Tuesday 21 March 2017
[Ms Nadine Dorries in the Chair]
DVLA and Private Car Parking Companies
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the relationship between the DVLA and private car parking companies.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries. I thank my colleagues on the Backbench Business Committee for allocating this slot for the debate. I was pleased to be joined in my application by the hon. Member for Hyndburn (Graham Jones), who I can see in his place. I am sure that he will follow my remarks with his usual alacrity.
I want to be clear that this debate is not about what is charged in a car park. Normally when we talk about car parking and parking fees, we talk about local councils and the balance between how much is charged for an hour’s parking and the trade that a town centre may receive. This debate is not about that. This is very much about the relationship between a body of the state—the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency—and private companies that seek to enforce parking contracts.
If we own a car, we are all required by law to supply the details of the keeper of the vehicle to the DVLA; it is a criminal offence not to. To be clear—because it certainly is not clear in many of the letters that go out if someone is not a lawyer or conversant with this area—this is not about people committing offences, but about when people are deemed to have breached a parking contract. The contract can be on a sign on a wall with quite a lot of small print. Those of us who are skilled in the legal world may be able to understand it—I am sure you would easily read through it all, Ms Dorries—but for most people it is not an easy or digestible read. When people drive in, they are unlikely to see the sign and to read the terms and conditions before they get in the parking space, but they have already been caught on the camera systems that are used to enforce car park contracts, which is what has brought the issue to my attention.
I hope that over the next hour and a half we will consider what we as Members feel about the current system and its relationship with the DVLA and how we think it should change. We must be clear that, if it were not for that relationship and the DVLA’s ability to get hold of the keeper’s details, many of the issues brought to me, and I am sure to other right hon. and hon. Members, would not exist, because it would not be possible to enforce this in the way it is being enforced now.
I also want to be clear that the next hour and a half is not about portraying every private car park operator as a rogue operator. Most, but not all, operate good-quality car parks at a reasonable price and use methods of enforcement that are perfectly fair and reasonable. However, some need to be tackled.
What first brought the issue to my attention were two car parks in my constituency: the Crossways shopping centre car park in Paignton and the Marina car park in Torquay. The Crossways car park is managed by Premier Parking Solutions of Newton Abbot and the Marina one is managed by a different company, Premier Park. Since my election as a Member of Parliament, I have received complaints about enforcement practices in both car parks. I accept that people are not happy when they receive a fine if they have not paid or for whatever reason, but what stuck out about those two car parks was that the number of complaints I was receiving about them far exceeded the number of complaints I was receiving about the entirety of Torbay Council’s parking enforcement. Given Torbay Council’s parking enforcement covers 39 car parks and all on-street car parking violations, it was noticeable that the two car parks were generating far more complaints than I was receiving about the council’s entire operation.
Issues raised with me included everything from unclear signs to bad lighting. There was a day when a particular letter or number was not working on the keypad, which meant that everyone with that particular letter or number in their registration found themselves getting a letter a few weeks later. Also, I started to get letters from colleagues complaining about the car parks concerned when their own constituents had visited Paignton or Torquay on holiday, looking to enjoy themselves, and had had a nasty surprise that would encourage them not to come back.
Parliamentary privilege is a great right, but also a responsibility, so we alert individuals or companies when we are thinking of referring to them. I wrote to both the companies concerned. To give Premier Parking Solutions of Newton Abbot, which runs the Crossways car park, its due, last Friday, I had its managing director, general manager and business development manager come to see me to discuss the various issues that had been raised about their car park. They listed a range of things that they feel will deal with the matters raised and complained about. I will obviously look for the proof in the pudding and see whether complaints decline. I accept that there will always be the odd one, but I certainly hope that we will see the back of some of the complaints and issues that I have seen so far.
The other company, Premier Park, decided not to give any form of detailed reply. Given the sheer number of complaints I have had about the Marina car park, which is a car park you drive into without realising exactly what you are entering, suspicions have been raised. Even when told that it was likely to be discussed under parliamentary privilege, the company was not particularly interested in engaging, and also did not engage with BBC Radio Devon this morning, so that creates real suspicions that it is looking to run a business model based on catching people out as much as on what it charges in the car park. That gives rise to suspicions that this is not a genuine parking enforcement operation intended to stop people chancing their arm—I accept people will do that, so there needs to be some enforcement—but that this is an operation looking to enforce and act in a way that no one would see as conscionable. It therefore says a lot that, even when given a chance to offer a final explanation before being named today, the company did not wish to do so.
If it were just a couple of car parks in Torbay, I would probably view the matter as a constituency campaigning issue and something I could pick up with the local trading standards department. Yet it was interesting to see the number of other issues that started to be raised as I talked to colleagues. I can see colleagues nodding in the Chamber now. I am sure that we will hear more examples during the debate. I looked at the Library and RAC Foundation figures on how many transactions there are between the DVLA and private parking companies. It is estimated that they will exceed 4 million in this financial year, which is a very large increase compared with the position in 2012. When private wheel clamping was banned under the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012, the impact assessment suggested that there would be 500,000 extra requests, which is not a surprise given the change in enforcement techniques, but there has been an increase of nearly 3 million, which highlights the issues.
The DVLA charges companies £2.50, and some information suggests it costs DVLA more than that to process each application. Perhaps the Minister will cover whether the DVLA is losing money in this area, because it would add insult to injury if taxpayers were helping to subsidise the operation.
We have to be clear that these are not fines. However, it is the DVLA’s information—something is sent out that looks like a fine, probably for about £100, which is the maximum, but far above what councils charge. There is no suggestion that councils outside of London need to charge such a fine when people do not pay in the car park. However, that supply of information makes people think it is much more official than it is, and of course it makes it look as though the state supports what is being done. Ultimately, the only source of the information could have been the state, the DVLA, given that there is no other way of getting hold of the registered keeper’s details.
When I started to look into this issue, many Members wrote to me, and I still get letters today about how the system works. Many of them cover the suspicion that automated number plate recognition systems are used as an opportunity, first, to fine people after they have left and, secondly, to make the process easy. For example, someone who drives in, waits to see if there is a space, drives out and ends up getting a fine would not get that fine if there were manual enforcement, because someone enforcing tickets would see that that person was waiting. Likewise, barrier systems do not let a car in the car park unless there is a space. This system is a kind of invisible barrier that can become a nasty trap that the driver finds out about later.
I am clear that there does need to be enforcement. If someone goes into a privately owned car park and plonks their car in a disabled bay, I have no problem with the idea that they receive a significant fine for such antisocial behaviour. However, there are real issues emerging from the system of enforcement that has grown up over recent years.
I have particular questions for the Minister; I will give him time to note them down. Is he content that the current relationship between the DVLA and private parking enforcement companies is appropriate? Does he believe that there should be a single standards setting body? In my investigation of the subject, one aspect I found quite interesting is that there are two such bodies, with similar sounding objectives and appeals processes. Is that a sensible system or should there be one single standards-setting body, over which the Government have more oversight? I would suggest, however, that it is probably more sensible that that be based in and funded and organised by the industry, rather than an “Ofpark”-style body set up directly by the Government.
Does the Minister believe that enough action is being taken to deal with rogue actors and offenders in the industry? Many Members will probably give examples of where they think not enough action is being taken. Although some rogue actors and offenders have been removed, the presence of two different bodies as the accredited trade associations that a company needs to be part of to access the DVLA breeds confusion in the public eye.
Is a response to the 2015 consultation likely to be published? Would we be better to conclude that the Government may take the view that, two years on, it may be better to look afresh at how the DVLA works with private parking companies?
There are some good operators out there providing reasonable car parks at a fair price and some operators charge a premium for a slightly better service. That is a matter for them and for their business. What we need to take action on is the growing scandal where more and more people receive these invoices, which look official and which are able to be issued only because of the active co-operation of a body of the state that gives the information for them to do so. There needs to be a change in that relationship. There need to be clearer and stronger standards and much more transparency in how those standards are set, in exchange for information from the Government.
We got rid of the cowboy clampers in the last Parliament. The suspicion is that the cowboy clampers have now become the cowboy finers and cowboy invoicers. Although they may wish to leave their spur marks on car parks across the country, I hope the Minister will be clear what action will be taken to ensure that they have to ride off into the sunset for good.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries. I congratulate the hon. Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) on securing this debate.
I speak from the perspective of the consumer and the tourist who visits the south-west on a regular basis, rather than as a Member of Parliament dealing with complaints submitted by the public. The car parking in my constituency is run by Sandwell Council. Although I am sure that there are plenty of residents who have had issues over the years, I cannot honestly say that I have received the volume of complaints in my postbag that would justify me taking up the issue. However, I have had personal experience as a tourist in the south-west with a private parking company, which I would like to bring to the hon. Gentleman’s notice. That experience raised concerns, and I considered taking exactly the same actions as he has. I will not mention the company concerned because I have not informed it—as he said, there are issues around parliamentary privilege that should not be exploited—but it is legitimate to mention my experience.
As someone educated at Exeter University, and whose ancestors on my father’s side all hail from the Falmouth and Penryn area, I have an enduring affection for the area and love to visit it, which I do on a regular basis. However, as a tourist, I have had two experiences there that were exceedingly off-putting.
The first was when I parked at Falmouth quayside car park and left the car. It was very windy. I went back, picked up a coat and then came back later to find that I had got a parking notice. What had happened in the meantime was that my ticket had blown off the dashboard and was on the floor. I appealed to the company and got a response offering to halve the fine. I was still indignant, but thought, like many people in my position, “Oh, what the heck; I will accept it as a compromise,” and paid up. That was a couple of years ago.
Last year, I parked at Perranporth. On that occasion it was pouring with rain, and I decided it was not immediately appropriate to go for a walk on the beach. I joined my wife for a cup of tea in a nearby café, leaving the car window open because we had the dog in the back. We came back and took the dog for a walk, returned to the car and found that, yet again, I had got a parking ticket. I was quite astonished because my ticket was on the dashboard, but then I realised what had happened. I have a Honda Civic and the dashboard is split-level: the ticket had slid under the ledge at the front and was not visible from the front. Well, I took the ticket and very indignantly went to the attendant, who said, “Oh, you can appeal.” So I did.
Within four hours, I was appealing online. I got a response and some photos, which basically dismissed everything I said. There were two photos—one taken from the front of the car, in which the ticket was not visible, and the other from the passenger-side window, in which where the ticket was could be seen with difficulty. Had that photo been taken from the driver’s side, the ticket would have been perfectly visible and readable. I was furious. I have dug my heels in and not paid the fine. To date, I have received three debt collection notices; I am collecting them and waiting to see what the company does about it.
My constituent, Steve Mostyn, parked in the Clarkston car park. He paid his 50p and was a bit surprised to receive a penalty charge. It appeared that he had keyed in a digit wrongly; the number he had keyed in did not actually appear in the DVLA database—that registration number did not exist—but the company still fined him. He found that completely unacceptable. He thinks that the model that Smart Parking is operating is corrupt and unethical, and is particularly concerned that those who are more vulnerable and those who can perhaps least afford to pay are those who will not feel able to appeal and will just cave in. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that that is simply unacceptable?
I have heard similar cases. I have detected a difference in the way in which local authority-run parking systems are reasonably responsive to that. The private car parking operators are not. Again, it points to a culture and philosophy that is designed to catch people out and make the most money out of perfectly human mistakes, despite the fact that an individual on every other criteria will have demonstrated that they not only accept the principle of paying, but have done their personal best to conform to the conditions that preside over the process.
From my experience in the south-west, there are a number of issues that have to be looked at. First, there is the issue of organisations that employ private car parking companies to exercise this activity. After my experience at Perranporth, I complained to the organisation that employs the private car parking company, but it just dismissed my complaint and said that it had contacted the company concerned and that I could appeal—we were going round in circles.
Any organisation in an area such as the south-west, which is hugely dependent on the tourism industry, has to take a degree of responsibility for the way in which the company it contracts to operate its car parks behaves. Tourism is a highly competitive industry, and if anybody who goes on holiday to those areas has such an experience, their abiding memory will be the injustice that has been inflicted upon them, despite the fact that they tried to be law-abiding, civil citizens and tourists. They not only feel that personally, but recount it to other people, which deters would-be visitors to the area. Those companies do no service to their area or their tourist industry by having such a system.
As the hon. Gentleman highlighted, this raises legal issues, because by and large tourists are not lawyers and do not know about the legal vacuum in which those companies operate, so they assume that the companies have to conform to laws that do not actually exist. There is a wider issue of educating the public, and I think there is a very good case for tightening up the regulation to ensure the companies that operate private car parks are licensed and subject to an agreed set of standards. There should be an appeal process that is totally independent of the industry to adjudicate when there are genuine disputes, as there always will be in such circumstances.
I fear that areas that make the mistake of employing that sort of company could damage themselves and the industry to the detriment of the perception of the area and to the benefit of the most sharp-practiced operators—the hon. Gentleman described them as cowboys. I ask the Minister to look at the issues that the hon. Gentleman and I raised, and those that I am sure other hon. Members will raise, with a view to looking at how the regulation of the industry can be tightened up to the benefit of the affected individuals and the economies of the areas where such practices operate.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) on securing this important debate on an issue of particular interest to the area I represent.
I am privileged to live in the most beautiful part of our country, and I have the honour of representing the great people of St Austell and Newquay. It is because of our stunning scenery, our beaches, our wonderful heritage and our excellent food that 4 million people a year come to Cornwall on holiday. I am delighted to learn that the hon. Member for West Bromwich West (Mr Bailey) is one of those who comes to enjoy all that Cornwall has to offer. An additional 14 million people a year come to Cornwall for a day visit, and the vast majority of them come by car. That is where we start to get into some of the issues.
One of the jewels in Newquay’s crown is the very special Fistral beach, which is the surfing capital of Cornwall, and indeed of Europe. The beaches of north Cornwall attract many people to the area. In the summer, we can see more than 10,000 people on our beaches in north Cornwall, many of whom go into the sea to catch the waves on nice days. It has even been known for Prime Ministers to come to catch the odd wave in the Newquay area, which is always very welcome.
People come and park their cars. On their journey home, they battle through the roadworks on the A30 at Temple, which are soon to be completed thanks to the Minister’s support. When they eventually get home, they unpack their car with their hearts full of happy memories from their time in Newquay, and open their front door to find the inevitable pile of brown envelopes. In among the envelopes, there is a sinister-looking one, which they open to discover it is a penalty charge notice from a private parking firm that has issued it as a result of their stay in Newquay—it is an invoice masquerading as a fine.
As the hon. Member for West Bromwich West pointed out so well, that becomes people’s lasting memory of their time in Newquay. It ruins their memory of that holiday, because they feel they have been unjustly billed. That is very often the case. The reasons why penalty charges are issued are often spurious. It can be for overstaying for very few minutes. It can be, as the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Kirsten Oswald) said, because when they put their car registration number into the machine they got one digit wrong. I have been told that people sometimes go into the car park, find that there are no spaces available, wait a few minutes to see whether one becomes available, and then after some time give up and decide to move elsewhere, only to find that they have overstayed the grace period and that their car has been clocked by the camera. They then receive an invoice as a result.
As has been said, that situation damages the reputation of Newquay and many other holiday areas where such parking firms operate. I believe we need to take action. Many of the hard-working businesses in places such as Newquay are owned by families who go out of their way to welcome tourists. They go the extra mile to look after them well, which is why tourists keep coming back to those places. Those parking firms damage the reputation of those areas and other people’s businesses. They do not damage themselves, because they hide behind anonymous PO boxes. They are faceless organisations that do not face the public.
The hon. Lady makes a very good point. Absolutely—the whole point is that those parking firms are not damaging their own reputation. In fact, a cynic might say that their whole business model is built on being able to issue extra charges. Their businesses are profitable because they charge people extra money. It does not damage their businesses; it damages the many other businesses in our coastal areas and town centres that rely on people coming back and being able to park. The action of those firms puts people off.
Some hon. Members have said that they are inclined not to name the parking firms. I am going to name two, and there is a very good reason why I am going to do so. I would like the Minister’s help. My office has received many pieces of correspondence, both from local people from Newquay and tourists who have gone to Newquay on holiday, complaining about those companies’ actions and the unfair way they believe they have been treated. Despite numerous attempts by my office to contact those firms and open some constructive dialogue with them, not once have they responded. They have not got back to me or even given me the courtesy of sending a letter saying, “Please leave us alone. Go away. We don’t want to talk to you.” Never, not once, have they responded, despite my many attempts to contact them.
I am therefore more than happy to name ParkingEye and Smart Parking as the firms operating in Newquay in that way. They deserve to be named because of their refusal to respond to me as the local Member of Parliament. I ask the Minister what more the Government could do to make such firms engage—to force them, if necessary—and have a constructive dialogue when issues arise, so that we as Members of Parliament may represent our constituents and the businesses in our constituencies to resolve some cases so that the image of our towns is not tarnished.
We need to look at the relationship the firms have with the DVLA. In my view, they are abusing their privileged relationship and their access to drivers’ information in order to issue penalty charges. When we have unfair practices and firms operating in ways that damage other businesses, it is right for the Government to look at the situation carefully and to introduce regulation or, if necessary, legislation in order to stop those unfair practices and protect other businesses, which rely on people being able to park. I am delighted that we have been able to have this debate, and I hope that as a result we will see some positive and constructive action.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries. I am delighted to have the opportunity to speak, having received several heavy mailbags from constituents about private car parking companies in my area. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) for securing the debate and for all his work on the subject. He gave an excellent speech.
For too long, cowboy private car parking companies have operated with impunity. Many have reasonable practices, but a considerable number operate in a way that is not conducive to holiday resorts, as several hon. Members have said, or to town centres, as the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Kirsten Oswald) mentioned, and that is certainly not in the best interests of motorists or the community in general. Without any substantial legislation or regulation, those companies have been free—to be fair—to rip off car park users and charge bogus fees. In my view and that of the British public, it is time to act. The reality for far too many motorists up and down the country is that people are duped into false charges and harassed by firms that, as has been mentioned, somehow manage to get hold of personal information, whether through the DVLA or other sources.
A considerable number of constituents have written to me asking what can be done to tackle private parking companies, because they have found themselves powerless. Presented with a process that is not transparent but opaque, people have no clear way to resolve problems. I will draw attention to examples from my constituency before suggesting what to do to tackle the scourge. I, too, will name some of the companies involved, but that is because they have been named every week in the Accrington Observer and the Lancashire Telegraph, so I am not bringing anything new to the public that has not been said previously. I am repeating it for the benefit of the House and the Minister.
Eastgate is a big retail park in Accrington. Back in 2012 much anger and frustration was caused for hundreds—I mean hundreds—of people when its private car park operator, Excel, misled them about its parking charges. I recall having to deal with that as the local MP for week after week. Excel changed the three-hour parking limit to 90 minutes without any clear warnings. The firm announced its new policy on signs hidden behind trees on the edge of the car park. It then issued hundreds of fines to shoppers, with demands for immediate payment or even higher fines once they had understandably failed to spot the notices. Some disabled people were also caught out by the changes, and they threatened court action with the help of the National Motorists Action Group, which was very helpful—I would recommend the group to anyone fighting pernicious private parking companies which operate such voracious policies.
The National Motorists Action Group, the local councillor in charge Clare Pritchard and I had a running battle with Excel about changing its policy. The issue was a difficult one and it bounced around the press for weeks and weeks, before the company finally changed—in fact, Excel was fired by the management company. One of the complications was that the retail park owners had not only let some of the units on the site to businesses, but let the parking contract to a management company which had sublet it to the private car parking company.
After that battle, we ended up with Excel deciding that anyone who had not paid was to be let off—the fines were rescinded, and there was no need for people to pay—but it refused to give refunds to those who had done the right thing and paid the fine, even those who had been threatened multiple times. Excel got away with that. I ask the Minister, how can some people have their fines rescinded because they have not paid and others pay but never receive a refund? What does that say to the British public? That is totally unacceptable.
Another car parking company operates at the Accrington Arndale shopping centre. I receive dozens of complaints about some of its practices, with people being fined for whatever little reason, such as being even an inch over the line or five minutes past the time limit. I draw the Minister’s attention to that—surely under the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 and so on some latitude is allowed to some of our constituents in such a position—and to how the appeals process does and does not work. Going back to Excel, NMAG and a disabled constituent of mine had to go through the courts to seek redress, which is unacceptable.
Another cowboy private company has already been alluded to by Members, and a more recent issue is that of the new buttons on the machines in some car parks. I have had several complaints about a company operating such machines. For example, an elder constituent told me that he had been fined and he had lost his appeal. He is fortunate that he has an appeals process, although he did not win it. He is 81, I think, and he had to bend double to see the buttons. The screens and buttons are at a low height and, on a sunny day, he was unable to bend down sufficiently to enter the information accurately. He tried and, most of the time, succeeded, but on the occasion in question he put the wrong digit in. He explained that he had paid for his time in the car park—he had the ticket—but the company was not interested. He was forced to pay the fine.
I appreciate that valid point. We are talking about private car parking companies in private car parks, and not about statutory or public car parks, which are not part of the debate. We are talking about the practices of some companies outside any firm regulations or guidelines. I will address the point about that difference in a minute.
One lady could not buy a ticket from the machine at that car park because it was broken. She still ended up with a fine, even though she left a note on her windscreen to say that the machine was broken. The company has been mentioned already, so I will do so again—I have no shame in naming such companies, because they need to be shamed. ParkingEye was also mentioned by the hon. Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double), and it operates that particular car park on the edge of my constituency. I find that practice abominable. She put a note on her windscreen, which should be sufficient if the machine is broken. That £1 parking charge quickly became £100 because of the firm’s own administrative incompetence and failure to fix the machine.
As I say, other constituents have come to see me about that particular car park. One was an elderly gentleman who could not bend down to see the screen and, on one occasion, entered a wrong digit. Giving a fine for that is totally and utterly unacceptable. Members on both sides of the Chamber who have spoken, and probably all Members of the House, are well aware of such scandals in their constituencies. This issue is not unique to my constituency or coastal constituencies—it seems to happen in all our constituencies all the time, up and down the country.
