Tuesday 22 March 2016
[Geraint Davies in the Chair]
Faulty Electrical Imports
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the importation of faulty electrical goods.
May I say what an absolute pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies? I am very pleased to see you in the Chair today, and you may be aware that I am speaking today as the recently elected chair of the all-party parliamentary group on home electrical safety.
Today we take electricity for granted. Unlike gas, it is everywhere; it is in every room in our homes. Electricity created a United Kingdom that was able to shake off the cobwebs of the first industrial revolution. Today, electricity supports the economy, provides jobs, helps British businesses, and is used for practical and recreational purposes in homes across the country. However, I am not here to give a historical lecture on the value of electricity.
As I say, we take electricity for granted. However, in taking it for granted, we often forget its power and perhaps more importantly its danger. This debate is about how we make electricity and its use through electrical products safer in this country. Often, however, safety is being undermined by cheap, poorly constructed, substandard or blatantly counterfeit electrical goods. All our constituents are at risk from electric shock; from a fire in their home that is caused by one of these products; or even from death.
I will focus today on several issues: the importation of counterfeit and substandard products; their sale, which is often via the internet; the safety of legitimate electrical products; and enforcement of the law.
How do we prevent these faulty items from appearing in the marketplace? How do we help to protect British businesses and consumers? A UK charity, Electrical Safety First, which has been of great support to me in preparing for this debate, campaigns to improve awareness of how to use electricity and electrical products safely, and I sincerely commend its efforts in that regard. It has informed me that across the country around 70 deaths each year are caused by electricity, which is more than one death per week. Sadly, these deaths are usually not reported in the media, unlike deaths from gas. Incidents involving gas cause headlines, even though they kill only around 18 people each year. Electrical Safety First has also informed me that each year about 350,000 people suffer some form of electrical accident in their homes. Of course, many of these accidents will be caused by the misuse of electricity, but many others will happen because people have been sold a product that is either substandard or blatantly counterfeit.
Electricity is being exploited by rogue individuals who sell substandard or counterfeit electrical goods to UK consumers. This trend is being fuelled by the internet and a lack of monitoring of sales: sales from well-known websites; sales from fake websites that are not based in the UK but appear to be; and sales through fulfilment houses, which are based in the UK.
My interest in this subject began following the tragic case of one of my constituents, Linda Merron, who sadly died as a result of a fire in her home in March 2015. The Mid and West Wales Fire and Rescue Service said that the fire was caused by a faulty electrical product—an electrical air freshener that was bought by Linda through eBay. Linda lost her life because of a small imported electrical item from China that had enormous and tragic consequences for her and her family.
Such a tragedy could quite easily happen to any one of us. Many homes throughout the UK will have electrical products in use that are either substandard or counterfeit. When I talk of a substandard product, I am talking about those products that are poorly designed or constructed, that could even have live parts openly accessible and that could cause a fire. When I speak of counterfeit electrical goods, they are not just almost always substandard but actually mimic a major brand’s products. Often they look identical, including having identical packaging, and consumers are frequently unaware that they are dangerous, both to themselves and to UK businesses, which will lose out because of the trade in fake goods.
Of course, there is legislation that should have ensured that that particular item in Linda’s home was safe to use, and all imported items should comply with that legislation. But are the laws working? Have they kept up with the development of the internet? Are they stopping faulty items from being imported through the major internet shopping sites? I do not believe that they are. I say to the Minister that I am no expert when it comes to the legislation and I am sure that he is not either, because it can get rather technical. However, I understand that the Electrical Equipment (Safety) Regulations 1994, which is a mouthful to say, the Plugs and Sockets etc (Safety) Regulations 1994, and the General Product Safety Regulations 2005 exist to ensure the safety of the public and to help to prevent faulty electrical products from circulating in the UK market.
I appreciate the response given to me in July 2015 by the Minister for Small Business, Industry and Enterprise when I tabled a written question on the efficacy of the Plugs and Sockets etc (Safety) Regulations 1994 in regulating online trading of electrical products. I was informed that the Government believe that those regulations continue to act as a practical and robust means of keeping both unsafe electrical products and those that do not have a safe means of connection to standard UK power sockets out of the UK market. But how would Linda Merron and all those individuals who buy items online know that? After finding items that are not appropriate for use in the UK, that are substandard, that cause injury or even tragic deaths, I ask: is the legislation robust enough to prevent tragedies such as the death of Linda Merron?
In fact, it is not just substandard and faulty items that are a concern. Counterfeit electrical goods are now big business. They are sold openly online, often through sites such as Amazon, Marketplace, eBay and Alibaba, a site I recently discovered that sells job lots of items to UK-based buyers, who then sell them on.
Electrical Safety First published its report into the increase of counterfeit electrical goods, “A shocking rip off”, in November last year, just before the main season for buying electricals online—what we now commonly call Black Friday or Cyber Monday. The Minister will know that counterfeit electrical goods present a threat to the consumer, undermine UK business and legitimate manufacturers, and can be very dangerous, posing a risk of causing fire or serious electric shock—even electrocution. I agree with the report’s view that it has never been easier for counterfeit electrical products to enter the UK marketplace.
We need to recognise that the internet is fuelling the growth in the sale of faulty items, with sellers appearing, then disappearing, in quick succession. Also, legitimate sales websites, such as Amazon, Marketplace and eBay, are falling foul of these unscrupulous sellers, as are Facebook and other social media channels. Faulty items are being sold openly.
I am not suggesting to the Minister that the Government should regulate the internet—certainly not—but those companies that facilitate these sales must do more to prevent dangerous, substandard and counterfeit electrical goods from being sold in the first place. They know who the sellers are—they are their own customers—but what are they doing to stem the flow? More than £90 million is now spent on counterfeit and substandard products each year, and in 2013-14 customs officials detained 21,000 consignments of fake goods at UK borders.
That is all part of the huge increase in the number of counterfeit, substandard or faulty products being imported into the UK. Over the last three years, there has been an increase in the use of social media to advertise these products. According to Electrical Safety First, a quarter of people interviewed said that they had seen fake products being openly advertised on social media websites. Furthermore, 24% had knowingly bought a counterfeit product and 21% had done so to save money.
Those activities are damaging British businesses and costing jobs, and big brands—some of the most popular of which are NutriBullet, BaByliss, ghd, Dyson and Apple—are suffering from the might of the counterfeiters. Electrical Safety First mentions in its report that it obtained a fake NutriBullet through eBay as part of its research. When a locked rotor test—a test that simulates something such as nuts or a mass of ice jamming in the blender—was carried out, the fake appliance caught fire. That potentially would have caused a fire in someone’s kitchen.
Hair straighteners are commonly counterfeited, with a number of the premier brands, particularly ghd, faked. A genuine item usually retails for £100, but counterfeits are on sale on market stalls and on the internet for between £30 and £70. I have seen the packaging, and can testify to the fact that fake ghds are packaged so well that it is very difficult to tell the difference between counterfeit and genuine.
Fake Apple products are probably the most popular of the counterfeits entering the UK, chargers in particular. I am certain that most hon. Members, probably unknowingly, have in their possession a counterfeit Apple charger, and I put my hands up and say, “I know that I have”. According to Electrical Safety First, those were the items that were shown to be most dangerous during testing. I am told that a genuine charger contains more than 60 individual components, while a counterfeit has at best 25, and some have as few as 19. The charger casings are also a cause for concern, as they are often only clipped together and not properly sealed, meaning that the user can access live parts and that moisture can enter the product. During testing, the products also had a greater probability of heating up and catching fire. The plastic used in counterfeits is often not the polycarbonate used in the genuine article but an acrylonitrile butadiene styrene—ABS—polymer, which is less resilient and has no fire retardant properties. The London fire brigade reports that the material gives off a thick, toxic smoke when burning, which poses additional hazards.
Therefore, is the legislation robust? Has it kept up with sales over the internet? I do not believe it has. I hope that the Minister will consider working with the all-party parliamentary group on how we all can not just raise awareness with our constituents but come forward with a strategy to tackle the issues, working with the likes of eBay and Amazon to prevent the sale of the items. Clearly, it is not possible for the average consumer to tell the difference between a genuine and a counterfeit article. Consumers do not have X-ray machines to tell them what components are inside—although, worryingly, I understand that you can buy an X-ray machine from Alibaba. That is how ridiculous the situation with online sales has become.
Of course, trading standards, prevention and enforcement are a big part of the solution. City and County of Swansea Council, with which I have spoken at length, has had its own difficulties with fulfilment houses that operate locally and sell on substandard and counterfeit goods but, given the funding cuts, it now has to prioritise the most dangerous articles to remove them from sale. It was only at Christmas that we saw the significant problems of house fires caused by substandard hoverboards imported into the UK—my assistant fell off one and broke her wrist. That is why we need experts working at ports and at airports such as Heathrow, where much of the mail with items bought on the internet enters the country.
The Minister for Small Business, Industry and Enterprise helpfully replied to me on 13 July last year, through a written answer, when I asked what steps the Government were taking to prevent counterfeit electrical products from being sold in the UK, to protect customers from electrical accidents:
“In February this year the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills pledged an extra £400,000 to help trading standards officers prevent dangerous goods being sold in the UK, and this includes £182,000 for its ports and borders project which is improving surveillance”.
That is welcome, but is the level of funding really enough? Can the Minister confirm whether the Secretary of State intends to extend the funding, given the cost to UK businesses if the goods enter the market? Trading standards are essential, including on the frontline at ports, but what about online? Is the Minister able to explain what support the Government are providing to officers for enforcement regarding the internet? What help can the Department give to trading standards to assist them in working closer with the likes of Amazon and eBay and to do more to remove offending electrical items that either are not compliant or are fake? How does he intend to tackle the scourge of fulfilment houses?
I appreciate that the Department has recently carried out a review of trading standards, but I believe that more needs to be done, with investment in officers who can look online, and work with the likes of eBay and Amazon to prevent the items from being sold in the first place. Perhaps the Minister can outline specifically what the review considers. If knives, pornography and other dubious articles are not allowed to be sold on the websites, the same should apply to substandard electrical goods that can kill.
I am mindful that the debate is about the importation of faulty electrical products. It is a great sadness that many appliances that used to be made in the UK are now made overseas. That manufacturing provided significant employment for our constituents, particularly in Wales—I believe my hon. Friend the Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Gerald Jones) will touch upon that in his contribution. I am certain that when the goods were produced here they gave local people skills and jobs, and they benefited both the local community and the companies that were making the components in the United Kingdom, not in countries such as China. How do we know that the component supply chain is of good quality and, most importantly, is safe?
I note that the Department recently published the Government’s response to Lynn Faulds Wood’s review on product safety, but will the Government’s direction address what Lynn sought to achieve? Lynn has been at the forefront of campaigning on product safety, particularly on electrical goods, since the 1980s when she coined the phrase “potential death trap”. With recent events with Whirlpool tumble-dryer fires and the importation of other faulty electrical products, are the Government seeing the issues as a priority?
Hon. Members on both sides of the House have recently raised concerns on the issue, and my hon. Friend the Member for South Down (Ms Ritchie) wrote to me as chair of the all-party parliamentary group about her concerns for the safety of her constituents and asked what action was being taken. The Minister knows that Whirlpool has issued a safety notice on some of its tumble dryers, but it is not calling for a product recall. I do not seem to have seen a Government response to the concerns, so can the Minister give us reassurances today about public safety and the recall system in this case? Is it acceptable that consumers will have to wait such a long time for repairs to their imported machines? He will know that the Chartered Trading Standard Institute has said that 11-month waits are unacceptable when the machines are potentially dangerous.
Can we also ask therefore whether manufacturers in the UK—not just Whirlpool—can have absolute confidence that components in these appliances are of sufficient quality? What market surveillance is being done to protect consumers, and what traceability is there of components in appliances that are manufactured abroad but sold in the UK? What comparison is there between recalls of goods manufactured in the UK and recalls of those manufactured elsewhere? Those are a few questions that the Department needs carefully to consider.
My hon. Friend is opening the debate powerfully. Two years ago, the House was dealing with the Consumer Rights Bill. I tabled amendments and new clauses to the Bill, precisely to address the issues of the safety of electrical goods and recalls, which were well supported by the then Member of Parliament for East Lothian. However, the Government tried to say that there was no issue—there was no gap, there was no problem—despite all the figures and all the evidence showing that there was.
I appreciate my hon. Friend’s comments, and I am sure any speech he makes later will reflect his thoughts.
Members of the House can help through the APPG on home electrical safety to find solutions and raise awareness. I am not sure whether the Minister has seen a counterfeit electrical product up close, but I hope he will join the APPG later this year. We have an event planned that will look at examples of counterfeit electrical goods that have been gathered. Perhaps then he will understand better.
In conclusion, the importation of faulty electrical products is an increasing issue, fuelled by the internet. It is costing lives. How many more incidents will happen before action is taken? How will trading standards be able to tackle the issue in an era of increasing change and with cuts to officer posts? I hope the Minister will give reassurance today that the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills is treating the importation of faulty electrical goods into the UK seriously. Government must have a role to play, even if it is only one of co-ordination. Action is needed now to protect our constituents and businesses in the UK. I hope he intends to outline how he can help us to achieve that.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I thank the hon. Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) for securing this important debate. She is the chair of the all-party group on home electrical safety, of which I am also a member.
The importance of the subject cannot be overstated. In my constituency in South Lanarkshire, which is home to the headquarters of the Scottish fire and rescue service, 214 house fires were caused by faulty electrical items in the past five years alone. That accounts for 13% of all accidental house fires during that period. Further south, the London fire brigade estimates that there is, on average, one fire in the capital caused by faulty white goods every day. Faulty and substandard electrical goods pose a real safety hazard. They can overheat, catch fire or cause electric shocks.
The problem of counterfeit electrical goods is becoming more prevalent. Modern technology has changed consumer habits and counterfeit goods have greater and more widespread availability. Research from the charity Electrical Safety First shows that a quarter of people have seen fake products openly advertised on popular social media sites. Thousands of items are now advertised every day on such sites, which have fast become counterfeit marketplaces. Perhaps the rise in social media is a key factor in the huge increase in the number of counterfeit and substandard electrical goods coming into the UK. I would like to see the Government working closely with social media websites to counteract the sale of such goods. Trading standards faces increasing digital challenges, and it is only through working with sites acting as digital marketplaces that proper enforcement can take place. There has been a boom in the trade in counterfeit versions of must-have electronics. The number of fake mobile phones seized has risen by more than 50%.
The message that buying counterfeit electrical items is a risk not worth taking does not seem to be getting through. The demand for fake items continues to rise despite the risk to personal safety, which can sometimes prove deadly. Without a more accurate picture of the problem, however, it is difficult to know how it can best be tackled. I hope the Minister will consider conducting an assessment of the number of counterfeit electrical goods being imported into the UK, so that the full extent is laid bare. We need a greater understanding not only of the scale of the problem, but of the trends in popular items and marketplaces. A real strategy needs to be brought forward, and the trading standards review must include consideration of online shopping and the importation of faulty electrical goods into the UK. One thing that the hon. Member for Swansea East did not mention was that many people are now buying retro items online. They are a must-have, but the problem is that we do not know whether such items adhere to electrical safety.
Trading standards has become incredibly localised, and it is time to rethink that and ask how best we can enforce against illegal sales of counterfeit and substandard electrical goods, particularly over the internet. In addition to enforcement, public awareness should be utilised as a key method to combat the trade in such items. We are all no doubt aware of the craze last Christmas for so-called hoverboards, which the hon. Lady mentioned, and the many reported occurrences of fires starting while those devices were charging. Supply chains are increasingly globalised, and when such product crazes with huge demand come around, substandard products can be distributed to consumers much faster than ever before. It is important that consumers are fully aware of the risks posed. The problem with buying fake electrical items is that people do not know what they are going to get. There are records of people being electrocuted and seriously burnt by fake phone chargers.
We need to get the message across that buying counterfeit electrical items is a risk not worth taking, as it could risk a person’s safety or worse, their life. According to research, about 2.6 million adults in the UK say they have knowingly ignored a recall notice. Some 77% of people say they would be more likely to respond if they understood the potential dangers. More work clearly needs to be done to better educate people on the risks, which underlines the need for a modern approach to trading standards to complement the traditional localised model.
I hope that the Minister will respond to some of the points I have raised. In particular, I would like some answers to the following questions. Will he commit to conducting an assessment of the number of counterfeit electrical goods being imported into the UK? That would be the first step towards supporting trading standards in tackling the problem. I also wish to see an undertaking to subsequently bring forward a strategy to deal with the issue. Can he provide more detail on how online sales of counterfeit electrical goods through social media channels are tackled? Do the Government work with the likes of Facebook to counteract such sales? If not, will he commit to looking at that as a priority?
How will the Government ensure that all electrical goods sold to UK consumers, including online, are compliant with British electrical standards, such as the Plugs and Sockets etc. (Safety) Regulations 1994? Will the Government ask the large online auction sites to work with sellers and have a charter mark for safe electrical goods? Will the Minister give an overview of the activities undertaken to raise public awareness of the dangers posed by counterfeit electrical goods? What is being done to foster greater understanding of the risks of electrocution and fire from buying electrical goods that have not been built to a sufficient standard? It is our duty as parliamentarians to highlight the dangers and to do our best to keep our constituents safe. I thank the Minister for listening, and I look forward to his response.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I am pleased to take part in this important debate, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) on securing it. As I mentioned before the sitting, I apologise for not being able to stay until the end. I have to attend a Public Bill Committee.
I, too, am a member of the all-party group on home electrical safety, and I come to the debate because of the historical links that my constituency had with electrical appliance manufacturing for many years. I would therefore like to focus my remarks on issues to do with product safety and how the importation of electrical products may be damaging business and undermining consumer confidence in the UK.
In Merthyr Tydfil, we have a proud history in the manufacture of washing machines. The Hoover factory opened in Pentrebach in my constituency in 1948 as part of the Labour Government’s work to ensure manufacturing advances in the UK after the war. Hoover’s major global expansion saw factories making washing machines in Merthyr Tydfil and its famous vacuum cleaners being manufactured in Scotland. Hoover soon became the market leader in the UK because the products were made here to high standards and were not imported.
Hoover’s UK manufacturing in Merthyr Tydfil gave people jobs for life. Many generations of my constituents worked in the factory. In 1973, Hoover’s 25th anniversary in the town, 5,000 people were employed making washing machines, tumble dryers and dishwashers. Perhaps bizarrely, in the 1980s, as the Minister may recall, the Sinclair C5 vehicle was made in Merthyr Tydfil, although that mode of transport had a quick demise. Manufacturing in the UK had reached its peak, unfortunately. Tragically, it has been allowed to drift away and we now rely on imports.
On 14 March 2009, manufacturing came to an end in Merthyr Tydfil with Hoover’s closure, which meant that 337 people lost their jobs. The site is now virtually empty. The headquarters remain, along with a warehouse facility. Despite the closure and the decision to move production to the far east, Hoover is still revered in Merthyr Tydfil by its former workforce. Appliances were built locally, giving jobs to the local economy and benefiting people’s lives.
I do not want to focus just on Hoover’s decision, as devastating a blow as it was in 2009. Many other manufacturers have decided to send production overseas and now import electrical goods into the UK. How can we be sure of the credibility of the component supply chain to large companies, and how do we ensure proper quality of the finished product and that it is built to last? When production was in Merthyr Tydfil, Hoover benefited from local component manufacturers, which in turn benefited from Hoover. Hoover had greater control over the supply chain and was able to assess whether components were of sufficient quality.
My hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East has already mentioned the issues with tumble dryers that many of our constituents face. Given the wet weather in Wales, many of my constituents rely on tumble dryers, many of them made by Whirlpool, which owns the Hotpoint and Indesit brands. As we know, Whirlpool has issued a safety notice for its large air-venting tumble dryers, owing to a fire risk. The Minister will be aware of the ongoing issues, as the matter was raised in Business, Innovation and Skills questions last week. The manufacturer has advised that the machines should not be left unsupervised. Some 4.3 million machines need to be fixed, so it is clearly an enormous task for the company.
I understand that our constituents will have to wait potentially 11 months or more for appropriate repairs to be made to the faulty imported appliances. How many fires could break out in that time? Can the Minister give us an assurance as to what his Department is doing? Has he, or have his ministerial colleagues, met Whirlpool to discuss the issue?
What is even worse is that the company is trying to sell its customers who contact them with concerns a new tumble dryer for £99 that is also subject to safety concerns. As my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East highlighted, the Government tasked Lynn Faulds Wood with reviewing product safety, and the Minister for Small Business, Industry and Enterprise said in the Government’s response to that review that she takes the issue very seriously. I am pleased to note that. However, the Whirlpool issue is a key case that needs to be given serious attention, and quickly. The UK charity Electrical Safety First, which campaigns to protect consumers from electrical accidents in the home, has provided a briefing to the all-party group.
Given the time available, I want to move on and flag up the issue of hoverboards, which the trading standards department in my constituency, along with others across the country, has recently dealt with. As the two previous speakers have highlighted, we know that more than 15,000—88%—were unsafe and detained at the border, but I am concerned about those that got through. That issue had much publicity across the country at the end of last year. Some of the stories we have heard are deeply worrying, and I want the Minister to consider what more can be done to raise awareness of the issue.
It is a challenge to do five minutes, but I will do my best, Mr Davies. I congratulate the hon. Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) on securing this debate. She focused comprehensively on the subject.
I think it is important that we give thought to the 13 people killed in Brussels on the metro and at the airport, and to the many others who have been injured. Prayerfully, physically and emotionally, we commend them all in our hearts and thoughts at this time.
