House of Commons
Tuesday 13 December 2016
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy
The Secretary of State was asked—
Leaving the EU: Tariffs
My Department is working closely with the Department for Exiting the EU to understand the impacts that leaving the EU will have on businesses, consumers and other economic actors across the UK, including in east Lancashire. As the Prime Minister has said, we will work hard to get the best deal for Britain.
Although not quite as eye-catching as the motor industry, the construction products, furniture-making and chemical industries, represented by Crown Paints, J & J Ormerod and others in my constituency, employ more people. Will my hon. Friend ensure that these strategic industries to east Lancashire can trade on no less favourable terms than any other industry following Brexit?
As my hon. Friend will know, I am closely involved with the construction products sector, and the construction industry in general, through the Construction Leadership Council. It would be premature to comment on any deal to be struck, but he can take it from me that it has my closest attention, as does the future of the construction industry itself.
As a fellow MP for Rossendale, I echo the comments and concerns about leaving the EU and what the tariff framework would be if there was a hard Brexit. When I visited Simon Jersey, which did the formal wear for our Olympic team, I was told that the cliff-edge tariffs on textiles are between 9% and 12%. This is a real concern. What assurances can the Government give to companies that they will not be taxed out of business through leaving the EU?
As I have said, it is premature to give any kind of assurance. What is striking, though, is the amount of new investment that has been taking place in this country, irrespective, one might think, of any concerns about Brexit. That includes investments in BAE Systems, Nissan, Jaguar Land Rover, Honda, Associated British Ports and many other large industrial players.
Will my hon. Friend explore how World Trade Organisation-compliant tariff drawback mechanisms and inward processing measures can ensure that the objectives of my hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Jake Berry) are met?
That is a formidably technically sophisticated question, for which I thank my hon. Friend. I think that it probably lies to be answered between ourselves and the Department for International Trade. We will certainly consider it carefully.
There are some very clever people in Wycombe, you know.
Food production and food processing is an important part of the north-west economy that is not necessarily susceptible to export beyond the European Union because of different consumer tastes and preferences in the rest of the world. What negotiations are the Government considering or already undertaking to protect this important industry? Can the Minister confirm that specialist negotiators who understand the industry are in place to carry out those negotiations?
That question is really as much for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs as it is for us. Nevertheless, it is true that tastes are expanding around the world, and therefore one sees every opportunity for British food producers to expand their world markets in the days to come.
Given that we have a massive trade deficit with the European Union, surely it would be economic suicide for the EU not to agree a free trade deal with us. However, Civitas has calculated that if it did go down that line, British business would have to pay about £5 billion a year in tariffs under WTO rules to access the EU market, and EU businesses would have to pay about £13 billion in tariffs to access the UK market. Given that, could we not agree to cover all tariffs for British businesses exporting to the EU, so that they do not have to pay anything, and still be quids in?
Alas, long experience has taught me to distrust some of these speculative estimates of cost and benefit, so I will not comment on that.
We are all aware that the cross-border trade between Ireland and Northern Ireland is absolutely vital, and if tariffs are put in place, it could be a complete disaster. Can we please make sure that the Northern Ireland voice is heard and embedded in any negotiations?
I assure the hon. Gentleman that that question is being taken extremely seriously in my Department. Northern Ireland is an area for which I have a ministerial responsibility. I have met, on several occasions, Northern Ireland Economy Ministers and senior figures in industry there. We will continue to look at this question very closely.
Science and Innovation
This Government are strongly committed to science and innovation. We protected the science budget at the spending review in 2015. In the last autumn statement, a few days ago, we committed to spending a further £2 billion a year by the end of this Parliament. The creation of UK Research and Innovation, through the passage of the Higher Education and Research Bill, will increase the value and impact of our investments in science and innovation in the years ahead. [Official Report, 16 December 2016, Vol. 618, c. 7-8MC.]
I thank the Minister for that answer. It has certainly been a good time for science and innovation in Britain. It has also been a good year for the UK space sector, with Major Tim Peake’s historic visit to the international space station and a new spaceport here in the UK. It certainly strikes me that the next big challenge will be the successful delivery of the ExoMars programme, particularly given some of the rumours that have been going around. Will the Minister update the House on any progress made at the European Space Agency summit recently?
Yes, I am happy to provide a brief update. My hon. Friend is an aficionado of space policy and former chair of the parliamentary space committee, so he will be delighted to know that we had an excellent outcome at the European Space Agency’s Council of Ministers. We committed a further €1.44 billion, which has secured the future of the ExoMars programme, among many other things.
I do not want to ruin the Minister’s Christmas celebrations, which are imminent, but if he looks at the deplorable investment in research and development—the figures that came out only this week—does he not see that he needs to wake up and smell the coffee? The fact of the matter is that research and innovation will be deeply damaged by leaving the European Union. He should ask the universities what they think.
I know that the hon. Gentleman will welcome the Government’s commitment to research and development, which was underscored in the autumn statement with a further £2 billion by the end of this Parliament—perhaps the biggest single increase in R and D expenditure by any Government in the memory of anyone in this Parliament.
Innovate UK plays a key role in promoting science and technology by giving grants to entrepreneurs. Will the Minister continue to support it as new fourth industrial revolution businesses come forward to seek new funding to develop the next generation of science and technology businesses?
Yes, I am happy to provide that assurance. Innovate UK, our innovation agency, will be at the heart of our industrial strategy, and the autumn statement will provide it with the resources it needs to continue to do its job of supporting small businesses in innovation.
Tidal Lagoon Power’s report, “Ours to own”, anticipates that tidal lagoons could bring more than £70 billion to the UK industry. Swansea Bay tidal lagoon is key to unlocking that innovative potential, which has great opportunities for Cardiff and the north Wales coast, as well. I appreciate that the Minister will have concerns about costs to customers, but will he commit to weighing up all aspects of the energy trilemma in his response to the Hendry report?
We are looking very carefully at the report and will be coming forward with our response in due course.
Chemical and pharmaceutical businesses are an important feature of the northern powerhouse and emerging enterprises in the sector are often rooted in university research labs. What support and funding can the UK Government commit to encourage continued research collaboration across Europe—and indeed the rest of the world—to increase our innovative business base post-Brexit?
We support international collaboration in science and research in Europe, and indeed around the world, and will continue to do so.
We will consult the sector and the science community very carefully as part of our development of the industrial strategy, in a discussion paper that we will launch in the weeks to come.
The Catalyst science discovery centre in my constituency does an excellent job of promoting careers in science and engineering for young people. Will the Minister come and visit it? It struggles to keep going financially, but it does an absolutely unbelievably good job.
I commend the good work going on in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency and look forward to an opportunity to visit that centre as and when it arises.
Our industrial strategy will help to build an economy that works for everyone. To do that, we will look to drive productivity and growth in all parts of the country. We have already set out steps to deliver this, including, as my hon. Friend the Minister for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation just said, significant funding announcements for science, research and development and infrastructure in the autumn statement.
I thank the Secretary of State for that answer, and I note that he said that the industrial strategy should work for everybody. The Office for Budget Responsibility projects that there will be an additional 500,000 new jobs by 2020, but even if all those jobs were taken up by disabled people, the disability employment gap would still not be halved. Can the Secretary of State explain how the industrial strategy will support achieving the Government’s commitment to halve the disability employment gap by 2020?
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. It is important that we close that gap, and the Government have made a firm commitment to doing so. He will see when we make our proposals—I hope that he will contribute to them—that part of our purpose is to ensure that people who may have been excluded from the labour market have the skills to enable them to prosper in the future.
Ayrshire is a beautiful coastal county with areas of both rural and urban deprivation, but with huge potential in the aerospace and pharmaceutical industries. The Scottish Government are supportive of a growth deal to invest in infrastructure and key sectors. Will the Minister meet me to hear the proposal to unlock Ayrshire’s industrial potential?
I would be delighted to meet the hon. Lady. I am proud of the city deals and the growth deals that we have negotiated, including in Glasgow, which is not far away from Ayrshire in the west of Scotland. Ayrshire has a huge amount to offer, and Prestwick is an important asset. I welcome the initiative of the councils in Ayrshire.
May I urge my right hon. Friend to consider creating free ports across the nation? Such free trade zones around our great port cities can simultaneously boost manufacturing, promote regional growth and grow exports—surely, all key ingredients in a successful industrial strategy.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his industry. He has published an excellent report for the Centre for Policy Studies, which makes for very good reading. He knows that I am considering it with my colleagues, and I commend him for writing it and putting it forward.
As my right hon. Friend develops his industrial strategy, may I give him some friendly advice? Drop the word “industrial” and drop the word “strategy”, and replace them with the words, “competition, innovation and skills policy”.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his question. He will see that one of the differences between our approach to industrial strategy and policy—it is important to note that industry, for this purpose, means the services sector as well as manufacturing—and previous approaches is that our approach will not be about simply addressing the needs of incumbents; we want to make Britain the best, the most competitive and the most contestable place for business to locate. I would be grateful if my hon. Friend contributed to it. I think that he will find that it is music to his ears.
Surely, one of the Secretary of State’s priorities should be the steel industry. Is he aware that Noel Village foundry in Doncaster is being badly affected by reductions in the steel industry supply chain? Will he ask his Department to give urgent advice to the company to see whether anything can be done to prevent it from going into administration, even at this late stage?
I am happy to meet the right hon. Lady about this, but I can give her some news on steel that I think she will welcome. I can announce today that the Government are going to publish their demand for steel, through public sector bodies, to 2020; that will be 3 million tonnes. We are updating the procurement guidelines for steel to include the health service and local authorities and to drop the previous threshold of £10 million for which those guidelines apply. That will be good for the steel industry generally and for all firms within it.
Small-scale manufacturing in firms that often have fewer than half a dozen people is key to the local economy in Kettering and is responsible for a lot of the employment opportunities. Will the Secretary of State make sure that small-scale manufacturers are a key priority in his industrial strategy?
I will indeed. I would commend two things to my hon. Friend. First, we want to make sure that small manufacturers can access the extra funding for research and innovation that my hon. Friend the Minister for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation has described. Secondly, we want to address the ability of small and growing firms to obtain the finance to allow them to grow to the next stage, which is very important in having a vigorous competitive market, as my hon. Friend suggests.
From education to research and development, Scotland’s universities play a key role in boosting our economy across all regions and sectors. With that in mind, will the Secretary of State outline what the role of universities will be in his forthcoming industrial strategy? Will the recently announced new money for R and D be available to Scottish universities?
Yes; universities are very important. We have had a number of very constructive sessions with university leaders and researchers. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that science does not recognise boundaries. Universities and researchers in Scotland have a fantastic record of success. In fact, with 8.5% of the UK population, Scotland attracts 10% of UK research funding, which shows that it can prosper and thrive with the new changes we are making on funding.
Science does not recognise boundaries. Universities Scotland estimates that 10% of research funding comes from the EU and that up to 16% to 20% of staff come from EU nations. With that in mind, will the Secretary of State ensure that, as we exit the EU, Scotland’s universities are not hit punitively by immigration sanctions and the withdrawal of EU funding?
It follows from what I have just said—science does not respect boundaries—that the science community is very global and international. Of course, as the hon. Gentleman would expect, we will in the negotiations reflect the importance of that not just for Scotland, but for the whole United Kingdom.
The Secretary of State talks about an industrial strategy and those words are in his title, but so far he has shared only bland generalities. Despite the high-profile examples cited, the Institute of Chartered Accountants predicts that business investment will fall by 2.4% in 2017. There are great opportunities for British businesses post-Brexit, but they need leadership, and this climate of uncertainty is toxic to investment. Will the Secretary of State stop playing Scrooge with his assurances, and give British business the Christmas present it wants—an industrial strategy?
A bit of optimism on the part of the hon. Lady would not go amiss, especially in this Christmas season. In fact, there is huge enthusiasm in businesses right across the country and huge engagement with us in developing our long-term policies. Perhaps she has been distracted by some of the events in her party in recent months, so let me summarise the things we have done since July. We have given the go-ahead—she may have missed this—for some very important strategic infrastructure projects: Hinkley Point C, the third runway at Heathrow and the next phase of HS2. We have secured investment in Nissan, close to her constituency, as we announced a month ago. We have ratified the Paris agreement, and we have secured the extra investment that my hon. Friend the Minister for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation talked about. We have done more to put our industrial future on the right footing in five months than the previous Government did in 13 years.
To turn from Marley’s ghost stalking the Labour Front Bench, the number of businesses in the UK continues to grow: at the start of 2016, there were a record 5.5 million private sector businesses, which is an increase of 97,000 since 2015 and 1 million more than in 2010.
This weekend, small businesses in my constituency held a Christmas market in Belmont Circle to celebrate the 10th anniversary of Eye 2 Eye opticians, which is doing a brilliant job locally. What more can my hon. Friend do to ensure that small and medium-sized businesses prosper and grow in this country?
My hon. Friend is right to recognise the central importance of small and medium-sized businesses to our economy. The Government have been supporting that vital sector of our economy through: the extension of small business rate relief; our support for the British Business Bank, which has dealt with more than 51,000 small businesses; the new productivity council, which was announced in the autumn statement; and the new patient capital review.
Given the number of businesses, will the Minister ensure that there is a level playing field so that the level of subsidy for tariffs applied to the motor industry is applied equally across all exporters? Will he publish the total amount of subsidy before 31 March?
There has been no special deal for Nissan or any other part of the motor industry. Whatever arrangements are made to support different sectors of the UK economy are fully transparent. The general picture is that we are proceeding vigorously and with some care towards a rather attractive destination.
My hon. and learned Friend is right. She will know that I have been a pretty tireless campaigner for superfast broadband, especially in relation to BT and Openreach. I agree with her about the importance of broadband. The autumn statement announced a £1 billion package for fibre and 5G connectivity, prioritising business connections across the UK. That follows the superfast broadband programme, which is due to deliver 91% coverage in South East Cambridgeshire by mid-2017 and a new universal service obligation.
Fifty thousand businesses die unnecessarily every year because of late payment. Some £31 billion is owed and small firms alone spend £10 billion chasing outstanding invoices. While the duty to report and the small business commissioner have been much delayed, just 378 of the largest 55,000 businesses have signed up to the prompt payment code. When will the Conservative Government start doing something about the scourge of late payment? Put some teeth into it, so that small businesses can act.
The hon. Gentleman is right to point the finger squarely at the issue of late payment. It is a serious matter that we will continue to press forward on, but one must see it in the context of the thriving small business economy that I have outlined.
Women on Boards
The proportion of women on FTSE 100 boards has increased from 12.5% in 2011 to 27%. Since 2011, the number of women on FTSE 350 boards has more than doubled to 23.5%. We support the business-led target of 33% of those on FTSE 350 boards being women by 2020.
I welcome the Minister’s response, but to get more women on boards we have to get more women into business in the first place. I championed and spoke at the Wayfinder Woman conference in Uckfield. The mission of the Sussex-based organisation is to get more women into business. What work do the Government do with such organisations to get women into enterprise so that they get the skills that they need to rise to the top?
I congratulate my hon. Friend on all the work she does to mentor women. More than 16,500 start-up loans have been issued to female entrepreneurs and almost half the users of the business support helpline are women. The Hampton-Alexander review is looking beyond boards at building female pipelines among senior management. We also support the Women’s Business Council.
Is there a regional pattern in low numbers of women on boards? Will the Minister outline what discussions have taken place with ministerial colleagues in the devolved Administrations about increasing the number of women on boards?
I welcome the hon. Lady’s commitment to increasing the number of women on boards in Scotland. I will have discussions with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland to ensure that the national target applies equally to Scotland as to elsewhere in the United Kingdom.
I apologise to the hon. Member for South Down (Ms Ritchie)—I meant Northern Ireland, of course, in my earlier response.
The gov.uk website and the business support helpline provide information on starting and running a business. Growth hubs also provide access to local and national support, and 4.8 million people are now self-employed.
In South East Cornwall we have some fantastic self-employed people who make a host of excellent food products. Does my hon. Friend agree that there will be opportunities for them to grow their businesses and be released from excessive red tape once we leave the European Union? What advice does she have for them?
The Government committed in their manifesto to reducing the burden of regulation on business by £10 billion during this Parliament. We will also carefully consider the implications of leaving the European Union for the business impact target, and the opportunities to reduce further the burdens on businesses such as the excellent self-employed food producers in South East Cornwall.
False self-employment is a particular issue in sectors such as retail, care and construction. The Gangmasters Licensing Authority is now expected to regulate those industries, which contain more than half a million businesses, yet has only 79 members of staff across the entire UK. Its director of labour market enforcement has not yet been appointed, despite the new powers being in place. Will the Government ensure that they act speedily on that?
I assure the hon. Lady that we are acting swiftly to appoint the director of labour market enforcement. I agree with her that it is a crucial role.
EU-derived Employment Rights
The Prime Minister has made it clear that the Government will not, as a consequence of our withdrawal, allow any erosion of rights in the workplace, whether those rights derive from EU or UK law. She has further made it clear that the Government are determined to deliver an economy that works for everyone, and fundamental to that is the preservation of existing workers’ rights.
