Thursday 9 March 2017
[Steve McCabe in the Chair]
Scotland: Demography and Devolution
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the Second Report of the Scottish Affairs Committee, Demography of Scotland and the implications for devolution, HC 82, and the Government response, HC 938.
It is a pleasure to serve with you chairing this short debate, Mr McCabe.
Back in February 2016, the Select Committee on Scottish Affairs launched our inquiry into the demography of Scotland, to better understand the issues concerning our populations and the impact those trends will have on devolved services in Scotland. We had four sessions here in Westminster and one in Edinburgh, and we were delighted to visit the Isle of Skye, where we visited the Gaelic college Sabhal Mòr Ostaig and held an evidence session there. As always, we are grateful to all those who contributed to the inquiry.
May I start with the good news? It is very good news. Scotland’s population is stable and growing. We say in the report that that is good news. Something that differentiates us in Scotland so much from the rest of the United Kingdom is that we welcome population growth in our nation. When we get news of population growth, Ministers put out press releases saying that it is a good thing; when they get similar news down here in the UK, it could not make Ministers more miserable. That says everything about the respective attitudes in Scotland and the United Kingdom.
Only 15 years ago, Scotland was suffering what can only be called structural depopulation, and there was real concern that the population might actually dip below the iconic 5 million mark. Scotland’s population has been turned round and is now at its highest ever level, standing at 5.37 million people resident in Scotland. That population growth—not dramatic, but steady and good—is owed to increased fertility among the indigenous population and, more than anything else, immigration, particularly immigration from the European Union following the accession of nations in the early 2000s. After a century of sluggish population growth punctuated by periods of decline, and following centuries of emigration, Scotland’s population is now stable, and that is good news.
I mentioned our history because we as a nation are probably more familiar with historical issues of emigration than we are with immigration. That flavours and shapes Scotland’s response to the current debate about immigration that is raging throughout the United Kingdom—a debate that probably hijacked the whole conversation about exiting the European Union. There are concerns about immigration in Scotland—we find that in social attitude surveys and opinion polls—but it is absolutely clear to me and other members of the Scottish Affairs Committee that there does not seem to be the same heat in that debate in Scotland as there is in the rest of the United Kingdom. There is a healthy understanding of our immigration requirements as a nation and our need to sustain a healthy population and demography.
That is the good news, and it is welcome. The not so good news is that our population increase is lagging way behind that of the United Kingdom as a whole. That is a critical part of this equation and a critical relationship. The UK’s population is projected to increase to 70 million in 2027 and reach 74.3 million by 2039. That is an increase of 15% over a 25-year period. I know that we are ending free movement, that there are going to be new immigration policies in place and that the UK Government are confident that there will be some sort of Brexitised Canute to stand against this tide of an ever-increasing movement of people throughout the world. That is their ambition and what they intend to do, but according to current figures the population growth of the UK is expected to be 15% over 25 years. In the same period, Scotland’s population is expected to grow by 6%.
That population growth gap will have a huge implication for Scotland’s economy and our ability to support and sustain an increasingly elderly population. That is because Scotland is predominantly funded on the basis of its population in the form of a block grant that we receive and is calculated on the percentage-based Barnett formula. Increasingly, the distribution of resources throughout the United Kingdom will be on a per capita basis. The main concern, therefore, is that Scotland’s revenues will not keep pace with those in the rest of the United Kingdom. That could be increasingly acute as we come to renegotiate the fiscal framework in 2020, where population concerns will once again be factored in, possibly to Scotland’s deficit.
The other issue the Committee found is that population growth is variable across Scotland as a whole. That is why the Committee visited the Isle of Skye to try to better understand the regional variations and the issues in Scotland’s rural areas, in particular the highlands and islands. We found pockets of success, particularly in the highlands, but an otherwise ongoing story of decline in Scotland’s rural areas. For example, most of the new population growth happens in Scotland’s cities and conurbations close to them. In my constituency, in Perth and Kinross, we have solid population growth of around 15%; in Edinburgh, where my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Deidre Brock) is resident, it is in the region of 20%; and in Midlothian it is 26%. That contrasts with areas of the highlands and islands that have experienced net population decline, the worst example being the Western Isles, which is expecting a population decline of some 14%.
Scotland has one of the lowest population densities in the whole of Europe. During the inquiry we heard that Sutherland in north-east Scotland has lower population density than Mali in northern Africa—a nation that is entirely covered by Sahara desert. More than anything, that suggests that Scotland is not full up and that we can accommodate many more immigrants to help us to address some of the issues in our economy.
Lurking underneath the statistics are demographic issues that really need to be tackled. The age profile of Scotland’s population is rising at a faster rate than that of the UK as a whole. Several witnesses we spoke to in the course of the inquiry identified the combination of Scotland’s lower population growth, ageing population and lower life expectancy as one of the key challenges it will face in the delivery of public services in the coming years and decades. Over the next 25 years, Scotland’s population will have a lower proportion of working-age people than it does now, and they will be expected to support an even bigger number of dependants. That is referred to as the “dependency ratio”—several groups took exception to that phrase when we visited Edinburgh, as my colleagues will remember. In the next 25 years, the dependency ratio will increase from 58 dependants to every 100 working-age people to 67 dependants to every 100 working-age people. That has serious implications for the delivery of public services.
The Committee found two particular areas where the dependency ratio might have an impact. The first is the size of the tax base and the ability to service through that tax base an ageing population. Secondly, it will be much more difficult to fill some vacancies in a number of sectors, including health and social care. An ageing population will increase demand for those services without there being a commensurate increase in the pool of working-age people available to fill those vacancies. That will have to be factored in to the planning and developing of Scotland’s public services over the coming years and decades.
Another thing the Committee found during our inquiry is that life expectancy and healthy life expectancy, especially for men, are lower in Scotland than in other parts of the UK. A new report, which we did not have the opportunity to take into account, has emerged in the past few weeks. That report, produced by the University of Glasgow, suggests that for the first time in 150 years life expectancy is not increasing in Scotland. It found a spike of more deaths in 2014 than at any time in Scotland since the second world war. We are not in a position to assess that, but it would be particularly worrying if that was a trend that is beginning in Scotland and was a reflection of some of the social policies that have been carried out not only in the name of this Government, but across both Governments in the United Kingdom. That is something we very much want to keep an eye on over the next few years.
The health inequalities are what concern the Committee more than anything else, and again we saw a disparity not only in the United Kingdom but in Scotland. The most revealing example was given by Professor David Bell, who talked about the train journey from Jordanhill in Glasgow to Bridgeton in Glasgow and how life expectancy declines by 15 years in the course of it. Professor Bell also told us that Jordanhill’s people have the same life expectancy as those of Canning Town here in London. Canning Town is a tube journey away from Westminster, where life expectancy is seven years higher. The disparity across the United Kingdom is 21 years, which surely should set off all sorts of alarm bells when we are planning services and considering how to reduce health inequalities.
The Committee considered what would be required to resolve some of the difficulties that we identified in our inquiry. First, we note the Scottish Government’s target of matching population growth with the EU15, which was set in 2007 to be completed by 2017. The Scottish Government have been relatively successful in ensuring that we have achieved the EU25 mean. Some witnesses praised the Scottish Government for setting the population target, saying that it was in the interests of the nation to aspire to be population healthy and demographically healthy. However, some—primarily those in the UK Government, who did not see much value in it at all—felt that there was no need for a population target and questioned the whole idea.
None of our witnesses could tell us the optimum population size for Scotland, although a few gave valid examples of their efforts to do so. Professor Jim Hunter, emeritus professor of history at the University of the Highlands and Islands, told us that it is difficult to establish Scotland’s optimum population. When we were on Skye, he told us about some of the reasons given for the clearances, including that the population in the particular area was unable to sustain itself, but he also said to the Committee, revealingly, that
“the population of London exceeded the capacity of the London area to grow potatoes and turnips a heck of a long time ago, so it depends entirely what sort of economy you are looking to create here.”
I thought that those were particularly wise words.
We found, unsurprisingly, that what is required to keep a healthy demography and a stable and competitive rate of population growth is an obvious equation between emigration and immigration. We must retain more people in Scotland and do more to attract working-age migrants to Scotland, but that will be a lot harder to achieve with the end of free movement of people from the European Union.
To give an example of the sort of figures that we are talking about, in 2014-15, net inward migration to Scotland was 27,968, while net migration to England was 298,882. That is a huge disparity in our ability to attract immigrants. We must do more to attract migrants to Scotland, but it is particularly difficult to achieve when the legislative levers remain in the gift of a UK Government resistant to immigration and concerned to the point of obsession with immigrant numbers. The UK Government, in their response to the report, defiantly refused to give the Scottish Government responsibility and opportunities to address their immigration concerns, and they have ended schemes such as the Fresh Talent initiative, which allowed us, at least in relation to the student population, to try to increase our population by giving incentives to stay in Scotland.
I mention that because something important and alarming came out in the statistics given to us by National Records of Scotland. There has been a positive spike in Scotland’s immigration figures: the number of people coming to Scotland in the critical 19-to-23 age bracket has risen. That suggests that people are coming to Scotland attracted by the offer from our excellent, world-class universities. However, there is an almost commensurate spike in emigration among those aged 23 to 27. That suggests to me that people are leaving Scotland once they have been educated, because they do not have the opportunity to stay there.
As my hon. Friend might be aware, in 2015-16, Stirling University had 930 EU students and 1,350 overseas students; 20% of the student population came from overseas. It clarifies how important immigration is to solving the problem not just of the skills base, which he correctly identified, but to the universities’ health in the future. What are his views on that?
That is exactly what we found in the course of our inquiry. One of the report’s recommendations was that the Government reconsider their approach and attitude to the post-study work scheme offer. That would address the issues that my hon. Friend raises, but to me the problem is much more fundamental. It is beyond absurd that we attract all those talented young people to Scotland with the quality of our world-class universities and train and educate them to a high standard simply to watch them sail away, when we need those people to help grow and contribute to our community.
I wish the hon. Gentleman a happy birthday and congratulate him on securing this debate. He is making an important point. One of the few issues that unites political parties in Scotland is the need to reintroduce the post-study work visa. Does he share my concern about the 80% drop in non-EU students remaining in the UK after graduation since the scrapping of that vital scheme? We must continue to press the Government to stop the brain drain of global talent from Scotland.
The hon. Lady is absolutely spot on. I wish we could do more to convince this Government that they need to reconsider and help us to ensure that we keep those talented people. Our statistics show that we require these people to remain in Scotland; they are welcome in Scotland, but there has been absolutely nothing from the Government in response. They have run some pilots on a post-study work visa scheme, but none of them in Scotland. We saw in the Government’s response why Scotland was not included. All of that is totally unsatisfactory. It is one thing that this Government can do that is straightforward, simple and easy to administer. Give us a break; give us a chance. Do something to help us address one of the pressing issues facing our community. We want it, we are ready to do it, the universities want it and it is in the gift of the Government to make that simple little change to help our higher education sector.
The Government say in their response that Scotland should use its range of devolved powers to attract immigrants, and they highlight powers that we could use to achieve it, talking about things such as health and education. I remember the former Chief Secretary to the Treasury sitting across from us in Committee and telling us that the one thing we could use to attract immigrants to Scotland was our planning powers. That was the sum total of what we had at our disposal. How we are supposed to attract immigrants without the levers of immigration powers is totally beyond me.
What I am hearing from the Government—it is a strange proposal and a sustained one, too, because we hear it practically every day—is that apparently Scotland’s offer for immigrants has been diminished because we now have powers over income tax. Somehow, we are disincentivising people because we have a differential rate of income tax in Scotland. I do not know about you, Mr McCabe, but I do not imagine potential immigrants in town squares in Krakow and Budapest being put off coming to Scotland because the higher rate of income tax kicks in at £40,000 instead of £43,000. I suspect that that would be the last thing on their minds.
I am grateful to the Minister. I suggest that although that argument is always convenient, the evidence for it is flimsy, verging on non-existent. Nobody has presented us with anything to support that view.
Yes, income tax is a feature and a factor when it comes to the suite of taxation that people have to pay, but it is just one part of it. England, for example, has higher rates of council tax and higher house prices. We have free education for our young people and free prescriptions. Taxation comes in many forms. The ludicrous suggestion that Scotland is uniquely the highest-taxed part of the United Kingdom does not bear any scrutiny at all. To suggest that it disincentivises people from coming to Scotland is beyond absurd and almost ridiculous. What changes people’s decision whether to come to a nation is powers over immigration and the ability to incentivise people to come through means such as a post-study work scheme, available jobs and a growing economy, and a growing economy needs a healthy working-age population. Those are the very factors we have considered and tried to address in our report.
Emigration from Scotland is an issue. Scotland is still an emigrant country; it is a feature that has characterised our nation throughout the centuries, and we are still losing far too many young people rather than retaining them. The Scottish Government have put in place a number of measures to hold on to young people in Scotland, and we wish them well in those endeavours, but as long as we remain a dependent nation within the United Kingdom, there will always be other attractions, particularly in huge centres such as London. We cannot build that capacity to retain people in our capital and other cities, so for as long as we remain a dependent nation, it will probably always be likely that our young people will be attracted to the bright lights of London. For example, when my son finished at Glasgow University, he came down here to look for work opportunities that he could not find in Scotland, because we have not been able to put in the resources there to develop our economy and give our young people those chances. As long as we remain part of the United Kingdom, I believe that we will always have difficulties.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his Committee’s important report. He knows as well as I do that one of the reasons we are having this debate is the UK Government’s paranoia about getting immigration numbers down to below 100,000. Have he and his Committee given any consideration to addressing some of the concerns that I have heard, particularly in the Irish situation, that if we allow Scotland to have its own immigration policy and bring in as many people as possible, we will not be able to prevent those people from going to Scotland for a fortnight and then coming down to England and completely upsetting the balance that people want to see? I think that is nonsense, but it is one of the reasons behind the Government’s refusal to let Scotland handle immigration. We have to work together to find an answer to that, because it is one of the reasons that the Government will use to prevent Scotland from addressing its genuine needs and achieving what the hon. Gentleman and I want to see happening in Scotland.
