Tuesday 24 October 2017
[Ian Paisley in the Chair]
UK Relations with Taiwan
I beg to move,
That this House has considered UK relations with Taiwan.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time in Westminster Hall, Mr Paisley. I place on record my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests: along with many colleagues, I took part in the all-party parliamentary group visit last month to Taiwan, where we were hosted by the Government and businesses from across Taiwan. That is one of the great values of all-party parliamentary groups; we can visit countries and states around the world, report back to Parliament and brief Ministers and members of the Government who, despite the extremely hard work that they undertake, cannot be everywhere all the time. It is a vital part of our parliamentary work.
To set the scene, Taiwan is the 22nd largest economy in the world, with a gross domestic product of close to $530 billion. It is a growing country with a population of 24 million, concentrated around the coast of a volcanic island, and its industry is growing dramatically. It is a vibrant democracy and an open society, with opportunities to share our values of freedom, democracy, the rule of law and human rights. The UK and Taiwan have many shared interests in maintaining peace and stability not only in Asia but in the Asia-Pacific region in general.
Taiwan is also, of course, well known around the world for its high-tech information and communications technology industry. Its target of increasing and strengthening five key industries—the Asian silicon valley, biomedicine, green energy, smart machinery and defence—means ample opportunities for free trade between us and Taiwan. I am one of those who believe that in the Brexit era, we have an opportunity to be internationalist and broaden our horizons in terms of the countries with which we trade and opportunities to set up new arrangements around the world. Taiwan is one country where we have a huge opportunity, because we have such a strong base to build on.
Taiwan has been a World Trade Organisation member since 2002. Who knows where we will be after March 2019, but I suspect that given our involvement with countries such as Taiwan, we will have an opportunity to forge closer links and possibly a free trade deal and further co-operation with Taiwan post-Brexit. As our economic relationship is central, further improvements have been made. More than 300 UK companies have business operations in Taiwan already. I ask not only the Foreign and Commonwealth Office but the Department for International Trade to encourage more UK companies to set up trading links with Taiwan.
At the last count, Taiwan was the UK’s 39th largest export market and 28th largest source of imports overall. We exported £1.8 billion in goods to Taiwan in 2015, but imported £3.5 billion, giving a trade deficit of £1.7 billion. We have had a trade deficit in each of the last 10 years. It is important, in the post-Brexit world, to look to improve the importance and levels of our exports. Our exports to Taiwan peaked as long ago as 2010, so there is a lot of potential to improve on the position.
To give a brief history of Taiwan and our trade involvement, in 1950 we ended unofficial relations with the Republic of China following the Chinese civil war and recognised the People’s Republic of China, but we maintained our relations in Taipei and continued to conduct trade-related activities. In September 1963, a Government office was established in the UK by the name of the Free Chinese Centre, becoming the Taipei Representative Office in 2015. Obviously, there is a lot of opportunity there.
In 1976, we established the Anglo-Taiwan Trade Committee in Taipei, which ended up increasing our involvement with Taiwan overall. In 1993, the Anglo-Taiwan Trade Committee and the UK Education Centre merged to become the British Trade and Cultural Office, which became the British Office Taipei in 2015, to ensure that we extended the full scope of the work.
The Government’s position on Taiwan has been summarised in written evidence to the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs:
“Under the terms of the 1972 agreement with China,”
“acknowledged the position of the government of the PRC that Taiwan was a province of the PRC and recognised the PRC Government as the sole legal Government of China. This remains the basis of our relations with Taiwan.”
Will my right hon. Friend the Minister clarify, when he replies to this debate, our relations with China?
I, too, have an entry in the register. Early in my ministerial career, it became abundantly clear to me what huge importance our principal ally, the United States, attaches to free movement within the South China sea. Does my hon. Friend agree that we must bear in mind in all our future relations with China the importance that our principal ally attaches to the South China sea?
The military position with respect to Taiwan and the statements made by the People’s Republic of China—not least this week, as representatives have met to determine their future strategy and reconfirm their view that Taiwan is a province of China—strengthens my view that we must stand steadfast with our allies in the United States and in Taiwan to ensure Taiwan’s future economic prosperity and independence.
I declare my interests as contained in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I am also chairman of the British-Taiwanese all-party parliamentary group. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is a great shame that relations between Taiwan and China have deteriorated since the democratic elections in which Tsai Ing-wen was elected President of Taiwan? We can see from the number of flights between Taiwan and China every week—more than 800—that if only both sides could sit down and see how many mutual interests they have, the prosperity that would pour from that would be beneficial to the peoples of both countries.
Opportunities will arise with the recommencement of direct flights from the UK to Taipei on 1 December. That is a welcome move, which will encourage the development of trading relations and tourism between the UK and Taiwan. As my hon. Friend says, it is right that given the number of flights and the relationship between Taiwan and the People’s Republic of China, there are opportunities for greater trade and co-operation.
As a result of the political situation in Taiwan, the people have exercised their democratic right to a vote—we all understand that in a democracy, we do not always get the results we would like—and have elected a President and a party that are far more independent of the People’s Republic of China than the Chinese might like. On our visit to Taiwan, the great impression that I gained, as I am sure other colleagues did, was that the people of Taiwan see themselves as Taiwanese, not Chinese. That is very important for our future relations.
My right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest West (Sir Desmond Swayne) referred to defence links. Although the UK does not have any military ties with Taiwan, we should press the Government to promote Taiwanese participation in international organisations, so that we can normalise relations and gain from its expertise.
It would be great if we had more military links with Taiwan—for example, if Royal Navy ships visited. The United States does not visit Taiwan because of Chinese pressure, but perhaps we should be looking at that sort of activity. I ask the Minister to consider that. Royal Navy vessels are in the South China sea and it would be great for them to visit Taiwan. That may upset the Chinese, but frankly—tough.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention, I think. My view is that as a country we should not be going round trying to upset people across the world.
Can I take my hon. Friend back to his assertion that the Taiwanese people do not see themselves as Chinese? Part of the complexity of the issue is that some do. The tragedy was that Chiang Kai-shek saw precisely that identity, and it was that put him in the position of refusing the possibility of remaining in the United Nations when the People’s Republic of China became the proper representative of China and the Chinese.
My right hon. Friend tempts me to talk through the history. As he knows, the people of Taiwan have transferred from Japanese and Chinese rule to independence. They fiercely defend their independence from both Japan and China.
I apologise for intervening again; sadly, I have to leave soon on Select Committee business. As well as being chairman of the British-Taiwanese all-party group, I am vice-chair of the all-party group on China. This is a complex issue. When I say that I am a friend of China and a friend of Taiwan, some people cannot get their head around that, but we want to have good relations with Taiwan and China. We need to promote that and get both sides working together.
My hon. Friend gets to the meat of the issue. We need to use our soft power, particularly in the post-Brexit era, to harness co-operation from individuals and individual countries around the world. The opportunities for co-operation will allow the economies of the People’s Republic of China and Taiwan to grow, to the mutual benefit of all citizens. We should encourage that.
I return to the British Government’s role. In 2009, Taiwan became part of the visa waiver programme. It was decided, after assessing different regimes around the world, that Taiwan was a low-risk country. During the first year of the programme, the number of visitors to the UK from Taiwan increased from 26,100 to 54,200. The estimated figure last year was 82,900, and with the introduction of direct flights, the numbers will increase yet further.
The Taiwan-UK youth mobility scheme, which provides 1,000 UK visas each year to Taiwanese people between the ages of 18 and 30, was launched in 2012. It also gives UK young people the opportunity to visit Taiwan each year and interrelate with young people from Taiwan. That needs to be part and parcel of the future of our relationship. Those on the scheme are encouraged to work full or part time, to carry out voluntary activities or study, and to understand the mutual benefits of the culture, society and lifestyles of our two countries. In 2016, the UK Government opened the registered traveller service to Taiwan, which has improved the convenience of travel for Taiwanese citizens who visit the UK frequently. We have built stronger relations between our two nations as a result.
There are clearly many opportunities. In the past year alone, visits to Taiwan have been made by the Minister for Trade Policy; by the Prime Minister’s trade envoy, Lord Faulkner; and by three UK parliamentary delegations. In February, a number of UK cities participated in the first ever UK-Taiwan smart city forum in Taiwan. In March, Sir David King, our special representative on climate change, visited Taiwan. In June, Taiwan’s Deputy Minister of Economic Affairs met the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, my hon. Friend the Member for Watford (Richard Harrington), to promote co-operation on renewable energy. In September, Lord Faulkner visited Taiwan again, to witness the signing of a letter of intent for co-operation on railway heritage between Taiwan and the UK. Direct flights will resume on 1 December; I trust many colleagues will be present to witness the first flight arriving at Gatwick. Clearly, we will need to expand Gatwick to accommodate all the extra flights coming to our great city of London.
We need to build on our strong relationship and promote regular dialogue between our two countries.
I draw the House’s attention to my entry on the Register of Members’ Financial Interests; I was on one of the delegations to Taiwan. The hon. Gentleman is making a very good speech on our relations with Taiwan. Given all the delegations that take place and all the ministerial support that the UK and Taiwan give each other, will he encourage the Minister to encourage his Chinese counterparts to allow Taiwan observer status in international bodies? That status has been stripped from Taiwan recently, which has set back its whole economic development and strategy. The best way of improving Taiwan’s relations across the world is to allow it to have observer status in international bodies.
I am coming on to what needs to happen. First, we need to facilitate industry collaborations. Smart city initiatives give UK cities outside London the opportunity to participate in promoting business with Taiwan. With smart cities and industries such as renewable energy and railways, the UK and Taiwan can look forward to greater co-operation. We need to build on our successful links.
Secondly, we need to promote and support Taiwan’s participation in international organisations, as the hon. Member for Edinburgh South (Ian Murray) says. One is the World Health Assembly. Taiwan was a key contributor to the WHA for eight consecutive years and dedicated itself to international medical work and disease prevention, so it was a great shame that it was excluded from the WHA this year, at the behest of the PRC. In my view, the PRC is adopting a short-sighted approach in continuing to want to exclude Taiwan, and I note that Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon and my right hon. Friend the Minister have directly raised concerns about this issue with the PRC.
The severe acute respiratory syndrome, SARS, epidemic of 2002-03 clearly showed what can happen if we exclude people and countries from participating in the promotion of good health. at that time, researchers in Taiwan did not receive the data they needed to combat that virus, and it continued to spread in both Taiwan and China. So we have a part to play in encouraging the PRC and other countries and organisations to promote Taiwan as a member.
I, too, have visited Taiwan and been influenced by what I saw there. The Taiwanese provide world-class emergency teams when something goes seriously wrong in any country worldwide and they should be hugely applauded for that. There is never a restriction; Taiwan sends its teams wherever it can, although sometimes China blocks them. Nevertheless, it is a fantastic thing that Taiwan does for the world.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention and I agree completely.
To continue with my short list of international organisations, another is the United Nations framework convention on climate change. We know that we cannot combat climate change by ourselves; we have to co-operate with all others across the world. Taiwan has set a very ambitious target for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and it is therefore absolutely right, even though it is a small island state, that Taiwan should have a key role in helping and encouraging others to participate in this process. It is a great shame that Taiwan has not been invited to do so since 2016, so I firmly believe that our Government should encourage others to allow Taiwan to participate in the process again.
Similarly, there is the International Civil Aviation Organisation. Back in 2013, Taiwan was invited to attend the ICAO assembly as a guest, but since the assembly in 2016 it has been excluded. That is complete nonsense. My hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr Evans) referred to the number of flights between Taiwan and China, and now of course international flights go from all over the world into Taipei, which means that Taiwan needs to be represented in the ICAO, even if just as a guest.
I also declare my interest in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. My hon. Friend has touched on a very important issue—air safety. I sit on the Select Committee on Transport and air safety should not be a bargaining chip in international relations; it is paramount. No one country has a monopoly on the wisdom of what makes it safer for us to fly around the world, so I find it unexplainable that Taiwan—a major air carrier—should be excluded from deliberations on that issue.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. Quite clearly, international air safety should trump all other issues. Irrespective of diplomatic relations, it does not make sense to fail to seek the co-operation of countries to ensure that international airspace is safeguarded.
The final item on my list of asks concerns the International Criminal Police Organisation, or Interpol. Cross-border crime is becoming a more serious issue year by year, and as we seek to contribute to the global efforts against organised crime, cyber-crime and terrorism, it is quite clear that in the coming years we should support Taiwan’s participation in Interpol as an observer so that further progress can be made. We can see that Taiwan has already made a great contribution towards Interpol, and quite clearly it is unfair and ridiculous that it is excluded from that organisation, especially given the levels of cyber-crime emanating from south-east Asia.
I return now to what I regard as the value of the British-Taiwanese all-party group. The group has more than 150 members from Parliament, which makes it one of the largest groups in Parliament. My hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley and Lord Steele are the two co-chairs of the group, which shows it not only has a cross-party view but speaks with a strong voice on behalf of the UK Parliament on relations with Taiwan. We should also remember that in October 2014 the Lord Speaker, Baroness D’Souza, became the first ever Lord Speaker to visit Taiwan, which demonstrates the positive development that is taking place between our two countries.
I look forward to hearing further contributions from colleagues. I also ask my right hon. Friend the Minister to emphasise in his response to the debate the importance of UK-Taiwan relations and to say how we can further the development of those relations, economically, diplomatically and possibly militarily, if that is appropriate. Even more significantly, given the increased focus and increasingly outward-looking nature of the PRC, it will be important in the future that we stand by our allies and friends in the South China sea region, to ensure that that region is not destabilised.
I should inform Members that I intend to call the first opposition spokesperson at approximately 10.30 am. Given the number of people who have stood up this morning or who are down to speak, I do not need to put a time restriction on contributions. However, I ask Members to bear in mind that speeches should be about six minutes long, as I am sure there will be other interventions.
It is a pleasure to be called by you, Mr Paisley, to speak in Westminster Hall. I also congratulate the hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) on making such a good case in this debate, which he secured.
The statistics about this issue are very important. In 2016, the UK exported some £1.8 billion worth of goods and services to Taiwan, and we imported goods from Taiwan that were worth some £3.5 billion. So we have a trade deficit with Taiwan, but we are very happy to have had such a trade deficit with Taiwan in each of the last 10 years.
UK imports from Taiwan peaked at £4.2 billion in 2012, and in 2015 the UK’s exports to Taiwan represented about 0.4% of all UK exports. In 2015, Taiwan was the UK’s 39th largest export market and the 28th largest source of UK imports. It is clear from those statistics and from the presentation by the hon. Member for Harrow East that there are links with Taiwan and that there is a desire for those links to be enhanced. That was also demonstrated by the work carried out by our esteemed Minister for Trade Policy, who visited the island last September, shortly after the Brexit vote; he secured a flight from Gatwick to Taiwan for the first time in five years. We hope to build upon such links over the next period of time, which would benefit both our countries.
However, as with any issue that involves a politician, things are rarely black and white. It is not so simple just to enhance trade with Taiwan, as we must also continue to respect our other trading partners, which in this case includes China. It is about getting the balance right.
From the outset, I have believed that my experience of hailing from Northern Ireland helps with this situation, as it shows that a border dispute must not signal the death of mutually beneficial trading deals. The Republic of Ireland is essential to our trade, as it is a big importer of our goods, and vice versa. Even if the British mainland makes it abundantly clear that Northern Ireland remains British and continues to do so, that will not stop trade with the Republic of Ireland. That can and should be the approach for dealing with the China-Taiwan issue. We can and must enhance trade links without further alienating the two nations, so it is a case of getting the balance right, as the hon. Member for Harrow East said when he introduced this debate.
Recently, I read an article that highlighted the fact that persecution of people on the grounds of their faith had increased over recent years in the Asia-Pacific region. Indeed, that article was set at the first Asia-Pacific Religious Freedom Forum, which this year was held from 18 to 21 February in Taiwan. That conference, which was hosted by the former Vice-President of Taiwan, Annette Lu, was timed to coincide with the Chinese new year celebrations and to come right after the general elections in Taiwan. It showed the passion in Taiwan for moving away from the Chinese enforcement of religion and for moving towards religious freedom. I believe that we have a duty to support Taiwan in that regard. China is guilty of many human rights and religious persecution issues, and we must acknowledge that. However, the fact that the conference was held in Taiwan sends out a clear message about the ethos of those who are elected in Taiwan. They want true co-operation, to allow people the freedom to believe as they choose, without fear of persecution. ChinaAid’s president, Bob Fu, a former Chinese dissident himself, said that the conference declaration was a road map
“for those who wish for a free world”.
People from 26 countries took part in the forum, from Pakistan, China, Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Myanmar and others. They included representatives of charities and international non-governmental organisations that focus on freedom of religion, such as Open Doors International, which works with minority Christians worldwide. No one nation or organisation can work alone to fight the rising tide of hatred, so there is a need for greater co-operation between those who want a peaceful world. It is not too much to hope for the faith, hope, charity, love, mercy, liberty and peace that can help to preserve those people.
During the conference, Pakistan-born Swedish politician Nasim Malik said that nations across the world had realised that peace and stability were needed for development. Off the back of that peace and stability comes the opportunity for economic development. We have done it with China; we can do it with Taiwan, and we should work towards that. With prosperity and growth we can do that; Malik said that the countries in the Asia-Pacific region should also realise that reality for their economic growth and prosperity.
A similar viewpoint was held by Brian J. Grim, president of the Religious Freedom & Business Foundation, who said that the global economy had become religiously diverse, so protecting religious freedom would strengthen the global economy as well. How true that could be, if we put that ethos clearly at the core of what we do. I believe that those two things can, and must, be intrinsically linked, and that we have a role to play. While strengthening our trading ties, we can and must offer the support for that freedom that will help people to grow an economically viable nation, whatever nationality is attributed to them.
Hailing, as we do, from a nation where many people often confuse the nationalities, it goes straight to my heart when people question whether I am Irish or British. Let me make it clear: I am an Ulster Scot, from Northern Ireland, and I am proud to be part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. I am very proud to put that on record; I am proud to be British. However, I must also say that to see my children with no food on their plates or no job to go would also go straight to my heart. There must be the ability to involve ourselves with economic issues without involving ourselves in nationality ones. That is a fine line, but I believe we possess the ability to walk it.
I am delighted to be able to speak in the debate—I am grateful to you, Mr Paisley, for allowing that—and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) on securing it. I am particularly pleased to follow the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon).
Taiwan’s place in the world remains uncertain, and that is regrettable. Taiwan is the most populous state and the largest economy that is not a member of the United Nations. It has undergone a transformation since the 1960s, from a relatively unprosperous dictatorship to a stable advanced economy and democratic state. Taiwan is one of the most democratic and liberal parts of Asia; that was most clearly illustrated by the ruling of the council of grand justices earlier this year that will pave the way for same-sex marriages. Human rights and the rule of law are generally respected in Taiwan, in contrast to many of its neighbours.
On the face of it, Taiwan is a state we should seek to promote as far as we can, so I have some sympathy with the 22,000 people who signed the petition calling for the UK to recognise Taiwan as a country. However, the issue is far from simple. The UK Government’s position on Taiwan is that the disagreement between the island and the People’s Republic of China is a matter for the two sides to agree between themselves by diplomatic means. That is a sensible approach to what is a complex international dispute, but it means that our links to Taiwan are not as close as they could be, which is unfortunate. It is disappointing, for example, that Taiwan has been unnecessarily excluded from some international organisations. Where Taiwan can contribute to the global good and there is no nationhood requirement, it should be allowed to participate, particularly as it is keen to do so. I see little reason why Taiwan cannot be accommodated in the assembly of the World Health Organisation or in the International Civil Aviation Organisation, for example.
Putting aside the international dispute surrounding Taiwan, the focus of our relationship with the state is to build on the strong economic links that we already have. Taiwan is a major economy, larger than Sweden, Thailand or Hong Kong, and it is a significant trading partner with the UK. We export nearly £2 billion-worth of goods and services to Taiwan, and it is good to see the UK Government building on that with their recent mission to promote UK renewable energy technology. With the first distilleries in 200 years set to open in my own area in the Scottish borders, it would be remiss of me not to mention that Taiwan is the third-largest overseas market for Scottish whisky. I was pleased that last year the UK Government worked with the Scotch Whisky Association to secure trademark certification for the product in Taiwan.
On the subject of whisky, I wake up. Taiwan has, for three years running, produced what people say is the best whisky in the world. It is great that Scottish whisky goes in there, but I think whisky will be coming the other way soon.
I have had the pleasure of enjoying that Taiwanese whisky, but I dispute that it will be able to compete with the finest Scottish brands.
About 38,000 British nationals visit Taiwan every year, and a few years ago I was lucky enough to be one of that number. I visited Taiwan as part of a delegation from the Scottish Parliament’s cross-party group on Taiwan. Taiwan is an incredibly beautiful and varied country. I found the Taiwanese people extremely friendly and accommodating, and was struck both by the economic development of the area and by its natural beauty. It is good that direct flights are set to resume between the UK and Taiwan. I would truly recommend Taiwan to tourists; it must be one of the most overlooked and underrated Asian destinations. I hope that other airlines will follow suit and provide a service to Taiwan from the UK, perhaps even from a Scottish airport.
I, too, refer Members to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
I would like to speak about my relationship with Taiwan. I visited Taiwan at the invitation of the country in 2011 and, more recently, in 2015, in cross-party delegations on both occasions. I am really surprised to see that the shadow Minister is alone on the Opposition Benches today. I am surprised that the Opposition Members who enjoyed those visits with me have not wanted to share their ideas about our relationship with Taiwan.
In Taiwan, I was fortunate enough to meet talented politicians and dynamic businesses and to learn more about their cultural heritage. I also saw for myself what a beautiful island it is, especially around Sun Moon lake. If Members have the opportunity to visit Taiwan, I encourage them to do so, because it truly is a beautiful place.
