Wednesday 20 July 2016
[Mr Nigel Evans in the Chair]
EU Referendum: Gibraltar
As an act of human kindness, I inform Members that they may remove their jackets and other articles of clothing, up to a point. I remind Members that if they make a speech, as opposed to an intervention, they are expected to remain until the debate is finished.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the effect of the EU referendum on Gibraltar.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Evans. I declare an interest: I am the chairman of the all-party group on Gibraltar. I have visited Gibraltar several times, funded by the Gibraltar Government, and I hope to visit again in September for Gibraltar’s national day. I also declare that I was the parliamentary lead for the Brexit campaign for a large part of the south-west of England, so, naturally, I was delighted by the result a month ago. Once again, we will be a free, sovereign and independent people, and that includes Gibraltar.
I welcome and congratulate the Under-Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr Walker), on his new position and I am sure that his father would have been very proud to see him occupying it. This is an historic occasion, as it is the first time that a Minister from the Department for Exiting the European Union, or the “Brexit Department”, has responded to a debate in this House.
Of the 23,000 members of the electorate in Gibraltar who were entitled to vote in the EU referendum, 96% voted to remain; there were 19,322 votes to remain as opposed to 823 votes to leave. Admittedly, that is slightly less than the 98% of the electorate who voted to remain British, but it is very impressive all the same. For perspective, however, that result in Gibraltar has to be seen in the context of the whole UK, where there were 17.4 million votes to leave, and as the Prime Minister has said, “Brexit means Brexit”.
Of course we recognise and understand the uneasiness, nervousness and fear that many people—including a large number of people in Gibraltar—are feeling at the moment. When the Chief Minister of Gibraltar spoke to the all-party group a couple of weeks ago, he described grown men being reduced to tears by the referendum result. However, I am told that the report in the Financial Times that Gibraltarians would like another referendum on their membership of the EU was not accurate.
Those feelings are obviously due to both the historical and very difficult relations with Spain—for example, Franco closed the border in 1969 and it remained closed until 1985—and to the ongoing and ridiculous posturing by Spain. Spain has attempted to bully Gibraltar with totally unnecessary and antagonistic border delays. Also, as I have said in this Chamber on several occasions, I am sure that Spain’s ongoing war of attrition against Gibraltar, including the foolish and dangerous games that its security forces play by entering British Gibraltarian territorial waters and airspace without permission, is deliberately provocative and I fear that one day it could result in a terrible and tragic accident.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for the work that he does on Anglo-Gibraltarian relations. Does he agree that the confrontational approach towards Gibraltar that Spain adopts is rather ironic, bearing in mind that Spain has numerous territories in Morocco? I thought that it had only Ceuta and Melilla, but upon closer inspection of the atlas, I see that Spain actually has more enclaves in Morocco.
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention and I would put it more strongly than that. “Ironic” is too polite a word; the fact that Spain harasses Gibraltar and constantly seeks to undermine its status when, as he says, it has overseas enclaves of its own is tantamount to hypocrisy.
Gibraltar is the only British overseas territory that has a land border with mainland Europe. Given Spanish politicians’ continued use of Gibraltar to distract from their own failed policies and the dire economic situation in their own country, Gibraltar has a right to feel nervous about leaving the EU and Spain’s potential response.
Gibraltar is a fantastic economic success story. It has impressive economic growth, with GDP for 2014-15 having increased by more than 10.6% in real terms on the previous year, and I understand that the forecast for 2015-16 is for a further 7.5% increase. Gibraltar has a higher GDP per capita than the UK and Spain as a whole, and one that is greatly higher per head than in the neighbouring Spanish region of Andalucia. GDP per capita for Gibraltar is forecast to be £54,979 in 2015-16, which is a long way above that of Andalucia, whose GDP per capita was £12,700 in 2015, and even above that of Madrid, which was £23,400 in 2015. Therefore, it is unsurprising that up to 10,000 Spaniards a day cross the border to work in Gibraltar.
There is a feeling in Gibraltar, however, that leaving the EU will risk the current economic model and expose Gibraltar to new threats from Spain. Gibraltar faces a clear time imperative, as established businesses consider what to do next if they require access to the single market on an ongoing basis. The Gibraltarians’ large vote to stay in the EU is seen as a reflection of the fact that the EU provided a legal framework that drew red lines on how far Spain could go in imposing heavy-handed border controls and other sanctions before being called to order for breaching the law. However, international law and the UN also arbitrate on these issues, and as Spain’s NATO ally, we may actually have more strength in direct negotiations than we would otherwise.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this great and very appropriate debate. He referred to NATO. Spain is our NATO ally, and as a NATO ally, it is utterly disgraceful that it does not allow our Royal Air Force aeroplanes to overfly its territory, while allowing Russian warships to rebunker at Ceuta. It is about time that our Foreign Office got a grip on this issue and explained very harshly to Spain that that approach is unacceptable, and I hope that message will also go out from this debate to the Spanish authorities.
I thank my hon. Friend for his customarily robust intervention, and of course he is absolutely right. As he says, it is astonishing that a NATO ally should do that. It costs the British taxpayer several thousand pounds extra every time there is an RAF flight to Gibraltar, because the RAF does not have overfly rights with Spain, so its planes have to take a slightly longer route. It is also astonishing, given what is happening in the world with Russian aggression, that the Spanish are not only content to receive Russian warships but encourage them to refuel in their Moroccan territories. Those of us on the NATO Parliamentary Assembly are working towards getting that message—loud and clear—up the chain of command, because the current situation is appalling.
The people of Gibraltar should be reassured that my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr Cameron) said on his last day as Prime Minister that there would be no talks on sovereignty—joint or otherwise—against the wishes of the people of Gibraltar. I was extremely pleased that the new Foreign Secretary said last weekend:
“I was delighted to meet Chief Minister Picardo. I reassured him of both our steadfast commitment to Gibraltar, and our intention to fully involve Gibraltar in discussions on our future relationship with the EU.
The people of Gibraltar have repeatedly and overwhelmingly expressed their wish to remain under British sovereignty and we will respect their wishes.”
Importantly, he went on to say:
“We will never enter into arrangements under which the people of Gibraltar would pass under the sovereignty of another State against their wishes. Furthermore, the UK will not enter into any process of sovereignty negotiations with which Gibraltar is not content. We will continue to take whatever action is necessary to safeguard Gibraltar, its people and its economy”—
and crucially he concluded:
“including maintaining a well-functioning Gibraltar-Spain border.”
Not only does Gibraltar wish to remain British—that is a right that we will always fight for—but it is a vital strategic military asset for the United Kingdom. It is one of our key forward operating bases in the Mediterranean and commands the straits. I look forward to the day when one of our new Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers visits Gibraltar.
There are two key issues for Gibraltar: the freedom to provide services, and a free-flowing frontier. Therefore, when the Minister sums up, I would like him to assure us that Gibraltar will not be a side-discussion that is left to the end of the negotiations on Brexit and therefore allowed to be bargained away, but that it is a red line that any bilateral treaty must include. Britain will need to be robust in the EU and the UN and in its lobbying of other countries to counter the consistent lobbying of them by Spain, as it presses its own sovereignty claim on Gibraltar. Importantly, the EU must not be allowed to take sides against the UK and Gibraltar on this issue in any way. We should increase our efforts in the UN to remove Gibraltar from its list of non-self-governing territories, as Gibraltar is clearly self-governing.
To reassure Gibraltar and its business community, I ask the Minister to act immediately and take one initial and hugely supportive step: establish a common single market between Gibraltar and the UK. It is within the British Government’s remit to do so. It is an entirely domestic matter that can be agreed by Her Majesty’s Government and the Government of Gibraltar bilaterally at any time without any EU involvement. It will give our Government some of the tools they need to stand ready to robustly defend Gibraltar if Spain exerts pressure, such as introducing heavy-handed frontier controls, during the future negotiations with the EU.
We must seek and promote the opportunities that Brexit presents to the people of Gibraltar. Gibraltar is building its own world trade centre, and unshackled from the EU, it will be able to maximise its ability to trade globally and to seek and secure bilateral deals with its nearest neighbours and worldwide. As part of the Great British family, Gibraltar and the UK will thrive and prosper out of the EU. The United Kingdom is the fifth largest economy in the world. We trade globally. We are the biggest defence spender in Europe— the fourth biggest in the world—with the world’s best armed forces. We are one of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council. We have one of the best diplomatic services across the world. We have a unique relationship with the United States and the Commonwealth.
Unshackled from the European Union, we will thrive and prosper as a nation even more. We will be free to make trade deals all over the world without the increasingly restrictive practices of the European Union. Gibraltar, as part of the Great British family, will also gain great advantages from being unshackled from the European Union and being free to trade with the world. The fact is that Gibraltar is British and will stay British as long as it wishes.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I was on my last sentence, but please go ahead.
I thank the hon. Gentleman. I apologise for interrupting his peroration. I congratulate him on securing the debate and on his re-election as chair of the all-party group. On what more we can do to reassure Gibraltar, one of the issues that came up at the last all-party group meeting was a desire not only to frame things in the negative, where we talk about having no discussions and no ceding of sovereignty unless the people of Gibraltar agree, but to adopt a more positive attitude, with the British Government saying, “We cherish Gibraltar. We value it, and we want it to remain British.” In all our discussions, we need to emphasise that we look positively on Gibraltar’s Britishness.
Absolutely. A lot of us have been fighting almost a rearguard action, initially in the days following the referendum, against all the negativity. There seemed to be a grey cloud over people who were on the wrong side of the debate, so far as the referendum went. We all know that optimism is a great driver of business and opportunity. We have a responsibility to re-emphasise and reinforce—I hope the Minister will do so—the fantastic period that can come after Gibraltar is free to trade with the whole world in its own right. Gibraltar is in the hearts of everyone here in Parliament.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke (Jack Lopresti) on securing it and on setting the scene so well. We look forward to hearing the new Minister. I wish him well in his new position. We missed him in Belfast at the credit unions international conference, but his name was held in high esteem. He will know that anyway, and we look forward to his deliberations on this matter.
The hon. Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke has always been a friend of Gibraltar and I welcome his commitment to the Rock as we embark on our new relationship with the EU as a nation, including Gibraltar. Clearly, what he and the rest of us will do in our contributions is set the scene for Brexit and say how we can look forward positively to securing our future and that of Gibraltar outside the EU.
To give a bit of background on Gibraltar’s relationship with the EU—I am sure Members are aware of this—in 1972 the UK Act of Accession to the European Economic Community applied the EEC treaties to Gibraltar, with the crucial exception of the customs union, the common commercial policy, the common agricultural policy, the common fisheries policy and the requirement to levy VAT. Gibraltar has been in the EU since 1973 as part of the UK’s membership and applies EU law except in those four areas. If the exemption has worked, there is more that can work to the advantage of Gibraltar in how we move forward. The exemption from those areas means that potential difficulties in Gibraltar leaving the EU may be averted. The debate gives us all a chance to challenge the Minister, and I know he will clearly hit upon those things in his response. It is nice to have some people in the Gallery who have a particular interest in Gibraltar. Some are former Members of this House, and we are pleased to see them here today.
Importantly, Brexit will not alter Gibraltar’s constitutional status in relation to the UK—a relationship most of us are very proud of and very loyal to, as this debate will outline. Many will remember that the border between Spain and Gibraltar was closed between 1969 and 1985, before being reopened around the time that Spain joined the EEC. EU free movement rules have meant that the border has remained open ever since, despite the Spanish obstructions, of which we are all aware—they are well documented, and the hon. Gentleman referred to some of them in his introduction. When the UK leaves the EU, if we do not apply to stay in the European economic area, the free movement principle will no longer apply. That will need to be addressed as part of the Brexit negotiations.
I had a chat last night to the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union. He indicated some of the problems that there would be, some of the ways forward and how his staff will work on that. Spain will be able to close the border and establish border and passport controls, and the Spanish Government indicated in May 2016 that it might do so if the UK voted to leave the EU. Spain has been obstructive, regardless of EU principles. The reality may well be that the operation of Gibraltar’s frontier with Spain will be determined by the relations between the United Kingdom and Spain.
Within hours of the result, the Spanish Foreign Minister, José García-Margallo, crowed:
“The Spanish flag is now much closer to the Rock.”
The Chief Minister of Gibraltar, Fabian Picardo, responded in his usual manner to all these sorts of threats over sovereignty by saying:
“Another day, another stupid remark.”
The Foreign Office insists it will not even discuss the issue. Perhaps the Minister can give some indication of that in his response. I welcome the position the new Foreign Secretary has adopted so far.
I am extremely disappointed with the way that the Foreign Office pussyfoots around on this matter. It spends its time summoning the Spanish ambassador and giving him a wigging, and he goes off and nothing changes. It is about time our Foreign Office had some courage and did something, and represented the people of Gibraltar better.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments. This debate will give us all a chance to show that commitment and that eagerness to have the Foreign Office respond more robustly to any deliberations that come from Spain.
We need to strike the right balance between defending Gibraltar and the United Kingdom’s interests and developing an understanding relationship with Spain to succeed in securing Gibraltar’s stability. The Chief Minister of Gibraltar, Fabian Picardo, has held talks with the Scottish First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, where the suggestion was made that they, along with my home nation of Northern Ireland, could maintain the UK’s membership of the EU, while England and Wales leave the EU. Let us be clear: the referendum has spoken. The majority of the people of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland have indicated that they wish to leave the EU. That decision has clearly been taken.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the assurances are excellent? We are glad to see the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union and other Government Ministers offer those assurances to the people of Gibraltar, but Gibraltarians and other regions in the UK want and hopefully will see more than just assurances post-Brexit. They want action to ensure prosperity outside and beyond the EU, so that those regions and Gibraltar in particular will benefit from the post-EU position.
I thank my hon. Friend and colleague for his comments. The debate clearly gives us all a chance to chart and look forward to how Gibraltar outside the EU can succeed even better than it has. It is good to have on record that those voting to leave the EU had a majority of 1.3 million. In Scotland and Northern Ireland, the vote was to remain, but the 1.3 million people who voted no—who voted for out— in Northern Ireland and Scotland made the difference in the whole United Kingdom. We have to keep it in perspective. We took that decision collectively as the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. The decision has been made, let’s move on.
It is difficult to see an outcome where the UK would have regions staying in the EU and regions leaving the EU. Indeed, some of the most staunch remain campaigners are beginning to concede that fact at last. It is therefore now most important that the concerns voiced by all those in regions with specific relationships with the EU continue to enjoy the benefits that made the regions vote to remain in the first place. We have a task to do, but we can do that task. We can be positive and look forward with optimism to the future and how we can achieve those goals. Whether that means retaining, replicating or replacing, it is now the job of the Brexit negotiation team, the Department for Exiting the European Union and all those involved to make sure that any potentially negative outcomes are mitigated and reduced.
Gibraltar’s booming economy, which grew at more than 10% in the past year, relies to a large degree on the thousands of Spanish workers who cross the border every day. Some hon. Members in the Chamber today have attended Gibraltar events, where we had an opportunity to hear about some of the economic benefits coming to Gibraltar through their relationship with us in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. It is important that we focus on those things as well.
Thousands of Spanish workers cross the border every day. That needs to be factored into the Brexit process to ensure that Spanish people are not put off working in Gibraltar should there be a need for work permits. Christian Hernandez, president of the Chamber of Commerce on the Rock, said that the Rock’s thriving financial services sector is at risk, too. He claims:
“The whole way we’ve marketed the jurisdiction is as a gateway into Europe.”
There is a job to do, but we can look forward to it with confidence. Most industries will prove immune to Brexit. Roughly 90% of Gibraltar’s insurance and online betting business consists of transactions with Britain. Low tax rates will ultimately help keep firms in place. Again, there are many things we can do to ensure that that happens.
The reality of the economic situation in the neighbouring Spanish regions is likely to mute any real Spanish aggression. Gibraltar provides a whopping 25% of the economy of the neighbouring Spanish area of Campo de Gibraltar, and the region of Andalucia as a whole suffers 32% unemployment. The mayor of the border town of La Línea de la Concepción, Juan Franco, concedes:
“Our economy is completely dependent on Gibraltar.”
A 30-year-old resident of the same town, who commutes daily from La Linea to her waitressing job, has never been able to find a job in Spain. At 30 years old, it is staggering to hear her say:
“The only money I’ve ever earned is in Gibraltar.”
Some think the future will be brighter; let us be confident that it will be. With the support of the Government, we know that it can be. To give a couple of examples of major developments, a Shell-operated liquid natural gas terminal will come online by mid-2017, and a new secure data facility is housed deep within the Rock. The potential for Gibraltar is good. It is positive and we should be confident of where we are going.
The local Government hope to use their significant autonomy to forge tighter links with Morocco and other emerging economies in Africa and beyond. We all have to pay close attention to the Rock and give the people all the support that they need, but things are still certainly looking bright for Britain in the sun.
It is a pleasure, as always, to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Evans. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke (Jack Lopresti) on securing this debate. Like him, I declare an interest, in this case as secretary of the all-party parliamentary group for Gibraltar. The visits I have made to Gibraltar are set out in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. It is appropriate that we should both speak in this debate because we took entirely different views on the referendum. However, we share a determination, now that the decision has been taken, to achieve the best possible deal for the people, economy and sovereignty of Gibraltar, which is a totally committed part of the British family. We seek to find constructive ways in which we can work with the Minister—I welcome him to his place. I share the sentiments that his father would be delighted to see him here, if perhaps a little surprised at the role he occupies, which means he will respond to the debate.
I want to stress two things. Given the decision, there are two practical issues that absolutely must be addressed on Gibraltar, the first of which is the freedom of movement across the frontier, which has been referred to. Although Spain has behaved badly in the past regardless of EU membership, we have been responsible for Gibraltar’s external relations and have at least been able to threaten the use of European law in relation to free movement. We will not have that valuable lever in the same way in future. Within the negotiation on the arrangements that we make to leave, we need a cast-iron safeguard that Gibraltar will be protected. It is different from anywhere else in the UK, as has been observed, because of the land border issue and because of the dependency of its economy on movement across the frontier—that dependency would exist even if, as my hon. Friend the Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke and I both hope, Gibraltar develops its economy and trade links beyond the EU as well as continuing those within. That movement will be necessary to service the economy come what may, so it absolutely must be maintained.
My second point concerns the importance for Gibraltar of achieving access to the single market in terms of passporting rights for financial services. That is as important to the Gibraltar economy as the financial services sector in the City of London and beyond is to the United Kingdom economy. The ask for the Government is, in the negotiations, for Gibraltar to achieve the same rights of access, especially around financial services, that we achieve for the City of London, and that Gibraltar is not, because of its small size, seen as a trade-off in the bigger game. Those are two key and practical objectives.
To do that, I suggest we need three or four things. First, Gibraltar must have full involvement rather than consultation, which was the phrase initially used—I am glad that the Government have moved in that direction. That full involvement must be on the same basis in the negotiations as the other devolved Administrations within the United Kingdom. I hope my hon. Friend the Minister and my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary take on board the importance of contradicting the assertion of the Spanish Foreign Minister, Señor García-Margallo, who was quoted as saying:
“It must be made absolutely clear that Gibraltar is not part of the negotiations.”
We need to say it must be made absolutely clear that Gibraltar must be part of the negotiations and that there can be no movement on that.
The second thing we can do is ensure that that involvement is practical. It says a great deal for our Prime Minister that, on the morning before she went to Buckingham Palace to kiss hands, she took the trouble, while still Home Secretary, to meet personally with the Chief Minister and Deputy Chief Minister of Gibraltar. That sets a good tone. All of us who wish Gibraltar well cannot thank her enough for that effort. I know the Foreign Secretary has also met the Chief Minister, and I hope that the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union will also do so. That presence is really important. Perhaps at some point we will be able to have another prime ministerial visit to Gibraltar. Sadly, the visit by my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr Cameron) was cut short because of tragic circumstances, which overshadowed what otherwise was an important statement during the referendum campaign.
The next practical thing, as my hon. Friend the Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke has already referred to, would be the swift conclusion of, in effect, a common market free trade agreement between Gibraltar and the UK. There is no legal impediment to our doing that while we remain within the European Union, so it does not have to wait for the article 50 process to go through. That is something we could get on with straight away. That is important because it would give a big confidence boost to Gibraltar’s economy.
The other thing we could do in terms of economic confidence is in relation to the British Government’s direct stake in the economy through the locally employed military personnel of the Ministry of Defence establishment there. I hope the Government will make it absolutely clear that, to resolve any uncertainty or pressures, under these circumstances there is no question whatever of any reduction in the workforce locally employed in the MOD establishment. That would certainly be the wrong thing to do, as many of us believe, in any circumstances, and certainly not now. That is entirely within the British Government’s gift to achieve immediately. I hope the Minister will be able to make those matters clear.
There are challenges and we must work together to meet them. The Government of Gibraltar and all parties in the Gibraltar Parliament are willing to do that. They have established a good relationship here. There is political uncertainty in Spain, and the double standards sometimes reflected in the Spanish Government’s dealings have been referred to. Of course, we will have to continue to work with Spain as a neighbour and an ally. It is a great shame that the attitude it adopts towards Gibraltar has sometimes clouded what could otherwise be useful and constructive relations, but that cannot get in the way of our basic commitment to people who have voted repeatedly to maintain British sovereignty, and it cannot get in the way of our obligation to them to achieve those practical and entirely achievable objectives on their behalf, which we can achieve provided there is the political will. I do not doubt the Minister’s personal commitment to that, and I hope he will signal very clearly the Government’s commitment to those objectives and practical endeavours.