It was not within the scope of our inquiry to look at such solutions; we just wanted to get a snapshot of the quality of Scotland’s population growth and some of the demographic issues, and to suggest ways in which they could be addressed—but the hon. Gentleman is right about what the Government say. They say it all the time, but they are totally ignoring the fact that other nations throughout the world are able to manage sub-national immigration policies quite successfully, particularly Canada and Australia, whose policies work perfectly well and have none of the impacts that the hon. Gentleman mentions.
There is another solution, which has just come on the table in the last year. As a result of the Scotland Act 2016, there is now a Scottish rate of income tax set by the Scottish Parliament. We now know where Scottish income tax payers are resident, so if there is any breach, we know where they are. If someone came to Scotland from Krakow or Budapest, for example, with the sole intention of abusing the job opportunities we gave them by then disappearing to London, they would immediately disappear into a black market. They would not be able to work because they would be officially resident in Scotland. Why on earth would somebody want to disappear from a legitimate market, in which they have every opportunity to find a job and contribute to the economy, and go to a black market, in which they will be pursued relentlessly by the Minister’s Home Office team? That is my answer to the hon. Gentleman’s question, but it was a good question and I am pretty certain that we will hear more on it from the Minister.
The Minister is giving me a thumbs up, so we can expect him to address the matter in his reply.
I will finish my speech because I know that other hon. Members want to speak. We will always be fighting a losing battle if we cannot grow our population through immigration. Our report calls for the Government to give us a chance, give us a break, and consider devolving some immigration powers to Scotland to let us grow our population. If the Minister and the UK Government do not do so, they will be holding Scotland’s hands behind its back, because the population gap between us and the rest of the United Kingdom will have massive implications for our economy and our ability to provide proper social services in Scotland. Population and demographic issues will be central to social planning, healthy economic outcomes and growth over the next decade, but Scotland has a UK-wide immigration policy designed by the Minister and his colleagues that practically works against our vital national interests. If there is one thing that the Government can do to help us to address those issues, it is to give us the levers to address them.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairpersonship, Mr McCabe.
At the risk of being confused with a ray of sunshine, may I lay out some of the grievances rightly held by Scots about population and demographics and put them in some kind of historical context? Not all of them are directly the fault of this place—some of them might even be someone else’s fault—but hear me out. At the beginning of the 18th century, Scotland’s population was 1 million, while England’s was 5 million. That ratio of roughly 1:5 stayed the same throughout the 18th century and into the beginning of the 19th, but Scotland’s relative population shrank during the 19th century until the ratio was 1:7.
It was really the clearances that set Scotland’s population growth back on its heels. Private greed played a part, but so did Government decisions. The British Fisheries Board established fishing stations at Wick, Tobermory and Ullapool, dragging people from the land and the industry that they were familiar with and making them cling to the edges of Scotland, as someone once put it, in a barren and unfamiliar area. The Government were also determined to end the clan system; its organisation seemed all too militaristic and people’s loyalty to a clan chief, rather than to the Crown, could not be tolerated.
The clearances were the biggest drag on Scotland’s population growth until the de-industrial revolution of the Thatcher years, when the crushing of communities echoed the crushing of communities during the clearances. Scotland’s population shrank under Thatcher as young Scots were forced out and sought opportunity elsewhere, which removed a breeding population as well as an economically active population. It took until 2010 for Scotland’s population to recover to pre-Thatcher levels, and today it stands at less than a tenth of England’s.
There is now another Tory threat to Scotland’s population and prosperity: Brexit. The UK’s population growth from 2000 to 2015 was roughly a third native-born, a third EU-born and a third born elsewhere, whereas half of Scotland’s population growth was from EU nationals and only 14% was native-born. Scotland needs those people—those workers. Only 4% of EU nationals in Scotland are over 65, and 16% are under 16. The working-age population of EU immigrants is 80% of the total, with a 79% employment rate—six points ahead of the Scottish average. As I think my hon. Friend the Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) alluded to, almost a fifth of Scotland’s population is over retirement age. We need the supply of young, energetic workers from the EU, which is now under threat from a Brexit that might only mean Brexit to the Prime Minister, but means a potential major economic threat to Scotland.
From the clearances, through Margaret Thatcher, to Brexit, Scotland’s population has been getting a raw deal. Scotland needs to get out from under that and create a welcoming and entrepreneurial environment to grow our economy and provide a secure future. As my hon. Friend said, we need an open door for immigrants, and we need immigration policies that are clearly very unlike the policies touted in this place by this Government.
We cannot be left subject to this frankly xenophobic regime if we are to build the population and the economy that Scotland needs. I would prefer it if we agreed to be friendly neighbours and if Scottish independence created a new relationship, but it is possible to do it before then. My hon. Friend alluded to the examples of Australia and Canada, but it is possible for the UK to have different immigration systems for different areas. We know that that is possible because it already happens; the UK runs different immigration regimes for Gibraltar, the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man, for example. No, the circumstances are not the same—I am aware of that—but the precedent is there, and that example shows that it is possible. There is no reason why Scotland cannot have an immigration regime tailored to our needs even while we are stuck in the UK. We need to keep the door open for the free movement of the peoples of the European Union. Of the four pillars of EU membership, that is the one that I believe Scotland needs to keep most of all.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr McCabe, and to follow two wonderful and detailed speeches.
I said in this Chamber only three months ago that
“the Government’s current immigration policy is completely failing Scotland.”—[Official Report, 8 December 2016; Vol. 618, c. 164WH.]
The Scottish Affairs Committee is now leading another debate based on a report that has concluded, yet again, that a different immigration system is needed for Scotland, rather than a one-size-fits-all UK policy. Hon. Members may ask why. Well, our report examined the different population trends in Scotland and why the challenges presented by those trends should be reflected in the UK Government’s policy making. One of the key challenges we found was that over the next 25 years, the average age of the Scottish population will increase dramatically, resulting in far fewer people paying taxes and fewer people being available to work in health and social care to support an ageing population.
The good news is that after years of decline, the population of Scotland is now gradually increasing, mainly due to the decrease in outward migration. However, if a hard Tory Brexit has a negative economic impact on Scotland, it is highly likely that outward migration will increase again. Over the next 25 years, the population of Scotland is predicted to increase by 7%, but London’s population is predicted to increase by more than triple that rate, meaning that the economy of the UK will be even more dominated by the needs of London and the south-east of England.
It strikes me that we have had debates in the House of Commons recently on boundary changes, during which the Government argued that those changes had to be based upon population. Based on the point that my hon. Friend has just made, does it not signal the failure of the current policy that according to the Government, Scotland’s number of MPs relative to England will be decreased again and again and again, as it has been over the last 20 or 230 years?
My hon. Friend makes a valuable point. In fact, if the number of MPs in one area, the north-west of Scotland highlands, is reduced, the area covered by one MP will be larger than Belgium. That is completely unacceptable, particularly in the face of Brexit and the amount of work that will result from it, which is likely to be a burden for all MPs.
Scotland’s recent population increase is partly due to inward migration. However, UK Government policies will undoubtedly have a negative impact on Scotland’s population growth. Those policies include barriers to immigration resulting from Brexit, which I have already mentioned; the scrapping of post-study work visas, which is already causing considerable damage; and the continuing uncertainty about whether EU citizens will be allowed to remain in the UK.
Our Committee’s report also found that population is a key issue in rural areas in Scotland that already have extremely low levels of population density and a pattern of younger people leaving to look for work elsewhere. On a Committee visit to Dumfries quite recently, we heard that in rural areas it is already hard to fill posts in social and health care, and it is predicted that that situation will get worse.
While Scotland’s land reform and rural broadband schemes are intended to boost economic activity in rural areas, which can only be a good thing, achieving that aim will not be possible if there are not enough people living in those areas to develop the economy. Again, the situation will become even worse if our exit from the EU reduces immigration and leads to more young people leaving Scotland to find work elsewhere.
I will give a more detailed example from my own constituency in Dundee. There are many issues in the demography report that have particularly serious implications for my city. To put things into perspective, Dundee has the highest proportion of students in higher education of anywhere in Scotland. The university sector is vital to the economic health of our city. Indeed, a quarter of University of Dundee students come from outside the UK and, as was set out in a report last week, more than 175 jobs in Dundee are fully or partially funded by EU grants. If Brexit leads to a reduction in the number of international students and a loss of EU nationals working in our universities, without doubt that will have a significant negative effect on the economic wellbeing of my city.
As many Members will know, Dundee is currently undergoing a £1 billion regeneration of its waterfront, at the heart of which is the new V&A Museum of Design. Immigration and population growth have the effect of enhancing economic activity and creating jobs. Therefore, any threat to immigration will hinder the positive transformation that Dundee is currently undertaking.
I will focus on one sector for a moment, because Abertay University was the world’s first university to have a degree in designing video games. I chair the all-party group on video games, so I will touch on that sector briefly. My constituency is a cluster for game designers. To give people a flavour of the kind of games that come out of Dundee, one of them—“Grand Theft Auto”—has already broken six Guinness world records. Within the video games industry, talent is the No. 1 priority for businesses, and it is vital that the industry is able to recruit highly skilled international talent without there being immigration barriers to their working here.
A UK-wide survey by the video games industry body UK Interactive Entertainment, which was published just yesterday, showed that more than 98% of respondents—we might as well say 100%, as we are just about there—believe that EU nationals with skills needed in the games industry should have a blanket right to live and work in the UK.
I turn to a sector that is important in my neighbouring constituencies, in particular that of my hon. Friend the Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart). Each year, large numbers of temporary migrants from the EU come to work in the fruit picking industry in the constituency next to mine. If that flow of workers is cut off by Brexit, that will have a hugely negative impact on this vital part of our local economy.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for mentioning my constituency, and he is absolutely right that we have great concerns about what will happen in our world-class berry fruit sector. However, the situation is even worse than that. I am sure that he will have heard examples similar to those I have heard of European nationals in our constituencies who, just because of the current climate, are thinking about leaving, because there is a sense that they are not welcome here any more. They are feeling the chill wind blowing from the UK Government, which is putting their very existence here at risk, as they are used as bargaining chips. Has he come across anybody like that in his constituency?
Yes indeed. In fact, tomorrow, which is my constituency day, I have four surgery appointments with EU nationals who are similarly concerned about the future. The biggest issue that we have is in social and health care, particularly in our care homes, where there is a large percentage of EU nationals among the staff. As Dundee is growing to meet the needs placed on it to be a creative hub for Scotland, we also have a growing hospitality sector, which is again largely served by EU nationals.
However, despite all the evidence that the UK Government received though the Scottish Affairs Committee report, they have once again completely disregarded calls to ensure that any new immigration policies meet the needs of Scotland’s demography. Not only that, but they have once again completely rejected calls for a more flexible post-study work visa system for international students in Scotland. Therefore, it is crystal clear that Scotland has different immigration needs from other parts of the UK, and a one-size-fits-all approach simply is not working.
In 2014, the UK Government told Scotland to lead the UK and not leave it, claiming that it would be treated as an equal partner within the UK. Last weekend, however, the Prime Minister said that control over policy areas that have already been devolved, such as fishing and agriculture, may not go to Holyrood in the wake of Brexit, further raising fears that devolution will be undermined rather than enhanced. That is nothing short of a scandal and flies in the face of the devolution settlement of 1998.
If anyone is in any doubt about how difficult the UK Government have made our immigration system, they only have to look at a tweet put out by Faisal Islam the other night. It pointed out that under the same EU law a permanent residence form in Ireland is five pages long and free; in Germany, it is two pages long and costs eight euros; and in the UK, it is 85 pages long and costs £65.
Scotland is not full up. As I have said, our demographic and workforce needs are different to those of the rest of the UK. With the UK Government’s current rhetoric signalling a move towards a hard Tory Brexit, it is becoming increasingly obvious that their polices will seriously damage Scotland’s population growth. The UK Government’s immigration policy in no way recognises Scotland’s needs or serves our economic and societal interests. The UK Government continue to resist pragmatic change that would not only reduce the impact of Scotland’s ageing demographic but help Scotland to attract international students. What would really benefit Scotland would be the full devolvement of immigration power, so that we can ensure our country’s prosperous future. If the UK Government are unable to tailor their immigration needs for Scotland, then Scotland’s independence will be the only solution.
As always, Mr McCabe, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship.
I begin by commending the report of the Scottish Affairs Committee. It is a significant contribution to the debate and it is supported by numerous experts. It makes it very clear that Scotland’s population needs to grow and that Scotland requires immigration in order to make that happen.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) rightly said, the United Kingdom’s population is projected to increase by 15%, while it is reckoned that the population of my constituency of Argyll and Bute will fall by 8%. That situation is unsustainable and unworkable, because despite being an exceptionally beautiful part of the world, my constituency is—almost uniquely—suffering depopulation. We have an ageing and increasingly non-economically active population, and our young people are leaving to spend their economically productive years outside Argyll and Bute.
We desperately need people to come to work in our rural communities. We need EU nationals and others to be able to come to Argyll and Bute, and we welcome the overwhelmingly positive contribution they make day in and day out to Argyll and Bute and to Scotland generally. We need that to continue, so we need a system that will allow Scotland to find a bespoke immigration policy, one in which Scotland’s needs are met, rather than simply being subsumed into the needs of the rest of the United Kingdom, and—
I apologise for interrupting the hon. Gentleman; he was in full flow and I perhaps should have waited. Nevertheless, I am delighted to be able to intervene now.
In this report, we have concentrated a lot on migration. I agree with the report, which says there should be a much more flexible approach to immigration, right across the country—in all parts of the UK and not just in Scotland. Indeed, there is maybe even an argument for internal Scottish-type different approaches to immigration. One of the key recommendations of the report was about the number of young people in particular who leave Scotland to live in the rest of the United Kingdom. We need to find ways of making sure that those young people not only stay but are able to contribute to the economy. That is not about migration, because I am talking about young Scots who are moving. How does he suggest that we should deal with that issue?
I take on board what the hon. Gentleman is saying, but I think there are two strands to it. In Argyll and Bute, we need to keep our young people and attract young people back into the constituency. That is about physical connectivity, digital connectivity and making Argyll and Bute an attractive place for young people to come back to and to not leave in the first place, but that in itself will not be enough. We have to be able to attract EU nationals and others to Argyll and Bute and make them stay. It is not an either/or situation; we should be able to keep our young folk and at the same time attract people into Argyll and Bute to live and work and to make it home.
