Tuesday 18 July 2017
[Sir Roger Gale in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered Anglo-Polish relations.
I am grateful to be speaking in this important debate. My family and I left Poland and came to the United Kingdom in 1978, because of communism. My parents were staunchly anti-communist and refused to live under the tyranny of communism, but after martial law it was impossible to return, and we had to see our family, friends and fellow citizens suffering under the oppression of the Jaruzelski regime. I returned for the first time after the lifting of martial law, in 1983. I spent many summers with my beloved Polish grandfather, listening to his experiences and hearing of the suffering that he and his family and his generation went through during the terrible times of the second world war, and the horrendous brutality and destruction in Warsaw from 1939 to 1945. I also listened to his experiences of living under a communist system, with the terrible lack of freedom that ensued from that.
I am very proud of being the first ever Polish-born British Member of Parliament. Although there are other Members with relatives from Poland, I am the only one to have actually been born there, and I am proud of my unpronounceable surname. When I first stood to be on the Conservative candidates list someone said to me, “You will never be elected with a completely unpronounceable surname like that. You’ve got to change it or anglicise it”—as many others have done. I said, “In that case, I will never stand for Parliament, because I am very proud of my Polish roots.” Once during the selection process someone said to me: “Kawasaki—that’s not a very Shropshire name, is it? How are you going to get by with a name like that?” I said, “Well, it didn’t cause my grandfather’s generation any problems when they were fighting in the battle of Britain, so I hope it won’t cause me any problems today.”
I am proud of the fact that this debate is taking place at the same time as the royal visit to Warsaw, which accentuates the increasing importance of Poland as a European economy and a trading partner for the United Kingdom—as well as a defence partner for our country. Let us not forget that while we grapple with encouraging many of our NATO partners to spend the prerequisite 2% of GDP on defence, Poland is already doing so. In fact, it plans to increase defence spending beyond the 2% margin. However, differences are opening up between Poland and Germany—the two countries that the royal couple are visiting this week—with respect to their vision for the European Union and its component parts, and what authority it should have over sovereign nation states. I hope to get the Minister’s perspective on the differences that are starting to materialise between Warsaw and Berlin.
This year we celebrate the 77th anniversary of the battle of Britain, and I was proud last year to accompany Lord Tebbit, a man for whom I have enormous respect, to the RAF Club to celebrate the 76th anniversary. He and I, along with many senior Polish military officers and their British counterparts, had a wonderful dinner. In his speech Lord Tebbit—who, we should not forget, served in the RAF—said something that resonated enormously with me and will stay with me for the rest of my life. He said that in the summer of 1940 the balance between the Luftwaffe and the RAF was so even, and the outcome of that key battle was so uncertain, that it was unequivocally the arrival of the Poles, the largest foreign contingent in the battle of Britain, that tipped the balance in favour of the British side. Although the debate is about current Anglo-Polish relations, we must never forget the extraordinary contribution that those brave men undertook on our behalf to save our country. We must always celebrate that and teach our children and grandchildren about it. Although their country had been taken over by tyranny, they did not give up. They did not just lie back and take it. They continued their struggle against fascism by coming to the United Kingdom and fighting with us.
The hon. Gentleman’s points are extremely important. The contribution and enormous sacrifice made by the Polish people means that they have the support of every proud member of this nation.
The inquest on the suicide of Dagmara Przybysz opened yesterday. That bright, intelligent young woman committed suicide because she was bullied for being Polish. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the points he has made should be disseminated as widely as possible, so that no one will ever again be bullied for being Polish? They should instead be praised for it.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that point. My right hon. Friend the Minister drew to my attention a newspaper article about that beautiful young Polish girl, who was found hanged in school as a result of being bullied by a racist gang.
I am going to make some progress, but then I will give way.
The hon. Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound) is of course correct, and that is why the Polish war memorial is important. Such visible signs of the contribution of Poles to the United Kingdom are important, because we must explain to younger generations why so many Poles are here. Many are here because they came to continue the fight against fascism, and then stayed here as part of the community. No one accentuates the importance of that better than Senator Anders, whom I am sure the hon. Member for Ealing North has met. She is the daughter of the esteemed General Władysław Anders, who was an important figure for Poland. Not only is she the senator for Suwalki area, where British troops are deployed at the moment, but she has been appointed as a special roving ambassador to engage with the Polish diaspora around the world and commemorate and recognise their contributions to their host nations. I pay tribute to her, because Poland needs recognition for its unique contributions.
An area of dissent in the European Union is refugees. Poland has recently taken more than 1.3 million refugees from the terrible fighting in Ukraine. My Polish friends tell me that there are now 1.3 million Ukrainians in employment in Poland, but some figures put the number of Ukrainians in Poland as high as 1.5 million or 1.7 million. On my summer holidays to the Polish seaside resort of Sopot, where I go every year, I see for myself the huge number of Ukrainians working in restaurants and cafés, and throughout the community.
Poland is not demanding a resettlement of those Ukrainians or any special help from the European Union in dealing with those huge numbers of refugees streaming across her border. In fact, Poland has already done a great deal to help and support those refugees in escaping the fighting and difficulties they have experienced in Ukraine, yet Germany and the European Union are now talking about sanctions against Poland for not taking the requisite number of Syrian refugees. I find that dangerous and frightening, quite frankly. We have a history of welcoming refugees to our nation, and we are proud of that, but that decision must come from the grassroots. It must bubble up from society, as happens in our country.
What frightens me is the idea that the European Union can somehow unilaterally dictate an allocation of certain types of refugee to be distributed to Poland, against the express wishes of the democratically elected Polish Government. The issue is clearly polarising, but we must respect the will of the Polish Government. I consider one European country or the European Union itself threatening sanctions to be blackmail and intimidation, and the United Kingdom must support Poland on the issue. The referendum showed that no matter what happens with the European Union, we believe in the supremacy of individual sovereign nations and their ability to be directly accountable to their people for all policies that they implement.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the same defence could be made of countries such as Jordan and Turkey, which have already accepted far more refugees than they can sustainably look after? If the United Kingdom was prepared to take a decent number of refugees from Syria and Iraq, instead of putting pressure on countries in the middle east to take more, would there not be less pressure on places such as Poland, which is already catering for refugees from other parts of the world?
I do not really want to get into a debate about our domestic immigration policies. I am proud that the United Kingdom has provided more money than any country apart from America for refugee camps in Jordan and Lebanon, but of course we can do more.
A key point that I want to raise with the Minister is that because we are leaving the European Union, people say to me, “What’s it got to do with you? Your power and influence in the European Union is bound to wane over the next two years, and then you will have no influence at all.” One Conservative MP said to me today, “You’re blowing in the wind here; we will not have any influence in the European Union.” But the fact remains that we will of course continue to have influence. As a major European power, security, stability, peace and confidence on the European continent is vital to us, and we must continue to engage and support countries such as Poland on this issue and others.
I say to the Minister that when Germany behaves in such a way, it needs to be called out for double standards. On the one hand Germany talks about the unique importance of solidarity within the European Union, and says that there has to be redistribution of refugees around the whole of the European Union, but on the other hand it implements policies that go completely against that concept. One example is the Nord Stream 2 pipeline—a massive project to build an undersea gas and oil pipeline from St Petersburg to Germany, completely bypassing the whole of central and eastern Europe. We all understand and appreciate the importance of energy security for all our NATO partners in central and eastern Europe. They are building liquefied gas terminals on the Baltic sea and starting to buy more gas from Qatar and the United States of America, but a common energy policy with the Russians is needed. The Russians understand only strength, and any differences between those countries will give Russia increased leverage to turn off the taps or to put pressure on some of those countries if things do not go its way.
I am really disappointed by Germany’s conduct over the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, and I very much hope that my right hon. Friend and other Ministers will raise the issue with their German counterparts. What discussions has my right hon. Friend had with his German counterpart to highlight concerns about the lack of support for central and eastern Europe on the Nord Stream 2 pipeline? As I said, it is vital for our interests that countries in central and eastern Europe and the Baltic states continue to have energy security.
Does my hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire (Glyn Davies) still wish to intervene? I was rude not to give way to my constituency neighbour from just across the border in Wales. I give way to him.
I thank my hon. Friend for allowing me to intervene and to express my admiration for the Polish people. A huge number of Polish people have moved to my constituency and, I am sure, to many others. They work incredibly hard and are committed to their families—that is their reputation—all on top of the commitment that those of us of a certain age know they made to the freedom of our country in the last war. We in Montgomeryshire have great admiration for the Polish people. I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate and on the speech he is making.
I am grateful to my constituency neighbour and hon. Friend for those kind remarks.
Another key issue for our Polish friends is the need for a permanent NATO base in eastern Poland. I will be the first in the debate to recognise the contribution that the United Kingdom has already made in sending rotational troops to the Suwalki gap. We are all proud that more than 150 British soldiers from the Light Dragoons are in Poland playing their role in sending a strong message to the Russians that the new demarcation line between NATO and Russia is there to stay and must not be infringed, and that the United Kingdom will never tolerate any infringement on the sovereignty of our NATO partners in central and eastern Europe. I am sure that is a red line for every hon. Member in this Chamber and throughout the entire House of Commons and House of Lords.
We are all scarred by the terrible consequences for Poland of the Yalta conference—being imprisoned behind the iron curtain for 60 years—and of the initial attack on 1 September 1939. I am particularly scarred, if I may say so, after listening to my beloved grandfather speak of those consequences. It will take generations to forget and forgive what happened at that time. However, we must now show the Poles that we are resolute, and that our word is our bond when it comes to upholding the article 5 clauses in the NATO treaty that guarantee Poland’s sovereignty and independence.
I have asked many questions on the Floor of the House about the steps the Government will take to be at the vanguard of pushing for a permanent NATO base in Poland. I have had various oral replies, none of which have been satisfactory. The answer from Ministers is, “That is a decision for NATO.” Of course it is, but we have an opportunity to show our Polish friends and allies that we are at the forefront of understanding their requests for a permanent NATO base. We ought to use our senior position within that organisation to push very hard to ensure that there is a permanent NATO base in eastern Poland. We need to take the lead on this issue.
We also need to take the lead in trying to alleviate tensions with Russia and on the Minsk II agreements, which have so far been prioritised and led by France and Germany. I was recently discussing with a Conservative colleague why we did not get involved initially in the Minsk I and II agreements. As a major European power, we clearly have a duty and responsibility to join Germany and France in trying to resolve the tensions between Russia and Ukraine, which are a major source of instability in central and eastern Europe.
When I was debating with German Members of Parliament at the Royal United Services Institute last week, I challenged them on the German stance with regard to permanent NATO bases in Poland. I have to say that I did not get unequivocal support from them; they are rather sitting on the fence. The Minister may correct me if I am wrong, but I do not believe the Germans want a permanent NATO base in eastern Poland. They are happy with the main focus of NATO being in Germany and protecting Germany. The only NATO base in Poland at the moment is right on the Polish-German border, in Szczecin, so if there were any incursion, only a tiny bit of Poland would potentially be protected.
The Germans and Angela Merkel have a long-standing relationship with President Putin. Angela Merkel probably has the greatest understanding of the Russian President, speaking Russian and having known and negotiated with him for a long time, but we in the United Kingdom need to challenge the Germans on that issue. Yes, we must have dialogue with the Russians and co-operate with them, but we need to ensure at the same time that there is a carrot-and-stick approach to them, and part of that must be a permanent NATO base in Poland.
I am conscious that other hon. Members wish to speak, so I will shortly wrap up my comments, but the other point I want to raise with the Minister is that we must fight, along with our Polish friends, not to tolerate a single European army in the post-Brexit world. We all remember the picture of Signor Renzi, Mrs Merkel and Monsieur Hollande standing on top of an Italian aircraft carrier stating that they wanted a single European army. Some people on the continent even say that they can no longer depend on the British and Americans for a security umbrella for Europe. That is very wrong and very dangerous, and nothing must happen to usurp the power and responsibility of NATO as a collective defence mechanism for the whole continent.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. Does he agree—it appears he is on the same line—that the security of Europe in the past, the present and hopefully the future, even in the central European belt, has been thanks to NATO, and that we should build and strengthen our relationship with all the NATO nations and not allow the misreading of history that says the European Union cemented peace, when it was in fact NATO?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely correct. In the referendum campaign in Shrewsbury, one couple came up to me and said, “I’m going to vote for remain because the European Union has maintained peace in Europe over the last 60 years,” and I had to spend the next 15 minutes explaining very succinctly that it is nothing to do with the European Union. What has kept peace in Europe in our time, thank God, has been that collective defence mechanism—anchored, I have to say, by support from the Americans and the Canadians. Undoubtedly many very important countries are part of that defence mechanism, such as Norway and Turkey, which in my view are unlikely to become members of the European Union. It is very important that those countries—in addition to America, Canada and the United Kingdom, which is pulling out of the European Union—are central to the collective defence capability that we all require.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman: we must trumpet the importance of NATO. We must also work with our Polish friends to ensure that they take the lead within the European Union in ensuring that, although the United Kingdom is pulling out of the EU, NATO continues to be supreme as the sole common defence umbrella for the whole continent.
I would like to take a moment to pay tribute to the 900,000 Poles who are living in the United Kingdom. Prince William said yesterday in his speech in Warsaw that Polish is now the second most spoken language in the United Kingdom.
I hear my hon. Friend from across the border mentioning Welsh, but he will have to take that dispute up with Prince William directly.
I have a wonderful Polish teacher who is helping me with my Polish grammar, Mrs Watrobska, to whom I would like to pay tribute. I spend the first 15 minutes of every lesson, every week, complaining about how difficult and unnecessarily complicated the Polish language is. She just listens to me and keeps faith, but I am finally getting to grips with the rather complicated Polish grammar.
One statistic that I want to share with the Minister is that 87,000 companies have now been set up in the United Kingdom by the Polish diaspora. I would argue that these people are, in the main, ideal immigrants. If we were to design a newcomer to our country, it would be a Pole. They are highly educated and highly skilled people. Many of them have finished university education, and they have an extraordinary work ethic. It makes me so proud when so many people come up to me, knowing that I am from Poland—whether it is farmers in Shropshire or people in the building trade, construction, architecture, design or fashion—to say, “We love these Polish workers. They are dependable; we can rely upon them.”
Of course that makes me very proud, and that is the sentiment. I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Minister will agree that British people appreciate Poles and the contribution that these very hard-working people make to our country. Many of them have expressed to me concerns about their rights in a post-Brexit world and in the transition we are going through. This Government wanted to settle the issue of the reciprocal rights of EU citizens—both theirs and ours—at the very forefront, before negotiations started, understanding the importance of getting the issue resolved as a priority. Unfortunately, Mr Tusk and Angela Merkel prevented us from doing that.
The Government now have a very effective and positive plan to ensure that these people have guarantees to stay in the United Kingdom, and I am sure that the Minister will allude to those guarantees when he makes his speech. Let us not forget—this is the strongest message I want to give to our Polish friends—that just because we are pulling out of the European Union, it does not mean we will not continue to encourage highly-skilled Polish workers to come to our country. We will continue to celebrate their contribution to our economy and we will continue to issue work permits to highly-skilled Polish workers who wish to come here, work and make a contribution to our society.
I now turn to the newspaper article that my right hon. Friend the Minister highlighted to me, about a young Polish girl, Dagmara, of just 16. I am not in the habit of showing newspaper articles; I hope I am not infringing any official rules, Sir Roger. I shall put it down.
I am very sorry, Sir Roger. I wanted the camera to pick up the face of this beautiful young Polish girl who so sadly died, hanged, following a racist incident.
Having come from Poland myself, I have to say that I personally have experienced nothing but kindness and understanding. I find it amazing and gratifying that, even as a foreigner to this country, I have been elected to the House of Commons. That obviously says a lot about my constituents. However, there have been some reported cases of racism against Poles, and it is obviously sickening and very worrying. I would like to assure our Polish friends that the Government—I am sure the Minister will agree with this—are doing everything possible not only to punish in the severest way those who are responsible, but, through our schools programme and other measures, to ensure that people are aware of the extraordinary contribution that Polish people make to our country and why we all welcome them to our shores.
I would like to touch on the extraordinary number of British investments that are taking place in Poland. Tesco, which was initially incepted by a Polish immigrant to this country, as I am sure hon. Members know, now operates widely across Poland. There is also GlaxoSmithKline. In the financial services sector, Aviva is making great progress. I pay tribute on the record to the Polish Ministries that are working in a very collaborative, professional and effective way, not only in supporting British companies but by helping them better to understand regulations and by listening to feedback from British multinational companies about some of the problems that they have faced and taking them on board when it comes to reforms. My understanding is that the Polish Government are very serious about creating a pro-business approach. Poland is open for business, and they are very keen to attract as much British investment as possible.
I would, however, like to highlight for the Minister one case and concern that I have come across. A British company called EuroEco Fuels, in the biofuels industry, operates in the port of Szczecin. I heard from various colleagues that it was having enormous problems with the port of Szczecin authorities. I do not have enough time to give a significant explanation of some of the red tape and, the company argues, infringements against them by the port of Szczecin authorities, but so grave were my concerns that I took the time to visit the company earlier this year to see at first hand what its problems were. I know that my right hon. Friend the Minister for Trade and Investment has written to his counterparts in Warsaw. Unfortunately, the situation is not yet resolved. I wanted this Minister to know of that particular problem; I wanted to highlight it to him and his ministerial colleagues to see whether they can do anything to help EuroEco Fuels with its ongoing and highly controversial deliberations and concerns with the port of Szczecin authorities.
I think that we need a permanent prime ministerial trade envoy to Poland. The Minister will need to find someone very senior from the House of Lords or someone—
No, I am not referring to myself; the Government need someone with much more gravitas and experience than me. But I am serious. Prime ministerial trade envoys are doing a great job in countries such as Iran and Indonesia—the Minister will know that our hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) does a very good job there. We do not have a trade envoy for Poland, yet we are Poland’s second largest trading partner. I urge the Minister to ensure that the Government consider appointing a trade envoy to Poland, so that all of us who are interested in bilateral trading relations with Poland can get behind that man or woman and help them to make the United Kingdom Poland’s No. 1 trading partner. We are currently its second largest trading partner after Germany. I see no reason why, over the next 20 years, we cannot become Poland’s No. 1 trading partner.
As long as I am a Member of this House—I have been one for 12 years now—I will always do whatever I can to promote relations with Poland. I say this as someone who was born in that country and who loves that country, its culture and its history very much. I feel that our two countries are inextricably linked and that we are very important bilateral strategic partners, and I for one look forward to our relations with Poland going from strength to strength over the coming years.
The maths is fairly easy to work out, Sir Roger; thank you. I congratulate the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) on setting the scene so well. His knowledge of Poland is second to none in the House, and we appreciate his contribution to the debate.
We all know about the very significant Polish community in the UK. There are the Polish nationals who have come to the UK since Poland joined the EU in 2004, but there already existed a very large and significant Polish community in the UK—they came around the time of the second world war—and that is why I wanted to speak on this issue. I am the MP for Strangford, and we have a large contingent of Polish people who have lived in the constituency for a great many years; they came here originally during the second world war. The 1951 UK census showed that the number of Polish-born immigrants had quadrupled since before the war, to more than 160,000.
As I said, the history with Northern Ireland dates back to world war two. Polish people integrated well with the local population. People in my constituency have passed down fond memories of the Polish brigade stationed in Ballyhalbert at the 315 Squadron base. Just last year, we had a commemorative event at the watchtower in Ballyhalbert, which was much used in the second world war. Today, as the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham said, Prince William and Kate are on their visit to Poland. They were very careful not to mention Brexit; I think that was a great idea—when in Rome, do not annoy the Romans. It is important that we have that relationship, which we hope will continue to grow after we leave the EU.
The Polish people are remembered for their manners and politeness and their sheer determination, even though they were based in Northern Ireland, to fight against the Nazis who invaded Poland. The 38th Irish Brigade also fought alongside the Polish brigades in the assault at Monte Cassino. It is good to know that the bonds forged in war have remained strong locally. That has been enhanced through the reputation of the local Poles as hard-working decent people. Some of those Poles married local girls back in the second world war, and Polish names can be found through the Ards peninsula and where I live. About 1.4 million eastern Europeans live in Britain. That includes 916,000 Polish people, and 80% of them are in work, so they come with a work ethic. Those are the figures according to the most complete official picture so far. A Polish shop opened a couple of years ago just a couple of doors up from my advice centre. Again, that is an indication of the presence of the Polish population and those who want to enjoy foods from back home.
A study of migration from the eight eastern European countries known as the EU8, conducted by the Office for National Statistics, shows that Lithuanians are the second largest group in the United Kingdom. The ONS study confirms that the food product manufacturing industry is particularly dependent on migrants, with EU8 citizens making up 25% of the total workforce. In my area, in the agri-food sectors, the importance of Poles and eastern Europeans to the workforce is enormous. We need to ensure that that continues.
The latest figures from the ONS are that in 2015 an estimated 831,000 residents of the UK were born in Poland, and an estimated 916,000 residents have Polish nationality. A 2013 analysis by the ONS of the 2011 census reported that Polish—here I have to disagree with my friend the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Glyn Davies)—was the most spoken language in the UK after English. If the ONS says that, who am I to disagree? It refers to people who describe Polish as their main language.
As the briefing paper for the debate set out, in December 2016 the inaugural UK-Poland intergovernmental consultations were held in London; that was the first time the two Governments had held a
“structured, comprehensive dialogue at Cabinet level.”
We welcome that. They agreed a series of collaborative measures on defence, foreign policy, security, business and the economy and science and innovation. The bilateral deployment of 150 soldiers within Enhanced Forward Presence, which has been mentioned, is good news.
The Governments also agreed to sign a defence co-operation treaty—let us be clear that it will not be like 1939; we will hold to and enhance this one —to strengthen UK-Polish industry co-operation, to co-ordinate opportunities to support the growth of UK and Polish small businesses, to showcase UK-Polish research collaboration, to increase academic exchange and to continue to co-operate to tackle global challenges including energy security, counter-terrorism and cyber- crime. They agreed to broaden and deepen our country-to-country dialogue by establishing an annual British- Polish civil society forum in 2017, bringing together UK and Polish academia, businesses and think-tanks to enhance the vibrant Polish community in the UK, including in my constituency.
I will conclude, because I am conscious that others want to speak. There will clearly be an opportunity to foster relations after Brexit. It is essential that we do so, especially on defence strategies, building on the history of our two nations. It can and should be done, inside or outside Europe, whatever the case may be. That is the feeling coming from Polish Government officials, and it is clear that the Brexit Minister is aware of and working on it. I encourage him and everyone here, including this Minister, to keep the House aware of the relationship between the two nations and enable it to grow.