Several hon. Members rose—
Order. So that Members know, I intend to call the Front-Bench spokesmen to wind up no later than half-past 10.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Evans. The evening of the 23 June was a huge moment for this country. As a campaigner for leave, I was obviously delighted that Britain voted to follow a new path in the world, but we cannot deny that the people of Gibraltar voted by an overwhelming margin to remain in the EU.
Being so close to another EU country, the people of Gibraltar are right to have concerns about what leaving the EU means to them, but one thing is for sure: Gibraltar is British, Gibraltar will remain British and Gibraltar wants to remain British. In 2002, 99.5% of the population of Gibraltar voted to reject joint sovereignty with Spain. That was the second vote that the people of Gibraltar had taken on the subject. They first went to the polls to decide their sovereignty in 1967, when 99.6% of people voted to stay with Britain. Just 44 people voted to side with the Spanish; in 2002, that number was 187. Just 823 people voted to leave the EU on 23 June. Although that may still be a minority, it is definitely a much larger one. My point is that the people of Gibraltar are British, they feel British and their overwhelming view is that they want to remain British.
Let us not rehash the arguments of the referendum. Let us put it to one side and move on, accepting that the decision was taken as one nation and that now we must focus on making the best of it as one nation. Much as it does for the rest of the UK, leaving the European Union opens up a huge range of opportunities for Gibraltar. It now has the opportunity to expand its horizons beyond the northern border to opportunities in the south and the west, using its unique geopolitical position, in the corner of Europe, Africa and the Atlantic, to multiply the trade opportunities that were previously shackled by Brussels.
One example would be Morocco. Over the last decade, Morocco has significantly liberalised its trade regime and strengthened its financial sector. The Casablanca stock exchange is the second largest in Africa and aspires to be the regional hub. With Gibraltar’s strong financial sector, a well-negotiated treaty with Morocco could boost both the Gibraltarian and Moroccan economies. Thanks to the Prime Minister, we now have a Department for International Trade that is ready to strike those deals. Why, when we have the opportunity to expand our horizons in that way, would we look only to Gibraltar’s nearest neighbour? That is at the very heart of why we voted to leave the European Union. We voted to look up from the Brussels negotiating table and see the rest of the world and all the opportunities that it presents. Gibraltar can benefit from that, quite simply by being close to many of these growing markets.
We must obviously work to make sure that the concerns of the people of Gibraltar are recognised. That is why the Prime Minister has repeatedly asserted that we will not go ahead with any negotiations unless they involve every part of the United Kingdom, including Gibraltar.
I very much agree with my hon. Friend’s sentiment that the United Kingdom can now use Gibraltar in partnership for engaging with Morocco. Morocco is a very stable, good ally of the United Kingdom. Does she agree that, going forward with the new Department, we can work in partnership with Gibraltar to penetrate the Moroccan market?
I wholeheartedly agree. We will not go ahead with a deal that all the nations and territories that make up the UK are not happy with. It is in that spirit that I am delighted to hear the words of Daniel Feetham, the leader of the Opposition in Gibraltar, who said:
“We must deal in hope. We have a duty to set out a positive and workable road map for the future. I remain positive that we can do that.”
Those remarks show exactly the attitude that Government officials in areas that voted to remain should be taking—not talking about second referendums or somehow brokering a deal to keep other areas in the EU, but working together to create the best way forward for all parts of our nation. There is a lot to be positive about for Gibraltar outside the EU. I look forward to seeing what the future has in store.
I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke (Jack Lopresti) for calling this debate. The people of Gibraltar are British. They are not different from any of us here in this room or any of our constituents. What Her Majesty’s Government simply have to do at this point is to forget that Gibraltar is somehow different from our own United Kingdom. It may not be part of the United Kingdom constitutionally, but in every other sense Gibraltar is part of the Great British family. In any negotiations that are going to affect Gibraltar in the long term, as we discuss our new relationship with the EU and our new path that we are heading along in the wider world, we must include Gibraltar at every stage.
In previous discussions involving Gibraltar, I am afraid to say that our Foreign and Commonwealth Office has thought about Gibraltar at the end of the negotiations, not at the start. This time, things have to be different. I am delighted that Her Majesty’s Government have now made it clear that Gibraltar will be treated equally with every other part of the United Kingdom—Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and, of course, England. Gibraltar should be treated the same and should be included equally. I say to the Minister, who I welcome to his place—I know his father would be proud of him sitting on the Front Bench today—that whatever agreement comes out of this, Gibraltar must be included in all of those discussions at the start. If it is not, there is no question but that the Government in Madrid—particularly the existing Government—will try to scupper any negotiations by trying to force our Government to give some sort of concession over Gibraltar. That cannot happen and has to be ruled out immediately.
I am sorry that my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) has left, because what he said earlier was completely correct. Our FCO has pussyfooted around and been weak for far too long. When Spain shows aggression towards the people of Gibraltar, when it makes life difficult for the people of the Rock, when it stops legitimate travel from one side of the frontier to the other by creating artificial delays, and all the other tricks they play in trying to make life difficult for Gibraltar, we simply have to say to the Spanish, “If you do that to the Gibraltarians—if you make their life hard—you are going to feel the wrath of the British people.” We will not accept it, not at any time, now or in the future. If they treat Gibraltar like that, it is like treating the United Kingdom in that way.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the infringements of Gibraltar’s maritime area by Spanish vessels are increasingly alarming, and that the FCO needs to do more to let Spain know that they will not be tolerated?
My hon. Friend is completely correct. Over the last 15 years as an MP, I have watched how Gibraltar has been treated, as I know you have, Mr Evans. I am afraid to say that we have let the people of Gibraltar down, because when we see incursions into British waters, we simply do not do very much. We might bring the ambassador in, tell him off and say that it is unacceptable, but we are never prepared to take firm action to show the Spanish Government that there are consequences. If they treat Gibraltar in this way, if they illegally allow vessels to go into British Gibraltarian waters, and if they carry on making life tough for the people of the Rock and try to prevent them from being treated equally, we have to say that that is not acceptable. We have to show the Spanish that we are prepared to take retaliatory action if needed.
None of us in this Chamber wants to go down that route. Spain should be an ally of the United Kingdom and a friendly country, but it does not behave like that when it comes to Gibraltar. My hon. Friend the Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke is working to raise the issue of NATO flights, and those of us on the NATO Parliamentary Assembly are also going to take up that matter. Spain is supposed to be a NATO ally—a friendly country; a country with which we should be working closely—but how can we work with it if it singles out a section of the British family and effectively bullies them? That is not on, and no one in this House should be willing to stand by and let it happen for a moment longer.
So what should we do? There are lots of practical things we could do. My hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) spoke eloquently and listed a number of things that we should be doing. First, we can bilaterally agree a common market with Gibraltar. That would reassure it enormously, and would mean that any trading arrangements that are put in place apply as much to Gibraltar as to our own constituents.
My hon. Friend is talking about the NATO context. Yes, Spain ought to be a friendly country and an ally. We are duty-bound and treaty-bound by article 5 to come to its defence. If it were attacked by an external enemy, or any enemy, we would potentially send our people into harm’s way to defend it.
Absolutely. I believe the fact that Spain continues to behave in this manner is a complete breach of the spirit of the NATO treaty. It is very sad for the Spanish people that their Governments continually behave in this way. I do not think that the Spanish people—I speak to a lot of them—have that attitude. Certainly the people who live in La Línea and the Andalucia region do not have any animosity towards Gibraltar. In fact, their economy is dependent on it.
My hon. Friend is making a very important point. The attitude of the central Government in Madrid stands in marked contrast with that of the regional Government in Andalucia, which has always maintained very good relations, that of most of the neighbouring local authorities in the area, and that of the trade unions and most of the business community. The trouble is that Madrid does not seem to care about what happens in Andalucia and the Campo.
Sadly, my hon. Friend is correct. The Government in Madrid use Gibraltar as a political weapon. I say to the Spanish Government—I hope the Spanish ambassador is watching this debate—that it simply has to stop. Our leaving the European Union means that we can defend Gibraltar more strongly, because we have the power to act against Spain if it acts against British Gibraltarians. None of us wishes to go down the route of retaliatory action but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham said, we cannot pussyfoot any longer. We have to be clear that an attack on Gibraltar in any sense is an attack on the United Kingdom. We treat it equally to any other part of the British family.
Let me go back to the practical things that we can do to help Gibraltar immediately. Of course, as my hon. Friend the Member for Morley and Outwood (Andrea Jenkyns) made clear, the people of Gibraltar voted to stay in the European Union. I do not think they necessarily like the EU more than we do, but they are in a special situation: they have a frontier, and they are deeply fearful—and rightly so—that Spain will use the departure from the EU as an excuse to make life difficult and even to close the frontier. I understand 100% why the people of Gibraltar voted the way they did, and why they are so fearful for the future. We now have to do everything possible to help them.
I hope the Minister will quickly take up the common market idea, which the Chief Minister, Fabian Picardo, has been promoting. Let us try to do these things quickly. Let us not wait. Let us rein back any suggestion that the jobs of the locally employed civilian staff on the military side in Gibraltar will be lost. The people of the Rock are dependent on the financial services and gambling industries, so we must do all we can to protect them. At the end of the day, we have a duty of responsibility to Gibraltar, so we cannot let it lose its financial self-sufficiency and its status in the world—I did not know this until yesterday, but it is the wealthiest part of the globe per capita. It is an enormous success story, and we should be proud of what it has achieved. When the military bases were taken away, it had to regenerate its financial services, gambling and other industries to be self-sufficient. Gibraltar does not depend on the UK Government. It is not like the one or two of our overseas territories that still depend on financial support. It is self-sufficient and wants to remain so. We have a duty and a responsibility—it is in our interests—to make sure it does.
There are other things we can do. I again raise a point that I have raised with previous Ministers. I find it outdated that the people of an overseas territory—particularly Gibraltar—have no voice in this Parliament. There is not even a dedicated Select Committee that deals with overseas territories. There is no elected representation from overseas territories in the UK Parliament. We are the only country in the world with overseas territories that denies them the right to have a voice and some form of representation in Parliament. Gibraltar had to fight very hard to get a voice in the European Parliament. In the end, an MEP—or a share of an MEP—was granted for Gibraltar as part of the South West region. We make decisions about defence, foreign policy, the control of sterling, which Gibraltar uses, and many other things besides, but it is not possible for a Gibraltarian to stand in this Chamber and speak for Gibraltar. It is great that there are so many friends of Gibraltar here, but there should be a mechanism for Gibraltar and the Chief Minister to formally come here and speak for themselves. All sorts of options about how we can include Gibraltar—and, indeed, other overseas territories—after leaving the European Union should be on the table.
Among our overseas territories, Gibraltar is by far the most important issue in relation to Brexit. However, I ask the Minister not to forget that there are 21 territories and dependencies, all of which are nervous about the implications for them if we leave the European Union. Gibraltar is by far the most important one in this context, because it is part of the EU, but I ask the Minister not to forget the Crown dependencies—the Isle of Man, Jersey and Guernsey—because protocol 3 allows them access to free trade with Europe. Equally, other overseas territories, in particular the Falklands, have concerns too.
I take issue with my hon. Friend’s statement that Gibraltar does not have a voice here. There is an all-party group, and it has friends and allies in both Houses. I think he needs to clarify that saying it does not have a directly mandated representative is very different from saying it does not have a voice in this place.
My hon. Friend is completely right. The all-party group on Gibraltar, which he ably chairs, is one of the most effective groups in the Houses of Parliament. In that sense, Gibraltar has a stronger voice than almost anywhere, because there are so many of us who support it. I am delighted that all parties support Gibraltar, particularly friends from the Scottish National party, the Ulster Unionists and the Labour party, although there are not many Labour Members here today—
Quality, not quantity.
My hon. Friend is too modest to say this, but he has spent a huge amount of time campaigning for Gibraltar, certainly over the last 11 years for which I have been a Member of Parliament. We are reducing the number of MPs in the House of Commons from 650 to 600, but is he saying that we ought to have a dedicated Member of Parliament sent by Gibraltar to this Chamber?
I do not see any arguments why Gibraltar should not have its own Member of Parliament. We now have a devolved United Kingdom, with a lot of powers devolved to Governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. I can see no logical reason why, at a general election, the people of Gibraltar should not be able to send their own representative to Parliament, just as territories of other countries are able to do. That, however, is a debate not for today, but to be put on the table as something to be considered.
At the end of the day, we have a duty and a responsibility, because the people of Gibraltar are not foreign. They are not from a different country; they are part of our family. The one message that we must send out loud and clear from this place is that, whatever happens in the next two years, the people of Gibraltar will be given the same consideration—equal precedence—as we would expect for our own constituents. We cannot find people in the British family who are more loyal and more dedicated to the United Kingdom, to upholding the British Crown and British values, and to serving in Her Majesty’s armed forces—equal to Northern Ireland, or even to Romford; no question. Whatever we feel about other issues, the one thing that we have a duty to do is to ensure that when the negotiations take place, Gibraltar is not, and is never, forgotten.
I am particularly pleased to see you in the Chair, Mr Evans. I also welcome the Minister to his place. He is a man whose career I have watched since he was first elected in 2010 and, to echo the words of many, his father would indeed be proud of him. I thank the hon. Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke (Jack Lopresti) for securing the debate, which is important, timely and perhaps one we should have had before the Brexit referendum. However, we are having it now and, as with many other things, we are having to think about the implications of Brexit after the referendum.
I should say that, like the hon. Gentleman, the chair of the all-party group, I have visited Gibraltar as a guest of its Government. I have made a speech in Casemates Square, in front of about 10,000 people, calling on Gibraltar to become a member of UEFA and on UEFA to overlook any quarrels with Spain. I put one condition on that, and the Gibraltarians have not broken it, which is that they must not beat Scotland in any game.
I overlooked the club aspect, however, and, as a Celtic supporter, I feel that I should have put in a caveat about Lincoln Red Imps ever playing Celtic. Last week, I was stunned to see Celtic lose 1-0 to Lincoln Red Imps—a result I hope will be overturned tonight, if that does not upset friends in Gibraltar too much—which shows that we have to tread carefully, because we cannot foresee the implications of our words, much like the implications of a Brexit exit. The referendum has many such implications.
To put football to one side—it is a bit of a sore point—and speeding on, we know from the referendum that 96% of Gibraltarians wanted to remain in the EU. I heard the hon. Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell) saying that they probably do not like the EU much, but I often reflect on that point when I hear people at all sorts of levels complaining about all sorts of levels of government: in Scotland, they complain about the local councils; they even complain, believe it or not, about the Scottish Government, although very little; of course, they make massive complaints about the Government in Westminster; and there are some complaints about Europe, although those are not as great as the ones about Westminster. The radicalisation done by the tabloid press, however, magnifies the European ones to a greater extent than many of the other complaints, so it is important to keep them in perspective.
The prospect of leaving the European Union has created real alarm in Gibraltar. The root of that alarm, which has not been touched on today, is the feeling that the border could close, resulting in the economic stagnation of Gibraltar. The hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill), in an exchange with the hon. Member for Romford, pointed out the benefits to Andalucia, and La Línea in particular, from 11,000 people crossing the frontier daily. Those crossings are very important not only to La Línea, but to Gibraltar, because the essence of the exchange in business and trade is that both parties benefit.
The problem was emphasised, I think by the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst, who said that the Madrid Government simply do not care—the Governments of Andalucia and of Gibraltar care, but, unfortunately, in Madrid they are still playing an empire game. That imperialist mindset should have gone, given the changes in south America and most of the rest of the Spanish empire, but residues are left—isolated rockpools of thinking. Gibraltar, I am afraid, is a victim of such a rockpool.
Spain will, I hope, think and act maturely, because—the hon. Member for Romford said something similar—friends of mine in Spain do not have that attitude towards Gibraltar at all. In fact, in La Línea, people have a very practical attitude towards Gibraltar. Furthermore, the Chief Minister of Gibraltar, Fabian Picardo, has said that if given the opportunity of further co-operation with Spain, he could double the amount of jobs he has given to people in La Línea.
Gibraltar is an economic magnet, but it cannot itself find the workforce necessary to service its own job needs. In some ways, the situation is similar to that of our friends in Iceland, who find that their economy is growing so fast at the moment that about 10% of the population are migrants who have to come in to service Iceland’s need. Gibraltar needs migrants daily; it cannot house them, but, fortunately, just over the frontier people are living who can migrate, or commute, daily for work needs. That is important to remember, because there we have the nub of the fear about Gibraltar’s problem: if the frontier closes, the economic stagnation of Gibraltar could happen.
If that happened, the prosperity of Gibraltar, which we have talked about, would evaporate and disappear. The responsible thing for Europe as a whole to do, as mentioned by several speakers, is to ensure that that does not happen. Okay, Ireland has three times the growth of the UK and Iceland double the growth, but at the moment the UK and other countries in Europe generally do not have the best of economic situations—in the Iberian peninsula, in particular. To see a honeypot, which is what Gibraltar is, in any way threatened, or even talk of being threatened, is absolute madness on stilts. I hope the Government in Madrid will listen to the Government of Andalucia and take cognisance, so as to ensure that any damage to the economy does not occur.
Gibraltar is an interesting place, as many of us who have visited know: it is British, but not in the UK. That is a very happy circumstance, which I hope Scotland will emulate someday—being British, but not in the UK, as Norway or Sweden are Scandinavian, but not in any Scandinavian political union. That is a way for Scotland to go, so there is a lot that Scotland can learn from Gibraltar about being British but not in the UK. More and more people are looking to Gibraltar for a good example of where to go, and I understand that the people of Gibraltar are looking to Scotland—I hope to touch on that later.
Gibraltar is a nuanced place. I had a moment of mutual fun with a Member from Northern Ireland, who should perhaps remain nameless, when we walked into a café in Gibraltar. There on the wall was a picture of Her Majesty the Queen, which in Northern Ireland means something very particular, but on the other wall was a picture of the Pope. That shows the nuanced history of Gibraltar and its differences from other places. That should be borne in mind: Gibraltar is its own place. It is not an arm or satellite of ours; it is its own place, with its own right of self-determination. If the people of Gibraltar choose to have a close connection with the United Kingdom and to London or wherever, that has to be respected.
Before I make any comment, I should point out that, like my hon. Friend, I have been a guest of the Gibraltar Government on the same terms as the chair of the all-party group.
On the subject of the sense of place, and the rights of and responsibilities for Gibraltar, does my hon. Friend agree that the overwhelming democratic will of the people of Gibraltar, as stated in the European referendum, must absolutely be respected? It is our responsibility, and an obligation, to ensure that we carry forward their clear message.
Indeed. I absolutely agree. The hon. Member for Morley and Outwood (Andrea Jenkyns) and the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst have talked about Gibraltar being fully involved in the negotiations, on the same terms as Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The only caveat that I would add is that I do not think Scotland is overly optimistic of having an equal voice. The UK is a family of nations, not a nation, as was mentioned earlier and as we were of course told before our independence referendum. In the European Union, unlike in the United Kingdom, one member’s will is not imposed on other members. That would never be tolerated in Europe, where members are sovereign, but it is tolerated in the United Kingdom, where some members impose on others exactly what their constitutional future will be. The UK perhaps has a lot to learn from the European Union model, and indeed from the words of respect that we heard from the hon. Member for Romford, who talked about overseas territories and people perhaps being governed in a looser family. That is perhaps developmental work for the years to come.
Gibraltarians of course have British nationality; I understand that they have been guaranteed full citizenship since 1981. Gibraltar joined the European Union through the European Communities Act 1972 as a dependent territory of the UK, without, as the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) said, the customs union, the common agricultural policy or the fisheries policy, although the common agricultural policy does not apply very much to Gibraltar, in that no one could really plough a yard of it. It is, as it says on the tin, a rock. That is probably further testament to its economic success.
Mention has also been made of the idea of the Spanish flag being closer to flying on Gibraltar. The attitude from Madrid—this applies regardless of the country or place to the imperialistic idea that a country can take over somebody else’s will or right to self-determination—utterly sticks in any democrat’s craw. It should not take advantage a technicality, which is what I call the UK’s departure from the European Union. Of course, it is not a technicality in respect of Gibraltar, but for Madrid to see that possibility in that technicality and to make mischief is reprehensible. We must remember that we are talking about machismo in Madrid, and I call on it just to drop that. The empire attitude is gone. An awful lot of nations have given up their empire stuff. Denmark did so 200 years ago and the UK did so—I hope—50 years ago, and for Madrid to maintain a little bit of it is really not useful or helpful at all.
There has been a lot of good will towards Gibraltar in the debate, which is nice, kind and thoughtful, and it is definitely appreciated, but it is not leverage. The UK has given up a lot of leverage by leaving the EU or by threatening to do so. There is concern that the border will close, and I say respectfully to the Minister, whom I like personally, that his muscle and the UK’s impact are not what they could have been if we had voted to remain a member of the European Union. I would not like to see the Gibraltarian economy strangled. We need voices here—in fact, we need voices all over Europe—supporting Gibraltar. We want to hear democrats not just here but in other places across Europe supporting Gibraltar. The people of Gibraltar have the right to move in and out of Gibraltar. It is a small place. Many of them holiday up the coast in Spain, bringing it further prosperity, and Spain’s behaviour is not really what we are looking for.
What is the hope for Gibraltar? From my perspective as a Scottish National party Member—I thank the hon. Member for Romford for acknowledging and taking cognisance of our interest—Gibraltar’s hopes are severalfold. I think that Gibraltarians hope that the Royal Navy immediately will be a bit tougher on incursions. I have a friend—others may know this individual too—called Dale Villa, who was on a jet ski and was chased into the harbour of Gibraltar by the Guardia Civil and had either live ammunition or rubber bullets shot at him. That is totally unacceptable. The hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) was quite right to say that Spain really has to step up to the mark and be seen as a responsible member of NATO.