Is it not the fact that our EU-derived employment rights are upheld not by legislation but because they are enforced by the relevant European courts? Given that progress on a British Bill of Rights has been patchy at best, what will guarantee those rights after we leave?
Such rights will be upheld by British courts after we leave the European Union. The UK enjoys record employment at the same time as employment rights that exceed what is required by EU law in the important areas of maternity leave, parental leave and statutory annual leave.
Given the sorry history of Brexit broken promises, does the Minister understand the widespread cynicism expressed about the idea that rights will be protected post-Brexit, including on a continuing basis? Does she agree with the Brexit promise-breaker par excellence, the Foreign Secretary, that these crucial rights are back-breaking?
The hon. Gentleman prejudges the situation by saying that we have had a chance to break Brexit promises before we have even started the negotiations. The Prime Minister could not have been clearer—she has been supported in this at the Dispatch Box by the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union—that workers’ rights will be protected and possibly even enhanced.
The hon. Gentleman bears a striking resemblance to an exploding volcano. Let us hear the feller.
As always, I am very reasoned, Mr Speaker, but really, the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey) was talking absolute rubbish just then, which is not unusual. Does the Minister agree with the democratic principle that the Government of the day will decide on employment rights? Is that not what we want—employment rights decided in this House, not in Europe?
This House will decide on employment rights, but it is important to remind my hon. Friend that during the lifetime of this Government, the Prime Minister could not have been clearer that workers’ rights will be protected after Britain leaves the European Union.
Leaving the EU
We have held a wide range of discussions with businesses, their representatives, investors, workers and local leaders in all four home nations. We expect that to continue in the coming months to secure UK interests in any exit negotiations.
There is concern among business about a potential cliff edge in March 2019 if we leave the EU and fall back on World Trade Organisation rules and tariffs. Does the Minister agree with the Chancellor, who yesterday told the Treasury Committee that there is
“an emerging view among businesses…that having a longer period to manage the adjustment between where we are now as full members of the European Union and where we get to in the future as a result of the negotiations…would be generally helpful, would”
help smooth the transition and would help to reduce disruption for business?
It is a tempting invitation to offer a running commentary on our exit arrangements, but since we are not going to do that as a Government, I will not do so now.
Last week’s news from Port Talbot was hugely welcomed in steel towns such as Corby. It came about because of constructive work not only in the House, but involving Ministers, the unions, the workforce and the industry. As we move towards reaching final agreement, what role does my hon. Friend see the industry playing in the industrial strategy, and what discussions has he had on that in the EU context?
That is more a matter for my colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge.
Not Uxbridge—my constituency is Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner.
I stand corrected. We will leave the Foreign Secretary out of this.
The Minister for Climate Change and Industry, the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and other ministerial colleagues have had a series of meetings with steel companies across the production and supply chains, and have been able to give them the support and structure needed in that context.
The retail energy market works well for those who are able and have the time to switch, with customers able to make savings of up to £300 by moving on to the cheapest tariffs. However, we want a market that works for all consumers, not just those who switch supplier. That is why we have been clear that we want energy companies to come forward with proposals on how they are going to treat their loyal customers fairly.
The Competition and Markets Authority has found that two thirds of households are on expensive standard variable tariffs. Does the Minister agree that suppliers should do more to ensure that their loyal customers are on better-value tariffs?
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. It is not right that customers are penalised for their loyalty. We want energy companies to treat all their customers fairly, and not just customers who switch between suppliers. That is why we have challenged them to come forward with proposals to ensure that all their customers get a fair deal.
I have been saying for about five years now that companies have been overcharging their customers who are on the standard variable tariff. That has been confirmed by the Competition and Markets Authority, Ofgem and the Government. The only way we will shift how those companies operate is by extending to those people on the standard variable tariff the protection we offer those on prepayment meters. Will the Minister meet me to discuss what more we can do to ensure that we give the big six energy companies a kick up the backside?
I am happy to meet the right hon. Lady, who has extensive experience in this area. We are certainly considering the CMA remedies.
A large number of rural properties are heated by oil-fired central heating. Will the Minister confirm that home efficiency measures are a vital way of cutting bills for those rural properties?
I agree with my hon. Friend. Efficiency measures are fundamental to reducing the energy bills not just for people in rural areas, but for the population as a whole.
This week, a senior Ofgem executive warned that, as a result of our higher reliance on renewable energy, consumers may face the possibility of having to pay a premium to ensure that they have a reliable source of electricity to their homes and without having their lights turned off. What discussions has the Minister had with Ofgem on that, and are the Government considering the policy of relying on costly renewable energy rather than on cheaper fossil fuels?
We have an ongoing dialogue with Ofgem on a number of issues, but apropos the cost of supporting investment in low-carbon technologies, this is expected to increase, but so too are the savings from energy efficiency policies. This means that by 2020 household energy bills are still estimated to be lower on average than they would have been in the absence of those green policies.
We are working to make the UK even more competitive in advanced manufacturing by cutting corporation tax and red tape and by increasing our support for the research and innovation that is crucial to success. We are doing that not least through our £300 million investment in the high-value manufacturing catapult centre.
Given the potential increase in tariffs due to Brexit, how does the Minister plan to ensure that high-value manufacturing does not deteriorate?
High-value manufacturing is extremely important to our future—it presents many opportunities but also presents risks that we have to manage—and so will be an important part of our industrial strategy. On the broader concerns about tariffs, the hon. Gentleman has heard it often enough, so he should start believing it: the Government are listening carefully, as I witnessed yesterday, to manufacturing and other sectors about their priorities and concerns as we shape and finalise our negotiating position.
Will the Minister, or one of his ministerial colleagues, meet me and representatives from M+W Group and DBD from my constituency, which are part of a consortium bidding for a vitrification project in China’s nuclear sector? It would give them a lot of confidence if he and his team could meet them and help them to win the contract, which would create hundreds of jobs in this country.
The Government are committed to supporting successful British business to win contracts and generate jobs, so the answer is yes.
The low-carbon energy sector could drive the energy manufacturing industry in this country and be very helpful in developing the industrial strategy, which I fully support. One practical example is small nuclear reactors. Can the Minister tell the House when we can get an announcement on the funding and help for this important sector?
We are reviewing our priorities in relation to the energy innovation portfolio, which sits inside our Department, and the hon. Gentleman will have noticed the comments by the Chancellor at the autumn statement. We are reviewing our priorities and will announce them shortly.
National Grid’s electricity capacity report for this year was published in July and includes a forward look on electricity security. Through competitive capacity auctions, we have already secured capacity from 2018-19 to 2020-21, and in January we will hold a further auction to secure capacity for 2017-18. Our most recent gas security analysis was published in October and shows that our diverse and flexible gas supply can meet demand even under severe weather conditions.
The importance of substantial gas storage to electricity generation and avoiding damaging price hikes was highlighted by the partial closure of the Rough storage facility. What are the Government doing to tackle the question of increasing gas storage for the future?
That is a proper and important question. Our gas supply arrangements are quite diverse, and we have more than 30% spare gas capacity even on a cold winter’s day. The system has been tested, and has responded well in the past to shocks, including higher than expected demand for heating or power and restrictions to supply infrastructure, but it is certainly something we keep under constant review.
All I can do is refer the hon. Gentleman to the earlier remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner (Mr Hurd) on this topic.
Will the Minister join me in congratulating Avalon community energy on completion of its solar PV installation at Brookside school in Street? Does he agree that such schemes create a greener and cheaper energy system and afford us greater security of supply?
I certainly do, and I am very glad that my hon. Friend has brought that to the attention of the House.
After the latest capacity auction, the overall scores for the procurement of new combined cycle gas generation plant stand at one small buildable plant over three auctions, at a total cost so far of £3 billion and £12 a year on customer bills. Does the Secretary of State have any other good ideas up his sleeve to secure the procurement and building of new capacity up to 2020?
As the hon. Gentleman will know, the gas capacity market auction was an enormous success. It secured a widespread diversity of supply at low cost and in higher amounts than ever before, and it included some innovative new technologies. The Department should be celebrated for managing this.
The Steel Council will next meet in the new year. I will also meet senior steel industry chief executives and the trade union steel committee next month.
I am sure the Secretary of State will join me in congratulating all those involved in the Save our Steel campaign—especially the Community, GMB and Unite trade unions—on their vital contribution to the recent announcement on Port Talbot and other steel sectors across the UK. I am sure that he agrees that it is trade unionism at its best. Thousands of steelworkers and their families can look forward to a more certain 2017, but one of their real concerns remains their pensions. What will he do to bring forward better plans to ensure that steelworkers’ pensions, as well as their jobs, are protected?
I certainly join the hon. Gentleman in welcoming and congratulating the workforce, trade unions and the employers on their very constructive set of discussions. It is important that the membership is consulted, but this is a positive step forward and he is right that this will provide greater comfort to employees this winter. The hon. Gentleman will know that it is right and proper for the independent Pensions Regulator, rather than the Government, to approve and be content with pensions arrangements. It would be wrong for the Government to intervene in that.
I will indeed congratulate Severfield Steel, which is a very successful company, not only on the Ordsall Chord but on winning a global award in recent weeks. It was also responsible for construction of the Olympic stadium, the Shard, and Birmingham New Street station. Many of the buildings that we admire and have in our minds are constructed with British steel by British companies.
While we have recently had some really good news for the steel industry, giving steel workers and their families the stability they need for now, the fact that steel was not mentioned in the autumn statement gives cause for concern. Furthermore, the UK Government’s leading of a group of countries that are blocking the EU reform of anti-dumping trade defence instruments is another serious issue for the industry. Will the Secretary of State commit to including the steel industry in the future industrial strategy, and detail the steps that the Government will take to support this vital foundation industry?
Of course steel is incredibly important, and it is important that it should have a bright future—we all want to see that. One thing I have been doing with the Minister for Climate Change and Industry, working closely with the steel industry on both the employer and trade union side, is to fund and bring together a strategic review, and the whole industry is coming together to work on it. That is expressly designed to inform our industrial strategy, so that we can look forward with confidence to a very successful steel industry.
Local Enterprise Partnerships
With your permission, Mr Speaker, I will answer questions 14 and 21 together.
Local enterprise partnerships do extremely important work as voluntary partnerships, bringing together business insight, local authorities and universities to shape and support local growth, not least through growth deals that are funding more than 800 projects across England.
We are, in fact, grouping this question with Question 18. Ministers have to keep their eye on the Order Paper. The numbers change over a period, for reasons that I think will be fairly obvious to the Minister.
There are 30,000 more businesses with high-speed broadband in the black country as a result of the leadership of the Black Country local enterprise partnership. Does the Minister agree that the Black Country LEP has been an excellent example of bringing together the private and public sector to drive growth, improve skills and build the infrastructure that the black country economy needs?
I thank my hon. Friend for bringing that to the attention of the House; it sounds like a fantastic deal that will unlock many opportunities for people and businesses in the black country. I hear great things about the LEP and the chairmanship of Stewart Towe, and through my hon. Friend, who I know has been a tireless champion of the LEP, I pass on the congratulations of the Government.
At a time when LEPs have been having a hard time in the media, is the Minister aware that my constituency is well served by two excellent LEPs: the New Anglia LEP and the Greater Cambridgeshire Greater Peterborough LEP? What wider role does he envisage for LEPs, and will he consider expanding the growing business fund?
I thank my hon. Friend for standing up for his LEPs at a difficult time for them as a result of the allegations made. I assure him that LEPs are at the heart of the process of feeding into the industrial strategy; we are absolutely clear that that industrial strategy needs to reflect deep understanding of the different challenges and opportunities each area faces, which is why the Secretary of State has allocated ministerial champions to each LEP.
If the hon. Gentleman will be very brief, I will take him now, but if he won’t, I won’t.
I will be very brief, Mr Speaker.
Some newspapers have exposed shocking examples of what I can only describe as crony capitalism in some of our LEPs. For example, the former elected mayor of Bristol, George Ferguson, received more than £50,000 for his own brewing firms while on the LEP board, which kept no minutes; perhaps the Minister is impressed to find right-wing politicians who can organise a booze-up in a brewery. Given that the Government are putting nearly £2 billion into LEPs through the autumn statement, can he tell us what they are doing to enforce basic standards of accountability?
I promise not to buy my dictionary from where the hon. Gentleman got his.
As was said the other day, never trust Labour Members when they say they are going to be brief.
The hon. Gentleman raises an extremely important point about LEPs. This is taxpayers’ money and, as he would expect, we take extremely seriously any allegations about it being spent inappropriately, particularly when there are allegations of conflicts of interest. We are reassured by the prompt and robust response of LEPs to the individual allegations, including the one in Bristol, but we continue to press and make the point very strongly that we expect full compliance with the requirements of the strengthened national assurance framework.
Over the last month we have made substantial progress across the Department’s responsibilities. Our recently published review of corporate governance will make sure Britain is not only an excellent place to do business, but also is where business is done best. We continue to tackle climate change, ratifying the Paris agreement. My hon. Friend the Minister for Climate Change and Industry played an important part in the climate discussions in Marrakech, and he and I had the great pleasure of opening the Siemens wind turbine factory in Hull, creating 1,000 new jobs in that great city. By providing an additional £2 billion a year for research and innovation by 2020 and giving British homes and businesses certainty that their electricity demands will be met for the next five years, we are investing in our country’s economic future.
That was a fabulous introduction to my question about the Hendry review. I know the Government have received the review, and I am confident that it makes some clear and useful recommendations, so I would like to know whether the Government intend to make it public soon, and what are their thoughts about some of Charles Hendry’s comments and recommendations?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his question, and would like to put on record my gratitude to Charles Hendry for writing his report. It is important that it is published soon. Charles Hendry is travelling at the moment, but as soon as he is back I will agree with him a date to publish it and he can answer questions on it. It is a substantial document and my hon. Friend will understand that we will want to consider it and make our response in due course.
Order. Members need to understand that topical questions were always intended to be briefer. We cannot have these three, four and five sentence questions. What one wants is a quick question.
We will publish early our emissions reductions plan in the new year. It is a legal requirement on the Government to set out exactly how we expect to meet our long-term carbon commitments.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on his work to bring the misuse of laser pointers to the Government’s attention. The Government are concerned about the misuse of high-powered laser pointers and will seek evidence early next year on the potential options for tackling such misuse.
We look forward to reading that research. It clearly contains some interesting findings, of which we will take full note.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for drawing attention to this type of fraud, which affects businesses in all sectors. It is essential that business owners and staff know what to do when they are notified of changes to bank account details. The best pointer in the first instance is the advice available on the Action Fraud website.
The transition to a clean energy system is fundamental to our energy strategy, and significant supply chain opportunities will flow from that. As for the Government’s commitment to renewable energy, this country has seen one of the fastest deployments of renewable energy across Europe since 2010, and the hon. Gentleman will be aware that we have renewed that commitment through the contract for difference auctions.
We certainly will. It is important that the industrial strategy and business policy recognise the strengths of particular places. Yorkshire is a particularly fine example.
Two weeks ago, GB Energy ceased trading, affecting 160,000 customers. Credit must go to Ofgem for ensuring that those customers were promptly transferred to another supplier, but does the Secretary of State believe that the regulator’s approach to risk management needs to change? Instead of carrying out little or no assessment of the viability of new entrants and then picking up the pieces if they fall, more rigorous financial health checks need to be undertaken to minimise the risk of failure, disruption to customers and a loss of confidence in switching to new energy providers.
The hon. Gentleman can now breathe.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. Like him, I commend Ofgem for the arrangements that it put in place. He raises a reasonable point, and as Chairman of the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee he will want to work with me to ensure that the right arrangements are in place.
Earlier this year, the Prime Minister commissioned Matthew Taylor to carry out an independent review of modern employment practices, such as in my hon. Friend’s example, as part of ensuring that our economy works for everyone. I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions will also consider my hon. Friend’s suggestion.
The energy-intensive industries compensation scheme is due to end in April 2017. The Government have promised to bring forward legislation to exempt energy-intensive industries from renewable obligations and feed-in tariffs, but we are still waiting for that to happen. As things stand, the steel industry is therefore looking down the barrel of having to go back to the crippling energy costs it faced until the compensation package was introduced. Will the Secretary of State assure us that measures will be put in place before April 2017 to ensure that we do not go back to that situation?
The discussions we have had with the steel sector emphasise the importance of energy costs, and our commitment is to work with the sector to bring them down.
With higher and further education policy, apprenticeships and skills in a single Department, the Government can now take a comprehensive, end-to-end view of skills and education. This Government will, of course, support people from their early years through to postgraduate study and work.
Is it not time for the Secretary of State to order an investigation into the Royal Bank of Scotland’s practices on lending to small businesses?
The situation with RBS is under review and I am sure proposals will be made in the near future.
It is important that nuclear energy should form a key part of that. One of the pieces of neglect of the previous Labour Government is that they presided over the forecast closure of our nuclear fleet without making any plans to replace it. When I made the statement about Hinkley Point C, I also said that this would be the beginning of a new era of civil nuclear power in this country, and that is absolutely right.
