House of Commons
Thursday 17 November 2016
The House met at half-past Nine o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Business Before Questions
New Southgate Cemetery Bill [Lords]
Second Reading opposed and deferred until Thursday 24 November (Standing Order No. 20).
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
High-performance Sports Cars: Rentals
The Government are committed to ensuring that courts have sufficient powers to deal with dangerous driving and will soon commence a consultation looking at driving offences and penalties. Rental companies can check Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency driver records and should not be renting vehicles to unsafe drivers. The British Vehicle Rental and Leasing Association has a code of conduct it expects its members to comply with, and, if concerned, the public can contact the BVRLA or trading standards.
In my area, and across the UK, a large number of accidents and deaths have been caused by inexperienced drivers, who often hire high-performance cars for just a few days at a time. Later this month, the Lancashire Telegraph will launch a dangerous driving campaign looking at this and many other aspects of road safety. Will the Minister join me in supporting the campaign, which aims to shine a light on what is happening on our roads?
My hon. Friend makes an important point about road safety, which is a critical issue, because, despite our enviable national record, 1,730 people lost their lives on British roads last year. Media campaigns in this area can be very helpful, so I do, indeed, support the Lancashire Telegraph campaign in principle, and I look forward to hearing more when it starts.
I, too, am supporting that campaign, and we have seen numerous incidents across east Lancashire, but would the Government not accept that one thing that is not helping on motorways is the fact that local government cuts mean that motorway lights are being turned off?
Does the Minister agree that anyone with points on their licence indicating a number of offences should be excluded from the rental of cars with above a 2-litre engine? Would he consider co-operation with the police and insurance companies on this issue?
Car Manufacturers: Emissions
The Secretary of State has regular discussions with the Attorney General on a range of issues.
The Government take any matters regarding the safety and environmental performance of vehicles on UK roads extremely seriously.
We hear that quite often, but as consumers in this country look around the world—to New Zealand, Brazil, France, Germany and South Korea—they see action being taken against companies such as Volkswagen, while this Government let people down and drag their heels. Can I hear something firm about what the Government have been doing to take these companies to task?
The hon. Gentleman underestimates me. It is true that, in a hard world, I have a soft heart, but companies that care less for their workers or treat their customers without integrity will soon learn that, in my velvet glove, there is a steely fist I am not afraid to use. To that end, I have met Volkswagen twice. I am absolutely determined it should meet its legal obligations. It will meet in full the costs that we have endured as a Government. I can tell the House today that I have received a pledge from Volkswagen to pay £1.1 million, which taxpayers have had to spend as a result of its behaviour, and I expect to receive that cheque before Christmas.
It would certainly be right to encourage people to behave in a way that met the Government’s objectives for emissions. To that end, my hon. Friend, who is a knowledgeable and assiduous Member of this House, will know that the Government have taken direct action to promote the use of electric vehicles and to encourage those who choose to purchase vehicles with lower emissions. He is right that we must act with moderation, but, equally, we must act with determination to ensure that our vehicles are as clean as they can be, for it is emissions that lead to particulate material, which we know—this is a matter not of speculation but of evidence—is injurious to our health and wellbeing.
This is a scandal of huge proportions. Thousands of people have died in this country because of the defeat devices that Volkswagen inserted. The fact is that the European Union’s legislative framework is weaker than the framework of capitalist United States. Does the Minister agree that the European Union does not deserve its reputation for protecting the environment?
I am tempted to say that I find it difficult to believe that anything that emanates from the European Union is virtuous, but I will not say that. What I will say is that the Volkswagen scandal is, as the hon. Gentleman says, unacceptable. It would be unacceptable whether we were members of the European Union or not. There are other aspects to this, however. There is the programme of technical fixes that Volkswagen is engaged in, which I pressed it to get on with. There is also the issue of its legal obligations, which I mentioned a moment ago. Let me also be clear that I have not ruled out a separate investigation into these affairs by this Government, and I have told Volkswagen that.
I am sure that the Minister is aware that modern diesel vehicles have either exhaust gas recirculation systems or diesel particulate filters fitted to stop the emission of harmful gases and particles. Is he aware of the increasing practice among the owners of diesel vehicles, including taxis and buses, of illegally removing these systems and causing these harmful gases to be emitted into the atmosphere? If he is aware of it, what is he doing about it, and if he is not will he investigate it and write to me about the action that he intends to take?
To write to the hon. Gentleman, who is a distinguished Member of this House whom I met briefly earlier this week, albeit not on these issues, would be inadequate. I will meet him to discuss this matter in some detail, because he clearly has expert understanding to bring to bear.
Rail Stations: Disabled Access
All the funding under the current pot of money for Access for All has been allocated to stations. We intend to seek further funding for the next rail control period. We will seek nominations from the industry and start to announce the successful projects in 2018.
Lichfield happens to be one of the smallest cities in the country, but Lichfield Trent Valley railway station is an important interchange between the west coast main line and the cross-city line that connects Lichfield with Birmingham and with Redditch. Yet two out of the three platforms are completely inaccessible to anybody who is disabled, or indeed anybody who has baggage with them and wants to get to one of those platforms. We were meant to get disabled access in October this year, so when is it going to happen?
I am glad that my hon. Friend shares my commitment to and passion for improving disabled accessibility. I understand that he has met Network Rail at the station to discuss its plans for the project. It intends to start work as soon as possible and it should take about a year to complete, so I hope it will been seen within a year. Network Rail should appreciate that Access for All projects are as important as any of its major prestige projects.
On Saturday there was a tragic suicide at Pencoed station in my constituency. One of the issues is that it has a level crossing, which is the only way in which disabled people are able to go between the lines. It is far too accessible in terms of the station lines, and there is a very high suicide rate. Network Rail has allocated funding via the Department for Transport to improve the level crossing, but I would like to see it closed. Will the Minister meet me to discuss additional funding to try to close off the access at that station?
I am always happy to meet hon. Members. I know that level crossing safety is a particular concern across the country. Every level crossing has its own characteristics and difficulties, so I am more than happy to meet the hon. Gentleman to discuss this case.
There is obviously no cause for complacency in relation to disabled access, but it is worth putting it on record that in the past 15 years there has been a sea change on our railways; I certainly see that from a London and home counties perspective. While I hope that we can continue this progress on disabled access, substantial improvements have been made in recent years.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his comments. He is right to indicate the progress that has been made. However, we cannot accept a situation where some of our busiest stations remain inaccessible, so work will have to continue into the next rail period and beyond. I intend to keep up the pressure on Network Rail and train operating companies, as I am sure Members across the House will, too.
Despite the fact that so many disabled people rely on public transport, the Government have slashed the Access for All programme, which pays for improvements to access at stations, by 40%. Some 19% of stations currently have step-free access via lifts and ramps to all their platforms. Given that record, we can hardly describe ourselves as an inclusive society when so many stations are inaccessible to disabled people. What representations will the Minister make to the Chancellor ahead of the autumn statement to address that appalling state of affairs?
I am glad that the hon. Gentleman also shares my commitment to the issue. We have made important progress in delivering improved accessibility at many of our busiest stations, but there is still more to do. I will not pre-empt the autumn statement, however much he might like me to do so, but I will seek more money for Access for All in control period 6 of our rail investment. That will deliver far more accessibility at far more stations.