On responsibility, I am glad that the First Minister of Scotland has been in close contact with the Chief Minister of Gibraltar. It is no secret to anyone in this House that we hope for independence for Scotland. We hope to become a sovereign nation, as are the other 27 members of the European Union. If Scotland indeed does become an independent nation, we will be aware of our responsibilities, duties and friendships in England, Wales, Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland, Iceland, Norway, the Isle of Man and particularly places such as Gibraltar. Gibraltar obviously has concerns, but if it needed help, I hope—although it might be difficult—that Scotland would look to offer that help and would not run away from being helpful to Gibraltar in the future if the people of Gibraltar so decided.
With tongue in cheek, some people might say that I am angling for a Scottish Gibraltar rather than a British Gibraltar, but I am not at all. The issue is not about the idea of territory or whatever, because at the end of the day it is absolutely meaningless. It is about respecting the rights of the people of Gibraltar to live the lives they want. On that point, the 1713 treaty of Utrecht is often mentioned, but it should be buried and forgotten about. It states:
“And in case it shall hereafter seem meet to the Crown of Great Britain to grant, sell or by any means to alienate therefrom…the said town of Gibraltar, it is hereby agreed and concluded that the preference of having the sale shall always be given to the Crown of Spain before any others.”
That treaty has been superseded in many ways. The French had promised not to aid the Jacobites, but within years—about a year or two later—they did. Perhaps I am happy about that, but in the decades afterwards, the treaty of Utrecht in principle was in shreds in many places, and it is definitely in shreds now because of the UN position on self-determination of peoples. The most important thing is the 1969 Gibraltar constitution. We go over for Gibraltar’s national day, which is on 10 September. That shows that Gibraltar is a very different place and has its own say. As my hon. Friend the Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Drew Hendry) said, it has its own sense of place, and as democrats, we must respect that.
I end on this point. The people of Gibraltar are looking at Scotland, and indeed some of them are looking at the SNP. I say to them again, “You’re welcome.” Those in Gibraltar who have already joined, but particularly those who have not, should look at snp.org/join and tell their friends. In Scotland, and certainly in the Scottish Members of the UK Parliament—wherever we find ourselves in the future—Gibraltar has a friend. I plead with other capitals across the European Union also to be friends of Gibraltar, and to understand and respect the wishes of the people of Gibraltar. That point—that we must respect the wishes of the people of Gibraltar—must be heard in Madrid from all quarters.
It is a pleasure to contribute under your chairmanship, Mr Evans. I congratulate the hon. Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke (Jack Lopresti) on securing the debate, which is necessary in the context of what is being called nervousness. I am looking forward to hearing from the Minister, and I congratulate him on his new role. I look forward to enjoying many a debate with him in Westminster Hall. I do not know whether his title is hereditary, but as his father was also a Member of Parliament, I congratulate him on continuing that line.
May I begin by talking about this concept of nervousness? My constituents in Hornsey and Wood Green voted similarly to the Gibraltarians. One of our polling stations, in Highgate, had 90% turnout, which was above Gibraltar’s 83.5% turnout, and 75% of people in the Haringey local authority area voted to remain in the European Union, so I understand why there is a sense of nervousness and why this debate is necessary.
On a more practical note, I am pleased that the Foreign Secretary met the Chief Minister of Gibraltar, Fabian Picardo, in London on 16 July and reassured him of the Government’s
“steadfast commitment to Gibraltar, and…intention to fully involve Gibraltar in discussions”
on the UK’s future relationship with the European Union. The Foreign Secretary also emphasised:
“The people of Gibraltar have repeatedly and overwhelmingly expressed their wish to remain under British sovereignty”—
that is clear from the earlier referendum—
“and we will respect their wishes.”
In the spirit of working together to get a solution following the 23 June vote, Opposition Members will want to work carefully and closely on the detail of what it will mean for Gibraltar to leave the European Union.
To pick up points made in the debate, the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) talked about a proper conversation with Spain. It would be welcome to see at some point a sense that the trilateral conversation is happening again. I know the situation is fraught, but it is important to talk and have discussions, yet the tone is crucial, so I hope Members here will be helpful in that regard. We must remember the geography of Gibraltar and the fact that so many people from Spain are intimately involved, with up to 12,000 residents from Andalucia crossing to work on the Rock on a daily basis. We want to get towards a practical discussion about what the new reality means on a day-to-day basis.
The hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill), in his usual way, gave us five points to think about—it is always helpful to outline them in that way. Of course, freedom of movement is the big one and it is one of the most significant things we will have to think about nationally as well. The second is dependency and trade links. Like the City of London, Gibraltar has very much a services-based economy. The hon. Member for Morley and Outwood (Andrea Jenkyns) quite correctly suggested the Moroccan market, which is something we need to look at carefully in considering the possible ramifications for the technicalities of leaving the European Union—I wish it was all just technicalities and that there was not the dampening effect that we currently see on our economy.
On the principle of full involvement in negotiations, once again, somehow we need to get the trilateral conversation going again with more energy. I look forward to the Minister commenting on that—where he thinks we are at and where we need to go—and re-emphasise the importance of the tone of those discussions. I would also be happy to hear what he thinks about the free trade agreement between the UK and Gibraltar—a kind of mini-common market. The important thing is that we keep all options on the table and continue to talk, and that people do not feel as though there is a big gap, but that we keep the energy going around our common economic and prosperity agenda.
Finally, the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst quite rightly raised the issue of Ministry of Defence personnel. We would not want there to be any nervousness or inject any sense of questioning into that relationship, particularly as regards the families based there. Certainly we on the Labour Benches want to see continuity, not massive change. It is far too early to talk about any change in that regard, but it is quite correct that he raised that today, so as to reassure the families and communities.
We are committed to working through these issues as they come up. It is clear that 24 June was not a fist-pumping moment for the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green. It was not independence day for us in Hornsey and Wood Green—I had people crying on my shoulder when I went to the local shop to buy a pint of milk. It has been quite a difficult time. Indeed, today I have my first meeting of the all-party group for the European Union post-23 June. However, what is important about the House of Commons is that we debate and talk about things and keep all options open while maintaining a sense that our economy, prosperity and trade relations are extremely important in that regard, as is the sentiment around how we will cope, post the referendum vote.
In welcoming the Minister to his new role, like everyone else here today, may I remind him that it is customary to leave a minute at the end for the proposer of the motion?
Thank you very much, Mr Evans. It is a pleasure and a privilege to serve under your chairmanship. It is also a real pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West). She said in an earlier interjection that it was quality rather than quantity from the Labour Benches and I think she was spot-on in that comment. She also spoke about nervousness in the aftermath of the referendum. I have to say that she demonstrated substantially less nervousness than I feel in speaking from the Front Bench for the first time.
I thank and congratulate my hon. friend the Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke (Jack Lopresti) on his brilliant work in securing this debate and leading the all-party group for Gibraltar. Our hon. Friend the Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell) said that Gibraltar does not always have a voice in this House, but he ensures, as do all Members here today, that it has a powerful voice in the House. I know that one of his first visits on being elected to Parliament was to Gibraltar. He has visited numerous times since and he does a magnificent job of speaking up for the people of Gibraltar and their concerns in the Chamber. I want to channel the energy and passion that he has shown, along with other Members in the Chamber, in standing to represent the Government.
As ever, my hon. Friend the Member for Romford contributed powerfully to the debate. I assure him that we will engage on the issues of concern that he raises. I pay tribute to the work over many years of my right hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Mr Lidington), who did a great deal on Gibraltar, representing its interests in the UK’s relationship with the EU—indeed, he was often called the Minister for Westminster Hall in many debates about EU matters in this Chamber, including three specific Gibraltar debates. I look forward to working with his successor, the new Minister for Europe, for whom I have a number of messages from the debate on Gibraltar business in future.
I am delighted to speak for the first time for the Department for Exiting the European Union, working with our new Secretary of State in partnership with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the new Department for International Trade. My new Department has four main aims: to lead the policy work to support the UK’s negotiations to leave the EU and to establish the future relationship between the EU and the UK; to work closely with the UK Parliament, devolved Administrations, overseas territories and Crown dependencies and a wide range of other interested parties on what our approach to negotiations should be; to conduct the negotiations in support of the Prime Minister, including supporting our bilateral discussions on EU exit with other European countries; and to lead and co-ordinate cross-Government work to seize the opportunities and ensure a smooth process of exit on the best possible terms. We have heard in the debate that those terms need to include the best possible terms for Gibraltar.
The new Department will equip the UK to prepare to make a success of leaving the European Union, to meet the challenges and to seize the opportunities that that represents, some of which we have heard about today. As a Minister in this new Department, I welcome the opportunity to hear Members’ interests, concerns and ideas about the impact of the UK’s exit from the EU. It is of course early days—our Department is in the process of being formed and shaped, and there will be a period of extensive consultation ahead of us—but I am pleased to begin today with this important debate. It reflects the significance of Gibraltar that it is the subject of the very first debate in the history of our new Department.
The Secretary of State, whom I am privileged to work with, is no stranger to Gibraltar. He spent a number of years as Minister for Gibraltar. Indeed, if hon. Members look at Hansard from 29 November 1995, they will find an example where 8,000 Gibraltarians took to the streets to demonstrate in favour of his policies, which is probably a record few other Ministers have achieved.
This debate is timely. The British people have voted to leave the European Union and their will must be respected. As the Prime Minister said, “Brexit means Brexit.” The treaties of the European Union apply to Gibraltar by virtue of the UK’s membership. Clearly, Gibraltar’s relationship with the European Union will need to change and it is right that we should involve Gibraltar fully in that process.
Before I embark on the core of my response, it is right to recognise the result of the referendum in Gibraltar, as the Opposition spokesman did. Given that such a huge proportion of voters in Gibraltar backed remaining in the European Union, many people—as Members from all sides have acknowledged—will no doubt feel frustrated that their view was not reflected by the majority in the UK. I know many on the Rock will feel concern about the future.
I make no secret of the fact that, like 96% of the population of Gibraltar, I voted to remain, but now there can no longer be leavers and remainers. Now the decision has been made, and it is the responsibility of all of us to secure the best possible outcome in the national interest of all UK citizens. We all need to work together to pursue this bold and positive new agenda. I am here today to demonstrate our commitment to ensure that the interests of Gibraltar and its citizens are protected and advanced.
It was right to put the decision to the British people and it was right to put the decision to voters in Gibraltar, alongside their counterparts in the United Kingdom. While Gibraltarians did not get their desired outcome, I am pleased they were able to play their part in this historic decision. The speeches we have heard in this Chamber reflect our determination to make it work for them.
I now want to deal with some of the detailed issues raised in today’s debate. I want first to make it clear that the outcome of the referendum does not affect or in any way diminish our steadfast and long-standing commitment to Gibraltar and its people. Since 1713, the United Kingdom has always stood by Gibraltar, and we always will. The hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green mentioned the meeting in London between the Foreign Secretary and the Chief Minister of Gibraltar on Saturday 16 July. The Government’s assurance on sovereignty, which is well known, has not been changed in the least by the outcome of the referendum. We will never enter into arrangements under which the people of Gibraltar would pass under the sovereignty of another state against their wishes. Nor will the UK enter into any process of sovereignty negotiations with which Gibraltar is not content. In short, the United Kingdom will continue to protect the right of the people of Gibraltar to remain British for as long as they want to. We will take whatever action is necessary to safeguard Gibraltar, its people and its economy.
Several hon. Members commented on incursions. It is absolutely right to continue to stand up strongly to those, and I will make sure that officials relay the strong views that I have heard in the Chamber, from my hon. Friends the Members for Romford and for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) and others, about the need to be robust in standing up to incursions. That will be communicated to both the Ministry of Defence and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
As we prepare for the process of exit from the EU and negotiation of future trading arrangements with its members, we will fully involve Gibraltar, to ensure that its interests are properly taken into account. In practice, that means that whatever format is established in negotiations with the European Union, as we prepare for the process we will work in partnership with the Government of Gibraltar, to ensure that we have a shared understanding of their interests and objectives. Discussions have already begun, and I have no doubt that they will continue throughout the summer. We will work together to consider all the options for Gibraltar. I was pleased to note that, as has already been commented on, one of the Prime Minister’s last engagements as Home Secretary was a meeting with the Chief Minister. I think that is a good start to the relationship between the Prime Minister and the Government of Gibraltar.
Gibraltar’s economy has rightly been praised for its strength and success in recent years. It is important to make it clear that there will be no immediate change in the way Gibraltar’s people can travel or the way its services can be sold. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and my hon. Friend the Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke pointed out the importance of the border with Spain and ensuring that it functions properly. As many hon. Members pointed out, that border is also hugely important to the thousands of Spanish workers who cross every day to work in Gibraltar. It is in the interest of the economy of Spain, Andalucia and the whole region that it is made to work. That is why maintaining a fully functioning border remains one of our top priorities, and we believe it should be a priority for the Spanish Government as well. I am pleased to say that delays at the border have dropped to levels similar to those of before the summer of 2013, but we are not in the least complacent and we continue to monitor the situation carefully.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) made an interesting point about financial passporting. We need to take that into account carefully as we look at the proposals for a UK-Gibraltar common market. I welcome the Chief Minister’s proposal for a common market between the UK and Gibraltar and the support that the proposal has received today—not surprisingly—from across the House. The Chief Minister is understandably keen to demonstrate that whatever relationship is ultimately reached between the UK, Gibraltar and the EU, trade between the UK and Gibraltar will be able to continue as it always has. I want to assure right hon. and hon. Members that the UK Government are continuing to analyse that important but quite technical proposal as a matter of urgency. We will work closely with our friends in Gibraltar as we move forward. The point that was made—that we should listen to the concerns of the Gibraltar Chamber of Commerce—is a good one. I undertake that we will do that. Knowing the strength of the financial services, it is important to listen to Gibraltar when we have conversations about passporting.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Morley and Outwood (Andrea Jenkyns) pointed out—very well, I thought—there are wider opportunities. As we have debates on leaving the European Union, we must ensure that we look at the opportunities, as well as the challenges, and maximise them for the whole United Kingdom, including its overseas territories and Crown dependencies, and certainly including Gibraltar.
In summary, the United Kingdom deeply values British sovereignty over Gibraltar and is fully committed to promoting the interests of all Gibraltarians. We will work in close partnership with the Government of Gibraltar to ensure that its interests are properly taken into account in the forthcoming negotiations with the European Union. Together, we will continue to explore ways to ensure that trade continues between the UK and Gibraltar, in the same way it does now. There are many unknowns as we start along the path of leaving the European Union. We do not yet know what the terms of our deal with the EU will look like. However, the UK Government will do their utmost to get the best possible deal for Gibraltar, working closely with our friends on the Rock. The people of Gibraltar have built their remarkable success story through hard work, ingenuity, resilience and adaptability. I know that Gibraltar and Gibraltarians will rise to the challenge again and make British Gibraltar even stronger. Our commitment to Gibraltar remains solid as a rock.
Thank you for your excellent chairmanship, Mr Evans. I thank all hon. Members from across the House for their support today on this important and crucially timed debate. I am grateful for the Minister’s summing up remarks, in which he reaffirmed the British Government’s commitment to the people of Gibraltar and their sovereignty and freedom, and to working towards the best possible deal. What I want to say to them is: “We understand your concerns and fears, but let us work together, for what I think is an amazing, historic opportunity to thrive and prosper as a free people once again.”
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the effect of the EU referendum on Gibraltar.
Supply and Estimates Procedure
I beg to move,
That this House has considered reform of the supply and estimates procedure.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Evans. I am delighted to have secured this brief but important debate. It has taken some time for me as a new Member to become acquainted with some of the workings of the House. Some procedures are fairly straightforward, others completely bewildering, and some rather insufficient. I do not feel that it is entirely unfair to say that the supply and estimates process—the way in which Parliament approves spending—is both bewildering and insufficient. That view is shared by many hon. Members across the House. Both the current and previous Chairs of the Public Accounts Committee have been scathing of the estimates process. Several academics have also raised serious concerns about it, and some have given evidence to that effect to Committees of the House.
Dealing with complex spending plans is never likely to be a straightforward matter, but the Supply and estimates process is in dire need of reform if we are to ensure that Parliament can exercise real scrutiny of the Government’s finances. I welcome the current inquiry being held by the Procedure Committee on the Government’s Supply estimates, and I hope that the Leader of the House will engage with the Committee on the recommendations that are likely to be made.
I will speak about the wider matter of Supply estimates today, but I want to focus particularly on the implications of devolution. In reality, the estimates process is an outdated system, designed before devolution, that does not function as an effective scrutiny of Government finances. There is no real opportunity for MPs to give expenditure the scrutiny it deserves, unlike nearly every other Parliament in the world; the Parliaments of the UK and Chile are the only two that do not have the freedom to examine and adjust spending. That is yet another example of why Westminster needs to be dragged, kicking and screaming, into the 21st century.
At present, we are offered blunt tools to amend estimates. We can vote to reduce expenditures for the entire Department for which we are debating a Select Committee report. However, we can vote down all Government spending—something that has not happened in 111 years. The estimates process is not fit for purpose. It allows the scrutiny of Select Committee reports but not the scrutiny of estimates. Topics to be debated are decided by the Liaison Committee. It is unreasonable to expect that Committee alone to represent all the interests of the House in debatable estimates motions within the confines of three days each Session. If we want to scrutinise Barnett consequentials fully, we need a lot more than the estimates days allowed by Standing Order No. 54.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important and timely debate. I am a member of the Procedure Committee and I am taking part in the inquiry she referred to. In that inquiry, Professor David Heald from the University of Glasgow, which is in my constituency, gave his view that the estimates process is completely irrelevant to the Barnett process. That view is borne out in other evidence we received and stands in complete contradiction to what the House, the Scottish National party and Scottish Members in particular were told during the English votes for English laws process, which was that our opportunity to scrutinise the consequences of EVEL legislation would be through the estimates process.
It is good to see a member of the Procedure Committee here today. He will be fully up to speed with everything that is happening there. We look forward to the report—we hope that it will be published in November this year—and I hope the Government listen to its recommendations and respond constructively.
As I said, three days is completely inadequate. Furthermore, it is an oddity that more time is given to supplementary estimates than main estimates. After all, main estimates are where the vast majority of the decision making occurs. It seems eminently logical to switch the number of days available at the very least, so that two are set aside for consideration of main estimates and one for supplementary estimates. My hon. Friend the Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart), the SNP shadow Leader of the House, who has joined us in this debate, has submitted written evidence to the Procedure Committee’s inquiry into the estimates procedure in which he makes a common-sense proposal to allow both Opposition days and Backbench Business Committee days during the estimates windows, which should take the form of amendable or debatable motions to approve estimates or parts of estimates.
My hon. Friend also advocated the case advanced by the hon. Members for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) and for Southport (John Pugh) back in 2012 for the establishment of a separate Budget Committee to examine Government expenditure plans and to make recommendations to the House. I, too, think that has great merit and warrants serious consideration. It is currently all too easy for the Treasury to bury important changes within hundreds of pages of information. We owe it to the taxpayer to ensure both transparency and effective scrutiny, neither of which are possible in the current system. A Budget Committee would allow for a much more thorough inspection of spending proposals and could complement a heavily reformed Supply and estimates process. Such a Committee should also play a vital role in the scrutiny of Barnett consequentials to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
Furthermore, Westminster should introduce a proper Budget expenditure debate, such as those held in the United States or the Scottish Parliament. That sensible measure would allow a much closer assessment of spending. The compelling case for the inclusion of Barnett consequentials in estimates has been further compounded by the introduction of English votes for English laws. The complicated EVEL process reduces the ability of Scottish MPs to influence matters with funding implications for Scotland. The Leader of the House has repeatedly claimed that the estimates process provides a suitable avenue for us to affect those matters of great financial importance. However, in reality, it does not.
The Chair of the Procedure Committee, the hon. Member for Broxbourne (Mr Walker), said during an oral evidence session of that Committee last September:
“the way we execute Estimates and appropriations is less than satisfactory in the House of Commons, and for those colleagues who are concerned about Barnett consequentials, perhaps the concerns could be alleviated if we had proper debates around supply procedure.”
Legislation that might be considered to fall within the rules for the exclusion of non-English MPs might have important expenditure implications for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The previous Leader of the House showed reticence in accepting that fact. I urge the new Leader of the House to give proper consideration to the argument being put forward. Will he agree to review the interaction between the Supply and estimates procedure and EVEL arrangements as part of the review of the latter?
Legislation passes through the House that could have a significant impact on the block grant available to the devolved legislators. Members who represent constituencies in the devolved nations are now denied a right to vote at crucial stages of that legislation. Many other Members and I have raised serious concerns regarding Barnett consequentials and the effect that such legislation could have upon them. The Government contend that the estimates process provides ample opportunity for all Members to address that. However, there exists a complete lack of relevant information available to Members regarding amounts derived from each Department’s spending, which makes up elements of the block grants. That is wholly inadequate.
Pursuant to Budgets and autumn statements each year, the Treasury provides information to the devolved Administrations of the amount within the block grant derived from the spending of each Department. However, Members of this Parliament are not given access to that information when they are asked to give formal approval to Government spending. It seems incomprehensible that absolutely no consideration is possible of the full implications of Government spending, including the effect on the budgets of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Will the Leader of the House engage with the Treasury specifically on that issue?
The current measures for the estimates day debates were put in place before the process of establishing separate legislatures for the devolved nations commenced, so there is a fundamental inadequacy in how we examine Barnett consequentials under the current process. As a member of the Scottish Affairs Committee, I heard evidence last September from Sir William McKay, who said:
“There is neither possibility nor opportunity”
to do so, and that
“estimates opportunities are limited in both time and matter.”
