Wednesday 26 October 2016
[Mr Christopher Chope in the Chair]
[Relevant document: Third Report from the Foreign Affairs Committee, Libya: Examination of intervention and collapse and the UK’s future policy options, HC 119.]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered British engagement with Libya.
It is a great pleasure to introduce a debate of such importance—it is a wonderful privilege as a Member of Parliament to have the opportunity to raise subjects of international importance. We all know, given where we have come from with the debates on Brexit, Heathrow and all the rest, that we focus a lot on domestic issues. We particularly focus on European issues, but the situation in Libya is of enormous importance for the country and the wider picture in the middle east. The waves of migration we are seeing in Europe are in many ways a direct consequence of the total collapse of order and civic administration in Libya. I do not want to exaggerate that and suggest that Libya is in a complete state of anarchy, but there is no doubt that there have been many failures of omission in Libya, as the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Crispin Blunt), and his team have pointed out.
We have had five years in which it has been unclear what the future political make-up of the country will be in terms of its institutions. Muammar Gaddafi saw his end five years ago, in October 2011. It is disconcerting to see that there is no single constituted political entity or Government in Libya. Instead, there are two Governments and various militias. The country is divided geographically between the east and the west, with their respective centres of power in Tobruk and Tripoli. The Government of National Accord have been backed by the United Nations, by us and by the international community, yet when we read reports on what is happening on the ground in Libya with the militias and military activity, the striking thing is that the GNA’s forces do not seem to be making much impact. In fact, I rarely read about what they and their military forces are doing.
I want to address precisely that point in my remarks. There seems to be a complete disjuncture between what we want to happen with the people we want to back for our own reasons—they could have a legitimacy or legal primacy—and what is happening on the ground. That has been a constant feature of the western approach to the area. We have our own ideals and beliefs about the process, the rule of law and what we think should happen, but when we look on the ground at the instrumentalities, as Woodrow Wilson used to call them, we see a complete mismatch. The people whom we want to be in charge—the people whom we believe have legitimacy—have very little capacity to enforce their will and ensure that their writ is run through the country we hope they can rule. That fundamental problem always comes up.
Haftar represents Operation Dignity. He has set himself up as an anti-Islamist strongman. There is no doubt that he is a controversial figure, but it is difficult to envisage a stable Libya without his active participation. He simply has a lot of muscle and many forces. He controls a significant portion of the country, particularly in the east. A few weeks ago we discovered that his forces took over a lot of the oil installations at the beginning of September. He has to come round the table if we are to reach a satisfactory solution.
There have been dark rumblings in regard to Haftar. We have read many times that the French secret service is supporting him. They are rumours, but it is important that we know what is being said. We also know that allies, including our friends in Egypt and the Egyptian Government, are openly supporting Haftar. The United Arab Emirates is broadly in support of his objectives. Many of our allies are openly or covertly supporting General Haftar, yet we stick to this idea, perhaps rightly, that the GNA is the legitimately constituted Government of Libya.
I am pleased that my hon. Friend is spending time talking about General Haftar. Our Government’s line has repeatedly been for the past five years, “We must wait for a Government of National Accord and national unity.” It is clearly evident after five years that that will not happen, and it is unrealistic to expect it. We should support General Haftar to bring peace and stability to the country.
My hon. Friend makes an interesting point. I am trying to say—in many ways, it is the crux of this debate and nearly any debate about the middle east—that we have our own ideals and our own sense of what the rule of law and due process are, yet the realities on the ground in many instances bear no relation to the theoretical aspirations and structures that the international community constructs. I am trying to grope towards some way in which we can accommodate or harmonise our intellectual construct and method with what is happening on the ground.
The reality is that there are something like 1,700 militias. General Haftar is probably the biggest military presence, and many of our allies openly support him. My hon. Friend asks an interesting question: why do we not just support General Haftar? I do not propose to answer that definitely today. It is a difficult question and there are lots of balancing factors. The fact is that General Haftar is not universally popular. We have big issues with militias in Misrata. A number of other tribes on the western side have said openly that they are not prepared to tolerate rule by him. Their belief is that, if we support Haftar, we will be substituting one military dictator for the former military dictator, Gaddafi.
Be that as it may, I want to talk about my hon. Friend’s suggestion. Our strategy has not moved the country forward in five years. The financial situation is such that whatever oil reserves Libya had are rapidly dwindling. Libya’s GDP was something like $75 billion in 2011 and is now something like $41 billion—it is roughly of that order; that figure is from a couple of years ago, but it is the latest we have. We are talking about an economy that has essentially halved in five years. GDP per capita was something like $12,500 in 2011, at which point Libya was one of the wealthiest countries in Africa. It was seeing some degree of material progress. Today, GDP per capita is about $7,000. No country in Europe has seen such a diminution of its wealth, including Greece. That has huge implications for the security situation in the region and outside.
Not only have people become a lot poorer, but the political institutions in many instances have broken down. Whatever Gaddafi’s strengths and weaknesses were—let’s face it, he was a tyrant—he had a degree of control over the country’s borders. Those who know geography will know that Libya is an enormous country with something like 4,000 miles of borders. To stem the flow of migration, it was very important that a centrally constituted Government—a central authority—could control the borders. That has now completely collapsed, which is why hundreds if not thousands of people come from very poor countries in sub-Saharan Africa through Libya and find themselves on boats in the Mediterranean going to Italy, in many instances ending their lives there.
I did not want to talk about the EU—we have had plenty of debates in this place about it—but one of the failures it needs to address is the lack of a co-ordinated plan for Libya. There is no point pretending it is going to go away, because it is not. The problem will get worse.
I thank my hon. Friend for securing this timely, topical debate. Does he agree that, although focusing on Libya’s coastline is very important to prevent the tragedy of human trafficking, it is also important to look at Libya’s southern borders, where people are coming up from sub-Saharan Africa? Perhaps we could be doing more to understand what is going on there and to tackle trafficking at its source.
As is often the case, my hon. Friend is absolutely right. That goes to the heart of the question. There is no centrally constituted Government or central power to hold the country together and control the borders that she talks about, which are pretty porous.
I secured the debate because I have spent time in Europe speaking to German colleagues and MPs and politicians from other countries, and I am struck by the fact that there does not seem to be any real plan of action. Nothing has happened for five years. The country is not in a state of chaos—that would be an exaggeration—but it is certainly not stable. Its oil reserves are dwindling. It is still fairly rich by African and developing country standards, but its wealth is being depleted, and if it diminishes further the problem will get worse. It is no use pretending it is simply going to go away, because it is not.
One of the biggest problems is that when the United Nations or outside organisations such as the European Union try to help one side or the other, they are regarded with the deepest suspicion by a large number of people in Libya. That is one of the reasons why the latest plan seems to have failed.
My hon. Friend makes a fair point, but I am told that one of the reasons why the Libyans view western involvement with such scepticism is that 2011 was not this country’s finest hour. I agree substantially with many of the findings in the Foreign Affairs Committee report. We went in there, but we did not have a plan or a follow-through. Given that context, it is not surprising that Libyans are sceptical.
Our ideals—what we want to happen—and what we can actually do are often completely different. I completely understand the support for the Government of National Accord, but it is difficult to see how we can empower them to take control of the country. None of the militias that one reads about—Haftar and Operation Dignity, Libya Dawn, ISIS and various al-Qaeda militias—are GNA forces. They are not under the control of the Government of National Accord, yet we carry on in a fantasy world in which they are the official, legal Government and we are going to support them. I totally understand those pious words, but nothing is happening on the ground.
We can go on like this. I am sure that in five years’ time I, or some new MPs, will take up the issue. We can go on forever and a day talking about what is going on, but in this debate I want to say, “Look, this is a big problem. What are we going to do about it?” I do not propose any definitive answers, but it is highly important that MPs have the opportunity to speak and think about these issues. We do very little thinking in this place; we do a lot of talking, posturing and virtue-signalling, but as parliamentarians we need to engage our minds critically with these problems.
My hon. Friend said that 2011 was not our finest hour. May I remind him—I am sure he remembers this very clearly—that only one Conservative Member of Parliament voted against military action: our colleague from the Foreign Affairs Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron)? Does he agree that we need to learn from that terrible mistake? We saw on our television screens constant coverage of the alleged bloodbath that would ensue if Gaddafi was not stopped. We reacted quickly without thinking about the consequences and without the follow-through that was needed.
That is a very timely intervention, because that is exactly the kind of thing I am talking about. For far too long, we have had emotional responses to situations. I remember the debate very vividly, although I was a new Member of Parliament and less experienced and less versed in issues relating to the middle east then. We talked a lot about the humanitarian crisis and what we needed to do to intervene to stop the potential bloodbath. All of that was well understood, but we did not stop and think.
I thank my hon. Friend for securing this debate. I apologise for not being able to stay for the whole debate to hear what the Minister has to say in response. May I gently remind my hon. Friend that simply to dismiss our intervention in Libya as an emotional response and to say that the Government and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office did not think through the consequences is not fair? That does not adequately describe the work that went into Libya afterwards, which included intensive work with politicians to create the opportunity for elections. In recognising what happened, which is immensely difficult, he might pay tribute to the work of the Foreign Office, our diplomats and our ambassador, who worked so hard to try to create something. He must not assume that it was simply an emotional response without regard to the consequences.
I fully appreciate my right hon. Friend’s point. He was at that time a Foreign Office Minister largely responsible for the middle east, and he served in that post with considerable distinction. I fully appreciate his efforts.
My phrase “emotional response” might be a little dismissive. It is very brutal and horrible to have to say this, but we have to look at the consequences of what happened. We have to look at the situation, put our hands up and say, “This is not a good situation.” I appreciate that there were lots of motivated, highly skilled diplomats, and that lots of thought went into the intervention on the ground. Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the NATO Secretary-General said that, if we just look at the means by which we carried out the intervention, it was effective, but I am afraid that the judgment of history is that it was not particularly successful, based on the consequences of our actions. At some point we have to be hard on ourselves and look at the outcomes. We can say, “We discussed this endlessly, we met all these committees, we had all this planning and we got votes through Parliament”, but—to use that old phrase—the proof of the pudding is in the eating. If the pudding does not taste very good, something has gone wrong, and we have got to accept that.
While we are looking at our intervention in Libya in 2011, perhaps we might also look at the consequences of the vote on Syria in 2013. Perhaps my hon. Friend will agree that deciding whether to intervene or not is very difficult. The same consequences can arise from both because we are not fully in charge of all the circumstances.
The conclusion—one does not require the brains of an archbishop to reach this—is that when we intervene, we should have a plan for the follow-through, perhaps for up to 18 months. I am not one of those people who is against all interventions, but I am against interventions the consequences of which have not been properly considered, or properly planned for. That is not a radical thing to ask.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate, which is the latest in a number of debates on Libya, in this Chamber in particular. I agree with a lot of what he is saying. One of the consequences of the chaos in Libya and the lack of any centralised Government is the failure, or inability, to get to grips with getting justice and compensation for the victims of Libyan-inspired IRA and other terrorism. That is a major problem. Many of the victims are getting older and they wait in great frustration for our Government to do more, and to get what they are entitled to. Does he agree that that is another aspect of what is happening?
Absolutely. For those who study the outbreak of the second world war, the question then was always, “Who do you call in Berlin?” or “Who is actually responsible for the action?”, and that is exactly the kind of question that we need to ask about Libya. If we want to start the compensation process, who on earth do we call? Yes, the GNA is in control of the central bank, but they are not in control of the oil production or the generators of wealth, so it is a legitimate question.
To wrap up, our foreign service’s capabilities in diplomacy are second to none, as a country, but once in a while we have to admit, “We might not have done this very effectively. We might have got things wrong.” After all, President Obama, our closest ally, said that Libya was the worst mistake of his presidency. He had the honesty and candour to put his hand up and admit that and, if we are to proceed as a more effective player or counsellor in the politics of the region, we have to have the courage to admit when we get things wrong.
The report from the Committee chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate did that—although perhaps it cast blame too narrowly and was not overly generous in its interpretation of what happened—but we have to recognise when we get things wrong. We have to be more realistic about what we can achieve when we intervene. We also have to be realistic about the kinds of players involved and with whom we have to deal. My hon. Friends have mentioned General Haftar, and he is clearly an important figure. There is no point pretending that he will disappear because he does not constitute a legitimate authority, so he can be ignored—he cannot be ignored. He is a fact in the Libyan scene who needs to be dealt with.
In conclusion, I am grateful for the opportunity to have this debate. I am interested to hear what colleagues have to say about the situation and, if I were to summarise the kind of conclusion that I want to reach, the kind of thought that I want to stimulate, it is to ask how we are going to marry our ideals with what is happening on the ground. How will we do that? We have endless debates, but perhaps we have to shift our ideals and to compromise if we cannot reach a solution. There is no point sticking our heads in the sand and saying, “Well, this is the legitimate Government”, but then nothing happens. That is a complete waste of time.
I beg for consideration of this. I beg right hon. and hon. Members to spend time thinking about how to move forward and to marry ideals with what is happening on the ground in Libya, and about what we as parliamentarians and broader supporters of the Government and of our country can do to bring some degree of stability and order to a country that for far too long has lived with a level of chaos that none of us would accept in our own lives and in our own country.
Thank you for calling me, Mr Chope. It is a pleasure to speak in this debate.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Spelthorne (Kwasi Kwarteng) on his excellent contribution, which set the scene so well. No one in this Chamber should be under any illusion about the fragile situation in Libya. The Foreign Affairs Committee reported on the situation in Libya in September 2016, and the report was eye-opening. The summary alone is enough to demand a reconsideration of the Libya situation and our involvement.
I am known to be someone with a positive nature. Rather than focusing solely on a problem and apportioning blame, I like to see what the solution is—in other words, I like to see a glass half full. I cannot, however, skip past a part of the Foreign Affairs Committee’s report that needs to be addressed. I will quote it, because it sets the scene clearly:
“In March 2011, the United Kingdom and France, with the support of the United States, led the international community to support an intervention in Libya to protect civilians from attacks by forces loyal to Muammar Gaddafi. This policy was not informed by accurate intelligence. In particular, the Government failed to identify that the threat to civilians was overstated and that the rebels included a significant Islamist element…The result was political and economic collapse, inter-militia and inter-tribal warfare, humanitarian and migrant crises, widespread human rights violations, the spread of Gaddafi regime weapons across the region and the growth of ISIL in North Africa. Through his decision making in the National Security Council, former Prime Minister David Cameron was ultimately responsible for the failure to develop a coherent Libya strategy.”
In response, the Minister will emphasise that we have a new Prime Minister—we are glad to see her in place and the changes that she has brought and is bringing—but that cannot take away from the fact that the Government are failing in their engagement with Libya and that things need to change. I respect President Obama, even if I largely do not agree with his policies, and Parliament and the Government must address his damning accusations with regards to Libya.
The USA cannot be absolved of all responsibility for the situation. A sore point for me is that the US Government were actively working hard to secure compensation for their citizens for Libyan-sponsored acts of terrorism, but our Government have all but refused to do that for our citizens.
Does my hon. Friend agree that with all the ongoing conflict and diplomacy, there is still a major problem for the people of Libya, especially the women and children? We can argue all day about the rights and wrongs of conflict and intervention, but something more needs to be done to help the people of that country.
I wholeheartedly support what my hon. Friend and colleague says. In an intervention, my right hon. Friend the Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds) mentioned IRA terrorism and the sponsorship of the Libyan Government. That issue is close to our hearts in the Democratic Unionist party, the second largest party in this Westminster Hall debate, and we are pleased to make that case.
If our friends across the pool were able to achieve compensation for their citizens, one must wonder why they are unable to step in and make a difference in the current climate. It is incumbent on me as a representative of the Democratic Unionist party, on behalf of the victims of Libyan-sponsored terrorism, to ask the Foreign and Commonwealth Office again for an update on the situation since it was last discussed in the House. I trust that steps have been taken to make a stand for our victims and to see their pain acknowledged in a tangible way.
My hon. Friend is elaborating on the distinction between the success obtained by the American Administration for their victims of terrorism and the unfortunate lack of success by our Government in getting compensation for victims of terrorism in the UK, many of them in Northern Ireland. Does he agree that we need to see progress in Libya, for the people of Libya, but that in return we need to see those legacy issues resolved, so that people here are more satisfied with our Government’s input than they have been to date?
The hon. Gentleman is referring to the legacy issues affecting many people in Northern Ireland. I join our colleagues in Northern Ireland in campaigning on such an important matter, and I am very disappointed that the Government have not made more progress. May I ask him to support action on the other key outstanding legacy issue, which is the murder of a serving British police officer, PC Yvonne Fletcher, who was shot outside the Libyan embassy? To this day, we have still had no indication of who her murderer was, and he has not been brought to justice.
It is good to be reminded of that case, which has never been resolved from an investigative point of view and for which no one has been held accountable. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. We want that issue, as well as other outstanding legacy issues, to be addressed. It is such a major issue that I will not do my constituents the disservice of ignoring it and failing to take the opportunity to call for the wrong to be righted as far as possible, which is what the Government appear to have done. I hope that they will not continue to do so.
The IRA terrorist campaign led to the deaths of 3,750 people, not only in Northern Ireland but in Brighton, London, Manchester and other places. Libyan involvement is undisputed. Compensation has been paid to the families of Americans who lost their lives as a result of that involvement, as my hon. Friend the Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell) referred to, but the loss of British lives has not led to similar aid or support. I have said before in this place that our citizens are not second-class citizens and that they deserve the same justice as the Americans, and I stress that essential point about British engagement on behalf of my constituents.
Chaos reigns in many parts of Libya. I am aware from the Library briefing that in August, the Royal Navy supported the removal of potential chemical weapons materials from Libya. There are a lot of issues to be addressed there. This is not about winning a war; it is about seeing how we can influence the country and help to rebuild it from a dictatorship into a democracy. However, many external factors are taking control, and we must decide what the appropriate action is in that scenario.
The United Nations has brokered the formation of an inclusive Government of National Accord, but as seems to be the norm, the people the UN seeks to support have no regard for its regulations. There is substantiated evidence of the GNA having been undermined by people flouting the United Nations arms embargo and using Libyan militias as proxies. I have some good friends who work in security in the middle east and have been in Libya, and they have informed me that Libya is awash with illegal arms, some of which have made their way to terrorist groups in Europe. If we want to address terrorism in Europe, we must address the availability of arms in Libya.
Libya has descended into lawlessness since the fall of Gaddafi in 2011, giving groups such as the self-proclaimed ISIS free rein to attack Christians. The Minister would expect me to make this point, because I take the opportunity to do so whenever one comes my way. We all know that Libya has a deep Islamic culture, so Libyan Christians must keep their faith completely secret. Churches for Libyans and Christian literature in Arabic are forbidden. Although migrant Christians are allowed to practise their faith in Libya, many have paid the ultimate price: in 2015, dozens of Christians from Eritrea, Ethiopia and Egypt were kidnapped or killed by extremists in Libya. Several of those cases have been well expounded upon and were in the papers and on TV at the time. For example, a brief search for links to news stories related to Christian persecution and Libya returns the following headlines: “Christian woman in fear for her life”; “IS kidnaps 86 Eritrean Christians”; “Islamic State capture more African migrants”; and “IS kill 30 Christians, destroy churches”. Those are just some of the things that happen. Continued persecution is an important factor that must be considered in any discussion of our role and involvement in Libya.
I am conscious of the time and your direction, Mr Chope, so I will conclude with this comment. We face a massive problem. We must first determine our role in solving it and working with others who seek to absolve themselves rather than help solve the issues. We must try to bring stability to an area that desperately needs it, for the benefit of Christians, citizens and neighbouring countries, simply for the fight against terrorism, and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson) referred to, for the ordinary people of Libya—the mothers, families, children and hard-working people. We must be wise and effective. Our actions must be co-ordinated to ensure that there is a global response that is felt by those who continue to seek to bring the country to its knees. We in this House have a duty, but we are not alone in that, and we must ensure that all the key players have a role in bringing stability to Libya.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Chope. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne (Kwasi Kwarteng). People always refer to debates as timely, but this debate has special merit because it shines a light on an area that is often forgotten in the shadow of the atrocities in Syria, but that has a huge role in the region’s stability.
