hosts will have some time to advise them on how to buy their ticket.
Finally, there is the issue of the continued closure of the underpass at Shoreham station where, just last week, a 20-year old man was fatally hit by a train. We need to do more to be much more responsive to public need.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. It is also a pleasure to address the railways Minister, who I know is genuinely committed to our railways and is a railway enthusiast. With her in place, I hope we will solve some problems.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Horsham (Jeremy Quin) on securing the debate, but I should say something first about my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I am chair of the ASLEF group of MPs. ASLEF, as hon. Members know, is the union for train drivers. In their defence, in my experience, drivers are unfailing in their politeness and very helpful in keeping passengers informed when things go wrong. Things go wrong quite often, but that is not their fault.
I have travelled on the Luton to London line every day of my working life since 1969—some 47 years—so I have quite a bit of experience. Govia, despite having newer and longer trains available, is probably the worst operator during all my years of travelling. It does not appear to appreciate the number of staff it needs to operate a train service effectively, and I receive regular complaints from my constituents, especially those using Leagrave station in my constituency. The current customer satisfaction rating shows that fewer than three out of four passengers are satisfied with the service, and that is among the lowest of all the franchises.
Govia is currently proposing to close ticket offices, which is just the latest attempt to cut costs and drive up profits. In my view, a public service should reinvest surpluses and not simply distribute them to shareholders. I am grateful to one of my constituents for making some helpful comments on the changes proposed to Leagrave station. She said that the proposals are “clearly cost-cutting” and will be “detrimental to passenger service.” Some 947,000 passengers use Leagrave every year, which is slightly under 1 million, but there are not enough ticket machines for the current demand and there are no proposals to increase the number. Some are out of date and do not accept current credit or debit cards. Not all types of tickets are available and sometimes faults say that even some basic tickets are “not available.”
I detest machines and much prefer purchasing my ticket from a person. I am very fortunate that I use Luton station, which has a well-staffed booking office with some helpful and charming booking staff. I am not alone in buying my ticket every day—30% of people buy tickets from ticket offices every day and they should be available to all. Not all passengers can use a machine because of disabilities or medical reasons. Govia has a legal duty to ensure equality of access, particularly for people with visual impairments, dyslexia or learning difficulties—I am chair of the all-party parliamentary group on dyslexia and other specific learning difficulties, so I am aware of those problems—and mental health difficulties.
When the ticket office is open at Leagrave, my constituent says that there are nearly always queues, presumably because people prefer not to use a machine, or because they have a query or their ticket is not available from the machines, and they get a better service from a person. I do not know the responsibilities of the hosts proposed by Govia but, presumably, they will also be staffing barriers and dealing with other issues for passengers, or even issuing penalties, which is time consuming in itself.
There are two entrances to Leagrave station so Leagrave will have two “hosts”. How does Govia intend to comply with health and safety requirements if only one person is on duty and not behind a glass screen? What passed for a waiting room at Leagrave, at one entrance only, was recently converted for barriers only, so I am not sure where the hosts are supposed to operate from. Shelter on the platforms is also minimal.
I use the internet infrequently, but my constituent tells me that the Govia Thameslink website is “totally inadequate” for obtaining accurate information or booking tickets reliably. I am told that not all types of ticket are available on the website and that railcard options are not integrated into ordinary purchases. Govia has not supplied sufficient information to enable people to respond meaningfully to the consultation. Govia says that
“some ticket offices issue less than 12 tickets per hour”,
but there is no way of comparing that figure with other stations or other times of the day. I have tabled an early-day motion on the subject and urge the Minister to review Govia’s franchise with the view to taking it within her Department.
Finally, on punctuality, if I have to get to a meeting in Westminster on time, I go for an earlier train than normal just in case the train is late, as the trains so often are—not missing meetings, and indeed votes, at Westminster is important to Members of Parliament. There are other things that are not Govia’s fault, one of which is sometimes the state of the track. Between St Pancras and the Elstree and Borehamwood tunnel, the track in some places is not good. Almost every day one hears the stops being hit as we go over rough bits of track. Network Rail has something to answer for, too.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Horsham (Jeremy Quin) on securing this debate. I agree with every word he said. The performance of the franchise simply is not good enough. It is a matter of deep regret and enormous frustration that Members have had to come back to this Chamber again to raise concerns about its performance. The figures speak for themselves. In 2011, 78% of Southern passengers were satisfied with train punctuality and reliability. In spring 2015 the figure had fallen to just over half, 56%, and in the autumn it had risen to 65%—fewer than two thirds of passengers were satisfied. Last year, Southern was effectively voted by passengers the worst franchise in the country.
That is unacceptable when, one year ago, thanks to the Minister’s sterling efforts, the industry gathered together and agreed a performance improvement plan for the franchise that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Horsham said, set a benchmark for performance that was already far lower than that in the rest of the industry. What do we see one year later? In the past three months, the franchise has consistently fallen below the standard set by its own benchmark, which was already low. That is simply not acceptable. Indeed, in the original performance improvement plan, the industry said:
“You will notice real improvements from now onwards in the punctuality and reliability of our trains.”
That promise has been broken. It will evince nothing more than a hollow laugh from passengers, who are absolutely fed up. Day after day we hear the franchise’s excuses on its trains, including a shortage of rolling stock. What happened to the rolling stock? How can a train be missed? Why are there inadequate amounts of rolling stock? Another excuse is that drivers are not available. That is not necessarily because, as has been pointed out to me, drivers are failing to turn up, but simply because an inadequate number of drivers are employed by the company. An airline would not run things like that, so why should we accept it from the rail industry?
Where is the accountability for this lamentable performance? Who is being held accountable, and how, for the complete failure to deliver by the franchise’s own standards and the promises that it made? The franchise said a year ago that it would deliver improvements, and those improvements have not been delivered. What penalty will be exacted against it? Have senior managers been held accountable in any way? Have they had their pay frozen or their salaries cut? I hope there have been no performance-related bonuses. There could not possibly have been because the performance has been so bad. Perhaps there should be performance-related penalties. Where is there accountability in the system that will drive better performance? The public are fairly asking those questions.
When the franchise was first awarded in May 2014— I am sorry to have to remind the Minister of this—the Department for Transport’s press notice said:
“Demanding contractual obligations on the operator will deliver cleaner and more spacious trains and improve passenger satisfaction. Tough new benchmarks for performance, train and station cleanliness and customer service information have also been agreed.”
The impression that was created was that the service would get better; it has got worse. Where is the accountability? How will this service be held to account?
None of us has any complaint about how the Minister has approached the issue—far from it. She has arraigned the companies concerned in front of Members and required the companies to meet us to account for themselves. She drove the introduction of the performance improvement plan, and she has done her level best to insist on greater performance, but we cannot find ourselves arriving in this Chamber in one year’s time having experienced the same level of delays and lack of passenger satisfaction as we have now. The service simply must improve. If it will not improve rapidly, we have to consider more radical action to address the problem. The lack of performance is undermining faith in the entire policy of engaging the private sector to deliver public services. In that respect, it is very damaging to the Government and to the reputation of the whole industry. It is simply not good enough, it must improve and there must be accountability on the part of the franchisee to deliver better performance.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Horsham (Jeremy Quin) on securing this debate. There is almost nothing in what has been said with which I do not wholeheartedly agree.
Listening to my right hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert), I recognise the trap that the Minister is in. In one of the meetings that she arranged for us to be briefed by her director of franchising, it was made perfectly clear that the option exists to remove the franchise from Govia, but colleagues will recall his extremely strong advice that placing the management of this railway back in the hands of the Department for Transport and the public sector is almost certainly against the interests of our constituents. There are limitations on the levers available to the Minister to improve the performance of both Govia and Network Rail. Of course, in the terms of the franchise, she inherited the fare income and is paying a management fee to Govia for running the service, which I hope is an area in which her imagination and energy can begin to address the fundamental issue of unfairness for our constituents. They are getting a rotten service, and they are being inadequately served and inadequately advised about the service they are getting. As my right hon. Friend said, who is accountable? We have to work hard to try to address the issue of perceived unfairness.
The Minister knows that I feel that particularly strongly because the part of the network that I represent catches the full trains and the highest fares per mile into London—being just outside the London area, my constituents pay £1,000 a year more than for the equivalent ticket just inside zone 6. That is why I am particularly attracted to the suggestion that my hon. Friends the Members for Horsham and for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat) made about electronic ticketing. I strongly invite the Minister to go beyond her commitment to reducing the delay repayment threshold from 30 to 15 minutes and to use her energy and imagination to get tucked into electronic ticketing. I do not see why, in this day and age, we cannot hold out to our constituents a fair system that automatically adjusts for services that do not happen, for services that are late and for the number of services that people take, and that reflects their experience on the trains. Even simply the prospect of introducing such a system would begin to win back the trust of those who use the service, as they would know there will at least be fairness at the end of the line.
I note the remarks of Transport Focus in its latest letter to me on 28 January 2016:
“We are calling for the industry to restore trust, especially among commuters, with credible promises, backed by sustained, improved performance....A fare reduction for badly affected passengers would also help.”
That is within my hon. Friend’s gift to a degree, although I recognise the financial pressure that the Department remains under, as does the rest of the Government.
On Gatwick, I want to reinforce a point made by my hon. Friends about the ticket offices. This has been raised with me by constituents using Merstham and Reigate stations. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), who said that if people have to stand out the front and explain why the machine is not working, that will not help much either.
Finally, if anyone thinks for a moment that this is an appropriate line on which to support Gatwick with a second runway, they need their head examining. On Gatwick’s own numbers, there will be a 69% growth in predicted traffic if we go from one to two runways in 2040, which will actually mean a massive increase in the use of the railway for Gatwick passengers. It is totally unsustainable as an option, and I hope the rail Minister will make the position very clear in the assessment of the options.
It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I am in complete agreement with all the hon. and right hon. Friends and Members who have spoken so far.
I want to start by mentioning some positives. In the previous Parliament, I was very grateful when Three Bridges station received £26 million in upgrade funding. I am proud of the fact that the new Southern area control centre, a state-of-the-art facility, is based at Three Bridges rail yard. In this Parliament, I have been grateful for the fact that the new Thameslink train care facility is located also at Three Bridges rail yard. It was good to see the Transport Secretary there last year for its opening. It is a very impressive facility indeed and will go a long way to helping to service the longer and more state-of-the-art Thameslink trains that are coming along, we hope, later this year and I am sure will improve the customer experience.
As smart ticketing has been mentioned, I want to welcome the extension of the Oyster zone to Gatwick airport. Like my hon. Friends the Members for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat), for Horsham (Jeremy Quin) and for Reigate (Crispin Blunt), I would like to see smart metering throughout the network. It is a much more efficient way of running services and also an aid in terms of refunds. The issue of refunds, as hon. and right hon. Friends have mentioned, needs to be better addressed.
However, I also recognise what the hon. Member for Luton North (Kelvin Hopkins) said about the importance of there still being a human presence at ticket offices. It is extremely important. He is a very distinguished chair of the all-party group on dyslexia, and what he said about disability access was absolutely right as well. My constituents have been telling me about what they believe is the folly of ticket office closures. Of course we can have a more efficient system, and there will be some stations where ticket offices, perhaps with new technology, are a thing of the past, but at the moment it is not appropriate to go forward with such a programme.
A lot of investment has benefited my constituency in recent years, but the experience, as the hon. Member for Luton North said, has been unacceptable. I commute daily to Westminster. Like the hon. Gentleman, I have now allowed myself an extra hour to get into this place, which is ridiculous. I should be able to rely on the train timetable with a degree of certainty. When I stand, all too often at peak times, with my fellow commuter constituents from Three Bridges, the level of service and the slowness of the services is simply not acceptable. Little things might seem quite minor, such as a train coming in from Brighton on the way into London and the announcement on the train or at the station that the train is going in the opposite direction, which occurs too often. The vast majority of people who get on that train every morning know that yet again a mistake has been made, but for a visitor to this country coming into Gatwick airport, for example, that could be a major problem. Also, it does huge reputational damage to the railways. People can be seen rolling their eyes and saying, “They’ve messed up again.” Indeed they have. Such a poor level of service really cannot be tolerated.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Horsham on securing this debate. I very much hope that it will be another effort that will encourage better service delivery as we go forward. I add my voice in thanking the rail Minister for all the effort she has put in over recent months.
