Wednesday 20 April 2016
[Mr George Howarth in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the effect of aircraft noise on local communities.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. The revolution in air travel has been one of the great liberations of the British people. Since the birth of Her Majesty 90 years ago tomorrow, the Wright brothers’ miracle has become the norm. Everyone, from families heading for a week in the sun to businesspeople trading across our globe, flies across our skies. That freedom to travel is one that I and many people whom I have the privilege to represent have used many times. It is a blessing to many but, as so often in the Kentish sky, behind the silver lining there is a cloud, because although airlines carry passengers away to other places, they condemn the citizens beneath these aerial motorways to lives of misery and the oppression of noise.
The balance between the needs of settled communities and travelling folk is as old as the Bible. The novelty here is that the two communities are often one and the same. The very people who are disturbed often use aircraft themselves, so the question for this debate is not whether we should ground all aircraft or close all airports, which would be absurd, but how we manage our airspace as a precious resource for the benefit of everyone.
Today, I will not address the questions of second or third runways at Gatwick or Heathrow because, although I can see the merits of increasing our connections with our region and the world, restating Britain’s position at the heart of a series of networks and at the heart of a global community, I am waiting for the decision to come out in the best interests of our economy, so I will not argue for the merits of one or the other. I will also not be praising any particular carrier, airport or agency because, again, this is not the time to engage in what some would call the “politics of condemnation.”
This debate is about getting change, getting understanding and, most importantly, getting to a stage where our nation can invest for the long term in our air infrastructure on the same basis as we would our ground connections, which means openly, after due consideration and taking into account the needs of our whole community. That is why I am particularly pleased to see many of my parliamentary neighbours here this morning. My right hon. Friends the Members for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark) and for Mid Sussex (Sir Nicholas Soames), and my hon. Friends the Members for Wealden (Nusrat Ghani) and for Horsham (Jeremy Quin), are all here, and we have been fighting together on many of these campaigns.
I will begin by setting out what I hope to achieve. I thank the Minister, who has been incredibly helpful on the question of aviation noise, but today I would like him to do a few things. First, I would like him to clarify the position of Her Majesty’s Government on the term “significantly affected.” That vague term has caused difficulty for airports and agencies in designing flightpaths that cause the least disturbance. Secondly, I would like the outdated Environmental Protection Act 1990 to be refreshed so that aircraft noise is regulated in the same way as other disturbances, taking into account ambient noise so that the relative difference, as well as the absolute decibel level, is taken into consideration.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. I offer my support on the issue of ambient noise, because in rural communities where noise levels are low the concentration of flights that often happens as a result of the new digital navigation technology means that the disruption now being caused from Gatwick can be great. Does that not need to be taken into account when considering flightpaths over areas that already have a high level of ambient noise and would therefore be disrupted less by such concentration?
My right hon. Friend makes a good point, to which I will return. Technology is now evolving that allows us to calculate the difference between background or ambient noise and the relative change.
Thirdly, I ask the Minister to demand that the Civil Aviation Authority takes noise disturbance into account and includes communities not just 10 nautical miles but 18 nautical miles from airports so that due consideration is given to local communities that are affected, not just those that neighbour the airport, when planning airspace.
Fourthly and, the Minister will be pleased to hear, lastly, I would like the angle of approach to be reviewed. Modern aircraft are able to approach runways more steeply than the current 3°. London City airport, which I have used many times, has an approach angle of 5.5° to protect the buildings of our great capital. Could the same not apply to protect heritage sites and communities in the glorious county of Kent? This is not about aircraft or runways but about using airspace in everyone’s best interest. In my community, near Gatwick airport, the air corridor was changed in 2013. Since then, complaints have increased ninefold, and it is the failure to manage the airspace properly, not the raw numbers, that has caused the problem, but it is worth considering some of the numbers that do affect us.
More than 1 million people in the United Kingdom are exposed to aircraft noise above healthy levels. In the short term, that leads to loss of sleep and annoyance, and it makes it harder for children to learn, but the long-term effects can be worse still. High blood pressure, heart disease, heart attacks, strokes and dementia have all been associated with exposure to excessive noise. Indeed, the World Health Organisation recommends that such noise levels at school playgrounds should not exceed 55 dB. In my area, and in the area around Gatwick, 15 schools are already exposed to such levels, and nine are overflown more than 20 times a day. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) said, the ability to assess noise is one that we must take seriously if we are to move on from the 1990 Act. The National Physical Laboratory suggests that monitors costing only £100 could be fitted to tell regulators the exact pressure being put on residents, which is a game-changing moment for all. For the first time, we can have accurate monitoring not just of the peak noise but of the relative change, because by monitoring the ambient noise we can see that not all are equally affected.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate, and I share his views. When I first became a Member of Parliament representing Crawley 33 years ago, British Caledonian flew the BAC 111, which was one of the noisiest aeroplanes—it was just appalling. One of aviation’s arguments is that the quality of noise is now very different, but the point that he and my right hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) make about ambient noise is terribly important because, although the technologies are infinitely improved, the noise is still immensely disruptive. It is no good saying that that is just the way it is.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. The improvement in the quality of aircraft is noticeable, but that is not enough on its own. The change from a rural idyll to an aerial motorway in a few moments can be particularly stark, and never more so than at night. Perhaps the Minister would like to explain why night flights are banned from some airports but not from others, such as Gatwick.
This debate is not just about enjoying lazy summer afternoons in the garden of England, although that is a treasured blessing, and I intend to do as much of it as I can, parliamentary duties permitting; it is about the health of our nation. That does not tell the whole story. Noise, as measured today, does not take into account the full impact. The Civil Aviation Authority’s aircraft noise contour model—a model with which you are no doubt incredibly familiar, Mr Howarth—measures only average noise for the 10 noisiest seconds. This is perhaps not always recognised, but it is a secret that I am willing to share with the House: aircraft move. That means that the average is significantly below the peak level, which is counted only 2.5 km from the rolling point of the aircraft. Many people in Kent, particularly in my communities and in the communities of my right hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells, are badly affected and are simply not counted. That is not sensible. When a road is planned or a railway is considered, all those affected have a voice. It seems that communities are only ignored when it comes to overhead infrastructure.
The lack of guidance has allowed the Civil Aviation Authority and National Air Traffic Services to narrow the flightpaths, as they have done in the past few years over Gatwick, and increase the intensity of aircraft movements for those beneath. Some would say that they were using modern technology to demonstrate that they could increase capacity and perhaps even expand their operations; far be it from me to predict such things.
This is an area where we could and indeed should change things. That is why I ask for clarity from the Government on what reducing the numbers who are “significantly affected” means. Does it mean sharing the burden so that many are affected but not significantly, or does it mean placing the burden on the narrowest shoulders so that the fewest people are affected, but those who are affected will be severely impacted and their lives transformed? That guidance should be given to our planners. It would be given if they were planners on the ground, and it should be given to planners in the air.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on raising this important matter. All of us who have close interest in inland airports know the huge difficulties that exist; we are only in the mitigation game and it is very important that these matters are illuminated. However, is not the tragedy relating to the point he just made about planning that we forwent the opportunity in the mid-1970s to proceed with an estuarial airport, which would have brought great relief? It is where airports are put that creates the problems with which he is grappling.
I thank my right hon. Friend very much for his intervention. As a Member of this House, I have become used to taking responsibility for many things that are not directly my fault, but I hope he will forgive me for not taking responsibility for decisions taken in this House before I was born. I recognise that the need for long-term planning is one of the issues that, sadly, we have often got wrong in this country, and it is one reason why we now find ourselves causing damage to certain communities and asking certain small communities to bear the burden of economic expansion and its benefits for the whole nation. I thank my right hon. Friend very much for making that point.
Given that we are asking regulators to look around our communities, it would be good if the Civil Aviation Authority not only took account of areas that are 10 nautical miles away from airports but, as I have said, those that are 18 nautical miles away. Mr Chairman, you may ask, “Why double, or almost double, that distance?” It is because that is the point at which most airports begin to take control of aircraft, at the limit of the radar manoeuvring area, as it is known. That would mean the CAA and NATS would be regulated not only to make
“the most efficient use of airspace”
by maximising flights and fuel efficiency but to control noise and to recognise the impact on communities on the ground.
No agency is responsible for long-term reduction in noise, and I hope the Government now recognise the need to task the CAA and NATS to take on that role, because although aircraft have become quieter and airports are beginning to behave themselves a little, it seems to me that this is an opportunity for the Government to step in and take the lead.
I would very much like to second that point; in fact, I have made it myself in previous debates in the main Chamber. However, does my hon. Friend agree that at the heart of this problem, particularly in Bracknell, is the fact that there has been a breakdown in trust in the organisations responsible for the management of air traffic, including over my constituency? In my part of the world, the situation has totally changed in recent years and there was no prior warning of it; indeed, it has taken a great deal of time and persistence to get NATS to admit that it has changed things.
My hon. Friend began his speech by talking about the need for change, and we all accept that there will be an increase in flight traffic over the south-east of England. However, is it not important that all the people involved—the Government and indeed the agencies that are responsible—begin telling the truth in advance, so that we can take the public with us?
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point, and indeed the reason I got involved in this fight was because of the sudden change that I saw in the skies over Kent because of what Gatwick had done.
I admit that this is a slight diversion, but the first thing that people did in relation to Gatwick was to deny that they had done anything; they denied that aircraft were changing their flight approaches in any way or that the airspace was being shaped any differently. I would argue that it was that deception that did the most damage. If they had been able to admit early on that there had indeed been a change, that NATS had indeed changed the approach and that Gatwick was indeed trying different things, we could at least have had a conversation. However, when they did it overnight in 2013 and then denied that they had done so, the breakdown in trust was such that even though Gatwick is now leading with the Redeborn and Lake review, which I will come on to, and, I would argue, leading best practice on how an airport should communicate with its neighbours, it will be a good number of years before many of us will have confidence that Gatwick can be a good neighbour. I am saddened to hear that there are other airports in this country that have behaved similarly.
That is why, as many people know, I have welcomed many times the review that was carried out by Bo Redeborn and Graham Lake, because they have introduced a change in policy; indeed, their 23 proposals have been put forward in a policy vacuum. It would be wrong to say that those proposals have all been implemented; they certainly have not been, although we hope that 20 of them will be implemented by the end of the year and that we will begin to see the change that we absolutely need in the skies above south-east England. However, it is only through that dialogue, which Redeborn and Lake both strongly recommend, that we will see that change not only embedded but recognised and appreciated. Sadly, if we keep getting the dishonesty—or at least the dissembling—that we have seen, we will not have the level of trust required to build a better community.
I again urge NATS to take forward the Gatwick review and take the opportunity to use it as an example for the rest of the country, because what Gatwick has done is truly ground-breaking. We are waiting for NATS to implement the review; at the moment, NATS is slightly struggling with it, but I urge it to stop that struggle and get on with it.
Airports are not alone and, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Mid Sussex has mentioned, aircraft have changed. The infamous whine generated by the Airbus A320 demonstrates that airlines also have a responsibility. EasyJet has finally decided that the minor modifications that are required will all be in place very shortly, and Gatwick has decided that no aircraft without those modifications will be able to land after 2017. While it is welcome that both the airline and the airport are making those changes, I am somewhat disappointed that the Government have not applied that to the whole of the United Kingdom. It seems wrong that only we should benefit, and those changes could be made today.
There are further changes that could be made and I have touched on one of them, which is the angle of approach. It is worth noting that Frankfurt airport has now increased the approach angle from 3° to 3.2°. That may sound like a minor change, but anything that keeps aircraft higher for longer makes a huge difference to communities beneath. If we can get to the 5.5° of London City airport, we will start to get somewhere.
None of this, I should emphasise, is anything like the hairy approaches that one used to take to get into Baghdad or Kabul, corkscrewing down through the skies to avoid incoming missiles; the approaches that I am proposing are rather more gentle. Modern aircraft can handle them and the communities beneath would benefit greatly.
I thank Members who have come to the Chamber to support the motion, because communities affected, including those significantly affected in my own area—in Cowden, Hever, Edenbridge, Chiddingstone, Penshurst, Leigh and Tonbridge—deserve clarity. Those communities, and a few others, have been left to shoulder this burden alone.
As I have said, this debate is not about whether another runway should go to Heathrow or Gatwick, or whether we need extra capacity. I make a simple request that Her Majesty’s Government should recognise that when motorways are built, they are debated, and when railways are built, they are considered and assessed, so when motorways in the sky are placed over people’s homes, the planning requirements should be no different.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate. First, I thank the hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat) for setting out the case. I want to bring a Northern Ireland perspective to the debate. We have three airports in Northern Ireland: Belfast City, Belfast International, or Aldergrove, and Londonderry City. I want to focus specifically on Belfast City airport and some of the things we have done in Northern Ireland. This matter is devolved to Northern Ireland, but Belfast City is an ongoing issue. Just yet, we have not concluded what the best way forward is.
Through the Assembly and elected representatives, we in Northern Ireland are very conscious of the issue of airport noise. It was useful that the hon. Gentleman set the scene for us, because we need to hear from other Members and compare the approach taken by central Government with the one taken in Northern Ireland. In Northern Ireland, the most notable case of aircraft noise having an impact on local communities is that of George Best Belfast City airport. That is the one I use to go to Heathrow and then to London and the House of Commons every week. The airport has transformed from a secondary and relatively small regional airport into a hub of Greater Belfast offering flights once unthought of. With its renovation, it is competing with Belfast International for certain routes. As my party’s transport spokesperson, I have always said that we are keen to see connectivity being achieved from Belfast City to Heathrow and then to wherever else that can lead to in the world. That is so important for us, and I know the Minister is industrious and considers how important Belfast City is for us.
Although the expansion and success of the airport have brought clear benefits, not least to the local economy and regeneration of the area, there has been conflict. Despite tight restrictions on the times flights are permitted in and out of the airport, local residents are undoubtedly affected. With further expansion planned—it has been discussed; as I have said, nothing is agreed yet—and amendments to the current noise procedures, concerns have surfaced once again.
Hypertension and insomnia are the most established conditions associated with night-time flying. Although there are time restrictions, night-time flying has the potential to affect those who work shifts or have young children. These stats are ones that the airport agrees with. It says that up to 46,000 people and 21 schools could be affected by the changes proposed for the expansion of Belfast City, and that obviously needs to be taken into account. It is always a difficult one—we do not want to stand in the way of progress, but at the same time we do not want the lives of people who have lived in a certain area their whole lives turned upside down. Those are clear issues, and I am duty-bound to come here today and make those clear comments on behalf of those people.
In 2014, the number of people affected by Belfast City airport’s operations at the level considered by the UK Government to cause serious community annoyance was 4,107. To give Members some idea of what that means, that was greater than Gatwick airport at 3,550 and Stansted airport at 1,400. If the proposals for Belfast City airport go ahead and noise levels rise to their permitted maximum, it will become the fourth noisiest airport in the UK in terms of population impact. Only Heathrow, Manchester and Birmingham would affect more people at or above the Government’s “significant annoyance” threshold. We in Northern Ireland, where the matter is devolved, have the responsibility to look after that threshold. When we are moving forward, we have to remember that things do not have to have a health impact to have adverse effects on the community. People who live in a certain area and have put down roots and invested their income in their home may, through no choice of their own, be directly affected.
Having said that, I read with interest the Airports Commission’s July 2013 aviation noise discussion paper, which found that 4.2 million people are exposed to road traffic noise of 65 dB or more. Let us get some perspective into the debate. The paper found that the corresponding figures for railways and aviation are 0.2 million people and 0.07 million people respectively. So in relative terms, aircraft noise itself has very little impact, but it is still important that those impacted and their viewpoints are respected. It is not just the health issues I have mentioned that are important.
With all the figures and statistics that my hon. Friend has outlined in relation to health problems, difficulties, the built-up area and the number of people, is the bottom line that Belfast will not be able to expand because of its location?
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. The serious question for us all—I am trying to get a balance in my contribution—is whether we have the airport expansion. Should it happen? Can it happen in such a way that is not detrimental to the 46,000 people and 21 schools around the airport that are potentially directly impacted? He is right. The issue he raises is the kernel of this debate.
George Best Belfast City airport could become one of the UK’s five noisiest airports if the controversial expansion plans get the go-ahead. That is a key point. Residents want an independent aircraft noise regulator for Northern Ireland to be appointed and robust noise fines for airlines. If that is what residents want, who could argue with that? Such a proposal seems well-intended, but we have to be careful about unintended consequences. We do not want hard-won business to be put off from continuing to do business in our airports by feeling overregulated. It is about striking a balance. The Minister needs the wisdom of Solomon in relation to this one. If he had the wisdom of Solomon he would be a very wise man and he would have more than just a ministerial role in the Department he is looking after at the moment.
The Planning Appeals Commission report on the Belfast City expansion recommended that the removal of the seats for sale restriction should be accompanied by additional noise controls. That is one of the things that the commission is looking at. The process is ongoing, but it has shown that comprehensive consultation that includes all stakeholders can help to facilitate the right balance being struck between supporting enterprise and business and supporting local residents and ensuring that they are taken care of. In Northern Ireland, we are looking at an airports strategy for the Province to provide the right balance between the commercial interests of airports—that is important for jobs, money and the economy—and the health and quality of life of local residents, but we are still in the midst of consultation and the saga at Belfast City airport goes on.
In conclusion, I look forward to hearing from other Members who will bring their own contributions to this debate and their experiences in their regions.
Just before my hon. Friend finishes, does he agree that, on the issue of noise reduction, the Government generally could do much to assist the development of the C Series by Bombardier, which is an exceptionally quiet aircraft? If that were rolled out and developed more systematically, that would go some way to alleviating the noise concerns for residents, particularly those under the flight path.
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention and his wise words. His contributions are always worth listening to. Can the Minister say what discussions have taken place with aircraft companies on noise reduction? I know that Bombardier is working on that with the C Series, but other companies are probably doing so, too. We need to see the contributions of the aircraft companies and manufacturers.
I once more thank the hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling for giving us a chance to participate in this debate and to offer a Belfast and Northern Ireland perspective. I hope the wise words of other Members will add to the debate, too.
I intend to start calling the three Front Benchers at 10.30. The normal convention is to leave some time for the mover of the motion to say a few words at the end. I have five Back Benchers who have indicated that they want to speak. I am hoping not to need to impose a formal time limit, but informally, if people do the maths, it works out at about six minutes for each speaker, which should be ample.
I congratulate my hon. Friend and neighbour the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat) on securing this debate. It is unfortunate that we are here again discussing an issue that is important to our constituents.
Aircraft noise is incredibly damaging, disturbing and stressful for various communities in the northern part of my constituency. Constituents regularly email me, and this week I had an email that is like many others:
“We have been woken on many nights in the early hours at 1.30 or 2.30 am, as well as suffering the usual stream of planes from before 6 am”.
It continues throughout.
“As a result, despite sleeping with ear plugs, neither of us is now a good sleeper and this has definitely affected our health.”
Constituents in Groombridge wrote in to describe how they
“absolutely dread being at home. We cannot sleep. We live constantly stressed and strained lives. It is so bad, we are seriously considering giving up jobs, schools and closeness to family to move away.”
This can no longer be dismissed as a minor issue. It is a very serious issue that needs to be taken seriously by airports and air traffic authorities.
Over the past few months, I have been grateful for the opportunity to contribute to Gatwick’s review of westerly arrivals. Last year, I held a packed community meeting where constituents were able to vent their frustration about noise pollution to the authors of the review. Earlier this month, I was pleased to join colleagues in welcoming Gatwick’s plan to act on the review’s recommendations and 23 proposals. Those must be implemented quickly, and I and neighbouring MPs will do all that we can to make sure that the process is sped up as fast as possible. I hope the Minister will offer support and assistance so that we can turn the recommendations into reality.
One thing to note is that the whole review and the changes that we expect to result from it will have been a massive waste of time if Gatwick is allowed to expand with a second runway. We will go from 270,000 flights a year to 560,000, with an increase from 325 to around 850 flights a day over Wealden, which means more noise. The areas of outstanding natural beauty that we are all proud of will be even more compromised. The value of our houses will plummet, and, more importantly, the quality of our lives will be further disrupted by noise pollution.
Despite such effects, Gatwick has not committed to any mitigation measures or compensation for Wealden residents in the event of expansion. The compensation package on offer extends only to areas immediately surrounding the airport. Wealden residents, as well as the 20 Wealden schools that would be overflown, will suffer far greater disruption without receiving a single penny in return. Will the Minister outline what operational mitigation measures have been proposed by Gatwick airport to reduce the effect of aviation noise in the event of expansion, and how does that compare with the measures proposed by Heathrow?
The proposed changes to arrival routes at Gatwick are very welcome and we will do all we can to make them a reality as quickly as possible. At the same time, we must not lose sight of the bigger picture and the appalling consequences that expansion at Gatwick would have for our constituents because of aircraft noise.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this morning, Mr Howarth. I congratulate the hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat) on securing the debate. I agree with him that we should not turn this into a debate about where the additional runway in the south-east should go, and I agree that aircraft noise is a problem for every individual and every family affected by it. Those of us whose constituents are affected will understand that.
I will mention a statistic that bears repetition whenever we debate airport expansion, and particularly the issue of noise. It is a problem for every individual who suffers from it, but one has to also look at the quantum of the damage that is done. Some 725,000 people are affected by aircraft noise around Heathrow—it accounts for 28.5% of all those affected by aircraft noise in Europe. That one statistic should have settled the debate about airport expansion in the south-east many years ago. By comparison, 0.5% of people around Gatwick are affected by aircraft noise. I do not diminish that, and I understand that, although there are queries over the figures, the number of people affected around Gatwick would go up from roughly 12,000 to roughly 35,000 or 36,000 if there were expansion there. I have seen various figures for Heathrow, but Transport for London says that the number of people affected would go up to about 1 million if there were expansion there. Others say the number will go up by about 320,000. In other words, the increase would be 10 to 20 times that suffered by people around Gatwick. The reason for that is fairly obvious: Heathrow is in the wrong place and is directly adjacent to some of the most densely populated urban areas in this country.
I hope the hon. Gentleman accepts that the impact of ambient noise has a profound impact on one’s experience of aircraft noise.
It does, but I took slight umbrage at the point that was made in an earlier contribution about those living in rural areas suffering more because they have a quieter environment. Urban areas that are not affected by aircraft noise at the moment, but will be affected for the first time, will also suffer greatly, particularly outside peak hours in the early morning and later at night. Some urban areas, including parts of my constituency, are extremely quiet and will be affected by noise for the first time.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that an ambient noise of, say, 30 dB will lead to an endocrine autonomic effect, which will only be compounded by a level of 55 dB or even 83dB, as is the case with some flights? He probably has the same flights over Hammersmith that I have over Twickenham. Does he also agree that, medically, it is the children who suffer most?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady. Her technical knowledge exceeds mine, but she is absolutely right. Friends of the Earth, for example, contends that it is misleading to talk about the noise energy emitted by planes being reduced, which is what Heathrow says will happen. According to Heathrow, fewer people will be affected by noise when the third runway is built, when 250,000 additional flights are going over west London and there will be an increase in activity of just under 50%. I do not know anybody who actually believes that apart from the people who spin for Heathrow, but, as Friends of the Earth says, even if there is a decrease in noise energy emitted by planes, that is only loosely linked to human perception of noise, and a 50% reduction in noise energy is only just detectable by the human ear.
