Wednesday 25 January 2017
[Robert Flello in the Chair]
Palace of Westminster: Restoration and Renewal
I beg to move,
That this House has considered restoration and renewal of the Palace of Westminster.
The motion is the formality, but I do not think that by the end of this one and a half hours we will have considered the matter properly. The Government should be tabling a motion so that the whole House and, for that matter, the House of Lords, can do so. It is now 19 and a half weeks since the Joint Committee on the Palace of Westminster produced its report. At the rate we are going, it will be six months from the delivery of that report to the moment when we start debating it properly and coming to a decision. That is verging on the irresponsible.
I want to lay out the nature of the problem that we have in the building. Many people think it is falling down—it is not falling down, although the Clock Tower does incline a little. The mechanical and electrical engineering systems that keep the place lit, heated, cooled, drained and dry are already well past their use-by date. The risk of a catastrophic failure such as a fire or a flood rises exponentially every five years that we delay. We should be in absolutely no doubt: there will be a fire. There was a fire a fortnight ago and there are regularly fires. People patrol the building 24 hours a day to ensure that we catch those fires.
Some of the high-voltage cables in the building are decaying and doing so deep inside the building in the 98 risers that take services from the basement past all the rooms in the building up to the roof. They are so blocked up with additional services that access to them is virtually impossible. That is why a fire in any one of them could spread very rapidly from floor to floor and take the whole building with it.
I am very pleased that my hon. Friend secured this debate. Does he agree that anyone who has any doubts about the problems that we face would do well to go on a tour of the basement and see the wiring, the plumbing and the risers that are key to the risks?
Yes. I have done about 30 of those tours now, with different members of the public, broadcast outlets, newspapers and other Members of Parliament. Everybody has been struck by the fact that 75% of the work that we have to do is on the mechanical and electrical gubbins of the building. This is not about a fancy tarting up of the building—it is about whether the building can function.
I apologise for being a moment or two late, Mr Flello. On the point about fire, will the hon. Gentleman accept that there are quite a lot of fires and occasions for fires when buildings are closed for repair and renovation? Irrespective of when or how the work is done, doing the work of itself does not make this place infallible. We can have a fire at any time. It is a bogus point.
It is not a bogus point. One of the problems with the building is that it is not very well compartmentalised, which is why fire could move from one part of the building to another very quickly. That was one of the problems in 1834. Just prior to 1834, Sir John Soane had built a beautiful corridor from the old House of Lords to the old House of Commons Chamber, which took the fire from one to the other. The problem in the building at the moment is that, if we were to have a fire, it could easily spread very quickly across a large part of the estate.
I remember from my induction being told by the House staff that the reason why the fire spread was nothing to do with the corridor, but to do with the vents over Central Lobby being open for ventilation purposes. That is what caused the draw of the flame.
We should all read Caroline Shenton’s book and debate that later. The truth of the matter is that everybody was predicting a fire long before 1834 and we did not take any of the action necessary to ensure that we preserved the building. It is only good fortune that we ended up being able to save Westminster Hall, which is one of the most beautiful buildings in the world.
Another problem new to us in the 20th and 21st century is the substantial amount of asbestos in the building, which simply has to be removed. There have already been several asbestos scares.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. On the subject of asbestos, I walk around the estate all the time seeing the little “a” stickers everywhere. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, if we stay in the building over the period of renovation, asbestos is a health hazard for staff and Members?
There is a very serious point here. Some people are arguing—I will come on to this point later—that we should stay in the building while the work is being done. That incurs a very significant risk to our safety and that of the people who work here. If we were to take the measures necessary to protect people properly while removing asbestos, that would dramatically increase the cost of and the risk to the project and the public.
Water is penetrating much of the stonework and doing lasting damage. Many of the 3,800 bronze windows, which were a wonderful idea when first installed, no longer work properly and have to be refitted.
We should be thoroughly ashamed that disabled access in this building is truly appalling. It is phenomenally difficult to get around the building for someone in a wheelchair or who has physical difficulties. The roundabout routes that many have to take to make an ordinary passage through the building are wrong. We still expect members of the public to queue for more than an hour in the pouring rain, which is not acceptable in the 21st century.
We have to act because this is one of the most important buildings in the world. It is part of a UNESCO world heritage site. The walls of Westminster Hall date from 30 years after the Norman conquest, the ceiling dates from the time of Richard II at the end of the 14th century and the cloisters date from the time of the Tudors. Every single tourist who comes to this country wants to be photographed in front of this building, and every film, Hollywood or otherwise, that wants to show that it is set in the UK or in London shows this building.
The people of this country have a deep affection for the building. One poll—I am very sceptical about polls, but none the less I am going to use this one—showed this week that 57% of the public want us to do the work and 61% think that we should move out to allow it to be done more effectively, more quickly and more cheaply.
Today’s MPs and peers hold this building in trust. It is not ours—we hold it in trust. Our predecessors got it hideously wrong in the 19th century. They kept on delaying necessary work. That delay made the fire in 1834 not only possible but inevitable, and so we lost the Painted Chamber, St Stephen’s Chapel and what was reputedly the most beautiful set of medieval buildings in the world. They then insisted on staying on site while the new building was built around them and constantly complained about the noise and the design. The result was long delays and a massive budget overrun. They started in 1840, but it was not completed until 1870, by which time Barry and Pugin were dead and their sons were battling about the ongoing design issues. If we do the same today, we will not move back in until 2055 at the earliest.
Of course we have to be careful about money, which is why the Joint Committee, which started with a very sceptical point of view on the project, recommended what we believed to be the cheapest and best option, which is a full decant. I say “cheapest” because, however we cut the numbers that have been put together on a very high-level basis for the two Houses, the option of full decant comes in at £900 million less than trying to stay in the building.
The Earl of Lincoln, the first commissioner of works, told MPs in 1844 that
“if I had been employing an architect in the construction of my private residence, I should have a right to fool away as much of my money as I thought fit; but in the case of a public building, I consider myself acting, to a certain degree, as guardian of the public purse, and to have no right to sanction any expenditure, either for the gratification of any pride, or the indulgence of any fancy I might entertain, as to the proper and efficient construction of the building.”
We should adopt that same attitude today. We should be going for the cheapest option—our constituents would expect that of us—but not a cheap option that does not do the job properly.
Our argument in Committee did not hinge entirely on the money. Three Members in the Chamber were on the Committee—my hon. Friend the Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mark Tami), and the hon. Members for Airdrie and Shotts (Neil Gray) and for North Antrim (Ian Paisley). They would agree that, when we started our consideration, we all assumed we would come up with some kind of plan that meant we stayed in the building—a kind of half-and-half solution. We consulted widely, but every single person we asked told us that that was simply not workable. “Not workable, unfeasible, impracticable, foolhardy, risky and dangerous” were the sort of words people used. We should listen to them.
I want to deal with some of the things that other people have been suggesting. First, something I have heard often, though not so much in the Commons or Parliament, is that we should move to elsewhere in London or outside the capital. I disagree. This is the home of Parliament and should remain the home of Parliament, but there are good reasons beyond the romantic association. If we were to leave the Palace forever, we would still have to do the work to protect it because it is a world heritage site, and we would not save a single penny. If we moved elsewhere in London, we would have to find a space that can accommodate everyone not only in the Palace but on the rest of the parliamentary estate—Portcullis House, Norman Shaw North, Norman Shaw South, Parliament Street, Millbank and all the Lords’ offices—which would be a considerable piece of prime estate to find. If we moved outside London, we would have to move the whole of Government as well, because all Ministers are Members of the Commons or the House of Lords. That option is impracticable and very expensive.
The second thing I hear—this is the most common—is that, if we leave we will never come back. I have been told that by four Members of Parliament today alone. They argue that the Commons should sit in the House of Lords, and the Lords should sit in the Royal Gallery. That is basically the proposal of the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh)—he is not right hon. but he should be, and learned and gallant and all sorts of other things as well. I have discussed the issue with him many times and we can be friendly about it, but there are lots of problems with his proposal.
That proposal would add £900 million to the cost—I have already quoted the point made by the Earl of Lincoln in 1834. Furthermore, public and press access would be very restricted under the hon. Gentleman’s plan, and it would be difficult to have any kind of fully functioning Public Gallery in his scheme, whether for the Commons or the Lords. His plan would rely on keeping a large part of the building open around the work, because of the need for Whips Offices, rooms for Doorkeepers, police officers and Ministers, and—who knows?—some people might even want a Tea Room.
Will my hon. Friend give way?
On the Tea Room?
Not actually on the Tea Room itself, however vital that is. Some Members who may think that proposal a good idea do not realise that there is one system for the plumbing and all the electrics. The House of Lords is a separate House, but it does not have a separate supply system. We would have to build some great structure outside to ensure that one part of the building could carry on working.
My hon. Friend makes a good point. Basically, there is one electricity system, one drainage system, one central heating system, one cooling system—the building is a unity. If we want to keep part of it open, especially a whole corridor, we would have to put in temporary services to accommodate everything. That is an expensive and, I would argue, risky business.
The hon. Gentleman is shaking his head, but the specific work done by the House authorities on the proposal of the hon. Member for Gainsborough shows precisely that: it would be very expensive. The proposal is theoretically feasible, but it is very expensive.
I will not give way. I am sure the hon. Gentleman will catch your eye later, Mr Flello—you have very good eyesight and, well, you have your glasses on anyway.
Another point for hon. Members to think hard about is that if we were sitting down at the other end of the building, the 240 or so MPs who now have offices in the historic Palace would by then have their offices in Richmond House—quite some distance from where people intend us to sit. Most importantly, however, we would either have to walk along a corridor specially created as some kind of bubble for us while work was going on all around, including the removal of asbestos—a risk in itself—or, alternatively, walk outside along the pavement; 650 or 600 MPs walking in a hurry along the pavement at known times of day for votes is a security risk that I would not be prepared to countenance.
For all such reasons, that proposal simply does not wash. The truth is that the Chambers are not hermetically sealed units. They rely, as my hon. Friend the Member for Alyn and Deeside said, on services from the rest of the building. Both the Chambers themselves will have to be closed, and the cost of temporary mechanical and electrical services would run into millions of unnecessary taxpayer pounds.
People also ask, “What about Westminster Hall?” Personally, I have a romantic attachment to Westminster Hall: I like the idea of sitting in the Hall where Richard II was removed as King by Henry IV in the shortest ever Parliament, which lasted one day. We could sit back and take inspiration from the angels carved on the ceiling. The Committee looked at the suggestion very seriously, but the problem is that the floor is not as solid as it looks. It is not sitting on the ground; the flagstones actually sit on a pillared grid, which simply could not take the weight of the large construction necessary to sit 600 or 650 MPs, members of the press and public, and all the other paraphernalia of the Chamber. In addition, such a Chamber would have to be heated, and all the advice we had from restorers and people who know about ancient buildings and historic wooden artefacts is that that would pose a risk to the ceiling that simply could not be countenanced. The roof of Westminster Hall is one of the most beautiful and precious things on the whole parliamentary estate, so that is not an option.
Some people have said—one Conservative Member present has said this to me several times: “You did not really look at the option of our staying in at all.” Yes, I am looking at the hon. Gentleman—or he is looking at me—
North West Cambridgeshire.
The hon. Member who represents North West Cambridgeshire—I am very grateful to him for helping me.
The truth, however, is that we did look at the option of our staying in, and so did the original report. The IOA, or independent options appraisal, costed and evaluated both a rolling programme and two different versions of staying in the building. That is all part of the original report provided, so it is simply wrong to say that we did not look at the idea of staying in. We looked at it very seriously, but we came to the conclusion— all of us, from different political parties of different persuasions—that it was simply unfeasible, unworkable and impracticable for us to stay in.
Some people have also asked me, “If the work is so urgent, why don’t we get on with it now?” The truth is that we are getting on with work now: the cast-iron roofs are being restored; three years of work is about to start on the Elizabeth Tower, or Big Ben, which will cost £29 million; and last year we spent £49 million on repairs alone. The point is, however, that the mechanical and electrical elements constitute one very large, single project that needs to be well prepared for—we cannot just start tomorrow.
Furthermore, the Palace authorities do not have the requisite capacity or skills. I am not doing them down; they themselves would argue that they do not have the capacity or the skills in-house to manage such an enormous infrastructure project. We need to put a sponsor body in place, with Members of both Houses sitting on it, and some others, to commission a delivery authority with the expertise and technical know-how to do things properly, much as with the Olympics.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. Timing is important in this whole thing. If we are to meet the 2023 target start date, we need to set up the delivery authority pretty soon. It will require a statute of this House to do it, so the authorities need to get on with the matter.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right: we should have started some considerable time ago.
About 10 years ago, when I was Deputy Leader of the House for five minutes, we were already arguing that we needed to get this work on the road. The Committee was asked to delay publishing its report until the local government elections were done, until the referendum was done, until we had a new Prime Minister, and so on, and still there has been no debate. We have to get a move on.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the amount that we spend on just patching things up grows every year, and it will continue to grow if we do not bite the bullet now?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. In addition, when all that minor work is going on, which still costs millions of pounds, there is further risk in the building. There is building work going on. Indeed, a few weeks ago, the House of Lords decided that it could not bear the noise that was going on and had to suspend its sitting. I think that if we tried to sit in the building while work was going on, we would do that every single day. I can just see the hon. Member for Gainsborough standing in the Chamber in 15 years’ time—if he gets his way—saying, “I can’t even hear myself think, let alone speak!”
Another thing that has been said is: “What about giving up on the September sittings?” That is quite popular with quite a lot of colleagues, especially when they are asked in September. That was specifically factored into the rolling programme option in the independent options appraisal. It was termed “scenario E1A”, because it would be enabled by longer recesses and what the IOA called an acceptance by MPs of considerable disruption for three decades. That option also assumes that there will be alternative Chambers for use during an unexpected recall of Parliament. It is worth bearing in mind that recalls are a simple fact of life. During the last Parliament alone, we were recalled twice in 2011, twice in 2013 and once in 2014, and of course we were, horribly, recalled last year after Jo Cox’s murder. There will be recalls—that is just a fact.
I have heard one other argument: “We need to put on a good show in times of Brexit. We can’t just meet in a car park.” Let me be absolutely clear: the temporary Chamber will not be some cardboard cut-out. It will be a properly impressive Chamber with full access for the public and the press. Moreover, any half-and-half proposal will delay our full return to the building and keep the scaffolding up for another decade or two.
But there is a much bigger point. The last thing we want as we leave the European Union is to look as if we are hanging around in an old ancestral mansion like a dowager duchess, running with buckets from one dripping ceiling to another. Nor can we risk a catastrophic failure, such as a flood or major fire. That really would give the world the worst possible impression. We want to show the world that we can take tough decisions—that we value our heritage but have a strong, modern, outward-looking vision for the future. What better way is there of showing that than taking this 1,000-year-old building, restoring what is beautiful and historic about it, and renewing it so that it really works for the 21st, 22nd, 23rd, 24th and 25th centuries?
As a Labour Member, I think that we should see this as an opportunity. The Committee was advised repeatedly that the workforce in this country does not actually have all the skills to complete this project. After Brexit, we may have even fewer qualified builders. We should see this project as part of our industrial strategy today, and use it to show that this country can deliver a massive infrastructure project on time and on budget. We should train youngsters now in the craft and high-tech engineering skills of the 21st century, so that young people from every single one of our constituencies can work on what is the best-loved building in the world—an icon of British liberty, democracy and the rule of law.
Order. May I point out to hon. Gentlemen—they are predominantly gentlemen, although there are a few hon. Ladies—that I will begin calling the Front Benchers at about 10.30 am? With that in mind, I call Sir Alan Haselhurst.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Flello. I congratulate the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) on securing this debate and on his telling opening.
I understand that there is enormous attachment to this home of Parliament. That attachment has led to a drift; for at least 20 years, to my knowledge, people have known that something has to be done and have been thinking about what we should do. Every time someone has been brought in, the report has shocked people and they have said, “We can’t do that,” so things have been left for a while. More experts have then been brought in two years later and said, “It’s worse,” and people have said, “Oh, no, we can’t tackle that.” This problem has been getting steadily away from us. It is to the credit of the current administration and those in the House who support it that work is now being done to come to a decisive conclusion. I believe that some of my colleagues are blinded by their attachment to the place into supposing that the problem is not really all that bad somehow, and we can work around it.
During the last Parliament, when I was Chairman of the Administration Committee, I was privy to some of the work that was going on, and I came rapidly to the conclusion that has been reached in similar circumstances by the Parliaments of Austria, Canada and Finland: if a major exercise of this kind has to be done, the only sensible thing for us to do is to get out of the building and let the work be done. Some 12 months of study were undertaken by our colleagues in the other place and in the House of Commons, and having gone into the detail and consulted independent experts, they are persuaded that that approach is right for us, too. Colleagues can rake over the independent options appraisal—they can look at it and play with the figures and estimates as much as they like—but it is crystal clear that option 3 would take less time than option 2, option 2 would take less time than option 1, and in each case, less time means less cost.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned some of the objections, and I will refer to some of those and perhaps others. I have been told that our leaving would deprive some Members of ever serving in this building. There is in fact now a way around that. The timescale is such that it is possible for the work to bridge two Parliaments, so if that is a real problem, it can be overcome. But the honour and responsibility of being elected as a Member of Parliament lies first in doing the job, not in carrying out the job in a particular place or building.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned the argument that if we leave, we will not come back. I have heard level-headed people say, “They won’t let us.” Who are the “they” in all this? We are sovereign. We can decide that. Frankly, it is unthinkable that we would not come back to this Palace at the first opportunity. It has also been said that Westminster Hall might be needed for a major state event. I think that we can rely on the fact that the royal household has been consulted and has not blocked what is recommended.
It has been said that an appalling message would be sent out to the world during Brexit, but I think an even more appalling message would be sent if we soldiered on in this place in difficult conditions and there was a catastrophic failure. That really would make it look as though this country and this Parliament were breaking down.
It is said that too much public money is involved. However much we look at them, the alternatives to option 1 are more expensive, but the fact is that the public are solidly behind us on this matter. They love this place and believe it is an important symbol of our democracy. They have been very understanding, as has the press, so if we are responsible about this, we should not worry on that front.
Another objection—in contrast to some of the others—is: “If there is a risk of catastrophic failure, why are we waiting and not getting on with it?” The reason we are not getting on with it is that people have baulked at doing so every time a report has been produced since the 1990s. There has been delay, delay and delay. The risk is mounting. That is the problem. We will do the work as soon as we can, but there have been difficulties to overcome to make the arrangements for it to be approached logically.
I cannot help feeling that the distrust that has manifested in many parts of the world has also manifested here; people want to kick the establishment at every point and think that experts cannot be trusted, so we must take their advice with a large pinch of salt. Frankly, if I feel ill I want to get the advice of my doctor. If I want to have a legal instrument drawn up I go to a lawyer. If I want help with my accounts I go to an accountant. That is a normal thing to do. It is always possible, of course, to have a second opinion. We have had a second, third, fourth, fifth and sixth opinion—and still there are those who distrust those opinions and say, “Oh, well, they would say that, wouldn’t they? They are in it for themselves; they will line their pockets.” I do not think that that is fair to the Royal Institute of British Architects or the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, which have given unbiased advice to our colleagues on the Committee.
The right hon. Gentleman has reminded me of a previous employer of mine: when we got legal advice that he did not like he would always say, “Get another lawyer.” That is the argument that some people are putting forward, when they do not like the expert advice they are given.
I agree; that is the problem. At some point we must make a decision. Continually putting it off is causing the bill to rise and the dislocation to increase.
If the Palace is loved as much as I believe it is by almost every person elected to Parliament—it is certainly loved by the staff who serve us here, and the hundreds of thousands of visitors who clamour to come here and take great pleasure from being in the Palace and standing on the Floor of the House of Commons where great names of the past served—it is our duty to put safety before romance. The alternative suggestions magnify risk, perpetuate inconvenience and threaten security. It was when we came back for sittings one September and work was going on in the Committee corridor, with builders all over the place, that intruders got in masquerading as builders. It will be an enormous security threat if we are prepared to have hundreds of workers here at the same time as we try to do business.
I am astonished that some colleagues seem keen to work here while unquantified amounts of asbestos are removed, intrusive noise is unabated and an army of workers operates in our midst, and while any one of several vital services could fail at any moment. I am not surprised that some colleagues recoil from a total decant, but we must look at things in a hard-headed, not emotional, way. We must do the right thing and choose the option to which the evidence overwhelmingly points, and which has persuaded our colleagues on the Committee. I believe that it will then be all the sooner that the Palace, which we see as the symbol of parliamentary democracy, can be restored to its full glory and effectiveness and serve the nation and people for a century, or centuries, more.
I am sure that the right hon. Member for Saffron Walden (Sir Alan Haselhurst) will not misunderstand when I say that neither he nor I will be likely to sit in the reconstructed Chamber. It can safely be said of both of us that we are not speaking out of personal self-interest.
In a debate in November 2012, I urged that work should be undertaken so that we can be prepared from 2020 onwards, so I have some form on this. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) on making a very good speech outlining, as did the right hon. Member for Saffron Walden, why the work is essential. I hope that whether we agree to option 1, 2 or 3—and there is bound to be division not only today but when the matter is debated in the Chamber—we will agree on one thing. I hope that even the hon. Member for North Dorset (Simon Hoare), who intervened earlier, will agree on this: the work is essential. I fear, as I said in the Chamber four years ago, that we will find ways and means of delaying the decision—because of finance, because there are other problems that the Government or Parliament must deal with, because it is not possible to reach a decision along the lines that so many of us want. The decision I want is simple: that from 2020 the work will begin, either through a total decant—I share the view of my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda that that would be right—or otherwise. However, the Parliament elected in 2020, if that is when we have a general election, would sit in a different place.
May I just clarify something? No one doubts—I certainly do not—the scale of the work that needs to be done, the need for it, or the underlying urgency. We question the means of delivery of the works.
I do not disagree, obviously. The hon. Gentleman clearly accepts that the work needs to be done. One reason for today’s debate is to look at ways of delivery; but obviously there must be a major debate in the Chamber.
My hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda mentioned the possibility of a meltdown of mechanical and electrical services. It is all in the report, and I am sure we have all read it. In many instances the cables and pipes are surrounded by dangerous asbestos. The report says that much of the building is riddled with asbestos. As to water penetration, we know from experience that when there is heavy rain there is flooding in parts of the building. We have seen it with our own eyes, let alone what the report states about the situation.
