Tuesday 3 May 2016
[Sir Edward Leigh in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the Anti-Corruption Summit.
Hon. Members, members of the public and people watching this debate will not be surprised to learn that tackling corruption is one of the biggest items on the agenda this year. Barely a day goes by without it hitting the news. As co-chair of the all-party group on anti-corruption, I was keen to hold this debate so we can air the issues that the Government hope to tackle in the important summit next week and subject the summit to parliamentary scrutiny.
I thank the Backbench Business Committee for awarding me this debate. Unusually for a Back-Bench debate, we are not here to criticise the Government. We may have some suggestions about how they can be a bit stronger, but we are here to congratulate the Prime Minister and the Government for holding the summit, for placing this issue at the top of the agenda and for consistently championing transparency and accountability as enablers of good governance. We want real actions and agreements from the summit next week, so that those important things can be taken forward and enforced. I will set the scene and explain how I see the agenda, and then I will ask the Minister some questions about how the summit will work, who will be there, what the key Government aims are and how we can enforce the actions that are agreed.
In next Thursday’s summit, international partners will, we hope, agree a package of practical steps to expose corruption, punish the perpetrators, support the victims and drive out the culture of corruption. That is clearly timely, given what we have seen in recent weeks and months. It is difficult to measure the impact of corruption, but the scale has never been more obvious: the FIFA scandal, the Unaoil leaks and the recent Panama papers gave us a glimpse of the far-reaching and egregious damage that bribery, fraud, grand corruption and tax evasion can cause. As the Prime Minister said last July,
“Corruption is one of the greatest enemies of progress in our time.”
Bribes, tax evasion and grand corruption destabilise development, keep the vulnerable in poverty, add significantly to the cost of doing business and fund terrorism. We all agree that we need to find a way of fixing those things.
Next week’s extraordinary summit is outside the usual gamut of United Nations, G20, G7 or even OECD processes. It is a one-off, stand-alone, unique summit, and we are all keen to understand how any actions that are agreed can be enforced. We do not want just warm words next week; real action must result from them.
It is right that the UK takes the lead on this issue, because we are uniquely exposed to corruption. Our status as a pre-eminent global financial centre and the unfortunate financial secrecy touted by our overseas territories and Crown dependencies make the UK seem a safe haven for the proceeds of corruption and the individuals and organisations that facilitate and benefit from financial crime and tax evasion. We ought to recognise that.
When MPs go around the world and look at the issues that developing countries face, we often think, “Isn’t it great that we’re not suffering from that level of day-to-day corruption? We don’t have to bribe public officials to get the service we want. We are not at risk of being stopped by the police and being asked for a charge to keep driving.” But the UK is not completely corruption-free. As a big financial centre, we are very exposed to corruption, and we are used as a way to launder money and hide the proceeds of corruption and crime elsewhere in the world.
It is right that we praise what the Government have done in that regard. We will soon be one of the first countries in the world, and the first in the European Union, to have a public register of beneficial ownership. That is a real step forward, which will allow us all to see who owns the companies that operate in the UK. I am sure that it will give us some extremely useful and interesting information. We all welcome the recent consultation on extending that transparency to property ownership. We also welcome the new anti-money laundering action plan, which, if fully implemented, will bolster the regulators’ enforcement powers and their ability to identify and freeze suspicious transactions.
Of course, we have issues with our overseas territories, and if we cannot convince them to get on board with this agenda, our reputation for being a truly anti-corruption jurisdiction will not be intact. As the Panama papers show, secret company ownership makes most cases of large-scale corruption, money laundering and terrorist financing possible. Without secrecy, much of that could not be done.
A World Bank review of more than 200 of the biggest corruption cases between 1980 and 2010 found that more than 70% relied on shadow entities that hide ownership. Sadly, company service providers in the UK and the Crown dependencies are second on the list of providing the shell entities that facilitate those awful crimes. This summit and our international reputation will prevail only if we secure commitments from all our overseas territories and dependencies to introduce public registers of beneficial ownership and strip companies of the secrecy that allows them to hide the proceeds of crime, corruption and tax evasion.
Success will depend on whether we tackle the risks that are somewhat closer to home. Trillions of pounds flow through the UK’s financial system every year, and sadly some of those transactions are less than clean. The National Crime Agency recently estimated that tens to hundreds of billions of pounds-worth of corrupt and illicit funds are laundered through the UK each year. Last week, the acting chief executive of the Financial Conduct Authority appeared before the Treasury Committee, and when asked whether the UK system is suitably hostile to money launderers, she could only reply, “We could do better.” Clearly, we could and must do better. The laundered funds that are used to buy property here get into the system through the secrecy that our overseas territories allow. It is harder to spot and stop such funds once they are in the system, so we need to prevent them from getting there in the first place.
We must tackle money laundering in the UK. We welcome the action plan, but having 27 different institutions to supervise the anti-money laundering rules in the bodies that they regulate is far too many. They cannot have a real picture of what is going on, what action is needed, the trends and who is not complying. Will the Minister say whether the Government plan to find a way to reduce the number of supervisors, so that we can be confident that the new rules and those that are already in place will be enforced?
Law enforcement authorities identify three sectors that do not adequately report suspicious activity: the legal sector, accountancy and estate agency. Property ownership is a topical issue, and the fact that only 0.05% of all suspicious activity reports came from estate agents in 2013-14 suggests that action is needed to make that sector transparent. Recent research from Transparency International and investigations from Global Witness show how London’s property market is used for corrupt ends. More than 36,000 properties in London are owned by companies registered in offshore jurisdictions, and almost 10% of the properties in Westminster are owned by anonymous companies. We clearly cannot allow that situation to continue.
Anonymity has a clear link to corruption. More than 75% of corruption cases involving property investigated by the Metropolitan police’s proceeds of corruption unit involved anonymous companies registered in secrecy jurisdictions, 78% of which were registered in the UK’s overseas territories or Crown dependencies. This huge problem is sadly centred in territories over which we have some influence, so it is imperative that we produce some action from them.
Senior figures at the National Crime Agency have reported that corrupt investment in London’s most expensive properties is driving up house prices across the board. So money laundering not only is a problem for the rich and powerful, but has an impact on everyday life here in London. The longer we allow London to be a kleptocrats’ playground, the worse off we are making ordinary people.
We have all those statistics to recount, and an APG inquiry is ongoing at which we have heard many anecdotes about how British firms working overseas are losing out on contracts to unscrupulous firms based in countries that do not have the same regulations and rules, and do not play fair, as we do. We are losing jobs and income here, because other countries around the world are not following the rules that they ought to be. It is right for us to make a stand. We do not want businesses bribing their way into contracts around the world. Where we find that happening, businesses and their executives will be punished, and serious action will be taken. We will not turn a blind eye to it. Recently, Ernst and Young’s 2016 global fraud survey of senior executives found that 98% of UK respondents believed that it was important to know who ultimately owns and controls the entities with which they do business. So this is not a minority interest; the business world agrees that we should all know about such things.
Turning to the summit next week, will the Minister confirm exactly which countries are attending and the level of their representation? How many of the overseas territories and Crown dependencies will be present? Perhaps he will list which ones will not be. According to the recent statement, the two territories that had not agreed to have even a closed register of official ownership were Guernsey, which had some excuse to do with having elections and so could not agree—has any progress been made?—and Anguilla. Has some sense prevailed in that small part of the world? Has it seen the light?
I will try to answer the broader questions at the end, but I can confirm that Anguilla has signed up. Guernsey’s election was last week, so we expect discussions to begin in earnest very promptly.
At least we have all the territories over that first hurdle.
Next week, the important thing will be to get real commitments on beneficial ownership and a timeframe for the register to be transparent and public, so everyone can see who owns every company established in a jurisdiction. For law-enforcement providers to be able to find such information in a timely way may be of some use, but we also want everyone to be able to search the register—for example, campaign groups could trace right through the system and see who owns properties. I suspect that law enforcement does not have the resources, sadly, to do that proactively, whereas sunlight and transparency will give us far more progress than a closed register ever could.
Will the Minister confirm whether the summit agenda includes discussion of a certain time by which all those territories will have a publicly accessible register of who owns companies and, preferably, of trusts in the jurisdiction? I accept that trusts are more complicated, but we need to see some progress on them as well.
Last autumn, I attended a meeting at which the Government’s anti-corruption champion, my right hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Sir Eric Pickles)—sadly, he cannot be present today—confirmed that the Prime Minister was pretty determined to get overseas territories on board with a public register. The words the anti-corruption champion used were
“through legislation, guidance or naked pressure”.
I am not sure whether the summit counts as guidance or naked pressure, but if those do not work, what other options do the Government have? My right hon. Friend said “legislation”—his word—so will the Government put that on the table? At some point, will they take action if the territories will not go as far as we want them to, or is that completely off the table?
What other major countries are turning up? Are the Americans sending anyone next week, because they clearly have an important role to play in sorting out the world financial system? Those of us who would like to see greater action on global tax avoidance realise that the Americans have a real and vital role in that situation, so are they turning up next week?
If some actions are agreed next week and, as we hope, they are specific and have a real timeframe, how will they be enforced? Presumably, there will be no binding global agreement, but are the Government conscious of that? We do not want to hear warm words and promises that have been made before, followed by years of drift; we want real, concrete actions that are reviewed, with a timescale and ways to enforce progress.
If there is an agreement next week and some territories subsequently resile from it, what actions will the Government propose taking to convince the territories otherwise? It is not encouraging to see the Government announce that everyone has agreed to a closed register, and then senior people from some of our overseas territories glory in being able to say, “We’ve won. We’ve got everything we wanted out of this,” implying that it will be business as usual—presumably, not what we were aiming for. We want any agreement next week to be meaningful and strong, not just hot air.
With those thoughts, I wish the Government and the Minister well at the summit next week. We hope that they will come out with a strong and binding agreement, which can take the agenda forward towards finding ways of materially reducing the amount of corrupt money that flows around the world, especially into the UK. Nations around the world should, rightly, keep the money that they earn and have the tax revenues necessary to grow their economies. Everyone throughout the world should be able to see our financial system moving in the direction of being open, transparent and honest, rather than corrupt.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Amber Valley (Nigel Mills) and my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) on securing today’s debate.
I welcome the Government’s commitment to tackling corruption and the leadership shown by the Prime Minister, but for this to end up as more than a public relations stunt, the Government need to take serious action. I want to focus on three issues: tax havens and the proposals on beneficial ownership registers; properties that are owned in the UK through shell companies that have been established in tax havens; and Britain’s own record in stamping out corruption at home.
First, on tax havens, transparency about who owns assets—whether in companies, trusts or other entities—is absolutely vital if we are serious about stamping out corruption. Most tax havens are UK Crown dependencies and overseas territories, which are countries that carry the Union Jack on their flags and whose citizens are given British passports. Yet the secrecy that surrounds tax havens, which is at the heart of how they operate, results in massive corruption and money laundering throughout the world. I agree with what the Prime Minister said during his recent trip to the Caribbean in the autumn of 2015 that
“if we want to break the business model of…stealing money and hiding it in places where it can’t be seen: transparency is the answer.”
I have looked at a whole range of data, research and evidence. The World Bank review, to which the hon. Member for Amber Valley referred, looked at 213 cases of corruption over a 30-year period, from 1980 to 2010: 70% of the cases relied on anonymous shell entities, and the UK, the Crown dependencies and the overseas territories were second on that list. In the Mossack Fonseca papers, we find that of the 214,000 corporate identities exposed, half were registered in the British Virgin Islands. Of the world’s top 200 global companies, 90% have a presence in the tax havens. Tax havens are being used to hide money and to enable money laundering and corruption, yet the Prime Minister has failed to secure what I thought he was setting out to do: to ensure that the Crown dependencies and the overseas territories have registers of beneficial ownership that are open to the public. The commitment that he gave when he came to the House to give a statement arising out of his own position on the Mossack Fonseca papers failed to give us that assurance.
We only have to look at the words of one of the leaders of the overseas territories, the Premier of the Cayman Islands, to see that they saw the Prime Minister’s statement as a victory. Premier McLaughlin said that the UK had caved in:
“As previously indicated this is not a central registry as beneficial ownership details will remain with the service providers managing them, but rather information will be accessed via a central technical platform. And it certainly will not be available publically or available directly by any UK or non-Cayman Islands agency.”
I am sure that the Minister is familiar with these words. The Premier went on to say:
“This is what we wanted, this is what we have been pushing for three years for, a disaggregated system which leaves the beneficial ownership information intact with the service providers but accessible by the general registry and accessible by the law enforcement agents in Cayman.”
This is what they wanted. Indeed, what is almost worse is that in that interview, which was published in the Cayman press on the day following the Prime Minister’s announcement here in the House of Commons, the Premier said that having reached the agreement gave the Cayman Islands a greater sense of confidence about the UK’s endorsement of the business that is transacted there.
By agreeing to what is not really a register but a secret gathering of information, we have ended up giving a veil of legitimacy to the bad practices in overseas territories that allow money laundering and corruption. I say to the Minister that that is simply unacceptable. It is vital that such registers are properly compiled and public. Only then will we know who owns the assets that are at present in companies in the tax havens. Practically, until we know that, any idea that the odd collection of information in the tax havens will benefit us is false. Our own enforcement agencies are far too poorly resourced to be able to come up with evidence to justify why a tax haven should tell them who owns a company, and there will be unequal access to the data required to tackle corruption, because developing countries have even fewer resources and are less capable of seeing whether they can access such information.
I say to the Minister that it is perfectly possible for us to insist that the overseas territories and Crown dependencies compile public registers of beneficial ownership. We have intervened on other issues, and if we are serious about tackling corruption, we should intervene on this issue. In a previous time, the Conservatives intervened through an Order in Council to ban capital punishment, and Labour, when it was in office, intervened through an Order in Council to outlaw discrimination on the grounds of sexuality. The UK public will believe that the Government mean what they say about tackling corruption only if they choose to use the powers available to them through the Privy Council to enforce transparency. The first issue I ask the Minister to comment on is whether he will do that—and if not, why not?
The second issue is the scandal at our own doorstep of the way money is laundered into the UK property market. Again, the data and research here are substantial. In a 2015 paper, Transparency International found that £180 million of property that is thought to have been bought with laundered money since 2004 is currently being investigated. It claims that that is the tip of the iceberg and, to go back to the first point, says that in three out of four of those cases, an offshore structure was used to hide the owner’s identity.
Transparency International also found in March 2015 that more than 40,000 properties in London alone were held by foreign companies and that 89% of them were held in secret tax havens such as the British Virgin Islands, Jersey, the Isle of Man and Guernsey. In 2014 the Evening Standard found 700 “ghost mansions” as it called them, worth about £3 billion, uninhabited in London. The Guardian looked at one street in Hampstead and found £350 million of vacant properties all owned by shell companies in tax havens and the brilliant investigations carried out by both Private Eye and Tax Justice Network found not only massive properties held in tax havens but that 120 former Crown Estate properties had ended up being owned in 14 tax havens. They established that one in six homes sold in Westminster and in Kensington and Chelsea in the three years before their 2015 report had been bought by offshore companies.
That is a scandal, which hikes up property prices here in London and distorts the housing market. Because that is at the top of the market, I am not sure whether that is taking away from many people in real housing need, but we therefore become the centre and focus of money laundering and bringing money into the London property market through shell companies in tax havens. The Minister and the Government are consulting on this issue, but we should insist on a publicly open register of ownership of all properties in London.
In the Minister’s proposals, he talks about potential fines and imprisonment provisions for those who do not provide information, but of course that is no good if the owner is sitting in the Cayman Islands or the British Virgin Islands. He therefore needs powers to confiscate property and bring it back on to the British housing market. That would be a much stronger power. In those proposals, is the Minister talking about properties acquired in the future? If so, what does he intend to do about the many current properties?
My third and final point is about our seriousness in fighting corruption, which must start with fighting corruption at home. It is interesting—I am sure the Minister noticed this—that the first three prosecutions brought under the Bribery Act 2010 were all against UK officials: one in the courts; one a taxi driver bribing a local government official to get a licence; and one an overseas student bribing a lecturer. Whenever I talk to people in other countries, I always feel nervous about the patronising, complacent attitude we show that we have got it all right at home. We have not. If we are to be serious about fighting corruption, we should start by establishing our own anti-corruption strategy in Britain.
I am particularly concerned about the role of the financial institutions in the UK. Banks, advisers and all those people are focused here because of the strength of our financial sector, and they are the very institutions that are facilitating money laundering and helping the corruption that takes place internationally. We saw in the Panama papers that the UK was the second most popular place with which Mossack Fonseca did business. We saw that nearly 2,000 of the so-called enablers—the lawyers or advisers—were located here. We also saw that HSBC was one of the biggest banks involved in the transactions revealed in those papers and that Coutts was second to it. HSBC was used 2,000 times and Coutts was used 500 times. I have argued before, and will argue again, that if the Government are serious about fighting corruption and limiting the role of all those advisers and banks in facilitating it, they ought to introduce a new offence on the advisers and banks and not just look at the culprits. It is the advisers who devise the schemes, and if we could cut that off at the root, we would not have problems later.
The rumoured proposal for the Serious Fraud Office to come under political control via the National Crime Agency at the Home Office is another concern. If we are serious about setting an example in the fight against corruption, we should not allow the Home Secretary to direct SFO investigations. Of course, proper resourcing—whether of the SFO or HMRC—is vital.
I was disturbed at the recent accusation from David Normington about the politicisation of public appointments. Corruption may be too strong a word, but this example, which comes from the Minister’s Department, shows how much we need to do at home to get our own house in order. David Normington accused Ministers of seeking to dismantle the existing system for making senior appointments to public bodies. He specifically accused the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport of trying to fill a prominent position in the National Portrait Gallery with a Conservative. None of the five applicants deemed suitable by Ministers for the job had been put through for interview, although four of the five had substantial connections with the Conservative party, and the Secretary of State therefore refused to accept officials’ recommendations.
It is very disturbing to see the ConservativeHome website actively encouraging Conservative supporters to apply for key public appointments. That may be a little thing, but it is symbolic. If the Government are going to lead the fight against corruption in the world, they have to start by putting their own house in order. The summit next week is an opportunity for action. I hope that it does not turn into an exercise in public relations. The decision on which way we go is in the Government’s hands.
This is a massive topic that will provoke a huge amount of interest today and in Parliament next week. I want to confine my remarks to corruption in global sport, which has been one of the major global corruption issues that we have debated and confronted over the past few years. I have been involved in this area through my work on the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport and as co-founder of the New FIFA Now group, which has campaigned alongside excellent organisations that care about the integrity of sport, such as Transparency International UK, for greater openness and transparency in the way global sports bodies are run, and in particular for reform of major organisations such as FIFA.
On the FIFA corruption scandal, I recall the exact words issued by the US Department of Justice in its indictment against FIFA, published last year. It said that corruption at FIFA was
“rampant, systemic, and deep-rooted”.
The scale of the investigation so far and the number of arrests and indictments against senior officials in FIFA underline the breadth, and what will come in time to be seen as the depth, of corruption within that global sporting body.
As with other areas of corporate corruption, the causes of corruption within sports organisations are reasonably clear and simple to understand. Corruption in sport is an important issue, and it is not only a question of the integrity of sporting competitions and the people who take part in them. That is important in its own right, but we have to recognise that serious criminal elements have used the opportunities that sport presents to move money all around the world, be it through laundering money through the football transfer system or people acquiring stakes and interests in clubs before seeking to hide their identity behind shell companies held overseas. That has been a major problem for a number of years, and the major corruption scandal at FIFA and in other sports has brought it to the forefront.
The reasons why corruption occurs are relatively easy to understand when there are organisations with poor internal governance, led by a group of people who are not really accountable to anyone else and who base themselves in hard-to-reach places, with little scrutiny of the way they use their money and power. If we look at the breadth of allegations of corruption against FIFA officials, they have largely been about people using the organisation’s resources to enrich themselves by taking a cut of contracts, broadcasting rights and marketing rights, or by using their power and wealth to buy the votes of other people in order to secure positions of prominence for themselves and their friends and even to determine where the World cup final is played.