Even if there are quieter aircraft and noise is reduced generally, it will still disproportionately affect those who live around Heathrow, because of the massive number of people affected. Any benefit will be gained by people around other airports.
The hon. Gentleman is making interesting points, but does he recognise that the problem affects the whole United Kingdom? We have heard comments from Belfast and will no doubt hear comments from Scotland. We should work together to create a level playing field of understanding, so that the planning for another runway in Perthshire or in Penzance is the same as it would be for Gatwick or Heathrow. At least we would then have some common understanding of the impact on the community beneath, and decisions could be taken in a fair and equitable manner and not just on the basis of who shouts loudest and longest.
I agree with that. One still has to bear in mind that if a third runway is built—I declare an interest, because the Airports Commission’s preferred option will run directly over central Hammersmith—whole new communities, and populous communities, will be affected for the first time. As a report published earlier this year shows, 460 schools around Heathrow are exposed to aircraft noise levels that may impair learning and memory. The health consequences include higher risk of strokes, heart disease and cardiovascular problems. Hundreds of thousands of people could be affected by those serious problems.
I particularly want to hear from the Minister about the review of night flights. The existing regulations end in 2017, so when are we going to have a consultation? Will the Minister condemn Heathrow for not even saying, as the Airports Commission recommended, that there should be a ban on night flights and that a fourth runway should be ruled out? Those are the concerns going forward.
Those of us who have battled Heathrow expansion for 30 years—the current expansion is always the last one—will never believe any promises the airport makes. We want to see the decision made in such a way that the Government are accountable to Members from all parties. Above all, whatever the effects of airport expansion, we want to see them mitigated, not only by improved technology but by reducing the number of people affected.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat) on securing this incredibly important debate. I agree with him that there is an absolute need for change, but where I disagree is that I do think that a lot of condemnation is due. That is where I agree with the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter). As he said, 725,000 people are affected by Heathrow, which means that, of all the people in Europe who are affected by noise pollution, 28% live under a Heathrow flight path.
I hope the Minister will take on board what my hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell (Dr Lee) said, because there is no trust in the information that communities are being given and in the action the airports are taking to alleviate such a serious medical issue. I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Wealden (Nusrat Ghani). I, too, have to wear earplugs, which I did not have to do a few years ago. Things have changed and we are being woken up at 4 in the morning. There is noise late at night and at all kinds of hours. There is no mitigation for night flights—none is possible.
I mentioned condemnation because Heathrow affects more people than the airports of Paris, Frankfurt, Amsterdam and Madrid combined. That is why it is such an urgent problem, both environmentally and medically. I hope that the Minister will take that on board. As my hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling said, we do have medical evidence. We know that there is a direct correlation between noise pollution and cardiovascular events. We also know from the World Health Organisation that seven categories of medical problems are associated with noise pollution, so it is a very serious problem. As I said in an intervention on the hon. Member for Hammersmith, ambient noise does not make people less sensitive to noise. Ambient noise is a problem in itself; it provides no mitigation.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling for mentioning the National Physical Laboratory, which is a world leader in noise measurement. I hope that the Minister will look into citizen scientists, because we need the community to be able to measure noise pollution. I believe that the NPL is close to giving us ways of measuring that are accessible for the community. The LAeq measurement is an average; it does not take night flights into account. The other decibel measurement, Lden, is an average over 24 hours. The medical problem relates to when the noise happens, its peak and its irregularity, so the existing measurements are not meaningful for the communities that are disrupted by aircraft noise. As the hon. Member for Hammersmith and I have said, 725,000 people are currently affected by Heathrow; goodness knows, that number will be more than 1 million if there is expansion at the airport.
I agree with my hon. Friends the Members for Bracknell and for Tonbridge and Malling that there is no trust and that there is dissemblance in the information provided. I notice that my local community group, Teddington Action Group, has reported that there is now a serious problem with planes flying at lower angles over longer distances, earlier in the morning and later at night. It is a serious trend. I am grateful to the action group for working out, with the publicly available data, that Heathrow is only just meeting its legal requirements, which are not adequate anyway. I agree with the action group that, rather than aircraft having 6.5 km to reach 1,000 feet, they should be at 2,500 feet at that point. The minimum climb rate of 4% to an altitude of 4,000 feet should be increased to a rate of 4% up to 6,000 feet.
I humbly request that the Minister meets me to discuss the review that is needed of the noise notice around Heathrow airport. I would be very grateful if he did so, given the incredible work that my community has done and what our Twickenham expertise can do with the NPL. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling that noise should be considered a statutory nuisance. The Environmental Protection Act 1990 should be changed to reflect that.
I absolutely condemn what is going on right now, and I also condemn the dissembling. Change is needed, because no mitigation is possible for the levels of noise pollution that are affecting my idyll of Twickenham.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. I thank the hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat) for securing this debate.
My constituency lies under the final approach path for Heathrow for the 70% of the time that the airport is on westerly operations. The area is fully built up beneath those flight paths, as passengers sitting by the aircraft windows will be well aware. My constituency is the second most overflown constituency in London. Most of the 94,000 residents of Brentford and Isleworth are affected by aircraft noise, with a plane taking off or landing every 60 to 90 seconds. As my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) said, according to figures from the European Commission, 725,000 people across London and the south-east are significantly affected by noise from aircraft using Heathrow.
I have some quotes from some of my constituents. Carol Petersen said:
“Although I live in Chiswick and therefore not in the immediate vicinity of the airport, I should like to record the effect of night noise in this area. This morning several came past at 5 am and we could not get back to sleep. The impact is significant. We can tolerate this during the day, but when sleep patterns are ruined it is very difficult.”
Basia Filzec lives a lot closer to the airport and said:
“Heathrow has always been a very poor neighbour. Apart from the noise and the smell, first flights are around 4.30 am and there are some night flights. When I was working it was very distressing to have to go to work not having had enough sleep. It made the job even more stressful.”
My constituent Diane wrote:
“We have endured weeks of flights past 11 pm and before 6 am (sometimes at 3.40 am). To be a reasonable neighbour Heathrow needs to ensure that we get 9 hours per night free of this noise so we stand a chance of getting 8 hours sleep. On two nights last week we only had 5 hours’ break—impossible to live or work effectively when sleep deprived. I am sure that those areas closer to the landing site suffer even more.”
More than 90% of children educated in the London Borough of Hounslow’s schools, nurseries and colleges are directly affected by aircraft noise. A school in Hounslow will be overflown at least every 90 seconds. Noise level is significantly related to children’s mathematical performance. As noise increases by contour band, performance drops by 0.73 of a mark. Schools exposed to high levels of aircraft noise near Heathrow have more than the average number of children with English as a second language. In addition, there is increasing evidence of the impact of noise on health—including on cardiovascular health, strokes and mental health—which will lead to a massive cost to the public purse and the economy.
I agree with the hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling about the need for a public debate about flight routes and approach methods, but in my constituency the planes are on their final approach, so their routes cannot be varied. Steeper glide paths might actually increase the noise levels for those closest to the airport as the planes throttle back.
We have some mitigations, but they are frequently not met. There are not supposed to be night flights before 4 am, and the approach paths to Heathrow on the westerly approach should be alternated for half of the day, but those measures are often breached. The airport contributes to the cost of insulation and ventilation in some existing school buildings, but only those in the very noisiest areas. It covers nothing like all those affected, and no new school buildings have been insulated or improved by the Heathrow scheme.
My constituents look forward to the promised quieter planes, to full alternation, to decent insulation and to a ban on night flights so they can have some semblance of normal life and can sleep through the night more often and wake up fresher the next day. They do not want the 46% increase in flights that a third runway would mean.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship once again, Mr Howarth. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat) on securing this debate. He, like me, has many constituents who live in rural communities, where the lower ambient noise makes the experience of aircraft hugely oppressive.
Gatwick is surrounded on three sides by areas of outstanding natural beauty. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) said, the impact of Gatwick on the otherwise tranquil environment of large swathes of both of our constituencies is immense. In such conditions, noise can be experienced over a wide field—some 3.5 to 5 miles either side of the aircraft. The concentration of noise in quiet environments is not properly recognised by the existing standard industry metrics, which measure noise over 24 hours. In some parts of my constituency, the rate of take-offs has resulted in a relentless wall of noise, which is a pressing problem for my constituents.
I wish to focus on the issues that are being experienced right now, but, with great respect to my hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling, no debate on aircraft noise would be complete without a reference to runway expansion. If the Government were to go against the clear recommendation of the Davies commission and make what to my mind is the wrong decision on runway expansion, the number of flights over my constituency would double to up to 560,000 per year. Aircraft movements would become more concentrated on existing flightpaths, and two new flightpaths would be created over Copthorne and Crawley Down. The villages of Rusper and Copthorne would be taken within the standard noise contours for Gatwick. Rusper would be overflown by more than 300 easterly arrivals a day to the southern runway and more than 300 westerly departures using two routes from the same runway. Warnham and Slinfold would experience 150-plus concentrated departures per day, and Billingshurst would be affected by the massive increase in aircraft approaching both runways. The list goes on. I will not mention every single village in my constituency that would be adversely affected, because they all would be.
As the Davies commission pointed out,
“Knowing that aviation noise will be limited to certain times of the day is very important to many people.”
That is something on which I have common cause with the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) and my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Dr Mathias). With that in mind, I am horrified that Gatwick’s post-expansion proposal is to operate both runways for take-offs and landings throughout the day, offering no period for respite—not even during the night. Night flights are incentivised by Gatwick’s charging structure. That is a nightmarish vision of the future.
However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Wealden (Nusrat Ghani) so eloquently set out, the present has its own severe problems. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling, I welcome the independent arrivals review that was established by Gatwick. That shows its awareness of the very real concerns of many residents. I hope that the proposed noise management board will maintain that focus and be given real teeth so that it not only brings together stakeholders but makes a genuine impact.
As Gatwick considers its response, I ask that it addresses certain key issues. I have sought and received assurances from the airport that the impact of departures on communities will be taken into account when it determines its position on arrivals. Although the review focused on the latter, rather than the former, it would be wholly unfair and incongruous if attempts to mitigate the impact of aircraft noise were made without a proper appreciation of both arrivals and departures on residents.
The proposed wider swathe for arrivals from the west should result in a fairer distribution of aircraft impact. However, that will not be the case if air traffic control simply allows pilots to come in consistently by the shortest possible route. That will result in a heavy concentration of flights over a small area of my constituency, which is already severely adversely affected by departures. I understand that negotiations on that point are ongoing between Gatwick and NATS. It is an issue on which my constituents want cast-iron guarantees.
I am disappointed that night flights, which hon. Members have already spoken about, were excluded from the Gatwick review. Like the hon. Member for Hammersmith, I look to the Minister for reassurance that the consultation on night flights will be forthcoming this year. On technical innovations, I again look to the Minister to support the principle that noise modifications should be made on time and be effective. As mentioned earlier, Gatwick has a sunset date of the end of 2017 for A320s to be fitted with noise modification. The success of that depends on defaulters being subjected to severe penalties for non-compliance.
Finally—I again look to the Minister on this point—I am saddened that a more innovative approach has not been taken to stacking. As the Minister also has responsibility for shipping, he is more aware than most that we are an island. Could not a way be found to stack aircraft out to sea, rather than, as at present, over residential areas, national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty?
I call Caroline Spelman. I ask you to bear in mind that I intend to call the Front Benchers at 10.30 am.
I am extremely grateful to you for allowing me to scrape in under the wire, Mr Howarth, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat) for securing this debate.
Birmingham airport is in my constituency. As the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) said, it has one of the highest numbers of people affected by aircraft noise, as it is close to the conurbation. Its recent expansion and the lengthening of its runway brought aircraft lower and closer to the populations underneath it. Unfortunately, that coincided with the proposed national flightpath changes. The trials caused a significant increase in noise pollution for the community underneath. The fact that the aircraft could not fly the new routes accurately also caused confusion and dismay. The airport apologised for that, but the community suffered a breach of trust, and good will has been damaged.
The Civil Aviation Authority has now approved the airport’s preferred option, but three further mitigations are to be trialled: the angle of descent and ascent will be increased, and different types of aircraft will fly slightly different routes. I suspect that we have some more challenges ahead. The concentration of sound has increased the impact on certain households. The removal of manoeuvres to deflect sound away from communities was disappointing.
Looking ahead, I hope the Minister will recognise the blight that is caused by uncertainty about the proposals to expand airports. Birmingham once proposed a second runway, but has now extended its single runway. It now has the same capacity as Gatwick, but only one third of its passengers. I hope that will put paid to the threat of another runway being proposed in that densely populated location, and I hope the Minister will strongly oppose any suggestion of reopening a second runway proposal at Birmingham.
I commend and congratulate the hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat) on securing this important and timely debate on a very important issue for his constituency. He has voiced concern about aircraft noise around Gatwick for some time. Although he was pleased that the Airports Commission recommended Heathrow, he vowed to continue to campaign on the matter. I understand that it is close to his heart.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned the issue of airspace, which has been a problem in the UK for many decades. We have had a glaring lack of an airspace strategy, so it is about time to deal with the issue in the round, along with noise and air quality. As a side issue, he reflected on the dodging of incoming elements when landing at Helmand and Basra, and of course we have the current issue of drones near aircraft, which needs to be addressed in an air strategy. I hope that the Minister will do something about that before there is a critical problem.
Returning to the main point, I am the MP for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey, and the House will understand that we do not have the same issues as Heathrow or Gatwick. Indeed, we are keen to get more routes, because we have been left behind for many years, and we are delighted that British Airways is introducing a new route between Inverness and Heathrow. However, that does not mean that we have no understanding of the Gatwick and Heathrow situation. Personally, I lived under the Heathrow flight path for many years, enduring night flights and Concorde, which was exceptionally noisy when it flew over my house. We understand the issue, but it is also important to understand that 90% of international visitors to Scotland—a big driver for the tourism economy—travel by air, with more than a third coming through Heathrow, which is therefore clearly of interest to us.
The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) mentioned the need for the end of uncertainty about airport expansion. We heard the same from the right hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs Spelman) and a number of hon. Members, all of whom said that they did not particularly want to talk about airport expansion, although they all mentioned it. I will come back to that subject in a moment.
The hon. Member for Strangford also talked about the need to look at the strategy of other Governments and Administrations. The Scottish Government are committed to understanding and managing the environmental impacts of air travel. They have acknowledged that noise can be distressing, affects quality of life and can have an impact on our health and environment. The existing legislation and controls are for vehicle noise and provide limited solutions to the problems of transportation noise. The Scottish Government are therefore making use of the European Union environmental noise directive, commonly known as END, to manage noise pollution, particularly from transportation sources.
The directive was transposed into Scots law in 2006. As per END, noise maps and noise action plans have been published for all major airport areas in Scotland. Delivery of the END objectives in Scotland has been achieved through extensive partnership working. The Scottish Government assumed responsibility for the co-ordination of noise mapping and action planning exercises, but they were heavily supported by individual working groups dealing with each of the major airports and other transportation systems.
Two rounds of noise mapping have been carried out by consultants AECOM. The consultants also host an interactive website on behalf of the Scottish Government, which displays all the Scottish noise mapping, action plans and statistics, allowing anyone to provide feedback or to raise an issue. The Scottish Government have received many positive comments and much feedback on their approach from others in the UK and throughout Europe. All that work has been informed by research at EU, UK and Scottish levels.
I want to discuss airport expansion, which is the issue that Members have been dancing around. The Scottish Government remain impartial on the Airports Commission’s report. The Prime Minister, however, has put political convenience before UK connectivity by delaying his decision. The concern of local communities is understandable, given the stress and problems that can be caused by noise pollution, not to mention the potential disruption to everyday life, so the longer the Government delay their decision, the further the lives of people living around airports in the south-east will be plunged into uncertainty. That is all the more important given that the Airports Commission stated that aircraft were responsible for some negative effects on health, concentration and wellbeing, as we have heard from hon. Members today. That makes the conclusion of a decision even more important for those negatively affected.
The Prime Minister seems to have wriggled out of his commitment because he wants to help his party to win the mayoral election in London. He is not making a decision, at any scale, based on commercial activity or the direct impact on the economies of the nations of the UK, nor is he considering the uncertainty for local communities. Yet the UK Government constantly promote a new runway as a national infrastructure project with huge ramifications for air connectivity to Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and the regions of England.
Any decision on the runway will have a massive impact on travel, exports, growth and jobs throughout the nations of our islands—not only London and the south-east of England but the rest of us. A further delay in taking a firm decision will mean that the UK continues to be an international laughing stock, as other nations yet again steal a march on investment and business and as people are stuck in the Government’s departure lounge to nowhere. As I said, I believe the delay in the decision is because the Prime Minister wants to allow his party to win the mayoral election in London. The decision, however, should be made not for party political reasons but based on the right outcomes. Freezing a decision is wrong—
Order. I remind the hon. Gentleman that the debate is about aircraft noise. Although he is not out of order, he is straying into a slightly wider argument.
Thank you for your advice, Mr Howarth. I had hoped to have made it clear why I was discussing those things—the effect on noise and air pollution, as well as the economics. They have been mentioned by all Members who have spoken today. However, I will conclude my remarks now.
Freezing the decision is wrong. The delay is not about noise or air quality. That is just a cold myth; this is about a Goldsmith.
It is a pleasure, as always, to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth.
I add my congratulations to the hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat) on securing the debate and, indeed, on how he introduced it. The matter is clearly of concern to many right hon. and hon. Members in all parts of the House. If I got my calculations right, 15 right hon. and hon. Members from the Back Benches have spoken today in interventions or speeches, which underlines that point.
Noise from aircraft operations is a real source of tension between airports, authorities, airlines and local communities. It is not only the annoyance or disruption, important though such things are, but the genuine public health concerns about ongoing exposure to aircraft noise. A report published in January this year by the Aviation Environment Federation drew on evidence accumulated over the past 20 years to highlight noise exposure and the way in which it can impact on someone’s quality of life. Some studies go further and draw links to the possibility of many serious long-term health problems, to which many hon. Members referred: my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) and the hon. Members for Twickenham (Dr Mathias) and for Wealden (Nusrat Ghani). All that shows that we need more research to understand in more detail the many variables at play.
Addressing the question of noise is part of a much wider aviation puzzle, the pieces of which we need to join together. Challenges are coming to a head: noise challenges; modernising outdated airspace regulation; improving service access; promoting cleaner and greener aviation; and meeting various environmental challenges. The elephant in the room, relevant to all those things, is the question of airport capacity—the point made by the spokesperson of the Scottish National party, the hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Drew Hendry).
Last year, the Prime Minister promised a response on the airport capacity question before Christmas. The hon. Gentleman speaking for the SNP made the point that the reasons for the delay might have been political—heaven forfend that any of us have that thought! The point is that when the delay was announced the Government at the time said they wanted time to consider the recommendations and the report of the Environmental Audit Committee. They are valid questions, and I wonder why the Government were not already asking them, between the publication of the commission report last summer and the announcement, or non-announcement, just before Christmas. I want to ask the Minister what work has been done since the Government delayed their decision to ensure that we get a decision this summer? Will he confirm that the Government will make a decision this summer, or could things take even longer?
We have been clear about the four criteria against which we will assess a decision, whenever the Government announce it: how it addresses airport capacity; how that works in relation to carbon obligations; local noise and other environmental impacts; and how the rest of the UK, not simply the south-east, will be affected. The third test relates directly to what we are talking about today—noise. The hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling was right to say that the debate today is not about the decision between Gatwick and Heathrow, but whichever is chosen the noise and air quality impact on communities must be addressed. My worry about noise is that all written questions that other Members and I have tabled on the issue seem to receive a stock response from the Government—that they are conducting an ongoing review of their airspace and noise policies. That is fine, but we need to know what it involves. Are the Government in touch with the World Health Organisation to take account of health guidance, and what is their current thinking about the Davies commission’s recommendation on a ban on night flights? The messages coming from Heathrow and some airlines have been that they do not feel night flights can be ruled out, for all sorts of reasons, including connectivity.
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend’s point. He may have seen that the question was raised in the other place earlier in the week about when the independent aviation noise authority recommended by the Airports Commission would be set up. The reply from the Government was, “We are not going to do anything until the decision has been made.” That is a lacklustre approach.
My hon. Friend is right, and I will say a couple of words about the noise ombudsman, as it is sometimes referred to, in a little while.
The Government have commissioned Ipsos MORI research on public attitudes to aviation noise. If that is to inform the public debate, it needs to be published. My question to the Minister, again, is when it will be published.
I also want to ask the Minister about airspace redesign, a theme that has come up several times in the debate. Future approaches to the best use of airspace, bearing in mind changes and advances in technology, should inform issues of where to put new runways, and how they should be used. However, even without any airport expansion, the UK needs to modernise its outdated airspace management, in line with the EU single European sky programme. The benefits of doing that are obviously big, but the question is how we are to find a balance between dispersing routes between a number of corridors or concentrating on a number of routes. Either option has pros and cons for communities, and those that are negatively affected must be fairly compensated. However, whatever is done, a decision must be made. We have seen that trust can drain away when trials come out and people do not know what is going on. NATS, the Civil Aviation Authority, airports and communities need clear signals as to what will happen about airspace operations.
The hon. Gentleman is a fellow Birmingham-based MP. Does he acknowledge that there was no compensation for people following the airspace changes—nor, indeed, following the runway extension?
The right hon. Lady makes a valid point. The point I am making is that going forward we need a more comprehensive approach to such things. In appearances before the Transport Committee in February the Secretary of State and Department for Transport officials promised to publish a consultation on future airspace “soon”. What they would not say was whether the delay—and possibly further delays—in looking at expansion would lead to further delay in looking at airspace management. How soon is soon? What timetable is the Minister working on?
Whatever the Minister’s answers to the other questions that I have put to him both today and in writing, I must put it to him and the Government that delays, and the fact that there are difficult questions ahead, should not mean there is nothing we can do now. My hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith made the point correctly that an independent aviation noise authority could be established now, to act as an impartial mediator between airports and communities and help to restore trust and deliver the future of airspace operation. Nothing more is needed before that can be done. Sir Howard Davies and the Environmental Audit Committee endorsed the idea, and if the Minister endorsed it today it would certainly have the Opposition’s full backing, so let us get on with it. Will he do that?
Making use of existing capacity would also alleviate pressure on airspace. A key to utilising capacity is improving road and rail access to different international gateways in the UK. It is the Airport Operators Association’s top priority for 2016 and would bring about environmental and noise improvements around airports. Will the Minister back our calls for the National Infrastructure Commission to look at surface access to the UK’s international gateways?