Part of that is having a bespoke Scottish solution. If Australia, Canada and Switzerland can have immigration policies that differentiate between the different needs of the different parts of the country, surely there is no reason, other than political will, why that cannot happen here. Argyll and Bute Council’s plan for economic regeneration was predicated on it continuing to be able to attract EU nationals into the area. I am afraid to say that that plan seems to have been holed below the waterline since last June.
When I was first elected to this place almost two years ago, I came here knowing that I would fight austerity and oppose Trident renewal and that we would seek to deliver the vow in full, as was promised after the 2014 referendum. Never in my wildest dreams did I think that my colleagues and I would have to stand in this place to defend the right of the almost 200,000 EU nationals living in Scotland to remain in the country they have chosen to call home. I did not imagine a scenario where I would have to stand in this place and argue that 1,800 of my constituents—EU nationals in Argyll and Bute—should have the basic right to remain in the country in which they have chosen to settle, raise their family and contribute.
What have we become? How in the 21st century are we debating whether 1,800 of my constituents—mums, dads, husbands, wives, brothers, sisters, employers and employees—have to choose whether to stay or go? They are genuinely fearful for the future. I put it to the Minister that that is because the Government have chosen not to guarantee their future status within the United Kingdom. As my hon. Friend the Member for Dundee West (Chris Law) said, that policy, coupled with the Government’s immigration policy, is holding Scotland back.
In the past week, five families from my constituency have contacted me, all deeply concerned. Last weekend, Rita Windham-Wright, a Hungarian national living in Oban with her Scottish husband and children, informed me that because of the uncertainty, they were thinking of leaving Scotland. Celia Krezdorn from Helensburgh—she is a Swiss national married to a German, and she has brought her children up in Scotland—said she was deeply worried about what the future holds and what the lack of clarity will mean for her family. Jean Michel Voinot, a French national living in Lochgilphead with his wife and young children, asked, “Will my family be allowed to stay?”
On Wednesday, another Hungarian woman, Edit Makai, asked me whether it would be okay to take her child to meet her Hungarian grandmother in Budapest. She was worried they might have problems getting back into the country. Just yesterday, Josianne, a French national who has lived and worked in Rosneath for more than 20 years—she is a highly active member of the community —contacted me to say that she is fearful she may have to leave her home and her family post-Brexit. The Minister may well dismiss those cases, but he has to accept that those are the genuinely held fears of constituents who have approached me as their Member of Parliament asking questions that I would never have expected to have to answer.
Does the hon. Gentleman think that Scottish or British people living elsewhere in Europe deserve similar assurances, or is he prepared to move ahead unilaterally to guarantee the rights of EU nationals living here without getting the same guarantees for the status of Scottish people living abroad?
I will come on to that point in just a moment, because it is a vital question, and I will answer it. As I was saying, those are the genuine concerns of real people, and I have to ask: what kind of Government know they are causing such fear and alarm, yet refuse to act on it? I raised many of those cases at Home Office questions on Monday, and I was told by the Home Secretary that it was up to me to reassure them of how valued they are. I have done that; I have written to every single EU national in my constituency telling them how valued they are, but it is not in my gift to make the problem go away. The only people who can give that cast-iron guarantee and reassurance are the Government, and sadly they have refused to do it—they have chosen not to do it.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful case on one of the most important points. I have many similar stories. For example, in Tyndrum—it is just next to his constituency and on the edge of my constituency—I met with the staff of the Real Food Café, most of whom are workers who have come from the European Union. They were extremely distressed about what the future held for them and what the rules were. My frustration was that I could not give them any real answers to most of the questions that came up because the Government have not given us any real answers. Does he agree that the Government need to get their skates on and give us some idea of how this is supposed to look, so that we can reassure these people about their futures?
Sadly, it is a familiar tale. People are genuinely worried about the future, and the Government have to do something. They have to say to these folk that their future is guaranteed, come what may. It is not too late for the Government to do the right thing. Indeed, I implore them to do the right thing. I have heard the Government make the argument many times that only when other countries guarantee the position of UK citizens living in the European Union will they do the same. In direct response to the Minister’s question, I do not think that is good enough. I do not think that is doing the right thing. It is playing politics with people’s lives.
Doing the right thing is saying unequivocally—regardless of what others do—to those EU citizens living, working and contributing economically and socially to the wellbeing of this country, “We guarantee your status will not change with Brexit and you are welcome here.” If the Government choose not to guarantee European nationals the right to remain, history will judge it a national disgrace. I am proud and delighted that history will show that my colleagues and I had no part in that and opposed it every step of the way. So far as we are concerned, every single EU national living in Scotland is very welcome, and we thank them all for the positive contribution they have made, making our country a better place for all of us.
Finally, in my maiden speech in May 2015, I said that the Government had to recognise that the four constituent parts of this United Kingdom had, for the first time ever, voted four different ways and that as a result there could be no more one-size-fits-all policies covering everyone and everything from Truro to Thurso. That includes immigration. Our needs are not necessarily the rest of the country’s needs. If the Government are genuine about the respect agenda, they have to respect that and guarantee that our country can grow economically, culturally and politically into something different, if it chooses so to do, and that is with our EU nationals. I urge the Government to act accordingly and change their policy immediately.
It is a honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr McCabe. I thank my hon. Friends the Members for Edinburgh North and Leith (Deidre Brock), for Dundee West (Chris Law) and for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O'Hara) for taking part in today’s debate, as well as those who made interventions—my hon. Friends the Members for Stirling (Steven Paterson) and for Glasgow East (Natalie McGarry) and the hon. Member for Edinburgh South (Ian Murray).
I am grateful to the Liaison Committee for selecting the report for debate, and to the very accomplished Chair of the Select Committee on Scottish Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart). I wish him a very happy birthday. He shares his birthday with Yuri Gagarin and today also marks 31 years since the space station Mir was launched. Whatever his plans are after today’s debate, I hope he has a truly stellar day.
I thank my hon. Friend for that informative intervention, which will now be in Hansard. Mir was succeeded, of course, by the international space station—arguably one of humankind’s greatest achievements, and a reminder that we achieve more working together than we do apart. That is an important thing to bear in mind, particularly as we enter an ugly, post-Brexit, insular, isolationist, anti-immigrant phase in British politics.
We are often referred to in this place simply as “the nationalists” but, in truth, we have more than proven ourselves to be the largest group of internationalists in the House. Of late, I and my colleagues have received what can only be described as a barrage of pro-EU and internationalist correspondence from all corners of the UK. It is, in fact, a lovefest for our strong, principled stances on the EU and immigration. What is very clear from those reaching out to us is that many people feel unrepresented in this place as we go through the process of exiting the European Union. The people of Scotland are being ably represented by a strong team of SNP MPs here and an incredibly effective SNP Government in Holyrood. We will continue to push for solutions that will help to solve the unique challenges that we face.
The UK Government cannot simply continue with their one-size-fits-all approach to policy. In their response to the Scottish Affairs Committee report, the Government state:
“Our immigration system is designed for the whole of the UK, taking account of Scotland’s needs.”
That is demonstrably not the case. It is completely at odds with the views of Scottish businesses and universities and of civic society in general. Scotland faces demographic challenges in the coming years. We are not unique in that respect, but our needs are not the same as those of other nations in the UK, and, despite the UK Government’s protestations, they are not being taken account of by the Home Office. While the UK Government continue with their increasingly bitter and nasty narrative on immigration, the SNP Scottish Government are focused on increasing population growth, which has been historically slow in Scotland compared with England, while also making Scotland an attractive place to work and live.
My hon. Friend attended the same sessions as I did and she would have heard from a swathe of Scottish public opinion—from business leaders, to trade unions, to higher education, to everybody involved in business and academia—that we require a differentiated type of immigration system. Does she therefore believe that, as we approach leaving the European Union, it is much more important and pressing that Scotland now has some sort of bespoke immigration system, in order to deal with the challenges we face as a nation?
I completely concur—I will come on to that point later in my speech. Population growth is a vital contributor to a more dynamic society, and it is crucial if we are to ensure our economy is fit for the challenges of the future. With an ageing population, Scotland will undergo a significant demographic shift in the coming decades, which will present us with challenges that we must be prepared for.
The Scottish Government want to address Scotland’s changing demography through population growth, which will provide a larger tax base to pay for services, as well as ensure that we have more people to carry out essential jobs. Immigration policy obviously plays a huge part in that. As we have heard again and again today, EU and international citizens play a crucial role in making Scotland’s economy successful. They and the contribution they make to our society are valued. It is utterly shameful that the UK Government have failed to guarantee the rights of EU citizens to remain in the UK almost a year on from the Brexit referendum.
It cannot be repeated often enough how much we respect those who have chosen to live and work in Scotland. In the words of our First Minister:
“You’re not bargaining chips, you are human beings with families, jobs, friends and lives here. I believe you have a right to certainty and peace of mind.”
We have heard it already today, but let us just stop this nonsense about speaking up for people who live abroad. Let us take the first step today and tell EU nationals who are living here that they are valued and that they can stay; then we can move on, because it is just going to be repeated again and again. We need action from the Government now before the issue causes any more distress to families and damage to Scotland and across the UK. One thing is abundantly clear: UK immigration policy is at odds with the values of the Scottish people. It does not meet our needs and the UK Government need to listen to those legitimate concerns.
The Government’s response to the report is disappointing in many ways. The report clearly sets out that, based on the evidence we received, there is a case for further consideration of sub-national migration powers for Scotland. The report calls for closer co-operation between the UK and Scottish Government on that. Simply put, the UK Government must deliver an immigration system that meets Scotland’s needs and they should allow Holyrood to have more say. By insisting that the immigration system is designed for the whole of the UK, the Government fail to take into account that Scotland’s demographic needs are different from those of other parts of the UK.
The UK Government remain absolutely committed to reducing migration to the UK to tens of thousands, as we heard from the hon. Member for Blaydon (Mr Anderson). Growth in our population is crucial to the growth of our economy. Scotland’s people, including those who have chosen to live and work there, are key to our future prosperity and a strong economy.
The hon. Lady is making a very powerful speech, as always, but she is being too kind to the Government when she says that the UK immigration system is designed to do that. The Government’s UK immigration policy is for one thing and one thing only: to try and knock back UKIP from their right-wing backwoodsmen in their heartlands. That is what it is about and nothing more.
The hon. Gentleman has made his point and I do not need to reply; I am sure the Minister will have taken that point on board.
I appreciate that in his response the Minister will probably wish to highlight the fact that immigration policy is not some population panacea. That is very true. In order to grow the population, the Scottish Government are working on a combination of measures, including creating a fair and inclusive jobs market that attracts the type of skilled individuals we need, investing to create a supportive business environment that attracts inward investment, improving the education, skills and health of Scotland’s population, and creating a fairer, more equal society through the delivery of key public services. The UK Government must acknowledge why immigration is essential in that mix as a key driver of population growth. As we have heard, the population of Scotland is projected to increase by 7% between 2014 and 2039, and 90% of the increase over the next 10 years is projected to come from migration. However, projections for the UK as a whole show 49% due to migration. Scotland is different, and one immigration policy for the whole of the UK is simply not workable.
The damage caused by a single UK-wide policy can perhaps be seen in the withdrawal of the post-study work visa. Initially a pilot scheme that worked for Scotland, which was then rolled out across the UK, it was removed due to concerns it was not working for the rest of Britain. In our report, the Scottish Affairs Committee restated our call for the UK Government to work constructively with the Scottish Government to explore the possibility of introducing a formal scheme to allow international higher education students graduating from Scottish further and higher education institutions to remain in Scotland and contribute to economic activity for a defined period of time, as set out in the Smith Commission report. It is hugely disappointing that the Government do not intend to reintroduce a general post-study work scheme for Scotland, despite calls from across the political spectrum, our universities and civic society in Scotland.
Universities Scotland’s website states very clearly that it feels that the UK’s current student immigration policy is detrimental to Scotland’s businesses and industry, as there are high skills shortages across a number of sectors that are not being met by UK and EU-domiciled people. What does my hon. Friend make of that comment?
I am confounded by the fact that the Government are not listening to those people. We heard that in all of our Committee’s sessions, and we are now hearing it from all universities and businesses. I am not sure why their pleas are falling on deaf ears.
I am not going to take another intervention, because I am aware that we have hit the time for the Front-Bench spokesmen.
The Minister must surely realise that the trialling of the new tier 4 scheme in universities in England will be seen as a kick in the teeth for Scottish universities. It may very well be that
“There was no agenda to limit those involved to universities in any region of the UK”—[Official Report, 8 December 2016; Vol. 618, c. 182WH.]
but given the repeated and sustained calls from Scotland for the reintroduction of the visa scheme, it is in poor taste that the Government are acting in this manner.
I hope the Minister will take my points and those of other hon. Members on board. It has been fantastic to have the opportunity to debate the issues raised by the report. I ask that the Government revisit their poor response to the report and acknowledge that they have got this very wrong.
I thank the Scottish Affairs Committee for doing such a thorough job. It did the job that we expect Select Committees to do, and it did so very well. I thank everyone who contributed to the debate for bringing to this place the voice of what is happening on the ground. The hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O’Hara) talked about the real-life stories of human beings and the effect that policies will have on their lives. It is sad that the Government’s response is so dull and negative, but it is hardly unexpected because, as I have already said, the one thing driving their approach to immigration is their desire to get the numbers down below an imaginary figure of 100,000 a year. They have failed miserably to do so, but they are continuing to plough that furrow.
We have to accept the reality that the different nations, regions, countries and cities of the United Kingdom have different immigration needs. The needs of the north of Scotland are different from those of the central belt. I recently visited the north of Scotland, and I was told about the example of Walkers Shortbread. It has a factory in Moray, where there is essentially no unemployment. As a result, it buses two full coaches of EU nationals from Inverness to work in its factory every day. If those workers were not available, that factory could close. Can we imagine Scotland without Walkers Shortbread?
This is not just about places like that. Last autumn, we were told that there was a 14% reduction in the number of EU immigrants available to work in East Anglia, because they are worried about what will happen post-Brexit. If that carries on, we could see crops rot in the fields of East Anglia because of a lack of an available workforce. The Government have to look again at that.
As hon. Members have said clearly, the Government also have to look at the post-study work scheme. Sir Timothy O’Shea, the principal and vice-chancellor of the University of Edinburgh, said in evidence to the Committee that his concern is that a world-class university such as Edinburgh may no longer be able to compete with the best in the world. That is a frightening scenario. We also heard from other hon. Members about the impact on other universities in Scotland and the fact that they have lost millions of pounds as a result of the scheme’s closure. Let us be realistic about the different needs that exist and address them as adults, and not be driven by the fear of hard right-wing ideologues.