To come back to the debate, 24% of household fires in the past five years were caused by electrics, as hon. Members have said. Irresponsible behaviour and accidents can happen, but the majority of cases are due to faulty electrical equipment. People’s lives and livelihoods are literally at stake as a result of the trade in faulty or illicit electrical goods. In December, my hon. Friend the Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell) tabled an early-day motion, which I was happy to sign, urging families and friends to take extra care and be aware of electrical safety, especially in the homes of elderly relatives and friends, during the Christmas period. We had a chance to highlight the issue at a reception here. It is important to use our positions as public representatives to raise awareness of the risks and urge people to take heed of warnings, but, no matter how aware people are of the risks, there is still the problem of electrical faults that happen without any human error on the part of the consumer.
The hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan), who is no longer in his place, has been a champion for consumer safety and I commend him for his hard work. More than £90 million is spent on counterfeit products each year, and in 2013-14 customs officials detained some 21,000 consignments of fake goods at UK borders. In just one operation alone, almost 170,000 dangerous and counterfeit goods were stopped from entering the UK by border staff at Dover docks in one of the biggest ever hauls at the port.
As hon. Members have mentioned, the manufacturing base in the United Kingdom has long eroded. Manufacturing has gone to the far east, China and eastern European countries, where the same levels of control are not as apparent as they are back home. That has been a disappointment not only because of the jobs that have been lost, but because the quality of goods cannot be secured in the way that we would like.
There has been a huge increase in the number of counterfeit and substandard electrical goods coming into the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. These counterfeit products follow the trends in must-have items. The must-have item is incredible; everybody must have it irrespective of what it is. The number of fake mobile phones seized has risen by more than 50%, as have other top electrical fakes, including hair straighteners, which I do not have to use, and games. Those are simply examples of things that people want. Despite campaigns to heighten awareness of the risks of counterfeit electrical goods, 24% of people have knowingly bought a counterfeit product; 21% would consider buying one to save money; and 16% do not think counterfeit products would put them at risk.
Clearly, the public have to be educated. They have to understand what might happen. By and large, if they buy it cheap, they buy a problem as well. Is legislation robust enough? Shortly, I will come on to the things that trading standards have said we must do. We need a two-pronged approach to continue and strengthen the campaigns to raise awareness, but the Government must have a role in this, too. I am pleased to see the Minister in his place. I know we will get a robust response from him, and also from the shadow Minister as well.
The UK’s electrical safety experts, Electrical Safety First, want to see a review or an assessment of the number of counterfeit electrical goods being imported into the UK and a strategy from the UK Government to support trading standards to tackle the problem. Electrical Safety First is largely considered the most reputable in the sector, so it is worth listening to its recommendations, which are important. It is calling for a proper assessment of the number of fulfilment houses and their involvement with the distribution of counterfeit/substandard goods; ensuring that all electrical goods sold to UK consumers, including those sold online, are compliant with British electrical standards such as the Plugs and Sockets etc. (Safety) Regulations 1994; asking the large online sales auction sites to work with sellers and have a charter mark for safe electrical goods; and ensuring that the trading standards review includes consideration of online shopping and the importation of faulty electricals into the UK and how trading standards can enforce against illegal sales of counterfeit and substandard electrical goods.
We need to address the issue of eBay purchase when the driver for the person on eBay is what is cheap rather than what is best or safe. Electrical Safety First also recommends that the Government ensure the product safety recall system is robust, and it supports the setting up of the steering group by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills to ensure a way forward to protect consumers. Those are not unreasonable requests. Indeed, further to my earlier point, there is only so much that raising awareness and taking care can do. Accidents and incidents still happen that could be prevented by better Government action to tackle the issue of faulty and counterfeit electrical products.
Parliamentarians need to come together and raise awareness in all constituencies throughout the country, and the relevant bodies, both public and private, need to play their part, but it is also clear that further Government action is needed. There have been fatalities as a result of counterfeit and faulty electric goods. Awareness campaigns can only do so much. We need action from the Government to protect citizens from the harm of counterfeit goods and action to bring to justice those who import and distribute these goods.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate, and I thank the hon. Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) for securing it. Unlike her, I will give a bit of a history lesson. The first people who are documented as having dealt with electricity were the ancient Greeks—Members are going to enjoy this.
The ancient Greeks realised that when they rubbed pieces of amber with a cloth to polish them they got sparks. They had no idea why, but they quite enjoyed the effect. In ancient Greek, amber is called elektron, which is where we get the word “electricity” from.
Some big names in electricity include Alessandro Volta, Luigi Galvani and Benjamin Franklin—they all played around with electricity. I mention those greats of electricity because none of those scientists had any idea of how electricity was going to be used. It was used for after-dinner entertainment—for example, small experiments were conducted instead of having a conjuror. The Victorians found some uses for electricity, one of the first of which was lighting. They realised that if they had a table cloth with electrical elements running through it, they could plug the prongs of a table lamp directly into the table cloth and light the dinner table. That sounds great—until a drink is spilled on to the table.
We can all laugh at that, but such ridiculous—possibly very creative—inventions were no more dangerous than some of the goods that are currently on sale. When current goes through any wire it generates heat. We need the correct flexes to cope with the current going through them. That is why we have different flexes for different purposes. One of the problems with counterfeit goods is that they do not necessarily have the correct flex for the appliance, which means that when the appliance draws current the flex can heat up and melt, causing a fire. That is one of the big problems with counterfeit goods.
For consumers, price is often a great driver. I just did a quick check of the internet. I do not have an iPad charger with me today. Were I to go to a local retailer and buy a genuine iPad charger, it would cost me £15 for the plug and £15 for the wire—a total cost of £30. On Amazon today, I can get a charger and wire that looks like an Apple charger for £8.99, including postage and packaging. That is what drives many consumers to take risks—especially low-income consumers who are trying to get goods that they think are going to do the job for them. Genuine retailers, especially those selling things as simple as a charger, must look at their pricing. I am not suggesting that they can produce an iPad charger for a knock-down price of £8.99, but £30 to charge my iPad seems a little excessive.
Sites such as Amazon and eBay should take responsibility for the goods sold on their sites. It is not just about iPad chargers. The hon. Member for Swansea East mentioned ghd straighteners. Let us say a genuine set comes in at £100. I might want to buy a set without realising that they are counterfeit: I might think it is just a good deal. I might buy them, not at a market for £30, but online for a “Today’s special deal” of £90. That is close enough to the right price for people to think the straighteners are genuine. They pay the money, thinking they got a good deal, but in fact they got a death trap. Online marketplace sites must take responsibility for the goods and sellers on their sites, and the Government must take action against retailers whenever the goods they are selling are not up to standard.
Finally—despite my history lesson, Mr Davies, I am keeping to the time limit—it is important to raise public awareness. As my hon. Friend the Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) said, it is not enough just to talk about the recall of particular items. Tell the public the reasons why and what can go wrong. Give them photos. Make them aware and educate them so that they can make informed decisions about the goods they buy.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) on securing this important debate and thank her for her effective presentation of all the issues, many of which have also been covered by the colleagues who have followed her. I am happy to follow the hon. Member for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan). We southsiders are always happy to learn from the north of the city and, having learned, take the lead and show the way. I will try to copy her timekeeping as well, Mr Davies.
I am secretary to the all-party group on fire safety and rescue. Several colleagues present are active in the group. The next meeting is at half-past 1 today, but I understand that colleagues might be conflicted given what will be going on in the Chamber at the same time. I express my appreciation to Rob Jervis-Gibbons and his colleagues at Electrical Safety First for their briefing for this debate. I do not intend to repeat the many issues raised so clearly and effectively by previous speakers, so I expect my contribution to be brief. I look forward to the responses from the Front-Bench spokespersons, especially that of the Minister, who this morning has to be not only the authentic voice of the Conservative party but its only voice. Given the importance that the rest of us attach to the debate, that is a wee bit sad. That is not a criticism of him or his Department. As has been articulated, we are all looking for reassurance on this matter.
My hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East has raised the important issues: brand imitation, substandard products, the risks from online sales and unscrupulous sellers, and the ability of trading standards officers to respond to growing risks in the face of budget restraints and cuts. Additional risks are posed by consumers who do not respond to manufacturer recalls, as the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) mentioned. He cited the very worrying statistic that only 10% to 20% of recalled products are returned or repaired. ESF’s analysis found that consumers did not respond because they were worried that they would be targets for future marketing campaigns. Although that sounds strange, it has a realistic ring to it. Manufacturers have to address that worry.
Given the growing threat, I am interested to hear how the Government feel they are doing in protecting the public. As has been mentioned, ESF estimated the counterfeit trade to be worth £90 million in 2013-14—in that year alone, customs detained 21,000 consignments at UK borders. I have several questions for the Minister that are similar to those asked by the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier). In fact, I think some are the same as hers, which should save the Minister’s time. Hopefully he will be able to provide responses.
Do the Government believe that the ESF analysis covers the scope of the problem, or do they think it is far more serious? The lack of a proper assessment leads to concerns that perhaps the figures are even worse than those in the public domain. Do the Government have a strategy to support trading standards officers in tackling the problem? What efforts are the Government making to tackle online sales of dangerous products? What liaison has there been with online companies and social media sites?
When was the last review of the legislation covering these areas? As my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East said, and as ESF highlighted, the legislation is from 1994—well before the explosion of internet trading. Are the Government confident that the law as it stands is robust enough for the present day? Have they reviewed the recent trend of fires in domestic premises caused by electrical sources? If so, what evidence did they find? If not, will they do so in conjunction with the Minister for Policing, Fire, Criminal Justice and Victims?
I do not for a second question the Government’s intention; they take this matter very seriously. We simply seek reassurance that we are doing everything possible to ensure that the good people on the frontline have the resources and tools they need to do their job and protect society. As many colleagues know, I was in the London fire brigade for 23 years before I was elected to represent my constituency. Fire service personnel will always put themselves at risk to deal with fires, but despite the efficiency of the British fire service 70 people died. The fire brigade cannot protect everybody, so the Government must ensure that things do not get that far. The purpose of today’s debate is to ensure that matters do not come to such a tragic end. However consumers buy electrical goods in the UK, they must be able to do so in the confidence that they are not buying a product that could harm them or their family.
It is nice to see you in the Chair, Mr Davies. I am pleased to take part in this debate, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) on securing it. I must declare an interest: I was formerly the secretary of the Scottish Accident Prevention Council, so I am keenly aware of many of these issues. For the record, I have never used hair straighteners—faulty or otherwise.
Households face the continuing challenges of squeezed incomes and rising prices for essential goods and services, so consumers are increasingly vulnerable to making distressed purchases. Many are tempted to buy fake and often faulty electrical goods. Like others, I am particularly worried about my constituents on low incomes. The elderly and others in disadvantaged situations are particularly susceptible to exploitation by unscrupulous businesses seeking to benefit from consumer vulnerabilities.
Inferior electrical goods pose a host of dangers to the public, and often leave behind a legacy of safety concerns and property damage, about which we have heard today. As other hon. Members highlighted, counterfeit electrical goods follow consumer trends—fake Fendi handbags cannot really injure people, but a faulty fake washing machine can kill people in their beds with smoke and fire.
Fake items often contain faulty parts that can overheat, catch fire or cause electric shocks. Like many other hon. Members, I have read the Electrical Safety First report, “A shocking rip off”, which found that a key reason why fakes are sold so cheaply is that they often have no short-cuts, lack specific components or contain substandard ones. According to the charity, the increasing sophistication of fake production means that often the only way of identifying items as counterfeit is by checking their internal components, but that is not on many of my constituents’ minds when they make a purchase, particularly if they do so online.
It has never been easier for counterfeit products to enter the UK marketplace, given the number of internet-based sales portals and social media marketplaces. Anyone with a bank account and internet access can import products from anywhere in the world. I do not want this debate to be about preventing them from doing so; that is not what we are talking about. At the same time, the resources of the agencies tasked with tackling the counterfeiting menace are being spread even more thinly, as alluded to a moment ago.
Faulty electrical products are thought to cause billions of pounds-worth of damage every year, both from the economic impact and from the fires and injuries they cause when they malfunction. Although the figures for fires caused directly by counterfeit electrical products are hard to come by, fires caused by electrical products are responsible for nearly 3,000 domestic house fires in Scotland alone per year. The average cost of a house fire is estimated to be about £44,500. Even if only a small proportion are due to faulty electrical goods, the direct financial impact is likely to be significant, leaving aside the human cost of such fires.
In my constituency—the one and only West Dunbartonshire—between 2009 and 2015, more than 11% of all accidental house fires were caused by faulty electrical items. I was further worried to learn that Citizens Advice Scotland reported a 17% increase in annual calls from consumers who have concerns about electrical products. Although much has already been done to tackle the importation of faulty electrical goods into Scotland and the rest of the UK, those figures show that there is a real need to fully understand the issue and to deal with it sooner rather than later. In liaison with partners, including Electrical Safety First, the Scottish trading standards services are working hard to identify and take robust enforcement action against the supplies of faulty electrical products.
In my constituency, West Dunbartonshire trading standards officers work tirelessly to protect consumers from imported and often unsafe electrical products. In the run-up to Christmas 2015, they prevented 1,000 non- compliant hoverboards—that ubiquitous item—from entering the UK. We have all read about the safety issues surrounding that newest fad gadget. In that case, it was deemed that the boards contained faulty plugs, cabling, chargers and batteries, which could have led to the devices overheating, exploding or catching fire.
Recently, the West Dunbartonshire trading standards office, like many other trading standards offices across the UK, has been contacted by worried consumers who have fire safety concerns about recalled tumble dryers. One of my constituents who has responded to the recall has been told that they will get their modification visit in May 2017. That is a scandal. They are supposed to continue to use the potentially dangerous product in the meantime or to take up the company’s generous offer of a new machine for £99 in place of modification.
The Scottish Government have proposed to the Smith commission that consumer protection be fully devolved to Scotland. I ask the Minister, why is it not? Why are we not helping consumer protection organisations to work together across the rest of the UK? More importantly, why are we not bringing consumer protection closer to the consumer?
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Davies. I thank all hon. Members who have spoken, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) on securing this important debate. I pay tribute to the staff at Electrical Safety First—in particular, Wayne Mackay for the briefing that he gave all of us. I will do all I can to share it with members of the public, because it contains a lot of interesting information about electrical products that they would not necessarily know from comparing two items.
I also pay tribute to the Scottish fire and rescue service, which works with Electrical Safety First and does lots of community outreach work, including home fire safety visits to inform people about the risks in their own home and to draw attention to such items. They are free to members of the public in Scotland and are well worth doing. I pay tribute to the many trading standards officers around the country who work incredibly hard to highlight these issues. In Glasgow, a lot of work is going on in the Scottish Anti Illicit Trade Group and the Scottish National Markets Group. Glasgow’s scientific services department does much testing of these items, which is really important.
There has been an interesting change in the way that such items reach us over the years. Previously, we might have picked them up in a market or a small shop, but since the legislation was introduced in 1994 there has been a move to online shopping. At about that time, eBay and Amazon were founded. We could not have predicted the increase in the volume of online shopping and the way that trend changed over time. A lot of hon. Members have talked about that. When people buy things online, it is difficult to ascertain their quality and legitimacy. The legislation is ripe for review. We must address those issues, because those changes to the market could not have been anticipated in 1994 when the legislation was introduced. The work that has been done to highlight these various issues is very important. The hon. Member for Swansea East talked about monitoring these issues and the sale of such items, and I support her call for action. The Government must do something about this.
Although it is important that we all raise public awareness in our communities, as the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) said, that is not enough. We can raise awareness as much as we like, but without the legitimacy of legislation to crack down on traders on popular websites such as Amazon and eBay, we will be stuck. Nothing will help our consumers more than legislation. If illegitimate sellers suffer no penalty for what they are doing, they will continue to do it.
My hon. Friend the Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) said that it was important to have a full investigation of trading standards throughout the UK to see where there are gaps and to ensure that people are protected equally around the country.
Another interesting issue is that of retro items, older electrical goods that people want to have in their homes but might fall foul of the legislation—perhaps they were made just before 1994, or are much older. Such items are being sold and kept in homes, although people might not realise the potential difficulties because of the safety standards that are not present.
The advertising issue is significant. During the speeches, my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan) and I were looking online at such advertising, and the products are all described as genuine. People should not be fooled into thinking that “genuine” means genuine in such cases, because they simply cannot be so.
The hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Gerald Jones) spoke passionately about the history of manufacturing in the country and in his constituency, with particular reference to the Hoover factory. That is a critical point: when we employed people locally in the UK to produce the goods, we all had a stake—we knew, or we could trace the supply chain back to, the people in the factories. Everyone had an interest in ensuring that the products or their components were safe and legitimate, because everyone knew who would be buying the end product. Producing locally has an impact—people know who will buy the products, and we can all feel more secure when we have a stake in their production.
I pay tribute to the people in my constituency, in Cambuslang, where we had a Hoover factory that started in 1946. As my hon. Friend said, people have a personal pride in what they produce. As soon as the manufacturing left the UK and went abroad, we had no safeguards as to quality. It is a bit like the steel industry today: we do not know what the quality of the steel coming into the UK is. More than 2,000 people in my constituency worked in the Hoover factory—I pay tribute to them. In fact, I thought that the word for a vacuum cleaner was a hoover, because it was so well known.
My hon. Friend is absolutely correct. A side issue is the unknown conditions in which those items are produced; we do not know the standards for the factories that staff are employed in and, often, stories in the media show factories to be a kind of sweatshop. People employed in such conditions do not have the same stake in ensuring a quality product at the end of the day. They are being exploited as much as consumers in this country are being exploited.
The hon. Member for Strangford mentioned the must-have items, and that they drive demand is an important point. People are persuaded to buy cheap and cut corners in order to meet the demand and to make their consumer choice.
We also need to think a bit more about the points about price, as my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North West said. There is a cost involved in buying any product, but it seems that many of the big, legitimate companies retailing electrical goods know that too and they are putting a premium on many of their products; they are making a significant profit on these items and, as a result, people choose the cheaper route. The big retailers need to be a bit more responsible about their marketing and the price points they choose.
My hon. Friend also spoke passionately about the history of electrical items. It is absolutely true that electricity has always involved risks; the difference now is that we ought to have legislation in place to control them. In our era, we understand the risks—in particular, with physics teachers up and down the country, we understand a lot more about how electricity works, as well as its accompanying risks. We need to be a lot more careful about how we control electrical products in this country.
I am glad to welcome the contribution made by the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick), who is a former firefighter of 23 years’ service. I served on the board of the Strathclyde fire and rescue service, which does a great deal of outreach work as well and would echo what he said about house fires. Firemen do not want to have to rescue people from house fires resulting from something that could have been prevented far further down the line.
There have been two serious house fires in Glasgow in the past week, and the people affected are very much in my thoughts and those of my colleagues in Glasgow. I do not yet know the cause of the house fires, but if there is a way to protect people and prevent house fires—as my hon. Friend the Member for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes) said, they cause so much damage—given both the human and the financial cost, there is work that we must do.
On the matter being devolved to Scotland, work going on shows that there is a will in Scotland to tackle the issue of counterfeit goods. A lot of good practice is happening in Scotland, but we are mindful of the ports around the country—we are on an island and can control, to some degree, what comes in through our ports. I would like to see greater investment in that. As we see from media reports, when things are stopped in port, they can be taken out of the market altogether.
One other point to throw in is that people are now importers of goods themselves. They can get around the ports and so on by ordering things from abroad. A constituent of mine even ordered a Taser over the internet and had it delivered to his house—to be clear, he immediately took it to the police. If people can order something such as that, ordering a plug charger or something is pretty easy. I want to see more control over what we can order ourselves and over what can be imported.
Again, I thank the hon. Member for Swansea East for securing the debate.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies.
I, too, associate myself with the remarks of the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) about the people in Brussels. Our thoughts are with them today.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) on securing this important debate. I wish every success to her all-party group on home electrical safety. The issue is really significant, and in common with many Members throughout the House I pay tribute to Electrical Safety First, not only for its briefing but for the work it has done in the past, and I am sure will do in future, to highlight this important subject.
As we have heard, there is clearly a problem with the importation of faulty electrical goods, which seem to be flooding into the UK at the moment. As the hon. Members for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) and for Strangford said, however, we do not know how many electrical goods are being imported into the UK. I want to see an assessment of the amount, because what is caught at ports and borders is a small part of the overall number.
More than £90 million is spent on counterfeit products each year. As we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East, the issue is partly one of intellectual property—many of the goods imitate those of well-known manufacturers, which have spent years building their reputations and garnering good will. My hon. Friend the Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Gerald Jones) spoke passionately about how the Hoover factory was integral to his constituency and about the pride people felt in that product.
Even now, undercutting the real thing damages legitimate businesses, wherever they are. Of course, the customer suffers. Made of cheap materials and shoddily put together, counterfeit goods perform badly and often break down, leaving the customer dissatisfied and out of pocket. More importantly, however—certainly to the debate today—such goods are not only substandard, but often dangerous to use. There is a real risk that they will increase the number of domestic fires. My hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) knows well the associated risks and the cost of domestic fires, whether human or economic.
As we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East, over Christmas there was a spate of stories about counterfeit electrical goods—NutriBullets, hoverboards, dangerous hair straighteners, Apple accessories and so on. According to Electrical Safety First, more than 17,000 domestic fires a year in this country are caused by faulty appliances, with 40 to 45 deaths. Surely they should be more preventable.
Of course, it is easy to say that customers should be a bit more careful and check what they are buying, but often it does not occur to them that what they are buying could kill them. People tend to trust implicitly goods bought on trusted internet sites, assuming that they must be legitimate to be accepted on to sites such as eBay. We need more legislation to make websites responsible for the products that they sell.
