Tuesday 11 October 2016
[Mike Gapes in the Chair]
Forced Organ Removal: China
I beg to move,
That this House has considered forced organ removal in China.
This is a very difficult subject to talk about, but there are those of us who have followed this issue in China and listened to people who have come to the House to present petitions and speak to us about it. We have watched the film on the issue and had a briefing in the House as well. Many Members of the House have been vociferous and outspoken on the issue. I commend the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) for the hard work that she has done on it in the House. We admire her courage, tenacity and commitment to the issue. The rest of us will add our contribution. I know that her contribution will be as important as everyone else’s. I thank every hon. Member who has come today to participate. The abstract nature of the debate may have precluded many from attending. I am grateful to those who are here for acknowledging that the issue is worthy of time and attention from Members of the House.
My boys like to watch crime dramas, as many of us do. Some of them are so far-fetched that I scoff along with them. However, others are too chillingly real. The idea of someone having organs cut out of them and waking up in a bath of ice has long been an urban legend. However, today’s debate is not based on a horror story as we approach Halloween; it is not make-believe. It is a horror that is all too real in China. As it has been brought to our attention, I feel that we have a role to play in returning this scenario to the realms of urban legend. That is why the debate is so important.
This story, which is almost too dreadful to believe, was first revealed in March 2006, when a woman stated that as many as 4,000 Falun Gong had been killed for their organs at the hospital in which she had worked. I had the privilege of meeting some of the families of those people in this House, and a charitable organisation was also involved, so we know some of the stories at first hand. That lady said that her husband, a surgeon at the same hospital outside the north-eastern city of Shenyang, had disclosed to her that he had removed corneas from the living bodies of 2,000 Falun Gong adherents. A week later, a Chinese military doctor not only corroborated the woman’s account but claimed that such atrocities were taking place in 36 different concentration camps throughout the country. He said that he had also witnessed Falun Gong being transported in massive numbers across the country in cattle trains, at night and under the cover of tight security. People may think that that is something from the history of the second world war, but the transportation of people in cattle trains is all too real. As I said, it happens at night and under the cover of tight security.
In 2006, two prominent Canadians—David Kilgour, a former MP, and David Matas, a human rights lawyer—published a report for the Coalition to Investigate the Persecution of Falun Gong in China, in which they gave credibility to claims that the Chinese authorities were harvesting organs from executed members of the group. Victims were held in concentration camps prior to dissection, after which the remains were immediately cremated, as if the authorities could get rid of the evidence of their ill deeds by cremating them so quickly.
It was in July 2006 that Kilgour and Matas published their 140-page report. It drew
“the regrettable conclusion that these allegations are true.”
The investigation uncovered the on-demand nature of organ transplants in China; there is an abundance of organs despite the lack of a functional donation system. Ten years later, on 22 June 2016, they published an update to their report. It shows the continued expansion of transplantation capacity—organ harvesting first came to light in 2006—the driving factors behind the industry’s growth, and the role of the ruling party, Government agencies and individual officials in implementing and perpetuating the systematic killing of prisoners of conscience for their organs. We are talking about those of the Falun Gong belief, those of Christian beliefs, who have been persecuted, people serving time in jail and those from other ethnic groups.
The harvesting is done on an industrial scale, as some of the figures illustrate very well. Although Chinese officials typically say that China transplants about 10,000 organs a year, the update to the report shows that that figure is surpassed by just a few hospitals alone. We can say, based on Government-imposed minimum capacity requirements for transplant centres, that the total system-wide capacity since 2000 would have easily reached more than 1 million transplants. Given that the vast majority of those hospitals far exceed the minimum requirements, the number of transplants performed in China is staggering. As I said, it is on an industrial scale.
The Conservative Party Human Rights Commission heard from at least two witnesses on the harrowing practice of forced organ harvesting. Notably, it heard from Ethan Gutmann, who has spent several years investigating this appalling practice—the forced removal of internal organs from live individuals for transplant. It also notes the information provided on behalf of UK Falun Gong practitioners in the written submission. Ms Lin stated:
“There have been persistent allegations that large numbers of Falun Gong prisoners of conscience have been killed to supply China’s lucrative trade in vital organs. Uyghurs and other prisoners of conscience may have been victimised in a similar way.”
Former Falun Gong prisoners report being subjected to targeted medical examinations and blood tests in custody that appear designed to assess the health and compatibility for potential transplant of their organs, Ms Lin claimed. She told the commission:
“Concern stems in part from the significant discrepancy between the number of organ transplants performed and the known sources of organs: even when we include death row inmates, the number of transplants performed in China is far too high. The short wait times achieved by transplant hospitals suggest that people are killed on demand for their organs.”
That is the horror of what is taking place in China. The House must today illustrate the issues clearly and ensure that we speak on behalf of those who cannot speak for themselves—those with no voice.
Ethan Gutmann has stated, based on meticulous research into individual hospital accommodations for transplant recipients, occupancy rates and a full accounting of the overall number of hospitals in China carrying out organ transplants, that the claims by the Chinese of performing 10,000 organ transplants a year are intentionally low; they are keeping them low on purpose. The new report estimates that a minimum of 56,000 and perhaps as many as 110,000 organ transplants are being conducted a year, leading to an estimated overall total of 1.8 million organ transplants since 2001. Previous speculation that approximately 40,000 to 65,000 organs were extracted from prisoners of conscience is now seen as a serious underestimate, particularly as the number of Chinese hospitals that have informally confirmed the use of Falun Gong prisoners as a primary organ source continues to grow.
I am very concerned and I have tabled questions in the House, as other hon. Members have, on the issue. Organ tourism to China takes place. People in western countries find out about an organ that may be available in China at short notice. Given how quickly these things happen, there has to be an organised, established method of harvesting the organs so that those who come from the west can come across and get the transplant that they need so much. I urge the Government to take action on that issue as well. I know that that is not exactly in the portfolio of the Minister who is here to respond, but I am very pleased to see him. I know that all hon. Members will get a positive response from him.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on putting the case and raising this important issue in so eloquent a manner. Does he agree that nations should not allow their citizens to travel to China for organs until we know that China meets the World Health Organisation guiding principles on transplantation and ethical standards?
I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention and for wisely putting the thoughts of everyone in this Chamber today on record. I totally agree with her—I think we all do—and that is one of the things we hope the Minister will respond to, because those going to China cannot close their eyes or ears to what is happening and to the question of whom the organ is coming from. The recipient cannot say, “I don’t know, but I need the organ transplant.” I am not taking away from the fact that they need the organ transplant, but there must be rules in place and China must be part of that.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way, congratulate him on securing this debate and apologise that I cannot stay for the whole thing. Many of the issues he has raised are of concern to lots of our constituents; a number have contacted me about the issue and I have also lodged questions on the back of contact from constituents. Does he share my disappointment at the Government’s slight lack of engagement on the issue? We understand they have to engage positively and sensitively with the Chinese Government, but an issue of concern to so many constituents ought to be taken seriously.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention and for clearly stating what we feel. I am going to comment on questions other people have tabled and the response from Government until now. Perhaps, until now, we have seen inaction; today we are hoping for action that will clearly take this issue on, and we implore our Minister and the Department to respond positively.
In 2014 the Chinese medical establishment pledged that it would stop all organ harvesting from prisoners, yet the velocity of China’s organ harvesting industry does not suggest a retraction. Indeed it suggests the opposite; it suggests further acceleration of the practice. According to Ethan Gutmann, in a testimony to the US Congressional-Executive Commission on China on 18 September 2015—just over a year ago—the practice began in 1994 when
“the first live organ harvests of death-row prisoners were performed on the execution grounds of Xinjiang”.
In 1997, Uyghur political prisoners were the target for organs to be forcefully donated to high-ranking Chinese Communist party officials. This disgusting and disgraceful forced organ transplantation goes to the very highest level of Chinese government and those involved need to be accountable for their actions. By 2001, Chinese military hospitals were
“unambiguously targeting select Falun Gong prisoners for harvesting”,
and by 2003 the first Tibetans were being targeted as well. There is systematic forced organ transplantation taking place of Falun Gong followers, of Christians and other ethnic groups and of those who are in prison, sometimes for minor charges. Then China goes to Tibet, where it has some control, and it targets people there as well; its horrific targeting for forced organ transplantation goes far beyond China.
Gutmann’s testimony continues:
“By the end of 2005, China’s transplant apparatus had increased so dramatically that a tissue-matched organ”—
the hon. Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood) will be listening to this—
“could be located within two weeks for any foreign organ tourist with cash.”
If a person has cash, they have got the organs. There is something morally wrong with that, there is something physically and emotionally wrong with that, and action has to be taken to stop it.
At this stage I must admit I am not a conspiracy theorist. I am not someone who excels in piecing together facts to create theories, but I can clearly see that the figures do not add up. There is something horrifically wrong in the system and it needs to be addressed by the international community and our Government, who we look to for leadership at this time. Those two Canadians began the process. The US Congressional-Executive Commission on China conducted investigations, and now we are raising it in this place. We have a duty to do all that is in our power to apply diplomatically any pressure that we can to say the practice must stop. For moral decency and human rights, it cannot continue in any way, shape or form.
We have to put this into perspective and I understand the pain of those who wait for transplants every year. My own nephew, Peter, had a kidney transplant when he was just a teenager as he was so unwell. Only after he had been given the transplant did he progress and start to grow and live the life he could. I well remember the stress of the family as we waited for the call to hear that help was on the way for the child. I understand the pain that so many people face waiting for an organ transplant. In Northern Ireland the transplant list is long as well; we had a waiting list last year of 177 people waiting for an organ transplant, and 135 transplants were available. We have a shortfall, so we need to address that issue. These are not just numbers; these are people waiting on life and death changes, which is why I urge people to ensure they carry a donor card—I have done so for many years and we have a very progressive donor donation and transplant system in Northern Ireland, which we believe we should take forward—and let their families know of their preferences should anything happen to them, so that they can save a life in their own death.
However, to take blood tests and to kill for the purpose of organ removal is murder and nothing less—it could be nothing else. Those carrying out that practice must be made to understand that it can never be acceptable, no matter what the circumstances may be. I have two granddaughters and should their lives depend on an organ transplant, I, or anyone in the close family, would very quickly give one of our organs to them for a transplant. I do not say that boastfully in any way; I say that honestly as a grandfather who loves his children and grandchildren. However, I could never take an organ from someone else by murder, and that is what is happening here. For the Chinese Government to claim that they only take from those convicts who give consent can be nothing other than an exaggeration of epic proportions, and it must be addressed by all political means possible.
It is no good burying our heads in the sand. We have the information, evidence and knowledge—we have two inquiries from Canada and the United States—and they all indicate that rightness dictates we do something with that information. My hon. Friend the Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell) raised the issue in 2013 with the then Minister, only to be told that this was being phased out by the Chinese Government. Well, it has not been phased out. Three years later it is still going strong and it is getting larger and stronger each time, so that is blatantly not the case. In July this year I asked what the plans were to discuss how to deal with the issue with the UN. I was told, just this year:
“The Government has no plans to make representations to the UN on organ harvesting in China. We pay close attention to the human rights situation in China, including allegations of organ harvesting and encourage China to implement its public commitment to stop the use of organs from prisoners.”
Words are not enough, Mr Gapes.
“Our current assessment of the human rights situation in China can be found in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s Annual Report on Human Rights and Democracy.”
We need to do more. We need to implore our Government and the western world to take this matter on board and to act quickly.
Today, Minister, I am asking for more. I am asking that direct and effective steps are taken. Today, I am asking that meetings are arranged at international level to ensure that, rather than washing our hands of the matter, we do all we can to address it. Today, I am asking this House to stand and to say that the forced removal of organs from any person in any place in the world can never be acceptable, and that this Government will be known as one that speaks out for those with no voice—many of whom, in this case, are imprisoned owing to their religion. I speak out for religious freedom—it is something I am interested in and I am known for doing so. Again, I ask this House and this Government to take action and to do all in their power to see the end of this horror story practice taking place in our so-called modern age. The forced organ transplantation on an industrial scale is unabated and uncontrolled, and we in this House must take a stand today. I believe that we will and that this House is clearly united to make sure that it stops.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) on securing this debate and on his powerful speech.
Let us be clear about what we are speaking of here, because if what we are discussing is indeed the case it virtually defies credibility. But increasingly research and evidence is pointing towards what is being alleged, which is that the Chinese Government actively condone—indeed, are involved in—the murder of potentially thousands of their own citizens every year for the purpose of forcibly extracting vital organs including livers, kidneys, hearts and corneas, sometimes while those people are still alive, and without anaesthetic. Many of those people are in prison, mainly—we are told—for their beliefs or ethnicity. Often their families are told that they have died. They are young people in reasonable health, and their families are simply handed an urn of ashes.
Credible research findings strongly suggest that many thousands of people are being killed for their organs, particularly people in minority groups, most notably practitioners of Falun Gong—a peaceful, meditative practice—although Tibetans, Uighurs and, potentially, house Christians have also been targeted for political reasons.
The allegations that Falun Gong practitioners, Tibetans and Uyghurs have been victims of that horrific practice are well documented and strong, as I shall recount. The suggestion that house church Christians may be affected requires further research. Either way, all the allegations of which we are now aware are sufficiently strong to require investigation by the international community.
It is of the highest necessity that the UK raises the issue with the Chinese directly, and calls for an international inquiry into the matter, ideally led by the United Nations. Even if the UN will not conduct a commission of inquiry, our Government should investigate the allegations and look at alternative mechanisms to bring to account those involved in those horrific alleged practices. If Britain as a nation is to maintain its status as a people concerned about grievous violations of human rights, it is imperative that the issue is addressed loudly and fearlessly, in co-operation with the other international organisations and leading parliamentarians across the world who are increasingly expressing concerns about the issue.
The Conservative party human rights commission, which I am privileged to chair, has recently conducted an inquiry into forced organ harvesting in China. During the course of the inquiry, I have been privileged to hear, in this House, first-hand testimony of those who have conducted research into the nature of the crime, and first-hand testimony by way of a powerful statement from a former Chinese doctor, Dr Enver Tohti, who has been required to perform an organ operation on an executed prisoner—for transplant, he believes.
The House has been privileged to host the UK premiere of the film “The Bleeding Edge”, a fictional film based on the testimony of witnesses to illegal organ harvesting. It was harrowing. I am deeply grateful to Mr Speaker for hosting the film, and to the actress, Anastasia Lin, who starred in the film and gave evidence at one of the hearings of the Conservative party human rights commission. I am aware of other films on the subject, notably “Human Harvest” and “Hard to Believe”.
As I speak, the Conservative party human rights commission is releasing a report of the inquiry, which can be found on the website www.conservativehumanrights.com. It contains more information than I can relay in this debate, but I will refer to some evidence received by the inquiry. The report was written by the vice-chair of the commission, Ben Rogers, who is an expert on human rights in China and elsewhere. I pay tribute to him for his dedicated work in this field and to the work of Christian Solidarity Worldwide, the organisation for which he works.
Written evidence submitted to the inquiry included a statement from a former prisoner, Yu Xinhui, who wrote:
“Everyone in the prison knows about this”—
by which he means the removal of prisoners for organ harvesting.
“Usually in the prison, regardless of whether the person is deceased, if he is sent to the prison hospital, he faces the reality of having his organs removed at any moment. Everyone in prison knows that there exists a list of names. People…taken away, and no one will return.”
That list of names includes blood types and the health of patients’ organs so that the information is ready and available if a transplant request is made.
Yu Xinhui continued:
“I once asked a prison doctor, because this particular doctor was very sympathetic to us Falun Gong practitioners. He was especially sympathetic towards me, because we were from the same hometown. Once he told me secretly, saying, ‘Don’t go against the Communist Party. Don’t resist them. Whatever they tell you to do, just do it. Don’t go against them forcefully. If you do, then when the time comes, you won’t even know how you will have died. When it happens, where your heart, liver, spleen, and lungs will be taken, you won’t even know either.’”
Yu Xinhui had three physical examinations while in prison, the last of which was in March 2005. Many former prisoners of conscience have testified to having been subjected to physical examinations while in prison that went beyond normal medical check-ups and were clearly aimed at assessing the health of their organs.
The timing of this debate is apt, given new evidence that the scale of organ harvesting in China may now be far higher than previously estimated. The evidence has built to a point where ignoring it is not an option. There is now strong, academically well-researched information that between 50,000 to 90,000 organ transplants may occur in China every year and are, effectively, concealed by the Government. That is in a country where there is no tradition of organ donation. Indeed, Chinese official figures put the number of voluntary donations at a total of 120 for the entire 30-year period between 1980 and 2009.
Let me quote further from the Conservative party human rights commission’s report:
“Although there are a variety of sources of evidence, there are three key reports which provide detailed research into the practice of forced organ harvesting in China”—
the hon. Member for Strangford referred to those reports. Our report continues:
“The first, published on the Internet in 2006 and in print in 2009, was a report researched and written by the former Canadian Member of Parliament and former Government Minister David Kilgour and a respected human rights lawyer, David Matas, called Bloody Harvest: The Killing of Falun Gong for their organs. The second was Ethan Gutmann’s book The Slaughter: Mass Killings, Organ Harvesting, and China’s Secret Solution to its Dissident Problem, published in 2014.”
Both David Matas and Ethan Gutmann have given evidence to our commission. The third report, which was published this year, runs to 700 pages. It updates forensically those two pieces of research, is co-authored by David Kilgour, David Matas and Ethan Gutmann, and is entitled, “Bloody Harvest/The Slaughter: An Update.” I have heard Ethan Gutmann publicly invite from anyone, particularly from the Chinese, any evidence or comments that contradict the research in the report, but as of September 2016 none has been received.
The most important point made by the report, and indeed by David Matas and Ethan Gutmann in their evidence to the Conservative party human rights commission, is that the scale of forced organ harvesting in China is significantly underestimated. Their new research is forensic—they have inquired into the public records of no fewer than 712 hospitals in China that carry out liver and kidney transplants. Their detailed research leads them to conclude that potentially between 60,000 and 100,000 organs are transplanted each year in Chinese hospitals, which almost defies credibility. If those figures are correct, organs are being transplanted on an industrial scale, as the hon. Member for Strangford said. One hospital alone, the Orient organ transplant centre at the Tianjin first central hospital, is performing thousands of transplants a year according to its own bed occupancy data. Chinese official claims state that 10,000 organ transplants are carried out each year, but the authors of the report contend that that is
“easily surpassed by just a few hospitals.”
By way of background, according to Ethan the practice of forced organ harvesting began in China as long ago as 1994, when the first live organs were removed from death row prisoners on the execution grounds of Xinjiang. Dr Enver Tohti came to London to give evidence to us, and he told us about the process. He was a cancer surgeon in Ürümqi, Xinjiang province. In 1995, while he was simply doing his job, he was instructed by two of his hospital’s chief surgeons to prepare mobile surgery equipment—in other words, an ambulance—and to wait for them the next day at a hospital gate with the ambulance, the equipment and three other assistants. The following morning, at 9 am, the two chief surgeons arrived in a car and he was told to follow them. He did not know where he was going but, about half an hour later, they arrived at Western Mountain—Xishan—an execution ground where prisoners were taken to be executed. He described what happened:
“We had been told to wait behind a hill, and come into the field as soon as we’d hear the gun shot. So we waited. A moment later there were gun shots. Not one, but many. We rushed into the field. An armed police officer approached us and told me where to go. He led us closer, then pointed to a corpse saying ‘this is the one’.”
A few prisoners had been executed. He continued:
“By then our chief surgeon appeared from nowhere and told me to remove the liver and two kidneys. He urged me to hurry up, so we took the body into the van and removed his liver and kidneys…our chief surgeons put those organs in a special box, and got into the car. They told me to take my team back to the hospital and left. I have no idea where they went… That was the end of that. Nobody has ever talked about what we did that day. It is something I wish hadn’t happened.”
Not only is the scale of the numbers a concern; the speed at which Chinese hospitals can obtain organs is also highly suspect. Doctors will tell us that the time they have to get an organ from a donor to a recipient varies but that it is very short for sensitive vital organs. A heart or a liver cannot simply be saved in a freezer until it is needed, which is why the NHS states that in this country the average wait for a suitable transplant for an adult is 145 days—of course, we are in a country with a tradition of donation. Compare that with the many statements in Chinese medical publications that they can find an emergency liver donor within 24 hours. I understand there is even a medical journal that boasts of taking only four hours to find a donor. I am informed that the Chinese Government claim that the organs come from death row prisoners who have been executed locally to the hospital that is providing the transplant, but the coincidence of that number of prisoners happening to have, say, a healthy liver, happening to match the blood type of the recipient and happening to have been executed locally is simply too much for credibility given the numbers involved. An alternative interpretation, and sadly the one that is more credible, is that people are being killed on demand to supply their organs.
In the other place, Lord Alton has been assured by the Government that the issue has been raised with the Chinese Government as part of the annual UK-China human rights dialogue and will be raised again, for which I thank the Government. However, evidence suggests that the Chinese Government have repeatedly committed themselves to denial, obfuscation and misdirection on this issue. It is therefore appropriate that we increase our activity in light of the new evidence I have highlighted. Indeed, there is growing international pressure on this matter.
The UN special rapporteurs on torture and on freedom of religion or belief have both requested that the Chinese Government explain the sources of these organs and that they allow them to investigate. There has been no response. The European Parliament adopted a written declaration in July 2016 on stopping organ harvesting from prisoners of conscience in China that, among other clauses, states:
“There have been persistent credible reports on systematic, state-sanctioned organ harvesting from non-consenting prisoners of conscience in the People’s Republic of China, primarily from practitioners of Falun Gong peaceful meditation and exercises but also from Uighurs, Tibetans and Christians.
The international community has strongly condemned organ harvesting in China and actions should be taken to end it.
Owing to the severity of underlying abuse there is a clear need to organise without delay an independent investigation into ongoing organ harvesting in the People’s Republic of China.”
Similarly, the United States Congress unanimously passed a resolution in June 2016 condemning the practice of state-sanctioned forced organ harvesting in the People’s Republic of China. The resolution calls for visas to be denied to those involved in coerced organ or tissue transplantation. It expresses
“concern regarding persistent and credible reports of systematic, state-sanctioned organ harvesting from non-consenting prisoners of conscience in the People’s Republic of China, including from large numbers of Falun Gong practitioners and members of other religious and ethnic minority groups.”
