Wednesday 11 October 2017
[Ms Karen Buck in the Chair]
Iran: Human Rights
I beg to move,
That this House has considered human rights in Iran.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Buck. Many observers hoped that the election of President Rouhani in Iran would lead to an improvement in the subject matter of our debate: respect for human rights in Iran. Unfortunately, there is no convincing evidence for that; in a number of respects, the situation appears to have worsened in recent years. In July, the Minister described the human rights situation in Iran as “dire”. In my view, he was correct to do so.
Earlier this year, Amnesty International highlighted a wave of floggings, amputations, blindings and other vicious physical punishments, which it described as exposing the Iranian authorities’
“utterly brutal sense of justice”.
Hundreds are routinely flogged in Iran each year, sometimes in public. The country executes more people than anywhere else in the world except China. In 2015, 977 people were executed: the highest level in a quarter of a century. In January alone this year, Iran executed 87 people—that is, on average, one every nine hours.
Amnesty International reported in 2007 that Iran had executed more children between 1990 and 2005 than any other country in the world. Sadly, as recently as last Monday, 21-year-old Alireza Tajiki was executed. He was 15 when he was arrested and 16 when he was sentenced to death. He is believed to be the fourth person executed this year in Iran who was arrested as a child. Amnesty reports that there are 88 juvenile offenders on death row. It has also highlighted concerns that the court system lacks independence and impartiality.
The sister-in-law of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who is serving a prison sentence in Iran, lives in my constituency. Nazanin’s case was raised in the July Westminster Hall debate to which the right hon. Lady referred. While she has been in prison, two further charges have been proffered against Nazanin: accusations of involvement in organisations to overthrow the Government. Will the right hon. Lady join me in calling on the Foreign Secretary to do more and redouble his efforts on this case?
I am happy to do that; I was planning to raise that worrying case slightly later in my remarks. I hope that the Minister and Foreign Secretary will do everything they can to try to secure the release of Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe.
In terms of the court system, the concern is that people are often executed for offences that are vague or overly broad—or, in some cases, really not justified as criminal offences at all. Trials in front of so-called revolutionary courts can be grossly unfair. In some cases, long prison sentences have been imposed after trials lasting as little as 45 minutes.
I come back to the issue raised by the hon. Gentleman. Many of us in this House have spoken out in support of two British Iranian nationals held unjustly in prison in Iran. As we have heard, the first is Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who has spent over a year in Tehran’s Evin prison after being sentenced to five years for non-specific charges relating to national security. I understand that the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary have both raised that case with their counterparts in Iran. Of course, I welcome that those representations have been made at such a high level, but it is gravely worrying that so far they have had little effect. Only yesterday, news emerged that Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe could face additional criminal charges and a further prison sentence of 16 years.
The second case is that of 77-year-old Kamal Foroughi, a British Iranian businessman who has spent six years in jail in Iran. He has been denied medical leave, despite significant health problems. I urge the Minister to repeat the Government’s call for consular access to Nazanin and Kamal. I hope he will go further today and call for the immediate and unconditional release of both prisoners.
I am afraid that Iran continues to detain many civil society activists and opposition figures. Press freedom is heavily curtailed: the world press freedom index for 2016 ranks the country as the 11th worst in the world for free speech. Reporters Without Borders has dubbed Iran as
“the Middle East’s biggest prison for journalists”.
According to the “journalism is not a crime” project, 55 journalists, bloggers and cartoonists are currently in prison.
In June 2016, two Iranian musicians and one film-maker began a three-year prison sentence for online distribution of underground music. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s February report on human rights noted that more than 170 people were arrested in November purely on the basis of messages they posted on social media.
It is deeply worrying that the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people are wholly unprotected in Iran and that homosexuality is a crime punishable by death. In August last year, gay teenager Hassan Afshar was executed. He had no access to a lawyer and was sentenced to death two months after being arrested.
The rights of women are heavily restricted, with strict rules on dress being just one of many ways in which their freedom is severely limited. Iran has no law against domestic violence and women’s rights activists are treated as criminals or even enemies of the state. A married woman is also not allowed to leave the country without the permission of her husband. In September 2015, for example, the captain of Iran’s female football team was unable to take part in an international tournament because her husband forbade her from travelling.
The minimum legal age for marriage for girls is generally 13, but that can be lowered in cases where the father and a court agree. Human Rights Watch published the deeply worrying statistic that there were more than 40,000 marriage registrations in one year where the girl was aged between 10 and 14. The Iranian legal system views girls as criminally responsible from the age of nine, permitting them to be sentenced to death. In 2015, a woman was sentenced to death by stoning in an Iranian court.
I congratulate the right hon. Lady on securing the debate. She outlines in graphic detail the appalling litany of offences in Iran. Does she agree that it is time that not just our Government but the international community indicate to Iran that although it occasionally opens up towards being more transparent towards the west and appears to pursue moderation, it needs to make its mind up? The international community needs to ensure that Iran knows it has crossed the line. If Iran wishes to open up towards the west, these sorts of activities have to come to an end.
The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point. After all, many said that securing the Iran deal would lead to change and open up relationships. The international community now needs to ensure that those opportunities are used to drive forward the urgently needed change and end the kind of terrible cruelty I have been outlining.
There is increasing concern about the plight of minority groups in Iran. All those communities, including Christians, Baha’is and Sunni Muslims, face discrimination and significant limitations on their political and democratic rights. Attempts by Muslims to change their faith can be met with criminal prosecution. There are also, I am afraid, regular reports of the arrest of members of the so-called house churches. Christian Solidarity Worldwide contacted me before the debate and told me that, earlier this year, 12 Christians were arrested while engaged in activities such as Christmas celebrations and a church picnic. They were later sentenced to prison terms considerably in excess of those stipulated by law.
Christians have often been detained for lengthy periods without being informed of what offences they will be charged with. Christian Solidarity Worldwide believes that since the presidential election in May 2017, there has been a sharp increase in the number of Christians receiving excessive sentences after being charged with vaguely worded and unsubstantiated national security charges such as “insulting the sacred” or “propaganda against the State”. That action has often been targeted at converts to Christianity, but even people from long-standing Christian communities have fallen victim to arrest and unfair imprisonment. Among recent worrying cases is that of the Assyrian pastor, the Rev. Victor Bet-Tamraz, who led the Pentecostal Assyrian Church in Tehran. On 3 July he was given a 10-year prison sentence for offences including “conducting evangelism” and “illegal house church activities”. His wife and son are also facing criminal prosecution.
The Baha’i community in Iran also faces continuing oppression. I have received reports that in the period since President Rouhani’s election in 2013, more than 150 Baha’is have been arrested, 28 have been expelled from universities for their religious beliefs, and more than 400 have suffered economic disadvantage as a result of actions such as intimidation of Baha’i business professionals or closure of Baha’i businesses. There is also grave concern about the demonisation of Baha’is by the authorities in Iran. It is believed that the virulent incitement to hatred and the propaganda that regularly emanate from official media outlets may have helped to create the conditions that led to the brutal murder in September 2016 of a member of the Baha’i community, Mr Farhang Amiri.
Finally, I draw the House’s attention to a series of events that are a source of great hurt and sadness for a number of my constituents, some of whom are present in the Public Gallery. The issue that they have raised with me is the mass killings that took place in Iran in 1988. It is believed that at least 30,000 people were summarily executed and buried in unmarked graves—all because they were calling for change, democracy and human rights. With us today are people who lost close relatives in those killings. In a report published in August, the UN special rapporteur for human rights in Iran, Asma Jahangir, concluded:
“If the number of persons who disappeared and were executed can be disputed, overwhelming evidence shows that thousands of persons were summarily killed. Recently, these killings have been acknowledged by some at the highest levels of the State.”
Ms Jahangir also referred to the publication of an audio tape, which implicated the Minister of Justice in Iran and a high court judge in those horrendous crimes. Ms Jahangir’s report tells us that following the publication of the audio recording, some clerical authorities and the chief of the judiciary admitted that the executions had taken place and, in some instances, even sought to defend them.
It is astonishing that people heavily associated with the violent events of 1988 have continued to play leading roles in the Rouhani Administration and Iranian public life. It is a source of deep regret that the international community has paid such minimal attention to what happened. The UN special rapporteur has called for a wide-ranging independent investigation. My constituents want the UK Government to condemn the 1988 killings as a crime against humanity and to back the call for an investigation. I appeal to the Minister to do that today. Next year is the 30th anniversary of those horrific events in Iran. It is time the relatives of those who lost their lives were given answers about what happened.
It is with real sadness that I have set out for the House just a part of the long list of human rights abuses carried out in the Islamic Republic of Iran on a daily basis. The Iranian Government are well known for their state sponsorship of terrorism, and their malign involvement in so many conflicts around the region is causing injury and death on a massive scale; but we should never forget the suffering they also inflict on their own population. No bright new dawn for Iran has emerged under the Rouhani regime. Nor has the nuclear deal led to any improvement in the situation. While diplomatic and business ties with Iran are steadily being restored and strengthened, the suffering continues and Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Mr Foroughi continue to languish in prison.
I urge the Minister today to ensure that the UK Government seize every opportunity to press for change in Iran and for an end to the cruelty inflicted by the authorities there on so many people. I hope that at the most senior levels the UK Government will use bilateral channels as well as the UN to strongly condemn the abuse of human rights in Iran. I understand that the UN General Assembly will vote on a resolution on the situation in Iran in November. I urge the Minister to take a tough line when those matters are debated. Above all, I ask him to condemn the 1988 massacre and give his support to the bereaved families who want answers about what happened to their loved ones, and who want those responsible for that terrible atrocity finally to be brought to justice.
It is a pleasure to take part in the debate. There is one organisation that I have been a member of longer than I have been in the Liberal Democrat party, and that is Amnesty International. Iran is of great to concern to Amnesty, and I congratulate the right hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers) on securing a debate on it.
It is sad that many hon. Members will also have participated in the debate on 20 December, when Nazanin’s and Kamal’s cases were raised. I am afraid that since then things have not got better; they have got significantly worse for both of them. Meanwhile, of course, Iranian-UK relations have probably, if anything, improved. The UK is clearly playing an important role in trying to safeguard the Iran deal, and a large contract has been agreed with a UK company for solar power in Iran. From that perspective relationships are improving—but for Nazanin and Kamal the situation has deteriorated.
The latest allegations made against Nazanin are as risible as they are depressing for her and her family. I do not think that anyone, including, possibly, the judge hearing the case, believes that there is any substance in them. Many hon. Members present today will be perplexed by Iran’s approach. Going back over millennia, perhaps the longest running major civilisation has been based in that country; so the way it is dealing with Nazanin and Kamal is something people fail to understand.
Something else that is pertinent, both at present and in relation to future UK Government arrangements, is the fact that many hon. Members are concerned about whether there is a risk, in a bid to secure trade deals—either between UK companies and Iranian counterparts, or the UK as a whole and other countries—of human rights falling off the agenda. I hope that the Minister will reassure us that that will not happen. We need to hear the Government use some frank, blunt words to put their position on Nazanin’s case to the Iranian Government. That is something that has been lacking.
I received an email from Kamal Foroughi’s son this morning; he said there are particular concerns about his health, which continues to deteriorate, with a need for a cataract operation and time off outside prison to recover from it. No one has been able to see the results of the medical tests that have been carried out on him since December, and he has not been able to have any visitors—humanitarian, family or social—for more than six years. For someone of his age that will clearly be detrimental.
One further point that he asked me to make is that our Foreign Secretary has not met the affected families. I assume he is correct—certainly Kamran will know whether our Foreign Secretary has met him—and if that is the case, I suggest that it is perhaps time that the Foreign Secretary took the trouble to meet him. As I understand it, when Kamran was in Whitehall last October, on the occasion of his father’s 2,000th day anniversary, and saw or tried to talk to the Foreign Secretary, the Foreign Secretary did say something—“Oh,” and “Right.” That was all he had to say to Mr Foroughi about Kamal’s case.
I know that the Minister is very focused on his brief, and that he will have something—I hope something positive—to say. It does seem, however, as though our Foreign Secretary is not from the same mould as the Minister, whom I greatly respect for his knowledge and understanding of foreign affairs.
Will the right hon. Gentleman join me in condemning the killings of innocent women and children when the police go in to do an anti-smuggling raid? Some 80 to 100 people per year, including women and children, are slaughtered by the police, and no one has been brought to book for that.
Of course I join the hon. Gentleman in condemning that; in fact I was not aware of it, so I am grateful to him for drawing my attention to it. I am sure the Minister will respond to that at the end of the debate.
The right hon. Member for Chipping Barnet correctly mentioned the Baha’is. We know that they suffer persecution in Iran, whether targeted at Baha’i businesses or at students. We need some strong words from the Minister on what he can do about that and what contacts he has had with the Iranian authorities to ensure they are aware that we do not condone any of those activities. The right hon. Lady also mentioned the 1988 massacre in Iran. I asked a parliamentary question about this, and in reply the Government confirmed that they were aware that executions had taken place—they did not say massacre—but then went on to say that
“we have no plans to pursue this specific matter”.
I ask the Minister to develop such plans and to reconsider the Government’s attitude toward the massacre. I also ask him to come back to us prepared for a later debate in which he will be able to say what specific initiatives the Government will undertake to both put on record what happened in 1988 and perhaps find an international way of holding the Iranian Government to account for that massacre.
I am sure that all hon. Members here are well and truly aware of the large-scale human rights abuses that are taking place in Iran, and I am sure we all hope that Ministers will use any influence they have to try to not only secure the release of Nazanin and Kamal, but ensure that the rights of the Baha’is are respected and the massacre in 1988 is properly investigated.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Buck, and to speak in the debate; I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers) on securing it. This is not the first debate we have held on Iran and human rights. We had a debate on 22 March 2017 on Iran’s influence in the middle east, and one on British-Iranian relations on 12 October 2016. I secured my own debate on human rights in Iran on 28 June 2016. It is a great disappointment that little has changed since that time. Much has already been said, so I will not repeat everything, but I will touch on some points.
The first and most important point is the report from August this year on the human rights situation in Iran, in which the UN special rapporteur on Iran, Ms Asma Jahangir, highlights the alarming deterioration of the overall human rights situation and the abuses in Iran, and reports on the numerous violations that have taken place. Those violations include the execution of juveniles, suppression of women, persecution of religious and ethnic minorities, and a systematic crackdown on women’s rights activists, human rights defenders, dissidents and their families. That the UN special rapporteur on Iran acknowledged the 1988 massacre in the report is a major achievement for the justice-seeking campaign. I pay tribute to my friends and colleagues at the National Council of Resistance of Iran, who have been campaigning vigorously on this issue and seeking for the British Government to acknowledge that it occurred.
My second point is that the human rights abuses concern not only Iranian but British citizens. Two people have already been mentioned today, but there is a third British citizen detained in Iran on spurious charges. Four Americans have been released since 2016, following the Iranian nuclear agreement, as part of a prisoner swap, but nothing similar has occurred for British citizens. Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Kamal Foroughi have already been mentioned, but there is a third person, a 50-year-old lady named Roya Nobakht. She is an Iranian-British housewife who was put in prison after she returned to Iran in 2013 to visit her family. Two weeks after she arrived in the country, she flew to the city of Shiraz and was arrested by cyber police at the airport. Her crime, it seems, was that, while living in the UK, she had posted on Facebook that Iran was too Islamic.
The Iranian Government put her in prison and accused her of insulting Islamic sanctities, a crime that carries the death penalty. In June 2014, she was tried by branch 28 of the revolutionary court, and sentenced to 20 years in prison, later reduced to five years. Like others, she is in poor health; she has frequent seizures and has collapsed in her cell after being denied access to medication for depression. There is a fourth Briton, whose name we do not know. We are talking about human rights not just for citizens of Iran, but for British citizens.
I would like the hon. Gentleman’s comments on what British businesses should be worried about in trading with Iran—particularly their employees going to Iran—if the Iranians are examining people’s social media in the way he has described. What is the potential risk to them?
That is a good question. It is a huge risk for employees of British companies, or other companies working in Iran. Their media profiles and social media posts can be examined for any evidence of what the Iranian regime may wish to hold against them, or indeed their company. They may find themselves in some ways hostages to the trading activities of their companies. That is a great problem, but I believe that, as the right hon. Gentleman has said, we should not relegate human rights in favour of trade deals. That remains a great concern.
It has been more than two years since the Iranian nuclear deal was signed, yet human rights abuses in Iran have persisted, including the detention of British citizens and the denial of their basic rights, as well as Iran’s regional ambitions and sponsorship of terrorist groups such as Hezbollah. Indeed, Hansard reflects the comments I have made on Yemen, Hezbollah, Syria and other parts of the middle east where the Iranian nuclear deal has allowed resources to pour into those countries. I have been very critical of that. Indeed, I found it galling this morning to hear former Foreign Secretary Jack Straw defending Iran. Questions remain about Jack Straw’s involvement in extraordinary rendition—issues that we in this House have never been able to bottom out—and hearing him defend the Iranian regime is similar to listening to Harvey Weinstein talking about women’s rights. For him to speak about Iran today was greatly galling to me.
While Donald Trump may not be very popular with many people in this House or in the country more widely, I welcome his continuing to look at the Iranian nuclear deal. He will make an announcement later today on whether he will continue to agree to abide by that condition. I wish our own Foreign Secretary had not involved himself in that; it is a decision for the American President.
I have been very critical of the deal. I wish we had asked that human rights be part of the Iranian nuclear deal. We have found that there has been no progress not only in that area, but with our own people who are held in Iran, and most of all we have felt the malign influence of Iran in the middle east. Perhaps we, too, can look at that and the UK Government can decide whether we should continue to be a supporter of the agreement.
I congratulate the right hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers) on securing this important debate. She painted a bleak, sobering and depressing picture of life for those who step outside the accepted norms in Iran. She was absolutely right to say that many of us who have been concerned with human rights and freedom of religious belief for many years had hoped that with the re-election of President Rouhani in May, we would begin to see a lessening of the hard-line attitude that has become the hallmark of how Iran deals with people deemed to be out of step with the state’s politico-religious ideology. Many of us dared to hope that a more progressive Iran that embraced increased social, religious and political freedoms would emerge. We hoped for an Iran that would finally adhere to the treaties on human rights and freedom of religious expression to which it was a signatory.
Unfortunately, that simply has not happened, and the December 2016 citizens’ rights charter, which talked optimistically about freedom of expression and the right to life regardless of religion, seems as distant as ever. Indeed, there is ample evidence that intolerance, discrimination and persecution of both secular and religious minority groups has increased in Iran, with the regime increasingly hiding behind, as we have heard, that great catch-all offence—“conspiracy against Iran’s national security”. It is using that law to put both journalists and minority religious communities such as the Baha’i and Christian groups under enormous pressure. As we have heard, earlier this year the United Nations special rapporteur on Iran confirmed that “severe limitations and restrictions” on religious minorities persist and that the number of prisoners of conscience in Iran remains staggeringly high.
Every speaker today has rightly highlighted the appalling cases of the British citizens in jail in Iran and particularly that of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe. I add my voice and support to what has been said about her outrageous imprisonment, based on the nonsensical idea that because of her work with Thomson Reuters and previously with the BBC, she was, as the court case says,
“specifically working to overthrow the regime”.
Unfortunately, that is evidence of a mindset that still exists in Iran. It is confirmation, if any were needed, of Tehran’s paranoia about a free press.
I was contacted last week by the National Union of Journalists, which told me that 152 of its members currently working in London for the BBC’s Persian service had previously seen their assets frozen in Iran and were not allowed to buy or sell property in that country. All 152 of them have just been informed that they have been charged in their absence with
“conspiracy against Iran’s national security”.
Of course, the journalists cannot defend themselves against the charges unless they travel to Iran to stand trial. If they do so, the likelihood is, going by Iran’s recent record, that they will end up in jail for a very long time. However, many of the journalists still have family living in Iran, and according to the NUJ, many of their family members have been interrogated by the security services and encouraged to put pressure on their relatives working at the BBC to leave their job or agree to spy on their colleagues.
As I said, the offence of “conspiracy against Iran’s national security” is used extensively to pursue not only journalists, but minority religious communities. As the right hon. Member for Chipping Barnet said, in the last few weeks 12 Christians have been sentenced to prison terms far in excess of what is laid down in the law after being found guilty of
“acting against Iran’s national security”.
As the right hon. Lady rightly pointed out, the charges arose from such innocuous events as Christmas celebrations and attending a church picnic. I understand that the majority of the 12 involved are Christian converts—a group of people who seem to be particularly reviled in Iran by the theocratic regime, as they are deemed not only to have betrayed their faith, but to have rejected the state itself.
There are other examples. Only last month, two Christian converts, a married couple, Mehrdad Hushmand and his wife Sara Nemati, were reportedly detained the day after attending and participating in a Christian funeral. Since the day they were detained, only Sara has been able to contact her family, and has done so just once. No reason has been given for their detention, and nothing is known of their health, legal status or even their exact whereabouts. That is happening despite the fact that the rights of Christians and other religious minorities are explicitly protected under the Iranian constitution, and regardless of the fact that Iran is a signatory to many international agreements that guarantee the right of an individual to change their faith should they wish to do so.
However, it is not just minority Christian groups that are targeted. As we have heard, the Baha’i community, which has 300,000 members and is Iran’s largest non-Muslim religious minority, suffers systematic persecution simply because of its religious belief. The Iranian authorities seem absolutely determined to marginalise and remove the social and economic rights of the Baha’i community. Indeed, an official memorandum, dating back to 1991, from the Supreme Cultural Revolution Council explicitly states that the Government’s dealings with the Baha’i community should be conducted
“in such a way that their progress and development are blocked.”
As a result, the Baha’i community is often demonised in official state media and from the pulpits of mosques. The authorities have given a green light for blatant discrimination—discrimination that, as we have heard, all too often leads to violence and murder.
Regardless of who it is done to, state persecution is wrong, and when it occurs, it is incumbent on us to say so. The Minister is a great champion of human rights and religious freedom. Will he add his voice and that of the UK Government to those around the world saying to Tehran that the harassment, imprisonment and punishment of individuals who exercise peacefully their right to practise their chosen faith must stop, that the smokescreen of hiding behind the catch-all “conspiracy against Iran’s national security” is both intolerable and unacceptable and that we expect Iran to abide by its own constitution as well as the international treaties that it has signed up to and begin to uphold the rights of religious and ethnic minority communities within its own borders? And will the Minister promise to do everything he and his Department can do to secure the immediate release of Kamal Foroughi and Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe?
Ms Buck, I apologise for being slightly late and entering the Chamber when my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers) was speaking.
I am delighted to participate in the debate and I congratulate my right hon. Friend on initiating it. She is well known for her travails in Northern Ireland as Secretary of State. She brought together people who were polar opposites and did a brilliant job. I am glad that she has now been released from the shackles of government and can lead the campaign for human rights around the world and particularly in Iran.