I did not vote for a no-fly zone in Libya in 2011; I abstained. I wondered then whether that was to my shame. Sadly, on balance, I do not think that it was. Back then, as a new MP, I was not sufficiently confident that there would not be mission creep, I could not see a concrete plan for what Libya would look like were there to be mission creep, and I looked at the west’s track record of removing nasty dictators, and it was not good. It is easy to be wise after the event and rehearse mistakes that were made. We can say that lessons will be learned—that cliché is often used—but we can perhaps best demonstrate that we are going to learn the lessons by tackling the situation properly and realistically now.
I am often surprised that Libya does not feature more in the media and political discussion, particularly on compassionate grounds. Libya is well known as a haven for people traffickers, who often traffic people to their deaths in the Mediterranean. When I was in Sicily last year helping to redecorate and renovate a migrant hostel, some young men from Africa told me that they were kept locked like animals in storage containers in Tripoli for two weeks and were basically forcibly starved. One man speculated that that was to ensure that they were smaller so the traffickers could fit more people on the boats. Those are the kinds of human atrocities that are happening, but they do not seem to be attracting Twitter hashtags commensurate with appalling human rights abuses. What are we doing on Libya’s southern border to prevent such atrocities from happening at source? Once people are at the coast, it is in a sense almost too late, although we must of course take action there too.
Libya is obviously of strategic importance. We know that it has become a fertile breeding ground for IS and other violent Islamist groups. It would be a mistake to limit our attention solely to Daesh. We might eradicate Daesh, but the ideology that it espouses will be articulated in another way. Let us not be simplistic and attach ourselves to defeating just a name and not an ideology. The chaos—some call it chaos; some call it deep instability—in Libya is deeply destabilising for neighbouring nations. The last thing that we want is a destabilised Egypt, which has its own challenges. Having a neighbour in such a situation as Libya is in is deeply destabilising for Egypt. As a nation, we are partially responsible for creating that situation, so we have a responsibility to engage energetically in trying to return some form of stability to Libya.
I am far from an expert, and I am aware that I am in the company of far greater experts, so I will make a few observations and then ask some questions of the Minister. We backed a revolution, which is always a risky business. Revolution is very different from reform. In many ways, having taken the actions that we took, we cannot be surprised that we are where we are in Libya.
My hon. Friend mentions that we backed revolution. That is precisely the point: we had no idea what was going to come after the revolution. We simply thought that things would right themselves on their own, and that once we had destabilised the situation, Humpty Dumpty would somehow just come back and reform almost spontaneously.
My hon. Friend refers to a nursery rhyme; I was going to say that we have a slightly short attention span and in many ways a fairytale view of foreign policy—“It’s all going to be fine and everyone will live happily ever after once we’ve done the nice thing that the Twitterati will approve of.” We are where we are.
We in the west in general—I do not intend to label any one person as responsible—make two mistakes. First, we tend to see situations in a binary way. We are quick to call the good guys the good guys and the bad guys the bad guys. That has led us to be allies with questionable people just because we want to defeat Daesh. Does that really mean that we should align ourselves with Islamists who perhaps have ideas not that different from Daesh? The reason that they are anti-Daesh may be that they see it as a competitor in the region, not that they share our values.
I remember that those who advocated attacking Iraq back in 2003 pointed to an atrocity that Saddam Hussein had undoubtedly perpetrated against the Kurds in Halabja some 15 years or so before as a pretext for launching strikes. Do we not have to be clear that there is an ever-present opportunity in the middle east to make a horrendous situation full of human rights abuses even worse?
Absolutely. A theme that has arisen again and again in this Chamber is the tension between stability and freedoms, and the extent to which we match our concern with alleviating human rights abuses with a concern with maintaining stability. Once stability goes in a country, there are an awful lot more human rights abuses, however many there were beforehand.
My hon. Friend was far too modest in her analysis of her abstention in 2011 when she was a new MP. I was not aware that she had abstained; I focused on my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron), who voted against the no-fly zone. I pay tribute to her for effectively scrutinising the situation. Does she agree that we must learn from the mistake of the speed with which we reacted to the crisis and intervened in the country at that time?
I thank my hon. Friend for his very kind intervention. Yes, we must learn lessons, but we do that not by sitting in this Chamber saying that we will learn lessons, but by doing things better, starting from today.
The second mistake that we often make, which feeds into the reference by my hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne to nursery rhymes and fairytales, is that we forget that the middle east is not Tunbridge Wells, if hon. Members will forgive me for labelling that area of the country. The models of democracy and methods that would work in the home counties will not work in the middle east. It is a very different scenario. We seem constantly to make the mistake of putting ideology and our own ideals of how the world should be ahead of how it actually is.
I have just a few questions for the Minister that are based on observations. I am not an expert on this subject at all, but it seems to me that pursuing a 100% inclusive settlement for a Libyan Parliament is fantasy. It will not happen. I worry that, in failing to realise that, we risk making the best the enemy of the good. How possible does the Minister think it is for a sustainable majority to be gathered to govern—I am talking about bringing in recalcitrant Islamists and those in Misrata—such that Britain can then engage in maintaining the human rights of the minorities that are left outside?
It seems very hard to play the active role that we want to play in helping to reconstruct Libya if we have our diplomatic service based in Tunis but making forays—flying visits—into an occupied Tripoli. Is the Minister looking at putting an expeditionary diplomatic presence back on the ground in Tripoli, so that we actually have skin in the game, and so that we can perhaps stand alongside a Libyan Parliament in the same way as we did early in 2011, which is what we should do if we really want to see it gain traction and force?
What assessment has the Minister made of the effects of our efforts to displace Daesh from Sirte on the wider political situation in Libya? Has he made any assessment of the risk of our efforts on the ground boosting one side—the Misratan militias—and the potential effect of that, if it is happening, on the Parliament and the army? It would be a shame if unintended consequences from our efforts to displace Daesh from Sirte contributed to the destabilising situation that gave birth to it in the first place.
I am aware that we have limited time, but in the absence of clear and effective practical leadership in the country, I would value the Minister’s thoughts on our relationship with General Haftar. My hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne rightly said that we cannot just ignore him and airbrush him from the picture because he does not fit in with our ideal of a GNA-led democracy. Whatever we think of General Haftar, he is really the only man who has managed to keep the army in one piece against an array of Islamist attacks. As my hon. Friend said, he is a controversial figure, but I struggle to think of any figure who has maintained any stability in the middle east who is not controversial. If we are looking for an uncontroversial leader to provide stability, we may have a very long wait.
To start to wrap up, I will borrow words reported to me by the former head of the British embassy office in Benghazi, Mr Joseph Walker-Cousins. He recalled words uttered by Salwa Bugaighis, a leading Libyan human rights lawyer. She had represented Islamists oppressed under the Gaddafi regime and had previously disagreed that Islamists posed a significant threat to Libya. Mr Walker-Cousins recalled how, shortly before she was assassinated by the Islamist militia group Ansar al-Sharia in Benghazi on the day of the general election in June 2014, she said of Haftar: “I hate that man. I hate everything he stands for. However, I have come to understand that he is the only one capable of containing and then destroying the extremists.”
Under threat of death, Salwa Bugaighis returned to Benghazi to take part in the elections and tweeted a picture of herself with an inked finger at the polling station. Her last tweet was of a convoy of Ansar al-Sharia breaching the gates of her villa compound. She was found the next day murdered in her kitchen, and her husband, a leading pro-democracy politician in Benghazi who was in line to be elected leader of the Benghazi local council the next day, was missing, presumed dead.
I ask the Minister what our vision is for Britain’s role in Libya. Will we regain skin in the game back on the ground with expeditionary diplomatic engagement and perhaps push for UN pro-consul level international engagement? Will we seek to work with General Haftar and the army, which are realities on the ground that we cannot ignore, or will we seek to step aside and create space for Russia to step in and start making decisions in Libya in the same way as it is now calling the shots in Syria? I would welcome the Minister’s thoughts on that.
I will finish with a quote attributed to Churchill:
“United wishes and goodwill cannot overcome brute fact”.
I am grateful to my very good and hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne (Kwasi Kwarteng) for getting this debate going. I take issue slightly with the comments on the decision in 2011. I felt that we had no choice but to save the people of Benghazi. We did not think of the consequences; we had damn all time to look downstream. I felt that the decision was quite right. My experience of watching people die when there is military inaction was why I supported military operations against Gaddafi.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol North West (Charlotte Leslie) raised this matter. It is very sad that, throughout the middle east, stability and safety and a normal society so that children can go to school often seems to require a strong person, normally or even always a man, to be in charge of the country. Democracy such as we have in this country is only a serious long-term wish.
Is there a lesson from British history? If we go back to a time before there was a civil service, before there were all the organs of the state, it required a strong man in the form of the King to keep the King’s peace. That is a lesson from our own history that we would do well to observe.
I entirely take that point, which in fact reinforces the point I was making. It seems, therefore, that people such as Saddam and Gaddafi sometimes work for the majority of people in a country. For some, of course, they do not. Libya is seemingly ungovernable at the moment. Some say that there are two Parliaments, and huge numbers—thousands—of militias and generals running around. It is a ghastly place. My hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne mentioned 1,600 militias—goodness, that is a heck of a lot. However, with apologies to my good and hon. Friend the Member for Bristol North West, I shall concentrate on Daesh and what it could do in Libya.
I have no intelligence information on this—it is all open source—but I am told that Daesh started moving into Libya in about 2014, when it was looking for an alternative place. It found that in Sirte. When we talk about Sirte, I, as a military officer, am always reminded of David Stirling and his SAS raids on Sirte airfield, which other hon. Members are nodding about, and the gallant actions of those young men, who were mainly from New Zealand, in those days. [Interruption.] I am so sorry: the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) reminds me that the Irish were there, too. We are always reminded of the Irish, Mr Chope, because they apparently have more Victoria Crosses than the English, the Welsh and the Scots put together. Mind you, I have to say, just to add a lighter note, that I am quite sure they were a bit pickled when they won them.
According to open sources, there are about 4,000 to 6,000 Daesh people operating in Sirte and around there. What is the threat? What threat are these guys going to make against us? I think it is not as bad as it could be. They are stuck in an enclave in Sirte. Perhaps they are being hellish inside it, but if I were a Daesh commander, I would not put my operatives into a leaky boat full of migrants or refugees, with scant chance of making it across the Mediterranean. I am also sure that when they do get to Europe the security forces of the country check them out thoroughly before they get ashore.
I would not take that course of action, so how else do they get into Europe? To the east they would be going into Egypt. President Sisi is adamantly determined to wipe out terrorist groups such as Daesh, and has set the armed forces and security forces firmly against them. Again, he is a strong man in the middle east. Tunisia, after the tragedy of Sousse and Tunis last year, has decided to put up a great barricade across the border. That is being done fairly effectively, although it is not complete. Algeria is 1,000 miles away, but the Algerians too are effective at chasing down Islamists trying to cross into their territory. It is not easy to get into Europe. My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol North West mentioned going south across the Sahara, but that is a pretty dodgy route to try.
I am thinking about the threat to us from the people in question—being a member of the Defence Committee, of course I am thinking in that way. They are holed up, but it is quite clear that we have to eliminate them. We will support anything that helps with their elimination. The objective of eliminating Daesh and other terrorist organisations in Libyan society is crucial, but, as other Members and particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol North West have suggested, Daesh is just one. If it is squashed, it will come out in some other form. Somehow, politically, Libya has to find a way. Whether that involves a strong person or not, I am sure of one thing: it took us 800 years to get to our imperfect democracy, and it cannot be imposed quickly. As others have suggested, there will be a Libyan model. I hope it comes quickly for the sake of the decent, normal people of Libya.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne (Kwasi Kwarteng) on securing the debate, which has given us time to think. I heard a remark of Henry Kissinger’s about a month ago; he said that the problem these days was that when politicians came to see him they asked what they should say, not what they should think. My hon. Friend has provided us with an opportunity to think, and in the time available to me I want to deal with just one issue. I want to take on the slightly concerning chorus of voices saying that General Haftar—or Field Marshal Haftar, as he has now been styled by the House of Representatives—might somehow be the solution.
Given the enthusiasm for strong men in the middle east, my colleagues might do well to reflect that such men both create and perpetuate the conditions that make them necessary. I was slightly surprised at the intervention of my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski), who was, of course, with us on the Select Committee visit to Tunis, when we sat down with Imhemed Shaib, the first vice-president of the House of Representatives, and a number of his colleagues. At that time, in March, they were trying to put together a House of Representatives vote to support the Government of National Accord. Our brilliant ambassador, Peter Millett, and the team of other international diplomats there have worked hard on that, to try to create what the Committee concluded was the only show in town to avoid the descent into civil war.
It was clear from the discussion that the Members of the House of Representatives had been intimidated and practically prevented from gathering together to vote so that they could support the new Government of National Accord. The House of Representatives had no votes between January and August this year, and indeed by May or June the United States had decided to sanction the Speaker, Aguila Saleh, as an obstacle to putting together support for the Government of National Accord, which all nations are formally signing up to as the best vehicle to take things forward.
It is undoubtedly true that Field Marshal Haftar commands the most substantial military force in Libya, and as my hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne mentioned, he is getting aid of one sort or another, covertly from the United Arab Emirates and elsewhere, and almost overtly from Egypt, where a degree of air power of course gives him military superiority. In the end, the solution is in the hands of Khalifa Haftar: will he place himself under the civilian authority of a Defence Minister appointed within the Government of National Accord? If that were to happen, we would begin to see the possibility of Libya finding its way through the appalling crisis that it has been in since our intervention in 2011.
The international community should be making sure that all our allies are not playing a double game in their own interest. They should instead be playing a game in the interest of the whole international community and the people of Libya, to find the best way of getting a Government who will bring all the people of Libya together. To my hon. Friends who are contemplating what I might describe as a Haftar shortcut, I would say that it would be a shortcut to civil war. The people of Libya have suffered enough. We should do everything in our power to try to prevent such an outcome.
My hon. Friend is correct, but if there is to be a unification of the forces of the west against the military forces under Field Marshal Haftar, we shall see civil war on an even greater scale, with a greater scale of human misery, than we have now.
The issue for us and our interest is the collapse of central authority in Libya. That is why there is no control of the littoral, and why there is now uncontrolled emigration out of Libya and the appalling trafficking of people from the south up to the north. I add my voice to that of my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol North West (Charlotte Leslie) on what is happening on the Libyan southern border. Some of the migration trails need to be interdicted at that point, but that will be immensely more difficult if we cannot establish a decent central authority in Libya. It was the conclusion of the Foreign Affairs Committee that the Government of National Accord was the only game in town. In my judgment, we should all be focused—including through our leverage over other members of the international community—on supporting its efforts. All the alternatives are far, far worse.
It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Chope. I congratulate the hon. Member for Spelthorne (Kwasi Kwarteng) on securing the debate. He gave a substantial and comprehensive introduction to it. I do not know whether he remembers that we first crossed paths in 2010, at a young person’s “Question Time” broadcast on the BBC. He was considerably more successful in that election than I was, but I am delighted to have begun to catch up with him, at least.
Barack Obama has admitted that military intervention and the mishandling of the aftermath in Libya was the worst mistake of his presidency. In many ways that is a brave and admirable statement to make, and is evidence of a politician willing to learn from his mistakes. Unfortunately, when our previous Prime Minister has been offered the opportunity he has not been willing to show similar contrition. More worryingly, the Government still seem unwilling to learn lessons from a situation that they have helped to cause and that continues to unfold.
I will look briefly at some of the findings of the Foreign Affairs Committee and the opportunities for the UK Government to take responsibility, to learn lessons and to work for a peaceful solution in Libya, and perhaps to address some specific questions about Government policy going forward. The contribution of the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, the hon. Member for Reigate (Crispin Blunt), was substantial. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for North East Fife (Stephen Gethins) thoroughly welcomes the opportunities he has had to contribute to the work of that Committee, but its membership is predominantly made up of Government Members.
The Committee’s report is pretty scathing with regard to the actions of the former Prime Minister. It found
“no evidence that the UK Government carried out a proper analysis of the nature of the rebellion in Libya.”
It also found that they had no defined strategic objective, which meant that a
“limited intervention to protect civilians drifted into a policy of regime change by military means.”
Furthermore, it found that there was no attempt to pause military action when Benghazi was secured, and that
“the UK Government focused exclusively on military intervention”
at the expense of stabilisation and rebuilding.
We have heard some more substantial and thoughtful ways that we could move forward from the hon. Member for Reigate and other Members, but the biggest example of failure came in an answer to my hon. Friend the Member for North East Fife, which revealed that the UK Government had spent 13 times more on bombing Libya than on rebuilding it post-war. The eight-month UK military intervention cost £320 million, but the money set aside for rebuilding totalled just £25 million. The consequences of that are there for all to see and have been outlined by a number of Members. The hon. Member for Spelthorne outlined the impact on GDP, infrastructure and the general collapse of governance. The hon. Member for Bristol North West (Charlotte Leslie) spoke quite movingly about human rights abuses that she has witnessed.
The Government must support the UN’s efforts to mediate a political solution and dramatically improve the effectiveness of the EU’s practical support to the interim Government. There are still opportunities for the UK Government, working with the international community, to make a positive contribution to the outcome in Libya. The Scottish National party condemns the recent coup attempts by opposition factions in Tripoli and urges all factions to work constructively with the interim Government and the UN to end the fighting, reach a lasting political settlement and build stable state institutions that serve the people of Libya.
In the midst of ongoing military intervention in the form of airstrikes by the US, Turkey, Egypt and other regional actors, the UN has taken a lead in working with the various competing factions in an attempt to reach a viable and lasting political agreement. It must receive all possible support in doing so. The SNP urges the UK Government to channel their efforts in Libya in that way. Instead of wasting any more time or energy planning further ill-conceived or poorly planned military intervention, they should seek to work with the international community—notably the European Union—to provide proper support to the capacity building of the Libyan state institutions and police force.
There is a particular lesson that needs to be learned from the experience in Iraq, which is the need to support the interim Government in ensuring that oil revenues are not misappropriated and are instead used for the benefit of the people of Libya. Libya has been granted an exemption from cuts in oil production by OPEC, and as competing factions within the Government seem to have reached an agreement, however fragile, on resuming oil exports, the mistakes from Iraq must not be repeated. The UK and the wider international community must work with the interim Government and the private sector to ensure that oil revenues are properly invested in rebuilding infrastructure and in supporting stable state institutions for the benefit of the Libyan people, rather than lining the pockets of corrupt Government officials or unscrupulous businessmen. In that way, perhaps at least one lesson from the debacle in Iraq will have been learned.
There are ongoing questions about the possibility of the deployment of troops. I understand that the proposed Libyan international assistance mission is on hold, but the Government need to confirm that, if UK troops were ever to be deployed in Libya, it would not happen without parliamentary approval. I am also interested in something that happens in a number of conflict situations: the continuing mismatch between Home Office guidance on the settlement of refugees and asylum seekers, and Foreign and Commonwealth Office guidance on traveling to the country in question. The FCO advises against all travel by UK citizens to Libya; the whole country is shown as red on the FCO guidance page. However, section 2.3.10 of the Home Office guidance issued in June 2016 for people seeking asylum or making their way here says:
“In general conditions across the country are not so poor that removal would be a breach of Article 2 or 3”
of the European convention on human rights.
I did not wish to interrupt the hon. Gentleman, but I am conscious that I have only limited time at the end of the debate to cover everything, and this is an important issue. The advice from the Home Office deals with Libyans who need to go back. There is a different set of circumstances in place for westerners and Britons, who are a target for extremism and so forth. The hon. Gentleman is comparing apples and pears.