The concerns in America are coming from leading Congressmen and Senators. I was privileged to meet Congressman Chris Smith in Washington DC last week. He is the fourth longest-serving member of Congress and is a remarkable campaigner for human rights across the world. He spoke at a joint sub-committee of the US committee on foreign affairs on 21 June. I will quote him at more length at the end of my speech if I have time, but he told the House of Representatives:
“Twenty years ago, I chaired a human rights hearing in my subcommittee with a Chinese security official who testified that he and his other security agents were executing prisoners—with doctors…there and ambulances—in order to steal their organs for transplant. Since then, this horrific practice has skyrocketed.”
The US Congressional-Executive Commission on China published its annual report less than two weeks ago; I was privileged to meet the group of young people who work for the commission and who produced the report. The commission’s chairman said:
“The Chinese government’s human rights record is utterly deplorable, continuing a downward trend over the past three years.”
That, of course, includes organ harvesting.
I thank the hon. Lady for her comments and for setting the scene. Clearly the world is awakening to what is happening in China; she is as aware of that as I am. Will the awakening that we seem to see in Canada, in the States and now in the United Kingdom precipitate a need for our Government to contact the Chinese authorities to ensure that they can respond now to stop this practice? The weight of evidence is growing every day.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. The growing international concern about organ harvesting means it is vital that this country joins in and does not lag behind the international community in condemning these practices and challenging the Chinese Government accordingly.
I have two more things to say. First, as well as politicians acting, the international medical community must do detailed analysis of the claims made by these respected researchers. It is helpful to note that the president of the Transplantation Society, Dr Philip O’Connell, said at the society’s international conference in Hong Kong this year, addressing his comments to China, that
“there remains, in many sectors, a deep sense of mistrust of your transplant programs…It is important that you understand that the global community”—
I believe he was referring to the global medical community—
“is appalled by the practices”.
My hon. Friend makes several important points. Does she agree that it would be helpful if the Minister confirmed, first, whether there is a date for the next annual human rights dialogue, and if so when it is; secondly, when the next UK Government report on human rights to the UN in Geneva is due; and thirdly whether there has been any response to the request by the Foreign Office Minister in the Lords for more information from the Chinese authorities about their response to the various accusations?
I am grateful for that intervention, particularly as it comes from the chair of the all-party group on China, whose views are very much respected in this House. His questions to the Minister today are very well placed.
Yesterday evening I tabled early-day motion 502, “Forced organ harvesting in China”. I ask colleagues to be good enough to sign and support the motion. I shall read it out in full for the record, because it contains my request to the Minister today:
“That this House notes with grave concern allegations of forced organ harvesting in China; further notes that victims said to be targeted for forced organ extraction are prisoners of conscience; acknowledges evidence detailed in Bloody Harvest/The Slaughter: An Update, by former Canadian Member of Parliament David Kilgour, lawyer David Matas and researcher Ethan Gutmann, along with other reports; notes the recent United States House of Representatives resolution 343 on forced organ harvesting in China and European Parliament written declaration 2016/WD48; calls on China to immediately end any forced organ harvesting; urges the Government to condemn forced organ harvesting and to seek a UN Commission of Inquiry to investigate this practice, or conduct an inquiry through other international mechanisms, to ensure accountability and to assess whether this practice could amount to a crime against humanity; further urges the Government to release statistics on the numbers of UK citizens travelling to China for organ transplants and prohibit British citizens from travelling to China for the purpose of receiving organ transplants; urges the Government to introduce a travel ban prohibiting medical personnel and officials who may be engaged in forced organ harvesting from travelling to the UK; and calls on the Government to give urgent consideration to other measures it could take to hold China to account for this practice and demand an end to it.”
I will finish by quoting the senior US Congressman Chris Smith:
“What adjectives do we use to describe what Chinese doctors and hospitals have been doing these past decades? Ordinary words like concerned, disturbed or shocking just seem inadequate. We tend to reserve words like ‘barbaric’ for truly horrible crimes—and…we must call organ harvesting…barbaric.”
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gapes. It is a privilege to be able to speak in this serious and important debate. I thank the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for securing it; he is a committed human rights activist in this place, and I thank him for giving us the opportunity to consider forced organ removal in China.
I hope it goes without saying that I condemn this reported practice in the strongest possible terms. I am certainly not the first Scottish National party politician to do so; my party colleague Bob Doris MSP is a long-standing campaigner on the issue. He has done a great deal to raise awareness, both over the previous parliamentary term and since the influx of new Members of the Scottish Parliament. Bob’s work has ensured that the Scottish Government continue to raise these human rights concerns when engaging with China. I put on record my gratitude to him for that. He is one of a number of politicians from all parties who have worked to raise awareness and encourage action. Many in this place, including the hon. Member for Strangford and the hon. Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner), also deserve recognition for their work.
The European Parliament and the US House of Representatives have both passed resolutions expressing concern over
“persistent and credible reports of systematic, state-sanctioned organ harvesting from non-consenting prisoners of conscience”.
Those concerns are echoed by organisations such as Amnesty International and Tibet Truth. The conclusions reached in the report “Bloody Harvest”, updated and republished in June this year, make it clear why they deserve to be treated with the utmost seriousness. The report found:
“Organ transplantation volume in China is far larger than official Chinese government statistics indicate…The source for most of the massive volume of organs for transplants is the killing of innocents: Uyghurs, Tibetans, House Christians and”—
as we have heard today—
“primarily Falun Gong”.
It also called on all nations not to
“allow their citizens to go to China for organs until China has allowed a full investigation into organ harvesting of prisoners of conscience, both past and present.”
In a written answer to a parliamentary question recently tabled by the hon. Member for Strangford, the Foreign Office acknowledged that, although few British people are thought to travel overseas for such transplants,
“it is very difficult to prevent UK citizens travelling to less well-regulated countries”
to do so. When the Minister responds to the debate, perhaps he would care to elaborate on that, as well as on the various difficulties faced. What assessment has been made of any potential methods to restrict travel of that kind? I am sure he will also explain the diplomatic efforts to end the practice of forced organ removal in China. I would like to hear today an undertaking that such efforts will be stepped up. There are signs that the matter has fallen off the radar at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
I am pleased that this debate is taking place. It is not only interesting but informative. I pay tribute not only to the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), but to my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) for her fantastic report, which I have read.
Does the hon. Lady agree that the UK Government’s policy of speaking to the Chinese behind closed doors—or behind their hands, so to speak—has not worked? We now need to speak publicly about the human rights abuses that are occurring in China to make them seek to change how they treat their citizens.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. It is interesting that we hear about conversations going on behind closed doors not only with China but with other countries, because of certain difficulties. We have to be careful how we deal with countries such as China. We do a lot of trade with China and with some countries in the middle east that unfortunately have poor human rights records. If talking behind closed doors is not working, it is time to bring things into the public domain. I hope the Minister will take that on board.
Although the FCO’s 2014 corporate report into human rights in China noted that the country
“announced in December that it would cease harvesting organs from executed prisoners by 1 January 2015”,
there is simply no mention whatever of the practice in the 2016 report. Will the Minister commit to taking action to demonstrate the Government’s ongoing commitment to tackling organ harvesting? Will he give an undertaking that the UK will make representations to the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights on efforts to investigate forced organ removal in China?
As we have heard, thousands of religious prisoners in China have had their livers, kidneys and corneas ripped out while they were still alive. It is absolutely horrific to think of that. Will the UK use its position to push at EU level for high-level European action to address the practice? Forced organ donation is abhorrent. It is a practice that makes a mockery of even the most fundamental and basic universal human rights. As journalist Ethan Gutmann stated:
“We acknowledge a terrible atrocity only after it’s over.”
We have to change that and always speak out against what we know in our hearts is fundamentally wrong.
In closing, I shall quote Dr Martin Luther King, who said:
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
Dr King’s words ring as true today as when first spoken. If human rights are truly universal, we must uphold them everywhere, and challenge violations wherever they occur.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gapes. I thank the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for securing such an interesting and informative debate. We may not have heard from many speakers, but the quality of information that has been imparted has been superb. The hon. Gentleman said two things that I will repeat, because they sum up the entirety of the debate for me. He said that what is happening in China is “almost too dreadful to believe”, and he underlined the stark reality that the message that has to go out is that people are being killed on demand for their organs.
I must admit that, prior to the conference recess, I was one of those people who saw this issue as almost an urban myth. My research for this debate made me incredibly uncomfortable, but it brought home clearly the horror of forced organ removal. I found a number of well researched documentaries and reports, which only magnified the horror by showing the enormity of the scale of the practice. Unlike the hon. Member for Strangford, I am not going to use the term “industrial”, because I think it dehumanises the experience, but it is hard to come up with an expression that quantifies the sheer scale of this practice.
The hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) made one of the most informed speeches I have heard on this subject, after all the research I have done. She summarised wonderfully some horrific cases that really bring the message home. I commend her for the work she has done on the issue and for highlighting it clearly and succinctly. I spent hours over the conference recess watching documentaries and trying to read the 2016 report by David Matas and David Kilgour, and the best way I can describe it is “spine-chilling”. I started by watching their documentary; I probably should not have done so, because every time I read the documents it brought back some of the images I saw. We are discussing definitely some of world’s worst crimes against humanity.
My hon. Friend the Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) highlighted her own condemnation of the practice and that of our Scottish National party colleagues. I reiterate that point: we totally condemn the practice of forced organ donation—although “donation” is probably not the best term to use. My hon. Friend also highlighted the good cross-party work done by our colleague in the Scottish Parliament, Bob Doris. I am pleased to say that the Scottish Parliament made organ trafficking illegal in Scotland through the Human Tissue (Scotland) Act 2006. That legislation is based on the principle of people freely indicating their wish to donate organs after their death. It prohibits the trafficking of organs and provides for severe penalties for anyone found guilty of doing so. That is an example of good practice from the Scottish Parliament.
The SNP calls on the UK Government to step up their diplomatic efforts to end this practice in China. Forced organ donation, or removal, is absolutely abhorrent, and it flies in the face of basic human rights. I know that successive UK Governments have expressed concerns about claims of organ harvesting, often in the context of the ongoing UK-China human rights dialogue and the UK-China strategic dialogue. The issue is not mentioned in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s latest human rights update on China, published in July, which is part of its annual human rights and democracy report. However, it was mentioned in the 2014 report, which, as my hon. Friend the Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West said, stated:
“In a positive development, China announced in December that it would cease harvesting organs from executed prisoners by 1 January 2015.”
The updated report from earlier this year proves that, woefully, that is not the case. With 60,000 to 100,000 organs being forcibly transplanted each year, we need to take drastic action.
We call on the UK Government to step up their diplomatic efforts to end this practice in China. The UK should make representations to the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights on efforts to investigate forced organ removal and use its position in the EU to push for high-level European action to address the practice. Let me be clear: I am not suggesting that we should isolate China, but we should engage in a constructive dialogue and deepen relationships in order to get a result.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gapes. I congratulate the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) on securing this important debate. He is right to say that this is an increasingly worrying international issue, so well done to him for bringing it to our attention.
The hon. Gentleman is also right to say that this matter is not new to the House of Commons. A number of parliamentary questions have been asked about it. I read through the questions that Ministers have answered over the years, and there appears to be a contradiction: although the Chinese Government sometimes give assurances that organs from executed prisoners will be used for transplantation only with their consent, on other occasions there is a complete, flat denial that any of this is going on. There seem to be two levels of dialogue, which are curious when read all at once as a sort of transcript from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. When the Minister responds, will he clarify whether he believes that that is an issue? If so, what are the Government doing about it?
I want to highlight some of the excellent points that have been made in the debate. My hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood) commented, correctly, on the demand side of the problem and on the fact that many foreign people are travelling to China for what is called in the literature “transplant tourism”. She was right to ask what the Government are doing to educate people who may wish to travel from this country to China to receive medical treatment. I would be grateful if the Minister could let me know whether, for example, the NHS has any background information about patients who may be particularly tempted to consider having this kind of operation. Also, can he say what cross-referencing there is between the NHS and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in that regard?
The hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) is well known for her concern about human rights across the globe. She made some important points today. She was right to say that the United Nations should be carrying out a full investigation and that our Government should play a crucial role in that. She was also correct to say that Mr Speaker held an excellent event, the screening of “The Bleeding Edge” film, to highlight the issue of the forced removal of organs in China. Sadly, owing to pressures on my diary in the summer, I was not able to attend, but I believe that the film is compelling and I will certainly put it on my list to watch at Christmas.
I just inform the hon. Lady and other Members that so much interest has been expressed in that film that our commission is proposing to put on a further screening in this place shortly. I hope that she will be able to attend that.
I thank the hon. Lady for that information. I will indeed try to attend the second screening of “The Bleeding Edge”.
May I recommend to those people who have not seen that film that they do so? However, if anyone does come to watch it, they should come prepared for some horrific viewing; many people seeing the film have felt unable to continue watching it and have had to close their eyes. It is a very effective film but it is also very hard to watch. I urge those who have not seen it to go and see it, but they should prepare themselves.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I think it was the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) who suggested that this issue is just so horrific to think about. We are talking about it in the cold light of day now, but I think that people will need quite a strong constitution to watch the film.
The hon. Member for Congleton talked about Dr Enver Tohti’s time working as a surgeon in China. I will be interested to follow up on his personal testimonies about the executions and subsequent organ harvesting. I am sure that the Foreign Office is looking carefully at those reports in order to come to a judgment on how to substantiate those claims and on what action to take as a result. Any suggestion of “on-demand killing” for organs is too terrible even to contemplate.
I press the Minister on the issue of a travel ban. Does he believe that that strategy could work? Furthermore, the hon. Member for Congleton talked, in the light of the allegations, about the increased activity in recent years. I note that in the briefing prepared for today’s debate there is quite a lot of fresh information from 2015 and 2016. We do not feel reassured that this activity is being reduced. We need to ask further questions.
I will briefly put on the record my appreciation of the comments by the hon. Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) and of his forensic questioning about exactly where we are in relation to the human rights dialogue. He is right to remind the House that we already have a vehicle in place to examine human rights in all countries about which we have concerns, particularly in relation to the groups that are highlighted in the reports.
In the context of the alleged organ harvesting, the Uyghurs, the Tibetans, the House Christians and Falun Gong tend to be the groups that come up again and again in the human rights legislation, in the recordings and in other evidence. Therefore, could the Minister respond to the questions put by the hon. Member for Gloucester—what is the existing framework and what are the dates for ongoing dialogue and challenge? Also, can he explain why there is no mention of this issue, which is clearly of concern to so many people, in the July 2016 FCO report?
I thank all Members for being here today and for putting on the record their concerns and questions. May I press the Minister on the question of an independent investigation by the British Government and of the Government working closely with the UN on the issue? What are the levers we can use around some of our relationships in the wider sense? We meet regularly to talk about trade. We meet regularly to talk about ongoing concerns and ongoing positive elements of our relationship. How can we develop the balance that we so desperately need in relation to countries that are so important to us in the post-Brexit climate? The European Union has, I think, taken a lot of responsibility for human rights work over the years. How can we again make that part of a more balanced approach to relationships with China?
Can the Minister clarify the question of allowing citizens to go to China for organs? How can we look at whether there are practical ways to establish a travel ban until we are absolutely sure that this is not happening? Also, can he explain how we can monitor any ongoing allegations, so that we can be absolutely sure that we are dealing with the facts?
Thank you, Mr Gapes, for calling me to speak; I am very pleased to respond to this important debate. Of course, normally it would be the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Reading West (Alok Sharma), who would reply, but he is in Indonesia. So I am very pleased to take his place, in order to respond to the concerns about this issue that have been so graphically expressed in this debate.
I thank the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for securing the debate, and let us be very clear from the outset that any form of involuntary organ removal violates established medical and legal principles. However, the concerns that Members have expressed today relate to the most disturbing form of involuntary organ removal— “organ harvesting”. Organ harvesting is the notion that members of minority groups and religious groups in China are held in detention, are unable to communicate with the outside world, and are killed specifically for their organs, virtually “to order”. To hon. Members—and indeed the citizens of this country—the notion of organs being “harvested” and used for transplant, virtually “to order”, is particularly abhorrent. There is also the separate ethical and moral question of involuntary organ removal from executed prisoners, with or without their alleged consent.
As we have heard, recent publications, including some that have been referred to in this debate today, have brought the issue of alleged “organ harvesting” into the spotlight. The authors of such reports believe that this practice is happening in China today and that the victims are mostly innocent people who just wish to practice their religion peacefully.
My officials consider the Kilgour, Gutmann and Matas report to be a very important source of information about China’s organ transplant system. It highlights how difficult it is to verify the number of organ transplants conducted in China each year, and states that it is almost impossible to identify the source of those organs.
The report rightly questions the lack of transparency in China’s organ transplant system. However, the authors of that report make it clear that they have no definitive evidence to justify their allegations. They are necessarily forced to rely on assumptions, and sometimes on research techniques that are less than rigorous. Although I do not doubt the need to maintain close scrutiny of organ transplant practices in China, we believe that the evidence base is not sufficiently strong to substantiate claims about the systematic harvesting of organs from minority groups. Indeed, based on all the evidence available to us, we cannot conclude that this practice of “organ harvesting” is definitely happening in China.
The information coming from the US congressional commission is that it has such evidence in its possession. Also, I understand that the Canadian Government have initiated some evidence taking, which shows that there is what they refer to as systematic forced organ transplantation. If that is the case, and the evidence exists—I believe that it clearly does—will the Minister look at that evidence, that information, and on the back of it take the action we all wish him to take?
My understanding of the congressional report is that although it is broadly very critical of human rights in China, the report mentions organ harvesting only once. However, I will undertake to ask officials to write to the hon. Gentleman and expand further on the exact details of that point, in the hope that such comments will satisfy him about what I am saying.
By necessity, there are no witnesses to the removal of the organs—the people involved are dead—but does the Minister not agree that, although we have talked about huge numbers, even one transgression of human rights caused by the involuntary removal of an organ is grossly wrong? Despite the fact that the authors of the report have challenged—indeed asked—the Chinese Government to reject their assertions, to come out and say that they are incorrect, there has been complete silence. There has been no rejection of the research or the information, or indeed of the authors’ conclusions.
At the outset, I stated the principles by which we ought to look at the entire issue, and in that sense I totally agree with my hon. Friend. She is right to say that the difficulty of the issue is that, by its very nature, if it goes on it is hidden. Therefore, to establish the evidence is a very difficult exercise, but in respect of engagement with the Chinese Government I hope that in a moment I will be able to offer my hon. Friend a bit of reassurance about some progress we have been making.
The Government have serious concerns about restrictions on the freedom of religion or belief in China, including for Falun Gong practitioners. The freedom to practise, change or share one’s faith or belief without discrimination or violent opposition is a fundamental right that all people should enjoy, yet we have solid evidence, from multiple sources, of the persecution of religious minorities. Christians, Muslims and Buddhists, as well as Falun Gong practitioners, are persecuted through different means, with reports of their being detained incommunicado, being tortured and receiving inhuman treatment, and also being subjected to interference in their places of worship and in their religious teaching and customs. Everyone should be free to practise their religion according to their beliefs, in accordance with the international frameworks to which both the UK and China are party.
I assure the House that the Government pay close attention to the human rights situation in China. Indeed, no fewer than three British Ministers have raised individual cases with their Chinese counterparts in the past few months. As the former Minister of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Mr Swire), stated to the House on 12 July, we have raised concerns about reports of organ harvesting, as well as of the torture and mistreatment of detainees, during our annual human rights dialogue with China, and I can let my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) know that the next such exchange will be on 27 and 28 October, here in London. At that exchange, we will raise our human rights concerns, including the treatment of Falun Gong practitioners and the lack of transparency in China’s organ transplant system. So the debate is timely, and I will ensure that hon. Members’ concerns are raised at that dialogue.
The use of the death penalty in China is also a subject of great concern, with the number of prisoners being executed a closely guarded secret and, therefore, difficult to estimate. We oppose the death penalty in all circumstances and campaign actively worldwide for its abolition. In the past, organs were taken from executed prisoners without prior consent. China committed to end the practice of involuntary organ removal from January 2015. Although that was an important and positive step, the degree to which it has been implemented is not clear. There are also complex ethical questions about the ability of condemned prisoners to give free and valid consent.
Following representations to the Chinese authorities, we received information on their organ donation policy yesterday. Although we have only just received the information—officials are scrutinising it—I would like to share it with the House. The information states that all organ donations in China are handled within a clear legal framework that meets international standards, including those of the World Health Organisation. There is a registration centre for managing information about the origins of organs used for donations, and statistics are shared with the WHO. The Chinese authorities provided statistics for 2015, which stated that 7,785 organs were donated from 2,766 donors. We intend to contact the WHO to try to validate that information. We have, however, received no detailed information about the treatment of prisoners’ organs. We therefore believe that, based on the evidence we have, it is likely that executed prisoners remain a key source of organs for transplant in China.
The hon. Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood), who is no longer in her seat, and the Opposition Front-Bench spokesperson, the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West), raised the issue of people travelling to China for medical treatment, including what might be described as organ tourism. We do not collect data on that, but we believe that few people in the UK choose to travel to China for that purpose. The hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green asked if we would ban such travel, but the British Government cannot prevent individuals from travelling. We can, however, flag the risks and ensure that individuals are aware that other countries might have poorer medical and ethical safeguards than the UK does. Travelling abroad for any treatment, including organ transplant, carries risks. Medical staff have a responsibility to inform patients who are considering that route of the risks and of the fact that organs might not have been donated freely.
My hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) mentioned the Conservative party human rights commission report. Although the Government were not asked to give evidence to the commission, and as such the report does not entirely reflect Government policy, there is much in it with which we agree. We are already pursuing an approach that is consistent with many of the report’s recommendations but parts of the report require further investigation to substantiate some of the claims made. Officials have offered to meet the authors, and as there is—I think—a plan to produce a separate report on organ harvesting, they have tried, but so far without success, to engage with the process of compiling that report.
With respect, I believe that the Minister is referring to the wider report on human rights in China, which was produced by the commission some three months ago. Indeed, the commission said that it would produce a supplementary report on organ harvesting, and it is that report, published today, to which I referred and at which I hope officials will look. The commissioners, Members of Parliament and Members of the House of Lords would, I know, welcome the opportunity to meet Foreign Office officials to discuss both reports further.