I am pleased to see my right hon. Friend the Minister in his place, because he is one of those individuals who takes these issues very seriously; indeed, he has been a master of his brief during previous terms in government, so I look forward to his reply to this debate.
I take the view that a Government’s first duty is to safeguard their borders and their citizens from external attack. Their second duty is to protect the rights of minorities within their borders. We have heard about the reality in Iran from colleagues. The Jewish community in Iran was quite extensive 60 years ago; it is now non-existent. The Christian community is reducing fast in numbers. The Baha’i community is under constant threat and attack, and the Government of Iran do nothing. Minority sects within Islam are under threat and the Government in Iran stand aside and do nothing. The sad reality is that we have a history of the failure by the Iranian Government to address the needs and rights of minorities. That is a fundamental duty.
I have been extremely sceptical and oppositionist to the Iran nuclear deal. I take the view that it has given the Iranian regime the opportunity not to take up human rights, and has actually blessed what they are doing. The sad fact is that whatever our views on the Iran nuclear deal—we will hear later today what the United States of America is going to do about the nuclear deal—it has not advanced human rights in Iran one inch. That has to be accepted.
I agree with the remarks made by my hon. Friends and by Opposition Members on human rights, but I particularly want to concentrate on the massacre of 30,000 political prisoners in 1988. Many of us have had the opportunity to attend conferences, in this place or externally, that have shown clear evidence of the extent of that massacre. I have heard the first-hand experiences of the relatives of those who were executed, people who escaped from that massacre, and the first-hand experience of the repression and persecution of minorities that routinely take place.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the publication of the report by the UN special rapporteur, which clearly acknowledges that these events did happen, should be a reason for the Government to take this more seriously, and to begin to raise it more vigorously in international forums such as the UN?
I thank my right hon. Friend for that intervention. I was coming on to the special rapporteur’s report, which gives a world view of the massacre. This is not a few itinerants saying, “We believe this happened.” This shines the light of transparency on what happened 30 years ago in Iran. I regret that our Foreign and Commonwealth Office has not taken up this call, and not taken the view that we need to take action on the report. I would urge my right hon. Friend the Minister to make sure that we take up this issue in a particular way, and make sure that Britain lends its support to the rights of minorities and those people who were drastically affected by this massacre.
In the last Parliament, I was pleased to co-sponsor an early-day motion with the former Member for Mansfield, Sir Alan Meale, my hon. Friend the Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess), the hon. Members for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson), and the former Member for Lewisham West and Penge. The early-day motion set out the position—I reiterate—that we note
“that the audio file of Ayatollah Montazeri, former heir to Khomeini, in 1988, reveals new evidence about the massacre of more than 30,000 political prisoners in Iran’s prisons in the summer of 1988 including women and children and all political prisoners who supported the opposition movement of the People’s Mujahedin of Iran (PMOI); understands that the massacre was carried out following a fatwa by the Supreme Leader Khomeini… is concerned by Montazeri’s comments that this was the biggest crime that has occurred in the Islamic Republic and that the world will not forgive us”
if we stand idly by and allow the authorities of the Iranian regime to act with impunity, as they have done in the past few decades, which is the main cause for continuation of these crimes in Iran. We endorse the survivors’ account that those in charge of the massacre go unpunished and are currently in the highest positions in the Iranian Government.
The reality is that we can table early-day motions and make speeches in this place. That does have an effect, and builds pressure on the United Nations Human Rights Committee and the regime in Iran, but we need our Government and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in particular to take up the issue. Last year, we had a similar cross-party statement by more than 100 MPs and peers. That demonstrates the wealth of support in Parliament for action on this issue.
On 21 September, the UN Security Council adopted an historic resolution proposed by the UK to bring Daesh to justice. That shows that Britain can bring war criminals to justice. Now is the time for the United Kingdom to co-sponsor a motion bringing justice for the victims of the 1988 massacre. I look forward to the Minister’s reply. The FCO can do more, and it could acknowledge and support the viable 10-point democratic platform for the future, as presented by the NCRI president, Madame Maryam Rajavi, which calls for the abolition of the death penalty, torture and the theocracy’s Shi’a laws, as well as the prohibition of the suppression of women and any forms of discrimination against followers of any religion and denomination, as required by the UN charter.
I would also urge, in conclusion, my right hon. Friend the Minister to address the fundamental issue that opposition to the theocratic regime in Iran should be given a voice and a platform in this country. I believe that Madame Rajavi should be issued with an invitation to visit this country and shine the light of transparency on what is going on in Iran. I look forward to the Minister’s response to the proposal to give that opportunity to the NCRI and the PMOI, to expose once and for all to the British public what it is like to live in Iran and what could be done as an alternative to the current theocratic regime.
I, too, would like to thank the right hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers) for securing this debate. It was quite shocking to listen to the seemingly inexhaustible list of human rights abuses by Iranian authorities. It was quite numbing to hear them all. I think it is right that we focus on human rights, as that issue has been a central thrust of my very short parliamentary career since being elected two years ago, but I would also like to focus on the fate of journalists, both those working inside Iran and those working remotely from the UK. I declare an interest as a former BBC journalist and the chair of the National Union of Journalists parliamentary committee. I do that for the record to state my solidarity with journalists both in Iran and around the world, who strive to do nothing more than ask questions in an attempt to hold power to account.
As we know, Iran has elections that many other inhabitants of the middle east can only envy. Here I state a truism, but it is essential that we set it down, that elections are only ever one element of a functioning democracy. A democracy where bloggers and reporters must risk their lives and the well-being of their families in order to comment on the political life of their country cannot be seen as a democracy in the true sense. Democracy is not worth the ballot paper it is printed on without freedom of the press. There is a barrier to informing the electorate, as the press provides feedback to the legislature. The often brutal suppression of those speakers also creates a chilling fear that acts as a cancer on all of those forming opinions and on the ability to take action in the public arena.
It is important to make the point that Iran is not a homogeneous political entity. I have heard other hon. Members make comments about the political situation in Iran. There are reformers, as they are called, as well as the politically established so-called hardliners. I do not know where we place President Rouhani in all this, considering that much of the repression discussed today has occurred on his watch. However, I do know one hardliner, someone who is not a friend of civil liberties and human rights: President Trump. His suspected refusal to re-certify the Iran nuclear deal can only have the effect of pushing Iran ever further into the hands of those hardliners.
I will come back to the journalists. As my hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Nick Thomas-Symonds) mentioned a constituent of his who has been in prison, I would like to mention three journalists who are being held and are on hunger strike. Soheil Arabi has been in prison since 2013 and has been on hunger strike for over a month. Mehdi Khazali was arrested in August and has been on hunger strike since the day of his arrest. Ehsan Mazandarani was arrested in 2015 and has been denied early release despite very poor health. There are many more prisoners I could mention. Their stories make for chilling reading.
The long arm of control reaches way beyond Iran and stretches as far as those working in our very own BBC, as the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O’Hara) mentioned. Charges have been filed against almost all the Iranian journalists working for the BBC’s Persian-language service in London; 152 journalists have been charged with conspiracy against Iran’s national security and have faced constant harassment and intimidation and an effective freeze on all their Iran-based assets. Those charged cannot defend themselves unless they return to Iran, which they feel unable to do for fear of reprisal. I beg the Minister to raise these names whenever he meets his Iranian counterparts and to push the issues of journalism, freedom of the press and democracy very clearly, as I know he will.
To end with a general comment, there are far too many in politics today who wish to criticise only the countries that fit into a very black and white binary world view. I am not one of them. I believe it is entirely possible—nay, essential—to criticise and hold to account Iran just as much as Saudi Arabia for human rights abuses and attacks on civil liberties. The two are not mutually incompatible. The same applies to the US and Russia and the questionable choices those Governments continue to make domestically and internationally. In fact, our hand is strengthened and our criticism is more valid when we show neither fear nor favour to any country or regime, wherever they may be, whether they be friend or ally, when defending human rights and civil liberties.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Ms Buck. I thank the right hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers) for securing this important debate. A number of hon. Members have spoken on this topic before; having been newly elected to the House in June, I appreciate this first opportunity to do so myself.
Before I speak about the more specific issues, I want to mention the use of the death penalty in Iran. As the right hon. Lady mentioned, the Foreign Office estimates that there were more than 530 executions in Iran in 2016. That figure is simply staggering, although, surprisingly, it represents a decrease on the previous year. Men and women risk capital punishment if they are found to be gay. The human rights record for people from an LGBTQ background is appalling. Even more worryingly, the death penalty continues to be used against juveniles in the country, and the FCO’s report notes that it is issued even in cases that are not deemed “the most serious” under international law, such as drugs offences.
There seems to have been some progress recently: in August, the Iranian Parliament approved a long-awaited amendment to legislation that significantly raises the bar for mandatory death sentences in drugs cases. Evidence given to the Iranian Parliament when the legislation was being drafted revealed that 5,000 people, the majority in their 20s and 30s, were currently on death row for drug-related offences. That in itself should highlight how ineffective the death penalty has been.
I am also deeply concerned about reports of mass executions in 2016: 20 members of the Kurdish minority were executed for terrorism-related offences and later in the same month, 12 people were hanged for drugs-related charges. Hopefully, future FCO reports will show the number of executions falling sharply because of the change in the law. Does it go far enough? Obviously not, but it is a step in the right direction.
I must also mention women’s rights. Women in Iran face intolerable oppression and discrimination on issues such as marriage, divorce and child custody. Women have been sent to jail for publicly speaking out in favour of equal rights. They are severely restricted in Iran, to the point where they are even forbidden from spectating at male sports—including Iran’s national obsession, volleyball. It is deeply troubling that Iran has no anti-domestic-violence legislation and that the legal age for marriage is just 13. For fear of getting emotional, I will not go into all the research around the age of consent, but what happens to young girls is deeply worrying.
Another matter is freedom of expression. There are signs of growing oppression, as Iranian authorities struggle to deal with the impact of new technology on freedom of speech. The de facto third-party messaging application here seems to be WhatsApp, but in Iran a similar app has risen to prominence. Much like WhatsApp, Telegram allows encrypted communication between individuals. According to the Iranian Students Polling Agency, almost six in 10 Iranians use Telegram, but use of the app seems to be shifting. A couple of years ago, two thirds of people polled said that they used it for entertainment purposes, but today only a quarter say the same. Iranians seem to be getting more of their information from the broadcast channels that the app gives access to.
Telegram played a significant role in recent parliamentary elections. Since Twitter and Facebook are blocked in Iran, the app provided a platform for campaigning. The Iranian establishment, however, has stepped up a crackdown on Telegram channels that challenge it and dozens of activists have been arrested in the past few months. In August, the administrator of one political Telegram channel was sentenced to four years in jail. There are fears that the Iranian authorities could now block Telegram altogether; I would appreciate it if the Minister addressed that in his speech. This is a very worrying trend that adds a new dimension to the further repression of freedom of expression.
Another troubling issue that, like other Members, I am incredibly concerned about is the wellbeing of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Kamal Foroughi. It is alarming to learn that additional charges have now been brought against Nazanin that could extend her jail term by 16 years. The detail in both cases is extremely harrowing. They have been held in the notorious Evin prison, sometimes in solitary confinement. There are very serious health concerns in both cases; I understand that Kamal is being denied screening for prostate cancer. That is totally unacceptable.
Both trials were, of course, conducted in secrecy. The prisoners had little access to lawyers prior to the trials, which makes a mockery of the justice system. Iran does not recognise dual nationality status, so it treated both prisoners as solely Iranian citizens and did not recognise their rights as British citizens.
There was quite a lot of initial excitement when Hassan Rouhani was elected as President of Iran in 2013, not just because he was seen as a moderate but—in my own context—because he was seen as an honorary Glaswegian. It is perhaps not well known that he studied twice at university in Glasgow. During his time there, he completed his PhD thesis on “The flexibility of Shariah (Islamic law) with reference to the Iranian experience”. I gather from Glasgow Caledonian University that his thesis is still available at the library and can be taken out and read. Anyone who takes the opportunity to read it will be struck by the first line in the abstract, which states that
“no laws in Islam are immutable.”
The thesis demonstrates that a younger Rouhani was willing to embrace a more liberal and moderate approach to society. I conclude with my message to President Rouhani, from one Glaswegian to another: embrace that moderate tone and drastically improve human rights for your people.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms Buck. We have had a number of debates on this important issue and I congratulate the right hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers) on securing and introducing this one. It is another opportunity to ensure that the abuses of human rights in general and of the human rights of our own citizens—the dual nationals in Iran—are brought to prominence once again. Hopefully, by debating them, we put further pressure on the regime.
I do not know how many Members have visited Iran. I have myself, although it is 10 years since I have been there. Iran has many centres of power and an extraordinary history and culture, but it also has the most shocking and unacceptable human rights abuses, right across the country, thanks to the current Government, who were brought to power in the Islamic revolution of 1979. The right hon. Lady brought to our attention the suffering inflicted daily by the revolutionary Government on their own population—something that we are all aware of. The fact that 40,000 marriages of girls between 10 and 14 years old were approved in 2015 is enough to make us deeply concerned. The right hon. Lady was right to point to the cruelty and the lack of any regard for the human rights of individuals, especially women and—of course—children.
I was not aware that the right hon. Lady’s constituent, Ms Jahangir, had come to her about the mass executions of 1988, but I hope that now the Government are aware of that story—I am sure they already were—at least some further work can be done through the United Nations to bring more of it to light and to expose the appalling crimes carried out and covered up by the current regime. It is clear to me that, as the right hon. Lady said, the UK Government should redouble their efforts to relieve cruelty and suffering in Iran, and take a tough line.
We heard from the right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake), who mentioned again Nazanin Zahari-Ratcliffe and Kamal Foroughi. He said that he hoped that trade deals with Iran following the relaxation of measures that followed the Iran nuclear deal, which many people in Westminster Hall have criticised today, would not mean that human rights fell off the agenda. Of course he is absolutely right, and I do not believe that this Government or any other would want that to happen. Has the Foreign Secretary met the families of those people? I hope that the Minister will enlighten us on that. It is very important that the Foreign Secretary should at least give those families that backing and moral support.
We then heard from the hon. Member for Hendon (Dr Offord), who I know has stood up again for those whose human rights have been abused in Iran. He talked about the prisoners whom we have not mentioned—I do not wish to discuss their cases further today, because I know that their families have asked for them not to be discussed. However, he was right to point out that there are not just the two well-publicised cases of Nazanin and Kamal.
The hon. Gentleman also said that we should not relegate human rights in Iran for the sake of trade deals, and I agree. He also attacked the former Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw. I heard the interview on the radio this morning: the hon. Gentleman claimed that the former Foreign Secretary was defending the Iranian regime, but what I heard was a defence of the Iran nuclear deal, which I believe we should continue to support, while also putting pressure on the Iranian Government over their shocking human rights record. I believe that the former Foreign Secretary defended that nuclear deal and not the regime’s human rights record. Jack Straw is not here to defend himself today. Having worked with him as a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee during his entire time as Foreign Secretary, I know that he was an outstanding Foreign Secretary for this country. I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman feels that he should be criticised in that way.
We had contributions, of course, from our Scottish National party colleagues and then Bob Blackman—sorry, the hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman); I have been here long enough to know that I should not mention names—talked about the Jewish community in Iran. When I was in Iran 10 years ago, I had the privilege of meeting members of that community. There are still people from the Jewish community living in Iran, particularly in Tehran; I believe that there are about 20,000 Jewish people in Tehran and several synagogues, too. However, those synagogues are patrolled by Iranian police officers.
Having met members of the Iranian Jewish community, I know that they are living in constant fear; there is no doubt about that. I attempted to talk to the one member of the Majlis reserved for the Jewish community, knowing full well that he speaks very good English, but he replied to me in Farsi. He refused to speak to me in English; clearly he was frightened because he knew that others were listening to what he was saying to a westerner.
So Jews live in Iran but the situation is tragic. Many Jewish people of Iranian origin live in the United Kingdom and they still carry their Iranian culture and heritage with them. Indeed, as a child from a Jewish family myself, I was brought up knowing many such individuals, including one who shared chambers with my mother when she was at Middle Temple as a barrister. We had very close contact with them.
Then my esteemed colleague, Clive Lewis—sorry, I am doing it again; my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich South (Clive Lewis)—made a contribution. He was a well-known journalist earlier in his life; he worked for the BBC in Leeds, which is how I first met him. He stood up for journalists and bloggers today—reporters who risk their lives every single day to tell the truth about what is actually happening in Iran.
My hon. Friend was right that democracy is not just about putting a cross on a ballot paper; it is about openness and freedom, including freedom of expression without fear. Yet we know that anybody who tells the truth about the human rights abuses and other cases of cruelty in Iran day to day is under attack and, even worse, under fear of arrest—they are often actually arrested and charged. That is simply not acceptable and it is certainly not democracy.
We know about the history of human rights abuses in Iran; some of those took place even before the creation of the Islamic republic, but the situation has certainly got a lot worse since. We also know that although Iran is a signatory to many human rights conventions, in practice it ignores or restricts them. A lot of the information and evidence about that comes through the UN special rapporteur to Iran and other human rights experts.
For example, as we have already heard this morning, we know that Iran regularly—indeed, all the time—discriminates against and actively oppresses religious minorities: not only the Jewish community but the Christians and Zoroastrians, too. As we have also heard, Iran executes the highest number of people per capita in the world and the second highest absolute number of people.
In 2013, Iran elected a moderate candidate, Hassan Rouhani, as President. However, in spite of the thesis that he wrote while at university in Glasgow, we have seen no significant human rights improvements in Iran since he arrived. In many respects, the situation has become a lot worse. We know—it has been pointed out again today—that the revolutionary guard acts independently of the so-called “moderate”, President Rouhani. The revolutionary guard and similarly conservative state agents regularly use the state apparatus to undermine reformist opponents and anyone who is seen as threatening to the interests of those agents.
Domestic laws and the penal code in Iran tend to define crimes in broad and vague terms; often Iranian people do not know exactly what constitutes a criminal violation, and that violates human rights law. In 2016, Freedom House stated that
“The judicial system is used as a tool to silence critics and opposition members”.
We also know that Iran uses executions to strike fear in the country and to deter socio-political unrest.
As the right hon. Member for Chipping Barnet pointed out, Iran executed about 1,000 people in 2015. It has already been said that that is the highest number per capita in the world. According to the United Nations, since Rouhani took office 2,400 executions have taken place in Iran, which is double the number in the same period—about four years—prior to 2010. President Rouhani himself has said that he supports the process of judicial executions and described executions as “God’s commandments”. Currently, there are 5,000 people on death row in Iran for drug offences alone. Iran does not announce all executions officially so the number of executions could be a lot higher than we realise. There are not only public executions in the towns and cities of Iran but mass executions in jails that often go completely unreported.
I want to make a few comments about juvenile executions. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which came into force in 1992, prohibits the use of the death penalty for offences committed by those under the age of 18. Iran is a signatory to a number of treaties, including that convention, which it signed in 1994. It is therefore legally obliged to treat everyone under the age of 18 as a child and any crimes they have allegedly committed as the crimes of a child. Moreover, article 91 of the Islamic penal code, which has been enforced since 2013, grants judges the discretion not to apply the death sentence to children who do not understand the nature of their crimes. However, Iran is still no closer to abolishing the death penalty for children.
In conclusion, I ask the Minister what more the Government can do to secure the release of Nazanin Zahari-Ratcliffe and Kamal Foroughi, and the two other dual nationals currently being held in Iran. I also urge the Government not to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal; instead, they should continue to press the Iranian Government on their record of human rights abuses. I hope that the Minister will give us some reassurance when he sums up.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today, Ms Buck. I appreciate the opportunity to respond to an excellent debate introduced by my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers), to whom I pay tribute, as colleagues have done, not only for her excellent work in Northern Ireland, but for her steadfast support of human rights, particularly those involving freedom of religion. I am grateful to her for securing the debate.
I am grateful for the contributions of the right hon Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake), my hon. Friends the Members for Hendon (Dr Offord) and for Harrow East (Bob Blackman), the hon. Members for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O’Hara), for Norwich South (Clive Lewis), and for Glasgow East (David Linden). I thank the hon. Member for Leeds North East (Fabian Hamilton) who speaks for the Opposition and with some knowledge, having been to Tehran. He has a good background in relation to the debate. I appreciate the way in which he and other colleagues couched their remarks.
First, I want to put on the record some remarks on human rights so it is clear what we think about this in general and what we have done in relation to Iran. Then I want to mention what colleagues have said about attitudes to Iran, the nuclear deal and dual nationals before I go on to specifics. I do not want to run out of time, so I will mention those things first.
The United Kingdom deplores human rights violations and abuses wherever they occur and we call them out whenever we learn of them. It is because of our concern over the violation of human rights that we designated Iran as one of our human rights priority countries, and we have integrated human rights into the work of our diplomats right across the network. The human rights situation in Iran remains dire and we are determined to continue to hold the Government to account. We frequently release statements condemning the human rights situation in Iran and lead action by the international community. We have also designated more than 80 Iranians responsible for human rights violations under EU sanctions, helped to establish a UN special rapporteur for Iran’s human rights, and lobbied at the UN for the adoption of human rights resolutions on Iran. We regularly raise human rights in our dialogue with Iran, which I will speak about in a moment.
I therefore recognise the deep concern and frustration expressed here today at the lack of progress made by Iran to improve its human rights record. The latest report of the UN special rapporteur for human rights clearly sets out the appalling situation in Iran and highlights a wide range of areas that need to be addressed. The UK agrees with her assessment. I want to get that clearly on the record before I go on to say one or two other things.
First, I will tackle the issue of attitudes to Iran. One of the most difficult things that the Government have to contend with is how to deal with issues in countries that are friendly and less friendly when we are trying to create a relationship, and we have to acknowledge that countries do things that do not fit well with what the United Kingdom believes in. That applies to allies as well as to those we do not consider to be allies. Many countries around the world have practices with which the United Kingdom has to take issue. It is difficult to get the right balance in how to move forward. I contend at the moment that evidence of success through isolation is pretty limited, which suggests some degree of engagement is needed. In his nuanced remarks, the hon. Member for Norwich South hinted at this. It is easy for us to be clear about what we do not like and for Parliament to condemn clearly, as it should. Dealing with a state and helping to move it on to a position with which the United Kingdom is comfortable—the universal acceptance of human rights in this particular example—is a difficult process. It takes time and engagement. As a Minister, I am perfectly content to be challenged on that, but I do think engagement is right.
Two things follow. First, as colleagues have said, there were and there remain hopes in relation to what President Rouhani can do, but he does not have an unfettered hand. In his description of Iranian society, the hon. Member for Leeds North East couched it well. When a new leader comes to office in a complex situation in almost any country, we cannot expect things to change automatically in the way in which we would like. In relation to his citizens rights charter, at his inauguration—at which I was present as part of that engagement—Rouhani said:
“I hope that there will be more justice throughout the country and our people are more hopeful of the future.”