Surely the hon. Gentleman understands that there is a massive difference between the guidance given to nationals going to their country and the ability of another country to absorb migrants. For example, it is perfectly understandable for the Government to advise people not to go to Egypt, but that does not mean that everyone coming here from Egypt should be granted asylum.
I am afraid I simply do not accept that. If people have made their way here through really horrific situations, as we have heard from other hon. Members, for the UK Government to say it is safe to deport those people back to a country that they are not willing to advise their own citizens to travel to is, frankly, rank hypocrisy. I thank the Minister for his intervention and for making the Government’s continued position clear, but we will have to agree to disagree.
Hon. Members from Northern Ireland raised the issue of compensation for victims of terrorism. Again, a peaceful and diplomatic solution to that must be found.
In short, the UK Government must take responsibility for their failure to plan for the aftermath of their military intervention in Libya, and they must demonstrate a willingness to learn lessons from that failure. Sadly, there is little evidence of that so far, given that the objectives for military action in Syria do not appear to have materialised. Later today the House will discuss the situation in Yemen, where the Government refuse to admit any complicity, despite Saudi troops being trained in the UK, being accompanied by UK military observers and allegedly using weapons manufactured or sold in the UK. As the hon. Member for Spelthorne said, we have debates such as this and Select Committee reports for a reason. It is not too late for the Government to follow the example of Barack Obama, admit to their mistakes and set out how they intend to make amends.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Chope. It is also a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady), who is the Scottish National party’s spokesperson on foreign affairs and international development.
Back in 2005 I had the opportunity to visit Libya with the Foreign Affairs Committee. It was very different in those days. Gaddafi reigned supreme, and I found, as we all did, the country to be a paranoid place, covered with posters of Gaddafi—“the father of Africa”—with his portrait stemming out of a map of the whole of Africa. It was a deeply disturbing place; there were no street signs or even road markings because they were so scared of invasion. We did not have the opportunity then to meet Colonel Gaddafi—I never met him, thankfully—but we met his deputy, Musa Kusa, who was one of the most sinister people I have ever met. During the revolution he “defected” to the west and came to live in Britain. I do not know if he is still here, but he gave us a portrait of Libya in 2005 that was worrying to say the least, given the human rights abuses and the absolute authority of Gaddafi and the way he dealt with opposition.
That is interesting to learn; he certainly survived, although he was clearly Gaddafi’s henchman and de facto deputy.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Spelthorne (Kwasi Kwarteng) on raising a really important issue in the debate. It is something Parliament has not paid sufficient attention to, and the Government have not paid sufficient attention to it either; I am sure the Minister will contradict that when he winds up the debate in a few minutes’ time. I also commend the Foreign Affairs Committee—I served on it for 10 years—under the leadership of the hon. Member for Reigate (Crispin Blunt)—I think he is a right hon. Member now.
No? I am baffled by that. In the hon. Gentleman’s contribution, he showed his detailed knowledge of the current machinations of Libya’s internal politics and said quite clearly that the British Government should not support General Haftar, otherwise the country will descend into civil war. It is hard to see how much worse it can get, given some of the things we have heard today.
The hon. Member for Spelthorne made some important points about the two Governments, about the GNA being backed by the international community—something that the Foreign Affairs Committee certainly agrees with—and about the economic situation, which is very alarming indeed. In fact, the United Nations human development report ranked Libya as the 53rd most advanced country in the world, with a GDP per person similar to a number of European countries. That was in 2011. Five years later, as the hon. Gentleman pointed out, that has halved, and it continues to fall precipitously. That is extremely worrying for not only the people of that country but Libya’s place in the region and the rest of us, including in terms of migration, which the hon. Gentleman pointed out clearly. He asked in his conclusion how we can marry the ideals of what we would like to happen and what is actually happening on the ground. I am sure the Minister will address that.
The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) rightly wanted an update on the lack of success in getting compensation for victims of Libyan terrorism from the Government of Libya, though we do not know who the Government of Libya really are at the moment. He said that chaos reigns in many parts of Libya and pointed, as he often does—rightly so—to the continued persecution of Christians in that country, as in so many other parts of the world.
One of the best contributions today was from the hon. Member for Bristol North West (Charlotte Leslie)—not just Bristol North; I often get called the hon. Member for Leeds North, not the hon. Member for Leeds North East. She displayed an extraordinary knowledge of the area, with some extremely pertinent observations and questions that I will leave the Minister to answer.
One point that has come through in this debate is the proliferation of small arms in Libya, as in so many other parts of Africa, which fuels death and destruction and the different militia groups roaming the country trying to claim territory and their superiority, or the superiority of their particular ideology. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs estimated that out of a total Libyan population of 6.3 million, half have been impacted by the armed conflict, with 2.4 million in need of some form of protection and humanitarian assistance. More than 400,000 people have been displaced since the conflict started.
Reference has been made to our British ambassador, Peter Millett—a man who I have come to know well in his former roles in Jordan and Cyprus. He is one of our best diplomats. If anybody can do the work of the British Government in Libya, it is Peter Millett and his excellent team. However, as the hon. Member for Bristol North West pointed out, the team is based in Tunis. I spent some time in our embassy in Tripoli. We have some very good buildings and a very good estate there. I appreciate that it is not a safe place to be right now. It did not seem that safe under Gaddafi, to be honest. Constant threats were being made against the British mission there, even at that time, but I share the view that some kind of mission needs to be based in Tripoli. Is the Minister prepared to comment on the possibility of that happening soon? As I say, if anyone can do it, it is Peter Millett and his team.
It is estimated that there are more than 3,000 Daesh fighters in Libya at the moment. That is what the then Foreign Secretary, the current Chancellor of the Exchequer, said in his report in 2016. The US intelligence agencies believe that number could well be considerably higher. It continues to increase, as many of the fighters go to Libya, instead of Iraq and Syria, to join Daesh.
The Minister has stated that the international community needs to rally together and be ready to “provide service and support” to the GNA. The UK Government have stated that the security agenda in Libya must be “owned and led” by the GNA, but how do we actually make that happen? The British Government have also discussed the deployment of approximately 1,000 ground forces as part of an Italian initiative with Spain, France, Italy and other nations, but only at the invitation of the GNA. The previous Foreign Secretary, the current Chancellor of the Exchequer, said on 19 April:
“Libya has Africa’s largest oil and gas reserves and a population of…six million”—
—the population that existed before the civil war. Currently, only 200,000 barrels of oil per day are being produced. The UK is assisting Libya, I understand, in attempting to bring that number up to 700,000 barrels a day, but oil is the main source of revenue and international finance in that country. The country did, of course, have a sovereign wealth fund—the Libyan Investment Authority —that used the proceeds of oil revenues prior to 2011, but those funds have been frozen ever since the conflict started.
Reference has been made to removing chemical weapons still in existence in Libya and the risk they may have to the population of that country, to the wider region and to Europe. The current Foreign Secretary said in August this year:
“The UK, in close co-operation with our international partners, is taking practical and effective action to eliminate chemical weapon risks in Libya”.
Will the Minister tell us a little more about what is being done to neutralise and remove those very dangerous chemical weapons that could be a threat to so many? I understand that in August the Royal Navy assisted in the removal of a batch of known materials that could be used in the manufacture of chemical weapons, but what more are we doing?
The Minister has quite a lot to follow up on, so I will wrap up. Let me quote something that President Obama said earlier this year, which has already been quoted this morning but is worth saying again:
“When I go back and I ask myself what went wrong, there’s room for criticism, because I had more faith in the Europeans, given Libya’s proximity, being invested in the follow-up.”
He went on to say that the former Prime Minister, David Cameron, was
“distracted by a range of other things”.
Can the Minister tell us what, in practical terms, the Government are prepared to do to try to reduce the flow of weapons and weapons currently in circulation in Libya, and to bring about further concerted support for the GNA, which, as many Members have said, is really the only hope for rebuilding Libya?
It is a pleasure to respond to what has been an important debate. I will put out a written ministerial statement on this matter. It is clear there is an awful lot of information that the Government are aware of, but there is also a lot of disinformation and confusion. I will also make a recommendation to the Foreign Secretary that, as with Syria and Iraq, an oral statement is made to the House on a regular basis, updating colleagues on what is happening here. Today’s debate is pertinent and it is a pleasure to respond to it.
Many discussions on Libya go straight into the details. That needs to be done, but I want to step back for a second and look at the context in which this is playing out. It is often seen through the prism of Gaddafi and the consequences of his removal. Seeking solutions to today’s challenges requires a deeper understanding of what is happening and the character of this north African piece of land. Going back to the 7th century BC, Libya has been occupied or run by the Venetians, the Greeks, the Romans, the Arabs and the Ottomans, each of them carving their own personality unto the three regions of Libya: Fezzan, Tripolitania and Cyrenaica.
During the interim war period, it was occupied by Italy, and then by us and the French after the second world war. Then came independence in 1951, under King Idris, who was removed in the coup that we know led to 40 years of misrule by what started off being Lieutenant Gaddafi—talking of promotions, he promoted himself to Colonel because he was trying to emulate Colonel Nasser further to the east. That 40 years of misrule destroyed any tribal relationships that existed. It stifled any political representation and undermined the development of institutions. That all came about and was laid bare in the 2011 revolution.
Sadly today—we have heard a little of this in the Chamber this morning—some people are attempting to rewrite recent history, linking the 2011 decision for the west to intervene with the very difficulties we face today. That glosses over important events in between. We must not forget that the decision to intervene was international and supported by UN Security Council resolution 1973 and by the Arab League. We took action to prevent attacks on civilians that were about to take place. There would have been a bloodbath if we had not intervened. Even before Gaddafi went into hiding, more than 60 countries, with the African Union, recognised the National Transitional Council—the body of Libyan people based in Benghazi who were looking ahead to a post-Gaddafi world.
I am sure my hon. Friend’s skill will enable him to make a more concise speech than the one written for him, or that he wrote himself.
Why would President Obama say this was the worst mistake of his presidency if everything were as hunky-dory and rosy as my hon. Friend suggests?
First, I confirm that I write my own speeches and I am happy to place that on the record. Secondly, if I may, I will come to the aftermath and what is happening in relation to international views later.
I stress the point about the context in which things happened in 2011, which was made by my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), a former north Africa and middle east Minister, who is no longer in his place. There were elections in July 2012 and the General National Congress was formed. Libya was starting to take charge of its own destiny. In 2014, there were elections for the new Council of Deputies.
It is recognised today that perhaps we did not do enough. Perhaps the west could have done more, but many agencies, including UN agencies, were asked to leave Libya because the Libyan people wanted to take ownership of the path they wanted to pursue without interference from the west. Could we have done more? Of course we could have done more. That is what President Obama is looking at and why he is making those comments.
I certainly believe that, with the disparate society we are dealing with that had 40 years of misrule, not enough happened during Gaddafi’s reign for society to develop. I politely disagree with my hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne that nothing has happened over the past five years. Elections have taken place, there is a Prime Minister in place and there is a structure, including a Government of National Accord, a Presidency Council, which needs to be confirmed and put in place, a House of Representatives and a State Council.
Those important infrastructure institutions must be given the opportunity to work. It is right to say that they are not working as efficiently as they should, because there are spoilers and stakeholders who are choosing to follow their own agendas. The challenge facing us today is getting them to realise who benefits if they do not support that infrastructure—the criminal gangs that move the migrants through and the extremism that flourishes in that vacuum.
The Skhirat process helped to empower the moderates and the Khartoum process brought together countries around Libya to ensure that they secure their borders and provide support to Libya—that was raised as a concern in the debate. International countries have come together. I have sat in many meetings discussing how better to co-ordinate our international aid and our work to improve governance, and to ensure that that happens. The issue came to the fore in December 2015 with the agreement that rolled into Security Council resolution 2259 formally recognising the Government of National Accord as the sole legislative body to take Libya forward.
I will pose a question, but I do not want to go down this rabbit hole. Which countries can intervene when something very bad is happening in another part of the world? I take hon. Members back to Rwanda and what happened there. The world blinked while a travesty took place. Is it right that the international community glosses over things and asks who in the world can step forward and which nations have the ability and commitment to do that? There are very few and they can be counted on one hand, but we are one of them. What would colleagues do if they were in No. 10 and Benghazi had tanks on the outskirts that were about to roll in? Would they have a plan for what happens next? They would have to think about that, and also about our duty as a permanent member of the United Nations interested in supporting international security and stabilisation and decide whether to act. That is exactly what David Cameron did and I believe it was the right decision.
Libya’s governance structure today is not as strong as it should be, but we must give our support to Prime Minister Siraj. I believe that the Libyan political agreement is the framework to enable things to move forward and make that happen. We want the Libyan Government to submit promptly a revised list of Ministers which the House of Representatives must endorse and we need a more unified command structure under General Haftar. He is a general and he needs to answer to civilian governance structures. That is very important indeed.
We must address the challenge of Daesh and people traffickers. If there is time I will come to that.
The conflict is unique and very different from all the others. There is a lot of plate-spinning in the middle east and north Africa, but this is different because there are working institutions. Oil is flowing—there are up to 500,000 barrels a day—and that money is going into the central bank. It is paying people who, ironically, are fighting on both sides of the argument. The salaries of teachers, doctors and nurses are being paid because those basic structures are in place. However, we certainly need to do more and that is why we have allocated £10 million to provide technical support for the Government of National Accord.
Operation Sophia was mentioned a couple of times. It is important to stem the flow of migrants choosing to make an horrific journey in an attempt to get to Europe. Unfortunately, we can work only in international waters. We cannot get into territorial waters at the moment because the Government are not fully in place to give us that permission and Russia is denying us the ability to use military capability in that space. We must answer that, otherwise we are encouraging people to come here. When ships pick them up, which British ships have done, those people are taken to Italy, so we are still not breaking the chain. We are now working to train a local coastguard to break that chain so the boats never leave Libyan soil in the first place.
Several hon. Members mentioned Daesh. It is absolutely right that we are concerned about the vacuum. Its numbers are down to 200 or 300 in strength and many are indigenous local people choosing to join that gang because that is where the money is. That is where the guns come from and where the success seems to be. That is why it is important that the Government offer something different to fill that vacuum of governance. It is important to recognise what we can do, but also where things are in the country. It is not as bleak as some of the comments today have suggested, but we are not there yet in any sense whatever.
In conclusion, Libya is extremely complex, as has been highlighted by colleagues today. It is dynamic and certainly challenging. The process of building trust between communities, confidence in political institutions and willingness to compromise for the common good will not be easy. It is up to the political leaders of Libya—I stress this—to make this work. We remain committed to supporting them, but also to working for peace and security in Libya, not just for the sake of stability in the region where the UK has important interests, but for the sake of the Libyan people.
I very much welcome this debate and look forward to the closing comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne. I will seek to provide a full and regular oral statement so that the House is informed as progress moves forward.
I am grateful for the Minister’s remarks. We have covered many of the issues that bedevil Libya and have a huge impact on our safety and security here in Europe, with particular regard to the question of migration. I conclude by saying this is not the end of the matter, but the beginning of a fruitful and, I hope, effective engagement with many of the issues that have been raised this morning.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered British engagement with Libya.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered safety on the A34.
I am grateful for the opportunity to hold this debate under your chairmanship, Mr Chope. This is an important opportunity for me and my colleagues to describe the importance of improvements to the A34, which is a major arterial trunk road that runs from the south coast up through Hampshire, west Berkshire and Oxfordshire to the midlands. It is a vital economic route that is also used by many thousands of commuters—in fact, some 79,000 vehicles a day use the road.
May I put on record my gratitude to the Under-Secretary of State for Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Nicola Blackwood), who as a Back Bencher campaigned vigorously on this issue and secured £50 million towards road improvements in the previous Parliament? She cannot be at the debate today, and as a Minister she would not be able to speak in it, but I know she will continue to work and lobby on this issue of importance to her constituents. My hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon), who also unfortunately cannot be with us today, has been extremely active in campaigning for improvements. Many of my hon. Friends and colleagues in the Chamber will no doubt wish to intervene or make remarks in the course of this short debate.
It will be useful for my right hon. Friend to note that the A34 runs through a bit of the north of my constituency, near the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Nicola Blackwood). My right hon. Friend can rely on me to help campaign for the changes he wants to see on the road, which I am sure he will come on to shortly.
I am grateful. My heart always lifts a little when I am on the section of road that runs through my hon. Friend’s constituency. Given his track record in working for his constituents I know that he, too, will play an important part in a campaign that, although I expect it to be long-running, we hope will lead to some significant improvements.
The central point of my remarks, and no doubt that of colleagues, is that the A34 is no longer fit for purpose. It is a dangerous road, and the delays and accidents that happen regularly on it are having a significant economic impact on one of the most economically productive areas of the country.
The road is dangerous: there were almost 2,000 accidents on the A34 between 2010 and 2014. On the stretch of road that runs between the M4 and the M40 through Oxfordshire and west Berkshire, 32 people have unfortunately been killed. In the past four months, there have been two fatal accidents and numerous injuries both serious and less serious. I am sad to say that one recent fatal accident claimed the lives of four people, including three children, and the most recent accident resulted in the tragic death of a three-year-old child. Action is therefore long overdue. The urgent need to improve road safety alone would justify a significant investment of money and time from the Department for Transport and Highways England.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on securing this debate in what seems to be a sauna this morning. Will he acknowledge that while the statistics he outlined are alarming, they are even more alarming if we add in the accidents that take place at intersections with other roads? For instance, I am concerned about the junction of the A303 and the A34 at Bullington Cross, which by about 100 yards is not in my constituency but which is used nevertheless by my constituents. A significant number of accidents there are reported as A303 accidents but relate to the junction between the two roads and could be attributed to either road.
My hon. Friend makes an extremely good point. I focused solely on the accidents on the small section of the A34 that concerns me as the constituency MP, but he is quite right that if one takes the statistics along the whole of the A34 and for accidents attributed to other roads in close proximity, I am afraid the toll is higher. That again leads to the central point about the need for a clear strategic plan for the whole of the A34, to improve road safety.
Having started with the most important issue of keeping people safe on the A34, it is also important to highlight the economic impact that the delays and accidents are having on my constituency, and no doubt the whole of the region. For example, I am privileged to represent Harwell Campus, which is the one of the world’s leading scientific research centres. Its director, Angus Horner, wrote to me recently and said:
“I often witness dangerous conditions on A34…Immediate term safety improvements will be strongly supported by thousands of us at Harwell Campus…The A34 is operating far beyond its designed capacity and major infrastructure investment should be allocated right now to substantially improve its capacity.”
“In a broader context, it is essential that the UK maximises the potential of its world leading knowledge economy…UK hotspots must be properly connected….Better vehicle flow along A34 would have a substantial positive impact at Harwell by facilitating even more collaboration with our neighbours at University of Oxford, plus tens of thousands of other regular research visitors and hundreds of companies who use A34 to access Harwell’s ideas and £2 billion of international labs.”
I also have the pleasure of representing Milton Park. On that business park there are 250 companies employing 9,500 people. The park is located right next to the A34, and its productivity is being severely affected by delays on the road. Its director, Philip Campbell, wrote to me and said that
“the A34 is central to maximising future success of this unique and vibrant area. A safe, free-flowing A34 is critical, for our area’s future growth and prosperity and for the resilience, health and wellbeing of residents.”
He signs off with a flourish:
“The A34 needs an A1 plan!”
Our local enterprise partnerships are closely involved in campaigning for improvements. Oxlep, the Oxfordshire LEP, and the Thames Valley Berkshire LEP have written a joint letter to me and my hon. Friends in which they say:
“As a key transport artery through our respective areas we believe it critically important to address the capacity issues of the A34 now; to help mitigate the serious and all too often tragic incidents that have taken place over the last five years and to support economic growth.”