In fact, he commented that EVEL is “a dog’s breakfast”—a phrase my hon. Friend the Member for Perth and North Perthshire loves to use in the Chamber.
In evidence recently given to the Procedure Committee, Dr Joachim Wehner, associate professor of public policy at the London School of Economics, said:
“The UK generally does extremely well in terms of macro fiscal disclosure, but it does less well when you look at the details of public spending. That is a weak spot in the overall transparency assessment of the UK. So the quality of the estimates is below par compared to the UK’s own high standards in this area, but also compared to its peers and other OECD countries.”
The mother of Parliaments, like many mothers, is not as in touch with the modern world as its younger descendants. The OECD wrote that we have some of the worst levels of scrutiny of estimates of any country in the developed democratic world. The House does not formally consider, debate, amend and vote on expenditure in the same way as with the Budget and taxation. There simply must be more opportunity to consider, debate and make amendments. MPs should have some measures to amend or affect estimates short of attempting to vote down all Government spending. There must be a way for Members to amend spending without having to defeat the Government on a major money motion. If nothing else, such a system makes minority Budgets much harder and, in doing so, cements a tendency in this place to move towards a two-party system with power pooling with the Executive. That is not a healthy way for a democratic country to operate.
Before I summarise, I would like to quote Adam Tomkins MSP, professor of public law at the University of Glasgow and the Scottish Conservative spokesperson on the constitution. In his written evidence to the Procedure Committee, he said:
“Whether these procedures give MPs the means fully to scrutinise any Barnett consequentials of England-only or England and Wales-only legislation may be doubted. If they prove to be inadequate, it may be that one unintended consequence of EVEL will be to reform the House of Commons’ supply process. From the perspective of parliamentary openness and effective parliamentary scrutiny, that would be no bad thing. The Treasury, however, may take a different view.”
I urge the Leader of the House to engage specifically with the Treasury about reforms to the timing and presentation of estimates, including the case for draft estimates, and the need for clear information on Barnett consequentials, including a statement of change from the previous year. Will he agree to examine specifically any lessons that can be learned from the Scottish Parliament’s procedures on the consideration of spending? Will he agree to engage with the Procedure Committee about the likely recommendations of its current inquiry on this matter?
Will the Leader of the House agree to look at the arrangement for estimates days, with a view to increasing the number available and making more time for main estimates than supplementary ones? Will he have discussions with the Treasury, with a view to making estimates motions more easily amendable? Will he seek to engage with relevant parties to explore the merits of establishing a Budget Committee? Lastly, will he agree to review the interaction between Supply and estimates procedure and the arrangements for English votes for English laws as part of the review of the latter?
I welcome the Deputy Leader of the House to his new role.
Thank you very much indeed, Mr Evans. It is a particular pleasure to appear before you for my first debate as Deputy Leader of the House of Commons. I recall your visiting my constituency, Northampton North, some eight or nine years ago—I remain grateful for that.
It is a great pleasure to take part in this debate, and I take this opportunity to congratulate the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) on not only securing it, which is in itself an achievement in a busy legislative agenda, but also on her contribution. As she alluded to, this topic is not perhaps of interest to every Member, but it has become higher on the agenda of many, thanks in large part to her work and the work of her hon. Friends, which I recognise. She has, in her short time here, made a powerful impact on this area of procedure, and I commend her for that.
The Supply and estimates procedure is attracting attention across the House now and has done historically. It is important at the outset to outline, as has been recognised, that the Procedure Committee is currently conducting an inquiry on the subject. The fact that the inquiry is under way is a recognition that there are areas that need to be examined. Knowing as I do the members of that Committee—some quite well, and others by reputation—I have every confidence that the Committee will look thoroughly at the matter in hand. It has been and is still doing so. I am sure it would be recognised that nothing I say must prejudge that inquiry.
It is particularly relevant to point out that the Leader of the House has not yet given evidence before the Procedure Committee. The previous Leader of the House was scheduled to do so, and the matter was put back. The new Leader of the House, appointed in the past few days, is scheduled to give evidence before that Committee on this subject in the autumn. We have to be cognisant that nothing should prejudge the pending report of the Committee and the pending evidence of the Leader of the House.
It might be helpful to set out the procedure as it stands, which has received recognition and support for quite some time. Under Standing Order No. 54, three days are set aside per year for the consideration of estimates or requests from Select Committees. I have read some of the evidence that has been given and other submissions. Suggestions have been made that not all Members have chosen to take an interest in this matter historically and that something should be done to increase that interest.
I am grateful to the Deputy Leader of the House for giving me the opportunity to congratulate him on his new position. I look forward to us doing business together in the next few months. The situation is worse than he says. The one thing we cannot, under existing circumstances, discuss on estimates days is the estimates themselves. I made a valiant attempt to do such a thing the last time we had the opportunity. I was ruled out of order within 45 seconds—probably correctly. It is not that there is a problem with the estimates; it is that we cannot even discuss them under the current process.
The point the hon. Gentleman makes is being addressed by the Procedure Committee. Where, under Standing Order No. 54, the Liaison Committee involves the Select Committees, that in itself is a way in which to engage Members. Members who take part in those Select Committees then involve themselves during the course of every annual Session in the day-to-day business of those Committees, and the Chairperson of those Committees will make representations through the Liaison Committee. That is a way in which the House and its Members can be involved in the Supply and estimates procedure.
Those three days are quite crucial. I appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s point that it has been said that three days is insufficient, but that is being examined in detail by the Procedure Committee in its inquiry. The Liaison Committee decides which estimates are to be debated on estimates days. As I alluded to previously, considering requests from Select Committees is part of the democratic process of involving individual Members.
I am on the Liaison Committee; I know how this works. What happens in the Liaison Committee is that the Select Committee Chairs who put their hands up the quickest manage to get a Select Committee report debated. It has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with the estimates and Supply procedure of the House—please do not confuse the two. It is a great opportunity for Select Committees to discuss their reports, but it has nothing to do with estimates and Supply discussion in this House.
I know the hon. Gentleman would not wish to reduce the value and impact of Select Committees and the work they do—the Chairmen and Chairwomen of those Committees would resist that strongly—but I recognise the point he makes. However, there are processes—recognised ones that have worked for some considerable time and have been examined hitherto—that frankly have allowed Members, through the Chairs of those individual Committees, to make representations to the Liaison Committee. That is our current process. I recognise that he finds it unsatisfactory, which is why it will be particularly useful to examine in full the recommendations of the Procedure Committee, on which his hon. Friend, the hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady), sits. One can see why some consider Select Committees to have a role to play. Select Committees are very important in the process.
It is important to note that motions for Supply come in two forms: we have the debatable and amendable ones, and we have the ones that are rolled up. I think most people would recognise that, because of the sheer complexity and volume of some estimates and because they are so involved, we have to have a process whereby they cannot be considered on estimates days and whereby we restrict the amount of discussion. Otherwise, because of the quantities of money involved, we could almost discuss them for an entire fiscal year.
I congratulate the Minister on his appointment. Does he accept that that level of complexity bears out our argument that the estimates process is irrelevant and does not provide us with an opportunity to discuss the Barnett consequentials? We were told by his honourable predecessors during discussion of the EVEL process that the estimates process was how Scottish Members could debate and vote on the Barnett consequentials of legislation that are now subject to the EVEL procedure.
I do not accept the hon. Gentleman’s contention. Of course it is possible to do exactly as the previous Leader of the House suggested. I followed and read about the processes that apply to, for example, the Scottish Parliament and other legislatures that have been cited, but one must bear in mind that the fiscal quantum and complexity involved are sometimes considerably less. As somebody pointed out in the written evidence to the Procedure Committee that I have seen, the Scottish Parliament was established with a clean sheet, but we do not start with that. This system has evolved over time and is necessarily somewhat more complex.
That is why we have the House of Commons Scrutiny Unit, which provides a range of briefings for Select Committees and helps to explain the main areas of interest. It may be that the Scrutiny Unit should be brought more to the attention of hon. Members, but it is there and it provides a good range of briefings for those Select Committees, helping to explain the main areas of interest.
The Clerk of Supply is also available to provide advice on procedure and the drafting of amendments to estimates motions. That is another mechanism whereby the process can be carefully assessed and analysed by individual Members, including those with a particular interest in Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish affairs.
It is open to any Member to request a debate, as the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West has done on this occasion, on certain aspects of particular estimates. That is another process and another area of scrutiny. A debate on the estimates process as a whole can also be accessed, as she has done today.
I recognise that a number of issues have already been raised in the Procedure Committee—the hon. Lady referred to them briefly in her earlier submissions. The timing, laying and approval of the main and supplementary estimates is something the Committee will want to look at. I have read that sometimes it is several months after the start of the financial year before those estimates are ready, and I know the Committee is looking at that.
The hon. Lady referred to the presentation of documentation, which is another issue that has been raised with the Procedure Committee. Presentation is important because it makes documentation more readable and accessible to a larger number of people. If it is possible to increase the use of graphs or other mechanisms by which presentation can become more accessible, clearly that should be looked at.
The hon. Lady mentioned the role of departmental Select Committees in the scrutiny of estimates and that is also being considered. She also referred to a possible role for the Backbench Business Committee in determining the estimates to be debated on estimates days. That is clearly of interest and can be assessed in the detailed Procedure Committee report.
As is clear from my points so far, my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House will consider a range of issues. They will, of course, relate to the estimates procedure and to the points made by the hon. Lady. He will be able to answer questions on the matter when he appears before the rather robust questioning of the Procedure Committee, some members of which I know—I am sure he will do so when he has considered the matter in the intervening weeks and months.
When the Procedure Committee has completed its evidence taking and produced its report, the Government will take time to carefully consider the recommendations. The hon. Lady asked for that assurance and I can give it. This is an important matter that involves large sums of money. It is of interest to the House, and the Government will of course, as we always do, consider carefully any recommendations contained within it. I cannot give any undertakings about the assessment that Her Majesty’s Government will come to after considering the recommendations, but I can say, I think without fear of contradiction, that those recommendations will be carefully considered. I do not wish to pre-empt the outcome of that report or the pending evidence of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, but I am confident that the points raised by the hon. Lady will help very much to inform the thinking of the Leader of the House and no doubt the thinking of the Procedure Committee.
Question put and agreed to.
Citizens Convention on Democracy
[Mrs Anne Main in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered Government policy on a Citizen’s Convention on democracy.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main, and it is equally a great pleasure to welcome the new Minister to the Dispatch Box, such as it is, on his first outing as a Minister. I wish him well with this brief. I do not want to put any pressure on him, but there cannot be a more important brief. That was true even before the events of the last few weeks and certainly is subsequently. All his experience and his large knowledge of history may well be required as he fulfils his duties. I am sure that I speak for colleagues on both sides of the Chamber when I wish him well.
We have had an incredible few weeks. I do not want to concentrate on that, but it would be wrong of us not to recognise it and talk about it briefly. It seems to me that we have had about 14 years’ worth of politics in about 14 days, and it has been a very rich diet indeed, but it underlines the fact that we are now in a quite desperate situation in terms of needing to reconnect with the electorate and members of the public. One of the best ways we can do that—in fact, the most essential way we can do it—is by ensuring that people feel that they own their own democracy. At the moment, even after the last few weeks, people feel distant and alienated from their democracy. We need to take some steps towards ensuring that that does not continue.
Even before Brexit, elections and Chilcot—you name it; just about everything has been thrown at the political process in the last couple of weeks—there were some very severe underlying problems, including the low turnout at traditional elections, the obvious poor levels of registration on our electoral registers, instability in the Union, which is welcomed to some degree by some and to a lesser degree by others, the begging bowl system that we have for local government, certainly in England and Wales, and a less trusted political class, not least because of the tainted nature of party political funding.
All that has led us to a situation in which our very democracy is under threat. That sense of instability and inconsistency is something that all of us across the House, in all parties, need to address. I hope that if there is a thread running through my political career, it is that I have attempted to go across the parties, because I do not believe that anything is sustainable unless we can win everybody to a particular cause. A view that is about winning a cause in the short term and having it changed at the next election has never been a long-term view and certainly not a view that I have ever held. I am therefore delighted to see colleagues from across the House here today and I encourage them to participate during this hour and a half. I know that some colleagues are here to do winding-up speeches, but I also say to them that I would be happy to take interventions if they feel inclined to intervene on me as I progress.
I am perhaps painting quite a bleak picture, and I will come back to the exit from the European Union, but there is a tremendous flash of hope that we can all latch on to. Possibly—in my wildest dreams—within a matter of weeks or months, we could be in the position of setting up a citizens convention on the UK’s democracy. It could be sitting or meeting certainly before Christmas if we all felt inclined to make that happen. On top of that, there is a growing view among the leaderships of political parties represented in this place that they ought collectively to act, do something, and start to develop a way forward. There is pessimism on the one hand, but optimism on the other that with a citizens convention enabling the people to participate, we could find ways forward on the problems that trouble us most in relation to our democracy.
I must add a word about the European Union. The recent European referendum has raised more questions than it has answered—it is arguable that it did not even answer the question that was on the ballot paper, but I will not go there. For example, what should be the role of our Parliament? That has been raised again as a result of having a referendum rather than relying on our tried-and-tested representative democracy. What about the role of the supposedly sovereign institutions within our system in guiding the UK forwards? What is the future for Scotland and Northern Ireland, both of which voted to remain? How can we use our democracy to repair the sharp divisions between people who voted one way and those who voted the other—there was almost a straight split—and the differences between different territories, age groups and social groups that were revealed by the referendum?
When I last raised this issue, I said it would be quite important that Government stayed out of anything to do with a citizens convention, but I have thought again about that and I have an open mind on it. I am talking about whether the situation now is so important, so critical, that Government might want to reconsider the case for funding in some way, shape or form—not 100%, but just making a contribution and giving this some status, official or otherwise. I am still mulling over that conundrum and will not come down on one side or the other on it, but certainly my mind has been altered a little by the severity of the crisis that now faces our democracy.
Parliament and Government alone will not be able to resolve the problems that are in front of us. That will require the British people as a whole to listen, learn, participate and come up with their answers, rather than expecting them to pop out of the bubble in Westminster and Whitehall. That is why it is very important that we do not just have another learned report, academic report, or report by the great and the good that is dislocated from the political process. It is absolutely central to the argument for a citizens convention that it locks in the political class to the point of view that there should be in 2020 a series of decisions and Bills made and taken by Parliament. Otherwise, it is just another great report that will sit on the shelf and will not get us any further than we have got before.
That sort of linkage was evident in the Scottish referendum, when the Unionist parties all undertook to put in front of Parliament, if the out vote was defeated, a Scottish Bill as the first business of the House of Commons, and that was actually done. There may be different views—I am looking at my very good friend from the Scottish National party, the hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard)—about whether that did the job, but one cannot say that the promise to put a Bill before the House of Commons was not kept. I actually think it was a very good Bill, and I suspect that many colleagues do too. My friend from Scotland will make his own speech, as he always does so eloquently, but that principle of linking something that happens before an election or before decision making to Bills and Acts is one that I think we can use effectively as a precedent for a citizens convention. That would require party leaders and senior parliamentarians who are represented in the House and perhaps represent a majority of the electorate of the United Kingdom to undertake publicly to put Bills that arose from such a process in front of the 2020 Parliament.
I am therefore very pleased to read into the record a letter signed by party leaders and senior parliamentarians. It says:
“We are writing in support of the application to fund a nationwide “Citizens Convention” to strengthen British democracy up to and beyond the 2020 General election. Its agenda should be set by the convention itself but we hope that it would cover the whole of the UK’s governance and politics, including the core issues, themes and discussions that should drive the evolution of our democratic settlement.
We believe we should collectively initiate and give continued moral support to such a Citizens Convention. In order to bring a practical political conclusion to this work, we commit now to seek to persuade our colleagues to incorporate in our 2020 Manifestos a promise to put Bills which emerge from the Citizens Convention in front of the new Parliament as its first business for debate, amendment and decision. However we wish the Citizens Convention itself to be established at arm’s length from political parties to guarantee its independence, so that—rather like the Scottish convention prior to devolution and the recent Irish convention on the constitution—it would be inclusive of opinion across society and produce a report which was subject to unprecedented levels of public participation.
Regardless of party allegiance, we feel the time is right for an urgent and comprehensive look at our democracy and believe the threats of political disenchantment, cynicism and disaffiliation must be tackled swiftly.”
That letter was signed by the leader of the Liberal Democrat parliamentary party, the leader of the parliamentary Green party, the parliamentary leader of the UK Independence party and the right hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr Grieve), a senior Back Bencher, whom we all know and respect, and a similar letter was sent by the leader of the parliamentary Labour party. That underlines to me that there is a broad view among senior colleagues within the House, including leaders of parties, that something serious should now happen in the creation of a citizens convention and that such a convention should link into activity on the Floor of the House in 2020.
I quickly add that that is not closed book; it is not a closed list. It has not been possible to get everybody on board with these decisions, or even physically to get round to everybody. I hope colleagues present today will realise that that door is still open and that their participation would be extremely welcome in what should be a broad-based and all-party effort in getting this show on the road.
How we do this is going to be really important. It is essential that we find the means, which modern technology now allows us, to allow absolutely any member of the public—any elector—to participate in this process and have their say. With three and a half years still to go before the next general election, there is more than enough time to hone the process, so that everybody can participate. There is the more conventional part: the meetings, the national and regional rallies and venues, and the educational side of all that. Then there is the perhaps more exciting and novel side for many of us: how we use the internet to get to people, so that we can get something coherent and sensible that can be collated by literally millions of people, so that there is a clear input. This is not just one-way traffic. We need to devise a convention that listens and then responds, asks new questions and poses new options, so that people can engage in a process that they can trust and that they feel is listening to them and really genuinely wants to hear their views.
Whatever a citizens convention comes up with, one thing I can guarantee is that every Member will find something to object to in its conclusions—me, above all. That is going to come with the territory. We are all going to have to put up with a few things that we think, “My goodness, where did that come from?” or, “That is certainly something I could never support or would never have promoted.” Taking our ball away at that point is not an option. This is about a wholesale review of a democracy, which is currently not fit for purpose and needs to be made fit for purpose if we are indeed to continue to call ourselves a democracy.
I will give way to my hon. Friend, not least because of the tremendous track record that he established as the spokesperson for the Labour party in opposition on many of these issues.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate on a very important issue and support what he said about how vital it is that this is cross-party. This is a huge area. Does he envisage that a convention might start with one aspect of democracy? I suggest that it could be looking at questions of devolution, which is proceeding apace in some parts of the United Kingdom but not in others and is where a citizen input is, surely, absolutely vital.
The problem that I, all who have been involved in this process and, indeed, my hon. Friend have wrestled with is how much we need a political push to get this thing moving and how much we have to step back and just let the thing take its own course. Although I suspect that he might be reading the minds of people on a convention whom we have not yet selected and that devolution—in particular, currently, English devolution—might well be a key issue, we often come to the view that we cannot deal with one nation’s devolution without looking at integration with other nations and at how that fits together in a union structure, federal structure or whatever. I am content that we can have a proper process whereby the convention itself makes those decisions.
I mean that with the greatest respect to my hon. Friend. I anticipate that he, like every other Member, would feel a burden of duty to put extensive evidence and personal experience into a convention once it is under way. I am not dodging the question, but merely saying that I suspect a convention must be the body to make those decisions, even though I may well agree with my hon. Friend’s motive and direction.
It is important that we do that because people have to hold us all to our promises when we get to 2020. It is important, if they have participated and feel that, warts and all, the product of the convention by and large represents them or is fair—if not representing their actual views in its entirety—that they have faith in that process. They will then feel that they can discipline the Members of Parliament who take this forward after 2020. They will have a stake. They will be able to say, “That’s not what we agreed,” even if the Government in power in 2020 have not signed up to participate in the convention. I hope that would not be the case for any party when we get to that point, but it is important to get even that Government to respect the decision-making process that has been gone through and to take it seriously. That may well be the case going back to the Scottish referendum and the Bill that came before the House. To his credit, the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr Cameron) did put a Bill before the House. There was obviously a great pressure that he should do that. I hope that we would all have done that anyway, but there was clearly a great public pressure to ensure that was done, so that is very important.
This should be not just an atomised group of the electorate at large collating their views, but lots of independent organisations and political parties. That is where political parties can come into the process, not as directors and governors, but as contributors. Every party represented in the House and many beyond could make their own contributions, collectively or by encouraging their members to interact with websites and so on.
In addition, there are dozens of organisations, thankfully, in the web of civic society who support our individual and political rights. They could design their own innovative means of participation to feed into the greater convention. For example, citizens assemblies, which we have seen springing up not least because of the efforts of Professor Matthew Flinders and his team at the University of Sheffield, have already produced a lot of information, interaction and development. Professor Flinders sent me a quote from Tracey Cheetham, who is a member of the citizens assembly north in Sheffield. After one assembly, she said:
“One thing was absolutely clear—and forgive me for stating the obvious—greater democratic engagement is vital to make devolution work effectively… We had a room full of people who were anything but disengaged or apathetic. Frustrated, curious and some angry about politics in general, but all determined to have a say.”
What a mobilisation of people’s political firepower to feed into our political system, and that is just one example of what we could do.
There are also the Political Studies Association, the Hansard Society and the Local Government Association. I was fortunate enough to be involved in the report of the inquiry into better devolution by the LGA. The report was very influential and I am delighted to have participated in it. There are lots of others who should be involved, including every councillor, every branch of every political party, Bite the Ballot, which has done such fantastic work, and the Constitution Reform Group. There is a lot of potential to revive and revitalise political discourse, if we take three and a half years to do it—and to do it seriously and have an outcome in 2020.
