Tuesday 13 September 2016
[Joan Ryan in the Chair]
Victims of Libyan-sponsored IRA Terrorism: Compensation
I beg to move,
That this House has considered compensation for victims of Libyan-sponsored IRA terrorism.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ryan. It is a great honour to bring forward this important debate on long-overdue compensation for UK victims of Libyan-sponsored IRA terrorism.
To set the scene of why this is such a critical and important debate, I first want to make a hypothetical case. Imagine if, in the coming weeks, the media were to report that there was strong evidence of the involvement of a sovereign state in the recent outrages in France. Imagine if we were to read that there was firm evidence that another country—not just the so-called Islamic State—had trained the lorry driver for the attack in Nice or had supplied the Kalashnikovs and the bombs for the attack on the Bataclan. There would be international outrage. Although that is hypothetical, the victims and their families in this case have had to live with such a reality for many years: throughout decades of IRA terrorism and murdering of people in this country, the weapons and explosives used were willingly and knowingly supplied by the regime of Colonel Gaddafi in Libya.
Two key and timeless principles are at stake here. The most obvious is justice. Quite simply, we wish to obtain compensation for the victims of this terrorism as a way for them to get accountability from Libya, and for Libya finally to pay for its role in those actions.
The other principle is fairness. For me, the most extraordinary fact of this whole issue is that compensation has been paid, but to citizens of countries other than the one where the murders were committed. Of course, this is a long-running campaign. These outrages happened many years ago and the victims and their families have been waiting many years for justice. It is no surprise that, in that time, many of the arguments have been made time and again, but I happen to think there is good reason to look at the issue that I am discussing again.
Before doing so, I pay tribute to the work of the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs, which is chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson), and which has an ongoing investigation into the matter. I pay tribute to the debate about the docklands bomb called by the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick), who is my friend, which I attended and at which he argued most passionately. I also pay tribute to the Bill to do with asset freezing currently going through the other place, which was brought by Lord Empey.
There is a lot going on and there have been many debates, but there are three key reasons why we should be looking at this issue again today. First and foremost, it is to seek an important update from my hon. Friend the Minister about what is happening in Libya. When he appeared before the Committee chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury, he spoke of the fact that the Libyan Deputy Prime Minister will be setting up a new committee to look at the issue. It will be interesting to hear whether there have been any developments. We are hopeful but, of course, realistic and aware of the difficult situation that pertains in Libya at the moment with the civil war and so on.
Secondly, under the chairmanship of my hon. Friend the Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell), we parliamentarians have formed a campaign group to represent victims and their families. Many of its members are here today, including myself, and I am delighted to see them. We will continue to fight for justice for those victims, whatever happens and whatever the Government do.
Thirdly, the most important and timely point is that on Friday the House of Representatives in America voted unanimously, as did the Senate in May, to pass into law a Bill known as JASTA—the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act; it will empower private citizens of the United States to sue those involved in state-sponsored terrorism. In my view, the fact that that was passed unanimously in Congress throws open the whole issue of state-sponsored terrorism and its relation to individuals and their ability to seek redress through the courts and likewise.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this timely debate. He is alluding to the recent American experience. Does he agree with me that, although there is a fundamental issue of restitution and compensation, alongside that is an issue of sending an international message to nation states across the globe that there is no escape from their responsibilities if, at any stage in the past, present or future, they finance international terrorism? That is the message that needs to come across from the debate.
I strongly agree. The point we are trying to put across is that the past catches up with those who perpetrate these vile acts. I am told by the Minister that the President of the United States has vetoed that Bill. It remains to be seen what will happen because, as I understand it, Hilary Clinton has pledged to support it. It seems hard to believe that the Bill is going to go away quietly, given that the biggest act of terrorism in the history of the west and the biggest attack on US sovereign territory since, I believe, Pearl Harbour, is involved.
After all, it must be remembered that cases against Saudi Arabia have been ongoing for years. The whole point of the Bill was to enable those litigants to overcome the issue of immunity. I personally think the Bill will come back and that we need to be cognisant of that. The hon. Gentleman’s important point was well made and I think it encapsulates that, when states support terror, justice eventually catches up with them. We are here to ensure that that is the case.
It will be helpful if I explain my personal involvement with this issue. I was elected last May as the Member of Parliament for South Suffolk, and that summer I met one of my constituents, Charles Arbuthnot, who is a campaigner on this cause and whose sister, as a 22-year-old WPC serving her country on the frontline early in her career, was murdered in the Harrods bomb attack with explosives supplied by Libya. He is one of the key campaigners.
In the months afterwards, Charles and I exchanged letters, and I wrote to the Minister many times about the subject to probe a key point. I had been surprised, being new to the subject, unlike many hon. Members here, to hear from the Minister that a US citizen who had been caught up in the same bombing that had so brutally slain my constituent’s sister had been compensated. To me that was quite extraordinary.
I wrote to my hon. Friend the Minister and we had a long exchange of letters about it. I was shocked to discover, when looking back over all the debates on the subject, that the assumption, including by many hon. Members sitting here, was that the Government were aware of that compensation—it was a given—but that there was never any formal recognition of the fact that it had been paid out. I should say that my hon. Friend cares strongly about this issue, has served in Northern Ireland and will do all he can to help; there may be, shall we say, institutional issues at stake, in terms of the Department and successive Governments.
Finally, in March this year, I received a letter from my hon. Friend the Minister in which he referred to the deal made between the US and Libya, saying:
“Whilst the Commission did award compensation to a victim of the Harrods bomb, it is not possible to determine who the recipient was.”
He then went on to talk about whether that sets a precedent, which I think is absolutely key to this. He said:
“In future engagement with the Libyan Government, it may help us to mention that Libyan money has already been used to compensate victims of Qadhafi-inspired IRA terrorism. On the other hand, the Libyans may claim that Qadhafi made the decision to make payments to the US and that the decision to include US victims of the Harrods bombing within these payments was a US and not a Libyan one. They may therefore argue that this does not set a precedent for any future payments for victims of Qadhafi-inspired terrorism.”
My view is that it absolutely sets a precedent. Quite simply, money was paid to the victims—that is the bottom line. That is what our victims are seeking, because they want their redress and their justice, just as the Americans have received.
I commend the hon. Gentleman for bringing forward this very important debate. Bearing in mind that the coalition Government took over in 2010, headed by the then Prime Minister the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr Cameron), does the hon. Gentleman share my disappointment, to put it lightly, that the British Government have not espoused the claims of the individual victims of Libyan-sponsored IRA violence? Instead they have insisted that individual victims should make their own individual claims. That is quite impossible for them. The simple solution is for the Government to do the right thing and to espouse their claims.
I believe that my hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury, the Chairman of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, will be looking in detail at the issue of espousal shortly. If we go through all the documentation over the years, it is striking how there was a distinct change in tone around 2010. Let us be quite open about it—until then, the Government were proactive; they wanted to help and wanted to fight for justice. After that time, we kept getting the same line: “This is a private matter, but we will facilitate.” That has been the line ever since, and it has almost never changed. Even if we took that as the Government position, more can be done, but I will come on to that.
In terms of the precedent, if no money had ever been paid to anybody, there would still be a campaign, but I dare say it would be slightly easier for those campaigning to live with that and swallow it. If the money had been paid to a country such as Russia that had some deal with Libya, we might not be so surprised. However, the fact that money was paid to a citizen of the United States—our closest ally, with whom we stood shoulder to shoulder in the fight against terrorism—and that they hatched a deal in which they got paid off and our citizens, murdered in their own country, got nothing, remains a disgrace and a shame to this day. That is why we fight on this issue and why I will continue to do so.
As my hon. Friend knows, I represent Aldershot, and we were the victims of a response to what happened in Londonderry on 30 January 1972. IRA terrorism burns deeply in the resentment in Aldershot. He talks about people receiving nothing, but some people were compensated. I had a chat with our noble Friend Lord Tebbit, whom everybody knows suffered horrendously; his wife suffered even more horrendously than he did. He has been compensated, but the level of compensation was very pitiful indeed. It is a question not simply of those who have received none, but of those who have received some compensation being adequately compensated. I wholly support what my hon. Friend is doing.
It is a pleasure to receive an intervention from my hon. Friend. I agree with him, of course. I am not sure whether the money in that case came from Libya or from a state sponsor, so I honestly cannot comment on that point. Obviously, we want to see all victims compensated, not only in terms of accountability and the balancing of the scales, but because they will have injuries and so on and will need to use that money to support the quality of life to which they frankly are entitled.
I mentioned the actions of the United States. Despite the news in respect of the President, it is important to read the purpose of JASTA, which was passed unanimously:
“The purpose of this Act is to provide civil litigants with the broadest possible basis, consistent with the Constitution of the United States, to seek relief against persons, entities, and foreign countries, wherever acting and wherever they may be found, that have provided material support, directly or indirectly, to foreign organizations or persons that engage in terrorist activities against the United States.”
The phrase “broadest possible basis” is incredibly powerful. I am not talking about the Minister individually, because I know he feels strongly about this issue, but many hon. Members here will think that at times, it has been the narrowest possible basis for the Government here, with them looking not at what we can do but at the reasons why we cannot do the things that campaigners are pressing for.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate. I thank him and the people involved in the current campaign here in Westminster. I want to put on the record my thanks to Lord Brennan, who previously was involved heavily in this issue, including in the delegation we took to Libya; and to Andrew Mackinlay, who was active as a former Member of this place and continues to be heavily involved as a private citizen. Many people have been involved in this campaign.
It is important that we continue to press our own Government, as the hon. Gentleman says. He reflected on what would happen if a Government had sponsored current acts of terrorism—there would be outrage—but what if a Government were found to be colluding in denying citizens proper compensation and justice? He has our full support in ensuring compensation and justice for the victims of this terrible period in our history.
Thank you, Ms Ryan. I am coming to my concluding point of substance. I share the sentiments just expressed about all the efforts up until now. I am well aware, as a new MP, that much water has passed under the bridge.
The point in respect of the United States Congress is their proactivity in really supporting their victims. In January 2008, the US Congress passed the annual National Defence Authorization Act, which is the omnibus Bill through which it funds its military commitments every year. In 2008, special provisions were added, allowing victims of state-sponsored terrorism to collect court judgments from terrorism-sponsoring states by seizing their assets. When that happened, Gaddafi immediately realised he was looking at a fairly substantial bill of several billion pounds, which led to the settlement that capped the liability. From that amount, the money was paid out that eventually led to compensation for the victim in Harrods to whom I referred.
It is incredibly important to reflect on the fact that the measures taken in America are not gesture politics; they lead to real action. In fact, JASTA was passed precisely because those civil litigants were running up against a brick wall of immunity, and Congress passed the Bill to help them go further. I am not commenting on whether Saudi Arabia has any implication at all. It is the principled point of proactive support.
The Government can do more. The key channel here is communication with Libya and trying to reach a deal, which I fully support and understand. In the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, the hon. Member for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson) talked about aid. We have a huge aid budget in this country. We are going to be spending a lot of money on aid in Libya, as I understand it.
Conditionality was also discussed in that Committee. Although I am not suggesting we should involve that now, if we see no progress, that may be something we can look at. We have the power to influence transparency. I would like to ask the Minister whether there is any way we can have clearer communication, particularly for the victims—for example, a dedicated section on the Foreign and Commonwealth Office website periodically informing us what is happening with the committee out in Libya and in this dialogue.
We do not expect dramatic things immediately, though we hope for them. We are aware of the reality of the position in Libya. I simply make the point that a contrast is now apparent to us, particularly given what happened in America on Friday, when it comes to the approaches of two supposed allies in the war on terror.
I conclude with a quote from Senator Chuck Schumer of New York in May, during the passage of JASTA. He said:
“The fact that some foreign governments may have aided and abetted terrorism is infuriating to the families if justice is not done. That is what they seek—justice, justice, justice.”
I would add that if families in other countries get justice and ours do not, ours also want fairness, fairness, fairness.
It is a great privilege to have the opportunity to participate in this debate and to follow what was not only a strong contribution but a very meaningful one. Those of us from Northern Ireland who listened to the hon. Member for South Suffolk (James Cartlidge) appreciate the support that this campaign is gaining across each major party and each major part of this country. Every victim, be they from Northern Ireland or the rest of the United Kingdom, appreciates the support and attendance of hon. Members from parties throughout this House today, as well as the support of those such as Andrew Mackinlay who have served this campaign and continue to serve it so well.
This is about fairness, about transparency and about justice. It is easy to read in the Order Paper that this is a debate about compensation for victims of IRA terrorism and believe it is a Northern Ireland issue only. Today, all hon. Members who have attended are putting an end to that view.
I am sure my hon. Friend agrees that the word “justice” has become almost an insult to IRA victims, because many of them will never see justice. This is one way in which they can be compensated for the loss of loved ones, but Libya has dragged it out for far too long.
I agree entirely with my hon. Friend.
I recognise that the problem is not solely in Northern Ireland. The hon. Member for Aldershot (Sir Gerald Howarth) referred to the 1972 bombing in Manchester and there were others in Brighton, Warrington, Harrods, Hyde Park, Chelsea barracks and Canary Wharf, and many more atrocities at the hands of the IRA, supported by Colonel Gaddafi and the Libyan regime.
Since I was elected last May, I have spent a lot of time engaging with the Minister through the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, in bilateral meetings and in supporting the private Member’s Bill in the other place. From a rocky start in those discussions, the Minister is showing a personal desire, willingness and commitment to see this through. There is a real opportunity to deliver for the victims in this country.
Aid has been mentioned. I have said privately and publicly that it is unconscionable for me as a representative in this country to give aid, to help with reconstruction, to try to build lives and to provide a positive future for people’s lives in Libya, as we should, and not to recognise that people are languishing in this country, looking for support from their Government—a Government who are here to serve, a Government who are here to protect and a Government who are here to defend the interests of people of this country. I hope that we support the Libyan people as best we can and encourage that, but doing so provides a unique opportunity to make sure Libya recognises that there are still many brave people in this country, either sitting behind me today or watching at home, who need the support of a caring and compassionate Government.
We cannot continue to talk about these issues in the abstract. They are not only a vagary of our past; they are here with us today. Not so long ago—within the last six months—the victims of the Hyde Park bombing applied to this country’s Legal Aid Agency for support in their quest for a civil claim against the perpetrators of that bombing. They were turned down because they did not meet the criteria.
One reason why they did not meet the criteria was a fear that pursuing the quest of civil justice in British courts for British victims would be a threat to the peace process of Northern Ireland. What nonsense. I know the Minister will be able to respond to that point, but it is an indication of how victims in this country look to our Government for an appropriate response. There are many perpetrators of violence against the state who run to the courts, who receive support and who continue to claim they need further compensation, transparency or justice from the state—perpetrators of violence against the state and our citizens. If we can stand up for them—it sticks in our craw—it is incumbent on us to stand up for the victims of Libyan-sponsored IRA violence.
I want to focus on one case in my constituency. In March this year, a constituent, Adrian Ismay, was blown up by a bomb planted by the New IRA. It contained Semtex which, as there have been no recent purchases, is presumed to be of the same origin and extraction as that sourced from the Czech Republic through Libya to the IRA and disseminated through its splinter organisations. This year, a citizen of this country—a serving prison officer who believed in his community and served not only as a prison officer but in the search and rescue service—was blown up by Semtex with origins in Libya.
The chief suspect is walking the streets of Belfast on bail. Having breached his bail on three occasions and been returned to court, he is still walking the streets today. At the weekend, I received information that Police Service of Northern Ireland chiefs sent an email to their officers telling them not to conduct bail checks because they were generating too many complaints from his solicitor and offending his sensitivities—offending the sensitivities of a man who is alleged to be the murderer of my constituent in March. The police are concerned about his sensitivities.
I am conscious of time, Ms Ryan, but this debate gives the Minister a further opportunity to respond, whether to the victims of Hyde Park, to the victim Adrian Ismay and his family, or to the victims behind me and the countless victims throughout this country who have looked to the Government for an appropriate response. Today, Minister, is the time to give it.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ryan. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk (James Cartlidge) on taking an interest and having the motivation to introduce this debate and on the excellent way in which he presented his case. He spoke about fairness being the priority and the overriding concern of many hon. Members.
I thank the Minister for appearing before the Select Committee on two occasions to bring us up to date. He is obviously very engaged in this matter. I know that he not only sympathises with the victims and their relatives, but empathises with them. When he appeared before the Committee he demonstrated that he cares about the issue, and I thank him very much for that.
When we discuss the importance of this debate, we receive a lot of evidence from victims and their families, both orally and in writing. If anyone doubts the pain that has been caused to people in this country by Libyan-sponsored terrorism, they need only read, for example, the evidence submitted by Mr Colin Parry, who, following the attack in Warrington, had to make the heart-wrenching and unbelievably difficult decision to turn off his child’s life support machine. I will not read through all the evidence he submitted, but I urge hon. Members to read it on the website. It describes why we are all so concerned about what happened. We cannot bring those people back, of course, but we can try to recognise the pain of their loved ones—that is the first step—and then try to bring about some compensation for them or their communities.
We have received evidence from Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. Tony Blair said he did not raise the issue and it was not raised with him. Gordon Brown set up the reconciliation unit, which tried to move things on. We have two problems, as the Minister told the Select Committee. He talked about the difficulty of dealing with the Libyan Government when they are not a stable Government. Perhaps he will bring the Chamber up to date with the position there now and tell us whether he believes it can be moved on, now that things have moved on a little in Libya.
There is also the question of frozen assets, which the Select Committee discussed. I understand that something like £8 billion or £9 billion of frozen assets sourced from Libya are held in the United Kingdom. I do not know whether the result of the vote that the country rightly made on 23 June will change any aspect of that. The Committee has been told that those assets cannot be touched. I do not know whether Brexit, when it comes about, will challenge that decision, but perhaps the Minister will bring us up to date on that.
My hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Sir Gerald Howarth) said that some people have received some compensation, but very little. Presumably that was through the statutory compensation scheme, which was set up for such victims, but as my hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk pointed out, it is uncertain—and, I think, doubtful—whether that money came from Libya. That is where the money should come from, because we hear of a foreign state that was not only encouraging, but physically supplying a terrorist organisation in this country to kill our own citizens. If Libya wants to become a serious constitutional country in the future and leave its pariah status behind, it must pay compensation for the people they have murdered in this country.
We need to move this situation on. It has been going on for a long time, as we all know. The victims and relatives are getting older; some will have died. I know that the situation is difficult and that diplomatically it might be difficult because we are trying to encourage Libya to move on, but it cannot move on without first clearing up the past. I therefore ask the Minister to continue to do everything that he is doing and possibly try to push our Government that little bit further to bring about, first, recognition of the pain and, secondly, the compensation that our British citizens are due.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ryan. I commend the hon. Member for South Suffolk (James Cartlidge) for bringing this matter to the House. It is good that when fresh eyes come to look at a subject, they see the same injustice that other people who have looked at it before see. That encourages us, and the hon. Gentleman has certainly encouraged Members in the House today. His words will serve as a real fillip to the people of Northern Ireland and to the victims across the whole of the United Kingdom.
It is encouraging that as more and more people look at this situation, they see the inequitable treatment and injustice and they want to see fairness meted out to the victims. I also add my words of support for those who have for many years demonstrated steadfastness in their support for this case. Some are in the Public Gallery; my right hon. Friend the Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds) has already been mentioned; and there are many others who, year in and decade out, have supported this case and worked very hard.
The hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson), who has rightly introduced this matter to the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, has said that there are difficulties in dealing with the Libyan Government. There certainly are, but let me also place it on the record that there have been difficulties in dealing with successive Governments of Her Majesty.