Finally, I want to put it to the Minister that it is important to work with industry on the issue of noise. The Sustainable Aviation group has produced an aviation noise road map showing how aviation can manage noise from aircraft operations between now and 2050. It emphasises the importance of improving airspace structures and operational procedures, but also points out, importantly, that a key is future aircraft and engine technology. The noise road map shows that, unless that new technology comes on stream and is used, noise output could double, even without expansion, in the coming years. What are the Government doing to encourage innovation, as well as the take-up of lighter, smaller aircraft such as the Boeing 787 and A350? Retrofitting noise-reducing devices to older fleets is also critical, and I think that the hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling mentioned that. How are the Government promoting that? Does the Minister know what proportion of aircraft at each UK airport have not yet had such devices installed? If he does not know, when will he find out, and what will he do to put such measures in place?
I look forward to the Minister addressing those points. Vital questions have been raised today. At some point down the line the decision on expansion will come. It would be very useful to know when, but, irrespective of that, when will decisions be made on the various questions that I and other hon. Members have raised today?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat) on securing the debate. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) suggested that we might need the wisdom of Solomon. I cannot claim to have that, but I am wise enough not to stray into the area that the Scottish National party spokesman, the hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Drew Hendry), encouraged us to stray into. I shall focus on the issue of noise, if I may.
I want to assure the House that the Government are acutely aware that noise is a major environmental concern around airports. We know that communities feel strongly about the issue. I remind the House that, as set out in the aviation policy framework published in 2013, our overall policy is
“to limit and, where possible, reduce the number of people in the UK significantly affected by aircraft noise”.
How we define the word “significantly” is important, and I well understand the points that have been made about background ambient noise in more rural areas. In accordance with the aviation policy framework, we will continue to treat 57 dB as the average level of daytime aircraft noise that marks the approximate onset of significant community annoyance. That does not, however, mean that all people within that contour will experience significant adverse affects. Nor does it mean that no one outside the contour will consider themselves annoyed by aircraft noise. We are looking at the matter, and our consultation later in the year will consider policy in that area and particularly what it means for airspace change. Our overarching policy on the issue of noise remains as I have set out, and I think that the House will agree that it is the right approach to take.
We have a strong aviation sector here in the United Kingdom, and we should be proud of it, but we want to ensure that it does all it can to reduce the effect of noise on communities. I know that airports and other stakeholders, such as airlines, the CAA and NATS, all realise the importance of tackling noise if the industry is to continue to grow. The Government, too, have a role to play, which is why we set noise controls at Gatwick, Heathrow and Stansted to balance the benefits of aviation with the burdens they place on communities.
Aircraft noise is a difficult issue, as we have heard, and when changes take place, they can lead to less noise for some but a worsening for others. It can be particularly difficult for people who experience a noticeable change in noise, and it presents formidable challenges for those responsible for decisions. I am aware that in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling, and in others, people will have experienced changes in noise in recent years because of changes to where aircraft fly.
As my hon. Friend mentioned, a recent change to the joining point for aircraft approaching Gatwick from the east has created concerns for some residents. That change affected the point at which aircraft join the instrument landing system that leads down to the runway. Although that will have meant that some people have experienced fewer aircraft, for others it will have led to an increase in noise as a result of a narrower and more concentrated swathe on the final approach. As he will be aware, the Government believe that it is usually better to concentrate aircraft over as few routes as possible in order to minimise the number of people affected. That has been Government policy for many years and works well for many airports across the country.
Our current policy makes it clear, however, that there may be instances in which multiple routes, such as those that can offer respite for communities, can be better. The Government believe that those decisions should be made on a case-by-case basis, with local communities informing the process where possible. I understand that in this instance, as the change was not to published airspace routes, communities were neither informed nor consulted before it occurred. For aircraft arriving in the UK, there are no set routes leading to the final approach. That is because arriving aircraft approach UK airspace in a random pattern and then have to be sequenced for safe operation by air traffic controllers. The change that took place in 2013 was to the procedures that air traffic controllers followed. It was therefore not subject to the Civil Aviation Authority’s airspace change process, which needs to be followed when changes to airspace routes are proposed and requires consultation. Although there is no suggestion that NATS, Gatwick or the CAA acted improperly when making the change, as I have said, I believe that communities should be engaged when such changes are made.
I turn to one or two points that were made in the debate. My hon. Friend talked about changing the angle of approach. At the end of March, Heathrow airport trialled a 3.2° descent, but of course that requires significant pilot training and safety tests. As some airports trial that, more can follow. We need to look at pilot training and plane technology, and the report following that trial is expected over the summer. Having flown the 747 simulator into Heathrow at various descent angles, I can well understand some of the issues involved—in particular, the kinetic energy in a plane when it arrives on a steeper descent. That requires training, and there are noise issues when planes get nearer to the airport as greater braking power is needed. However, the descents are certainly not the same as I experienced when being taken into Kandahar airport some time ago.
My hon. Friends the Members for Tonbridge and Malling and for Horsham (Jeremy Quin) both referred to the lack of a night flight ban at Gatwick. The Government recognise the impact of noise disturbance at night and, for that reason, set night flight restrictions at Heathrow, Stansted and Gatwick. The current restrictions end in October 2017, and we will consult on future arrangements later this year to ensure that the cost and benefits of night flights continue to be balanced.
My hon. Friend the Member for Horsham asked why stacking could not be done out at sea. The Gatwick arrivals review has recommended that holding areas should be enabled over the sea. Gatwick has accepted that, but it will take some years, as it will require widespread airspace and procedural change. Gatwick will be conferring with the CAA and NATS on that particular issue.
A number of Members raised the issue of the health effects on people on the ground. I have visited schools in the constituency of the hon. Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Ruth Cadbury) and experienced the noise at first hand. I had a briefing earlier this week from the Aviation Environment Federation, which presented some very important research—not least from Imperial College, a well respected institution—on the effects on cardiovascular disease and other diseases.
The basic structure of UK airspace was developed more than 40 years ago and since then there has been a dramatic increase in the demand for flights. The future airspace strategy, which is being led by the CAA, is crucial to ensuring that the industry is efficient and can minimise its overall environmental impacts. The plan is to modernise UK airspace and deliver our contribution to the European Commission’s single European sky by 2030—the date by which we feel we should be able to do that. It is an ambitious plan designed around the use of modern technology, including more precise navigation.
Performance-based navigation can vastly improve the accuracy with which aircraft can fly a designated route, and airspace systemisation will mean that they follow a more predictable route, reducing the need for interference from air traffic controllers. That will not only make air travel safer but reduce emissions and journey times. It will also offer the chance to reduce noise for communities around airports by allowing routes that can accurately avoid built-up areas and maximising the rate at which aircraft can climb or descend. For those benefits to be realised, however, we need to ensure that when those essential changes take place, they work for communities as much as possible.
My officials are constantly reviewing Government policies on airspace and aviation noise. One thing I have asked them to consider is whether we can ensure that communities are informed and, when appropriate, consulted when such changes are to be made. They have also been working to deliver the right policies by engaging with all stakeholders, including representatives of local communities. I know that they have found that engagement valuable in ensuring that communities’ interests are represented, and we will continue that dialogue when refining our policies.
I thank the Minister for his promise to consult communities. Should the Government be inclined to go ahead with runway 3 at Heathrow, will they consult the 300,000 residents of west London and beyond who would be affected? Those people are not currently affected by aircraft noise to the same extent as they would be in that situation.
May I ask the Minister to bear in mind that he needs to leave some time for the mover of the motion to sum up?
Thank you, Mr Howarth.
Of course we will consult in that case.
The Government want to maximise the benefits from a strong aviation sector; it is good for the economy, bringing investment and employment to the UK and wider benefits to society and individuals. However, the Government recognise that that needs to be balanced against the costs to the local environment that more flights bring, with noise being a prime example. I thank the Members who have taken part in this debate; it has been useful to inform the Government of people’s views, and I look forward to hearing the summing-up by my hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling.
I thank the Minister for his words. I am grateful for the support that I have received from throughout the House today, and particularly for the many comments from Scottish National party and Labour Members. They have shown that this issue covers every party in every part of our great kingdom.
If I am honest, I am little disappointed that we have not yet had a better answer on what the words “significantly affected” mean, and that we have not had what I hoped we would have—a promise that the Civil Aviation Authority and NATS will take into account the communities on the ground when they are looking at the future airspace strategy. I think that is absolutely essential for all communities across our country.
In the closing few moments, I would like to pay a small tribute to Gatwick Obviously Not, a campaign group in my constituency that has worked tirelessly and fought very hard not only for communities in our area, but—as I hope this debate has recognised—for communities across our country that are suffering. Aviation noise recognises no boundaries of constituency, or indeed of town, borough or county.
Sadly, this issue will come back again and again, because although some have felt the need to argue against one project or another—it will come as no surprise that I would always argue against Gatwick’s expansion—this is not about Gatwick or Heathrow. It is about the rights of citizens in our great country to be treated fairly and with justice when some of the planning decisions that are most important to them are taken. Were a motorway to be bulldozed through their back garden or a railway to be bulldozed under their land, they would have a right to be consulted. When the same is done in the air—when a motorway is put over their homes, their lives are disrupted, their sleep is interrupted and their children fail to get to school on time because they are tired—they get no say. That is surely wrong. I welcome the Minister beginning to answer that, and I know that this is a fight we will take forward.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the effect of aircraft noise on local communities.
Cardiff Coal Exchange
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the future of the Cardiff Coal Exchange.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. I welcome the new Wales Office Minister to his post. We have both served on the Welsh Affairs Committee and I was pleased to hear that he would respond to this debate.
The subject of the recent ownership and the future of the Cardiff Coal Exchange is extremely complex. It cuts across devolved and reserved matters and the responsibilities of several UK Departments, including the Wales Office, and the Welsh Government. Let me make it clear at the outset that I do not expect the Minister to have all the answers today, but I hope he will listen carefully to my concerns. I am interested in his views on them and ask him to make representations to the Departments involved and the incoming Welsh Government, and to take a personal interest in the future of what is arguably one of the most important buildings of the Welsh national heritage and indeed our industrial heritage from the 19th and 20th centuries.
I do not want to detain the House too long on the remarkable history, architectural merits and the importance of the coal exchange to Cardiff and the Butetown community, as I want to focus on current matters, but I would be remiss not to remind the Chamber of some crucial issues.
Cardiff became the largest coal port in the world at the end of the 19th century and the coal exchange was constructed in the 1880s by Edwin Seward as a base from which to conduct trade negotiations regarding the coal mines of the south Wales valleys, with Cardiff being the key coal port in the world at the time. Following its opening, ship owners, their agents and many others interested in the coal trade met daily on the floor of the remarkable trading hall, where agreements were made by word of mouth and telephone. It has been estimated that 10,000 people would pass in and out of the building each day. At one time, the price of the world’s coal was determined in the Cardiff Coal Exchange in Butetown. It is famously claimed that the first £1 million business deal took place and the first £1 million cheque was signed at the coal exchange during a transaction in 1901.
With the decline of the coal industry and of the export of coal from Cardiff and the Bute docks during the 20th century, the coal exchange eventually closed in 1958 and coal exports from Cardiff dock came to an end in the 1960s.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate and on his extensive work on the issue. He mentioned the proud history of the building, which is iconic for Wales. Does he agree that the Labour council that currently runs Cardiff should consider all those matters?
I have some concerns about Cardiff Council’s involvement, which are focused on the officers of the council, and I will make that clear.
The building became grade II* listed in 1975 and there were discussions about the use of the building, which is so important that it was considered as the future home of the proposed Welsh Assembly during the devolution referendum in the 1970s. It was also considered as the headquarters for S4C, the Welsh language television channel. Eventually, it was refurbished and reopened as a major venue hosting acts such as the Manic Street Preachers, Ocean Colour Scene and the Stereophonics. There has been support from across the music and entertainment spectrum and people who have enjoyed gigs and events there. I see my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan) here and I know he has been there for many gigs, as has my hon. Member for Cardiff Central (Jo Stevens), as have I. There was even support recently from Sir Tom Jones, no less.
However, the coal exchange closed indefinitely in August 2013 as a result of claimed building safety issues and the imposition of prohibition orders by Cardiff Council, which were themselves a matter of controversy. There has been an issue about the council’s regulatory functions potentially being used unsympathetically to frustrate access to the building over a number of years. We then saw the liquidation of Macob, the company that owned the exchange, and in 2014, ownership of the coal exchange was disclaimed by the liquidators and passed to the Crown Estate. That was an unusual legal situation and led to a great deal of uncertainty.
At that point, I became aware of a lot of local concern about the future of the building. My office is nearby in Mount Stuart Square in one of the other historic buildings of Cardiff Bay. The coal exchange is a building I have long felt a great attachment and passion for. Many people in the community came forward and, with the opportunity presented by its being disclaimed to the Crown Estate, I decided to make a public call for all the parties interested in its future to come together for the benefit of the community and to save the building.
I was contacted by many hundreds of people: existing tenants, experts, former workers in the building and people from the diverse Butetown community and those associated with the building in the past, as well as an extensive number of interested developers. We held a first major public meeting in Butetown in October 2014, which was followed by a smaller working group coming together to form what was to become the Save The Coal Exchange campaign at the end of the same month. It was clear there was a significant appetite for a collaborative effort involving all those who cared about the building to find a solution.
A number of formal claims persisted against the building from Cardiff Council, Julian Hodge bank, Barclays bank and Coal Exchange Ltd, the company that had previously hosted events at the venue and had effectively been forced out of it by the council-imposed prohibitions, but there was great optimism that a solution involving the local community, the council, the Welsh Government, Cadw, the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Victorian Society and others who had expressed an interest, as well as a private developer or investment of private funds, might result in a solution that would not only save this remarkable piece of heritage, but find a use or uses that could meet multiple needs, retain community access to it and generate revenue to secure its future. In the months following, there was much progress.
Over the past 18 months, the Save The Coal Exchange campaign has secured parts of the habitable building, ensuring bills were paid for utilities, attracting a significant number of new tenants, ranging from lawyers to creatives and community organisations and, crucially, challenging the false perception that has repeatedly arisen that the entire building is derelict and at immediate risk of falling down. Parts of it are in a difficult state, but other parts are entirely functional and the public debate has at times been extremely misleading.
Surveys were undertaken and approaches made to prospective partners. The Save The Coal Exchange campaign secured a grant of £10,000 from the Heritage Lottery Fund Wales with a view to a larger application. I commend the campaign for doing a remarkable job in keeping the building going and keeping open the options for its future. At the same time, the Welsh Government commissioned their own survey and studies, and a series of developers expressed interest in being involved.
On no fewer than seven occasions, I met Cardiff Council officials—
The hon. Gentleman alluded to the Welsh Government study, which was done by Capita, and the Cardiff Council study, which was done by RVW. The costs were estimated to be in the region of £35 million to £45 million. Does he accept that that is an enormous amount of money, that the issue is not new, that the Welsh Government have sat on their hands when it comes to helping Cardiff Council out with this problem, and that a large amount of money could fall on taxpayers?
I have concerns about the liability for taxpayers, but the Welsh Government have engaged proactively and positively. I hope that the new Government will look carefully at these issues.
As I said, on no fewer than seven occasions, I met council officials and was provided with repeated assurances of partnership. I spoke to Julian Hodge bank and Barclays bank, which assured me they would act in the interests of all those with a stake and the local community, and not sign off any deal that they did not think met those concerns. I also spoke to the Crown Estate, the Heritage Lottery Fund and many others. However, sadly, our hopes and optimism for a collaborative and transparent process seem to have been misplaced and I am sorry to say that over the last six months we have seen some deeply untransparent manoeuvres by a small group of council officers to cut a backroom deal, first with a Liverpool company, Harcourt Developments, and then with another Liverpool company, Signature Living, and its owner Lawrence Kenwright.
Despite my misgivings, I have tried at all times to maintain an open mind to various developers and proposals that have come forward. Indeed, I was happy to put them in touch with relevant parties and the Save The Coal Exchange campaign. That includes Signature Living. I met its representatives on a number of occasions, including Lawrence Kenwright on three occasions, to listen to their plans and to ask detailed questions, not least because one of the positive aspects of its proposal was, on the face of it, to maintain the core heritage fabric. However, as time went on and more matters came to my attention, I became increasingly concerned about its suitability as a developer and the nature of its assurances, which seemed to vary at every meeting. I raised those directly with Cardiff Council and many of the other parties but I was assured that they would be fully examined again and again.
So we come to the present day. The Minister will be aware that in the last two weeks there has been a sudden announcement that a deal has been facilitated by Cardiff Council to transfer ownership of the coal exchange to Signature Living, followed by a barrage of heavy corporate PR from Mr Kenwright and subsequent controversy in the media and local community, with nearly 800 local individuals now having signed a petition criticising the deal.
Let me be clear. I am not opposed to a private developer being involved in a solution to save the coal exchange. Indeed, since day one, I have been clear about the level of finance needed. I am also perfectly happy to put my personal concerns about Mr Kenwright to one side in the interests of any deal about the building and the local community. It is easy to provide a fait accompli in these situations—to present oneself as the only alternative, threaten dire consequences, respond to any criticism or reasonable questions as a “slur” and warn of the jobs that might be lost. But we owe it to the building and the local community in Butetown, Cardiff and, indeed, the rest of Wales to secure the right solution for the coal exchange.
I want to detail a few specific concerns that I hope the Minister will listen to carefully. First, on the process, previous dealings with Macob and other potential developers reveal a concerning record. Freedom of information requests have revealed a complex web of negotiations over a number of years, including that the council was contemplating a development that would have seen a significant proportion of the building demolished and the building of a multi-storey block of flats. That is hardly reassuring.
There has been no tender or public process in this instance. The council was fully aware of the concerns during the process, and I do not understand why it did not go forward in a fully transparent and open way to secure the right bid. In fact, one developer came to see me to tell me of his concerns—that bid was supported by officials at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, at UK level—and told me that in effect he had been scared away by the council: it was not interested and he should go away.
In recent days the council appears to have exercised its right of sale to seize and transfer the building to Signature Living. How it did that is unclear and has been questioned by independent legal practitioners. That largely centres on a claim that the council has made, but never fully substantiated, of “costs” that it incurred and then attempted to formalise by pinning a notice to the building some months ago. It appears to have done a deal with other claimants to relinquish their charges.
Lawrence Kenwright has claimed in the press this week that he beat dozens of competitors. On 8 April I had an email from the council’s director of economic development, Neil Hanratty, that made the point that the
“condition of the building has been widely publicised”.
He went on to confirm that rather than dozens, only
“four parties were interviewed by a panel of officers including the Listed Building…Officer and a representative of Julian Hodge Bank.”
I find it very odd, given the UK and international interest in the building, let alone that in Wales, that the council appears to have engaged in negotiations in the past 18 months with only two companies, both of which happen to be from Liverpool. It is a shame that the council did not get together with other key stakeholders to put together a public bid process, working with all those other people who could have played a part in finding the best solution.
I also have concerns that this matter has not received the proper democratic scrutiny. It does not appear to have gone to the cabinet or the leader of the council, or, to my knowledge, to the council’s economic development committee.
I want to turn now to Mr Kenwright’s financial background. I am afraid that Mr Kenwright has been less than transparent about his financial history, and I think it is in the public interest to raise these matters so that others can draw their own conclusions. Mr Kenwright did not proactively disclose these to Cardiff Council or to anybody else who met him. Indeed, the council claimed that it was unaware of them when I raised them with it. He has blamed his past difficulties on the credit crunch and said that they have made him “a better businessman”. He has attempted to downplay them in the Welsh press this week. He told WalesOnline:
“I had an apartment block in Liverpool which went over budget. I was one of the first ones to go bust. The only difference between liquidation and bankruptcy is giving the personal guarantee.”
However, Mr Kenwright confirmed to me personally in a meeting in the House on 9 March that he was made bankrupt as recently as 2010, in Liverpool Crown court on 22 June in that year. The credit crunch of course started in 2008. And, crucially, he was a director, as reported in the north Wales Daily Post on 28 April 2004, of a clothing company called Yes & Co. Distribution Ltd, which in 2002 went into liquidation, with an estimated £1.9 million owing to creditors. The newspaper reported at the time that a Patricia Kenwright—believed to be his former wife—was disqualified from being a director for four years and that her husband Lawrence Kenwright accepted a similar undertaking for eight years, and a Frederick Greenwood for five years. That of course suggests that Mr Kenwright could have been disqualified until as recently as 2012, although admittedly that is not clear.
It is not clear why the directors were disqualified, but the newspaper reported that Mrs Kenwright
“allowed the company to fail to deal properly with its taxation affairs.”
For the record, the Insolvency Service lists a range of reasons for being disqualified. Of course, there could have been another Lawrence Kenwright, so I wanted to ask him directly, and he confirmed that he was a former director of Yes & Co. and that he had indeed been disqualified. It is interesting to note that until recently he was not even listed as a director of the company that he set up to facilitate the purchase of the coal exchange. As of yesterday, Signature Living Coal Exchange Ltd listed only one director, his current wife Katie Kenwright, although Mr Kenwright is listed as a director of Signature Living Coal Exchange Ops Ltd.
I want to turn briefly to the financial model—
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
If I may, I will not. We have limited time and I have already taken one intervention, but I might take another later if we have enough time.
The financial model that Mr Kenwright proposes to use for the building is the BPRA—business premises renovation allowance—scheme. That was introduced in the Finance Act 2005 and was intended to bring derelict or unused properties back into use. The scheme gives an initial allowance of 100% for expenditure on converting or renovating unused business premises in a disadvantaged area. However, the Chancellor of the Exchequer has announced the end of the scheme from the end of this financial year, after a raft of concerns, and investigations by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs.
The council has claimed to me that Signature Living has told it that it has secured an “approved £12 million” and up to a further £30 million. However, Lawrence Kenwright told me that only one of his previous schemes had received full approval from HMRC. I am deeply concerned. Given the investigations into these schemes in the past and the risk of their not being approved, where does the liability lie? We also ought to ask, given the current climate and concerns about tax avoidance and transparency: is this the right scheme to be funding this sort of building? Should we be assisting wealthy individuals and shadowy funds to avoid tax in this way? The Treasury has decided that it will end the scheme, which I think shows what it thinks of it.
The Financial Times reported on 14 July 2015:
“HM Revenue & Customs indicated it saw problems with arrangements involving BPRA, drawing parallels with abusive avoidance schemes, and a year later added them to its public ‘Spotlights’ list of arrangements it said taxpayers should avoid.”
A range of concerns were raised. The FT continues:
“Where tax relief was not granted to taxpayers before 2013, the Revenue has in most cases withheld it, said Mr Avient”—
he comes from UHY Hacker Young—
“‘The Revenue clearly saw a situation where certain structures were stretching the rules too far’...it has issued a raft of accelerated payment demands to repay disputed tax to BPRA scheme investors. These tax bills cannot be appealed.”