A true relationship between two countries goes two ways, and I am absolutely delighted to announce that the Taiwanese ambassador is due to visit Cornwall next month. Along with my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall (Scott Mann), I hope to introduce him to local politicians and to our creative and diverse home-grown businesses throughout Cornwall. I hope also to show him some of our heritage—after all, we have a world heritage site for our mining—and I hope that the ambassador and his team will be able to see the beautiful landscape that Cornwall is known for, so that, with the new direct flights, we might encourage tourism both from Cornwall to Taiwan and from Taiwan to Cornwall.
It is through such friendships, and a true working knowledge of each other’s country, that we can build the true, positive relationship we need with Taiwan as we leave the European Union and start building trading relationships around the world. I look forward to continuing to build that relationship with Taiwan. Taiwan deserves it and the United Kingdom can provide it through friendship.
It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) on securing this timely debate. I, too, visited Taiwan on a delegation earlier this year; as with others, that is recorded in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. We saw a dynamic and go-ahead country eager to extend both cultural and economic relations with the UK. Some 7,000 or 8,000 students come from Taiwan each year to study here in the UK, and we should encourage and support that.
One area of particular interest where our two countries can work more closely is renewable energy. A delegation from Taiwan has already visited the Grimsby-Cleethorpes area. Dr Lin, the very active UK representative, will visit both Cornwall and Cleethorpes in the next few weeks, and we look forward to that. We also have a particular relationship with Taiwan because Catherine Nettleton, our UK representative there, spent part of her childhood in Cleethorpes, attending Thrunscoe School. That is another help in cementing the relationship between our two countries. I note that a trade and industry delegation visited Taiwan earlier this month, so relationships are clearly developing.
My hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East mentioned numerous statistics in connection with Taiwan. Indeed, 98% of Taiwan’s energy needs are imported, so renewable energy is something we can develop. The North sea, as we know, is a hub for wind turbines, and the port of Grimsby services many of the turbines in the North sea. Grimsby, of course, is neighbour to Cleethorpes, and many of my constituents are involved in the renewable energy sector. I hope that when Dr Lin visits we can develop the relationship further.
My hon. Friend rightly points out that Taiwan is fast developing its renewable energy sector. It has also made the decision to decommission many of its nuclear power stations. That is a further source of trade co-operation between our two countries, because this country has considerable expertise in that field. Does he agree that we should be doing all we can to encourage that sector in this country to make contact with Taiwan to share our expertise in the field?
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. That is another area of co-operation that we can develop further. Referring to the renewables sector in my own constituency, marine operations are particularly strong in the Grimsby and Cleethorpes area, and the installation, operation and maintenance vessels that sail from there will be vital to Taiwan as it develops its offshore wind sector.
My hon. Friend mentioned transport. As I am a member of the Transport Committee, I refer to the situation on participation in the International Civil Aviation Organisation, which is particularly important if Taiwan is to develop further its communications and transport connections with the wider world. I know that the UK representative has written to Transport Ministers about the importance of that, because to participate in the carbon offsetting arrangements Taiwan must be a member of that organisation. It benefits us all if Taiwan is involved to that extent.
Speaking in my capacity as chairman of the all-party parliamentary rail group, may I refer to the co-operation between the UK and Taiwan on rail matters, which was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East? He referred to the heritage railway agreement between the Alishan forest railway and the UK’s Welshpool and Llanfair railway. I am not sure whether my Welsh pronunciation is correct; it is about as good as my Taiwanese pronunciation. Nevertheless, Lord Faulkner, who is also an officer of the all-party rail group, and our trade envoy, played a key part in bringing that together. I know that the Taiwanese would like to develop further co-operation in the rail industry, and I hope it can be advanced.
Taiwan is an example of an independent, democratic nation, with a population of around 24 million. Its wealth is increasing considerably. Think what a nation of more than 60 million, which happens to be democratic and the world’s fifth largest economy, can do once it becomes a free nation again.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today, Mr Paisley. I think this is the first time that I have spoken in a Westminster Hall debate under your chairmanship, and you are doing a sterling job. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) on securing this fantastic debate. I refer Members to my declaration in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests; I made a visit to Taiwan hosted by the Taiwanese Government last year.
I will keep my contribution brief. Taiwan and the UK share a love of free markets, aspiration and cutting-edge technology. In 2016, the UK and Taiwan did £5.85 billion of trade, and we hope to see that getting bigger and bigger in our post-Brexit era. We share a love of fine wine, fine food, whisky, cutting-edge technology, good bicycles and good cars. The UK also has 300 businesses that are based in and operating out of Taiwan, and we are keen to see that expand and two-way trade between Taiwan and the UK continue.
Some of the exciting technologies on which we could collaborate include biotechnology, renewable energy development, as my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers) mentioned, electric cars, smart technology and using technology to help with social care needs. There is also, of course, tourism, where Taiwan and Cornwall share an intrinsic connection. My hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall (Mrs Murray) mentioned the forthcoming visit of the Taiwanese ambassador to the UK in November, and I look forward to welcoming him, with my hon. Friend and my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double), to Cornwall. I hope to talk to him about renewable energy technologies in Cornwall.
Moving on to the food industry—Taiwan and Cornwall share a love of food—in my North Cornwall constituency we have three Michelin-starred restaurants. When I went to Taiwan with the delegation, the food was fantastic, and I look forward to reciprocating that when Taiwanese representatives visit Cornwall.
Does my hon. Friend welcome the investment by Han Dian, the first Taiwanese food company to invest in this country, which is creating more than 100 jobs? Would he like to see further investment from Taiwan, as I would?
My hon. Friend makes an exceptionally good point. A huge number of opportunities present themselves, and it is nice to hear of the investment that Taiwan is making in his constituency. It is a pleasure to speak today. Taiwan has a friend in Cornwall, and long may we stand together to promote free trade, free markets and good friendship.
I do not see any other hon. Members standing, so I will call the first Front-Bench spokesman.
I am grateful for the chance to begin summing up the debate. I also welcome you to what I believe is your first outing as Chair here—
You are shaking your head. I apologise. I must have misheard. I should have realised that you were showing an extremely experienced hand throughout proceedings; I congratulate you on that.
We do not have to be here long to realise that we have to learn to think quickly on our feet.
Mention has been made of the important place that Taiwan has as a trading partner for the United Kingdom. That applies in particular to Scotland. Taiwan is our third or fourth biggest export partner. I heard one hon. Member say “third”, so I will say “fourth”. Perhaps it depends on what we count as exports, but they are about 10% of the UK’s total exports to Taiwan. Beverages are the single biggest export from the UK to Taiwan. The vast majority, of course, is proper whisky made in the only place in the world that has the right to call anything whisky. We allow them to import some cheap imitations from other parts of the United Kingdom, but we make sure that quality and quantity go together.
Will the hon. Gentleman confirm that Scotland provided equipment to Taiwan so that it could produce its own whisky? Perhaps that is why Taiwanese whisky is of such good quality.
Imitation is, of course, the sincerest form of flattery. I have no doubt at all that the expertise both in designing the plant and in including the secret magic ingredients can be exported—methods can be taught—but it is still simply not possible to make proper whisky anywhere outside of Scotland. Those who believe that the Taiwan whisky is the best in the world also think you can make whisky in places such as Ireland, and I believe even Cornwall has had a go.
The economic ties that we have with Taiwan are important not simply because of the export business. Interestingly, I note that for the past 10 years the UK has had a substantial trade deficit with Taiwan. Given that a trade deficit with some countries in Europe is used as an excuse for severing ties with them, it seems strange that the big trade deficit that we have with Taiwan should somehow have the opposite effect. We want to increase and strengthen those links. There seems to be a contradiction or an inconsistency.
As far as the Government of Taiwan are concerned, the Scottish National party welcomes, as we all do, the progress that has been made. It is hard to believe it is only 30 years since Taiwan was under full martial law. It has made a lot of progress since then, which has not always been easy. You cannot change from dictatorship to full democracy in a generation without encountering difficulties along the way. We must recognise that for a lot of the time the Government of mainland China have allowed Taiwan to develop in its own way, although at times they have interfered to an extent that I think is unacceptable. I hope the Minister will agree with that.
Nobody has yet mentioned the arrest and detention of Lee Ming-che, a human rights activist from Taiwan who disappeared in March when he entered China. Within the past four or five weeks Chinese television has broadcast him confessing to sedition and endangering the security of the Chinese state. After six months’ secret detention by the Chinese authorities, most of us would confess to almost anything. We can only wonder what pressure was put on him. He has confessed to planning a website and encouraging people to oppose some of the policies of the Chinese Government, and to distributing literature that criticised the Chinese Government. In other words, he confessed to doing things that all of us do every day of our lives and that people in Taiwan are used to being allowed to do.
Perhaps we should ask the Chinese Government to take note of the fact that economic development in Taiwan has gone on at the same time as the increase in democracy and increasing liberalisation of society. As has been mentioned, Taiwan is the first place in Asia officially to accept the principle of same-sex marriage. I hope that is an example that will go forward elsewhere in Asia.
It was suggested in an intervention that we should look to export arms to Taiwan and look for more military involvement, but I think that would be a disaster just now. The last thing the United Kingdom needs is to find more places for military adventures and more places to sell weapons, when we have no idea how and when and against whom they might be used in future.
For obvious reasons, I can identify with the idea that Taiwan is recognised as a country that is not yet a country. It is a nation, but it does not quite have full state recognition in the United Nations, for example. On the future status of Taiwan, it is important to consider the wishes and the will of the Taiwanese people. Far too often in such circumstances—we can certainly see it from the Chinese Government—it becomes all about what is in the strategic interests of China, which would like to integrate Taiwan more fully into China and to use it as a military base, for example. Whether we are talking about the long-term constitutional status of Taiwan, Gibraltar, the Falkland Islands or anywhere else, the ultimate question should always be: what is the will of the people? It is clear that for the time being, the will of the people of Taiwan is that it should not be further integrated into the People’s Republic of China.
On the status of Taiwan in the United Nations, there are 23 million people living in Taiwan—that is 35% of the size of our own population—and they are not represented at the United Nations. China blocks it and is very effective at blocking it. The United Nations and our Government should consider supporting moves to give proper observer status to Taiwan in the United Nations.
I certainly would not object to that. I can think of other places that should be afforded the same opportunity, because the United Nations wants to be as inclusive as possible and should look for ways to bring people in as observers, rather than to keep them out. For the record, I am not a great fan of the way in which the United Nations Security Council works. It seems to be about making sure that the big military superpowers prevent anything from happening that might go against their interests, rather than to make sure that the world develops in the best interests of most of the peoples of the world.
I will conclude now because I am keen to hear the Minister and the Opposition spokesperson. Taiwan is unique, as far as I know, among all the countries of the world. On its constitutional status and its status as a significant economic power, although it does not have official recognition as a part of the United Nations, as has been mentioned, it is a good example to us that sometimes we need to be prepared to look at answers that are slightly different from the norm and whether it is possible to recognise the sovereignty of people before, during or after the transition to full statehood and to full recognition on the world stage.
I hope that the Minister will continue to rule out military involvement through sales of arms or an actual military presence in Taiwan. I can understand from one point of view why that has been suggested, but I really do not think that that would be the right way to deal with a situation that in many ways is encouraging. As I have said, there has been a lot of progress in Taiwan in the past 30 years. However, there are still dangers and there is significant tension between Taiwan and China. One false or unwise move by the United Kingdom or other powers could make things a lot worse not only for the strategic security of the United Kingdom but particularly for the 23 million people who live in Taiwan.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this morning, Mr Paisley. I congratulate the hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman), who gave us a really good overview of the current state of modern Taiwan and our relations with it. He asked the Minister a good question about the current situation in the South China sea. I hope the Minister will be able to say something about the British Government’s position on that.
My ears really pricked up when heritage rail and Lord Richard Faulkner, a Labour peer, were mentioned. In my constituency in 1825 we built the first passenger train, so we are keen to strengthen links with all countries to whom we have exported trains over the years.
The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) made a good and important point when he spoke about religious freedom and the conference that was held in Taiwan. That is an indication of the good human rights record in Taiwan, which is an extremely important issue. I know he cares a lot about that.
We heard from two Cornish Members of Parliament. Like the hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (John Lamont), I think that the recent court judgments on same-sex marriage are another indication of the significant progress on human rights in Taiwan. In terms of economic possibilities for trade and development, the hon. Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers) was right to point out the importance of developing our relations on renewable energy.
Her Majesty’s Opposition fully accept the One China policy, as we did in government. After being elected, President Trump made a telephone call to the President of Taiwan—probably the first time that there had been a direct conversation between presidents since Chiang Kai-shek was in America in the middle of the second world war. President Trump said:
“I fully understand the One China policy, but I don’t know why we have to be bound by the One China policy, unless we make a deal with China having to do with other things, including trade.”
Will the Minister tell us the Foreign Office’s response to that?
At the same time as accepting the One China policy, we recognise the significant progress that Taiwan has made in the last few decades in implementing an effective democracy and in human rights. We should acknowledge the role of civil society organisations, which have often been at the forefront of that progress on human rights.
Hon. Members have spoken about the involvement of Taiwan in international organisations. Taiwan is a successful and important member of the World Trade Organisation, and a good case was made for its membership of the World Health Organisation and the UN climate change body. The suggestion made by my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh South (Ian Murray) that Taiwan could have observer status in some international organisations should be explored. I would like to hear from the Minister about that as well.
Obviously, relations between China and Taiwan are a matter for China and Taiwan. We want to see the continuation of dialogue between those countries, because that is ultimately the best way of securing peace and stability, which is in their interests, and those of the region and the wider world. The remarks by the Scottish National party’s Front-Bench spokesman, the hon. Member for Glenrothes (Peter Grant), about not ramping up military pressure and stress were wise, and I share those sentiments.
From the United Kingdom’s point of view, trading relations and cultural exchange are clearly important, and the Opposition feel that they should be developed. That development does not have anything to do with Brexit; Taiwan is an important country—it is particularly advanced in modern electronics—and there is obviously a lot of scope for mutual benefit.
I truly thank my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) for introducing the debate, and I am relieved that he recognises that it is not in the interests of Parliament—let alone the Foreign and Commonwealth Office—to upset other nations. However, I also recognise the early bid by my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) to join the diplomatic corps—perhaps as a Taiwanese whisky ambassador to somewhere like Antarctica. That might be the way forward.
I thank all members of the British-Taiwanese all-party parliamentary group for their valuable contributions to this vibrant and important debate. I am also grateful to the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and my hon. Friends the Members for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers), North Cornwall (Scott Mann), North East Cornwall—
Will my right hon. Friend give way?
Would my hon. Friend bear with me for two seconds? I just wanted to praise my hon. Friend the Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (John Lamont)—the new boy in our midst. He is a Freshfields alumnus, as am I, and I think his wise words on the legal matters were well received by the House.
It is not for me to correct the Minister, but my constituency is South East Cornwall.
I am sure that battles in Bodmin and elsewhere were fought over such matters. I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. I actually know her constituency rather well; close friends of mine have lived in Lostwithiel over the years. It is a very beautiful part of the world. Whether one is from Taiwan or any other part of the world, it is well worth visiting. It is not quite as beautiful as my constituency of course, but that is another matter.
Before I address the UK-Taiwanese relationship directly, I remind hon. Members of the British Government’s policy on Taiwan, as was set out by the Opposition, and will summarise where things stand with regard to Taiwan’s relationship with China and, indeed, the rest of the world. The British Government’s long-standing policy is that the issue of Taiwan should be settled by the people on both sides of the Taiwan strait. We therefore call on both sides to continue to engage in as constructive a dialogue as possible.
I may not be diplomatic, but I understand that in international law, national self-determination is a hugely important factor in determining a country’s future. Were the Government of Taiwan to ask the Taiwanese people whether they want to be independent, I suspect we know what the answer would be. The United Nations must wake up and understand that there are 23 million people who are largely unrepresented in the United Nations, but should be.
In fairness, I should point out that Taiwan acts independently—no one would dispute that—and the issue is that Taiwan is in a rather anomalous, unique situation in international affairs, which I shall try to touch on in my remarks.
There has been no official contact between the authorities in Taiwan and the Chinese Government since last year’s elections in Taiwan. However, both China and Taiwan’s leaders have recently noted that cross-strait relations have thickened substantially in the past decade; President Xi Jinping said so as recently as the 19th party conference, which comes to an end today. Economic ties have grown and continue to grow, and there has been more interaction between the people of China and Taiwan.
Turning to the relationship between Taiwan and the wider international community—something close to the heart of many hon. Members who have spoken today —the British Government believe that the people of Taiwan have a valuable contribution to make towards international co-operation on global issues such as aviation safety, climate change and organised crime. Their involvement would, in my view, reduce co-operation black spots, which pose a risk to the international community, including the United Kingdom and our own people.
However, I also accept that Taiwan’s ability to play the fullest possible role in addressing global challenges is restricted and has been under increased pressure over the past 18 months. As a number of Members have observed, Taiwan’s observer status in international organisations has come under closer scrutiny, and it was not permitted to observe the World Health Assembly as recently as May this year. The UK Government continue to support, and will continue to speak up for, Taiwan’s participation in international organisations where there is precedent for its involvement, where it can contribute to the global good, and where there is no prerequisite of nationhood for participation. We will uphold that nationhood issue and the one nation policy.
Will the Minister explain what he means by “where there is precedent”? For example, the climate change body is new, so there cannot be a precedent because we have only just set it up.
I appreciate that. It has been set up for quite some time, actually. Climate change has been a major global issue for 30 years, and I guess that Taiwan has had some involvement in international organisations of that ilk. It plays a useful and active role in, for example, the World Trade Organisation and the OECD, and I would like it to have the role that hon. Members referred to in Interpol and the International Civil Aviation Organisation. We meet Taiwanese delegations at the margins of such international meetings, and we will continue to do so. I accept the view of my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East, and I will do my best to raise that issue. Many of the issues to which hon. Members referred, including aviation safety, international terrorism and climate change, are global and clearly apply as much to the 24 million people of Taiwan as to the other 7 billion inhabitants of the world.
The subject of this debate is the UK’s relations with Taiwan. Taiwan is a thriving economy, which enjoys the same democratic norms and values as the UK, including a free media and a vocal and active civil society. The UK and Taiwan enjoy strong, albeit unofficial, relations, which deliver significant benefits to us all. Taiwan continues to behave as a de facto state, but the UK does not recognise it as an independent state. Therefore, with great respect to all of my hon. Friends who referred to the ambassador, the truth is that the gentleman concerned, who is in the Public Gallery, is the unofficial representative to this country, not an ambassador in any official way. That is obviously a position we maintain, with our policy on China. That is an issue not just for this Government but for successive Governments over many decades. The relationship between us is strong and delivers significant benefits. That collaboration is built upon dynamic commercial, educational and cultural ties, facilitated by the Taipei Representative Office in London and the British Office in Taipei.
Taiwan and the UK are both open to foreign investment. We share a belief—much diminished, I fear, in international affairs today—that free trade and open markets are the very best ways to grow our economies and enhance our prosperity. That means that trade is the cornerstone of the relationship between Taiwan and the UK. Taiwan is the UK’s sixth-largest trading partner in the Asia-Pacific region and our 33rd-largest globally. I suspect we will move up in those rankings rapidly in the years to come. Bilateral trade reached £5.3 billion in 2015. Although business and financial services were our largest export sector, two thirds of the UK’s exports to Taiwan were goods—notably vehicles and state-of-the-art pharmaceuticals. Taiwan is also our fourth-largest export market, as was pointed out, for Scotch whisky, taking in £175 million-worth of it in 2016—they obviously enjoy it. Of course, our trade flows both ways. The UK is Taiwan’s third-largest investment destination in Europe, ahead of France and Germany, and Taiwanese investment in this country totalled some $115 million in 2016.
A number of Members discussed Brexit. As we prepare to leave the EU, the British Government are working closely with all our major partners and investors in the Asia-Pacific region, including Taiwan, to grow those economic links.
The Minister will be well aware of the importance of the agri-food sector to Northern Ireland. We have been trying to increase our exports of pork products to Taiwan and China, and we have been somewhat successful. Will the Minister indicate what more can be done to help the agri-food sector in Northern Ireland develop those exports even more?
As the hon. Gentleman will appreciate, I will have to get back to him on some of the specifics. More broadly, the UK and Taiwan are committed to continuing to take practical steps to enhance trade and investment between us and within the region. As has been mentioned, we have identified that live poultry and Scotch whisky are potential growth areas. We have also made great progress with our application to export pork products, paving the way for a Taiwanese delegation to conclude an inspection of UK facilities just last week. We hope that will lead to markets opening to UK exports very soon.
We want significantly to increase trade between the UK and Taiwan by improving reciprocal market access and helping our companies to do business on a level playing field. There are genuinely great opportunities for UK industries in sectors such as renewable energy, railways and transport infrastructure. As my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes South (Iain Stewart) rightly pointed out, nuclear decommissioning is very important, not just in Taiwan but in the region as a whole.
The digital economy continues to offer opportunities for British companies. Taiwan is already looking to adapt UK standards to regulate its own digital economy, its fintech industry and driverless vehicles. We are keen to engage with the Taiwanese authorities on broad economic reforms to improve the business environment, which I hope will lead to greater returns on investment and increased trade in both directions.
Will the Minister join me in praising the work of Taiwan NI—an organisation set up by, among others, a colleague of mine in the Northern Ireland Assembly, William Humphrey? It does great work among Taiwanese students and citizens living in Northern Ireland to promote Taiwan-Northern Ireland relations. That kind of interaction between students who come from Taiwan to places such as Queen’s University and Ulster University advances tremendously the understanding between Taiwan and the United Kingdom.
I am very glad the right hon. Gentleman pointed that out. It is greatly to the credit of the Northern Ireland Assembly, and it advances the relationship between the UK and Taiwan. I would not want the focus of this debate to be just on trade and investment co-operation—important though that is. We need co-operation to tackle crime and to promote educational connections and judicial and cultural exchanges, and those links will only be strengthened when direct China Airlines flights between London and Taipei resume in December.
I want to touch on a few issues that were brought up during the debate. On the issue of naval visits to Taiwan, I must stress that the UK’s policy is non-recognition, which means that Ministry of Defence Ministers, Foreign and Commonwealth Office Ministers and military assets cannot visit Taiwan. Doing so would imply recognition of Taiwan, which is not Government policy. However, we continue to develop strong links with Taiwan on Government priorities such as prosperity and the low-carbon agenda.