I do not know, Ms Ryan, whether you have ever tried to fish eels from a bucket of water, but it is an incredibly difficult task. Trying to get one’s hands on some people in the FCO and on the Government—successive Governments—to get them to give a straight answer to many of the questions that victims have genuinely put on the table is like putting one’s hand into that bucket and trying to catch a slippery eel; it is practically impossible to get straight answers. I think that today’s debate starts to get us to the right point. Victims have waited long enough for answers. They are sick and tired of the dilly-dallying and delays. Many of them are coming to, let us face it, the latter years of their lives and they need answers before they pass the immortal tide. We need to face up to that, and pretty darn fast.
There have been several efforts to address some of these issues, but I want to put two matters to the Minister and I hope that in his summing-up he will address them. First, I hope that he agrees with me that life-changing injuries require life-changing levels of compensation—not the paltry sums mentioned by the hon. Member for Aldershot (Sir Gerald Howarth), but compensation that really addresses, for the generation of people injured, their needs, the impact that terror has had on them, their loss and their sense of loss.
Secondly, I want the Minister to talk about how we get compensation paid. I must commend him. He has been incredibly diligent. He reports regularly, privately and publicly, to Members of Parliament. He comes to the Select Committee and he has indicated to us the numerous conversations and efforts that are taking place with the new Government of national unity in Libya. I thank him for that, but there comes a point when we are told, “Look, we have to wait for this Government to be established and then we will put to them—we believe that they will be very compliant—the subject of compensation. At that point, compensation can more than likely be taken from the seized assets that are currently held by the Government here.” I can see why anyone who works in the City would oppose taking the assets and spending them in advance of that Government being established—because it would damage the City and the reputation of banking here. I understand all the reasons. It does not sound logical to a victim, but I understand the points that have been made. Therefore, I want to turn the subject round and present to the Minister a solution that I hope he will pick up and run with, or introduce as a Government amendment to the legislation.
My proposal is that the Government pay the victims in lieu, from British money. Given that they are confident that one day they will get an agreement with the new Government of national unity in Libya, when the agreement is in place they will take that money back. That will allow us to expedite compensation to resolve this matter, allow the victims to move on, allow us to put this situation, thankfully, behind us once and for all. It will also allow the Government to concentrate on helping to set up the new Government in Libya. On that basis, the Government will have solved the issue. They will not be spending the seized assets, but they will be recognising that one day those seized assets will be spent on the victims. I hope that the Minister will consider that and bring it forward.
Finally, I will put this on the table. For decades during our peace process, we were told, “Take a risk for peace.” I am saying to the Minister, “Your Government need to take that risk for peace now.”
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ryan. I commend my hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk (James Cartlidge) for bringing this matter to the Floor of the House and for the extremely valuable contributions that he has made to the parliamentary support group for United Kingdom victims of Libyan/IRA terrorism. I thank all hon. Members for their support for this very important and worthwhile cause.
I would like to refer directly to the debate earlier this year initiated by the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick), in whose constituency the docklands bombing took place in 1996, and to some of the answers given by the Minister who replied to that debate, in the hope that the Minister today will consider different responses to the issue. The Minister in that debate, my hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds), tried to claim that the issue of compensation in this case was different from others. I would like to address directly some of his points and explain why I and members of the parliamentary support group believe that the UK should obtain compensation for the victims. I appeal to this Minister to rethink how the Government approach the issue.
The Minister in the previous debate implied that victims of bombs that contained Libyan-supplied Semtex should be somehow treated differently, as those bombings were indirect acts of state agents from Libya. Of course, the Lockerbie bombing victims were treated as victims of direct actions by Libyan agents. Why are the two types of terrorism treated differently? To me, that makes no sense, and I doubt that uncompensated victims will agree with such meaningless distinctions between the two types of terrorism.
First, I want to make it clear that this is a passionate debate and very important points have been made, but the Lockerbie bombing was directly linked to the Libyans. Where things become difficult is when a third party is involved in state sponsorship of terrorism. That is the distinction that we find. I am not saying that we should not pursue this issue. I am actively doing that and doing my best to do it, but it is not as clear-cut as when an aeroplane is taken out of the sky deliberately by the Libyans themselves. That was the link that the Americans made in seeking compensation. In addition to that, they wrapped into the compensation package other events as well, just to conclude the entire deal. That made it extremely fuzzy, but the US managed to succeed in doing that. I question why the Government of the day in this country did not do something similar.
I hear what the Minister says, but the reality is that if someone is a victim of terrorism, they are a victim of terrorism and the UK Government have a responsibility to act and ensure that there is fairness and that compensation is paid.
The reason why Gaddafi supplied the IRA was to retaliate against UK policy at the time. The Libyan regime may have used the IRA to do its dirty work, but it was a political decision by Tripoli, and Her Majesty’s subjects were harmed as a result.
The Minister at the time of the debate earlier this year, my hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire, also stated that the US victims received compensation because Libya approached the US directly and Gaddafi wanted to be readmitted “to the international fold”. The facts are that in January 2008 the US Congress passed a law that allowed victims of Libyan terrorism to enforce their damages against Libyan assets held by US companies. The end result was the 2008 US/Libya Claims Settlement Agreement. Why did the United Kingdom not pursue a similar approach? Why did Britain not make it a condition of its détente with Libya that the compensation issue had to be resolved? If this gave the United States a bargaining chip with the Gaddafi regime, that begs the question why the UK did not raise this when the Prime Minister at the time, Tony Blair, travelled to Tripoli in 2004 and 2007. Surely the UK should have used opportunities such as those visits to raise this vital issue for UK victims too, and to negotiate a settlement with Libya. Why did that not happen?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way again. The Select Committee needs to invite Tony Blair to stand in front of it and answer those questions. That is what I would encourage the Select Committee to do and I am aware that its Chair is here listening to this.
I hope that the former Prime Minister will make himself available to the Committee, but that is a matter for the Select Committee. I would like to address what our Government can do today to help the victims of that terrorism.
There have been multiple opportunities to raise this with the new Libyan Governments following the fall of the Gaddafi regime. Given our offer of financial and military assistance as well as trade, why has this not been pursued at the same time? My hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire also said that one of the reasons the Lockerbie bombing claimants received compensation was that they had the support of a United Nations Security Council resolution, so why should the UK not be lobbying the Council for the same support?
Lastly, I refer to the point made by the former Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire that:
“The Libyans see themselves as victims of Gaddafi, not the bearers of his legacy.”—[Official Report, 23 February 2016; Vol. 606, c. 33WH.]
That, too, is no excuse not to proceed. The UK victims of Libyan-sponsored IRA terrorism are also victims of Gaddafi. It is clear that if the victims are to receive any kind of justice and compensation, Her Majesty’s Government urgently need to consider two options. Either Her Majesty’s Government accept that they have failed to defend the interests of their civilians and pay compensation directly to the victims, or the Government agree to pay compensation in an interim period, to prevent victims waiting any longer, with the intention of recovering that money from those responsible when the time is appropriate. The point underlying those options is that the victims should receive compensation as soon as possible.
With regard to the first option, the Government must accept some responsibility for the fact that the victims have not received compensation up to now. Nobody has received one single penny, and that should not be acceptable. It is the responsibility of the UK Government to protect UK citizens from international terrorism and, in the case of failing to secure compensation for victims of Libyan-sponsored IRA terrorism, they have failed. It is true that Libya is currently an unstable state, and that setting up negotiations with the Libyan Government would be difficult, but this is the fault of the UK Government for not having attempted such negotiations before 2011. Her Majesty’s Government must surely not miss any opportunity to raise this issue with the Government of Libya—fragile or not—today. Will the Minister assure the House that this will now happen?
The second option is for Her Majesty’s Government to espouse the claims by paying the victims compensation themselves, with the objective of recovering the money from Libya through either negotiations or the use of frozen assets. That would allow for the current instability in Libya, but address the fact that the victims have been waiting too long and indefinitely. We have a responsibility to obtain compensation for the victims as soon as possible, not years down the line when many may no longer be with us. Additionally, the UK Government should allow the UN and the EU to change the current licensing framework so that frozen assets can be used to recover the money. I understand the challenges that such a task would involve, but it would send a strong signal, at home and abroad, that the UK supports its victims of terrorism and that they will not be abandoned.
Until now, it is clear that the UK Government have not done enough to support the UK victims of Libyan-sponsored IRA terrorism. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office unit that was set up by Gordon Brown’s Government appears to have done little for the victims, apart from provide them with false hope. The Department holds the policy of not espousing private claims, but these are not simply private, because their cause is tied up with international politics. This is an abdication of its moral and legal responsibility and I do not believe that Members of this House should accept it for one moment longer. I say to the Minister that Her Majesty’s Government have a duty to act immediately to secure compensation for the long waiting, and greatly deserving, victims of these atrocities.
It is a pleasure to speak on this very important subject. The right hon. and hon. Members who have spoken have outlined the issues for us as Northern Ireland MPs, against the background of the massive loss of life not only in Northern Ireland but on the mainland. It is good to know of the cross-party support on this issue in this Chamber. I commend the hon. Member for South Suffolk (James Cartlidge) for the way he set the scene. I was keen to see whether Labour, under its new leader the right hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn), would see this as a priority, but obviously it does not. The right hon. Gentleman has shown an interest in the IRA in Northern Ireland in the past, but from a different perspective.
The IRA terrorist campaign led to the deaths of 3,750 people not only in Northern Ireland but in Brighton, London and Manchester. Each IRA bomb was Semtex that came from Gaddafi and the Libyans. My hon. Friend the Member for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson) very clearly outlined how Semtex is affecting things that are happening even today.
Sunday was the anniversary of 9/11, and we all took time to reflect, prayerfully and physically, on that occasion and on what took place. That changed the opinion of the world in many cases. It changed the opinion of the Americans as well, who in the past perhaps looked on the Irish problem as one in which so-called freedom fighters—the IRA—were doing something fanciful and maybe romantic, as they saw it. That changed with the bombing of 9/11, when they realised what terrorism was—it changes us all.
I commend my friend, Andrew Mackinlay, who is here, for the hard work that he has done in the past, and those people in the Gallery who are here to acknowledge this fact as well. Compensation and a form of justice is what we are after. The Minister has stated that he cannot speak for past Governments, and even if he could it would be unfair to ask him to do so.
The Americans are notoriously litigious—some lawyers are on speed dial—yet their Government stepped in to ensure that a compensation claim was pursued corporately and not through individual suits. The passport that we all carry in this House—I will just make this point quickly in the short time I have—contain the momentous words:
“to afford the bearer such assistance and protection as may be necessary.”
That is demanding upon other nations, but it is also demanding upon our own Foreign and Commonwealth Minister and Government. I have read of how EU regulations do not allow for the unfreezing or use of interest of Libyan monies in British banks, but I do not feel victims should wait for us finally to be extricated from the bonds of the EU to have access to compensation. That is very important.
The fact remains that my constituents, and the constituents of many of my colleagues in this place, have a right to know that their Government are working on their behalf, most especially after having suffered at the hands of terrorists who do not have to do the time for their crimes. The Good Friday agreement, and latterly the on-the runs scheme, has meant that for many the hope of justice has disappeared. There is still hope for these victims that their pain and suffering could be acknowledged in this way, and that is what I am asking for today.
In conclusion, in memory of all those who lost lives—murdered in cold blood by the IRA over 30 years of terror aided by Gaddafi and Libya—our Government will stand up and speak out. If legislation needs changing, change it. If European regulations need altering, do so. If others in the UN must be tasked to see things from our angle—in the way that the Americans were able to do—take them to Specsavers and ensure that they can see clearly the fairness and equality that we see clearly in this Chamber. Do what needs to be done and say what needs to be said. If we do that, we will be treated similarly to our American friends and colleagues. I believe that our Government must take this opportunity to prove that by taking actions from today. I fully back the comments that have been made and look to the Minister for his response.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ryan, and I congratulate the hon. Member for South Suffolk (James Cartlidge) on securing this very important debate.
The many thousands of people who, during the troubles in Northern Ireland—whether in Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland, here in Britain or elsewhere—were subject to violence and human rights abuses are entitled to compensation, truth and justice. As other hon. Members have said this morning, violence and terrorism were never justified in Northern Ireland. It was always a political process and should have been a political process.
That violence and terrorism was never justified and it is never justified today either. Whether it involved victims of the IRA and Libyan weapons, victims of British Government agents, or victims of the Ulster Defence Association, the Ulster Volunteer Force or other paramilitary groupings, every single murder during the troubles was wrong. The rights of victims, such as those sitting behind us in the Public Gallery today, must be respected and supported by all political parties.
We in the Social Democratic and Labour party support the victims of IRA violence using Libyan weapons and believe that those claims should be worked through by the Libyan and British Governments; Colonel Gaddafi and the Libyan Government supplying those weapons to the IRA was immoral, unacceptable and wrong. It created unnecessary death and destruction, which was never, ever justified. I know that Libya has conceded the principle of compensation by making payments to citizens of the United States and the Minister has been trying, through his interventions, to explain the reasons why that has not happened back in the UK. But it is important that that vital instrument and vital piece of the wider geometry is understood and resolved for the benefit of all.
In untangling the situation with the current Libyan Government, we must also try to understand the situation facing victims and survivors of all the terrorist violence that took place during the troubles in Northern Ireland. I am thinking of my debate last week about Loughinisland, where six men were tragically killed by the UVF; there has been no justice and accountability. Again, that is symptomatic of the wider feelings around dealing with the past. I ask this Minister, who is from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, whether he will have discussions with his counterparts in the Northern Ireland Office on foot of this debate, because the ongoing case that we are discussing today is not only for financial compensation, but for the acknowledgement and recognition of the suffering caused, and for truth and accountability.
As hon. Members here today know, particularly the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson), who has dealt with Eames-Bradley and other such issues, the structures for dealing with the past in Northern Ireland have been downgraded since Eames-Bradley and, in fact, even since the Stormont House talks. Serious work and amendment are still required on the oral history archive, the historical inquiries unit, the Independent Commission on Information Retrieval and the Implementation and Reconciliation Group.
In conclusion, I believe that the process on legacy matters, such as that under debate today, must be right, as must be the final product. That can be achieved only if victims and survivors are fully involved, and that includes the people who were impacted by Libya and the consequences of the supply of those illegal arms to the IRA, as well as by the arms retrieved from South Africa that caused the deaths of people in Northern Ireland.
We have only one chance to deal with legacy in the UK—particularly, from our perspective, in Northern Ireland. It must be credible and must be seen to be credible, and only full transparency from the Government will achieve that. That is what I am looking for today in the Minister’s response.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ryan, and I welcome the debate that the hon. Member for South Suffolk (James Cartlidge) has secured. He clearly highlighted the good work that is ongoing at the moment but I have to say that, in the end, it is not enough. I support his aspiration regarding what should have happened, and the Minister’s point about what should have happened under a past Government regime. I have a sense of frustration about that, just as the victims do, but we are where are we are and further work will be needed. I welcome the Bill of my colleague, Lord Empey, in the other House, but it will take work from this Government to move that forward.
I certainly do not want to pretend that I have a monopoly on the representation of victims, but I remind hon. Members of the Enniskillen poppy day bomb in my constituency back in 1987, which killed 11 people. We do not have any conclusions on that. Even though the Historical Enquiries Team promised a report four years ago, we still do not have it, and we still do not have any progress.
I believe that there are people out there who could help that investigation in identifying some aspects about the weapons and support that came from Libya. Some of those people are very senior in the Northern Ireland Executive now. Indeed, I believe that the Deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness, could give support, help and assistance, but it appears that he is not prepared to do so. If we are going to deal with the past and aspects relating to Libya, Martin McGuinness and his colleagues need to come out and be absolutely clear on where they stood, what they have done in the past, and how they assisted. I want to see progress on that.
Somebody earlier mentioned fairness. This is about fairness. We hear of the millions of pounds that are going to other inquiries in Northern Ireland and on mainland UK. Why can other victims not have a share of that, whether it comes from Libya or other places? They need that equality and support as well, and they are not getting it. I know of several police officers and Ulster Defence Regiment members who were murdered. Their families got a few thousand pounds in compensation, but that is not appropriate, and it is certainly not fair when we hear of the millions going to victims now. I want to see that addressed and the balance redressed.
I am pleading with you, Minister, please, in the lifetime of this Parliament, make sure that we resolve this matter now, so we are not coming back to it in five years’ time and having the same debate. I believe that you have the wherewithal to do it. The Libyan Government have accepted the principle in the past by giving other countries compensation. I am pleading with you now: please do it for your own citizens. Do it for the citizens of the United Kingdom, which includes those in Northern Ireland as well.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for South Suffolk (James Cartlidge) for allowing me to take part in this debate. He stressed that although US citizens caught up in IRA bombings using Libyan Semtex have been compensated, UK citizens have not, and I hope what I say will contribute to the arguments used in this debate.
As the House will be aware, this kind of situation, in which our nationals are not compensated but others are for very serious wrongs committed against them by, or involving, another Government, is not unprecedented. I have been campaigning for many years for compensation for UK citizens taken hostage by the Iraqi Government of Saddam Hussein at the time of the invasion of Kuwait by Iraq in 1990, including those on BA flight 149, and released some months later. Many of those people—I have a letter here today—were badly traumatised by their experience. Some suffered mental and physical abuse, including instances of mock executions and rape, and none, to my knowledge, has received compensation.
The issue has been raised with me again recently in the letter, the writer of which asked me to continue raising the issue. This is a historical wrong that still needs to be addressed. The UK Government should do more to assist the victims—particularly as nationals from other countries, including France and the United States, have received compensation—including those on British Airways flight 149. I will not go into the details, but I remind colleagues that BA flight 149 made a stopover in Kuwait on its way to Malaysia from Heathrow on the day of the invasion. It has since been alleged that the UK Government allowed the passengers and crew to land there, knowing that they would be endangered.
Especially galling is that 61 French passengers on board the plane won compensation worth about £50,000 each from BA. There have also been reports of undisclosed payouts to American passengers held as human shields. However, the case brought by British passengers was thrown out, essentially on a technicality, by the House of Lords. In fact, after the 1991 war, the UN Security Council ordered Iraq to compensate countries that suffered as a result of its occupation of Kuwait.
Compensation has been paid—a significant proportion to Kuwait. I am not aware of any payment by the Iraqi Government, or any other entity, to British claimants. Will the Minister clarify whether that is, in fact, the case and whether the UK Government have ever formally raised the matter with the Iraqi Government or any other relevant entity? The matter remains unresolved and the UK Government could undertake to raise it in the coming months.
Finally, I remain concerned that the UK Government have not yet dealt with the cases with sufficient resolve and urgency, including in my example, in that set out by the hon. Member for South Suffolk and many other colleagues, and in current cases where British nationals’ rights, wellbeing and security are being flagrantly treated with contempt by foreign Governments. I support the case put by the hon. Member for South Suffolk. The situation is unfair and unjust.
I am pleased to speak on something about which we all feel passionate. I congratulate the hon. Member for South Suffolk (James Cartlidge) on raising the issue, and I wish that more hon. Members from this side of the water would raise the issue so that we could all work together.
I am pleased to be on the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs and to have listened to some of the ghastly evidence of those who have suffered. The driving force of today’s debate should be to get action and care for those people from now on. We are all part of the pride that is British society; yet, somehow, we have let ourselves down. We have not done what we should have done for all those people, one of whom referred to the “hell on earth” that she has been through. That sums it all up. We should be looking into how we care for them.
