Wednesday 16 November 2016
[Mr Christopher Chope in the Chair]
Centenary of the Balfour Declaration
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the centenary of the Balfour Declaration.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Chope. I am pleased to have secured this debate. It is particularly fitting as just a few days ago, on Tuesday 2 November, we marked the beginning of a year of events leading to the centenary of the Balfour declaration —one of the most defining moments in the UK’s shared history with Israel.
On that November day back in 1917, a Conservative Foreign Secretary, Arthur James Balfour, gave the official approval of His Majesty’s Government to the Zionist movement’s aspiration for Jewish self-determination. That paved the way for the creation of the state of Israel in their historic homeland following centuries of exile and persecution around the world. This landmark letter, comprised of just three paragraphs, has been the subject of intense historical debate right up to, and I am sure including, today.
The British Government of that day could well be accused of duplicity. Not only were they issuing the Balfour declaration, but they had guaranteed, one way or another, to the Sharif of Mecca and other Arab leaders, that the Arabs would be allowed to have a homeland, so they were either duplicitous or incompetent in 1917.
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. My understanding is that that challenge has been made, but was refuted strongly by Churchill back in the day.
This landmark letter, comprising just three paragraphs and the subject of our debate today, sets out that aspiration for a Jewish homeland. I am proud that our country supported the establishment of that national home, and I am also proud of the strength of the UK-Israeli relationship. Our partnership in trade, technology, medicine and academia, and our shared values, have flourished in the 68 years of Israel’s young life.
In his letter, Foreign Secretary Balfour pledged to Lord Rothschild, a leading member of British Jewry, that he would “view with favour”, and that His Majesty’s Government endorsed,
“the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country”.
I am glad that the hon. Lady read the letter through. Does she agree that the first part of that equation has been dealt with, which is the establishment of a national home for the Jewish people in Palestine—not, obviously, the whole of Palestine—and that perhaps concentration for the next immediate period should be on the second part, the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities, which clearly has not been achieved? That should be our priority.
The hon. Gentleman’s point is well made. Where we might disagree is on reasons why that second aspiration has not come to pass. What is really important about the letter, which has been contested, is that this non-binding Balfour declaration was swiftly endorsed and enshrined in binding agreements ratified by the international community in the San Remo resolution and the Sèvres peace treaty, and was then ratified by all 51 countries of the League of Nations when the British mandate for Palestine was approved in 1922.
Although we are living in a fast-changing world and no treaty at any time is entirely immutable, my hon. Friend, I and many of our colleagues present here today acknowledge the importance—hopefully, the globally acknowledged importance—of the recognition of an Israeli homeland. Although I accept that there is still work to do to ensure that every aspect of the Balfour declaration is put in place, and we will hopefully play a part in that work in the decades to come, it is equally important to recognise that Israel has been a success story and its right to exist should be recognised globally.
Indeed I do.
The League of Nations, the precursor to the United Nations, formally recognised, and this is critical to what follows,
“the historical connection of the Jewish people with Palestine”
“the grounds for reconstituting their national home in that country”.
Through its use of the term “reconstituting”, the international community formally recognised the pre-existing ties of the Jewish people to their homeland, in which there had been a continuous Jewish presence for millennia.
A hundred years on and Israel today is a multiracial, multi-ethnic democracy where Arabs, Druze and other minorities are guaranteed equal rights under law. Israel’s 1.7 million-strong Arab minority—around 20% of the local population—participates fully in Israel’s political system, and there are currently 17 Israeli Arab members in the 120-seat Knesset. Israeli Arabs serve as university professors, senior police and army officers and heads of hospital departments, and an Arab judge sits in the country’s Supreme Court. Opponents of Zionism and the state of Israel have freedom of speech and are permitted to form political organisations within the country. In fact, Israel is the only country in the world whose Parliament has Members advocating the destruction of the state. Elsewhere in the middle east, minority communities live in starkly different circumstances. The Christian community, for example, is in serious and dramatic decline across much of the middle east because of persecution and oppression, while in Israel Christians enjoy full rights and freedoms. Indeed, Christians make up the largest religious community in Israel after Jews and Muslims, and the holiest sites in Christianity are protected by Israel.
Britain and Israel have an enduring relationship shaped both by our historical ties and by our extensive co-operation and shared interests today. The Prime Minister recently described the relationship between our two countries as remaining
“as strong as ever, based not only on bilateral trade, scientific research and security co-operation, but the values we share, like freedom, democracy and tolerance.”
The value of bilateral trade in both directions over the past 10 years has increased by 60%, and in 2015 reached a record high of almost £6 billion.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this debate. She is making an insightful speech but, on the point about trade, does she believe that there should be trade with the illegal settlements or with businesses that are located in the illegal settlements? I ask that particularly because the European Union has recently banned trade with businesses in the Crimea, which, as we know, is an illegally annexed land. Given that there are now 600,000 settlers living in the illegal settlements, and those settlements are clearly—
On the point about settlements, we need to see a far bigger picture. We are looking to determine today, and in the hereafter, a peace deal whereby Israel and Palestine can live, co-exist, share, prosper and trade with one another. The hon. Gentleman, in focusing on that point, is perhaps neglecting the much bigger picture and the bigger ambition: we want free trade across those borders and security for both peoples and all businesses operating in the region.
I was very pleased with what my hon. Friend had to say about co-operation between Christians, particularly in this country, and the Jewish community. Does she recognise that as well as the trade to which she refers, a huge amount of incredibly important co-operation on security and intelligence is happening between our two countries to make the middle east and, hopefully, the world a safer place in the years to come?
I recognise the great merit in what my right hon. Friend says. In particular, the new relationships in that part of the world—with the peace deals with Egypt and Jordan—are securing much greater stability in the region and, courtesy of that technological advancement, greater security across the world.
The hon. Lady rightly draws attention to the much better relations between Israel and its Arab neighbours. Is not the key to a sustainable peace that those who are involved in negotiations commit themselves to full recognition of the state of Israel, securely positioned alongside a Palestinian state with international guarantees, and a rejection of the groups that campaign against the existence of Israel? Should not all those who participate in this debate make clear their commitment to that as the starting point of the process?
The right hon. Gentleman’s point is so very well made; that is the starting point and the journey. We would do well to preface all our speeches with the intention that we want to see both sides come together and engage in peace talks for the peace and security of both countries, the region and the world.
Would we not have a two-state solution today if the armies of five Arab states had not invaded the newly independent declared state of Israel in 1948? It is really from that decision that the Palestinians lost their allocated share and their homeland.
I thank my right hon. Friend for that intervention. The UN-sponsored partition plan for Palestine in 1947 was a very significant missed opportunity. How different might the region be today and how many lives might have been spared—because there is suffering and loss on both sides—if the Arab leadership had taken up that UN-sponsored partition plan back in the day.
Let me reprise Britain’s ties with Israel and how we feel the benefit of that relationship. Consider, for example, that one in six generic prescription drugs issued by the NHS comes from an Israeli pharmaceutical company. Indeed, the Under-Secretary of State for Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington South (David Mowat), announced a few weeks ago that, without these supplies from Israel,
“significant shortages of some medicines important for patient health”
would be likely. Brexit provides us with an opportunity to negotiate a new trade deal with Israel, and I welcome the fact that the Government have already confirmed their determination to secure a deal and further strengthen our trading relationship.
Indeed it does; I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention.
Although the UK’s relationship and ties with Israel are strong and we see Israel’s contribution to our economy, its contribution to the world should also be recognised at this landmark moment. Israel has defied the challenges posed by an arid climate, a small population and security threats to make significant contributions to the advancement of the world. Israeli inventions have transformed the way we live our lives. The algorithm for sending emails, mobile phone technology, technology for anti-virus software, instant messaging and the USB flash drive were all developed in Israel. It is little surprise that so many multinational tech giants have established R and D facilities in Israel. Apple, Windows, Intel, HP, Google and many more all have a presence in a country that is the size of Wales.
From helping refugees in Lesbos to fighting Ebola in west Africa, Israeli aid teams are a common and welcome sight for countries in their time of need. On my visit to Israel last year, I had the great pleasure of visiting Save a Child’s Heart, which is an extraordinary project that provides life-saving surgery for children with cognitive heart defects. The lives of children throughout the developing world have been saved by Israeli doctors. There is much to recognise, value and celebrate.
Did the hon. Lady speak to Palestinians and see what is happening in the west bank? Next year is also the 50th anniversary of a brutal military occupation of someone else’s territory. Until that key point is resolved, we will not have two peoples living together in peace.
I had the opportunity during that visit to meet Palestinians, business leaders and property developers. I saw a development at Rawabi, the likes of which I have never seen before in its scale, scope, vision and ambition. A whole city is rising out of the ground. I have never seen anything so truly astonishing. That place, being built by Palestinians for Palestinians, with 40,000 homes looking to be delivered, is a really positive vision for what the future could look like.
Events to mark the declaration’s centenary began earlier this month and will continue until the 100th anniversary in November 2017. Jewish communal and Israel advocacy organisations have launched an official Balfour 100 campaign, providing helpful educational resources, and will be hosting a series of events. The Prime Minister has expressed her desire to mark the occasion, as has the Minister, and I thank him for his remarks.
However, Israel does not live in peace and security and the Palestinians have not acceded to their own recognised state. As my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) said earlier, how different things might have been if the Arab leadership, back in 1947, had adopted that UN partition plan. The region could look very different today, with two prosperous states—one Arab, one Jewish—working together and more faithfully reflecting the Balfour aspiration that the civil and religious rights of all be safeguarded.
Over the years, proposals have been rejected for a two-state solution, including, in recent decades, at Camp David at the turn of the century, and more recently, in 2008. Israel unilaterally withdrew from Gaza in 2005 in an effort to bring more momentum to the peace process. Gifted with a highly educated population and a very beautiful Mediterranean coastline, it has been said that Gaza had the potential to be the Singapore of the east, but rather than being able to seize that opportunity, the Islamist terror group, Hamas, has committed Gazan civilians to ongoing rounds of violence.
When I asked a Palestinian official why several thousand greenhouses had been destroyed during that period, I received the reply, “We were very stupid to do so.” That great opportunity was squandered. Does my hon. Friend agree that that was surprising?
Yes, indeed, that was an opportunity. I think, with the benefit of hindsight, how different things might have been.
Instead of participating in face-to-face talks, the Palestinian Authority have chosen to pursue unilateral measures in the international arena, but unilateralism is the rejection of the peace process, not a means to revive it. Worse yet, the Palestinians remain divided, with fierce internal rivalry between Hamas and Fatah. Following the recent cancellation of the long overdue local elections, it does not seem that the two camps will come together anytime soon.
My hon. Friend highlights two essential, beautifully simple truths: there must be mutual recognition and there must be direct talks. Without those, the process cannot move forward. I hope that in this landmark time, the call from us all, with one voice, is to urge both sides to come together again to take up talks.
As the engineers of the Balfour declaration, it is even more important for our country to work with both parties to return to the peace talks. Therefore, I ask the Minister what recent discussions he has had with his Israeli and Palestinian counterparts on the return to direct negotiations, and what the prospects are for the resumption of peace talks without preconditions.
The Palestinian people deserve to live their lives in peace and prosperity. As I said during my time in the west bank, I visited the remarkable new city of Rawabi, which offers up such hope for a better future. Very recently—during the summer in fact—new partnerships have been coming forward. At the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, two new programmes are bringing Israelis and Palestinians together. The lead professor said:
“As a leading academic and research institution, we are committed to advancing science for the benefit of all people. Through this new partnership with the British government, Palestinian graduate students are already contributing to world-leading research at the Hebrew University, and we are delighted to have them with us. This program not only advances science, but through it sends a message of hope and friendship, and of the importance of working together to find solutions that improve the health of our communities.”
Such projects bring hope and show what can be achieved.
Does my hon. Friend accept that the Palestinian people have been badly let down by their leadership? When I spoke to the Palestine Liberation Organisation about duplicating Rawabi, it told me that it did not want anything to do with the project because it involved the private sector. That is a disgraceful approach to a very significant project in the region.
Yes, indeed. I understand that much negotiation was done to bring the project to light without the blessing of the leadership, which perhaps pulls back from wanting the world to see a more prosperous Palestine.
Although leaders need to step up, it is through relationships between everyday people from both communities that a real and lasting peace will ultimately be established. There have been no direct peace talks for several years now, but there have been some recent signs of progress on both sides. We should welcome the fact that Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has underlined his commitment to restarting peace negotiations without preconditions, and that PA President Mahmoud Abbas attended the funeral of former Israeli President Shimon Peres in September. Recent polling has shown that there is still an appetite for a two-state solution among Palestinians and Israelis; the people.
We have found in Northern Ireland and other locations across the globe that, until we get to the point at which those who advocate violence or give it quiet endorsement accept that there is no point and that violence is totally counter-productive in reaching a successful conclusion, it is exceptionally difficult to arrive at, in this instance, a two-state solution. Does the hon. Lady agree that that is the case?
The hon. Gentleman is right in everything he says, but peace is possible and there is a precedent for peace in the lasting peace deals with Egypt in 1979 and with Jordan in 1994.
In conclusion, there is much in the past century to value, recognise and celebrate, and there is much more to which we need to aspire to ensure that the peoples of both communities can continue to live and prosper.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Caroline Ansell) on securing the debate and on a good set of opening remarks.
This debate gives us the opportunity to reflect on the unique contribution of this country to the creation of the modern state of Israel. There is much to be said about the historical significance of the Balfour declaration, but I will focus my remarks on its significance in the context of today’s stark realities. We are seeing a serious and concerning resurgence of anti-Semitism globally, which more often than not is inextricably linked to a hostility towards the state of Israel. In many quarters, Zionism has become a toxic word that is equated, by some, with the oppression of the Palestinian people. In the recent past, there was a global campaign by Israel’s strongest critics to falsely equate Zionism with racism.
Although it is true—and we should make this point—that some people inappropriately label any criticism of the Israeli state as anti-Semitism, it is also true that hostility towards Israel and Zionism too often consists of language and imagery that crosses a line and becomes anti-Semitism—or, to give it its true name, Jew hatred. This is the case among some on the left in this country including, sadly, a small minority in my party. Such hostility has led to a significant flight of Jews from France, and is a growing problem in many European countries. Too often, anti-Semitism is viewed as a second- class form of racism, and justified or legitimised by many who claim to be staunch anti-racism campaigners, but who abhor Israel and attack Zionism.
It is chilling that, 100 years on from the Balfour declaration, Marine Le Pen has a serious prospect of power in France, and the President-elect of the United States has appointed someone with well-documented anti-Semitic views to a senior position in his forthcoming Administration. Incidentally—it is important to put this on the record—it is equally chilling that misogyny, homophobia and Islamophobia are trivialised as just part of the rough and tumble of an election campaign, as though women, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, Muslims, Mexicans and other minority communities can simply move on, the morning after an election, and that the anger, fear and insecurity for many citizens in a country that prides itself on being the world’s leading liberal democracy should be relegated to a mere footnote in history. That would be the worst kind of double standard.
No serious attempt to tackle contemporary anti-Semitism can duck the Zionism question. All too often, those who talk about tackling anti-Semitism do not want to recognise that fact. I raised that point forcefully in my direct representations to the leader of my party and Shami Chakrabarti as part of their recent inquiry. Zionism is the right of the Jewish people to self-determination in their own state—a right to self-determination that many of Israel’s fiercest critics demonstrate for on behalf of many other minority communities now around the world.
It is true that a small minority demand, in the name of Zionism, a greater Israel, which means the expansion of her current borders, but that is not the Zionism of the overwhelming majority. I passionately support a two-state solution, which means a viable Palestinian state and opposition to settlement expansion by Israel. I have profound differences with aspects of the current Israeli Government’s policies, but I am proud to be a staunch supporter of the right of the Jewish people to self-determination in the state of Israel—a right supported by the United Nations in 1947 and enshrined by full recognition in 1949.
That right is in the finest traditions of the Labour party and many socialists who were the pioneers of the modern state of Israel. It was the British Labour party that led the way in supporting the right of Jews to have a homeland in Palestine. Three months prior to the adoption of the Balfour declaration, Labour’s stated policy was:
“Palestine should be set free from the harsh and oppressive government of the Turk, in order that this country may form a free State under international guarantee, to which such of the Jewish people as desire to do so may return and may work out their salvation free from interference by those of alien race or religion.”
The party’s then leader, Arthur Henderson, said:
“The British Labour Party believes that the responsibility of the British people in Palestine should be fulfilled to the utmost of their power. It believes that these responsibilities may be fulfilled so as to ensure the economic prosperity, political autonomy and spiritual freedom of both the Jews and Arabs in Palestine.”
This debate is a welcome opportunity to challenge both the rewriting of history and the ignorance of history, a toxic combination that is fuelling so much of today’s anti-Semitism.
Does my hon. Friend, like me, recognise and acknowledge that it was the Labour party that first expressed such support for the creation of the state of Israel and advanced the Balfour declaration? The Labour party went on to re-establish and recommit its support 11 times in the months and years that followed.
My hon. Friend is right. That is a historical fact. The reason for repeating that point is that there are some who talk about a two-state solution, which she and I support, but whose rhetoric and language often appear to be about a one-state solution—and that state is not the state of Israel. Her intervention is an accurate reflection of history, and it is important to make that point in the debate that often rages in our party. It is important to clarify the difference between the two, because people are saying that they want two states when they really want one state. That too often appears to be the language and rhetoric.
This timely debate has given us an opportunity to debate something that is incredibly important, particularly because of the impact in contemporary Britain, in Europe and across the world. To be clear, Zionists have no right to seek exemption for Israel from legitimate criticism of the actions of her Government or to brand those who engage in such criticism as anti-Semitic. Equally, some of Israel’s fiercest critics must not be allowed to get away with the delegitimisation of Israel through the rewriting of history, which seeks to deny the legal and moral basis of the Jewish people’s right to self-determination in their own state. It is entirely consistent and morally right both to support and celebrate the Balfour declaration and to strongly and passionately support a two-state solution that includes a viable state for the Palestinians.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Chope. I welcome the opportunity to take part in this important debate, and I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Caroline Ansell) for securing it. I am a long-time friend of the state of Israel and am proud to be so. I am pleased to say that a significant number of my constituents have been in contact with me about taking part in this debate, and I welcome their input.
As my constituents point out in their emails to me, the Balfour declaration was the first official statement of recognition by a major foreign power of the right of the Jewish people to national self-determination, free and safe from persecution. The support that the British gave to the creation of a Jewish democratic state was a key stage in a process that eventually brought relief from two millennia of persecution and exile, as my hon. Friend so eloquently stated.
As we have heard, the Balfour declaration was subsequently ratified by all 51 countries of the League of Nations when the Mandate for Palestine was approved in 1922, recognising the historical connection of the Jewish people to Palestine and the grounds for reconstituting their national home in that country. Over the years, many sought and found refuge after the holocaust and the expulsion of some 800,000 Jewish people from across the middle east and north Africa. Since its rebirth in 1948, Israel has sadly been attacked many times and has repeatedly faced existential threats. Despite those threats, Israel is a liberal, pluralist democracy that is committed to working for a peaceful settlement with all its neighbours.
Yes. The hon. Gentleman makes an entirely valid point. As others have said, I fear that the Palestinians have often been let down by their leadership.
It is also important to recognise that Israel is a multi-ethnic, multi-faith democracy in which Arabs, Druze and other non-Jewish minorities are guaranteed equal rights under the law. It was a point well made by my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne that Christians enjoy full freedom of religion in Israel, unlike in almost any other part of the middle east. Unlike in many countries of the middle east, the rights of women and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people are fully protected in Israel, which is something to celebrate. Of course, there are a famously independent-minded media in Israel and an equally independent judiciary, both of which are always willing to hold the Israeli Government to account.
This debate is an important opportunity to speak out against those organisations that use boycott campaigns to seek to delegitimise the state of Israel. The 12-month run-up to the centenary of this important declaration provides us with an opportunity to celebrate Israel’s contribution to the global community. It is an opportunity to condemn the sorts of anti-Semitism that we have heard about this morning, and it is an opportunity to reflect on how to restart the peace process in the middle east.