I think my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) missed out from his list of trade envoys our brilliant trade envoy to Nigeria—I cannot imagine who has that job. I just refresh his memory on that.
I, too, will start with a history lesson, although not one that goes back as far as the second world war. Let me go back to the time of Mrs Thatcher and the setting up of what became known as the Know How Fund, Britain’s technical assistance programme to central and eastern Europe. The fund, of which I was a board member, started in Poland, because the British Government saw the attractions of Poland and the innate spirit of entrepreneurial activity there, and decided that they would work with individual Polish organisations—not governmental organisations—to take reforms forward. I spent many years afterwards doing non-exciting things such as trying to import British accounting, law and stock exchange and banking practices to Poland, with some great success. That is why so many British companies feel comfortable doing business in Poland now.
Of course I recognise the role that my hon. Friend undertakes as the excellent trade envoy for Nigeria. I agree wholeheartedly about the initial support that Britain gave to Poland after the communist era in the form of technology transfer and support in setting up institutions. He will, of course, agree that Britain was at the forefront of ensuring that the Paris Club nations rescinded many of Poland’s communist era debts.
I agree. The point that I would make is that it is a fundamentally good way of transferring British technical assistance, for the benefit of both countries, as it transpires. It makes the other countries much more receptive and makes it easier for British companies to operate there, and it certainly improves the activities in those countries.
The involvement with Poland goes back more years than I care to remember, but it has not stopped there. I still have a great deal of involvement with Poland and Polish MPs. It is worth remembering that Poland supplies many Members of Parliament to the European Conservatives Group at the Council of Europe. In a post-Brexit world, the Council of Europe goes far beyond the 27 EU members, with a full membership of 47. That says a lot about the Council’s interest in human rights, democracy and the rule of law. I have heard Polish members of the Council of Europe participate in many debates on refugees, and I know full well that they understand the needs of Syrian and Ukrainian refugees in Europe, because they have said so in public debate. The point that they make balances good practice across Europe and seeing the refugee pattern as a whole with keeping an eye on what Poland can take for itself.
My hon. Friend mentioned that Prince William had been to Poland recently; Donald Trump was there as well, which led to many protests. There have also been protests about the court reforms that the current Polish Government are undertaking. Will the Minister comment on those? The difficulty with the court reforms, according to the opposition, is that the Government there are seeking more power over the courts, trying to end the separation of powers within Poland and introducing more rules to allow members of courts to be chosen by parliamentarians. Is that compatible with the country’s continued membership of the Council of Europe and its commitment to democracy?
My experience with Poland goes back many years, and I hope that it will continue for many more years to come. It is a place full of great entrepreneurs who contribute to our lives every day.
It is nice to have a positive discussion about Poles in this Chamber— not polls suggesting that Hillary Clinton could or could not have won; not polls suggesting that we will or will not stay in the European Union; not, dare I say, polls suggesting a landslide majority. Here is a positive debate that we parliamentarians can have about Poles in this country and the relationship between Poland and this United Kingdom of ours.
I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski)—indeed, my hon. Friend—who is chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on Poland. On being elected to this House, he could have set aside any labels that people might attach to him, saying that he is just a constituency representative, but he stands up passionately and fervently for positive relations between this United Kingdom and Poland. I am sure that the Minister will give him due credit for the work that he undertakes in this House.
I have a number of points to direct to the Minister. I recognise that two of them probably do not fall within his bailiwick, but I hope that he will at least undertake to consider them. First, it is great news that for the first time, Belfast will have a permanent Polish consular service. A property is under construction at the moment, and for the first time, that service will be available to all the Polish nationals who have made Belfast their home.
It is appropriate to place on record our appreciation for the decades of dedicated service given by Jerome Mullen, honorary consul for Poland in Northern Ireland. He is a quiet champion who has often been thrust into difficult circumstances when there have been inter-community tensions. He has stood up passionately for Polish people in Northern Ireland and represented them. I hope that the Minister will take it upon himself to pay tribute to Jerome and the work that he has done in his capacity as an honorary consul and representative.
The battle of Britain has been mentioned. I think that it is appropriate to highlight that, whenever Polish airmen came to this country in exile, they were first offered the opportunity to serve under the British flag, wear British uniforms and participate as reservists only. Equipment was in short supply, but there is a wonderful story that the Belfast Telegraph set up a public fundraising campaign. The idea was to raise £7,500 to buy one Spitfire, but the campaign got £88,633 16s 5d and bought 17 Spitfires, including for the Polish airmen of the 315 Squadron—the Dębliński squadron, which my hon. Friend the Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) referred to. Those airmen served our country, their own country and their aspirations for Europe so well and so diligently. Their record pertains to this day.
I met a number of people during the election campaign who raised concerns about this country’s decision to leave the European Union. I recognise that dealing with those concerns falls naturally to the Home Office, but as part of fostering good relations, I think it is appropriate that I raise them today. One Polish national, who has been living in Belfast for 15 years, travels home every six weeks, flying through Birmingham under a Polish passport. Every time he re-enters Belfast, he is stopped to have his credentials checked. This is an EU national who has freedom of movement, travelling from one United Kingdom city, Birmingham, to another, Belfast. There is a constitutional issue when someone in his position is not allowed to go down the EU national route—the route we all use when we go on holiday—but is separated off and has to prove his credentials. That needs to be raised with Border Force and the Home Office.
The second concern is from a gentleman who has been a Belfast veterinarian for 10 years. He employs 13 people and has totally established residency in the city of Belfast.
That is the conundrum. He should naturally go down the route for EU nationals, as we do when we go to Spain, Poland or anywhere else in the EU, but he is directed out of it as a Polish national. Whatever has happened since the decision to leave the European Union, he is being subjected to controls that I think are inappropriate—the Minister’s response indicates that he agrees—and that need to be investigated.
An applicant for British citizenship needs to have held a residency card for one year. My office has been contacted by two constituents, Polish nationals who have been in Belfast for many years and have established businesses and families, because their applications for British citizenship were turned down even though they had held residency cards for a year. An unduly onerous constraint is being placed on people who have chosen the United Kingdom as their home, such as those two Polish nationals. They have chosen Belfast as their home, lived there for more than 10 years and attained residency cards. At the time when they were turned down for British citizenship, they met the criteria to be in this country.
As representatives of the people in this country, we need to resolve these niggling issues collectively, because we do not want leaving the European Union to be a bumpy ride. We want to make it as smooth as possible and build on the strong relations between the United Kingdom and Poland.
I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman for his role in the all-party group on Poland; he is a very active member of the group who has many Polish citizens living in his constituency. I thank him for his support and encourage him to come to the Belvedere Forum, which is hosted in Poland and brings together people from different walks of life to promote bilateral relations. I will talk to him about it another time, but I very much hope he gets involved.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) on securing this important debate. I understand that its focus is on the future, but I hope I will be forgiven for using it as an opportunity to promote my constituency’s shared history with Poland. As the Member for a Scottish constituency, I would have preferred the debate’s title to refer to “British-Polish relations”, but I will forgive my hon. Friend for that oversight.
There is a strong link between Scotland—particularly the area I represent in the Scottish borders—and Poland. After the fall of France in May 1940, the 1st Polish Armoured Division was established in Duns in my constituency. It trained in Berwickshire before taking part in the Normandy landings. After the war and the Communist takeover in Poland, many Polish soldiers in the west were unwilling to return to a country where their personal freedom was far from assured, so many settled in the UK, including a relatively large number in the Scottish borders. That link can still be seen today in the “Great Polish Map of Scotland”, which was the brainchild of Polish war veteran Jan Tomasik, who lived in Galashiels. It stands near Peebles, just outside my constituency, and is thought to be the world’s largest terrain relief model.
Another famous Polish migrant was Wojtek, the beer-drinking, cigarette-eating, ammunition-carrying brown bear that was officially enlisted in the Polish army and fought in the Italian campaign before being stationed near Hutton in Berwickshire. In Duns, which is twinned with the Polish town of Żagań, a statue of Wojtek was unveiled by the mayor of Żagań last year after a blessing by a Polish priest. The statue stands as a reminder of the important link between our communities.
To this day, there remains a sizeable Polish community in the Scottish borders—around 1,300 people, according to the most recent census data. Their contribution cannot be overstated: they work hard, integrate well and add some cultural diversity to the borders. Hawick’s Saturday Polish school, which offers courses to Polish and English-speaking adults, is a great example of how the community does well at integrating while maintaining and promoting its own culture. I know that there is some anxiety among the community about its future as the UK leaves the European Union. Ensuring that Poles continue to feel welcome here is an absolute necessity. I am pleased that securing the rights of EU migrants is one of the first priorities of the negotiations; I look forward to the situation being resolved as quickly as possible.
Looking to the future, there is much we can do to improve and build on the special relationship that the UK has with Poland. As one of the fastest-growing economies in the EU and one of our key allies, Poland will have an important role to play in the forthcoming negotiations. I am encouraged by the establishment of annual bilateral summits between the two countries, the first of which took place last year. The focus should be on pursuing the measures agreed at those meetings, particularly on defence co-operation, and further work to strengthen industry co-operation and small business growth in our two countries. It is clear that Poland recognises that our leaving the EU does not mean that our important trade and defence links should be compromised.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham again on securing this important debate, and I am grateful for having had the opportunity to say a few remarks. I am confident that our relationship with Poland will continue to strengthen and will continue to be as positive as it has been in the past.
I am pleased to begin the winding-up speeches in this debate. To pick up on an earlier comment from the hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (John Lamont), I wondered whether I would be allowed to take part in a debate on Angles and Poles. However, tracing the migration routes on a map apparently proves that when the Angles came over from northern Europe, those who turned north were known as the acute ones, while those who turned south were known as the obtuse ones. That may explain quite a lot.
I want to highlight two aspects of the debate. First, it reminds us of the critical and decisive role that Polish servicemen and women played in ensuring that the United Kingdom did not fall under Nazi rule in the 1940s. Second, it gives us the opportunity to celebrate the contribution of just a small number of Polish nationals and people of Polish descent in and around my constituency. We have heard a lot of reminders today about the part that Poland played during the second world war. I have to say that I think there has been a massive failing in how we have taught not only our children, but ourselves, the history of these islands.
During my relatively short time here in Parliament, I have heard MPs in the main Chamber talking about how Britain—or, sometimes, England—stood alone against the Nazi menace. The simple fact is that if Britain had stood alone, Britain would have fallen. The United Kingdom would not have stood up permanently against the force of the Nazis without the support of service people from Poland and many other countries.
The hon. Gentleman is making an extremely important point. It seems that the links between Poland and this country, which were forged in blood—those links of fraternity and shared struggle—are so powerful that they can never be broken. Was he in the House when his hon. Friend, the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes), spoke about the Clydebank blitz, when an entire section of a great city was flattened and the most potent response to the blitzkrieg was from Polish destroyers in the Clyde at the time, which were similar to the Błyskawiza, the destroyer that sunk the Bismarck? This connection between us and the Poles is far too strong ever to be threatened. Does he agree that we need to tell more people about this glorious, joyful, courageous, magnificent history of Poles in the UK?
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman made those comments more eloquently and probably more briefly than I would have done, so I am grateful to him.
We have already heard that it was a Polish squadron that was the best in the entire RAF at doing what the fighter squadrons were there to do, which was to shoot down Nazi aircraft. In the early 1940s, one in every six bomber crews in Bomber Command was Polish. In total, 19,000 Poles served in the RAF. The contribution that Poles made in helping to crack the Enigma code has already been highlighted. Poles also played a crucial role in taking Monte Cassino, it was the Poles who eventually sank the Bismarck, and the Poles were the only people to shoot down Luftwaffe bombers during the worst night of the blitz of Clydebank.
The list goes on and on, and those are only the parts of the history that we are allowed to know, because we can be certain that there were things done behind enemy lines that will never be made public—not even today—and there were also things done on the eastern side of Poland that the Soviets, who conquered the country after 1945, made sure were never, ever going to be told.
Perhaps the darkest of those stories, which has not been mentioned yet, is the deliberate massacre of 22,000 Polish soldiers—prisoners of war—under the direct orders of Stalin. It was an attempted genocide. The motive was to rid Poland of any potential leader, so that even after the war Poland would not be in a position to stand up to military conquest from the east. One of the great tragic ironies of the second world war is that we went into it to defend Poland from a military invader, but at the end Britain and the United States handed Poland back to an even worse dictator than the one who originally invaded on 1 September 1939.
It has not been mentioned today but it must be put on the record again that there are more Polish nationals recorded in the Righteous Among the Nations than those of any other nationality anywhere on Earth. More than 6,000 Polish citizens risked arrest, torture and death for themselves or their families to save Jews from the holocaust. That should also be remembered.
I want to talk about the Silent Unseen, the Polish secret resistance, who have very strong connections with Fife. Many of them lived just across the constituency border at Silverburn House in Leven and in Largo House. General Sikorski was headquartered for part of the war at Tulliallan, in the far west of Fife. I am delighted that thanks to my good friend and constituent Maciej Dokurno, working alongside the Polish consulate, the Polish Embassy and others, the contribution that the Silent Unseen made to the war effort is now—only now—beginning to be recognised.
One of the great heroes or heroines of the Polish resistance was Elżbieta Zawacka—her name is often anglicised as Elizabeth Watson—who was the only female member of the Silent Unseen. She was arrested and imprisoned by the Soviet authorities as a British agent and spent a significant part of her life in prison. After she was released, she continued to work for the liberation of Poland and was an active member of the Solidarity movement. Thanks to her, Poland was eventually liberated, not in 1945 but almost 50 years later, when the people of Poland were finally given the right to choose their own Government and their own future.
That act of handing Poland over to the Soviets at the end of the war is something that we can never allow ourselves to forget. We have heard a lot today about the enormous debt of gratitude that we all owe to Poland for what Poles did for us for during the war, but we should never forget our debt of remorse for what we did to them and their country afterwards. I believe it was one of the darkest days in the 20th-century history of the United Kingdom.
As I have said, a lot of the history of the Poles during the war was never really given its proper place, sometimes for genuine reasons of national security, and sometimes because the Soviet Union did not want to recognise anything that had happened, and certainly not the massacre at Katyn, for example. The Soviet Union did not want to recognise that those who fought for Poland under the command of British forces were not enemy agents but troops fighting against the Nazis as well.
A lot of people—some of whom are in the Chamber today—are trying to make sure that this story is told and continues to be told, as it deserves to be. When I learned that I was going to speak in this debate, I put a wee post on my Facebook page, saying that if there was anything that people wanted me to raise, they should please let me know. I have had any number of comments on the page and by email giving the names of Polish people who my constituents have lived beside, worked beside, been treated by in hospitals, been served by in shops, and so on. That makes it very clear that the Polish nationals in Fife are welcome, and I hope they will always be made welcome.
I received a message from someone I did not know called Slawek Fejfer. When I saw the Polish spelling, I wondered whether it was a pseudonym, because I thought it was somebody who lived in Fife. He asked me particularly to raise the fact that Polish nationals do not have the right to vote in most UK elections. I was pleased to be able to remind him that EU nationals can vote in elections that are under the control of the Scottish Government, and I sincerely hope that all the elections in the United Kingdom will soon follow suit, because it seems to me that we do not vote for what or where we have been, but for where we want to go together. It is only right that those who have chosen to make their future part of our future should have a full say in that future.
I checked up to find out whether Slawek’s was a genuine name. Not only did I find that it is genuine; apparently he lives in a place called Shrewsbury—I have never heard of that place before. I hope his constituency MP, the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski), is listening to his concerns and will support his demand that he and his family should have the right to vote—possibly for the sitting MP—next time the opportunity comes along.
To finish, the greatest recognition that we can give to our Polish colleagues and friends now is to allow them to continue to play a full part in the nations that they have chosen to call home. It is almost exactly a year to the day since we had a similar debate here in Westminster Hall. At that time, the denial or the delaying of the granting of the right of Polish nationals to live here permanently took up a great part of that debate. Despite that being one of the top priorities for the Brexit negotiating team, it has still not happened, and I cannot understand why. We have had comforting and reassuring words; we do not yet have a legally binding guarantee. I would like the Minister to tell us today that that legally binding guarantee will come and will be unconditional.
I do not understand why the leader of the United Kingdom Government cannot say today what the leader of the Scottish Government said over a year ago to our Polish nationals and nationals of other European countries who live here among us. What I want the UK Government to say to them is what the Scottish Government have already said to them: “This is your home. This is where you belong. We want you to stay for as long as you and your family want to stay here with us.”
I thank the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) for securing this debate. Before I go any further, I pay my condolences to the parents of Dagmara Przybysz, who was bullied and suffered a racist attack. She is not the only person who has been treated in that way. A significant number of cases of racist treatment of Poles have led to injuries and deaths. I wholly condemn such behaviour and all of us in this place should condemn any form of racist attack against any individual. As I say, I pay my condolences to Dagmara’s family and all those who are supporting them.
A lot of Members have mentioned the statistics relating to the Polish community in the UK; let me see whether I can clarify some of the issues. The latest figures from the Office for National Statistics show that in 2015 an estimated 831,000 residents of the UK had been born in Poland. An estimated 916,000 people resident in the UK are of Polish nationality. If we get the figures together, it gives us a framework. A 2013 analysis of the 2011 census conducted by the Office for National Statistics reported that Polish was the second most spoken language in England, after English. It is not just Harry and William. About 546,000 people—1% of the population—describe it as their main language.
As well as the Polish nationals who have come to the UK since Poland joined the EU in 2004, a significant community was already here of Polish people who came to the UK during the second world war. The 1951 UK census showed that the number of Polish-born immigrants quadrupled from before the war to more than 160,000. A lot of Members have talked about the bravery of the Polish pilots who joined the RAF to fight in the battle of Britain. In Birmingham, we have Castle Bromwich, where the Spitfire was manufactured. Many Polish air crew and pilots who were based there worked as mechanics to quickly turn around the Spitfires that had been in action. A lot of the pilots fought bravely and went into action again and again, every time they were required or called upon. I pay tribute to all those people. They played a huge role, and that example reinforces the role of the Polish community in this country. It is why I am utterly appalled by the racist attacks on the Polish community, which I wholly condemn.
An issue was raised about the NATO base and Poland. I have discussed some of those issues with General Ben Hodges, the current NATO commander—the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham talked about Germany and where the second NATO base should be—and he said that in the event of any action, the logistics of getting the mass of equipment and troops to the frontline as quickly as possible would be critical. Establishing a base in Poland would therefore be a positive thing to do and would ensure a strong role for NATO. As part of that, it is crucial, in light of what has happened in Crimea and the need to protect northern Europe, that Poland continues to play an integral role in our NATO defences, and I support that.
The hon. Gentleman raised a significant number of issues, one of which was a trade envoy for Poland, which would be a positive thing. Members have talked about how work in their capacity as trade envoys has produced significant support for bilateral relationships. Trade envoys help ensure we get more trade on both sides and create better relationships. Trade is usually one of the better ways to improve relationships, so it is important we do that.
The hon. Gentleman talked about being a Polish Member of Parliament. Probably the first Polish Member of Parliament was Mark Lazarowicz, who represented Edinburgh North and Leith, although he is no longer in the House. I believe he was the first MP of Polish heritage, and he worked hard to represent the community.
Another issue that has been raised is how we get more investments in companies already involved in Poland. It is positive for us to have better trade. Depending on how the current Brexit negotiations go, we could be put in a very different arena. There are significant issues for us to deal with in terms of where Poland stands, what happens with Brexit, how we move forward and what other agreements there may be. Poland’s status within the EU means that some of those issues will have to be worked out separately.
In December 2016, the inaugural UK-Poland intergovernmental consultations were held in London. It was the first time that the two Governments held a
“structured, comprehensive dialogue at Cabinet level.”
They agreed a series of collaborative measures in defence, foreign policy, security, the economy and business, and science and innovation. Those measures included:
“the bilateral deployment of around 150 UK armed service personnel to Poland within enhanced Forward Presence…agreement to sign a defence cooperation treaty…strengthening of UK/Polish industry cooperation…coordinating opportunities to support the growth of UK and Polish small businesses…a showcase of UK-Polish research collaboration and increased academic exchange…ongoing cooperation to tackle global challenges including energy security, counter terrorism and cyber crime”.
One issue that needs to be added to the list is the status of those in the Polish community in the UK who are not registered British citizens. What will happen to them? The Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union are putting proposals to the EU in relation to that, but I would be interested to hear from the Minister what progress has been made since the inaugural meeting in December 2016. The citizenship and status of those Poles who live here is very important.
Time is limited, so I will come to a conclusion. I thank all Members who have participated in this debate, particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound), who has acted as an assistant. Some great interventions have been made throughout the debate.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) for initiating this debate. May I say how much we all appreciate his hard work as chair of the very active all-party group on Poland?
The UK-Poland relationship is at its strongest in living memory, and it is a genuinely strategic partnership. That is partly a result of sustained commitment by this Government. Perhaps I can give a flavour of the investment we have made in building the partnership, while addressing as many of the points that Members have raised as possible.
My hon. Friend is unique in this House for his Polish origins, but there are many Polish links across the UK, and I am pleased to have such a strong Polish community in my constituency. In Melton Mowbray, the strong Polish community dates back to the second world war. Most were RAF pilots, but looking at my hon. Friend, I am not sure he would ever have been able to fit into a Spitfire.
As has been mentioned, Their Royal Highnesses the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge are in Poland today, celebrating our rich shared history. Today they visit Gdansk’s Shakespeare theatre, which was built on the site of a 17th-century theatre that once hosted touring English players performing works of the English renaissance. The visit also looks ahead to the future. Yesterday Their Royal Highnesses visited Warsaw’s new centre of digital start-ups, which has very strong links to London. They oversaw the final stages of a competition among Polish start-ups seeking the chance to develop their products in the UK. The successful tech entrepreneurs will join the 30,000 businesses Poles have set up in the UK. I note that my hon. Friend said that there were 87,000 such businesses. Let us agree to split the difference and say that there are lots of Polish businesses in the UK, and we are very pleased with all of them.
My hon. Friend mentioned the problem of EuroEco Fuels. I can confirm that our ambassador in Poland has raised that case with the Polish authorities; the Foreign Office and the Department for International Trade are monitoring the case very closely. Also, may I invite hon. Members to the excellent UK-Poland Belvedere Forum that was mentioned? I was delighted to launch the first forum in Warsaw in March; the next forum will be held in London next spring.
The strong contribution of the Polish community to our economy and society is abundantly clear to all of us. It is the driving force behind the deepening relationship between our two countries in business, science and culture, and is behind the growth in trade that reached £15 billion last year. Poland is the UK’s leading trade partner in central Europe, accounting for 40% of our exports to the region. We heard mention of a possible trade envoy this morning. I am not aware that we have any trade envoys to countries inside the EU, but of course it is possible that that may change in due course.