As well as that process, or concept, there is also the issue of how we move this forward. The first question is about funding. Those who have been engaged in the process to date are in the very early stages of discussing with external charities the possibilities for funding. I am sure that, collectively, we could make a sufficient appeal to ensure that we have this initiative properly funded, because that is vital. It would be appalling if it were to fall because of a lack of basic finance. I throw in my earlier point that I am now open in a way that I was certainly not before to see whether the Government—whether or not they will engage in the process, and I hope that they will be—feel they would assist to make the process work. That might mean a matching contribution to individual donations. As we go down this path, I am sure that we can work out something sensible for us all.
We need to get the show on the road, and it is very important that we establish an impartial and respected team that is ready to move on request. My hon. Friend the Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) will know that team well from his distinguished service on the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee; the team helped us, over five years, to create a written constitution—in fact, three options for a written constitution—and a Bill that would give it life. That was not a two-page Bill, but one that had gone completely through the mill of legal advice and parliamentary process.
Those colleagues, from King’s College London, are led by Professor Robert Blackburn, and they include Professor Vernon Bogdanor, who is known to many hon. Members, and Dr Andrew Blick, who has a track record of achievement in this field. King’s is ready to go when we are ready to go. I very much hope that we do not keep it on stand-by for too long because we want to make sure that the necessary Sherpa work, to use a crude phrase—that academic heavy lifting, the production of papers and the organisation of conferences, venues, and so on—can get under way.
That would be the organisational side, but the hard politics comes into the agenda that is set, as was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby. I imagine that would include reviewing the powers and membership of the second Chamber; examining the voting systems at parliamentary, devolved and local levels to encourage greater participation in public life, and Executive power—the way in which Government are often very difficult to hold to account and their powers hard to discover without judicial archaeology—reviewing the position of local government in relation to the centre; questions of devolution in England; examining the legal recognition of constitutional provisions such as individual rights; looking at the way in which parties and our other democratic institutions are funded; and, above all, the catch-all of any other relevant democratic issues that might be recommended by the convention as its work progresses. Those terms of reference are deliberately vague because the citizens convention should decide what the issues are. Whether we approve of them is not the issue; this is about whether the convention is entitled to look at whatever it wants and report, ultimately, to the House of Commons in 2020, after the next general election.
People have asked, “So what does the convention look like?” Actually, I think what the convention looks like is less important than what it does, how it reaches out and how people can get involved in it. As a working rule of thumb, it could be 100 people, selected properly, on a fair basis. There are lots of ways to do that. For example, Ipsos MORI, which is well connected to King’s College, has a way of selecting that number of people so that everyone is represented—from their nation, region, gender, socio-economic group and so on. I add that there should be, either as members or ex officio members, a sprinkling of the great and the good and of representatives from political parties, just to give it the necessary spice to ensure that when there are obviously impractical things, someone can stand up and say, “Actually, the best way to do that, given where we are at the moment, is to do it in the following way.” They would not rule or run the convention, but their expertise could be deployed, so that obvious mistakes were avoided.
There would be a role for other people. Again, that is not for us here to decide; it is for the convention to make those decisions. Will it make mistakes? Of course it will. But are we going to support it and ensure that it is impartial and independent? I think that is a greater principle than trying to eliminate all possible errors that may take place.
To turn to another structural thing, a chairs’ panel should be involved. A lot of work will need to be done and it is very important that people are represented on that panel from the nations of the United Kingdom and that there is a proper gender balance and proper representation from all parts of what we term British society—whether that is faith and non-faith, business, or whatever—to ensure that everybody has the possibility of seeing someone who is like them on a panel of chairs that pulls together this incredibly long and important exercise in our democracy.
The process issues to which my hon. Friend has now turned are incredibly important. Earlier, he referred to the Scottish Constitutional Convention before 1997 and the more recent Irish experience. Does he agree that it is important to look at those and other examples of citizens assemblies being used in such processes, so that we can see what works and learn lessons from things that, perhaps, did not work in other countries?
My hon. Friend is, as always, one step ahead of me. I was just about to say that we are not doing something wholly originally and it should not frighten us. People might say, “It has never been done before.” My goodness, if we need them, there are precedents—my hon. Friend outlined a couple—and there is a fantastic wealth of experience from Scotland’s Constitutional Convention and the process of the Scottish referendum.
My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby also mentioned the experience of Ireland—I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Foyle has got the T-shirt. There are examples from Ontario, Iceland and, recently, British Columbia, among others. We are not short of confidence in trusting people and finding good outcomes as a result of involving people in such processes. That is why the team led by King’s involves people from Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and the English regions. They are working together, pulling together all the background information, enabling people to see what was tried in the past and what was dismissed for whatever reason, and tracking through a long, important process to get the success we need. They have that ability and brainpower—at the request of a citizens convention—to be able to draft Bills to meet each of the key subjects that are decided upon and that should be put before the House of Commons in 2020.
That leaves aside a lot of questions, such as “Goodness me, can we do this in every school? Can we do this in every university and college?” Can we get every young person, in particular, excited by the fact that they can tell their grandchildren that they were participants in building the democracy of the United Kingdom—not just 40 white guys in Philadelphia, as they say about the American constitution, but literally millions of founding fathers and mothers building a new British democracy that will stand the test of time as the old one starts to look ever more shaky?
Where I would take this next is 2020, when we have a set of proposals, decisions and Bills, and the process comes back to the House of Commons. Have we agreed to every dot and comma that comes out of the convention? No, we have not. Every political party of whatever size that comes to the House of Commons in 2020 would have to make a decision not just to support or reject the proposals in their entirety, but to do a really serious job on behalf of the public: amending, line by line, and ensuring that the proposals were fit for purpose. That will be an onerous task for us all in the House at that point, but it will be well worth doing—a task that should not be cast aside readily on the basis of pure party politics or selfishness for the benefit of a political party. It should be done not by dragooning people through the Lobby, for or against, as just a ritual on a three-line Whip, but by really taking it seriously, as those who have founded new democracies have done—in the east of Europe, for example.
The process should be taken seriously right down to the minutiae of what shape the Chamber should be, let alone the question of the separation of Executive powers and legislative powers. From the massive and conceptual, to the minute, it should engage people. Here, we will need to take the process as seriously as we will expect people outside to have taken their role in it. It is an essential part of what we need to do to preserve our democracy in times when it is looking fragile, when the political atmosphere and interaction with the media mean that politics is more and more in danger of just becoming a branch of the entertainment industry, and when our serious role in devising a democracy that can last a long time becomes the most onerous duty that can fall to Members of Parliament.
I appeal to anybody who is interested in our democracy to play their part. That may be purely by writing in about their views on a particular thing. How does the Union hang together, or should it divide? How does a federal system work, or is that not appropriate? What will our future relationship be with our friends in Europe and across the globe? We can all participate in those issues.
From the smallest child understanding the basics of a civil society with their actions and work at school, up to Prime Ministers who can decide where our country goes, across to people who may have some funds that they think can be well spent on ensuring that the process is well staffed, well financed and well supported, and to those who, in 2020, will be in the Chamber of the House of Commons making the decisions, there is a role for everybody in the creation of a citizens convention for the United Kingdom because they will be taking on a role to create a lasting and stable democracy.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main. I thank you for permitting us to be jacketless in this heat.
I support the case of my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen) for a citizens convention. Considering the range of issues and developments that have taken place over the past number of years, it is important to recognise that what is deemed to be the constitutional dispensation of the UK has been stretched, bent, twisted, pummelled and has had holes knocked through it, yet people say it is still the same fabric of the unwritten UK constitution. In a modern democratic environment, we cannot go on like this.
In a number of elections, voter turnout has gone down and those who did vote displayed disaffection by voting in a more spread out and, possibly, alienated way. That should send a warning to those of us who care for ensuring that we have a modern, inclusive, democratic platform. We cannot just continue politics as business as usual, drifting along.
The point that I see a citizens convention fulfilling is producing a new democratic charter, written from a citizen’s point of view. Citizens would have, for the first time, something like an owner’s manual so that they could say, “Right, all these elections are held in which we are asked to vote and told we have the chance to vote. What does it mean?” A charter could clearly set out the roles, responsibilities and rights of the different chambers and bodies that people have the opportunity to elect, whether in local government elections, at a devolved level, in the UK Parliament—of course, we had the European Parliament as well—or in other elections such as those for police and crime commissioners.
A charter could also set out a clearer understanding of the relationships between those different bodies because there is often a lot of confusion and tension. We saw that with the Scotland Act 2016 and we have seen it when we have processed legislation affecting Northern Ireland. Parties that were part of the negotiations have reflected different views on the Floor of the House of Commons from what the Government say is intended or meant by the legislation, or what an agreement entailed. We have seen that with the Scotland Act. It is important that we get these things right in a clear and cogent way, because coming up with agreements that we then disagree about does not do anything for people’s confidence in the political process.
The charter should set out clearly the rights of the different Chambers to take revenue, and the principles and ceilings of the funding they are guaranteed as a share of overall UK public expenditure. Because the policy environment changes, the charter should provide for an opportunity for Members to review the relative responsibilities and relationships of those different institutions. As technology changes, the nature and scope of how government might address something will change and evolve as well—we see that in energy and in the movements in broadcasting and digital technology.
The footprint of responsibility between devolved and non-devolved and between local government and others could well change, so we need to build in room for responsiveness to circumstance and change, and responsiveness to review. It should not be beyond us or beyond the political process to do that, but if it is, it is not beyond citizens, because they want to know, in a 21st-century democracy, who they are electing to do what job and who they can hold to account for delivery or failure. At the minute, they do not get that from the political process. It is almost a Tower of Babel—I say that as one of the people who negotiated and wrote parts of the Good Friday agreement.
As for the current situation, we have only to look at the previous election in Northern Ireland. Many of the parties in the course of the election debate sought devolved power and used their relative powerlessness as an excuse. They were saying, “We can’t deliver on some of these things. Westminster did not give us the money for this. There is an austerity agenda and other legislation has gone through.” The people are then at sixes and sevens, because people in the political process are confused and confusing about who has what power.
The welfare reform issue is a classic example. On paper, the Northern Ireland Assembly has legislative power over welfare, but we have ended up with a motion in the Assembly, courtesy of Sinn Féin, the DUP and the Government, to hand that power back to Westminster for a year, to give Westminster direct rule powers to impose something that the Assembly itself would not do. Of course, when the Assembly gets those powers back, there is essentially going to be a power of karaoke legislation. Basically, all the Assembly gets to do is to pass the legislation according to the words and music that have been set in the legislation here at Westminster. That is not edifying for the integrity of a devolved institution and it is not credible or persuasive to the public. It would seem to be a cynical exercise in taking power and being unable to exercise it, handing it to somebody else, and then blaming and criticising them for the decisions they take. In those circumstances, it is important that people know exactly what responsibility Chambers have and how parties and others operating within those institutions are expected to operate.
I have heard such talk in a lot of the exchanges on the Scotland Act. There is confusion even yet as to the exact import of the future welfare powers that Scotland will have. The Act makes sweeping presumptions about the agreement that there will be between Scottish Ministers and a Secretary of State, but makes no provision for what happens when there is no agreement between them and when there are difficulties. We need to fix that—otherwise we will have political crisis.
We were told that Northern Ireland had a political crisis partly to do with welfare reform. The UK Government decided that, if the Assembly was not going to automatically pass the karaoke legislation for welfare reform, they would take the budget hostage—they were going to impose a penalty on the devolved budget. That penalty power was not in the Northern Ireland Act 1998—it was dreamed up by the former Chancellor and others and imposed. Someone might try to do that in Scotland. If Scotland fails to reach agreement—
Order. Can we focus a little more narrowly on the topic of debate, rather than going down cul-de-sacs?
I am sorry, Mrs Main. I do not regard this as a cul-de-sac. I am setting out an example of the issues that a constitutional convention could address. We have already been served notice of difficulties, contradictions, confusions and gaps in the constitutional understanding that the current political class is serving up to people. If we have been given those warnings, we should recognise that there might be more difficulties in future, not least in an environment where we have been told that the Brexit result means an agenda of taking control. Let us show what control we are actually giving to citizens. Citizens need to be able to know what control they have as electors and as voters. The first way is to show them the relevance and direct power of their vote in electing the different bodies and the different classes of people that they are allowed to elect. The first thing the citizens convention should do is produce that new democratic charter that essentially gives the citizen an owner’s manual to know where they have power in relation to different Chambers.
Given the experience in Ireland, it is right that parties should be involved in the constitutional convention. In Ireland, as well as citizens being involved, parties were involved north and south. Unfortunately, permission for the northern parties to appoint parliamentarians did not extend to Members of this House—it extended only to members of the Assembly, so I was not able to serve as a member of the convention, but a very good friend of mine, Tom Arnold, successfully chaired that convention. It showed that whenever you have the parties there, the citizens doing the work know that it is not a case of producing something worthy that politicians can then ignore and parties can then drop because it is too hot or too avant-garde. The fact that the parties are involved in those reflective discussions is helpful in giving people confidence that there is some purpose to it. It certainly encourages people to give evidence and submit ideas to the convention—it is not a case of a lot of good ideas going nowhere. There are positive examples.
The convention can also be used to educate all of us about the nuances of the different constitutional understandings that there are in different parts of the UK. For instance, it would be helpful to let people know—a lot of people do not seem to appreciate this—that, in Ireland, the common membership of Ireland and the UK of the European Union was taken as a given when we negotiated the Good Friday agreement. It is written into the fabric of the agreement at various points, as is the European convention on human rights, but some people think we can dispose of both of those without doing any damage, as though it is a stud wall that can be knocked through when it is actually a supporting wall of our political dispensation and peace process.
Similarly, EU law and the European convention on human rights, as far as I know, are a part of the basis of the current constitutional dispensation for Scotland, but, again, potential damage is being done to it. One thing a citizens convention could do is allow people from different parts of the UK to understand the sensitivities and nuances in those key issues, and that they are not simply disposable commodities that can be thrown away without doing damage to the democratic fabric.
There are all sorts of odd questions about second Chambers, which I will not go into. I will simply say that, under the recent constitutional development of English votes for English laws in the UK, it is interesting that the stricture on people from Northern Ireland, Scotland and sometimes Wales voting applies only to elected Members—it does not apply to non-elected members in the Second Chamber, which is absolutely preposterous. Those are the sorts of things that people in a citizens convention might want to usefully look at as well. We have a bizarre situation: English votes for English laws means some of us being told, “You may still be charged, but your vote will not count.” Some measures on which we are excluded from voting will have policy implications for us and our devolved institutions. Again, a citizens convention could be a useful way of ensuring we all have a better understanding of the issues, which is not properly reflected either in this House or in politics at large at the moment.
On behalf of the Scottish National party, I congratulate the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen) on securing today’s debate. In the broadest possible terms, we support the thrust of what he says and the direction in which he is trying to travel. I agree there is a lot that needs to be fixed in our political system. I believe, in fact, that on 23 June the vote in many parts of the country—particularly in many parts of England outwith the metropolitan areas—was a cry of alienation from people who felt that the political system did not represent them and had left them behind. Had our politics been in better shape, we might well have got a different result on 23 June.
I want to put the Scottish perspective when it comes to constitutional reform and how the country should be governed. It is of course no surprise that my party favours a situation in which the people of Scotland become a self-governing nation in control of their own affairs. I know that fills the hearts of many of my colleagues with horror, but I hope to persuade them that it is not such an unreasonable proposition. I also hope to persuade them that, as well as being good for the people of Scotland, in that it would put them in direct control of their country and resources, it would make for better governance for these islands as a whole. I believe that the United Kingdom, a structure designed in the 19th century, is not really fit for purpose, in terms of the modern government we require in these islands.
Many people have talked about Scottish independence as a campaign for separation. We were accused of being separatists many times in the 2014 referendum campaign. Nothing could be further from the truth. Quite the contrary: we see independence for Scotland as a way of allowing it to play a greater role in Britain, Europe and the world. I feel that what in many ways keeps my country’s potential separate is the current constitutional arrangements, which insist that our communication as a country with the rest of the world must happen through the prism of the United Kingdom. However, we do not have Scottish independence. We voted in 2014 to stay as part of the United Kingdom, and while we are here we want to work with others to improve the situation in the UK as a whole. That is why we welcome and want to engage in a discussion of constitutional reform throughout the United Kingdom.
There are some glaring problems with our current constitutional arrangements, which are already the subject of separate campaigns. I will give just three examples, the first of which is the anachronism of the House of Lords—now, I believe, one of the largest legislative Chambers anywhere in the world. It is bigger, indeed, than the European Parliament. Yet not a single Member of that Chamber is elected by the people. That seems to me not to be a very 21st-century concept.
Order. Can I ask the hon. Gentleman to bring his remarks back to the Government’s policy on a citizens convention on democracy, rather than some of the topics that might be considered by such a convention if it were brought forward? He has not mentioned the concept of the convention for quite some time.
I am coming to it. I have 10 minutes —is that right? It is not a crowded debate. I promise you I shall come to that matter very shortly, Mrs Main, but I did want to give what I regard as examples of what a convention might look at.
On the question of the second Chamber and its relationship to the convention, I should have thought one of the obvious points would be that if there is to be a second Chamber, a chunk of its membership, if not all of it, should be decided by the various nations that make up the Union, and that there should be at least some proportionality about it.
The principle for us is that it should be elected. We would be prepared to look at many different options and that could be one of them.
The second constitutional crisis that we face, which has already been touched on, is the electoral system itself. We are meant to be a democracy, yet the people in a position to make laws over the governed are not representative of the feelings of the people who took part in the election. It is not right that there should be a majority Government with a 37% mandate. If that were changed, and if people felt that their vote was a better determinant of the balance of power in the House of Commons Chamber or any future Chamber, I believe they would be more inspired and would have more belief in the democratic system. I speak as a representative of a party that, more than any other, has benefited from first past the post, winning 56 out of 59 seats on just 50% of the vote. I would happily give up my seat if we could change the electoral system.
The third issue is the concept of regional government. As an Edinburgh MP looking south of the border, I am sympathetic about the problems that exist, particularly in government in England. I feel that, whereas we have made moves towards devolution in the nations and regions, adequate regional structures have not been developed in the great areas of England to give people a sense of belonging.
To come to the matter of the convention, I suppose I have some concern—perhaps the hon. Member for Nottingham North will address this in his summing up—that the initiative for a convention must try to bring together the campaigns on particular aspects of the constitution that are already motoring and have some momentum, rather than acting as a brake on them. I would not want a situation in which everything had to be completely right, with a wonderful new written constitution, before any change could happen. We would be waiting here for centuries with no reform at all.
We have a slight paradox. There has been a lot of devolution to Scotland, and I believe we are on the road to further devolution and eventual independence. In the Edinburgh agreement of 2012, this Parliament agreed on the right of the Scottish people to determine whatever form of government they wanted. That right—the concept of the Edinburgh agreement—would need to be built into the deliberations and framework of any new convention looking at the constitution. In other words, it would need to be a ring fence around Scotland, saying, “That is to be determined by the people who live there.” There could be any number of ways to integrate that with the wider UK debate.
I liked very much what the hon. Member for Nottingham North said about the need for the convention not to be seen as just a committee of the great and good, sitting in an ivory tower discussing things. We can see from the attendance today that it is difficult to get much excitement about such debates, but we need to try. Whatever initiative is taken at national level, it must be driven downwards to the most local level possible, to involve people in the debate. We need a national conversation about what type of 21st-century constitution we need. I hope that is the direction in which we shall travel.
I have two things to say about Scottish examples that have already been cited in the debate. First, the 1989 Scottish Constitutional Convention, on which I served in the mid-1990s, in a past life and a different guise, was a very particular body. It tried to create an alliance within civic society. It brought together representatives—it could be argued how representative they were: it involved organisations that attempted to be representative bodies of others. The churches, trade unions, voluntary organisations and political parties came together in an organisational alliance, which did not have room for any individuals, although people could say they wanted to come to a debate or seminar and get involved. The body itself was an alliance of organisations. I presume that is different from what is being thought about today.
There has also been discussion of the 2014 Scottish referendum, and we must cite that as an example of how our democracy can work brilliantly. We had a participation rate of 85% in that referendum, and the reason why passions and excitement ran so high was that, rather than being presented as a dry constitutional question, the issue was made real. It was translated into people’s lives. Once the question was asked—“Should Scotland be an independent country?”—that raised all sorts of other questions, such as “Well, yes, but what sort of country?”, “Who would run it?”, “How would this work?”, and, “How would that work?” Every single organisation in Scotland was discussing the question’s implications for what they do and for the people they involve and represent, which is why it mushroomed and became such an exciting festival of democracy during the 2012 to 2014 period.
I will now finish, but perhaps the hon. Member for Nottingham North can advise us on how all this might happen. We need to consider ways of inspiring people, of being imaginative and of firing up passion in this debate. We can do that by drawing a line between constitutional change and improving people’s lives.
Order. I am afraid that I will not be calling the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) to speak. She has missed an hour of a 90-minute debate, but if hon. Members let her, she can intervene.
On a point of order, Mrs Main. Do I still have the right to sum up?
Yes. You have two minutes at the end, or longer if the Minister finishes a little early.
As always, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main. It is also a pleasure to respond to this important debate on behalf of the Opposition. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen) on securing it. As he said, it is difficult to enthuse and inspire people by trying to develop a better place for democracy. I pay tribute to him for pursuing this topic with tenacity and for recognising how important it is that we build a new consensus on the relationship between the people and the state and within the nations themselves.