I am not surprised at all. As I said, our immigration policy, if it can be called a policy, is being driven by people who make you wonder if they went to school, let alone university—it is so ludicrously inadequate.
This time last year, we were being driven into a referendum by the ludicrous nonsense that if we did not pull up the Brexit drawbridge, 76 million Turks would flood into this country. That was how ridiculous the debate got in this country—the Conservative party is working within those terms. We need realism, pragmatism and good old-fashioned common sense to put in place an immigration system that benefits everyone’s economic and social wellbeing, not the narrow-minded view that all that matters is getting immigration numbers down to tens of thousands, no matter what harm is done to the economy, our public services and the great people who have made their homes in this nation. I suggest humbly to the Minister that working with the Committee in an open and positive manner would be a great way to start.
There is one benefit to leaving the EU: we now have a chance to shape our immigration policy ourselves for the future. We can link it to an industrial strategy, with proper training and apprenticeship schemes, but that will be much harder to do if we carry on with the lunacy that the Conservative party is putting forward. It will not give guarantees to the millions of EU nationals living in the UK and Scotland. We need to understand the vital role they play in Scottish society. Some 80% of EU nationals in Scotland are of working age, compared with 65% of the overall population, and 20,000 EU nationals work in accommodation and food services. We were told last week in the Chamber that that is the fastest-growing industry in Scotland. The health and social work sector employs 12,000 EU nationals, and a fifth of EU nationals working in Scotland are managers, directors, senior officials or in other professional occupations. We can ill afford to lose those people, so it is time to stop playing political football with them. It is wrong to do so.
The Minister intervened on the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute and asked him whether he is prepared to give a unilateral guarantee to EU nationals here if the British people living in Europe are not allowed to stay. I want to put it the other way round. What is the Government’s policy? If the EU says to us when we reach the end of the negotiations, “We are not prepared to give UK nationals living in Europe the right to stay,” what are they going to say to the EU nationals in this country? They have a right to know that. If the Government were to say, “We might throw you out,” or even, “We will throw you out”, although I do not want to hear that and nor does anybody else in this Chamber, at least that would be fair to those people and would enable them to plan their lives. But if they say, “If they call our bluff, we will throw you out anyway,” it is not a bluff worth having. The Government need to come clean.
Beyond all that, this is a moral issue. It is about human beings, and it is completely and utterly wrong that they are being used as bargaining chips. People have come here and contributed to society, and they deserve the decency and respect that they have earned. We should be good to them, and we should tell them now, “Yes, you are stopping here, in the same way as everyone else is.”
A smaller but equally important part of the debate, which the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) touched on, is life expectancy. He went through the stats. It is worrying that Scottish male life expectancy is lower than that of people in England. It is even worse when compared with the UK average. That is something that none of us can be proud of, and we have to work at it together. It is even worse when we dig down into the figures. It is bad enough that life expectancy is lower, but those living in deprived communities are 40% more likely to die from a stroke than those living in the least deprived areas. Amazingly, people living in the most deprived areas are 98% more likely to die from cancer than those living in the least deprived areas. I am not saying that to point out that it is bleak, but it is a moral issue for all of us to tackle. We need to get to the bottom of it collectively and do all we can to right that wrong.
The report suggests that the Government should work with the Scottish Government to ensure that we use the new welfare powers that have been given to the Scottish Government in an innovative way. I am glad those powers have gone to Scotland, and I would like to see them used to relieve the pressure on the people of Scotland. There is a continual attack not only on those at the vulnerable end but on those right across society who are affected by the benefit changes. I hope that the Scottish Parliament will take new powers and use the ones it already has in a way that achieves that. I hope that the Scottish Government will do exactly what is indicated in the concluding sentence of the Government response to the report, so that we can “look forward” to the use of “substantial new powers” for the benefit of all in Scotland, but in particular those most in need.
I join everyone in wishing the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) a very happy birthday. I am informed by my Parliamentary Private Secretary that the hon. Gentleman’s birthday is shared by our former colleague, David Willetts, famed for having one more brain than the rest of us.
I, too, want Scotland to continue to be a prosperous nation whose citizens are able to take full advantage of the opportunities available to them. I disagree with the Scottish National party in that I see Scotland’s future sustainability coming as part of the United Kingdom. We have heard several references to Brexit—I will come on to that issue—but, to be clear, for the time being the most important Union for Scotland is the one with England and the rest of the United Kingdom.
Being part of the UK single market presents tremendous social and economic opportunities for people and businesses in Scotland, as it does for us all throughout the UK. The lack of internal borders means absolute freedom for people and goods to move between Scotland and the rest of the UK, so there is a steady turnover of people moving to and from Scotland. The Scottish Government’s own global connections survey shows that the rest of the UK continues to be Scotland’s largest market for exports. Scotland’s exports to the rest of the UK are four times greater than those to the European Union.
I fully accept that Scotland needs immigration to continue to prosper, and I recognise the great contribution that generations of migrants from other parts of the UK and from beyond the UK have made to the socioeconomic wellbeing of Scotland. For our part, the UK Government remain committed to working with the Scottish Government on specific issues and on areas of common concern to harness the resources and talent available to encourage and support those who can contribute to the future vitality of our nation.
Migration is a reserved issue. We will, however, work closely with the Scottish Government as we develop future arrangements, and I welcome the recent publication of their paper “Scotland’s Place in Europe”, which has already been discussed at the joint ministerial committee on EU negotiations and is the subject of intense engagement between officials from both Administrations. The truth is this: people will migrate to Scotland if the conditions are right and there are good job opportunities.
The Scottish Government now have significant policy levers to shape and secure their economy. They have the power to make Scotland the most competitive part of the UK, and to encourage and support more people to move to Scotland from other parts of the UK, the EU or, indeed, the rest of the world. They have levers for economic development and support for enterprise, for education and workforce training, for health and social care, and for digital connectivity and transport.
In addition, the Scottish Parliament has recently taken on new tax-raising powers, which have the potential to be used to make Scotland more competitive and a more attractive place to live—or, potentially, the opposite. I do not agree with how such powers are being used at the moment, but that is a matter for the Scottish Government. That is what devolution is all about.
We have heard repeatedly about the needs of the Scottish economy. For non-EU migrants, there is already a Scotland-only shortage occupation list for tier 2 of the points-based system, which is specifically designed to reflect any skilled labour market needs that are peculiar to Scotland. The independent Migration Advisory Committee consults extensively with employers and other organisations in Scotland when recommending changes to the Scotland-only shortage occupation list.
For the most part, since its introduction in 2007, the Scottish list has matched the UK-wide shortage occupation list. I therefore ask the SNP, where is the evidence that Scotland has a different set of needs from the rest of the UK? However inconvenient it is for the SNP, the evidence shows that Scotland’s skills needs are largely aligned with those of the rest of the UK.
I have a question for those who deem the existing levels of migration in Scotland to be too low. Given the significant powers that the Scottish Government have at their disposal and the high levels of migration we continue to experience in the UK, why is Scotland not attracting a higher share of migrants than other parts of the UK?
The evidence from the past about post-study opportunities is that large numbers of people participating in such schemes moved south to England. There is not evidence that those people would stay put. Where is the evidence to support the need for a differentiated migration policy for Scotland?
I will make some progress, if I may. On post-study work visas, which I suspect are the issue to which the hon. Lady was referring, the Government’s position has been set out clearly in evidence to the Scottish Affairs Committee and in Parliament, most recently in a debate on the topic in this Chamber on 8 December. For the reasons I set out in that debate, the Government do not intend to reintroduce a general post-study work scheme for Scotland.
For clarity, will the Minister name one body or organisation, whether in Scotland or in the United Kingdom, that supports the UK Government position on a post-study work scheme? Everyone I know, everyone I speak to and everyone I have heard from wants one for Scotland. Will he name one organisation in Scotland that supports him on that?
There are good opportunities for people who graduate in the UK to go on to graduate-level jobs, but we will not return to a situation in which people who get degrees here go into low-skilled occupations. That is not what the scheme should have been about. As I have noted, the United Kingdom has an excellent and competitive offer to international students, and there is no limit to the number of international graduates of UK universities who may move into skilled work.
The hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire mentioned the tier 4 pilot. The four universities chosen for the pilot were selected objectively because they had the lowest visa refusal rate. There was no agenda to limit the universities involved to any particular part of the United Kingdom. If the pilot is successful, however, it will be rolled out more widely, including, potentially, to universities in Scotland.
The status of EU nationals living in Scotland and in the UK as a whole—the hon. Member for Dundee West (Chris Law) made a point about that—is an important issue for the Government. That is why the Prime Minister has made it one of her top 12 priorities for negotiation with the EU. There has, however, been no change to the rights and status of EU nationals in the UK, or of British citizens in the EU, as a result of the referendum. While the UK remains in the EU, EU nationals here and UK nationals in other EU countries continue to have the same rights and status, and are subject to the same residence requirements under EU law, as was the case before the referendum.
Incidentally, we welcome the most recently published figures showing a fall in net migration of about 50,000. It is interesting to note that the numbers of those coming from Romania and Bulgaria increased. Many of them would have been fruit-pickers and others so vital to our agricultural industry. It is encouraging that those numbers increased in the quarter after the Brexit vote.
As the Prime Minister said, it remains an important priority for the UK, and for many other member states, to resolve the challenge of the status of EU nationals as soon as possible. However, the fact remains that there also needs to be an agreement with the EU to ensure the fair treatment of British citizens living in other member states, including those from Scotland.
Why is the Minister so reticent about guaranteeing EU nationals leave to remain in the UK? Would that not be a sensible step? Let us take the first step, because we would probably then find that the 27 other EU member states followed, saying, “That’s great, you’re taking the first step to guarantee our nationals leave to remain, so we’ll do the same.” The reason we have the impasse is that the UK will not do that.
With respect to the hon. Lady, it was not the UK Government that showed reticence; the other EU member states refused to engage in purposeful and fruitful negotiation ahead of the triggering of article 50. We were keen to get that item resolved as soon as possible. For probably the only time, on that point I will have to agree with the right hon. Member for Gordon (Alex Salmond) and take a leaf out of his book, because last week he confirmed that he did not think EU nationals’ status in the UK would be jeopardised.
I will now make one or two remarks in response to points made in the debate, but I will leave enough time for the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire, who initiated the debate, to make some comments at the end. The hon. Member for Dundee West talked about the permanent residency form. The form covers several different scenarios, not all of which will be relevant to a particular applicant. The average applicant does not need to complete anywhere near 85 pages—about 25 pages is the average. There is a new online application process, which is straightforward for applicants to use and means that they can complete the form in about 15 or 20 minutes. Indeed, the online form leapfrogs ahead if sections of it are irrelevant. We have introduced a system so that documents such as passports can be validated by local councils rather than having to be sent off as part of that process.
The hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) made a point about student numbers. I make it clear that we remain committed to attracting the brightest and best graduates to the UK. They help make our education system one of the best of the world and return to use that education for the benefit of their own country. I repeat that there is no limit on the number of international students who can come to the UK.
The hon. Member for Blaydon (Mr Anderson) referred to some of the points made during the referendum campaign. Indeed, I think he almost abused the intelligence of those who voted to leave the European Union. I respectfully point out that in the Gateshead borough, 58,529 people voted to leave the European Union and 44,492 voted to remain. In his area a clear majority of people wanted to leave the European Union. I for one—despite having been on the remain side—am pleased to follow the instructions given to me by the British people.
I am aware of the figures. Like the Minister, I was on the remain side. I was disappointed by the figures, but I am aware of the reality and I am working to make the best job of this. The problem with what the Government are doing is that the narrow aim of getting immigration down to 100,000 a year or less is the only thing driving their immigration policy, not the impact on the economy, on social services or on real people’s lives. That is what is insulting our intelligence, and the intelligence of the Scottish people.
Immigration was a key part of the referendum debate. Where we can control numbers—those coming to the UK from outside the European Union—we have seen falls. The Brexit negotiations give us an opportunity to control the numbers that come in in a way we have not been able to before. However, we will be committed to the needs of the UK economy and ensuring that we get the best possible deal.
A number of colleagues talked about the post-study visa scheme—indeed, the hon. Gentleman mentioned it. We remain committed to attracting the brightest and best graduates to the UK. However, the post-study provisions we have in place must strike a careful balance between providing competitive options for the brightest graduates from around the globe and maintaining standards against the type of widespread abuse that was seen in the previous Government’s post-study work scheme. Such abuse undermined our work routes and damaged the reputation of our education system. The Government welcome international students who choose to study in Scotland and are pleased to note that visa applications from international students to study at Scottish universities have increased by 10% since 2010. The most recent figures, for the year ending June 2016, showed a continued year-on-year increase. With our current post-study provisions, the number of international students switching from tier 4 to tier 2 has increased. In 2015, about 6,000 international students switched from tier 4 to tier 2 from within the UK, up from about 5,500 grants in 2014 and about 4,000 in 2013. Unlike those on the former post-study work schemes, those students will all move into skilled employment with employers, who have appropriate sponsorship duties placed on them.
I will conclude to leave a few moments for the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire. As the Government continue to develop their negotiating strategy for leaving the EU, we will work closely with the Scottish Government and other devolved Administrations to get the best possible deal for all parts of the United Kingdom. We are considering the options for our future immigration system carefully. As part of that, it is important that we understand the impacts of different options on different sectors of the economy and the labour market around the UK.
Access to the UK’s single market presents tremendous social and economic opportunities for people and businesses in Scotland. The people of Scotland understood that when they were asked to vote in their own referendum. As I said earlier, I want Scotland to continue to be a prosperous nation, but I see Scotland’s future sustainability coming as part of the United Kingdom. I am grateful to the Scottish Affairs Committee for its work on this issue, and we will work closely with the Scottish Government as we move forward.
I am grateful to the Minister for leaving me a few minutes to sum up what has been an important and informative debate. First, I thank my colleagues from the Scottish Affairs Committee, my hon. Friends the Members for Dundee West (Chris Law), for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) and for Edinburgh North and Leith (Deidre Brock), for contributing to the debate. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O'Hara) for contributing, too, as well as the hon. Member for Blaydon (Mr Anderson) and the Minister.
