Wednesday 4 May 2016
[Mr David Nuttall in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered UK relations with the Gulf.
I refer Members to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. In recent months, I have been lucky enough to go on two trips, to the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.
For many years to come, any debate on the middle east such as this one will be prefaced by the phrase, “This could not be a more timely debate”—or at least until not a lot is going on in the middle east which, sadly, will not be any time soon. I am afraid that this debate, too, is particularly timely. Why? I could say economically, with the effects of the Iran deal to be seen in plummeting oil prices, making this a time of turmoil or of a renewables revolution for the region and all those who are linked with it.
I could say that it is a time for the west to be clearer to its historical allies about who its friends are. I could also argue for it to be a time to seize economic opportunities: in Dubai’s Jebel Ali port; the London Gateway collaboration; Emirates’ investment in London; and, we hope, the UAE’s investment in Portsmouth—after my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth South (Mrs Drummond), who has just taken her place, lobbied the rest of the delegates on a trip so excellently, but wearingly, for UAE investment in her constituency.
I could also talk about security—Yemen, Syria, Iraq and the humanitarian crisis that such conflicts create, including their effect on Europe. This is a time to recognise the UAE’s increased military activity and high-level capability, and the implications of that in the region.
My hon. Friend makes a good point. We should be looking closely at how the UAE facilitates our shared battle against extremism, which I will talk about later.
I could also say that the debate is timely for social reasons. Amid human rights issues and questions about the role of Wahabism in extremism, Saudi Arabia has embarked on a time of enormous transition, against the backdrop of a changing Iran and an “Arab sprung”—now, rather, a perfect storm. I could also point to the little known role that the UAE plays in accommodating Syrian refugees. I will not say much about any of that, however, because I am sure my colleagues, such as my right hon. Friends the Members for Mid Sussex (Sir Nicholas Soames) and for Rutland and Melton (Sir Alan Duncan), and many others present today, who have far more experience in the region than me, will cover those topics magnificently.
I want to talk about a path less trodden, starting with some lines from a musical. In Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s “Jesus Christ Superstar”, a newly dead Judas accosts a soon-to-be-crucified Jesus with some slightly aggressive questions:
“Every time I look at You, I don’t understand…why’d you choose such a backward time
In such a strange land?
If you’d come today
You could have reached the whole nation
Israel in four BC had no mass communication.”
Those lines touch on something so fundamental to the Gulf and its politics that we cannot discuss the region without them. Yet western politics has such an inadequate currency of thought and language with which to discuss it: Islam and its values today.
Islam is a religion that is inseparable in its content from the Arab peninsula. In its own 1400s, it is now, perhaps, going through an enlightenment or reformation process that Christianity went through so brutally and bloodily in our own calendar’s medieval period. This reformation, however, is happening with AK47s, global travel and the internet—“mass communication”. As a result of global travel and mass communication, Islam’s internal challenges are not only the problem of the Gulf and the middle east, because Islam is now a European religion, too, so its challenges are challenges for everyone.
The west has been very good at debating political solutions using political institutions, and security solutions using military equipment. None of that, however, touches on what is going on at the heart of the faith of Islam—things that have become either a victim of language inflation through abstract noun overuse, or remarkably unfashionable: values. The UAE ambassador to Russia, his excellency Omar Saif Ghobash, put it to me strikingly, “We are politicising our ethics, when we should be ethicising our politics.”
In what could be called a western values vacuum, perhaps born of a bourgeois squeamishness about anything absolute in a relativist post-secular world, I have found that some of the most sophisticated understanding of extremism has come from the Gulf. In many ways that is not surprising, because Gulf nations have real skin in the game—the continuation of their very society in the face of the chaos around them.
Furthermore, Gulf nations are at home with, and understand in a way that the west finds hard to digest, the role of religion and faith and their values, as integral to politics and political thinking. For example, when I commented on the prevalence of conspicuous long-term thinking in the dialogue in the UAE, a Minister pointed out to me that it would be dishonourable for a leader not to leave a fine legacy of long-term thinking for the next generation. In Islam, the idea that man is here only for a season, and that it is his legacy that is important, is embedded in the way people think—a perfect of example of where political thinking and faith are inseparable.
We are used to discussing—it is right to do so—how emerging middle eastern societies can benefit from the experience of the west in forging relatively stable, free-speech societies that respect human rights. I know that colleagues will have that discussion. We are also used to debating the military and economic collaborations that benefit both partners—I look forward to that discussion, too, and many Members present have great experience of that.
Will the hon. Lady comment on and take the opportunity to pay tribute to President Obama, in his last months as President of the United States of America, given his long-term thinking about the Gulf region? What legacy has he left to that region?
I do not envy President Obama’s role, given the legacy he was left with—a legacy of just how disastrous short-term and arrogant thinking can be, from the west invading Iraq. I was very against the Iraq war and, sadly, my preconceptions then, outside this place, can be testified to now. The ongoing role of America and the middle east’s lack of trust in that country will be a challenge that we must all meet. I also pay tribute to the work of John Kerry in beginning to forge some kind of relationship there, which is extremely difficult.
Some of the most sophisticated understanding of extremism that I have come across was at the UAE Hedayah centre, which is dedicated to examining extremism and its causes. Hedayah has deconstructed several political common misconceptions: first, that extremism is simply born of poverty—it is not; it is about much more than only poverty. To equate ending extremism with simply ending poverty is misleading and dangerous.
After all, Sayyid Qutb, the Egyptian academic who inspired the takfiri thinking of al-Qaeda, was far from poor. I recommend anyone interested in the region and the birth of extremism to read him. His life and writings, from an early autobiography, “A Child from the Village”, to his later, explosive and famous book, “Milestones”, show that he felt isolated. A telling passage describes, in third person, his response to an event engraved on his adult consciousness. As a young boy, he spent just a day in a less progressive school than his usual one. He wrote, referring to himself:
“Our child’s soul was filled with repugnance at everything that surrounded him. He felt bitter, abject loneliness.”
Qutb’s response? To become, at age six, in his own words, a “Missionary” in what he calls his progressive school’s “struggle” against the less sophisticated school. That isolated and bitter, rather pampered and spoilt, primary school pupil later went as a student to America, where he felt even more isolated and bitter, and returned with a new struggle—as an Islamic extremist missionary. He attempted to execute Egypt’s president, whom he saw as a traitor to Islam, was imprisoned and executed by Nasser in 1966 and has become a celebrated martyr of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Sayyid Qutb has been credited as the creator of takfiri Islam, which provides the convenient clause that if someone—even a fellow Muslim—does not think in the same way, they are no Muslim and can be killed. The story of that privileged man illustrates well the simple point made by the UAE Hedayah anti-extremism unit that it is not all about poverty. Those who join extremist groups seek something that is not so different from that sought by any human being: identity, community and purpose. The mission, therefore, is how to provide something more attractive than Daesh that meets the needs of disaffected—often young—people. A way out of poverty is doubtless part of that, but we are completely wrong if we think that is the simple answer.
My hon. Friend says that extremism is not to do with poverty, but does she agree that it might be to do with underemployment? In some states, the nature of the economy means there is a large pool of young people who really do not have enough to do in terms of meaningful jobs.
Absolutely. That is a case for identifying illustrations of symptoms and their causes. Employment is crucial, because if someone is not employed, part of their identity—certainly their work community—and purpose is taken away. It is a manifestation of those things, but to understand what we are tackling we must understand the root underlying dynamics, of which my hon. Friend made the excellent point that unemployment, joblessness and poverty are a necessary part to understand, but not sufficient on their own.
The second reality Hedayah offered up was the prosaic observation that while tackling root ideology has a place, simply telling people strongly that their actions are wrong and that they should not do them is pretty useless—I will insert a quote from the “Life of Brian”: “Don’t do it again!”—and we cannot be surprised when that does not work. In a political world in which we can seldom find any initial response to atrocities such as those in Brussels and Paris other than to tell the perpetrators that we condemn them strongly, that rather unsurprising fact should be sobering.
Hedayah points out that for an individual to choose an alternative path, the alternative must match not only Daesh’s offer of identity, community and purpose, but the practical reality of security and welfare. If Daesh promises security to a frightened man who wants to feed his children, a viable alternative needs to be more than a moral lecture. The insights from the Gulf help clarify what our response should be and what our challenge is in forging that alternative to Daesh: a value system, identity, community and purpose that competes on providing welfare and a sense of risk and achievement. How do we build that compelling and exciting muscular moderation?
There is then perhaps an even more difficult question. Who is the forceful, charismatic leader of that muscular moderation: the daddy, the Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the Zarqawi, the bin Laden or the Sayyid Qutb? Who is the hero? Where is the leader in that new subversive movement that casts Daesh as the stale establishment and their hatred as weak and infantile and promotes a rebellious and resolute compassion for those who are different from oneself—even those who do not like us—as the strong and manly thing to do?
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing the debate. Does she agree that in the middle east, and in the Gulf in particular, irrespective of the motivation of those of us in the west, we are almost always seen to be trying to impose some sort of external values? We need to see the intrinsic beliefs and views of the people in the region, who need to show leadership to take their communities out of the morass into which many of those nations have sunk in recent years.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that good point. We often forget that the messenger is frequently more important than the message itself, because the message is fundamentally defined by who gives it. He makes a point that I will touch on later.
A third insight, which I found striking and relevant to our relations with the Gulf, was offered by His Excellency Dr Anwar Gargash, the UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs. He talks of the dangers of a digital world, where
“my opinion has become my religion”.
That observation speaks not only to the role of the internet in spreading Daesh’s message—the mass communication that Tim Rice’s Judas so lamented the lack of—but to fundamental changes in digital technology that appear to have an effect on people’s thoughts. I have called that a change from cogito ergo sum, I think therefore I am, to sentio ergo sum, I feel therefore I am—or even to sentio ergo est, I feel therefore it is. In that, a person’s feeling dictates absolute truth.
As MPs, we have all seen—on social media in particular—that dangerous trend and false premise that says, “I am human. I think this. You do not think what I think. Therefore you are not human.” That is a seed of genocide and the beginning of a takfiri mentality that extends its blind intolerance way beyond the scope of Islam. We are beginning to see that in the hate diatribes of UK far-left groups who are sympathetic to Hamas, Hezbollah and other extremist terrorist groups. That is a slippery slope.
All those insights are from the hard end of battling extremism in the Gulf. It is easy for the west to forget that the majority of Daesh’s casualties are Muslim and that Daesh wants to punish nations such as the UAE for “poisoning” the sacred Arab peninsular with pluralism. It is also easy to forget that Sunni Gulf states are concerned about the rise of an emboldened Shi’a militia as Iran re-enters the global economy.
The response of the Gulf to extremism may provide a learning opportunity for Britain. What assessment has the Minister made of the UAE’s clampdown on extremist teaching in schools and of its policy towards registering imams in Mosques? Are there lessons to be learnt from that? More specifically, will he keep an open mind on Britain’s classification of the Muslim Brotherhood? That would be an extremely good way of working out whether they are moderate friends who can be engaged with on political terms and whether they will renounce the writings, teachings and celebrated martyrdom of Sayyid Qutb. If they refuse to do so, we may need to reassess urgently what we think of them in our political context. We cannot afford to be squeamish.
I have talked only about what Britain might learn from its relationship with the Gulf.
I have listened intently to the hon. Lady. Will she join me in asking the Minister to look at the human rights abuses in the UAE, where 27 Britons are currently detained? Some of them have complained of torture and, indeed, I think that in the past five years 37 British nationals have made allegations of torture or mistreatment there.
I absolutely would ask the Minister that. I was going to say that—rather unusually—I have talked about what Britain can learn from the Gulf, because I know that Members such as the hon. Gentleman will be able to speak powerfully on other areas that we must look at.
It is easy to carp morally from the sidelines on issues such as human rights, which are a huge concern to us all, but that is not always the best way—it is seldom good at all—to achieve the practical change we want. I argue strongly that, if we want Gulf nations to improve their human rights and their freedom of speech, which essentially will improve their security far more effectively, the way to do that is to engage.
His Excellency Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak al-Nahyan commented on how the UAE has achieved such pluralism while maintaining the Emiratis’ confident identity as rather conservative Muslims. This applies well to international relations and to the hon. Gentleman’s comments:
“Pluralism is not diversity alone, but the energetic engagement with diversity…Pluralism is not simply tolerance, but the active quest for understanding along lines of difference...Pluralism demands dialogue...Dialogue does not mean everyone at the table will agree with one another”.
There is much on which we can engage with the UAE—I take the hon. Gentleman’s point on human rights—and much to work with from our history with Bahrain. I know that we will hear some fascinating first-hand observations from colleagues who have visited Saudi and other Gulf states.
I will finish by repeating a point that was made to me by the exceptional Minister of State for International Co-operation, her excellency Reem al-Hashimy, one of the incredibly impressive women Ministers in the highly conservative Muslim society of the UAE. She emphasised that the UAE could not “export” its pluralism to neighbours simply by preaching. It could demonstrate the possibility of such a pluralism within a conservative Muslim state only by doing. I hope the debate will be in some way instrumental in Britain’s continuing to meet the challenge that it shares with the Gulf states across our differences, by listening, talking, understanding and doing.
It is my intention that we will start the winding-up speeches at half-past 10. Nine Members have indicated that they want to contribute. I do not intend to implement a formal time limit at this stage, but I ask everyone to restrict their remarks to four minutes. Otherwise we will have to impose a formal limit.
It is a great pleasure to be here under your chairmanship this morning, Mr Nuttall, to morally carp on the sidelines about human rights, as the hon. Member for Bristol North West (Charlotte Leslie) put it. None the less, I congratulate her on securing the debate, because the topic is important and is perhaps not debated often enough.
I will not use my position as the only Labour Member in the debate to speak at length, but I want to make one or two points that I hope the Minister will have time to respond to. Last night I read again the Foreign and Commonwealth Office report “Human Rights and Democracy”, which was published last month. Although it is a slimmed down volume and in many respects weakens the Government’s commitments on human rights—at least in relation to the death penalty—it does include three Gulf countries among the countries of concern: Saudi, Bahrain and Yemen. It does not include the United Arab Emirates, which I think is a significant omission. The Minister may want to mention human rights in the UAE when he responds.
I am glad that the countries in question are what are now, I believe, called priority countries—another slightly euphemistic term. However, I am afraid the language that is used, particularly in relation to the Gulf states, does not match the seriousness of the human rights issue or the task that needs to be done. The Bahrain section of the report says
“there was progress on human rights”,
and mentions that the UK is providing “technical assistance”—which in some cases it is being paid for. We have just established a naval base in the country for the first time in decades. The report mentions that
“allegations of ill-treatment in detention continue”
and that there are concerns regarding
“freedom of speech and expression and peaceful assembly”.
However, little more is said than that.
As I mentioned, the report is entirely silent about the UAE, and that is regrettable. It is slightly more candid in relation to Saudi, particularly on the serious issue of executions, reminding us that 158 people were executed in 2015, which is a more than 15% increase on the previous year. On 2 January this year, 47 people were executed on one day, including three minors. There remain three minors on death row. They are Ali al-Nimr, Dawood al-Marhoon and Abdullah al-Zaher. Again, I ask the Minister, as I often do in written and oral questions, whether their cases have been raised again. I know that the Foreign Secretary has said he believes they will not now be executed, but in the light of what happened on 2 January and their continued detention, I cannot feel quite as assured as he does. Perhaps the Minister will respond on whether further representations have been made or whether there is further news.
Reports from Human Rights Watch, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and Amnesty International show a rather more serious situation in Bahrain than the impression given by the Foreign Office. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has spoken of a clear realisation that
“little has been done in the fields of accountability and ending impunity, particularly in relation to violations committed against protesters and detainees, including alleged acts of torture”.
That has been going on since the Arab spring, five years ago, and there is continued oppression of the mainly Shi’a majority in Bahrain. There have been a number of deaths at the hands of the security forces. There was of course the notorious incident when medics who had treated those injured in protests were themselves tortured and prosecuted. Generally speaking, what the Bahrain Government have been best at is whitewashing what has happened by setting up commissions whose recommendations are not implemented, and mounting an effective PR offensive.
I pay particular tribute to The Independent and The Guardian, which have sought to expose what happens in Bahrain. Headlines from the last couple of months include “Britain lobbied UN to whitewash Bahrain police abuses” and “British arms sales to Bahrain total £45m since Arab Spring—while claims of torture and oppression continue”. There is a lot more I could say about that, but I think the Minister gets the impression. I do not say, and have never said, that Gulf countries are, in either scale or degree, the worst offenders, but I do say that the Government operate a soft touch in dealing with such countries. We have just heard from the hon. Member for Bristol North West that it is often better to comment on such things in private, which I think is what the Foreign Office says about Saudi. I think it is right to raise them in private, but it is also right to speak out, and the Government have a moral obligation as an upholder of international human rights to do so.
The hon. Gentleman is concentrating on human rights, but does he not attach any importance to the key role that the nations in question play in the battle against tyranny, and the long-standing support that they have given us and we have given them, historically? They are important allies of the United Kingdom and the hon. Gentleman is sending out the message that stability counts for nothing and that the only thing he is interested in is abuses by the authorities. I remind him that we have our own history. We took out 14 people on the streets of Northern Ireland. Does he regard that as a human rights abuse as well?
I think you will forgive me, Mr Nuttall, if I do not stray into talking about Bloody Sunday this morning. The hon. Gentleman will have the opportunity to make his points in his own way. I am simply setting out these matters, perhaps as a correction to others that will be raised this morning, and I think that is perfectly legitimate and reasonable. Of course we must have a relationship with countries overseas whose human rights records do not match our own, and of which we perhaps do not expect exactly the same standards. However, if the hon. Gentleman is saying we should not raise the issues, I cannot entirely agree with him.
To deal briefly with the UAE, the recent case of David Haigh, the former Leeds United managing director—[Interruption.] I am being heckled because I am taking some time. I will take a little more time. I said I would not speak for a long time, Mr Nuttall, but if I continue to be interrupted, perhaps I shall speak for rather longer. We will see where that goes. I think, particularly given that the Foreign Office did not address the matter in its human rights report, that it is worth putting it on record. Again, I will simply read some headlines. The first is from The Law Society Gazette: “Solicitor claims he was tortured in Dubai jail”. Another headline reads: “Businessmen held in UAE were tortured into confessions, says UN report”. I have mentioned the number of British nationals—37 in the last five years—who have made allegations of torture or mistreatment in detention in the UAE and the fact that there are 27 such detainees there at the moment.
I recently asked the Minister the following questions. Will the Prime Minister review the UK’s special relationship with the UAE in the light of the report by the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention calling on the UAE to release several foreign nationals, including from Canada and the US, who it says have been detained arbitrarily, tortured and forced to sign confessions? Will the Government confirm that no further Arab Partnership Participation Fund moneys will be allocated to the UAE by the Foreign Office until a review has been conducted in the light of the recent statement by UN special rapporteur on torture, Professor Juan E. Méndez? His office has received credible information that detainees were tortured and forced to sign confessions, and his request for a country visit to the UAE is outstanding.
I mentioned David Haigh, a former managing director of Leeds United who I think is a member of the Conservative party. He was recently released from a UAE prison and, on returning to the UK, said that he had suffered ill treatment and abuse:
“I was punched around, I was hit, I was tasered. People attempted to sexually abuse me. I now have a problem with my eyes. You are constantly kept in the dark…it damages your eyes.”
He was imprisoned, incidentally, under the cybercrimes law—a particularly Orwellian statute that criminalises electronic abuse. There are well-documented incidents of human rights violations in the UAE.
The reason I am shaking my head is that many other Members want to speak. They want to hear what the Minister and, indeed, the Opposition Front-Bench Members have to say on these matters. Your guidance was very clear, Mr Nuttall, on speeches being four minutes. I was shaking my head not about the substance of anything the hon. Gentleman is saying, but because he has now been speaking for 10 minutes.
I hear what the Minister has to say about the time limit. I am sure that the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) is about to draw his remarks to a swift conclusion. I am loth to impose a formal time limit but, reluctantly, that is what I will have to do. I look forward to hearing the final sentences of the hon. Gentleman’s contribution very shortly.
I will speak for half a minute on Yemen and then sit down, Mr Nuttall. I will just say, however, that I have been in Westminster Hall when Conservative Members have filibustered for an hour in order to prevent debates from taking place on issues of great importance to me. I do not intend to do that here. I do not think that a 10-minute speech for an Opposition Member is unreasonable, given the number of Government Members present.
Let me end by saying this. The Minister will be aware of the Select Committee on International Development report published today in relation to the need for an independent inquiry into what is happening in Yemen. UAE and Saudi forces are engaged, with British advice and support, in the civil war in Yemen. It is clear to anybody who reads what is written by those reporting from inside that troubled country that war crimes are being committed and that there are breaches of international humanitarian law. Will the Minister agree to the Committee’s recommendation of an independent investigation into what is happening in Yemen?
It is my view that we should have a suspension of arms sales to the countries engaged in that civil war, until it is demonstrated that breaches of international law are not happening. This country should not be complicit in matters of that kind and should certainly be asking for transparency in relation to what is happening in Yemen and, in particular, the involvement of other Gulf states in that country.
Thank you, Mr Nuttall. I regret that we have seen two contrasting speeches this morning: one informed and thoughtful speech from my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol North West (Charlotte Leslie), and one of an extraordinary lack of knowledge from the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter), who I fear has travelled little to these areas. He may be able to read reports but knows almost nothing from his own experience. I declare my interest: I am chairman of the Conservative Middle East Council. I have taken an interest in the region for 30 years. I want to make, in the two or three minutes I have, one major point.
We are looking at a period of greater instability and danger than I think we have ever known. The last four decades have seen conflict, war and fluctuating oil prices, but never before, until the last five years, have we really seen countries completely falling to pieces. Now, around the region, entire countries are falling apart, and the centuries-old lines in the sand are disappearing. Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Libya—and, for a moment, it looked like Egypt, too—have been unstable and disrupted as never before. We have seen the rise of non-state fanatics and space ungoverned by legitimate and decent authority. Sunni and Shi’a difference has been polarised by the fall of the Shah and the revolution in Iran. In addition to countries being pitted against one another, we are now seeing them completely fall apart.
That leads me to the one point I want to make—one that is totally lost on the hon. Member for Hammersmith. Our watchword should be stability. It is very easy to criticise Gulf countries from the ignorant comfort of a British armchair. It is very easy to slip into prejudicial judgmentalism, but these countries need to be understood. Their particular social composition, their historical origin and the nature of their regimes need to be understood. I suggest that that understanding sits on the Government’s side of the Chamber rather better than with the hon. Gentleman.
Our approach should be to hold the countries of the Gulf Co-operation Council together, to show respect and understanding and to work with them. Where would the world be if they were not there governing as they do? They would be replaced by something far worse.
In the 30 seconds I have left, I add that I am the Government’s envoy to Yemen. I have been going to that country for 30 years. The hon. Gentleman has probably never visited it in his life. I have done so on a dozen or more occasions, and I look forward to continuing to work on the peace talks that are taking place in Kuwait at the moment. I assure the hon. Gentleman that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia will do its best to ensure that those peace talks are successful.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Nuttall. May I congratulate the hon. Member for Bristol North West (Charlotte Leslie) on securing this debate? We are here to debate UK relations with the Gulf, but it will likely come as no surprise to the Minister that I would like to make use of my limited speaking time to focus largely on Saudi Arabia.