My right hon. Friend is making a powerful case for the A34, and its economic impacts in particular. Does he agree that another impact— I am interested in whether he experiences this as well—is that when there is the slightest delay on the A34, the alternative routes, which are more rural in nature, become completely jammed with lorries trying to avoid the traffic? In my constituency those routes include the A343, which runs down from Highclere through Hurstbourne Tarrant to Andover.
That is an excellent point. All too often I have witnessed the A34 at a complete standstill. Sometimes I am lucky and I am witnessing that from a distance when I am not actually on the road. As my hon. Friend points out, one then witnesses the traffic overspill that naturally results from that, with large lorries and a lot of commuter traffic using rural roads that are clearly unfit for purpose and go through villages and small towns.
The Oxford local transport plan, which is part of the county council’s initiative to look at improving transport in the area, notes:
“The A34 is particularly congested and adversely affecting journey time reliability. This is particularly due to its high proportion of HGV movements, which account for above 20% of daily trips.”
The Road Haulage Association has written to say that it is
“constantly hearing complaints from members of deliveries failing booking times and the cost of delays with drivers running out of their legal driving and duty hours, due to delays on the A34.”
It cited the case of a small company whose 15 vehicles get stuck in traffic for 30 minutes every morning and evening. It loses about 4,000 man hours a year, which it has calculated costs about £150,000. With that comes an environmental cost, which is the third element that should enter our thinking when looking at improvements to the A34.
My interest in today’s debate is that I use the A34 a lot, and have done over the past five years, because I have an interest on the south coast. From my constituency in Coventry, it is one of the main routes via the M40 down to the south coast, especially Bournemouth and the surrounding areas. I have witnessed a lot of accidents and been in a lot of traffic jams on the A34. In the right hon. Gentleman’s opinion, is over-capacity the only reason why there are so many accidents?
Over-capacity is the reason why there are so many accidents. In this case, over-capacity means that the road itself—being a dual carriageway and not a motorway—does not have any capacity to deal with accidents. We have not so far had what we need, which is what the Government are now considering: a strategic plan for the road network for the whole area, particularly the links between Oxford and Cambridge, which will have a knock-on effect of improving the A34. If that strategic study goes ahead, it will have an impact.
It is important that I mention the work of the A34 Action Group, which is a group of my own and my hon. Friends’ concerned constituents, including those who have lost loved ones and people who regularly use the route to commute. It put forward a manifesto that encapsulates some of the small, immediate improvements that can be made, specifically focusing on safety. They include a full risk assessment of the road; evidence-based—that is important to emphasise—traffic-calming measures, such as average speed cameras or chevrons in the right places; and improved flow mechanisms, such as a crawler lane or, in particular parts of the A34, no-overtaking areas. We are not saying that there should be a blanket ban on lorries overtaking, but there are certain parts of the A34, in particular on steep inclines, where no-overtaking areas would be suitable. The suggested improvements also include refuge and rest areas and a hard shoulder. That goes to the point made by the hon. Member for Coventry North East (Colleen Fletcher), because when there is an accident on the A34 there is nowhere for anyone to go. If there were a hard shoulder where people could pull over or HGV drivers could rest, that would have a massive impact.
Improved junctions, which I know are of concern to my hon. Friend the Member for North West Hampshire (Kit Malthouse)—we were discussing it earlier today—are also important. There has been a fantastic improvement at the junction with the M4, and my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford West and Abingdon secured £50 million to help improve junctions at places such as Pear Tree, Hinksey and Botley, as well as East Ilsley in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury. What is needed is, for example, longer slip roads for easier access to and from the M4. The Botley and Pear Tree junctions have already been redesigned as a result of that funding. A driver information system to alert commuters to problems ahead, a number of CCTV cameras and other technology improvements, such as detection loops, are also being introduced with that funding.
Measures are under way, and we now have the Oxford-Cambridge expressway strategic study, which was published this summer. It calls for a “strong case” for “strategic transport interventions” and identifies the A34 as a key part of the jigsaw in improving east-west links between Oxford and Cambridge. It notes, as so many have done, that the problem is not going to go away and is simply going to get worse. There are 100,000 new homes planned for Oxfordshire in the next 15 years and a prediction of 85,000 jobs being created there over the next 10 or 20 years, so the strain on roads and infrastructure is simply going to increase.
I know that my right hon. Friend the Minister no doubt has a desk full of the many proposals to improve strategic road networks. Only today, I saw that a group of my colleagues from Kent had been to the Chancellor to seek improvements on the A2. I know that money is limited, but I urge my right hon. Friend the Minister to look at the case of the A34. In post-Brexit Britain, where we are looking for infrastructure investment and it is a matter of national debate, we need strategic infrastructure investment that has an immediate impact on our economic prospects. We could not find a better area in which to make improvements than the south-east around Oxfordshire, west Berkshire, and Hampshire, where we have such a concentration of innovative, future-looking companies that need that investment in order to keep growing.
I know that the right hon. Member for Oxford East (Mr Smith) wants to make some short remarks, so I will conclude. I look forward to his remarks and to hearing from the Minister. May I also put on record how grateful I am that he has agreed to meet me and colleagues at the end of November? I am also going to meet Highways England with colleagues in November to discuss this issue.
I congratulate my colleague, the right hon. Member for Wantage (Mr Vaizey), on securing this debate and on his speech, and I thank him for providing time for me to make a brief contribution.
Although the A34 does not touch my constituency, it is used by thousands of my constituents and local businesses every day. It is, indeed, not fit for purpose and is dangerous, as the recent horrific record of traffic accidents shows. As the right hon. Gentleman said, the problems are the volume of traffic—in particular, heavy lorries on what is a national strategic route—limited capacity and the speed of vehicles. Like other Oxfordshire colleagues, I have been pressing for safety and capacity improvements and I, too, call for the measures that he mentioned today.
The problem we face is that the A34 is fulfilling a motorway role without motorway capacity or safety features. Last month, in response to my written questions, the Minister assured me of A34 scheme improvements between Chievely and the M40, including vehicle detection loops to inform electronic traffic signage, CCTV and driver information systems. Those would be welcome, as would distance separation chevrons, safer stopping places and further junction improvements. Perhaps the most significant thing the Minister told me, however, was that Highways England intends to start work by March 2020 and that his Department is not minded to carry out a further review of the route at this time. That simply is not good enough, and I urge him to think again. Measures need to be started now if the risk of further accidents is to be reduced, and there needs to be a major review of the whole route.
That is the logical conclusion of what I said: it needs to be motorway standard to guarantee the safety and capacity that we all want to see. The problems are only going to get worse as the economy grows in the future. As well as a major review of the whole route, we need to look at options for getting traffic across from the A34 to the M40 south of Oxford, to address the additional problems caused by the A34 being both a strategic route to the midlands and the north and a local access road and Oxford bypass.
I feel sure that the Minister will want to reflect on the points made today. I am glad he has agreed to a meeting at the end of November, and I would very much like to be part of the delegation meeting him.
It is a great pleasure to speak in this debate, Mr Chope, and I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (Mr Vaizey) on securing it. He is a doughty champion of his constituents and a great friend of mine.
As my right hon. Friend described, the A34 has been of concern for a considerable length of time. He was right to draw attention to the work of my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Nicola Blackwood), who raised and discussed this issue with me just this summer, following the tragedies that my right hon. Friend the Member for Wantage drew to the Chamber’s attention. It is absolutely right, at the outset, that I offer my condolences and sympathies to all those affected by those dreadful events he has highlighted today. Sympathy matters, but support matters more. It is really important, for those people and others, that we show that support; I think Disraeli said that
“justice is truth in action.”—[Official Report, 11 February 1851; Vol. 114, c. 412.]
We need action, because it is just and right that we give proper consideration to the A34.
First, let me deal with a matter that the right hon. Member for Oxford East (Mr Smith) raised—I have lots of notes here but I will refer to them only fleetingly, because I do not want to lecture people who already know more than most about details relating to the A34. However, I want to say, following his remarks, that I will review safety on the A34. I will take a close look and commit to a study of safety on the road. I have been thinking about the issue for some time; discussing it with my officials, given that this has been a matter of detailed concern, as I say, for a considerable time; and I have reflected on representations that have been made to me by Members in this Chamber and others and feel that we now need to look at safety on the A34.
Secondly, I am absolutely committed to the meeting that has been mentioned twice. It needs to be with all interested parties—by that I mean not only all colleagues who have a direct involvement and interest in these matters because of their constituency responsibilities, but Highways England and my officials. This round-table meeting should involve a genuinely open-minded debate about what more can be done.
A series of steps can be taken, so let me rehearse those in detail. I have no doubt that further technological improvements that we can make to this road will make a difference. Having looked at the map of the area, I am particularly conscious of the problems in the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Wantage because of its topography. This is a relatively small road with hilly terrain, carrying a large number of HGVs, not least to and from the port of Southampton and the south coast. For that reason, it is sometimes a difficult road to navigate.
There may be further technological changes we can make. I am happy to write to hon. Members following this short debate to rehearse in detail some of the improvements that have been made. Many safety improvements have been made over the last five or six years by the Government, Highways England and prior to that, the Highways Agency, as hon. and right hon. Friends and Members know. However, we may be able to go still further with technological changes, by which I mean such things as interactive signage, gantries, and more information being provided to drivers that will compensate and mitigate some of the challenges associated with the topography that I described.
That being the first thing, the second thing was referred to by my right hon. Friend. We are, of course, looking at the Oxford-Cambridge expressway, which is part of the Government’s roads strategy. He made clear that the provisional study—the interim report—was published in August and he will know that the final report is due to be published later this year. Inevitably, that will include considerations about this stretch of road and will give us the opportunity to think through what more can be done in a reasonably short time. I take the point made by the right hon. Member for Oxford East about 2020 and know that hon. Members, local authorities and others will want more urgent work. When we have that report, I am prepared to look, on the back of the round-table discussions, at what more urgent work could be committed to as part of the road investment strategy phase 1 and consistent with the Oxford-Cambridge expressway report.
However, I want to go further. The call has been made for a still more strategic piece of work—my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell) described this as “a motorway”—and I think we need to think that through. I suspect that would be part of the road investment strategy as it moves into its second and third phases, because it requires a different scale of work, but none the less, the significance of the road is not lost on me. We may be able to look in the road investment strategy as it moves forward at that still more fundamental piece of work on this stretch of road.
Safety and congestion are the two issues that have been raised in this debate, and they relate closely to each other. A road that is congested does not only cause inconvenience to the local traffic, and hon. and right hon. Members will know that we are committed to a number of local schemes in Oxford. We are working with the LEP, which I emphasise is absolutely at the heart of making representations on this matter, and alongside local authorities to ease congestion around Oxford. However, the safety issues are there and further south on the road, in the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Wantage and beyond. Looking at the separate but related issues of safety and congestion requires the lateral, innovative thinking that I have tried to illustrate and outline in this brief response.
In summary, we will continue to work with all the interested parties concerned and continue to invest in the local schemes that ease congestion around Oxford; I agree to the round-table, open-ended meeting of the kind that I described to seek views from all those who know and care about this road; I am happy to review safety on the road—there are criteria for that, but I have never been a man who is constrained by criteria imposed by others, as you know, Mr Chope. I am prepared to say that I have made the decision and announce now that I will institute that safety review. I am also prepared to look at further technological change to improve safety on the road; happy to consider what can be done in the road investment strategy in its first phase to mitigate some of the risks associated with this route; and prepared to consider what more strategic changes might be made at a later stage of the road investment strategy as it moves to phases 2 and 3.
I thank my right hon. Friend for drawing these matters to my attention once again. I hope he feels that the debate has been worthwhile in pressing a Minister who is not reluctant to use these kind of debates to reconsider Government thinking, and in pressing this Minister to take action necessary not only to avoid the tragedies that I mentioned, in amplifying my right hon. Friend’s words of sympathy at the outset, but to improve the wellbeing of the people in this part of our country.
Question put and agreed to.
Disclosure and Barring Service
[Sir David Amess in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the performance of the Disclosure and Barring Service.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David.
I sought this debate because, since being elected last year, I have been approached by a significant number of my constituents who have experienced serious personal consequences as a result of delays in the processing of enhanced Disclosure and Barring Service checks.
When I asked written parliamentary questions on the subject earlier this year, two things happened. First, the answers to my questions did not provide any comfort or confidence that the problems were in hand. Secondly, many more individuals, voluntary sector organisations, care providers, public sector employers and others got in touch with me to say that they had had problems, confirming my view that there is a significant problem with far-reaching impacts. Today I will discuss the nature of the problems with the DBS, the impact on individuals, the reasons behind the poor performance, the Government’s response, and the key issue of the current non-portability of DBS checks.
The DBS is a vital part of the safeguarding process. The process began under the Criminal Records Bureau established by the Labour Government, and I support it wholeheartedly. It is absolutely right that the checks take place and that anyone who, because of a previous conviction, is not a safe person to work with children or vulnerable adults can be prevented from doing so. However, the service must be run in an efficient and effective way, and it is clear that there are major problems in many parts of the country. Performance levels depend on the DBS itself and on the relationship between the DBS and the police forces across the country that are charged with delivering 25% of checks that come through the police character inquiry centres. The DBS and the police must work hand in hand to deliver a good service.
I will discuss that in further detail shortly, but I want to be clear about the impacts that the current delays in processing enhanced DBS checks are having. In November 2015, I was contacted by a constituent who was a student nurse and who needed a DBS check to be completed so that she could take up her student placement. She made the original application in August 2015. She did not receive her DBS clearance until December 2015, as a consequence of which she missed the first term of her nursing placement.
In March 2016, I was contacted by another constituent, who was seeking to complete six months of clinical experience in hospital and voluntary sector settings before enrolling on a programme of doctoral study in clinical psychology. He had submitted three applications for the three settings in which he was undertaking placements. That is an issue in its own right, to which I will return. The first application was made in October 2015, with two subsequent applications shortly thereafter. In anticipation of beginning his placements six months ahead of the commencement of the doctoral programme, my constituent resigned from his job only to wait several months for his DBS checks to be finished. That happened only in July 2016, far too late for the placements to be completed in time for the start of the course in September. My constituent has been forced to claim jobseeker’s allowance and to delay the commencement of his studies by a whole year as a consequence of the delays.
I have also been contacted by a healthcare worker who was unable to take up a job offer for five months; a parent-run nursery that is in breach of Ofsted regulations because it cannot appoint the required number of trustees until they have all been DBS cleared; a care agency that is unable to recruit a sufficient number of careworkers quickly enough to meet demand; and schools and hospitals experiencing frustrating delays in being able to fill vacant posts.
There are harder cases, including my constituent who is an ex-offender and has found it very difficult to find work. In May 2016, he was offered a job that he was keen to take up. He contacted me about the delay in processing his enhanced DBS check. Despite my office contacting the DBS a number of times and receiving assurances on three occasions that the case had been escalated, my constituent is still waiting for his DBS check more than five months later and the rare offer of employment has been withdrawn. When people are doing their very best to do the right thing and to turn a corner in their lives and move on, it cannot be right that the Government are placing an unnecessary barrier in their way.
The Criminal Justice Alliance—a coalition of 110 charities working across the criminal justice pathway—contacted me to say that, in recent months, the performance of the DBS, particularly in London, has been having a severe impact on its capacity to deliver services, delaying rehabilitation work for many prisoners. The Local Government Association is concerned about the national impact of DBS delays on the social care sector.
My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman), who is unable to attend the debate, contacted me with examples from her constituency of people who have been forced to claim benefits and use food banks, and who have even been issued with eviction notices, because they have been unable to take up employment as a consequence of DBS delays. In Sheffield, as elsewhere in the country, taxi drivers must undergo annual DBS checks. That is particularly important given the links that there have been between the taxi trade and child sexual exploitation in some parts of the country. However, the DBS is so slow in Sheffield that taxi drivers are sometimes unable to work for a third of every year as they await their certificate.
My point is that the consequences of the poor performance of the service are far-reaching, can be devastating, and can result in additional costs to the public sector and important posts in our public services and elsewhere remaining unfilled. I have sought to illustrate the impact on individuals, but what do we know about the bigger picture? The Government have not published any official data on the performance of the DBS since July, and have published no data at all on the most severely delayed cases, meaning those delayed beyond 60 days.
In July, of 51 police forces, only 32 had achieved the target of processing 85% of applications within 14 days. At the Metropolitan police, only 14% had been processed within that time. In North Yorkshire, the figure was only 12%, and in Nottinghamshire, it was just 7%. There is enormous variation in performance. Also in July 2016, the average time taken by the Metropolitan police to process an application was 128 days, while the average time taken in Norfolk was 1.8 days.
The Government website acknowledges that there are delays and states that action is being taken to address them but, in my view, the lack of comprehensive performance data, including the absence of any data at all on the most severe delays, combined with the lack of any substantive or detailed information about the plan for recovery, is not acceptable. The Government owe it to the many people suffering the severe adverse consequences of DBS delays to be much more transparent about the scale of the problem and the action being taken to address it.
I have spoken with the Public and Commercial Services Union, which represents 12,000 members based in the Home Office, including those working in the DBS, and more than 6,000 members in the Metropolitan Police Service. The PCS told me that, in February this year, the Metropolitan police character inquiries centre had a backlog of 70,000 applications waiting to be processed, with an average weekly intake of 6,000 new applications. That amounts to a 12-week backlog. The problem got so bad that DBS customer services staff were provided with guidance on what to do when they received calls from customers who were suicidal, which were becoming a more frequent occurrence.
The PCS acknowledges that some management action has been taken, including changes of leadership in the Metropolitan police team responsible for the character inquiries sector; increases in staffing; an increase in the number of permanent employees over agency staff; and streamlining of the process. That action led to some reduction in the backlog but it is clear that some of the problems are structural. Those include long-term understaffing and the short-term nature of the funding provided by the DBS to the police, which results in high levels of temporary staff and job insecurity, and means that experienced staff often find more secure work elsewhere. There are also problems with computer software.
Although I am strongly supportive of the role of the DBS, it is important that progress is made towards delivering a fully portable certificate. In my constituency, as across the rest of the UK, people move jobs, often work for more than one employer, or use valuable skills from their day job as a volunteer in the evenings or at weekends. All those circumstances lead to multiple applications that add to the workload of the DBS. I place on the record my support for the many employers and voluntary sector bodies calling for the development of a fully portable certificate.
Finally, I have personally been very disappointed by the responses I have received from the Government and the police when I have raised the issue of the poor performance of the DBS. Although they acknowledge that there is a problem, their responses across the board have failed to reflect the serious impact that the poor service is having on my constituents and on residents across the country. They have failed to convey any sense of responsibility for the failures. It simply cannot be the case that a system designed to protect our most vulnerable residents has the effect of punishing many entirely innocent citizens. That situation must be addressed.
In closing, I ask the Minister to answer the following questions. Will the Government publish full performance data for the DBS, arranged by individual police force, including data on the most severely delayed applications? Will they publish the recovery plan for the DBS, including the performance targets it is working towards? Will they consider bringing the DBS back within the Home Office? Will they review the funding arrangements for the police, with a view to providing a more stable funding environment to enable the police to resource DBS checks properly?
Will the Government commit to compensation for those who have lost earnings as a consequence of DBS delays? Will they publish plans to progress fully portable DBS checks? Finally, will they commit that, in situations where someone’s offer of employment is in jeopardy as a consequence of a DBS delay, their application will be escalated and dealt with within a fixed timescale of no more than three working days to prevent further hardship and cost to the public sector through the benefits system?
I commend the hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes) for securing this debate. This is an important matter and something that we perhaps come across even more in London than elsewhere. I am a barrister and have dealt with a number of cases where the police have resisted challenges to DBS refusals. I have also gone through a DBS check myself as a school governor—I am pleased to say that the check was negative.
Like the hon. Lady, I have received correspondence about DBS checks in my postbag and inbox. Teachers, nursery workers, care providers, charity workers, taxi drivers and even members of the police and the security services have to go through these checks and have suffered delays. Some people, particularly those who have been offered short-term or temporary work, have had their offer of work disappear because they simply have not received their clean bill of health from the DBS quickly enough.