There is not only a lack of transparency within FIFA and how it uses its resources; there is also a lack of any real opportunity for people within the organisation who have a concern to blow the whistle. There is nowhere for them to go, because they are largely making their complaints to the people who control the organisation and who, on the whole, are not that interested in those complaints.
During the FIFA scandal in 2011, David Triesman, a former Foreign Office Minister and the former chairman of the Football Association, who had been intimately involved in leading England’s bid to host the World cup championships in the process leading up to the voting for where the tournament should be played in 2010, used parliamentary privilege to lay before the Culture, Media and Sport Committee allegations of corruption against senior football officials such as Jack Warner, Ricardo Teixeira and Nicolas Leoz, suggesting that they had solicited bribes. Lord Triesman claimed that Jack Warner had asked the FA to pay him a sum of money to secure the rights to show World cup football matches in major stadiums in Haiti to people who had been affected by a recent earthquake. It transpired that Jack Warner was asking for payments from the FA for rights he already owned in an attempt to solicit money for himself personally, with the understanding that if he received that money, he might vote for England to win the right to host the World cup.
That is an example of information we have received. In the case of Lord Triesman’s allegations, which were dismissed at the time by FIFA and not taken seriously enough, the people he alleged were guilty of being involved in corrupt practices have subsequently been indicted by the FBI as part of its investigation. That poses the question: why did the Serious Fraud Office not do more at the time to investigate thoroughly the allegations that Lord Triesman put into the public domain? Are the resources available to ensure that such investigations can take place? Could more be done to reach out to other law enforcement agencies around the world in order to share intelligence and information where a suggestion of wrongdoing is put before the offices in this country?
Sharing of information and international co-operation is important. While it may well be more appropriate for a different international or national authority to take the lead in an investigation, we can still play a very important role in following up on it. I am concerned that there have been occasions in the past when whistleblowers have come forward with information but there has not been follow-through or action on it, and years have been lost that could have been spent going after the wrongdoers and taking a stand against them.
I want to use this opportunity to raise an example that relates to an allegation that was made in the course of the recent FIFA presidential elections but could not be discussed in public because of the action of the lawyers representing Sheikh Salman of Bahrain, who was a candidate for the FIFA presidency. This is an important illustration of the sort of case that needs to be discussed publicly and examined carefully by people who care about issues of corruption. There was a suggestion that Sheikh Salman had colluded with Sheikh Ahmad, who is head of the Olympic Council of Asia and a member of the FIFA executive committee and the International Olympic Committee, so that Sheikh Ahmad could use his financial position as head of the OCA to channel money to football associations in Asia in order to persuade them to vote for Sheikh Salman in the 2013 elections for the presidency of the Asian Football Confederation.
I would like to run through an exchange of emails between the various parties involved, to give an example of the sort of case that should be followed through and examined more closely. In this case, the Football Federation of the Kyrgyz Republic was in email contact with the Olympic Council of Asia. Sheikh Ahmad, the Kuwaiti head of the OCA since 1991, is a sporting kingmaker and a key powerbroker in Asia who is a close friend and associate of Sheikh Salman. The FFKR voted for Sheikh Salman in the AFC election on 2 May 2013, which he won by a landslide. On 26 April 2013, the FFKR’s executive director, Dastan Konokbaev, wrote to the private email address of the OCA’s IT manager, Amer Elalami, with details of flights that the FFKR’s delegation would be taking to and from Kuala Lumpur for the AFC vote. Addressing him as “Brother”, he listed the flights he would be taking with the president, Semetei Sultanov, and the vice-president of the organisation. On the previous day, he had sent an email with his security mobile number, saying,
“it is available any time”,
“this is my private email”.
Mr Elalami replied from his personal account with the signature,
“IT Manager, Olympic Council of Asia”,
and his own phone number. He wrote:
“Noted brother, will keep in touch, just let me know if required any assistance from our side”.
On 29 April 2013, three days before the vote, Mr Konokbaev emailed Mr Elalami at his private email address listing 53 projects and requesting the OCA’s financial support. The subject heading of the email was “About support for Kyrgyzstan football”. These projects included training camps, friendly matches, more than 300 air fares and the construction of a sports centre. The total value of the projects amounted to millions of pounds.
There seems to be no legitimate reason for the FFKR, which is part of FIFA, to seek funding from the OCA. The OCA’s IT manager had no grant-giving role and was using his private email address rather than his official one. Despite this, Mr Konokbaev wrote:
“Brother, I hope you are well! I would like to acquaint you with our plans for 2013 (here included preparatory cycle Kyrgyzstan’s National Team) and indicate”
where you need support. He continued:
“We have previously discussed, and even decide[d] many issues”.
Mr Elalami forwarded the email on to the OCA’s director general, a former pilot he referred to as “captain”. Mr Al-Musallam is Sheikh Ahmad’s right-hand man and the pair work closely together. Mr Elalami appears to have believed that Mr Al-Musallam was already aware of this request for funds, writing:
“Did you receive this email from Dastan?”,
and seeking advice on how to respond. He continued:
“They send a financial support till March next year, what I should reply. Please advise”.
The emails also show that Sheikh Ahmad, Mr Al-Musallam and Mr Elalami were among a 19-strong OCA delegation in Kuala Lumpur for the vote. Bizarrely, the OCA did not have accreditation from the AFC. Instead, it was accredited to football associations.
In a document headed “list of delegates—KL”, which was circulated among OCA officials, Mr Elalami’s name appeared alongside “KYR”, which is believed to mean Kyrgyzstan, in the “accreditation” column. Mr Elalami is a Kuwaiti who had no formal association with the FFKR. In 2009, the OCA had requested accreditation for the AFC Congress but, after being refused this, set up offices nearby and hosted a reception for 30 or so football associations on the day before a vote in which Sheikh Salman unsuccessfully stood for a position on FIFA’s executive committee. On 6 May, the day after flying back from the 2013 vote, the FFKR’s executive director sent a further email to Mr Elalami reminding him of the projects that needed funding. He said:
“Earlier, I sent you”
“describing our needs and as you can see, there are issues that need to be addressed in the next few days [now] that all went according to plan”.
Beneath the projects he wrote:
“Which way you help? How much? Period of time?”
In some cases, he asked how the FFKR would be paid—“by bank transfer” or “in Kuwait”.
These issues warrant further investigation. In this case there is no direct proof that money changed hands between the OCA and this particular football association, but it is curious and suggests that there could be people who abuse their position in global sport to support each other, reward each other and share money between each other as a currency to secure political support. But where does anyone go with such allegations? Where can a whistleblower turn to ensure the proper investigation of such allegations? This has been at the heart of many corruption issues in sport.
Looking to the anti-corruption summit particularly, how can we ensure a gold standard for organisations operating in the sporting world to ensure they comply with high standards in auditing the way their money is used? There are questions for big global accountancy firms such as KPMG, which has audited FIFA’s accounts for many years. Despite its auditing of those accounts, it was possible for Sepp Blatter to pay Michel Platini 2 million Swiss francs, although that money was not accounted for in FIFA’s accounts. How can that be possible? How can major companies that work with global organisations sign off accounts if there concerns about them? What sort of faith can we have in that auditing process?
What sort of auditing is there? What sort of transparency is there in the way money and resources are used, and what sort of enforcement can be taken when there is a problem? Should there be a green light system for global organisations to say there are concerns about the lack of transparency in the organisation? Other commercial partners, whether sponsors or broadcasters that work with those organisations, should be mindful of those concerns when transacting with that organisation or seeking to do business with them.
Do we need some form of specialist unit in the National Crime Agency to look at sports corruption? There is a real problem with a lack of investigators working in this area. The Select Committee recently took evidence from the Tennis Integrity Unit, which has just two investigators looking at problems, largely involving gambling, and allegations of match fixing in tennis. I believe that FIFA had four people in its investigation unit. The UK’s Anti-Doping Agency has one person in its investigation unit.
Do we need greater resources for work across different sports and based in the NCA that can look at allegations of corruption in sport and act on them? Perhaps we need a unit of four or five officers working in the NCA and dedicated to looking at sports corruption, working with global sports governing bodies, having a direct relationship with their own internal integrity units and seeking to co-operate with the FBI and other investigatory bodies around the world. That additional resource would be welcome—
Order. I am becoming a bit worried about time. Given that we had long speeches by Back Benchers, it is only fair not to restrict Front Benchers. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will start to bring his speech to a close and perhaps the next speaker will please keep an eye on the clock.
I will wrap up.
Can we look at the way the NCA works and at its resources? Working with overseas territories has been an important question in the FIFA corruption scandal. Jeff Webb is one of the people indicted by the FBA and is based in the Cayman Islands. How easy is it for us here to request information from the Cayman Islands about people we are concerned about and who may have links with sports corruption scandals? I welcome what the Government have said about access to a register and I am interested to hear how the Minister believes that will change our ability to pursue such cases.
As chair and co-founder of the all-party corruption group, chair of the parliamentary friends of CAFOD group, and a long-standing advocate for anti-corruption efforts, may I say that it is a pleasure to speak in today’s debate? I congratulate the hon. Member for Amber Valley (Nigel Mills) on securing it. It is important and timely. Hon. Members have made important speeches and I look forward to the Minister’s response to the questions that have been raised.
As we have heard, the forthcoming anti-corruption summit presents a unique opportunity for world leaders, business and civil society to come together and advance the international transparency and the anti-corruption agenda in a way that we have not seen for years. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that we are not here to criticise the Government, because we welcome the summit and the efforts made in that regard. However, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Barking (Dame Margaret Hodge) powerfully made clear, if we are going to call on the rest of the world to take action, we must get our own house in order.
Last summer, the Prime Minister said in Singapore:
“I’m determined that the UK must not become a safe haven for corrupt money from around the world...there is no place for dirty money in Britain”.
However, Transparency International said in its report, “Corruption on Your Doorstep”, that there is still a place for dirty money in the UK. Since 2004, over £180 million of property in the UK has been brought under criminal investigation as the suspected proceeds of corruption; over 36,000 properties are held by offshore companies based in tax havens—a point made by my right hon. Friend—and in 2011 alone, £3.8 billion of UK property was bought by companies registered in the British Virgin Islands. If we hope to see progress at an international level, we must lead by example. The Prime Minister has rightly given a commitment on public registers of beneficial ownership, and I hope we see that come to full fruition. It is critical that the Prime Minister turns this leadership into action and that we ensure the British overseas territories and Crown dependencies come on board with their own public registers—a point made by the hon. Member for Amber Valley.
The UK can lead by example in other areas, but what more can we do here at home on enforcement? The hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins) asked whether our enforcement agencies do enough. My key question is: do they have the right resources and legislative framework to do all they can to stamp down on corruption?
One of the first issues I want to raise is how we hold companies criminally liable for actions of their employees that facilitate corruption, tax evasion, money laundering and fraud. I have spoken about that previously. I have pressed various Ministers and the Prime Minister on the issue because, astonishingly, the UK remains one of the most popular places for the facilitation of all forms of corruption. The Panamanian firm Mossack Fonseca, of recent Panama papers fame, worked with almost 2,000 professional enablers in the UK—accountants, estate agents and lawyers—to set up companies, foundations and trusts, all or some of which could potentially have been used to launder money or facilitate illicit financial flows. The UK was the second most popular place for Mossack Fonseca to operate in. I do not think that is an achievement of which the Prime Minister is particularly proud.
Many factors are involved, but one key issue in the UK is the law on corporate criminal liability. Under UK law, it is extremely difficult to hold a company criminally liable for the actions of its employees in terms of corrupt acts or any similar offence. To do so, prosecutors have to prove who is the “controlling mind” of the company, with direct knowledge of those acts. Our law enforcement agencies, including the Serious Fraud Office, have raised the issue time and again. The SFO director, David Green, has said:
“That is difficult because inevitably the email trail tends to dry up at middle management and evidentially it is hard to prove.”
There is a potential solution. The Bribery Act 2010, introduced by the last Labour Government, sets a more reasonable evidential threshold for prosecuting companies where their employees have been involved in acts of bribery. It requires companies to prove that they have taken “adequate” steps within their organisation to prevent employees from committing such acts. The SFO secured its first prosecution and conviction for that new “failure to prevent” offence last December, and we understand that more prosecutions are on the way.
The Government recognise the effectiveness of the offence, because the Prime Minister recently announced, in the wake of the Panama papers revelations, that he would legislate to create a similar offence in respect of tax evasion, but he needs to go further and apply the new law to all forms of economic crime. I strongly urge the Minister, as I did a Treasury Minister two weeks ago, to look closely at part 2 of schedule 17 to the Crime and Courts Act 2013, because it contains an exhaustive list of offences, all of which cause immense harm both abroad and at home—they range from false accounting and forgery to fraudulent trading, bribery and money laundering—to which the Government could easily apply the new offence. That would send a clear message to the rest of the world that criminal corporate behaviour will not be tolerated in the UK and that the full force of our criminal justice system will bear down on corporate wrongdoing wherever it is found. I am sure that the Minister would like to send that message. The Prime Minister recently committed to “consider carefully” that proposal when I put it to him during his statement on the Panama papers. It would be helpful if the Minister updated us on whether the Prime Minister has been able to do that as of yet.
Ahead of next week’s summit, the Government could also commit to ensuring that our law enforcement agencies across the board have the tools they need to properly tackle the facilitators and enablers of corruption in this country. I have mentioned the SFO. Under the Roskill model, it is charged with investigating and prosecuting the most serious and complex crimes, much of which falls under the umbrella of corruption. That unique model of investigating and prosecuting crime, all under one roof, has proved to be highly effective, yet doubts still linger about the SFO’s future. I hope the Minister will today give a reassurance that the SFO will be provided with the support and resources it needs over the long term. There is always a question mark hanging over its future and whether it will be absorbed into the NCA. It is important that the SFO is able to concentrate on these very important matters, not the least of which are the issues that the hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe raised.
Another great weakness in the armoury of our law enforcement agencies is their ability to recover stolen assets or the proceeds of crime. As Transparency International has highlighted, the UK’s asset recovery regime has not been up to the job. It is estimated that £23 billion to £57 billion of dirty money is laundered in the UK each year, given London’s role as a global financial centre, second only to the US. Against that, the National Audit Office estimates that only 25p out of every £100 is confiscated from organised criminals; a significant proportion of that sum is likely to be the proceeds of corruption. It is therefore extremely welcome that the Government say in their “Action Plan for anti-money laundering and counter-terrorist finance” that they are considering new legal powers
“to enable the quick and effective forfeiture of money held in bank accounts in cases where...there is suspicion that the funds are the proceeds of crime.”
Such powers are long overdue. In the light of that new impetus, can the Minister say whether asset recovery regimes will feature highly on the agenda of the Government’s summit next week? What aims do the Government have for increasing co-operation and joint working across national borders to ensure that those words on asset recovery are translated into action? At the end of the day, it is only through global co-operation and by demonstrating that there is nowhere to hide from law enforcement agencies that we will be able to disrupt and ultimately recover stolen assets and, hopefully, prevent this sort of crime.
I want to finish by reiterating a key point made by the hon. Member for Amber Valley and my right hon. Friend the Member for Barking: the central importance of public registers of beneficial ownership to the Government’s anti-corruption efforts. The Prime Minister himself said last September:
“If we’re to beat corruption, we need transparency.”
That means transparency over who owns properties, transparency over which companies own other companies and transparency over which individuals own those companies. It is simply not good enough for Ministers to accept assertions from overseas territories and Crown dependencies that providing access to beneficial ownership registers to law enforcement agencies alone is sufficient.
Okay. The Government need to do more and ensure that the public have access to the registers. We saw the power of public light falling on the Panama papers and we need to ensure that the public have the same right of access to the ownership registers. The summit is an extraordinary opportunity for the UK to press ahead with the anti-corruption agenda. There is much to do, including here at home, and we do not want this to be a missed opportunity, so I hope the Minister will provide reassurance this morning that it will not be.
It is a pleasure to serve under the chairmanship of a fellow member of the Procedure Committee, Sir Edward. Indeed, 10.35 is incredibly generous—I hope that is not an act of patronage or corruption because we are on the same Committee. I will endeavour to be as brief as I can. Many of the points that I wanted to make have already been very well made in the debate.
I want to consider the impact of corruption overseas, in developing countries, some of the steps that can be taken to address that issue and the leadership role that the UK Government have in that, but I will briefly reflect on the speech by the hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins) about FIFA. I do not know whether this is strictly within the limits or purview of the forthcoming summit, but in advance of the recent FIFA presidential election, I called for the Scottish Football Association to take an indicative vote of the members of its travel club, the Tartan army, on which of the candidates for the presidency they would prefer to see elected; perhaps it could inform the choice of its delegates. I do not think that necessarily happened, but it would be interesting to look at that kind of democratisation and shedding a bit of light on some of the processes of these great global bodies that control so much money and so much public interest but have so little accountability.
Let me move on to the specifics of the impact of tax dodging and corruption overseas. There is a tax gap in the UK between what it is estimated could be collected and what is actually collected. How much is lost through tax dodging and corruption? At least, however, we have a tax base to begin with. In developing countries, corruption and tax dodging can hit economies very badly indeed. Some estimates suggest that about $1 trillion flows out of developing countries via illicit financial flows every year. As a result, the continent of Africa is actually a net creditor to the world economy; that is not something that is generally understood.
The OECD has estimated that tax havens may be costing developing countries a sum that is up to three times the size of the global aid budget. In a few weeks, we are expected to debate the aid budget here in Westminster Hall. If people really want a reduction in global aid budgets, the money for resources to take people out of poverty in developing countries has to come from somewhere, and it has to come from developing countries being allowed to develop their own tax base. At the moment, the impact is there for all to see. A lack of infrastructure, development being held back, and weak health and education systems compound all the other development challenges that we so often hear about in Westminster Hall.
There is a particular challenge in the extractive industries. Addressing corruption in those industries must be a priority because a huge amount of resources and revenues for development is lost through bribery and corruption. In a sense, we are robbing some of the poorest countries in the world twice through a lack of accountability within the extractive industries: once when materials are extracted in poor labour conditions or in the shadow of conflict; and again when we allow tax to be dodged or profits to be siphoned off. Look at the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It should be one of the richest countries in the entire world—we all carry a little piece of the DRC around in our pockets in our mobile phones—yet it is one of the poorest. Tackling those financial flaws is crucial and ought to be a key priority for the summit.
Probably the most repeated phrase today is that we must get our own house in order. It is correct that we are not immune here in the UK, and we have heard about money laundering in the property market. People have suggested—I will not make any specific accusations, as that would be completely out of order—that there is a correlation between donations to political parties and seats in the House of Lords, right at the very heart of our so-called democratic system. The examples that we set to the rest of the world, including soft power and systems of patronage in the UK, must be looked at.
Alternatives do exist. Look at how the Scottish Government have taken forward the tax powers that they have been given. They have also introduced general anti-avoidance rules, described by various commentators as one of the strongest measures in the European Union. The convener of the Tax Law Sub-Committee of the Law Society of Scotland, Isobel d’Inverno, said:
“The general anti-avoidance rule that we have got in the Scottish legislation is much fiercer than the UK one. It’s a very much firmer ‘Keep off the grass’ sign than the UK one is. Revenue Scotland also appears very determined to collect all the tax that is due.”
It would be interesting to hear what discussions the Minister has had with his Scottish Government counterparts on that matter.
As we approach the EU referendum, it is worth reflecting on the benefits of EU membership to global anti-corruption efforts. The EU anti-money laundering directive launched in June 2015 has been a huge boost to international efforts and is one factor that has helped to drive the UK Government’s process of setting up beneficial ownership registers.
It falls to the UK Government to take action now and to show leadership through the summit. We have heard calls demanding action from the overseas territories in publishing beneficial ownership registers. We have also heard that there are precedents to do so, as the Government have previously required progress from the overseas territories. It would be useful to hear what the Government’s intentions are and whether they intend to set any kind of date for taking such steps.
The Government are in the process of reviewing the tax treaties they have with a number of developing countries. Scottish National party Members have spoken several times about the tax treaty with Malawi. It would be interesting to know how other tax treaties will be reviewed to ensure a fight against poverty and a fight against the flight of tax in an open and transparent way, and that extends to how we empower communities in developing countries to hold their own Governments to account.