The key issue about asbestos, with which my hon. Friend rightly says the building is riddled, is that we do not know where it is. When there is drilling, or when things are taken out, the starting presumption must be that there is asbestos there. That would add massively to the cost of working in a fully occupied building.
My hon. Friend certainly makes a powerful case for a full decant.
It should not be forgotten that, as has been mentioned, every year the cost of maintaining the building goes up. The figure given in the report for 2014-15—the latest figures, unless the Deputy Leader of the House has further information—is nearly £50 million. That is public money that is essential just so that the building can be in some kind of working condition. I agree that full decanting is essential. I understand why some feel that for historical and ceremonial reasons, and so that people can come to this building, there is a case for partial decanting, but in practice and when we consider the amount of work involved on what would be a huge building site, how on earth could we continue to debate in the present Commons or Lords Chambers, or the Robing Room? Imagine the constant pleas to the Speaker or Lord Speaker: “It is impossible to hear. Can the work stop for a while?” and the rest of it. It is not practical—and I do not understand how anyone could argue otherwise—to work with the constant noise and disruption and constant changes of location between the two Chambers. That is not the way to proceed, even if it was done after the 1834 fire. I think we have made some progress since then.
I am the chairman of the all-party group on the events industry; is the hon. Gentleman aware that the delay in making a decision is having an impact on event and conference bookings at the Queen Elizabeth II centre, and that, more generally, the cost of a decant in which the conference centre was used for the Lords would have an impact of hundreds of millions of pounds on the wider Westminster economy that comes with all those conferences and events?
The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point.
I am speaking in the debate because I want to urge that a decision be reached as quickly as possible. It has been said in some parts of the media that the work is for ourselves. It is not: we come and go; we are tenants. Neither is it for our staff, the officers or anyone else working in the building. That is not why the work should be undertaken, despite the cost. It is for the democratic process. It is for British democracy to have its traditional home, which is recognised throughout the world. We should take pride in the building, and we should take pride in the fact that British democracy is recognised in the way it is, especially in countries in which, unfortunately, the rule of law and civil liberties are totally absent. That is why it is so essential that a decision is taken in the very near future. I want to see a building fit for purpose, a place that ensures the continuation of the democratic process and the rule of law.
Of course, we could go elsewhere. Parliamentary democracy in the United Kingdom certainly does not depend on one particular building—it would be farcical if it did—but this is our traditional home, and hopefully will be for future generations. That is why it is so important that what the report outlines should be seriously considered and a decision should be reached in the near future.
When the Deputy Leader of the House of Commons responds, I hope he has the authority to say that a major debate will take place on the subject this year—in the first part of 2017. The House itself can then reach a decision on option 1, 2 or 3. Whatever it may be, at least the decision will be reached that work should commence following the 2020 general election.
I am grateful to have caught your eye, Mr Flello. As one of the few chartered surveyors in the House and as a member of the Finance Committee for more than 10 years, I have been heavily involved with this matter from well before the inception of the Joint Committee on the Palace of Westminster, and all the way through to date. The Palace of Westminster is an iconic symbol of this nation. It is absolutely symbolic of everything the UK stands for. In many ways, the strength of our democracy is upheld by the strength of our Parliament encased in these buildings. As politicians, we have an absolute duty to the people of this country and to future parliamentarians to maintain it properly and get this whole thing right.
Much has been said in the debate, so I will be brief. Over the course of our history, including following the damage caused by the burning of Parliament in 1834 and 14 separate bombings during the blitz in 1940, only piecemeal repairs have been carried out. It is surprising to say the least, considering Great Britain’s prowess for engineering thoroughness, maintenance and ability, that no comprehensive record has been kept of what work has or has not been done on the building.
I will briefly outline what is wrong in layman’s terms. When any system or service has failed in the past, there has been simply a “make do and mend” response—a pipe added here or a wire added there. The high pressure steam heating system is encased in asbestos insulation, which has remained well beyond its designed lifespan and original capacity. It could burst and produce asbestos fibre at any minute. The main sewage pump needs replacing, as does the electricity supply, which is liable to major failure. It is unacceptable that Parliament could be plunged into darkness at any minute during great occasions, such as the Queen’s Speech during the state opening of Parliament. There is no doubt in anybody’s mind that this work needs to be done.
The timing of the restoration and renewal works is crucial. As a chartered surveyor, my view is that the entire building must be cleared so that all of the asbestos can be removed in one go, and as the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) said, so that all of the services—water, electricity, sewage, internet and so on—can be renewed and separated in one concerted action. Doing that piecemeal or by partial decant is completely impractical.
Other concerns have been raised, first that Parliament will never return. Frankly, after an expenditure of £3.5 billion, that would be a national scandal. The second concern is what will happen to MPs who are here for only one term. The delivery authority will have to ensure that the Chamber is open for at least part of any Parliament. The third concern is the legislative status of the temporary Chamber in Richmond House. For goodness’ sake, surely we can design something that is worthy of this Parliament? If that cannot be done in Richmond House, let us put it in the Foreign Office or the Treasury. That problem can surely be overcome.
I will address the fourth concern for a minute or two. A lot of concerns have been raised, including by me, about the cost and delivery of this enormous project. I have done a little bit of research, and the nearest comparable project I could find was the demolition of Chelsea barracks, which cost £3 billion. That was a third smaller than this place, which covers 73,000 square metres. It is therefore likely that the cost of this project will be well in excess of £3 billion. That cost is well substantiated by Deloitte in its report.
The report is excellent on financial grounds, but the problem is that the report has not scoped the work properly, so I do not know how it can be completely costed. That is why a shadow delivery authority needs to properly scope the work, consult parliamentarians on what is needed in this place and come up with realistic costings. However, Deloitte makes the important point that, for every year of delay, we add £60 million to £85 million to the cost of the project.
The only option is a full decant and a continuous, unbroken period of restoration and renewal. It is our responsibility to get on with this work, so that future generations and parliamentarians do not make the same mistakes as previous generations. Indeed, we are in grave danger of making the same mistakes ourselves if we go for a partial or continuous repair option—options 1 and 2 in the report.
The public support the project. We need to appoint a shadow delivery authority as soon as possible to scope the work, consult parliamentarians on what facilities they want in place—as the hon. Member for Rhondda said, the disabled access is appalling and it is a scandal that we have such poor facilities for our guests—produce proper costings and report back to Parliament. The work must then be enshrined in statute, so that a statutory delivery authority can begin to get on with the work as early as possible in the next Parliament.
I welcome the debate and that, at last, the matter is before the House. I urge the Government and the Deputy Leader of the House to drive this matter, get behind it, get it on to the Floor of the House and ensure that a decision is taken as urgently and expeditiously as possible.
The public and, indeed, Members are right to feel confused. I feel a little bit confused because people who are leavers in another debate are coming to me and saying they wish to remain, and remainers from that same debate are coming to me and saying they wish to leave. Let us be absolutely clear: we need to leave the House as urgently and expeditiously as possible to allow the work to commence, so that we can come back to a new and better Palace that serves generations to come.
What are we? We are parliamentarians. Let us be the generation of parliamentarians that gets this right. Let us not have it said of our generation that we missed the opportunity, or that we could have got it right but we failed like the generations before us. We have it in our grasp. Let us seize this moment and seize it right. We must take those decisions, drive this matter, and ensure that we at last put in place a board, with parliamentarians on it, and the finance to deliver the project once and for all. We have a duty to do this. We would be derelict in that duty if we failed. Future generations have a right to come to a wonderful Palace of Westminster, as it has been for 1,000 years before, to see what has happened and what will continue happen in this place.
The hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) is absolutely right that there is no cheap option. Let us not kid ourselves that there is a way around this, or a way of doing it cheaper. There is not. This is a multibillion pound project whichever way we cut it. The sooner we get on with it, the better for future generations. I served on the Joint Committee on the Palace of Westminster, and I arrived there a traditionalist and as somebody who was going to do his darnedest to ensure we stayed in this building. It is not possible. All of the evidence is compelling, and it suggests that we are sitting on a ticking time bomb—that the House will have either a catastrophic flood or a catastrophic fire. How would we feel waking up one morning to that news? Where would fingers be pointing that morning? Now is the time to act and get this right.
It is a financial fantasy to think that we can do this in some other way. I urge the Deputy Leader of the House to speak to the powers that be, to encourage the Government to get on with this matter and to get it in front of the House. It is important for the House to realise more than 8,000 incidents since 2008 have been recorded as significant. Sixty of them could have brought it to a pile of rubble. Are we prepared to wait for one of those incidents to be catastrophic? I say, “No.” I say, “Let’s get on with it expeditiously.”
I agree with the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) that the Government need to get on with this and that we need a proper debate on the Floor of the House. It is not acceptable—this is not the fault of the hon. Gentleman—that we now have only 10 minutes, if my hon. Friend the Member for North West Cambridgeshire (Mr Vara) is called now, to hear an alternative point of view, and there is an alternative point of view. It is held by people who are just as committed to maintaining safety as anyone else.
I congratulate the Committee. We all love this place and we all want to preserve it for future generations, but there is an alternative point of view. I urge the Government to bring a motion to the Floor of the House. If the building is at such risk and if there is a real danger of fire, we need this debate. We were promised it yesterday, so let us have it in two or three weeks and get on with coming to a decision. We should base the debate on the draft motion provided by the Joint Committee of both Houses on page 100 of its report. I for one will seek to table an amendment to it. We already have scores of names on that amendment and we will have a full debate and the House will make its mind up. Let us get on with it.
My view is well known and my amendment will say that we should start work now. We are already spending £100 million, so we should start work now. We should retain ultimate control, although I accept that no one is suggesting that Members of Parliament should be telling builders, architects and surveyors which part of the building to close at any time. There is doubt about passing too much control to an enabling authority, so we must retain ultimate democratic control.
The third vital point of view, which is held by many Members of Parliament and many peers, is that, as during the second world war, the House of Commons debating Chamber should, at all times, retain a presence in the old Palace of Westminster. The hon. Member for Rhondda briefly alluded to the fact there is an alternative, expert, independent point of view that, instead of building what I would deem to be a folly costing £85 million of a replica chamber in the courtyard of Richmond House, we should, as in the war, use the House of Lords Chamber with a line of route through Westminster Hall and St Stephen’s chapel to the House of Lords Chamber.
The Government have come up with a reply to my proposal and, as the hon. Member for Rhondda mentioned, stated it will cost £900 million more. We dispute that. My architect tells me that people persistently miss the point that our option is a total shutdown, not a hybrid of options 2 and E1. The point is that our proposal is a total shutdown of the mechanical and electrical systems with a full strip-down from day one. The temporary services of the Lords and Royal Gallery are just that—temporary, not lash-ups keeping part of the existing services going. Both the financial impact in section 2.5 most importantly, and the timing in section 2.3, are based on a false premise and exaggerated. The problem is that the writers of the report are not engineers. A properly briefed engineer would pick up that point immediately.
There is an alternative point of view and we will put it during this debate—time is short and I want to give my hon. Friend the Member for North West Cambridgeshire a chance to say a few words. He will talk primarily about the figure. I want to talk about the 1 million visitors to this place every year. We are talking about those who propose a full decant. By the way, I must repeat that the report says the matter is so urgent, but a full decant would not take place until 2023.
I accept that we are going to move back to this place. I have never used the argument that we will never move back. We will eventually move back, but I do not believe it will be in five years. When we lose control, it could be six years. When I was shown round on a tour of the basement, I was told privately that it would be eight years. It is a long time and we would pass away control.
This is not just about us, but about the 1 million people who visit this iconic place every year. My proposal, which I believe is a sensible compromise—services could be taken into the House of Lords Chamber if necessary from outside, so we could shut down all services in one go if we wanted to—would at least keep Westminster Hall open to the public and keep the debating Chamber.
My final point is that, during the second world war, both Attlee and Churchill made an absolute political decision that the Nazis would not bomb us out of this building. We decided to stay here which is why, despite the massive damage to the building, we kept the debating Chamber of the House of Commons in the House of Lords throughout the second world war. Although the issue is not primarily about sentiment or emotion, this is not an office block. If it were I would agree we should move out, but it is not. It is the centre of the nation and the nation should keep its debating Chamber in this building.
I wish to take issue with the argument in the Joint Committee’s report that it would cost £3.5 billion to decant and that that would be the cheaper option. I start by pointing to the opening page of the summary, which says in the third paragraph:
“However, there is significantly more work to be done by professionals before budgets can be set, buildings are vacated and works can commence.”
I deeply regret that that caveat is not being emphasised a lot more—indeed, it has not been mentioned by anyone in today’s debate.
It is disingenuous to say that leaving here would cost £3.5 billion and be the cheaper option. That figure does not take account of the fact that some £600 million would be spent until 2023 when the full decant would take place. Nor does it take account of the fact that if we fully decant, there would be rental costs for the offices and space that would be needed outside this building. The figure does not show up in the costing on page 39 of the report. It simply says that professional advice will be required. We are talking about millions and millions of pounds of rental costs that are not accounted for.
There is an issue with security costs. If the peers go to the QEII centre, that will mean additional security. A full decant would require additional space outside the Palace of Westminster. Those security costs have not been factored in either—again, it would be serious millions of pounds. The tourism industry was mentioned. If the QEII building closed, that would affect the conferences normally held there, which attract significant sums of money to the local economy; I have heard that it would affect our local economy by some £200 million. Nearby hotels are worried because they will not be able to let out their rooms to people who go to conferences at the centre. There will be an impact on restaurants and taxis.
The hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) said that if there were a rolling programme of works and we stayed here, that would be £900 million more expensive. I gently suggest that my figures come to a whole lot more than £900 million; had they been factored into the calculations in the report, we might be having a different debate.
The argument that we must move out is simply not the only one in town. Work is being done at Buckingham Palace. It has 100 miles of cables and 20 miles of pipes, yet the work will carry on while Her Majesty stays there with the entire royal household. Work will be done in segments. During the fire at Windsor Castle in 2002, 20% of it was burned down, yet Her Majesty and the royal household continued to operate from there. They did not have to move out.
As for the advice sought from experts, let us be clear: one does not need to be an expert to work out that the work will be easier if everyone leaves the place of work. That is a given, but the point is that this is no ordinary building. It is the seat of Government, and we have to take account of that fact. At the time of Brexit, when we seek to make new friends overseas and secure favourable trade agreements, do we really want to convey the image of a temporary building in the courtyard of another Government building? We have to take into account the soft-sell power of the iconic building that is Parliament. I put it gently to hon. Members that the selling power of this building far exceeds any figures for costs that have been produced here. As we have been told, it is an iconic building.
Furthermore, at a time of austerity when we are writing to our constituents and saying that they cannot have an additional few pounds for whatever they are seeking money for, do we really want to go to the public and say that, nevertheless, we want to spend billions of pounds on our place of work? I do not think that in the present economic climate that is sustainable.
The question that should have been put to the experts is not what the best way of working from here is, because the best answer is obviously that we should all clear out. What they should have been told was, “This is Parliament—the seat of Government. Go away and work out a plan for how we can continue to operate on this eight-acre site.” I can guarantee that they would have come up with a proposal had they been given that option.
It is a pleasure to speak in the debate on behalf of the Scottish National party and with you in the Chair, Mr Flello. I wish all hon. Members present and everyone else a happy Burns day.
It is customary to acknowledge and congratulate those who secure debates in Westminster Hall, but today is slightly different. I cannot merely offer ordinary congratulations to the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant). After all, he has managed to do what the Government failed to do—bring about a debate on the restoration and renewal of the Palace of Westminster. As the bard said:
“The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men,
Gang aft agley”.
I will touch on the delay shortly, but in the meantime I tip my hat to the hon. Gentleman, a colleague on the R and R Joint Committee.
Today’s debate has been interesting, and I shall reflect briefly on what has been said. The hon. Member for Rhondda set out very well many of the issues that have arisen following decades of neglect—first by Governments at the time when they were responsible through the Ministry of Public Building and Works, and then by Parliament itself. Cheekily, I will mention the poll this week that the hon. Gentleman cited: 25% of those polled would happily see the place bulldozed. However, I feel that that is more an indictment of its incumbents than of the building itself. Nevertheless, the hon. Gentleman made a very good speech to set out his case. He did that very well.
The right hon. Member for Saffron Walden (Sir Alan Haselhurst), a colleague on the Finance Committee, was absolutely right: being elected is about doing a job, not about doing it in a particular building. He made a very good speech, as did the hon. Member for Walsall North (Mr Winnick), who made a very salient point: the work is not for us. We can be sceptical about the project and criticise elements of it, but we must be clear—this work is not for us; we are merely tenants of the building. I say again that at the present time I am campaigning for my eviction—I will leave that one hanging.
The hon. Member for The Cotswolds (Geoffrey Clifton-Brown), another colleague from the Finance Committee, highlighted the decades-long neglect of the building and its appalling disabled access—he was absolutely right to place that on the record. The hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley), a colleague from the R and R Committee, made a typically witty speech and a very powerful case for his position. That is on the record very strongly.
The hon. Members for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) and for North West Cambridgeshire (Mr Vara) put forward their case. I disagree with it, but they have put their points across and I am sure that they will also do so when the matter comes to the Floor of the House, whenever that may be.
For me, today’s debate is not about the rights or wrongs of the project. The hon. Member for Rhondda will, I am sure, acknowledge that despite my early stated scepticism about the project, I did my best to be constructive in my role on the Joint Committee. I helped to secure a public consultation and some significant improving amendments to the text of the report. There is no doubt in my mind that if the two Houses vote for the project to go ahead, the recommended full decant is the best way to proceed.
For me, a sceptic about the project, and for the hon. Member for Rhondda, a champion of the project, the situation is clear: delaying the debate and the vote does not help anyone. I struggle to understand why the Government have been delaying it. First, we were told that there would be a debate and a vote before Christmas; then it was to be yesterday. Are the Government so concerned about the objections being raised by Conservative Members who are coalescing around the idea that somehow MPs could remain in the Palace while the works are going on?
Some hon. Members are worried that if Parliament does not sit in the Palace for a time, it will not return; others are concerned that customs may be replaced. It is an idea built purely on sentiment. The right hon. Member for Saffron Walden called it romance. It is a romance and sentimentality about a building. The idea does not make engineering or financial sense, as was explained so well by the hon. Member for Rhondda. Working around Parliament sitting in the Palace would add considerable time, cost and risk to the project. The savings from not building a temporary Chamber in Richmond House would be outweighed by the added time to get the work done, the added engineering complexity and the considerable added risk. It is now just shy of five months since our report was published. I say to the Government: get on with the debate and get on with the vote.
The hon. Gentleman may wish to know that I had a bowl of porridge oats in deference to the bard this morning.
It is a pleasure to serve under you as Chair, Mr Flello. So did I. It is very good for us, I understand.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) and the other members of the Joint Committee, who worked very hard in the lead-up to this debate. I also congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. Hon. Members will know what my hon. Friend is like: he is blustering and blarneying and very frustrated about this, so it is great that he has had the opportunity to secure the debate. He is right to do that, because the report was published in September 2016.
Hon. Members on both sides of the House have been talking to me, and it goes without saying that all hon. Members are concerned about the immediacy and urgency of the work. They are also concerned about costs, and they note that other events and priorities may be occupying the Government’s mind. However, we come to this debate with a background of reports. We have the very good report from the hon. Members who served on the Joint Committee, and the Public Accounts Committee is also considering this matter, although it may not report until March. We also have the Treasury Committee report. Without doubt, whether for engineers, architects or whatever, the costings from September will be different even from the costings now. The hon. Member for North West Cambridgeshire (Mr Vara) is right to be concerned about that issue. My view is that the debate will clarify all that. The important issue for our side is that hon. Members have a say. That is the key thing. All these questions and concerns can be aired with new information—against the background of the information from all those reports.
The right hon. Member for Saffron Walden (Sir Alan Haselhurst) mentioned Canada. I had the opportunity, with the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, to visit Canada. Quite by chance, we were taken to the mock chamber that the parliamentarians there had and, in the best tradition of “Blue Peter”, I have here one that I made earlier—a picture of it. Obviously, it cannot be read into Hansard, but it does give a nice flavour of what can be done, if hon. Members want to see it later. It is a beautiful chamber. All of us may feel very comfortable debating in this Chamber now, but if we were given a chamber in the Department of Health that had desks, we would realise how good it would be to debate like a proper, modern Parliament and we might even not want to come back to the old Chamber. Canada’s temporary chamber is not just in a courtyard. It is a beautiful building and, engineering-wise, it shows what can be done—a visit to Canada might be in order.
My hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda always reminds me that there are no options; he says, “Don’t tell people there are options. There is only one option.” The main thing is that Members should have a say. I am pleased to hear that some of the work has already been done. I was going to raise the issue of asbestos in the Chamber; again, not sitting in September might be an option to deal with that. The subject of fire has been constantly raised.
I thank the hon. Lady for giving way. The House has a register of known asbestos, but a large body of evidence suggests that asbestos is riddled throughout the work that has been done. There are 98 risers in this building and all are thought to hold asbestos. The health and safety and fire aspects of why we should decant are compelling to me. The fact is that we are allowing the general public and our staff to work where there is a chance of asbestos and silica dust. If anybody has seen someone die of mesothelioma, they will know that it is not a pretty sight. We have no option, on those grounds alone.
I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. I have to say, gently, that it is the tradition to be in the room at the start of the debate, but I take on board that, particularly given her previous role, she understands the medical reasons—I have a cough today and it is difficult to breathe—and she mentioned the terrible condition of mesothelioma.
I want to knock another myth on the head. Again, I am not an architect or an engineer but Members should understand that although we may be moving out of the building, we will not actually be moving off the estate. We will still be around and will not be leaving the parliamentary estate. I am pleased that the work on the cast-iron roof is also being done.
The Joint Committee was tasked to look at this, and has fulfilled its remit, but Members are right to be concerned about costs. We had the same debate when the Labour Government decided they wanted to put money into the Olympics and there was a lot of chuntering that it was going to be too costly. In the end, sadly, there was a change of Government and we did not get the benefit of how brilliant the Olympics were and how, under the Olympic Delivery Authority, everything was done to time and, to a certain extent, cost. The hiccup, as the Deputy Leader knows, was the security—we finally had to get public service in, rather than G4S. We need to be careful that Members are not excluded from the delivery authority. The key point for me is that Members should decide and the only way they can do that is if we have the debate. The one main thing I would ask the Deputy Leader is that we have the debate as soon as possible, based on the information that the other Committees are looking at.