Although we maintain strong diplomatic ties with Saudi Arabia, our values are ever more divergent. In 2016, it is legal for same-sex couples to marry across most of the UK. In 2016, Saudi Arabia remains one of only six countries to punish homosexuality with the death penalty. In the Saudi kingdom, women still need to be accompanied by a male guardian whenever they leave the house. Although 2016 marks 51 years since the abolition of the death penalty in Britain, we were all shocked at the start of the year by the brutal mass public executions of 47 people in Saudi.
Saudi Arabia is concurrently one of the world’s most repressive states and one of our closest allies. It is clear that a relationship with Saudi is prized as being strongly in British interests, but at what cost? Concerns about British arms sales to Saudi still loom large, and they are concerns that I share. The ongoing Saudi operation in Yemen has seen a shocking number of civilian fatalities. In total, more than 6,000 people have been killed since Saudi Arabia launched a multinational campaign a little over a year ago. Around half of those deaths are estimated to be of civilians.
Although Saudi Arabia has argued that it is making every effort to avoid hitting civilian targets, the UN believes that Saudi forces are causing twice as many civilian casualties as all the other forces fighting in Yemen. The UN describes the situation in Yemen as a humanitarian disaster, yet we continue to sell billions of pounds worth of weapons to the kingdom. One human rights organisation claims that UK-produced bombs were used in strikes on a ceramics factory in northern Yemen.
I take the right hon. Gentleman’s point, but he and I are on two different platforms concerning our relations with Saudi Arabia.
The humanitarian crisis in Yemen should shame us all. It requires an insurmountable effort to reconcile our aid efforts in the country with our continued arms dealings with Saudi Arabia. If there is any risk whatever of UK arms being used in breach of international humanitarian law, we should call an immediate halt to all arms sales until an in-depth, independent inquiry has been carried out.
No, I am sorry. More Members want to speak.
Saudi Arabia has a deeply troubling human rights problem. It would be remiss of me if I did not use this opportunity to speak up for Ali al-Nimr, Dawood Hussein al-Marhoon and Abdullah Hasan al-Zaher. These three young men were arrested and tried in the kingdom for crimes they allegedly carried out as juveniles. Although the Foreign Office has repeatedly assured us that it does not expect the death sentences to be carried out, they are still languishing in prison awaiting execution.
I do not expect us to impose our values and beliefs on another country, but I expect the UK to show some responsibility in our relations with Saudi. As our values widen even more, so does our responsibility to set a more progressive example. Today I ask the Minister to reconsider our dealings with Saudi Arabia. In February, the European Parliament voted by a large majority for an EU-wide embargo on arms sales to Saudi Arabia, but the Government have totally ignored that. I again ask them to heed calls for a ban on weapons sales.
I refer Members to my declaration in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol North West (Charlotte Leslie) on obtaining this debate and on her excellent speech.
In the short time available to me, I want to focus on two issues. My right hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Sir Alan Duncan) mentioned stability, which I believe is the key to our relationship with the Gulf states. We must not forget that that relationship is twofold. On the one hand, they have a huge commercial interest in this country, as we have in their countries. For example, Emirates, the UAE airline, is by far the biggest customer for Airbus A380 aircraft, which are manufactured in north Wales. It has been calculated that Emirates’ investment in this country, via its purchase of Airbus aircraft, indirectly accounts for some 7,000 jobs. Our relationship is important and should not be undervalued.
The other issue is security. We have a huge interest in developing our relations with the Gulf states. They are at the sharp end of the battle against Daesh, which is a threat not only to the Gulf nations, but to this country. It is essential that this country develops relations with the Gulf states. When I visited Bahrain a few months ago, I was delighted to see that the British Government are investing in a new naval base there—HMS Juffair—and restoring our naval presence in an important part of the world.
In the few moments available to me, I want to mention the occupants of the other side of the Gulf in Iran, whom we often overlook when considering the Gulf. Iran is undoubtedly a threat to the region’s peace. There is no doubt that it sponsors Hezbollah and the insurgency in Yemen, and is a threat to that region. Another role for the United Kingdom is to ensure that the Gulf states receive our assurances that we will be at their side in the ongoing battle against Iran and its threat to the stability of the region.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol North West (Charlotte Leslie) on her thoughtful opening speech. I draw Members’ attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I was lucky enough to visit Bahrain and Saudi Arabia recently.
I have received some criticism for visiting those countries, but I feel very strongly that we should not be armchair commentators. I hope that everyone who has spoken this morning has taken the time and trouble to visit some of the countries we are talking about. MPs have amazing opportunities to do so. We are always aware that our visits are stage managed to some extent, but we learn a huge amount in the process. No amount of being told women’s rights are fantastic made up for me having to put on an abaya on the plane before walking off it. It was only a small thing, but for me it was part of the experience of being a women in these countries, in contrast with my male colleagues, who just walked out in whatever they were wearing.
I want to make three brief points. First, we must not be simplistic or naive in the way we think about these countries and our relationships with them. It is not just a case of goodies against baddies, liberals against dictators, or those who care about human rights against those who do not.
I am sure that we all care about human rights. I certainly do, and I particularly want to make life better for millions of girls and women throughout the middle east. However, we must not be naive about the alternatives to the Gulf Governments with whom we have important relationships. We must not think that if we can oust a ruling family we will suddenly and magically get a liberal western democracy. Recent events in other parts of the middle east have surely taught us a lesson. Colleagues have referred to the importance of stability. When there is a vacuum into which an organisation such as Daesh can move, there are atrocities on a completely different scale.
My second point is that we must be aware of the extraordinarily challenging times for Gulf countries at the moment. Saudi Arabia is surrounded by conflict in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, where it is controversially but understandably involved, and Iran, which is stoking conflict in the region. That is coupled with the plummeting price of oil on which its economy has depended for some 70 years. It is an incredibly difficult time for those countries to maintain stability and, if we do not want them to fall apart, we must be thoughtful about our relationships.
There are reasons for optimism, but I do not have time to go into that. We must have a positive and constructive relationship with the Gulf states, which is in our interest as well as theirs.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Nuttall. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol North West (Charlotte Leslie) on securing the debate and on her powerful, thoughtful and eloquent speech, which was fantastic. I refer hon. Members to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I joined my hon. Friend on her recent trip to the United Arab Emirates. I will not have time to say much about human rights and stability in the region. They are powerful issues that I cannot do justice to in three minutes. I will concentrate on one area: business relationships and our opportunities in countries such as the UAE.
During our recent trip, we visited the Emirates airline, which is headed up by Sir Tim Clark. He is a fantastic British businessman and I wish he were doing fantastic business in the UK. It is amazing to see inspirational business leaders expanding global businesses in places such as the UAE. With his UK links, Sir Tim recently did a deal to buy Rolls-Royce engines for the Emirates fleet. It was one of Rolls-Royce’s biggest deals. Our relationship with global companies around the world can tangibly benefit the UK.
We also went to Jebel Ali, the ninth biggest port in the world. It is owned by an Emirates company, DP World, which, as we have heard, also owns London Gateway. Who is the head of that? It is Simon Moore, another Brit, who has just gone back to Dubai to lead that organisation.
What that showed me was that we can have such entrepreneurship, coupled with the blank canvas that Dubai, Abu Dhabi and these countries have in their modern history, and a central location in the world as well. The Emirates are looking to move from an oil-based economy to a far more diverse economy. Their leading people are educated in the west and then go back, having been upskilled through the talent that they brought to the west. They will take on leading roles, but they will also look for other countries to trade with, for investment in and out of those countries. The UK is very well placed to do that—to offer services.
Bahrain has been mentioned. We have a 200-year relationship with Bahrain, the treaty of friendship having been signed in 1816. Again, that is something that we can capitalise on.
On women’s rights, it was fantastic to hear the example from my hon. Friend the Member for Faversham and Mid Kent (Helen Whately), who talked about her experience. Strong female politicians going to these countries and people seeing, for instance, Reem al-Hashimi and Noura al-Kaabi, the fantastic Ministers that the UAE has, and using them as examples of how women in government and in business can have such a positive effect will help to bring change in other countries, such as Saudi Arabia.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Nuttall. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol North West (Charlotte Leslie) for her amazingly erudite speech, which I will not be able to emulate. I, too, recently went to the UAE as a guest of its Government. That is declared in my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
My interest in this area started when I was a child. My father served in the Trucial Oman Scouts in the 1950s and, as an Arabist, spent most of his career in the middle east, in Suez, Yemen and the UAE, which was called the Trucial States in those days. The beginning of the close links between Britain and the UAE has been documented in his book, “Arabian Adventure”, in which he discusses events in the 1950s and ’60s, when he got to know Sheikh Zayed of Abu Dhabi, the founder of the UAE, through his weekly visits and recognised him as
“undoubtedly the most powerful figure in the Trucial States”.
My father says:
“I used to visit him weekly in his fort, and he would always describe the local political situation to me in an excellent manner. I always came to him with great respect and I left him with even greater respect.”
I mention that because I want to reflect on our long-term and close relationship with the UAE, which was very obvious during our trip in April. Since 1972, when I left as a child, the UAE has developed incredibly. Out of the desert have risen several cities in each state, from Ras al-Khaimah, Ajman and Umm al-Quwain in the north, through to Sharjah, Dubai, Abu Dhabi, and Fujairah in the east. Those states have come together and work closely, the richer states sharing their wealth with those that have not had the oil reserves but are developing in other ways.
It is with British help that businesses have become so successful. During our visit, as we have mentioned, we met Sir Tim Clark, who built up the Emirates airline, which now sponsors the Emirates Spinnaker tower in Portsmouth, and Simon Moore, who is running Jebel Ali, the port on which Dubai originally built its wealth. Dubai Ports owns Southampton port and has just built the London Gateway port. Investment is going both ways, including to the northern powerhouse, and my aim is to get more investment into the southern powerhouse and particularly Portsmouth. British people are leading at Masdar City, the first clean energy city.
We met British people working closely with counter-terrorism initiatives such as Hedayah and Sawab. Those organisations are identifying what is drawing our young people to Daesh and other terrorist organisations that have no state boundaries. Working together makes us more secure.
Many Emiratis have been educated in Britain, in our schools, universities and military colleges.
Absolutely. There are 120,000 British people living in the UAE, compared with just 50,000 Americans. We are the most important country to the UAE, and that must be continued.
Some Emiratis were educated at the same school as me, the English Speaking School in Dubai, and many were taught by my headmistress, Miss Dorothy Miles, who spent all of her working life teaching generations of Arab and foreign children in Dubai and Sharjah.
It is the case that 70% of university graduates are women, and women are encouraged to build a career and to continue it even when they have children. The Speaker of the UAE Parliament is a woman. Women sit side by side with men in their chamber; there is no segregation. Women are quickly moving to the top of the professions there.
Some people are concerned about human rights, and we looked into that when we were in the UAE. I am a believer that it is better to work closely with countries that are developing than to ignore them, and I was pleased to hear UAE Ministers appreciating that work is being done in this area and will continue. We heard about a domestic abuse charity set up by a female MP and work being done elsewhere. We met Tristan Forster, who runs FSI Worldwide to ensure that workers are not exploited. We were allowed to challenge Ministers on these points, and they are well aware of our views.
Only by continuing this close relationship can we challenge our friends and not avoid the difficult questions. Our ambassador, Philip Parham, is working hard to build the relationship, and I hope we continue to build on a friendship that has been part of our joint history for many years.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol North West (Charlotte Leslie) on securing this timely debate. I draw attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I should also state that my wife works in the Cabinet Office and has a significant interest in the Gulf region.
The Government’s strategic approach to our country’s engagement in the Gulf is a rare spark of hope in that troubled region. Because of the significant potential gain that that fresh approach can give Britain, I strongly believe that we would do well to replicate it in the wider middle east and elsewhere. I do not want to overstate the region’s prospects. It faces vast challenges. The continuing low oil price is cutting Gulf economies off at the knees. In response, those countries with a relatively recent history of significant state subsidisation of their economies, such as Kuwait, are going through the very difficult process of readjusting the scale of state intervention. In doing so, their nascent democracies are facing a real test. The Gulf states also face a resurgent Russia, an Iranian regime high on the after-effects of its nuclear deal, Islamist extremism nibbling at the borders, and the threat of internal instability because the current social contract between rulers and ruled cannot be sustained. The population is mushrooming, and unemployment, human rights abuses and sectarian strife fuel the discomfort. Without doubt, vast reform—economic, social, religious and governmental—is urgently required.
I do not want to overstate our role, either. Our relationship used to be of a great power protecting small local powers. We are the region’s oldest and staunchest ally, marking 200 years of relations with Bahrain this year. Today, the relationship has changed. It is one of partnership. Our long-standing and deep relationship with Kuwait has become one of deep, mutual benefit—investment and knowledge flowing in both directions. Qatar’s fast emergence in the region, along with its strong desire to use its new-found wealth to play a significant and constructive part in the region and the wider world, should be welcomed by us.
Clearly, Britain’s partnerships have become critical to our mutual interests in the wider region. None is more vital than finding the settlements to sustain stability, for if we leave a less stable middle east to our children, we will have failed them—and if we are to leave a stable world to our children, we depend on the Gulf states. If we support our allies through gradual transformation, they can change peacefully; if we do not, they will not. If we withdraw, we must brace ourselves for the opposite, and we cannot kid ourselves any more that we would not feel the impact at home; we would suffer, too. The Gulf states of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, the UAE and Qatar are an island of stability in a deeply unstable region. We have to keep them that way.
I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention. More broadly than the UAE, across the whole region, the youth of the region is part of its challenge, but also part of the opportunity for the future.
I welcome the Government’s broad, deep and integrated approach—addressing what underpins long-term security, such as education, economic resilience and good governance, as well as increasing co-operation to address immediate threats from terrorism, organised crime and the like.
I want to mention three specific issues. First, tensions with Iran are at an ever increasing risk of boiling over following the nuclear deal. If in the long term the west is to get rid of the responsibility of helping to keep the peace in the Gulf—a responsibility that it would have little appetite to fulfil if tested—we must help the region to develop its own infrastructure for resolving such tensions.
Secondly, the Gulf states face extraordinary demographic challenges from growing youth populations at the same time as economic means are being slashed. We must gear our engagement to support economic diversification and entrepreneurship to grow and then sustain jobs for young people, and to engage in new ways via digital and social media. There are myriad opportunities in cyber, in space and at the forefront of science, technology and innovation that could enable them to leapfrog stages of development. If they are successful at doing that, we will all benefit.
The third issue is resource resilience and, in particular, access to water in a region that already faces the biggest water deficits in the world and increasing demand. The Gulf states’ existence is already a triumph of vision and wealth over the laws of nature. Human survival in that climate is a tribute to the miracles of air conditioning and desalination.
Finally, I am convinced—
It is a pleasure to serve under the chairmanship of a fellow member of the Procedure Committee, Mr Nuttall. I congratulate the hon. Member for Bristol North West (Charlotte Leslie) on securing the debate. Her speech was thoughtful and considered, setting the context for the debate. I understand the frustrations of Members who have not been able to speak for as long as they might have wanted to. Scottish National party Members have experienced that on a number of occasions since arriving in Westminster. I will try to keep my remarks reasonably brief so the Minister has time to respond to the various serious points that have been raised by all parties.
The hon. Member for Bristol North West made a number of cultural references, so I will chuck in one or two of my own. I recommend a book called “The Years of Rice and Salt” by Kim Stanley Robinson, which presents an alternative history of the world, imagining that the population of Europe is wiped out by the black death. As a result, the entire cultural, social and economic enlightenment comes from the east and from the Islamic world. The various reflections that the hon. Lady made about the role of Islam reminded me very much of that book and of the counter-history it suggests. Without giving anything away, the ultimate conclusion of the book is that some things change and some things stay the same.
While listening to some of the speeches, I was reminded of the television satirist Mrs Merton, who famously asked Debbie McGee, regarding her husband, “What first attracted you to the millionaire Paul Daniels?” An element of that attitude is, perhaps, reflected in some relationships with small, oil-rich countries that have huge energy potential and industrious, increasingly well-educated populations. In Scotland, we were told that such a model would lead to nothing but doom and gloom but, evidently, it seems quite acceptable for the countries of the Gulf.
Much has been made of personal experience. I will not pretend to have much in the way of first-hand experience of the countries being discussed, other than transiting Dubai airport, incidentally in an Airbus A380. I looked out of the window and was struck by those magnificent buildings rising out of the desert in the distance, but the sight made me ask at what cost many of those buildings were constructed. What was the human cost and what were the labour conditions when such cities rose from the desert? What is the ongoing cost to the environment and the climate of using carbon and energy-intensive methods to build a western model of capitalism in that part of the world?
I will reflect briefly on economic relations, defence and human rights situations, and echo some questions that have been raised with the UK Government. Although I have not personally travelled to the region, a delegation from the SNP visited Iran at around Christmas time. Perhaps the agreement that has been reached with Iran presents something of a model of stability and transition. The point about stability has been well made and it is a perfectly acceptable point, but perhaps something can be learned about transition and opening up economic opportunities. Bilateral trade with the region is into the billions. We have spoken about Dubai as a transport hub and tourist destination. My city—Glasgow—benefits from direct flights to Dubai.
I have not heard mention of the 2022 World cup in Qatar, so I will touch on that. I mentioned labour rights and building rights. It would be interesting to hear what continued dialogue the Government have with FIFA and with the Government in Qatar about the treatment of migrant workers and the continued reports of deaths and injuries on construction sites. The Government are committed to the sustainable development goals of promoting equality and leaving no one behind in the world. How do those goals apply to the Government’s relations with the Gulf states?
The issue of migration and security, including the ability of people to travel, was touched on. The Government have introduced visa waivers across the region, most recently in Kuwait. That contrasts quite interestingly with the crackdown in other areas—for example, the difficulty that people in sub-Saharan Africa face in obtaining visas for the United Kingdom. We have heard about defence contracts and the base in Bahrain. All I would say is that the arms industry is a choice. It is not inevitable. If we are to deal in arms and military contracts, we must ensure that they are not being abused.
I represent the headquarters of BAE Systems, which, for half a century, has had a very important relationship with Saudi Arabia. Does the SNP not understand that these Gulf states are allies of the UK, and that they face a threat, to which my hon. Friends have all referred? Does the hon. Gentleman not think that the UK should help our allies in the Gulf to defend themselves against that threat with British equipment, much of which is made in Scotland?
I am not entirely sure that now is the best time to talk about defence contracts coming to Scotland, given the concerns being expressed about the shipyards on the Clyde. The reality is that, if British weapons are being exported and traded, there is a responsibility under the international instruments to ensure that they are being used appropriately.
I will not give way because the shadow Minister and the Minister still have to respond. The Minister needs to respond to points that have been raised several times about the relationship between Saudi Arabia and the conflict in Yemen. It may be that UK-built planes with pilots trained by instructors from the UK are dropping bombs that are made in the UK. That may be co-ordinated by the Saudis in the presence of UK military advisers. If that does not add up to some kind of UK complicity in the conflict and the alleged war crimes, I wonder what does.
Well, those are the points that need to be answered and investigated. Those are serious complaints. I met with people from Yemen who showed me pictures of the destruction that has been caused there. They allege that that has been caused by weapons manufactured in the UK. Those allegations need to be investigated.
There is a contradiction in UK policy. The Home Office now accepts that there is a risk of violence against civilians and says that deportations back to Yemen could be a breach of human rights. Yet the Foreign and Commonwealth Office continues to deny that there have been war crimes and says that Saudi Arabia is acting within humanitarian law. Which is the UK Government’s position? They need to have a joined-up approach, and that speaks to the wider questions in the region. If we want to promote stability and find an alternative to Daesh, we must find a way of leading by example. We have that opportunity in this debate. Those are the questions that we would like answered.
I echo an awful lot of what the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) said. We must not allow ourselves to be blinded by wealth glimmering off the desert sun. Economic gain should not be at any cost. The Scottish First Minister said, in China, that human rights and economic development should be two sides of the same coin, and that promoting equality and human rights is the best way to promote and empower populations, and to grow economies. We should use the stable and strong relations in these Gulf states to encourage democracy and promote human rights.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Nuttall. I congratulate the hon. Member for Bristol North West (Charlotte Leslie) on securing the debate. She gave a thoughtful speech and was, at times, very witty when she referred to “Monty Python’s Life of Brian” and “Jesus Christ Superstar”. She mentioned the internal challenges faced by Islam and discussed how that reflects on the region and on the wider world.
I am pleased that we are having a debate on the broader thematic issues in British foreign policy and our wider strategy in the region. As we have heard, Britain has a long and close relationship with the Gulf. As many hon. Members have said, that is probably more important now than it has ever been before. The Gulf states are vital partners of the UK in trade and economic co-operation, defence and security, and cultural ties. It has been interesting to hear about the great deal of experience and knowledge of the region that hon. Members have brought to the debate.
On the economic relationship that we enjoy, the Gulf remains a key source of foreign direct investment into the UK and a market for our own exports. We heard about Airbus in particular. We only need to look at the London skyline to see Gulf investment in the UK, as the tallest building in Europe is the Qatari-funded Shard at London bridge. We should also recognise that one of the key benefits that the UK offers to the Gulf states is access to EU markets, and we would be vulnerable to losing much of that investment to other EU states if we were to leave the EU.
We have also heard today about the importance of defence co-operation. Several Gulf states are partners of the UK in the fight against Daesh. Many Gulf states send troops to train at Sandhurst, and the Gulf is one of the largest markets for UK defence exports. I am particularly pleased to see British support for the development of the port in Oman, which will help Oman’s economy and will provide a vital berthing point for our new Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers. Intelligence sharing supports our fight against terrorism at home and abroad, and that co-operation is underpinned by strong governmental relationships. The Gulf states are not just long-standing allies of the UK; we have formal relationships with states such as Oman, Qatar and Kuwait that facilitate regular dialogue and co-operation.
Those economic and governmental ties, built on years of co-operation, are what provide the strength of our current relationship with the Gulf states, but it is frustrating that the Government are reluctant to use the strength of those relationships to push for vital reforms. When it comes to human rights, democracy and environmental protections, we should expect the highest standards from our friends and allies, yet the Government appear reluctant to prioritise any of those issues. My hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) spoke eloquently about human rights and democratic reforms. We would like a greater pace of reform in all the Gulf states, but two countries are of particular note.
First, not only is the pace of democratic reform in Saudi Arabia very slow but there are widespread and severe human rights abuses, with high levels of corporal punishment, including the death penalty, and very limited freedom of expression, as illustrated by the case of Raif Badawi. There are also high levels of torture, and the position of women is still abysmal, yet the current British Government have been extraordinarily reluctant to criticise the Saudi Government. I have mentioned the benefit to the UK economy of arms sales, which must come with tight controls. There are serious and sustained concerns that Saudi-led action in Yemen has included possible war crimes and, therefore, has breached the conditions of the current arms export licences.
I will continue, because I want to make these points. Again, the Government have been slow to engage with those allegations. First, they seemed to back an independent inquiry, and then they supported the Saudis’ own investigation, but now they are calling for the inquiry to be speeded up. The Opposition remain convinced that the Saudi investigation will not be sufficiently independent or transparent, and we think it is right to halt arms sales to Saudi Arabia while the investigations are conducted.