It is important that the Department for International Development continues to support governance and civil society organisations to hold Governments to account and to ensure that they collect the tax they are due. It would be interesting to hear about that and about any other steps the Government will take, including on country-by-country reporting—requiring companies to publish the tax that they are paying in developing countries—especially regarding the extractive industries. Tax can be a key to unlocking resources in developing countries and a route out of poverty, and the summit is a chance for the Government to show leadership.
On behalf of the third party, I congratulate the people whose efforts have secured this timely debate. I also look forward to having debates in the main Chamber next week as we prepare for the summit.
Many people are mesmerised and bewildered when they consider the scale of what is happening and what we are talking about. It is estimated that $2 trillion of tax goes unpaid in the world economy. To put that in perspective, £1 in every £20 in circulation in the world is subject to some form of dubious practice and somebody trying not to do what they should do with it.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) stated, in developing countries, the amount of money that goes uncollected and is therefore unavailable to Governments in Africa is greater than the amount of international aid that that continent receives. Here in our own country, the amount of tax that is evaded or avoided by those who should be paying it is estimated to be in excess of £7 billion. If the Government were so minded and were able to collect that money, it would be enough to do away with all the proposed cuts to welfare and social security that we have spent many hours debating over the past couple of years. We really need to get a grip on this.
Something that has concerned me over the past few months is that there are those who will try not to justify what is happening, but to provide a smokescreen for some of it. They suggest that an awful lot of what is going on is perfectly legal, saying, “Ah, well, this is tax avoidance, which is lawful. This is not tax evasion.” A lot of members of the public get very confused about that, so we need to be clear about what is happening. For instance, people might decide to donate to a charity and to use the gift aid regulations to maximise their donations, or they might save for an ISA and get tax benefits out of that. That is not tax avoidance. That is using a legislative procedure for what it was meant to be used for. Tax avoidance is when companies use procedures for things that they were not designed to be used for in order to avoid their liabilities—something that most people in this country never even get the chance to contemplate.
With regard to doing something about the problem, I echo the comments of others. The most important thing is that we need to be able to follow the money and see where it is, so transparency is vital. I welcome the fact that, from next month, we will have a public register of beneficial interests in this country. We will be able to see what companies in this country own in this country. However, large parts of the land in the Scottish highlands are owned by companies that are registered in the Bahamas and elsewhere, so the register will not assist me or anyone else in understanding the transparency of property and land ownership in the areas we represent.
The most important thing in this whole debate is that our dependent territories and overseas areas be compelled in some way to be transparent. After all, as the right hon. Member for Barking (Dame Margaret Hodge) observed, the people that live in those areas are British citizens who also enjoy the protection and all the benefits of the Crown. Therefore, it is inconceivable that a situation can exist whereby the overseas territories and Crown dependencies are allowed to deprive Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs of monies that it should, rightfully, hope to get. It is vital that action be taken. My question for the Minister, above all others, is: what leverage or sanction will be applied to the Administrations in those areas to ensure that they do not frustrate the objectives that this Parliament has set itself? There have been times in the past when we have not been shy about taking action to compel, and we need to know that those areas will be discussed at the summit.
Many people have talked about this country getting its house in order. I agree that we should not be too complacent about the situation here. There are some aspects that have not yet been mentioned and that we might want to revisit, including HMRC’s arrangements with large multinational companies regarding their tax liability—for example, the deal that was done with Google. If we are talking about transparency, we still need to know the details of that. In the absence of the facts and figures, we have to assume that a deal has been done to allow a very rich multinational company to pay an effective corporation tax rate of 3%. Many people who run businesses in this country will look at that and wonder how it can be that one of the world’s richest companies is charged 3% on its profits in the UK when they are paying many times that rate.
My hon. Friend also observed that we need to consider the general anti-avoidance rules. He is right that the Scottish GAAR has been lauded by many independent commentators as a stricter and more effective set of regulations than exist in the UK as a whole. The irony is that the Scotland Act 2016 will still cover only a minority of taxation and regulation in that country, but the UK Government could learn much from Scotland’s GAAR about toughening up the regulations.
Perhaps the Brexit debate is the elephant in the room. Much has been achieved in recent years at European level, through the EU, on anti-laundering legislation. I accept that, in theory, if we were to leave the EU, it would be possible to make bilateral or multilateral arrangements with other countries to try to do something about tax avoidance, but in the short term, and for an undefined period, the holes in the regulatory net would be widened if Brexit were achieved, so we need to consider the implications. Finally on putting our own house in order, there is still much more to be done on deploying resources and specialists to investigate malpractice, so I would like the Minister to talk about beefing up our capacity.
My final point is on leadership. As others have said, the Prime Minister has done a lot, but there is still more to do. For example, I would like a little more transparency on whether he has had any benefit from his father-in-law’s company that owns large parts of Jura, where the Prime Minister decided to holiday in 2015. More information on that would be welcome.
There has been a distraction in recent months. We debated this subject a couple of months ago, when everyone was having a feeding frenzy to get Ministers and MPs to publish their tax returns. Of course, it became apparent that, if anyone was up to no good, the last place we would find evidence of it is on a tax return. What we really need to know is the information that does not appear on tax returns. As Members of Parliament, we are in a position of trust as legislators. We are the custodians of the arrangements that our citizens have to follow, and we need to be beyond reproach. We need to register our interests in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, and we need to consider whether Members should register any interests in offshore countries where they may be benefiting from the loopholes that we are trying to close.
The anti-corruption summit offers an opportunity for the Government to demonstrate global leadership. There are many decent people in this country who pay their taxes and who have never thought about doing anything else, and they are looking to the Government to do something about this massive international problem.
I am delighted to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. This issue is of such importance to me that I was determined to be here despite the ongoing celebrations in Leicester, the city I represent. I reassure you, Sir Edward, that I will be celebrating Leicester’s remarkable victory tonight.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Amber Valley (Nigel Mills) and my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell), both of whom have worked so hard on the all-party parliamentary group on anti-corruption, on being instrumental in securing this excellent debate. The hon. Gentleman, in particular, made a fine, well-considered speech that raised many key questions, and we look forward to hearing the answers from the Minister. Equally, my hon. Friend made a serious, heavyweight contribution with many good, practical suggestions, and I look forward to the Minister’s assessment of her points.
Obviously, my right hon. Friend the Member for Barking (Dame Margaret Hodge) made a typically forensic speech, and I pay tribute to all her work, both in her role on the Public Accounts Committee in the previous Parliament and in the role she continues to play in this Parliament on pushing these issues. Parliament is so much the better for her being here and for her work, and we are all grateful to her.
The hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins) made an interesting contribution, and he has shown great tenacity in pursuing corruption in sport. I hope that he continues to pursue those issues, and I look forward to seeing where his inquiries take him. There was much in his speech that is of concern to us all, and I hope that, if not this Minister, Ministers in the Department for Culture, Media and Sport will respond to him adequately. The hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) mentioned some of the issues that I will particularly address in my brief contribution, especially on the developing world.
There is consensus on both sides of the House on the importance of addressing corruption, and we would all agree with the Prime Minister and his strategy when he reminds us that corruption harms societies, undermines economic development and threatens democracy. In the past, he talked about the golden thread of conditions that allow countries to thrive, and the absence of corruption is one of those conditions. The Opposition welcome the summit because, as has been said many times in this debate, some campaigners estimate that illegal tax evasion, corrupt deals for natural resources and money laundering cause between $100 billion and $2 trillion-worth of money to flow out of developing countries every year. Estimates suggest that corruption equates to more than 5% of global GDP. The World Economic Forum’s analysis shows that corruption increases the cost of doing business by up to 10%, and it suggests that cutting corruption by just 10% could benefit the global economy by nearly $400 billion a year.
We welcome the summit, which is an opportunity for the Government to show leadership, as many Members have said. The summit meets against the backdrop of the Panama papers. Indeed, the full details of the papers will be released just three days before the summit. Surely, the test for the summit in the eyes of the public will now be how it responds to the issues raised by the Panama papers. There has been widespread revulsion at the revelations, which is understandable, and many people are interested in the impact of the Panama papers on our domestic scene and in the political fallout from the Prime Minister’s tax returns and the way that he had to come to Parliament and from the number of Tory party donors caught up in the Panama papers.
Interesting though that is, and we all accept that the Government probably still have more to answer, for me the biggest issue raised by the Panama papers was the revelation of chronic corruption that has helped people to siphon billions of pounds from Africa, stealing from some of the globe’s very poorest people. Africa is a continent rich in natural resources, yet its people are poor because, too often, foreign investment has been channelled through offshore centres such as the British Virgin Islands. Fortunes are being made and siphoned from Africa, rather than being spent on the schools, hospitals and infrastructure needed across the continent. Surely, it is obscene that, for example, a Jersey-based oil company can instruct Mossack Fonseca to shift its registration from the Bahamas to Mauritius, to avoid more than £280 million in tax on the sale of an oilfield in Uganda—£280 million is more than the Ugandan Government will spend this year on health services. Surely, it is a disgrace when major mining concessions in the Democratic Republic of the Congo are acquired at seemingly below market rates and sold on for $1.4 billion, which is almost double the combined annual budgets for health and education in a country with one of the world’s highest child mortality rates, by taking advantage of such offshore accounts.
Surely, the test for the summit now is how the UK deals with its overseas territories and Crown dependencies. As has been said throughout the debate, the Prime Minister has previously pledged to introduce a fully public register, and he has previously written to the overseas territories demanding such a register. I will not run through all the quotations because of time, but last year in Singapore he said
“when you have companies whose ownership isn’t known you allow a shroud of secrecy behind which people can do bad things, sometimes terrible things, with no accountability.”
On the overseas territories and Crown dependencies, he went on to boast that he would
“take concrete steps to force the pace.”
Sadly, those concrete steps have been smashed up. Just two months ago, the Financial Secretary to the Treasury said that the overseas territories and Crown dependencies are “not committed” to a public register of beneficial ownership:
“The United Kingdom is leading the way in respect of a public register of beneficial ownership, but other countries, including the overseas territories, are not committed to that.”—[Official Report, 1 March 2016; Vol. 606, c. 815.]
As many Members have said, is now not the time for the Government to insist that the overseas territories and Crown dependencies take the action necessary? To what extent will that be on the agenda for the summit, and will the summit agree a timetable to force those jurisdictions to publish central public registers of beneficial ownership? Not to do so would surely mean that the summit fails the test set for it by reasonable people. As the hon. Member for Amber Valley asked, which overseas territories and Crown dependencies will attend the summit?
Very quickly—I appreciate that the Minister will want time to sum up—as well as action on beneficial ownership, which is vital, we want action on tax reporting. It has been disappointing, given the summit’s aims and the Chancellor’s stated support, that past proposals in the European Parliament calling for published country-by-country reporting by companies of the details of where they earn their money and pay taxes have been defeated by Conservative MEPs. Does he not agree that it is now time for the Government to deliver on their promise to introduce country-by-country reporting for multinational companies, and can he tell us what progress will be made on that at the summit? My right hon. Friend the Member for Barking discussed money laundering. I will not go over that because of time, but again, will the Minister respond to those issues and detail what response we can expect at the summit?
The Minister has been asked a number of questions that I hope he can answer. As I said, we welcome the summit. We want concrete action on registers with respect to overseas territories and Crown dependencies. The Government can force action. There is a degree of consensus across the House, but when Governments tolerate large-scale tax avoidance by big corporations and the wealthy and fail to address legitimate concerns about tax havens, it is our constituents, public services and some of the poorest people in the world who suffer. If we refuse to act, we create the conditions for the inaction of others. The Government have an opportunity to show leadership at the summit; they must not squander it.
Sir Edward, it is always a pleasure to have you in charge, ensuring that we behave ourselves during our debates. I join the chorus of plaudits for my hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley (Nigel Mills) and the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell), who have done so much to raise the issue as co-chairs of the all-party group on anti-corruption. I particularly thank my hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley for organising this debate.
We have had a series of extremely carefully considered and very wide-ranging speeches, not only from a former Chair of the Select Committee on Public Accounts—you are one yourself, Sir Edward—but from members of the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport and many others. The debate shows the breadth of concern and the issues into which the tentacles of corruption can spread—everything from sport to international aid to public contracts and property ownership in Baker Street, among other places in this country and elsewhere.
I think that there is cross-party agreement that it is important for us all to remember—although I am pleased by and welcome everybody’s recognition that the Prime Minister and others have been instrumental in taking forward the agenda—that there is a great deal more to do. The effects of corruption are not felt only in other countries. My hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley was right to say that, although we may be blessedly free of some of the more commonplace and in-your-face forms of petty corruption, such as people demanding bribes for everyday public services, that does not mean that any society, ours included, is safe.
The effects are widespread and pernicious. Corruption raises the costs of doing business, through bribes and friction costs. That is true not only in the UK but for our exporters trying to get contracts and trying to win jobs for our workers in exporting overseas, and consumers must put up with poorer quality goods, because if goods are purchased through a corrupt process, the chances are that they will be second best, either in quality or in value for money. Again, everybody suffers. Corruption drives up prices, not just in the UK—we heard the example of property prices here—but around the world as well. Most importantly, it is a fundamentally unjust way to run not only a country but global society in general. People cannot be sure that what they see on their TV screens and hear from their leaders or, indeed, their bosses is correct or fair. We are talking about a piece of social justice, so there is a huge amount to do.
In the limited time left, I will try to respond to some of the points raised, although I want to leave a couple of moments for my hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley to sum up. He asked specifically what would be on the agenda for the summit and precisely who would be there. I can give him some guidance on that, but obviously, these matters are still under discussion, so I cannot give him a running commentary. He rightly pointed out that the summit’s overall aims are to expose corruption, punish those who perpetrate it and drive out the culture of corruption.
We have had a number of submissions from Members about how, for example, asset recovery could be improved; the right hon. Member for Barking (Dame Margaret Hodge) suggested confiscation, but other suggestions were made for other kinds of asset recovery as well. Suggestions were also made about better opportunities for whistleblowing and better governance in sport, which has been a potential channel for distributing ill-gotten gains around the world. All those things need to be discussed and will, I am sure, be on the agenda, but its precise details will be released nearer the time.
I can give my hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley a little detail about who is invited. Again, the final guest list will be released nearer the time, but I can confirm that we have invited the G20 countries, leading international organisations in the field, including the UN, the World Bank, the OECD and the International Monetary Fund, and a wide range of other countries—I think this is where he was going; we will have more details, I am sure, as we get closer to the day—that are leading the fight against global corruption or have a pivotal role to play. I understand that John Kerry from the US will be there as well.
I should mention that there will be an event the day before with a broader invitation list, which will be run by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, for example. We will invite a number of companies and other non-governmental organisations, because there are many NGOs, companies and sectoral organisations that understand the reputational damage that corruption can cause. We must harness those who are willing to take a lead on the issue to set the right tone and take part in the three aims that I spoke of, particularly driving out corruption. Their co-operation and help will be essential in setting a tone for others to follow, not just in political leadership but in commercial and, potentially, third sector leadership as well. I hope that I have given my hon. Friend some extra detail. I am sure that more will come, and that he will want to hear more about it.
The right hon. Member for Barking asked whether we would be willing to use last resort powers. To summarise, they are a last resort. We do not want to have to use them; we want to ensure that people come as far as possible without any need for them. However, it is clear from all the submissions, suggestions and speeches that we have heard that there is a huge thirst and desire for the agenda to be taken further. We in this country are not unique in wanting to do so. We have taken some important leading steps, but we are far from the only ones who need to be involved, and far from the only ones who are. The issue needs to be taken forward on an international scale. The UK absolutely needs to play its part, and we have heard the reasons why we, particularly given our overseas and dependent territories, need to be a leading member of that international coalition.
This is clearly a developing agenda. The proposals and the progress made in the wake of the FIFA scandal, for example, show how much further international opinion has moved and still needs to move. The revelations in the wake of the Panama papers show how much further we can go and how much further public opinion, although it has moved, still needs to move. I am sure that this topic will continue to develop and that the rules and regulations and, most importantly, the ethos and culture of international business, investment and ownership, will continue to change and tighten. I am sure that everybody in this room and more broadly will welcome that on a cross-party basis, with open arms. I will leave a few seconds for my hon. Friend to respond to the debate.
I thank everyone who has taken part in this debate for their excellent speeches. I think it is clear to anyone watching that there is a strong consensus among all the parties here that we want the summit next week to be a success. We want strong action to be taken. We want real agreements to take the issue forward, and we want to ensure that things happen on a timely basis, so that we do not just drift along and forget about the issue in a few years. I wish the Minister and the Government well with the summit, and we look forward to seeing what actions are taken next week.
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).
UK Foreign Policy on Libya
[Mr David Hanson in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the effect of UK foreign policy on Libya.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hanson.
I start this debate by paying special tribute to Martin Kobler, special representative and head of the UN support mission in Libya, and to the British ambassador to Libya, who have both put an incredible amount of effort into bringing together competing institutions and encouraging them to form a single Government of national unity. However, the UK Government’s foreign policy legacy in Libya has been an unmitigated disaster. The lesson for the Government is that they reap what they sow. Today, Libya is in an extremely fragile state. The political and security crisis deepens, as two rival Governments—in Tripoli and Tobruk—compete for legitimacy. Meanwhile, countless rival militias and the spread of Daesh make for a troubled environment.
According to UN estimates, the violence in Libya has affected some 2.5 million people and displaced more than 430,000 people. It has also disrupted access to hospitals, schools and basic services, such as power, water and sanitation. However, a UN humanitarian appeal to provide basic services—including medical care, education and the protection of refugees and migrants—to 1.3 million people in Libya has just 1% of the funds that it requires.
In the absence of the rule of law and functioning institutions, refugees and asylum seekers are subjected to harassment, arbitrary detention, limited freedom of movement and other human rights violations. Libya continues to be the main transit and departure point for irregular sea migration to Europe from north Africa. In 2015, 151,000 arrivals to Italy were reported, with 90% of them departing from Libya. Meanwhile, the total number of detainees held by the department for combating illegal migration in Libya is between 2,500 and 4,000 people, including some 396 women and 52 children, who are held in eight detention centres.
We in the Scottish National party fully support Amnesty International’s call for the world to help to pull Libya out of its human rights chaos, five years after the uprising there began. Speaking in January, Said Boumedouha, deputy middle east and north Africa director at Amnesty, could not have been clearer when he said:
“World leaders, particularly those who took part in the NATO intervention that helped to overthrow Colonel Muammar al-Gaddafi in 2011, have a duty to ensure that those responsible for the horrors that have unfolded in Libya in its wake are held to account.”
I want to raise the European Parliament’s recent resolution on Libya, as it reminds us of the increasing threat of security spill-over of the Libyan conflict not only in Egypt and particularly Tunisia, but in Algeria and its oilfields. The resolution emphasises the role of the Libyan conflict in exacerbating extremism in Tunisia.
The growing presence of extremist organisations and movements in Libya is deeply worrying. The lesson of Libya, like the lesson of Iraq, is that countries cannot just bomb somewhere and move on. Thanks to the work of the Library staff and my hon. Friend for North East Fife (Stephen Gethins), we know that the UK Government spent 13 times more money on bombing Libya than on rebuilding it. Let us just consider those figures for a moment. The Library confirmed that £320 million was spent on military operations and bombing in Libya during NATO’s intervention in 2011. Meanwhile, separate UK Government figures show that a mere £25 million was spent on rebuilding infrastructure in the years following the war.
The legacy of that policy in Libya has meant that today we have a vacuum that is being filled by rival militias and a country that is struggling to provide for its desperate population. US intelligence agencies tell us that the number of Daesh fighters in Syria and Iraq has dropped to about 25,000 from a high of about 31,500. However, the number of Daesh fighters in Libya has roughly doubled in the same period to about 6,500.
The UK Government cannot shirk their responsibility to Libya. Leaving the country in a disastrous state after bombing it has undoubtedly created the conditions that Daesh needs to operate, as it terrorises local civilians and sets up home among the rubble of 2011. Indeed, the UK’s bombing of Syria—along with countless other military operations—is not defeating Daesh but merely displacing it across the wider region.