Although private car parking companies were barred from wheel clamping by legislation, they seem, as other Members have intimated, to be in the game of trying to find new ways to extract money from motorists, perhaps to make up for some of their old practices having been barred. One gripe that all Members have mentioned is that, under the Road Vehicles (Registration and Licensing) Regulations 2002, the DVLA provides information to those car parking companies. Actually, I believe that they can purchase it—according to NMAG, the DVLA sells information, which is worrying. That practice should end, and there should be better regulation. Those companies access that information and then pursue motorists. I am deeply concerned about that relationship, and the Minister ought to look at it, because it is not right.
The hon. Gentleman is making some good points. Citizens Advice Scotland highlighted in its briefing on this subject that many companies still issue tickets whose appearance mimics those issued by the police or the local authority, have difficult-to-read signage in their car parks and, at times, charge fees of more than £500. Does he agree that it is time that the British Parking Association and the International Parking Community strengthen and properly enforce their supposedly strict codes of practice, or ensure that rogue companies lose their right to the release of vehicle owner information?
I was going to come to the two parking organisations that the hon. Lady mentions, which seem to have no transparent processes. One of them—I think it is the BPA—has a very opaque appeals process, if it has one at all. Not every private car parking company is actually affiliated or associated with either of those organisations.
Passing off is a massive issue. People turn up at car parks run by private companies to see a yellow and black zig-zag all the way around a cellophane or plastic envelope stuck to their windscreen that is simply passing off as a statutory notice. It is not a statutory notice, and it is not a fine—it is a charge. There is no clear distinction. The Minister ought to look at that, because those little yellow and black bags that appear on people’s cars intimidate them and do not give them the necessary legal information.
The hon. Gentleman makes a crucial point. Does he agree that the Minister should also tell us when we will see proposals to stop companies continuing to receive personal data from the DVLA when they have a track record of abusing it by sending out legally incompetent frighteners to people and charging inflated fees for overstaying?
I was going to say that the third point raised by the hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Deidre Brock) was inflated fines. I said that, in one case, a fine had gone from £1 to £100. I hear that fines go even further in other constituencies. That is totally unacceptable. I return to the point that there is a lack of regulation in this field. There is no transparency—there is opaqueness. It is the wild west, and there are real concerns—first about passing off, secondly about the process when people are fined, and thirdly about the DVLA’s relationship with private parking companies. The Minister ought to reflect on Members’ concerns. I am sure that if I asked the 635 or so Members who are not in the Chamber—I do not know how many are here—they would agree. It is time for the Government to act.
Does my hon. Friend agree that something else that needs to be looked at—I believe that this is actually illegal, but it is commonly exercised—is the threats that these companies send to people subsequently, either through debt collection agencies or by putting notices on their credit ratings? By so doing, they undermine people’s credit ratings and convey to them the belief that they will have financial penalties in the future.
My hon. Friend makes a good point. When I said that the process is not clear, I meant the process all the way down the line, from passing off and someone picking up a fine to that person opening their fine and then quickly—after a fortnight, not a month—getting a doubled demand or losing their discount. That process is threatening, intimidating and misleading, and the appeals process is not transparent. If someone contests a charge or has been away on holiday for a fortnight or three weeks, before they know it, the charge is higher, and it escalates from there. These are charges and they are contestable, but if people contest them or simply do not pay them, as they are encouraged to do by some organisations because of the issues around some of these ticketing practices, they escalate, which frightens some of our older constituents. They get worried about it. They see some of these charges—£500 has been mentioned, and I mentioned £100 in my constituency—and get very frightened by them.
May I say what a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship in this important debate, Ms Dorries? I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) for bringing it forward, because many of our constituents have complained about what is going on in the parking field. I also thank the Minister and his predecessor for their many courteous replies to the letters that I have written.
The DVLA is at the heart of this issue, not the Department for Communities and Local Government or other bodies. It is the DVLA giving out information that begins this whole unfair process, so the buck stops with the DVLA and the Minister, not with other people or regulations. It is the DVLA that has decided that it will accept accredited trade associations and give out information to them, subject, apparently, to audits that it carries out. It would be useful to hear about what audits have been done.
My hon. Friend the Member for Torbay mentioned Premier Park. I have no qualms about mentioning businesses without telling them in advance. There is no convention that we should be expected to do that, and we should be wary about limiting our right of free speech in this House. Premier Park behaved quite disgracefully to a constituent of mine and has a reputation for doing so at a place called Popham Diner, which local newspapers have written about. Has the DVLA audited that company? Has it looked into it? Has it, in response to complaints from Members of Parliament, gone beyond the accredited trade association to see what is going on?
The Government are at the heart of this matter, because it is about the principles on which our society is founded and what the Government are there to do. One of the great roles of the Government is to ensure justice and make it impossible for the strong and the powerful to bully the weak and the powerless, but the DVLA is party to helping the strong and the powerful to bully the weak and the powerless. It just says that these accredited trade organisations are, broadly, enough, but those organisations have a vested interest in approving the bodies that sign up to them, because that is where their revenue comes from. The last thing that one of those bodies wants to do is to penalise a parking company that is signed up to it, because if it does, other companies will not sign up and its revenue stream will be threatened. There is a clear conflict of interest.
To my mind, that is where the DVLA is not doing its job, because it is not protecting individuals against those who are more powerful. That is where it should change, and that is where the answer to the problem is. The DVLA should do its own approval of organisations and have its own code of conduct. The fee it charges may cover all of that—it is not unreasonable to charge a fee if you are doing the job properly and there is no vested interest. That work should be done properly by a Government body.
The law is there to protect us. This is essentially a system that is outside the law but to which the Government are party. It is not a legal process, but, as other Members have said, it appears as if it is. It appears to be the same as a fine from a local authority, but it is not. In my experience, the local authorities behave much more reasonably than the private companies. Yesterday, I had a letter from Bristol City Council, which is behaving extremely well to a constituent of mine, erring on the side of leniency to someone who made an honest mistake. The private companies do not seem to do that because their business model is otherwise, and the DVLA is party to that.
My hon. Friend makes an extremely good point. We want fairness in the process. We must understand that the DVLA has the information in the first place as a legal requirement so that the police may know to whom cars belong. That is why, by law, we are obliged to register our cars. We are not obliged to register them for the benefit of a subsequent private contract, which is a subsequent activity beyond the initial purpose of the DVLA. It was to be there for public interest, not for private contracts. Because of the way in which parking has developed, the DVLA has got involved in this private parking aspect. It earns fees from that, although apparently it is loss-making, which if true seems extraordinarily silly.
If it is not true, that is very reassuring; I am glad. However, the fact that that is not true is worrying in another direction, because the DVLA ought not to be affected in its judgment by its revenue streams. If we have an accredited parking authority that gets revenue from the car park, and the car park pays money to the DVLA to get information, there is a chain of money going through, which seems to be overriding the chain of justice and the right of the state, the duty of the state and the obligation of the state to protect the individual.
The DVLA has the solution in its hands, as do the Government. The situation requires not changes of legislation but changes by the DVLA in how it gives out information. I will carry on banging on about this until we know that companies have been suspended, that companies have been audited, that companies are not getting the information any longer and that the DVLA is taking proper charge to protect our constituents.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries, and it is a real pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Mr Rees-Mogg) and the compelling points he made. I thank my neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster), for securing the debate. In the short time left, I will touch on unreasonable practices and appeals and make a few further points following on from my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset.
There are highly unreasonable practices going on. We have heard many Members give examples. In my area, Premier Parking Solutions, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay referred, has a particular problem with its machines, which is affecting many individuals, particularly when number plate recognition is used in combination with a requirement to enter the vehicle’s number plate manually. In many cases, the machines do not record the first number of that registration plate.
The issue is that, because number plate recognition is being used, individuals do not receive a notification until about 10 days to two weeks later, by which time most reasonable people, having parked legally and paid the correct amount, will have discarded the clutter from their windscreen—I do not take much joy in tidying my car, so that would not affect me. Even if individuals have retained their ticket and can clearly prove that there has been an honest error, they find their appeals are not being upheld.
The other problem we have is the disincentive to appeal, because those who appeal have to pay a higher charge if their appeal fails—and fail it will. I have a series of clear cases from individuals who can demonstrate—I suggest to the Minister it is beyond any reasonable doubt—that they have legally parked, fully paid the correct amount and left within the required time, but who are still being hit. If they carry through the appeal process, they find they get nowhere. If they then refuse to pay, they are hit with a series of harassing letters and ultimately receive letters from debt recovery agents, which has an impact on their credit rating. That practice is wholly unacceptable, and intervention from Members of Parliament does not make any difference, either.
I am afraid that our constituents are being caught, and that has consequences. I will read from part of a letter from one of my constituents, which sums up the problem:
“I am an honest lady in my late 60s and I have never had an experience like this before. I live in rented accommodation on a limited income—I am not financially secure. It will cause me hardship to pay this fine when I fully believed I was doing everything legally and correctly.”
The letters go on. Another pensioner wrote to me:
“I am a pensioner and all this angst really upsets me…I will do as everyone else has done and pay the £60 within the allotted time and try to forget it—but I have to say the injustice really riles me.”
That is the injustice to which my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset referred. He is right that the role of Government is to stand up to help those who are powerless against such practices.
It is not just pensioners—I hear this from across a spectrum of individuals—but we should ensure that particularly those who may have difficulty in entering details via these machines have their interests protected. I agree with hon. Members who have said that at the root of the problem lies the DVLA and its complicity in the process. Will the Minister use every power he has to ensure that it takes its role and responsibility seriously? It has a responsibility to ensure that such practices are not allowed to continue. I hope that in responding he will inform all Members here, and constituents following the debate closely, what the Government will do to ensure that justice is done for all our constituents.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries. I congratulate the hon. Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) on bringing the debate to the Chamber. It has been one of those pleasant debates where everyone agrees that something needs to be done and it is in the gift of the Minister to do something about it. I look forward to hearing his remarks.
I will come to the hon. Gentleman’s remarks in a moment, but I will preface that by saying a few words about how this issue affects all the nations of the UK, despite some small variances in approach to regulation. We only have to look at the amount of times it has been raised in the UK Parliament to see that it is as much of an issue in Ipswich as it is in Inverness and across the rest of the isles. Having already discussed the practices of some private operators with Scottish Government Ministers, I am encouraged by their response in terms of what they can do. I welcome the work of the Business Services Association and others to improve the regulation of parking, and that of those seeking changes at Westminster.
However, the debate is about the relationship between private parking companies and the DVLA. While parking legislation is in the main devolved to the Scottish Government, the ownership and control of DVLA data is not. The current system has been built on the flawed premise of industry self-regulation, enabled by the provision of data from the DVLA. We are sharing DVLA data with companies whose practices, as we have heard from hon. Members today, are simply outrageous. I agree that it is right to call out companies such as Smart Parking, which has been mentioned several times and operates in my constituency too.
People are being charged excessive fines, and the tactics used to collect the debts are intimidation and threat, albeit through the written word. That is still intimidation and it is still unacceptable. I and my hon. Friends believe that access to our data is a privilege. I have asked the UK Government to put regulation on a better statutory footing. I know that operators must pay for access to the data, but I was displeased to hear that the cost of providing data to private parking operators is in fact subsidised. I will be interested to hear what the Minister says about that. The research from the Library says that the cost to the taxpayer of making up the shortfall was £612,000 in 2015—if the Minister is going to take on the might of the House of Commons Library, I will be delighted to hear what the data are. If that information is right, it means enabling what is tantamount to threatening behaviour.
The hon. Member for Torbay spoke in a measured tone; many of us feel more passion on the subject. I could tell that the passion was there, but he was holding back his anger. Certainly people hit by fines and chased for them would be unlikely to use such a measured tone. The hon. Gentleman spoke about the small terms and conditions. There are also machines that are difficult to use for reasons of height, and so forth. Perhaps when it is dark, or because it is necessary to bend down or conditions are not good, people press a zero instead of an “O” or vice versa. The hon. Gentleman talked about what reasonable behaviour would be, and it is certainly not reasonable behaviour to impose unreasonable fines without a real appeal process. I have had a similar experience to other hon. Members of writing to parking companies; Smart Parking was one that refused to acknowledge an MP wanting to act on behalf of a constituent. The hon. Gentleman also made a point about taxpayers subsidising the information, and I reiterate that I look forward to the Minister’s response to that.
The UK Government have undertaken a consultation on the matter. Last year I received written answers that made it clear that they were aware of public concern, but they had not discussed it with the companies or the DVLA. Does my hon. Friend agree that it would be useful to hear from the Minister whether those discussions have happened yet, and if not, why not?
My hon. Friend is right. The Minister is a reasonable man, and I look forward to his response. It is clearly something that he can deal with.
The hon. Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double) made an important distinction, in a phrase that is worth repeating: he said that people got an invoice masquerading as a fine. That is exactly what people get. He talked about people waiting, to look for a space, which is a common occurrence, and getting fined. He, too, had had the experience of failing to get a response from Smart Parking and the other company that he mentioned.
The hon. Member for North East Somerset (Mr Rees-Mogg) mentioned someone making an honest mistake. Surely there is room in our society for people to be able to say, “Look, I just got it wrong; I didn’t know I was in there,” if it is a reasonable and honest position. The hon. Gentleman also underlined the fact that responsibility lies with the Minister. I was struck by his comment that when the DVLA allows the data to be used by the companies in question, it enables them to bully people. That is something that clearly must be addressed.
The hon. Member for West Bromwich West (Mr Bailey) was right when he spoke about people paying the fine even though they feel it is wrong. Many people just pay because they feel they have to. It is a point of honour for them, even though it is their honour that has been unfairly besmirched by the company that fines them—or, I should say, gives them the invoice. Dismissed appeals are common. Little attention is paid to what is said, and there is no agreed set of standards, or licensing or appeals process. That, too, needs to be addressed.
My hon. Friend the Member for East Renfrewshire (Kirsten Oswald) rightly mentioned that often it is the most vulnerable people—the ones who cannot afford to pay—who end up paying high fines, which puts them in difficulty. Those people are used to trying to make ends meet, and if they get a bill, they feel a sense of honour about paying it. Also, they rarely have the opportunity to go elsewhere to seek advice.
That is an important point. It is not just a question of the unreasonable behaviour and bullying—because that it what it is. The fines are also disproportionately large compared with what might be imposed through a public sector car park, for example. As my hon. Friend the Member for East Renfrewshire, among others, said, that damages the reputation of our towns and cities, and areas that people visit for enjoyment.
The hon. Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston) talked about problems when fines come through late, when people have discarded their tickets. People clear out their cars and get rid of evidence before they receive the letters, and that is a difficulty. If there are set times for the administering of statutory fines imposed through the DVLA, that should be mirrored when fines are imposed by companies—if they are still allowed to do it. Personally, I would not allow them to do it, but in any case, speed should be a consideration.
The hon. Lady also mentioned people being hounded, even though they had paid for a ticket. I thought she was correct when she talked about “harassing” letters, because that is what they are. They are designed to harass people into paying. That is simply wrong and should not be allowed. She raised another point that is a common theme—and the Minister should listen: a message should be sent from this place to the operators that they should not be able to ignore MPs when they seek information on their constituents’ behalf and forward a reasonable case for appeal.
Some of the letters that the hon. Lady received from people were telling, because those people were saying, “Look, I’m an honest person.” That came through in the letter from the “honest lady”. That is important. People are having their honour taken away in such cases. They feel that they have done the right thing. They have tried to make things work and to do everything correctly, but they are stopped at every opportunity, by a company that would be deeply suspected by most people of trying to make money from errors. That is clearly not correct. Another of the hon. Lady’s constituents commented “I’ll pay anyway”—how unjust to have to pay anyway, even though they were not at fault. They should not have to pay those amounts.
I am keen to hear what the Minister will say, including about cost to, or profit made by, the DVLA, and whether that contradicts the information I have had from the House of Commons Library. I hope he will listen to hon. Members and make sure that there is action to hold the DVLA to account for the information it gives to Smart Parking in Inverness and all the other companies we have heard about that indulge in similar practices.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries. I congratulate the hon. Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) on bringing forward the debate, which has enabled many hon. Members to give accounts of dreadful experiences. My hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich West (Mr Bailey) powerfully explained from his experience how this works, and my hon. Friend the Member for Hyndburn (Graham Jones) described how powerless people can feel when they are treated so outrageously.
I want to concentrate my comments largely on what the Government have or have not done. In March 2015 the Department for Communities and Local Government published a consultation, “Parking reform: tackling unfair practices”. That came at a time when the Government chose to move responsibility for off-street parking to DCLG. The then Secretary of State clearly saw regulation as a problem rather than a civilising solution. I note in passing that there is still some confusion about where responsibility for parking policy lies. We will hear from a Transport Minister today, but there is clearly a lot of crossover with the Department for Communities and Local Government.
DCLG’s consultation concluded in May 2015, and the Government have still not responded. In December that year, I asked when we were likely to see the response and was told that it would be in the new year. It was not clear which new year was being referred to; we went through 2016 and are now in 2017. Just last month, I asked what reason the Government had for not publishing their response, and was told:
“We have set out a clear manifesto commitment to tackle aggressive parking enforcement and excessive parking charges, and are taking steps to tackle rogue and unfair practices by private parking operators.”
They also said they were
“considering responses to the discussion paper, and options for reform.”
However, there was no mention of when those considerations might conclude.
The responses to the initial consultation clearly show just how many problems exist, and they are very much along the lines of what we have heard from hon. Members. The summary of responses was published in May 2016, and the consensus was a stark indictment of the current situation. The majority of respondents—78%—indicated that there were problems with either how parking on private or public land is regulated or the behaviour of private parking companies. So 78% think there is a problem, yet the Government show no urgency in dealing with it. The majority of respondents considered there to be significant issues with how parking on private land currently operates, and the majority of organisations concurred. Issues raised by individual respondents included the lack of a private parking regulator to protect the interests of motorists, problems with the current appeals process, unclear signage, which we have heard about, and a general lack of clarity and information.
As the Government fiddle and tarry, a further problem has arisen. Back in 2012, the British Parking Association set up an appeals service, as the Government had requested. One of the Government’s key requests was that the service be independent, so the BPA set up the Independent Scrutiny Board for Parking Appeals on Private Land—ISPA. It may be easy for hon. Members to get confused by the acronyms, but please stick with me. More recently, the other major parking organisation, the International Parking Community, established a competing scheme.
As hon. Members have said, both schemes have access to DVLA data, without which neither would work. However, because the BPA feels that the IPC scheme has no independent scrutiny element, BPA members feel that they are being put at a disadvantage because they have to meet the cost of funding ISPA. They feel that the IPC should not have access to DVLA data without that independent scrutiny element. Because the Government have completely failed to sort all this out, the BPA will cease funding ISPA from the end of this month. The voluntary regulation system for the private parking sector is falling apart, so I am bound to ask the Minister what he and his colleagues are doing about that.
Let me say a little bit more about the relationship between the DVLA and private parking companies. On the one hand, individuals who responded to the consultation felt that the DVLA was failing to properly scrutinise private companies before releasing driver data, and many felt that it should not profit from the release of those data, as hon. Members have suggested. In turn, parking organisations said that companies already have to be governed by the code of practice, to which I have already referred, in order to access DVLA data. There are real concerns that the DVLA profits from the sale of the data that it holds on drivers. We have already heard that there are views on whether the DVLA is making or losing money, and the evidence I have seen is contradictory. I would rather welcome some clarity on that from the Minister.
The actual test for who can access those data is
“any person who can show to the satisfaction of the Secretary of State that he has reasonable cause for wanting the particulars to be made available to him.”
“Reasonable cause” is not defined in the legislation and seems to take precedence over the Data Protection Act 1998. However, since 2009, the release of that information has been limited to members of an accredited trade association, which goes back to the point I have just made.
In 2015, the Government said that the DVLA
“takes the protection and security of its data very seriously. A comprehensive set of safeguards is in place to ensure data is disclosed only where it is lawful and fair to do so. Individuals may write to the DVLA to request that their personal information is not disclosed if it would cause unwarranted and substantial damage or distress. The DVLA does not operate a blanket opt-out process but considers each such request taking into account the individual's particular circumstances.”
That comprehensive set of safeguards is vague. When pressed on the specifics in a written question, the Government answered:
“The safeguards that are in place to protect information held by the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA) vary depending on the channel used and sensitivity of the data processed through the service.”
All of that shows that the situation is a mess. There is a complex set of trade-offs between the role of data held by the state, the privacy of individuals, the rights of landowners and the obligations of operators, but in essence, the poor old driver, who just wants to park, is left dazed and confused. The British Parking Association has made a strong case for a single standard-setting body with an independent scrutiny board. It would deliver a single code of practice and a single independent appeals service for consumers. I would welcome the Minister’s views on that proposal. Ultimately, we need to see the Government finally respond to the consultation. It has been almost exactly two years now, which is surely enough time to consider the responses and come up with a plan to clarify this mess, which is pleasing no one.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) on securing the debate on the disclosure of DVLA data to private parking companies. I welcome the opportunity to discuss a matter that is clearly of concern to him and to his constituents; there is a slight bias towards the south-west, but this is clearly of concern across the UK.
Although the policy on disclosure of DVLA data is of long standing, it is true that management of parking companies and the release of vehicle keeper data frequently generate significant concern. Of course, that is entirely understandable. No one likes to receive a parking ticket, and motorists become annoyed when they are the subject of enforcement action. Many examples have been shared of inappropriate and heavy-handed enforcement action. Motorists often disagree with the principle that DVLA vehicle keeper data can be provided to private companies for such purposes. I should point out that the private parking sector is not regulated by the Government. The Department for Communities and Local Government consulted on this issue in 2015 and is currently considering the approach to any future Government intervention. I am afraid I cannot give the House a detailed time as to when that will be finished.
As it stands, the private parking industry is an unregulated sector in which common law on breach of contract or trespass applies in the relationship between the motorist and the landowner. Drivers who choose to park their vehicles on private land do so in line with the terms and conditions, which should be clearly displayed on signage at the entrance to and around the car park. Those conditions may relate to the need to pay a fee to use the car park and to display a valid ticket, to observe the maximum permitted time for parking or possibly other conditions, such as a stipulation that parking is not permitted at all.