In the week when we saw a great deal between Tata Steel and the Community trade union, largely down to Roy Rickhuss and the return of Ratan Tata, we also saw the merger of Baosteel and Wuhan Iron and Steel. What risk assessment has the Department made of market economy status for China and its effects on the British steel industry?
I join the hon. Gentleman in paying tribute to both Ratan Tata and Roy Rickhuss, as both the company and the unions have worked constructively together, and the progress is welcome. I have, with the Minister for Climate Change and Industry, a very regular dialogue with both employers and trade unions. As the hon. Gentleman knows, we have been active in making sure that we have the right trade defences against practices where countries dump steel unfairly in the UK market.
Although business rates are set by the Valuation Office Agency, rather than by the Government, it is right the Government then try to soften the blow for those most affected. Will the Minister expand on what is being done to protect the businesses using solar panels that have been adversely impacted by high business rates?
My hon. Friend is right to point out that these rates are set independently. She will also know that the overall net effect of the reforms is to reduce business rates and that some transitional relief is in place. She is also right to highlight the challenges in respect of businesses that have installed solar for their own use, and we are working through that issue.
When will the Government publish their response to the Law Commission’s report on “Consumer Prepayments on Retailer Insolvency”? We need to do more to protect consumers when businesses go into administration.
I will note the hon. Lady’s comments and I will write to her. I am sorry, but I did not hear all of the question.
INEOS, Tata Chemicals and Banner Chemicals in my constituency provide high-quality, high-wage, high-skilled jobs. What consideration has been given to energy price competiveness in respect of our European neighbours, as a more competitive energy price would disproportionately benefit the northern powerhouse?
As I said to a number of hon. Members, the energy prices that are paid by businesses generally, and by energy-intensive industries in particular, are a crucial part of competitiveness, and we want to work with these industries to reduce the costs.
Nissan has benefited from a pre-Brexit deal. What reassurance can the Secretary of State offer Brighton-based businesses such as American Express and EDF that, after Brexit, they will still be able to have an open and free relationship with the EU?
American Express is a very important employer in Brighton, and it is very welcome here. It has located itself in this country because Britain is a fantastic place from which to do business. That is the message that I receive wherever I travel to in the world. There is great appetite to invest in Britain, and the hon. Gentleman will know of our recent success stories. I hope that American Express will continue to invest more and employ more in his constituency.
Following the collapse of the Greater Lincolnshire devolution deal, the LEPs in Humber and Greater Lincolnshire take on a greater significance, but there is concern that some central Government funding may be lost as a result of the collapse of the deal. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that the LEPs will be used to channel the funds from his Department when suitable projects are identified?
As my hon. Friends on the Front Bench have said, we regard local growth as a very important component of our industrial strategy, and my hon. Friend knows that I have been a big champion of local growth, so I want to see more of that. Obviously, certain offers were part of the proposed deal, but these deals are never compulsory, and if the councils and the businesses do not want to proceed then it is a matter for them.
Does the Secretary of State agree that, as part of the industrial strategy, the future development of enterprise zones will be of great economic benefit, especially to the manufacturing sector?
I agree that enterprise zones have been successful. They have provided some tax advantages and, in many cases, a simplified regulatory environment, which is very attractive to businesses. Their experience commends them.
CQC: NHS Deaths Review
With permission, Mr Speaker, I will make a statement. On 12 April, I asked the Care Quality Commission to conduct an investigation into lessons that needed to be learned following the tragic death of Connor Sparrowhawk in 2013 at Southern Health NHS Foundation Trust. I pay tribute to his family, and particularly to his mother, Sara Ryan, for persistently and determinedly campaigning for a proper investigation into what happened. The lesson of Mid Staffs, Morecambe Bay and indeed other injustices such as Hillsborough is that when families speak out, we must listen. In this case, thanks to Dr Ryan’s efforts, many improvements will be made to the care of people with learning disabilities and many lives will be saved.
I asked the CQC to look at what happened at Southern Health NHS Foundation Trust and to assess more broadly what lessons there are for the NHS as a whole. Its findings make sobering reading. Among other findings, the report says that families and carers often have a poor experience of mortality investigations; that they are sometimes not treated with kindness, respect and sensitivity; that they can feel that their involvement is tokenistic; and that they often question the independence of the reports.
The report also says that the NHS does not prioritise learning from deaths and misses countless opportunities to learn and improve as a result, and that there is no single framework that sets out how local NHS organisations should identify, analyse and learn from deaths of patients in their care or those who have recently been in their care. As a result, there is inconsistency. Some NHS trusts get elements of mortality reporting right, but not one gets all the elements right. In particular, the leaders of NHS organisations and their doctors, nurses and other staff simply do not have access to the full picture of how many patients die in their care, which deaths were preventable, and what needs to be learned.
I thank Professor Sir Mike Richards and his CQC colleagues for an extremely thoughtful and thorough report. I am accepting all their recommendations. From 31 March next year, the boards of all NHS trusts and foundation trusts will be required to collect a range of specified information on potentially avoidable deaths and serious incidents, and to consider what lessons need to be learned, on a regular basis. This will include estimates of how many deaths could have been prevented in their own organisation and an assessment of why this might vary positively or negatively from the national average, based on methodology adapted by the Royal College of Physicians from work done by Professor Nick Black and Dr Helen Hogan.
We will require trusts to publish that information quarterly, in accordance with regulations that I will lay before the House, so that patients and the public can see whether and where progress is being made. Alongside those data, trusts will publish evidence of learning and action that is happening as a consequence of that information. They will feed the information back to NHS Improvement at a national level so that the whole NHS can learn more rapidly from individual incidents.
All trusts will be asked to identify a board-level leader as patient safety director to take responsibility for this agenda and ensure that it is prioritised and resourced within their organisation. This person is likely to be the medical director. They will be asked to appoint a non-executive director to take oversight of progress.
We will ensure that investigations of any deaths that may be the result of problems in care are more thorough and that they genuinely involve families and carers. More broadly, instead of the patchwork approach that we currently have, all trusts will be asked to follow a standardised national framework for identifying potentially avoidable deaths, reviewing the care provided and learning from mistakes.
I have asked the NHS National Quality Board, which includes senior clinicians from all national NHS organisations, to draw up guidance on reviewing and learning from the care provided to people who die, in consultation with Keith Conradi, the new chief investigator of healthcare safety. These guidelines will be published before the end of March next year, for implementation by all trusts in the year starting next April. We will also be working with the National Quality Board to ensure that much more support is offered to bereaved families. As the report highlights issues around support to families, Health Education England will be asked to review the training for all doctors and nurses with respect to engaging with patients and families after a tragedy and, equally importantly, maintaining their own mental health and resilience in extremely challenging situations.
As the report identified particular concerns about the treatment of people with learning disabilities, we will take two further actions. In acute trusts we will ask for particular priority to be given to identifying patients with a mental health problem or a learning disability to make sure that their care responds to their particular needs, and that particular trouble is taken over any mortality investigations to ensure that wrong assumptions are not made about the inevitability of death. We will also ensure that the NHS reviews and learns from all deaths of people with learning disabilities, in all settings. The learning disabilities mortality review—LeDeR—programme will provide support to families and local NHS areas to enable reporting and an independent, standardised review of all learning disability deaths of people between the ages of four and 74.
We will ensure that there is coverage in all regions by the end of next year and full national roll-out by 2019. As the programme develops, all learnings will be transferred to the national avoidable mortality programme. I have today asked the LeDeR programme to provide annual reports to the Department of Health on its findings and how best to take forward the learnings across the NHS. From next year we will become the first country in the world to publish data on avoidable deaths at a hospital-by-hospital level.
I want to address the issue of how we ensure that data published about avoidable deaths are accurate, fair and meaningful, and that the process of publication rewards openness and honesty. Of course we will be working closely with the CQC, NHS Improvement and senior NHS doctors and nurses to get this right, but I want to make it clear to the House that I will not be setting any target for reducing reported avoidable deaths, and nor do I believe it will be valid to compare numbers between hospitals because the data depend on clinical views that may change or vary. I expect—this might surprise some in the House—to see an increase in the number of reported avoidable deaths. This is more likely to be because hospitals get better at spotting and reporting them than because care is deteriorating.
We should also remember that when there is a tragedy in the NHS, there is always a second victim—namely, the doctor or nurse involved, who invariably suffers huge anguish. So let us today also give credit to all NHS front-line staff for the changes that are already taking place to improve patient safety. For example, the number of people experiencing the four main hospital harms is down by a third since November 2012; MRSA and clostridium difficile rates have halved since 2010; and we have 10,000 more hospital nurses in our wards since the Francis report, and they are now at record numbers.
There is a new healthcare safety investigations branch to perform speedy, no-blame inquiries into avoidable harm and death, modelled on the successful system that has operated in the airline industry for many years. There is also a consultation concluding this week on legislation to create a safe space for NHS staff to talk openly about how to improve the safety of care for patients, without having to worry about litigation or professional consequences.
The culture of the NHS is changing following a number of tragedies, but this report shows that there is much progress to be made in the collection of information about unexpected deaths, analysis of what was preventable and learning from the results. Only by implementing the report’s recommendations in full will we honour the memory of Connor Sparrowhawk, and I commend the statement to the House.
I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement, and I thank the CQC for its report.
Any death is a tragedy for families, but when that death could have been prevented, or was the fault of a system that is meant to care for our loved ones, the trauma is all the more difficult to cope with. The circumstances of Connor Sparrowhawk’s death were shocking, and I, like the Secretary of State, pay tribute to his family, who have fought so hard for justice and to ensure other families do not have to go through what they went through. Connor Sparrowhawk’s step-father, Richard, told Radio 5 live:
“When a loved one dies in care, knowing how and why they died is the very least a family should be able to expect”.
The findings of the CQC are a wake-up call: relatives shut out of investigations; reasonable questions going unanswered; and grieving families made to feel like a “pain in the neck” or feeling they would be better dealt with at a “supermarket checkout”. This is totally unacceptable—it is shameful and it has to change. We therefore strongly welcome the recommendation of a national framework and the specific measures the Secretary of State has outlined today. I assure him we will work with him and the Care Quality Commission to support the establishment of such a framework in a timely fashion.
Families and patients should not be forgotten in this process. Will the Secretary of State pledge that families and carers will be equal partners in developing the Government’s plans for implementing the CQC’s recommendations? Does he agree that those who work in the NHS show extraordinary compassion, good will and professionalism? Does he accept that when something, sadly and tragically, goes wrong, it can often be the result of a number of interplaying systemic failures and that therefore a national framework will provide welcome standards and guidance across the service?
Does the Secretary of State recall that the National Patient Safety Agency was responsible for monitoring patient safety incidents in the NHS, including medication and prescribing errors, before it was scrapped under the Health and Social Care Act 2012? Will he perhaps acknowledge in retrospect that scrapping that agency was a mistake?
For such a national framework and the Secretary of State’s proposed measures to succeed, investment will be necessary. Will hospitals and trusts receive extra funding to carry out the additional requirements that the CQC has recommended? More generally, hospitals across England are suffering chronic staff shortages, which is leaving doctors and nurses overstretched and struggling to do basic tasks. We all recall that Sir Robert Francis called for safe nurse staffing levels to be published by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence, but this guidance has been blocked. Will the Secretary of State now consider committing to NICE publishing safe nurse staffing levels, as recommended by the Francis report?
The Secretary of State is aware of the wider pressures on the service. Will he acknowledge that cuts to social care and the failure to provide it with extra investment in the autumn statement two weeks ago are leaving hospitals dangerously overstretched, with patients at risk of harm?
The Secretary of State will also be aware of the pressures on mental health provision. Over the weekend, we saw reports that bed shortages in England are now such that seriously ill patients with eating disorders are having to travel hundreds of miles for treatment. What does he make of this practice, and does he consider it safe and sustainable?
May I ask the Secretary of State about the heart-breaking case of the death of baby Elizabeth Dixon? I know that he has spoken of this in the past. He rightly ordered an investigation, but I understand from the family that 16 months down the line the investigation has not started. Will he provide the House with an update?
The CQC has called for the issues addressed in its report to be a national priority, and for all those involved in delivering safe care to review the findings and publish a full report. We absolutely agree. Action is needed. We welcome the recommendations and stand ready to work with the Government to ensure that these issues are no longer ignored.
I thank the shadow Health Secretary for the constructive nature of his comments. He is absolutely right in that, because this issue can unite people in all parts of the House. In fairness, these tragedies happen when those on either side of the House are responsible for the NHS, and we all have a responsibility to work to do better than we are doing at the moment.
I particularly agree with the hon. Gentleman that front-line doctors and nurses work incredibly hard, and we need to get away from a blame culture when these tragedies happen. That blame culture is the root cause of why we are not learning as we should from the problems that arise, because people are worried about what will happen to them personally if they speak out. We have seen this with a number of tragedies. Through the national framework, we are trying to move away from a blame culture. Of course people have to be held accountable. If there is gross negligence and people do totally irresponsible things, then there must be no hiding place and proper accountability: that is what families rightly insist on. For the vast majority of the time, however, people are just trying to do their jobs as best they can. As he rightly says, it is often a systemic problem that can be solved with systemic changes. We are now trying to implement the culture of investigation that has worked so successfully in the airline industry and other industries.
I absolutely assure the hon. Gentleman that families and carers will be equal partners as we develop the new national guidance. This area was one of the most shocking things about the CQC report. I am sure that it was a great surprise to many people in the NHS how excluded many families felt. We clearly have to do better in that respect.
The hon. Gentleman talked about the National Patient Safety Agency, and I pay credit to Sir Liam Donaldson, who was chief medical officer under the previous Labour Government and a great champion of patient safety, but we now have different structures in place. The new CQC inspection regime and the healthcare safety investigation branch are giving equal, if not greater, priority to patient safety.
We discuss on many occasions the funding issues that the hon. Gentleman raised, as I think he is acknowledging with his facial expressions. The point I would make, because we have had a good exchange and I do not want to get into the specific politics of NHS funding, is that this is a win-win, because avoidable harm and death is incredibly expensive for the NHS. The time it takes to carry out investigations when things go wrong is utterly exhausting for the doctors, nurses and managers involved, who would much rather be doing front-line care. Preventing these things from happening in future is the best possible way of freeing up time for people on the frontline.
I will take away what the hon. Gentleman said about the Elizabeth Dixon case and find out what is happening with that review.
The real lesson of today is that every family, every doctor and every nurse has a simple aim when a tragedy happens. It is not about money; it is about making sure that lessons are learned openly and transparently so that history does not repeat itself. That is really what this is about, and that is why we will continue our mission to make NHS care the safest and highest quality in the world.
The Secretary of State has answered my point, but I would like to say, as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on patient safety, that the publication of avoidable death figures is really welcome news. I support what he said about creating a just culture where clinicians and other staff feel safe. That is important so that they can speak up about failure, and vital in delivering the high-quality but, most importantly, safer and better-value services the NHS aspires to.
I thank my hon. Friend, who does a huge amount of work on patient safety, not least because of sadness in her own family’s experiences that gives her particular passion in this respect. This is absolutely about creating a just culture. Inspiring people like James Titcombe, who lost his own son at Morecambe Bay, talk far more eloquently than I can about the need to get this right. Part of that just culture is about justice for people who use the NHS in future, to whom we have a responsibility to learn the lessons and make sure that mistakes are not repeated. One of the really important things we need to get right is to make sure that when something goes wrong in one place, there is a national way in which the lessons can be conveyed right across the NHS as quickly as possible.
I welcome this statement and remember the discussion of this tragic case. Obviously the majority of people who go into hospital and die in hospital will be people who are simply too ill for us to save, but we must not be nihilistic in imagining that that applies to everybody. The particular failure here was that people with learning difficulties or mental health needs were somehow just set aside and not looked at.
I welcome the idea of a safety board; there will be lots of things that can be learned and shared in that. I slightly pick up the Secretary of State on what he said about the Scottish patient safety programme, which is a national programme that has been running since the beginning of 2008. Part of that was about breaking down all the barriers, very much like in the airline business—being on first-name terms and making it everybody’s business so that even the cleaner in the theatre feels they can point out that they think a mistake is going to be made, but then when something happens having these adverse case reviews. In my hospital, we also reviewed near misses, and I commend that. It means that there is a review when what might have happened would have been serious. Certainly in the cases that I have been involved in, the family have been involved repeatedly. That is really important.
I also welcome the idea of a safe place for whistleblowers. People who have raised issues in the past and have been appallingly treated by the NHS still stand there as a terrible example to those who currently work in the NHS, so there needs to be some ability to go back to these old cases and provide justice for people who have ended up losing their careers by trying to raise patient safety issues.
I thank the hon. Lady for her contribution. I recognise the progress made in the Scottish patient programme, and particularly the inspirational leadership of Jason Leitch, who has done a fantastic job in Scotland and some very pioneering work.