The UK Government’s involvement in Libya has been so catastrophic that even the US President himself has criticised the UK’s Prime Minister. During an interview in March, the President was forthright in his assessment of the military intervention in Libya, criticising the Prime Minister for the UK’s role in allowing Libya to degrade to its current state; in fact, the President used more colourful language than that. The President also suggested that the Prime Minister had taken his eye off Libya after being
“distracted by a range of other things”.
The US President’s comments do not paint the picture of a UK Prime Minister who is either up to the job of leading our forces in strategic military interventions or capable of international co-operation in multi-faceted actions. The President went on to admit that Libya was the worst mistake of his presidency. The Prime Minister could do with reflecting on his own actions and admitting the catastrophic failures of his premiership regarding Libya.
On 19 April, the Foreign Secretary, freshly returned from his visit to Tripoli, announced £10 million of funding to support the new Libyan Government of national accord. This money includes £1.5 million to tackle illegal migration, smuggling and organised crime, and £1.8 million to support counter-terrorism activities. The new cash follows an £11.5 million payment last year for development and humanitarian assistance.
We in the SNP welcome that funding, but it is too little, too late. Despite urgent calls to provide humanitarian assistance to an estimated 2.4 million Libyans in need of aid, the Department for International Development has set aside just £50,000 in aid this financial year to prevent food and medicine shortages in the country.
Understandably, that has led to much criticism. A UN official has described the UK’s humanitarian efforts as
“paltry bone-throwing from a European country whose bombers reaped so much destruction”.
The Government not only undertook military action with little in the way of long-term planning, but they have left the state and people of Libya paying a heavy price for that action. Humanitarian conditions in Libya have deteriorated since mid-2014, leaving an estimated 2.4 million people in need of humanitarian assistance, and some 1.28 million people across the country are at risk of food insecurity.
It has been widely reported that the Government are now preparing to deploy British troops in Libya. The Foreign Affairs Committee wrote to the Foreign Secretary about the prospect of Britain deploying 1,000 ground troops in training and security roles for the new Government of national accord in Tripoli, but the response it received was less than clear. The Chair of the Committee, the hon. Member for Reigate (Crispin Blunt), accused the Foreign Secretary of
“not dealing straightforwardly with Parliament”
and went on to describe the
“less-than-candid reply to my request for further detail on a rapidly developing situation that may require further active British engagement.”
That is hardly a ringing endorsement for a Government who are already struggling with their poor legacy in Libya.
Furthermore, a leaked memo from a confidential briefing to US members of Congress from King Abdullah of Jordan suggested that British SAS units are already operating in Libya. We urgently need honesty and transparency about the Government’s intentions in Libya. Our troops may soon be in Libya as part of training missions. How much of that training do the UK Government envisage taking place on Libyan soil? In 2013, the UK Government agreed to train up to 2,000 Libyan soldiers, who were part of the Libyan general purpose force, at Bassingbourn barracks near Cambridge. The first contingent arrived in 2014, but the programme was halted early after repeated allegations of disciplinary issues and of serious sexual assaults by Libyan personnel against civilians. The Government appear unclear whether they would again host Libyan training missions in the UK.
Will the Government ensure that a vote and full debate take place in the main Chamber before any deployment of UK troops on Libyan soil? The Prime Minister must seek approval from Parliament before deploying any UK forces and provide full disclosure of the Government’s plans. Given that Libya is extremely fragile, with numerous militias and the growing presence of Daesh, how do the Government envisage a training mission in Libya taking place?
We now know that NATO Secretary-General, Jens Stoltenberg, has ruled out any new combat operations, and that further highlights how unwise it would be for the UK to have any further military presence in Libya. The US President’s willingness even to partially admit he made a mistake is commendable, but only in that way will he and coalition partners learn from the errors of the past. It is time that the Prime Minister and his Government admitted their mistakes, and it is time that the Prime Minister was up front to Parliament about his Government’s plans in Libya. We need less military posturing and more long-term stability planning for Libya.
I conclude by posing some questions to the Minister. Why have the Government promised only £50,000 to the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs, for humanitarian efforts? It has been said that Libya is a rich country, but surely that makes reconstruction efforts all the more important, so that in the future we can access that wealth. Will the Government be hosting any more Libyan training missions on UK soil, or does the Minister envisage that the new training missions will be held on Libyan soil? Where do the Minister and the Government stand on the deployment of 1,000 British troops to Libya, and will the Minister ensure that a full debate and a vote take place in the House before the deployment of UK troops on Libyan soil?
It is pleasure to work under your chairmanship, Mr Hanson. Given your interest in the matter, I know that you would probably want to participate in the debate, but we are pleased to have you in your seat.
As is customary—but also because it is important to give recognition—I begin by congratulating the hon. Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Stuart Blair Donaldson) on securing the debate. It is important that the House take a firm interest in the matter, not least for the reasons he has outlined. Events are changing on a regular basis, so I am pleased to have the opportunity to bring the House up to date with the events and with Britain’s involvement.
The hon. Gentleman will understand that I completely disagree with his interpretation of recent—the past few years’—history. He glosses over many of the key elements that, sadly, allowed Libya to slip backwards after we had parliamentary and prime ministerial elections after Gaddafi was removed, but I will come to that in due course.
We must recognise that Libya has gone through a testing period since 2011, but we must also place into context the backdrop against which events have taken place. Libya is a relatively new country. It has a huge amount of history, going back thousands and thousands of years. It is where the Berbers, the Phoenicians, the Greeks, the Romans and not least the Ottoman empire and the Italians were. We were there for a period as well. As a modern state, however, 1951 is when it gained its independence. Gaddafi took over after the coup and spent 40 years deterring societal development. Over the years, all the institutions had been able to learn, to adjust, to adapt and to further themselves, but that did not take place under Gaddafi. That is one of the reasons why, when the Arab spring came along, the people of Libya were asking for something very different. Once Gaddafi was removed, however, it was tough to suddenly create the institutions that were needed for the country to move forward. That was the challenge we faced in 2011.
UN Security Council resolution 1973, which was adopted in March 2011 and allowed Operation Ellamy to take place, represented a legitimate cause to move in and support the people of Libya, because Gaddafi had made it clear that after Benghazi—the bloodbath he attempted to orchestrate there—he would have moved on to other cities where other Libyans were rising up and saying, “I’ve had enough of this dictator. I want something else”. It was right, therefore, that our Prime Minister and other leaders around the world stepped up to the plate and did the proper thing. We can look back on that and say that it absolutely was the right thing to do. As I mentioned, that led to the country holding parliamentary and prime ministerial elections, and creating its own leadership.
If we were to look back at that period and ask, “Is there more the international community could have done?”, we would answer, “Yes there are lessons to be learnt, absolutely”, but the country itself, the leaders themselves, pushed back—shrugged off—international support. They wanted to do it themselves and that, I am afraid, led to inertia from the centralised perspective. Decisions were not being made. When there is a vacuum of power, and we have seen this across other parts of the Maghreb—the middle east and north Africa—extremism takes a foothold. We have seen it with Daesh in places such as Derna and Sirte.
Last month’s visit by the Foreign Secretary, however, is an indication that we are moving into a new and cautiously optimistic chapter. The Foreign Secretary was able to meet Prime Minister Siraj in Tripoli itself. His first impressions were that the security the Prime Minister had around him meant that he was being accepted by the majority in both the House of Representatives and the State Council, and that this was allowing his own presidential council and the Government of national accord to take hold and start to re-establish the institutions that I spoke about earlier. It is important to place that into context, but the hon. Gentleman is correct that in the absence of strong central leadership extremism has taken a foothold. That has affected us here in Britain, because those who participated in organising and training the killers in Sousse in Tunisia were themselves trained in Libya. The matter is of concern to us because of that and because of the migration issues, which I shall come on to in a second.
Our Prime Minister very recently spoke with President Obama and other leaders about the concerns of the Libya challenge. There must be an international effort to ensure that we can support Prime Minister Siraj, and indeed Martin Kobler and the UN efforts there. The hon. Gentleman was right to praise the UN envoy. I speak to the envoy regularly, and I am pleased that our ambassador is able to provide support—the hon. Gentleman mentioned the funding we provide to his office. Nor should we overlook the Prime Minister’s envoy, Jonathan Powell, who has worked closely with Martin Kobler and his predecessor. Some £10 million has been allocated for technical support, and if there is a request for further funding we will of course consider it but I understand that such a request has not been forthcoming. The £10 million includes £1.8 million for counter-terrorism work, for exactly the reason I have mentioned, to prevent the vacuum from being taken over by extremism.
I think that that is the same £10 million I asked the Foreign Secretary about—I asked whether it would be counted towards ODA. He said in the Chamber that he did not think it would, and then he had to write to me to clarify that it would. My question was actually whether it would be counted towards both ODA and the 2% NATO target. I do not know if the Minister has that knowledge to hand, but if he does not perhaps he will be able to clarify by correspondence.
It can be the case that an allocation of funding qualifies for two budgets. There is nothing wrong with that, it is just the way it works. It can come from official development aid—as it is called—but also from the defence budget too. We should not assume that, because it is one allocation, oh my goodness, somehow we are double accounting. That is just the way the systems work.
The reason why we must always confirm whether funding is ODA-able—as it is called—is because the rules were written in the 1950s, as the hon. Gentleman might be aware. They are, therefore, slightly out of date and need updating. The work of stabilisation is not really included in the definitions; it was “humanitarian work” when the rules were created by the OECD. We have been pushing for the rules to be updated, to recognise that the British taxpayer would like to see the money spent on exactly that. But if the rules do not allow for that, that is probably why the Foreign Secretary—indeed, anyone involved—needs to double-check whether the allocation can be confirmed. I hope that that answers the hon. Gentleman’s question.
In addition, we also hosted a meeting of 47 countries last month in Tunisia. That goes back to the point I made earlier: it is important that the international community rallies together and recognises that, in Libya’s hour of need, we need to be ready to provide service and support to the new Prime Minister in a wide range of capacities. We co-hosted the meeting with the United Nations. It allowed all international communities to say what they can contribute, including the funding they can put forward and the packages they can offer to the Prime Minister. I make it clear that we have to be invited by the country to embark on any processes to improve, in the same way as happened back in 2012, when central Government’s wheels perhaps started to come off.
The hon. Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine criticised the fact that things went wrong after Gaddafi was removed. I agree that the international community should have pressed for more, but ultimately the Libyan people need to recognise the challenges they face, the support on offer from the international community and the consequences of failing to show the leadership what they want. Extremism gets a footing when there is an absence of leadership. The meeting in April provided exactly that leadership: it brought together the international community and allowed us to provide some scope as to how we would provide support and security.
A lot of discussions will take place about the 1,000 or so troops. The Libyan international assistance mission is an Italian initiative in which Britain, Spain, Italy, France and other nations are likely to participate. There is planning for 1,000 troops or so, but we are yet to receive the invitation—the request—for any support. That support is likely to come, when it does, in the form of training and mentoring. Where that will take place is yet to be decided. It could very well be in Libya or somewhere else in the region, but it is unlikely to take place in Britain. It is training and mentoring; it is not an operational initiative, so there is no requirement for a vote in Parliament. Please do not expect one on the issue. That is the plan as we move forward, but I stress that we are yet to receive any request from the Prime Minister.
As was implied by the hon. Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine, the challenge we face is with migratory patterns. We are seeing criminal gangs orchestrate ruthlessly efficient programmes, selling tickets and encouraging individuals with the promise that they will get to Europe. Libya is seen as the weak link from which they can get across the Mediterranean. We all know that they do not get across the Mediterranean. The gangs place them in rickety boats that barely make it out of Libyan waters. Operation Sophia, which is the European Union’s initiative, currently operates in international waters. We want to move things forward so that it can operate in Libyan territorial waters, too. That will mean that the boats do not venture so far out that they cannot be returned to Libya. Those people can return back there, thereby breaking the chain from which the criminal gangs are benefiting.
There is no doubt that the challenge of Libya will continue, or that Britain, working with our international partners, will ensure that we stand by the new Prime Minister, the new presidential council and the people of Libya. It has been a very difficult five years; everyone recognises that. It has been extremely challenging, but we must continue to work for peace and security in the country, not only because that is crucial for stability in the wider north African and Mediterranean regions, but because the United Kingdom has important interests, as I have outlined. After the revolution, the Libyan people expressed joy, enthusiasm and hope after 40 years of Gaddafi’s misrule, oppression and fear. They wanted freedom and democracy, and they held elections. The people of Libya want education and to continue to hear the inspiring stories of Libyans being able to succeed into the future. We want to stand by them, and we will continue to do so in the UK interest, ensuring that Libya emerges as a strong, peaceful and prosperous democracy. I pledge today our continuing support for the Prime Minister and the people of Libya.
Question put and agreed to.
Asylum Seeker Dispersal Policy
I beg to move,
That this House has considered asylum seeker dispersal policy.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hanson. I will begin by touching on the asylum application system as a whole. At present, the system is so inefficient and backlogged that asylum seekers are being housed in hotels and temporary accommodation while endless appeals are dragged out. In the Home Office legacy case statistics, there are people with cases dating back to 2004.
We see the majority of cases turning out to be bogus. In fact, I see many economic migrants who have come to this country illegally clogging up the system with doomed cases, slowing the process for those in genuine need. Statistics from 2012 to 2013 on asylum cases where outcomes have been determined show that only 32% of cases were accepted at the first stage of applying, while 57% were rejected and 11% were withdrawn. Of those cases that were not accepted, 70% were appealed. Of those appeals, 68% were dismissed and 7% were withdrawn. The system is clearly being abused and delayed by bogus claims of asylum, and that cannot continue.
Let me give the House a real-life case study from my constituency surgery on Friday. Hassan is a Sudanese national. He is currently living in Rochdale in a house with four other male asylum seekers. He was 17 when he entered the UK in September 2014 via a lorry from Calais. Before that, he had worked in Libya, earning money in construction. He travelled to Europe by boat. He got off a lorry in Dover. Fingerprints were taken and he was put in a hotel. He spent two months down south. He was then moved up to Rochdale. He has been in Rochdale for one year and five months.
Hassan has been trying to claim asylum. He says there is a conflict between two tribes in close proximity to his village and that a lot of people have been killed. Hassan was interviewed by the Home Office over a year ago in February 2015, but no decision has yet been taken on his case. He now says that he is bored here, has nothing to do and that, if he had the choice, he would return to Sudan. He said:
“I want to feel human, like a normal person.”
He then broke down in tears in my constituency office. That is the reality of the asylum system under this Government.
Whatever we make of this young man’s case, there is no denying that there are failures within the system, and we must remember that the asylum system exists for a very good reason. As a prosperous and tolerant nation, we must play our part in helping those fleeing persecution and horrors in their home country. Earlier this year, a young mother attended my constituency surgery. She had been persecuted because of her Ahmadiyya Muslim faith, and I believed it to be an open-and-shut case. She had been subjected to awful abuse in Pakistan. She was twice violently kidnapped for refusing to abandon her religion. Here was a straightforward case of someone unable to return to their country from fear for their own security. I would always be prepared to support that kind of asylum case. To my complete surprise, her asylum application was rejected. Even though Home Office guidance shows that such cases should be supported, this young woman was denied a safe haven.
I raise that case because it shows the growing strains on our asylum system, which is grinding to a halt. It is being clogged up with economic migrants submitting hopeless cases, while genuine people in need of refuge are told they have no right to sanctuary. The system needs an overhaul. We need a well-resourced and properly funded body that is able to deport quickly those who have no claim and assist those in genuine need of a life away from their home country. We cannot fulfil our moral duty to those in genuine need under the system now in place.
I now come to the issue at the heart of this debate: the unfair dispersal system for asylum seekers. In Rochdale, we have 1,044 asylum seekers at present. That figure represents 3.77% of the 27,650 asylum seekers in England. Rochdale has a population of just over 200,000, so one in every 204 people in Rochdale is an asylum seeker. The situation is worse only in Middlesbrough where there is one asylum seeker to every 152 people. Rochdale has been dumped with an unequal share of the burden. The Minister will say, as he has said previously to me, that this policy was introduced by the previous Labour Government, but that is simply not good enough. He and the rest of his party have been in government for six years now.
The COMPASS contracts introduced under his Government have made the situation worse. In 2012, when the contracts were introduced, Rochdale was responsible for 371 asylum seekers. At the beginning of 2014, this number went up to 550. By the end of 2015, we suddenly had 1,044. The problem does not stop with Rochdale. Ten local authorities in England have just under 40% of all asylum seekers in the country. That is just 10 out of 322 local authorities, according to research that my office has done. The north-west region has been bearing the brunt, taking 30% of all asylum seekers in England.
In correspondence, the Minister stated:
“Our dispersal policy ensures a reasonable spread amongst...local authorities.”
That is clearly not true. Certain regions and councils have done absolutely nothing. The Minister must answer why this problem has got worse under his Government and why he has done nothing about it. I must add that, if local authorities will not sign up voluntarily, why has the Minister not enforced this on the shirkers using sections 100 and 101 of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999? The Act enshrines power in the Home Secretary to ensure that leaders of local authorities co-operate to provide support for asylum seekers. The problem has been growing and the Minister must answer why that power has not been used.
Next, I wish to touch on some of the details of the COMPASS contracts. Key performance indicators within the contracts were to factor in the capacity of local health, education and other support services and the risk of increased social tension if the number of asylum seekers increases within a given area. There has been a clear disregard for those factors. A recent report from the Joseph Roundtree Foundation found that 10 of the 12 struggling towns and cities in the UK are in the north of England. Number one in that analysis is Rochdale. We can argue with the methodology of the research, but there is no doubt that public services are vital for local people in our town. There is a greater strain on services, yet the Conservative Government have added more than 1,000 asylum seekers to the town. Combined with this, we have Serco dumping asylum seekers in our town with hardly any notice given to the local authority. There are waiting lists for housing in Rochdale and a limited number of school places. Some schools are already being challenged to improve performance, but cannot afford the added burden of even more languages to be learned. Waiting times for GPs and access to accident and emergency are already stretched beyond acceptability.
On the changes to spending power from 2015-16 to 2017-18, Rochdale is again among the hardest hit from Conservative Government cuts, which already affect its ability to fund its already overstretched public services. Between those years, Rochdale will have its spending power reduced from £177 million to £165 million: a reduction of £12 million.
I caution the hon. Gentleman against the use of words such as “dumping” to describe the way in which human beings arrive in his constituency. Does he have a view on extending the right to work to asylum seekers? If asylum seekers are allowed to work and actively contribute to their communities, they would pay tax, including council tax, that would provide resources for local authorities. They would be seen to be actively contributing to communities, and that might help with integration.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. On the language used, it is not a reflection of the individual asylum seekers, but a reflection of how Serco and the Government treat these vulnerable people. I completely agree about the ability to work. I raised that issue with the then Secretary of State for Work and Pensions when I was a parliamentary candidate before the 2010 general election, so I have some sympathy with that view.
On spending power in Rochdale, not only are we predicted to lose £12 million, but on top of that there have been £200 million pound budget cuts to the local authority since 2010. I take no pride in saying that Rochdale is one of the most deprived places in the UK. It pains me to admit that. I, the council and other agencies are doing much more to change that, but we have overstretched public services and a very low wage economy. Asylum seekers, as the hon. Gentleman pointed out, are not allowed to work and that causes tension within communities. Groups of asylum seekers wander around town with nothing to do. As I mentioned earlier, the Minister’s Department is no good at processing their applications, so they are hanging around for literally years.
Rochdale is not the only example of such unfairness. The top five local authorities with the most asylum seekers are Birmingham, Liverpool, Manchester, Rochdale and Bolton. All will have their spending power over the next two years reduced by more than 5%, yet they have all taken in more than 1,000 asylum seekers each. So I must ask the Minister why no consideration has been given to the strain put on public services and why tension in the local community has not been factored in.