Well, so do we. He said,
“I am the president of the Islamic Republic of Iran, responsible to safeguard all people’s rights. From now on, we must be responsive to the people’s votes.”
He said that in front of the Supreme Leader and made his views clear. We call on him to uphold the values that he set out. We recognise it will not be done immediately and automatically, which I think is a common-sense approach. We are looking for evidence of movement, but we recognise that Rouhani, the Government and society have to go about it in a particular way. The charter of citizens rights is the first of its kind in Iran. It has the potential to have a positive impact.
Another part of the engagement is the JCPOA—the joint comprehensive plan of action—or nuclear deal. It was never intended that the nuclear deal would be an all-embracing agreement with Iran, whereby in return for a stop on progress towards a nuclear weapon everything else would be taken into account. There are different views and expectations of the deal, but I, the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister are clear on what the nuclear deal was about. In a world where it has proved difficult in some places to restrain states, Iran stopped its progress towards a nuclear weapon. Just that; not all the other things that we have concerns about in Iran. Iran knows there are other issues in the region that have been highlighted by colleagues, and we know we must continue the progress on those.
The nuclear deal did the job it was designed to do. It is the United Kingdom’s view that Iran has held to the terms of the deal. That is why we still support it. The House should not think that because we agree on that, we have given a green light to Iran in relation to other things and that other concerns have come to a halt. They have not; those talks go on. One thing was agreed in a situation of great difficulty after many years and with huge distrust on both sides. The deal was not born of trust, but distrust, and putting in place the mechanisms to make sure verification was possible. Although lots of other things are on the table, the fact that this is in the bracket it is in and is being stuck to is not a bad thing. Now we must move on to other things.
I will now deal with specific issues mentioned in the debate by my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet and the right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington. The issues are difficult but I want to express clearly what we are doing. We are doing everything we possibly can. Our ambassador raises the issue of dual national detainees with the Iranian authorities at every possible opportunity; he seeks to secure consular access and to ensure their welfare. The Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary and I have all raised the cases with our counterparts and we have stressed the importance of resolving them as quickly as possible. This is clearly a very distressing situation for all the families of the British detainees, let alone for the detainees themselves, and our hearts go out to them. We are in regular contact with the families through the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. I have met the families of some of the dual nationals in the UK and in Tehran. I have tried to reassure them that the British Government are making every possible effort. We will continue to raise their loved ones’ cases with the Iranian Government at every possible opportunity in an attempt to seek a change.
I thank the Minister for giving way. He might be about to come on to this. I welcome the fact that the Minister—as I said earlier, I greatly respect him—has met the families. I posed the question about whether the Foreign Secretary would meet them. Given the circumstances, it would be entirely appropriate for him to meet them. Will the Minister raise that with the Foreign Secretary?
I understand that point, but the right hon. Gentleman will appreciate that the dual nationals we are talking about are not the only detainees held in confinement around the world. It seems appropriate that the Minister responsible for the area meets the families. The Foreign Secretary has indeed raised the cases, and continues to do so, at the highest level. I do not want to speak for the Foreign Secretary in relation to this. I hope my own engagement as the Minister most responsible meets the needs of the families. They are well aware of the concerns that we express at the highest level. I am puzzled, disappointed and deeply concerned by the latest news reports concerning Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe. Yesterday, I spoke to the Iranian ambassador in the UK to express that concern and my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary will speak to his counterpart, Foreign Minister Zarif, later today about this and other matters. I also spoke to our ambassador in Tehran to seek further information on what further circumstances Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe is facing. We do not yet have that clarification, and it is possible that matters are not quite as they appear in the media, but we are urgently trying to find out exactly what those circumstances are and I will continue to press on that.
I remain of the strong view that the humanitarian situation of a mother separated from her child should prompt her release, not least on the grounds that under Iranian law she is eligible for parole in relation to the first charges that she faced within the next few weeks. That view has been expressed clearly and regularly to the Iranian authorities with which we are engaged. That is what we are seeking to do in relation to the dual nationals. I assure colleagues that those people are uppermost in our minds, and we are trying to handle their best interests. We will continue to press the cases of all the dual nationals whenever we can.
Colleagues raised the matter of the death penalty. We remain extremely concerned about the high number of executions in Iran, including those of juvenile offenders. According to Amnesty International, at least 247 people have been executed since January—at least three of whom were under 18 when the crime was committed. That practice is not only appalling, but in direct violation of international conventions that prohibit juveniles from being sentenced to death, to which Iran is a signatory. In looking for opportunities for the future, there is a small sign of progress, as perhaps the hon. Member for Leeds North East knows, in the form of a proposed change to Iranian drugs law. That would mean that the death penalty would be applied only in the most serious circumstances. I urge the Iranian Parliament and the Guardian Council to enact that Bill as quickly as possible. Every day that it is delayed brings another needless execution.
Colleagues raised the issue of freedom of expression, Iran’s record on which is also poor. The special rapporteur notes that at least 12 journalists and 14 bloggers and social media activists are currently in detention for their peaceful activities. In April, three separate channel administrators on the popular messaging app Telegram, mentioned by colleagues this morning, were each sentenced to 12 years in prison for
“collusion and gathering against the regime and insulting the leader and founder of the Islamic Revolution”.
Voice calls over Telegram were also banned. That is not what an open and free society looks like. The British Government therefore call on Iran to adhere to its international obligations and to release all those who have been detained for exercising their right to freedom of opinion, expression and peaceful assembly, which I think is what the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute was asking me to do. We also call on Iran to quash the prison sentences given to others for similar reasons.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet also raised the issue of freedom of expression for faith, as did one or two other colleagues. I met members of the Baha’i community in my office a few weeks ago, as I had met them a few years ago. I remain concerned, as does the House, about persecution of those of the Baha’i faith. We are concerned by state efforts to identify, monitor and arbitrarily detain Baha’is, and we will continue to raise that issue. As far as Iranian Christians are concerned, we also share the concerns about the continuing crackdown in Iran against religious minorities, including the house church movement mentioned by my right hon. Friend among Iranian Christians, and harassment of Muslims who convert to Christianity. The recent apparent crackdown on Christians for what appeared to be normal church activities, such as celebrating Christmas or holding a picnic—an important social activity at weekends in Iran, which we note has particular significance—is particularly concerning. We are not blind to those acts and we call on Iran to cease harassment of all religious minorities and to fulfil its international and domestic obligations to allow freedom of religion to all Iranians.
Colleagues mentioned women’s rights. Women do not enjoy the same rights and privileges as men in Iran and continue to face discrimination. Married women, as my right hon. Friend said, need the consent of their husbands to leave the country and can be banned from travelling abroad if their spouses do not sign the paperwork needed to obtain or renew a passport. Given that the President has expressed his desire to see greater justice in the country and to see human rights move forward, we hope that women’s rights will also be high on the agenda. The discrimination they face is unacceptable in the 21st century, so we urge the Government of Iran to repeal discriminatory laws and enable women and girls to participate equally and contribute fully to society—something that is clearly in Iran’s interest. All of us who know about Iranian society know that women are extremely voluble about what they believe they can contribute to society. They should be given full opportunity of expression.
We share the concern about continued persecution of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in Iran. Homosexual acts are criminalised in the Iranian penal code, and the punishment can range from 100 lashes to the death penalty for both men and women. It is also against Iranian law for people of the same sex to touch and kiss, and for people to cross-dress. There is no legal protection against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity in Iran, and there is widespread social intolerance of homosexuality.
Transsexuality in Iran has been legal since a fatwa was issued in 1987 by the late Ayatollah Khomeini. There is, however, still a great deal of social stigma attached to transsexuals, and they can obtain legal identification documents in their preferred gender only if they have undergone gender reassignment surgery. That makes it difficult for those who do not want to undergo surgery to find employment and access medical services and education. Again, we have repeatedly called on Iran to fulfil its international and domestic obligations to protect the human rights of all Iranians, and we continue to do so.
In conclusion, the Government share colleagues’ concerns about the human rights situation in Iran.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for reminding me. The Government have repeatedly said, and I can say again here, that human rights considerations are not being, and will not be, sacrificed for trade deals. That is not the Government’s intention, as the hon. Member for Leeds North East indicated from the Opposition Front Bench, and we have repeatedly said so. I can give that assurance to colleagues in the House today.
Before the Minister concludes, both my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers) and I raised the issue of the 1988 massacre, to which my right hon. Friend the Minister has not replied. Will he lead the campaign in the United Nations to get a proper report into that?
I stand by the letters that I have already signed off on that subject, which say that in our dealing with the issue of progress in Iran we do not at this stage plan to raise the 1988 executions at the UN or to support the inquiry. We are, however, working closely with the UN special rapporteur and we remain concerned about related issues that have come up. I have to say, however, that at present we do not have any intention to raise it specifically.
My hon. Friend also raised the matter of the NCRI, which I should refer to before I sit down. We do not have an official contact with it, and we do not endorse particular opposition groups in Iran. Choosing Iran’s Government should be a matter for the Iranian people, and we remain of the view that we will not favour particular opposition groups in Iran.
I want to conclude, because I think that my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet needs a moment to speak as well. I thank colleagues for continuing to raise this matter. I hope that at the beginning of my remarks I gave a sense of how we are trying to deal with this difficult issue: we will continue to raise matters and we will not neglect them. Progress in Iran may well be slow, but we want it to be certain to fulfil what we believe are the hopes and desires of the Iranian people.
I thank the Minister for his speech today. I very much take on board the complexity of the process, which he has described as not only holding the Iranian Government to account on their human rights record, but trying to guide them towards a better future on these matters.
The one point I would leave with him is that I hope he will look again at the issue of the 1988 mass killings. They happened, they were a terrible crime and not enough attention has been given to them. There is a strong case for an independent investigation and I hope that he and his colleagues in Government will give that their most serious consideration.
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).
HGV Driver Regulation
I beg to move,
That this House has considered regulation of HGV drivers sleeping in their vehicles.
I am grateful for the opportunity to raise this issue, which is of great concern to hauliers and residents in my constituency. I will touch on three important and closely related aspects of this growing problem: first, how the regulations are enforced; secondly, the effect on my constituents of parking by heavy goods vehicles; and, thirdly, the lack of suitable off-street parking for HGVs in Kent.
One of the problems that British hauliers face is the lack of parity between the United Kingdom and other parts of Europe in the way in which the existing regulations are enforced. That disparity results in an indirect and unfair cost on British haulage companies operating in Europe, while providing an advantage to European companies operating in the United Kingdom.
It is illegal for drivers to spend their weekly rest period, otherwise known as their 45-hour rest period, in the cabin of their truck. Those who do not sleep in suitable accommodation are deemed not to have taken their rest, and fines can be levied against both the driver and the transport operator. That, however, is not being properly enforced here in the United Kingdom and, where enforcement action is taken, fines of only £300 are being issued.
Compare that with the much larger fines available to the authorities in other countries. In France, for example, lorry drivers can be fined as much as £26,000 if they are found sleeping in their cab by the side of the road. In May this year I understand that the Germans introduced a policy of fining drivers who are found taking their regular rest in the cabin of their lorry: £54 for every hour that they fall short of the necessary rest and £160 for the haulage operator.
Hauliers in my constituency are upset that EU-based operators use our lax enforcement of the 45-hour rest period to gain a commercial advantage. They do so by getting their drivers to park their HGVs in the United Kingdom over the weekend, ready to start the new working week here without having incurred overnight accommodation costs.
UK hauliers, however, if they try to gain a similar advantage by strategically parking their vehicles on European Union soil over the weekend, have to pay the additional accommodation costs required by the legislation or risk being hit with the punitive fines I referred to earlier. The effect of that discrepancy between enforcement and penalty in the United Kingdom and the arrangement in many other countries is to increase the cost to UK hauliers of doing business in Europe, while allowing foreign hauliers to operate more cheaply here.
My second point relates to the effect that that uncontrolled and illegal lorry parking has on my constituents. Stricter enforcement in other European countries ensures that roads in much of the continent are free from the great ribbons of trucks parked by the roadside that we see regularly in my constituency and in other areas close to the channel ports.
Too often, foreign HGVs park up at the weekends on residential roads, in business parks and lay-bys, and on the slip roads of trunk roads and motorways. Such parking is not only inappropriate but dangerous to other road users. Kent police officers regularly tweet pictures of those vehicles, and I am grateful for the support of Kent’s police and crime commissioner, Matthew Scott, who shares my concerns. In addition to the danger to other road users, there is a health risk to the wider public, because the areas in which the HGV drivers often park lack the most basic toilet or washing facilities.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. This issue does not only affect Kent. Travelling up to Staffordshire, HGVs can be found littering the roads, business parks and backstreets of towns, as he described. Does he agree that we need to look at the facilities provided for HGV drivers throughout the country? I appreciate the particular concerns in Kent, but they exist in other parts of the country too.
I am more than happy to agree with my hon. Friend. It is a national issue, but she is right that we have a particular problem down in Kent, because we are the gateway to the country, so suffer far worse than anyone else. With regard to the facilities, I will come on to that, so I hope she will bear with me.
As I was saying, there are no washing facilities for drivers to use, and sites are often left littered, creating an expensive clean-up operation for the local authority. Even where parking restrictions apply, taking action is not always simple. When fines are imposed, they are often ignored by foreign drivers who simply do not pay them. In addition, where suitable parking facilities do exist—they are few and far between—the police simply do not have the resources to escort the lorries to those designated areas.
That brings me on nicely to my third concern, which is the lack of suitable off-street lorry parking and of the suitable facilities for drivers that my hon. Friend mentioned.
(Strangford) (DUP): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. Many issues are of concern, and he has outlined them well. Others include not only the noise, the smell of exhaust fumes and how those fumes affect local housing, but the lorry drivers being on their own. I have a very good friend with a haulage business. He told me about a person who jumped out of his lorry, where he had been sleeping, but had forgotten to put the handbrake on, and he was crushed. There was no one else about. The safety of the lorry drivers has to be an issue, so any regulation in the system would be for the benefit of the drivers as well.
I agree wholeheartedly with the hon. Gentleman. Part of what I am saying is for the benefit not only of hauliers but of drivers, who deserve and should be given decent working conditions, including decent accommodation when they have their 45-hour rest.
On off-street parking, in November 2015, the then Chancellor announced a £250 million fund to provide a large lorry park alongside the M20 in Kent. Two years on, we have yet to see a single piece of tarmac laid. I would be grateful if the Minister told me what discussions he has had with Kent County Council and what progress is being made to deliver that project.
One lorry park, however, no matter how large, is not the answer. That is why I very much hope that consideration is given to providing more localised solutions, such as the proposed lorry park near the Sheppey crossing in my constituency—a scheme I fully support. Such a lorry park, just off the A249—which, incidentally, is one of the busiest trunk roads in the south-east of England—would provide proper parking for the increasing number of HGVs that service the businesses in the area, which include two major regional retail distribution centres, a number of recycling plants, the largest paper mill in the UK, the thriving deep-water port at Sheerness and Eurolink, which is one of the largest industrial sites in southern England.
In summary, we should take a lead from our European neighbours and clamp down on the inappropriate parking of HGVs by properly enforcing the law on sleeping in cabs.
I congratulate my hon. Friend and constituency neighbour on securing this debate and on making the case so strongly that the problem of lorry parking needs urgently to be addressed, across the country but especially in our area of Kent, for the sake of residents and lorry drivers. We must ensure that the parking of lorries in the right place is effectively enforced, and that has to go hand in hand with ensuring that there are places for lorries to park, such as the Operation Stack lorry park and further lorry parks on the route, which he mentioned.
I fully agree. My hon. Friend mentioned enforcement; there should be an increase in fines for those who break the law and the police should be given more resources to assist the Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency in issuing those fines. We should move quickly to provide the lorry parks needed in Kent and look seriously at local solutions, similar to the one on the A249 to which I referred. One way of achieving that would be to encourage local authorities to work with the private sector, which might feel more inclined to invest in a better lorry park network following a change in the enforcement regime.
I am from Aberdeenshire, where we have a £750 million bypass that goes round Aberdeen. I will ask Transport Scotland what they are doing about lorry parks, but does my hon. Friend think it would be better if lorry parks were charged for and had decent facilities?
Existing lorry parks are chargeable, and I think that any future lorry parks will be chargeable. However, there is no point having a charge for a lorry park if there is no lorry park in the first instance. We are saying in Kent that we need more lorry parks, and I am sure that it is the same in Aberdeenshire.
The measures that I have outlined would have a number of long-term benefits, including eradicating the financial disadvantage for UK-based hauliers; removing parked HGVs from our residential streets and commercial areas; improving safety on our roads, particularly motorways and trunk roads; reducing the health hazard caused by HGV drivers dumping human waste and unsightly litter; and, last but not least, bringing long overdue relief to my constituents and those of other right hon. and hon. Members.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Buck. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Gordon Henderson) on securing this debate on the important topic of the regulation of HGV drivers who sleep in their vehicles.
I am well aware of the scale of the challenges posed by the volume of lorry traffic in certain parts of the country, particularly Kent. We all know that road freight is a critical factor in the success of our economy, accounting for more than three quarters of all goods moved around the country. It is not just a direct enabler of economic activity but an important employer. Drivers alone—this does not speak to the rest of the haulage industry or the supply chain behind it—number something like 300,000 in this country. It is an important part of the UK economy. Alongside the industry, we as a Government must acknowledge the effects and the importance of that economic activity, and the way in which the industry interacts with other road users, communities and the general public, who have a stake in policy outcomes.
I shall address this topic in two ways. My hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey highlighted both the specific issue of drivers taking rests in their vehicles, particularly in inappropriate locations such as lay-bys, and the wider but closely related question of the inappropriate parking of HGVs. I acknowledge the work of my hon. Friend the Member for Faversham and Mid Kent (Helen Whately), who secured a previous debate about fly-parking, the negative effects of which are inevitably worsened by drivers sleeping in their cabs, because of the length of time involved.
We recognise that, in many cases, it is a perfectly acceptable option for a driver to spend a night in his or her vehicle. It is understandable that many drivers would prefer to spend a night in a sleeper cab—I discovered when I visited Keltruck in my constituency the other day that that can be a familiar and even comfortable place—rather than a cheap motel, a house in multiple occupation or other interim accommodation. However, although an overnight rest in the cab is a legitimate and established industry practice, we must draw the line somewhere. We are clear that it is not acceptable for a driver to take his or her full weekly rest—at least 45 hours—in the vehicle. Drivers should not spend an indefinite period driving and resting at their place of work—their lorry.
Hon. Members will be aware of the difficulty that the haulage industry is having recruiting new and, especially, young drivers. The Department is actively supporting it with that issue. Such practices do not support the industry’s efforts to convince young people that commercial driving is a good-quality job, a well-paid occupation worthy of their commitment and a good career choice.
Although HGVs parking in inappropriate locations, such as lay-bys, is always likely to be problematic in some respects—I will come to that question shortly—it is particularly troubling when they do so for 45 hours or more. That amounts to a driver effectively living by the roadside, for the most part without even basic toilet facilities, for several days. That practice has obvious environmental impacts on local residents and other road users, and it places financial burdens on local authorities, which literally have to clean up the mess. I know that there have been such problems in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey and in lay-bys on the A249, not just because he said so, but because the Department has tracked those issues for some time.
The prohibition of that form of cab sleeping is also an important road safety measure. Mandatory weekly rest periods of 45 hours are a fundamental provision of the drivers’ hours rules, which guard against driver fatigue and seek to protect road safety. I am pleased to say that the Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency already has well-advanced plans to step up its enforcement activities to address that issue. From the first of next month, drivers caught taking their full weekly rest in their vehicles may be issued with a financial penalty of £300. Where appropriate, they may also be required to restart their weekly rest period, which we believe should be a significant deterrent to operators that are involved in such behaviour, since it will put contract delivery at risk, with potentially significant financial implications.
Enforcement officers will act proportionately. This is not about waking up drivers in the middle of the night where they are parked in proper facilities in a law-abiding way; it is about deterring problematic behaviour, particularly in certain areas. We will require the DVSA to join up with local police forces, including in Kent, as illegal cab sleeping often goes hand in hand with illegal parking. We recognise that employers, many of which are based overseas, as my hon. Friend highlighted, often encourage or condone their drivers sleeping by the roadside, so it is important that the DVSA also links up with its counterparts abroad to hold culpable operators to account. The DVSA’s current risk-based system for assessing operators needs to be extended.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his intervention. The genius of the debate is not merely that he has anticipated work already under way but that he has anticipated the next phase of work. I am aware, and the Department is aware, that commercial vehicle offences incur higher financial penalties in some neighbouring countries, as he said. We are looking hard at increasing those penalties, potentially up to £3,000 for the most serious offences from a road safety perspective such as the manipulation of tachographs. I hope he will agree that that goes some considerable distance towards meeting some of the issues he has raised, particularly in cases where there are multiple offences across a fleet, and in conjunction with the delay I have already mentioned to a potential contract through restarting the rest period.
I come to the broader question of inappropriate parking, which is inextricably linked to this debate. We recognise that even when spending the odd night parked is fine from the driver’s perspective, if it is done in the wrong location it can still be problematic for the local area. A number of colleagues will have heard my predecessor in this portfolio, the Minister of State, Department for Transport, my right hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr Hayes), debate and discuss the issue of fly-parking by HGVs in Kent. I take this opportunity to reassure hon. Members that that issue, which has been highlighted today, remains firmly in our sights.
Since my right hon. Friend spoke on the matter, a number of measures have been taken forward. I am pleased to note that at the end of this month, Kent Council, with the Department’s support, will launch an innovative new enforcement approach on a trial basis by implementing an overnight parking ban on a stretch of the A20. As part of the trial, it will pilot a policy of clamping first time—immobilising vehicles immediately, instead of waiting until multiple offences are committed. I will watch the outcomes of these measures in Kent carefully—it is an important trial—with a view to sharing and promoting successes that may come out of that.
I recognise the point. The question really is not just whether the trial has that effect—that would be an important outcome—but whether, even adjusting for that, it has deterrent effects. Obviously, as successful as such measures may appear in a trial, they will work only if they can be rolled out across a locality. It will be a wider general enforcement power that will create the genuine incentive to change. Of course, there must be alternatives available in a way that assists the process, and I will come on to that shortly.
So far, I have mainly talked about enforcement-based responses to the problem. Much of this antisocial behaviour is in fact illegal and enforcement is therefore an appropriate and logical response. It is often the case that less responsible hauliers—many of them are based overseas, as my hon. Friend mentioned—encourage their drivers to park up by the side of the road instead of paying for them to use proper facilities. However, we must also recognise that such matters cannot be separated from the wider issue of the shortage of lorry facilities more generally. That point was rightly made by my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Amanda Milling).