In the spirit in which my hon. Friend is entering into this, I can confirm that we would be pleased for her to come and speak to officials to discuss all the details and the evidence to see whether we can share information in order to understand exactly what the facts are, and therefore what the policy should be.
There was also a reference to a meeting of the UN Human Rights Council in September. We vigorously raise all human rights concerns on such occasions, although on this occasion not specifically organ harvesting.
I just want to recap on the organ tourism issue that the shadow Minister and the hon. Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood) talked about. Have the Government had an opportunity to raise the subject with other western countries? For instance, are the Government aware of what other countries do about it? Is there a chance we could work together to address the issues of organ tourism and those who go abroad specifically to get an organ? It is forced organ transplantation, so we have concerns. It would be better if the western countries could work together on that. Is there an opportunity to do that?
It is probably true to say that there has not been much discussion with other countries on this particular issue. The hon. Gentleman, of course, has a point: when countries work together they can be more effective. Again, I will ask officials to write to him about such an initiative.
May I intervene one final time?
Will the officials ascertain which countries have already banned travel for organ tourism? I believe that Israel and possibly others have done so.
It may not be practical to police it, but I can assure the House that the UK works with like-minded partners to strengthen the rules surrounding organ transplantation worldwide. This includes the development of the World Health Organisation guiding principles to ensure that organ removal for transplant takes place only according to agreed guidelines. We also support the declaration of Istanbul, which encourages all countries to draw up legal and professional frameworks to govern organ donation and transplantation activities. In the past eight years, more than 100 countries, including China, have endorsed the principles of the declaration and subsequently strengthened their laws against the commercial organ trade.
Contrary to some reports, our trading relationship with China does not prevent us from having frank discussions with the Chinese authorities on issues of concern such as this. We will continue to engage with them on the full range of issues, including organ transplants and the wider human rights agenda. We will continue to promote the universal values of freedom and respect for human rights and the importance of international co-operation.
I thank everyone who came along to support and participate in the debate and who made valuable contributions. I thank everyone who made speeches, particularly the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce), who has worked hard on this issue. I did not say this earlier, but I will say it now. Some children of those of the Falun Gong religious belief came to a presentation in the House, and Becky James took part in a Ride to Freedom event to highlight the issue. The children were able to portray clearly what the issues were. I urge the Government to work hard to internationalise the issue to bring us all together to ensure that we can effectively persuade China to stop forced organ transplantation. If we can do that, this House will be working in unison with those in the rest of the world who want to see this disgraceful and awful transplant of organs stopped.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered forced organ removal in China.
Coventry City Football Club
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the future of Coventry Football Club.
We have known each other a very long time, Mr Gapes, but I think this is probably the first time that I have taken part in a debate that you have chaired—if I am wrong, I am not far off being right. I take this opportunity to thank Mr Speaker, who, over the years, has been very good in granting a number of debates on the future of Coventry City football club. The people of Coventry and the fans very much appreciate that he has been able to do that.
I welcome the Minister to her place. I have known her for quite a long time, too, but this is the first time that we have participated in a debate together. I hope that at the end of the debate she will have some constructive comments to make. Some weeks ago, I wrote to her about the problems at Coventry City football club, and in her response she gave us a little bit of hope, as she said she hoped to have something positive to tell us at the end of this debate.
Coventry City football club faces an uncertain future, and the ongoing saga has spanned many years. I have met Ministers in the past, along with my Coventry colleague from past Parliaments, Bob Ainsworth, and my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry North West (Mr Robinson). I have asked questions in the House and tabled early-day motions. I recognise that there are differing views about what has happened to Coventry City football club, but at the end of the day the club is ultimately responsible for its own future.
Hon. Members will remember the recent damaging rent dispute between the football club’s owners, Sisu, and Arena Coventry Ltd, which operates the Ricoh arena. That dispute led to the football club playing its home games in Northampton, more than 30 miles away, which was, to say the least, expensive and inconvenient for the fans. Since then, the Ricoh arena has been sold to Wasps rugby club, and amidst all that, Sisu continues to take legal action. I do not propose to discuss that legal action today, as it is sub judice and a different matter, but it has helped neither the situation nor the relationship between the fans and the club—so much so that dialogue now seems impossible.
Big questions remain. The deal that sees Coventry City play at the Ricoh arena expires at the end of the 2017-18 season, and talks to reach a new agreement have broken down. A long-term solution for home matches remains far away, and the threat of the club once again moving out of the city remains. The football club’s academy is under threat. The club has approved a proposal for the training centre to be redeveloped for housing. We have to ask ourselves what Sisu’s future intentions for Coventry City football club are. What possible plan could Sisu have for the club’s future?
At the heart of the issue lies the question of how a football club should be run, and for whom. This season has seen disappointment on the field—just a single win in the first 11 league games—and the manager has recently quit. Off the field, there is further unrest. The man in charge of resolving the future use of the Ricoh arena by the club, the managing director, has stepped down. A petition started by the Coventry Telegraph calling for Sisu to sell up has amassed nearly 20,000 signatories. That petition has my support and that of my hon. Friends the Members for Coventry North East (Colleen Fletcher) and for Coventry North West. Just imagine if the club was succeeding and that number of fans attended home games.
I believe that every football club should work for the community that it represents, the community whose name it bears—in this case, Coventry City. That is the name on the shirt. The community is so tied to the club that the council recently renamed a road after the famous Jimmy Hill. A football club should not be viewed as a way to make a quick buck by faceless and unaccountable owners. The club, the community asset, has been mismanaged by a select few for their own benefit. Decisions have been made in the interests of the parent company, and the football club has been sidelined and relegated to second place behind the business interests of a hedge fund. The Football Association and the Football League must explain how such a company can pass the fit and proper person test and then proceed to run a club into the ground. It has no stadium, no manager and its academy is under threat. By every conceivable measure, the club is heading backwards. The existing regulations have clearly failed.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on raising this issue, on which we strongly agree. He makes a really powerful point. One of the tragedies of Coventry City is that it demonstrates the weakness of the owners and directors test—the fit and proper person test—and the weakness of the FA or the league in making any sort of proper intervention in such a club. Does he agree that that shows the need for proper transparency of ownership and a greater number of independent directors on the boards of clubs, who could represent the city and the fans?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments and pay tribute to him, because over the years he and I have done quite a bit of work in this area. I particularly thank him for the support he has given to the Coventry football supporters. The FA and the Football League have been highly critical of FIFA, but they should start by putting their own house in order—I fully agree with him about that. As I have the opportunity, I will mention that I hope he might also consider that the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport, on which he sits, might want to have a look at this issue.
To give a plug, the Committee will be interviewing the chairman and the director of governance of the FA on Monday next week.
I thank the hon. Gentleman. I am sure he will raise the issue of Coventry.
There are potential solutions that would make the club work for the community again. Other clubs have shown us that giving fans an increased say can work. AFC Wimbledon is owned by the fans and the team was promoted last season, and Portsmouth is owned by its fans and is now turning a profit. I am not saying that is the only model to follow, but workable community solutions that put the fans first exist and should be considered. However, any solution is closed off unless Sisu decides to engage in a dialogue in good faith.
This morning I met representatives of the fans, who gave me a document that could form a basis for bringing both sides together to try and resolve the dispute—the Minister might want to look at it. They note in the document that the supporters expect a number of things from the owners of the club, which include a commitment to the football club, decent investment on and off the pitch, honest communication and engagement with the fans, fans being given a stake in the club, respect for the club’s traditions, a good relationship with the wider community and an offer of a quality matchday experience for all the fans. Those are reasonable requests and are in line with some of the points I have made this morning, but such solutions are closed off unless Sisu decides either to engage in a dialogue in good faith or to sell up, move on and leave its toxic legacy behind.
The future of the football club hangs in the balance. Having watched the club together on the terraces for decades, we now stand to see it fall away—to see it all lost—because of the poor choices of a hedge fund. It was all completely avoidable. At the end of the day, it is the fans and the community that lose out and suffer. Look at other clubs across the UK: when a club succeeds, the city and the area surrounding it succeed too. Football can provide a sense of identity, community and pride.
Will the Minister update me on any discussions that have taken place between her, Sisu and the FA? Will she intervene where appropriate? If she feels it is unacceptable for her to intervene herself, will she appoint somebody of repute to bring both sides together to try to resolve the dispute? Pressure must be put on Sisu to engage with other parties and the wider community, including the fans, with the Minister arbitrating if necessary. She should also consider appointing somebody of good repute—it could be a judge—to arbitrate.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. He knows of my personal involvement in this issue over the past few years. He will obviously agree that Sisu’s record and the position that the club finds itself in are absolutely lamentable. Does he agree that clubs need to be seen to be representatives of communities, not franchises that can be bought and moved about by owners? That is why it is key that we intervene strongly when a club finds itself in a lamentable position like that of Coventry City.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman, who for years before coming to the House played a role in trying to bring both sides together. I think the Minister can play a significant part if the will is there. I do not want to criticise the current Minister, because she is fairly new in her job, but previous Ministers have done the “Grand Old Duke of York” routine: we had meetings with them and got to the top of the hill, but we all ended up back down it again—in fact, we rolled back down.
I ask that the Football League reviews the appropriateness of its fit and proper test. As a minimum, the Culture, Media and Sport Committee should look at the regulations that are in place—I have already said that to its Chairman—so this can never happen again. Lastly, I ask that Sisu ends its involvement with Coventry City football club so the damage it has caused can begin to be undone, unless it is prepared to talk reasonably with the fans and use the charter as a basis for an agreement to resolve the dispute.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham) on securing this debate. He has been involved in this issue for many years, as was my constituency predecessor.
In the short time available to me, I want to make two points and echo all that my hon. Friend said. First, the Football League allowed Sisu—the owners of the Sky Blues—to move the club away from Coventry in 2013 temporarily, having been assured by Sisu that it would build a new stadium in the city. Since then, there have been numerous stories about its plans for a long-term stadium solution in or around the city of Coventry, the latest of which—apparently its preferred option—is a new stadium and ground-share agreement at the Butts stadium.
However, nobody who knows the local area and understands the issues involved has ever believed that any of Sisu’s plans are feasible or anything other than a smokescreen. There has never been any evidence of serious intent to build a new stadium. In reality, the only viable option to secure the club’s long-term future in Coventry is an extension of the agreement to play home games at the Ricoh arena, which is due to expire in 2018. The club’s owners know that, whether they admit it or not. They must now do everything within their power to ensure that the agreement is extended. If they are incapable of achieving that, they should sell up and go, as the Coventry Telegraph has called on them to do.
Secondly, the Football League claims to be a genuine regulatory body, not just a representative organisation acting in the interest of club owners and its own narrow self-interest. If the Football League is indeed the effective and responsible regulatory body it claims to be, it will surely have sought and received clear evidence from Sisu to show that it has a plan to secure a long-term stadium solution in Coventry. Similarly, it will have monitored the situation to ensure that real progress is made to achieve that ambition, and it will wish to take appropriate and robust action, including the removal of the golden share from Sisu, should the situation remain unresolved. I urge the Minister to ask the Football League for sight of that evidence. I intend to do the same during a meeting I have with it later this week, but I fear that it does not hold such evidence because it simply does not exist. If I am right, that demonstrates the inadequacy of its role in the Coventry City saga and its inability—or, worse, its unwillingness—to properly regulate the game of football. For the sake of the thousands of loyal Coventry City fans, we need to find a resolution to this situation, which has gone on for far too long.
As always, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gapes. I am extremely grateful to the hon. Member for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham) for securing this debate. We have been friends across the Chamber for many years, and he is extremely passionate about this issue. There has not been a moment in our friendship when Coventry City has not come up as a topic of conversation. With his knowledge and passion, he made some incredibly insightful contributions, as did other hon. Members.
As the hon. Gentleman said, football clubs up and down the country remain a matter of great importance. They are valuable parts of our local communities, and every care should be taken by their owners and stakeholders to protect their long-term future. The preservation of Coventry City football club in particular is not a new issue. As the hon. Gentleman said, my predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant), debated the subject in the House in September 2014 and October 2013. I am sure I was not alone in welcoming the club’s return to the Ricoh arena in late 2014, so it is with regret that two years on we are once again talking about our concerns about the club’s ownership and the uncertainty surrounding where the team will be playing its football in the foreseeable future.
There is a great deal of focus on the amount of money at the top end of professional football, but we must remember that the majority of clubs compete in the lower divisions and operate on a considerably different scale. Such clubs cannot rely on huge sums of money from broadcasters or sponsors. They need the continuous support of local businesses, local councils and, of course, the club’s supporters. That applies to Coventry City. I am aware of its illustrious past—as the hon. Gentleman knows, the first time I ever cried at a football match was when Coventry beat Tottenham at Wembley in 1987. Despite that, I have great sympathy with the fans of Coventry City, as I have with the supporters of any club that is suffering as a consequence of either poor performance on the pitch or financial struggles off the pitch.
The financial state of clubs in this country is better now than at any time over the past 20 years. The football authorities have made progress over recent years to introduce new ownership and financial rules, including a means and abilities test, which requires proof of funds from prospective new owners, transfer embargoes to help to curb club spending and the financial fair play principles across the 92 professional clubs. Financial fair play, in particular, has led to more responsible spending by clubs and, as a result, fewer incidents of club insolvencies. I think I am right in saying that Coventry City’s owners have in recent years reduced the debt the club once carried, and the return to the Ricoh arena has improved the club’s financial position. However, I hear what both the hon. Member for Coventry South and my hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins) said, and I can reassure them that the test will always remain under review.
Ensuring the long-term financial sustainability of clubs must be the primary responsibility of the football authorities and of all owners. That said, I also believe that supporters have every right to protest against the way they see their club being run if they believe that the plans or methods the owners are deploying are not working, so long as those protests are carried out in a non-threatening manner. It is clear from the ongoing protests at Coventry City that genuine concerns remain about the owners’ ability to take the club forward and to resolve the matter of where the first team and its academy will train and play. Those would be real concerns for any club. Although I am not privy to the owners’ thought process or the discussions that have taken place among the relevant parties about residency, it is clear that there remains a distinct lack of clarity on all those fronts. I call on all those interested parties to come forward and to provide the clarity that is needed, for the good of the club and its loyal supporters.
The Minister said that the owners and directors test is kept under review. Does she share my concern that, as it is defined at the moment, it is a fairly narrow test of whether someone has unspent convictions that make them incapable of being a director? It gives little discretionary power to the league or the FA to come to an opinion, based on a range of factors that are part of the experience of that director, about whether that director is fit to hold that role.
We always keep all such things under review, and I am looking forward to seeing the outcome of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee’s meeting next week with the FA. It is important that we have healthy football clubs and owners who care for and respect those football clubs and the communities in which they sit. There is a gamut of reasons for that, including more than just financial conduct and criminal activity. It is important that we keep such things under review, but I am looking forward to seeing the outcome of the Select Committee’s meeting next week with the FA.
I return to the need to ensure that all interested parties come forward and provide clarity. It is important that the club’s owners and Coventry City Council sit down and try to resolve the ongoing row between them, which began with rent disputes and resulted in the football team temporarily relocating to Northampton, and continues to cast a shadow over the new and progressive measures that are needed to take the club forward. I am aware of the ongoing legal dispute and I do not want to prejudice it or take sides. It is for the two parties and Wasps Rugby to decide how best to resolve that dispute and set about finding ways to work together, for the sake of the local community.
The club’s owners or senior executives should make arrangements to meet a representative group of Coventry supporters as soon as possible. There needs to be much greater open dialogue on the matters of strategic importance to the club, including what plans there are for its future home.
I come back to something that I said in my speech: we need someone eminent to get both sides together. We can call for people to do that, but we have to get someone of eminence who can actually bring both sides together. That is key if the Minister herself cannot do that.
I am flattered that the hon. Gentleman thinks that I am that eminent person.
I didn’t say you were.
I am grateful for that clarification. Now I am hurt that he does not think that I am that eminent person. One of the most frustrating things about the Sports Minister brief is that a lot of things happen in football that should have nothing to do with the Government. I am regularly contacted by supporters of various football clubs—Coventry City is one—who wish the Government to intervene and the Minister personally to get involved. That is incredibly difficult to do, because at the end of the day it is not for the Government to intervene in such things. However, I completely hear what he says about trying to ensure that someone mediates between the parties. If the situation has got to the point where the relationship is so broken that the parties cannot come together and come to an agreement, I will take that point away and consider it in detail. My hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe may wish to think about whether there is a role for him as a passionate supporter and believer in such things or whether there is someone outside the political arena who could perform that role, but I hear what the hon. Member for Coventry South says. Ultimately, this is an issue for the football authorities, and they need to come together to try to sort it out. I will return shortly to the point that the hon. Member for Coventry North East (Colleen Fletcher) made about the Football League.
I thought Pontius Pilate died 2,000 years ago, but it is obvious that he has not died. I understand that Ministers cannot or do not want to get involved, but they have the authority to appoint someone of some standing to bring both sides together. I think that the fans, who, as I indicated, have been constructive, would welcome that. I accept that Ministers get lots of demands from lots of football fans and all that goes with that, but this situation is far too serious; it has gone on for five or six years and something really has to be done about it.
The hon. Gentleman is picking up on a theme that I was getting to: the importance of supporters and of clubs listening to supporters. He will be aware that structured dialogue between club owners and their supporter groups was a key recommendation in the report of the expert working group on football supporter ownership and engagement. That report is the culmination of the work that the Government have done over several years, in partnership with the football authorities and supporter representative groups, to find ways to improve supporter engagement beyond the customer relationship and to recognise supporters as integral to clubs’ success. The leagues have codified that structured dialogue requirement in their rulebooks, and those structured meetings will begin this season. The football authorities are currently working on guidance to clubs on how those meetings should be structured. If that is not happening at Coventry, please let me know, because it is important that those recommendations are implemented at all levels of football. I believe that those meetings will lead the way in ensuring that fans are better informed about and consulted on clubs’ activities, including their financial standing, the identity of their owners and other matters of real importance.
Going back to a point that the Minister made earlier, does she accept that one of the reasons that such cases—be it Coventry, Leeds, Portsmouth or whatever—come back to the Minister’s door time after time is that the football authorities are powerless to do anything when they see a club being run badly? As long as owners are keeping within the narrow confines of the rules, they can run a football club into the ground and the FA will not lift a finger.
My hon. Friend makes an important point, which I will discuss with officials later today. There is perhaps a gap there, and that is perhaps something that we need to look at. I am sure that that issue will be raised by him or other members of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee at its meeting next week with the FA.
I will turn briefly to the comments made by the hon. Member for Coventry North East on the Football League. Following all the discussions and the temporary relocation, the league confirmed:
“Any application to move…to a stadium outside the city would need to be considered by”
the league’s board.
“In doing so, the Board would require the club to demonstrate that it had a clear plan for returning to Coventry within a prescribed timeframe.”
I sincerely hope that history does not repeat itself and that the club does not find itself playing outside its city again. However, it is important that supporters know exactly what the rules are, so after this debate I will ask the league to confirm its position. Furthermore, there should be a proposal forthcoming for the league or the FA to ensure that fans are properly consulted.
To conclude, it is right that the Government do not involve themselves in the regulation of football or the business and commercial affairs of any club. Football clubs must be run as businesses, but they also need social consciences; they must consider the impacts of their actions on supporters and the local community. It is important that those who have a direct say or influence over the future of Coventry City stand up and provide the clarity that is needed. It is of paramount importance that the city of Coventry has a football club.
For my part, I will meet the football authorities in the coming months to discuss several relevant matters in the game and will ask them specifically for an update on the progress with Coventry City. In the meantime, I wish the Sky Blues the best of luck against Charlton on Saturday and hope that we can resolve this situation collectively for the hon. Member for Coventry South and the people of Coventry.
Question put and agreed to.
Royal Yacht Britannia: International Trade
[Mr Christopher Chope in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the reintroduction of the Royal Yacht Britannia for the purpose of international trade.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Chope, for what I think is the first time, in this important debate. We have to ask ourselves what sort of Britain we want to live in and what we in this Parliament can do to try to make Britain great again. On 23 June, the British public said that they wanted to take back control, be independent of the European Union, stand tall in the world again and project our power and influence around the globe as an independent nation.
The Government’s interpretation of that has been put forward as “Brexit means Brexit.” I believe that if Brexit is to mean successful Brexit, it should also mean the return of our royal yacht. Today, I want to set out the case for the renewal of the royal yacht, which is both economic and patriotic and, crucially, would be at low cost, if not no cost, to the taxpayer.
Since I launched the campaign, I have been supported by Ministers past and present, 100 colleagues on the Government Benches, The Sun, the Daily Mail, The Times, the Sunday Express and, most vociferously of all, Christopher Hope of The Daily Telegraph. That support is welcome and has been crucial in making today’s debate a success. However, the most moving and compelling arguments have been made not by newspapers or colleagues but by the hundreds of members of the public who have written or emailed me comments and suggestions of support. Some have gone as far as sending me cheques, and some have even offered to give up their winter fuel allowance this year to pay for a new royal yacht. Those hundreds of selfless acts and offers of help from the public are a demonstration of a proud nation, eager to support our royal family; a nation with hope and pride for our future. The British public have realised—perhaps before politicians—that a royal yacht is not some sepia-tinted look back to the 1950s, but about the Britain that their children, and indeed their grandchildren, will inhabit.
It will not surprise colleagues to hear that not all of the correspondence has been positive or supportive. I want to deal here and now, at the start of the debate, with those who seek to rubbish the idea of a new royal yacht and the contribution that our royal family can make to Great Britain and her future.
Our head of state is an inspirational leader who can represent our United Kingdom in a way that no other global leader can match. Over 60 years, she has met 4 million people in person, equivalent to the population of New Zealand. She is Queen of 16 countries and has travelled more widely than any other head of state in history. One of her greatest achievements has been to build our Commonwealth from eight members in 1952 to the 54 of today.
The Commonwealth represents a unique family of nations spanning every continent and global religion and covering nearly a third of the world’s population. Our Commonwealth is rightly the envy of the world, and in the years ahead this international body will be of growing importance and influence to the UK and its economy as we grow and succeed outside the European Union. A royal yacht is crucial to the leader of our Commonwealth. When launching Britannia on the Clyde in 1953, she said:
“My father felt most strongly, as I do, that a yacht was a necessity, and not a luxury for the head of the British Commonwealth, between whose countries the sea is no barrier, but the natural highway.”