The irony is that some local authorities see a rise in their spending power and have no asylum seekers at all. It is completely and utterly unfair. I will give some examples. In the Prime Minister’s local authority area of West Oxfordshire, zero asylum seekers are accommodated, despite a healthy 1% increase in spending power over the coming years. The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government’s leafy local authority of Tunbridge Wells is also not taking in any asylum seekers and is seeing only a 1% decrease in spending power. The Home Secretary’s area has taken in only three asylum seekers, despite this issue falling under her remit, and faces only a 1% reduction in local authority spending power over the coming years. The Chancellor’s local authority seems to be reluctant to take any asylum seekers at all.
When we look further into the details, we really start to get a picture of the inherent unfairness of the system under this Government. Labour authorities on average have taken in 244 asylum seekers, yet have been on the wrong side of an average 5% reduction in spending power between 2015-16 and 2017-18. In contrast, Conservative local authorities have taken in only six asylum seekers on average and have suffered a rather modest 1% reduction in spending power. What is evident here is that Labour-run authorities are clearly the more compassionate. When they see vulnerable people, they strive to help wherever they can. That is an attribute that should be celebrated by the Government. Yet those councils have been hit with the largest reductions in spending power. Rather than helping those local authorities, the Government seem hellbent on ensuring that they make things as hard as possible, letting them take in some of the most vulnerable people, while tying one hand behind their back. This is partisan politics at its worst. The Minister must take action to stop it.
The Minister can choose to put whatever spin he wants on the situation, but it is clear that the status quo is deeply unfair to the less well-off. Areas that are struggling the most under this Conservative Government have been made to carry the increasing burden of our overweight and slowing asylum system; they have been doing so while the local areas of the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government have done nothing but shirk their responsibilities to the most vulnerable people in society, while shielding themselves from the worst cuts.
Labour-run local authorities have been doing more than their fair share, but Conservative authorities have been ignoring the plight of asylum seekers. The most unjust aspect of the whole situation is that it is Labour local authorities that are being punished the most with cuts, while Conservative authorities are being rewarded for sitting back and watching. I look forward to the Minister’s attempt to address each and every point raised in the debate.
Order. Before I call Patrick Grady, I should say to the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald), who will be speaking from the Front Bench for Scottish National party, that we started early because both the mover of the motion and the Minister were present. The hon. Gentleman missed only the aperitif; he is here for the meat of the debate.
I am grateful to have been called, Mr Hanson, having not indicated beforehand that I wanted to speak. Having seen how sparse the attendance was, I thought I should take the opportunity to reflect briefly on some of the points made by the hon. Member for Rochdale (Simon Danczuk).
Glasgow, part of which I represent, has approximately one asylum seeker per 217 residents, placing it in the top 10 centres of asylum seekers in the United Kingdom. The asylum seeker community has done nothing but benefit the society and culture of my city. We must recognise the huge contribution that people make to Scotland and the United Kingdom when they come here from all over the world for a wide range of reasons. It reflects well on the city of Glasgow when it extends the kind of welcome it has done to people coming from extremely vulnerable and distressing situations.
I pay tribute to the work of the integration networks in Glasgow. Community-based organisations play an incredibly valuable role in providing advice and support to asylum seekers. Since being elected last year, some of the most moving experiences I have had have been when I have encountered asylum seekers, either in formal settings facilitated by the likes of the Maryhill integration network in my constituency, or on a one-to-one basis when they have come to my constituency surgeries.
The hon. Member for Rochdale made the point that Cabinet Ministers lack first-hand experience of these issues because they simply do not have comparable numbers of constituents coming to their surgeries, and that does affect overall Government policy and attitude towards asylum seekers. There is nothing more humiliating for me as a Member of Parliament than sitting in a surgery and a constituent presenting me with a card that tells them, “You do not have the right to work.” That right is enshrined in human rights instruments around the world. It is one of the basic factors that allows people to express their human dignity by using their skills, attributes and strengths to earn a living for themselves. For them to be issued with a card from the Government that says, “You do not have the right to work,” is literally inhumane.
Likewise, when I see bits of paper that say, “You are liable to be lifted and deported and expelled from the country,” I am left literally speechless in front of these people, who have fled some of the most terrifying and difficult situations around the world. We heard about some of those situations in the previous debate about Libya—conflict situations in which, very often, the UK is complicit. There has to be an absolutely integrated and joined-up approach from the Government. Currently, such an approach is completely and utterly lacking.
Asylum seekers need to have the right to work. The Azure card, which allows people to buy things only from certain shops, should be abolished. Cash allowances would enable people to get culturally appropriate clothing, food or utensils, or whatever else they might need to provide for themselves or their families. Much asylum support is provided through the Home Office, rather than by the Department for Work and Pensions. From a practical point of view, could that be integrated between the Home Office and the DWP? That might help to address some of the challenges and issues we hear of.
On dispersal, it is appropriate that local authorities throughout the country find a way to take their fair share, but they have to know that they are going to get Government support. The right to work is particularly important because it would make it all the more attractive to local authorities if they thought that their revenue base, council tax base or whatever might grow. We create work and problems for ourselves when we bracket people and let them get trapped in a bureaucratic system that denies them basic human rights.
I am grateful to have been called, Mr Hanson, because I wanted to take the opportunity to offer some reflections on the issues. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Rochdale (Simon Danczuk) on securing this debate and providing Members with the opportunity to scrutinise Government policy on the dispersal of asylum seekers at this important time in the development of that strand of policy. I am sorry to have missed the aperitif, but I certainly got the main substance of what the hon. Gentleman had to say.
Broadly, dispersal issues can be put into two categories. First, what exactly do we need to do and provide for those who have claimed asylum here? Secondly, where should that happen? To start with the second issue—the “where”, which is the meat of the debate—no one would now quibble with the Government’s stated ambition to expand the number of areas to which asylum seekers are being dispersed, although I certainly have sympathy with the hon. Gentleman’s argument that that should have happened long before now. More widespread dispersal is entirely the correct thing to do, from a number of different angles: it is fair that responsibility for providing housing and other support is shared around the country, and it is easier for local communities to adjust and for asylum seekers to integrate into those communities when responsibility is shared out in that way.
As we have heard, a number of authorities are shouldering a disproportionate share of the responsibility, including Middlesbrough—where the cluster limit of one asylum seeker for every 200 of the settled population has been exceeded—and Rochdale. As I understand it, the Home Office has written to other local authorities to encourage them to take part in the dispersal process; it would be useful to have information from the Minister on the response to that request. Many authorities are absolutely willing to play their part, but that willingness is conditional: they will play their part if, and only if, full and proper support comes from central Government. That is absolutely the correct approach.
That brings us to the other key issue: what exactly do we want to achieve through the dispersal process? It should not be about paying private companies to seek out the cheapest accommodation they can find in different corners of the country and then simply placing asylum seekers there willy-nilly, while leaving hard-pressed local authorities and other services to get on with it. That is not a sensible way ahead, but as the hon. Member for Rochdale said, sadly it sometimes appears to be all the COMPASS contract was designed to achieve and has achieved. Like the hon. Gentleman, I have made my misgivings about the contracts known in other debates; I will wait for the Home Affairs Committee to look at that issue more forensically in due course.
Dispersal should occur as sensibly and sensitively as possible, ensuring the provision of required support and finding communities where people fit. That means accommodating people and taking account of family circumstances, age, language and other factors. Most importantly, dispersal must occur where asylum seekers will have access to necessary support and services. Previously, COMPASS health assessments—for those dispersed to Glasgow, for example—were very easy to arrange: they took place in the same building in which many asylum seekers were initially accommodated. Sadly, under the current contract, providers are proving significantly less reliable at making support available to ensure that people can get where they need to go, and appointments are being missed. That is an extremely worrying development, particularly as those people often have complex health needs. Some are victims of torture, and many have mental health issues, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, as a result of the traumas that they have been through.
There is a range of other factors to be considered. When I practised as an immigration solicitor, there was—there still is—an experienced and capable group of immigration and asylum law practitioners in Glasgow, because it is a dispersal city and there is significant demand. However, that is not the case in other cities in Scotland and elsewhere, where dispersal has not yet taken place. We need to ensure that those who are dispersed to new towns and cities have access to quality advice, which is essential for their often complicated cases.
Local authorities in different parts of the UK have sought to go above and beyond what is required. The Scottish Government have funded the Scottish Refugee Council’s family keywork service to support newly arrived families with children aged up to eight during their first six months. It covers areas such as advice about the asylum system, education and health, and it co-ordinates the different services.
As the hon. Member for Rochdale said, it is vital to keep communities involved and on side. There can be no sudden appearance of large numbers of asylum seekers without warning, which has happened from time to time with initial dispersal accommodation. That does not work for anyone. Equally, leaving asylum seekers alone and isolated by placing them in ones or twos in different parts of cities is also not helpful.
I have touched on only a tiny number of the basic wrap-around services that need to be considered when dispersing asylum seekers. We could have a whole debate on the right to work; the Scottish National party voted last week in support of the right to work, and we will always do so. Local authorities think twice about getting involved because it requires proper planning, close partnership working and discussions among national, devolved and local governments. That requires not just planning but proper resourcing, and many local authorities feel that the current arrangements provide neither sufficiently. The model of using private contractors to provide accommodation without additional support services is not attractive to them.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) said, Glasgow has benefited over the years from the dispersal of asylum seekers in a number of ways, but when that policy was first introduced the council was contracted directly by the Home Office to provide accommodation and the funding was sufficient to develop a whole host of wrap-around services as well. The existing COMPASS contracts move away from that model. Glasgow can just about cope, because it already has well-developed infrastructure to support asylum seekers, but local authorities with no history of dispersal do not. If the Home Office attempts to expand the programme without adequate funding for developing services, we would be seriously concerned about the impact on public services and community cohesion. It is the same issue with unaccompanied asylum-seeking children: I understand that the Home Office is not paying a daily rate that covers the cost of supporting vulnerable young people.
Local authorities have willingly participated in the resettlement of refugees under the vulnerable persons scheme, and although there will always be differences in schemes’ requirements, the stark contrast in resourcing and planning cannot be justified. Why not learn lessons from the successes of the vulnerable persons scheme? Local authorities will ask why they should agree to take part in the dispersal programme and then have to shoulder the responsibility for funding services such as education.
We support the Government’s ambition to broaden dispersal, but their vision of what dispersal is all about requires much more work to convince us and, more importantly, local authorities. The Government should get down to that work quickly before contemplating using the powers in the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 or the new powers in the Immigration Bill, which is currently going through Parliament.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hanson. I congratulate the hon. Member for Rochdale (Simon Danczuk) on securing this debate.
The asylum seekers dispersal policy and the contracts for providing accommodation have something of a sorry history. As we know, the six contracts were signed in March 2012 and taken up by G4S, Serco and Clearel. Only Clearel had any experience of the asylum housing sector, and that soon began to tell. The most significant findings of the National Audit Office’s January 2014 report were that G4S and Serco took on stock without inspecting it, that the Home Office did not apply the key performance indicators in the transition period and that, although the intention and hope was for savings of £140 million, the savings in the year 2012-13 amounted to just £8 million.
Those are not teething problems, but clearly ongoing problems with the current system. The Home Affairs Committee, the Public Accounts Committee and the National Audit Office all highlighted serious flaws in the operation of the current dispersal system. The use of red doors and wristbands in Middlesbrough and Cardiff, which arose earlier this year, led to disquiet among the public and in the media.
There are five big issues. The first is the standard of the accommodation being used, about which the Public Accounts Committee and the National Audit Office expressed concern. The Public Accounts Committee concluded that
“The standard of the accommodation provided was often unacceptably poor”.
I visited Oldham earlier this year—I will mention this a number of times in my speech—and I was struck by the quality of the accommodation provided on the ground in some of the towns in the north-west, where lots of asylum seekers are housed.
Secondly, there is a concern about the oversight and inspection regime. The Home Affairs Committee concluded that
“the complaints and inspection processes…appears to be flawed”.
Asylum seekers have little opportunity to make complaints, and the inspections by the local authorities and the Home Office are ineffective. The issues of the red doors and the wristbands exemplify the flaws in the system. In the end, those issues were exposed by the media, not the complaints and inspection regime, which is intended to deal with such issues.
Thirdly, there is the issue of clustering, which has been touched upon already. There are clearly marked differences in where asylum seekers are housed. Some local authorities take very large numbers—Glasgow has the highest, with some 3,000 or so—but 177 local authorities have refused to take any and a further 100 have taken five or fewer. There are clearly limits, which the Minister will point to, to the policy of not housing in London and the south-east and to the voluntary opt-in for local authorities—in other words, it cannot be mandated—but there are some marked differences. Let me take three examples at random. Swansea has rehoused 843 asylum seekers, whereas neighbouring Carmarthenshire has rehoused none and neighbouring Neath Port Talbot has rehoused only one. Middlesbrough has taken 917, whereas Redcar and Cleveland has taken just 10 and Hambleton has taken none. Glasgow, as I mentioned, has got 3,000, East Renfrewshire has got none and Renfrewshire has got just four. There are clearly big differences across the country.
Fourthly, there is a lack of appropriate support services. In other words, the dispersal of asylum seekers is not matched by appropriate support—whether healthcare, schooling or language classes—leaving asylum seekers isolated and vulnerable.
Fifthly, rising demand is outstripping housing and service supply. We all know that the number of asylum seekers has increased from about 18,000 in 2010 to 32,400 in 2015. All three providers of dispersal accommodation have emphasised that it is proving very difficult to get more accommodation for housing at a viable rate. The 2014 NAO report recommended that the Home Office share forecasts and flow with the contractors. I would be interested to hear from the Minister whether that is happening and, if so, how it is being managed.
The policy questions and issues that arise are these. We need to underline that the dispersal system should be fair, affordable and humane, and that it should protect and promote community cohesion. There is no doubt that, under the current scheme, none of those things are being achieved. I have real concerns about clustering. In Oldham—no doubt, the situation is the same in Rochdale and some of the other areas that have been touched on—I witnessed large numbers of asylum seekers being housed not only in one local authority, but in a particular area within the local authority, predominantly because housing is simply cheaper there than anywhere else. The high concentrations in the areas I visited in Oldham were causing real concern for the asylum seekers, who felt isolated because of how they were being housed, and for the people of Oldham, who felt that they were taking on too much, in one small area and more than they could cope with. So there are real problems for community cohesion in the way that the dispersal system works.
The system cannot be based purely on the bottom line. In other words, the cost of accommodation cannot be the driver—there has got to be a wider approach. Cheaper provision is not synonymous with better provision. A resonating question that has already been asked is, what are the Government doing to encourage more local authorities to take part in dispersal? To be clear, I am not suggesting that the Home Office should be mandating local authorities to take asylum seekers at this stage. I can see real problems with that if that is the fall-back position. Letters have been written, but what more can be done? In addition, what support is being offered to local authorities to make it more likely that more of them will offer to provide accommodation and other services?
What are the Government doing to improve oversight and inspection of dispersal accommodation? I have already mentioned the revelations in Middlesbrough and Cardiff; they throw up a failure of the complaints and inspection system, which needs to be looked at again.
I, too, would like an update on the savings. According to the NAO, the savings in 2012-13 were £8 million of the expected £140 million. We are now nearly four years into the contracts, and it is important for the Minister to give an update on what the savings have been, because they were the driver of the contracts.
It is time to review the overall costs, not only the cost of providing the accommodation now, compared with before the contracts, but the cost that takes the prohibition on work into account. That has been touched on. The only reason why many of the families and individuals who are seeking asylum need to be housed under such arrangements at all is that they are prohibited from working. They fall into the destitute category because they arrive with little in the way of cash or other assets and are prohibited from working. It is therefore inevitable that large numbers within that group must then be accommodated.
Measures have been taken to improve the period within which decisions are made, but many decisions are still not made or concluded within the six months—many more beyond the 12 months—so, for a prolonged period, asylum seekers are prohibited from working and are inevitably dependent upon housing at public expense, which they could otherwise pay for if they were working. All the evidence suggests that at the end of the process, if people are granted refugee status, there is a strong likelihood that they will stay within the local authority where they have been temporarily housed— perhaps inevitably. Furthermore, because they have not been able to work for the period it took for the decision to be made, the likelihood is that the local authority will still have to house them, because they will not be able to go straight into work at the end of it.
I have a probing question for the Minister. Is it time to step back and ask what the overall cost of the dispersal policy is, factoring in the prohibition on work? Would it be better in most, if not all, cases to allow people to work after a given period, so that they can pay for their own accommodation? They would not need to be in a particular local authority to do so.
That supports my wider call: it is now time to review the dispersal policy. There are clearly ongoing problems that have not been resolved. I think that the contracts expire in 2017, with a possible two-year extension, so there is a window of opportunity to review the situation before the contracts are renewed for either two years, or even longer in 2017.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hanson, I believe for the first time. I welcome you to the Chair and to your role.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Rochdale (Simon Danczuk) on securing the debate, and on his probing questions and focus on the subject. He spoke about the impact on his community, given the pressure from the number of asylum seekers, and he has flagged some of the issues. Let me say at the outset that I hope that we will continue the discussion outside the Chamber, perhaps in meetings between Serco, my officials, him and his council about the pressures and the matters he has brought to the House’s attention this morning.
On the overall background, the UK has a long and proud history of offering sanctuary to those genuinely fleeing persecution. I confirm that the Government remain committed to providing an asylum system that protects and respects the fundamental rights of individuals who arrive on our shores seeking refuge from persecution. The Government also want to send a clear message to those who seek to exploit the system—a point that was clearly made by the hon. Gentleman.
For those asylum seekers who would otherwise be destitute, the Government provide access to support services, in accordance with our international obligations. The Government provide that support through the COMPASS contracts, which have been mentioned, with three contractors: Serco, G4S and Clearsprings Ready Homes. The contracts provide asylum seekers who claim to be destitute with full-board so-called initial accommodation while their means are assessed, and then with the dispersed accommodation throughout the UK.
The Home Office is working hard with its contractors to ensure that all the accommodation provided to asylum seekers is safe and secure, and that asylum seekers are treated with dignity and respect, taking account of their vulnerability. We are also ensuring that the system is effective and efficient, and provides value for money for the taxpayer. Since the new approach came into operation in 2012, standards in asylum seeker accommodation have improved.
The specific point that the hon. Gentleman focused on was the policy that follows the period of initial accommodation: the dispersal of supported asylum seekers across a number of areas in the United Kingdom. The Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 introduced the policy of national dispersal, which was designed to share the impact of asylum seekers across the whole of the UK. At the time, in how it was constructed, the policy was intended to ease the burden of numbers on London and the south-east.
Not all asylum seekers are supported by the Home Office. Many are accommodated by their friends or relatives throughout the UK, often in London and the south-east of England, which also has pressure on local services from unaccompanied asylum-seeking children—I might comment briefly on that matter later. The legislation was introduced to relieve the pressures on the local authorities that had previously shouldered a significant proportion of the asylum seekers, given their proximity to the main ports of entry into the UK. The dispersal policy aims to ensure a spread among UK local authorities, and we work to a maximum agreed dispersal cluster ratio of one asylum seeker per 200 head of total population. We would not normally go beyond that ratio without the agreement of the relevant local authority.
Historically, approximately 100 local authorities were signed up to asylum dispersal. We have been proactively engaging with all areas that to date have not participated in asylum dispersal, with a view to negotiating voluntary agreements for them to do so. The number of participants now stands at 103, with approximately 20 more signed up. We are engaging with areas that to date have not participated. Since 2015, 21 new local authority areas have agreed to become dispersal areas, with another 28 areas in discussion with us and our housing providers.
Through regional strategic migration partnerships—which basically group together the local authorities within a particular region and are Home Office-funded forums—we work with the contractors, local government and other local agencies to plan the most appropriate dispersal of asylum seekers. The partnerships consider the impact on communities and local services so that adjustments can be made where appropriate. This is intended to ensure that community cohesion, social welfare and safety issues are properly considered. We judge strategic migration partnerships to be the best mechanism to achieve that focus. We are working in particular with the strategic migration partnership in the north-west, where there have been particular pressures, so that local authorities in the surrounding areas can play their part in assisting the partnership.