Parking control is necessary to ensure that landowners are able to exercise their legal rights and gain the benefit they are entitled to from the use of their land for that purpose. The use of wheel clamping used to be widespread in the sector as a means of parking enforcement, but was banned in England and Wales by the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012, meaning that that method of enforcement is now effectively outlawed. I am sure that colleagues will agree that, without any form of control, errant drivers could park as they like, breaching reasonable terms and conditions without fear of recourse arising from their misuse of the land. That would obviously have a detrimental effect on the availability of parking spaces for more compliant motorists.
To be clear, no one is arguing that there should be no ability to control. Does the Minister agree that the issue is about the heavy-handed enforcement, and the fact that the fines are far above those that local authorities find are perfectly adequate for management and enforcement in their own car parks?
I do indeed recognise that. I was just trying to clarify the legal position. My hon. Friend made his case extremely well and has now clarified it again.
The law allows for the release of DVLA vehicle keeper information to those who can demonstrate that they have reasonable cause for requiring it. That provision has been in law for several decades. To receive data, a requester must show that their need relates to the use of a vehicle following incidents in which there may be liability on the part of the keeper or driver. Where a parking infringement may have taken place, it is considered reasonable to provide the vehicle keeper’s contact details, so that the matter can be taken up with the person responsible. Despite the unpopular nature of that process, it is a well-established principle in case law that such enforcement is lawful, as confirmed by the Supreme Court in late 2015.
Despite this being an unregulated industry, and while the law provides for the release of information, the DVLA has strict conditions in place in relation to the disclosure and use of data. The DVLA will only disclose vehicle keeper data to parking companies that are members of an accredited trade association; I will come on to that in more detail in a moment. Such trade associations have codes of practice that are based upon fair treatment of the motorist and require their members to operate to high professional standards of conduct, while allowing reasonable action to be taken to follow up alleged parking contraventions. The codes of practice contain requirements on clear and prominent signage, appeals processes and information that should be provided to motorists on parking tickets. They also contain requirements on the use of automatic number plate recognition cameras, which are expected to be in good working order.
There should be no hidden charges or ambiguity for the motorist as to what is and is not permitted on the land. The codes of practice require that contact with the motorist is not threatening and that parking charge notices are issued promptly, so that the driver can recall the circumstances surrounding the event. A reasonable amount of time must also be given to the motorist to allow payment to be made before any escalation of the matter occurs.
I am coming to that. I recognise entirely what we have heard this morning.
A further requirement in England and Wales, where additional liability for parking charges exists for vehicle keepers, is that access to an independent appeals body is provided. That independent appeals service must be free to the motorist. The outcome of the appeal is binding on the parking company but not on the motorist, who can continue to dispute the charge. Companies that do not comply with the codes of practice can face expulsion from the trade association, resulting in the right to have DVLA vehicle keeper data removed.
I am running out of time, so I will not.
I want to answer the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay about whether there is enough enforcement action. Bad practices are tackled. The DVLA can and does suspend the disclosure of data to companies that have not been compliant. However, there is clear concern from Members that we need to go significantly further. I have been working to ensure that we get the balance right.
Let me reassure the House on how we control the data. We have had lots of debates in this House about the right to privacy of our personal data. The trade associations have a code of practice, which includes access to DVLA data being tightly controlled. Companies with an electronic facility to request DVLA data have to sign up to a detailed contract that lays out the requirements on the use and security of data. The DVLA undertakes remote checks on parking companies.
In addition, the Government Internal Audit Agency carries out detailed audit visits on the DVLA’s behalf and undertakes more in-depth checking of individual cases to provide further assurance that requests have been submitted for genuine reasons and there is reliable evidence to back up the request. Non-compliance can result in sanctions, including the removal of the right to data.
The DVLA’s controls around the disclosure of data to parking companies were subject to a detailed data protection audit by the Information Commissioner’s Office last year. I can confirm that the Information Commissioner awarded the DVLA the highest rating for the controls it has in place surrounding the disclosure of data.
There have been a few questions about costs. I can confirm that this is priced on a cost recovery model, so it is neither subsidised nor run at a profit. The DVLA charges a fee for providing vehicle keeper details. In the cost recovery model, the fee is £2.50, which is designed to ensure that the cost burden is met by the companies involved and not the taxpayer. There are significant volumes of requests; we are looking at potentially 4 million in the course of this financial year, as my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay highlighted. However, the Government are not seeing either a profit or a loss.
Many Members have mentioned constituents’ complaints regarding bad practice and motorists who feel they have been unfairly treated by parking operators. There are several routes for redress should an operator fall short of the standards expected. The first is the company’s initial appeal process, which it is required to offer under its code of practice. There is also the independent appeals service, which is free to motorists. I have already mentioned the need for an operator to demonstrate compliance with the code of practice in order to retain its membership of an accredited trade association. If there are breaches of the code of practice, the trade association is there to investigate and ensure that action is taken. Without membership, there is no access to DVLA data.
Consumer protection laws also apply here. Those laws are designed to protect consumers from unfair practices. Trading standards officers are there to investigate complaints and can take action against a particular company. Consumer protection legislation applies to individual cases and the actions of the company in individual circumstances. Breaches can result in prosecution.
I hope that colleagues will recognise that the DVLA has gone through significant controls to ensure that the data are handled correctly and that there are controls and audits. There was a question about responsibility. The DVLA is the responsibility of the DFT. The parking companies and on-street and off-street parking sit with the DCLG. We have to work on this issue together because, without car ownership data, accessed through the DVLA, this industry would stop.
Colleagues have raised issues with me in writing previously and today, and there is clearly a significant issue to resolve. The Government are most concerned about the matter, which is why the DCLG launched its consultation. I will ensure that DCLG colleagues are aware of concerns and the content of this debate. I will also arrange a meeting with the trade associations, to highlight the concerns we have in this House about their members’ practices and to review exactly what enforcement action they take. I share the view of my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Mr Rees-Mogg) that this is a little bit David and Goliath. Our job is to stand up for the Davids, not the Goliaths. That is completely fair.
I have been asked whether there should be a single standard-setting body for the industry. Competition between industry bodies is generally quite good. Competition can improve services, so I do not think we necessarily need to have just one body. I was also asked whether the relationship between the trade associations and the DVLA is appropriate. It is legal, and it is controlled and audited. The information provision is managed. The concern lies in the code of practice and its enforcement. That is where the next actions will be, and I will take those actions forward from today’s debate.
I thank all hon. Members who have contributed to this debate. It has been interesting to hear so many examples from across the length and breadth of these isles. This issue is not localised to Torbay.
Competition is good where it is about services, but we would not suggest having competing magistrates courts. Once upon a time, we did that for the civil courts, and it did not produce a good outcome. The concern of many is that the industry is able not only to mark its own homework but to choose the marker. We need to look closely at that. There are more than 4 million of these transactions. Given the debate we have had today about the cost and the comments made in a House of Commons Library document, based on a Transport Committee report in 2014, I suggest that the Minister places a letter in the Library. It would be helpful if he clarified that point.
I thank the Minister for that positive reply and the courtesy he has shown. This issue will continue, and further action is needed. We cannot stand aside and ignore the key role the state plays in handing over details that it compels its citizens to provide to the DVLA and in allowing some of these practices to continue.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the relationship between the DVLA and private car parking companies.
Treaty of Rome: 60th Anniversary
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the 60th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome.
It is good to be here today under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries. I think this is the second time that I have had the opportunity to do this. This week, as you will be aware, leaders from around Europe will gather in Rome to mark the 60th anniversary of the signing of the treaty of Rome. I thought that regardless of whether people voted to remain in or leave the European Union, it would be opportune for us to reflect on the 60th anniversary, and I thank the Minister for taking the time to come along today. It is a momentous event this weekend, and I think it right that we mark it with this debate.
For more than 60 years, European nations have worked together to create our continent’s longest ever period of peace, freedom, stability and prosperity. In place of conflict, the European Union has allowed member states to find consensual solutions to problems through dialogue, diplomacy and democracy. It can be easy, in the day-to-day of politics, to lose sight of the achievement that there has been in the 60 years since the signing of the treaty and more generally in the past 70 years. As Winston Churchill once said:
“To jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war.”
We should always reflect on that in this place and elsewhere.
As a result of the treaties, all member states, no matter how big or small, are represented in the European Parliament, the Council, the Commission and the institutions, in which the emphasis is on seeking compromise and consensus among those nations. It is little wonder that the EU was awarded the Nobel peace prize in 2012 for its achievements to date. That is worth reflecting on as well.
This weekend, there will naturally be the elephant in the room of European cohesion, given that the anniversary comes just before the triggering of article 50 by the UK Government. I am sure that that will be in people’s minds. I think our European partners should be mindful of the events and circumstances that led up to the UK’s voting to leave the European Union. The EU has never been afraid of reform or debate, and I hope that it will take on board the lessons that need to be learned from the UK’s experiences of the past few years, regardless of what the future might hold for these islands.
Nevertheless, that should not preclude us from reflecting on the EU’s extraordinary achievements and successes. At a time of rising instability and economic uncertainty, it is worth bearing in mind that our closest neighbours politically and economically remain countries such as Ireland, Germany, the Netherlands, France and the other member states. Those are and will remain our closest partners economically, politically and, of course, geographically.
The Minister would be surprised if I did not raise the fact that Scotland voted overwhelmingly—it had the biggest gap between leave and remain—to remain part of the European Union. Every single local authority area in Scotland voted to remain. Even those that voted against membership of the European Economic Community, as it was, back in 1975 voted to remain part of the EU. We voted to retain the benefits of EU membership and remain an open, inclusive and tolerant society that seeks to build economic partnerships with all those closest to us, be they in these islands or elsewhere in Europe.
We voted to remain in the EU—this goes back to the success of the treaties—because it makes our country safer. The European project has cemented peace in a historically unstable continent, not just after the second world war but in later years, when the EU had a positive role to play in areas as diverse as Northern Ireland and the western Balkans. We owe a debt of gratitude to our European partners for the positive role that they played in Northern Ireland and the successes of the peace process to date, but of course that is ongoing. The Minister will perhaps reflect on the fact that the carrot of EU membership and the norms associated with the European Union have been crucial to securing peace in the western Balkans, but I recognise that that important process is ongoing, and I hope that he will reassure us today of the UK Government’s ongoing commitment to that part of Europe even in the aftermath of our leaving the EU. My ideal has always been that the EU would become—indeed, it is—a soft superpower, serving our domestic interests and of course complementing the work of NATO.
In those areas the treaties have made us safer, but we also voted to remain in the EU because it makes the UK wealthier. Access to the single market has brought considerable benefits to all of us, and not least to small and medium-sized businesses. It was interesting to see the work that the Federation of Small Businesses Scotland has done on this of late. It shows that our annual exports to EU countries outside the UK are worth more than £2,000 per person.
In Scotland, we also voted to remain part of the EU because it makes the UK fairer. Many fundamental rights have come from Europe. The right not to be discriminated against on the ground of age, race or gender and in many other ways comes from Europe, as does the right to parental leave, paid holidays and other benefits.
My hon. Friend is making an incredibly powerful speech about the benefits of the EU. It is clear that the EU has been instrumental in moving forward individual rights, including the rights of women. We should celebrate the fact that European women have the world’s highest average score in the personal freedom index. Does my hon. Friend agree that that is important?
My hon. Friend always makes excellent points, and she makes a particularly good point on this issue, on which membership of the EU has complemented those rights. I would be encouraged if the Minister reflected on our continued commitment to the rights that we enjoy as European citizens.
We also benefit from the EU because it makes the UK greener. EU legislation is having a direct impact on us right now. The clean air directives of the 1980s were a result of acid rain, as we will all remember, and we are benefiting from them right now—those who survive the debate will continue to benefit from them. We have also seen ambitious climate change targets, which are working because we are working in partnership with our European neighbours. In recent times, Scotland has had world-leading climate change targets, which it has met ahead of schedule. We have often found more common ground with our partners in Brussels than here at Westminster. It is important that we reflect on that in considering our environment.
Scotland also voted to remain in the EU because it makes the UK smarter. The EU provides our students with life-changing opportunities to study abroad through Erasmus, which I personally benefited from. Will the Minister tell us today about the future of those opportunities? Today, I have the great pleasure of welcoming people from the University of St Andrews to Westminster. That university gets one quarter of the funding for its world-leading research from European sources. It is the largest employer in my constituency, and a large number of jobs are associated with that relationship with Europe. Some of the work that the university is doing will benefit us for generations to come. There is of course concern about Horizon 2020 and other sources of funding, but there is also concern about the freedom of movement. A large number of academics and students in St Andrews and elsewhere make their institutions better places in which to work and study and make those areas better places to live, given the greater pool of talent that can be drawn on. That comes from freedom of movement. I benefited from the opportunities of freedom of movement, and I would be encouraged to see others benefit from that. We should not take opportunities away from young people, which is why so many young people voted to remain part of the European Union.
We respect the decision of people in England and Wales to leave the EU. We think it is a pity, because the treaty of Rome has delivered so many benefits to us over the past 60 years, but we accept it. However, after taking office, the Prime Minister assured the country that she would not invoke article 50 until she had secured a “UK-wide approach”, and the Scottish Government produced a compromise proposal that would have respected the decision across the UK but maintained our place in the single market. It is a shame that the UK Government do not appear to be taking forward that compromise. Will the Minister reflect today on that compromise proposal put forward by the Scottish Government? It is regrettable that the UK Government have not entered into the spirit of compromise.
The treaty of Rome set up a partnership of equals; it is increasingly clear that the treaty of Union has not. The EU, which started 60 years ago, is not at all comparable with the treaty of Union—that is like comparing apples with oranges, or les pommes avec les oranges. The EU would never have blocked a referendum on the UK making a choice on its membership, could not foist a Government on the less than 15% of the electorate in Scotland and just over a third who voted for them in the UK, and could not place nuclear weapons on our soil against our will.
We have a choice of two futures. One is with a UK that, I am afraid to say, looks increasingly isolationist, and where there are concerns in our key industries such as education, food and drink and the energy sector about struggling outside crucial EU markets. The other is as an independent member state, working with our European partners in the same normal way that other similar states do. Scotland would be a medium-sized member of the EU and a net contributor that has met the acquis communautaire and enjoyed more than 40 years of membership already.
At this time of uncertainty in our relationship with our European partners, it is easy to lose sight of the major contribution that EU membership has made for all of us. The bloc is by no means perfect; building co-operation between 28 independent and sovereign member states is always going to be difficult. Necessary compromises will need to be made, and sometimes they will be a bit messy, but overall we are better within the EU and in a better place because of the signing of the treaty of Rome 60 years ago.
The EU has been a success for all the reasons that I have set out, and also by respecting the independence of its members and having political flexibility. It now has a thorny issue on its western flank. How it reacts to the UK leaving the EU while Ireland remains and Scotland possibly sets its own path will be tricky, but at the heart of the treaty of Rome, and at the heart of Europe’s strength, lies its flexibility. Frankly, it has solved more difficult problems than that one. As we are set for years of navel-gazing in the UK while we undertake the momentous bureaucratic task of trying to leave the EU, it is worth reflecting just for a moment—for this half-hour today—on the unprecedented success, 60 years on from its signing, of the treaty of Rome, which has touched and benefited each and every one of us. Thank you, Ms Dorries, for this opportunity.
I congratulate the hon. Member for North East Fife (Stephen Gethins) on securing this important debate and his thoughtful comments.
The six founding members of the European Economic Community—Belgium, France, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and West Germany—signed the treaty of Rome on 25 March 1957. The treaty built on the pre-existing European Coal and Steel Community, which was founded in the aftermath of the second world war as a project for peace. Its primary aim was to ensure that the European continent would never again suffer the blight of war that it had seen, generation after generation, in the run-up to that period. In that regard, I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the legacy of the treaty of Rome is one of great historical achievement, and its anniversary marks the longest period of peace in Europe’s written history.
The treaty was a major step in the journey of European integration. It was followed by the treaty of Maastricht, which established the European single market, and then the treaty of Lisbon, which established the European Union as we know it today—an organisation that is dramatically different from the European Economic Community, which the UK joined under a Conservative Government in 1973, against the opposition of the Scottish National party. This weekend, not only the six founding member states but 27 European nations will meet to celebrate those achievements and to reflect on the next steps in their journey. To that end, the European Commission recently published a White Paper on five future scenarios for the EU. Those range from reducing the EU to nothing but the single market, to a major push towards greater integration. It is a matter for the remaining members of the EU to decide which course they choose to follow, but whatever they decide, we know that it will be a future where the United Kingdom is not a member, but a partner. It would therefore not be appropriate for us to attend the treaty of Rome celebrations or to speculate about the future direction of the European Union, but as the EU approaches its 60th anniversary we wish them well.
It remains overwhelmingly and compellingly in Britain’s national interest that the EU should succeed both politically and economically. Let me be clear: as the Prime Minister has said, while we are leaving the European Union, we are not leaving Europe. We are seeking a new, strong and constructive relationship with the European Union—a partnership of friends and allies, interests and values.
While the institutions and remaining 27 member states of the EU consider their future, we are of course focused on the future of the United Kingdom. As a Minister at the Department for Exiting the European Union, I know well the strength of feeling that surrounds our withdrawal from the European Union, and many of the complicated issues—some of which the hon. Gentleman touched on—that it throws up. I made the case to remain in the European Union during the referendum, but I always committed to respect the result and I understand that we required the consent of the British people to remain a member of the EU. Now that we are focused on implementing the result of a UK-wide referendum, we should all focus on delivering the best possible deal for the whole of the UK.
Leaving the EU offers us an opportunity to forge a new role for ourselves in the world—not isolationism, as the hon. Gentleman suggested, but negotiating new trade agreements and being a positive and powerful force for free trade. Britain’s economy is one of the strongest in the world.
I am grateful to the Minister for his helpful and thoughtful comments. Will he take this opportunity to reflect on the education sector in particular? As I mentioned, the principal of St Andrews is visiting, along with a number of colleagues, and the university sector is important across the United Kingdom. It is an area of particular concern, and I would be grateful if the Minister addressed it.
Absolutely. I was going to come to that issue later in my comments, but I am happy to address it now. From having a large and growing university in my constituency, meeting people at universities around the country and attending the higher education councils of the Minister for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation, my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington (Joseph Johnson), I recognise the importance of some of these issues for the university sector. I was glad to see the commitment in the Government’s White Paper to continue research collaboration with the EU, to be forward-leaning in our approach to making sure that Britain remains a scientific superpower and to building on our excellent record. I recognise that Scottish universities play an important part in research collaboration, and hope that through negotiations we will be able to agree to an approach that secures the benefits of it.
This is one of many areas where we in the UK Government agree with elements of the Scottish Government’s White Paper that set out the benefits of areas where we can continue to work with European friends and allies. While we accept that we are leaving the EU, there are still areas where we will want to be able to work closely together. I recently visited the University of Glasgow and spoke to academics there about the importance of EU funding and structures for them. I recognise those issues, and we are certainly taking them on board as part of our negotiating strategy.
As I was saying, Britain has a strong economy and we are well placed to face the future. We will remain the bold, outward-looking nation that we have always been, and being a scientific superpower and a research leader in the world is an important part of that. Global Britain will be more than just a trading nation; we will continue to play a significant role in defence and security, promoting and protecting the interests of our people around the world. That will not change. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the peace process both in Northern Ireland, which we are absolutely committed to continuing and made a prominent part of our White Paper, and in the western Balkans. I recognise the important role that the European Union and NATO have played in that, and that the UK can continue to play in supporting peace in Europe. We should certainly continue to lean in and play that role, and we are able to do that partly as a result of our investment in defence as well as in soft power. The European Union will continue to be an important partner as we do that, as will many of its member states. The negotiation is not just about what is good for the UK; it is about what is good for the remaining European Union as well.
As the European Union considers its future and the UK builds its new role in the world, we will also redefine our relationship with the EU. We will approach the negotiations as friends. A constructive and optimistic approach to the negotiations is in the best interests of both the EU and the UK. The Prime Minister has now set out the Government’s plan to achieve a new positive and constructive partnership between the UK and the European Union. We have set out our objectives to give as much certainty as possible throughout the process. Now, the overwhelming majority of people, however they voted, want us to get on with it, so that is what we will do.
We will negotiate and leave as one United Kingdom, seeking the best possible deal for the whole of the UK as we do so. We are not trying to cherry-pick aspects of EU membership. The Prime Minister has been clear that she respects the position taken by European leaders that membership of the single market would mean accepting all four freedoms. As the Prime Minister has also stated, being out of the EU but a member of the single market would mean complying with the EU’s rules and regulations to implement those freedoms, but without having a vote on what the rules and regulations should be. It would mean accepting a role for the European Court of Justice that would see it have direct legal authority over our country. To all intents and purposes, it would mean not leaving the EU at all. We are leaving the EU and seeking a bold and ambitious partnership with the EU from the outside. Such an agreement will be in the interests of both the UK and the EU.
The Minister will be aware from visiting the University of Glasgow, where I suspect he met Professor Anton Muscatelli, that there has been a debate among academia and the business community, and on a cross-party basis in Scotland, about having differential immigration systems in the UK. That could help to bridge the gap between England and Scotland on this issue. What consideration has his Department given to the differential immigration systems in other countries around the world?
We are carefully considering all the elements of the White Paper that the Scottish Government presented to us. On immigration, we are aware that we have to meet the needs of the whole of the UK, including all its industries and all parts of the United Kingdom. I did indeed meet Professor Muscatelli and had a very useful conversation with him. That is part of the stakeholder engagement process that our Department has been undertaking throughout all the parts of the United Kingdom to make sure that we are looking at the opportunities of EU exit, as well as the risks.
We are looking for a mutually beneficial deal. In our future relationship with the EU, we want clarity and certainty. We want to take control of our laws.
Will the Minister give way?