Although hon. Members in this room may be divided on many issues, I am sure we can all unite in supporting efforts to deliver a negotiated peace settlement for Israel and the Palestinians. Throughout the build-up to this important centenary next year, I am sure there will be a strong focus on seeking to get those negotiations going once again, with a view to finally securing the two-state solution for which we have already heard such strong support among hon. Members this morning. We could then finally see a safe and secure Israel living beside a viable Palestinian state.
The centenary is also an opportunity to celebrate the bilateral relationship between the UK and Israel. Since its creation, the state of Israel has had an enduring partnership with our country that covers many areas, including trade, technology, science, medicine and academic research. Trade between our two countries is now at record highs. The UK is Israel’s second-largest trading partner, with more than 300 Israeli companies operating in this country. We have already heard about British-Israeli co-operation in technology, which is facilitating significant numbers of business partnerships that support jobs in both countries in areas such as FinTech, cleantech, cyber-security and health. Israel is a world leader in medical research, particularly stem cell research. Research under way in Israel is giving hope to many people with debilitating diseases such as Parkinson’s.
The forthcoming centenary is an opportunity to further strengthen ties between our country and Israel in culture, trade and academic life. Of course, the Brexit decision opens up the opportunity of a trade deal. We should also use the forthcoming centenary to see whether we can make further progress towards a long-term peaceful settlement in the middle east, which continues to be a foreign policy priority for our Government.
I hope the Minister will reassure us on those points. Today’s debate is a reminder of the significant role that the United Kingdom played in the creation of the state of Israel, and with that comes a continuing obligation to do all we can to support efforts to deliver a negotiated settlement so that we can finally see a peaceful outcome and a two-state solution in the middle east.
I welcome this debate. I should perhaps declare that I am a patron of the Balfour Project and explain its purpose:
“The Balfour Project invites the British government and people to mark the centenary of the Balfour Declaration on 2nd November 2017 by…learning what the Balfour Declaration means for both Jews and Arabs…acknowledging that whilst a homeland for the Jewish people has been achieved, the promise to protect the rights of the Palestinian people has not yet been fulfilled…urging the people and elected representatives of the UK to take effective action to promote justice, security and peace for both peoples.”
I am sure Members will have noted that the Balfour Project is inviting the Government and people of Britain to mark the centenary. I understand why the Jewish community will want to celebrate the centenary of the Balfour declaration, which enabled the creation of the state of Israel; as someone who has family in Israel, I celebrate that too. Equally, I understand why the Palestinian people will want to grieve or lament on its centenary the failure of the British Government to protect the rights of the Palestinian people, and I will grieve and lament with the Palestinian people too. That is why the Balfour Project talks about “marking” the centenary.
The Balfour Project takes its educational role seriously. To help to inform British citizens of our historical role in that region, it has produced a film about the Balfour declaration, which was shown at an event I hosted in Westminster in May, and a booklet that supports the initiative.
I was not present at the meeting either, but as I understand it the comment was made not by Baroness Tonge but by a person in the audience, and Baroness Tonge did not make a blunt statement to rebut it. However, the fact is that she is no longer a member of the Liberal Democrats.
It is our historical role in the region that led me to get involved in the Balfour Project. I had not forgotten the bitterness and anger felt towards the British by the young Palestinians I met some 10 years ago as part of an initiative from the organisation Initiatives of Change. They felt that we had a central role, both in the failure to deliver for the Palestinian people and in trying to ensure that that was now delivered.
How should the UK Government be celebrating, commemorating or marking the centenary? That is obvious. They should fully support any peace initiatives that seek to implement the two-state solution before time runs out. I hope Members will agree that there is a real risk that time will indeed run out. We know that the election of President Trump is unlikely to help with implementing a two-state solution. As far as I am aware, the only game in town, in terms of peace initiatives, is the one that the French are currently running. The Israeli Government have said that they believe the French plan
“greatly harms the possibilities for advancing the peace process.”
I wonder whether the Minister agrees with the Israeli Government on that score.
Will the Minister take this opportunity to express a difference of opinion with the Israeli Education Minister, who says that there is no two-state solution? As far as I am aware, the UK’s position is that that is what our Government are seeking to implement, so I hope the Minister will challenge that statement from a senior Israeli Minister. Is the Government’s position that they want to encourage the Israelis to engage with that initiative in the way that Abbas has? Will the Minister support proposals from that initiative that would lead to greater economic co-operation—that is an area in which Israelis and Palestinians can mutually benefit—or proposals to strengthen ties between Palestinian and Israeli civil society organisations, perhaps as a first step towards a more meaningful peace process?
The UK has a particular historical responsibility towards the Palestinian people. We failed to honour our promises nearly 100 years ago. We have a duty now to actively support the peace process and to secure a viable Palestinian state. That is what our Government must do—indeed, a number of Members have said today that they want the Government to do it. It will be the most effective and meaningful way of marking the Balfour declaration and would mean that in future years its anniversary could be celebrated by both the Jewish people and the Palestinian people.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Chope—I believe I will have that pleasure again in several weeks. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Caroline Ansell) on introducing the debate in such a balanced way.
We should clearly be talking about the celebration of the centenary of the Balfour declaration. I take the point that the right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) made, but the meeting that was held in the House of Lords under the auspices of the Palestinian Return Centre was a Balfour apology campaign. The President of the Palestinian state has sought to get Britain to apologise for the Balfour declaration and potentially to sue the British Government for it. That is the context in which we must put the debate.
I have had the opportunity to visit Israel, both as a tourist and with Conservative Friends of Israel. I have also visited Jordan and the west bank with the Palestinian Return Centre, to see both sides of the argument. The reality of life in Israel or the west bank is such that no one should really speak about that part of the world unless they have been there. Israel is the only country in the world in which someone can go to one side of it, see the other and know that they are surrounded by neighbours that want to destroy the state in its entirety. That, of course, leads to the reasons why Israel acts as it does.
We should celebrate the Balfour declaration, but the one element that was not put in it was the borders of the state of Israel. Had those borders been determined at the time, when Britain was drawing lines on maps in many other parts of the world, possibly we would not still be trying to reach the two-state solution that we talk about today. It took three years for the Balfour declaration to be accepted worldwide, but accepted it was. Israel has since had to endure the second world war; the Holocaust; the 1948 war of independence, when it was attacked by Arab states that sought to wipe Israel off the face of the planet on its inception; a war in ’67, when it was invaded again; and a war in ’71, when it was invaded. Yet Israel continues to exist.
During various discussions, we have heard about the Israeli Government’s supposed intransigence. However, Israel has demonstrated that it will give land for peace. The unilateral withdrawal from Gaza left behind buildings and agricultural opportunities that could have been used by the Palestinian people but were just demolished or ignored. The result of the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza has been more than 11,000 rockets descending from Gaza on to the state of Israel. If you were in that position, Mr Chope, you would react, and the Israeli Government have reacted.
We have also heard the reality of the situation in this country. Anti-Semitism is on the rise; it is often conflated with a belief that the state of Israel should not exist at all or with attacks on the Government of the state of Israel. We have to confront anti-Semitism wherever it rears its ugly head. We must ensure it is understood that it is unacceptable to express such views and that it is unacceptable that anyone in this country should have to suffer anti-Semitism.
We have already heard from several Members, particularly my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs Villiers), about Israel’s contributions to the world through trade, security, medicine, technology and science. We should remember that Israel is the world’s 10th biggest economy: it is a key trading partner of the UK’s, and beyond. Once we leave the European Union, we will have great opportunities for continuing our trade under a new international trade agreement, and we have the chance to set that out clearly over the next two years.
One issue that has not been mentioned, but should be, is the plight of the Jewish people throughout the middle east. Back in the 1950s, when Israel was in its infancy, there were 2.3 million Jewish people living in Arab states; today, there are fewer than 100,000. They all had to flee Arab states in fear of their lives. We should remember that we are getting greater polarisation of the peoples of the middle east, which is of particular concern.
Does my hon. Friend agree that there are countries in the Muslim world that have been very positive about Jews? I am thinking particularly of relatively enlightened countries such as the Kingdom of Morocco, which has always welcomed Jews and treated them extremely well.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. There are clearly exceptions to the rule, but the unfortunate generality is that the Jews have had to flee.
We look forward to a two-state solution, but we should remember that the Palestinian state has never existed as an independent state; it has always been occupied, either by Jordan, the Ottoman empire or someone else. We are therefore creating a state, and when we do so, we must ensure that there is peace, security on all sides, and an opportunity for everyone to live in peace.
We are running out of time with the Obama Administration, from which I suspect we will not see any movement between now and January, when we will have a new President of the United States. Will the Minister ensure that the Government and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office are negotiating with the incoming regime in the States on initiating urgent talks between Israel and the Palestinians that can lead to that two-state solution? That would give us the opportunity, during the anniversary of the Balfour declaration, to have real, meaningful talks, without preconditions, with the Israeli Government and the Palestinians sitting down side by side so that everyone can benefit.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate. I thank the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Caroline Ansell) for presenting the case so well. I am conscious of the time and know that other Members wish to speak, so I shall try to be brief.
I am well known as a friend of Israel; indeed, in my former role as a Member of the Legislative Assembly, I sponsored the Stormont Christian Initiative, which had a strong focus on Israel. The historic ties that began with the Balfour declaration still bring dividends some 99 years later. Other Members have outlined our close economic ties with Israel—our bilateral trade is worth £5 billion and has doubled over the past 10 years—but I want to celebrate our country’s historical contribution to the modern state of Israel. I also want to celebrate the contribution that this tiny country on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean sea has made to the world.
The formal recognition of the right to an internationally established homeland for the Jews was one of the more interesting developments to arise at the end of the first world war. The Balfour declaration was clear: it was the first statement of recognition by a major foreign power of the right of the Jewish people to national self-determination in their homeland, free and safe from persecution. It is good news that Christians can worship freely and without fear of persecution in Israel.
Since its rebirth in 1948, Israel has been attacked many times, and faces many threats daily.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right.
I can well remember the six-day war from when I was a boy. It will always stick in my mind as the underdog holding fast and winning the battle. I remember listening to the radio and my parents discussing what was happening. It was one of those things: from a very early age, I could understand that this fight would seem always to exist.
A debate such as this could easily degenerate and make the motion appear anti-Palestinian, but that is not what it is about. We are celebrating the declaration that was instrumental in the Jews being allowed to establish an internationally recognised homeland. The debate is about recognising the formalisation of the right for that area of the middle east to be asserted as their homeland—as the Israel we all know from biblical times.
The policy expressed in the declaration—the establishment of a Jewish national home in Palestine—became binding in international law following the 1920 San Remo conference and the 1922 British mandate from the League of Nations, which was referred to earlier. UN resolution 181 reinforced the state of Israel’s acceptance into the family of nations following the 1948 war of independence.
The hon. Gentleman is right to say that the motion is not anti-Palestinian; it is quite the opposite. Does he agree that the centenary is an opportunity to encourage both sides to get together and look towards a formal peace process?
That is absolutely what it is about. We are positive about this debate, and that is what we are trying to achieve.
I have spoken many times in the House about the benefits of our being allies with Israel, along with the trade that other Members have referred to. Think of the pharmaceuticals, technology, cyber-security and research. Israel has made new drugs for Parkinson’s sufferers; an implantable bio-retina that stimulates neurons to send messages to the brain; and a new plasma that amazingly eradicates the need for stitches, staples or glue. Those are some of the things that Israel does, and does well.
Israel is a nation that can do so much for the rest of the world. It should be allowed to carry out that work free from the prejudice and the cloud of distrust that so often surrounds it. I spoke on anti-Semitism in the House two years ago; it is unfortunate that it is still to be found, including in the so-called boycott of Israeli products. If people only knew what they would be doing without, they would think seriously about that.
Along with so many colleagues, I am anticipating the plans that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office will bring forward for the commemoration of this historic event. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response.
Before my hon. Friend concludes, does he agree that one thing we found in the Northern Ireland peace process, from which many lessons have been drawn, was that growing economic prosperity for everyone makes a major difference? Boycotts and economic sanctions, and all that kind of talk, damage the prospects for peace.
My right hon. Friend and colleague has very wise words, and they are important to listen to.
I stand today in celebration of the Balfour declaration and its historic impact. Furthermore, I stand today in celebration of Israel, and in continuing solidarity with her in her struggle to be allowed to exist and to provide safety and security to Jews and non-Jews alike.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Caroline Ansell) on securing this tremendous debate.
In the few minutes I have, I shall explain a little of the reasoning behind the Balfour declaration. It is unusual because it was not a settlement or reaction to any kind of nationalist war or terrorist activity, in the way we are now used to; rather, it had its roots in lobbying carried out in the Parliaments of Europe, mainly by the bourgeoisie and aristocrats. Herzl and Lord Rothschild would have been seen as pretty distant characters to, say, their Polish ghetto co-religionists, who were much more likely to follow the socialist kibbutz-type Zionism that eventually had an important role in the practical settlement of the new state.
What actually happened? What did Herzl do that made such different Jewish characters and political creeds all move generally in the same nationalist direction? Herzl was the first person to explain how Europe’s Jews were not only individually or nationally in peril, but internationally at risk. In less than a decade he persuaded most Jews of most classes and political views that, whether or not they as individual Jews wished to live in Europe, the Jews’ collective future depended on their once again having their own independent nation on their own soil. He suggested that the concept of Jews as a wandering diaspora should be replaced with Jews being allowed to lead the life of normal people, with all the rights, benefits and, indeed, challenges that go with that.
Herzl died in 1904, some 13 years before the declaration, but the dream he created was that of a functioning Jewish homeland, and it was that dream that brought the Jews out of the ghetto culture and mentality and out of the ghetto language of Yiddish, and that brought many of them physically out of the ghettos and into Israel. The dream empowered Jews as human beings; it permitted them to be proud to stand up for their rights with a united destiny, based on shared religious and cultural values, not least the rebirth of the spoken Hebrew language.
It was that Zionist movement that increasingly persuaded world leaders to understand that Jewish homelessness must come to an end and that the solution was down to the international community and world leaders, working together with the Jewish people.
That was the spirit of recognition encapsulated in the Balfour declaration, which, as my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne explained so well, was then incorporated into the Sèvres peace treaty with the Ottoman empire and finally the UN resolution that established the state of Israel. It is for this reason that Jews around the world highly valued the Balfour declaration then and it is why I believe it should still be celebrated now by those who understand or accept the then Zionist dream, now reality of a Jewish homeland in Israel.
I commend the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Caroline Ansell) for initiating what I am sure will be a year of these discussions.
I have the honour to represent East Lothian, which, of course, was the seat that Arthur Balfour represented in this House. His name is still very much alive in East Lothian. I visited Whittingehame, where he lived and where—I think—there were Cabinet meetings occasionally in the long recess. Whittingehame also became the home to around half of the Kindertransport children who came to the UK in 1939. They were sent to Whittingehame because the Balfour family had turned it into a farming school and during world war two the children there learned farming skills. Many of them then went to Palestine in the late 1940s and were involved in the kibbutz movement. I therefore have an affinity with this subject.
It is right that we should mark the 100th anniversary of the Balfour declaration, but I use the word “mark” very carefully, rather than “celebrate”. It is an important historical moment in time but it is—and this is my basic point—unfinished business. The declaration foresaw not only one homeland for the Jewish people but that the rights of other people and other growing nationalities in the region would be protected. Clearly, that has not happened. So the underlying message, and the thing that we can give to history and the peoples of the middle east in the next 12 months, is to reanimate the peace process, so that we end up with two states.
I am just back from a week in the middle east as part of the first Scottish National party delegation to Israel and Palestine, and I have returned with a number of thoughts. Above all else, as my hon. Friend said, it is absolutely vital that we do everything we can to support progress towards a sustainable two-state solution for these two peoples. Does he agree?
I do indeed. Given the time, however, I will not take further interventions. Please do not think that I am being disrespectful to other Members.
I will comment very briefly on the two-state solution. The hon. Member for Bury South (Mr Lewis) made the point in his speech that sometimes the two-state rhetoric hides other agendas. On behalf of the SNP, I will be very plain: we are genuinely supportive of a two-state solution. In fact, finding that solution is the key to Israel’s security.
For good or ill, Israel has decided in recent decades that its security is basically based on force of arms. As the right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake), said, time is running out for that approach. I had the great opportunity to have conversations with Ariel Sharon while he was still Prime Minister about the whole issue of Israel’s security. As an old general, he tended to look at things in military terms and his explanation to me was that the extension of the west bank settlements and the maintenance of an Israeli security zone within the west bank was necessary, as he put it, to protect the tank avenues through which tank thrusts from Syria or Iraq would come into Israel and cut it off very quickly. That is because, as we know, the narrow waist of Israel is tiny and it is possible to get a tank thrust through there very quickly.
Does anyone in this Chamber really think that Syria or Iraq, or any of the other major states in the middle east, are in any sense capable, as we speak, of taking on Israel militarily, or even politically? Of course they are not. Therefore, Israel has a security window where it can produce a two-state solution. That is where we have to go. My question to the Minister is this: how will the British Government use this 12 months to ensure that that happens, because Britain has a responsibility?
The Balfour declaration is not quite as it has been presented today. It is a studiously ambivalent document and quite deliberately so, because Britain and France had decided to exclude the Ottoman empire from the Wilson principles, expressed at Versailles, of self-determination. The middle east was not given self-determination; it was carved up by the British and French for their own political and economic ends.
That remained the case all through the time of the British mandate. It is very strange—I say this because I want to try to find as much common ground here as possible—that in all the speeches we have had this morning, nobody has strayed into the territory of what happened during the time of the British mandate, when both the Jewish people and the Arab people rose in revolt against the way that Britain had handled its mandate. In fact, in 1948—sadly, in my view—Britain walked away from the mandate, leaving a mess. That was because the British mandate was not seen as a way of bringing two peoples to self-determination; it was a way of securing Britain’s military presence in the canal zone and in the middle east as oil production developed.
The Balfour declaration is nowhere near as selfless as it has been presented here today. It was part of a chain of diplomatic initiatives that Britain had, which broke up the old Ottoman empire. Anybody who sensibly looks at the state of the middle east now would say that those interventions made things worse rather than better. If we recognise that, we will be in a position morally—I say this to the Minister—to begin to come back and to say how we can provide some redress for the political and economic disaster that we caused in the middle east. We have a debt of honour, because of the Balfour declaration. If the declaration means anything to anybody, it means unfinished business.
That is as far as I think we should go in history. If we start picking over every single piece of “who did what?” over the last hundred years, we will not get anywhere; I say that humbly to Government Members. A lot has been made in a number of speeches about 1948, when it is absolutely clear that the UN declared a mandate for two nations within a particular map. That project foundered in the first Arab-Israeli war. However, if we mention that war and if we say that the Arab states were wrong to intervene in 1948 and should have respected the UN mandate, we are duty-bound—I put this to the hon. Member for Eastbourne—to accept all the other UN mandates and security resolutions. Those are the 12 UN Security Council resolutions that condemned the illegal settlements on the west bank.
I have also met the current Prime Minister of Israel; I talked to him and I understand his position of wanting talks without preconditions, which is a fair point to make. However, if Israel, while it is waiting for negotiations without preconditions with the Palestinians to begin, is expanding the illegal settlements—I use the word “illegal” because they have been condemned as illegal by the British Government and the UN Security Council—its good faith is called into question, and we need good faith somewhere in this debate.
I will finish by saying, “Let’s mark the Balfour declaration”, but the only way of marking it is to finish the process that it started, which will end in two states and the recognition of a Palestinian state.
It is a pleasure to contribute to the debate under your chairmanship, Mr Chope.
I begin by congratulating the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Caroline Ansell) on securing the debate as part of the commemorations marking the centenary of the Balfour declaration. As we have heard, the 1917 declaration signalled the beginning of Britain’s official support for the establishment of a national home for the Jewish people.
Even before the famous letter from Lord Balfour to Walter Rothschild, the Labour party supported that commitment. The war aims memorandum, which was adopted by the inter-allied Labour and socialist conference in 1918 and quoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Bury South (Mr Lewis) today, stated:
“Palestine should be set free...in order that this country may form a free State, under international guarantee, to which such of the Jewish people as desire to do so may return”.