The hon. Lady made some good points that I will take in reverse order. On whistleblowers, I asked Sir Robert Francis to look at this in his second report. He concluded that it would be very difficult, if not impossible, to go back over historical cases, because the courts have pronounced and it is very difficult to create a fair process where legal judgments have already been made. However, I take on board what she says, and I do not think that that means that we cannot learn from what has happened in previous cases; they are very powerful voices.
The hon. Lady is absolutely right about near misses, and we will include that issue in the “learning from mistakes” ambition.
The hon. Lady is most right of all about people with learning disabilities. The heart of the problem is deciding when a death was expected and when it was unexpected. About half of us die in hospitals. As she rightly says, the vast majority of those deaths are expected, but when a person has a learning difficulty it is very easy for a wrong assumption to be made that they would have died anyway. That is a prejudice that we have to tackle, and one that Connor Sparrowhawk’s mother talks about extremely powerfully. We have to make sure that this is not just about lessons for the whole NHS, but particularly about ensuring that we do better for people who have learning disabilities.
As chair of the all-party parliamentary group on learning disability, for me the most chilling phrase in the foreword of the report was when Mike Richards and his team said:
“We found that the level of acceptance and sense of inevitability when people with a learning disability or mental illness die early is too common.”
Will the Secretary of State put on the record what Mike Richards says in the report, namely that there can be no tolerance of treating the deaths of people with learning disabilities with any less importance than the deaths of any other patient in the national health service?
I am happy to put on the record the fact that those words have the Government’s wholehearted support. I credit my right hon. Friend for his work leading the APPG. I commissioned the CQC report because a year ago we had a report by Mazars on what happened at Southern Health, which said that only 19% of unexpected deaths were investigated and that that fell to 1% for people with learning disabilities. That cannot be acceptable, and it is why it is so important that we act on today’s report.
I seek the indulgence of the House while I raise a personal issue. This Thursday I should have been attending the inquest into my father’s death, which I anticipate will conclude that his death was avoidable. An hour ago I was notified that one of the key witnesses will not be attending because the hospital had incorrect contact details for him—he was a locum, and was unaware that the inquest was taking place. For the second time, therefore, it is being cancelled. Will the Secretary of State tell us whether the report looked into the issue of locum doctors—the pressure, and the failure to learn lessons because so many people in the health service, and in A&E in particular, come to the specific hospital on a one-off occasion, which is partly the cause of the defensiveness in the system?
First, I am sure the whole House will join me in offering my condolences to the hon. Gentleman for what happened to his father. The incredible grief that he and others feel when they lose a family member is compounded if it is subsequently discovered that the death was avoidable.
The hon. Gentleman raises a very important point. The CQC was not specifically looking at the issue of locums in this report, but in many other reports, on many occasions, it has talked about the dangers of locum and agency staff for precisely the reason he mentions. It is partly because people are not necessarily around at the time of an investigation, as they have moved on and work somewhere else, but it is also partly because, as I am sure we all believe, staff can give better care if they are in a team of people who know and trust each other. That is not possible if the majority of staff are employed on a temporary basis. He makes a very important point.
It is clear that half of medical negligence claims are in the field of maternity. Does the Secretary of State agree that the fear of legal action often prevents people from speaking out? How will the safe space be created that does not allow lawyers to intervene—very often lawyers slow up the process? An early admission of fault and a willingness to express the fact that lessons have been learned would provide so much comfort for families.
My hon. Friend has spoken very eloquently about that issue many times in this House. If a baby is born with a serious brain injury there will typically be a court case that lasts 11 years, and a settlement of around £6 million. That family are having to cope with the shock of having a disabled child—some families say that that is a kind of mourning process because the baby is not the one they were expecting, although they then go on to give the most extraordinary love to that child—and we compound it by making them go through a legal process that lasts more than a decade. It is absolutely shocking and despicable if that happens. We need to find a way to get those families the financial support that they need earlier, and make sure that we learn the lessons more quickly. That is absolutely what this agenda is all about.
I also pay tribute to Sara Ryan, the mother of Connor Sparrowhawk, who has fought tirelessly for justice for those with learning disabilities. I warn the Secretary of State that I think she will take some convincing that things really will change, given all the resistance she has come up against. I hope he has managed to meet her; if not, would he be willing to meet her, with me, to discuss the plans going forward?
One key issue not covered in the report or statement is the timeliness of investigations. A report nine months or a year after the incident is often no good at all: the organisation has moved on, and people have forgotten what has happened. I commend Mersey Care, which does a very quick, thorough investigation within 48 hours, when the information is really current and people are still shocked by what has happened. That is how Mersey Care seeks to implement the lessons from every tragedy.
I want to put on the record that the right hon. Gentleman was a big champion for people with learning disabilities when he was in my ministerial team, in particular over issues such as Winterbourne View, which he brought to my attention and did a huge amount of positive work on.
I have met Sara Ryan. I spoke to her again yesterday. I repeat what I said in my statement: that without her campaigning we would not now be making the huge changes on a national level that we are. I wholeheartedly agree with the right hon. Gentleman’s other comments.
The review found that acute and community trusts do not always record whether a patient has a mental health illness or learning disability. What steps will we take—such as, for example, the expansion of liaison psychiatry services—to make sure there is proper join-up and real parity of esteem?
My hon. Friend makes a very good point. We are making sure that all A&Es have liaison psychiatry services by the end of this Parliament. The critical issue is that someone with a severe mental health problem or learning disability who turns up in an A&E has special needs, and has bigger needs than the other patients there, but unless that is recognised early in the process, they are unlikely to get the care they need. If a tragedy then happens and they go on to die—as sadly happens sometimes—but the illness or disability is not known about, people do not realise that there are other potential issues. That is why the report is very clear that all acute trusts are required to know when patients have learning disabilities or mental health problems and to pay particular attention in any mortality investigations that happen regarding those patients.
The CQC has produced a grim report, and there was an even grimmer internal report on maternity services operated by Pennine Acute NHS Trust. Mothers and babies have died. I have put in parliamentary questions to the right hon. Gentleman and talked to the chief executive to try to find out which of those deaths were avoidable. I welcome today’s statement, but is it possible to be retrospective, so that the families of those people who have died in the Pennine maternity service can find out whether those deaths were preventable?
When the new guidelines are published, we need to investigate, as far as we possibly can, deaths that have already happened. I totally recognise the hon. Gentleman’s picture of Pennine and share his real worry about the standard of care in that trust. The positive thing is that under the leadership of Sir David Dalton—the chief executive of Salford Royal, which is one of the safest trusts in the NHS and a CQC outstanding trust—things are beginning to turn around. I have spoken to him about the situation at Pennine on many occasions. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that there is a lot of work to do there.
Many people will be shocked to hear that some trusts do not even know how many in-patients have died in their care. Will my right hon. Friend say more about what action should be taken against boards and leaders who are negligent in that way?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Boards now have a legal duty of candour, and are obliged to tell patients the truth about what has happened when something goes wrong, but how can they possibly do so if they do not properly record deaths or avoidable deaths? That is why this is a very significant moment. From next year, on a quarterly basis, all trusts will be publishing how many avoidable deaths there are in the trust. Those figures will be compared with national benchmarks. That is how we will start to make boards feel that they have a critical responsibility on this.
I welcome the learning disability mortality review that the Secretary of State has announced, but I am keen to ensure that it includes unexpected deaths in care settings other than the NHS. When I was first elected, Longcroft, which purported to be a care home for people with learning disabilities, was actually a torture chamber for people with learning disabilities. We have ended that kind of thing, but we need to ensure that unexplained deaths of people with learning disabilities in other care settings are fully investigated, and that those investigations feed into this review.
The right hon. Lady is absolutely right. I will take away with me the question of what the legal responsibilities will be for people in adult social care settings. One thing the report highlights, which I had not particularly anticipated, was the problem that a number of people with learning disabilities are cared for in multiple settings, so if there is a tragedy, the place where the tragedy happens may not be the place responsible for what went wrong. Often, the person’s previous care provider never even finds out that that person has died. One thing that Sir Mike Richards talks about is making sure that all care providers are informed promptly when something happens, so that there can be a multi-institution examination of what went wrong.
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement and the measures that he has announced. I have been supporting the family of a constituent who died unexpectedly in hospital, and they have suffered at every step along the way. There has been a wall of silence, the trust has refused to co-operate and the CQC has refused to investigate. Every step along the way, the family have been frustrated. That has been made even more important by the fact that the son of the deceased is a doctor in the NHS, and he knows that processes have been badly handled. All he wants is for the NHS to learn from its mistakes. Will my right hon. Friend undertake to say what he will do about the number of unexplained deaths that have occurred in the NHS over the past few years, and whether any of those cases can be examined by an appropriate authority?
I am happy to look personally at the case that my hon. Friend talks about. I think he speaks for all patients and families who have suffered tragedies when he says that the only thing people want is for lessons to be learned. A more challenging issue is that staff sometimes do not feel empowered to speak out in such situations, and they worry about the consequences. A number of trusts have an outstanding learning culture that is really supportive of staff, but that is not the case everywhere. One of the big lessons from today is that we must work out how to spread that positive culture across the NHS.
On 10 December last year, I asked:
“Is the Secretary of State satisfied that families seeking truth and justice for their loved ones are having to rely on pro bono lawyers for advice and representation, and on crowdsourcing to get legal advice?”
“It should never come down to lawyers.”—[Official Report, 10 December 2015; Vol. 603, c. 1147.]
Sadly, we all know that, on occasion, it will come down to lawyers getting involved. Will any of the recommendations from the CQC cover such eventualities?
It is a difficult one, because access to lawyers is a matter for the Ministry of Justice. I am not trying to duck the issue, but my responsibility, in what we are trying to do today, is to try to make sure that families do not feel as though they need to go to lawyers, because the NHS is open and transparent enough. With the values of people in the NHS, I think that ought to be achievable. I am happy to look at the case that she raises, and to bring it up with my colleague the Lord Chancellor.
Will the Secretary of State tell the House more about the healthcare safety investigation branch? How big will it be, who will head it up, where will it be based and how will it use its forensic detective work locally to get to the nitty gritty of the things that cause problems for hospitals?
I am happy to do that. The best way to understand what we are trying to achieve—this relates to what the right hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb) said earlier about the speed of investigation—is to think about the tragedy of the recent Croydon tram crash. Within one week of the accident, the rail accident investigation branch produced and published a full investigation into exactly what happened, which made it possible to transmit that learning around the whole tram industry. That is what we are looking for. We have modelled the healthcare safety investigation branch on what happens in the transport industry. It has already been set up, and we are lucky that the person heading it up is Keith Conradi, who headed up the air accident investigation branch and knows exactly how these things should happen.
The CQC clearly identifies the need for a change in culture, and the Secretary of State acknowledged that a number of times in his remarks today. The NHS has to be less defensive, and it needs to be more honest and open with families if there is to be a genuine commitment to reflect, learn and make sure that things are different in future. What does he think are the barriers to ensuring that that culture change takes place, and what steps does he intend to take to overcome those barriers?
There are a number of barriers, one of which is time. Staff feel very pressured for time. I strongly argue that it is a false economy not to allow time for lessons to be learned, because tragedies, when they happen, take up a huge amount of time. From a management and leadership point of view, we have to make sure that doctors and nurses are given the time for reflective learning as part of what they do.
Another thing is the management culture. If people feel that the management of their trust are open and listening, they are more likely to be open and listening themselves. If they feel that there is a hire-and-fire culture, they are less likely to take that approach. There are a number of lessons.
Given the case of three-year-old Sam Morrish, who died at Torbay hospital in 2010, and the conclusions of the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman that many investigations into avoidable deaths were not fit for purpose, I welcome the statement. I also welcome the spirit of openness that will follow in relation to these extremely difficult issues. We are, ultimately, all mortal. Although I think it is absolutely right that we will not be setting targets, will the Secretary of State reassure me about the ongoing monitoring we will undertake and the proactive work we will do with trusts to reduce the number of such incidents?
As my hon. Friend knows, I have met the parents of Sam Morrish—Scott and Sue Morrish—on a number of occasions. They described how when their son died, all the shutters came down. I met them only a few months after I became Health Secretary, and that engraved itself on my memory because it was so awful to hear about what they were doing.
My hon. Friend raises a rather sensitive issue, which I tried to talk about in my statement. I expect, as a result of the changes, the number of reported avoidable deaths to increase. If that happens, I do not think that it will necessarily mean that patient care is suffering. We have to be very careful, in this House and with our local newspapers, to say that if trusts start to report an increased number of avoidable deaths, it might mean that they have a more transparent culture and are being more open. Their standards about what is expected and what is unexpected may start to change as they realise that things could have been done to prevent a death that they might previously have described as expected. We have a duty, as Members, to encourage responsible reporting of this new openness, and that, in turn, will help staff.
I want to pick up on a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Toby Perkins). A constituent of mine who is an agency nurse told me that she had been left in charge of 24 fragile patients, some of whom had the norovirus, on a ward that she did not know very well, with only two healthcare professionals working with her. Given that, will the Secretary of State now commit to the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence publishing safe nursing staffing levels, as recommended by the Francis report?
NICE has published its staffing levels for wards. I recognise the problem, and it is exactly what we were dealing with in the Francis report. We now have 10,000 more full-time nurses on our hospital wards than we had three years ago. We are making significant progress, but there is still huge pressure on hospital wards. We have developed a new methodology that more accurately makes sure that patients get the care that they need, whether it is from a nurse, a healthcare assistant or whoever else in the hospital. I am happy to write to the hon. Lady and tell her what that guidance is.
I thank the Secretary of State for his statement. The families of those who died in the care of Southern Health in Hampshire have played a vital role in campaigning for transparency and improvements, and they include the family of David Hinks from Havant. Will the Secretary of State join me in commending the families for their work in the most distressing of circumstances?
I absolutely do so. I know that the family of David Hinks have campaigned very strongly on this matter. The key point about families is that they are often the people who know best what happened to individuals when something went wrong, because they saw the care at every single stage. Whether the care took place in a care home, hospital or a GP surgery, families are likely to have seen the whole thing, and can really help us to understand what might have gone wrong. They are therefore a positive force in this process.
I am so pleased that the Secretary of State took the time to praise James Titcombe and other campaigners in my constituency who have done so much to help to break down the culture of secrecy and cover-up that has afflicted too many of our trusts. The right hon. Gentleman deserves real credit for his determination, and I hope that the tone he has struck today will last and that we do not go back to the accusatory and vindictive tone that, I am afraid, too often marred discussions about this during the last Parliament. Finally—thank you for your indulgence, Mr Speaker—will the Secretary of State say more about the tension between the families’ desire for individual accountability and the need to encourage a culture of openness in which people can come forward?
In fairness to the hon. Gentleman, he makes two important points. I know that he worked very closely with James Titcombe, who is one of his constituents.
We are now learning the right way to deal with the tension between accountability and having a learning culture. Essentially, this boils down to an understanding that 98% of the time a mistake is made because of a systems problem—a structure or a framework that did not enable a doctor or a nurse to operate to the best of their ability—while 2%, 1% or perhaps even less of the time it is a case of genuine negligence by an individual that deserves full accountability. When we understand it in that way, we start to realise that the first thing to ask is what could be changed in the system, but if we uncover bad behaviour by individuals—there are 1.3 million people in the NHS, so it is obviously going to happen at some stage—then there of course needs to be full accountability.
On the tone of these exchanges, let me say something optimistic: I really do believe that the NHS can become the safest, highest-quality healthcare system in the world. That would be welcomed by the Labour party, as the party that was in power when the NHS was set up, and we would welcome it as part of our absolute commitment to higher standards in public services. There is no country in the world that is even considering what we have announced today, which is to ask hospitals to publish the number of their avoidable deaths on a quarterly basis. It is a very big step that can happen in a system built around public service.
Kevin, the son of my constituent Desmond Watts, suffered from very significant learning difficulties and was neglected in a care home in the county, which led to his tragic death. This was completely avoidable. Des has never seen justice for Kevin, but I know that he would want my right hon. Friend to consider whether it is possible to apply to social care some of the principles that he has set out today. I join the right hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) in encouraging him to do that.
My hon. Friend makes a really important point. I will have discussions with the Minister responsible for social care, the Under-Secretary of State for Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington South (David Mowat), about what we can do in the social care field. I am optimistic that we can do something, because if we make this part of the framework of the new CQC inspection regime—obviously, that has to happen with the consent of the CQC—we can create a very strong incentive for adult social care providers to do what we want and to follow what is happening in the NHS.
I, too, want to raise the issue of the appalling neglect in medical care at Pennine Acute. The report—the extremely damning report—only came to light following the persistence of Jennifer Williams, a journalist on the Manchester Evening News, and the bravery of a whistleblower at the trust. I know that the Secretary of State will do what he can to protect whistleblowers, but how will he enforce a no-blame culture and a culture of openness in a trust such as Pennine Acute that appears to have tried actively to suppress this extremely damning report?