It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Horsham (Jeremy Quin) on securing this debate.
It is disappointing that we are having this debate, because the Government have a proud record on investment in rail services, particularly in Thameslink. In the previous Parliament, a £6.5 billion investment programme was secured. This was welcomed by many of my constituents who use the line, alighting at Mill Hill Broadway and Hendon. As part of the programme, the station at Farringdon has been rebuilt, a new station has been constructed at Blackfriars bridge and redevelopment is currently taking place at London Bridge, so the benefits for passengers from my constituency are set to continue. The Thameslink line will have its own dedicated track from Bedford to Brighton, which will ensure that trains are not delayed at London Bridge. It will allow for more trains, and new, longer rolling stock will create much needed extra capacity.
Within my constituency, there is a new ticket office at Mill Hill Broadway station. I successfully sought the abolition of cash machine charges at the station, saving passengers £1.80 per transaction. That was welcomed by my constituents, and I was very pleased to have been able to contribute as the local MP. However, I want further improvements at Mill Hill Broadway, including a lift installed, so that the elderly and disabled, people with suitcases, and parents with children and buggies will be able to access the station more easily. That project is progressing through a consortium of stakeholders, and I hope to be able to inform my constituents of further progress soon.
However, it is the Thameslink line itself—both the train operating company and Network Rail—that gives my constituents most cause for concern. Like other Members, I receive emails from constituents pretty much on a daily basis outlining their experiences. I received one yesterday from a constituent who said:
“The line has further deteriorated in the last 6-9 months. The reliability issues with rolling stock, signals, rails has been further exacerbated by shortages of driver/crews.”
However, what is really damaging customer satisfaction is the apparent unwillingness of GTR to do anything to alleviate the pain and suffering of my constituents.
GTR continues to put four-car trains on the slow part of the line in rush hours. When there is a service interruption, it refuses to stop the fast trains at intervening stations, such as Mill Hill Broadway, which is equipped for 12-car trains. This is an experience echoed by other Members. The fast trains pass through, often half full, and passengers can be expected to wait up to an hour before a slow train is provided. This is totally unacceptable on what is a metro service where people have to get to and from work in central London. Half-empty trains not stopping at overcrowded stations in the event of a service breakdown is, at best, frustrating and annoying. I have asked Govia if it can exert more flexibility in such circumstances and, although I accept that the train company and Network Rail have to bear in mind the knock-on effect on other service timetables, I share my constituents’ belief that Govia demonstrates an unwillingness to vary its operating procedures in the interests of customer services.
I understand that the other morning a 12-car fast train was stopped at a signal in Mill Hill Broadway station, but the driver would not open the doors, even though his train was half full and there were hundreds of people waiting for a train standing on the station. I believe that GTR’s customer service statistics, low as they are, are about to get a whole lot worse as passenger feelings rise at its apparent contempt for people who have to travel on the line.
One of my constituents commented that the
“train arrived on time (no problem on the line) and was so full between 5-10 people per door couldn’t get on. Overcrowded doesn’t begin to describe it. Running 4 or 5 (all stations) trains per hour at rush hour is hopeless. I tried to board but just couldn’t squeeze on.”
“In the carriages seats seem designed for children—facing seats are intimately close. The passageway is not wide enough for a passenger leaving to squeeze past a standing passenger without squashing them.”
Yet another said:
“In the evenings—when operating on schedule—there are 3 or 4 all stations trains per hour and some are only 4 (not 8) carriages. Another wait and squeeze.”
I have received many such emails, and it is frankly embarrassing, when we have the new franchise and new opportunities for rolling stock are coming forward, that we appear to be let down by the train operating company and, indeed, Network Rail. Network Rail is a cause of some of the problems, but that is not being effectively communicated to my constituents and others.
I concur with comments that have been made about ticket offices. Many of my residents who are elderly or who have problems getting access to the ticket machines would find the removal of ticket offices a great burden. I will conclude by mentioning that I am a former chairman of the all-party group on Thameslink, but had to resign when I was made a Parliamentary Private Secretary. I suggest that we resurrect the group with the Members here today.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Horsham (Jeremy Quin) on securing the debate, and agree about being rather tired of seeing each other’s faces in these circumstances—so sorry.
Despite all the recent talk and excuses, my constituents across Wealden, who commute on the misery line previously known as the Uckfield line, still have to put up with delays, timetable changes, short-formed trains, extended engineering works, overcrowding, unsatisfactory compensation processes, nonsensical bus replacements, poor communication and—the latest nail in the coffin—potential ticket office closures. I want to take this opportunity to ask my right hon. and hon. Friends to join me in writing to the Transport Committee. I first wrote to the Committee in July asking for an inquiry into the performance of Southern. I wrote again six months later, in January, asking it to consider an inquiry again, because of the constant and continued failure of the service. We need proper answers and accountability. I do not believe that GTR and Network Rail understand the impact of the disruption on individual passengers—but also on their families, jobs, and the rural economy in places such as Wealden.
I wholeheartedly agree. I want to describe the events on the network in an average week, which Southern itself later admitted in an email was “particularly disruptive for passengers”—for which I read “failing to deliver a service”. Southern cited
“a series of incidents affecting the service each day.”
For that, I read “complete and utter management failure”. We had signalling failures at Norwood, Bognor and London Bridge, a power supply failure at Littlehaven, a major signalling failure at Purley, a train at Coulsdon with door problems, a Horsham-bound service with power issues, a broken-down train at Clapham Junction and, once again, crew shortages. All of that has a knock-on effect on the Uckfield line. Southern has failed on its own baseline public performance measure. I would like to know how the management is being held to account and what the penalties are.
Last year, Southern decided to publish a fantasy timetable—a bit like a fantasy football team, I believe, because it had no bearing on the experiences of the passengers on the line. On 5 January, a rail replacement bus service missed a connection at Crowborough and the train that London commuters had to get instead terminated at Oxted. There were so many passengers waiting that people struggled to disembark from the terminated train because there was literally no room on the platform. Figures from the Office of Rail Regulation just last week showed that the number of stops skipped by Govia has increased to 6,732 and that as many as 200 people are regularly turfed out at Crowborough so that the train going up to London can be on time.
The situation is not just dire; it is unsafe. My constituent Alistair, from Crowborough, wrote last week that
“if a serious incident took place, it would be physically impossible to move to a neighbouring carriage, such is the level of overcrowding in Standard Class.”
We all get regular correspondence on the issue, and the local radio station for Uckfield has a more or less regular slot on constituents’ frustrations with travelling on the Uckfield line. I had to share with my constituents, after a recent summit meeting with GTR executives, the appalling news that the horizon for improvements was to be pushed back again by six months, to 18 months. Wealden would like to know when this journey from hell will end, and I hope that hon. and right hon. Members will join me in calling on the Transport Committee to enter the fray.
Thank you, Mr Hollobone; you are very kind. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Horsham (Jeremy Quin) on securing the debate and opening it with such gusto. I also thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) for alerting his Sussex colleagues to the opportunity to attend the debate this afternoon.
I feel that I have earned a testimonial for this subject, having used Southern services to commute from my home in east Sussex to London for the past 10 years. As a member of the Transport Committee, I have a passion for the rail industry and regard it as one of the great success stories of recent years. Since 1997 passenger numbers have doubled and we now have the fastest growing network in Europe. I welcome the Government’s commitment, with £39 billion of capital investment, to making the railways even better.
The Southern and Govia franchise is undoubtedly an immense operation. As we were told last year, 175,000 people travel on it every day. As many passengers go through Southern’s stations as go through Heathrow. London Bridge station is the subject of immense development, and the track is being untangled and lines extended, while trains still run above the building site. Track work south of Croydon has not had any investment since the 1930s. The challenge is simultaneously to upgrade our ageing infrastructure and to allow passengers to continue to travel. That challenge has not been successfully met at all times and commuters have faced considerable disruption as a result.
I have shared the frustration and anger that my constituents feel when they are unable to get to see their child’s play at school or get to pick-up on time, and when they are forced to stand uncomfortably in cramped conditions for long periods. In saying that there is an urgent need for performance to improve on Southern’s lines, I am not saying anything that has not already been said by Network Rail, Southern or the rail Minister, who has been a constant champion for my constituents, and without whom things would be much worse.
I have some specific asks for my constituents. Rightly there has been much focus on the London commuter lines, but I also have a coastal line, which runs from Brighton through to Ashford using diesel trains. It is vital as it connects Bexhill to London Victoria. The public performance measure on this line is currently a poor 65%. Even when services are running to time, it currently takes approximately two hours to make that journey. A similar distance, from London to Milton Keynes, can be travelled in just over 30 minutes. My constituency neighbour, my right hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye (Amber Rudd)—the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change—and I are campaigning to extend High Speed 1 from Ashford down to Hastings and Bexhill. That would reduce the Bexhill to London journey time to 78 minutes and unlock the economic growth that we need locally if we are to become self-reliant with respect to business rates.
We very much hope that Network Rail will build on the Government’s commitment to deliver that line and include electrification in the next control period. Until such time, we are looking for Southern to take advantage of new technology to expand the carriages from the present two-car train. We understand that there is a lack of diesel rolling stock, but we also believe that there is now technology that allows mobile batteries to be put under trains, which would allow some excess electric stock to be added to the diesel stock until proper electrification occurs. Passengers are suffering from over-cramped conditions, so rather than taking what should be a scenic route along the coast to get to work or school, or to enjoy recreation, they are using their cars instead. All that this new technology needs is a delivery order. We hope that Southern and the Department for Transport will work together to permit an order to be made.
My second ask is to get better transparency to show how much of the money generated by Southern goes back into its rail network. This franchise is required to pay all its fares to the Department for Transport. With passenger growth being such a success and with 23% of all UK rail traffic operating on this franchise, the receipts have been coming in. In England, the Government subsidy on rail is £1.88 per passenger journey; in Wales it is £9.18. As it is our constituents who suffer the consequences of overcrowding that rail growth has delivered, it would be more tolerable for them to know how much their lines will receive in order to deliver a more comfortable and reliable journey.
My final ask is for an update on the continuous liaison that Network Rail and Southern undertake to avoid or mitigate infrastructure failure.
On my hon. Friend’s point about subsidy, my understanding is that this particular line is a negative subsidy area, meaning that it subsidises other passengers in England. The figure that he should be quoting is a negative one, which obviously adds to the frustration and unfairness that all our constituents feel.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. The figure I gave was for England as a whole, but his intervention encapsulates the point that our constituents have felt the pain caused by rail growth and it would be good to see them get the upside from future investment. It is also important that our constituents can see these data, so that they can believe that better times are around the corner.
The rail Minister has championed the cause that I have just outlined, and I am grateful for the manner in which she has sought to bring these organisations together. However, the recent ice on the lines issue appeared to suggest a breakdown of communication between Network Rail and our rail operators on 12 February. It would be helpful for Network Rail to deliver a post-mortem for that day to show that lessons have been learned to reduce the impact of major one-off incidents.
In conclusion, I recognise the challenges that Southern faces. Some of them are a result of the huge Government investment in engineering and station redevelopment work. However, the constituents in Sussex must receive the better travelling environment that their forbearance deserves.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone.
Right hon. and hon. Members will be correct in thinking that nobody has contacted me about this issue. [Laughter.] Actually, that is not true. The only people who have contacted me about it are in this room, and they did so because I am a member of the Transport Committee.
When I was asked to sum up for the Scottish National party on this issue, aside from thinking, “Be still this beating heart”, I had a look through our party’s conference minutes over decades and decades, and I could find no policy on the performance of Govia Thameslink, so I will not take up too much time today.
My predecessor as the Member for Glasgow South, Tom Harris, who is a former rail Minister and a transport enthusiast, once told me that the current rail Minister has the best job in Government. However, having listened to all these complaints about this service today, I am yet to be convinced that that is the case.
I invite all Members who have taken part in this debate to come to my constituency to see the fantastic Cathcart circle, which is much loved, not only by Mr Harris but by another of my predecessors, Sir Teddy Taylor, who I understand opened Cathcart station when it was refurbished.
The final thing I will do today is congratulate the hon. Member for Horsham (Jeremy Quin) on raising this issue. I have heard much about the problems with this line since I became a Member of Parliament. He has championed his constituents’ interests, as indeed have all Members who have spoken today.