The Minister kindly wrote me a letter in reply to various queries. On the question of how to look after victims of post-traumatic stress disorder, he referred to going to the NHS. That made me think about the route that we are taking with the military covenant. Maybe we should produce a covenant for victims—something that everyone in the whole UK is behind—to ensure that we look after them, whether that is at a Westminster or a council level. We should look into having a system, but there should be no excuse for not doing things now. We should find a way to care for the victims.
We have heard about compensation, and we need to find a way to get that. The hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) suggested exactly what I had in mind. Let us do something in lieu of the £9 billion that is sitting there, and find some way of making use of the money. Whether it is buying a house or borrowing, we all find ways to talk to the banks and move forward. There must be a way—working through the UN, the EU and others—to find a solution that produces funding.
Another point that always seems to be missed out is that we do not have a database of all the victims. There is a mass of people. We need some form of publicity to build the database so that when we get the compensation—and I believe we will—we can look after everyone, especially those who need it.
Finally, could we have openness? Many, such as the Minister and all those who are here today, work phenomenally hard, but there are still so many doubts. We cannot get Tony Blair or Gordon Brown to the Committee. There are so many unanswered questions that leave a dirty feeling about what is going on. I know that many people are working hard, but can we please get out there and have openness? Perhaps we could have an open reconciliation commission here so that we can actually get to the bottom of the issue so that everyone can move on. We need speed to help those in need.
It is an honour to serve under your chairship, Ms Ryan. I congratulate the hon. Member for South Suffolk (James Cartlidge) on securing the debate. Like him, I am fairly new to the subject, so it has been a real privilege to hear from so many hon. Members who have been campaigning for so long to get justice for victims.
The issue remains extremely important and sensitive. The Scottish National party welcomes the fact that the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee is carrying out an inquiry into the matter of compensation for victims and the UK Government’s role. It is good to see so many members of the Committee here today. It is right that an independent inquiry into the issue should take place to fully evaluate whether all the decisions made by the UK Government on the matter were appropriate. We hope that the inquiry will be able to answer the questions that the victims’ families have been struggling with for so long, and that it may help families to find some resolution and peace.
Any decisions made would have to go through various diplomatic and legal processes, but we must ensure that any processes are undertaken with utmost respect for the dignity and privacy of the victims’ families. According to the UK Government, the avenue of using frozen assets to compensate victims’ families would place the Government in breach of their obligations under UN Security Council resolutions, EU sanctions regulations and the European convention on human rights.
In February 2016, the then Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury, the hon. Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds), stated that
“the legal framework relating to financial sanctions is focused on preserving the funds for the benefit of the Libyan people”—[Official Report, 23 February 2016; Vol. 606, c. 32WH.]
However, it seems that there is still a possibility that a more personal agreement could be reached between the representatives of victims’ groups and the relevant Libyan authorities, although I was interested to hear about the Government taking those issues on. It is promising that, as reported in The Daily Telegraph in January 2016, the Minister met with the Prime Minister designate of Libya, Fayez el-Sarraj, and raised the case for compensation. It is good to see the Minister here and I am sure everybody is looking forward to his response.
Although the wish to have the matter resolved as soon as possible on behalf of the victims’ families is understandable, it is of utmost importance that the ongoing political instability in Libya is taken into account before any such communication takes place between victim support groups and Libyan authorities. Families have been through the terrible experience of losing a loved one in such horrific circumstances. To avoid any further unnecessary suffering and to ensure the privacy of victims’ families, it is vital to wait until diplomatic and peaceful communication between victim support groups and Libyan authorities can be achieved.
We welcome the fact that the UK Government have shown support for such a pathway, and we hope that they will continue to update victim support groups on the ongoing political situation in Libya and any progress that can be made with their cause. A number of important issues have been raised in the debate, so I will finish my remarks because I am sure that many hon. Members want to hear the Minister’s response.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ryan. I congratulate the hon. Member for South Suffolk (James Cartlidge) on securing the debate. I also pay tribute to the tireless work of support and campaign groups that have continued to seek justice for those who have fallen victim to terrorism, including the Docklands Victims Association, which recently commemorated the 20th anniversary of the Canary Wharf bombing. Indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) was in the Chamber earlier.
I appreciate that when the Minister gave a commitment back in September 2015 that the
“Government’s objective is broad and lasting reconciliation between Libya and UK communities affected by the Qadhafi regime’s sponsorship of terrorism”,
there was no stable or recognised Government in Libya, and that remains accurate today. Even in the last 24 hours the Government of national accord have lost control of three major oil ports. We know how difficult it is, but will the Minister please update us on the most recent representations to his counterparts, not just in Libya but in the USA? As Members have said today, there is a serious anomaly—I am talking not just about US victims, whom the hon. Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell) underlined in his speech, but about French victims, whom my right hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) mentioned. Why should victims in the UK be any different?
Many Members have mentioned the legalities of this case, but surely the big question is the moral case. We are not here just to talk about legalities, court cases and precedents, and so on; what we care about is fairness for victims. So many years have now elapsed, and we are desperate to get a solution.
I will repeat a couple of important points so that the Minister can be forensic in his response. As I am being brief, I hope he will allow me to intervene if he does not respond to my questions. First, the hon. Member for South Antrim (Danny Kinahan) made a brilliant observation about having a covenant for victims. What is stopping our excellent civil servants drafting such a covenant? The Northern Ireland Affairs Committee could have a hearing on a covenant for victims, and the hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson) could contribute to debates within the Committee.
Secondly, what is the Minister’s view on building a database? Thirdly, the hon. Member for South Suffolk said that there should be regular updates on the FCO website. If not, why not? Tell us this morning. Let us get some certainty. Finally, I see no difference between the US and the UK. We are partners when we set out on such expeditions, and we should have a similar outcome for victims here in this country.
There has been much talk of predecessors. When Gordon Brown set up the reconciliation commission, I was probably leading the London Borough of Islington and talking about speed humps. What matters is that we are where we are. Some of us were not in the House then, and it is important that we start from today. Today we can have a fresh start. We have heard passionate speeches today from Members on both sides of the Chamber, and there is no reason why we cannot start afresh with fresh Members and fresh energy. Let us have some justice for the victims. Let us not allow this debate to get dusty on shelves again.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ryan. I begin, as others have done, by underlining the importance of this debate in the wider picture of ensuring that the Government have a better understanding of these critical matters. I am grateful that the legislature is able to continue holding the Executive to account on an extremely sensitive issue—the legislature has been tested by the length of time it is taking to resolve these important matters. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk (James Cartlidge) on his contribution; indeed, I congratulate all hon. Members on their very moving and pertinent contributions today.
When I first came across this issue before the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, I did not know a huge amount of detail, as was evident by the types of answers that I then provided. I hope that my answers today will express a determination to stick to the course, which I would have done even had I moved away from the Foreign Office. Thankfully I continue in this post, and I endeavour to do what I can to work with fellow parliamentarians to ensure that we can push this cause forward.
As has been recognised here today, the situation in Libya is at the heart of the issue and is a cause of absolute frustration in our not being able to move this forward. The situation is testing the patience of those seeking compensation. Until Libya has a Government we can work with, we are simply not able to consider what to do with the frozen assets—we are simply not able to have those conversations. Every time I have addressed this matter in Parliament, I have been pleased to say that the situation in Libya is incrementally better, and the same is true today. However, the situation is still very delicate. The Government of national accord, under Prime Minister Sarraj, are having a tough time of bringing together societies that for 40 years under Gaddafi had no ability to flourish. Our embassy is not fully functioning, and our ability to move in and out is still restricted, as expressed by our travel advice. As has been mentioned, Daesh is moving into certain areas and towns. The situation is difficult, but it is better than the last time I spoke to the House on this issue.
The Minister has listened carefully to the evidence given to the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, of which I am pleased to be a member. I have a specific point on the 2011 EU regulation governing the freezing of assets. That regulation was implemented in the UK, but the Brexit decision means that the Government are free from that regulation. As there are no additional domestic measures on the freezing of Libyan assets, will he confirm that this is part of the Brexit negotiations?
If hon. Members allow me, I will do my best to answer all the questions. My hon. Friend the Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell) also mentioned Brexit—he is characteristically on top of Brexit matters—and my direct answer is that I am afraid that that is not the case. First, many of the EU’s financial regulations have been written or espoused by Britain because we led on financial services. Secondly, we are governed by UN regulations, and those are the ones of which we would be in breach. I will come and speak to the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) about that in more detail.
I met the Prime Minister-designate, as he then was, back in November 2015. I had subsequent meetings with the Foreign Minister of Libya, and I hope to meet him at the UN General Assembly next week—I will be raising this matter, too. Our new Foreign Secretary has also raised this matter, and our previous Foreign Secretary, now the Chancellor, raised it when he visited Tripoli only a few months ago. I wrote to Libya’s then Justice Minister about the formation of the committee on this very issue, but there has since been a reshuffle—that happens, as we know—and the justice post is currently vacant. I am waiting to see who the new Justice Minister is. I will be making contact to pursue these matters as soon as that appointment is made.
I thank the Minister for giving way. I will be very brief. Will he make it clear that, whatever Government emerge, we will expect them to take some responsibility? There are examples from history. Germany rejected Nazism, but the Government who were eventually formed still paid compensation to its victims.
We need to make a powerful case that there was clearly state-sponsored terrorism, with devastating effects in Northern Ireland. I will continue to make that case in New York next week, but I will also do so in further meetings as relationships with Libya become stronger.
Frozen assets have been mentioned several times. If we dip into the frozen assets based in this country, where would that take our relationship with Libya as a whole, when we are about to have the very conversations that my hon. Friend just mentioned? We need to be careful. I pose some difficult questions to the House. How much would we take? To whom would we give the money? How would we distinguish between somebody injured by Semtex, where it is very clear—Semtex has a footprint that can be identified because of the way it is made by hand—and somebody injured by ammunition provided by Libya? These are difficult questions that those involved in compensation need to start thinking about.
Were we ever to get any form of compensation from Libya, I suspect that we would need to get our heads around the idea that it will be a single sum that is slid across the table. It will be for the victims’ organisations to assess how the compensation is divided up, as those in authority in Libya would not want to be involved in the detail. I share that now because these are awkward, difficult questions.
One Member talked about the mental scars that have been caused. People who have not necessarily come forward yet are subject to these issues, which raise difficult questions. When we speak about frozen assets and so forth, let us also ask ourselves exactly what the mechanisms will be if we go down that road—let us do the homework—so that we are prepared if such questions are asked of us.
However, I do not want to raise any expectations at all. Ultimately, we still need to convince the necessary authorities that they will speak for what a previous Government under Gaddafi did by putting their hand up and saying that they sponsored terrorism through the IRA. I am also aware that a private Member’s Bill is coming through from the Lords—my hon. Friend the Member for Romford might be involved in that as well—so we will undoubtedly explore such issues in due course.
On asset freezing and Brexit, as I said, maybe I can write to the hon. Member for North Down in more detail, but the issues are subject to myriad regulations, some of which involve the EU, from which we might be liberated if article 50 passes. Nevertheless, the reputation of the City of London is also involved, which is significant as well. If we are seen to dip into assets, where does that place Britain as a safe place to do business? Morally, we might say, “Absolutely. Let’s go down this road and take those assets.” I simply suggest that there will be consequences if we do so.
As I said, that is an option that we can consider, but it has severe consequences, which is why I would not recommend it when we are about to embark on discussions. If there is any whiff that we are about to dip into frozen assets to the tune of £9 billion, where will that take our relationship with Libya? There would be consequences. I will make it clear: our objective is to gain compensation, but our strategy to gain that compensation should take us to the best possible place, rather than making us enemies along the way.
It is not for me to do that. I am the Minister in the Foreign Office. When I visited Northern Ireland, it became apparent to me that there were cases in which those subject to violence and terrorism there by the IRA were perhaps not receiving as much compensation as they should. I pass on such matters, but they are not for me as a Foreign Minister to pursue. I am helping with the link with Libya.
There are various schemes in place. I am involved in supporting those affected by the Sousse terrorist attacks to ensure that they receive the necessary compensation. There is a criminal injuries compensation scheme, as well as one tailored to Northern Ireland. If they do not meet the support needs of those affected, that is a domestic matter that must be pursued, and I will encourage that, but it is not for me to pursue it. However, I will discuss it with the new Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.
To be frank, it is a bit of a red herring to be arguing in this debate about dipping in. That is part of the drive of the Bill in the other place. We argued for something very separate: Her Majesty’s Government should make a payment in lieu. That would involve the Minister at the Foreign Office having a discussion with Her Majesty’s Treasury and coming up with some way to underwrite that payment. Is that a possibility?
Again, time is limited. There is a Bill coming through, and it will have its Second Reading on the Floor of this House. We can have that debate then; it would be the most appropriate time to do so. The frozen assets do not belong to the Gaddafi family; they belong to the state and the people of Libya. That is the international law by which we abide. We can release, unfreeze or touch those frozen assets only when there is a secure and stable state to return them to. To do anything else would be unlawful. I want to make that clear.
Moving on to some of the other points made, the hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) covered the issue of frozen assets, but also spoke about the strategy. Let me make it clear: if we go down the road of using frozen assets, we are basically saying that we do not want to have the conversations with Libya that we are about to embark on. We must be clear about where to focus our energy. We have made it clear that the Government will not espouse individual claims, but I will lead a delegation to knock on the Justice Minister’s door to pursue compensation. If Libya and Tripoli are not safe enough, let us ask them to come to London so we can have those conversations here. That is my commitment to ensuring that we pursue and continue the dialogue. I think and hope that that strategy will meet with the agreement of all hon. Members who have spoken in this debate.
My hon. Friend the Member for Romford also spoke about comparing the aid budget, as is often done in such cases, suggesting that we should hold it back to encourage compensation to be paid. Again, that would have huge consequences. He will be aware, as are others here, of what is happening on the Libyan sea front. Criminal gangs are using rickety boats to bring people across the sea. Our aid budget assists in preventing that from happening. There would be direct consequences for other aspects of Libya, including support for the fight against terrorism, so it might be unhelpful from that perspective. However, I absolutely agree that there should be a quid pro quo to encourage things to happen. I am being careful while saying this, because there are civil servants looking at me with big eyes, but our genuine further commitment should be based on what progress we see, not least on this particular issue. I will leave it at that for the moment.
The hon. Member for South Down (Ms Ritchie) talked about justice and accountability, which are an important part of this issue. It is about ensuring that Libya not only recognises the need for compensation but puts up its hands, in the way that we have seen with the United States. I am conscious of the time, so I will just touch on the United States. That was a political agreement, not a financial package of compensation. It was about bringing Gaddafi in from the cold. That is why, in my earlier intervention, I suggested inviting Tony Blair to make a statement on the matter. Clarity is needed on what happened in 2008 and why we did not pursue something similar. That was our opportunity, and I believe that that opportunity was missed.
I will wind up my speech, if I may, because there were many more questions to be answered. In my usual style, I will write to hon. Members with more details on the questions they have asked, but I hope that I have exhibited some passion and determination in saying that I absolutely want to ensure that this Government do what we can to hold Libya to account and give it the opportunity to do the right thing by recognising the case for compensation. Perhaps it can be tied to when the assets are released. That would be a major step forward in strengthening the bond between our two countries. Much hinges on the progress made in Libya. It has been very slow indeed, much to the frustration of everyone.
This has been an excellent debate. I thank all hon. Members, from all parties and all parts of the United Kingdom, for participating. In this short time, I will highlight some of the key points made. Different proposals have been made on the subject of assets. The hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) talked about payment in lieu. The key thing, as my hon. Friend the Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell) mentioned, is Lord Empey’s Bill, which unless I have misunderstood—I will check Hansard tomorrow—we will have Government time to discuss. We would be grateful if that Bill could be debated fully in the House of Commons so we can explore the details. I welcome that.
On the subject of aid, I agree with the hon. Member for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson). To me, it is hard to defend paying large amounts of aid to Libya without any discussion of compensation. We should pursue that point. On Tony Blair, we would all like to see him before the Committee; I think that is unanimous. We want to discover what happened in those negotiations. It is a mystery to us, and we hope to explore it.
The Minister asked how we might determine how much compensation is due. As I understand it, in the US-Libya deal in 2008, a tariff was set up for the victims. Otherwise, how would payments have been awarded? It was not done on a random throw of the dice, so there is a precedent in the US for the people of the United Kingdom. The point is that compensation was paid—in some cases, millions of pounds. Either way, there is a precedent. That is what we should look at, and it is a key point in this debate. Compensation has been paid, and we want it for our victims in this country.
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).
Dangerous Driving: Penalties
I beg to move,
That this House has considered penalties for causing death by dangerous driving.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ryan. I appreciate the Minister’s making time to respond to the debate, which concerns many MPs across the House.
I was made aware of the case of James Gilbey when his dad, Major Richard Gilbey, came to see me in my constituency surgery earlier this year, about a year after James was killed on a pelican crossing while walking home after a night out in Leeds. He was a 25-year-old man who worked for British Gas and loved his life. On that night he had the misfortune to be in the sights of two men racing their cars through the streets of Leeds, who were travelling at speeds of up to 90 mph despite driving through residential zones with signs that clearly stated the speed limit of 40 mph. Those gentlemen had a history of driving convictions, as well as other convictions. That night—either by tacit or explicit arrangement—they decided to drive with such undue recklessness and negligence that James, who started across the pelican crossing when the cars were 100 metres away, did not stand a chance.
The car driven by Majid Malik hit James so hard that his body travelled 70 metres down the road. While he lay there, the drivers of both cars stopped. Mr Malik reversed and went back to the scene—but only, it appears, to try to retrieve his number plate, which had been wrenched off the car, along with the bumper, by the force of the impact. He then drove off, hid the car, burned his clothes and went to ground. It was only after substantial efforts by the police force that he finally turned himself in. He pleaded guilty to causing death by dangerous driving, a charge impossible to avoid because he was seen on CCTV and the car was registered to him. His friend, Kaiz Mahmood, did not plead guilty to causing death by dangerous driving. Nor did he admit to racing his car, despite the fact that his Audi A5 was so close to the vehicle that hit James that it was splashed with James’s blood.
Mahmood went to trial, where he was charged with the most serious offence of causing death by dangerous driving, a level 1 offence, which under current sentencing guidelines carries a maximum custody sentence of 14 years and a starting point of eight years. After a long and painful trial, which James’s parents had to sit through, the gentlemen each received an eight-year sentence for what they had done. It was clear from the judge’s comments that he recognised the severity of the crime and his inability to charge them with more.
The hon. Lady has said that dangerous driving affects a lot of constituencies. In my constituency, a 25-year-old man was mown down in his car by a driver who ran a red light at 80 mph in a 30 mph zone. The driver split my constituent’s car in two, such was the impact. My constituent was killed outright. His parents, the Brown-Lartey family, have launched a campaign, Justice for Joseph, for their son. They also support the charity Brake’s “Roads to Justice” campaign.
Joseph Brown-Lartey’s killer was sentenced to six years, of which he will probably serve only three. When he comes out of prison at the age of 21, he will be younger than Joseph was when his life was taken away. I am really grateful to the hon. Lady for securing this debate.
I appreciate the hon. Lady’s comments. Many of us have seen such cases in our constituencies. On 17 September 2015, almost a year ago, my hon. Friend the Member for Reading West (Alok Sharma) introduced a debate in which very powerful points were made, and the Government promised to act on them. I shall say more on that later.
The hon. Lady is right to point out that the tariffs are often cut. For Majid Malik and Kaiz Mahmood, the automatic tariff discount means that they will serve only four years in prison—a sentence so light that Major and Mrs Gilbey had to witness the family members of those defendants celebrating in court. They could not believe that their boys had got away with it: “They’ll be home in four years. Isn’t that fantastic?” Well, it is not fantastic for my constituents and it is not fantastic for anyone who loses a loved one to dangerous driving. They are facing a life sentence of loss.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this very important debate. It is agony to hear of the suffering of the family in her constituency and the lack of justice.