People assume, like when they buy a fake leather bag when on holiday in Turkey, that they are simply getting a good deal, because the real thing seems overpriced. As we heard from the hon. Members for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan) and for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes), people on a low income always want to save money on goods, and the real thing is often overpriced. Many people—a quarter of people—buy fake goods knowingly.
We need more public education. I admit that I spent the weekend checking my iPhone chargers to see whether they are genuine, and it is really difficult to tell. What are the Government doing to increase consumer knowledge of the dangers of counterfeit goods and, equally importantly, of how to identify them? I had a magnifying glass out to look at some of the chargers to see whether the words were spelt correctly and whether they had a CEE notice. Surely, as the hon. Members for Strangford and for Rutherglen and Hamilton West mentioned, a charter mark would be an extremely sensible move so that such items are easily identifiable.
On consumer protection and the need to ensure that goods do not find their way into Britain, we have heard about the ports and border agents. Counterfeit goods should be quickly confiscated if found. However, we need to look again at product recall. Only last month the consumer campaigner Lynn Faulds Wood completed her independent review, in which she branded the product recall system as “out of date” and not working well enough.
Many people have mentioned the case of the Hotpoint tumble dryer that caught fire and destroyed a house. Two weeks on from news breaking of the Hotpoint, Indesit and Creda tumble dryer safety alert, the manufacturer had still not listed the affected products that potentially posed a fire risk. When a safety risk is discovered, the onus to initiate recall seems to be entirely on the manufacturer. That is not effective; the onus needs to be elsewhere. Certainly, as my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Limehouse and the hon. Member for Strangford said, people do not always fill in the little cards to register their goods. Why not? Because they assume, like everything else, that they will get loads of manufacturer information landing on their doorstep daily.
What happens to those who move house? No one keeps manufacturers up to date—I cannot remember doing that—which is why I support Lynn Faulds Wood’s central recommendation for a national product safety agency, endorsed and backed by the Government. It would be good to know whether the Minister feels that would be effective. Surely it is no coincidence that recall works so much better for unfit food, for which we have the Food Standards Agency.
Underlying the central recommendation is a call for improved funding and resources for enforcement agencies. We have heard a lot about how legislation needs to be strengthened, but it is no use having legislation unless we enforce it. Trading standards in particular has had huge cuts under this Government and the coalition Government—it has suffered a 40% cut since 2010. Some offices report a halving of staff; in fact, I have heard of offices that have only one staff member to protect the public.
In a recent exchange with me, the Minister said:
“Trading standards services are merely one of the enforcement mechanisms for consumer rights. Consumers can enforce their own rights, as established by the Consumer Rights Act, and trading standards services are working more efficiently across the country.”—[Official Report, 15 March 2016; Vol. 607, c. 781.]
I would be interested to know how he believes consumers can enforce their own rights when they are not aware of problems with faulty and unsafe electrical goods, or of the criminal rogue traders who deliberately flout the law. I would also like to hear what evidence he has for his statement that trading standards services are “working more efficiently”, given that the Government decided not to publish the trading standards review completed before Christmas, which undoubtedly found that trading standards are under-resourced.
Figures released by trading standards in March 2015 showed that more than 6,500 items a day were detained, and that nearly two in five interventions at ports and borders identified unsafe or non-compliant items— 64% of all LED lamps tested were unsafe. That is thought to represent a very small proportion of the volume of such products entering the country. Again, we need an assessment of that, and the enforcement agencies need resourcing. The £400,000 is welcome, but that is for National Trading Standards. It is often local trading standards offices that are the first port of call for worried consumers, and they are dropping in numbers.
This is not about cheap fake handbags that will not kill anyone; it is about counterfeit and dangerous electrical goods, and about the recall of goods that have been found to be dangerous. I finish with a quote from Lynn Faulds Wood’s review, which found
“the lack of adequate market surveillance to be a major problem in the UK, possibly the biggest problem.”
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies, on this sad day. I associate myself with the comments about the victims in Brussels. I congratulate the hon. Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) on securing the debate and making such a comprehensive and thoughtful exposition of the issues that not just worry her but led directly to the death of one of her constituents. I also congratulate Electrical Safety First, which has clearly done a superlative job of engaging with Members from all parts of the House and providing them with compelling briefing.
In the debate, the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) got to the heart of the matter—the question of whether the arrangements we have to protect consumers are fit for purpose in the age of the internet, with globalised supply chains, where enforcement at a very localised level, as she called it, does not really address some of the bigger problems and sources of risk. It is for that reason that we did not feel that the previous review of trading standards had gone far enough: it did not really address her question. That is why a more fundamental review, not so much of trading standards as such, but of consumer protection in an internet age, has been launched by my hon. Friend the Minister for Small Business, Industry and Enterprise. In the meantime, I will explain in the brief time available what the Government are doing with trading standards and other enforcement bodies. I hope thereby to answer most of the questions posed to me in the great range of excellent contributions from hon. Members.
The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills provides £14.5 million a year to National Trading Standards and to Trading Standards Scotland, which use that money in large part to focus on the problems of faulty goods, counterfeit goods and the various different ways, whether through fulfilment houses or online trading sites, in which they find their way into the country. National Trading Standards has a safety at ports and borders team that focuses in particular on the physical import of those goods, but there is also close work between National Trading Standards and major sites such as Amazon, eBay and Facebook, which are clearly one of the main ways in which consumers are being sold either faulty or counterfeit or both faulty and counterfeit goods.
I will give one vivid and recent example of the enforcement action being undertaken. Operation Jasper involves 63 local authorities’ trading standards officers and has led to 4,300 Facebook listings being taken down, 12 premises raided and 200 warning letters sent to other traders. That is the kind of proactive enforcement that we want to see. I am sure that there is always more that can be done, but National Trading Standards and local trading standards are working closely with sites such as eBay, Facebook and Amazon on such measures. As another example, some brands of hoverboards and LED Christmas lights—items that were mentioned in the debate—were removed from eBay last October as a result of enforcement activity by trading standards.
The question of counterfeit goods is in a sense a subset of the issue we are debating, rather than a different matter. Some of the goods in question are not counterfeit; they are just faulty. Others are counterfeits but not faulty, and some are both. In September 2013 the coalition Government launched a dedicated intellectual property crime unit, run by the City of London police. That has been taking action against sellers who use Facebook, and those who use the more traditional route for counterfeit goods—the much-loved tradition of car boot sales. In legislation in 2014 we introduced a criminal sanction against the sale of counterfeit versions of goods that have registered trademarks or patents, to give legitimate producers a greater enforcement ability against those who persistently flout their intellectual property rights.
I want briefly to mention fulfilment houses, because they are one of the routes through which faulty and counterfeit goods can make their way to the consumer. As the hon. Member for Swansea East mentioned, there is one such fulfilment house in Swansea that has been the subject of enforcement action by trading standards and Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs. That action is continuing, but it has led to a large quantity of non-compliant goods being removed from sale, including unsafe electrical products and counterfeit goods. I hope that that goes some way to reassuring hon. Members that there is quite a range of enforcement activity—some that is more traditional, as well as other approaches that address the new globalised problem created by the internet. We should acknowledge, as I think we all do in our own lives, the massive opportunities that the internet has brought us.
I do not know off the top of my head, but I am happy to write to the hon. Gentleman about that, and to copy in other hon. Members who have attended the debate. We have quite a range of expertise in the debate, and it would be useful to have contributions from hon. Members on both sides, including, perhaps, representatives of the Scottish Government, who I know also do a great deal of work on the question.
The Minister mentioned the problem of the internet. Does he recognise that the internet is also a hope for the future, in relation to consumer rights and protection? People can put reviews on eBay and Facebook, and there are greater opportunities through technology than we have been giving credence to in the debate. I hope that the Government will take cognisance of the changes that are coming in technology, in the next 20 years, because what we have seen so far will pale into insignificance.
I entirely agree. Before I took the intervention from the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) I was coming on to the fact that, for all that the internet has created opportunities for criminals and those who would abuse freedom, it has nevertheless also created even greater opportunities for legitimate traders and consumers. As the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes) says, there are opportunities through the internet to share information about suppliers who have failed to live up to their obligations, and products that do not do what they are supposed to do, or are counterfeit or faulty.
In the debate, several hon. Members picked up on the idea of introducing a new charter mark, but I want to warn against viewing that as a panacea. As hon. Members will be aware, electrical goods are already required to carry the CE mark, and the problem is that lots of people fake that; so introducing a new charter mark would not itself necessarily deal with the problem. I presume that people would fake the new mark just as they did the previous one. It is more a question—and perhaps this is what was being suggested—of asking social media sites and trading platforms such as eBay, Facebook and Amazon to take responsibility themselves for having the kinds of review information that the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire mentioned, and to be proactive not just in taking products down but in kicking traders off their sites. Of course the traders would all go off and set up in a new guise two months later, and return to the sites, but consistent and persistent work to try to prevent consumers being ripped off or put at risk is needed. I assure the hon. Member for Swansea East that the Government will continue to work with her and other Members, and Electrical Safety First, to try to ensure that we have the problem under control.
Thank you, Mr Davies. As a fellow Swansea Jack it is with great pride that I have served under your excellent chairmanship today.
Today’s debate has demonstrated a depth of concern and strength of feeling about an important issue. I, like other MPs, pay tribute to Robert Jervis-Gibbons and Phil Buckle of Electrical Safety First for their excellent guidance, and their determination to bring the issue to the fore. I sincerely thank all hon. Members for their contributions. It has been an absolute delight to spend the morning with them all. I urge the Minister to work with Members and the all-party group to raise awareness, protect consumers and, potentially, save lives.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the importation of faulty electrical goods.
War in Yemen: First Anniversary
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the first anniversary of war in Yemen.
I am grateful for the opportunity to hold a brief debate as one of the ways to mark one year of the dreadful human suffering that this poor country has witnessed. I am also grateful to all those who have taken time to attend the debate this morning.
Yemen is a country of just under 26 million people, with a land area comparable to that of the state of California. It occupies part of the southern tip of the Arabian peninsula, and its position means that it has always had immense strategic importance; it guards the narrow entrance between the gulf of Aden and the Red sea. Certainly since the building of the Suez canal, that route has been of immense importance to nations much further afield than the immediate middle eastern area.
There are records of civilisation in Yemen going back at least 5,000 years, and probably significantly longer. Yemen was almost certainly the location of the biblical kingdom of Sheba. It has been known for great wealth, great pomp and great power. Today, sadly, it is known for quite the opposite. Its nearest land neighbours are some of the wealthiest empires on the planet, and I ask Members to bear that in mind when I go on to talk about the desperate plight facing tens of millions of ordinary men, women and particularly children in Yemen.
For most of the country’s history, Yemen has been divided. In the 19th century, the British used military force to take over part of the southern area around Aden. Until then, most of Yemen had been under the Ottoman empire. The Ottomans remained in the north until their empire fell at the end of the first world war. British rule in the south continued until 1967. A few years later, the south came under Marxist rule, closely aligned to the Soviet bloc. When the Soviet bloc then collapsed in 1990, the two halves were united again, at least nominally.
However, the tension, suspicion and regular outbreaks of violence between north and south Yemen that marked the latter half of the 20th century have continued unabated since the country was notionally combined under a single ruler. The present war started after the Houthis, one of the main factions in the country, attempted to overthrow the rule of the President. The President is still recognised as such by influential neighbours such as Saudi Arabia, and also by the United Nations and most of the international community.
It is quite common for those looking for a simple answer to characterise the conflict as simply a dispute between Sunni and Shi’a Islamic forces. It is probably true that that element is part of the reason why Saudi Arabia has taken such a keen interest and has sought so hard to exert influence—sometimes by peaceful means and sometimes not. Saudi Arabia has made it clear that it is not comfortable with the idea of a Shi’a Government being present on its southern border with Yemen.
Yemen is a country that is still deeply divided. There is no right or wrong answer as to who should be regarded as the legitimate ruler just now. Democracy has never really flourished in either part of the country, certainly since it was unified. There were elections of sorts, but there has never been a time when the rule of the ballot box has prevailed for any length of time over the rule of the bomb and the bullet. If we were to ask the ordinary citizens of Yemen now who they want their Government to be, those who were not too scared to speak out would, in all probability, say, “Just give us peace. Give us stability, and we’ll worry about who our Government is later.”
It is important to recognise that the fact that the deposed President is still regarded by the UK and others as the legitimate President has been used by some powers to justify taking a one-sided stance in the dispute and conflict. For me, there are serious questions as to whether either faction can be regarded as fit to govern. Claims of appalling abuses of human rights and crimes against humanity—the use of deliberate starvation of children as a weapon of war, for example—have been laid with significant credibility at the feet of both factions, and we need to ask the question: would it be acceptable for either of those sets of war criminals to take charge of the country when there is an end to the present conflict?
There is a lot of uncertainty and no definite right and wrong answers as to who the Government should be. One problem is that going back to the days of empires, colonial powers and so on, it is hard to find a single period when anyone who governed Yemen cared very much about the 25 million to 26 million people who live there. I do not think that either of the factions now fighting for control of the country are really that interested in the welfare of civilians.
In the background, and moving very much into the foreground, is al-Qaeda, which has had a presence in Yemen for a number of years. It has taken advantage of the instability and the conflict to seize more and more territory. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, as it now styles itself, is probably the most powerful, influential and dangerous element of al-Qaeda anywhere in the world. We should be concerned about that, and we should be looking for a peaceful and just resolution to the conflict so that different sides in the dispute can start to concentrate on removing al-Qaeda and the threat it carries.
An indication, perhaps, of just how complex and often incomprehensible the whole situation is are the credible—and I believe thoroughly accurate—accounts that Saudi-led coalition forces have fought alongside al-Qaeda forces at times during the conflict. If a war leads to Saudi forces and al-Qaeda fighting on the same side, it should tell all of us that we have to think very carefully about how we get involved.
What there can be no room for any doubt about whatsoever is the desperate plight of tens of millions of ordinary men, women and children just like us in Yemen. Save the Children provided a helpful briefing for us a few weeks ago, and I will quote some of its figures. It is producing a much more detailed and up-to-date report tomorrow; I do not want to pre-empt that launch, other than to say that the report does not change very much Save the Children’s description a few weeks ago of the severity of the situation. It has reported, as have others, that more than 2,000 children have been killed or seriously injured in the past 12 months. The initial report states that
“1.3 million children under the age of five are suffering from acute, life-threatening malnutrition.”
“In 2015, more civilian deaths and injuries from explosive weapons were recorded in Yemen than in any other country around the world.”
Yemen is the most dangerous place in the world in terms of civilians being killed by bombs and missiles. It is also regarded by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and, I believe, by Save the Children as the country with the most people in desperate need of humanitarian aid. Estimates of the number of people who are in a life-threatening situation through a lack of humanitarian aid start at around the 10 million mark. As I said, 1.3 million children under five are suffering from life-threatening malnutrition. For a four or five-year-old, the time it takes to go from life-threatening to too late is not very long at all. We have to act, and we have to act now, to establish safe and secure routes for food and other essential supplies to get to those children, their families and their parents.
There have been reports—again, reliable ones—that when explosive weapons have been used in built-up areas, 93% of the casualties have been civilians. If that is the case and attacks keep happening, we have to ask ourselves: is that really accidental? Is it really unintentional? It cannot be claimed to be unforeseen, and my view is that anyone who undertakes any act of violence when civilian casualties are foreseen or foreseeable must be held fully responsible for wilfully and recklessly causing deaths.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this timely discussion. As he will be aware, the UK is Europe’s largest donor of humanitarian aid to Yemen, but at the same time the UK is also the largest arms supplier to Saudi Arabia. Does he agree that it would be great to have an answer from the Minister today about how the Government can reconcile that stark contradiction?
I am grateful for that intervention, and I agree entirely. I do not remember the exact figures— I have them somewhere—but I can say that UK emergency aid to Yemen is measured in the tens of millions, whereas UK arms sales to Saudi Arabia are measured in thousands of millions. The disparity is stark.
I come to the question of arms sales. The Government have previously defended them, essentially by saying, “We can’t find any evidence that weapons from British sources have been used actively in this oppression and in killing civilians,” but that is not good enough. The United Nations panel of experts has identified 119 cases in which Saudi-led coalition forces have undertaken military action in breach of international humanitarian law, either because they have deliberately targeted civilian targets or because they knew that by attacking military targets, there was a significant risk that civilian targets would be affected. That is why we are seeing schools, hospitals, roads, railways and mosques—the very fabric of society in Yemen—being destroyed.
My good friend mentions hospitals in Yemen. Does he share my horror that Médecins sans Frontières hospitals in Yemen have been hit by projectiles and missiles, and that even ambulances have been hit as part of the conflict, putting at risk medical staff and the people they are desperately trying to help?
Again, that is a very valid point. It seems to me that whereas Governments the world over—if they are doing anything—are siding with the Saudi-led coalition, the only people who are really putting themselves out to help those in the most need of it are organisations such as Médecins sans Frontières, Save the Children and other non-governmental organisations. Many of them put their staff and volunteers at enormous risk and many of them, including Médecins sans Frontières, have seen colleagues lose their lives in air strikes, which I do not think can credibly be laid at the door of anyone other than the Saudi-led coalition.
I draw Members’ attention to an answer given on 10 March to a written question from the right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake), who is one of a number of Members who have pressed the Government on aspects of the conflict. He asked specifically what the response of the Government of Saudi Arabia was to the representations that had been made about the attack on the hospital and about a number of other reports of attacks on civilians and breaches of human rights. As is so often the case, the Government provided a reply but not an answer; they gave no indication that they had had any response at all. I ask the Minister today: in response to United Kingdom representations, have we yet had a substantive answer from the Saudis explaining specifically the destruction of the Médecins sans Frontières hospital?
My view is that it is not enough to say that we cannot find proof that the Saudis have done this deliberately, or even that the Saudis have done this at all. It is not enough to say that we cannot find substantive proof that weapons or weapons components—some of which are manufactured by Raytheon in my constituency, incidentally—have been used. By this time, there should be conclusive evidence that they have not been used. The UK Government’s position appears to be, “We are not going to investigate it particularly carefully; it is up to the Saudis to investigate what their military forces are doing.” What kind of system of international justice would we have if an accusation of mass murder was investigated only by the accused person?
The hon. Gentleman is making a powerful speech. As he will be aware, a recent UN panel of experts found that all sides in the Yemen conflict have committed serious violations of international humanitarian and human rights law, yet at the UN Human Rights Council, the UK Government and Saudi Arabia blocked the establishment of an independent international commission inquiry into the allegations. Does he agree that it is now time for our Government to push for that independent international UN commission of inquiry so that we get to the bottom of these crimes against humanity?
Absolutely—and I should say that questions have been asked about how exactly the Saudis got that position on the Human Rights Council and who wielded influence. That is possibly a debate for another day, but Her Majesty’s Government still have questions to answer in that area.
I want to give the Minister as much time as possible, because I am aware that responses to Westminster Hall debates fall into two camps. One is when a Minister gives a reasoned, thoughtful and helpful response, and although they are perhaps not able to give commitments, they certainly recognise that concerns have been raised and give an undertaking that the Government will seriously consider the representations that have been made, which the House no doubt accepts in good faith. The other kind is when a Minister reads a brief that could have been prepared and read by anybody, and really takes us no further forward. I hope that the Minister’s response today is of the former kind, because we need answers, including the answer that has not come yet to the right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington. What responses have the Saudis given, as of today, to the serious and urgent questions that the Government asked them several weeks ago about reports indicating that the Saudi-led coalition is in breach of international law? What responses have they given on the bombing of the Médecins sans Frontières hospital, for example?
Of the 119 documented cases where it appears that Saudi-led coalition forces have committed war crimes and acted in breach of international law, can the Minister point to any one that he is satisfied has been properly investigated? The Saudis are investigating in general terms, and it is quite clear that they will not take it on themselves to investigate individual incidents. If nobody investigates individual incidents when there are accusations of war crimes, the war criminals will get off scot-free.
Most importantly, I want a commitment from the Government that they will use their full influence to call for an immediate and lasting ceasefire across the whole territory of Yemen, because until that happens, we cannot start to get essential food, medical and other supplies brought into the country. Yemen relies heavily on imports for its food, fuel and other life essentials. I commend the Government for the action they were able to take to ease the blockade that was imposed on the main port of Yemen, but we still have to ask how anybody could blockade the major port in a country that relies on imports to feed its children and not stand accused of deliberately using the starvation of children as a weapon of war. Whatever else may come out of the investigations into individual military airstrikes, I believe that those who sanctioned the blockade and those who helped to enforce it have a case to answer. I want to hear a commitment from the Government that they will press for those responsible to be brought before an international court if evidence can be found against them.
We have to turn off the tap to stop the bath from overflowing. If we operated a country sports shop and heard claims that one of our customers was shooting children as well as deer in the forests, would we wait for them to be convicted, or would we say to them next time they came in, “We are not selling you any more bullets”? There are surely enough credible, documented cases for the United Kingdom Government to say immediately, “We will no longer provide weapons of war, or the components of weapons of war, until we have cast-iron evidence that none of them have been used for the killing of children in Yemen.” Otherwise, all those who have condoned the military action in any way, whether they are brought to account soon or much later on, will be faced with the accusation, “I was hungry and you cut off my food supply. I was sick and you bombed my hospital. I was a child and you denied me the right to grow to adulthood.” If we have done this to the least of these children, we have done it to the creator of these children. There is no more time for prevarication. There can be no more justification for complicity, direct or indirect, in the killing of Yemen’s children. There should be an immediate ban on the sale of military equipment of any kind to anyone involved in this carnage.