I will end by doing something I never thought I would do, which is thanking Tony Blair for the fact that the railways are devolved in Scotland.
It is indeed an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Horsham (Jeremy Quin) on securing this important debate, and I also congratulate hon. Members from all parties on articulating their case so well. This railway line has been described as the “misery line” and “the line from hell”, and given hon. Members’ accounts of it one can readily understand why.
The question of railway performance and effective working relationships between railway operators and Network Rail is very much the order of the day. Indeed, this very day we will digest the long-awaited Shaw report into the future of Network Rail. I must confess that my journeys into London from 250 miles away sound a lot more efficient and comfortable than the journeys endured by hon. Members from all parties in the House. It has been said that what Network Rail needs are the right people with the right plan. Hopefully they will start to emerge, but then it is about the delivery of what passengers want, as opposed to ripping things up and starting again. We await the recommendations of the Shaw report with great interest.
Today, however, we are dealing with the current very sorry state of affairs on the biggest franchise that has ever been let, which is the combined Thameslink, Southern and Great Northern, or TSGN, franchise. It covers an enormous territory, centring as it does on our ever-growing capital city, and ranging from King’s Lynn in the far north-east—it is all relative, if that is the “far north-east” for this franchise—to Milton Keynes in the north-west, to Southampton and Portsmouth in the south-west, through to Horsham and to Hastings and Maidstone in the south-east. It takes in the connections to Gatwick airport and, ultimately, converges on central London and some of our very busiest mainline stations, including London Bridge, which has been the focus of such significant complaints in recent times.
I will get straight to it and say that this was undoubtedly an ambitious franchise when it was let in 2014. Although I do not wish to diminish by one jot the considerable concerns that Members have, a very significant amount of disruption was always going to be involved with such a major project. One of the major concerns that have arisen—I hope that the Minister will address it—is the extent to which there has been sufficient honesty with the travelling public about the correctly predicted diminution in the standards of service for the duration of the works, and whether that assessment has been made and properly communicated to passengers. We have heard of people being, on the face of it, deliberately misled.
There has to be a degree of accuracy and honesty about what is achievable. Failing to highlight adequately the difficulties that such major undertakings present, and not communicating all of that to the travelling public, serves only to increase dissatisfaction and dash high hopes and expectations. In addition, given the performance issues that have arisen since the franchise was let, questions arise about whether those performance issues ought to have been better identified before the start of the franchise. I therefore ask the Minister to set out what measures are being taken to address those matters and to say what lessons can be learned, especially in the context of the equally ambitious plans for Waterloo station and Euston, which are a consequence of our decision to proceed with High Speed 2. In short, we do not want to see a repeat of the difficulties encountered at London Bridge at other major rail hubs.
I say the franchise was rightly ambitious, because at its heart was a major infrastructure scheme to vastly improve capacity and performance. To that end, London Bridge is undergoing a major reconstruction and transformation, and I believe that work is expected to be completed by 2018. Among many other things, those works will facilitate 12-car Thameslink trains and a new station concourse to improve passenger circulation, which is currently very badly disrupted.
The network is characterised by increased passenger numbers and overcrowding, and significant safety concerns have been outlined, which should alarm us all. However, the outfall in addressing these issues cannot be underestimated. TSGN’s ability to get trains running to timetable is not good. The percentage of franchise trains arriving at their destination on time stands at 81.7%, compared with the industry average of 89.3%. While that is an improvement from 76% and 79% in the previous two years, it still means that nearly one in every five trains do not arrive on time. Judging from the accounts of hon. Members today, it sounds as if those late trains can be clustered together in much higher ratios.
The “right time performance measure” measures arrival time against trains arriving early or within 59 seconds of schedule. Network Rail says that it is not an entirely reliable measure, but in any event it currently tells the sorry story of a compliance rate of only 52.6%, against the industry average of 64.8%. That means that nearly half of TSGN trains do not arrive within 59 seconds of schedule. Given the experiences that have been outlined today, that proportion of late trains may be significantly more than 59 seconds out of its schedule. Similarly, the record on cancellations and significant lateness is 5.3%, against an industry average of 3%. That is a poor reflection, and that feeds through into customer satisfaction.
It is perhaps no surprise that the common factor in the low passenger satisfaction rates in the three bottom-ranked operators—Thameslink, Southern and Southeastern —is the shared line into London Bridge. It seems that passenger flows in and around London Bridge station may not have been correctly predicted. Does the Minister agree with that observation? Can any lessons be learned on the modelling of such matters? Will she comment on the specific measures that might be taken to improve the flow of passengers, given the establishment of the rail reparation fund for TSGN passengers? That was set up in December 2015 and is worth £4.1 million.
In August 2015 serious weaknesses were found by the regulator in the data used to settle new timetables. Network Rail was found to have overestimated the impact of those timetable changes on performance. It seems that there has been insufficient communication between Network Rail and the operators to accurately identify just what impact the new timetables would have. Will the Minister consider whether and how that process might have been better managed and look into additional mitigating measures that could be taken to ameliorate the adverse impacts? There have been issues surrounding the numbers of train drivers, and we have heard that it is not simply that people are failing to turn up—insufficient numbers have been recruited. There is an issue about platform availability during the major works. Will she comment on that?
Efforts are being made to address to some degree the concerns expressed this afternoon, but I look forward to securing some assurances from the Minister that steps will be taken as a matter of urgency to improve the passenger experience in the franchise ahead of what will, I hope, be an entirely happier story come the completion of the works and the introduction of new services in 2018.
A point was made about the sanctions that might be applied to the operator if it fails to abide by the terms of the franchise. Will the Minister give some assurance that, notwithstanding the change to the structure of Directly Operated Railways, the Department for Transport retains the capability to step in through that office in the event of chronic failure?
My hon. Friend makes a good point. While that was an excellent turnaround from a pretty dire situation, if this particular franchise is, as Members have outlined, so poor that it demands intervention, my concern is that we should still retain the capacity to do that. Given the recent changes to the DOR—it is no longer in the same form—I am concerned that it would not assist at all. Will the Minister address that point?
Will the Minister also address the pertinent issue of electronic ticketing? Members have correctly identified and highlighted the benefits that could be secured from an intelligent roll-out of electronic ticketing. Those benefits relate to access not only to fair fares, but to refunds. I understand that although several tens of millions of pounds was spent trying to progress that agenda, it has come to a shuddering halt and has simply been handed over to the operators.
The Minister disagrees. I am enquiring, so perhaps she can enlighten and correct me. A number of Members have clearly made that reasonable demand on electronic ticketing, and it seems eminently sensible. We want to know what happened to that investment and how it will be progressed.
Finally, I was heartened to hear many Members from across the territory express, on behalf of their constituents, the need for proper staffing levels to be maintained in our railway stations. Many people spoke about difficulties in accessing ticket machines and computer systems. Often that was beyond their capabilities, whether because of information technology illiteracy, learning difficulties or other issues. That strong message came from Members’ contributions today. Will the Minister comment on how we can secure those reassurances that all members of the travelling public need? They need to see that human interface, and sadly it is clearly lacking in the operation of the franchise.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. You are always a fount of rail-related humour. I join in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Horsham (Jeremy Quin) on securing a very important debate, which we must not shy away from continuing. Members have been very kind about what my Department and I are doing, but we are simply reflecting the concerns of Members and the constituents they serve. It is imperative that we sort the issue out. As the hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Andy McDonald) said, with many more investment projects to happen, we have to learn lessons and ensure that this level of disruption does not happen again.
There was very little that I disagree with in what was said today. We know that performance on this part of the network in the franchise—it carries almost a quarter of all rail passengers every day—is simply not good enough, whether in punctuality, reliability, customer satisfaction or the way people feel they are being treated. A lot of points have been raised today, and I will try to address as many as possible in my closing remarks, but if I do not get to everyone’s, please be assured that I have instructed my officials to take notes and to write specifically in response. It is important, on Budget day no less, to have so many hon. and right hon. Members prepared to come to Westminster Hall to make passionate and compelling cases. We need to keep working collectively on this issue.
I will step through the three root causes of problems on the lines, which I think Members know, and then I will talk a little about what is changing and where more needs to be done. The first root cause—my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Dr Offord) made the point compellingly—is that there is a very big improvement project going on with Thameslink and what that entails and the London Bridge reconstruction. It is not just London Bridge, though; Blackfriars is a beautiful station and a wonderful addition to our landscape, and it opened almost without fanfare. We will be unpicking the north-south lines through London and under the Thames so that the constituents of my hon. Friend the Member for Horsham will be able to take a direct train straight through to Peterborough or points in between and access other train journeys. Moreover, they will be able to do so on a brand new fleet of trains, which will start to roll out in the next few months.
I was delighted to welcome the first of the new fleet of Gatwick Express trains. They are purpose-built for people travelling to and from the airport. The first is in operation, and the others will be up and running by the summer. That is tangible evidence of improvement. It is a big package of untangling lines that have not been touched properly in many years, putting in new stations, driving new train paths and providing customers with a much better travelling environment. That is a prize worth having. When London Bridge is open, all the platforms are returned to full capacity and we have many more trains with the ability to take many more passengers, some of the immediate issues will undoubtedly be solved.
The Minister mentioned Gatwick Express. I saw the brand new trains, which are fitted with wi-fi. I gather that she is in negotiations with Govia Thameslink Railway about upgrading existing rolling stock with wi-fi so that at least our commuting constituents stuck on trains going nowhere can get on with some work while they are delayed. Will she ensure that that happens as a matter of urgency?
I am happy to confirm again that I have committed to roll out free wi-fi in all classes of train travel across England by 2018. Trains coming on to the franchises will be fitted with wi-fi as a matter of course, and trains that are already running will be retrofitted. I hope constituents who are not stuck on trains for longer than their train times will also be able to do some productive work. Wi-fi is an important addition to the landscape.
We always knew it would be tough with London Bridge and Thameslink. Despite what some might say is long-term disruption on the line and fare changes, we have seen incredible amounts of growth on the railway. In fact, travel from Horsham, for example, is up 40% in the past 10 years, so more and more people are getting on trains right across the country. Frankly, successive Governments have neglected to invest in infrastructure. We have all ducked our collective responsibility to invest in trains to get people moving effectively and efficiently around the country. It is vital that we keep the investment programmes growing, because we are now seeing some of the problems associated with passenger growth on lines that have not been invested in.
Underlying all that is a problem that is a little more sinister: even when Thameslink is running—when all the trains are rolling, the system looks great and the stations are open—we still have persistent, daily failures of the infrastructure the trains are running over. Our constituents do not care whose fault it is, and nor should they—that is my job, or at least my Department’s—but around 60% of delays are the result of infrastructure failures such as points failing, signals failing or other things going wrong. That is intolerable. Not only is it intolerable on a daily basis, but the Thameslink programme, which will deliver 24 trains an hour through the centre of London, north to south, will not be able to operate unless those infrastructure problems are sorted out.
The focus for my Department has been working together with Network Rail and the operators, including Southeastern, but I am afraid there is no magic bullet. There is no one thing we can all do. It is about a relentless focus on the day-to-day details of running a railway; and ensuring that, in the morning, trains come out of the depot on time to the second, and that, if there is a problem, it is fixed in the minimum amount of time. People may ask, “Surely that’s just railway 101—why hasn’t it happened?” Of course, it has happened, but the problem is that, under both public and private ownership, the customers have not mattered enough.
Members might be surprised to hear that no measure of lost customer time has ever existed on our railways, other than briefly on the London underground. That is inexcusable. My hon. Friend the Member for Horsham made the valid point that it is the human cost of failure that is so hard, as well as the productivity loss of making millions of people late, day in, day out. We have a record programme of investment in transport infrastructure—it was added to in the Budget today, which I welcome—and it is being done to drive up the productivity of the country, but nobody has ever captured the productivity loss from not running the trains on time. Members will be pleased to hear that I am devoting considerable time to that. I want the volume of people being carried on that part of the railway to really count, so that when infrastructure programmes need to be sorted out, there is even more emphasis on sorting them out. We are absolutely committed to doing that collectively.