A building is only a building with people in it. It is nothing without people in it. Whatever we decide to do, and if there is only one option, as my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda suggests, we need to take that decision. However, we need to take an informed decision because, in the end, MPs are always blamed when things go wrong and, rightly, we will take responsibility for that. We need to do this on an informed basis, with everybody abiding by the result.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Flello, and to close this debate. There have been powerful contributions, if I may say so, from all Members who spoke today. I congratulate the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) on securing the debate and on his service on the Joint Committee. I also commend the service of all the other Members—most of them are here—who served on it. The House owes a debt of gratitude to the members of that Committee for the intensiveness and seriousness of their work. It was, I believe, a year of hard work. I know that the hon. Gentleman in particular enjoys the history of this place and has written about it.
As has already been said, this is one of the most recognisable and renowned buildings in the world. That is in part because of its architecture—the grandeur of Victorian Britain combined with the historical depth and resonance of Westminster Hall. In part, it is because of what this place represents. The United Kingdom Parliament is for everyone in this country, and it is precisely because Parliament and the Palace of Westminster belong to the British people that we as parliamentarians have a responsibility to ensure that it is preserved for future generations. It is also an edifice that sends a powerful message around the world representing, as it does, the strength of democracy. We are ultimately its custodians for generations to come. People love this building, hence, as my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) mentioned, it is visited by nearly 1 million people a year. It is one of the few structures around the world that is recognised the world over. Our generation must accept responsibility for the active steps that are needed to preserve it.
We have reached a point where make-do-and-mend is simply not an option. That approach has already been taken and has led to decades of under-investment, which we are now forced to confront. Much of our infrastructure is well past, and in some cases decades past, its life expectancy for its planned working life. Most of the systems put in place in the post-war refurbishment, which was the last time there was a major renovation, were meant to last only a few decades and have now lasted twice as long. Since then, the backlog of maintenance has steadily grown, in part because those working on the structure cannot be entirely sure where all the pipes and wires lead. It will no doubt surprise some, particularly perhaps those outside this Chamber, to know that in some instances the authorities here have to cut a wire and wait to see who complains that the electricity has gone off, or block a pipe and see where there is a later complaint. We do not know, necessarily, where everything leads.
In a sense, Parliament’s maintenance team have been so good at their work that they have been victims of their own success. Members have tended not to be troubled by the headaches that the team face on a daily basis that are mostly hidden in basements, voids or the vertical risers, which have been referred to and of which there are nearly 100 spread across the building. Often, we see only a small proportion of the true scale of the work that takes place every day to keep this Palace going. Again, that is testament to the dedication with which those workers work in difficult, and sometimes dangerous, conditions, particularly because of the presence of asbestos in so many locations around the building.
Yet the task is steadily becoming too great even for those make-do-and-mend measures and the ongoing renovation measures that have been happening for so long. Decades of under-investment mean that the risk of a major fire, flood or other catastrophic failures increase every year. For example, parts of the sewerage system were installed in 1888 and are still in use. The costs of avoiding the inevitable eventual calamity or major emergency, if we do nothing, are also rising. As the hon. Member for Walsall North (Mr Winnick) mentioned, we are facing rising ongoing annual maintenance costs, which reached almost £50 million last year.
Will the Minister give way?
Order. With the greatest respect to the hon Lady, you really cannot come into a debate while the wind-ups are taking place and expect to take part.
We need to cover the issue that the ongoing maintenance cost the taxpayer £50 million last year. All told, some 40% of the mechanical and engineering systems will be at an unacceptably high risk of failure by 2020, and five years after that the figure will have risen to 50%. In other words, we are just eight years away from being in a situation in which half the Palace’s systems are so dilapidated that they could cause a major emergency that stops Parliament’s work and forces our evacuation without warning, perhaps overnight. For all those reasons, it is clear that we cannot pass the buck any longer.
The Minister has emphasised how urgent it is that we get the work done. Does he therefore agree that the work should commence immediately, rather than waiting for six years, as page 91 of the report says? It states that a full decant will take place in six years’ time.
It is fair to point out, as was mentioned, that a great deal of work is ongoing while Parliament sits, including, for example, repairs to the roof and other essential items of maintenance. That is a monumental undertaking, and a great deal of work undoubtedly needs to be done in order to set that into train.
We have heard what the Joint Committee has recommended: that a full decant is the cheapest, quickest and lowest-risk option. It also proposes the establishment of a delivery authority, overseen by a sponsor board, which would first be established in shadow form to draw up budgets and a business case, before a final vote in both Houses to approve the plans.
The Government have undertaken to provide time for a full debate and vote in due course on the Committee’s report. The hon. Member for Rhondda will recollect from his duties in this place that time is always at a premium for business managers, particularly so the moment.
That is all very well, but to be honest, “in due course” is the kind of phrase that weasels use. It means that someone does not really intend to do something in any expeditious way. Nearly 20 weeks have now passed. We have been told that, every year we delay, the project costs an extra £85 million. The finger will be pointing at the Minister if something goes wrong, as he has just described—so get on with it man!
Shall we put it this way? It will happen if not in due course, then as soon as is reasonably practicable.
I am not sure about weasels, but this sounds like a sketch from “Yes, Minister”—Sir Humphrey Appleby’s next line would be “at the appropriate juncture”. My hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) said that each year we delay costs £85 million. We have heard how the public support the decant and improvements to the House, but the longer we delay, there is a risk that we will lose public support, so I encourage the Minister to get on with it. He seems to be putting forward a case for a full decant, which many of us support, but we need to get on with it.
What we decide to do is a matter for the House. I reiterate that we aim to bring the matter to a vote as soon as possible. We have to take the time—and have taken the time—to consider very carefully the details of the proposed recommendations and their implications. It is not simply a question of reading a report that has taken a year to prepare. We want to consider those recommendations and their implications carefully. We have taken advice on a range of technical and governance issues made by the Joint Committee report by, for example, consulting with the Infrastructure and Projects Authority. It is only right, too, that Members consider the report of the Joint Committee carefully. I urge all of them to read it in full if they have not done so already.
The House rises for the Easter recess on 30 March. Is there a reasonable chance that we will have the debate before then?
We aim to bring the matter to a vote as soon as is reasonably practicable. As has been made clear this morning, in recent weeks colleagues have suggested a number of alternative proposals, some of which the House authorities have commissioned additional research on. Those also need to be considered, and that includes the proposals made by my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough, which have been analysed in detail. A copy of the House’s report will be placed in the Library later today and is available electronically now.
The House authorities have been keen to engage with Members, most recently through two well-attended drop-in sessions—we organised those—with the programme team. Members are also encouraged to arrange to be taken on a tour of the basement areas. It is not compulsory to go with the hon. Member for Rhondda—
But it is available.
It is available, but other tours can be organised.
I have listened carefully to the Minister’s speech. With great candour and great respect, I say to him that I think he is making excuses on the Government’s behalf. We need to have this debate and to establish a shadow authority as soon as possible, so that the work can be scoped and costed accurately, and we know how to move forward.
My hon. Friend knows that time is always a precious commodity in this House. Business managers are always under time pressure, now more than ever, but the matter is being given very careful consideration.
The Minister is being generous with his limited time. He said that alternative proposals are being considered by officials. Given that the report took a considerable amount of time to produce, has huge caveats in it and says that professional advice is still needed for costing purposes, I put on record that, whatever decisions the officials come to, it is assumed that they will have the usual caveats and that we will not be able to rely on those figures to the extent that it is hoped.
Once an initial decision has been taken in response to the Joint Committee’s recommendations, focus will shift to the details of developing plans for how the work should be done. However, it is hard for detailed scrutiny to take place now because line-by-line budgets have not been prepared, and cannot be yet. That can happen only when the delivery authority has completed its necessary preparation work.
The Joint Committee was clear that it could not provide detailed budgets. Only establishing a shadow delivery authority will allow a true picture of the costs to emerge, before Members of Parliament and peers of the realm have the final say. The Committee’s headline figures for the cost of the three options under consideration range from £3.52 billion to £5.67 billion—a difference of £2.15 billion—but everyone following the debate should be clear that those are preliminary estimates and not guaranteed costs.
Whatever the differences in approach, clearly no one disputes that we must act to preserve this historic building. On that we have no choice. As part of a UNESCO world heritage site, the Palace simply cannot be allowed to fall into terminal disrepair. Doing nothing is not an option. What happens is up to the House, and ultimately it will be for Members of both Houses to decide on the right way forward. The large sums of money involved and the importance of this building to our nation’s prestige mean great care is needed when weighing up the options.
It is clear from the speeches we have heard that the responsibility of getting the decision right as custodians of this place weighs heavily on all Members of the House. The Government, for our part, will work with Parliament to ensure that whatever is decided is delivered in the right way to preserve this place for the country and for future generations.
It has been enlightening to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Flello. We have heard very good speeches. I particularly congratulate the right hon. Member for Saffron Walden (Sir Alan Haselhurst) on his very important contribution.
I take a completely different lesson from the fire at Windsor than the hon. Member for North West Cambridgeshire (Mr Vara). I take the lesson that there will be a fire in this building. It could take a wing or the whole of the building down, which is why we need to act. The hon. Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) talked about sitting in the House of Lords. He should listen to Winston Churchill, who said in 1943 that there would be a real problem with the House of Commons sitting in the House of Lords, because the Division Lobbies were not big enough. During the war only 20 or 30 Members sat in the House of Lords or in the House of Commons every day, so their experience was completely different.
The most important thing we have to do is take issue with the Government, because the Minister made a wonderful speech on why we should do what the Joint Committee advised, then issued a whole load of waffly platitudes, as though he was speaking on Her Majesty’s behalf. They were excuses for doing nothing, as the hon. Member for The Cotswolds (Geoffrey Clifton-Brown) said. We have to get on with it. We must have the debate so that we can hear the opposing views and thrash it all out, and it should be before the February recess. Let us just get on with it so that we can make a decision.
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the photonics industry.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Flello.
The usual reaction to any comment about photonics is, “What’s photonics?” It is worth pointing out that photonics is nothing to do with fold-down sofas and that it is not the study of protons. Photonics comes from the word “photon” and is the science of light.
Scotland has a great tradition in science, with figures such as Lord Kelvin, James Watt and Thomas Graham featuring strongly. The most famous physicist in the photonics field, although he is probably much less well-known than those other figures, is James Clerk Maxwell. Maxwell was born in Edinburgh in 1831 and brought up in rural Kirkcudbright, before moving back to study at Edinburgh University. A brilliant mathematician and physicist, he moved to Cambridge at the age of 19. On arrival, he was given a list of rules and told that the 6 am Sunday church service was mandatory. Reportedly, Maxwell paused before replying, “Aye, I think I can stay up that late.”
Maxwell’s most notable work was formulating the classical theory of electromagnetism, which for the first time brought together electricity, magnetism and light. His development of the Maxwell equations, which describe a wave as having an electric and magnetic component, are fundamental when describing the propagation of light. Many argue that Maxwell’s contribution to physics is on a par with those of Newton or Einstein. Indeed, Einstein himself said:
“The special theory of relativity owes its origins to Maxwell’s equations of the electromagnetic field.”
Those equations changed the world forever and are the bedrock of photonics. In recognition, 2015 was designated the international year of light, to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Maxwell’s electromagnetic theory of light, thus marking his contribution as the father of photonics.
I knew none of that when I was considering university courses. I chose my course—laser physics and optoelectronics—because I enjoyed physics and, frankly, because the name sounded impressive. As a 17-year-old, I had no idea that Strathclyde University was one of the UK’s leading institutions for photonics. I want to make special mention of Professor Robbie Stewart, whose enthusiasm for and expertise in photonics was matched by his burning desire to see every young person—even those who were sometimes reluctant students, such as myself—achieve success in physics.
My hon. Friend is making a very interesting speech, although I suspect that she will be too modest to say that she has a PhD in photonics—
It is not a PhD.
Well, a postgraduate qualification in photonics.
My hon. Friend mentioned Strathclyde University. She will also be aware that Heriot-Watt University, which is in my constituency, is a centre for the study of photonics and quantum science. I have been very privileged to meet Professor Duncan Hand and other researchers and staff there, who showed me that photonics applies in a variety of practical fields, including cyber-security, cancer treatment and the protection of civilians in war zones.
I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention, and I will talk later about some of the applications of photonics. As she suggests, the central belt of Scotland is a hotbed for photonics, from Glasgow and Strathclyde in the west to Heriot-Watt and Edinburgh in the east.
First, I congratulate the hon. Lady on bringing this matter to Westminster Hall for consideration. Whenever we did research on this issue, one point that emerged was that UK photonics companies export between 75% and 90% of their products, so their importance to the UK economy is immense, even though it is not well known and often overlooked. Does she agree that if the photonics industry across the UK is going to continue to succeed, it needs to be supported, which is something the Minister should consider?
The hon. Gentleman makes some really important points and I will come on to some of the challenges that the photonics industry faces. Of course, one of them is that it is a relatively unknown area of the economy.
In Scotland, the presence of a number of major multinationals, combined with the outstanding research base, has enabled the central belt to become a world leader in the design, development and manufacture of high-value lasers. Laser sales are in excess of £200 million per annum and 90% of those sales are exports, bringing significant wealth to the region.
Scottish companies in the laser sector currently provide employment for around 3,000 people. The largest industrial players in Scotland are Thales, which is based in Glasgow, and Selex, which is based in Edinburgh, but other small and medium-sized enterprises are doing excellent work.
Another renowned company, Coherent Scotland, has gone from strength to strength in the last decade. It is not in my constituency but in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady). It manufactures lasers for industrial environments, such as the semiconductor market, as well as focusing on microscopy and micromachining. In the same area, we also have M Squared Lasers, which has won a string of awards for its innovative work in sensing.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate and I join her in paying tribute to those two outstanding companies, which are based in my constituency. It has been a real delight to welcome representatives of M Squared to the House of Commons on several occasions.
My hon. Friend has spoken about both the importance of the research base—Glasgow University, which is in both of our constituencies, is important to that research —and the significance of exports. Does she share my concern about the potential impact of Brexit on both the research base and the opportunities for exports?
Brexit is one of the biggest challenges that the photonics industry faces just now, and we need some clear answers about how the industry will be supported through the Brexit process. I will come back to that point later in my speech.
The strength of the Scottish photonics industry is underlined by the fact that when the UK Government invited the Fraunhofer Society of Germany—Europe’s largest research and development provider—to work with the UK, the first centre was established in photonics and was in Scotland at the University of Strathclyde. Of course, photonics features in every part of the UK and there are other major photonics clusters around the UK—Southampton also has a high photonics concentration.
I will give some facts and figures about the UK photonics industry. It is a growth sector, with 1,500 companies employing more than 70,000 people. Its economic impact is impressive, with a sustained growth of 6% to 8% per year over the last three decades, and an annual output of £10.5 billion. That is comparable to the pharmaceutical industry, but of course photonics is far less well-known, partly due to a lack of public understanding, but also to the industry’s high number of businesses, including SMEs. In order to give the industry a voice, the Photonics Leadership Group was set up, with John Lincoln at the helm, and I was delighted that he was able to be present at the inaugural meeting of the all-party group on photonics in October.
A key point about the photonics industry is that it enables other industries to be competitive, with 10% of overall UK jobs depending on it. Photonics is a key enabling technology, encompassing everything from lasers and cameras to lighting and touch screen displays. Photonics is also critical to increasing manufacturing productivity, delivering efficient healthcare, and keeping us digitally connected and secure.
The range and depth of the photonics field is vast, but I will highlight a couple of examples. The first is sensing systems in autonomous vehicles. Those cars navigate using radar, lasers and cameras linked to a computer. A horizontal laser can send out pulses, and by measuring the time taken for the pulse to return, the distance to obstacles can be established, in much the same way as bats use echolocation, so the cars can detect hazards and slow or halt as appropriate.
Lighting and displays are one of the most visible expressions of photonics as an enabling technology. Light emitting diode—LED—lighting is progressively replacing traditional fluorescent bulbs and is finding its way into new areas including signage, illumination, consumer electronics and even clothing. LED technology is projected to become the dominant lighting technology before the end of the decade. By 2020, more than 95% of lighting turnover will be based on the technology.
Another area where photonics has been revolutionary is in the detection of counterfeit goods, which are estimated to cost businesses £3.5 billion per annum. A technique has been developed by the National Physical Laboratory in Teddington to determine whether items of clothing are fake. The technology involves terahertz radiation. When a fabric sample is placed within the beam, the composition and structure can be ascertained, as different types of materials give rise to varying rates of scattering and absorption. The fabric’s unique signature will indicate whether it is genuine or a clever copy.
In healthcare, we are all aware of laser eye surgery and endoscopy technologies, but the photonics impact in that area is massive. A new technology known as photodynamic therapy, or PDT, uses light-activated drugs to kill cancerous cells. Plasters embedded with LEDs developed by the Scottish firm Ambicare Health are being used to treat skin cancer in combination with light-sensitive drugs. PDT is simple to operate and portable, meaning that patients can go about their daily routine while receiving it.
The timing of this debate is particularly useful, coming off the back of Monday’s industrial strategy Green Paper. While the 10 pillars of the strategy have the potential to support the continued development of photonics, the vital role of enabling technologies, such as photonics, needs to be fully recognised. They provide the competitive edge in product performance and manufacturing.
My hon. Friend has spoken much about entrepreneurship and SMEs in the area of photonics. Does she agree that universities such as Heriot-Watt in my constituency are important engines in entrepreneurship and innovation in photonics? For example, in the past five years alone, three spin-off companies have come out of the institute at Heriot-Watt.
I thank my hon. and learned Friend for her intervention. What we see with a lot of these industry-facing universities is great and rich partnerships between industry and research that allow SMEs to flourish.
Less than 5% of the value of high-technology goods, from mobile phones to aircraft, is in the final assembly. Most value is in the design, the critical components, which are often photonics such as cameras, screens, sensors, and the manufacturing equipment, which is also often photonics, such as laser marking or cutting. Manufacturing strategy must therefore be refined to ensure support for the research, design, development and manufacture of the hidden technologies that will secure a productive future. The UK has globally leading photonics research and a strong export-driven photonics industry, but as a global industry, photonics is sensitive to changes in international trade. Care is needed to ensure we continue to develop and manufacture this enabling technology in the UK.
As with many other industries, the shortage in science, technology, engineering and maths skills poses a threat to the photonics industry. Those shortages are well recognised, but still they persist. Difficulties in the recruitment and retention of STEM teachers only add to the problem. What practical steps are the Government taking to address those shortages? What role does the Minister see enabling technologies taking in the industrial strategy?
The biggest concern for the photonics industry, as has already been mentioned, is Brexit. Access to the single market and to skilled and experienced staff is vital to many photonics companies. With the Government driving on towards an increasingly hard Brexit, what steps are being taken to ensure that this key part of the economy is secure? Why is there no chief scientific adviser in the Department for Exiting the European Union? Photonics is one of the key industries for the future. I encourage all Members to find out how photonics affects their lives and how photonics is on a path to making the 21st century the century of the photon.
I start by thanking fellow Members, including the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry), and the hon. Members for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) and for Strangford (Jim Shannon), for their passion for this under-appreciated sector. In particular, I thank the hon. Member for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan) for calling the debate. As she mentioned, it is particularly timely, given the launch of the Government’s industrial strategy Green Paper by the Prime Minister earlier this week. I congratulate her on her initiative in setting up the first all-party group on this exciting sector.
Too often, the photonics sector is unfairly and unwisely overlooked. We have heard this morning that it is a fascinating field and a great example of the types of sector that we are focusing on in our industrial strategy. It also makes a great and tangible contribution to all parts of the United Kingdom, including Scotland and Northern Ireland. As an enabling technology, it underpins a wide range of sectors and applications, including aerospace, eye surgery, LED lighting, counterfeit detecting and all the other important examples that the hon. Lady gave. There are more than 1,500 photonics manufacturing companies in the UK, together employing more than 70,000 people. They generate an economic output of £10.5 billion. Our industrial strategy looks to build on that kind of success, further strengthening our science and research base while helping to bring new goods and services to the market more simply and more rapidly.
The photonics industry has been built on the UK’s outstanding expertise. The hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West mentioned that it was particularly evident in industry-facing institutions such as Heriot-Watt. The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council maintains a significant portfolio of photonics research spanning across multiple themes such as ICT, physical sciences and manufacturing. The total portfolio exceeds £170 million in value, and its significant investments include £10.2 million in the national hub in high value photonic manufacturing at the University of Southampton; £7.2 million awarded to University College London for the photonics systems development project; £5.6 million to the University of Sheffield to research semiconductor quantum photonics; and £4.9 million to Heriot-Watt University in the hon. Lady’s constituency for its industrial doctorate centre on optics and photonics technologies.
I thank the Minister for making an interesting and detailed speech and talking about the success of the university sector, particularly Heriot-Watt in my constituency. However, he will be aware that academics in centres such as the institute in my constituency are worried as a result of the Brexit vote about two things: funding and the international pool of academic and postgraduate talent on which they draw. They are looking for assurance beyond 2020 that the sources of funding and international brain power will not be lost to them.
We are sensitive to such concerns, which is why the Prime Minister in her speech a week last Monday made clear statements as to her objectives for our Brexit negotiations. She detailed the importance that she puts on continued collaboration with our European research partners, and on continued access to the brightest and the best—the people who make such a difference to the success of our scientific endeavour in this country. As she underscored in her powerful speech, we are leaving the European Union, but we are not leaving Europe and we remain an outward-looking and globally focused country committed to being the global go-to centre for science and research.
The Government recognise the importance of research to the UK, which is why, at the spending review in 2015—the spending review before last—we protected the science resource budget in real terms at its 2015-16 level of £4.7 billion for the rest of this Parliament, and pledged to increase the science capital budget to £1.1 billion in 2015-16, which will rise with inflation to a total of £6.9 billion over the period 2015-21. At this year’s autumn statement we made the significant announcement that we would make an additional investment in research and development of £2 billion a year by 2020-21. As I have been at pains to say on many occasions, that is the biggest single increase in investment in R and D in this country since 1979.
The funding is very welcome and much needed, but we also need certainty over what people can do now and how able they will be to travel in future.
We certainly recognise that concern. That is why, to refer back to the Prime Minister’s speech a week last Monday, she again repeated her desire to be able to guarantee as quickly as possible the rights of EU nationals residing in the UK. If other countries across the European Union are able to offer the same assurances to our nationals living in their countries, we will be able to put those uncertainties to rest.