Interestingly, on 21 April 2014 the Liverpool Echo revealed the problems with the Stanley Dock regeneration scheme, funded in the same way. Builders were left unpaid; the council was left having to provide a significant amount of grant—multi-million pounds—and there was a complete lack of transparency. That involved another Liverpool company called Harcourt, which incidentally, as I said, was the previous preferred partner of Cardiff Council. The Liverpool Echo reported that it was
“surprisingly difficult to pin down the developers and owners”,
which I think exposes the difficulties and concerns about the transparency of these schemes and their solidity.
I also have concerns about what the building will be—what is the proposal on the table? We have heard about it being proposed as a hotel. It is clear that Signature Living is a hotel developer. I am not opposed to a hotel development and I am sure that many other people in the community are not, but it is still, as of this date, unclear what parts of the building will be used for what. At various times, in various meetings, we have been told of residential, part-hotel and normal hotel usage. In fact, Mr Kenwright suggested to me that it might be a third, a third, a third—or, as he put it, “as much as the council let me get away with”.
We need to be very clear—we need to know—before accepting or agreeing that this scheme is a good thing what the building will be used for. Tenants and businesses in the area and residents in the square—it is already a significant residential area—need to understand what will be there. Will there be lots of big parties coming there? Mr Kenwright has a hen and stag business in his hotels in Liverpool. Will lots of people be living there and will there be parking issues and all the other things associated with that? None of those schemes is necessarily wrong, but the public have a right to know what the building will be.
I come now to community benefits and issues. First, the Save The Coal Exchange campaign has listed a whole series of issues that it would want to be included in a section 106 agreement. It would want to see those outlined and agreed to. We have had promises of jobs and apprenticeships, although Lawrence Kenwright told me that the company would “bring their own people in”. Where are the clear assurances on jobs and apprenticeships?
Secondly, there are existing tenants—nearly 40 tenants —in the building. What assurances have they been given? They are deeply fearful that the council may step in, given its history, issue prohibition notices and see them evicted once building work starts. Where are the assurances for them?
We also have concerns about engagement with the local community in the square. There has not been serious consultation with local residents or businesses. Signature Living has been advertising major changes to Baltic House, home of the Wales Council for Voluntary Action. Is it aware of those; has it been consulted?
I have had an exchange of letters with the council about this matter and have had some assurances, but the letter from Neil Hanratty on 8 April confirms only that
“commitment to the above will be secured formally through the planning process”
and merely that Signature Living has “agreed in principle”. We should be having cast-iron guarantees for a building of this nature, with this kind of expenditure and the potential impact. These are really serious issues and we want to ensure that there is that community benefit, quite apart from all the other issues about access to the building.
Finally, heritage was one of the most positive aspects of the Signature Living proposal but, even so, there are concerns. In March 2016, the Victorian Society wrote to City of Cardiff Council officer Pat Thompson, copying in Neil Hanratty, saying that it had heard nothing from the council for 20 months and that
“the lack of communication from Cardiff Council is both disappointing and concerning… we are concerned that without close scrutiny, and clear direction from the local authority, aided and informed by a proper assessment…an acceptably sympathetic scheme, might…prove difficult to achieve. In 2013 and 2014 the Society was involved in consultations with Signature Living over its proposed hotel conversion, of Albion House, Liverpool, a Grade 2* Listed Building by Richard Norman Shaw.”
That building will, of course, be of interest to those of us in this Parliament. The letter continued:
“From our point of view the process was far from ideal. Plans were drawn up hurriedly and without any evidence of the sort of high quality, detailed heritage assessment a Grade 2* Listed Building demands. Perhaps unsurprisingly therefore, the conversion involved some alterations and additions that we as well as Historic England advised were unsympathetic and harmful. These were undertaken regardless, some seemingly prior to receiving the necessary consents… None of this is to suggest that Signature Living is incapable or indisposed to deliver a high quality sensitive scheme, rather it is to demonstrate that without proper guidance...in the form of a Conservation Management Plan and a structural survey, a less sympathetic and unnecessarily damaging conversion scheme is the likely outcome.”
I conclude by identifying a few key areas. First, the questions about the financial background are deeply concerning. What does the Minister think? I want Cardiff Council to be clear about its due diligence process in that regard, particularly on the sureties around the BPRA scheme, given the concerns that have been raised. What happens if that goes wrong? Who will bail this out? Who will deal with the financial consequences?
Secondly, on heritage and planning, there is a clear need for strict oversight from Cadw, the Victorian Society and others, for conservation management plans and for surveys, whatever developer comes in. Thirdly, we need guarantees in writing, not assurances that mean nothing, on the community issues and on access to the building. We need guarantees for the tenants of the building as it is, and we need an inquiry into the overall process over a number of years. The process has been deeply unsatisfactory and has involved the use of health and safety powers and the spending of public money in a deeply non-transparent way. We should put a halt to the proposal, re-engage with the community and other stakeholders and act in the national interest to save the coal exchange.
I put it on the record that I had no foreknowledge of what the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth was going to raise. I raised some issues about one of the developments he mentioned on behalf of some constituents many years ago, and I would not want it to be thought that I had any prior knowledge that he would mention it, otherwise it might not have been appropriate for me to take the Chair today.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. I congratulate the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) on his speech and on securing this debate. It is important that Westminster is still relevant to the communities that we represent in Wales, and highlighting such issues in Westminster Hall debates is appropriate and correct. He said that he does not expect me to have all the answers, and indeed it would be inappropriate for me to respond to some of the points that have been raised because many of them are issues for the Welsh Government and for City of Cardiff Council, which as part of local government in Wales is answerable to the Welsh Government. I will have to restrain myself from commenting on devolved areas. It is important to place this debate in context and to respond to the undevolved issues, and I will particularly respond to the questions on the tax allowance system. Additionally, it is important to touch on the Crown Estate’s position in the sales process to try to allay some of the fears he raised.
On the background to the debate, I fully subscribe to the hon. Gentleman’s comments on the coal exchange, which is an iconic Welsh building. We should be proud that Wales was able to dictate the price of coal throughout the world, and we should trumpet that the first £1 million business transaction—the sale of coal to France—happened at the coal exchange. We should talk about that when we discuss the history of Cardiff but, in the context of Cardiff bay, this debate is also an opportunity to highlight the way in which Wales has developed. We should proudly boast of the revitalisation of Cardiff bay and highlight the economic impact of the changes in Cardiff that have been secured through the work of successive Governments here in Westminster, in co-operation with Governments in Cardiff bay—it is an example of the two Governments working together and of the local authority being proactive in redeveloping an area that was ripe for redevelopment. This is a success story, and there is no doubt that the coal exchange is an iconic building at the centre of the proposed redevelopment of Cardiff bay.
When we talk about redevelopment and business opportunities in Cardiff, it is no bad thing to trumpet, for example, the Cardiff city deal. I represent a north Wales constituency, and I often hear the accusation that all the investment in Wales goes to Cardiff, but it is important to point out that the scale of the Cardiff city deal is not confined to the city of Cardiff; it will have a huge impact on all the areas surrounding Cardiff. Indeed, a significant proportion of the Welsh population will be affected by the Cardiff city deal, which has secured a £1.2 billion investment on a cross-governmental level. I am sure that every hon. Member in this Chamber would welcome that.
Cardiff is a city that is going places and performing extremely well in attracting inward investment. There is no doubt that the Cardiff bay area has been crucial to the refocusing of Cardiff in the mind of inward investors as a city with a “can do” attitude, which has made a difference to job creation throughout the area and south Wales.
There is a direct comparison between the scale of regeneration in Cardiff under the Cardiff Bay Development Corporation, which was formed under the previous Conservative Government, and the city deal in partnership with the Wales Government. It is a national disgrace that we are debating the future of the coal exchange and that it has been left to fall down through the inaction of the Labour Welsh Government. The impression has been given that the officers run City of Cardiff Council, which has a Labour cabinet.
Order. That is very lengthy for an intervention.
Concerns have been raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff North (Craig Williams) and by the hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr (Jonathan Edwards) on the inactivity, or otherwise, of the Welsh Government. It is not for me to comment on that, but I am sure that the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth will be making his views known in due course.
Two specific issues have been raised to which I can respond. First, I cannot respond to the sales process adopted by City of Cardiff Council, but it is only right and proper that I address the involvement of the Crown Estate, about which the hon. Gentleman expressed concern. It is clear that the whole process was subject to the escheat process, which means that the building was never owned by the Crown Estate. As such, the Crown Estate was neither consulted nor involved in the process by which the property’s ownership is being transferred. That is not unique; it is a pattern that can be seen in many circumstances involving the Crown Estate. The actual decision-making process will be for City of Cardiff Council and the Welsh Government. Although the Crown Estate is technically involved, it is not odd that it was not consulted and did not provide any input in the process.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned the tax allowance scheme, and it is fair to say that the business premises renovation allowance is central to the redevelopment plan. He is right to highlight the fact that the scheme will be coming to an end at the end of this financial year at the end of March 2017. He is also correct that concerns have been raised about the way in which the scheme has been utilised in the past. Those concerns, which were raised, I think, back in 2011-12, have been addressed by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, and it was stated in summer Budget 2015 that the scheme would be coming to an end. That is still the case. It is important to highlight the fact that the BPRA is a capital allowance scheme, and my understanding is that under such schemes any claim for the allowance would have to be made retrospectively, after the expenditure is made. It is also important to highlight the fact that any claim for a capital allowance under such a scheme would have to refer to expenditure incurred during the 2016-17 financial year. Any expenditure incurred after that point would obviously be outside the scope of the allowance scheme, which is a fairly important point.
I apologise, but I am afraid that I have only one minute.
The hon. Gentleman’s concerns have been heard, if nothing else. By raising this issue in Westminster, he has ensured that the concerns of tenants, the local community and elected representatives have been heard. The concerns raised in relation to the tenants of the coal exchange are valid and should be addressed, and everyone would agree that the redevelopment of such an iconic business should be open and transparent and should have the support of the local community. However, on the issues relating to the involvement of the Westminster Government, I restate that the Crown Estate process has been par for the course. In the same way, the concerns raised about the tax allowance scheme are valid if this redevelopment does not happen before the end of March 2017 but, as it currently stands, the scheme is still in existence.
Question put and agreed to.
UK Dairy Sector
[Relevant document: Third Report from the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, Farmgate Prices, HC 474.]
[Joan Ryan in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the UK dairy sector.
I am grateful for the opportunity to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ryan, and to address the state of the UK dairy sector. This is an important debate, and I am glad that there are so many people here, not only from Wales and the devolved nations but from across the United Kingdom. I suspect there may be some interventions but, given the number of Members who wish to contribute, perhaps we will keep them to a minimum.
Everyone here will recognise and agree on the importance of the agricultural sector, especially the dairy sector, which is a vital part of our economy, our landscape and, in many parts of the country, our communities. In the rural areas that we represent—I represent Ceredigion—local family farms are the lifeblood that run through our community. Without them, many parts of my constituency could not survive and, in many cases, would not exist at all. Many farmers who work the land and tend the flocks and herds have done so from generation to generation for hundreds of years, and they want to continue, yet the future looks bleak for many of them. I get that ongoing and constant message from farmers and their representatives in the farming unions. This is a time of grave uncertainty for many farmers in my constituency, in Wales and throughout the United Kingdom. It is a time of difficulty and, day by day, many farmers are struggling to get by, which has led to the harrowing fact that almost half of all dairy farmers in Britain have stated their intention to quit the sector.
There has been an incredibly difficult market for dairy produce in the past several years. That difficulty has not been caused by one specific issue that can be easily addressed. A number of factors are involved: local ones, national ones and, of course, global ones. Farmers understand that—they have told me about it—and it has been endorsed by reports from the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. I am glad that the Select Committee Chairman, the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish), is here to share with us his wisdom and expertise on the back of an excellent report that has many positive recommendations, which I will pursue later.
Whether the factors are local, national or global, the impact is the same. In the summer of 2014 alone we saw farm-gate milk price returns to UK farmers fall between 25% and 50%, which meant a fall from about 34p a litre to 23.3p a litre as of late last year. That is the lowest price farmers have seen since 2009, yet many receive even less than that low figure. Yesterday, at the excellent Anglesey day pioneered by the hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen), farming unions told me that some farmers in north Wales may soon receive payment of just 16p a litre. Although 23p is difficult for many dairy farmers, and perhaps 26p or 27p would be sustainable, there is simply no farmer in this country who could survive for long by selling milk as cheaply as 16p a litre. Many farmers are already struggling and living on the edge financially. Yes, Government action on averaging out tax payments over three years for farmers is incredibly helpful, but it does not address many of the challenges they face.
One issue that farmers in my constituency of Eddisbury raise with me is the fact that the processors are not subject to the Groceries Code Adjudicator and that there is a huge gap between those on aligned contracts and those on non-aligned contracts, and it is those on non-aligned contracts who are really suffering at the moment.
I completely concur with the hon. Lady, who has experience of the farming industry both in England and in Wales. I will address the Groceries Code Adjudicator later, but I agree with her sentiments.
In Wales, the dairy sector continues to suffer from months of continuing low prices and poor profitability, and many of the farming unions are not convinced that there is likely to be a recovery any time soon. According to AHDB Dairy, for the 12 months to December 2015 total full costs of production ranged from 25.7p to 34.4p a litre. In short, there is huge disparity between the costs of production and the price that producers receive, which is a huge concern. The figures over the past decade show the loss of 5,500 dairy producers in England and Wales, and that downward trajectory will continue if nothing is done to help support dairy farmers. That means a change in the ethos of some of our farmers, but it also means positive action from the different Governments, whether it is the Government here in Westminster or the devolved Administrations. If we do not do that, it will have a terrible impact on the rural communities that many of us represent.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I give way to a neighbour of Wales.
One thing that the hon. Gentleman has not mentioned is the fact that this debate is almost as repetitive as the changing seasons. I must have been to more than 12 such debates over the past decade, and we always get platitudes from Ministers, who say that everything is being done. I hope he agrees that, when the Minister stands up on this occasion, we will hearing about concrete steps that the Government are taking to support our dairy farmers.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman. I refer him and the Minister to the report by the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee. The hon. Gentleman has a fine pedigree in championing such issues. He set up the all-party dairy group in the last Parliament, and he initiated many of the 12 debates that I mentioned. I thank him for his contribution.
I mentioned rural communities. I reflect on the words of the farmer whom I spoke to on the streets of Aberystwyth last weekend, who told me that price fluctuations over the past five years have cost his business something like £100,000. That is a huge loss to the local economy, local businesses and the wider agricultural economy.
I commend the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. I must register a slight interest, as my husband runs an agricultural auctioneering business; he runs the Sedgemoor market, which many Welsh farmers come to. He has reported to me that there is a knock-on effect. It is not only the farmers selling milk who are affected; it is the whole industry. The cost of a cow now is less than £1,000. People who rear cows to sell them to dairy farmers can hardly cover the costs of their business. The whole chain is affected, not just the end of it, and we absolutely must do something to address this situation.
The hon. Lady is quite right, and she represents a rural area, as I do. For people who do not live in a rural area, it can sometimes be very hard to understand the extent to which the agricultural community and the agricultural economy are engrained in rural areas and every aspect of life in those areas. We have had a big debate in our area about the closure of village schools. If families working on dairy farms move away, that has a direct impact on the capacity of small schools to function. If young families leave a community, public services dwindle as a consequence, as well as the auctioneers and others involved in the supply chain for the agricultural industry, as she said.
The nature of my remarks so far has been negative, but I do not want this to be a wholly negative debate, because we have some immensely innovative farmers who want to stay in the industry and want the industry to thrive and prosper. However, my farmers tell me that they want us to speak out about the reality on the ground as they experience it.
Of course, not all the problems are home-made. There are serious global challenges for British agriculture that are not under our control. The farmers I have spoken to recognise the significant impact of global supply and demand on their businesses, and the difficulties for Government in changing that. There has been a fall in the global commodity price which, along with other factors such as the Russian ban and the reduced demand for milk from China and the middle east, has played a part in the current difficulties we face in Wales and in the UK as a whole.
For those farmers who have stayed in business and continued producing dairy, production has increased, but so has production around the world and it seems unlikely to slow down in the near future. There have been warnings. I will not dwell on them too much, but the Welsh Affairs Committee, of which I am a member, warned about the impact of the end of quota and the impact of the increase in Irish production, which the Farmers Union of Wales has been talking about since 2009; but we are where we are.
While there are positive signs that the global market for milk will continue to grow, the growth in production is higher than the growth in demand, which has a huge impact on the commodity price of milk. We live in a globalised world and at times that unfortunately means that small changes somewhere else in the world have a huge impact at home. There is action that can and must be taken to improve British dairy producers’ opportunities on the global market, such as having a strong and long-term dairy exports strategy; I emphasise that it should be strong and long-term. However, these global factors cannot always be predicted.
The domestic market remains important. Over half the milk produced in the UK is sold directly as fresh liquid milk through retailers and consumed here in the UK. This milk is mostly sold as skimmed or semi-skimmed milk, with much of the remaining milk being processed into products such as cheese, yoghurt, milk powders and butter. There are some very good companies using that milk. I think of Rachel’s in Aberystwyth in my constituency; its products can be bought in Portcullis House. They are excellent products that are made using local milk.
While many dairy products are in a very competitive global market, there has been huge criticism about the relationship between supermarkets and their suppliers, especially when it comes to the price that supermarkets pay for the milk that goes on their shelves. Milk, as a staple in many people’s shopping baskets, has for too long been at the forefront of the UK retail price war. However, rather than affecting the profits of the supermarkets, it seems that much of this cost-cutting has instead affected the price paid to dairy suppliers. Much of the milk that is produced was bought at a price lower than it cost to produce. That situation is simply not sustainable for my constituents who are farmers— or for any constituents in the farming communities represented in Westminster Hall today. The FUW said in 2015:
“It is not, and never has been, the job of the producer to fund supermarket price cuts or to enhance a retailer’s market share. Sacrificing producers to a retailer price war can only function to further break an already fractured supply chain”.
That is why I return to the point about the Groceries Code Adjudicator made by the hon. Member for Eddisbury (Antoinette Sandbach), and it is why many of us in this House supported the creation of the adjudicator.
I know that the hon. Gentleman has done a lot of work on this issue, so I give way to him.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate and on making a powerful argument. Regarding the Groceries Code Adjudicator, he will be aware that there is an upcoming review of the adjudicator, two years after the office was created. Is that not the perfect opportunity to strengthen the adjudicator and its remit, as my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury (Antoinette Sandbach) touched on? This is an area where Government can act.
Again, I completely concur with that comment. I think the hon. Gentleman secured a debate on the Groceries Code Adjudicator in this Chamber a few weeks or months ago, and he made that point very strongly then. He is quite right; we need the opportunity that this review presents.
I supported the creation of the adjudicator, as did my party, and I commend the cross-party efforts to create the adjudicator. Andrew George, the former Member for St Ives, and others, including the hon. Member for Ynys Môn—in fact, all parties in the House pioneered and put forward the case for the adjudicator, the creation of which was long in coming.
Like the hon. Member for York Outer (Julian Sturdy), farmers tell me that, yes, the adjudicator has the power to name and shame, and, yes, the adjudicator has the power to levy fines, but those powers are insufficient. The adjudicator needs to have the power to examine the whole of the supply chain from gate to plate, even if that requires legislative change. That would instil great confidence in many farmers who do not have a direct relationship with supermarkets through one of the admirable dedicated supply contracts.
I give way to my neighbour from Carmarthen East and Dinefwr.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way, for securing this debate and for the passionate remarks he has made. Based on what he has just said, and based on the previous intervention, unless the Government act during that review and give the adjudicator some teeth, there will be a huge Government failure on the dairy industry.
I totally concur with that. I think there is an emerging consensus. It took some time to give the adjudicator the capacity to levy fines. I think this is the next step, but it cannot come quickly enough for many of the farmers in Carmarthenshire, Ceredigion and elsewhere.
We are told that more dairy farmers are supplying supermarkets on a dedicated contract, which is true, and that many of those farmers receive more favourable milk prices, which is good, but only 4% of Welsh dairy farmers have a direct link with the supermarkets. I celebrate that 4%—I congratulate those farmers and those supermarkets on having better arrangements—but it is only 4% of Welsh farmers who can potentially be assisted by the Groceries Code Adjudicator if there are contractual breaches. The rest of them are on their own and there is a huge sense of vulnerability.
I will proceed as quickly as I can now; if the House will excuse me, I will not take any more interventions. I will talk about efficiency in the dairy sector. Of course, efficiency can help to reduce the cost of milk production, but to do so farmers need to have the money to invest, and that needs to be recognised in the price paid to farmers for their milk. The FUW says,
“Whilst... some retailers have made small in-roads in this area, it remains imperative that the prices paid to producers not only cover the cost of production, but also provide room for investment in order to allow the sector to innovate and remain competitive.”
I am yet to find a farmer who does not have an eye on the future and who is not prepared to plan or innovate. The issue for almost all those producers, and many of the larger ones, is that the financial constraints on them—some of those constraints are sometimes imposed by the banks, which are not always helpful; many of them are, but many of them are not—make it impossible for them to invest in the way that we want them to. If we expect farmers to invest, say, £100,000 to extend a milking parlour at a time of gravely low prices, that is a huge challenge and for many farmers it is not feasible.
Despite that, the industry has achieved many of the efficiencies expected of it. It is predicted that between 2015 and 2016 the industry will reduce the cost of production by 4.56 pence per litre. However, to go back to the international dimension to this situation, at the same time prices fell by 20%.
We need to look at processing capacity. In Wales, the fact is that we have had no substantive investment in processing facilities for 10 years, although the hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts) may tell us a little good news if she catches your eye, Ms Ryan. There has been a loss of milk and cheese processing at a time of increasing supply. That needs to be addressed.
Briefly, I will endorse what the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee said in the recommendations of its excellent report, “Farmgate prices”. One of the recommendations stated:
“Claims from national retailers that there are ‘sustainable economic reasons’”—
sustainable for whom, we ask—
“justifying price differentials have not been fully accepted by many farmers, and retailers must”—
I emphasise, “must”—
“do more to explain their reasoning and to ensure their prices adequately reflect the costs of production.”
The report talks about producer power in the marketplace. What is being done at the UK level—I would ask the same question to Ministers in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales—to encourage producer organisations? In Wales, there has been concern that the Assembly Government have not been forthcoming with the resources promised to the farming community to develop producer organisations.
The report highlighted that opportunities exist for imports to be displaced and for new products to appeal to UK and global consumers. The whole supply chain needs to invest in continued improvement and productivity. If that is an aspiration, it is a laudable one, and I know many farmers are attempting to respond to it.
The report also questioned the
“assurance from the retail sector that there is no link between the price at which supermarkets sell to their customers and the price supermarkets pay to farmers.”
The report said that “Progress is uneven”. I would say that the Committee is being rather generous in saying that it is “uneven”.