DBS checks and the DBS system are, of course, vital, as the hon. Lady recognises. There are two elements: the DBS has to issue the certificate, and the individual police force has to feed in the information for the DBS to assess. That leads to two potential areas where delay can creep in and, as she says, that is not acceptable for people who make such applications.
There were problems with the Metropolitan police when the hon. Lady and I were first elected, and the Government posted a statement on their website in October 2015 acknowledging that there were problems and that there was a backlog where the service standard of 60 days had not been met. Steps have been taken to reduce that backlog, and every application that went over the 60-day service standard is automatically escalated. I have seen a reduction in the number of cases that have come to me as a local MP, but the problem plainly has not gone away. The cases are still coming, just not in the same volume. I am sure the Minister will be able to update the House on the steps that have been taken.
A twin-track application process that allows for urgent applications where there is a job offer on the line or where someone is starting work early should be considered, but in most cases the guidance is that people should make their application well in advance, knowing that it will take a long time to process.
There are cases where individuals want to challenge a refusal by the DBS, and they will either make that challenge to the DBS via judicial review or they will try to challenge a police force for providing the information, which can sometimes slow down the process. Overall, this is an important area that police forces and the DBS have to get right because of the potential consequences for the vulnerable adults and children who use the services provided by employees who are required to have DBS checks. The checks are also important for employers of people who want to work in these sectors, and whom we need to work in these sectors, because we do not want people to be turned away by an overly onerous and lengthy process.
This issue has frequently come up in my postbag, and I commend the hon. Lady for bringing it to the House’s attention. I commend the Government for the steps they have taken to expedite the process, particularly with the Met police, and I look forward to hearing from the Minister what further steps can be taken and what options there might be for expediting the process, particularly where there is a time-sensitive application.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes) on securing this debate on an important issue that probably affects many more people than today’s turnout suggests.
I have a few short remarks—I will not speak for long—about my constituents’ experience of the Disclosure and Barring Service over the past year, which has not been good. The delay in issuing DBS certificates is not just an administrative problem; it can cause people to turn down work or to lose an income on which they previously relied. It is vital that the delays in processing applications are brought under control.
Like other hon. Members, I have had many cases in Manchester, Withington of people who are ready to work but who are left waiting, sometimes for months, for their DBS certificate to be processed. These are people who have worked hard to find a job and have been successful at interview but who find themselves in an administrative limbo that means that, in the worst cases, they cannot take up the job. I will highlight a couple of cases that show the impact of such delays.
The first case is of Nazim Uddin, a taxi driver in my constituency who submitted his DBS renewal application on 4 June, well in advance of the September date when his hackney carriage licence expired. He eventually received his certificate on 28 September, 120 days after his application and after his licence had expired.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes) on securing this debate. My constituent had a 94-day wait. Does my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Withington (Jeff Smith) agree that that is an awfully long time to wait and could have a detrimental impact on this individual’s financial situation?
I absolutely agree. The case is similar to that of Nazim in my constituency. Despite my office raising the issue both with the DBS and with the Government, he became unable to work because his licence expired, which understandably caused him and his family a huge amount of stress and some financial hardship.
The second case is of Angela Gallagher, a constituent of mine who lost a job as an occupational therapist because her DBS certificate was so delayed. She spoke to me about her constant phone calls to the DBS for updates only to be told to be patient and that the DBS was working through the backlog. She could not understand why, after she had been offered a job, the system was putting such obstacles in her way. She described how it affected her family’s finances—at the time, she was forced to sign on to out-of-work benefits—and how her mental health was affected by the stress caused by the delay and by her inability to access the job.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent point and an excellent speech. One of my constituents told me how, although she knew there was nothing in her background that could possibly come up, the stress of waiting made her worry that somebody had made something up about her that was going to come to light. Waiting for weeks and weeks for a resolution added to her mental ill health.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is important for the DBS to give an accurate estimate of the time the process will take, even if it is a very long period of time, so that people do not suffer the additional stress that the hon. Member for West Ham (Lynn Brown) just mentioned?
I agree absolutely that in principle we should be trying to do that. I appreciate that the DBS itself is not always the cause of the delay, because the backlog is often at the police checking stage, and that the DBS often cannot give a proper estimate of the delay with any real accuracy. Even for people who live in Manchester, the backlog is often down to delays from the Metropolitan police, as my hon. Friend the Member for Dulwich and West Norwood pointed out. Constituents of mine who have lived in London have come to me with real problems with the Met’s performance. Let us face it: the Met does not have a good record on processing the system properly.
The Met backlog is a real problem. Government cuts to the police have left the Met unable to cope with the increase in demand; since 2010, it has lost 1,300 staff. That is not as many as the Greater Manchester police—we have lost more than 1,800 since 2010—but it is tough all the same. Those cuts have clearly affected the internal flexibility that the Met needs to deal with changing demands on the force. Ministers have said that the Government are training extra staff to cover the gaps, but there will be a significant time lag before we see quicker turnaround times. In the meantime, people across the country who rely on the Met to process DBS checks will suffer delays, leading to the problems I have outlined. Those problems have shown that cuts to police funding are a false economy because their consequences have been felt right across the public sector. It is not just about police forces; those police forces are struggling to complete the necessary checks on people whose job is to safeguard children and the vulnerable.
Care home associations have said that delays are forcing care homes to recruit expensive agency staff. The Royal College of Nursing has reported students turning down places because of the delays, as we heard earlier in the debate, or losing their bursaries for the academic year. We have all heard examples from schools, hospitals and childcare providers that show that the delays are making already difficult recruitment issues even more difficult. If there is a lesson to be learnt, it is that the Government cannot just cut police numbers without expecting problems down the line, not only for the police but across the public sector, for businesses and services, and most importantly for constituents such as Nazim and Angela who have experienced these problems through no fault of their own.
I ask the Minister to think about several things. First, will she give serious consideration to how to stop these delays? Secondly, we have not fully discussed how constituents can get redress for their difficult experiences; as I understand it, redress is available if the DBS is at fault for the delay, but if the police force is at fault, there is no redress or compensation for the people who suffer. Surely that situation needs to be rectified. Thirdly, I reinforce the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Dulwich and West Norwood about the possibility of a portable certificate; obviously it would need safeguards, but it would be a major contributing factor to a solution. Finally and most importantly, a process must be put in place to escalate cases in which jobs are at risk and to get them dealt with very quickly to ensure that our constituents around the country can access the jobs they need in a timely fashion. I thank Members for listening.
It is an absolute pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Sir David. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes) on securing this important debate and on her excellent speech on behalf of her constituents. I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Withington (Jeff Smith) for joining the debate and for again representing his constituents with such clarity and integrity.
As my own mailbag can attest, delays occurring in the Disclosure and Barring Service are making life exceptionally difficult for many workers in this country. Frankly, Minister, we need to sort that out. As we know, the DBS enables employers to make safer recruitment decisions by identifying candidates who may be unsuitable for certain types of job. The service plays a vital role in keeping our young people and vulnerable adults safe. Having access to DBS certificates is essential for people who want to pursue careers working with vulnerable people and groups, and for organisations such as hospitals and schools, which need to recruit staff.
One of my constituents, a qualified teacher working with children with special educational needs, informed me that her DBS check had been stuck with the Metropolitan Police Service for three months, despite the fact that it has a target of 18 days. Since her DBS expired in February, she has been offered a number of roles but has been unable to start work because of the delay. Without work, she is now in arrears with her rent, her car insurance and other monthly bills.
In May 2016, it was reported that 10% of the staff of one primary school in north London were unable to fulfil their roles because of the delays. The headteacher said:
“Under official guidelines you can do a risk assessment based on the DBS from someone’s previous job, but they have to be supervised at all times…In one case we had to wait four months for a check to come through. There’s already a teacher shortage in London so this is a headache we could do without.”
That is the real impact of the delays: schools with teacher shortages are unable to recruit staff, unemployed teachers are falling into debt and employees are left waiting anxiously for months. That is simply not good enough.
These delays cause real anxiety, as my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Withington attested. Employees are expecting to hear back within eight weeks, and as the weeks pass they become really anxious that the delays are the result of a complication with their check. The problem is made worse by the fact that application processing times seem to be entirely arbitrary. People in that situation understandably fear that their job offer will be withdrawn. I also know from my constituents that people from the same area who apply at the same time will sometimes get radically different response times.
The hon. Lady will be probably aware that in some of these cases, the fact that an individual has moved a number of times and a number of different police forces have to be contacted can explain the longer delay, even if they have applied at the same time as another constituent. Six police forces having to do checks will involve a much longer process than just one.
I accept that point, but the hon. Gentleman must accept that that is a symptom of living in London. My constituents have not all lived in West Ham all their lives; they have travelled from all over the country, and yet they are still given an arbitrary response time. I would really like the Minister to explain whether there is a system for prioritising some checks over others—or does she have another explanation, as the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (James Berry) does, for the vastly differing response times that constituents experience?
The DBS states that it aims to deal with 95% of applications within eight weeks. It is currently at 93.8%, which is below that target but not far off. However, that figure masks what is actually a deep problem in some parts of the country: the severe delays that kick in when some police forces get involved in the process. As we know, there are five stages to a DBS check. The majority of delays occur at stage 4, when individual police forces check their records to make sure that the potential matches are not missed.
Police forces have targets to process 85% of applications within 14 days and 90% within 18 days. In July 2016, the Metropolitan Police Service hit its 14-day target just 14% of the time. Things do not get much better for its 18-day target, which it met just 19% of the time. In April 2016, the then Home Office Minister, the right hon. Member for Staffordshire Moorlands (Karen Bradley), revealed in a written answer that the Metropolitan Police Service took on average 85 days to carry out stage 4 of the DBS process.
Let us recap: the whole process from stage 1 to stage 5 should take eight weeks. However, the Metropolitan Police Service is taking an average of 85 days to do its part of the process—that is just over 12 weeks. In those circumstances, it is literally impossible for the DBS to meet its eight-week target because one of the five stages is taking longer than the total target time. No wonder I, as a London MP, receive so many complaints about the service from my constituents.
Having researched the details, it is of little surprise to me that the Metropolitan Police Service is struggling. Just look at what has happened to its support staff, which have been cut by a third since the Conservatives came to power: down from 14,179 in 2010 to 9,521 in 2016. As my hon. Friend the Member for Dulwich and West Norwood rightly said, those cuts have had consequences. Under the strain of falling staff numbers, a substantial backlog of applications has emerged. All police forces have a target of having no more than 12 days’ worth of work on DBS checks at any one time, meaning that if no new applications were received, police forces would be able to deal with all existing applications within 12 days. The most recent figures available show that it would take the Metropolitan Police Service 60 days to complete the pile of DBS applications it is sitting on, and only if no more came in. That is five times the target.
This is not only a London issue. In Nottinghamshire, the 14-day target for stage 4 of the process is currently being met just 7% of the time, while in North Yorkshire the target for both 14 and 18 days is being met just 12% of the time. In fact, according to the Government’s July 2016 red, amber or green assessment, 17 of the 50 forces were judged to be providing a second-rate service or worse. Something has to be done to improve the situation, and fast. We cannot have potential employees and potential employers waiting for so long. I want to know what the Government will do about it. It is unfair on both sides and it is causing financial damage.
This is not a new phenomenon. Research by the House of Commons Library revealed that the Met has not hit its 14-day target since February 2008. That is more than eight years for which my constituents, and other people living and working in London, have had to put up with a substandard service. For six of those years, the Minister’s party has been in government. A Government press release from earlier this month stated that they have been
“working very closely with the Met to help improve performance and good progress is being made to reduce applications in progress.”
If that is true, it is very welcome, but I am yet to see any evidence that good progress is being made. The most recent figures show a service struggling to keep up with demand, and people having to wait far longer than they should to have their applications processed.
Will the Minister inform the House of precisely what steps the Government have taken in the short term to help police forces to clear their backlogs? Will she also tell us how long she anticipates it will take for the service to return to an acceptable level? Some undefined time in the future is simply not good enough when people’s livelihoods and careers depend on their being able to get these checks carried out promptly.
The police missing their time targets is not the only problem. The DBS has failed to meet its accuracy targets in each of the last three months as well. I am told that the failures are administrative, such as spelling a name wrong or placing an inaccurate date of birth on the form, but that is not clear from the DBS business plan, which explains the performance indicators, because an inaccurate check is not defined. I am not told that it is administrative; I am not told that it is a small issue; and I am not reassured that inappropriate people are not getting DBS certificates, or that people who should be given certificates are not being refused. Will the Minister assure us today that the accuracy failures are largely administrative? Can she give us a figure for them, or a percentage? Can she give us any reassurance whatever? Will she prove to the House that inappropriate people have not been receiving DBS certificates to which they are not entitled?
I do not want to downplay the importance of administrative failures. They need to be rectified because they really do have knock-on effects. Take another of my constituents, who contacted me earlier this year about her DBS check. She informed me that after waiting six months for her application to be processed, her certificate, when it finally arrived, was inaccurately filled in, as it failed to include a previous name. As a result of delays and inaccurate information, my constituent was unable to take up employment as a childminder and has lost significant earnings. These are legal documents and they need to be filled in as accurately as possible so that people can use them.
Will the Minister inform the House of the steps the Government have taken to make sure that the accuracy of barring decisions improves in future? I really would like to be reassured that she takes this matter seriously. My hon. Friends the Members for Dulwich and West Norwood and for Manchester, Withington asked a number of pertinent questions in the course of their contributions. They asked for detail, and I hope the Minister will be able to provide it today, but, if not, will she commit to answering us in writing within the next week or so?
Let us face it: the longer delays to DBS checks are the result of cuts to our police services. The Metropolitan Police Service and other struggling police services are simply overburdened with the number of applications they are receiving. They do not have the resources they need. We know that since 2010 the Met has seen police support staff cut by 33%, and today we have heard about the reality of those cuts: poorer services and people missing out on jobs. That is, I am afraid, the Government’s record on the DBS.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I sincerely congratulate the hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes) on securing the debate. There is no doubt that the Disclosure and Barring Service is vital, but we have heard powerful speeches about the impact on people’s lives and on employers if it is not right. I welcome this opportunity to address the issues that have been raised and I hope that, by the end of the debate, Members will be assured about the progress we are making. If not, and if I am not able in the time I have remaining to address all the points that have been made, not only will I of course agree to answer them in writing, but I am happy to invite Members into the Department to meet me and my officials and go through in more detail the important issues that have been raised.
Protecting the public is certainly a priority for me and for the Government. We will not compromise on safeguarding children and vulnerable adults. The DBS plays a vital role by enabling organisations in the public, private and voluntary sectors to make better-informed and safer recruitment decisions. It provides proportionate access to criminal record information, allowing employers to determine whether an individual is unsuited to certain kinds of work. It also manages two lists of those barred from working with children or vulnerable adults.
I maintain a close interest in the DBS’s performance and receive regular reports. I visited the DBS office in Liverpool earlier this month, and it was clear to me that the staff are professional, effective and passionate about their role in protecting the public. I saw an organisation with a culture of continuous learning and improvement that seeks to put its customers, and protecting the public, at the heart of everything it does.
On the barring side, the DBS makes complex, evidence-based decisions, weighing a person’s rehabilitation against the need to keep the public safe. More than 61,000 people are now prevented from working with children, vulnerable adults, or both.
Most people come into contact with the DBS when it issues disclosure certificates, which have been the subject of most of the discussion in the debate. Certificates can be applied for by people in a range of occupations, including teaching assistants, doctors, taxi drivers and social workers. Last year the DBS issued more than 4 million certificates, with nearly 95% provided within the eight-week timeline. It is important to focus on that.
The DBS asked customers how happy they were with the service, as we would expect of any arm’s length Government organisation. In the year to May 2016, 89% reported that they were satisfied with the service they had received. However, I am aware from the letters that I have had, and from today’s debate, that some people have experienced very long delays in receiving their enhanced disclosure checks. I do not underestimate for one minute the impact that that has on the lives of not only those individuals but the organisations affected, and I agree that it is totally unacceptable.
Although I recognise that disclosing criminal records information is complex and that checks must be thorough, I am clear that delays absolutely must be addressed. The DBS works with various partners, particularly the police forces that provide the data on which checks are based and assess what non-conviction information from their locally held information should be disclosed as part of the enhanced check. That may require the DBS to send search requests to more than one police force. The vast majority of checks should be completed within two to four weeks, and the DBS monitors performance closely, assisting any forces that are not meeting their targets.
It is important to make it clear that police disclosure units are fully funded by the DBS, so the issue is not about the general funding that police forces receive. Each year the DBS agrees budgets and expected numbers of disclosures with police forces and funds them. Where police forces run into difficulty, as the Met indisputably has, the DBS will provide extra resources.
The issue that has been raised by the PCS and others is that of annual funding settlements, which mean that there is a great deal of insecurity for staff working on DBS disclosures within police forces. Temporary contracts and insecurity are part of the problem. What is needed is a fully staffed, professional service with some continuity and longevity in the length of time people stay in their jobs.
I completely understand that if there is job insecurity, that makes it difficult to retain good-quality staff. I visited the Metropolitan police unit only a few weeks ago and witnessed the training process. The decision-making process is complex, and it takes time to train staff. Even when the DBS sits down with the Met or any other police force that is having difficulty and agrees extra funding, it takes at least six months to train someone so that they can carry out the checks.
The hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood is right that the PCS union has acknowledged that there has been a change of leadership at the Met. The Home Office has provided considerable support to help improve processes, and the DBS has funded more than 100 new staff, so there has been a huge amount of effort. The hon. Lady understands, as I do, that more of the staff have now been given full-time contracts. The DBS sits down with the police forces each year and agrees the contracts based on the anticipated number of checks. If the number of checks requested goes up, more staff have to be recruited. Sometimes it is efficient and right to have temporary staff; on other occasions we need more full-time staff. Such contractual decisions are made between the DBS and the police forces. I have also seen that no stone is left unturned. The Met has asked for support from other police forces that have a surplus of staff with the right expertise to help. So I can absolutely assure the hon. Lady that every effort has been made between the DBS and the police forces to get the necessary resources in.
Only two police forces are not meeting their timeliness performance targets: the Met and Surrey. In the case of Surrey, a relatively small number of people are affected and a recovery plan has been agreed with the DBS, which is going well. I can share that information and be certain about it because the DBS regularly publishes the data on its own website. That addresses one of the issues that the hon. Lady raised, about the transparency of data. Opposition Members have quoted extensively from performance data, so there is not an issue of transparency here. Those data are on local police force performance as well as the DBS’s own organisational performance, and the next data will be published later this month. I look at such data on a daily basis.
I am struggling with what the Minister is telling us. First, we know there has been a problem in the Met since 2008, which is a long time. We know that the delays in the Met are massive. If the DBS has been placing money in the Metropolitan Police Service so that it can get the checks done, then it must have been significantly underpaying the Met for several years in order for us to have got to the current situation. I am afraid I cannot accept what the Minister is saying about that.
The Minister also tells us that only two police forces are not meeting the timescales, but in the Government’s own assessment, on the red, amber and green scale, 17 of the 50 forces were judged to be providing a second-rate service or worse. It is not only two police forces; by the Government’s own admission, it is more.
The hon. Lady raises a couple of points. The data I am referring to are the most recent. We will get another tranche of data this month, so she will be able to see for herself what the information is.
On how the Metropolitan police or any other police force is funded, the fact is that the DBS funds police units to do police checks. Whether they have received adequate funding over a certain period of time is a fair question. I have been to Liverpool and had conversations with the DBS, and I am monitoring the situation on a weekly basis. I will go back to the DBS to make sure that all the recovery plans we have discussed are implemented. I can say no more to reassure the hon. Lady about how seriously I take this issue. I and my officials are focused on it, and I am regularly involved with the DBS to make sure we tackle it.