My predecessor directed a new survey to be undertaken to understand the scale of the issue. My Department will publish the results shortly, but I inform hon. Members that the situation appears to have become—as many knew or suspected—more acute since the last such survey was undertaken in 2011. It will come as no surprise to hon. Members who represent Kent that that county has again been identified as a hotspot for inappropriate parking, and that proper lorry parking facilities in that county are already largely at capacity. That is also the case in several other parts of the country. It is therefore clear that, in certain areas, enhanced enforcement must go hand in hand with more, and better quality, formal parking sites.
The information collected by the new survey will help local authorities to understand better the parking needs in their areas and, we hope, to make planning decisions accordingly. I know that Kent County Council is already investigating where additional provision is most needed in the county, and Highways England is working closely with it. I am also examining how the Government can best assist local authorities in encouraging additional provision of lorry parking more generally. I will inform the House of my intentions in that area in due course.
My hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey rightly raised Operation Stack, which is an important part of the Government’s planning. As he will be aware, the matter is currently the subject of a judicial review, which has slowed down the process and forced us to consider the interaction between the Stack elements and the wider issue of fly-parking more generally. We wish to resolve the whole thing on both sides in a satisfactory way, and we will make—and in due course announce to the House—plans for contingency arrangements to accommodate that. It is important that he realise that we also understand, as a separate matter, the importance of providing separate facilities irrespective of what transpires with Stack; I want to give him comfort in that regard.
We are undertaking essential contingency planning to cope with all eventualities, but we also need to recognise the issue more widely, in Kent and nationally. I thank my hon. Friend for this highly constructive debate, and I thank hon. Friends and colleagues across the House for their valuable contributions.
Question put and agreed to.
Royal Mail Delivery Office Closures
[Mike Gapes in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered Royal Mail delivery office closures.
It is a real pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gapes. I was prompted to seek the debate because my constituency is threatened with the closure of two delivery offices, and I understand the impact that those closures will have on my constituents if they go ahead. I also want to highlight the wider pattern of delivery office closures, which affect not only my constituents but communities across the country, which I believe to be a direct, damaging consequence of the coalition Government’s decision to privatise Royal Mail in 2013.
Earlier this year, Royal Mail announced plans to close the West Norwood and East Dulwich delivery offices in my constituency. Since then, more than 1,000 local residents have contacted me to express their opposition to the closures, and many have also written to Royal Mail’s chief executive, Moya Greene. People from all walks of life have attended three public protests on the issue, among them wheelchair users, small business owners, home workers and many families and elderly residents who are keen to speak out on the impact that the loss of their local delivery office will have on them.
Royal Mail delivery offices are where the final stage in the mail sorting process takes place, the depots from which postal workers collect their rounds, and the front counter facilities where customers can collect parcels, recorded delivery mail and mail sent to a PO box address. Royal Mail argues that because a parcel can be left with a neighbour or have its delivery rescheduled, communities can manage without delivery offices, but there are many people for whom those options simply do not work, including those who work long hours; the many small business owners and sole traders who prefer to collect their mail from their local delivery office precisely because they can pick it up at a time of their choosing, allowing them to get on with other important meetings and errands rather than being tied inflexibly to a particular location; and people who simply do not have the time to be tied to their home just to wait for a delivery.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on calling this debate. Does she agree that often the most vulnerable people—elderly people and so on—who are restricted by problematic public transport such as a lack of buses are also hit hard by these closures?
I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. Does she also agree that where offices are proposed for closure as part of wider regeneration plans, as is the case in my constituency in relation to Stretford sorting office, it is important that new public facilities are considered as part of that regeneration?
I concur with the congratulations to my hon. Friend on securing the debate. Does she recognise that when Royal Mail argues, as it has in the case of the proposed closure of the Holbeck delivery office in my constituency, that it will
“improve facilities for our customers in the LS11 postcode area”,
that kind of comment provokes a hollow laugh on the part of residents who will have to travel much further, taking in some cases not one but two buses to pick up a letter or parcel from the office that Royal Mail now tells them they will have to go to, if the closure goes ahead? We are very much resisting the closure, together with the Communication Workers Union.
My right hon. Friend is right to make that point. Extended delivery hours at a location very far from where residents live is no substitute for having a facility directly in their community. That is exactly the issue we are debating.
There is also a significant problem for customers who pay to use the PO box service, for the confidentiality and convenience that provides, and for whom Royal Mail appears not to have accounted at all in its plans. Delivery offices are also part of the fabric of our communities. There is a strong relationship between Royal Mail staff and the customers they serve, which makes the institutions more than simply transactional in the role they play.
The closures Royal Mail is proposing in my constituency would severely restrict the accessibility of services for my constituents. Under the proposals, residents in the SE27 postcode area, who currently use the West Norwood delivery office, would be required to travel not to the next nearest delivery office, which is too small to accommodate the work from West Norwood, but to a delivery office three miles away, which requires them to take two different buses on congested roads: a journey that can easily take an hour each way, not accounting for the queuing time that will inevitably result from more mail being delivered at that delivery office.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. I want to make an observation that I hope she will agree with. There is a general decline in our parcel service, which is exacerbated by the closures of facilities. I think 38% of parcels arrive late, 28% of parcels are left in insecure areas, and 28% of people get a note through the door saying that nobody was in when there was. What I find most difficult to accept is that all these closures have taken place without public consultation.
It is precisely my argument that Royal Mail needs to compete on quality, not simply seek to reduce its costs to survive in the competitive environment it finds itself in.
The impact is similar in East Dulwich, where residents will have to travel to Peckham to collect their post, to a delivery office that is not easy to find and which has no dedicated parking. In East Dulwich, it is accepted by staff that the current delivery office building is not fit for purpose, but that is only because of the immense growth in parcel deliveries at that location, which means that the workload has outgrown the site. That is only an argument for finding new premises in the SE22 postcode area, not an argument for forcing residents to travel longer distances to collect their mail.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on bringing a very important issue to the House. I apologise that I will have to leave early—I have already apologised to the Chair and Minister. The hon. Lady refers to parcel services. A large number of constituents do not have access to the internet or computers or may not be computer literate. Therefore, when it comes to arranging delivery, they cannot use the alternatives of parcel lockers or click and collect. Does she feel that Royal Mail has not been fair to its bread-and-butter customers who have kept it going all these years?
The hon. Gentleman’s point is well made. I will come on to data that clearly prove that it is the overwhelming preference of customers to have parcels delivered to their home and not to any other location.
The much longer journeys will clearly be even more challenging for older people, disabled residents and those with very small children. As one of my constituents —a 77-year-old pensioner who cares full-time for her disabled adult daughter—has described in a letter to Moya Greene,
“this journey would be exhausting but since I do not drive and I am unable to afford a taxi, there would be no alternative to it.”
Royal Mail has argued that a need for modernisation is driving the changes, but when I visited the West Norwood delivery office during the very busy Christmas peak period it was clear that it is a modern, efficient working environment. The staff are dedicated and hard-working, and they provide an excellent service to their customers.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. She speaks of distance. Does she agree that there will be a massive problem across rural Britain if this goes ahead? Royal Mail is supposed to be here to serve us, but on this it is not doing so.
I thank my hon. Friend very much for that intervention. The issue of distance applies in rural areas, but in urban areas congestion and journey time rather than distance are the impediment to accessibility. Her point is well made.
The issue is far from unique to my constituency. Between the privatisation of Royal Mail in October 2013 and May 2017, 142 delivery offices—10% of the network—have been closed, and more offices are at risk of closure. Royal Mail has sold more than £200 million-worth of property and it is expected to receive at least a further £500 million of receipts shortly. At the same time, it has paid out more than £800 million in dividends, with an annual dividend now running at more than £220 million. Its chief executive is paid an annual package worth £1.9 million.
Concerns were raised time and time again by Labour MPs during the passage of the Postal Services Act 2011 under the coalition Government that privatisation would place the motive of delivering profits for shareholders at the heart of the organisation and that that would drive down the quality of service for Royal Mail customers and compromise terms and conditions for staff. The Government argued that that would not happen, because the investment funds Royal Mail would be able to access as a consequence of privatisation would be significant, but that is exactly what has happened.
There is no doubt that the postal delivery market is extremely competitive and that Royal Mail is operating in a difficult context, but it is far from clear that Royal Mail’s approach makes good business sense. In addition to providing facilities for mail collection, delivery offices are the depots from which postal workers begin their rounds. Fewer delivery offices mean that postal workers will have further to travel from their base to their rounds, resulting in mail deliveries taking place later in the day.
Among Royal Mail’s customers there is demand for high-quality delivery services, in part fuelled by the continued growth in online shopping, which means that while the number of letters delivered has reduced, the number of parcels delivered is still growing every year. A recent Ofcom survey found that 70% of people still prefer their parcels to be delivered to their home, rather than to work or a click and collect facility. While many competitors offer increasingly short delivery time slots, Royal Mail services in many areas are becoming later, less predictable and therefore less convenient.
Royal Mail was privatised in a shambolic fashion. The coalition Government rushed through the privatisation, with the then Chancellor desperate for funds to prop up his failing austerity agenda. In their rush to sell, the Government grossly underestimated the value of Royal Mail, with its shares jumping 38% on the first day of trading and the taxpayer losing out to the tune of an estimated £1 billion, according to the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee. The Committee also set out how the Government failed to reap the benefits of the sale of Royal Mail assets included in the privatisation package. The Government ignored National Audit Office advice to remove those assets, notably the network of delivery offices, from the privatisation deal or to add clawback provisions on the future sale of properties. The Government valued three London sites at around £200 million, when the NAO thought they could be worth anywhere between £330 million and £830 million.
Royal Mail continues to sell sites across London at eye-watering prices, to no taxpayer benefit and with no reinvestment in its services to customers. I should be clear, however, that Royal Mail is mistaken if it believes that its site in West Norwood is a potentially lucrative housing site. The site is situated in Lambeth Council’s key industrial and business area, or KIBA, which provides strong protection to employment land uses. There is no possibility that Royal Mail will be able to sell that site for housing.
The Government also failed to define the universal service obligation beyond mail delivery, to secure an appropriate geographical distribution of delivery offices and the time and frequency of deliveries for the future. As a consequence, the social contract at the heart of Royal Mail’s relationship with the communities it serves has been broken. The organisation is orientated only toward profits, while at the same time alienating its workforce with a damaging attack on staff pensions and other terms and conditions. It is not acceptable that pensioners and disabled people in my constituency should have to travel an hour each way to collect their mail while £800 million is distributed to shareholders and the chief executive of Royal Mail is paid almost £2 million a year.
I call on the Government to recognise the scale of the problem, the aggressive approach that Royal Mail is taking to the disposal of its land assets and the total disregard that the organisation is showing for the customers and communities it was created to serve. If no action is taken, our postal delivery service will continue to be decimated and vulnerable residents, disabled people, parents with small children and small business owners will lose out the most. Privatisation is not working for Royal Mail’s customers or for postal workers, and it is time for the Government to take action. A Labour Government would take Royal Mail back into public sector ownership and replace profit with public service at the heart of the organisation.
Will the Minister commit to take action to safeguard delivery offices and the services that communities across the country rely on, and intervene to regulate Royal Mail? Will the Minister also support my urgent call on Royal Mail to scrap its closure plans in West Norwood and East Dulwich, and ensure that its vital services remain accessible to my constituents in SE27 and SE22, and across the country?
Thank you for letting me speak in this important debate, Mr Gapes. I pay tribute to the Communication Workers Union, whose members feel strongly about this matter, and have voted overwhelmingly to strike in protection of their pay and pensions.
Since the privatisation of Royal Mail in October 2013, as my hon. Friend the Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes) said, 142 delivery offices have closed. That is 10% of the network. Thankfully, my delivery office in Hartlepool is not one of them, but with closures happening at such a pace, I wonder when it will be our turn. The impact of a delivery office closure on the public is immense. Losing them not only deprives people of a local place to go to collect their parcels or undelivered post, but often means they must commute to the next town or beyond to access a service that all of us rely on at some point.
The Royal Mail is able to make these changes because the provision of delivery offices is not regulated. As we found with the closure of our central post office in Hartlepool earlier this year, a short consultation is often followed by swift closure. There are implications for pay and pensions in those closures, as there were in that closure and in the transfer of staff to WHSmith. The current CWU dispute is about fighting the introduction of an inferior pension scheme and a below-inflation pay offer. People rely on a delivery office being close to hand. The programme of managed decline needs to be stopped before any more damage is done, more jobs are lost and more communities lose these important assets.
Thank you for allowing me to speak, Mr Gapes. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes) for bringing the debate to Westminster Hall. Mike Weir, my predecessor for Angus, worked hard on the issue of closures of local post offices and it seems entirely fitting that I speak with that in mind. We are fortunate in this country to have the Royal Mail operating as the UK’s designated universal service provider, making sure that six days per week we still get our post, no matter how rural our homes. Being from Angus myself, I know full well how remote some of those households can be.
Without a doubt, the delivery sector faces increased pressures, as demand drops and competitors such as TNT, DPD, Yodel and, of course, Amazon seek to break into the market. In addition, as alternative, faster and cheaper forms of communication become more established and, indeed, essential to more people and organisations, it will not be easy for the Royal Mail to continue with business as usual.
While I am not aware of a specific number of closures planned in my constituency, I will monitor the situation closely to ensure that each major town—Forfar, Kirriemuir, Brechin, Montrose and Arbroath—is looked out for. Each of those delivery offices provides a source of employment, which is vital in my constituency with its higher than average unemployment level. It is also an important local service, which no one with Angus’s interests in mind wants to see weakened or reduced.
However, I am encouraged by a recent example from just over the county’s border in Carnoustie. While it was disappointing that the Carnoustie office closed in June 2016, the positive to take from that closure is that services were transferred to the nearby Dundee east office and no job losses were incurred. I absolutely appreciate the concern that even when jobs are protected there is still a risk to the local economy, as staff may move away and take businesses with them. Furthermore, as previous hon. Members have mentioned, we must never forget how dependent the public in a rural area such as Angus are on those offices. People who rely on public transport or who are disabled could well face tougher journeys to reach larger, more centralised delivery offices. My promise to my constituents is that I will always seek to protect their interests in these matters and make sure that Angus residents get the best services possible.
I thank the hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes) for securing the debate. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gapes.
If a post office fails, a lot of people are in trouble. The slash-and-burn approach to closing scores of outlets across Scotland and the UK is nothing short of a disgrace. Public opinion has been ignored and a blind eye turned to the needs of our communities. Crown post offices are being closed down and replaced by counters in stores. The House of Commons Library analysis shows that in Scotland there are now 1,403 post offices, down from 1,904 in 2002.
Those who work with vulnerable groups have highlighted the damaging effect that the closures will have on the elderly, disabled and unemployed. The picture I see is of a fast disappearing network, leaving Scottish citizens, especially in the more isolated communities, stranded. Some of the most remote parts of the country are among the hardest hit, with about half the abandoned branches in the sparsely populated highlands and islands of Scotland, where residents most need them. Tory cuts to local post offices threaten the economic wellbeing and the social fabric of local communities all over the country and need to be stopped. Hundreds of jobs will be lost across the country and workers’ rights eroded. The Communication Workers Union has revealed that the post office network has been reduced by more than 50% over the past three decades.
The Post Office claims that there is good public transport and people can simply “get on their bike”—to coin a phrase—and find another one, but that is a triumph of imagination over fact. For many, the cull of this vital network means that there is no longer a meeting point where they can easily collect their pensions or have access to the advice and support on a range of issues that their local office offers. It is a human touch that goes beyond just stamps and letters. To suggest that there are always easy bus routes or that vulnerable people can simply jump on public transport to another town is out of touch, to put it mildly. This Government seem to know the price of everything and the value of nothing.
In my constituency of Falkirk, within the existing delivery office is the main post office counter. Yes, we have sub-post offices in the town, but the future of that office, which serves the local businesses and communities well in the town centre, is in jeopardy. So far, there is no clear indication of what will happen to that counter if the delivery office closes. Can I have an answer to the delivery office closing in Falkirk? Have communities or council been consulted? How does a small sub-post office deal with parcels? There are so many questions about the future of that delivery office and post office counter. There has been a total lack of information for the public; there have been no details of future plans, including on the use of the existing building.
The same seems to apply across a host of other towns and communities. A reply that I received from a fellow Scottish MP, the hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Hugh Gaffney), a CWU member, confirmed that uncertainty about the future and a lack of any decision information being communicated.
A very clear concern is that some offices allow foreign students to use the Home Office biometric enrolment service. Does that transfer across to other offices? Is there a plan to ensure that that service will be protected? In Falkirk, a large number of overseas students use the local Forth Valley College, which will benefit from an £82 million investment to build a brand-new college. Surely a service for overseas students such as that should be introduced where needed and protected when in place.
As usual with this Government, there is far too much uncertainty. Is the problem planned mismanagement failure or sheer incompetence? People can make up their own mind, but I know one thing: these short-term policies have been practised for far too long. While the UK Government preach to us about building a shared society, the destruction of yet another public service shows that we are reaching the point where we will have little left to share.
Post Office bosses say that franchising will keep services
“where customers want and need them”,
but I cannot see how that can be the case when public opinion seems not to have been considered. The Tory Government have to take responsibility and set out a proper strategy for the Post Office. The public as well as the local businesses that rely on the post office have a right to expect more than this managed decline. For many people, the post office is a lifeline, and the steady closures that we have seen over recent years raise serious questions about whether many of these communities will ever have a branch again.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gapes. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes) on securing this important debate. It is a pleasure to speak in a debate considering the future of our post offices. This consideration is happening at a time when a wider struggle within Royal Mail is taking place. I speak today in support of my hon. Friend’s comments on post office closures, and of the men and women across the country in this sector. I am a CWU member and supporter of its four pillars campaign, which seeks, as we have heard, improvements to pensions, pay, conditions and the business vision in Royal Mail more widely.
It is not just post office closures but the wider context that we are minded to consider. Across the service, post offices close, with consequences for local communities. There is a policy on open vacancies which leaves positions unfilled to save on costs. For postal workers I know, staff shortages lead to a workload that is too great and pressures that have consequences for health and life outside work. The workload increases and will continue to do so with post office closures, while the hours to complete the job are reduced and the pressure to take on the workload without extra hours is ramped up. Let us not confuse choosing overtime with being overworked.
My constituency towns of Bury, Tottington and Ramsbottom want Royal Mail to look after their postal workers and value their post offices. Those men and women work long hours—ever-changing hours—doing physical work to deliver items that we deem important to send or receive. They enrich our communities and play an important part in keeping our towns, cities and economies running. With industrial action now planned—it was voted for by a huge 89.1% of the members—the dispute will spill out into the consciousness of the wider public and, I hope, sharpen minds as to the threat to postal services more widely. If it does not do that, the threat of a High Court battle certainly will, and I think news of that will be met with sympathy.
The cause and the proposed way forward outlined by the CWU is fair and righteous. Royal Mail has a fight on its hands. Workers inside Royal Mail are fighting, but outside it matters, too. They are fighting for an economy that works for everyone, for this struggle could be just as much about the workers and the emergent business model that we now see in the UK. Evidence given yesterday by Deliveroo, Uber and Hermes in the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee put that on show for all to see.
I associate myself with all the comments made by hon. Members about Royal Mail closures. Does my hon. Friend agree that the companies that he mentions have taken advantage of the gig economy to undermine workers’ rights and force many hard-working employees into uncertain terms and conditions and precarious work over the past decade?
I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention and absolutely agree with her comments. In the struggle at Royal Mail, we see the argument being made by the workers for an economy that does not deny or prevent profits paying for public services, but argues, as I do, that workers and business models are not just assets to be sweated for maximum immediate gain. We are talking about industry that provides good employment and good career prospects, with development, investment and good profit, which is not exploitative—a sustainable business for the future. Towns such as mine still have the rows of terraced houses built by employers for their workers in a different age. That age has passed of course, but it was an example of employers looking after their workforce and not complaining of high turnover of staff or sick rates without connecting poor working practices, which they determine, to those issues. I am talking about short-sighted commercial ideals. It is not too much to expect that postal workers in my region and staff in post offices elsewhere should be well paid, can save for retirement and can trust the leadership of the organisation to step up to the opportunities that a changing economy brings.
The repeal Bill going through Parliament will challenge assumptions that we have as a country about working practices that we take for granted. Those measures were bombarded on the way into law and will be under attack as they are transferred across from the EU statute book, too. I am talking about health and safety at work, working conditions and treatment of staff, employed or self-employed. The ever more likely US-made models of employment that we see can undermine working conditions for millions of people trying to make ends meet if we do not argue for a settlement that works for all.
I support the plan, which does not ignore business needs and does not ignore the pressures that Royal Mail is under. A costed plan was submitted by the CWU with the backing of its members that included the appliance of risk to a pension pot to be put on the members of the pension scheme and away from the company. It is worth noting at this point that for 11 years Royal Mail did not contribute to the pension pot, while its workers continued to do so and, as has been mentioned, it is on course to take £1 billion out of the business while post offices close.
I support the responsible approach taken by the union and its understanding of the pressures the company is under, but Royal Mail has picked up the bits of the plan that work for it, and stripped that of its balancing qualities. The gain has been reframed but the pain has been retained. Royal Mail should be setting standards in this sector for the future, not dismissing the workers’ proposals to introduce wider scope for post offices and postal workers. A postal worker’s role can expand as per the workers’ plans. I know that there is enthusiasm among Royal Mail workers to broker a future as a unionised workforce, sharing the interests of growth, helping deliver it, in the certainty that they have a place in it and a share in its rewards.
Sitting suspended for Divisions in the House.
It is a delight to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gapes, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes) on securing this debate. The attendance both before and after the Divisions, which were an interruption of our discussion this afternoon, really shows that there is significant interest in this issue right across the House.
Of course, mail services are incredibly important to the public, whether for sending personal items, gifts or communications. They are also important for our economy. The rise in online shopping is important; for retailers seeking to branch out and sell to people in different parts of the country, mail services are certainly a significant part of the equation.
Parcel delivery ought to be an increasingly important part of Royal Mail’s business, particularly because of the decline in letter volumes, which has been a trend for some years now. We can all regret that fact, but it is a pretty consistent trend and we all know why—the advent of new technology. However, the parcel delivery market, which has grown with internet shopping, shows real scope for increase and additional business opportunities. Many of us will know our local delivery offices very well, having been invited every year to visit them, especially around Christmas time. I have visited the various delivery offices in my constituency and I am sure other hon. Members have visited the delivery offices in theirs.
I want to talk in particular about the challenges for Bishopbriggs delivery office, which is to be closed and merged into the Kirkintilloch delivery office under new Royal Mail proposals. The Kirkintilloch delivery office does a good job for Kirkintilloch, as the Bishopbriggs office has done for Bishopbriggs, but it is four miles away. I am concerned about the potential impact of that closure, should it go ahead, both for customers—that is to say, members of the public—and staff. The round trip would be around an hour on public transport. Even in a car it would certainly take over half an hour to collect a parcel and get back. That adds a layer of inconvenience for customers who would previously have been able to go to their local delivery office in the town in which they live, at a time that worked for them, to pick up a parcel while running other errands.