DEFRA and Agriculture Ministers in the devolved Governments need to encourage the use of more long-term contracts. That will help to provide predictable levels of income and ensure secure financial planning and investment decisions, regardless of the price in the supermarket. There needs to be clearer guidance from DEFRA so that customers know that they are buying British goods or—I would say this, wouldn’t I?—Welsh produce.
Through the European school milk scheme, children over the age of five receive a subsidised portion of milk. Revisions to the scheme—I believe the UK Government abstained—were passed this month, which means that the UK will receive just under €10 million in aid per school year, which is the fourth highest allocation of any country in the EU. DEFRA is responsible for implementing that allocation. Will the Minister clarify whether the Government will continue to participate in the revised European school milk scheme? What plans do they have for consultation? Critically for this debate, what discussions has the Minister had with the dairy industry about how it can benefit from the scheme?
My final substantive point is on the voluntary dairy code of practice, which often gets ignored. There is concern over its brevity and the number of people it covers. My farmers tell me that the code has had little impact on the farm-gate price received by producers and is largely ineffectual in the midst of a market surplus. When the former Minister, Sir James Paice—Jim Paice—came to the Royal Welsh show in Builth Wells and announced the code, there was great excitement among the farming community. We were told at the time that, if there were concerns that the dairy code was not working effectively, the Government would leave open the potential for a statutory code of practice. How is the voluntary code being monitored? What consideration is being given to putting it on a statutory basis? For a long time, the FUW has called for the inclusion of market-related pricing formulas within dairy contracts, and I fully support that.
I could go on; it is a hugely wide subject. The remit of the debate was deliberately made as wide as possible to encourage contributions from Members from all parts of the UK and with different experiences, but there will be a commonality to many of the messages that we present to the Minister. There are two great industries left in Wales—steel and agriculture—and a growing small business sector, which we nurture. The steel industry is concentrated. We hope that the proposals for a management buy-out in Port Talbot yield results, because the impact of many thousands of people losing their jobs overnight would be catastrophic for Wales and the United Kingdom. However, a more sublime, devious decline of an industry is happening in Wales, and that is agriculture. The Committee report gives us some of the answers that need to be pursued. It is very important that the thousands of jobs in rural communities are sustained and protected. I do not dwell on the negatives, because I am reminded by the young farmers who come to my surgeries—I go to their meetings, and they want to stay in the industry—that they are the people we need to support and on whom our rural communities depend.
Several hon. Members rose—
I say to right hon. and hon. Members that we have 10 people seeking to contribute, so I am placing a four-minute limit on Back-Bench speeches. If everyone is helpful, everyone should get in on that basis. I will be seeking to start calling the three Front Benchers at 3.30. With the Minister’s co-operation, I ask that we allow the mover of the motion two minutes at the end, bearing in mind that we have a few minutes past the hour as we started late.
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak early in this debate. To some extent, I had been hoping to hear all the other speeches and use them to contribute to mine. I congratulate the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr Williams) not only on raising such an important debate, but on doing so in an excellent way. There was hardly a single comment that I disagreed with. He has raised most of the issues that I would have raised, so I will concentrate on two points only; I realise that many Members want to speak.
My first point relates to the public announcements in the past couple of weeks about an increase in the price that Arla pays farmers. It seems to have been accepted as an increase by DEFRA in publicity saying, “Well done, Arla”, but it was not an increase. Arla’s press release worked a treat, but the increase did not reach the farmers. We need to be pretty clear about that simply as a point of information.
The second issue I want to raise is hugely important. Cross-border single farm payments are a massive problem, particularly in Wales. The agriculture industry is structured such that the single farm payment from Brussels is crucial to the economy of farms. The cross-border farms in Wales have been deeply let down. They are not getting any money at all, but I am raising this issue with the Minister because the problem in Wales—this is what the Welsh Minister is saying to all those farmers—is that the information is not available to the Welsh Government. The Welsh Government therefore cannot calculate the payments for the cross-border farms, and they are getting nothing.
The farmers are in a desperate position. We read today about a supplier who has gone bankrupt. Some 300 cross-border farms in Wales are suffering. We have to have a proper working relationship between the Rural Payments Agency and Rural Payments Wales. We are told that they are not talking to each other, and people are losing out because of a bureaucratic failure. I do not know where the failure lies, but it needs to be gripped by DEFRA so that the problem can be sorted out for the sake of those cross-border farmers who are heading towards bankruptcy, purely because of inefficiency and bureaucratic failings.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr Williams) on securing this incredibly important and hugely topical debate on our dairy sector. The dairy sector has a long and proud history in Britain and in Ireland, both north and south. In Northern Ireland, the dairy industry stretches back many generations. Members will agree that dairy products are so much a part of our everyday diet that it is easy to forget the huge skill and effort it takes for farmers to produce such world-class produce. In fact, the all-party group on dairy—I am one of its vice-chairs—recently produced a helpful document on the need for Government, schools and the wider industry to promote dairy as an essential part of our diet.
We have already heard about the challenges faced by the dairy sector in Britain. Unfortunately, the issues are even greater in Northern Ireland, where they are amplified by our reliance on the export market. Northern Ireland’s small population and proportionally larger dairy sector mean that our farmers must seek export markets for their produce, either in the south of Ireland, in Britain or further afield. That means that our farmers are the first to feel the impact of falls in the global dairy price or currency shocks. The situation is made worse by the lower prices Northern Irish farmers tend to get for their produce.
Despite producing dairy products that are as good as or better than products produced here in Britain—forgive me for being slightly parochial—Northern Irish farmers consistently suffer from lower average prices paid by national processors and retailers. In 2014, the average price for milk in Northern Ireland was 4.42p per litre less than the average price in Britain. In 2015, the price difference was even greater, reaching 5.34p per litre. Farmers are having to sell their milk for less than what it costs to produce. Anyone can see that that is unsustainable.
This is not just a matter for us Northern Ireland MPs or the Northern Ireland Executive in Belfast; regional dairy price inequality should concern every MP and Minister in Northern Ireland and Britain. Although we would say that Northern Ireland is the worst affected, there are many areas of England, Scotland and Wales where farmers are paid less than the cost of production. There is no doubt that that has dire implications for the long-term future of the industry. The Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee produced a very good report on farm-gate prices and made recommendations that I hope the Government will be able to implement.
Perhaps a leaf might be taken out of the Northern Irish book, because I believe that the dairy companies of Northern Ireland successfully bid for an EU grant to help to promote the export of dairy products. Northern Ireland is obviously very successful at that, which is perhaps a good reason for remaining in Europe.
I thank the hon. Lady for making that helpful point. She is on the same page as me in terms of retaining membership of the European Union.
Perhaps it would help if I moved on.
We must look at solutions. The Government must seek to bring to Britain and Northern Ireland a scheme that the European Investment Bank has already trialled in the south of Ireland. Under the scheme, the bank would allow DEFRA and the devolved Administrations to act as guarantors for loans made to dairy farmers. That added level of security would allow banks to make loans on much more favourable terms. For instance, in Northern Ireland, a bank loan made to a dairy farm typically has a pay-back period of 15 years, which is well below the average in Britain because of the difficulties to which I have referred. The Ulster Farmers Union believes that with the Government acting as a creditor, banks could offer loans with pay-back periods of 30 years, doubling the time farmers typically now have. Will the Minister and his colleagues in the Department give some consideration to that scheme? Will he give us his opinion, or at least go away and have a think about it before coming back to us MPs with a particular interest in the matter?
Order. The hon. Lady should draw her remarks to a close.
Like the all-party group on dairy, I believe that dairy should be put back on the daily menu. That means encouraging parents, schools and others. I urge the Minister to take heed of this debate.
I must correct the hon. Member for South Down (Ms Ritchie): the best dairy products are from Shropshire. I congratulate the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr Williams) on securing this debate.
When I was first elected as a Member of Parliament in 2005—11 years ago—we set up the all-party group on dairy farmers because at that time Shropshire farmers were on their knees. We heard a lot of anecdotal evidence about the terrible financial difficulties they were suffering. Eleven years on and we are in almost the same place as then—indeed, we are probably even worse off. It is rather frustrating to have repeated debates in Westminster Hall while the situation continues to worsen, so I am really looking forward to the Minister giving us some heart-warming news of specific Government action on this issue.
I am delighted that tomorrow I will be attending the Shropshire business awards 2016 at RAF Cosford to support my friend, Daniel Morris, a cattle farmer, in the farming section. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will wish my constituent every success.
When we set up the all-party group on dairy farmers, more than 200 MPs joined—it was one of the largest all-party groups in the House of Commons. We produced a report, and during the process interviewed a lot of people, even going to Brussels to take evidence. We came up with two recommendations: first, a grocery adjudicator, and secondly, a limited cull of badgers. We took those recommendations to the then Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, David Miliband, who basically laughed us out of his office saying that both were completely impossible and would never happen. I am extremely pleased that the Government have introduced the Groceries Code Adjudicator but, as has been said already, we want to hear what teeth the adjudicator is going to be given and about the roll-out of limited badger culls.
I represent an area that has had a cull, and the data I have seen are certainly encouraging. Nevertheless, we should not simply lay the blame with the Labour Secretary of State at that time, because later the then Lib Dem Deputy Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr Clegg), put the brakes on the rolling out of the cull in Dorset. A Conservative Secretary of State took those brakes off.
I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention.
I want the Minister to remember what I am about to say and to have these figures indelibly imprinted on his mind, in perpetuity. In Shropshire in 1997, we slaughtered 47 cows because of bovine tuberculosis; last year, the figure was more than 2,000. It has gone from 47 a year to 2,000 a year. We have a bovine tuberculosis crisis in Shropshire. I have said this in previous debates and I do not mind saying it again. I have sat round a kitchen table with one of my dairy farmers, Chris Bulmer from Snailbeach, after his entire herd had been taken away. We sat together crying, such is the emotional drain on farmers and their families.
The biggest organisation in my constituency is the Shropshire Wildlife Trust. What is its symbol? A badger. I know that many people from the trust would like to hang me from the nearest lamp post because I advocate a cull. They would have difficulty because I am so tall.
Unless they got a higher lamp post.
They would need an extra-high lamp post. There has been fury and blood on the carpet at the meetings I have had with the Shropshire Wildlife Trust. It has to understand that nobody wants the needless slaughter of animals, but when our fellow human beings—our fellow citizens—are going through such appalling financial misery, the time has come for the Government to act boldly and roll out the cull to other parts of the country.
My right hon. Friend the Chancellor recently announced in his Budget an extremely controversial measure on fizzy drinks. It is not universally popular, but he took a really bold move that is shaking the industry. Something of a similar nature must now take place to protect our dairy farmers. We cannot allow this vital industry to be decimated.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ryan. I also want to thank the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr Williams) for securing this debate, which is important. I want to say a few words about the situation in Cumbria, where local farmers tell me it is the worst they have ever known it to be. We have heard about the price paid for milk not covering the cost of production, but in Cumbria we have the added costs of transportation to the processors. One farmer told me that in the past financial year he made £26,000 from selling his milk. This year he estimates £12,000. That reduction in income is simply unsustainable. I have a friend who has decided to sell his herd because he cannot even make enough money to pay for the renting of the milking machines.
I have been told that at Carlisle market 11,000 dairy cows have been sold since January this year. That has a knock-on effect on the wider rural economy. Feed merchants, fertiliser merchants, machinery sellers and vets all feel the impact of the pressures on our dairy industry. A major issue for the farmers who have contacted me—I am sure nobody here will be surprised—is the fact that they have not yet received their basic payment scheme money, which should have been paid in December. In my area, where many of the farms have been flooded, the situation is desperate. The Rural Payments Agency said it would prioritise farms that had suffered from flooding, but that has simply not happened. One farmer, Susan Tyson, has contacted me. She farms at Underskiddaw near Keswick and she has had nothing, although her application went in last May. She said that every time she asks about it, she is told that
“there is nothing wrong with your claim but we don’t know when you will be paid”.
How on earth are farmers supposed to manage? They have taken out loans and have paid their tax bills. The situation is simply not acceptable.
Farmers need to know what is happening with their money. How else can they budget, invest and plan for the future of their farms? This is made particularly difficult in an industry where the cost of what is being sold is dictated by the consumer. We have talked about the Groceries Code Adjudicator, and I am really pleased that we have that. I agree with hon. Members who have said that now that that is up for review, we need to make sure that it is strengthened and extended and that the adjudicator has real teeth to be able to help particularly the small farmers who fall out of the system.
Farmers are asking me what else they are supposed to do. Farmers whose families have farmed the land for generations now face the prospect not just of selling their herds, but of selling their land, which is absolutely heart-breaking. I also want to draw Members’ attention to the fact that members of the farming industry are three times more likely to take their own lives than people in any other industry. A farmer in my constituency recently collapsed and died at a sale. How much of that was down to stress? He was only in his 40s. The stress that people are under is unacceptable.
I am sure the Minister, who represents Penrith and The Border, is aware of the situations I am talking about in Cumbria, so I urge him to get the Government to work with farmers, processors and supermarkets to find a solution, but we also need advice and support to help farmers cope in these difficult times. Finally, just get the RPA to make the payments.
It is a great pleasure to speak in this debate, Ms Ryan. I thank the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr Williams) for securing this debate and keeping a spotlight on dairy prices. May I offer him a little solace? I think a previous Minister, David Heath, from his party, was a very good agriculture Minister. I want to put that on the record. We may not have agreed on politics, especially in our younger days on Somerset County Council, but I will not go into that.
Food and farming is a £100 billion industry. One in eight jobs are in food and farming, so it really needs to be taken seriously. Dairy farming is the backbone of most livestock agriculture. It has a knock-on effect on the beef industry because most of the beef industry comes from dairy. When a lot of cull cows come on to the market because of the poor price of milk, the price of beef is depressed as well, so the whole thing has a knock-on effect.
The situation is not simple. We have had a large over-supply of milk throughout the world, but New Zealand has now dropped production by 5%, which must be good news. We can see a knock-on effect across the world of an approximately 2% increase in dairy trade year on year, so if we can start to reduce production and increase the volume, we will get better prices internationally. In the meantime, we must concentrate on two fronts in particular. One is making sure that this country can get the best market possible for milk. We need to work with the retailers and say to them, “Not only offer a good price on liquid milk, but a good price on processed milk.”
Tesco and others are stepping up to the plate. As I have said before, I used to want to be able indiscriminately to shoot a retailer a day and feel much better, but I cannot actually do that because there are some good retailers out there. When supermarkets put in milk as a loss leader for perhaps 89p, we must make sure that they fund that themselves and are not funded by the processor and the farmer. I do not like milk as a loss leader because it downgrades the value of milk. All of us in this room would stand up and say that our produce from our county is the very best in the country—there is no doubt Devon’s is the best—but I say to the Minister that we have to get country of origin labelling. We have to make sure that it is not only country of origin but regional labelling so that we can compete with one another on cheese, on yoghurt and on dairy products in total. That is absolutely key to the argument, so let us make sure that Government procures everything that is British as well, and let us make sure that the health service and the schools that provide school milk serve up things that are British. I know the Government have done a lot of work on that, but we need to do even more.
On the single farm payment, let us ensure we do not have the debacle that we have had this past year where we still have 10% of farmers waiting to receive their payments. I welcome the fact that the Rural Payments Agency has, perhaps slightly belatedly, said that the last 10% will get at least 50% of their payment by the end of the month. This is very important. This is money the Government can actually produce and they can make sure that it gets through.
We have to make sure that we get export markets right. China wants more milk powder. China has decided to allow the country to produce more children and that is why there is a big market for baby milk powder. That is key. We have to make sure we have the processors and everything in place to take that up so that we have either Chinese money or European investment money. Let us get this industry moving so that we are able to get the best price for our farmers.
Several hon. Members rose—
To accommodate all those who wish to speak, I am now going to reduce the time limit to three minutes per speaker.
Diolch yn fawr, Gadeirydd. I thank the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr Williams) for securing this debate. Both he and I know that whether it is llaeth or llefrith, Welsh milk is best.
The efficient method of food production—namely, the conversion of grass into dairy produce—is particularly well suited to the Welsh climate. It would be irresponsible to stand back and do nothing when the industry is in crisis. As has been mentioned already, there are many reasons for the latest drop in milk prices, and we have mentioned Russia. As an aside, it is worth noting that Russia is subsidising its home dairy producers to the tune of $400 million as we speak.
We have heard about the role of supermarkets. Today is an opportunity to say that supermarkets should be encouraged—I use the word with emphasis—to ensure that discount retail price strategies are funded from their own profits, rather than dumped on farmers. The fact that the profit motive of retailers is allowed to trump the sustainability of UK farming is in the long-term interests of neither the UK consumer nor the UK economy. The primary ask from farmers is that the Government acknowledge that something is fundamentally wrong in the supply chain, which cannot be remedied without intervention. We cannot go on ignoring that fact and relying on the market to correct itself.
There are codes of practice in the food chain, both statutory and voluntary, that must be either proved effective or reviewed, strengthened and enforced. The statutory grocery supply code of practice applies, at present, only to the biggest retailers. It is overseen, as we know, by the adjudicator. The Government made a commitment in their election manifesto last year to increasing the powers of the adjudicator. I suggest that that might be done by reducing the minimum turnover requirement, making the arrangement applicable to a wider range of retailers. Perhaps that could happen in the two-year review that was mentioned.
Agriculture suffers from the public perception of being hand-out dependent. None the less, many farming families have shown great enterprise in the face of volatile markets by venturing into value-added or branded products. I must in the brief time available to me mention Dylan and Annwen Jones of Bryn Rhydd, Edern—my next-door neighbours, effectively—who, with their Puerto Madryn herd of Holstein-Friesians, have been producing the excellent Glasu ice cream. I am also proud to represent the constituency that is home to South Caernarfonshire Creameries at Rhydygwystl, which has been owned since 1938 by its dairy farmer members. I am proud to say that they are about to launch a new cheese factory unit, although this is a most difficult time to be operating.
I call on the Government to make full use of the potential of public sector and third party procurement opportunities, and to work with devolved Governments to enable and to invest in added-value processing opportunities. Finally, will the Minister make a commitment to press the EU Agriculture Commissioner to move ahead with proposals presently under consideration to allow emergency state aid of up to €15,000 per farmer annually?
Big thanks are due to my near neighbour, the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr Williams), for striking the right balance between optimism, pessimism and realism about the industry.
I have only a few points to make. We have heard a lot about the negative effect on the industry and the supply chain, but not much about the negative effect that that causes for the environment, which is equally significant. There was some reference to the state of the steel industry in Wales, and the impact of potential closure on the community around Port Talbot, and further afield. When I look at the great efforts being made by No. 10, and the huge efforts of the Treasury, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, and the Wales Office, to rescue the steel industry, just as much for social and cultural reasons as for economic ones, part of me wants to ask the Minister whether his Department is looking into assessing the potential downside of the dairy industry’s problems in the same way as those other Departments are looking at the potential downsides of the closure of the steel industry. Numerically, spread across the UK, the numbers of people in each case may not be as dissimilar as we might think. The impact is no less important just because dairy farmers are dotted around individual communities and farms. I hope that that assessment is being undertaken and, if not, I hope it will be, because there are some significant numbers that we need to address.
There has been some reference to the role of Government in procurement, labelling and education. Just on the matter of education I want to say that it is quite frustrating for dairy farmers when advice comes out of the Department of Health about reducing dairy intake by 50%, without, really, any supporting evidence or context to it. Some cross-departmental co-operation on the messages coming out of Government, with regard to the positive side of eating home-produced dairy products, would be useful and would send a positive message to farmers, who are looking to Government, desperately at times, for a positive lead and an indication that the Government are on their side. Such things, small as they may seem, are significant for the message they send. Also, let us, via the Department for Education, talk about the value that home-grown food provides in the many ways that have been discussed, rather than simply talking about the cost of food. Of course cost is a driving factor, but are the Government doing enough with respect to the value of that high-quality product?
As to labelling, the issue is not about labelling milk. Sometimes it is about labelling other agricultural products that farmers produce. The supermarkets will say that they label things very clearly, and up to a point they do, but the frozen lines are not well labelled at all. On any supermarket website it is almost impossible to discover where frozen lines come from, whether that is in this country or not. A little more work by retailers on frozen lines would be helpful.
Finally, on the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire (Glyn Davies) made, the DEFRA interpretation of farm-gate average prices and the Arla press release give the impression that the Department does not really understand the severity of the situation. Perhaps now is a good time, with a sort of stand-in Minister—if he does not mind my saying so—to put the record straight and remind farmers that DEFRA completely understands the problems they face.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairpersonship, Ms Ryan. I thank the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr Williams) for bringing this extremely important debate to the Chamber.
The dairy sector is vital to the farming and food sectors and the wider rural economy across the UK, including Scotland. It is also an integral part of local communities. My constituency is made up of many rural areas, and farming and dairy industries have been key contributors to our local economy and job markets for many decades. One of the key issues for my constituency at present is the recent announcement by Müller Dairies that it is proposing to close its site in East Kilbride. That is part of a larger plan to consolidate elsewhere. The plans may also affect two of its dairies in the Aberdeen area.
The East Kilbride dairy has been owned by Müller only since 2012, but it has been a local institution for many years. It was previously owned by Robert Wiseman Dairies, which was founded in 1947, and it traces its roots back to Robert Wiseman senior, who started out in East Kilbride with a milk round, delivered from a horse and cart. Wiseman Dairies grew to be one of the major suppliers of milk and dairy products across the UK, until it was bought by Müller a few years ago. The dairy currently employs 131 staff, and the loss of those jobs would be a huge blow to the staff and the wider community. It is considered to be a vital local industry, and is ingrained in the identity of East Kilbride.
At present, a statutory consultation process about the proposals is going on. I am due to meet with representatives of Müller to discuss the proposals, and I will be following developments closely with the parent company, the Scottish Government, and the local East Kilbride taskforce. Scottish Enterprise and Scottish Development International will also be meeting with Müller to explore potential options for supporting all the company’s sites in Scotland, and their employees. At a personal level, however, this is an extremely unsettling time for those affected—people in my constituency have been left experiencing a period of uncertainty as they wait to find out the future of their jobs. We must do all we can to offer support and protection for jobs in that vital local industry.
The Scottish Government believe it is important to encourage local production, sourcing and consumption, as that helps to support local businesses and ensure that quality products are available. I reiterate what has been said about the importance of the dairy sector, particularly for my constituency and at this vital time. I ask the Government to do all they can to protect the industry, our economy and our local dairy farmers.
I thank the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr Williams) for obtaining the debate.
I recently spoke with an 80-year-old dairy farmer, in my North Yorkshire constituency, who told me that in a lifetime of dairy farming he had never seen times as bad. I believe that there are five key steps that need to be taken by Government, industry and consumer to bring some relief to him and others and safeguard the future of dairy farming in the UK. First, we need buyers to give farmers a fair deal. I commend retailer initiatives from Tesco, Sainsbury’s and others, which ensure that farmers receive a fair cost-of-production price for their milk, but if the dairy sector is to be sustainable, retailers need to expand that good work on liquid milk to other dairy products, and, indeed, more milk buyers need to follow the lead of the large retailers. That process should, of course, be overseen by a robust Groceries Code Adjudicator with additional powers to investigate downstream supply chains and indirect suppliers.