Since my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister took office a year ago, we have enhanced the bilateral relationship dramatically. We have established new annual dialogues between our Governments and our civil societies to build broader, more vibrant and more diverse collaboration. We already work together on a range of priorities, from tackling modern slavery and serious organised crime to the fight against financial fraud. Above all, our mutual security interests are central to our co-operation.
Within NATO and beyond, we share a steadfast commitment to Europe’s security and defence, demonstrated by the deployment in April of 150 British troops now stationed in Orzysz. We look to agree a bilateral defence treaty to build on that partnership further, because it is not just within our respective borders that our interests align. We are working hand in hand with Poland on defence and security matters across the globe. That was clearly demonstrated in March by the joint visit to Ukraine of my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and the Polish Foreign Minister, Witold Waszczykowski. Further afield, our Governments are committed to the Resolute Support Mission in Afghanistan, and to the global coalition to counter Daesh. Poland’s election to the UN Security Council will see our co-operation deepen further once it is in place in January.
My hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham raised the question of a permanent NATO base in Poland and whether we can guarantee Poland’s sovereignty and independence. I want to be crystal clear that our commitment to NATO’s collective defence and Poland’s sovereignty is unwavering. Our contribution to NATO’s enhanced forward presence is an historic commitment to Poland. I heard the gratitude of the Polish Government for the UK’s support directly when I met the deputy Defence Minister in Warsaw in March.
This debate has celebrated our close co-operation and has raised several pertinent questions. Foremost are the rights of EU citizens in the UK. The Government have always been clear about the valuable contribution that they all make to our country. We have always sought to provide as much certainty as possible to the 3 million EU citizens in the UK, and, crucially, the 1 million UK nationals in the EU. That is why we have put EU and UK nationals first in our exit negotiations. We want to reach a reciprocal agreement for EU citizens in Britain and UK nationals in Europe as quickly as possible. Our detailed proposals represent a fair and serious offer to EU citizens. I hope that that will be recognised in the EU and that we can reach the agreement we seek to protect the interests of all.
I want to say very clearly—this is perhaps the most important immediate issue facing us—that I, the Government and all of us utterly condemn any violence against Polish people in the UK. I have addressed Polish audiences on this issue and cannot overstate the point too much. Poles are valued, and we condemn and deplore any violence against them. When it is motivated by racial hatred on the back of some kind of EU argument, it is absolutely disgusting, reprehensible and unacceptable.
My hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham mentioned the tragic suicide of a Polish girl, whose inquest has just taken place in Truro. One incidence of hate crime is one too many. The Prime Minister has been absolutely clear that hate crime of any kind has absolutely no place in British society. I can reassure Members that we have the most robust legal framework in the world for tackling the issue. The Government published a hate crime action plan last year that includes working with schools to equip teachers and parents to challenge and report hatred, as well as new funding for projects to tackle the problem.
The Nord Stream pipeline was mentioned. The issue is that it would go directly from Russia to Germany, bypassing Ukraine, where there are existing pipelines. I reassure hon. Members that the UK remains committed to ensuring a diverse and strong energy market. It is clear to all of us that reliance on any single supplier represents a risk to Europe’s energy supply. That is why we are working with our European partners to minimise that risk, and any new developments must be fully compliant with EU legislation. To that end, we are watching carefully developments in the Senate, which might reinforce sanctions against Russia, which would have implications for the pipeline.
My hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell) mentioned constitutional reform. I can assure the House that Her Majesty’s Government follow developments in Poland closely. The rule of law is a vital part of every democracy. In active democracies, rule of law issues such as these are best dealt with in the countries concerned. As members of the EU they must of course comply with the high standards we expect. At the May General Affairs Council, Poland and the European Commission agreed to resume dialogue on the issue. It is not for me to prejudge the outcome of that dialogue, but Members can rest assured that there is a clear and important focus on the issue that my hon. Friend raised.
The hon. Member for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson) mentioned the consular work in Belfast, which we acknowledge. The Poles are doing that very well. As my intervention implied, I was puzzled by his point about the Border Force entry requirements for a Pole, as an EU citizen travelling between cities in the UK. I urge him to take that up with the Home Secretary. In order to assist that process I will ask my office to forward to the Home Secretary an account of this debate so that they can be alerted to the issue he has raised.
My hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham also raised the prospect of Poland being threatened with fines or penalties for not complying with the refugee relocation mechanism. The UK continues to support refugees and host communities through significant development aid and by resettling the most vulnerable people from the region. We are also working internationally to tackle the drivers that cause people to leave their homes in the first place. Unmanaged migration to Europe is a shared and complex problem. We are committed to working with all our European partners to tackle the migration crisis.
The UK and Poland have long been close allies and friends. As we prepare to leave the European Union, a strong partnership between our countries is more important now than ever. That is why we have established new dialogues and re-energised relations. The unparalleled contacts between our peoples are at the heart of our partnership, and they represent our greatest opportunity. The children of Poles who have chosen to make their lives in the United Kingdom have made friends in neighbourhoods and classrooms across our country. As they enter the workforce—in business, academia, the sciences, the arts and even politics—they will undoubtedly feel a strong affinity to both Poland and the UK. That provides a catalyst to drive forward a stronger UK-Poland relationship. I am sure I reflect the feelings of hon. Members of all parties when I say I am determined to make the most of that opportunity
I am grateful to all hon. Members who have contributed to this debate, and I am extremely grateful to my right hon. Friend the Minister for his comprehensive response to the points raised. I am pleased that we now have an annual Anglo-Polish—sorry, British-Polish—summit. I look forward to working with the Minister in future on British-Polish relations.
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).
Drones: Risk to Aviation
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the risk to UK aviation from drones.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger. On Sunday 2 July, the runway at Gatwick Airport was closed twice—once for nine minutes and once for five minutes—as a result of the incursion of a drone. Five flights were diverted to other airports and several others were put into holding patterns, at great cost and inconvenience to airlines, the airport and, most importantly, passengers. In 2014, Airprox Board investigations into aircraft near misses with drones found that there were three, of which one was of the most serious category A. In 2015, the figure had risen to 27, with 13 category A incidents. In 2016, it had risen to 71, with 26 category A incidents—a huge increase in the most serious type of incidents. I secured this debate to find out from the Government what action they are taking and considering to counter that increasing threat to the lives of aircraft crew, passengers and those living under flight paths.
I am not anti-drone, and nor is the British Airline Pilots Association. I thank BALPA, along with the Civil Aviation Authority, Heathrow Airport, National Air Traffic Services and the House Library, for providing information on this subject. When properly and safely controlled, drones are of great value in, for example, precision agriculture, inspection of power cables, aerial photography, mapping and police work. Just this morning, I spoke with a constituent who runs Cloudbase Images Ltd. He was recently asked to carry out some work in the proximity of an airport. He contacted air traffic control there and they discussed a safe way of carrying out that work, which meant modifying the client’s requests. That is an example of how drones should and can be operated safely and professionally.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for bringing this issue to Westminster Hall for consideration. He mentioned the British Airline Pilots Association, which has warned that the use of drones could cause what it refers to as a catastrophic crash. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that now is the time to step in and, perhaps, draw up the protocols used by the firm that he referred to and make them part of aviation law? There is not much sense in closing the door after the horse has bolted. Now is the time to get the protocols in order.
I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that point, and I will come on to it. He is absolutely right. One of the reasons for having this debate is to find out what the Government are doing and urge them to take action quickly where it is necessary.
My constituent was concerned because the airport said that very few people contacted them, even though it is adjacent to a big city where a lot of professional drone work is carried out. He was worried that others were not taking steps to contact air traffic control or to make the appropriate safety arrangements.
There has been enormous growth in the ownership of drones. Some 530,000 were bought in 2014 alone. Of course, the vast majority are for leisure use. When used responsibly, they are a great asset. They encourage interest in aviation and aerodynamics and lead to innovation. But there is also irresponsible or downright dangerous use, which poses a risk to aircraft and passengers. The key is regulation and enforcement that protects aviation without seriously damaging what is becoming an important sector of the economy.
Drones are currently subject to the Civil Aviation Act 1982 and the Air Navigation Order 2016, which stipulate—for all drones—that they must not “endanger persons or property” and that whoever is controlling the drone
“must maintain direct, unaided visual contact”
at all times. Drones weighing more than 7 kg must not be flown at a height of more than 400 feet, or 500 metres horizontally, nor in
“Class A, C, D or E airspace”
“within an aerodrome traffic zone during the notified hours of watch of the air traffic control unit”.
To operate a drone outside those limits, or to carry out aerial work—even non-commercial work—requires an operating permit from the Civil Aviation Authority. That permission is given on a case-by-case basis by the CAA. By September 2016, 2,500 permits had been issued, which strikes me as a small number compared with the number of people who I believe are carrying out work with drones at the moment, whether commercial or non-commercial. There are further requirements for someone who wishes to operate regular flights with a drone. The CAA will also wish to be assured of the competence of the person piloting the drone.
I wonder how many people who purchase drones for recreational or commercial use are fully aware of the requirements. I spoke with someone recently—someone who I and presumably they themselves would regard as responsible—who had lost control of a drone. It had flown more than 10 miles at a height of 100 metres before running out of power.
So my first question to the Minister is what work is being done to ensure that all purchasers of drones, whether for leisure or commercial use, are aware of existing regulations. Although I believe that further, tighter regulation is essential—I will come on to that—the Department and CAA can do much right now.
Looking ahead to what needs to be done, the first task is to establish how much damage the collision of a drone with an aircraft would cause. The Government, together with the CAA, BALPA and the Military Aviation Authority, have carried out research on that and the report is complete; I understand that it will be published soon. When will that be and what action does the Minister intend to take on publication?
From speaking to those involved in this area, I understand that the risks arising from a drone impact are likely to be serious, even with very small drones, and that there is a particular risk to helicopters, military or civilian, such as those used by the police, search and rescue or air ambulance services. The possibility of a drone strike is now listed by the Joint Helicopter Command of our armed forces as one of the five greatest risks to life in its sphere of operations.
BALPA believes that a drone of only a few tens of grams could cause serious damage in a collision at speed. The most popular drone weighs 1.5 kg— 1,500 grams. We will need careful and comprehensive regulation covering all but the smallest and least powerful of drones.
The hon. Gentleman is making a telling speech about the need for action. Is it not time for some Government action? They consulted on possible regulations some time ago now; the consultation finished months ago. They were then waiting for a framework of regulation from the European Aviation Safety Agency. That was published in May. It is not too much to expect Ministers to come forward with a proper action plan for the appropriate regulation of drones, which could promote safety and at the same time safeguard the innovation that the responsible use and production of drones can provide.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman, but I know that the Minister takes the matter extremely seriously and that the Government are looking at it. It is important that it is taken up quickly, because technology moves on. People are buying drones in the thousands every week and they need to know what the situation is. Airprox incidents are occurring at more than one a week at the moment, and some of them are extremely serious. That is not just in the UK but across the world. The UK could be a world leader in ensuring safety in this area.
I believe that we will need careful and comprehensive regulation covering all but the very smallest and least powerful of drones. In other words, it is likely that almost all drones sold will need to be covered by specific regulations, not just those over 7 kg, which are currently subject to the stricter rules. As the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden) said—he speaks from great experience, having looked at these matters for the Opposition—the Government published a consultation in December 2016 with a final date of March 2017. He also rightly referred to the European publication from May this year. It is time that we had a response. One of the major reasons for my calling this debate is to give the Government the opportunity to set out the timetable for their response.
It has become clear to me as I have looked at this problem that there is no one solution. More regulation needs to be introduced urgently, and I am grateful to BALPA for sharing with me the work that it has done on this issue.
First, we need compulsory regulation for all drones. Perhaps there could be a de minimis exemption for the very smallest and least powerful, but, as I said, BALPA reckons that even a drone of a few tens of grams can cause serious damage, so it would have to be de minimis in the strict meaning of that phrase. It is essential that any drone capable of causing damage to aircraft and on the ground is registered to a named individual on purchase, and the registration should be transferred if the drone is sold on. All drones should be sold with a copy of the drone code, and the registration process should include a statement that the owner has read and understood it, and agrees to abide by it, so that it is taken seriously by purchasers of all drones.
Secondly, if somebody wishes to operate drones above a certain size and capability—again, I suggest it should be a fairly small size, given the potential damage of a small drone on impact—they should be required to acquire a licence that shows their competence to do so. Thirdly, there should be mandatory geo-fencing around airports and other sensitive areas, such as prisons, so that drones are prevented from flying in places that would create significant safety risks.
Fourthly—I believe this needs to be looked at carefully—third-party liability insurance should be considered for all registered drones. It is clear that even relatively small drones are capable of causing serious damage or injury. Accidents do happen, and people should know that they are protected from potential bankruptcy when they are buying something that does not cost them very much in the first place. In addition, if people have to take out insurance, they think about what they are doing much more carefully than they would if they think there are no risks involved. Buying insurance shows that a person knows there are serious risks. Finally, investment in technology is required to allow air traffic controllers to see drones when a conflict with manned aircraft is possible.
As always, there is a balance to be struck when introducing tighter regulation. However, consider how safe aviation is now, compared with 50 years ago. That was brought about by sensible and effective regulation, both in the manufacture of aircraft and engines and in the control of airspace. The same must apply to drones.
It is a pleasure to respond to this brief debate. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy) for bringing these matters to the House’s attention. He is right that they are salient. His concernment about drones is a result not of any amaritude, but of a fear of risk and an understanding that drones may not only pose problems but may have beneficial uses. I shall speak about both those things in a moment.
Before I start to do so, I want to deal with the intervention of the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden). He is right that it is time that we did more. We looked at these matters closely and consulted—I shall speak about that in more detail in a moment. The Opposition have publicly made it clear a couple of times recently that they are happy to work with us in looking at what more can be done. I have spoken to them privately—I am happy to make that known—and I can confirm that that is very much our spirit too. As a Parliament, we want to act properly and reasonably swiftly to take action before any of the fears that I ascribed to my hon. Friend become realities. There is a seriousness about this and an intent to act. That is what I want to make clear to the Chamber, and the intervention of the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield gives me the opportunity to do so.
Let me deal rather more widely with the issue of drones. Of course, we are aware of the risks to safety, security and privacy. A misuse of this technology is wholly unacceptable, as my hon. Friend said. However, it is important to recognise that this is an emerging technology with potential benefits. There is a growing market as the technology offers the UK opportunities, and not just economic ones. The positive use of drones was well illustrated when, as many here know, the firefighters at Grenfell Tower used them after the incident to inspect the top floors, which had been deemed too unsafe to be inspected by any other means. The west midlands fire service has been using drones since 2007 for assessing sites and for wide-area searches. Drones can be used beneficially and safely, and they can increase effectiveness and efficiency.
Some airlines are using drones to conduct safety inspections of their planes in much less time, making the operations more efficient and leading to fewer delays on the tarmac for customers. Using pioneering technology that improves services and delivers economic benefits is a key element of the Government’s industrial strategy. Drones have the potential in many ways to transform the way in which businesses operate and interact with their consumers. They have a range of applications. We are working with industry to explore those uses, but my hon. Friend is right to say that that has to be done within a framework that guarantees safety and security.
The hon. Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy) and I referred to the British Airline Pilots Association, which has asked for a protocol to be put in place. Has the Minister had the opportunity to speak to it and hear its ideas about how a protocol would work?
I hope to deal with that later, but if I do not, I am more than happy to get back to the hon. Gentleman. As this is a short debate, we will not necessarily have time to explore all aspects of the subject, and there some important matters I want to make absolutely clear.
The misuse of drones poses a significant challenge. We already have regulations that prohibit some of those misuses. Alongside those offences, we can prosecute operators for the negligent or malicious use of drones. My hon. Friend the Member for Stafford will be aware that it is an offence under the Air Navigation Order 2016 to endanger an aircraft. Those convicted can face a prison sentence of up to five years. The order applies to all aircraft, including drones, and stipulates that
“a person must not recklessly or negligently cause or permit an aircraft to endanger any person or property”.
Under article 94 of the order, the person in charge of a drone weighing under 20 kg must maintain direct, unaided visual contact with the aircraft to avoid collisions, and small drones should not be flown above 400 feet.
My hon. Friend asked whether we can do more. It is important to broadcast those measures as widely as possible. We have worked with the CAA to do that—I shall speak about that—but I accept that there is always more to do. I will look again at whether we need to go still further with those discussions and with the work that results from them and this debate. As you know, Sir Roger, I take the view that Westminster Hall debates must have a purpose beyond the Minister simply repeating what he has said already or affirming Government policy; they must help us move that policy on. I will happily look again at whether we can do still more.
In addition, the Secretary of State is able to make restriction-of-flying regulations as necessary. Flying restrictions already prohibit drones from being flown over high-risk areas, which are sensitive sites such as airports and so on. When incidents occur, drone users are for the most part clearly unaware of the rules, or recklessly breaking them. The point about awareness was made by my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford. We need to make people absolutely aware that if they behave in a way that is prohibited, they will be pursued, and that if they act recklessly, action must be taken. It is as simple as that.
We have taken action. We worked with the Civil Aviation Authority and the industry to launch safety advice via a new drone code and a consumer drone website. A Drone Assist app has also been created by NATS to educate users about local flying restrictions. However, as I have said, one can always do more, so I will take a look at that.
Does the Minister agree that knowing who the person is who is responsible for a drone is vital? That is the point I made about compulsory registration. There is a story—perhaps apocryphal, but perhaps not—that quite recently a drone was flown into the Shard, in London. People only found out who owned the drone when the owner went to retrieve it and asked for it back—which strikes me as quite an example of chutzpah. Does the Minister agree that registration and individual responsibility for drones is critical?
I have heard the point my hon. Friend makes very clearly, and if we are to consider further action, that will be one of the areas to look at closely and, as I said, urgently. The argument in favour of registration is advanced frequently, but it is none the worse for that. Certainly, I have heard what he said and we will take it into account.
The CAA launched a campaign to get large retailers such as Maplin and John Lewis to have drone code leaflets alongside drones sales. CAA research demonstrates how those efforts have been successful: awareness of the drone code has risen by 50% in the six months from August 2016 to February 2017.
The Government have also been working with drone manufacturers to ensure that airspace restrictions are adhered to. The software that implements such a restriction is known as geo-fencing, to which my hon. Friend made reference. Many of the leading drone manufacturers already include forms of geo-fencing capability in their drones. For example, DJI, the world’s leading drone manufacturer, builds geo-fencing into all of its drones. As a result, when someone tries to fly a DJI drone in a geo-fenced area, the drone either refuses to take off or, if already flying, refuses to enter a geo-fenced area and instead hovers in place.
My hon. Friend and I have had a private conversation on the subject—it is only fair to let the Chamber know that—which made clear to me that we both understand the significance and value of geo-fencing. It is a good example of the industry pioneering new technology safely. The Government are working with the industry to improve how geo-fencing can be made more secure and effective in future. Other wider security measures need to be considered, and we will discuss those with industry as well.
There is also a cross-Government counter-drones group, which has been undertaking a programme of work to improve our defences against drones with a focus on sensitive and important locations. Many trials and demonstrations have taken place to examine the applicability of various technological options to detect and counter the misuse of drones. Work is also being done by the Department for Transport in conjunction with UK airports and the Centre for the Protection of National Infrastructure on implementing operational mitigations against drones being launched near an airport. Furthermore, for those users who still seek to break the rules, we have acted to improve enforcement. We have delivered a memorandum of understanding agreed between the DFT, the CAA, the Home Office and the police with regards to the policing and monitoring of drones.
We heard earlier about the consultation, which took place up to March this year, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford and the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield mentioned. The consultation looked at three key areas: stimulating drone innovation and enterprise; ensuring safety and operation within the law; and laying the foundations for a developed drone market. It set out our firm intention to keep rules and regulations at pace with this emerging market and to ensure that actions to tackle misuse can be taken.
To be clear, the Government intend to introduce further measures once we have fully analysed the evidence presented in our consultation process. My hon. Friend asked, not unreasonably, when that would be. I have assured him previously, and do so now again publicly, that it will be very soon indeed. I have also committed to the Opposition that I will keep them fully informed of that. The approach they have taken on this is a good illustration of how Government and Opposition can work together. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield has been pressing properly, as Oppositions should, for the Government to take action, and we will do so in the spirit that has been engendered by the conversations we have already enjoyed. Let us move together as a Parliament on this matter, which stretches beyond any party political divide.
It goes without saying that this is a matter of public safety, but it is also a matter of not inhibiting the beneficial use of drones. It is easy to say, “If we didn’t have any drones, everything would be fine,” but as I have already mentioned in the illustrations I have given and the examples I have offered, drones can be used productively, helpfully and safely. Nevertheless, the framework for the technology has to be in place. As with all technological change and innovation, it is a challenge for legal frameworks to keep pace with such highly dynamic circumstances.
For me, summer is an endless affair—my life is a constant summer, with a touch of spring and the warm glowing fires of winter—but frankly we need to act early this year, and given where we are, that means summer. The hon. Gentleman asks the question, perfectly reasonably, and I am happy to answer that I hope to be able to do something in the summer—if it can be done. I want to get it right, as I do not do not want to proceed on the basis of hastily doing something that we then regret, because this is a challenging and complex area for the very reasons of technological change that I mentioned, although they are not a reason to do nothing.
I have talked about the critical role of the CAA and about the existing restrictions around airports, so there are two points there: first, to ensure that the law is in the right place; and, secondly, to ensure that enforcement is adequate. As it is about both those things, airports in particular, but also other critical national infrastructure, will of course need to be taken into account in our consultation response and any further measures that we might consider.
Shakespeare said in “Henry V”:
“All things are ready if our minds be so”,
and our mind is ready to take further action. Tennyson, the great Lincolnshire poet, said:
“dream not that the hours will last”,
by which he meant that there is a time when we should act, and that we should not dream that it will go on forever. Notwithstanding my sunny disposition, my eternal summer, it is important that we act swiftly, proportionately and carefully, but without delay. That is the message that I take from this short debate.
In the near future, we will publish the consultation response—as I said, in the summer. I hope that will address some of the concerns expressed, but we will also consider further steps as necessary.
Question put and agreed to.
[Phil Wilson in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the future of the taxi trade.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Wilson. The black hackney carriage is one of the great icons of our capital city, the knowledge of London produces the most qualified taxi drivers in the world and the licensed taxi trade is a mainstay of public transport systems in towns and cities across the UK, but unless action is taken, London’s famous black taxi risks being driven off the road altogether.