We need to continue to improve transport and rail links in the south-west, and my No. 1 priority is to deal with resilience near the Dawlish sea wall and the Dawlish cliffs. The next stage of the project requires a further £10 million to continue to develop the programme and deal with the issue once and for all, and I can announce to the House today that that funding will be granted and the work will go ahead. That is an important part of ensuring that we protect the essential rail links to the south-west, and I hope that people there will see it as a commitment to making sure that they have a proper transport system for the future.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend and, indeed, to all my south-west colleagues, who are vociferous champions of the need to make sure that we have the best possible transport links to the constituencies that they represent. I will be very happy to discuss with him the needs of his constituents in Cornwall and, in particular, the potential for improving links to Okehampton.
The National Audit Office’s verdict on the Great Western Railway electrification fiasco was absolutely damning. It described it as
“a case study in how not to manage a major programme.”
It is estimated that passenger growth on the line will be 81% over the five-year period leading up to 2018-19. Anyone who uses the line will know how overcrowded it is. What reassurances can the Secretary of State give that there will be an improvement in our area?
The hon. Lady will not be surprised to learn that I am not happy about the way in which the modernisation and electrification programme has been managed. The NAO report also said that, since 2015, my Department has had a much firmer grip on the programme. I am still not satisfied with the progress that is being made. New trains will, of course, be rolled out across the network sooner rather than later. I am committed to making sure that the project is delivered and that the improvements it brings will happen for passengers.
I welcome the Secretary of State’s announcement on the Dawlish line, given how vital it is in ensuring that my constituency actually has a train service. Does he agree that it was not acceptable for CrossCountry trains to bury in a lengthy timetable consultation document a proposal to axe virtually all of its direct services between the bay and the midlands and Manchester?
My objective is to make sure that the programmes under way are delivered properly, with the benefits delivered as quickly as possible. As I said, I am not happy with what has happened so far. One great irony is that during the Labour party’s 13 years in power only 10 miles of railway line were electrified. The other is that at a time when Labour is demanding the nationalisation of the railways, these problems have arisen in the one bit of the railway in the public sector.
Transport Infrastructure: North England
Improving northern transport infrastructure is vital to the success of the northern powerhouse. The Government are committing £13 billion in transport improvements over this Parliament, and we have created Transport for the North, a partnership of key organisations to drive forward a northern transport strategy. Our announcement this week on HS2 phase 2b is further confirmation of our commitment.
We are told that HS2 will cut journey times from the north to London and therefore benefit places such as St Helens, but surely the real driver of economic growth and regeneration in the north is good transport infrastructure across the region from west to east. When will we see a commitment to, and action from the Government on, connecting our great northern cities and towns to each other, not just to London?
The action the hon. Gentleman is calling for is already under way, with the electrification of the trans-Pennine rail links, the road investments that are taking place and HS3, which we have called “northern powerhouse rail”. That project is being developed by TfN and we will be seeing its proposals early next year.
Notwithstanding what the Minister has just said, when I attended the UK Major Ports Group reception on Monday evening, the port director for the Humber stressed to me how urgently needed east-west connections from Immingham and the Humber ports to Liverpool and Manchester were. He talked about trans-Pennine tunnels and so on, which are decades off, so can the Minister reassure him that action will be taken immediately?
I can provide my hon. Friend with much reassurance. I entirely agree on the importance of connecting businesses to our key modes of transport, especially our ports. Developing the connectivity of our ports is a project being taken forward by the Minister of State, Department for Transport, my right hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr Hayes).
Liverpool2 has recently opened, with a new deepwater port, which raises the possibility of the whole of the north becoming an economic powerhouse. What can the Minister tell us about plans to improve freight access to ports right across the north, in an integrated approach with road and rail?
Ninety-five per cent. of the steel used on our railways already comes from Scunthorpe, and that is a key part of all of our procurement. We want to see British steel used in our transport infrastructure, and Scunthorpe will of course play a key part in that.
By the time HS2 eventually opens from Manchester Piccadilly, it will take some of my constituents, who live within Greater Manchester, longer to drive to Manchester, especially at peak times, than to travel by train from Manchester to London. What plans do the Government have to improve that?
It is not as though HS2 is the only investment taking place in the north: more than £1.25 billion is being spent in the north-west on local transport schemes through the growth deal; £800 million-plus is being spent on north-west road schemes; and a further £1 billion is being spent on other parts of the rail network. It is HS2 plus all the other investments that makes the comprehensive transformation of transport in the north.
Does the Minister agree with a group of leading north-west businesses that the gap between investment in north-west transport infrastructure and investment in London transport infrastructure is unacceptably high? Does he agree that if we were to close that gap, we could really transform the commuter services, trams and buses, and we could get the Oyster card of the north, which we so desperately need to transform our transport?
Transport investments around the country are not necessarily happening at the same pace, but I suggest to the hon. Lady that £340 million is being spent on rail in the Liverpool city region right now, and nobody could really doubt our commitment to the north after this week’s announcements on HS2.
I do not want to prick the bubble of self-congratulation, but new analysis published yesterday by the TUC reveals that the UK ranks towards the bottom of the table of OECD countries for capital investment in important areas of economic development, and worst of all is transport. As a percentage of 2014 GDP—these are the latest figures—UK investment was the lowest ranking, in last place out of 34 countries. With pauses and unpauses, and shunting programmes off into the distant future—be it HS3, northern powerhouse rail, or whatever we want to call it—is it not time that the Government started delivering instead of continually breaking their promises?
Rail Passengers: Delay Compensation
As my hon. Friend will be aware, we recently announced an improved compensation scheme for passengers that will apply if their train is more than 15 minutes late. All franchise competitions let by the Department will include that policy, and we will be exploring how to roll it out for all our existing franchises during this Parliament.
I thank the Minister for his response. On the Chase line, passengers face not only delays, but cancellations and part cancellations. Services often do not reach the two Rugeley stations, leaving passengers stranded and resulting in overcrowding on subsequent services. Will my hon. Friend outline how the compensation scheme will benefit those who are affected by part cancellations?
This is the third time that my hon. Friend has brought me to the Dispatch Box to discuss the Chase line, so no one can say that she is not assiduous on the matter. As she may well be aware, if a passenger’s journey is delayed by 30 minutes, for whatever reason—be it cancellation, part cancellation or a train turning around short of its destination—they are entitled to claim delay repay compensation. Under the new invitation to tender for the west midlands franchise, we are looking at how we scope the “delay repay 15” scheme, which will be brought in under that franchise.
My constituency is not served directly by the London underground or the docklands light railway, much as we would like it to be, which means that we are heavily reliant on rail services. I receive a stream of complaints almost daily about delays on Southeastern railway. This cannot be allowed to continue, because people are heavily reliant on that service. One thing I would say for Southeastern is that it needs extra capacity—it needs extra carriages. The carriages that become available when the Thameslink programme is complete must be made available for Southeastern so that we can deal with the capacity problem, but we must also deal with Southeastern’s performance.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question and look forward to seeing him at our meeting on Southeastern for all affected MPs later this month. He will know the impact that the London Bridge works have had and the extra capacity that they will unlock. We are having a meeting later today with Southeastern to discuss performance issues further, to make sure that we are on top of ensuring that this is an adequate service, delivering for passengers.
However welcome the Minister’s response is, given the regularity of interruptions to services—they are primarily the fault of Network Rail—for my constituents travelling to Liverpool Street, the end of the Parliament is too long to wait for this improvement in the compensation scheme. May I urge the Minister to ensure that it is brought in for all rail users across the country as soon as possible, rather than by 2020?
I share my right hon. Friend’s enthusiasm for bringing in the scheme as soon as we possibly can. As he will understand, an in-franchise change involves a more complex commercial negotiation, but that does not mean that we do not wish to do this as soon as we can.