Secondly, we must make and buy more British. It might seem that there are few things more British than an honest slice of Cheddar, yet almost half the cheddar consumed in the UK today is imported from overseas. We must invest more in processing technology to ensure we add value to British milk by turning more of it into British butter, yoghurt and cheese, rather than importing. Alongside that, we must have better food labelling so that large retailers and caterers clearly show consumers how much of their dairy products is British.
Thirdly, the industry needs to create more dairy producer organisations. Groups of farmers banding together to negotiate a better sale price for their milk and a lower purchase price for their feed, and to share machinery, are commonplace across Europe. In the UK we currently have only one such producer organisation. In Germany, there are 143. If farmers are to balance out the power of big processers and retailers, that must change.
Fourthly, we need to develop a working futures market. As New Zealand and America show, futures can be a vital tool for providing price stability in a volatile world. It is crucial, therefore, that the Government continue their efforts to ensure that the relevant benchmarking data are available, which will help British dairy futures to become a reality.
Finally, Government at all levels must buy British. I know that the national Government are working hard to purchase British dairy products, but at a regional level we can do more. We must push local government, the military, hospitals and schools to do their part as well.
In conclusion, without its dairy farmers, the lush fields of the Yorkshire dales in my constituency would soon turn to scrub and its dry stone walls would go unrepaired. Only if the Government, farmers and consumers work together will we preserve our dairy industry and, with it, our rural communities and beautiful countryside for generations to come.
With the co-operation of the Front Benchers, I have time for a couple more speakers. If everyone is to get in, they will have to speak for no more than two minutes. I leave it to their co-operation.
The agri-food sector employs about 100,000 people across the whole of the industry, and the dairy sector makes up a lot of that figure. When I speak to farmers, they tell me that there are a number of things that they have no control over. They had no say on the Russian ban, and they had no control over the quotas being done away with or the fluctuations of the euro.
Everyone knew that when the quota system went there would be a free-for-all and production would go up. The production of milk in Northern Ireland has increased by 4% this year, even though prices are falling. On Monday, I spoke to farmers who have been told that they will be paid 16p a litre for milk in May and that it will go down to 15p in June. That is crazy.
We have heard today of the pressure on farmers. Hon. Members have talked about meetings they have had with farmers who have shed tears. I have experienced the same thing. Farmers do not know how they are going to pay their next bill or how they are going to fend for their families. We have also heard about the issues of mental health and stress, about which I have written to DEFRA. Something for the farming community needs to be put into the UK mental health strategy.
The dairy sector is a vital industry, and it needs help. We can talk about retailers and new cheese factories, but that takes time. Something needs to be done now to alleviate the difficulties and problems that the dairy sector faces. In Northern Ireland, there is talk of a voluntary reduction of milk production. Whether that happens is a matter for the farmers and the processors. France and a number of other countries are in favour of a reduction, but the problem is that the tap cannot just be turned on and off in milk production. More help is needed, and we look to the Government to ease the difficulties and problems.
I call Mel Stride—[Interruption.] Sorry, I call Simon Hoare.
Thank you very much, Ms Ryan—I think. I want to make two brief points in the time available to me. Like my colleague the hon. Member for South Down (Ms Ritchie), I am a vice-chair of the all-party group on dairy.
I want to pick up on the point that other hon. Members have made, about the Rural Payments Agency. Last week alone, I spoke to five farmers who had collectively spent six and a half hours waiting on the RPA hotline. I was slightly surprised when I tried to talk to somebody—as did my caseworker—only to find that we were left on hold for an average of 37 minutes. There is no direct email or telephone hotline for Members of Parliament to contact the RPA on behalf of their constituents. Most other Government Departments have such facilities. I urge the Minister to use his good offices to press for that.
In March, the all-party dairy group, after a lot of research, launched its report “Putting Dairy Back on the Daily Menu”. It was based on best practice and used a lot of scientific research. It sought to emulate the French example of having three a day for dairy, just as we have five a day for fruit and veg. Many dairy farmers saw it as a lifeline. One can imagine the shock—my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart) spoke of this—when Public Health England reduced the intake of dairy from 15% to 8%. That was a kick in the bullocks as far as the dairy industry was concerned.
I invite DEFRA Ministers to stand with the all-party group on dairy and talk to the Prime Minister, the Department of Health and the Department for Education to work out what methodology the recommendations of that rather dodgy Public Health England report were based on. They need to understand the huge damage it will do to the dairy sector and the huge damage and uncertainty it will cause for those in the public sector who buy food, whether in schools, hospitals or elsewhere. We look to DEFRA to stand with us to try to get that crazy recommendation overturned.
My constituency is predominantly rural. Dairy farming is at the heart of Ayrshire, so I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak in this debate. Ayrshire is home to the famous Ayrshire cattle and has been described as the dairy of Scotland. That claim is now in jeopardy, as the current milk prices are threatening the livelihoods of many farmers across the region.
Earlier this year, I was contacted by a group of local dairy farmers in dire straits, many of whom would never have previously come to an MP with a problem. That group was just a small proportion of the 70% of dairy farmers in Scotland who are non-aligned—in other words, they do not have direct contracts with supermarkets via milk processors, so they have to accept the price that is given to them on the open market.
Milk prices have gone into freefall in the past 12 months. My local farmers report that they now receive a pitiful 14p per litre, while their aligned neighbours typically get about 22p to 25p. A broker collects the milk from both the aligned and non-aligned farmers, which means that the 22p milk sloshes around in the back of the tanker with the milk that has been bought at 14p. That situation sets neighbours against each other, as the milk ends up in the same cartons regardless of the price paid to the farmer.
I welcome the Scottish Parliament’s inquiry into the milk pricing crisis and the work the Scottish Government have undertaken to support the dairy sector. One of the key issues that we in Westminster can address is the Groceries Code Adjudicator, which has been mentioned a number of times. Unless the adjudicator is given a remit to look beyond the relationship between retailers and processors, there is little point in having one.
One of my dairy farmers recently said to me that people need farmers at least three times a day, yet the industry is being decimated. We cannot sit back and allow that to happen.
Thank you for the chance to speak, albeit briefly, Ms Ryan. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr Williams) for securing the debate. The dairy industry is extremely important in my constituency, which contains many dairy farmers and associated businesses, such as Graham’s the Family Dairy and Asher’s Ice Cream. In the limited time I have, I will concentrate on just a couple of the things that I was going to say.
As hon. Members have said, dairy is a healthy product. We should encourage further consumption of it to help to address some of the underlying problems in the industry. I share the concerns about some of the messages coming from the Government, and I hope the Minister will comment on those concerns and put them at rest.
After the election last year, I visited Graham’s the Family Dairy in Bridge of Allan in my constituency and had a tour of the factory with the managing director, Robert Graham. Graham’s has operated for more than 70 years in my constituency, and it produces a wide range of excellent products. It employs 500 staff and is supplied by 90 dairy farmers across Scotland, many of which are in Stirling. Its products are excellent sellers. Last month, Graham’s signed a partnership deal with the food supplier Brakes, which represents a significant boost to the industry locally. That is good news, but there is a lot still to do, because the industry is in a perilous state.
Last year, the Scottish Government launched a dairy action plan to offer immediate support because of the problems facing the sector. One of the recommendations was to develop a strong Scottish dairy brand at home and abroad, and to get more Scottish dairy products on retail shelves, in food service and in export markets. Additional funding was given to the Dairy Growth Board to develop a Scottish dairy brand, which was released at the royal highland show last year. Ongoing efforts involve engaging with retailers to encourage the stocking of local Scottish dairy produce, in order to develop a viable Scottish supply base for the future, which will create a more resilient and sustainable dairy industry. Other initiatives have seen the Scottish Government promote the use of Scottish dairy produce in the public sector, for example through work with local authorities to get Scottish cheese, butter, yogurt and other dairy products into schools.
This has been an excellent debate, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr Williams) on securing it.
We may have had many debates on this subject, but this one has highlighted the fact that we need time in which to discuss it. What came across to me right from the offset was the desire to resolve the situation. Our farmers get a bit of a bad name sometimes—they have a tough job, with many factors ranged against them, which means that they are sometimes seen as being somewhat negative and complaining. Actually, as one farmer said to me, “To still be in farming, you’re an optimist, because you’re still keeping at it.”
The hon. Gentleman made an excellent starting contribution, which set out the challenges and, critically, put forward proactive and constructive suggestions. As he said, the issue is a complex local and global one, with many factors in play. Fundamentally, the drop in the price received has outweighed the savings from efficiencies in production. He made an excellent point about that.
We are lucky to have my neighbouring MP from across the border, the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart), responding to the debate, because I am sure that he will talk about concrete steps and not platitudes. He is known for getting his wellies on and getting engaged, and I am sure that he will demonstrate that again today. We need to consider many issues—the Groceries Code Adjudicator was mentioned regularly in the debate, as was the voluntary code of practice, which I will return to—but let us keep it positive and proactive. The hon. Member for South Down (Ms Ritchie) nearly started off a different kind of milk war with her boastful contribution, but such is the nature of politics—it was understandable.
The hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) made some excellent points. I congratulate his all-party group on its work, in particular on the GCA, and it presented a strong case on the badger cull. For reasons of time I cannot go through everyone’s contributions, so I apologise to the many other Members who added to the debate. It has been of great benefit to have present the Chair of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish). He summarised the key points about the market for milk, the important distinctions between fresh and processed milk, how critical labelling is and the role that Government procurement has to play.
It is fair to say that the dairy industry throughout the UK is in crisis, and that is particularly true in Scotland, as we have heard. The downturn in milk prices has led to a fall in returns of some 50% for many Scottish dairy businesses. My hon. Friend the Member for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O'Hara) wanted to be present today, but is in the main Chamber. His concerns for his constituency, and the figures involved, are worth reviewing. Only three years ago, the farmers whom he represents were receiving 32.5p per litre; now, they obtain a farm-gate price of just 15.8p per litre, even though the milk is costing them 26p per litre to produce.
We cannot leave the milk pricing issue simply to market forces. There is a pressing need for action and more imaginative solutions. Collaboration involving Government and the entire supply chain is needed, with urgent action across a range of areas. In the short term, it is critical that banks are involved in the planning process and are prepared to extend credit to dairy farmers. That makes business sense, because global experts believe that the long-term outlook for the sector is promising. We need to maintain a viable UK industry through the lean times, and to do that we need collaboration and innovation now.
Above all, we need to deal urgently with the fact that we have a broken supply chain, with fundamental imbalances exacerbated by short-term opportunism. The chain needs to be fair, workable and responsible. Unless we have that, milk producers and others will continue to get a raw deal and will not have the confidence to invest.
For a start, we need the dairy voluntary code of practice to be refreshed. NFU Scotland says that that is potentially the key to the viability of the sector, and I agree. The code is designed to set out minimum good practice, and as long as it is respected and there is a commitment to it, it could be effective. So far, however, it has not developed enough momentum. The NFUS has warned that to date, and despite Government support, vested interests have undermined the uptake of the code of practice, and that the code is not being allowed to deliver the benefits that it could provide. I know that the Farming Minister is committed to strengthening the code in relation to the milk sector, and I welcome that, but it must include the whole supply chain. If for any reason we cannot make progress with a voluntary code, we need to look again at the option of compulsory contracts.
Another way to assist the dairy industry—this ties in closely with the voluntary code—would be to strengthen the role of the Groceries Code Adjudicator. Some Members have already made specific recommendations, but I will summarise the three main possibilities: allowing her to initiate her investigations rather than waiting until a complaint has been received; taking in smaller retailers and indirect suppliers; and reporting on the balance of pricing across the whole supply chain. Another useful step forward, as we have heard, would be to encourage retailers to use labelling to identify the origin of the product, giving consumers the power to buy local and from the home nations.
We cannot allow the retail giants and others to keep on milking our dairy sector. Firm action is needed and firm action must come—we owe that to our farmers, our consumers and our national self-sufficiency. Without wasting another moment, let us give our dairy sector the help and support that it deserves.
I thank the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr Williams) for introducing the debate and the many colleagues who have intervened and made contributions this afternoon. Time is short, so I cannot mention everyone, but the hon. Gentleman certainly gave a great cri de coeur for dairy farmers throughout the country, as well as for the steel industry in Wales—I thank him for that.
With the global market in flux and farm-gate prices on the floor, the UK dairy industry is in danger. Some farmers are being paid less than the cost of producing the milk, which is unsustainable. Only last month, thousands of proud farmers felt that they had no other choice but to march on Whitehall and ask for change and for support. The Government must listen to that call. Bodies such as Dairy UK are saying there are no quick fixes, although the Government recognise that a package of support is needed to help save the industry from collapse. However, despite promising much in the face of pressure from the industry, there is still no sign of respite.
The Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee report listed many recommendations that I hope the Government will make good on. It talked about a futures market for dairy. Will the Minister make it clear when such a market will be established properly?
The British public have consistently proven that they back a “buy British” principle, but dairy in the UK still lacks country of origin labelling. The Farming Minister has been unable to get the EU to bring that forward, despite the EU approving similar branding on a vast swathe of other products. Meanwhile, he has written to supermarkets to encourage them to display the British flag on British dairy products. That code, however, is voluntary.
On exports, sector leaders such as Dairy UK have called for the development of new markets where we can showcase the quality of British products. It looks as if there may be good news on red meat and the USA this week, but will the Minister detail the results of talks with other countries about their importing our dairy products? All such suggestions are long-term goals, and that is understood, but where is the progress on those key issues?
The NFU and farmers have joined Labour in calling for the Groceries Code Adjudicator’s powers to be toughened up. The Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee has published a report calling on the Government to consider extending the GCA’s remit. The Committee wants it to incorporate both direct and indirect suppliers. Will the Minister confirm that those concerns will be taken into account when the GCA is reviewed later this year?
As the hon. Gentleman is aware, in Wales many of the powers relating to Government intervention are devolved and, to date, the Welsh Government have decided to pursue a voluntary code of practice in this sector. Does he agree that it is about time that the Welsh Government began to look at statutory intervention, and not just leave it on a voluntary basis?
That may be helpful and I certainly think it is worth looking at.
The problem of delayed payments has come up too, with the high-profile failure of the Rural Payments Agency system this year. That money is a vital lifeline, given the struggles in the dairy marketplace, yet a Public Accounts Committee report revealed a payments fiasco. The Government must accept their part in a failing IT project that may have landed us with a £180 million annual fine from the EU. Money that could have gone to British agriculture will now be thrown away. The NFU says that that the RPA should be making 90% of payments by the end of December each year. Will the Minister give assurances that that target will be met in future years?
Finally, I welcome the deep analysis done by the NFU on the implications of a UK exit from the EU. The analysis showed that every Brexit scenario resulted in a large drop in income for farmers. Will the Minister join me in recognising that for dairy farmers, staying in the EU is vital for the trade and support that it provides to the industry?
The situation is worse than the hon. Gentleman seems to suggest. Right hon. colleagues on my side of the House—although not on my side of the European debate—told us last week that all the money we spend on the EU would be spent on the national health service. My reading of that was that that equals no subsidy and no support to agriculture anywhere in the United Kingdom.
I need to move on to allow the Minister to come back on the problems and issues that colleagues around the Chamber have raised.
The UK Government have recently failed to support an important EU funding stream for our dairy industries, so I would like the Minister’s response on that issue.
In conclusion, the Government must make good their promises on a futures market for dairy and country-of-origin labelling, give a proper boost for British dairy exports and put the RPA on track. They must speak with one voice about the value of the single market and the value of EU funding for British dairy farmers.
Unfortunately, I have been asked for answers to 31 separate requests—I have written them down—and I have been allowed only seven minutes to respond, but I will do my very best.
Fundamentally, dairy matters deeply to the United Kingdom. The hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr Williams), to whom I pay tribute for securing this debate, made a very powerful case for the importance of the dairy industry to communities. The hon. Member for Stirling (Steven Paterson) made a powerful case for the nutritional importance of dairy. The hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr (Jonathan Edwards) made a deep and complex argument about the importance of dairy for our history and heritage. My hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow) pointed to the economic importance of dairy and, of course, the chairman of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish), made a strong argument for the importance of dairy for the farming industry in general.
The situation is genuinely terrible. Over the last decade, we have gone from having 13,500 dairy farms to having 9,500. We have seen that very directly in Cumbria, as the hon. Member for Workington (Sue Hayman) expressed so eloquently. In my constituency, from very large herds—thousand-cow herds in places such as Longtown, producing 10,000 litres per cow per year—right the way down to the herds of 50 or 60 cows in the Bailey valley, we now see them being sold in the marts and we see real pressure and psychological strain. As the hon. Member for South Down (Ms Ritchie) pointed out, the regional factors are really important in places such as Cumbria and Northern Ireland, where access to the liquid milk markets in places such as London is much more difficult. Our prices are considerably lower.
The hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (Calum Kerr) made a powerful argument about the global context in which the dairy industry operates, and the Labour shadow spokesman, the hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Nick Smith), also made a very good statement about the context. Of course, global demand has dropped—Chinese demand alone has dropped by 23%. China matters: 30% of the global export market is China and Russia. At the same time, our production is going up. There is a real problem. Production was up last year globally by 6% and UK production was up by 2.7%. This is not just a UK problem. In New Zealand, the prices per litre for their milk are now down to 12p per litre. New Zealand production is falling, as we heard from the chairman of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton.
We believe that things can be done. Despite the serious issues raised by both the hon. Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson) about capital structures and the hon. Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Corri Wilson) about price, we think there is a great future. In China, the average person consumes about 30 kg of milk products a year. In Britain, the average per person is about 250 kg a year. There is huge upward potential in terms of such markets, which Britain can exploit, provided the United Kingdom can get from the short-term problems to the long term. That will be a real challenge.
My hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) made points about the health of our herds. It is why we are taking the steps that we are, not just in bovine TB but in Johne’s disease, and there is all the investment we are putting into animal health. My hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton made points about supermarkets. Indeed, I join him in paying tribute to the steps that supermarkets such as Tesco have taken, particularly in moving towards British yoghurt.
The hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron) pointed to the serious problems on processing. We are looking at that seriously with European Union partners to see whether strategic investments could be made in processing in order to ensure that liquid milk, particularly from more remote parts of the United Kingdom, can be processed in the right place. The hon. Member for South Down raised some of the problems with the banking system. We are addressing that issue directly through conversations with the banks.
There are other steps—about 14 of them—that the Department is taking that were not addressed so much in this debate. It is important to bear in mind that underlying the dairy industry is considerable Government investment. On average, about £20,000 per farm comes from the Government. We have provided emergency support of £26.3 million for the current dairy crisis.
Cutting red tape is something that has not been discussed today. We estimate that by the end of this Parliament, we will have saved farmers in general £450 million by moving to single-farm inspections. We have invested £160 million in agri-science. That is absolutely essential for everybody talking about innovation. We are looking at inward investment and had the Chinese company, Yili, here.
The hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent raised the issue of exports. The Secretary of State is currently in the United States, driving British food exports, and we are also driving them into Chinese markets. We are focusing a great deal on specialist producers. I would like to pay tribute, for example, to the movement in Swaledale towards yoghurt production.
That brings me to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond (Yorks) (Rishi Sunak) on the advances that we ought to be able to make in markets, hedging and futures markets. We have a specialist working on that in DEFRA with very considerable experience in the financial industry. It is a very complex industry, but we believe that it is something we ought to be able to make progress on.
On producer organisations, which were raised by the hon. Member for Ceredigion and by my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond (Yorks), we have created the seed funding to launch producer organisations. We have created the legislative framework for those producer organisations.
On procurement, which the hon. the Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts) raised, £60,000 of British Government money is being put into our schools to provide milk for our children. That is Department of Health money, proving that that Department recognises that milk is nutritionally beneficial to our children. The Justice Secretary has committed to milk coming into our prisons.
My hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset (Simon Hoare) and the hon. Member for Workington rightly raised issues about the Rural Payments Agency. I am therefore delighted to be able to announce that we will make part-payments to every farmer by the end of April: that means at least 50% of their payments by the end of this month to address this issue.
Finally, my hon. Friends the Members for Eddisbury (Antoinette Sandbach) and for York Outer (Julian Sturdy) raised the question of the Groceries Code Adjudicator. Again, I am delighted to announce on behalf of the Department that we are doing a full review of the powers and behaviour of the Groceries Code Adjudicator. That is being done by civil servants at the moment, and we will report back on progress and looking specifically at issues such as whether the adjudicator can address the processing industry.
I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Ceredigion for securing this debate and for the extraordinary quality of the argument, interest and commitment in this Chamber. The issue is unbelievably difficult and heart-breaking for farmers. Dairy farmers are at the core of our culture, history, identity, nutrition and heritage. The 17 measures that I have set out are contributions towards that, but ultimately we must get from a short-term crisis to a long-term future in which global demand for milk is rising and Britain is ideally placed to meet it.
I am grateful for the opportunity to thank all hon. Members, including those on the Front Benches, for their contributions. I am not sorry we asked the Minister 31 questions. I know that if he was unable to answer any as fully as he wanted, he will write to us. I thank him for his contribution and those of the Front-Bench spokesmen. Many points of note were made, some following from my speech, and many new ones.
The hon. Member for South Down (Ms Ritchie) spoke about Northern Ireland and the proactive way in which moneys are being released to support investment. That is important. Mention was made of TB eradication. The hon. Member for North Dorset (Simon Hoare) may find that history regards various aspects of coalition life and policy rather differently from him. We will see what happens in the fullness of time. Certainly in Wales, there has been consistency in three of the four parties about what we need to do to eradicate TB. I am particularly pleased that Ceredigion, with Carmarthenshire and Pembrokeshire, recently voted for a selective badger cull. That was the first issue raised at a meeting I had on a farm last week. It needs to be addressed.
Finally, I did not raise this, but I am pleased that my constituency has been labelled the most Europhile part of the United Kingdom. I am proud of that—[Interruption.] Hon. Members knocked me off my perch. A strong reason is the importance of the farming industry, which is a major employer in my constituency. Farmers are fully aware of the necessity of continued EU membership. On that controversial note, I thank all hon. Members for taking part in this debate.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the UK dairy sector.
Small Weapons Trade
[Andrew Rosindell in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered Government policy on the trade in small weapons.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell. I want to say at the outset that I have an interest in this topic. I am a Quaker attender, a member of Amnesty International and I have observed and documented peaceful protestors at the London arms fair at the ExCel centre.
I have called for this debate because some constituents who came to my surgery were concerned about the UK’s role in the small weapons trade. The weapons may be small, but I am sure the Minister will agree that the problem is not small. According to a Government briefing, there is one small weapon for every 10 human beings on the planet. We know from other work by non-governmental and Government organisations that between 60% and 90% of conflict deaths are caused by so-called small weapons. That means about 300,000 fatalities and about 900,000 injuries every year. As we know, in conflict situations, most deaths and injuries in this century have involved civilians. The problem is not small.