The taxi and private hire industry is, in many respects, at the cutting edge of an industrial revolution that is sweeping the world at unprecedented scale and pace. Breakthroughs in technology offer unlimited potential to improve our quality of life and revolutionise the way we travel, but we have seen on the streets of London and other major cities around the world how technological advances can be exploited by multinational companies that seek to drive competitors off the road with a business model based on poor pay and conditions for drivers, exploitation of regulatory loopholes and predatory pricing that is made possible by huge venture capital and aggressive tax avoidance.
I am sure my hon. Friend knows that black cabs are actually manufactured in Coventry and on its outskirts. A lot of investment—Chinese investment, actually—has gone into black cabs over the past few years. The developments that he describes may have a consequence for the production of black cabs, meaning that a lot of jobs could be at stake. I studied the Taylor report, and I noticed that it is actually very weak in dealing with that situation. A lot of people—not least taxi drivers themselves—are quite concerned about the consequences.
I wholeheartedly agree. My hon. Friend can be proud of the role that Coventry’s manufacturing plays in the licensed taxi industry. My argument is that there are two possible futures, both for the manufacturing of vehicles and manufacturing jobs, and for other areas of the taxi and private hire industry: a bright future or an existential crisis. The Government have a clear role in ensuring that we head towards a bright future rather than a bleak future.
The all-party parliamentary group on taxis, which I am proud to chair, was founded with that in mind, to ensure that the trade has a strong voice in Parliament. For the past six months we have conducted a wide-ranging inquiry on the future of the trade, which led to the publication of our report, “Lessons from London: The future of the UK taxi trade”. I will focus on that report and its recommendations.
I am glad to see the Minister here. I know that he takes an interest in the future of the trade and in these issues, and I look forward to working with him. He will be pleased to know that, during our inquiry, we engaged with a wide range of stakeholders in and around the industry to look at issues such as passenger and public safety, the effectiveness of regulation, and the future of the taxi trade. I was delighted that an APPG inquiry, as opposed to a Select Committee inquiry, generated such interest. We received 115 pieces of written evidence and heard from a wide range of witnesses at three oral evidence sessions.
I want to place on the record my thanks to that wide range of stakeholders, which included the Licensed Taxi Drivers Association; United Private Hire Drivers; Transport for London; the GMB and Unite trade unions; Addison Lee; Gett; mytaxi; the London Taxi Company; Guide Dogs UK; and the Chair of the Select Committee on Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts). I also want to say a particular thank you to my constituents. It would take some time to name all the constituents I have had conversations with about this issue—as many people know, Ilford North still has a reputation for being “green badge valley”—but I particularly thank Danny Fresco, Jim Ludlow, Steve Kenton and Sean Harris for the time they have taken to engage with me throughout my time as their Member of Parliament. It is a source of regret that, although Uber was invited to give evidence, it chose not to, because it has a direct role and responsibility in many of these issues. I hope that its level of engagement will change.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his work with the all-party group, particularly in producing such an excellent report. Does he agree that a lot of the report’s recommendations are applicable not just in London but across the whole of the UK? He will be aware that taxi drivers from my constituency in Cardiff, and many others, made submissions to the inquiry. The group’s findings apply to many of the issues that the trade faces across the UK.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I really welcome his engagement with the inquiry as a Cardiff Member. In many respects, London bears the brunt of these issues, but many other towns and cities across the country are equally—if differently—affected. Our intention when producing the report was to ensure that we learned lessons from London but also addressed issues that apply across the UK.
I am sure my hon. Friend realises that the regulations were actually eased some years ago, under the coalition Government. That makes local authorities powerless to do anything about these issues—Coventry, for example, has the same problem with Uber. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty), I have consulted trade unions and taxi drivers themselves, and they are very concerned.
My hon. Friend leads me neatly into the inquiry’s first theme: the effectiveness of regulation. Some taxi and private hire vehicle legislation is more than 100 years old. It includes the Town Police Clauses Act 1847 and, in London, the Metropolitan Public Carriage Act 1869 and the London Cab Order 1934. I should probably declare that I am a vice-president of the Local Government Association and an elected member of the London Borough of Redbridge. I strongly agree with the Local Government Association and the Law Commission that we need a taxi and private hire vehicle licensing reform Bill. There have been sweeping changes across the taxi and private hire industry, and legislation and regulation have not effectively caught up. That is causing a wide range of issues.
I thank the hon. Gentleman. He mentions looking again at taxi legislation. Does he agree that pedicabs, which are something of a problem in central London—they have created a lot of concern about passenger safety and congestion, particularly in the west end—should come within that legislation?
I wholeheartedly agree. Rickshaws are not just a nuisance on the streets of central London that add to congestion, but given some of the exorbitant prices that their riders propose to charge, they increasingly also rip off tourists. I saw a rickshaw outside Parliament the other day whose rider was proposing to charge £10 for a cycle up the road from Parliament Square to Trafalgar Square. That is terrible value for money and reflects badly on our city. If tourists want an expert guide to take them around London, they should hail a black taxi.
Turning to the need for effective regulation, there has been an explosion in the number of private hire vehicles on the streets of London, and new entrants to the taxi and private hire market have emerged. I am in no way opposed to competition, and I strongly encourage innovation, but the Minister and licensing authorities need to address the issue of fair competition. There have been calls for improvement. The APPG took evidence about the impact of the considerable growth in private hire on congestion on the streets of London. Similarly, many passenger groups and drivers complain about the erratic driving of people who are not properly qualified to drive cabs. I commend to the Minister the recommendation in our report that licensing regulations for private hire vehicles should be updated to include mandatory enhanced topographical tests for PHV drivers, so that they have some awareness of the local community in which they operate.
I commend my hon. Friend and the all-party group for the report, and I apologise for the fact that I cannot stay for the whole debate.
This is also an issue in my constituency and in the borough of Trafford. Does he agree that, although it is obviously an issue of safety, it is also an issue of customer confidence and trust? When unregulated or poorly regulated drivers, or drivers who are subject to poorly enforced regulation, come into an area that they do not know, and where they do not know the customer needs, that has an impact on the reputation of the whole of the legitimate industry.
I wholeheartedly agree. In fact, many passengers have experienced the frustration of being in a car where the driver has their nose in the sat-nav, rather than concentrating on the road in the way they ought to. Often drivers choose to take routes that the passenger, who lives in the area, knows full well will be heavily congested, but because the driver lacks basic awareness of the roads around them they end up taking routes that are inefficient and add to congestion, which delays passengers. That is why we recommend in our report that the licensing authorities should produce a code of conduct for the use of apps by taxi and private hire vehicle drivers, and that the Government should consider introducing a national code of conduct with basic minimum standards for drivers in all parts of the country to adhere to.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for securing this debate, which is long overdue. We really need an in-depth debate on taxi licensing, and he is making the argument for why. I congratulate him on his review.
My local licensing officer makes a point relevant to the one that my hon. Friend is making, talking about the problem of:
“Cross-border hiring and control of taxis coming into our area. We cannot set the standards for these vehicles and we have no authority to enforce…them. We are concerned about the impact that this could have on public safety.”
One of my local councils, Rossendale Borough Council, was licensing taxis the length and breadth of the United Kingdom not so long ago, which affected other authorities. That cannot be right.
I have read the report, which is very good. As a former taxi driver, I know how taxi drivers operate and the issues that they face along with passengers. Cross-border hiring is a massive issue. The report says that there has been a 30% reduction of income for drivers in London, but in other areas it is even bigger. A lot of drivers are leaving the trade because other drivers are coming in from other authority areas where following regulations and getting licenses is easy. There should be a cap not only on private hire vehicles—
I strongly agree with my hon. Friend, and I welcome him to his place in the House. He brings with him considerable expertise on this topic and others, and he will be a great representative for the people of Bedford. He anticipates what I am going to say about cross-border hiring and the cap on private hire numbers. However, before I do that, I want briefly to pick up one issue that has been floating around for some time but has yet to be addressed properly.
The Government recognised that the pace of change in the taxi and private hire industry necessitated some change to legislation and regulations, so they asked the Law Commission to do some work on that. In 2014, the Law Commission produced a report, including a draft Bill, in which it identified plying for hire as one of the grey areas in need of clarification by legislation.
Many hon. Members will know that under existing regulations licensed taxi drivers in London have to undergo about 8,000 hours of training to pass the knowledge, and only licensed taxi drivers are allowed to ply for hire by picking up from a rank or in response to someone hailing a cab. With the introduction of new technology, there are people effectively hailing private hire vehicles all the time through the click of a button, and that is causing real anger and anxiety on the part of licensed taxi drivers. It is not simply that people feel that the existing law is being flouted. There is a lack of clarity about how we move forward when things have changed, with new technology platforms.
The hon. Gentleman is making an excellent point. My local taxi drivers have shown me where they can locate 15 or 16 Uber cabs sitting around St Albans in car parks. Because they are hailed from the station, that does not count as plying for hire, but it is—it is touting for business but being on another street. Surely that cannot be allowed.
I agree. Actually, in some cases, Uber cars use taxi ranks constantly on the streets of central London. There are real issues about how the existing law is enforced and there is a need to clarify it. In our report, we strongly supported those who made representations, particularly the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers and other trade unions, including Unite, for which Mike Hedges gave evidence to our panel. We need Ministers to clarify their position on the two-tier system by issuing a formal response to the Law Commission’s 2014 report and by introducing a legally enforceable statutory definition of plying for hire.
My hon. Friend is making a case for the updating and modernisation of the regulation and law applying to private hire and hackney carriages. He referred to the Law Commission report, which recommends a national system, and we have had reports from competition authorities that refer to deregulation. Does he agree that the licensing of hackney carriages and private hire vehicles should remain a local authority affair and that, when we look at the facts, deregulation nearly always leads to a worse service?
I strongly agree with my hon. Friend, who leads me directly on to cross-border hiring. He is correct that, although the Government have not formally responded to the Law Commission report and have not introduced as anticipated a new licensing reform Bill for taxi and private hire vehicles, the Deregulation Act 2015 meant that private hire vehicle drivers operating in one area could be licensed in a different area: an issue known as cross-border hiring. In practice, that means that where local authorities have rightly and appropriately determined specific licensing conditions suitable for their local community and population, drivers can abuse the patchwork quilt of licensing regulations across the country to flout rules.
Most alarmingly, we saw evidence of that happening in Rotherham. Right hon. and hon. Members will be acutely aware that in response to the terrible child sexual exploitation scandal, Rotherham Metropolitan Borough Council rightly introduced one of the toughest licensing regimes in the country, including the requirement for drivers to have a recording device—either a camera or audio equipment—in operation at all times when someone under the age of, I think, 16 was travelling in the vehicle. However, the council found that private hire drivers could flout those conditions by licensing their vehicle in another part of the country. They could then operate on the streets of Rotherham quite legally and the council could do nothing about it. We heard compelling evidence from my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) about the risks presented to the people of Rotherham because those robust standards are being undermined.
Rotherham is the most serious example, but it is not the only example. Reading Council decided not to grant Uber a licence, yet drivers from Uber license themselves in London and drive around the streets of Reading. I was struck by the evidence provided to my office by the Mayor of London about the number of TfL licences granted and where the drivers live. For example, 747 people have TfL-issued licenses but live in Birmingham, 260 people live in Manchester and yet have licences granted in London, and 378 people live in Bristol but have licences granted by TfL in London. That is clearly flagrant abuse of the system.
We set out a common-sense approach to dealing with this problem: to create a statutory definition of cross-border hiring under which a journey must begin or end in the licensing authority where the licence was issued. That would be simple and easy to enforce and would solve the problem instantly.
My hon. Friend is making a strong point, and I completely agree with him. Is he aware that this problem is replicated in other parts of the country? In Cardiff we see people with licences granted in Rhondda Cynon Taf, Caerphilly, Newport and other locations coming in and working almost entirely in Cardiff, which has different standards. There may also be a specific issue on insurance. People are often insured in other authority areas and may be underinsured for where they operate the majority of their work, or indeed for where they leave their car on the street.
My hon. Friend again makes a powerful point, which was very much reinforced by the evidence we received during our inquiry. I really hope that the Department for Transport acts on cross-border hiring; I think measures on that will be welcomed by local authorities across the country. I am conscious of time and the fact that several hon. Members wish to speak, so I will canter through some of the report’s other recommendations, but I will indulge my hon. Friend the Member for Bedford (Mohammad Yasin) before I do.
I have to go to another meeting, so I thank my hon. Friend for allowing me to intervene. One main issue that is very important but is not mentioned in the report is the safety of drivers. Drivers are very vulnerable, especially at night time, and if they have four or five passengers in their car they can get a lot of abuse. There is no mention of driver safety in the report, and I would like something to be added. Does he agree that driver safety is a serious issue that we need to be concerned about?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that point, and I will pick it up when I talk about passenger safety. He is quite right that driver safety is something we should take seriously.
We heard compelling calls from a range of stakeholders, particularly people from London, about the need for local licensing authorities to have the power, to be exercised when they need it, to cap the number of private hire vehicles on the streets of a particular town or city. In London, we have seen an explosion in the number of private hire licences to around 120,000—up from 60,000 in, I think, 2010, which is a huge increase. Those private hire vehicles contribute to the congestion on the streets of London, which is filling our air with toxic emissions that result in the preventable deaths of more than 9,000 Londoners each year.
A report by the London Assembly, “London Stalling”, found that the number of private hire vehicles entering the congestion zone had increased by 54% since 2013, and that private hire vehicles are a cause of rising congestion. Those are not necessarily the most polluting vehicles on the streets of London, but the congestion to which they contribute means that more toxic fumes are being pumped into the air. There are two aspects to that. One is that Transport for London and the Mayor of London have been clear that they would like to cap the number of private hire vehicles on the streets of London to tackle the problem, but that they do not have the power to do so. The Government should be permissive in this area, trust local authorities to make appropriate decisions and give them the power to cap the number of private hire vehicles where appropriate. Of course, such a cap would only work if the Department for Transport also tackled cross-border hiring. I hope we will see effective action in both of those areas.
On passenger safety, I have already talked about cross-border hiring and the flouting of local licensing rules, but there is also the issue of insurance, which has already been referred to. All taxis and private hire vehicles are required to hold hire and reward insurance whenever they are carrying a passenger. However, we found during our inquiry that licensing authorities had no way of confirming whether a private hire vehicle had a hire and reward policy in place after its initial licensing, and that police and enforcement officers were only able to tell whether a vehicle was insured or not, rather than what type of insurance the driver held. We recommend that the Government legislate to require all private hire vehicles to have full hire and reward insurance for the duration of a licence, and explore the potential for private hire vehicle operators to have their own hire and reward fleet insurance, to cover all their registered drivers and vehicles.
We also heard powerful evidence on accessibility. I am proud that black hackney carriages are accessible and are a key part of the disability transport network of this city and many others across the country. However, there is still further to go on this. Some 42% of assistance dog owners were refused by a taxi or private hire driver in a one-year period, so although I strongly welcome the action that the Government have already taken in this area—introducing a £1,000 fine for taxi and private hire vehicle drivers who refuse to transport wheelchair users—there is a lot further to go.
First, we need to make sure that all drivers can communicate with passengers and understand their disability access requirements. That is why I strongly support the measures that the Mayor of London is trying to introduce on English language testing for drivers before they are able to take a licence. Secondly, the Government and the licensing authorities should require all private hire and taxi drivers who are given a licence to undertake mandatory disability equality training and take an associated test to make sure that they can properly support disabled passengers.
I will have to make progress, otherwise I will encroach on the time for other Members to speak. I have talked about the need for taxi and private hire drivers to undergo topographical training, so that they are better drivers and have better skills.
However, my hon. Friend the Member for Bedford—he is no longer in his place; he has another commitment—made a powerful contribution on driver safety, and we really need to look at that, particularly since card payment machines have been put in the back of black taxis. Drivers in my constituency feel more vulnerable than ever if something goes wrong with that machine, because they have to get out of the vehicle to deal with an issue in the back. I have heard stories of drivers being abused or people not paying their fare. Drivers put themselves at risk, and we might want to look at increasing the penalties and sentences for people who abuse taxi drivers in the way we are considering for other public sector workers.
On the future of the taxi trade, it is often said that taxi drivers are not interested in modernisation and are stuck in the past, but I have not found that to be the case. Drivers are keen to drive the new zero emission capable taxis and are excited about the opportunity to reduce polluting emissions from their vehicles. To ensure that they are able to drive them, we hope that the Government will put in place an adequate rapid charging infrastructure to support their use. We also need to make sure that those cabs are affordable. I know that the Government are already looking at grants, as is the Mayor of London, but we also need to look at exemptions from vehicle excise duty. I know that we will have to make that case to the Chancellor and the Treasury, but exemptions would make a real difference to drivers’ ability to take up that challenge.
We also need to have a serious discussion on the fares regime, particularly in London, and the extent to which taxi drivers are heavily disadvantaged by fares, which are often set without adequate consultation with the trade. We also need a discussion about the extent to which competitors—particularly Uber—are able to offer artificially low prices and flood the market with drivers in order to drive their competitors off the road. That affects not just licensed taxi drivers but private hire drivers, including Uber drivers, who have seen their incomes fall in recent years because it is in Uber’s interest to flood London with as many drivers as possible to maximise its revenues, even if that is at the expense of fast journeys and decent pay and conditions for both taxi drivers and private hire drivers. We need to approach this from the point of view of fair competition, rather than the elimination of competition.
Action by Ministers is long overdue. The debate about the future of the taxi trade has often been unfairly characterised as a debate between those who support competition and innovation and those who want to cling to the past. That is a lazy analysis. As I have demonstrated this afternoon, the taxi drivers I represent are not afraid of innovation or competition; increasing numbers of drivers are embracing new platforms such as Gett and mytaxi. Many cab drivers also accepted card payments long before it was mandatory, and a great many more are keen to get behind the wheel of the new generation of carbon neutral, electric-capable taxis to play their part in improving air quality and protecting our environment.
However, the consistent theme I found as a constituency MP during our inquiry was that taxi drivers find it increasingly difficult to compete with both hands tied behind their backs in a changing marketplace. Our challenge now is to make sure that the trade enjoys a bright future as well as a proud history. I strongly believe that, with smart and effective regulation and new national standards, the taxi and private hire industries can succeed. I say to the Minister, who is a good man, that many small businessmen and businesswomen and their families are counting on Ministers to act.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Wilson. I congratulate the hon. Member for Ilford North (Wes Streeting) on securing this debate and on an excellent report. As a vice-chair of the all-party group on taxis, I would love to take lots of credit for the report, but he has worked really hard on it, and we need to take on board many of the things in it.
In Sutton, as in many London constituencies, there is a range of black cab drivers, Uber drivers and other private hire drivers, and some have approached me over the last couple of years to speak about the trade. Black cabs are having an incredibly difficult time, and especially yellow badge drivers, who are restricted to ply for trade in outer London, not least because there are few pick-up points. Business is really drying up for them, and they are finding it very difficult. We need to find ways, as the hon. Gentleman outlined, of modernising the trade, while giving the premium product that a black cab is and allowing them to survive and thrive in and around London.
I know that, until recently, Heathrow was a significant issue for cab drivers because a lot of Uber drivers were taking up parking spaces around the airport. That added to the congestion around Heathrow, which as we all know is pretty horrendous at the best of times.
The hon. Gentleman was right to say that people want to become environmentally friendly with their vehicles, but there is a huge onus and cost on black cab drivers when they have to renew their cars. The boundaries are always being pushed, environmentally. To invest maybe £35,000 or £50,000 in a new vehicle is really hard for black cab drivers when they are seeing their trade reduced at the same time. That is partly because of the environmental issues, and it is partly because over the years there have been too few suppliers—only two or three—of black cabs. That has helped to push the price up, to the cost of the drivers.
We have talked about the modernisation of the trade. It is good to see the change in drivers’ attitudes; they are keen to look at card payments and to have greater access for wheelchair users. I remember, probably about 15 years ago, joining my best friend in trying to get a cab. At the time, black cab drivers had to pay about £1,500 to get ramps to make the cabs accessible. The driver stopped, took one look at us and said, “I don’t want to get my hands dirty,” and got back in his car and drove off. That was ridiculous, so I complained to Transport for London, and the driver rightly got hauled over the coals. I know that all the cab drivers I see would be rightly horrified by that. They stick together and keep together as a trade really well, so any stain on the trade from one rogue driver does them all no good whatsoever. It is great that they stick together and stick up for black cabs.
Black cabs are a premium product, so they will always cost more than, for example, Uber cars. A few people want to drive Uber off the ground, but the majority of the black cab trade take the view outlined by the hon. Member for Ilford North: they accept competition; they just want fair competition. That is absolutely right. Uber is disruptive by nature, so it will always come in and cause difficulties for a long-established, regulated trade such as black cabs. However, it has to be fair. The pricing has to be fair to drivers and to competition.
Uber does supply something that we have not talked about yet, which is flexibility for drivers. We were talking about the modernisation of the economy last week as a Government, with the release of the Taylor report. A lot of Uber drivers like the flexibility. They like being able to have a few hours here and a few hours there, possibly as a second income to supplement a lower-paid job. It is important that we do not throw the baby out with the bathwater when looking at Uber and how to tackle this, to ensure a relatively level playing field for all concerned. The average Uber driver gets about £15 an hour, and we need to look at that in the bigger scheme of things when talking about competition between the two and how drivers are affected.
I totally agree that we must tackle cross-border hiring. I would be interested to know exactly how it would work. The hon. Gentleman talked about cars starting and stopping in a particular regulated area. I live on the outskirts of London. If I lived quarter of a mile further south, I would be in Surrey. I wonder how it would work in those border areas, when we are trying to get out of central London, but the principle is absolutely right. I have the same figures as him, and it cannot be right that we have 69 people coming from Cardiff and 83 people coming from Leeds to drive cabs around London. I do not think it would be too difficult to tackle cross-border hiring between Leeds and London, but maybe Carshalton and central London is a bit different. I would be interested to see how that might work.
I agree that the plying for hire definition needs to be modernised. I would not want it to exclude the competition being established in London, but the grey area needs to be removed, so that everybody knows exactly where they stand. It is all part of the modernisation. I agree as well that the Mayor should have the power to cap the number of private hire licences. I asked the Department for Transport on 27 April what representations it has had from the Mayor of London on changing the law, so that he can cap that number. The answer came back that the Department has had zero formal representations. I am interested to know what has happened since April and what the Mayor of London has done to push that forward. I would certainly support him on that.
I agree that we need to incentivise the take-up of electric cars. I know that companies such as BluePoint are establishing charging points around London. It would be good to look at how that might work in taxi ranks, so that black cabs could have better access to charging points, rather than them just being for the new generation of private electrical cars.