The second state is Bahrain. Although the pace of reforms in Bahrain is greater than in Saudi Arabia, there are still serious concerns about the position of opposition and civil society groups, the detention of political prisoners and the use of torture in the justice system. The reforms introduced by the Bahraini Government, although highly welcome, have not been fully implemented, and both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have raised concerns about the situation. As my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith said, the UK Government have been working with the Bahraini Government on those reforms, so we should be prepared to recognise where the reforms have not been fully implemented and to publicly push the Bahrainis to go further.
I will continue. The two countries that I have highlighted shine light on the reluctance among Foreign Office Ministers to raise human rights issues in the region, which, as has already been said, was highlighted by the recent reports of the Foreign Affairs Committee.
I will continue. In the recent UK-Kuwait joint steering group, for example, human rights, women’s rights, democratic reforms, support for the humanitarian crisis in the middle east and labour rights for migrant workers were not discussed, nor was trafficking. The US State Department singled out Kuwait as having one of the worst records on human trafficking. I know the UK Government take that issue seriously, so I am surprised that it was not raised with the Kuwaiti authorities.
The situation is equally problematic in Qatar, where exploitation and trafficking remain commonplace, including on the World cup construction sites, as exposed by the recent Trades Union Congress investigation. A similar story could be told on environmental issues. The British Government could do more to make that clear and to push the Gulf states to meet their international obligations on CO2 emissions.
I want the Minister to have ample opportunity to respond to all the points raised in today’s debate, so I will conclude by saying that we need from the Government a broad strategy for the region that recognises the strength of our current relationships and looks to utilise those relationships to support British aims in the region, including more democratic and open societies.
I am grateful for your chairmanship, Mr Nuttall. Before I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol North West (Charlotte Leslie) on a formidable speech and on securing this debate, as others have done, I thank the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson) for a measured and appropriately balanced speech that pressed the Government while illustrating the many areas where there are synergies between what the Government and the official Opposition believe. The Gulf is an important part of the world for us, and we are grateful for the depth of knowledge that she has illustrated today, which underlines why we need to understand the region before we can comment on it.
That takes me nicely to my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol North West, who articulated the reasons why it is important not only that we debate such matters here, but that Britain continues this vital relationship. She has just come back from a series of visits, and speeches from both sides of the Chamber have reflected the importance of our engaging with and understanding the region. I encourage all hon. Members to do what they can to visit the region as frequently as possible, because that helps to dispel myths and allows us to have the frank conversations that we need in order to advance democracy, human rights and the rule of law—all the things that matter so much.
I will make some progress first and then, time permitting, I will be delighted to give way. There are a lot of issues to cover, but I will give way if there is time.
I welcome the breadth of knowledge that has been displayed in this debate, and I ask for that to continue. My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol North West spelled out some of the challenges with which the middle east, with its diversity, is having to contend in a modern setting. We have obviously had the Arab spring and its aftermath, and the drop in oil prices is having an enormous effect on all countries in the region. The growth of extremism is hugely challenging in that neck of the woods, and then there is the advance of the internet in a culturally conservative part of the world that is suddenly having to deal with a very liberal way of sharing information and making comment. That has to be mapped out with a growing youth population, which is looking over its shoulder and saying, “We want a very different set of views, values and outlook on life from our parents or the generation before them.”
The Gulf is going through immense challenges, which provides opportunities, but it also means that the Gulf’s friendships outside the region are all the more important. Without mentioning any names, there are other parts of the world that have disengaged somewhat from the middle east, and it is therefore all the more important for us to remember our strong bonds, which are not just about today or about the visits. As has been said, the bonds go back to historical agreements over 200 years that established maritime, trade and diplomatic relationships and allowed us to develop the enormously strong bonds and bilateral ties that are evident today.
The Gulf’s stability is our stability, and we must recognise that the Gulf states have been the custodians of much of the world’s oil and gas supplies in recent decades, helping the world to keep the lights on. The region’s security is tied to our security, but the region’s prosperity is also our prosperity. That was reflected in the last security and defence review, and it has been illustrated today by a number of hon. Members who referred to our commitments from a military perspective right across the Gulf.
However, we also must recognise that it is not just on security and hydrocarbons that we have established strong relationships; our relationships are now diversifying. I can share with the House that we now have six-monthly bilateral working groups with every single Gulf nation—I will go with a team to one of the countries or they will come here. The last one was with Oman, and we go through the entire relationship, from security, defence and hydrocarbons—those norms that we understand—to, now, education: how the British Council can do more work on getting English taught in schools or developing the curriculum. We also discuss how we can help work with police reforms, ombudsmen, processes to allow women’s rights to be established, and so forth.
Many of these things are happening behind the scenes, because that is the way those countries prefer to do business, and we have success; we are able to move forward, which is very positive. I stress to the House that just because people do not see the headlines or hear us shouting out about things, that does not mean they do not happen. That is very important to remember. Any hon. Friends or hon. Members who have taken the time to visit the region will be aware of that themselves.
I am not sure how helpful that comment is. Anybody travelling to the region needs to read the travel advice. I encourage the hon. Lady to go to Saudi Arabia, because—as others have found—she will come back having learned something. She will discover, especially if it is a visit endorsed by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, that she will have access to many of the programmes that are taking place in what is very much a culturally conservative society.
There is a desire in this House for immediate, 21st-century change—to slide across our values, our standards, our processes and our democratic systems all in one. That is not going to happen quickly, in the same way that it did not happen quickly in this country, from giving women the vote to getting rid of slavery. The other day, I went back to my old stomping ground of the London Stock Exchange, where I worked—I made a visit there for a listing that was taking place with Morocco. Women were not allowed on the trading floor in the UK until the 1970s. Our first female ambassador was not appointed until 1976. These things take time.
Of course, in the 21st century we expect countries to take advantage of best practice and of the support and programmes that are available, so that they do not have to take the 800 years that we have taken since Magna Carta to develop the standards that we enjoy today.
Will the Minister take this opportunity to put on record the gratitude that is felt by a number of countries in the Gulf that have benefited from former members of the Royal Ulster Constabulary—very distinguished members of the RUC, from Northern Ireland—who have gone out to Gulf states and improved their human rights records in policing?
The hon. Lady makes a valid point. That is a great example of countries using that experience of dealing with diverse groups and communities that have been broken in the past and that need to heal and move forward. That experience and knowledge can be taken to countries in the Gulf, so that it can be shared. I pay huge tribute to the teams who have gone from Northern Ireland to the Gulf. In fact, it is not only in the Gulf where they are doing such work; they are doing it even further afield. I am grateful to the hon. Lady for making that point and putting it on the record.
My hon. Friend the Minister was talking about the role of women. Does he agree that the Bahrainis themselves have shown remarkable foresight, as their previous ambassador here was not only female but a Christian? Does that example not illustrate the kind of diversity that we see in Bahrain, which is one of our closest allies and best friends?
My hon. Friend makes a valid point. Change is happening, but of course we want to increase that change, so we are doing our best to advance it and expedite it. On the Shura council in Saudi Arabia, there were no women before; now there are women on it. In municipal elections, the most recent of which have just taken place, previously there were no women involved; now there are women being elected. In fact, when women were first elected to the Shura council, guess what happened? They were placed behind a glass screen, because the men on the council did not want them in the room. However, the women banged on the glass and said, “We want to be part of the actual debate,” and the chairman had no choice but to invite them in. When I visited Saudi Arabia a couple of months ago, I was delighted to meet some of the women connected with the British relationship—the British grouping—we were all able to sit in the same room together and have a conversation. That might seem quite small, but in the period that I have been honoured to have this role, it was an important step to allow those voices to come across.
There is even debate now about women drivers, partly because there is an economic cause. The drop in oil prices means that if a country has a workforce capable of driving, why not take advantage of it? The reasons for such a debate happening are not perhaps the ones we would want, but the fact is that the debate is now happening and that is very much encouraged.
I simply make the point that we have developed the strengths of our democratic society over many, many years, but as nation states the Gulf countries are very new. Saudi Arabia was not really formed, as such, until 1932. Oman and, indeed, the other Gulf nations did not gain their independence until the 1970s. It is from that starting point that those countries then had to develop from a centralised model of governance and move forward to provide change at a pace that is acceptable to their people. If we try to expedite the pace too quickly, we will find that the religiously conservative groups will not accept it, and we will end up seeing what we have seen in Syria taking hold in other parts of the region. That would mean that change had gone too fast to be accepted.
It is important that we stand with the Gulf countries. We encourage change—we do not step back from it at all—and we use the strength of our friendship and the trust bestowed upon us. However, there is also an expectation, because of the depth of the relationship, that we are there with them—that we have these conversations—and we do that better with them, rather than shouting from afar and expecting change to happen.
Many hon. Members have mentioned the challenge of extremism, which is something that Gulf nations are working incredibly hard to address. All the nations in the Gulf are part of the counter-Daesh coalition and are playing a formidable role in providing funds to tackle the movement of foreign fighters, in making efforts to stop the flow of money that is going into Daesh accounts and in helping with humanitarian support. All the Gulf nations have taken refugees, but again that is not shouted about perhaps as much as one would anticipate.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol North West mentioned the Sawab centre and the Hedayah centre, which are important aspects of allowing imams—the grand muftis and so forth—to recognise that there is a responsible way of preaching the Koran and of ensuring that the word of Allah is shared correctly, because it is among the vulnerable where Islam is misused, with the false promise of paradise that then encourages people to become suicide bombers and continue extremism. The United Arab Emirates is doing an incredible job in challenging extremism as it grows.
Time is against me, so I will end shortly, because I want to give my hon. Friend at least a minute to comment on this debate. I will just say, finally, that our mature relationships with our Gulf partners are deeply rooted in our shared history, and our future security and, indeed, prosperity are closely linked with theirs. The Gulf states have significant regional influence that they can bring to bear on issues that affect our national security, such as regional conflicts and violent extremism, so it is in our national interest to deepen co-operation with them, building on our existing relationships with them to our mutual benefit.
I want to pay tribute to the Minister, who in many ways—through the style of his delivery and his experience—sums up what for me has been the thing to take away from this debate, which is the enormous value of experience and the nuance that it gives to consideration of this topic, versus the arrogance of ignorance. There are practical benefits of understanding the region—of actually being practical—versus the luxury, and it is a luxury, of impotent moralising from a far-off position.
I am so sorry that we did not get to hear about the enormous wealth of nuanced experience of so many hon. Members, which could actually serve to change things that we all want to change in the region—because we care about the people—and I hope that in time to come that experience and those practical benefits will trump the arrogance of ignorance.
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).
West Cumbria Health Services
I beg to move,
That this House has considered health services in West Cumbria.
I thank you, Mr Nuttall, for chairing this debate, which is on the particularly important subject of health services in west Cumbria and the ongoing work of the success regime process in my part of the world. I am pleased to see the Minister in his place. He responded to my debate concerning these matters in December last year, and he is well aware of the numerous difficult issues that I will raise with him today. He will know that any criticisms I make are not personal or even necessarily politically partisan. In all the years I have fought for this argument and this cause, I have represented thousands of constituents who do not vote for me or my party. I always have and always will place my constituency interests above any superficial party political interests. Most of all, I seek solutions in this debate for the ongoing problems facing the north, east and west Cumbrian health economy. The problems have persisted for too long. They have worsened and can no longer be allowed to defy resolution. The Minister has responded positively to my questions and requests in the past—I am exceptionally grateful for that—and I hope he can do so again today.
I will start by outlining the issues facing my constituents in accessing health services in west Cumbria. The problems facing the North Cumbria University Hospitals NHS Trust are well known. There is intense pressure on overworked and under-resourced staff. I am grateful for the work undertaken by The Cumberland News and the News and Star, particularly that of the journalists Emily Parsons and Pamela McGowan, in helping to illustrate the scale of the problems within the trust. I will return to those later.
In such a rural county with such dispersed areas of urban population, the pressures on ambulance services are enormous. There is unprecedented pressure on primary care and GP services as a result of doctor shortages and truly catastrophic cuts to adult social services as a result of the Government’s choice to cut Cumbria County Council’s budget. A new threat in the guise of the potential closure of beds in the area’s community hospitals has emerged to widespread anger and condemnation from every community that relies upon them.
Added to those problems are the problems—caused exclusively by Government, I fear—facing the success regime. In particular, I want to address the success regime and, despite the initial optimism, the manifest problems and difficulties the process has been presented with. Critically, I will talk about the consequences of the success regime’s failure, how we can avoid them and how we can solve the problems facing our health economy, which is undoubtedly the most challenged in Britain. I will also talk about the recent floods, the effects of which are still being keenly felt throughout the county. They have magnified the issues at the heart of the debate over health services in the area.
Finally, I will pose as many of the questions sent to me as I can before outlining the health needs of my community and those of neighbouring communities—those needs, after all, are what it comes down to. The key issue for decision makers, Government and Ministers is: what do the people of west Cumbria need from their health services and how can that be delivered? That is a very different question from, “What are the Government prepared to provide?” Make no mistake, at the heart of the issue is the question: is the national health service worthy of the name? When we answer those questions, we should have the humility and wisdom to recognise that the consequences of the decisions we take now will outlast the lifespan of this Government. They will certainly outlast my and the Minister’s political careers. That is the gravity, the reality and the privilege of the situation we find ourselves in.
The simple answer is that the people of west Cumbria need better access to health services, particularly the hospital services provided by the West Cumberland Hospital in Whitehaven. It serves a vast rural area with many tightly compacted urban communities, with all the attendant challenges that has. In that context, access can be defined in a number of ways. It means the actual services provided locally, ensuring that those services are staffed appropriately so that they are of a high quality, and empowering the community so that it is listened to when decisions about its services are taken. It also means proper planning for the significant population expansion forecast for the area. In west Cumbria, each area is immensely challenging and we must address that. It is what the success regime was meant to address.
At this point, I have to thank the hundreds of patients, medical professionals past and present and members of the public who responded to my request for questions or evidence relating to the success regime process and the condition of the local health service in general. Time limits mean that I will not be able to put every question to the Minister today, but those I cannot ask I will either table as parliamentary questions or I will write to the Secretary of State for Health expressing the concerns. I am particularly grateful to the Royal College of Nursing, the Joint League of Friends of Community Hospitals, West Cumbrians’ Voice for Health Care—it has undertaken phenomenal work—and healthcare campaigners in Millom, Keswick and right across Allerdale, Carlisle and Penrith and the Border. I hope the Minister will ensure that the Secretary of State replies honestly and at length.
The Minister will be well aware that in July 2013, Sir Bruce Keogh published his review into mortality rates at a number of hospital trusts around the country. North Cumbria University Hospitals NHS Trust was one of them. Along with 10 other trusts, it was placed in special measures. The trust had higher than average mortality rates and action to remedy that was obviously welcome and necessary. At the time, Ministers were unable to provide basic information about what special measures actually meant for the trust, but it was patently clear that the major reason for care failings at the trust was—it remains the case—a chronic staff shortage.
It is only right that I again take this opportunity to thank, on a personal level as a parent and on behalf of my constituents, the amazing staff who work tirelessly in trying conditions to provide high-quality care. Many work unpaid overtime because they care about their patients, their work and, by extension, the service they provide to my community. I and my constituents know that they work in extraordinary circumstances beyond their control, and we are so grateful for their work. I doubt that any community in the country prizes its medical professionals so highly.
The truth is that every part of the health economy in west, east and north Cumbria simply needs more staff in primary care, secondary care, acute care and across our preventive services. Government must intervene to ensure that the problem is resolved, assisting with local initiatives wherever possible. That request has fallen on deaf ears for too long. The most recent report on the North Cumbria University Hospitals NHS Trust by the Care Quality Commission, which was published in September 2015, illustrated the scale of the challenge. It stated:
“The recruitment of nursing staff also remained an on-going challenge. At the time of our inspection nurse staffing levels, although improved, were still of concern and there was a heavy reliance on staff working extra shifts and on bank and agency staff to maintain staffing levels. There were times when the wards were not appropriately staffed to meet the needs of patients.”
I am sure the Minister would agree that that simply is not acceptable. In 2013-14, the trust spent £16 million on agency staff. That is clearly a false economy. Agency staff are a short-term expensive solution to a long-term problem.
Stable, long-term recruitment is key to turning around the finances of the local health economy and the hospital trust in particular. If my local trust has to pay over the odds to secure services taken for granted in other parts of the country, it should be able to do that and be funded appropriately by the Department of Health. That must be accepted by the success regime and by Government. Sadly, that is not currently the case. Sadly, it is not a conflation of the issues to point out that the Secretary of State’s antagonistic and insulting behaviour towards junior doctors is severely worsening the recruitment problem in challenged health economies such as that in Cumbria.
In my constituency, I have been working with the trust and the University of Central Lancashire to bring a medical school to west Cumbria so that we can “grow our own medics”. It would be a long-term sustainable solution to one of the key problems we face. I am delighted to say that the new West Cumberland medical education campus now exists at the Westlakes science park, immediately adjacent to the new West Cumberland hospital in my constituency. So far that has succeeded without the support or involvement of Government, but I hope that the Government will be able to support the development, not just in spirit as I know the Minister does, but with practical assistance, including money.
In addition to growing our own medics in west Cumbria for the benefit of the entire Cumbrian health economy, we are providing the basis for policy solutions by becoming a rural health policy laboratory. The campus can and should become a crucible of innovation, providing solutions to the problems facing rural areas through the provision of high-quality, accessible, universal health services. The Minister has expressed support for that in the past, but the Government should now support it financially and in terms of policy. Will he request that Health Education England works with the University of Central Lancashire and the North Cumbria University Hospitals NHS Trust as a matter of urgency so that innovative models of healthcare training, such as earn-while-you-learn models, can be rolled out, not only in Cumbria but in other challenged health economies?
I hope that the Government will look again at nursing bursaries. The Chancellor’s decision to scrap those will only make it harder for us to train and recruit the medical staff that we need. The market will not deliver the workforce that the national health service requires; it will deliver only inefficiency and inequality. We need proper workforce planning right across the national health service.
On the subject of the local health workforce, will the Minister commit to looking into the morale issues affecting health professionals in the area covered by the success regime and undertake action to improve this?
In December, I told the Minister that sooner or later our luck would run out and that patients would pay the price. Tragically, as documented in the News and Star and The Cumberland News recently, the signs are that that is already happening. It was reported yesterday that in March a patient was transferred from the West Cumberland Hospital in Whitehaven to the Cumberland Infirmary in Carlisle, but died—according to the medics who have come forward—because specialist staff were not alerted to the patient’s arrival in Carlisle. The patient subsequently had a cardiac arrest and died. If that is true, it is not only a direct result and a damning indictment of policy, but the inevitable consequence of an overburdened, underfunded and understaffed system. I cannot imagine the despair that the family of the deceased must feel, and I cannot describe how angry I am that, in all likelihood, a constituent of mine has died as a result of being transferred from the West Cumberland Hospital to the Cumberland Infirmary.
The community has repeatedly warned of such an event. It has not been listened to and so I ask the Minister to commit as a matter of urgency to making a statement in the House about this and other so-called never events that occur across the North Cumbria University Hospitals NHS Trust. We need to solve these problems, and we need to determine accountability for them, too. I know that the medics and the new chief executive, Stephen Eames, are determined to get this right.
At the beginning of 2015, I wrote to the NHS chief executive, Simon Stevens, and asked him to visit Cumbria to see for himself the geographical challenges; to speak to patients and staff; and to work with me to develop a comprehensive recovery plan for the Cumbrian health economy. Nowhere in the country is quite like Cumbria. The health inequalities, the demographic differences, the challenging geography and the contrast between the affluent and those who are less well-off all present unique challenges with regard to providing services—right across the board, not just in the health service.
The national health service should ensure equality of standards and accessibility of services, but how that is delivered must be flexible enough to accommodate unique local circumstances such as those in Cumbria. The success regime is the response to my request for a comprehensive recovery plan. That new regime was intended to develop a locally tailored solution to the problems that we face. I was a shadow Health Minister at the time I made the request. Sadly, it is unusual for an Opposition spokesperson to ask Ministers in the Department that they cover to work together on an issue of joint concern for the greater good.
In December, I expressed my concerns about the then management team at the hospitals trust. I pointed out how it had attempted to defy the NHS chief executive and sabotage the work of the success regime. The appointment of Stephen Eames and his team has changed all that to date, but the public are still understandably worried about the prospect of key services being removed from the West Cumberland Hospital.
I was present at a meeting with Simon Stevens and the success regime when the trust management was told categorically that the continued “asset-stripping”—that was the precise phrase—of services from the West Cumberland Hospital should not continue. It was an uncomfortable meeting, but a welcome one in which the primacy of the success regime in determining what services would be provided where was asserted.
In December, I told the Minister that unless the previous trust management committed fully to the success regime process, it should have no part to play in the future of healthcare service design in west, north and east Cumbria. Information now coming from many people from within the success regime process is that the process is not working and that the reason for that is Government intransigence, a refusal to listen to the experts on the ground and a refusal to grant the additional resources that the process requires to succeed.
In the rest of the country, the Government and the NHS would be hard pushed to find more committed, willing, well-informed and passionate communities when it comes to health services than the communities of west, north and east Cumbria. We want the success regime to work and the people within the success regime want it to work, but right now the Government are stopping it working. I am told, from within the process, that the success regime and the people in it know what they need to do to put the health economy right, but that, as soon as ideas are put forward, they are knocked down.
I have been asked to ask the Minister whether the Government recognise that a premium is required to continue to enable the people of west Cumbria to access certain acute services at the West Cumberland Hospital. Do the Government recognise that centralising services in Carlisle is about service cost, not service quality, and that this will lead to worse outcomes for patients? Again, I am told from within the success regime that the exercise is now becoming one that is not as has been advertised. Rather than a process of investigation and improvement, it has become a cost-management tool and the people within the process do not want it to be that way, yet the Government insist that cuts, not quality, are king. I have been asked, again from within the success regime, what happened to the Prime Minister’s promise of a bare-knuckle fight for district general hospitals and maternity services, because it either has not materialised or was a knowing deception.
There are more questions, all of which I will forward to the Secretary of State, but the most incredible intervention in the work of the success regime was recently made by the Cumbria Partnership NHS Foundation Trust. In an open letter to the success regime, governors of the trust have given notice of their intention not to approve the work of the success regime, accusing its emerging options proposals of lacking logic, transparency, financial evidence and meaningful detail. The letter states:
“Our problem is that on every significant issue, the Success Regime appears to us to be shrouded in impenetrable fog.”
The letter adds that the success regime’s vision is
“woefully lacking in sensitivity to the health-related implications of geography and demography in Cumbria.”
Nowhere can this be seen more than in the unjustifiable proposals to remove beds from community hospitals. They deserve better in Millom, Keswick, Maryport, Workington, Brampton and Alston. This demonstrates precisely what we risk destroying here: a process that the people, public and medical professionals of Cumbria supported with optimism at the outset, but that now risks collapse and failure because the Government have changed the remit of the success regime as its work has progressed.