I have come across injuries from small weapons in my work as a doctor abroad. I have come across near-fatal injuries from rubber bullets and I have come across fatalities from live ammunition and dum-dum bullets. But I was most concerned about trade in small weapons when I was working in a peaceful setting in an African village with no electricity outside the hospital and no running water. There was an emergency one night—a young man had a gunshot wound—but we had no idea where the gun or ammunition came from.
Does my hon. Friend accept that our country is at the forefront in the control of trade in all weapons and was one of the first to sign the UN arms trade treaty in 2013?
I thank my hon. Friend for making that point. I believe we are leading when it comes to trade in larger weapons, but we are doing very poorly when it comes to small weapons. I will give examples.
The young man in Africa nearly died from his gunshot wound. We need to be responsible because, when there are small weapons in the community, it is very rare for them to be dismantled or to disappear. You may live in a mud hut with no furniture or belongings of note but, if anyone has a small weapon, it remains in that community for generations. We must be more responsible about this and, as a major trader in small weapons, we must take the lead.
Strong defence means transparency and regulation. Historically, we have not done well. I am sure the Minister is aware of some UK traders in small weapons. One transferred about 40,000 AK47s, 30,000 other assault rifles and 32 million rounds of ammunition to Nigeria— what one commentator said was enough for a small army. That UK trader was under investigation for three years before that licence was removed.
Another UK trader had a conviction in the 1990s for trading in pump-action weapons. They were found guilty in 2009 of selling arms to Iraq. Another UK trader, who we believe supplied the man who was responsible for the Hungerford massacre in the 1980s, was found guilty of trading with North Korea in 2012.
On a point of clarification, are the people my hon. Friend cited as UK or British traders British nationals or do they just trade from the UK? There is a huge difference.
I regret to say that they are UK citizens. One was extradited to the US. I believe the others are from the UK. The first one I mentioned was selling arms to our police and our Ministry of Defence. My hon. Friend may know that, when Sir John Stanley was Chair of the Committees on Arms Exports Controls, he went to Ukraine and was given a list of UK traders. Many of those were known to our Export Control Organisation, but it did not know that several of them were transferring arms from Ukraine to Libya, Rwanda and Sri Lanka. Therefore, historically—these are recent enough cases—our policy on the trade in small weapons has not been good enough. I hope that the Minister can reassure me that things have changed dramatically, but I am not aware of evidence of that.
I am asking for a pre-licence register whereby there are criminal record checks so that we do not have a case like that of the person who had a record in the 1990s and was found guilty in the next century of illegal trade, and whereby we check for financial illegalities. My suspicion—again, I would like the Minister to reassure me—is that there is more vetting of a man who would like to volunteer as a scout leader than there is of a man who is going to trade in weapons that end up in the hands of a child soldier in Nigeria.
I am asking that the UK lead on the marking of small weapons—by that, I mean conform to the 2005 UN instrument. I had it from a Department for Business, Innovation and Skills Minister that we were or are aiming to go along with those measures, but the instrument is more than 10 years old now. I want these weapons to have the marking of the dealer, the importer, the exporter and the carrier.
I would like there to be better sharing of information. I would like the Minister to assure me that there is intra-governmental sharing of information so that we do not have a repeat of those cases in which people were under investigation but still dealing with other Departments. I would also like reassurance that there is a transfer of information between Governments.
I commend the UK for doing well when it comes to large weapons. I believe that if, for instance, there is trade in a combat aircraft such as a Typhoon, a Minister will be a co-signatory on the contract. That shows a high level of responsibility. I am asking for that level of responsibility for small weapons, which as we know are contributing to most of the injuries and fatalities in conflict situations.
The Government did issue a call for evidence last July on a pre-licensing register of arms brokers. What is disappointing is that only 78 people were consulted and most of those were arms traders; I do not believe any of the consultees were victims. One of the problems cited in the consultation was cost, but I would say that, if most UK traders are dealing with tens of thousands of AK-47s or millions of rounds of ammunition, cost should not be a bar to a good register, vetting and good marking of these weapons. We should be responsible and we should be leading on this.
In summary, I would like the Minister to tell me about a register, a vetting for the register, a regular vetting and transparent marking that leads the way internationally. We need to know how many and what type of weapons are being traded, not just give someone a licence and carte blanche to trade. With this strong defence, we can lead. We can take a lead from the scouts on leadership and responsibility. I believe that the Minister can do what is done for the larger weapons and transfer that level of responsibility to small weapons.
As always, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Dr Mathias) on securing the debate and particularly thank my hon. Friend the Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke (Jack Lopresti) for making insightful interventions, given his history and expertise in this matter.
With your permission, Mr Rosindell, I will interpret the subject of the debate widely and will refer to small arms and light weaponry—rather than small weapons—a term that is more established in the trade and in Government policy, as a way of encompassing the totality of what is happening. I will also try to draw a distinction between traders and brokers, because I think there is a bit of a misunderstanding. A broker is someone who arranges a deal, perhaps through a third country, and the goods more traditionally come through the individual trader.
The effective control of small arms and light weaponry is a goal that clearly unites us all, because, as we have heard, the potential consequences of their misuse are so grave. I see that across my portfolio and particularly on the African continent. When states fail to control the supply and sale of these weapons, they not only jeopardise the safety and security of innocent people worldwide—including a disproportionate number of women and children—but fuel instability more generally and threaten international peace and security.
The debate has focused on national arms trade and controls, so I would like to deal with that up front. The UK Government operate one of the most rigorous and transparent arms export control systems in the world. My hon. Friend the Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke indicated that. My hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham talked of Sir John Stanley, whom I served with in two Parliaments. For the last five years, he was the Chair of the Committees on Arms Exports Controls, on which I briefly served as a member of the Select Committee on International Development, which contributes to that work. Sir John Stanley has previously acknowledged that the UK operates
“one of the most transparent export licensing systems in the world”.
So we really are at the cutting edge of what is being done. That is not to say that we should not do more, but I do not want the House to be left in any doubt as to whether we are a laggard on these issues; we are right at the forefront. However, I will deal with the points that my hon. Friend raises. Just because we are right at the forefront and doing the right thing globally does not mean that we cannot and should not do, and aspire to do, more.
It is right that the Government facilitate responsible exports by British companies, and support them in winning such contracts. In many cases, the export of arms is of benefit. It brings security and stability. It is in the interest of the importing country and it is in the British national interest.
Does my hon. Friend the Minister agree that it is vital that we protect our sovereign defence capability, not only for jobs and exports but for our very protection, our expertise and our ability as a sovereign country to conduct our own operations with our own kit?
Absolutely, and I defer to my hon. Friend, with his military expertise. It is important to maintain that capability overall, in terms of critical mass. Also—I travel from country to country with conflict areas—there are issues of interoperability between weapons, particularly large weapons as opposed to small arms. Having a production facility with similar arms and munitions is very helpful in theatre, as well as in building critical mass to maintain the British Army.
All export and trade licence applications are fully assessed, very carefully, on a case-by-case basis, in line with international legislation but also domestic—national—arms licensing criteria. That takes into account all the factors at the time of application, including the prevailing circumstances in the recipient countries, the nature of the goods that are being sent, the nature of the end-user and, in addition, the stated end-use. The Government follow a clear procedure for each application. That is informed by expert advice from a number of Departments. My hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham asked about the degree of co-ordination. I think that some of her interactions have been with BIS. The Foreign Office takes the lead on a lot of these matters, but the Home Office and a number of other Departments are also involved. A licence will not be issued in any way, shape or form if it would be inconsistent with the provisions of our export regime in its totality.
If there is a clear risk that the goods may be used for internal repression or external aggression, a licence is always denied. The UK has one of the world’s most effective enforcement regimes for arms exports. Enforcement of the UK’s arms export controls is led by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, which works jointly with Border Force to detect and prevent unlicensed arms exports. HMRC and Border Force work closely with other Government Departments and with other intelligence agencies across the world to ensure that arms are not exported through the UK in breach of the UK’s licensing controls.
Additionally, HMRC works with the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills to engage with legitimate arms exporters and to help them to comply with the law, but we are vigorous in actively pursuing those who either deliberately or carelessly circumvent legislation. We remain committed to transparent exchange control systems, as demonstrated by the publication of export licensing decisions and details of export controls policy in the UK annual report on strategic export controls, as well as in the European Union annual report on arms exports.
The Government recognise and respect the public interest in export licensing decisions, and therefore we took the decision to publish quarterly statistics on all export and trade licences issued, refused or revoked. I understand that my hon. Friend would like us to publish more information. That has a cost. If we were to do that in looking at the overall picture of reducing the number of atrocities, we would focus too much on already law-abiding providers supplying more detail. There is a much bigger picture in respect of the supply of small arms and light weaponry. If someone is looking to source weaponry for nefarious purposes, there are many places across the world where they would look before looking to the United Kingdom, both in terms of laxer export controls and in terms of price and quality—such countries offer lower quality but, all importantly, lower price.
In parallel to our work on our own system, it is important that we ask others to step up and meet the same exacting standards to which Sir John Stanley referred when he said that we operate
“one of the most transparent export licensing systems in the world”.
If I were able to do one thing on this issue, it would be to get others to do as well as we are, not to improve an already excellent, but not perfect, system in the UK.
Among other things, in terms of data, we are committed to a reporting timescale and the provision of data analysis. The Government are a world leader on transparency, and we are fully compliant with European Union and other international requirements.
The brokering of arms sales continues to be controlled on a rigorous case-by-case basis through the licensing assessment process. The idea of creating a pre-licensing register of arms brokers was explored by BIS, and my hon. Friend’s predecessor as the MP for Twickenham, in a call to evidence in 2014. I have reviewed BIS’s correspondence. I am sure that my hon. Friend has tales of campaigning against Liberal Democrats in Twickenham. In my 10 years in the House, and during the coalition, there were occasions when—I say this gently—the Liberal Democrats over-promised and under-delivered. If that had been a priority, and if it had been the right thing to do, it could have been pushed forward at the time, but in letters to constituents her predecessor promised a lot but did not deliver. The consultation showed that, actually, delivering that was the wrong thing to do. In a sense, it would have layered in extra bureaucracy without addressing the fundamental problem.
In the last 10 years, the UK has successfully prosecuted eight UK nationals for arms trafficking and brokering outside the UK. Customs investigators work jointly with law enforcement officials across the world to gather the necessary evidence to enable such prosecutions. Additionally, we continue to work with international partners to prevent and disrupt arms transfers before they occur, including through the sharing of intelligence. The global control of arms requires an overall global commitment to marking, record keeping and tracing weapons. Without the proper management of stockpiles, weapons may end up in the wrong hands, fuelling crime, terrorism and conflict, so we need everyone to up their game.
The UK has signed and supports various politically binding agreements, including the international tracing instruments, which promote effective national controls over the full life-cycle of small arms and light weapons. We encourage and support states to improve their stockpile security, including by funding projects through, for example, the counter-proliferation programme fund, which is FCO-led but delivered across Departments, in priority countries such as Libya. We look at how we can prevent arms from disappearing out of that country, as has happened previously.
In conclusion, the Government support the responsible trade in defence equipment but always apply rigorous and accountable national export control systems. The Government have one of the most rigorous and transparent export control systems in the world. I welcome the continued high level of scrutiny—including debates such as this one—which remains central to our goal of achieving global security through responsible exports.
I thank my hon. Friend the Minister for his response and concur with him that the situation is not perfect. I am glad that work is being done with other Departments. I am not satisfied that the cost and bureaucracy are problems for a register or for vetting. I maintain that the charity sector bears the cost of bureaucracy and more checks and controls. I am not convinced that Sir John Stanley’s concerns have yet been addressed, but I am glad that the Minister considers things on a case-by-case basis. I hope that if I bring individual cases to him he will be open to reviewing the ongoing situation, because I know that he shares my concerns.
Question put and agreed to.
Western Sahara: Self-determination
I beg to move,
That this House has considered Western Sahara and self-determination.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell. The principle of self-determination is close to my heart, but this debate is about an international situation that has been the subject of interest for all parties of the House. That is reflected by the creation of an all-party group of which I am a member. The debate could equally have been titled “Western Sahara: Self-determination and human rights abuse”, as the two issues are intertwined. The debate is timely given that even today, al-Jazeera quoted from a report by Ban Ki-moon warning of potential
“significant implications for the stability of the region as well as the credibility of the Security Council and United Nations peacekeeping worldwide.”
I will return to those themes as my speech develops.
The region of Western Sahara was ruled by Spain for approximately 100 years. Following its own independence in 1957, Morocco disputed the legitimacy of that colonial rule. Towards the end of Franco’s reign it took advantage of the accepted need for decolonisation by European states in Africa. Consequently, an occupation by some 350,000 Moroccans in 1975 led to Spain transferring administrative control to Morocco and Mauritania. Mauritania dropped its claim of sovereignty in 1979, but to this day Morocco continues to forcibly exert its perceived sovereignty across the nation of Western Sahara.
Morocco has ignored the fact that an indigenous Sahrawi independence movement was formed in 1973. That organisation, the Polisario Front, then fought a guerrilla war from 1975 to 1991, when there was a United Nations-brokered ceasefire. A Polisario Government-in-exile in Algeria was set up in 1976. It is important to note that part of the ceasefire deal included the holding of a referendum on self-determination within six months. Here we are a quarter of a century later, and there has still been no referendum, even though a UN voter list was created in 1999. That obviously led nowhere. The situation has led to Western Sahara being dubbed Africa’s last colony, given that it is the only territory recognised by the UN as never having been decolonised. It is an unenviable title with serious ramifications.
There are still 165,000 refugees from the period of conflict living in the Algerian desert and dependent on international aid. Given that those refugees never make the headlines, it should be no surprise that the aid can be classed as inadequate. There is conflict around the world just now, and we know the scale of the Syrian refugee crisis, so it is easy to become immune to a figure of 165,000, but that is still a huge number of people who are suffering. Given that Western Sahara has a reported population of about 550,000, including Moroccan settlers, we can see the scale of the indigenous population who are classed as refugees.
As often happens before debates, I received briefing notes relevant to the subject of this debate. I have also received official communication from the ambassador at the Moroccan embassy in London. I was pleased to receive it, as counter-arguments are always welcome. I have a mantra when dealing with cases and issues that the truth is usually somewhere in the middle of the two parties’ viewpoints. However, I do not think that is the case with the self-determination of Western Sahara.
Morocco claims to have been colonised in different eras by Spain and France. I therefore find it incomprehensible that Morocco cannot learn from its history that the people’s will should not be subverted. It seems that Morocco cannot see the irony of imposing a ruling force to maintain order, as it sees it, and using settlers to complete a colonisation process. Using an army to maintain control and objecting to Ban Ki-moon using the term “occupation” smacks of an inability to look inward.
Morocco also ignores the fact that, before it took control in November 1975, the International Court of Justice ruled that there were no ties of territorial sovereignty between Morocco and Western Sahara and, further, that the Sahrawi people have a legal right to a process of self-determination. The fact that a referendum has still not been held since the ceasefire deal in 1991 suggests both an unwillingness to move forward and Moroccan concern about the likely outcome of such a poll.
Morocco seems to believe that the African Union’s recognition of Western Sahara belies another agenda, which does not seem credible to me. Since 1991 there has been a UN peacekeeping force in place under the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara, or MINURSO. Unlike any other modern UN peacekeeping force, it does not have a human rights mandate. That is completely unacceptable. Given that there is another vote on 28 April on renewing the peacekeeping force, will the Minister advise us of what representations the Government are making at the UN to incorporate a human rights mandate for the force?
Furthermore, as one of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council—a status deemed so critical to the UK’s role in the world that it featured in the Scottish referendum campaign—what is the UK doing to bring about a fair referendum some 25 years down the road? What discussions have the Government had with Morocco on this issue, and what is the UK view on the sovereignty of Western Sahara?
From a security perspective, the situation is becoming critical. On 26 March, Oxfam stated that there is now a “threat to regional stability”. Does the Minister share concerns about possible threats in the Maghreb region from extremist, terrorist and criminal factions? The Western Sahara Action Forum reports the presence of Daesh sleeper cells and attacks. Does that accord with UK intelligence on the region?
We all know the spiral of descent caused by the unrest manipulated by terrorists, which leads to further human rights abuses and so, of course, to further unrest. It is imperative that the UN gets to grips with that. As recently as March, 84 civilian and three military MINURSO personnel were expelled. Their presence in Western Sahara is critical, and given the suggested mandate for human rights, it seems to me that Morocco is giving the proverbial two fingers to the UN and directly challenging the Security Council’s authority. What is the UK view on that?
I keep referring to human rights. On top of the denial of the fundamental right of self-determination, the situation in Western Sahara goes much deeper. In 2012, the UN special rapporteur found that
“torture and ill-treatment were used to extract confessions and that protesters were subjected to excessive use of force”.
We know that the monthly peaceful protests are regularly broken up, and on one occasion in 2014 that was witnessed by a parliamentary delegation from the UK. One year on, in 2015, Human Rights Watch noted Morocco’s
“growing intolerance for independent human rights organizations and other critical voices”.
In June 2015, two Amnesty International workers were banned, which tells a story.
The US State Department states that there have been an estimated 50 to 70 deaths in detention, and no Moroccan investigations into alleged abuses. I suggest to Morocco that if it is serious about a solution, it needs to recognise allegations of abuse, violence and torture and start some investigations. Other testimonies confirm sexual violence and rape, and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights are non-existent. Morocco’s autonomy proposal for Western Sahara proposes self-determination “whilst remaining respectful” of Morocco’s “sovereignty and territorial integrity”. I think that we can see that for what it is.
A cynical assessment of the Moroccan offer is justified when we consider the offer within the context of Morocco’s celebrations to mark 40 years of its presence in Western Sahara and King Mohammed VI’s comment:
“Those who are waiting for any other concessions on Morocco’s part are deceiving themselves. Indeed, Morocco has given all there was to give.”
I would like the Minister to confirm the UK view of the Moroccan proposals that have been put forward.
Western Sahara could be a successful independent nation. It has natural resources, including vegetables, fish and minerals. However, Morocco again subverts the will of the indigenous people by using the classic colonial trick of negotiating trade deals itself and ensuring that jobs, particularly in the mines, go to settlers. Again, I remind Morocco to learn from history, because further resentment is the only outcome of such a policy.
It could be that Morocco feels vindicated in adopting such an approach given the attitude of the international community. The EU has negotiated a fishing deal for Spanish fishermen and the UK has made its own trade deals, although the Western Sahara Action Forum reports that those deals are subject to a case at the European Court of Justice. I would like the Minister to give more information on that issue, because, as I say, the international community’s actions give validity to Morocco’s attitude towards Western Sahara.
The way that Morocco is acting is contrary to international law, given that the UN General Assembly recognises the Polisario as “the representative of the people of Western Sahara”. Does the Minister agree with that view and, if so, what are the UK Government doing to engage with the Polisario? Does he agree that no international agreements should be made with Morocco about minerals and oil or gas extraction until these issues are resolved? Does he agree that it is time the Sahrawi were given their referendum, and will he pledge that the UK will do more diplomatically within the UN to allow the self-determination of Western Sahara?
It really is time that we remove the stain of the last colony in Africa, and there should be a recognised, independent Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic.
I am delighted to have this opportunity to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell.
In recent years, the UK has spent a great deal of its time and effort, and one could say a great deal of its blood and treasure, focusing on the MENA—the middle east and north Africa. However, I have to agree with the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown), who secured the debate, that we have failed in relation to Western Sahara. We have failed to recognise the human rights abuses there, and we have failed to lend our voice to those calling for the legitimate rights of the indigenous people of the region to be recognised and endorsed.
As the hon. Gentleman said, Western Sahara is in essence Africa’s last colony. The Kingdom of Morocco has maintained the territory in subjugation since Spanish rule collapsed in 1976. The Sahrawi people are caught between the competing claims of a repressive Moroccan occupying force and the Polisario Front, which is supported by the Algerian Government and emerged in the 1970s in opposition to Moroccan rule. Their right to self-determination has been recognised by the EU, the United Nations, the African Union and the International Court of Justice, but it is still denied to them.
Morocco’s annexation of Western Sahara precipitated a fierce civil war, during which, the Red Cross alleges, Moroccan armed forces deployed napalm and cluster bombs against civilians. Throughout the 1980s, the Moroccan Government sought to cement their position and secure their claim to the territory, and to the vast natural resources that it contains. They encircled Western Sahara with a wall, or a berm, extending nearly 3,000 km, and peppered its perimeter with landmines. The wall also violated Mauritanian security and extended into its territory. Under those conditions, thousands of Sahrawi refugees poured into neighbouring Algeria, where they continue to live in sprawling camps near Tindouf. With an absence of independent food sources or opportunities for employment, residents live dependent on aid to feed their families. A survey conducted in 2012 found that 8% of residents in the camps were malnourished. There is huge opposition to the refugees, who are being denied their human rights. We all too often hear of people in Western Sahara, particularly women, facing sexual subjugation and torture.
A ceasefire was agreed in the 1990s, and a settlement plan was brokered by the then Organisation of African Unity and the United Nations. A referendum on Sahrawi independence was an integral component of that plan, and the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara was established to oversee the Sahrawi people’s transition to autonomy, but that referendum has not taken place. The composition of the electorate has been complicated by the influx of Moroccan nationals into Western Sahara. There have been allegations that the Moroccan Government have introduced thousands of their citizens as part of an insidious policy of colonisation and forced integration. Sporadic violence perpetrated by both Moroccan and Polisario forces has continued to interrupt and delay the peace process. That stagnation has undermined the credibility of MINURSO and the settlement plan it was established to uphold. In 2013, the Moroccan Government persuaded the US to abandon its plans to extend MINURSO’s mandate to include human rights abuses in Western Sahara and in the refugee camps.
In October 2010, a camp called Gdeim Izik was established by the Sahrawi people near El Aaiún in protest against human rights abuses, the repression of dissidents and the continued reluctance of the outside world to act. That reluctance is shocking once we start looking at the issue. The city is the administrative capital of the southern provinces—of Western Sahara—and the erection of the camp was interpreted by Moroccan officials as an act of aggression. The forceful dismantlement of the camp sparked riots, in which a number of Moroccan security personnel were killed, as were an unknown number of Sahrawi people.
With the camp destroyed, the Moroccan Government set out to convict what they called the instigators and leaders of the riots, and 25 people were convicted of murder following confessions that were said to have been extracted through torture. According to Amnesty International, such practices are depressingly common in Western Sahara. We cannot overestimate the shockwaves that those acts of repression are causing across the region. Eyes are on countries such as the United Kingdom that have a track record of upholding human rights. People in Algeria, Western Sahara and Mauritania are rightly asking, “What is the UK doing? Where are its values? Why are its values not being endorsed here, where there is clear repression of an indigenous people?”