As I have mentioned, it is important to ensure that the excellent research carried out in the UK can be successfully commercialised where appropriate. This is why we provide support to that effect through Innovate UK. Photonics is one of Innovate UK’s enabling technology areas. Companies can apply for funding for photonics projects in all the so-called emerging and enabling technology calls, as well as calls related to the application of photonics in healthcare, manufacturing and elsewhere. Over the past six years, typical spend has been in the range of £5 million to £10 million per annum, with most funding going to SMEs working in collaboration with research organisations and larger companies. More than £3 million has already been invested in projects in the Glasgow-based firm, M Squared Lasers, since 2008, helping the company to reach an annual turnover that now exceeds £10 million.
Up to £500,000 has been invested in innovative research and development projects through the north Wales photonics launchpad. At the Fraunhofer Centre for Applied Photonics in Glasgow, Innovate UK has funded 20 projects for the centre to collaborate with UK companies.
We have an edge in photonics, but we are not taking that for granted. Our economy has great strengths, but while many people, places and businesses are thriving, opportunities and growth are still spread too unevenly around the country. That is why it is so important that a modern industrial strategy delivers a high-skilled, competitive economy that spreads benefits and opportunities to people throughout the UK.
The Green Paper that we published on Monday marks the beginning of a dialogue to develop a strategy that will also ensure the UK remains one of the best places in the world to innovate, do business and create jobs. We acknowledge the challenges we face. Growth has not been even. Prospects and opportunities for businesses and people vary too much. We have world class businesses and sectors, but some are not yet achieving their potential. Now is the time to face up to the challenges with an industrial strategy that ensures we have a resilient economy for the future.
Question put and agreed to.
UK-West Africa Relations
[Steve McCabe in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered UK relations with West African countries.
Before diving into the substance of the debate, I bring Members’ attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. The reason for the debate was to probe the Government on their reaction to the recent election in Ghana, but in my mind, and I suspect in the minds of other hon. Members, the debate has somewhat morphed into a veritable tour de force of pan-regional issues. I hope it will be an opportunity for Members to delve into specific countries and highlight specific thematic trends and general trajectories across west Africa and the UK’s relationship with that region.
I start with Ghana, which I had the privilege of visiting relatively recently, alongside my hon. Friend the Member for Windsor (Adam Afriyie) in his role as the prime ministerial trade envoy to Ghana. That was a very interesting time. It preceded the election and built on the relationship I already had with a number of Ghanaian politicians, including Hannah Tetteh, the ex-Foreign Minister, on whom I heap praise for her work across the region. I felt a measure of sadness about the transition of people with whom I was used to doing business, but equally I am optimistic about the new Government, which is perhaps ideologically slightly more closely aligned to the Conservative party.
The new President, President Nana, has a strong team but does not have the benefit of Short money, as we would have here. I would urge the Minister to see what we can do to help the structure of Government in Ghana and addressing that country’s challenges.
One challenge is that of customs, with goods going in and out. There was a horrendous amount of corruption throughout the 20 processes. I did jokingly ask the excellent high commissioner Jon Benjamin to put in the diplomatic telegram that I had suggested at a number of points taking the head of customs to one side and shooting him by way of example. Clearly, that is not something that I would literally encourage, but such was the need for shock therapy in Ghana. I hope the new Government of Ghana will take the opportunity to engage in that challenge.
I saw a number of good companies, including Blue Skies, which provides fruit to the UK. As well as praising my hon. Friend the Member for Windsor in his trade role, and praising the ex-Foreign Minister for Ghana, and Jon Benjamin the high commissioner, I thank the high commissioner here, Victor, who was very good in exposing issues around the region and introducing me to west African colleagues based in the United Kingdom. I wish him well in his future.
Perhaps the view from the Foreign Office and the Minister is that Morocco is part of north Africa, but it looks towards west Africa more and more. Only this January there was a Ghanaian-Moroccan economic summit in Accra to look at how they could do business. The King of Morocco has reached out to west Africa over a number of years for trading relationships. I note that Morocco was reported in the African press as having the numbers to formally enter the European Union—sorry, not the European Union! That was a Freudian slip. I meant to say that it has the numbers to enter the African Union, which I think would plug a gap that has far too long been an anomaly in the African Union, notwithstanding Western Sahara.
One of the advantages of the Minister’s new role is that, for the first time in recent times, north Africa has been linked up with the rest of Africa. Over the past 20 years, our UK Government ministerial response to Africa has been disjointed and spread, wrongly, across a number of Departments. Sometimes that was for good reason and sometimes it was just for historical reasons. The reunification in the Foreign Office of Africa is positive, and I will come on to describe other trends and changes that I would like to encourage in the Foreign Office in relation to the structure of Government. The role carried out by my right hon. Friend the Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps) for a number of years is probably the right role in terms of Government structure, with Ministers operating across the Department for International Development and the Foreign Office wholly dedicated to the African continent.
It would be odd not to mention in a debate on west Africa the topical issue of Gambia. I particularly praise the Minister for going down and visiting the crisis centre and also for the way in which he let everyone know about it. I compliment him on his Twitter feed, which showed a video of him giving a speech praising the excellent work that they do in the basement of the Foreign Office, looking after British citizens when there is an international crisis. That is excellent work and it is brilliant that he could visit and publicise it.
West Africa is not often in the popular press, but Gambia started to hit the Daily Mail and The Sun. I was uncomfortable with some of the things that I read and the characterisation of the new President as the “ex-Argos security man”. There was more than a whiff of colonial snobbery to that. No one has ever described me as the guy who used to stack the shelves at Bejam’s, which preceded Iceland, but I am indeed the same person. Simply because of the nature of people’s view of Africa, that is how they described the new President, an entrepreneur whom I am sure will make a great President. Gambia cannot go the way of Mali with security and migration, which the prime ministerial envoy to the Sahel so ably dealt with. That role has sadly not been refilled, but it is very difficult to find someone of the skillset of Stephen O’Brien.
I note that Nigeria is offering refuge to the retiring, or ousted, President of Gambia. That is difficult and somewhat distasteful, but it is the practical and effective thing to do. I ask Members to reflect on providing soft landings to other leaders as and when it comes about. By no stretch of the imagination can one consider Zimbabwe part of west Africa, but there are parallels, not only for Nigeria but for other countries, in relation to soft landings for exiting world leaders.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. While he is on the issue of the various nations in west Africa and the leaders and incoming leaders, does he agree that one of the best things we can do is encourage active participation by Governments in west Africa on corruption to try to ensure that those nation states and their citizens benefit from the assistance that we in the UK offer them, and that it is not siphoned off, as has been so often the case in many instances in Africa?
The point is well made. I had the privilege of being alongside David Cameron when he held the corruption summit with the recently elected President Buhari of Nigeria and others. Tackling corruption right from the top is very effective, but I think more of the Africa of opportunities rather than the Africa of downsides. Corruption is not an African issue—it is a global issue—but it does flair up more in specific countries.
There is a massive opportunity in Nigeria. I cannot remember whether Lagos is referred to as little London or Nigerians in London refer to London as little Lagos, but there is a strong connection, a strong diaspora connection and a massive opportunity. By 2050 a quarter of the world’s population will be in Africa, and a quarter of them in Nigeria. Clearly it would be foolish to ignore such a massive opportunity.
I commend the work of PricewaterhouseCoopers in Nigeria, in Lagos with the governor, on improving the ease of doing business, which is a catalyst for getting more money into the system. I also praise President Buhari for taking the tough decision to float the naira, which will be a catalyst for greater investment in the longer term and which removes a previous deterrent to investment.
Francophone Africa is anchored in west Africa. As a result, with the Commonwealth countries, we think more of southern and east Africa rather than west Africa as our natural bedfellows, but we should not do so. We can do more in west Africa. I have worked in Ivory Coast and travelled to places such as Senegal. We need a bespoke operation in francophone west Africa. The Foreign Office and the Department for International Trade need to co-ordinate to get people whose first language is French, or who are properly bilingual, and to have them travelling to Accra and Abidjan, rather than on a traditional trade mission that might have a stop in Ghana and then a francophone country. We need to be using that sort of bloc of people—the City is pretty full of very competent French bankers who are attracted to the United Kingdom and some of our values. Using some of those French bankers or City workers on transactions in French west Africa would be a good idea.
I mentioned that I used to work in Ivory Coast, which is a beacon of opportunity and growth in west Africa. President Ouattara is forward-thinking. I am particularly impressed that, despite the tendency to extend presidential terms that so blights Africa, he has said he will step down in 2020. Since I worked in Ivory Coast, there has been a long civil war, a recovery and a subsequent significant increase in GDP per capita.
The country is not without its problems. Only a few weeks ago there were what we might euphemistically describe as some problems—the head of the police and of the army were summarily sacked as a result—but stability was restored. Generally Ivory Coast is a beacon for growth in the area and shows what can be done. I have had the privilege of returning to Grand Bassam, where I used to go for a Sunday beer and lunch and where that terrible incident of tourists and Ivorians being killed coming in off the beach was. It was good to show solidarity and I encourage people to return to Grand Bassam and not to let terrorists get us down. People should go back there as a tourist and a business area.
In Guinea-Conakry, one of the biggest private sector investments, Simandou, was proposed, but almost immediately we found ourselves fighting Ebola, which I will come to later. I am interested in any update from the Minister on the project and, in particular, on Chinese involvement. My hon. Friend the Member for Windsor has a degree of knowledge about that and, off the back of his work as the Prime Minister’s trade envoy to Ghana, the President of Guinea was keen on him playing a similar role in his country, but I will leave it to my hon. Friend to update us—I am not sure where that ended.
Continuing our tour of countries, I very much commend the counter-terrorism and counter-narcotics works in Senegal. I also commend to British business the opportunities as the airport moves out of the capital—that big tract of prime land is available for development, commercialisation and businesses to generate tax that will grow the country out of poverty.
In a bizarre segue from Senegal, I will talk briefly about the soft power of the United Kingdom. Go anywhere and people are very interested in, first, the Queen, then premiership football and, tailing off, lots of other things depending on their view of the United Kingdom. There is a battle for influence in Africa and, interestingly, it is not only French and English but, for example, American—the National Basketball Association has just set up a college in Senegal. All those things are soft power, and I encourage the Minister to look even more than we have done previously with the British Council and the premier league at how we project British values, whether through football, the monarchy or business. Other countries including America are certainly doing those things.
I am interested in the role of the Economic Community of West African States and in an update on its activities. I have always found that the region is a stronger building block than the African Union as a whole, but it will be interesting to see what happens in the next couple of days at the African Union meeting, presumably in Addis, where I very hope that Amina Mohamed, who was the Kenyan Foreign Minister, will get elected. I am sure Her Majesty’s Government would not want to take a proactive position and will work with whomever replaces Madam Dlamini-Zuma, but if Amina Mohamed wins the election, it would be very positive for the African Union building out and going forward.
We need to do much more business. Only yesterday I was with a group of African businessmen and an excellent prospective Foreign Office prosperity team. The question was asked: how well are the British Government doing at connecting with business? I was quite self-critical and said that we were doing about four out of 10. Of the others, most people were around six or seven out of 10, but I said—I will use this language, although I am not sure whether it is orderly—that our performance historically had been pretty crap. Compared with other countries and their interaction, I feel that we are not very good. In summarising, one ex-Foreign Office official—bless him—said that he appreciated my comments, and that I was “much less crap” than many of the other Ministers. I am sure he was not referring to the Minister present today, but was making an historical reference. I was hoping for something more complimentary from former colleagues, but there we go. We take praise where we can find it.
Understanding the Brexit deal for Africa and looking at a post-Brexit economic partnership arena, Brexit might be an opportunity to look towards a continental free trade agreement in the African continent. I was positive about and pushed EPAs, or economic partnership agreements, as a liberalisation of trade in Africa and with the European Union, but Carlos Lopes previously of the United Nations and now of the AU was critical of my position, because he felt, rather as we felt that Britain should not just look towards the European Union, that Africa should not be focused on dividing itself into four blocs that refer back to the European Union, which is a relatively stagnant body for future trade.
I am interested in what we can do to leverage bilateral negotiations with African countries to allow them to buy into trading with one another. I do not know whether it is even possible under World Trade Organisation rules for lesser developed countries to trade quite freely. There are some significant middle-income countries, but I am not quite sure whether we can get one deal that fits all or how things would happen.
I am fascinated to find out more about the Commonwealth Trade Ministers meeting in February or March, which could be really good for building blocs for Brexit. We need a Commonwealth strategy, a non-Commonwealth strategy and a strategy for the Department for International Development and the countries in which it operates.
I said I would mention Ebola. I do not want Ebola to fall off the table, as it were. I compliment HMG on what they did in Sierra Leone. One of my proudest moments in the Foreign Office was handing out Ebola medals, including to a lady who works in my private office, Rachel Chetham. She had gone to Sierra Leone and put herself in harm’s way to help those people. I was very proud of what she did specifically and what the Foreign Office and HMG did overall.
Looking back on the Ebola crisis, we should learn some lessons. In that one year of crisis alone the international community spent 15 times more than had been spent in all three of the Ebola countries of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone in the previous 15 years. If we can invest early in the resilience of the health system, that would be incredibly positive. That point was made to me by Results UK about Ebola.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. He makes a good point about what lessons can be learned. We should all be proud of how the Foreign Office, the Government and the national health service responded to the Ebola crisis and the support they provided. In that context, does he believe that there are opportunities to forge stronger links between the NHS, and indeed our universities and medical schools, and many west African countries?
I have great respect for my hon. Friend’s views on health, and he hits the nail on the head. It is ludicrous for DFID to promote health when there is vast expertise in the Department of Health that we should leverage. The same goes for the Department for Education. We can do a lot more. We must also support parliamentarians. I recently met the Sierra Leonean Select Committee on health through the good offices of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association. It was clear that it was not getting the leverage in its Parliament to move things forward and propose changes.
I have recently started engaging on tuberculosis, which I had really associated only with being a by-product of HIV. The World Health Organisation estimates that more than 800,000 people in west Africa fell ill with TB in 2015, and nearly 300,000 people died. The mortality rate in west Africa for TB is around 36%, which is double the global average. I am keen to work with the Global TB Caucus, and I encourage other hon. Members to do so. Parliamentarians can play a great part in dealing with TB, and that caucus mobilises parliamentarians from across Africa. Will the Minister see whether his good offices in west Africa—ambassadors and high commissioners—can be used alongside the Global TB Caucus to encourage parliamentarians of those nation states to get more involved and collectively work with us to deal with this issue?
I am most grateful to my hon. Friend for mentioning TB, which is absolutely vital. Does he agree that tremendous progress has been made in west Africa in the past 15 years in reducing both the incidence of malaria and mortality from it, not least given the support from DFID and the UK Government more generally? There is a real issue in the Sahel with intermittent malaria, which DFID is trying to tackle. As Nigeria is one of the two countries in the world where malaria is most prevalent, it is vital that we continue that support.
My hon. Friend has a great reputation on those issues and on international development more generally. He is entirely right gently to reprimand me and say that we must look at the successes as well as the problems. The successes show that the aid budget works and that we should do more of it—they do not show that there are so many problems even after we have done all that work. Aid works and we should do more of it.
I turn to the perennial subject of Donald Trump—he pervades even a debate about west Africa. Will the Prime Minister raise the subject of Africa when she meets Donald Trump? I think she should. We should find out his views about Africa and aid in Africa. We have heard his views about family planning, and there may be a vacuum that the UK and other countries will need to step into, but what is his view of AFRICOM, the US’s African command? What is his view about stepping in if things deteriorate in places such as Burundi, where the Americans would have been well placed to offer support if regional forces did not? Will the Americans be prepared to step up? What discussions has the Minister had with his French and American counterparts about the global effort if there is a need to surge forces into Africa?
There were many places that I did not get to visit. I encourage the Minister to travel the road less trodden and visit the likes of Togo, Benin, Burkina Faso and Niger. I wish I had gone to Gambia. If one has visited some of those smaller countries, when things kick off—for want of a better word—and there is a problem, one sometimes has a rough idea and can pick up the phone and speak to people. The UK Government’s understanding, knowledge and penetration of Africa means that they are able to do that.
I have taken far too long—I apologise to Members—but in summary, I ask the Minister to do three things: help Nana in Ghana, look to set up a Francophone group of businesspeople, and lobby for structure of government changes so that Africa is better represented by HMG here in the United Kingdom.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairpersonship, Mr McCabe. I congratulate the hon. Member for Rochford and Southend East (James Duddridge) on securing the debate and thank him for raising many important issues, on which I hope to comment.
The Department for International Development currently spends nearly £307 million in Nigeria, making it DFID’s third largest country project budget. I had the pleasure of visiting Nigeria in 2015 with the International Development Committee to see the fantastic work that is being undertaken there, particularly on girls’ education. That visit followed the distressing abduction of the Chibok girls, which people around the world heard about and which left an indelible impression on me as a parent of two girls. Parents sent their children to school one day and then got the news that they had been abducted, purely because they valued education—and education for girls. That must have been a traumatic experience for anyone affected. That trauma continues to this day, as most of the girls remain missing. I met the “Bring Back Our Girls” campaigners who campaign every single day outside the Nigerian Parliament for those girls’ return. We also met Government officials who have pledged to return the girls and fight Boko Haram’s extremism with all that they have. Will the Minister continue to assist with that? We must never let prevail extremists who wish to suppress women and girls, their education and their liberty.
I read with absolute disgust on Monday that Boko Haram has taken to sending female suicide bombers into Government and civilian territory with infants strapped to their backs. Such atrocities and such a lack of concern for human beings—especially the children who are sent to their deaths—are barely understandable. What are the UK Government doing to counter extremism and support the Government of Nigeria in dealing with Boko Haram? It is also important that DFID provides all the support it can to help the girls who are returned to reintegrate. I have read reports in newspapers that girls who have returned may be being stigmatised and ostracised by local communities, but given all that they have been through, they need all the support they can get.
On transparency, as a member of the International Development Committee, I believe that DFID must apply stringent criteria to its aid. Corruption has been rife right to the top of the Nigerian Government. I commend President Buhari for his stance that no one should be above the law, and for investing in anti-corruption measures. What are the United Kingdom Government doing to support him? Jobs and livelihoods will be extremely important in both countering extremism and providing alternative opportunities and hope for a population that has seen great inequity for as long as it can remember. When I was in Nigeria, people were reluctant to take money from me via credit or debit card, even at the airport. The society appears to be cash based, and little of that cash is accounted for. I therefore expect that little cash makes its way into the Government’s coffers. Helping Nigeria to integrate technology for mobile phone transfers and banking will be an important step forward in making cash count for the whole of its society and helping tax collection initiatives.
I also briefly visited Senegal and was impressed by the British industry there. I met representatives from Cairn Energy, a Scottish energy company that has invested in drilling for oil there. I believe there are important trade opportunities for the UK across Africa, but I would like to see that being sustainable trade that involves all strands of society and that offers jobs to local people, once again reducing inequality. I would be pleased to hear an update from the Minister on trade relations—explicitly on sustainable trade, and how that will complement DFID’s strategy to reduce poverty.
I also believe it is important to briefly mention the Committee’s work on the Ebola crisis. I commend all of those involved during the crisis for their work, including Pauline Cafferkey—a nurse who is based locally to me. The Committee heard evidence last year that one of the lessons to be learned from that crisis was the lack of ability to act swiftly enough on the ground by engaging with small, community-based interventions at the frontline. Further work must be done to enable DFID to do that.
The Committee also heard evidence that HIV/AIDS continues to be endemic in Africa, and we know it is one of the biggest killers of adolescents. An HIV/AIDS strategy is required, and I was extremely disheartened to learn that DFID does not currently have one. Those are some of the issues that I believe we must continue to raise and take forward. The Government are perhaps not ready to develop their own strategy across Africa, meaning that the withdrawal of aid money from middle-income countries is a pertinent issue that should be looked at across Government. If we withdraw too quickly, there is a real concern that we may not be able to meet our global goal of eradicating HIV/AIDS by 2030.
The hon. Lady is making a powerful and important point on how Government funding is allocated in order to provide support for countries across Africa. It is important that that funding does not dry up before good results are able to embed themselves and last in perpetuity. That is why we have introduced the prosperity fund, which allows us to move away from DFID funding per se—which is more humanitarian-focused—to what can actually help to build economies and support people in the longer term.
I thank the Minister for that helpful intervention; I am pleased to hear it. As I say, I believe that jobs, livelihoods and trade will provide an excellent way forward for people by giving them alternative opportunities, thereby driving them away from extremism in their local areas. However, DFID’s work should include developing an HIV/AIDS strategy. The Government should take that seriously, because great strides have been made on that issue, and I would not like to see transmission rates increase as we withdraw from middle-income countries that are not ready to develop their own policies.
There is a balance of aid work, sustainability, jobs and livelihoods and trade opportunities across west Africa. It would be helpful to hear an update from the Minister, and I look forward to his giving one.
I am delighted to be able to make a short contribution to the debate. I will primarily focus on Ghana, as I am the Prime Minister’s trade envoy to that country. Many people need to be thanked for both the development that has taken place in Ghana and the development that is about to.
First, I thank the outgoing Africa Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend East (James Duddridge), for calling the debate, for the fantastic work he did there, and for the great time that we had when we were last in Ghana together. His legacy lives on among the Ghanaians, and his contribution is very much valued. Secondly, I thank the high commissioner, Jon Benjamin, and the staff at the high commission in Ghana. The tremendous team includes Gavin Cook, Sharon Ganney, Elorm, Selasi and many others. They are an interactive and energetic team, and they prepare the ground very well for when Ministers visit and for when I arrive to try to negotiate trade arrangements.
Thirdly, I thank the Scottish Parliament and the Scottish people in general. There is a great presence from companies such as Subsea 7 and all sorts of oil and gas exploration companies. All the expertise in Aberdeen and other parts of Scotland is certainly bearing fruit in Ghana, in helping in the oil extraction and transportation industries and in improving the expertise and the jobs available to Ghanaians. Fourthly, I thank the Minister, who is a long-time friend of mine, not only for his dedication to his role as Minister for Africa—I know it is now a very broad role and includes parts of the middle east—but for joining us on a visit in the not-too-distant future for the 60th anniversary of Ghanaian independence.
Fifthly, I thank not only the current Government but previous Governments for the support they have given to Ghana, in particular, over the years. Some £80 million from DFID was given in the last year, with plenty earmarked for the current year. The Government have also provided support for Ghana’s regulatory regime and governance. As the Minister mentioned, the prosperity fund is a real opportunity not only to provide aid and support to Ghanaians in difficulty and for issues that we in the United Kingdom care about, but to ensure that Ghanaians are not just dependent on aid—trade helps to lift all boats.