There should be no hiding place for managers who neglect their legal responsibility, which is the duty of candour that we in this place passed into law in 2014. That is my first point. It is also important to be realistic about the ability to impose a culture on organisations by ministerial diktat, but we can achieve that because this is something that NHS staff want. In some ways, what is most worrying about Pennine is that Salford Royal, one of the best hospitals in the NHS, is virtually next door to it, but the transmission of learning at Salford Royal did not seem to penetrate even into a neighbouring hospital. That is why we must get much better at sharing learning between hospitals.
Will the Secretary of State say more about how the additional and extra information he has mentioned, which will be so important for patient groups in judging rates of progress, will be made available?
I am happy to do so. We will lay down in regulations in the House that the information must be published for all trusts on a quarterly basis. I draw my hon. Friend’s attention to what I said in the statement, which is that it is not legitimate to compare the numbers in different trusts, because trusts will have different levels of reporting. In fact, our better trusts may actually have higher levels of reported avoidable deaths because they are better at picking up these things.
One of the recommendations says:
“Greater clarity is needed to support agencies working together to investigate deaths and to identify improvements needed across services and commissioning.”
How is that going to happen?
This is a very complex issue, but it is a very important one, particularly for people with learning disabilities who are users of the services of multiple organisations. The National Quality Board will put together guidance before the end of March, so that we can roll this out across the whole NHS during next year.
I welcome the Secretary of State’s statement, and indeed his commitment to retraining and his recognition of its importance. Does he acknowledge the finding that the families, whom we must remember will be grieving, are not always treated with kindness, respect and sensitivity, which is unacceptable? Does he agree that those handling review cases involving deaths must have compassion and the ability to empathise with families, and that those must be among the qualifications of that job?
I absolutely endorse what the hon. Gentleman says. The point is that families and carers are part of the answer because they can help us to understand what went wrong. It is therefore in the interests of all of us to treat them with kindness, respect and dignity.
Point of Order
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. A fundamental part of our parliamentary democracy is the right of our constituents to raise concerns with their Members of Parliament. My constituent Dawn Knight has raised with me the terrible treatment she received from the Hospital Medical Group following cosmetic surgery. I have raised her case on a number of occasions with Ministers, including on the Floor of the House.
Last week, Dawn Knight and Lorna Kidd, a constituent of the right hon. Member for Ipswich (Ben Gummer), received solicitors’ letters from Schillings solicitors on behalf of the Hospital Group threatening them with legal action if they discuss their cases with a third party —in other words, including with their Members of Parliament. I know that the right hon. Gentleman has already written to you, Mr Speaker, concerning his constituent. May I ask you to look at this case, because allowing our constituents to raise their concerns with us is fundamental to the way in which we operate?
I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his point of order, and indeed for his courtesy in giving me notice of it. I can confirm that I have received the letter to which he refers, and I shall reply to it in due course. Any attempt to impede an hon. Member going about his or her parliamentary business is potentially a contempt, and in such circumstances I would ask the hon. Member to write to me about this matter in the first instance. I hope that that is helpful both to the hon. Gentleman and more widely to the House.
Mutualisation of the Royal Bank of Scotland
Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to transfer the ownership of the Royal Bank of Scotland to its customers and employees; and for connected purposes.
Taxpayers saved the Royal Bank of Scotland; they should now be allowed to own it. It should become a people’s bank that every tax-paying British citizen has the right to be a part-owner of. Making it the Royal Building Society of Scotland would mark a decisive break with the disastrous Fred Goodwin era.
There are new entrants to the banking market and there have been many reforms to banking regulation, many of which have made a difference, but the structural problem in Britain’s banking market—a lack of competition between different types of financial services institutions—is as bad now as it was in 2008, and arguably worse following the banking mergers that the crash precipitated. The problems of 2008 can be traced back, in part, directly to 1992, when the wave of building society demutualisations began. Although only 10 of the 89 societies that existed demutualised, because those 10 were among the largest, they represented about 70% of the mutual sector’s assets.
Before 1992 in the UK, as is still the case in most of the rest of Europe, banking services were provided by financial service providers with a range of ownership structures and, therefore, with different incentives and business ambitions. After 1992, the gradual takeover of most of the big players in the building society world led to a steady decline and deterioration in competition in banking in the UK.
Although many other countries have had serious problems in their banking sector, few have suffered as much as the UK and, crucially, few others have been so dominated by traditional shareholder investor-owned banks. Each of the last two Governments have been wrong to leave in place what is effectively a cartel of the major banks, with just one building society challenging their dominance.
There have been persistent concerns about the level of competition in the banking market and its structure. I am pleased to say that those finally led to the Competition and Markets Authority being called in to investigate. In August this year, it published its retail banking market conclusions. For anyone who is tempted to think that banking is a wholly reformed and properly functioning market, its report makes sobering reading.
The CMA report describes the personal banking market as concentrated and states that concentration levels have increased since the crisis and that competition is not working well. On lending to small and medium-sized businesses, the CMA notes that the four largest providers—RBS, Lloyds, Barclays and HSBC—had a combined market share of over 80% and that new entrants had reduced their market share by just 1%. It found that there had been little product innovation in SME lending and went on to note the adverse effects on competition in personal banking, basic current accounts and SME lending caused by the combination of persistent concentration in the market and the very high barriers to entry and expansion for new lenders.
Almost 60% of banking staff work in just two banking groups and almost 70% of bank branches are held by just three banks. In 2014, of the top 10 banking groups by market share for personal current accounts, only two could reasonably be described as mutual and only one of those had a market share of 5% or higher.
What was striking about the remedies package that the CMA advanced was that it did not consider reforms to the ownership model of any of the major banks as a possible part of the solution. It did discuss the idea of breaking up the big banks, but I repeat that it did not discuss changing the ownership model. State ownership of RBS has steadied a sinking Titanic, but it has not fundamentally changed the key structural weakness in British banking: the lack of competition between different types of financial services business. Full private ownership of all the big banks—the stated aim of the last two Governments—is only likely to exacerbate the lack of competition.
There has been discussion about mutualising one of the banks. Indeed, for some time, the Co-operative party tried, ultimately unsuccessfully, to convince both the last Governments to consider remutualising Northern Rock. Neither of them, for slightly different reasons I suspect, was willing to countenance that option. There has been consistent support across all the main parties for reinvigorating competition and choice in the banking sector, first by fostering more diversity and secondly by promoting mutuals. The case for mutualising RBS, rather than selling the rest of its shares at some future point on the open market, is partly that it would encourage a more diverse group of big banking businesses, partly that it would enhance the critical mass of the mutual sector and partly that it would accelerate improvements in the culture and practice of RBS itself.
Andrew Haldane of the Bank of England has argued that a more mixed system of different corporate structures is likely to produce a more stable financial system. While there is evidence that building societies offer their customers a better deal, on average, than traditional banks, I am not making the case for mutuals per se, although I declare an interest as chair of the all-party parliamentary group for mutuals. I am making the case for the systemic advantages of a mix of banks and mutuals, which turning RBS into the Royal Building Society of Scotland would deliver. Mutuals, although affected by the downturn, proved more stable than traditional proprietary banks. Given the huge barriers to entry to setting up a new mutual of any significant size in the financial services, it makes sense to explore the mutualising of a mature business, while conserving the remaining mutuals.
As we have had to suspend the sale and reprivatisation of shares in RBS, there is an opportunity to consider an alternative to state or private ownership. After all, no one thinks the Government will get their money back in full from the sale of RBS shares for the foreseeable future. Indeed, the Office for Budget Responsibility is no longer factoring in any sales of RBS shares in this Parliament. Those shares that were sold resulted in a net loss of £1 billion to the taxpayer.
The mutualisation of RBS would not mean that its debt to the taxpayer could not be repaid. A new mutualised Royal Bank of Scotland would need to make annual payments to the Treasury for some time to come. An asset lock for the new Royal Building Society of Scotland would also be needed to ensure that members—that is, customers or employees of the society—would benefit only from their ongoing financial relationship with the business. Crucially, it would be clear up front that membership of the new society could not lead to a demutualisation-style handout, so members would have no incentive other than to see the business stick to its core activities.
The trade sale of RBS shares was to other financial services players. If Goldman Sachs, Citigroup and Morgan Stanley are allowed to continue with that, it will simply reinforce ownership of the big banks by the wealthiest in our country and beyond.
A Royal Building Society of Scotland would be a chance to change the culture fundamentally at one of Britain’s biggest financial players. Above all else, it would inject some competitive energy and dynamism into what is, to all intents and purposes, still a monopoly industry.
Question put and agreed to.
That Mr Gareth Thomas, Luciana Berger, Stephen Twigg, Stephen Doughty, Stella Creasy, Geraint Davies, Mr Mark Hendrick, Mr Adrian Bailey, Mike Gapes, Ms Karen Buck, Christina Rees and Mr Steve Baker present the Bill.
Mr Gareth Thomas accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 24 March 2017, and to be printed (Bill 111).
Aleppo/Syria: International Action
Emergency debate (Standing Order No. 24)
I beg to move,
That this House has considered international action to protect civilians in Aleppo and more widely across Syria.
The hon. Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern), with whom I co-chair the friends of Syria all-party group, joins me in thanking you, Mr Speaker, for granting this emergency debate. We are both concerned that on occasions, motions such as this can appear to be hand-wringing and to focus on the concept that something must be done. We are anxious today to encourage the Government to pursue all avenues and options, as I know they are extremely anxious to do.
The House will be particularly grateful to the Foreign Secretary for responding to the debate himself. On the earlier occasion when you granted an emergency debate on these matters, Mr Speaker, he returned to the House and made his first major speech from the Dispatch Box. I believe his presence signifies the concern of Foreign Office Ministers about the tragedy that is Aleppo today.
I wish to cover three points this afternoon. The first is the current situation in Aleppo. Secondly, I have some specific suggestions for the Government to consider together with our allies, and, thirdly, some observations on how this crisis could develop in 2017 and the action that the international community should take.
I start with the position on the ground today. We are able to monitor what is going through Twitter and other social media to some extent, but in particular, the reports of the United Nations and its agencies, and of the International Committee of the Red Cross, are likely to be extremely accurate. They have reported over lunchtime that there is clear evidence of civilians being executed—shot on the spot. There are dead bodies in the street that cannot be reached because of gunfire. In the last couple of hours, we have heard that probably more than 100 children who are unaccompanied or separated from their families are trapped in a building in east Aleppo and under heavy fire.
We learn from totally credible independent sources inside Aleppo that all the hospitals have been deliberately destroyed with barrel bombs and bunker-busting bombs, and that in case the people in those hospitals were not destroyed by those munitions, cluster munitions, which are anti-personnel munitions, have also been used. There are pop-up clinics in underground locations, which are suffering nightmare conditions, with people lying on the floor and pools of blood everywhere. Doctors and nurses are wearing boots because there is so much blood on the floor, and casualties are moved in and out as fast as they possibly can be because there are grave dangers to them from being in those locations. The ambulances of the White Helmets have been specifically targeted, and there is now no fuel available for them.
In the mid-afternoon yesterday, a 10 km by 10 km zone was the centre of the fighting in Aleppo. It is contracting, and at 10 o’clock this morning it was probably less than half that size. There are approximately 150,000 civilians crammed into that area, and very large numbers of them are children. Large numbers are stranded in the open and looking for shelter. The only food available is dates and bulgur wheat. Water has run out, and there is no electricity. Last night, people were flooding into that enclave. As I have said, there are credible reports of executions and the removal of groups of adult males.
The right hon. Gentleman paints an absolutely grim picture of the current situation in Aleppo. Two years ago, I travelled to Srebrenica with the hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart). We visited an exhibition in Sarajevo of pictures from Srebrenica and pictures from Syria, and they were indistinguishable. When we hear of summary executions, disappearances of men and boys, unmarked graves and the types of atrocities that the right hon. Gentleman is describing, does he not believe that we risk this being the Srebrenica of our generation?
The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point, which I will come to directly.
The terrified civilians in Aleppo are of course sophisticated, educated people from what was one of the great cities of the world. With 2 million people, it is 6,000 years old and has treasured Islamic civilisation and artefacts within it. A senior Aleppo resident, terrified, said this morning:
“The human corridor needs to happen. If the British Government is serious about fighting terror, they can’t ignore state terror. Doing so creates so many more enemies and if they offer but empty words, nobody will ever believe them in future.”
Ten years ago, this country, along with the entire international community, embraced the responsibility to protect, a doctrine that said that nation states great and small would not allow Srebrenicas, Rwandas and other appalling events such as those in Darfur to take place again. That responsibility was signed up to with great fanfare and embraced by all the international community, great and small. Yet here we are today witnessing—complicit in—what is happening to tens of thousands of Syrians in Aleppo.
That is the situation today. I come to my second point, which is to put specific actions to the Government, which I know they will wish to consider. First, there is an urgent need for humanitarian teams to be deployed and given unfettered access to Aleppo once Government forces there are in control. That is essential if we are to avoid the same circumstances as Srebrenica—the precise point that the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) has just made. There is a very serious danger, from the position I have described, that such events are already taking place, so it is essential that those teams are deployed.
We need to get food, medicine, fuel and medical services into east Aleppo immediately. We also need to have independent humanitarian eyes and ears on the ground, not only to give confidence to terrified civilians—who, I remind the House, are caught out in the open in temperatures that are predicted to fall below minus 4° tonight—but to avoid possibly false allegations of war crimes and breaches of international humanitarian law by Government forces and their military associates. It is not easy to see why Russia and Syria would wish to resist that, unless they do not wish the world to know or see the actions that they are now taking in Aleppo.
The second action that I hope the Government will evaluate and support is organising the evacuation to comparative safety, in United Nations buses and lorries, under a white flag and in a permissive environment, of the people who are wounded or have been caught up in this terrible catastrophe. It is clear that the United Nations has the capacity, with available vehicles, to move north up to the Castello road and then west to Bab al-Hawa, near Reyhanli, on the border, which Clare Short, the distinguished former International Development Secretary, and I visited earlier this year. There are hospitals in Bab al-Hawa, and there are significant refugee facilities on the Syrian side of the border. They are easily resupplied via the Reyhanli crossing by international humanitarian actors, and that route out of the nightmare of eastern Aleppo should be made available as fast as possible.
Britain is in a pivotal position at the United Nations to try to convene an acceptance that that action should be taken. We are hugely respected on humanitarian matters at the UN. Matthew Rycroft, the permanent representative to the UN5 on the Security Council, is extremely effective in what he does. The current National Security Adviser, Mark Lyall Grant, a key United Nations operative for many years, has great convening power, and there are senior UK officials at the United Nations. The head of the Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs, Stephen O’Brien, who worked with me at the Department for International Development, plays a pivotal role. The British foreign service is respected and admired around the world, and, in supporting Staffan de Mistura and Jan Egeland, has an absolutely pivotal role to play in trying to convene the consensus that is now urgently required.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for making a powerful and important speech. Does he think the Syrian regime would allow those very necessary humanitarian interventions without counter-attack and disaster?
Yes, I believe that if the Russians could be persuaded at this point that they have nothing to lose from allowing international humanitarian actors into Aleppo, the Syrians would agree. If they do not, the world must ask why they wish to hide from purely humanitarian action.
The right hon. Gentleman makes an incredibly important point about the importance of international pressure. He will have seen as we all did the grotesque story on the front of the Morning Star suggesting that what is happening is the “liberation of Aleppo”. While such scandalous propaganda on behalf of Russia is being put about within the UK, is it not all the more important that we have that international pressure so that we open the eyes of everyone in the world to what is happening?
I confess to the hon. Gentleman that the Morning Star is not on my morning reading list. In view of what he has just said, I am most unlikely to add it.
Will the Foreign Secretary commit today to Britain’s using every sinew of the immensely impressive diplomatic machine I described to secure a consensus on those two actions in these last moments for Aleppo?
I am sorry I cannot stay for the whole debate—there is a concurrent meeting of the Foreign Affairs Committee. I agree with my right hon. Friend about the efforts to relieve the situation in Aleppo, but a year ago 20 nations—the International Syria Support Group—sat around a table and produced an agreement on the future of Syria. Does he agree that our efforts must also return to the politics of getting the whole international community into the same place on the future of Syria?
My hon. Friend is right that the support group has proved to be a cumbersome and not entirely effective mechanism, but his central point is absolutely correct.
I come to my third and final point, which is on the House looking to the future. What can we do as part of the international community to bring the catastrophe that has engulfed the Syrian people to an end? By an incredibly unfortunate sequence of events, the international community has so far been completely unable to help. The United Nations has been hobbled by Russian actions, using the veto, which it has the privilege to use on the Security Council, to shield itself from criticism and to stop international action on Syria.
The Kofi Annan plan originally put forward by the UN was, in my view, tragically and wrongly rejected by the American Government. The Russians in their turn have shredded a rules-based system, which will have cataclysmic effects on international law, international humanitarian law and international human rights. The Americans have been absent. Crucially, President Obama made it clear that, were chemical weapons to be used, it would cross a red line and America would take action. Chemical weapons were used and no action was taken by the Americans.