Labour’s first Cabinet Minister, Arthur Henderson, outlined his support at the time of the war aims memorandum, stating:
“The British Labour Party believes that the responsibility of the British people in Palestine should be fulfilled to the utmost of their power. It believes that these responsibilities may be fulfilled so as to ensure the economic prosperity”—
that picks up some of the points made earlier—
“and spiritual freedom of both the Jews and Arabs in Palestine.”
That support for the state of Israel has been at the core of the Labour party’s foreign policy since those early days. As my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Luciana Berger) alluded to, between 1917 and 1945 support for Zionism was expressed at Labour party conferences on no fewer than 11 occasions. We stand in solidarity as we mark the 100 years, and we stand firmly against anyone who questions Israel’s right to exist.
Both Israel and Palestine have a right to exist. Does the Minister agree that the UK Government should now join the 70% of the other member states and recognise a Palestine state?
I believe that the Minister will answer that point shortly. The Labour party supports a comprehensive peace in the middle east: a permanent and long-term peace based on a two-state solution. That is a secure Israel alongside a secure and viable state of Palestine, respecting the boundaries as outlined in UN resolution 242 from 1967. Violence against Israel in any form is unacceptable and can never be justified. It represents a mortal threat to any peaceful, long-term solution. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bury South said, any hatred of Jewish people is anathema, wherever it is found.
At a time when peace is also under threat from the retroactive legalisation of settler outposts in the west bank and the prospect of new settlements in the west bank, we must continue to reiterate the importance of the Israeli Government remaining committed to the two-state solution.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his contribution, but I beg to differ: these are not platitudes; I am stating a position. Anyone who has visited the area knows this is a very sensitive topic that needs to be dealt with carefully without inflammatory language.
Is it not important to offer practical support to projects for peaceful coexistence, such as Save a Child’s Heart, the Peres Centre for Peace and Middle East Entrepreneurs of Tomorrow? Those organisations are showing the lead in terms of the spirit of Balfour and the peaceful coexistence we all want between Palestinians and Israelis.
The hon. Gentleman is right to mention the economic element. If we could somehow provide better livelihoods for people across the area, we would make some gains, but there are real barriers to proper economic development within various communities in the area. Any charitable work that is done to promote that development should be welcomed.
Israeli settlements in the occupied territories are unlawful under international law. The continued demolition of Palestinian structures undermines the Palestinian communities’ ability to develop socially and economically. That in turn undermines the viability of a future Palestinian state. As my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter)—he is no longer in his place—pointed out, the Balfour declaration also made the commitment that
“nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine”.
We have heard about the Christian community today. We have supported and honoured Lord Balfour’s commitment to create a national home for the Jewish people. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Warley (Mr Spellar) said, it is now incumbent on us all to honour the second part of the declaration. My right hon. Friend is no longer in his place, but he said we need international guarantees. I look forward to hearing how the Minister interprets the concept of the international guarantees. We need to ensure the rights of the non-Jewish communities in Palestine.
As we approach the centenary of the Balfour declaration, the Labour party is glad to commemorate that historic anniversary. We express our continued support for the state of Israel. We remain committed to seeing the achievement of lasting security, stability and peace in the region. However, we find ourselves in something of a deadlock with the peace process. The Scottish National party spokesman, the hon. Member for East Lothian (George Kerevan), referred to that earlier. Will the Minister enlighten Members as to what the Government are doing to rejuvenate the moribund approach to peace in this critical area of the middle east?
There are enough progressive forces on all sides of the Israel-Palestine conflict to shift the debate away from extreme and entrenched positions and towards that lasting peace. As we always have done, we will continue to do our part to support that process, to help ensure that the two-state solution becomes a genuine reality and to deliver the full intent of the Balfour declaration.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Chope. I begin, as others have, by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Caroline Ansell) on securing this important debate. It is an honour to be able to respond to a debate on the centenary of the Balfour declaration, which is the letter written on 2 November 1917 by the then Foreign Secretary, Arthur James Balfour, to Lord Rothschild, the leader of the British Jewish community.
If I may, I will place in context today’s instability and conflict, which goes back beyond 100 years. Arguably it goes back thousands of years, because this complex part of the world—it is often referred to as the cradle of civilisation—forms the crossroads of three continents. Along the riverbanks, oases and coastlines, we saw the start of humanity, where we harnessed the skills of farming, writing and trading and built the first cities. This complicated real estate gave the world the three great monotheistic religions whose values underpin much of the morality of the world today.
Successive civilisations—the superpowers of their day, whether the Egyptians, the Assyrians, the Romans, the Byzantines or the Ottomans—sought ownership of these tribal areas, the rich trade routes and the holy sites. With the collapse of the Ottoman empire at the end of the great war, it was Britain’s turn as the occupying power to manage this complex, multilingual, multi-faith tribal land. Britain was motivated by a range of ambitions at the time—some altruistic and some self-interested. The decisions and influences made then continue to provoke intense discussion today, whether that is the Sykes-Picot agreement, the Balfour declaration, the McMahon-Hussein correspondence, or Britain’s general role in shaping the middle east.
The Balfour declaration is part of our history that some celebrate and some condemn. It did not create the state of Israel, but it was a stepping stone along the way. When Theodor Herzl was writing his vision of Zionism in the late 19th century, the preference was for a Jewish homeland in the biblical land of Israel, and that movement grew. That land, which included Jerusalem and the meeting point of the three Abrahamic religions, became a destination for Jewish migration, first under the Ottoman empire, then under the British mandate, and finally after the establishment of the Israeli state.
The Balfour declaration played a part in that story, but like so much foreign policy, it was a product of its age. It was written in a world of competing imperial powers, in the midst of the first world war and in the twilight of the Ottoman empire. Many people believe that establishing a homeland for the Jewish people in the land to which they had such strong historical and religious ties was the right and moral thing to do. It is for historians to assess the declaration in that context, and it is for Ministers to deal with today. Balfour’s 67 words are dissected and analysed, and that has happened today, but it was a statement of intent, rather than a detailed plan. The details came later, in the San Remo agreement of 1920 and in the League of Nations mandate for Palestine in 1922. The Israeli state was established after the end of Britain’s mandate.
The Balfour declaration had its flaws. It called for the protection of the
“civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine”.
It should have protected their political rights, too, most especially their right to self-determination: a right that underpins the British commitment to a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We will mark the centenary of the Balfour declaration next year. Planning is still at an early stage, but I want to make it clear that we will neither celebrate nor apologise.
We will not apologise, for the UK is a diverse country in which the historical show of support for the world’s Jewish community means a great deal to many people. We continue to support the principle of a Jewish homeland and the modern state of Israel, just as we support the critical objective of a Palestinian homeland. Nor will we celebrate the centenary as others have called on the British Government to do. The seriousness of the situation faced by millions still affected by the conflict is testament to the fact that the achievement of Jewish and Palestinian self-determination in the former British mandate of Palestine is a task as yet unfulfilled. I remain conscious of the sensitivities surrounding the declaration and the events that have taken place in the region since 1917.
We cannot change the past, but we can strive to influence the future. It is approaching 100 years since the Balfour declaration, and, as has been mentioned by hon. Members, it is 50 years since the occupation began. It is 70 years since UN resolution 181 in 1947 first proposed partition and the end of the British mandate. It is 23 years since the Oslo accords and 16 years since the Camp David discussions. It is 25 years since the Madrid talks and 18 years since the Wye River discussions. All those were opportunities when stakeholders were brought round the table to seek a long-term solution, and still that eludes us.
I will come to that shortly.
Agreements and gatherings have come and gone and we have not been able to make progress, but let us turn to the south and see the deal that took place 36 years ago between Israel and Egypt and, further to the west, with Jordan in 1994, 22 years ago. That proves what can happen when sides come together, conflict stops, war is put aside and strong leadership comes together. The relationship between Israel, Egypt and Jordan is to be commended. It shows that deals can be struck regardless of what has happened in the past.
Does the Minister agree that leadership from Britain must include British values? There are more than 3,000 British graves in Gaza’s cemeteries. Does he agree that British values include protecting refugees and children, hence the right to return for refugees and protection of children in courts?
I do. I will come on to what Britain is doing in the occupied territories in the west bank and Gaza as well as in Israel if time permits.
The ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a highly emotive issue, as has been expressed today. Israel has achieved statehood while the Palestinians have not. The UK Government are very clear that the occupation of the Palestinian territories is unacceptable and unsustainable. In the long term, it is not in Israel’s best interest for the status quo to continue. If this is to be a homeland for the Jewish people, the demographics show that there will be an imbalance in the next few years. More than 40,000 Palestinians are helping to provide security in Areas A and B. Were that to be removed—were the Palestinians to give up—it would be up to the Israelis to provide that security. Is that a direction we would want to go in? Is that the path that we would want to go down or even test? It is in everybody’s interests not to believe in the status quo but to work towards a two-state solution.
Not everyone will be happy with the Government’s position on the anniversary of the Balfour declaration. I fully accept that. Some will want to celebrate the anniversary unreservedly and will see our position as insufficient. Some will condemn it. They will want us to make the apology and will consider marking the anniversary improper. There is no denying the document’s significance. I hope that it will not be used as a vehicle to incite violence or distract us from taking the steps we need to take to secure the two-state solution.
I will lead up to that towards the end. I intend to make such points.
An awful lot of effort, noise and concern have been expressed about the Balfour declaration and its 100th anniversary. I would hate it to be seen as an excuse to incite further violence. We need to learn from the past, but work towards the future. A future with prosperity and security is what the Israelis and Palestinians want. On a personal note, it has been three years leading to the right hon. Gentleman’s point and it has been a privilege to be the Minister for the middle east. In those three years, the British Government, the Foreign Secretaries and I have been fully committed to doing what we can in leveraging our support and our influence to bring the parties to the table.
I have sat through a series of meetings in New York at the UN General Assembly and in Paris at the summit that took place there, and I asked who the leaders will be, given that so many years have passed since Oslo, Madrid, Wye River and Camp David. When will we finally find the solution, get an accord in place and recognise the two states? Of all my briefs and challenges, this has been the toughest and most frustrating in not being able to make progress. In answer to the right hon. Gentleman’s question, at the moment we seem further away than ever from bringing the parties together. We are not seeing the leadership on the Palestinian side that would invoke the necessary measures of support to bring people to the table. On the Israeli side, it makes it much tougher to defend our friend and ally when we see the continuing building in the settlements.
I certainly hope that in the absence of moving closer to a solution, there will be a new opportunity with the new Administration in the United States. I ask the new Administration, as they settle in, to consider what needs to be done. Other issues across the world have come and gone. We have had conflict in the Balkans, the Berlin wall has come down, yet we now have new issues coming to the fore: Libya, Iraq, Syria, and Yemen. Other problems can be solved, yet still the middle east peace process eludes us. I ask the United States to work with the international community, along with the Israelis and Palestinians. Let us recognise the 100-year anniversary, but let us mark 2017 not by what has happened in the past and the fact that it has been 100 years, but by what we can achieve for the future.
As I had envisaged, the debate has been lively with passion on all sides. It really struck me when an hon. Member talked about grieving and lamenting. Today we can all grieve and lament the lives that have been lost and the conflict that we have seen, but I hope too that we can all see what has come forward and positively affected the world in the creation of the state of Israel and the justice that has been served there. I hope we can all with one voice urge again the resumption of direct peace talks that stand steadfastly in the interests of the people of Israel and Palestine.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the centenary of the Balfour Declaration.
East Anglian Fishing Fleet
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the future of the East Anglian fishing fleet.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Chope. I am pleased to have secured this debate. With Brexit pending, it provides a well-timed opportunity to highlight the challenges faced by the East Anglian fishing fleet, and the policies that are needed to reinvigorate an industry that has been an integral feature of the East Anglian coast for nearly 1,000 years.
In recent years, the industry has been reduced to a very pale shadow of its former self. Although I am not looking to turn back the clock and wallow in nostalgia, Brexit does provide an opportunity to put in place a new policy framework that can give fishing in East Anglia a fresh lease of life and bring significant benefits to the ports and communities in which the industry is based. It is an opportunity to start with a clean sheet of paper.
Does my hon. Friend agree that this is not just about the East Anglia fishing community? It is also about other fishing communities, such as mine in Plymouth, down in the south-west, where they are very much hoping for better facilities in order to produce better fishing.
I think I would say two things. A lot of what I am going to say about the East Anglian fishing industry does relate to the south-west fishing industry, but I would also make the point that we need localised management going forward to address the specific issues of local fisheries. That was one of the problems with the common fisheries policy. We want to develop our own East Anglian policy. In the same way, my hon. Friend should develop a policy for his industry in the south-west, and likewise in Northern Ireland—[Interruption.] I see that the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) wants to intervene.
The hon. Gentleman is right to refer to local community involvement. We need to have that across all the fishing communities, wherever they may be in the United Kingdom. In my constituency of Strangford, the fishing industry is also very important. The Irish Republic has introduced a six-mile limit, which is totally out of order—
A lot of what I am going to say is important for the whole of the coast of the British Isles. Our withdrawal from the common fisheries policy provides an opportunity to put in place a policy framework in which the East Anglian fleet and all those who work in the industry are given a realistic opportunity of earning a good wage and securing a fair return on the investment in their boats and equipment. That is the very least they deserve in what is the most dangerous trade in Britain.
It is appropriate to quietly reflect on the challenges faced by all those who go to sea, their families and those who support them, including the Fishermen’s Mission, so ably run from Lowestoft along most of the eastern and southern coast by Tim Jenkins, as well as the Royal National Lifeboat Institution crews in Lowestoft, Hunstanton, Wells, Sheringham, Cromer, Happisburgh, Gorleston, Southwold and Aldeburgh. Last month I had the pleasure of meeting Jeff Melton, the skipper of the Serene Dawn from Lowestoft, who lost his leg while at sea. His courage, determination and humour shone through. We owe it to people like him to grasp the opportunity that now presents itself.
The East Anglian coast, along with its ports, harbours and fishing villages, has been shaped by fishing over the last millennium. A significant industry and way of life grew up all along the coast, focused on such places as King’s Lynn, Wells, Sheringham, Cromer, Winterton, Great Yarmouth, Gorleston, Lowestoft, Pakefield, Kessingland, Southwold, Walberswick, Dunwich, Aldeburgh, Orford, Felixstowe and Ipswich. Part of the industry was and still is focused on shellfish such as crabs, shrimps and mussels, while large commercial fleets and allied industries grew up in the larger ports of Lowestoft and Great Yarmouth, where the industry was underpinned by herrings, the silver darlings of the North sea.
My hon. Friend mentioned King’s Lynn, in my constituency. The Wash shellfishery is one of the best and biggest in Europe and the shrimp fishery has had record catches this year, which is very good for exports. Is my hon. Friend aware that the Marine Stewardship Council is now recommending that 14% of the shrimp fishery be closed down, which could have very adverse consequences?
I was not aware of that precise detail. The shrimp industry is an integral part of the industry in East Anglia. We do have to keep in mind the risks as well as the opportunities presented by Brexit.
Seemingly overnight in the last part of the 20th century, those silver darlings—the herrings—disappeared, and an entire industry has been annihilated as a result of overfishing, red tape and poorly thought-through policies coming out of both Whitehall and Brussels, the high cost of fuel and changes in eating habits. With it, the whole edifice has come crumbling down. Ancillary industries such as boatbuilding, repairs and food processing have largely disappeared, although Birds Eye and processors such as Sam Cole remain significant employers in my constituency.
Lowestoft was the fishing capital of the southern North sea. In years gone by, one could cross the water from one side of the Hamilton Dock to the other by walking from boat to boat. Today, the dock is virtually empty of fishing boats. In the past four decades, Lowestoft has been particularly hard hit by wrong decisions by politicians and the vulnerability of the make-up of the industry, whereby large trawlers helped to sustain the smaller boats. The way that the quota has been allocated has been a major factor in Lowestoft’s dramatic decline, as it has taken away the trawlers that were the cornerstone of the industry. The six affiliated vessels in the Lowestoft producers’ organisation have a fixed quota allocation of 80,419 units this year. That is a significant amount of fish, but none of it is landed in Lowestoft—68% goes to the Netherlands and 32% to Scotland. Those boats—the Wilhelmina, the Ansgar, the Margriet, the Hendriks Brands, the Sola Fide and the Sol Deo Gloria—bring very little if any economic and social benefits to Lowestoft.
Today, the Lowestoft fleet and much of the East Anglian fleet is made up of small boats, known as the under-10s, which get a raw deal in terms of quota. Nationally, the under-10s comprise 77% of the UK fleet and employ 65% of the workforce, yet they receive only 4% of the total quota. That is not enough for skippers to sustain a business, let alone earn a sensible living, and that story is not unique to Lowestoft. It is a tale all along the East Anglian coast and beyond. The under-10s face significant challenges, including being forced out by a lack of quota, poor markets and unfair competition in fishing grounds from other sectors.
Brexit provides an opportunity to address those inequities. There is a need to reallocate fishing quota based on performance and impact so as to support small fishing communities such as those along the East Anglian coast. There is the added benefit that, by restoring fishing stocks to healthy levels, it will be possible to create more resilient marine ecosystems and preserve future fishing opportunities.
This may appear to be a statement of the bleeding obvious, but it is important to set the forthcoming negotiations for withdrawal from the common fisheries policy in a political context. Most of the East Anglian coast voted heavily for Brexit. Although I personally did not, believing that the reformed common fisheries policy, which my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon) played such an important role in creating, provided an opportunity to regenerate the industry in East Anglia, I accept the outcome of the referendum. We now need to pull together to put in place a UK fishing policy that enables fishing to flourish along the East Anglian coast and around the whole of the UK. It is vital that we leave no stone unturned in doing that; otherwise, communities will have an even greater sense of alienation, isolation and abandonment.
Post Brexit, it is important to give local inshore fishermen a fair deal and not forget them. Their industry is vital to the future of the coastal communities in which they live and work. Moreover, they have a key role to play in marine stewardship. To enable the East Anglian fleet to realise its full potential, we need to address the unfairness of the current system, in which three companies hold 61% of all quotas and fishing rights in England.
It is important to remember that fishing policy is not just about fishing. It has a key role to play in the regeneration of coastal Britain—parts of the country that have had a raw deal in recent years. If we put in place the right policy framework, fishing can play an important role in revitalising the economy in those areas. That involves breaking out of ministerial silos and working closely with other Departments. Although I am sure my hon. Friend the Minister is already doing so, I urge him to work closely with the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, our hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy), who has responsibility for coastal communities.
Brexit is a unique opportunity to reverse the years of social and economic decline in coastal areas, to rebalance the economy and to close the gaps between marginal and well-off regions and communities. As the New Economics Foundation pointed out in its report, “Blue New Deal: Revitalising the UK Coast”, fishing is one of five sectors that can help to revitalise coastal Britain. The others are aquaculture, tourism, energy and coastal management. Well-managed fisheries that allow fish stocks to grow to their maximum potential can lead to healthier marine ecosystems that produce and sustain more fish, provide more jobs and contribute more to the local economy.
A change in fishing quota allocation that encourages less environmentally damaging practices and acknowledges the contribution of the coastal small-scale fleet to the unique identities of the fishing communities in which they are based is vital to achieving that. Research by the New Economics Foundation shows that restoring UK fish stocks to a healthy level and promoting low-carbon emissions through quota reallocation across the fleet would lead across the country to an extra 457,000 tonnes of fish being landed annually, an additional £268 million pounds of gross value added and a 24% increase in employment, equivalent to 4,922 new jobs. Doing that will strengthen coastal economies and enable fishing to become more financially and environmentally sustainable.
I will quickly comment on the Brexit negotiations, in which I anticipate the Minister will play a pivotal role on fishing. I urge him to ensure that there is a fishing pillar to the Brexit negotiations. The industry must not be a sacrificial lamb, as many feel it has been in the past. He has rightly focused much of his attention to date on reclaiming control of our territorial waters and ensuring that the UK is able to take responsibility for our waters out to 200 miles or the relevant median lines. He has a far better grasp of the relative strength of his negotiating hand than I have, although from my perspective, having briefly studied the provisions of the 1964 London convention, the United Nations convention on the law of the sea and the Fishery Limits Acts 1976, it appears that he should be able to put together a coherent legal argument. I wish him well in what I am sure will be tough bartering that will make the annual December Fisheries Council meeting look like child’s play.