Although Northern Rail is very reluctant to pay out compensation to rail passengers, it is over-enthusiastic about prosecuting people who have not been able to buy a ticket through no fault of their own. Will the Minister put pressure on Northern Rail to reconsider its approach?
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman recognises the importance of engaging in adequate revenue protection on the railways, but I accept that when people have inadvertently, for whatever reason, not been able to purchase a ticket, there is a sense of unfairness. I will make sure that I write to Northern Rail and get a reply for him.
Rail Infrastructure: Sussex
My hon. Friend will be aware that we are making a range of substantial investments on the rail network in Sussex, including in longer platforms on the Uckfield line, a new Thameslink depot and upgraded power systems. That said, I want to be clear that I am well aware of the frustrations felt by passengers in her constituency. Quite apart from the disgraceful and unwarranted industrial action that is taking place at the moment, one of the key issues is that this network is not reliable enough. I give her and her constituents an assurance that I am looking very hard at how to step up a programme of incremental improvements to stop the day-by-day breakdowns that are making the current issues much worse.
I welcome the investment in infrastructure, which is causing 50% of the delays. Does the Secretary of State not agree that, in the long term, a second rail main line between Sussex and London is needed to increase rail capacity in the south-east and to improve journey times for my constituents?
I am well aware of the degree of campaigning behind the Brighton main line 2 concept. My hon. Friend the rail Minister and I have discussed that, and I am aware that a report has sat on the desk for much too long. I intend to make sure that it does not sit on the desk for very much longer.
The Secretary of State will no doubt have seen the “Panorama” programme that was broadcast on 7 November that highlighted the daily hell faced by passengers, especially those using Southern rail on the line mentioned by the hon. Member for Lewes (Maria Caulfield). Is he content that Southern rail customers are facing this commuting hell every day, or will he act to do something about it?
No, I am not at all content. Of course, the biggest step that could be taken would be for the rail unions to call off their action so that we can deal with some of the underlying infrastructure problems, which I described a moment ago. One of the things I find sad is that, far from joining us in calling for the strikes to end so that we can improve the situation, Labour Members seem keener to line up with the militants rather than opposing them.
Southern rail was a disgrace before the current industrial action, and it will continue to be a disgrace long after the current industrial action is complete and the dispute is settled. The Department for Transport sets the routes, allocates the franchises, dictates the number of trains that run and sets fare increases, so when will the Secretary of State stop pretending that this is nothing to do with him, stop blaming everybody else around him and act to stop the daily hell on this line?
I have every intention of addressing the issue and I am working as hard as I can to do so. I would tell Labour Members that figures published this morning show that, across our railways, far more—more than twice as many—problems arise as a result of infrastructure, which is in the public sector, than as a result of train operations, which are in the private sector. Their persistent arguments that nationalising would solve the problems are just plain wrong. We need to invest; interestingly, we, unlike the Labour party, are doing so.
The utility of any rail infrastructure investment on the Brighton main line in Sussex will depend on the trains running effectively through Surrey. Will the Secretary of State undertake to look at proposals from people in my constituency about extra infrastructure investment in Surrey, alongside the Sussex proposals?
This is a Surrey, Sussex and south London problem, and we must look at the whole thing holistically. My hon. Friend will be aware that I have asked Chris Gibb, a senior rail executive, to look at the issues and to identify ways of addressing resilience problems. He has now put in place detailed plans, and some of that work has already started. For example, a joint team to control the railway on a day-by-day basis was put in place three weeks ago—at Three Bridges, one person will be in charge on a day-by-day basis—and individual infrastructure issues are now beginning to be addressed. I am determined that we do as much as we can, as fast as we can, to improve the resilience of the network.
High Speed 3: Bradford
Northern powerhouse rail, which is sometimes called HS3, is the Government’s vision for dramatically faster and more frequent rail journeys across the north, to help to build the northern powerhouse and strengthen the British economy. With Transport for the North, we are investigating the benefits, both to passengers and to the economy, of northern powerhouse rail serving key markets such as Bradford.
It is absolutely essential that a city the size of Bradford has a station stop on the HS3 route, otherwise the economic benefits in West Yorkshire will be only for Leeds, which will be like throwing apples into an orchard that is already full. Will the Minister therefore commit to making sure that Bradford is on the route so that the Bradford district can also benefit from the northern powerhouse?
Will the Minister give a good talking to to the infrastructure tsar—who waxed lyrical on the radio this week about how important it was to link Oxford and Cambridge—about concentrating on the links across Yorkshire and Lancashire? That is the emphasis we want. We do not want Huddersfield left off the map on any occasion.
Overcrowding: Calderdale Line
I am very aware that that is a busy line, which is why we are seeking to ensure that the new northern franchise tackles overcrowding with investment in new rolling stock that will increase capacity by 37% on peak services into our northern cities. There will be the improvements on the line that the hon. Lady seeks.
I am grateful to the Minister for that response but, further to the comments made by other hon. Members from the region, HADRAG—the Halifax District Rail Action Group—tells me that two morning trains from Halifax to Leeds have been cut from four carriages to two, leading to quite serious overcrowding. Services connecting our major northern towns and cities are essential to delivering the northern powerhouse, so will the Minister tell me what he is doing to avoid the crush that we are seeing on those commuter services?
I recognise that we have a number of issues with trains arriving in Manchester and Leeds with passengers standing because of issues with capacity. That needs to change, which is why in the new northern franchise we have ensured that the pacers will be removed, and we are investing in new carriages that will mean more seats for passengers. We are also investing specifically in the Caldervale line. We have just completed work on the west section, and we will start on the east section in the new year. I hope that the hon. Lady will start to see improvements on that particular network soon, not least because that will help to improve connectivity to Bradford as well, which will bring joy, I am sure, to my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies).
Light Rail: Leeds
I have had no such discussions with Leeds City Council.
That is a worrying answer. The Government made an excellent decision when agreeing with the inspector that the new generation trolleybus scheme was not right, while allowing Leeds to keep £173.5 million to be match funded with £81 million from local authorities. The Department said that that money was clearly for the right system and that NGT was the wrong one, so does the Minister share my dismay that authorities have failed to consider any other system, and specifically failed to consider light rail?
We should congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Stuart Andrew) on his work to ensure that that money was retained in Leeds, but it is now a matter for Leeds City Council to decide the appropriate scheme for Leeds. It is not my role as rail Minister to dictate to Leeds what scheme should be selected.
A survey by Rawdon Parish Council showed that Leeds’s solution of getting passengers to the airport through the road system would not cope with the number of passengers and where they would be coming from. Surely using money for the road and the £173 million for a rail link to the airport would give us an opportunity to address that problem, and would also be the first stage of the properly integrated transport system that the city deserves.
My hon. Friend’s question demonstrates the range of ideas in the wider Leeds region about how the money can be spent. I understand that the combined authority is also looking at matters. I am more than happy to meet him to discuss such ideas further, but it has to be Leeds City Council that decides what the best option is for Leeds.
Thousands of people in Leeds, and my constituents in Wakefield, use buses to travel to work, school and college every day. In the absence of a new light rail system for Leeds, will the Minister look at the Bus Services Bill, which is about to be introduced in this place, and giving powers to integrate and regulate bus services not just to the metro mayors of Manchester and Liverpool, but to the cities of Leeds and Wakefield? That would have the advantage of not costing the Government one penny piece.
I recognise the importance of bus services, particularly in many of the great northern communities—they are vital to Blackpool, too. We will have ample chance to discuss the Bus Services Bill in this place, and I am sure the hon. Lady will make her voice heard.