I could have written that Government response. We saw it with the woeful response we had to our report, which was an in-depth look at the demographic requirements and population needs of Scotland. We hear this again and again—it always seems to boil down to the same thing. We raise lots of important issues and facts, and we sit and take evidence across Scotland, going to places such as the Isle of Skye, and people tell us clearly that we have particular issues when it comes to the demographic quality of our community and society. They ask us as a Committee and as Members of Parliament to take that issue forward, to do a report and to look at what we could do to resolve these problems and give Scotland some sort of chance to address them properly. We bring them to the Minister and the Minister says, “We’re not interested. All we are interested in is a one-size-fits-all UK immigration policy right across the United Kingdom.”
That is a singular failure to take into account the specific requirements and difficult challenges we have. We are left in a dreadful situation by the Minister. We are leaving the European Union against our national collective will. We wanted nothing whatever to do with that. Only one Member of Parliament was returned from Scotland with a pledge to have a referendum on the European Union. We voted against that referendum when it came to Parliament. Our nation voted to remain in the European Union. We put forward the solution that would spare us the worst of the madness by keeping us in the single market, which is just about to be rejected by the Government. Again and again, they give us no opportunity and no hope to try to address the real issues, problems and concerns that we consistently raise.
I do not know what a single UK immigration policy is. I do not think even the Minister knows what a single immigration policy is as we approach Brexit. I thought it was going to be a points-based system, but the UK Independence party’s points-based system is actually too liberal for the Government, so they are looking to design something else. He talks about a single UK immigration policy, but I would like to know what that looks like. I suspect and suggest that he does not even know that himself—and he is only the Immigration Minister, bless him.
We need to say that there is something going on within our United Kingdom; something is singularly not working. A part of the United Kingdom has emerged, the nation of Scotland, which has a whole different history, culture and approach to issues of immigration and emigration, and that requires to be addressed. There is a particular difficulty with the quality of our demography, our ageing population and the shrinking of our working-age population, and that needs to be looked at and needs solutions. If the Government are not prepared to do that for Scotland—I sense they are not, because we keep bringing it to them and they keep on saying no and, to a certain extent, “Just get stuffed”—they must devolve responsibility to the Scottish Government, who are prepared to do the work. If the Minister sits complacently, just telling us that we have to go along with what the UK Government decide, that is not good enough. He must devolve these policy areas to the Scottish Government so that we can do the critical work required to address the issues identified in the report.
The requirements, problems and challenges are many, and they are manifest. If we do not start to challenge and address them, Scotland will be economically disadvantaged. We cannot proceed with a population gap to the rest of the United Kingdom, and we cannot proceed with a dependency ratio that is out of kilter with the rest of the UK. If we try to do that, there will be a cost to our economy and our community, and that will have an impact on every single constituency in Scotland.
England is different. We accept that. We know there is something particular going on when it comes to immigration in England that requires a different type of solution. However, the situation for England practically works against the interests of the nation of Scotland. That is why we require a different immigration solution. We require the powers to attack and challenge the issues we are confronted with.
If the Minister is not prepared to work with us in order to do that, he has to devolve the powers to us now. He has to give us the opportunity to address them, because if he does not there will be real issues and problems for Scotland’s economy. We have a way to deal with that if the Minister does not do it: we are at 50% for independence today—what a place to start for a new independence campaign. If he will not listen and will singularly, defiantly refuse to give us the powers, we will take them in a referendum of the Scottish people. Then we will get the powers, and then we will make progress.
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).
Turkey: Human Rights and the Political Situation
[Mr Peter Bone in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered human rights and the political situation in Turkey.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. I thank the Backbench Business Committee for making time for the debate, and I am grateful to the co-sponsors of the debate, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy) and the hon. Members for Glasgow East (Natalie McGarry) and for Worthing West (Sir Peter Bottomley). I also appreciate the cross-party support for the debate, which demonstrates the deep level of interest and concern among parliamentarians regarding the current situation in Turkey. Could I just say, Mr Bone, that I believe there are a large number of people outside?
For context, Tukey is a NATO ally, a partner in the fight against ISIL/Daesh, a key player in helping to tackle the current migrant crisis, a guarantor power in Cyprus and a major trading partner. The UK’s bilateral relationship with Turkey is vital, but as the former shadow Foreign Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn), said last year,
“the basis of any close relationship must be that the two parties can be honest with and, where necessary, critical of one another; indeed, this is in both countries’ national interest.”
This debate provides us all with the opportunity to have an honest and open debate about Turkey and to reaffirm our strongest possible support for democracy, the rule of law and human rights in Turkey.
It has now been more than four and a half years since Members have had a full debate in Parliament on issues relating to Turkey. So much has happened in the country during that period, particularly since the attempted military coup in July 2016. In just over five weeks’ time, on Sunday 16 April, a national referendum will be held on a new draft constitution, the outcome of which could provide sweeping powers to the Turkish President. This debate could not have come at a more opportune time.
I congratulate the right hon. Lady on securing such an important debate, which is of cross-party concern, not least within the all-party parliamentary group for Alevis. Is not freedom of religion a fundamental human right in any free country seeking to be democratic? That should be a right in Turkey—not least for Alevis to believe, and to express that belief, in Alevism.
I could not agree more with the hon. Gentleman. I thank him for his support as the vice-chair of the all-party parliamentary group for Alevis, which I chair.
I am sure Members from all parts of the House will join me in condemning last summer’s attempted coup and in offering our condolences to the Turkish people following the series of deadly attacks in the country, which have killed more than 500 people in the past 18 months. There is no place for military intervention in politics, and we stand united with the Turkish people during this turbulent time. On the night of 15 July 2016, there were scenes of mass protest as people took to the streets in defiance of the coup attempt; parties from across the political spectrum united in opposition to the overthrow of the Government. That night, more than 240 people, including 179 civilians, died resisting the failed coup. The Turkish people were rightly commended for their bravery and for the manner in which they stood in defence of their democracy.
However, in the words of Human Rights Watch, the Turkish Government’s response to the attempted coup has been “an affront” to the democracy that Turkey’s population took to the streets to defend, and the Government
“unleashed a purge that goes far beyond holding to account those involved in trying to overthrow it.”
Alongside declaring a state of emergency, which is still in place, Turkey suspended the European convention on human rights. However, article 15 of the convention, which allows for derogation from the convention in times of public emergency, does not give states the right to suspend their commitment to international human rights obligations. Freedom from Torture makes the crucial point that article 15 does not allow for derogation from article 3, “Prohibition of torture”. That prohibition is absolute.
More than 40,000 people have been imprisoned since July, with reports emerging of the mistreatment and torture of those in detention, and more than 120,000 public sector workers—school teachers, academics, prosecutors, judges, civil servants and police—are reported to have been suspended or dismissed from their jobs. That is hardly a list of extremists that one should fear.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend and others on securing the debate. Is it possible that the speed of the authorities’ response to the coup indicates a premeditated plan to undertake such a purge? Does that not give rise to considerable concerns about the genuine attitudes and intentions of the current regime?
My right hon. Friend makes an important point. There are deep suspicions in the country that more was happening than has been admitted. If the coup was genuine, President Erdogan has certainly taken advantage of it in strengthening his authoritarian approach to managing the situation in Turkey.
Following that, is it not the case that many of the people who have been held in detention, persecuted or subject to repression are the very people who were the first to condemn the attempted military coup? The defenders of democracy are now being persecuted by the regime.
My hon. Friend makes a powerful point; indeed, it is the point I am emphasising. Those people came out on to the streets of Turkey to defend their democracy, but they are now having to defend their democracy from the people who they actually protected on that night.
My right hon. Friend is making an important speech on a vital issue for the people of Turkey and its neighbouring countries. Has she observed the way in which that repression also affects the media? We have heard that one journalist has been killed and 56 have been detained, and up to 118 media organisations have been closed down, which is an obvious infringement of freedom of speech.
Absolutely; my hon. Friend also makes a powerful point. It has been said that in 2016 more journalists were arrested in Turkey than in any other part of the world. I think we all know that a free press is fundamental to the operation of a democracy; I will come to that later.
As the Chair of the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs, the hon. Member for Reigate (Crispin Blunt), pointed out in July, the arrest of 3,000 members of the judiciary in just a few days following the failed coup seemed a rather strange way to uphold the rule of law, which speaks to the point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Warley (Mr Spellar). The Committee to Protect Journalists tells us—I think my right hon. and hon. Friends have read my speech—there has been a media crackdown in Turkey that is unprecedented since the committee began keeping a record, in 1991. It states Turkey jailed,
“more journalists than any other country in 2016”,
“some 178 news outlets and publishing houses by decree in the space of five months, allowing only a handful to reopen.”
The judiciary and a free press are being undermined. Both are requirements for any operating democracy.
Human rights have been drastically curtailed, particularly in minority Kurdish and Alevi areas. There has been a clampdown on the freedom of assembly, with military curfews imposed in Kurdish and Alevi neighbourhoods. Dozens of Kurdish and Alevi newspapers and news channels have been shut down. I have been shocked by the information I have received from my Turkish, Kurdish and Alevi constituents regarding attacks on their family and friends in Turkey. Reports have included accounts of co-ordinated lynching attempts in Alevi areas following the failed coup. Members from the community have expressed grave concerns that the ongoing state of emergency is being used as an opportunity to intimidate Kurds and Alevis in their towns, villages and homes.
Civil society space has been shrunk, with non-governmental organisations such as the Rojava Association, a charitable organisation that has helped Turkish flood victims and women and refugees from Kobane in Syria, being forced to close. We can ill afford to see such organisations close down, given the circumstances.
Sadly, the slide to authoritarianism in Turkey is not a new development. Last summer’s failed coup attempt was not the starting point of this descent, but instead has served as a catalyst for anti-democratic trends that have been apparent under President Erdogan for some time. Almost three years ago, in the build-up to the country’s presidential elections, Mr Erdogan spoke of creating a new Turkey founded upon a new constitution. He promised to strengthen democracy, resolve the Kurdish issue and work towards ensuring Turkey’s accession to the European Union. Since those pledges were made, two parliamentary elections have been held in a climate of fear.
The elections may have been free, but they were not fair, with attacks on the offices and supporters of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic party, the HDP. President Erdogan has denounced the rulings of constitutional courts and threatened their future independence. More than 2,000 people have been killed since the breakdown of the Kurdish peace process in 2015. Although Kurdish militias and civilians have shown incredible bravery at the forefront of the conflict against ISIL/Daesh, there has been widespread alarm at the Turkish military’s attacks on Kurdish fighters during Operation Euphrates Shield in northern Syria, which has intensified the already dire humanitarian situation in the region.
President Erdogan’s temporary suspension of provisions in the European convention on human rights and his support for the reintroduction of the death penalty indicate his unwillingness to engage meaningfully in accession talks with the European Union. If that is the case, it would be a tragedy for Turkey and for the EU. Both parties have much to gain by tackling together many of today’s most important international issues, from terrorism to migration and the pursuit of peace in Syria.
My right hon. Friend rightly identifies the very serious concerns about the repression taking place inside Turkey, and indeed the concerns about whether the regime saw the coup as a threat or an opportunity. Is it not also the case that in our own communities, those with Turkish citizenship from Alevi and Kurdish communities are finding that they are under attack and under surveillance from agents of the Turkish state? There is considerable concern about spying and people’s bank accounts being frozen, and about reports being sent back to Turkey and threats to people’s families. Is that not something that our Government should take very seriously? At the moment, they seem to be turning a blind eye to it.
Indeed. Like my right hon. Friend, I have had cases reported to me by constituents who feel they are being threatened and spied upon. Many constituents are fearful of going back to Turkey and are concerned about their relatives there. I agree that our Government should take the situation much more seriously.
President Erdogan and his Government are leaving little room for co-operation across the European Union. Kemal Kiliçdaroglu, the chair of Turkey’s main opposition Republican People's party, had hoped that an opportunity had been created to open a “new door of compromise” in Turkish politics, following the public’s united outcry against the coup attempt. I am afraid the door has remained firmly shut.
Figen Yüksekdag, co-leader of the HDP, has said that any hope of creating a new, more united and tolerant Turkey will fail without the active participation of Kurds, Alevis and other minority groups. Even before the attempted coup took place, parliamentary immunity from prosecution was stripped from more than 130 pro-Kurdish and other opposition MPs in 2016, and senior representatives from the HDP and other Kurdish parties have been attacked and marginalised since last July. At the behest of President Erdogan, the HDP was excluded from taking part in Turkey’s supposed democracy rallies, following the failed coup.
Selahattin Demirtas and Figen Yüksekdag, the democratically elected HDP leaders, were arrested and detained last November on alleged terrorism charges and ties to the banned Kurdistan Workers’ party, the PKK. The HDP has denied any links to the PKK. On Friday 6 January, Mr Demirtas said in his court testimony:
“I am not a manager, member, spokesperson, or a sympathiser of PKK; I'm the co-chair of HDP.”
But late last month Mr Demirtas was sentenced to five months’ imprisonment for,
“insulting the Turkish nation, the state of the Turkish Republic and public organs and institutions”,
and Ms Yüksekdag has now been stripped of her status as a Member of Parliament. The EU’s Turkey rapporteur, Kati Piri, called the indictment of the two leaders outrageous. The EU’s foreign affairs chief, Federica Mogherini, has declared that parliamentary democracy in Turkey has been compromised as a result. Aside from an EU joint statement at the end of last year expressing concerns about the judicial process in the case of Mr Demirtas and others, I note that UK Government Ministers have not set out in unambiguous terms their grave concerns about these matters, and I would be grateful for the Minister’s views when he responds.
President Erdogan’s promise in 2013 to create a new Turkey with a new constitution is not what many supporters of democracy and human rights in Turkey had in mind. The national referendum in April on the country’s new draft constitution has the potential to further undermine Turkey’s democratic character. The proposed constitution would turn Turkey from a parliamentary to a presidential republic, scrapping the office of Prime Minister and giving the President new powers to select the majority of senior judges, enact certain laws by diktat, and unilaterally declare a state of emergency or dismiss Parliament. In a political system that has already had its checks and balances, such as a free press and an independent judiciary, seriously weakened, those powers would entrench authoritarianism in Turkey.