It is a pleasure to work under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I very much welcome this debate, which is one of a series we have had—and, I hope, will continue to have—that scrutinises what the Government are doing with the international community to assist people to see the atrocities and tragedy taking place in Yemen, and not least to raise the profile of what is happening there, bearing in the mind the other challenges that we face in the middle east. I very much congratulate the hon. Member for Glenrothes (Peter Grant) on securing this debate.
The UK counts itself among Yemen’s strongest friends, with a relationship, as the hon. Gentleman outlined, that dates back centuries. Aden was the main refuelling stop for ships between Britain and the far east and many Yemeni immigrants form some of the oldest Muslim communities in the UK, particularly in the port areas of Liverpool, South Shields and Cardiff.
Yemen is the poorest country in the middle east. For some years now, the UK has taken the lead in trying to tackle poverty, support state institutions and address the dire humanitarian situation. Furthermore, peace and stability in Yemen matter to the UK because that is the best way to mitigate the terrorist threat emanating from the Arab peninsula. Well-established groups in Yemen, such as AQAP—al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula—and now Daesh, are a threat to our national security and we remain resolved to tackle this.
Regarding the conflict, the House is aware that Yemen had been making steady progress towards improved stability. A Gulf Cooperation Council-brokered initiative back in 2011 committed all parties to talks, to a new constitution and to national elections, but regretfully the Houthis stepped away from the talks. They chose conflict instead of consensus and in September 2014, with support from forces loyal to former President Saleh, they staged a takeover of the legitimate Government of President Hadi and took control of key state institutions. That was clearly unacceptable, but also a clear violation of the 1994 Yemeni constitution and the principles of the 2011 Gulf Cooperation Council initiative.
The legitimate President of Yemen, President Hadi, called for help to deter Houthi aggression. A Saudi Arabian-led regional coalition responded to enable the return of the legitimate Yemeni Government. The UN then passed Security Council resolution 2216—the House has become very familiar with it—condemning the unilateral actions of the Houthis and the destabilising actions of both the Houthis and former President Saleh.
The Houthis consistently failed to implement commitments made in the so-called peace and national partnership agreement of September 2014. Houthis and pro-Saleh forces seized territory and heavy weapons across the country. They are holding the Minister of Defence and other senior members of the Yemeni Government under house arrest and have shown total disregard for the welfare of civilians. They have also failed to adhere to UN Security Council resolutions.
It is important to remember that this is the context of the Saudi Arabian-led coalition’s military intervention. Saudi Arabia and the coalition have played a crucial role in reversing the military advance of the Houthis and forces loyal to former President Saleh. I want to make it clear that the UK is not part of the Saudi-led coalition. We are encouraging the coalition and the Yemeni Government to use their military gains to drive forward the political process.
I can share with the House the fact that in recent days there has been some encouraging progress. We have seen de-escalation along the Saudi border in the north and prisoner exchanges. We welcome the announcement on 17 March by the Saudi Arabian-led coalition that it intends to scale back its military operations in Yemen. A political solution is the best way to end the conflict and to bring long-term stability to Yemen.
The hon. Gentleman raised human rights violations. Hon. Members have mentioned several alleged violations of international humanitarian law by actors in the conflict. We are aware of the allegations that have been made by a variety of sources, including the UN panel of experts in its recent report. We looked at that very closely and take the allegations seriously. However, as I shared with the House, the report was conducted by people who did not enter the country, but used satellite technology to make their assessments, so we must place that in context with our ability to do our own assessments. The Ministry of Defence monitors incidents of alleged IHL violations using available information, which in turn informs our overall assessment of IHL compliance in Yemen.
I have previously committed to raising the allegations with the Saudi Government and did so most recently on my visit to Saudi Arabia and with the Saudi ambassador last month. I will continue to raise any such concerns. It is of course important to determine the facts of any incident and the Saudis set out their own internal investigation procedures, which are very welcome, at a press conference on 31 January.
Hon. Members also raised the issue of arms sales, but I ask whether the humanitarian situation would be any better if the UK were not selling arms to Saudi Arabia and that country was not engaged in supporting President Hadi. The hon. Member for Glenrothes questioned that. Without the coalition, the Houthis would have pressed down to the port of Aden and the scale of the humanitarian disaster in that country would be a lot worse than the one we are facing now. The fact is that the Houthis have been forced to the political table, and we now see the potential for a ceasefire because of the stalemate.
No, I did not say that. The hon. Gentleman is leaping and almost putting words in my mouth. I want to make it clear that we have discussions with the Saudi Arabian regime and say that if there are alleged violations, they must be looked into. The Médecins sans Frontières hospital is an example of that and of when the regime should put its hand up. We have experienced this in the past in operations in Afghanistan and Iraq when collateral damage took place. It is important that procedures are in place to make sure the hand goes up, investigations take place and the necessary reparations are made. We do not want violations glossed over, which is why we are firm with every partner in the coalition to make sure they are clear about their targeting processes.
Given the growing number of serious allegations, does the Minister believe it would be right for the UK Government to call a pause in arms exports to the Saudi Arabian regime until we get to the bottom of those allegations? Would that not let him sleep at night?
What would make me sleep at night is making sure people come to the table. We are now embarking on that, thanks to the work of the UN envoy and those involved in the discussions. That is the direction we are heading in. Yes, there are allegations and we make it clear that we are doing our own assessments to understand whether the equipment we sell has any participation in that and indeed whether the violations are by the Houthis or the Saudi Arabians.
I was pleased the hon. Lady recognised—the hon. Gentleman did not mention this—that another adversary is in breach of many humanitarian laws, not least the use of child soldiers and so on. This is not to exonerate any alleged breach or violation or the fact that they must be looked into. In its resolution in October 2014, the UN Human Rights Council made it clear what the process would be. It offered UN assistance to make sure violations are looked into and a report will come back to the council in the next month.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. I think he misunderstood or missed part of what I said. Let me be clear: I believe that both sides in this conflict are guilty of appalling crimes and that neither is fit to take over the Government of Yemen. I do not make a distinction between good war criminals and bad war criminals. There is only one sort of war criminal in my book.
I am glad I gave way and that the hon. Gentleman was able to place that on the record. It is very much appreciated.
In the limited time left, I want to say that the British military have some of the highest standards in the world governing our conduct in armed conflicts, including with regard to civilians. We have drawn on our experience in Iraq and Afghanistan and we certainly want to share that with other nations, but we are not part of the targeting process in Saudi Arabia or the coalition.
The humanitarian response is important, but also complex. As the hon. Gentleman said, 82% of the population is in need of assistance. That is why the Government have pledged more than £85 million to date, making it the fourth largest humanitarian donor.
The Government are doing all we can to support a meaningful peace process and to seek an early political resolution to the conflict. At UN-facilitated talks in December 2015, the parties committed to further dialogue and that offers some hope for the future. We continue to support the UN special envoy in his efforts to convene those talks over the coming weeks and to review the ceasefire.
The Government’s position is clear: the conflict in Yemen must end and the humanitarian situation must be addressed. The legitimate Yemeni Government must be allowed to return to the capital. A political solution remains the best way to end the conflict, to bring long-term stability to Yemen and to avoid a humanitarian catastrophe. All parties must engage constructively, without preconditions and in good faith. We are working closely with diplomatic channels to make this political solution a reality and to bring this devastating conflict to an end.
Question put and agreed to.
GPS and Heavy Goods Vehicles
[Sir Alan Meale in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered GPS satellite navigation and heavy goods vehicles.
This is an increasingly complex issue because of the proliferation in recent years of devices and, more importantly, software available across Android, Apple and Microsoft-driven smartphones. The issue is not new but has been bubbling in the background for well over a decade. In-vehicle information systems, or IVISs, have received Government attention over the years, including in the Road Traffic (Driver Licensing and Information Systems) Act 1989 and the Driver Information Systems (Exemption) Order 1990, which concentrated on a licensing scheme for providers of real-time on-the-move information, such as Trafficmaster.
There was also a Government consultation in 2006, which sadly received just 111 replies. The results of that consultation were published in May 2008, but there were no firm recommendations for action. However, the sat-nav problem was highlighted in the consultation. In those days, very few heavy goods vehicle-only systems were available, which shows how technology has moved on at an exponential rate. The report concentrated heavily on the safety issues of—this is quite bizarre nomenclature—the human-machine interface, or HMI. There was subsequently one welcome legislative amendment, in 2011, giving local highways authorities the ability to implement advisory signs without formal traffic orders needing to be made.
On 6 March 2012, the Department for Transport hosted a “Delivering the best information to all in-vehicle satellite navigation users” afternoon. It was intended to encourage appropriate sat-nav use, local authority involvement with the mapping companies, and consideration of using the insurance market to force HGVs to require appropriate HGV-robust sat-navs. That is especially important when hugely expensive bridge collisions occur, as happens in many constituencies. Those collisions can stop train services while the damage is assessed. That has not been an uncommon occurrence on the north Kent line running through Strood.
Kent County Council, as the highways authority for Kent, issued a freight action plan in October 2012 to cover the four-year period from 2012 to 2016. It highlighted the problem, unique to Kent, of having the active cross-channel ports of Dover and Sheerness, the port of London, the then fully operational Ramsgate port, and the channel tunnel. Kent has a uniquely high level and density of foreign trucks on its roads because of the port activities, and that presents unique problems. The KCC action plan highlighted inappropriate sat-nav use and particularly the necessity of appropriate advertising of strategic road use across the county.
The Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Andrew Jones), told the House on 20 July 2015 that legislation might be an inappropriate and bureaucratic means of addressing these issues. Despite a number of years considering the problem and despite the numerous initiatives, the problem persists, and it is my contention that it is getting worse and more widespread than ever. The A257 Sandwich to Canterbury road suffers from inappropriate HGV use, and, importantly for the historic fabric of our nation, there are far too regular occurrences of economic standstill in the historic town of Sandwich as inappropriate vehicles that have absolutely no cause to be there become literally stuck, sometimes for hours.
I apologise in advance for the technical nature of my next comments, but I think it is worth while to lay out the framework of the advanced wizardry behind this now routinely used technology. The global positioning system comprises 31 US satellites orbiting 12,500 miles above the Earth. The system became fully live in 1995, but was available before then at lower levels of accuracy.
I congratulate my hon. Friend, who is making an excellent speech on a subject that is important to my constituency. He mentions the wizardry involved. He may be interested to learn—I will talk about this later—that one of the houses in my constituency that is most frequently damaged by HGVs was used for the set of the Harry Potter film. Unfortunately, that wizardry is not available to us.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. I am sure that if we asked just about every Member of the House, they would be able to cite similar problems of historic buildings being hit.
I will develop a little further my point about the technical wizardry. The GPS concept is based on time and the known position of specialised satellites, which carry stable atomic clocks that are synchronised to one another and to ground clocks. The satellites’ locations are known with great precision. The GPS receivers that we all have on our phones and cars and wherever else also have very accurate clocks. GPS satellites transmit their current time and position, and a GPS receiver, looking at multiple satellites, solves a complex equation and determines its exact position.
As can be imagined, given the usefulness of such technology, it was designed in the US primarily for military use, but its use rapidly spread to marine navigation and has now spread to road navigation, as accuracy levels are now down to 5 metres or less. The system is free to any user on the planet who has a GPS device and it must be considered a true gift from the United States taxpayer to the world. Other countries have replicated the system, or tried to replicate it. There is the Russian GLONASS system, and the European Galileo system and Indian, Chinese and Japanese equivalents are in progress. However, I doubt that any of those new variants will ever overcome the dominance of the US GPS system, obtained through reliability and dependability. There is of course the downside that the US Government could at their discretion turn off the system for civil use at any time. One can imagine that at times of global instability that might be done, but it has never happened thus far.
It was not too many years ago—perhaps 15 years ago—that I was looking with some wonderment at the new gadgets that were appearing on friends’ car dashboards. TomTom was an early market entrant, and for many it became a status gadget, along with early in-built dashboard models in premium cars. However, it became clear within a year or two that they rapidly became out of date as new road schemes came into being. Updates for such machines were cumbersome, were often subject to expensive upgrade charges and, in the case of in-built systems, were sometimes available only at main dealers.
I thank my hon. Friend for initiating this debate on a pertinent issue. He makes the point about devices losing their accuracy as new roads are built. It is also still a problem that they cannot tell how big or small a road is. In my constituency there is a place called New Smithy, near Chinley. Wagons continually get sent down the road there. The county council, which I rarely have a good word for, has done what it can with signage, but devices lead drivers down to a low bridge that they cannot get under. They have to turn round and they knock the bridge, and the costs of having to keep repairing the bridge are ridiculous. That is all because of sat-navs not being able to tell that there is a low bridge under which drivers cannot get their wagons.
My hon. Friend highlights exactly what the debate is all about. I will be coming to exactly that issue in a moment.
There are now a host of portable devices—they are actually called nomadic dedicated devices—that people can put in their pocket and in different vehicles that they own. They are available at varying costs, with new brand names now commonplace in the market. TomTom was a market leader in the early days. Now there is Garmin, which was traditionally a big player in the marine navigation market, and there are names such as Mio, Navman, Magellan and many others. The price of those machines for car use is now as little as £50. For larger screen sizes, the prices can be up to £250.
The market has changed, because we now have the ability to download smartphone software, often for free, across the major phone operating systems. A search of Google Play or Apple’s App Store would reveal a huge choice of available software. Some is free if one is prepared to accept adverts, and some is free for a limited trial period. There are also fully paid systems, but even those are at a remarkably low cost, sometimes of less than £20. Practically every personal digital assistant device that we own—smartphones, iPads, other tablets—now has GPS functionality, and they can all support such software. Many operate on the widespread Google Maps application, which, as with everything Google, is becoming dominant.
I want to go back to the point that my hon. Friend the Member for High Peak (Andrew Bingham) made. My hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet (Craig Mackinlay) is talking a lot about technology, and I must admit that I do not have the same level of expertise that he does. Is there any sign in the industry that the technology is reaching a point at which, without us having to legislate or regulate, it could tell a driver, “This road is inappropriate relative to the size of your vehicle”?
If my hon. Friend will let me continue just a little bit further, I will address the potential solutions.
We all realise the dominance of Google in our lives and on every machine that we own. Google Maps is a widely used application, but the downside for many of us is that it needs data transfer and use while on the move. That is not particularly helpful for people who are travelling abroad, given the data charges for foreign use. Software-based systems—the dedicated TomTom-style devices—have underlying, in-built maps called geographic information system data. They are installed so that there is no mobile data use. That is often the underlying framework used by nomadic and smartphone devices.
I think the solution lies with the base maps that the systems use. Only a few are actually used. A market leader is Navteq’s SDAL map, which is now called HERE. The Tele Atlas system drives TomTom and provides Apple Maps with its data. Of course, Google Maps has its own system. There is also an open source system called OpenStreetMap. There are 100 or more software variants that can run across different types of map data, and there is interchangeability in some software and devices so that they can accept and read any maps, from wherever they are sourced.
I appreciate my hon. Friend giving way and congratulate him on securing the debate.
The emergency services sometimes have a problem if, for example, a road has been cut in half because something has changed, with a housing estate being built or something of that nature. However, they tend to make that mistake only once. Can something be done along the lines of what the emergency services do, so that updates to roads can be fed in to the companies that supply us with devices?
On the Navteq website, the public have the ability to put in new data as they arise. The company will then check those data and, if it is satisfied with their quality, they will become a new variant of future maps that it produces. Everybody is able to update those maps on a regular basis. It comes down to the fact that the data are out there if one could only find them.
For anybody who uses such systems, other data sources can be laid over the map data—often speed camera information or locations of points of interest such as museums, restaurants or even petrol stations—but, again, another problem creeps in. There is a huge black market out there of free downloads across so-called torrent sites, and that is becoming a huge industry. Therein lie the problems of accuracy and reliability, and questions about whether the data driving the devices are actually up to date at all.
Within a huge majority of the systems with which we are now becoming familiar, choices are available, including voice type and whether the data are required in metric or imperial. One can set up advanced warning alerts, choose whether travel is on foot or by car and decide whether one wants to take the shortest route, the fastest route, or a route with or without tolls. Wrong data or out-of-date devices are issues. If that is applied just to driving in a car, the worst that could possibly happen is that it could lead to a fine if entering a changed road layout, for example. In HGVs, the problem—and this is at the heart of the debate—can be infinitely more serious.
On that point, I come to the key issue. The use by HGV drivers of those cheaper car devices—available for £50, as I mentioned earlier—is all too common. That is compounded by smartphone software that is designed for car use only and, overlaid on that, the use of out-of-date map data that are perhaps downloaded illegally or from dubious sources. I am pleased to say that the problem is not largely seen across the UK lorry fleet. I pay tribute to the Freight Transport Association for its attempts to encourage its 15,000 members to buy HGV-compliant devices. It even has its own industry specialist shop, and provides a high level of advice to its members. I am pleased to say that common sense prevails across its wide membership and influence.
I do not particularly want to single out foreign drivers as the main culprits, but the example I want to present is from Sandwich in my constituency. I am sure that in almost every constituency in the country there are instances—such as those that have been raised by hon. Members today—of HGVs too often using inappropriate roads. A common excuse is usually advanced, and it always runs something like, “Oh, my sat-nav told me to.” After that, there is often a mad struggle for Google Translate to solve the communication problem.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. These issues might sound trivial to some people who do not have constituencies that are constantly affected by them. In my constituency, the A170 runs up Sutton Bank and there are two one-in-fours divided by a hairpin bend. There are two incidents there a week with lorries having to back up all the way into the village, often causing damage to property and huge tailbacks for several hours. Does my hon. Friend know the combined economic costs of all these issues nationally?
My hon. Friend makes a very good point about not just the physical damage that occurs to road structures and historical buildings, but the economic cost of hours of tailbacks. One could probably make a reasonable guesstimate of what that cost would be in an individual place but, as my hon. Friend points out, this is happening in virtually every town in every constituency on a weekly basis.
My seat is very rural so we have all the economic difficulties but there are also safety issues. Wagons are being shoehorned down lanes such as Mainstone Road, which is related to the problem in my constituency that I have already mentioned. Large wagons go down little lanes and roads, often at times when schools are turning out and so on. There is a safety issue as well as all the inconvenience, and the problem is particularly acute in rural areas.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that point. Not only do we have physical damage but we have the economic costs and the serious issue of road safety in areas that should not be affected by having such huge lorries in the wrong places.
Sandwich in South Thanet is the best preserved medieval town in the country—I am sure other Members will be on their feet claiming the same of towns in their constituency—and HGVs have caused damage to its roads, kerbs, signs and, perhaps more importantly, its historical buildings. There is a particular junction—Members will realise the historical nature of Sandwich—called Breezy Corner, and just a little way away is a barbican dating back to 1539 and an ancient toll bridge. Those structures are damaged on an almost weekly basis. In addition—and this addresses the economic points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake)—40-foot HGVs are completely unable to negotiate the tight corners in such an historical town, which often leads to the complete blockage of the town for many hours while emergency services attempt to sort out the mess. That is time that the emergency services, particularly the police, could and should use to deal with other issues.
The A257, the Sandwich to Canterbury road, is served by lots of little feeder roads, some barely wide enough for a car. That is just within 10 miles of Dover so, again, it is commonplace to find foreign HGV drivers slavishly following their sat-nav’s guidance after selecting the shortest route option.
My hon. Friend makes the perfect point. I have many residents in Sandwich who are fearful for their property and for their very life, and he raises that problem well.
I would never call myself a luddite, but consulting a good old-fashioned road map always seems to result in greater awareness of my location and how to get to my destination. When using a sat-nav, I am reduced to the state of a compliant zombie, like an automaton at the wheel doing exactly what I am told by the artificial voice from the machine. “Turn left in 300 yards,” and so on. I am sure hon. Members have all felt the same.
I have consulted various retail websites and—this is the important point—HGV-compliant sat-navs are available. For instance, the TomTom Trucker is available at £290, with little obvious difference in screen size or functionality from the car model available for a third of the price. As part of my research before the debate, I consulted a nationwide haulage company, R Swain & Sons. The company’s head office is in north Kent and I know the owner, Mr Bob Swain. He explained the approach taken by his business. He uses no sat-navs at all in his fleet—not one—but he ensures that his drivers are provided with maps and given time to plan their routes before setting out. I know of no instance where one of his lorries has caused such problems.
Of course, it is easy to highlight in Parliament the problems that we face, but I like to come at such problems with potential solutions. In this case, there are six potential solutions. We could implement legislative change to force the use of the right HGV-compliant sat-navs. If we go over and drive in the continent, we face the requirements under French law to carry high-vis jackets, reflective triangles and alcohol breath testers, and we accept those requirements as the rules of that place. I do not propose the mandatory use of sat-navs so that they have to be carried by HGVs, but I suggest that, if they are used at all, they should be compliant and suitable for the vehicle or else face potential forfeiture once found not to be appropriate.
I have encouraged Kent County Council’s highways authority, and I would do the same for all highways authorities, to ensure that maps of Kent that clearly highlight strategic road routes that should be used, and clearly mark the towns and villages that should be avoided, are provided free at ports of entry. With the implementation of an Operation Stack truck-stop solution coming to Kent in due course, providing such maps could serve a useful double purpose. I imagine that advertising sponsorship could be found to defray or cover the costs of such maps.
I would like to see greater use made of the freedoms of the December 2011 road signs measures so that local areas can clearly advise of dangers ahead. As a Government we could encourage data standards for the submission of data by the highways authorities to the mapping companies, because those companies are key. It is frustrating that all the data are known for every road in the country—be it heights, widths or road changes—but they are not being appropriately consolidated and provided to the mapping companies.