Britain has the fifth largest economy in the world and remains the third largest maritime power. We as a nation have a unique history in connection with the sea. As an island race, our relationship with the sea is written into our DNA. The relationship has been represented on behalf of our nation, both symbolically and in actuality, by a history of royal yachts stretching back to the restoration of the monarchy with Charles II. We are foolish to have turned our back on the sea and all that it represents for our nation through our failure to renew the royal yacht Britannia in 1997.
I believe that Britain as a nation is partly blind to the perception around the globe of all that she represents. Our country, and in particular our royal family, have an unmatchable global reach. President Barack Obama, speaking at the funeral of President Shimon Peres recently, described our Queen as one of the
“giants of the 20th century that I have had the honour to meet”.
In a post-Brexit Britain, we need our head of state now more than ever. She can uniquely portray a positive role for our nation around the globe, and a new royal yacht is vital in her doing that.
A royal yacht, unlike our recently acquired state plane, is a small piece of Britain that can move from international port to international port, showing the soft power and prestige of our nation. It is a floating royal palace that can be used to host meetings as a platform for our humanitarian mission around the globe, and a showcase for the best of British industry. No other country, if presented with such an opportunity, would have squandered it away in the court of public opinion and envy, as happened in 1997 with the decommissioning of the royal yacht Britannia.
It is true that the role of the royal yacht changed since its introduction with Charles II. I would like to concentrate on the contribution that Britannia made to trade at the end of her service. Britannia was decommissioned in 1997 after more than 40 years in service. She conducted 968 official visits and clocked up more than a million miles at sea. In her later years—between 1991 and 1995—she is estimated to have brought £3 billion of commercial trade deals to our country. In 1993, on one trip to India alone, £1.3 billion of trade deals were signed. It is acknowledged that those deals would have been signed in any event, but the presence of Britannia sped up the negotiations from years to days. To put that into the context of the renewal and running of a royal yacht, the deal signed on that one trip would have paid for a royal yacht in its entirety and its annual running costs for 100 years.
During those commercially profitable years, Britannia hosted business figures from across the globe on what were called sea days, on which opportunities were discussed and trade agreements struck. Sea days took place around the coast of Britain and abroad, and were always organised to coincide with an official visit by Britannia. The prestige associated with Britannia attracted prominent figures from commerce and industry to attend the sea days. Invitations were sent in the name of Her Majesty the Queen, with key decision makers in global companies targeted. On occasion, a member of the royal family would also attend. A royal invitation to conduct business on the most exclusive yacht in the world was impossible for even the most successful businesspeople to resist. It is my view that a renewed royal yacht could be used in just that way today.
Hon. Members do not have to take my word for that—they can take the word of Henry Catto, who was the US ambassador to the Court of St James’s between 1989 and 1991. He found himself in the lucky position of being chief of protocol in 1976 when Her Majesty the Queen visited America. He wrote in his book:
“I was literally besieged with people wanting invitations to the various functions on board. Corporate moguls would devise the most outlandish reasons as to why they should be invited; society matrons would throw themselves at me”—
Members are listening now.
“In short, that ship was a superb tool for British industry and the British nation and to let her go and not replace her would be a great pity”.
Compare that with Barack Obama’s comments that the UK would be at the back of the queue in any trade deal with the United States. That shows the huge contribution a new royal yacht could make: we could go from the back of the queue to the front, just by using the power, prestige and global influence of our royal family.
Until now, the European Commission has been responsible for negotiating international trade deals on behalf of EU member states, meaning that the United Kingdom has not had a dedicated team of trade negotiators since 1973. The Minister, who is new in his Department, will acknowledge that negotiating British trade abroad is a huge task, but it would be made significantly easier, in my view, by the royal yacht and by the presence of our royal family.
I hope that I have made the case for the return of the royal yacht for the purposes of trade and explained the role it can play for Britain, but I also want to talk about what I believe a future royal yacht should look like and, crucially, how it should be funded. There are some basic rules we must follow. It must belong to the state, it must fly the white ensign and it must have a strong connection with our royal family. It has to belong to the state so it has the benefit of diplomatic immunity when it visits international harbours around the globe; it has to fly the white ensign, because it is crucial that it is crewed by our Royal Navy; and it has to have a strong connection with our royal family, as that is the unique quality that will make its service to our nation succeed.
Is it correct that the old royal yacht Britannia was actually a hospital ship that was used during the course of conflict, and that it was able to make a major contribution in helping our sick and injured servicemen and women?
That is absolutely correct. I propose that any new royal yacht would again offer a multitude of services, whether as a trade envoy, a hospital ship or a research and development vessel for our science and industry.
There are several proposals for what type of ship we should build, as well as proposals to recommission the existing royal yacht Britannia, which stands proudly in Leith docks. They should all be explored, but I will talk about my personal preference, which is to build a new royal yacht along the lines of the proposals put to the Government in the 1990s. The future royal yacht project envisaged a new ship that would be slightly smaller than Britannia but similar in design. Crucially, it would have an increased range and a much-reduced crewing requirement and would be much cheaper to run. It has been estimated that the ship would cost about £100 million to construct and could be funded either through private donations—for example, by giving industry naming rights for certain decks and rooms—through a private finance initiative model or through public fundraising.
The final idea of the future royal yacht commission was that the Bibby shipping line would construct a new royal yacht, with the Government putting no money whatever toward its construction. The Government would then use it on a bareboat charter basis for 12 years at an estimated cost of £7 million a year. After the initial 12 years’ use had expired, the yacht would become the property of our nation. While those charter figures are historical and may be out of date, I believe that the different ideas out there about how the yacht could be funded show that there are many ways in which we could commission a royal yacht with no up-front cost to the taxpayer.
The reason why I believe a new royal yacht is preferable to recommissioning the existing royal yacht Britannia is that such a vessel is about our country’s future, not its past. It should be a shop window for what is best about British shipbuilding. I imagine the engines might be provided by Rolls-Royce or Perkins, while the hull would be constructed using British steel in a British shipyard. The IT and communications system would be the best that Silicon roundabout in London could offer. It would be a thoroughly modern ship, reflecting a modern nation and a modern monarchy that is willing and able to serve Britain across the globe.
Today’s debate is an opportunity to show that a new royal yacht commands significant public support. British industry is already calling for the opportunity to showcase its world-beating ingenuity and engineering talent across the globe. Financial backers have come forward with ideas about how the royal yacht could be paid for, and more than 100 Members have signed a letter, published in The Daily Telegraph, calling on the Government to set up a commission to look at what service a royal yacht could provide our nation.
The people backing the campaign are not self-interested or driven by preferment. They want to make the dream of a new royal yacht a reality, and they offer their service to our nation without hesitation. That is why I hope the Minister will agree to set up a Government commission to carry out a full cost-benefit analysis of the contribution that a new royal yacht could make to our nation. That commission would act as a rallying point for all those who are interested in the project. It would be a place for people to offer their help and expertise and a place for those who are willing to make a significant financial contribution to try to make this happen.
In the long history of the Government’s involvement with the renewal of the royal yacht, offers of help have all too often gone unanswered. Expertise has been lost and opportunity upon opportunity has been missed. Brexit is a new chapter in our nation’s story, and I hope that the Government will be able to match the hope and optimism demonstrated by its people.
I commend my hon. Friend on his campaign, which I and more than 100 of my colleagues wholeheartedly support. He has mentioned the Government’s relationship with the royal yacht. In view of the clear advantages that a new royal yacht could provide in fostering trade and international relations, does he agree that it might be appropriate if a number of Government Departments were to share the running costs—not least the Department for International Development, which has a rising budget?
I agree wholeheartedly with my right hon. Friend. It is interesting that some of the countries to which we have recently given, and continue to give, international aid have their own state yacht. India has a state yacht, and it was a recipient of international aid from this country until recently. The Philippines has a state yacht. Turkey has a state yacht. Here in Britain—the fifth largest economy in the world, as I said earlier—we feel it is something we cannot afford. Personally, I think that is a national disgrace.
I very much support my hon. Friend’s campaign and am one of the 100 signatories. Whichever model we choose, can we ensure that it is tasteful and not a gin palace or a Philip Green-type vessel?
My serious and substantive point is that in choosing the Government Departments that may chip in, we must ensure that the Royal Navy does not pick up all of the tab, since the Royal Navy does other things. While it is right that the yacht is badged with the white ensign, will my hon. Friend give some thought to how we can ensure that the Navy in particular does not pick up the tab in the way that it used to? That was the main bone of contention when I was serving, and it really rankled. We must ensure that the cost is spread more logically, preferably from the private sector, but certainly not by damaging defence. He will know that the yacht will present one whopping great target and will require frigates and destroyers to protect it, and that clearly comes with a cost.
I agree wholeheartedly that the cost should be spread over many Departments. The benefit of setting up a commission is that we could also look at spreading the cost across the Commonwealth. There is no reason why the Canadian navy, the New Zealand navy and navies from other Commonwealth countries could not be involved in crewing or contributing to the royal yacht. In fact, in the most recent proposals for a royal yacht, which were in 2012—it was called the jubilee yacht and was discussed widely in the newspapers at the time—a significant donation of some £10 million was offered by a Canadian financier. He is not British and does not live in the United Kingdom, but he acknowledged the huge opportunity that a royal yacht could bring to the Commonwealth, not just to the United Kingdom. The cost should be shared among Departments, but the commission could also look at the opportunity of sharing the cost among other members of our Commonwealth.
Today’s debate has shown there is real appetite to explore this issue. The Government should match the optimism of their own people. I want to be part of a Government who are brave enough to say that a new royal yacht should play its part in making Britain the leading free trade economy in the world. Her Majesty the Queen does not bend to the will of newspapers; she is constant. Our Government should not bend to the will of newspapers. They should do what is in our national interest, and I believe that commissioning a new royal yacht is in this nation’s interest.
May I congratulate the hon. Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Jake Berry) on introducing such an excellent motion so well? I am very pleased to have the chance to speak today, especially as I missed the chance to sign the letter—I wish I had been able to be part of it.
A few years ago, before the royal yacht was decommissioned, it came to the north coast of Northern Ireland. There was immense pride. It was in all our newspapers, and it lifted everybody. During the royal visit, the yacht invited on board and celebrated the charities and the businessmen we have in Northern Ireland, and did everything that the hon. Gentleman mentioned. When we think about how fantastic a new royal yacht and its work in the Commonwealth could be, another factor is how well the royal family has gone down in Ireland, and all the work Ireland and Northern Ireland have to do together. Whether Prince Charles’s visit last year or the Queen’s momentous visit to Dublin, they illustrate what a new royal yacht could do for us, not only in Europe but in the whole world.
I was interested to hear the suggestions for how we would finance the royal yacht. One of my greatest concerns when I looked at this was how we could finance it—could PFIs work? Could donors help? Could the Commonwealth get involved? Today we have had presented to us an excellent idea of how that could be achievable. I want to see the best of industry involved. We want the new royal yacht to be an example of what is best—not a gaudy gin palace, as has been said, but the mark of everything that is best about the United Kingdom. We must set that target in place and all work together. This is a fantastic idea, and I am glad to be here to support it.
I too am delighted to serve under your leadership, Mr Chope, and wish to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Jake Berry) on this initiative and on an excellent speech. I was involved in this campaign when I was at the Ministry of Defence about five years ago. I believe profoundly in this cause, so I am delighted that my hon. Friend has taken it up. One of the darker moments of my political life was the picture of Her Majesty the Queen standing on the dockside with something of a tear in her eye as the royal yacht Britannia was finally decommissioned. It was a great disservice to Her Majesty. Let us hope therefore that we can now put that error right.
As my hon. Friend said, Brexit makes the building of a new royal yacht not a luxury but a must-have. As we embrace the new world, reigniting the unrivalled historic relationships Britain has enjoyed around the world and forging new trade links, a new royal yacht would be a brilliant addition to our national trade promotion toolkit. Sadly, however sleek and dignified the lines of Britannia remain, I am advised by experienced naval personnel that refurbishing the existing royal yacht is simply not a starter. In any case, this presents us with a magnificent opportunity to celebrate the latest skills to be found in our national dockyards across the country, from Appledore to the Clyde and, of course, Northern Ireland.
We have the opportunity to construct a brand new, potent symbol of our newly reasserted national sovereignty through a ship whose presence in every port across the globe will make a statement of our national intent. Whether hosting an export drive, carrying the Prime Minister to important international events or, of course, bearing the sovereign on a state visit, the new royal yacht would be a symbol of our country in which the entire nation could once again take pride. As my hon. Friend so rightly said, it would enable us to stand tall in the world. I pay tribute not only to my hon. Friend, who has picked up this ball and run with it, but to The Daily Telegraph, the Daily Mail, The Times and The Sun. We had better name-check Quentin Letts, because we cannot let Christopher Hope get away with the only mention here—a favourable reference please, Mr Letts.
I would like to make an important point. Too often, our media have dismissed such ventures as luxuries the nation cannot afford, translating the cost into x number of hospital beds or y number of teachers. The coalition Government finally overcame the criticisms of what was dubbed “Blair Force One” in respect of the very modest £10 million VIP module for the Royal Air Force’s new A300 Voyager transport aircraft. At last, the Queen and the Prime Minister can fly around the world in a modern RAF jet instead of the ignominy of watching on our televisions as our Prime Minister turns up to be greeted at some foreign venue—I remember in particular when it happened with President Obama—in a third-world chartered commercial airliner. I felt very embarrassed, and I think many other people shared that sense of embarrassment.
There is a serious value in projects such as this, because they tell the world something about how we see ourselves. We are neither a third-world nor a second-rate power; we are a world leader and we should not be ashamed of proclaiming the same. I know the difference it made when I was a Defence Minister. If I pitched up at some international gathering in a Royal Air Force aeroplane, with Royal Air Force roundels on it, I would be treated with greater respect than had I turned up in the alternative desired by some media—an easyJet flight. There would not have been a string of cars with blue lights waiting to greet a British Minister; it would have been some minor official. This is very important to the dignity of our country. It is not a luxury, as I had the privilege of experiencing, and we need to ensure that people understand that.
I give way to my surgeon commander friend.
I succeeded my hon. Friend in ministerial office. He will remember, as I do, the effectiveness of running trade missions from the back of destroyers and frigates, not only for defence and security but a range of British export possibilities. How much more effective does he think this yacht will be, going around the world projecting what is best in British export, than those very effective trade missions in which he and I were involved?
I could not agree more with my hon. Friend. I recall signing a treaty with the Brazilians aboard HMS Ocean. It was very instructive because of what the Brazilian Defence Minister said to me at our first meeting. Apropos of nothing, he stretched out his hand and said, “There is only one Navy in the world, Minister.” He paused and said, “It is true the United States has a Navy, but there is only one Navy: the Royal Navy.” Why should a Brazilian say that? Because of Admiral Sir Thomas Cochrane. There is not a child in Brazil or Chile who has not heard of him. Sadly, thanks to our education system, there is not a child in the United Kingdom who has heard of him. He was once the Member of Parliament for Westminster and the amazing liberator of Brazil and Chile from foreign rule. We are respected around the world and a new royal yacht would add to that. My hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale and Darwen has made the case for trade, so I will not repeat it.
I also agree that the new ship must fly under the white ensign in the name of the Royal Navy. That will of course add to the cost, and we all know about the enormous pressure on naval personnel and on the MOD budget more generally, so, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois) suggested, the cost of acquisition should be split between four Government Departments: the MOD, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, the Foreign Office and, of course, the rich as Croesus Department for International Development. We have to find something good to come out of its money.
Finally, I do not think anything exemplified the enormous respect and affection that the British people have for Her Majesty the Queen as much as the diamond jubilee. What struck people was the extraordinary selfless service that she has given to our nation. We as a nation ought to reflect the profound thanks that our people have for her leadership of our country over 60 years by procuring a new royal yacht, in her name and on her behalf, to serve the purposes set out in this debate, as that would be an enduring way of marking the most astonishing period of leadership by our sovereign, Her Majesty the Queen. So I say, “Rule, Britannia”.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Chope. I declare an interest of sorts: Britannia is moored in my constituency. It is not going anywhere, partly because one of its propellers has been melted down and is now in the form of a statue of a yottie, or royal yachtsman, and partly because it is owned privately by a trust; it is not in public hands.
The hon. Lady might show true respect to the royal yacht Britannia if she described it not as “it” but as “she”.
That semantic point is appreciated.
The yacht is promoted as the museum piece that she is, harking back to a time that cannot be recaptured: a piece from the days of steamships, polished and gleaming from bow to stern, beautifully cared for as a floating curiosity, but not a working ship, so recommissioning is out of the question. I assume Members have had a look at the YouGov poll and seen that the building of a new royal yacht is not supported. In fact, only among Conservative voters, by 41% to 39%, are there more people in favour of building it than not, and when we ask about whether the money to build and run a new ship could be justified, even Conservative voters turn against it.
It is notable, too, that Scotland has a more solid opposition to the idea than anywhere else: 60% against recommissioning, 66% against buying a new one and 68% think the costs cannot be justified. The costs, which are important at a time when working families have joined benefit claimants in the queues at food banks, are simply unjustifiable. We have heard there are lots of ways in which the yacht could be funded, but we have heard no firm proposals. As usual, the burden would fall on the long-suffering taxpayer. Like PFI and PPP and every other cunning plan that Governments come up with, it would cost the public purse, not private finance.
As has been mentioned, the old yacht had a crew of 250 and 21 officers drawn from the Navy. On royal duty it had a platoon of marines on board and warships accompanying it. I am guessing the Navy’s top brass do not have a new royal yacht as their dearest ambition, given the current state of their resources. Then we get to the capital costs. Are they to come from a defence budget already groaning under the pressure of carrying Trident, or are they to come from another part of the public purse? Given what we hear repeatedly about the shortages of equipment that armed forces personnel face, can anyone justify adding another capital spend to that burden?
I thank the hon. Lady for her contribution to the debate. I think she is arguing that the public should not pay for the royal yacht, but would she support a royal yacht if it was funded privately?
The public say they are not supportive of the recommissioning of the yacht. That does not take into the account the running costs, which it has been suggested will come from several Departments, including the Department for International Trade. If the intent is to take the capital spend and running costs from elsewhere in the public purse, where will that blow fall? Given the austerity fetish that the former Chancellor inflicted on all of us and the reported comments of the current Chancellor that he intends to deliver on all of the already planned cuts, where exactly is the spare cash to come from? And how exactly does anyone square the fact that benefit sanctions mean that the poorest, weakest and most disadvantaged people are left to go cold and hungry, but we will all be paying for what must seem to them a new pleasure cruiser for the royal family? This is just a wistful throwback to the days of the Raj, a pleading with history to run backwards and ignore the dodgy bits on the way. This is a rosy-tinted fiction of a time that never was, a fond imagining that empire was a good thing and that fine gentlemen rise to the occasion upon demand.
It is reminiscent of John Major’s thoughts when he said,
“Fifty years from now Britain will still be the country of long shadows on county grounds, warm beer, invincible green suburbs, dog lovers and pools fillers and—as George Orwell said—‘old maids bicycling to Holy Communion through the morning mist’ and if we get our way—Shakespeare still read even in school. Britain will survive unamendable in all essentials.”
He was actually talking about why the UK should remain in the European Union. The current fantasy is a fairy story from the imagination of Brexiteers who imagine the UK has only to denounce the EU to rise again to great heights.
The sad and sorry Britannia plan sounds like the regrets of someone who has missed their chance drawing the tattered remnants of their dreams around them for whatever warmth they can offer while the world rushes by uncaringly. Flash-boat democracy has no place in the modern world, which has changed utterly from the day in 1997 that Britannia was decommissioned. We have emails, electronic trading, smartphones with more computing power than the moon landing craft, and entire businesses that exist only online. This is a different world from the world in which the yacht was decommissioned, never mind the world in which it was commissioned in the first place.
The hon. Lady is obviously having a lot of fun with her caricature. She may have noticed that both Mr Letts and Mr Hope are scribbling down furiously everything she says. None the less, did she not hear what my hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Jake Berry) said about the possibilities of the new royal yacht for creating more business opportunities, more revenue, ultimately more tax revenue and therefore more money for the Government for nurses and teachers?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I also heard that Blair Force One is still current. I cannot see why that is not being used, as apparently it should be, for trade throughout the world.
I am almost finished. I do not see why we need to commission another yacht at a cost of £60 million in 1997, allegedly £100 million now, and then running costs unknown. The running costs were £66 million between 1990 and 1997. What are those costs today? We have no idea.
As I said, this is a different world. If Members want economic revival they should ask for austerity to be eased, and spending resumed. If they really want international trade to improve, they will petition for UK embassies to be retooled as permanent trade missions. If they want to get on their feet and build an economy they should dump the daft ideas and get on with the serious hard work that is needed. It is what their constituents deserve. They can hang a new bauble on the jacket of the UK as it shuffles down the road, but that does nothing to feed a hungry child, support a struggling industry or boost a flagging economy. Dump the bauble. Get wise about what we have to do now.
I had thought that there was a parliamentary convention that we did not refer to the royal family, but I imagine it has been waived for this debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Jake Berry) on obtaining the debate and notifying me about it. I look forward to hearing from the Minister, who will I understand be making his maiden ministerial speech, if there is such a thing. My hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale and Darwen drew our attention to the fact that many national newspapers support the campaign; that is a very good start. There can surely not be a better year in which to consider the issue than when Her Majesty the Queen is 90 years old. My hon. Friend has already referred to the outstanding service that she has given the country.
I visited Britannia when she was in service. I remember that really there were two ships—the front run by the Navy and the rear an amazing platform for entertaining and persuading people to our interests. I think, from memory, that the dining room table would seat 50. It was a splendid boat. Interestingly, Her Majesty’s quarters were unbelievably spartan, so there was nothing for the Green camp to look at there. It was very rough and ready accommodation.
Does my hon. Friend agree that what is different about having a new royal yacht now is that we are sailing into a brave new world, and that we will do, and need to do, many more trade deals across the world? There is a great opportunity not only to support the royal family, but to support the nation in getting those trade deals.
I agree, and I like my hon. Friend’s metaphor about sailing out into a brave new world. We are certainly in a brave new world.