The Minister has highlighted the significant potential fishing opportunities that will arise from Brexit once we have taken control of our territorial waters. More fish will be available for UK fishermen to catch. However, I urge him not to rest on his laurels once he has achieved that; it is not the endgame. To ensure a bright future for the East Anglian fishing fleet, he needs to address other issues in his negotiations. First, he must ensure that the nought-to-12-mile zone is exclusively available to the inshore fleet—the smaller, UK passive-gear vessels that are at present pinned into the six-mile limit, as any pots or nets set outside that area are often towed away by foreign vessels, such as Dutch electro-pulse beam trawlers, which are currently decimating our stocks.
I think that is something we need to look at. I am very much East Anglian-focused today, but I respect the hon. Gentleman’s position.
Creating such a zone for the inshore fleet will have significant benefits for fish stocks and the wider marine environment. Secondly, it is necessary to address the elephant in the room—the flagship issue. Lord Justice Cranston’s 2012 High Court judgment appears to provide the basis for a step-wise repatriation of UK quotas, which should bring significant benefits to Lowestoft, where the Lowestoft Fish Producers Organisation currently lands no fish.
It is important also to bear in mind the fact that the East Anglian fishermen who specialise in shellfish, such as those in the Wash, export to EU countries, and the processing industries do likewise. Their interests need to be safeguarded in the Brexit negotiations. Many small- scale fishing businesses currently rely on shellfish due to a lack of access to finfish quotas. The Government should therefore give them more such opportunities. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs should work closely with the Department for International Trade to open up new global markets for shellfish and the processing businesses, such as in the far east.
I am aware that the negotiations will not be straightforward. There will be a lot of devil in the detail, and a lot of issues will need to be disentangled, as reciprocal fishing rights in many fisheries go back over centuries. That means that it will take some time to complete the exit negotiations, and it will be necessary to put in place transitional arrangements. In his reply, will the Minister confirm that that and the other issues I have mentioned are firmly on his and his colleagues’ radar?
Although there is much to be done in the short term on the Brexit negotiations, I would like to look ahead and think strategically about the shape and future of the new, UK fishing policy and what it needs to incorporate so that the East Anglian fleet can flourish and play an important economic, environmental and social role in the communities and areas in which it is based. I suggest that the new UKFP that replaces the CFP should include the following ingredients. First, it should be set in a wide context and take account of the fact that it is not just about fishing. We need to think holistically. A good, sustainable fishing policy has a positive impact on the whole community and the area in which the industry is based. Fishing is part of a wider, healthier environment. It is about attractive seascapes, good wholesome local food, local tourism, and local heritage, culture and identity.
Secondly, we need to start with a clean sheet of paper. We must not simply transfer the common fisheries policy to UK law through the great repeal Bill and then amend it. As the Institute of Economic Affairs noted, the CFP is not an effective way of managing fishing rights, so we need our own bespoke UK fishing policy, although I would like it to include policies that mirror articles 2 and 17 of the CFP, which promote a sustainable approach to fisheries management.
Thirdly, the new policy should be underpinned by science. That means that the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science, which is based in Lowestoft, should have a pivotal role in monitoring and enforcing management. Fourthly, the management of fisheries needs to be localised. That could mean that there should be an enhanced role for the Eastern Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Authority. Fifthly, as I have said, the quota needs to be reallocated and it should be available only to active fishermen. It should not be held as an investment by large organisations with no involvement in fishing.
Finally, special emphasis and real effort must be focused on building up strong and resilient supply chains all the way from the net to the plate. They should include fishermen, boat builders and repairers, markets, merchants, smokehouses, processors, mongers, fish and chip shops, restaurants and food stores. This is something we need to do better in the UK. There are lessons to be learned from other industries and other countries. We need better supply chain integration and marketing at home and overseas to promote high-quality domestically caught fish and fish products. A new coastal producer organisation, as proposed by Jerry Percy of the New Under Ten Fishermen’s Association, can help to achieve that, building on the good work of Seafish. There may be a role for local enterprise partnerships, such as the New Anglia local enterprise partnership, and it is important that Government make necessary funds available to them and to others to do the work.
I sense that I have spoken for far too long, and we need to hear from the Minister. In conclusion, therefore, as we approach Brexit it is important to have in mind the three R’s: repatriation, reallocation and regeneration.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) on securing the debate. He is a long-standing champion of the fishing industry generally and the under-10 metre sector in Lowestoft in his constituency specifically. Lowestoft is also home to CEFAS, the world’s greatest centre of excellence for fisheries science, and long may it continue to be so.
My hon. Friend described some of the history of the decline of fishing in areas such as Lowestoft and along the east coast. The reasons are varied. He highlighted the decline of the herring industry, for example, and the fact that herring became a less popular fish in this country. Further north, the decline of fishing in places such as Grimsby can be plotted against the cod wars and the UK long-distance fleet being displaced from the waters around Iceland. Now that we are leaving the European Union, however, we have many opportunities to reform and change the way we manage fisheries in our exclusive economic zone.
My hon. Friend made it clear that he had campaigned to remain. I should probably point out that I campaigned to leave, and one of my reasons for doing so was my experience as a Fisheries and an Agriculture Minister over three years, which meant that I saw up close how EU law works in practice, as well as in theory. That made me conclude that we would do better if we took back control and made our own laws—we could get things done and change things when they needed changing.
In the specific context of fisheries, I highlighted two issues in the referendum campaign. First, at the moment we allow the EU to lead for us in important negotiations on pelagic species such as mackerel, and on the North sea with countries such as Norway. Those negotiations would be more effective if we had a seat at the table. Secondly, leaving the EU gives us an opportunity to revisit the allocation of quotas, which in some cases is unfair—parts of the fleet do not get a fair share of the agreed international quota.
Now the referendum is over, however, it is important that we all stop fighting the referendum campaign. For me, the real challenge is to put together a new type of partnership to recognise what the people of this country were telling us: they want us to take back control, although they also want us to put in place a close working partnership with other countries. They want us to be an outward-looking country, which we certainly will be as the UK.
In the referendum campaign, I was also clear that some things would not change. First, we will still fish sustainably and in line with the science. The UK has been the champion of sustainable fisheries. Secondly, we need to have some kind of quota or effort regime to restrict fishing effort, because in a mixed fishery that is the only way to have sustainable fisheries. Thirdly, I was very clear that we must continue to strive to end the shameful practice of discarding perfectly good fish back into the sea. That remains a manifesto commitment and an objective of future policy. Finally, the reality of fisheries is such that there will always need to be a large degree of international negotiation. That will not change.
We are working on new policy, and a huge amount of analysis is going on. My hon. Friend will be reassured to know that many of the issues that he highlighted towards the end of his speech are indeed ones that we are looking at—I will touch on some in more detail. Broadly speaking, however, we have a good starting point in the United Nations convention on the law of the sea, which sets down certain principles on how we should manage fisheries in our exclusive economic zone—inside 200 nautical miles or the median line—and requirements such as the duty to co-operate with other countries, which we of course would do. They, in turn, have a duty to co-operate with us. The convention sets it down that we should have regard for historic access rights, but other countries should have regard for ours. Crucially, however, in our exclusive economic zone we will have the opportunity to change technical measures when they need to be changed, far more quickly.
My hon. Friend raised a number of issues specific to Lowestoft that I will touch on. First, he highlighted the fact that many of the vessels in the Lowestoft Fish Producers Organisation are foreign-owned—many are Dutch—and that a large amount of the catch is landed in the Netherlands and in Scotland. We are looking at that issue. We are about to review what is called the economic link, which is a set of conditions and criteria with which foreign-owned vessels must comply. We are looking at strengthening the link so that more benefits can be returned to local fishing ports such as Lowestoft, for whose vessels the quota was intended. We are planning to consult on the link and we will be looking at it as part of our longer-term review of things such as the concordat with other parts of the UK and as we develop future fisheries policy.
My hon. Friend has raised the issue with me. It is a matter for the IFCA, but I have asked officials to keep me informed.
My hon. Friend the Member for Waveney drew attention to the under-10s. As he knows, we have a manifesto commitment to rebalance quotas towards the under-10 metre fleet, because the historic problem from when the quotas were set is that the under-10s probably did not get a fair enough share of the quota. We are already delivering on that manifesto commitment. Only this year, we made it clear that in the discard uplift of the quota, the first 100 tonnes and then 10% thereafter would go to the under-10s. That means that this year alone they have already had 1,000 extra tonnes of fish, 573 tonnes of which are in the North sea, including more than 200 extra tonnes of haddock, 100 tonnes of saithe and 159 tonnes of plaice. We have already started to deliver on that and, as we roll out the discard ban, there will be further increases for the under-10 fleet—notably, cod is likely to be added for the North sea.
My hon. Friend mentioned access to the six-to-12 nautical miles zone, which dates from the London convention of 1964 and so predates us entering the CFP. We have had strong representations from the industry, however, that it would like to see that reviewed and to have exclusive access for our inshore UK vessels in the nought-to-12 zone. We are looking at that, but we have not yet taken any final decisions.
My hon. Friend mentioned the challenge of pulse trawlers. Indeed, I visited Lowestoft in his constituency back in June and I met local fishermen, who expressed that concern to me. I then asked CEFAS to do some work urgently to review the impact of pulse trawling, because there are potential issues of concern—countries such as Japan have already taken action to curtail or prevent pulse trawling. I therefore assure him that CEFAS is looking at the issue.
My hon. Friend mentioned flagship issues. A lot of that goes back to the important Factortame test case, which was a big tussle between the sovereignty of Parliament and EU law. There is an opportunity to re-examine that as we leave the EU, but again we have made no prior decisions. The area is complex and we should recognise that the licences, vessels and attached quotas were sold by UK fishermen—we have to recognise that—but I also believe that through the changes to the economic link, which we are planning to consult on, we can go some way towards addressing that concern.
I agree with my hon. Friend about the importance of trade. It is important to note that for countries such as Norway, which are in the European economic area, the customs union does not cover fisheries. Norway and Iceland, for example, therefore have separate preferential trade agreements with the EU. We will obviously be seeking to do something similar as we negotiate future trade agreements with our European partners. We are also keen to open new markets in countries such as China, Japan and others in the far east.
I agree with my hon. Friend about the importance of science. We will continue to engage CEFAS closely on that. We are committed to sustainable fisheries. When it comes to adding value to fisheries in the supply chain—something else he mentioned—we have set up a seafood working group led by Seafish, pulling together industry to see how we can improve the structure of the industry and the value it gets for its catch.
Finally, I confirm to my hon. Friend that as we approach Brexit the Department is working closely with every other Department, including the Department for Communities and Local Government, and he is absolutely right that we have a great opportunity as we negotiate future policy to get something that works for our coastal communities.
Question put and agreed to.
Immigration Rules (International Students)
[Mr James Gray in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered immigration rules for international students.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. Tomorrow is International Students’ Day, so I thank hon. Members for turning out to mark the occasion. I also thank the numerous organisations that have got in touch to provide helpful thoughts and briefings—enough to fill the debate, although I promise I will not do that.
The debate offers us the chance to celebrate the contribution of international students to our education sector, our economy and our whole society. But not just that—it is also the perfect time to reflect on where the UK is in the increasing global competition to attract international students, what our ambitions should be and whether the Government are pursuing the right immigration policies to achieve those. I suspect that hon. Members will need little persuading that we should celebrate international students, so I will only briefly put on record the economic, social and cultural benefits that they bring.
In economic terms, international students’ contribution to UK GDP almost certainly exceeds £10 billion per year and supports around 170,000 full-time equivalent jobs. Many international students go on to undertake post-doctoral research in the UK, helping to drive world-leading research. All analysis of the economic effect of taking on international students shows that they have a significant net benefit.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. Leicester has two great universities—Leicester University and De Montfort University—that have a number of international students. Does he agree that not only is it important that we have fair and effective rules so people can answer criticisms that are made of them, but the Government’s rhetoric is extremely important? We should encourage more international students to come and study here in the United Kingdom. If they do not, they will just go elsewhere. There is a big market out there, and unless we have them here, we will lose the revenue and advantages that they bring.
I agree wholeheartedly. Indeed, I will mention later the messages that the Government have been sending out and the negative headlines that they have been attracting in key markets for international students. The Government must seriously rethink those messages.
When considering the economic benefits of international students, we must also think about the personal and professional links that 84% of those students maintain after they leave the United Kingdom. They are a tremendous source of soft power for this country and allow trade links and political alliances to be built. We should also remember that those benefits are triggered not only by our universities; hundreds of thousands of other students are taught English as a second language in the UK each year at around 450 institutions accredited by the British Council.
The benefits of attracting the brightest international students go way beyond the economy. Such students enrich and diversify the research and learning environment by exposing our own students and staff to different approaches, contributing to their international experience and skills, and creating a more culturally diverse environment.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate. Is he aware that Bangor University in my constituency has widespread international links, including a site in China, as well as students from all over the world, all of whom have been made to feel very uncomfortable by the current atmosphere? This is not just a matter of the £400 million that international students contribute to the Welsh economy; it counts at the individual level as well.
Like some of my colleagues, I have two universities in my constituency: the University of Warwick and Coventry University. Students from abroad certainly make a major contribution—about £9 billion per year—to the British economy. That is a hefty sum. To put that another way, 380,000-odd students come to this country per annum. The Government are not really friendly towards students. As some colleagues will recall, the Government abolished the education maintenance allowance, and they do not show much enthusiasm even for apprenticeships and further education.
I agree with much of what the hon. Gentleman says. International students’ contribution to GDP is actually now £10 billion—even higher than the figure he quotes.
I will finish my praise for international students by turning to the St Andrews University students’ association, which put out a statement this morning that I think sums things up nicely:
“Universities... owe much of their value and their success to their diversity. Without a student or staffing body comprised of people of all races, religions, class or political allegiance, we cannot and will not achieve the level of quality—in research and personal character—to which the UK is accustomed. By mixing, debating, and learning from those with varied views and cultural backgrounds, we become better, more rounded, more tolerant and accepting individuals.”
Those views are broadly shared by around three quarters of our own students, according to a Higher Education Policy Institute survey.
Turning to where we are now, the UK has for some time been a world leader in attracting international students, but that reputation is in jeopardy.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for securing this important debate, and I echo what my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz) said about the Government’s rhetoric on international students. There are a lot of students in Hampstead and Kilburn, and they are diverse; they make my constituency what it is. The hon. Gentleman talked about international students’ net contribution, which I believe is £14 billion a year. Does he agree that in post-Brexit Britain, we should recognise the value of those students and remove them from the net migration target to make them feel more welcome in our country?
I agree wholeheartedly. I will turn later to the contradiction that on the one hand, the Treasury appears to be all for increasing our education exports, but on the other, the Home Office includes students in its net migration target and therefore sees them as a ready target for trying to clamp down on migrant numbers.
In 2014-15, of the around 2.27 million students at UK higher education institutions, more than 125,000 were from other EU countries and more than 300,000 were from non-EU countries. In the most recent year that we have figures for, overall international student numbers just about held up, but the number of new entrants fell by 2.8%. Figures from June this year show that the number of study-related visas granted by the UK fell by 5% from the previous year. The British Council has stated that the UK is beginning to lose market share to competitors.
There are serious concerns about the UK’s performance in attracting students from key markets. The number of Indian students enrolling in their first year at UK universities fell by 10% in 2015 compared with the year before. The number of Indian students studying here has fallen by around 50% in the four years since the UK Government started to turn the screw while our rivals were all improving their offer. It is no coincidence that there is now a record number of Indian students in the US, which has, for example, opened up post-study work schemes.
Where do we want to go from here? If any other industry brought such a wealth of benefits to the country, the Government would be mad not to pull out all the stops to go for growth. Education is one of the UK’s most successful exports. In what other export market would we say that we were not going to bother so much with expansion and we were quite happy to see our rivals catch us up and overtake us?
The Government’s official ambition is for education exports as a whole to be worth £30 billion by 2020. In last year’s autumn statement, the Chancellor projected that the number of non-EU students in England alone would rise by just over 7% in the next two years and by 3.2% in the two years after that, but if the 0.6% increase in student enrolments last year is anything to go by, the Government’s goal, modest though it is, has no chance of being met.
The Government must be much more ambitious. While our share of international students is beginning to falter, international student numbers are growing much more significantly and strongly in countries such as the US, Australia and Canada—in fact, those countries are in a completely different league from us. International student numbers are expected to grow significantly around the world in the years ahead, so the opportunities are there if we want to take them, but countries such as Canada, Australia, Germany, New Zealand, China, Japan and Taiwan often talk about doubling their number of international students by 2020 or 2025.
Our universities are alarmed about the implications of Brexit, so the Government must step up to the plate to reassure rather than seek to complete what essentially would be a triple whammy, with another crackdown and a persistent failure to listen to rational arguments about a post-study work visa. One of the key underlying problems is, as the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq) said, the inclusion of students in the net migration target. At best it seems inconsistent for, on the one hand, the Treasury to be targeting an increase in education exports and, on the other, the Home Office to be quite clearly seeing student numbers as a target for reductions.
To make matters worse, the Home Office appears to be motivated by international passenger survey statistics and a belief that about 90,000 students are not leaving when their courses end. That is not a good thing, because serious questions about the accuracy of those figures are now being asked not just by me, but by the UK Statistics Authority, the Select Committee on Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs, and the Institute for Public Policy Research, just by way of example. The main reason for the concerns is that the figures suggested by the Government are completely out of kilter with many other sources of information, from Home Office longitudinal studies to the destination of leavers survey and the annual population survey. We are talking about not just a few hundred students here and there, but many tens of thousands.
As the Minister will know, just a few weeks ago an article appeared in The Times that suggested that the Home Office has in its hands an independent analysis that shows that just 1% of international students break the terms of their visas by refusing to leave after their courses end. Sadly, as I understand it, the Home Office has refused to share that study with other Departments, never mind with MPs or the public. Perhaps the Minister will explain why.
That is a good point that we should bear in mind. The export of education takes the form of not just attracting international students, but physically building campuses and other institutions abroad.
I ask the Minister to explain what is happening with the study that we are not allowed to see, because that study almost certainly takes into account new exit checks, which have been in place for about 12 months. Using exit checks and cross-referencing other data sources gives us a tremendous new opportunity to get a proper handle on student migration patterns. It simply is not common sense for the Government to press ahead with new goals for reducing student numbers until such time as the assumptions on which the proposals are based are thoroughly tested.
I know from speaking with the Office for National Statistics just this morning that it is taking on a body of work to look at this issue and that it will today put some information on its website to explain the nature of that work. Will the Government therefore undertake to share the exit check data with the Office for National Statistics, which is important for its work, and will the Minister wait until that work is complete, rather than pressing ahead with any rash policy decisions?
I turn finally to the policies we need, if hon. Members agree with me that we should be going for growth. What policies would allow us to do that? The obvious first answer is that we need to up our game on post-study work offers. Post-study work is something that our competitor countries are using as a key means to attract talented international students, and they are doing it much better than us. Canada has three-year visas with no salary threshold and New Zealand has one-year visas with no salary threshold. Australia conducted a big review on the subject back in 2010, when it was beginning to struggle to attract international students, and, lo and behold, it proposed a two-year post-study visa with no salary requirement, just like we used to have here, and now it is much more competitive than we are.
My hon. Friend makes a valid point. I will turn later to how some of the thresholds set are unrealistic for specific sectors, and indeed specific parts of the United Kingdom.
Post-study work is attractive, and it is important in attracting international students, because for them it is an opportunity to gain priceless experience of the business environment and culture in the UK. It allows them to utilise knowledge gained from their studies in an English-speaking setting, build networks and, importantly, offset some of the costs of studying abroad. The range of voices speaking out in favour of a post-study work scheme is huge. It includes Universities Scotland; Universities UK; the Russell Group; the Scottish Government; Scottish Tories, Labour, Lib Dems and Greens; the Scottish Government’s post-study work working group; the Select Committee on Scottish Affairs, twice; various all-party parliamentary groups; the Select Committee on Home Affairs; the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee; the Scottish TUC; business groups; immigration lawyers; and the Cole commission on UK exports, which was asked to make a report. They are not all wrong. Even a study funded by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills made it clear that our failure in post-study work offers puts the UK’s universities at a competitive disadvantage in attempting to recruit the best of the international student pool.