National Minimum Wage: Seafarers
The right hon. Gentleman will know I am a proud trade unionist. This is an area of great concern to me. I have met my friends in the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers, and Nautilus International—I have Nautilus’ charter with me. My officials have been working closely with officials in the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and HMRC, as well as stakeholders, on the application of the national minimum wage to seafarers in UK waters more generally.
I am grateful to hear that the Minister is taking this matter seriously. It surely cannot be right for HMRC to deem that a ferry service that starts in Aberdeen and finishes in Lerwick is operating wholly outside UK territorial waters. It is nonsense for the body that is supposed to enforce the minimum wage to be undermining it in this way. Will the Government do something to stop this?
I worked with the right hon. Gentleman in government and he knows of me what I know of him, which is that he does his homework. I have the statutory instrument and the original legislation in my hand as I speak. Let me tell him this: I am committed to reviewing the legislation to ensure that it applies to the offshore sector.
Heathrow Airport Expansion
Heathrow airport expects to add six more domestic routes across the UK when the new runway opens in the middle of the next decade. This will strengthen existing domestic links to regions such as Northern Ireland, Scotland and the north of England, and allow the development of new connections to regions such as the south-west. We expect Heathrow to meet these pledges. We will ensure that the Government hold the airport to account; that is an obligation, not a desirable.
I thank the Secretary of State for that excellent answer, and for the hope and expectation contained therein. Is he, like me, taken aback by the EU’s decision to block a multimillion pound aid package to United Airlines, which has effectively removed one of our air carriers out of Northern Ireland? Will he investigate who lodged the complaint to the EU that has effectively destroyed this business in Northern Ireland?
I fear it probably will not tell us, but I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the decision was deeply unwelcome. My Department spent a fair amount of time working alongside the Northern Ireland Office and the Northern Ireland Executive on trying to make sure that we sustained this route for Northern Ireland. The loss of the route because of EU action is deeply unwelcome and precisely the kind of unnecessary decision from Brussels that led this country to vote to leave the European Union.
My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer is listening carefully to representations on this issue. The Scottish National party stood on a platform of getting rid of air passenger duty in Scotland, but it is now discovering that it is more difficult to make ends meet than perhaps it had previously realised. That is one of the challenges of actually having to take decisions, rather than just talking.
The Treasury has held detailed discussions about this, and lots of Members representing different parts of the United Kingdom have made representations, but I fear that it is a matter for the Treasury to indicate whether it plans to do anything in response.
Lord Empey’s Bill in the other House would have guaranteed slots to Northern Ireland. As the Secretary of State knows, air connectivity is very important to us, but the Bill fell because of EU regulation. Can we ensure that it is put back after Brexit?
We have to be quite careful about the mechanism. I am not personally of the view that the solution is just about slots. There are slots at inconvenient times of the day. We want connectivity at times that maximise benefits to the regions of the UK, so that Northern Ireland, Scotland, the south-west and the north of England have proper, good, effective international links. My commitment to the hon. Gentleman and to the House is that we will ensure proper protection for that connectivity, but the actual mechanism needs to await more detailed work.
Just to correct the Secretary of State: it is Ruth Davidson and the Tories who are trying to stop the APD cut in Scotland.
Additional regional capacity is of use only if there are airlines willing to fill it. The lack of a Brexit plan has seen businesses literally in flight from the UK. For instance, easyJet has confirmed that it is in the process of setting up a separate airline based on the European mainland. It said:
“We are not saying there will be no agreement. We just don’t know the shape or form. We don’t have the luxury of waiting”—
and neither do we or those counting on these services. What is your plan?
Let me tell the hon. Gentleman who does have a plan. Bombardier has a plan: it is now investing in a major international rail hub in the UK based on the excellent work in Derby. Nissan has a plan: it is expanding its plants in the north-east. Honda has a plan: it is investing more money in Swindon. Google, Facebook and Apple have plans: they are opening new headquarters in London. In an economy that continues to grow well post-Brexit, that proves that this country will do well regardless.
Instead of deflecting, will the Secretary of State at least agree to a meaningful update of route development and assistance for supporting additional services on existing routes, as well as new services, and—crucially—will he bring forward, before March 2017, firm proposals for specific airport-to-airport public service obligations?
The Government have not shied away from public service obligations when necessary—most recently, between Londonderry and Stansted airport. There are routes in and around the UK that are essential to the maintenance of our regional economies, and we have always been committed, and will remain committed, to ensuring that those obligations are met when necessary.
Electric Vehicles: Charge Points
The UK now has 11,000 publicly accessible charge points, with Europe’s largest network of rapid charge points and provision at 96% of motorway service areas. We will continue to support the roll-out of electric vehicle charging infrastructure to ensure that we realise our ambition that almost every car and van on UK roads is a zero-emission vehicle by 2050.
I welcome the Minister’s reply. I also declare an interest: I am in the process of buying a Nissan Leaf to show my support for Nissan’s welcome investment in electric vehicles and indeed in other vehicles. Will the Minister explain how he is looking to support small businesses investing in electric vehicles for their staff and their businesses?
I am delighted that my hon. Friend is taking that step. I had the joy of driving a Nissan Leaf for the first time last week, and I know that he is as committed to this cause as I am, but he asked a very particular question. Disraeli said that justice is truth in action. Now, I am going to offer him some justice for those who want to get this right. I am pleased to inform the House that the £7.5 million grant scheme for charge points at workplaces will be rolled out—applications will begin—this Monday.
The hon. Gentleman is right that technology is changing in all kinds of ways, and there will be all kinds of results from that in respect of the zero emission ambition that I set out. The electric vehicle developments that I described, and to which the hon. Gentleman referred, are important. The Government’s role is to make sure that we do what we can to make them as attractive to consumers as possible. Charge points are at the heart of that.
Leaving the EU: Passenger Rights
The Prime Minister has made it clear that we will convert existing EU regulations into UK law when we leave the European Union. Once the great repeal Bill is given Royal Assent, Parliament will be free—subject to international agreements and treaties with other countries and the EU on matters such as trade—to amend, repeal and improve any law it chooses.
The collapse of low-cost holidays this summer emphasises the importance of the EU package travel directive, which offers consumers protection in the case of insolvency. Can the Minister give me a guarantee that any rights to which UK passengers are currently entitled will not be eroded by Brexit?
The hon. Gentleman must understand that this Government remain entirely committed to putting passengers at the heart of our transport policy and ensuring that we have the right regime for passenger rights. In the end, it comes down to this simple fact. As Ruskin said, quality is never a matter of accident, but the result of intelligent effort. I believe in the determination of this House to do right by passengers. If the hon. Gentleman does not believe that, I suggest that he comes into the new light of the dawn of our leaving the EU rather than staying in the murky darkness of Scottish nationalism.
In the wake of last week’s dreadful accident in Croydon, I would like to start this topical questions session by paying tribute to the British Transport police, for which I have ministerial responsibility, to all the emergency services and to the transport staff who worked so hard in the aftermath. I want to send all the good wishes of this House to those injured and our condolences to the families who tragically lost loved ones.
Recently published annual figures for those killed or seriously injured on our roads at the end of the second quarter of 2016 show a 3% increase on last year. For the third year running, deaths are higher than they were the year before and went up by 2% last year and this year. Thirty deaths may not sound that many out of 1,800, but for every grieving family, they are a tragedy. What is the Government’s plan to arrest and reverse this disturbing trend?