As I have said, I visited the Metropolitan police unit recently. The hon. Lady has acknowledged that significant extra resources and changes in leadership have been put in place, and the unit is processing 20% more applications than it receives. That gives me some confidence that it will reduce the backlog over time. If the unit was processing only the number of applications that it was receiving, we would not have any confidence that it was dealing with the backlog, but it is, and 20% is significant. I am therefore confident that it will make significant progress.
It is important that the DBS continues to work closely with the Metropolitan police and any other police forces that are having difficulties to make sure that they are given the necessary resources to do the job. I know that the Metropolitan police take the matter seriously. I have been to Sidcup and spent time with the team there, and they talked me through what they were doing about it. They know full well that I will be back again to personally check up on their progress.
I will go through the range of other questions that hon. Members asked me on issues from portability to escalation and redress.
Although DBS checks are clearly a weak spot for the Metropolitan police, I am pleased to hear what my hon. Friend the Minister is doing personally to ensure improvements. It is important not to lose sight of the fact that, over the past six years, we have seen a sustained fall in crime in this country, largely due to the fantastic work of our police forces, particularly here in our capital, including in Kingston, which is now the safest borough in London.
I thank my hon. Friend for making that point. Getting the checks right is an incredibly important crime prevention measure. The top priority is to deal with the possibility of people doing harm to vulnerable children and young people. Frustrating as delays can be, the safety of individual people must be uppermost, and it must have played its part in those cheering results showing a drop in crime.
To return to the questions that were put to me, employers and individuals are encouraged to use the update service. An online subscription service allows individuals to demonstrate that their DBS certificate is up to date. That would prevent their having to make multiple re-applications. With the applicant’s permission, organisations can check a certificate online, free of charge, which allows them to see whether any relevant information has been identified since the individual’s certificate was last issued. There are more than 800,000 subscribers to that service. I encourage the hon. Lady to ask constituents to register for the online service at the same time as they apply for DBS checks. If they move jobs, they will not have to go through repeated checks, because once they sign up for the service the employer, charity or wherever they were working could freely go online to see whether any information needed updating.
I may have got the wrong impression, but the hon. Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown) seemed to be telling me that the certificate of one of her constituents had expired. It is simply not possible for certificates to expire because they do not have a set period of validity. If that constituent were signed up to the updating service they really would not be affected. It is important to set the record straight.
When there are delays, employers can, during the wait for DBS check results, consider whether it would be appropriate for an individual to begin work, with appropriate safeguards, depending on the nature of the role and the assessment of potential risk. For example, DBS Adult First can be used in cases where, exceptionally, and in accordance with the Department of Health terms, a person can be permitted to start work with adults before the certificate is obtained. There are appropriate ways of safeguarding while people are waiting so that they can avoid the dreadful situations that have been described today, where they cannot take up jobs, and where they incur financial hardship, and where organisations miss out on good employees.
Customers can track their application online and call the DBS helpline for support. There were questions about how the DBS prioritises applications. It does so in date order, but if an applicant can make the case that there will be undue hardship and they will suffer in some way, the DBS will do everything it can to expedite an application. It will contact a police force and do all it can to reduce the time.
I want to clarify the point about redress, which was mentioned. The DBS will consider cases. If there has been hardship and the DBS can be proved not to have acted appropriately, there is a system of redress. There is not a nationwide system for the police, but individual police forces can be held accountable. If they have not acted in a timely and appropriate way, redress can be considered.
I hope I have covered all the questions. I am not at all complacent. Getting the service right is central to protecting the most vulnerable people in society, and I am determined to do that. I understand that we need an efficient process to enable people to take up the sorts of jobs we need them to do. I shall continue to monitor what happens on a regular basis. As I have said, if any colleague wants to come into the Department and go through the matter with me in more detail, they are welcome to do so.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Withington (Jeff Smith), the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (James Berry) and the shadow Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown), for their contributions to the debate. I am also grateful to the Minister for her response and for the interest she shows in the matter. She has clearly set out the steps she is taking to address the problem.
I should be grateful, however, if the Minister could follow up in writing on my questions. I do not consider that all of them were fully answered today. I was in particular a little disappointed that I did not hear much from the Minister in acknowledgement of the distressing cases I raised, and the serious impact of delays on my constituents and those of my hon. Friends. We brought up several specific examples of shocking hardship and distress as a consequence of delays in the service. The Minister set out some aspects of the service that are in development, and steps being taken to deal with the problems, but I do not feel that she properly addressed the seriousness of the consequences. I should be grateful for some further information in response to my questions.
My hon. Friends’ points about cuts in police resources were pertinent and well made. There is more work for the Minister to do to make certain that the police are being resourced on the necessary basis for them to undertake their important work. On the question of annual funding settlements from the DBS to the police, the context in which, as the Minister explained, it takes six months to train someone to do the job when they may have job security only for another six months, sounds like a false economy in the public sector. It also sounds like a context in which it is difficult to recruit and retain high-quality staff. I welcome assurances that the Minister is considering the issue, including how more staff can be put on a permanent, secure footing in their employment, and how the DBS and police can plan for the longer term.
The advice that the Minister gave about the helpline for employers, and steps that employers can take, puts too much emphasis on employers in the process. It is the Government’s role, through the DBS, to undertake the checks, and employers should not have to take steps to compensate for delays in a process that should work efficiently and effectively. Finally, the Minister did not address my point about the need for rapid escalation to a secure and committed timescale for individuals whose employment is at risk as a consequence of DBS delays.
I am sorry that I did not adequately communicate how seriously I take the impact on individuals. I thought I had. This is a further opportunity for me to underline the fact that the cases I heard about are clearly very distressing for the people concerned. However, I pointed out that individuals as well as employers can call the DBS, which will make every effort to deal with a case. If there is hardship, distress or concern, that service is available.
I am grateful to the Minister. As I pointed out, my office called the DBS on behalf of a constituent on several occasions. On at least three of those occasions assurances were made that the case would be escalated and dealt with, but that did not happen until the offer of employment had been withdrawn. Processes may be in place, but they do not always work—I assure the Minister of that. There is a need for a service standard in the DBS, guaranteeing that, if an offer of employment is contingent on receiving a DBS disclosure in a given time, the DBS will meet that requirement. We cannot continue with people’s employment being put at risk as a consequence of delays in the service.
I am grateful for the interest that the Minister has shown and the work she is doing on the matter, and I look forward to following up on it in future.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the performance of the Disclosure and Barring Service.
Highways England Compensation: Broadway in Chadderton
[Nadine Dorries in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered Highways England compensation payments for residents of Broadway in Chadderton.
This is my first Westminster Hall debate, Ms Dorries, and it is a pleasure to speak in it under your chairmanship. I will set out why I felt it was necessary to call for this debate, and the history of the scheme, before asking the Minister to respond to the concerns expressed repeatedly by residents living in the area. The issue has been going on for some time, and was previously dealt with by the right hon. Michael Meacher, before he passed away. I have come to it towards the end of the scheme. I am hoping that my speech will be received positively. People affected by the scheme might be watching the debate, and they are hopeful of some conclusion to a long-standing issue.
To provide some context, Oldham is a young town, and demand for school places is significant. A determined effort by the local council has seen many new schools built, with the support of Government. The John Henry Newman College is one of them. It was formed from Our Lady’s School in Royton and the St Augustine School in Oldham. The new school is now home to 1,400 pupils.
The new school site at Broadway was selected after a thorough assessment and, despite legitimate concerns about the impact on traffic and highway safety, local people by and large supported the project. The issue has been long and drawn out, however, with delays over site selection, the possibility in 2010 of funding being cancelled and, after the eventual building of the school, the ongoing fight for compensation payments by residents living near the site.
The scheme consisted of the construction of a signalised junction to create a new access to the site of the school that was being built. To facilitate that, the road needed to be widened with additional lanes, and a cutting had to be made into the parapet where the properties are in a significantly higher position than the road. The scheme required dedicated turning lanes and new signalling works, lighting and road markings. However, no measures to reduce noise or the visual impact of the scheme were put in place. As we can imagine, for example, the headlights of cars exiting the site shine directly into the windows of the house opposite, where previously there had been no road junction.
The road, to put it into perspective, is the A663, a busy trunk road that becomes the A627(M) motorway, which in turn connects the M60 Manchester orbital motorway to the M62. The road carries about 30,000 vehicles a day and, according to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs noise chart, the location under discussion has prevailing road noise levels in excess of 70 dB both day and night.
The properties in which my constituents live have been the subject of previous compensation claims. Those properties are predominantly brick-built, semi-detached houses with pitched slate or tile roofs, usually dating from the post-war period. As the House will appreciate, where properties are so close to the road and at a higher level, they are particularly affected by noise, including the noise of cars standing at the traffic lights with their engines idling. That noise travels up—a problem in addition to the headlight problem I mentioned.
Those affected by the scheme rightly sought compensation under part I of the Land Compensation Act 1973. Evidence was supplied of previous Lands Tribunal decisions by professional experts highlighting similar schemes, including two that were agreed with the solicitors of some Broadway residents and the Highways Agency working with other residents. Evidence of other schemes for which property devaluation agreements were in place was supplied.
I had hoped to meet Highways England staff, but I am afraid that I was put on a Bill Committee because of my new Front-Bench responsibilities, which did not allow a meeting to happen. Notwithstanding that, a long series of correspondence took place between the highways body and Michael Meacher, when he was here. Local councillors who have been leading and supporting local people have been involved.
In similar schemes, the loss of value of properties has been accepted. No two schemes are the same, and any assessment of compensation payment will always look at the individual scheme on its own merit—I accept that completely—but it is important to highlight nearby schemes in which A-class roads have been widened and traffic lights installed, resulting in compensation payments. The Lands Tribunal decision on a new junction for the Parrs Wood scheme in Manchester returned a maximum of 7%; on a road widening scheme just up the road at Hunt Lane, Broadway, the maximum was 5%; further on again, on a road widening towards Middleton Road, Broadway, the maximum was unknown; and on the new junction improvements on the A56 Chester Road at Helsby, the maximum was 7%.
Given the location under discussion, clear evidence suggests that properties have reduced in value as a result of the road widening scheme. I will refer to two properties in particular—properties A and B. Property A is an extended and substantially modernised four-bedroom, semi-detached house, which sold for £175,000 on 20 March 2014. The same property sold for £200,000 on 14 August 2007. Between 2007 and 2014 that property had decreased in value by £25,000—that is a matter of public record. Property B, also on Broadway, is a three-bedroom, semi-detached house, which sold on 18 October 2013 for £156,000. On 6 January 2008, it was purchased for £165,000. That property too was sold for less than its purchase value only a few years earlier as a direct result of the market conditions following the road widening.
Moreover, the residents applied for their council tax to be re-evaluated to take into account the change in the neighbourhood. In 2012, the valuation office made the decision to reduce the council tax banding. The Highways Agency was aware of that, but refused to acknowledge any relationship between the road widening and that decision, which is contrary to the correspondence that took place at the time.
To conclude, I am hoping that the issue is straightforward. The scheme should have been really positive—a brand-new school was constructed, which provides a fantastic educational facility for local children, with 1,400 of our young people benefiting, but it required engineering that has affected people who live nearby. Local people accept that the school is a positive contribution to the town, but if their property value has been affected as a result, clearly compensation payments should be made.
The school and the necessary engineering works required public investment of about £30 million and, given that context, the compensation payments requested are minor, but for someone whose property value has been affected the amount is significant. The issue has gone on for far too long. Today, I would like to make progress and to get some resolution so that residents can get on with their lives instead of entering a drawn-out tribunal process, which will cost them quite a lot of money and take even more time, when this is a straightforward matter.
It is, as ever, a delight to be in your presence, Ms Dorries, and to serve under your diligent chairmanship. It is also a delight to welcome the hon. Member for Oldham West and Royton (Jim McMahon), as a newish Member, to his first debate in the Westminster Hall Chamber. I congratulate him on securing the debate, which follows the work of his predecessor, a distinguished Member of this House who served his constituents for a very long time.
Ms Dorries, might I offer the hon. Gentleman, through you, some advice that he seems already to have followed, even if he has not heard it? When approached by constituents about these kinds of things, you and I try to put ourselves in their position. We try—I know that this is true of the way that you serve your constituents, if I might say so, and it is certainly the way that I serve mine—to imagine how we would feel in similar circumstances. We ask, “What would we feel like if this were our home, our community and our family’s interests?” That is precisely what he has done in bringing this debate to the Chamber, and I commend him for that. It seems that he did not need my advice, but I offer it anyway, as a more experienced Member to a newer one.
Given the overtures that were made by the hon. Gentleman’s predecessor, this case is familiar to Highways England and my Department. As he says, it concerns the A663 at Broadway, a busy urban trunk road linking the M60 with the A627(M) and the M62. It is an important link between Oldham and Manchester and forms part of the strategic road network, for which Highways England is responsible.
As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, the local authority, Oldham Council, constructed a new school, the John Henry Newman College, on previously disused land close to the road-widening scheme. It is wonderful that the college should be named after that great man, who by the way is one of my heroes—we do not have time to discuss that at length. None the less, the council, having agreed in response to local demand to construct that new school, was obliged to make changes to the road, and those changes are the alterations to which the hon. Gentleman referred. The changes were designed to allow safe access to the site, and the council took powers under section 6 of the Highways Act 1980, which allows local authorities to make such changes to the strategic road network where such a development is taking place.
It is worth listing the improvements that were made. They included the construction of a new signalised junction, giving access from the A663 to the new school; the widening of the carriageway and the construction of a new footpath; the creation of dedicated turning lanes into the school from both northbound and southbound directions; and the construction of central islands to help pedestrians cross the road. Improvements were also made to the road itself. The junction between Broadway and Foxdenton Lane further south of the school was improved, including by widening the carriageway on all four arms of the junction and improving pedestrian refuges. As the hon. Gentleman will know, all those alterations were completed by around September 2012.
Following the completion of those works, a formal submission was made by a land claims agent representing the interests of 32 households. Compensation was claimed under part 1 of the Land Compensation Act 1973 for residents living close to the new access to the school. On that occasion, Highways England did the proper thing and sought advice from a valuation consultant on the changed property values. Indeed, it went further than that and sought advice from two experts in that field, because it felt that that was the right thing to do.
They were valuation consultants, who are accustomed to dealing with these things and in so doing adopted the appropriate empiricism—indeed, that is their stock in trade—to gauge whether the changes in the values of the properties that the hon. Gentleman has suggested took place could be attributed to any of the environmental factors that would entitle the 32 households to compensation, such as increased vibration, increased noise or even light pollution from headlights shining into homes. Those experts would have taken those things into account, though he will have some good news at the end of my short but fascinating speech along the lines that he has just implied.
The problem is that when those tests were applied, the claim was found wanting. The hon. Gentleman has made the case that the value of the houses has fallen, and I am not in a position to dispute that.
Ms Dorries, I never remove my jacket, except in the most extreme circumstances. One of those is playing competitive sport, and as I am not doing so, I will not remove my jacket, but I am grateful for your typical generosity and indulgence in giving me permission so to do should I wish to.
As I said, the valuation that was done does not necessarily contradict the hon. Gentleman’s assertions. He has provided evidence that values have indeed fallen, but I suppose the point that I was making—for the sake of emphasis, I make it again—is that according to the expert analysis, the criteria on which compensation could rightly have been paid, according to the basis that applies to all similar schemes, were not met. In essence, that means that there was no loss in property value as a result of the physical factors—I described them earlier as environmental factors—arising from the alterations to the A663. The question is really whether any loss in value met the necessary terms and conditions set out in the Land Compensation Act 1973. In truth, the A663 was already a busy urban route, and a signalised pedestrian crossing was already in place on that road before the roadworks were undertaken. The new access to the school is not in constant use but is used largely at the beginning and end of the school day, as can be expected.
The hon. Gentleman understandably made a point about council tax banding. I was aware of that point. However, it is clear from the council tax decision notice issued by the local authority that the rebanding was due to the presence of a new school rather than the road improvement scheme. Highways England fully accepts its obligations under the 1973 Act and never seeks to deny the payment of compensation that is due, but it has no power to pay compensation that it does not consider to be payable statutorily. Highways England has accepted the views of its valuation consultants and no claim has been paid with regard to the A663 junction improvements, and he will know that the claimants were advised accordingly in March 2015. He made reference to the possibility of appealing, and he will know that the Act allows a claimant who disagrees with the amount of compensation offered by the relevant authority—in this case Highways England—to refer their claim to the lands chamber of the upper tribunal for independent determination. Claimants have until 25 September 2019 to make reference to the tribunal in this case.
As is my wont, I am going to go a little further than I have been advised to do. As I said at the outset, I have been impressed by the hon. Gentleman’s diligence in bringing this matter forward, and I was an admirer of his predecessor, as I have also made clear. If I—like you, Ms Dorries, and the hon. Gentleman—put myself into the place of those affected, I feel a duty to share his and their perspective as much as possible. My second piece of advice to the hon. Gentleman, therefore, is that he obtains a further independent assessment of whether the alleged loss of value can in any way be attributed to the work that has been done and therefore fits the criteria laid out in law. If he brings that to me directly and personally, I will commit to looking at the matter again. That would not oblige the residents to seek a tribunal hearing, which I appreciate is expensive, and it would give him an opportunity to take the matter further. If the criteria cannot be met—or if evidence cannot be brought that they may be met—it will clearly be difficult for me to help him or those residents.
The hon. Gentleman wants to do the right thing by those residents, and I do, too. These debates must have a purpose in holding Ministers to account and encouraging them to go the extra mile to support colleagues from across the Chamber in representing the wellbeing and interests of their constituents.
I thank the Minister for giving way. Given that I do not get to come back at the end of the debate, I should take the opportunity to say that I find that very constructive. I am thankful on behalf of the residents of Chadderton for the opportunity to present that assessment at a future date.
It is my willingness to be constructive that has built the solid reputation I enjoy on the Opposition Benches, in which I take such great pleasure. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his complimentary remarks and look forward to hearing from him further on this important subject for his constituents.
Question put and agreed to.
AEA Pension Scheme
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the advice given to AEA pension scheme pensioners.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Minister, who is indeed honourable and a friend and a Minister. As I mentioned to him outside the Chamber, the gist of what I want to say is more directed towards the Cabinet Office than his Department, but it is useful to have this opportunity to put a flag in the ground. I should say right away that the purpose of the debate from my point of view, and I think that of those Association of Accounting Technicians pensioners who have been affected by what I am to describe, is to lay the grounds for an amendment we will need to move to the forthcoming ombudsman Bill to remedy a particular problem to which I shall come.
For the sake of anyone who happens to read Hansard in due course, I should begin by telling the story in brief. Incidentally, this is a story that has been told by many hon. Members from both sides of the Chamber. My hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds (Geoffrey Clifton-Brown) held a debate on a connected subject. Others who have taken a great interest include my right hon. Friends the Members for Saffron Walden (Sir Alan Haselhurst) and for Wantage (Mr Vaizey)—the latter is in his place: he has been particularly active on this recently and I have corresponded with him—my hon. Friends the Members for Newbury (Richard Benyon) and for Oxford West and Abingdon (Nicola Blackwood), and indeed former Members such as Ian Bruce, who represented South Dorset.
I think the story is well known to all present, but, in brief, in 1996 when the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority was spinning off what became AEA Technology, a new pension scheme was created for that company. The employees concerned had been employees of UKAEA and had benefited from a Government-backed pensions scheme there. They were offered the choice either to remain in the existing scheme or to transfer, on two possible bases, to the AEA Technology scheme.
The sequel, which is also well known to everyone present, is that unfortunately the AEA Technology final salary scheme, like many other such schemes, came a cropper and, when AEA Technology went bust, the scheme turned out to be in massive deficit, so my constituents, and I suspect those of other hon. Members present, found themselves in the hands of the Pension Protection Fund, which—thank goodness—had been set up to deal with such matters. In that respect, they are in no different position from many other people who have suffered a similar fate.