I recommend a benchmark standard for the sat-nav manufacturers and software providers to which they should be encouraged to adhere. The benchmark would include—this is the key—a mandatory lorry option across every single device. There is already an option to choose whether one is on foot or in a car, so let us add a mandatory lorry option. That would require manufacturer and software producer buy-in to a voluntary industry code of practice.
I would also like to see a widening of local authorities’ civil powers to levy fines outside of the police’s powers. We have seen a general reluctance among authorities to enforce fines across borders on foreign lorries, as we have seen with Transport for London, the congestion charge, the Dartford crossing and general parking enforcement. It sounds good, but it might not prove as effective as imagined.
I close by highlighting that we face an unprecedented free-for-all in current sat-nav use, with inappropriate devices and software in play across many HGVs—mainly, I am sorry to say, foreign ones. I am not one for draconian legislation, but our towns, villages and historical locations need protection. I would be happy to work with the Department for Transport to find a workable and practical solution and I look forward to the Minister’s comments.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Alan. Again, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet (Craig Mackinlay) on securing this timely debate. I am here because I receive constant email correspondence on the subject, which I regard as one of the biggest issues in my constituency.
In the past couple of weeks, we have had a major incident in Sudbury, a big market town in my constituency, which I will address in a moment. The purpose of my speech is simply to emphasise that there is a problem that we need to address. My hon. Friend has come up with many interesting solutions, and I will not pretend to share his technical expertise, but I will emphasise what is happening in my constituency.
Lavenham is a fine medieval village. I will not be undiplomatic and get into a competition about how it compares with Sandwich, but suffice it to say that they clearly share a great and ancient heritage that is threatened by HGVs. I recently received an email about Lavenham from a chap called Tony Ranzetta, who lives in Water Street—his house dates back to the 15th century and was used in the “Harry Potter” films. He says:
“Along the A1141 as it enters the village of Lavenham, is a unique set of houses, the longest uninterrupted terrace of medieval hall houses in England, followed by one of the hall houses owned by the Earl of Oxford and recently forming much of Godric’s Hollow in the Harry Potter films.”
I do not know the significance of Godric’s Hollow. My wife and daughter are very keen on “Harry Potter.” The email continues:
“The wider issue of the risk to our heritage across the county and the opportunity to use this current issue and the incident in Sudbury as the spur should only be grasped if it leads to the establishment of a county wide approach to diverting heavy goods traffic from ‘heritage’ villages and towns. We need to show a united and strategic front in the face of a problem shared across the county.”
Another resident of Lavenham, Mrs Simonetta Stonehouse, lives in one of the most beautiful houses on the High Street there. She recently wrote to me, saying:
“HGVs travelling through Lavenham High Street mount the pavement outside our house then negotiate the left turning into Water Street. I’m sure you are aware that the Swan Hotel”—
a famous and ancient hotel—
“has been damaged on numerous occasions, our property has also been hit. Houses on Water Street are regularly damaged and not so long ago a car was written off by a six-axle 44-tonne vehicle. It is not only the damage that these vehicles are doing to our medieval village but also the issue of safety to the residents and tourists.”
I was recently in Lavenham and witnessed an HGV of extraordinary proportions—I have never seen a lorry that big—attempting to go down Water Street, which is very narrow, although unfortunately technically an A road, which is part of the problem. The houses on it, including the house to which I referred, are beautiful and ancient. Lorries are scraping past them and tearing them to pieces, and it is incredibly sad to see. That is the heritage of the constituency that I represent, and I have come here to stand up for it and to find a way to protect it. Lavenham is also one of our biggest tourism draws, and I worry about the damage that could be done. Tourists do not come to villages to see massive HGVs go through them. The lorry on that occasion was an articulated lorry, but I am not sure how articulated the driver was.
Another village that is similarly ancient and has the same problem, and which probably creates as much correspondence for me, is Clare, a very pretty village on the Suffolk-Essex border. Only last week, I received the following email from a man called Bob Verguson, who did not know about this debate:
“We, the villages/residents along said A1092 Baythorne End to Long Melford road, require a stop to the 55 feet, 60-ton articulated lorries that are destroying our communities and infrastructure. The only lorries we should see in Clare are those delivering along the A1092 or along local side roads leading off the A1092, this is sadly not the case as approximately 92% of HGVs are passing through without stopping, merely using this road as a short cut…Clare alone has approximately 160 listed buildings”.
There is a pinch point in the village where lorries struggle to get through.
We see it all over the constituency. Nayland is another beautiful village near the Stour with the same problem, as are my two main market towns, Sudbury and Hadleigh. In Hadleigh, the problem is in Benton Street, which is narrow but is the main route by which my constituents access the A12 and Manningtree mainline station in order to get to London or Chelmsford. It has been a long-running problem. We thought that we might have solved it when I got Highways England to put new signage on the A12 to make clear the weight suitability and to say that HGVs should not use that route, but they continue to do so because of sat-nav, which is of course the same thing sending them down inappropriate roads in Lavenham.
I have had an email from a lady called Sue Monks, who lives on Benton Street. She makes a point about safety. In an incident two weeks ago,
“a resident on Benton Street had a car seat she was carrying knocked out of her arms by a passing vehicle whilst on the side of the pavement…Fortunately for her and us all, the seat was not occupied by a child.”
However, she emailed me the following day to confirm that there was a baby in it. Fortunately, it was a car and not an HGV. If it had been an HGV, I suspect that the event would have been tragic.
Finally, in Sudbury, the main market town in the constituency, a recent incident occurred at an intersection in a key retail part of my constituency. A lorry that should never have come down that road attempted the bend, severely damaging the frontage of a retail outlet selling ladies’ fashion. It is fair to say that in a town like that in a rural constituency, such things are a big deal. The incident occurred right next to the site of a major fire last summer, which was probably the biggest incident in my constituency since I was elected. It is demoralising for the town, and people want action to be taken.
I am not naive. I mentioned Harry Potter, but I know that there is no magic wand that can easily solve the problem. I have had frequent meetings with Suffolk County Council. Although we do not have Harry Potter, we have Councillor James Finch, who holds the transport portfolio for Suffolk. He is doing his best for the area. We are constantly considering what can be done, but there is one thing that the county council cannot control: sat-nav. My hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet has hit upon the nub of the problem. He mentioned the TomTom Trucker and other solutions. I would have thought that the industry could come up with a solution, given all the technology available; I am interested to hear from the Minister whether there is anything that the Government can do to force the industry’s hand.
All I can say is that, whatever steps my hon. Friend wants to take to raise the issue and to keep up the pressure—forming action groups or whatever—I will be more than happy to support him. I commend him for securing this debate and hope that we can find a way to keep HGVs out of these beautiful ancient villages and stop them damaging the infrastructure that is key to quality of life for our constituents.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Sir Alan. I congratulate the hon. Member for South Thanet (Craig Mackinlay) on securing this debate. He made an excellent speech covering a wide range of subjects, and I commend him for it.
When the hon. Gentleman apologised for the technical nature of the debate, I started wondering whether I was the right person to sum up on behalf of the Scottish National party, as I am a bit of a technophobe at times. However, it was good to hear about GPS and how all these things come together. He clearly understands the heart of the issue. It is an important constituency matter. I am not very familiar with the local geography of Kent, but when I looked at a map before coming to this debate, I promised myself to get back to the area. It has been a long time since I travelled through there—I was much younger—on my way to continental trips.
In terms of some of the examples that the hon. Gentleman gave, things in my constituency are not quite so intense, because where I come from we obviously do not have that level of traffic or any ports. However, there are some small villages in my constituency with issues involving the HGVs that traverse them, so I can empathise on that basis, although on a much smaller scale. Householders complain about vibrations and say that frequent HGVs loosen manhole covers, which seems trivial but becomes a regular noise issue and an irritant for residents nearby. It is another hidden consequence of heavy traffic that people do not realise. In my area, I have asked for improved signage to keep HGVs on motorways and the dual carriageway network, so we will see where that goes. It is a slightly different matter from sat-nav, but the hon. Gentleman also rightly spoke about signage appropriate for HGVs.
Other hon. Members made some good points as well. The hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake) highlighted how serious the issue is in his constituency, where the average is two incidents a week. The hon. Member for South Suffolk (James Cartlidge) taught me a wee bit more about Harry Potter. Likewise, I do not know much about Harry Potter, but it must be serious when a Harry Potter film set is being damaged. He quoted clear, important personal testimonies about how dangerous and concerning the issue can be for his constituents. He is absolutely right to highlight those. The hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Royston Smith) correctly spoke about the general stress and pressure suffered by his constituents as a consequence of this problem.
The hon. Member for South Thanet correctly spoke about the good and bad uses of sat-nav. If it is used properly, it is generally safer, as drivers are less likely to get lost. Equally, drivers can become too dependent on sat-nav. At one time, it was normal practice to check a map before setting out in order to understand the geography of the route. He cracked a joke about being a Luddite and going back to looking at maps, but there is definitely merit in looking at a map. It made me remember a time when it was commonplace to try to drive, look at signage and look at a map in the passenger seat, which is clearly not the safest means of driving either.
It seems from previous Government consultations and reactions that there has been a reluctance to legislate. I agree with the suggestion about decriminalisation and allowing local authorities to undertake civil penalties, which would allow much greater local control, local signage, local understanding and local action. It would resonate well with constituents, who would understand and who like to see their local representatives taking action.
Another potential issue that I have identified ties in with the high frequency and volume of foreign drivers going through hon. Members’ constituencies due to the international nature of ports. There is a skills gap in the UK HGV industry at the moment. The industry estimates there is a shortfall of some 50,000 drivers. If the skills gaps are not being filled in this country, that will result in the roads being used even more frequently by drivers less familiar with the geography.
It is interesting to hear foreign drivers and sat-navs talked about, although it is not all about sat-nav, as it happens. We in Southampton had to put in an engineered solution to prevent HGVs from going through a residential area. We had an expensive traffic regulation order and an expensive engineered solution, and within a couple of months a foreign driver following a sat-nav got stuck in the engineered solution that was there to prevent him going into the road. Is that something that the hon. Gentleman recognises?
It is not something that I have personal experience of, but it ties in with the points made by the hon. Member for South Thanet about the need to update the technology, to share data and perhaps to make it mandatory not to use out-of-date equipment. If someone is caught using out-of-date equipment or non-HGV-compliant equipment, it could be taken away, and that would solve the problem that the hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen has identified.
I mentioned the shortage of skills in the HGV industry. Perhaps the Government could subsidise a training course and help to fill the skills shortage in the UK. I think that would lead to safer driving as well.
Again, I commend the hon. Member for South Thanet for securing this debate, which has been excellent. He has identified solutions to the problems, which is commendable because it is too easy to identify a problem but not advise how to address it. Given that not much seems to have happened on the back of previous Government consultations, which we are now some years on from, I urge the Minister to consider the sensible recommendations that could lead to substantial improvements.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Alan. I add my congratulations to the hon. Member for South Thanet (Craig Mackinlay) on securing this important debate. Before I address the points that have been made, it is worth recording that our thoughts are with the people of Brussels today. The security services have been bracing themselves for such an event—I guess all of us have—but when it does happen, it does not shock or affect us any less. This is a debate about transport and how we get about, and it is significant that today’s attack was about hitting the ways in which we get about. It was about hitting airports, metro stations, people trying to get to work, and people trying to see friends and families. We must have resolve, because it is no accident that terror tries to hit our ability to see each other, which is vital to society’s functioning. That is why terrorists must not succeed.
To return to the subject of today’s debate, the hon. Gentleman made some excellent points. He showed that he has a knowledge that well surpasses mine about, as he described it, the wizardry involved in GPS and other satellite navigation systems. Not only is he familiar with the high-tech end of it, but he was able to use the word “map”, which we do not do enough.
Other hon. Members made important points about the impact on their constituencies. The hon. Member for South Suffolk (James Cartlidge) mentioned something that I did not know about; he said that the problem has actually affected a Harry Potter set. If that is the case, it is certainly serious. The hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown) also made some really important points. I welcome the Minister to the debate. I know roads are not her normal area of responsibility, but I have no doubt that she will respond to the debate in detail. I have a sneaking suspicion that she might even say something about how this problem affects her own constituency.
Our freight and logistics sector keeps the shelves in our shops stocked, and, in a literal sense, drives economic growth. Our lorry drivers in particular deserve to be commended for that. There are not many other occupations in which someone’s place of work means they are unclear about where they are going to get their next meal, where they will next sleep, and even when they will next get to use the toilet. We have heard today about the chaos that has been caused in Sandwich and in other parts of the country, often due to the inappropriate use of the wrong kind of GPS systems, which can have far-reaching consequences not only in the south-east but across the country. The problem not only puts the health, welfare and safety of drivers at risk but, as we have heard, can be a blight on the lives of residents in urban and non-urban areas alike, on the experience of other road users and on businesses.
The problem reflects the much wider challenge of better connecting our roads and vehicles using technology. Technology and innovation are important keys to better, smarter, greener motoring and road transport. To achieve that, we have to get the system working together far better than it is at the moment through information sharing, and enforcement has a role too. We need to consider the wider factors that contribute to congestion everywhere. I will come on to the factors that specifically affect South Thanet and Kent.
We are talking now about sat-navs in HGVs, but eventually we will have driverless cars. That is the way we are going. All vehicles will depend on sat-navs, so does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is really important to sort this out sooner rather than later?
The hon. Gentleman makes a really important point. I say that with my other hat on, because as well as being shadow Transport Minister, I chair the all-party motor group. The expansion of technology in the automotive industry has made us talk about the extent to which information systems are attached to motor vehicles, but given the way things are now moving, it might be more accurate to talk about motor vehicles being attached to information systems. That could apply to other modes of transport as well.
Technology is certainly changing the game as far as safety standards in the freight sector are concerned. The quality of bespoke HGV sat-navs, where they are used, offers everything from digital route shaping and traffic updates to active lane guidance and HGV-tailored road information. That is a good thing, but given the sheer volume of HGV traffic passing through places such as Sandwich, it is clear that top-of-the-range HGV-specific sat-navs can be really important. The hon. Member for South Thanet was right to pay tribute to the Freight Transport Association for promoting the use of such systems, but not enough drivers rely on such equipment. Too many HGV firms and drivers rely on generic sat-navs or free-to-use options.
It is important that Ministers consider the extent to which drivers take up bespoke sat-navs and what can be done about that. As the hon. Gentleman said, there was a sat-nav summit in 2012—I cannot remember the name of it, but he mentioned it—and it was not clear what flowed from that. I am concerned about the apparent absence of objective targets or a means of assessing the take-up of bespoke systems, which makes it difficult to track progress. It will be important to work with sat-nav manufacturers and the other technical companies involved to improve the accuracy of all the systems on the market. That was started in 2006 under the previous Government, as I think he mentioned, but progress has not been as fast as it should have been and certainly has not kept pace with the technology.
As the hon. Gentleman said, lobbying for better data sharing with manufacturers was included in Kent County Council’s freight action plan of 2012. I have a question for the Minister about that. What are the Department and Highways England doing to support local authorities in their communications with mapping and technology companies, to ensure that lorry-appropriate routes are better ingrained in as many sat-navs as possible—hopefully in all of them? With better information on all map applications, we will go some way towards improving the spread of knowledge.
We also need to look at some of the wider factors that I have referred to. Highways England must play a leading role in promoting joined-up thinking between local authorities, the emergency services and others. Unfortunately, recent incidents on the M5 and M6, where there were avoidably long closures of the whole road, show that things are not up to scratch in that respect at the moment. Without such strong partnership working and live information sharing through road signage, HGV drivers will inevitably make their own decisions, including about diversions.
A second question for the Minister, therefore, is what lessons her Department has taken from recent motorway closures about improving live traffic updates and the management of such incidents. I ask that because of a worrying response that I received to a recent parliamentary question, from which it appears that only half of all local authorities have a major incidents contingency plan in place with Highways England, a year on from its establishment. Surely sorting that out should be one of its priorities. Can the Minister get to the bottom of that, or ask her departmental colleagues to do so? Will they also find out why in so many places a course of action has still not been established for managing HGV traffic and other road users in the event of a motorway closure?
It is important for local authorities to have plans, but also that they should have the resources to enforce them. In a written answer last July the Under-Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Andrew Jones), made it clear that all other traffic management policies, including issues to do with HGVs and sat-nav devices,
“are the responsibility of local traffic authorities”
and the police. Does the Minister share my view that following last week’s critical Select Committee on Transport report on road traffic law enforcement, there is a need to think again about that approach? The report found that the reduction in the number of offences being recorded does not represent a reduction in the number that are actually being committed, and that if enforcement of road traffic laws is to be effective, the decline in the number of specialist road policing officers must be halted. I look forward to the Government’s response to that report.
Concerns about traffic enforcement bring me back to the specific enforcement issues and other factors that affect the south-east and Kent. During a recent visit to talk to businesses in Kent, I heard at first hand about the traffic chaos that accompanied 32 days of Operation Stack last year. It was made clear to me that support and assistance from central Government are essential. That echoed what the Opposition have been saying consistently: this is not just an issue for local authorities, the police and others in Kent. Keeping the roads clear through Kent is an issue of national importance, and the Government’s preparations should reflect that.
I was therefore astonished to read late last week a written answer from the Department for Transport confirming that the Home Office will not provide any additional funding to avert a repetition this year of last year’s chaos. That is despite the fact that the police and crime commissioner for Kent stated in a press release in August that the Government had given her assurances that funding would be available. My question to the Minister—if she does not have the answer today, perhaps she will ask her colleague the Roads Minister to write to me—is whether the PCC for Kent was wrong about the assurances she said she was given in August, or whether that was a broken Government promise.
The situation certainly does not bode well for this year. Ministers have not satisfied anyone about what they are doing in the short term to prevent a repetition this year of last year’s scenes. There are plans for lorry parks and for improvements to slip roads at junction 10a, but they will not help this year. They are for future years. Without additional central Government assistance, it seems that the region is being left to handle congestion on its own. It cannot be said that last year was exceptional. HGVs are already being turned away from existing lorry parks, so how likely is it that the effect will be drivers rerouting back along roads and parking at inappropriate places? I asked the Roads Minister about his action plan for that in Transport questions recently, and I did not get any clear answers.
That issue is relevant to the debate, because the key point is how we ensure that traffic keeps moving through Kent. What is the Department doing to ensure that all road users, particularly HGV drivers arriving at cross-channel ports, know where to find the live traffic information they need, particularly at times of major snarl-ups such as the summer months? If there is a particular problem with drivers coming in from across the channel, how is the Department working with other countries, and road haulage companies in those countries, to make sure that all HGV drivers know of the routing restrictions in the south-east? How can technology be used to assist in that process as quickly as possible? Is Highways England reviewing again any short-term management techniques such as contraflow, with more notice for people to prepare, so that safety concerns can be addressed? Have the Department and Highways England talked to ferry companies about making the best use of their capacity in the event of lengthy episodes of congestion?
It is clear that the GPS problem that the hon. Member for South Thanet has rightly raised today exists not only in his area but throughout the country. It is an important issue that ties in closely with fundamental questions about the Government’s wider policies on HGVs and traffic management. They have serious questions to answer about technology and about how they can get hold of the problem. How can they expect existing laws and rules to be enforced if local authorities and the police do not have the necessary resources? How proactively will they promote the partnership working between local authorities, the police and the private sector that all hon. Members know is vital, particularly when we know that even on the issue of major incident contingency plans, Highways England has not yet reached agreement with more than half of the local authorities involved? There are serious questions to answer about the specific factors of congestion in the south-east that I have mentioned today, but there are wider issues as well, and I hope that the Minister will clarify some of them. Doing nothing is clearly not an option.
It is as always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Alan. I associate myself with the remarks of the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden) about what has shocked many of us in the transport world today. I happened to be giving a speech to a delegation from the Chinese airport authorities as the news came through, and it focused us once again on the issue of security. We are all vulnerable, across the country, and I pride myself on the work that our police forces, special forces and citizens do in keeping us safe. I know our thoughts and prayers are with those affected today.
My goodness, Sir Alan; we might have thought this would be a very dry debate, going by the title, but we have heard all sorts of things. We have heard an expert description of the GPS service, for which I am grateful. We have learned that the original barbican is actually in Sandwich. We have heard about the village of Clare—I feel a visit coming on; Claire for Clare strikes me as very exciting. We have heard about Godric’s Hollow and about TomTom Truckers, which sounds to some of us like a rather unsavoury form of specialty video, but there we are. It has been an interesting and informative debate, and I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet (Craig Mackinlay) for doing his research and bringing in so many interesting points.
The SNP spokesman, the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown), showed up well briefed as always. I appreciated his comments about looking at maps. The shadow spokesman, the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield, knows the subject of the debate inside out, but I was the Minister responsible for road freight in the previous Parliament, so I have some knowledge of the sector. Indeed, I was very proud of the work that we did in trying to reduce some of the burden of red tape on an industry that is, as he said, absolutely vital to the smooth running of the economy. It is a logistics sector in which we lead the world in many ways. As my hon. Friends will know, these are often small businesses with slim margins, and anything we can do to make them run more effectively is important.
As my hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet pointed out, satellite navigation is becoming a ubiquity in our transport journeys. It is a defining innovation; we are all very reliant upon it. It allows people to move around much more easily and much more effectively. Indeed, according to the AA, drivers using sat-nav travel 16% fewer miles and spend 18% less time at the wheel than drivers without such systems.