Sixthly, I have to thank British businesses. We have £1.3 billion of international trade with Ghana, as of a year or two ago, of which half is contributed by UK companies, including Scottish companies, that have taken the step of investing and working in Ghana. That brings not only foreign exchange and benefits to UK businesses, but expertise, benefits and employment to Ghanaian citizens. In many ways, it is those trading and business relationships that really make the difference in developing nations.
Finally, I have to thank the Ghanaian people. There has just been a peaceful transition of power in Ghana, which was one of many consecutive peaceful transitions. The outgoing President Mahama needs to be thanked for gracefully accepting defeat at the election and, above all, Nana Akufo-Addo needs to be thanked for his magnanimous victory. He made an immediate commitment in his first speech to ensuring that opaque business practices—corruption—are brought under control, which bodes very well for our relationship in the years to come.
However, there is no doubt that Ghana—and the whole of west Africa—faces challenges, including opaque business practices; a lack of transparency in the tax and investment regimes; and sometimes a lack of consistency in the application of the law across the country. As my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend East pointed out, there are huge challenges around customs. If the first experience of a business, or a country such as the United Kingdom, coming into Ghana or west Africa involves huge challenges in just getting its goods and services through the port, it can act as a massive deterrent. I am glad that the incoming Administration will focus on resolving that. There is also an issue if one cannot be confident of one’s intellectual property rights or ownership rights of land. That has been a challenge in Ghana, and I hope it will be tackled, with some support from the UK Government, in the not-too-distant future.
I do not want to be down in this debate; I actually smile when I think about the Ghanaian election result. A peaceful transition of power—not even a wobble—in an African state is a tremendous achievement. The chair of the Electoral Commission of Ghana must be thanked for declaring the result as soon as it became clear, as must all participating parties. The UK played a role in helping to make sure that the election ran smoothly, and all of the international observers during the transition should also be thanked.
Let us look at the opportunities. There is no doubt that a stable, democratic set-up creates business stability, and an environment in which UK and other overseas businesses are prepared to trade, with the certainty that no sudden change in leadership will occur. So we have huge opportunities on national security and opportunities to continue to work with the Ghanaian people on visa fraud and issues that relate to visas. We also have an opportunity to support Ghana in its transition to becoming a more accountable state for its people and more transparent and visible in its business practices and institutions. Above all, we have a huge opportunity—putting our selfish hat on—to massively boost and increase our trade with Ghana.
Ghanaians are completely open to us. They are English-speaking. They have the same language and the same common law legal system. They are anglophiles. Almost every Ghanaian President has been educated in and has strong connections with Britain. It was very clear from the incoming President’s inaugural speech that he fully intends to work with the United Kingdom on trade. Furthermore, we were pretty much the only country to have an audience with the President on his first day in office. That says a lot about the relationship and good will that we enjoy between our countries and it says a lot about the opportunities in Ghana and the certainty with which British companies can operate there.
UK Export Finance made its first direct loan to GE Oil & Gas for 100 MW of electricity generation. Lonrho in the UK has a major interest in the Atuabo free port. If the free port proceeds, which I very much hope it does—I am pushing for it—it will be one of the most magnificent, effective and efficient free ports in the whole of Africa. It can revolutionise how the whole of west Africa works, including the way in which goods and services are accessed and oil and gas transported.
We have huge interests in hospitals, but I want to highlight one area: professional services. Often in Ghana there may be a lack of capital to invest in partnerships in Ghanaian businesses and also sometimes a lack of the professional expertise that is required for Ghanaians to help themselves by starting their own businesses and making a success of them. That is where Britain comes into play, because we have tremendous experience in financial technology services and in banking, professional, legal, consulting, mining and bridge-building services. We are well placed to assist Ghana in its development in the new dawn of its existence. Also, we could assist ourselves in terms of our export goals and the connections we wish to make around the world.
It strikes me that Ghana is a prime opportunity for the United Kingdom’s new outward-looking international profile, which looks to be integrated with the rest of the world as we begin to adapt our relationship with the European Union. Ghana should be right at the top of the list when it comes to looking at free trade arrangements. There is an open door there. The Ghanaian people are very comfortable with Britain: so comfortable that perhaps up to 500,000 of the Ghanaian diaspora are British citizens now. There is a depth of good will on which to draw between the two nations.
When I was appointed as the trade envoy to Ghana by the Prime Minster, I was delighted because I feel I embody the relationship with Ghana. Having a father from Ghana and a mother from Britain, it is as though our relationship is embodied within my very soul. We have a great opportunity to really get ahead in striking free trade arrangements and working out our new relationships with developing nations once we are free of the customs union and European Union strictures.
I have visited many other parts of west Africa, including Guinea, and I will make an observation to back up what my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend East has said. We often say that the francophone countries, the ex-French colonies, play second fiddle when it comes to dealing with the United Kingdom. From my experience of speaking to the President of Guinea and several other leaders in west Africa, it is exactly the opposite. We have a huge opportunity with French-speaking countries. Let me put it this way. Their detachment from the colonial past with France means that they are very keen to get rid of that history and to join in the English-speaking world, the anglosphere. So I put it to the Minister that we should make efforts to reach out to ex-French colonies across Africa because they are so keen to ensure that they create that relationship with the United Kingdom. They recognise that English is the international language of business and they really want to connect with us. Often in my conversations—quite unguarded among some African leaders—many of them are clear that they want to make English their official language. They get upset when ministerial visits are paid to English-speaking African countries and French-speaking countries often play second fiddle. So there is a huge opportunity there as well to form strong and deep connections with former French colonies.
There are also opportunities in terms of charitable activities and skills, training and transfers to Ghana and other parts of west Africa. A fantastic organisation called Field Ready sets up schemes in technical colleges and universities in Africa, primarily in Ghana, through which 10, 20 or 30 highly skilled Ghanaian students are given placements in the oil and gas industry. Not only are they thankful and warm towards the United Kingdom when they take up the placements, but they ensure a deep well of good will on which to draw in future. Putting down indigenous roots where students and young people are friendly with the United Kingdom in some of the most important industries in which we operate, particularly the oil and gas industry in Scotland, is a really solid part of providing not aid, but trade, skills and training that enable Ghanaians to lift their own living standards with our support.
I thank the Minister for agreeing to come to Ghana in the not-too-distant future for the 60th anniversary. I have two asks: please let us put Ghana and west African states at the top of the free trade agenda in negotiations, and let us welcome those nations as proper partners and allies in the fight against terror and in the pursuit of national security. Let us welcome them as equals in our outlook on the world, which now recognises that it is trade and business that lift all the boats, not just aid. Finally, the Ghanaian President has said he does not want Ghana to be seen as an aid recipient. He wants it to be seen as a trade recipient, and that is something we must focus on.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Rochford and Southend East (James Duddridge) on presenting an excellent debate for us all to participate in. Excellent speeches have already been made. It is great to make a contribution, especially in the light of my role as chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on international freedom of religion or belief. As the Minister and shadow Minister know, I take a human and moral standpoint when it comes to foreign aid, especially when it comes to religious freedom and religious liberties, issues that are regularly in my postbag in my constituency. Other Members I have spoken to tell me the same.
It is well documented that UK relations with west African countries are different with each individual country. Our influence waxes and wanes, so policies and aid vary according to the needs of the people who live there. As different and multicultural as they are, they all have one thing in common: they rely on our aid, support and assistance. We must ask ourselves whether we are effectively exerting our influence to bring substantial and lasting change to those nations, or simply handing out plasters in a situation that calls for surgery at the highest level.
Hon. Members have asked how our foreign aid will be affected by Brexit. How will it impact on our efforts with economic development and clean water? Some of the churches in my constituency of Strangford are directly involved in such aid. How will Brexit impact on stability in west Africa? How much protection and assistance will the Christian Church get from the UK Government in countries threatened with Islamic extremism and persecution?
One of the main west African recipients of aid in the financial year 2016-17 is Nigeria, which is getting some £306 million. It has a population of 160 million, more than 100 million of whom live on less than £1 a day. The main aims of our Government are to provide help with better services—education and health care—and we do some excellent work. The Library background information outlines some of what we do. Another aim is the establishment of an enabling Government who tackle corruption and enhance transparency and accountability. Corruption is a key issue, to which the hon. Member for Rochford and Southend East referred. How many of the aims have not been reached? Recently UNICEF researchers and workers in northern Nigeria have spoken of the worst situation of hunger in the world. We cannot ignore that.
More than 3 million people in the region have been forced out of their homes, and aid agencies can reach many of the refugee camps only by helicopter. Oxfam workers accuse the army of doing nothing instead of securing access roads for aid agencies. As to Ministry of Defence and British forces assistance to the Nigerian army, we clearly have a commitment through the MOD and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. The RAF regiment is also there assisting the army in training. However, we must ask why the roads are not being cleared and made accessible for aid. If 3 million people are starving, why is the Nigerian army not doing what it is tasked to do, and what it has been trained to do by our Army? Are we doing enough to provide for the people there? Is there any way to get the Nigerian Government to do more?
There have been small successes since Muhammadu Buhari became president in 2015, with Boko Haram being pushed back from occupied territories in northern parts, but despite his intention to fight Boko Haram, he has seemed reluctant to respond to continued violence against the Christian population in the middle belt of Nigeria. In October more than 40 people were massacred in cold blood by Fulani herdsmen, for no other reason than that they were Christians. There is something seriously wrong when those things become small print in the papers, or we do not know about them at all. What advice or assistance has the Minister been able to give Nigeria with a view to helping our brethren? If he is not able to outline that in his response, I should be more than happy to have a letter from him to confirm that. It pains me as a Christian to hear that more than 12,000 Christians have been murdered, and more than 2,000 churches destroyed, by Islamic terrorism. It appears that little has been done to influence Nigeria by our Government or international bodies. The question must be asked: what are we doing? Is it enough, and are we doing it in the right way? Is our influence starting to take effect?
Islamic terrorism is not confined to Nigeria. There have been instances in other west African countries, such as Mali. Like other west African states, it has a poor standard of living, with 50% of its people living on less than £1.50 a day. To put that in perspective, that is less than we would unthinkingly spend on a cup of coffee. We do not give as much funding to Mali, but there is a need for that, especially given the threat of Islamic extremism. The 2012 Tuareg rebellion in the north severely weakened civil liberties and restricted the political rights of many people in the country. After the joint French and Malian military intervention the country has looked more stable; however, the small Christian population is still living in fear in Mali. What are we doing to assist them and give them succour?
We can see at first hand the destruction and the violent nature of radical Islam. Last week a bomb attack by al-Qaeda in the city of Gao killed 77 people and injured hundreds more. Were Members aware of that? It is a reflection on us all—including myself—if we do not know about such things taking place, and about what is happening in Mali. As to its relationship with France, will there now be a joint effort to support France in ridding Mali of al-Qaeda influence and stabilising the country?
I want to congratulate the aid workers, charities, churches, doctors and nurses and everyone involved in making Sierra Leone Ebola-free as of January 2016. What good news that was, and what a response there was from our Government as part of the plan. The country has a population of only 5.75 million, and more than half of the people live on less than £1.50 a day. With the state completely ravaged by Ebola, we know that a lot of work is needed to begin to get the country back on its feet socially and financially. As the Minister knows, British Army personnel have been there, as have aid workers; and we have given direct assistance. The Library note explains what has been done practically, and it is good news.
Our aim is to improve the education system, especially by giving more encouragement to girls, children with disabilities and the most marginalised in society; to support the private sector, particularly small and medium-sized enterprises—again in practical ways; and to help to tackle corruption through the innovative “pay no bribe” programme. Such practical changes are good steps forward. However, in the past week the news has been released that millions of dollars in funds to fight the Ebola virus have not been accounted for. Where did that money go? I would like to know what the Government have done about requesting an independent inquiry into where the funds we allocated have gone. How many lives could have been saved with the money that went missing? We need to get feet on the ground to source the misappropriated money, and help the relevant state institutions to hold those who were involved to account.
I want to mention the question of Yahya Jammeh, the former leader of Gambia—whose name probably sounds wrong pronounced in my Ulster Scots accent. Although he has finally been disposed of—boy, is that good news—after losing the election to Adama Barrow, I believe that there should be an international investigation into the war crimes of Mr Jammeh. After 22 years of holding office he has left the country in controversial circumstances, with accusations of embezzling some £8.8 million, which equates to what the country requires to pay for the civil service for a year. The hon. Member for Windsor (Adam Afriyie) said that he has gone to Nigeria, although I am not sure whether that is true.
Last week I met some London-based members of the United Democratic party of Gambia. They were desperately worried about what would happen: would the inauguration go ahead; would the new president be able to come to Gambia at all? They said they expected some bloodshed, but there was not any. We should pay tribute to African leaders, people and politicians, for sorting things out for themselves. Often other countries come into such situations; yes, they do it to help, but the situation is seen as one where the people cannot do it themselves. However, in this case they have done it themselves. Will the hon. Gentleman join me in wishing them all the best for a peaceful transition to democracy?
Yes, I wholeheartedly agree with the hon. Lady and I think that everyone in the House would subscribe to the change that has taken place; it is tremendously good news that Gambians did that themselves.
Mr Jammeh has been accused of human rights abuses such as torture, disappearances, unlawful imprisonments and massacres, and it seems that he thinks he can get off by disappearing. I plead with the Government to join forces with the UN and hold Mr Jammeh accountable for his crimes. The Economic Community of West African States has been a successful project to improve the finances and infrastructure of west African countries. As a developed state we need to encourage and develop ECOWAS so that in the future it can develop those countries; they can then lead the way for other African states, as the hon. Member for Glasgow North East (Anne McLaughlin) said in her intervention.
I hope that in response to today’s debate the Government will see the need not only to protect the people of west Africa from radical Islam but to give them the impetus to develop their nations socially, financially and politically. It will be a positive move forward if we can engender that; if we can enable them to do it, and encourage them. Those nations can then give themselves the future they want and deserve. The old adage applies, about giving a man a fish or a net. I want to be sure that we are providing nets—I am sure that the Minister will respond that we are—and that they are being used to provide a future for the people of the countries in question rather than hammocks for a corrupt leadership. Let us hope that we can make that change.
We must do what we can, and ensure that what we do is used for the correct purpose. I believe that the FCO, embassies and ambassadors, and the Minister in particular, have a major role to play, and that that has a bearing on the influence of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and on our role in effecting change in the western region of Africa. It has been a pleasure to speak in the debate; it was an opportunity to speak for those who cannot speak for themselves.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr McCabe. I congratulate the hon. Member for Rochford and Southend East (James Duddridge) on securing this timely and consensual debate, which is perhaps appropriate on Burns night when we celebrate Scotland’s great humanitarian. He was an opponent of the slave trade on the west coast of Africa, which was an historic centre of that trade. In “The Slave’s Lament”, he wrote:
“It was in sweet Senegal that my foes did me enthral,
For the lands of Virginia—ginia, O:
Torn from that lovely shore and must never see it more;
And alas! I am weary, weary O.”
Will my hon. Friend give way?
My hon. Friend may feel free to interrupt Robbie Burns.
I was interrupting only to say that—as you will know, as a Scot, Mr McCabe—it is better to sing it if my hon. Friend wants to.
Fortunately, and to the benefit of the House, I would be ruled out of order if I attempted to sing.
My point is that the slave in Burns’s poem had no choice but to be weary. On the other hand, we have to choose not to be, seize ourselves of the injustices that still exist in that part of the world and do what we can to challenge them. As the hon. Member for Rochford and Southend East said, that region does not always get the attention it deserves for a range of historical reasons, so it is good that we have had this opportunity. As has happened in other recent debates about other regions of Africa, the definition always stretches a little when Members want to mention specific countries. I want to reflect on some of the countries that have been mentioned and then some of the regional challenges and opportunities that the Government can respond to.
Ghana was the clear focus of the hon. Members for Rochford and Southend East and for Windsor (Adam Afriyie). Like everyone else, we welcomed the peaceful transition of power and congratulate President Nana Akufo-Addo on his election and John Mahama on standing down. There is sometimes an issue across the continent with big-man politics, but the real measure of a man in such situations should be the willingness to accept the result of a democratic election and to hand over the baton with good grace.
I always associate Ghana with fair trade chocolate. Trade, customs and so on were raised by both hon. Gentlemen and the countries’ economic potential came through clearly in their speeches. Free trade is important and, hopefully, will allow countries to become less dependent on aid, but free trade must also be fair trade; the principles behind the fair trade movement are exceptionally important.
The hon. Member for Rochford and Southend East touched on Morocco and its access to the African Union. I may say a bit more about the AU and the Côte d’Ivoire as a beacon for growth.
Gambia has been in the news a lot recently, as we heard from all hon. Members. It was a bit of a rollercoaster: when I first saw that this debate had been scheduled, I thought we would be calling for action and asking what we could do, but there now seems to have been a peaceful transition. As my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North East (Anne McLaughlin) said, people are experiencing some hope, although there are concerns about Jammeh’s legacy, not least the reported theft of cash and goods.
The situation in Nigeria was touched on powerfully by my hon. Friend the Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron). The size of the country and its challenges are vast, but so too are the opportunities. The ongoing instability in the north-east and the continuing threats from Boko Haram need to be addressed in any way we can. The “Bring Back Our Girls” campaign continues after two years.
I pay tribute to all the expat and diaspora communities from west Africa that enrich and enliven so many of our cities and towns, not least in Glasgow. There is a large contingent of Nigerian priests in Glasgow; I remember attending a service to pray for girls who had been kidnapped. Every name was read out by Father Thaddeus Umaru, who was one of my parish priests at the time. It was incredibly moving, and to think that those girls are still imprisoned and displaced is dreadfully worrying.
Displacement continues across the country. Over 2 million people have been displaced; the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) spoke about the level of hunger. That shows the challenge to middle income countries and the real inequalities that can exist, which is why making sure the appropriate support is provided in a range of different ways, whether through the Department for International Development, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office or different sorts of trade, is important.
That brings me to issues ranging across the whole region and the continent as a whole. The hon. Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy) touched on health in his intervention and the former Minister, the hon. Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter), raised the challenge of TB, malaria and other neglected diseases.
In the transition to middle income status, Nigeria, Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire are all listed by the World Bank as lower middle income countries, but that is perhaps the most precarious situation because of the risk of backsliding. That is why the role for regional co-operation is so important. Both the regional blocs and ECOWAS, as has been mentioned a couple of times, have played important roles in intervening in the different instabilities we have heard about.
The African Union as a whole is where there may be a bit of divergence because we have taken quite a step by choosing not to be part of the European Union and that diplomatic bloc. I am not sure quite what message that sends out. We must be sure that regional bodies do not encourage countries sometimes to hold their neighbours to a slightly higher standard than they want. It would be interesting to hear some of the Minister’s reflections on that. The hon. Member for Rochford and Southend East was right to talk about the importance of the UK’s diplomatic influence and the various different kinds of soft power.
DFID’s role was discussed recently in a debate in the main Chamber about the Great Lakes region; I was pleased to hear the Minister commit so strongly to the 0.7% target. It is important to reiterate that at every opportunity. It is ultimately in our own interests to halt flows of people. If we want to improve stability in these countries, it makes sense to invest in stability and civil society. The hon. Member for Strangford has a debate here tomorrow on civil society, when we can explore some of the issues in more detail.
Finally, the impact of Brexit and trade deals have been a big focus of the debate and are important. As I said at the beginning, they must be fair trade deals as well as free trade deals. It is important that any deals reflect the range of human rights commitments that the UK and, hopefully, many of these countries are signed up to and that they take account of climate change and emissions reduction.
When preparing for the debate, I read an interesting piece about regional co-operation to reduce the harmful emissions of diesel that is sold into many west African countries. Action is being taken to tackle climate change, but we must also tackle the pollution of air quality and the impact on health on many people’s day-to-day lives. Again, it is encouraging to see such developments. I hope the Government will commit to continuing to take them forward.
The slave in Burns’s lament had no choice but to be weary, but we cannot allow ourselves to be. Much of the situation in west Africa and the continent is the result not just of historical decisions, but of present day ones made in this part of the world. If we can continue to show the compassion and solidarity that Burns promoted, perhaps there will be less lamenting and more cause for celebration the world over.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr McCabe. I thank the hon. Member for Rochford and Southend East (James Duddridge) for raising the debate, and for his excellent and wide-ranging introduction to the subject. I know this area is of great interest to him, given his previous role in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) and to sum up in this debate, which has covered a wide range of issues. We have spoken about DFID and our aid, notably mentioned by the hon. Members for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron). We have talked about healthcare, touching on malaria, TB and Ebola. We have also discussed elections, democracy, Governments and corruption. The hon. Member for Rochford and Southend East—or, as I will always think of him now, the guy who stocked the shelves at Bejam—spoke at length about the various elections, notably the successful election in Gambia. I will move on to discuss that country. We also had an excellent talk on business and trade, with specific reference to Ghana, from the hon. Member for Windsor (Adam Afriyie). I look forward to hearing the Minister’s responses to those discussions.
A major issue in the region of west Africa is terrorism, which some hon. Members touched on. West Africa has seen a rise in radical activity. Boko Haram is seen as the biggest threat to security and peace in the region—mainly in the Lake Chad Basin region, including Nigeria and Niger, although its presence has recently reached into Senegal. Boko Haram is estimated to be linked to more than 150 deaths from direct violent activity since the beginning of 2016. It has also contributed to a rise in food insecurity, with threats to the security of agricultural land and livelihoods, displacement of farmers and reduced productivity.
The United Nations reported only last month that 400,000 children were on the brink of starvation owing to Boko Haram’s actions. Even worse, it said that 75,000 of them could die from hunger within the next few months. Last week, the United Nations called on
“the international community to immediately support the provision of urgent humanitarian assistance”.
The region also has an al-Qaeda presence in the Islamic Maghreb. It launched an attack in Mali last November and attacks in Burkina Faso and Ivory Coast just this month.
Earlier this month, the Secretary of State for Defence announced the training of UK armed forces alongside Sierra Leonean troops. That is in addition to the more than 350 British troops deployed to Nigeria in 2016 to train Nigerian armed forces fighting Boko Haram. Are the Government in further talks with west African nations to deploy troops in that region? If so, could the Minister tell us where and how many?
Other factors, outside terrorism, have cost thousands of lives in previous years. The region’s resilience was tested during the outbreak of Ebola that began in 2013. The Ebola virus swept across Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea, claiming tens of thousands of lives. That could have been a pandemic, but the international community’s action and contributions, including £427 million provided by the UK, stopped the escalation.