The breadth of cross-party support for the initiative—from Labour’s leader, my right hon. Friend the Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn), to the Lib Dems, the Greens and some Conservatives—reveals the depth of concern about the crisis that we currently face in our democracy. Fundamental questions remain on the health of that democracy. Between the people and the state, between the four nations and between people within the nations themselves, the vote to leave the European Union served to emphasise the depth of the divide within our country. The anger at the status quo, which first tore into mainstream political debate in the run-up to the Scottish referendum, was glaringly obvious to many of us long before. The signs were there in the ever-declining turnout at general elections, in the trust in previously respected institutions being destroyed by the recession and, perhaps most damningly of all, in the sense among many people that Governments do not care much about what ordinary people think. That is the crisis.
I am from a mining community on the great northern coalfield in the north-east. When I walk around and talk to people I have known for many years—people I have known all my life—they tell me that they feel that politicians do not have a clue about how they live their lives and about what is happening to their communities. Of course, as in the brutal decade of the 1980s, something more is happening. There is a sense that ordinary people in communities like mine in the north-east, like many across the UK, are simply being abandoned, with their views being a huge irrelevance to politicians.
I apologise for being late to this debate. The hon. Gentleman is making a powerful point about why something that might sound dry—a citizens convention—actually goes to the heart of people’s identity and why it is an opportunity for them to get their voice heard in a debate that really matters to them. Does he agree that the convention has the potential to be a vibrant debate if we pitch it right?
I wholeheartedly agree that it is up to politicians, who have the job and the opportunity, to try to inspire people and give them the opportunity to have a say. People feel completely and utterly disfranchised. We have to rise to that huge challenge.
We are living in an age of insecurity and inequality. The further people seem to be from Westminster, the more likely they are to feel ignored. People in my constituency are trapped between Scotland and Tyneside —it certainly feels that way—which is why the radical redistribution of power that the citizens convention and other radical devolution agendas envisage is so vital to the health of our democracy. The evidence suggests that local communities want to feel more engaged in the decisions that affect their lives, and giving them that power will bring them into the democratic process. Again, it is up to us, as politicians, to ensure that that happens.
Under the new Prime Minister, following the exit of the previous Chancellor, the right hon. Member for Tatton (Mr Osborne), the already unambitious northern powerhouse looks likely to fall even further down the list of priorities in the north. Regions that have been chronically underfunded for decades were given a pitiful settlement by the Treasury and are expected to be grateful. The funding settlement does not even begin to offset the drastic spending cuts at local authority level. The Government are giving with one hand and taking away with the other. The North East Combined Authority, for instance, has £30 million a year to spend for each of the next 30 years. Considering that in the past five years alone there have been more than £1 billion of cuts to local authorities covering the area, with more to come in the next four years, I can see why the Government’s devolution agenda is being met with complete scepticism up north.
It might be asked what that has to do with the convention. The reality is that people cannot connect with the reasons for their lives being changed—with the cuts to services, for example—and they want to change things. The only way they can change things is by becoming part of the democratic process, so the convention is joined up with funding, austerity and the many things that are currently happening in the UK. With so much of the national agenda being driven not from town halls but from Whitehall and this place, it is little surprise that people seem disfranchised. Previously, more than 90% of civil servants in the Departments responsible for the northern powerhouse worked in London. That was raised many, many times on the doorstep. We talk about the northern powerhouse, but it is now normally called the northern poorhouse, which is probably more accurate.
My hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North has written many articles on the idea of the citizens convention, and everyone thinks that, to change things for the better, it is up to us to engage with communities on what they want. It is up to us to present alternatives such as a progressive devolution settlement to engage people in the democratic process. That is why, rather than relying on Westminster to put something in our begging bowl, it is vital that we see radical devolution of real power down to communities, which know best how to use it.
The real question is the question of power. To paraphrase my late friend Tony Benn, who has power and how are they using it? A power imbalance in the country has led to rising inequality over three decades or more. It has led to communities first being attacked, then being ignored and then being completely neglected by Westminster, which means that, despite the economy adding £4.3 trillion of wealth in recent years, GDP per capita has all but flatlined, household savings are at their lowest level since 1963 and household debt is at its highest since just before the crash. In other words, the proceeds of growth are not being shared, which is fundamentally because power is not being shared. Power can be reintroduced through citizens’ assemblies and constitutional conventions, which is why I say that power is the most important issue we are discussing today. Half the people of this country feel that the Government do not care much or at all about what people like them think—that is an unequal access to power and we see the consequences of it in the real economy. What communities who have lost faith in Westminster to deliver for them need above all else is real power to transform their lives. That real power, or at least part of it, comes from the citizens assemblies and the citizens constitutions.
If the northern revival is to take root, it must take us away from an economy dominated by the City of London and from a politics dominated by Westminster, in which London can simply click its fingers and get a £32 billion Crossrail 2 project delivered. That is fine, but in constituencies like mine at the other end of the spectrum, away from Westminster, we have rail tracks but not trains. We are even looking to fund passenger trains to run through Ashington or Bedlington, which we have not had for 50 years. Giving people the power—giving them democracy—allows different things to happen in the communities we are all proud to serve.
We need control over the areas where we have lagged behind, such as energy, internet services and transport. In constituencies up and down this country—in mine, for example, there are fewer business start-ups than in most other English regions and pay is some £200 per week behind London—we need the power to change our economy for the better. We need the power to respond to problems that are particularly profound in our own areas. That would be an advantage of citizens assemblies. We should have the funds to invest properly in skills and innovation and to link the fantastic work of the colleges and universities, but we should also be able to insist that, if we are all to have a stake in the future of this country and in the devolution agenda, we will do things differently: workers’ rights will be properly respected and everyone must share in the growth of our areas, and no one should be left behind.
I therefore absolutely commend the efforts of my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North to address that inequality of power through the constitutional process and through an attempt to engage the millions of citizens who want a more direct stake in their own future and in the future of their communities, and who are never asked what they think except for every five years when a general election is looming.
That is partly about what the structures of the UK will look like, but it is about much more: the revival of our communities, the health of our democracy and the future of our nation. We are strongest when we work together. Discussions with people about their communities, as well as with experts, trade unions and other stakeholders, will bring people together and create a collective vision for the future that genuinely benefits the people, rather than just paying lip service to democracy.
In 2014, under the leadership of my right hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband), the Labour party agreed totally with a citizens charter and committed itself in principle to having one. The Labour party position is reaffirmed here in the House today. I ask the Minister at least to confirm that the Government will give due consideration to a wider, more diverse and inclusive democratic process, initially by agreeing in principle to a citizens convention.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen) on securing time for this debate, which comes at a very significant time for this country. Indeed, I am delighted to make my ministerial maiden speech in Westminster Hall; it is an honour to be here. I pay tribute to my predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose), who did an excellent job in office and whose dedication to constitutional affairs was evident today in his speech on the ten-minute rule Bill proposed by the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas).
The events of the past few weeks have provoked much discussion of the UK’s constitutional arrangements. I welcome that discussion and the wide-ranging contribution that hon. Members have made throughout this debate. The UK’s constitution is constantly evolving. It is right that there is debate and discussion as it evolves, and the hon. Member for Nottingham North has been at the forefront of ensuring that that happens. Only a few months ago, he introduced a private Member’s Bill for a constitutional convention. I thank him for this further opportunity to debate these vital issues and I put on record my gratitude to the hon. Members for Foyle (Mark Durkan), for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg), for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard) and for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery) for their contributions. I am only on my third day in the job, but I have listened intently to everything they have had to say.
I am coming to the realisation that constitutional debates tend to be fairly wide-ranging. Nevertheless, when we look at what has been said, almost all major parties think it extremely encouraging that we have that representation. We may not agree on everything, but one thing we can agree on is a greater level of democratic engagement. Indeed, one of my driving priorities as a new Minister will be to encourage that engagement wherever possible. I was heartened by what the hon. Member for Nottingham North said about cross-party working—indeed, these matters are too important not to work on on a cross-party basis—and I have noted the contents of the letter he read out in his opening statement. However, while we can have cross-party agreement on engagement, the Government disagree on the means of delivering it. As the hon. Gentleman knows, the Government have no plans to establish a convention on democracy. We believe that the evolving nature of the UK’s constitution means that it is ultimately unsuited to a convention.
The UK constitution is characterised by pragmatism and an ability to adapt to circumstances. That arrangement has delivered a stable democracy by progressively adapting to changing realities. I fear that a static convention that decided on constitutional matters once and for all would not fit with the tradition of evolving and adapting in line with people’s expectations and needs. The hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby mentioned other precedents of constitutional conventions in Ireland, Iceland and Ontario. However, those international examples highlight how countries that have gone down that route have found the entire process challenging. The hon. Member for Nottingham North mentioned that it is a lengthy process, but it is important that we learn from what has happened in other countries. The recommendations of the conventions in British Columbia and Ontario were rejected when they were put to the public in referendums. In Ireland, of the 18 recommendations made by the Irish constitutional convention, only two were put to a referendum and only one passed.
Yes, only two recommendations were put to a referendum and one passed, but more are to follow. The Government said that the country could not have a referendum on all the issues at once, but other referendums are to follow, including on extending the vote in presidential elections to the Irish diaspora.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. What he says is important and relates to the fact that the discussion of constitutional matters is a process in which we have to take the confidence of the people with us. I fear that if certain expectations are put down or if findings are not immediately delivered— the hon. Member for Nottingham North mentioned a convention’s findings being adapted wholesale—we will run into difficulties.
Let us look at other countries. In Iceland, where a more wide-ranging constitutional convention was undertaken, all six of the proposals were passed, but they were not taken forward by successive Governments. That is another issue with the binding nature of constitutional conventions that highlights one of our key concerns with such proposals: they often fail to deliver their intended result.
I want to put on record that the Government do not believe that exercises of engagement are a bad thing. They are laudable endeavours to engage the public in a discussion on the constitutional principles that underpin a country. In particular, I recognise the concerted and sustained effort of the hon. Member for Nottingham North to keep constitutional reform at the top of the agenda. He is a dedicated campaigner who is respected on both sides of the House and whose work on early intervention has ultimately resulted in a change in Government policy. I wish him the best with what he is trying to do. As Chair of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, he oversaw numerous inquiries into constitutional issues, including constitutional conventions. As I said, any initiative designed to promote engagement is welcome. Having exhausted all avenues in Westminster, there is nothing to stop him personally reaching wider afield, beyond the walls of this austere building—any private endeavour that raises public participation is surely to be welcomed as a good thing. However, I must set out some concerns about the proposals as they stand.
One of the key problems with national constitutional conventions is that ultimately it is very difficult to engage those who are not already engaged. The people who should be participating are exactly those who do not respond to the invitations. As a Government, our focus must be on ensuring that everyone who is eligible to vote in polls is able to do so. We have already made great progress, but there is more to do. We are working with the Electoral Commission, civil society organisations and local authorities to reach communities who are not represented on the electoral register. Online registration has made it easier to register to vote, and we have seen record levels of registration in recent months. Data collected from the 382 local voting areas show that the provisional size of the UK and Gibraltar electorate now stands at a UK record 46.5 million.
The hon. Member for Nottingham North mentioned a “flash of hope”. With the record levels of engagement we are seeing post the referendum, that flash of hope is to continue that engagement. Amid all the constitutional discussions about the franchise, my overriding priority as a new Minister will be to reach out to the disfranchised who are already eligible to vote but who remain invisible from public participation. It is that challenge—one we have to take as seriously as an unacceptable inequality as we do educational underachievement or social deprivation —that I intend to make my focus.
Does the Minister agree that for the efforts he just described to be successful, we need to restore citizenship education in schools?
I remember very well, when I had first become a Member of Parliament, debating with the hon. Gentleman, when he was shadow Education Secretary, about his excellent record as an Education Minister in the previous Government. It is understandable that he is passionate about education, and I do believe it is key. Citizenship as a subject in schools is important. Education will be vital, but aside from what happens in schools, we have to reach out into those communities—those black spots. We can break down the data to understand where people are not registering to vote, and that is where I want to focus. We have reached an ultimate high, with registration at around 83%—in the mid-80s—but we can go further. We may not reach 100%, but the challenge now is to up our game and get to the last 10%. To do so, we must reach into the most deprived communities in the country.
Members asked about the devolved nations. Now more than ever, the Government must focus on getting on with delivering a fair and balanced constitutional settlement for people across the UK, as promised. Our unique constitutional arrangements enable agility and responsiveness to the wishes of our citizens. We in Government believe that those wishes are clear: a desire to be part of a strong and successful Union that recognises and values the unique nature of each of our nations. Although the Government do not believe that now is the right time for a constitutional convention, it is none the less clear that we must continue to deliver on our commitments to a coherent constitutional settlement that provides fairness, opportunity and a voice for all.
Many Members raised the issue of devolved representation. The Government are absolutely committed to ensuring that the devolved Governments should be fully engaged as we take vital decisions about the future of the United Kingdom. The Prime Minister’s visits to Scotland last week and to Wales on Monday are clear examples of our immediate commitment to do so. We must continue to protect and advance the needs of all people in the United Kingdom. As we do so, the Government will continue to deliver on their commitment to provide further devolution and decentralisation to the nations and regions of the United Kingdom. We are creating some of the most powerful devolved legislatures in the world, and we are also devolving greater powers away from Whitehall to the cities and regions, driving local growth in areas that have strong governance and the capacity to deliver.
Before the Minister moves on from the point about the devolved territories, do the Government recognise that the settlement in Northern Ireland rests not on the concession of devolution from Westminster but on the express consent of people in Ireland, north and south, when they voted for the institutions of the Good Friday agreement, as reflected in the Irish constitution as well? At times, it seems like devolution is seen as just a gift from Westminster and people do not understand the integrity of the democratic institutions in Ireland.
The establishment of the Good Friday agreement in the late 20th and early 21st centuries was one of the most important constitutional changes we have seen. We have to give credit to the previous Labour Administration, and the Conservative Administration before that, for coming up with that settlement—
The people of Ireland had something to do with it too!
Of course. That settlement proves the importance of laying aside differences and of people, whether from different parties or different countries, being able to work together. We will not get such agreements unless we not only spend a lengthy period being able to decide them, but put aside often bitter differences. When it comes to the discussion of any constitutional reform, nothing will happen without cross-party agreement, as the hon. Member for Nottingham North said. The Good Friday agreement clearly highlights the need for such discussions to be cross-nation and cross-party.
We do not believe that all the important changes that have so far taken place in the devolved nations, which were designed to hand power back to people, should be delayed by the establishment of a convention. What matters about the constitution is that it works and is flexible enough to adapt to political challenges, not that it has been neatly drawn up and is theoretically pure. Hence the Government are very much focused on making sure that the UK’s constitutional arrangements work for all our citizens, in a Union based on fairness, friendship and mutual respect.
In closing, I again welcome the intentions of the hon. Member for Nottingham North in making his proposal, which will help to inform and add to a rich debate on this issue. I wish him well, but I cannot undertake any commitment to Government involvement, financial or otherwise. As I have made clear, our immediate priority is on delivering the constitutional settlement we are committed to, but there will always be opportunity for debate and discussion in the House about the UK’s constitutional arrangements. I look forward to many more opportunities, I hope as Minister, to discuss and debate the constitutional matters that underpin this nation. Again, I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate and thank him for allowing us to discuss these important matters.
I hope to respond rather speedily, Mrs Main. The Minister is now surrounded by former members of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, who have entered the Chamber for the next debate, so he has to be careful. More seriously, I congratulate him on a very polished and confident performance in his maiden speech as Minister and wish him well in his job. We will be knocking on his door at various points throughout his tenure, not least on this issue, but also on the issues that were raised during the debate and to which he referred, such as electoral registration, about which many of the same people feel passionately. We will use his good offices to try to make progress on some of those issues.
No one is anticipating wholesale change in a big-bang effort. As the hon. Member for Foyle pointed out, it will be a process. It may be that one Bill is dealt with quickly and another Bill—let us draw breath—deals with another issue. Throughout the 2020 Parliament, if the public had participated in their millions in a constitutional exercise, they would expect nothing less of any Government, or any coalition or alliance in government, than progress on what they had been involved in over such a period.
On the more general point, the Minister and everyone else who spoke reflected the passionate desire to make this stuff happen. As the hon. Member for Edinburgh East pointed out most eloquently, that means getting some drive and excitement. The biggest drive and excitement that anyone can ever find in politics or in their daily life is when they control their own destiny and can do something about it, not least in connection with their community, locality, nation or whatever.
That takes us back to the idea of giving people the ability and the framework that my colleague on the Front Bench, my hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery), discussed so clearly. We need to provide the structure in which people can take control. We can call it subsidiarity or any other ugly word for a beautiful concept, but is about giving people at the lowest possible level the ability to run their own lives. Despite all the rhetoric, that is something shared by all parties in the House of Commons.
We can create the necessary passion and excitement, but to get to that great nirvana of self-realisation, we have a responsibility to do the nuts and bolts. The biggest set of nuts and bolts that we can do something about is to create a citizens convention so that people can take control of their own lives and build the sort of democracy of which everyone present would be proud.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered Government policy on a Citizen’s Convention on democracy.
Flag Fen Bronze Age Park
[Mrs Madeleine Moon in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the development of the Flag Fen bronze age park in Peterborough.
I welcome you to the Chair, Mrs Moon, and it is an honour and privilege to serve under your chairmanship for the first time.
I also welcome the Minister back to her position after her maternity leave. It is great to see her reappointed to her post in the Department for Culture, Media and Sport under the new dispensation. In addition, I pay tribute to the excellent work by our colleague, the Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty’s Treasury, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford (Mr Evennett), who covered her duties during her absence, to his great credit.
I am here in Westminster Hall today to talk briefly about the potential development of the Flag Fen bronze age park in Peterborough. Flag Fen has the potential to be one of the finest cultural, historical and archaeological sites in the United Kingdom. In talking about Flag Fen, I will refer not only to the existing Flag Fen facility, which is located in my constituency about four miles east of the centre of the city of Peterborough, but to the Must Farm site, which is in the constituency of the Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty’s Treasury, my hon. Friend the Member for North East Cambridgeshire (Stephen Barclay), and adjacent to the town of Whittlesey.
Not many people will be aware of this, but the Fenland area to the east of Peterborough is one of the pre-eminent bronze age areas in the whole of Europe. The Minister may well know that in 1982 the noted archaeologist Francis Pryor, working with others, discovered the site at Flag Fen, which was a well-preserved wetland timber causeway. Since then, Flag Fen has been developed into a visitor centre with an additional bronze age archive, reconstruction and landscape recreation, with metal and other artefacts. Indeed, it is now a site for leisure and culture, and I can attest to the fact that it is a multi-use site because last summer I took my family to see a production of “The Three Musketeers” in the open air theatre at Flag Fen and we had a superb time. As the Minister will know, Flag Fen is managed by Vivacity, the arts, culture, sport and leisure trust, on behalf of Peterborough City Council.
Flag Fen itself is already considered to be a site of national importance archaeologically, and it is of course a scheduled monument. However, the site cannot be left in abeyance, because it is effectively drying out, which threatens its survival. Historic England is working with key stakeholders to see whether water levels on the site can be raised.
That is Flag Fen, but even more exciting is the site one mile to its east, Must Farm, which, as I have said, is adjacent to the town of Whittlesey. In 2011, nine bronze age log boats were discovered on the site and they are now preserved and displayed at Flag Fen. Further excavation of Must Farm has been undertaken by Cambridge Archaeological Unit, with funding from Historic England and Forterra Ltd, the company that operates the brick pit in which the site is located. That archaeological work has provided us with unique insights into the late bronze age, creating a picture of life on the site 3,000 years ago.
At Must Farm, there are five well-preserved roundhouses, as well as food deposits; if anyone is interested, let me say that people in that period largely ate red deer, pike and wild boar. Other discoveries include fabric, a cartwheel, jewellery and animal skeletons. The site was partly destroyed by fire, which has led it to being described by the media as “The Pompeii of the bronze age”, or sometimes as, “The Peterborough Pompeii”. Some people in Fenland take exception to that latter description, as the site is in Fenland and not in the city of Peterborough, but we will not dwell on that. The point is that the site was evacuated very quickly as a result of the fire and its occupants naturally left in a hurry, but in so doing they left a portrait in time of life in the bronze age.
Must Farm has been described by Historic England as being undoubtedly one of the most important prehistoric sites excavated in Britain for many years and the site’s academic value is undoubtedly very high. Historic England also says that many of the finds, including pottery, bronze artefacts and the largest glass collection from the bronze age ever found in the UK, are of a type never seen before or only partly seen, in fragmentary form.
Must Farm is a site of international importance and it attracts scholars from across the world. In time, it will revolutionise our understanding of life in the bronze age, both in the United Kingdom and in Europe. So it is right to pay tribute to the diligent, hard work of the fantastic team behind the excavation over the last few years, which has cost about £1.4 million and was essentially financed by Forterra Ltd and Historic England. I was privileged to have the opportunity in February this year to go with my neighbour, the Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty’s Treasury, my hon. Friend the Member for North East Cambridgeshire, and the then acting Minister, the Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty’s Treasury, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford, to see for ourselves the fabulous work and the dedication shown by the team on the site.
However, the site cannot be kept in its present state on its present location; inevitably, it must be relocated. Historic England and Forterra Ltd believe that, to continue the conservation and analysis of the timber structures that have been found, a three-year programme and funding regime is necessary. The Minister will probably know that a study was completed in 2014 that examined the potential options for and development of what was then described as a “Museum of the Bronze Age” in Peterborough. At the time, the study assessed the bronze age archive and the potential business models, viability and site option appraisals for bringing forward the museum project.