Given that people are often not in when the postman or postwoman calls, being able to collect a parcel locally is important. The move will also potentially have negative consequences for staff, and not just in terms of the base moving and the longer journeys, so I want Royal Mail to guarantee that it will not be used to undermine existing jobs in the Bishopbriggs office. There should be guarantees for those workers.
I want to pick up on the Royal Mail’s claim that no inconvenience will be caused; I share the concern of the hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood about how it proposes to deal with this issue. It says that it can deliver to other addresses or on a different day. Some individuals have a good relationship with a neighbour whom they know will always be in, so that can certainly work well, but not everybody is in that situation, and the neighbour may be out when the delivery arrives.
Delivery on a different day sometimes makes sense. It might be fine if someone who works Monday to Friday and is out when Royal Mail tries to deliver a parcel on Thursday says, “Can you deliver it on Saturday?”, but for many people that is inconvenient. Royal Mail ought to be thinking much more proactively, even if some closures do go ahead. I certainly hope that it will think again in the case of Bishopbriggs. Given that it is looking at the issue, it ought to be more proactive in looking at networks of local collection points. That could be of benefit not only in areas where there are potential changes to delivery offices, but much more widely.
I am aware of a programme called Royal Mail local collect, which I understand is fairly new, whereby local post offices can be used and chosen as a collection point. That has its merits, as far as it goes, but it seems to me that that option can be chosen only when making the online purchase. If Royal Mail has that system already in place, why can it not be offered as an option to people who are not in when the delivery arrives? Instead of choosing for it to be delivered on a different day or to a different address, they could choose for it to be delivered to their local post office. That would be helpful not only in places where delivery offices close, but for many people in rural communities, which the hon. Member for Clwyd South (Susan Elan Jones) mentioned.
Many people will have a post office that is much closer to where they live than their nearest delivery office. That is an obvious potential solution that has not been properly explored. Clearly, there would be some cost to Royal Mail, and there would be a potential income stream for the Post Office, which I am sure it would welcome and would help it improve its sustainability. The relationship between post offices and the Royal Mail has been strong over many years, so it strikes me that that really ought to be explored further. Although there might be a cost to the Post Office, it is important to note that there is, of course, a cost to every failed delivery that Royal Mail tries to undertake.
I appreciate that other hon. Members want to speak and that we have been slightly waylaid by Divisions. I have been raising these issues with Royal Mail and I hope that the Minister will do likewise. The Government have sold off the last public stake in the Post Office—the 30%, which I think should still have been maintained because the Government should have a public stake in Royal Mail. None the less, the Minister still has influence and is able to meet with Royal Mail’s senior management. I very much hope that she will take these points, and the others that have been made in this debate, strongly and forcefully to Royal Mail.
Order. Before I call the next speaker, I inform Members that this debate will conclude at 4.48 pm, because we have injury time. There are three Front-Bench speeches and two Back-Bench speeches, so we have until about 4.18 pm before we have to start the Front-Bench speeches.
I will be as brief as I can. I worked for Royal Mail and am still employed there—I am on a five-year career break—and I am proud to be a Communication Workers Union member. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes) for calling this debate and ensuring that as many Members know about this issue as possible.
This is an important debate for me. I spent 27 years working for Parcelforce—I am still employed by it—delivering in and around my constituency, which I am now fortunate enough to represent here in Westminster. In fact, when I chat on doorsteps, I simply ask local people to keep letting me deliver for them—this time in Westminster rather than in the villages and rural areas around Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill.
This debate is not just important for me; it is important for everyone in this country, from Land’s End to John O’Groats. I spoke out against and challenged the privatisation of Royal Mail by the coalition Government. I was here at the time campaigning; my name is mentioned three times in Hansard. I was really involved in this debate. It is very hard for me to accept some of the stuff that the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) said, because the Lib Dems made many bad decisions during those five years. Inconvenience—Royal Mail was not for sale. It should never have been sold, and I cannot help but remind colleagues that it was taken through this House by the Lib Dems’ current leader. I will not name him, but I will not forget him.
It will not be a surprise to Members who follow me on Twitter and know a little about me that I am a proud member of the Communication Workers Union. My focus is on Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill, but I very much view part of my role in this House as standing up for workers in this country—in particular, our postmen, people on zero-hours contracts and every single working person in this country who is being treated wrongly in my eyes.
Since Royal Mail was privatised in 2013 until May 2017, 142 delivery offices have been closed. That amounts to losing 10% of the network in just three and a half years. Disgracefully, more offices are now slated for closure as Royal Mail looks to implement a wide-ranging and unwanted cost-cutting programme. These closures mean something. They have an impact; they change people’s lives for the worse. I cannot understand how closing delivery centres can be defended when we know the impact that will have on older people, those with disabilities and mobility issues, and those without a car.
The hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire mentioned that letters are in decline and yes, letters are declining, but packets and parcels are increasing because people now live off the internet. They do not go shopping any more, and the Royal Mail carries the bulk of that post. Remember that, because the strike is coming up. The disadvantage and disruption caused could be huge, and there is little interest in addressing it, made worse by the fact that a privatised Royal Mail could make the changes because the provision of delivery offices and collection points is not regulated. It can do what it wants, without question—perhaps the Minister will take that up for us and have a look.
The changes and the resulting problems are affecting all parts of our country. My hon. Friend the Member for East Lothian (Martin Whitfield) has been working with his community to stop the closure in Gullane.
Just to explain, when the bank branch in Gullane, East Lothian, was closed, the bank held up the post office as the answer to all the problems. Unfortunately, because of an illness, the post office closed, though only temporarily. However, that temporary closure continues, apart from two hours a week when the post office is in the village hall. That is unsatisfactory for the community and is tearing the heart out of the high street. It needs to be stopped. There is a responsibility to communities.
That is happening up and down the country—or else the banks are meant to replace the post offices, but the banks and the post offices are all shutting down. Need I say more? Instead, let us open another betting shop, another place to gamble money away or treat people wrongly with charity shops.
My hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West) has been leading a campaign against closures in her part of north London, a campaign that has developed a real following in print and social media, because people are fed up. Those are just some examples of what is happening, and we have heard many more, including from the hon. Member for Falkirk (John Mc Nally). I thank him for that.
I cannot speak today without mentioning the Royal Mail dispute that has been in the media recently. It will continue to be in the media. For those who do not know, 110,000 postal workers in Royal Mail were balloted on whether they supported taking industrial action—110,000 people up and down the length and breadth of this country, United Kingdom workers who check our letter boxes every single day, in all kinds of weather, six days a week, with a universal service obligation or USO to do that. That is what the Royal Mail got when we privatised it.
Millions have fought and died for the rights of workers and working people, and it is the right of all of us to withdraw our labour if the right terms and conditions are not in place.
The hon. Gentleman just mentioned the Royal Mail dispute. Does he agree that the results of the ballot, which easily surpassed the restrictions imposed by the Tory anti-trade-union Act, show the depth of feeling of the Royal Mail workforce?
Totally. This is all about anti-trade-union laws and workers again being treated the wrong way. A yes vote of 89.1% on a turnout of 73.7% suggests that the country is standing up to the Government and saying, “Enough is enough!” Every community should support our postal workers, because they are doing their best. They are only human beings, working-class people, doing their best and serving their communities every single day—support them.
I hope that a strong, collective and loud voice will be heard loudly and clearly not only by Members in this House but by Royal Mail bosses—I know you are listening and, if you are, come and join us, sit at the table, look us in the eye and talk. The postal workers do not want to go on strike; they want a deal, and a deal can be done. That is all we are asking for.
What are the postal workers going on strike for? Pensions. Royal Mail announced changes to pension agreements that will see thousands of working people stand to lose up to 45% of their entitlement. People are living longer, so how dare they? It beggars belief to make changes that will see people thousands of pounds worse off in retirement. That is what the strike is about. It is not just about the pay—they were due a pay rise in April this year, but no rise came. Four pillars are mentioned, but pensions is the thing we are talking about, because they are attacking workers.
While workers got no pay rise in April, chief executive officer Moya Greene—listen to this, Moya—received a 23% increase in her pay package and took home almost £2 million. Is that the country we live in now? Moya, you have been asked to go to the table—go to the table, sit down and talk to the workers. How can Royal Mail not want to invest in and support its workforce? How can it not do that? We have just heard those figures, and Royal Mail’s failure reflects the wider issues we have in this country—working people are suffering and it will only get worse unless we see my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition in Downing Street. He will be welcome any time.
There are issues around industrial agreements and, more widely, the future of Royal Mail. Where are we? Rather than wanting to get around the table, and rather than wanting to negotiate and show some respect, Royal Mail has decided on immediate legal action. We are going to the High Court tomorrow. That is what we receive for the high result despite the anti-trade union laws—we play by the book, we get the result, but Royal Mail still wants to go to the High Court.
The CWU is not afraid of debate and mediation. It is committed to finding the best way forward for its members, for the future of the service and, importantly, for the millions of people across the four nations that make up our United Kingdom. I condemn the Royal Mail for going to the High Court, but the CWU will be there tomorrow, at 10.30 am, and I hope to join our CWU members there—everyone is more than welcome to come and join me.
Finally, I again thank my hon. Friend the Member for Dulwich and West Norwood for securing the debate. This is such an important issue, not only for Royal Mail workers and the ordinary people of this country, but for everyone. We are not going down the way, we want their pay up the way.
It is an honour to speak in this debate under your chairmanship, Mr Gapes, and I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes) for securing it. It is a fantastic debate.
I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Hugh Gaffney) for a fantastic speech. Many on the Opposition Benches hope that his five-year career break will be a lot longer than five years. We need to hear his voice in this place, and it is a privilege to speak after him.
One of the key reasons why Opposition Members are opposed to the privatisation of national public assets such as Royal Mail is that we see no benefit for the country as a whole, just a benefit for a small handful of individuals who profit at the expense of the many. The number of Labour MPs who have turned out for this debate is instructive, while the sterling turnout on the Government Benches is a tumbleweed turnout—no one to speak up for the Government side, except of course for the Minister.
The British post has been one of the best in the world for almost two centuries: fast, reliable and much cheaper than that of nearly other country in the world. Also, it is—or was—a technological leader. It is widely envied throughout the world, not least because it has been a key historical driver in the UK economy.
When we opposed privatisation, we did so because we predicted that the only things it would lead to would be a worse service to the public and, as usual, the resulting extra profits being scooped off by the usual small cosy elites. I have to say that it looks like that is exactly what has happened. I will not go into the details, which we heard from Members earlier, because time is pressing.
I will say, however, that as the service is being squeezed, assets are literally being flogged off, with £200 million in property sales since privatisation. Fat dividend payouts to shareholders are estimated at £1 billion over the four years post-privatisation, and there have been the huge pay rises for senior managers for whom the word “privatisation” is like the word “Christmas” for a five-year-old. In 2016-17, Royal Mail’s chief executive, Moya Greene—I think my hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill told her, poignantly, to get her arse to the negotiating table and negotiate with the CWU—saw her total pay package increase by 23% to £1.9 million. I could not even begin to think about how to spend that.
The Conservative party likes to present itself as the party of business, the real world and responsibility, but in reality it is the complete opposite. It has taken a key component of a modern manufacturing economy, which is already a world leader in its field in nearly all measures, and has undermined it and hollowed it out to skim off short-term profits and shower them like confetti on a small, self-seeking minority. It has achieved much of that by chipping away at the quality of service and flogging off assets for one-time profit hits. The other obvious target for the vulture capitalists and asset strippers is the rights of the workforce, with attacks on pensions, pay and agreements.
On pensions, there is a new scheme that, according to Royal Mail’s own pension trustees, will produce pensions so small that Royal Mail pensioners will live in poverty. Who will make up the living standards of those workers? Other taxpayers, naturally. Once again, the management of a privatised asset have transferred costs on to the shoulders of us ordinary taxpayers and shovelled the profits into their own pockets. We can be pretty confident that plenty of that profit will find its way out of the country and to the spivvy tax havens of the rich, where it will be of almost no benefit to this country’s economy.
On pay, I have already mentioned Moya Greene’s generous offer to herself of a 23% pay increase this year. What has she offered her workers? A below-inflation pay offer. Let us call that what it is: a pay cut.
On industrial agreements, there has been an attempt to ram through huge alterations to agreements reached with workers through the CWU. Let us be clear: Royal Mail is reneging on its deals. It has already been mentioned that, unsurprisingly, when balloted on strike action, on a 73% turnout, 89% of Royal Mail workers voted for strike action. That is as clear a mandate as any decision ever gets, and in a healthy work culture it is a clear signal to management to start re-thinking their policies. But that is not where we are. Instead, management have merely threatened legal action against their employees—a bully-boy tactic that they are unlikely to use because they fear the cost of their likely defeat in court.
What my constituents want, and what the country needs, is not macho posturing by Royal Mail management. Nor do we need to see them handing one another more fat-cat bonuses and closing down more services. The actions of companies like Royal Mail affect all of us and none of us can ignore them, even if we wish to. That means that management need to consider their social licence to operate—the consent that the people, through their elected representatives, give them to operate. I believe that they have lost it. Without that, they do not have a right to be there and to do what they are doing to Royal Mail.
I thank the hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes) for securing this important debate.
Any uncertainty that affects our postal services causes alarm, because our post offices and Royal Mail are institutions that are still held in much affection and esteem, despite the politics that sadly so often swallows them up. Royal Mail is special, because it has a unique position in the United Kingdom postal market as the universal service provider and it is by far the largest operator in that market. Consumers want and employees need Royal Mail to give full details of planned closures and the scale of any planned job losses.
Importantly, absolute cast-iron guarantees are needed that any closures will not affect the delivery of the universal service obligation, which we all hold dear. Telling the public that the number of facilities is to reduce is not the same as being clear and open about the overall plans. We need to see a full list of offices and timescales of proposed closures. We are all concerned about piecemeal reductions in this key network, as a major public service provider. We need to know what we are dealing with and to have a detailed plan in front of us.
These measures could be particularly alarming for Scotland. I urge Royal Mail to factor the geographical spread of delivery offices, not just the volumes of mail, into any analysis of proposals to close delivery offices.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way; this has been a disjointed debate and I fear that we might have another Division soon, so I want to make this point in case I am not able to return for the closing speeches.
On locations, the Minister will recall that, in the last debate on this issue, I placed particular emphasis on the effect on deprived areas. She said that she would look into that. Does the hon. Lady hope, as I do, that the Minister will refer to the effect on deprived areas across the United Kingdom?
Indeed; I would expect socio-economic and geographical factors to feature largely in Royal Mail’s considerations and in the Minister’s response.
The figures that we have heard today show that parcel delivery services are a huge part of our economy and are very important to Royal Mail. Indeed, increased parcel delivery was cited as one of the main reasons that Royal Mail’s annual profit rose by 25% this year. We know that parcels are frequently delivered when recipients are at work or otherwise not at home, so trips to delivery offices need to be manageable and realistic, and those offices need to be accessible, particularly in rural areas.
Order. We have another Division. If there are two or three, I am afraid we will have to come back later, but I hope that there will be just one, in which case we will return in 15 minutes. If the Front Benchers are here before then, I will start the closing speeches straight away.
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
Given the growth in the online parcel economy and the digital economy, and given the importance of parcel delivery in general and to the Royal Mail in particular, it seems odd that Royal Mail delivery offices face cuts and closures. Digital connectivity is very important to our economy and parcel delivery has grown enormously —it is soaring, in fact—due to our increasingly large digital marketplace. According to Ofcom, in 2015-16 almost 2 billion parcels were delivered, which is an average of 30 parcels per head of population in one year. Any closures must not disproportionately affect our rural communities, which could be hit very hard by ill-considered decisions on closures.
However, I cannot help feeling that today we are simply bemoaning and lamenting the symptoms of the ill-judged decision to privatise Royal Mail in the first place. Many of us predicted that such privatisation would lead to a reduction in postal services in rural areas, and over the last four years that certainly seems to have been borne out, as pointed out by my hon. Friend the Member for Falkirk.
The Tories and Lib Dems, having formed the coalition, were part of the decision-making process to privatise the Royal Mail. I wonder today whether they regret that decision; perhaps the Minister can tell us. Sadly and regrettably, under the last Labour Government we had to endure the rolling programme of post office closures that hit my own constituency very hard indeed. Wiser people than I have stated categorically that the Royal Mail was sold off for far less than it was worth.
Ultimately, the very future of our delivery service is at stake and I fear that the universal service provision is under real threat. I also fear for the future of the entire estate and the public service that it provides. As the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mike Hill) has pointed out, there is the prospect of the first national strike since Royal Mail was privatised. Royal Mail workers have voted massively in favour of a walkout in a bitter dispute over pensions, pay and jobs. Of course, industrial action was backed by a huge 89% on a turnout of 73% of the 110,000 members of the Communication Workers Union who were balloted, passing even the UK Government’s threshold for strike action under the terms of the Trade Union Act 2017, as pointed out by my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens).
Significantly, the unions believe that there has been a
“relentless programme of cost-cutting to maximise short-term profits and shareholder returns”,
creating a climate of fear and insecurity in Royal Mail. As outlined by the hon. Member for Bury North (James Frith), that situation has not been helped by the prospect or threat of legal action to prevent the impending strike from taking place at all.
I hope that we all agree that there is real cause for concern about the future of the entire Royal Mail service, and I urge management and unions to work together to ensure its future. In addition, I urge the Minister to use her good offices to the fullest extent for a positive future for our Royal Mail.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairpersonship, Mr Gapes. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes) for securing this debate. Her campaign to fight for the future of the local delivery offices in her constituency is inspirational; she made Royal Mail stop and reconsider what seemed like an inevitable closure. I commend her for standing up for good local postal services for her community and for a certain future for postal workers. I would like to mention the many contributions by hon. Members from both sides of the House—in particular, the hon. Member for Angus (Kirstene Hair), who was the only Member representing the Conservative party.
Last week, CWU members sent a clear message to Royal Mail when they voted by a momentous number—almost 90%—in favour of strike action in defence of their job security, their pensions and the future of the service. Defying the draconian Trade Union Act 2016 and attempts to quell the power of unions to demand better workers’ rights, the stunning vote was a clear mandate for a strike. My hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Hugh Gaffney) went into that very eloquently so I will not dwell on it, but I am extremely disappointed to say the least by the Royal Mail’s approach to the ongoing dispute with CWU members. It showed the workers very little respect, but, as always, defended Moya Greene’s right to earn almost £2 million per annum, which in my view is completely obscene. The Royal Mail has now escalated the dispute to the High Court. We await that decision tomorrow, but I think it should have honoured the decisive result in the ballot. I welcome both sides back to the table to try to sort this matter out.
The Labour party supports a delivery office network that remains the heart of a community-based Royal Mail, with local posties based in our communities, mail delivered on time and parcels available for collection quickly and easily. Local delivery office closures often leave the most vulnerable and most affected with longer trips to collect mail and, in many cases, later deliveries of crucial post.
The Royal Mail insists that there is no programme of closures, but only ad hoc decisions to close offices where there are operational issues, but that flies in the face of the evidence. Since it was privatised in 2013, 75 delivery offices and up to 90 scale payment delivery offices, where postal workers are based, have been closed. Yet with £850 million more due to be taken out of the Royal Mail in dividends, it is clear that profit, not service, is driving the agenda for the Royal Mail. We have had one closure in my city of Sheffield, but that is dwarfed by large numbers in Manchester, London and many other places. It is difficult to believe that those closures represent anything but a planned programme to cut costs and drive profits in the privatised Royal Mail.
The Royal Mail also insists that there will be no compulsory redundancies. That is welcome, but the closure programme has already forced hundreds of staff to move workplace at a time when changes to the pension scheme are making working relations difficult for thousands of postal workers. I accept that as the type of post changes to more parcels purchased online, so must Royal Mail’s process. We might therefore expect to see a clear plan to adapt, relocate and improve delivery offices where there is need to provide more parking or parcel storage, but the current programme of closures has no timeline and no agreement, and there has been no overall public communication.
I welcome Royal Mail’s efforts to leave parcels safely with trusted neighbours and to offer quick and easy redelivery or pick-ups from local post boxes or facilities, and I am sure that can go further. However, although those options suit some people, for many—especially those in difficult-to-access properties or unpredictable working patterns—they are not appropriate. Everyone, including Royal Mail, knows that people still need collection points. Given the volume of mail we are talking about, that will normally need to be a delivery office. For example, in parts of Sheffield the closures are forcing some people to travel five miles through pretty terrible traffic to a city-centre delivery office with no free parking. Of course, not everyone owns a car, so we can imagine the anxiety that causes many constituents—in particular disabled constituents who have to make that journey, possibly by public transport. We all know about the reliability of that.
Delivery office and scale payment delivery office closures often mean that residents and businesses will receive much needed post later in the day. We need our nation to be as productive as possible, but later post will prevent work from being done. The programme is bad for our economy.
When the Government, together with their bedfellows, the Lib Dems, sold off the Royal Mail at an excruciating low price, there was a clear statutory promise under the Postal Services (Universal Postal Service) Order 2012 that a universal service would continue. I believe delivery office closures are the start of a slippery slope towards a reduced service, falling far short of that promise.
The universal postal service order is a statutory instrument that sets out Royal Mail’s responsibilities as a universal postal services provider. Article 4(d) guarantees that Royal Mail provides delivery offices as an option for the collection of undelivered mail. The closure of so many delivery offices is the start of a threat to the cherished and vital universal service. The order as it stands does not specify a distance from people’s homes or any specification for a collection service. What action does the Minister propose to take to protect delivery offices under the universal postal service? Does she agree that the order is far too vague on how Royal Mail must provide collection services?
The truth is this: there is little currently to stop the universal service from becoming universal in name only. The Government must give Ofcom, as the regulator, a stronger mandate under the universal service order to defend the wider network of postal deliveries. Otherwise, we face the prospect of Royal Mail becoming just another mail delivery company, delivering a service that gives residents and businesses their post later, and of longer journeys to collect undelivered mail.
The Labour party believes in a publicly owned Royal Mail: a people’s post, integrated with a strengthened Post Office, offering a wide variety of services including a post office bank. Such a move would provide a much better basis for an efficient service, potentially combining the collection of parcels with much-valued services to local people. The Government have still, after nearly a year, yet to respond to the submissions to their consultation on the future of the post office network. Will the Minister tell us when they will respond?