I recently visited Sierra Leone myself and saw a country that was struggling, although it was declared Ebola-free on 17 March 2016. I must praise the UK Government’s response and contribution to helping to ensure that that was possible. That highlights the importance of retaining our commitment to spend 0.7% of our gross national income on aid every year and our substantial contribution to the European development fund. Can the Minister outline whether the UK will contribute an amount equivalent to that which we currently give the region through the EDF once we have left the European Union?
Given the severity of a disease such as Ebola and the pace at which it can spread, I want to press the Minister on what the Government have learned from the Ebola crisis. What additional measures and apparatus do the Government need to put in place so that, should another outbreak like that occur, they would be better equipped to deal with the emergency?
Last week, as many hon. Members have said, President Adama Barrow was sworn in as President of Gambia. I am sure that the whole House welcomes his succession. Yesterday, we also welcomed his vice-president, Fatoumata Tambajang, to her role in the new Administration. I am pleased to see a woman in such an important role. However, it seems that objections are now being raised because Fatoumata is 67 years old. Apparently, in Gambia, that is two years over the legal maximum for serving in the post. I can only say that it is fortunate for us in the UK that we do not have such a rule here—we would be having several by-elections.
There are obviously issues still to be resolved in Gambia, but what has just happened there has been seen as a huge success story for Africa, and it could be a turning point for Gambia itself. This is the first time since becoming independent, which happened only in 1965, that Gambia has changed its Government through the election system. That continues on from successful and peaceful elections and the transfer of power in Ghana last December and in Nigeria and Burkina Faso in 2015, showing progress and hope for democracies across the continent.
In Gambia, not only has democracy prevailed but the intervention of neighbouring and international organisations has helped to install President Barrow in high office. The African Union, historically hesitant to criticise its own members on human rights issues and abuses, worked tirelessly, hand in hand with the Economic Community of West African States, to ensure that the election results were upheld. Both the AU and ECOWAS are to be commended for their diplomatic handling of the situation and the eventual military commitment and pressure to force the removal of Yahya Jammeh.
The work of the UN, its Security Council, the United States, the European Union and the Organisation of Islamic Co-operation has also played an integral role in condemning the former President to exile. Jammeh was a dictator: he had ruled, repressed and brutalised his people for 22 years, after seizing power in a military coup in 1994. His time in power saw constant human rights abuses, including thousands of forced disappearances, and arbitrary detention and torture for any political dissenters. However, the time for reconciliation has begun, with President Barrow’s commitment to release all political prisoners.
President Barrow has also been working with the Senegalese authorities to repatriate the 45,000 Gambian refugees who fled in the wake of the troubles. I ask the Minister whether there will be additional assistance for those wishing to resettle in their homeland, given the unique circumstances and the need to help reunification to happen.
As many will know, President Barrow lived, worked and studied here in the UK. That presents the UK with a distinctive opportunity. Over the weekend, President Barrow stated:
“There is a strong tie with Britain and Gambia”.
He also stated that he wanted a return for Gambia to the International Criminal Court and the Commonwealth. The Labour party strongly supports that, and I hope that it has cross-party support as well.
With regard to a future trade agreement, the President could not be any clearer, stating:
“Any aspects that’s going on in Gambia, Britain will be our number one partner in terms of trade, in terms of democracy, in terms of good governance. They will be our partners.”
I know that the Minister and the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs have spoken directly to President Barrow, but could the hon. Gentleman inform the House of when the first UK representative from Her Majesty’s Government will go to Gambia to meet the new Administration?
That brings me to the Prime Minister’s trade envoys. I accept that this does not fall directly within the Foreign Office’s remit, but it will play an integral part in our future relations with the region, diplomatically and economically, now and post Brexit. There is currently only one trade envoy programme to the west African region, which is to Ghana and is headed by the hon. Member for Windsor, who visited earlier this month. Will the Minister outline the current and future plan for that particular programme and whether the Government will commit more envoys to the region to strengthen our ties with it, given the importance that it will have in the upcoming years? That is important, given our historic links and aid contribution. The ECOWAS commission represents 350 million citizens and is moving towards further regional integration through a common political, security and socioeconomic agenda.
Although the news from Gambia is welcome, the region still faces many challenges, including security challenges, inherent poverty, terrorism, the refugee crisis, lack of sustainable healthcare, famine, piracy off its shores, female genital mutilation and human and drug trafficking, plus other transnational organised crimes. Many of those issues have been highlighted here today.
Progress can be slow, yet Britain can continue to work together and towards strengthening the institutions that we take for granted, through our commitment to aid, opening markets by way of trade and using our soft power of diplomacy—not to mention our premiership football teams—which will contribute to working towards strong and lasting ties between the UK and a peaceful and economically prosperous western Africa.
It is a pleasure to work under your chairmanship, Mr McCabe. I join others in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend East (James Duddridge) on a commanding performance. When I first saw that I was going to take over the responsibility he looked after so well, I realised that I had big shoes to fill. He has reflected that in his articulation, understanding and grasp of the matters not only in west Africa but right across that amazing continent. I thank him for his contribution today, and thank other hon. Members. This has been a comprehensive, wide-ranging and very useful debate. As usual, I have a few minutes in which to answer a deluge of questions. I am simply not going to be able to do justice to hon. Members and will write to them with more details if I am not able to cover those points in my closing remarks.
First, to focus on my hon. Friend’s opening remarks, he praised the work of the posts—of our high commissions and embassies—not only across Africa but across the piece in the Foreign Office. We certainly punch above our weight. I pay tribute to them and join him, and all hon. Members in the Chamber today, in praising the leadership that is shown in representing Britain not only from a trade and diplomatic perspective, but from a security and military perspective. We are very proud of what they do. They are the unsung heroes. I hope any delegation that goes out, or any parliamentary visit that takes place, will benefit from the knowledge, experience and friendship that is bestowed at our posts across the world and in Africa.
My hon. Friend stressed the importance of the crisis centre. I thank him very much indeed for complimenting me on my Twitter feed. I hope, simply because of the number of people who watch Westminster Hall debates, that the number of followers I have will double after his congratulations. The work of the crisis centre is critical in ensuring that we look after Britons abroad when there is uncertainty in any part of the world. For those who are unfamiliar with it, it is a huge area in the basement of the Foreign Office that gets taken over with all sorts of important feeds, linking into other organisations and posts so that we can keep track, provide relevant information and, not least, communicate with the travel authorities. We can provide important information so that, if there is a requirement for repatriation or health issues or others, we can deal with them with a sense of urgency. It was used in regards to Sousse and other events, and was mobilised for the Gambian political dilemma as well.
My hon. Friend underlined the importance of Africa as a nation. It is envisaged that, in 2050, it will be one quarter of the world’s population, so the continent is important to us. As many hon. Members have outlined, we have a history and relationship with it; we have connections and we should certainly take advantage of them. The World Bank states that Africa as a whole will need to create 18 million jobs every single year. We need to be part of that story, and we have a very good part to play. Other connections have been made such as cultural links and connections with the diasporas in this country. Soft power was mentioned, and we can take advantage of that in developing the important bonds that will help the continent, and certainly west Africa, as it takes important steps to an improved democratic space.
My hon. Friend mentioned the opportunities of Brexit. As the Prime Minister has articulated, it is not us looking inward but quite the opposite. It is us saying that we do not have to go through the prism of working with 27 nations in Brussels, but can have direct relationships and direct trade opportunities with countries, including those in west Africa.
My hon. Friend and others praised the work we did for the continent in tackling Ebola. That is a great example, stepping outside the EU, of how a coalition of the willing—a coalition of those countries that are able and committed to doing something good—stepped forward and helped a part of Africa that needed our support. It is absolutely right to praise all those involved, as the hon. Member for Heywood and Middleton (Liz McInnes), the spokeswoman for Labour, did in heaping praise on what we did there. Yes, there are lessons to be learned, because this is likely to reoccur again—we need to be prepared for some form of illness or plague.
My hon. Friend asked about the importance of the Commonwealth meeting. It is a great trading opportunity. He knows that we will host the next event in spring. It is a great opportunity for us to embark on and enhance the trading relationships we have with our African friends.
My hon. Friend asked about the Trump Administration. We are all asking that question. What I can say is that the deputy Secretary of State, Tom Shannon, had the job under the previous Administration. He had responsibility for Africa and the middle east, mimicking my entire footprint, and continues in that role. Terrorism is a huge concern in Africa, not least with Boko Haram in Nigeria and al-Shabaab in Somalia. Brett McGurk will continue to lead the counter-Daesh coalition, which will expand its work to look at how it can use the experience it has gained to help countries tackle terrorism in Africa.
Boko Haram was mentioned by the hon. Members for Heywood and Middleton, for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron). When I visited Nigeria, I had the opportunity to meet people from the “Bring Back Our Girls” campaign. There is no doubt that the impact of Boko Haram cannot be over-exaggerated. We estimate that, since 2009, 20,000 people have been killed, more than 2.2 million people have been displaced and more than 15 million people have been affected by the Boko Haram insurgency. The problem is that, in the north-east of the country, access is very limited, the roads are very poor and security is very difficult to enforce. Some of the programmes we are looking at are to improve the infrastructure so that the security can work there. We have more than 350 personnel training intelligence and helping military forces, so that the Nigerians can provide better security for that area. The humanitarian disaster is huge, which is why we have a number of DFID programmes working to try to help the situation.
My hon. Friend the Member for Windsor (Adam Afriyie) articulated very powerfully his knowledge and passion for Ghana and his role of trade envoy. I thank him and others for the important role that envoys play. They provide continuity and a steady drumbeat of visits, which Ministers cannot always get out to do. I thank him for the work he has done in Ghana and am pleased to be joining him to visit the country very soon.
My hon. Friend stressed the role of business. It is absolutely right that we work to ensure that Ministers not only go out, but take businesses with us as well. He also talked about the connections and diasporas in Britain, and touched on the Francophone countries. It is important that we do not simply see the region as the French domain, but as one that we can go into. The British Council does amazing work teaching English—there is desire for that right across Africa, regardless of the historical connections.
The hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady), the spokesperson for the Scottish National party, spoke about the importance of continuing that commitment of 0.7% in our aid budget. I confirm again that that is certainly our intention and is very important indeed. He touched on something that is not perhaps particularly appreciated: the impact of climate change on Africa in causing what we might call environmental refugee movements—people are having to move because they can no longer grow crops in certain areas because the climate has changed and it is no longer sustainable. We need to focus on that, too.
In the short time I have left, I should say that we are seeing a slight change in west Africa in places such as the Gambia and Ghana, where elections have taken place. There is a recognition that constitutions must be honoured. No longer is it the case—this is not just in Africa but around the world, although there are many examples in Africa—that, when a leader gets used to power, they find reason, cause and excuse to alter the constitution so that they can continue in perpetuity, until such time that they get tired and work out a way of getting their son or daughter to take over. What we saw in the Gambia and neighbouring nations—this point was made in a fairly lengthy, but pertinent intervention—was them saying that they were looking to solve their own problems. We wish President Barrow every success. I was pleased to be able to make that phone call, although I have to say that was prior to President Jammeh saying that he was not going to recognise him. I am pleased that we already have that bond with the country and look forward to visiting.
I am not even going to touch on some of the other countries, but will certainly write to hon. Members with more details on their specific questions. I will simply end by saying that west Africa is a huge and diverse region. People are enjoying stability and growing prosperity, but in other countries, leaders continue to face considerable challenges. What we see right across the whole region is the enormous potential of those countries and their people. It is in our interests and theirs that we work together and help them to realise that potential. That is why we continue to support west African countries’ efforts to deliver peace, stability and democracy.
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
Milton Keynes: 50th Anniversary
[Albert Owen in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the 50th anniversary of the new city of Milton Keynes.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Owen.
I am grateful for the opportunity to mark the golden anniversary of the place that the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes North (Mark Lancaster), and I are so proud to represent. I am also very pleased that he is able to respond to this debate as the Minister.
The new city of Milton Keynes came into being in this place on 23 January 1967, through an Order in Council, so it is right that we mark the milestone in this place, too. It was also the year that the first North sea gas was piped ashore, the year that the Boeing 737 took its maiden flight, the year of the six-day war, the year the first automated cash machine was introduced, and the year that Sandie Shaw entered Eurovision for the UK.
And there was a very good Government.
I make no comment on that.
Nineteen sixty-seven was also the year when a round of preparatory negotiations started for the UK to join the European Economic Community. It was also the year when a bold decision was taken to construct a new city in north Buckinghamshire, with a vision of a population of around 250,000 souls. That is not to say that nobody lived in the area that is now Milton Keynes prior to its designation as a new city. Far from it—Milton Keynes was built around long-established towns, such as Stony Stratford, Wolverton, Newport Pagnell, Bletchley, Fenny Stratford, Woburn Sands and Olney, together with a patchwork of rural north Buckinghamshire villages. Indeed, there is archaeological evidence of permanent settlement in the area that is now Milton Keynes dating back to the bronze age.
The name Milton Keynes is not new, either. Some people mistakenly believe that the name was made up, perhaps an amalgam of two 20th-century economists, Milton Friedman and John Maynard Keynes. In fact, the new city took its name from the village of Milton Keynes, which is in the heart of the borough and dates from the 11th century.
Part of the motivation behind the creation of Milton Keynes was to take overspill housing from existing large cities, principally London. Bletchley, prior to the designation of Milton Keynes as a new town, had taken such population since the 1950s. But the ambition for Milton Keynes was for so much more than that. Milton Keynes is equidistant from London, Birmingham, Leicester, Oxford and Cambridge, and has good transport links through the M1 and the west coast main line, so the intention was to create a dynamic regional centre in its own right, rather than a dormitory town for other places.
I contend that we have more than fulfilled that ambition and that we have been the most successful of the new towns. The raw socio-economic data show that we have exceeded all targets for population, physical space and economic growth. We have regularly topped league tables for job creation and business start-ups, although that poses some challenges and opportunities for the future—I will touch on those a little later in my speech.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this welcome debate; I extend best wishes from the historic city of Oxford to Milton Keynes; and I look forward to the improved rail and road links between us, which we hope are on the way. May I also pass on the best wishes of his predecessor, my good friend Phyllis Starkey, who remains a firm friend of Milton Keynes and an advocate of its achievement and potential?
I am very grateful to the right hon. Member for Oxford East for that intervention and I shall certainly relay his kind good wishes to Milton Keynes. I will touch on the improved infrastructure links between Oxford, Milton Keynes and Cambridge, if I am allowed to refer to the “other place”, a little later in my speech.
I am very happy to pay tribute to my predecessor, Dr Starkey. We contested quite a number of elections over the years. She was victorious in the first two; I was victorious later on. Although Milton Keynes certainly has political competition at local authority level and parliamentary level, just like anywhere else, it always strikes me that, whatever our party political differences, politicians in Milton Keynes share a passion for the place and want to make it better. That is a very important political culture to have, and so I am very grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for mentioning my predecessor.
I will also mention my hon. Friend the Minister’s predecessor, Brian White, who sadly passed away last year. As a Member of Parliament, as a councillor and —for a year—as the mayor of Milton Keynes, he did an incredible amount of work to promote Milton Keynes and secure its growth.
As I was saying, if we look at the raw data we see that Milton Keynes has been an outstanding success, but at the heart of that success is something more significant than just the raw numbers. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister, my constituency neighbour, will agree that each weekend that we spend out in our constituencies meeting the charities, clubs and community groups, we find a real tangible passion for and pride in Milton Keynes, as well as strong aspirations for our future. Over the last couple of weeks in central Milton Keynes shopping centre, there has been an exhibition documenting our history and development. Talking to residents old and new at that exhibition, I found a deep and palpable sense of belonging and spirit.
I was not even a twinkle in my father’s eye when Milton Keynes came into being. However, having looked at the old films about Milton Keynes and its creation on social media, I know that if we look past the slightly questionable hair styles and clothing fashion of the age, we can see a real sense of excitement and hope among the first residents who moved in, particularly those who had moved from substandard accommodation in London. There was a real sense of optimism about the wonderful new housing that they were able to move into.
People feel incredibly loyal to Milton Keynes. I am glad that my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon) is in his place, because his father, Bill Benyon, was an exemplar of that loyalty. He is another of my predecessors and he represented Milton Keynes for more than 20 years. When he was first elected, it was to the old Buckingham constituency, which at that time included all of Milton Keynes. When population growth meant that the constituency was divided in two, which I think was for the 1983 election, Bill Benyon had the option of standing for the Buckingham seat, which is a very safe Conservative seat with a majority of more than 20,000, or Milton Keynes, which has a much more volatile political colouring. To his credit, he chose Milton Keynes, because he was so passionate about the place and had personally contributed to many of its projects. I was at the silver jubilee of the Christ the Cornerstone church just a couple of weeks ago, and I understand that Bill Benyon personally contributed to that church, helping to get it built. More than 25 years after he retired, I still meet constituents who fondly remember him and the incredible work he did. That is just one example of the passion and loyalty that Milton Keynes develops in its representatives and inhabitants.
At its core, I argue that the strong sense of community in Milton Keynes is born from the spirit of innovation that has always characterised the place. Milton Keynes was a new design, unlike any place before it. It brought together new concepts in urban planning and architecture. It was ahead of its time and drew on the garden cities tradition. It is a place of open green spaces and natural habitats. Often, in the heart of urban Milton Keynes, people enter a wood, park, meadow or a riverbank and find it hard to believe they are in the middle of a place with a population of more than 250,000 people.
Milton Keynes has also been home to pioneering new concepts, such as the first eco-houses and new models of education. One of the institutions in my constituency that I am most proud of is the Open University, which has innovated lifelong learning and is cherished the world over. It is not quite as old as Milton Keynes itself; it celebrates its golden anniversary in a couple of years’ time. It was founded in 1969, but the development of the Open University and Milton Keynes have gone hand in hand.
People have moved to Milton Keynes from all over the United Kingdom and all over the world. I came to Milton Keynes after university. My first job was there. When I decided on a political career as my aspiration, it was a natural place to seek election. It took me a few goes, as I mentioned in answer to the right hon. Member for Oxford East, but I chose to stand my ground. I could not think of anywhere else that I really wanted to represent.
Wherever people have come from, they share a sense of ownership of the new city. It is their place; they want to be part of building it up, and they have a passion for its future. We have a rich tapestry of cultures and faiths. While we must never be complacent, we do not have the same tensions between communities in Milton Keynes that sadly can exist in other towns and cities in the UK. Admittedly, we have our detractors. There are people who say that Milton Keynes is a dull, boring place, devoid of character and culture. My experience is that such comments usually come from people who have never visited or, if they have visited, have not taken a proper look at what we have to offer.
A place with no character and culture—really? Milton Keynes is rich in its creative and cultural dynamism, from grassroots art communities to historic Bletchley Park; from the UK’s most popular theatre outside London to Milton Keynes City Orchestra, which attracts world-renowned soloists such as the pianist Ji Liu, who will perform there in March; and from the drama of the rugby world cup, held at stadium mk, to the biennial international festival, which attracts performers and audiences from around the globe. We have more than 7,000 arts and heritage events held in Milton Keynes each year. We have stories of international cultural and historic importance, including code-breaking at Bletchley Park and John Newton writing “Amazing Grace” when he was a curate at Olney. We have music venues including The Stables and the National Bowl, which hosts once-in-a-generation performances from world leaders in music.
We are home to the Formula 1 team Red Bull Racing and are fast becoming a centre of excellence in the motorsport industry. In technology, we innovate some of the very latest ideas in intelligent mobility through the transport systems Catapult and the smart cities project, working in tandem with the Open University. We welcome delegations from around the world who want to learn about our story. Economically, we have a diverse and vibrant economy, from financial services to logistics and distribution and from high-quality engineering to rail industry management.
We have certainly had a vibrant and successful first half century, but what of the future? Having realised the original vision of Milton Keynes in its physical footprint and population size, what comes next? I believe we can enjoy an equally successful next half century, but only if we plan it properly. We cannot just rest on our laurels. Other parts of the country, such as the northern powerhouse and the midlands engine, are upping their game. Projects such as High Speed 2 will change the economic geography of the country, and we must be similarly ambitious for our future. We cannot just allow Milton Keynes to expand in an unplanned way, with more housing developments around our periphery. That would place too much strain on our infrastructure and public services and compromise the core design principles that have proven so successful. We must abide by our city motto: “By knowledge, design and understanding”. We have to plan properly with our neighbours.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on bringing forward this debate. As a near neighbour—I live in Wootton, so Milton Keynes is within touching distance and my family and I use it often—I bring the good wishes of Bedford Borough Council and Central Bedfordshire Council to the debate and to Milton Keynes. On looking forward and not losing sight of the original concept, does he agree that the environment in which Milton Keynes is set is very special? My wife and I had the pleasure of dinner some years ago with Evelyn de Rothschild, who was the vice-chairman of the Milton Keynes Development Corporation. We asked him what his greatest legacy was, and he said, “The trees.” The trees make the environment in which this vibrant city can look forward with great optimism.
I am grateful for that intervention from my right hon. Friend and near neighbour. I thank him for the good wishes from the people of Bedfordshire. He is absolutely right: the environmental benefits of Milton Keynes are enormous. I think I am right in saying that we have more trees per head of population than anywhere else in the country. That was one of the great foresights of the city’s founding fathers.
I am glad that my right hon. Friend intervened, because it leads me neatly on to talking about what I see as the next stage of Milton Keynes development. That includes the Oxford-Milton Keynes-Cambridge corridor that the National Infrastructure Commission is looking at and projects such as the east-west rail line, which the right hon. Member for Oxford East mentioned, and the Oxford-Cambridge expressway. I believe they will unlock considerable economic and housing development.
If that development is done in the right way—using the smart city and transport technology that we are innovating locally to develop new types of village communities that people want and not the massive urban sprawl that they fear—we will respect and improve on the basis on which Milton Keynes was founded. In doing so, we need to find a way to develop a new partnership between Milton Keynes and neighbouring authorities, such as Central Bedfordshire Council and Bedford Borough Council, to develop joint planning and delivery mechanisms. I know that my right hon. Friend is setting up an all-party group to look at the creation of the England economic heartland body, which will do a lot of important work in that space.