The point underpinning all of this is relatively simple: access to a full and comprehensive range of acute hospital services for the people of west Cumbria is non-negotiable, and the success regime requires freedom from Government interference to complete its work. The work requires additional funding. If the success regime is to succeed, it has to be funded to succeed. Let us not pretend that that is not the case.
The recent flooding in the county has shown that if services were transferred from the West Cumberland Hospital, in times of emergency patients simply would not be able to access them as they would not be able to get to the Cumberland Infirmary. Again, that is not acceptable. In times of emergency, the people of west Cumbria need to be able to access their services, and that can be assured only by retaining the services in their local hospital—the West Cumberland Hospital—a fantastic new facility that the Minister knows I have campaigned for for more than 10 years, and which should now become a model for how we provide care in non-metropolitan communities in the 21st century.
I have a specific request for the Minister. Will he move to unblock the funding for phase 2 of the West Cumberland Hospital new build programme? I have been told that the money has been allocated but is not accessible. I ask that this is done as soon as possible so as to provide confidence and help build trust. Will the Minister tell my constituents that this will be done soon as a central part of the success regime process, and will he confirm that this project is not included among those deferred capital spending programmes identified in the Health Service Journal this week? There can be no agreement of any kind without this money being unlocked.
West Cumbria is home to one of the most nationally and strategically important sites in the shape of Sellafield. Over the coming years, with new nuclear reactors at Moorside, thousands of jobs will be created, and my constituency will become one of the fastest growing regional economies in the country. This is due to the plan I developed in 2005: the plan that my community has worked towards ever since. As a result, the local population will grow significantly and quickly.
The people who live in west Cumbria now need better access to the health services they rely on, but it is simply mind-boggling that when a local population is growing, anyone should believe it is sensible to move services 40 miles along a road in need of serious upgrading and subject to frequent closure.
The local NHS must take into account strategic infrastructure and the local population of host communities when planning services. The Minister has been unequivocal about this in the past, and I thank him again for that. Will he ensure that the local population growth and the national obligation owed to my community as a result of its strategic importance is addressed prominently and clearly as part of the work of the success regime?
The fundamental principles in this debate are straightforward. Moving services 40 miles away from the West Cumberland Hospital is the antithesis of the principles that underpin a truly national health service. I said in December that unless the patients and taxpayers of my community can access the same level of healthcare routinely provided by the NHS in other communities, the NHS exists in name only. Forty miles is not a reasonable distance to ask people in need of medical care to travel, particularly when that 40 miles is served by such inadequate infrastructure. Mothers giving birth do not want to sit in an ambulance on the A595 hoping that they do not get stuck behind a tractor or encounter a road traffic accident.
A fully operational A&E department, supported by associated departments, consultant-led maternity services and paediatric services, must remain at West Cumberland hospital. If we need to adopt a flexible approach to achieve that, that is what we must do. Fully functioning community hospitals with the beds that they have provide an invaluable service in the communities of west, north and east Cumbria. Those services should be built upon, expanded and improved in the face of growing demand, not cut. The Government must allow the success regime the freedom and finances to make that happen.
The Government and local authority partners in Cumbria recently attempted to reach an agreement on a devolution deal. The deal was appalling, but local partners tried hard, on a cross-party basis, to make it work. Negotiations continued right up until the eve of the Budget, so keen was the Chancellor to include the deal in his Budget statement, but they collapsed because the Government refused to accommodate the wishes of local partners with regard to the NHS in Cumbria. Will the Minister tell me whether the Department was consulted, or whether the deal was driven purely by the Treasury?
I have today written to the Secretary of State to invite him to my constituency to listen to local people, hear their concerns and answer their questions. He will be accountable for this process, come hell or high water. To summarise, will the Minister commit to giving the success regime the freedom it needs, and the west, east and north Cumbrian health economy the additional resources it requires? Will he commit to making a statement to the House on the recent never events in the local hospitals trust, how they happened and who is responsible? Will he commit to retaining existing acute services at the West Cumberland hospital? Will he commit to supporting the west Cumbria medical campus with both funding and assistance from Health Education England? Will he commit to releasing the funds for phase 2 of the West Cumberland hospital new build?
I want the success regime process to work and the Minister wants it to work, but it will do so only if the Government work with my community, not against it. There is no doubt in my mind that we can solve the problems, but the Government have to want to solve them and they have to let the process work. The choice is clear: together, we can produce something truly special, groundbreaking and innovative, or we can watch a hollowed-out, under-funded, fraudulent process break the notion of a truly national health service. The NHS is our country’s religion; what happens next in Cumbria will demonstrate whether the Government believe in it.
It is very kind of you to oversee this debate, Mr Nuttall. I thank the hon. Member for Copeland (Mr Reed) for his kind words and I of course accept the fact that he speaks on behalf of all his constituents—he has a fine track record of doing so. It is good to see the hon. Member for Workington (Sue Hayman) by his side, and to see here present my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle (John Stevenson), who has also taken a profound interest in this intractable and difficult matter. I do not have much time, so I will address the points that the hon. Member for Copeland raised in turn.
The hon. Gentleman said that the NHS is our national religion. One of his great forebears, the creator of the NHS, Nye Bevan, said that socialism is the religion of priorities. I know that the hon. Gentleman understands the nonconformist antecedents of the British Labour party, perhaps better than some of the party’s current leadership. He will also know that we need to get priorities right in Cumbria. That is something that neither we nor our predecessors in Government have achieved for many years.
I hope that the hon. Gentleman does not mind if I start by refuting his central contention that the success regime has been perverted in its course. That is absolutely not the case. The success regime has had no further instruction from its co-sponsors, NHS England and NHS Improvement, since its foundation. I have certainly made no intervention, other than to listen carefully to Sir Neil McKay when he came to see me a few weeks ago so that I could understand the challenges that he has in bringing the success regime to a conclusion.
I am as frustrated as the hon. Gentleman is about the time the success regime is taking to formulate a plan, and I expressed that frustration to Sir Neil. He is going through the proper consultation process, which in Cumbria above all places needs to be done properly, given the failure of previous consultations either to be done properly or to result in a conclusion. That is why I understand why he feels he needs to go through the process as rigorously as possible, but I do want to see a conclusion. We need to see a proper clinical resolution to the problems. It is not for me to say what that clinical resolution will be, so I cannot comment on the hon. Gentleman’s specific questions about service delivery at West Cumberland hospital and its relationship with Carlisle, or, for that matter—he did not mention this—with other partners in the north, be they the Northumbria NHS Foundation Trust or other possible partners for the trusts in Cumbria.
We will give Cumbria all the means to be able to achieve what it needs to achieve, whether they be financial or representative. I hope the hon. Gentleman will understand that the 3% funding increase for the clinical commissioning group in Cumbria this year alone shows our commitment to ensuring that Cumbria has the funds it requires to achieve the changes it needs to make. Nevertheless, those changes will not come just from more money; there will need to be reform, which is why I urge him to look at the success regime’s emerging thoughts on integrated care communities. Those thoughts have been brought together not by me, NHS England or NHS Improvement bureaucrats—I count myself as a bureaucrat in that sense—but by local clinicians who understand the problems on the ground.
I cannot comment on the devolution deal, which is a matter for the Treasury, but I can assure the hon. Gentleman that I will ensure that he has an answer from the correct person on the recent never events, of which I was informed. He should know that the Secretary of State keeps in his office a board of never events throughout the NHS. He takes a keen interest in them and in their reduction. I hope that I can ensure that the hon. Gentleman gets a proper answer to those questions.
I have previously endorsed the moves by the University of Central Lancashire that the hon. Gentleman mentioned, and I will of course ask Health Education England to engage with that process as fully as possible. I disagree with him about the impact of nurse bursaries. It is exactly by reforming health education funding that we can release 10,000 additional places in nurse training school. Those places will mean that we can staff areas of the country that have been difficult to staff in the past. We cannot provide such massive expansion by the traditional means, and nor could the Labour party have promised to do so, because the costs involved are so considerable. It is by that reform that we will achieve the ends he wants to see. I want to be outlining more items of medical education reform in the next few months, and I hope that they will be to the advantage of places such as the University of Central Lancashire. In the meantime, I shall ensure that Health Education England takes a keen interest in that work—I know that it already is.
On the second phase of funding for the West Cumberland hospital A&E department, it is incumbent on me to say that £90 million has already been spent. That shows our commitment to ensuring that services in West Cumberland are of a consistent and proper level. Nevertheless, I will find out what the blockage is. I know there is a problem with increased costs and the fact that, as anticipated, the budget has been broken. We cannot have a situation anywhere in the NHS where, just because a budget is broken, we pay for capital increases, but I shall ensure that that particular matter is addressed as quickly as possible and that that is not part of the success regime reasoning, as it is part of a phased deal for that hospital.
Finally, the hon. Gentleman raised the issue of GPs. I know that he will have noted NHS England’s announcement last week about the improved deal for GPs: there will be in excess of £2 billion over the Parliament to increase support for GPs. A lot of that will be going into under-doctor areas and those areas into which it is hard to recruit. Those are subtly different things, but both apply to Cumbria. I hope that, over the next few years, he will see the impact as the 5,000 additional GPs that the Government have committed to providing feed through to improved services on the ground.
West Cumbria and Cumbria as a whole are indeed a mark of whether we get the NHS to be a national service. Bevan coined the term “universalise the best”, but that also means universalising the best that we learn from elsewhere in the world. We must learn from elsewhere in the world about how to deal with scarcely populated areas and make sure that we have specific solutions for places such as Cumbria. We have not yet done that successfully, which is why I want the success regime to be concluded as quickly as possible, and with community buy-in, so that we can have the results that Members present want to see.
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).
North East Ambulance Service
[Mr Adrian Bailey in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the performance of the North East Ambulance Service.
We as a country pride ourselves on our world-class NHS services, which are the envy of the world. It is therefore always important that we highlight failures and shortcomings to ensure that our services do not fail our constituents when they need them most.
Strains on services are part and parcel of life in the NHS, but in recent years the pressures have been exacerbated by the Government’s policies. Ever since the Conservatives were elected to office in 2010, the NHS has struggled due to their mismanagement. In particular, the Health and Social Care Act 2012 implemented a costly, top-down reorganisation, which was neither needed nor wanted. It led to a disjointed funding model and resulted in my local ambulance trust, the North East Ambulance Service, running an expected budget deficit of £3.5 million for 2015-16. It comes as no surprise that I have received a growing number of complaints and concerns about the NHS in recent years, which is why this northern group of MPs decided that we had to call for the debate.
All the services that the NHS provides are important, but when someone suddenly falls ill in an emergency such as a stroke or a heart attack, or has a fall or an accident, it is understandable that they have high expectations of our ambulance service. The important work that paramedics do in our region day in, day out is undeniable, but, as the cases that my constituents have brought to my attention and those that have been reported in the press show, patient safety is in jeopardy. That is mainly due to waiting times, which, as the cases I will outline illustrate, have increased and are causing distress to many of my constituents.
For red 1 and red 2 cases—potentially life-threatening incidents—the trust remains below the national standard. Although that is reflected across the country—only two ambulance trusts in England met red 1 standards—it is concerning that, in our region, that failure has continued for the past three years, despite the fact that our response time of eight minutes is higher than the national average. That is exacerbated by the fact that red demand calls have increased by 21.3% in the past 12 months. The performance targets for the fourth quarter of 2015-16 were breached, leading to the trust’s third consecutive quarter breach.
I called this debate to give myself and my fellow north-eastern colleagues the opportunity to raise cases and concerns directly with the Government to ensure that our constituents receive the very best standard of service, which they rightly expect. It is right that we raise concerns with the Government, who are ultimately responsible for the service and can ensure that something is done about the problems we raise. I will touch on some of the many cases ranging from 2012 to 2016 that my constituents have brought to my attention, and I know that other Members will do the same.
I am most grateful to my hon. Friend for securing this extremely important debate. I am very concerned about the management. That was highlighted to me when I wrote a letter to the North East Ambulance Service about ambulance services in Teesdale. I got a letter back headed, “Ambulance services in Weardale”. The worst thing that happened was to Violet Alliston, whose partner rang three times in an hour. No ambulance came, and she died. That is obviously totally unacceptable.
I thank my hon. Friend for that very sad example, which I fear and predict will be one of many—perhaps not all with such a tragic ending—that we will hear this afternoon.
The correspondence I have received about ambulance waiting times in my constituency makes it clear this has been a persistent problem since 2012. I was first told about the problem with waiting times by the league chairman of the Wearside football league after he raised concerns with the North East Ambulance Service directly about numerous incidents. In his correspondence, he said that waiting times for football players who had broken their leg had continually gone over 70 minutes. In one case, after a player broke his leg, the league chairman called 999 at 11.40 am, but he was called back and informed that no ambulance was available and that he should take the player by car. He rang 999 back and complained that that went against what trained first aiders were told about not moving people with broken bones. An ambulance then arrived at 1 pm—80 minutes after the initial call—and the young man was taken to hospital.
Ever since that case, I have received a range of correspondence from other constituents highlighting failures and shortcomings in ambulances going out to emergencies. An issue particular to my local area—I do not think it is replicated in other parts of the region, although we may hear differently when other colleagues speak—is that ambulances struggle to get to certain parts of my constituency due to confusion in finding the address. That has been repeatedly brought to my attention by my constituent, Mr Walker, who for the past two years has highlighted the difficulty that ambulance crews have getting to the Usworth Hall estate in Washington. When a shocking murder took place in the area in 2014, the ambulance did not arrive for more than an hour and the man died.
An example of that failure happened when a woman was in labour and her sister-in-law had to deliver the baby because the ambulance went to the wrong street. The children of the woman in labour had to search the streets for the ambulance. When they found it, they guided it by foot, as they were not allowed on board, for more than a mile to where it should have been.
I could give many other examples. It has been a persistent issue for the residents of Usworth Hall, who, through Mr Walker, have highlighted their concerns and their exasperation at those problems. On each occasion, I forwarded their concerns to the North East Ambulance Service, which looked into each issue. To its credit, it has tried to address them. That was highlighted in a letter to me in July 2014, in which it explained that it had set up an electronic flag system for all residents in Usworth Hall and had a duty manager from its control room go out and survey the area for problems. However, Mr Walker contacted me again at the beginning of April and informed me that an ambulance was parked outside his house one evening. When he went out to speak to the staff, he found that they were lost and supposed to be in another street.
Paramedics understandably do not have the local knowledge that residents have, but sat-nav equipment is provided to help ambulances get to the right destination at the right time.
Does my hon. Friend think that those delays could be because of the shortage of paramedics and the fact that, as the service has admitted, it uses volunteers and private contractors to provide ambulances? That exacerbates the problem of people not knowing how to get to where they need to be.
My hon. Friend makes a very good point. I will come on to the shortage, which is running at about 15%, and the stress on paramedics, to which she alluded.
If the sat-nav equipment continues to fail, and if my interventions on behalf of my constituents and the ambulance trust’s action do not rectify the situation, there needs to be a serious investigation into what is going wrong. We cannot have our ambulances driving round lost on estates looking for the right street.
My most recent piece of casework is from February and is deeply concerning. It concerns my constituent, Mrs Ellen Sherriff. I feel that using the words emailed to me by my constituent’s husband, Mr David Sherriff, can help to highlight the situation and the distress that can come from having to wait hours and hours for an ambulance to arrive. I hope that you will allow me a moment to read out Mr Sherriff’s words, Mr Bailey. He said:
“Ellen became unwell at 10.35am yesterday morning with severe head pain on the right-hand side. She felt like she was going to pass out. I checked her blood pressure which was very high, so phoned 111 at 11am and spoke to a call handler who told me he was sending an emergency ambulance and not to be worried if it arrived with blue lights.
Two and a half hours later no one had come. Ellen remained unwell and could not stand any light.
I phoned 999 and was told the ambulance that was coming had been diverted to Cramlington but that we would be next unless a more urgent call came in.
At 2.40pm, a patient transportation ambulance arrived with two ambulance men. I asked why it had taken so long. They said given the circumstances Ellen should have been seen earlier. They had no equipment, not even a blood pressure machine. They said they couldn’t risk moving Ellen in case they caused the bleed in her brain to become life threatening and they would send for a paramedic. They would also remain here till he arrived. They also complained to the control room regarding the wait.
They sat outside until 5.30pm, 6 and a half hours after I first phoned. When the paramedic first arrived he examined Ellen and said she should have been in hospital 5 hours earlier.”
It was not until 6 pm, more than eight hours after the initial phone call, that my constituent, Mrs Sherriff, was admitted to hospital, where it was discovered that she did indeed have a bleed in the brain and that she should have been there much sooner.
Until Friday, Mr Sherriff was still awaiting a response to his complaint, which was sent in February. Perhaps the prospect of this debate ensured that he eventually got it. The trust has admitted errors in the handling and categorising of Mrs Sherriff’s condition, meaning that it was continually not treated with the urgency required. The trust has apologised and said that a “reflection and learning session” has been given to the original call handler, but this case could easily have had a tragic ending.
I thank my hon. Friend for securing the debate, which is important to all of us. Does she agree that the issue is not only with the ambulance service? Last summer, in the middle of the night, I took a relative to the university hospital in Durham. In the morning, when I came outside, I counted 12 ambulances stood outside the hospital and unable to discharge their passengers and get patients admitted. The whole system in the north-east is now simply not working.
My hon. Friend makes a valid point—we often hear about the queues of ambulances at accident and emergency. Patients have waited hours and hours for the ambulance to come, but when they get to the hospital, they sit in a queue outside. I have raised that with my local hospital. There is a huge breakdown in the system. Something is going seriously wrong, and it is completely unacceptable. Mrs Sherriff, a patient who had a suspected bleed in the brain, had to wait for more than eight hours before getting to A&E. That is truly shocking, and all those cases mentioned highlight concerns that the Government and the North East Ambulance Service must address.
I have one more issue to discuss before concluding, and that is to do with the numbers of qualified paramedics, which my hon. Friend the Member for North Tyneside (Mary Glindon) mentioned in her intervention. When waiting times are going up and demand is rising, we clearly need to look at workforce retention and recruitment. Our paramedics do an amazing job, but they cannot be in two places at the same time.
At this point, I want to place clearly on the record that I am not apportioning any blame or criticism at all to any paramedic or ambulance crew. They do an amazing job, under very difficult and trying circumstances, day in, day out, and they should not be placed in situations whereby, once allocated, they race through traffic to a call, within the appropriate time allowed, only to be faced with stressed and sometimes angry people, who say, “Where’ve you been? I’ve been waiting four, five, six or seven hours.”
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. I have an example from my constituency. A young lad, a teenager, had a road traffic accident, getting a compound fracture of the leg, but it took three hours for an ambulance to get to him.
When I met the ambulance chief executive, she told me that the problem is that the organisations that do employment and support allowance assessments are poaching qualified paramedics from the ambulance service, creating a great hole. There is a role there for Government, perhaps, to talk to the whole organisation, to see what can be done to put a stop to that.
My hon. Friend makes a valid point, which I will touch on, although he made the case well. We have to look at the slippage, to where in the rest of the health service the paramedics are haemorrhaging, and why. I will say more about that in a moment.
Paramedics are there to treat people and give them emergency—perhaps life-saving—healthcare, but before they can even start to treat them, they might first have to calm the patient and relatives down, because of something that was completely out of their hands. It is therefore no surprise that, nationally, there is a shortage of qualified paramedics, and all trusts are struggling to fill vacancies so that they can operate at full capacity. The North East Ambulance Service has a 15% shortage, and is plugging the gap with private and voluntary organisations, as my hon. Friend the Member for North Tyneside mentioned. The service has said, however, that it will be up to full establishment in a year, but how many more people will wait for hours and hours before we get to that stage?
Something therefore needs to be done about the recruitment and retention of paramedics, especially since evidence has shown that more staff are leaving the profession than ever. Also, mental health charity Mind reported that 62% of blue-light emergency service workers have experienced a mental health problem and, worryingly, one in four has considered ending their own life. It is shocking to think about the stress that those people are working under.
It is no surprise that research conducted jointly by Unite, Unison and the GMB revealed at the end of last year that more than 1,500 paramedics had left the service in 2014-15, compared with 845 in 2010-11—still a high number, but a little more than half the later figure. Of paramedics surveyed as part of other research by the three unions, 75% had considered leaving the profession due to stress and pay.
Action therefore needs to be taken on recruitment, which is why I welcome the work of my local university, the University of Sunderland, which in partnership with the North East Ambulance Service has launched a diploma programme in paramedic practice. It will pair theoretical study with practical training over two years, and it will help to address the shortages faced by not only our regional trust, but other trusts around the country. That innovative work by my local university, alongside that of the outstanding paramedic practice degree at Teesside University, which is seen as a beacon of best practice in our region, if not the country, is important and will help.
It is, however, unsustainable not to address strategically the staffing shortages and the increasing demoralisation of a workforce who are haemorrhaging away, because that is clearly having an impact on waiting and call-out times for emergencies. That is why I hope that the Minister will address those concerns, and outline what the Government are doing to deal with recruitment and retention. How will she work with my local ambulance service trust to ensure that it reaches the target of being fully operational by this time next year? How will the ambulance trust ensure that those who are recruited into the field are retained and do not slip off to work for other parts of the health service, so that we do not see further shortages down the line?
It is important that our emergency ambulance services are up to the standard that we all expect. That means working collaboratively among ourselves, as the local Members of Parliament who represent our constituents and their concerns, and with the Department of Health, NHS England and the North East Ambulance Service Trust. Our constituents deserve the best standards in our NHS, and it is up to the Government seriously to address pressures on our NHS services, especially the case of the workforce in the ambulance service.
I hope that the Minister has listened carefully to my concerns, and will listen to those that my colleagues from the north-east who have attended the debate today express. I look forward to hearing what she has to say at the end of the debate.
I will call the Front-Bench spokespersons at 3.40 pm. Simple arithmetic will demonstrate that if I am to get everyone who wants to speak to speak—I want you to speak as well—you need to confine your remarks to about six or seven minutes. I will be grateful if you follow that guidance.
I wish to make a brief contribution to the debate. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) on securing a debate on a matter that is of importance throughout the north-east of England. This is an important service, run by good people under extraordinary pressure. To give an example, on Monday 7 December last year, there were 1,837 emergency calls to the service. That is equivalent to new year’s eve and was a 46% increase on the year before. That was accompanied by 1,664 calls taken by the 111 service.
The service is fast becoming a gateway to healthcare as others become more difficult to access and some, such as walk-in centres, are no longer there at all. Repeated requests to the public to call the service only in life-threatening situations can do only so much. I accept that a certain amount of problems are caused by hoax calls and other misuse of the service. People who do such things are completely irresponsible and stand to be condemned, but that is not at the heart of the problems faced by the service in our region.
I would like to touch briefly on a number of issues. The first is commissioning, which is not one of the strongest features of the Government’s national health service reorganisation. How focused are the commissioners on the service they are supposed to be in charge of? Are they working alongside the chief executive in a supportive and encouraging way? When has their role ever been reviewed or carefully considered by those in charge? There is a case for looking at that and at staff morale, as my hon. Friend rightly said, and asking ourselves why it is as it is. Surveys of the service show that 90% of staff are stressed. That is consistent with the picture that came from her address—and no doubt will come from colleagues—of a service that is trying to do its best under enormous pressure.