The UK’s position on the South China sea is long-standing and has not changed. We have very deep concerns about tensions and are committed to maintaining a peaceful maritime order under international law. We do not take sides, but we urge all parties in the region to settle disputes peacefully—ideally diplomatically but, if necessary, through arbitration. The UK Government remain committed to freedom of navigation and overflight.
The hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman) asked about President Trump’s now-notorious call to the Taiwanese Head of State. Our position on Taiwan has not changed since the call to President Tsai. The UK’s long-standing policy on the status of Taiwan has not changed at all. We enjoy strong but unofficial commercial and cultural ties. The long-standing policy is that the status of Taiwan has to be settled by the people on both sides of the Taiwanese straits. We call on all sides to continue to engage in constructive dialogue. There has been no change, either from within or as a result of external causes.
I will conclude in a moment or two. We have a bit more time—do not worry, I am not going to delay the House for too long, Mr Paisley—so I will let everyone into a little secret. Like a lot of MPs, I have connections with Taiwan and although I have not visited myself, I was about to do so when the election was called.
In the previous Parliament, I was vice-chairman for international affairs for the Conservative party, and like my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr Evans), I took the view that, as well as being a friend of China—Chinatown is in my constituency, and I have long-standing connections with the People’s Republic of China as a result—I should visit Taiwan. I was due to visit in September, but the election was called and I was thrust into a different office. I have had the chance in the past to meet the representative of the Taipei office in London and his team, and I have a great deal of respect for them. They also recognise that, unfortunately, our acquaintance has to go into cold storage for as long as I am a Minister—
Don’t worry, it won’t be long.
Yes, it may not be very long at all—honestly, it is nice to get support on a cross-party basis on such important matters, isn’t it?
There is a lot of support here and—to be fair it is worth pointing out for the record—I have spoken with a couple of Labour MPs who wanted to come to the debate but had other engagements. They had been in Taiwan in the past. My hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall (Mrs Murray) made a robust point, but I think it is fair to say that there are friends across the House, and having that cross-party connection in place is a positive state of affairs for the relationship between the Taiwan and the UK.
Earlier, I omitted to say that a little earlier in the year, before the election, I visited Taiwan—it has been declared appropriately in the register—so may I recommend a visit to the Minister? It is one of the most fabulous countries to go to and my eyes were certainly opened. Conservative Members and perhaps all other Members hope that he will one day be able to visit officially as a Minister.
It is kind of my hon. Friend to tempt me in that direction. I could of course argue that I have already been to the country to which he refers—we recognise the People’s Republic of China—but perhaps that would be a bit mischievous.
In conclusion, Taiwan has—as has been pointed out—a thriving democratic system and a healthy economy. Its authorities are eager to play a responsible role in continuing to tackle global challenges. I hope that within the context of our restricting but certain policy we will be able to play our part to ensure that Taiwan’s voice is heard, in particular in those global bodies where its co-operation is important, transcending many of the other international disputes. The British Government will continue to strengthen our already close ties with the people of Taiwan, because so doing will best serve the interests of the United Kingdom.
I call Bob Blackman to wind up but, before I do, I remind him that I will want to put the Question, rather than letting the debate just peter out. If you could bear that in mind, Mr Blackman, you have a few minutes.
Thank you, Mr Paisley, and I thank the Minister for his constructive remarks in response to the debate. I welcome the views of the official Opposition and the Scottish National party, and I welcome my hon. colleagues from across the House putting the case for strengthening relations economically, commercially and on security between the UK and Taiwan.
The reality is that Asia faces a challenge over the next few years, and has done so on security, economic and cultural interaction. With China assertive and looking outward far more, the future of all countries in Asia is paramount. Today we have rightly concentrated on our relations with Taiwan. We have had an excellent debate on how to strengthen our relations in future and on how to assist our friends in Taiwan to fulfil their place in the world, whether in the United Nations or through other roles.
There is clearly very strong support from across the House, in all parties, for strengthening relations between the UK and Taiwan, which means that, regardless of who is in government, we will see our friendship and our commercial relationship growing ever stronger. That is very important. We may have differences of opinion about our views on defence and other things, or indeed about our recognition of Taiwan as a country, but what we can build on is the shared values—and shared progress—not only across parties but between the UK and Taiwan.
I therefore invite you, Mr Paisley, to put the Question. We can look forward to further development of excellent relations between the UK and Taiwan in the future.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered UK relations with Taiwan.
Illegal Gypsy and Traveller Encampments: Bedfordshire
I beg to move,
That this House has considered illegal Gypsy and Traveller encampments in Bedfordshire.
It is a pleasure to be on the Benches in Westminster Hall for a change, rather than in the Chair, and a greater pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley.
Having reached the ripe old age of 60 and spent a good deal of my formative years on the west coast of Ireland, in one of the most rural parts, including attending school there, I am very familiar with Gypsy and Traveller culture, probably in a truer sense of the word than today. Before this is perceived as some attack on that community, I also want to make the point that I am very aware of the health and educational outcomes for Gypsies and Travellers, and of some of the problems they face as a result of prejudice and anger in some of the other communities that they travel into. That being said, I am the MP for Mid Bedfordshire and I have a responsibility to my settled community to face some of the concerns expressed, which have become acute in my constituency over the past year, in particular this summer, when the situation was very difficult.
The village of Marston Moretaine experienced persistent unauthorised encampments of Gypsies and Travellers. The camps moved between various sites in the village, with ever growing numbers, before their eventual eviction. Recorded crime in the village increased, primarily instances of theft, burglary and vandalism. We have all heard this before, but cases included tradesmen such as plumbers having their equipment stolen overnight out of the back of their van, preventing them from continuing with their employment the next day.
The police force felt very much under siege at the time and although Bedfordshire police did their best with some of the complaints and crimes reported to them, they were unable to respond properly because so many were reported. The events in Marston formed part of a significant increase in encampments this year in Central Bedfordshire alone, although the problem that my constituents faced affected many across the county—I see my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) in the Chamber; the problem was not just in my constituency—and across the country.
In 2016 there were 45 encampments on Central Bedfordshire Council land, but this year there have already been 99 encampments, 58 of them on CBC land. CBC took eviction action on 26 of those encampments. Three were removed by the police using the powers granted under section 61 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994. In 25 cases, the people left of their own accord before the eviction process began, the majority within one or two days of arriving, over the weekend, which I think is the pattern across the country. The conclusion of the events in Marston Moretaine demonstrated that the system can work well eventually, but the time that it took for that to happen is unacceptable to local residents in Marston Moretaine and across Bedfordshire, and therefore to me as their Member of Parliament.
CBC has made several requests for changes to the system of managing unauthorised encampments, and I promised that I would raise its concerns again today. Currently, the council uses the powers available under sections 77 and 78 of the 1994 Act, although those powers are better described as a process leading towards eviction. The process is slow and often results in large clean-up costs—repairs to gates, fences and other preventive measures that were put in place previously. Furthermore, the process has a number of loopholes that are being exploited. I would like the Minister to pay particular attention to those loopholes.
The three-month prohibition on returning to a site following eviction applies only to individual vehicles or identified persons. That means that traveller groups simply swap unauthorised camps with one another. The section 77 powers are also focused on a very narrow geographical area, which means that the Gypsies and Travellers move on to a camp 100 yards down the road and the villages and towns suffer the same problems— just the faces and the vehicles change.
On that basis, Central Bedfordshire Council and I would like to ask the Minister to make section 77 an actual power granted to councils whereby after a determined period, the council has the rightto use bailiffs to evict. That determined period needs to be short. The court process is generally a rubber stamp process, so as long as a council follows strict, laid-out guidelines that it documents, it should be trusted as a group of elected representatives to make that decision and to follow that process. The section 77 notice should not only prevent the current occupiers from returning within three months but protect that location from other groups setting up there in that three-month period. That would break the cycle of Traveller groups swapping locations. The three-month period is to allow the location to regenerate; we need to protect locations, particularly when they are on soft ground, not just to bar certain persons from being there.
We had a problem in Marston Moretaine when a Gypsy and Traveller camp went on to the village’s sports facility where local schools play football, cricket is played and which is used as a community facility. The Gypsy and Traveller caravans completely churned up the ground, which meant that it could not be used in the peak summer months and the community was deprived of that facility.
Section 77 should allow the council to widen the area in which reoccupation is not permitted, so that occupants cannot just move 100 yards down the road to another verge. That would have to be done reasonably, and the council would have to document its rationale in the case of persistent breaches of section 77, as people would expect. Councils should have the power to seize vehicles, including caravans, that illegally occupy land. I would add that they should have the power to seize those vehicles permanently and do with them as they wish.
Central Bedfordshire Council also believes that the local authorities and police forces would benefit from updated and standardised guidance on the use of police powers under section 61 of the 1994 Act. National guidelines are poor and the last advice document was issued back in 2011. The guidance needs to be updated with the proposed legislative changes. I say “proposed changes”, but the work has already been done for us; there have been changes in Ireland. It should not be too difficult to change the legislation; all we need to do is to look at what has happened in Ireland and to lift and adapt the legislation that is already in place there.
The use of section 61 currently varies among police forces, depending on their interpretation of the Human Rights Act, under which Gypsies and Travellers have entirely proper protection against discrimination, which no-one doubts. However, I had difficulties when I reported a crime to my local police force at a public meeting in my constituency. Gypsies and Travellers had been hawking goods to houses from the backs of vans that had no number plates and no road tax. If I came round to your house, Mr Paisley, with an unmarked car with no number plates and no tax and tried to sell you things out of the back of it, you would be straight on to the police. However, the police basically told me that they could not respond to that crime, despite the fact that the Gypsy and Traveller community were reporting crimes against them to the police.
Quite rightly, the police had to respond to those reports in the same way that they would respond to reports by anyone in the village, but one can understand the perception of my constituents. They are reported for hate crimes when they show their anger on Facebook and other social media platforms. They have displayed their anger at the police not even issuing crime reference numbers at that point. Constituents have even had the phone put down on them by the police, which I complained about. My constituents reported crimes—so many were being reported.
One can understand why anger comes into communities in such situations. I understand that the Human Rights Act has to be interpreted, but my constituents saw other councils taking different action, which they perceived to be more efficient and slightly more ruthless, and to better protect people’s environment, businesses and way of life. That simply was not happening in Bedfordshire because of the way Bedfordshire police interpreted its responsibilities under the Human Rights Act.
I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend for the case that she is making. She is illustrating that the current policy architecture does not work well for the settled community; I would argue that it does not work well for Travellers either. She mentioned human rights. What about the right of Traveller children to an education? Are we not elevating the right to travel over the right of children to an education? Does that issue not need to be addressed as well as the rights that our settled constituents deserve?
My hon. Friend and constituency neighbour is absolutely right. I was not going to make that point, but as I began by saying, the education, health and life expectancy outcomes for Traveller children are well known. However, Travellers have a right to choose their way of life. They have a right to choose how they wish to live and, as I said, I have a responsibility to put forward the case of my constituents. I thank my hon. Friend for his point.
The different treatment of unauthorised encampments in different counties and council areas and by different police forces is particularly difficult for my constituents—and I must admit for me—to understand. That is what led to comments that one group’s rights are being gold-plated at the expense of the rights of others. It is a fact—it is perceived by my constituents—that Bedfordshire suffers so badly with Gypsy and Traveller encampments because the police and councils in other places, such as Reading and Buckinghamshire, interpret the Human Rights Act differently. That is why we have been particularly under siege in the past year.
Given what I saw happen in my constituency this summer, I believe that my requests and those of Central Bedfordshire Council are reasonable and proportionate. As I said, there is already provision in Irish law. Somebody else has already done all the work and faced all these problems for us. It is time for this Government—my Government—finally to do something. These issues have been debated for years. This is not the first time I have raised them in Westminster Hall; I have been doing so since 2005. I have argued both publicly and privately with Ministers—with Labour Ministers from 2005 to 2010 and with coalition Ministers from 2010 to 2015—for 12 and a half years. I am getting to the end of my tether with being given the same reasons for why something cannot be done. It is now time. We have to do something, because I know that many MPs from all parts of the House are also coming to the end of their tether. We have to be seen to act on the rights of Travellers and Traveller children, as my hon. Friend said, but most importantly on the rights of our constituents and what they have to deal with day to day.
No one should have to go to their garage in the morning to put their key in the car to start their day’s work as a plumber and find that the contents of the back of their car and their shed are gone. That is happening not only in one house but in a number of houses. The crimes and crime wave—the spike in crime in a community—when the Traveller community arrives cannot be denied. Too often, too many people say, “We need to be careful what we say about this.” We do not need to be careful; we need to say it exactly as it is, as it happens, because our communities need to be protected.
I hope that the Minister will provide some succour for my constituents in his response. I hope he will be the one Minister I have spoken to—I have spoken to many over the years—who takes this issue away and says, “I’m going to do something about this. Once and for all, we’re going to provide councils with the powers that they need and communities with the protections they deserve, and we’re going to do something to make life better for people in the UK who repeatedly suffer from being besieged by Gypsy and Traveller communities.”
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley, for what I think is the first time in this Parliament. Let me begin by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Bedfordshire (Ms Dorries) on securing the debate and making a really powerful case for change. She pointed out that she is at the end of her tether; she has been focused on this issue for over 12 years, and I know from the debates we have had—the general debate I took part in on Gypsies, Travellers and local communities in the main Chamber a couple of weeks ago and the Westminster Hall debate led by my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Wendy Morton)—that this issue matters to many Members of Parliament from all parts of the House, and it matters to our constituents.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous), who has also been pursuing this issue over a long period of time. He made a characteristically thoughtful intervention, thinking not just about the settled communities but about fairness in the system for the life chances of those from the Traveller and Gypsy communities.
I heard the recommendations made in the previous debates and those made by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Bedfordshire about how we can improve the way in which we deal with illegal incursions. I share her view that there is a hugely negative impact from unauthorised encampments on all our constituents. She mentioned Reading, and I know from my constituency of Reading West that there have been numerous incursions on public and private land in recent months, which causes a huge amount of heartache to those law-abiding citizens in the settled community who have to deal with it daily, weekly and sometimes monthly. That is not good enough.
I said this in the previous debate, but there is a perception among the settled communities in our constituencies that there is not equity under the law right now and that, if they behaved in the same manner as some of those undertaking illegal encampments and associated antisocial behaviour, they would be treated more harshly by the law. We need to change that perception.
Not only do unauthorised encampments deny law-abiding citizens access to cherished open spaces—parks and so on—but, as we have heard, there are associated problems such as antisocial behaviour and crime. On top of that, there is the real cost of dealing with the clear-up that comes after an illegal encampment is exited, which falls on hard-working taxpayers—our constituents—up and down the country. We are absolutely in listening mode, which is why, during the debate on 9 October, I announced that the Government intend to consult on the way in which existing powers are enforced to understand what more can be done to tackle many of the issues that my hon. Friend raised today and which other hon. Members have raised in previous debates.
I am grateful to the Minister for what he has said. Will he give the House an idea of the timescale for when change might happen as a result of the consultation he has announced?
That is a perfectly fair question. I hope that in a matter of weeks we will seek to consult on this matter. I understand, as my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Bedfordshire said, that this is something we have been debating for years and the time has now come for action.
May I also say that there have been a number of consultations over the years? I hope this consultation will be the final one.
I hope that, as a result of the work we do in government, these debates will be more of a rare occurrence in future. Ultimately, it will be for colleagues and others to feed in their views when we move forward with this work.
As I said, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Bedfordshire spoke powerfully about her constituents’ concerns about unauthorised encampments. She made a number of recommendations about how existing powers could be strengthened, which I have noted, including ensuring that local authorities and the police are allowed to do more to tackle unauthorised encampments. We will consider those proposals carefully alongside all the others we receive when we consult on this matter.
I want to touch briefly on site provision and its role in helping authorities to enforce the law. Sufficient site provision not only reduces the number of unauthorised encampments but enables the police to use the strongest enforcement powers. My hon. Friend talked about sections 61 and 62 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, and it is the case that under that Act the police can direct people from unauthorised encampments to appropriate local sites. Failure to comply with such an order is an offence and offenders are prohibited from entering any land in the local authority area for a period of three months. By comparison—my hon. Friend alluded to this—where no sites are available, the prohibition extends only to the area of the encampment. By providing sufficient transit and permanent sites, local authorities can help to protect communities from the nuisance that unauthorised encampments can cause.
As my hon. Friend set out, we recognise that there are problems in her area. Bedfordshire has had numerous unauthorised incursions. As she pointed out, in some cases an authority’s response was helpful to local residents, but there were instances where more could have been done. I take on board what she said about improving legislation.
I make the point that even though more could have been done by Central Bedfordshire Council during some of these incursions, it is a fact—I think my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) will back me up on this—that the council’s Gypsy and Traveller encampment team are at their maximum. They got to the point where they could not respond to any more emails or take any more telephone calls. They were working flat out and could not cope with the amount of public anger and representation they received. There is a limit to what each council can do.
There is also the perception that the Minister’s own council deals with this issue much quicker. Perhaps that is because he is the Minister and Reading Council feels that it would be more answerable—I have no idea—but it deals with these issues much more efficiently. That inequality and lack of equity about the response is part of the problem.
Of course we have frustrations in Reading as well; but we want councils and police to act using the powers that they currently have. I would point out that local authorities can apply to the courts for pre-emptive injunctions that would prevent unauthorised camping in a defined area and, where they see an illegal encampment, they can advise the court in advance, without waiting for all the paperwork to be completed before they go to court, so that a hearing date can be expedited. I have noted my hon. Friend’s points.
A multi-agency approach is vital if we are to deal with incidents successfully. Local authorities, the police and other agencies such as the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency should work together to find appropriate solutions. I know that that happens in some areas. I want to make it clear, as I did in the general debate on this matter in the House, that the awful incidents in question are the actions of a minority, and that we should not allow them to tarnish the whole community. However, I also recognise that every illegal incursion is one too many, and that those incursions have a direct impact on law-abiding citizens in the settled community.
As I have said, I hope that the House will be reassured by my announcement of 9 October. We want to move forward quickly on that. The Government are committed to ensuring that Gypsies and Travellers are integrated in society, and enjoy the same rights and responsibilities as everyone else. My hon. Friends the Members for Mid Bedfordshire and for South West Bedfordshire both talked about the life chances and health outcomes for, people in Gypsy and Traveller communities. Of course we want those to improve. I think that both sides of the House will agree that more needs to be done to ensure harmonious relations between communities.
I welcome the debate, which has reinforced my determination to look for ways to improve our response to such matters. As I have said, the Government will set out further details about the consultation shortly, and I invite all Members of the House to engage with that process.
I noted that the last couple of sentences of the Minister’s speech, to the effect that the Government are looking at the matter, were perhaps not as reassuring as the bulk of his speech. I know that the consultation has been announced, and that the Minister cannot pre-empt that; but it is time for everyone to stop being, for want of a better term, politically correct about this matter, because that is to diminish our constituents’ suffering. I hope that our colleagues will not hold back when they respond to the consultation, because if that happens and we do not tell it as it is and make the Minister understand the real pain, suffering and inconvenience that our communities experience, we are not doing our constituents justice.
Question put and agreed to.
Rail Links: South-west England
[Mr Nigel Evans in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered improving rail links in south-west England.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Evans. I am proud to secure my first debate as an MP on the urgent need to improve the train line in the south-west of England. I am grateful for the cross-party support I have received ahead of the debate, and I will try to make my remarks as cross party as I can because I know the sentiments are shared by Labour Conservative Memberss.
I am proud to be a Janner—someone from Plymouth. Having been born there and as we live there, we all know that there is one thing in which we can instinctively believe: our train line is not good enough, and other regions get more money. As a region we have been given, and have accepted, a poor deal from Government for too long. Across nearly all areas of Government spending, the south-west, particularly the far south-west, receives below-average spend. In education, health, housing, road and rail the south-west lags at the bottom of the spending league tables. We need to change that, and we need to do it together. I am pleased that so many hon. Members from all parts of the House are here to debate the topic, and I hope the Minister will recognise that these are not just my concerns, nor those of my constituents or my party, but those of our region as a whole, presented on a cross-party basis.
I have three simple objectives that I encourage the Minister to take on board to help us in the south-west. We must realise the vision contained in the excellent recommendations of the peninsula rail taskforce, so we can have a railway to be proud of—an economic asset and not a liability. I encourage the Minister to help us to cut journey times from Plymouth to London from an average of three hours and 30 minutes to two hours and 15 minutes. Journey times are quicker to those regions lucky enough to have snazzy monikers such as northern powerhouse and midlands engine; I am afraid that the far south-west gets no such snazzy moniker, nor the spending that normally accompanies it. I encourage the Minister to help us to achieve our third objective: a railway that is resilient, with connectivity that will survive storms, and wi-fi and mobile connectivity enabling business to be done on the train.
With those objectives in mind, I have three simple asks of the Minister, his colleagues in the Department for Transport and those in the Treasury. First, will they look at how we can invest in quicker journeys and shorter journey times? The Minister will know that there is an opportunity to look at speeds on the Devon banks, the parts of the track between Plymouth and Exeter that are being repaired next year. While that work is going on, for a bargain price of £30 million, the track can be straightened, rails replaced and the speed limit lifted from 60 to 75 miles per hour. That would cut the journey from Plymouth to Exeter by three minutes; Great Western Railway trains would do it in just under an hour, and CrossCountry trains would do it in around 55 minutes. That would be a huge improvement on where we are now, and considering the billions being spent on High Speed 2 to cut journey times to the midlands for those in London, it is a bargain.
Secondly, I ask the Minister’s support for a pilot project in Devon and Cornwall, using Network Rail’s global system for mobile communications-railway, or GSM-R, masts for public mobile signal to power calls on trains and proper, full-distance wi-fi. I hope that my neighbour, the hon. Member for South West Devon (Mr Streeter), will pick up on that later. Finally, I ask the Minister to recognise the enormous amount of work put in by the peninsula rail taskforce, the councils, Network Rail, businesses and hon. Members, and to look again at his Department’s decision not to respond formally to the report. It is a first-class piece of work and deserves the benefit of a considered response from the Department.