Last year in Milton Keynes we had the publication of the “MK Futures 2050” report, which was chaired by Sir Peter Gregson of Cranfield University. It presented a bold vision for our future, including the creation of MK:IT, a technical university modelled on the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the United States. That absolutely fits with the NIC’s plans and the Government’s industrial strategy, which was outlined earlier this week and will develop our skills base for the future. All those debates and initiatives are live, and I look forward to playing my part in shaping them. We have an incredibly bright future and many opportunities, but I conclude today simply by wishing my fellow residents in Milton Keynes a very happy birthday. I am proud to represent such a wonderful place, and I look forward to playing a part in its next half century.
I remind the Minister that the debate will finish at 4.41 pm. I offer my congratulations to Milton Keynes.
It is an absolute pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Owen. I start by congratulating my fellow MP for Milton Keynes, my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes South (Iain Stewart), on securing this debate at a timely point in the city’s development. I make it clear that I am speaking in this debate on behalf of the Government with the consent of my ministerial colleagues in the Department for Communities and Local Government, and that decisions on matters relating to Milton Keynes will be taken by others. I am, however, delighted to be present today to celebrate our successful new town, as a city, reaching its 50th anniversary.
I underline the praise by paying tribute to my predecessor as an MP, Brian White, who sadly died last year, and to the father of my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon), Sir Bill Benyon, who did so much in the early years of the creation of Milton Keynes. Milton Keynes has had some colourful MPs: Aidan Crawley was elected in 1945 as a Labour MP, but subsequently became a Conservative; Frank Markham followed him in 1951, another former Labour MP who became a Conservative; and, following them, the famous Robert Maxwell who, though elected as a Labour MP, did not become a Conservative.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes South and I both know, Milton Keynes continues to be one of Britain’s fastest-growing cities. It has produced exceptional talent, including London 2012 Olympic gold medallist Greg Rutherford; it set up the Open University in 1971, making higher education more accessible to everyone, regardless of geography; and it is the centre for transport technology in England, with the first trials of driverless cars taking place on Milton Keynes’s streets, and as the home of the transport Catapult centre.
Fifty years ago, permission was given to transform 8,500 hectares of villages and farmland into a town of 250,000 people, a new town. Milton Keynes has since become one of the most successful new towns in England. It has already reached its original target of 250,000 people, but it will not stop there. Provided we continue to follow Milton Keynes’s motto, “By knowledge, design and understanding”, which my hon. Friend cited, the future is bright.
Milton Keynes’s future will be as exciting as its past has been. In March 2016, the then Chancellor asked the National Infrastructure Commission to lead an inquiry into the potential of the arc from Oxford through Milton Keynes to Cambridge, as highlighted by my hon. Friend and the right hon. Member for Oxford East (Mr Smith). That corridor would support the already flourishing knowledge-intensive industries that exist in the area. The commission’s interim report was published last autumn, confirming the opportunity for prosperity and a high quality of life in the area.
My hon. Friend mentioned the commission that recently produced “MK Futures 2050”, which was chaired by Sir Peter Gregson. It worked with local partners to shape an ambitious vision and plan for Milton Keynes’s future. The plan seeks to drive growth and prosperity for Milton Keynes’s existing and future residents. The council is reflecting on how to bring the recommendations to life to the advantage of the city and its residents.
I am delighted that Milton Keynes remains a centre for growth. The Government have made it clear that an important part of their intention will be to increase housing supply for the next generation. We absolutely recognise that that needs to be done in a way that works for everyone and with the support of local residents. One of the ways in which the Government are doing that is by making significant changes. For example, planning policy has been radically streamlined and the planning system is now faster and more efficient, and we have given local people a much bigger say over new development in their area. Milton Keynes has a lot to offer in helping us to improve our systems and to ensure effective delivery, and it would not be right for the Government to do things alone.
The Government’s ambition is to work with all players—local authorities, residents and developers—to cement strong partnerships with clear roles and responsibilities in order to deliver more homes. It is important that we look at the lessons of the past. Milton Keynes has developed collaboratively and has a strong community base and mixed architecture to provide a city for the present and the future. We want more co-operation and shared intentions, so that local partners work more strategically with their neighbours to ensure that together they can meet the housing and community needs of their combined areas.
Milton Keynes is perhaps the pre-eminent example of what can be achieved by a development corporation with strong local leadership and a clear sense of purpose. Many students at school and university today will be studying the success of the city. My hon. Friend and I are, rightly, both very proud of that.
The “MK Futures 2050” report proposed six big new projects for Milton Keynes, the first of which was to be the hub of the Cambridge-Milton Keynes-Oxford arc, which we have already touched on, and to realise the arc’s full economic potential as a single knowledge-intensive cluster. Secondly, MK:IT, which my hon. Friend also touched on, will provide lifelong learning opportunities at a new university to promote research, teaching and practice, and realistic solutions to the problems facing fast-growing cities everywhere. Thirdly, “Learning 2050” could ensure that the city provides, and is known for providing, world-class education for all its young people. Fourthly, by harnessing the flexibility of the city’s roads, the “Smart, shared, sustainable mobility” project will allow everyone who lives, works, studies or does business in the city to move freely and on demand. Milton Keynes is very much a city built for the car. Fifthly, the “Renaissance” project in central Milton Keynes will recreate a city centre fit for the 21st century. Finally, the “Creative and cultured city” project will harness the energy and motivation of the city’s people.
As well as a growing population, strong economic growth is critical to the future success of our communities. My hon. Friend and I have both consistently argued that “i before e”—or “infrastructure before expansion”—and economic growth should be the drivers for our local growth in Milton Keynes. Just this week, the Prime Minister launched our industrial strategy Green Paper, which sets out our approach to developing a modern industrial strategy that improves living standards and economic growth by increasing productivity and driving growth across the whole country. We aim to establish an industrial policy for the long term and provide a policy framework against which major public and private sector investment decisions can be made with confidence, ensuring that our country’s success is accessible to everyone.
Having published our Green Paper, the Government want to hear from every part of the country, every sector of industry, businesses of every size, and the people who work in and use them. Milton Keynes can already celebrate successful businesses, including manufacturers such as the Coca-Cola Company and WD-40. The recipe for the latter is known by only six people. Milton Keynes is also the centre of the motor industry. The headquarters of Mercedes and Volkswagen are there, and much of the motor racing industry, including great racing teams such as Red Bull, is based in the city. There are many other businesses in the area, and long may that continue. I therefore ask everyone, both in Milton Keynes and beyond, to engage in this extremely important debate.
Significant investment is already being made to support growth across the country. More than £200 million of the local growth fund has been prioritised to date to support growth across the south-east midlands, and the Government expect to announce further investment in the area through the local growth fund shortly. Projects such as Bletchley station and the A421 improvements have also been supported by that fund. As a runner for European city of culture 2023—I am sure my hon. Friend and I would both very much like that to happen—the city is working with the local enterprise partnership to extend the wonderful MK Gallery, which he mentioned.
In autumn 2016, the National Infrastructure Commission published its interim report about the Oxford, Milton Keynes and Cambridge corridor. Its core finding was that housing supply is the main constraint on maximising the corridor’s growth potential. The Government supported all the recommendations in the report and announced £137 million of additional or accelerated funding to ensure the delivery of the east-west rail project and the Oxford to Cambridge expressway road. The Government are now working with partners across the corridor to ensure that the ambitions in the commission’s report are achieved with the most effective solutions. It is vital that all partners work collaboratively to secure the best future for the area.
In closing, I will touch on some of my hon. Friend’s remarks. Those who are unaware of Milton Keynes probably perceive it as simply a modern city. That is simply not the case. Some 75% of the borough of Milton Keynes is actually rural, and some 30,000 residents live in those rural areas, mainly in my constituency of Milton Keynes North. There is enormous heritage there, not only in the corner towns that my hon. Friend mentioned—Wolverton, Newport Pagnell, Bletchley and Stony Stratford—and my own home town of Olney, which was home to the original pancake race in 1415 and is the former home of William Cowper, the famous poet, and John Newton, the abolitionist and author of “Amazing Grace”, but in other great towns such as Hanslope, where the Church of St James has the tallest spire in Buckinghamshire, Castlethorpe, Emberton Park and Moulsoe, to name just a few. The great county town of Newport Pagnell, which was so key in the civil war, was of course the home of George Walters, one of our great residents, who won his Victoria Cross in the Crimean war.
As we celebrate 50 years of Milton Keynes and look forward to a bright future, it is worth remembering that there is tremendous heritage in the area, too. I congratulate my hon. Friend once again on securing this timely debate.
Question put and agreed to.
Green Investment Bank
As a result of the vote, I remind Members that the debate is an hour long and will finish at 5.41 pm. I shall call the Front-Bench speakers, beginning with the Scottish National party—I believe it is Ms Cherry—at 5.21 pm, for five minutes only, followed by Dr Whitehead, the Labour spokesperson, at 5.26 pm. At 5.31 pm, I shall call the Minister, who may want to give Ms Thomson a couple of minutes to finish.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the sale of the Green Investment Bank.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Owen; I have not done so previously. I have sought the debate as an independent MP—independent as to party and mind—in the light of considerable concerns raised about the proposed sale of the Green Investment Bank. I must signal my thanks to Macquarie and to the Minister for recent meetings. I look forward to another meeting with the Green Investment Bank tomorrow, and then another with the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee in the near future. Thanks are also due to the Environmental Audit Committee for the report of December 2015; to the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas), who tabled an urgent question; and to members of the quality press, such as Aimee Donnellan, for ensuring that the matter gets the scrutiny it deserves.
The Green Investment Bank is one of our success stories and has supported 30 green energy infrastructure projects up to the end of 2015-16. Profits were up to £9.9 million in the last year, and the bank committed £770 million to transactions during the 12 months of 2015-16, taking the total capital committed to £2.6 billion. The imperative of a green agenda remains, and our resolve must be increased in the light of President Trump’s threat to step back from previous Paris climate change commitments. Our ambition associated with a green agenda is high, particularly within the Scottish Government, but can the Minister confirm that Macquarie is the preferred bidder, or will he continue with the ridiculous pretence that he cannot mention its name?
Why sell, and why now? I want to make it clear that given my business background I understand why privatisation can be attractive to a business in terms of access to capital and to provide certainty as to future funding. I can also see why being released from state aid rules may be perceived as a benefit. On the other hand, I was struck when a Tory Member commented to me, while the right hon. Member for Tatton (Mr Osborne) was Chancellor of the Exchequer, “If it isn’t screwed down, sell it.” I am also struck by the fact that the Green Investment Bank does not expect to need to borrow until 2018-19. The report of the Environmental Audit Committee quotes evidence from E3G that
“the Government has failed to make a compelling case explaining the rationale behind, or consequences of its decision to sell a majority share of the GIB”.
So why now?
I would like the Minister to confirm whether any financial rewards will be given to the board, executive or senior team on a successful sale of the GIB. Will the chair, Lord Smith of Kelvin, remain in his post after the sale and, if so, for how long? The model of packaging up elements of a business for sale to release capital is well understood—I regard the use of the term “asset stripping” as somewhat emotive in this case—but the real point is that the UK taxpayer has provided the funds to bring it to where it is today, but it will not be the UK taxpayer who gets the return on investment.
It is clear from other privatisations that the UK taxpayer did not receive the value they should have done; I therefore question whether that can happen with the Green Investment Bank. The New Economics Foundation in its report “We Own It” notes concerns about future profits versus short-term cash in the continued great British sell-off, whether it is a question of losses incurred as a result of the Royal Mail privatisation or Eurostar. Can the Minister confirm whether full value will be obtained for the UK taxpayer on the sale?
I move on to some more specific considerations. The headquarters is currently located in Edinburgh, but it is not just the location of the brass plaque that marks the HQ—it is the functions of governance, legal services, risk and compliance, comms, finance and business development that really determine where that crucial control lies. The jobs associated with those functions tend to be higher quality. I will be monitoring closely to see whether jobs will be maintained and also whether the number will grow and their quality is maintained. Will the Minister confirm what guarantees he has obtained that the HQ will remain in Edinburgh? What assessment has he made of any proposed new structure and any potential impact on the quality of jobs and functions retained in Edinburgh?
State aid rules—the so-called additionality considerations —disallow projects that could be funded under conventional routes. That means that the projects funded tend to carry more risk but, if successful, more reward. I am concerned about the risk appetite of the bank after sale. A business that focuses purely on the bottom line will tend to gravitate towards more vanilla projects, which are easier to package and sell for financial churn but are a loss to the sort of research and innovation that, we are told, the UK Government want to ensure more of with their new industrial strategy Green Paper. The Minister notes in answers to written questions that the market failure that the inception of the GIB sought to address has now been corrected, but market failure in all areas will not be addressed if encouraging innovation is not at the heart of what the GIB does.
Scale is also a consideration. Will a privatised GIB support smaller projects, such as the specially designed loan to finance a switch to low-energy street lighting in Glasgow? Will Macquarie back that type of small-scale investment? It is only £6.3 million, but will save more than 18,000 tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions over the next 18 years.
What considerations have the UK Government given to an altered risk appetite after sale? Have the UK Government made any assessment of the potential impact?
I would like to consider the issue of protecting the green purpose of the bank. Responding to criticism, and acknowledging that criticism, the UK Government have put in place a so-called golden share with a worthy and notable set of trustees. In theory, that should give us a level of comfort, in that the trustees must agree to any change of purpose as defined by the five green purposes—but the very purposes themselves carry risk. They are extraordinarily high-level; the question has already been asked whether fracking—yes, fracking—could be carried out while still ostensibly meeting the green purpose tests.
I would now like to briefly consider UK control. The GIB has already undertaken a number of its transactions via private equity-type funds.
Notwithstanding some of the excellent work that the GIB has undertaken, is the hon. Lady concerned, as I am, about the use and involvement of limited liability partnerships? They are currently the subject of a review and have been involved in criminality in many parts of the world. It is not only the GIB—there are some instances where it is alleged that Macquarie has been involved in projects that have used them.
I am happy to support my hon. Friend on that point. I also note the valuable work he is doing around Scottish limited partnerships. I hope he has great success in that.
The limited liability partnerships used to date by the GIB may indeed be UK-domiciled and registered for tax purposes, but the point is—we cannot forget this—that if the underlying funds or owners are controlled offshore, the UK taxpayer loses the benefit of that tax take. What level of UK control and benefit will there be after sale? What will be UK-based in the wider supply chain? To what extent will the project management and/or technical experience be based in and benefit the UK?
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this important debate. In the context of Brexit, and the very likely loss of funding from the European Investment Bank, would she agree that now it makes less sense than ever to be selling off the Green Investment Bank, because it is precisely that kind of bank that can give us the additional benefit of full UK control and fill the gap that will be left by the likely loss of EIB funding?
I am extremely happy to acknowledge that point, and I agree; I suspect the hon. Lady may have read the next section of my speech. She has absolutely hit the nail on the head.
I was discussing what reinvestment would be made in the UK economy after any asset sales. How much influence fundamentally would the so-called golden share have if much of the activity is controlled outwith the UK? I am not expecting the Minister to answer all those questions, but they are part of wider consideration of what we are doing when we invest our UK taxpayers’ precious money and build the bank, then sell it without looking under the covers at what is happening as part of the commercial process.
Finally, on the preferred bidder, there are justifiable concerns about the company’s intentions. Concerns have been raised about its approach to refinancing and debt, particularly in former public companies such as Thames Water. Jonathan Maxwell, the chief executive of Sustainable Development Capital, makes a case for his consortium, which includes the state-backed Pension Protection Fund, as the best alternative to meet the Government’s goals for the GIB. Would that be a better fit for our wider concerns about the green agenda and to encourage the growth of green, particularly in the light of the threat that Brexit poses to the wider economy?
The UK Government have used a smokescreen of commercial confidentiality, so that proper scrutiny by this Parliament cannot take place. However, it is the UK taxpayer who provided the capital to set up the bank and who could lose out in a sale, without proper scrutiny. We, the UK taxpayers, currently own the GIB and we, the hon. Members from across the House who represent our constituencies, need to assure ourselves that the sale represents real value at present.
The concerns were succinctly summed up by Nils Pratley, writing for The Guardian:
“But what if Macquarie thinks GIB is worth more dead than alive? What if it pays £2bn for GIB, liquidates most of the assets at a handsome profit and then decides the capital is better deployed elsewhere?”
What assessment has the Minister made of a sale making it more likely for the UK to meet its Paris climate change obligations? If he has made that assessment, will he make it available?
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing the debate; her last point was key. Under the Paris climate change agreement, a pan-European solution was being looked at for this country to meet our climate change commitments and reduce our carbon footprint. Given the consequences of Brexit, is it not all the more important that we preserve the assets in this country that will help us independently to meet the commitments under the Paris and previous climate change agreements?
I absolutely agree, and I sum up by asking: is this the right time for a sale to anybody in the light of Brexit, when the focus fundamentally must be on innovation and positioning ourselves to take advantage of key growth sectors?
Order. Three Back Benchers have indicated that they wish to speak; I remind them that I will call the Front Benchers to speak at 5.21 pm, so that works out at about seven minutes each. I call Peter Aldous.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Owen, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Edinburgh West (Michelle Thomson) on securing the debate; her timing is spot on. I entirely support the principle of privatising the Green Investment Bank, but that needs to take place on terms that are in the whole country’s best interests, and on a basis that will maximise the leveraging of investment in this very important sector.
The Green Investment Bank is a success story. Since its launch in 2013, it has leveraged £10 billion-worth of projects from a £2.8 billion public stake, playing a particularly important role in the offshore wind sector. It successfully kick-started the Galloper wind farm off the Suffolk coast, securing external investment for a project that will bring jobs both to Waveney and across East Anglia.
Since the sale process started a year ago, times have changed. We are now in a very different world and it is appropriate to pause and to consider whether the sale is taking place on terms that are in the best national interest. Brexit has led to a refocus on the UK’s industrial strategy, with the publication on Monday of the Government’s Green Paper. The pillars of the strategy include the need to upgrade infrastructure; to deliver affordable energy and clean growth; to drive growth throughout the country; and to rebalance the economy. The Green Investment Bank has played a leading role in all those areas, and it is important that it continues to do so, in particular as complementary investment from the European Investment Bank is, as we heard, almost certain to disappear completely.
When the Government circulated the bid documents last year, two possible options were suggested: a full privatisation and the retention of a 25% stake. The latter course should be pursued, because it would be more valuable for the bank, for UK plc and for the taxpayer. The stake would help to target important infrastructure spending; it would enable the Government to hold the bank to its mission of mobilising investment in the UK’s green economy and of maximising its green impacts; and, moreover, that sector of the economy is dynamic and entrepreneurial, so the stake is highly likely to increase in value. In summary—I have been very brief—in a short period of two years the Green Investment Bank has brought great benefits to the UK, and it is vital to the future of the country as a whole that it continues to do so.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Owen.
I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh West (Michelle Thomson) not only for securing the debate but for her sterling work on the Green Investment Bank, to which she has applied her usual business acumen and forensic skills. I rise to speak because the bank is headquartered in my constituency and, among other things, I am concerned about the 55 people employed there. The Minister has therefore kindly agreed to meet me to discuss the issue.
I want to say something about the background to the setting up of the Green Investment Bank which, across the group, employs more than 130 people, including renewables investment professionals and technical experts. The Business Secretary at the time, Vince Cable, chose Edinburgh as the headquarters for good reason. Edinburgh came top of a financial and technical assessment, as one might expect of the second most important financial centre in the United Kingdom and, when the bank was set up in 2012, he said:
“Edinburgh has a lot going for it, both in terms of its asset management and finance sectors…also its proximity to green energy activity”,
which—in my words, not Vince Cable’s—has been encouraged by the Scottish Government.
Interestingly, Vince Cable went on to say that choosing Edinburgh as the headquarters of the bank supported what he described as the “wider narrative” of binding Scotland into the United Kingdom in the run-up to the independence referendum. I am anxious therefore that the promises made by the Business Secretary in the coalition Government are delivered on for Edinburgh and that my constituents and those working in my constituency do not lose their jobs.
As my hon. Friend said, the Green Investment Bank is successful. In 2016 it started to make a profit. It is likely to deliver an annual return of 10%. The exercise of asset-stripping the bank, were that to happen, would result in a significant profit for any buyer at the expense of the United Kingdom taxpayer and of green investment throughout the United Kingdom.
The bank offers very real and attractive investment opportunities. It manages the world’s first offshore wind fund, with assets of more than £1.2 billion. Offshore wind is very much a huge part of Scotland’s future for energy production, and the fund attracts investors such as local authority pension fund managers, due to its long-term and stable investment. Five local government pension funds in the UK are investors in the fund, including Strathclyde Pension Fund, which is one of the two biggest local government pension funds. The chairman of Strathclyde Pension Fund has said:
“When you consider that when Pension Funds mature we are always looking to reduce our risk we do that by investing in our asset base with long term stable investments. We are convinced that”
“invest in the right infrastructure assets which will lead to a stronger and greener UK economy.”
As I am sure the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) will discuss, the Green Investment Bank supports innovative energy efficacy projects in partnership with local authorities across the United Kingdom. It is a really useful bank, it is a modern bank, it is a successful bank and it is a bank that was established in Edinburgh as part of the project of binding Scotland into the United Kingdom. So let us make sure that it stays a successful bank, that we honour the UK taxpayers’ investment that has been made in it and that we protect the jobs it supports.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Owen. I thank the hon. Member for Edinburgh West (Michelle Thomson) for securing this important debate. Like her, I am deeply concerned by the way in which the Government are proposing to sell off the Green Investment Bank. It is widely known that the Government’s preferred bidder is the Australia-based firm Macquarie. As has now been well documented, there are serious concerns about Macquarie’s corporate record and its commitment to the GIB’s environmental goals.
Macquarie has admitted rigging the Malaysian foreign exchange markets. It has settled charges in the US for violating underwriting laws related to a China-based coal company. It is currently facing legal action in the US for rigging Australian interest rates. In a separate investigation, it was found to have breached market integrity rules in Australia and to have “systemic deficiencies” in its compliance with financial services laws. Closer to home, its ownership of Thames Water has also been deeply controversial, with £10 billion of offshore debt loaded on the company and a £250 million pension deficit allowed to accumulate while profits were extracted.
Macquarie also has an appalling environmental record, funding fossil fuel extraction projects across the world. From open-cast coal mines in China to fracking here in the UK, it has a track record of supporting climate-wrecking projects. By any measure, Macquarie is unfit to be custodian of the UK Green Investment Bank; if anything, there is a very clear risk that it will destroy it.