Many Members raised driver shortages, which is a historical problem for the franchise. It has been run on a shoestring, with the number of drivers about 6% or 7% below what was required. That sounds like a small difference, but, on a very busy railway, if one driver is not there to run one train, there is an infection of delay right across the network. On its current recruitment plans, which are the biggest in the country, GTR will reach the minimum level—the operational level—in August this year. We have asked it to go further than that by recruiting more so that there is resilience in the system, and it is on track to do that. That is vital.
Several Members made important points about ticketing offices and smart ticketing. A consultation on ticket office changes is going on. Nothing can happen without the Department’s say-so. The future of travel in this country is not orange bits of paper but digital ticketing information being delivered to us through whatever device we choose. In some cases, that might be a bar code printed out on a piece of paper, although as the hon. Member for Luton North (Kelvin Hopkins) said, many customers like to buy a ticket from a person, or at least have some interaction.
We have already invested more than £30 million in the south-east flexible ticketing programme, and there are tens of millions of pounds of further commitment to come. That money has been invested to ensure that the franchises, of which GTR is the flagship, can implement the technology, have the back office and gate their stations so that the Key card—the smart card system—can work. If the Key card system were working, there might be an argument for getting people out from behind ticket office counters and on to the front lines, but I will commit today to having a deep-dive conversation with my officials and the franchise so that we can get to grips with where it is on the roll-out of the Key card and how that relates to ticket office closing hours. If we are going to do smart ticketing, let us do it right.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Horsham (Jeremy Quin) on securing this debate. The Minister is right that the Budget debate is ongoing; I want to take this opportunity to say that we in Streatham welcome the green light being given to Crossrail 2, but we want it to come to Streatham.
On ticket offices, it is totally and utterly unacceptable that the three stations in my constituency affected by the franchise will be losing more than 13 staff. It is all well and good telling people to go to the machine, but the problem is that the machines are not giving people the best prices that they are entitled to.
To be clear to the hon. Gentleman, the proposal is to do what Transport for London has done very successfully: train us all to use a reliable alternative system and then take people out and put them on the gate lines to help us. That is 21st century travel and I support it, and I hope he does too. I am afraid he will have to join the queue for lobbying on Crossrail locations.
I was just about to address some of the specific questions. The franchise has been fined more than £2 million for cancellations and the short formations that it has put on the service. That money will be spent on passenger-facing benefits. I am very keen that the money that comes in—the hon. Member for Middlesbrough mentioned the £4.1 million of reparations—is spent to directly benefit customers on this line. Additional proposals on that will be forthcoming.
I was asked at what point we do something radically different. Do we take the franchise back? Do we change? The truth is that this is an exceptionally busy, very difficult franchise to run. In my view, nobody out there could do a better job than the current management team, but we have to ensure that there is a relentless focus on the customer. It is inexcusable that the wrong communications are given. It is inexcusable that delays happen or trains are going in the wrong direction. That is customer relationship management 101. We expect the private sector to deliver on that.
In closing, I will always happily welcome debates on this matter, because they strengthen the resolve of us all in getting to grips with some of the underlying problems of running a franchise in the busiest part of the country. Our debates are helping to inform wider changes throughout the industry, such as the relentless focus on customers. With this Government’s record level of investment in transport, we will have to have these conversations in future, whether about Euston or Manchester’s stations.
I welcome my hon. Friend the Minister’s remarks about a relentless focus on the customer. As my hon. Friends the Members for Reigate (Crispin Blunt) and for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman) teased out, the lines we are discussing subsidise the rest of the national network. It is right that there should be a relentless focus on customers throughout the network, but the service on this franchise is particularly galling. When I mentioned to one of my hon. Friends that I had secured this debate, he said it was good because it would enable him to let off some steam on the grounds that he had simply run out of adjectives to describe to his constituents the performance of the franchise.
I am grateful to the Minister for saying that she will not shy away from more debates on this matter, although it is our sincere hope that this will be the last debate we need on it. My right hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) quoted the performance improvement plan of a year ago, which said:
“You will notice real improvements from now onwards”.
That is what we want to see, and I know that the Minister does too.
I recognise the huge increase in the number of passengers, and the huge increase in investment in the line to cope with it. We need that relentless focus on customers, and I welcome the fact that the Minister is looking into a measure of lost customer time and lost productivity. It is extraordinary that one has never existed. In my opening speech, I asked for Network Rail to be genuinely held to account for passengers’ experience. I welcome the fact that the Minister is clearly trying to achieve exactly that. I also welcome what she said about increasing driver numbers, but, as ever, as so many Members said, we want to see the outcomes, not the inputs, as she knows.
My hon. Friends the Members for Hendon (Dr Offord) and for Crawley (Henry Smith), along with the hon. Member for Luton North (Kelvin Hopkins), made eloquent points about ticket office closures, which I believe are wrong and hasty. The consultation process has been too short. I implore those responsible to think again.
I welcome what the Minister said about a deep dive with her officials on the subject of electronic ticketing, which was mentioned by my hon. Friends the Members for Reigate and for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat). We need to work out what can be taken from electronic ticketing. Above all, we must make certain that there is accountability on the service. That was the Minister’s theme, and I am grateful to have heard it. I look forward to her continuing to pressure these companies in the months ahead.
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).
[Sir Roger Gale in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered three-tier education.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger. I would also like to express my gratitude to Mr Speaker for granting this debate.
I called for this debate because, since being elected last May, I have been contacted by many parents asking for my advice and guidance on the advantages and disadvantages of middle schools; by parents lobbying either for or against their local first school’s attempt to change its age range; and by teachers and headteachers of middle schools concerned about the long-term viability of their own schools, especially if feeder first schools are adding years. There is a lot of confusion about the value and long-term viability of the three-tier system.
I hope to use this debate, first, to raise those issues and to seek the Minister’s guidance on the Government’s position on whether a two-tier or three-tier system is best for our children. Secondly, if an area or individual school wishes to move away from a three-tier to a two-tier system, I seek guidance on how that can best be achieved and to confirm what processes and consultations are considered best practice, based on the experience of transitions elsewhere in the country. I should clarify that by “three-tier system”, I mean a system that contains first schools, middle schools and high schools, and by “two-tier system”, I mean one that contains primary and secondary schools.
By way of background, middle schools in the United Kingdom have had something of a chequered history. Until 1964, education authorities were required to provide for just primary and secondary schools, with a transfer at the age of 11. The Education Act 1964 changed that and made provision for schools to allow for different ages of transfer, which led to the creation of middle schools. Although the Government did not specifically encourage the introduction of middle schools, they did not discourage them either. The schools appeared in a variety of forms, as suited each authority. By 1981, more than 1,800 middle schools were open in nearly 50 local education authorities, from Devon to Northumberland. The patchy way in which the schools developed led to the variety of provision that exists today.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. He is making an interesting speech. He mentioned 1964 and 1981. When I asked the House of Commons Library for background on this issue, it said that there is virtually nothing. Is he aware of the 1967 Plowden report? That was the one source that the Library found for me, and it is inconclusive. I congratulate him on clarifying this matter, as it is a mystery to us all.
I, too, reached out to the Library when researching for the debate. There is not a huge amount of information. The hon. Lady is right. One of the issues that we face is whether the three-tier or the two-tier system is better. The evidence is inconclusive, which is one of the reasons why I called for this debate.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for securing this important debate. He asked for examples. Purbeck in Dorset moved from a three-tier to a two-tier system 18 months to two years ago, and Broadstone in Poole is the one borough left in my constituency that still has middle schools. Elsewhere in Dorset, there are thriving middle schools. Indeed, pupils from Lockyer’s Middle School are coming to Parliament this coming week. Would he, like me, welcome guidance from the Minister about the support that can be given to those middle schools, and on whether there is a preferred model?
I could not agree more. Some middle schools are thriving—there are raving fans of middle schools up and down the country—but their long-term viability is in question. There is also the issue of transfers into secondary schools. Again, I hope the Minister can provide guidance on that.
The confusion that I mentioned earlier led to the development of all sorts of middle schools with different age ranges. There are currently six different types of middle schools based on age range alone. During the past two decades, there has been a clear move away from middle schools towards a two-tier system, and the number of middle schools has fallen from more than 1,800 in 1981 to under 200 in recent years. Today, there are not 50 but 17 education authorities that have middle schools, including my county of Worcestershire. The first middle schools in Worcestershire opened in 1969, and there are still 20 in the county. That is the third highest number of middle schools of any local education authority in the country; only Northumberland and Central Bedfordshire have more. There are 14 local authority maintained middle schools and six middle school academies in Worcestershire, including five in my constituency.
There is also a two-tier system of Catholic primary and secondary schools, which serve Droitwich, Evesham and Pershore. I should declare that my own children attend a local Catholic state school—St Marys in Evesham, which is a great school. It is a primary, rather than a first school, which feeds into a secondary school, so I am familiar with this system. I went through a two-tier system in Lincolnshire and attended a local primary school before going on to the local comprehensive. Although I am personally a product of a two-tier state system—a system that served me well—I am not biased one way or the other. Academic and other reports extol the virtues of both the two-tier and three-tier systems.
Since moving to and representing Worcestershire, I have met many raving fans of both the two-tier and the three-tier systems, and many parents express great affection for the middle schools in my constituency. Many went to middle schools themselves and are enjoying their own children’s experience at the very same schools. Many say that it was a more comfortable segue into secondary education, because it was less intimidating and more friendly than the otherwise potentially intimidating jump to a large secondary school with more than a thousand pupils. Most middle schools have just a few hundred pupils and benefit from nearly everyone—both pupils and teachers—knowing one another.
The National Middle Schools’ Forum said:
“Middle Schools occupy the formative central ground in the education process. They are uniquely placed with their opportunities for creative flexibility of organisation to meet the needs of pupils through a time of considerable and wide ranging intellectual, physical and emotional development.”
On results, it said:
“A distinctive and valuable feature of Middle Schools is that they span Key Stages Two and Three. This way of organising children’s education is unique in that the assessments at the end of Key Stage Two and the work which follows them all take place within one school, rather than at the point of transfer.”
That is another valid point.
In an adjournment debate in 2009, my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mr Wright) stated that there is no clear link between a particular school organisational arrangement and educational attainment. It might be useful to note that in our quest to find the best model.
Again, I could not agree more. I seek additional guidance from the Minister. After all, one of the Department for Education’s responsibilities is to give guidance on the best options for our children’s educational outcomes. The academic and other research is confusing for Members of Parliament, including me and the hon. Lady, and also for parents.
I have talked about the advantages of middle schools, but some parents in my constituency told me that they are concerned that transferring schools during key stages can be disruptive. In particular, transferring as late as 13 to a high school leaves less time to make informed GCSE decisions. Other parents told me straightforwardly of the logistical challenges of having to drop their children of different ages off at two or three different schools that are often quite far apart. There are clearly many arguments for and against a three-tier system, and one’s personal experience comes into play. I would appreciate it if the Minister can clarify the Government’s current preference.
There is also discussion about transitions. The issue of whether a two or three-tier system is best has come up again recently in my constituency, specifically because of moves by some first schools to add a year 6. The first schools have perfectly rational reasons for wishing to expand and do that, but an inevitable, if unintended, consequence of such moves is to undermine the long-term viability of the middle schools, as their pupil head count will inevitably fall. I would therefore ask for the Minister’s guidance on the Government’s recommendations on how best to manage any transitionary process. If the head count at the remaining middle schools falls, they may seek to convert to a secondary school, so I would also seek the Minister’s guidance on how the Government will support such moves, both financially and otherwise.
In areas where some schools are maintained schools, controlled by the local authority, and others are more independent academies, that mix of statuses and processes can sometimes add to the confusion in the debate about adding years and converting. From talking to parliamentary colleagues, the consensus seems to be that an open debate, proper co-ordination between schools in and across pyramids, and good consultation, engaging parents and teachers from all impacted schools, are all key elements of any successful transition.
In Worcestershire, we are currently not having a full and open debate on the long-term viability of the two-tier system versus the three-tier system. Perhaps we should be, because I fear that more and more piecemeal changes may lead to some middle schools closing without us having a proper debate about whether that was intended.
I am aware that the Government publish advice and guidance for schools that wish to expand or change their age ranges, and that a full business case is required for significant changes, such as changing the age range of a school by three years or more. I understand that the processes are slightly different for academies versus maintained schools, and that the guidance for maintained schools is currently being reviewed. I am very interested to hear from the Minister what changes may be made as a result of that review. Given the Government’s announcement in today’s Budget of the academisation of all schools, I also suspect that further guidance may well be forthcoming.