Finally, it is absolutely right that an English test is being introduced for private hire drivers, but we need to ensure it is measured, practical and does what it needs to, to ensure that drivers can speak to passengers and understand signs. The idea of writing essays about a variety of things seems a little distracting. I would rather see a really practical English test, so that they can do their job.
We need to get the balance right between black cabs and the competition, including Uber. There is a lot to commend in the report, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Ilford North once again on his work.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Wilson. I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford North (Wes Streeting). His account was exhaustive, and the work of the all-party group has been extremely helpful. A proper discussion of the issues around the industry is long overdue. I do not want to rehearse the arguments that have been made, but I will make a few observations on some of the things I have learned over almost a decade of trying to understand how the trade works in my area.
Although the APPG’s report is excellent, it has a picture of a black cab on the front—it has a London focus, which is entirely reasonable. However, one thing that has struck me as I have gone around the country is how different things are in different places, and how difficult that makes it for us to cope with all the different local circumstances. That is why there will always be a role for the local licensing authority.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne), who led an Adjournment debate on this subject just over a year ago. He gave a brilliant account, which should almost be obligatory reading for Members as they start to consider this issue. I also pay tribute to the local people in my area who have explained the issue.
The complexity of the issue is shown by the Law Commission report back in May 2014. Whatever one’s view of that report, the fact that it ran to nearly 300 pages—I am not sure how many people have got through it from beginning to end; I have started it on a number of occasions on trains—and had 3,000 submissions demonstrates a huge amount of complexity and detail. I will come back to how we respond to it, but as I read it, I found myself thinking about how it applied to my area. I am very grateful to several local people: Paul Bradley and Rashel Mohammed of the Cambridge Hackney Carriage Association, and David Wratten, who works for Cambridge City Licensed Taxis and represents the taxi drivers working from the station. As we begin to look at just one area, we realise how many different groups and interests there are within one trade.
The Local Government Association handbook advises councillors on how to deal with such issues. It runs to a full 60 pages and involves a lot of training. I am grateful to my councillors, Jeremy Benstead, Kevin Blencowe and Gerri Bird, for putting up with simplistic questions from me over the years as I try to understand the issues. I recommend that hon. Members go out with local taxi drivers to understand the job from their point of view and to see some of the problems they face on a daily basis. Many of us use taxis as passengers, but going out with the drivers and hearing them explain what they are up against is a very different thing. I am grateful, particularly to Paul and Rashel, who have taken me out on numerous occasions.
We have hackney carriages in Cambridge, but we do not hail them. It may be different in other places, but they all work from ranks and a lot of them are dual licensed, which causes total confusion in the minds of the public. People really do not understand the difference in a city such as Cambridge, and I think it might be similar in other places. We have a different set of distinctions from London. In many places the cap on numbers for taxis was lifted some years ago. I am pleased to say that the Labour council in Cambridge acted bravely. They went through the process of testing the market and reintroduced the cap a year or two ago, which has helped. We had a massive over-ranking problem, which is typical of historic cities. The problem is not completely solved, but the cap has helped. The problems that we still have are how to deal with basic technological things such as making sure the ranks are filled from feeder ranks.
Also, there is the problem, which was touched on by the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully), of cross-border issues when neighbouring authorities have different approaches to taxi licensing. That is not untypical. The Cambridge Labour authority takes a rigorous view. The councillors are very hands-on in their approach to managing appeals. However, neighbouring authorities take a different view, which creates a real problem when they are contiguous and we see large numbers of taxis coming in from other areas.
We have also had some self-inflicted problems. The Deregulation Act 2015 created additional problems. The idea that someone’s booking can be passed on to someone else might have seemed a good idea in terms of efficiency, but it means people do not know what they are getting. It is like going to a supermarket checkout with a box of Jaffa Cakes that gets substituted for an own brand and being told it is the same thing when it is not. People have told me that they have phoned up to get their taxi—or, in this case, their private hire vehicle—and then someone else has turned up, someone who they did not want to see turning up because they had had problems with them before. In a way, that has taken choice away from the consumer, and I am not sure that was what the Government intended.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ilford North made strong points about the access issues and guide dogs. I have heard about heart-rending cases from people who have told me about disagreements they have had with taxi drivers who have not exactly welcomed them into their cab with either a guide dog or a wheelchair. As we have heard, progress has been made on that, but more needs to be done. Training is needed. My hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish tried to introduce a Bill in 2016 to make such training mandatory, so I hope the Government will come back to that.
Another set of issues raised with me around the country are the opaque set of charges for drivers using a rank at a railway station, supermarket, hospital or retail park. All those institutions are now trying to maximise the value of their assets. In the old days, railway stations were places for getting people around, but now they seem to be a source for raising funds. I have asked questions and I still have not had satisfactory answers. The issue is decidedly opaque and we need to make sure that such privileges are not being abused.
A huge range of issues needs to be tackled, as evidenced by the Law Commission report. We have seen the change in technology—I will not re-rehearse the arguments. I am not one of those opposed to changing technologies. Technology can be applied in the right way, as Gett and other applications have shown. I hope that in the future we will see such technology used in a transformational way for public transport, not just for taxis and private hire vehicles.
There are so many challenges, yet we still do not seem to have had a response from the Government. I really hope that at some point we will see a substantial piece of legislation introduced to deal with the issues. There is clearly a consensus around the idea of national standards to deal with the cross-border hiring issues. The Local Government Association, the all-party group and many others have called for that, and it was a manifesto promise from my party. It cannot be right that someone denied a licence in one area can turn up on the same streets within a few days, as we have seen in some places around the country, with a licence from somewhere else. That completely undercuts public confidence and frustrates local councillors, who feel they have no enforcement powers. We have to find a way forward. I hope I am not abusing the system, Mr Wilson, if I conclude by saying that I will be presenting a private Member’s Bill tomorrow, which I hope will tackle the issues.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Wilson.
I like this quote from GMB section secretary, Andy Peters:
“It appears that London has become the licensing centre to send London minicabs all over the UK rendering local councils redundant in taxi licensing.”
That about sums it up. In St Albans we have reliable and heavily regulated taxi licensing, but my local taxi drivers have said, “What is the point of being licensed with St Albans if TfL can license drivers?” TfL does not seem to have such high standards. We have heard from other speakers that if someone has lost their licence in one area, they will be denied a licence elsewhere. But it seems TfL is not so picky, because someone denied a licence in St Albans was told to try TfL, which is dreadful. The cost to register with TfL for a private hire driver’s licence is £250 plus a medical fee, and registering a vehicle costs an additional £100, so that is a total of £350. In St Albans, the cost to register for a private hire licence is £420.50 plus a medical fee, and registering a vehicle costs an additional £300, so that is £720.50 plus a medical fee. There is also a driver’s knowledge test, which is £95 for a first attempt and £64 thereafter.
It does not take a mathematician to work out that someone might as well hop down the road to London and get a TfL licence if there is no way of stopping drivers coming from there to St Albans, where our drivers are heavily regulated. St Albans drivers have told me that if they infringe their driving licence in any way, shape or form, the licensing authority jumps on them. If there is no point in having our licensing regulations, everybody might as well be licensed with TfL and then work all over the place.
It worries me enormously that when I talk to St Albans District Council, it says that although it is trying to work with London, TfL and Uber vehicles are allowed to come to the district to collect or drop off pre-booked jobs. My taxi drivers have shown me an app that shows where all the Uber cars are, and they are not simply dropping off in St Albans and heading back. They are stopping there. They come first thing in the morning and hover about until someone is looking to book a taxi. I told my local taxi drivers that the problem is young people saying, “I’ll get an Uber cab. It’s cheaper.” But it is cheaper because Uber is not obeying the rules. It is outside the licensing rules and touting for business. It claims to offer a journey within six minutes, but if the driver is supposed to be in London when they start a journey, they could not possibly be in St Albans in six minutes. They hover around in supermarkets and nearby roads and offer cheaper fares.
My council has stated:
“During enforcement checks any TFL or UBER vehicles that are found in the District without pre-booked jobs are advised to go back to the area that they are licensed. We have found that the amount of TFL and UBER vehicles...has declined”
when enforcement happens. That is the equivalent of swatting a fly off the rump of a horse. A taxi driver who is in the wrong area is simply asked to go back to where they are supposed to be. Nothing happens as a consequence, so they are all back within a few days. There are not enough licensing officers in St Albans, paid for by the heavy licensing fee, to ensure that we can keep those drivers out of the area. So we have a situation in which my local taxi drivers, many of whom are Bangladeshi, are faced with losing their livelihood.
There are big complaints when Tesco or other such companies move into areas and mop up all the trade. Local authorities can protect themselves from big rapacious companies that hoover up all the vacant premises and suppress other small operators in the area. It seems to me particularly poor form, then, that London can spew out licences and the taxi drivers can go off and, in effect, operate remotely. They are not obeying the spirit of the law, and they certainly have a detrimental impact on taxi facilities in areas such as mine. It worries me that local authorities that can stop numerous shop premises being turned into coffee shops because they think that would alter the area’s feel and offer, or deny Tesco a huge superstore because they feel it would draw trade from the city centre, cannot deny a fleet of rapacious Uber taxi drivers in my constituency the right to hover around in the car park, sucking the lifeblood from taxi services.
Maureen, who operates for Gold Line in St Albans, said to me much the same as the hon. Member for Ilford North (Wes Streeting) has said: there should be strict rules that a job must be started in the area where a driver is licensed. There are obviously a lot of journeys from St Albans to Luton and Heathrow airports, and there is no thought of stopping people going out of area, but when a taxi driver turns up in an area and hovers about all day, that is completely outside the regulations that cover their licensed hire vehicle. I am told that operating outside the licensing provision also has the potential to negate their insurance, so young people who think getting into these cars is the cheap option might find, if they were in a car crash or some other kind of accident, that they were not insured.
Unite the union has spearheaded a cross-border taxi campaign against Uber. Frankly I do not care whether the firm concerned is Uber or anyone else. What I am saying is not anti-Uber; it is anti-unfairness in the taxi trade. As for just shooing away taxi drivers who are meant to be licensed and operating in a proper fashion but are found hovering where they are not supposed to be, no licensing authority in the country can afford to be shooing out Uber drivers full-time. If those drivers do not behave and Transport for London will not do anything about it, the Government need to do something. I ask the Minister to look at the matter as a serious issue of unfair business competition and health and safety.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Wilson. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford North (Wes Streeting) for doing so much hard work on the report. I also thank the Cardiff taxi drivers with whom I have worked for a number of years—particularly the members of Taxi Drivers Cardiff—and the GMB union. I draw attention to the relevant declaration in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I thank the GMB for raising these issues with me in the first place, and for working alongside me to get under the skin of what is going on.
At the root of the matter is the fact that drivers tell me they work all the hours God sends, but cannot make a decent living. That comes down to several factors, which break down into three areas. One is drivers’ experience with the companies they work for. Another is their experience of dealing with councils, as well as the resources available and the implementation of licensing regulations—but, fundamentally, it is about the powers that councils have. Although powers were recently devolved under the Wales Act 2017, we are dealing with the legacy of legislation that is well over 100 years old and takes us back to the 19th century. Clearly, that is not fit for purpose. The third factor is the wider regulatory environment.
I thank Dragon Veezu, which owns taxi firms across the country, for its willingness to engage. I criticised it in the House some time ago, and since that time we have had some positive and constructive engagement. I welcome the fact that it dealt with some of the charges and unfair fees that drivers faced, for example. A lot of progress is still required in that relationship, but at least we are having a dialogue and there is openness. I welcome that and hope that it will continue.
I am also pleased about the engagement that we have had with Cardiff Council in particular. I want to praise the new council leader, Huw Thomas, and the cabinet member, Michael Michael, for their willingness to put the creation of a fair playing field for the Cardiff taxi trade at the heart of their new “Capital Ambitions” document, which was published a couple of weeks ago. There will be a meeting with them shortly to discuss practical methods of implementation.
I also want to praise the Welsh Labour Government for opening up a consultation on the taxi trade in Wales, using their new powers. There have already been meetings between the Economy and Infrastructure Secretary Ken Skates and representatives of the GMB and others. I hope the Cabinet Secretary will listen to the debate, as many of the issues that are being raised are relevant in Wales.
There are four issues that I particularly want to highlight. First, the question of cross-border hires is clearly at the centre of the debate. Many people who have been licensed in neighbouring authorities, at lower standards, and often with lower insurance costs, come in and do all their work in Cardiff. Their cars can be seen parked in Cardiff every week. That is not supposed to be going on. Not only do they undercut the market in Cardiff, but the council often cannot enforce against them because of the regulations. Uber drivers also come in, perhaps using the TfL licences that have been referred to. I have even heard of Uber drivers being paid large sums up front to drive down from London and other cities to Cardiff, effectively to run a loss-making business and undercut the existing Cardiff trade. That is simply unacceptable, and it cannot go on.
The second issue is that it seems absurd not to be able to impose a cap on the number of private hire vehicles. That is clearly at the core of the matter. There is a cap on hackney drivers in Cardiff, but the number of private hire licences has continued to go up. It is simple economics—supply and demand. There are too many taxis in Cardiff, and the result is that each driver gets a much smaller part of the pie, so that they cannot get by on their daily wage.
Thirdly, on the question of a fair playing field, standards are not implemented fairly across authorities. A particular issue is safety glass in cars. Drivers in Cardiff are often asked to remove glass, at their own expense, whereas that is not required in neighbouring authorities.
The fourth issue is taxi companies dealing with such issues as account work and introducing a fair playing field. Those are the issues that drivers in Cardiff want to have addressed, and I hope that the Welsh Government and this Parliament will listen.
This is a hot-button issue for many of my constituents, and it will continue to be so, as it was during the general election campaign, until we sort out a basic framework of fair competition. In my view that would include the capping and regulation of taxis in London, which has been mentioned, the powers afforded to the Mayor of London, and wider issues to do with cross-border hiring and minimum standards across the sector.
Like other hon. Members, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford North (Wes Streeting) on securing the debate and on all his hard work on the matter since he was elected. Like him, I have many constituents who are black cab drivers, and there is frustration about the effects of deregulation and the lack of effective licensing. There are implications for passenger safety in this city and across the country. There has been a dramatic effect on the livelihoods of many of my constituents and their families. Many cab drivers I know have had their income slashed in the past few years, and many are considering leaving the trade for good. That is tragic for some of the most qualified taxi drivers on the planet, and for the iconic black hackney carriage in this city. This is a big debate.
One point in the introduction to my hon. Friend’s report that is worth mentioning is that there is a tendency to simplify the debate as being about the past versus the future and innovation. In my experience that is not the case. The cab drivers I know and represent have not been afraid of technology or innovation. On the contrary, they have embraced it, but there is a need for a fair, level playing field. Technological innovations cannot be used to destroy drivers’ conditions and residents’ protections. Moreover, big multinational companies cannot be allowed to ride roughshod over our democracy and to undermine, through lobbying and personal connections, attempts to create minimum standards and effective protections in cities such as London.
I want to make three basic points, which have been made earlier and will no doubt be made in the Front-Bench speeches. The first is about the number of minicabs in the capital, and the implications for congestion and pollution. As we have heard, it is estimated that in seven years the number of private hire car drivers has doubled to 120,000. As things stand, TfL is legally obliged to issue a licence to any driver who meets the criteria. We should put a cap on that.
That leads to my second point, about the general licensing environment. The simple reality is that drivers can dodge areas with more robust licensing by gaining a licence from an authority with weaker regulations. So standards designed to keep residents safe are being dodged through the avoidance of other licensing regimes. Minicab drivers should not be able consciously to acquire licences in areas with less stringent conditions.
On the more specific question of cross-border hiring, private hire vehicles are currently not restricted from taking bookings anywhere in England and Wales, provided that the vehicle driver and operator are licensed by the same licensing authority and the booking is accepted within that authority. There is little that licensing authorities can do about drivers who work outside the area for which they are licensed. The obvious question is how licensing authorities can effectively regulate and enforce private hire activity in the areas in question. They cannot. As we have heard, a significant number of London-licensed private hire vehicles appear to be working solely in areas outside the capital, so there appears to be a clear need for the Government to legislate to create a statutory definition of cross-border hiring. Should a journey have to begin or end in the licensing authority area where the licence was issued? That appears to me a pretty sensible suggestion. It would allow flexibility for private hire operators to fulfil passenger requests.
My final point is about national minimum licensing standards. The problems associated with cross-border hiring are linked with variations in licensing standards across the country. In some areas, drivers do not need even a Disclosure and Barring Service check to receive a licence, so drivers are not necessarily screened for criminal convictions before being allowed to carry passengers. Surely we need new minimum licensing standards for all licensing authorities to impose.
Overall, the proposed reforms are pragmatic and sensible. I very much welcome them and support the work of my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford North and the coalition that he has assembled.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Wilson; I think this is the first time that I have done so. It is probably good news for you and others that I will not take up too much time.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Ilford North (Wes Streeting) on introducing the debate, on the sterling work that he has clearly done as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on taxis and on producing the report. He started today by saying how iconic the black hackney carriage is in its association with London. I certainly concur with that. When I was growing up, my dad’s aunt stayed just outside London, and we certainly associated the hackney carriage with London. The training and knowledge that these drivers have has been well documented in TV series, documentaries and so on.
It does seem a wee bit ironic that at the same time, as the hon. Gentleman mentioned, Transport for London is clearly undercutting other taxi services around the country in terms of the licences they are issuing. As we heard from the hon. Member for St Albans (Mrs Main), that is having a real impact on drivers in her constituency.
The hon. Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner) touched on the fact that taxi operation varies from area to area and from country to country. Where I stay, my experience of taxis is that passengers phone local private hire companies; in my licensing area, people are not allowed to flag down vehicles. That makes it harder for unlicensed operators to operate, and it makes the whole start-or-finish issue or cross-border issue a bit more difficult. I am fortunate because I know all the local taxi drivers. I can phone the company and say “It’s Alan. I want to go to x, y or z.” I do not even have to give full details of the address. I can take my pet dog in the car; that is not a problem. That is in stark contrast to the experiences of people who rely on their guide dog because of mobility issues. We have heard about the unsatisfactory experience of people not being able to get their guide dog in cars. I certainly support the call for equality training to ensure that people are not effectively discriminated against, which would be under the Disability Discrimination Act 1995.
That brings us full circle. It is really important that we do not have a race to the bottom, which is the concern that we have now about Uber and how it operates. The hon. Member for St Albans said that she does not care whether it is Uber or whatever; the bottom line is that there is an issue that we need to address. In Scotland, Uber operates only in Glasgow and Edinburgh; it certainly does not operate in my area, so it is not the same issue as we face here. Clearly, that company has a model, and once it undercuts people and puts other drivers out of business, it will continue to expand that model elsewhere. As I said, we cannot have a race to the bottom. We have heard about insurance issues. Clearly, some people are getting into these cars and do not understand the wider implications. Yes, they might save a few pennies, but it could cost them in the long run.
The key theme that came out in the debate was that the existing legislation is outdated. I have just touched on the DDA. I agree that there should be penalties for abuse of taxi drivers; they need more protection. Another good point made by the hon. Member for Ilford North was about providing assistance for taxi drivers to upgrade their cars, particularly given air pollution issues. The Government have still to respond to the air pollution case. They have lost three times in the High Court now; they cannot afford to lose in the High Court again. I think that further grant assistance must be given for the upgrading of black cabs, particularly in London. I will throw out one further thing to the Minister. Previously, there was a grant system for conversion to liquefied petroleum gas. I do not think that is available any more, but it is a good interim step towards reducing emissions before we get to zero-carbon transport, so I ask the Government to think again about LPG.
In Scotland, the Scottish National party Government have already made changes to licensing, under the Air Weapons and Licensing (Scotland) Act 2015. The process began in 2012-13, but even by the time the legislation was going through Parliament, in 2015, it was already recognised that it had not kept pace with technology and the apps system that is now used for taxi drivers. The SNP Government have therefore pledged to review it and bring in changes accordingly. I urge the UK Government to think likewise.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Wilson, and to speak in this important debate on the future of the taxi trade. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford North (Wes Streeting) on securing it. I also congratulate him and the all-party parliamentary group on taxis on publishing the report, “Lessons from London: The future of the UK taxi trade”.
I draw hon. Members’ attention to my declaration in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests regarding my membership of the GMB, which organises in this area.
As has been mentioned, all too often debates about the taxi trade in the past have been wrongly framed as innovation versus tradition. It is not the case that there is a trade-off between innovations that improve the taxi trade and regulations that provide protections to the existing trade and deliver improved safety and accessibility for passengers. Sadly, however, the Government’s hands-off approach to taxis and private hire vehicles means that in too many areas we are seeing a race to the bottom on quality, accessibility and, perhaps most worryingly of all, safety.
As technology and the industry have evolved, our regulation of the taxi and private hire industry has failed to keep pace. To address that, the Law Commission published recommendations and a draft Bill in May 2014. The commission recommended significant regulatory changes. The report found that the
“balance struck between national and local rules lacks an overarching rationale, resulting in duplication, inconsistencies and considerable difficulties in cross-border enforcement...The outdated legislative framework has become too extensive in some respects, imposing unnecessary burdens on business and artificially restricting the range of services available to consumers; and insufficiently comprehensive in other ways, undermining the fundamental goal of protecting the travelling public.”
The Government have not responded to that report to date. I ask the Minister when he intends to do so, or whether the Government ever intend to respond. We are now at the point at which the Government risk waiting so long to respond that elements of the Law Commission’s work become outdated, and at present the Government have no plans to introduce a taxis Bill.
One significant challenge facing the taxi trade that has yet to be addressed by Ministers is cross-border working by private hire vehicles. There have been increasing concerns about private hire vehicles operating outside their licensed geographical areas. We have heard about that practice in this debate. It puts taxis at a competitive disadvantage, as they have to return to their licensed area after taking a fare outside their borough, unlike private hire vehicles, and some councils in this country hand out too many licences, clogging up the streets and worsening congestion and air quality. Because of the lack of national standards, there are implications for quality, safety and accessibility, which cross-border licensing undermines.
If a private hire driver has obtained a licence by having to pass a local knowledge test in one area, but primarily operates elsewhere, there is no guarantee that they will know the local roads well. There is almost no way a potential customer can know that at the time of booking. The implications for safety are worrying. Local authorities are currently permitted to set their own “fit and proper” criteria for licensing; there is no minimum national standard. Private hire drivers are therefore able to operate in an area with stringent safety criteria, but can legally fail to meet those criteria by obtaining a licence elsewhere. Concerns have been raised about that occurring in Rotherham and Oxford, where strict safety measures were put in place following instances of child sexual exploitation.