In one moment. We want to control immigration but recognise that that means meeting the needs of our economy, as well as the desire of the British people to see greater control. We also want to secure the rights of EU nationals in the UK and UK nationals in the EU, to ensure free trade and to co-operate in the fight against organised crime and terrorism. As we have discussed, we see significant opportunities for continued co-operation on education, science and research. Would the hon. Gentleman like to intervene?
We seek a mutually beneficial relationship of friendship and co-operation. Our future as the United Kingdom is one where this Government will continue to protect and strengthen our precious Union of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. That will continue to be true as our whole Union and its constituent parts withdraw from the EU.
There has been significant intergovernmental engagement between the four Governments since the referendum result. The Prime Minister’s first visit following the referendum result was to Edinburgh, followed quickly by Cardiff and Belfast. She recently spoke in Glasgow and was in Swansea with my Secretary of State only on Monday. We are committed to continuing to engage fully with the Scottish Government, the Welsh Government and the Northern Ireland Executive as we move forward into the negotiations and prepare for a smooth and orderly exit from the EU for all of us.
We will absolutely continue with our commitment to workers’ rights, which the hon. Member for North East Fife referred to. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has often pointed out that many aspects of UK law go well beyond EU law in terms of those commitments. We also want to continue working with our friends and neighbours to meet our environmental commitments well into the future.
At this momentous time, it is more important than ever that we face the future together, taking forward our shared interest in the UK being an open, successful, global nation in future. As member states of the European Union meet this week to discuss the history and future of the European project, we wish our EU partners well. At the end of the negotiations, the UK will no longer be an EU member state, but it will be a close ally and friend. A strong partnership between the UK and the EU is in the interests of both, and we congratulate all the EU’s members on this important anniversary.
Question put and agreed to.
UN International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination
[Mr Gary Streeter in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the UN International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.
I am pleased to be having this debate on the day that the United Nations has declared an international day for the elimination of racial discrimination. The theme this year is racial profiling and incitement to hatred, including in the context of migration. I wonder whether the UN had any particular person in mind when it came up with that theme. I hope that, if Donald Trump is watching, he might send us a tweet.
Why this day? On 21 March 1960, at a peaceful demonstration in Sharpeville, South Africa, police turned their guns on protesters and started shooting. They killed 69 people and injured hundreds more. Therefore, each year, the international community comes together to observe this day. In South Africa, it is human rights day, a public holiday to commemorate the lives lost in the fight for democracy and equal human rights. Until now, Parliament has not fully and formally acknowledged this day. As the MP for Brent Central, the most diverse constituency in Europe, I am pleased to be leading this debate.
I thank my hon. Friend and neighbouring MP for bringing this important debate to the House. She mentions the diverse constituency that she is proud to represent here in Parliament. Our constituencies are close to each other and share areas such as Kilburn High Road, where there is a lot of racial profiling of black men. I am sure that she will come to this in her speech, but does she agree that something must be done about the racial profiling of young black men in the Kilburn and Brent area? It is adding to the disillusionment of many in our society.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Racial profiling is not a good way to police communities; in fact, it builds resentment and adds to the problem. On this day when we acknowledge and try to eliminate racial discrimination, that issue should and must be addressed.
It is important that our Parliament marks this day. Until we live in a post-racial world, we must be vigilant. I am sure that that world will happen, but I am also sure that it will not happen in my lifetime. Our UK Parliament is the mother of all Parliaments, and we are at our best when we lead the way. While I am talking about leading the way, I thank Mr Speaker for allowing us to acknowledge this day in the state rooms at a wonderful reception last week.
I hear people say all the time, “I’m not racist; I have black friends. I haven’t got a racist bone in my body.” We need to wake up. I am not sure how many people watched ITV last night, but I did. It showed an undercover sting against a right-wing terrorist group that, although banned from the UK, still exists. We must be careful. Given the imminent triggering of article 50 and the election of President Trump, whom I mentioned earlier, this day is becoming extremely important.
We are witnessing a surge in intolerance, lack of understanding of different communities and dehumanising of individuals. Dehumanising a person makes it easier to justify inhumane actions towards them: “They’re not like us. They’re different. They have different colour skin. They have an accent. How can we trust them?” We should be embracing differences; they make us stronger, not weaker. We should be fighting poverty and global warming, not other human beings.
I sometimes wonder what UKIP expected when it published that awful “Breaking Point” poster depicting a crowd of brown-skinned refugees. Yes, UKIP’s side won the referendum, but racist views have increased, along with hatred and violence. Sexism, racism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, anti-refugee sentiment—all the tools of hate are on the rise.
My hon. Friend is being generous with her time. Does she agree that the Government should be doing more to take in refugees, that the abandonment of the Dubs amendment, under which we were meant to help unaccompanied children around the world to come to our country, should be condemned and that we should be doing more?
I agree with my hon. Friend. The thing about hate and racism is that it will stop only when we stop it. The Dubs amendment was important. It gave hope to people fleeing circumstances that we too would flee if we were faced with them. Rowing back on that commitment was hugely disappointing.
We must stand up for the rights and dignity of all. An attack on one minority community is an attack on all communities. Every person is entitled to human rights without discrimination. Protecting somebody else’s rights does not in any way diminish our own. Last week, I asked a question on the Floor of the House using British Sign Language. I did it to raise awareness for deaf and hard of hearing people, so that their language could have legal status. That in no way diminished my rights; it only enhanced theirs.
Next week, when the Prime Minister triggers article 50, Parliament will close for two weeks for Easter. During that two weeks, it is even more important that we are vigilant for signs of the aftermath. We must look out for our friends, our neighbours and people we do not even know. We must not forget that we are all a minority at some point, and we should treat people as we would like to be treated.
Angela Davis said that
“it is not enough to be non-racist; we must be anti-racist.”
Hate crimes have spiked since 23 June 2016. Reported hate crime rose by 57%. Seventy-nine per cent. were race hate crimes, 12% were sexual orientation hate crimes, 7% were religious hate crimes, 6% were disability hate crimes and 1% were transgender hate crimes. However, those are just numbers, which do not tell the full horror of those hate crimes, so here are a few examples of incidents that have occurred over the past few months.
Anti-Semitic stickers were plastered on a Cambridge synagogue. Three young males racially abused a US army veteran on a Manchester tram, telling him to go back to Africa. A British Muslim woman was grabbed by her hijab as she was having dinner in a fish and chip shop. A letter was sent telling Poles to go home as a fire was started in their Plymouth home. An Edinburgh taxi driver from Bangladesh was dragged by his beard. A 40-year-old Polish national was killed because he was allegedly heard speaking Polish. A 31-year-old pregnant woman was kicked in her stomach and lost her baby. On Valentine’s day, a gay couple were attacked by five men for falling asleep on each other. I could go on.
I thank my hon. Friend for bringing this critically important debate. She will know that, in Newcastle, we are celebrating Freedom City 2017, marking 50 years since Martin Luther King came to Newcastle to accept an honorary doctorate and spoke about the three great evils: poverty, racism and war. The examples that she has given show us, if we did not know already, that we must embed the legacy of Martin Luther King’s work and continue the struggle, because we are far from living in a country where people are judged by the content of their character rather than the colour of their skin.
I absolutely concur. Martin Luther King was a great orator. He also said:
“I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be...this is the interrelated structure of reality…all mankind is tied together…in a single garment of destiny.”
Until we realise that, we will never live in the post-racial world that we hope for and that was Martin Luther King’s dream.
Some racial discrimination is from unconscious bias, but some is overt. There are elected people who hold overtly racist views, such as the councillor who argued that she was not racist—even after proclaiming that she had a “problem” with “negroes” because there was “something about their faces”. You could not make it up! Racial and ethnic discrimination occurs every day, hindering progress for millions of people around the world. Racism and intolerance take various forms, from denying individuals the basic principles of equality to fuelling ethnic hatred. At their worst, they can turn people to violence and even genocide. They destroy lives and communities and poison people’s minds. The struggle against racism and discrimination is a priority, not just for us in the UK but for the international community.
For anyone who has experienced racism, not much of what I have said today will shock them, but it highlights just how far we still have to go and the importance of educating the young and facing the uncomfortable truth so that history does not repeat itself. Sometimes we have to fight a new, mutant strain of racism, so we always have to be aware of what is going on around us and stand up for other people as well as ourselves.
My parents were migrants who came to this country and suffered racism. Actually, I like to call them expats, because they left their home in the warm, sunny climes of Jamaica to come to cold England, full of smog and fog, to help the country to rebuild after the war. When we speak to our elders, we are acutely aware that racism and hate are not necessarily new. There are pictures of racists here on the walls of Parliament. I remember my first office; I had to look at Enoch Powell’s face every time I walked in, because it was right there at the entrance. Sometimes I would make a rude sign at the photo when I walked in, but in general it upset me. I decided that I did not want to start my day by being upset, so I insisted that the picture was moved. If the House authorities had not removed it, I would have removed it permanently.
We must also remember Britain’s part in the slave trade, which is the foundation of much of our national prosperity. It was justified by the empire and the language of racial superiority, but that is not what defines us. It is a part of our shameful history, but surely there must come a time when it stops—when it no longer matters that a person is different from us and when we appreciate what we have in common. The Mayor of London has spoken about choosing
“hope over fear and unity over division”.
When we see only hate, that hate becomes so great that it transforms into something else, where the problem is not just the colour of someone’s skin, but their accent or the fact that they are committed to fight for someone else’s rights.
At the height of the xenophobic atmosphere, an MP and leading migrants advocate was murdered. The murderer gave his name in court as “Death to traitors, freedom for Britain”. That MP, Jo Cox, was my friend and the friend of others in this place and beyond. Even after the hateful, despicable crime by that terrorist, her family wanted us to “love like Jo” and repeat her mantra that
“we are far more united and have far more in common than that which divides us.”—[Official Report, 3 June 2015; Vol. 596, c. 674-75.]
That is why it is important to acknowledge this day with the rest of the international community. We must unite together with one voice and build bridges, not walls. As William Shakespeare wrote:
“If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die?”
My theme tune when I face discrimination is a song written and recorded by the British singer-songwriter Labi Siffre. It was inspired by a television documentary on apartheid in South Africa that showed a film of police killing black people. It is “(Something Inside) So Strong”. These are the words:
“The higher you build your barriers, the taller I become
The further you take my rights away, the faster I will run
You can deny me, you can decide to turn your face away
No matter, ’cause there’s something inside so strong
I know that I can make it, though you’re doing me wrong, so wrong
You thought that my pride was gone—oh no
There’s something inside so strong
The more you refuse to hear my voice, the louder I will sing
You hide behind walls of Jericho—your lies will come tumbling
Deny my place in time, you squander wealth that’s mine
My light will shine so brightly it will blind you
Because there’s something inside so strong.”
I hope that the Government commit to marking this day each year, so we never forget to remember those who gave their lives for equal rights and to celebrate the beauty of our diversity. After all, we have only a short time on this earth.
It is an absolute pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. I particularly thank the hon. Member for Brent Central (Dawn Butler) for bringing such an important debate to Westminster Hall today. Her speech was delivered so eloquently and with such high emotion, which is only right, given the topic. It will be remembered in Parliament for years to come.
Rights to equality and non-discrimination are cornerstones of human rights law. Today, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights is asking people to “Stand up for Someone’s Rights Today”, which is an important step that I believe we should all be taking. I will speak briefly about three main issues today: the impact of discrimination on the individual, the impact on refugee communities, which are extremely vulnerable, and why we must learn lessons from the past and never forget them.
Racial discrimination is surely toxic, not only for the individual who experiences it, but for society. It has an impact on people’s self-esteem and it can even lead to mental health issues, such as depression, loneliness, isolation or feeling ostracised. Discrimination closes us to experience, rather than opening our appreciation for diversity, culture and religion. It is an unhealthy position to take: it undermines the self-worth of those who experience it, but it is also unhealthy for those who discriminate, because it closes them off from experiences of culture, religion and tolerance that would enhance their own being.
Education is key, particularly for younger generations at school and beyond. The internet can widen our horizons, but it can also be a place where people experience discrimination and intolerance. Surely we should be looking at the UK Government’s policy on that and at how they work with providers. The internet can help us to connect. It can be positive; it can help us to speak to people from different nations, understand their experiences and learn about their lives. It can be a doorway to understanding, but it must be used appropriately. It can be very important in the future, given the way in which we can link with people from right across the world in an interactive manner.
Secondly, racial discrimination can impact upon disenfranchised communities, particularly refugee populations. It is not helpful to ban particular races from entering countries, and I implore the President of the United States to reconsider his actions in that regard, because his policy has no actual basis in risk assessment or risk management. Such a heuristic measure does nothing to promote understanding, tolerance or integration, and in the long run it does little for security.
We must understand that often refugees are fleeing conflict, torture, starvation, malnutrition or other significant life-impacting situations—things that we would never want ourselves or our families to experience. As a member of the International Development Committee, I was privileged to visit the refugee camps in Jordan and Lebanon at the end of last year and to meet and speak with refugee families and their children. I was able to interact with the young children in their schools, including those who were traumatised and had not been able to speak for days or even weeks, and needed mental health care—those needed expert help and assistance. I was told about the difficulties that host communities experienced in integrating large numbers of refugees, and the strains that Governments felt were being placed on local jobs and on education and health systems. Both Jordan and Lebanon have done much to address these issues, but there is much more to do.
When Governments do not allow refugees to live, work or engage properly in local communities, it creates a “them and us” attitude. It reduces tolerance and understanding. Integration, tolerance-building and learning from each other, are key to the way forward. We should encourage Governments to progress in this manner, but we also need to look at our own role, particularly over the Dubs amendment, and our attitude to refugees. Lone children in Europe; those who need our assistance; those who are vulnerable; those who may be disabled; those who have no parents to help to look after them—surely we must be able to open our hearts to those children and, more importantly, offer them refuge.
One thing that severely worries me is that I get many letters from constituents who say that the matter of children coming into this country is of deep concern to them. I write back and say, “I have not had one constituent who has said to me, ‘I will take a child into my house’.” That really worries me, when we compare it with what happened in 1938-39 with the Kindertransport. We have changed in the way we approach this sort of thing.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. We must open our hearts and our homes to lone children. It is incumbent upon us as a progressive society to do so, and I know that local authorities in Scotland are keen to accept more children and more child refugees.
I know from speaking to Save the Children that those children are very much in need. Many of them are going missing; we do not know what has become of them. As a country with a responsibility in the world, surely we must take that very seriously.
Thirdly, learning lessons from the past is important. If we cannot learn lessons from the holocaust and ensure that such dehumanisation of a race never occurs again, then there is little that we can learn in this world at all. It is incumbent upon us to challenge discrimination wherever it occurs—in schools, colleges, the workplace and beyond. Political leaders must lead and ensure that anti-Semitism and other forms of discrimination are challenged in all of our systems.
We all have a part to play, from the nursery teacher teaching our toddlers to the university lecturer to politicians. We must challenge discrimination at all levels of society. Only then will we achieve true equality: when we stand up, stand together and ensure that we are no longer divided but that we celebrate diversity.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Brent Central (Dawn Butler) for securing this debate. Her powerful words made me emotional. This debate is so timely. This day gives us an opportunity to reflect on the past, the present and the future, and to address the stark discrimination that so many people in this country face. While we have made some strides to improve opportunities for those of all races, we have to recognise the challenges and the disparity that remain. We have so much more to do.
The past has been marked by successes—individual successes, like the police chief superintendent from West Yorkshire police, Mabs Hussain, who is one of only two officers from a black and minority ethnic background to attain that rank in Yorkshire. I recently held an event to celebrate him, but he said then that he hopes to see a day when there is no longer a need to celebrate the success of individuals from BME backgrounds and when people like him are just the norm, but sadly they are not. He is an exception to the rule. He has overcome more difficult odds than those faced by his white counterparts. The truth is that although we see individual successes that can inspire, they are sadly only a footnote to the systematic failures that we see. That is a harsh truth and a harsh reality.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. On the success of some and the lack of success of many, does she agree that the loss of potential and achievement from which the United Kingdom suffers because of the challenges faced by this generation and particularly by the previous generation—the generation of the parents of my hon. Friend the Member for Brent Central (Dawn Butler)—means that the UK suffers economically as well as socially? It is in our economic interests as well as our social interests to ensure that everyone can realise their potential.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. I absolutely agree with her sentiments.
It is a harsh reality that many young black and Asian children, and children of other ethnicity, grow up in this country without the same opportunities as their peers. It is a harsh truth for those who will work just as hard but will be paid less—those who have their chances stifled from birth because of the colour of their skin.
Is my hon. Friend aware of the Equalities and Human Rights Commission report from last year that showed that BME people with degrees are two and a half times less likely to have a job than their white counterparts, and are more likely to be paid less—an average of 21.3% less—than their white counterparts when they enter the employment world?
I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention, and I will mention that later in my speech—I am very much aware of it and I agree with her.
Sadly, what I have described is a well-evidenced truth, as my hon. Friend has just pointed out. We only need to look at the House of Commons research on representation in public life from June 2016 to see the scale of the challenge before us. Those from BME backgrounds are severely under-represented in all the professions—not only here, in both Houses, but as judges, teachers, in local government, in the armed forces, and particularly as police. BME representation in police forces is 5.5%. Twenty-four years since Stephen Lawrence and 18 years since the Macpherson review, we are no closer to having a representative police force. That is not progress. BME representation in public life shows marginalisation at best and pure discrimination at worst.
In August 2016, the EHRC published a major review of race equality in Britain. It revealed a post-Brexit rise in hate crime and long-term systemic unfairness and race inequality, including a justice system where black people are more likely to be the victims of crime while also being three times more likely to be charged and sentenced if they commit a crime. Race remains the most commonly recorded motivation of hate crime in England and Wales, at 82%. That is not equality.
Despite educational improvements, black, Asian and ethnic minority people with a degree are two and a half times more likely to be unemployed than their white equivalents, and black workers with degrees are likely to be paid 23.1% less than their white equivalents. That wage gap exists at all levels of education, but it increases as people become more qualified. That is not equality, and it shows that the challenge is increasing. Since 2010, there has been a 49% increase in unemployment among 16 to 24-year-olds from ethnic minority backgrounds compared with a fall of 2% among those who are white. White workers have seen an increase of 16% in insecure work, while the rise among black and Asian workers has been 40%. Pakistani, Bangladeshi and black adults are more likely to live in substandard accommodation than white people. Black African women in the UK have a mortality rate four times higher than that of white women and are seven times more likely to be detained under the Mental Health Act 2007. That is not equality; it is systematic failure.
While we stand here today and mark the UN’s international day for the elimination of racial discrimination, we must be mindful of the challenges. We must remember the reality that people of ethnicity face, even in developed countries such as ours. In February 2017, Baroness McGregor-Smith’s review of race in the workplace was published. It demonstrated how unequal our workplaces are, how the chances of those from BME backgrounds are stifled and how over-qualified BME workers are less likely to be promoted than less qualified employees. The review makes 26 recommendations, all of which I call upon the Government to implement.
Leaving the EU gives us an opportunity to decide what kind of country we want to be. A report by the Women and Equalities Committee considered the need for strong equality legislation after we leave the EU and made key recommendations, which, I would argue, the Government are morally obliged to enact. [Interruption.] I am not sure of the time of my speech.
The hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart), who is no longer in his seat, mentioned constituencies, and it is important to touch upon that issue before I close my speech. He said that we in Britain have changed regarding refugees, in that families do not want to take Syrian refugee children. I am very proud to come from Bradford. It is a city of sanctuary. We have held events in Bradford specifically aimed at people taking refugee children, and families are coming forward. I have had numerous messages from individuals asking how they can take in children from Syria and play their part. Why has it taken so long? I am a member of the Home Affairs Committee, and we have taken evidence from councils that say they have spaces. Regarding the Dubs amendment and how Britain has changed, I feel there is a venomous narrative, created by the likes of parties such as the UK Independence party, but we as Britain are greater than that. We as people are greater than that. Post-Trump and post-Brexit, we must concentrate even more on ensuring that we build those bridges.
I call on the Minister to consider all three of the reports I have mentioned, as a stepping stone which, if followed through, could help to steer us on a different path—one of real, not just imagined, equality. As Baroness McGregor-Smith wrote in her review, the time for talking is over; now is the time to act. That will require a concerted and sustained effort from us all, but the solutions are already there, if we choose to apply them.
Thank you, Mr Streeter. I am very pleased to contribute to the debate, and I join others in commending the hon. Member for Brent Central (Dawn Butler) on her passionate and deeply personal speech.
I still vividly remember when I first discovered what race discrimination was. At the age of eight or nine, I was watching the TV in my granny’s house and I realised that there was a lot of stuff in the news about something called anti-apartheid protests, which at the time I could not even pronounce. I asked my mum what it meant, and she explained that it was about a system in which black children and white children were not allowed to go to the same school or play against or with each other in football matches, a system in which black people and white people were not allowed to go on the same bus or to the same shops. Basically, they were supposed to live their entire lives without ever interacting with each other, except, of course, where black people were working as domestic servants, or near-slaves, for white people. Even as a wee boy—I was not an angel; I was still telling the kind of jokes in the playground that we now try to persuade children not to tell—I could not imagine anyone wanting to live in a society like that. Where I grew up there was not a big ethnic minority population, but I could not imagine wanting to see people divided by barbed wire fences because of the colour of their skin, and almost 50 years later I still cannot understand that. I cannot imagine why anyone would choose that as a way to run a society.
Sometimes it is not even anything as much as the colour of someone’s skin. Another clear memory I have, again about South Africa, is that as a teenager I was watching a TV documentary about a wee girl whose parents were white Afrikaners. She was born with white skin, but somehow manged to get facial features that meant she was classed as a negro under the South African system. Her parents refused to let her mix with the blacks, but other white parents did not want their children mixing with her because they thought that she was a negro, so the poor wee soul went to about five different schools as a result of the outcomes of court cases and education board appeals. I could not understand why the parents did not see that as an indictment of the apartheid system under which they lived. The case even led to a change in the race laws in South Africa, not to let black children and white children play together in the playground—that would never have happened—but to say that if two parents were certified white Afrikaner, their children could not be classified as anything else. That completely destroys any shred of credibility that the argument that people are somehow born to be superior or inferior ever had. It is a bit like Crufts having to pass a law saying that it is not permitted to breed two pedigree springer spaniels and call the offspring an Alsatian or a poodle. So even as almost a young man, I was aware that people were trying to put some kind of scientific justification on racism, and I could also see that anything approaching common sense said that that just did not add up.