I thank my right hon. Friend for giving way so early in the debate. He is summarising his case exactly right. Is it not the case that, when the pension holders transferred to the new scheme, they were given strong assurances that they would continue to enjoy benefits identical or “very close to”—that was the wording in some of the literature that they were given—those they had under the Government-backed scheme?
I am grateful to the former Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my right hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Stephen Crabb), with whom I have dealt on various occasions in even more vexed circumstances. He is absolutely right. The gist of what I am talking about is the advice these pensioners were given at the time they decided to make the transfer. I will go into that in some detail in just a moment.
I thought I would get this in now before my right hon. Friend gets into his flow. My constituent, Dr Keith Brown, wrote to me quite some time ago, saying:
“Our main complaint is that official information provided to us at the time of privatisation did not tell us that the new pension scheme was at a much greater risk of failure than our old UKAEA scheme.”
That seems to be the nub of the problem: what they were and were not told.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right: that is the nub of the problem—and the nub of the solution is related. It is a good idea to have solutions that relate to problems, and I am going to propose a solution to that particular problem, but let me first enlarge on the point both of my right hon. Friends have just raised, because this is where we get to an extraordinary sequence.
At the time when the pensioners in question were choosing whether to transfer their existing accrued rights from the Government-backed UKAEA scheme into the commercially-backed AEA Technology scheme, they were offered advice by all sorts of people. They were told various things by AEA Technology, the new firm. Needless to say, AEA Technology said the new scheme was wonderful because it wanted to attract people into it. It wanted to do that because anybody who knows about final salary schemes—there are people here who are genuine experts on that—knows that it is necessary to have a large number of employees in such a scheme to make it remotely viable, so AEA Technology had an interest.
I do not know, and I do not suppose we will ever find out, but I suspect that the UKAEA employees—who are not just any old set of employees, they are highly skilled professionals; some of them are extraordinarily clever people—would quite easily have been able to account for the undoubted bias in the advice coming from their prospective employer, so let us forget about that piece of advice. They were also, I think, given a certain amount of steer by UKAEA itself. This is where it gets a little trickier, because UKAEA is a Government body and it had some kind of duty to give people dispassionate and neutral advice. However, UKAEA was in the course of trying to spin off AEA Technology, so it had an interest, too. I genuinely do not know the extent to which the employees did or did not pay attention to whatever they were told by UKAEA. Luckily, for the purposes of the debate, I do not want to dwell on that either, because there is a much more serious issue at stake.
The third set of people from whom the employees received advice—we do not have to speculate about this because it was written, and I am going to describe exactly what it said—was from none other than the Government Actuary’s Department. That is not just any old body. It is the most august body, so far as advice on pensions and pension matters is concerned, in our country. It is exactly what its name says on the tin; it is the Government Actuary’s Department.
The Government Actuary’s Department now has a statement of practice, but at the time it issued that advice it did not. It issued a paper, a copy of which I have in my hand, that discussed transfers from the UKAEA superannuation scheme to the AEA Technology pension scheme. In section 3 of that paper, particularly in subsection 3.2, the Government Actuary’s Department listed what it describes on the contents page as “Advantages of preserving”, which means the advantages of remaining in the UKAEA scheme. Another section describes
“advantages of taking a special transfer value”—
namely, the advantages of moving from the UKAEA scheme to the AEA Technology scheme.
The first strange thing about that is, in section 3, in which the Government Actuary’s Department lists the
“Factors to consider in making the decision”,
and was in particular describing the advantages of preserving the UKAEA scheme benefits—looking at what might influence the employees to remain with the public sector scheme—it said:
“Whilst it is unlikely that the benefit promise made by either the UKAEA Scheme or the AEAT Scheme would ever be broken—”,
and it went on to say that it is even more unlikely that both promises would be broken.
The important point is that not just any old person but the Government Actuary’s Department said it was unlikely that the benefit promise would be broken by either the Government-backed scheme, UKAEA, which is undoubtedly true, or the AEA Technology scheme. I have no doubt that, so far as it went, that statement was accurate, if looked at from the perspective of the date on which the Government Actuary’s Department wrote that it was “unlikely” that the benefit promise would be broken by AEA Technology. Incidentally, I hope the Minister and others will trust me; I am sure the Minister has read the whole thing because I know he has been assiduously preparing for the debate.
What is clear is that nowhere in the rest of the document does the Government Actuary’s Department say what was also patently true—that the risk of the pensioners losing a large part of the value of their pensions if they remained with their accrued rights in the UKAEA scheme was zero, or as near to zero as human beings get. A triple A-rated guarantee from HM Government attended that scheme. No such security was available under the AEA Technology scheme. Commercially-backed schemes do not have a triple A-rated Government-backed guarantee that pensioners will get their money as promised. That is a material difference between the two schemes, and the Government Actuary’s Department, in offering advice to pensioners, had a clear duty to bring out that difference in risk. It did not, and that is the starting point for the compelling argument I will make.
It is true that pensioners were encouraged to seek the advice of a qualified independent financial adviser, but that adviser could never advise on the overall risk of company failure and, therefore, the failure of the scheme, so my right hon. Friend’s point is exactly right. There was nothing in the documentation that pointed to the risk of the scheme failing altogether.
I am glad that my right hon. Friend raised that point. It has been said in previous debates and in correspondence with successive Ministers that the point about the availability of independent financial advice is material. To the argument I am making it is not material, because even though the pensioners could have sought independent financial advice, and even if it were the case—as a matter of fact, I think my right hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire is right that it would not be the case—that the independent financial adviser had advised them about the overall risk profile of the two possibilities, we would still have to ask why advice was given by the Government Actuary’s Department. If the pensioners were meant to rely exclusively on independent financial advice, the only appropriate posture for the Government Actuary’s Department would have been to say, “We’re not offering you any advice. This is not for us. Go to an independent financial adviser.”
On the contrary, the Government Actuary’s Department very unusually constructed a paper, of which we all have copies, and handed that to highly intelligent people with the intent of persuading them that it described the situation, which is the only presumption we can make. Why else would the Government Actuary’s Department give someone such a paper?
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that, in effect, what the Government Actuary’s Department has done is to give a subtle inducement to those who were in the UKAEA scheme to move across? At the end of the day, the Government should have some responsibility for exposing those pension plan holders to risk as a consequence of what has happened.
I agree that there was probably a subtle incentive, but I will come on to that in more detail in a moment. At this stage of the argument, all I am saying is something that I think is unchallengeably certain: the Government Actuary’s Department gave advice that did not bring to light the material difference in risk between one situation and another. That is fact. Beyond that, one can speculate, but that is fact.
When I say that the Government Actuary’s Department had a duty to highlight that difference of risk, I am again not speculating. Although at the time it did not exist, the Government Actuary’s Department now has a statement of practice. I have a copy of it in my hands. Under the heading “Security”, the statement of practice—essentially a code of conduct—says:
“It is recognised that the security of a private sector scheme cannot be provided in the same form as that applying in the public service”.
It is practically impossible to imagine that the Government Actuary’s Department would offer advice now in the form it did then, because it would be guided by its own code of practice. If it were not, I imagine rapid action would be taken to correct it, because if a Government Department issued a code of practice and then did not follow it, that would lead a Minister quickly to do something. Therefore we know that the Government Actuary’s Department had a duty, which unfortunately was not at that time written down in the code of practice, that it did not observe to bring to light the difference in security between the two positions. It did not do that.
It is important to make one last point about what the Government Actuary’s Department did. A freedom of information request has revealed an interesting sequence of events about which I intend in due course to write a little monograph, because it is very instructive about what happens inside Government and agencies when they engage in commercial transactions. The FOI revealed that there were exchanges of drafts between the Government Actuary’s Department, UKAEA and AEA Technology. The drafts went back and forth, and the various parties commented.
When the draft of the very section to which I am referring, which was at that time labelled 3.1.1 instead of 3.2.3—I will come on to that point, but it is ipsissima verba—was sent to AEA Technology, the person looking at it from AEA Technology noted in handwriting, “Delete”. So even an observation that it was possible the AEA Technology scheme might conceivably go bust, or that the UKAEA scheme might not deliver, was objected to by AEA Technology. It tried to get that deleted. To be fair to the UKAEA people and the Department then in charge of them, which is effectively now the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, that did not get deleted.
I mentioned, however, the numbering, which is also instructive. Section 3.1.1 became section 3.2.3 because UKAEA supported the AEAT proposition that the advantages of preserving—in other words, staying in the public sector—should not be presented before the advantages of transferring, as it was in the original draft, but vice versa. Indeed, that change was made. That whole sequence of events illustrates very clearly that AEA Technology and UKAEA had a joint interest in trying to get as many pensioners as possible to transfer into the AEA Technology scheme—not because they were evil schemers, but because they wanted that scheme to be viable. They were putting as much pressure as they could on the Government Actuary’s Department, to get as close as they could get it to go to telling the pensioners that that was a good thing to do.
To be fair to the Government Actuary’s Department, it did not say that that was a good thing to do, but it also did not illustrate the fact that if we looked at the risks, it was a very bad thing to do. That is a very important point. The Government Actuary’s Department did not just fail to point out the risks; it failed to point out the risks under conditions in which some pressure upon it was being brought not to reveal those risks in full.
I want to make one last point about the advice from the Government Actuary’s Department before I move on to the law. The role of the Government Actuary’s Department, which comes out clearly in the whole of its advice, was to look at the benefits of the two possibilities—remaining or transferring the accrued rights—and to see whether, on an actuarial basis, one was superior to the other or the other to the one. The Government Actuary’s Department concluded that there was not really anything to choose between them. That was translated into the view that all in all, the benefits were as good in the one case as the other. Of course, for a particular individual—this was pointed out—it might be different, but by and large, people got the same kind of benefit in the two cases.
We have the word of the Government Actuary’s Department that there would be no financial difference for pensioners, by and large, whether they stayed or went to the AEAT scheme—except, of course, that there was a huge difference. In the one case, they were getting the same benefits guaranteed, and in the other case they were getting the same benefits not guaranteed, because they were supported only by a commercial firm that could have gone bust and did go bust, and whose pension fund could have been in deficit and was in deficit—and lo and behold, they have indeed suffered.
Under pressure from those responsible for the transaction, the Government Actuary’s Department assessed the two schemes as being of equal value to employees without taking account of the difference in risk. It failed to point out that difference and therefore led the pensioners to believe that there was nothing particularly wrong with transferring their accrued rights to the AEAT scheme. They could have had the benefits guaranteed permanently had they remained in the UKAEA scheme, but they did not ever realise that great difference in risk.
My right hon. Friend has pointed to advice from the Government Actuary’s Department about a privatisation. There was a period when many other Government businesses were being privatised. Has his research identified whether the advice was similar in other cases, or was this piece of advice unique to the circumstances of AEA Technology?
I do not know whether my hon. Friend brilliantly waited until this moment to ask that pertinent question, but he has asked exactly the right question at exactly the right moment. It was generally the case that undertakings were given—I was involved as a financial adviser in many privatisations—about the solidity of the pension scheme that was going to be available for pensioners if they transferred to the new undertaking. I strongly suspect, although I cannot prove, that many of the AEA Technology pensioners who later suffered imagined at the time, not least because the Government Actuary’s Department did not say anything about a difference of risk, that such undertakings were available.
Moreover, the pensioners were probably led to have greater faith by the accident that the provisions of the law that gave rise to the transfer of the undertaking suggested—although did not say, if we read them carefully —that it would be just as good a pension scheme as the one they were leaving. In fact, in this case there were no such undertakings, and therefore there was a difference between this and many other privatisations. That was never brought out in the documentation, and the Government Actuary’s Department did not refer to it. That further strengthens, to my mind, the point that the Government Actuary’s Department advice served to mislead the pensioners.
I apologise, Ms Dorries, for the fact that that was all just the shaggy dog story, and now I am coming to the actual point of the debate. Everything I have described is a series of allegations by a Back-Bench MP—namely me—about what I think the Government Actuary’s Department did, and who the hell cares whether a Back- Bench MP thinks the Government Actuary’s Department behaved well, badly or indifferently? There is another body that judges these things that is much more important than a Back-Bench MP for these purposes, and that is the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman. That body gets to judge whether a Government agency—the Government Actuary’s Department is certainly one of those—has acted in such a way as to maladminister. That is the task of the ombudsman.
It is well established in the case law surrounding the ombudsman that if a Government Department misleads people, that is a form of maladministration, and if it causes them loss, that is a form of maladministration that the ombudsman can rule requires remedy. That is a perfectly well established chain of thought. We might think, therefore, that the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman would be able to rule on whether I am right in asserting that the Government Actuary’s Department misled these pensioners and therefore engaged in an act of maladministration.
If we look at the Parliamentary Commissioner Act 1967—although it has often been amended since—and its original description of what the ombudsman should do, our heart lifts to begin with, because section 4 says clearly that the Act applies to
“government departments, corporations and unincorporated bodies”
listed in schedule 2. If we turn to schedule 2 of the Act, lo and behold, one of the bodies listed is none other than our friend the Government Actuary’s Department. We might therefore think that we do not need to speculate about this; we just need to write a letter—I have written letters, as a matter of fact—to the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman to ask it to investigate the Government Actuary’s Department action in this case.
Alas, it ain’t so, because schedule 2 is subject to the notes to schedule 2, and in those notes—I do not know how this happened—the Government Actuary’s Department is specifically included in the purview of the ombudsman only
“relating to the exercise of functions under—
(a) Part 2 of the Insurance Companies Act 1982, or
(b) any other enactment relating to the regulation of insurance companies within the meaning of that Act.”
I will not trouble the Chamber with what goes on in the Insurance Companies Act 1982, but I assure hon. Members that I have been through it—it is incredibly boring—and there is absolutely nothing that would in any way enable the ombudsman to look at the Government Actuary’s Department’s action in this case.
I imagine that the underlying purpose of that massive exclusion was that someone at the time—in 1967 or later—wanted to ensure that the parliamentary ombudsman would not be able to second-guess the actuarial calculations of the Government Actuary’s Department. I thoroughly sympathise with that. As a former Minister, I would certainly not want to see the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman trying to be an amateur Government Actuary’s Department No. 2. That would be mad, and I am not asking for that.
In this case, we are not talking about an actuarial calculation. I am assuming, as I have done throughout my remarks, that Government Actuary’s Department calculations of the value of the two schemes to the pensioners, if they had been of equal risk, were perfect. My problem is what the calculation did not bring to light. It was not an actuarial calculation. It was a failure of a duty to point out the obvious in an extremely important way to people who may not have known it was obvious.
It is arguably clear that that is maladministration that the parliamentary and health service ombudsmen should be able to adjudicate on. It would require only a small amendment to section 4(1) of the 1967 Act in the forthcoming parliamentary ombudsman Bill to remedy that. We would then be able to go back to the ombudsman and say, “Now you have the power to look at what the Government Actuary’s Department did, whether it constituted maladministration and whether in your view that maladministration was material in having an effect on the pensioners, the choices they made, and hence the losses they incurred.” Then, as with Equitable Life—I threatened to go on hunger strike if the then Government did not bring in the ombudsman and agree to follow its ruling—it would be possible to introduce a scheme with compensation proportionate to the extent to which the losses to the pensioners were caused by the maladministration.
We all know that the Equitable Life scheme is not perfect and does not fully compensate the pensioners, because much of the problem was due to the directors and not the regulators. However, to the extent that it was due to the regulators, there has been a compensation scheme exactly like my proposal. We could do that in this case if we changed section 4(1) of the 1967 Act.
I, too, have constituents who are affected by this issue. My right hon. Friend set the problem out in detail and helpfully, and is now getting to the solution. Is there not a difficulty, in that it would have to be retrospective, or are there ways around that to help his constituents and mine?
I am delighted that my hon. Friend raises that point. I do not think it would be retrospective in any noxious meaning of the word. The decision that the incoming coalition Administration made on Equitable Life in 2010—to implement commitments that the Conservative party and the Liberal Democrats had entered into in opposition that we should follow the ombudsman’s ruling—was post facto. It was after all the damage had been done to the pensioners, and it was not regarded as retrospective. We implemented the scheme, and many Equitable Life pensioners have received compensation.
The case I am talking about is exactly the same. The ombudsman could rule ex post—not retrospectively, but simply with a ruling about what occurred. That ruling would undoubtedly be followed by the Exchequer in constructing a proportionate scheme. That is what we need to achieve.
I see that my right hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (Mr Vaizey) wants to take part in the debate, and I welcome that. I will sit down, because I have made the points I wanted to make.
I am grateful for the opportunity to participate in this debate, Ms Dorries. I have never had such an immediate effect on my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Sir Oliver Letwin) and I relish the moment. I think I missed the announcement about a third runway in west Dorset. I am slightly disconcerted to see him wearing a red jumper and sitting on the Labour Benches. I hope he will return to the Government side of the House as soon as possible.
I praise my right hon. Friend for calling this important debate on the plight of pensioners in the AEA Technology scheme. There are many in my constituency and, as he rightly pointed out, there was an important debate on the subject a year ago in this Chamber. This is the second debate. The number of hon. Members, not just those here today, but those who took part in that debate, shows how widespread the concern is in the House. Around 3,000 pensioners are affected and although at the moment some have lost about 10% of their pension, the cumulative impact for many of them will be that their pensions decline by between 30% and 50%.
At the heart of what is a clear injustice is that it is as plain as a pikestaff that my constituents were misled 20 years ago in the advice they were given about whether to retain their accrued benefits in what was effectively a Government pension scheme, or whether to transfer them to a private scheme. As my right hon. Friend said, the advice given to them in 1996 was that the private sector scheme would be no less favourable than the public sector scheme.
My constituent, Derek Whitmell, has been assiduous in digging out information from various organs of Government. He has a letter from the Government Actuary’s Department dated 14 November 2014 which states:
“We have found no specific record on file of the underlying justification for the statement that ‘it is unlikely that the benefit promise made by either the UKAEA scheme or the AEAT scheme would ever be broken.’”
My constituents were told that a transfer would not be detrimental to them, and that it was unlikely that being in the private sector scheme would have any impact on them, yet the then Pensions Minister, Steve Webb, when responding to the debate a year ago, put forward various hypotheses and said:
“Let us suppose the trustees of a hypothetical privatised new scheme invested recklessly and generated a huge deficit, resulting in insolvency. Would the taxpayer be responsible for the trustees’ actions?” Similarly, if investment returns went badly for that private company or other private companies, would the taxpayer be indefinitely on the hook for any deficit?”—[Official Report, 18 March 2015; Vol. 594, c. 289WH.]
I am not saying the Government should be responsible for the investment decisions of AEA Technology, but the very fact that such risks were hidden from my constituents says something.
My right hon. Friend referred to the drafting of the original advice in the 1990s. Again thanks to FOI requests from my constituent, Derek Whitmell, we have seen what emerged. One paragraph that my right hon. Friend did not quote but is very telling comes from AEA Technology. It states:
“We believe the general tone of this note is likely to discourage people from transferring to the AEAT scheme”—
the private scheme—
“while recognising that the note must be as neutral as possible we do not think this is the case and have suggested a few places where the tone could be modified. In section 3”
which my right hon. Friend referred to,
“we would like to see the advantages of transferring put before those for preserving.”
In plain English, to me that means, “Slant the advice to encourage people to transfer.” That is why 90% of pensioners transferred to that scheme.
I will be as brief as possible because I know the wind-ups are about to begin. We have been pushed from pillar to post. I went to the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions and the Pensions Minister before the last election. I went to the then Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills and was told to go to the ombudsman. A full complaint was made to the ombudsman, who decided not to take any action. A case worker in the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman’s office, Oliver Forrester, wrote back—he has since moved on and there is no one to talk to—and stated:
“By law, we cannot investigate complaints about superannuation (including public sector pensions) in relation to employment under any authority to which our legislation applies…Nor can we look at service in any office of employment or any contract for services…As this complaint is wholly regarding the advice you were given by these two organisations about your pension options, unfortunately, we are legally barred from looking at it further.”