More recently—indeed, on 27 May—key stakeholders met to take this project forward. They were Historic England, Vivacity, Cambridgeshire County Council, Peterborough City Council, Cambridge University, the local enterprise partnership, Cambridge Archaeological Unit and Arts Council England. It shows how important this project is that such a wide range of key stakeholders are invested in its future success. They updated the finds from 2014 to this year, reviewed the feasibility study and expanded the assessment, looking at the site’s tourism and research potential, its development and business modelling options and its viability. Peterborough City Council was the key stakeholder and took the strategic lead on the project, with a firm belief that all those agencies should work collaboratively, because it was imperative to move forward on this important national and international project.
All parties agreed that the refreshed options appraisal should consider the most sustainable approach, including financial sustainability in respect of the future display of this hugely important fenland archaeological discovery. Flag Fen visitor centre will be central to the project, and an approach to the Heritage Lottery Fund will be the next step, with a view to bidding for between £2 million and £3 million to make it a reality. Incidentally, the Heritage Lottery Fund was not included in the key stakeholders’ discussions, so that there was not a conflict of interest and the Heritage Lottery Fund could look with fresh eyes at the efficacy or otherwise of the stakeholders’ proposal.
We hope that the project will emphasise providing the greatest possible benefit to the city of Peterborough’s visitor economy, to Fenland District Council and to the utilisation of Peterborough’s existing assets, which over the years include the refurbished and relaunched museum and, in pride of place, our wonderful medieval cathedral. The cathedral is more than halfway through its “Peterborough 900” appeal, which celebrates the 900-year anniversary of the establishment of a Saxon abbey on the site or nearby. That appeal is well on its way to achieving its aim of raising £10 million for a new visitor centre and other key buildings.
I am not saying that Flag Fen and Must Farm are the equivalent of Stonehenge or the Jorvik Viking Centre in York, but they have the potential to go in that direction and be a great asset. I am here to raise the profile of the project and, through this debate, to encourage serious scholars, students and casual visitors and tourists to go to the Peterborough area and see this fantastic project. I hope that the Heritage Lottery Fund is benign when it looks at our application in the next year or so and positive about the project. In Peterborough, we have a great archaeological, cultural, artistic and historic asset, which is of national and international significance.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Moon. I believe this is my first time, too. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Mr Jackson) for tabling this debate. He said he wanted to raise the issue’s profile through this debate, and he has certainly done that. It is important that we always consider our heritage, whatever that might be, when looking at everything to do with tourism and building on our local economy. I am grateful to him for mentioning the visit to Must Farm by my right hon. Friend the Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford (Mr Evennett), while he excellently covered my position during my maternity leave. I have always believed that it is important for us as Ministers to put on our wellies and get out to such sites, so that we can fully understand what we are dealing with, particularly when it comes to archaeology.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough said in his contribution, the fenland east of Peterborough is a unique environment in this country. Excavations have forged new techniques and approaches that have helped redefine and enhance our understanding of pre-history. Favourable preservation conditions offer us an exceptional and invaluable window into the past. Flag Fen archaeological park, with its bronze age reconstructed roundhouse and the incredibly preserved timbers of the prehistoric causeway, allows us to travel back 3,500 years to discover what life was like for our prehistoric ancestors. The preservation and quality of the artefacts that have emerged are significant enough to offer an incredible insight into prehistoric life. It is held up as one of the finest bronze age archaeological sites in northern Europe. I understand that 200-plus school groups and 10,000 visitors make the journey to the site every year, and I hope they leave with a greater understanding of this truly internationally important discovery.
I join my hon. Friend in congratulating Vivacity, working on behalf of Peterborough City Council, on its work in developing the hands-on learning offer for schools. Its use of the Flag Fen collections helps students increase their engagement with history and archaeology more than classroom study would alone. To build on that work, I am pleased to confirm that Historic England’s heritage schools programme has recently commissioned a project to further engage local schools in the pre-history of the Fens. The programme creates quality teaching resources and a bespoke curriculum to help educate students about their local heritage.
The Flag Fen site was discovered by Francis Pryor in 1982, and I was pleased to read that he is also advising at the recent excavations at the nearby Must Farm archaeological site. His skills and expertise are invaluable to this area of research. Both Flag Fen and the extensive Must Farm settlement excavations, which ended last week, are archaeological projects that have been in the vanguard of prehistoric research. The projects are not simply one-off excavations that have caught the media’s attention. As Flag Fen demonstrates, the sites have an important and continuing role in developing our understanding of the prehistoric landscape. I am pleased to report that Flag Fen’s expert staff are continuing to preserve our history and important artefacts on behalf of the nation. The eight log boats that my hon. Friend mentioned, which were discovered at Must Farm, are now being preserved at the Flag Fen museum. My thanks go to Historic England for contributing towards the Flag Fen excavations and the ongoing feasibility studies that are looking into the long-term preservation of the Flag Fen site.
The fen area is truly amazing. It is a rich source of archaeological finds. One fundamental aspect of archaeology is that new material is always refining and reworking existing knowledge. The fen area continues to contribute in no small way to our growing understanding of how our ancestors lived, as there is often no written record, but only physical remains to guide us, including landscapes, structures, sites, deposits and objects. Some of the remains lie hidden from sight, below ground or underwater, but others form prominent features in our landscapes or seascapes, contributing to the richness of their character, including their folklore. Together, they help to enrich our quality of life, by contributing to our sense of cultural identity and spirit of place. They provide wonderful opportunities for research, education, leisure and tourism, much of which falls into my much wider portfolio.
Such remains represent a finite and often fragile resource, which is subject to a broad range of human activities and natural processes. My officials have liaised with their counterparts in other Departments to ensure that effective and consistent policies on the conservation and enhancement of nationally important archaeological sites such as Flag Fen are fully integrated into national planning policy.
Flag Fen was declared a scheduled monument by the Secretary of State in 2012 under the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act 1979, giving it legal protection. As I mentioned, part of the site is open to the public as a visitor attraction. It has become really important to recognise that funding for archaeological sites is always needed. Owing to the site’s nature and location, it is essential for Flag Fen to make the most of opportunities to provide the best facilities for its visitors and access for all and to continue its essential conservation work and research into its unique collection of finds.
I understand that Vivacity is in discussion with the Heritage Lottery Fund about an application for funding. I encourage those discussions to continue and will, of course, keep a close eye on progress. Although it is protected as a scheduled ancient monument, the site is on Historic England’s at-risk register as it is gradually drying out, which threatens its continued survival. Historic England is conducting research and is in discussions with local stakeholders to find out whether site water levels can be raised; that is work in progress. My Department is working closely with Historic England to continue supporting British archaeology in all forms, from the first finds of an excavation to the preservation and research of our nation’s treasures. Promoting the skills necessary for the understanding, protection and management of the historic environment is something that we take incredibly seriously.
I had the privilege of attending the British Archaeological Awards, where Must Farm was described as not just Peterborough’s but Britain’s Pompeii and won the award for best archaeological discovery. I congratulate again all who have worked on that important excavation. The award was voted on by an independent panel of archaeologists and reflects the breathtaking preservation of the layers of human occupation uncovered by archaeologists at the site, which was all once lost to rising sea levels, 3,000 years ago. Although somewhat separated both in space and time, Flag Fen and Must Farm are part of the same extensive and well-preserved fen landscape. Together, they have unparalleled potential to illuminate life in bronze age Britain. Through Historic England, we will continue to work with the Flag Fen visitor centre to help it to resolve the current issues that threaten the preservation of the site and to assist it in making the most of the opportunities that come forward.
Question put and agreed to.
Online Child Abuse
I beg to move,
That this House has considered prevention of online child abuse.
I am honoured to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Moon, and to be in a room of parliamentarians who have campaigned for so long on this issue. I feel I am among friends, and I hope that together we can cover some real distance.
Tomorrow, the Office for National Statistics will release its police crime data for the past six months. It is the first time it is including online fraud and computer misuse. Fraud is a huge issue in this country—Age UK says that 53% of people over the age of 65 believe that they have been targeted by fraudsters—but the data coming out tomorrow will not include online abuse and harassment. Sexual offences are recorded, but not the age of the victim or the specific nature of the crime. I ask the Minister to look into that. For sexual offences, if we can differentiate between under 18s and over 18s, we would have a much better understanding of the scale of child abuse in this country.
Today I want to focus on online child abuse. Too often we think of child abuse as something that happens only to vulnerable children—many child protection services focus only on their definition of vulnerable children—but the truth is that the internet means that almost every child in the UK is at risk of abuse. Ministers have yet to show that they understand that. The Minister before us has an understanding of child abuse—I welcome her to her new role—and I hope she will be able to make a difference.
Let me set out the context. With respect to everyone in this Chamber, we are too old to understand the generational pressure that our youngsters are under because of social media. I was 26 when I got my first mobile phone, and I used it to text. I did not have the 24/7 immersion of the online world on my phone. We cannot understand the enormous psychological pressure that that puts on young children. They cannot get away from abuse; it follows them home. Bullying has always been here, but if I was bullied at school, when I got home and shut the door I would hopefully be safe from it. For children now, it goes on and on. We need to understand that as a country and as a Government. Seventy-eight per cent. of 12 to 15-year-olds own a mobile phone, 65% of which are smartphones, and a smartphone means access to the internet.
According to the 2015 Parent Zone survey, 67% of parents admitted to resorting to “iParenting”—that is, they are a bit busy, so they give their child the iPad as a babysitter. I understand that: children love being on the internet, and they love their iPads, but the iPad is a direct link to the outside world and its dangers. The problem is that parents often fail to appreciate the severity of the threat faced by their children, largely because they do not understand everything that their children are doing online. Half of young people living at home report that their parents know only some of what they get up to on the internet, according to an Ipsos MORI poll commissioned by Barnardo’s.
People do not grasp how sneaky—for want of a better word, and keeping it polite—abusers and groomers of children are. I will give two examples, the first being gaming. A parent might buy the child an online game as a Christmas or birthday present. When the child is online playing, say, a shoot ’em up game, a chat is going on, and that is open internationally. When I speak to girls, they tell me that they turn it off, because of the amount of sexual harassment they get; when I speak to boys, they tell me, “Oh no, it’s other boys my age who are talking to me about who we are going to shoot, and who we are going to kill.” Talking about the abuse on the screen is only a slight step from starting to groom or radicalise a child—we need to understand that.
My other example is something else that we need to understand. A police officer told me this. A family might be watching TV on a Sunday evening and the child is there, but with an iPad. The parents have no idea whom that child is talking to, or what is being said. Parents do all they can to protect their children, but they are literally letting someone into their home—someone they have no control over and have not vetted. To be honest, there are a lot of bad people out there who are deliberately using the internet to target our most vulnerable.
I commend the hon. Lady on securing this debate. I also welcome my hon. Friend the Minister to her place—a promotion long overdue. The hon. Lady is absolutely right that children can be open to the many different ways of harassment that she is describing. Does she, like me, want to see the producers of such platforms and products take far more responsibility for building out the problems from the design stage, rather than leaving it to parents to police what can be almost impenetrable problems?
The right hon. Lady makes a very key point. For film, the British Board of Film Classification will vet films and put criteria and age limits in place. That needs to be happening much more robustly with games. Gaming in particular has a nasty, misogynistic element. For example, one incredibly well known game gives extra points to someone sleeping with prostitutes who then abuses or gang-rapes them. The game might have age verification for 18, but what happens if someone is playing it with a younger brother who is eight? We need robust legislation, because we are taking those games into our homes and giving them to our children.
As I said, the mobile phone and the iPad enable children to be bullied 24/7. To give some stats to back that up, one in three children has been a victim of cyber-bullying, and almost one in four young people has come across racist or other hate messages online. According to the 2016 Childnet survey, 82% of 13 to 17-year-olds had seen or heard something hateful on the internet in the past year. By “hateful”, I mean something that has been targeted at people or communities because of their gender or transgender identity, sexual orientation, disability, race, ethnicity, nationality or religion.
To highlight the impact of bullying, I will focus on one aspect of it: the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. Recently, Stonewall released truly shocking figures: nine in 10 young people have heard homophobic remarks at school; six in 10 young people have experienced homophobic bullying; and one in four young gay people has reported experiencing homophobic abuse online. Then there are the consequences—I am going goosebumpy as I read this—which are that two in five of those young LGBT people contemplate suicide and 50% self-harm. Young LGBT people are three times more likely to commit suicide than their straight peers. That is what our young people have to deal with.
When I started to research online abuse, I had not considered the targeting of specific groups because of their sexuality or situation. We should think about it from the point of view of young people considering their sexuality. They will not talk to their mum or, probably, to their teacher. Where do they go to find information? They go online. Paedophiles and perpetrators deliberately target young LGBT people because they know that young LGBT people are vulnerable and isolated. They then meet and abuse them. Unfortunately, for some of our young people, that is a daily occurrence.
I also want to talk about young people and children with learning difficulties, and two things in particular. First, the overly sexualised behaviour of children with learning difficulties is often put down to their condition rather than being considered to be a cry for help, or a side-effect of being abused. We absolutely have to challenge that. One in four children is targeted with online hate because of their gender, sexual orientation, race, religion or transgender identity, but that horrifying figure goes up to 38% for someone who has learning difficulties. Those people are being deliberately targeted because of their condition. I urge the Minister to focus on those specific groups.
I will now talk about the internet world. I have been very honoured to work with a fantastic organisation called the Internet Watch Foundation, which I commend to the House. The foundation’s most recent report was in 2015. It found 68,092 pages of web images that it confirmed as child sexual abuse images. To break the stat down, that is 68,000 children who have been abused for the gratification of a paedophile, and 68,000 lives that have been decimated. We need to put support in place. That figure is 118% up on last year, an increase that tallies with what police forces and social services are telling us—such crime is growing exponentially. We have to do all that we can to prevent it.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for securing the debate, and I, too, welcome the Minister to her place. Something raised during consideration of the Policing and Crime Bill was the need for child sexual exploitation units, as well as specialist digital units, in police forces throughout the country. I am sure she shares my concern about the inconsistency of approach among police forces and, possibly, among the devolved nations.
I do. We should praise the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre, which has done fantastic work, but I have spoken to officers on the street. Once CEOP went into the National Crime Agency, it seemed to lose its teeth and identity a little. I know the hon. Lady tabled an amendment to that Bill to that end, but we need to ensure that the whole police force understands online abuse, how to refer it and how to act on it. Online crimes are as depraved as those that happen in the real world, and in sentencing terms need to be seen as involving the same degree of violence towards a young child. We seem to think that, because online crimes happen in the virtual world, they do not matter as much, but they really do.
I very much praise the child abuse image database, which is evidently helping to deal with the backlog of forensic work on digital devices. None the less, there were 410 victims of child sexual exploitation in the first months of last year, and those victims need support. This is not just a matter of dealing with the evidence; it is about how we actually support those children afterwards. The figure of 68,000 that the hon. Lady mentioned is a terrifying number of lives to have been affected.
It really is, but let us scale that internationally. The Internet Watch Foundation does fantastic work. When it finds an image, it takes that image down and reports it to the police, and the police will act on it. Google and Facebook get a lot of criticism, but they are doing what they can to manage, contain, report and take down offensive images. We have really good legislation on that kind of thing in this country, and there is really good legislation in Europe, America and Canada. If any of the creators of child abuse websites are in those countries, we can do something swiftly. However, there has been a proliferation in third-world countries—particularly those in south-east Asia—of the most heinous forms of child abuse. I will not go into detail; I will just say that there are “pay as you view” systems there—sorry, it gets me every time. We cannot do anything about that, because unless those countries sign up proactively to address this issue, all that we will be doing is shifting the problem from one country to another. I urge the Minister to work with her international counterparts to get absolutely zero tolerance across the country and around the world.
There is one way that we can tackle that problem: through payment systems. It is important for the Minister to respond to that point with particular regard to putting pressure on international payment systems to try to address the problem that the hon. Lady is talking about. The previous Prime Minister worked hard on the use of splash pages to try to obscure the pages that internet companies may not be able to take down. Some of the very best people work in the internet industry. Does the hon. Lady not wonder, like me, why we are not seeing more innovative ways of resolving the sorts of problems she is describing?
I do, but given the proliferation of such abuse, we are always lagging behind. There are twisted people with the life mission of abusing children and sharing these images. Sadly, we are always playing catch-up to them, which is why we always need to send out the strongest possible message: “This is not tolerated. We will come after you, and we will prosecute you.”
We also need to accept an uncomfortable truth. A survey by the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children found that one in five indecent images were actually generated by children themselves. I would like to explore two parts of that issue. The first is sexting. Young people are sexually curious—they always have been and they always will be—and we should celebrate that; it is part of developing. However, they need guidance on the consequences and boundaries of that and the long-term impact of putting something into the ether of the internet.
There is a lot of pressure on young people to upload more and more explicit images. The young girls I have spoken to in particular do not realise that there are perpetrators out there who go through Facebook or chatrooms harvesting images, and a large proportion of those images actually appear on paedophile websites. When a girl sends a picture to her boyfriend and he uploads it as a “joke”, it is very likely that it will not just be her boyfriend who sees it, but there will be a vile old man in a room somewhere looking at it. That is one of the things that we need to get across.
Esther Rantzen is doing some fantastic work on this issue and is looking to create an extension of ChildLine, specifically for teenagers, called “Is that okay?” Young people are saying that they are not quite sure what the boundaries are or what is appropriate, so we need to step in and tell them—probably through the internet, because that is where they get all their information from—what is okay and what the consequences are.
One of the things that started me on this crusade to do something to make people aware of the threats on the internet was that last autumn a mum came to one of my surgeries absolutely distraught and devastated because she had found that her 12-year-old was uploading very sexually explicit videos of herself to a chat website. She was getting a barrage of responses and an awful lot of pressure to keep uploading images. When the mum spoke to her daughter, the daughter said that it was fun, it was up to her, she could do it herself, there was no harm in it and the man was her boyfriend. The mum tried to explain the consequences, but the 12-year-old was not listening, so the mum went to the police. The police said, “Well, it’s just a bit of fun, and she’s choosing to do it.” The mum went to social services, and they did send round a social worker, who met with the girl and explained some of the dangers. Both services then backed off.
The uploading of the videos got more extreme. The mum telephoned round again and was told to take the phone off the daughter. As the mum explained, “That’s all very well—I can take the phone off her—but what about her friends who have phones? What about the iPad that her brother has? What about the computers at school?” The mum had come to me because she was desperate. She said, “I don’t know what to do. I don’t know how to stop this. I can’t find any advice.” I created a website called Dare2Care, where we have brought together all the information about this issue. Parents are crying out for the tools and the understanding to protect their children online, and I urge the Minister to do all that she can to circulate that information.
The mum tried to take the phone off her daughter and, lo and behold, the daughter stole her phone and hid it. It was only when the mum went to the police with some of the images and videos that her daughter had taken and said, “This is what she’s doing,” that the whole child protection system suddenly swooped down. It swooped down to protect the child, but I have a mum who is devastated that she let her child down, and I am devastated that as a country we let that mum down. That mum will be representative of mums around the country. That is why I urge us to make sure that all parents and professionals are aware of this issue.
Why is this happening? The internet is a relatively new phenomenon. Sadly, we have always had paedophiles, but whereas before they might have taken a couple of years to groom a couple of children, now they will have a phishing exercise. They will chuck out a thousand emails to children, and they will target the one or two who are vulnerable. That process, which used to take years, now takes days or hours. Paedophiles’ reach has become enormous.
Another thing to which I draw hon. Members’ attention is online porn. Again, we have always had porn, but the internet is giving it a new, more sinister overtone. The NSPCC and the Children’s Commissioner surveyed 1,000 children aged between 11 and 16, and found that at least half had been exposed to online porn, with 94% having seen it by the age of 14. A Girlguiding survey found that among girls aged 11 to 21, seven in 10 feel that the increase in online porn contributes to women being treated less fairly than men, and 73% believe that pictures such as those on page 3 have that effect.
Again, I give my own story: when I was 14, a gang of us had a porno mag that we kept in our den. Looking at an image of a naked woman is very different from looking at a video of someone being gang-raped, and that is what our children are finding. There is no suggestion or imagination; this is basically an online manual of how to abuse a woman, and it is predominantly, by far, the abuse of women that is happening in porn.
From a child’s perspective, they are curious about relationships, they try to find out and they find out by going online. What do they find? Porn. I have had boys in my constituency who are really anxious about having sex because they do not want to strangle their girlfriend, and they think that is what they have to do. I have girls in my constituency who are terrified about having to endure the violence, but they want to have a boyfriend so they think that is what they have to go through. They have no background to let them see that as a fantasy. They have no background knowledge of consent, of respect and of the ability to say no.
What is the solution? Basically, it is to give all children understanding around resilience and relationships. Currently, children are not learning about the dangers of the online world, or about respect, sex or consent. Sex Education Forum found that 53% of pupils have not even learnt how to recognise grooming or sexual exploitation. Charities, experts and survivors of abuse are all united in saying that improving children’s awareness of respect for relationships from a young age is the best way to prevent child abuse. Introducing compulsory, age-appropriate resilience in relationship education in schools would show that the new Prime Minister, the new Education Secretary, the new Home Secretary and the new Minister are serious about acting to prevent more child abuse.
What I am saying is that we need to give the children the tools to protect themselves. I urge that to happen from the youngest age. For example, as soon as children go into school, I want them to be taught about “No means no”. If someone wants them to keep a secret that makes them uncomfortable, they should tell someone else and they should be listened to. I want them to understand that there are people who are bad out there and that they can tell people if they feel uncomfortable.