I was, like you, Mr Chope, in the House in 1997 during both the Major Government and the Labour Government, when they took over. I remember the debate on the royal yacht as a complete shambles. The proposition that there should be a new royal yacht was introduced at the end of the Parliament. The failure to secure Labour support was lamentable, and the then Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup, Sir Edward Heath, described it as an extraordinary mistake. It was perhaps no surprise that when Labour took power Gordon Brown knocked the project on the head. I still think that, if there had been all-party negotiations at the time, earlier in the Parliament, we would not be having this debate, because the decision would have been carried, but it was too close to a general election and it was too difficult for Labour after the general election.
My hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale and Darwen has admitted that trade deals that happened on the royal yacht might have happened anyway, but I note the £3 billion of deals that he said were made, and the extraordinary amount of business done on one visit to India. The yacht was always going to provide a tipping point for major deals. I think that that is one of the crucial aspects of the recommissioning of the yacht—the lady, as my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr Gray) would probably like her to be considered.
A new royal yacht that does not earn its keep will not, I think, have public support. I thought that we had already disposed of the point about its being a charge on the public purse. The idea is that it should not be. My hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Sir Gerald Howarth) was saying that the cost would be split between four Departments and that we are not talking about a new vessel paid for by some kind of non-governmental subscription, which would be paid back by virtue of the fact that the vessel was the royal yacht and that possibly it would have another role when not being used by Her Majesty.
Incidentally, the royal yacht would of course have to fly the white ensign for security and docking purposes, but it would also fly a totally different set of flags for Her Majesty, one of which would be the flag of a Lord High Admiral, which, from memory, is a deep red colour with an anchor on it. So there would be no dispute about who was on board at any time.
The point made by other hon. Members about Brexit is also relevant. This is a fantastic time for us to build this new flagship of the nation.
Does my hon. Friend agree that, as he has just mentioned, this is a perfect time to recommission a royal yacht? I have no doubt that we will make trade deals with it, and that in due course it will fund itself and help with diplomacy; but it will send out a massive signal to the world, once we unshackle ourselves from the dead hand of Brussels, that the British are back—confident, proud and outward-looking.
I thank my hon. Friend; there could not possibly be a better time. We need statements of confidence at a time when our currency is fluctuating and there is a degree of uncertainty. It is about our nations coming up to the plate and saying, “Yes, we believe in ourselves.”
My hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison), who is a former Defence Minister, touched on the fact that the royal yacht is always accompanied by a warship, usually a frigate. It is also worth making the point that it would be a very secure vessel for Her Majesty and whoever else was present for trade reasons. At a time of cyber-attacks and all kinds of other attacks it is probably better to be in a secure space, as was the case for Her Majesty on her royal visits.
One of the ideas that was mooted was a royal commission. The metaphor for royal commissions is grass so dark and long that one can never see through it. Their history shows that they take for ever. Why on earth do we need a royal commission when surely the simple approach would be to get good people with good money around a table, and come to some agreement with the palace and, no doubt, with my hon. Friend the Minister?
The commission would not necessarily be a royal commission, but a commission with Government support. Having met several leading naval architects who would like to volunteer their services for free, and major engine manufacturers who would like to put engines in the new royal yacht for free, I would say that the difference between warm words of support and their actually coming forward and saying, “Yes, let’s make this happen,” is some form of Government support. They want to support a royal yacht that will serve our nations for decades to come. The best way to ensure that that happens is for the Government to have, even if they do not pay for it, some form of ownership. Until we get that Government hat-tip, as it were, to the idea, I do not think that anyone will come forward with substantive support rather than words.
I hear what my hon. Friend says. I do not think that in my midlands constituency there is support for a new royal yacht that is not paid for by some form of subscription. I do not think that people want it to be a charge on the taxpayer. The hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Deidre Brock), who made a flamboyant and exciting speech, would certainly be in that camp.
We would not be having this debate in the first place if the matter had been dealt with properly in 1997. The case for a new royal yacht is overwhelming, provided that the money to fund it comes from the private and not the public sector.
I invite Ian Paisley to follow the example of his colleague from the other part of Antrim, so that we have the opportunity also to hear the hon. Members from Plymouth and Portsmouth who wish to participate, before the winding-up speeches start at half-past 3.
Thank you, Mr Chope, for calling me in this debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Jake Berry) on bringing this important matter to the House. I will be brief, as you have requested, Mr Chope. In fact, I feel like bursting into song and singing, “Rule, Britannia! Britannia rules the waves! Many, many jobs she intends to save!” I hope that we can get to that point. I hope that the Minister will get on with it, commission the report, commission the work and ensure that we soon have on the high seas this floating advertisement for all that is wonderful about the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
The question has been posed as to who will build the ship. Well, if the Scots Nats do not want to build it, we have a shipyard in Ulster. The Ulstermen will happily rise to the opportunity to rivet those steel joints together and make that boat for Ulster and for the United Kingdom.
The question is not only who should build the ship, but what will be on board. I hope that it is an advertisement for all that is great—the great foods that we produce and the great products that we have. Perhaps there will even be room enough for a great bus, built in County Antrim, that we can advertise around the world. We will be able to show the many trading opportunities that we have to other parts of the world. We may even have whisky on board—I hope that we will have the whiskey with an e, which is made in Bushmills. Mr Chope, do you know why it has an e? Because it is excellent; that is why it is there.
Where will this ship go? I hope that it goes everywhere on the high seas. From no port should it be turned away. Nowhere shall it be said that the British will not have the opportunity to sell their wares in, yes, this new opportunity to promote trade deals and to promote the United Kingdom post-Brexit.
However, the most important question, which has been posed by the hon. Member for Rossendale and Darwen, is of course who should pay for the ship. That does deserve rigorous and serious challenge, because at this point we do not require the taxpayer to fork out for everything. There will be perfect harmony in the opportunity for the public, private and charitable sectors to work together to bring about this idea and to ensure that we finally deliver on it and get the ship on to our seas. Therefore, I commend it. I wave the opportunity Godspeed and I hope that the Minister will not torpedo it but support it.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Jake Berry) on securing this interesting debate.
Her Majesty’s Yacht Britannia was based in Portsmouth dockyard and for decades was a familiar sight to my constituents and visitors. She was based at South Railway jetty, the traditional dock for royalty and distinguished visitors travelling by sea. From there she could be seen by every ship coming and going from Portsmouth when she was alongside. There was therefore considerable sadness when Britannia was removed from service without the prospect of a replacement. Portsmouth expects, should Britannia be replaced, that we will be her home again.
Does my hon. Friend agree that actually the only true home for the new royal yacht Britannia should be the country’s only royal harbour—Ramsgate, in my constituency?
That might be one of the cinque ports, but I still think that Portsmouth will be the best place.
There is an excellent case for renewing the role of Britannia as a floating base for UK diplomacy. The royal family are a formidable and hard-working element of the UK’s soft power mission, and a ship equipped with conferencing and hospitality facilities offers them a great base. However, Britannia was not just a floating hotel, but a symbol in her own right of the prestige and reputation of the UK. Many of the deals done by UK exporters aboard Britannia were won without the presence of the royal family, but with the aura of “Great Britain” very much present. It is worth noting that our competitors recognise the usefulness of ships employed in that way, as my hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale and Darwen said. Many nations operate training ships that actually serve to promote their national interests. The Chinese Government, for instance, have just commissioned a new one.
The motion refers to reintroducing the Britannia but, like other hon. Members, I hope that we will be looking to build a modern replacement for her. Whether this is done by reactivation or replacement, there are some basic principles that the Government should adhere to. First, her home, like Britannia’s, should be Portsmouth. Secondly, as a vessel operated and supported by the Royal Navy, she must not be an excessive burden in terms of either manpower or budget. A good argument for replacing Britannia is that her systems are somewhat outdated and labour-intensive compared with those of modern vessels. She is a steam-age ship in a digital world, with a relatively short range compared with equivalent modern vessels. She could showcase outstanding products from the UK marine sector in her design and build. If the ship exists partly to promote British trade, it follows that not all the burden of paying for her should fall on the MOD budget or, indeed, the taxpayer. Thirdly, her operational use must be as wide as possible. By all means title her a “royal yacht”, but she should be capable of adapting as need requires.
Britannia was designed to operate as a hospital ship in times of crisis, but that happened only once, during a humanitarian crisis in Aden. Alternatively, this ship could be used more intensively than Britannia was, as a mobile educational facility around the UK. We are a country dependent on the sea for our past security and future prosperity, yet we are increasingly “sea-blind”. Air travel is the long-distance mode of transport that dominates our everyday thoughts, but it is not actually the most important: 80% of all world trade is seaborne and more than 90% of Britain’s trade, by volume and value, travels by sea; we still rely on sea trade for much of our food.
In Portsmouth, the museums and ships in our historic dockyard are a permanent reminder of the importance of the Royal Navy and the seas to our national story. Britannia could be a mobile showcase for the importance of the maritime industry to people around the UK. The overwhelming majority of space in our dockyard is engaged in maintaining a Royal Navy that is at the leading edge of technology and is supported by a defence sector that drives a great deal of innovation in the civil as well as the naval and military fields.
The sea-blindness that I referred to is hard to understand, given the importance of the sea and the maritime sector to our lives. We know from the maritime growth study, published a year ago, that the maritime industries sector contributes more than £11 billion a year to our economy. It is bigger than aerospace and on a par with our world-leading pharmaceutical sector. It may represent only 5% of our employment base, but it is a vital part of our manufacturing and service sectors.
A revived Britannia could tell that story and promote the skills and technology of the sea at home as well as abroad. I hope that the Government will look carefully at the options for renewing the capability that Britannia provided, by whatever means, and will recognise that it could give us a competitive edge in world trade and diplomacy.
It is a delight and a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Chope. You and I have known each other for more than 30 years and, if I may say so, it is always a pleasure and a delight to serve under you.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Jake Berry) on securing the debate. Post-Brexit, it is clear that we have to put our best foot forward by going out and getting as much trade as we possibly can. That will be absolutely vital. Needless to say, I would like the new ship to be built in Plymouth, either by Princess Yachts, which is one of our great luxury yacht producers, or by Babcock, which is responsible for managing and running the oldest naval dockyard in the country.
In 2020, Plymouth will commemorate the Mayflower leaving Plymouth to go and found the American colonies. That gives us a unique opportunity to have a fantastic trade exhibition down in the south-west. The country needs to grab that opportunity with both hands, in no uncertain terms. By building Britannia down in Plymouth, the Government could stimulate and create a tourist attraction. If we are successful, we could also have a fleet review, or even a review of the NATO fleet. That would encourage tourists to come to our wonderful part of the south-west. Britain needs to encourage American tourists to come here.
It is absolutely brilliant that the Minister who will be responding to the debate is the former commodore of the House of Commons yacht club. My final point to him is that the Duke of Edinburgh, Prince Philip, is the High Steward of Plymouth, and we should send him a clear message that we support having the ship rebuilt and relocated to Plymouth.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Chope. I thank and congratulate the hon. Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Jake Berry) for securing this entertaining and interesting debate. The enthusiasm of Conservative Members and the sparsity of Labour Members in the Chamber will be spotted by those elsewhere.
I like the fact that the UK is looking up and wants to catch up with the great powers of the world: Denmark, the Netherlands, Norway and Saudi Arabia—places with royal yachts. It is great to the see the UK having such ambition to catch those countries, and good luck to it in doing that. Perhaps the royal yacht will be the answer, but I do not think it will.
I am very familiar with the former royal yacht Britannia. As a child, I used to see it often behind the island of Vatersay, from Castlebay. Its three masts were seen every August as the Queen went on a cruise around Scotland to the castle of Mey. I am delighted that it is now tied up at harbour in Leith, and that there are no designs today on that ship that now belongs to Leith. The designs today are based on pomp and circumstance, and I can see no circumstance at all for this pomp. In fact, we nearly had civil war between Ramsgate and Portsmouth at one stage—
And Plymouth, sorry.
It was pointed out that Her Majesty is Queen of 16 realms, and that perhaps Commonwealth countries could contribute to the yacht, which might mean that they would want it themselves for rambling trade expeditions across the world. Who knows? I think they would be reluctant to call it Britannia in that case; they might want to call it The Commonwealth. Otherwise it might fuel awful sentiments, such as republicanism in Australia, if people were paying their taxes to contribute to a yacht for a far-off country.
That brings me to the name: Britannia. I thought some hon. Members might have looked at the opportunity of having the yacht for the 100th anniversary of the UK, which will fall in December 2022 when the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland becomes 100 years old. That opportunity was missed—perhaps there is some nervousness that Britannia as currently constituted might find itself being two states before that date, with the boat perhaps needing to be called Scotia.
The answer to the calamity facing the UK is not a yacht, which I think a number of hon. Members, in the backs of their minds, really do feel. The answer is not the superstitious notion that all future trade success depends on having a royal yacht. The idea that getting to the front of the queue is based on having a royal yacht belongs on the back of a fag packet. It is not the back of a yacht that gets nations to the front of the queue; it is the professionalism of being a good trading nation and having negotiators—the UK currently has twelve, but it needs about 200. There is a real danger that the UK could be mugged at international negotiations because it does not have the experience of small places like the Faroe Islands or Iceland, which have 50,000 and 300,000 people respectively. Those are the issues that should be bothering the UK.
Top trading nations do not have a royal yacht. China does not have a royal yacht, the USA does not have a royal yacht, Germany does not have a royal yacht. Nor do South Korea, France, Hong Kong or Italy, and all those nations are ahead of the UK.
The countries the hon. Gentleman has just talked about do not have a royal family; we do.
I am not sure what point the hon. Gentleman is making, because they are ahead of us in trading. As a monarchist myself, I do not particularly like the republican sentiments he is leaning towards by indicating that we might be better off in trading if we were a republic. I do not find that at all appealing.
If the UK were able to build a ship, could it not be doing so now? The idea that the Conservatives have suddenly become Keynesians and are looking for a fiscal stimulus to ignite industry across the country rings hollow, particularly when we have seen the fetish of austerity, as my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Deidre Brock) said.
The hostility to the gin market today has surprised me—I would have thought that people could have supported the gin industry, but no. Hon. Members have shown some hostility towards it this afternoon, although happily the whisky industry, in which Scotland excels, was not included in that.
The hon. Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison) made a serious point about a royal yacht being a very big target. A lot of royal naval assets would be tied up in ensuring its safety. In the world we are in at the moment, it would be a sitting duck, and it would cost an awful lot of money to make sure it was safe. In fact, although the costs were put at £7 million a year to finance the boat back on charter from her owners, the crew of about 250, which the royal yacht had, would cost about £7.5 million to £12 million in wages, and the officers would cost a further £1.2 million. That is not including the cost of defending the yacht, which was the important point that the hon. Gentleman made.
Reality came crashing into the debate in the fantastic speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh North and Leith, which some of the hon. Gentlemen present greeted with, indeed, great honour and gentlemanliness. She made a great point about food banks and cuts to social services. To add to that, with the pound crashing, the current projections of costs for the royal yacht may go further north. She correctly made a point about the shortage of armed forces equipment. It is a rose-tinted fiction that we will have a royal yacht, and then all will be well with the situation the UK has found itself in.
This debate has shown that the UK has found itself in some sort of trouble, but I say to colleagues that the answer is not the comfort blanket of a royal yacht. In fact, to the outside world the idea will look bizarre. I cannot wait to see “The Daily Show” with Trevor Noah; the previous presenter Jon Stewart had great fun a few years ago with the UK’s fetish for shipping on the Thames, but this will be seen as high comedy across the world. The idea is that a royal yacht will make Britain great again—I cannot remember which hon. Member said Britain was not great. He did not exactly say that, but he implied that Britain was not great by saying that the yacht would make Britain great again. Another hon. Member said that Britain would stand tall in the world, indicating that Britain does not stand tall in the world at the moment. Indeed, it does not, because of Brexit. It is a laughing stock from Reykjavik to Buenos Aires—that is the reality, and building a royal yacht would only add to that. I am sorry to say that to hon. Members, and I wish them well in what they are trying to do, but the idea of having the comfort blanket of a royal yacht is barking up the wrong tree.
Captain Chope, I pay tribute to your skill in charting this debate away from the rocks and along its voyage. I note the gentlemen of the press waiting, acid pens poised to keelhaul anyone bold enough to disagree with the proposition we are debating today. I defy them; all I can say is, let us hope I am not walking the plank into troubled waters.
I stand second to none in my admiration for the dedicated service of Her Majesty the Queen, and there is little I would begrudge her personally—even what the hon. Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Jake Berry) described as a floating palace. So it is with some trepidation that I find myself debating the idea that has been floated by the hon. Gentleman and some 99 of his Back-Bench colleagues. Given how often Conservative Members have attempted to relaunch this idea of a new or refitted royal yacht, it should really come as no surprise that it has surfaced once again. It is not a new idea; indeed, in my time in the House, this is no less than the third time the matter has been dredged up, Mary Celeste-like, to the surface.
The hon. Member for Aldershot (Sir Gerald Howarth) referred to Sir Thomas Cochrane. Of course, Sir Thomas was an admirable seaman in a great many ways, but I trust the hon. Gentleman recalls that during his service on the Barfleur in 1798 the Sea Wolf, as he was known, was court-martialled for showing disrespect. He was actually dismissed from the Royal Navy in 1814 after being convicted for fraud on the stock exchange.
I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman for referring to Admiral Sir Thomas Cochrane. It is indeed true that there was a trumped up charge against him, which forced him to leave the country, and the beneficiaries were Brazil and Chile. Of course, he upset the Admiralty because he believed that there was a better way to protect ships—by using tar—and he was against the widespread corruption in the Admiralty in those days.
If nothing else, the hon. Gentleman and I are agreed on our admiration for Sir Thomas Cochrane. Of course, he was not readmitted to the Royal Navy until 1832 and, in 1806—he later admitted—he bribed the electors of Honiton by paying each 10 guineas so that he could enter this place, so perhaps he was not always a model that we should aspire to follow.
Here we are once again debating the recommissioning of a yacht that was launched some 63 years ago, as if it were the missing part of the Government’s international trade plan. Unfortunately, it is not. What is most troubling is that it seems to be, if not the only part, certainly one of the more credible parts. When it comes to international trade negotiations, the Government are not very able seamen, who have found themselves drifting rudderless into uncharted waters. A decommissioned boat, however, is not the ideal vessel to pilot their way out.
The recent EU referendum has presented significant challenges about what our future trading relations will look like and how we can go about ensuring that Britain and the British people can benefit. British businesses have relied on access to the single market since it came into force in 1993. Before that, they relied on the reduced tariffs of the customs union that preceded it. Few British businesses, and even fewer British business leaders, will recall just what difficulties were encountered when attempting international trade before that.
Furthermore, our participation in the European project and our membership of the customs union and the subsequent single market made the UK an extremely attractive destination for foreign investment. I do not doubt that that was enhanced by our strong international network, our respect for the rule of law and the dominance of English as an international language, but it is equally foolish to identify our success as having stemmed exclusively from our attributes and not from the access that we enjoy to the world’s largest consumer market. Our trading capacity is a manifestation of our attributes combined with our access to and capacity to influence the regulations of that wider market. Chance and good fortune also played their part, because our capacity to engage in and lead international trade is greatly magnified by virtue of our geography, location and time zone.
A combination of those elements has enabled us to play a leading role in international affairs and trade throughout history, and is why we have been able to continue to attract business investment and promote British exports overseas. It takes time to develop markets, and requires thorough analysis. It take confidence on the part of investors and trust on the part of trading partners.
Today, I am wearing the tie of Polska Zegluga Morska, the Polish steamship company. I put it on quite deliberately this morning, not because the royal yacht was built as a steamship, but because in 1989, before the Berlin wall came down, I began my first trade mission to Poland. Over the next five years, I took delegations from Maritime London, and put on conferences and trade missions in Poland, Ukraine and Russia to open up the market for our marine services industry—our lawyers, insurance brokers, protection and indemnity clubs, engineers and marine surveyors. I know what it is to export into new markets, and I inform the House that it is not about a flash yacht. It comes through diligent market research, understanding the regulatory structures and identifying the gaps that a team or product can fill. That is not doom-mongering or “Project Fear”; it is a reasoned assessment of the factors that feed into successful exports.
The Brexit vote threatens our trading capacity because it makes the questions about regulatory structures and market gaps impossible to answer. Businesses have no idea at the moment which markets they will be able to do business in, nor at what cost. They have no idea about the regulatory framework they will face or which non-tariff barriers they will encounter. They do not know whether they will be able to retain foreign staff or fill recruitment gaps from overseas if they need to.
Investors now see the decision to invoke article 50 as soon as possible as prejudicing the very possibility of a stable transition whereby the answers to those questions can be methodically worked through. We cannot know the extent of the investment decisions that are being suspended or cancelled.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
Because of the time, I will not.
Certain things are literally incalculable, but that does not make them less certain. Such investment decisions are being made, and they will have a long-tail liability—a liability that might only crystallise over years to come.
The idea that we could relaunch an ancient yacht as a beacon of British innovation and enterprise is entirely symptomatic of the nostalgic nonsense that has infected the Government’s approach to the new trading relationship that we must develop in a post-referendum world once the UK leaves the EU. We face the biggest constitutional and commercial challenge of our lifetimes, and we are here today to discuss relaunching a long-retired yacht. The Germans and the French must be quaking—not in their boots, but with laughter. The Chinese and the Americans, who are looking on in astonishment, must be wondering why we are incapable of seeing the gravity of our own situation.
It greatly concerns me that this debate sends a signal to the rest of the world that we still see the best of Britain as being behind us. We are a world leader in financial and legal services, the automotive and engineering sectors, pharmaceuticals, biosciences, business, energy, construction, fashion, art and music. But at this precise moment—when the fashion and textiles industry is asking where it will get linkers from in a post-Brexit world, when Nissan and Jaguar Land Rover are suspending future investment decisions until they have clarity on market access, and when the pharmaceutical sector is at its wits’ end over losing the European Medicines Agency from the UK—the best that this Government can come up with, as they studiously avoid giving us a running commentary, is to bring us here today to debate the recommissioning of Her Majesty’s yacht Britannia.