As part of the review, however, I would respectfully ask the Minister to consider the protocols on consultations carefully, particularly when an area contains a mix of both academy and grant-maintained schools. I am keen that the wishes of parents of children in schools both directly and indirectly impacted by any changes are considered. At the end of the day, the wishes of local parents should play the key role in deciding on significant changes.
My hon. Friend is right to say that the role of parents should be key. Would it not also be helpful to have some independent evidence—not just subjective, but objective evidence—on which is the best system? In my previous intervention, I mentioned two schools, but I must mention two others, or they will feel left out: St Michael’s Middle School in Colehill and Allenbourn Middle School in Wimborne, both of which are excellent schools. One has been to visit Westminster and another, I know, wants to as well, but doubtless those parents would also want to see some objective, independent evidence on which is the preferred model.
I again thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. He has almost stolen my conclusion with the point he has made, which gave him an excellent opportunity to namedrop those schools.
At the end of the day, I wish to be very respectful to the views of people on both sides of this debate. My key ask of the Minister and the Government, however, is that they do everything they can to provide clear guidance and ensure that any unintended consequences during any transition—should a school or system decide to go from a three-tier to a two-tier system—are minimised. We all want to work together to ensure that all our children achieve the great education that they deserve and that parents could and should rightly expect.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again, Sir Roger. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Worcestershire (Nigel Huddleston) on securing this debate on an issue that is clearly of concern to a large number of his constituents. To answer his question straight away, the Department and Ministers have no plans to remove the three-tier education system. Our clear position remains that the organisation of maintained schools is an issue for local authorities and for individual schools, but in close consultation with parents.
In the Budget just now, we heard about devolution. The Minister says there is a role for local authorities, but if I understood correctly, schools are going to become academies, which seems to contradict the principle of devolution. Perhaps he can help me understand this better.
Yes, of course. The announcement today in the Budget—we will be saying more about this tomorrow in the White Paper—is that all schools will become academies, or be in the process of becoming academies, by 2020. Until then, a large number of schools will still be maintained schools, and if the hon. Lady can be a little patient, I will come to the position regarding academies in a moment. None the less, we still need guidance about the position of three-tier systems when a number or some of those schools are maintained schools.
Where organisational change is proposed, we expect the local authority to agree with schools how any changes will be funded. The Department’s role is to hold schools accountable for the quality of education they provide and not to mandate any particular configuration of tiers. Supporting local authorities to create sufficient school places remains one of the Government’s top priorities. Local authorities are responsible for ensuring that there are enough school places for children in their area. We are spending £23 billion on school buildings in this Parliament to create 600,000 new school places— we created nearly 500,000 in the last Parliament—and we intend to open 500 new free schools and to address essential maintenance needs with that money. That delivers on our manifesto commitment to invest a further £7 billion to create new school places between 2015 and 2021.
Through the free schools programme, we are creating greater local choice by allowing existing schools and other groups to be able to establish new schools, in particular where additional high-quality places are needed. Those include not only traditional primary and secondary schools, but 55 university technical colleges, 72 all-through schools and 25 16-19 free schools that are either open or in the pipeline.
The three-tier system—in which school provision is organised into lower, middle and upper schools rather than the primary and secondary model—has been established, as my hon. Friend said, in areas of the country such as Worcestershire for many years. The number of groups operating the three-tier system has reduced in recent times, mainly because local authorities have restructured their provision as need dictates. There are still, however, over 68,000 children currently being educated in middle schools in England.
The Secretary of State only has a role in decisions to change the age range of a school when that is proposed for an academy. She will only make such a decision at the request of an academy trust.
When a local authority decides to move from a three-tier to a two-tier structure, it is important that careful plans are in place to minimise any negative impact on the performance and viability of other schools in the area, which is something that my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Worcestershire expressed concern about. Local authorities proposing such a change must follow the established statutory process set out in schedule 3 of the School Organisation (Prescribed Alterations to Maintained Schools) (England) Regulations 2013. In practice, an authority-wide reorganisation often involves months of informal consultation and research before the formal statutory process is undertaken. That process ensures that such decisions are widely consulted on and the views of stakeholders and others are valued.
There are four separate stages of the statutory process. First, local authorities are required to publish their proposals in a local newspaper and at the school site. Secondly, a period of formal consultation has to take place for at least four weeks. Thirdly, a decision is usually made by the local authority. Only after those three steps have been taken can the proposal be implemented.
The Minister makes an important point, but for people who live close to the edges of boundaries between local authorities, the catchment areas can be different. I am thinking, in particular, of Dorset, the borders of Poole and Dorset County Council. Within the points that he has made, is there a duty on local education authorities to consult one another—neighbouring authorities—to ensure that there is a fair system for all pupils in an area?
The duty is to consult stakeholders, which will include parents. That includes parents who are likely to go beyond the local authority boundary to send their children to a school.
The consultation stage gives people who may be affected by the proposed change, including children, parents and teachers, a chance to express their views. The local authority is under a statutory duty to take into account all objections raised when reaching its final decision. In cases where objections have been raised, the local authority has a two-month window in which to make a final decision. If the process takes longer than two months, the schools adjudicator will take on the role of decision maker. I stress that changing the age range of local authority-maintained schools is a local decision. The Department nationally has no formal role in the process or the final decision. As my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Worcestershire mentioned, we are reviewing our schools organisation guidance to local authorities and maintained schools, and we intend to publish that shortly.
Where an individual academy seeks to change its age range, the process is different, but it still maintains the requirement for effective consultation and adherence to the principles of public law. The relevant regional schools commissioner is the decision maker for applications from academy trusts. They will ensure that any local issues are identified and addressed before a decision can be made and will draw on the advice and knowledge of their headteacher board. The guidance to support that process requires academy trusts to discuss their proposals with the local authority to ensure that the proposed change is aligned with local pupil place plans and will not have a negative impact on education standards at the academy or at other local schools or colleges. If objections are raised locally about a proposed change, the regional schools commissioner will require the trust to provide a full business case, including details of the steps it has taken to address objections raised through consultation.
My hon. Friend asked whether the Department had any strategies in place to prevent issues arising from any transition to a two-tier system. The guidance requires that schools undergoing any reorganisation work together to ensure an appropriate, co-ordinated implementation and that decisions on any individual proposals will be made in that context.
I refer my hon. Friend to “Making significant changes to an existing academy”, the guidance that the Department published this month. The guidance says on page 9:
“Where proposals are likely to have a significant impact on other local provision a full business case will…be required…Where local provision is organised in three tiers and the aim is to move to two tier age range, the department expects schools to work together to ensure an appropriate co-ordinated implementation, and will only approve any individual proposal in that context.”
Unless the proposers can demonstrate that they have engaged in those kinds of co-ordination arrangements and that their proposals will not adversely impact maintained schools, other schools or parents in the area, the regional schools commissioner simply will not approve the proposal.
I hope that my hon. Friend is reassured that the Department is not looking to remove the three-tier school system. The process for reorganisation and changing the age range of local authority maintained schools rests with local authorities, and for academies it rests with trusts and regional schools commissioners.
Question put and agreed to.
West Highland Way
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the contribution of the West Highland Way to the economy in Scotland.
I am extremely pleased to be able to bring this matter to the House today, so that we can consider the remarkable, positive impact of the West Highland Way economically and celebrate Scotland’s magnificent natural resources and the promotion of healthy lifestyles. I am sure that this debate will result in a great deal of cross-party consensus. I certainly hope we can consider what is necessary to continue maintaining, supporting and promoting the West Highland Way and to develop it as a resource for future generations.
I completed the West Highland Way in 2010, immediately after the general election of that year. If my Scottish National party colleagues cast their minds back to 2010 and the general election result we had, they might understand why I appreciated taking a bit of time off and going to Scotland’s unspoilt wilderness, far away from television, news, emails and mobile phones. It was an extremely appealing prospect. Perhaps hills and glens along the West Highland Way have been awash with ousted politicians from other parties in the past year. I thoroughly enjoyed the experience of taking on and completing the West Highland Way, and I thoroughly recommend that hon. Members consider it when a break from the rigours of this place is required. It is a good way of recharging the batteries.
Scotland is proud to boast some of the most beautiful landscapes and most popular attractions on these isles, attracting millions of tourists from across the United Kingdom each year, as well as more travelling from North America, Europe and the rest of the world. Those visitors help to contribute to Scotland’s diverse and dynamic economy, directly and indirectly supporting jobs. Indeed, we celebrate the latest OECD figures that demonstrate strong growth in visitor numbers to Scotland.
The current VisitScotland campaign, entitled “Spirit of Scotland”, encourages all those enjoying the great tourist sector in Scotland to share their experiences on social media with the hashtag #ScotSpirit. I encourage everyone to do so. Tourism generates billions of pounds each year and is responsible for sustaining hundreds of thousands of jobs for the people of Scotland. Indeed, today’s debate falls at an important time in the calendar year: this week, from 11 to 18 March, is Scottish Tourism Week, which is being marked through a wide range of events across Scotland, engaging businesses within the tourism industry and celebrating the sector’s success.
At this juncture, it is worth reflecting on the history of the West Highland Way, before I look in some detail at its current contribution to Scotland’s economy and offer some thoughts on how we can develop it further in future. The West Highland Way opened officially in 1980, its route winding from the town centre of Milngavie in East Dunbartonshire to the ancient highland settlement of Fort William in the constituency of Ross, Skye and Lochaber.
The way was the brainchild of Tom Hunter, a keen walker and community volunteer, who I was saddened to hear passed away only last month. It is perhaps fitting that this House can today consider Tom’s legacy through this debate on the great path he created for our enjoyment. We owe Tom a great deal of thanks for creating this iconic and enduring resource.
The way boasts some of Scotland’s most impressive views, as it winds across the west highlands of Scotland through ancient roads and paths, over a distance of 96 miles. From its inauguration in 1980, the way quickly became a favourite for serious walkers and leisurely strollers alike. It has grown in popularity and renown since its inception, and, as well as becoming a favourite with the people who experience it, the way has picked up numerous awards celebrating its popularity. Most recently, it was voted one of the top 10 outdoor attractions in the world by National Geographic.
The numbers of people walking or cycling the way have grown substantially in the years since its inception, with around 35,000 people estimated to complete the entire route each year and more than 60,000 completing smaller sections of it. As part of its silver jubilee celebrations in 2005, the way was completed by a relay comprising 1,000 children and young people. On Saturday 18 June this year, the 32nd annual West Highland Way race will take place. Quite astoundingly, last year the course record was broken by Paul Giblin, who took an incredible time of 14 hours, 14 minutes and 44 seconds to complete the 96-mile course—he just beat some of my hon. Friends.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. He has highlighted how fantastic the West Highland Way is. I have walked it a couple of times, although I took somewhat longer than 14 hours, I must say. He has illustrated how well used it is. Personally, I enjoyed the scenery, the signage, how welcoming everybody is and how businesses welcome walkers and tourists. The West Highland Way has spawned many imitation walks, including the River Ayr Way in my constituency, which is the only source-to-sea walk in Scotland. Unfortunately, in the neighbouring South Ayrshire Council area, a large section of the route is still on-road, rather than off-road, and many areas are shut, which means people have to divert. Does my hon. Friend agree that full signage and proper off-road routes are needed to make that walk more attractive?
I agree with the sentiments my hon. Friend has just expressed. In the interests of promoting health and wellbeing generally, these kinds of walk are fantastic. We should look at linking them up with others, to encourage this as a pastime and a hobby.
My constituency of Stirling is home to a large section of the West Highland Way—indeed, the most spectacular and beautiful section. Tourism is crucial to the livelihoods of many individuals and families in my constituency. In my maiden speech in the House of Commons, I said that I wanted to promote the tourist industry both locally and nationally. I look forward to meeting with industry stakeholders from many of these attractions in the coming months and years, fulfilling the role I have in this place, and I encourage my hon. Friends to consider spending some time over the summer recess in Stirling, to enjoy the wonderful tourist experience to be had there.