Like my hon. Friend, I welcome the establishment of the diploma of higher education in paramedic practice, which will start in September at the University of Sunderland. That two-year course has been created to try to meet the shortage of paramedics in the region as well as the national shortage. Evidence suggests that the grading of posts may be too low, and I would be interested to hear the Minister’s views on that. It seems odd that, in a region such as the north-east, where unemployment levels are still higher than the national average, there should be a persistent vacancy rate of between 10% and 15% in the service.
One of the issues raised with me on recruitment challenges is that it costs £1,200 to get a driving entitlement for C1 vehicles. For many people, that cost is extremely prohibitive and constituents have said to me that that has put them off applying for those kinds of jobs.
My hon. Friend is on to a good point. There is something odd if, in a region of higher than average unemployment, it is difficult to fill those vacancies not just in a single moment in time but persistently. We should look at all barriers to entry into the service. I accept what she said, but I harbour the thought that gradings may have been set too low and that there is a case for upgrading the job.
I have two other points to mention briefly. Legal highs are again putting more pressure on the service as young people in particular misuse them. I suggest that it is not a good idea to take them at all, but taking them results in the ambulance service being called out. There were something like 20 incidents, including a cardiac arrest, in a single day—8 February—and so far this year there have been about 300 call-outs because of the use of legal highs. I harbour the view that they should not be legal, but perhaps that is a different debate.
Finally, I want to mention the pressures that will be put on the service if the supported accommodation proposals that the Government are considering come to pass. If vulnerable people who are housed in projects and given support to lead their day-to-day lives are denied that support and left to their own devices, the consequence for the police, accident and emergency services at hospitals and ambulance services will be much greater, rather than lesser, pressure. That is not the right direction of travel for our society.
I represent a very rural seat in north Northumberland, where, in January 2015, we had the tragic case of the entirely avoidable death of a young man because an ambulance did not get there in time. The Secretary of State instituted a national review on the back of that to look at the issues that triggered that tragedy. I am grateful for that, and we have made progress.
Some issues have come out of that, and the North East Ambulance Service should be commended. In my area, ambulances go to Northumbria hospital—our new emergency-only hospital. Some colleagues have already mentioned that we have been seeing the queuing of ambulances as they arrive at the various hospitals. I am not familiar with the wider north-east hospital framework, but at Northumbria it was quickly evident that that was a problem. To its credit, the North East Ambulance Service sent a paramedic to help in the triaging process, along with a specialist nurse who was diverted from other duties, to improve the process when the ambulances arrive—the hospital knows when they are going to turn up because they phone ahead—and to do a better job in ensuring that patients were removed from said ambulance and that the kit was returned to paramedics so that they could crack on with the next case.
That has been working well. We have seen a much speedier process, so I would commend that to colleagues, who could encourage other hospitals in the region to look at doing that. That has been an investment, but without doubt the cost-benefit not directly to the hospital but to the overall health package for our constituents has been hugely improved, because ambulances are back in the system. We were also then able to ensure that Northumberland-based ambulances were coming back up into Northumberland and not being taken to 999 calls elsewhere in the region, leaving paramedics working 14 or 15-hour days to get the ambulance back to Berwick or Alnwick. I commend the ambulance service for listening on the challenging problems we had and trying to make improvements.
At Northumbria hospital, the figures for urgent and emergency attendances read like this for the past three months: January had 12,911, which was a 12% increase on 2015; February had 13,731, which was a 30% increase on 2015; and March had 15,146, which was a 24% increase on 2015. However, only 24% of those cases needed emergency hospital admission. Something is broken. We are overloading our ambulance service with calls that demand an emergency ambulance, but, once at the hospital, only 24% needed emergency care.
My concern is twofold, and I ask the Minister to look at how we can make progress on this. First, the algorithm that the 111 and 999 systems demand that staff in the call centres use is dramatically risk-averse. I do not want anyone who is having a cardiac arrest to be told they have heartburn and not be sent an ambulance; quite the opposite should happen. However, a few years ago, the North East Ambulance Service built the lower-level 111 system and tested it before it was rolled out around the country.
I hear what the hon. Lady says, but is not the real problem that 111 was rushed in and relied on technology? When it originally started, we had trained paramedics in the call centres who could categorise cases. There is clear evidence, which I will present, that, if something is not deemed life-threatening or someone is not having difficulty breathing, the case is categorised as green. The figures produced are meaningless.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comment. Quite a few of my constituents were among those experienced staff. Some were retired midwives or had worked as nurses and then moved into the call centre framework. There was a big shift a few years ago to downgrade the medical qualifications required for those staff. We are starting to see a change in that, because the new chief executive is mindful that the huge increase in demand is partly down to staff’s inability to assess cases correctly. If they took another 30 seconds, they could assess properly the situation on the end of the phone.
Will the Minister work with the people who are writing the algorithm and building the system to get it right? The ambulance service personnel would then have a better tool to work with. That would also encourage ambulance services, and not just our own in the north-east, to go back to higher-value trained personnel who can ask the right questions and get the right answers, so that we do not end up with over 70% of emergency calls ending in someone getting to hospital and finding that urgent care was not needed.
The other side of this issue, which I have been campaigning on with St John Ambulance, is the need to help families to be better educated so that they can assess their own medical conditions. Other than for cardiac arrests, strokes and such evidently dramatic changes, it is often not emergency care but urgent care that is required. We need to encourage people and build their confidence in assessing for themselves whether they should go to the pharmacy or the doctor or call for an emergency service. We need to do that across the board, focus on it and drive it forward.
St John Ambulance wants to get into every single school, so that we are teaching young children the difference between what to do if they burn their finger on the kettle—put it under the tap, instead of dialling 999—and what to do in an emergency, such as if granny falls down the stairs. The next generation would then have confidence in knowing the difference between when emergency care is needed and when they can manage and find the right care over a longer period.
Our paramedics will not be able to continue meeting the demand, much of which is inappropriately placed on the ambulance service. We should make much better use of our amazing paramedics and ensure that retention is higher, because they are valuable members of our community.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) on securing this debate. In the past 18 months, I have heard about 12 quite serious cases. The ambulance service is in crisis, and that is not down to the men and women who work in it; it is down to the management. Urgent action is needed if we are to avoid people dying and prevent the suffering that my constituents are going through.
I will give a flavour of that suffering. In July 2014, in Chester-le-Street, a woman’s husband has severe angina. The first responder arrives and says he needs an ambulance. Three hours later, the ambulance arrives. A gentleman falls in Chester-le-Street from a six-foot fence and bangs his head. He is told to stay and wait for an ambulance. He waits two hours for an ambulance that does not arrive, so his neighbour takes him to hospital. A lady in Sacriston, which is about 10 minutes from the local hospital, has severe abdominal pains and is passed out, unconscious, waiting two hours for an ambulance to arrive. In Tanfield Lea, an 86-year-old lady has a fall at 9.30 pm on 13 February. Her partner is told by the ambulance crew not to move her. After several calls, the ambulance arrives on Saturday morning at quarter to 1. Apparently it had been diverted to Newcastle.
Patient transport is also an issue. One constituent, who had had a stroke and severe mobility problems, was waiting for patient transport to a medical appointment but was told that the ambulance would not attend. Another constituent from Stanley was transferred from his home to the Freeman hospital for regular dialysis. He had to wait two hours for transport back home, leaving him in severe discomfort. Another constituent who lives in Chester-le-Street found a young lady passed out outside her front door. She called an ambulance, and an hour and a half later, the ambulance arrived.
In New Kyo, a constituent complained that a young woman was having a fit in the local bus station. One hour and 10 minutes later, there was no response. She called the police, and they got the ambulance to arrive. Another constituent from Chester-le-Street needed to be transferred from Bishop Auckland hospital to the university hospital of North Durham. The request was made at 5 pm. She arrived in hospital at 1 am the following morning.
In Beamish, a lady fell down a flight of stairs and called an ambulance immediately. The first responder said she should not be moved. Two and a half hours later, an ambulance arrived. In March this year, an elderly lady in Sacriston—literally a 10-minute ride from the local hospital—waited an hour and 47 minutes in the cold north-east winter, being comforted by her neighbours with blankets, having broken her shoulder.
The last case I will touch on, which I have permission to mention, was raised with me by Mrs Irwin in east Stanley. Her 69-year-old mother-in-law, Joyce Irwin, had a fall on 14 March at 7.20 pm. Her son, who lives with her, came home and rang for an ambulance at 7.25 pm. He was advised by the controller that an ambulance would be there within the hour. Nothing happened. Her eldest son arrived and rang both 999 and 111. The first responder arrived at midnight, without any pain relief, and Joyce Irwin therefore had to wait until 1.10 am—four and a half hours later, having been on the floor in excruciating pain—for an ambulance to arrive. When she was finally delivered to the university hospital of North Durham, she found she had a broken hip. It is worth reading what Mrs Irwin says. She states clearly that her mother-in-law was in excruciating pain and was promised an ambulance that she did not receive. She says that Joyce has
“worked and paid her duties all of her life”.
Is that the way to treat our constituents in the 21st century? I suggest not.
There is something severely wrong with the North East Ambulance Service. I have a particular problem with the way in which it treats elderly people. My hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West said that the service is missing its targets for red 1s and 2s, but fall cases such as those I mentioned are not even put down as red 1s and 2s; they are put down as greens. In many cases, these are elderly people who have broken bones and are in severe pain, but they are put down at the bottom of the queue. Will the Minister interrogate the hospital trust about the way it is prioritising cases?
I have been told anecdotally by a firefighter and a policeman that if someone wants an ambulance to arrive quickly, they should ring them up and say that a person either has chest pains or is unconscious. They will then get an ambulance straight away. In this day and age, it is not acceptable that our constituents—elderly, vulnerable people like Joyce Irwin, who have done the right thing all their lives—are treated like that. They have worked hard and paid into the system, and they expect in their old age that if they need the NHS in an emergency, it will deliver. It is not only the individual who is affected. The trauma also affects their families and loved ones, who, in Joyce Irwin’s case, saw her on the floor for four and a half hours in excruciating pain. That is simply not acceptable.
May I also ask the Minister to tackle the North East ambulance trust about its response to Members of Parliament, because it is absolutely diabolical at responding to Members’ complaints? I have had many complaints from people who have called an ambulance when they have seen an incident and they ask why the ambulance took so long. When I inquire, the ambulance trust responds, “We cannot discuss that case because of patient confidentiality,” because the complainant was not affected. That is complete rubbish. Those people do not want to know what happened to the individual; they just want to know why an ambulance did not turn up. It is interesting that we have got this debate today, because I recently had a flurry of answers to my questions, but I say to the Minister that there is a serious issue about how Members of Parliament can represent their constituents who complain to them.
I have a similar problem—if the Minister wants to intervene, that would be helpful—with the North Durham clinical commissioning group, which has failed to answer any complaints at all, so I have raised the matter with NHS England. There is something seriously wrong with the North East ambulance trust, although it is not down to the hard work of the individuals who work for it. They do a tremendous job in very difficult circumstances. There is also a question about the priority system that uses algorithms, as the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mrs Trevelyan) suggested.
There is a question about rurality as ambulances are diverted to more urban areas rather than rural areas. I did not think I would say this, but it might be time to break up the North East Ambulance Service and put it into special measures. It covers a large area and is completely failing. Will the Minister look into whether it is fit for purpose in the long term? I do not think it is. Urgent action is needed. People are not only suffering, but they have lost faith in the service, which is a terrible thing. What should be a flagship service—North East Ambulance Service—that people call upon only in a time of need is clearly failing.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) on securing this debate.
I declare an interest as a former chairman of the northern region of the National Union of Public Employees and as a former president of Unison. For 15 years I had the privilege of representing ambulance staff. I first became their representative a year after they were described by the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke) as little more than glorified taxi drivers. We were in the middle of an ambulance dispute at the time, so he probably did not really mean what he said, but there is one thing for sure: the staff are true professionals trying their hardest against insurmountable odds to try to deliver the quality public service that we all rely on, and it was to them I turned for this debate.
A constituent of mine retired from the ambulance service last year due to stress-related illness. I asked him, “What is the picture today? Can you give us some idea?” and he sent me an email this morning in which he said a number of issues have been going on for quite some time. He said that there is huge pressure on the services, especially over the winter period, and they ask the public to call only in genuine emergencies. Increased waiting times outside A&E hold up crews continually. The shortage of funding and paramedics results in long waiting times for patients. He goes on to say that they rely on charities to supplement the shortfall. They recently had to call on a charity to supply volunteer doctors over Easter to help with the response to the most urgent calls. There is a shortage of at least 15% of qualified paramedics and a large increase in the use of private companies, but the capabilities of such staff are not known. According to Unison, staff stress levels have increased and 90% of staff say they have suffered work-related stress owing to long hours and staff shortages. One member is quoted as saying that the levels are dangerous. There is also the ongoing issue of the Government continuing to put pressure on people whose morale is low by keeping in place an eight-year public sector pay freeze. People doing very important work are being penalised for doing it.
Like my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr Jones), I asked my office to give me a snapshot of the information that people have been feeding to us. I will quote from some emails. Pam, who lives in my constituency, wrote:
“Hi Dave, developed a problem with my left leg which according to 111 merits an emergency ambulance to take me to A&E. I have had a phone call from a paramedic apologising for the delay but please can you tell the Tory toffs that I have waited 2 hours for this ambulance and still no signs.”
Someone from Swalwell, near the very busy A1 in my constituency, wrote:
“An old man, aged 74, had to wait (lying bleeding on the cold ground in the rain) for 80 minutes for an ambulance. He fell just outside of my house...He was bleeding profusely throughout the entire 80 minute wait. Another neighbour repeatedly called for the ambulance and kept being told they were busy and that ambulances were being diverted to more urgent cases. We were unable to move the gentleman because of the amount of blood he was losing and also we weren’t sure if he had broken anything. He was cold and uncomfortable lying on the wet pavement. I brought out pillows and blankets. Other neighbours brought out bandages and towels and held umbrellas over him. I ended up calling a friend of mine who is a nurse, specialised in head injuries. She arrived very quickly and was able to work out that he was bleeding so heavily due to medication he was taking which was stopping his blood from clotting.”
“I understand there are limited resources but an old man lying in the rain bleeding heavily should not be left for so long. By the time the ambulance arrived, his wife was feeling dizzy and struggling with...shock.”
A 76-year-old went to a councillor’s surgery in my part of the world. She told the councillor that she had had to wait an hour and a half for an ambulance and that when she was contacted she asked why she could not go to the hospital in Hexham, which is closer and where she would normally go. She was told that she was not allowed to go there. She had to go to the Queen Elizabeth hospital, which is at the other end of the A1 and in rush hour is a nightmare to reach. However, they insisted, so she had an hour and a half of waiting and then went to a hospital that made the wait even worse.
Another constituent, Mrs Waller, wrote:
“I recently contacted your secretary...regarding my husband...who is a palliative patient, he had a fall in the bathroom 14th March at 10.05 am and it was 15.20pm before an ambulance arrived. I rang 999 which was the advice given if this ever happened, I had to make a further two calls and my husband’s palliative nurse also made a call as well”,
as did my secretary from my office.
“I do not wish to have a go at the ambulance service but this is the problem that Mr David Cameron has caused due to the cutbacks in the NHS. No one should have to spend almost five and a half hours on a cold wet room floor. There was no way I could get my husband up due to his reduced mobility because of his cancer.”
The North East Ambulance Service is in the Minister’s remit. Basically, she is presiding over unmanaged decline. A hands-off attitude is unacceptable and not worthy of such a cherished institution. My hon. Friend the Member for North Durham spoke about the people who created the health service: the people who can remember what it was like before 1948 and how desperate it was. They have paid into the service all their lives and it is a cherished institution in this country, yet it is being rubbished because of the failures of the service that is in place. We must give the people who run and work in the service the chance to get it back where it was. The Minister needs to talk and listen to the people on the frontline.
Also, we need to listen to the people who pay for the service and for all of us to stand here and talk about it. They are the people who are important in this debate and they are the people who are being let down. The Minister needs to take action and put the ambulance service right.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey. Great credit must be given to my hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) for securing this timely debate.
The North East Ambulance Service is not creaking at the seams; it is totally and utterly broken. It is in meltdown, and that causes great concern. As has already been said, there is a total lack of any confidence at all in the North East Ambulance Service among the residents. It is failing people of all ages in their time of most need. As my hon. Friends have said, we must place on the record our thanks for the commitment and passion of the workforce in the North East Ambulance Service.
Unfortunately, there is a staff shortfall of between 10% and perhaps 15%, which has been mentioned. That puts huge stress on the remaining individuals, who must make up for the shortfall. My hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West suggested that 64% of people have complained about stress. There is a high rate of people employed in the service who cannot go to work any more because of stress; and is it not really alarming that one in four people has considered taking their own life: paramedics—people working in the ambulance service, who we are terribly proud of? We urgently need to look at the situation.
There is a complete lack of staff. The service is undermanned and underfunded, and we have not got the resources we need for the situation we have in the north-east. We have to ask why there is a shortage in the first place. I believe that the wages in the North East Ambulance Service are the lowest in the country. That is one factor. We do not have the resources to pay even on a par with the counties next to us. The wages, terms and conditions are much lower than those of other ambulance services.
Like all the other hon. Members who have spoken I want to mention a few instances. My hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West mentioned a young fellow playing football, who broke his leg on the pitch. Now, you would expect an ambulance to come and pick you up, wouldn’t you? Is that too much to ask if someone is lying in agony with a broken bone from playing football on a cold Saturday afternoon? Of course they would want an ambulance. We cannot just push people to the side and wait, and explain to them, “There’ll be somebody coming shortly.”
That is not even the most important example. Everyone who has spoken has given examples of what has been happening—mainly to elderly people. There are lots of elderly people in my constituency—Mrs Robson, for one. She is 78 years old. She slipped on a pavement in the middle of winter. She had to wait one hour and 40 minutes for an ambulance; but the message that comes is: “I’m sorry; you’re going to have to wait, because it is not at crisis point. You are not an emergency.” Of course she is an emergency. If a 78-year-old lady is lying on the floor crumpled in absolute agony, that is an emergency; but on paper—“Sorry, you’re not an emergency.”
I will tell hon. Members what happens. Someone rings up, and they have got a crib sheet in the central office. My hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) mentioned that if someone is unconscious or has got pains in the chest, the service will come to them. The first question is “Are they conscious? Are they breathing?” “Yes.” “Right. Are they bleeding?” “No.” Then, if they are conscious and not bleeding, they are put right down the pecking order. Quite frankly, it is simply not acceptable.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the morale of the call centre staff has been lowered? They can no longer care when they talk to people, but are like call centre handlers, with things being very automated; and they do the minimum to reassure patients because everything is down to time and hitting targets. They are no longer people dealing with callers who are in distress. They are not able or allowed to show any emotion or any support, because they simply have to deal with the call as quickly as they can, to get on to the next one.
What I am saying is not meant to be any criticism of the people in the call centre, either—because if they veer from the crib sheet they have got, they are in trouble; but it shows how bad the whole situation is.
I want to mention Mr Taylor. I must say that he is a relative of my wife, who waited 11 and a half hours for an ambulance to arrive. He was really poorly. Plenty of people came from the NHS and said, “He needs an ambulance”—and then someone says “He doesn’t” and someone says “He does,” and someone else says “He doesn’t”. When he actually got the ambulance, at 1.45 in the morning, he was in a coma. That was seven months ago, and he is still lying in a coma as we speak. If that ambulance had turned up before, he might not be.
I will not dwell on that point other than to say that that brings me on to the complaints procedure, because MPs have complained, as well, about what happens to our constituents. We get a chronological list of what happened, and why the ambulances could not come, because they were diverted to other more serious incidents. That is not good enough. It is not good enough for me to say to one of my constituents, “Your mam couldn’t get an ambulance because somebody else was more important”—when she was lying suffering. Or if someone has a terminal disease and is desperate, or someone has a chest disease—it is not good enough; and the complaints procedure is not good enough. They are not treating people like human beings.
I have got lots to say and not a lot of time to say it, but I am going to reiterate the fact that these delays are utterly unacceptable and we cannot continue on this basis with the North East Ambulance Service operating as badly as it is. Someone mentioned that the service will be fully operational in 12 months. I have heard that before. It is not good enough for the people who will trip, fall and stumble. It is not good enough for elderly people, or young people playing football.
My hon. Friend has obviously had the same letter from the North East trust that I have had; but does he agree, also, that it is not good enough because it is a question of our constituents’ confidence in the service? It should be a first world service, but it is more reminiscent of the third world.
I fully concur with my hon. Friend’s sentiments, and I am pleased about that intervention, because I think I might otherwise have needed an ambulance myself. I feel as if my blood pressure it is getting exceedingly high.
More seriously, we have to look at the North East Ambulance Service now. We cannot announce a review in weeks to come. We have got to get to the bottom of why the service is operating so badly. It is not meeting its major targets in almost every single category. It has been mentioned that it may perhaps be put in special measures, or that it should be broken up. To be honest, I do not have the answers, but one thing I will say is that the Government have to look at the North East Ambulance Service and improve it in the same way as in other areas of the country. There is no reason why people in my area, in the north-east, should be tret any differently from anywhere else in the country. We need to get hold of the situation immediately.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey. I, too, thank my hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson), not just for securing the debate, but for the passionate and thoughtful speech she gave, which got right to the heart of the issue. She articulated something that has been brewing among my constituents since I was elected last May. It gives me great concern and I want to share some experiences I have had.
Like my colleagues, I have become deeply concerned about the pressures on the North East Ambulance Service and their impact on my constituents. If someone is waiting for an ambulance, they are probably at one of the most distressed and vulnerable times of their life. Every minute waiting for an ambulance feels like an hour. Every moment is precious—vital; and there is a critical impact on people’s distress levels, and, as we have heard, their chances of survival. The Government must look at the situation to make sure that the service improves. I have heard far too many stories from constituents about people waiting several hours for an ambulance to arrive. As others have mentioned, that has affected elderly people particularly, and not just in minor cases—people who are elderly and vulnerable.
I want to mention a recent case, which happened just last month. A 72-year-old woman in Marske in my constituency fell and fractured her hip in the street in the centre of the village. She was left lying in immense pain on the pavement in the freezing cold. It is a seaside town and she was left virtually on the sea front for three hours. Thanks to members of the public and many local business owners who came out of their shops, she was cared for by the community; but we can imagine not just her distress but the distress and horror of the community at seeing such a thing happening in their village—someone at a vulnerable time in her life, waiting in agony for the ambulance that they had paid for with their taxes, and which they expected to come to support a community member. It was completely unacceptable that she had to wait in pain for so long.
Another constituent, an elderly lady of 99 years who was born during the first world war, fell in her home at the end of last year, breaking her arm in three places. She was in so much pain that her family did not want to transport her themselves so they called an ambulance. Again, it arrived three hours later. She was 99 years old. What sort of society are we? If a 99 year-old woman who has had a fall and broken her arm is not an emergency and top of the priority list, I cannot imagine who is. Thankfully, she was at home in the warmth of her house and not outside on a pavement, but who is to say that she would have been any more of a priority if she had been outside on a stone-cold pavement.