Asylum seekers are placed in initial accommodation while their claims for support are addressed. Initial accommodation is short term and, after successfully claiming for support, asylum seekers are housed in dispersed accommodation. In initial accommodation, which tends to be hostel or halls of residence-style accommodation, service users are put in touch with support services and healthcare and provided with meals. Across the UK, there are initial accommodation centres in Croydon, Liverpool, London, Glasgow, Cardiff, Wakefield and Birmingham.
As has been indicated in a number of the contributions to the debate, and as I am sure hon. Members will recognise, global events have meant that the number of asylum seekers—many of them destitute and in need of our support—entering the UK has increased this year. That, and a change in the mix of the nationalities and characteristics of asylum seekers, means increased demand on the asylum accommodation system. As the hon. Member for Rochdale correctly said, the number of asylum seekers accommodated in Rochdale has increased in recent years. I pay tribute to the town for its participation in the asylum seeker dispersal scheme and the support it has provided to asylum seekers for many years.
We work closely with local authorities that raise concerns about dispersal to help to address those concerns. Indeed, my officials and I have met individual MPs to listen and respond to local concerns, and I extend an invitation to the hon. Member for Rochdale to meet us to pursue a number of the points that he has flagged. For example, we have listened to the concerns of the local authority and stakeholders in Prestwick and ceased the use of contingency accommodation there. In Middlesbrough, we have agreed with the Mayor to reduce the number of asylum seekers to the 1:200 dispersal ratio by the end of December, and the population there is already reducing. In Manchester, Birmingham and Cardiff, we have listened to the concerns of local authorities and MPs and our providers are reducing, in a gradual and balanced way, their use of hotels as temporary accommodation.
I remain convinced that increasing participation in the asylum seeker dispersal scheme is the strongest long-term solution for avoiding the use of contingency accommodation such as hotels. The director general of UK Visas and Immigration has written to local authority chief executives to ask them to participate in dispersal, and I plan to write again to local authority leaders following the local council elections.
The hon. Gentleman made a point in his contribution about the powers in the 1999 Act, which have not been used to date. Our preference is to continue to work with individual local authorities through the strategic migration partnerships to get buy-in from those authorities on broader dispersal. We would face challenges if we were to try to create, effectively, a mandated national dispersal mechanism, which other hon. Members have highlighted their reservations about. Therefore, our focus remains on working with local authorities to establish how we can expand the number of participating authorities; and, as I have indicated, we are starting to see progress. There is clearly more to do, which is why I intend to take further action by writing out following the local council elections.
I do not want to be overly partisan, but my office’s analysis shows that Labour local authorities do take asylum seekers and Conservative local authorities do not. That is broadly the situation. Surely a Conservative Minister in a Conservative Government could apply some pressure on his local authorities and local representatives to get them to take some of the burden that Labour authorities carry.
I can say to the hon. Gentleman that my local authority is a dispersal area; equally, other Conservative authorities do take asylum seekers in dispersal. As I indicated, we seek to expand those numbers further and I will continue on that in the months ahead.
I want to respond to this point specifically: despite the increasing numbers, we continue to process claims promptly. Indeed, the inspection by the independent chief inspector of borders and immigration found that the Home Office had made significant improvements in the efficiency and effectiveness of its management of asylum casework during 2014-15. It had met its aim of deciding all straightforward claims made on or after April 2014 within six months, while successfully clearing all straightforward claims lodged before 1 April 2014 by 31 March 2015. The inspection also found that non-straightforward cases were being monitored effectively and decided quickly once barriers were removed.
We continue to focus on driving further improvement and ensuring that cases are determined promptly. Of course there are some more complex cases, where we may have concerns over issues of previous criminality or perhaps even war crimes that individuals may be linked to in some way. It is therefore appropriate that we consider matters carefully and cautiously in those circumstances. However, I am clear about the need for an efficient and effective service. We have been driving that through change over recent years and we intend to retain a focus on that.
On the COMPASS contracts, the suppliers are contractually required to provide safe, habitable, fit-for-purpose accommodation to comply with the Housing Act 2004 and the decent homes standards. All Home Office contracts include performance standards that are defined in the contract and managed using key performance indicators. Any failure in delivering the critical service levels may result in deductions against submitted invoices in the form of service credits. The Home Office and the providers regularly inspect asylum seeker accommodation. All three contractors are currently meeting the key performance indicators for property standards. When any defects are found through the inspection regime, such defects are being rectified promptly and within contractual time limits.
I stress the change we have made in the inspection regime. We are listening more closely to service users—I think we had not previously listened and had that rightful feedback from them to a sufficient degree—and working with non-governmental organisations to pick up on issues where they arise, so that we are better able to target the inspection regime and address any concerns about the quality of accommodation that asylum seekers use. The Home Office regularly inspects properties in Rochdale and did so only last week. The inspections found that the accommodation was of a good standard and that the asylum seekers living there felt adequately supported.
To take the point raised by the hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer), the COMPASS contracts, as well as improving accommodation standards, remain on target to deliver £136.4 million of financial benefits during their lifetime compared with the cost of the previous arrangements. As I made clear at the recent, passionate Westminster Hall debate on 19 April on unaccompanied children, the Home Office takes its
“responsibility for the welfare of children seriously.”—[Official Report, 19 April 2016; Vol. 608, c. 286WH.]
We have stringent and statutory policy safeguards in place regarding child welfare. Ensuring that we treat children with care and compassion is a priority.
Last year saw a 56% increase in the number of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children arriving in the UK, particularly in Kent. The Government are grateful to all those in Kent and to other local authorities meeting that challenge for the excellent way in which they have responded to those pressures and we are keen that there should be no repetition of the situation that occurred in Kent last summer. That is why I have announced that we will put in place a national transfer scheme this summer to ensure a fairer distribution of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children across the UK. I am extremely grateful for the collaborative way in which the Local Government Association and the Association of Directors of Children’s Services have engaged with that work. I will be writing to all local authorities again after the local elections to provide further information about the scheme and the support mechanisms.
I am sure hon. Members will agree that the outpouring of support we have seen in response to the Syrian crisis has been incredible, from local authorities that have volunteered to take refugees as part of the Syrian resettlement programme, to offers of help from the general public, businesses and voluntary organisations. Less visible is the ongoing support in communities such as Rochdale and what they have been doing to provide for asylum seekers over a number of years. I pay tribute to those communities.
I have said before that I think the scheme to resettle Syrian families is very good, but I have a growing concern about a two-tier system. I know that there is much greater financial support for local authorities that house Syrian families than for those that house other asylum-seeking individuals. Does the Minister share my concern that there is a growing perception of a two-tier asylum-seeking system evolving?
It is important to remember that those who are arriving into the UK through the Syrian resettlement scheme are given refugee status on arrival. There is a distinction to be drawn between those granted refugee status and those seeking a refugee status that has not yet been established.
On the hon. and learned Gentleman’s point, we need to ensure that we retain focus across the system, in respect of the asylum system and also resettlement programmes. We continue to do that. I work very closely with the Minister for Syrian refugees to ensure that we recognise the pressures that may build up in certain local authority areas from supporting asylum seekers, as well as pressures for those that are meeting responsibilities under the refugee scheme, including in relation to unaccompanied asylum-seeking children. There are a number of different pathways and factors that need to be viewed in their totality. That is precisely what the Government are doing and will continue to do. I pay tribute to those communities that are taking action, supporting asylum seekers in their communities and playing their part. I am keen that we build on that support and join up between resettlement and asylum wherever possible, so that all communities across the UK are able to support unaccompanied children, asylum seekers and refugees.
I agree with a number of hon. Members that we need to continue to widen the dispersal system across the UK. That is what we are seeking to do, and we have had some important successes. That is the best way for the towns and cities of the UK to offer protection to those who genuinely need it. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Rochdale for raising this debate, and I look forward to continuing the conversation.
I will be brief. I thank you for chairing the debate, Mr Hanson, and I thank the Minister for his contribution and some of the answers he has given. I have concerns about the dispersal system, which is why I called for this debate. I appreciate that the Government are beginning to move towards a wider dispersal strategy, but some speed would be appreciated.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered asylum seeker dispersal policy.
Burial or Cremation (Delays)
[Graham Stringer in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered delays between death and burial or cremation.
The purpose of this debate is to consider the increasing amount of time that is now occurring between a person dying and their subsequent burial or cremation. The subject was considered by the all-party parliamentary group on funerals and bereavement, which was founded in 2002 to examine issues of concern to parliamentarians and their constituents. Of course, the group brings together Members of both Houses, representatives of the funeral director profession and representatives of bereaved people. The report on delays originated in the previous Parliament at the instigation of Paul Goggins MP. We all remember him well as the Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East from 1997 until his untimely death in January 2014. At various meetings of the all-party group, he raised issues related to delays and their impact on people who had lost loved ones.
The report was commenced under the chairmanship of my predecessor as chair of the all-party group, Lorely Burt MP, now Baroness Burt. We held evidence sessions in July 2014 and January 2015, and we published our report in December 2015. We have had three ministerial responses since the publication of our report. The Under-Secretary of State for Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Ben Gummer), addressed death certification issues, including the role of the medical examiner within the national health service. The Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my noble Friend Baroness Williams of Trafford, addressed crematoriums and burial facilities. We received an extensive reply from the Under-Secretary of State for Women and Equalities and Family Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Caroline Dinenage), and I am delighted that she is here today. She addressed legal issues and the provision of services that are legally required.
The objective of today’s debate is to highlight some of the issues raised in the report and, in addition, to provide an opportunity for the Minister to update the House on the measures she mentioned in her letter of three months ago. I note that she will respond purely on those matters for which the Ministry of Justice has responsibility. The all-party group will continue the dialogue it has already started with Ministers in other Departments.
At the outset, it is useful to consider why the report was necessary. It is accepted that the time taken between death and a funeral or cremation is getting longer. We received written evidence suggesting that the average time between death and burial or cremation is some 15 days, which was pretty standard in the submissions we received. Witnesses, however, noted that the time could vary significantly based on factors in the local area, whether the death was expected and whether the death occurred at home or in hospital. There was consensus among our witnesses that the time had increased in recent years. One witness suggested that the time had increased from some 10 days in 2003 to 15 days in 2013, which is an increase of five days, or half again as much, over a period of 10 years. Another witness noted that, between 2012 and 2014, an average of two days had been added to the process.
There is a problem in measuring the change in time, because central statistics are not collected. Although some funeral directors collect those data, the figures cannot easily be broken down to show which aspect of the process is causing delays. The national medical examiner told the all-party group that the new death certification system is likely to add half a day or so to the current average time. He was at pains to express it as an average so, in some instances, we can expect the process to take longer.
In 2015, the National Association of Funeral Directors surveyed its members and it identified that families were waiting increasingly long to see a registrar after a death. Almost 70% of members reported that waiting times had increased over the previous year, with 49% of families waiting at least three days for an appointment and 15% waiting more than five days. A survey of National Association of Funeral Directors members this month revealed a complex picture of the effectiveness of coronial services across England and Wales, with, regrettably, only 41% describing their local coronial service as good or very good. Thirty per cent. described their local coroner as providing a satisfactory service, and 27% described the service as unsatisfactory or very unsatisfactory. That is one area of concern.
The all-party group took evidence from a range of witnesses involved in the process, including bereavement support groups, funeral directors, faith groups and organisations representing coroners’ staff, pathologists, crematorium staff and cemetery management. There is consensus among those working in the sector on the increasing time between death and burial or cremation, and we heard a number of reasons for why that might be, including increased pressure on registration and death certification services, a lack of communication and co-ordination between the organisations involved in certifying a death, and a lack of core crematorium slots.
Our report contained 13 conclusions and recommendations, and I will pick out three key ones. First, we urged the Government to review their post-mortem arrangements. The implementation of death certification reforms provides an opportune moment to assess whether the current fee of £96.80 for a post-mortem examination is sustainable. The all-party group would welcome an assessment from the Government on whether sufficient pathologists are being trained in autopsy to cater for future demand, as the requirement to study a post-mortem module has been removed from the appropriate syllabus.
Secondly, the Government should undertake a comprehensive review of the current state of burial and cremation in the UK, including an assessment of the projected capacity needs for the next 50 years and a review of barriers to developing crematoriums and cemeteries. New crematoriums are being developed. I am proud that a new crematorium has opened in my constituency of Rugby in the past few years, and it is an excellent example of the local authority working jointly with the neighbouring authority, Daventry District Council. We have a facility in my constituency of which we can be proud, so it is possible for additional facilities to be provided.
Thirdly, we urged the Government to publish their proposals on death certification reform and to ensure that they address two key issues: reducing the number of people involved in the certification process; and enabling the provision of certification outside regular working hours. On the latter matter, since our report was published, we have held a feedback session with the various witnesses who came along to give evidence in order to review the responses we received from Ministers. Concerns were raised in that session about the comments of the national medical examiner, Professor Peter Furness, who said that, on average, the new death certification process
“is taking approximately half a day longer than the old one”.
There is a feeling that half a day is something of an underestimate. The all-party group is pleased that a number of consultations have been announced since the report’s publication. We are keen to see them resolved, particularly the consultation on death certification reform by the Department of Health and the consultation on crematorium provision and facilities by the Department for Communities and Local Government. We are also pleased that the Ministry of Justice has been consulting on an out of hours coroner service, and we are keen to see the outcome of that consultation; I hope that the Minister can provide us with an update.
As I said, we held a feedback session, which produced two conclusions. One conclusion that might be of concern to the Minister was the feeling among those in the sector that none of the ministerial responses inspired confidence that the Government understand that bereaved people, those who have lost a loved one, are at the centre of the system. The belief was that things are process-driven, that it is a matter of numbers and that there is a lack of understanding that people are affected. The feedback session’s second conclusion was that the Government must focus on ensuring that all Departments involved in the death process work together more coherently, and that that culture change must be instilled in every organisation involved, whether in central Government or local government.
We picked out one or two additional observations. In respect of the out of hours issue, we know that the NHS is moving more towards a seven-day service, and it is believed that death facilities should do the same, so that out of hours service is available for those who need it. Many attendees at our feedback meeting highlighted the lack of consistency among coroners’ offices in terms of contact practices and the ability to offer non-invasive autopsy options. In particular, some witnesses highlighted that some coroner offices would not speak to funeral directors but wanted email communication instead. They advised us that emails sometimes go unanswered.
A number of witnesses highlighted that they increasingly struggle to get access to some mortuaries when several are run by the same NHS trust. It is believed that, to save costs, some trusts reduce the opening hours for each mortuary, meaning that bodies can be unavailable for days at a time. Our attendees noted that, although 80% of deaths occur in hospitals, as far as they are aware, medical professionals are not given training in the death certification process and what best practice looks like. Our previous chair, Baroness Burt, disagreed with DWP Ministers’ assessment that the funeral payments system is fit for purpose.
I have a number of questions to which I hope the Minister can respond in the time available, particularly about improvements to the coroner out of hours service, to which I have referred and which we are interested to hear about. I understand that she has met with the Metropolitan Police Service to consider an across-London out of hours coroner service. If she cannot respond to my specific question now, perhaps she could respond in writing to the all-party group on that and on other questions in due course. Has her Department assessed how the coroner service and other organisations involved in the process will work alongside a seven-day NHS?
This issue came out of several of our meetings: would it be possible for a simple flowchart to be made available so that people could see clearly the process after death? It would give both bereaved people and policy makers a better understanding of what is going on to have some explanation of the path towards a funeral. A graphic representation may help policy makers to identify which processes are causing delay.
Our inquiry was interesting, and we came up with a number of recommendations and developments. It is clear that the delays are causing great distress to many people, not least many in our faith communities, who for faith reasons are anxious for burial or cremation to take place more promptly after death. I hope that, when the Minister rises to bring us up to date, she will be able to reassure the many people to whom we spoke that the Government take these issues seriously and that the delays that have increased in recent years might be reduced in order to minimise the distress caused to bereaved people.
I am grateful to you for allowing me to speak, Mr Stringer. I am prompted by events this weekend. Both the Jewish and Muslim traditions require that burial take place as soon as possible after death, preferably within 24 hours, but the process is sometimes affected adversely by the unavailability of any coroner out of hours, the absence of an appropriate doctor or the lack of available facilities in local authorities for rapid registration. It has been a problem and a cause of concern in my constituency; I raised the issue on the Floor of the House only this January, asking what provisions the Government are making to ensure that such services are available.
In the last week, a constituent of mine has been involved in a very difficult process. Liora Rosenberg was on a life support machine in Hampstead at the Royal London hospital. Unfortunately, on Saturday night she died. To compound her untimely death at the age of 20, her parents were unable to obtain a death certificate over the weekend, meaning that burial is being delayed; the coroner for the Royal London hospital will not consider engaging with the issues surrounding Liora’s passing out of hours. It is adding to the grief of her family, who cannot commence the formal shiva—the Jewish period of mourning—until after the funeral, which can be conducted only after the coroner concludes her investigations.
I am aware that no one wants to interfere with the legal process, but we must be mindful of the problems faced by particular faith communities. As I said, I have raised specific cases in north London. Will the Minister continue with the coroner reform programme to ensure that an out of hours coroner service is available?
Within the Jewish tradition, there is a process called performing a mitzvah, a good deed on someone’s behalf. Lauren Rosenberg, Liora’s mother, has asked everyone to perform a mitzvah today. Will the Minister perform her mitzvah by ensuring that, in future, people have access to the coroner service and death certificates so that the dead can be buried appropriately and as soon as possible?
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby (Mark Pawsey) on securing this important debate. As he said, he wrote to me on 16 December last year to bring my attention to the report by the all-party parliamentary group on funerals and bereavement, which set out 13 recommendations and conclusions that the all-party group wished the Government to consider and take forward. I start by commending the all-party group’s work in producing such a comprehensive report. I pay tribute to the late Paul Goggins, the former Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East, who was instrumental in instigating much of the work.
I am grateful for the opportunity to update hon. Members on the progress made since the report was published. I should probably start by saying that Members will be aware that responsibility for the period between death and burial or cremation lies across several different agencies—the Department of Health, local authorities, the police, coroners—all of which have different levels of autonomy. I think that I can safely say that if we were going to start from scratch and create a system anew, we probably would not organise it in quite that way. I certainly take on board my hon. Friend’s suggestion of a flowchart—I wish I had had one when I first took on this ministerial role—but I am keenly aware that, as he pointed out, at the heart of this process and all these authorities are people who are grieving and need to be supported through a particularly difficult time in their lives.
I will run through a few of the issues that have been raised today. My hon. Friends the Members for Rugby and for Hendon (Dr Offord) raised the issue of out of hours coroner services. As they and the all-party group are aware, the Ministry of Justice has been considering how an out of hours coroner service can be achieved. Of course, this is of concern to faith communities, particularly the Jewish and Muslim communities, because without it—as my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon has already highlighted—there can be a considerable delay, preventing the timely burial of loved ones that is required by certain faiths.
My right hon. Friend the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice and I share that concern. Together, we have met members of the Jewish and Muslim communities, and separately I have met members of the Jewish community, and I have been working consistently with the London authorities, the Chief Coroner and the Metropolitan police to try to develop an out of hours service across London.
Some progress has been made. In particular, I sense that the Metropolitan police now appreciate the urgency of recruiting a full complement of coroner’s officers to work “in hours” in each of the seven coroner areas that it covers. However, more needs to be done to cover the out of hours service, and we are doing all that we can to bring the various constituent parties together to achieve that. It is absolutely fundamental that we allow bereaved people of whatever faith to make their funeral arrangements quickly, preventing the distress that can be caused by delay.
The all-party group drew attention to the sustainability of pathology services. I can report that the Health Education England commissioning and investment plan for 2016-17 shows a steady state of commissioning in the five pathology specialties. Health Education England is mandated by the Government to make sure that specific and targeted education and training are introduced for all pathologists, including taking forward the developments arising from the 2014 pathology quality assurance review by Dr Ian Barnes.
My hon. Friend the Member for Rugby mentioned post-mortem imaging. The all-party group recommended that the Government monitor the efficacy of post-mortem imaging, which in some cases can provide an alternative to the conventional invasive post-mortem examinations. The MOJ and the Department of Health are keeping up to date with developments in this procedure through their membership of the national post-mortem imaging board.