My hon. Friend the Member for Dulwich and West Norwood, who moved the motion, and the many other Members who have spoken so passionately have my support in their fight for their local delivery offices, which provide the basis of a high-quality local service. With a Labour Government, we will, once again, have a postal service working simply to provide a high-quality, affordable service: one that does not dress up cuts as improvements or flog off the Royal Mail estate to prop up dividends, but provides a first-class service for citizens to receive their mail at their door or in their local area.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gapes. I congratulate the hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes) on securing today’s important debate at which some crucial issues facing the Royal Mail and the public that it serves have been raised. The Government recognise the crucial role that postal services play in communities across the country. The relocation and closure process that is the subject of the debate has dominated discussion. I would like to respond to some of the points made.
There are very good drivers for running an efficient and effective delivery service. Proposed relocations or closures of delivery offices are part of Royal Mail’s ongoing business transformation, which aims to meet changing customer expectations, increase efficiency and, yes, keep costs under control. Royal Mail always engages with its people and the trade unions before any decision to close a delivery office is taken. It also writes to the local MP and issues a press release, to provide an opportunity for wider public engagement, which is taken into account in the final decision-making process. The same goes for the Post Office.
It has been my experience in my constituency that the lack of an obligation on Royal Mail itself to consult the public is a huge omission in that process. Royal Mail relies on notifying the local MP and assuming that the news will somehow get out. Of course we make a noise about it, but that is no substitute for the organisation itself consulting and engaging with the public it serves. Will the Minister comment on that?
I thank the hon. Lady for her question. I will take that point back to Royal Mail. I have been given the impression that the consultation requirements for changes such as the relocations and closures that we are discussing are the same for Royal Mail as they are for the Post Office. If that has not been the case in her constituency, I will raise that issue directly with Royal Mail.
Many local residents and businesses rely on the convenient facility that Royal Mail offers for the collection of parcels and items of mail. Where closure or relocation is necessary, Royal Mail takes care to ensure that there will be no impact on deliveries to its customers. I recognise from comments that have been made in the debate that there is a strong feeling that that statement does not seem to transmit to Members present or, possibly, to the wider public.
The postmen and women who deliver to the postcode areas covered by a relocated delivery office will continue to serve the local community. Customers do not have to visit a delivery office to collect items of mail if they are unable to do so or are not at home when Royal Mail first attempts delivery. The hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) raised concerns about the alternative methods that are in place, which I will run through before I come to her proposal. Royal Mail has put in place a variety of options to ensure that customers get their deliveries in the most convenient way possible. It will always attempt to leave an item with a neighbour in the first instance, and customers may nominate a neighbour to take in their parcel. It is also possible for customers to arrange a delivery free of charge on a day that is convenient for them, including Saturdays. A further option is to arrange for the item to be delivered to a different address in the same postcode area. Those are several ways in which Royal Mail has attempted to maintain customer service.
The hon. Lady proposed that local networks of delivery points, including post offices, should be considered. There is already an option to redirect mail to a post office —that is a paid-for service, for which I believe the charge is 70p—but I am sure that Royal Mail will be open to that suggestion and others, as it is determined to improve its customer service throughout this change process.
If the hon. Gentleman means Crown post offices, I understand his point. Many of those post offices are being franchised to other retail outlets, but some of those outlets are more convenient for customers. That point should not be lost on him.
While I am addressing the Post Office, which is not the subject of this debate, I will take up the point made by the hon. Member for Falkirk (John Mc Nally). I am not aware of the closure at the moment of any Royal Mail distribution centre in Falkirk, so perhaps he will provide the details. As far as I am aware, there is not one closing in Falkirk. He talked about the closure of post offices up and down the country. That simply is not the case. I will send him the statistics for post offices opening, rather than closing, around the country. The total numbers bear out what I am saying.
I appreciate the Minister’s giving way, and she is of course right that, as the hon. Member for Falkirk (John Mc Nally) mentioned, there were a significant number of post office closures under the Labour Government. That was halted, but that is exactly why it is a good network. I urge the Minister to ask Royal Mail not to put barriers in the way of people using the network, such as the 70p additional charge for consumers. Surely there must be a solution, given that Royal Mail is trying to save some costs. It is a small amount of money that might go to the post office, and if we save consumers from having to shell out, it would be more of a success.
As the hon. Lady knows, I am not responsible for the operational aspects of Royal Mail, but I shall put that to its management. It is appropriate that she has raised the matter of costs, as I was just coming on to that; it is important that we appreciate why business transformation is necessary.
Efficiency is a key component of ensuring the financial sustainability of the universal obligation. Price increases are not a long-term solution, particularly in such a competitive market. We have already heard that the market for letters has declined by 40%. The market for parcels, while buoyant, is highly competitive. At the time of the 2008 Hooper review, Royal Mail was estimated to be 40% less efficient than international comparators. Since the Postal Services Act 2011 Royal Mail has spent more than £1 billion on its transformation programme. In 2010 only 8% of Royal Mail letters were sorted by machine, compared with 85% for leading EU operators. The investment that Royal Mail has made has closed the gap and increased automation of letter sorting to more than 80%. Ofcom has found that those investments have improved efficiency.
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
I was coming to efficiency. Ofcom has found that the investments made by Royal Mail have improved efficiency. Labour productivity in delivery and processing increased by 5.6% between 2011 and 2015. Royal Mail’s transformation programme between 2012 and 2015 produced cumulative savings of £340 million—an average of £110 million per year. In its review of postal services regulation, Ofcom recognised the steps that Royal Mail had taken on transformation but also concluded that it could do even more to improve efficiency. Royal Mail’s approach to the continuous improvement of its efficiency and productivity allows it to be more competitive and helps it to meet changing customer expectations. The closure of some distribution points was because of the new market in packages, for example. Some of the old distribution points were simply not large enough or fit for purpose for the modern requirements for so many packages. The totality adds up to a company better positioned to grow its existing customer relationships and win new business.
A number of colleagues have talked about the privatisation and the financial side of the management of Royal Mail. I just point out that since privatisation Royal Mail has invested £1.4 billion in employee pension schemes. That is a vast amount of money. It has also paid out dividends of £800 million, which it has to do as a publicly quoted company. One of the key reasons for privatisation was to put Royal Mail on a footing where it could borrow on the markets to fund its investment rather than have to compete with schools, hospitals and other Treasury-backed spending obligations. As such, it has managed to raise £500 million in debt and has maintained profitability, as well as growing sales, in a highly competitive market. I do feel that rather than criticising the chief executive, I should put on record my admiration for her in the difficult job that she has had steering Royal Mail through a highly competitive environment. I appreciate that there are other views on the matter, but I must put that on record as my view.
Overall, the service and value provided by Royal Mail to its customers is good and, where it needs to make difficult commercial decisions, it does so in a way that minimises disruption to businesses and consumers. The CWU’s announcement last week of a 48-hour national strike, planned to commence on 19 October, will challenge even Royal Mail’s high delivery standards. We are hopeful that both parties will reach an amicable solution on the matters under discussion and avoid a strike, if at all possible, and the inevitable disruption to the postal service that would follow. If the worst happens, Royal Mail has planned contingency arrangements in place to minimise the impact on delivery services. It is inevitable, however, that some or all delivery offices will be affected during any industrial action.
Ofcom also has a well-established monitoring regime that allows it to track market developments closely and that informs its decisions about the regulatory framework. We hope that both sides will keep talking—I think that is something all hon. Members agree with—and that an amicable solution is found. It is in everyone’s interests to see Royal Mail continue its proud tradition of delivering the UK’s universal postal service in the private sector.
I congratulate the Royal Mail and its hard-working staff. I am sure it will continue to focus on delivering this key mission: connecting companies, customers and communities; making e-commerce happen; and delivering the universal service obligation.
I thank all hon. Members who have contributed and taken the time to be here. I particularly thank everybody for their forbearance with the interruptions of the Division bell—including yourself, Mr Gapes. We are nearly at the end of the debate.
I pay particular tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Hugh Gaffney), who spoke with such passion and conviction on the basis of his long experience working for Royal Mail. I join others in saying that I hope his career break from the Royal Mail will be significantly longer than five years, much as I am sure he is missed by his colleagues.
We have heard from many hon. Members, but notwithstanding the alternative provisions for parcel collection and redelivery that Royal Mail has put in place, those solutions simply do not work for many communities across the country. They certainly ring hollow with my constituents, as it is not the case that nobody ever needs to visit a delivery office. In my opening speech, I mentioned the situation for users of the PO box services, and the same applies to people who have to pay excess charges for their mail. There are reasons why it is sometimes essential to visit a Royal Mail delivery office.
The hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) mentioned the possibility of using the network of post offices more for collection services. It is problematic that customers currently have to pay for that service. From my experience in negotiations with Royal Mail on the situation in my constituency, I know that often post offices do not have the physical capacity to cope with large numbers of parcels, so I think that is a flawed solution.
I come back to the issue that I started with. The problem in many communities is the erosion of the services that Royal Mail provides. What is being proposed in my constituency, if you understand its geography and how public transport works there, simply lacks all credibility as an approach to public service. I see an organisation that is putting profit at its heart and not its obligations to the public that it was set up to serve. Once again, I ask the Minister to consider whether the flawed decision to privatise Royal Mail is working for communities up and down the country—I maintain that it is not. Once again, I ask the Minister to consider intervening and using her good offices to secure the services that our communities rely on, and to think again about Royal Mail’s status in the private sector as a profit-making entity.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered Royal Mail delivery office closures.
Advice Services (Nottingham)
[Nadine Dorries in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered access to advice services in Nottingham.
To be a new Member is to be confronted by a series of firsts on an almost daily basis, and today is no different. This is the first Westminster Hall debate that I have had the privilege of leading and my first contribution to a debate with you in the Chair, Ms Dorries. I hope to do it well. I am grateful for the opportunity to talk about advice services in Nottingham, which is something that I feel very strongly about and my hon. Friends the Members for Nottingham East (Mr Leslie) and for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood) do too. I know they were keen to join this discussion, but the Divisions have changed the timing, so I do not think that is likely. I shall crack on nevertheless.
Advice services are often unseen and unheralded in this place and in society in general. Today I want to do something about that to raise the profile of the fine services in our city. I want to publicise their excellent and vital work and look ahead to challenges down the road, which we as national lawmakers must support them in tackling. In our city a wide range of organisations offer advice to those who need it. Some operate on a city-wide basis, such as the law centre and the citizens advice bureau; some operate on a community basis, such as the Bestwood Advice Centre; and some work with specific communities, such as Disability Direct. I suspect to a certain extent I may be making a rod for my own back, because, as I started to pull together information for this debate, the wide range of terrific advice that is provided in the city and in my constituency became clear. There is a danger I might miss someone, so I hope not to cause too much offence, and I hope they will understand that the comments I make also apply to them if I miss them by name.
In a constituency such as mine where far too many residents are sadly caught up in cyclical poverty, we need lots going on. Advice on benefits, debt, housing, employment, health, immigration and much more can be a vital support system in helping people get through hard times and back on their feet. I will use the time available to detail some of the advice services already available in Nottingham and in my constituency, and to express my appreciation for the difference that they make.
I will start with the Nottingham Law Centre, which, as we can tell from the name, offers legal advice free of charge to the people of Nottingham. It was one of the first groups that I met as the Member of Parliament for Nottingham North and it was part of the inspiration for this debate. It provides advice on debt, housing, welfare benefits and employment law, as well as advice and representation to anyone attending court for possession proceedings through the duty scheme. Having spoken to Sally, one of the senior solicitors, it is clear that the latter service is what she is most proud of and what makes the biggest direct impact on people’s lives. The centre’s solicitors usually spend four days a week in court representing around 1,000 clients a year, many of whom are desperately reacting to financial emergencies that send them into rent or mortgage arrears and who have a very real prospect of losing their home.
Such problems can often be caused by changes outside of people’s control. The bedroom tax, benefits caps and zero-hours contracts all leave ordinary people struggling to get by, already unable to meet pre-existing financial commitments. Nottingham Law Centre is very proud of its success rate in this area. I am sure that everyone they have helped is incredibly grateful.
When I spoke to Sally, it was clear that the centre felt it could do much more. Funding shortages due to legal aid cuts increase workloads, and Government tendering changes mean that the scope of the advice that can be offered has reduced. For example, the centre is no longer able to provide an immigration advice service, or any advice to people who might come from outside of the city, which leads to a real risk of postcode lotteries. Over time we have seen the ability of vital organisations such as the law centre to help people in need radically diminish. That is bad for individuals and also bad for the community in general for reasons that I shall turn to shortly.
Local government has a critical role to play in the provision of advice services.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way on this crucial topic. Before he moves on to local government, I want to mention immigration advice services. As the MP for Nottingham East, I have constituents coming to me all the time because of the poor level of immigration advice available, as my hon. Friend has said. The law centre does not do as much as it did, so there is an expectation that MPs can somehow give quasi-legal advice on these issues, when there is a need for real expert help of a legal character, and we are desperately short of that, certainly in Nottingham.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. I know he feels strongly about this issue and I share his concern. In a diverse city such as ours, with the new and emerging communities that we have, there is a gap and it is not clear what is meant to fill it.
As I said, local government has a critical role to play in the provision of advice services. Nottingham City Council has played an admirable role, again in incredibly difficult circumstances, when it comes to budgets. With significant cuts and the extraordinary pressures that an ageing and growing population can put on council budgets, it might have been tempted to deprioritise this area. After all, it is not a universal service and—dare I say—not a vote winner. However, the council has not done that.
I played a small role in this area in my previous life as a councillor: my commissioning committee commissioned the new advice set-up. I say that more as a declaration of interest than an attempt to take any credit, because I really cannot do so.
The city council has consolidated its contracting, brought organisations together in a consortium and commissioned six of them across the city—the law centre I mentioned is one, as are Bestwood Advice Centre and St Anns Advice Centre, which both work in my constituency—to provide support in the city. Other communities might benefit from that model, and Ministers might benefit from looking at it also.
Having high-quality support is of course very good for individuals in their time of need, but actually it is good for all of us in the community, because the financial impact is considerable. Over the first half of this financial year alone, the advice services have supported city residents to access more than £3.6 million in benefits to which they are entitled and to tackle more than £0.5 million in debt. They have dealt with nearly 3,000 inquiries, and more than 1,000 cases have been taken up directly. Of course, behind every pound and penny is a human being starting on the road to get out from under their burden. Their mental health is improved and hopefully their life is changed; and as I said, for us as local taxpayers, the work is extraordinarily good value.
Disability Direct Nottingham is a group I know well; it is based in Basford in my constituency. It is a little different from the other services that I have spoken about, in that it works with a community of identity. It was born out of a goal to make a difference for a specific group of people—people in Nottingham with disabilities. It is the only information and advice service that caters specifically for all manner of people with a disability in Nottingham, and it prides itself, rightly, on the considerable impact that it makes for disabled people, older people and carers residing in the city and beyond.
In preparation for the debate, we were in touch with Charlotte Throssel, who I have worked with for some time. She is the services manager and makes the bulk of the decisions in response to what is needed. We asked her to summarise what the staff and volunteers spend most of their time doing for the users. I do not have enough time now to talk about those things, because they are incredible; if it can be imagined, they are doing it. Suffice it to say that that organisation exists to help and will do so in any way it can, whether that means supporting its clients with legal proceedings, giving advice on welfare, assisting with forms or even helping in the garden, as I believe happens sometimes, too. The organisation gets more than 5,000 inquiries each year and has helped to secure almost £0.5 million in backdated benefits. Its success rate at appeals and tribunals—I find this staggering; perhaps I should not have been surprised, but I was—is 84%, so five out of every six times, it succeeds. I think that that says something about the system that it has come up with.
That is being done with funding from the Big Lottery Fund or through fundraising or donations; the council helps with premises. Disability Direct works really hard and does an outstanding job with six staff members—only two full time—and almost 70 volunteers. I can also say, from personal experience, that Charlotte puts on a mean barbecue.
That is a taste of the breadth of what is going on, whether services are working citywide, in local communities or with specific groups of people. There are other organisations, which we encountered and worked with in preparing for the debate: My Sight Notts, the Wellbeing Hub and Nottinghamshire Deaf Society. As I said, I am making a rod for my own back today, because doubtless I will have missed someone and I would not want them to think that they were not appreciated, because they really are. Nevertheless, in having these conversations about what is going on, I think that three clear challenges emerged and are worthy of our consideration.
First—this point is probably not revelatory—advice services cannot always meet the demand for their services. Of course that is because there is lots to do in a community such as mine, but one significant limiting factor, which I hope Ministers can consider, is the quality of information that comes out of public services, which can lead to people getting into a mess or confusion. Sometimes there is unclear information, distorted by inaccurate reporting in the media, and it leads to confusion and a great call on advice services.
I thank my hon. Friend for securing the debate. I pay tribute to the citizens advice bureaux, which do fantastic work across my constituency. Their work is set to become even more vital as universal credit is rolled out, particularly given that the Government’s helpline charges 55p a minute. Does my hon. Friend agree that as their role becomes even more important, they must be on a secure financial footing?
I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention; I agree completely. At the moment—I will turn to this shortly—there is a blizzard of funding that has to be pulled together, and each of those sources is under pressure, for various reasons. At a time when, as my hon. Friend says and as was said in this place earlier today, the Government are charging 55p a minute for people to get advice from those who run the service, clearly they are likely, especially when in financial distress, to reach out to others who do not do that. There is a struggle meeting the demand, because of a lack of information. Clearer advice, more consistency and easier access to information would reduce confusion, and reduce the front-door work they have to do to manage expectations and guide people where to go. That would free up more time, money and effort to work on the core cases.
Secondly, funding is a persistent challenge. Our advice sector in Nottingham is pinned together with council resources, EU money, lottery funds and donations of time and money. All of those deliver excellent value. There is a £10 return for each £1 spent regarding benefits that individuals are entitled to, and £3.50 for each £1 spent working on debt relief, but all of those are under pressure for various reasons. As we head into the Budget, Ministers should be mindful of the cumulative impact and ripple effect of their cuts, especially unseen cuts, such as those to local government, which then go through different commissioning committees and end up with changes that perhaps were not meant in that way.
Finally, I want to use my remaining time to talk about universal credit, which my hon. Friend the Member for Ashfield raised. Our analysis indicates that by the end of this Parliament, if it runs a full term, there will be some 23,000 families receiving universal credit in Nottingham North. We know that experience from pilot communities such as Newcastle has shown that universal credit roll-out has led to considerable hardship, with 85% of council tenants on universal credit being in arrears. That has the unintended consequence of putting strain on the housing revenue account. That challenges local government budgets and actually reduces their ability to build new homes. It is a decreasing spiral. I hope Minsters will heed calls from Opposition parties, national charities and even their own Members, to delay this, while they at least work out the very real challenges in the system.
I just want to tell a story that I picked up from Citizens Advice about a woman called Claire. She was in great distress when she first met an adviser and it was very difficult for her to talk about her situation. She had left her home, because her now ex-partner had become violent and physically assaulted her. On top of that physical and emotional trauma, Claire now had to find a new home, apply for benefits and get herself on a new footing for her new life. She found a new home and applied for universal credit, but she waited over eight weeks for her first payment. She had been working a little bit in a local shop and was paid weekly, but she did not have any savings. She was unable to make rent payments properly for two months, leaving her in arrears, and she was also in arrears with her council tax. She had some credit card debt, which she was unable to service during this time. At the end of this two months of waiting, she was severely in debt and being threatened with eviction proceedings, as well as the emotional trauma she already had. During that two-month waiting period, she got by on food bank vouchers and tokens for electricity and gas, just to keep going. However, she now faced mounting debt, with no real way to tackle it. When her universal credit payment came through, she had hoped to get back on her feet and start to set herself up again—in line with what the Prime Minister said the system ought to be doing—and to make some formal arrangements to pay back her debt. However, the paperwork —no discussion with her—stated that 40% of her entitlement would be deducted to cover rent and council tax arrears. That meant that Claire had £30 a week to cover food, gas, electricity and other household essentials, leaving her in a perpetual cycle of borrowing to cover her essential needs, and the system has proven very inflexible as she tries to get herself back on to her feet. There are too many Claires and if we continue on this course at this pace, there will be many more.
I do not want to conclude my contribution on a negative note. I hope I have shown to colleagues the incredible range of advice services in our community, wonderful things done under the most difficult circumstances for those who really need it. I came to this place because I want to give my life to the service of others, and when I see that in my community too it really inspires and motivates me to work even harder. Those people represent the best of my city and most days their work goes unheralded and unseen, but not this day.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries. I congratulate the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Alex Norris) on securing this debate, his first in Westminster Hall, and first of many, I have no doubt. I congratulate him on his interesting and compelling speech. I am very pleased to have the opportunity to set out how the Government support the Citizens Advice service and the importance of having access to free, confidential and impartial advice. I have seen for myself in my own constituency the difference that such support can make to people and families, often the most vulnerable, often, as the hon. Gentleman ably pointed out, in crisis and under immense pressure.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned Citizens Advice Nottingham and District, Nottingham Law Centre and Nottingham City Council’s welfare rights service as examples of success, and I share his appreciation of the work of those agencies and similar advice services across the country.
The services are indeed well used. In 2015-16, more than 8,000 people received advice and support from Citizens Advice Nottingham and District, most of whom said they could not have resolved their issue without receiving that help. It is important to appreciate that these advice services not only help people to resolve financial difficulties but have a profound impact upon people’s lives, sometimes improving their health and reducing stress as a result of the help they offer.
Also in 2015-16, more than 2,900 clients were provided with free legal advice by Nottingham Law Centre on issues ranging from debt to welfare, and from benefits to housing. The centre succeeded in getting nearly £67,000 worth of debt written off for its clients, and I know that in one of the other instances that the hon. Gentleman cited—I think it was the Disability Nottingham case—the centre had a tremendous success rate in supporting vulnerable people through tribunals.
The welfare rights service delivered by Nottingham City Council also helps to provide free, confidential and impartial advocacy and advice to citizens from across the city, including making home visits to those people who are unable to attend an appointment.
I must say one thing in respect of the legal aid position that the hon. Gentleman mentioned, in particular the very sad case that he mentioned involving Claire. The Government are committed to ensuring that legal aid continues to be available, particularly in the most important cases, such as those involving domestic violence or if children are at risk of being taken into care.
Given the sensitive issues that those services cover, it is important that they are provided independently of Government, so that their clients can trust that their problems will be treated impartially and in confidence. Also, as many of those clients’ cases relate to interactions with Government agencies or services, such as benefits, it is important to note that the local citizens advice bureaux operate independently and are funded from a variety of sources. In the main, however, they receive their core funding from the local authority in which they are located.
On that point, the Minister is right to talk about the need for agencies to be at arm’s length from the Government and from Ministers, but I do not think that that necessarily negates the idea of their having some kind of statutory force, to give them that sense of being a function that is supported by society as a whole. If we cannot have that, we must recognise that this is a real “invest to save” situation. As my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North (Alex Norris) pointed out, for every £1 invested in advice services the Government can save a considerable amount later down the line. It is because these services exist in a sort of non-specific, non-legal context that we sometimes rely too much on charity to underpin advice, rather than making it a right that people have.