This House, in my view, was ill-advised to reject the former Prime Minister’s motion in August 2013 for British action. I hope the Government keep an open mind about putting another resolution before the House, as is necessary.
I am extremely grateful to my right hon. Friend for the powerful case he is making and the leadership he is demonstrating, but would he concede that the 2013 motion was not on a comprehensive plan to bring peace, and that if a motion is brought before the House, it should be on a comprehensive, UN-backed plan to deliver peace and not on such a narrow issue?
I hope that, if there is a chance for Britain, with its pivotal role at the United Nations, to support a UN-backed force, if necessary with military action, Britain will very seriously consider it, and that such a proposition will be put before the House of Commons.
I was listing the unfortunate coincidence of events that has hobbled the international community, the fourth of which is that the Arab states in the region are irredeemably split on what should happen in Syria. Europe has become dysfunctional, facing inwards and not looking outwards, and focused on the symptoms of the problem—the refugees—and not on the causes. A resurgent Russia is pursuing its interests. The House should understand Russia’s interests and respect them, even as her actions are rightly condemned, and as we confront it when it breaches humanitarian law, as it has undoubtedly done in Aleppo.
There are only two ways in which this catastrophe will end. There will either be a military victory or there will be a negotiation. There will not be a military victory, so at some point there will be a negotiation and ceasefire to enable bitterly antagonistic foes to negotiate. When that time comes, Britain has the experience, the connections, the funds and the expertise to assist. The great powers must support that negotiation, however difficult it is, and put pressure on the regional powers to do the same. It is essential that we provide, through our position at the UN, the strongest possible diplomatic and strategic support to that process.
There will come a moment, too, when President-elect Trump and President Putin discuss these matters. As is widely recognised, there are indications that the two men can do business. I hope that the United States lifts its veto on Assad being part of any negotiations—Assad is part of the problem, and therefore by definition part of the solution—and that Russia uses its power to stop the conflict on the ground while both combine to defeat ISIL.
Finally, I ask the Foreign Secretary: will he intensify the efforts of his office to collect evidence, especially now, of breaches of international humanitarian law and war crimes, so that individuals as well as states, no matter how long it takes, can be held to account one day for what they have done?
I congratulate the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell) and my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern) on securing this emergency debate. I compliment the right hon. Gentleman for speaking with his customary force and authority, and for the way in which he has spoken up for the people of Aleppo persistently. Labour Members will always remember that he took up Labour’s fight to meet the 0.7% aid target after he became International Development Secretary in 2010. If, following the Chancellor’s words yesterday, we need to resume that fight in the coming years, I am sure that the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield will be on our side again.
Since our previous emergency debate on Aleppo just over two months ago, every worst prediction that was made that day has happened. We all warned that the grotesque war crimes being committed by Russia and the Assad regime would only intensify, and so it proved. We all warned of the increasing humanitarian crisis, with thousands of civilians still trapped in Aleppo, desperately short of food, water, medical supplies and shelter. That crisis has only got worse. Finally, we all warned that, if nothing changed, eastern Aleppo would be destroyed by Christmas, and that is exactly what is coming to pass.
It was depressing to read in recent days the accounts of the talks that have taken place in Washington—they are said to have been going on for months—about the technical options for making airdrops of humanitarian supplies into Aleppo. The subject was raised recently in the House by my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral South. According to The Guardian, the last meeting on the subject of airdrops collapsed because of fears that, by the time any airdrop took place,
“there would be no one…left to save”.
It was equally depressing and chastening to read the text sent yesterday by a doctor in eastern Aleppo, which he described as his “farewell message”. He wrote:
“Remember that there was once a city called Aleppo that the world erased from…history”.
Although we all condemn Russia and Assad for their actions in eastern Aleppo—we must ensure that one day they are held to account—and we equally condemn Iran and Hezbollah for the role that they have played in the massacre, we must remember the words of that doctor, who blamed not only those directly responsible for destroying his city, but the world as a whole for allowing it to happen. This has been a global collective failure every bit as great as Srebrenica. On that point, I agree with the right hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty).
What do we do now? I believe that the answer boils down to four points. First, we must take every diplomatic step to press Russia and Iran to allow safe passage from eastern Aleppo, not just for the remaining fighters and their families, but for medical professionals, journalists and others. Many will have watched the extremely moving “Inside Aleppo” films on Channel 4. They were filmed by a 25-year-old mother and Aleppo citizen—not a camera woman or a journalist—who is married to a doctor whose professional duties have kept them in the city, even after many of the other civilians have fled. It is difficult to imagine the terror that they feel, but we have read their messages for ourselves.
We must make it clear to Russia and Iran that those civilians must be given safe passage from the city or be protected if they remain. I have been told by several sources, including journalists, the UN and the Red Cross, that there is a makeshift building—some might call it the last remaining hospital; others might say that it is simply a building that people have moved into in the last few days—inside which hundreds of children and injured people and 110 medical staff are trapped. Following negotiations with the Russians and the Syrian Government, the Russians have said that while the fighters and their families will be allowed to leave, the so-called civilians and activists will not. The “activists” they refer to are medical staff. Why would medical staff not be allowed to leave? According to the Russians, they must remain in the city, presumably to face the shelling. They presumably have a high chance of being massacred by the regime or at the very least detained. How can it be that men with guns can leave eastern Aleppo, but men with stethoscopes cannot?
It might be that the men with guns have a high chance of being killed in some future conflict, whereas the citizen journalists and humanitarian doctors and nurses to whom my hon. Friend refers would be credible witnesses in any future criminal proceedings, and Russia and Syria have every incentive to make sure that their evidence is never given to the world.
My hon. Friend makes a powerful point that, in many ways, echoes what was said earlier about the importance of allowing aid workers and independent people into the area to bear witness to what is going on.
Secondly, once the fighting in Aleppo has ended—an end might well come very soon—how will we get humanitarian relief to the citizens still in eastern Aleppo and to those who have fled elsewhere, particularly as the temperatures begin to plummet and the need for shelter and blankets becomes as great as the need for food, water and medical supplies? As I have said, there is also a need for witnesses to the aftermath. If Russia and Assad continue to block road convoys into the area, surely the Government must finally accept that we have reached the point of last resort—that point at which the previous Foreign Secretary promised that airdrops would be used. If we fear that manned flights might be too dangerous, as does the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, the hon. Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood)—
The Minister sits and shakes his head, but if we fear that such flights might be too dangerous, the Government must consider using unmanned drones or GPS-guided parachutes.
I am really concerned about the idea that we might send our aircraft into airspace that is contested and hostile. As I know, they fly low to drop the aid, and they can be taken out by ground fire, not just missiles. I suggest that all those people who wish this to happen sign their names and perhaps travel on the RAF aircraft, because the action would be extremely dangerous.
There is a live debate about this, which is why I also pray in aid solutions such as unmanned drones or GPS-guided parachutes, which can carry much more than unmanned drones. We know that the Government are actively considering all these proposals. If airdrops are not the answer to delivering humanitarian aid, I hope that the Foreign Secretary will tell us what is, because inaction is simply not an option.
I congratulate those who have secured this debate. A UN spokesperson stated this morning that there had been a “complete meltdown of humanity” in Aleppo. If that does not mean that we have reached the point of last resort, does my hon. Friend, like me, want to hear from the Foreign Secretary exactly what that point would be?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend; I could not have put it better myself.
Thirdly, once Aleppo has fallen, attention will at some point turn to Raqqa and other cities where Daesh is currently in control or attempting to take control. Civilians are trapped in those cities as well, and they will be just as vulnerable as the civilians in Aleppo to bombardment, the use of chemical weapons and the humanitarian effects of any siege. To what extent, if at all, will there be co-operation with Russia, Iran and pro-Government forces, if and when their attention turns to fighting Daesh? If the answer is none, how will we stop Raqqa and other cities turning into repeats of Aleppo?
My hon. Friend refers to other cities in Syria. Is it not clear that the Assad regime and the Russians have focused all their resources on destroying eastern Aleppo and allowed ISIL/Daesh to retake Palmyra? Does that not show their real priorities?
In some ways, that takes me to my fourth and final point. The impending fall of Aleppo must raise the question: what exactly is the Government’s current thinking about Syria? Increasingly across the country, we are seeing what the Foreign Secretary has called moderate rebel groups either defeated by pro-Assad forces or signing truce agreements with them. It has been claimed that more than 1,000 such local truce agreements are now in place. Do the Government believe that the moderate rebellion is still taking place or has any chance of succeeding? If not, what endgame are the Government now working towards?
In September, the Defence Committee published its report on the Government’s military strategy in Syria and concluded that the goal of creating new leadership in Syria that was
“neither authoritarian and repressive, on the one hand, nor Islamist and extreme, on the other”
was too ambitious to be achieved “by military means alone”. That remains a wise judgment, yet the Government seem to be even further away than they were in September from squaring this particular circle.
These are desperately dark and terrifying hours for the people of Aleppo. They are hours of shame and disgrace for the Governments of Syria, Russia and Iran, who have perpetuated this vicious assault, and they should be hours of deep sorrow and reflection for every international institution and Government who failed to stop it happening and did not do enough to help the people of Aleppo while there was still time. Even now, there are still things that we can do. There are still important lessons to learn and important questions for the Government to answer about where we go from here. I hope that the Foreign Secretary will take this opportunity to answer some of those questions today.
Order. We will begin with an eight-minute limit on Back-Bench speeches.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell) on speaking with such passion and compassion for the citizens of Aleppo, and on bringing to bear his experience as one of the country’s outstanding International Development Secretaries. I also thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this debate; it is good to see my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary here to respond to it.
What we have heard already moves us to tears: the tens of thousands of civilians trapped in Aleppo; the reports today of residents being shot on sight; and the barbarous assault by the Syrian army, Iranian militias and Russian airpower that the Morning Star, as we have heard, describes as a “liberation”. Let me offer my support and gratitude to the incredibly brave people who are risking their lives as doctors and White Helmet workers in that war zone. I support everything that has been said about what we need to do to get aid into Aleppo, or to provide some kind of ceasefire so that civilians can get out of Aleppo.
The whole concept of an emergency debate suggests that this tragedy has somehow come upon us out of the blue and that there is an almost natural aspect to it, but that is not the case. The Syrian civil war has been waged since 2011, so this is something that we could have foreseen and done something about. We are deceiving ourselves in this Parliament if we believe that we have no responsibility for what has happened in Syria. The tragedy in Aleppo did not come out of a vacuum; it was created by a vacuum—a vacuum of western leadership, including American and British leadership. I take responsibility, as someone who sat on the National Security Council throughout those years, and Parliament should also take its responsibility because of what it prevented being done.
There were multiple opportunities to intervene. In 2012, David Petraeus, the head of the CIA, devised a plan for a much more aggressive intervention in Syria, providing lethal support to what was then clearly a moderate opposition in the Free Syrian Army. That approach was rejected. Britain provided support for flak jackets, medical kits and so forth, but it was clear throughout 2012 and 2013 that there was not a parliamentary majority in this House for providing lethal support to that opposition so that they could shoot down helicopters and aircraft, and fire back with sophisticated weaponry.
In 2013, of course, this House of Commons took a decision not to back a Government motion to authorise airstrikes when Assad used chemical weapons, breaking a 100-year-old taboo—we established it in the west and it survived the second world war—that you do not use chemical weapons, as well as crossing a red line that the President of the United States had established.
Does the right hon. Gentleman think that such lethal force would have overcome the Iranians, the Russians and Assad? Does he really think that if we had provided more munitions, this was a winnable war?
On the narrow point, in August 2013, we were responding to the use of chemical weapons and providing airstrikes as a demonstration that the use of those weapons was completely unacceptable and that a red line had been crossed—and, indeed, that the west had established that red line. Of course, once this House of Commons took its decision, I believe it did have an impact on American politics. We cannot have it both ways—we cannot debate issues such as Syria and then think that our decisions have no impact on the rest of the world. I think that that did cause a delay in the American Administration’s actions and did cause Congress to get cold feet.
This is where I want to begin to draw my remarks to a close, because I know many Members want to speak. The last time I spoke from the Back Benches was in 2003, from the Opposition Benches, when we were debating intervention in Iraq. We all know the price of intervention. My political generation knows the price of intervention: the incredibly brave servicemen and women who gave their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan; the thousands of civilians who died in those conflicts; the cost to taxpayers in this country; the chaos that inevitably follows when there is intervention in a country; and, of course, the division in our society, our families and our communities.
I believe, however, that we have come to a point where it is impossible to intervene anywhere—we lack the political will, as the west, to intervene. I nevertheless have some hope for what might come out from this terrible tragedy in Syria, which is that we are beginning to learn the price of not intervening. We did not intervene in Syria, and tens of thousands of people have been killed as a result while millions of refugees have been sent from their homes across the world. We have allowed a terrorist state to emerge in the form of ISIS, which we are now trying to defeat. Key allies such as Lebanon and Jordan are destabilised, and the refugee crisis has transformed the politics of Europe, allowing fascism to rise in eastern Europe and creating extremist parties in western Europe. For the first time since Henry Kissinger kicked it out of the middle east in the 1970s, Russia is back as the decisive player in that region. That is the price of not intervening.
Let us have our debate, and let us do everything that we can to help the civilians of Aleppo. Let us hope that the new American Administration and the new Secretary of State work with the Russians to get the ceasefire, but let us be clear now that if we do not shape the world, we will be shaped by it.
I thank those Members who have already spoken and made remarks that I agree with. It is an honour to speak after the right hon. Member for Tatton (Mr Osborne). I have vigorously opposed so many times in this House everything that he has put to us. Today, I respect his very thoughtful and important contribution.
I rise today with one purpose, which is to persuade the Foreign Secretary that if he chooses to listen to the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell) and take the action that he suggested, he will do so with wide support across this House. Overnight, we have seen reports of the fresh hell that Aleppo has become. We hear this message from the White Helmets:
“100,000+ civilians are packed”,
as the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield said,
“into a tiny area. Bombing and shelling relentless. Casualties unimaginable. Bodies lie where they fell.”
Last night, we heard the final distress call. Today, we decide whether to answer.
The situation in Syria is so dire and the need so urgent that we must not waste further time in deliberation and delay. It is as simple as this: civilians in Syria cannot be left to the mercy of Assad. Ban Ki-moon was very clear in his message yesterday that we all have an obligation
“to protect civilians and abide by international humanitarian and human rights law.”
He went on:
“This is particularly the responsibility of the Syrian government and its allies.”
Like the Secretary-General of the UN, we here all know what President Assad and his allies are doing to the people of Aleppo—and the Government know it, too. A letter of condemnation signed by our Prime Minister last week described the bombing of hospitals and children being gassed. It described these acts as war crimes. These are strong words, but strong words will not rescue a single child while Assad continues to drop bombs on their heads. The Prime Minister rightly condemns the Russians for their
“refusal to engage in serious peace talks”,
but I say it is time for our Government also to rethink their efforts.
As has been said, we can now clearly see the consequences of our inaction. We have asked our Government to step forward with a strategy to protect civilians. Without this, we can see the consequences: so many bodies that the White Helmets can no longer count them, let alone mount a rescue. So our inaction must now become action, which is why, 18 days ago, when I asked Members of this House from all parties to sign a letter to the Prime Minister in support of getting aid to Syrians—by air, if necessary, as a last resort—I was unsurprised, though very glad, that within one day, 100 Members had agreed to put their names to such a request. Very quickly, that number had risen to over 200 and is now 221 if we count all parliamentarians—Labour, Conservative, Liberal Democrat, Scottish nationalist, Social Democratic and Labour party, Democratic Unionist party, Plaid, Green; Mr Speaker, who cares what party we are today? Human beings are being slaughtered without mercy, and I say, never mind party policy; that is a sin against nature itself.
So what should the Government do? We know that Russia will continue to frustrate the UN process by using its veto to protect Assad. Strongly worded letters from our Prime Minister and others are worth nothing if we are not prepared to back them up with actual action. First, we need to get the vulnerable out of there. Children, medics, the injured and the disabled urgently need safe passage to somewhere with shelter, food and basic medical facilities.
Secondly, as 221 parliamentarians are begging the Government: get aid in—by whatever means we can. The reality in front of our eyes is this: even to save a single life, aid is required. We know it is there, and even at this late stage we must do what we can to get it to people.
Thirdly, we must protect those left behind. The Government must press with the full capacity of the British legal profession for UN monitoring, or even just British monitoring, of the atrocities now being committed. If we offer Syrian civilians so very little, the least we can do is promise that, however long it takes, Assad will see justice.
We have all heard the Government’s usual lines on this: they say they are doing all they can, they are keeping their options open, and nothing is off the table. That is not good enough. We are calling on the Government to put something on the table. The reality is that by delaying we are not keeping our options open; we are closing them off. Every day we miss a chance to do what is right.
I am sure that the Government will put out another press release telling us how tragic the fall of Aleppo is, but then Assad will move on, maybe to Idlib or somewhere else, and then somewhere else, and the whole thing will play out again; and we will see more bombed-out hospitals, more dead children, more war crimes, and no doubt more well-written press releases from Governments.