As many of my colleagues have said, something is wrong with the prioritisation of people, particularly of elderly people, who have paid, worked and strived for their whole lives. How can we as a society look ourselves in the eye when that is how we treat someone who was born before the NHS started and has contributed to the system?
A local district nurse told me recently of another incident, involving a bed-bound patient with a suspected ruptured bladder. Although a blue light was not needed, the patient required an urgent ambulance. They were given an initial response time of one hour, but the ambulance eventually arrived after five hours. That waiting time was completely unacceptable; and again, there was an issue of the ambulance being diverted.
That is important. If ambulances keep being diverted to more important calls, the original call becomes increasingly more urgent. The knock-on cost of the crisis in the service and the level of support that people need falls on the NHS, but more crucially on those affected, in the increasing danger they are in while waiting longer and in the agony and the tragedy they experience. That is where cuts have a serious impact, because they cost more down the line, as the service becomes increasingly crisis-led and ambulances are diverted to more urgent calls. What was a lesser priority becomes more urgent and more costly to the NHS and the individual’s life.
In highlighting these cases, I am not criticising the work of paramedics and switchboard staff, because they do a fantastic job on the frontline that I do not think I could do. We owe them a massive debt of gratitude. They work under extreme pressure, dealing with people in life-or-death situations, and often in dangerous situations. Many are underpaid or struggling with their terms and conditions. They sometimes have to deal with distressed or angry families, and who can blame those families when they have waited hours and seen their loved ones in agony while failing to get the most basic service they need?
I want to comment on the failure of the North East Ambulance Service NHS Trust. According to the ambulance clinical quality indicators, the North East Ambulance Service takes longer than any other region in the country to answer calls. It also has the highest number of abandoned calls in the country. Colleagues have given plenty of examples showing that the service is in crisis and cannot continue as at present. Our elderly and vulnerable constituents are suffering.
Constituents have told me that a crew said that the Teesside service has a lower headcount than it should have and that ambulances have had to come from Durham, which is why we get delays. Parts of the north-east are geographically spread out and rural, and it is just not acceptable that ambulances are having to come from Durham. The morale of our ambulance workers is low. They are overstretched and, despite their heroic efforts, pressure is leading to targets being missed and patients and our constituents suffering.
I look forward to hearing from the Minister what the Government plan to do to tackle the problem and ensure that the investment they have promised for the NHS will go to this vital, front-line service in the north-east to save the lives of our most vulnerable constituents.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) on securing this very important debate and on the eloquent way she made the case for her constituents, as have other right hon. and hon. Members for their constituents. People deserve a better service from the North East Ambulance Service.
I join other Members in praising the dedication and commitment shown by the thousands of paramedics who work in the NHS today. They are the best the NHS has to offer and they work under incredibly difficult circumstances delivering life-saving treatment. I add my thanks for the service they provide to us and to all our constituents every day of the week. Although ambulance services continue to deliver a good service for most, as we have heard today, they do not do so for everyone and the service is patchy across the country.
Members have spoken in detail this afternoon about the difficulties facing the North East Ambulance Service and the poor care that many patients have received from it. Over the past few years, the North East Ambulance Service has seen a dramatic deterioration in its performance against national response time standards. Between June 2012 and March 2013, the trust responded to 77% of the most serious emergency calls within eight minutes but, three years later, only 70% of ambulances were arriving within eight minutes. That is compared with the national target of 75%. The decline in standards is even worse for other emergency calls: that figure has fallen from 77% to 62%.
Behind each of these statistics are seriously ill patients and tragic stories of failed care. I hope that my hon. Friend will allow me to say that, when researching this matter, I was deeply shocked to read about an elderly man in her constituency who was told in December that he faced a five-hour wait for an ambulance after collapsing from a suspected stroke—a five-hour wait for an ambulance on the street in the middle of December. That is not what we should expect for our loved ones from our NHS.
When the Minister responds, I hope she will set out what actions the Department of Health is taking to prevent such incidents from ever happening again. The sad truth is that that decline in performance is not restricted to the north-east. The House of Commons Library has forecast that this year only three trusts in the whole of England will meet the national performance target for responding to emergency calls. The service in England has met the target only twice during the past 12 months, and more than 45,000 seriously ill patients have had to wait longer than eight minutes for an ambulance to arrive.
That is a worrying decline in performance. Too many people are being failed by the system and services are starting to fray at the edges. What does the Minister intend to do to improve the quality of care provided by ambulance trusts in England? What conversations has she or her colleagues in the Department had with NHS England about the performance of this ambulance service? What assessment is the Department making of the impact the decline in standards is having on the rest of the NHS in this region?
As we have heard, the truth is that that decline in performance is a symptom of a system that is at breaking point. All aspects of emergency care, from ambulance services to A&E departments, are struggling. In February, A&E departments in England reported their worse performance on record, with just 88% of patients being treated within four hours, compared with a target of 95%. During that period, every hospital in the north-east missed its A&E target and one in 10 patients had to wait more than four hours in A&E before receiving treatment.
Dr Cliff Mann, president of the Royal College of Emergency Medicine, told a national newspaper the month before last:
“The pressures have become unrelenting. In recent days I’ve been contacted by a number of senior doctors, medical directors, high-level people, who are saying the situation now is like nothing they’ve seen before…My own hospital had the busiest day I had ever experienced two weeks ago—these are situations where every time you turn round, there are another four ambulances queueing.”
Those are worrying reports. I ask the Minister to address some of the concerns raised by Dr Mann and to say whether she believes that they are isolated incidents or whether those pressures have become the norm in our NHS.
The North East Ambulance Service’s board has acknowledged that the decline in A&E services has had an impact on its performance. The trust’s most recent board paper said that there were 59% more handover delays of more than one hour in the first quarter of 2015-16 compared with the previous year and 60% more delays of more than two hours. The reality is that too often ambulance crews with vulnerable patients have to wait outside A&E departments because hospitals just do not have the space to admit them. I hope that, when the Minister responds, she will offer an explanation for that decline in A&E performance and explain how she will help trusts to turn the situation around, because A&E is struggling and in need of help.
Staff shortages are also a key factor contributing to the challenges facing the North East Ambulance Service. The region currently reports 15% vacancy rates for paramedics, which puts added pressure on existing staff. Local unions have warned that nine in 10 north-east ambulance staff are suffering from work-related stress due to excessive hours and staff shortages. Across England, the recent NHS staff survey found that almost half of ambulance staff felt unwell as a result of work-related stress and one quarter say that their employer does not take positive action on health and wellbeing.
It is clear that not enough is being done to support ambulance staff, and that is bad for patient care. Unhealthy staff mean unhealthy patients, and we cannot allow that situation to continue in the north-east or elsewhere in England. I therefore ask the Minister what steps her Department is taking to address staff shortages in the ambulance services in the north-east and across the country. Does she agree that more needs to be done to support the health and wellbeing of front-line paramedics?
It is clear from the speeches that we have heard today that this trust is struggling against a number of key performance indicators that are widely available. I hope that, when the Minister responds, she will agree that patients in the north-east deserve better than that. I hope that she will also agree that we cannot allow that dramatic decline in performance to continue and that something has to be done to stem the tide.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey. I thank all who have contributed to this important debate. Some extremely serious issues of principle and general practice and some very serious constituency cases have been raised. I doubt that I will be able to deal with some of the specific issues, particularly in relation to individual constituents, during the debate, but I have made a careful note, as have my officials, of some of the specific points and we will go through Hansard after the debate and ensure that we pick up individual points. I am extremely disappointed to hear that colleagues have not always found the trust as responsive as they would wish. I spoke to the chief executive yesterday in preparation for the debate and will certainly go back to that specific point, but I will come to some of the other general points as I move through my speech.
I just want to say that we are all aware that the chief executive, Yvonne Ormston, is new and has obviously inherited many of the cases. I would like to say that things have massively improved. I know that she is trying to turn the situation around, but what has happened will not all have been on her watch.
The hon. Lady makes that point very well and with her characteristic generosity of spirit. I am sure that that will be noted. I will take the issue forward with that very much in mind and I thank her for her comments.
Ambulance services are obviously vital to the healthcare system. We have heard this afternoon some of the reasons why. They provide rapid assistance to people in urgent need of help. Hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber have rightly put on the record their appreciation of the work done by staff in trusts across the country and by the front-line staff in the NEAS. I add my thanks to theirs. Inevitably, we bring problems before the House—that is right, because we want to talk about how we can move things on for our constituents—but it is possible for a member of staff reading the record of a debate afterwards to think that we had only blame and criticism. Today, however, all hon. Members have been careful to praise the very hard-working staff. As has been said, they are working under quite considerable pressure.
It will probably be helpful to provide some context about the national picture. We recognise that the NHS is busier than ever, which is why we are backing the NHS’s own plan for its future, the Five Year Forward View, with an extra £10 billion by 2020-21. The challenges faced by the North East Ambulance Service are reflected in many services across the country. Ambulance services are facing unprecedented demand, delivering over 2,800 more emergency journeys every day compared with 2010. That demand has an impact on performance indicators, such as response times, with ambulance services continuing to struggle with their targets. The Department is working closely with NHS England and with NHS Improvement to monitor and support performance in 2016-17.
In relation to the North East Ambulance Service, I spoke briefly to the service yesterday, in addition to having received quite a detailed briefing from it ahead of the debate. I am advised by the NEAS that the average number of the most serious incidents—red incidents—that it has responded to within eight minutes has changed very little over the past three financial years, but the volume of red incidents to which the NEAS has to respond to reach the 75% performance target has increased by more than 20%, from 370 a day in August 2015 to more than 440 a day now. That change in demand in particular has placed our front-line emergency care services under real pressure, rather than the responsiveness and capacity of service provision.
I hear this from the Minister and I hear it from the trust, but could I ask her officials or NHS England to actually delve into the figures? The hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mrs Anne-Marie Trevelyan) raised an interesting issue. This is actually about the ways in which ambulance calls are classified. There are clearly reds that are not reds, but the other point that I would like the Minister to address, even if she cannot answer it today, is the way older people are being treated, because they are being put down as greens, whereby they get no priority at all, and they are some of the most vulnerable people in our community.
Indeed. I have very much taken that point on board and I will try to respond, but if I do not do so today, I will certainly write to the hon. Gentleman, because it is a fair point. The more general point is where the ambulance service sits in terms of our response and general position on urgent and emergency care. I will respond to some of the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mrs Trevelyan), because I think that this sits within a wider, systemic challenge and I want to touch on that.
Every patient should expect to receive first-class care from the ambulance service, but the nature of emergency response work means that there will always be incidents in which unfortunate timing leads to a person assessed as being in a non-life threatening situation calling 999 at the same time as several other people who are in life-threatening situations. I am sure that hon. Members are realistic about that, but clearly we do not want to hear about such problems occurring on a very regular basis. Where that does occur, obviously the life-threatening situations must be prioritised and resources focused on those calls. Very rarely—unfortunately, we have heard about such cases this afternoon—waits may be unacceptably long. I do not shy away from that, but it is important to remember that the vast majority of people receive a timely response when they dial 999.
I have already said, echoing the words of the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson), who led the debate, that although the NEAS has not met the performance targets, that does not reflect on the hard work, dedication and skills of the local staff. A number of speeches brought that out. I am advised that although ambulance delays are the main reason for patient complaints, the number of complaints received in 2015-16 fell, but we do not want any complaints; that would be the situation in an ideal world. However, the fall is indicative of the fact that the efforts of the local ambulance staff are paying dividends. Although the performance target is effective in driving improvements and maintaining response times to the most critically ill and injured patients, it does not, inevitably, paint the complete picture of how a trust is doing.
I will talk about some things that the North East Ambulance Service, has put in place to bring about improvements to service, because that is the focus of the debate and people want to hear that the direction of travel is positive. The NEAS continues to expand the number of specialist clinicians working in its clinical hub who can provide telephone assessment and advice, and who can prevent the dispatch of an emergency response if it is not deemed necessary. That goes to one of the points made earlier. The trust expects that that will have a positive effect on response times.
Last winter, the NEAS piloted an end-of-life-care transport service, which provided three dedicated ambulances that were on call to respond to transport requests from healthcare professionals to take a person to their final place to die. The scheme has meant that emergency ambulances are not tied up in transporting patients when they are needed for more serious cases, and that terminally ill patients are not waiting a long time for transport to their preferred place of death. Although we do not often like to talk about end-of-life care, the preferred place of death is an important part of reducing stress at an inevitably very difficult time for an individual and their family. Results from the pilot were overwhelmingly positive and eased pressure on vital services.
Hon. Members have raised valid concerns about handover times between ambulance crews and emergency departments in the local area, and that is an issue across the country. Patient handover needs to be as efficient as possible to achieve the best possible outcome for the patients and to free up ambulance resource, but more can be done and is being done. Measures include hospital ambulance liaison officers, which are being put in place by the NEAS. HALOs are present in hospitals across the trust territory and I am advised that the trust has sought to make use of dedicated ambulance resource assistants as well.
The urgent and emergency care vanguard programme in the north-east will include the development of a standardised handover process for all acute providers, intended to minimise delays across the patch. That goes to the shadow Minister’s point about looking at the wider system. That will be to the benefit of crews and emergency departments. I understand that, as part of the vanguard, the NEAS also hopes to secure funding for a new “flight deck” information system that will enable diverts by ambulance crews to other hospitals to be proactively managed and will prevent ambulances from stacking up outside already full A&E departments. The trust believes that those initiatives will help to distribute A&E workload evenly and will be welcomed.
Several hon. Members have rightly commented on the recruitment challenge. It is very much recognised that there is currently a shortage of paramedics nationally and the NEAS trust is no different. We recognise that front-line staff are the vital component of a safe, effective and high-performing service, and work is being done by the NEAS to rise to the recruitment challenge. The hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West mentioned some things that are being done. Efforts include developing new advanced technician roles to support front-line services, and the trust is running a substantive recruitment of paramedics nationally and internationally.
The trust expects 77 student paramedics to graduate by February 2017, in addition to recruiting an additional 36 qualified paramedics in 2016-17. The trust has also recruited a total of 56 emergency care clinical managers, and that represents a significant investment in front-line clinical leadership. It also advises me that it expects to be up to full paramedic establishment by April 2017. I know that that commitment will be keenly watched by hon. Members.
Ambulance staff, along with other public servants, have effectively had an eight-year pay freeze. Their standard of living has gone down every year for the past eight years. Comparative jobs, particularly in the private sector, have not seen that level of control. There have also been pointers that the situation will not be alleviated in the next two or three years at least. Does the Minister not see that as a real reason that people will not come into the job? Yes, it is a vocation, but people have to put bread on the table.
Of course I accept that issues of pay are incredibly important. Although we cannot go into the wider economic picture, I gently say that the previous Government and this Government have made reducing the tax bill for some of our lowest paid public servants a huge priority. A huge amount of money is being spent on raising the threshold and that has made a huge difference to people’s take-home pay and standard of living. However, I hear the hon. Gentleman’s point.
I am encouraged that the trust is looking to the future by doubling the number of places on its two-year in-house graduate training programme. Hon. Members have made several thoughtful points regarding some of the wider issues around recruitment and retention. Maintaining staff morale has been mentioned. That is very important and the trust is looking at whether things could be done, other than pay, to attract and retain paramedics. We are looking at that nationally. The debate sits in the context of urgent and emergency care.
I thank the Minister for allowing the intervention. She mentioned the fact that we will probably be fully operational by April 2017. Will she guarantee the people of the north-east that she will take action to ensure that the NEAS will look after the people in our area in the intervening period?
I intend to follow up on this debate with my colleague in the Department of Health, Lord Prior of Brampton, who leads on the topic, and I will follow up with the service itself. I will make sure that all points raised by hon. Members are drawn to its attention.
The root causes of the increase in demand often lie outside the hands of the ambulance service. NHS England’s review of urgent and emergency care is taking a system-wide approach to redesigning the way that care is delivered. It is important to look at the provision of ambulance services in that context. We need to ensure that people with life-threatening emergency needs are treated in centres of excellence to reduce risk and maximise their chance of survival and recovery. The first part of that is about relieving the pressure on emergency services.
The response time targets are being considered as part of NHS England’s review to ensure that they incentivise the most clinically appropriate response. My hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed and the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) talked about having the clinically appropriate response in all contexts. I will ensure that we pick up on those points and draw attention to them. We hope to have advice from NHS England later in the summer on potential changes to ambulance standards in the context of that wider review of urgent and emergency care.
No, because I have an important point to make at the conclusion. If the right hon. Gentleman will forgive me, there might be another opportunity.
Ambulance services are vital to emergency care and the whole NHS. We all want to be sure that when loved ones suffer heart attacks or are involved in a serious accident, they will not be left waiting, although we have heard about some distressing cases. National targets in response to red, life-threatening calls exist to ensure that that happens, and we all have an interest in ensuring that the ambulance services perform well against them. I will follow up on the points made in the debate.
I draw hon. Members’ attention to the fact that a comprehensive Care Quality Commission inspection was carried out at the NEAS during the week commencing 18 April 2016. CQC’s formal report will be important for all hon. Members and Ministers to read. In the light of the strong feelings expressed in the debate, I think it would be appropriate for hon. Members whose constituencies are served by the NEAS to meet my colleague, the noble Lord Prior of Brampton, who leads on this portfolio, when the report is available to discuss. I hope that that will be helpful for hon. Members. In the context of that report, many of the points made this afternoon can be discussed with Lord Prior. I encourage all hon. Members to engage with the local NHS and to continue to work together to address the challenges in this critical element of our healthcare system.
If the right hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne East (Mr Brown) can make his intervention in less than a minute, he may do so now.
I definitely do not think that that question can be answered in less than a minute. Much of the answer lies in the work that Sir Bruce Keogh is doing as part of the NHS’s wider urgent and emergency care review. It is vital that we get people the right care in the right place at the right time. It is a complex picture, of which ambulance services are just one piece. More will be said when we know more about that review later this year.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the performance of the North East Ambulance Service.
Knife Crime (Sentencing)
[Philip Davies in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered sentencing for knife crime.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I thank the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton (Mr Raab), for being here to respond on behalf of the Government.
In this House we are all deeply concerned about rising levels of knife crime. When I was elected in May last year, I pledged to my constituents that I would do all I could to address the scourge of knife crime. Why? Because Colchester has seen too many young lives destroyed by crimes involving weapons. Many in this House will be aware of the tragic murders of James Attfield and Nahid Almanea, both of whom lost their life far too early. Two weeks ago an individual was convicted of their murders, and he has been sentenced to 27 years.
Too many people, particularly our young people, still find it acceptable to carry blades and knives. They wrongly believe that doing so will keep them safe, but let us be clear that carrying a knife does not keep people safe; it is illegal and it puts them and others in grave danger.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for securing such an important debate. Does he agree that education is a huge part of addressing the knife crime problem? Many young people consider themselves to be safe when carrying a knife. I am the chairman of the all-party child and youth crime group, and we have done work demonstrating that a lot of the knives are taken off those children and used against them.
My hon. Friend is right that education plays a key role, and I will return to that later in my speech. We have to get the message out loud and clear that, statistically, people are far more likely to be the victim of a knife crime if they are carrying a knife themselves.
What is troubling about the case involving James Attfield and Nahid Almanea is not just that the perpetrator was only 15 at the time of the murders but that, on 26 March 2014, he was in court being given a youth referral order for criminal damage and robbery at knifepoint. Seventy-two hours later, he stabbed James Attfield 102 times. Three months later, he brutally murdered Nahid Almanea with a knife.
I understand that, under our legal system, judges decide the appropriate action in each case, taking into account a number of different factors, including the facts of the case, the age of the offender, the maximum penalty and any sentencing guidelines.
I thank my hon. Friend for securing this important debate. He is making a powerful case. We also need to consider access to knives. I have come across a case in the west midlands involving the so-called “zombie” knife, which is a brutal weapon up to two feet in length and including several serrated blades. It has no practical usage, yet it is available online for just £8. Will he comment on access to knives?
My hon. Friend makes a good point. The Government have introduced measures on “zombie” knives. Where there are such weapons that serve no purpose other than to cause damage to another individual, it is absolutely right that the Government take action.
As Members of Parliament, we must trust judges to make the right decisions. However, there is undoubtedly a feeling in my constituency that the judiciary failed my constituents. There will also be people across the country who question how someone who robbed a newsagent at knifepoint, regardless of age, failed to receive a custodial sentence.
To be fair, the Government have done much to address knife crime. I welcome steps such as minimum custodial sentences for repeated knife possession and the commitment on police budgets, but we need to do more on education. I am fortunate to have two fantastic charities offering weapons awareness training in my constituency: KnifeCrimes.org, run by Ann Oakes-Odger, and Only Cowards Carry, run by Caroline Shearer. Those two inspirational women lost their sons to knife crime. There is a strong case for schools to teach pupils about the dangers of carrying knives.
In Derby we have recently had reports of increased levels of knife crime. Last week, somebody was threatened with a penknife in a school. Does my hon. Friend agree that projects such as Project Zao, which is run by the police in Derby to educate parents and children, are a way forward in addressing such crimes?
I agree. There is no question but that education will play a key role in addressing knife crime. There is no question but that there is a strong case for more schools to teach pupils about the danger of carrying knives. As I have found, Ministers regularly throw back the challenge that the demands on the curriculum are great, which I accept, but we are talking about one 45-minute lesson in years 9 or 10. I do not believe that would be a huge burden on the curriculum.
The purpose of this debate is to consider whether enough is being done on sentencing. It is often said that sentencing guidelines are just that, “guidelines, not tramlines.” I appreciate the need for judges to have discretion to sentence according to the circumstances of each case, but let us look at the statistics. In 2015, there were 54 instances of 10 to 15-year-olds being convicted or cautioned for threatening with a knife or offensive weapon, of whom three already had two previous convictions for possession of a knife or offensive weapon. Two of those three received a community sentence. Despite having already been sentenced twice, they received, in effect, a slap on the wrist.
Let us look more generally at simply possessing a knife or offensive weapon. In 2014, 2,725 10 to 17-year-olds were sentenced for possession of a knife or offensive weapon. In 2015, the figure went up to 3,103, a rise of 14%. Of those sentenced for possession of a knife or offensive weapon in 2014, 44 had two previous convictions and 17 had three previous convictions. How about last year? Seventy-five had two previous convictions, an increase of 70%, and 27 had three previous convictions, an increase of 59%. It is deeply troubling that we are sentencing more and more repeat offenders for carrying knives.
Let us look at first-time offenders. Of those sentenced in 2014 for possession of a knife or offensive weapon, 2,398 had no previous convictions. In 2015, the number went up to 2,699 with no previous convictions, an increase of 13%. If we are sentencing more and more children with no previous convictions for knife offences, is our approach to deterrence working? Lord Thomas, the most senior judge in England and Wales, said in 2014:
“There is obviously a really serious problem in relation to knives. The carrying of knives has become commonplace in gangs and with children who are very young… I think we need to look very, very carefully at the best way of using the various levels of sentencing to control the use of knives. I think this is something which is urgently required. We’ve been extraordinarily successful in this country in controlling the use of guns, but knives, particularly knives carried by 12, 13, 14-year-olds, is a major problem… This is a problem which is very, very serious, which is rightly a real concern.”