I am not talking about teaching five and six-year-olds about sex—nothing about that—but when two-year-olds start to go to playgroup, we teach them not to snatch toys and not to push children over, so why can we not also teach them about respecting themselves and other people in the language they will understand? The NSPCC runs the fantastic PANTS campaign, which teaches about just that: what is in your pants is yours and is private. That is a very simple message that we can get across.
The other key thing is to ensure that parents and professionals know and understand the signs and symptoms and how to tackle the suggestion and the actual online abuse that is happening. We need to arm them in advance, because as I have said, this is a generational crime. We are not, and have never been, in that submersive environment as young, malleable children, so we need to ensure that everyone who is there to protect our children understands the effects of that and also how to prevent them. I have to say—not least because we have a Select Committee Chair in the Chamber—that the Select Committees on Education, Health, Home Affairs, and Business, Innovation and Skills all recommend statutory relationship education.
I have three asks of the Minister. The first is a public awareness campaign. I have mentioned my campaign, Dare2Care, which she is free to take and use. All the major charities and academics have contributed, as well as survivors and campaigners, so all the information about preventing child abuse is there. Secondly, she knows that there is already a good e-safety course, which goes to all children in all key stages, but it focuses more on data protection and personal security than on recognising and dealing with abuse. There will be some fantastic teachers who will ensure that online safety in its broadest sense is happening, but I urge the Minister in her guidance to ensure that that is a serious component. The other, final point is about relationship and resilience education for all children to prevent online abuse. I also say to the Minister that we need to focus on literally all children, whether they are home schooled or not and whatever sort of school they go to.
The Government have done quite a lot in this area, but they need to do more, because I do not think they recognise the scale of online abuse that is happening and the potential dangers to our children. I ask the Minister to please take up this campaign, because our children depend on her.
I advise Members that I will go to the Front-Bench speakers at 5.18 pm at the very latest and that the debate will end at 5.38 pm.
Many thanks, Mrs Moon. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again. May I add my congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) on securing the debate and to the Minister on her new role? I want to speak only briefly, as I have a specific concern that I would like to draw to the Minister’s attention.
As we know, schools play a vital role and are in a strong, if not unique position to identify concerns around child abuse and child protection. However, I have concerns that the training that teachers in schools receive is not up to the challenges that they as teachers, as well as parents and pupils, face in an ever-changing digital world. I therefore completely support my hon. Friend’s call for compulsory and age-appropriate relationship and resilience education and for much better online and face-to-face support for parents and teachers.
I would really like that training to include the specific issue of online dating and dating apps in particular. This issue was raised with me recently by a Sheffield teacher who teaches at a special educational needs school and has been concerned to see young girls using apps such as Tinder and happn to look for older men. The concerns around that are obvious: either older men are deliberately looking for young girls or young girls are pretending to be older than they are to get an older boyfriend. As my hon. Friend said, that is not exclusive to vulnerable children; it affects all children.
I understand that the cyber-safety training that teachers currently receive mostly covers issues such as “Be careful who you speak to” and “Make sure they are who they say they are while online”, but it does not cover girls, or indeed young boys, out there on dating sites in frankly perilous circumstances. Take Tinder, for example, which has 50 million users worldwide. Last month, it rightly took the step to ban users under the age of 18. Previously, it had an age restriction of 13, but it only allowed those aged 13 to 17 to view profiles within that age bracket. The issue now is that Tinder takes its data and data verification from Facebook, which can easily be manipulated and falsified. There is every chance that fake Tinder profiles could be set up to exploit and groom children. Facebook even allows people to change their ages after they have signed up to profiles, so the risks are enormous.
I would therefore simply ask the Minister to consider making representations to Tinder and similar dating apps and sites on this subject. If she is willing to do that jointly with me, as shadow Digital Minister, I would be happy to join her in that. We absolutely must be pushing them to ensure there are robust age verification tools across all such platforms. Secondly, will she consider making representations to her colleagues to consult on the training that teachers receive in this area to include dating sites and their appropriate use?
The world is changing so quickly, so teachers and all safeguarding professionals—and, most importantly, parents—must be aware of any opportunities that could be exploited to harm children. I encourage the Minister to ensure that all training in the area is updated and reviewed on at least an annual basis to ensure that it is as up-to-date as possible.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Moon. I congratulate the hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) on securing the debate on this vital issue. I am not the only man in the room, but is always good to come and speak on these issues to make it clear that concerns are across all genders. It is nice to see the shadow Minister in her place and I welcome the Minister to her position. As has been said, her elevation is not before time and we look forward to her response.
Times are always changing, but it seems the internet has brought an unprecedented change to our society at pace and it is essential that we keep up with it. Just a few decades ago, it would have been impossible to envisage the society in which we live now and in which our children are growing up. The right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) sponsored a debate in the main Chamber last week along the same lines as this one, outlining the issues. I commend her for her presentation on that day and for her interventions and participation today.
Parents can make a difference by censoring what their children see online, but with more devices available and more methods to access the internet, the Government ultimately have to take action to ensure that young people and children are protected online. In her introduction, the hon. Member for Rotherham gave that horrifying example of a young daughter who thinks it is all right to do those things, with her frustrated mother protectively saying “No, it is not”, and going to the police and the social services and all of those things without any success or response. That frustration, which the hon. Lady so convincingly put to the House today, underlines the problems for parents in how difficult it can sometimes be to win over a child who might not know their own mind.
It is difficult to strike a balance. I believe the Government recognise that and the Minister’s response today will therefore be important. It is important for Members to recognise that getting it right is difficult, but more needs to be done to prioritise the issue—the debate is a way of doing that—and strike the balance so that the Government can make a difference for those affected and those at risk. Whenever we hit a brick wall or an obstruction, we look to those who can help, and we look to the Government for legislative change. That is what the debate today is about, and what the debate in the main Chamber last week was about as well. It may be difficult to get it right, but it is essential it is resolved. The longer it takes, the more young people and children are at risk of being victims.
It is clear that this is not just an issue for the hon. Lady’s constituency of Rotherham, but an issue for us all, including in my constituency of Strangford in Northern Ireland and every hon. Member’s constituency in the whole of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Some 259 sex crimes were allegedly committed at schools in Northern Ireland and reported to the Police Service of Northern Ireland in just three years. Officers in Northern Ireland recorded 66 school sex attacks that were related to the internet in 2012-13; 79 attacks in 2013-14; and 114 assaults in the latest academic year of 2014-15. Data supplied by the PSNI to the NSPCC showed there were 139 recorded sex offences against children involving the internet in the past year.
Those figures show the growing problem. The hon. Lady said that in her introduction, and I clearly concur. The NSPCC says those statistics show that the internet was used as a “gateway” to sex offences against children. How can we more aptly describe exactly what has taken place? One child being a victim is one child too many. The time for action to make that statistic zero, as it should be, is now. Data from 38 out of 43 police forces suggest that the internet was used in 3,186 sexual offences against children in the year to 31 March—equivalent to eight per day. That is a horrendous figure. It should shock all of us in this Chamber and should shock society. It should vitalise us to ensure that the Government can make legislative changes and control it.
I know the Member from the Scottish National party, the hon. Member for Lanark and Hamilton East (Angela Crawley), will speak shortly, but in Scotland the number of adults targeting children with indecent communications online or via text increased by 60% from 2013-14 to 2014-15. If such figures in Scotland were replicated nationally, it would show that the internet is becoming a hotbed for abuse against children. It is clear that there needs to be a framework in place to stop it, which is why we need the debate and Government action.
According to the data, a majority of offences in Northern Ireland—a total of 105—involved 12 to 15-year-olds, but in 30 cases the victims were aged 11 and under. My goodness me. If that does not shock us, it should. I think we are all shocked when we hear those figures. Pure innocence destroyed at a very early age. The crimes include horrendous stories of young people being forced to send pictures of themselves to adults who are posing online as young people when they are quite clearly not. Let us be honest. The repercussions are not just the traumatic effects upon those children—some of those young people have committed suicide as a result. It drives them to extremes at a vulnerable time. It is vulnerable people being taken advantage of.
To think that an adult could do such a thing to abuse a young child’s innocence and trust is absolutely despicable, but unfortunately the reality is that there are such monsters out there and it is time to get the laws, the law enforcement and the awareness and attitudes right so that those monsters—those abusers and scum of the earth—can no longer be of any harm. We all appreciate the difficulty of striking a balance and of finding a remedy that works without infringing on other areas and without unintended consequences, but the stats and the figures cannot be ignored. The pain and the hurt cannot be ignored. This issue is only getting worse and it needs to be bumped right up the Government’s priority list and addressed sooner rather than later.
We look to the Minister for her response. I know she is a compassionate lady and I am convinced her response will be one we are heartened by. I know she wants to see things happening in the way we all want to see, but we have to help those vulnerable people right across the whole of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. In conclusion, I ask the Minister if we can work together—the Northern Ireland Assembly, the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and us here at Westminster—to rid society of this scourge once and for all.
I welcome you to your post, Mrs Moon, and I welcome the Minister and the shadow Minister to theirs. It is excellent to see strong and confident women in those positions and I am sure they will take their challenges and responsibilities seriously. I congratulate the hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) on securing the debate on an issue that she has worked and campaigned tirelessly on, not least through her work on Dare2Care. It is fair to say she has gone above and beyond her public duty to tackle this issue. She takes it incredibly seriously, which I am sure all hon. Members in the Chamber also do.
This is a broad debate. Online abuse covers any type that happens on the web. We have already heard about the role of social networks, messenger services, chatrooms, playing online and mobile phones. Anecdotally, as one of the younger Members in the Chamber, I received my first mobile phone at the age of 13. It was a Nokia 2210, on which someone could play snake or push their luck by texting home and asking if they could stay out late.
That was what mobiles meant to me and my generation but times have certainly changed, with 24/7 social media online. I cannot even keep up with the current trend of Pokémon Go, and I am obviously too busy to play it. Through social networks such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, online abuse is a new and growing phenomenon. With the increasing use of the internet across the UK and the world, and with the advent of smartphones, our young people are now more vulnerable than ever before, and traditional understanding of child abuse has been deepened and compounded by that fact.
At this point, it is important to recall the words of the hon. Member for Rotherham and many others who have contributed to the debate highlighting the instances of bullying, in particular of the LGBT community; the rates of suicide and self-harm, which cannot and must not be ignored; the influences of apps, games and other online devices; and the role and increasing accessibility of online pornography. It is fair to say that this is a very different world from the one I started in, and future generations will come into a very different world still, so our resilience, understanding and approach are absolutely vital.
The right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) —I have the honour of serving on the Committee of which she is the Chairwoman—highlighted the need for protections in the design and build of apps. The hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts)—I hope she forgives me for terribly pronouncing the name of her constituency—highlighted the need for databases, but how many instances go unrecorded? The hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh) highlighted the role of dating apps and the potential for fake profiles. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) recognised with his always measured and reasonable approach the need to strike a balance, and the need for all of us to work collaboratively across devolved nations and reserved competencies to ensure we tackle the issues head on, and that we do not underestimate the challenges we face.
Children, as we have heard, experience cyberbullying, grooming, sexual abuse, sexual exploitation and emotional abuse through devices and services that have become integral parts of their social lives. We need to look only at the Channel 4 documentary “Cyberbully”. “Game of Thrones” star Maisie Williams highlighted to me and to many parents out there the challenges and difficulties that young people face simply by sitting in front of a PC, laptop or mobile phone. In this day and age, the internet gives abusers unprecedented access to children and the ability to contact them at any time, day or night. It erodes traditional safe spaces. Children can be at risk of online abuse from both strangers and people they know.
The NSPCC has outlined some of the difficulties for children facing online abuse. Children will often not tell anyone about online abuse because they feel guilty or ashamed. When they would like to tell someone, they often do not know who to go to, and many will not even realise they are being abused. According to Ofcom, one in five eight to 11-year-olds and seven in 10 12 to 15-year-olds have social media profiles. The number of children who are at risk is increasing and we must do more to safeguard them.
The scale of the problem has not been pinned down by any definitive or official figures. The fact is that we simply do not know the scale of the problem, but that does not mean we cannot put protections in place to tackle it. In 2014, studies found that one in four children between the ages of 11 and 16 had experienced upsetting or abusive language online while on social networks, and one in three children had been the victim of cyberbullying. Youth engagement organisations such as DoSomething.org suggest that nearly 43% of children have been bullied online. More worryingly, in 2015 the Internet Watch Foundation identified 68,000 websites containing child abuse images.
If we dispense with the statistics for a moment, it is fair to say that we do not yet know the full scale of this issue, but we know we must do more to tackle it. It is hard to underestimate the work that must be done and is already being done by many charitable organisations to tackle child abuse. The information and statistics supplied by the NSPCC and other charities and organisations are up to date and highly informative in dealing with abuse.
I want to highlight the work of the Scottish Government—I say this not to be political, but simply to enhance the debate. Since 2009, online safety has been monitored by the Scottish Government-led stakeholder group on child internet safety, which has made a number of recommendations. In recent years—as early as 2014—those recommendations resulted in a refresh of national guidance and child protection policies. Recent developments such as the national action plan for tackling sexual exploitation and the cyber-resilience strategy outline that Scotland takes this issue incredibly seriously. The Scottish National party condemns all instances of online abuse and welcomes any efforts to strengthen legislation in order to tackle it. The Scottish Government firmly believe that online abuse is unacceptable. Scotland’s anti-bullying services—
Order. The hon. Lady is eating into the Minister’s time. Can she bring her remarks to a conclusion? She has had more than her allotted five minutes.
Forgive me, Mrs Moon. I will close by simply saying that, to tackle this problem and the scale of it, we must collaborate and co-operate with one another.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Moon. May I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) on securing this very important and necessary debate? I congratulate her and other Members on the thoughtful and emotional speeches they have given.
Technology is a wonderful thing. It has moved on. I was 38 when I got my first mobile phone. Before that, I had a pager—something that not many people in this room will remember. However, that has come at a cost, and the cost is one that I fear is really not worth paying. The internet has provided our children with a world of new possibilities and opportunities. The digital age gives children access to knowledge, facts and friends all over the world, but the internet and the way it is being exploited by those intent on committing the most heinous crimes poses a considerable threat to the safety and wellbeing of all our children.
According to the Internet Watch Foundation, in 2015 more than 68,000 URLs were confirmed as containing child sexual abuse imagery, having links to the imagery or advertising it. As my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham said, that figure is up a frightening 118% since 2014. Behind every indecent image online and every video or photo of abuse, a child has been harmed or abused in the real world. The victim is condemned to repeated violation and degradation each time the image is accessed. Perpetrators are using the internet to sexually exploit children through manipulation and coercion.
The NSPCC found that in 2014-15 the internet was used in eight cases of child sexual abuse every day, including rape, online grooming and live-streaming of sexual abuse. As technology has developed, so have the ways in which children suffer bullying, which often takes place online and is relentless, without any sanctuary or safety for the child. As the mother of a teenage son, I know—I have seen the texts and the vile Facebook posts that kids seem to think are a way of life these days.
In 2015-16, ChildLine provided 4,541 counselling sessions about cyber-bullying, which is the highest the figure has ever been. The impact of this behaviour on children can be devastating, reducing their self-esteem, impairing their ability to establish normal relationships and, in extreme cases, leading to mental health problems, including self-harm and, tragically, suicidal thoughts. Children also face peer pressure to share explicit images and engage in harmful sexual behaviour. As technology has developed, sexting has become an increasingly common activity. With greater access to the internet, children are exposed to more and more harmful content. Frighteningly, many children believe that pornography is an accurate representation of sex. Just over 53% of boys and 39% of girls who were surveyed by the NSPCC said that they thought pornography was realistic. The images of sex, violence and consent portrayed through pornography are distorting the very way in which boys and girls relate to one another.
The problems outlined in today’s debate are not news; they are not new, and the Government know all about them. I am sure the Minister knows that children are growing up facing a tidal wave of online abuse, bullying, harassment, peer pressure and exposure to totally inappropriate content, yet we do not give them the tools to protect themselves, to recognise abuse and exploitation and to build resilience in coping. We do not give parents the knowledge and confidence to keep up to date with the threats their children are facing. We do not give teachers and other professionals the training they need to support children.
Will the Minister tell us whether she has any plans to help proactively protect children from online abuse, exploitation and cyber-bullying? Does she agree with the former Education Secretary, the right hon. Member for Loughborough (Nicky Morgan), and with four Select Committees, MPs from across the House, children’s charities, experts and academics that mandatory, age-appropriate relationship education in schools would provide children with the knowledge and resilience they need to challenge this behaviour? Will the Minister today take the opportunity to put right what the previous Government got wrong by supporting and teaching our children to protect themselves from this phenomenon?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Moon. I wholeheartedly congratulate the hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) on securing this debate and raising an issue that is so incredibly important. It is good to see so many people in the room today, including my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller), who chairs the Women and Equalities Committee. I cannot tell Members what a privilege and honour it was to be asked to take on this role as Minister. I cannot think of a better job in government. I will be working with people across all political parties on preventing harm to children in our society.
Sexual exploitation of children, whether online or offline, is an appalling crime. I know that the hon. Member for Rotherham has campaigned tirelessly against it, and I do not think I need to tell the House how determined and committed the Government are to tackle it robustly. I would like to give my assurance to hon. Members of my personal commitment to this. On only my second day as a new Member of Parliament back in 2010, a paedophile ring was unearthed in my constituency. I represent a beautiful, coastal, rural part of Cornwall. I grew up there and I went to school there. The community where that happened is where my family lived and I was deeply shocked. I have been on the journey of seeing what a devastating crime this is, not only for the people directly involved but for the whole wider community. I am utterly determined to use my time in this post to do everything to prevent it.
The Government are committed to improving the safety of children online and have a strong track record of working with the industry and the charity sector to achieve this. The UK Council for Child Internet Safety, which is co-chaired by Ministers, is a multi-stakeholder forum representing more than 200 organisations that are committed to internet safety. It brings together the Government, industry, law enforcement agencies, academia, charities and parenting groups to work in partnership to help to keep children and young people safe online. Its achievements include the roll-out of free network-level filters for the vast majority of broadband customers and automatic family-friendly, public wi-fi in places where children are likely to be. It has also developed guidance for providers of social media and interactive services to help them to make their platforms safer for children and young people under 18, and another for parents and carers whose children are using social media.
The hon. Lady mentioned children accessing pornographic information and images online. The Government have consulted on this and are introducing measures in the Digital Economy Bill to prevent access to pornographic material online without age verification. I am sure she will agree that this is a really important step forward. We will carefully monitor the implementation of the age verification measures.
I am sure the Minister is aware that almost any 12-year-old in the country can get round any blocks and devices to try to prevent them from accessing content. Will she consider piloting that verification with some young people, so that we use their experience to make sure it is as robust as she says?
It is a really good idea to get children involved as the implementation goes ahead and I will take that away.
We are clear that abusive and threatening behaviour online, whoever the target, is totally unacceptable. We expect and demand that social media companies have robust processes in place to address inappropriate behaviour on their sites, including the provision of clear reporting channels and prompt action to assess reports and remove behaviour that does not comply with their terms and conditions.
As we have seen today, there is an even more insidious threat facing children online: sexual exploitation. Our response to that is rightly robust and includes action by law enforcement agencies against online offenders, developing new capabilities to find and safeguard victims, and working with the internet industry to remove illegal images. All police forces and the National Crime Agency are now connected to the child abuse image database—CAID—which reduces the time taken to undertake investigations and identify victims. A new victim identification suite has been established by the National Crime Agency with access to CAID. In 2015-16, UK authorities identified more than 450 victims from abuse images, more than double the number in the previous year.
The hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts)—I am sorry if I mispronounced the name of her constituency—rightly questioned the resources for digital forensic teams in forces around the UK. These are operational matters for local police officers, but I am aware that real improvements have been made in the prioritising of resources for this work. Officers have been working with the NCA to use the tools that are constantly being developed. It is an area where we have to be vigilant all the time through the use of technology to enhance identification and processing. I will be keeping a careful eye on that and working on it with the police and crime commissioners.
We were talking about financial resources. In 2015-16, the NCA received an additional £10 million of investment for further specialist teams to tackle online child sexual exploitation. That enabled a near doubling of its investigative capacity to tackle such exploitation. A joint NCA and GCHQ team has been established to target the most technologically sophisticated offenders.
Our law enforcement response is delivering effectiveness against offenders. In 2015, 2,861 individuals were prosecuted for indecent images of children offences, a 27% increase on the previous year. In co-ordinated activity in the nine months ending last November, undertaken by the NCA and 40 police forces, 399 children were safeguarded and 682 individuals were arrested, all of whom were suspected of making, distributing and/or possessing indecent images of children.
The NCA also works to protect children and young people from abuse. The Thinkuknow education programme provides resources for use with children and young people, helping them to identify the risks that they may face both online and offline, to understand how to protect themselves and to know how to seek further support. In 2015-16 alone, just over 1.5 million primary and just under 2 million secondary school children received face-to-face education sessions from Thinkuknow’s network of more than 130,000 professionals, and the number of children and young people reached through Thinkuknow was over 205,000 more than in the previous year. Thinkuknow’s educational resources, including films, cartoons, lesson plans and websites, educate children about keeping themselves safe from sexual abuse and exploitation.
As several hon. Members rightly pointed out, schools have a critical role to play in protecting children from the risk of abuse online. E-safety is now covered at all key stages in the curriculum, including key stages 1 and 2, reflecting the fact that younger children are increasingly online. I will very seriously consider the recommendations made by the hon. Member for Rotherham today about what more can be done in that curriculum development.
Safeguarding is now a key consideration in all Ofsted school inspections. As part of their assessment of safeguarding, inspectors need to consider pupils’ understanding of how to keep themselves safe from relevant risks such as exploitation and extremism, including—
Motion lapsed, and sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(14)).