Over recent months, my colleague Bruce Crawford— the Member of the Scottish Parliament for Stirling—representatives of Stirling Council and I have been pushing hard to increase and expand broadband coverage in the rural part of the constituency where the West Highland Way is, with some success. I am confident that that work will go on. I very much welcome the First Minister’s announcement on Saturday that superfast broadband for businesses will be completed in 100% of premises in Scotland. That is a fantastic promise and I look forward to working on it.
During my research for this debate, I spoke to various organisations to determine the actual reach of the West Highland Way in terms of its value to the Scottish economy. Loch Lomond and the Trossachs national park authority informed me that the impact on the rural economy along the route is most likely significantly underrated. Its conservative estimates are of a direct spend contributing £28 million to the Scottish economy. On top of that, there is additional indirect spending and an even greater economic impact through attracting people to Scotland to stay longer than the time they spend tackling the West Highland Way.
It is also worth noting that the national park authority’s estimates show that more than 2,000 jobs in the national park area depend directly on tourism, which in itself demonstrates the economic importance of the sector to areas such as the west of my constituency. The John Muir economic impact survey estimated that more than £12 million was contributed by walkers who complete the route, and millions more were contributed by the many thousands of visitors who enjoy walking smaller sections of the way.
The West Highland Way brings people to Scotland to experience one of the best walks in the world, but it also allows them to experience Scottish hospitality and some of our excellent local restaurants, hotels, B and Bs and pubs. Along the route, walkers will find many fine local businesses where they can relax after a hard day’s walking and enjoy some of Scotland’s celebrated food and drink. For example, the Oak Tree Inn in Balmaha on the shores of Loch Lomond is a family-owned business established in 1997, and I stayed there during my walk in 2010. It has 70 employees and numerous awards to its name—most recently, it was named Scotland’s best independent pub in 2015. The Oak Tree Inn is a fine example of a local business that benefits from the passing trade brought to it by the West Highland Way and is an important local employer within its small rural community. From my personal experience in 2010, other places such as the Beech Tree Inn in Dumgoyne and the Crianlarich Hotel offer fantastic pit stops along the route, although I managed to avoid the temptation to visit the Glengoyne distillery—excellent as its produce is.
I hope that, through this debate, we can focus minds at all levels of Government and throughout the various businesses and organisations with an interest on the further development of the West Highland Way as a resource for the people of Scotland and as a draw for tourism.
Does my hon. Friend agree that while the West Highland Way does not criss-cross the entire nation of Scotland, it has a profound impact on the social and economic wellbeing of our country? Given that the West Highland Way headquarters are based in my own constituency, in Balloch, I am sure he understands that the economic impact is far reaching, across the whole of Scotland.
I accept that, and I congratulate my hon. Friend on his ingenuity in getting his own nearby constituency into the debate—well done indeed.
With the sentiment being to expand and develop the West Highland Way and sustain it for the future, I have a few ideas to put on the table for other Members’ consideration. First, I am pleased that control of air passenger duty is being devolved and that the Scottish Government are consulting on their plan to halve the rate and remove the tax altogether in time. It is a tourist tax, and we can really benefit from that policy. However, perhaps there are other measures to support the tourism industry, such as reducing the rate of VAT that accommodation providers have to pay. I appreciate that it is unsurprising that the businesses I have spoken to are in favour of the idea—what business would not like to pay less tax? However, there are serious arguments as to why the unique challenges faced by the tourism sector, and in particular accommodation providers, make a strong case for a targeted solution.
Accommodation providers tell me that they can be fully booked in the high season, but that the low demand in winter months makes for a hard time for them. Many businesses are basically hanging on in the winter months and, if any go under, the effects are felt much further than on that individual business. Some of our competitor countries in Europe support their tourism companies and accommodation providers in that way. One accommodation provider told me that a reduction in VAT from 20% to 15% would undoubtedly allow him to expand his business more rapidly and to employ more staff. By coincidence, however, we are debating this matter just hours after the Government’s Budget statement, so I will leave the issue of VAT rates there for today, but I hope we can consider it in the future.
In summing up, I have some questions for the Government. How do the UK Government contribute to efforts to promote the tourism industry in Scotland in general, and the West Highland Way in particular, in conjunction with the Scottish Government and other stakeholders? Is there an opportunity to do more? What links are being made with European institutions to encourage those tourism opportunities? Is there an opportunity for further marketing and promotion of the West Highland Way with the Scottish Government and other stakeholders, alongside the promotion of other walking routes and sport in general, as alluded to by my hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown)? Finally, may I extend an invitation to all right hon. and hon. colleagues to join me on a parliamentary delegation to walk the West Highland Way this summer? I will be taking names at the end of the debate.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Steven Paterson) on securing the debate. It not only celebrates one of the most scenic walking routes in the world, but recognises the economic importance of the West Highland Way to so many businesses and individuals in so many of our constituencies.
My hon. Friend has made an excellent and compelling case for the economic importance of the West Highland Way. I would argue that of equal importance is its social and cultural role, because for tens of thousands of young Scotsmen and women, particularly those from west-central Scotland and the industrial belt, discovering the west highlands was a transformational experience. When they discovered what was on their doorstep, it changed their lives entirely.
Two examples of people who experienced that are the renowned outdoorsman and adventurer Cameron McNeish and the actor David Hayman, with whom I had the pleasure of making my last ever television series for Scottish Television before coming to this place, which was about David following in the footsteps of that other great hillwalker and rambler, Tom Weir. Both Cameron and David were born and raised in Glasgow, but just one taste of the west highlands of Scotland and their lives were changed forever. They are not unique—far from it. Tens of thousands of urban-dwelling Scots have discovered a love of our outstanding natural environment since the West Highland Way was opened.
I, too, pay tribute to the late Tom Hunter, who, as my hon. Friend said, died only last month. He had the vision and tenacity to make the West Highland Way a reality, and his wonderful legacy will, I am sure, be a great comfort to his family.
I am fortunate to have walked the West Highland Way on a number of occasions, as has my hon. Friend. Despite following exactly the same path, each walk has been a vastly different experience from the one before. I have been washed away in May and burnt to a crisp in October. Equally, I have been burnt to a crisp in May and washed away in October—but braving the Scottish weather is part of the fun and adventure of the West Highland Way. It being Scotland, of course, we have no idea what weather will be coming over the mountains at us.
As I said, I have made the 96-mile trek a number of times but, as with most things in life, it is the first time we do something that we remember most fondly. Having been born in Glasgow in the 1960s and growing up in the 1970s, the West Highland Way was for my generation almost a rite of passage. I would love to think that it still is. It was something we had to do. We wanted to stand with our peer group and say, “I have done it.” I remember the first time I did it, and the circumstances will be familiar to many.
I ask people to picture the scene: the pub, the idea, the dismissal of the idea, the Guinness, the re-emergence of the idea, the Guinness, the solemn vow that we will all do it together, the announcement to everyone in earshot that this time next week we were doing the West Highland Way, the cheers, the slaps on the back, the good wishes and more Guinness. The following morning, the realisation of what I had agreed to and knowing that there was no way to back out—the fear!
Within a week, however, we were ready to go—I say “ready”, but only according to a very rough definition of the word. I had a borrowed tent, a sleeping bag, a rucksack that might have been waterproof when it came back from the desert campaign in 1945, a pair of Dunlop Green Flash sannies—for the benefit of Hansard, some might call those plimsolls—a cagoule, a spare pair of Wrangler denims and, just in case a disco was happening when we reached Fort William, a clean shirt. Add to that half a dozen individually tinfoil-wrapped cheese rolls and a glass bottle of Irn-Bru, which was actually heavier than the tent, all packed into a Fine Fare bag, and we were ready to head off on our great adventure.
What an adventure it was—but, sadly, I can say no more, because a strict omertà is in place. Hon. Members will have to go and experience the adventure for themselves. What I can say is that for a young man who grew up in the east end of Glasgow, it was my window on the world. We could not afford to go on foreign holidays, but on the West Highland Way the world came to us.
The path takes us north along the side of Loch Lomond, through the Trossachs, over the bridge of Orchy, across the Rannoch moor, skirting round the majestic Buachaille Etive Mòr, through Glencoe and up the never more appropriately named Devil’s Staircase over to Kinlochleven, and then down into the final leg to Fort William at the foot of Ben Nevis.
My hon. Friend reminded me that after coming over the Devil’s Staircase and back down the other side—a big, long descent—at the bottom there in Kinlochleven was the tastiest pint of lager I have ever had. Perhaps he will be speaking about something similar.
I should be saying to my hon. Friend that my stupidity in drinking Guinness and agreeing to do the walk put me off alcohol forever—but, yes, I share a memory of the King’s House hotel in Kinlochleven, at the foot there.
On the way, one would meet so many different nationalities: Dutch, Germans, Swedes, Australians, Canadians, Americans and many more. As I said, it is where the world came to us. Believe me, the sense of achievement when sitting exhausted at Fort William bus station waiting for the bus back to Glasgow is something that I will never forget—but, for the record, sadly, there was no disco for my clean shirt.
I do not have a single unhappy memory of the West Highland Way, even though in the weeks that I was on it I was soaked to the skin, burned to a crisp and eaten alive by midgies, and I had blistered feet and the occasional hangover.
Probably the best advice that I can give is to use a potent mixture of both.
I remember lying in a tent with rain coming down like stair rods and only my hands poking out, trying to cook rice on a wee gas stove. If even eating half-cooked savoury rice in a nylon tent in the pitch dark in the middle of a monsoon does not register as a bad memory, that should give people an idea of what a wonderful experience it was.
As I said, the West Highland Way was and, I sincerely hope, still is a rite of passage for young men and women, particularly those from west-central Scotland. I urge everyone to get out and discover what an incredible country we have and are lucky enough to live in. We should challenge ourselves to do the things that we did not think we could do, and to meet people of other nationalities and cultures whom we would otherwise never meet. Do it. It is on our doorstep. And with any luck, just like Cameron McNeish and David Hayman, you, too, will become addicted to it.
Thank you, Sir Roger, and it is a pleasure once again to serve under your chairmanship. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Steven Paterson) for securing the debate.
Let us picture the scene: we have just walked for 96 miles from Milngavie right into the heart of Lochaber, which is situated in the most beautiful and awe-inspiring constituency in the country, Ross, Skye and Lochaber. We may have been tired, but we have been invigorated by the experience. We came through the splendour and awe-inspiring Glencoe and at our journey’s end, in Fort William, rises the impressive form of Ben Nevis. Having come this far, it is worth capping it off with an ascent of Scotland’s most majestic peak. As the Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber, I look forward with my hon. Friend to welcoming the parliamentary delegation and making sure that they complete that epic journey up Scotland’s highest mountain.
A walk on the West Highland Way is a fulfilling experience, and the journey’s end is Scotland’s outdoor capital: the great theatre of outdoor life that is Fort William and Lochaber. The West Highland Way is listed by National Geographic as the world’s great trail, and it is easy to understand why. The benefit to the tourist economy has been mentioned, but another is promotion of a healthy lifestyle, which is integral to the wellbeing of all our citizens. The west highlands are a place to enjoy, relax and walk in and to engage in many other activities, and that is an important part of the desire we all have to promote healthy living.
The many communities close to the West Highland Way are very much engaged with the route’s success. Just this week, young pupils from Kinlochleven High School were down in London representing Scotland in a UK competition with a project based on a litter campaign for the West Highland Way. Having won a Scotland-wide competition, the pupils were showcasing their initiative to encourage walkers to dispose of litter in bins, using apps and digital connectivity to get their message across.
The success of the West Highland Way has been the catalyst for the establishment of more long-distance routes. It is very much an industry that is being created out of the experiences of the West Highland Way. Today there are 28 long-distance routes across Scotland, known as Scotland’s great trails, and in total they provide 1,700 miles of managed paths. It really is possible to do as the Proclaimers say:
“I would walk 500 miles. And I would walk 500 more.”
According to an online survey and counter data information, the direct impact is that an estimated 39,500 walkers complete the whole route each year with a walker spend of as much as £6 million, rising to more than £11.5 million when we add in as many as 120,000 people who complete part of the walk. The respected John Muir Trust suggests that the impact provides a boost of more than £20 million to the highland economy. It is a challenge to arrive at a complete picture given the length of the walk and the size of the area, but it is clearly a considerable boost to the local economy in the west highlands. Although we still have an industrial economy, particularly in Fort William, tourism is very much an anchor for the overall success of the economy.