In every meeting that I have attended in recent weeks with members of the Turkish, Kurdish and Alevi communities, not one person has said to me that they would vote yes in the referendum. They are deeply concerned at the prospect of the implementation of the new constitution. President Erdogan has accused them of “siding with the coup-plotters”. Such vilification of opposition voters is completely unacceptable. Free and fair elections and referendums are core components of any democracy, as is the protection of people’s fundamental human rights and freedoms.
Turkey is at a crucial juncture. Given the close relationship between the UK and Turkey, we need to be open and honest about and, yes, critical of, the current situation there; but is that happening? The headlines from the Prime Minister’s recent visit to Ankara related to a £100 million fighter jet deal and the development of a
“new and deeper trading relationship with Turkey.”
Valuable as our trading relationship is, human rights issues should never play second fiddle to commercial diplomacy. The Prime Minister may have stated the importance of Turkey sustaining democracy
“by maintaining the rule of law and upholding its international human rights obligations, as the government has undertaken to do”.
However, the key question must be whether that undertaking is being fulfilled. I should be very interested to hear from the Minister how the UK Government think Turkey is upholding its international human rights obligations and sustaining a genuine democracy.
The Prime Minister did make a reference to human rights, but she could not very well have said less. It was a passing reference with no emphasis, and the general impression was that, those few words having been said, the UK Government were willing to make the commercial deals in question with Turkey, and that human rights in Turkey are not really on the UK agenda.
I can do nothing but agree with my hon. Friend who has made an important and powerful point. I hope that the Minister will deal with it.
Turkey is a key member of the NATO alliance, and one of the core requirements of membership is to promote democratic values. How is it adhering to that? As a vital regional player, particularly in the humanitarian situation in Syria and the continuing negotiations in Cyprus, it has a responsibility to support peace, democracy and human rights. How are the UK Government using their influence to press Turkey to change course, strengthen democratic institutions and protect the rights of all its citizens? Human rights are universal and that includes the rights of Kurds, Alevis and other minority groups in Turkey. What steps are the UK Government prepared to take actively to monitor the treatment of Kurds, Alevis and other minority groups? What discussions is the Minister having with his Turkish and UN Human Rights Council counterparts to ensure that the Turkish Government, without delay, allow a visit by the UN special rapporteur on torture?
We must be prepared to support those progressive voices in Turkey that are calling for greater democracy, the advancement of human rights and the promotion of equality and social justice. It is incumbent on the UK Government to promote those values vigorously in our relationship with Turkey; because Turkey—and the Kurds and the Alevis—deserve better, and the UK Government must do better in supporting democracy, the rule of law and human rights in that country.
Order. It is not my intention to impose a time limit on speeches, but I think six right hon. and hon. Members want to speak from the Back Benches, and the winding-up speeches must begin just before 4 o’clock.
I thank all the people who have come here today to follow the debate closely, but I have one bit of housekeeping: we do not allow any photography.
I join the right hon. Member for Enfield North (Joan Ryan) in thanking you for chairing our proceedings, Mr Bone; I also congratulate her on initiating this important debate.
It is a given, I think, that Turkey is hugely important to us diplomatically and militarily as an important member of NATO, including as a listening post and airbase—particularly for the United States and Germany—and a place from which we can keep an eye on Syria and see what is going on there. Secondly, it is important to us as a country that has had to withstand huge numbers of refugees—I say “withstand”, which is to misuse the English language; it has taken in huge numbers of Syrian refugees and given them a haven. Some of those have moved through into the European Union; some of them have not. The fact that Turkey is a useful military ally and is to some extent a valuable trading and economic partner, and the fact that it has done good humanitarian work in looking after refugees does not, however, excuse its abusive behaviour towards its own citizens, its neglect of the rule of law and its wholesale abuse of human rights.
In 2015 I and two rather better lawyers, Lord Woolf, the former Lord Chief Justice, and Sir Jeffrey Jowell, who was at that stage the director of the Bingham Centre for the Rule of Law, and another member of my chambers, Sarah Palin, who is an expert in human rights law, were instructed by Turkish lawyers to write a report on abuses of human rights law and breaches of the rule of law in Turkey. I have registered that in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. Our lay clients were an institute of Turkish journalists and a group related to or supportive of the Gülenist movement, although I never discovered whether they were actually part of it. The catalyst for their concern was the discovery in December 2013 of various telephone calls implicating the then Prime Minister, who is now the President, and a number of his cabinet Ministers and members of his family in wholesale corruption. As a consequence, the then Prime Minister and the party known as the AKP took it upon themselves to behave in a fairly repressive way in getting the police to investigate and arrest those thought to be antipathetic to their interests.
The number of those who were detained, arrested or moved—judges and police officers, for example, were moved from one part of Turkey to another, for the purpose of disruption—in 2014-15, ran into the hundreds, if not the thousands at that stage. The position got worse, of course: not only was there interference with Government officials who did not have the approval of the then Prime Minister and the Government party, the AKP; but the Government machine—it is difficult as far as I can see to draw a distinction between the Government machine and the political party, as they work in lockstep—started to interfere with the free media. It started to send in officials or police officers to take over newspapers, shut down television companies and generally interfere with rights of freedom of expression under the European convention. In any other democracy that would have led to riots on the street, I suspect. As it happened, it did not in Turkey—probably because huge numbers of the Turkish population, particularly in the eastern part of the country, have no access to the internet and no particular interest in some of the things that the professional classes, intellectuals and others in Ankara and Istanbul take an interest in.
We published our paper in the summer of 2015, and various western-based newspapers reported on it. It was alleged by the Turkish Government machine that those of us who had written the report as professional, dispassionate observers were Gülenists and part of the parallel state, whose job or intention it was to undermine the democratic Government of Turkey. That was not our intention, and certainly there is no evidence to suggest that the four of us, as English lawyers, had any interest in the matter at all as far as politics was concerned; we had every interest in the subject as far as the abuse of the rule of law and human rights were concerned.
Since the attempted coup, to which the right hon. Member for Enfield North referred, the situation in Turkey seems to have got worse. It was bad enough before, but it has got a lot worse. Tens of thousands—I think as many as 50,000—of officials, be they judges, police officers, members of the civil service or teachers, have been detained without trial. I have no knowledge of whether the attempted coup was “genuine” or a manufactured event. However, as someone has already pointed out, the President of Turkey has taken advantage in a wholly disproportionate way of the events of last summer.
We now face a position where the President wants to bring more power unto himself and is using the tactic of the referendum, which is coming up shortly, to achieve that purpose. Time does not allow me—nor would you, Mr Bone—to say all that I would like to say about the nature of that exercise or what is intended by it. However, it is fair to say that the President’s grasping of power in a personal way goes from the sublime to the ridiculous. It is sublime in the sense that all sorts of people have been arrested and detained without trial, and the prospect of the Turkish court system providing them with justice now that the President is influencing the appointment of judges strikes me as unlikely.
The European Court of Human Rights has already indicated—if it has not, the Council of Europe certainly has—that there is no rule of law in Turkey available to Turkish citizens and that emergency applications to the Court will be considered, even though technically domestic remedies have not been exhausted in the Turkish court system, because there is no Turkish court system that is recognisable as a system of law.
We now see the extraordinary conduct of the President in attacking Germany—one of the most civilised modern western democracies—for behaving like Nazi Germany. We are all used to hyperbole in political debate and to people in a hurry saying silly things, but for modern Germany, which is light-years away from the Germany of the 1930s, to be accused by this President of Turkey of behaving like Nazi Germany is beyond offensive. Indeed, the headline of yesterday’s editorial in The New York Times was “Mr. Erdogan’s Jaw-Dropping Hypocrisy”.
Journalists have been imprisoned and expelled from the country, and it seems the situation will not improve. I have seen Hansard reports from both this House and the other place in which Foreign Office Ministers say, “We constantly remind the Turkish Government or our counterparts of this, that and the other, and we are keeping the matter under review.” It is possible to exercise, as Mrs Merkel has done, proper diplomatic restraint without being guilty of pusillanimity. There is a proper distinction between pusillanimity and doing and saying very little apart from going through the form in order to preserve NATO and the help that Turkey is giving in relation to refugees, and to help the military position, as we want to keep an eye on Syria.
Let me finish by showing how ridiculous the situation currently is. It is ridiculous for an outside observer such as me, commenting in this way, but it is terrible for the innocent citizens of Turkey who may have different political or other views from the current Government and end up being imprisoned for it. As is clear now, Mr Erdogan wants to win his referendum, and no doubt he will. However, the situation has got to the ridiculous stage now where the Turkish news media have reported that the Government are worried enough about a victory for the no campaign that officials in Konya, a city in central Turkey, recently withdrew from circulation an anti-smoking pamphlet that contained the word “no”. A local Member of Parliament from Turkey’s governing party said the pamphlets had been recalled to avoid confusion, as reported by the Turkish newspaper Hürriyet Daily News. Mr Erdogan is further reported as saying to reporters that those who say no in the referendum will be siding with 15 July—the date of the attempted coup.
The situation in Turkey is very worrying, particularly for the people of Turkey. I hope the British Parliament will encourage the British Government to remember that there is a distinction between diplomatic restraint and pusillanimity.
I am more than happy to, Mr Bone. It is a pleasure to speak in this debate. I thank the right hon. Member for Enfield North (Joan Ryan) for presenting a very good case and giving Members the opportunity to participate.
I have families in my constituency who thankfully heeded Foreign Office advice and cancelled their holidays to Turkey; otherwise, they would have been in the middle of the coup attempt when it unfolded last year. The repercussions of the chaotic coup attempt and the actions that were then taken continue to this day. I am thankful to the Members who secured the debate for allowing us to highlight this issue and see if we can get some rights reinstated.
There remains a severe shutdown, including incarceration, on anyone deemed a threat to the President’s remaining in power. Indeed, many have referred to President Erdogan’s power grab, and it cannot be seen as anything else. Turkey is still under a state of emergency after various bombs at Istanbul airport, and the coup attempt has allowed the President to legally justify restricting human rights. The right hon. Member for Warley (Mr Spellar), who has just left the room, referred to the suspicion, which cannot be ignored, that some of the rebels who conspired in the coup were encouraged by the Turkish Government, who were the ultimate winners in what took place.
Some of the human rights under the international covenant on civil and political rights that I believe have been illegally restricted include freedom of expression; the right to peaceful assembly under article 21; the right to freedom of association with others under article 22; the right to liberty and security of person under article 9; freedom of movement under article 12; the right to equality before the court under article 14; and the right to protection of the law against arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy under article 17. Those are clearly—I am sure the Minister is listening—infringements upon civil liberty and people’s chance to express themselves.
In addition, some churches in Turkey have been destroyed. Some Christians have been prevented from attending church, and their movements are monitored. The right hon. Member for Enfield North also referred to that. The restrictions are having an unfair impact on Christians and their right to practise their religion.
The 2016 EU enlargement report on Turkey summarised the general problems of Turkish civil society organisations. They included the closure of many non-governmental organisations after the failed 15 July coup attempt; the intimidation and detention of members of NGOs, particularly those active on human rights issues; the lack of an overall Government strategy for co-operation with civil society—there is almost a denial that there is a civil society; the fact that NGOs are rarely involved in law and policy-making processes; continuing restrictions on freedom of assembly; continuing restrictions on registration and procedures for the authorisation and functioning of associations; and the fact that current legislation, including taxation law, is not conducive to encouraging private donations to NGOs. Again, the Government seem to have closed every door possible in Turkey and infringed on the liberties of the people there.
Can the Minister confirm that when he has the opportunity to speak to the Turkish Government, he will convey to them all the comments that we are making as individuals in this Chamber? I know he will, but I ask him to do that with the passion and desire that we have shown. The reason I say that is that the right hon. Member for Enfield North tabled a written question on 7 November 2016 about the human rights situation in Turkey generally, and particularly in the predominantly Kurdish and Alevi areas of the country. On 17 November, the Minister for Europe and the Americas told her:
“We continue to encourage Turkey to work towards the full protection of fundamental rights, especially in the areas of minority rights, freedom of religion and freedom of expression.”
If the things that we are discussing have continued from last November until now, we need to know what steps will be taken to ensure that they are stopped.
As I mentioned in the debate in January, since the 15 July coup attempt the Government have postponed much-needed legal and institutional democratic reforms and taken actions that have a direct impact on people’s abilities to exercise effectively the freedoms of religion or belief, expression, association and assembly. Government measures, including state of emergency measures, have damaged Turkey’s human rights protection framework. Those measures include far-reaching changes to the justice system that started before the coup attempt, and increased religious-nationalist approaches to issues by the Government since.
I am coming to the end of my presentation, Mr Bone. Evidence of ill treatment in custody compiled by the Human Rights Foundation of Turkey among others indicates a serious need for independent monitoring of state institutions’ implementation of their human rights obligations. It is clear that they have blatantly disregarded them, and we need to make them start to understand what that means. The impact on the overall state of democracy of the swift removal of judges and other personnel in the state apparatus, along with the closure of universities, associations, television channels and newspapers under state of emergency decrees, has yet to become fully clear. The situation in Turkey is not allowing for freedom; indeed, it has impinged massively on the most basic human rights.
I urge the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Minister to do all that is in their power—that is clearly what hon. Members in the Chamber are saying—and apply as much pressure as possible to reinstate those rights and release the grip of emergency powers as we come up to almost a year since the coup attempt. I believe that we have some influence, and I hope that we will begin to exert it on behalf of not only Christians in Turkey but all people whose lives are still being impacted as a result of a coup attempt that they did not take part in, yet are paying the price for.
I offer my congratulations to the right hon. Member for Enfield North (Joan Ryan) and the co-sponsors of the debate. It is not only timeous but imperative. The relationship between the EU and Turkey is now fractious at best, given President Erdogan’s scorched-earth approach to democracy and human rights in Turkey as he pursues an executive presidency with all the fervour of a dictator, riding roughshod over democratic process and consigning Turkey’s reputation as a stable secular democracy to the annals of history, while using last summer’s coup attempt as a bloody blank cheque to suspend the rule of law and human rights.
At this point, I of course express my condolences and concern for the people in Turkey who lost their lives during the violence last summer and those who have suffered terrorist atrocities in the last few months and years. I add to that my condolences for the civilians in areas of the south-east of Turkey who lost their lives at the hands of the Turkish military, for whom no half-mast flags fly across the world, whose sufferings speak not their name.