Of course every death on our roads is one death too many. It has to be said that our roads are among the safest in Europe and the world, but that is no reason for complacency. A trend in the wrong direction is an unwelcome one. The Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Andrew Jones), who is in his place alongside me, has responsibility for road safety. He is actively engaged, and will continue to be actively engaged, in looking at measures we could take that will improve things. We will look at different investment measures and different ways of educating motorists and those using the roads, and we will work with anyone who can come up with suggestions about how we can improve the situation.
I am fully aware of the merits of the scheme, and I will make sure that officials from the Department, the West Yorkshire Combined Authority and Bradford Council sit down to sort this out. There is no reason why Government mechanisms for approval should hold back schemes in Bradford. We are seeing schemes progressing all over the country, so I shall make sure that Bradford knows what to do so that the people of Bradford can see the investment they need.
May I associate Opposition Members with the Secretary of State’s comments about the tragedy in Croydon?
The latest statistics from the Department for Transport show a marked decline in bus patronage across the whole country—a drop of some 3%, along with a drop of 2% in bus mileage. Given that we are trying to get passengers out of cars and on to buses, is this not a mark of Government failure? What is the Secretary of State planning to do about it?
We are, of course, maintaining our support for buses, which we see as the workhorses of our public transport system. They make more than 5 billion passenger journeys per year, compared with 1.7 billion on our railways. We are maintaining, for instance, the bus service operators grant and the £1 billion for the concessionary bus pass scheme, and the Bus Services Bill will be introduced next week.
I rather expected the Minister to refer to the Bus Services Bill. Given that franchising is the answer, why is he denying the choice to many swathes of the country? Why cannot parts of England which do not take on elected mayors—and which are represented largely by his own side—have powers to improve their services as well?
I think the hon. Gentleman is mistaken when he says that franchising is the answer. All the conversations that I have had with local authorities have produced a mixture of solutions, but most of have focused on partnerships: good partnerships between local authorities and bus companies which will meet local needs.
I have looked at the report, and I recognise the importance of protecting our biodiversity. Our country is probably more covered in woodland today than it has been for many centuries in our history, and I find it encouraging that organisations such as the Woodland Trust are continuing to plant the forests and woods of the future. However, I am sceptical about a 1:30 ratio which appears to be based on nothing more than a gut instinct. I am not sure that that is an appropriate way of dealing with the issue. What is important, to my mind, is replacing lost woodland with extra planting, and following a “finger in the air” formula may not be the best way of doing so.
The hon. Gentleman has already attended a round table discussion with me on just such matters, and I believe he will be attending another this afternoon. I am spending more time with him and the truckers than with almost anyone else. He can be assured that the case that he makes is dear to my heart, and that it will inform Government policy. He is right to say that we need to look after the smaller operators as well—he has taken a proud and informed stance on that—and I will ensure, through him and through other mechanisms, that they are involved in the discussions.
As my hon. Friend knows, rural Wales is the most beautiful part of any country in the world to drive through. I wonder what more he can do to press the Welsh Government to improve investment in roads in my area, so that our world-class countryside is accessible via a world-class road network.
I do indeed know how beautiful rural Wales is, and my hon. Friend is right to stress the importance of good connections to the tourism industry. I, too, wonder what I could do to press the Welsh Government. Perhaps we could simply highlight to the people of Wales the greater priority placed on investment in infrastructure by Conservative Governments.
Absolutely, but that does not apply only to the steel industry. I believe that HS2 is a great engineering project for the United Kingdom, and I was pleased to note a substantial British presence in the first set of contracts that we announced this week. I have made it very clear that the firms that hope to participate in this project should expect to leave a skills and expertise footprint behind in the United Kingdom, and that those that fail to do so should not expect to find themselves at the front of the queue when it comes to contracting.
On the midland main line, East Midlands Trains often gets it in the neck for train delays when often the responsibility is failures by Network Rail. Will the Secretary of State and the rail Minister design a rail compensation scheme that sends the correct signals to Network Rail to raise its game?
I recognise the situation my hon. Friend describes. We have a number of compensation schemes operating within the rail industry focusing on schedule 8 payments. I recognise the need to make sure that that remains a very clear system for passengers to understand why delay attribution occurs and recognise that there is much work to be done.
There are two separate issues here. Improvements are needed to local roads in west London, and the M4 is one of those where plans are afoot now to deliver improvements way before we have a new runway in place. Heathrow airport will be expected to pay for the infrastructure improvements directly linked to the new runway. There are of course other improvements, such as M4 improvements, that are not directly linked and that have for some while been envisaged as part of the ongoing road improvement programme this Government are pursuing. My commitment is that where a transport improvement is required to make the third runway possible, that will be met by Heathrow airport.
I thank the Minister of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr Hayes), for his commitment to tackling illegal HGV fly-parking across roads in Kent and throughout the country. Does he agree that ending this blight requires not only more lorry parking spaces, but more effective enforcement?
My hon. Friend knows I have also held a round table on that issue—as I have said before, my table is ever more round and I always welcome hearing from hon. Members across this House. My hon. Friend has made this case forcefully; she has done so at Westminster Hall and again today. She is right that we need to look at these matters because they affect local residents in exactly the way she said. We want to get a balanced package for HGVs, but a package that takes account of the overtures my hon. Friend has made in the interests of her constituents.
When the Minister has discussions with Leeds City Council about the light rail scheme, will he also discuss trolleybuses? I drove a trolleybus for three years; they are very efficient and are a lot cheaper in infrastructural costs, and it would be a lot cheaper for Leeds and elsewhere if we had trolleybuses rather than trams.
The hon. Gentleman does not need to localise it any more to Leeds or Wolverhampton. I am in constant discussion with UK Tram and am very keen to lower the cost of all options, whether it be light rail, tram, train or trolley bus, but it is for local councils to decide on the most appropriate scheme for their local area.
Does the Secretary of State share my concern that the reduced growth deal 3 offer made to the Heart of the South West local enterprise partnership has threatened a number of important road and rail improvement schemes in Somerset? Does he also agree that driving growth through improvement to transport infrastructure should trump the devolution agenda?
First, it is important that the funding we allocate to different parts of the country delivers real improvement, whether to congestion and connectivity, economic development or housing. I met the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government earlier this week to discuss the issue. No offers have yet been made on funding to LEPs; that will happen shortly.
The electrification of the line to Hull was included in the Government’s northern transport plan published in March. The hon. Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy), now the Minister for the northern powerhouse, said:
“The problem if you are not included in the electrification is the risk that you then become just a shuttle service connecting into the main line.”
So can the Secretary of State explain to me why yesterday the decision was made not to include the electrification of the line to Hull, and to leave the TransPennine electrification finishing at Selby, 30 miles outside Hull?
The train companies got there first, and the good news for Hull is that both Hull Trains and TransPennine Express are going to be running on this route with new generation state-of-the-art hybrid trains that will run on both electric and diesel, and will connect Hull across the Pennines and connect Hull to London. That is good news for the passengers.
The islands of the Chagos archipelago have been British territory since 1814, when they were ceded to Britain by France. In 1966, the UK agreed with the United States to make the British Indian Ocean Territory available for the defence purposes of the US and the UK, and the Chagossian people were removed from the islands. Like successive Governments before them, this Government have expressed their sincere regret about the manner in which Chagossians were removed from the British Indian Ocean Territory in the late 1960s and early 1970s. It is right that the UK Government paid substantial compensation to Chagossians—nearly £15.5 million in current prices—and the British courts and the European Court of Human Rights have confirmed that compensation has already been paid in full and final settlement.