The questions of what steps should be taken to ensure passenger safety and how to prevent sexual assaults should not be for each licensing authority to decide, but should be decided at national level on the basis of what regulations would best protect passengers. Rather than addressing the problem, measures in the Government’s Deregulation Act 2015 permitting subcontracting have made the situation worse. Those make enforcement by local licensing authorities more difficult, in addition to stripping customers of their right to choose which operator they wish to travel with. I therefore ask the Minister what steps the Government will take to combat the problems associated with cross-border working. One obvious measure to mitigate the problem would be the introduction of national standards for licensing authorities—something that the Labour party has repeatedly called for. Will the Minister now commit to introducing such standards? The Government have previously stated that many of these issues should be the responsibility of licensing authorities, but issues such as disabled access and safety standards should not be at the discretion of localities, varying greatly across the country.
While the industry has changed significantly throughout the years, and continues to do so, increasingly spurred on through technological change, legislation has not. As a consequence, the distinction between taxis and private hire vehicles is increasingly confused, in part because of the imprecise concept of plying for hire, which is not defined in statute. The Law Commission’s 2014 report supported this distinction remaining in place; however, we have seen a growing number of apps, such as Uber, that allow users to see the position of available vehicles at any particular moment—in effect, virtually plying for hire. The result has been a reduction in the number of people taking the geographical training for licensed taxi drivers.
The former Mayor of London identified the need for action and planned to introduce a minimum five-minute wait for customers requesting a car and beginning a journey. That was motivated by concerns about the impact that Uber’s business model has had on the city, including Uber’s contribution to rising congestion. Those plans were abandoned, reportedly after intense lobbying by the then Prime Minister and Chancellor of the Exchequer. As reported in the Daily Mail, the then Prime Minister and Chancellor enjoyed close relationships with Uber and were hostile to the idea that the company should be subject to further regulation. The advent of smartphone apps is changing the industry and presents many clear benefits to passengers, but companies such as Uber can enjoy unfair competitive advantages because they do not have to follow the same regulation and compliance as incumbent businesses. The current Mayor of London has committed to supporting a legal definition of plying for hire, and the Law Commission supports a statutory definition of pre-booking. I hope the Government are no longer acting as a paid lobbyist for Uber, and that the Minister will today outline what steps he intends to take to ensure a level playing field between operators.
Everyone in this room wants to see the future of the taxi trade, and indeed the private hire industry, accessible to all. It should therefore concern us all that 42% of assistance dog owners were refused a journey by a taxi or private hire vehicle, despite that being illegal. That has a devastating impact on the confidence and independence of disabled people, and I would like to praise the work of Guide Dogs on this issue. Will the Minister commit to mandatory disability equality training for all taxi and private hire vehicle drivers?
Finally, we have seen real progress in London towards zero emission vehicles. What steps will the Minister take to secure a greener trade across the whole country in future?
Prejudice gets a worse name than it deserves. Burke said that prejudice
“engages the mind in a steady course of wisdom and virtue and does not leave the man hesitating in the moment of decision sceptical, puzzled, and unresolved.”
I seek, I strive, I emule to little more than to match the prejudice of the hon. Member for Ilford North (Wes Streeting), whom I congratulate on securing this debate, in his advocacy of the importance of London black cabs. They add quality to our kingdom and are symptomatic of the best of British and emblematic of its capital’s character. The hon. Gentleman should be aware that in anything I subsequently say that is my starting point. We can be proud of our London cabs and should be hesitant about anything that endangers their future, which is certainly not the Government’s intention.
The hon. Gentleman is right to point out that in recent years the taxi and private car hire market has experienced very significant change. That has been particularly true in our capital city. My suspicion is that it is not the end of a process but the beginning. I suspect that we will see continuing change as the ways in which people communicate and acquire services change. He said that it was important not to be stuck in the past. I spend a good deal of my life wishing that I could be, only to be dragged to the present by imperatives and drawn to the future, seduced by the promise of improvement and opportunity. Nevertheless, it is right to say that, whether we like it or not, changing communications are likely to mean that the services provided to us—in this case, by private hire vehicles and taxis—will change too. That does not mean that we should allow ourselves to be seduced—to use the word a second time in a short debate—by the Whiggish idea of progress. It is not true that all technological change is beneficial, and it is not true that all the alterations that the hon. Gentleman set out are likely to add to the quality of what is provided to people in London and elsewhere.
Let me now address some of the specifics in the excellent all-party group report and congratulate the whole of that group on producing it. It is clear to me that we share a common aim: open, safe and fair competition in the taxi and private hire car market. There will be a debate—a proper discussion—about how we can achieve that objective, but it is one to which we can all sign up. I am reassured that in the report there is an appetite to continue to encourage the best of the trade and to seek out ways to improve what is not as good as it should be.
As the hon. Gentleman argued, the Government are responsible for the legislative framework within which licensing authorities set their own standards and requirements, so have an important role to play, but those licensing authorities must play their part too. I will come back to that point, which was raised by the hon. Member for Dagenham and Rainham (Jon Cruddas) when he spoke of inconsistencies, and by my hon. Friend the Member for St Albans (Mrs Main).
Obviously, that is the case; however, the Minister is aware that the law in this area dates back almost 170 years—some of it is under the Town Police Clauses Act 1847. Given that the Welsh Labour Government are now looking at introducing new legislation to deal with many of the issues we have discussed today, will the Minister make a similar commitment on the UK Government’s behalf?
Most of what inspires me goes back to the time of Jesus Christ, so I do not think the fact that something goes back a long way is necessarily indicative that it is inappropriate, but I certainly want to make sure that it is fit for purpose. Part of the job of government is to make sure that the legislative framework that we operate in is suitable for the changing circumstances, as I described. If they are as dynamic as the hon. Member for Ilford North and I suggest, we certainly need to review these matters regularly and thoroughly. He is right that in the light of that changing landscape, we need to look at such things closely.
I am aware of the changing landscape of the taxi and private hire market, and the impact that changes in the way people engage services have for the public and on traditional business models, which, in my own use of taxis, I personally prefer. It is right that we address some of the specific issues raised in the report, and I shall try to do that in the short time available to me. Having said all that, using an app to request a taxi or a private hire vehicle is increasingly popular with the public and has the potential to change the structure of the market significantly. There is a taste for a certain kind of access to a certain kind of vehicle. That is an undeniable fact. I see it among people I know—friends and others—although personally, I prefer to hail a taxi. I like the theatre of that, as well as the quality that it ends in, but that is not the way that everybody goes about their lives and business, and we have to face that reality. Given that appetite, the important thing is that we are mindful of the disadvantages that it might bring too.
It is the case that in addition to accepting pre-booked journeys, taxi drivers have the exclusive right to ply for hire in the area in which they are licensed. This is the fundamental difference in the licensing of taxis and private hire vehicles, and underpins the requirement for taxi drivers to have the geographical knowledge that is indicated, in London at least, by the knowledge—the acquisition of detailed understanding of the character and geography of our city.
The all-party parliamentary group recommends that the Government introduce a legally enforceable statutory definition of plying for hire. That will, of course, be considered, but the Law Commission’s view was that it was not practical to define plying for hire:
“No statutory list of factors could be sufficiently determinative to give clear guidance, leaving many of the current grey areas unresolved.”
I welcome the recent efforts of Transport for London to ensure that competition within the taxi and private hire market is fair. Private hire vehicles do not have the hard-earned right to ply for hire, and I wholeheartedly endorse action against those who break the law. As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, Transport for London has quadrupled the number of dedicated compliance officers on the street, meaning that there are now more than 250. Not only do those enforcement officers ensure fair play among legitimate parties, they play a vital role in preventing unlicensed, unvetted, uninsured and unsafe drivers and vehicles from circumventing the regulations and stealing business from the legitimate trade.
Yes, that is true; my hon. Friend makes a valid point about the scope and powers of those missioned with doing what I described. I am certainly prepared to consider both of those things in direct response to this debate. If these debates are to be meaningful, they must take policy further forward; they must not simply be repetition of the status quo or an opportunity for Ministers to read out speeches written for them by other people. We will certainly consider those matters particularly.
Clearly, we place premium importance on passenger safety, and points have been made about that; again, I will re-examine those matters in some detail. The Department has undertaken to monitor the adoption of the recommendations made in the statutory guidance, and I assure all here today that I will give the matter my personal attention. I will be judged on what I do, rather than what I say, so I serve notice on all taxi and PHV licensing authorities that I will be asking those that do not adopt the recommendations made as a result of consultation and engagement why not and for what reasons. I will write to all licensing authorities accordingly as a result of this brief debate.
A point was made about access for disabled people. That point has been raised previously, and I return to it—indeed, I had a discussion this morning with the Minister responsible in my Department about this very subject. We want to say more about it quickly, and we will do so; we have been considering it for some time, as the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Cat Smith) will know. Again, we have been partly catalysed by the fresh opportunity that this debate gives us to consider these matters.
The other thing that I commit to is further discussion with the all-party group. I invite the hon. Member for Ilford North to come to my Department to explore each of the detailed recommendations in the report. Time does not permit me to go into them now, but I am happy to have a dialogue with him to see what more can be done. By the way, there are some contentious things in the report. I do not want to give the impression that I have read it assuming that it is all fine and dandy. The issue of the difference between licensed vehicles and licensed drivers is—I say this in the kindest, most general way possible—fudged in the report, and we need to explore it. To say that there were 88,000 vehicle licences and 120 licences issued to people is a slight misrepresentation of the facts. I could go on; there is the effect on congestion as well. Light goods vehicles and other vehicles may well do more damage in terms of congestion than the growing number of private hire vehicles, and we need to explore that. However, the report is a useful and valuable contribution to the debate, and we will discuss it and be inspired by much of what it says.
In addition to all of that, there is more work to be done. I have established a working party to look at licensing, and I am extremely keen to deal with the inconsistencies across licensing authorities. There is a strong case for considering the cross-border issues; they are not straightforward, as the hon. Gentleman knows, but we must consider them closely. As I have mentioned, I am keen to move forward on accessibility and how disabled people must sometimes, for example, endure drivers not being prepared to take guide dogs in taxis. That is not acceptable, and it cannot be allowed to continue. The checks put in place by licensing authorities must be thorough and consistent to ensure safety.
I have repeatedly stressed my admiration for black cabs, but I hope also to recognise that it is a dynamic marketplace where technology has changed, and I will continue to do so. To return to the fundamental message that I want to articulate in this short debate, it is important that the framework that we have put in place is fit for purpose, recognises those changes and preserves the best of what we have now.
There will be a working party, consideration of licensing and cross-border issues, and an urgent meeting with the hon. Gentleman to discuss the report. I am prepared to go further and meet the Mayor of London, representatives of the London taxi trade and, of course, Uber. Devising a plan for the future will require us all to work together for the common good.
I started with Burke, so I will end with Disraeli, who said:
“The secret of success is constancy to purpose.”
My purpose is to get this right, not for its own sake but for the effect that it has on all those who work in the industry and all those who use taxis and private hire vehicles. Our responsibility—indeed, I go further—our duty is to ensure that that is done thoughtfully, carefully and effectively. In securing this debate, the hon. Gentleman has aided that purpose.
I thank all right hon. and hon. Members for their contributions to this debate. Having listened to others’ remarks, I am minded to draw attention to my declaration in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I thank all members of the all-party parliamentary group on taxis, the secretariat for their hard work and the sponsors, Gett, mytaxi and the Licensed Taxi Drivers’ Association, which are reflected in our group register, for making all the work possible.
I am grateful to the Minister for how he summed up and responded to the debate. All that we can ever hope for as Back Benchers putting the case to Government on various issues is open minds and open doors. I am glad that he has offered both open-mindedness to the range of issues presented and the various challenges of solving those problems and, most importantly, an open door to discuss each of the recommendations, as he has generously offered, so that we can feed back to the thousands of drivers across the country who are following the issue. Of all the issues that I hear about as a constituency MP, there is more, and more consistent, engagement among members of the public on this issue than on any other. As the Minister acknowledged, the drivers whom I represent are more interested in what will be done; I hope that in the autumn, we will start to see some progress. I am glad that work is under way in the Department to secure progress.
I am reflecting on this debate. One ongoing concern that is still with the courts is working conditions and rights for taxi and private hire drivers. We touched on it to some degree—
I know that the hon. Gentleman has only a few seconds left. The Taylor review has just been published, and we will consider how it applies to the sector. That is specifically why I set up the second working party. I do not want to pre-judge the courts, but I assure him of that.
I agree. Similarly, we did not want to pre-judge the courts when we did our work. I am none the less glad that GMB is pursuing a test case in the courts about the legal status of many private hire drivers. Self-employment is a great thing; exploitation of self-employment rules by private operators is something else entirely. That is where the tension lies.
With just a few seconds left, I thank all right hon. and hon. Members for their contributions to this debate. I look forward to meeting the Minister, and I know that my constituents will be glad to hear about progress thereafter.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the future of the taxi trade.
Catfishing and Social Media
[Mr Philip Hollobone in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the matter of catfishing and social media.
Catfishing is a growing phenomenon. The internet has brought about many positive changes, but it has also brought the complex challenge of safeguarding people from those who want to deceive and harm them online. A catfish, as everybody knows, is a predator fish that scuttles along the bottom of the ocean feeding on smaller and more vulnerable fish. A human catfish will use another person’s online identity to create a fake account and will then try to form relationships online, over social media websites such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or Snapchat, or dating apps such as Tinder. The victim believes that they are communicating with the person whose identity the catfish has stolen. The catfish often deceives another person into an online romance, perhaps getting them to send sexually explicit images or money. However, there is always more than one victim, because as well as those who are deceived by the catfish’s fake identity, the person whose identity has been stolen is also a victim.
One in three relationships now starts online. The public should not have to continuously contend with the prospect that the person they are in communication with is not who they say they are. I want to explore how we can better protect victims of catfishing, including the person who has had their identity stolen.
I have been approached by a number of people who have been catfished. Their cases are all different. The extent of catfishing first came to my attention last year when I was informed by the Lady Detective Agency that one of my constituents, Matt Peacock, had had his information used by a man who created fake social media profiles in order to meet women online. Mr Peacock, a male model, has had his identity stolen online for the past four years by the catfish, who has used his pictures on dating websites to lure women. The catfish has also used photographs of Matt’s nephews and nieces, claiming that they were his own children in order to appeal to single mothers as being caring.
Matt’s family has been put under tremendous strain. His wife has been contacted on many occasions and wrongly told that her husband was cheating on her by asking girls and women for sexual photographs and videos. Matt got so frustrated that he contacted private detective Rebecca Jane Sutton in Manchester for help. Within 48 hours, they tracked down and met the catfish, who admitted using Matt’s identity to deceive dozens of women. The man apologised, which, crucially, Matt and Rebecca captured on tape. He also revealed names of other women he had deceived and promised Matt that he would stop doing it. However, just four days after the confrontation, a woman the detective agency had warned about the catfish rang to say that he had contacted her again, pretending to be Matt and asking for graphic videos. Being unable to resolve this, the detective agency contacted Stockport police and handed over all the evidence, including the full taped confession, but the police said that they would not be taking any action because they did not consider any notifiable crime to have been committed. According to Ms Sutton, the police officer said, “This is the same as going into a bar in the 1980s and pretending to be a millionaire when you actually work on the bins. There is nothing we can do about it.”
But this is not the 1980s. It is 2017, and there is a world of difference between exaggerating one aspect of yourself and creating an identity online that has been stolen from somebody else. Many people tell white lies about their age, occupation or height to seem more attractive to a potential partner, but the difference with catfishing is in the totality of the misrepresentation and the creation of a completely stolen identity with the intention to exploit.
At the moment, there is no specific criminal offence of catfishing. Matt and Ms Sutton are campaigning for a new law to make it illegal to use another person’s identity online. Matt has told me about his disappointment when the police said that no crime had been committed:
“It affected me and my whole family. We spoke to one girl who the ‘catfisher’ had targeted, pretending to be me. She told me she had felt like committing suicide after being deceived by this man. I vowed then to do all I can to sort this out. I do not want a phone call from a girl who has harmed herself after falling for this fraudster who is pretending to be me. Something needs to be done and if people knew pretending to be someone else online was an offence then they might be put off.”
Matt believes that the only way forward is through a new law. He contacted Facebook, which asked him to prove who he was and eventually took the fraudulent page down. However, the next day, the catfish had created another profile, again using pictures of Matt to lure women in. Matt says:
“People of my generation live their lives through social media and trust in an entity that is massively flawed. The law has not kept up and I am determined to do something about it.”
I have also been contacted by other victims of catfishing, including Anna Rowe, who started a petition in February 2017 to make it illegal to create a fake online profile with the intention of using it to make sexual contact. So far, she has collected nearly 42,000 signatures. Anna’s catfish used Facebook accounts, emails, Skype, Snapchat and Instagram accounts to create a fake identity with the background story of a man divorced for 15 months and looking for a meaningful long-term relationship. She eventually discovered that she was in a relationship with a man who had used stolen profiles and was married. Since she publicised her case, Anna has been contacted by many other women who have been deceived by the same man.
In a third case, I was contacted for help by a mother who was worried about the traumatic effect that being catfished had had on her son. The 20-year-old young man, Axel Grassi-Havnen, had been catfished for four months. He has been so upset by the emotional strain it put him under that he has put a video on YouTube to warn other young people to be aware of catfish.
What can be done? Technology is limited in what it can do to deal with persistent catfish who are determined to deceive others and are uncaring of the trauma and emotional distress they inflict. Having a better understanding of privacy settings on Facebook and sharing images only with friends rather than making them public gives some protection, but that does not help people with high public profiles or those who are inexperienced in using social media.
Facebook has launched an initiative in India to counter personal photos being stolen. It has introduced profile picture filters to mark the photograph, because research has shown that a photo marked with a filter is 75% less likely to be stolen. There are now a number of websites for searching someone’s information to confirm their social media profiles and suggest whether they are catfish. A number of dating websites have dedicated fake accounts teams; Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Snapchat have measures in place so that an account that impersonates somebody can be taken down. Using artificial intelligence to detect fake accounts helps to deal with the enormous challenge that the sheer volume of them poses to identifying and removing them; Facebook announced an initiative in that area earlier this year. Nobody wants to stop people setting up anonymous accounts—they may want to do so to express an identity that they cannot reveal in real life, because of prejudice or discrimination—but there is a difference between that and stealing somebody else’s identity in order to exploit another person.
However, it is very challenging for technology to set up enough barriers to stop the determined catfish. I welcome the work that is already being done by social media websites with internet charities such as the UK Safer Internet Centre and Get Safe Online in promoting awareness of potential risks online and measures that can be taken to prevent individuals from being exploited by catfish. However, more can be done by the social media giants to be proactive in safeguarding people from harm—for example, regularly flashing warning notices about catfish.
The Government’s new digital charter and the Green Paper on internet safety provide an opportunity to arrive at agreements with companies about how to make websites safer. I am pleased that the Government have proposed to work with technology companies and charities to develop the digital charter, which will
“seek to balance freedoms with appropriate protections to improve safety on line, particularly for children”.
It is important that we have initiatives by Government and by the companies that will work, that are acceptable to users and that develop partnerships with the police and other agencies on the sharing of information.
There is a gap technologically at the moment, but there is also a gap legally. Action Fraud, the UK’s national fraud and cyber-crime reporting centre, estimates that two thirds of all romantic fraud cases begin on online dating websites. In the UK in 2016, there was a record number of romantic fraud cases being reported, with a record £39 million thought to have been given by victims to those they believed to be romantic partners online. These were all cases that involved prosecution for committing financial fraud online, but in the three catfishing cases that I have outlined, it is the emotional trauma caused by someone creating a fake online account that has been particularly damaging.
As I have indicated, there is no specific criminal offence of creating a false profile online. However, such conduct might—depending on the circumstances—fall within one of about six more general criminal offences. The most pertinent to catch catfish include malicious communications. Under section 1 of the Malicious Communications Act 1988, it is an offence for a person to send to another person an electronic communication that conveys
“information which is false and known or believed to be false by the sender”.
Sending false information via electronic communications on social media could fall within this offence, but only if the sender can be shown to have had the purpose of causing distress or anxiety. That would be difficult to prove, and the Crown Prosecution Service would be reluctant to prosecute.
Under section 127 of the Communications Act 2003, it is an offence for a person,
“for the purpose of causing annoyance, inconvenience or needless anxiety to another”,
“send…by means of a public electronic communications network, a message that he knows to be false”.
A person who sends a social media message that they know to be false—that is, by pretending to be someone else—could fall within this offence, but only if the sender had the purpose of causing annoyance, inconvenience or needless anxiety to another, which again is difficult to prove.
In 2016, the CPS updated specific prosecution guidelines for cases involving social media communications. The guidelines say that prosecutors should begin by conducting an initial assessment of the content of the communication and the conduct in question, and classifying them in one of four categories. The fourth category refers to communications
“which may be considered grossly offensive, indecent, obscene or false”.
However, the guidelines say that cases that fall within category 4 will be subject to a high evidential threshold and in many cases a prosecution is unlikely to be in the public interest.
We need some clarity in the law, and that could be achieved if stealing another person’s identity, as happened in the case of my constituent, was made an offence. Of course, the argument for adding intent would be that an absolute offence would catch people who were just playing a prank on a friend and were not intending to cause harm, unlike the catfish. However, it is for the police and the CPS to decide on prosecution, and if the accompanying prosecution guidance made clear the scope of the offence, that concern would be overcome.
Creating a new offence of catfishing would have the very desirable effect of making people less likely to steal somebody’s identity online, and it would certainly enable the prosecution of persistent catfish, who cause others such distress, including my constituent and his family over so many years. As yet, we do not even know how many victims that man preyed on or the extent of their emotional distress.
The law has a purpose in reflecting what people know to be wrong and enforcing that through penalties against the person who breaks the law. Catfishing is wrong. As I said earlier, there are huge positives about the internet and the digital revolution, such as instant access to information, the ability to keep in touch with friends and family across the world, and the ability to share interests with people thousands of miles away. There are currently 37 million users of Facebook in the UK, which is 65% of the population over the age of 10. That is a massive number and it is growing. The challenge is to harness the positives of the internet and balance them with the need to protect and safeguard people from predators. That is not an easy task. People need to be informed and be responsible, but we as a Parliament have a role, as have social media platforms. The digital charter and the Green Paper provide an opportunity both for the development of a real partnership between legislators and technology companies, in order to protect users from aggressive and harmful predators, and for subsequent legislation to outlaw the menace of catfishing.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey) on securing the debate. I know that this is an important issue for her and for her constituent, Mr Peacock. I am glad that she has brought it to the attention of the House, and I welcome the opportunity both to raise awareness of the problem and, as she has done, to set out clearly the legal position and what might be done about it.