The debate is also important to my home town of Eastbourne, where Maria and Richard lost their lives just last month because of dangerous driving. The driver, who was 17 times over the limit, was sentenced to six years for each life, but his sentences will run concurrently, so in all probability he will be back out in three years. The victims’ families do not seek revenge, but their question and mine is whether, if the repercussions for dangerous drivers had been made more serious and far reaching to send a much stronger message about the devastation that can be caused, they would have been spared the agony that my hon. Friend describes on behalf of her constituents.
The hon. Lady raises the issue of what dangerous driving tragedies mean to families. When we read the victim statements, which I will address at the end of my speech, it is impossible not to want to do something.
I want to focus specifically on the law. I go back to what the then Secretary of State, Paul Channon, said in 1989, in introducing a series of changes to the Road Traffic Acts designed to make those who commit these crimes more accountable:
“We aim to ensure that the penalty matches the offence and that those who drive very badly are properly punished.”—[Official Report, 7 February 1989; Vol. 146, c. 801.]
That has been an aim of many Governments, and very good work has been done on it. In 2004 the Labour Government increased the maximum tariff for death by dangerous driving from 10 to 14 years. In 2011, and again in 2015, the coalition Government introduced various categories of death by dangerous driving, to ensure that deaths caused by texting while driving could be prosecuted as such.
Last year, 188 deaths were caused by dangerous driving and 201 were caused by careless driving. However, although three fifths of people sentenced were jailed, the average sentences were very short—less than four years. Brake, to which I pay tribute for all the work it does, suggests that only a third of people convicted of causing death by dangerous driving are sentenced to more than five years.
I have three matters to raise with the Minister today, and I am grateful that the Justice Secretary has agreed to meet us later this morning. First, why are these cases not tried as manslaughter? Involuntary manslaughter is
“where the offender did not intend to kill or cause really serious harm but where death results from an unlawful act or from gross negligence.”
I cannot conceive how driving at up to 90 mph through a residential zone, wilfully ignoring vulnerable road users and racing a car, is not both unlawful and an exhibition of gross negligence. Indeed, I have been told by Ministers that manslaughter charges can be applied to driving offences, but that they almost never are. In fact, the Library could find only two instances of such charges having been applied.
I am no lawyer, but I know how difficult it is to change the law. No one would ever want to second-guess the decisions made by the judiciary or the guidance given by judges, but it seems perverse that, even if we cannot try more cases as manslaughter, the maximum penalty for what is clearly manslaughter cannot be increased. These men killed James Gilbey as surely as if they had thrown a knife or fired a gun down a crowded street; their weapon of choice just happened to be driving 2 tonnes of steel at 90 mph. Surely the maximum tariff for causing death by the worst kind of dangerous driving, which these defendants did, should be lifetime imprisonment. That should be the tariff with which judges and juries can start to work.
Secondly, would increasing the tariff make any difference? The sentencing guidelines are clearly not allowing judges and juries to apply the existing penalties—in this case, up to 14 years. Why is it that defendants are given automatic reductions in tariffs—I do not mean only for a guilty plea; I will come to that—for not being found to be drunk or on drugs at the scene? How would anybody know whether the defendants, one of whom had convictions for the possession of class A substances, were drunk or drugged? They fled the scene. They sped off, burned their clothes and destroyed the evidence. Why do we presume that they are innocent of those charges?
I ask for something the Government have been promising for two years: will they set a date for the review of sentencing guidelines for this particular suite of crimes? Will they look at the maximum tariff of 21 years? Of course, the Government should never be entirely swayed by public opinion, but it is hard to ignore the fact that nine out of 10 people think that crimes of this sort should be tried as manslaughter. Will they commit to a robust review of the tariffs and sentencing guidelines, in order to set a direction with which the Sentencing Council can work?
Thirdly, we would like to see an end to automatic reductions in prison tariffs for guilty pleas or, indeed, an end to the automatic 50% reduction of the sentence with the remainder served on licence. As somebody who has long been involved in justice debates, I understand that we do not want to fill up our prisons to the point at which they can provide nothing by way of rehabilitation, and I am always sympathetic to Government attempts to divert people from custody. Nevertheless, in this case, in which a life was taken by people behaving so recklessly and callously, with such disregard for James as he lay dying on the road, it is absolutely right that a prison sentence is given.
Surely an automatic reduction in tariff for a guilty plea should be at the judiciary’s discretion. By the way, in this case, one of the guilty pleas was not offered automatically: as I mentioned, Mahmood denied causing death by racing until the very last possible minute, yet he was given the benefit of a reduction in tariff. In my view, those benefits—serving only half a sentence or getting a reduction in tariff—should be at the discretion of the judge and jury.
I want to leave the Minister with a question. We already have a suite of sentencing guidelines that claim to punish those who cause death by dangerous driving. Bearing this case in mind, though, just how dangerous does the driving have to be for a maximum tariff to be awarded? As my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Caroline Ansell) mentioned, these gentlemen will be out on licence within four years, and towards the end of their sentence they will of course be serving a stepped-down version of it. They will be on day release and in open prisons, and they will be back on the streets very soon. My constituents, Major and Mrs Gilbey, have been given a life sentence, as have the rest of their family. They live every day with the loss of James, a man who was walking across a road, using a pedestrian crossing. A man who stood no chance once he was in the lights of those particular cars.
I can end only by reading what Major Gilbey said:
“I want my son, I want to shake his hand, hug him and chat, laugh and joke with him over a pint but I can’t. All I can do is hold and kiss the urn that holds his ashes, talk to him through that and his pictures and light his candles. That is not enough”.
I agree that it is not enough, and I think the whole House agrees. I look to the Minister urgently to repair the situation by bringing forward the sentencing guidelines, setting a date, and setting the maximum tariff to fit the crime.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ryan. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Claire Perry) on securing this debate and the passion with which she made the case on the tragic death of James Gilbey. Securing justice for victims and relatives in cases of death by dangerous driving is a priority for the Government.
My hon. Friend rightly made the point that a death caused by bad driving that could have been avoided is heartbreaking. I cannot begin imagine the pain that James’s family and friends have suffered. I understand that the Justice Secretary will be meeting my hon. friend later today to discuss this horrific case. I offer my personal and deepest condolences to the Gilbey family.
The absence of an Opposition spokesperson in this debate notwithstanding, I know that many right hon. and hon. Members will be aware of several tragic cases of road deaths in their constituencies. I hope that Members will appreciate that I will not be able to respond to all the related cases that have been raised over several years, but I shall try to respond specifically to the points that my hon. Friend made today.
As my hon. Friend said, James Gilbey was crossing the road when he was hit by a speeding motorist who was racing another car. Both drivers fled the scene. Within a few days, the driver of the vehicle that hit James handed himself in to the police. The driver of the second car was arrested later. Both were convicted of causing death by dangerous driving and sentenced to eight years in prison on 24 March. They were also banned from driving for 10 years.
In the time I have remaining, I shall try to deal with the issues that my hon. friend has raised about this case and driving offences more generally. Quite rightly and understandably, my hon. Friend made the point that the worst cases should be dealt with as manslaughter. I understand why, in many cases, causing death by driving is thought to be equivalent to attacking someone with a weapon—my hon. Friend gave the example of someone driving at 90 mph in a residential area. Under the existing law, the Crown Prosecution Service can, and will, charge a person with manslaughter when the evidence supports that charge, it is in the public interest to do so and there is a reasonable prospect of a conviction.
Successful prosecutions have secured manslaughter convictions in driving cases, but it is worth making the general point that having everything classified as manslaughter does not necessarily guarantee a conviction. One can imagine a case in which a barrister played to the jury, asked for lower offences to be considered, and asked the jury to put themselves in the offender’s shoes. Classifying cases as manslaughter does not necessarily mean that more convictions will be secured; in fact, the reverse could be true. On top of that, a conviction would not necessarily lead to the expected sentence, because there is no mandatory minimum—it is up to the judge to decide.
Would the Minister or his Department be able to tell us how many of these cases have been tried as manslaughter cases? I accept what he is saying; indeed, that is why some of the lesser offences were introduced, because there seemed to be a perception that it was harder to convict someone for causing manslaughter by motor vehicle than for other offences. However, dealing with that situation is surely a function of guidance to judges. If it is possible to start with a manslaughter charge and then have a barrister argue that, for whatever reason, the case did not fit the definition of manslaughter, then the next point could of course be to have the defendant tried for causing death by dangerous driving.
Nevertheless, if we consider the definition of unlawful manslaughter—we are not saying that these people deliberately targeted James; we are talking about people who behaved so recklessly or illegally, by breaking the speed limit, that James’s death resulted—surely that should be a starting point that the judge could consider? It seems perverse that people argue that just because a judge could not make a manslaughter charge stick, we should not start with that charge.
My hon. Friend makes a very good point, and I hope that I can get for her the information on the number of convictions for manslaughter shortly. However, for a manslaughter charge to be made, the prosecution needs to prove that there was some element of intent or recklessness regarding the death or injuries that were caused, or that the standard of driving was grossly negligent; in other words, exactly the situation that she is describing. However, in many driving cases, the offending behaviour—while highly irresponsible—does not necessarily include the state of mind required for a manslaughter charge to be made. That is why we have specific offences of causing death by careless or dangerous driving.
What amounts to dangerous driving is determined not by considering the driver’s state of mind or intentions, which in the context of driving are often difficult to ascertain, but by examining the nature of the driving. So what does the law do? The law sets out an objective test designed to compare the driving of the defendant in the specific circumstances of the case against what would be expected of a notional careful and competent driver. In general terms, if the court considers that the driving being considered falls far below that standard, and that it would be obvious to a competent and careful driver that that manner of driving was dangerous, then the court will find it to have been dangerous driving.
Again, I know that it is always dangerous to argue, based on the specific details of a case, for a general change in the law, but how could it not be that gentlemen knowingly racing their cars at speeds of up to 90 mph through a 40 mph residential zone were not falling so far below the minimum acceptable standard of driving and that there was a serious chance of causing serious injury or death, particularly when they were approaching a pedestrian crossing? I understand that the law, in the current level 1, pays particular attention to vulnerable road users such as James, who was crossing a pelican crossing on the night he was killed.
I do not expect the Minister to rewrite the law during the debate, but it seems to me that it is very difficult to explain to Major Gilbey and Mrs Gilbey, and indeed to everybody out there, why this specific case was not a perfect example of gross negligence manslaughter. If we put a consideration of manslaughter in the sentencing code, we would give courts more opportunity to charge people with manslaughter, with the backstop of level 1 death by dangerous driving, which would establish a very strong deterrent to drivers who consider breaking the law in this way.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. By the way, regarding her previous point about conviction figures, I will examine the statistics and write to her about them. I will not stand here and defend someone in a case where, judging from how things have been described, it does not seem that the punishment has fitted the crime. Obviously, it is not for me to consider such cases; that is for judges to do. However, I will come on to talk about what I think is the remedy for such cases.
Our law needs to reflect that although the harm caused in homicide cases and fatal driving offences is the same—in all of these cases, someone has died—the offender’s culpability for a death may be significantly different; hence the distinction between the two types of case. However, my hon. Friend is asking a different question, which is about the specific case of James Gilbey and why the defendants in that case could not be tried for manslaughter. Shortly, I will say how we can consider such cases.
The second point that my hon. Friend raised was about sentencing and sentencing guidelines. Once someone has been charged and convicted, the sentence that they receive is, of course, a matter for our independent courts. A court decides on the sentence, having considered all the details about the case and the offender; a court is best placed to decide on a just and proportionate sentence.
In deciding what sentence should be given, the courts are also required to follow—unless it would lead to an injustice—sentencing guidelines. The duty on the courts to follow guidelines, and if the guidelines are not followed to say why, leads to greater transparency regarding the level of sentence likely to be imposed and increased consistency in sentencing practice.
To reassure my hon. Friend, I will point out that the independent Sentencing Council, which is responsible for keeping such guidelines under review, currently has in its work plan a review of the guidelines for motoring offences involving death or serious injury. A new draft guideline will be subject to full public consultation in due course.
Talking about guidelines, I wrote to the Attorney General about the lenient sentence that my constituent’s killer was given and I was told that the judge was acting within guidelines. Also, it is often said that 14 years is the maximum sentence that can be imposed in these cases, but I have not heard of any such case in which anyone has been given more than eight years. Will the Minister explain why judges are acting within guidelines but seem to set a ceiling of eight years for sentences?
The key point here is that these guidelines are being reviewed currently, to establish why, as the hon. Lady hon. Friend contends, judges have not given sentences of more than eight years in these cases. It could be based on the evidence in a case, as the judge saw it, but all these things need to be reviewed. I will come on to talk about a remedy, because there are many different cases involving this issue and many different suggestions from people as to how we should deal with it.
For example, my hon. Friend asked why there was a reduction in sentence for an early guilty plea. That is an interesting point; applying such reductions to sentences is a long-standing practice that applies to all offences, and it has a number of benefits. A reduction in sentence is appropriate because a guilty plea removes the need for a trial, which in turn enables justice to be delivered more quickly; it reduces the gap between charging and sentencing; and, in the case of an early plea, it saves victims and witnesses from being concerned about having to give evidence.
The sentencing guidelines provide a sliding scale of reductions, depending on the point at which the guilty plea is made. The maximum reduction for a guilty plea that is made at the first reasonable opportunity is a third of the sentence that will be imposed; the recommended reduction falls to 10% when the offender pleads guilty on the day of the trial. Also, where the case against the offender is overwhelming, the guidelines provide for discretion on the part of the judge to give a lower reduction.
My hon. Friend also made another point in this context about early release when she expressed concern that the offenders in this case will be released on licence at the halfway point in their sentence. As she will know, release on licence before the end of a sentence is not new; the current arrangements are set out in the Criminal Justice Act 2003. As a general point, when someone is released on licence there is still a hold over them; if they commit the offence again during their licence period, they will go back to prison to serve the remainder of the original sentence, in addition to the sentence that is imposed for the new offence.
In most driving cases, however, a standard determinate sentence will be imposed by the court and the 2003 Act provides that such prisoners must be released automatically on licence as soon as they have served half of their sentence. Once the offender is out on licence, then—as I have already hinted—they are subject to conditions and liable to be recalled to serve the remainder of their original sentence if they break those conditions. These arrangements apply to all determinate sentences imposed for any offence—for example, they apply to sentences for assault or theft. Consequently, any change for driving offences could result in anomalies arising for driving offences compared with other offences.
That said, different arrangements are in place for offenders serving indeterminate sentences or extended determinate sentences, and for offenders who are of particular concern. It is right that we concentrate our limited resources on ensuring that those offenders who pose a particular and ongoing risk to the public are not released before it is safe to do so, which is the rationale for the current situation.
However, my hon. Friend obviously wants a change in the current situation—she does not want to be told what the current situation is—and I am sure that it is the same for the Gilbey family and the many other families who feel that they are serving a life sentence while the perpetrators of crime get off.
As I said at the outset, there can be nothing more tragic than the loss of a loved one, especially when that loss was avoidable. As the Prime Minister made clear last week, there are deep concerns about the law on dangerous driving and about the sentencing powers currently available to the courts. For too long, these concerns have not been acted upon, so today I reaffirm this Government’s commitment to consult on the penalties for dangerous driving offences.
That consultation will begin before the end of the year. Blameless victims and their families must have total confidence in our criminal justice system. To those people, our message is clear: this Government are committed to making sure that the sentences for those who kill or seriously injure other people on our roads fit the crime. I look forward to setting out our plans later this year.
Question put and agreed to.
Online Gaming (Consumer Protection)
[Mr Andrew Turner in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered consumer protection for online gaming.
First, I probably should declare an interest as an avid gamer myself, which is largely how a number of the topics I will speak about came to my attention, initially at least. I particularly want to draw attention to the protections for children and the UK and international regulatory frameworks, and to consider whether the ever-changing industry is regulated appropriately now and whether provisions have been made to ensure that the legislation can adapt to future developments and challenges.
Gaming has changed a lot since my childhood, when I played on my Super Nintendo and Amiga 1200 and my friends’ Mega Drives. Now there is no longer a need for the consoles or games, or even the reams of wire that often came out of the back of the television. Instead, today’s gamers often find that purchasing the latest game leads to a further purchase. For example, with “Star Wars Battlefront”, gamers buy a season pass if they want to access the full content of the game and they need to spend game currency, which is often bought with real money, to ensure that their character has the best weapons, equipment and experience.
In the 2016 GameTrack survey, only 24% of respondents reported that they gamed on consoles, with 24% playing on computers, 21% on smart phones, 16% on tablets and 11% on handheld devices. The new digital age has revolutionised how we access digital content and how and where we as consumers spend. A staggering 45% of households own either an Android phone or an iPhone and the UK app market is now worth £500 million, with half of that spent on games. UK consumer spending on video games in total is increasing.
According to figures from the Entertainment Retailers Association—the ERA—the total value of consumer sales was about £2.8 million in 2015, up 10% on the year before. Critically, the ERA also found that UK consumers spent £1,899,000—67% of the total—on digital video game media, compared with just £928,000, only 33%, on physical copies of the games. That trend is not confined to the type of content purchased; it is also seen in where customers buy their video games. Only 22% of purchases last year were made in a traditional bricks-and-mortar retailer, which means that the traditional consumer protections that go with owning products purchased by way of a transaction with a retailer do not exist. Instead, we have become consumer slaves to terms and conditions.
As an ever-larger proportion of the games industry moves towards right to access content, in-app purchases and other digital content, it is vital that the law properly protects UK consumers. The change in the industry, particularly in gaming, has been happening for some time. From a few key players in the 1990s, there has been a swing towards small and micro-sized businesses, which now account for 95% of the UK games industry. The change in consumer demand has allowed budding and talented digital entrepreneurs to adapt quickly, and the in-app purchase model now represents 76% of the revenue share of UK apps. Although it is right that we should support the growth of the business, it is also vital to support sensible measures to protect our consumers.
On the economy, 21,000 jobs are supported by the industry across the EU, with the UK taking the largest share, at 5,000. Additionally, the core UK video games sector—that is, video games supported wholly or partially in the UK—supports 12,100 full-time equivalent posts of employment, with the UK also enjoying a raft of successes in the industry. In-app development in the UK is performing well internationally, a key example being “Monument Valley” by ustwo studio. Also, “The Room 2”, produced by Fireproof Studios, was awarded the App Store iPad game of the year in Apple’s best of 2012 line-up, and “Candy Crush Sage” by King had reached 500 million installations by November 2013. When considering the performance of the UK, it is interesting to note that on revenue per download figures the UK is the best positioned country in western Europe, with a potential of $0.47 per download, making the UK more profitable than Germany, the United States and China.
The international markets are crucial to the industry, with 95% of UK games businesses exporting at least some of their products or services to overseas markets. On average, 45% of a UK games company’s turnover is generated from international sales. That becomes crucial in consumer protection, as exporters and importers become the customers, as customers agree to terms they might not expect—or indeed read—and as protections that are in place when someone walks into their local games store and makes a purchase no longer exist.
It took until 2015 to set out in legislation consumer rights regarding digital content. Although I am grateful for the progress that has been made and for the foresight with which the legislation was drafted to accommodate further developments, I fear there are already inconsistencies between the good intentions of the legislation and the markets in which consumers buy, and businesses sell, content. In some instances, transactions take place outside of any monetary transactions, but the consumer could pay dearly. With the recently launched “Pokémon GO”—a popular game that I cannot deny has sometimes seen me battling in the gyms and throwing Poké Balls around—there are some interesting terms and conditions. The data protection clause, for example, states that Niantic restricts users from bringing forward any legal action, should data holders wish to do so.