I welcome the new “two strikes” sentence, which means that adults convicted more than once of being in possession of a blade face a minimum six-month prison sentence and a maximum of four years. Young offenders, aged 16 and 17, will face a minimum four-month detention and training order. However, there is no provision for those under 16. During a debate on 3 March 2016, I said that the answer to youth violence is threefold: deterrence, education and intervention. As I have said, I want the national curriculum to be modified to include weapons awareness training. The Government should take another look at encouraging more schools to introduce weapons awareness lessons.
On deterrence, let me be clear that I do not want to throw vast swathes of teenagers in prison for possession of a knife or offensive weapon; it is far better to rehabilitate them in the community. However, there are three changes that I would like to see.
First, where an under-16 with a previous knife-related conviction is found to be using a knife in any violent crime or offence involving threatening another person, there should be a mandatory detention and training order. I believe that, in those cases, there is enough doubt about the effectiveness of a community sentence that the public safety argument alone requires a custodial response.
Secondly, where an under-16 with no previous convictions commits a threatening or violent crime involving a knife or offensive weapon, there should be a mandatory psychiatric assessment in addition to their sentence. Finally, I would like to see any under-18 who is convicted or cautioned for a first-time knife-related offence to be sent on a mandatory weapons awareness course as part of their sentence.
My hon. Friend makes a good point. The psychiatric testing would almost certainly have to be done prior to sentencing, but the weapons awareness course, by its design, would happen as part of the sentence; it would happen after sentencing. I would see that working in a similar way to the speed awareness courses for someone who has been caught speeding. They have to go on a course. The courses are often very shocking, as they are hit with hard facts. Often, young people—especially first-time offenders—need a hard look at what could have happened and what could happen again if they continue to carry and use a knife.
I am aware that making law around a tragedy is often the wrong approach. However, the evidence suggests that we are sentencing more and more teenagers for first-time knife offences, as well as more and more teenagers with a history of knife-related convictions. This Government have rightly recognised the importance of tackling youth knife crime and I hope that they will take on board my suggestions.
May I say at the outset that it is a great honour to serve, I think for the first time, under your chairmanship, Mr Davies? I know you take a very close interest in these matters.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Will Quince) on securing this vital debate. I also note with interest the thoughtful interventions made by other hon. Friends. I think I can safely say that we collectively share a desire to stamp out the scourge of knife crime.
I am particularly privileged to be able to respond to this debate. I should say at the outset that the Government are committed to keeping our streets safe from knives, which includes sending a simple, uncluttered and clear message: if someone carries a knife, they are more likely than ever to get a custodial sentence.
Unlawful possession of a knife or offensive weapon is a serious crime, which carries a maximum four-year custodial sentence. If someone is harmed, there are a range of existing offences against the person, including—as my hon. Friends will be aware—wounding or causing grievous bodily harm, which reflect the seriousness of the behaviour and the harm that is caused. The maximum sentence available for grievous bodily harm with intent is up to life imprisonment, and the use of a weapon is an aggravating factor in sentencing. I note that 87% of people convicted of this offence receive a prison term and the average length of that term has risen by more than a third since 2010.
Within that sentencing framework, it is for judges and magistrates to decide the proper sentence in individual cases, and they must take full account of the harm to the victim and the culpability of the offender. As politicians, we may sometimes be tempted to try to second-guess judges or do their job, but we have to respect judicial independence in sentencing on the specific facts of the individual case before the court.
At the same time, it is quite right, and not inconsistent, to say that we must also address victims’ concerns and fears, and the concerns and fears of the wider public. In December 2012, we introduced new offences of threatening someone with a knife in a public place or a school and causing an immediate risk of physical harm, which carry a minimum custodial sentence. Under the Criminal Justice and Courts Act 2015, we banned the use of cautions for offenders convicted of serious offences, including those who carry knives. Consequently, more people face the full force of the law.
I need to check the specific guidelines, but I think there is enough latitude for the courts to address that issue and take into account any involvement in a gang, and the particular characteristics of that gang, in relation to the sentencing framework. Of course, whether the courts place the right weight on that factor is difficult to say; as politicians, we can sit here and second-guess individual cases. However, I do not think there is any question but that judges have the power to consider all the facts of a case.
To continue with the measures the Government have taken, in July 2015 we commenced the provisions introducing a minimum custodial sentence for anyone aged 16 or over who is convicted of a second or further knife possession offence—that issue was raised earlier. I pay tribute to the tenacity shown by my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes) and Nick de Bois, the previous Member for Enfield North, in securing that change to the legislation.
That is the law, but often the real question is: how well is it being enforced? The latest figures show that an immediate custodial sentence is now the most common disposal for knife possession, compared with 2010, when most offenders could reasonably expect to receive a community sentence. In the fourth quarter of 2015, 31% of all offenders convicted of knife possession offences received an immediate custodial sentence, compared with 23% back in 2010.
The latest figures also show that 38% of adults were given an immediate custodial sentence, which is an increase of six percentage points from a year ago and an increase of 11 percentage points since recording began in 2008. Over the same period of seven years, the use of adult cautions for this offence has more than halved. Sentencing for young offenders has also become more consistently robust—that point was rightly raised earlier.
In the fourth quarter of 2015, 10% of young offenders received an immediate custodial sentence for possession of a knife, compared with 6% in the same quarter of 2007. The average length of custodial sentence for possessing a knife has also increased. In the latest figures, the average length was 7.7 months, an increase of almost two months on the same quarter in 2008. More people are being sent to prison, and for longer, for carrying a knife, which reflects the changes this Government have made.
Clearly, the sentencing that the Minister has been describing has been significantly tightened by this Government over the last few years, and I think all of us welcome that. However, does he agree that there is another side to this issue, which is about preventing knife crime in the first place? There is a real role for charities, county councils and police and crime commissioners to get together and ensure a serious education campaign in schools about the risks of carrying a knife and the devastation that knife crime can cause to the families who suffer losses as a result.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right; as usual, he hits the nail on the head. Of course, there is nothing inherently contradictory or inconsistent in saying that we want to send a very clear message from law enforcement and the criminal justice system, while also trying to do as much as we can through education and raising public awareness to prevent these awful crimes from happening in the first place—for the victims, but also for the offenders, who sometimes, through gullibility or naivety, get dragged into things that, with some education, awareness and nurturing, they could have avoided in the first place.
I want to refer to the Sentencing Council, because it is currently preparing a draft sentencing guideline on possession of knives and offensive weapons. It will be subject to full public consultation later in the year, which will provide an opportunity to inform the definitive sentencing guideline and the approach to be taken by the courts in dealing with these very serious offences. That will be another opportunity for us to consider whether we have got the balance right.
In relation to the question about gangs, having taken advice, I can confirm that if an offender is acting as a member of a gang, where two or more offenders are acting together to commit the offence, that is an aggravating factor in the sentencing guidelines and, of course, all courts must follow those guidelines. My hon. Friend the Member for Stevenage (Stephen McPartland) raised the important issue of gangs, and I am glad that I can provide some clarification about it.
The introduction of minimum sentences for offences of possession of a knife, blade or offensive weapon sends a crystal clear message: if people carry a knife, they can expect to face a custodial sentence. That message from the law enforcement community and the criminal justice system is crucial for victims, their families, the wider communities affected, the general public and those who might be tempted to break the law.
I am aware of the tragic murders by James Fairweather and the circumstances around that case. I note the interest and concern expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester. He will know that I cannot comment on individual court cases, as sentencing is a matter for the judiciary, independent of us politicians. I send my deepest personal condolences to the families of his constituents Nahid Almanea and James Attfield. I note that this is a complex case, given the mental health assessment of the perpetrator. I note in particular that four separate psychiatrists were required to give expert evidence at the trial. James Fairweather was sentenced on 29 April to detention at Her Majesty’s pleasure with a minimum term of 27 years. I also note that the critical learning report into James Fairweather’s earlier offence and referral order concluded that the subsequent murders were neither preventable nor predictable. Clearly that is zero consolation for the victims’ families, and I reaffirm that in such cases as this, we always seek to learn lessons for the future.
Tackling knife crime is an ongoing high-level priority for the Government. As my hon. Friend has already mentioned, it requires a team effort across Government and law enforcement agencies. Knife crime offences recorded by the police remain 12% lower than in 2010, but I accept that there is more to do. In February, we supported 13 police forces to undertake co-ordinated action against knife crime. That involved targeting habitual knife carriers, weapon sweeps, test purchases of knives from identified retailers and the use of surrender bins. A new week of activity was held at the end of April, with 11 police forces taking part. That is exactly the kind of preventive work that we should be doing, and we continue to attach a high priority to it.
In February, the Home Office jointly hosted a meeting with the Metropolitan Police Service and the national policing lead aimed at retailers selling knives. More than 80 retailers attended. On 23 March, the Government published the “Modern Crime Prevention Strategy”, which sets out a range of measures to strengthen our response to knife crime, including: working with the police and industry to ensure effective controls on the sale of knives and other offensive weapons; identifying and spreading best practice; and delivering measures designed to deter young people from carrying knives. As my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull (Julian Knight) called for, that will also include a ban on the sale and importation of “zombie-killer” knives, which so horrifically glamorise senseless violence.
When it comes to the sale of knives more generally, the law is clear that a retailer commits a crime if they do not take proper steps to ensure that they are not selling knives to under-18s, with the exception of smaller-bladed pocket knives. On 23 March, the Home Office agreed a set of principles with major retailers to prevent under-age sales of knives in their stores and on their websites. That point was made earlier. The Home Office will work with the British Retail Consortium to develop the principles and to encourage other retailers to sign up to them. We want retailers to buy into and be proactively engaged with them.
I am conscious of the time and, in particular, the fact that we have a vote coming up. In case others wish to contribute, I will quickly make a couple of points about the education of young people. That issue was rightly raised. We know that intervening early can stop young people becoming involved in the gang culture that fuels youth violence. On 17 November, the Early Intervention Foundation published a report setting out its research into the risks and protective factors that can lead to young people becoming involved in youth violence and gangs. It attached importance to early identification and intervention. The Home Office is working with the Department for Education to promote these messages to schools and children’s care homes, which are another important area.
I again take this opportunity to pay tribute to the vital work that my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester does at a local level in Essex with the local charity Only Cowards Carry. That is incredibly important work. A lot of that localised work is as important, if not more important, than the stuff that comes out of central Government. We have a role to play in supporting and spreading awareness of that work. There is also Charlie Taylor’s wider review of youth justice, which provides a timely opportunity to assess the causes of youth offending and how better to respond to drive down reoffending.
Ridding our streets of the scourge of knife crime will remain a high-level priority for the Government and for future Governments. We can never be remotely complacent, not even for a moment. That means educating youngsters to steer clear of knives and gangs in the first place; preventing retailers from selling knives to youngsters; targeting the police response in the most effective possible way—that, I suppose, is the role of the Ministry of Justice—and continuing to send a clear message from the criminal justice system that carrying knives will not be tolerated and that those who do are more likely than ever to be sent to prison, and to be sent to prison for longer.
Question put and agreed to.
In five minutes we are due to start the next debate. The Minister is not yet here—not unreasonably, because we are not due to start as yet. There will be a vote very shortly in the Chamber. Taking those factors into account, the sitting will be suspended until no later than 4.45 pm, after the vote has taken place. We will start back as soon as everyone else arrives. It is courteous to wait until the debate is scheduled to start, by which time there will be a vote.
For those people who have not done an hour debate before, the normal format is that the two Opposition parties get five minutes each for the winding-up speeches and the Minister gets 10 minutes. Hopefully, the Minister will leave a couple of minutes at the end for the proposer to wind up the debate. I intend to call the Front Benchers no later than a quarter-past 5 or thereabouts.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered Anglo-Russian relations.
It is, as always, a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I called this debate because I am very concerned about the growing anti-Russian sentiment in the House of Commons. Even for having called for the debate, a senior member of the Government today called me “Comrade Kawczynski”. I have been accused of being an apologist for President Putin and criticised for even daring to raise this subject, so I have prepared a personal statement, which I hope you will allow me to make, Mr Davies.
Of all the Members of this House, I have deep and personal reasons to dislike and distrust Russia and its actions. As many hon. Members know, I am of Polish heritage. Poland suffered terribly at the hands of the former Soviet Union, and like so many Polish families, mine was no exception in experiencing that suffering. My grandfather was a successful landowner and farmer whose life was ruined by the interference of the Soviet system, which was often brutally unfair, corrupt and flawed. It would be easy to cling to prejudice and allow it to colour my view of the world today, yet as a British citizen and a proud Member of this House it is my job and my duty to argue strongly in favour of what I believe will best serve Britain’s long-term security, stability and prosperity, even if that means encouraging détente and dialogue with a country that was born out of the remnants of the oppressive regime that so crippled my grandfather in Poland.
I could not go back to Poland to begin with, because of martial law in the Soviet-imposed regime and what was happening in Poland, but when I first went back in 1983 and met my grandfather, he spoke to me at great length about what it was like living under communism. He spoke about the oppression during the second world war from the Soviets and the Russians. He died in 1986—just three years before the fall of communism—but before he died, he said to me, “I will never see the end of communism, but you will.” He knew that the financially illiterate and politically Orwellian system that the Soviets had imposed on us was completely incompatible with the human spirit and soul.
When I think of the period in which my grandfather died, during those early years of détente, I think of the extraordinary lengths Reagan went to to meet Andrei Gromyko in 1984; I think of how Margaret Thatcher met Gorbachev for the first time in December 1984, despite all the difficulties that we had at that time with the Soviet Union—it was still in Afghanistan and was posing a huge threat to our country. It saddens me that today there does not appear to be the same level of good will and determination among our Government Ministers to engage in the same way with the Russian Administration.
There is a one-sided debate, and it is all negative towards Russia. My experience over the past 11 years—you and I have been in the House for the same amount of time, Mr Davies—is that when we do not have proper debates in this House, that is when tactical and strategic errors are made. That is why it is so important that we debate this issue.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. May I suggest another reason why we do not understand Russia well enough? It is that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office needs greater resources to better understand events on the ground generally. It is a known fact, now widely recognised, that there were, for example, no Crimea experts in the FCO at the time of the Russian intervention in Crimea. Since the end of the cold war, the FCO has continuously wound down its Russian coverage. Does he agree that that needs to be put right, so that we understand events on the ground better, including the complexity that is Russia?
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. It is a privilege to serve with him on the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs. I very much hope that the report that we are starting on Anglo-Russian relations will delve deeper into some of the shortcomings and lack of resources available to the Foreign Office to understand Russia and our engagement with it better.
I thank my hon. Friend very much for giving way. He is clearly passionate and knows a lot about the subject. However, one shadow hangs over all this: the murder of Alexander Litvinenko. Speaking as an observer who comes to Anglo-Russian relations from a different angle—or from an angle that is not too used to them—that was a crime carried out on British soil, seemingly with the connivance of the Russian state, so until it is dealt with, our relationship will always be poisoned to a certain extent.
I will come on to that later in my speech, but it is important that my hon. Friend also reads the Russian submission on the subject, which was made to the inquiry on Anglo-Russian relations being undertaken by the Foreign Affairs Committee. I very much hope that he reads it.
President Putin is now being treated almost as a pantomime villain in this House. I would like a pound for every time someone says, “The only person who wants us to pull out of the European Union is President Putin, because that will destabilise the European Union and cause difficulties.” In fact, the Russian Government are one of the few Governments that have not made any statement on the matter. Unlike certain people I could mention who have come to our country and tried to interfere in our domestic referendum, the Russians have not made any official statements on whether they believe we ought to continue to be a member of the European Union.
I debated this issue at the Conservative party conference against a close friend, my right hon. Friend the Member for North Somerset (Dr Fox), who is very hawkish towards Russia and has a very different view from mine. I respect him greatly and I voted for him to be leader of the Conservative party in 2005, but we disagree fundamentally on Russia. Amazingly, it was the one time at a Conservative party conference when I have been mobbed—in a nice way—by young people, because they were so surprised that a Conservative Member of Parliament was challenging the situation and talking about how to lower tensions with Russia and to improve relations. They were so pleased that someone was doing that and they wanted to engage with me.
The Foreign Affairs Committee is now undertaking a report on Anglo-Russian relations. We started to take evidence yesterday with two leading academics, Dr Derek Averre, senior lecturer in Russian, foreign and security policy at the University of Birmingham, and Dr Andrew Monaghan, a senior research fellow at Chatham House. They gave us a very enlightened view and a very different perspective from the one given by our Government. I am pleased to say that, later this month, as part of our inquiry the Foreign Affairs Committee will be visiting Moscow and spending five days there, meeting our Russian counterparts. To get the most balanced perspective, we will be returning to the region in July to meet people in countries that neighbour Russia—Ukraine will be one and Moldova another, but I will be participating in the second leg, which is a visit to Poland and Latvia.
I am pleased that I have managed to convince the Committee to visit Poland. Anyone who thinks that the distrust of and hostility towards Russia are bad in London should try Warsaw. The Poles are even more sceptical and antagonistic about Russian motives, and to a degree I am becoming very unpopular in certain Polish political circles for daring to challenge that. Why do I do it? I do it because I still remember what my grandfather said to me and the complete destruction of Warsaw in 1944 and thereafter. We must do everything possible to avoid war, and to avoid war for future generations. I am greatly worried about the ramifications further down the line if we continue this abject hostility towards Russia.
My intention is to make the report as robust as possible in order to highlight FCO mistakes in dealing with the Russians and to put forward constructive proposals on how our Government should be going the extra mile and showing the British public that they are straining every sinew to ensure that no stone is left unturned in our determination to seek a constructive relationship with the Russians and something we can work on towards peace.
As a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee, I had the privilege—I am not sure that it is a privilege—a few weeks of going to Brussels as part of the Committee’s delegation. There were 28 representatives from the 28 countries and we had an opportunity to meet Jens Stoltenberg, the Secretary-General of NATO. I posed the question to him: “What are you, as the Secretary-General of NATO, doing specifically to lower tensions with Russia?” In a public way he said something very constructive—much more constructive than I have heard from any British politician. He said, “Well, you know, I was Prime Minister of Norway. We have a border with Russia and I had to engage with the Russians on all sorts of different issues, whether to do with fishing, security or the Arctic circle and exploration. We built quite a good relationship with the Russians and we found it very constructive to engage with them.” Needless to say, I am delighted that the Secretary-General of NATO spoke in those terms in such a public way to me and other representatives during our meeting in Brussels.
It is not the politicians who suffer from the ongoing sanctions—we politicians will continue to receive our salaries and to do our jobs—but the small and medium-sized enterprises who have tried to work with and export to Russia and seen their exports blocked or destroyed. I represent an important agricultural community in which cattle farming is one of the main sources of income. As I could not make an official delegation to Bryansk in Russia, I sent a cattle farmer from my constituency to represent me. Those discussions went so well that ultimately the Russians sent 15 of their top agronomists to Shrewsbury to meet with us and spend time with our cattle farmers to try to understand the cattle industry in Shropshire. As a result of those discussions, I am proud to say that we struck an agreement with the Russians to lift the ban on British beef imposed after the BSE crisis. That is potentially worth hundreds of millions of pounds to the British cattle industry. My right hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire (Mr Paterson), who was then Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, signed the agreement in Moscow, which would have led to great export opportunities in the cattle industry. Of course, all of that has been washed down the plughole as a result of the sanctions.
It is not just the beef industry. There are not any representatives from Scotland here, but the Scottish fishing industry is losing a great deal.
I am sorry. As I am sure the hon. Gentleman will come on to say, the Scottish fishing industry is suffering greatly as a result of the sanctions imposed, as is the dairy industry. The Shropshire dairy industry is on its knees as a result of bovine tuberculosis and the lowering of prices that our farmers are paid by supermarkets. My Shropshire dairy farmers are going out of business in unprecedented numbers and all their exports to Russia—not just cheese and milk, but other dairy products—have been wiped out as a result of the sanctions.
I direct the Minister to some information I received from France the other day. Last week, the French National Assembly adopted a non-binding resolution inviting the French Government to lift the economic sanctions and other retaliation measures imposed on Russia by the European Union. The resolution was presented by a conservative Member of Parliament called Thierry Mariani. Although non-binding, several of his fellow conservative Members of Parliament have welcomed the move—in particular, former French Prime Minister François Fillon—and it will clearly put pressure on the French Government ahead of the next review of sanctions in July 2016.
Through their Foreign Ministry, the French Government factually stated that EU sanctions remain linked to the implementation of the Minsk agreements, and expressed their willingness to ensure the unity of the EU on this matter. That is very important. The French National Assembly’s resolution gives me the impression that many in the French Parliament want sanctions to be rescinded, and that they could be lifted if the Minsk agreements are implemented. What is the British Government’s perspective on that? The key question I would like the Minister to answer is: were the Minsk agreements implemented, would the British Government support the removal of EU sanctions? Or do they have an extra requirement, as I have been led to believe in the past: that Crimea would have to be returned to Ukraine before they would support the removal of sanctions?
In all my interactions with Foreign Office Ministers, I have been given the impression that the British Government would not support the removal of sanctions unless the Minsk agreements were implemented and Crimea were returned to Russia. As somebody who has visited Crimea on several occasions, I have to say that there is not a cat in hell’s chance of the Russians returning Crimea to Ukraine during the course of my political or biological life, and I will eat my hat if they do so.
Sanctions should be in place only with something tangible and achievable as the end result. I genuinely believe that, if the implementation of the Minsk II agreement were secured, that would be the sensible moment for us to start to talk to the Russians about getting rid of sanctions. If the Government’s attitude is, “No, we want Crimea returned,” they are doing us a great disservice by putting our constituents, ourselves, our prosperity and the likelihood of improving relations in jeopardy and peril.
I know others want to speak, so I will try to wind up quickly, but I want to say how pleased I was with the Iran agreement. We were facing the insoluble, difficult and highly complex problem of nuclear proliferation in Iran. I pay tribute to the Foreign Office and its diplomats for the leadership they displayed in securing the agreement. There is no doubt in my mind that the agreement would not have been achieved without the unique contribution of British diplomacy, but Russia was also a part of the agreement. It made an extraordinary contribution and is doing the heavy lifting on the agreement to protect the region and to protect peace.
The American Secretary of State, John Kerry, said in a press release:
“A number of commercial transactions made this shipment possible, with many countries playing important roles in this effort. Russia, as a participant in the JCPOA and a country with significant experience in transporting and securing nuclear material, played an essential role by taking this material out of Iran and providing natural uranium in exchange.”
That goes to show that, if we work with the Russians constructively, they can bring different things to the table. They have different experiences and different contacts. If we can work with the Russians on securing this vital deal with Iran, why can we not work with them in other important theatres such as Syria?
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. He has spoken at some length about his background and heritage and, indeed, about the welfare of cattle and the potentially lucrative nature of the cattle business in his constituency. He mentioned the Minsk agreement but said nothing whatsoever about the reasons for that agreement, which were Russian aggression, the conduct of hybrid warfare and thousands of lives being lost in eastern Ukraine and, to some extent, Crimea. That cannot be simply brushed under the carpet. The Minsk agreement and the sanctions are there for a good reason. Will he address those points?