If the Government will not listen on a UK-wide basis, I repeat the call that they should allow Scotland to press ahead, as well as any other nation or region of the UK that wishes to do so. The arguments offered by the Government in response recently to the Scottish Affairs Committee did not stack up. It is not true that allowing Scotland to introduce its own post-study work scheme would harm the integrity of the UK’s immigration system. We all know that other countries apply different immigration rules in different constituent parts—indeed, so has the UK. It did with the fresh talent scheme and the tech nation visa, and the plain old tier 2 permit ties visa holders, at least by implication to particular parts of the UK, so it can be done.
The Government complained that, under the fresh talent working in Scotland scheme, some people used study in Scotland as a means to move to England. The first point is, so what? Even if the numbers the Government quote are accurate—the Minister knows that the study probably was not comprehensive enough for that—we are talking about tiny numbers. We are also talking about people who were doing nothing illegal or in breach of their visa, because it was not a stipulation of the visa that the person had to live and work in Scotland.
If the Minister is so worried about a couple of thousand additional graduates entering the labour force outside Scotland, he should stipulate that condition in the visa. It really is that simple. Otherwise, the message from the Government to Scotland is that the demographic challenges and skills shortages it faces do not matter and that the priority is keeping a handful of extra migrants out of other parts of the UK.
To rub salt in the wounds, I cannot say strongly enough how many bridges were burned when the Government announced that their pilot of a half-baked alternative to the post-study work scheme would be piloted only in a tiny number of English universities. Even if rolled out, that pilot scheme is not remotely competitive with what other countries are offering. It offers just four months at the end of study and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan) said, the starting salary thresholds are inappropriate for certain sectors and regions. Median salaries for graduates of Scottish universities are £19,000 or lower in biological sciences; agriculture and related subjects; law; languages; and creative arts and design, which is below the threshold for a tier 2 visa.
It is not just the absence of a post-study work visa that is problematic. There are serious concerns about the credibility interviews conducted by UK Visas that essentially reassess decisions made by the universities. Subjective criteria now operate alongside the Government’s decision to reduce the maximum visa refusal rates of an institution to 10%. That means that institutions are scaling back recruitment work in places from which there are higher refusal rates.
We are also alarmed at hints that a two-tier system is on its way, with visas for some universities incorporating more favourable terms and conditions than for others. All universities are quality assured—that is required by a tier 4 licence. I am therefore proud to speak up for all Scottish universities—indeed, all universities throughout the UK—and question the message that sends out.
I could speak for hours on the complexity of the application process and various other problems, but I will draw my remarks to a conclusion and leave it to other Members or for another debate to explore those issues. The key message is that international students are brilliant and we could do so much more to attract them here for the benefit of all. Government policy is misguided in the extreme and it is time for an urgent rethink. It is time to up our game and maximise our efforts to attract international students, who bring real benefits to this country.
Order. Before I call the next speaker, it might be worth noting that there is a large degree of interest in the debate. While I do not intend to apply a strict time limit, none the less, will everyone be courteous to their neighbours and keep their remarks perhaps to five, seven or eight minutes, or something of that order? I think we will then fit most people in.
Thank you, Mr Gray. May I first congratulate the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald)? I think I have pronounced that correctly. [Interruption.] It is always a challenge. Do not worry, I am used to “Luger-bruger”. I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on bringing this excellent debate on this important subject. It is nice to see the Minister in his place; I know he will listen carefully to what we all have to say. May I apologise to the Chamber for not being able to stay for the wind-ups? I will, however, read the concluding remarks—particularly from the Minister—with great interest.
I am here to speak up as the Member of Parliament for Loughborough, which has a hugely successful and internationally focused university. I also recognise the other successful universities in Leicestershire, which have already been mentioned by the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz): Leicester University and De Montfort University. It is fair to say that Leicester and Leicestershire Members are extremely proud of our three highly successful universities.
In my former role as Secretary of State for Education, and also as the Minister for Women and Equalities, I spent much of my time encouraging our young people to be outward looking and globally minded. That was at the heart of what the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East said about the importance of our internationally facing universities and higher education institutions to all of this country.
Given the interest in the debate, I will keep my remarks to two main points: first, numbers, and whether it is right to include students in the reduction in migrants to tens of thousands per year, and, secondly, the benefits of universities. I think the debate also speaks to a wider issue that we are grappling with as a Parliament at the moment, which is the kind of country we want to be after the referendum on 23 June. I firmly feel, and I suspect—or hope—that many Members agree, that we do not want to turn our backs on the world. If we were somehow to harm or to disable our higher education institutions, we would be at grave risk of doing just that.
People of intelligence and good will voted both for and against Brexit. Does the right hon. Lady agree that many people are now frightened by some of the rhetoric they have heard around Brexit, and that it is the responsibility of the House to allay those fears?
I agree with the hon. Lady. There has been some very unfortunate rhetoric, and I am sad to say that we have even had incidents—I know of at least one—on the campus of Loughborough University, in my constituency, whereby those who have come from abroad to work or study have been made to feel unwelcome. I do not think that is the kind of country any of us want to represent.
The right hon. Lady was a distinguished Education Secretary, and whenever she spoke on these issues it was about getting more students to study in our country. Now that she is no longer the Education Secretary, can I tempt her to confirm the rumour we heard at the time she was: her Department was in favour of more students coming here, the Foreign Office was in favour of more students coming, the Business Department was in favour of more students coming—it was only the Home Office that spoiled the party. Will she confirm whether that was the case?
The right hon. Gentleman is an old hand in the House. He knows he is tempting me down paths that are always dangerous for former Ministers to follow. I will say that this former Secretary of State for Education was very much in favour of making sure that our higher education institutions were open to international students, because we are at our best when we are outward looking. It is fair to say that there were certainly other Ministers who very much shared that view.
I hope the Minister will confirm that the Government are relying on reliable numbers when drafting their immigration policy. The annual population survey suggests that only around 30,000 to 40,000 non-EU migrants who previously came as students are still in the UK after five years. The rules introduced by the Home Office over the past six years have done the right thing in cracking down on abuses by those who came here for the wrong reason—not to study but to work without the requisite permission. However, we have to be careful that the rules do not adversely affect genuine students and institutions, and do not undermine the UK’s reputation as a desirable destination for international students.
I will also talk about public opinion, because it is important in the current immigration debate. We know that many of our constituents want immigration to be controlled. I think that means that we should know who is coming in, how long they are coming in for, why they are coming in and at what point, if any, they are going to be leaving, or whether we are going to get the benefit of their skills once they have finished their studies.
Recent polling from Universities UK and ComRes revealed that only 24% of British adults think of international students as immigrants. Of those who expressed a view in the poll, 75% said they would like to see the same number or more international students in the UK, which increased to 87% once information on the economic benefits of international students was provided. The poll also revealed that the over- whelming majority of the British public—91%—think that international students should be able to stay and work in the UK for a period of time after they have completed their studies.
In the interests of time, I will move on to my second point about the benefits that universities bring to our local communities, which the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East set out very well. Of course, as I am constantly reminded by Loughborough, we should not forget that our universities are not just about teaching, although that is important, but about research and driving economic growth in our local areas. All three Leicestershire universities that I have mentioned are key parts of our local enterprise partnerships and, I suspect, should be key parts of the Government’s industrial strategy when that is announced.
The hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East talked about the contribution that universities make to our local areas. The international education sector is one of the UK’s biggest services exports, and I hope that the Department for Exiting the European Union listens very closely to what universities and higher education have to say on the deal that we will eventually negotiate with the European Union. UK education exports are estimated to be worth approximately £17.5 billion to the UK economy. International students, including EU students, support 170,000 full-time equivalent jobs across the UK and contribute £9 billion.
Those are big numbers but, if we boil it down, I know as a local Member of Parliament that my constituents are employed as researchers and academics, but also in less skilled jobs—the people who make the campus the place it is, who look after the students and who run businesses and other institutions, such as retailers, that rely on the student contribution to their local economy.
Does the right hon. Lady agree that the contribution that EU students make is absolutely crucial and, as we approach Brexit, a particular signal of reassurance has to be given? There is already evidence that researchers and students are apprehensive about their future in the UK, post-Brexit.
The right hon. Gentleman makes an important point. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for South Leicestershire (Alberto Costa) who asked the Prime Minister a very good question earlier. I have said publicly and will say again that the Government should be giving confirmation to EU citizens who are currently here that they can stay and should have no fear of being asked to leave. My constituents have emailed me—some of whom are EU citizens who have come here to work; some of whom are married to or have other family members who are EU citizens—and I think it is wrong that we are leaving them with this uncertainty.
I very much hope that student numbers will be removed from the drive to reduce net migration to the tens of thousands, for the reason I have given about public opinion, as well as because it is the right thing to do for our economy. In the next couple of years, the Home Office has the opportunity to develop a new, post-Brexit immigration policy. I know that will be a challenge, but there is also an opportunity to remove student numbers from that drive to reduce net migration to the tens of thousands, as we develop a sensible immigration policy that works for this country, for businesses, for communities and for our higher education institutions. Again, I congratulate the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East on bringing the debate to the Chamber.
I am delighted to follow the right hon. Member for Loughborough (Nicky Morgan), who made a powerful case with which I know many Members of her party, and indeed many Members across the House, agree. I congratulate the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald) on securing the debate and on the powerful case he made, too.
I rise to speak as co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on international students—a job that I share with Lord Bilimoria, who joined the Prime Minister last week on a mission to India. I think a lot of people on that mission learned something about the relationship between trade agreements and issues relating to students, after the Indian Government made it clear that our future relationship depended on our taking a different view on international students.
Our all-party parliamentary group draws support from both Government and Opposition Members in significant numbers. It was set up during this Parliament because of growing concern about the way in which we are at risk of undermining one of our most successful export industries: education. Clearly, we should not reduce the debate about international students to simple numbers—although some powerful numbers have been given.
International students enrich the learning environment of our campuses. In an ever smaller world in which we need to understand one another better, it is a huge advantage for British students to be learning in classrooms and laboratories alongside others from all over the world. International students add enormously to the research capacity of our universities, with benefits to local economies, as I know from talking to businesses in Sheffield that appreciate their contribution.
We can add to that the enormous benefits we get from the lasting relationships that are established through the experience of studying here. I was talking earlier this year to the high commissioner of one of our major trading partners and important allies, and he said to me, “Did you know that more than half our Cabinet went to university in the UK?” As the Higher Education Policy Institute points out, 55 world leaders from 51 countries studied in this country. That sort of soft power is the envy of countries around the world, with political influence and commercial contracts based on an affection that people feel for this country because they studied here. Of course, we also have to acknowledge the economic benefits, which the right hon. Member for Loughborough outlined.
Who would imagine that a Government would do anything other than celebrate that great British success? It has not been so. Throughout the last Parliament, to growing concern, the Government undermined our ability to recruit international students. I know that Ministers sometimes contest the claim about recruitment numbers—I anticipate that the Minister may do so today—by saying that they have broadly held level. With the exception of one blip in one year, that is true, but it is a growing market. Holding level is not good enough. It means we are reducing market share, to the benefit of our competitors.
In the last year for which figures are available, the number of international students was up 7% in the States and up 8% in Australia, and Canada plans to double its numbers. That is all at our expense, and it is because of the measures under the previous Parliament that made the UK a less attractive destination. Those measures were put in place by the Government to hit their net migration targets, and that is the problem; international students were viewed as part of the migration debate. That is not the way the public see them, as the right hon. Lady pointed out, and it is not the way that we in this place see them either. An unprecedented five Select Committees of the Commons and the Lords have called for change by taking students out of net migration targets and seeing them as valuable, not something to be restricted.
Instead, the Government are stepping up their action against international students. In her speech to the Conservative party conference last month, the Home Secretary put international students at the centre of her plans to cut migration. She introduced a new tool with which she plans to do that: linking visa approval to the quality of courses. It is perhaps no coincidence that the Government are introducing a teaching excellence framework for our universities, grading universities gold, silver or bronze. I hope that in his closing remarks, the Minister will confirm whether it is the Home Office’s intention to use that system of measuring quality to determine the new visa regime it has in mind. If not, will he confirm that the Home Office plans to introduce its own measurement of the quality of our universities? He will not be surprised to know that if he uses TEF, some surprising universities will lose out. University College London and the London School of Economics—both leading universities—would not necessarily get the gold measure.
These are challenging times for our country. Charting our place in the post-Brexit world presents real challenges. We need to win friends, not alienate them. Last week’s prime ministerial mission to India demonstrated that many of our friends will put access to universities at the heart of the discussion on our future relationship. Above all, we need to build on our successful sectors, to mitigate the economic damage of Brexit. In terms of export earnings, universities are a huge success, but that is put at risk by Brexit. It is not only the 185,000 EU students in the country but the 30% of non-EU students who said before the referendum on 23 June that they would find the UK a less attractive country if we voted to leave the European Union.
As the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East said, a sensible Government would look at those facts and say, “How can we strengthen our position in the world? How can we do better against our competitors? How can we up our game?” Instead, the Home Secretary is moving in the other direction. That is madness. There is no other sector in our economy to which the Government would be saying, “We want you to do less well.” I hope that the Minister will reflect on all the contributions today and all the concern outside this place and say that the Government are willing to think again, to up our game, to learn from our competitors and to celebrate winning more international students to this country as a policy objective.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald) on starting this important debate. I begin with a declaration of interest: I have benefited from international students very directly in the past few months. A Mexican postgraduate engineer called Alfredo helped me to analyse the complex business cases that the Department for Transport uses, and he was extraordinarily helpful. I also had a Swiss postgrad on an LSE scheme help me to expose some of the limitations of the northern powerhouse project and provide the office with useful chocolate, including proper Toblerone.
Debates such as this follow a customary pattern. The proposer adopts a cloak of virtue and expects the Government to do something, and the Government then point out all the practicalities, financial limitations and reasons why they cannot do what the proposer suggests. The proposer is normally the hero, and the Government are normally the villain—the Minister has to, in effect, act that part. However, there is a real opportunity for him to be the hero.
There is a Conservative Government with a progressive policy to attract international students. They lambast in press publicity their socialist predecessor for not doing enough, have a 10-year plan for international students and are aggressively building the skills base by attracting the brightest international talent. That Government are in Australia. There is equally—this is not a good example, because I might be prejudiced—a Liberal Government in Canada that are doing something rather similar.
Being sensible about it, I think we all agree that universities gain from a clear international dimension, with bright people from other countries contributing enormously to our academic culture and to important research areas where we do not have the research expertise ourselves. The world gains enormously from having an involvement with British universities, at no cost to us. It is a good thing, and nobody around the table would say anything different.
There appear to be only two problems, and one of them is within the Minister’s grasp to solve. Student numbers are cited as a problem, in terms of how they feature in net migration and add to the anxiety about immigration. I think most sensible people see that as purely a presentational or cosmetic problem. It is quite clear, from the polling evidence produced by the right hon. Member for Loughborough (Nicky Morgan), that the public do not see it that way at all when it is properly explained to them. The second worry, which is the more pertinent one as far as the Minister is concerned, is that study is actually used as a device for securing permanent access to the country.
The first problem is soluble. It is a non-problem. I understand concerns about how the Office for National Statistics does stats and so on, but frankly, when previous Governments were troubled by how accurate a reflection of unemployment the employment statistics were, they changed them. Within recent memory, the Government changed the assessment on child poverty because it and the way in which it was presented were wrong. The Government can change this.
The second problem, of study being used as a device to enter the country or stay permanently in the country, may not be a real problem—not if there is adequate quality control on HE. It looks from forthcoming legislation as if there may be less of that, but there was a clear clampdown on bogus colleges. I do not think we need to worry excessively about that. The issue may not be a problem because we have no good numbers on it. The hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East cited the IPPR report that refers to a secret report in the Home Office that says it is not a problem. Maybe the Minister will talk a little—of course he cannot—about this secret report. He is going to.
Okay. I am grateful to hear that. The issue may not be a problem because when we think about it objectively, somebody who masters English, having not started out with English as their native tongue, and who has qualified in a good British university, may be precisely the sort of person the country needs.
None the less, I accept that, generally speaking, the Government, the public, the world distinguish between admission for study and admission for work, and they are two different things. The problem is that in this country we allow anxieties about the latter to completely screw up the former, if I can use that as parliamentary language, Mr Gray; I probably cannot.
Hence the conflict that rides through Government between the Home Office and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and between the Prime Minister and the Chancellor, who clearly has a different opinion. Hence we see the significance that higher education has for Brexit not only from the money point of view but because courses will fall over and research will simply not be done.
I am not going to volunteer an elegant solution to managing the position between admission for work and admission for study. It is a choice between whatever the Government want to do—summary rejection or complete inertia. However, I will make a simple point that most people would want to make. The Government can make life easy for themselves—they really can—by following business advice, public instinct and academic argument and publicly differentiate the student and the migrant.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I congratulate the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald) on securing this debate. I apologise if I have to leave before the end—I will be a Teller at the end of the debate in the main Chamber—but hopefully that will not be necessary. I do not want to speak for long; I just want to make a few short remarks urging the Government to listen to our universities and to ensure that international students continue to feel welcome in the UK. Following the vote to leave the EU and the Government’s rhetoric on visa restrictions, there is a real and justifiable worry about the future of international students in the UK.
As a Manchester MP, I am proud that we have a university where one in five students is from overseas, many of whom live in my constituency. Ahead of this debate, the University of Manchester was keen to impress on me the great contribution that international students make to the wealth and cultural life of our city. The figures are varied, but I think we can all agree that international students generate more than £9 billion to the UK economy and at least 140,000 jobs. An international student who studies in Britain is an investment in the future of UK research and innovation. According to the British Council, 45% of early career researchers are from overseas. These are some of the people who become our international academic staff, who help to maintain our world-beating reputation for higher education.
At the same time, demand from international students on our public services is relatively limited. Non-EU students have no access to benefits and students generally are far younger and healthier than the population as a whole.
Going back to the statistics that my hon. Friend mentioned, the proportion of overseas students at post-doctoral level in disciplines such as science and engineering exceeds 70%, so if the income and the expertise they bring were to go, there would be a real risk that those departments, or parts of them, would close.
My right hon. Friend makes an excellent point; that is a real risk. When we talk about immigration numbers, the public recognise the value of international students. They do not consider international students as immigrants. It is not often that I agree wholeheartedly with the right hon. Member for Loughborough (Nicky Morgan), but she was absolutely right to quote the Universities UK study. Clearly, the British public think that international students should be able to stay and work for a period after studying, so the Home Secretary’s comments about new restrictions on overseas students are a real worry, particularly at a time when there is already uncertainty as a result of the referendum.
Leaving the EU will pose a real threat to our universities and students. Although I welcome the short-term funding guarantees for EU students and staff, there needs to be a longer-term solution, and the Government have to prioritise the free arrangements for the academic community in the upcoming negotiations because the indecision is already causing problems. I was talking to an academic, an EU national, who works at the University of Manchester. He said to me, “I love living in Manchester. I love my job. I don’t want to move abroad, but I don’t know what the future holds.” He had been offered a job at a German university. He said, “For the first time in my life I am considering leaving the job I love in Manchester because I can be more certain of my future in Germany.” That is a real concern for the academic community and for us in the UK, because we cannot afford to lose talent.
Prioritising the post-Brexit study arrangements for EU students and academics has to be a vital first step. However, at a time when the Government need to reassure the higher education sector that the UK will remain outward-looking, they appear to be pulling up the drawbridge on international students. The focus on bringing net migration down to the tens of thousands may or may not be workable. I suspect it is unworkable, and it is certainly damaging our universities while students are included in that number.
The IPPR has argued that the Government are treating students as an easy target in their mission to bring net migration down. It has called the Government’s approach “deeply problematic”. We need only look at some of our international competitors to see what they are doing in contrast. I will give two examples. In April, Australia announced a new national strategy for expanding its international education sector and has streamlined its visa processes. Canada has recently expanded opportunities for international students to access post-study work and permanent residency. It is time the Government learnt the lessons from our competitors and welcomed international students instead of putting extra visa restrictions on them.