As for the legislative framework, the main legislation that directly regulates online gaming purchases is the Consumer Rights Act 2015. The Act sets out the basic rules governing how consumers buy, and businesses sell, digital content, including online gaming apps, in the UK. However, it works in terms of international agreements. For example, if an online game is purchased from outside the UK, whether UK consumer protection law or the law of the host country applies depends on the exact terms of the contract entered into by the two parties and also on the buyer’s own terms and conditions, which should stipulate which jurisdiction applies. Although such information must be given to the consumer before the contract is entered into, it is far removed from the easier days of buying a disk or a cartridge for my old Super Nintendo.
The 2015 Act came into force on 1 October 2015. Part 1 changes consumer rules on what to do if goods, services or digital content are faulty. For the first time, consumers’ statutory rights regarding digital content were set out in legislation, following calls by consumers, watchdogs and the gaming industry for such clarity over many years. For the purposes of the 2015 Act, digital content was described as
“data which are produced and supplied in digital form”,
which would include downloadable apps, computer games, films, e-books and computer software. However, there is another side to the consumer contract. At times we give data back and, with widely used apps such as Pokémon, loss of those data can be of little consequence to the data holder, but of huge consequence to the consumer.
Recently, WhatsApp, an app that allows people to have conversations, was at the centre of a data opt-out controversy, whereby unless consumers read a long list of technical terms and conditions, they would automatically be allowing the transfer of some data to Google. Although I and the Scottish National party support fair regulations, I find the mass collection of behavioural data unnerving at the very least.
When such data are collected from unknowing or unwitting consumers, who do not have the inclination or understanding—or, to be honest, the time—to read through long-winded terms and conditions in an agreement about the legality of court arbitration, we must look again at the legislative framework and its ability to adapt. With more and more app providers looking for access to content, and for that to be currency-as-such in a consumer contract, that should also be an essential component of legislation that seeks to protect consumers in that market.
I welcome the attempts of the Consumer Rights Act to rightly define when the legislation can and should be used. I welcome the fact that it clearly sets out that digital content will be regulated when it is
“supplied for a price…supplied free with goods or services or other digital content”,
“not generally available to consumers unless they have paid a price for it”.
To pose a question that will perhaps widen the debate further, what are we using for currency with free apps? We allow those apps to use our photos, favourite places, restaurants, credit cards and where we go and how we go about our lives—our most personal moments and sometimes our most precious. At what point do we draw a line? At what point do we consider that as being the currency for digital content?
The legislation does not yet appear to be working, even in straightforward terms. Even since the 2015 Act came into force as the flagship legislation, consumers have had issues with the most straightforward elements. For example, the games “Dead Rising 2” and “Dead Rising 2: Off the Record” caused quite a fuss among the gaming community. Users have claimed that PlayStation UK will not refund customers who believe the product to be faulty. In the run-up to today’s debate, I was contacted by a number of people who have had similar issues with the recently launched “No Man’s Sky”.
On further research, it seems that the companies’ interpretation of the Consumer Rights Act 2015 varies. A number of individuals purchased the game through Sony PlayStation’s online platform. The game proved to be faulty, and the individuals are now trying to receive redress and money back, but Sony says that it will not do that, because under the terms and conditions the money-back option is available only if they have not yet downloaded the content. If people are purchasing content online and the only way to access it is to download it, it seems to go against the ambitions of the 2015 Act somewhat if a company’s terms and conditions immediately count that as beyond terms. That is a particular challenge when accessing a game online: to own it, people need to download it, and to download it, they need to buy it first.
Frustrated users have taken to Twitter to complain that the game crashes repeatedly and that promised features never materialised. Others claim that to request a refund, consumers are required to run through a list of troubleshooting options with a customer services representative before the case is passed over to the PlayStation investigation team, who then decide whether the case justifies a refund. That is an especially important aspect when we consider that some young children can access digital content and at times enter into binding consumer agreements that can have financial consequences for bill payers. That brings into question the ability of the current legislation to impact on that. We have several types of overlapping legislation, with different regulators. Perhaps now is the time to pool the legislation together.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. On the issue of children, does he agree that we need to ensure constant vigilance, particularly when companies package games in ways that are exceptionally attractive to children, who try to pressure their adults into buying added-on features as a result of the initial product they purchased?
I absolutely agree. That is one of the critical aspects. I accept that steps have been taken to ensure that free apps are not necessarily advertised as free apps if there are in-game purchases, but that will not satisfy a relatively young child who simply wants to play the full content of the game they have downloaded or bought. If that requires a season pass or the purchase of additional content, it could become difficult to manage that child’s demands and expectations and to explain the terms and conditions and why they cannot have that additional content. We need to be particularly vigilant in that area.
I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. On the subject of children, is it not the case that young children, in particular very young children, will often not even realise what they are doing if they are playing a game and sign up for an in-app purchase or some kind of enhancement? I met recently with StepChange Debt Charity in Glasgow, and it had numerous stories of parents faced with outrageous bills that they had no chance of ever affording. Their children were buying enhancements to the games without realising. Does my hon. Friend agree that as well as regulation, developers have to take some responsibility?
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. The situation he describes is familiar to me. I am aware of a number of cases where that has happened. I accept that steps have been taken and there have been improvements, but it is still possible for young children, because they are playing these games online, to rack up large bills perhaps without realising what they are doing.
To illustrate the situation further, it is worth noting that the Advertising Standards Authority, which is the UK’s independent regulator of advertising across all media, applies the advertising codes, which are written by the Committees of Advertising Practice, and those codes include acting on complaints and proactively checking media to take action against misleading, harmful or offensive advertisements, including media used to encourage children to purchase and/or downloads apps. Specifically with children in mind, the rules contained in the codes are designed to ensure that adverts addressed to, targeted directly at or featuring children do not contain anything likely to result in their physical, mental or moral harm.
The ASA states that the way in which children perceive and react to ads is influenced by their age, experience and the context in which the message is delivered. It is therefore crucial that the adverts that children see, hear and interact with do not confuse, mislead or directly exhort them to make purchases. That said, with the best will in the world, if a young person is playing a game, they want to be able to access the content. If their friends are advancing faster than they are, it is likely that, regardless of any adverts, they will want to purchase further enhancements so that they can catch up.
This issue is not a new concern. In April 2013, the Office of Fair Trading launched an investigation into the ways in which online and app-based games encourage children to make purchases. It investigated whether there was general market compliance with consumer protection law and explored whether online and app-based games included commercial practices that might be considered misleading, aggressive or otherwise unfair under the legislation. As part of that, the OFT published several publications and sent out a stark warning that the online games industry must improve in this specific area.
In January 2015, “The OFT’s Principles for online and app-based games” clarified the OFT’s view of the online and app-based games industry’s obligations under consumer protection law. The principles focus on how games are advertised to children and state that consumers should be told up front about the costs associated with a game, in-game advertising and any important information, such as whether their personal data are being shared with other parties for marketing purposes. The principles also make it clear that in-game payments are not authorised and should not be taken unless the payment account holder, such as a parent, has given his or her express informed consent. Failure to comply with the principles could risk enforcement action. In the press release that accompanied the publication of its principles, the OFT spoke of its aim to raise standards globally. It said:
“Many games are produced abroad and the OFT has been leading the global debate on these issues. By working closely with international partners, the OFT has ensured that the principles are consistent with the laws of most key jurisdictions to help to raise standards globally.”
The OFT also published guidance for parents to help to ensure that children are not pressured into making in-game purchases and to reduce the risk of their making unauthorised payments.
Specifically, the OFT advice suggests that parents take various actions, including restricting payments, playing the game themselves, and being aware of automatic updates that may change either the game content or the associated terms and conditions. That is clearly sensible and good advice. I would certainly recommend that advice to any parent or gamer, although it is clear that it is not always practical in today’s modern world, where recording an appointment or making a call requires an app.
In terms of progress, it is encouraging that the Competition and Markets Authority, which has taken over the functions of the Competition Commission and certain consumer functions of the OFT, has an overarching responsibility for monitoring the gaming app sector to assess its compliance with consumer protection law. The CMA has affirmed the OFT’s principles for online and app-based games guidance. However, it is important to note that the original text was retained unamended and so does not reflect or take account of developments in case law, legislation or practice since its original publication. That is a missed opportunity.
In June 2015, the CMA concluded its work monitoring the children’s online and app-based games market and referred three online games to the Advertising Standards Authority for investigation on the basis that they may have breached the UK non-broadcast advertising code, by directly encouraging children to buy or ask their parents to buy extra game features. On 26 August 2015, the ASA ruled that both the “Moshi Monsters” and “Bin Weevils” games had breached the advertising code by putting pressure on children to buy a membership subscription and stated that the adverts in each of those games must not appear again in their current form. The third game was referred to the equivalent Spanish advertising self-regulation organisation.
On 4 June 2015, the CMA also published a short guide providing advice to parents and carers about the games, again prompting parents to assess purchases. It also released further information about progress overall. It stated that it had worked closely with the European Commission, the International Consumer Protection and Enforcement Network and national consumer protection authorities around the world and that, as a result, Google and Apple had made changes, in particular to strengthen payment authorisation settings and to ask games makers to stop describing games as free when they contain in-app purchases. Those changes are designed to prevent parents from being landed with unexpected bills from in-app purchases made by their children. The CMA at that point was encouraged by
“positive changes in business practices since we started looking at this sector”,
“concerned that some games may directly encourage children to buy extra features during the game.”
Therefore, to present the Consumer Rights Act 2015 as legislation that can guide and help consumers and protect children and businesses may at this point be a little ambitious at best.
In noting that last point about the CMA’s work, it cannot go without saying that we should value the work of our European partners. My colleagues and I in the Scottish National party are very concerned about the effect of being taken out of the European Union, not only on our collaboration on issues such as consumer protection, but on the value of our world-leading video games industry. Gaming is one of Scotland’s many success stories, from creating the globally renowned “Grand Theft Auto” series to a whole host of other massive successes. There is a huge talent pool available that could see significant impacts as a result of the decision to leave the European Union. Scotland is internationally recognised for innovative game development and for its groundbreaking university courses. Clive Gillman, director of creative industries at Creative Scotland, recently said:
“Scotland’s games are played by millions all over the world—there is no doubt that Scotland has played a hugely significant role in establishing this industry as one of the leading forms of entertainment globally.”
Looking further into the future, we must address concerns and uncertainties about the status of European-based funding. Horizon 2020 is the European Commission’s largest primary funding programme for research and innovation, with a budget of €79 billion. It allocates funding through two-year work programmes administered by the Commission, and includes calls for tenders for interactive entertainment projects such as games. Creative Europe, administered by the European Commission, has a budget of €1.46 billion, of which €3.4 million has been set aside for the development of new video games with high circulation potential. In 2015, the UK was the largest beneficiary of that fund. I would welcome any clarity the Minister could provide on the likelihood of such funding for the games industry continuing in the post-Brexit environment. Concerns have also been raised about the validity of international licences and our ability to affect and be compatible with EU consumer law.
The last point I want to touch on is an incredibly important one. In an industry driven by talent, led by talent and entrepreneurs, we want to encourage a market supported by Government that is fair for both consumers and businesses. Right now, that is being put at huge risk, particularly in Scotland, by restrictive UK immigration laws and, crucially, the status of the post-study work visa. It is simply economic vandalism that the ability to travel, work and study across the EU is now at risk following Brexit, and it is a further lack of judgment by the Home Secretary to refuse Scotland an opportunity to take part in the trial of a new post-study work visa scheme. That is an appalling missed opportunity.
I look forward to the Minister’s response. This is a topic on which we could expand at endless length and I very much hope that progress can be made to recognise the ever-moving feast that we see within the games industry. With that, I simply say: game over.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Turner. Unlike my hon. Friend the Member for Midlothian (Owen Thompson), I have to confess that I am not a gamer, but I understand the importance and reach of the industry and the challenges that it poses for us in consumer protection.
We know that online gaming has never been so popular or so important in terms of our leisure and our economy as it is now. UK consumer spend on video games is increasing. The total value of consumer sales stood at around £2.8 million in 2015, up 10% on the year before. The direction of travel is clear: the industry will continue to grow and prosper, and the figures clearly show that video game consumers spend more on digital content than physical content.
Of particular concern is the way in which online and app-based games encourage children to make purchases. The Office of Fair Trading set out principles stating that consumers must be told up front about costs associated with a game and about in-game advertising, as well as whether important information, such as personal data, is to be shared with other parties for marketing purposes. Those principles further state that in-gaming payments are not authorised and should not be taken unless the payment account holder, such as a parent, has given express and informed consent. Those words are very important. Failure to comply with the principles can lead to enforcement action.
Guidance for parents is also set out to help ensure that children are not pressured into making in-game purchases, thus reducing the risk of their making unauthorised payments. Despite those principles and precautions, the Competition and Markets Authority, following its monitoring of the children’s online and app-based games market, had cause to refer three online games to the Advertising Standards Authority for investigation on the basis that the advertising code may have been breached by directly encouraging children to buy or ask their parents to buy extra game features. In August last year, two games were found to have breached the advertising code by putting pressure on children to buy a membership subscription. The ASA ruled that the adverts in those games must not appear again in their current form and that tells us that monitoring must continue to be close and careful.
The OFT noted that it is imperative that the games do not pressure children to purchase and that
“exploiting children’s inexperience, vulnerability and credulity, including by aggressive commercial practices”
is simply not acceptable. Increasingly, the gaming industry is moving towards the right to access content, in-app purchases and other downloadable content, so we need to continue to be mindful of enshrining the protection of consumers in law. The video games sector has changed almost beyond recognition, and it is important that the law keeps pace with the innovation and creativity in the industry and how it interacts with consumers. All sensible and practicable measures to protect consumers must be put in place and kept under review by the UK Government in this fast-moving and developing field of technology. The SNP Government will use new, albeit limited, consumer powers to improve consumer rights while simultaneously working to maintain the most competitive business environment possible to allow the industry to continue to thrive.
The funding for this industry, international licences and our ability to affect and be compatible with EU consumer law look uncertain, and the abolition of the post-study work visa, which my hon. Friend mentioned, poses particular challenges for the industry in the post-Brexit era. I will not spend much time on that because my hon. Friend articulated those concerns extremely clearly.
Consumer protection can be challenging in this industry largely, but not exclusively, because of the sheer speed of innovation. We must all be mindful of consumer protection and keep a close eye on it. Consumers must be protected from harm while being empowered to make good, positive choices. That is the environment we need to create for consumers of online games. I am interested to hear what the Minister has to say about the UK Government’s plans to ensure that there is sufficient monitoring. We must strike the correct balance for this thriving industry.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Turner. I rise to sum up on behalf of the SNP, but given the attendance in the Chamber, it may be a brief experience. I am disappointed that there are not more Members here so I can draw on their speeches in summing up.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Midlothian (Owen Thompson) on securing this very pertinent debate. I have got five and six-year-old children at home, and if there were something within consumer legislation that would let me do something about Stampy Cat’s voice ringing out from my iPad at 9 o’clock at night, I would be very grateful. That is something intrinsically linked to “Minecraft” and “Grand Theft Auto”, both of which, I am proud to say, were made in Scotland.
I was struck by my hon. Friend’s historical tour of how digital games have improved over the ages. I am of a certain vintage and can remember my VIC-20 as a Christmas present and my Spectrum 48, which graduated to a 48-plus. It had a tape that took 45 minutes to load the most basic games, but I thought it was the most incredibly modern and chic thing I had ever had in my life. I was surprised at the comment that only—I say only—45% of households in the UK have a smartphone. People clearly have challenges affording smartphones, but it seems to me that, if not everyone, most people in society have them. I am sure that figure will increase exponentially.
I am a lawyer and the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on consumer protection, and I was very taken by some of the problems with the terms and conditions. There is tension between making the terms in consumer contracts fair and putting them in the terms and conditions. Companies perhaps do not have the opportunity to make people explicitly aware of them as they go through the transaction process, but that still does not mean it is right. As a lawyer, I found the idea that in the terms and conditions one can be prevented from taking legal action based on the contract, and the fact that there is no money-back option if the games are not downloaded, to be baffling in the extreme. To my relatively trained legal eye, there was legislation in place before the Consumer Rights Act 2015. The unfair terms in consumer contracts legislation clearly states that if terms in a consumer contract create imbalances between the parties in favour of the bigger party, they can be deemed unfair contract terms.
Although the 2015 Act consolidated some of those principles, there was legislation already in place, which signals to me that enforcement is the problem. If consumers’ rights are clearly codified, and for whatever reason they cannot bring their grievances to a place where they can be fixed, enforcement is the problem. I am interested to hear what the Minister has to say about that. In basic contract law there has to be consensus ad idem— a meeting of the minds. That is the most fundamental, basic principle of a contract. If kids in particular are buying online games without that meeting of the minds, I suggest that there is not even a contractual position to fall back on. Enforcement needs to be looked at carefully, and the protection of kids should be uppermost in everyone’s minds.
I will not take up much more of your time, Mr Turner. I echo the comments of my hon. Friends the Members for Midlothian and for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson). My hon. Friend the Member for Midlothian made a detailed case, and I would be grateful if the Minister can respond in similar detail. I do not expect him to respond to this, but we are all concerned in Scotland that, having voted to remain in the European Union, we are now going to be leaving the European Union, and that the protections that we want as a society are dropping off the edge of a cliff.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again, Mr Turner. I must explain to the hon. Member for Dumfries and Galloway (Richard Arkless) that this debate overlaps with the Second Reading of the Digital Economy Bill, and some Members who would have been here are undoubtedly there. I have been dashing backwards and forwards between the two Chambers to try to be in both debates.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Midlothian (Owen Thompson) on securing this debate. He emphasised the value that online gaming brings to our economy and to people’s lives, and he raised concerns to be put to the Minister. Those concerns are shared across the House, and have been raised in questions to Ministers in recent weeks. My hon. Friend the Member for Redcar (Anna Turley) expressed her concern that “Pokémon GO” players are behaving disrespectfully on religious sites and in cemeteries, and my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) asked what the Government are doing to protect children from in-game selling and promotions when playing games online.
I have no personal experience of online gaming; it is a subculture that involves many thousands of our constituents, although, sadly, not me—I have many other obsessions, but not that particular one. However, I am concerned about protecting our constituents from unscrupulous commercial practices. People, especially children, must not be put in danger by online gaming. Stories of car drivers gaming while at the wheel are alarming and must surely be addressed by stronger punitive legislation and enforcement.
I have seen many people still using their handheld mobile phones while driving, but watching a screen and playing an online game while driving is of a different order and has to be dealt with seriously. That means, of course, that our police need to be ever-watchful and ready to take action in such situations. Recent cuts to police funding have seriously reduced police capability, especially for such offending. Laws must be strict and enforced, and proper prosecutions must be made to ensure that those abuses and the range of offences to which the hon. Member for Midlothian referred are prevented.
On a separate theme, I have long been concerned about obsessive, compulsive and addictive behaviours, and I have raised such matters in Parliament on a number of occasions. Alcohol and drugs are the most high-profile problems, but successive Governments have failed to address them and in some cases have exacerbated them with their actions and inaction. Online compulsions are a more modern phenomenon, and online gambling is now a major contributor to the terrible damage caused to lives and families.