Government is not about playing with toy boats as virility symbols. The Government should be engaging with British business and setting out strategic proposals on an industry-by-industry basis, to promote Britain and our exports overseas. They need to tell the financial services industry—our biggest export sector—how they propose to protect the passporting regime that has allowed British financial institutions to transact business across the EU. That facility has been material to our capacity to attract foreign banks to establish their European operations throughout the UK. Those banks are now openly discussing and actively investigating relocations to Dublin, Paris, Frankfurt or Luxembourg.
Given how many trade missions the royal yacht Britannia undertook on behalf of the British Invisible Exports Council, perhaps the Back Benchers who signed the letter supporting the motion might better spend their time exploring the threats to the financial services industry in the UK. How much would it cost to refit a yacht of that size and bring it up to modern technological standards? How much would it cost to crew and maintain the vessel? How many Royal Navy staff would be taken away from active service elsewhere to crew the yacht? What security and counter-terrorism measures would need to be undertaken to ensure that the yacht would not be a sitting duck terrorist target?
Order. The convention is that Front Benchers have 10 minutes to wind up. The hon. Gentleman has already been speaking for 11 minutes. It would be helpful if the Minister had time to respond and the proposer of the motion was able to have the last word.
Captain Chope, I apologise. I had not realised that the time had gone so fast. I will conclude my remarks there.
It is a great pleasure to follow the shadow Secretary of State for International Trade with his surfeit of maritime metaphors and his admiration for Admiral Sir Thomas Cochrane.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Jake Berry) on securing the debate. The topic is clearly a subject of great passion for many people across the House. I, for one, have always been a great fan of the royal yacht, which has been involved in many totemic events in our history, not least on 1 July 1997, when it slipped its moorings at HMS Tamar, rounded Hong Kong island and set off into the South China sea as the Union flag was lowered for the final time on the crown colony of Hong Kong.
I will pick up on a couple of points raised in the debate. The first is the recommissioning of the royal yacht in support of trade promotion. It is pretty clear that this Chamber is not in favour of that at all, which is right. In 1997 it was calculated that buying an extra five years for the former royal yacht would have cost £17 million and an extra 20 years would have cost £20 million. The former royal yacht is clearly well past its active life.
The second proposal is the potential commissioning of a new royal yacht in support of trade promotion, and I will take this opportunity to provide some context for the role and purpose of the Department for International Trade. The new Department has overall responsibility for promoting British trade across the world under the leadership of my right hon. Friend the Member for North Somerset (Dr Fox). We will bang the drum for Britain across the world and pull out all the stops in boosting our trade, working with our overseas diplomatic missions to promote the UK as a place to do business and to trade with, driving inward investment and, in time, negotiating trade agreements. The Department will be the key player in selling the UK through exports and trade promotion, negotiating trade deals and attracting foreign direct investment into the UK. The Department will use any and all resources and assets at its disposal to secure those agreements and to boost our trade.
The royal yacht Britannia was, and is, an iconic symbol of Great Britain. As the second royal yacht to bear the name Britannia, and the 83rd such royal vessel, she was for more than 40 years an instantly recognisable feature on the seas as a representation of the United Kingdom, our royal family and our diplomatic service, and as a platform to showcase the best of the United Kingdom. Britannia’s primary role, at which she excelled, was to provide a base for the royal family’s national and international engagements, for which she sailed more than 1 million miles, undertaking just under 8,000 engagements—272 of those engagements were within British waters.
Britannia was the first ocean-going royal yacht, and her primary role was to provide a base for the royal family when going overseas. Before the royal yacht was built, the royal family used to—“hijack” is the wrong word—take control of an ocean liner or a royal naval warship and use it as their base, but the yacht’s secondary role was to provide a base from which the UK could engage with other Governments through diplomacy to secure trade and investment opportunities. Thirdly, of course, HMY Britannia had a reserve role as a potential medical facility in the event of conflict, a role for which she was fortunately never required but, as we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth South (Mrs Drummond), she was used for the evacuation of Aden in 1986, when she evacuated 1,000 people of 44 different nationalities.
The royal yacht’s multifunctional role made it unique and special, projecting the United Kingdom’s diplomatic influence and reflecting the United Kingdom’s proud heritage as a seafaring trading nation. We are determined to make a success of our global role in the world, but recommissioning the royal yacht Britannia is not something the Government are considering at all. We will listen to the cases being proposed, but there are clear issues on feasibility and cost. The existing ship is a popular tourist attraction in Edinburgh.
Although there is no doubt that Britannia presents an impressive backdrop to the signing of trade and investment deals, there was and is much more to negotiations, which involve discussion, engagement and hard graft behind the scenes away from the pomp and splendour of the signing table—my hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale and Darwen said that although £3 billion-worth of trade deals were done, there is no conclusive evidence that the deals would not have been signed were it not for the royal yacht. Such hard work is central to the Department for International Trade’s responsibility to successfully negotiate trade agreements when we leave the EU in order to secure the UK’s economic future.
Today’s debate proposes the reintroduction of the royal yacht, which is currently moored in Scotland as a popular visitor attraction. Twenty years ago, the then Government proposed a replacement for Britannia, which was then more than 40 years old and in need of overhaul or replacement. Of course, as we know, the decision was taken to retire her without replacement. More recently, the royal yacht has been moored at the port of Leith and receives hundreds of thousands of visitors every year. The cost of reintroduction, including major overhaul to the engines, has not been explored but, as I mentioned earlier, even in 1997 it would have been very expensive. I also have no doubt that making moves to commandeer Britannia from her current home in Scotland would be strongly resisted—that point has been made vociferously.
As we have heard, there are also proposals to commission a new royal yacht, which many Members and organisations would support. As my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Oliver Colvile) said, I was once commodore of the House of Commons yacht club—I am not entirely certain that I do not still hold that position—and as such I am a natural ally of all things offshore, but hard facts stand in the way of a new yacht, not least the need for significant levels of funding to commission, build, fit out and maintain the vessel. We have heard that a vessel could be funded from outside sources, but a new yacht would require the latest design and technology, which the United Kingdom is best placed to provide. That would come at a cost, and we have yet to find out exactly how the yacht would be funded.
Media coverage over the past fortnight has included an alleged proposal for a replacement yacht from almost 20 years ago. Although it was not an official proposal, the figure of £60 million to build the new yacht would now likely be double that. There is also the additional cost to the taxpayer of operation and maintenance, which would need to be factored in.
I welcome the Minister to his role but, for goodness’ sake, let us place this in context. We spend £12 billion a year on overseas aid and, although it may not be possible to itemise exactly how much the royal yacht Britannia delivered in trade deals, the sentiment in this Chamber today is explicit that a new royal yacht at a modest £120 million would deliver for the British people a statement of our intent post-Brexit and would deliver a return on investment to the British economy.
I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s intervention, and I know he is passionate about this subject and Sir Thomas Cochrane, but we have not seen a business proposal or a cost-benefit analysis, so this debate is slightly hypothetical. The international development budget is separate from this discussion. We are talking about trade, not international development, which is slightly different. I think we would all be keen to see my hon. Friend make a business proposal, and no one is trying to stop him.
The former royal yacht was crewed by the Royal Navy and, as we have heard, there are three particular factors that need to be taken into account. A new royal yacht would fly the white ensign, would be state owned and would function as a floating royal palace, which means that the royal yacht would have to be manned by the Royal Navy. That would put pressure on the senior service. Even once those financial challenges were potentially overcome through private sponsors and donations, it would not negate the ongoing liability for 10, 20 or 40 years.
I also wonder whether a new yacht would provide the best return on investment. From 1989 to 1996, Britannia undertook 37 visits in support of UK exports and investment, which is not a huge number when we consider that in some years it cost as much as £12 million to run—it was expensive. Of those visits, more than a quarter were around the United Kingdom. We have new routes in emerging markets, and we have stronger ties and partnerships than ever before that have helped to secure our position as an open, outward-facing trading nation. It is also worth bearing in mind that we have 270 posts and missions across the world where we are flying the flag for Britain and going out to promote our country, which is important.
The Department was set up with the purpose of ensuring that we seize every opportunity that leaving the EU presents to forge a new way in the world and to make Britain a global leader in free trade. I am acutely aware that people in this room are firmly behind the proposal, but I make it clear that the Government have no plans, and have had no plans, to commission a new royal yacht. As such, it is very unlikely indeed that we would use taxpayers’ money to fund either a royal commission or an investigation into whether we could commission a new royal yacht.
I thank all colleagues who have attended and supported today’s debate. I also thank you, Mr Chope, for being such an excellent Chairman. I was a remainer in the EU referendum, and I have tried not to become a “remoaner,” which is what we heard from the Labour and Scottish National party spokespeople. Our proposal is simple: no public funds should be committed to the building of a new royal yacht. The will of the House is clear today that people do not have an appetite to recommission the existing royal yacht Britannia, but if we can find a way to privately fund a new royal yacht, it is something that the Government should seriously consider. I am encouraged that the Minister said that the Government would consider a cost-benefit analysis and that their minds are not closed.
The old royal yacht, which is in Leith docks, is something in which our nation can still take huge pride. It is the most popular tourist attraction in Scotland, and we have heard today that it should remain as a beacon for Edinburgh and Leith around the globe. This debate has received international attention, and I have been overwhelmed by requests for interviews from the German media. We need to understand that in Britain we do not appreciate the contribution that a royal yacht can make in a way that other countries would appreciate—they seem keen to see a new royal yacht rule the waves.
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).
EU Referendum: Immigration and Disability Employment
[Albert Owen in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered immigration policy and the disability employment gap after the EU referendum.
Members who have looked at the title of this debate may not immediately understand what I am driving at. I raise the subject of immigration and disability employment not just because I have been both Immigration Minister and Minister for Disabled People, but because I think we have a very good opportunity, post-Brexit, to look at getting more disabled people into work. I am pleased to see the Minister for Immigration in his place; I am also pleased to see the Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work here today, because that demonstrates that the Government are joined up on these matters and that Ministers in different Departments work closely together.
A number of issues came out of the referendum. First, the British people want us to have control of immigration, both from within and from without the European Union. I think that will mean ending the free movement of people and applying the same rules to those coming from inside the EU and to those coming from outside the EU, in one consistent immigration system. It flows from that—and from the fact that the Conservative party has twice committed, in our 2010 and 2015 manifestos, to reducing net migration—that we should use that extra control to reduce net migration to the United Kingdom. If we are to have a dynamic, fast-growing economy that continues to generate lots of jobs, as we have done consistently over the last six years—indeed, businesses have created more jobs in Britain, using the conditions created by the coalition Government and by this Conservative Government, than the whole of the rest of the European Union put together—we need to increase the ability for businesses to use the talents of those British citizens who are not yet in the labour market.
The referendum has also given the Government the opportunity to deliver another manifesto commitment, which is to halve the disability employment gap—the gap between the proportion of people who are disabled who are in work and the proportion of the working-age population as a whole. We can use Brexit as an opportunity to challenge businesses to use some imagination and effort to look harder at employing people with a disability, whether that is a mental health problem, a learning disability or a physical disability. Those are the messages that arise and that I will elaborate on a little further in my speech, before my hon. Friend the Minister responds—positively, I hope—on behalf of the Government.
Having caught the end of the previous debate, I want to lay my cards on the table. I come at this issue as someone who supported the remain campaign but, as I mentioned, I have also been Immigration Minister, so I understand the complexities and challenges facing the Minister as he grapples with the subject. The Prime Minister, who as a former Home Secretary knows how challenging this area is, has said that there is no single policy that can be introduced to control immigration; getting a handle on it requires detailed, relentless work over time. As soon as the Government close one loophole, people get around it. The world changes and the needs of the economy change. If we are to have an immigration system that delivers for the economy and the British people, that relentless, detailed work needs to continue.
When I was Immigration Minister, I found it very frustrating not to be able to control EU migration. We could control it a little—we could crack down on overt abuse—but it was largely outside the control of Ministers and of Parliament. That was very frustrating, and Brexit is an opportunity to get it right. It seemed to me in the referendum campaign that one of the important issues, although not the only one, that led to the vote to leave the European Union was that the British people were frustrated that free movement within the EU did not give their elected Government and their elected representatives the ability to control immigration and to choose who came to our country in the way they thought we should. I do not think that was the only issue, but it was clear from the general election campaign and from the referendum campaign that it is important and we need to address it.
As I said, the Conservative party made a clear commitment in both our last two manifestos to reduce net migration to sustainable levels, which is defined as reducing it from hundreds of thousands to tens of thousands. That ambition has been reconfirmed, post-referendum, by the Prime Minister. She has been realistic that it will take time to deliver—we are not likely to leave the European Union for another two years after article 50 has been triggered, and it will take time for the implementation of policies to take effect after that—but we can get on a path to delivering that target. That would be welcome, and I know the Minister would be keen to achieve it.
It is worth saying that this is not just about our manifesto commitment. The reason for reducing net migration is that, certainly at the lower end of the labour market, there is evidence that high levels of migration can have an impact on wage levels. That was one of the issues reflected in the British people’s decision to leave the European Union. Particularly in areas that have large numbers of new migrants, there can be significant pressures on public services, which we also heard about from the public: pressures on accessing doctors, other healthcare services, schools and housing. All those pressures would be alleviated if we controlled migration more effectively.
If no British citizens at all were out of work, clearly it would make sense to import workers from overseas to fill the skill gaps and the gaps in the labour market. However, although unemployment is very low—less than 5%, which is a success both of Government policy and of the work done over the years of the coalition Government, particularly by my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr Duncan Smith), to make the benefits system more flexible and to encourage people to get into work, with changes such as universal credit—a significant number of British people who are capable of working and would like to work have some sort of barrier or difficulty that makes it harder to get a job.
I do not particularly want to fire statistics at the Minister, but it is worth looking at the number of people who claim employment and support allowance and are in the work-related activity group, which means they have a condition that will allow them to work at some point in the future. There are nearly half a million people in that category, half of whom are people with mental health conditions, for example, who would be able to work if they were given the opportunity to do so and their employer made reasonable adjustments. There are more than 1.5 million people in the support group; again, with reasonable adjustments, some of those people would be able to enter the workplace. I remind the Minister that many of those people would like to work. They want the opportunity to work, but they do not currently get it.
There are also significant numbers of people with a learning disability who would be capable of working and would love the opportunity to work but do not currently get it. It is worth mentioning some information that Mencap has provided for this debate. It points out that there are 1.4 million people in the United Kingdom with a learning disability. Mencap exists to support those people and their families. It estimates that around eight in every 10 of those 1.4 million people with a learning disability could do work, with the right support, but also that only two in every 10 of them are currently in employment. That means that, according to Mencap staff, who are experts on such matters, six in every 10 people with a learning disability—840,000 people—could do some sort of work but are not currently given the opportunity.
Mencap says that the majority of people with a learning disability can work and want to work. The figures are stark: the national employment percentage is in the high 70s, but the overall disability employment rate is just below 50%. Mencap makes the point that there is a large pool of people who are capable of working and would like the opportunity to work, but who are not currently given the opportunity to do so.
I was very much in the out camp and was pleased that the referendum went the way it did. My constituents asked me whether they would continue to be protected by disabilities legislation, as they are while we are in the EU. Is it the right hon. Gentleman’s intention that that legislative protection would still be given outside the EU? I understand the Government committed to that, so I am keen to hear whether that is the case. If it is, the existing protection in legislation will continue.
I welcome that intervention because, although I am sure that the Minister will respond to that point, it gives me the opportunity to remind the House that it was a Conservative Government who in 1995 brought in the first Disability Discrimination Act, which was taken through the Commons by Lord Hague of Richmond, who was then simply William Hague and a Minister in the Department that became the Department for Work and Pensions. That was trailblazing legislation in this country, informed by the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, which Lord Hague had studied carefully. He had the full support of the then Prime Minister, John Major, in taking it through the House.
That legislation is largely domestic and was introduced by a Conservative Government. When the last Labour Government introduced the Equality Act 2010, which consolidated a lot of legislation in one place, we supported that. I was the Conservative Front-Bench spokesman at the time, and I would not anticipate any change—certainly no diminution—in the legislative protection for disabled people when we leave the European Union. I am sure that the Minister will confirm that.
Some people might be thinking, “Well, the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) made that point at a timely moment. All this legislative protection is in place, so what difference will leaving the European Union make?” I received a briefing note from the Papworth Trust, which is another excellent organisation that helps disabled people to get into work. I suggest businesses need to put more effort and imagination into hiring people. The Papworth Trust says:
“A major barrier for our customers”
—the disabled people whom it helps—
“is that employers often seek ‘ready-made’ employees who are proficient in their role with minimum training, support or cost to the employer.”
The trust also highlights the fact that there are many good employers that go that extra mile.
My argument is that, post-Brexit, we can say to employers, “You’re not going to have the ability to hire people who are ready to drop straight into your company off the shelf. You are going to have to look harder at people who might require extra training or assistance. The Government should stand ready to help you, perhaps by dealing with the extra costs of hiring some of those disabled people, but you should look at them and give them the opportunity. They will repay you by being productive, valued and valuable employees.” The Government can challenge employers on their attitudes. As I said, there are already some very good employers. The Government’s Disability Confident scheme helps to share best practice and gives employers the confidence to hire more disabled people. It is a very good example.
I have several asks to make of the Minister. First, he should continue the work that the Government are already doing in the Department for Work and Pensions, which is working closely with the Home Office on this matter. As I highlighted at the start of the debate, the fact that Ministers from both Departments are present and listening to the debate is excellent. I have had conversations with both the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions and the Home Secretary on this matter. They are both keen to make progress in this area.
Secondly, we need to identify the sectors of the economy in which we are currently very dependent on migration from the European Union. For both entry-level and skilled jobs, we should find out where people with a disability could provide a contribution to employers.
Thirdly, the Government need to work in partnership with employers, but also to utilise the third and charitable sectors. I have already mentioned several organisations, but Mind is a prominent mental health charity that encourages employers to employ people with a mental health problem. Scope and Mencap are both excellent organisations that continue to work in partnership with the Government and employers.
I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. I cannot agree with everything he has said about immigration but, on the disability employment gap, I have to concur with a lot of what he said. Will he encourage his colleagues in the Government to bring forward the Green Paper on the health and work programme so that some of the issues we are discussing can be teased out further?
Part of the reason why I started to have some of the conversations I have been having and secured this debate was to inform the wider debate. I think the Government are planning to publish the Green Paper in the autumn. Part of the point of discussing these subjects is to feed into the strands of thinking that will go into the Green Paper, which is of course a consultation document. As the Government listen to responses from employers, Members of Parliament and the charitable sector, they can include this debate as one thing they think about as they formulate the specific plans that will be published in a White Paper and perhaps, if required, in legislation.
The final thing I want to say to the Minister is that he should look at some of the help that the Government could provide to employers and at some of the help that is already in place, to see whether, if we were successful in getting a significant number of disabled people into work, it would be sufficiently flexible and scalable. I would like my hon. Friend to look specifically at the Access to Work programme, which is an excellent scheme, but not as well known as we would hope. One of my concerns is that, were we as successful as I hope we can be, we would run into a problem, because Access to Work is currently funded by the departmental expenditure of the Department for Work and Pensions. Were a lot more people to want to use Access to Work to help to fund the reasonable adjustments that employers might need to make, we would run up against a funding barrier. Scope has proposed that Access to Work should be funded from annually managed expenditure so that it can be scaled as necessary in response to demand.
In summary, the Minister should work closely with other Departments across Government, which is already happening but must continue; he should look at the Green Paper that the Government are going to publish and the feedback from it, and build in the ideas I have outlined; and he should look at the help that the Government already provide to employers to check that it is going to deliver in the new environment. If we do that and get that imagination and effort from employers, with support from Government, one thing that will flow from Brexit will be further opportunities for disabled people to get into work. To use the phrase of the moment, we can then truly build a country that works for everyone.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Owen. I commend my right hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper) on securing the debate, on his eloquent contribution and on his article on this very subject in today’s Times newspaper. As both a former Minister for Disabled People and a former distinguished holder of the post that I now occupy, he brings unique knowledge and experience to the debate. Indeed, there was very little in what he said with which I could disagree. I welcome the fact that the Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work was present for my right hon. Friend’s contribution, which shows that we work across Government on such matters.
One issue that my right hon. Friend raised was the help and support that can be given to employers on the hiring of people with disabilities. I would also like to talk about people with abilities; we have talked a lot about disability, but the abilities that people have are a tremendous resource, although in many ways it goes untapped. Our small employer offer now gives advice and financial support to small and medium-sized enterprises, and further ideas will be explored in the forthcoming work and health Green Paper, which he referred to.
I will discuss my current area of responsibility shortly, but first I will mention the real advances that this Government have made in employment and disability employment. In the past six years, we have overseen huge increases in the number of 16 to 64-year-olds in employment. Since May 2010, employment has risen by 2.3 million, with 74.5% of people of working age now in employment. That is a testament to our record of helping nearly a million new businesses to set up and grow, and of creating nearly 3 million new apprenticeships. We have also taken the lowest-paid workers out of income tax and introduced a new national living wage to help sustain the labour market. In addition, during the past three years the number of disabled people in work has increased by almost half a million. A total of 3.4 million disabled people are now in the workforce.
However, there is much more to do. The labour force survey from 2015 tells us that 11% of disabled people of working age have never worked, compared with 8% of non-disabled people. There are also important differences in the highest educational qualifications of working- age disabled and non-disabled people, which may affect the employment opportunities and income of each group. Also, while the rate of employment for those of working age is at 74.5% overall, it is at 47.9% for disabled people.
We recognise that the gap between the employment rates of disabled people and non-disabled people remains too large, which is why we are committed to halving it. This Government are ambitious for disabled people and people with health conditions, and we want to remove the barriers that prevent them from working. We want every individual to have the opportunity to share in the economic and health benefits that work brings.
The Government’s ambition to halve the disability employment gap has been widely recognised as being bold and challenging. The gap has persisted over time, under successive Governments, and is the result of a complex blend of factors. We plan to publish the Green Paper that I have referred to shortly. It will explore a range of ways to improve the prospects and transform the lives of disabled people and people with long-term health conditions. We want to remove the barriers that prevent them from working, and help to ensure that they are able to obtain work and remain in it.
We look forward to the publication of the Green Paper, but will the Government commit to putting forward any extra resources? A number of the areas that the Green Paper would seek to address, including helping people with learning disabilities or mental health conditions, would require a bespoke intervention and a bespoke service, which is obviously expensive. Is it possible for the Government to commit more funding to what will be proposed in the Green Paper?