We must now look forward, not back, on decisions about the future of the British Indian Ocean Territory. The Government have considered this complex issue very closely and carried out an independent feasibility study of the practicalities of resettlement and a public consultation, which sought better to gauge the demand for resettlement by illustrating the most realistic way in which resettlement would hypothetically take place. The Government have looked carefully at the practicalities of setting up a small remote community on low-lying islands and the challenges that such a community would face. We were particularly concerned about the difficulty of establishing modern public services, about the limited healthcare and education that it would be possible to provide—which would create difficulties for any new population and especially for elderly Chagossians returning to the islands—and about the lack of realistic economic opportunities.
The Government have now considered all the available information and decided against the resettlement of the Chagossian people on the grounds of feasibility, defence and security interests, and the cost to the British taxpayer. Although the Government have ruled out resettlement, we are determined to address the aspirations that drove Chagossians to seek to resettle—for instance, their desire for better lives and their wish to maintain a connection to the territory. To meet those aspirations, the Government are creating a significant and ambitious support programme to provide Chagossians with better life chances and developing an increased visits programme. The British Government intend to liaise with Chagossian communities in the UK and overseas and to work closely with the Governments involved to develop the kind of cost-effective programmes that will make the biggest improvement in the life chances of those Chagossians who need it most.
I thank the Minister for his reply, but does he not understand the shock, anger and dismay among members of the Chagossian community in the United Kingdom, in Mauritius and in the Seychelles who were displaced from their homeland in the 1960s at the Government’s decision not to allow resettlement? Does he not realise that they are British subjects who are entitled to the same rights, freedoms and self-determination that all British citizens should have? How can the Government defend the right of self-determination for the people of the Falkland Islands, Gibraltar and other British overseas territories, while completely denying the same rights to the people of the Chagos Islands?
Why have the Government ignored the arguments put forward over the years by the all-party parliamentary group on the Chagos Islands and by experts concerning viability, sustainability, cost, funding, defence and security, international human rights obligations and the views of the courts, which since 2000 have deplored the treatment of the Chagossians? Have the Government properly considered the Supreme Court conclusion that, in the light of the KPMG study, maintaining the ban on Chagossian return might no longer be legal?
Does the Minister accept that the United States was not opposed to resettlement and that any security concerns would be easily manageable, just as they are when indigenous people around the world who live around military installations are accommodated? Will he clarify whether the right of abode, which is different from resettlement, can be restored, giving Chagossians the right to visit their homeland whenever they wish? Does he not see that this decision continues to undermine the United Kingdom’s human rights record and the British sense of fair play? Why should Chagossians, who are British, be treated any differently from other nationals of overseas territories? How does this leave the Government’s so-called “unwavering commitment” to human rights?
British Chagossians should have the right of self-determination that is afforded to all Her Majesty’s subjects, who rightly expect the protection of the Crown, which is being denied to the Chagossians today.
I fully accept my hon. Friend’s passion on this subject, which he has demonstrated for many years. He has become a champion of this issue. However, as he will appreciate, the Government and I do not agree with many of his points. First, we do not consider that the right of self-determination actually applies to the Chagossians. In fact, the issue here is one of sustainability and viability—[Interruption.] Well, let me go into that.
When I was an International Development Minister, looking at communities such as the Pitcairn Islands, one needed to appreciate that it is demographically difficult to sustain a population of that size in such a remote area: services cannot be provided; the travel distances are enormous; and the costs are quite significant. The costs here have been estimated to vary between £55 million for a mere 50 people and something like £256 million for 1,500. The obligation on Her Majesty’s Government to pay on an annual basis the costs of sustaining the population would be triggered. When no hospital is available and when care cannot be delivered urgently, it is unsustainable to expect a community of any such size to exist in such a setting.
Thank you for granting this urgent question, Mr Speaker. After four decades of intense debate on the disgraceful relocation of the Chagossians, after the campaign for their resettlement and after all the legal disputes, the marches and rallies, the parliamentary debates and the reviews and inquiries, it is disappointing that the Government thought they could deal with the issue with a 500-word written statement in the other place yesterday.
After KPMG provided a comprehensive analysis of the resettlement options, why have we not at least seen an equally detailed evaluation of those options from the Government, so that we can understand the rationale behind the decision? We are told that cost is one of the three factors, but that comes from a Government who have spent £285 million building an airport on St Helier—[Hon. Members: “St Helena.”] Whether it is called St Helier or St Helena, the fact is that we have spent £285 million on an airport where it is impossible to land planes. If cost is of such importance, let us put it in that context. If the Government are prepared to spend such amounts on an airport that does not work properly, why not evaluate this situation in those terms?
We are told that the agreement with the United States on the Diego Garcia military base is another factor, but that agreement is due to expire at the end of this year. Has the Minister even discussed with the incoming US Administration whether the renewal of the agreement could be made conditional on both parties facilitating the resettlement of the Chagossians?
Finally, we are told that feasibility is also a factor, but why has that not been tested by means of a pilot programme of relocation, as considered by KPMG? The treatment of the Chagos islanders is a dark stain on our country’s history. Yesterday’s decision, and the manner in which it was made, has done nothing to remove that stain. It is another disgraceful attempt to cover it up, but it will not be covered up. The Chagossians can be assured that the Opposition, led as we are by someone who has campaigned for them for 30 years, will never give up on their right to return.
May I at least agree with one thing the hon. Lady said, which is that we all deplore the relocation that took place in the 1960s, and the manner in which it took place? That is why compensation has been paid to those who were displaced in that manner. May I also point out that the written statement yesterday was not in another place, but here in this House of Commons?
The statement goes out in parallel to both Chambers. Perhaps the hon. Lady would like to learn something about how parliamentary procedure works. It went out at the same time.
The Government have been looking at this issue for more than four years, and the decision was made at Cabinet level by appropriate Ministers. During that process, there has been a full consultation. Perhaps I should point out that, of those invited to express a view, 832 people answered. When it was described what life on the islands would look like, only 25%—approximately 200 people—indicated that they would like to go to reside on the islands. As for Diego Garcia, the hon. Lady needs to appreciate that the Chagos Islands, or the British Indian Ocean Territory, comprise 58 islands—it is not just Diego Garcia. The agreement is likely to be renewed before the new President comes in and is expected to continue—indeed, it will continue—until 2036.
It has been my privilege, since 2010, to represent one of the largest communities of the Chagos Islands anywhere in the world—it is certainly larger than that on the Chagos Islands. I have pursued this issue since before being elected to this place and it has been my honour to do so. I believe that the Chagos islanders have a right of return, and I am very disappointed with yesterday’s statement by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. I note that a compensation package of £40 million over 10 years has been proposed. Can the Minister say a little bit more about how that will be spent in local communities such as mine in Crawley? And rather than just regretting the forced eviction of Chagos islanders from their homeland, will the British Government now apologise?
Yes, I am very prepared to—and do—apologise. That is why compensation has been paid, and the matter has been recognised by the courts. My hon. Friend, who has a large Chagossian population in his Crawley constituency, has taken a keen and proper interest in this issue ever since he was elected. That must be respected, as must his views and opinions. He has touched on something that is very important, which is that, in looking forward, the Government intend to allocate £40 million, shared between the Department for International Development and the Foreign Office, to address the needs of Chagossians wherever they are—whether in Mauritius, the Seychelles or the United Kingdom. In respect of how that will be paid, some of it will qualify as official development assistance—the DFID element—and the rest will do lots of other things in conjunction with the communities and with the Governments in the countries in which they reside. I very much hope that this £40 million over 10 years will be well spent and particularly address the needs of those older Chagossians, who might have been displaced in the ’60s and ’70s, but who are still alive and who are perhaps the ones in greatest need.