It seems that online gaming has a compulsive and obsessive component, at least for a minority of players, which can be dangerous to the participants and others. Most worryingly, it is sometimes vulnerable people who are most at risk, as recent evidence shows. It is time for the Government to take a close look at addictions, obsessions and compulsive behaviour, at who is affected and at what personal, social and economic damage they give rise to. They must take effective action to counter those dangers. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again, Mr Turner. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Midlothian (Owen Thompson) for securing this very important debate on consumer protection and online gaming. His gaming experience is clearly of enormous assistance to his day job, and I welcome his expertise. Our shared objective is to ensure that those who buy and play video games are properly protected. I hope I can answer most, if not all, of the questions he put to me.
I want to start by talking about the enormous value that the video games sector has for our economy, including the Scottish economy. “Grand Theft Auto”, “Lemmings” and some of the other games that the hon. Gentleman mentioned are among the most successful games anywhere in the world. We are extremely pleased to see strong clusters of games development studios in places such as Dundee and Edinburgh, and we will continue to help to support growth through the UK-wide video games tax relief and our UK games fund. Importantly for the Scottish economy, I note that “Grand Theft Auto V”, developed in Edinburgh, was the fastest growing entertainment product of all time. That is an incredible achievement for the people in Scotland who developed that game.
Government statistics published earlier this year show that the creative industries now contribute a staggering £84 billion a year to our economy; that is almost £10 million every hour. We are very proud of our video games industry, which plays a big role in that success, not only in Scotland but throughout the UK, blending the best of British technology and creativity. All around the UK, from Edinburgh down to Brighton, we have world class games creators producing games that are exported all over the globe, and we are working hard to build on that.
Our video games tax relief, for example, is boosting production, creating cultural content and jobs, and benefiting the UK’s overall economy. The Government have paid out some £45 million in video games tax relief since 2014, which supported £417 million of new investment in the UK by games companies, clearly making a big impact.
Video games are popular with UK consumers, not just with the hon. Member for Midlothian. In 2015, the UK games market was worth some £4 billion. That includes £664 million on mobile gaming, up 21% from the previous year. It is important that UK consumers can have confidence in their video games purchasing. They should be clear about what they are buying and what their rights are. It is important that consumers have the information they need about video games content, particularly to ensure that children are not exposed to age-inappropriate material.
The hon. Member for Midlothian asked about monetary exchange and for consumer protection rules to apply. He is right that the statutory rights set out in the Consumer Rights Act 2015 do not currently cover content provided in exchange for data rather than money. However, the Government are keeping that under review, so I hope that offers some reassurance.
New types of games technology and content will continue to push boundaries. It is vital that new business models and features are allowed to develop and flourish. Meanwhile, video games developers and publishers must take their responsibilities towards consumers seriously.
We have taken action, as has been pointed out, to improve consumer protection. For example, last year we strengthened the rights of consumers through the Consumer Rights Act, setting a simple modern framework for consumer protection. This means that for the first time consumers have rights when they buy digital content, including online video games. If a video game does not conform to the contract, a consumer can get a replacement or a repair, or they can get a price reduction or their money back if that is not possible, although that is subject to my earlier comments about what is actually purchased.
The Consumer Rights Act also restricts the use of unfair terms in consumer contracts. An unfair term is defined as one which,
“contrary to the requirement of good faith...causes a significant imbalance in the parties’ rights and obligations under the contract to the detriment of the consumer.”
That could include unfair restrictions on consumer rights or business liabilities. A term that takes away the user’s right to file a lawsuit in his or her home country might be deemed unfair in this way. In any event, under EU law, an EU consumer would often be permitted to bring a claim against a trader in the consumer’s home country, regardless of what is stated in the contract itself. If a court decides a term is unfair, it will not be binding on the consumer, and we have recently been looking more closely at the issue of terms and conditions.
We know that many people do not look at terms and conditions and may miss important information. The Government are exploring ways in which they could be made more user-friendly for consumers. We want businesses and consumers to understand each other better and improve behaviours. Earlier this year the Government launched a call for evidence on this theme, and we are now analysing the submissions that were received. We plan to publish the responses in due course.
There has also been valuable work in relation to in-app and in-game purchasing. The Government welcomed the work done by the Office of Fair Trading, now the Competition and Markets Authority, to set out very clearly the legal responsibilities for businesses in this area. The OFT guidance subsequently published for businesses, “Principles for online and app-based games”, is an invaluable aid for games publishers. The CMA also published helpful guidance for parents reminding them about what they can do to prevent unexpected in-app purchases by their children—for example, by disabling in-app purchasing functions on mobile devices.
I should also like to highlight the positive response of the industry to the CMA’s initiative. Many video games companies worked closely with the CMA on the production of the guidance and have worked hard to promote it within the sector.
We recognise that there have been significant advances in digital technology and the gaming industry since the Data Protection Act 1998 came into force nearly 20 years ago. The Government are reviewing the current regulatory framework to ensure it is fit for purpose for the digital age, while providing suitable data subject rights. The Information Commissioner is the UK’s independent authority responsible for administering and enforcing information rights, providing guidance and advice to individuals and organisations on, among other things, privacy considerations for application developers.
The Information Commissioner has a number of tools at his or her disposal to take action against those who breach the legislation. Powers include the ability to conduct audits, serve enforcement notices and impose civil monetary penalties of up to £500,000.
The hon. Member for Midlothian asked me about children’s safety. I want to stress the Government’s commitment to help ensure that younger consumers are protected from harmful content. We have a robust age rating and labelling regime for video games sold in physical formats such as on discs—or “boxed products”, as they are known in the trade. All such games must by law carry an appropriate PEGI age rating if they are unsuitable for younger children. It is an offence to sell a PEGI 12, 16 or 18 rated boxed product to anyone not old enough.
PEGI ratings are well recognised in the UK and across Europe. They give consumers, particularly parents, the information they need to manage content choices for children. For protecting children from inappropriate material in online and mobile games, which is a global market, the focus is on self-regulation by games developers, publishers and platforms. We welcome the age ratings and other content advice that games developers and publishers are increasingly now adding to online and mobile video games. That includes the international age rating coalition initiative, which has, for example, led to PEGI ratings now being applied to all apps and games supplied through Android-powered devices and through Windows Store.
“Pokémon GO” has been a phenomenon all over the world. It is enjoyed by many in the UK, and most people act responsibly while playing. I have come across people playing “Pokémon GO” when I have been out walking the dog. Indeed, my daughter managed to get me to catch a Pokémon, who I believe was called Fire Fang. There are lots of exotic names in the “Pokémon GO” sets if anyone wants to have a look. It is important that players abide by the law and respect their surroundings.
I understand that during the summer “Pokémon GO”’s developers, Niantic, added some new warnings to the game’s loading screen—for example, reminding players not to trespass and not to enter dangerous areas. Officials have contacted the game’s developers to discuss features of “Pokémon GO” and the advice they provide to consumers in the UK.
This is a complex landscape, as the hon. Member for Midlothian explained, but I believe we are doing good work to protect legitimate businesses, to enable innovation to happen, and to keep consumers confident and safe. I assure all hon. Members that we will not be complacent. We will continue to work together with the industry to adapt the landscape as the video games market inevitably continues to develop, possibly in ways we cannot yet imagine.
I will be relatively brief. I thank hon. Members for their contributions this afternoon. This is a very important issue. It is critical that we keep on top of what is an ever-moving feast and adapt to the changes as they come, including those that, as the Minister said, we may not even be able to predict yet.
I am encouraged by the Government’s response, which demonstrates that there is no complacency. I welcome that, and I think all hon. Members will be reassured by the steps that have been taken to continue monitoring and look forward. Since I became an MP, I have not been able to game quite as much as I might like to, or as much as I was used to, but if the Minister keeps at it, he might capture a Pikachu one of these days and become a Pokémon master.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered consumer protection for online gaming.
Post Offices in Wales
[Mr Philip Hollobone in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered post offices in Wales.
It is a real pleasure to have you here speaking your excellent Welsh on this fine September day, Mr Hollobone, and to speak to you and to those assembled on the issue of post offices in Wales. As constituency MPs, we all know this is a matter of great importance to the people we represent.
It is important at the outset to recall that post offices are a great public institution and that they remain a public institution. There is a deal of confusion at the present time about the various statuses of Royal Mail, post offices and so on following the privatisation of Royal Mail, but the Post Office is, of course, still a public institution that is fundamentally owned and run by the Government. It is for that reason that I feel particularly animated by events occurring in Wrexham at the present time relating to our post office. Not just in Wrexham but across Wales, various proposals are being put forward that affect access to post offices for the people we represent.
As those of us who have been here for a number of years know, a number of bright ideas concerning post offices have led to reorganisations and various moves of post offices in recent years. As someone who bears the scars of the reorganisation that took place under the last Labour Government, I can point out that I opposed a number of closures locally. I regretted them then and regret them now, but they were taken forward by the Labour Government before 2010.
This particular case in Wrexham has animated me even more than those moves before 2010 because I think it is very important that all of our constituents should have access to a post office. That is not just my view; it is also the view of the Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work, the hon. Member for Portsmouth North (Penny Mordaunt). I wrote to her concerning this issue and she said in her reply:
“Facilities and services that need to be accessible to a wide spread of the general public, such as Post Offices, should ideally be located at ground floor level.”
Following a move of the post office in Wrexham town centre a number of years ago to a site in a pedestrianised area of the Post Office’s choosing, which the Post Office initiated, it has now decided it wishes to leave. It has moved a distance of only some 200 metres or so to another premises within Wrexham town centre. My main concern is that those premises are at first floor level and are situated within another shop—WHSmith—and are accessible to those who cannot go up the stairs only by a single lift at the rear of the premises. Quite simply, access arrangements for the post office are now much more difficult than previously, particularly for those who are disabled. I think, in the 21st century, that that is fundamentally wrong.
The post office and WHSmith staff who have dealt with me on this issue have been courteous throughout, both with me and with those I represent, but they cannot change the fact that the decision is fundamentally wrong. We have gone through a process that has been called a “consultation”. I was notified at the beginning of the summer that the move was going to take place and asked if I wanted to make any representations, which I did in writing as well as by meeting with representatives of the Post Office to express my strong disquiet that the premises was being moved to a first floor. Notwithstanding the strong views I expressed, I received no indication whatever that there would be any change of view.
I was also contacted by a number of my constituents through our excellent local voluntary organisation—the Association of Voluntary Organisations in Wrexham. I met with the disability access group in Wrexham and we discussed our concerns about the move. AVOW runs a Shopmobility project within Wrexham and has a number of clients that regularly use Shopmobility scooters to facilitate access within Wrexham town centre. Those Shopmobility scooters can be quite bulky on occasion and are often used by some of the most disabled members of our society. There was particular concern about moving around the store using scooters and the accessibility of the lift to get to the post office.
We arranged a site visit to the post office with the disability access group and, again, the post office and WHSmith staff were very helpful in organising the visit and were helpful and courteous throughout. I attended the store before the new post office premises opened with one of my constituents who uses a wheelchair, two other constituents who were using Shopmobility scooters and a number of other disabled constituents. We negotiated our way through the ground floor of the store to gain access to the lift and, one by one, the constituents were able to go into the lift—only one could go in at a time—and go up to the first floor to inspect the post office premises.
It was difficult for a number of my constituents to negotiate their way through the store downstairs to get to the lift, which is not very large and can hold only one person. Frankly, I was ashamed when I went to the store and saw how difficult it was for the individuals concerned to gain access to the post office. This is a post office that has always been on the ground floor in Wrexham town centre and has been moved by the Post Office, presumably for commercial reasons, to its new premises.
Within Wrexham town centre, like many other town centres nowadays, there are a number of empty ground floor premises. The previous post office premises and the current one are only 150 to 200 metres apart, and a number of ground floor premises are available for use as a post office, but that has been rejected by the Post Office.
I apologise for coming late to the debate, Mr Hollobone; I was held up a little bit. My hon. Friend from Wrexham raises a pertinent point. In Pontllanfraith in my constituency we are losing our post office; a campaign has been set up by councillors Gez Kirby, Mike Adams and Colin Gordon and it has attracted over 300 names. The real issue we have is that there is a lack of commercial help from the Post Office. When the sub-postmaster finds that business is slow, the Post Office needs to come in and give ideas on how to improve the business. Another post office in the constituency has come to me to say it is having serious problems. Having seen the post office move to a first floor in Wrexham, does my hon. Friend recognise that the post offices perhaps need to take a more commercial approach to their business?
I would like the post office in Wrexham, as a public institution, to contribute to the local economy. It is a Crown post office in Wrexham, and it is the main post office. In fact, it is now the only post office in the town centre of Wrexham, which is the largest town in Wales. The post office is taking business rates away from the local economy, because it has gone upstairs into another store that is already occupied by a WHSmith and is not paying business rates on a separate premises. So less income is coming into the town as a result of this decision. Furthermore, it is treating disabled people with a lack of respect by insisting that they go to a first-floor premises to avail themselves of services that we all take for granted.
There are relevant pieces of legislation relating to disability. I have no doubt that this particular example is legal, but there is no doubt either—I have seen it for myself—that these arrangements are much more difficult for disabled people than those that existed previously. I felt so ashamed when I went on the site inspection that we have a post office in this day and age insisting, for its own commercial reasons, on moving the premises to the first floor when ground-floor premises are available in other parts of the town. That is disrespectful to disabled people and not something that any Government organisation should be doing in this day and age.
I have made that position very clear to the Post Office, and I am pleased that the Minister for Disabled People has made clear her view that post office premises should be on the ground floor. I find it extraordinary that I even have to say that. It comes to something when a commercial decision of that type is made in a society where we should be treating all our constituents and all the people we represent with equal respect. I know that the Post Office is considering shifting various post offices to first-floor premises in other parts of the country, for commercial reasons. It is very important that a strong message is sent to the Post Office that it is not acceptable so to do.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. I face similar concerns in my constituency about proposals to move the location of post offices. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is essential that the Post Office pays due notice to the consultation process? It is imperative also that the views of local communities in these situations are taken on board and not disregarded.
Indeed. There is no doubt that my constituents, particularly those who are disabled, feel very strongly about this issue. They have visited the post office on a number of occasions to make clear their views. They have supported me in the protestations I have put forward, and I will continue to put them forward, because I want the post office in Wrexham back on the ground floor. I also want the Post Office to give a commitment that it will not allow post office premises to be constructed on the first floor when ground-floor premises are available.
I am ashamed that I have to make those points to the Post Office; it should be using ground floor premises in any event. I hope that the Minister will be able to give me the assurance that I want to relay to my disabled constituents—that they will be treated with equal respect, despite the fact that they are disabled.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone, on this very warm September day. May I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Wrexham (Ian C. Lucas) for securing this debate? This is an important issue that affects all of us in Wales and in other parts of the country. We all recognise that post offices are an important part of civic life and provide a service that is invaluable to many of our constituents. May I also pay tribute to him for not being partisan in his opening comments? He acknowledged not only a rebellion between 2001 and 2010, when a significant number of post offices were closed, but that the reduction was unfortunate—and, indeed, possibly a mistake.
From a general perspective, it is important to point out that there has been significant stability in the post office network throughout the United Kingdom since 2010. This Government have committed to have 11,500 post offices within the post office network—a figure that has been maintained—with an investment of some £2 billion between 2010 and 2020. That is a significant public investment in the post office network. Wales has seen a slight decline of some 4% in post office numbers since 2010, compared with a decline of 34% between 2001 and 2010.
In general terms, the aspiration to protect the post office network is something on which this Government and the previous coalition Government have come up to the plate and delivered. I believe that the aspiration to carry on protecting the network in a Welsh and UK context is shared by Members on both sides of the Chamber today. The overall picture is one of significant investment and, it should be stated, one of a reduction in the subsidy required to maintain that network.
I hear what the Minister is saying, and it is good news that we all share the same aspiration to save post offices where we can. When postmasters come to me and say that their post office is under threat, the major issue is business rates. Have the Government looked at any ways of reducing business rates specifically for post offices?
Clearly, business rates will vary from business to business, depending upon the area. Certainly business rates are an issue for many small businesses in the Welsh context, and the Wales Office is very happy to raise with the Welsh Government the need to ensure that we have a structure in place that is beneficial to small businesses.
There is a commitment to protect community post offices and, indeed, to invest in modernising them to ensure that they provide a service for local communities. It is worth pointing out that where community post offices are lost, they are quite often replaced by a mobile service. In my constituency of Aberconwy, a number of rural villages are now served by a mobile post office service.
I will make only a brief intervention, as I know the Minister will want to answer the points raised by the hon. Member for Wrexham (Ian C. Lucas). In relation to the recent reforms, one issue that has arisen is the designation of sub-post offices, especially in some rural communities. For instance, we have a fantastic post office in Llangadog, but it has lost its community post office status, which means a loss of around £8,000 a year in grant. It has been designated a post office local because there is another shop in the village that could offer different services. The Post Office is playing businesses off against one another. Does the Minister agree that it is time we had a look at that and worked to strengthen those community post offices, giving them the support they need to expand the services they offer?
The hon. Gentleman raises an interesting point. It is difficult for me to comment on the particular situation in the village he mentioned, but in terms of the overall picture, the commitment to community post offices has been strong. For example, where a community post office is transferred to new ownership, the community status is maintained. I am more than happy to take representations in written format in relation to the particular village in question, but it is difficult for me to comment at this point in time.
Out of courtesy to the hon. Member for Wrexham, I should say that, although this is a debate about post offices in Wales, his comments were primarily about disability access in Wrexham. I understand the situation there. I was in Wrexham last Friday morning, speaking to a business professionals group, and Wrexham is in a very interesting situation. It is a thriving town in many ways, but there have been a number of retail developments in parts of Wrexham that have changed the centre of gravity on the high street.
I know Wrexham fairly well, having been born in the vicinity a long time ago. The changes on Wrexham high street are a concern to the hon. Gentleman; I fully appreciate that. I am also well aware, from reading the north Wales papers that he has highlighted, of the number of empty premises in Wrexham. It is important to note that the post office in Wrexham remains a Crown post office. Unlike the many agreements with WHSmith, the post office is run by Post Office members of staff. It is hosted by WHSmith but remains an independent Crown post office.
The hon. Gentleman’s summary of how the public consultation took place is similar to that provided by my officials. There was a six-week consultation period, which is par for the course when there is a possibility of moving a Crown post office to new premises. There must be a plan in place for accessibility. I understand that fewer than 10% of such moves have resulted in a post office facility being on the first floor, but the hon. Gentleman said that any such move is unacceptable.
It is important to note that the Post Office works within its own guidelines. That ensures that there is an assessment of accessibility, and I am more than happy to share those guidelines with the hon. Gentleman if that would be helpful. In addition to following the guidelines, it is necessary to consult and to ensure that people with disabilities have an opportunity to see whether the facilities work, and I understand that the hon. Gentleman attended when that opportunity was afforded. He highlighted that he felt ashamed of what he saw. I am surprised that that disappointment was not reflected in the consultation process. His concerns were not fed back in the wider consultation process.
The question of whether there should ever be a post office on a first floor has been highlighted, and the accessibility issue includes accessibility in terms of the law and the guidelines. The Post Office assures me that on both counts that is the situation in Wrexham. I take fully on board the comments of the hon. Gentleman, but highlight the fact that the process has been followed in accordance with the Post Office’s guidelines and ensuring accessibility. The hon. Gentleman is clearly of the view that that is unacceptable, but his comments have been heard by the Post Office today.
I objected to the proposal. I visited the store the day before the post office was to open, which was after the decision had been made. Only at that point did I see what the arrangements were because they had not been constructed at the time of my initial objection. That is when I was ashamed of what I saw. It was the first time I had seen them.