The west highlands are stunningly beautiful, but what really makes the place special is its people. I was interested to see that the official West Highland Way website even has a section called “Characters Gallery”. Perhaps I should say that it is the characters, more than anything else, that make the west highlands. I was interested that the first person mentioned in the section was described as Scotland’s most famous rogue. That is not my hon. Friend the Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr MacNeil), but Rob Roy MacGregor, who has been immortalised throughout the nation’s history for his cattle rustling and his feud against the Duke of Montrose. Perhaps that does sound like my hon. Friend the Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar.
Folk should come and experience the West Highland Way to enjoy the natural beauty of our landscape and to meet our current-day characters, but we need to do more to boost the tourist economy. Of the 28 EU member states, 25 have reduced tourism VAT. Only Denmark and Slovenia have higher rates than the UK. Another opportunity to address that was lost in today’s Budget. Will the Minister ask the Treasury to undertake a study of the matter and the potential beneficial effects on the tourist industry of a VAT reduction? Ireland brought down VAT on tourism from 13.5% to 9% in May 2011, initially as a temporary measure, but it has been sustained. A reduction in tourist VAT would help to grow the tourist economy and would be central to delivering jobs and growth in fragile economic areas, something that is particularly relevant in my rural constituency.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Steven Paterson) on securing this debate. Many of the key and general points have been made, but I would like to offer a few reflections on the economic impact of the West Highland Way and, more generally, the benefits that walking brings to our economy and society. If time allows, I will offer a couple of personal reflections and experiences.
I echo the tributes to the late Tom Hunter and the important work that he and others did in establishing the route. It was officially created in October 1980, so it is just a bit younger than I am, as I was born in February 1980. The West Highland Way does not exist in a vacuum. As my hon. Friend the Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford) said, it is one of 28 national trails and it connects with a range of other designated walking routes. It is possible to walk from my constituency through the Kelvin walkway, following the route of the Clyde, the Kelvin and the Allander to Milngavie and then to Fort William and up the Great Glen Way to my original home town of Inverness. When looking at possible pub crawls, one can start with the great Lios Mor on Dumbarton Road, about which I have spoken in this Chamber before, and finish with all the hostelries that Inverness has to offer, but sadly not the Whitebridge Hotel on the south side of Loch Ness, where I am originally from, because the Great Glen Way goes up the north route. If anyone accepts the invitation to take in the West Highland Way from Ben Nevis all the way to Inverness, I would certainly recommend a visit and some refreshment there.
The economic benefit of outdoor tourism as a whole has been estimated at £2.6 billion. A range of industries and services benefit from camp sites to classy hotels, from wayside cafés to full-blown restaurants, and including the Glen Boyne distillery. I was interested to hear that the chair of the all-party group on Scotch whisky has been teetotal since his experience on the West Highland Way, but that may not be news to the Chamber.
Not only do the West Highland Way and the walking routes in general have an economic benefit to the communities they traverse, but that benefit is also felt in ancillary and support opportunities. As my hon. Friend the Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber knows, Fort William is the outdoor capital, full of stores with walking and outdoor clothing and various equipment. The same sort of equipment can be purchased in Glasgow, contributing to the economy in my constituency and the wider area. The ancillary economic impact ripples out from one path to others.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O'Hara) so eloquently described, very few people do the West Highland Way once and then stop walking as a form of recreation. If anything, they get the bug and do it again and again. They need not do it in only one direction; they can go backwards and forwards. I do not know whether walking from Fort William to Glasgow makes it the “Way Highland West”, but there are different opportunities and economic impacts.
That brings me to the importance of walking as a form of transport, exercise and recreation. I once worked for the Ramblers Association, and that experience brought home to me the huge importance of walking to address a range of challenges facing society. Half of all car trips in Scotland are under 5 km. If people had active travel options for those journeys, there would be a considerable benefit for society’s physical wellbeing and that would not only benefit people themselves, but save the health service money. It would be a preventive form of health care. Physical inactivity is estimated to kill seven people a day in Scotland—a statistic that shames us all.
Walking is an inexpensive and accessible form of recreation and a great social leveller, and it provides an opportunity not just to experience the outdoors in all its beauty and magnificence, but to meet and interact with all sorts of people from all over the world who might be walking the same route. To that end, I echo the calls for further support, especially a cut in tourism VAT.
I completed the West Highland Way in 2004. I was fundraising for a trip to Malawi. It is estimated that over £12 million has been generated for charitable causes by people undertaking the walk as a sponsored activity. It is a way to experience Scotland in the raw, not least when the weather really makes its presence felt. Certainly the stretch between Tyndrum and Bridge of Orchy brought home to me, as the rain lashed down—it had no discernible impact on the highland cattle, but plenty on the walkers—how in some ways the landscape has barely changed; that we, as human beings, are passing through not only in the literal sense of taking the walk, but in the broader sweep of history; that our ancestors and their communities lived in those lands and had to put up with that kind of weather for many hundreds if not thousands of years, and certainly without the benefit of Gore-Tex or even a Fine Fare plastic bag. Perhaps nothing brings that home more than the train journey back, when days of strenuous exercise flash by. That in itself gives us a certain perspective and shows why it is important to cherish our landscape and access to the outdoors. There is an economic benefit from the West Highland Way, but it is important not just for the sake of that, but for the benefit to broader society and, we hope, future generations.
I join my colleagues in thanking our hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Steven Paterson) for calling this debate. Although my contribution comes towards the end of it, I would like to begin by talking about the start of the West Highland Way—both its origins as Scotland’s first long-distance walking route more than 35 years ago and the town of Milngavie in my constituency of East Dunbartonshire, which is the official beginning of the walk.
While walking on the slopes of Ben Lomond after the second world war, the creator of the West Highland Way, Tom Hunter, noted the building developments on the western shores of Loch Lomond and thought of ways to limit the same thing happening on the loch’s eastern shores. As we have heard, Tom was a keen walker himself, loved the outdoors and, together with his wife, Margaret, and their walking companions, decided to design a long-distance walking route from Glasgow to Fort William. The idea of this long-distance, signposted route was not universally supported at the time. It is hard to imagine that now, but there was significant opposition from landowners—quelle surprise, some might say—and the Countryside Commission. However, Tom persevered and the West Highland Way was officially opened on 6 October 1980.
As we have heard, Tom sadly passed away last month at the age of 90. My local paper, the Milngavie & Bearsden Herald, wrote that he was
“a modest man whose achievements were far from ordinary.”
It is evident from this debate that his legacy has benefited the Scottish economy, the Scottish environment and the Scottish people.
Of course, the West Highland Way is traditionally walked south to north. That not only helps to keep the scorching Scottish sun from one’s eyes, but allows walkers to enjoy their time in Milngavie. As many people will know, Milngavie marks the northernmost point of the Roman empire. Having conquered Gaul, Hispania and of course Anglia, the Romans were halted in their tracks by the douce charms of the locals and built the Antonine wall—some say to keep the locals out.
These days, visitors can appreciate the town’s charms and history, relax in cafés and restaurants in Milngavie precinct and of course stock up on supplies before beginning their own adventure. It is an adventure, it has to be said, that many begin in some discomfort. The Romans may have instituted indoor water closets—“cludgie-orums”, as they were known locally in Latin— but the East Dunbartonshire Labour, Lib Dem and Conservative council has yet to catch up on Roman plumbing, refusing, despite an active local campaign, to provide a lavatory for the thousands who pass through the town without being able to pass, literally—not so much spending a penny, but council penny-pinching.
I thank my hon. Friend very much. I recognise a fellow MP’s pain when I hear it.
The West Highland Way plays a significant role in Milngavie’s economy and those of other towns and villages along the route to Fort William. Some 39,500 walkers each year complete the route, along with many thousands of others who walk part of the trail. As we have heard, that generates £5.5 million of tourism revenue and directly supports approximately 200 businesses.
In a wider Scottish context, walking is clearly the most popular nature-based activity for UK residents holidaying in Scotland, with 47% of total UK visitor trips involving some form of walking activity. Studies have shown that long-distance route users are twice as likely to use accommodation, and spend twice as much on food and drink, as the average holidaymaker—although possibly not the average Member of Parliament from Scotland. That provides a huge financial contribution to the hotels, bed and breakfasts and shops in Milngavie and along the route. Many businesses simply would not exist without the West Highland Way. That includes the unique and innovative Travel-Lite, which for 21 years has transported the luggage of walkers from Milngavie to various points along the route for those who do not want to carry their own body weight in spare clothing and equipment.
Conveniently connected to Glasgow city centre through rail, bus and road links, Milngavie also prospers from day visitors who come to walk part of the route on weekends and during holidays. It is not uncommon for many visitors to walk just a wee bit of the route in the morning and to return in the afternoon, spending and contributing to the economy of the beautiful town that I am so fond of, Milngavie, in my constituency.
One of the key factors that led to the inclusion of specific routes in a recent review by Country Walking magazine of Britain’s 50 greatest walks was sufficient variety along a route to maintain interest. One of the most popular routes—possibly the most popular—is the West Highland Way. Within 30 minutes of starting the way, walkers will leave my constituency. They will be able to look out over Glasgow and Strathclyde and look forward to the castles, mountains and distilleries not far in the distance. They will be entering the countryside towards the highlands, having left the bustling city, with busy streets and planes overhead from Europe, North America and the middle east delivering the next cohort of walkers ready to tackle the way.
There is a significant international dimension to the West Highland Way, because it attracts people from all over the world. It is estimated that the Scottish Government’s proposal to reduce air passenger duty will create nearly 4,000 jobs and add £1 billion to the Scottish economy by 2020. That would surely benefit the West Highland Way, among other places in Scotland. However, out of 28 European Union countries, only Denmark and Slovenia have higher VAT rates than the UK. As we have heard, the Republic of Ireland has significantly reduced VAT on tourism, and the Treasury must explore the possibility of reducing VAT to support tourism in Scotland.
We can all agree, I hope, that the West Highland Way is a national icon and its name is immediately recognisable worldwide as being Scottish. It harnesses some of Scotland’s greatest assets—our biggest city, our largest loch, the last remaining Roman wall north of the border and our tallest mountains—and it delivers significant benefits to our economy, environment and society. Its contribution, locally and nationally, is vast.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger. I congratulate the hon. Member for Stirling (Steven Paterson) and the other hon. Members on informative and colourful speeches. I thank them very much. I have certainly learnt a heck of a lot, and my appetite has been whetted, shall I say?
The hon. Gentleman says that his appetite has been whetted. Another memory has come back to me, and I will give him a tip: do not camp in the middle of Rannoch moor. There is no running water and only 2 million midges for company. That is a tip before he plans his walk on the West Highland Way.
I shall bear that information in mind. I thank the hon. Gentleman very much.
Tourism is clearly of fundamental importance to Scotland. I understand that tourism contributes some £4 billion to the Scottish economy annually. Some 200,000 people, in one way or another, are employed in the tourism industry, and many of those jobs are of benefit to Scotland’s rural areas. One of the key and growing attractions is, as we have heard, the West Highland Way.
There is no doubt at all that there is an increasing realisation that walking is a good form of exercise. Dare I say that I was, believe it or not, one and a half stones heavier than I am now? That is mainly because I have lost some weight walking. I am well known in my constituency for walking with my fiancée and her dog, Alice, and we are keen to embark upon the Wales coastal path, which goes around the whole coast of Wales. It is not as long and, perhaps, not as spectacular as the West Highland Way. Nevertheless, I am told that it is a route worth taking. After successfully doing that, I hope to go to Scotland and experience the joys of the West Highland Way as 39,500 other people do each year.
The West Highland Way is one of the longest footpaths in the whole UK at some 96 miles, which is quite a trek by any standards, and I understand that it has had an interesting history. It opened in October 1980 and is increasingly well renowned throughout the UK. If this debate has done nothing else, it has certainly reinforced how important the West Highland Way is to Scotland and what a great tourist attraction it is for the rest of us who live in the UK.
Walking is of tremendous importance because it brings home to us not only the need for physical fitness, but a great appreciation of our countryside and culture. I take note of all the marvellous attractions that one can encounter en route, and I take on board the concern expressed about midges. I dare say that people have to take preparations to guard themselves against those midges. Nevertheless, I am convinced that the precautions are certainly worth while.