The UK is a world leader in the fight against online abuse, exploitation and harmful content. We take the approach of working in partnership with the technology industry, using legislation where necessary, and we also work with groups across society to ensure that behaviour that would not be tolerated offline cannot thrive online. That is the principle that underpins the internet safety strategy, which is part of the wider digital charter that the hon. Lady mentioned. I listened to her contribution, and I will endeavour to address all the points that she raised in my response.
I will start by saying that I agree with her about the vital need to balance freedom and responsibility online, so that we can enjoy all the benefits of the internet but try to mitigate the harms and harmful practices that the internet has allowed to come about.
Like the Minister, I first pay tribute to the hon. Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey) for an absolutely superb exposition not only of her constituent’s case but of the wider situation.
Members listening to and participating in this debate would like the Minister to address a couple of points. First, there is no excuse whatsoever for people taking someone else’s identity online. Such behaviour is reprehensible and creates two potential victims. The hon. Member for Stockport outlined how the law has proved to be absolutely deficient so far in this area. I am not one for jumping to legal remedy, but the lack of legal redress for her constituent is obvious, and the Government need to look at that situation carefully and sympathetically.
That is an important point, and I will come on to it later.
The internet brings benefits, but also the new challenges that we are considering. The central point is that fraud, whether it is committed online or offline, can cause serious damage, and fraud includes identity theft. Victims can suffer both financial and emotional harm, and we know that fraudsters not only make money but exploit social relationships. Both those things need to be taken seriously.
The Fraud Act 2006 already includes offences that would apply to anyone who assumes a false or non-existent identity to commit fraud. In particular, section 2 sets out the crime of fraud by false representation, which would cover a person pretending to be someone else for the purposes of making a gain for himself or another. That obviously applies in the online world, too. The use of a false identity for fraudulent purposes is a crime, but identify theft in and of itself is not a criminal offence, which speaks to the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Woking (Mr Lord) raised about taking someone else’s identity. That is the situation as we find it.
Perhaps I should go through some of the things the Government are considering to try to address the problem. First, there is the question of raising awareness of identity fraud. Identity fraud and wider cyber-crime are important issues. We need to ensure that people understand the safer behaviours they can use online. The hon. Member for Stockport mentioned the UK Safer Internet Centre and Get Safe Online, which provide advice on relationship scams and online dating issues. Get Safe Online is an independent organisation funded by industry and Government to ensure that there is a place to go for high-quality advice. Often even basic research, such as checking social media sites or using search facilities, can help in checking whether a person is actually who they say they are.
We expect websites, including social media companies, to respond quickly to reports of harmful content and abusive behaviour on their networks. That includes having easy-to-use reporting tools and robust processes in place to respond promptly when abuse is reported, including the suspension or termination of the accounts of those who do not comply with acceptable use policies. As the hon. Lady said, social media companies are taking some action using people and artificial intelligence, but it is clearly not solving the whole problem.
We have taken action to tackle online harms through legislation where necessary, including in relation to cyber-stalking, harassment and perpetrators using grossly offensive, obscene or menacing behaviour. We have introduced a new law making the fast-growing incidence of revenge porn a specific criminal offence, which is what the hon. Lady is seeking. The most relevant legislation is the Malicious Communications Act 1988, which contains the offence of sending material, including electronic communications, to another person that is false and known or believed to be false by the sender, with the purpose of causing distress or anxiety to the recipient or any other person to whom it is intended to be communicated. The Criminal Justice and Courts Act 2015 made changes to that offence, and to section 127 of the Communications Act 2003. The changes were aimed at ensuring that people who commit those offences are prosecuted and properly punished. Where there is emotional abuse, it might be captured under the domestic abuse offence of controlling or coercive behaviour. That is the legal position.
The Crown Prosecution Service has revised its guidelines on social media to incorporate new and emerging crimes being committed online. Advice was added to the guidelines about the use of false online profiles and websites with false and damaging information. For example, it may be a criminal offence if a profile is created under the name of the victim with fake information uploaded that, if believed, could damage their reputation and humiliate them. Whether the CPS prosecutes any offence will depend on it meeting the evidential and public interest tests in the “Code for Crown Prosecutors”.
The Digital Economy Act 2017 requires us to publish a code of practice for social media companies. We have not yet published it, but we are required to, so we are working on it. The code of practice will include guidance on arrangements for notification by users; the process for dealing with notifications; terms and conditions in relation to those arrangements and processes; and the giving of information to the public about the action providers take against harmful behaviour. We will be consulting on that shortly.
The hon. Lady said that no one is seeking to end anonymity. It is interesting that on some social media sites anonymity is not allowed or made very difficult, but that is not true across the board. For instance, we welcome Facebook’s real name policy, which requires all its users to provide their real and full name when signing up. Claiming to be another person, creating a false presence or creating multiple profiles goes against Facebook’s terms and conditions, but that is not the case for all social media sites. Policing such things is incredibly important, but there is collaboration between social media sites and dating sites to link up online presences. For example, Tinder allows users to link their accounts with other forms of social media, such as Facebook or Instagram. That can help, and we welcome such things, but it is not necessarily for Government to tell social networks how their facilities should work. The very nature of social networks is that they are designed for people to share information, but all social networks are expected to act responsibly to protect the privacy of users. Getting the balance right between freedom and safety online is a key part of the internet safety strategy and the digital charter.
I have been listening carefully to the Minister’s remarks. A minute or so ago, I think he said that if the victim—in other words, the person whose identity has been stolen—has reputational damage, that is potentially a criminal offence. I cannot think of anything worse than that damage. In this case, it was proven that this man’s identity was taken and that multiple women—perhaps many women—were contacted and asked for graphic and sexual images of themselves.
As I said, the CPS guidance in this area has been updated, because technology moves fast and the CPS has to update its guidance and interpretation of the law from time to time. My hon. Friend is exactly right in what he said and in reporting what I said, which will be in Hansard, but I said it as a conditional—such activity could be a criminal offence, because it depends on potential prosecutions. It is not for this place to determine guilt or innocence; it is for this place to determine what the law should be.
The guidance was updated fairly recently, and we need to see the impact of that, but my hon. Friend should rest assured that we put in place the internet safety strategy to look broadly at the impact of the internet and ensure that we protect the freedom, innovations and magnificent improvements that it brings to many areas of life, while doing that in a safe way that protects people from harm. Freedom exists within a framework of protecting others from harm, hence why the internet safety strategy will look into all these issues. Since I am responsible for that strategy and have heard the debate today and looked into the case in preparing for the debate, I will ensure that the issue of catfishing is considered.
There have been movements in this area, and I look forward to working with the hon. Member for Stockport and my hon. Friend the Member for Woking to ensure that the victims of catfishing, who can suffer both financial and emotional harm, have their voices properly heard. They need a strong response to ensure that the law is properly and appropriately up to date to deal with the challenges that the internet has brought in this area and in this case. We have to learn the lessons. I hope that I have provided assurance that we take harm caused online extremely seriously, and I look forward to working with the hon. Lady to find the solution.
Question put and agreed to.
British Prisoners in Iran
I beg to move,
That this House has considered British prisoners in Iran.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. Many hon. Members, and many people watching the debate across the world, will be aware in some sort of manner of my constituent Nazanin Ratcliffe. The reason I called this debate—why I think it is important to discuss the issue in the House—is that many hon. Members here and people around the world may not know the details of Nazanin’s condition and that of other such prisoners who are detained in Iran at the moment.
Nazanin Ratcliffe, her husband Richard and daughter Gabriella lived in West Hampstead until April last year. Nazanin went to work every day in a charity. On the weekends, Richard and Nazanin would take their daughter to play in a soft play area in the Sherriff Centre opposite West Hampstead tube. They would play on the swings in a park in Fortune Green, near my house. The biggest worry in their lives in the early months of last year was which school Gabriella would go to when she grew up. Their situation was not any different to many of the young families who live in my constituency of Hampstead and Kilburn.
Last year, Nazanin, a British citizen, went to Iran on holiday and took her daughter Gabriella, who was then two years old and is also a British citizen, to see Nazanin’s parents in Tehran. After two weeks, they decided to return home to London. Nazanin was detained at the airport in Tehran and the daughter was placed with the grandparents.
Nazanin is a British citizen and I understand that she also has Iranian citizenship. Obviously, the Iranians do not recognise her British citizenship. As far as they are concerned, she is Iranian, so we have a real problem in trying to influence the Iranian authorities. Have I got that wrong?
That is no excuse for evading responsibility for a young mother, a British citizen, who has been detained in Iran, and a three-year-old daughter who has been separated from her mother and father. Those excuses are used by the Government to evade responsibility.
I apologise, Mr Hollobone, as I will have to leave this debate early for another engagement. I congratulate the hon. Lady on introducing this timely and important debate. Is it not the case that Nazanin Ratcliffe’s situation is symptomatic of a regime that is systematically abusing human rights? If the Supreme Leader and the re-elected President Rouhani want to learn anything, they should look back to the history of ancient Persia and King Cyrus, who founded the first ever fundamental charter of human rights, a facsimile of which currently sits in the UN building in New York. They should look back for leadership—and also look forward and get into the international norms of human rights, not just for British or joint citizens but for Iranian citizens as well.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for securing this debate. Nazanin’s sister-in-law lives in my constituency. She sent me a letter signed by a number of my constituents. It says:
“As part of her family we have been tirelessly campaigning for the British Government to do more than just raising their concern about her treatment and the effective abandonment of her young daughter Gabriella in Iran.”
Does my hon. Friend join me in calling on the British Government to do far more?
I am going to make some progress before taking interventions. I know that a lot of hon. Members want to come in and I will take interventions. Before I do that, I want to outline the plight of my constituent Nazanin.
Gabriella’s short life has already been spent in exile. After they were unlawfully detained at the airport, what followed was a shambolic process of secretive courts, secretive trials and secretive convictions. Nazanin was placed in solitary confinement, in a room one and a half metres square, with no window and no natural light, and with no access to lawyers or to her family. Before Nazanin went to prison, she was in perfectly good health. We then found out that she had suffered from arthritis in her neck and body. There were times when her limbs stopped working and she could not move for periods of time. She suffered from weight loss and hair loss. She was often denied access to medical treatment. The one time she did have access to a specialist, he said that Nazanin needed urgent hospitalisation.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this important debate. I am particularly concerned about the continued incarceration of my constituent Roya Nobakht, who is being held in Evin prison, having been charged with gathering and participation with intent to commit crime against national security, due to a comment on Facebook. Will the hon. Lady join me in calling on all the authorities to ensure that appropriate medical attention and health assistance is always available for our constituents?
I will mention the hon. Lady’s constituent later in my speech. I agree with her about access to medical treatment, but it is not just physical treatment, as hon. Members will be aware. Mr Hollobone, I am sure you will agree that if a woman is separated from her husband, her daughter and her family, it has an impact on her mental health as well. Through the monitored conversations that Nazanin has with her family, we are aware that she has been suicidal and has gone on hunger strike.
Richard Ratcliffe, Nazanin’s husband, has immediate family in my constituency. The way Nazanin has been treated is dreadful. Will my hon. Friend also consider how Richard has been treated, since he is now separated not only from his wife but from his daughter?
Richard Ratcliffe lives about 10 minutes down the road from me. Theirs is a family I can relate to. It is like many young families in my constituency. I am pleased to say that Richard is in the Public Gallery today listening to the debate. He has been tirelessly campaigning for the release of his wife and daughter since they were detained.
I pay tribute to the hon. Lady for securing the debate. She is well aware of the circumstances in Iran of Mr Foroughi, whose son is a constituent of mine; both families have been working very closely together. She makes an eloquent point about the humanitarian treatment of the detainees, in particular the medical treatment. Does she agree that it is not just that they should get treatment but that once the assessment has been undertaken or the treatment has been given, the results should be shared with the family? I know that in Mr Foroughi’s case the trauma has been increased by the lack of knowledge of the outcome of the medical examination.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention and for coming with me to deliver a petition to the Foreign Secretary. I agree that the toll taken on the families of those who are held in Iran, who have no contact with their families other than monitored calls, is really shown when speaking to and meeting members of the families. That is, if people bother to meet with them.
Thousands of people in the world have spoken out because of the sheer level of injustice in Nazanin’s case. Led by Richard Ratcliffe, organisations such as Amnesty International, Redress and Change.org have galvanised thousands of people to campaign for the release of Nazanin. At this time, almost a million people have signed a petition saying that Nazanin should be released. Six UN rapporteurs have also said that Nazanin should be released, and the European Parliament has adopted a resolution to say that Nazanin and other EU citizens with dual nationalities should be released.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on bringing this issue to the House of Commons and asking the Government to do something about it. Last November, an article in The Sunday Times suggested that these political prisoners were being tortured and, more importantly, that Iran seeks a ransom from the British Government of £400 million. What does my hon. Friend make of that? Surely it is diabolical, to say the least.
That is very worrying. The problem is that, when the families speak to prisoners of conscience in Iran, the calls are heavily monitored and there is no freedom to express exactly what is happening. It is all shrouded in secrecy, so there is no real evidence of what is going on behind closed doors. It is no surprise that the UN working group on arbitrary detention said that the detention was unlawful, arbitrary and against international law.
My hon. Friend anticipates the conclusion of my speech, when I will ask the Government and the Minister to do more to release not just Nazanin but Mr Foroughi, Roya and all other prisoners of conscience who have been held in Iran for so long. I have tried my best to raise this matter in the House as much as possible with the two Foreign Secretaries who have been in office in the time that Nazanin has been in prison. This is the second Minister with responsibility for the middle east I have addressed about this issue. I also raised it at Prime Minister’s questions, and the Prime Minister said that she had raised the case with the Iranian President, but she did not go into whether she would call for Nazanin’s release.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this important debate. She is being very generous with her time. She is describing a scandalous systematic abuse of human rights in Iran. Does she accept that, when the nuclear deal between Iran and the P5+1 was put together, we missed an opportunity to put a human rights clause in there? In the two years since it was signed, there has been no improvement at all in Iran’s activities.
I agree that it was a missed opportunity, but there have been other big missed opportunities, including a visit by diplomats to Evin prison, which I shall talk about later.
To mark Nazanin’s 100 days of detention, Richard Ratcliffe and I went to No. 10 when David Cameron was Prime Minister and handed in a petition. With the hon. Member for Hertsmere (Oliver Dowden), we went to the Foreign Secretary’s office to deliver a petition signed by 261 MPs and peers calling for Nazanin’s release. I have tried to raise this issue as much as possible in the House, especially during the International Women’s Day debate, in which the rights of women were examined over and over by Members of the Opposition but Nazanin’s case was largely ignored. It has been raised in the House several times, and people are worried about it, but the Government, to their shame, have not echoed the calls for Nazanin’s release.
Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the elements of this case that the family cannot understand is why the Foreign Secretary and the former Foreign Secretary have not taken the time to meet Richard and the family? I know Ministers have, but surely the Foreign Secretary can give a case of this seriousness some of his personal time.
That is something the families have raised with me over and over again. Why will the Foreign Secretary not meet with the families? Let me be clear: we do not doubt the sincerity of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office staff, but the fact is that this is not working. The Foreign Secretary needs to meet the families.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. She is being very generous with her time.
It seems to me that the Foreign Office has behaved somewhat defensively in relation to this case and others. Given that there are 600,000 dual nationals in Britain, this is not going to be a single issue. Does my hon. Friend agree that the Government need urgently to develop a policy on diplomatic support for dual nationals? Currently, we seem to be responding to the Iranian Government’s appalling policies and behaviour with poor treatment.
Just before I do, I would like to ask the Minister a few questions, which I hope he will answer in his speech. First, it remains incomprehensible that our Government are yet to call for Nazanin’s release, and that they have failed to join the UN in maintaining her innocence. As I said, 261 MPs and peers signed a letter seeking the release of Nazanin, Kamal Foroughi and Roya Nobakht. Will the Government finally join them today?
The hon. Lady is making a compelling case. It is perhaps unsurprising that Iran is not receptive to the United Kingdom Government’s overtures, but may I remind her and the Minister that we have many allies in the region, and that we could be doing more to get them to assist us in making representations to Iran in that regard?
Does my hon. Friend think, therefore, that it might be useful for the Foreign Office to talk to Ministers in the Department for International Trade, who seem to be intent on developing a relationship with Iran? If they can speak about trade, perhaps we can talk about human rights.
Absolutely. My hon. Friend makes a good point, as usual. That is something I will be asking the Minister to address in his conclusion.
Secondly, given the seriousness with which the Government say they are treating Nazanin’s case, is it acceptable that the Foreign Secretary is yet to meet with her family? They are told that he raises concerns with Foreign Minister Zarif, but a meeting would reassure them of progress. Will the Minister help me to get a meeting between the families of those prisoners of conscience and the Foreign Secretary?
Thirdly, last year, Amnesty International produced a report on Iran’s prisons, which highlighted 17 cases in which
“The Iranian authorities are callously toying with the lives of political prisoners by denying them adequate medical care—putting them at risk of irreversible damage to their health or even death”.
Will the Minister therefore clarify the role of the 45 diplomats who recently went on a visit to Evin prison—the very prison in which Nazanin is being held—and were given a tour to show them how well prisoners are treated? That consular team, which is denied access to Nazanin and Kamal Foroughi because they are dual nationals, was sitting literally outside the cell in which Nazanin is being held, exchanging pleasantries, drinking refreshments and taking photos, and yet they did not help her. Did they ask to see her? If not, why not? Does the Minister agree that it is outrageous for our Government to take part in a public relations stunt, in which diplomats go to Evin prison and take pictures at the very location where human rights abuses are taking place? I would like the Minister to respond to that question. Will he ask for a full report from the embassy in Tehran, which was reinstated recently?
I would like to ask the Minister some broader policy questions, which my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown) raised, about the implications for those with dual nationalities. Nazanin has been denied justice at every turn during her 14-month ordeal, but she is not the only British dual national to be detained in Iran—Kamal Foroughi and Roya have already been mentioned. The treatment of British prisoners in Iran speaks to the need for a review of the Government’s broader policy towards dual nationals who are detained abroad. If we accept the status quo, we are accepting that the way Nazanin and Kamal are being treated is okay. That is not acceptable for many Members of this House.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this debate and on her eloquent speech. She is keen for the Government to act after a period of delay. Would it help her to know that many constituents have written to me and to my Scottish National party colleagues, so many British citizens in Scotland are keen for the Government to act? A couple of weeks ago, I wrote to the Secretary of State about that on behalf of the SNP, and I am waiting to hear back from him. Would it help the hon. Lady to know that constituents of hon. Members throughout the United Kingdom are anxious for those people with dual British citizenship to be assisted by our Government?
I thank the hon. and learned Lady for her intervention. A full Public Gallery and the number of emails received by hon. Members show how strongly people feel about the sheer injustice of this case. Facebook groups of which I am a member, Hampstead Mums and Mums of West Hampstead, normally never get in touch with their MP, but they have been in touch about this case, because it resonates with people and it is so unfair—the Government need to do more.
I know the commitment that the hon. Lady has to raising awareness of this case. As chair of the all-party group for women in Parliament, I have seen her raising the issue in the Chamber. Constituents have also written to me, as have others from across the country, in support of this debate and to express concern about the heartbreaking and awful situation of a very small child and her family. May I take this opportunity to support the hon. Lady, and to ask the Minister, who I know is extremely caring, to ensure that our Government do everything in their power to make changes in this and the other cases we have heard about this afternoon?
I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention and her support. I thank all Members from across the House who have pledged their support. This is not a party political issue; this is about constructive working to ensure that we achieve the release of prisoners of conscience who are our citizens.
I have a few more questions for the Minister to answer in his summing up. Will the Government state that there should be no exception to taking clearly documented action on behalf of all UK nationals who face breaches of their human rights? According to a 2011 report by the Office for National Statistics—my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham mentioned this figure—more than 600,000 people living in Britain hold another passport. They are of course not at risk of being detained, but we need to address deficiencies in our law to ensure equal protection for dual nationals.
Will the Government commit to making complaints about all breaches of the Vienna convention on consular relations, and consider bringing cases before the International Court of Justice if such breaches continue? Furthermore, will the Government bring the strongest possible pressure to bear on Iran to cease its pattern of arbitrary detention of dual nationals? Will the Government support and work towards the implementation of any findings of the United Nations monitoring bodies concerning UK nationals?
Finally, will the Government accept that there is a fundamental accountability gap between what the Foreign Office says it is doing and what the families can know is happening to their relatives? Families cannot be left in the dark about the framework of work that exists when their relatives are treated in such a way. A Foreign Office approach of discretion encourages inertia, but also defines the kind of foreign policy that the Government are mandated to deliver.
The Conservative manifesto states that the party believes in the values of
“freedom, democracy, tolerance and the rule of law”
around the world. When I asked about this case at Prime Minister’s questions, she said that she was concerned about the effect that detention was having on Nazanin. Pat Frankland, who is apparently a good friend of the Prime Minister, said that her politics and morals are based on Christian values, of being decent, “not doing people down” and looking after people, so I ask the Prime Minister, and the Minister, to do the decent thing. I am asking them to do more—to do more to restore this family who have been ripped apart by a senseless miscarriage of justice; to do more to bring this toddler back together with her family, her mother and father, before even more of her childhood is blighted; and to do more to bring Nazanin, Kamal and Roya home to the UK where they belong.
Order. The debate finishes at 5.30 pm. Four Members have written to me requesting to speak. I have to call the Front Benchers no later than seven minutes past 5, and there will be five minutes for the Scottish National party spokesman, five minutes for the Opposition spokesman and 10 minutes for the Minister. Tulip Siddiq will then have three minutes to sum up at the end. I will therefore have to impose a three-minute time limit on our four speakers, the first of whom will be John Howell.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq) on her excellent speech and on securing this brilliant debate. She did not comment on another British value—a belief in human rights. I have a fundamental belief in human rights, but Iran is not a place where human rights are prevalent.
Human rights were not discussed at all during the P5+1 nuclear negotiations with Iran, in spite of Iran having one of the worst human rights records on this planet. In per capita terms, Iran leads the world in executions, and overall is second only to China. In Iran, moreover, it is mandatory for all women to veil their hair, homosexuality is illegal—I could go on and on.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way, and to the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq) for securing this crucial debate. My hon. Friend is making some important points, and I want to add one. An important human right is that of legal representation to ensure access to justice. One of the most horrifying aspects of both Nazanin and Kamal’s cases is the absence of that legal advice. Will he comment on that?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to stress that point.
At least three British citizens are detained in Iran. I have heard that a fourth person, whose name I do not know, has also been detained. We will have to see who that person is. Those four people stand in great contrast to the four Americans who were released from Iranian prisons in 2016 as part of a prisoner swap that came about following the Iran nuclear agreement. Nothing similar has occurred with regard to those Britons who have been detained in Iran over the same period.