I want to close with three or four asks for what the Government should do immediately to reassure our higher education sector.
I will be very quick; in fact, I will read the bullet points. First, the Government need to remove international students from the net migration target. Secondly, the Government need to reintroduce the post-study work visa for STEM and nursing graduates. Thirdly, they need to rethink proposals to introduce visa restrictions. Finally, the Government really need to publicly acknowledge that the ability of students and university staff from the EU to study and work freely in this country is integral to the world-beating university education system that we have.
International students make a huge contribution to our academic life and our society. The Government need to welcome them, not discourage them.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald) for securing this debate. This week is a celebration of the richness and diversity that international students from Europe or further afield bring to our communities. Unfortunately, the current mood music when it comes to international students is wrong. More and more, the UK is being seen as unwelcoming or even hostile to those students. The reputational damage done by Brexit cannot be overestimated. If we add to that our restrictive visa regime, countries such as the US, Canada and Australia become far more attractive. It should not be a question of us allowing talented students to come here; the Government need to actively campaign to bring them here. If the UK is to remain a world leader in education, we need to recognise the effects of current Home Office policy and move towards a more workable solution. Professor Philip Nelson, the chair of Research Councils UK, told the Select Committee on Science and Technology recently that
“all of those wonderful achievements that we can all cite about the UK are done by people from a range of nationalities in this country. UK science is not done by UK nationals. It is done by many people.”
The visa process itself should be straightforward, but I had a look at the Home Office website this morning and it gives an indication of the length of time a visa application should take. According to the site, a tier 4 visa application—the simplest student application—from India should take 15 days to process. Unfortunately, that is not a true reflection. I have had reports of applications taking months without a response. We need to be realistic about how long it takes. Visas for short research visits of, say, a few weeks or months—much like those that many UK-based students might make, such as a short spell at CERN—can take so long to process that the research opportunity is lost before the visa is approved. The Government must recognise that research is an international endeavour and a key part of it is getting worldwide access to facilities. There is a need for a workable mechanism that allows international students to come easily to the UK for those short visits.
The new post-study work visa pilot has been viewed with interest. However, in Scotland, where a previous version worked extremely well, our universities have been excluded. That is in a country with an ageing population and where our problem is emigration, not immigration. Post-study work visas could go a long way in tackling skills shortages, particularly in digital and STEM industries. Instead, our institutions are investing in training those students, only for them to return home, taking their newly acquired skills with them, benefiting their home countries but not, crucially, our communities. Scotland, as well as many excellent UK institutions, has been left out of the pilot. I and many of my colleagues have asked questions on the issue. Indeed, on 14 November I asked, at column 5, when we could expect the pilot to be widened to include Scotland. Perhaps the Minister can answer that question today.
We could argue that universities are still managing, but the Brexit process brings the issue of international students clearly into focus. Will the restrictive regimes currently operating be relaxed at all when French or indeed Irish students apply to study here? Section 2 of the Ireland Act 1949 states that Ireland is not a foreign country. Perhaps the Minister could tell me how Irish students will be considered following Brexit.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I congratulate the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald) on securing the debate. There has been an enormous degree of unanimity, and the economic arguments have already been well articulated, so I will not try to repeat them. However, there is one element of the economic argument that I have not yet heard, but which is highly relevant to the debate. As a representative of a manufacturing area, I know that engineering and digital skills are crucial to our future manufacturing success.
Universities have great difficulty in recruiting enough students domestically to fill the available courses. A high proportion of international students take up those courses. To deter such students from coming here to take our world-class courses or working here after graduating makes no sense. That policy deprives manufacturing industry of much needed, crucial strategic skills for the future, which would enable our manufacturing to survive in a post-Brexit economy. It also undermines many university courses, because the funding from international students is crucial to maintaining them. They may not be able to get enough domestic students, and the courses are disproportionately expensive. That is a further reason to have a visa regime that continues to encourage students of STEM subjects.
In a previous incarnation I was the Chair of the Select Committee on Business, Innovation and Skills. We produced a report on this matter in September 2012, which other hon. Members have mentioned. It was unanimous, and was among several other Select Committee reports that, I believe, unanimously reached the same conclusion: that student visas should not be included in the migration statistics. During interviews with the respective Ministers it became clear that the Home Office and BIS had conflicting views. I think I can paraphrase the Home Office approach by saying that it depended on the United Nations definition, under which a migrant is a person who moves for a period of at least one year to a country other than their country of origin. That is an international tool for comparing migration, but as a basis for public policy it is totally inadequate.
It is interesting that both the USA and Australia—countries that are very concerned about inward migration—have, as it were, finessed the same approach to accommodate an increase in the number of student visas. The US uses the Census Bureau to give numbers, but the Department of Homeland Security treats students as business visitors and tourists—non-immigrant admissions. There is a compelling logic for doing that in this country. Unfortunately, although the logic is evident in every other Department, across the parties and among the public—and public support for the policy has been commented on—that does not seem to be the case in the Home Office. The issue has enormous strategic significance for our post-Brexit experience and trade deals. I should like to elaborate, but in the interest of brevity I shall conclude my remarks there, Mr Gray.
I am delighted to serve under your chairmanship once again, Mr Gray. I am changing the speech that I was going to make, as there have been such fine contributions from everyone. I shall just highlight issues from my personal experience.
In the early days of Namibian independence, I went along to do an assignment on capacity building. I went, as I was asked, to the office of the Prime Minister, where I was met by his senior adviser, who said to me—I think I can do his accent just about perfectly—“Roger, delighted to meet you. How are Glasgow Rangers getting on?” That came as a great shock to me, as an Ayr United supporter. He had spent eight years studying in Glasgow and had two degrees, and after independence he returned to his country.
A short time later, I was at the new University of Namibia, where I was to give some help. There I met the wonderful Professor Peter Katjavivi, who was here recently. He is now the Speaker of the Namibian Parliament. Peter set up the first South West Africa People’s Organisation office in Europe—in London—and when he was here, for years, eventually completed his PhD at Oxford. Some time later, I met a man for whom eventually I would be the best man at his wedding. He is now the permanent secretary to the President of Namibia. His name is Samuel /Goagoseb—I pronounce the forward click for the benefit of Hansard. Samuel was partly educated at Heriot-Watt University in Scotland. My experience was just a small personal example of the way we have exported such talent, to great benefit, throughout the world, but I fear that those people might not be able to get access today in an equivalent way, under the types of regimes that we operate.
I also have the pleasure of continuing as an honorary professor at the University of Stirling. I used to teach there on MBA and MSc programmes. These masters programmes at Stirling University benefited hugely, particularly from the many students from India. There has been an utter collapse in the number of students from India coming to our universities. That has led in some cases to the cancellation of previously very well regarded programmes.
I used to sit as the chair of an interdepartmental ethics committee—it took a long time and a lot of practice to say that—and I came across many researchers at Stirling University. I cannot remember a single research proposal that did not involve someone from beyond the UK. International students were fundamentally important to our research capability and to assisting us in having the diverse education from which everyone in the UK benefits.
I appeal to the Minister to listen to the facts and figures he has heard today and to consider the qualitative benefit that encouraging international students brings to our country.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald) on securing this debate. The issue affects many people in my constituency and certainly needs attention. Like other hon. Members here, I believe in education. I believe that those with a vocation should be facilitated to learn their trade or skill, that those who are desirous of learning should be enabled to do that and that those who can bring skills to our economy must be able to do so. I believe that our universities must be able to welcome foreign students, with the higher tuition they bring, and that they should be in a position to facilitate higher learning.
But in all of this, I believe we should not be taken advantage of. Something the Prime Minister said when she was Home Secretary sticks in my memory:
“We want the best international graduates to stay and contribute to the UK economy. However, the arrangements that we have been left with for students who graduate in the UK are far too generous. They are able to stay for two years, whether or not they find a job and regardless of the skill level of that job. In 2010, when one in 10 UK graduates were unemployed, 39,000 non-EU students with 8,000 dependants took advantage of that generosity.
We will therefore close the current post-study work route from April next year. In future, only graduates who have an offer of a skilled graduate-level job from an employer licensed by the UK Border Agency will be allowed to stay.”—[Official Report, 22 March 2011; Vol. 525, c. 855.]
That does not seem to be unfair. It is our responsibility to provide the highest levels of our education to our own constituents and graduates who are unemployed. It is our privilege to offer the highest level of education to others who want to study in some of the best universities in the world but, with respect, it is not our responsibility to continue to cater for them to the detriment of our own economy.
I cannot give way because the Chairman was very clear about time.
Queen’s University Belfast is an example of some of the good work, student exchange participation, and research and investigation into new drugs that take place. The wealth of talent from overseas enables us to do that great work. Our medical staff are greatly enhanced by those junior doctors, or registrars, from other countries and they could not do without them. I am thankful that that work takes place, but it will not stop because things have been tightened up. It will merely stop our groaning system from being further burdened by responsibilities that are not ours to bear. I understand the need to tighten up some of the controls.
I welcome the fact that Brexit presents the opportunity to find terms of international study that suit students and the higher education institutions without impacting on the decision to ensure that we do not adversely affect our economy. I understand how the uncertainty of Brexit may impact on those who want to come here to live and to educate themselves, and I am sure that American universities are facing similar uncertainties, but this is not the end of international students. It is the beginning of teamwork to promote our universities and the benefits of coming here to work and study. Brexit does not signify the death knell, as I and others have said in recent days. It presents opportunities, and the universities can and must be part of this process. We must put in place agreements to promote our universities and allow visas for students, but the correct standards must apply.
I understand that India and other nations want a change to the system, and it is essential that we work with them as much as possible to provide an accessible system. It must never be forgotten that visas are a protection for us. During her visit to India, the Prime Minister indicated that she was looking at student visas for those from India, and that is important. Our universities want foreign students, foreign students want our universities and our Government want to facilitate this. We must find a balance between that and our security. There is a way and the Home Office must find it. The Home Secretary must outline how that balance will be struck and the Brexit team must deliver the negotiation of agreements to enhance and support European uptake.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald) on securing such an important and timely debate. What we have heard so far proves that students contribute not only to higher institutions, but to our economy. As my hon. Friend said, international students’ day tomorrow—17 November—is an opportunity for the Government to make students their priority. The economic benefits in research, employment and opportunities for trade and international alliances have been well versed by all my colleagues in the Chamber. Our institutions in Scotland and throughout the UK are world renowned and attract the brightest and the best. We should celebrate that.
My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan) highlighted how the unrealistic thresholds and the crude way in which we are seeking to reduce immigration figures simply do not serve our constituencies or local communities well. The reputational damage to institutions and the UK globally will not be forgotten for a long time, when the brightest and the best—those who could find a cure for cancer or any number of illnesses—are unable to secure places at Oxford, Cambridge, Glasgow, St Andrew’s and elsewhere because they cannot secure the visas they need to come to our best institutions.
My hon. Friend and I share campuses of the West of Scotland University, whose principal is Australian. Does she agree with him, as I do, when he says the Government’s proposal to restrict universities from recruiting overseas students is an ill-considered and retrograde step that will damage our economy, our competitiveness and our cultural standing?
Indeed. I thank my hon. Friend for his comment. I will come to the West of Scotland University.
Our advantage is that we are a world-leading country and we have world-leading institutions. I call on the Government to make the necessary practical changes and to look at the pilot scheme, the tier 2 visa, the work study visa and so on, and to consider how much more there is to be gained from bringing the brightest and the best to our country and retaining them than there is from sending them elsewhere.
My hon. Friend the Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Roger Mullin) has fascinating stories to tell. Unfortunately, my stories from Stirling University are slightly different, and I do not think the songs I learned are fit for Hansard, so I will move on.
International students matter, and we have heard about the direct impact that the Government’s policies can have on the prosperity of constituencies such as mine. My home town of Hamilton is rich in heritage and once had a thriving town centre. Only two weeks ago, I launched a joint consultation with my Scottish Parliament counterpart on the need to take action on town centre regeneration and to consider the importance of Hamilton being a university town, where Lanarkshire’s only university is located. However, like many communities across the UK, there are challenges because town centres and institutions with a student population and employment generate the local economy, but that is dwindling. This is in no small part due to the Government’s policies.
One saving grace is that the student population of universities, and particularly the West of Scotland University, enhances the town and the environment. I studied as an undergraduate at Stirling University, which is a fine example of a thriving university town. I also went to the world renowned Glasgow University—something I share with you, Mr Gray. As a group, students contribute to the local economy. It is clear that where there is a university institution, the local economy benefits. The financial contribution is huge, and we need more students, particularly those who live in or close to student accommodation and spend time in town centres. There is a direct benefit to the economy, and we must not forget that.
Every year, the University of the West of Scotland welcomes more than 1,000 international students from 65 different countries around the world. In Hamilton, students contribute £69 million to the local economy. Recently, when the university took the decision to move to a new campus, it was clear that this expansion was with a view to attracting more international investment. In a letter to me, the university’s principal, Craig Mahoney, said that the Government’s plan
“would be significantly damaging the University of the West of Scotland and the wider Scottish and UK higher education system”.
I therefore call on the Minister to please consider the concerns raised by hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber. In a world of uncertainty, all Governments must provide leadership. The proposal also sends a message of exclusion at a time when language must be about inclusion.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald) on securing this very important debate. It gives me great pleasure to place it on the record that Her Majesty’s Opposition believe that we should remove international students from Home Office migration statistics. The purpose of that policy, apart from making the stats more accurate in relation to people who are subject to immigration legislation, is to contribute to the detoxification of this area of British society and political life, beginning with the obvious benefit to our university sector. Of course, as hon. Members have said over and again, the truth about international students is that, far from being a burden, they make this country better off in innumerable economic, social and philosophical ways.
We have heard that there were 436,000 students from overseas in the UK in 2014-15 and that they comprised 19% of the total. The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills—I bow to the Department for BIS, although I know that there are different figures—estimated that the economic value of the contribution from international students was £14 billion in 2014-15 and was set to rise to £26 billion in 2025. As the hon. Member for Lanark and Hamilton East (Angela Crawley) said, this is not just about what they pay in fees; it is their financial contribution and their contribution to growth and GDP in many of our great cities. The presence of overseas students creates more than 250,000 jobs here.
The Home Secretary and her predecessor have claimed, falsely, that very large numbers of international students overstay their visas and so contribute significantly to the breach of their immigration target. They have yet to validate that claim. The most recent legal case collapsed in the Appeal Court as the Home Office attempted to use hearsay evidence that students had fraudulently obtained English qualifications. It has to be stressed that the vast majority of students return home after study. In 2014-15, fewer than 6,000 students applied for a tier 2 visa, applicable to non-EU students who wish to stay here, and that 6,000 may actually be too few for the overall needs of the economy. As I think many hon. Members know, an unpublished report from the Home Office, drafted when the Prime Minister was Home Secretary, seemed to show that the number of student overstayers is tiny, just 1% of the total—approximately 1,500. Therefore, they make no significant impact on overall immigration numbers.
Ministers in the past have said that one problem has been the abuse that overseas students have been involved in, yet we have seen little evidence to support that. We heard about one student working on the checkout at Tesco from a previous Immigration Minister, who is now the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, but we have had no evidence. If there is evidence, it should be brought forward.
I am grateful to the distinguished former Chair of the Select Committee on Home Affairs for making that point.
Several stakeholders oppose what is happening. They include Universities UK, the teaching unions, the National Union of Students and many local authorities where education is a much-needed growth industry—cities such as Sheffield and Coventry. This is not just about the top 10 or Russell Group universities; our university sector benefits in so many ways from the contribution of international students.
If international student numbers are reduced in the way that Ministers seem to want, there will be a funding shortfall for universities and, as colleagues have said, courses for which international students make up a disproportionate number of the students may be imperilled. The Government’s policy on international students, with its financial implications, implies either further Government borrowing, which I do not find credible, or increased fees for UK-born students.
I understand that the Chancellor of the Exchequer recently floated the idea of excluding international students from the figures only to be slapped down by the Prime Minister. Despite that, the Conservative hon. Member for Bath (Ben Howlett) has written that the “smart” thing to do is to exclude international students from the migration statistics. On this issue, it appears that the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary are on their own.
As we have heard, polls consistently show a majority in favour of excluding international students from the migration statistics; typically 60% are in favour and 30% against. As a follow-up, we should look at reforming the policy on tier 2 visa applications, to make it easier for non-EU graduates to work here in sectors that require them, whether they are doctors or IT specialists.
Let me say just a few words on India. As we have heard, the number of overseas students from India has plummeted as a consequence of both the rhetoric and the policies of this Government. The Prime Minister, I think to her surprise, on her recent visit to India, realised that there was great concern about the situation in relation to its students in the UK. That was at the heart of the negotiations. And what did the Prime Minister offer? Golden visas for the super-wealthy. There was no attempt to address the real concerns of Government and society in India about the way we are talking about and treating international students. It is an entirely self-defeating policy. Indian students do not want to stay on. They come here because it is one of the best education systems in the world and then they probably go to Silicon Valley. The Minister may be aware that the chief executive officer of Google is Indian; that is the path to fame and fortune for Indian students. We should be glad that they recognise the quality of our education and want to come here to study at least.
Earlier today, the Minister expressed concern that no one was leading on immigration for Her Majesty’s Opposition. I can tell him that we do have someone leading. It is the Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington, the shadow Home Secretary. The Minister seemed to wonder why I would bother my head with immigration. I do bother my head with immigration and I am happy and proud to lead on it. Over nearly 30 years, I have consistently been in the top 10 of MPs dealing with immigration casework. With the solitary exception of my good and right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz), I have probably done more immigration casework, under both Labour and Conservative Ministers, than anyone in the Chamber today. I bother my head with immigration because I am the child of immigrants, and I am committed to a debate on immigration, on both sides of the House, that is based on fact, that puts the economy, society and British values first and that is not driven by short-term political concerns—I say that to all Members. It is a concern of mine; it is a concern of my constituents. Whether or not many millions of people up and down the country are frightened by the current tenor of the debate on immigration, both here and in the US, it is a concern of mine—it is a long-standing interest of mine—and I am proud to say that as shadow Home Secretary, I do indeed lead on immigration.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald) on securing the debate and I thank all hon. Members who participated in it for their worthwhile, considered and thoughtful contributions on such a wide-reaching and important topic. I think that we can all agree that it is in the best interests of the UK as a whole to ensure that the United Kingdom continues to attract the best and brightest international students to study here. High-quality international students make an important contribution to the UK. Our universities are strengthened by the presence of some of the finest minds from around the world, and the international students themselves benefit from the chance to receive an education at some of the world’s best educational institutions.
Much emphasis has been placed today on the desire for Scotland to re-establish a post-study work visa. Hon. Members may remember the Fresh Talent scheme that operated in Scotland between 2004 and 2008. That scheme placed few restrictions on those who wanted to stay in the UK to work post-study, and granted free access to the whole of the UK labour market. An evidence review published by Scottish Government Social Research in 2008 found that only 44% of applicants remained in Scotland at the end of their two years’ leave on the scheme, and a significant proportion were not in skilled work appropriate to the level of education.
It is very difficult to ensure that a person who gets a visa to work, potentially, in Scotland is stopped from travelling elsewhere in the UK. Certainly, the pull of the south-east and London is one we are all too well aware of.
In 2008, the tier 1 post-study work visa replaced the Fresh Talent scheme and was introduced country-wide. This route saw high levels of abuse, with evidence of large numbers of fraudulent applications and individuals deliberately using the student route solely as an avenue to work in the UK, with no intention to study and many in unskilled work. I am sure that hon. Members are not seriously suggesting that a return to a completely open post-study work route that does not lead to skilled work would be advantageous for any part of the United Kingdom.
The UK already has an attractive offer for international graduates of UK universities. Those who can find a skilled job are free to do so. There is no limit to the number of tier 4 students who can move to a tier 2 general skilled worker route, nor do they count against the annual tier 2 cap. Around 6,000 tier 4 international students move to tier 2 annually, and that number has been rising year on year. However, that does not mean that the Government do not remain open to keeping our offer for international students under constant review, to ensure that we help our renowned institutions to attract talent from around the world. One such recent development was the launch of the tier 4 visa pilot with the universities of Bath, Cambridge, Oxford and Imperial College in July.