I, on the other hand, have a sneaking sympathy for what the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun talked about. I like to get out my maps, plot the cross-country journeys and actually work out which way is north. That is not just because I was a geography student at university. Britain led the world in map making and mapping different continents, and it is a skill that we must not lose. As my hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen (Royston Smith) pointed out, with technological innovations such as driverless vehicles and HGV platooning, there is a chance that the whole system will become dependent on the accuracy of the information being put into such systems and that makes the issue that we are debating even more important.
Although we directly associate satellite navigation with in-vehicle driving guidance, of course there are enormous applications in terms of aviation, fleet management and logistics. Indeed, on the railway, the use of GPS technology, both for managing train movements and for providing more information to customers, is an area of extraordinary innovation.
I turn now to some of the questions around sat-navs, HGVs and what the Government have been thinking and doing. It is in no one’s interest for HGV drivers to make the wrong decision or to rely on inaccurate information. We heard tellingly and powerfully this afternoon what happens when things go wrong: tight corners; historic houses; and congestion. We have all seen the jack-knifed lorry that tried to get through the tight road bridge. Indeed, in my own constituency, we had an almost tragic incident when a large lorry tried to get across a bridge and knocked a piece of masonry on to the mainline track between London and the west country. It was only because of a lot of very quick thinking on behalf of the train crew that an accident was avoided.
Consequently, we have been very assiduous in this area, particularly in linking freight associations, local authorities and sat-nav companies to ensure that responsible HGV drivers are aware of the issue and have the latest information available to them. Indeed, properly equipped lorry drivers now have the tools to avoid low bridges and narrow lanes, and of course that saves them fuel, time and money. No lorry driver wants to be sitting there blocking a village street; that is not a pleasant experience for anyone. Therefore, as we have heard, there are specialist sat-navs that assist.
Neither central Government nor individual local authorities have direct powers over the routing of sat-nav devices, but sat-nav companies and users can help to ensure that they have appropriate routes by ensuring that their device maps are up to date. I confess that my hybrid vehicle had an in-dashboard sat-nav and I do not think that I ever once updated the maps. I hold my hand up in shame now as I say that. That was, of course, before my ministerial career and making that admission might actually be the end of it. There is an element of personal responsibility and indeed corporate responsibility to make sure that the maps are up to date.
Of course, the routing guidance is only ever advisory. Motorists, including HGV drivers, are responsible for determining the best route for their journey and for determining whether there are appropriate road conditions, even if a route is signposted as being appropriate and open. Drivers are responsible, of course, for ensuring that they follow routes that are legal—that they do not breach height or weight limits, which are set and enforced by local highway authorities and the police.
I have some sympathy—again, based on the experience of my own constituency—about the ping-pong there can be between a local authority and the highways agency as to who is responsible for signage on a particular road and the consequences of re-signing a particular road, which may push congestion over the border into another constituency or on to other roads that are less suitable, so it is not a trivial exercise to get the signage right. Clearly, however, when it is done, it can work.
What we must not ignore is the ability of GPS data to provide such an enormous level of innovation, both in transport and logistics, and in society in general. On trying to mandate specific technologies, such as commercial sat-navs or other route guidance systems, that is difficult. In my view, the heavy hand of Government mandating anything in the technological space tends to act as a drag on innovation, and by the time we have tried to solve one problem the world has moved on and we are all using entirely different systems or devices. My hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet referred to other competing global systems that may well be operational within the next few years and it would be a difficult process then to start that conversation with those specific road users.
The Government still believe that the private sector remains best placed to develop new products and services, and the market—sensibly regulated—should determine whether those succeed. However, I also want to pay tribute to organisations such as the Freight Transport Association, because there are very responsible industry bodies out there that work with Government and local authorities and that are absolutely committed to making sure that their members are using the most appropriate systems. It is important that we continue to improve those communications and that co-operation to ensure that everyone is using the right technology and equipment.
There is an Act—the Traffic Signs Regulations and General Directions Act 2002—that equips highway authorities to apply warnings and restrictions to the parts of the local network that they manage where they feel it is appropriate for HGVs to avoid using inappropriate routes. As I have mentioned, that can be a complicated exercise, but it is important. One of the things that the last Government were proud of doing was making it easier for local communities to do things such as applying particular speed limits and putting up signage to give communities the ability to manage their road conditions more appropriately.
There is more work happening. The Government are taking direct action now to improve the quality and sharing of transport data; £3 million has been dedicated to create a digital road map that will enable better data sharing between local authorities and service providers. The map is being developed by the Ordnance Survey and it will be launched later this year. It will include information such as road widths, traffic calming measures, and height and weight restrictions, which could then be linked to other public sector data sets, such as planned road works and cycle paths.
Unlike some of the Ordnance Survey data in the past, I believe that this will be open data, so it can be taken up by the various providers of information to the mapping companies, as my hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet pointed out. It is a really important step forward to take Ordnance Survey data, which is of very high quality, and to put it on to the existing digital maps, which in some cases are not of particularly high quality or not particularly detailed about local conditions. I think that this has big potential to improve the quality and accuracy of the routing advice offered by sat-navs, as well as to cut bureaucracy.
Obviously, I agree with the Minister about not wanting to regulate if we do not need to, and I am aware of the point about signs. However, my experience is that signs often do not work with HGVs. If, as the years progress, we continue to have these problems, if the signage is not stopping them and if we have these villages and areas that are being damaged by HGVs that, if you like, are abusing routes because of sat-nav, do the Government have any power to intervene with sat-nav companies to try to ensure that they can guide lorries on to the correct routes?
I do not believe that we have the statutory power to do so currently. Again, this is one of those slightly concerning paths down which to go, but I can certainly look to see whether anything has ever been proposed for the statute book on that basis. We talk about technology, but it is not in anyone’s interests, including those of a fleet manager, to have an HGV trying to force itself down a road. It will be entirely obvious if an HGV is trying to do that long before the problem arises and any responsible fleet manager would then communicate with that driver and say, “Where do you think you’re going? This is absolutely not appropriate.” Again, I think that we need to use the technology as the solution to some of these issues, while recognising the problems related to the technology.
The Minister is right that there is no easy or off-the-shelf solution to this problem, but it seems to me that the hon. Member for South Suffolk (James Cartlidge) made an important point that is worth considering. While it may not be appropriate to make the use of satellite navigation systems mandatory inside HGVs, if HGVs have a system in operation, should they not be required to have one that is fit for purpose, so that this becomes a compliance issue to do with having the right kind of system, rather than making it mandatory to have a system in the first place?
The hon. Gentleman’s points are often very sensible but, in my mind, they can also often lead to a sort of slightly dystopian world of lots of checks and balances, with organisations set up to do in-cab checks, and that is entirely what we do not want to deliver. What we want is an industry that believes in being responsible and has the tools to do so.
The point my hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet made about having a little lorry symbol come up, in the same way as a car, or in my case a bicycle, symbol comes up is brilliant. The new technology—the open mapping system—will enable that. What I have instructed my officials to do—rather cheekily, as they no longer work directly for me—is to ensure that the Freight Transport Association and other bodies are given every opportunity to see the mapping process, consider how they might use it and exercise their powers to make recommendations—as has been mentioned, they have a recommended list of sat-navs. I would like them to be involved and, indeed, that offer applies cross-party to any hon. Member here—it is open to anyone who wants to see the information and be involved. This is a really important step forward in solving many of the problems about which we are all concerned.
It does not stop there. The road investment strategy sets out, finally, a long-term investment strategy for roads. That is so important. It includes a £150 million ring-fenced innovation fund that enables Highways England to develop technologies, including sat-nav, and approaches for a smoother, smarter and more sustainable road network. There is an element of driverless and co-operative vehicle technologies, and of improving the information and data that help drivers to plan their journeys.
The hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield made a fair point about what happens when roads are closed. I think that we were all surprised by what happened. With my rail hat on I can say that any delays like the ones he mentioned would have led to outrage among rail passengers across the country and demands for compensation. Somehow, we often accept that roads are closed, and there are lessons to be learned perhaps from other parts of the infrastructure.
A traffic information strategy developed by Highways England was published in January 2016. It sets out how the agency will work more closely with local authorities to integrate journey planning across the network and improve communications. I am aware, of course, that the Office of Rail Regulation now includes an element of road regulation and I would like to ask my officials to check whether the duty to inform—the duty to work with local authorities—is part of the office’s statutory powers.
The Highways England strategy also focuses on further development of the Traffic England website as a trusted source of information for road users in planning their journeys, and on sharing data from the National Traffic Operations Centre so that there is real-time information.
In conclusion, this debate is fascinatingly important and relevant to us all, in all our constituencies no matter where they are. I hope that some of my points have reassured my hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet that the Government are absolutely committed to working more closely with the private sector and that there is real money backing that commitment. I invite all hon. Members to review the £3 million digital road map when it is perhaps in beta format, to see how we could encourage road haulage associations in our constituencies to take advantage of the new technology.
I am delighted to respond to that. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. We had an influx of HGV drivers from other parts of the world and many of them returned there when the economy turned down. It has, therefore, been a challenge to recruit and retain drivers. There is ongoing work into what could be done to make the cost of training more acceptable, for example. As the only lady in the room who represents a constituency, may I say that women do not want to be long-distance drivers partly because some of the rest facilities are absolutely atrocious? I have encouraged many HGV companies to realise—indeed the responsible ones do—that there is an enormous talent pool of people out there, for whom long-distance driving could be an appropriate career but who will not do it if they have to relieve themselves behind a bush at a rest stop. Raising the terms and conditions and working practices of many parts of the industry could attract non-traditional drivers to what is an important and growing part of the British economy.
I thank you, Sir Alan, for your excellent chairmanship. It would have been nice to have a few more Members with us, but there is activity elsewhere. It would be stretching it to think that I will speak for a further 15 minutes—I will not delay Members for that long—but I will make some comments about the excellent contributions made.
My hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk (James Cartlidge) laid out very well the damage to the fabric of our great nation that we face from many HGVs being inappropriately used. My hon. Friend the Member for High Peak (Andrew Bingham) added a road safety dimension to the debate. Road safety is key, particularly at peak times when children are out of school. My hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen (Royston Smith) mentioned that, even though we do substantial road improvements or have restrictions in order to do engineered solutions, those are overcome by the automaton-like, slavish adherence to the voice that comes out of the machine—I think we are all prone to that.
I am grateful that the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown) took part in the debate. I am not sure whether the shortage of drivers in the UK is relevant to the core of the debate, but we do have a shortage of available drivers as the HGV industry in this country is growing at all times and the volume of HGV traffic is only increasing. That gets to the heart of why the problem we face with sat-nav use is so relevant. I very much thank the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden), who brought to the debate a high level of knowledge about various aspects of the road industry.
Turning to my hon. Friend the Minister, I was very encouraged that there was an area I did not know about. I go away with some additional technical knowledge, that Ordnance Survey is spending £3 million on open source mapping, which could be vital to further improving the quality of data available to mapping companies. Underneath all of the systems, no matter whether they are nomadic or on personal digital assistants or smartphones, is the fundamental map data.
My hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen mentioned the potential for driverless cars, which are much in the news. I would not like to think about how driverless HGVs in Sandwich might get on—we will come to that, perhaps, in 10 years’ time. I think that we stand here today in awe of some of the technology that we do not really understand but regularly use, and on the concept of driverless cars, we can foresee the potential for companies going across every road, accumulating data such as widths and heights, and then feeding it back almost immediately into a database system and updating maps almost in real time.
I understand the concerns about more overbearing legislation. I am not for that; markets can decide things effectively and rather more rapidly that Governments. But the plea, I think, from the Chamber this afternoon to the manufacturers of the nomadic devices and the software is that they please put on that little lorry symbol. I realise that that would be a commercial decision, because the same machine for HGV use is often sold for three times the price, but it would solve, at a stroke, many of the problems. We understand that no HGV driver wants to be caught down that small road or to be hitting that bridge or historic building—that is a given—and that additional button could relieve many of the problems.
I thank hon. Members for taking part in the debate, and I thank you, Sir Alan, for your forbearance.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered GPS satellite navigation and heavy goods vehicles.
Daesh: Persecution of Christians
[Sir Edward Leigh in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered persecution of Christians and other religious minorities under Daesh.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. May I clarify the subject of the debate? The wording I applied for was “Genocide under Daesh of Christians and other religious minorities”. It is regrettable that, without any discussion with me, the motion was changed, although I understand it was not changed by the Speaker’s office. I shall say no more about the motion, except to clarify that the violence of ISIL, or Daesh, as we now call it, rages against a number of minority religious groups in addition to Christians, including the Yazidis and minority Muslim groups. Space prohibited me from referring to them by name in the motion.
The 1948 UN convention on genocide makes it clear that genocide is the systematic killing or serious harming of people because they are part of a recognisable group. The specific legal meaning of genocide is
“acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group”.
The convention specifies certain actions that can contribute to genocide, such as killing, forcible transfer, preventing births and causing serious bodily or mental harm.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on bringing this matter to Westminster Hall for consideration. It is a massive subject that warrants a 90-minute debate, and I am disappointed that it was not allocated one. Nevertheless, we have half an hour. I know that the hon. Lady, along with others present, shares my concern that Christians are given the ultimatum: “convert or die”. It is a choice between continuing to have religious beliefs and leaving the country or dying. Genocide is the only word we can use for that.
The hon. Gentleman makes a powerful point and is quite right. As I stand here today, religious minorities are suffering horrendous atrocities at the hands of this murderous cult in Syria, Iraq and the other countries of the middle east where Daesh has a strong presence. The number of Christians in Iraq has reduced from 1.4 million to just over a quarter of a million in just a few years. The Bishop of Aleppo said this week that two thirds of Syrian Christians have been either killed or driven away from his country.
Acts committed by ISIS against Christians include the assassination of church leaders, mass murders, torture, kidnapping for ransom, sexual enslavement, systematic rape, forced conversions and the destruction of churches. We know about the mass graves of the Yazidis, and about crucifixions, forced marriages and the kidnapping of women and girls, some of them as young as eight, many of them raped mercilessly, month after month, until their bodies are in tatters. We know about children being beheaded in front of their families for refusing to convert.
The hon. Lady is being very gracious in giving way. Before the debate, I asked her if I could intervene to say that the Yazidis in particular have been reduced from 500,000 to 200,000 in Iraq. Nobody in the west put out their hand to help or assist, as they should have. The Yazidis have been in the Kurdish camps along the borders of Syria, Iraq and Turkey. They are a small group who have been persecuted, pursued and discriminated against, and their ethnic and religious freedoms have been abused. Perhaps the Minister could respond to that point as well.
Again, the hon. Gentleman makes a strong point.
We are sometimes at risk of being desensitised by the horrors under Daesh. They are so extreme that their evil seems almost fictional. But for those who are suffering—people who lived lives like us just a short time ago—they are very real.
Surely one thing is becoming increasingly clear. Bearing in mind the definition of genocide to which I referred a moment ago, can anyone now seriously doubt that Daesh’s actions are genocidal? Nor, surely, can anyone seriously doubt that Daesh is trying to destroy minorities such as the Yazidis, in the words of the convention,
“in whole or in part”.
As Bishop Angaelos, a general bishop of the Coptic Orthodox Church in the United Kingdom, has said:
“How can we not declare Genocide if Christians are suffering the same fate, at the same time, under the same conditions, at the hands of the same perpetrators?”
The entire population of Christians in the city of Mosul in Iraq, all 60,000 of them, have been effectively eradicated by Daesh—gone, fled or dead.
Daesh’s intentions in perpetrating its violence are a matter of record, as reports have made clear repeatedly. It regularly makes public statements of a genocidal nature, such as the following message, which was broadcast on its Al-Bayan radio station:
“We say to the defenders of the cross, that future attacks are going to be harsher and worse...The Islamic State soldiers will inflict harm on you with the grace of Allah. The future is just around the corner.”
As the US Secretary of State said just last week, after a unanimous vote by the House of Representatives to declare a genocide by 393 votes to none:
“Daesh is genocidal by self-proclamation, by ideology, and by actions—in what it says, what it believes, and what it does…The fact is that Daesh kills Christians because they are Christians; Yezidis because they are Yezidis; Shia because they are Shia.”
I submit that the legal criteria for genocide have been amply satisfied. Not only have the US Government now said so, but so have the European Parliament, the Council of Europe, the Pope, the US Congress, the International Association of Genocide Scholars, and 75 Members of both Houses of Parliament when we wrote to the Prime Minister, including the former chief of staff and former head of MI5. A group of leading QC peers also recently wrote to the Prime Minister on this issue. All agree that the crimes of Daesh are genocide.
Why is it so important that we, as Members of Parliament, also collectively define these crimes as genocide? Because doing so would be more than mere verbiage—more than mere words. It would bring into play a whole series of mechanisms that can strengthen the response of the international community to challenge this evil force. The convention on genocide is clear that such a declaration brings with it obligations to prevent, protect and punish. I suggest that our making such a declaration would challenge the 147 countries that are party to the convention to step up and act on their obligations to help to prevent further atrocities, to protect those who are suffering, and to work towards punishing the perpetrators.
I thank the hon. Lady for giving way again. She has outlined clearly the need for us to have this debate. It is an opportunity for us to speak out on behalf of our Christian brothers and sisters throughout the whole world who have been persecuted because of their beliefs. We have the chance to be a voice for the voiceless. I congratulate the hon. Lady again on bringing this debate to Westminster Hall for our consideration.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for securing this important debate. Before I heard the start of her speech, I did not know the original wording of her motion. May I press her to submit the motion again and, as the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) said, request more time for the debate and possibly a vote in the Chamber? I, too, was a signatory to a letter to the Prime Minister on this subject, and I think there are many more parliamentarians who would welcome the opportunity to debate it at length and to vote on it.
My hon. Friend pre-empts me. He is absolutely right. I suggest that such a motion should be worded in the following way: “That this House believe that religious minorities in the middle east are suffering genocide.” Crucially, that would mean that those who have participated in such vile crimes would know that they face justice and the full weight of genocide law when they are tried before the International Criminal Court. Must the relevant conflicts end before we work to bring to justice those who are responsible for these terrible atrocities? How long will that be? How much of the evidence will have disappeared? How many of the witnesses will have gone?
The international community’s record is not strong on this issue. Our incumbent Foreign Secretary and the previous Foreign Secretary have both lamented on the record the international community’s response to previous genocidal suffering. In 2015, the Foreign Secretary said that
“the memory of what happened in Srebrenica leaves the international community with obligations that extend well beyond the region…It demands that we all try to understand why those who placed their hope in the international community on the eve of genocide found it dashed.”
On the 20th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide, William Hague, then Foreign Secretary, said:
“The truth is that our ability to prevent conflict is still hampered by a gap between the commitments states have made and the reality of their actions.”
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. She talked about waiting until the end of the conflict. On 17 December 1942, the then Foreign Secretary made clear in the House what Britain’s attitude would be at the end of hostilities to those who had committed the massacre of the Jews in Europe. Does my hon. Friend think that a similar statement today of what the international community’s attitude will be at the conclusion of hostilities to those who are committing genocide in the middle east would be welcome?
Indeed I do.
We must learn the lessons of the past. It is right that the international community should shoulder a burden of guilt for failing the victims in Rwanda. Those of us who have been to Rwanda a number of times know how many people still suffer as a result of our failure to act promptly then. Let us act now and be bold enough to call this genocide what it is. Let us avoid the regret that so many now feel about that past failure and not acting more promptly to go to the aid of those who suffered so severely in Rwanda in the early 1990s.
What has been our response to the middle eastern genocide perpetrated by Daesh to date? In the time I have left, I want to talk about the Government’s response, as I understand it—the Minister may correct me. I believe that the Government say that they have a long-standing policy that any judgments on whether genocide has occurred are a matter for the international judicial system. Their approach appears to be to refrain from expressing an opinion on whether genocide has occurred until the international judicial system makes such a declaration. However, why can Parliament not make a declaration?
I respectfully suggest to the Minister that there are perhaps four reasons—probably more—why the Government should reconsider their approach. First, I find it remarkable that the UK is willing to declare itself not competent to judge whether the conditions for genocide, which I have described, have been met, particularly in a case as clear as this. If the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, the US Government and the European Parliament, none of which are judicial bodies, can declare a genocide, why cannot we?
Secondly, as I understand it, the Government have previously been willing to express their view on genocides that neither the UN nor the International Criminal Court have ruled upon, such as the case of Cambodia. Thirdly, the Government’s approach is frustratingly circular. We are told that nothing can be done until the ICC or the UN declares genocide, but historically neither have been willing to do so without international pressure. This is potentially a recipe for doing nothing. I know that the Minister is an extremely genuine person and is deeply concerned about matters of justice of this nature, but is it acceptable for this country to effectively risk doing nothing on this particular issue of declaring genocide—I am sure that is not true elsewhere—when we sincerely wish to pursue an ethical foreign policy?
Fourthly, and perhaps most importantly, we have a moral duty to speak out and do what we can for the religious minorities that, even now, are being horribly persecuted at the brutal hands of Daesh. Staying silent in the face of such evil is not an option.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this important debate. What she says about silence is important. The way that Christians, Yazidis and other minorities are being targeted in the areas controlled by Daesh is appalling. I hear a lot about it from my constituents, but I do not hear about it more widely than that. Encouraging further discussions in this House would help to raise awareness of the persecution of Christians and other minorities.
I thank the hon. Lady for that comment. The issue certainly needs much closer attention in this place and more broadly in our country. The dignity of the people who are suffering so horribly cries out for it.