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. I would not want to negate the role of charities and local self-help groups, which play a huge role in their communities, but there is a role for Government to ensure that some impartial, independent advice is available. Through the Citizens Advice national agreements that we have, my Department funds Citizens Advice nationally. For example, helping people in the area of fuel poverty and energy advice is a statutory service that Citizens Advice offers; the service is funded by Government, but the advice is given impartially and independently of Government. Therefore, it is important to note that Citizens Advice operates independently, even though it is funded by our Department to a certain extent, to help it to meet its resourcing needs.
It is the local authority, not central Government, that is better placed to make decisions about advice provision in its local area, based on local priorities and need. However, we must remember that local authorities are independent of central Government. They are responsible for their own finances and recruitment, and are accountable to their local electorate. So, when it comes to spending or resourcing, however difficult the decisions are, it is for local authorities such as Nottingham City Council to make those decisions. I hope that, whatever the outcome, the people of Nottingham will still be able to access free, independent advice, and that the national body, Citizens Advice, which is funded by my Department, will help to ensure that that continues to be the case.
We know and understand that some people are vulnerable, and that some will need more support than others. That is why the Government continue to spend around £90 billion a year on a strong welfare safety net. One example of that is our troubled families programme, which is helping to turn around the lives of 400,000 people. I know that it is doing very important work in Nottingham, and under the priority families programme led by Nottingham City Council, 1,200 families have already been helped to turn their lives around, and a further 3,480 families are engaging in the programme.
To reiterate, the Government remain committed to, and supportive of, the right to free, independent advice. As I have said, that advice is best delivered by independent organisations at the local level, although I am mindful of the need for the Government to continue to play a role on a statutory basis, as I mentioned earlier in response to the hon. Member for Nottingham East (Mr Leslie). However, those with the knowledge, expertise and experience are helping people from all walks of life on all manner of issues.
Clearly, as the hon. Member for Nottingham North pointed out, a huge amount of good work is being done by the people of Nottingham, the staff and the volunteers in providing this vital work and support. I salute them all. I hope that the local Government will continue to recognise and support their hugely valuable work for many years to come.
Question put and agreed to.
The Arts: Health Effects
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the effect of the arts on health.
It is a great pleasure to appear under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries—obviously with some trepidation, as I know that you are a hard taskmaster. I hope that we can exchange messages on WhatsApp afterwards, about how well I have done in this afternoon’s debate.
Health and wellbeing is much on our minds at the moment, and I am co-chair of the all-party group on arts, health and wellbeing, so this is a great opportunity to debate the significant role that arts-based interventions can play in addressing a wide variety of health and social care issues.
In July the all-party group published an inquiry into that important issue—I am holding it up to get the appropriate screengrab, which can go viral on social media. I can see that the Minister is holding it up as well. If someone could pass it to the Opposition spokesman to hold up, we could get a full house. The report was the result of two years of research and discussions with individuals and organisations from the worlds of health, arts, academia and politics. I assure the House, because I had nothing to do with it, that it is of the highest quality. The people who can take credit are Rebecca Gordon-Nesbitt, who effectively wrote it, Alexandra Coulter, who runs the all-party group with such effectiveness, and my colleague Lord Alan Howarth, the chairman, who invited me to become the co-chairman.
The inquiry and report provide considerable evidence to support the idea that arts-based approaches can help people to stay well, recover faster, manage long-term conditions and experience better quality of life. It is important to stress that arts engagement and participation can have a positive impact at every stage of a person’s life. I was struck, for example, when reading the report—I should have known this fact—that one in five mothers suffers from a mental health condition at the time of, or in the first year after, childbirth. The report shows some of the interventions that can help. In Stockport an arts on prescription pilot offered visual art and music projects to women who had or were at risk of postnatal depression. Every woman who participated experienced improvements in their general health, and all but one experienced a reduction in their level of depression. Funding for that service was lost, but similar programmes have been replicated around the UK, with comparable results.
Childhood is another important area where the arts can have a huge impact. I leave aside the effect that music and arts education in schools can have on children’s wellbeing, as well as their educational attainment, although no doubt it is a subject that we will return to in future debates, but it is estimated that possibly 850,000 children suffer from mental health and related physical health problems. Some of the most serious mental health problems can manifest before the age of 24—indeed, in half of cases they manifest before the age of 14.
Such mental health problems can be prevented or mitigated through early intervention. The Alchemy Project, which uses dance as an early intervention in psychosis, had a remarkable effect on mental health. Two groups of young participants with no experience of dance were pushed to work with professional artists. At the end of the pilot both cohorts demonstrated clinically significant improvements in wellbeing, communication, quality of life and many other variants.
A 44-year-old woman in my constituency suffered from depression and anxiety, and she tells me she is not yet recovered from her illness but is now strong enough to go every day to an amazing place called the Huthwaite Hub, which relies in large part on lottery funding. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that former coalfield communities do not get their fair share of funding from the lottery, which would enable more projects like that to help many more people?
The hon. Lady is a very distinguished former arts spokesman, and I know that when she was the Labour party’s spokesman for the arts she highlighted the fairness of lottery funding distribution. Again, without wishing to dodge the question, that is another debate. I am pleased that the Arts Council, for example, is now much more focused on ensuring that more money goes outside London than it has in the past. She makes a fair point that, fundamentally, there is a project in her constituency making a real difference to one of her constituents, and that is to be applauded without any quibbles from me at all.
Let me run through a few brief examples, because I know that many Members want to speak. An arts on prescription programme run by Arts and Health in Cambridgeshire found that three quarters of participants saw a decrease in anxiety. There is clear and growing evidence that with illness and long-term conditions, arts engagement can alter the morphology of the brain and help speed recovery from neural damage. The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and Humber NHS Foundation Trust have run Strokestra, a pilot collaboration where, through music-based active sessions, almost every single participant who had suffered from a stroke saw a reduction in their symptoms and experienced great social benefits such as enhanced communication. A range of other studies have shown similarly positive effects. Group singing and dance has been shown to improve the voice and movement of people with Parkinson’s disease, and singing enhances lung function and the quality of life for people with chronic respiratory disorders. Arts-based interventions such as listening to music have also been shown to reduce the physiological effects of cancer and coronary heart disease.
May I take this opportunity to plug the Liverpool Philharmonic, which has done similarly good work for the past eight years? Lead musicians and musicians work one-on-one and in groups across my constituency and the wider Liverpool city region. Unfortunately I have not had time to read the report, but if that has not been looked into, it is a great study of positive work that is being done across my constituency.
The Liverpool Phil is an absolutely amazing organisation. I know that you, Ms Dorries, will know it from your own childhood. May I also particularly commend its work on the In Harmony programme, which is one of the most remarkable education initiatives that we have seen? It was started under the last Labour Government but carried on, I am pleased to say, by the current Government.
I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. I very much agree with his examples of where arts can be used to help people with recovery or to manage long-term conditions. I am sure that he would be interested in the Nordoff Robbins music therapy programmes that are run in my constituency. Does he accept that there is a wider role for the arts in public health, and does he think that there is an opportunity to align public health targets and ambitions with music and other arts interventions?
I completely agree with the hon. Lady, and I was going to mention Nordoff Robbins. It is the largest music therapy charity in the country. It reaches 7,000 people every year and aims to double that participation by the end of the decade. She is exactly on point: Public Health England is meant to be involved in focusing on prevention. To a certain extent we have to shift the whole health debate from cure. Cures can be important, but we do not do enough about prevention, and the arts can play an absolutely crucial role. I back her point 100%, and may I also say that I am happy to accept any interventions that plug great examples of how the arts are having a great impact on health and wellbeing?
Would my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating the dramatic society in my constituency, the Congleton Players? They make a tremendous contribution towards community life, and last week they presented their 290th production. It was a comedy, “Murder at Checkmate Manor”, and I have to say that I laughed throughout, as did the audience, so much that I could sense endorphins were glowing within me—and all for only £8 a ticket.
I absolutely endorse my hon. Friend’s players. I look forward to visiting them—in fact, I know that the Minister will visit on the 300th production that the players perform. He said that to me before the debate, and I know that he will stick to his commitment. My hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) can tell her constituents to look forward to welcoming my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (John Glen).
The other obvious area to talk about is age. As we luckily have an ageing society in the sense that people are living to be older, the arts can play a huge role in helping people with some of the conditions that come as one reaches one’s later years.
On longevity, is the right hon. Gentleman aware that someone born today has a 50% chance of living to more than 105 and that a 20-year-old today has a 50% chance of living to more than 100? As the period of old age grows, it is important that we have fulfilling activities for older people.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, and he has given me a wonderful introduction to the next part of my speech. Age UK has found that taking part in creative activities such as the arts has the most direct influence on a person’s wellbeing in later life. Indeed, in 20 years’ time we expect more than a million people to have a dementia diagnosis, and engagement with the arts can provide significant help in meeting that enormous challenge. For example, music therapy, which has already been mentioned, has been proven to reduce agitation and the need for medication in two thirds of participants with a diagnosis of dementia. A good example is A Choir in every Care Home, a new project from Live Music Now that is encouraging music and singing in care homes across the UK. That supports evidence that finds that regular group singing can enhance morale, reduce loneliness and improve mental health. Of course, it can also help those who are suffering from a terminal illness. There are legion examples of how the arts and health are working together and making an impact.
Will my right hon. Friend join me in paying tribute to all those who volunteer to help to administer the Cheltenham festival of performing arts, which has been running since 1926? Does he agree that as evidence grows of the potential harmful impact of excessive social media use on adolescent mental health, it has never been more important to get young people out from behind their phones to instil confidence, teamwork and communication to provide for happy and fulfilled lives?
I completely agree with that. It is not only children who suffer from excessive use of social media; that can apply to all categories of people.
Hull city of culture has, I think, been an unequivocal success. It was Andy Burnham who called for a city of culture, but I am pleased to say that it was this Government who saw Derry/Londonderry and now Hull achieve such huge success. There have been brilliant ideas. I was told about something—I do not want to get into too much detail here—called Getting Physical with Men in Sheds, which apparently was a health programme. That was alongside Upswing, which involves circus in care homes; the Wellcome Trust working with 10 pilots to look at the impact of the arts on dementia, ageing and breathing disorders; Reading Rooms, to combat loneliness and isolation; and the Butterfly Effect programme, again on dementia. I mention again Aldeburgh, a well-known arts institution in Suffolk and the work that has been done for it on using music as a powerful tool for social change in the field of health and wellbeing. There are too many examples to mention.
I have been contacted by people from all over the country. They have talked about harp therapy—therapy with a harp instrument. The Canal and River Trust talked about its arts interventions. The London Art Therapy Centre, started in 2010, is working for people with mental health issues. The British Red Cross talked about some of the areas it works in and emphasised the need to prevent people from getting unwell as opposed to intervening when people are unwell. And of course there is Nordoff Robbins.
The current demands on our health and social care system call for innovative solutions. As I hope I have demonstrated in part, and as many interventions have demonstrated, arts engagement has a hugely beneficial effect on health in people of all ages, so it must play a vital role in the public health arena. Most pertinently, the greatest challenges to health and social care to come will be from an ageing population and a prevalence of chronic conditions. The evidence shows that the arts can play a significant role in preventing illness and infirmity from developing and worsening in the longer term.
That approach is particularly in keeping with NHS England’s “Five Year Forward View”, published in 2014, which emphasises a need for a radical upgrade in preventive health interventions. Arts-based approaches can provide a cost-effective response to this objective. Mental health carries an approximate annual economic and social cost of more than £100 billion—about the same as the total NHS budget. The arts can play a significant role. A mental health recovery centre in Wales, co-designed by users and utilising the arts, has saved the NHS £300,000 a year, while an arts on prescription project has led GP consultations to drop by a third, saving £200 per patient. A social return of between £4 and £11 has been calculated for every £1 invested in arts on prescription.
Arts-based approaches can also help health and social care staff in their own work. Within the NHS, more than £2.5 billion is lost through sick days every year. Arts engagement helps the staff to improve their own wellbeing, too, but it is not a habitual part of the training and professional development of health and social care professionals. With so much evidence supporting the effectiveness of the arts to improve health and wellbeing, it is clear that more should be done. With the correct support, this approach can really flourish.
What the all-party group is really calling for is a culture change, not legislation or regulation. Arts-based interventions offer an alternative resource to systems that are under increasing pressure and need fresh thinking. One of the report’s key recommendations is for leaders from the worlds of arts and health to come together to establish a strategic centre to support the advance of good practice, promote collaboration, co-ordinate research, and inform policy and delivery.
The Government can, of course, play a vital role. They can help the conversation between the relevant bodies and organisations and help this objective to be realised. We need greater engagement with policy makers, and Ministers must therefore be part of the process. I really hope that the Minister will engage with colleagues not just in his own Department but in the Department of Health, the Department for Education and the Department for Communities and Local Government, to develop a cross-departmental strategy to support the delivery of arts-based interventions within our health and social care systems.
I am delighted to see the Minister in his place; I think this is our first debate together. I have to say—although I am parti pris—that I hear only incredible reports of his work, so I do not want him to take this the wrong way, but part of me wishes a Health Minister were responding to the debate instead of him. It is a matter of some sadness to me that the last Health Minister to make a speech about the role of the arts in health was Alan Johnson. The current Health Secretary is a former Culture Secretary, who knows the sector well and should understand the opportunities that it presents to make a real impact on health and wellbeing.
I know the Minister will give a brilliant response. As he is aware, the White Paper formally recognises the all-party group’s report and states that the Government will make a formal response. However, I hope that in the coming weeks and months we will also hear from Health Ministers on this very important subject, and from other Ministers whose Departments’ policies have a great impact on wellbeing.
Order. Let me do a quick headcount of Members who wish to speak in the debate.
Nine Back Benchers have indicated a wish to speak. The maths dictates that I will have to call the Front Benchers at 6.22 pm. The debate must finish no later than 6.42 pm, because of all the Divisions we have had. I will therefore have to impose a three-minute time limit on speeches. If there are too many interventions, they will cut that time down further.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Wantage (Mr Vaizey) on securing this debate.
Moving directly on to a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Ashfield (Gloria De Piero), the all-party group’s excellent report highlights the inequality in access to the arts. One of the difficulties is that people who suffer from other social inequities are precisely the ones who are least likely to be able to access the arts. At one point, the funding was run so that there was 14 times as much per person in London as there was in the regions. I know it has improved, and I hope the Minister can tell us how it has improved, but it is still not enough. That is an important point.
I also highlight the work of the fantastic Auckland Castle project in my constituency. At the moment, they are running a summer night show, with a phenomenal 1,500 people participating, all of them volunteers. It would have been good to have measured the wellbeing of the people before the project began and again at the end. If there are any academics listening to the debate, I urge them to come to Bishop Auckland and measure where people are at the beginning and at the end of the summer season. The people who are involved tell me that they feel on a real high, they get a lot out of it and there is a lot of community building, and I am sure that the improvements in wellbeing are measurable.
Finally, I will say something about the report’s proposals on training for people in healthcare. That relates particularly to the needs of people with Alzheimer’s and the extent to which they can benefit from music. It is all very well for people doing PhDs or hospital consultants to understand this, but what is really important is that the people who work with elderly, frail people day by day get the training. I am concerned about that, having seen it with my mother, who had Alzheimer’s, and my father-in-law. It is the people who make the food, who wipe their bums and who get them up in the morning who also need to understand that wellbeing goes beyond the physical and into the emotional. I strongly agree with what the right hon. Member for Wantage said about also receiving a response from a Health Minister. Perhaps a Health Minister could write to the hon. Members taking part in today’s debate.
Thank you for calling me, Ms Dorries. I will make my points as briefly as possible. I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (Mr Vaizey) for this debate on an overlooked but exceptionally important subject.
I will talk briefly about my island’s relationship with art and art’s wider purpose—there are some fantastic examples of the use of art in healthcare on the island—and then about Arts Council England’s visit to the Isle of Wight on 20 October, which we are looking forward to, both to reinforce our reputation as Britain’s “arts island” and to seek a stronger relationship with national institutions. I look forward to Government support in enabling that, and I thank the Minister for attending the debate.
On the island we have a unique relationship with art. Our history is in some senses an example of art’s meditative and restorative roles. From 1790 onward, when chaos and revolution in Europe made travel difficult, artists and writers began to explore the United Kingdom more. They came to the island, in part, to find a sense of peace and to be inspired by our rural tranquillity, but also our inspiring nature and sea. The island provided inspiration for artists. Turner’s first great work was of the Solent, with the Needles as its backdrop. Tennyson moved to the island to be inspired by it, and some of his work has a meditative and calming sense of his view of life and death. Perhaps the most famous poem that he wrote was called “Crossing the Bar”. Physically, it described the journey across the Solent from the mainland to the island, but metaphysically, it talked about the journey from life to afterlife:
“Sunset and evening star,
And one clear call for me!
And may there be no moaning of the bar,
When I put out to sea”.
I use that quote because art is used on the island in palliative care, in youth mental care and in the NHS. In Newport, our county town, our wonderful hospice uses art to help islanders who are dying to understand and accept difficult and profound issues. Our hospice director, Nigel Hartley, trained as a pianist and psychologist prior to working in the hospice movement. If the Minister ever has a chance to talk to him, he will find him an interesting person. He champions the use of art in healthcare, and we have a wonderful project with the Royal Academy whereby artists and people in the hospice work together to create works of art. We are lucky to have people such as Nigel on our island.
Elsewhere, in our Quay Arts project run by the multi-talented Paul Armfield, we have a WAVES programme that engages over 200 young people. Many of them were reported to us or came through the young carers or mental health services, and they are engaged in the use of art to enable them to express themselves in a more fulfilling way.
Our Healing Arts project operates within our NHS trust, both in commissioning art and organising interactive and creative expression.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries, and also to hear the fantastic, thorough and detailed speech by the right hon. Member for Wantage (Mr Vaizey), who initiated the debate. It is long overdue that this issue was debated. It is extremely important for health, mental health and wellbeing, as has been indicated.
I declare an interest as a psychologist. I also have to declare that I am not particularly artistic and do not have much talent in this area, but I pay tribute to all of the therapists who work in art therapy. I also pay tribute to occupational therapists who work in our hospitals, aiding people in their recovery and rehabilitation, building their confidence and skills and ensuring that they are able to fulfil their potential. When people’s self-esteem is at its lowest and they feel most in need, art therapy can be extremely important in helping them to focus, helping their mental health and also in helping them to build self-confidence and purpose.
When I worked in the secure hospital at the State Hospital in Scotland, I saw first-hand the excellent artwork that inmates could do. They were held there, perhaps due to significant mental health issues, without the limit of time, and they perhaps felt that purpose had left their lives and that they had little direction. Being able to showcase their artwork in the hospital and beyond was a fantastic celebration of the skills that they retained, and the things that they could do very purposefully, post-secure hospital, in terms of reintegration into the community. We should never underestimate the value of art therapy.
Before I finish, I want to celebrate some of the work undertaken in my constituency of East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow. The Chill Out Club and the Agape Wellbeing group are both in East Kilbride, both have funding for art therapy and work with people who have mental health problems to help them with their recovery. I also celebrate the work undertaken at the Hope Hub, through the Hope Church in Blackwood. It is excellent work, bringing together people from different backgrounds —those involved in the church and beyond—to come in, form bonds and develop their skills and interests.
It is a pleasure to take part in the debate. Funding for art therapy is funding well spent. I want to hear from the Minister on future directions and support for this important area.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Wantage (Mr Vaizey) on securing this important debate. I agree with the Arts Council, which says:
“Art and culture make life better, help to build diverse communities and improve our quality of life.”
As a Bristol MP, I am proud of the reputation my great city has in support for and delivery of the arts. I say to the Minister, whose Department is making the decision on the Channel 4 relocation, that Bristol is its natural home. Channel 4 would be welcomed with open arms, supported by a booming sector with expertise and a vision for the future of broadcasting.
As the Member for Bristol North West, I represent a constituency of haves and have-nots when it comes to access to the arts. For many of my constituents, getting to and accessing the best of Bristol’s art and culture is economically unviable. That is why I welcome the excellent work of Bristol’s Colston Hall, and the Bristol Music Trust, which works from it, in reaching out to distant communities to bring affordable arts to the many, not just the few. I also congratulate them on their funding efforts to build the first fully accessible music venue in the country.
In Bristol, we rely on performers from across the world and, indeed, Europe. I therefore call on the Minister and the Government to support the Musicians Union’s call for a commitment to ensuring the free movement of musicians.
I will conclude my remarks by talking about music and performance. As a child growing up in Lawrence Weston in my consistency—a council estate on the outskirts of Bristol—I never really got to experience the arts, but one Christmas, when I was in primary school, there was a performance from a local orchestra. There I was, sat on the floor, amazed by the noise that the musicians produced and the sound that they created, together, as an outfit. I decided that that was what I wanted to do, so I went to Portway Community School, now Oasis Academy Brightstowe, which had an amazing school orchestra, led at the time by Nicola Berry, and I learned the tenor saxophone—first, in the symphonic wind orchestra and, latterly, as a jazz musician.
Thanks to predecessors of the Bristol Music Trust, I got access to instruments, one-on-one tuition, music and the ability to practise and take my grades—because of public funding. Music taught me discipline and teamwork, and built my confidence, but public funds are required for pupils whose parents cannot afford to provide them with access to music. Children from low-income families are three times more likely to get a degree if they have been involved in arts and culture than those who have not.
I am always grateful to the people who gave me that opportunity and I call on the Government to ensure that other children, in my constituency and around the country, are not left behind. We must not let the music halls of our schools fall silent across the country. Our performance and confidence as young people, as cities and as a country is based on arts and culture. I hope that the Government will continue to invest in and support local authorities and charities to ensure that all of us, regardless of background, have access to excellent arts and culture training and performance, and the ability to build our confidence for roles such as becoming a Member of Parliament in the future.
I thank the right hon. Member for Wantage (Mr Vaizey) for securing the debate, for the inquiry that he started in 2015 and for its findings, published in July 2017 along with recommendations and conclusions.
I want to speak about one specific issue in the short time I have and look not only at the positive impact that the arts have in hospitals, but the role that they play for veterans. The report made 10 recommendations, including the need for arts organisations to work with health organisations and vice versa. Given that that was one of the key recommendations, this is clearly an important issue for veterans. Help for Heroes supports those with illnesses and injuries sustained while serving in the British armed forces. Often those injuries are not visible, with veterans carrying mental scars and dealing with mental health issues on a daily basis.
Although it may seem unlikely, art is a useful weapon in the fight against physical and psychological injuries. In the last year, up to April 2017, Help for Heroes delivered around 150 arts and craft events across its four recovery centres and outreach locations, reaching out to approximately 1,800 very needy participants. At those recovery centres, wounded, injured and sick servicemen and servicewomen can take part in a variety of art classes including, importantly, one-to-one sessions. Activities in woodwork, art, photography, poetry, stone-carving, music and singing—all those things, together and individually, make a difference. Mental wellbeing is vital to a full recovery, but often it can be difficult to talk openly about past and ongoing struggles. The arts can help veterans express themselves while creating something personal.