Mr Evans, you will be aware that the far south-west is a beautiful part of the world, full of ingenious businesses, a superb tourism economy and the potential to deliver much more, but we need greater investment in transport. Plymouth has neither an airport nor a motorway—that ends in Exeter—and despite being the largest city on the south coast, larger than either Portsmouth or Southampton, our journey times to the capital are slower and our transport spend smaller. Post-Brexit Britain must not ignore the talent and potential of the regions. The far south-west is a region eager to deliver, but it requires strategic investment, especially in transport, to really motor.
The funding gap for transport in the south-west is real. The Treasury’s country and regional analysis publication shows that, in 2015-16, the total identified Government expenditure on transport in the south-west was £277 per head. In London, the figure was £973 per head. Spending in London is three and a half times that in the south-west, relative to population size. Spending in the south-west is the second lowest of all English regions, with only the east midlands being lower at £260 per head. These figures are greater when spending on transport infrastructure is factored in.
The Treasury’s figures on public expenditure on rail by year and region from 2015-16 state that the figure for London is £5.16 billion, while the south-west gets £357 million. That implies that, per head, people in the south-west are worth less than those in London. Let me be clear: people in the south-west are not worth less than those in the capital. As a member of the Select Committee on Transport, I asked the Secretary of State for Transport about these figures during our session last week. He encouraged me not to look at the figures. I am afraid that the figures are what I look at, because they tell a story about investment and political priority.
In 2014, as many hon. Members will remember, our poorly equipped train line suffered immensely during the UK storms, which literally washed away and left hanging parts of the track at Dawlish. A short distance down the track, the cliffs failed and fell on to the tracks, as has been happening for decades. The train line through Dawlish was closed for a number of months, costing the economy more than £1 billion. In the wake of the storms, the then Prime Minister David Cameron came to the south-west to visit Dawlish and see the damage for himself. In a press conference afterward, he said that
“money is no object...Whatever money is needed…will be spent. We will take whatever steps are necessary.”
Those are fine words, but the reality has often been quite different.
The problems were not just in 2014, when the precarious train line at Dawlish gave out. Each time there are storms, CrossCountry, which runs Voyager trains, must cancel the last leg of the journey from Scotland to Penzance at Exeter, because its trains short-circuit at Dawlish if they are hit by waves, blocking the track and requiring removal, effectively closing our rail line. It is not a historical injustice, but a regular occurrence. The recent Storm Brian meant that CrossCountry trains through Dawlish were cancelled yet again in the last week, raising the question whether anything has been learned in the three years since the floods. It is lucky that Great Western, which for the time being is still driving its so-called high-speed trains, can still go through Dawlish when the tracks are open. In no other part of the country would such a precarious train line or such a broken franchise commitment be tolerated by Ministers, so why are they tolerated in the south-west?
In the aftermath of those storms, the largely Conservative councils in the south-west, together with largely Conservative Members of Parliament, created the peninsula rail taskforce. It produced a series of excellent pieces of work, which my party supports, setting out a long-term programme of work to invest in our railways. I pay tribute to all those who contributed to and funded the PRTF reports and studies, and who continue to serve and contribute to that regional undertaking today.
I fully understand that the hon. Gentleman is concentrating mainly on Dawlish and the Plymouth to London line. Will he also take the opportunity to support the existence of, and continuing investment in, branch lines such as the Avocet line, which plays a vital role between Exeter and Exmouth in my constituency?
I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that branch lines are important in the region. The PRTF report talks about not only investment in our main line, but creating wider Devon metro services and the importance of connecting not only Devon’s great cities, but its smaller towns as well.
While we are broadening the discussion a bit, does the hon. Gentleman agree that we should also look at new railway stations to help develop the whole network across the south-west? For example, in my constituency we are working on a railway station for Wellington. I am also working with my hon. Friend from across the border, the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish), on a station at Cullompton. I know the Government have committed money for the new stations fund, and I welcome that, but I wonder whether the Minister might let us know for how long the fund will be accessible, and whether he might work with us to push the project forward when the time is right.
More new stations in our region can only be a good thing. Continued investment in repairing and renewing existing stations, such as the efforts being undertaken at Plymouth, is also much appreciated. The peninsula rail taskforce produced a fine set of reports. One year since hon. Members who are here today presented it to Ministers, there has still been no formal response. In answer to a written question that I tabled on 20 July, the Minister confirmed that the DFT would not formally respond to the PRTF’s report at all. That is disappointing, and I encourage the Minister to look at it again. It is a fine piece of work, setting out what signals, track, curves and junctions need upgrading to achieve quicker and more resilient journeys. It is a costed plan of some £9 billion in total, with £2.5 billion of immediate asks.
I very much agree with the hon. Gentleman that much more could be done to the track to get the trains faster. I want to get faster trains to Plymouth, but I also want to make sure they stop at Tiverton Parkway on the way. I very much back what my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow) said about a station in Cullompton as well as Wellington, and we must not forget the southern line from Waterloo to Exeter, which a great deal more could be done with.
The hon. Gentleman makes the point well.
In the general election, I was pleased that my party leader was so persuaded by the case for rail investment in the south-west that he backed spending £2.5 billion on the following immediate asks in the PRTF report: track straightening, signal upgrades, speed improvements and resilience at Dawlish in preparation for the Dawlish avoiding line. I fear I am getting a similar reputation to the Leader of the Opposition for liking trains. If Labour can do that, will the Minister look at spending that is as yet unallocated in control period 6 for funding the PRTF projects?
The Secretary of State recently announced £48 billion of maintenance and repair funding, with investment in infrastructure to follow in the so-called SoFA—statement of funds available—documents. My ask, which I am sure is that of other Members, is for the far south-west to gain its fair share of that funding. I do not believe voters or Members would accept or support yet more money going to other regions without the far south-west getting our fair share. I am sure that the irony is not lost on the Minister or members of his party present today that a plan put together largely by Tory councils and backed by Tory MPs is not yet being backed by a Conservative Government but is backed by the Labour Opposition. I am sure the Minister and all those with an eye on the region’s many marginal seats would like to address that.
We need a railway we can be proud of, and the autumn Budget is the Government’s chance to give us exactly that. Our rail travel should take two hours 15 minutes to London, not three and a half. We need to ensure we are investing in reducing the journey times at every opportunity. The PRTF’s “Speed to the West” study has identified an opportunity in the autumn Budget to allocate £30 million of new money and shave three minutes off the journey between Plymouth and Exeter. To complete the work, £600,000 is required for Network Rail to finalise the technical details and re-model the track plans. The work itself would cost £25 million to £30 million. That is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, because according to the chair of the PRTF, those tracks will not be repaired again for another 60 to 70 years. I encourage the Minister to support us in making the case to the Treasury and his own Department to spend that money.
I would like to take a moment to look at what transport infrastructure means for the wider south-west region as a whole. Last Friday at the Exeter Chiefs ground I joined Members and businesses from across the region for the south-west growth summit, where I made a pledge to back the south-west, as a number of Members did. The biggest single boost that could be delivered to our region’s economic performance is investment in our train line. The Minister and I are both big fans of modal shift—moving people from their cars on to trains. At present it is faster to drive between Plymouth and Exeter than it is to take a train. Will he help us to make modal shift possible, so that we can reverse those statistics?
Politics has changed, and new approaches are needed. Other regions of our country have seen the way that Opposition and Government MPs can join together to champion transport schemes in their region. I hope that that can be done in the far south-west. As a region, we need to be stronger, bolder and more relentless in delivering transport schemes and more passionate with Government to make sure we get the funding we deserve. If we continue to suffer from poor transport links, we risk losing jobs and missing the chance to protect and grow the economy in the south-west.
I would be grateful if the Minister could address in his concluding remarks the request for a pilot of using Network Rail’s mobile masts in Devon and Cornwall for train mobile signal, £30 million for a speed upgrade on the Devon banks and a proper response to the PRTF report. All three asks are in his hands. Our region awaits his decision, and I hope it is a good one.
As hon. Members can see, there is considerable interest in contributing to the debate, so please be considerate of other Members when making speeches.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Evans. I congratulate the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) on securing the debate. As he will know, we have two things in common. I not only share his interest in trains in the south-west but I was born in Plymouth, at the now gone Freedom Fields Hospital in his constituency.
It is a pleasure to speak about this issue. There has been a lot of attention given to railways in the south-west over the last three years, following the disaster at Dawlish. That attention has been welcome, because for too long our railways have been a Cinderella service. For me, this is about not just being negative but looking at how many people are using these services, the growth we are seeing in passenger numbers and the vital part our rail network is playing in many people’s lives. All that is being achieved with older stock, with a railway that is the remnants of what was left after the Beeching era and with the famous issues at Dawlish.
I have commented a couple of times that it is bizarre to have to look at the wind forecast, weather forecast and shipping forecast to see whether certain trains will be running west of Exeter. To be clear, that is not due to the track; it is due to the design of the trains and the rolling stock. Sometimes that gets confused, and people think the reason CrossCountry cannot run is an inherent issue with the Dawlish coastal railway, but it is not. When we see a 40-year-old train ploughing through a big wave, that is because of an issue with the design a few years back, which I hope is being carefully noted by Great Western in its trials for introducing new rolling stock on to the line within the next couple of years. That will be one of the most welcome investments we have seen in some time.
Dawlish is the iconic issue. It is vital that there is a commitment to completing resilience works there, so that the railway will stand for another century. It is perfectly possible to do that. While I hear talk of a new line, which might be something to pursue as an additional route in years to come, for now, in the short term, we have to make sure that that railway line does not close. There is little point having a great plan for a decade’s time if a piece of cliff moves and we end up with no railway line for a year or two. Our region could not possibly accept that outcome. I hope the Minister will give us an update on the work that Network Rail has been doing and that his Department has been funding.
One big thing to come out of the Dawlish incident was that the region finally came up with the peninsula rail taskforce plan. One of the things that most surprised me when I got involved in campaigning three or four years back in Devon and Cornwall was that we did not have an agreed ask. In many other regions, particularly in the north, we would find a united package of asks in order of priority, whereas traditionally in the south-west, in the past, we have had too much arguing between areas, with the outcome being that it was easy for national decision makers to send investment elsewhere.
A bonus of the PRTF plan is that it gives a clear set of priorities for the whole region that each area benefits from, and each area recognises that competing with other parts of Devon and Cornwall is not a productive way of going about it. It would be very hard to argue that Dawlish and Teignmouth should be bypassed while arguing that Torquay and Paignton definitely need rail stations. We need to keep a united front.
With the upcoming Devon banks work, it makes eminent sense to see if some journey savings can be achieved. While those services do not directly benefit Torbay, some members of my constituency’s travelling public will travel to Plymouth, and generally making services speedier across the whole line benefits each one of us.
It is also vital that we keep attention on local rail schemes that may make a difference, and in particular the prospect of new stations or reconnecting parts of the network that have not had a station since the middle to late 1960s. That means particularly looking at a new station in Edginswell. I was very pleased to hear the Minister’s positive views on that project last week, and I look forward to the meeting where we can discuss that in more detail. It is as vital to have local stations that allow people to connect to the network as it is to have a nice new train heading off from Newton Abbot at speed to London. Ultimately, the key time that matters for people is the time it takes from where they are to where they want to be, and that is where the transport network has to come together. It cannot just be fast between two points if those two points do not connect to other places.
I am mindful of the guidance you gave, Mr Evans, so I will conclude. Railways in the south-west provide a great opportunity and have a great unreleased potential that, with investment, could make a real difference to not just our region but the nation’s economy as a whole. I hope the Minister will give us some real encouragement and strong views on how we can take our region and our railways forward.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairpersonship, Mr Evans. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) on securing this important debate. I know at first hand what a champion he has been over many years for investing in and improving rail in the south-west. In fact, when we were both nipping at the heels of the hon. Member for South West Devon (Mr Streeter) and the hon. and learned Member for Torridge and West Devon (Mr Cox) at the 2010 general election—sadly, we lost at that time—rail investment was a key issue, and it has been over the years since.
Now, as the Member for Bristol North West, my home constituency, I have two main concerns. First, I am disappointed that electrification of the track from London to Bristol has been cancelled. We now have the absurd position that new-generation Great Western Railway trains, which can be powered by electricity, get only as far as Maidenhead before they have to turn on the diesel engines. That cannot be right, and given that the Government are starting to fall behind on their climate change commitments, I hope to see that project completed soon.
My second, and to me and my constituents most important concern, is inner-city rail, which is vital to the future success of Bristol North West. Already there are congested road networks in the north of my constituency. I am talking about the very part that runs parallel to what will eventually be tens of thousands of new homes on the Filton airfield and adjoining land, and a tripling in size of our regional shopping centre—the Mall Cribbs Causeway. Those developments are right next to some of the largest employers in the city and region: Airbus, Rolls-Royce, GKN, the Ministry of Defence and the University of the West of England. Bristol North West is already congested, and continues to fail to meet its air pollution targets. With such significant development, failure to invest in proper rail infrastructure now will bring my constituency to a standstill, especially at peak commuting times and seasonal retail times, and will not help us to meet our air pollution targets.
I welcome the commitment from Network Rail and Great Western Railway to the opening by 2020-21 of the Henbury spur, with 18-minute services from Henbury through North Filton into Bristol Temple Meads, but we need that spur to develop at the next stage into the Henbury loop, connecting the track through Avonmouth to the existing Severn Beach line, which runs along the south of my constituency, and ideally, if we are in the business of funding the projects that I am asking for, with a new station at Horfield and Lockleaze, too. That is important for residents and workers.
In the Avonmouth and Severnside enterprise area in my constituency, there are already more than 14,000 jobs, and the local enterprise partnership expects a further 6,000 to 12,000 by 2026, yet anyone who has visited the enterprise area knows full well that it is not accessible without a car. I commend the work undertaken by organisations such as SevernNet, Ambition Lawrence Weston and the Shirehampton Community Action Forum in supporting new bus routes and company-backed shuttle buses, but the services run infrequently, often hourly, and not in line with shift patterns, and funding has been cut. The future of those bus services is now in question, and the answer, as consistently raised by the excellent Friends of Suburban Bristol Railways, must be rail.
However, this is not just about workplaces but about residents. Without the Henbury loop, most of the constituents in the middle and north-west of my constituency suffer from very poor transport connectivity to the rest of Bristol. That affects families trying to do the school run and get to work on time, young people trying to get to further and higher education facilities and older people who need to get out and about around our fabulous city.
I should take this opportunity, after a long period of intense lobbying from my grandmother, Irene Jones, to make it clear that the cuts resulting in the closure of the number 18 bus route through Westbury-on-Trym and Southmead are entirely unsatisfactory and that the bus route should be restored urgently.
The Henbury loop will happen only with appropriate investment to allow the connecting track to run past the entrance to the Bristol port without disrupting lorries and freight, and for associated signalling upgrades. That requires Government backing and investment, as the Secretary of State knows only too well from the persistent and admirable lobbying of my Conservative predecessor, Charlotte Leslie. As a starter for 10, I hope that the Department can assist the West of England Combined Authority in funding an independent study of the Henbury Loop business case, as recommended by the Department to my predecessor before the election.
As a recent European green capital, with strong city-wide environmental credentials, Bristol wants people to use public transport instead of their cars, but we can get people out of their cars only when the public transport network exists where it needs to and when services run frequently and efficiently and do not cost the earth to use. As the voice of 100,000 people, young and old, from Bristol North West, I call on the Government to help us to secure support and investment for inner-city rail in Bristol before it is too late. I offer to assist the Government in any way I can to ensure that that is the case and, in a comradely spirit with other hon. Members from the south-west, I call for support for better rail networks across the region, too.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Evans. This is a cross-party issue, and I am pleased to see many hon. Members here to support this cause. We may not be the midlands engine or the northern powerhouse, but we are the great south-west. That phrase is increasingly being used, and I sincerely hope that we can all support it, because we need that branding and that name.
In the great south-west, as many speakers have said, there is significant potential, but that can be realised only with proper investment in infrastructure. My hon. Friends and others have made it clear that that is not just about the railways, but about the roads and buses. I certainly support everything that has been said about that, but I would make the case that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) said, we need to ensure that at least the existing railway line is resilient.
To the Government’s credit, they did ensure that the Dawlish railway line was reinforced, but there is still more work to be done. As has been alluded to, one of the biggest pieces of work that still needs to be done is on the Teignmouth cliffs which, hon. Members will be well aware, are one of the greatest causes of stoppages on the route. When I have spoken to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State on that issue, he has assured me that the work will take place—it is not if, but when. The challenge we face is that currently, as far as I am aware, although perhaps my hon. Friend the Minister has good news for me, the money—overall, the work will cost us £200 million—is not included in the next rail control period. As I understood it, the Secretary of State undertook to me that he would go and talk to our friend in the Treasury to see whether that project, or at least the start of it, could be accommodated. I hope that the Minister will let me know that at least a conversation with the Treasury has been had. Clearly, I am not going to ask him about what will be in the Budget, because I will not get a response to that question. However, it is mission-critical that we sort out the Teignmouth cliffs.
There are other aspects to this, because the railway line has to be resilient as a whole. The weir works at Cowley Bridge are also unfunded, but need to be put in place; the railway has also been down because of flooding. In addition, I certainly support the request for the Totnes and Hemerdon upgrade. That is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. It will currently cost us £600,000 for the first report, then probably £30 million to get it done, but it seems to me to be a very sensible use of money.
One of the biggest concerns that many of our consumers, if you like, and those in our surgeries bring to us is the lack of proper wi-fi, so I absolutely endorse the call for the great south-west to be the pilot for the GSM-R project. That would mean aligning the masts of the telephone companies with those of the rail company, and I gather that Vodafone might well be up for that project.
In the longer term—it is right, in this House, to talk about the longer term—we must look at the future, and the 20-year PRTF plan does need a response, an acknowledgement. I ask the Minister to go back to his colleagues who answered the question that was put regarding whether there would be a response. It seems to me that at least an acknowledgement of the importance of this and a willingness to look forward would be appropriate.
I said to the Secretary of State that we really needed a long-term strategy for the whole peninsula. Forgive me for looking specifically at the peninsula, but as an MP in the peninsula, it is clearly where my main interest lies. That is not to downgrade in any way the importance of other parts of the line, because together we are strong and we help our tourism industry and our region as a whole, but we do need a proper strategy. At the moment, we have a railway line along the south coast. We talk about an additional line, but the reality is that we need to look at what we can do along the northern coast of the peninsula, because that has never really been looked at. To reopen lines that simply join what we currently have in the south to bits of infrastructure in the north seems to me rather short-sighted.
I am not asking for an immediate response or an immediate pot of money. That will not happen, but I do think it is incumbent on the Government to respond to requests from the House to give the south-west its fair share of attention and funding and to commit to looking at what we need in the great south-west, and at least to be prepared to put in place a proper strategy that we can all have input into and that will give us the productivity that the south-west can deliver and that this country desperately needs.
I have noted your request to keep speeches short, Mr Evans, so I will keep my remarks entirely local.
I met Great Western and Network Rail a couple of weeks ago. I made my usual request—as the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk) will know—to get half-hourly trains onto the Stroud valleys line, which goes to Cheltenham. They were interested, but non-committal. We need more trains on that line. It is an outrage that Gloucester and Cheltenham—two of our great communities —let alone the Stroud valleys, are badly served by the rail network. We need to have those trains sooner or later.
I was pleased to hear that we are getting the new sets in place—our gain and, dare I say, Scotland’s loss, because they are the 125s, but that is for them to worry about. We need some assurance that that is in the strategy, because I fear we will still be talking about this in 10 years’ time, which is completely unacceptable. We have redoubling on that line now, so there is no reason why we should not have shuttle trains going up and down.
Why does this matter? Well, Monday was a classic case in point: the first train out of Paddington was cancelled, which meant that the 9 o’clock train did not run. There were probably hundreds of families going to London—the first Monday of half-term—and they did not travel. That is completely unacceptable and it is a result of the fact that that was an hourly train. People cannot afford to wait an hour. Many of them did wait, but they then got on the shuttle train. If I had my way, there would be a half-hourly shuttle train, so that they would get to Swindon and they could then catch the inter-city train.
The Bristol and Birmingham line is also of concern. I appeal directly to the Minister. We have had countless reviews of the capacity of that line. It is about time we got some clarity from the different rail authorities. How many more trains can they run on that line? If they cannot run more lines, they should be honest and open. We had the greater Bristol network review. We are currently reviewing central railways, to look at the wider strategic influence of those particular lines. Some of us have argued for a long time for a second station at Stonehouse Bristol Road. We need to know if we are campaigning for something that will never happen. If it does not happen there, will it happen somewhere else, or is it not going to happen at all? We need clarity. The problem with the discussions with the different rail authorities is that we end up with promises that are never fulfilled. That is really disappointing for constituents who moan about the existing service, but expect something better, as we are moving towards the era of the train.
This is not just about getting to London, but about intermodal shift. We want that up and down our line to Cheltenham and also to Birmingham and Bristol. I hope the Minister will give me some assurance that he will talk to the rail authorities. Clearly some of us have an issue with the structure of those organisations, but let us leave that to one side. We want clear thinking about the way in which they will put more trains on and improve their service. That will enable people to use the train and become more satisfied with the service. At the moment, too many people are put off because they do not know if trains will run or, more particularly, they fear that they are being priced out because of the huge disparity between peak and off-peak prices. I hope that the Minister has heard all of those things. If they can get the service right in my part of the world, I am sure they can in all parts of the world.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your very experienced chairmanship, Mr Evans. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) for securing this debate and for the measured way in which he introduced it. I welcome the new energy he brings to this debate.
To my surprise and to the astonishment of my constituents, I have been here for 25 years: 13 under a Labour Government and 12 under a Conservative Government—I suppose in a year’s time it will be even steven. The reality is that in those 25 years we have not received the investment in the south-west rail link that we deserve. It is time that we put that right and our patience is wearing thin.