I am grateful for that clarity and, again, I have no doubt that the hon. Gentleman’s comments will be noted.
I understand that since the post office relocated on 18 August, seven customer satisfaction feedback forms have been completed. All have been positive and, again, this issue has not been raised. In addition, it is worth pointing out that the early indications are that footfall at the new post office in Wrexham has increased and customer usage of the facility has increased. I stress that it has been open for only a month and I fully understand that these are early days. The hon. Gentleman still has his concerns but the initial feedback seems to be constructive and positive. I am not in any way ignoring the real concerns that he has raised, but the initial feedback seems to be quite positive.
I should highlight the fact that there is an alternative option in the post office in Wrexham; if someone is unable to access to the first floor facilities, there is a portable till point on the ground floor. That service is made available when any post office counter is on the first floor. I understand that during the month the post office has been operating from WHSmith in Wrexham, that portable facility has not been used, but it would be manned by post office counter staff from upstairs, not by anyone working for WHSmith downstairs. The service would be equivalent to that available upstairs, as would the training required.
It is important to have debates on situations such as that in Wrexham. It is crucial that a service provided to the general public and our electors by the Government with taxpayers’ support is debated in Westminster. We all have our concerns when we hear of post offices being relocated. I had a similar situation in the summer when the Crown post office in Llandudno was relocated to WHSmith, but on the ground floor.
I think I am right in saying that the main concern in Wrexham is not whether the service is of equivalent value or whether the same service is available. The real concern is accessibility. All I can offer the hon. Gentleman is my assurance that the Post Office has operated under its own guidelines and within the law. However, this opportunity to express some of his concerns and those raised by some of his constituents is the right use of this Chamber and ensures that the Post Office hears those concerns.
I turn to other comments that have been made. I emphasise that in general the Post Office is a success story in the Welsh context. We have an obligation to ensure that those services continue at a level that ensures that the needs of people in all parts of Wales are dealt with. It is worth pointing out that 90% of the post offices in Wales that are eligible for the modernisation programme have been through that process. That is a high and positive percentage. There are individual cases that cause concern to Members, but it is fair to say that the overall position is positive and we should be proud of it.
In addition, we should acknowledge the significant work that the Post Office has done to ensure that the provision of services is as good as it has been during a period when the subsidy paid by the Government has reduced considerably. We have a leaner, more efficient and more effective Post Office, yet there has been only a very small fall in the number of post offices operating in Wales since 2010.
I can offer no significant assurance to the hon. Gentleman about the situation in Wrexham, but I am sure we can share the Post Office guidelines with him. He can then discuss the provision in Wrexham and communicate the basis on which the process was undertaken to his constituents who are interested, and in some cases distressed, by the changes.
Funding for the Arts
It is a great pleasure to appear under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. In fact, it is the first time in six years that I have appeared in order to propose a motion in Westminster Hall, so you can put that on your already extremely distinguished CV. It is also a great pleasure to talk about the arts, which has been a passion of mine all my life and has been—
I am glad to have the support of the Scottish National party on that issue, as I do on so many others. It is worth pointing out, with the very distinguished spokesman for the SNP, the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (John Nicolson), here, that broadly speaking I will be talking about funding in England. No doubt the SNP spokesman can talk about funding in Scotland and he will tell a great tale that the Minister will rightly treat with some scepticism; he will point out that the Scottish story is not as great as the SNP would make out.
Anyway, back to England. I was lucky enough to serve as the Minister responsible for the arts for six years, until I left the Government in July. I warmly welcome the new Minister to his position and want to tell him that he need have no worry about my being a backseat driver. I am not planning to leave Parliament to give him the space that he needs to develop his position, but I am certainly not planning to second-guess what he does in his new role. I know already how talented he is, but those of us who leave Government perhaps not of our own accord do not have the chance to make a resignation speech, so perhaps I can treat this motion as a review of some of the things that I did as an Arts Minister and explain why I think there is an opportunity to increase Government funding for the arts.
The arts in England in particular, but also in the UK as a whole, have always relied on what is known as the mixed economy. We are relatively unique and very lucky, in that our arts organisations depend not just on straight Government funding but also, obviously, on their income and on philanthropy. In the last six years, we as a Government worked hard to encourage philanthropy, and arts and heritage organisations responded in kind and raised a great deal of money. Schemes such as Catalyst, which introduced match funding, enabled them to raise additional money from private donors.
I will just point out to the right hon. Gentleman that the level of public funding for the arts in Britain is lower than that in most continental European countries and below the European average. I think the Government ought to look at that.
I will take that point when I come to address the levels of actual Government funding. I was talking about the mixed economy and pointing out that arts and heritage organisations have responded brilliantly, by not only raising private money from donors, but raising what is in effect commercial income from ticket sales, sponsorship and the like. In fact, for most successful arts and heritage organisations, Government funding is only a small proportion of their overall funding. Having said that, I believe that Government funding is vital. It is vital in providing core funding support for many of our most popular and successful arts organisations, as well as smaller arts organisations all over England. It is also vital in attracting additional money. A grant from the Government, Arts Council England or the Heritage Lottery Fund is a great vote of confidence that ends up acting as a catalyst for attracting private sponsorship and commercial funding as well.
We are very lucky in this country to have not only the mixed economy, but very talented arts and heritage leaders. I pay tribute to the people I worked with at the Arts Council: people such as Liz Forgan and Peter Bazalgette as chairmen of the Arts Council and Alan Davey and Darren Henley as chief executives. I am incredibly pleased to see that Sir Nicholas Serota is taking over from Peter Bazalgette as the new chairman of the Arts Council. Again, that is a great vote of confidence in the condition of the arts today.
When we came into government, we did have to impose cuts on the Arts Council, but in my view those cuts were misinterpreted. We kept to a minimum the cuts in money that actually went to arts organisations through grant in aid. We did stop some very expensive programmes and reduce the overall bureaucracy of the Arts Council, but the money going to arts organisations was reduced by far less. The amount of money going to arts organisations through the national lottery was increased significantly, by hundreds of millions of pounds.
It is also worth pointing out that in the last couple of years the then Chancellor of the Exchequer, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tatton (Mr Osborne), began to introduce tax breaks for arts organisations. I understand that the theatre tax break, for example, is now worth some £25 million to theatres in England. The orchestra tax break, which is just coming into play, will no doubt have a similar impact, and I know that the Government are taking forward plans for an exhibitions tax break as well.
Nevertheless, there have been cuts. The point I wanted to make was that the arts organisations that have had to deal with those funding reductions—as with many other sectors, covering every part of Government, that have had to deal with funding reductions—have responded brilliantly.
In my opinion, the heritage industry has perhaps been treated rather worse, because it suffered cuts under the last Labour Government and we did not protect it additionally when we came into office. The overall grant for English Heritage, now known as Historic England, has been significantly reduced, curtailing its ability to carry out vital heritage regulation. Nevertheless, the new model that the Government have put in place, putting the historic buildings and monuments that English Heritage was responsible for into a separate charity, along with a very generous capital endowment, will make a big difference. I pay tribute to people such as Simon Thurley, who led English Heritage for much of my time as a Minister, and to the current chairman, Laurie Magnus, who has done a brilliant job in making that split happen and providing a confident future for heritage.
Nevertheless, heritage funding is not as high as it could be. There have been individual programmes that have made a difference. As a Minister, I tried to go to the then Chancellor with individual programmes to draw in additional funding and I was successful—for example, with the capital programme for cathedrals. I should say, of course, that heritage did benefit from, again, a significant uplift in lottery funding, which has made a massive difference, because obviously heritage projects require a lot of capital funding in order to fund improvements.
Then we come to our wonderful national museums. They are national, serving all parts of the United Kingdom, but they, too, have seen a significant reduction in funding, while all the time maintaining free access to the national collections. Again, they have responded magnificently. I cannot think of a set of national museums anywhere in the world that have the prestige that ours do. They have seen their visitor numbers increase successfully. Take a museum such as the British Museum or Tate. These are world-leading museums, attracting millions of visitors every year and highly regarded throughout the world. It would take too long to list all the incredibly distinguished directors whom I was lucky enough to work with, many of whom continue to run our national museums, but again, if people want to see an example of a sector that has responded brilliantly to straitened financial circumstances, I think our national museums represent that.
The arts are resilient. The value of the contribution of arts and culture to our economy has increased by one third. They have increased the revenue that they earn, they have increased the money that they bring in through philanthropy, and they make ever more impacts in other parts of life, whether through cultural diplomacy—our calling card around the world—or impacts on health, the criminal justice system or education. The arts and our heritage sectors deserve support. There was—I do not think I am underestimating—an outpouring of joy from the arts and heritage sector at the last spending review in November 2015 when the then Chancellor announced that he was not going to make any cuts at all to the arts and heritage. That is the position we had arrived at. It was not just that he was not going to make any cuts; it was the way he put his position in his statement. He said:
“One of the best investments we can make as a nation is in our extraordinary arts, museums, heritage, media and sport.”—[Official Report, 25 November 2015; Vol. 602, c. 1368.]
He also said that
“deep cuts…are a false economy”.—[Official Report, 25 November 2015; Vol. 602, c. 1368.]
I agree with him and am glad that in that last settlement the then Chancellor recognised—as I think the arts and heritage sector took his meaning to be—that we had come, as it were, to the floor of where we were going to come to.
Briefly, I strongly support what the right hon. Gentleman is saying. In the last few days, he may have seen a television programme about Cambodia. They are trying to revive their culture after the terrible predations of Pol Pot and his people, and their simple slogan is “No culture, no nation”. Culture is how we define ourselves and it is absolutely vital that it is preserved.
That is so true and that is why I am so pleased that this Government also brought into being the cultural protection fund—£30 million of funding that is available to preserve the culture and heritage of other nations. In fact, all told, if we add the individual programmes to the core funding of heritage, museums and arts, we have a fantastic story to tell, both in the financial support of the arts and heritage, and in the range of programmes that this Government have supported.
Local authority funding is always a huge issue. I have to say that I am more robust on this than I am on other issues. Local councillors are elected by local people and they have the freedom to spend their taxpayers’ money as they see fit. I do not support statutory funding or statutory requirements for culture in a local area. I think that wise local councils should support the arts and heritage in their areas and understand the impact they have.
The right hon. Gentleman is making a good point, but what does he think about how local authorities are expected to cope with keeping their arts budgets at a static point? I have to say that Bristol has managed it, and I am proud of that, but most are struggling because of the cuts to their grants from central Government. Would the right hon. Gentleman care to comment on that?
One of the things we wanted to do in the culture White Paper, which I published before I left the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, was to take forward a partnership with local councils showing how the arts and heritage play a huge role in place-making and how different funding streams—not just the core funding stream from Department for Communities and Local Government or via the Arts Council—could help to support arts organisations. There is a lot we can do. Things like the UK capital of culture programme, for example, are great ways of galvanizing local authorities into taking their arts and heritage more seriously, but there are still bad news stories. For example, I was depressed to learn this week that Walsall is thinking of closing the New Art Gallery Walsall, which I regard as a great cultural institution.
I do not want to be a backseat driver. I wanted to use this debate to praise our arts and heritage sectors and what they have achieved, and to look briefly forward at what can be achieved in the future. Last week the Minister announced the museums review. That is a great opportunity to put our national museums, and some of our key regional museums, on a secure footing and to make absolutely clear what the relationship is between central Government and our national and regional museums and also what central Government are prepared to fund as core support and what they would expect national and regional museums to raise for themselves. Similarly, with the review of the Arts Council and other organisations that may take place shortly, I hope the Minister will think deeply about the core level of funding that the arts and heritage should receive.
A new Government, with fresh Ministers and renewed energy, have a chance to put arts and heritage funding on a secure and core footing. I am not asking for the earth. I am not asking for a 100% increase in core arts and heritage funding. A small and modest increase would not only make a significant difference to the arts and heritage; perhaps more importantly, it would stand, as the words of the then Chancellor showed in last year’s autumn statement, as an extraordinary vote of confidence in some of the greatest organisations we will find anywhere in the world, and that vote of confidence would be repaid many times over.
This is an hour-long debate, so we are due to finish at 5.30 pm. The guidelines are that the SNP Front Bench is allowed five minutes, Her Majesty’s Opposition are allowed five minutes, the Minister is allowed 10 minutes and then Ed Vaizey is allowed three minutes to sum up the debate at the end. Therefore, I want to call the Front-Bench speakers no later than seven minutes past 5 and there are three Members seeking to speak, so I am going to impose a time limit of six minutes, which will ensure that everyone gets in.
The first speaker is going to be Deidre Brock. I have had a nice note from the SNP Whips Office, and I think she is dangerously over-qualified to speak because it says that she
“was formerly the Deputy Provost responsible for Arts and Tourism on the City of Edinburgh Council, and is a former actor.”
Thank you, Mr Hollobone; it is a great pleasure to serve under your chairpersonship.
There is a little point in the Library briefing for today’s debate that should, perhaps, be clarified. That point is that the Scottish Government fund our national performing companies separately from Creative Scotland: the National Theatre of Scotland, Scottish Opera, Scottish Ballet, the Royal Scottish National Orchestra and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra are all funded directly, unlike their counterparts in England. The arrangement began in 2007, which explains the drop in funding to what was the Scottish Arts Council at that time.
Those companies create and perform some remarkable pieces, giving much more value in return for the investment than we might have expected. It is unfair to single out any one of them but I am going to, having seen a performance of theirs recently at the National Theatre on the south bank: “Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour” by the National Theatre of Scotland. The National Theatre of Scotland has produced some stunning pieces and is internationally acclaimed for its imagination and bravado—a legacy of Vicky Featherstone’s time as its inaugural artistic director. She was an inspired and inspirational choice and one for which we should thank Robert Findlay and the board.
Scotland’s national companies are a fine example of getting fantastic value for money from arts funding. The continued support of the Scottish Government, though, is getting harder and harder to deliver as their own budget gets hammered time after time by this UK Government. As has been mentioned, the same is true for local authorities the length and breadth of these islands. Their ability to support arts spending in their areas will be severely limited by the perpetual squeeze of a Government obsessed with austerity and lacking, it sometimes appears, any real comprehension of what austerity is doing to services, including cultural services, provided by central and local government.
Birmingham is a fine example—local politicians forced to cut their culture budget by a quarter in a city that is proud of, and has promoted, its cultural side to great effect in the recent past. In 2012, Newcastle announced its intention to impose a 100% cut to its culture budget; that was, after a UK-wide outcry, eventually pegged back to a mere 50%. Once councils are cutting back so drastically, the services start to move towards a point where they will not be recoverable if resources become available again in the future. It moves to a point where rebuilding those services from scratch will be the only option—and that is only if the resources to do so become available.
As Mr Hollobone mentioned, I do not speak of this in the abstract but from experience. Before I came here I was a councillor—convenor for culture and sport—in Edinburgh, the city that is host to the world’s biggest arts festival every August. For five years I had the task of trying to balance the books for the city’s cultural activities. Trying to develop the cultural ambitions of a city while firefighting the effects of a diminishing budget is a thankless and unending task, and my sympathies lie with the councillors and officers who are having to try to do that in every local authority just now.
The judgment that is so often made, it seems, is that arts and culture spending is a luxury that can be dispensed with more easily than other spending commitments—that support for theatres, galleries, museums and libraries is a little indulgence that we should jettison at the first tightening of the belt. Public art becomes something to be mocked, rather than a vital part of the wellbeing of communities.
When that happens—when we allow the spend on culture to drop—we start to strip away from communities some of the social cohesion that makes everyone’s lives better. Whether it is about offering art that people can appreciate or offering them the chance to become part of the art of an area, the opportunities are about allowing and encouraging people to be part of something bigger, something more than themselves. It is about giving people the chance to lose themselves in the glory of something beautiful and dynamic and offering them the chance of learning something new, feeling something new, dreaming something new. Funding for culture is not a frivolity, nor is it a decoration; it is a vital part of what makes us who we are and what makes our society what it is.
From small-scale community events and amateur dramatics in church halls to touring orchestras and exhibitions of great works, the engagement of people in art is an enterprise whereby the benefits far outweigh the investment required. We risk much more than jobs when we put that enterprise to the sword. Each cut to culture spending is a cut to society, just as cuts to health provision or education provision are. We should ensure that the investment continues and that it is distributed across communities everywhere.
Yesterday, I had a look at the English Arts Council’s website, where there is a warning for anyone who cares about England’s culture: the funding distribution, in my opinion, is far too London-centric. London, with only 16% of England’s population, has 45% of all the organisations in the national portfolio of Arts Council England, and those London organisations take 40% of its funding to service that 16% of the population. That will include funding for the national companies, but if people value the benefits of cultural spend they will surely want to share it more widely. There is no reason why the national companies have to be in London. Take a leaf out of Scotland’s book: share the national companies with other cities, spread the funding more widely, involve more communities and help more people.
The investment in art is worth every penny and worth every debate that is needed to get it made. It is time to dump austerity from every part of public spending, but it is definitely time to dump it from arts spending.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (Mr Vaizey) on securing this important debate.
Great art is everywhere in the UK, including in my wonderful town of Colchester; it is absolutely not only the preserve of London. I have long argued that funding for the arts is not sunken costs. Investment in the arts has a real economic benefit to our towns and cities—and even if that were not the case, we could look to the role played by the arts in tackling social exclusion, education, communication skills, loneliness, mental health issues, promoting the creative industries and urban regeneration. The list goes on.
For the past 10 years, the DCMS has surveyed engagement with the arts through a regular report, “Taking Part”. Encouragingly, the 2015 “Taking Part” study found that 77% of adults in the UK engaged with the arts in the previous year. That number, although impressive, has not seen a sustainable increase for 10 years and is much the same today as it was in 2005. Although the creative industries have achieved a great deal in the past 10 years, there is still a huge amount of work to do to ensure that the dynamic work of our arts and creative industries touch the lives of everyone in our communities.
We need to be clear about what we mean by engagement with the arts and, in my view, move away from attendance to participation. We all know of the well documented social benefits of the arts—I have just mentioned a number of them—but are those really being achieved at present? Attendance is great but I firmly believe that it is largely through participation in the arts that huge opportunities exist for social benefits.
Most public money still goes to subsidise those who are watching productions or visiting galleries, and although I accept that there are programmes for participation in most publicly funded arts organisations, it is only by redressing the balance and shifting the emphasis from attendance to participation that we will really start to see the step change in social benefits of the arts that we all want. Subsidising 100 people to watch a symphony orchestra will have a social and economic benefit, but what is the return on investment? Subsidising 100 children to learn how to act, sing or design a set has a clear social and economic benefit. It is far easier to measure the return on investment with that and, I would argue, it represents a greater social benefit.
Another issue I have raised with the Department for Education is schools’ relentless focus on EBacc subjects, which I understand is leading to fewer and fewer students taking up music and drama at GCSE and A-level. That could have catastrophic consequences for the long-term sustainability of the arts in this country. Now more than ever, the Arts Council has a role to play in showing that music, drama and the arts more generally are relevant and a serious option for either a career or recreational activity.
Should we continue to invest in the arts as much, or perhaps, as my right hon. Friend suggests, invest more? Many would argue not, and although I disagree with them, I take their point. We know that many arts organisations continue to innovate and to rely less and less every year on public subsidy. There is far more of a focus on being cutting edge and groundbreaking while bearing in mind the need to produce art that the public actually want to come and see.