It is time that we looked at Western Sahara. There is a huge danger of it becoming an incubator for terrorism and organised crime. There is a sense of injustice, and of the failure of western Governments to acknowledge that injustice, among the indigenous people, who have been given no opportunity to go anywhere to seek redress, except through organisations such as al-Qaeda and Daesh. The grievances generated by the Moroccan occupation are powerful recruiting tools, and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb has flourished in the absence of legitimate political authority. The UK can no longer afford to confine the conflict and the plight of the Sahrawi people to the peripheries of its foreign policy. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say, and I hope that we will at last use our position in the United Nations to move forward on the UN mandate and seek justice and legitimacy for these people.
It is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mr Rosindell. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon) for her speech, and particularly to the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown), who initiated the debate. He is a much valued member of the all-party group on Western Sahara, which I chair, and he has done the people of Western Sahara a great service in raising the issue today.
I want to express a few of the concerns that I have had for some time, since I visited the country with the right hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn), who used to chair the all-party group. It was my privilege to visit Laayoune, the capital of Western Sahara, in February 2014, along with the right hon. Gentleman, the director of War on Want and a constituent of mine who runs the Western Sahara Campaign Cymru. The hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun mentioned that visit, as a result of which we produced a report titled “Life Under Occupation”. I believe the Minister will have seen it and his predecessors in the Foreign Office certainly saw it.
I want to ask the Minister, as the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun did, for his response to Morocco ordering the expulsion of the 84 civilian and three military MINURSO personnel following the visit of the United Nations Secretary-General to Western Sahara in March. The mission complied with that request, despite the fact that it was a United Nations mission in a country designated a non-self-governing territory. In short, the Moroccan authorities had no authority to make that request. Surely Morocco cannot be allowed to dictate to a UN mission in a territory it does not have sovereignty over. I believe that that represents an unprecedented challenge to the authority of the United Nations Security Council, and I worry that it shows the Security Council is failing to live up to its responsibilities. I hope that it will strongly condemn the action of the Moroccan authorities in expelling the citizens and military personnel after the March visit by Ban Ki-moon.
I visited the mission in 2014, and we sat and talked to the officials there. Without mentioning names, I have to say that some of those UN officials expressed great frustration that they had no human rights monitoring mandate for Western Sahara. They were fully aware of the human rights violations and the street demonstrations in Laayoune, some of which were witnessed by colleagues on our visit. They were also fully aware of the great brutality with which the Moroccan authorities broke up peaceable demonstrations by men, women and children. However, they were unable to take any action because of the lack of any human rights monitoring role. They had no capacity or power to act. That was one of the most distressing things—to witness, with colleagues, those violations taking place in the streets, and to know that there was a UN capacity there with the potential to act, which could do nothing.
There was great brutality. The constituent who came with me attempted bravely to take photographs of the demonstrations. It was perhaps no surprise, given the way things are controlled in Laayoune, that his camera was stolen. It was later returned, with the offending pictures of course removed and wiped completely. While we were spending those three or four days in an unfamiliar city some way from home, it was quite clear that the powers of surveillance, under the pretext of protecting our interests, were following our every move—that is an unnerving experience. However, I had the luxury of being able to hop on a plane to return to this country. The Sahrawi people, of course, continue to be less fortunate.
The hon. member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun talked at length about human rights issues. I can only concur with what he and the hon. Member for Bridgend said. The UN special rapporteur on torture, Juan Méndez, visited Morocco and Western Sahara in 2012. He found that torture and ill treatment were used to extract confessions, and that Moroccan law enforcement officials used excessive force. In 2015, Human Rights Watch noted the growing intolerance for independent human rights organisations and other critical voices. All the meetings that we had in Laayoune, whether with organisations campaigning for women’s rights, trade unions or other human rights activists, had to be conducted under the cloak of secrecy. All too often, we had to sit in dark rooms—literally—in the back streets of the city, because any public acknowledgment that the meetings were taking place would seriously implicate the Sahrawis we were meeting.
The huge natural resources in Western Sahara are clear from any visit, and their exploitation by Morocco is used as a justification for its occupation. Phosphate mining, fishing and market gardening provide jobs for Moroccan settlers—very few of those jobs go to the indigenous population, among whom unemployment rates are disproportionately high. We visited the ports and saw for ourselves how all offshore fishing is carried out by Moroccan-owned trawlers. In the phosphate mining industry, only 21% of the workforce are Sahrawis, the majority of whom are employed in the most menial jobs. Moroccan influence and money dominates the market gardening industry, its capital and its rewards.
For the indigenous population, there is very little evidence of a return on investment and improvements in their lives. We are talking about the absence of democracy and basic human rights, but in narrow economic terms, the people of Western Sahara are not being delivered a fair share—chwarae teg, as we say in Wales—of resources.
Our overwhelming impression from our visit was of deep and utter sadness—of an indigenous people being repressed, their identities being supressed and their history and culture not being recognised in school. We saw several private Sahrawi schools, which basically meant that parents educated their children in their own history, traditions and culture in their own homes. Again, that took place in secrecy, because it is illegal and the Moroccan authorities would clamp down on it.
All Members who have spoken today have agreed that such violations occur as a direct consequence of the UN’s failure to fulfil its duty to provide self-determination through a referendum for the people there. I know that, as the years go by, that becomes more of a challenge. Concocting an electoral list when the population is so split is, of course, a huge challenge. It is not helped by the concessionary tax and housing rights that encourage people to migrate from Morocco into Western Sahara, which the hon. Member for Bridgend mentioned. I strongly encourage the Minister to do whatever he can, because there is an expectation that countries such as ours should take more of a lead, to ensure progress towards the referendum and a continuing UN presence with a human rights monitoring role. Nothing less will do.
Finally, I want to talk about the case of a Sahrawi campaigner, Mr Brahim Saika, who fell into a coma and died last Friday after being arbitrarily detained by the police and accused of organising protests for self-determination. He was a co-ordinator of a group of unemployed Sahrawis and was arrested on 1 April. According to reports, he was detained and tortured in Gulemin police station. He was then transferred to a hospital in Agadir in Morocco from Bozakarn prison, where he had been held. His sister stated that he had been hit on the head, which is why he fell into a coma and subsequently died. After he was arrested, he went on hunger strike in protest against his detention and maltreatment. A few days later, his condition deteriorated significantly, which was when he was transferred to hospital. The reports we have heard suggest that no serious attempts were made to save his life. The hospital authorities are now refusing to conduct an autopsy to determine the cause of his death, despite his family’s demand for one. The family have been told that the cause of death was poisoning due to a rat bite.
I would appreciate the Minister raising the case with Morocco, and the all-party group would very much like to hear back about that in due course. The sad reality is that brave people such as Brahim Saika are by no means the only victims of the continued occupation of Western Sahara.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown) on securing the debate and the members of the APPG from whom we have heard. The debate is timely, coming as it does shortly after the 40th anniversary of the Moroccan invasion—40 years during which 165,000 refugees from Western Sahara have lived in the Algerian desert. It is one of the global situations, or African situations in particular, that does not receive the attention that it is due.
One of the things that we must put on the record is, honestly, our gratitude to the Algerians. They have provided a safe haven for those people and, let’s face it, we have created additional problems for the Algerians with people fleeing from Libya and Tunisia into Algeria. The Algerians are carrying a huge burden, so we have a responsibility to them, too, to resolve the problem.
That is a fair point.
Sadly, we can look across Africa and see a number of forgotten nations that maybe do not get the attention that they deserve. For example, the APPG on Eritrea, of which I am a member, was recently founded. There is the situation in Somalia. Western Sahara’s particular situation, however, with its description as “the last colony”, is especially tragic. I was trying to find some statistics, but that is difficult to do, because of its stateless position. I could not find, for example, a ranking in the UN human development index, although I found a GDP figure of about US $2,500 per head, which is not in any way significant. I pay tribute to the work of the various campaign groups that are seeking to make the issue live. They have helped to provide background briefings for Members for today. I note that the comedian and activist Mark Thomas is doing a fundraiser for the cause on 2 May. I wish him all the very best for that.
Three key issues have arisen in the debate: first, the principle of self-determination; secondly, a reflection on recent developments and the human rights situation in the country; and, thirdly, questions for the Government that I hope the Minister will be able to answer. As my hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun said, the SNP feels passionately about the principle of self-determination, and we in Scotland were able to exercise it in 2014, in a wonderful exercise in democratic participation. Here in the UK, after elections in Scotland in a few weeks’ time, on 23 June we will have a referendum on our membership of the European Union. That is the kind of thing that we take for granted, but it is sadly denied in so many different parts of the world—only today, in Question Time, the Prime Minister was asked about the Chagos islands. In any event, surely a referendum has to be the endgame and the way in which matters are resolved.
Not a great ask.
No, it is not a great ask at all. A peaceful solution has to involve the right of individuals and nations to self-determination. Also, we cannot and should not prejudge what the decision might be. It might be a form of autonomy, or of independence. We will not know until it is put to the test. The UN groundwork has been done, but it is rapidly dating. Generations continue to grow up, still waiting for an opportunity to have their say.
Meanwhile, the situation continues to deteriorate, perhaps not least because of a lack of a human rights mandate for the UN mission. My hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun referred to the Oxfam analysis, which described the recent crisis and the expulsion of UN diplomats as a threat to regional stability. Other examples can be found of human rights abuses; some were referred to by the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr Williams). A 2015 Amnesty International report lists a whole range of different torture techniques used by Moroccan security forces to extract confessions to crimes or to silence activists and crush dissent.
We expect a report in the next few days from the Secretary-General of the UN. Press reports, from those who have perhaps seen advance copies, say that the language used by the Secretary-General seems to indicate that the UN is backing away from its insistence on the concept of self-determination as necessarily leading to independence. I do not know if that is accurate; it is from an article that I have read and it would be interesting to hear from the Minister, because that is the big-picture question. The situation of the people of Western Sahara is important in its own right, but there is a bigger question about the mandate and role of the UN and the respect attributed to decisions by the UN Security Council, of which the United Kingdom is a member. How will the Government use its role as a permanent member to push for further action? The hon. Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon) rightly pointed out the risks of inaction. Now is a very appropriate time for action.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun said, it would be useful to know the Government’s view on Morocco’s claim to the territory and its progress in entering into commercial contracts for the exploitation of natural resources in Western Sahara. What consideration are the Government giving to support refugees from Western Sahara in neighbouring countries, as well as to those trying to enter the UK and the EU? Finally, as was touched on in exchanges at the start of my speech, what role do the Government see for neighbouring and regional countries in the area and the broader African Union? The hon. Member for Bridgend noted that a wide range of international institutions recognise the right of the people of Western Sahara to self-determination. Surely, after 40 years, it is time to stop talking and start doing.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell, and to follow the hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady). I always seem to be following him, so let me hope that I can enhance what he said.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown) on securing such an important and timely debate. The Western Sahara is not a region regularly raised in the House, but it is an important area and the situation deserves our attention. We also heard an important contribution from my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon), who pointed out that women in Western Sahara often face sexual subjugation and torture, something we really need to press our Government and the Moroccan Government on.
The hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun pointed out something that the hon. Member for Glasgow North reiterated: Morocco has made a direct challenge to the UN Security Council’s resolution by trying to put obstacles in the way of the referendum that the Security Council wishes to take place. Today’s debate is timely because this month the UN Security Council will also be debating the Western Sahara, 25 years after the establishment of the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara. MINURSO was first given six months to hold a referendum on and in the Western Sahara. That was in 1991. If the mandate is renewed this week, the mission will be in its 26th year. In preparation for today’s debate, I read through the minutes of previous Security Council debates on the Western Sahara, as you do. They make for rather depressing reading. There is generally unanimous agreement that the status quo is unsustainable and there is a desire to see a resolution, yet we never seem to get any nearer to a final agreement.
As we have heard, the failure to find a resolution comes at a serious human cost. Around 100,000 Sahrawis remain in refugee camps in the Algerian desert and there are now multiple generations who have grown up there. I also have serious concerns about the position of Sahrawis in Western Sahara. As has been said, numerous accounts of human rights abuses have been recognised by Her Majesty’s Government, the UN and independent bodies such as Amnesty International. Of course we need to see progress on the ground, but there are real fears that the position of Sahrawis, both economically and politically, is worsening.
Those concerns were set out in the report of the APPG on Western Sahara written by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition and the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr Williams), who made an excellent contribution this afternoon and now chairs the all-party group. He is clearly one of our most knowledgeable MPs. That report followed the APPG’s delegation to the area in 2014, the year that I visited the region and Laayoune with the Minister, before he was the Minister. The report is informative and clearly highlights the issues facing the Sahrawi population, especially when it comes to political protest. I join the hon. Member for Ceredigion in thanking John Gurr for the report and the work that he continues to do through the Western Sahara Campaign, which I found helpful in preparing for the debate.
In the long term, we need an agreement among all parties to enable a referendum to take place in Western Sahara. However, getting to that point will require more political will on all sides. I echo the text of resolution 2218 in calling
“upon the parties and the neighbouring states to cooperate more fully with the United Nations and with each other and to strengthen their involvement to end the current impasse and to achieve progress towards a political solution”.
The international community must never seek to impose a solution on Western Sahara.
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
[Mr Adrian Bailey in the Chair]
Just before I bring Fabian Hamilton back in to conclude his remarks, given the change in timing necessitated by the Division, we will be looking at completing the debate by 5.41 pm.
I will continue with my speech, if I may. There is not too much left. I had just quoted from the text of resolution 2218.
The international community must never seek to impose a solution on the dispute over Western Sahara. Whether it remains part of Morocco or becomes a self-governing territory or an independent state, Western Sahara will always have to rely on a very close relationship with Morocco. Whatever the outcome, Western Sahara will need to trade with Morocco, particularly if it is to benefit from the significant investment currently going into it from the Moroccan state and Moroccan companies.
We must also recognise Morocco’s role in providing security in an increasingly unstable area with rising levels of extremism and sectarian conflict. However, the difficulties of achieving a long-term solution should not mean we forget the human rights of the Sahrawi population and their political and economic situation.
I was pleased to see from written answers that the Government have repeatedly raised the Western Sahara issue with the Moroccan Government, including with His Majesty King Mohammed VI. I am particularly pleased that the Government made successful representations to ensure that the UN Secretary-General’s personal envoy to Western Sahara was able to gain access to the region. I hope the Minister will be able to tell the House whether his discussions with the Government of Morocco have included the human rights situation in Western Sahara and the human rights issues facing the Sahrawi people in Morocco. I also hope the Minister will tell us what steps the UK is taking unilaterally and through the Friends of Western Sahara group of nations, of which the UK is a member, to improve the economic and civic participation of the Sahrawi population.
I want to press the Minister on the mandate for MINURSO. I understand that, as has been said this afternoon, it is the only mission in the world without a human rights remit. As the mission is about to have its mandate renewed, or at least reviewed, is it not time to include human rights within its remit and to ask it to report back to the UN Security Council on its findings? Is it also not time to set a date for a free and fair referendum in Western Sahara, with an option for independence on the ballot paper, consistent with the established international legal norm of self-determination?
Is the Minister prepared to demand an end to the extraction of natural resources from Western Sahara through deals that disregard the interests and wishes of the indigenous Sahrawi people? In particular, I hope he will set out the UK’s position on the sale of products from Western Sahara within the EU. I understand that the European Court of Justice ruled to exclude waters off the Western Sahara from the EU-Moroccan fisheries agreement, but that is subject to an appeal from the EU.
Would the hon. Gentleman acknowledge that there is a problem with labelling? We have just had a debate on agriculture. Many of the products produced in the occupied territories, which is how some of us refer to the area, are labelled as products of Morocco when clearly they should be labelled as products of Western Sahara.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I will finish what I was saying because it may cover the point he has raised. Will the Minister explain the UK’s position on the current appeal? Will he also explain what the judgment will mean for the sale of other Western Sahrawi produce within the EU if the appeal fails? In particular, will he explain whether Western Sahrawi goods, such as phosphorus and tomatoes, will be excluded from EU-Morocco trade agreements or require special labelling? I hope that covers the point raised by the hon. Gentleman.
These steps could be important in addressing many of the issues in Western Sahara that we have heard about today and could facilitate further progress. It is precisely because Morocco is such a close ally of the United Kingdom and a significant diplomatic player in its own right that we should work with the Moroccans to welcome a bigger role for the United Nations in finding a long-term and sustainable solution for all the parties involved in Western Sahara.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown) on securing this debate, on his strong interest in Western Sahara and more generally the work of the all-party group on Western Sahara. I thank other hon. Members from all three main parties for their contributions. In my briefing, I was not prepared for questions about the Scottish referendum, but I congratulate the hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) on getting that in.
I am sorry to disappoint hon. Members who were expecting the illustrious Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), who would have been delighted to respond to the debate, which is within his portfolio. He was, until very recently, engaged in another debate on the Floor of the House. It is therefore my pleasure to respond to the debate, particularly because, as the hon. Member for Leeds North East (Fabian Hamilton) alluded to with great foresight, both of us went to Western Sahara while on the Back Benches in order to be better briefed for this very occasion. We specifically visited the UN headquarters in Laayoune to see its work for ourselves first hand.
The Government’s position on Western Sahara is consistent and long-standing. The Government consider the final status of Western Sahara as undetermined, and we support the UN-led efforts to reach a lasting and mutually acceptable political solution that provides for the self-determination of the people of Western Sahara. In line with the debate, I will first speak about the underlying principles of self-determination and our support for those, then move on to the situation in Western Sahara and how it applies to the broader issue of self-determination.
In his statement of principles for world peace nearly a hundred years ago, President Woodrow Wilson said:
“Self-determination is not a mere phrase. It is an imperative principle of actions which statesmen will henceforth ignore at their peril.”
I am not sure he had the hon. Member for Leeds North West and me in mind when he said that, but nevertheless, I think I can speak for both of us in saying that we hear that principle. Wilson was unsuccessful in his attempts to include the principle in the covenant of the League of Nations.
More than two decades later, in the midst of world war two, Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt came up with a set of principles that defined the Allies’ goals for the post-war world, which included
“the right of all peoples to choose the form of government under which they will live”.
Their Atlantic charter is widely recognised as a precursor to the 1942declaration of United Nations, which was the foundation of the charter of the United Nations. This charter, and many other treaties and agreements to which the United Kingdom is signatory, set out clearly the right to self-determination.
The principle of self-determination is about freedom to make one’s own choices. This country demonstrated its commitment to that principle in 2013, when the Government gave residents of the Falkland Islands the freedom to choose whether they wanted to remain a British overseas territory. Self-determination has allowed, and continues to allow, countries and territories around the world to determine their own fate and chart their own course.
Turning to Western Sahara, the UK supports UN-led efforts to reach a lasting and mutually acceptable political solution to this long-standing dispute that provides, crucially, for the self-determination of the people of Western Sahara. Morocco and the pro-independence Polisario Front both claim sovereignty over Western Sahara. An International Court of Justice ruling on the issue in 1975 means that the territory is “non-self-governing” under chapter XI of the UN charter, and that its people therefore have the right to self-determination. Following Spanish withdrawal in 1975, most of the territory has been under Moroccan administration.
In 1991, after more than 15 years of hostilities between Morocco and the Polisario Front, a ceasefire was brokered by the Organisation of African Unity and the United Nations. It was agreed that both sides would stop fighting and the UN would monitor the ceasefire. The UN would also prepare for a referendum in which the Sahrawi people would exercise their right to self-determination, choosing either to be an autonomous region within Morocco or an independent state. That was the mandate for the UN MINURSO, which we have discussed, and which I visited with the hon. Member for Leeds North West in 2014. That body has succeeded in monitoring a ceasefire. The UN has persisted, through rounds of discussion, negotiations and renegotiations, in trying to find a political solution to the conflict. However, despite engagement and credible efforts over the years from both sides, little real progress has been made on the political track.
On 11 April 2007, Morocco put forward a proposal for advanced autonomy for the region. I think that is what the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun was referring to when he asked about the Government’s views on the proposal. UN Security Council resolution 1754 of 30 April 2007 took note of the proposal and welcomed the serious and credible Moroccan efforts to move the process forward towards resolution. It also took note of the Polisario Front’s proposal presented on 10 April 2007. However, neither proposal was accepted by the other party and no further proposals have been put on the table. The solution has to be UN-led. The UN has to move things forward.
In March this year, the UN Secretary-General made comments, which a number of Members have referred to, during a visit to the region. That led to disagreement around the UN troops and to withdrawal of the 84 civilian members of the UN deployment. While the Secretary-General has since clarified his statement and expressed regret for the misunderstanding caused, the civilian staff still have not returned. The UK Government are concerned about the lack of a civilian component in the force. Without that vital support, the UN mission is unable to fulfil its existing mandate, let alone an extended one. It is unable to assist the UN and thus the UK’s interest in finding a political solution, but it is still maintaining peace and security in the region.
We have urged the UN secretariat and Morocco to engage in dialogue that will allow the individuals to return as quickly as possible to enable the full functionality of the mission, allowing it to carry forward the full scope of its existing mission. We are hopeful that a way forward can be found. The situation is not totally gridlocked, but more effort is needed.
Turning to some of the additional points made during the debate, the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon) and a number of other Members talked about Daesh. We are concerned about the presence of Daesh throughout the broader region, although the Moroccan authorities have disputed the assertion that cells have been encountered. On the other hand, the Secretary-General’s personal envoy, Christopher Ross, has told the permanent under-secretary for the middle east and north Africa that about 15 individuals have travelled to fight with extremist groups in north Africa. I do not think 15 can be described as endemic, but we are aware of some people travelling from the region.
A lot of points were made about human rights. Although it is primarily a UN process, the UK, through its position on the Security Council, stresses the importance of humanitarian rights on an ongoing basis in Western Sahara and the camps. That was clear in the UN Security Council resolution of April 2015. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights visited Western Sahara in 2015 and the findings of that report will be reflected in the Secretary-General’s report, which we believe will be published later today. As I stand before the Chamber, I have not seen that it has been published. That is only one way that the UN looks at human rights in the area.
There was a specific case that the all-party group would like me to look into. If it writes to me with details, I am more than happy to look into that and circulate a letter that can be sent around to the rest of the group.
There has been progress on human rights. The Moroccan authorities recently took steps to improve human rights, including ratifying the protocol to the convention against torture and ending the practice of trying civilians in military courts. That is good progress, but I still hear calls to do a lot more. We are considering our position on the mandate renewal but, as I have said, actually getting the existing mandate delivered is troublesome without extending it further. I was asked by the hon. Member for Leeds North East about commercial activity. We do not consider commercial activity in Western Sahara to be illegal, as long as it respects the interests and wishes of the people of Western Sahara and benefits them. The UK does not prohibit companies from engaging in commercial activity, but they should take legal advice before doing so.
The Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs supports refugees in the camps in Algeria through all the UN agencies, most notably UNICEF, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the World Food Programme. This is a situation that we are very much aware of and very keen to engage in, and I look forward to progress being made through the UN and through working with the all-party parliamentary group.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered Western Sahara and self-determination.