The all-party group highlighted the need for death certification reform. On 10 March, the Department of Health launched its consultation, which is entitled, “Introduction of Medical Examiners and Reforms to Death Certification in England and Wales: Policy and Draft Regulations”. As my hon. Friend has said, the proposed reforms will introduce, for the first time, a unified system of scrutiny by independent medical examiners of all deaths in England and Wales that are not investigated by a coroner. This development will strengthen safeguards for the public, make the process simpler and more transparent, and improve the quality of certification and mortality data. An eye is being kept on the delays that he has referred to; the Department of Health is watching that issue very closely. At the moment, it is probably too early to determine what the impact of the consultation will be, but the consultation is certainly on everyone’s horizon.
With regard to the civil registration service, the all-party group will know that the Home Office responded to its recommendations on civil registrations on 1 February, and undertook to raise awareness of the group’s report with local authorities, which it did via a circular on 1 March.
The Government are very pleased that the all-party group recognised the Government’s commitment to reviewing cremation legislation. The MOJ published our consultation on cremation on 16 December last year, seeking views on changes; the consultation was really aimed at improving cremation practice. The consultation closed on 9 March and the responses are now being analysed by a team in the MOJ. We plan to publish our response to the consultation as soon as possible.
On 16 March, the Department for Communities and Local Government published a consultation on the provision of crematoriums and related facilities, to establish whether they meet the demands and cultural requirements of all communities. This consultation closes on 26 May and DCLG will use it to establish whether the concerns that have been raised are as widespread as has been suggested.
We are aware that a number of new crematoriums have been established over the past three years—on average, one new crematorium is being built every three months—because new crematoriums have to report their opening to the Secretary of State for Justice. So we are keeping an eye on that issue, too.
With regard to coroner reforms, the need to place bereaved people at the heart of the coroner service was the key aim of the reforms implemented in 2013. One of those reforms introduced the post of Chief Coroner. Judge Peter Thornton QC was appointed as the first Chief Coroner, and he has played a central role in issuing guidance for coroners. Coroners are now required to conclude an inquest within six months of a death and they must report coroner investigations that last for more than 12 months to the Chief Coroner, so that he can refer to them in his annual report.
For bereaved people, probably the most significant development under the Coroners and Justice Act 2009 has been the “Guide to Coroner Services”, which is a booklet published by the MOJ. It sets out how a coroner’s investigation is likely to proceed, as well as the standards of service that bereaved people can expect to receive from a coroner’s office, and what they can do if those standards are not met.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby generously pointed out, I have the coroners portfolio and I share his wishes that the matters he has raised are resolved as quickly as possible. However, he understands that the operational responsibility for coroners services is a matter for the appropriate local authority, while my Department has responsibility for coroner law and policy. As frustrating as that situation can sometimes be, it is for the relevant local authorities to decide how to fund and run their coroner service.
That is certainly the case in the pan-London service that we have been looking at; we have been bringing all the different constituent authorities together in one room to discuss matters. We hope that guidance on the lessons learned from that process can be rolled out to other parts of the country.
I am really very grateful to my hon. Friend, the other members of the all-party group and all those who provided evidence to the group’s report. It is a comprehensive analysis of the range of services that bereaved people may have to deal with when they are faced with the death of a loved one, and for me its recommendations underscore the need for the Government to ensure that these services meet the needs of users and bereaved families at what will always be a very difficult time. I am also very grateful to him for bringing this matter to the House today.
Question put and agreed to.
[Relevant document: E-petition, entitled Save our NHS. Stop Privatisation. Save Ealing Hospital – publicly funded & provided (109473).]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered services at Ealing Hospital.
It is a great pleasure to have secured this debate and I am delighted to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. I am grateful to you and to Mr Speaker for providing the opportunity to debate this important matter. I am also delighted to see the Under-Secretary of State for Health, the hon. Member for Battersea (Jane Ellison), here in Westminster Hall today.
Last week, on 26 April, I presented in the main Chamber a petition organised by a local group in my constituency and signed by more than 100,000 people, which said:
“The petitioners therefore request the House of Commons urges the Government to reconsider the impact of the Shaping a Healthier Future programme on Ealing Hospital, Ealing and the surrounding boroughs that rely on Ealing Hospital to deliver high quality emergency care 24 hours a day.”—[Official Report, 26 April 2016; Vol. 608, c. 1404.]
I have outside the room quite a few organisers and other constituents who are visiting from Ealing and hope to see some outcome from the debate today.
The London Borough of Ealing is one of the fastest-growing areas in the city of London. West London is experiencing fantastic population growth, as people flock to join our vibrant multicultural business hub. Ealing, and Ealing hospital, are at the heart of that growth. London is a demanding city—we know that from living here—but it is not just demanding regarding lifestyle and culture, it makes demands on health and the population demands a lot from its healthcare providers. Across the west of the city, in particular, we have a high level of young people, but the area also suffers from one of the highest levels of lifestyle-led premature death. It is a scandal that we in this great city preside over such a high rate of child poverty, while London drives the British economy.
In 2011, in what I can only assume was a well-meant but ill-founded attempt to improve the situation, the “Shaping a healthier future” programme was implemented across Ealing and the surrounding boroughs. “Shaping a healthier future” looked to combine services in certain hospitals to make savings and to improve 24-hour care, but the reconfiguration and rationalisation were often little more than cover for closing services. For the past few years, local people—the Minister can see that many of them are here today—including people from different walks of life and different political backgrounds and beliefs, west London MPs, Ealing Council members and Dr Onkar Sahota, the Labour spokesperson on health in the London Assembly and chair of its health committee, have repeatedly spoken out against what is being done to Ealing hospital.
We were threatened with the loss of four of our local 24/7 blue-light A&E units. Ealing hospital is expected to lose its full A&E service and have it replaced by a service that is not fit for purpose and cannot guarantee the safety of Ealing residents. Despite the increasing birth rate across our area of London, we lost our maternity unit last summer. That loss means that no more children will be born in the London Borough of Ealing. I must declare my interest in Ealing hospital. Two of my three grandchildren, Aatish and Riah, were born there, and I can vouch for the quality services provided. The paediatric unit is scheduled to lose in-patient services this summer. The iniquity of cuts that threaten the health and wellbeing of our youngest is a betrayal of every Ealing resident.
Shirlyn, a single working mother in my constituency, wrote to me last week to ask me to
“do [my] best to fight this”.
She cannot believe that vulnerable children are being put at risk by cuts. Shirlyn is worried, just as every parent across Ealing must be, that in the case of an emergency the increased travelling time risks increasing the danger children are in. The loss of that key community asset means that the most vulnerable families, those that have children with serious long-term medical conditions, will spend longer travelling, which will threaten their ability to both work and see their sick child. What kind of society can stand by and make someone choose between putting food on the table and seeing their sick child? As Shirlyn says, we in Ealing have paid our taxes and we have not been listened to.
As each successive round of downgrades and closures is announced, public trust in the London North West Healthcare NHS Trust falls further. Public confidence is so low, and people so frustrated at being ignored, that many are worried the hospital will be completely closed and sold for housing. That creates an unsafe situation for the people of west London, and for my constituents in Ealing, Southall.
Accompanying investments were supposed to balance the situation, but as costs have spiralled to more than £1 billion, promised investments have been threatened with withdrawal. Part of the deal for Ealing hospital had been that a new, fit-for-purpose, community style hospital would be built, providing high-quality services in a modern, clean and safe environment. In 2014, Ealing Council, along with others served by the London North West Healthcare NHS Trust, established a commission headed by Michael Mansfield, QC. The independent commission almost universally condemned the results of “Shaping a healthier future”. It found that cuts were affecting the poorest in society most acutely, and that the public had not been properly consulted. Plans had been drawn up that just could not deliver for Ealing. There was no sustainable business plan and the reconfiguration did not offer value for money, and was not affordable or deliverable.
The most important adjustment that can be made now is that the Secretary of State step in and halt the current programme, which is risking lives. The experiment is failing my constituents in Ealing, Southall. Michael Mansfield, QC and his independent commission recommended that a full A&E service be reintroduced at Ealing hospital, and that the maternity unit be reopened. The report also noted that local GP and out-of-hospital services were overwhelmed. Investment in public health is the only way we can end this shame, and give back to Ealing residents the healthcare they deserve. By helping young people and those who are mentally ill, and not allowing thousands more to slip into homelessness—as the Mayor has across all of London—we can help the health of everyone.
In January last year, I asked the Prime Minister to consider implementing Labour’s plan to employ a further 8,000 GPs to ease the workload for the most stretched services. Despite agreeing that GP care is fundamental to providing proper healthcare, he dismissed the plan and we are now seeing the results of his complacency.
London does not just have younger people putting pressure on healthcare services. The population at the other end of the spectrum is growing, and by 2031 there will have been a 40% increase in the over-80s population. That means that London, and Ealing, have to be better than many other parts of the country. We have to face the challenges not as problems but as solutions to the significant health inequalities that exist in our city. In 2013, the Mayor of London launched the London Health Commission, which published its report near the end of 2014. Although it suggested many important changes to NHS services, and outlined many noble intentions, the picture for London is only worsening.
That is why the Government have to step in. I ask the Government, on behalf of the more than 100,000 people who signed the petition and the many more who could not sign it but are worried about the services, that the current programme of rationalisation be halted. Services that are not adequately supported must be supported and reopened. Patient safety has to be the ultimate litmus test, and currently that cannot be guaranteed. As my constituent said:
“Every child is important and this move is putting the lives of these children at risk. Children need A&E.”
The people of the London borough of Ealing and surrounding areas need fully resourced and supported hospitals that provide a full service. Those hospitals need to be supported by the Government for the benefit of the local community.
Order. Before I call Dr Rupa Huq, I would like to explain the timetable for this hour-long debate. I would like to call the Opposition spokesperson at approximately 2.15 pm, and I expect him to take five minutes. Then the Minister can respond, leaving a minute or so for the proposer of the debate to reply. We seem to have plenty of time.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. I congratulate my hon. Friend and parliamentary neighbour, the Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr Sharma), on securing this important debate. It was the consolation prize for a petition that had more than 100,000 signatures. Initially, that petition went to the Petitions Committee. The number of signatures demonstrates how the Ealing hospital issue has gone beyond being a little local difficulty. It is now a national scandal.
Mr Stringer, I do not know what it says in your diary for 18 May. For MPs from all parts of the House, it says, “State opening of Parliament”. Despite the legislative programme coming our way, it is usually a joyous occasion. It has pomp and circumstance, and we may get a sighting of Her Majesty the Queen. It is also, however, the day when the Ealing clinical commissioning group will take the decision to shut the door on children’s services at Ealing hospital. For people in Ealing, it will be a sad day.
It is not yet a year that I have been a Member of Parliament, but some of the subjects that come up in relation to Ealing hospital seem depressingly familiar, even to me as a newbie. We seem to have this common situation when the Government just will not budge. Their intransigence makes it all seem a bit like groundhog day. I was a Labour candidate for 18 months before I was elected, and the NHS was the No. 1 issue on the doorstep. We were told that we were fearmongering. I remember we had a big march—a demonstration—from Ealing hospital to Ealing common, which is a number of miles on the map. We warned that the A&Es at Hammersmith and Central Middlesex would be closed, and we were told that we were fearmongering. They have both gone now, closed in September 2014. That was euphemistically called “changes”. Everyone had a leaflet through the door talking about “changes” when it meant “closures”.
In the run-up to the election, I did several hustings where I warned that maternity was next for the chop at Ealing hospital. Again we were told that we were scaring people and that it was a scare story, but on the other side of my election that closure sadly came to pass. One of the first things I did as an MP was table an early-day motion about it, which my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Southall signed. I think my right hon. Friend the Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) was the first non-Ealing MP to sign that early-day motion, which asked for the Government to think again and condemned the closure.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Southall pointed out, Ealing is a young borough. It needs maternity services. Those services closed at Ealing hospital in June, and paediatrics is next, because we cannot have a children’s ward without maternity services, and maternity is gone. There is a fear that there is a domino effect—that these things consequently happen one after another. It creates a climate of fear and uncertainty among the staff and the patients. Many of the mums who had births in the middle of last year were uncertain as to whether the maternity services would be there. The closures are demoralising and out of step with the needs of the wider west London area.
As an academic by trade, I believe in evidence-based policy, and the evidence is that Ealing borough has a population of 360,000 people and rising. That is as big as a city like Leeds. The borough needs accident and emergency services, maternity and a children’s ward. There was a meeting at Richmond House, which I think my hon. Friends the Members for Ealing, Southall and for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) attended, along with the Minister. It was a good meeting on the whole, but the PowerPoint we were shown confirmed that Charing Cross and Ealing will be downgraded to minor hospitals. The House of Commons Library confirmed to me this morning that the population of London as a whole is projected to rise to 10 million, so surely we need more capacity, not less.
The bill for the “Shaping a healthier future” reconfiguration programme keeps rising. I think it is £235 million at present. Some £35 million has been spent on management consultants, such as McKinsey and all those people. It does not look like good value for the taxpayer. We are living in an age where every pound of public money spent has to be justified, and the end result of this programme will be fewer acute beds and fewer hospitals, with A&Es in west London decimated. It is a bad deal all round. There is other evidence of that. I am not someone who likes to trot out loads of statistics, but waiting times are massively up at Northwick Park, which is seven miles away from bits of Acton in my constituency. In the immediate aftermath of the closure, it had the worst recorded A&E waiting times in England for six out of 15 months.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Southall has alluded to the Independent Healthcare Commission for North West London headed by Michael Mansfield, who is a respected QC and who has expressed concerns about the business case. Forget all the emotional stuff; he is looking at whether it is a good deal for the taxpayer, and he has called the business case “deeply flawed”. I pay tribute to the tireless work of Eve Turner and Oliver New, as well as to my constituents Arthur and Judy Breens, who have formed an organisation—it keeps changing names: it was Save Our Hospitals, then it was Save Ealing Hospital.
The petition, which was batted back by the Petitions Committee, talks about
“a peaceful occupation at the Maternity Wing Area”.
That is how bad things have got. It also states:
“Protests are growing and the anger is reaching boiling point amongst thousands of members of the community.”
These people were not political before this issue came up. It has politicised the chattering classes of Ealing behind their net curtains, not that I am dismissing people with net curtains. They are a completely valid form of internal decoration and I love them dearly. The issue has managed to inflame people who are not usually inflamed and who have never been on a demonstration.
I am sorry to intervene when my hon. Friend is in full flow, but it is important to make the point that the campaign is non-partisan. All the political parties on Ealing Council unanimously support it and more than 100,000 people signed the petition. Many hundreds of people actively went around their areas asking for signatures. It is important to understand that the campaign is not led by any political party.
My hon. Friend puts it very well. I completely accept his point. The strength of feeling about this issue is palpable. It is a non-partisan thing; they are people who have never been on a protest march before.
Talking of protest marches, a couple of weeks ago I joined the junior doctors on the picket line outside Ealing hospital. Some of those people are in the Public Gallery today. We were last together on that day, so we have been reunited. Quite aside from imposing a contract on junior doctors—a contract is not a contract unless there is offer, acceptance and agreement—there are so many other issues with the junior doctors’ strike that should be raised here, such as the fact that they are patronisingly called junior doctors, as if they are the work experience person who makes the tea. They are very experienced people with years and years of clinical experience. Calling them junior doctors is almost a way of belittling them.
I raised the plight of those highly experienced, yet technically junior, doctors with the Prime Minister at Prime Minister’s questions recently. The Government’s equality impact assessment of the new contract shows that it discriminates disproportionately against women because childcare costs more at the weekend, and if weekend hours are counted as normal hours, women will have to pay. Again, the issue was batted back and just shoed away, which is disappointing because the Government’s own advice tells them about the costs. It feels as though junior doctors are being stretched ever thinner, and if something is stretched ever thinner, it can snap.
I wanted to be brief today because I have spoken many times on Ealing hospital both here and in the main Chamber. This morning I asked the Library staff whether they had a briefing pack on the 1.30 debate on Ealing hospital and they said, “Again? You’re always speaking on this. You had three hours on this subject on 24 March,” for which they did prepare a briefing. One would think that after umpteen debates, I would have said all I have to say on this subject, but the tale gets worse and worse.
I have mentioned before the cases of constituents facing long waits: for example, the Khorsandi and Anand families. The last time I faced the Minister in this Chamber, I mentioned my constituent Bree Robbins’s three-year wait for breast reconstruction. She was disappointed she did not get an answer last time, but maybe we can try again today. People have legitimate concerns.
Like my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Southall, for me Ealing hospital is personal. It is where I would have been born, but I was born in 1972 and it did not exist then. However, I remember that hospital going up with so much hope attached to it, and now I see it constantly being downgraded. As my hon. Friend says, the suspicion is that it is on the way out. I have been to the acute medical unit in the basement with my mum; I have been to the hospital as a mum; it is where in September 2014 my father breathed his last. So this hospital is not a hypothetical thing on a spreadsheet; it is something that I and family members use.
Recently, 11 north-west London Labour MPs, led by my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow West (Mr Thomas), signed a letter calling for the National Audit Office to investigate. There is a question of economics. We want the Minister to think again, consider the business case and halt the closure programme. The case simply does not add up.
As I said, I remember the hospital going up and I remember, as will my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Southall, several schools in the Borough of Ealing that were closed in the ’80s when rolls were falling. The place in Greenford—I cannot remember its name—where they send school governors on training courses is a disused school, but now schools in Greenford are having to be opened. The Priory Centre in Acton was a community centre in a disused school. Now it has been razed to the ground and a brand-new primary school built, because numbers are going up. The short-sightedness flies in the face of the evidence and ignores the fact that populations are rising.
I do not have any hospitals in my constituency, although I had several on the edges: Central Middlesex, where the A&E has gone, Hammersmith hospital, where the A&E has gone, and Charing Cross, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter), which is going to be downgraded. Although I do not have hospitals in my constituency, all those ones that were there on the edges are disappearing before our eyes, so I urge the Minister, who I know is a reasonable person and a London MP, to think again.
It is a pleasure to be here this afternoon under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. Although the debate is difficult, it is a great pleasure to follow my two neighbours from the London Borough of Ealing, and I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr Sharma) for securing this debate today. As the MP for Ealing hospital, no one has done more than he has to champion the cause of that hospital over the four years that it has been under threat. As we see from the petition that generated this debate—not the first petition of this size—he is admirably and clearly reflecting the view of the vast majority of people not only in Ealing borough but across west London.
Apart from their choice of Member of Parliament, the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing Central and Acton (Dr Huq) may be one of the most unlucky in the country. To lose one A&E department may be considered unfortunate; to lose four must be an all-time record. Following the closures of Central Middlesex and Hammersmith and the downgrading of Ealing and Charing Cross to non-type 1 status, her constituents will be in a very difficult position, as will all our constituents.
I am here today for two reasons. I am not an Ealing MP, but I want to support my colleagues and I want to say—I think the Minister will accept this—that the proposals for Ealing hospital are inextricably linked, under the “Shaping a healthier future” programme, to the future of the eight other major hospitals in west and north-west London, four of which, as we have seen, will undergo substantial change and either closure or downgrading of services, or at least movement of services elsewhere.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing Central and Acton said, we have debated this subject many times. I do not think that is surprising. I make no apology for that, given the importance of the issue. In the recent debate in March, which was an across-London debate, “Shaping a healthier future” was raised several times. One of the matters on which I and others pressed the Minister was when we would see the next developments. I was grateful when the Minister said that Members would have the next important document—the draft of the implementation business case—as soon as possible.
Since that debate we have also managed to fix a date, 25 May, for the 11 MPs to meet the health service management across north-west London. Unfortunately, I have been told by my clinical commissioning group that the document will not be available for the meeting, although it will be available later in the summer. The sooner we can see that document and have an update on what the proposals are for Ealing and the other hospitals, the better. I say that because this will be familiar not only to Members here, but to the many people in the Public Gallery. The difficulty we have had over the past four years is a lack of information.