Someone does not need a grant to write a smash-hit play or musical. To be frank, some of the best productions start on little or no budgets in small theatres and grow organically. In my view, we should encourage arts organisations to have a medium-term strategy to move towards being financially sustainable for attendance, and then we could continue to publicly fund or subsidise their participation programmes and match-fund innovative works and productions. Why not be creative and look at accelerator funding, funding research and development and matched crowd-funding initiatives? Alongside that, I believe that we should continue to support the arts through tax breaks, such as the theatre tax relief that my right hon. Friend mentioned earlier. Why not just let them keep more of the money that they earn?
In conclusion, I support my right hon. Friend’s call for an increase in funding for the arts, but I ask that the focus shift from attendance to participation, as I believe that only by doing that will we see our arts organisations become more self-sufficient and see a significant return on investment, both economically and in social benefits.
I thank the right hon. Member for Wantage (Mr Vaizey) for securing this debate and for doing so much in his time as Minister for the arts. I very much admired his commitment and could see that he was passionate about the arts—there will be a “but” eventually, but he knows that.
I am here to say that above all else, I value art and culture for its own sake. Art just matters for so many things. I was originally trained as a musician. I started learning the cello when I was four and I never stopped. I went to a music school that was publicly funded. I was a professional musician and a member of the Musicians’ Union, off and on, until my early 40s. I also married an actor who was originally an opera singer and is now an opera singer again. My sister is an artist, my parents are both musicians and art has been integral to who I am for my whole life. I really believe in the value of art for art’s sake because I know what a difference it has made to my life. I am here for today’s debate because I want everyone to experience that joy in whatever form it takes for them.
First and foremost, I want to emphasise the terms and conditions of people who are working in the arts. Without a properly remunerated, well supported workforce with decent terms and conditions, no industry at all can do well. Actors, musicians, dancers, painters, writers and technicians all need decent terms and conditions and too often are expected to work for very little or sometimes even no money.
Hon. Members have mentioned the words “funding” and “subsidy” today, and I want to try and change the language by talking about “investment.” The arts deliver an amazing return on investment. I do not have the figures with me—I used them somewhere else in another speech—but I know hon. Members here will be aware of just how much the arts give back to this country’s economy. If we are talking in purely economic terms, I think it is time that we stopped calling public money in the arts “a subsidy” or “funding” and called it “investment”.
I wholeheartedly agree with the hon. Lady; could Hansard strike from the record any reference that I made to “subsidy” instead of “investment”? I believe that the then Chancellor said in his autumn statement last year that £1 billion invested in the arts returns £250 billion—and if the Treasury allowed that statistic out the door, it must be true.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for reminding me of the figures. The Labour Government made arts and arts investment a real priority.
I will give a few examples of where arts investment goes and what it does in my constituency. Ujima is a community radio station with extraordinary reach. It touches the subjects that other radio stations go nowhere near. It has some public funding, but also generates a lot of its own income and does its own work. On Saturday, it was given a fantastic and well-deserved award by the Community Media Association.
Many people in Bristol know the Watershed as somewhere to go for coffee or to see a film. They may not realise that behind the doors is the Pervasive Media Studio, where artists go to collaborate, create something new and discover together. Very often, although not always, that collaboration turns into something commercial. Sometimes, it leads to a piece of theatre that needs more public investment, but sometimes it leads to something that can actually make money. I was privileged to visit the Pervasive Media Studio and to literally get my hands on one of its new inventions, which looks like a football with many sides, but is actually a musical instrument that DJs can use in nightclubs—something that I know nothing about. Apparently I got the hang of it really quickly, or maybe they were just flattering me.
Public investment helps the commercial sector. I always fall back on the “Skyfall” example. A colleague in the National Theatre pointed out to me a while ago that, although that is a commercial film, the lead characters and the director—Sam Mendes, Judi Dench and Daniel Craig—started out in publicly invested theatre. Sam Mendes did not just wake up one morning and decide to make “Skyfall”. He had been doing lots of other things, thanks to public investment.
I need to mention—the right hon. Member for Wantage knows that I will—the consequences of no public funding. He and other hon. Members have mentioned local authorities that have made huge cuts, but local councillors talk to me about dealing with the impact of cuts to central Government grants. When many local authorities serving deprived communities are faced with a difficult decision between the arts and the high cost of child protection, housing needs or other needs, they will cut the arts.
Now, I do not like that, the right hon. Member for Wantage does not like that and I am pretty sure that the Minister will not like it, but we need to face reality and accept the fact that local government and central Government grants have an impact. The right hon. Member for Wantage argued against ring-fenced funding. I get that argument, but there is a consequence when we cut Department for Communities and Local Government funding.
The Centre for Economics and Business Research has evaluated the impact of arts and culture on the economy, and it is massive. The arts and culture industries are so often more productive than other industries and, as well as generating economic value, they generate joy. I can testify to something that other hon. Members have mentioned—the value of arts in health and wellbeing. When I was being treated at Southmead hospital last year, I was privileged to see the cathedral to health that has been created there, and how much art and culture was built into the fabric of the building. There are works of art, changing exhibitions and a grand piano at which a variety of musicians play all sorts of wonderful music, which uplifted me in moments when otherwise I felt very down.
The public investment that we put into the arts more than earns its keep economically, through social aspects and wellbeing, and through regeneration of deprived areas, which is something that I have not mentioned, but for which there is a great deal of evidence. It is important that we take notice of workers’ terms and conditions, and recognise that public funding for the arts should be seen as an investment that has huge commercial opportunities when properly supported. We need to stop thinking about art as a subsidy.
Art, for my money, should truly be for everybody. As Jennie Lee said in her first arts White Paper way back in the ’60s—and I am pretty sure that the right hon. Member for Wantage said something similar in his White Paper—art, and our support for it as public citizens, should truly be for everybody. It enriches us, lifts us up and helps us to make something better out of the world we live in.
We now come to the first of the Front-Bench spokesmen. The guideline is five minutes for the Scottish National party, five minutes for Her Majesty’s Opposition, and the remaining time for the Minister, with three minutes for Ed Vaizey at the end.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Wantage (Mr Vaizey), who is an old friend, on applying for the debate. His passion for the arts and his many years of success as an arts Minister are universally recognised.
All of us in this room have in common a passion for the arts; that is why we are here in such great numbers arguing the case for them. It is fascinating what diverse talents are on our Benches. We have heard from an actress and from a cellist. I am a harpsichordist—something that I have in common, obviously, with the majority of Scottish National party Members of Parliament. I am sure it will not be long before we have our own baroque ensemble. We will see.
Yes, it would certainly be a challenge. Earlier this summer, I was delighted that my colleagues on the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport were able to visit Glasgow to sample some of the city’s best known and much loved cultural assets. As they told me, during their visits to places such as the Glasgow School of Art, which is currently being rebuilt after the devastating fire, and the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, they realised that there is a deep commitment and attachment to the arts in Scotland. Indeed, it is to the great credit of our predecessors in Glasgow that wisdom was shown in the purchasing policy for Kelvingrove.
My mum remembers, as a wee girl, the debate in the post-war austerity years in Glasgow about whether to buy Salvador Dali’s “Christ of Saint John of the Cross”—that amazing portrait where the viewer looks up at Christ from underneath. The city fathers, despite the great financial pressures that they were under, decided that Glasgow deserved to have the picture. Of course, the picture has, many times, outsold the original purchase price through the rights the city has to it—the postcards sold and the films made about it.
Scotland is a diverse society with creativity and innovation at its heart. In our city, we believe that everyone in our society should be able to experience and access culture. Now, why should that be? First and foremost, the arts improve people’s lives. There is a direct link between access to a cultural place or event, and health. Those who participate in culture are almost 60% more likely to report good health compared with those who do not.
Glasgow has also made some terrible mistakes. When the beautiful city centre was destroyed under the crazy assumption that we could devastate the inner city, remove its beautiful buildings and decant people to outlying ring towns leaving an architectural desert in much of the city, the worst mistake made was to think that people who had grown up going to see movies—Glasgow had more cinemas than any other city in the western world with the sole exception of New York—and going to the theatre and the local swimming baths, would be happy living in outlying housing schemes with no access to arts of any kind. It is no wonder that crime, which everyone imagined would drop dramatically, rose dramatically. It was a tragedy.
Arts and culture improve people’s attainment across many aspects of the school curriculum; in other words, access to the arts aids social mobility. Of course, there is also an economic benefit. In 2015, the number of jobs supported by the Scottish creative industries rose to more than 70,000, an increase of 5.1% on the previous year—the sector’s third consecutive annual increase in employment.
For every £1 of public investment, we see £3 in economic benefit. I, like other hon. Members, think it is enormously important that we stop talking about subsidies and start talking about investment. There is a well of good will in the House for the arts and creative industries and I was pleased to hear the right hon. Member for Wantage say that he felt that the Government had cut to the core, because we cannot cut further. On that, I hope, we are all agreed.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship once again, Mr Hollobone. It is also a great pleasure to debate with the right hon. Member for Wantage (Mr Vaizey). In my brief Front-Bench career, I seem fated to be debating with him serving either as a Minister or, now, as a Back Bencher. One reason why I am delighted that he was an arts Minister for so long is that, in an era of financial constraints, having someone who passionately believes in the arts, and in support for the arts, was something of a relief for us all. I was sad that he lost his job but pleased that he did his best for the arts.
It is a joy to be surrounded by so many arts lovers and participants. I am a great lover of the arts, but I am also a musician in a more modest way. I was a jazz tenor saxophonist in my youth, and I played classical clarinet at school. My only sadness at becoming a Member of Parliament is that I have less time to pursue my artistic interests. I would like to spend more time going to concerts at Ronnie Scott’s and Covent Garden and going to our wonderful theatres, and so on, but I cannot do that because I am looking after my constituents and speaking for them in the House.
The arts are so important. I will not try to emulate the wonderful speeches that we have already heard in support of the arts, but I will draw attention to what my party has recently been saying. My party’s leader set out Labour’s radical, transformative vision for the arts at the wonderful Edinburgh festival. Years of systematic underfunding under the Conservatives’ austerity agenda have threatened to undermine Britain’s arts sector and our proud cultural heritage.
As we have heard, the Government have a vital role in sustaining the arts. Much of our artistic activity simply could not happen if not for public investment—I would say “public subsidy” but my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire) is absolutely right. Throughout history the arts have been supported by rulers, monarchs, churches and religious institutions, and in modern times they have been supported by Governments and the state with democratic consent and support.
Public support enables the arts to take risks and to support minority arts, which could simply never survive in a private, competitive market, unlike popular music, which is commercial and has massive, wide support. As has been said, support comes from philanthropy and private donations from businesses, and so on, but we cannot do without vital state support and, indeed, lottery support, which in a sense is an arm of public support.
My party is set to revive the spirit of the great Jennie Lee’s 1965 White Paper in an updated comprehensive national plan for the arts to complement the creative industry’s industrial strategy. The British Government spend a smaller proportion of GDP on arts and culture than other European nations do—the Government spend less than the 0.5% European average. We want to reverse that. It must change, and Labour aims to provide a £46 million boost to place arts funding on a secure financial footing and to restore the £9.6 million cuts to Creative Scotland’s budget since 2010. Cuts to arts funding since 2010-11 amount to £42.8 million in real terms.
I welcome this opportunity to put Labour’s case for supporting the arts, and I hope that we can persuade other parties that this is the way forward. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say in response to what has been a good debate.
The former Minister—my predecessor and friend—my right hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (Mr Vaizey) described his contribution as a swansong and as his resignation speech. He was the longest-serving culture Minister in the history of this great country, and he has made two such speeches today because earlier he spoke eloquently in the debate on the Digital Economy Bill, to which we will be returning.
I take this opportunity to thank my right hon. Friend on the record. Having served in five different Government Departments in four years, I am becoming something of an expert in ministerial predecessors—I have an awful lot of them—and he is my finest ministerial predecessor. He has been brilliant to me by being supportive both in public and in private. He has been quiet where appropriate, and he has been helpful, while still speaking his mind. If I may say so, he is also looking extremely healthy.
My right hon. Friend talked about the outpouring of joy at the arts funding settlement in the spending review, and it is true that the arts were well supported. I remember well the previous Chancellor saying that “deep cuts” to the arts are a “false economy”, and I know that the new Chancellor shares his predecessor’s enthusiasm for the sector.
There was also an outpouring of thanks and warmth to my right hon. Friend the Member for Wantage on his resignation, and it was an extraordinary, generous and genuine outpouring of support from arts and cultural organisations and from supporters of the arts right across the piece in recognition of his dedication and support over many years, which culminated in the publication of the first culture White Paper on the 50th anniversary of Jennie Lee’s White Paper.
The economic and social impact of the arts and culture is well recognised by me and by the Government. DCMS sectors make a vital contribution. In 2015 the creative industries contributed £221 billion to the UK economy, which is more than 13% of gross value added. That is the economics but, more than that, the arts are central to how we are seen and how we see ourselves as a nation, which will only become more important as we negotiate our exit from the European Union and ensure that Britain is an open, optimistic, progressive and positively engaged country.
In a recent private meeting—I was impressed by this—the Minister said that so much value could not be measured in financial terms and that the arts, in particular, were an area in which it was difficult to measure value in financial terms, even though they made a financial return.
I have said that in private and in public. In fact, I have given a long and involved lecture on the subject, and the hon. Gentleman might want to go and read it—I would far rather that than go through it in detail. It is not possible to capture all that is good and important in life with the measure of GDP. We need to be aware of that and to take it into account.
Even more than that, the intrinsic value of arts and culture is not measurable in economic terms. It is a human benefit to be part of a community and a country that has a strong and vibrant artistic heritage, and to be involved both as a consumer of and a participant in the arts—I have not put that quite as clearly as I would have if I had time to write it more lyrically.
Funding is the core of this debate. I, like my predecessor, believe strongly and passionately in the value of the arts. Public funding is a cornerstone of a mixed economy of funding for the arts. I put on record the facts on public funding: central Government funding plus lottery funding rose from £560 million when we took office in 2010 to £683 million last year, which is a £123 million uplift. Other figures have been bandied about, but it is important to put that on the record and for this debate to be based on the significant increase in support when we put together the direct funding and the lottery funding, which was in part secured by my predecessor. It is on that basis that we should conduct this discussion.
Public funding, as a cornerstone, is not the be-all and end-all, however. There is also philanthropy, which has increased, and especially the commercial financing that arts organisations the length and breadth of Britain have put such an effort into expanding. Commercial revenues, whether from hospitality or from digitisation, and philanthropic revenues are incredibly important, and we miss the bigger picture if we focus only on public money. Yes, it is important to support public funding for the arts, but it is also important to support and incentivise broader funding from all sorts of different places to ensure that we get both the breadth and depth of support for the arts that we all want to see.
On the important point about where that money is then spent and the question of London, during the period when my predecessor was in place, both the cash amount and the proportion of funding going outside London increased. Let me demonstrate my commitment to continuing in that direction of travel. If there is one person who has succeeded in both broadening geographic access to the arts and deepening the excellence at their core, that man is Sir Nick Serota, and he has now taken up the challenge of chairing Arts Council England from early next year. I am hugely looking forward to working with him in that role, because he understands how to retain and enhance that excellence while ensuring that the benefits of public support and artistic endeavour are supported throughout the country.
I will touch on a couple of other points. Funding is important, but it is not the be-all and end-all. I underline the importance of spreading diversity through the arts, funded via the mechanisms that we are discussing. When we say we want a country that works for everybody, we mean that we want everybody to be able to access its benefits, both economic and social. That means ensuring that people from all different backgrounds have the opportunity and are encouraged to access the arts. That involves increasing diversity within the arts in the broadest sense—not only in terms of formally protected characteristics such as ethnicity, gender, sexual identity and disability but in terms of social mobility. We must ensure that people from around the UK and from different backgrounds are given the opportunity and the confidence to make the most of what this country has to offer. That will be an important part of what I will do in this job, and I look forward very much to working with the Arts Council to ensure that it happens.
I would also like to mention the non-funding elements of spreading the benefits by bringing arts to the whole country. Of course funding is one part of that, but one incredibly important convening power within the arts is the establishment of the Great Exhibition of the North, which will take place in the summer of 2018. It is an excellent step to ensuring that the city or town chosen has the focus and intention to develop its arts scene. Likewise, in the UK city of culture programme, which has been mentioned, I am looking forward enormously to working with Hull to ensure that the city of culture is a great success next year. Their convening power, supported by appropriate funding, will make those events a success. I am delighted that we provided more than £14 million to Hull for that, including £5 million for Hull New theatre, but as well as the funding comes the focus that I hope will make it a great success.
Finally, I will mention something that was brought up briefly: the role of technology in broadening access and ensuring more support for the arts from outside. For instance, we can increase access and footfall and reach new parts with livestreaming, which is increasingly being used to broadcast shows online, making it much easier for schools to access them, for instance. The Royal Shakespeare Company will be doing it soon, and many others are getting into that space. Those who missed the BBC live performance of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” on Sunday evening can, of course, watch it on iPlayer. The advantages of digital in bringing more people to the arts is incredibly important.
I hope that I have responded adequately to my right hon. Friend the Member for Wantage. I will end by thanking him for the service that he gave and putting on record my hope that I can live up to the standards that he so powerfully displayed when in office.
We live in a time of great turmoil: within the last hour, Mel and Sue have announced that they will not be presenting “The Great British Bake-Off” when it moves to Channel 4.
The Minister’s speech was particularly welcome because of the sure-footedness and steady hand that he has brought to his portfolio. I will pick out a number of points that he made, some of which I overlooked and some of which I want to emphasise. First, I welcome his focus on diversity, in terms of both protected characteristics and social mobility. In their early speeches in their new portfolios, both he and the Secretary of State have emphasised that, which is welcome. Secondly, he reminded the House how much progress has already been made in pushing funding outside London and showed a great commitment to carrying that on.
Thirdly, I cannot emphasise enough how important words are in the sector. Actions speak louder than words, as they do in any other area, but words are important, so to hear the Minister say on record that public funding is a cornerstone will be greatly reassuring to both the arts and heritage. Also, effectively telling the Chancellor that he is a supporter of the arts is a great move. Given the influence that my right hon. Friend has, I am pleased that the new Chancellor is officially a supporter of the arts. I thank him for that as well.
The Minister is an old friend, and will grab this portfolio with both hands and with the energy for which he is well known in the House. I know that the Secretary of State is also enjoying great support from the people I know in the sector who have met her, so I have great confidence. I know that it is slightly cheeky of me, at this early stage in their tenure as Ministers, to hold a debate on increasing funding to the arts, but I wanted to put on record why it is important.
In the last public expenditure settlement, I said to the then Chancellor that although those headline cuts, of the kind that the Treasury always loves to shove out the door in the run-up to public expenditure, would have a significant impact on world-class organisations, they represented very small sums in the great scheme of Government spending. Similarly, I emphasise to my right hon. Friend that the kind of sums that could make an impact on arts organisations at the next spending review or in the next Budget would be infinitesimal in the realm of Government spending—although I absolutely acknowledge that this Government in particular have, and will want to keep, a record of financial prudence. They will not only make a significant difference to what our arts organisations can do and to their impact; they will, to return to my other theme, be a massive vote of confidence from this Government in the arts and heritage, and he and the Secretary of State will be repaid a hundred times over by the sector.
As I said, I cannot foist that burden or challenge on to my right hon. Friend. I am realistic about what can and cannot be achieved, and he must negotiate with the Treasury. However, regardless of the outcome of the spending review or the next Budget, I emphasise again that both he and the Secretary of State are welcome additions in the arts and heritage, from everything that I am picking up. I am thrilled to read some of their speeches and see some of the work they are already undertaking. I am doing my absolute best not to sound ridiculously patronising; this is a heartfelt speech of support for what the Minister is doing.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered funding for the arts.