I want to digress for a moment, to refer to an announcement that was made in the House last Wednesday. The Minister may be able to assist us by clarifying it. Many Members were left with the impression that only states can commit genocide. I have the greatest respect for the Minister of State, Department for International Development, my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest West (Mr Swayne), and I have no doubt that he gave that response with total sincerity, but will the Minister responding to today’s debate clarify the advice that he was given? As I understand it—I stand to be corrected—all that is needed for a non-state party to be found guilty of genocide is for the UN Security Council to confer jurisdiction on the ICC, and for the ICC to agree that a genocide is taking place. That cannot happen without lobbying from our Government, so we should press the UN Security Council to take action accordingly.
An amendment to the Immigration Bill was introduced yesterday in another place. If passed, it would have presumed that victims of genocide meet certain conditions for asylum in the UK, and it would have put that determination in the hands of a High Court judge. I watched that debate, after which the amendment was narrowly defeated late last night. Although some of the contributors had reservations about its wording, which I believe is why they felt they could not support it, the support for it was much wider than the vote reflected on the principle that we need to call these atrocities what they are: genocide.
I am focusing on that narrow point today. I seek support for a motion to be introduced in the terms that I referred to—“That this House believe that religious minorities in the middle east are suffering genocide.” That would enable us to refer the matter to the UN, so that the International Criminal Court could proceed with examining what is happening in the middle east.
In the debate in the other place last night, the Minister responding to the debate proposed that
“the appropriate way forward would be to consider a Motion of this House, directed to Her Majesty’s Government as to how they should address or not address the issues that pertain here with regard to whether there has been genocide.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 21 March 2016; Vol. 769, c. 2177.]
If my understanding that such a motion could be brought before the House is correct, will the Minister consider whether it would be appropriate for the Government to bring it forward? As he knows, such a motion introduced by a Back Bencher would have little chance of being considered by the House in the immediate future. Will the Minister consider whether the Government should introduce such a motion and arrange for a vote on this issue? If I understood the Minister in the other place correctly, the Government proposed that amicable solution. May I now press for it to be made possible?
Will the Minister confirm that we should be pushing for international recognition of, and action against, these unspeakable crimes, and for them to be declared as genocide? We can and should express an opinion, so that we can lead the charge at the international level and bring those who are committing such atrocious evils to justice.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today, Sir Edward. Before I respond to this important debate, may I take a minute to bring the House up to date with events in Brussels today?
An appalling and savage terrorist attack took place earlier today. The Prime Minister has spoken to the Prime Minister of Belgium to give our sympathies and condolences to the Belgian people. We stand with them at this very difficult time. We are in close contact with the authorities in Brussels, and embassy staff are assisting one injured Briton. We are ready to support any further British nationals who may have been affected. We are aware of reports that Daesh has claimed responsibility. Obviously, along with the international community, we are investigating such reports, but at the moment we cannot confirm anything. Cobra met this morning, and there will be further meetings tomorrow.
I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce), whose debate I welcome, that 30 minutes does not do justice to this subject. It is not enough time to say what I would like to say—I can already see that I have only nine minutes left, and even complaining about the amount of time available is wasting more time in which I should be getting on to the issues—[Interruption.] I am already being heckled from a sedentary position.
I thank my hon. Friend for raising the issue. I am sorry to hear that the wording of her motion was altered. I am not aware that it had anything to do with us—I do not think we have that privilege, or I am sure that I would change many motions, although not in this case. I congratulate her on securing this important debate. No one can fail to be moved by the harrowing stories of Daesh’s brutality and the way in which Christians, Yazidis and others have been singled out for persecution, and I pay tribute to both Government and Opposition Members who have campaigned so hard to ensure that minority voices are heard in the fight against Daesh.
In the middle east, we are now witnessing systematic and horrific attacks against Christians and others on the basis of their religion, beliefs or ethnicity. Tragically, the very survival of communities that have existed peacefully in the region for centuries is now at risk. Members on both sides of the House are united in our condemnation of Daesh’s inhumane treatment of minorities. It is also right that we condemn Daesh’s equally brutal treatment of the majority Muslim population in Iraq and Syria.
Today, we have heard appalling examples of Daesh’s abuses. The Government want to see accountability for those abuses and have supported efforts to document them. The UK co-sponsored the Human Rights Council resolution mandating the investigation of Daesh abuses, which were also recorded and condemned in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s 2014 human rights and democracy report. We will do the same in the 2015 report, which is to be published in April. The Government are directly funding training for Syrian activists to document abuses to a standard suitable for criminal prosecution. I pay tribute to those involved in that work for their courage.
Turning to the core of what my hon. Friend has discussed today, I understand the urge for us to declare that there is genocide. As the Prime Minister said in the House yesterday, however, we maintain that genocide should be a matter of legal rather than political opinion, although there is clearly a growing body of evidence that terrible crimes have been committed. It is vital that all of us to continue to expose and condemn Daesh’s atrocities and, above all, do everything in our power to stop them, but we maintain that it is right for any assessment of matters of international law to remain in the hands of the appropriate judicial authorities. I assure the House that the Government are working hard with our international partners to ensure that Daesh is held to account for its crimes and that those who have suffered at its hands receive justice.
To be clear, I associate myself firmly with the comments made by Secretary of State John Kerry that no Government are judge, jury or prosecutor—we are not in a position to make such statements. It is for the international criminal courts to do so. However, we are participating in collecting the data, preserving the documents and providing the evidence that will be needed to take things forward. It is important and of symbolic value that international justice is seen to take place, with a commitment by the international community to see accountability for the most serious crimes of international concern.
The matter is complex, however, and an awful lot of due diligence needs to take place, not only on genocide but on the whole issue of crimes against humanity, as my hon. Friend is aware. She has done extremely well to bring the matter before the House today, and I absolutely encourage a further, wider debate with a vote in the House to continue the process.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way—I am conscious of the time. Given his experience of military service in the Balkans and of Rwanda, does he see the importance of debating the subject further, as he has just said? Will he support a debate taking place in Government time, with a vote?
My hon. Friend makes his point fully, but it is up to the usual channels to make any decision. I firmly believe that we are not doing justice to the subject; we are only skimming the surface of such an important matter. We have touched on Rwanda, the Balkans and so forth, and, indeed, following Rwanda, the world recognised the duty of care on leaders—again, a legal stipulation—to look after the people under their remit. That failed in Rwanda. I would very much welcome a further debate on the subject, so that the world can hear what this Parliament thinks and the Government’s reaction to that, and so that we can pursue and continue the process. I welcome that and hope that today is only a beginning.
That is not for the Government; it is for the Backbench Business Committee to make such a judgment. Any debate would be an indication of the mood or spirit of Parliament, of where we would like to go, and of what we would like the permanent members of the UN Security Council to discuss. It could lead to recommendations for action, perhaps through the international criminal courts or any number of other avenues.
I thank the Minister for giving way. He is being generous, given the time. In 1942, this House made a solemn resolution that those responsible for such crimes should not escape retribution. Would the Government be minded to support such a resolution in this instance?
I will write to hon. Members with details on questions to which I have not replied, but I must conclude.
I have given as much indication as I can of the direction of travel that we would like to go in. I am pleased that the Foreign Secretary has made his comments, and I repeat—I do not want to get myself into any trouble, so I am looking around carefully—that we are not judge or jury here. It is not for the Government to call this, which hon. Members will perhaps recognise as a frustration. It is important that voices are heard to make it clear what the expectations are and where we should be going on what is happening in Iraq and Syria.
To truly defeat Daesh, to eradicate its ideology, and to secure long-term peace and security in the region, we must demonstrate through our words and actions our support for all communities, whether majority or minority, Shi’a or Sunni Muslims, Christians, Yazidis, Kurds or others. We will continue to do all we can to liberate the people of Iraq and Syria from the persecution and appalling violence that they face from Daesh. We must all continue to expose Daesh for its criminal and fraudulent betrayal of Islam. In the spirit in which my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton introduced the debate, I also hope that we can take important steps towards bringing Daesh to justice on the international stage.
Macur Review of Historical Child Abuse
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the Macur Review into historic child abuse.
Diolch yn fawr iawn, Sir Edward. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship today. I am sure we are all saddened by the news we are hearing from Brussels.
I will start by putting on record my thanks to the right hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Stephen Crabb) for his statement last week. I also congratulate him on his new role in government. I also congratulate the Secretary of State for Wales and the Minister on their promotions. I look forward to working constructively with both of them in what I am sure will be an eventful year. I also pay tribute to many colleagues across the House for their work, especially the right hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd), who I am delighted to see with us this afternoon. She has campaigned tirelessly for the victims and survivors of child abuse in Wales and beyond.
The publication of the Macur review’s report was long overdue. For the survivors of these abhorrent events, it represented hope: that they would see justice; that their accounts of events would be vindicated; that the nagging doubts and conspiracy theories would be either verified or dispelled; and that the whole would be conducted disinterestedly without fear or favour. Unfortunately, the report, which includes more than 600 redactions, adds virtually nothing to our understanding of how the state failed so many children over so many years in north Wales.
I am sure that, like me, the hon. Lady has already had survivors contact her to say how disappointed they were. The report was their hope that there would be recognition, but all it does is leave unanswered questions still unanswered.
I agree. It seems to have been very much a matter of process and documentation, with survivors and victims as a second consideration. I will return to that.
The report culminates in a bland list of eight conclusions, which mainly state that Waterhouse was necessary, agree with the instigation of this inquiry, say that neither is a substitute for criminal proceedings and that the experience of giving evidence is difficult for survivors. The six recommendations include the platitudes that inquiries should be “above reproach”; that evidence should not be lost; that there is no purpose in further inquiries; and about the hazards of hindsight. I will return to recommendation 5 later.
Macur was the third review of its kind after the Jillings panel and the Waterhouse tribunal. We will have to wait a further two and a half years before we learn of the findings of Goddard’s independent inquiry into child sexual abuse. The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children in particular criticised the timescale, saying that despite the “drawn out process”, the report reveals “barely anything”. It expressed concern that that might deter victims from coming forward during the ongoing Operation Pallial.
I turn to redactions: the removal of names and details by which people might be identified. On my count—I may be wrong, although I counted twice—there are 633 redactions in the report. Although many will be duplications, the Secretary of State and the Minister must appreciate that that number is extremely high. The previous Secretary of State for Wales, the right hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire, said in his statement last week that redactions had been “kept to a minimum”. While I, and I am sure many people here, accept that some redactions must be made, particularly given the ongoing court proceedings and the potential for further actions, I put it to the House that to claim that redactions in the report have been kept to a minimum is frankly disingenuous.
I am particularly concerned about the extremely high number of redactions in chapters 7 and 8 on freemasonry and establishment figures respectively. Lady Justice Macur made recommendations in her report to the Secretaries of State on what should be redacted in the published report. She said:
“It is for the Secretaries of State to determine any further redaction of my Report weighing public interest with the caution”.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this important debate. One of the few positives to come out of Waterhouse was the setting up of the Children’s Commissioner for Wales. Given the strong statement that the commissioner made, does she agree that the Government must be clear about the methodology that arrived at so many redactions?
I agree entirely. I will refer to what the Children’s Commissioner for Wales said anon and I hope that the Minister will be in a position to respond to her call as well as those we are making today.
The previous Secretary of State also said that the rationale behind making the redactions, as set out in the letters to the Secretaries of State by the Treasury Solicitor and the director general of propriety and ethics, “explain the reasons…fully”. However, I put it to the Minister that those justifications are weak and bland. I sympathise with the views expressed by victims and by the Children’s Commissioner for Wales, as just mentioned, who believe that the UK Government need to be more open about the process by which redactions were made. First, I ask the Minister to tell the House how many redactions were made in addition to those suggested by Lady Macur. Secondly, will he publish further information about why those additional redactions were made and what the process was in coming to a decision on them?
Especially alarming—possibly more so—are the numerous serious cases of missing or destroyed evidence at several different points during the various inquiries. Lady Justice Macur’s report refers to individuals who have implied in written evidence that they hold information about abusers who were not investigated by the police or the tribunal. She states that following an interview with—redacted name—she made a request for materials said by that person to be relevant to the review and stored by a solicitor. She goes on to say that that solicitor had since left the relevant practice and that the files in question were destroyed. She even says that the person at the firm dealing with her request recalled that, before the files were destroyed, the solicitor in question had visited the office and
“may have taken any documents he considered worthy of retention.”
The report states that the solicitor in question had failed to respond to correspondence from Lady Macur. Does the Minister consider that a satisfactory conclusion to that line of inquiry? Is simply ignoring correspondence until the problem goes away all one needs to do to get away with a crime? Even ignoring the allegation that the solicitor may have removed evidence, is the Minister satisfied that it would be standard practice to destroy recently archived data?
Unfortunately, that is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to missing or destroyed evidence. The greatest cause for concern in relation to the process and documentation is of course the fate of the Waterhouse tribunal’s evidence originally handed over to the Welsh Office in 1998. Those documents—it says this in the report—were supposed to be archived securely for 75 years. That did not happen. The evidence received scant respect at the Welsh Office and it was then shuffled over to the Welsh Government.
This is simply a catalogue of data mismanagement: dependency on technology that becomes dated and corrupted; destruction of hardware and tapes; boxes of evidence in disorder; and a reference index that lists 718 boxes while only 398 were initially made available. It remains unclear how many boxes of evidence were finally handed over to Lady Justice Macur, but documents were still coming to light on 1 December last year. It should be noted that the report was presented on 10 December. That methodology does not instil confidence.
The significance of the destroyed computer database cannot be overestimated. That was the record of all documentation. Against that database, if extant, it would have been possible to come to a view as to whether significant evidence was present or missing. Macur states:
“It is impossible to confidently report that I have seen all the documentation that was before the Tribunal.”
We cannot therefore come empirically to an opinion on whether material has been lost, removed or concealed.
I interviewed six young men some years ago in the Cynon Valley. Those boys were taken to north Wales, and that may be true of boys from other parts of south Wales as well. This is talked about as the north Wales abuse inquiry, but it is sometimes forgotten that the children came from all over Wales. Those boys’ reports were harrowing, as Members can imagine. It is an absolute disgrace that there are so many missing documents; I entirely agree with the hon. Lady. Where have they gone? Who is responsible? Lots of the evidence given to the Jillings report, which preceded the Waterhouse inquiry, has also gone missing. Where is it? Who did that, and what were they hiding?
I agree. There is a history, as the right hon. Lady mentioned, of a loss of evidence associated with child abuse. I refer also to the Geoffrey Dickens dossier. I ask the Minister to consider whether victims and survivors of abuse in Wales—not only north Wales, of course—can, in all honesty, be satisfied with the findings of this report.
Now that the Macur review has been published, we are left with the overall lasting impression that documentation and process have been more important than securing justice for the victims and survivors of the abuse that was perpetrated, which should have been the overarching responsibility and purpose of the review. Symptomatic of that concern for documentation and process rather than for the victims and survivors of abuse was the failure to speak to them individually. The review held a public session in Wrexham in June 2013. The review’s website states that, on that day, Lady Justice Macur
“met privately with anyone who asked to do so”
and that the review
“met with numerous individuals with relevant information.”
However, I have spoken with one of the survivors, Keith Gregory, who is a point of contact for other victims and survivors of abuse, and he has informed me that arrangements for interviews were forgotten by the review.
Adding to the undermining of the victims and survivors of abuse are the definitions of “unreliable witnesses” and “multiple hearsay”. Those unfortunate terms were used at the time by people working within the Wales Office to dismiss those who had approached them to demand that attention be focused on investigating abuse that later turned out to be true and to be widespread. The terms are still in use today and are very potent.
It is unfortunate that, due to misguided and wild accusations that emanated from multiple investigations into prominent public figures, sympathy for the survivors and victims of historical child abuse has swung away from them to incorrectly accused individuals. Obviously, the cases of figures such as Lord Edwin Bramall and Harvey Proctor—this, of course, is relevant to news we have heard in recent days—have demonstrated the need to proceed with care and caution when investigations are carried out. However, the danger is that the popular and media perception focuses on sympathy for wronged figures at the expense of genuine victims and survivors. The sensationalist and prurient nature of the subject matter makes a good tabloid story, but surely society should make every effort to respect the suffering of all innocents caught up in both perpetration and accusation.
Ultimately, after reading the Macur review, I am left with the impression that many points still need to be explained and explored under the public gaze. I am particularly concerned about recommendation 5, which I do not interpret in the same way as the Secretary of State for Wales did in his statement last week. He referred to one alleged incident of criminal charges, but Lady Justice Macur’s recommendation seems far more wide-reaching. It concerns me that the Secretary of State appears to have been at pains to restrict the scope of recommendation 5, and I seek a further explanation of what steps will be taken.
The role of the Children’s Commissioner for Wales should be strengthened, which she mentioned in an interview on “Sunday Politics Wales” at the weekend. The commissioner, Sally Holland, called for greater powers, noting that the commissioner’s powers in relation to complaints, advocacy and whistleblowing should be extended to include any area that involves the abuse of children. Might I suggest the Government examine that point and perhaps, if appropriate, include it when they inevitably strengthen and revise the initial draft of the Wales Bill? Will the UK Government work with the Welsh Government to ensure that the Children’s Commissioner has the full range of powers she believes she needs to ensure the full and adequate protection of children?
The Children’s Commissioner also called for the Government to publish or explain information regarding who identified what number of redactions and in which chapter; that is an important point. We are aware that an unredacted copy of the review has been forwarded to the Goddard inquiry, but that will not report until the end of 2018 and will therefore be another long process for the survivors, who have waited for many years already. Victims and survivors need to know what the methodology and process for deciding upon redactions were; the Government owe them that. I note that the only politicians to have had sight of the unredacted version so far all belong to the Government. That does not seem right. It is also clear that there needs to be a strengthened status for evidence from child abuse inquiries, including its preservation, which is a wider point for any Government inquiry.
There undoubtedly needs to be a commitment to ensure that children’s voices are heard in the criminal justice system, in health and social care and in any other sector that involves the care of children and contains the potential for abuse. Rather than simply a platitude that seeks to soothe and reassure in the face of public anger and is then forgotten as time rolls on, we need to change the way in which children’s voices are heard during such processes, in concrete and administrative terms.
The hon. Lady makes an important point about children’s voices being heard. In many of these cases, because the children were in a home, they were not considered to have any value, and that is why they were treated in the way they were. That, in some ways, is the worst aspect of this whole miserable, dreadful business.
One thing that has saddened me is perceiving how vulnerable these children were, which made them vulnerable to abuse in the first place, and how that abuse in turn has affected them for the rest of their lives and in part condemns them to being unreliable witnesses. We have not served them well; there is no denying that.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on the speech she is making. In terms of process, is she surprised, as I am, at the paucity of reference to the linguistic context in which this happened in Wales—specifically in north Wales and north-west Wales, where a percentage of the children would be Welsh-speaking? I detect very few references to that in either the Macur report or, in fact, the Waterhouse report, which I read many years ago.
Indeed. We are talking about children’s voices, and one aspect of that is whether people are able to use their first language, in which they are most confident and express their emotions most fluently.
Finally, one critical lesson to be learned—I again echo the Children’s Commissioner for Wales—is that reviews from now on must be centred on the victims and the survivors. They should have the opportunity to advise on both the remit and process of an inquiry and should be properly supported at all stages. They, of course, are the people who live with this experience for their whole lives, and it has been a terrible experience. Diolch yn fawr iawn.
I am pleased to see you in the chair, Sir Edward. May I take this opportunity to congratulate the Minister on his appointment? This is not the easiest of debates with which to start. I also congratulate the hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts) on her studied and sensible remarks.
This is a really difficult issue for Wrexham. It has cast a cloud over the years that I have been in Parliament, which are many now. The Waterhouse report was published in the year before I became a Member of Parliament and refers to events that occurred very often in Wrexham in the 1980s and 1990s, when I lived and worked in the area. There were great hopes for the Macur review. On Thursday, when the Secretary of State for Wales made a statement, I said that I was astonished. I am afraid that having considered the review to the extent I have been able to thus far, I do not in any way resile from my statement; in fact, I would intensify it.
The reaction within Wrexham has been one of huge disappointment and distress. The hon. Lady referred to Keith Gregory, who is my constituent and a local Plaid Cymru councillor in Wrexham, and to whom I spoke at the weekend. There is intense disappointment, but it simply confirms the view of many survivors about the political class, the political system and the whole world in which many of my constituents see politicians as operating. I am afraid that the report, with the redactions that have been referred to, will intensify the disillusion that the survivors of these incidents feel about the political and judicial system in north Wales.
A lot of issues will arise from the report, and I tell the Parliamentary Under-Secretary and Ministers at the Ministry of Justice that I will be pursuing many of those questions through parliamentary questions and further debate. We need a substantial debate—a full day’s debate—on this report, which is of national importance, in order to address the issues in it, once we have had the opportunity to try to read it. I congratulate the hon. Lady on reading the report: I have had real difficulty doing so because of the number of redactions in it. Many of the most important and controversial aspects of the report are very difficult to extract from the document we have.
The issue of redaction is very important. I was surprised last Thursday that the then Secretary of State for Wales made the statement, because I had expected the Lord Chancellor to make it. I have raised questions in connection with the publication of this report that have always been answered by the Ministry of Justice, which I therefore expected to be dealing with the matter. Although the report was jointly commissioned by the Wales Office and the Ministry of Justice, it is very important that Justice Ministers—I mean no disrespect to the Wales Office—should answer, because there are very technical and difficult legal questions relating to it.
It is clear that this report followed correspondence that took place between the Lord Chancellor and Lady Macur who was conducting an investigation and doing an independent report. The important issue of redaction was at the heart of that correspondence. The review itself makes it clear in paragraph 8.4 that
“the redaction of this report is a matter for the commissioning departments.”