Has it occurred to the Minister that, in the era of President Trump, an island group in the middle of the Indian ocean, thousands of miles from anywhere, might be one of the safer and more desirable places on this planet? In the late 1960s, the community on the Chagos Islands was fully employed and perfectly sustainable. How can the Minister seriously argue now that it would not be so in modern times, particularly with the advantage of an airport with a very long runway? Finally, the Minister has said that the right of self-determination does not apply here. Why exactly is that? The shame of successive Administrations is not something to do just with the 1960s and 1970s. It covers the past 15 years, where successive Administrations have used every effort through the courts to block and tackle the rights of the Chagossians, including the use of the royal prerogative, disgracefully, against Her Majesty’s subjects. Instead of apologising for the past, will the Minister properly address the future and allocate to these people their right of self-determination and their right of return?
The right hon. Gentleman’s reference to the runway refers to only a very small part of the archipelago, where there are 58 islands. There is no obvious manner in which a few people on low-lying islands will be able to sustain themselves economically without outside help.
As for what the right hon. Gentleman describes as the runway, and hence implicitly Diego Garcia, the nature of the employment there did not prove attractive to those Chagossians who were consulted, because in most cases they are people who cannot take their families and work in a solitary manner, and they did not find the likely package of employment attractive. The right hon. Gentleman may shake his head, but that is the response that came through in the consultation.
On self-determination, the legal advice that we have received is that the Chagossians were not and are not a “people” for the purposes of international law and hence self-determination.
There are many issues that we could raise in connection with the statement, and many of us did raise them on 25 October, when there was a Westminster Hall debate on the issue. At that time, I asked the Minister what the timeframe was for announcing his decision about the islands, and we were told that it would be announced before the end of the year. Does he accept how regrettable it is for many of us to have read the contents of the written ministerial statement in The Guardian on Tuesday night and how concerned we were, whether the written ministerial statement was published in this House or the other place, that it was published two hours before a long-standing meeting of the all-party parliamentary group to discuss the matter? Many of us feel that that was an affront to many Members. Will he undertake an investigation to determine how the statement ended up in a national newspaper, rather than here on the Floor of the House?
I understand what my hon. Friend is saying, although the Minister to whom he refers was not me. What I am doing today is repeating a statement that was made in another place. I hope and believe that the APPG was afforded proper respectful attention. I think that there were three Ministers there, properly explaining the policy. Quite how the matter got into The Guardian I do not know. All I can say is that that is not the natural paper for Her Majesty’s Government, and I therefore suspect that the sources probably lie elsewhere.
The Guardian contacted me on Tuesday and asked me whether the Minister was going to make an announcement. Nobody in this House or in this country thinks that Britain behaved well in the 1960s in relation to the Chagos Islands. How we behaved then is a disgrace. The question is how we proceed now. Many people have suggested, incorrectly, that the Chagos marine preserve zone, which was initiated in 2010, was deliberately put in place to prevent the Chagossians returning to the British Indian Ocean Territory. That is completely untrue. Will the Minister update us on where we are now with protecting the biodiversity there, which is vital not only in itself, but to the entire east coast of Africa?
I acknowledge the keen attention that the hon. Gentleman gave to the matter when he was a Minister. He is right that the creation of a marine protection area or zone has no bearing on what we are discussing today, but in respect of his subsequent question, I am pleased to say that I was in Washington last month at the ocean summit and, because we have a number of these islands as part of our historic legacy, I was able to announce a 4 million sq km marine protected area around many of them, which puts the UK in the forefront of marine biodiversity and protection.
I am not aware that they did, but my right hon. Friend and successor as Minister in the Department for International Development puts his finger on an example of a small community on a remote island that has had serious difficulties—demographic, behavioural and economic difficulties. Under our legislation we are obliged to offer reasonable support to such a population, even though on the Pitcairn Islands there are only 46 people. Simply for child safeguarding, when I was a Minister I insisted that all teenagers go to New Zealand to be educated, rather than suffer improper behaviour on the island.
I know the Minister quite well, and I detect a bit of embarrassment about his statement today, perhaps partly because of the way this whole thing has been handled, with a statement being rushed out yesterday, having been leaked to the papers. This is a very sad day for our country and it reflects so badly on our attitude to human rights across the world. Is there anything he would listen to that would make the Government change what I think is a deplorable decision?
I am afraid I have to say directly to the hon. Lady that I diametrically disagree with her. I am not in any way embarrassed, although, of course, when it comes to leaks, I neither like nor approve of them. However, this is the final decision. I do not think it is deplorable. Certainly in my direct experience, and looking at the evidence—and, indeed, in response to a consultation where so few people actually said, given what they thought the conditions would be in living there, that they wanted to go—it is not deplorable or a breach of human rights to say that, in our judgment, this would be creating a community that would actually not be sustainable and that, probably, at the end of the day, would be neither safe nor happy.
This is a sensitive decision, but it is the right decision. Is the Minister of State aware that, when I was Minister for overseas territories, I actually travelled out to the Chagos Islands and also went out to the outer islands? I think I am the only person in the House today who has visited. It was certainly quite a difficult experience; over five days, I spent only 15 minutes on land in a bed. This is a massive area, and it is very difficult to get to. It would be wholly impossible to populate the islands, as other Members of the House have argued. Does the Minister agree that, while this is a sensitive issue, it is good to have what I hope will be closure on it going forward?
I am very grateful to my hon. Friend, who has served, of course, as a Minister. As he says, he is probably the only one of us who has visited. I really think that what he has said is right: it is wise to realise that, despite the many arguments we have heard for repopulating the islands, that would not lead to an attractive existence for those who lived there, in what we foresee as the circumstances in which they would live. For instance, if someone has appendicitis and it takes them five days to get to a hospital, they are probably not going to get there alive. I hope the House will listen to my hon. Friend’s first-hand evidence and experience.
What have the Government actually decided here? They say they will not facilitate resettlement, but do they accept or not that the Chagossians have a right of return or a right of abode? If I won the lottery and decided to spend my winnings on building a paradise retreat for myself on one of the Chagos Islands, would that kind of development be permitted?
When we renegotiate this treaty with the Americans for the use of the Chagos Islands, could not part of the conditions of agreement be that Chagossians should be the people of choice for employment in the American airbase there? They would then be sustained by the American infrastructure and be looked after that way. That would be an honourable thing for us to do; what we decided to do yesterday is dishonourable.
I do not agree with my hon.—and gallant—Friend. I do not think this is dishonourable. As I have already said, Diego Garcia is only one small part of this large archipelago. The nature of the employment there would not necessarily prove attractive, and it is not seen as practical to link subsistence payments for a repopulated series of islands to the use of the defence base, for which, at the moment, there is no payment anyway.
May I assure the Minister that I understand better than most people in this House the challenges of providing public services in remote island communities? However, if the Chagos Islands are where people belong and that is where they want to be, they have an inalienable right to be there. What the Minister describes today as practicalities exist only because of what this country did some decades ago. Paying £40 million over 10 years cannot buy out our responsibilities.
Notwithstanding the fact that, as I said earlier, the manner in which the Chagossians were displaced in the ’60s and ’70s was deplorable, we think it inappropriate to return them. We have to look to the future, not the past. Compensation has already been agreed and upheld in the courts, so we are now trying to offer a forward-looking support package of £40 million in the manner that I described.
If resettlement went forward as an option, how resilient would that be to climate change and changes in sea levels, which have been a problem elsewhere in the area? Will the Minister explain the background on the business of ceding the archipelago to Mauritius if it is no longer used for defence purposes?