At this point in history, as the UK prepares to leave the EU, our relationship with other nations will define the UK and who we really want to be on the world stage: insular and inward, internationalist and outward, or empire 2.0. The indications thus far send alarming signals. Immediately after announcing her intention to trigger article 50, the Prime Minister headed off to meet President Trump, immediately prior to meeting Turkish President Erdogan and signing a trade deal to supply military aircraft to Turkey with no human rights caveats, before finally inviting Benjamin Netanyahu to Downing Street—quite the triumvirate. Will concerns about demonstrable human rights abuses and the disregard for the rule of law be casualties of the UK’s desperate need to find trade allies post Brexit? I sincerely hope not, but I fear the indications are not good.
Human rights abuses in Turkey preceded the coup attempt of last summer, and while unequivocally condemning what happened, we cannot be blind to the fact that the orchestrations of what is happening now—the imprisonment of democratically elected politicians; the closing down of civil society space; the highest proportion of journalists jailed in the world; imprisonment without trial; military personnel, teachers, lecturers and judges sacked and silenced; and the mockery of fundamental freedoms of speech, expression, religion and language—all have their roots in President Erdogan’s transition from Prime Minister to autocrat.
It will be no surprise to many that I wish to concentrate the rest of my remarks on the Kurdish issue, as that is intrinsic to what is happening in Turkey as a whole. The policies that President Erdogan is now pursuing against political opponents and public leaders across Turkish society have been well trialled against the Kurds. Next month, Erdogan will hold a rigged referendum to enshrine in the law and constitution his position as executive President and bypass Turkey’s Parliament on many issues. I say “rigged” because political opponents such as democratically elected HDP MPs and the co-leaders and elected co-mayors of Kurdish areas and municipalities, such as Diyarbakir, Nusaybin and Sirnak, have been imprisoned and held without trial, with many allegations of torture having been made. The referendum’s no campaign proponents have been silenced, their premises attacked or closed down and adverts banned, and the media are wholly in the palm of Erdogan’s closed fist because of fear of imprisonment.
I will bring my remarks to a close, because there is very little time and I want to respect other speakers. The Kurds have a saying that the mountains are their only friends. I am here today to say that that is not true. There are politicians in this House and civil society organisations in the UK, such as Unite and the GMB, that stand in solidarity with the peoples of all of Turkey, but particularly those in Bakur.
I share the sentiments of the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). I hope that the Minister will be more robust in answering some of our concerns than the Minister for Europe and the Americas was when he responded to the debate in January on the closing down of civil society space across the world.
Last time I was in Turkey, it was to try to get some HDP prisoners out of jail. A Member of the Swiss Parliament and I were asked to go there by the Inter-Parliamentary Union. I am a member of its human rights committee, and we deal with the human rights of parliamentarians. We went to Turkey to try to get the HDP members out of jail, but luckily, a few days before we got there, they had all been released. However, I believe that many of them are now in jail again.
Some years before that, when I was a Member of the European Parliament, some of my colleagues and I tried to get members of the Peace Association of Turkey—the equivalent of the CND in this country—out of jail. I went to Metris prison, where they were being tried at the time in very bad circumstances. Of course, that was under military dictatorship. Eventually most of them were released, but only after they had gone through a particularly difficult time. When Leyla Zana was imprisoned some years before, the Turkish authorities allowed me to spend some time with her in prison. I talked to her about why she was there and what stand she was making, and she is a very principled person.
There is now imprisonment of MPs in Turkey once again; it is believed that about 15 of them are in jail. The HDP—the Peoples’ Democratic party—is a legitimate Turkish opposition party working for a pluralist Turkey. It advocates greater rights for Turkey’s ethnic minorities and increased autonomy for the majority Kurdish south-east of the country, but not an independent state. The two co-chairs have already been mentioned by my right hon. Friend the Member for Enfield North (Joan Ryan), and many other HDP lawmakers were detained in November. The co-chairs remain in prison on terrorism-related charges, and I understand that they face a total of 180 years in jail if found guilty on all charges.
I consider myself a friend of Turkey, but also a critic. Some of my good friends live in Turkey and I visit it fairly regularly, but four of my friends are now exiled in Wales. Two of them are actors, one is a designer and the other is a writer. They are all Turks, and very well-known Turks—one was the most important male actor in Turkey. The reason they are in exile is that Erdogan denounced them twice at a rally, pointed at the man in question and shouted, “He’s a traitor to Turkey. He should be killed.” That happened twice. In the Turkey of the moment, the best thing they could do was obviously to leave the country. They have had to leave their friends, relatives and careers and get out of the country because they are so afraid.
I know that my friends in Turkey—academics, journalists, writers—are also afraid, because they do not know who is going to be imprisoned and caught up next. They are in a dreadful situation. We have to keep highlighting that and, in particular, the attacks on the media. As my right hon. and hon. Friends have mentioned, so many journalists are in jail, and many of them have not been charged but are waiting for charges. Some 170 media organisations have been shut down since the coup. There have been physical attacks and threats against journalists, and Government pressure on the media to fire critical journalists and cancel their press accreditation. As has been said, the UN’s special rapporteur on the right to freedom of opinion and expression concluded after his visit in November:
“Across the board, the Government is imposing draconian measures that limit freedom of expression”.
As others have said, the rule of law is being seriously eroded. More than one fifth of Turkey’s judiciary has been removed, and the Government have consolidated their control over the courts. More than 100,000 civil servants, including teachers, judges and prosecutors, have been dismissed or detained without due process. Many detainees are placed in pre-trial detention despite a lack of evidence.
I look to the Minister and ask what the UK Government’s policy is on Turkey in light of the deteriorating situation and the fact that Erdogan is accumulating more and more power for himself. Are we simply going to turn a blind eye or, even worse, increase arms sales at a time when there is a real risk that those arms will ultimately be used by the Turkish Government against their own population? The international community, including the UK, who are true friends of Turkey, need to focus on helping to restart the peace process between the Turkish Government and the Kurds. The conflict between the two has plagued Turkey for years, and following the collapse of the peace talks in 2015 the situation in the south-east, which I have been to several times, has deteriorated significantly. It is time to try to bring this conflict to an end with a viable political solution. Addressing that problem could set Turkey down a different path—a path of security, prosperity and harmony so that Turkey, again, would be a beacon in the region and in the world.
The Turkish diaspora and Alevis in my community are very worried about their homeland, so today it is important that we send a message that while Turkey may be a friend, we are a critical friend. We must not let its position in NATO and its centrality to the refugee crisis and the fight against ISIS stop us making clear our concerns about what is happening in the country. I speak on behalf of my constituents—I have the largest Turkish speaking population in the country—and I apologise that I now have only two minutes to make a contribution in this debate. I will publish my speech afterwards on my website so that they will all see it.
Order. I want to let the House know that because I want to try to get everyone in and give them reasonable time, I am going to ask the Front-Bench speakers to restrict their speeches to eight minutes each to give the Back Benchers a bit more time.
I am grateful for that indication—I can return to my scripted speech, which is important.
The debate comes at an important time in Turkey’s history and our relationship with the country. It is a wonderful country. I have visited it on occasions—it is young, it is vibrant—and I participate in this debate very much as a friend. However, the state of emergency declared last summer has been used as a pretext for a comprehensive purge of judges, generals, civil servants, teachers, police officers, soldiers, lawyers and academics, as well as the detention of thousands of Turkish citizens opposed to the current President.
More than 100,000 people have been arrested, dismissed or suspended since last year’s failed coup, including 25,000 police officers and 3,000 judges. Some 140,000 citizens have had their passports revoked and 130,000 public sector workers are under investigation. Those figures are frankly staggering. The headquarters of an opposition party has been raided and the two joint leaders of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic party have been arrested and detained along with 11 of their party’s MPs. That must be of tremendous concern to this country. The World Justice Project’s rule of law index put Turkey 99th out of 113 countries, just behind Iran. Reporters Without Borders ranked Turkey 150th out of 180 countries in the press freedom index—177 media outlets have been shut down, almost 400 journalists are behind bars and 10,000 people working in the media have been purged.
This is now a democracy in name only. President Erdogan is seizing total control, reinforced by a classic dictator’s trope: a nationalist, populist narrative claiming that internal agitators are fifth columnists and a risk to national security. The planned constitutional changes that Turkey will vote on in the referendum next month represent the next step on a road that will in all likelihood lead to an authoritarian, dictatorial state. It is not a fair fight; one side is shouting while the other can barely utter even a muffled whisper. All outdoor gatherings in support of the no campaign have been banned. Campaigners have been arrested and branded as terrorists or fifth columnists.
What is at stake next month? We have the introduction of an executive presidency to replace the existing parliamentary system, the abolition of the office of Prime Minister and the erosion of the separation of powers, giving Erdogan huge, unconstrained powers to appoint Ministers, prepare the budget, choose senior judges and enact laws by decree. The writing is on the wall. This is an enabling referendum, of a kind we have not seen from an ally in the continent of Europe since the 1930s.
Most of all, the writing is on the wall for the Kurdish and Alevi minorities in Turkey. Throughout history they have been massacred, deported, tortured, arrested and discriminated against, with even the word “Kurd” and the Kurdish language banned. They have had their homes and livelihoods destroyed by Government forces. At least 18 villages are currently under siege with military curfews in place.
This is a serious debate that has been attended by 17 or 18 Members of Parliament. We can feel the Public Gallery. This issue is of tremendous concern to the world and this country, and I hope Britain will do the right thing and say the right thing in the coming days, weeks and months.
I will not repeat what has been said with clarity by colleagues from all parties. I first became aware of Turkey’s development when I was MP for Woolwich West, where St Agnes’s chapel is located. It was renamed the Gallipoli chapel by the Rev. Henry Hall, who had been chaplain to the 29th Division and who landed at Gallipoli in April 1915. He wanted a dedication, and his successors wanted to commemorate what happened at Gallipoli.
One thing that happened at Gallipoli was that the local commander, Atatürk, went on to become the well-known leader who dedicated Turkey to peace at home and peace in the region and internationally. It would be worthwhile for those interested in such things to watch the Guardian panel on 23 March, which will consider all the questions that I could list now but will not, as I want to give time to the Front-Bench speakers. For those who are free this evening, I suspect that there may be spare places at the British Institute at Ankara’s gathering at the British Academy, where a distinguished panel will also consider what can be done for stability nationally, regionally and internationally.
It is clear to those of us who have been involved in NATO and in issues in the middle east and wider middle east that Turkey has been carrying much of the burden of the instability around it. I pay tribute to Turkey for what it has done for refugees, and for its assistance, almost beyond cost, to those who find themselves within its borders. It is also worth recognising that when this House made the mistake, in my view, of not intervening early in Syria, we let down Turkey, which was prepared with others to take effective action that could have allowed Syria to find its own future, without the kind of regime that I hope will not emerge in Turkey now.
I will not go into what was behind the coup, as it is beyond my knowledge. If the strong man idea in politics—which we have seen, sadly, in Russia, and which we may or may not be seeing in the United States—is adopted by Turkey, the difficulty is how Turkey will get out of it again. It will take a long time before another Atatürk comes along who can create unity in a country that is an important part of Europe, an important part of Asia and an important part of the world.
The hon. Member for Worthing West (Sir Peter Bottomley) has just reminded us of the foundation of modern Turkey by Kemal Atatürk, who sought to create a secular republic. It is sad to see what is now happening in Turkey, which is drifting toward dictatorship.
In introducing the debate, the right hon. Member for Enfield North (Joan Ryan) rightly discussed the ties between this country and Turkey. Others have mentioned that Turkey has taken 3 million refugees from other parts of the middle east. She also made the very good point that the main thing to come out of the Prime Minister’s recent trip to Turkey was a fighter jet deal worth £100 million. The right hon. Member for Enfield North said that human rights issues should never play second fiddle to trade deals, and we wholeheartedly support that position. Human rights should always be up there when we discuss such deals.
In considering that, the Minister should perhaps reflect on what has happened with sales to Saudi Arabia, the position in Yemen and the reputational damage to this Government and this country caused by the failure to take strong early action on how those weapons were used. I think that that will haunt the Government for some time to come.
I appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s point, and I generally agree with all the comments in this debate, but I was in Diyarbakir. It is absolutely dreadful what has gone on there, but that was done by munitions and weapons previously held by the Turkish, and they are also procuring equipment now from Putin in Moscow. The situation is a bit more complex than blaming the UK Government for arms sales; the Turkish Government should be held to account for what they have done in Diyarbakir.
Nobody is arguing with that—the hon. Gentleman is perfectly right—but it is part of how we should approach human rights worldwide. We should not be part of supplying arms to regimes that may use them in such a way. It is about considering human rights under the regimes that we are dealing with.
The present situation in the country probably goes back well before the attempted coup in July, but the state of emergency imposed then and most recently renewed in January means that many of the normal functions of the constitution are suspended, resulting in derogations from the European convention on human rights. Since the coup, the Government have conducted a widespread campaign of media clampdowns, arrests and dismissals. More than 40,000 people have been imprisoned; more than 120,000 police, prosecutors, judges, civil servants and academics have been dismissed. It is an attack on civil society by a Government almost unprecedented in modern times, despite the fact that most in Turkey were probably opposed to the attempted military coup, as the right hon. Lady pointed out in her introduction to this debate.
Ten MPs from the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic party, including its two co-leaders, were imprisoned after Parliament voted to remove legal immunity from dozens of MPs in May 2016. The Government accuse the party of having links to the Kurdistan Workers’ party or PKK, although that is strongly denied and there is no independent evidence. Indeed, the strong suspicion remains that it is being used as an excuse to dismantle domestic opposition to the present Government. Human Rights Watch says:
“Instead of building on the cross-party unity opposed to the coup to strengthen democracy, Turkey’s Government has opted for a ruthless crackdown on critics and opponents”.
In April, a plebiscite will be held to enhance significantly the powers of the President. The Government are conducting a vigorous propaganda campaign in its favour, while the current crackdown clearly impedes opponents’ ability to campaign against it. Despite that, before the Government banned opinion polls, they showed that 45% opposed the changes while 35% supported them, suggesting that even in these difficult times, the flame of democracy remains alive in the country, as is also shown by the reaction to the coup.