It is very important that everyone out there understands that the redactions in the report were made by the Government, not by the judge. The only people who have seen the full report and have made the redactions are the Government.
However, that was not enough for the Lord Chancellor. Information that is given to us by Lady Justice Macur in paragraph 1.44 of the report tells us that Her Majesty’s Procurator General and Treasury Solicitor, Jonathan Jones, asked for a meeting with her to discuss the
“inclusion of names of individuals subject to unsubstantiated allegations.”
In the review, Lady Justice Macur says that she refused to have such a meeting.
That was not the end of the matter as far as the Ministry of Justice was concerned. I should make it clear that I have written to the Lord Chancellor to give him notice that I will be referring to this report and to him as an individual in this debate, because after the refusal to meet the Treasury Solicitor, the Lord Chancellor—effectively Lady Macur’s boss—wrote a letter to her. She is the head of an independent judicial inquiry investigating an alleged cover-up. He asked her to withhold the names of individuals who were the subject of allegations from the draft review presented to other Government Departments—so the Lord Chancellor asked her to take the names out of the draft report that was being sent, within the Government, to other Departments. I do not regard that as appropriate. This was an independent judicial inquiry and the matter was one for the judge.
I would have liked to question the Lord Chancellor on those points but, unfortunately, he did not present the report to Parliament, so I have not had the opportunity to do so: I will pursue those matters. In any event, the Government have redacted, as we have heard, huge swathes of the Macur review, removing in particular the names of individuals who have been the subject of speculation and who have national recognition. For example, the name Peter Morrison has been redacted from the report, but puzzlingly, other names—Greville Janner, Lord Gareth Williams—have not.
I am grateful for that clarification, but in the chapter that relates to establishment figures, the two names that I referred to are not redacted, whereas Peter Morrison’s name is. It is very difficult to deduce a line of principle to see why someone made that decision. I think we need to have that information, and I think it is very important and very appropriate that the Children’s Commissioner for Wales has written to the Secretary of State for Wales, saying that
“more can be done to communicate many of the omissions to be found in the report, and seek a greater level of transparency to be afforded to victims. As such, I call on the UK Government to issue a statement explaining the methodology used for redacting the publically available Macur Review Report, giving a full rationale for the changes made. Without an understanding of the approach employed by the Government’s lawyers, many will continue to question whether there has been protection of individuals because of their position in society, rather than because there are ongoing criminal investigations, or if there is no evidence against them.”
Some of the people whose names have been redacted are dead, so there will not be any continuing criminal investigations as far as they are concerned, and it is very difficult to understand why these redactions have been made and what element of principle is involved. We need that information because we have to try to persuade our constituents that our political system is not rotten and that it does afford them some element of protection.
I am also very concerned about the circumstances in which the review was set up. There is a very interesting section starting in paragraph 1.33 of the review concerning a Wales Office note, and the involvement of the Cabinet Secretary in the compilation of a note that involved the former Secretary of State for Wales, the right hon. Member for Clwyd West (Mr Jones), who is here today. It seems from the report that issues that are directly relevant to the establishment of the Macur review have been left hanging in the air and that a Cabinet note, which is referred to in paragraph 1.40, has not been disclosed. That is one of many documents that are available and should be published. A huge number of questions arise from the report and I am afraid its contents do nothing to resolve the disillusion of my constituents or the many survivors who suffered at the hands of criminals in north Wales in the 1980s and 1990s.
My hon. Friend is making a valuable contribution to the debate. Does he think that handing an unredacted copy to the Goddard inquiry will affect the delay in anyone having any chance of finding out what the redactions are? The Goddard inquiry is very optimistically expected to report in two years, but the scale of the inquiry is so enormous that most people think it will take a decade. Is it right that the abuse of those young people should continue for at least another 10 years?
My hon. Friend makes a valid point. The report took over three years and I would be astonished—to use that phrase again—if the Goddard review reported within that timeframe. That is why it is incumbent on us to ask these questions. It is unacceptable that only members of the Government see the unredacted report. I am a former Minister and an elected Member of Parliament and it is appropriate for the unredacted report to be seen by individuals in Opposition parties. Otherwise, the inference that political motives are involved will continue to be made.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that another disturbing element of the report is the handling of the documentation of the inquiry: its transmission from the Welsh Office to the Welsh Assembly Government, and what happened when it was in the hands of the Welsh Assembly Government? Does he agree that those matters also need further clarification?
The disappearance of documents at so many stages during the history of this matter creates huge difficulty for anyone expecting a proper inquiry. All those matters need to be questioned and investigated further.
The difficult with the Macur review, which in many ways gives valuable information that we did not have before, is that it leaves many questions hanging in the air, and all questions need to be addressed. The content is so dense and difficult that it will take time and hard work to get through to its core. There are many disturbing questions, and more now than before the then Secretary of State for Wales made his statement on Thursday.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I congratulate the hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts) on securing today’s important debate. I hope that hon. Members will forgive me if I do not refer to all their speeches in detail, but I have a number of questions for the Minister, whom I welcome to his new role. We are all anxious that he can speak for as long as possible on this important subject.
I commend the thoughtful speech of my parliamentary neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Ian C. Lucas), in whose constituency many of the care homes referred to are situated. My right hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd), my hon. Friends the Members for Alyn and Deeside (Mark Tami), for Newport West (Paul Flynn) and for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen), the hon. Member for Arfon (Hywel Williams) and the right hon. Member for Clwyd West (Mr Jones) all took part in the debate.
I will come to the redactions, which are a cause of great concern, but when they are connected with legal proceedings, court proceedings and the like, I hope that new prosecutions will be secured. I also hope that if sentences are passed, the judiciary are not unduly lenient. These were most heinous of crimes, not only because they involved the sexual and emotional abuse of children, great evils though those are, but because they involved a group of children who the criminals who perpetuated these acts knew would never be believed. They were criminal and evil on both counts, and I hope the judiciary do not get soft when sentencing.
The abuse that was carried out in care homes in north Wales shames us all. As the Waterhouse inquiry found, it was widespread and persistent physical and sexual violence against young boys and girls. That it was perpetuated by those who should have been looking after those children, in homes where they should have felt safe, just adds to the sheer horror of what occurred. Those of us who lived in the areas around those homes well remember that it was common parlance to talk about the “naughty boys’ homes”. That was how they were regarded at the time.
Our thoughts must be with the survivors of that abuse, who were let down for a second time when they reached out for help and none was given. It was because of concerns raised by survivors about the scope of the Waterhouse inquiry that the Macur review was commissioned. Lady Justice Macur’s foreword to her review says that she hopes
“to achieve the finality that many participants in this process will desire.”
Indeed, that was what we all hoped for.
Since the review was published last week, however, a number of survivors have expressed their disappointment with its conclusions, and that has been echoed by many Members today. The NSPCC has expressed concern that the “lengthy, drawn out process” of the review
“risks deterring victims from coming forward.”
I sincerely hope that is not the case, and that survivors will have their voices heard clearly by the independent inquiry into child sexual abuse led by Justice Lowell Goddard.
Last week, the then Secretary of State for Wales said that the Goddard inquiry would open an office in Cardiff to engage with survivors in Wales. Can the Minister provide further information about when that will occur, and crucially, will he outline how the Goddard inquiry will engage with survivors and participants in other parts of Wales, including north Wales?
We know that physical and sexual abuse leaves a lasting impact on the lives of those affected and that, no matter how long ago that abuse occurred, survivors need support to rebuild their lives. The publicity surrounding the review will have triggered deeply painful memories for many survivors and may encourage others to seek help for the first time. Will the Minister set out exactly what support is available to those who come forward? Has he or his predecessor had conversations with agencies, including the Children’s Commissioner for Wales, to ensure that help is highlighted to those who need it?
The Children’s Commissioner for Wales has highlighted the need for clarity on why the redactions were made. Redacting information is a highly sensitive area, because it seems to conflict with the transparency that inquiries such as the Macur review should provide. It is vital to get the balance right. We know that it is necessary to redact some information, when criminal investigations are involved, but our view is that it should be done in as few cases as possible and must be justified to survivors. How many redactions were made in addition to those requested by Lady Justice Macur? What methodology was used when deciding which names were redacted?
I want to ask the Minister specifically about the process that led to the redactions, which is described in paragraphs 1.44 and 1.45 of the report and has been raised previously in the debate. Lady Justice Macur writes that she received unsolicited letters, first from the head of the Government Legal Service and then from the Secretary of State for Justice, about the extent to which her report would name those subject to unsubstantiated allegations. The Justice Secretary “strongly urged” Lady Justice Macur not to name those concerned and suggested that she
“underestimated the unfairness and prejudice to such individuals of including their names in the Report”.
To be clear, those names have been redacted in the published version of the report, but the Justice Secretary was arguing that they should not have been included in the first place. Lady Justice Macur decided not to follow that course of action. It is unfortunate that the Justice Secretary made that approach, given the understandable sensitivity that surrounds the question of redactions. Is the Minister satisfied that the Justice Secretary was right to make that approach, particularly in light of the fact that his was one of the commissioning Departments, and does he support Lady Justice Macur’s approach to those subject to unsubstantiated allegations?
My hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham referred to the need for a longer debate on this issue. Can the Minister confirm that that might be granted in Government time?
The abuse described in the Waterhouse inquiry and again in the Macur review is truly staggering. I hope that the review is the start of a process whereby survivors will feel that their voices are being heard. As we move forward, it is imperative that anyone who has committed these gravest of crimes against the most vulnerable, no matter how long ago, is promptly brought to justice. The survivors of this abuse, and the people of Wales, have waited long enough.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I thank hon. Members for their warm welcome for my appointment to this position; it is appreciated. The hon. Member for Wrexham (Ian C. Lucas) made the point that this is not the baptism that one would have expected or anticipated, and this has been a difficult week of trying to get to grips with a very difficult subject area, but the way in which the hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts) has approached the debate and the way in which other hon. Members have contributed are to be applauded and are certainly appreciated from my point of view.
As a north Walian MP, I am acutely aware of the dark shadow that this issue has thrown over north Wales, and the rest of Wales for that matter, for far too long. Therefore, it is appropriate to congratulate the hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd on securing the debate and on how it has been conducted. All the contributions made by MPs from north Wales have shown the seriousness with which we want to approach the issue and the importance of ensuring that lessons are learned in order to ensure that we can give some clarity and confidence to the people in north Wales, in accordance with the comments made by the hon. Member for Wrexham.
I accept that point. I also pay tribute to the right hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) for her work on these issues, and while I am paying tributes, I would like to say that the hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd is clearly following in her predecessor’s footsteps in highlighting concerns on this issue.
It is important that I try to respond to the questions that have been asked. It would be easy for me to comment on how the Waterhouse inquiry was established and the concerns about the Waterhouse inquiry. We could talk about how the Macur review was established and the concerns there. However, the key point is that I have limited time to deal with the questions that have been raised, so I will try to respond to all of them, and if I fail, I will certainly ensure that I write to hon. Members on those specific issues.
It is important to make this clarification at the outset. The hon. Member for Wrexham highlighted a degree of concern that the previous Secretary of State for Wales made the statement on Thursday and subsequently this debate is being responded to by the Wales Office. It is important to point out that the Macur review was jointly commissioned. In view of the fact that the original Waterhouse report was commissioned by the Wales Office and in view of the fact that this report was a joint commission, I think it is appropriate that the Wales Office responds, but clearly questions can be asked of both Departments. The Departments will consult each other in responding to any further questions from the hon. Gentleman; and clearly, if there are any omissions in the speech that I make today, further questions can be asked. The Departments will work together to try to give answers that will satisfy hon. Members in relation to the concerns that they have raised.
Clearly, the key concern highlighted by hon. Members across the Chamber this afternoon relates to redactions. Those concerns have been expressed not only by hon. Members, but by civil society in Wales and of course by the Children’s Commissioner for Wales. I am very pleased to be able to report that I have spoken this morning to the Children’s Commissioner for Wales. It is clearly appropriate that we take her concerns seriously. I will write, on behalf of the Department, to the Children’s Commissioner to respond to some of the concerns that she has expressed, and will highlight the reasons and the methodology, which have been provided in the public domain, in relation to why some of the redactions were undertaken. The Children’s Commissioner is more than welcome to put that letter in the public domain in due course. There is no intention whatever to hide from any of the questions in relation to redactions.
In responding fully on the issue of redactions, I think it is fair to say that this concern was raised before publication of the report, by the right hon. Member for Cynon Valley, and the statement was very clear that the redactions would be as minimal as possible. That is why, when we published the report, we also published the two letters: the letter from the Cabinet Office and the letter from the Government’s legal department explaining why there was a need to do some redactions in the report. It is fair to say that in the report Lady Justice Macur herself states that there are certain details that should be considered for redaction; and again, the important thing here is for me to try to explain on what basis those decisions were taken.
Clearly, the first reason for redactions, which is crucial and understood, I suspect, by all Members of the House, is that we would not want to do anything that would potentially compromise any ongoing police investigations and any criminal proceedings. It is clear that a tribute was paid in the main Chamber on Thursday to the work of the National Crime Agency through Operation Pallial. It would be a travesty of justice if the publication of names in the Macur report without being redacted properly were to threaten in any way, shape or form the possibility of further criminal investigations and further charges being levied. The danger is of undermining any further criminal proceedings, which would be a further betrayal of the needs of the victims in north Wales, who want to see justice done at the end of the day. In terms of redactions, it is clear that we have an obligation to ensure that nothing printed and published in this report could in any way, shape or form damage the possibility of any further criminal proceedings or of further legal action being taken as a result of criminal investigations that are now forthcoming.
I come now to the second category. Clearly, a significant number of names of victims of abuse have been redacted. That, again, is a legal requirement. We are required under the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Act 1992 to ensure that the identities of those who have suffered sexual abuse are protected; they have a right to anonymity. Therefore, those redactions have been done in order to protect people who have already suffered. It would be wrong to have people’s names dragged through the public sphere once more. Those people have already suffered so much as a result of the abuse that they suffered.
The redactions in those two categories have been overseen by Sue Gray, the director general of propriety and ethics in the Cabinet Office. The letter from Sue Gray was published at the same time as this report, so again, the reasoning behind the redactions was certainly communicated and will be communicated again to the Children’s Commissioner, as I stated.
The third category, which I suspect is the one causing most concern to hon. Members in view of the speeches that have been made, is those individuals who have been accused of abuse or speculated to be involved in abuse, who have not been subject to a police investigation, who have not been convicted of a criminal offence and whose name is not in the public domain in the context of child abuse. It is important to state that in the report Lady Justice Macur advises that the publication of those names would be
“unfair in two respects and unwise in a third.”
That is not the Government—not the Wales Office—it is Lady Justice Macur herself. She states:
“First, the nature of the information against them sometimes derives from multiple hearsay”.
I understand the concerns expressed by the hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd in relation to the use of hearsay, but again, that was not a recommendation coming from Government; it was from Lady Justice Macur herself. She also states that
“second, these individuals will have no proper opportunity to address the unattributed and, sometimes, unspecified allegations of disreputable conduct made against them”.
Again, that is a statement made by Lady Justice Macur. She continued,
“and third, police investigations may be compromised”.
Now, I have already touched on the issue of criminal investigations. We do have an obligation to highlight where we believe there is wrongdoing but we also have an obligation to ensure that we are not pointing the finger at individuals who might be completely and utterly innocent. We all know that there is a danger that publishing names without any specific allegations being made and without any specific justification could create a witch hunt, which is the last thing that a responsible Government or Parliament should be involved with.
It is important to highlight that the redactions were not undertaken to protect any individuals or to damage the report. They were undertaken to ensure the integrity of the report. I understand the concerns because, as a Member from north Wales, I read the report on Thursday in no way anticipating that I would be responding to the debate today. However, I think that the arguments presented by the Treasury Solicitor and by the Cabinet Office are not without merit. Indeed, I challenge hon. Members to state whether they believe that those arguments are incorrect.
I will try to respond to that in my next few comments. Just to finish the comments I was making, I understand the frustration and the feeling that there could have been fewer redactions, but it is imperative that the reasoning, in the round, is understood by hon. Members. I have tried to explain why those redactions have been made. I have explained very clearly that they were undertaken as a result of advice given, which I think was quite reasonable. I hope that hon. Members will take that into account. There has been no attempt to mislead or to not be very clear as to the basis for the changes. We are more than happy to correspond on the issue if the hon. Member for Wrexham feels the need to take it any further.
Yes, I will touch on that issue, which was also raised by the hon. Member for Wrexham. It is simply not correct that only Government Ministers have seen the uncorrected report. It might be correct that the only politicians who have seen the report are Government politicians but it is not only the Government who have seen it. Clearly, an unredacted copy has been sent to the Goddard review, Operation Pallial, Operation Orion and Operation Hydrant.
It is simply not correct to say that the only people who have seen an unredacted version of the report are Government Ministers. If the argument is that we should provide that information to all elected politicians but not to the general public, it is a completely different argument. Given the way in which politicians are viewed, I am not sure that would contribute any further to the trust that the hon. Member for Wrexham seeks.
On the methodology, I have tried to explain why the redactions were undertaken. The two letters that we received have been published. I will write to the Children’s Commissioner for Wales highlighting again the reasons for the redactions. I am not claiming that the response will satisfy all people’s concerns, but it is clear that the Wales Office and the Government ensured that the advice that was provided was published at the same time as the report. We have provided the explanation for the methodology and we will provide further explanations.
I understand that the hon. Members for Clwyd South (Susan Elan Jones) and for Dwyfor Meirionnydd highlighted concerns but I think that those have been addressed. If they need to be addressed in further detail, I hope that our letter to the Children’s Commissioner for Wales will provide that. I am more than happy to respond to any questions received.
Does the Minister know that there is a precedent for revealing to Members of Parliament reports that are entirely secret? The report that I saw as a member of the Select Committee on Home Affairs—the Operation Tiberius report—was an extraordinary document that named many people including criminals and police, who worked together through the freemasonry movement. We inspected that report under strict terms of security. We were not allowed to take our phones in. We were watched the whole time and we were not allowed to take any notes. There is a precedent for allowing Members of Parliament to see the unredacted report.
I take the hon. Gentleman’s point but hon. Members have made arguments that the redactions are damaging public confidence. I am unsure how the idea he offers would contribute to solving the issue of public confidence because a very limited amount of people in the political sphere would be responding. A couple of other questions were asked by the hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd—
Could I just answer this question because I am aware of the time? Another question was asked by the hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd about recommendation five. The issue relates to the consideration of criminal charges relating to events referred to in paragraphs 645 to 675 of the report. It does not relate to the actions of the Wales Office or of any Government Department. The police and Crown Prosecution Service are aware of the specifics of the matter, and that issue is a matter for them to consider, not the Government.
The hon. Members for Clwyd South and for Dwyfor Meirionnydd asked how many redactions, in addition to those that were a result of the advice given, were made by the Government. The answer is zero. Not a single further redaction was made. The redactions that have been made were all in accordance with the advice given and the explanation that has been provided.
The hon. Member for Wrexham asked about the publication of some names and not others. Again, the letter from the Treasury Solicitor sets out the methodology for redacting such names, saying very clearly that they are the names of people who are rumoured or speculated to be involved in abuse, who have not been convicted of a criminal offence and/or whose name is not in the public domain in the context of child abuse. That is in the letter from the Treasury Solicitor so the reasoning has been provided.
I do not accept for one moment that those principles apply to the name Peter Morrison. I do not think that any reasonable person could reach that conclusion. That name is in the public domain and it is in the report. I cannot understand why that name has been redacted. The redaction of that one name has had a massive impact on the public confidence in the whole report.
I hear what the hon. Gentleman is saying but I have attempted to provide an explanation as to why the redactions have been as they have been.
I need to touch on a few other issues. I do not think there is any denial of the inadequate nature of the records management, which is a point that was raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd West (Mr Jones). It is acknowledged that the records management has been poor. It was not to anybody’s satisfaction and it is fair to say that lessons have been learned by the Wales Office, and I presume that the Welsh Assembly will take some of the report’s advice on records retention very seriously. However, it is fair to state that Lady Justice Macur is clear that she received
“the majority of, if not all, relevant documentation”
and that she is
“confident in the conclusions I reach in this Report in light of numerous, varied and cumulative sources of information available”.
Again, that is not the Government’s line. That is a comment from Lady Macur regarding the lack of record-keeping or the problematic element of the record-keeping.
An important point is contained in paragraph 2.6 of the report, in which Lady Macur states quite clearly that 523 boxes of files were received, some 400 of which originated from the Wales Office. Although that is unsatisfactory compared with what we would expect from a Government Department, I stress the fact that Lady Macur does not believe that her conclusions would have been different if she had received more information than that which was provided.
We have touched on establishment names only very quickly. I have tried to explain why redactions have happened, and we are more than happy to respond to any further questions from hon. Members who believe that there is an issue there.
The other point that I would like to touch upon just before I finish is that Lady Justice Macur adds, for the sake of clarity,
“At no time have Ministers or their officials attempted to influence me in the conduct of the review or the conclusions I have drawn.”
There is a view here that there is a lack of transparency and clarity but, on every aspect, we have tried to offer an explanation and even Lady Justice Macur has said that she was not subject to any undue pressure.
I do not think I will have time to respond to the question from the hon. Member for Arfon (Hywel Williams) about the Welsh language or to the question from the hon. Member for Clwyd South about the Goddard inquiry, but I will write to both Members.
The debate has been difficult and there are lessons to be learned. We will write to the Children’s Commissioner for Wales and respond to any further questions. The Macur report was certainly worth doing and it has been of value.
Motion lapsed, and sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(14)).