Although it is good news that the Government have announced another £400 million for the northern powerhouse—I am sure you have a smile on your face, Mr Evans, as it is just down the road from you—for those of us in other parts of the country, particularly when we feel undervalued and under-loved over the years, it is another slap in the face. They are getting so many millions of pounds in the midlands and the north and so on, but what about us? We are looking forward to hearing better news in the months and years ahead.
As the hon. Gentleman said, this did not begin in 2014 when the Dawlish line went down, but when we saw those images of the railway line swinging in mid-air, and when we were cut off from the rest of the country for six weeks—it seemed a lot longer—it released an outpouring of angst and anger from us in Devon and Cornwall. It was an icon of how we had been under-invested in for all those years. That was partly negative anger, but it did galvanise a lot of support in the west country, in the far south-west, in the great south-west. I agree that that is, as he said, a “snazzy moniker”: the great south-west—I like it; we should use it. That galvanised many things. We took the PRTF to see the then Prime Minister and the idea of a 20-year plan was born. He said, “I know it’s expensive, but we can do it bit by bit over 20 years. Put it all in one document, and we will deliver on it.” Now we have to deliver.
I think the Rail Minister is doing a fantastic job and I to pay tribute to him for the interest he has shown in our region. Whenever we have had meetings with him he is on the case, he knows his stuff and he has done his homework. However, I think it is disappointing that the Government are not going to respond formally. We thought they would respond to this 20-year report and I am sorry that they are not.
Things have not stood still since we submitted the report last November. More money has been spent on Dawlish. There has been extensive work east of Exeter—not as much as we want to see, but there has been work there. There are incremental upgrading works throughout the region. We are getting new trains—something we all look forward to—but that is not yet enough, far from it, to redress the imbalance of decades of under-investment, especially before privatisation, but perhaps that is something for another debate.
I want to row in behind those calling for specific responses from the Government. There are three things I want to say, but before I do, something we have not discussed but which is in the 20-year plan is the Government’s thinking about local services, for example, from Exeter to Okehampton and from Plymouth towards north Cornwall. It would be good to hear the Minister’s thoughts on that. It is not directly related to the inter-city movement from Penzance to Paddington, but it is very important for local services. It does the transmodal thing, and it will help move people around in the region. I strongly support the PRTF request for £600,000 for the study. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Many of us have written to the Minister about that and I hope he can give us some good news—if not today, soon.
I have long believed that spot, or discrete, electrification is a significant way forward. If we can model that on the Devon banks, we can put it into operation throughout the journey, and it will help to speed up journey times without the need to electrify rail all the way down—I understand that, but we have to start somewhere and I would love to start in the Devon banks over the next few months.
I will conclude, with some passion: on-board connectivity is absolutely critical. The local enterprise partnership did a survey of businesses last year: “What do you want? What’s your highest priority?” They did not say journey times, they did not talk about resilience, although all those things are important. They said, “When we are on the train, we want to be able to use our mobile phones and computers. We want to be able to plug into our offices and the world out there, as other people in other regions can.” We need to see investment and energy from the Government on that. I thought the answer would be to make the train operating companies do it in franchise renewal, but a new idea has emerged recently. I do not know where it has been hiding, but it is a great idea. If Network Rail is happy to allow the mobile phone companies to attach their transmitters— I do not know how the technology works—to send signals from existing Network Rail infrastructure alongside the track, which I gather rejoices under the name of GSM-R, and which they are piloting in Scotland, that could solve our problems. We do not want it in control period 6; we want it now, in 2018, and we want to see progress on that. It would transform the way in which the rail service is valued by men and women in the west country. The plan is clear, the ask is clear, and the need is obvious. We want no more excuses from Government. It is time to deliver.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Evans. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) on securing this debate on an issue that is hugely important not only to his constituency, but to all our constituencies in the region.
I have some sympathy for the Minister. As a Transport Minister I am sure he would love to have extra money from the Treasury to invest in all our schemes and in the railway network more generally. However, I am afraid that he, like successive Transport Ministers, is a victim of what I call Treasury orthodoxy. I want to encourage a debate, perhaps within the governing party as we move towards the Budget, on the arguments we have made about productivity. We have had an absolutely appalling productivity record in this country in recent years. It is one of the worst in Europe and has got worse since the 2008 global financial crisis and since the European referendum.
I think there is general consensus in this debating Chamber that we should improve productivity in a number of ways, including investing in education and skills and in infrastructure. We have had an incredible opportunity in the past few years since the global financial crash of record low long-term interest rates. There is an absolute opportunity to invest big-time in infrastructure for the future of our economy and our productivity. With the storm clouds of Brexit gathering and with the uncertainty that that is causing in our economy, it is even more critical now, before interest rates go up, that the people having discussions, particularly in the governing party, win that debate with the Treasury, because we are running out of time to secure meaningful investment in our infrastructure.
I completely support what my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport said about the discrepancy between comparative spends up and down the country. I saw an even more graphic map than the one he referred to in which the south-west was not even featured because the amount of spend per head was so low. The map was produced by an organisation called Statista and was published in the Financial Times earlier this year. It showed us at the bottom of the regional list for infrastructure spend. I do not think there is any debate in this Chamber as to whether we have come off badly in terms of spend in our railway and infrastructure in general.
I must express my concern to the Minister that some of the money that has been allocated has not been spent well by Network Rail. It has a terrible record of cost overruns, and we are all paying the price with the fiasco of the cost overrun to the electrification of the main line from Paddington to south Wales, which is having a knock-on effect on all of our schemes. Network Rail told us in a session earlier today that work on the Cowley Bridge flood defences—let us not forget that Cowley Bridge goes back even longer than Dawlish; we lost the line at Cowley Bridge twice in the three years running up to Dawlish, which cut our region off as well—is going to start, but only on the culverts, which are to protect Cowley Bridge next spring. As the hon. Member for Newton Abbot (Anne Marie Morris) said, there is no funding allocated at the moment for the much more important work on the weir or for the upstream work on the Hele and Bradninch section of the lines, which are the important bits of the flood defence. As we enter into our winter of storms and heavy rains, we face another risk that the line will flood there and in other places.
We were also told that Network Rail has increased its assessment of the risk of a failure at the Dawlish line owing to heavy rain and/or storms to one in every three years. This matter is absolutely urgent. Our region cannot afford to suffer the disruptions that we have had in recent years, which have done so much damage to our economy. I hope the Minister will go away and have gentle words with the Treasury and with Network Rail about its performance on cost control so that we get the schemes delivered on budget and on time.
New stations are vital. Exeter is a bit like a mini-Bristol. The urban rail services in my city are incredibly important for moving people around, particularly at commuting times. We need more regular services; we need trains to stop at more stations; and we need new stations. Again, station builds are running behind time.
The right hon. Gentleman is making a passionate case. The Government committed to £4.6 million to transform our railway station in Taunton. We are still waiting for one spade to go into the ground. I understand exactly what the right hon. Gentleman is saying: we need the promised services to be delivered. Will the Minister report on how that is going, because GWR and Network Rail still have not got on with it?
There is hardly a station that has been built and opened that has not overrun on cost. I was about to refer to the station in Marsh Barton, a very important industrial estate in my constituency. It was supposed to happen this year and we now understand no date at all has been fixed for it, which indicates that no money has been allocated for it, which is really disappointing not only for those who live and work in Exeter, but for those who commute in from outside.
On rolling stock, it was terribly unfortunate to hear about the initial trip of the new high-speed train serving our region. We understand from Great Western that it was unlucky. All the other trains that travelled that day were fine, but will the Minister assure us that when we get these long-awaited trains they will not pour water over people, they will work, will not break down and will be reliable? I also have a concern about the design for our luggage demands. Our trains were built in an age when suitcases were not the size of wheelie bins—people did not used to be able to carry those huge great cases—but I am worried that, having lost the guards van, and as a regular cyclist who puts my bike on the train, we will see conflicts between the people who regularly put their bikes on trains and people who need luggage space. If that becomes a problem, that is not only a problem for passengers, but for the staff who have to resolve the disputes.
Let us not neglect the Waterloo line, an important substitute line. It is a replacement line and an additional line for our region. It could be so much better if we had a few more passing places. That would allow swifter journeys and would service more stops, including places such as Pinhoe in my constituency. My basic plea to the Minister and to Opposition Members is to keep fighting the battle against Treasury orthodoxy and keep fighting for a fair deal for our region.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Evans. I congratulate the hon. the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) on securing this debate.
I think there is a consensus in the House that a strong train service in the south-west is vital for our thriving economy. It helps to create jobs and drives social mobility, but it would be wrong to assume that, notwithstanding all the excellent points that have been made about improving services to the south-west, the experience of the south-west is uniform, because it is not. My constituency of Cheltenham, which I unapologetically focus on, is even worse served. I will take a few moments to explain why.
Cheltenham is 93 miles away from London, yet it takes on average two hours and 16 minutes to travel from one to the other by train. How does that compare with my colleagues in the south-west? Bath, which is 116 miles from London—another 23 miles or so—takes one hour and 31 minutes. Bristol, 119 miles away, takes one hour and 43 minutes. Exeter, 202 miles away, takes two hours and two minutes. There is a dramatic difference. The historical context makes it even more galling, because there was a time when Cheltenham had the fastest train anywhere—not just in the south-west, not just in Britain, but in the entire world. The Cheltenham Flyer was the fastest train in the world. Why does that matter?
Cheltenham is home to companies such as GE Aviation, Spirax-Sarco, Zurich and Douglas Equipment, but it is also home to GCHQ. We have a faintly farcical situation. When the excellent men and women from GCHQ want to go to London—for example, to the National Cyber Security Centre—do they go on the train? No, they go on the so-called spy bus. I kid you not. Is that not a damning indictment? Cheltenham’s connectivity to London is manifestly inadequate, and has been for 50 years.
Another reason why the issue is important is that the Government are putting welcome investment into Cheltenham. For example, we have a cyber-innovation centre, which involves taking the finest minds from GCHQ and using them to nurture small businesses; and something like £22 million has been allocated for the building of a cyber-park to the west of GCHQ. That is fantastic, but getting the maximum benefit from it requires us to unlock the artery of jobs and investment from the south-east, which remains such an important economic hub.
It is worth making the point that my constituency has just had its literature festival, where Hillary Clinton spoke; we have 2.5 million visitors per annum for the jazz, food and science festivals. Yet we have a rail service that belongs in the dark ages. It is not enough to blame Beeching—although I do. He, of course, pulled up many lines in 1962. There are two things that we must do: the first is investment and the second is timetabling. I am pleased to say that the Government have shown great application on investment. The hon. Member for Stroud (Dr Drew) has mentioned the Swindon-Kemble redoubling—some £60 million has been invested in that, and it has been transformational. Next year we shall get the IEP trains, which will shave some minutes from the journey. However, the fact remains that it will still be far too long.
The second limb of what is needed, therefore, is timetabling. Instead of a service in which trains from Cheltenham to London must go via Gloucester, where the driver gets out, walks down the platform, gets in at the other end of the train and reverses it out on the way to Stroud and Swindon, we need a service that cuts out Gloucester. I want to be crystal clear: I do not propose anything that would adversely affect Gloucester. We should not have a beggar-thy-neighbour approach. I am talking about additional services. If they were introduced the journey time would drop to about one hour and 40 minutes. What strikes me as slightly odd is the fact that, while we are spending billions of pounds on High Speed 2, which may or may not be a good thing, one stroke of a pen with respect to timetabling could achieve a dramatic difference for the 115,000 people who live in my constituency. An additional service with a more direct route could be dramatic, and it would not cost a penny. A vital point to note is Great Western Railway’s wish to extend the franchise, which will come up in 2019: it is a golden opportunity for many people in the south-west—certainly my constituents—to get a far greater, much improved service, for minimum taxpayer outlay. We must not miss that opportunity.
The point that was made about 4G connectivity is right. At the moment trains effectively take their signal from the masts that they pass. In and around Stroud and Stonehouse it is hopeless; that logjam must be sorted out. If we unclog the link between the south-west and London, we unclog an artery of jobs and investment. Improving rail connectivity is at the heart of that, and there is important work to do.
There are about 15 or 16 minutes left, so please do the maths and help one another with that.
I shall be as brief as I can, Mr Evans. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) for securing the debate about how improving rail links will improve life for commuters in the south-west.
I fully concur with the view of my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol North West (Darren Jones) about electrification of rail lines; for the sake of efficiency and the environment, I believe electrification needs to be accelerated rather than delayed as is currently happening from Maidenhead to the west, and between Slough and Windsor, where it has been deferred.
Many hon. Members will wonder what the MP for Slough is doing in a debate about the south-west, but I am taking part because I think there is a common cause that should unite us in the Chamber. Something that I have highlighted, and on which I and my hon. Friend the Member for Reading East (Matt Rodda) agree—I also brought it up with my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport during our Facebook Live conversation with constituents—is the western rail link to Heathrow. That is a direct rail link, coming in from the west through Reading and Slough, and on to Heathrow.
At present, anyone travelling from the south-west or the west has to go into Paddington, get another train, and then come back to Heathrow. I am a co-chair of the western rail link to Heathrow stakeholder steering group, which aims to promote the scheme and support the delivery of the rail link; we hope that the Minister will try to deliver that before 2024. That short, five-and-a-half-mile rail link will mean myriad benefits for passengers, the economy and the environment. It will reduce the journey time between my constituency and Heathrow to seven minutes, and offer four trains an hour in each direction. It will improve access to Heathrow from the south coast, the south-west, south Wales and the west midlands.
It is important to get that improved access. It will provide greater travel options for leisure and business travellers, as well as for Heathrow employees going to London Heathrow. It will also reduce congestion at London Paddington, which is already one of the busiest stations in the country. If we rely on Network Rail statistics, it will offer more than £800 million of economic activity, including additional economic benefits for various regions, and create a potential 42,000 new jobs—not to mention the carbon dioxide savings, which will equate to approximately 30 million road miles a year. I hope that with 20% of the UK population having access to Heathrow via one interchange, and the reduction in road congestion, the Minister may be able to give us some reassurance.
I seek the support of south-west MPs for the link, and would be obliged if the Minister provided an assurance that the western rail link to Heathrow will be given the priority it deserves.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mr Evans. I congratulate the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) on securing the debate. Although we do not always agree, I absolutely concur with his passion and enthusiasm today about improving rail links to the south-west.
Cornwall has a long, historic and in some ways romantic connection to the railways, going back 200 years to Richard Trevithick and the steam engine that he invented. That great Cornishman started the rail revolution in this country, which continued through the Victorian age with great railway journeys across viaducts and bridges through Cornwall, some of which were built by Brunel. Perhaps there is a danger that the romantic image of railways in Cornwall may lead us to miss the point that rail is a crucial driver of the economy, in Cornwall and the rest of the south-west. It is difficult to over-emphasise its importance. That was brought into sharp focus in 2014, as many other hon. Members have set out, when the line was broken and Cornwall and parts of Devon were cut off. We took a slightly different view in Cornwall, with the headline in the local paper actually saying “England cut off”, but there was an incredibly negative impact on the economy. The few short weeks when the line was broken cost the Cornish economy several million pounds. It is to the credit of Network Rail and the Government of the time that there was quick intervention to get the rail link restored as soon as possible, but it is crucial that that should never be allowed to happen again.
We can never again be in a position where the rail connection is severed in that way. It is therefore absolutely crucial to get the investment we need, particularly in that stretch of that track, so that we build in the long-term resilience to ensure that the connection stays true.
I greatly welcome the peninsula rail taskforce report and add my voice to those calling on the Department for Transport to respond to it. That excellent piece of work draws on bodies from right across the south-west which have come forward with a positive, constructive vision of our railways for the next 20 years. It is important that the Government respond and recognise the work that has gone on.
I add my voice to those asking for the Department’s support for proposals to upgrade the speed on some of the track through Devon. However, I add a note of caution: the £600,000 that is being called for for the report sounds like an awful lot of money for what is essentially a desk-top exercise. I ask the Minister not only to support it but to ensure that we get value for money for every penny that we spend, so that we do not just throw money at things.
There is no doubt that in the south-west we need to catch up on investment in our railways and close the gap. As hon. Members have highlighted, we have been neglected for many years under successive Governments and have not had the investment that we need in our railways. However, we should acknowledge some of the investment that is going on. We are getting new trains from Great Western Railway to replace the 40-year-old trains that we have on those lines, providing new capacity and creating a better environment for passengers. That will be hugely welcome when it reaches the south-west later next year. We should welcome and acknowledge both that investment and some of the work going on through Cornwall to upgrade the signalling, which will increase capacity and reduce journey times there.
Investment is going on, but we still have a long way to go. I therefore add my voice to those calling on the Minister to ensure that we continue to invest in the south-west, to back the plans to upgrade our railways, and to ensure that the railway into the south-west is the economic driver that we all believe it can be so that we close the economic gap and make sure that we have a robust and resilient rail link for the future.
I thank you for giving me the opportunity to speak this afternoon, Mr Evans, and my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) for securing the debate. I shall address my remarks to my constituency in Reading, which, as many people know, is served by rail services that start both in the far west of Cornwall and in west Wales. They meet at Reading and go on to London.
The state of the line at Dawlish is understandably of great interest to residents of the south-west, as we have heard. However, it also has real significance for Thames valley passengers, as my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi) mentioned. Delays on the line have a direct and immediate impact both on long-distance travel and commuter services. I shall address the economic benefits for Reading of a more reliable and robust long-distance service to the far south-west, and then pick up on some benefits to commuters in the Thames valley area.
On the first issue of long-distance rail services, rail travel from Reading to Exeter takes less than two hours—a significant advantage that we share as nearby large towns and small cities within a growing and advanced economy. I encourage the Minister to see that advantage and invest so that our residents and businesses can make better use of that. Exeter and Reading both possess similar local economies, and the interconnection of businesses could be taken further. The Met Office, for example, was based in Berkshire and has been moved to Exeter. We have a considerable IT industry in Reading that forms a supply chain for the Met Office and other public sector IT procurement in the south-west. A far better rail service between Reading and the Thames valley and other towns and cities further to the west can only support business and growth in both regions
Moving on to the advantages for local commuters, when the Dawlish floods occurred there was significant and sustained disruption in the Thames valley as railway services were affected. A large number of commuters had to decamp on to other services, such as those coming from west Wales or Oxford through Reading. That had a knock-on effect both on commuters who would have taken services from the west country up to London that stopped at Reading, and on commuters on other services. I very much hope that we can avoid any repeat of that type of disruption to our local economy and society in the Thames valley.
I will also highlight two other brief, related points. One is the benefit of further investment in local stations, which some hon. Members from the south-west have mentioned. We need a new local station on a line near Reading at Green Park. I concur with Members’ views on the benefits of local stations in growing the local economy. In our case, the station in the area near Reading would help to attract further IT investment to the town and put a greater emphasis on local transport being through public transport rather than road services. It would also generate further benefits by reducing air pollution in our area.
Let me finish by concurring with other colleagues who have pointed out the need for a shared and collaborative approach between towns and cities across southern and south-western England. I fully concur with the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk), who made eloquent points about his city needing a better rail service into London. We appreciate that—we are better served—but together we all stand to gain from further investment in the region if the Minister hears our concerns, so I hope that he can respond by reassuring residents across the region.
It is good to have you in the Chair this afternoon, Mr Evans. I thank all hon. Members for their contributions to this excellent debate—not least my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard), who led this debate and asked some serious questions. The universal call from across the Chamber is for the Government not to prevaricate over bringing these much needed rail improvements to the south-west, and, for the first time, to put investment into the region at the scale that has been experienced in so many other places in the country—not least in London, where we see continuing significant investment compared with in the other regions.
In our party we believe that rail is not just a transport system in and of itself, but the gateway to economic regeneration, jobs and opportunities. That is why as a party, Labour—this is in its name—has demonstrated that it is about work and investment in work, and about making sure that infrastructure builds in to that to enable people to have the best opportunities. We believe that the Government should also prioritise that over their transport strategy. That is why the Leader of the Opposition committed £2.5 billion in funding to address the recommendations of the peninsula rail taskforce and—this is really important— to unlock £7.2 billion of gross value added and £1.2 billion of transport benefit. This is about investing to grow. We are starting to hear the Government moving along that line—we have been calling for it for some time—but I would also like to see that from the Department for Transport.
When research is undertaken and economic opportunity is identified, we want to see investment not only in local economies, but in productivity, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw) said. I know that the Government are in real need of help to understand how they can drive productivity. I suggest that productivity in the south-west would improve if rail connectivity was far improved, and I ask the Minister to address that issue today.
When we see a lack of investment in rail, we see the effect on the finances of individuals in the region, so we need to look at wages and the impact on them. We know that in the south-west, the average wage is about £2,300 less for individuals, but in some areas, that can be as much as £9,000 less because people do not have the connectivity to open up the opportunities.
Some 75% of the south-west’s 98,000 businesses rightly demand the vital upgrades that are needed, and that are needed now. They say that cutting journey times and ensuring that trains are more frequent, accessible to all and reliable would sustain the economy and help it grow. The bitter experience of Dawlish in February 2014 cost the economy £1.6 billion, and then there was the sustained under-investment. As we have heard, that brought a focus to people’s anger and angst at the lack of urgently needed investment. That should sharpen the Government’s mind and bring into focus the need for more sustainable investment across the rail infrastructure through a strategic rather than a piece-by-piece approach, to ensure that long-distance trains arrive on time, are reliable and provide opportunities to people across the country.
The south-west is home to many growing areas of the economy. Members have talked eloquently about those areas, and particularly about digital infrastructure and tourism. Aerospace also has a major footprint in the region. Although such parts of the economy might be in their infancy, we need connectivity for them to grow. When we hear heard that train times to Exeter could be cut by 25 minutes, to Plymouth by 49 minutes and to Penzance by more than an hour, we must ask why the Government are delaying in moving things forward. We heard today about Devon banks project, which could improve train speeds, improving that part of the economy.