We all know what led to the conflagration and the difficulties that ensued in Donetsk and Lugansk. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, but I am focusing on trying to secure peace now. Implementing the Minsk agreement and getting back to normalised relations are more important than what specifically led to the conflagration in the first place. I am glad he intervened. As I discussed with him yesterday, as a fellow member of the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs, he has said in the past that he thinks the British Government ought not to have ruled out military action over Crimea. He has stated that Britain should have potentially got involved militarily. Well, if he wants a third world war and nuclear destruction of both entities, he is going the right way about it.
Let us agree to disagree on that. I think that that sort of sentiment is highly dangerous and could lead to significant destabilisation in our relations with Russia.
The Russians believe we have acted unilaterally in the world, and they have seen some of the terrible difficulties we have got into with Iraq, Libya and Afghanistan. They want to ensure we can work constructively with them to bring peace about in Syria. As I have said, the Russians bring different things to the table. We need to compartmentalise the relationship. We can still disagree with the Russians profoundly over Syria and Ukraine, but let us get back to dialogue over matters of security and energy security while we continue to disagree with them. [Interruption.] I will wrap up my comments because you have indicated, Mr Davies, that I have spoken for long enough.
Russia has watched our disastrous intervention in Libya and our prevarication over Syria. Russians would argue that their intervention in Syria has helped to stop or temper the ongoing bloodbath of the past five years and that they have saved the European Union the misery and suffering of having to deal with hundreds of thousands more migrants coming across the sea to Greece.
When I think of the tremendous work done in Tehran, which I visited recently, between Churchill and Stalin to put their differences aside in fighting fascism during the second world war—when we had even more differences of opinion with the Soviet Union than we do with Russia today—I think to myself that we ought to also have the courage and vision to put our differences aside and work with the Russians to fight modern-day fascism. ISIS poses a similar threat to both entities in Syria, Libya and on the streets of European capitals, with the bombing and terrorism that is taking place. Let us put our differences aside and work with the Russians to deal with that threat.
My final statement is this. On 15 March, the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart) said:
“The Foreign Secretary said that he has not talked to Mr Lavrov. Is that because Mr Lavrov is refusing to take his call, or that he has not yet tried? If it is the latter, why not?”
The Foreign Secretary’s response—I want you to remember this, Mr. Davies—was:
“Again, experience is the answer. I have not tried to make the call, and I am in no doubt that I could predict quite confidently the outcome of such a call to Foreign Minister Lavrov. I have had many conversations with him over the course of our regular meetings at Syria-related events, none of which has been fruitful.” —[Official Report, 15 March 2016; Vol. 607, c. 800.]
What a terrible statement to make: “None of my discussions with Mr Lavrov has been fruitful, so there is no point in making a telephone call.” No, no, no. The Government have got to change their stance and engage with the Russians, for the security of our country and the international community.
Our relationship with foreign powers is, I believe, totally inconsistent. We chide Russia for abuses—and, by the way, nothing I say is pro-Putin; I am not getting involved in that. I am just talking about double standards. We chide Russia for abuses but kowtow to China, whose abuses are far worse. If we were outside observers looking at that situation, what conclusion would we draw? That there is a double standard; and that is the only conclusion that Russians draw. We in the west have failed totally to take into account the Russian mentality when dealing with these problems. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) on the way he moved the motion, and on trying to understand how Russians think. That is important in framing our foreign policy.
Ukraine is a perfect example. The country is ideally placed as a bridge between the two worlds—Europe and Russia. Indeed, in Russian, Ukraine means “borderland”. To Russians, Ukraine is not a foreign country. Russian orthodoxy, as far as they are concerned, was founded in the Kievan Rus 1,000 years ago. We may not agree with this, but for them Kiev is as much the spiritual home of Russian orthodoxy as Canterbury is to us the home of the Anglican Church. Clever Ukrainian statesmen could have held a fine balance, playing one side against the other for the good of their country, as of course India did during the cold war. Instead, Europe and the west had to barge in with, I believe, an insufficient understanding of Russian or, indeed, Ukrainian history, or people’s thinking in the region.
We in the European Union invested millions of pounds, euros and dollars to influence Ukraine away from Russia and towards the west. Because one side insisted on owning the bridge and the other side, naturally, would not let it, now the bridge is in tatters and burning; and it is the ordinary people of Ukraine—and of Russia, subject to sanctions—who are suffering. Of course, as my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham says, Russia will never in our lifetime give up Crimea. After all, the Russians believe and know that the overwhelming majority of people in Crimea want to be part of Russia. So they believe that we are playing with double standards. They all remember that Krushchev signed away Crimea to Ukraine with a stroke of a pen in the mid-1950s.
The psychotic zeal for permanent expansion of the western European sphere of influence, at Russia’s expense, gains us nothing. Actually, all we have done is significantly destabilise our eastern flank; and what about the good of Ukraine? Crimea is now permanently lost to it. We know that—it is a reality. The eastern regions are enveloped in a low-level violent conflict. Whatever we may think of Mr Putin or the Russian Government, clearly our interference has not worked out for the benefit of people living in Ukraine. Russia can, we all know, with little effort or cost to itself—I am not defending it, just describing the reality—support and maintain a constant low-boil conflict in eastern Ukraine for some time.
Therefore, any real effort to secure peace, stability and the rule of law in Ukraine—and peace and stability is what we should be about, is it not?—must of necessity take into account Russian fears and interests. That is the reality on the ground. If it does not, and if we just take an absolutist line, imposing sanctions, putting the Russian embassy in London and the Russian Government into deep freeze, and not talking to Mr Lavrov, we will achieve nothing and there will be no prospect of success. What would that mean for the relationship between our two countries? Our strategy for Anglo-Russian relations should be to engage, engage and engage. By all means be firm, but engage.
Last week, I chaired an investment forum—I am chairman of the all-party group on Russia—and there is significant interest among British and European businesses in strengthening their presence in Russia. The Governments of Germany, France and Italy are actually increasing their business, unlike our Government. Given our historical alliances with Russia, the Russians cannot understand why our Government and our Prime Minister are outriders. They are way beyond the Americans, the Germans and the French in their anti-Russian stance. The Russians cannot understand it. Let us remember for a moment who, frankly, saved our bacon in two world wars. How many tens of millions of Russians died in Nazi Germany’s invasion? We should remember that, with the unfortunate exception of the Crimean war, Russia has for centuries been our natural ally. We are two powers on the eastern and western extremities of Europe.
If we respectfully and confidentially engage with Russia, we will get the most out of that relationship and start making constructive advances. Blind and mindless Russophobia gets us absolutely nowhere. We should build economic links, strengthen cultural links and seek to work together on issues such as defeating Daesh, where UK and Russian interests overlap. Daesh is our enemy; Russia is not. Russia poses absolutely no strategic threat to the people of the United Kingdom. It does not and never has done in our entire history, but Daesh does.
Of course Russia is a great power, and it naturally tests defences as part of its training of its own people, but does anybody in this Chamber seriously believe that it poses a strategic military threat to the United Kingdom? We are no longer in the cold war; it is over. I do not defend Russian aircraft approaching the United Kingdom, but I do not think for a moment that there is the remotest chance of their actually engaging in military action with us.
Daesh is our real enemy. Allowing its reign of terror to continue simply because we dare not co-ordinate our plans with nasty Mr Putin is cutting off our nose to spite our face. The only winner in that scenario is Daesh.
If we are truly to help the people of Syria, as the Government purport to want to do, does the hon. Gentleman agree that we must have a positive and constructive dialogue with Russia—a key player in that theatre?
That is precisely what my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham and I are saying and what we are trying to urge on the Minister. Assad and the Russians are not going to go away. As the Minister said very eloquently in the House of Commons yesterday, since the second world war, Russia has viewed Syria as an essential ally. I agree entirely with the hon. Gentleman. On every level, we must be constructive, confident and respectful—and I mean self-respect, not just respect for the other side. The way we kowtow to China can reach demeaning levels, which is why I say we are engaging in double standards.
The hon. Gentleman made a good point when he said that Russia fought on our side in the second world war. So did the Chinese. To illustrate the significance of this issue, Xi Jinping, on his visit to the UK, was very complimentary about British membership of the European Union. Although the Russian Government have not made an official statement about their position, President Putin is known to believe that the UK should be outside the European Union.
That is a remarkable statement. How do we know what Mr Putin thinks? All I can say is that I have discussed that with the Russian ambassador, and he gives the correct line on behalf of his Government. Mr Putin has made absolutely no comment, certainly in public—we have no idea what he says in private. There is simply no evidence that Mr Putin is somehow engaged in some massive conspiracy to encourage Great Britain to leave the European Union. I rather think that in practical terms he has other things on his mind. Russia has made no statement in public. It is neutral on this matter.
Constructive, confident and respectful engagement is the best way for our two countries to flourish together. If we engaged in that way, the appalling conflict in Syria might have some chance of being brought to a conclusion. Assad will not go away and the Russians will not go away, so the Minister should pick up the phone and encourage his boss to pick up the phone to do what Kerry is doing and speak to Lavrov every week. That does not in any way mean support for everything Mr Putin does, but only with constant engagement in building relationships can we make some progress towards peace in Syria.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I thank the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) for bringing this important debate to the Chamber.
As we approach the end of President Obama’s presidential term, it is helpful to remind ourselves that he started his presidency by looking for a reset of US-Russia relations. Before we move on to consider how the UK and NATO might be responsible for a share of the current crisis, it is worth noting that Russia could have been the principal beneficiary of any reset initiated by the American President, but instead pursued a policy that has made such thinking difficult.
From the occupation of Crimea to similar provocation in eastern Ukraine, Russia has shown scant respect for or acknowledgement of Ukraine’s sovereignty, something it had to agree under the Budapest memorandum. However, I have just returned from Moscow and the Kremlin and it is clear that the Russians see themselves as merely defending their own backyard. There have been many incursions into UK waters and air space. For those of us in Scotland where no Royal Navy ships are based, the feeling of exposure is real.
We have witnessed military exercises simulating invasion of the Baltic states. Do the Russians intend to intimidate peoples who peacefully asserted their right to self-determination and have gone on to become valued members of the European Union? We note these developments because it is vital to us as a NATO member and as a member of the international community to ensure that these small states are protected from any undue influence on Moscow’s part and that their sovereignty is protected. We do that not because we are allied to these states, but because small states play a vital role in the international system. They have consistently expanded international law to bring about the norms that are so important today.
Russia sees itself as a world power along with China and America and its view of Ukraine, the Baltics and the High North is that it is simply protecting its interests and its economic resources. However, we must not let the deterioration in Anglo-Russian relations, whether our fears are real or imagined, cloud our judgment of the new phase in our relationship with Moscow.
The Defence Committee, of which I am a member, has recently undertaken an inquiry into UK-Russian relations and it has become increasingly clear to me, the more evidence we hear underlining the threat that Russia poses to the west, that the debate is down to our inability to understand correctly where we stand as a nation. Although we may not agree on everything in this debate, the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham has taken a vital step along that path.
I agree absolutely with that statement. Our discussions with many ambassadors in Moscow last week suggested that there was almost a time warp of thinking at the moment and that people are still fighting the cold war and thinking it is still a reality. The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace said that this is a new era and time for a new relationship with Russia, and that fighting the wars of the past is just not appropriate in the modern world.
We must also think about the UK Government’s position and where the blame lies for the current situation. Right from the start of the current Government, tough rhetoric has emanated from Downing Street and Whitehall. One would think that the UK knew where it was going on Russia, but the reality, the truth, is quite different. If people begin the discussion from the standpoint of seeing Russia as their No. 1 threat, that will not create a sense of trust or understanding with the Russian people or their Government.
In parliamentary answers that I and other Members have received in the past year, we see examples of disengagement at ministerial level. There is a sense that the UK has given up on trying to understand Russia properly. Not only have budgets for the BBC World Service’s Russian service been cut, but there are now only 15 members of Her Majesty’s armed forces who can speak Russian to a reasonable level. Substantial cuts are also forthcoming in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. They are aimed at devaluing our ability properly to understand Russia.
The hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham cited the case in which we had discussion about the Syrian ceasefire and our own Foreign Secretary failed even to call his opposite number in the Kremlin. We cannot have it that our Foreign Secretary does not call, does not write, does not make contact with a key player in a foreign policy area. That is simply unacceptable.
The situation is not without positives. We had the NATO-Russia Council a few weeks ago. We hope that something positive will come from that as we reach the Warsaw summit. There seems to be very good news as well on cultural events and business. However, that does not change the fact that we need substantive talks in terms of where the UK is going on direct relationships with Russia. I think that everyone who has spoken so far is of the opinion that those relationships must be improved, and improved very quickly.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I thank the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) for securing the debate. It has been exciting for me: I spend so much of my time talking about the European Union that it has been great to get out and look at something slightly wider.
The UK has had a difficult relationship with Russia in recent years. It could well be described as complex and fluid, and occasionally hostile; it has rarely got above cool in the past 70 years. Economically, this country’s trade with Russia is modest and has been on a decreasing trend in recent years. Nevertheless, it is important that disruption to our trading relationship with Russia is kept to a minimum, because it has an impact on companies in this country and particularly on pension funds that invest in companies such as BP.
Outside the economic and trade interest, several main potential threats to Anglo-Russian relations arise as a result of Russian foreign policy, particularly in Ukraine and Crimea, and NATO’s response. They include: the presence of a number of Russians in the UK whom the UK has refused to extradite to Russia; Russian money—I am talking about criminal money, money laundering of Russian criminal money in the UK and its impact on our society, which is largely on the housing market in the capital—and the UK’s response to recent Russian involvement in Syria.
The UK Government, in their 2015 national security strategy, stated that Russia’s actions in Ukraine justified a stronger NATO response, but deemed Russian military action against NATO “highly unlikely”. We have taken a quite pragmatic approach to Russia. We recognise that Russia is flexing its muscles, largely to impress and threaten those states on its borders, but is being very careful not to threaten larger and stronger states and organisations such as the UK, the EU and NATO. We would recognise that as typical bullying behaviour. Despite all that, the national security strategy, as has been said, seeks to build on successful co-operation with Russia where it can. We have seen that happen quite successfully in the Iranian nuclear programme and co-operation in seeking to address the global threat from ISIL/Daesh.
In the past decade, a number of controversial Russian figures have been granted political asylum in the UK, and the UK Government have refused to extradite them at the request of the Russian Government. That has put huge strains on the Anglo-Russian diplomatic relationship, with a series of expulsions on both sides. However, whatever the rights and wrongs of Russia’s criticism of our asylum system, it is absolutely unacceptable that Russian criminals can come to this country and commit murder on the streets of London, as in the case of Alexander Litvinenko, only for the Russian Government to refuse to extradite those against whom a prima facie case has been established, in breach of international law. That case has renewed focus on Russian money in the UK, and its alleged links to Russian corruption.
In 2015, the National Crime Agency said that foreign criminals—it highlighted Russian criminals—are laundering billions of pounds of corrupt Russian money in London, pricing average Londoners out of being able to buy or even rent in central London. In 2016, the Prime Minister is to hold an anti-corruption summit and, among other things, I hope it will hold up a mirror to tax havens in the UK Crown dependencies and overseas territories, and so improve transparency in the UK property market.
Finally, I want to say something about the UK’s response to Russian involvement in Syria. Russia has a long relationship with the Government of Syria and regards Syria as being in the Russian domain of influence. However, the recent Russian military intervention has had mixed results. Human rights organisations working in the region have reported that the Russian military targeted hospitals and civilians, claiming that, in the six months to February 2016, Russian air strikes killed 1,000 civilians, including 200 children. Equally clearly, the Russian military intervention has helped to drive back ISIL/Daesh and, without doubt, it has strengthened the position of Bashar al-Assad and his Syrian army. It has also had some impact on forcing him towards a shaky truce, which we hope will solidify and, in the days ahead, include Aleppo.
It is clear to me that Vladimir Putin understands strength and weakness, and very little else. He alone supports the UK voting to leave the European Union, when every other world leader and organisation that wish this country well want us to remain in the EU. That can only be because he sees a Brexit as resulting in a weaker UK and a weaker EU, which he views as a good thing. Anglo-Russian relations will remain stable and, we hope, improve only if the UK remains part of a strong NATO, a strong European Union and a strong western alliance that is prepared to stand up to the aggression of its neighbour to the east.
This has been a well-informed and useful debate. I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) on bringing it to the Floor of the House.
My hon. Friend began with a personal statement and a reflection on his own journey and his understanding of the importance of such bilateral relations. I pay tribute to him for adding value to the House by bringing to our attention not only Russia, but other countries, and aspects of the relationships, concerns and issues that we might not necessarily have been aware of. That is important, and I pay tribute to him for it. I absolutely agree with him that we need to have such debates and that we need to understand better our complex relationship with Russia.
Russia is a country that I did not know an awful lot about before I came into the House. I took a huge interest in Afghanistan, but I had not really appreciated Russia and what had happened in Afghanistan until I did some reading. I read an amazing book, “Afgantsy”, by Rodric Braithwaite, who did a fantastic job in letting me understand the details rather than the headlines, which might often articulate a very different picture. I recommend the book.
The lesson there is to ensure that we continue to develop relationships, to have dialogue and to further, where we can, the bilateral bond that exists, despite some of the challenges that have been focused on today. There is no doubt an aspiration for a more co-operative relationship with Russia. Indeed, at the end of the cold war, I remember those amazing scenes with Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and Gorbachev, and I remember glasnost and perestroika—these words became known and are now, I think, in the Oxford English Dictionary. The end of the cold war brought a new opportunity to re-engage with a country that, after the end of the second world war, had denied to Europe the chance to work as it should.
However, it is now clear that the integration of Russia into the international system was short-lived. Efforts were made to include Russia in the G8, the World Trade Organisation and the Council of Europe, of which my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) was an active member, and to address the Russian perception that the west was determined, and had a strategy, to encircle Russia. Efforts were made across those fronts and to mollify Russia and say that NATO is not a threat but a reactive organisation, ready to go proactive if required.
For a time, those efforts brought Russia and the international community closer together, but a more mature and co-operative partnership has not blossomed. Much that we now see is because of President Putin’s unfortunate disregard for international law and standards. One issue that affected us directly, and was on the front pages of all our newspapers, was the 2006 poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko, a British citizen, here in London with a radioactive substance. An independent judicial inquiry in January 2016 concluded that the crime was probably approved by the then FSB director, Nikolai Patrushev, which led to concerns about the manner in which Russia goes about dealing with those who wish to speak up or challenge what it says.
Other actions by Russia have also been raised in this debate, and concerns have been raised about its direction of travel. Russia invaded Georgia in 2008, and my hon. Friend talked about Crimea as if it had been written off. I wonder whether the people of Crimea are aware of how people in South Ossetia or Abkhazia are enjoying life now. They are completely isolated, and are recognised only by Argentina and Russia itself. The rest of the world has no formal relations with that part of the world. Is that really where Crimea wants to go? I do not know.
The occupation of Crimea in 2014 raises a question mark, and my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham asked the Prime Minister at Question Time whether he encourages greater relations. The international community must stand up when nations decide to redraw the lines on the map. It is important to recognise that the international community must work together, and we have seen Russia providing military support to separatist forces in eastern Ukraine in a blatant attempt to destabilise the country. The United Nations suggests that more than 9,000 people in eastern Ukraine have been killed, with more than 20,000 wounded. Sadly, the situation created the conditions for the Malaysia Airlines MH17 tragedy, in which 298 passengers and crew, including 10 British citizens, were killed.
All that instability, and human misery, was and is entirely avoidable. We can move forward from this—for those who are not aware, sanctions are divided into two separate categories: those affecting Crimea and those relating to the Minsk agreement on the eastern Ukraine—and, yes, we can get back towards more normalised relations if the Minsk agreement is recognised. It is in Russia’s gift to do so, and we encourage it to take the necessary steps to provide a diplomatic solution to the crisis that we face.
On a positive note, despite our differences, there is no desire to isolate or ostracise Russia, or to push it away. Quite the opposite: we want Russia to be included in the international community. We have heard examples of the role that Russia plays as a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, participating in a range of foreign policy priorities, not least on the Iranian nuclear deal, which has profoundly changed the trajectory of where the middle east may go—I say “may” because there are an awful lot of caveats and concerns. To date, Iran still has yet to change its behaviour and outlook towards places such as Bahrain, Yemen, Damascus, Syria and Beirut. Nevertheless, the people of Iran now have an opportunity and that has been brought about because of the collaboration between the United States of America, Britain, France and so forth and, of course, Russia.
Syria has also been mentioned, but I can only repeat what I said in the Chamber yesterday. We look to Russia, with its unique influence over the regime, to ensure that the cessation of hostilities does not break down. Russia has a unique relationship with Assad because of a historical relationship and an influence in that neck of the woods that goes back to 1946 and the independence of the country. We expect Russia, and want Putin, to place pressure on Assad to stop the attacks, and to allow the ceasefire to embed and peace negotiations to continue.
I would just mention to my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough that there has been a period of Russia unbalancing Syria, by not attacking Daesh, but deliberately attacking Assad’s opposition—and not only that, but denying airspace for us, the international community, to freely take on Daesh in the wider context of Syria.
On a positive note, there is an awful lot of engagement. The Prime Minister has met President Putin at the G20 summit, the Foreign Secretary does speak and engage with Foreign Minister Lavrov, on a number of multilateral engagements, and the Minister for Europe visited Moscow very recently indeed. I had the opportunity to meet President Putin at the European Games in Baku in Azerbaijan last year. I was not quite expecting to see him, but I told him that a friend of mine had cause to use Russian transport and was a bit concerned about international developments—the east and west—in case he got stuck at the end of his destination and was unable to get back. That friend of mine was called Tim Peake. He was using a Soyuz space capsule to get up to the international space station and did not want to be abandoned up there. Mr Putin grabbed my arm and said, “Mr Ellwood, tell Mr Peake that we will not abandon him.” That gives an indication that it is possible to isolate some of the enormous concerns we have. The sanctions that are put in place allow us to work on the international stage to tackle some of the problems. Culturally, professionally and, indeed, from an industrial and commercial perspective, we are able to continue those relationships.
Since the cold war, successive British Governments, quite rightly, have wanted Europe to build a strategic partnership with Russia. However, this Russian Government have made it clear that they regard the west with mistrust and view NATO—and, increasingly, the EU—as a threat to their interests. A fundamental divergence of values and interests, combined with the unpredictability of Russian behaviour, has increasingly limited the scope of Anglo-Russian relations, but the Government’s objectives regarding Russia are to protect the UK’s interests and those of our allies and partners; to uphold the rules-based international order in the face of Russian aggression; to engage with Russia on global security issues; in key areas of shared interest, to promote our values, including the rule of law and human rights; and to build stronger links between the British and Russian people more widely. That balanced approach is aligned to British interests and I hope that hon. Members of all parties can support it.
I thank the Minister for his remarks and some of his positive comments. We need to show strength towards the Russians. We must make them realise that we will always protect our NATO partners in central and eastern Europe. I am very much in favour of trying to ensure that we have a permanent NATO base east of Warsaw, because those new NATO countries need to know that we are serious about protecting them. That is extremely important. My hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh), myself and others are looking to the Government to show an interest in the ability to engage with the Russians, to support greater cultural and scientific exchange with them, and to show us that they are doing everything possible to lower tensions at the same time as showing strength towards the Russians.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered Anglo-Russian relations.