Something else I saw in that documentary helped me to understand not where racism comes from but how it can be perpetuated. A teacher of a class of white six-year-olds was explaining why the blacks were inferior, talking about how the “funny” shape of their eyes, ears, mouths and noses, and the unclean colour of their skin, meant that they had clearly been made to be inferior. Today, that would, I hope, horrify even white South Africans, but at that time it was how one of the wealthiest and supposedly most developed countries was bringing up its children. It is not surprising that it is taking a long time for those children to realise the error of their ways.
Of course, we do not do that these days, we do not bring up our children to support racial prejudices—except that we do. Perhaps we do not do it in the same way, by getting teachers to teach the creed of racism to our children, but we do it through what we print on the front pages of our newspapers. If we look back through the past year or two of front-page headlines in some newspapers, the word “migrant” appears more than almost any other word, and never in any context other than to create fear and hatred and continue to paint the myth that if someone is an immigrant they are somehow a danger, rather than a benefit, to society. I have even heard Members of the House of Commons speaking in debates in the Chamber in such a way that makes an explicit assumption that we have to vet every single Syrian refugee because the fact that they come from a predominantly Muslim country somehow makes them more likely to be a danger to us than the criminals we are quite capable of growing among the white working-class and middle-class populations around the UK’s towns and cities.
It is that kind of assumption that has been identified as the main theme of this UN international day for the elimination of racial discrimination. The UN talks about racial profiling and incitement to hatred, including in the context of migration, and as someone said earlier, there are one or two people who could do with heeding those words very carefully indeed. I do not think it is a mistake to link racial profiling with incitement to hatred, because I cannot see any purpose behind such profiling other than racial discrimination, and I cannot see any way that racial discrimination can ever avoid going towards incitement of hatred, racial violence and even worse.
Somebody has already mentioned the New York declaration for refugees and migrants. It is worth reminding ourselves of what that says:
“We strongly condemn acts and manifestations of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance against refugees and migrants, and the stereotypes often applied to them...Demonizing refugees or migrants offends profoundly against the values of dignity and equality for every human being, to which we have committed ourselves.”
Those are very fine words. Sadly, too many of the Governments whose heads signed up to those words show something different by their actions. Imagine if every child in America was asked to recite those words as well as singing the “Star-Spangled Banner” at the start of the school day. Imagine if every politician in these islands or elsewhere had to recite those words as part of their oath of office. Imagine that as well as—some people would say instead of—a brief period of communal prayer in the Christian tradition in this Chamber, we all stood on camera and recited those or similar words each and every day before we set about our deliberations. That would at least send a message that what we are here for is to promote the equality of human beings and not to promote inequality and discrimination. Why can we not do something like that?
The horrific statistics that the Equality and Human Rights Commission produced in its report last year have been mentioned. Although the statistics are based on research in England and Wales, it would be foolish and complacent to suggest we would find anything significantly different in most parts of Scotland or in most parts of the rest of the United Kingdom. For all the fine words, and for all the length of time that we have been claiming to be an equal society, we are not.
I want to finish with some personal comments from Baroness McGregor-Smith in the foreword to the document that was referred to earlier. She says:
“Speaking on behalf of so many from a minority background, I can simply say that all we ever wanted was to be seen as an individual, just like anyone else.”
There is no reason on earth why that simple dream should ever be beyond the reach of any human being on God’s earth.
It is pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Streeter. I also commend the hon. Member for Brent Central (Dawn Butler) for securing this debate and for her truly excellent speech today.
I was interested to read that the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has reminded Governments around the world that they have a legal obligation to stop hate speech and hate crimes, and has called on people everywhere to
“stand up for someone’s rights.”
“Politics of division and the rhetoric of intolerance are targeting racial, ethnic, linguistic and religious minorities, and migrants and refugees. Words of fear and loathing can, and do, have real consequences.”
The hon. Member for Brent Central spoke eloquently about those killed in Sharpeville, South Africa, when they demonstrated against apartheid laws. In recognising that and then proclaiming the international day in 1966, the UN General Assembly called on the international community to redouble its efforts to eliminate all forms of racial discrimination. But here we are, 57 years on, with so much to do. This issue affects everything. For so many people all over the world, the spectre of racism and discrimination looms large over their daily lives.
On that point, in a 2016 ruling the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination asked the UK Government to facilitate the Chagossians’ return to their islands home and also to properly compensate them. Does my hon. Friend agree that the Government must respect the rights of the Chagossian people? The Government must uphold international law and take proper action to allow them to return home.
I thank my hon. Friend for that useful intervention. I entirely agree with her point.
For many more people racism is an occasional concern, but that concern still has the potential to destroy their lives. It stifles their potential and that of their children. It causes people to live in fear and despair. How can it be that after all these years, so many people today still have such cause for concern here and around the world, and such starkly different life chances, simply because of their race, their religious beliefs or where they came from?
I make no apology for repeating today the concerns that I highlighted in another debate in this Chamber recently. I said I was worried and fearful in a way I had never been previously for the future of my children, who are mixed-race. That speech resulted in my receiving my very own racist abuse, but that is absolutely nothing to how people must feel when they are routinely treated differently and unfairly, and abused, because of their racial or religious background.
Let us be quite clear. Here and now there is a feeling bubbling away that it is somehow becoming more acceptable than it has been in my lifetime to treat people differently because of the colour of their skin, because they are seen as different. That needs to be acknowledged and addressed. There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that the way to address it is for Governments and people in our position in Parliaments all over the world to stand up and speak out, and, as the hon. Member for Brent Central put it, to be anti-racist. The silence of politicians and the lack of concern and action is exactly what is needed to let racism and discrimination grow and take hold.
The politics of Trump and the politics of UKIP are sleekit, and there is a huge danger that we will allow their nasty racist nonsense to creep into our daily lives. It is absolutely our job here to push against that and to make sure that people know that we will always do so.
The more irresponsible political language and discourse becomes, the worse the impact on anyone who appears different or who can so easily be stereotyped and put into somebody else’s makey-uppy box. As the UN has made clear, such issues face people all over the world and, as we have heard, people who are fleeing across the world. Imagine fleeing persecution, war and terror and meeting with hostility, suspicion and discrimination. Is that really what we are all about?
Every time we turn our backs on people who are being treated badly or fleeing for their lives, we make the situation worse for many people, even beyond those directly affected. What about the child refugees, all alone, whom the UK Government cannot bring themselves to let in? Turning them away sends a very powerful message: if you are different, you are not wanted. Thank God they are not my children.
Every time a politician who should know better—who does know better—uses race as a political tool, they are not only failing themselves, but failing so many other people who deserve for all of us to be focused on fighting discrimination. Yes, Sadiq Khan, that is you. I wish that he would hear the eloquent words of the hon. Member for Brent Central.
Maybe it would be easy for me to say, “Look at Scotland; look at the Scottish Government.” It is true that one of the big things that attracted me to join the SNP was the focus on diversity and inclusion. It is true that the Scottish Government have done much to foster a positive sense of diversity and to welcome those fleeing, and I am proud of all of that. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Glenrothes (Peter Grant) said, this is not an area where we can have any degree of complacency. For all the important work that has been done, there is always more to do and there are always more issues to be addressed. So we work hard at that all the time because it is important, and because it is the right thing to do for all of us.
In concluding, I want to reflect on someone who made a big impression on me, who I was delighted to hear our First Minister quote in her welcoming and inclusive speech to our conference on Saturday. The late Bashir Ahmad MSP was a truly inspirational man. He embodied much of what is best about our modern, diverse, open Scotland. Born in Amritsar, he came to Scotland from Pakistan and was elected as our first Asian MSP in 2003. He campaigned tirelessly to give a voice to communities that had been little heard from, and we all benefit now from the steps he took then. When he launched Scots Asians for Independence, he gave a speech saying:
“It isn't important where you come from, what matters is where we are going together as a nation.”
Now more than ever that should resonate with all of us here and give us pause for thought as we go about our jobs.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Brent Central (Dawn Butler) on making me cry twice in a week. Thanks very much for that. The first time was last week at the beautiful event held at the Speaker’s House to mark this day. Today, it was understandable that there were few dry eyes in here.
On 21 March 1960 an 82-year-old stonemason in Pretoria, South Africa, wrote a poem in Scottish Gaelic with a Swahili refrain condemning the bloody massacre in Sharpeville of 69 black South Africans, many of them shot in the back. Originally from the Isle of Mull, Duncan Livingstone was a Boer war veteran who had worked and lived in Glasgow before emigrating to South Africa and spending the rest of his life there. What was clear to that Hebridean Glaswegian, whose work is still visible in the city today, was clear to right-thinking people across the world, and in 1966 the UN declared 21 March the international day for the elimination of racial discrimination.
While we seldom see such blatant and violent racism on such a scale in developed countries, at least today, pernicious racial discrimination remains in most if not all societies. Just because most of us will never experience it and most of us will rarely witness it, that does not mean it does not happen. Some of it is in a blatant form. I did not want to intervene on the hon. Member for Brent Central, because the point she was making about race hate crimes was too important, but I will say that the increase in Scotland was very much less. I say that not to say “Scotland good, England and Wales bad”; I say it because I think it has an awful lot to do with the difference in political rhetoric from each Government. It does make a difference.
We have not eliminated racism in Scotland. Far from it. Let me fast-forward to Glasgow, 50 years on from when Duncan Livingstone wrote that Gaelic-Swahili poem. About eight years ago I accompanied a Sudanese friend to the housing office, because I could not understand why, as a homeless person, he had not been offered accommodation—anything at all—one year on from becoming homeless, which happened as a result of his refugee status being granted. The housing office informed me that he was not classed as homeless because he was staying with a friend. “But he’s sleeping on a yoga mat on the living room floor, and has been for a year,” I said. What did they say in response? They told me that that did not necessarily constitute homelessness—actually it does—because “lots of Africans are used to sleeping on the ground. They like it.” That is blatant. He was denied his legal rights. It was only eight years ago. That is racial discrimination.
I think the really dangerous racism, other than institutionalised racism, is that which is under the radar. It is so subtle that unless you are the recipient, you probably would not pick up on it. It is not always intentional—most people do not want to be racist—but I have heard people speak about black friends of mine not in critical terms, but saying how they are quite aggressive and forceful, when they are nothing of the sort—they are simply expressing themselves. We all need to be honest with ourselves about it, because confronting our own thinking is the best way to change it. I am not excluding myself from that. My partner is black and I have had people telling me that therefore I must not be capable of racism; but that is such a dangerous way to think. I am subjected to media images and propaganda the same as anyone else. None of us is immune to thinking or acting in a racially discriminatory fashion, but we are all capable of challenging our own thoughts and monitoring our actions, and morally obliged to do so.
When I say none of us is immune, I primarily mean none of us who are white. I sometimes read comments from white people who say “But black people are just as racist”. I keep saying we need to learn and educate ourselves, and I am going to share something about my education around 20 years ago when I would hear people say that. I did not really agree with the statement, but I was not sure why. It did not sound right to me, but I would have agreed at the very least that there was racism from some black people towards white people. Then a good friend—a Mancunian Pakistani with a bit of Glaswegian thrown in—explained that while there might be prejudice from a black person to a white person, as that black person probably is not as propped up by the levers of power, as embedded in the UK’s institutions, as immersed in the establishment of the UK, it cannot be called racism. It is simply an opinion that ordinarily has little impact on the white person’s life. Racism—I am not trying to define it here—is about the desire and ability to exercise power over someone because of the colour of their skin and the colour of one’s own skin. The world is still weighted in favour of white people. The UK is still weighted in favour of white people.
That brings me to the biggest problem as I see it, which is institutionalised racism. Who runs the judiciary? White people. Who runs the Government? Primarily white people. The civil service, Churches and media? White people. As for some sections of the media and the responsibility they have, we can talk about the irresponsible way they behave—most Scots will remember when every drunk person in a TV drama series or a film had to be Scottish. We hated that, unless it was “Rab C. Nesbitt”, of course, but at least we had positive role models too. Black children growing up rarely had positive black role models. It was not that they did not exist, just that they never got to see them. Just as importantly, neither did we. Instead, when black people were on TV it was generally a negative portrayal. My partner Graham—he is Jamaican, and his mother is from Grenada—told me that when Trevor McDonald came on the news, it was an event. There he was, a black man being listened to and taken seriously. Now, he says, it does not even register with him when a black person is on TV and being taken seriously. He did add, however, that it is absolutely right that the next step has to be for them to get parity in their industry.
I was going to talk about increasing income disparity between people of different ethnicities as they become more qualified, but the hon. Member for Bradford West (Naz Shah) covered that for me, so I shall take the time instead to respond to a comment from the hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) about letters he gets telling him that child refugees should be brought here; he said none of the letters offers to give them a bed. Who would write to their MP to go through that process? That is not what people do. No one writes to me offering to give a bed. It does not mean that those people are not out there. As we have heard, local authorities and Governments across these islands have said that they have places available, and people available to take children in.
I cannot give any personal constituency experience, but I have good friends in a neighbouring constituency who wanted to offer their entire house to Syrian refugees. At that point the reason they could not was that the Home Office was not planning to let in enough Syrian refugees for Fife’s quota to fill one big house in North East Fife. That may be why people have not offered to provide houses—because there simply were not enough refugees being allowed in to need the houses in the first place.
In my constituency lots of people want to take in children, but the sad truth is that the Government have said no more children are allowed in. Does the hon. Lady agree that perhaps the hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) needs to have a word with the Government about the Dubs amendment before he starts talking about how people have changed in this country?
I agree. I wish that the hon. Member for Beckenham had stayed to listen, but perhaps we shall encourage him to read Hansard.
To return to the hiding of positive black role models, it is obviously worse for those who are not just black but women as well. I want to tell the story of Mary Seacole, in case hon. Members do not know it. She was a Scots Jamaican nurse who raised the money to go to the Crimean war and nurse war-wounded soldiers. What she did was not hugely different from what Florence Nightingale did, although some argue it was a lot better; I am not one of them. However, they were remembered differently. Mary Seacole finally got a statue last year. It sits outside St Thomas’s Hospital facing the House of Commons. MPs will remember getting letters from the Nightingale Society saying “Seacole was no nurse. Fine, give her a statue, but not there—not in such a prominent place. Hide it away somewhere.” I thought, given that she was the first black woman in the UK to be honoured in such a way, that that behaviour was an absolute disgrace. What is also disgraceful is the fact that in 2016 she was the first black woman to have a named statue in her honour. The history books are full of white people—men, mainly, but white all the same—but history itself is full of inspiring people of all ethnicities.
I want us to be able to look back in not too many years’ time and be horrified at some of the subtle racism we have heard about today. I want us to be embarrassed that only a tiny percentage of the Members of this House were from BME communities in 2017, and to ask how on earth we allowed our great institutions to be so white. If future generations look back at us and shake their heads in disbelief, so be it, because at least they will be living in a better time—a time when, I hope, discrimination based on someone’s ethnicity will have been completely eliminated.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. I congratulate the hon. Member for Brent Central (Dawn Butler) on securing the debate and on setting the scene so beautifully and eloquently, as always, and so passionately as we observe this day. It is of course important to mark this day. She said that we should be united together with one voice. In turbulent political times, it is wonderful to find any kind of platform where we can join together in one voice, so we should embrace that. My hon. Friend the Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron) rightly spoke about education being key, as it can widen horizons, but there is an increasing propensity for discrimination online. We should be concerned about young people’s exposure to that.
The hon. Member for Bradford West (Naz Shah) spoke about black, Asian and minority ethnic representation in public life. It is absolutely clear that we need to address that face on. She also gave some shocking statistics on employment. My hon. Friend the Member for Glenrothes (Peter Grant) gave an international perspective and said that we clearly are not an equal society. We are not, unless women are given their due and rightful place, are paid accordingly and have equal representation across society.
My hon. Friend the Member for East Renfrewshire (Kirsten Oswald) always speaks out on these issues. She faced abuse when she spoke out for people suffering racial abuse. Unfortunately, that is what happens when we raise our voices—we find ourselves also the subject of abuse. She rightly expressed concern for her children, but she also spoke, rightly, of the need to help those in need, wherever they may be. She also spoke of the late Bashir Ahmad, who was my friend and a friend of my family. He is greatly missed, and his words ring true today, just as they did so many years ago.
My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North East (Anne McLaughlin), while stealing some of my time—I am always happy to give it to her—gave her personal insight, as usual. She has fought for equality all her life and has never been afraid to speak out. I say to all those who speak out that it means so very much to us as members of the BAME community that people are prepared to do so. I make that point as a BAME MP. I am proud to be standing here with my fellow parliamentarians from the Scottish National party, who are all non-BAME parliamentarians but are happy to raise their voices and speak up for what is right.
I often face the question, “Where do you come from, Tasmina?”, which is followed up with the question, “No, but where do you really come from?” I want to take a couple of minutes to speak about the impact of racism on young people and children, because it endures and lasts a lifetime. You may not have considered this to be so, Mr Streeter, but as a child in Edinburgh—I was one of the first children of mixed marriage, which started to take place a number of years ago—I faced an awful lot of racial discrimination. I was called many names: golliwog, black Sambo, Paki—you name it, I got all of it. I was bullied at school, beaten up and so on, and I did my very best to keep it from my parents. My late father was from Pakistan, and the last thing I wanted as a young child was for him to feel guilty that it was because of him that I was facing that abuse. There are young children who feel the same way today.
What is of even greater concern in relation to my children and those of Members in the Chamber and those listening in to the debate is that, as well as that racial discrimination based on where someone comes from or the country someone’s parents are thought to come from, there is religion discrimination, too, which is of great concern to us all. Discrimination makes people feel inferior. What is the impact on later life? Women spend their whole lives working doubly hard to show they are good enough—triply hard if they are from the BAME community. They feel they have to do so much more than anyone else to earn their stripes. That is certainly something that I feel.
Women who have chosen to wear the hijab have experienced much discrimination, which is unacceptable. As we have heard from Members from all parties, it is a woman’s right to wear what she wants, when she wants, whatever that might be. We should always stand up for women in that respect. Racial discrimination and racial profiling do exist. I have been on international trips with fellows MPs, and it might horrify you to learn, Mr Streeter, that the only person who gets stopped at immigration is me. I get taken away for questioning, and it is embarrassing. Let us be honest about what exists. My colleagues, including one who is sitting with us in Westminster Hall, have watched it happen.
In her conference speech at the weekend, our First Minister asked:
“What kind of country do we want to be?”
She has asked that on many an occasion, and a Member here today asked that. We should continually ask ourselves that question: what do we want our country to look like? What kind of impression do we want people to have of us, whether that is us in the UK or from our perspective in Scotland? I hope that we want to be an outward-looking country. We in Scotland pride ourselves on that. At our conference at the weekend, we had a fantastic session where we highlighted and profiled our BAME candidates who are standing in the forthcoming council elections. That was not a sideshow or a fringe event; it was main stage, because that is where BAME people should be in public life. I hope and trust that they found it as fulfilling as I did to watch. I am sure those in the audience enjoyed their contribution, as well.
The UK Government have allowed an obsession on immigration, targets and toxic rhetoric to develop. The phrases have become all too common. Those with power have tremendous platforms, and they should use their words to impact positively on people’s lives. If they do not do that, they impact negatively. They have to talk about being an inclusive, welcoming society on all the stages and at every opportunity they have. If they fail to do so, it is the people from BAME communities who face the consequences—our children, their children, refugees and people who are fleeing conflict and war to make this country their home—not them. We are so much better than that. If we are in a society where people are questioning whether we should be taking in refugees, we have to take a good look at ourselves and wonder, “What kind of platform have we created? What kind of society have we created that people even think they can say such things?”
There is much work to do, and I hope we can work together across the House on that. I ask the Minister to implore his colleagues in Government to use every platform they have to engage positively on the importance of immigration and how people from different backgrounds contribute not only to the economy, but to tradition, culture and all the things that should be making Scotland and the whole of the United Kingdom great.
I thank every Member who has contributed this afternoon, but most especially I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Brent Central (Dawn Butler). Sadly, this debate is more important than ever before, as we try to eliminate that which divides us and celebrate that which unites us.
I had the privilege of being born and growing up in my hon. Friend’s constituency, in Willesden Green. The first 19 years of my life were spent there. Even in the 1960s, it was one of the most multicultural parts of Great Britain. It was something that we celebrated. Growing up there in the 1960s, it was normal to see people of all backgrounds, faiths, skin colours and religions, whether that was in my street, my school or my home, where my father operated his office as a local solicitor. It was a shock to go to the University of York in 1974, where I seemed to be the blackest person in the city.
My father’s experience in fleeing Europe in 1934 and coming to this country unable to speak English was very important in my upbringing and my understanding of what discrimination is about. He was fleeing an increasingly Nazi Europe, increasing intolerance towards Jews and increasing violence against Jews. He came to this country seeking sanctuary, which he was given. After school, he joined the British army. He had become a British citizen, and by then of course he spoke very good English. Fighting in occupied France was a lesson for him in why a united Europe was important and why racism and discrimination must be eliminated. He never spoke of that time in France, but he helped to set up the Willesden Friendship Society in the 1960s. People from all backgrounds and from all over the world came to our house in Jeymer Avenue and talked about how we could make our community much more multicultural and less discriminatory.
I am proud to now represent one of the most multicultural constituencies in Yorkshire, apart from that of my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford West (Naz Shah), of course. In north-east Leeds, we have perhaps a greater diversity, if not a greater majority of people from different backgrounds. Chapeltown is historically the place where people have come to seek refuge from other countries and from persecution to make a better life in Great Britain. They include Jews escaping the pogroms of the nineteenth century and people coming from parts of Africa to escape persecution today.