We began with the bombshell proposals in the summer of 2012, which effectively proposed the closure of Ealing and Charing Cross hospitals, leaving just a primary care facility on the site. There was a modification when the final proposals were brought forward in February 2013. Those proposals—which most of us regarded as a fig leaf, albeit a very expensive fig leaf—were for the demolition and disposal of a substantial portion of the site, but with the building of new facilities, primarily for primary care and some other treatment, while still using the majority of emergency and acute services on the site. Since then, nothing. Indeed, we have been waiting a couple of years for the business case. In the place of factual information, rumours tend to spread. As was mentioned previously, nothing has changed.
As for Ealing hospital, the very strong rumour is that, given the poor financial condition of the NHS and the scepticism of the Treasury about the programme, it is likely that the service cuts and reconfigurations will go ahead, but also that the existing buildings will be retained. Those buildings were not designed for the purposes for which they will now be used and will not receive the funding to modernise them that was at least the mitigation in the previous proposals. The sooner we know one way or the other on that, the sooner we can have a proper discussion about it. The news that Imperial will have a £50 million deficit this year—I think the situation for north-west London hospitals is even worse—suggests that the financial imperative is continuing to drive this
Although the health service itself may have been quiet—certainly in what it has told Members and the public—my constituents and those of my hon. Friends have not been quiet over the past few years. As I say, the petition that generated this debate is not the first petition of more than 100,000 signatures that has been lodged. I hope that more attention is paid to this one than has been paid to previous ones. I pay tribute to the thousands of people who have not only signed petitions but been active in the campaign, which is going into its fifth year. The uncertainty is not helping anyone.
The public, the organised campaigns and the local authorities have acted responsibly. The local authorities commissioned the Mansfield report, a serious document that was not taken seriously enough by the NHS. The level of demoralisation is extremely high, and is combined with issues relating to the junior doctors’ dispute. Places such as the Imperial College school of medicine are centres of excellence for training junior doctors. I have spoken many times to the staff there and their morale is very low. All staff morale is very low because people do not know where they are going to be working or what job they will have. They do not know whether the facilities they are working in will survive, or whether they are going to be run down in the meantime. Consequently, we have a substantial overreliance on agency staff. That is not a good template for the NHS.
I appreciate the fact that there are financial difficulties throughout the country and that the situation in west and north-west London is not unique. Nevertheless, I do not think that any other areas have had to put up with this reorganisation—or whatever we want to call it—for as long as we have.
When my hon. Friend made the point about the loss of four A&E departments, he reminded me of the saying, “Once is unfortunate, twice is a coincidence, but three times is beginning to look like a habit.” I do not believe that any saying even goes up to four. Does he agree that it is unprecedented to lose four A&E departments?
Yes, I do. I anticipate that we are unlikely to get much by way of an answer from the Minister today, although I will be delighted if she does have some news to impart. I hope she will take the debate in the spirit it has been conducted, because there is genuine anxiety. What we are asking for and what will help is transparency. It may be that we do not like what we hear any more than we liked what we heard three or four years ago, but it is getting beyond a joke now.
We talk a lot about hundreds of millions of pounds of money and about people’s love for institutions such as hospitals, but if we are pragmatic about it, at the end of the day the important thing is whether individuals receive a good standard of care. By coincidence, this morning I spent half an hour on the phone to a constituent whose husband’s life was saved two years ago when he had a serious aneurism. They were told by the professor who operated on him that had they taken a few moments longer to reach Charing Cross hospital, which they live very close to, that would have been the end.
The rider to that is that last week the same gentleman was rushed to Charing Cross hospital again with a recurrence of that issue. He spent seven hours there before being transferred to St Mary’s in Paddington, where he again received very good treatment. I hear again and again that the system is beginning to break down and people are not necessarily taken to the right place at the right time or, when they do get there, they are not seen quickly enough. That is not a criticism of the staff, who are working extremely hard against the odds and are highly professional.
We are very lucky to have such world-class hospitals in west London. We do not take that for granted, but I have given just one example of the kind of story I could probably repeat every week. I worry about the future of the health service for my constituents and those of my colleagues if we do not get to grips with the situation quickly. We are drifting in a way that means that the excellent and superb levels of healthcare we have become used to over the years are no longer likely to be maintained.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr Sharma) on securing this extremely important debate and on the eloquent way he introduced it. He is widely known in this place for championing issues on behalf of his constituents; his contribution today will only further enhance that reputation. He presented a comprehensive picture of his constituency, rightly highlighting the scandal of health inequalities there and his concern about the implications for patient safety of the Government’s proposals. He cited staggering figures for the growth in elderly population in his area—not unique, but by no means to be ignored. He expressed his concern that the most vulnerable and those whose children have long-term conditions will have to travel further to access services, with possible negative implications for their economic situation. It is clear from what he said that he and his constituents have lost confidence in the process.
I draw attention to the contribution from my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing Central and Acton (Dr Huq). She is new to this place but is fast gaining a reputation as a Member who assiduously represents her constituents. She described the Government’s response as intransigent. If that is her experience, I am sure it is no reflection of the effort she has put in. She compared Ealing to the city of Leeds, and it is unthinkable that a city the size of Leeds would not have such fundamental health services as those being discussed today. She described what has been presented to us over the past few years as a bad deal all round. As an academic, she has based her comments on the evidence she has seen, not on opinion. She and my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Southall both expressed concern that Ealing hospital is on the way out. Those were not careless comments thrown about for political gain but genuine anxieties born out of what they see and hear.
My hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) correctly said that the sooner the business plan for further implementation is available, the better. He identified the lack of information as a factor that has made the situation far more difficult than it could have been. As he says, where there is a vacuum, something will fill it. In this case, the vacuum has been filled by rumours—rumours so strong that two of my hon. Friends have felt compelled to raise them here today. He said that transparency will help; I certainly agree with that. I also agree that our concerns are no reflection on the hard work and valuable contribution that our NHS staff make each and every day.
More than 100,000 people have now signed the petition to express their concern about service downgrades and what they see as a real threat to the future of Ealing hospital. Their concerns relate to the “Shaping a healthier future” programme, which was launched in 2011 by a group of what were then 10 primary care trusts,
“to reshape hospital and out of hospital health and care services in North West London.”
Following the abolition of primary care trusts, the North West London Collaboration of Clinical Commissioning Groups has led the programme. It has proposed a number of extremely significant changes, including the downgrading of accident and emergency services at a number of hospitals.
In 2013, Ealing Council’s health overview and scrutiny committee referred the programme to the Secretary of State, who concluded that changes to NHS services in north-west London should proceed. In a statement, the Secretary of State said that five of the nine hospitals—Hillingdon, Northwick Park, West Middlesex, Chelsea and Westminster, and St Mary’s—would provide comprehensive, seven-day-a-week acute emergency care. He also stated that A&E departments at Ealing and Charing Cross hospitals would remain open, although with what—as my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing Central and Acton pointed out—he euphemistically called changes to the “shape or size” of services. Those changes have probably not turned out as people hoped. Changes were recommended to replace the A&E services of Hammersmith and Central Middlesex hospitals with urgent care centres, which were subsequently implemented in September 2014.
In 2013, it was decided that maternity services would be consolidated on to six hospital sites and maternity deliveries at Ealing hospital would cease. We have heard from my hon. Friends how significant that has been for their communities. The maternity unit at Ealing hospital was closed in July 2015. It has now been recommended that in-patient paediatric services should also be moved to maintain appropriate staffing levels. These changes have, understandably, caused great public concern, which in 2014 led to Brent, Ealing, Hounslow, and Hammersmith and Fulham Councils establishing an independent commission under Michael Mansfield QC to review the impact of the changes to the north-west London health economy and to assess the impact of planned changes.
On 2 December 2015, the commission published its final report, which was extremely critical of the “Shaping a healthier future” programme, finding that inadequate consultation had been undertaken and that departments had been shut without providing adequate alternative healthcare. Its recommendations included halting the SHF programme and that local authorities should consider a legal challenge. The Government’s response states that they are
“clear that reconfiguration of front line health services is a matter for the local NHS.”
It is clear from answers to parliamentary questions and a Westminster Hall debate on 24 March that both the CCGs and the Government do not accept the review’s findings.
The principle that decisions should be made locally by clinicians is sound, but there seems to be an issue about accountability in this case, as there is a clear feeling among the public and local politicians that their concerns are simply not being heard. Those who gave evidence to the commission were not fly-by-nights. Many were working on the front line of the services under discussion. Indeed, they are the local clinicians the Government say should be making the decisions. What recourse do clinicians, the public and patients have if they disagree so fundamentally with what is being done as we have seen here?
The most successful service reconfigurations are those where consultation is most effectively carried out and where support from clinicians at all levels, local politicians and, of course, members of the public is secured. It is no coincidence that when public concern is at its present level in Ealing and the surrounding communities, we tend not to see successful changes in provision.
Such was the frustration and concern about the changes that four local councils thought it necessary to use local taxpayers’ money to commission an independent report. As my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith said, the local authorities involved have behaved responsibly in commissioning this report. I do not believe there is any suggestion that they have behaved irresponsibly, so surely the Minister must acknowledge that taking this extraordinary step means that something must have happened that deserves further examination.
I turn to some of the recommendations in the independent report. Serious concerns have been raised about the consultation in 2012. There has been no significant further consultation since. Given that we are now four years on from that point and that the scheme has undergone considerable changes, as has the demographic make-up of the communities, it seems reasonable to consider a further period of consultation.
Concern was also expressed in the Mansfield commission’s report and here today about transparency, particularly in the business case on which the SHF scheme is based. I would welcome the Minister’s observations on both points, and if, like me, she is not satisfied that there has been sufficient public involvement, will she step in and ensure that that takes place before further downgrades or closures and that it is genuine consultation predicated on release of the full business case? Genuine consultation cannot take place if vital information is withheld. Transparency is the key to meaningful engagement.
The commission was asked to look at deteriorating standards in three local NHS trusts that were consistently failing to meet key targets, including that 95% of patients attending A&E must be seen, treated and admitted or discharged within four hours. The Minister will be aware that after six years of a Conservative Government, February’s figures are the worst on record for A&E waiting times. The most recent figures confirm that all three NHS trusts covering this area are failing to meet their targets.
In major A&E units, London North West Healthcare NHS Trust saw just 76% of patients within four hours and Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust saw 69.1%. Does the Minister agree with the commission that the closures of Hammersmith and Central Middlesex A&E departments are responsible for these appalling figures, or is the Government’s overall record to blame?
Finally, the other key principle to which all service reconfigurations should adhere is that they should be based on clinical rather than financial need. They must represent what is in the best interests of the patients who access the services and not simply be a tool to balance budgets at any cost. In this case, because the Government have fundamentally lost control of NHS finances with 75% of trusts now in deficit, local people are understandably asking whether the serious financial hardship that the trusts face is forcing the CCGs to consider changes that they otherwise would not. Can the Minister assure us that no decision will be made in this case or any other on the basis of finance alone and that the interests of patients will remain the central focus at all times? It is clear that public confidence has been lost in this case, and it is simply not good enough for the Government to wash their hands of it. We urgently need an acknowledgement of those concerns and concrete plans to address them.
Of course, Mr Stringer. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I congratulate the hon. Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr Sharma), a fellow London MP, on securing this debate on an issue that is of concern to him, to his constituents, as we can see from the attendance in the Public Gallery, and, of course, to colleagues in neighbouring constituencies, who also contributed to the debate—not for the first time.
Before I address the issues raised, I would like to echo the words of others and pay tribute to those who work in our national health service. Despite the debates that we have in this place about reconfigurations and the like, all of us are united in praise of the dedication of those working on the frontline to provide first-class services to all in their care.
There is of course considerable ongoing interest in the changes in north-west London proposed under the “Shaping a healthier future” reconfiguration programme. It is worth stressing that those are not just changes to acute hospitals, but planned changes to the whole of that health economy. The aim has been to look at how it can best provide in the future for the local population.
Of course I acknowledge the concern expressed among local people and in particular by the Save Ealing Hospital Community Action Group. The hon. Member for Ealing, Southall will know that I responded in January to a petition by the action group, and I will respond in writing in due course to the latest petition that he has presented. But I want to make it clear that proposals and change on so large a scale as that taking place in north-west London are inevitably controversial. Major change is inevitably controversial, but we have always stressed, as did the shadow Front-Bench spokesman, the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders), that the reconfiguration of services is a matter for the local NHS. That is best organised and shaped by those who know the communities best, and with local clinicians right at its heart, rather than being dictated from Whitehall.
Let me deal with the Mansfield Commission report. On Thursday 14 January, the North West London Clinical Board considered the report of the Independent Healthcare Commission for North West London, and the view of the clinicians on the board—local doctors and health workers—is that the current programme, which was designed by doctors and based on significant clinical data, evidence and experience, continues to offer the best outcomes, experience and equality of access to NHS services for all our patients. That is a direct quote from what they said. Having read the Mansfield report, I am not surprised that that was the conclusion of local health leaders. I take issue with a number of things said about that report, not least about its independence, but I want to use some of the time that I have this afternoon to deal with some of the substance of the concerns raised about services for people in Ealing. Some of the language used was very strong, and I want to try to set a few minds at rest by talking about some of the new services.
Before moving on to specifics about Ealing, though, let me deal with the implementation of the programme itself. The hon. Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter), perfectly reasonably, exposed the case why it is important that people have certainty and transparency. Some colleagues referred to the meeting that I chaired last summer to try to reboot this process after the general election—with a degree of success, in terms of the contacts between Members. But on the proposals for capital works for both Ealing and Charing Cross hospitals, I have been assured that local health and social care partners are working together to produce a sustainability and transformation plan by the end of June 2016, and it is anticipated that details for those two sites will be included in that.
I have been honest enough before to say that I share hon. Members’ frustrations about delay. I quite understand why they want more certainty and I fully expect NHS England and the “Shaping a healthier future” programme to keep me abreast of developments as we move towards the summer. I want to hear if there are any problems with hitting that timetable, because Members have a right to expect to get that information, so that they can respond to it, so please rest assured that I will continue to ask those questions.
The hon. Member for Hammersmith also talked about morale, and it is vital that we put on the record some of the ways in which good progress is already being made as part of the “Shaping a healthier future” programme. As I have said, better healthcare is not just about the acute sector, important though that is. For example, good progress has been made in developing primary and community services, and there are examples showing patients benefitting. GP practices across north-west London now offer more than 1 million people in the area extended opening hours on weekdays, from 8 until 8, and weekend access. That is vital for families’ peace of mind, as has been mentioned. GPs in Ealing now provide 19 new services, including anticoagulation services, electrocardiograms and some mental health services. Many more community services are now in place across all eight boroughs, so more patients can be seen closer to home.
Those are just some of the reasons why I do not recognise the description of the plans given by the hon. Member for Ealing, Southall. He used expressions such as “risking lives” and that is not what local doctors want to do or what the plans are about.
I am sorry; I will not, because the hon. Lady made a long speech and I must respond to it.
At the heart of the plans is the fact that local clinicians want to provide more and better services, although delivered differently, it is true, from the way they may sometimes have been delivered in the past. That brings me to the focus on Ealing hospital. Of course I recognise the concerns associated with such significant changes as are proposed, and I take the point entirely that uncertainty, both for Members of Parliament and members of the general public, gives rise to concerns.
Ealing hospital will be redesigned as a 21st century facility for the local community. The hospital will have a local A&E and a 24-hour GP-led urgent care centre, with access to 24-hour specialist care, as well as a range of specialist services designed with the needs of the community in mind, such as a diabetes centre of excellence. The hospital will be a centre of excellence for other areas of care, such as elderly patients, those with long-term conditions and the most vulnerable members of the community, by integrating primary and secondary care with community and social care. It is common ground between all parties that that is how we will help to keep people healthier in the future. So good news for patients is already beginning, in the changes.
On maternity services, some strong language was used in the opening speech about concerns for local mums and their babies. As has been pointed out, maternity services were consolidated in July across north-west London into six maternity units. Women from Ealing now have a choice in maternity services, with 30 antenatal sites across Ealing, including Ealing hospital, and six sites for delivery across north-west London. As a result, there has been a 10% increase in choice of midwifery-led units. I am told that 778 women had their maternity care safely transferred from Ealing to a new maternity unit of their choice with no incidents reported.
What is the benefit to Ealing women from the changes? Before the changes, Ealing hospital was achieving 60 hours of consultant cover—lower than all the neighbouring hospitals. Across north-west London before the transition, the average was 101 hours. North-west London has set out to achieve 123 hours in 2015-16, and it currently has 122 hours of consultant cover. Also, 100 new midwives have been recruited across north-west London as a result of the changes. Antenatal and postnatal care are still available at Ealing hospital, and as I said, the number of community midwives has also increased locally at 30 sites across Ealing. It is clear that a complex service change has been managed safely, with benefits to patients—mothers and their babies. It is telling—Members need not just listen to my words—that Ealing Council’s health and adult social services standing scrutiny meeting on 26 April heard from the Royal College of Midwives. That is not the Government. It endorsed the transition and congratulated the NHS in north-west London on the model of care and the detail in the transition. Again, I do not recognise that service in the words of the hon. Member for Ealing, Southall, although I know that he meant them with due concern for his community.
On paediatric in-patient services, good progress is being made on the implementation of changes. I am informed that that will ensure that children in north-west London will receive consistently high-quality seven-day care, with more paediatric nurses and specialist doctors available. Paediatric in-patient services, which are for children who require emergency treatment or an overnight stay, will move on 30 June from Ealing hospital to five other hospital sites in north-west London. That will significantly expand capacity—more beds, doctors and nurses, seven days a week.
The changes do not mean that all children services are moving from Ealing. Nearly three quarters of existing children’s services will continue on the Ealing hospital site and elsewhere in the borough. Services remaining include routine appointments and treatments that do not require an overnight stay, such as day care unit activity, so most children will be seen in the same place as they are now. Urgent care for minor injuries and out-of-hours GP appointments will also remain at Ealing hospital. The majority of children who are brought to Ealing’s A&E by their family or friends are already treated in the urgent care centre. Services for children with long-term conditions, such as asthma and epilepsy, and child and adolescent mental health services will also remain unchanged.
To reiterate, 75% of existing children’s services will continue to be delivered by the dedicated staff of Ealing hospital, but—this is an important “but”—the sickest children in north-west London will receive better care as a result of the changes. That is what we all care about the most.
It is right that local people have the chance to hear from their parliamentary representatives in such debates, so I welcome the fact that we have had the chance to debate the subject again. I suspect that we will do so again at some point in the future. As the programme moves through its implementation, I encourage those with particular concerns to continue to engage with the local NHS. I thank colleagues for doing so, as they have been, because that is the right way to proceed. I have reiterated to local health leaders the need to share plans in a timely fashion. I only ask of hon. Members that they also share the positive changes that are already visible to people in their communities, as I have illustrated today. I look forward to hearing how the meeting later this month goes—it was referred to earlier—and I will continue to engage positively with colleagues as they handle this important issue, which matters so much, as we can see, to local members of the public.
I thank the Minister, and I thank all my colleagues who have given their points of view on my side and supported what their local constituents want. I do not want to give the impression that we are only talking about hard-hitting, scaremongering practice; I am representing the true feelings at the grassroots—what people think of their services.
I, too, have experienced huge numbers of cuts in services, with a long waiting list, or people not getting appointments in time, or being sent home after hours of waiting, because a service cannot be given. There is a shortage of nursing and other staff members, so hospitals are unable to provide services. Northwick Park hospital, mainly used since Ealing hospital services closed down, has been declared to be the most inefficient hospital in west London. It came the very bottom of the league.
Something is therefore wrong, which is why we are making our points and asking the Minister to reconsider those values and to sympathise with those people who will be receiving the services on offer and with how they suffer the travelling and not knowing the system, which involves long waiting and not getting the services. In addition, there is sometimes a language problem for people from different communities without knowledge and experience of English.
I urge the Minister to reconsider, as my colleagues and I have requested. Again, I thank my colleagues and, in particular, my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound), who unfortunately was unable to attend. He sends his support, of which he has spoken many times before.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered services at Ealing Hospital.