The Government have so far refused to respond to those concerns. Instead, we see ample evidence that the Government are not only willing to allow an asset strip, but may have actually helped to facilitate it. With the support of Treasury-owned UK Government investment, 11 subsidiary companies of the GIB were set up presumably to allow Macquarie to asset-strip the UK’s Green Investment Bank. The Minister passed on the opportunity to deny Macquarie’s involvement in those changes in response to a written question I tabled last week.
Meanwhile, the Government continue to point to the creation of a special share as the answer to all our concerns. That is simply not true, as the hon. Member for Edinburgh West set out—we know that the special share will not protect the green purposes of the GIB under an owner such as Macquarie. In response to another written question I tabled, the Government made it clear that the special share will not ensure that individual investments are low-carbon. The special share will not stop asset stripping, will not ensure adequate capital is available for future investment and will not ensure an investment focus here in the UK. To protect the GIB as an enduring institution that is investing here in the UK, we ultimately and simply need the Government to stop this sell-off.
I thank the hon. Lady for giving way, and add my thanks to my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh West (Michelle Thomson) for her contribution in securing this debate. The whole basis behind the privatisation is that the market failure has been corrected. I simply do not agree with that. We may have seen progress in the power sector, but in transport and heat we are lagging way behind what we need to be doing to meet our carbon reduction targets. Does the hon. Lady agree that the Green Investment Bank can play a critical role in addressing the market failure that continues to exist in those sectors?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his very informed contribution. He will not be surprised to hear that I entirely agree with him. Anybody who thinks that market failures have been corrected is being extraordinarily complacent. Just a quick scan of the way in which we are not meeting the targets that we have—our climate, environmental and energy-efficiency commitments—would lead people to conclude that market failure remains, and therefore that the need for the Green Investment Bank to be in the public domain remains.
I believe that Ministers have it within their power to cancel the sale and pursue a different path. For the GIB to be properly protected, it should remain wholly owned by the UK Government. That is my bottom line, but if Ministers refuse to do that, various other options are available to them. We know that there was and still is on the table an alternative bid—it is the one that lost out to Macquarie. That bid would help to keep the GIB British, green and growing, so why are Ministers not pursuing it if they do not want to keep the GIB in the public domain?
Is the hon. Lady aware of, and as concerned as I am about, potential conflicts of interest involved in the Macquarie bid? Macquarie has used PricewaterhouseCoopers both as advisers and as auditors for many years. The senior independent director of the GIB is Tony Poulter, who at the same time is a partner at PWC and the head of PWC’s global infrastructure advisory unit. Does she agree that that is an obvious conflict of interest?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I was not aware of that, but as he has now put it on the table, I find yet another reason to be deeply concerned about the Government’s proposals. I thank him for adding that piece to the jigsaw.
There were plenty of options for the Government other than going down the route of flogging the GIB off to Macquarie. I mentioned the other bidder, but the Government could also allow citizens to buy into the Green Investment Bank through green bonds—allowing people up and down the country to own part of this important and dynamic institution. Indeed, there were press reports over the weekend, as the hon. Gentleman will know, about the possibility of an initial public offering. That would at least offer greater protection to the aims of the GIB than the Government’s current plan. Any sense that the sale is the only option on the table must be challenged. There is a range of options on the table. The overriding question has to be why the Government would choose such a damaging option when there are clearly much better ones available.
The launch of the Government’s industrial strategy on Monday gives Ministers another reason to halt the sale. This was the point made very clearly by the hon. Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous). With the UK set to miss its climate targets from the mid-2020s onwards, and renewables investment in the UK set to fall by a dramatic 95% over the next three years, the low-carbon economy should be at the heart of the industrial strategy.
The Department’s welcome new focus on battery technology, energy storage and grid technology could all be supported through finance from the Green Investment Bank. That finance is more important now than ever. We have already discussed briefly how the likely loss of access to funds from the European Investment Bank makes that an even more important role that the GIB can play.
Together, the emissions reduction plan due later this year and the Government’s more active approach to supporting the UK economy mean that it is time for Ministers to ditch the sale and embrace the Green Investment Bank as an important ally in a green industrial strategy. Ministers have rightly been applauded for passing into law the fifth carbon budget and for ratifying the Paris agreement. They would be similarly congratulated and applauded for putting an end to the flogging off of the Green Investment Bank.
We are in the unusual position of having run out of Back Benchers when I thought that we were going to run over our time. That gives the—
Order. That would be really pushing it. I say to the Front Benchers that they can divvy up the time and, if they wish to take an intervention from the hon. Lady, I will allow that.
It is, as ever, a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Owen. I join colleagues on both sides of the Chamber in commending the hon. Member for Edinburgh West (Michelle Thomson) for securing the debate. I underline the fact that she is a well known entrepreneur in Scotland. She speaks not as someone who is simply anti-market, but as someone who has worked very hard in her own right to make markets work in Scotland. It is on that basis that I wish to ask some questions of the Minister.
I agree with most of what has been said so far, but there is one issue we need to take a bit further. Perhaps the Minister in his summing up could explain a bit more the Government’s reasoning. The Green Investment Bank was set up to deal with a very specific form of market failure. I am interested in the subject because when a green investment bank was first mooted, I was a senior journalist on The Scotsman in Edinburgh, which is celebrating its 200th birthday today. We organised a campaign, which I was very much involved in, to bring the headquarters of the Green Investment Bank to Edinburgh, and we were successful.
The perceived market failure is obviously to do with the funding of environmental projects. Some of us, though—I do not say this to make a cheap point—believe that the rush to sell the Green Investment Bank, only two years after it really started being in operation, was a product of the wish of the previous Chancellor to raise capital to meet his target to balance the books and abolish the deficit. That is understood. Now that the Government have given way on the ex-Chancellor’s 2020 target to get into surplus, and given that in some sense his colleagues seem less happy with his activities, so much so that he is not the Chancellor any more, it might be a chance to look more at the nuts and bolts of whether market failure is being addressed, rather than simply to try to raise capital.
The market failure being addressed was not a lack of capital in general, but a much more specific form of market failure. Most large infrastructure projects are funded by consortiums of banks and investment houses, because the projects are usually too large for any one undertaking to take all the risk. The failure in the past decade in the UK has been getting the consortiums together. That was partly exacerbated by the fall in investment appetite and risk appetite after the 2008 banking crisis.
The Green Investment Bank does not put its own money in per se; it puts together the consortium of the banks. It puts up a little money to underwrite some of the risk and show that the risks have been properly looked at, and it brings other people in. That model is growing and has proved successful on a small scale. It would be worth while leaving the model in place until we see at the end of a decade whether it has enabled significant consortiums to be put together for major projects, rather than simply considering the small projects that the Green Investment Bank has been involved in to date. If the Government abandon the GIB now, they have to prove that it will continue under private ownership to address that specific market failure.
When the Minister responded to the urgent question tabled by the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas), he seemed to suggest that the proof that market failure had now been addressed systemically was that private sector interests were prepared to buy the bank. I challenge that assertion. I know the Minister will not mention Macquarie, but I will. I do not do that to stand by some of the criticisms of Macquarie. I want to address Macquarie’s business model, because it or a company like it may become the owner of the Green Investment Bank.
Macquarie puts together consortiums of investors, but it does that to buy existing infrastructure projects that earn a capital return. In December, it put together a consortium and bought the gas pipeline business of the National Grid. That is understood. It is a very sensible long-term model, and it is very profitable for Macquarie, which might explain why it is known in Australia as the billionaires’ bank—it has made many billionaires. The problem is that buying existing assets is easy, but that is not where the market failure is. The UK capital market is more than able to address that problem. The market failure is in building new asset classes. The Government have admitted in their new industrial strategy that the problem is that we somehow under-invest in infrastructure, despite having a huge capital market in comparison with other countries.
The Treasury Committee is undertaking an investigation and we have uncovered one of the major issues. When an infrastructure project is built, it is not retained in ownership by the people who built it. It is passed on ultimately to the ownership of pension funds and insurance companies. They use it as a long-term investment to pay annuities and long-term pensions. The insurance companies are crying out for regulatory change because they say they are unable—my second question to the Minister is to ask him to look at this—to invest capital in new infrastructure, and the new environmental projects they are desperate to invest in and own, because the regulatory and capital requirements are too onerous. The result is that British insurance companies find it easier to buy into American new infrastructure projects than into British ones. If Donald Trump turns on the spending tap in the United States and spends $1 trillion on investment in new infrastructure in America, inevitably in the present regulated climate, British pension funds and insurance companies will underwrite that investment rather than investing here.
My point for the Minister is that the market failure is still there. Using the sale of the Green Investment Bank to Macquarie or any company like it will simply be using it as a cash cow rather than underwriting risk for a future infrastructure investment. That will not resolve the problem. The Government must prove to Members on both sides of the House that the sale to any company will solve the underlying market failure. The sale to Macquarie, given its business model, will not solve that problem.
One question is whether Macquarie is a fit and proper company to own the Green Investment Bank. The Minister will probably avoid answering that question and will not mention the Macquarie name but, in the most systemic way, can he prove to us that the sale of the Green Investment Bank in such a short period to another owner will resolve the market risk of having a player—the Green Investment Bank—as the referee that brings the consortium together from the rest of the capital market? In the absence of that, the Green Investment Bank must be left in place and we must question why the British capital markets as a whole do not fund infrastructure investment and have not done so successfully for several decades. That is a regulatory issue and the ball is in the Government’s court.
The Opposition’s position on the sale of the Green Investment Bank is that it should not be sold. The reason for that is at the heart of what the Green Investment Bank is. It is, of course, not a bank. It does not have the full lending and borrowing facilities we would expect in a bank. Indeed, hon. Members may remember that after it was formed the Chancellor imposed conditions on when it might become a bank. It is not a bank: it can be better described as a public policy instrument. That is what it has always been. It is a public policy instrument that, as hon. Members have said, has a particular purpose of using state-backed intervention to overcome market failure, particularly in green investment.
We know that the market failure issue has not been resolved and that green investment, particularly because of the requirement for patient capital and long-term investment as it attempts to ride a number of waves at the same time, continues to be difficult as we hear from reports coming into this country. We also know that investment is essential if we are to move to the next stage of low-carbon investment. The Green Investment Bank, as the public policy instrument to ensure that happens, has been a remarkable success. It continues to be a remarkable success and to do very well what it originally set out to do, which, as hon. Members have said, is not to give grants out to anybody or take companies over but to pull capital in from elsewhere with the back-up of capital from the Green Investment Bank, which is backed in the first place by Government, to immensely enhance the value of the investments that have been secured. In so doing, the Green Investment Bank has, as we know, secured more than £10 billion of capital investment with an input of just over £2 billion of Government-backed money via the Green Investment Bank’s instruments. It does not seem a very wise course of action to sell that public policy instrument, with all the consequences that may arise from that now and for the strategy that we need to adopt for green investment.
The Government have not only decided to sell the Green Investment Bank, but they have decided to make the preferred bidder for the bank a company that does not have anything like that model in its investment arrangements. As hon. Members have mentioned, that particular company appears to have been involved in specific amendments to the arrangements of the Green Investment Bank so that it would be possible to make that bank work in an entirely different way—setting up, in November and December, 10 companies, which would fit neatly in at least four of the major investments that the Green Investment Bank has been involved in—the Galloper, Rampion and Westermost Rough fields, and GIB offshore wind collectively, amounting to a Green Investment Bank total investment of about £1 billion. It would not be a bad start—to be able to take the Green Investment Bank over, flog off half of the assets that have been taken over, get £1 billion back and then move on to the next stage. To the casual observer, that has the potential to be a pretty scandalous forward move to do to the Green Investment Bank exactly what we fear would happen were it to be privatised in that way.
I personally do not go along with Donald Trump’s view of the press, particularly the quality press and the Financial Times and The Sunday Times. This weekend, the statement in The Sunday Times was simply this:
“Ministers are poised to scrap a planned sale of the Green Investment Bank…to Australian investment firm Macquarie, pushing instead for a £3.8bn stock market listing.”
I understand that the Minister cannot and will not mention the word Macquarie, but I wonder whether he would enlighten us by using a different formulation, such as, “No, the Government are not poised to scrap a planned sale of the Green Investment Bank to a preferred bidder, and no, they are not pushing instead for a £3.8 billion stock market listing.” That would be a suitable statement for the Minister to make this afternoon in response to speculation in the press. I would take silence on that formulation as an indication that the Government may be having second thoughts. If they are, I would fully support them, because they would start to be coming into line with the issues that hon. Members have raised this afternoon and at other times.
If those second thoughts included, for example, an initial public offering that was a minority sale of shares, or even a majority sale of shares with a controlling share retained by Government, that would easily overcome the issue that hon. Members have also raised—the arrangements that we know will be inadequate to stop asset-stripping in the way that appears to be lined up for the bank at the moment. Those arrangements are very narrowly based on the memorandum and articles of association of the company, not on the asset possessions of the company, and would have no real effect in the way that I think hon. Members would want.
If the Government were to decide to float shares in an IPO, I guess that would take about two years. That would give the bank a substantial amount of time to do its work, particularly in view of the likely withdrawal of the European Investment Bank, which other hon. Members have mentioned. We ought to remember that the European Investment Bank has actually invested twice as much as the Green Investment Bank over the past few years in green projects that are difficult to invest in. Upon Brexit, the EIB’s investment is likely to fall to between 10% and 0% of its current investment. That is a further reason why the Green Investment Bank is so important to making investments right now.
I have on previous occasions asked the Minister to wink in the Opposition’s direction if he has had a change of heart. Perhaps nothing as flamboyant as that is necessary today, but it would be helpful if he could indicate whether a different route is being considered for the Green Investment Bank so we can discuss its future in a rather less negative way.
The Minister has a little extra time to respond to the debate. I remind him that if he wishes, he can leave Ms Thomson a couple of minutes to sum up.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Owen. I sincerely congratulate the hon. Member for Edinburgh West (Michelle Thomson), who represents her constituency in a robustly independent way, on securing the debate. She drew on her clear business experience to frame the debate, set it up in the right way and built on the exchange that we had on the urgent question last week.
However, I must say that when the hon. Lady dismisses commercial confidentiality as a smokescreen, she lapses into political rather than business matters. She knows the reality of the situation, however frustrating that is for the House—and, frankly, for me. I will not be drawn into any discussion about the character or values of any potential preferred bidder, or any of the more sensitive aspects of what is a commercial negotiation that has not concluded. I think she knows that, but let me make that quite clear.
Will the Minister give way?
May I make a little more progress?
This has been a good, well informed debate. There is clearly disagreement about whether it is right to sell the GIB, and I respect that, but there is clearly common ground—this is worth restating—that the GIB has been a fantastic success story. In fact, exactly that language has been used by Members on both sides of the House. That success has been achieved in very short order by a relatively small group of people who were given a very challenging mandate. That is genuinely impressive. The Government are therefore keen, as I am sure the House is, to place on the record our appreciation of the work of not just the GIB’s senior management team but everyone who works in that organisation. It is particularly important to show our appreciation for the professional approach of the GIB’s staff, because as those who have been in the commercial world know, these kinds of transactions drag on and create uncertainty and anxiety.
The GIB has been a success story. It was set up to accelerate private investment in green infrastructure. It has a fantastic success record of turning every £1 of public money committed into £3 of matched private sector commitments. It has achieved a series of firsts—not least the first ever offshore wind fund, which has now reached final close having raised more than £1 billion of capital, making it the UK’s largest renewable energy fund. There is also agreement that if we do sell the bank—there is disagreement about that—the Government will be responsible for securing best value for taxpayers and getting a deal that we can justify to the public, whose money has been invested in this institution. It is important that Parliament holds the Government firmly to account for that.
I think something has been missed in this debate. There has been a lot of assertion about the motives of any potential preferred bidder or even the motivations of the Government. There has even been the suggestion that this sale represents a sapping of green ambition on the part of the UK Government, but that could not be further from the truth. I meant what I said on the Floor of the House yesterday.
I will come on to the criteria, which we will be very robust in sticking to when it comes to reviewing any proposal before us. However, one of the things that we are looking at most closely when considering a proposal from a preferred bidder is their forward commitment, not only to people—particularly in Edinburgh, which I hope will reassure the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry), in whose constituency the HQ of the bank is located—and to an ongoing institution with a clear identity in the future, but, critically, to forward investment. That is because hon. Members are right: we need more funding and we need more private capital coming into our green infrastructure. That is obvious; every country needs that.
Part of our starting premise, which has not been reflected in this debate at all, and part of the motive for privatisation, is to confront the reality that the GIB, however successful it has been, is constrained at the moment by the framework in which it operates. I do not think that people get up in the morning thinking, “Thank God I’m working for an instrument of public policy”—I do not think that is quite how people see things—but they are constrained in what they can do by state aid rules and the number of restrictions that come from being a public sector organisation. We feel that this organisation, when liberated from all that, can do more and we want it to do more. We need to be reassured by any future owner that they share that vision, are committed to it and are prepared to back up that commitment. That will not be just the evaluation of Ministers or officials in Government—
Will the Minister give way?
I will just finish this point. I want to reassure Scottish Members of Parliament, and I have already told the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West this in our meeting, that when it comes to making any final judgment we will be led by the judgment of the chairman—Lord Smith of Kelvin, who is highly respected—and the board about the credibility and integrity of future commitments made by a bidder, and the degree to which they can be bound into contractual arrangements.
Will the Minister give way?
I will just finish. That is a dimension to this transaction that has been completely absent from this debate, which has been bogged down a bit by a lot of assertion and prejudice about the character and values of a preferred bidder.
The hon. Lady has been very patient; I will give way to her and then I will give way to the hon. Gentleman who represents the Scottish National party, the hon. Member for East Lothian (George Kerevan).
I thank the Minister for his generosity in giving way and I apologise to colleagues and to you, Mr Owen, for turning up late; I was anxious to listen to the opening speeches in the education debate.
I echo what the Minister has said about the patience of the staff, who have been undergoing this process for 18 months amid considerable uncertainty. Am I right to infer from the point that he has just made about the good will of the potential purchaser that there are potentially some issues around that? Can he say when he became aware of the fact that these various other new companies had been set up by the GIB just before Christmas? There has been a little bit of confusion, with Ministers first saying that they did not know about those new companies and then saying that they had been established to “facilitate the privatisation” of the bank. Is that normal behaviour? It does not strike me as normal at all.
Regarding the first point, the conversations with the preferred bidder about their future commitment are ongoing. That just reflects the fact that we take that matter very seriously. This is not a case, as I think was suggested, of the Government simply wanting to raise some money, getting the bank off the balance sheet and then off into the hills we go. The issue of the future commitment of any new owner to future investment that will help us to move further and faster along in the transition to the low-carbon economy—a transition that is central to the industrial strategy—is a very important part of the consideration of the bid. That is why, working through Lord Smith and the board, we are taking time to look each other in the eye and say, “Is this enough?” That is the situation we are in.
On restructuring, I think I was pretty clear when answering the last parliamentary question. We agreed some reorganisation in partnership with the GIB to facilitate private capital into certain assets. I make the point—which, again, is a point of principle and needs to be asserted—that there was almost a suggestion during the urgent question debate that the GIB should somehow not be free to sell anything or to bring in private capital. That is completely wrong, particularly when the evidence is that there are buyers for assets that are reaching some maturity. Given what the GIB was set up to do, I do not think that it should be in the business of competing with private capital to invest in assets. It serves no policy purpose to hold on to assets that are valuable to others if that money can be recycled into new investments. That is the critical thing.
Lots of assertions have been made about asset stripping. The Government have no interest in selling to an asset stripper. We want to know about investment in the future; it is okay to sell, so long as there is a commitment to reinvest in future. The GIB portfolio—under any ownership, including public ownership—should not be preserved in aspic forever. It has to be a dynamic organisation, and it should be free to realise capital from packaging assets and to do things that a nimble entrepreneurial organisation, which is what it is, should be free to do.
Out of courtesy, I give way to the sponsor of the debate.
I thank the Minister for his comments, but I need to press him on my specific comment about the risk appetite and the nature and type of projects. I fully accept and understand increased access to capital, but I made a specific point about the risk appetite that I hope the Minister will move on to.
Order. Before the Minister responds, I should say that we only have a few minutes remaining. If interventions are long, we will not get as much as we want out of the Minister.
I am happy to address that point, because it is important. The hon. Lady needs to reflect on the motivation of anyone wanting to buy the GIB. It is a special organisation; there are other vehicles that people can buy if they simply want to invest in clean energy or strip assets. The GIB was set up for a special purpose. We put in place governance frameworks—the hon. Lady calls it the golden share; we call it the green share—that we think are robust and that Parliament approved.
Why bother if the only intention is to do easy stuff? The GIB has proven that it can do difficult stuff and make a return. We therefore come back to the motivation of a bidder, and to our doing our job in making sure that we test any proposal against the criteria we have set. One of those criteria is about not just the volume of future investment commitment to the UK, but the degree to which any buyer buys into the ethos and purpose of the organisation.
To draw things to a close, the central point is that the Government set out our case for privatisation and set out the criteria—value for money, declassification, but also a desire to see a credible commitment to the ongoing organisation and to increased levels of investment in the UK’s low carbon economy. We ran a competitive process, we received a proposal from a preferred bidder and we are now evaluating that against those criteria. No decision has yet been taken, because this is a very serious decision.
The debate, and the urgent question debate, have been very helpful—not only in sending a message about the importance of getting this right, which had already been received by Government, but, critically, in sending a message to anyone looking to buy the organisation about the importance that Members from both sides attach to getting the transaction right: it must be seen to deliver value for money, but also show a commitment to the ongoing organisation.
I am happy to give way, if time allows.
The Minister has been very generous in giving way. Before he concludes, will he briefly categorically deny that the story in the Financial Times has any truth in it at all?
I am confused about what story the hon. Gentleman is referring to; there have been so many stories. I can say that the Government continue to evaluate a proposal from a preferred bidder and that no decision has been taken.
The hon. Member for Edinburgh West (Michelle Thomson) has one minute to sum up.
I can do that quickly, Mr Owen. I thank hon. Members for their contributions, including the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry) and the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas), who always adds depth to our debates. I also thank the hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Dr Whitehead) . I make particular reference to the hon. Member for East Lothian (George Kerevan) and his key points—I gently suggest they have not been addressed—on dealing with market failure and systemic issues with infrastructure investment. He made a very clear and compelling point.
I also note that the Minister conceded that he is being led by Lord Smith, who is a worthy gentleman and chair of the board. The Minister, however, is ultimately responsible and accountable for ensuring value for the UK taxpayer and the wider framework of the all-important green agenda—
Motion lapsed, and sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(14)).