I was chair of the Leeds City Council race equality committee for six years and learned how we could adopt policies to try to bring our citizens together to share what we had in the great city of Leeds, my adopted home, and to create a better society for everybody. Chapeltown has the oldest West Indian carnival in the country; I am glad to say it is older even than that in Notting Hill, by one year. We celebrate our 50th anniversary this year. It is a coming together of people from all different backgrounds to celebrate carnival among ourselves, even if we have never visited the Caribbean.
A middle-aged woman, originally from the Philippines, came to see me shortly after the referendum campaign. She was in deep distress. This will echo a lot of the contributions made this afternoon: her distress was based on the fact that her next-door neighbour came up to her the day after the referendum, 24 June, and said, “Have you packed your bags yet?” She explained that she was British and had lived in this country for 20 years; she works as a nurse at Leeds General Infirmary. He said, “But have you packed your bags yet?” She said, “Why? I am not European.” He said, “No. We voted yesterday for all of you lot to leave the country.” That is the kind of division that we are seeing up and down our nation, from Scotland right down to Cornwall, and it is something that I know everyone in this room and in this House would agree is entirely reprehensible.
The struggle against apartheid, which many have referred to this afternoon, galvanised many of us in the ’70s when I was growing up and when I was at university and becoming politically aware—many of my friends and family were, too. South Africa and the struggle against apartheid brought many people into the Labour party and many other political parties—I would say all political parties represented in this House today. It was the struggle against the blatant discrimination and injustice that we saw on our TV screens that galvanised many of us into political action. It was certainly my political awakening.
We have heard some excellent contributions today. I was also almost in tears listening to the contribution from my hon. Friend the Member for Brent Central. I thank her very much for that. She said enhancing other people’s rights does not diminish our rights. That should be a motto for all of us. Enhancing other people’s rights does not affect us—it makes and helps to create the better society that we are all here to try to create.
In her typically gentle way, my good friend— I hope she will not mind my calling her that—the hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron) made a powerful point about her visit to the refugee families in Jordan and Lebanon with the International Development Committee. I have also made such a visit: I went to Azraq in Jordan in January, as a member of the Front-Bench team. She also said something important that relates back to the holocaust: that we must learn the lessons of the holocaust, to celebrate the diversity of our society. Just last Sunday, I was with the holocaust Survivors Friendship Association, in my constituency in Leeds, meeting with men and women now in their 90s—the youngest was 88—who survived the holocaust and still live today to tell the stories and to share the experience that they suffered. That is something we must never forget.
We heard excellent contributions from, for example, my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford West, who always speaks so powerfully, on this subject and many others. We heard from the hon. Members for Glenrothes (Peter Grant), for East Renfrewshire (Kirsten Oswald) and for Glasgow North East (Anne McLaughlin). We heard an intervention from the gallant Member, the hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart). I am sorry he is not in his place. I have had many dealings with him. He is someone I admire enormously for what he has done in his military career and since he has been here in the House. He said something interesting about Syrian children. He said that not one of his constituents pleading for Syrian children to come and be looked after here by his constituents or anyone else has actually offered their home. One contribution this afternoon pointed out that people would not write to their MP to offer their home for a Syrian child or family, but I can tell you that I have received those letters. I am sure many of us have.
Many of us have had constituents saying, “I have spare bedrooms; come and use my bedroom. I am offering it to those families.”
Let me conclude so that the Minister can answer the many excellent points that have been made this afternoon. We have heard condemnation—rightly so—of Nigel Farage’s infamous “Breaking Point” poster, which was, of course, incredibly offensive to all of us, so I will not say any more about that, but I would like to ask the Minister about the lack of support for the rights of EU nationals living in the UK after we leave the European Union. Can he can say something about whether he believes that that has contributed to an increasingly hostile environment for EU nationals still living in the UK? What are the Government going to do to ensure that a message of zero tolerance towards racially motivated crimes in general gets broadcast? I know that the Minister is committed to that, but I would like to hear more about what he is going to do.
We have heard that the Hungarian Prime Minister, Viktor Orbán, has adopted, like Donald Trump, vitriolic rhetoric towards refugees and migrants, threatening to refuse entry to any non-Christian, while also putting up barbed wire fences and using tear gas to disperse crowds of refugees and migrants. Yet Hungary is still in the European Union. I hope the EU is able to do something about that.
It is worth remembering that, in many Western societies, it is still often the case that racial and religious minorities are one and the same. We need to adopt an approach to foreign policy challenges such as the refugee crisis that is based on a fundamental rejection of religious bias as well as racial bias.
Finally, I press the Minister to set out in more detail how the Government plan to co-ordinate with the European Union after Brexit on major foreign policy issues and potentially on asylum reform. Those should be key issues in the article 50 negotiations, but to date the Government have said next to nothing about them—a concern that was highlighted last week by the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs, among others. In our society, there is no place for racism. We believe—I am sure we all believe—that there is one race: the human race.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. I congratulate the hon. Member for Brent Central (Dawn Butler) on securing the debate. I genuinely commend her for the moving way in which she presented her case and the words of her song—I have to say there was a moment when I thought she was going to sing it.
I was pleased to hear the hon. Member for Glasgow North East (Anne McLaughlin) mention the great Mary Seacole. It is right that we remember her contribution. We remember her in Government too. The Home Office building in Westminster is made up of three buildings—one is named after Robert Peel, one after Elizabeth Fry and the other after Mary Seacole—so Ministers and officials are reminded of her every day as they go about their work, much of which may well be on the issue we are debating today.
On the international day for the elimination of racial discrimination—a day on which my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has made a very definitive statement—we also remember what happened in the township of Sharpville in South Africa in March 1960 and those who died in what was supposed to have been a peaceful protest. We express our total solidarity with all victims of racism and reiterate our determination to challenge discrimination in whatever form it takes, at home and abroad. Combating all forms of racism remains an important part of this Government’s international human rights policy. I would like to set out some of the work that we are doing around the world.
The UN convention on the elimination of all forms of racial discrimination underpins international co-operation to prevent, combat and eradicate racism. Effective implementation of the convention is essential if we are to achieve its aims. That is why the UN General Assembly reviews that implementation through a UN resolution. As a co-sponsor of the resolution, the UK takes a leading role in the United Nations’ work to counter racism worldwide. Through the UN, we work to ensure the international community focuses on strengthening national, regional and international legal frameworks to make a reality of the protections contained in the convention. During the current Human Rights Council session in Geneva, we are working very hard to build international consensus about the importance of fighting racism and the best ways to do it.
The UN is not our only channel for that work. We are also working through other key international institutions. For instance, through the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe we are supporting countries with a disaggregation of hate crimes data. It is fair to say that the UK has become a world leader in this area. Furthermore, last year we co-hosted, with Poland, an OSCE event in which we shared the lessons learned in our response to the absolutely unacceptable spike in reported hate crime following the EU referendum.
We are also supporting projects that tackle anti-Semitism. For example, we are funding the translation into Polish and Romanian of the “Police Officer’s Guide to Judaism”. That guide to Jewish religious practice is published by the Community Security Trust to help police officers to effectively and sensitively investigate anti-Semitic crimes. As part of our continued commitment to fight anti-Semitism, we remain an active member of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.
The UK is also represented by our independent expert, Michael Whine, on the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance. That organisation monitors racism, xenophobia and other forms of hate crime, and prepares reports and issues recommendations to Council of Europe member states. Having the UK represented by an expert ensures that the UK’s approach to race equality issues is heard and properly understood in the Council of Europe.
The UK’s strong international reputation in the fight against racism is underpinned by our long and proud tradition as an open and tolerant nation. Although work remains to be done, we can credibly claim that Britain today is a successful multi-ethnic country. Members of our African, Caribbean, Asian and other ethnic minority communities are represented in every area of British society—in business, academia, sport, the arts and politics.
The UK also has some of the strongest equalities legislation in the world, but we know that on its own it is not enough. We have to recognise and challenge racism and discrimination whenever they occur. The Prime Minister has made clear her determination to do just that. One of her first acts in office was to launch an unprecedented audit of public services to reveal racial disparities. That audit is being conducted right across our public services, from health, education, employment, skills and criminal justice. It may reveal difficult truths, but we should not be apologetic about shining a light on any injustice. It is only by doing so that we can make this a country that works for absolutely everyone.
As has been mentioned today, the despicable rise in racist incidents after the EU referendum highlighted even more strongly the need to tackle the scourge of hate crime. That is why in July we published a new hate crime action plan that focuses on reducing incidents, increasing reporting and improving support for victims. It was accompanied by an additional £1 million for prevention work. We will review the plan next year to ensure it is delivering on its commitments. In January, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government announced a further £375,000 of new funding to tackle hate crime. The new package will support a range of organisations working with faith and minority communities that have historically faced challenges in reporting hate crime.
As part of the Government’s continued commitment to building strong, united communities, we have spent more than £60 million since 2010 on our integration programme to bring communities together. We have provided more than £5 million since 2010-11 to the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust as part of our ongoing commitment to holocaust remembrance and education, and just under 6,000 local commemorative events took place in January. We are also proud to fund Tell MAMA—Measuring Anti-Muslim Attacks—the first service to record anti-Muslim incidents and support the victims. So far, we have provided more than £1 million to fund it. In the coming months, the Government will bring forward plans for tackling the issues raised in Dame Louise Casey’s report into integration and opportunity in isolated and deprived communities.
Once again, I thank the hon. Member for Brent Central for initiating this debate. I and the Government believe that every individual, regardless of their racial or ethnic origin, should be able to fulfil his or her potential through the enjoyment of equal rights, equal opportunities and fair responsibilities. The Government reiterate our commitment to stand up against injustice and inequality wherever it occurs. As the Prime Minister said, it is by tackling the injustice and unfairness that drives us apart and by nurturing the responsibilities of citizenship that we can build a shared society and make it the bedrock of a stronger and fairer Britain that truly works for everyone.
It has been a pleasure to serve under your stewardship, Mr Streeter. I am disappointed that the Minister has not committed to ensuring that we mark this day every year in our calendar in the UK. The Government have some programmes, but I can tell the Minister that the audit will find that the system is flawed, and Government legislation is compounding the situation for people from minority communities. The cost of tribunal fees is stopping people getting justice when they deserve it. I can also tell the Minister that most of the laws for promoting equality were passed under a Labour Government.
I thank the Minister for agreeing that we will mark this day—the Government are willing to mark it—every year. I may have missed it, but I hope he will write to me at a later date to confirm that the Government are indeed committed to marking this day as the UN international day for the elimination of racial discrimination. I thank everybody who contributed to the debate. Their excellent contributions show that there is a deep understanding of the issue and what needs to be done to work towards achieving our goal of fairness in society.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the UN International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.
Nuclear Decommissioning Industry: Pensions
I beg to move,
That this House has considered pensions in the nuclear decommissioning industry.
I have been seeking to secure a debate on pensions in the nuclear decommissioning industry for some months, as I am deeply disturbed by the way workers have been treated and betrayed by the UK Government. I speak on behalf of those in my constituency of North Ayrshire and Arran who work on the Hunterston A site, but this matter is of material interest to all workers across the United Kingdom who share the sense of betrayal and treachery at the fact that their pensions have been treated as if they were of no account.
[Mr Philip Hollobone in the Chair]
The betrayal that those workers feel should come as no surprise to anyone who has followed events since the nuclear estate was privatised by the Thatcher Government in the 1980s. Guarantees were made requiring the new private sector employers to continue to provide pension benefits for those employed at the time of privatisation
“at least as good as those they were receiving in the public sector”.
Those guarantees and legal protections have now been abandoned.
That situation was made starkly clear by the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority and other employers consulting on reforms to two final salary schemes, seeking the views of members on changes such as moving to a career average, revalued earnings arrangement and a cap on pensionable pay. The UK Government decided that because the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority is classified as public sector, those schemes should be reformed under the Public Service Pensions Act 2013. Clearly, however, those pensions are not public sector ones, as I shall go on to make clear.
The erosion of decommissioning workers’ pensions is unacceptable. Radical reform of those pensions has already taken place in the mid-2000s, when they were closed to new entrants, who now have inferior defined-contribution pensions. Public sector reform takes no account of the fact that decommissioning sites are now in the private sector, nor that, unlike for other public sector workers, redundancy is an inherent part of decommissioning workers’ employment.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing the debate. Pension rights in the event of redundancy are particularly important for workers undertaking decommissioning at Trawsfynydd power station in my constituency because of the timescale for closure and the age profile of the workforce. I hope she agrees that we need a commitment from the Minister in her response that a solution will be found for employees of Magnox Ltd and other companies affected by the Enterprise Act 2016.
I very much concur with the hon. Lady. We are seeking a response from the Minister that will show fairness and an understanding of what such workers have already gone through and of the assurances that were made. All future action should take full account of that.
As I said, redundancy is an inherent part of the employment of decommissioning workers, since cleaning nuclear sites is time-limited. The prospect of redundancy is therefore written into the job in a way that does not apply to any other. The job of a worker at a nuclear decommissioning site is highly technical, skilled and sometimes even dangerous. The prospect of redundancy being in-built in people’s jobs is bad enough, but to have their pension eroded at what increasingly looks like regular intervals is simply unacceptable. It creates disincentives for workers to enter or stay in the industry, and it is extremely bad for morale.
The uncertainty created by that erosion of pensions affects not only the workers, of course, but their families and their financial planning for their retirement, and it shows with crystal clarity that any legal protections offered by Governments to workers mean nothing when they can be ripped up and disregarded when convenient. I raised that very matter at Treasury questions two months ago and was told by the Chief Secretary to the Treasury that
“it is necessary to have terms and conditions that reflect the modern situation that applies across the economy as a whole.”—[Official Report, 17 January 2017; Vol. 619, c. 769.]
Will the Minister tell me how that response squares with the cast-iron guarantees made to workers when the nuclear estate was privatised? Were the workers told that those so-called cast-iron guarantees were actually written on water?
Is that not a constant theme? People take out pensions in good faith, whether state or private, to plan for something that might happen 20, 30 or 40 years later, but by the time they get there the goalposts have been moved.
Absolutely, and I will discuss that later in my speech. There is indeed a chilling wider pattern and a broader narrative becoming increasingly apparent as each day passes.
Those workers are classed as public sector workers, but their terms and conditions are not devolved to the Scottish Parliament as they are for other public sector workers. Indeed, Scottish nuclear workers still have their severance and early retirement terms dictated by the UK Government. The goalposts are clearly being moved when it is deemed financially beneficial for the Government or the industry, while the pensions interests of the workers are a secondary consideration.
The Office for National Statistics classified Magnox as a public sector organisation, which means that the pensions of its workers are in scope of reform by the UK Government, despite the fact that they work on sites that have been privatised. The UK Government have proposed to reform IR35 tax arrangements for contractors working in the public sector or for public authorities. Draft guidance from the Government uses the definition of a public authority contained in the Freedom of Information Acts, which includes bodies specifically listed in schedules to the Acts, publicly owned companies and any other body designated as a public authority by the Secretary of State. Interestingly, Magnox is not listed in the schedules, and that is because it is a privately and not publicly owned company. Consequently, the Freedom of Information Acts do not apply to Magnox except where stipulated in employee contracts with the NDA, and so neither do the IR35 reforms.
Nothing but confusion and concern can be caused by the use of different definitions of the public sector in different legislation and UK Government proposals. That is a matter of concern to the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority as well as to nuclear decommissioning workers. The reason it matters so much to the workers at Hunterston A and other sites throughout the United Kingdom is the adverse financial impact such definitions will have on the employees of Magnox. The goalposts must not be moved and definitions must not be manipulated by the powers that be to the financial detriment of those who work on such sites day in, day out.
I wrote to the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy on that very issue, asking for the apparent confusion to be clarified. I sent my letter on 7 February but, to date, I have had no response—presumably the Secretary of State himself is trying to work out the apparent contradiction. I hope he is able to do so soon, because the workers in Hunterston A and the rest of the industry are waiting on tenterhooks for him to dispense his wisdom about such a bewildering state of affairs.
All of that comes hard on the heels of the punitive exit payments cap, which will have a hugely detrimental impact on the pensions and redundancy payments of over-55s made redundant after years of service. As I have pointed out, those workers are caught up in the problem because they have been classified as public sector workers, even though they are employed in the private sector. The only fair and reasonable thing to do would be for the UK Government to announce that those workers are to be exempt from the exit payments cap under the Enterprise Act 2016.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing the debate. She is right to talk about the double whammy faced by nuclear workers. During the passage of the said Act, reference was made to their pensions not being touched. The Government, however, broke their word, which had been given not only at the time of privatisation but last year as well. I hope that the Minister will take note of that and respond, because it is unfair to those dedicated workers and their dedicated communities.
Absolutely. My only disagreement with the hon. Gentleman is that, taking into account the reforms to those pensions in the mid-2000s, as well as the new exit payments cap reforms, we are actually talking about a triple whammy. I very much hope that the Minister will have something to tell us about the cap.
The exit payments cap for nuclear decommissioning workers was pressed to a vote in the Commons during the passage of the Act, but the Government voted us down. I hope—perhaps blindly optimistically—that the UK Government will be willing to reconsider. Talks have led to a new Nuclear Decommissioning Authority proposal, but the trade union consensus is that more must be done to put pension provision on a par with the public sector, including improvements for new starters in the defined-contribution scheme so that their pension is protected on any outsourcing.
Clearly, despite significant pension guarantees in the 1980s, the major pension reform in the mid-2000s and the exit payments cap, workers in the nuclear decommissioning industry are in the firing line. As has been mentioned, the fact is that this is part of a broader narrative from the UK Government, who are taking action to reduce public sector pensions across the board. We saw it with the way the WASPI—Women Against State Pension Inequality—women had their feet cut from under them as they approached what they thought was their retirement age, and we now see it with this catalogue of broken promises and betrayal of nuclear decommissioning workers, as everyone who is present would acknowledge.
It is clear that this Government, despite protestations to the contrary, see a pension not as a contract but as a benefit. To be clear, a pension is a contract, not a benefit. It is paid into, and people have reasonable expectations that what they can expect at the end of their working life should be clear and that they can depend upon it. Public sector workers, the WASPI women and now workers in the nuclear decommissioning industry have discovered to their cost that that is no longer the case. Those contracts can be torn up at will—or so it would seem. Assurances apparently mean nothing. Years of service and paying in mean nothing. If that is the case, what does it say about the relationship between the governing and the governed? What can one put faith in if not a contract with one’s Government?
These moves have to be resisted. Workers in the nuclear decommissioning industry are currently considering an offer from the Government. I do not know the details of that offer, but sadly, I am pretty sure that it will mean a further erosion—to some degree—of those workers’ pensions. That is simply not acceptable, for all the reasons that we have heard. I say to workers who are not directly affected by this measure, “Next it may well be your pension.” That is why this issue should matter to us all. Who knows what group of workers will be next in the firing line? I urge the Minister and this Government to think again.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) on securing this important debate and her passionate and informative speech. The Government understand the concerns of the workforce across the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority estate, including employees working at the Hunterston A power station in her constituency, about public sector pension reform. It is good to see my hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Trudy Harrison) in her place, representing the interests of her constituents who work at Sellafield.
We recognise the vital decommissioning work that the NDA and the wider workforce across the estate deliver, while prioritising safe and secure operations in a difficult environment, and we remain firmly committed to supporting the nuclear decommissioning programme. The NDA was allocated £11 billion of taxpayer funding for the 2015 spending review period. However, in line with the challenges that the UK faces to balance the deficit, the NDA was set a proportionate programme of efficiencies and savings for that period of around £1 billion, and it was agreed in the spending review that some of those savings would come from reform of the two defined-benefit final salary pension schemes in the NDA estate.
Approximately 10,800 employees are members of those final salary pension schemes, which, as the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran mentioned, closed in the 2000s. The aim of the NDA consultation is to reform those schemes into career average revalued earnings schemes, in the spirit of the recommendations made by Lord Hutton in his 2011 review of pensions. Since 2006, new starters have been offered membership of a high-quality defined-contribution pension scheme, which is out of scope for reform.
The Government acknowledge that CARE reform would require amendments to statutory pension protections that were put in place at the time of the privatisation of the electricity sector in the 1980s and by the Energy Act 2004, when the NDA was established. Those protections sought to provide pension benefits for existing scheme members that were at least as good as those they received prior to those reforms. That is why the Government have worked with the NDA to consider how best to implement pension reform.
As a first step, the NDA held discussions with the trade unions about the potential for non-legislative options as an alternative to CARE to realise the required savings. As a result of those discussions, the NDA launched a consultation document on 9 February setting out details of two options—the CARE option and a non-legislative pensionable pay cap option. The consultation was due to end on 10 March.[Official Report, 23 March 2017, Vol. 623, c. 12MC.]
During those discussions, several concerns were raised, which the Government and the NDA actively listened to and sought to address. Following a meeting in February between the NDA, national trade union representatives and the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, my hon. Friend the Member for Hereford and South Herefordshire (Jesse Norman), who has responsibility for energy, the NDA and trade unions reached agreement to table a third option for consultation with the workforce that better reflected the circumstances they face—a revised CARE pension reform proposal.
That option was announced by the NDA and the trade unions in a joint statement on 2 March. The consultation period has therefore been extended until 21 April to allow the NDA workforce to consider that new option. The trade unions have committed to hold consultative ballots on the proposal, described as the best achievable through negotiation, and support implementation if their members accept the proposal. Those ballots are due to take place in April and conclude by early May.
The Minister is making an important point. I, too, welcome the progress that has been made on the pension, but will she deal with the exit payments cap? No discussions were held about that. An exemption was given to the Royal Bank of Scotland, to give one example. She is a reasonable person. Nuclear workers have been caught up in this. Will she agree to look into this serious issue and come up with a reasonable response?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising that important point, which was also raised by the hon. Members for North Ayrshire and Arran and for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts). My Department and the NDA will continue to meet trade union representatives regarding the cap on exit payments. My hon. Friend the Energy Minister is listening to the important concerns of workers in the NDA estate about that cap and is in discussion with the Treasury.