Of course, a review of resourcing will be part of the review, but let us not forget that getting people into work means that they will be less reliant on benefits and more able to contribute, not only to their own lives but to the economy through the tax they will pay.
By the end of this Parliament, we want to have shown that there are interventions that can meaningfully address the pay gap, and to be on the way to securing success. Addressing the gap is partly about ensuring that employers do all they can to fill jobs with people in the resident labour market, including disabled people.
I apologise for arriving late for the debate, Mr Owen. Does the Minister agree that we should actually be quite optimistic, given that employers report above average levels of commitment and loyalty from their existing disabled workers? That is a good story to get over to employers.
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. This process is about sharing the experiences of employers who have managed to deliver on this issue, to show that it is not something that employers should be frightened of. Rather, it is a real opportunity for their business that they should grasp with both hands.
Although nine out of 10 people employed here are UK nationals, we want to reduce the reliance on international workers, as part of our manifesto commitment to reduce net migration to sustainable levels, which means in the tens of thousands and not the hundreds of thousands. Working with colleagues across Government, I am determined to deliver on that commitment.
We have legislated twice to stop illegal migrants from operating under the radar, but there is no doubt that there is still far more that we can do. In March, we announced a package of measures to reform the routes for skilled workers, to ensure that only those who can make a real economic contribution can come to the UK. We are setting higher salary thresholds and introducing an immigration skills charge of £1,000 per worker per year, to boost funding for the training of UK workers. My right hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean referred to the pressure on wage rates from immigration, and that change will help to address that problem. Nevertheless, there is more we can do to ensure that we continue to attract the brightest and best, while also ensuring that we clamp down on abuse and create opportunities for resident workers and disabled people.
As my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary announced last week, we will shortly consult on potential reform to our work and study migration systems. We will look very carefully at the work routes, including examining whether we should tighten up the test that companies have to take before recruiting from abroad.
We will do all we can to encourage employers to offer jobs to resident labour, including, of course, disabled people. We will consult on plans to ask any company seeking to sponsor a visa to bring in a non-EU worker to provide details of the proportion of work visa holders in their workforce, alongside other information used to support the visa application process. That already happens in the United States and is one of several proposals that we will consult on as part of our work to ensure that companies take reasonable steps to recruit at home before looking to bring in workers from abroad.
As with other information used in the visa process, that work would not involve, and was never intended to involve, the publication of the ratio of resident workers to foreign workers, nor the creation of lists or names of workers. We are considering adding other conditions that must be met before a company can recruit from abroad—for example, considering what steps they have taken to train up a local workforce. We are committed to reducing non-EU migration across all visa routes, to bring net migration down to sustainable levels as soon as possible.
British businesses have driven the economic recovery in this country, with employment now at record levels. However, we still need to do more, so that all British people, including disabled people, get the right opportunities they need to get on in life. What is happening now is not fair on the companies doing the right thing, so I will consider again whether our immigration system provides the right incentives for businesses to invest in resident workers.
I turn to the referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union, about which my right hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean spoke in some detail. Like him, I was on the remain side of the argument, but I accept the wishes of the British people as expressed at the ballot box. As the Prime Minister has made clear, Brexit means Brexit, and we will make a success of it. The Prime Minister has announced that we will trigger article 50 by next March. Beyond that, however, she has rightly been clear that we should not provide a running commentary on events, and it would not be right for me to set out the terms of our negotiations here, even if I was aware of all of them. What I will say is that, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean suggested, leaving the European Union presents us with an opportunity to look afresh at all the issues around free movement.
Currently, nationals from countries in the European economic area have the right in EU law to enter the UK for any purpose for up to three months, and to stay indefinitely to work. They can access services and employment on the basis of their EU passport or identity card. Free movement rights are exercised at the discretion of the EEA national, rather than with the permission of the destination member state. Since 2004, free movement from the A8—the eight accession countries—and from the A2 countries, Bulgaria and Romania, has provided employers with a readily available pool of cheap labour. That has had a significant impact on employment practices, so any restrictions would clearly have an impact.
EU nationals, excluding Irish nationals, account for almost 6% of total UK employment, but they are over-represented in sectors such as hospitality, manufacturing, agriculture, transport and storage. It is in that context that we can look again at prioritising employment for the resident labour market, including disabled people. We should look at where disabled people are able to provide a contribution, while ensuring that the right safeguards are put in place, particularly if they do not have an advocate to work in their best interests. That will require close working across Government, but I assure my right hon. Friend that in order to address these issues I will work closely with my counterparts in his other former Department, the Department for Work and Pensions; with the voluntary sector, where appropriate; and, of course, with employers.
I assure my right hon. Friend that the position of the disabled is, and will remain, a priority for this Government in the months and years ahead. We will seize every opportunity to ensure that, wherever possible, those with disabilities are helped into the workforce.
Question put and agreed to.
HS2: North-west of England
We now move to the next debate. From the outset, I want to make it clear that it is an hour-long debate and that I will call the three Front-Bench spokespersons, including the Minister, within half an hour. A number of Members are down to speak and I ask them to be concise. I am sure that the Member moving the motion will take interventions, if necessary, during his opening remarks.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered HS2 in the North West of England.
I am grateful for the opportunity to raise the question of High Speed 2 in the north-west of England, and it is a great pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Owen.
Infrastructure investment should be a good thing for the economy, and in principle I am all in favour of HS2, and HS3, HS4, and HS5. But as things stand, and until assurances are given by the Government, I remain ambivalent that HS2 will truly bring the promised benefits to all of the UK. Indeed, if rumours, press stories and anonymous briefings are to be believed, it will simply be a fast link between the major centres of London, Birmingham and Manchester that will help to expand those three big cities while further squeezing out growth in the areas outside those metropolises. Therefore, the consideration must be about not just the physical layout of the line and its track works, but the services on it, and the line design must flow from the service level required, rather than the other way around.
I sound that element of caution because, as we have seen with HS2 phase one, once the project gets passed over to the Treasury, finance often becomes the only—and a short-term—consideration. For example, the HS2 spur to Heathrow Airport is lost, with warnings of further cuts. Indeed, we are still waiting for formal confirmation that HS2 will go ahead at all, which is one reason I always called for the whole project to be built from the north to the south, to ensure that it did not simply become yet another major infrastructure programme focused solely on London and the south-east. Worse than that would be the opportunity missed if the wrong strategy for HS2 in the north-west was adopted. The Government’s own vision for HS2 in its consultation envisaged that only two trains per hour would stop at Crewe, with the majority of trains going into a tunnel just south of Crewe and bypassing the station, and therefore the region—my sub-region—completely.
In making my case, I am pleased to call in support two principal backers: Sir David Higgins, with his report “HS2 Plus”, and the board of the Cheshire and Warrington local enterprise partnership. Our LEP’s economic strategy is based very clearly on the vision of Sir David Higgins of a hub at Crewe, interlinked with local lines and distributing the growth benefits across our sub-region. Sir David’s report demonstrates that Crewe sits at the very centre of the north-west rail system, and states very clearly that Crewe should therefore become a regional transport hub, with HS2 fully integrated into plans for revitalising the northern economy as a whole. Rail lines from Crewe radiate towards Manchester and Liverpool, Stoke and Derby, and Warrington, and on to Lancashire and Scotland, Shrewsbury and mid-Wales, and many of the smaller towns in Cheshire, as well as Chester and north Wales and the Wirral. A proper regional rail hub at Crewe would allow all of those places to enjoy the benefits of the huge investment that the nation is making in the new line.
From the work undertaken by my LEP, the main conclusion is clear: a proper regional hub at Crewe could extend the benefits of HS2 to 1.5 million people across the north-west and north Wales, reducing travel time to London by an hour. Those figures come from modelling work done by Mott MacDonald, commissioned by the LEP. The firm was asked to assume that five trains per hour from London stop at Crewe, with up to four trains an hour then running from Crewe on all the lines that radiate out from there. In some cases, perhaps because there are single track sections on the line, that would not be possible, so the LEP asked Mott MacDonald to limit the number of additional trains to what the current infrastructure can accommodate.
My own local authority, Cheshire West and Chester, working with neighbouring authorities in the Mersey Dee Alliance area, which includes councils across the border in north Wales, has also identified the importance of rail infrastructure as central to the economic growth of our region. “Growth Track 360”, a report published by that alliance of businesses and political and public sector leaders, led by Samantha Dixon, the leader of Cheshire West and Chester council, has set out a programme of rail improvements that will transform the economies of Cheshire and north Wales by providing better links between places in Cheshire and the Wirral and into north Wales. By linking such improvements into the services radiating out from a proper rail hub at Crewe, we can offer even more people in Cheshire, north Wales and Merseyside the benefits of the journey time improvements that HS2 provides.
“Growth Track 360” also calls for developments at Crewe to be future-proofed, to ensure that in the long term HS2 trains have the ability to “turn left at Crewe”, as we say, towards Chester and on to north Wales. If that does not happen, 1.5 million people will be on a branch line and the full benefits of HS2 will be lost. Surely those areas also have a right to benefit from public investment in HS2? But, just as importantly, they have the right not to suffer from—to coin a phrase used on the railways—the wrong type of HS2.
I am clear that if we do not get the Higgins vision of a rail hub, investment and growth will be sucked out of and away from Cheshire and other parts of the north-west in favour of the already big cities. I do not want Cheshire’s growth to depend on crumbs from the table of Manchester. Employers in my area already tell me that they lose skilled workers to Manchester because the local rail links to Manchester and the local and regional motorway network—yes, I am talking about the M56—are insufficient. If the strategic rail network also fails to serve the entire region, the negative effects could be catastrophic and long term.
My LEP has drawn some interesting and valuable comparisons with the effect of high-speed rail connectivity in similar circumstances elsewhere. Lyon was the first city to be connected to the TGV network in France. It now handles more than 100,000 passengers a day more than when it was opened, and it has led to the creation of 40,000 new jobs in the area around the station. Lille is a city about the same size as Warrington. In the eight years after its TGV station was opened, employment in the city and the surrounding region grew by nearly 120,000. Key to that success was the creation of a strong local network of trains, trams and buses linking to the TGV network at Lille station, much like the regional rail hub Sir David Higgins proposed for Crewe. Kakegawa is a similar-sized city to Chester. It was originally bypassed by the Japanese high-speed rail network. It finally got a new station in 1988, leading directly to an almost 40% increase in industrial output in the town in just four years.
So, in the debate and more generally, we now await the Government’s proposals for HS2 phase two. I am grateful for the Transport Minister’s attendance today and even more grateful that it is he and not one of his colleagues from the Treasury who will respond. Clearly, one of the big concerns of HS2 is cost, and we cannot write blank cheques, but if we can consider HS2 as an investment that will benefit the whole country, hopefully we can arrive at a solution that spreads its wealth across the whole country too. Central to that is the Higgins hub at Crewe with its five or six trains an hour, and through services connecting HS2 to all the major towns and cities in the north-west and on to Birmingham and London.
In conclusion, we have a choice: we can take Harry Beck’s plan of the London underground, draw a short line above Chesham and Amersham showing Birmingham and Manchester, and consider HS2 to be just another part of London’s transport network, or we can recognise that a truly national project should have truly national benefits. I suggest to the Minister that now would be a great time for the Government to confirm that their intention is the latter.
I have just sought clarification about the wind-ups. The Labour and Scottish National parties have five minutes each, not 10, to wind up, and the Minister has 10 minutes to respond to the debate.
It is a pleasure to take part in the debate. I agree with much of what the hon. Member for City of Chester (Christian Matheson) said. HS2 has the potential to bring huge benefits to my constituency if the appropriate system of hub and spoke is in place. Winsford in particular could benefit from that development, as it is on the line that runs to Chester. However, I urge caution to the Minister on routing through my constituency.
Eddisbury is geologically unique. It has a salt mine that provides 60% of the salt that keeps our roads clear and the neighbouring constituency has underground gas storage for the UK’s gas reserves. The whole area is riddled with wild and mined brine extraction with large areas of wet rockhead, where water causes the salt to dissolve, which results in subsidence problems and continuously shifting ground.
If the money is to be spent, it needs to be spent properly and needs to ensure those five or six trains to Crewe and a link to Manchester airport in order to deliver for the region. The Minister will shortly receive further information in the form of an expert report, which will highlight some of the engineering issues that will be faced on the route currently proposed through Eddisbury. At present, HS2 has no baseline figures in terms of subsidence. It is not undertaking ground movement assessments in the area using the most up-to-date InSAR satellite imaging technology. If the Government are not to incur vastly increased costs, it is vital that a baseline is established and that ongoing ground movement monitoring is carried out in order to understand the seismicity of the area and its vulnerabilities.
In terms of supporting the line itself, 100-metre-deep pilings might be needed, running through salt. That would be a unique engineering project for Eddisbury’s particular geology. I would urge the Minister to cost that section of the route carefully and examine, with the very strict Treasury criteria, whether value could be achieved by aligning the route elsewhere, which might deliver a better outcome for Cheshire as a whole as well as deliver the kind of economic benefits that the local enterprise partnership has talked about.
I know time is short and I want to move on to compensation for my residents. At the moment, the announcement on phase 2b of HS2 has been considerably delayed. That has substantially disadvantaged residents, who are currently able only to access compensation through the exceptional hardship scheme, rather than the need-to-sell scheme. The need-to-sell scheme only requires applicants to show unreasonable burden. It is not fair for residents on phase 2b to have a less fair scheme when it is no fault of their own that the route announcement has been delayed. Is the Minister prepared to say today that the need-to-sell scheme could be extended to those residents of Eddisbury affected by the route issues?
HS2 could bring huge benefits, but it has to bring those benefits in a way that includes a proper cost-benefit analysis. Where the evidence shows that the routing may not be appropriate and accurate, the arguments made by the hon. Member for City of Chester (Christian Matheson) for appropriate stops locally at Crewe, and the establishment of the hub-and-spoke system and proper investment for the station, can only be done if consideration is given to where savings can be made on the route on the Treasury costings. In the meantime, some of my residents are affected by blight. Bearing in mind that those residents are relatively small in number at present, I would ask that the Government consider extending the need-to-sell scheme to them immediately. There is much more I could say, but I shall write to the Minister to outline my further arguments.
I have always been a supporter of greater investment in our railway network and, as someone who was on the HS2 Bill Committee, examining the Bill line-by-line, I remain convinced that bringing high-speed rail to the UK is essential. Therefore, it is a pleasure to be in this debate under your chairmanship today, Mr Owen.
We have got to secure greater capacity on our railway network—it really is as simple as that. Demand on our railways has exploded over recent years. Total passenger journeys have more than doubled—from 735 million in 1995 to 1.5 billion journeys in 2013. By 2026, peak demand is projected to hit 250% of capacity at Euston, 200% of capacity at Birmingham New Street and 175% of capacity at Manchester Piccadilly. The west coast main line will be full by 2024. During morning peak-time services, around 3,000 passengers arrive standing into London Euston or Birmingham each day, unable to get a seat despite paying the full fare. These are journeys not of 10 or 20 minutes but of up to two hours or more from Manchester. My wife once had to sit on the floor outside the toilet from London to Manchester when she was eight months pregnant, with a small toddler in tow—
I believe many people have experienced similar problems on the network. This is not what should be offered by a 21st century rail service in the fifth richest country in the world.
The increase in capacity offered by HS2 is warmly welcomed. I recognise that we should be open to conversations about how we might change the design, and different parts of the country will need to put their case for how they see or want to see the benefits manifest themselves in their areas. I myself wanted HS2 to begin construction in the north, from Manchester heading down. Many colleagues have made that case. A compelling case was made by my hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester (Christian Matheson) on how it could be altered to improve the service for his area. It is important to say that the phase 1 plans in the hybrid Bill will be quite transformative, because separating out long-distance passenger traffic from freight and local services will allow more services across the board. When we talk about HS2, that should always be borne in mind—the benefits are not just from the new capacity of the HS2 line, but also from the additional benefits that come from freeing up the existing capacity and infrastructure.
I find the two most common complaints I hear about HS2 to be without foundation. The first is that HS2 will simply be a rich man’s railway. That is incoherent. The laws of supply and demand tell us that, if we do not build more capacity, prices will have to rise as an ever greater number of people chase a limited number of seats on the trains. I see HS2 being built as a way to keep fares down.
The second criticism that we often hear is that the new line should be built not with high-speed technology but with standard technology. Again, that does not add up. A new rail line built to traditional speeds would still incur about 90% of the costs of HS2 but offer only a fraction of the capacity that HS2 would provide. I believe this is the right project.
If we really want to make real the Government’s former rhetoric—I do not know whether it is still the policy—about the northern powerhouse and devolution, infrastructure and investment outside of London has got to come with it. We cannot attract the global companies and the long-term investment into the north-west and Yorkshire that we all want to see unless we can give people some certainty that we will address the chronic underinvestment in infrastructure in the regions outside London. I see HS2 as integral to that. It is about jobs, growth and connectivity, about better wages, better career paths and better homes. It is about bringing London and Manchester closer together and giving hard-pressed Londoners a chance to spend more time in the UK’s greatest city. The HS2 stations at Manchester airport and Manchester city centre are about making Greater Manchester a nexus for domestic, European and global travel, and I like the look of that a great deal.
I rise as a Yorkshire Member. This is relevant. I thank the hon. Gentleman for talking about capacity. It is not about speed. Does he agree that, at a time when the Government are making big infrastructure decisions on Hinkley, Crossrail and airport expansion, it is really important that we win the hearts and minds in the north of England, by showing that this will not only benefit Leeds and Manchester? It will also benefit our towns—Chester, Stalybridge, Huddersfield, Halifax and Burnley—and it will create quality jobs and apprenticeships in the north of our nation.
I endorse that wholeheartedly, and not just because we share a train line between our constituencies, allowing easy access between the two. This is about how the economy works outside of London and where the investment goes. It is about job opportunities, career paths and the lives that can radiate from that kind of investment.
We have never got this right as a country before. We never thought as we needed to about what to do when we saw the de-industrialisation of the ’80s and the changes in the way that people live and work in the areas those of us here represent. It needs this kind of ambition. People talk about the costs of these projects, but they always will be expensive in a country with our land values and distribution of population. It will be difficult, in cost terms, to deliver, but it is the right thing to do.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the north of England has suffered because 90% of capital expenditure on transport has gone to the south-east? To put his point very bluntly, should we not ensure that HS2 all the way to Leeds and Manchester is not behind Crossrail 2 in the queue for capital investment?
Unsurprisingly, I entirely endorse that message. This has to be the priority for the country, because it is a national project. Other very useful transport infrastructure projects do not have the same benefits for the whole of the country. When talking about projects of this kind, we, and the Front Benchers in particular, have got to scrutinise the costs. We have got to ensure that the powers and resources to deliver the projects are proportionate and that the people who are affected by the building of the line are taken into consideration. Above all, we have to be unequivocal that this country needs to make this kind of investment if we are to make our economy work better and improve our constituents’ lives and career paths. I welcome every opportunity to debate this project, but we must always talk about improving it and about the rightness of making this kind of infrastructure investment, because that is what our constituencies need and our constituents want.
Order. Three Members have indicated that they want to speak. If they take five minutes each, that would be great.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Owen. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for City of Chester (Christian Matheson) for securing this excellent and timely debate. I believe that this project has cross-party support from those of us from the north-west and the north generally. The hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Jonathan Reynolds) made an excellent speech, and I agree with every word of it. The hon. Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer) made the point that 90% of infrastructure investment in the UK goes to London and the south-east. Collectively, we have to ensure that the north, and the north-west in particular, gets its fair share. He is a man from the north-east. If I were from the north-east, I would be jumping up and down, because it gets a tiny percentage of investment in all infrastructure, not just rail infrastructure.
Since I was elected as a Member of Parliament in 2010, most of us have agreed with High Speed 2, but we still have to fight for it. We have only to look at the media in the south-east. I always find it interesting that the London news—the 6 o’clock news and the 10 o’clock news—calls high-speed rail a white elephant for some reason, but Crossrail 2, which costs £17 billion, does not seem to be an issue. Various infrastructure projects are going on in the south-east, but there seems to be an issue with infrastructure investment elsewhere in the United Kingdom.
If high-speed rail is a white elephant—if it does not provide value for money and if the costs are escalating—it should not go ahead, as I do not agree with wasting taxpayers’ money, but I do not believe it is. I believe it is exactly the right thing to do for the country, for the north-west, for greater Cheshire and for the constituents of Weaver Vale, which is, as hon. Members know, the gateway to the northern powerhouse. It is a vital infrastructure project.
The volume of traffic in all areas has increased beyond recognition in the past few decades. Some 317 billion miles were travelled on the roads in 2015-16, and 62 billion miles were travelled by rail passengers. The hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde talked about his wife sitting on the floor on a Pendolino. Those of us who travel from this place of an evening—even on a Wednesday evening, but particularly on Thursdays and Fridays—are very familiar with standing room only on the west coast main line trains from London Euston to Manchester Piccadilly.
In terms of people served, the west coast main line is the most important rail network in Britain. Some 40% of all freight trains use it at some point in their journey. Demand on the line from both freight and passenger traffic is expected to grow substantially. High Speed 2 would release that capacity and enable freight to get off the roads. It is no surprise that the Victorian rail infrastructure that serves much of the north-west is incompatible with the growing demand. The antiquated trains on the railway infrastructure of the mid-Cheshire line from Chester into Stockport and Manchester are trundling along at the same speed that they did when the Victorians built the line more than 150 years ago.
The hon. Member for City of Chester said that it is very hard for business in Chester to recruit quality staff from elsewhere in the region because the commute takes too long. That is a barrier to growth in Chester.
Will my hon. Friend endorse the North Wales and Mersey Dee Rail Task Force growth track 360 campaign, which seeks to ensure journey times of under one hour within the north Wales, Cheshire and Wirral region, as well as faster links to London, to counteract the economic underperformance of the region by connecting people to jobs and business to customers, and reducing our overdependence on a congested road network?
I absolutely agree. My hon. Friend raises an important point. High Speed 2 is not just about Cheshire and the north-west region. It is about another country and the north Wales economy. He is exactly right. The Mersey Dee Alliance is a good alliance, and I am very pleased, as he is, to be part of it. It is about looking at this together, because enterprise zones do not recognise borders, and those of us representing Cheshire will benefit from the cross-border activity. It is very important that the rail infrastructure travels along north Wales and Anglesey to the markets of Ireland.