In the few seconds I have left, I make the point that the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn fully identified the reasons why we need those people released. It is fine to hear warm words from the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister, but we need to see action on those words. We need a real release of prisoners from Iran as quickly as possible.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq) on putting a very good case forward. When I consider international issues, there is a phrase that resounds in my heart: evil triumphs when good people do nothing. We cannot fix the world’s problems, but I believe that we have a role to play in this case and that we can bring about change.
Nazanin Ratcliffe has been jailed for five years under secret charges and is being held in solitary confinement. In September 2016, the Foreign Secretary said that the “upgrade in diplomatic relations” between the UK and Iran would provide an opportunity to raise consular cases
“about which I am deeply concerned”.
Will the Minister further outline how he believes that our recently restored diplomatic ties have enabled us to influence such matters?
May I also put a marker down for Kamal Foroughi, who has been arrested and kept in solitary confinement in Iran for six years after being convicted of spurious charges? Iran has been desperately hard on him and in detaining British citizens and denying them their basic rights.
Iran executed some 977 people in 2015 and an estimated one per day in 2016. The regime continues to execute juvenile offenders, in violation of international law. If there are human rights abuses, this is a country that does them with a vengeance. It executed 73 juvenile offenders between 2005 and 2015, and girls are held criminally accountable from the age of nine. The Government deem them to have reached puberty at that age, compared with 15 for boys. I ask this question again: where are the human rights in Iran, given what it does to young children from the age of nine? The nuclear deal failed to address a number of critical issues. I respect the Minister greatly, as he knows, but I ask him that question again given Iran’s human rights abuses and the fact that it gave Hezbollah, which controls Lebanon, rocket factories. These are deep issues that we are all concerned about. The human rights abuse in Iran is despicable, and young people of all ages are held in little regard. I look forward to the Minister’s response.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq) on securing this important debate. It seems that this matter hinges on dual nationality, which is the barrier to the British Government being able to provide the services that we would expect them to provide to any British citizen. That is not good enough. We need to find ways forward.
I respect the Minister and his predecessor, who have always honestly set out that they are doing what they can diplomatically. The alternative, which I am sure no one would advocate, is to send in gunboats. The reality of the situation is that we either use force or work through the appropriate channels, as the Minister’s predecessor did and I know he will too. I simply ask him, exactly as the hon. Lady did, to do more. I ask him to redouble our efforts to ensure that the Iranian Government are under no illusion about where we stand, and to continue to provide as much consular assistance as possible under the diplomatic arrangements that we have.
I turn to a slightly different point, which was made earlier. The Governments of the P5+1 made an agreement to lift sanctions, and the majority of international sanctions were lifted, with near-immediate effect, in January 2016. Given that, we have lost the leverage that we need, so I urge the Government to work with our allies—not just those in the region but President Trump in the United States, who criticised that deal for removing leverage.
Thank you, Mr Hollobone, for calling me to make my first speech in Westminster Hall. I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq) for securing the debate and introducing it in such a comprehensive manner.
I have received more than 100 emails from constituents about this matter, which shows that the cases of Nazanin and Kamal have touched the hearts of the nation. It is all too common for people to claim that a situation is Kafkaesque, but to me, as an avid reader of Kafka, the similarities between those cases and the case of Josef K. in “The Trial” are all too apparent. Kafka himself described the seeming basis of the Iranian judicial system when he wrote in “The Trial” that
“it’s characteristic of this judicial system that a man is condemned not only when he’s innocent but also in ignorance.”
Both Nazanin and Kamal were charged and convicted without adequate representation or due process—indeed, they were condemned in ignorance.
Like other hon. Members—particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Kilburn—I call upon the Foreign Secretary, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Minister to press the Iranian Government on a number of issues that my constituents, Amnesty International and I have raised. They should press them to allow Kamal and Nazanin any specialist medical care they may require; give Kamal access to his medical records; apply without discrimination article 58 of the Islamic penal code, which allows for someone to be conditionally released after serving a third of their prison sentence and would ensure the immediate release of Nazanin and Kamal; ensure that Kamal and Nazanin have regular access to a lawyer of their choice; allow them to be in contact with their families, including relatives abroad; and allow them to communicate with British consular officials—although that seems to be a contentious issue. I ask the Minister to respond to those points.
The United Kingdom has a well-deserved international reputation for its justice system. I hope that the Government will press for the most basic justice in Iran for our citizens, whether they are British citizens or dual citizens, and particularly for Kamal and Nazanin. It is clear from the contributions to this debate that that is completely and utterly lacking.
Thank you for finding time to accommodate me, Mr Hollobone. I apologise for my lack of proper notice.
I want to talk briefly about the case of Mr Foroughi, whose son is a constituent of mine. I have been involved extensively with the campaign that we have run jointly with the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq) to secure the release of Mr Foroughi and others.
There are many similarities between the cases that have been mentioned, but Mr Foroughi is a 78-year-old man. He really is an old man, and he is an ill man. He has been detained for more than 2,000 days. He is the longest-serving European national in a prison in Iran. There are many questions about his detention, but in the short term, there are genuine humanitarian issues for the Iranian Government, principally about his health and the need for them to share his medical files, which would at least provide some comfort.
I know that the British Government have raised this issue at every level. I used to work for Prime Minister David Cameron, and I know that he raised it directly with his opposite number, as have the current Prime Minister and Ministers at other levels. However, I would be grateful if the Minister addressed three matters that have been brought out during the debate.
First, there are genuine questions about the EU delegation. It seems extraordinary that it could have been just outside where these people were detained, and that has caused a lot of anguish. Secondly and thirdly, on trade and the nuclear deal, I seek guidance, reassurance and information from the Minister about what we are doing to try to leverage opportunities. I was always sceptical about that deal, but I hoped that it would provide an opportunity to improve Iran’s humanitarian record. That does not seem to be happening, so any further guidance that he can give would be gratefully received.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone, and to be back in Westminster Hall. I am grateful to the voters of Glasgow North for giving me this opportunity. I congratulate the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq) on securing this important debate so early in the Parliament.
The cases we have heard about today, particularly those of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Kamal Foroughi, are of huge concern to constituents and campaigners across the country. Like almost everyone in the room, I have received at least dozens of emails from constituents, individual campaigners and organisations calling for the prisoners to be set free. I pay tribute to those campaigners, and particularly to the families of Nazanin and Kamal, who have to live daily with the reality of their loved ones being imprisoned yet refuse to give up the fight.
I also want to recognise other UK citizens detained overseas whose cases have been discussed before in Westminster Hall. They include Andy Tsege in Ethiopia and other prisoners of conscience around the world, such as Raif Badawi in Saudi Arabia, whose wife I had the privilege of meeting during the recent general election campaign. In all these situations, we see a particular injustice and a personal cause that ought to be rectified, but we also see wider questions about the UK’s diplomacy, its foreign policy and, ultimately, its role in the world.
We have heard about the situation of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who has been detained for more than a year. Her final appeal against her five-year sentence, which was originally handed down in a secret trial on unspecified charges, was rejected in April by the supreme court. We have heard about how she was lifted without warning in Tehran airport, and how her physical and mental health continues to deteriorate during her incarceration. Her employer, Monique Villa, chief executive officer of the Thomson Reuters Foundation, recently told The Guardian:
“She is not a spy, but an innocent mother who travelled to Iran only to show her baby to her parents”.
As my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry) said, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe has thousands of supporters across this country. In previous debates, I have mentioned seeing and hearing the demonstrations that have taken place outside Parliament in solidarity with Nazanin, and both her case and Kamal’s have been raised with me by my local Amnesty group, yet the UK Government’s response is still lacking. I will ask specific questions, but I note the comments of Nazanin’s husband, Richard, who told The Guardian:
“As her husband, I can say Nazanin is innocent until I am blue in the face. I have spent a year doing it…But it makes a clear difference that the government”—
that is the UK Government—
“hasn’t. It indulges the whispers.”
I turn to the case of Kamal Foroughi—“Grandpa Kamal”, as he is known. I had the privilege of meeting Kamran, who is a constituent of the hon. Member for Hertsmere (Oliver Dowden) and is here today. Kamal Foroughi was first detained in 2011 and was convicted at an unfair trial on charges that he did not know about until the day of his trial. His situation has been described by the UN working group on arbitrary detention, which has called for his immediate release, as a “violation of international law”. Once again, there are serious concerns about his health and wellbeing, and his access to communication with his family and the outside world has been severely limited. As I said, I had the privilege before the election of meeting Kamran Foroughi, and that brought home to me the human dimension in all this—the personal struggle, the lives affected and the simple wish of the family to have their grandpa brought home.
I echo all the questions that have been asked of the Minister already. As I said, as is so often the case with prisoners of conscience, there are both personal situations and broader policy issues. What engagement have the Government had with the families of the prisoners? What channels of communication remain open to them? Do the Government accept and understand the huge public concern about the cases, and that it is clear from the cross-party show of support from Members that they would have huge support if they stepped up their efforts to secure the release of Nazanin and Kamal?
The Prime Minister recently called on us all to work together, come to consensus and find things we can agree on. Here, surely, is an example of that. We hear repeatedly from Ministers that they raise issues with the Iranian regime—what does “raise” mean? Do they explicitly call for the release of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Kamal Foroughi? Will the Minister do so here today?
Do the Government pass on the concerns raised in these debates? Do they suggest to the Iranian regime that if they want to continue to build global good will and make progress on the journey they began with the nuclear deal, recognising international concern about their prisoners of conscience would be a big step in that direction? What does that tell us about the UK’s wider foreign policy goals? If the Government want to promote a global Britain and show that Britain is still relevant on the world stage, surely securing the release of a young mother and an older grandfather who are its own citizens would be a pretty good place to start.
I echo the comments made by the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) about the role of our influence with regional allies and by the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy) about trade deals. We need more than warm words from the Minister. I hope that when he responds to the debate we will hear about some concrete action that will ultimately help to free Nazanin and Kamal and reunite them with their families.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq), who has secured this timely debate and has never given up on behalf of her constituents—especially Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who is serving that terrible and immoral sentence in the dreadful Evin jail in Tehran. She gave us a comprehensive account of how her constituent happened to be convicted and of her appalling treatment by the Iranian authorities. She was passionate, as always, and she has fought hard for her constituent, who has been denied justice for the past 14 months in detention in Iran.
We have also heard contributions from the hon. Members for Henley (John Howell), for Strangford (Jim Shannon)—he was passionate as always—and for North East Hampshire (Mr Jayawardena), and from my new colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds North West (Alex Sobel), who pointed out that he had received 100 emails from constituents and that the situation really was Kafkaesque. He is absolutely right. I hope the Foreign and Commonwealth Office takes his advice and presses the Iranian Government at least to allow the medical care and attention needed.
We know that Iran does not recognise dual nationality—we have heard that many times this afternoon. It will not allow our diplomats to see dual nationals who are imprisoned in Iran. The Iranian Government view dual nationals with intense suspicion. That is an historical situation, and the United Kingdom is viewed with even more contempt owing to its historical interference in the country. The BBC’s Persian service is loathed by Iranian officials. As we know, dual nationals are barred from holding Government positions. The imprisonment of dual nationals has been seen by many as a way of extracting political and financial gains from the countries that dual nationals share their citizenship with.
The Financial Times says:
“These arrests are part of the tense power struggle between those who would like to get closer to the US and those who are scared of any impacts of that on Iran’s domestic politics…The goal seems to be spreading fears to undermine the government of Rouhani in western states’ eyes and foreign businesses.”
We know that the Government restored full diplomatic relations with Iran in September 2016, but Kamal Foroughi’s son, Kamran, has criticised the United Kingdom for doing so without pushing harder for his father’s release as part of the diplomatic normalisation process. I wonder whether the Minister will comment on that.
In April 2017, Amnesty International criticised the Foreign Secretary for his lack of action over Nazanin. Kathy Voss of Amnesty International was quoted in The Daily Telegraph as saying:
“It’s baffling that the Foreign Secretary still hasn’t had a single meeting with Nazanin’s family who are of course sick with worry about her.”
Nazanin was arrested, as we have heard, by the revolutionary guards at the airport on 3 April 2016, just before she was about to return to the United Kingdom after a family visit. They accused her of fomenting a soft overthrow of the Islamic Republic—a notably common and broad definition of crime—but her husband, Richard Ratcliffe, claims that his wife is being held to be used as a pawn by the Iranian authorities in exchange for unspecified political and financial deals in the UK. He has mentioned in the past that he has been approached by unspecified Iranian officials with offers for Nazanin’s release. That is shocking, and I wonder if the Minister could comment on it.
The United Kingdom Government, as we have heard, have not publicly called for Nazanin’s release. However, they have stated that they have raised their concerns with the Iranian Government. The shadow Foreign Secretary said on 9 September 2016:
“It is no longer good enough for Downing Street and the Foreign Office to ‘raise concerns’ about this case. It is time for them to demand answers.”
Let me conclude with the words of Richard Ratcliffe, Nazanin’s husband, quoted on 2 July:
“I don’t think the [UK] government has been protecting us; they have provided consular assistance and they have expressed concerns…but in terms of criticising her treatment and saying it’s abuse, they’ve never said that this does not meet the minimum legal standards, that it’s not a fair trial. That this is a nonsense. She’s obviously not important enough yet.”
I want to remind Members here that Roya Nobakht and Bahman Daroshafaei are also British dual nationals in jail in Tehran.
As always, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. May I begin by congratulating the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq) on securing this debate? I thank all Members who have spoken—principally my hon. Friends the Members for Henley (John Howell), for North East Hampshire (Mr Jayawardena) and for Hertsmere (Oliver Dowden) and the hon. Member for Leeds North West (Alex Sobel). I also thank the Front-Bench spokespeople, particularly the hon. Member for Leeds North East (Fabian Hamilton), for an appreciation of some of the politics behind this.
I certainly recognise the intense interest in this issue, not only across the parties in this House but among the public in the United Kingdom and beyond. Of course I recognise the deep concern felt about all the cases mentioned today and the huge frustration at the lack of progress. I will try to offer as much clarity as I can and set out what the Government are doing to assist the detainees and their families. I will also explain the limitations on what we can do.
Like everyone else, I wish to see all those mentioned today returned to their families and to the UK. My responsibility and our responsibility is to work in the most effective way we can, in all the circumstances, to achieve that, and to explain what we do and why. I know everyone here would welcome me doing more. I am not sure how much people would welcome me doing something that made life more difficult. That is the dilemma in which we find ourselves.
Let me say what I am trying to do. This issue has been a priority for me since my appointment last month. I spoke to the deputy Foreign Minister of Iran about our prisoners on 21 June and raised the subject again when I met the Iranian ambassador on 6 July. Two days before that, I met relatives of Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe, and earlier this afternoon I met the family of Mr Foroughi. At both those meetings I assured the families that I would do everything I could for their loved ones. The families also have round-the-clock access to support and assistance from our dedicated Foreign Office officials. I know how much the officials put into this, and I think the families involved know that as well. There is no intention to keep anyone in the dark about anything. There is a limit to how much information we have, but everything that we can communicate is communicated directly to the families. They have 24-hour access to consular officials, and they and all colleagues here have constant access to me.
No, because I want to leave time for the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn to speak at the end. I cannot possibly answer all the questions raised. All colleagues who have a question on the table will get an answer by letter, but I want to address as much as possible of what the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn said.
I want to assure all colleagues that we are doing everything we can for our detainees. Our strategy is based on decades of experience—both our own experience and that of international partners—of dealing with Iran. We judge that approach to be in the best interests of those detained, but we keep it under constant review. If our assessment of the right way to handle this is to change, we would consider any alternative courses of action, but for now we judge the approach we are taking to be the most constructive one.
Our ambassador raises the issue of our detainees with the Iranian authorities at every opportunity; he seeks to secure consular access and to ensure their welfare. The Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary have raised all our consular cases with their counterparts and have stressed the importance of resolving them as quickly as possible. My predecessor, the right hon. Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), discussed the issue with the Iranians on numerous occasions, both in London and Tehran. However, we must recognise that there are limitations on what we can do.
I turn now to some of the questions raised by the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn, starting with dual nationality. Nationality is a key factor. All the British nationals currently detained in Iran also hold Iranian nationality. Questions of nationality are for individual states to decide. Unlike the UK, Iran does not legally recognise dual nationality. It considers our detainees to be Iranian, which has implications for consular assistance, which are set out in the passports of those with dual nationality. Under international law, states are not obliged to grant consular access to dual nationals, which is why our passports state that the British Government are unable to assist dual nationals in the country of their other nationality.
Our travel advice for Iran reiterates that statement and highlights the additional potential risks for British-Iranian dual nationals travelling there. None the less, we try to help dual nationals in exceptional circumstances. In practice, that is often difficult, as we are finding in Iran. We have repeatedly asked the Iranian authorities to grant us consular access to our dual-national detainees. However, as Iran considers them to be Iranian, it does not recognise our right of access. We know that other countries face similar difficulties, but we will continue to press for consular access.
Let me turn to some other issues. On publicly calling for the release of the detainees, we are doing everything we can for them, including trying to secure access to them and to ensure their welfare. However, we do that in the way that we judge is in their best interests, and we assess that the approach we are currently taking is the most likely to be in the best interests of all our prisoners in Iran.
As has been stated, there are new opportunities with Iran’s opening up. Following the destruction of our own embassy there some years ago, a new embassy has opened and new relationships are opening up. It is a complex country with a complex power structure, as the hon. Member for Leeds North East made clear, but I am hoping to take the opportunity—and I am sure the Government are hoping to take it—to explore what this new chance of a relationship with Iran means, both for us and for them. That will take some time, but it provides the opportunity for contacts to be made in a different way from before. That will supplement the efforts already being made on a regular basis to raise the issue by our consular team and by Ministers at the highest level.
Raising the issue can mean a variety of different things, from just mentioning it at a particular time to, following the development of a relationship, an opportunity to go into the issue further. Some of the issues that we consider here are blindingly obvious, such as how a country is seen by others around the world. We understand that very well. Different aspects of the Iranian Government understand some of that, but not others. We want to make sure that they see an issue like this as we see it, so that they can take the steps that we need to see our nationals returned.
Human rights in Iran generally are another key part of the debate, but what do we do about them? The Government take human rights and the rule of law seriously, and the human rights situation in Iran remains dire. I am putting that on the record, so that we in this Chamber, and the Iranian Government and the Iranian ambassador, who will read the account of the debate, will see it and know exactly what we mean. The human rights situation in Iran remains dire, and we are determined to continue to hold the Iranian Government to account. We frequently release statements condemning the human rights situation in Iran and regularly take action with the international community.
For example, we designated more than 80 Iranians responsible for human rights violations under EU sanctions, helped to establish the UN special rapporteur on human rights in Iran and strongly support the human rights resolutions regarding Iran at the UN. We believe that continued engagement with Iran on economic development and openness are the best ways to develop our relationship and will give us better leverage to discuss other issues. We do not pursue trade to the exclusion of human rights and the rule of law; they can be, and are, complementary.
We considered very carefully the invitation to visit Evin prison earlier this month. The decision to participate in the tour was taken because we felt it would provide an opportunity to engage directly with prison authorities regarding the dual-national detainees. We felt that taking this opportunity should be taken, in the best interests of all our detainees and their families. Our consul repeatedly asked to see the British-Iranian detainees but was denied access. The risk of not accepting the invitation was the Iranian authorities saying, “We gave you an opportunity to see the conditions. You didn’t take it. What do you expect?” There are occasions when we are trapped if we do and trapped if we don’t.
Everyone in the FCO who deals with this—the consular team, which has been in constant contact with the families—knows how hard people are being pressed, but the truth is that this is not a matter in the hands of the UK Government to resolve. If it is to be resolved, it has to be resolved by the Iranian regime, and we have to play a part in making sure that we have done everything we can to facilitate that and make it work. There are different approaches to that. There is a public approach, which people can see; it is right that this issue is brought up here and in the most direct way by the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn and all hon. Members who represent those who have been detained, and it is right that this is carried worldwide. However, different groups have different responsibilities, and my responsibility is to do what the Foreign Secretary and I consider to be most effective to secure the return of the detainees to their families. As we can see, that means our having a different approach from that which people might like to see.
All I can say is that, so long as I have the conviction that everything we are doing is as appropriate as it can be and is best designed to get the result we all seek, I will continue to do it. If the Government need to change course, we will, but I will not put an artificial barrier in the way of our progress by doing something that I might subsequently regret. I assure colleagues that we are doing everything we can to seek the result that we all want, but we are doing it in the way that we consider—with our experience of Iran and the experience of those who have worked with Iran for a long time—to be the best way possible. That does not in any way deny the efforts of others to do things in their way and to make sure that the Iranian authorities know how we feel, how the public feel and how the world feels.
We must do the work that we can to ensure the best interests of those who have been detained. That is why we are doing what we are doing, and I pledge to colleagues that I will continue to do what I consider to be in the best interests of those detainees, but I will constantly listen to those with other ideas and to the families, so that we do as much for them as we possibly can.
I thank the Minister for his constructive response; I must say, he is much more constructive than his predecessor. I welcome his saying that he will look after the interests of the prisoners who have been mentioned in the debate. However, there are a few questions I would still like to hear him answer; perhaps he can write to me. I understand that he did not have time to respond to all of the questions I posed.
We would like a full report on the visit of the 45 diplomats who went to the prison. What kind of resistance was faced when they actually asked to see Nazanin—I am glad they asked to see her—and what response did we give to that? It seems alarming that they would allow the consul on a tour of a prison but now allow them to see the dual-nationality prisoners. The shadow Foreign Secretary and I sent a letter to the Foreign Secretary requesting that he meet the families of the prisoners and he did not respond. Can the Minister convince him to meet them? I would like to be present at that meeting.
Will the Minister write to let me know whether our Government will publicly say that Nazanin is innocent and that we demand her release—and the release of Kamal Foroughi and Roya Nobakht? We would like to know whether the Government believe in their innocence and that they should be released and returned. I understand that there are diplomatic ways in which to apply pressure, but to say that they are innocent and to ask for their release would send a strong signal to the Iranian authorities.
I only have a minute left, so let me take this opportunity to thank all Members who have contributed, particularly the hon. Member for Hertsmere (Oliver Dowden), because he has worked very constructively with me. We all have the same interests at heart: we want to bring our prisoners back to this country, to protect them and to reunite them with their families.
I will put forward a ten-minute rule Bill that will look at how we can offer better protection to dual nationals, because it is not good enough to keep talking about existing laws. Times have changed and more people with dual nationality live in this country than ever, and there has to be some means of protecting and looking after them when they go on holiday. They are British citizens, they are proud to be British and are part of the country we live in, so I would appreciate cross-party support for that Bill to see if we can change some of the legislation.
Motion lapsed, and sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(14)).