I wonder whether I may hurry the Minister along and raise the question of the apparent confusion in legislation about whether these workers are public sector workers or private sector workers. Why do the goalposts apparently change when it is convenient that they should—but not to the workers’ advantage?
I understand that point, which the hon. Lady also made in her speech and which I took note of. I gather that she wrote to the Secretary of State about that very point in early February and is still awaiting a reply. A reply will be forthcoming. I am very sorry that I am not able to be definitive today, but I can assure her that Ministers in my Department take her point and the point made by the hon. Member for Ynys Môn very seriously indeed. We are listening to the concerns of the workforce she represents, and, as I said, my hon. Friend the Energy Minister is in discussion with the Treasury to try to clarify the point, so that the workforce know where they stand. I absolutely sympathise with a workforce who do not know where they stand—it is an unsatisfactory situation, but I assure her that it is one that is approaching a remedy.
We recognise that nuclear decommissioning is a closure industry and many workers have devoted careers to the industry knowing that their sites may close before they retire. We are actively exploring the potential impact of the cap on workforces at sites that are being actively decommissioned and are on the path to closure, such as Hunterston A in the hon. Lady’s constituency. I will pass all hon. Members’ comments on to my hon. Friend the Energy Minister.
Once the consultation period on the pension issue has finished, the NDA will take account of the consultation responses and make proposals for Ministers to consider after that. The Government will not take a final decision before the consultation has concluded. However, we believe that the revised CARE proposal offers a fair and sustainable solution.
As the debate draws to a close—the hon. Lady will have a further say—
Order. I am afraid that the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) does not have a further say as this is a half-hour debate. The Minister has 10 minutes left, so there is plenty of opportunity for Members to intervene if they wish to do so, but the debate must finish no later than 4.30 pm.
Thank you, Mr Hollobone. I am sorry, I thought the proposer of the motion had two minutes at the end. The hon. Lady may take advantage of your offer of further interventions; I would be delighted to give way. While I am on my feet, however, I will continue.
I reiterate that the Government recognise the concerns that the hon. Lady and other hon. Members have raised about the workforce across the NDA estate and pension reform. I emphasise that the aim of pension reform is to balance the legitimate concerns of taxpayers about the present and future costs of pension commitments with the workforce’s concern about maintaining decent levels of retirement income, to which they have contributed and which they have earned. It is right that we debate that important issue and I thank all Members for their views.
I heard what the Minister said and appreciate that she will take this issue back to the appropriate Minister. Will she or the Energy Minister agree to meet a delegation of cross-party representatives from the nuclear workers’ areas? She will know about early-day motion 915, to which there are 120-plus signatories. This is an issue across the country. Can we meet to have further discussions? This debate is helpful, but we need further discussions.
I will certainly pass on the hon. Gentleman’s kind invitation to meet to my hon. Friend the Energy Minister. He is gainfully employed at the moment, meeting the Treasury, with the interests of the NDA workforce very much near his heart. I am sure that he will consider the invitation proffered.
We had a debate regarding Hewlett-Packard’s takeover of Digital Equipment’s workforce. At that time, the Minister responding said that nothing could be done because it was a purely private company. However, in this instance, as my hon. Friend the Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) said, the goalposts have been moved in the definition of public and private and back again, so the Government can do something for these workers.
The hon. Lady makes a good point about the difference in the nature of the public-private definition. The industry has had £15 billion of Government and taxpayers’ support, so it sits where it sits. My officials will reflect on the views that all Members have given today, as we consider further the options for NDA pension reform. The Government will set out the next steps following the NDA consultation on pension reform.
Question put and agreed to.
Order. At this point I would have gone on to the next debate, but the rules of engagement are that the Minister has to be present as well as the proposer of the motion. I intend to start the debate as soon as the Minister walks into the Chamber. The sitting is suspended until that point.
Stoke-on-Trent City of Culture 2021
I beg to move,
That this House has considered Stoke on Trent City of Culture 2021.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone, and it is an honour to have this opportunity to discuss the extraordinary heritage and culture of my great city of Stoke-on-Trent: the centre of our country, the centre of my universe, and the centre of a cultural renaissance that is breathing new life into an industrial heartland that has been overlooked by too many for too long. An oft-forgotten jewel nestled between the larger, gaudier baubles of Birmingham and Manchester, Stoke-on-Trent is a friendly, welcoming city with a rich heritage and an attitude and outlook all of its own. With its upcoming bid for city of culture 2021, Stoke-on-Trent is finally stepping out of the long shadow of its neighbours and showing the world what it is capable of. We are a hidden gem that will be hidden no more.
Our city was one of the launch pads of the industrial revolution and, from the opening of Josiah Wedgwood’s factory in Etruria in 1769 to the present day, the Potteries has quite literally made its name as the birthplace of the modern ceramics industry. Wherever we may be, whether in the furthest corners of the world, in the Minister’s Department, or even in our Tea Room, we are likely to find ourselves dining from tableware made in Stoke-on-Trent—made, in fact, in my constituency.
I was privileged to be present at the maiden speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Gareth Snell) only last week, during which he told the House about the turnover club—those loyal ceramic enthusiasts who flip their plate, wherever they might be, to discover its origins. As a proud member of that club, I can tell hon. Members that our excitement upon discovering that all-important back stamp is entirely understandable, because the undeniable truth is that Stoke-on-Trent produces the finest ceramics in the world; we always have and we always will.
Ceramics is not just our history, it is our heritage. It continues to shape our culture and drive our economy in the most creative and innovative ways. Nowhere is that better demonstrated than in Middleport, in the heart of my constituency. The original home of the iconic Burleigh Ware pottery, opened in 1888, the factory has been fully restored thanks to the dedicated work of the Prince’s Regeneration Trust and now stands as a tribute to our industrial past and a driving force for our economic future. Today, it is best known as the location of the BBC’s “Great Pottery Throw Down”; a fabulous showcase for Stoke-on-Trent and the ceramics industry, it is now in its second season, and I am delighted to announce that it is about to be commissioned for a third.
It is wonderful that our city’s extraordinary heritage is being recognised in shows such as that, but let us be clear: as proud as we are of our ceramics industry, there is so much more to us than that. As well as being a fully operational pot bank, Middleport serves as a gallery and exhibition space for local artists, as a community hub and as a development centre for a host of bespoke ceramic and design businesses. From the Clarice Cliff-inspired works of Emma Bailey to the textural experiments of Libby Ward and the photography of Richard Howle—whose Potteries-themed railway posters I have proudly displayed in my living room—Middleport is an incubator for the talent and creativity of Stoke-on-Trent. Elsewhere, we are home to Staffordshire University, a respected higher education institute with an admirable record in art and design.
Thank you for allowing me to speak, Mr Hollobone. My hon. Friend will be aware that there are multiple bids to be the city of culture, including some from Wales. On my two recent visits to her great city of Stoke-on-Trent, I was particularly impressed by the city’s commitment to education—specifically around the infrastructure and investment in both the further and higher education sectors. Does she agree that that reinforces the strength of Stoke-on-Trent’s bid to become the city of culture?
Of course there are other bids, but none so great as that from Stoke-on-Trent; no one will match my constituency. However, I agree that education is at the forefront of our bid, which is to ensure that not only my own constituents, but the entire country are educated about how much Stoke-on-Trent has to offer. We will lead that role from Staffordshire University.
My city is the birthplace of Reginald Mitchell, the inventor of the Spitfire, and Arnold Bennett, the great literary icon of the Potteries. Captain Smith of the Titanic was also born in Stoke-on-Trent, and while his ship’s maiden voyage may not have gone quite according to plan, its name lives on in the form of the award-winning Titanic Brewery. Its plum porter is particularly good; I am not just saying that because they occasionally let me brew it—they also let me taste it.
Our musical heritage is also long and varied. Connoisseurs of northern soul made pilgrimage to the Golden Torch in Tunstall in the early ’70s, while Shelley’s Astrodome was a national hotspot for the acid house scene in the ’80s and ’90s, helping to launch the careers of DJs such as Sasha. Stoke-on-Trent can also lay claim to two rock and roll legends: Slash from Guns N’ Roses was born in Burslem—the mother town of the Potteries—before moving to LA, while Lemmy from Motörhead also hailed from the area. A bronze bust of the bourbon-swilling frontman can be found in our wonderful Potteries Museum and Art Gallery in Hanley.
Yes it is—never mind. Our most well-known son in recent years is, of course, Robbie Williams—my former constituent—whose song-writing team continued to ply their trade from Burslem for many years. His mother is well-known for her charitable ventures in the area, supporting schemes such as the incredible Ruff and Ruby project, which supports some of our most vulnerable young people.
This year marks the fourth anniversary of the Stoke-on-Trent literary festival, which will be hosted at the Emma Bridgewater factory in the heart of Stoke-on-Trent, which is also not in my constituency. Our former colleague and “Strictly Come Dancing” star Ed Balls will be attending this year. Ours is a city fizzing with energy and creativity. Every week I meet someone who is breaking new ground and creating something extraordinary.
I am most grateful to the hon. Lady for securing the debate. As the Member for Stafford, I support Stoke-on-Trent’s bid to become the city of culture; what is good for Stoke-on-Trent is good for Stafford and the whole of Staffordshire. Does she agree that Stoke-on-Trent is at the centre of a region—Staffordshire—that has many literary figures? Not only was there Samuel Johnson from Lichfield, but there was Izaak Walton, from Stafford; the current poet laureate, Carol Ann Duffy, who went to school in Stafford; Richard Sheridan, the former MP for Stafford; and, indeed, J.R.R. Tolkien, who lived in two places in my constituency. There is a variety of literary talent centred on Stoke-on-Trent to draw from for the city of culture.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for both his intervention and his support for this important bid. I could not agree more. We are blessed with the number of cultural icons across our great county, and I look forward to being able to celebrate them with both the country and the world should we be successful in our bid to be city of culture 2021.
More and more young people are finding the opportunity to harness and shape their creativity, just as their ancestors shaped the clay beneath them. However, one of the great frustrations for me and many others is that that is not the image of Stoke-on-Trent that so many people have, and that it is all too often not the way our great city is portrayed by the national media. Those who watched reports of the recent by-election in Stoke-on-Trent may have been left with the impression of a city in decline. Journalists posed by abandoned shop fronts or derelict bottle kilns, talking down our city and, disgracefully, its people. They did not bother to mention that the abandoned shopping centre they stood in front of is scheduled for demolition, or that it is just yards away from a growing city centre and a thriving cultural centre. If Michael Crick had thrown a stone from the Labour party’s campaign office, he would have had a better than average chance of hitting one of our great theatres.
Given the coverage, is it any wonder that, when people come to Stoke-on-Trent, they always express their surprise at how green a city we are? We have beautiful, award-winning Victorian parks in Burslem, Tunstall and Hanley—and apparently some in the south of the city, too. We have magnificent lakes and gardens, and we have more miles of canals than any city in England. Stoke-on-Trent has its problems. We accept that, and we are working hard to remedy them, but nothing will be fixed by talking down the city or ignoring the progress it has made. In fact, it is precisely our heritage and our culture that hold the key to fixing some of those problems, regenerating our city and inspiring the next generation.
As one of three Members who represent the current city of culture, I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate and wish her and her city very well. There is something to say about legacy. In our few short months as the city of culture, we have already seen that things are changing; there is a spring in the air, people are happy and money is being spent. Investment is coming into the city, which is very important for the legacy. I wish my hon. Friend well.
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. I look forward to visiting Hull this year to experience his city of culture. I think that is the key point: even at this stage, we have to commit to ensuring that the bidding process leaves a legacy, not just that we manage to secure the award. Hull is an inspiration now and I hope it will also be an inspiration at the end of the year.
Returning to my great city, I will this week be visiting the wonderful Portland Inn Project, which is working to turn a disused public house into a thriving community centre. Such projects do not just regenerate a building—they create the space for communities to come together. It is about improving our physical space, but it is also about creating something more meaningful. Culture is not just about what we do; it is about who we are. At the heart of our city’s ceramic history is not just the objects we produced; a whole community was shaped by shared struggle and fired by shared injustice—a fact highlighted as we commemorate the 175th anniversary of the pottery riots later this year. Those events shaped our industrial and cultural landscape, placing the labour movement at the heart of our community and our culture, and they continue to do so today.
Throughout our history, people have been brought together by pride in their work and the heritage of the city they built together—a city that has so much to offer today. The city of culture bid is an opportunity for people to see the other side of Stoke-on-Trent, and it is already happening. Just a couple of weeks ago, The Times ranked us 11th in its list of the top 20 cultural places to live in the UK.
Matthew Rice, the managing director of Emma Bridgewater, wrote an excellent book titled “The Lost City of Stoke-on-Trent”, exploring the hidden architectural gems of the six towns. It is a fine book, and I am sure everyone in the room has read it; if they have not, I recommend it. I always felt that its title struck a pessimistic note—a lament to a city whose best days are behind it. I hope that this speech and our wider debate will offer Members an insight into the hidden city of Stoke-on-Trent and the marvels that can still be found there, just beneath the surface.
It is a city shaped by 1,000 hands, just like the clay that made its name, and fired by the hopes and passions of its people. It is a place with so much more to offer than it is given credit for. I believe we can demonstrate that to the rest of the country and to the world by making Stoke-on-Trent our next city of culture. I urge the House to support our bid.
The debate can last until 5.30 pm. Two hon. Gentlemen are seeking to catch my eye. While I would normally call the most experienced Member first, I will call Gareth Snell first because he is a recent by-election victor. I am sure Mr Flello will not mind.
Thank you very much, Mr Hollobone. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship in this debate, as we seek to showcase the very best parts of the city that my hon. Friends and I represent. You will have already seen, though, that parochialism among the three constituencies is very much alive and well.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Ruth Smeeth) on securing this debate. She mentioned, albeit briefly, one of Stoke’s historic sons, Arnold Bennett. This year marks the 150th anniversary of Arnold Bennett’s birth in Hanley, in my constituency. His tales of Turnhill, Bursley, Hanbridge, Knype and Longshaw provide a witty and pithy account of life in the Potteries at the turn of the last century. Whether in stories about Anna of the five towns or the Clayhanger family, he illuminated the real-life problems facing society at the end of the Victorian era through his application of what we would now call the creative industries.
While the wealth of Stoke-on-Trent and Staffordshire was derived from our heavy manufacturing, ceramics and mining, Arnold Bennett also knew the value of arts and culture. He once said:
“Am I to sit still and see other fellows pocketing two guineas apiece for stories which I can do better myself?...If anyone imagines my sole aim is art for art’s sake, they are cruelly deceived.”
That is potentially the benefit that my city can derive from its bid to be the city of culture in 2021. It is not just a financial but a social benefit. We understand the added benefits that can be derived when we go above art for art’s sake, and how it can help to heal some of society’s greatest wounds.
The Potteries is rich in culture. I cannot hope, in the time available to me, to do it justice, but I will do my best. For theatre lovers, we have some of the finest boards that have ever been tread—the Regent, the Victoria Hall, the Mitchell Memorial Theatre and the New Vic, which is a purpose-built theatre in the round. Each not only provides a brilliant night out but works with young people, older people and those who feel left behind to use culture and creativity as a conduit for tackling problems in their communities. Those who wish to eat and drink will find some of the finest breweries and restaurants in the west midlands. For those who wish to continue their festivities, an array of clubs and night-time venues will provide many a happy—if blurry—memory.
Our cultural contributions run deep. My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North mentioned the distinguished careers of music legends Slash, Lemmy and Robbie Williams, but I am afraid to say that she neglected to mention that of Jackie Trent, who is well known as the composer of the theme tune to “Neighbours” and can trace her roots to the Potteries.
My hon. Friend, as always, shows his experience in matters that are above me. Given that my hon. Friends the Members for Stoke-on-Trent North and for Stoke-on-Trent South (Robert Flello) are present, and that my other neighbour, the right hon. Member for Staffordshire Moorlands (Karen Bradley), is the Culture Secretary, it would be remiss of me not to point out that everybody needs good neighbours, and that with a little understanding, you can find the perfect blend.
Stoke-on-Trent’s historic contributions to cultural advancements are not limited to music, food, theatre and ceramics. We have a rich scientific heritage too. Sir Oliver Lodge, born in 1851 in Penkhull, was a physicist and inventor who identified electromagnetic radiation independent of the work being carried out by his contemporary, Hertz. His work gave the world the spark plug. The fact that that is not better known is shocking. Thomas Twyford, born in Hanley in 1849, may have bequeathed to our society one of the greatest cultural advances ever: the single-piece ceramic flush toilet. In doing so, he performed a public duty for public sanitation.
Our city’s industrial heritage is well preserved at the Etruria Industrial Museum. The Potteries Museum and Art Gallery, which my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North mentioned, is also home to part of the Staffordshire hoard. The Wedgwood Museum in Barlaston has kept a real and tangible link with the historic family, who made their name in Stoke-on-Trent. The Gladstone Pottery Museum in Stoke-on-Trent South ensures that skills from our past are being passed on to our children for their future.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned the name Wedgwood. He may also know that one of the Wedgwood family, Emma Wedgwood, married Charles Darwin, who has an extremely strong connection with our area. I do not think one needs to say more about Charles Darwin, but I am sure that if Stoke-on-Trent were to be city of culture, we would celebrate that connection.
Absolutely. The Wedgwood family are still very much active in civil society in Stoke-on-Trent today, in a number of ways, and I am sure they will lend their support to our bid.
In recent years we have seen Appetite Stoke run public art exhibitions to demonstrate that culture is part of Stoke-on-Trent’s everyday existence and not simply something that happens at weekends. It has been successful in bringing forward plans for young people to be more actively involved in how Stoke-on-Trent celebrates its heritage and past, and it encapsulates what we can do going forward.
Thinking of the past, it would be remiss of me not to mention that Philip Astley was born in 1742 in neighbouring Newcastle-under-Lyme and spent most of his formative years in the Potteries. He, of course, is known as the father of the modern circus. Stoke-on-Trent has another famous adopted son in the form of Neil Baldwin—or Nello the Clown, as he is known to us—who was Stoke City’s kit man but has also been a great advocate for the circus industry; he still performs, even though he is in his early 70s.
I cannot participate in this debate without mentioning Staffordshire University. It is one of the finest universities that can be found—a modern university that has taken all that modernity gives and made the most of it. It has a thriving ceramic art department. It has a world-renowned gaming department that is now at the forefront of developing digital technologies. Its performing arts are well received, and it is difficult to get tickets to some of its events, although I figure I might have a slightly better chance now. The university is also at the cutting edge of scientific advancement, which participates heavily in the cultural identity of Stoke-on-Trent.
Finally, it would be wrong not to mention professional football, which is a great part of our city’s cultural identity. Stoke City is one of the oldest professional football clubs in the world. It has been at the forefront of community work across Stoke-on-Trent, and its current chairman, Peter Coates, does much to help and support the city.
I could not agree more about the role of sport in terms of my city’s culture—or our city; I might share it. As wonderful as Stoke City is, does my hon. Friend agree that the only true football club is Port Vale, in the north of the city, which happens to have the Wembley of the north as its stadium?
Perhaps I can cool things down a bit. To be serious, is it not true that Stoke City is a fine example of a local family—local investors—putting money into their local club and taking a long-term view? Would that most other premiership teams followed that model.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely correct. This is not even about the football club. Peter Coates and Stoke City have demonstrated that there is a role in communities for professional football clubs that wish to make an investment with their fans. It is not simply about providing a game mid-week or at weekends. There are multiple examples across Stoke-on-Trent of families, young people and schools benefiting as a direct result of the commitment that the Coates family and Stoke City have shown to Stoke-on-Trent. Without them, our city would be all the poorer.
Stoke-on-Trent is a city where people can eat and drink, laugh, dance and sing, learn, love and live. We are artists, educators, innovators, engineers, potters, miners, toilers and industrialists. Ours is a city of culture born out of labour, and a city that has contributed so much to so many. It is a privilege to support the motion this afternoon.
It is, as ever, a delight to see you in the Chair, Mr Hollobone. I am pleased to have the opportunity to contribute to this debate—although my colleagues have stolen most of my lines—because for me, no city is more suitable than Stoke-on-Trent to be the UK city of culture 2021.
I am proud to call Stoke-on-Trent my home and to serve as one of the three ambassadors from within the city—there are also ambassadors more widely—here in Westminster. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Ruth Smeeth) on securing this debate on our behalf.
As has been mentioned, during January and February this year we saw Stoke-on-Trent subjected to an unprecedented level of media and public attention as a result of the by-election. We should have seen a showcase for the progress that has been made. Let me pause here and just note that much of that progress started under previous, Labour-run councils over the past decade. The by-election should have been a showcase for the progress in our city by the high-tech industries that have sprung up and for the incredible work ethic, industriousness and, above all, creativity of the people of Stoke-on-Trent. Sadly, tragically, what we saw was anything but.
My colleagues and I have spoken time and again of our disappointment with the way that Stoke-on-Trent was portrayed by the media, who were more interested in a good story than a true one. We saw images of disused bottle kilns, crumbling derelict buildings and expanses of disused land. The latter two are the sort of thing that any city possesses, and the reason for the former, in many cases, is that the kilns are protected as a symbol of our city’s rich heritage. In Stoke-on-Trent, those images in particular were used to feed into the UK Independence party’s narrative of a city on its knees—a false narrative.
Absolutely. I am grateful to my hon. Friend, because his point leads nicely to the next paragraph of my speech.
We saw off UKIP last month because of a fantastic campaign, the excellent candidate we had and that positive message, as my hon. Friend has just noted, but also, I think, and as he also said, because the people of Stoke-on-Trent know deep down that our city is better than we were told we were. They are proud of where they live, and if people had taken the opportunity to find the true Stoke-on-Trent, they would have known exactly why. Yes, of course Stoke-on-Trent has its problems, and we could debate for hours where they stem from, but there is a responsibility on journalists, commentators and politicians to paint a fair picture, not one that matches their agenda or preconceptions. Long after they have returned home, the hard-working people of Stoke-on-Trent are doing all they can—all we can—to make our city a better place.