It would be a mistake to look at High Speed 2 as a stand-alone project. Over the next five years, three times the amount that is spent on High Speed 2 will be spent on roads, railways and other forms of transport. It is really important to ensure that High Speed 2 and the expenditure on other transport in the north-west complement each other so the connectivity that High Speed 2 brings is enhanced throughout the north-west, spreading the benefits. Trying to get from Northwich to Widnes and Runcorn is a nightmare. It is virtually impossible. Passengers trundle into Stockport, and then trundle along over to Widnes and into Liverpool. Increasing capacity on rail networks will potentially remove an estimated 10 million vehicles from UK roads, significantly relieving the pressure on busy sections of roads, such as the M56 in my constituency, which the hon. Member for City of Chester could not resist mentioning. We are all as one on the M56’s issues.
We have only to look at another French town, Lille, whose economy has flourished as a result of the connectivity of high-speed rail and the connection to the HS1 line, to see the potential that High Speed 2 can bring to north-west hubs such as Crewe. Those areas of France have been transformed. Around the station in Lille, investment has increased significantly, and new offices, hotels, a retail centre and a conference centre are all being developed. The Euralille complex, situated between the two Lille stations, has emerged as the third largest business centre in France. That highlights the real opportunity for Cheshire and its towns. Lille highlights how forward vision and connectivity together can be a radical catalyst for growth in any modern city.
Connectivity between our cities is vital for the development of the northern powerhouse and the rebalancing of our economy. North-west businesses will have better access to specialised services, a larger workforce and greater opportunities to offer their services to the capital. Likewise, shorter journey times are vital for business-related journeys, and connections with London alone could bring £4 billion of benefits to the north-west. Over the next few decades, High Speed 2 will play a fundamental role in reshaping our economy. Some 70% of jobs created by High Speed 2 are forecast to be outside London. I am sure all hon. Members will agree that we want those jobs in the north of England and Scotland.
We must look at High Speed 2 not in isolation but as part of an overall strategy for improving connectivity throughout the north-west. We must take steps to ensure that spending on other areas of transport infrastructure is, as much as possible, complementary to the High Speed 2 network so we can replicate Lille’s success at hubs such as Crewe in the north-west of England.
I hope that the trains are more on time than the hon. Gentleman’s five-minute speech.
I praise my hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester (Christian Matheson) for securing this timely debate. I have the most visited constituency in the north-west of England—in fact, 25 million people have visited it in the past 12 months. Hon. Members have probably guessed that Manchester airport is on my southern boundary, but that makes the issue very relevant to us.
Daniel Adamson, a Mancunian entrepreneur and engineer, coined the term “northern powerhouse” in 1860 when he built the Manchester ship canal. He wanted to create a continuous economic region from the estuary of the Mersey to the banks of the Humber estuary. We are focusing on HS2 and its impact—an impact like the ship canal had more than a century ago.
HS2 will drive growth in the north, as other Members have said, and help free up capacity, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Jonathan Reynolds) said. The west coast main line will be full by 2024. We need the extra capacity, but we also need a station at Manchester airport. That will be critical to ensuring that the benefits of the project are felt beyond Manchester as a whole, in the wider catchment areas. Any measures that help to reduce journey times and free up capacity on the existing network, enabling more places across the north to be connected to Manchester airport, will be most welcome.
One of the most important features of HS2 and a station at Manchester airport is the potential for wider rail network improvements. A connected network would potentially deliver truly transformational benefits for the north. Connectivity to and from Manchester airport is a key factor for airlines when they think about introducing new long-haul routes. With the current rail access, 3.5 million people are within a two-hour catchment area of Manchester airport using public transport, compared with 11 million and 12 million for Gatwick and Heathrow respectively. Currently, the only city that can be reached by rail from Manchester airport in 30 minutes is Manchester. As my hon. Friend the Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer) alluded to, that situation exists following decades of Governments of both parties spending 90% of infrastructure investment on the south and the south-east.
I mentioned the transformational nature of a connected network. The current journey time from Manchester airport to Euston is two hours and 24 minutes. That will be revolutionised; it will come down to 59 minutes. If we do this right, it will open up whole new markets, from Hull to Liverpool, Chester and north Wales.
Let us look at the growth of comparator European airports and cities. Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport has a smaller immediate population than Greater Manchester, yet successfully draws a higher proportion of its passengers from further afield. That is supported by rail journeys around 30% quicker than those between Manchester and the likes of Liverpool, Leeds and Sheffield. From Manchester airport, it currently takes 65 minutes to get to Liverpool and 73 minutes to get to Sheffield. If we introduced HS2 and HS3, those journeys would be reduced to 30 minutes. To get from Manchester airport to Leeds, it would take 10 minutes to get to Manchester city centre and another 30 minutes to get to Leeds—40 minutes in total. We would be linking three major airport hubs at Speke, Manchester and Leeds-Bradford, all for the cost of one Crossrail project—it would be the same length—and creating unheard-of runway capacity across the north.
We estimate that with the right rail improvements that opened up the catchment area and gave airlines access to more passenger demand, 20 to 30 new long-haul routes from Manchester airport would be made viable. I would like the Minister to respond to those points, and possibly pledge to follow through and ensure that the design and delivery of the HS2 works goes hand in hand with the delivery of a true east-west link as part of wider rail network improvements, and that both schemes are delivered at the earliest possible opportunity so that we can derive maximum benefit and close the north-south productivity gap as soon as possible. We are focused on Heathrow—we will be for weeks, months and years ahead—but we will get more bang for our buck in GDP as a country and an economy by investing in our northern infrastructure than we ever will by investing in runway 3 at Heathrow.
Order. I call Mary Robinson to conclude the Back-Bench contributions. I will call the Scottish National party spokesman at 10 past 5 at the latest.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Owen, and to see Members from both sides of the Chamber present for this important debate about HS2. I congratulate the hon. Member for City of Chester (Christian Matheson) on securing it.
I am conscious of time, but I rise to speak about how this ambitious project will bring prosperity and jobs to my region, Greater Manchester. High Speed 2 will sweep into the north, with phase 2a to Crewe scheduled to open in 2027 and the delivery of phase 2b marked for completion in 2033. HS2 is the UK’s largest infrastructure project. It is critical to genuinely transforming connectivity across the region and rebalancing the UK economy. Now more than ever, I believe that it is vital that we modernise our railways.
I was pleased that the Minister was able to attend the debate that I secured in the previous Session on transport infrastructure in south Manchester. Although I was unable to dedicate as much time in that debate to high-speed rail as it was due, I welcomed the fact that he noted the importance of a regional hub at Manchester airport. The HS2 station at Manchester airport will reach close to my constituency of Cheadle and offer substantial further scope for jobs and productivity growth. It will maximise the airport’s potential and recognise its capacity to grow and handle up to 55 million passengers per annum. Manchester airport employs 20,000 people, many of whom live in my constituency, and contributes £1.8 billion annually to the economy. The £1 billion transformation plan to develop the airport through the airport city enterprise zone promises more jobs and wealth creation. That hub is vital to supporting development and key to regional prosperity and delivering the northern powerhouse.
One of the most important features of HS2, with a station at Manchester airport, is the potential for it to form part of a wider northern powerhouse rail network, as the hon. Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East (Mike Kane) mentioned. Such a connected network has the potential to deliver truly transformational benefits for the north. With the current rail access to Manchester airport, the population within a two-hour catchment area using public transport stands at only around 3.5 million, compared with 11 million and 12 million at Gatwick and Heathrow respectively. Manchester is the only city that can be reached by rail in 30 minutes. It is critical that we get the Manchester airport hub and that the design and delivery of HS2 works hand in hand with the design and delivery of a true east-west link across the north as part of the wider NPR network. Both schemes should be delivered at the earliest opportunity, so that we can derive the maximum benefit and close the north-south productivity gap.
I look forward to the legislation for phase 1 being brought forward later this year. Although I appreciate that delivery timetables have been extended to allow time for the petitions process, I urge the Government to take steps to prevent further delays to the opening of the first step of HS2. We need to talk not about whether HS2 will bring economic benefits, but about how great those benefits will be and how that investment can be spread across the north-west so that the benefits of a transformed rail network can be shared by everyone.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Owen. I congratulate the hon. Member for City of Chester (Christian Matheson) on securing the debate. My job of summing up for the SNP may have been slightly easier if the motion did not say “north-west of England” but stopped at just “north-west”. I noted that the hon. Member for Weaver Vale (Graham Evans) said that he agreed with every word that the hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Jonathan Reynolds) had said. That may be a first, and it says a lot about the quality of the debate.
I agree that HS2 should be not just about connecting London, Birmingham and Manchester. It must be much more strategic than that. We have heard about east-west connectivity, and the hon. Member for City of Chester mentioned connectivity onwards north to Scotland, which must happen. There has been a bit of a theme among all the contributions: the economic benefits that arise from the expenditure on this big project, not just the cost burden, must be spread across the whole of the UK.
The call for a hub at Crewe makes absolute sense. That seems critical to connectivity between the regions and nations of the UK. I also agree that the project must be future-proof. I am concerned that under the current HS2 arrangements the classic compatible trains that will be purchased to run on the network will actually run slower on the west coast main line north of Crewe than trains do at present. People will get to Crewe having had a quicker journey time, but then the service north of there will be diminished. That is not acceptable, so I ask the Minister to think about that in the long run.
To pick up on some of the other contributions, the hon. Member for Eddisbury (Antoinette Sandbach) almost seemed to make the case against the project, which I found quite surprising, talking about the costs and engineering difficulties. I think there was a wee bit of “not in my back yard” and “we’ll take the benefits, but please build the railway somewhere else.”
Like the hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde, I was on the High Speed Rail (London - West Midlands) Bill Committee, and I agree with him that HS2 is about capacity. The hon. Member for Colne Valley (Jason McCartney) said in an intervention that it is about not speed but capacity, but in my opinion it is about both. If we do not have the right speed, the attraction for passengers will not be there, especially when we look at extending the network north to Scotland. We have aspirations of a three-hour journey time from London, which would really compete with the budget airlines.
I have already said that the hon. Member for Weaver Vale agreed with every word said by the hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde, which was good. The hon. Members for Wythenshawe and Sale East (Mike Kane) and for Cheadle (Mary Robinson) made clear the need for Manchester to be properly connected, with the benefits that it will bring, and the need for the east-west spur.
I apologise for repeating myself, but HS2 must be strategic and connect the entire country. Plans must be taken forward to bring the high-speed network north to Scotland. The hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde said he hoped that the project would start in the north, and he used Manchester as his example of the north. Actually, “north” is further north than Manchester. However, I agree with the sentiment: it would be great to start construction in the north—north of Manchester, perhaps in Glasgow, and bring it right down from there, with the economic benefits being shared by all.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Owen. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester (Christian Matheson) for securing the debate. He passionately put forward his case on how HS2 can serve the interests of his constituents and the wider north-west. I echo his sentiment that HS2 has Labour’s backing. We welcome infrastructure investment, but part of the case for HS2 that convinced so many was that it was not simply another project designed for the benefit of the south-east but that it would benefit regions across the country.
Crewe is already a gateway station for the north-west, with regional and long-distance connections to the wider north-west, the east midlands and Wales, but there are significant capacity constraints that have an impact on reliability, which has been below industry targets, and there are bottlenecks at Colwich junction and around Stafford. This is also a problem for national freight operators, with much freight traffic on the west coast main line routed through Basford Hall yard, south of Crewe, and 43% of rail freight journeys using the west coast main line at some point.
The phase 2a link will help provide much needed additional capacity for freight and will improve reliability for commuter services, so it should be welcomed that the Government have brought forward the opening of the phase 2a link to 2027 as that will provide benefits to the north-west and beyond. However, it would be disappointing if a Crewe hub were not developed, as the fact that it is already a regional hub provides a springboard for further developing and improving connectivity with conventional rail. The benefits of stopping more trains at Crewe are clear, as expressed in David Higgins’s “HS2 Plus” report.
We welcomed the Government’s decision to accelerate the section of route from the west midlands to Crewe so that it opens six years earlier than planned in 2027, bringing benefits to the north sooner than initially thought, but the primary concerns are the rumours that phases 2a and 2b might be downgraded or delayed as the project increasingly comes under budgetary strain.
I see the Minister shaking his head—he can give me that assurance, then. In the words of the Public Accounts Committee report,
“the cost estimates for phase 2 are still volatile”.
There was a cost estimate from the Department for Transport that was £7 billion over the agreed £28.5 billion funding, and then £9 billion of potential savings were subsequently identified. We know that much of the savings are a result of more detailed and accurate estimates being applied, but the worry is that without a confirmed route and a firm cost estimate, and with budgetary pressures, the planned savings on phase 2 will be delivered by adversely affecting the expected benefits of the programme to the north, including the north-west.
I know the Minister will wish to reassure the House that he intends to preserve the integrity of HS2 to the north, because that will tackle the lack of capacity south of Birmingham and the poor connectivity not just between the region and London but within the north. It is crucial that we ensure that HS2 remains an infrastructure project that delivers for the whole country.
We have seen the uncertainty surrounding the proposed route changes in south Yorkshire. We do not want to see the same uncertainty on the western leg. It has been rumoured that if costs for the existing scheme cannot be brought down, one option under consideration is to delay or abandon altogether the section to Manchester and build the line only as far as Crewe, or to delay the line—an HS2 spokesperson said that the Treasury is taking the position that that nothing is ruled out.
I echo the concerns of my hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester and stress the importance of delivering a hub station at Crewe, which will benefit the sub-region, the north-west and the country as a whole, and of phase 2b, which ought to transform connectivity in the north and through the country. It would be disastrous for the north-west and make a mockery of the so-called northern powerhouse if phase 2 were to be downgraded.
We eagerly await the Government’s proposals for HS2 phase 2, but whatever the forthcoming route proposals, they must ensure that HS2 is an infrastructure project that delivers for the whole country. I hope the Minister can provide reassurances to that effect.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Owen. I congratulate the hon. Member for City of Chester (Christian Matheson) on securing this debate on HS2 connectivity in the north-west. He represents a beautiful city—one of the many places in the north-west that really stands to benefit from HS2. It has been great to hear the appetite for the scheme from across the Chamber.
HS2 will become the backbone of our national rail network. It will be a key part of building a transport system and economy that works for all. It will increase rail capacity and improve connectivity, and people will not need to travel on HS2 to benefit from it. By providing new fast lines for inter-city services, HS2 will free up space on our existing railway network for new commuter, regional and freight services. We are already starting to see the benefits of the scheme in the form of jobs and skills, which are being created now.
HS2 is working with businesses across the UK, including many small and medium-sized firms, to ensure that they are well prepared to bid for contracts and reap its benefits. Construction alone will generate about 25,000 jobs and 2,000 apprenticeships. A supplier roadshow has travelled the UK, highlighting the range of commercial opportunities that the construction schemes will present, encouraging companies from all over the UK to consider tendering for some of the work. I attended the last one, which was up in Aberdeen, which highlighted to the engineering businesses in the area who have perhaps developed great skills through the oil sector that HS2 presents opportunities for them.
HS2 is not just about serving a few destinations—that phrase was heard across the House. It is not just that; HS2 services will also run on to the existing network, serving destinations in the north-west and indeed those going as far as Scotland. Interchange with conventional rail will also be key in allowing places far beyond the network to benefit. Last year we decided to take the HS2 route via Crewe and to open the route to Crewe in 2027. The journey time between Crewe and London will be just 55 minutes—that is 35 minutes faster than today. Passengers interchanging at Crewe, for example from Chester or north Wales, will also be able to take advantage.
Sir David Higgins recognised the opportunity that Crewe presents for the region. He recommended a north-west hub at Crewe to integrate regional and high-speed rail. It is a sensible idea; Crewe already is a hub. It has rail services to London, Birmingham, Shrewsbury, south Wales, Stoke, Derby, Manchester, Liverpool, Scotland and, of course, north Wales and Chester. It is also well connected to major A roads and the M6.
The Government are developing options for Crewe and we expect to provide an update on the scheme later this year as part of our planned announcement on phase 2b. I will talk a little bit more about the timing later. The hon. Member for City of Chester has clearly put across the local ambition for high-frequency HS2 services at Crewe and for the increased frequency of conventional services between Crewe and Chester. I understand that local ambition. I have made the case for my own constituency as well, as indeed have many hon. Members. We are already investing in connectivity in the region, and we only have to look at the working taking place at the Halton curve to see that. We are looking at what HS2 connectivity could be provided at Crewe to benefit the whole region.
I have to say that it is too early to lock down the service proposition at this stage. We need to understand what is possible and what benefits could be delivered, but options need to be left open so that services meet the demands and priorities of the 2020s and beyond. I also have to say that we have to think about affordability. We have incredibly ambitious rail investment programmes and there are priorities for investment across the network.
Does the Minister accept that the opportunities for the 2020s and beyond will actually be created by getting the service level for HS2 right?
I have absolutely no doubt that when we consider those services we are all thinking ahead. I entirely buy the argument that transport investment is a driver of economic growth and, indeed, social progress—whichever mode of transport we are talking about. The Government are not buying trains because we like trains; we are buying them because they facilitate economic growth. That is the same with buses and social progress.
Taking HS2 to Crewe will play an important part in turning the town around. It is already a hub and it is also a town that is in need of investment, but HS2 is not a silver bullet in itself. We need to ensure that HS2 drives regeneration, not only in the places that it serves directly but far more widely. For the economic growth benefits of HS2 to be realised and to spread, local partners have an important role to play.
It is fantastic to see the north-west making such excellent progress in its plans for the region. The northern gateway partnership is already developing its growth strategy. That work, which is aiming to deliver around 100,000 homes and 120,000 jobs, will ensure the regeneration benefits of HS2 are felt right across the region. I have met with the combined authority, Transport for Greater Manchester, on a number of occasions, and I have done the same with the west midlands. It has been fantastic to see the ambition that those areas have for regeneration, recognising that, when HS2 arrives, it will present them with significant opportunities.
The Minister said it is too early to “lock down” the level of service, but he will undoubtedly appreciate that, if we cannot establish a bare minimum level of service, this becomes a rather pointless and redundant exercise. If he is not able to do that now, will he give some indication of when he will be able to give a little bit more detail about the basic minimum level of service we have been discussing this afternoon?
I will come on to timing a little later on. I turn to the matter of the north Wales main line and the work that is being carried out by the North Wales and Mersey Dee rail task force. I welcome its establishment and it is doing a good job of making the case for rail modernisation in north Wales and of developing wider growth plans for the region. This is an opportunity for north Wales to make the best case for investment in rail infrastructure and services. It is vital that a shared local vision is brought together with a defined set of prioritised outcomes based on economic growth, journey times, connectivity and modal shift. We will continue to work closely with that taskforce and with the Welsh Government to provide advice and assistance and to consider what can be jointly accomplished. We want the taskforce to advise us effectively on options for enhancements, including electrification, to address the regional economic needs and, of course, on the value of those options.
Many hon. Members have commented today. I will first respond to my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury (Antoinette Sandbach), who has raised concerns with me previously regarding the route north of Crewe, given the ground instability problems associated with the route crossing the Cheshire saltfield. I have been down that salt mine as part of looking at the winter preparations for the road network last year. I have to say it was a very interesting place to visit. I am aware of the scale of this enormous undertaking and I reassure my hon. Friend and other hon. Members that we are not ignoring that risk. HS2 Ltd has carried out surveys to better understand the geological issues in Cheshire and has commissioned further studies from third-party organisations. We are looking at a range of options in that area.
At this stage, I cannot provide any further information about where that part of the route will run. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will make an announcement on that during the autumn. My hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury also made a further point about blight for residents affected by the potential routes. I will look at those cases with every sympathy, and I know she will write to me so I will look out for her letter.
I thoroughly agree with the points made by the hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Jonathan Reynolds) on transport being a driver of economic growth, on how capacity is necessary and on how, looking not too far ahead, we will have a rail network that is full, which is something we have discussed previously. He will not be surprised that we are in further agreement. To my hon. Friend the Member for Weaver Vale (Graham Evans), I say this is not a white elephant: it is a scheme that is a fundamental and critical part of our national infrastructure and it will happen.
To my hon. Friend the Member for Cheadle (Mary Robinson), I say yes, the debate really has moved on; it is not if but when this happens. The debate we should be having is on how we maximise the benefits that will flow from HS2 when it arrives. To the hon. Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East (Mike Kane), I say that I completely recognise that Manchester airport is thoroughly important, not just for Manchester but for the whole of the north of England with its power to connect it. I can also confirm that we are developing plans for HS3 alongside HS2; they are not separate schemes being developed in isolation. We are looking at integration of the two.
I can confirm that we have had absolutely no loss of ambition. I will run through some timing: on phase 1, we hope the Bill will complete its passage through the Lords very soon and we hope to start the build in the spring. The necessary work to prepare the Bill for phase 2a is underway and we intend for it to start its parliamentary journey next year. On phase 2b, the Government will announce our proposed route from Crewe to Manchester and from Birmingham to Leeds, south Yorkshire and the east midlands later this year. That will be an important moment and will begin to make the project far more tangible.
This is a project that is from the UK and for the UK. It is all about national benefits, including extra capacity on the network and developing skills, and companies from right across the UK will be able to benefit from the significant amount of work required. We view this as a critical part of our national infrastructure and of building a transport network and an economy that works for all. We have had a positive debate today. Though it has been focused on the north-west—and it is clearly right that this presents a huge opportunity for the north-west, for the city of Chester and for the whole region—it is a national project and we have to view it in that way.
Will the Minister give way? This will be very short.
It will have to be.
Will the Minister confirm that in November the Secretary of State for Transport will confirm the phase 2b route, from Birmingham to Crewe, up to Manchester and also the Yorkshire leg?
I can confirm that we will announce the Yorkshire leg. I do not know when the Secretary of State will announce it, but I can confirm that we will be announcing the full “Y” route—that is the Yorkshire leg and the Manchester leg.
This autumn; that is exactly right. This is a major undertaking for our country but it is an essential one. I emphasise one further point with my last comment: this project is one that central and local Government, and both the public and private sectors, have to come together to deliver. If we all come together to deliver this project we will maximise the benefits, both in transport and regeneration, and our whole country will benefit from that.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered HS2 in the North West of England.