I am not sure I agree with that, but I note what my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset says: in any event, there is scope to amend the law in order to have clarity.
At the heart of this is a plain and simple fact: my constituents and those of other right hon. and hon. Members were clearly misled in the advice that they were given. They were in effect given cast-iron assurances that their pension would be as secure in a private pension scheme—the accrued Government pension, I hasten to add. We are not arguing about the private pension from the moment they became employees of a private company. They were told that the accrued Government pension would be as secure when it was transferred to a private pension scheme. None of the risks was flagged up to them. As my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset said, these are highly professional men and women, working in a very skilled environment. There seems to be absolutely no redress for them from Government—no willingness from anyone in Government to take on board what has happened and to have a reasonable, intelligent and thoughtful conversation about how we can right what is clearly a wrong.
I welcome the new Pensions Minister to his post. He has an unparalleled reputation in the House. I will now sit down, hear what the Opposition have to say and look forward to the Minister’s remarks.
I congratulate the right hon. Member for West Dorset (Sir Oliver Letwin) on winning this debate. He has provided a detailed analysis of the issues impacting on the lives of many people in Scotland and elsewhere who are AEA Technology pension scheme members.
We know that AEA Technology was formed in 1996 as a privatised offshoot of the UK Atomic Energy Authority. Crucially, we also know that the Atomic Energy Authority Act 1995 detailed the conditions for AEAT’s creation, including specific provision for the pension arrangements of transferring staff. Those specific arrangements included a statutory reassurance and statutory duty to provide a pension scheme that was “no less favourable” than the UKAEA scheme. In November 1996, the Government Actuary’s Department issued a note outlining the choices available to members of the UKAEA scheme: to leave their preserved benefits in the UKAEA pension scheme, which as we have heard was a public service pension scheme; to transfer them to the AEAT scheme; or to purchase a personal pension. According to evidence submitted to the Pensions Ombudsman Service, the Government Actuary’s Department not only highlighted the three options that I have just noted, but specifically stated at the time that it was unlikely that
“the benefit promise made by either the UKAEA scheme or the AEAT scheme would ever be broken.”
Sadly, the companies that made up the AEA Technology group did fail and went into administration in November 2012. At that time, the AEAT pension scheme entered a Pension Protection Fund assessment period. The PPF was set up under the Pensions Act 2004 to provide compensation to members of defined-benefit pension schemes that wind up underfunded on the insolvency of the employer. Unsurprisingly, because of all this, AEA Technology pension scheme members now feel very aggrieved and misled by the advice that they were given by the UK Government.
It is clear that the UK Government are now abrogating their responsibilities towards the AEA Technology pension scheme members. It is equally clear that the circumstances surrounding the information provided by the Government Actuary’s Department at the time of the transfer, or the lack thereof, warrant thorough investigation in the light of AEA Technology being unable to meet its commitments. That could perhaps be undertaken by the ombudsman, as suggested by the right hon. Member for West Dorset.
Sadly, this affair is another in a long line of pension crises facing UK taxpayers in the last few years. They range from BHS, through the Scottish and Northern Ireland Plumbing Employers’ Federation and the civil nuclear constabulary, to the Women Against State Pension Inequality campaign and more. Indeed, many people affected by the AEA pension scandal are also affected by the arbitrary changes in the retirement age. That is a completely different take on the “pensions triple lock” of which the UK Government have boasted.
It would be helpful and honest for the UK Government to reinstate AEA Technology pension rights as promised by the Government at the time of privatisation and to launch immediately a thorough investigation into the pre-pack insolvency of AEA Technology that will scrutinise the roles of interested parties, including the Pensions Regulator, the PPF and the trustees. Pensions are a contract, not a benefit. Those who pay in deserve to receive their promised entitlement, and it is the responsibility of the UK Government to secure that entitlement and provide dignity in retirement to AEA Technology scheme members.
I will do so, Ms Dorries, as I was intending to.
I congratulate the right hon. Member for West Dorset on securing this important debate. He has been assiduous in pushing the case, and his suggestion this afternoon of looking at amending the law as it affects the ombudsman certainly has some merit.
I also congratulate the right hon. Member for Wantage (Mr Vaizey). He has very accurately shown what happened with the advice that was given, some of the deficiencies that were there, and the possible interference from AEAT in that process and the advice that was given.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Dr Monaghan) said in his concluding remarks, we need to remember that pensions are a contract, not a benefit. Those who have paid in to pension schemes deserve to get their due entitlement. It is the responsibility of the UK Government to ensure that there is confidence in the pensions industry throughout the UK. We all look forward to a time when people can save in pensions, secure in the knowledge that they will get their due entitlement. We need to have that confidence, and it is the Government’s responsibility to ensure that the Pensions Regulator and the ombudsman discharge their obligations to ensure that the consumer interest is protected.
It is clear that pension scheme members in this case, as we heard last week in a debate in the main Chamber on the BHS scheme, are not fully protected—they are not protected to the extent that they should be. Lessons must be learned and appropriate action taken. Whether that is done through the ombudsman or the regulator is a moot point and we can come back to it in due course. What needs to be remarked on today is that, with the AEAT scheme ending up in the Pension Protection Fund, those who worked for the company when it was in the public sector have, among others, lost pension entitlement. The Government cannot walk away from their obligation to what were public sector workers. That is not acceptable.
It is clear from its conduct that the UK Government Actuary’s Department has ducked its responsibility to the AEAT pension scheme members. Liability has to lie somewhere. As discussed in a Westminster Hall debate on this topic in March last year, the Government Actuary’s Department was the author of a leaflet designed to inform pension scheme members of their next course of action in the light of the creation of AEAT. According to evidence given to the Pensions Ombudsman Service, that leaflet suggested three options, but also said that it was unlikely that the UKAEA scheme would fail or that
“the benefit promise made by either the UKAEA scheme or the AEAT scheme would ever be broken.”
That was in my book an inducement and assurance to the scheme members. Who will stand behind the scheme members who were made those promises? Will the Minister accept that the Government at least have a moral and ethical responsibility?
I heard the hon. Gentleman make these points in the British Home Stores debate last week. Does he not think that it will be very difficult for the Government to take action on employer behaviour that seems to fall below the norms that they would expect if they do not keep their own ship in order?
The hon. Gentleman makes a very valid point. I argued last week and argue again today that we must learn the lessons of the failure that has taken place. We have to ensure that we create confidence in pensions—that is what emerges, whether we are talking about BHS, the AEAT scheme or many others. We have to look at the responsibility that the regulator and the trustees have, but it is a responsibility, ultimately, that we all have as legislators.
The pensions ombudsman said that the scheme’s post-privatisation survival, and hence scheme benefits, were not guaranteed:
“AEAT was a private sector company and so there was a risk of the company getting into financial difficulties or failing altogether.”
It is clear that the circumstances surrounding the information provided by GAD at the time of the transfer, or the lack thereof, warrant thorough investigation in the light of AEAT being unable to meet its commitments. If it is the case that vital information was left out of the leaflet, it is a serious matter and must be treated as such.
This would certainly not be the first time that a UK Government Department has been found guilty of misinforming pensioners. The shambolic handling of the notification process for the WASPI women has meant that thousands of women born in the 1950s face hardship, having unexpectedly to push back their retirement by years. The members of the AEAT scheme deserve a full and thorough investigation that incorporates the timelines from the creation of UKAEA to the present so that mistakes can be identified and those responsible held to account. When hard-working employees are promised a pension and it is not delivered, there should be a concerted effort to establish a thorough and independent investigation to determine accountability and all avenues that can be explored to protect pension rights.
The Scottish National party has long called for the establishment of an independent pensions commission to build the architecture to ensure that employees’ savings are protected, and that a more progressive approach to pensions is taken. Will the Minister commit the Government to doing that today? There are far too many issues affecting pensions policy and they need to be addressed in a holistic manner. Establishing a pensions commission would be an important step in ensuring fairness in pensions policy, dealing with problems such as this one and building confidence in pension saving.
In summary, I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response. For the first time in his capacity as Pensions Minister, I welcome him to the debate, and also welcome the Labour Front-Bench spokesman, the hon. Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham).
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries. I, too, congratulate the right hon. Member for West Dorset (Sir Oliver Letwin) on securing the debate. I am told he is quite a champion on these matters.
As others have mentioned, the AEAT scheme is a defined-benefit final salary scheme set up when AEA Technology was floated on the stock exchange in 1996. At that time, under the Atomic Energy Authority Act 1995, a condition of the privatisation agreement ensured that the benefits received by the scheme members were “no less favourable” than those they would have expected to receive from the UK Atomic Energy Agency pension scheme, set up when the Government were their employer. A month or so later, in November 1996, the Government Actuary’s Department issued the note that has been mentioned, outlining the options available to scheme members. However, those scheme members believe that they were actually encouraged to transfer into the new scheme. Sadly, as we know, in 2012 AEA Technology entered into administration and the pension fund was entered into the Pension Protection Fund.
It is worth adding that the pension benefits accrued before 1997, which would have been for all those who acted on the basis of the Government’s original commitment in the 1995 legislation, are not eligible for index-linked uprating. That is why pensioners believe they have been misled and, as a result, will be worse off. In effect, that means that those scheme members who decided to transfer their pensions following advice that their benefits would be “no less favourable” back in 1995 suddenly find themselves with a smaller pot, the real value of which is eroded by inflation every year. The campaign estimates that some members could lose half their pension pot.
Despite that, a determination by the pensions ombudsman found that the original commitment to ensuring that benefits were “no less favourable” did not amount to a guarantee against future changes to the pension benefits owing to financial difficulties. Surely the Government have responsibility to ensure that promises made to members of the UKAEA pension scheme were fulfilled, and have serious questions to answer about whether the Government actuarial note amounted to impartial guidance. Furthermore, in a Westminster Hall debate last year, the hon. Member for The Cotswolds (Geoffrey Clifton-Brown) raised important questions as to whether the scheme received sufficient funds from its mother scheme properly to protect it against later risk of deficit. That mother scheme was apparently operating at a surplus, and some of that money disappeared into the Treasury—I wonder whether the Minister knows how much it was.
We have heard that the Government actuarial note actively encouraged members to transfer their funds to the new scheme. Although the pension scheme group notices and recognises that the note certainly did outline arguments both for and against the transfer, it believes that it dismissed all of the arguments against. That was best highlighted by the right hon. Member for West Dorset, particularly in relation to the fact that they were leaving behind a scheme that was backed by the Government.
In future, we have to ask whether scheme members can be expected to take responsibility for moving their pension savings on the basis of what has been described as impartial advice. Has the Minister examined the evidence in question? If it is apparent that amendments were made to obscure the risks of changing the offer and moving the scheme, will he agree to take action? Last year, the then Pensions Minister argued that the Government could not possibly act without setting a precedent for other formerly state-owned enterprises. I do not see that that needs to be the case. Given the points made about alleged amendments to the note from the Government Actuary’s Department at the request of the UKAEA, surely these pension fund holders are in a unique position.
Clearly, pre-package administration deals are sometimes necessary to ensure that the process of insolvency can be managed quickly and effectively in a rapidly evolving insolvency situation. As we have seen recently, for example in the case of Bernard Matthews, there are instances where pre-package deals have negatively affected employees’ pension entitlements while allowing parent companies to walk away from insolvency with very large sums of money. What plans does the Minister have to look more closely at an expanded role for the Pensions Regulator to intervene earlier in the process when a number of warning signs are triggered? How will the Minister ensure that pre-package administration deals are not used as a vehicle for employers to reduce their pension responsibilities?
Given the promise made by Government to ex-Government scheme members that their benefits would be protected, the criticisms made of the guidance offered by the Government Actuary’s Department note, and what many believe to be the failure to properly resource the new scheme to ensure it would be put on a sustainable footing, will the Minister agree to consult scheme members to explore all avenues for redress? Will he also agree to strengthen the governance of defined-benefit pensions schemes to ensure that scheme members’ pensions are better protected in future cases of insolvency? I recognise that this may not be a simple matter, but if the advice that was given to the pensioners was flawed, someone needs to take responsibility for the members’ losses. I hope the Minister will now do that.
It is a pleasure, as ever, to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries. I thank right hon. and hon. Members for their contributions.
As a junior Minister in Government until July, I recall that one of the great fears we all had, for very good reason, was of being summoned before my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Sir Oliver Letwin). When he applied for this Westminster Hall debate, I realised that it was an issue to be taken very seriously. I hope that after my remarks he will agree that the Government have indeed done so. In the first instance, it is clear that no Minister—or indeed anyone else—could have anything but sympathy for the constituents who have suffered in these circumstances. There is absolutely no question about it; that is reflected by the morality of the issue and by the fact so many people have come to hear this debate and other debates that have taken place.
I hope to shed some light on the Government’s position, but I am not in a position to answer the questions in the way that my right hon. Friend and other contributors to the debate might expect, which is to provide a solution to the problem. The Government do not believe that we should compensate members of the AEA Technology pension scheme above what is being provided by the Pension Protection Fund. That is very clear. I would rather not be grey about it; that is the Government’s position. We do not accept that the loss of the pensions was the Government’s fault.
As my right hon. Friend said, the note has been widely circulated. I read it. Whatever it may or may not be, the note clearly states at the beginning that it was a note by the Government Actuary’s Department on the options available in respect of accrued benefits. It states that clearly. I do not wish to be pompous about the word “advice”, which means different things in the financial services world than in the general context of conversation between people and in guidance, but it was not designed to be advice. It provides three options and outlines the main factors that people should take into account when reaching their decision on which option to accept.
I accept that on behalf of the Government I may select particular pieces from the note, and other right hon. and hon. Members may select pieces that suit their argument. That is natural and I have tried not to be like that when considering these comments. However, the note specifically and explicitly said that it did not intend to suggest that one course of action was better than another, and that if anyone was in doubt, they should seek independent financial advice. It stated that very clearly in the final note. It said that the intention was not to suggest one option was better than the other.
I entirely understand that the Minister needs time to reach the rest of his argument, but he has hit the nub of the question. Does he accept that if the Government Actuary’s Department calculated on an actuarial basis that the two schemes were equivalent financially, and if it stated, as he rightly said it did, that it was not suggesting that one was superior to the other, but if it was, in fact, the case that one was risk-free and the other was risk-bearing, it follows as a proposition of business logic and economics, as taught in any business school, that the thing that is financially equivalent but is risk-free is superior to the thing that is financially equivalent but risky? Therefore, it should have suggested that one was superior to the other—namely, that remaining was a superior option, because it was.
I thank my right hon. Friend for those comments. It is certainly true to say that the area of risk is not discussed explicitly and it is reasonable to argue that there should have been a box with a health warning saying that one piece of advice—or not advice, but information—was different from another because of the risk element, but it is also fair to say that the note does not attempt to assess risk. It may imply by default that one was less risky than the other, but it certainly does not say anything that could be interpreted as misleading the people who received it, in my view.
I understand the position of constituents in the Public Gallery today, some of whom are understandably shaking their heads, given their views about what I have just said, but it is very easy, years later, to pick pieces out of documents. If it said that this was advice, that would be one thing, but it clearly says that people should take independent advice.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Stephen Crabb), the former Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, said that independent advice would not cover the risk of transferring. Please do not misunderstand me: I am not saying that I have no reason to believe him, but I cannot understand why an independent financial adviser would be more or less likely than anybody else to comment on the risk or the lack of risk in giving advice. As I said, I accept that it is easy for us to say things all these years later, but the note does not seem to me to be intended to cover every eventuality. It was eight pages long and it was not intended to cover everything. It does not completely ignore the subject of insolvency.
I am struggling with something that the Minister said. He indicated that the advice of the actuary was able to be second-guessed by someone then going to an independent adviser. My right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Sir Oliver Letwin) talked about the role of the PHSO and said that it did not investigate the rulings of the actuary so that it could not second-guess the advice the actuary gave on liability. So which way should we have it?
My hon. Friend knows very well that I did not say that. I said that an independent adviser is no more or less likely to consider the idea of risk. I was actually referring to the view of my right hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire that suddenly Government advisers did assess risk, but independent advisers could not possibly do so. I will have to make progress, because we are running out of time. I believe that the note was intended as a helpful starting point but did not constitute advice for members.
I will move on to the parliamentary ombudsman—I must deal with the ombudsman service generally and the choice of ombudsman, because they are so important in this case. It is correct that the actions of the Government Actuary’s Department fall generally outside the parliamentary ombudsman’s remit. I understand, however, that is only one of the reasons that the parliamentary ombudsman gave for deciding not to investigate. I hope I am not misrepresenting what she said—I have tried to look into this in some detail—but it seems to me that her decision was made partly on the basis that the complaints were not about the actions of a Government Department in relation to a citizen, which is what the ombudsman service is for. She has concluded that the complaints are about information provided in relation to employees and employees’ pension rights. That is why it is not the concern of the parliamentary ombudsman. If that is a correct interpretation of her opinion, changing the legislation to allow her office to have greater oversight of GAD would not solve the difficulty raised in this debate.
I really think I should make progress.
As for the pensions ombudsman, which I have some responsibility for and some knowledge about, members of a pension scheme can complain to the pensions ombudsman, who has the power to investigate, and does investigate, public sector pensions schemes as well as private sector schemes.
The pensions ombudsman looks at maladministration —for example, when a trustee or a manager has been given incorrect advice or information. The previous pensions ombudsman investigated a complaint last year concerning the AEA Technology pension scheme. GAD was not a party to that complaint. In the determination, the ombudsman specifically said that he was not ruling on whether the actions of GAD came under his jurisdiction and that no inference should be drawn from his comments about whether it did or did not, or about the likelihood of a successful complaint about GAD.
I understand that the current ombudsman has since considered some AEA complaints and the ombudsman’s office has decided not to investigate. I cannot comment on any particular complaint, but I have been informed that, in accordance with the usual procedures, all the complaints were looked at individually. Many reasons for not investigating the complaint were given, but they did not include that GAD was outside the pensions ombudsman’s remit.
It is possible, of course, to challenge the pensions ombudsman’s decision through the courts by judicial review or by appeal. I would briefly like to mention the Equitable Life case, which has been discussed during the debate. The parliamentary ombudsman did an investigation and asked the Government to expand the jurisdiction for this case alone. She informed us that public sector pensions are beyond her remit, so it seems to me that it is in the pensions ombudsman’s remit. He has looked at these two cases but has said that GAD was not a party. As far as I can see, however, there is nothing to stop people from going to the pensions ombudsman and naming GAD as a party to the case. If they are still not satisfied, there is the system of judicial review in the Court of Appeal, because the pensions ombudsman is a quasi-judicial body. I meet the pensions ombudsman regularly, and I am prepared to bring the subject up straightaway and ask whether he has difficulties within the scope of his existing jurisdiction in dealing with complaints brought to him.
I am afraid there is not time. I am really sorry, but I only have three minutes left.
The Government have announced their intention to bring forward a draft Bill to create a new public service ombudsman, the focus of which remains the resolution of complaints from individual citizens who claim to have suffered injustice. The response to the consultation said that the ombudsman should operate a “no wrong door” approach, which is referring individuals and possibly transferring their complaints when they fall wholly or partially within the jurisdiction of another body. As for whether GAD should be included in its remit, the Government’s commitment at the moment is that it should take on just the jurisdiction of the parliamentary, health service and local government ombudsmen, but if right hon. and hon. Members believe—as my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Michael Tomlinson) does—that there will be gaps, the Government are willing to listen to their concerns. After I found out about this debate, I spoke at some length with the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Chris Skidmore), and he would be pleased to meet my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset to discuss this and other relevant issues.
I realise, Ms Dorries, that you are about to tell me that my time is up. I am sorry that I do not have more time to go into details, but I hope that I have given some indication of the Government’s thinking.
I am very grateful to the Minister. I will indeed pursue that question with the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, and perhaps the Minister’s question about the pensions ombudsman. Eventually, I am sure we will find a solution.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the advice given to AEA pension scheme pensioners.