My hon. Friend answers his own questions in a way. Yes, the islands are low-lying and so do face some of the perils of climate change, although I hope that recent decisions and the actions of Governments will stop the water level rising any further. He is correct in saying that there is an understanding that we would cede the islands to the Mauritians in the event that they were no longer needed for defence purposes.
I believe this decision to be wrong. I also believe that the FCO has not comported itself well in how this information has come out. This morning I spoke to my constituent, Louis Elyse, who is the leader of the small Chagossian community in Wythenshaw and Sale East. He is utterly heartbroken and said that it was cruel and unusual that the KPMG report gave so much hope only for it to be undermined in such a way by Government yesterday.
It is not entirely fair to say that the KPMG report was undermined by Government. The report gave a whole range of possible scenarios, and consultation then followed. I say again that only 25% of the 832 people who responded after further discussions indicated that they would want to return. These are very, very small numbers that would, under the KPMG report, trigger a very high cost per capita. I very much hope that the package we have announced will benefit those of the hon. Gentleman’s constituents who qualify for assistance as Chagossians. It is on those people on his own doorstep that I would like to concentrate the expenditure of this money. We are very happy, in the FCO and DFID, to discuss how that might take place.
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s commitment to increase the number of visits to the Chagos Islands, and the package of measures for elderly people who were removed forcibly from the islands. Will he undertake to ensure that priority is given particularly to enabling elderly former residents of the islands to return to see the land of their birth, and their children and other parts of their family to see the beauty of the area?
My hon. Friend puts his finger on a very important element of the support package that has been designed. It is a heritage package, in most respects, such that those who were born there and are still alive can go back and see the place of their birth, while those who are descendants can see the origin of their heritage. I very much hope that an appropriate amount of the £40 million will be directed to that end and will promptly facilitate exactly what he has described.
A study by the coalition Government in 2014-15 concluded that resettlement was possible and affordable if Diego Garcia was involved. What consideration was given to that option? How have we moved from the resettlement that the previous Government decided was a good idea to a statement today that says there will be no resettlement at all?
The link with Diego Garcia as a potential payer, as it were, for all this is illusory, particularly because following consultation and the discussions that followed the KPMG report, it was clear that few, if any, Chagossians really wanted to work on the base.
On the rights of Chagossians, the United Nations has found in their favour in regard to return, and recently the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination has found against the UK Government and criticised their policy. Why is the Minister ignoring the view of the United Nations?
We are not ignoring the view of the United Nations, and I do not accept the hon. Gentleman’s interpretation. For all the reasons that I have described at length today, this would be an impractical proposal that would not lead to happy lives for those who might choose to go there.
The original decision is a throwback to colonial thinking, and the support package currently on offer does not even match the original discount given to Polaris nuclear missiles, so more money should be made available. More recently, the KPMG report says that it is feasible for Chagossians to return, and despite the Minister’s comments on the quality of life that they would get, the consultation showed that more than 200 of them want to do so. How can the Government decide that they are not allowed to return because they would not get a good enough quality of life?
Because of the expense and, indeed, because they would not get a good quality of life. Only 200 maximum said that they wished to do that, and it is not the case that the KPMG report said that it was straightforwardly feasible. It presented a number of scenarios, most of which came out at a very high cost that could not justify the resettlement of Chagossians on the islands.
I am sure that the Minister knows his history. A couple of hundred years ago, his predecessor would have stood in the same place and assured Parliament that the colony called America could not possibly deliver a decent standard of life to its people. Does not he accept that if the decision whether it is in the interests of islanders to return is made here and they are not given the right to decide, that is a return to the days of the arrogant, colonial, Britain-knows-best days, which should have been consigned to the dustbin of history 100 years ago?
No, because, as I have already said, that right of self-determination is not considered legally to apply. We have gone through all the arguments today and explained why we think that would be impractical. It is better to look to the future and to make sure that the help that the islanders need, wherever they are, be it in Mauritius, the Seychelles or the United Kingdom, is properly given by Her Majesty’s Government.
The Minister’s statement about no right to self-determination will have much wider implications and will be listened to by many people on other islands and rocks around the world. Will he make it clear to those people who may have felt a shiver down their spine when they heard that statement that Her Majesty’s Government do not intend to roll back self-determination anywhere else?
My interpretation of the hon. Gentleman’s question—I think that this will be to his satisfaction—is that he is implicitly also referring to sovereignty. May I make it absolutely clear that questions as to the existence or presence of a population on the British Indian Ocean Territory do not affect our position on sovereignty? We have no doubt whatsoever about our sovereignty of the British Indian Ocean Territory.
Business of the House
The business for next week is as follows:
Monday 21 November—Remaining stages of the Higher Education and Research Bill.
Tuesday 22 November—Opposition day (13th allotted day). There will be a debate on education and social mobility, followed by a debate on the national health service. Both debates will arise on an Opposition motion.
Wednesday 23 November—The Chancellor of the Exchequer will present his autumn statement, followed by a general debate on exiting the EU and transport policy.
Thursday 24 November—Debate on a motion on reform of the support arrangements for people affected by contaminated blood and blood products, followed by a debate on a motion on reducing health inequality. The subjects for these debates were determined by the Backbench Business Committee.
Friday 25 November—Private Members’ Bills.
The provisional business for the week commencing 28 November will include:
Monday 28 November—Remaining stages of the Digital Economy Bill.
Tuesday 29 November—Second Reading of the Commonwealth Development Corporation Bill, after which the Chairman of Ways and Means is expected to announce opposed private business for consideration.
Wednesday 30 November—Opposition day (14th allotted day). There will be a debate on a motion in the name of the Scottish National party. Subject to be announced.
Thursday 1 December—Debate on a motion on transgender equality, followed by a general debate on the future of the UK fishing industry. The subjects for these debates were determined by the Backbench Business Committee.
Friday 2 December—Private Members’ Bills.
I should also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall for 21 and 28 November will be:
Monday 21 November—Debate on an e-petition relating to free childcare.
Monday 28 November—Debate on an e-petition relating to child cancer.
It may be for the convenience of the House if I also say that in view of the intense speculation in the media this morning about the Strathclyde report, my right hon. and noble Friend the Lord Privy Seal intends to make a statement in the House of Lords later today, and I shall place a copy of it in the Library of the House and in the Vote Office as soon as it is available. The Government intend to respond very soon to the Strathclyde report and to the Select Committee reports of both Houses on that subject. I can confirm that although the Government found Lord Strathclyde’s analysis compelling and we are determined that the principle of the supremacy of the elected House should be upheld, we have no plans, for now, to introduce new primary legislation.
I thank the Leader of the House for the information he gave, particularly on the Strathclyde report. Obviously, we will wait to see what it says when he places a copy of it in the Library, but I understand that problems may remain despite the report’s contents.
We have heard nothing from the Leader of the House about the dates for the next recess and the next terms. We appear to stop at 9 February—then there is radio silence; there is absolutely nothing after that. Is there any business? Are we on an election footing? Who knows? Even if the Government do not have plans, the staff and Members, and their families, all have to plan for Easter and summer. We might want to go to see Dippy the dinosaur, who is leaving the Natural History Museum and going on tour—there are rumours he might end up in 1,600 Pennsylvania Avenue in January 2017. The Prime Minister knows what it is like to talk to the winner of the votes of the electoral college—not the popular vote—in the US presidential election. She made the call and heard, as the rest of us do when we try to make an appointment with our doctor or we are talking to our banks, “Thank you for holding. You are ninth in the queue.”
In the Prime Minister’s first foreign policy speech, at the Lord Mayor’s banquet, she