Culture can mean many different things to different people. In many ways, it is what you make it. It is easy for people to compare their city with another and see what it lacks. We are pretty good at self-deprecation in Stoke-on-Trent, but it is less easy to wax lyrical about the things that perhaps we see every day. We have the immediately obvious cultural examples that have been mentioned. We have fantastic museums, such as the Gladstone Pottery Museum in Longton, as well as less well known but equally superb things such as Appetite Stoke, the small art galleries across the city and groups such as B Arts. As has been mentioned, we have theatres attracting some of the biggest names in music, comedy and theatre, as well as smaller productions put on by amateur groups as varied as Five Towns theatre, North Staffs Operatic Society, the All Woman choir and Trentham brass band, to name just a few. There are dance groups such as Steelworks in Fenton and the Kaytelles in Blurton. Their sessions are attended by hundreds of youngsters every week.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North mentioned Titanic Brewery, but there are microbreweries across our city producing, quite frankly, Mr Hollobone, the sort of brew that would make you not want to set foot out of Stoke-on-Trent and travel down to London—they are that good.
We have wonderful parks and fabulous green spaces. In my own area, we have Longton’s Queen’s Park, and Fenton boasts both Fenton Park and Smithpool. There is also a huge array of residents’ associations doing sterling work on behalf of the communities that they represent. There are the fabulous waters in and around the city, which are looked after by groups of volunteers who give their time freely and happily to cherish the areas that we have.
As has been mentioned, Stoke-on-Trent has the fantastic premiership club Stoke City and the wonderful bet365 stadium. We do tease our hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North about Port Vale. I remember that when I first spoke to someone in Stoke-on-Trent about football—which seems like many hundreds of years ago—they said to me, “Of course, there are two teams in Stoke-on-Trent: Stoke City A and Stoke City B.” But we will move quickly on from that.
As wonderful as Stoke City are, and they do wear the right colour strip, it is fair to say that Port Vale have done so much for our city, not least in bringing back one of our cultural icons, Robbie Williams, at every opportunity, and therefore they will be a core part of our bid, not least by building on our city of sport status, which we had such great success with last year.
I thank my hon. Friend. There is nothing I can add to what she has said, but I will just say that I am a trustee of the community fund of Stoke City and never cease to be impressed by the outreach work done by the club. I, too, pay tribute to the Coates family and the investment that they have made in our city.
What I have not mentioned but cannot be ignored is the ceramics industry. Stoke-on-Trent is much more than ceramics, but the area is still known as the Potteries for a very good reason. Yes, the industry was decimated, but it is on the up. Gone are the days of a skyline dominated by bottle kilns, but now the industry is at the cutting edge of technology, supplying a mind-boggling array of sectors as well as supplying more traditional products. The work done by small independent potters, such as one of my favourites, Anita Harris Art Pottery, is of the highest quality, and similar-quality producers seem to be springing up all the time. It is amazing, Mr Hollobone, that you can go and speak to someone and in their back kitchen they will have a kiln, where they will be producing work of the finest quality.
Middleport Pottery has become the face of “The Great Pottery Throw Down”, but the mighty Wedgwood, perhaps the biggest name of all, still has its factory in my constituency. It has recently undergone major renovations to improve its facilities and expand its shopping and, of course, its museum offering. Tristram Hunt, the previous Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central, described the Wedgwood collection as
“perhaps the most compelling account of British industrial, social and design history anywhere in the world”—
anywhere in the world.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that this is not just about the history, vital though that is? Even today, the ceramics industry is a net contributor to our trade balance: we export far more than we import. As the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Gareth Snell) said previously, the products can be found all over the world, even in the European Parliament and the World Bank.
Indeed, and long may that continue, and long may I continue to be a member of the pot turners club as well. I say this just as an aside: we need to ensure that that industry gets the best possible deal out of Brexit.
The fact that the campaign to save the Wedgwood collection was the fastest fundraising campaign in the 111-year history of the Art Fund tells us everything we need to know about its importance. Josiah Wedgwood was the pioneer of so much that has shaped modern Britain, from marketing to distribution and the division of labour. He was one of the fathers of the industrial revolution, not to mention a prominent abolitionist, and is yet another reason to be proud of our city.
It should not simply be the volume that decides which city is successful in its bid to be capital of culture, as the guidance for the bid acknowledges; it should be the quality and diversity of the offer. If it was about sheer volume, London would be capital every time. However, if we want to see a wide range of projects covering a multitude of different categories, engaging all ages and ethnic groups and being truly and properly inclusive, there is nowhere better than Stoke-on-Trent. We have a truly ambitious and wide-ranging series of projects that will absolutely do justice to the honour of the title.
I believe that Stoke-on-Trent City Council was right to bid for city of culture 2021. If I may delicately suggest, those in power now may have been a little slow to back the previous Labour Administration’s plans for the city, but I am delighted to provide my support now and to give the bid truly cross-party support. When it comes to improving our city, there is no place for party politics.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. It is worth noting—I am sure he was going to get to this point—that every local authority in Staffordshire, irrespective of political hue, backs this bid, which has got genuine cross-party consideration locally across Staffordshire and across the Members of Parliament as well.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point. It is important that the bid has that backing from across parties and across Staffordshire. City of culture status for Stoke-on-Trent has the potential to inspire, to build pride in our city and to showcase our true face, not the impression that has been built up through decades of cheap shots and uninformed criticism.
I want to intervene on my hon. Friend before he finishes, because I have been waiting throughout all the speeches for some mention of one of the greatest things I discovered on my recent trip to Stoke: the Staffordshire oatcake. After an evening in one of the lovely pubs that have been mentioned, there is nothing greater than having a cheese and bacon oatcake to finish the evening.
Absolutely—I have a feeling that my hon. Friend will be receiving a packet of oatcakes before too long.
I can absolutely guarantee that no other city that has bid for city of culture 2021 will embrace it like Stoke-on-Trent will. Residents of our great city have always embraced the opportunity to highlight all that makes Stoke-on-Trent a fantastic place to live and, as many of my colleagues will testify, anyone who has ever visited will say that there are no friendlier people anyone could possibly meet. They are warm, they are generous, they are proud and they deserve the opportunity that city of culture status can bring. Liverpool, Derry/Londonderry and now Hull have enhanced the title of city of culture and been enhanced by it, and we will do the same.
To finish, I want to mention my, sadly now deceased, mother-in-law June Clarke. She was a paintress, like so many others, at Spode. She was walking past a shop a couple of years ago and stopped and said, “I painted that,” as she pointed through the window. Of course, as might be imagined, her comment was met with a little hilarity at the time, because she was pointing at a plate high up on a shelf in the shop. She described that, on the back of the plate, there would be a unique mark—her mark—that she had put on it many decades earlier. After going into the shop, lifting the plate down from that high shelf and turning it over, we saw that there was indeed her mark on the back. The level of skill involved meant that she could still recognise her own brushwork on that plate, which she had painted more than 40 years before. In many ways, that for me is the culture of Stoke-on-Trent: huge quality with a humble modesty—cultural excellence then, and cultural excellence now.
Stoke-on-Trent city of culture 2021 will be a perfect marriage of the historical excellence of our city and 21st-century creative genius. I am backing my city.
Thank you very much indeed, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Ruth Smeeth) on securing this debate.
The role that the city of culture competition can play in re-energising and regenerating a city should never be underestimated. Back in 1990, Glasgow became the first UK city to be named European capital of culture, and it relaunched our city to an international audience. Glasgow is now known for its creativity and dynamism throughout Scotland, Europe and the world.
It was after the success of Liverpool’s year as European capital of culture 2008 that the UK city of culture competition was established. In a short period, it has captured the imagination of cities throughout the UK, with 14 applying for the inaugural award. Hull fought off competition from 10 other candidates to be named UK capital of culture 2017. Stoke-on-Trent also faces stiff competition, not least from both Paisley and Perth north of the border, but today’s debate has illustrated just how strong a bid Stoke’s will be.
Last September, I was delighted to visit Stoke-on-Trent with the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport, as part of our inquiry into “Countries of Culture”. While there, we were given a fascinating tour of the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery. My personal highlights were the national ceramics collection, which included famous frog cups and dinner plates made for Catherine the Great, and the extraordinary 7th-century Anglo-Saxon Staffordshire hoard. Other attractions included the Spitfire that we have heard about. During a roundtable discussion with local representatives from the arts and heritage sector, it was clear that Stoke has so much to offer.
Yet despite that, and as we have heard, Stoke is often characterised as a rundown, post-industrial city. During the recent by-election, it was referred to as the “capital of Brexit”—an image that conjures up angry provincialism. Stoke does not deserve such a moniker. My image of Stoke is very different. Its cultural offerings are not limited to museums and fine old buildings. It has a track record of delivering world-class art events through the Appetite arts programme. Since 2013, it has brought vibrant and varied events to the city, from large outdoor circus spectacles in parks to intimate folk gigs in bus stations.
It is clear that Stoke-on-Trent might have had all the qualities to be named the UK city of culture 2021 were it not for two words: Perth and Dundee. My hon. Friends the Members for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands) and for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) would not forgive me if I endorsed Stoke-on-Trent’s bid, so alas I cannot—Paisley and Perth are two other able contenders in the competition. After Derry/Londonderry in 2013 and Hull this year, it is surely only fair that the UK capital of culture now comes to Scotland, since we are still in the UK, at least in the short term.
As the Prime Minister embarks on her tour of the nations in an attempt to turn us all into born-again Brexiteers ahead of triggering article 50, and as the love-bombing of Scotland begins ahead of our next referendum on independence, maybe those who wish to show just how much the UK cares about Scotland can show some appreciation for Paisley or Perth and name one of them the city of culture as a farewell present.
For that I am very grateful, but does he agree that being part of the Union means celebrating everything that makes up the Union? Surely he would not want to be bribed to stay in the Union in order to get this. In fact, if he wants the city of culture 2021, he should stop campaigning to leave the Union.
I cannot believe the hon. Lady managed to shoehorn a bit of British Unionism into a question when I was giving such a politically neutral speech. We are proud members of the European Union and intend to stay a European country.
It might just be a coincidence, but in November 2013 the city of Dundee lost out to Hull in its bid to be named UK capital of culture. Less than a year later, Dundee recorded the strongest vote in favour of Scottish independence in the country. Dundee, always one step ahead when it comes to trends in Scottish politics, has now set its sights on becoming the European capital of culture in 2023—perhaps an indication of where it believes its future to lie.
Applying to be named city of culture is an important opportunity for many towns and cities throughout the UK. The competition allows people to rediscover and better understand the culture and heritage of the place that they call home. It inspires self-confidence and a sense of pride in community. It provides a platform to showcase the best of any given city to the rest of the country.
All of us who have listened to and participated in this debate will have learnt something new about Stoke-on-Trent. Each of us will also have taken something away from the debates we have had on the other applicant cities— Paisley, Perth, Sunderland and Swansea. I take this opportunity to wish all the applicants for UK’s city of culture in 2021 the best in the months and years ahead.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I am afraid that the shadow Minister for culture, my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan), is otherwise detained, so you are stuck with me, his far-less cultured colleague, responding from the Front Bench today. I add my congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Ruth Smeeth) and to my other hon. Friends on their contributions. Stoke could hardly ask for better advocates for the city or for its bid. With the breadth of support, ranging from Charles Darwin to “Neighbours” via the circus industry, it is hard to see how the bid can fail.
In January 2009, the then Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport—my right hon. Friend the Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham)—announced that the Labour Government would commission a working group to report on the feasibility of establishing a UK capital of culture competition. The aim was to build on the success of Glasgow and Liverpool as European capitals of culture in 1990 and 2008 respectively. In both cases, those post-industrial cities demonstrated huge talent and initiative, which helped to regenerate communities and solidified a lasting legacy. To this day, both cities retain an excellent reputation for the arts, enhanced by that year in the spotlight.
The Labour Government—working with Phil Redmond, who first proposed the competition and went on to chair the working group—created a UK city of culture programme that recognises, in the words of my right hon. Friend, that
“culture and creativity should be viewed as part of the answer to tough economic times and not as a distraction or a luxury”.
We are certainly still experiencing tough, if not tougher, economic times, and the Government have been too slow to recognise the role of arts and culture in economic regeneration, so I am pleased to see that the UK city of culture programme continues to thrive and to demonstrate that creativity and culture are central to the economic and social successes of our communities.
At the heart of the UK city of culture venture is, to paraphrase the working group’s report, the desire for culture to act as a catalyst for social, economic and civic agendas. Rather than imposing a prescriptive checklist, the programme gives a platform to local identities and promotes existing talent and initiative for all the world to see. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw) said in 2009:
“excellence and innovation in the arts does not begin and end inside the M25”.
Given all that, it is obvious why so many UK cities are keen to bid for the 2021 title. As convincing as my hon. Friends have been, I hope they understand that I cannot back a particular bid from the Front Bench. However, it is clear that Stoke-on-Trent is an excellent candidate for city of culture, not least because that programme is built on recognition of the economic importance of the arts. That connection is particularly clear in Stoke, where ceramics are unquestionably both an art and industry that remain at the heart of that community. Stoke’s bottle ovens are testament to the intersections between technology, science, art and aesthetics. We must learn to harness that force to regenerate our economy.
As we have heard, there is so much more to Stoke than the potteries. Museums, theatres, breweries and businesses all contribute to the city’s cultural identity and pride, and to the cultural renaissance that my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North spoke so passionately about. Regardless of the outcome of the next round of bids, Stoke is an excellent example of a creative community, and its bid alone will show those who rarely look beyond the M25 exactly what they are missing. The city of culture programme has been extremely successful and I hope that that will continue with whichever city wins next.
When Derry/Londonderry was the first UK city of culture, it was plain for all to see how that city had changed. On the day that we have heard the news of the death of Martin McGuinness, it is appropriate to acknowledge how his home city changed from being the crucible of the troubles a few decades previously to being a venue for the peace process to flourish and for subsequent regeneration. The title drew attention to a side of the city that was already thriving, but was previously seldom seen.
Likewise, Hull—the current title holder—is enjoying widespread media coverage and public engagement. The regeneration has already begun, as my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull East (Karl Turner) made clear. The online media outlet, Insider Media Ltd, reports that the restaurant industry in Hull is already benefiting from the city’s cultural status. With events ranging from Comic Con to film screenings, the hard work and commitment of the people of Hull to their city and their culture is getting the praise and attention it deserves. It is also fitting to pay tribute to the work of Councillor Stephen Brady, Labour leader of Hull Council, for championing culture as an agent of change for economic regeneration.
Stoke, or any other bidding city, does not need a title to be a city of culture. Culture is already central to Stoke. However, the city of culture programme’s importance is in increasing national attention and giving credit to work that is already going on. I hope that the competition continues to thrive; that the next city to win the title enjoys the same success as its predecessors; and that the Government continue to support this excellent initiative of the last Labour Government.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your excellent chairmanship again, Mr Hollobone, and to congratulate the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Ruth Smeeth) on securing the debate. Rarely has a more harmonious debate taken place in this Chamber. The hon. Lady is a passionate advocate for her city, and we have also seen that from Members on both sides of the House who support the bid. There is clearly strong cross-party support. From hearing the hon. Lady, I am sure that Stoke will make strong proposals in April, as, no doubt, will the 10 other cities that are bidding for this prestigious title.
Only last week, The Times named Stoke in 11th place on its list of the top arts hotspots in Britain—one place behind Hull, the current UK city of culture. That is the first of many facts in my speech that have already been mentioned—just wait till I get on to the oatcakes. The council, which is strongly behind the bid, has brought together a wide array of partners and has incredibly exciting plans to revitalise the area. My opposite number, the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh), is an absolutely brilliant shadow Minister—her saying that she is not cultured is modesty beyond anything that is reasonable—and I was struck by her saying that the city of culture accolade finds a city where culture is already thriving but is hitherto not enough seen. That description of the impact of being city of culture was incredibly well put.
Stoke has a great history and a global reputation. Most people know it for its ceramics. People can visit the most complete coal-fired Victorian pottery in the UK at the Gladstone Pottery Museum, and they can decorate their own pottery during an Emma Bridgewater factory tour, both of which have been mentioned. I am the proud owner of Emma Bridgewater mugs, both at home and at work, where I have one with my ministerial title on it. It is extremely exciting and sits on my desk at work. There is also the Wedgwood Museum—funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund—which contains the stunning Wedgwood collection, reflecting centuries of cultural innovation.
When it comes to the impact of culture on the economy, I strongly agree that culture and creativity are central to social, economic and civic renewal. We talk about the impact of culture on an economy a lot now, but we can see that through the ages in the potteries of Stoke. The Wedgwood collection has been managed by the Victoria and Albert Museum since December 2014, following fundraising efforts by the Art Fund and others and with the help of the former Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central, who is now the excellent new director of the V&A. The connection between the V&A and Stoke is one that I only expect to strengthen under his astute directorship.
Middleport Pottery, a major regeneration project funded by the Prince’s Regeneration Trust, hosts the BBC’s “The Great Pottery Throw Down”, which I am told is hugely popular but I have not seen. I will have to watch it. If it is anything like the other great pottery throwdowns in film that I have seen in my time, it will be extremely exciting. Stoke-on-Trent also has almost 200 listed buildings—there is a fact nobody has mentioned yet—many of which are connected with the ceramics industry.
It is not just about ceramics and pottery; the city has a lot of other cultural assets too, including Trentham gardens, the Regent theatre, the Victoria Hall, the New Vic and the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery. We have heard about Titanic Brewery, Appetite Stoke, the Five Towns theatre, Trentham brass band, Steelworks at Fenton and many others. In recent years, the area has enjoyed significant investment from Arts Council England and the Heritage Lottery Fund. For instance, Hanley Park, one of the largest Victorian parks in the UK, was awarded £4.5 million for refurbishment by the HLF in 2015. Then, of course, there is the football, and finally, Stoke’s contribution to fast food, the oatcake. Stoke-on-Trent clearly has a lot to be proud of, but why is it worth bidding for UK city of culture status?
The Minister is right to point out the investment in culture by organisations, but it is also important to highlight investment by businesses. For example, although I know my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Ruth Smeeth) will be upset by this, Valentine Clays Ltd is about to open a fantastic brand-new facility in a big, marvellous building in Fenton. It shows that businesses are also investing in and getting to grips with our city.
With so much local knowledge on display in this debate, added to the contribution made by the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull East (Karl Turner) about the impact that city of culture status can have on a town, I am really a bit part in this debate. All the arguments have already been made, and most of the facts deployed.
UK city of culture is about naming a city, getting the attention of the whole country and putting on a pedestal that city’s cultural assets and value in order to lift it and showcase it to the rest of the country and the world. I saw that for myself in Hull, where I spent a lot of time growing up because I had family there. The impact has been incredibly exciting, including the regeneration in the town centre, such as the opening of the completely refurbished and absolutely brilliant Ferens Art Gallery. It has brought to Hull people who might otherwise not have considered it and asked people in the rest of the country and worldwide, as well as the people of Hull themselves, to look again at the city, see it in a positive, vibrant light, as it has been seen for much of its history, and lift it on its path of urban renewal. It is incredibly exciting. Walking through parts of Hull that I had not been to for 10 or 15 years and seeing them renewed and rejuvenated has been a pleasure, and I look forward to doing so in the city of culture 2021.
To put some hard facts on the issue, we estimate that being the city of culture 2017 will deliver a £60 million boost to the local economy. Hull has already had investments of more than £1 billion, creating thousands of jobs, since winning UK city of culture status in 2013. It has been named by Rough Guides as one of the top 10 cities to visit in the world this year; similarly, Londonderry saw 1 million visitors during its year as UK city of culture. I love the fact that the fans at Hull City now chant, “You’re only here for the culture!” I am sure that that can happen at both Stoke City and Port Vale, should Stoke win for 2021. The city of culture project builds on the European capital of culture project and next year’s great exhibition of the north in Newcastle and Gateshead.
No matter how far each of the 11 cities reaches in the competition, I hope that the galvanising effect of bidding will already have had a small impact. Much of it is about bringing people together, breaking down boundaries and encouraging a mixed economy of business, philanthropy and public sector funding to come together to lift a city. I hope that in the bidding process, Stoke and its surrounding area—we have heard support from my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy)—has been able to lift its eyes to the horizon and make the argument locally that culture and creativity are not something to be scaled back; rather, they are critical to the investment that people want in a sense of place and belonging.
Before I leave a couple of minutes for the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North to respond to the debate, I know what the people of Stoke watching this want me to do, but sadly, as I am sure she knows, it is the one thing I cannot do: grant her wish that Stoke will definitely become the city of culture. However, I commend her efforts and offer good luck to her and all the people of Stoke as the competition goes on.
It has been a privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone, in this debate on an important issue that is close to my heart. Before moving on, I want to thank my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Chris Elmore), the hon. Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy), and my neighbours and hon. Friends, the Members for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Gareth Snell), for Stoke-on-Trent South (Robert Flello), for Kingston upon Hull East (Karl Turner), for Gedling (Vernon Coaker) and for Redcar (Anna Turley) for contributing to this debate; it has been a diverse range. I also thank the Front-Bench speakers, especially the Minister, for celebrating my great city and how much we have to contribute. The Minister has not given me the answer I want, but I did not expect him to—yet.
I was remiss in not mentioning earlier that the oatcake has been the break-out star of the recent by-election, in addition to my new colleague.
Yes. Not only has the oatcake been mentioned in this debate, it made it into The Guardian’s food pages last month, a clear sign of the culinary zeitgeist if ever there was one.
My colleagues and I truly believe that the city of culture bid is important because it will help our children dream. It will show them how much we have already achieved and what we can achieve together in future. There is nothing more important for us. We have also seen in this debate how much Stoke-on-Trent has to offer. I hope that hon. Members have seen a little snippet of how brilliant our city is. If they did not visit this year during the by-election, although I think most colleagues did, I urge them to come and see how special we are.
It is a testament to how much we have to offer that so many of my colleagues have come to this debate, but how much more can we achieve if we are awarded city of culture status for 2021? I thank everyone for their support, and I look forward to welcoming them to the city in 2021 when we have city of culture status.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered Stoke on Trent City of Culture 2021.