We want new rail technology. Signalling upgrades, electrification—switched on and not then switched off again—straightened tracks and new trains all help. The Government could also confirm today that they will revisit the peninsula rail taskforce report, ensure that it is scrutinised, go through it with rigour rather than setting it aside and ensure that it is put at the forefront of investment for the economic strategy for the south-west, not just for a separate rail strategy.
Greater connectivity in the south-west—for instance, to the airports, as we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi)—will make a difference and bring the region into parallel with other conurbations, rather than setting it back. It will boost the economy locally. We also need investment in infrastructure; we have heard a call across the House for investment in wi-fi. Trains are workplaces for many making long journeys, and the infrastructure is already there; we have an opportunity through the GSM-R system to ensure that we can upgrade the network quickly, without waiting for the next control period, so passengers get the high-quality service that they deserve. Freight—moving our goods—has not come up in the debate, but it also needs investment. The Government’s lack of focus on smart logistics is damaging the economy and clogging up our roads. We need to move more goods, not just people, on to our rail network.
We have heard clear demands from across the House on the environment. Yesterday we heard that 50,000 people in our country die prematurely each year due to poor air quality; people in bottlenecks in the south-west know those risks all too well. We need a serious modal shift in our transport system. Climate change in particular is increasing some of the risks. We have heard about Dawlish and the Somerset levels, where changing weather systems are impacting on how people travel. We must ensure that we address climate change in resolving our transport issues.
This is not just about climate; it is also about congestion. We must ensure that people can get on efficient forms of transport, and that rail is built to be resilient for the future. Essential upgrades have been made Cowley Bridge, Teignmouth and Dawlish, as well as an avoidance route for Dawlish, to ensure that disruption is not repeated as the climate changes. That is why it is important to draw the Environment Agency report identifying the risks into the rail strategy as we move forward.
We need the Government to understand that the Department for Transport’s modernisation of Great Western Railway is seen as a disaster at every level, not least the fiasco involving the franchises, which I understand the Secretary of State is thinking of fragmenting even further, the new rolling stock procurement in which trains cost twice as much as on the west coast main line, and the incompetence and profligacy apparent in the intercity express programme. That is not my assessment, but that of the National Audit Office, which highlighted a lack of strategic oversight causing project costs to rise by more than £2 billion.
In November 2016, the Minister put the final nail in the coffin by announcing that he would defer four “costly and disruptive” electrification projects in the region, but cancellation rather than deferral seems to be his action, meaning that dirty diesel on our lines, which pollutes the region, is preferred to electrification, which would improve connectivity. We have heard from all Members who have spoken in this debate the importance of getting on with putting the right infrastructure and the right investment into our rail system.
That is why the public support Labour’s national rail service. It is simple; there is straight accountability, no wastage on endless contracts and straight investment into the railways. It is long term, whereas contracts in the south-west lurch from year to year without strategic oversight for the long term or the long-term investment that follows it.
Now that the Government are starting to focus on borrowing, perhaps they will consider borrowing across the transport network to ensure that vital upgrades get under way now to bring economic advantage into the future. Labour has identified a transformation fund to address the issue by putting in the infrastructure needed and bringing the electrification and digitalisation services that we need. We will move forward. We will consider consulting on reopening branch lines, opening stations and improving the service to make sure that it ties in with economic development across the region. Station improvements will be part of moving forward. Plymouth is a particular station that I want to draw to the Minister’s attention; the funding gap of £15 million there must be addressed.
From this debate, I believe it is plain that Labour has a detailed national plan for the railway, strongly tied into economic growth and job opportunities and a vastly improved passenger service. We want rail to be the transport mode of choice moving forward, over long distances as well as for short journeys. We long to see regions such as the south-west reach their full potential and not be left behind. I trust that the Minister’s response will address that issue.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Evans. I congratulate the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) not just on securing this debate but on his first debate in Westminster Hall—the first of many, I am sure.
I thank hon. Members who have come along and participated on the generally good-natured, good-spirited and constructive tone that they have all adopted. It has been a helpful debate. I will do my utmost to cover all the points raised, but as hon. Members can see, I have a carpet of notes before me that have been passed my way. If I do not cover everything, a simple email to my office might suffice to get more of an answer. However, I will do my best to cover everything in the time available before the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport responds.
We are clearly seeing a great deal of change at the moment on rail in the south-west: brand-new trains, upgraded infrastructure, more capacity, faster journeys, greater resilience and greater reliability. That, after all, is what I believe passengers want. It is part of our record investment of more than £40 billion in the railways between 2014 and 2019, which will continue beyond that date to 2024, as set out in the statement of funds available that we announced just last week. We now expect to spend £48 billion on the railways between 2019 and 2024. It has allowed us to continue our extensive programme of renewals and deliver the enhancements deferred from the current period, to which the hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) referred. More than £5 billion is being invested in the wider modernisation of the Great Western route.
Amid all the numbers that we have released in recent weeks, I entirely understand that the frequent response is, “But what about project X in my particular local area?” We have not issued a great wodge of documentation that details the status of every single project, for the specific reason to which the right hon. Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw) alluded: we need to ensure that we do not disappoint people. When we announce a project, we need to understand its cost, scope and delivery, and have confidence that we can deliver it in the agreed timescale. That was a key finding that underpinned the reprogramming of control period 5, and led to the report by Dame Colette Bowe that was welcomed by the Labour Front Bench and the Government.
The Bowe report sets out another way to approach investment in the railway, by ensuring that we understand what we are putting our money into and make commitments only when we are confident that we understand them. That is a really important step forward. Over the remainder of the year, as part of our rail upgrade plan, we will make further announcements about how the insights from Dame Colette Bowe will inform the projects we take forward, and about where they sit among our priorities. We aim to take forward as many projects as possible, but we must ensure that we are confident in what we promise.
We have heard a lot about the peninsula rail taskforce, which remains a personal priority of mine; I thank my hon. Friend the Member for South West Devon (Mr Streeter) in particular for his kind comments. I stand by what I said at the launch: it is a most impressive piece of work, which I constantly cite to people around the country as a model for this sort of project. I do not want to be churlish, because I understand his desire for an official Government response, but I do not believe in gesture politics. A mere box-ticking exercise in which I issued a rigid ministerial statement entitled “Response to peninsula rail taskforce” would be less valuable than actual progress on the taskforce’s many recommendations. Some of that progress will occur as part of the rail upgrade plan, which will identify where different projects sit in the development process, but some of it will be delivered through franchise change, which operates to a slightly different timetable. I note that Great Western Railway is consulting locally on a scale never seen before in any franchise in the country. CrossCountry’s franchise is also coming up for renewal; it, too, is braving the south-west—even Torbay, I believe—and undertaking a consultation to understand what is most needed there.
I hear the frustrations of my hon. Friend the Member for South West Devon about trains not functioning at Dawlish in bad weather. My focus is on ensuring that we deliver the taskforce’s very worthwhile recommendations. When he sees the rail upgrade plan, I hope he will see the philosophy behind my seeming reticence today, but I am more than happy to continue discussions with all south-west Members in the all-party group about how to keep up momentum.
There may be an impression that we have done nothing since the launch of the taskforce. Far from it, we have done an awful lot, and I want to keep up that momentum. We are re-signalling the main line from Totnes to Penzance, providing faster journeys and potentially paving the way for the introduction of a half-hourly service on the Cornish main line. We are investing in 29 brand-new bi-mode AT300 trains for the route from Paddington to Plymouth and Penzance. We are completely overhauling the popular Night Riviera sleeper trains in Cornwall and expanding the Long Rock train maintenance site to help to maintain them.
We are continually investing to provide more solutions to deliver a more resilient railway in the south-west, and the taskforce’s blueprint remains a very important part of our work. It continues to work with Network Rail on its “Speed to the West” plans. Many hon. Members have mentioned the potential for selective electrification in the Devon banks. All that worthwhile work is ongoing; we need to do all we can to support it and get it to the next stage of development, which I look forward to.
There are several things that Network Rail can do to reduce journey times to Plymouth and the south-west more widely, which is the ambition of the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport. It can try to understand how the benefits of the new trains can be maximised; it can look at the causes of dips in speed across the route; it can ascertain what quick wins can be delivered to achieve incremental marginal gains to demonstrate journey time improvement; and it can consider the discrete electrification proposals with its research and development department.
We can make significant improvements to journey times on this line, partly through new timetabling, which will be consulted on and introduced in the coming months. At the moment, there is a wide spectrum of journey times to Plymouth—between three hours and three and a half hours—but we may be able to begin to reduce that through better timetabling, so there is more good news to come.
Many hon. Members have mentioned the new IEP trains. There were initial hiccups—the train that has the politicians in it is always the one that breaks down on day one—but such is life. That investment will see much-improved reliability, increased capacity, reduced journey times and improved emission rates. The hon. Member for York Central might be forgiven for not noticing the statistics released today that show a 5.5% reduction in carbon dioxide emissions per passenger kilometre since last year. I welcome that and its continuation in years to come.
The AT300 bi-mode trains will not only improve connectivity with London, but significantly enhance it within the region. Many hon. Members mentioned local rail services that they would like to be improved. The hon. Member for Bristol North West (Darren Jones) referred to the Henbury spur and loop. Exeter is booming and has many ambitious plans for local transport. The network is growing. Hon. Members also mentioned the two separate competitions for the new stations fund, in which Portway Parkway and Reading Green Park were successful but, sadly, Edginswell and Marsh Barton were not. I am keen to work with all the local promoters of unsuccessful station proposals to help them to do better in the next competition and maximise their chances of winning. I am always happy to work with anyone who wishes to work with me.
I stress the importance that the Government attach to ensuring reliability. The situation at Dawlish is important and we are addressing it—we have already put money in. The rail upgrade plan will help us to understand how to ensure that Network Rail’s current work leads to meaningful work in the next two control periods. I thank hon. Members for participating in the debate. No region should ever feel that it is left out of the transport picture. The taskforce report is a fine piece of work, and I look forward to working with hon. Members on all sides to make it a reality.
I thank the Minister for his reply. I am grateful to hon. Members on both sides of the House for expressing their passionate and sincere belief that we need a better deal for rail in the far south-west. It is clear from all the schemes that they mentioned that there is a good case for investment. Although I understand why the Minister was not able to give assurances, I imagine that we will all look carefully at the autumn Budget for the £600,000 and the £30 million. Will the Minister write to hon. Members about the global system for mobile trial?
That is great. All members of the all-party group have a strong sense that the south-west deserves its fair share of funding. I anticipate that hon. Members on both sides of the House are gearing up to an intensified, relentless campaign. I am sure the Minister will be back to discuss this further in the future.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered improving rail links in south-west England.
Local Authority Funeral Charges
[Mr Philip Hollobone in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered local authority funeral charges.
In particular, I hope that the House will consider the exploitative fees faced by non-residents of a borough at their time of grief.
I will start by setting the scene faced by thousands upon thousands of families across the UK, before moving on to consider the specific cost of burials and then the disparity in charges between local authorities. Around one in seven families across the nation simply cannot afford to pay astronomical funeral costs, with the staggering cost of funeral poverty now at a record high of £160 million. The average cost of a funeral in Britain now stands at a remarkable £3,897, a figure that is up 5.5% in the last year alone. Funeral costs are rising faster than inflation, wages or pensions. In fact, the cost of even a basic funeral doubled between 2004 and 2014, and it has risen even faster, year on year, since 2014.
My hon. Friend is making a very powerful case about funeral poverty and I congratulate her on securing this debate on the subject. Does she agree that the UK Government should do all they can to help local authorities to remove these fees and follow the lead set by my own local authority of Torfaen, which has abolished child burial fees all together?
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention and I am sure that, like me, he would like to congratulate our hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) for all her work in that regard; I will refer to her again later.
The rising cost of funerals has left a huge number of families trapped in a state of funeral poverty, which manifests itself both financially and emotionally, with University of Bath research identifying depression, anxiety and insomnia as funeral poverty’s common associates. It is no wonder, therefore, that funeral services were the most common item for credit card usage in the UK in 2013, with one in 10 people having to sell belongings to cover funeral costs. Grief leads to exploitation, exploitation leads to debt, and I personally cannot think of many worse debts to hang over a person than that arising from a family member’s funeral. I even hear that the Select Committee on Work and Pensions was told of a sobering case of a mother who was reportedly unable to afford a funeral for her son. Consequently, she was forced to freeze his body for months on end while she saved the necessary money to pay the funeral fees. That is just one of the terribly tragic human stories behind the facts and figures of widespread funeral poverty.
Such extortionate costs are not only faced by individuals but by local authorities. I am particularly disturbed to hear that several councils, including Monmouthshire County Council in Wales, carried out multiple public health funerals using shared graves last year, identifying a shortage of land as the reason for such an inhumane practice.
Despite the wide-ranging issues in relation to funeral poverty, it is the specific problem of burial costs and their widespread disparity across local authorities that led me to call this debate. A constituent of mine, Rachel, experienced the problem at first hand. When Rachel’s grandfather died in 1976, her family bought a plot for six graves in Honor Oak cemetery, which is in the London Borough of Southwark. In 1988, her grandmother passed away and was subsequently buried in the family plot. Rachel’s family now live in my constituency of Mitcham and Morden, in the London Borough of Merton, which is just a few miles south of Southwark.
Sadly, Rachel’s mother died in July this year. When Rachel and her family applied to open the plot in Southwark so that Rachel’s mother could be buried alongside her own mother and father, Rachel was advised that the charge to do so would be trebled, just because her mother was not a resident of Southwark at the time of her death and despite the fact that her family owned the grave space. The cost for Rachel’s family was a staggering £3,977.
I believe that was unfair; Rachel knew it was completely unfair; and, fortunately, after a little hesitation the head of the cemetery also agreed that it was unfair. Five days before the funeral, he accepted that Rachel’s family could bury their mother in the plot for a resident’s fee, which, at £1,326, is already expensive.
Rachel’s story of that anomaly is a story about the widespread national exploitation of grief. I, for one, do not think that Rachel or her family should ever have been put in that position in the first place. Rachel believes that the varying costs that families face from borough to borough is both unjust and unfair, calling it an
“extortionate death payment that is decided by the borough”.
Rachel has also said:
“Although we eventually managed to avoid paying the non-resident charge, there are others who are less able to fight the injustice, especially at a time when they are at their most vulnerable and grieving the loss of a loved one.”
I thank the hon. Lady for giving way and for bringing this very important issue to Westminster Hall for consideration. In Northern Ireland, the average cost of a funeral is £3,000 and the funeral grant scheme should be available to more people than it is currently. Does she share my concern that the age and number of dependents is not a condition, when it should be, and the reality is that someone with five children just would not have a spare £3,000 to pay for a funeral?
The position of families should certainly be considered at that desperate time.
The compassion shown by the head of Honor Oak cemetery was an isolated incident in what is a national problem—a rule for one that has not been the rule for all. For example, my constituents, Ann and her brother William, came to see me at my weekly advice surgery. Ann and her husband are joining us today to hear the Minister’s response to the story of the turmoil that their family have been through.
Just like Rachel’s family, Ann’s family have owned a grave space for decades—in their case, since 1965 in the London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham. It holds both Ann’s grandmother and her father, who died in 1992. Before Ann’s mother passed away, she owned the grave space, which resulted in a £95.50 charge for Ann to transfer the ownership of the grave to her and her brother.
Does the Minister agree that that fee is both extortionate and unjustifiable? How can a resident in Hammersmith and Fulham be expected to pay £95.50 when a resident in Barking and Dagenham only pays £39 for the same process? And spare a thought for people in Hounslow, who would be charged £168 if they wanted to transfer the ownership of a grave.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this important debate. The average cost of a funeral in my constituency of Maidstone and The Weald is £4,900, including local authority costs, which is about 5% above the national average that the hon. Lady mentioned earlier. Does she agree that if local authorities can be persuaded to harmonise their funeral costs, they should also consider the very high additional costs?
I certainly agree with the hon. Member, but later in my speech she will hear that even that high cost is not the highest in the country.
For Ann’s family, the cost of the funeral was just the beginning, at a time when they were already grieving for Ann’s mother. As Ann’s mother was not a resident of Hammersmith and Fulham at the time of her death, Ann was faced with a cost of £682 to lay her mother’s ashes. If the burial plot had been in Kingston, Ann would have been charged just £160, which—importantly—is precisely and fairly the same cost as that faced by the local residents. However, if the burial plot had been in Bromley, the cost would have been 14 times higher than in Kingston, at a shocking £2,212. That is an example of unjustifiable extortion, which was possible just because Ann’s mother did not live in that particular borough at the time of her death.
How can such a discrepancy between charges be acceptable? These figures could not be clearer in showing that the costs associated with burial are a lottery being run by local authorities, which unfairly prey on families at their time of grief. For Ann’s family, an extra charge of £170 was thrown in for good measure when she asked to add an inscription to the headstone, even though that change involved Hammersmith and Fulham Council doing nothing at all. Logic suggests that it is the inscriber of the gravestone who should charge for an inscription. Sadly, Ann’s case does not yet have an end, and I hope that the Minister will be able to help us to establish how she can best proceed, so that she can lay her mother’s ashes and finally be at peace. Ann clearly summarises her case:
“We are certainly not equal in life, but to allow us to be equal in death is surely the fairest and only decent decision to make.”
I have contacted dozens of local authorities to compare the costs associated with burial, and I am afraid that the Government clearly do not seem to consider us to be equal in death.
I am bringing this issue to the attention of Parliament because Ann, Rachel and others have asked me for help. I have also faced this scenario myself. When my dad, Cumin McDonagh, passed away 11 years ago, my family found ourselves in exactly the same position as Ann and Rachel. In our time of grief, my sister Margaret and I wanted nothing more than to ensure that he was as close to our mum as possible. The obvious choice for our family was to lay our dad to rest in Lambeth cemetery, just a few 100 yards from our family home. The cemetery is on the border between boroughs, but it sits narrowly in Wandsworth and, as residents of Merton, our family had to pay double the cost, despite the cemetery’s proximity to our home and, most importantly, to my mum. We did not fight the cost; we were mourning the loss of our dad and all we wanted was to see him at peace.
Across the country, local authorities double, triple and even quadruple their burial fees for non-residents, regardless of how long they previously lived in the borough—nearly every council charges extra for non-residents. That multiplier applies to any burial or interment fee, plus any grave lease cost. The justification offered by local authorities is that even if someone lived in the area for the majority of their life and owned a grave space there, the authority was not receiving their council tax at the time of their death.
For a non-resident of Bromley, the already extortionate burial fee of £2,069 faced by residents is quadrupled to an enormous £8,274 for non-residents. That means that there are former Bromley-based families, just like Rachel’s and just like Ann’s, who are simply not financially able to bury a family member in their family grave. And Bromley is not alone. Local authorities right across the country are capitalising on grieving families who have no choice but to pay the staggering costs with which they are burdened. A family might move a relatively short distance across a city and find themselves a non-resident for the cemetery they want to be buried in.
What is more, the costs are rising. Local authorities have increased cremation and burial fees by up to 49% over the past year. As a headline in The Times so aptly put it, “RIP affordable funerals”. I am sure that the Minister will agree that the bereaved should not be faced with the burden of having to shop around for the best deal on burial costs. It is unsurprising that human behaviour at a time of grief is not reflective of the behaviour of a typical so-called consumer. Those of us who have faced the loss of an immediate family member know only too well that we are desperate for the process to be as easy and efficient as possible and, above all, we want to be able to honour our loved ones as best we can. The last thing we want is to appear stingy to their memory. Those setting the burial costs know that, and they are in a position to capitalise on it immorally. What is more, privately-owned cemeteries are raising costs faster than ever, and I fear that recent history suggests that local authorities will follow suit, which indicates that there will be a worsening problem in years to come.
Although rates of cremation are rising, many people do not see it as an option, including many faith groups who consider burial to be a religious and deeply symbolic requirement. Choosing a burial, rather than a cremation, can add up to £5,000 in certain areas of the country, bringing some commentators to call a burial a luxury that is simply out of the reach of many families. Take Highgate cemetery in north London, where a burial can cost a simply staggering £18,325, or Hammersmith and Fulham’s council-led cemeteries in Fulham Palace Road and Margravine, which come with burial costs of a mind-blowing £12,464.
I accept that the hon. Lady may well say more about this, but I wanted to mention that losing a child can be traumatic and can often lead to extreme financial hardship for the family, especially given the staggering costs to which she refers. I hope she agrees that the Chancellor should consider, in the coming Budget, setting up a child funeral fund to assist with those very high expenses in the case of children.
I absolutely agree. We have already made reference to the wonderful campaign run by my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East. She has been successful in getting child burial fees wiped out in Wales, as a result of that moving campaign and the story of the death of her son.
In Wandsworth, the cheapest council-led cemetery has burial costs of £4,697. The fees have risen by more than inflation in eight out of 10 council areas, with Watford Borough Council raising them by a remarkable 49.1% in the past year alone. That could be considered an isolated extremity, but not when burial fees are rising by more than double the rate of inflation across the country. They have risen faster than overall inflation, year on year, since 1980—they rose, on average, from £1,571 to £1,755 last year alone. Perhaps there is no starker example than that of the residents of Dunbartonshire in Scotland, where a letter change in a postcode makes the difference between being able to afford a burial and not. People in East Dunbartonshire should expect a fee of £2,088, which is almost double the fee in neighbouring West Dunbartonshire. As James Dunn, founder of Funeralbooker, so succinctly puts it:
“These price hikes are the ultimate stealth tax and a hidden side of austerity, going completely unnoticed by families until their moment of need. But with such significant price differences now appearing across the UK, many will be questioning whether these fees genuinely reflect the service they are getting or are simply down to opportunistic greed.”
I could not have put it better myself. There is a stark and immoral postcode lottery for the cost of dying, from an average burial fee of £419 in Northern Ireland to one of £3,806 in London. It is absolutely abhorrent that councils capitalise on life’s two certainties—tax and death—to plug the gaps in their funding and make up for widespread Government cuts.
So, what can be done? Although it does not excuse its extortionate pricing structure, I commend Lewisham Borough Council’s decision to ensure that all costs for non-residents are the same as for residents, provided they lived in the borough for more than 10 years. Hounslow Borough Council runs a similar scheme, whereby the fees are scaled to reflect the time spent in the borough. Does the Minister agree that such schemes could be replicated across all local authorities to ensure that the situation faced by Ann’s family, Rachel’s family and thousands of other families across the country is stopped once and for all?