So I have two final questions today. First, will the Foreign Secretary support the call of the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield for an immediate ceasefire to evacuate the children and medical staff still trapped in the rubble of east Aleppo? Will the Government help make that happen, yes or no? Will they go further and do everything possible to secure a more permanent ceasefire and humanitarian access in Aleppo?
The Foreign Secretary knows that the support is here in this House for airdrops of aid if the Government give it their backing. As I have said, more than 200 hon. Members have signed a letter in support of that; the only obstacle is the question of action from the Government. If that is the wrong option and we need another way to open humanitarian corridors, all I ask is for the Foreign Secretary to come back to this House with a strategy to protect civilians.
Secondly, will the Foreign Secretary commit here and now that the Government will not stand by as the Syrian regime moves on to the next city, because does anybody seriously believe that if we allow Assad to have his way now, he is going to stop?
I want to finish by reminding the Foreign Secretary that, alongside the bombs and the gas, the Assad regime has been dropping propaganda leaflets into eastern Aleppo in recent weeks. These leaflets tell the people there that the world has abandoned them and there is no hope. It is up to us to show that that propaganda is a lie. We must show the desperate people of Syria that there are still people in this world who have not forgotten them—people who will honour the commitments we have made in international law and will stand with them against barbarism.
Aleppo may have just hours left, but there are still souls alive in Syria who we can help. If we do nothing—if we just stand by and watch—thousands more people in Syria will die in agony, and millions in Britain will live with the shame of our inaction.
The Foreign Secretary sits on the Treasury Bench. For more than six years, I have sat here on the Opposition Benches with my Labour friends, and I am deeply proud of my party. Yet I have to tell the Foreign Secretary that if he chooses to act—if he chooses to offer a hand in friendship to people in Syria—there will be no Front Benches or Back Benches, no Government Benches and Opposition Benches; there will simply be all of us here—British citizens, representing the British people, wanting him to act, not in the worst of our country’s traditions, but in our best, and wanting him, on behalf of all of us, and for the sake of those in Syria who cannot escape and who desperately need safety, in our name and for them, begging him, to lead.
Order. The time limit on Back-Bench speeches will for now be reduced to six minutes.
I would very much like to see a humanitarian corridor going to eastern Aleppo, but may I talk about the practical requirements needed to establish such a route, and to get people to safety without anyone fighting to achieve it? I will give a few thoughts based on my experience of frequently having had to do that job in the 1990s.
Everyone present knows that this would be a very difficult operation and would require, at least, Syrian Government and Russian approval. Clearly the route must be free from air and ground attack. Without this, establishing a safe route into and out of Aleppo would be impossible. That is the first, and probably most vital, prerequisite for achieving success, and I suppose our diplomats are working overtime on such matters as I speak.
I also take it as a given that this operation would be done under the United Nations flag. Of course, therefore, every vehicle would be emblazoned with the UN cypher, and be operating under the moral authority of the world’s forum, but in truth, forces fighting on the ground may not be under effective control of even their own side. In such circumstances, small fighting groups often act independently and, if so, they could cause huge loss of life.
In Bosnia I used small teams led by a liaison officer to prove that we could use routes before allowing convoys to go down them. This was dangerous work and it was a job that involved convincing every commander of every roadblock that it was to be open. I have to say that if we were to suggest such a thing, we may well have to send our officers on the ground to do it. I would support that.
Of course there also has to be a plan for the worst case when things go wrong. In Bosnia I could send my own troops in, but we cannot send troops into Syria. These convoys would be on their own, and they would be dependent on Syrian military and militia goodwill, and of course that of the Russians.
If we are successful and get a humanitarian convoy out of Aleppo to a place of safety, we will be responsible for the people in that convoy. We have heard already today of people being “executed.” I hate that word; they are murdered. Execution is a judicial process; those people have been murdered. We would have responsibility for ensuring these people’s safety.
Establishing a safe humanitarian corridor can be done, given determination and the will and consent of belligerents. We cannot fight our way in—well, we could if we were up to it, but we are not—but let me be clear: this will not be easy and it requires a huge number of preconditions to be met.
Finally, may I remind this House that if Members suggest that we should lead humanitarian convoys into Aleppo, we will bear responsibility for whatever happens, good or bad?
The shadow Foreign Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry), said that what is happening in Syria shames the Assad regime, Iran and Russia; it shames all of us in this House and every political party in this country. It shames the democratic world, the United States, and the United Nations, and if we do not do anything about it—let us not kid ourselves that Assad will stop here; Idlib will be next—that will be the end of the rules-based global order we thought we had achieved after the horrors of Srebrenica, with all the grave consequences that will entail for our future peace and security.
Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?
I will not give way for the moment.
There have been so many missed opportunities. As the former Chancellor, the right hon. Member for Tatton (Mr Osborne), said in his excellent speech, many people across the world have been calling for action against Assad since he started slaughtering his own people five years ago. In August 2013, after the international outrage at his use of chemical weapons, we had the chance, but we blew it; the Conservatives blew it, we blew it—every political party in this House blew it. The former Chancellor was absolutely right when he said that that had a direct impact on what the United States did then, with President Obama fatally withdrawing from the red line he had drawn on the use of chemical weapons, with absolutely horrendous consequences, not just now in Syria, but for the future of our world to come.
At any stage since that calamity, the Government could have come back to this House with proposals for safe areas, no-fly zones and, most recently, aid drops, but they did not. Just two weeks ago, my hon. Friend the Member for Islington South and Finsbury made it quite clear that we would support airdrops. The Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, the hon. Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), hid behind the excuse of not having parliamentary authority, but he did not even seek it, which has been a pattern of this Government over the past few years. As a desperate aid worker told the BBC yesterday, it might now be too late.
We now have the disgusting spectacle of a combination of far right and far left from around the world, united only in their contempt for democracy and human rights, celebrating what they call a “liberation”. Why do we constantly forget the lessons of appeasement, whether from the 1930s or more recently from the Balkans? Statements on Syria from Conservative Ministers have sounded just like the ones I remember from when they were dealing—or not dealing—with Milosevic as he rampaged through Bosnia. When will we understand that dictators such as Assad and Putin only respect strength and the credible threat or use of force? When will we realise that Russia’s strategy is to weaken and divide the free world and that driving the biggest refugee flows into Europe since world war two is a deliberate part of that plan? When will we admit that Putin is already achieving what he cannot achieve militarily through cyber-warfare and propaganda?
The motion that we are debating is welcome, but it is pathetic. It refers to the House considering “international action” in Aleppo. There will no international action, because there is no political will, either here or in the other countries where such will is necessary.
Is my right hon. Friend as anxious as I am? With Putin and Russia linked to interference in the American election, with the bombing of Syria leading to a refugee crisis in Europe and with many central European countries looking inward, like we are, Putin’s expansionist tendencies and desire for a warm port should make the Foreign Secretary think carefully about the actions from this point on onwards.
I completely agree. We have not even begun to wake up to Russia’s cyber-warfare. Its interference in the American presidential elections is now proven. It probably interfered in our own referendum—we do not have the evidence for that yet, but it is highly probable. It will certainly be involved in the French presidential election. There are already serious concerns in the German secret service that Russia is already interfering in the upcoming elections. We have to wake up to this, but when?
Finally, the tragedy today is the tragedy of the benighted people of Aleppo issuing desperate, and probably futile, last-minute appeals for help to the outside world. The tragedy tomorrow will be all of ours for failing to stop this happening and for the consequences. Shame on us.
There is no doubt that the civilian atrocities taking place at the hands of Assad and Putin in Aleppo are among the worst that we have witnessed in decades. As a teenager watching the horrors of Rwanda or Srebrenica, I used to think, “Why don’t they do something?” Well, “they” are now us, and what are we doing? We have turned our face away. It is three years since this place voted not to respond to Assad’s use of chemical weapons on his own people. It is 15 months since little Alan Kurdi was found face down on a beach in Turkey. It is a year since we rightly voted to take action on ISIS in the east of Syria and nine months since Jo Cox was granted an urgent question on breaches of the then ceasefire. It is two weeks since we stood here and discussed aid drops and safe passage. What have we actually done to save a single civilian life in Aleppo? Nothing.
We are watching a fascist dictator, backed by a corrupt global power, use chemical weapons and barrel bombs against his own people for daring to want a better life and a better Government. Have we turned away because of more important local issues or because of the siren call to first look after our own? When we talk of “our own”, that should not stop at our constituency boundaries or, I am afraid, at the white cliffs of Dover. All humanity is “our own” and we have a responsibility and a duty to act. We are not so poor as a nation, financially or morally, that we should turn our backs on what we see on distant shores, not least because it will eventually find its way to us, whether in the form of terror on our own streets or refugee families seeking sanctuary in our estates. We cannot be frozen by the guilt surrounding well-intentioned military action of the past, as the right hon. Member for Tatton (Mr Osborne) so eloquently said. If we are left disappointed or ashamed by difficult and lengthy struggles in Iraq, we must learn the right lessons, which are there in black and white in Chilcot, that when the potential for military action arises we should not commit until it is clear that it can be achieved. We should properly prepare for what comes afterwards and work better with regional partners. Those are the lessons to learn. We should not turn our backs and leave innocent citizens to the bombs and chemicals of despots.
The world is getting smaller by the day and we must play our part in it. We must decide what that part is and what duty we owe to humanity. That duty now looks to be two things. First, as we have heard today, we must get people out immediately. Medics, children, mums—citizens—are trapped and we have to evacuate them as soon as possible. We must get humanitarian aid in as a matter of emergency. We have to urge international action to call an immediate ceasefire. As the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell) said, we must identify the war crimes and bring people to account. Secondly, we must pledge never again to turn our backs, never again to be ground down or put off by the length or difficulty of the struggle, never to give in to moral equivalence between brutal fascist dictatorships and a people’s struggle for self-determination and freedom. We must pledge never to be so determinedly full of self-indulgent self-loathing for the west that we do not believe that we can play a positive role for the good of the world. Never again should we lack a sense of responsibility to humanity, wherever it is and however hard the struggle.
It is a pleasure to follow a wonderful speech, but we have said “never again” so many times. We mean it when we say it, but then, a few months or years later, it comes to nothing. It is this House’s responsibility to stand up and show hope for the future, optimism and a way through the current problems, but like my right hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw) I feel a sense of sorrow, shame and anger about where we are today.
The hon. Gentleman is making a powerful point. When the historians look at this situation, does he agree that it will probably represent a catastrophic failure of western policy that has significantly changed the world for the worse? It is inevitable that a distinct reckoning will come at some point for the United Kingdom and the United States of America.
The hon. Gentleman is right that there will be a reckoning. The question now is about when it will come, on what grounds we will fight and whether, even at this last stage, we will be prepared to stand up for ourselves and the values that we preach in this House but are so rarely prepared to defend when push comes to shove.
Although it will in no way aid what little career I have left in my party, I want to pay tribute to the right hon. Member for Hatton—
“Tat” rather than “Hat”.
In truth, the right hon. Member for Tatton (Mr Osborne) gave the speech that should have been made at the Opposition Dispatch Box, showing a level of understanding about the issues that makes me hope that he has a future in his party and that he will return. Although great, the problems that we face in this country pale into insignificance compared with other problems we face. There is the threat of a tyrannical regime in Russia that has effectively created a global system that has rules but no consequences. We must understand how we have enabled that to happen if we are to have any hope of being able to right this situation before it is too late.
Let us remember how moderate the 2013 proposal was. The regime had used chemical weapons and we said that there must be a red line. There was absolutely no thought-out plan, but the idea that we should—[Interruption.] I will deal with the Government side in a minute. There was the idea that we should do nothing, which is what we did, because there was no thought-through plan. Last week, the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, the hon. Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), showed modesty and frankness about the Government’s failure to get that vote through the Commons. The most lamentable and damning part of the former Prime Minister’s legacy is that he rushed into that. I still feel sick at the idea of the then Leader of the Opposition going from that vote into the Whips Office and congratulating himself and them on stopping a war. Look what is happening today and what has happened over the past three years—the slaughter shames us all, no matter on what side we sit and no matter what our actions were at the time. We are shamed as a nation by this.
We then saw the Russian move into the country, with no UN mandate and no request, yet we allowed it to happen. President Obama said, “Oh well, they’ll come to regret that.” The Russians are not regretting it, because they have been able to show through that and through the highly discriminate slaughter—I was going to say indiscriminate, but it is not—they are perpetrating on citizens that they are able to get away with pretty much anything at the moment, without any sense that there will be come-back. Of course we should talk about the need for justice, bringing people to account and to courts, but the Russians do not respect this. There is no way that they are going to give up their people to bring them to trial. So for all the talk now, rightly, about what extra aid we can bring and what, finally, we can salvage for the people who are left in Syria fearing for their lives, this will ultimately come down to whether we can restore a world with consequence or whether, as the hon. Member for Halesowen and Rowley Regis (James Morris) suggested, we are now seeing the irretrievable breakdown of the United Nations, just as the League of Nations was destroyed in the 1930s.
The UN is broken over this. People can say, “Let’s have a UN-backed resolution”, but there is no way that Russia currently, when it fears no consequence, is going to bow to the will of the rest, so we have to restore a sense of consequence. Of course that will be difficult, and people will say, “Oh my goodness, you’re inflaming the situation. Oh look, you’re going to start world war three”. However, Russia is not a country that wants a war, but it will continue to push as long as it knows that it will meet no resistance.
Where will this happen next? Will it be a NATO nation? Will it be on our shores? Let us not forget that the Russians have redrawn, by force, the borders of a European country for the first time since the second world war—and what we have done? Not very much. I understand that the Prime Minister is focused on the UK’s exit from the European Union, and rightly so, but this is not a world where we can have one focus and we can leave the difficult decisions beyond the European borders to other people. With genuine respect to the Foreign Secretary, I say that I have seen his understanding on these issues and I have seen him nodding along, but at the moment we have understanding without the capacity to act. So I implore not simply him, but the Prime Minister to look up at what is happening, to understand the role of leadership that she has in this country and on the world stage, and to let us restore a sense of dignity, rules and consequence to the global order.
As I stand here speaking to the House, I feel humbled but wracked with guilt: guilt that tonight I get to go home and kiss my children, while Syrian parents are burying theirs; and guilt that I am not on the front line with my medical colleagues from the Red Cross, whom I stood with for many years, shoulder to shoulder, in many a humanitarian crisis. Those colleagues are pulling bodies out of wreckage, at certain risk of murder. They are desperately fighting to save lives, without resources, using rags to stop bleeding and with eyes streaming from chlorine gas. I have guilt when I ask myself whether in Britain we on these Benches have done enough for the innocent people of Syria and I cannot put my hand on my heart and say that we have.
My guilt is tempered only by the hope that today my voice, along with those of colleagues from both sides of the House, may be heard and action will be taken. I have said it before and I will say it again: the sound of a parent losing a child is an international language. It penetrates one’s skull—it is a dagger through the heart—but it is a language that we are not hearing here in this Chamber. Why have we not heard it? Why do we sit here with inaction? We are close to a time when all we will be able to say is, “It’s too late.” But we stand here today with a last chance for the Government to be able to say, “We did something.” Something is better than nothing—to date, all we have is nothing.
I was in the House in 2013, when we voted in this House to do nothing. At that time, 2 million women and children were in camps, 5 million Syrians were displaced within Syria and Assad had slaughtered 150,000 of his own people. If we as a nation will not take action, the UN will not take action and all the most powerful nations in the world will not take action, what hope did those people have and what hope do they have today?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his point. With the greatest of respect, let me say that I was not in the Chamber at that time and I am talking about what we can do now and the responsibility that we have to humanity here today. Many of us, from both sides of the House, have called again and again for humanitarian aid drops and been met with, “Air drops are a last resort”. The time for last resort has come and gone. I am calling today for a strategy from the Government on how they will protect the civilians left trapped in Aleppo, many of whom know their fate and many of whom have been begging their loved ones to kill them because they fear what will happen to them if they are captured. Today is the day when we need action. We need negotiations now for provision to be put in place for those in Aleppo to leave and get to a safe haven. That city was once thriving, just like our own, but it has been reduced to rubble and death. The only thing that separates them from us is where they were born. What makes their lives worth less than ours? What makes their children’s lives worth less than ours? We will be worth less if we just stand by. One question we need to ask ourselves is: in the twilight of our own lives, will we be able to look at ourselves in the mirror, in the privacy of our own minds, and know we really did all we could? Our choice is simple: will we be governed by fear or will we be led by our conscience?
I spoke earlier of my experience visiting Sarajevo and Srebrenica two years ago and of the exhibition that I saw, but one thing that will never leave me was entering a musty room in a mortuary where bags full of bodies and skeletons were still being examined 20 years after that crisis. These were people whose graves had been disinterred and attempts had been made to hide the evidence, and their families were still not able to get closure on the atrocities committed at that time, when the world stood by. When I hear the stories of men and boys being disappeared, of summary executions, of mass graves and of attempts to hide the evidence and to kill those who were witnessing the evidence, I have all the same fears that we will be looking in one of those mortuaries 20 years from now, wondering just what on earth we did.