I suspect I am going to answer the hon. Gentleman’s question before he raises it. May I take this opportunity to reassure hon. Members that those institutions were chosen because of their consistently low visa refusal rates, lest anyone imagines we might have a conspiracy against Scotland?
I am not aware of any Scottish universities that are not operating within the rules, but the four chosen for the pilot were those with the best performance in terms of their visa refusal rates. Indeed, the whole point of the pilot is to find out the benefits and advantages so that it can be rolled out more generally. I know that a number of Scottish universities, such as the University of Glasgow, which has increased its overseas non-EU student numbers by 32% between 2012 and 2015, are just the sorts of institutions that have shown how successful they can be in attracting overseas students.
As part of this pilot, certain visa eligibility checks have been delegated to the universities, and the documentary requirements for students taking part are reduced. The students also have additional leave at the end of their course to enable them to take advantage of the UK’s current post-study work offer. Monitoring of the pilot is ongoing, and the results of that will be evaluated to inform any decision to roll the pilot out more widely. But, if it is a success, I hope that other high-quality institutions throughout the UK will be able to benefit, including those—I am sure the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East will be glad to hear—in Scotland, and, I hope, also in Yorkshire.
Any change for the best-performing institutions will build upon the excellent offer that the United Kingdom already has for international students, with the intention of allowing the UK to remain the second most popular destination in the world for international higher education students, behind only the United States of America. Our approach to reform continues to strive towards two key goals: first, to ensure that our fantastic institutions can attract the very best and brightest students from around the world, and secondly, to protect the student migration route from abuse. I am sure that hon. Members here today can agree that this is a sound foundation on which to build.
Before the Minister moves on to his next chapter, I would like to go back to the intervention made by my hon. Friend the Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald) about the possibility of attaching the condition that students could work only in Scotland. Is the Minister aware that Scotland has a distinctive tax code to reflect Holyrood’s tax powers, and that it is therefore very easy to keep track of whether or not somebody is working in Scotland?
It is very important, throughout the whole immigration system, that people who have visas that allow limited work can be tracked. Certainly, using the tax system is one way of doing that. Another key point that I would like to draw to hon. Members’ attention, is that there remains no limit on the number of genuine international students who can come to the UK to study. We do not propose to cap or limit the number of overseas students who can come to study in the UK. As the Home Secretary recently announced, we will shortly be seeking views on study migration routes. I encourage all interested parties, which I am sure will include many institutions in the constituencies of hon. Members here today, to participate and ensure that every point of view is heard.
The Minister is talking about the consultation and the Home Secretary’s statement and, in his earlier remarks, he talked about quality. Will he confirm or deny that the Home Office intends to use the teaching excellence framework as a measure for quality in relation to the visa regime?
I think that the hon. Gentleman will understand from his time here that when one is in consultation, one listens to views and then comes to a conclusion. At this stage we are listening to points, including the ones that he has made. Indeed, one of the points that he made during his contribution was regarding the number of Indian students coming to the UK, and how we are going to prioritise recovering the number of Indian students entering the UK to study. May I point out that we issue more tier 4 visas to students from India than from any other country except China and the United States? The then Immigration Minister visited India in February 2016, and the Prime Minister herself has just returned, to ensure the message is clear that we welcome Indian students to our world-class institutions.
We have seen increases in the number of study visas granted elsewhere; China has gone up by 9% and Indonesia by 14% in the year ending March 2016, which shows that our immigration system allows for growth. The proportion of Indian students coming to study in the UK at a university increased from around 50% in 2010 to around 90% in 2015. This trend of smaller volumes of students with greater concentrations in higher education is likely to reflect the recent policy changes to clamp down on immigration abuse by non-genuine students and bogus colleges. In 2015, around 90% of Indian students who applied for a tier 4 visa were issued one; that is up from 86% in 2014, and 83% the year before that. The Indian student grant rate is higher than in our competitor countries. Indeed, the hon. Member for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan) asked about the time it may take for visas to be processed, and I confirm that 99% of Indian tier 4 students received a decision within the 15-day target.
I apologise for pressing the Minister on this point, but it is important. Next week will be the last time that this House considers the Higher Education and Research Bill, of which the teaching excellence framework is a central proposal. Can he simply deny or confirm that the Home Office intends to use the teaching excellence framework as a measure for quality in relation to the visa regime?
The hon. Gentleman is very tenacious, but I will repeat the point that I have already made. We are in the process of a consultation, are listening to views, including those made during this debate, and will come to a settled view in due course.
Including students in the net migration statistics is a point that has been made repeatedly during the debate. The Office for National Statistics, which is the UK’s independent statistical authority, has today published a report that states:
“The net migration figures are used by ONS to calculate the size of the UK population in any given year and they include international students since they contribute to population growth. These population figures are used by national and local government to inform their planning and removing any key group would have consequences for this.”
This has been a very spirited debate. I conclude both by thanking all hon. Members for their contributions, and by reiterating that genuine students will continue to be welcomed to the United Kingdom. This country is fortunate to have world-class educational institutions with formidable reputations, and this Government will continue to help them to ensure that they can continue to bring in the best and brightest students from across the globe.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered immigration rules for international students.
County Court Judgments
[Sir Edward Leigh in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered reform of county court judgments.
I know there is about to be a vote in the main Chamber, Sir Edward, so this might be the shortest speech on record in Westminster Hall. Even if it is not, I imagine I will be interrupted at some point.
This debate comes as the culmination of 20 years of frustration. Before I came to the House, I worked in the banking sector, in particular the personal banking sector. I was totally frustrated that people who had bank accounts and were very good customers of Lloyds Bank found themselves in all sorts of trouble because they had what I like to call “rogue” county court judgments against their name. Very often those judgments were born not out of large debts, but out of getting into a dispute with a mobile phone company or, worse still, a gymnasium of some type.
That is the problem with county court judgments: we imagine they are used for large debts when debtors simply refuse to repay their creditors. It makes sense that this mechanism for debt recovery must exist as a last resort. Without CCJs, it would be very difficult if not impossible for creditors to be repaid. However, there is evidence that CCJs are not being used in the correct manner by all sorts of companies. In some cases, they are used to demand payment of small debts, disproportionately affecting those subject to them.
A county court judgment is not something anyone wants on their credit record. Once a court makes a judgment against someone accused of having a debt, the record will remain linked to that person for six years on the register of judgments, orders and fines, whether or not the debt is paid off. The only exception to the rule is when the debt is paid off in under a month. There can be a devastating effect on a person’s credit rating, cutting off access to all but the most unfavourable credit deals. A mortgage will become only a dream to someone with a CCJ against their name. That is why it is vital that the CCJ process is improved and, above all, reformed.
CCJs are the go-to option for many creditors, even before alternative means of resolving disputes have been explored or before attempts have been made to settle such disputes. They are simply not being used as a last resort. According to The Money Charity, 2,102 consumer county court judgments are issued every single day, with an average value of £2,030. [Interruption.] I think that is the bell.
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
Just before the bell rang, I was about to say that a recent investigation published by the Daily Mail found that 900,000 CCJs were issued last year, a greater than 33% increase on the previous three years. The investigation highlighted the particular case of ParkingEye, a company responsible for many private car parks in this country and a significant user of CCJs to enforce fines. In the past three years, the company has made more than 60,000 county court claims against drivers, including one uncontested case in which it was awarded only 1p in compensation. Some of my constituents have written to me seeking advice after being threatened with CCJs and other heavy-handed tactics used by that company.
Duncan Bannatyne, writing in his book “Anyone Can Do It”, says that if a person does not honour their contract with his gymnasium, he will have no hesitation in taking them to county court. Again, I find that practice rather sharp. It is clear that civil court actions must have justice at their core, but can we really call it justice when a person has a CCJ on their record to a value of 1p? Such a CCJ could influence a lender’s decision on whether to give that person a mortgage or loan.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. I declare an interest as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on alternative lending. One issue that has been raised with me is credit scoring, on which getting a CCJ has a huge impact. CCJs are an outdated method. Does he agree that, combined with reform of CCJs, we should consider reforms to allow real-time credit scoring and encourage greater information sharing?
Absolutely. As a member of that all-party parliamentary group, I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman’s chairmanship. He knows my interest in real-time credit scoring and that I think the situation is in desperate need of reform. I have always said that such reform would be a win-win situation: a win for the lenders because they would know to whom they were lending, and a win for the consumer because lenders would drive down their prices. I have been campaigning for real-time credit scoring since I came into Parliament, and I thank him for fully supporting the campaign, but that is for another day.
I recently had a lucky escape from a CCJ. In the past three years, I was involved in a minor collision outside my home here in London with a vehicle owned by the taxi firm Addison Lee. When Addison Lee got into dispute with the insurance company, rather than negotiating with the insurance company, it went over the top of it and tried to issue me with county court proceedings. Had I not received the documents in time, a county court judgment would have been registered against me, even though it was my belief that the insurance company was dealing with the claim. Luckily, I was fortunate enough to be able to act straightaway and seek legal advice, which prevented the CCJ, but people with similar cases have not been so fortunate.
My second key concern is that some people served with CCJs do not receive any notification if they have moved house. The only legal requirement for the service of court documents to an individual is merely a last known residence. There is no legal requirement per se for the court documents to be delivered or received. Indeed, court documents are considered validly served even if they are returned to the court marked undelivered. The result is that some people are unaware that there is a CCJ against their name until they apply for credit, such as when buying a car or a house.
The Daily Mail investigation raised the poignant case of a young couple from Northern Ireland who were told that they could not take out a mortgage on a new home because one of them parked for 20 minutes in a restricted airport carpark. The CCJ claim was sent to an old address, so the couple were completely unaware of it. Ultimately, the couple had to pay £200 to satisfy the CCJ and get the mortgage. I hardly think parking in the wrong parking bay is sufficient cause to turn someone down for a mortgage on a home. It is clearly important and in the interest of justice that those who are accused of owing money are given the best possible chance to defend themselves and respond to the claim. It is simply not acceptable that the courts are unable in some cases properly to inform those accused of owing a debt of the accusation and, more importantly, of their rights.
The third major concern about CCJs is the huge and often disproportionate effect that they have on people’s access to finance. CCJs are recorded for six years on the register of judgments, orders and fines if they are not paid within one month. Credit rating agencies make significant use of that register when deciding whether to give credit in the form of loans, mortgages and other finance. A person subject to a CCJ, by default or otherwise, has several options. If they can pay within one month, the debt will not appear on the register or harm their credit rating. If they can pay in full but not within one month, the CCJ will be listed for six years and be marked “satisfied”. Ignored CCJs can result in charging orders, attachment of earnings orders and warrants of execution that allow bailiffs to seize property to the value of the debt. There are processes for setting aside CCJs or making counter-claims if the claimant owes money.
Those who need access to credit but have a bad credit rating due to a CCJ against their name sometimes turn to credit repair companies in search of quick fixes. That is usually a mistake, because there are no quick fixes, as the director general of the Office of Fair Trading made clear:
“County court judgments cannot be removed from credit files unless they have been discharged (within a month) or were incorrectly granted.”
Sometimes the only credit available to those with CCJs offers extremely unfavourable terms to the borrower, such as high-interest payday loans. Those issues paint a very negative picture of the effectiveness of CCJs, and of how they are used in general, the way they are issued and the disproportionate way they affect people.
Reform is clearly needed. Although it is perfectly legal and within creditors’ rights to make claims against debtors for even the smallest of debts—it is correct that debts must be repaid—can the fact that so many people are taken to court over small debts be justified? There is a case for creating a new mechanism that creditors can use to seek redress for debts owed to them below a set value, similar to that in Scotland, with small claims for debts of less than £3,000, summary cause actions for debts of £3,000 to £5,000, and ordinary actions for debts of more than £5,000. That would allow credit rating agencies to draw a more accurate and reliable distinction between serious debts that may demonstrate genuine inability or unwillingness to repay loans and mortgages, and minor debts that do not.
More emphasis must be placed on mediation between companies and debtors in advance of CCJ claims being submitted. CCJs should be a last resort for creditors. Creditors should be able to demonstrate that they have made every possible effort to recover their debts amicably and by mutual agreement before heading to court. Those two measures, alongside other reforms, would help to reduce the rapidly increasing number of CCJs, which are issued daily.
The way that CCJs are issued must also be reformed. Those who face the threat of court action for debts must be given all the information they need to know their options. At this point, it would be remiss of me not to pay tribute to the important and useful advice provided by Citizens Advice on this matter. The first responsibility should be with the courts, which should make every effort to explain people’s rights and options fully if they are threatened with a CCJ.
Without those improvements, we must consider the 14-day period in which a CCJ can be challenged to be too short. The vast majority of people served with a CCJ are not legal experts and must be given time to decide how to proceed. As it stands, the threat of high fees and fines, and the complicated nature of CCJs, can force people to submit and accept a judgment, even if they had the chance and legal right to oppose it. In my experience with Addison Lee, had I not sought legal advice and made a challenge, I would have lost out financially. I was able to take on Addison Lee only because the insurance company was willing to meet the costs of my challenge. It is important that everyone who faces the threat of a CCJ is given the best possible chance and the support they need to make a challenge, as I was.
Crucially, the courts must always be satisfied that the person who is threatened with a CCJ is aware of the process. It is not fair, right or in the interest of justice that someone can have a CCJ recorded against their name by default just because they did not receive any notification of it—it could even have been sent to the incorrect address. Without a requirement that the courts must be satisfied that the accused debtor is aware that a claim is being made against them and has received the court documents, cases such as those uncovered by the Daily Mail will continue to emerge.
Lessons can be learned from the Scottish system for delivering court summons. Documents are first sent by recorded delivery. If that fails, court documents are sent out with sheriff officers. Such a system would address the problem of unknown CCJs in the rest of the UK. Reform must be made to address the disproportionate impact that a CCJ can have on a person’s ability to access finance. Credit rating agencies clearly make use of the register of judgments, orders and fines. Debts settled within one month are not placed on the register, but is that one-month limit arbitrary? All debts, once settled, should be removed from the register entirely once they have been cleared.
My suggestion of a new kind of CCJ for small debts might make a difference if credit rating agencies viewed them as less damaging. Of course, even a minor debt should be expected to harm a person’s credit rating, but the size of the debt and the size of the loss of credit rating should be proportionate to one another. It seems madness that people can be turned down for financial products simply because they are in dispute with a mobile phone company or a car parking company. This debate is fundamentally about whether county court judgments provide a sense of justice to creditors and to debtors. As it stands, they do not, as they appear to lean too heavily in favour of the claimants. Why else would their use by creditors be expanding so rapidly? That is a particular problem.
The Government are, I believe rightly, attempting to increase home ownership and access to finance, but the expansion of CCJs will surely hinder that effort. It is clear that some people with CCJs recorded against them are unaware of the fact until they get a nasty surprise when they check their credit rating. I am an Opposition MP, but I am happy to say that the Government have done good work in standing up to payday lenders and trying to increase access to finance by making sure banks access the right people. However, all that will be lost because of this abuse of the county court judgment system. As long as it is in play, that work will mean absolutely nothing.
Although it is not possible to know exactly how many people have CCJs made against them without their knowing or being able to provide a defence, the fact that the situation is possible is a problem in itself. For the people affected, having a CCJ on their record can mean the difference between being able and not able to own their own home. In some reported cases, it has even prevented access to finance for something as simple as a mobile phone contract. The Government have to introduce reforms to rebalance CCJs and allow debtors to defend themselves properly.
Debtors must have the best possible chance of understanding the legal action being taken against them. More effort should be made to resolve debt issues without heading to court, and if court action is the only available course a distinction must be made between high and low-value debts. Those subject to CCJs must be given more time and information so they have the best possible opportunity to make a challenge and defend themselves. The Government must also take action to mitigate the impact that CCJs can have on access to finance, which is already a problem for so many. I fear that if the Government do not reform CCJs and take action to address the issues I have raised, more people’s lives will be ruined.
The hon. Gentleman is making a powerful case. I am not sure whether he is aware that the French philosopher Voltaire said, “We look to Scotland for all our ideas of civilisation.” Although I will not say we need to go that far in respect of this matter, does the hon. Gentleman agree that when there is best practice, or better practice, in other nations on these islands, it is incumbent on the Government to look at that and learn from it?
I did not think that Voltaire would be mentioned in a debate on county court judgments; I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on getting that quote in. In politics, we have to realise that if something works and works well, it does not matter if it is not our idea; if it is a good idea, it should be rolled out. I am glad that the hon. Gentleman is here representing Scotland. He knows the system there, and it does work far better than the one we are discussing. It provides better justice for those who have CCJs against them and has a better system for ensuring that people receive the summons. That is something we should learn from.
I do not have much time, so I shall bring my remarks to a close. I welcome the Prime Minister’s comments last month about the ongoing investigation of the use of CCJs and the disproportionate effect they can have on the lives of the many people who have been caught out by them. I wait in anticipation to see what reforms are initiated to protect people from the predatory use of CCJs. I know the Minister well: he is a fair man with a strong sense of justice. I hope that today he finds a way to right the wrong done to so many people.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I congratulate the hon. Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) on securing this debate. He has for many years had a strong interest in consumer finance, to which this debate is allied.
I recognise that concern has been expressed about the number of county court judgments that are made against individuals and businesses, the majority of which are entered without a defence being provided by the debtor. Last year, 745,235 county court judgments were entered in default of a defence. That figure represented 85% of the total number of county court judgments entered. I was concerned to read the reports in the Daily Mail that money claim forms have been sent to out-of-date addresses, despite the fact that the individuals and businesses concerned had updated all their records. The paper said that the knock-on effect was that those individuals and businesses had been unable to obtain credit.
Although many default judgments will be made because defendants simply do not have a defence to the claim, the Ministry of Justice is investigating the number of default judgments that were made because the defendant did not receive the claim, and the reasons why that occurred. We will then consider whether any steps should be taken to ensure that the system is not open to abuse. That will include working across Government and with the authorities responsible for regulating the businesses that use the county court to recover debts.
Seeking a county court judgment should be a creditor’s last resort, when all other attempts to recover the debt have failed. Unfortunately, we know that debtors often fail to engage with creditors, for a variety of reasons. If the court system required debtors to acknowledge a claim, it would have serious repercussions for creditors, particularly small and medium-sized enterprises, which would be unable to recover money that was owed to them.
Those who experience debt problems represent a broad spectrum of society, from people experiencing debt as a consequence of deprivation, poverty or other circumstances, through to those who have deliberately refused to pay for products and services used. Some of those facing court action are in difficult situations because they themselves are owed money that has not been repaid. In addition, the Daily Mail’s investigation highlighted instances in which individuals had county court judgments entered against them without being made aware that they owed the money in the first place.
The current rules on county court judgments seek to strike a balance between the needs of claimants—many of whom are individuals, small businesses and public bodies —who must have recourse to an effective legal process to regain money owed, against the rights of defendants to be informed of a claim against them. The court rules do not require the claimant to make sure or prove that a claim is received by the defendant. That would be very expensive for claimants and the system would be open to abuse by individuals and businesses that are seeking to avoid paying their debts. The court rules also do not require the court to verify that the defendant’s address is correct.
More than 1.1 million county court money claims are issued each year. It would be impossible for Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service to process claims quickly if they had to verify address details in every case. The onus is on the parties to provide the correct information. Claimants must sign a statement of truth confirming that the details in their claim, including the address of the defendant, are true. Anyone who deliberately provides false information to the courts faces prosecution. Individuals and businesses must update creditors such as utility companies, and public authorities such as the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency, about any change of address.
Safeguards exist to protect defendants. If somebody discovers that they have had a county court judgment issued against them but they do not owe the claimant money, they can apply to the court to have the judgment set aside. If they are successful, the CCJ will be removed from the register of judgments and the individual’s credit rating should be restored.