Debate in these Chambers has led to tangible change and action on burial fees, with the commendable campaign on burial fees for children led by my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East leading to such change across Wales. If we should take away one thought from today’s debate it should be Ann’s own words:
“I ask that the exploitation of grief stops, that there is one fair charge across all boroughs”.
I understand that there is a shortage of space for burials, with 680,000 of them projected for between 2015 and 2020 and full cemeteries providing councils with little income. I understand that residents’ taxes pay for the upkeep of council-led cemeteries. I even understand that there has to be a significant cost associated with a burial. But I do not understand the exploitation of the grief faced by families who are simply not in a position to negotiate or to shop around for the best deal. I do not understand the justification for astronomical burial costs, which is that they are needed to plug the gap that local authorities face due to Government cuts, and I certainly do not understand how those same local authorities can justify doubling, trebling or even quadrupling fees for their deceased former residents whose family members just want to see them laid to rest. It is high time that this tax on grief is put to rest.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I begin by congratulating the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) on securing this debate, and I am grateful for the opportunity to respond.
May I extend my condolences to the hon. Lady’s constituents on the sad loss of their loved one? I was very sorry to hear of their distressing experience, and I am grateful to the hon. Lady for raising these concerns today. This constituency case raises an important matter that many of us will have to face when we lose a loved one. Understandably, however, it is an issue that we may focus on only when sadly we find ourselves faced with a perhaps unexpected financial pressure at an already difficult and distressing time.
The hon. Lady has questioned the sometimes wide variation in the burial and cremation fees charged across local authorities. I appreciate that those differences may sometimes be unexpected or difficult to understand—after all, public burial and cremation authorities are likely to be providing very similar services and facilities—but local authorities’ independence from central Government means that they are responsible for managing their budgets in line with local priorities. That is entirely appropriate; central Government cannot predict exactly what the cost of a local service will be. The fact that local authorities’ money is not ring-fenced allows them to use their resources flexibly, rather than going through burdensome reporting and accounting processes.
Local spending decisions are better made by people who understand their communities and who are therefore best placed to make the right call. For that reason, local authority spending priorities are ultimately a matter for local discretion. Councils in England will receive more than £200 billion for local services, including burial and cremation services, over the spending period 2015-16 to 2019-20. We do not shy away from saying that difficult decisions are required to finish the job of eliminating the deficit and dealing with our debts, but what we have seen since 2010 is that efficiencies can be made while broadly maintaining satisfaction with local government.
In line with the principle of local discretion, public burial and cremation authorities have the power to set their charges at levels they consider appropriate. It has been argued that one of the factors affecting the level of local burial fees is the availability of burial space, which is running out in parts of towns, cities and countryside. It is not a concern in some areas, however, so it is not yet clear that pressure on burial space is a national issue requiring central Government intervention. Successive Administrations have kept the situation under review, and we are considering whether the current position should continue.
In view of London’s particular needs in this area, the London Local Authorities Act 2007 makes special provision for eligible public burial authorities to terminate burial rights and reuse graves, subject to certain conditions. The decision on whether to make use of those provisions is a matter for individual burial authorities, taking into account all the local relevant factors. To date, however, take-up has been very low.
If the Welsh Assembly and the Welsh Government can find it in their hearts to look at fees for child burial, why can guidance not come from the Department for Communities and Local Government about what the Government would wish to see from English local authorities? As the major funder of local authorities, that would seem a reasonable thing to do.
Cross-Government work is going on in response to the campaign by the hon. Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris). I will come to that point later, but the decision on that work is yet to be made. The complexity is that the policy area sits across a number of Departments. If the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden will bear with me, we are coming to a resolution.
In exercising their local discretion, many public burial and cremation authorities have chosen to waive or reduce fees for children’s funerals. I am grateful to those that have done that, and I take this opportunity to encourage many more authorities to consider it. I recognise the Welsh Government’s commitment in that context, and I would also like to thank providers of wider bereavement services, such as Co-op Funeralcare, that have made the decision to waive fees relating to children’s funerals.
The loss of a child is an incredibly difficult and distressing experience for any family, and the costs connected with it can therefore be of particular concern. As has been said many times in this debate, the issue has been championed over the past year by the hon. Member for Swansea East. I pay tribute to her tireless campaigning and her courage in sharing her own tragic experience in order to highlight this important matter. As promised in our manifesto commitment, we continue to work across Government to identify what more can be done to support families in the very difficult circumstances following the loss of a child.
The hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden also raised the variation in funeral costs more generally. The Government would not want to interfere with an individual’s choices for their funeral arrangements. In any event, the cost of funerals is not just an issue for Government—providers of funeral services including faith communities, funeral directors, local authorities and owners of crematoriums all have a role to play. We believe that where a family can take responsibility for the cost of funeral arrangements, they should do so, but there are times when state support is appropriate.
We are committed to supporting vulnerable people going through bereavement. The period following a death will have an emotional, social and economic impact for the bereaved, and people may need to draw on a wide range of support at that difficult time. That includes the provision of funeral expenses payments to help people on qualifying benefits with the costs of arranging a funeral. Such payments make a significant contribution towards the costs of a simple, respectful funeral, covering the necessary costs involved with burial or cremation and up to £700 of other funeral expenses. Funding from the funeral expenses payments scheme and social fund budgeting loans offers an adequate level of support, while crucially maintaining a fiscally viable fund.
We are drawing near the end of this debate. Will the Minister consider taking on the issue of the discrepancies between resident and non-resident burial costs and encourage local authorities to look at understanding the length of time someone may have lived in a borough prior to their death?
I will of course consider taking that on. As I said, the bereaved may need to draw on a range of support.
A question was raised about burial fees increasing because of austerity. We do not shy away from telling people that further difficult decisions are required to eliminate the Government’s deficit, but it has already been demonstrated that we made difficult decisions with local government finance and the public have broadly been supportive.
A number of issues were raised. A question was asked about the increase in public health funerals, which are the responsibility of local authorities. Funeral costs beyond burial and cremation fees are a commercial matter. I am grateful to those providers that already reduce or waive fees, particularly in relation to children. Transfer fees are at the discretion of local authorities. A child funeral fund was suggested, and that is a matter directly for the Treasury. I ask the hon. Lady to write to officials with details of the constituency case she raised. We will fully consider it.
I thank those Members who have contributed by way of intervention: the hon. Member for Torfaen (Nick Thomas-Symonds), my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant) and the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). In conclusion, I thank the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden. This debate has been a valuable opportunity to discuss matters that, if not considered openly, can only add to distress at the most difficult times in our lives. In participating in today’s debate, I believe we have gone some way towards positively addressing this issue.
Question put and agreed to.
Will those not staying for the next debate please be kind enough to leave quickly and quietly? We now come to an important debate on English language teaching for refugees.
English Language Teaching: Refugees
I beg to move,
That this House has considered English language teaching for refugees.
As a linguist who spent the early part of my career living abroad, I know all too well how isolating it is for someone if they do not speak the language of the country in which they are trying to live and operate. Today, we are here to focus on the fact that being able to communicate in English in this country is absolutely key. In its report “Safe but Alone”, Refugee Action highlighted the inability to speak English as being one of the single most important causes of isolation and loneliness among refugees.
As Klajdi, a refugee interviewed by Refugee Action, said:
“What is most important is language. If you can speak the language you can make friends with your neighbour.”
Without English, refugees find it incredibly difficult to work, study and volunteer. They are effectively excluded from activities that would result in their becoming a connected member of their local community. People need language skills before they can progress, and a shared language enables integration, productivity and community cohesion.
The Casey review clearly highlighted the link between English language and integration, identifying English as
“a common denominator and a strong enabler of integration.”
More recently, a report produced by the all-party parliamentary group on social integration concluded that English is necessary
“to access employment opportunities and to build a diverse social and professional network.”
The report also recognised that speaking English is critical
“to social mobility in modern Britain.”
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on securing this debate. Does she agree that speaking English is also incredibly important for intra-family relations? I recently met several refugee families in my constituency. The children spoke excellent English, because they went to school; the parents, with some exceptions, found English extremely difficult. That must sometimes cause a few problems within families, as well as in other contexts.
Without a doubt it does. As nearly everybody in the room will appreciate, if a parent cannot speak the language of the country in which she is living, she will certainly not be able to help her children with their homework. There are real, practical disadvantages that come with either parent not being able to speak the language in which the children are being taught.
I congratulate the right hon. Lady on securing what is a timely debate. Following on from the comments of the hon. Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy), I am sure that the right hon. Lady will find in her surgeries that we often rely on the children, who can speak English, to interpret for their parents. Often the children are very young and do not understand exactly what they are being told. So the language is vital from that point of view.
There is also a shortage of classes. I hope the Minister will tell us how he intends to address that when he winds up. We should acknowledge that the Government have made about £10 million available for language courses for Syrian refugees.
The hon. Gentleman is right about that. Our constituencies are cheek by jowl. Sadly, in some situations in my surgeries I have been quite disturbed by what young children are hearing or having to explain to adults. Parents who do not speak English are in a painfully difficult position if they cannot get the help that they need and find someone to interpret for them. That is the situation that we want to address today.
At this moment in our history, encouraging greater community cohesion could hardly be more important. The recent European referendum caused quite a lot of community tension and has left many people feeling more separated from those around them. Following the vote, reports of hate crime and racist abuse dramatically increased. For many, the prevailing narrative of the last year has been one of division and discord, regrettably. Now the Government must ensure that the UK becomes a more inclusive, tolerant and united country in which to live.
May I raise a point on behalf of training providers in my constituency, such as Sutton academy? It asked me to raise the importance of making resources available to provide good training. As the right hon. Lady says, good training provides community cohesion, among many other things.
Training is part of it. The hon. Member for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham) has just referred to the additional £10 million that the Government are providing to teach English. If refugees are to be trained, the first step is to train them in a language that they understand. Basic English learning has to be the start point; the training that they need to get a job is stage two. Resources are needed for both.
As the Second Church Estates Commissioner, I cannot miss the opportunity to point out that the Archbishop of Canterbury has said that we must be
“builders of bridges and not barriers”.
That is all of us; that is why we are here today.
English for speakers of other languages—known as ESOL—classes are essential to enable contact and integration, which is critical for building stronger communities. It is therefore essential both for the wellbeing of the refugees and for the population of our country as a whole. We must remember that ESOL funding has improved for some specific groups. In September last year, the Home Secretary pledged £10 million over the next five years in additional ESOL funding, available to refugees who arrive under the vulnerable persons resettlement scheme. Additionally, in July this year, the Home Secretary announced that the Syrian VPRS was to be expanded to include all nationalities affected by the Syrian conflict, because we know it has had an impact on the wider region.
I agree with everything that my right hon. Friend is saying. I wonder whether she has any ideas about how we can make the provision of English language training effective. In Oxfordshire, I found that a number of people went into the training and a few years later were no better at speaking English—they just used it as an excuse to socialise and get out of the house.
Language classes are a start point for those who have experienced the awful isolation that one feels when unable to even speak the language. However, it is also really important to get out of the house, for example to do the daily shop, and practise speaking the language, because practice makes perfect. That is where community groups have an incredibly important role in complementing the language classes, because once someone has got it, they have to use it or lose it. That has certainly been my experience.
Other resettled refugees who arrive in the United Kingdom under long-established gateway protection programmes—about 750 people a year—do not, however, necessarily receive the additional support that is being provided for those affected by the Syrian conflict. Crucially, nor do the majority of refugees in Britain who arrive not through resettlement schemes but as asylum seekers. A majority of refugees therefore cannot access the funding.
Unintentionally, that can mean that one Syrian refugee who is in the UK through the resettlement programme can access high-quality English language teaching, while another Syrian refugee from the same street in Damascus or Aleppo cannot. The need of one of them to learn English is no greater than the other’s, but they may have an extremely different experience and then a different set of economic opportunities in our country.
The policy for adult learners is the responsibility of the Department for Education. Most ESOL is financed through the adult skills budget, administered by the Skills Funding Agency. However, the funding for ESOL that is available through those avenues is no longer ring-fenced. The seven new mayoral combined authorities, plus the Greater London Authority, will assume responsibility for ESOL in their area from September next year.
Andy Street, my local West Midlands Mayor, has said something important on that subject:
“The West Midlands is one of the most diverse regions in the world, and as such we face many challenges in trying to integrate different groups and communities into our society…Speaking English is the most important part of integration and no-one in the West Midlands should be left without the opportunity to learn English.”
We need to hear all Mayors in combined authorities show that they really understand that.
Will the right hon. Lady give way?
I give way again to my neighbour.
The right hon. Lady is quite right; her constituency is near mine, so she will know that in general terms the west midlands has been valuable in terms of integrating people. She will also know that Coventry, for example, has a very good reputation for integration. People of all different nationalities have settled there over the years—I think there are about 50-odd different languages spoken—so that dimension of the problem is clear. The other important factor is that we have never allowed a ghetto system to develop in the west midlands. If we isolate people out of fear, the danger is that they congregate together, but do not actually integrate into the community. They need the language as a common denominator to do that.
The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point, which is at the heart of Coventry’s bid for city of culture. Coventry is a city of peace and reconciliation, but one where we reach across diverse communities in the city to make sure that people do not become isolated. I sincerely hope that Coventry will win the bid.
In November 2016, the Government also launched the controlling migration fund, which aims to mitigate the impact of immigration on local communities. It includes a pot of £100 million over four years for which local authorities in England can bid. ESOL is one of several themes eligible under that fund, yet local authorities are under no obligation to fund ESOL projects.
In the March Budget, the Chancellor announced new money for English-language training as part of the midlands engine programme. The Government announced that they would provide
“£2 million to offer English-language training to people in the midlands whose lack of ability to speak English is holding them back from accessing employment.”
What are the stumbling blocks? Theoretically, refugees in England are eligible for fully funded ESOL provision on the condition that they have attained refugee status and meet the necessary income requirements. However, ESOL funding in England has decreased by 55% in real terms in recent years. More than half of ESOL providers who were interviewed said that their ability to provide high-quality classes had worsened over the past five years, and nearly half said that people were waiting an average of six months or more to start lessons. One provider had 800 people on their waiting list and another said that learners could wait three years to be assigned to a course. Those timescales have adverse effects on the mental health of refugees, who are likely to be experiencing social isolation. The longer they have to wait to get an English-language class that enables them to learn the language and break that isolation, the harder it becomes.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on securing this debate on such an important topic. She is setting out very powerfully the argument in favour of enabling those who have come to this country to integrate, which is particularly important for women in many of those communities. She started with an analysis of the vote in June 2016. We know that fears about immigration were a powerful factor affecting the way that many people voted. Does she agree with the conclusions of the Casey review, which showed that 95% of people living in this country think that to be considered “truly British”, a person must be able to speak English? This is not just about the integration of communities, but about people living here—often white Brits—welcoming those who come here. The longer they are not integrated, the more the problems can escalate.
I could not agree more, and I agree with Dame Louise Casey on that point. It is a two-way process. The settled community here must reach out to the newcomers, make them welcome and recognise their contribution and the great benefit they bring to our society and economy, but for that to happen we have got to speak the same language.
Women in particular are vulnerable to the isolation that results from not being able to speak English. At present, women face even greater barriers. Research conducted by the University of Sussex this year found that women, older refugees and those with poor health face particular challenges, are most likely to struggle to learn English and are most at risk of isolation. Without a basic grasp of English, women find it exceptionally difficult to live empowered and independent lives. Many come to rely on extended family members to communicate for them, which leaves them particularly isolated and without a voice of their own. Dame Louise Casey highlighted that issue, which requires dedicated and targeted action.
One of the biggest barriers to women accessing ESOL is the lack of childcare. Currently, 77% of ESOL providers are unable to offer childcare, which is frequently cited as a reason why women are not able to get to language classes. A higher proportion of women are single parents or have caring responsibilities in their family. Limited childcare provision has a greater impact on women and tips the balance even further against them. I welcome the Government’s commitment to spend £2.3 million over the next four years to fund schemes that remove barriers such as the lack of childcare facilities. They are also being innovative and are looking at new approaches such as teaching English alongside crèches and playgroups, and providing family learning events to help adults who are unwilling or unable to leave their children to learn English. That is a positive start to tackling this area of disadvantage, but further action is required.
In January 2016, the Prime Minister announced a one-off £20 million fund to provide English tuition to Muslim women, with the aim of combating radicalisation. It is a welcome initiative, but we need a similar fund to give women who are refugees equal access to ESOL.
Informal ESOL learning groups run by volunteers, faith groups and community organisations across the country offer a vital service for refugees—not least because they are an informal way to put into practice what has just been learned in a class—but they can only complement formal ESOL classes, not replace them. First, refugees need the certification that comes with completing formal English-language learning to enter employment or further study. Secondly, to become proficient in a language, people need both conversation practice and formal professional teaching on grammar and structure. That said, I believe that the Government can join up the informal ESOL provision in our country. There is currently no means of identifying and sharing the innovative ideas and good practice that are to be found at by grassroots level. Although regional ESOL co-ordinators are starting to map informal and formal provision for the first time, we need central co-ordination to bring it all together and maintain it.
In recent years, Government funding has been targeted at specific groups such as Syrian refugees and Muslim women, but that short-term project funding has not been accessible to the majority of refugees entering the country. Indeed, for many, access to English classes has become more difficult. Investing in ESOL makes sound economic sense. The cost of two years’ ESOL classes for each refugee will be fully reimbursed to the taxpayer after an individual’s first eight months of employment at the national average wage. I hope the Minister will consider creating a fund to help all refugees learn English and ensuring a minimum of eight hours of lessons per week for the first two years that a refugee is in England. That would require an investment of about £42 million a year, but it would take into account the current scale of need outside the vulnerable persons resettlement scheme.
It is evident that a clear ESOL strategy for England would give greater direction in this area and would enable a proper assessment of need to be undertaken. It is always helpful to set clear objectives so we can measure progress against the targets. This is a devolved matter. Scotland published its own ESOL strategy in 2007 and Wales did the same in 2014.
We must ensure that women have full and equal access to ESOL. For women, there can be unique challenges to resettlement, so it is critical that we enable them to develop a strong voice for their ultimate benefit and empowerment, which would lead to more education and employment opportunities. We must ensure access to childcare facilities and continue to invest in this area. The Government’s forthcoming response to the Casey review and the new integration strategy will give us an ideal opportunity to invest in ESOL and acknowledge the key part it plays in ensuring successful integration and community cohesion, unlocking the enormous potential that the refugees who come to our country have to boost our economy and bring together communities in a post-Brexit Britain.
Order. This hour-long debate will finish by 5.30 pm, and Dame Caroline has the opportunity to sum up the debate as the last speaker. I am obliged to call the Front-Bench spokespeople before then. The guideline limit is five minutes for the Scottish National party, five minutes for Her Majesty’s Opposition and 10 minutes for the Minister. That means that I have to call the Front-Bench speakers no later than seven minutes past five, which gives the two Back-Bench speakers, if they are fair to each other, 10 minutes each. That is not a formal time limit, but if you both want the full time, it is 10 minutes each. It is going to be ladies first. I call Alison Thewliss.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Hollobone. If my voice holds out, I will be doing well to reach 10 minutes.
I am delighted to be able to speak in this debate, because I am proud that Glasgow, the city I am glad to represent, welcomes refugees. That is a cross-party commitment: a Labour administration first put a banner above the door of the City Chambers, and it has been honoured by the Scottish National party administration and all of us who represent the city. It is not just the elected officials but the people of Glasgow who have taken it to their hearts. For example, Selina Hales founded Refuweegee, which encourages people in Glasgow to give a welcome pack to refugees coming to the city including, among other things, a letter from a local person welcoming them to the city. It is a brilliant initiative, and other cities should take it up.
It is important that we do not just say that we want to make people welcome, but follow that through with deeds and practical action to make people feel at home. Imagine a person fleeing a situation of chaos, violence and fear—perhaps persecution and torture. It has been a long and difficult journey to sanctuary, but they are now in Glasgow—they had never heard of Glasgow before. It is raining. There are unfamiliar sights, smells, and they cannot understand the language, not least because the little English they understand does not seem to be what the people around them are speaking. We must not forget for a second how challenging that can be, not just because English—particularly Glaswegian English—can be hard to master, but because those people have come far and experienced so many things beyond our ken in coming here.
St Albert’s Primary School in Pollokshields recently put together a wonderfully moving theatre piece with Baldy Bane Theatre in the Tramway called “Unpathed Waters, Undreamed Shores” to bring the school community together in exploring exactly what that journey might feel like. Multiple languages were used, reflecting the diversity of languages used in the school, and expression through dance and images. My favourite part of the performance by far was when a table where food had been shared was pushed away and a ceilidh began. As the music and dancers whirled, I saw a parent from the school standing at the side of the hall agape in amazement at the spectacle. It was clearly new to him. To see our traditions through the eyes of someone new gave me pause for thought—how best do we welcome people, and what do we show them about our country? How do we encourage them to share and take part?
Helping people to improve their English is absolutely crucial to integration. Without it, people cannot speak to their neighbours or find their way in their new home. I am glad that the SNP Scottish Government have underpinned the commitment to welcome refugees with a strategy—the document is entitled, “Welcoming Our Learners. Scotland’s ESOL Strategy 2015-2020”—and with funding of some £1.46 million in 2015-16. That is a renewed strategy, continuing one that has been going for some time.
Refugees and asylum seekers who have been granted a form of leave to remain, such as humanitarian protection, do not have to pay fees for ESOL courses in Scotland. They may also be eligible for help towards their living costs, for example from colleges’ discretionary funding and from the childcare fund. Asylum seekers who are waiting for a decision on their application are also eligible for free ESOL courses, as the right hon. Member for Meriden (Dame Caroline Spelman) said. There is no waiting period, and they may be eligible for support for travel and study costs.