It was my great pleasure to be in Scotland a few weeks ago. I visited a number of distilleries and sampled—in small quantities, of course—the elixir that is produced in them. From personal experience, I can bear testimony to what a wonderful product Scotch whisky is. There has been a modest recognition of that today in the Budget.
That is very kind of the hon. Gentleman. I did not like to mention it myself but, of course, the Scotch Whisky Association has acknowledged the worth of that Welsh whisky and I hope that it will not be too long before it is recognised as one of the great drinks alongside the many great Scotch whiskies.
I mention Scotch whisky because it is a good way not only to extend and reinforce the British and Scottish economy, but to demonstrate what a unique place Scotland is and what tremendous opportunities there are in Scotland. I believe that the West Highland Way is an equal example, in a smaller sort of way and in a different way, of how Scotland can extend itself and show the world what a wonderful country it is. I would certainly like to reinforce my experience with Scotch whisky and visit Scotland again in the not-too-distant future, guarding against midges. Hopefully, my fiancée—I hope she will shortly be my wife—and I can enjoy the wonderful experience of the West Highland Way. I thank the Scottish National party Members very much indeed for bringing the matter to the attention of the House.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger. I congratulate the hon. Member for Stirling (Steven Paterson) on securing today’s important debate on the contribution of the West Highland Way to the economy in Scotland. It is a long time since I holidayed in Arisaig—not too far away from the top end of the path—and beheld that magnificent scenery. More recently, I have enjoyed holidays in and around the Trossachs but I confess that I have not yet walked the West Highland Way, unlike the hon. Gentlemen who described their journeys. However, I assure them that, having prepared for the debate, looked at stuff on YouTube and heard other hon. Members’ contributions, the West Highland Way is now on my to-do list for a potential future visit. I must admit that I am not keen on the midges either, so I may have to rely somewhat on the picture painted by the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O’Hara), who gave us a tour that provoked such a wonderful vision.
The hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford) talked about Ben Nevis. Well, I would like to point out that my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes South (Iain Stewart) has climbed it although, admittedly, when he got to the top, it was a bit of a white-out, so he was not able to see all the beautiful scenery of which hon. Members eloquently painted a picture.
One thing that I am very keen to point out to those who want to come and visit the most wonderful Lochaber part of my constituency is that we have all sorts of facilities for all people, depending on their aptitude and climbing ability. For some people, Ben Nevis is a little bit of a challenge to get up, but Aonach Mòr is next to it and there are gondolas to take people up there for those who would like to have a pleasant day out among the mountains of Scotland. We can cater for people in all sorts of ways so that they can enjoy the splendour of the mountains of the Lochaber area, and still enjoy the food and whisky when they come down in the evening.
I hope that this is not seen as a commercial. Once people have climbed Ben Nevis and finished the West Highland Way, something else that I can recommend from experience is taking the West Highland line from Fort William to Mallaig. It is fantastic scenery and one of the great railways of the world to complement one of the great walks of the world.
Sir Roger, as you say, it has been an elegant commercial break. It sounds as if we should have more debates on this matter.
Coming from a constituency such as mine—Suffolk Coastal—where tourism and outdoor leisure activities play such an important role in the everyday lives of people who work in businesses and tourism, I share the view of the hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) that helping people to enjoy the natural environment in an easy, pleasant way is mutually beneficial for people’s health and wellbeing, and for the local economy. He was right to stress the benefits of walking more generally.
The debate is particularly timely as we celebrate Scottish Tourism Week. Scotland is revered around the world for its outstanding and varied scenery, so it should come as no surprise to learn that the country’s natural environment is increasingly being developed as a key tourism asset. In the case of the West Highland Way, I have seen a report from Scottish Natural Heritage that suggests that up to 30,000 people—we have heard about potentially more—complete the whole route each year and a further 60,000 people walk a part of it. Another report suggests that the West Highland Way generates an economic benefit of £7.5 million, although we have heard contributions suggesting that it is even greater than that.
The West Highland Way is 96 miles long, and stretches from Milngavie to Fort William, skirting the shores of Loch Lomond en route. It is managed by a partnership of councils and the national park authority for Loch Lomond and the Trossachs, and I pay tribute to them for keeping up this wonderful, great route. I also want to praise the groups of volunteers who help to keep the West Highland Way so special. The Conservation Volunteers from Stirling made improvements to the paths in December. There are volunteer rangers right along the trail and, of course, there are other voluntary groups such as the Lomond Mountain Rescue Team in Drymen, which is there to try to help people when they get into difficulty. Volunteers help with the many events that use the West Highland Way, whether it is raising money for charity or events such as the Caledonian Challenge, which is a particularly interesting use of the route that I expect will bring more people to the area and support the tourist economy.
More broadly, nature-based tourism makes a significant contribution to the wider Scottish tourism sector and economy. The main findings from a recent study by Scottish Natural Heritage indicates that nature-based tourism is worth £1.4 billion a year to Scotland’s economy. Some 9,000 full-time equivalent jobs are reliant on it and tourist spending on nature-based activities is worth nearly 40% of all tourism spending in Scotland. Furthermore, recent figures from VisitScotland show that more than 720,000 trips were made by residents of Great Britain to Scotland’s national parks, accounting for 6% of all Great British overnight trips in Scotland and a visitor expenditure of more than £140 million.
On that note, tourism in Scotland is, by and large, a devolved matter for the Scottish Government. The hon. Member for Stirling referred to his hon. Friends in the Scottish Parliament and the work they have done to promote the West Highland Way. Tourism is vital to Scotland’s economy and showcases the country’s culture and heritage to the world. However, the UK Government are very interested in what happens in Scotland. In the 2014 autumn statement, the Chancellor of the Exchequer recognised another Scottish natural icon when he announced £2 million of funding over four years for VisitBritain to promote Loch Ness and the surrounding area to international markets.
We have heard that “Spirit of Scotland” is a theme for tourism week and, as has already been said, anyone who walks the West Highland Way can be fortified along the route at the Glengoyne, Loch Lomond and Ben Nevis distilleries. As they march along, we have heard that they may be listening to the Proclaimers and thinking of the 500 miles—fortunately, the path is only 96 miles—that they need to walk. I would have thought that the hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber might have wanted to promote Runrig as an alternative, given the former career of the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart). In today’s Budget, the tax duty on whisky was frozen, which I hope is another contribution to the benefits along the route.
Scotland’s tourism success does not happen in isolation. The UK’s domestic markets remain Scotland’s biggest, and Scotland is able to benefit from wider UK activities and support to attract more tourists across its border. Recent figures from VisitScotland show that, in 2014, more than 15.5 million overnight tourism trips were taken in Scotland, for which visitor expenditure totalled £4.8 billion. People from within the UK account for the majority of tourism volume and value in Scotland, with 12.5 million tourism trips in 2014, worth £2.9 billion.
At home, Scotland benefits from strong activity by the national tourism body, VisitScotland, to promote Scotland. Abroad, VisitBritain is responsible for promoting Scotland as part of Britain’s joined-up offer to international markets, but that is a two-way process, with VisitScotland and the other devolved nations’ national tourism agencies having access to VisitBritain’s overseas network to support their own campaigns and messages.
The Government recently launched their five-point plan for tourism in the UK, which is designed to boost growth, tap potential and encourage visitors beyond London to other parts of the UK, as has been mentioned. As part of the five-point plan the UK Government have committed to working more closely with the devolved Administrations in Scotland, Wales and, where appropriate, Northern Ireland to enhance collaboration between their respective tourism bodies. We also want to ensure that stretching targets are set for VisitBritain to bring increased numbers of international visitors to all the nations and regions of the UK.
I am interested in what the Minister is saying, and I applaud her remarks. It is important that the Governments here in Westminster and in Edinburgh work together on such matters. Although we have been talking about some of the industry’s attractions not only in the highlands but elsewhere, there are two things that concern me to which we must give a higher degree of importance. One is connectivity in all its forms—transport connectivity and digital connectivity. We must ensure that we are world leading in connectivity. It is important that we recognise that we are part of a global marketplace and that people have a choice in where they go. We must also invest in the service culture to ensure that we are world leading in all these things. Connectivity and services are important in ensuring that we demonstrate, and can advance, our leadership in the tourist economy. The two Governments need to work together in order to do that.
The Government are committed to investing in infrastructure and transport connectivity. The High Speed Rail (London – West Midlands) Bill is still going through the House and, in time, HS2 will improve journey times to western Scotland. As has been mentioned, the Scottish Government intend to halve air passenger duty by 2021, and Scotland will be given that power through the Scotland Bill, which will hopefully soon become the Scotland Act.
Another important area of promotion is the Government’s “GREAT campaign,” which is a cross-Government initiative to promote the UK internationally as a great place to visit, study and do business. It is the Government’s most ambitious marketing campaign ever, and it aims to showcase the very best of what Britain has to offer the world under a single brand. Scotland features prominently in the campaign, with many varied images of aspects of Scotland to capture the imagination of potential overseas visitors and investors. From the great outdoors to the Edinburgh military tattoo; from Scotch whisky distillers to high-tech producers and universities; constructions new and old, such as the Kelpies, the Glenfinnan viaduct and the Forth railway bridge; the set of “Harry Potter” and wider film production; extreme sports; fashion; and fine dining.
Members have asked a number of questions. VAT on tourism came up several times, with reference to the experience in the Republic of Ireland, which cut VAT on tourism in 2011. At the moment, the Chancellor is unconvinced the measure would work here, but we are interested in doing some research into the benefits of Ireland’s experience, and I understand that the Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch), who has responsibility for tourism, has written to the Chancellor to request further research. On European links, many visitors to the West Highland Way are essentially domestic, but the VisitBritain campaigns are targeting Germany, France and the Netherlands.
Broadband was mentioned earlier, and I understand that the First Minister committed at a conference last weekend to get fast broadband to all. The Prime Minister has committed to a universal service obligation for broadband, recognising the importance of connectivity, and the UK Government have already committed more than £120 million to the roll-out of superfast broadband in Scotland.
I am afraid that there is little we can do to help the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (John Nicolson) with his campaign for a lavatory in Milngavie, but I wish him well on that matter.
The words of VisitScotland’s tourism prospectus from 2007 still stand:
“Visitors to Scotland come for an experience that is rooted in our hills and glens, our castles and towns, our history, our culture, our way of life and our people. Visitors participate in any number of activities, pursue many different interests, see many different places but they do so against a distinctive backdrop that is the country of Scotland.”
The West Highland Way epitomises that description, which could also be said of other long-distance walking routes across Scotland. Such routes are increasingly popular and, as has been mentioned, attract thousands of visitors to the UK each year. In isolation, the economic benefits derived from people walking the West Highland Way may be modest. Nevertheless, such activity represents just one aspect of the
“distinctive backdrop that is the country of Scotland.”
The sum total of that tourism spend is worth some £5 billion to the Scottish economy annually.
Such debates bring to light the diversity of the tourism sector, not only in Scotland but in the British Isles. Of course, I encourage people to visit Suffolk—I am sure, Sir Roger, that you encourage people to visit your part of Kent. However, I also encourage visitors to travel extensively across the UK, whether that be to the Pembrokeshire coast, the Lake district or North Berwick, on the east coast of Scotland, which I particularly recommend after holidaying there in 2014, and which I learned today is the home town of one of the civil servants who helped me to prepare for this debate.
As part of the UK, tourism in Scotland benefits from the “best of both worlds”, with dedicated support from the Scottish Government and VisitScotland at home, as well as benefiting from the work of the UK’s wide-reaching embassy network and VisitBritain in promoting the UK abroad.
Before I finish, I add my tribute to the person who came up with the idea for the West Highland Way, Tom Hunter. Sadly, as has already been said, Mr Hunter passed away last month at the age of 90, which—dare I say it?—is a testament to the healthy lifestyle that he obviously enjoyed. A keen walker with his wife, Margaret, his love for the natural environment combined with his walking. Without his passion, the route would not be what it is today. Prospective walkers may be interested in his book, “A Guide to the West Highland Way”. We can all thank him for his vision and for leaving a fine legacy.
This has been a good debate to celebrate the West Highland Way and its importance to tourism and the economy in Scotland, and I look forward to my visit there.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the contribution of the West Highland Way to the economy in Scotland.