I shall now respond specifically to some of the points made by the hon. Member for Islwyn. He asked about the disproportionate impact of CCJs on credit ratings and the difficulty of removing judgments from the register. As he said, the judgment will be removed from the register if it is paid in full within a month. If the judgment is paid after a month, the debtor can get the record marked as satisfied in the register. It will stay on the register for six years, but people will see that it has been paid.
The hon. Gentleman asked about the 1p judgments for parking that were mentioned in the Daily Mail. The documents were obtained by the newspaper under the Freedom of Information Act, and showed that those county court judgments were made. We have discovered that the figures provided were the result of data entry error. Default judgments have not been issued for nominal sums, such as a penny. A money claim cannot be issued for less than £25. On top of the amount owed, a claim may also include issue and a claimant’s solicitor’s costs.
On the concern that proof of service is not required, the rules were introduced following a consultation in 2006, and strike a balance between creditors and debtors. Before their introduction, there was great expense for both claimants and defendants in ensuring that claims were served.
On the question about action taken before the issuing of a claim, claimants are encouraged to contact defendants before taking action, which will always be the last resort. An existing protocol that encourages early engagement with a debtor is being revised, with the assistance of the credit and money advice sectors, to provide debtors with a further opportunity to engage with the claimant.
The vast majority of organisations responsible for bringing county court claims are large debt recovery agencies, utility companies or parking companies. It is important to balance the needs of businesses to recoup money owed to them with the need to give people a chance to defend themselves against money claims. The Ministry of Justice is working with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and the Department for Communities and Local Government to look at what more could be done to protect people from the potentially damaging effects of having a claim entered against them about which they knew nothing.
We hope that businesses will engage with the Government on what more can be done to ensure that claims are pursued only after the right checks have been carried out. The Ministry of Justice will continue to provide support and analysis on the court side of this issue, and will report back in due course. I thank the hon. Gentleman for the opportunity to discuss this subject.
Question put and agreed to.
English Wine Industry
Before I call Mr Parish to move the motion, I should say that no fewer than five Government Members have asked to speak. I am sure that Mr Parish will introduce the debate with his customary eloquence and brevity and allow his colleagues to get in.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the English wine industry.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward, and I am glad you have such confidence in me. I am very pleased to have been asked to be an English wine champion in Parliament by the United Kingdom Vineyard Association. I am also glad that my hon. Friend the Member for Monmouth (David T. C. Davies) is my counterpart for the Welsh wine industry.
Ever since Roman times, UK landowners, monks and noblemen have all tried to cultivate a domestic wine industry, but to little or no avail. During the Norman era, almost 1,000 years ago, the Domesday Book recorded vineyards in 42 separate locations. However, the colder and wetter weather of the middle ages soon put an end to that, and so our Norman conquerors continued this country’s long tradition of importing wine. In fact, to this day we still import more of our wine from France—more than £900 million worth every year—than from any other country.
In 2008, when I was in the European Parliament and we were talking about the wine regime, I said in one great moment of bravado that we will actually produce more wine than the French. I rather fear that I may not live long enough to see that happen, but we do know that English wine production is going in the right direction.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. We all see wine in the context of France—our nearest neighbour and obviously a major producer—but does he agree that British wine has a unique taste? It is naturally effervescent and has a delicate mineral presentation to the palette. It is an excellent product, worthy of international acclaim.
My hon. Friend is so right, is he not? It is the best wine in the world; there is no doubt about that. I have never undersold anything in my life, and certainly not when it comes to English wine and Welsh wine—is there even a little Scottish wine somewhere? Hopefully not. Seriously though, it is great that we have this wine. I will come to this, but we have a very new wine industry, so we have the very latest equipment and the very best methods—and some great soil and some great grapes—so we have every chance to have good wine.
English wine is now the fastest growing agri-sector in the UK and last year alone it added £100 million to the UK economy. There are now more than 500 commercial vineyards in the UK, with as many as 5,000 people being employed across the sector. The acreage of planted vines has doubled in the last decade and by 2020 the UK wine industry is expected to produce about 10 million bottles a year, with 25% of English wine being exported, and that is a very conservative estimate.
With those great figures, does my hon. Friend agree that one way to promote English wine would be to serve it in all our embassies around the world, and in Parliament and all our Government buildings? For example—to take one completely at random—Giffords Hall Rosé from Suffolk, or indeed Copdock Hall Rosé from Suffolk, would make a great addition to any of our fine embassies.
Obviously there is great wine from Suffolk, as there is across all our counties of England and Wales, and it is right that we promote it in our embassies and in Parliament, in the restaurants and when we buy wine from Parliament, especially sparkling wine but also others.
I commend my hon. Friend. I was made a snipe champion, so I rather think I have drawn the short straw, given that he was made a wine champion.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. Should we not put our wine together with all our other amazing produce, such as our cheese, our cream and our butter, to promote tourism in the UK, perhaps with the Great British Food Unit behind it, so that we sell our great food and drink much better—Staplecombe Vineyards produces some of that wine; it is in Taunton, so obviously it must be good—and really make it part of our sales pitch?
I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention. She is right, and we are conducting an inquiry at the moment into rural tourism, so this is very much about the food, the drink, the wine—everything is there. We can compete with our continental cousins extremely well. Let us go out and actually do it.
There are as many as 50 wineries and vineyards in Devon alone, with UK vineyards appearing as far north as Yorkshire. From growers in East Anglia reporting higher yields to Camel Valley Vineyard in Cornwall having a
“fourth good year in a row”,
the English wine industry is going from strength to strength.
Let me turn to the reasons for that growth. Many parts of England have always had the same chalky limestone soils as the Champagne region, but now English wine makers are catching up because our climate is improving. In blind tastings, some English wines are now beating the great Champagne houses at their own game. Therefore, with climate changing, we have every chance to produce the very best sparkling wines; dare I say—I will probably be sued—almost champagnes?
Not only are we beating them in competition, but the French are now admitting, “If you can’t beat them, join them,” because the houses of Taittinger and Pommery have both bought acreage and joined up with English vineyards in the United Kingdom to produce English sparkling wine that is better than French champagne.
My hon. Friend has obviously been looking at my speech, because I shall mention that in a minute. There is no doubt that they are buying up land. We have to be careful; we do not want to be entirely overrun by France, especially given the history. Seriously, though, what the French are bringing is the investment and the expertise, so if we can work together, I believe that English wine, in particular sparkling wine, has huge potential.
There is some more good news. Statistics produced by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs show that an additional 75,000 acres of land are suitable for producing English sparkling wine. That is equivalent in size to the whole of the Champagne region, which just shows how much potential there is for growth.
Only last year, the champagne producer Taittinger purchased some land in Kent to establish its first UK vineyard. Prime vineyard land in the UK is actually much cheaper than in France and many of our arable farmers are also beginning to see that attraction. Vineyards are quickly becoming part of farm diversification, and with the added bonus of shops, cafés, tours, weddings and wine tastings, vineyards and wineries can provide a much needed boost for agri-tourism and rural jobs.
Further to that point, will my hon. Friend join me in congratulating Sharpham Wine and Cheese, which does just that? It is producing not only fantastic wines but fantastic cheeses and is providing a welcome tourist centre for tours, sharing expertise and creating valuable local employment.
I very much commend the Sharpham vineyard, because, once again, it is reaching out. It is producing a good wine, and then we can have good local food and bring more and more tourists down to the south-west, provided that we dual the A30 into Honiton while we are at it and along the A358 to Taunton—that was not part of my speech.
English wine is now of such a good standard that our Government and embassies are confident of promoting English sparkling wine across the world—I am sure we will hear much more about that from the Minister. I even heard on the grapevine—sorry about that—earlier this year that Chapel Down in Kent had become Downing Street’s official wine supplier. Unfortunately, however, less than 1% of wine drunk in the UK is from our shores, so for a start let us ensure that a variety of English and Welsh wines are sold in Parliament, Government buildings and our embassies, and are not just found in Downing Street.
Parliament’s bars and restaurants are selling French champagne and Italian prosecco, as well as wines from Chile to New Zealand. It is great to have these wines here, but we really must have our English wine here. Even worse, the House of Commons-branded wine is not actually from the UK. If we are going to promote English or Welsh wine globally, we really should get our own House in order first.
It is true that English wine is generally a little more expensive, so the Government must look at what can be done to create a level playing field. In the UK, as much as 60% of the cost of an average bottle of wine goes on tax—so I expect our great Minister here to reduce the tax on our wine immediately. That 60% in this country compares with about 21% in France. Excise duty is too high in this country and punishes domestic wine producers the most, who pay duty even before the wine is sold. At the last Budget in March, all other drink sectors received duty freezes, but the wine industry saw a duty rise. There is therefore a serious point to be made: our growers of wine and grapes should be treated fairly. If wine continues to go unnoticed and unprotected by Government, there will be a growing impact on the industry right across the board, from small to large producers.
It is also vital that the UK rejoins the International Organisation of Vine and Wine, the OIV, which is the global organisation for science and technical standards in the wine trade. The British Government left the organisation in 2005, citing cost, but all the big wine producers are members, including most of Europe. OIV members account for some 80% of global production. We need a seat at the top table to help to construct the rules covering this global trade. Will the Minister commit to the UK rejoining the OIV? In addition, the English wine industry reports that there are not enough approved pesticides. The green book of UK-approved pesticides gets thinner every year. Any assistance or reassurance that the Minister can give us and the industry that the issue will be given close attention will be much appreciated. We need a level playing field with our European counterparts.
I want English wine to be a big Brexit success story. The Government are committed to boosting British exports to growing markets around the world. Where better to start than English wine, where many of the top export markets are in Asia? When negotiating a new trade deal with the EU, the Government should look to secure tariff-free access for wine produced in the UK. That should also be a priority for trade deals with other nations. We also need a national scheme equivalent to the EU’s protected geographical status. We must protect our names and the particular association of English sparkling wines as being a high-quality product. The protected geographical indications currently cover British products such as west country lamb and Exmoor Jersey blue cheese. I was pleased therefore to hear that the Government were considering registering the name “Sussex” as a kitemark brand for sparkling wine. What progress has been made on that registration? Where does Brexit leave the opportunity to have protected regional brands? We also need to focus on training and skills. Vineyards must get the necessary labour post-Brexit to realise their full potential.
Finally, if we allow our producers equal competition against subsidised wine industries in other countries, we will definitely need a new farming support regime. We must help and encourage those who produce and export the very best English wine. Minister, there are a lot of them. There is so much more we can do to encourage this growing industry, whether through promotion, name recognition or making tax changes to help exports. English wine can be an even better success, so let us uncork its great potential.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward, in this important debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) on securing it. I am particularly pleased to be speaking in it because my constituency, which I am proud to represent, has more wine producers than any other. We have 17 producers that I am aware of, including award-winning producers such as Stopham, whose wine was served on the Queen’s barge in the diamond jubilee celebrations; Wiston; Nutbourne; and, perhaps most notably—arguably it is the finest English wine—Nyetimber, which is a premium brand that is increasingly exported globally.
First, I want to add to what my hon. Friend said about the importance of the Government getting behind this industry. It would be relatively easy for them to do that. It seems to me absolutely obvious that the Government should showcase English sparkling wine at its major events. I am glad that Downing Street is serving English sparkling wine. I hope that the Foreign Office is also doing so at appropriate events, and I hope our embassies will be encouraged to do the same. I recognise that English sparkling wine is relatively more expensive, but it says something about our country and this emerging industry if we can serve the wines. It would be a talking point.
I make a plea to the Minister to look at the normal procurement rules and to perhaps give a say and an opportunity to the variety of English sparkling wines that are produced. The Government should not just land on one or two, which I understand is the case in Downing Street at the moment. These are all emerging brands, and there are some particularly fine ones among them that win blind tastings. I understand that Clarence House adopts a slightly different approach in how it serves English wine. It has blind tastings and has arrived at serving rather more English wines as a consequence. The opportunity should be shared around more, and the Government should approach the issue in that way so that other areas of the country and other wines can benefit. Indeed, the Government may need to do that if they are to serve such wines more, which seems to me to be a relatively cheap way in which they could help the industry.
Secondly, I endorse what my hon. Friend said about wine duty. At the moment, wine duty applies across the board because we are in the European Union. It is not clear whether that would continue in the future, but there is a case anyway for reducing wine duty in the same way as has happened for beer duty. It has been shown that that has a beneficial impact, and wine has rather lost out in the argument in recent years. Wine duty was frozen at one point, but generally it has increased, and that has a negative effect that could be addressed. I hope that the Minister will join us in making representations to the Chancellor to support the industry by lowering wine duty.
Thirdly, I endorse what my hon. Friend may have said—I am not sure whether he did, but I will say it anyway—on the Government’s producing a welcome roundtable. The then Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, now Lord Chancellor, held a roundtable on how English wine is promoted, bringing together the various interests in the country. It would be welcome if the Government continued with that initiative and held another roundtable. I look forward to hearing from the Minister about that.
English wine is a potential success story. It is no longer a joke. People are talking about it. It is a potential source of alternative rural employment and a good, environmentally friendly land use. It seems to me far better to grow vines than to grow ugly things on agricultural land that might have been farmed in other ways in the past. It is a great opportunity for the country. At a time when many of us may be utterly miserable due to global events, I can think of no better way to drown one’s sorrows than for those who drink—sadly, I am no longer one of them—to raise a glass of English wine and toast its success.
I do not hold with those who say that we need Brexit for English wine to be a success story. Nor is it necessarily the case that tariff-free access for wine will be an answer in itself, because tariff-free access would imply a reciprocal arrangement and tariff-free access for wine that we import. As so often, the glib solutions are not necessarily the most straightforward. There are ways that the Government can get behind the industry, and I hope that they will, because it is an important and exciting one for this country.
I will briefly break into this commercial break for English wine and produce to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) on securing this debate on an important success story. It is already a success story.
I declare an interest as the chairman of the all-party group on wine and spirits—it is an arduous task that I am delighted to carry on my shoulders—and as someone who spent his youth working at the English Wine Centre in Sussex in the 1980s. In those days, the English wine industry was not such a quality industry. Having been rejuvenated in the 1950s by the great pioneer of English wine, Guy Salisbury-Jones at his Hambledon vineyard, English wine in the 1980s was not an easy sell. We had to invent the “Great English Wine Run”, taking English wine bottles to Paris in a reverse of the Beaujolais wine race to try to promote that rather questionable project and product, but things have completely and utterly changed. English wine is now a quality product recognised as a premium brand around the world. It is part of the great British contribution to quality food and drink. We must not underestimate it.
If I could correct my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull (Julian Knight), this is not British wine. British wine is a filthy product made of imported wine concentrates from abroad. It has nothing British about it. The correct terminology for what we are talking about is English and Welsh wine.
There are not yet any Scottish vineyards that I am aware of—but if climate change continues, the way that the new President of the United States may wish, we may be having Château Edinburgh before the decade is out.
The success story of English wine is huge. We are now producing some 5 million bottles of English wine per year and that will at least double by 2020, to 10 million bottles, with half a dozen vineyards each producing 1 million bottles of English sparkling wine, which is now three quarters of English wine production. That is a huge growth success story, and it is not just the wine production—there is also the cottage industry and tourism aspects to it, as my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton said. Most of the vineyards are open to the public, have restaurants attached and have vineyard tours.
English wine is a quality product, so much so that it has now won no fewer than 175 awards in prestigious international wine competitions, constantly winning blind tastings, in particular up against some of the best French champagnes. I absolutely echo my hon. Friend’s words that we need to have protective marks. The Sussex kitemark in my area would be great progress towards that.
Alas, I do not have any vineyards in my constituency, but my constituents certainly drink a lot of wine. Around me we have vineyards such as Ridgeview and Bolney, as well as Plumpton College, which now has the only wine department in the whole of the country, where a Frenchman is teaching English students how to produce wine. My favourite local vineyard, and one of the oldest in the country, is Breaky Bottom, which is marketed as probably the best bottom in the world. That vineyard now produces a very fine product.
The Government need to take account of some points. We need to encourage investment. Setting up a winery in the UK is an expensive business, much more expensive than on the continent where they have a better climate for it. There are no real tax advantages and there is a particular tax disincentive—because of their size, most vineyards will send their grapes somewhere else to be made into wine and so they are not counted as agricultural premises. The tax treatment of the English wine production chain needs to be looked at and restrictions on planting vineyards need to be relaxed.
Only 2,000 hectares of land are under wine production in this country; there are 35,000 in the champagne region in France alone. Up to now, under the EU, we have been restricted from planting new vineyards. Those restrictions have been relaxed until 2030 but technically we are allowed to plant only an additional 1% of vineyards a year—another good reason why we are coming out of Europe as early as possible. That was a very protectionist measure from the days of wine lakes on the continent. We certainly do not have any surplus wine in the UK because it is lapped up as soon as it is produced.
We need some help on planning. We also need some help on duty. This year, wine was the only alcoholic product to receive a duty rise. Duty on wine has gone up considerably over the last 10 years. The duty per average bottle of wine was £1.33 in 2007; it is now £2.08. English wine producers have to pay tax at the same rate as continental wine producers, who can produce it much more cheaply.
I agree with all my hon. Friends’ comments, and we need to lead by example. Every embassy around the world should be serving, as the normal staple, English wine and sparkling wine. Many enlightened ambassadors do that already, and the Foreign Office should make the supply chain for that much easier. It is crazy that the House of Commons bar does not regularly serve an English wine. I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton and all of her hon. Friends will support a campaign to get an English guest wine in the House of Commons bars on a regular basis, as already happens with British guest beers. We should be putting our money where our mouth is in this place and supporting a fantastic quality English and Welsh product that is going to be the envy of the world. I am very proud to have been there in the early days, when it was actually not much cop—but it is now.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today, Sir Edward, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) on securing today’s debate.
We are here to discuss and highlight the merits of the English fine wine industry. I have two fantastic examples in my constituency of North Cornwall. I thank the Camel Valley vineyard near Bodmin and Trevibban Mill vineyard in St Issey near Padstow for sending me their feedback ahead of today’s debate, to highlight the challenges for and successes of the industry.
Trevibban Mill started in 2008 on an organic farm and its first wines were produced in 2011. It opened its doors to the public in 2015 and now produces 20,000 bottles a year, including some excellent, award-winning wine. Its Black Ewe organic red recently won a silver medal in the International Wine Challenge.
Camel Valley, an internationally renowned vineyard on the banks of the River Camel, was established in 1989 and continues to produce some fabulous wine. In 2009, Sam Lindo from Camel Valley won the trophy and gold medal at the International Wine Challenge for the Camel Valley Bacchus, also winning the gold medal in the December World Wine Awards for his sparkling Cornwall Pinot Noir. Camel Valley finished second in the Sparkling Wine Championships, behind Bollinger, which is a fantastic achievement for a Cornish business. The vineyard produces around 120,000 bottles a year and has managed to tap into American markets, with its wine being exported to 14 US states.
I am delighted that so many amazing success stories are coming out of North Cornwall’s food and drink sector and Camel Valley and Trevibban Mill are two excellent examples. The wine industry in the south-west is definitely the bowler hat to the food and drink sector.
Some concerns have been communicated to me by the vineyards and I would be grateful if the Minister addressed them. The first concern is the difference between British wine and English wine, a point also raised by my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton). Will the Minister tell me why wineries can import concentrate from abroad and call it British wine? Vineyards in England that grow their own grapes have to label their wine as English. Both vineyards said that the difference between British and English wine is not clearly explained to the public, which means that consumers will sometimes buy British wine under the assumption that the grapes are grown in Britain. British wine is also cheaper than English wine, so consumers will often opt for British wine rather than English without understanding the difference.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right.
Of course, the sector would welcome a cut to duty. A suggestion communicated to me is the possibility of a duty to fund promotion of the wine industry. If 1p per litre of wine duty could be diverted to the wine associations, they would have a huge boost to their ability to support and promote the wine industry in the future. That would also make the Treasury very happy, because it would mean increased revenue through sales.
I would also like to put forward the idea of a more staggered system along the lines of income tax, where wine producers do not pay any duty on their first 7,000 bottles—the cider industry already has a similar proposal on the table. That would be a huge help to some of our smaller wine producers, which struggle to expand and have very high overhead costs, which have already been mentioned.
Our wine industry in England is going from strength to strength. We should continue to support these fine businesses, as we have done today with this debate.