We unreservedly condemn attempts such as the failed coup to overthrow democracy, but equally, we condemn any response that does not respect human rights or the rule of law, and the current Government in Turkey have clearly used the coup to target their democratic opponents. In that respect, it is also imperative that we uphold and strengthen the European convention on human rights, yet I observe in passing that some of the things that this Government say about the European convention are not helpful in pushing it in other nations that are going much further than I hope our Government would ever dream of going.
We must lead by example and show unequivocally that we support the ECHR, and we must urge Turkey to do likewise and to approach the Kurdish issue—on which my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow East (Natalie McGarry) went into in greater detail in her fantastic speech—not with repression but by talking to those, such as the Peoples’ Democratic party, who seek a peaceful solution in Turkey: not independence, but home rule. It is a reasonable position, and one with which the Government should work, rather than continuing the oppression from which the Kurds in that region of Turkey have suffered for so long.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Enfield North (Joan Ryan) on securing this debate, and all right hon. and hon. Members who have taken part on their contributions. It shows that we need a far longer debate on the Floor of the House about our relations with Turkey and the abuse of human rights in that country. I emphasise the Labour party’s historic and current commitment to upholding human rights and democracy throughout the world wherever they are abused and wherever freedom is attacked. We are and always have been opposed to oppression and autocracy.
The shadow Foreign Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry), said on 19 July, just following the coup:
“Turkey is of pivotal cultural, political and strategic importance to the world, straddling as it does the east-west divide with borders to eight countries. It is”,
as has been emphasised in this debate,
“a vital NATO ally and has important minorities, particularly Kurds and Armenians, as its citizens. Half a million people of Turkish or Kurdish descent live in the UK and they are desperately worried about their families. With 2 million British visitors a year, Turkey is greatly loved in this country, and the interests of our two countries cannot be separated.”—[Official Report, 19 July 2016; Vol. 613, c. 685.]
I hope you will allow me to make a couple of personal points, Mr Bone. My personal commitment to Turkey has always been very strong. I was chair of the all-party group for Turkey from 2010 to 2016; I organised our visits to Turkey and Turkish parliamentarians’ visits to London. I have a passion for the country and for its people, culture and cuisine. I have a personal reason for that: it was the Ottomans who in the 15th century allowed the Jews of southern Spain, my ancestors, to settle in parts of the Ottoman empire, including Salonika and Istanbul, where they thrived for 450 years until the Nazis destroyed that community. I believe that that makes me somewhat more Turkish than the Foreign Secretary.
Early this morning, I returned from a Front-Bench visit to Cyprus. This debate is not about Cyprus, but there is huge concern there about interference by the Turkish Government and about the interest of Mr Erdogan in stopping or at least slowing a settlement that is so near to being achieved after 43 years. That is a subject for a further debate, perhaps.
The contributions from so many right hon. and hon. Members this afternoon have emphasised that this country’s friendship with and closeness to Turkey are only being questioned by the coup and its aftermath.
My hon. Friend stresses the importance of the UK’s relations with Turkey. The Foreign Affairs Committee is carrying out an inquiry into that subject, and I was in Ankara with other Committee members in January. I hope that when we publish our report in a few weeks’ time, we will have the opportunity to debate it in Parliament properly and at length.
It was with the Foreign Affairs Committee that I first visited Turkey; I enjoyed being there and seeing my own inheritance from that country. I look forward to reading the Committee’s report, to the debate on it and to the contributions of many hon. Members to that debate.
The coup of July 2016 resulted in a state of emergency enacted by Parliament that was expected to be temporary, but as we know, it was extended in January 2017 and now appears to be indefinite. The state of emergency allows for rule by decree and the temporary suspension of many rights in Turkey. Authorities have used it to target suspected political rivals and reduce the space for civil society. As a consequence, as we have heard today, checks and balances and human rights have shrunk in Turkey as it has been pushed further away from a system in which the rule of law was guaranteed.
On 18 January, just before Donald Trump was installed as President of the United States, The Guardian wrote:
“Turkey’s regime is fast degenerating into outright dictatorship, emboldened by the imminent ascent of Donald Trump”.
The irony is that before President Erdogan and his party democratically won power, they themselves were victims of human rights abuses. Erdogan was imprisoned in 1999 for reciting a religious poem, and the fiercely secular constitution and the elite consistently attempted to undermine his mildly Islamist political forces in the country. I find that deeply ironic.
As hon. Members have emphasised, more than 40,000 people have been imprisoned and more than 120,000 public sector workers—police, prosecutors, judges, civil servants and academics—have been dismissed. Turkey temporarily derogated from many of the protections in the European convention on human rights and the international covenant on civil and political rights. As Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said:
“Instead of building on the cross-party unity opposed to the coup to strengthen democracy, Turkey’s government has opted for a ruthless crackdown on critics and opponents”.
We have heard some excellent speeches this afternoon. It goes without saying that my right hon. Friend the Member for Enfield North, who moved the motion, said many important things, including that the UK Government must do better in supporting human rights; I will be interested to hear the Minister’s reply to that. My right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy) made a powerful speech. I had not realised that his constituency has the largest number of Turkish speakers in the entire United Kingdom. He made the essential point that Turkey is now a democracy in name only. I hope that the Minister will pick up on some of the issues that my right hon. Friend raised.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd), who has an impeccable record on human rights, raised the subject of arms sales. Will we increase our arms sales to Turkey? Labour Members hope not, but what are the Government doing to ensure that that does not happen? The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), as always, highlighted the persecution of Christians and other groups in countries where they are in a minority; we can always rely on him to emphasise that and to stand up for oppressed minorities. The hon. Member for Glasgow East (Natalie McGarry) said that the use of the coup as a “bloody blank cheque” to oppress opponents of the regime cannot possibly be acceptable.
I will conclude shortly, because I want to hear what the Minister has to say, as we all do. The constitutional referendum that will take place on 16 April is worrying. Many people in Cyprus talked about it when I was there this week; they are very concerned, because 100,000 people in Northern Cyprus will have a vote. The Turkish Deputy Prime Minister is currently in the north of Cyprus, canvassing support for the referendum. He is encouraging people to vote, because they believe that it is on a knife edge. The referendum is on changing the constitution to give President Erdogan huge new powers to remain as President until 2019—barring any future attempts to change the constitution to allow him to rule for any longer. That is something that Presidents in Bolivia and Burundi, for example, have attempted in the past. Is Turkey really on a par with those countries? I believe not; I believe that Turkey and the Turkish people certainly deserve better.
I will briefly mention the issue of asylum seekers. Four years ago, I went to Yayladagi, a refugee camp just on the tip of southern Hatay, almost butting into Syria, where the Turkish authorities were looking after hundreds of thousands of desperate refugees. We must take our hats off to Turkey for the work it has done for Syrian refugees, and we must give it more support, but what is currently happening makes that more difficult.
My hon. Friend makes a very powerful point. I went to Harran camp—an exemplary camp run by the Turkish authorities, it has to be said. We should give credit where credit is due.
All my hon. Friend’s comments on Turkey’s internal problems and its undemocratic actions are very valid, but before he concludes, will he touch on the issues on Turkey’s border? There are 2,000 Turkish troops in Bashiqa who are almost getting into conflict with the popular mobilisation units—
I apologise that I will not be able to take up that point, but perhaps we can come back to it when the Foreign Affairs Committee’s report comes out.
Let me briefly touch on women’s rights. President Erdogan has publicly stated that he does not believe in gender equality. He calls abortion “murder” and birth control “treason”. Yesterday was, of course, International Women’s Day. On lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights, we know that those who abuse, attack and even murder people who are self-declared members of the LGBT community are getting off very lightly under the judicial system.
It is a pleasure to respond to this very important debate. I join the Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for Leeds North East (Fabian Hamilton), in saying that it is a shame that we did not have longer. I hope that the powers that be will recognise that it is important that the matter is discussed.
I join others in congratulating the right hon. Members for Enfield North (Joan Ryan), and for Tottenham (Mr Lammy), my hon. Friend the Member for Worthing West (Sir Peter Bottomley) and the hon. Member for Glasgow East (Natalie McGarry) on their speeches. Hon. Members will have noticed that I am not my right hon. Friend the Minister for Europe and the Americas, who should be replying to this debate. He is travelling at the moment. I will do my best to respond to the big themes that have been raised today and I will ask him to write to individual Members with detailed responses to some of the questions that have been put. There simply is not time for me to go into too much detail now, due to the shortness of this debate.
As has been said, the UK has an important relationship with Turkey which stretches back over 400 years. As the Prime Minister said during her visit to Ankara in January, that relationship has long been important, but it is arguably even more important now, given the challenges we face today. Turkey is a vital strategic partner. It stands on the crossroads between Europe and the middle east, and it is a NATO ally, as many hon. Members mentioned. It stands on the frontline of some of the most serious challenges that we face. Turkey is a Muslim-majority democracy with a dynamic economy, and it has an active and important diaspora in this country.
I will talk about some of the key aspects of our relationship, the first of which is security. Turkey plays a crucial role in the region. It is a key partner in Syria, where we are working together in the global coalition to fight Daesh and in support of a political solution to the conflict. However, we are also working together to tackle challenges in Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Afghanistan and the wider region, including in support of a Cyprus settlement, which has been mentioned. Our security co-operation with Turkey is essential to ensure the safety of British tourists in Turkey—about 1.7 million Britons travel there each year—and to help us to tackle threats here in the UK.
We should not forget the significant role that Turkey plays in the migration crisis. I pay tribute to the work that Turkey has done in hosting almost 3 million Syrian refugees. The generosity of the Turkish people has been extraordinary.
I am afraid I will not give way, simply because of the time.
During her visit to Turkey, the Prime Minister agreed a new strategic security partnership, which will ensure that we can work together even more closely on counter-terrorism, serious and organised crime, and illegal migration. Also, there were discussions about human rights, the rule of law and democracy.
The second particularly important aspect of our relationship with Turkey is trade. Bilateral trade between our countries is currently worth £16 billion. We are looking to build rapidly on that, not least with the agreement between the Turkish aerospace industry and BAE Systems to collaborate on Turkey’s new fighter jet, the TFX. Our two countries have also established a trade working group to seek further ways of boosting bilateral trade.
Consequently, it was as a partner and an ally that the UK stood shoulder to shoulder with Turkey in July last year as it defended its democracy from an attempt to seize power by force. Turkey’s Parliament was attacked by the country’s own aircraft, civilians were crushed under tanks and 241 people were killed. We condemned the attempted coup unreservedly and continue to do so, and we have expressed our sympathies and condolences for the tragic loss of life. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Europe and the Americas travelled to Turkey shortly after the attempted coup, and expressed our solidarity with the Turkish people. The way that they rallied across the political spectrum to support the constitutional order was an impressive demonstration of the strength of Turkish democracy.
In light of the attempted coup, the Turkish Government have a right and a responsibility to act against the perpetrators and against those who have committed or who plan to commit terrorist acts. The UK Government have consistently stated that it is important that measures taken following the coup should be proportionate, justified and in line with Turkey’s democratic principles and international human rights obligations. Of course, we are aware that concerns have been raised, including by the Council of Europe, and we welcome Turkey’s recent steps to address those concerns by reducing the custody period and creating a mechanism for reviewing dismissals carried out under the state of emergency. We support the dialogue between Turkey and the Council of Europe on implementation of the emergency decrees following the coup and we urge them to continue dialogue on these issues.
In addition to concerns about Turkey’s response to the attempted coup, concerns have been expressed about its broader human rights record. In this area too, we regularly emphasise the need for Turkey to meet its international obligations. The Prime Minister referred to that directly in January, emphasising the importance of Turkey sustaining its democracy by maintaining the rule of law and upholding its international human rights obligations. We regularly highlight the role that freedom of expression and freedom of the media play in supporting democracy, and we urge the Turkish Government to ensure that the upcoming referendum on constitutional reform is free, fair and in line with international norms.
Internally, Turkey faces a grave terrorist challenge on its own soil from Daesh and al-Qaeda, as well as from the PKK and affiliated groups. In the last 18 months, nearly 1,500 Turkish civilians and security personnel have been killed through terrorism, and we offer our condolences for the many lives that have been lost. In the face of this threat, we stand by Turkey and support its legitimate right to defend itself, including from the PKK, whose attacks we condemn, as we condemn all terrorism. As in any conflict, civilian casualties should be avoided and human rights should be fully protected. In the course of the counter-terrorism effort, it is important that legal processes are undertaken fairly, transparently and with full respect for the law.
Turkey is and will remain an essential trade and foreign policy partner for the UK, including as a NATO ally. We are working with Turkey to manage cross-border challenges, including migration, terrorism, and serious and organised crime, and we are building on our already significant trading relationship, which will benefit both our economies. At the same time, we have to be clear and direct about the need for Turkey to uphold its international obligations, including on human rights, and we will continue to do this. We firmly believe that the rule of law and fundamental rights, including freedom of expression and the media, are vital for a healthy democracy. As Turkey continues to confront the extraordinary challenges posed by the current turmoil in the region, and to tackle multiple security threats at home, the UK will remain a partner and a friend.
I thank the Minister for his response to this debate, and I thank all Members who have taken part in it and supported it. I was very encouraged by the response of my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds North East (Fabian Hamilton) on the Labour Front Bench. However, although I have thanked the Minister for his time and contribution, it was a very disappointing contribution, and many people in the Turkish, Kurdish and Alevi communities here will also be disappointed. Indeed, the disappointment will be even more widespread, because people in this country are very committed on human rights.
We need to say and do so much more to be a critical friend of Turkey. I do not think we are being critical enough of what is happening in that country. Just as the Kurdish people in Turkey defended their democracy and President Erdogan, only to find him then turning on them, we may come to regret not taking a much stronger line on what is happening in Turkey and with Mr Erdogan. It is not for us to tell the Turkish people how to vote in their referendum, but if it were for us to do so, I would say, “Vote no. Don’t vote for this slide into authoritarianism, for this oppression, for these detentions, for these arrests, for this loss of human rights and for this complete ignoring of the parliamentary democracy in Turkey that is valued by Turkish people.”
I do not think we are a friend to Turkey if we do not speak up loudly now, while it matters. When we do finally speak up, it may well be far too late and we may well deeply regret the fact that we are not now taking the responsibility that we should be taking. Yes, Turkey is a NATO ally and, yes, that is very important, but it does not have to be a case of trade or human rights; there needs to be both.
I thank the right hon. Lady and all those who participated in this debate, particularly as there were so many people attending it.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered human rights and the political situation in Turkey.