That leads me to reflect on the decisions that we in this House have made. I have to reflect on whether the decision I took in 2013, with other people in this House, was the right one. I sat through that entire debate, and I did not feel that the Government came forward with a comprehensive plan or that they had clarity about where they were going, but I have to accept that our decision may well have been wrong.
I agree with the right hon. Member for Tatton (Mr Osborne) that the real question was: why did we not act in 2011? Why did we not act right at the beginning of this conflict? Why were we trying to make decisions when already hundreds of thousands of lives had been lost and when already this conflict had spiralled out of control? We have to look at not just one decision, but the collectivity of the decisions that we took over time.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way and for the contribution that he is making. I have felt incredibly proud to listen to many of the speeches that colleagues have made during this debate. I hope and pray that the actions that follow this debate are as great as the speeches. Once this two-hour debate is finished, we will have a five-hour debate on the Neighbourhood Planning Bill. Does he, like me, have a sense of how ludicrous we will look when we are discussing that?
Absolutely. I also fear that many will ask where the rest of the House is today. Where is the Prime Minister? Where is the Leader of the Opposition? [Interruption.] I know that the Leader of the Opposition was here, but in a such a debate, we should have senior people in our country standing up and taking part and taking responsibility for the decisions of this House.
All our hand wringing will do nothing to solve the problems that we face today and that the citizens of Aleppo face right now.
I wish to turn now to Russia. I agree with much of what my hon. Friend the Member for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock) said about Russia. We have to end this fetishisation of Russia by both the populist right and the left and make it face up to the consequences of its action. We must stand up against what it is doing and make it recognise that there are consequences for stepping over these lines and that there will be a response. I must ask the Foreign Secretary a sincere question. We have heard the Government say that they have been doing all they can to bring action against Russia, but the EU High Representative, Federica Mogherini, said this week:
“No, we didn’t discuss at all sanctions”—
at the EU Foreign Affairs Council—
“and there was no member state asking for additional work on sanctions”—
against Russia. I would like some clarity from the Foreign Secretary on what efforts have been made on this matter. Those sanctions were having an impact. What other member states support him?
Does the hon. Gentleman share my concern over the incoming US Administration and some of the individuals’ relationships with Russia? Does it not highlight the need for the UK Government to press seriously on the sanctions issue?
I agree with the hon. Gentleman. Indeed, much of what the new President-elect has said about Russia is deeply worrying and should concern us all, not least whether he is willing to stand up for NATO allies and against aggression in the east of Europe.
I wonder why we have not done more to support the efforts of other countries in the United Nations. We talk about the failures of the UN Security Council, but there are other means by which we can authorise action. The “Uniting for Peace” resolution process has been used before, and Canada has been pushing it this week. The General Assembly took a vote and made a decision. Why are we not at the forefront of leading those efforts when the Security Council fails? I fear that if we do not take such action we will see the breakdown of all those systems of international agreement.
Fundamentally, we can make a difference today. I make this appeal to the Foreign Secretary: what are we doing to secure a ceasefire, even a ceasefire of a few hours, to get out the injured, the women and children, the aid workers and those others who are trapped? The UN is there and ready to assist. It can get the people out, but we need the agreement of Russia and others. If the Foreign Secretary is saying that we cannot do airdrops, what can we do with our military assets to provide air cover for UN aid convoys leaving Aleppo? UN convoys have been attacked in the past, so what can we do to provide the assurance that they will not be attacked leaving the scene of this atrocity? What can we do to provide access for neutral humanitarian monitors—those people from the International Committee of the Red Cross and other organisations—to ensure that the evidence is not destroyed and that those who are responsible for these atrocities cannot cover up what they are doing?
What can we do to ensure the evacuation of the White Helmets—people who have been responding and doing amazing work there on the ground? I have read some disgraceful things in recent days about the work of the White Helmets. I can tell Members that they are not true and that those people are helping to save lives. I am proud that we are supporting them, and that Jo Cox supported them and that her foundation supports them now. Any suggestion that those people are doing anything other than a good job is simply unacceptable.
Finally, we must look at the precedent. If we see what is happening in Aleppo today, we can see that it will happen also in Dara, Raqqa and Idlib. If this is the approach that we are going to take and we are not going to stand up at this moment, we will only see these kind of atrocities played out again and again over the weeks and months to come. We must stand up and show that we have some common humanity. We have to do the extraordinary and step outside our natural caution and our fear of these events. People are dying right now and we need to act.
I thank the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell) and the hon. Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern) for securing this debate and you, Mr Speaker, for granting it.
The war in Syria and the slaughter of more than 450,000 innocent civilians, overwhelmingly by Assad’s barrel bombs, is without a doubt the 21st century’s most shocking and deplorable bloodletting. The carnage has been unparalleled since Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The international community’s response has been lamentable. Parliament’s reaction to events, which started in 2013, has been feeble. Assad, Russia and Iran’s response has been criminal and the repercussions and shock waves will be felt for decades.
What we need to hear from the Foreign Secretary today is this: what are the Government doing with their allies to push for a meaningful immediate ceasefire and safe passage for any remaining civilians, of which there are believed to be between 50,000 and 80,000? I have a 15-year-old son. He is nearly my size, but—he will not thank me for saying this—he is still a child. If he was leaving Aleppo, what chance would he have of getting through Assad’s soldiers and surviving that experience? There are hundreds of thousands of civilians out there who are worried about their children.
We heard from the hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart), who is no longer in his place, about his concerns with airdrops, which clearly cannot be undertaken lightly. We need to hear from the Foreign Secretary what recent acts of consideration the Government have given to airdrops and the solutions that do not involve pilots advocated by the Opposition. Are those airdrops relevant to other parts of the country? Even if they are not relevant in Aleppo, other parts of Syria are clearly still under siege and may benefit from airdrops.
The Foreign Secretary needs to tell us what the Government are doing in relation to documenting human rights abuses. From a sedentary position, the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, the hon. Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), has indicated that the Government are working on that issue. I hope that we can hear as much as possible about that. The Government, for very obvious reasons, may not want to reveal how that is being documented, but we do need to hear what work is being done.
We also need to hear what work can be done to hit the Russians where it really hurts them. Clearly, we will not engage in military action with the Russians, but what we can do—the Government will have an opportunity with the Criminal Finances Bill—is hit them in their pockets. Many Russians love to spend their money in the UK. They love to buy properties here; love to buy their cars here; and love to send their children to school here. That is an area where the Government can do something. The Magnitsky amendment that is being proposed to the Criminal Finances Bill is about seizing the assets of foreigners who have committed gross human rights abuses. I want to hear from the Foreign Secretary that the Government will support that amendment, because we know that many of the Russians involved in Syria will have assets here that we could seize.
The Government of Syria have tied themselves to Russia and Iran, which see it to their advantage to encourage Syria’s atrocious behaviour and so perpetuate Assad’s reliance on their support. Assad’s position, for the time being at least, is secure. What new initiatives can the UK, working with its allies, offer to help bring the fighting to an end. Some call for the creation of an enclave in eastern Syria, which would be free of Assad and ISIS forces and which is, as I understand it, where the Kurds and the UK and French special forces are active at the moment. Could such an enclave provide part of a solution?
Only after the violence stops will people begin to recover from the trauma of this horrible war and only then will it be possible for Syrians to think and talk productively about how to begin transforming Syria into a country in which all its people can live in security and dignity. The UK must be prepared, if it is allowed, to play its part then. Will we be ready?
As we have heard, in the opposition areas of Aleppo, people are fearing retribution for all—men, women and children alike. There are reports of extra-judicial killings, mass detentions and arrests. Just a few minutes ago, the BBC reported that the UN’s human rights office said that it has reliable evidence that in four areas 82 civilians were shot on sight. We all fear that this is just one example.
All this adds horribly to the imperative for urgent international action. With hindsight, we can see that when in 2011 the peaceful Syrian democracy movement was largely ignored by the international community, it was inevitable that others, wedded neither to peace nor to democracy, would step in. The regime’s response was predictable, not least given the vicious response of the President’s late father, Hafiz al-Assad, to previous uprisings, such as the one in Hama in 1982, where reportedly 20,000 people were killed, the vast majority of them civilians, and the city was destroyed by heavy weapons.
Some years ago, a very close relative of mine spent some time in Syria, working in Damascus in the education system. She tells me that the memories of Hama were very live even at that time, 20-odd years later. Terror was being used as a deliberate part of the regime’s armoury, as it has been since the Ba’ath party seized power in 1963.
The White Helmets now report that tens of thousands of people are trapped as indiscriminate attacks, both ground and air attacks, continue with even greater ferocity, following on from the previous inhuman attacks on the very weakest points, deliberately targeting hospitals, water and food supplies, and aid convoys.
My colleagues in Plaid Cymru support the calls for an immediate ceasefire and safe passage for civilians and rebels out of Aleppo.
The international community has largely failed the people of Syria so far. One redeeming aspect is this Government’s current policy of commitment to material aid. I am happy to salute them for that. Does the Foreign Secretary therefore agree that now is not the time to cut the foreign aid budget?
I fear that the current inhuman conflict is sowing the seeds of future horrors in Syria, the middle east and western Europe, so, irrespective of the humanitarian argument, it is very much in our interest that we take action on the side of humanitarianism, democracy and eventual peace.
Thank you, Mr Speaker, for calling me. I follow on from the many excellent speeches that we have heard in today’s debate. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty), I have visited—in my then role as chair of the all-party group on genocide prevention, alongside you, Mr Speaker—Rwanda, Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo and, more recently, South Sudan, and I have seen there the long, painful process of rebuilding in countries where genocides have taken place.
One of the many problems when genocide and war crimes take place is that there is a fog of war around them. I remember living and working in Brussels during the Rwanda genocide and not really understanding, as I was reading the newspapers in French, what was happening between Hutu and Tutsi, who were the good guys and who were the bad guys, but seeing the people fleeing from Rwanda and later from Zaire, now DRC.
In the Syrian conflict, however, there has been no lack of information. Everything has been appearing on social media. People have been live tweeting their own suffering and their own death. That is why the citizen journalists and the humanitarian workers are more feared by the regime and by the Russians than the rebel fighters. We have seen the images—images that I personally would rather not have seen—of dead children who were murdered in Homs and Hama in 2011 and 2012. We in the west, in particular the US and the UK, drew a red line by saying that we would intervene if chemical weapons were used. That fatal vote in August 2013, as the right hon. Member for Tatton (Mr Osborne) said, has had long and very significant consequences.
Our inaction created the political space for the Russians to move in and to offer to decommission the chemical weapons. We have all seen how successful that decommissioning process has been—we have watched as sarin gas, chlorine gas and napalm have been dropped on schools and hospitals in Aleppo and throughout Syria. We have seen the Russian propaganda campaign of misinformation and their pretence of being honest brokers when the west failed or stood by.
Our inaction also opened up military space—Assad released the jihadis from jail to go out and create mayhem in his country. It served as a recruiting sergeant for 30,000 jihadi fighters from more than 100 countries to go and fight for Islamic State, and it served to create the geographical space where Daesh could claim its caliphate, and groom and lure our own young people to go over there and waste their lives as jihadi brides or jihadi fighters. They now find themselves stuck there in the horror of a nihilistic death cult.
The result has been political space captured by the Russians and military space given to Islamic State-Daesh, enabling them to create mayhem in the region and to export it to Turkey and to Iraq where, let us not forget, Mosul has been under Daesh rule for two years, notwithstanding the long and painful efforts of a coalition trying to take back the space in Iraq. The export of chaos from Syria has resulted in 11 million refugees, 7 million of them in their own country, and 400,000 dead. We cannot claim that we did not know what was happening. That toll has been the result of our own political inaction.
It is a bitter irony that this country went to war in Iraq over weapons of mass destruction which were subsequently found not to be there, possibly having gone over the border to Syria, where we see that they have been used. Now, when we see weapons of mass destruction being used in Syria, we are not prepared to take action. How weak, how diminished, how futile is the rules-based international order. We see Secretary of State Lavrov, the Russian Foreign Minister, telling the US Secretary of State to “stop whining”. That is the contempt in which Assad and Putin hold western powers in the region.
When the Foreign Secretary replies to this debate, will he tell us how the workers of UK charities who are currently in east Aleppo will be evacuated and rescued? They have not been spoken about in the debate. When we had our first debate on Syria in October, I contacted Bana Alabed and Omar Ibrahim, who was a neurosurgeon working in east Aleppo. Bana Alabed is still alive.
My hon. Friend is making a characteristically detailed and important speech. Will she say a little more about the fate of civilians who have put themselves at risk?
Absolutely. Civilians have put themselves at risk as citizen journalists, going out while the bombs are falling and filming what is happening. There is also solidarity between our national health service and Dr David Nott, whose foundation is doing excellent work, training people in Turkey to go back into the hell hole that is Aleppo or that is Idlib to perform life-saving surgery.
I have been in contact with Omar Ibrahim during this debate and I have been telling him what we are doing. He has live tweeted to us and shared what he is doing; it is only fair to live tweet back. I said that we are calling on the US and Russia to create safe corridors for humanitarians and civilians to leave. His response is, “It will take a lot more than calling.” These are people facing imminent death or torture from the pro-Assad regime. We have seen the pictures of the 100 or so civilian men and boys in that compound with the Syrian army general in front of them. We do not know their fate. We are back to Bosnia, back to Srebrenica. When we say never again, we must put force behind those words.
I would like to conclude by asking the Foreign Secretary what the Prime Minister will do at the EU Council this weekend. Will she work with our European allies and our NATO allies to make sure we get a speedy humanitarian resolution to this conflict?
I would like to start with a quote from a constituent’s letter. Dr Amer Masri left Damascus a few years ago and now works as a researcher in Edinburgh. He says:
“It is a shame for the free world to see the massacres and mass executions happening to the civilians that are trying to flee Aleppo right now and no action is being taken.
I am very, very disappointed and heartbroken that the free world has left civilians who chanted the values the west believes in like freedom, democracy and dignity, and they are left starving and facing the Russian, Iranian and Assad regime brutality alone. We are left alone.
I urge the UK not to bomb Syria but we need aid drops. It is not too late. There are besieged areas in Damascus suburbs, besieged areas all over Syria. Use these planes to create safe corridors to protect the civilians—not to bomb them.”
I cannot add to the many comments that have been made on both sides of the House that sum up the despair and frustration that people in this country and others feel about the situation in Aleppo. However, I want to reflect on the fact that it is just over a year since we had a vote in this House on whether to join military action in Syria. Those of us on the SNP Benches opposed that motion, yet we were assured that if we voted to join that military action, we would cut off the head of ISIS, provide air support for 70,000 ground troops and be part of co-ordinated military action that would lead to and enhance a political solution. It is now terrifyingly obvious that none of those things has come to pass.
Another thing suggested was that joining that military action would give this country and this Government greater leverage in trying to influence events as they unfolded in Syria. It seems terrifyingly obvious that that is not the case either, and I am sure that there are many in this House, and many throughout the country watching their television screens, whose main feeling is one of frustration at the apparent impotence of our Government when it comes to getting involved and doing anything.
I think that some people—perhaps not those sitting on the Government Front Bench, but certainly some people in the Foreign Office—need to go on an assertiveness training course. They need to speak a lot more loudly and more emphatically than they have thus far. I would like to see this country leading, not following; not being a bystander watching the discussions of others, but getting involved, getting our hands dirty and trying to sort the problem out. After all, if this problem was not caused by France and our own country, whose problem is it? We have a responsibility to the world to show leadership, and I hope very much that we will do that.
Along with many in this House, I am very angry at, and opposed to, the actions that Russia has taken militarily in recent months. However, I would say this to the House: the way forward is not going to be to demonise President Putin, to try to move to a new cold war or to try to pretend that Russia does not have legitimate interests in the region. I would like to see firm but emphatic engagement with the Russian authorities and an insistence from this Government that they need to be part of the equation and part of the plan.
We should call Russia to account and insist that humanitarian aid is prioritised and that corridors are allowed so that it can be delivered. We should stand up and be seen to be doing that. Let us get on the planes. Let us have the shuttle diplomacy. Let us be seen to speak out for the people of this country, to lead international opinion and to put pressure on the Russians and others who are trying to make a bad situation worse.
We also need to call out the Turkish Government on their actions in this affair, because they have been none too helpful. Turkey’s support for the al-Nusra front has created a fig leaf of credibility for the Russian military’s excuse that the people of eastern Aleppo are somehow in a terrorist enclave that needs to be liquidated. That is unhelpful, as is the hostility of the Turkish Government to pretty much any sentiment expressed by the Kurdish population in the region.
So, let us take action now to deliver the humanitarian aid, to make sure there is a ceasefire that can be policed and, most of all, to make sure that war crimes, if they have been committed, will be recorded and that those responsible will be brought to book in the future.
Order. The hon. Gentleman, whom I am about to call, needs to sit down by 3.23 pm so that I can call the Foreign Secretary, from whom I think the House will very much want to hear.