I want to quote someone whose name it is important to have on the record. We are all moved by what we hear and many of us in this Chamber are aware of these issues. Martin Wade from Surrey was recently awarded the top prize in the wounded, injured and sick category for his painting, “Never Ending Story”, at the Army arts exhibition in Salisbury. Martin served in the Army for 15 years before medical discharge due to post-traumatic stress disorder. He said:
“I was first encouraged to paint after I was medically discharged. Ever since then, Art has been my companion. Being able to have that expressive outlet has been an integral part of my recovery. It is the key component in my toolbox I use to cope with the daily challenges of PTSD...Art takes me on a journey and whilst I am on that journey, all I am thinking about is art. It takes me away from thinking about my challenges. It allows me respite from the stress of dealing with my PTSD.”
For me, that is one of the key things that art can do.
I do not think that anyone here can be in any doubt about the amazing effect that art can have, not only on veterans and people who are dealing with mental health conditions or battling loneliness, but on everyone, in every walk of life. Engaging with some form of art is vital for our wellbeing. It is important that we recognise that and make time in our busy lives to pursue it.
It gives me great pleasure to participate in this debate and to speak about High Peak Community Arts—a fabulous project that has been based in my constituency for more than 20 years, and has helped people with their health and wellbeing throughout that time. It is a real pioneer of outcomes. At the moment, it is funded through five-year lottery funding grants, and it helps people with mental health and wellbeing issues in particular. It creates community arts projects around my constituency, including in ceramics and mosaics. There is a sundial in a park, and it has created a life-sized willow-frame donkey for an elderly people’s care home. Working together on those projects helps people in a way that our health services often cannot.
With Project eARTh, High Peak Community Arts creates arts projects to enhance the natural environment. Those are aimed at adults who are experiencing mental distress or other long-term conditions, such as anxiety, stress, depression, obsessive compulsive disorder, bipolar disorder and borderline personality disorder. Generally, the participants are isolated and are lacking in self-confidence and self-esteem, and working together on those projects addresses such issues.
Being creative is relaxing, absorbing and takes people’s minds away from negative thoughts. People work together in the groups, discussing themes and ideas. They often physically work on the same project. We have unveiling ceremonies, in which the projects are unveiled in communities, which gives people a real sense of worth and wellbeing in the knowledge that they have created something.
The story of one of the participants illustrates the project better than any sort of evaluation. The lady was left severely traumatised seven years ago as the result of an armed robbery at her store. She suffered post-traumatic stress disorder and did not leave the house for four years. She lost all her friends because she was unable to talk to them anymore. In spite of all the care she received from doctors, counsellors and other health professionals, she still could not go out on her own. She says,
“I was petrified that my life was collapsing, I felt helpless.”
She felt that nothing could help her, until her support worker took her along to the art group. She managed to speak to people again, and took part in the project. Since then, she has been able to get out of the house to take her dog for a walk. She is not 100% recovered, but the projects have helped her more than anything else.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries. I thank the right hon. Member for Wantage (Mr Vaizey) for securing the debate, especially after yesterday’s timely World Mental Health Day.
In my previous job, I was an actor and a writer, and I used to think, “What do I contribute to the world?” My sister, who is a theatre nurse, used to say, “When I come home, I want to relax. I want to watch a soap opera, because it makes me feel better.” A recent report from University College London and Lancaster University supports her experience. The researchers discovered that watching live theatre can stimulate a person’s cardiovascular system as much as 30 minutes of exercise.
It is not just watching that has an impact; taking part has even more of an impact. Kirklees is part of the Creative Minds project, which works with NHS England to help service users improve their wellbeing. One of the projects, Active for Life, helps users with mental health issues to access free cycling, and it has had a brilliant impact. One user said, “You’re a life saver.” Another said,
“I get really ill sometimes and I can tell you this really works.”
The Arts Council understands the powerful impact of the arts on communities and wellbeing. It has targeted areas with a low take-up of the arts—Kirklees is one—and has invested in Creative People and Places, which brings culture in all its forms to the community. It empowers citizens not just to watch but to take part. It is about not just large organisations, but community organisations, too: Batley Choir, Batley Poets, Batley Smile and local youth theatres such as Acorn and West Yorkshire Youth Academy all enhance the lives of people with mental ill health.
The bigger question is, what are we doing to ensure access to the arts to support our young people’s mental health? Secondary schools in London have arts on a carousel: art for one term, drama for another and music for a third. In fact, at an all-party group on arts in schools yesterday, I heard a teacher explain how she was first an art teacher, then was asked to take on photography, and then later in the year was asked to take on design technology. That cannot be right.
Overall, participation in arts subjects in schools has fallen by 8.4%, and the indication is that the downward trend will continue. There has been a 28% drop in the take-up of GCSEs in creative arts and a 43% drop in design. It is even worse locally in Batley and Spen. There is a clear and consistent north-south divide in entry to arts subjects at GCSE. If we want a country that is fit and ready for the future, healthy in mind and body, we need to widen access to the arts, rather than allow this Government to withdraw the privilege.
I am grateful to the right hon. Member for Wantage (Mr Vaizey) for securing this debate. Art underpins community and our society. We have heard many great contributions about its effect on individual constituencies, and first I want to draw attention to the Scottish diaspora tapestry that was displayed in Westminster Hall earlier this year. That art brought together 800 people from around the world to create a world-class tapestry showing the spread of Scotland’s diaspora. In that, something important lies: art is for everybody. It is a universal language, from cave paintings all the way through. If we weaken our link with art and leave art out, we greatly endanger our communities and the coherence of our society.
The value of art to health is best summed up by my constituent, Grace Warnock, a young girl who has had far too many encounters with the health service in her short life. In that time, she has used art to express her feelings. She will not forgive me for this, but she drew her own intestines to show the surgeon where they hurt. She went on to create Grace’s Sign, a toilet sign for those with invisible disabilities, so that she does not have to feel left out, offended or upset if people look at her badly when she comes out of a toilet that she needs to use.
One of the groups that helped her in Edinburgh’s sick kids hospital was the Teapot Trust, which Parliament knows of. The Teapot Trust was set up in 2010 by Dr Laura Young and her husband following the tragic death of their daughter. In 2016, Laura was awarded an MBE in the new year’s honours list for her work. Their volunteers and art therapists go into hospitals in Edinburgh and London to bring hope, trust and faith to children and their families so that they can engage with some of the most difficult periods of their life, not through verbal explanation, but through the empathy of art. As a community, we have moved away from that.
It is great to have this debate today, particularly following the APPG’s report, to show that art in its wider sense must sit throughout our community. It is for all Ministers across the Government to pay attention to this, as it is for all Members to promote art and to remind people that it is not about money. It is about society, empathy and the people that we came here to serve.
I congratulate the right hon. Member for Wantage (Mr Vaizey) on securing this debate. I also congratulate Lord Alan Howarth, who was the mover behind the APPG, and his team, many of whom are here today.
I speak from a personal perspective; I was a primary school teacher for 15 years before becoming a Member of Parliament. The children in my care loved art, drama, craft, music and sport ahead of all other subjects. There was something primal about those activities that goes back to that first handprint in the cave. Every society appreciates art—even a baby in the womb responds to music. There is something primal about art and creativity and we neglect it at our peril. At secondary school, interest in art quite often dips down for young people as they concentrate on reading, writing and arithmetic. Once people enter their working life, it dips down even further for forty or fifty years until they discover art and craft in retirement. We need to concentrate on art and wellbeing in all three phases of life.
My niece, Nadia Wazera, teaches art and craft to blind veterans—our wounded warriors—and that is a primal way of repairing them. The size of the problem facing the country and the world is huge. The World Health Organisation states that by 2030 depression will be the “biggest health burden” on the planet. Replies to questions that I have tabled in this House show that 32.3% of 15 to 25-year-olds have one or more psychiatric conditions and that 85% of prisoners go into jail with mental health conditions. In 1991, 9 million prescriptions for antidepressants were issued; today, that figure is 65 million per year. There are better ways to deal with mental ill health and to promote human flourishing.
There are lots of reasons why we are in this situation, including digital distraction, information overload, social media, advertising and the way that we organise our economy, but it is good to see both the left and the right—David Cameron, who wanted to measure wellbeing, and our shadow Chancellor in his conference speech—quoting Robert Kennedy’s statement that there is more to life than GDP: there is human flourishing. As far as I am concerned, human flourishing begins and ends with art, music, dance, theatre and libraries. It is not the icing on the cake; it is the essence of the cake, and it has financial aspects as well as medical ones. We are one of the most creative nations on earth, and we downplay that and make cuts at our peril.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Ms Dorries. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Wantage (Mr Vaizey) on securing this interesting debate, which is extremely well timed. The UK Government’s 2021 city of culture competition is in its final stages. I hope that hon. Members, including the Minister, will forgive me for once again shamelessly plugging Paisley’s bid to be awarded that prestigious title. Paisley has a proud track record of recognising the positive contribution that the arts can make to improving people’s health, particularly their mental health, and that is at the heart of our bid —more on that later.
It is now common knowledge that resolving an individual’s health problems often requires a multi-layered approach, because health difficulties are influenced by several competing factors. Hon. Members have spoken about that in detail today, and numerous reports have been highlighted, including recent analysis by the Scottish Government that confirms that cultural engagement has a positive impact on the nation’s health and life satisfaction.
I pay tribute to the work of the APPG on arts, health and wellbeing, which I will join forthwith. In many ways, that group has led the awareness-raising campaign about the benefits of the arts in producing positive health outcomes. Its most recent report, which was completed in the summer and was well received, looks at the positive role that the arts can play in the social care sector and strengthens the evidence base about the role of the arts in producing positive outcomes.
There is clear and growing evidence that participating in the arts can dramatically reduce anxiety, stress and depression. It can also help to reduce the length of patients’ stay in hospitals and the use of some medication. We have already heard about art projects that have generated such positive outcomes and, if hon. Members will forgive me, I would like to spend some time talking about positive work in Renfrewshire that recognises the interconnectedness of the arts and health.
Although it is a national organisation, the Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival has firm roots in Paisley. The festival, which is in its 11th year, is one of Scotland’s most diverse cultural events, covering everything from music, film and visual art to theatre, dance and literature. It aims to support the arts and use the power of culture to challenge preconceived ideas about mental health. The organisation states:
“By engaging with artists, connecting with communities and forming collaborations, we celebrate the artistic achievements of people with experience of mental health issues, exploring the relationship between creativity and the mind, and promoting positive mental health and wellbeing.”
Renfrewshire hosts one of the largest regional programmes of that nationwide festival. In fact, 35 events will be held in Renfrewshire next week, engaging around 3,000 people. One of those will be “Making Our Mark”, organised by Renfrewshire Disability Arts Forum and the fantastic Disability Resource Centre, which I visited just a few weeks ago. It is a music, dance and visual arts event whose organisers believe passionately in the role of the arts in helping to generate positive health outcomes.
As I have mentioned once or twice in the House, the great town of Paisley is competing to be named UK city of culture in 2021. Its bid is built on the impact that that title could have on the lives of some of Paisley’s forgotten communities. As part of the bidding process leading up to 2021, the town has galvanized a number of health partners to use arts, culture and creativity to promote health, recovery and social wellbeing. Dozens of local projects are working with groups of vulnerable people in Renfrewshire. To name just a couple, the creative recovery programme at Dykebar Hospital features visual arts, music and song, and the Buddy Beat drummers social inclusion project will celebrate its 10th birthday this Friday.
We are not proud of the poverty in some of our communities, including—but certainly not exclusively—Ferguslie Park, which again has been identified as Scotland’s most deprived community. Deprivation brings with it associated health inequalities. Paisley’s bid is built on the hope that we can use the power of culture to transform the fortunes of our town. We use art to create environments that encourage, enrich and empower people, and we want to be a shining example of the role that culture can play in helping to produce positive health outcomes.
Paisley has given so much to Scotland and, indeed, the world. I believe that the country should do the right thing and award Paisley UK city of culture. This has been an excellent and timely debate and I welcome the cross-party consensus on the positive effects that the arts can have on health. I invite all hon. Members to Paisley in 2021 to celebrate its city of culture programme, which will prove that culture and the arts can help to regenerate a town’s fortunes and improve the health of the most vulnerable in our society.
This has been an excellent debate, as everybody has said. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Wantage (Mr Vaizey), and the APPG and Lord Howarth for all the work they have done. The right hon. Member for Wantage set out the debate very well, talking about the way the arts can alter the morphology of the brain and make a real change. He called for a culture change in society with respect to the arts and their interaction with health. He also said that education was a debate for another day. I am not sure that the Opposition agree that that is the case, and I may come back to that point. He rightly mentioned that Alan Johnson, when he was a Health Minister, emphasised that point, and he quite rightly called upon current Health Ministers to engage actively in this debate, which I also welcome.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ashfield (Gloria De Piero) on making a timely intervention and on her recent work with my hon. Friend the Member for Batley and Spen (Tracy Brabin) on the Acting Up report, which was commissioned by the Opposition Front Bench to try to emphasise the importance of the arts—particularly access to the arts—for working-class children in the area of acting and across the piece. That point on access was raised by other hon. Members and is absolutely essential. My hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman) very powerfully emphasised the issue of access to the arts.
I also congratulate the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr Seely), who spoke very lyrically about his constituency and the great work done there in the arts and health. The hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron) gave us a psychologist’s insight, which was extremely useful. She talked about the way that art can give inmates the opportunity for rehabilitation. That certainly reminded me of the campaign that I ran in the last Parliament, when the Government mistakenly made a move to stop prisoners having access in prison not only to books but to guitars. I started a campaign with Billy Bragg and I praised the Government at the time for changing their mind, to allow prisoners the opportunity to express themselves creatively as part of their rehabilitation.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol North West (Darren Jones) is a very accomplished musician, as he told us. He quite rightly mentioned the Musicians Union campaign. Like him, the new general secretary of the MU, Horace Trubridge, is a saxophonist and I look forward to a duet at some point, perhaps accompanying MP4, the world’s greatest and only parliamentary rock band, of which I am a member.
The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) quite rightly pointed out the value of the arts to veterans who have been through the experience of serving our country, and he was quite right to emphasise that point and bring it to our attention. My hon. Friend the Member for High Peak (Ruth George) spoke about Project eARTh, a mental health and arts initiative that brings real benefits in her constituency. My hon. Friend the Member for Batley and Spen quite rightly mentioned education—I will come back to that point—and my hon. Friend the Member for East Lothian (Martin Whitfield) told us about his constituent, Grace, and the Teapot Trust, in a very valid contribution. My hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane) really is a world leader, as a parliamentarian, on mindfulness, bringing it into Parliament and spreading the word about its importance, and the arts as part of that. He spoke about the primal nature of creativity, and how it is intertwined in our DNA and so important to us. He gave us a frightening statistic about the growth in the use of antidepressants. He quite rightly mentioned, in Libraries Week, the importance of libraries as a creative outlet for people.
Time is fairly short, and it is right that the right hon. Member for Wantage and the Minister should have an opportunity to respond. I want to emphasise a couple of points. We have rehearsed well the value of the arts and creativity to health and wellbeing, and there has been widespread agreement across the House on that. In calling for a culture change, which the right hon. Gentleman rightly did, the difficulty is that while a culture change is needed across the country, it is also needed, if I may say so to the Minister, in Government and among some of his colleagues.
There is nothing wrong with putting an emphasis on basic skills in education. It is quite right that that should concern us all, and it should not be a party political football, but accountability measures in education are set in such a way that they result in some of the statistics that my hon. Friend the Member for Batley and Spen reminded us of. Between November 2010 and November 2015 the number of art and design teachers in our schools fell by 9%. That is a fact; it is going on right now in our schools. We have all said what a wonderful thing music is and what a wonderful contribution it makes to our wellbeing, and I include myself in that, but the number of students taking GCSE music has dropped by 9%. We all know that drama—my brother is a professional actor, as was my hon. Friend—is a tremendous outlet and means of expression for some young people who can find no other means to do that or find it very difficult to do so. The number of students taking drama A-level has fallen by 26% since 2010.
To conclude, I am going to call it out this way: in the Department for Education the Schools Minister, who has been almost a constant fixture in that Department, has been a blockage, in my view, to some of the good rhetoric that comes out of Government about the importance of creativity. At some point, someone in Government, a Minister, has got to do something about it—it starts at the top, it should be the Prime Minister—and has got to say that the pendulum has swung too far, and creativity and the arts are being squeezed out of our education system. All the calls we make for culture change will come to nothing unless action is taken on that point.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries. I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (Mr Vaizey) for bringing this matter before us today. I would also like to acknowledge the excellent contributions. We have had 11 Back-Bench speeches and several interventions, and I will try to respond to some of those, but I also want to respond to this excellent report.
I know that my right hon. Friend has been a passionate co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on arts, health and wellbeing, as he was with this agenda as a Minister. I welcome this excellent report: it is thorough, wide-ranging and extremely welcome, and I have studied it carefully.
There are many intensely moving personal testimonies in the report that demonstrate the arts’ power to improve our quality of life from childhood through to our later years. As the report sets out, there are figures that show that the arts have a significant positive effect on our health and wellbeing, which has been echoed in many of the contributions this afternoon. For example, the report states that music therapy reduces the need for medication in 67% of people suffering from dementia. Artlift, an Arts on Prescription project in Gloucestershire, has shown a 37% drop in GP consultation rates and a 27% drop in hospital admissions. A study of deprived communities in London, published in 2012, showed that after engaging with the arts in various forms 79% ate more healthily, 77% engaged in more physical exercise and a staggering 82% said that they enjoyed greater general wellbeing.
I acknowledge that the arts can also help with the management of long-term health conditions and their prevention. The report highlights, helpfully, how dance has been used as a form of early intervention with psychosis and has led to clinically significant improvements in wellbeing, communication and concentration among young people.
The arts can and must play a major role in helping us to meet the growing challenges we face in health and social care. As such, we need to make a vital cultural shift to ensure that the arts are fully embedded in the health and social care system. I am sorry I am not a Health Minister, but I am obviously able to interact with other Ministers and I hear that point, which has been made a number of times today. I take that on board.
In last year’s Culture White Paper—my right hon. Friend was the driving force behind it—we made several commitments to build on our good work in bringing arts and health together. When I spoke at the launch of the report in July, I stated my commitment to its recommendations. In particular, I have asked my officials to explore the potential to develop and lead a cross-Government strategy, alongside other Departments including Health and Education, to support the delivery of health and wellbeing through arts and culture.
The report also made other recommendations, including the establishment of a national-level strategic centre for the arts, health and social care sectors. We must be realistic about that taking some time to establish, but it is a task I am engaged in. It will require a joint effort by a number of leaders and experts in the sectors, including from NHS England. I support such an aspiration and encourage the sharing of best practice between the arts, health and social care sectors. The more documented and measured outcomes that exist—we have heard good examples today—the more compelling the case is to strengthen the resolve across Government.
Last month I visited the Koestler Trust, a great arts charity for offenders, to hear more about its work and the impact of its awards and mentoring programmes on the most vulnerable people. The evidence was that its awards and programmes have had a positive impact on the lives of vulnerable people and offenders. Last year’s annual survey of award entrants showed that 82% felt that the awards had improved their confidence levels. I feel strongly that we must continue to promote and support such work.
I am delighted that the impressive work of charities such as Koestler will continue to be supported through the Arts Council national portfolio in the next investment period, which is 2018 to 2022. I am also keen to host another roundtable discussion with arts organisations and the Prisons Minister to build on the work of my right hon. Friend the Member for Wantage in that area. My officials are working urgently to help to arrange that discussion.
Last month, when I was in the Lake district, I visited Theatre by the Lake, an impressive organisation that works with different community groups to address rural isolation. It was the recent winner of the Alzheimer’s Society award for dementia-friendly organisation of the year, in recognition of its special performances for those suffering from dementia. That is vital work and, clearly, many theatres up and down the country make a significant contribution to wellbeing in their communities. I acknowledge that—we need to work to document it and to bring it into the heart of policy making.
Museums also do great work for people with dementia. As was mentioned by the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Dan Carden), who is no longer in his place, the House of Memories project in Liverpool has had great success with the local clinical commissioning group and is now exploring how to expand that outside its area, possibly using a franchise model. The project has trained more than 11,000 health, housing and social care workers in how to use the museum’s collections to connect with vulnerable dementia sufferers, generating an estimated £12.6 million in social value.
Just the weekend before last, on my second visit to Manchester as Minister, seeing its wonderful museums and galleries, including the impressive Whitworth Art Gallery, it was clear to me how deeply embedded in the city’s health and wellbeing programmes those institutions are. That was a conscious decision by the director, and that sort of leadership will be needed if we are to get the agenda moving across our nation.
The evidence is growing, but more is needed. The Mendoza review of museums, which will shortly be published, has examined the impact of museums on culture and health, and I hope that that work will allow my officials to develop the evidence base about the impact that museums have had on many fields, so that it can be shared more widely around Government.
In the interests of time, I have to abbreviate my remarks, but I will just mention libraries, as it is Libraries Week; I will visit a library in Pimlico tomorrow. My right hon. Friend, who was formerly the Minister with responsibility for libraries, will be aware of the Department’s work with the libraries taskforce, which he set up with the Local Government Association. The membership of that taskforce includes Public Health England and NHS England, in recognition of the importance of public libraries in providing information and support to local people. That taskforce has published a document setting out a vision for public libraries in England, which outlines an ambition for how libraries can deliver better outcomes for communities.
Over the last five years, the Arts Council has invested £41 million in the Creative People and Places programme, building supply and demand in places where engagement with the arts appears to be significantly below the average. So there is work being done on that and I can give the hon. Member for Batley and Spen (Tracy Brabin) more details about that work later. The Cultural Commissioning programme, which is also funded by the Arts Council, is another important element of its work.
In conclusion, it is undeniable that the arts and wider cultural sectors can and should play a key role in addressing some of the most pressing issues faced by both our health and social care systems. It is also important to recognise that politicians, arm’s length bodies, health and social care commissioners and the sectors themselves need to work together to get this matter right. It is an enormous challenge, but it is one that I take very seriously and will take forward. I hope that many of the Members who have contributed today will help me with the next steps to take these recommendations forward and make the aspirations that have been expressed real, so that they can have a real impact across our country.
Three things. First, I hope that the all-party group will get a response from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. Secondly, the mood of the House is that we want a letter from the Health Minister, don’t we? [Hon. Members: Yes.]
Thirdly, everyone who has attended today and so brilliantly contributed to this debate is now officially a member of the all-party group. So let us carry on and we will invite the Health Minister and the Arts Minister to our first meeting.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the effect of the arts on health.