ESOL provision in Scotland is also offered by a range of other providers, including in community-based settings, voluntary organisations and in the workplace. In my wonderfully diverse constituency, there are many providers of English language teaching, not just for refugees but for the full range of new Glaswegians. I was quite taken aback at the huge range of classes available on the Learn ESOL Glasgow website—so many communities are hosting sessions: Pollokshields community centre; Govanhill neighbourhood centre; Gorbals, Pollokshields and Govanhill libraries; Toryglen community base; Guru Granth Sahib gurdwara; the Youth Community Support Agency, specifically for young people; the Marie Trust and the Glasgow City Mission, which often deal with people facing homelessness; Glasgow women’s library and other specialist women’s groups; groups in Garnethill; and groups run by the fantastic Radiant and Brighter, which works towards getting people into employment. That is not even all the classes offered, but just the tip of the iceberg.
St Mungo’s Academy has been running classes for parents and carers to give them further opportunities to develop their English language skills through an evening ESOL class, which challenges the issue of children learning English but parents perhaps not. Instructors from Glasgow Clyde College provide targeted support for those learning English for the first time and for those improving their skills with a view to furthering their education or getting into employment. Those learners can then obtain a recognised Scottish Qualifications Authority qualification on completion of the 10-week course. In this past year there was a 100% pass rate. There is also a higher ESOL, which is a good standard, and the numbers taking it are growing. I pay tribute to Janet Cardle and Jessica Longo, who are the teachers at St Mungo’s Academy taking that on.
Nan McKay Hall has also been providing English language teaching for at least 14 years now, in the wee community hall in Pollokshields. The service is very much in demand. The beauty of a community base, as opposed to the formality of a classroom in a college, is that the learners become well integrated into their community. Nan McKay Hall works closely in partnership with Glasgow Clyde College, which provides the tutors. I am sure it would not be out of order to thank Wendy, the students’ kind and patient teacher, whom they really take to their hearts. They have a lot of love for the time and patience she takes with them.
On Friday, after my surgery, I asked the staff at Nan McKay Hall to tell me more about the classes. They said the classes worked well because people became friends—they were not just coming into the class and leaving. Nan McKay now has people on its board who first entered the hall to join the ESOL class. People have gone on to other educational classes, computer courses and art classes, to be very much part of the life of the community. The community hall runs trips to the seaside and various different places. A whole range of people use the hall and ESOL class attendees are part of the trips too. Those are brand-new Glaswegians from Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Poland, Greece, Sudan, and many more places besides, alongside senior citizens who have lived nowhere else but Glasgow. They are all going away and enjoying the best of Scotland together. That is an absolute credit to that community and to those types of initiatives.
That is the kind of model we need to look at. We have seen cuts to ESOL in England and other places, but we have invested in it in Scotland because we know that we cannot afford to leave any of those communities behind. They have so much to give to Glasgow. They are glad to be here, they want to be part of the community and learning English is key to making that happen.
I join with others in congratulating the right hon. Member for Meriden (Dame Caroline Spelman) not only on securing the debate but on the powerful and comprehensive way in which she scoped the issue. I also congratulate the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) on the wonderful way in which she described what it must be like to be a new arrival in our country and the journey that people follow.
I represent one of the Sheffield constituencies, and my city became the first ever city of sanctuary in 2007, when we made a powerful statement that we wanted to welcome those fleeing persecution and war throughout the world. Since then, we have participated in many programmes and have an increasingly diverse city. I am proud that our move was followed by, I think, 90 similar initiatives in towns and cities throughout the country.
As the MP for the heart of Sheffield, I have a number of constituents who are asylum seekers and refugees. I have seen the hugely empowering impact of English language teaching. Those who run the city of sanctuary project in Sheffield advise me that learning English is the most common request they receive from new arrivals at the city’s welcome project. As the right hon. Member for Meriden has pointed out, learning English enables refugees to navigate life in the UK, to deal with the various and sometimes complex systems that they will have to come into contact with, and to live more easily and independently.
I will be very quick. Does the hon. Gentleman agree with me that learning the language creates respect for difference, which is one of the fundamental factors in dealing not only with some of the causes, but with the root causes of racism?
The hon. Lady makes a useful intervention and I certainly agree with that. I was going on to make the point that learning English is critical to integrating more effectively into communities. We need to see integration as a two-way process: the responsibility is not simply on those who arrive to integrate; we have our contribution to make to ensure that they can integrate most effectively.
I was really pleased to hear the hon. Gentleman say that. Does he agree that in the national debate about immigration the words that are never heard are “community cohesion” and “integration”? He represents a big university, as I do, and we have many international students coming to be part of our towns and cities, and there are people coming for much longer, but settled communities feel challenged by that. What we are hearing today to a degree is that speaking a common language is a really important part of building strong, cohesive and long-lasting communities.
I could not agree more with the right hon. Lady on that—as indeed on many other things. The importance that she places on integration and effective community cohesion is endorsed by Dame Louise Casey in the review that she is conducting on behalf of the Government. That enables refugees not only to integrate but, through integration, to become valued members of our society and to make a real contribution to it. We are talking about people who in many cases bring many skills and have much to contribute to our country. Learning English is the key to releasing that potential, for them and for those of us in the host communities.
The Government recognise the importance of that. In September 2016, when they put £10 million into ESOL teaching for newly arrived Syrian refugees—as the right hon. Member for Meriden mentioned—the then Minister, the hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr Goodwill), said it was
“to help refugees learn English and integrate into British society”.
Furthermore, as the right hon. Lady and her colleague, the right hon. Member for Loughborough (Nicky Morgan), pointed out in an excellent piece in The Times today, the Prime Minister in her first year as Home Secretary said:
“We know that speaking English is key to integration.”
Why the need for this debate if there is so much cross-party consensus? I think it comes down to a question of funding, although not simply funding. Refugee Action concluded last year in its report, “Let Refugees Learn”, that funding reductions
“have resulted in shortages of provision.”
However, the fragmentation of provision and the lack of a clear strategy also limited opportunities.
The right hon. Member for Meriden was right to highlight and to welcome those pockets of money that have been made available to support ESOL teaching. In July 2015, however, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills cut £45 million from 47 colleges that taught 47,000 students, and between 2009-10 and 2015-16 the Department for Education cut £113 million from ESOL funding.
Although I accept the right hon. Lady’s point about refugees’ entitlement to funding, asylum seekers are not eligible for free tuition from statutory sources. Free classes are informal and, as the brilliant community project in my constituency, Learn for Life Enterprise, has found, greatly over-subscribed. There is a real patchwork of local provision. The report by Refugee Action revealed that 45% of prospective ESOL learners have to wait an average of six months or more to access classes, and that there have been cases of people waiting up to three years. It found a waiting list of more than 6,000 people across 71 providers. A further problem, which the right hon. Lady highlighted, is the lack of childcare provision, which affects women in particular.
The report also found that the different strands of ESOL funding are disjointed. The right hon. Lady acknowledged that there are different practices in the different nations that make up the UK. England is lagging behind Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and even Manchester—if it can lag behind a city. They have all developed strategies for ESOL teaching. We need a strategy that will ensure that all refugees receive free and accessible ESOL provision. Analysis by Refugee Action indicates that two years’ provision would cost £3,200 per refugee, which is a relatively small price to pay for the benefits that they and we will receive from that investment.
The lack of a coherent national strategy and the underfunding fail the refugees who come here to rebuild their lives, and as I said, it is an incredible waste for us as a country to fail to give them the opportunity to fulfil their potential. I hope that the Minister will indicate whether the Government’s response to the Casey review will address the lack of a national strategy for English language teaching, as well as the underfunding. The response should not simply focus narrowly on tackling extremism but recognise the necessity of ESOL provision for integration, for tackling isolation and for unlocking the potential of those who come here to contribute to our communities.
We now come to the first of the five-minute Opposition Front-Bench speeches. I call Stuart C. McDonald for the Scottish National party.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I, too, congratulate the right hon. Member for Meriden (Dame Caroline Spelman) on securing the debate. One of the issues that has been most badly neglected since we became all-consumed with Brexit is the refugee and migration crisis, so the opportunity to debate one small aspect of how we respond to that crisis and how we go about helping refugees to integrate is very welcome. The right hon. Lady made an excellent speech, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) and the hon. Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield), both of whom are experts in this policy area.
Three or four main points have emerged from the debate. First, Members have been unanimously positive about the impact of learning English on promoting integration and allowing refugees to rebuild their lives. Secondly, we have heard criticism of the Government’s lack of a strategic and joined-up response, with a particular focus on funding. Thirdly, we have heard a range of ideas for what a better response and strategy might look like. If I get the chance, I may mention that although learning English is hugely significant, it is just one part of a broader range of policy issues that need to be addressed if the Government are to be seen to be taking the integration of refugees seriously enough.
There is such consensus about the first issue that I do not need to say too much about it. It is obvious to us all that, overwhelmingly, refugees want to rebuild their lives, to be part of the communities that they find themselves in and to continue with their education and find good work. That is almost impossible without a decent level of English. The right hon. Member for Meriden mentioned a variety of reports that come to the same conclusion, from the Casey review to the report by the all-party parliamentary group on refugees, “Refugees Welcome?”, and the all-party parliamentary group on social integration, which has expressed similar views. In short, learning English is a matter of empowerment. It is good for refugees and it is good for the communities in which those refugees live.
Let me turn to the call for a more coherent and joined-up response from the Government. There are different aspects to that critique, but the one that has been mentioned most often is funding. As Refugee Action pointed out in its May 2016 campaign Let Refugees Learn, refugees
“have great determination and desire to learn English”
but are finding it harder to access ESOL classes because of funding reductions that have resulted in shortages of provision, waiting lists and other barriers to participation, particularly for women. That organisation subsequently gave evidence to the all-party parliamentary group on social integration and reported waiting lists stretching to more than 1,100 people. There have been reports in newspapers of three-year waiting lists in parts of London.
Hon. Members have already gone through the different pots of funding that have been announced at various times, but that is offset by the overall 50% or 60% funding cuts to ESOL provision. The hon. Member for Sheffield Central used the word “disjointed”, which is absolutely appropriate. Whenever there is one step forward on funding, there seem to be two or more steps back.
We should be clear that investing in ESOL now means making savings later. If we invested in ESOL now, we would not have to spend as much on interpreters, there would be fewer missed medical appointments and less reliance on social security benefits, and more taxes would be paid through work—another point that the right hon. Member for Meriden made. That is all indicative of a lack of a joined-up strategy. As has been pointed out, there is a strategy in Wales, and there has been one in Scotland for 10 years. That strategy, which was refreshed in 2015, sits alongside the broader New Scots integration strategy for refugees and asylum seekers, which is currently being refreshed. That we need an equivalent strategy at Westminster has been well established during this debate. Such a strategy is long overdue, and I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say about that.
What would a better ESOL integration strategy look like? First, it is important that any strategy seeks to ensure integration from day one, as the hon. Member for Sheffield Central said. ESOL experts have long said that people’s motivation to learn tends to be at its highest, and provision tends to be most effective, immediately following their arrival in our country. If people do not learn English then, they learn to cope with not being able to speak the language to any significant degree and, having realised that they can get by without it, just tend to muddle on regardless.
Secondly, as hon. Members have said, it is vital that the whole panoply of possibilities for learning English is available so that we can tailor learning to every person’s needs. Obviously, people’s ability to learn and their personal circumstances are incredibly different. The example of parents—particularly mothers—has already been given; childcare provision has to be involved there. We have to co-ordinate all the different responses and use all the technology that is now available.
We are not here to write the Government’s strategy. There have been a lot of good ideas, but the fundamental point is that a strategy is needed. We look forward to hearing what the Government have to say about that.
Let me start, as others did, by thanking the right hon. Member for Meriden (Dame Caroline Spelman) for securing this debate and for her powerful points about why this issue is important and about the obstacles that we face.
I also want to acknowledge the many other Members who have contributed to the debate. Everyone seemed to make similar points; we seem to be on the same page. Members mentioned the impact on children of their parents not speaking the language and the importance of language training so that people are not isolated. My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) hit the nail on the head when he mentioned the lack of a national strategy. I hope that we will hear a bit more about that.
Speaking English is one of the first and most important steps to integration for a refugee. Apart from the Casey review, the all-party parliamentary group on social integration, the all-party parliamentary group on refugees and a report by Refugee Action have all demonstrated the importance of ESOL courses and the vital need for investment. Learning English is a gateway to work, study and getting to know your neighbours. It is also instrumental to refugees’ mental health, staving off isolation and loneliness. The vast majority of refugees want to learn English and in theory they are eligible for fully funded ESOL classes. However, the reality is not matching up to the theory. As we have heard before, there are long waiting lists—in some cases three years long—and many refugees cannot access the classes they are entitled to.
The Casey review identified some of the difficulties faced by women from minority backgrounds in accessing English language courses. This is another point that has been highlighted. Three quarters of ESOL providers have either no provision for childcare or not enough for the needs of most learners, which disproportionately affects women’s ability to attend classes. The overwhelming message is that is a lack of funding is the biggest issue for ESOL providers. Two thirds of providers told Refugee Action that an increase in Government funding is the one thing that would most improve their ability to provide a high standard and quantity of ESOL classes.
The Conservative Government’s actions have been a classic case of rhetoric not lining up with reality. At the same time as the former Prime Minister was calling for migrants to learn English, the Government were cutting funding for courses. From 2009 to 2016, funding for ESOL classes dropped from £203 million to only £92.5 million: a 60% cut. Where we have seen extra funding, it has been tiny compared with the cuts that ESOL has already faced. The extra £10 million over five years for ESOL provision announced in 2016 was to be used only for Syrian refugees resettled through the vulnerable persons resettlement scheme. While that was welcome, why are the Government seemingly only interested in integrating one group?
When David Cameron announced £20 million for Muslim women to learn English, his announcement had the potential to do more harm than good. By tying language classes for Muslim women to the fight against radicalisation, the Government’s clumsy, simplistic approach managed to stigmatise a whole community rather than encourage integration. It was also of no benefit to refugees. The Government say that they value and promote integration, while at the same time slashing funding to one of the most important branches of it.
What should we do? A Labour Government would make further education courses free at the point of use, including ESOL courses. As we do not have a Labour Government, Members in the Chamber have made a strong case for specific investment in ESOL classes for refugees. As the Minister considers his response to the Casey review, I urge him to invest in ESOL funding for refugees, to ensure that women have equal access to classes, and to let the Government’s actions live up to the rhetoric they have been peddling for years.
If the Minister would be kind enough to conclude his remarks no later than 5.27 pm, that will give Dame Caroline enough time to sum up the debate.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I join others in congratulating my right hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Dame Caroline Spelman) on securing the debate. I look forward to seeing her and, I think, some of her panel tomorrow for a further conversation about some of these issues. As always when listening to Members, hon. Friends and right hon. Friends around the Chamber, it has been interesting to hear not only the number of valuable points that have been made on this hugely important topic but that there has been almost—I say almost—a breakout of consensus around where we are. I will come back to why I said “almost” in just a moment.
I agree with much of what I have heard this afternoon. A number of hon. Members, including my right hon. Friend, have commented on Dame Louise Casey’s work and the integration strategy, to which we will respond in due course. My experience of working with Dame Louise Casey in my previous roles at the Department for Communities and Local Government is that she is not only a force of nature but someone to be taken hugely seriously, with important points to raise. Her experience and how she has commented in her review on the things we have to look at raise the profile of the subject and make a powerful case. We will respond in due course.
I know that the Minister is personally committed to this agenda, but may I press him a little further? “In due course” is a phrase that Ministers use when they are not entirely sure or are not going to tell the House when the response will be. Dame Louise Casey’s report was published in December 2016. We are now at the end of October 2017. I think we all agree that it is a hugely important report, with recommendations and actions that will take some years to implement. May I press him further on a likely timescale for a response from the Government?
My right hon. Friend is always free to press me for a response. I appreciate her point, but I am afraid she will have to be a bit more patient with me and my colleagues across Government before we respond fully.
We recognise the point made this afternoon that the ability to speak English is a key enabler for integration and participation in society. As my right hon. Friend says, I feel very strongly about that. It is fundamental for someone to be able to play a part in British society and to get on. Being able to speak English is also a necessary stepping-stone skill for those who are resettled here as refugees or granted refugee status on arrival. Once someone has that status, they are given access to the labour market and to benefits and are encouraged to access the provision that is there to support UK residents in developing the relevant skills. The ability to speak English is an important skill.
The Minister mentioned the importance of English for Syrian and other refugees who are resettled here and for those who arrive spontaneously. Will he answer the question asked by the right hon. Member for Meriden (Dame Caroline Spelman) about why access to ESOL and funding are different for those who are resettled and for people who might be from the same street in Syria but arrive here spontaneously?
I will come to that point in a moment. Obviously there is a different process for people whom we have brought here from the region through a scheme and people who arrive here. We have to make sure they are from the region before we go through that process. There is a different approach, for a very logical reason.
Just as we were getting to the harmony of complete agreement, some hon. Members, including the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Afzal Khan), made the point about funding. I gently say to some Members that I have a different view. It is not always about how much we have to spend. We have to live within our means, so it is about how we spend the money we have. That is an important focus. It is not always about finding a magic money tree. I am not sure if his announcement on free education for such people was another spending commitment that Labour will step away from.
We must be able to live within our means. It is important, as hon. Members have said, to pick up on how we are spending the money that is there. My right hon. Friend the Member for Meriden outlined a number of schemes and the funding that is coming through. English language skills provision is funded mainly by the Department for Education and is accessed in a variety of ways. Training has been developed to improve adult literacy and get people into jobs. It is available to the resident UK population to meet their needs, but under Skills Funding Agency rules it is also available to those with refugee and humanitarian protection status, discretionary leave, exceptional leave and leave outside the rules, as well as indefinite leave to remain. They do not have to wait the three years that other migrants have to wait, and their family members are also eligible. That is a good deal.
There is also ESOL, which we have been talking about for much of this afternoon. That is funded by the Department for Education, which invested around £90 million in 2015-16 in those courses, and in doing so supported some 110,600 adult learners. By definition, that is for those for whom English is not their first language.
Does the Minister not recognise that that is something like a 40% decline in the numbers from just three or four years ago? Is that not the effect of funding cuts? It is all very well to say that we need to look carefully at how we spend the money, but those cuts have had a pretty drastic effect.
There is obviously a job we have to do to make sure we direct the funding we have in the most efficient manner to deliver the best outcomes for the people who are coming to this country. I will outline some of the provision now.
Will the Minister give way?
I will make a little more progress, and then I will give way.
The courses are delivered by local educational institutions, which usually have a contract to do so through the local authority. Refugees are also able to access Jobcentre Plus assistance in obtaining employment, and the employment assessment that follows may determine that the refugee needs additional help with English. As part of assisting those people to become employment-ready, the jobcentre can also refer them to fully funded English language training. Its aim is to meet the needs of refugees seeking employment in our job market, and also of those who are not seeking employment but have an ambition to learn English to participate in the society around them, as was rightly outlined.
There are other sources of available funding for English language training, such as where the local authority feels that migration, whether resulting from more refugees or not, is having a local impact that it wishes to address. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Meriden outlined, the controlling migration fund was set up for that purpose: a £140 million fund with £100 million specifically to help local authorities.
The Minister talks about support from local authorities. Does he welcome the approach taken in Aberdeen, through the work of the Aberdeen Community Planning Partnership, which has helped to resettle more than 60 Syrian refugees who have made Aberdeen their home? For example, a couple fled from their home in Daraa near the border with Jordan and arrived in Aberdeen in March last year. To support their integration into the community, they took up English lessons provided by the city council, involving a volunteer project. The family were so well supported by the local volunteer paired with them, Maria Fowler, that they named their second child after her. Does the Minister agree that such support from local authorities is crucial to helping resettle many people who have fled conflict?
My hon. Friend makes a good point. That is exactly the kind of story we all want to hear. When meeting refugees around the country, I have noticed the disparity of experience with different local authorities. We have communities and local authorities around the country doing some absolutely fantastic work, giving people a brilliant experience and enabling them to integrate into, become part of, and have a valued role in their local community and society. We must do better in sharing best practice. I spoke to the cross-party leaders of the Local Government Association, and I will meet them again later this week to talk to them about how we share best practice better.
I will give way to the hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton, but then I must make progress.
The Minister talks about best practice. Earlier, he talked about efficiencies, then he talked about looking at doing things differently. We have no objection to that, but how does he explain the longer waiting lists we are seeing? Is a 60% cut what he calls efficiency and doing things differently?
I will answer that before completing the point I was making. It is more complicated than that. The accounts that we have heard from ESOL co-ordinators are not about over-subscription and waiting lists—they have challenged that to an extent, saying that it sometimes masks the fact that they run open waiting lists. Some people who in theory are on a waiting list have found provision elsewhere, so the waiting list issue can be misleading. However, we are working with ESOL suppliers and providers to see what more we can do.
In that context, and to finish the point I was making, all of us across the House can play a part in our local communities and with our local authorities. When we speak to a large cross-party group of leaders, as I did last week with the Local Government Association, the people in the room are those who are most interested and are generally already doing the work. I thanked them for doing so. The challenge is how to get the message to other local authorities that it can be done, and to get them to learn best practice from others.
Will the Minister give way?
I am sorry, but I have already taken a couple of interventions. I will make progress and then let my right hon. Friend the Member for Meriden respond.
The challenge is sharing our best practice to ensure that we are learning from the best and that local government is able to do so in a cohesive way. We have put in funds to recognise the challenge raised earlier regarding issues for women, whether those are childcare issues or, for those seeking to work, commuting and access issues. The challenge is not always just about ESOL provision for those with young children in facilities with childcare, although we are doing that and want to see more of it. There is also a cultural challenge. We recognise that there can be a cultural challenge for women learning with men, and we are working with ESOL providers to find a positive solution.
I think that we should be proud of the work that we do as a country to make sure that people have the best possible welcome and opportunity to integrate, but that does not mean that we cannot do better. I am determined to work with other Departments to find out how we can do better at bringing this together in a more cohesive way to make it simpler to access, as well as sharing best practice.
As we are in the mood for praising organisations, I invite the Minister to praise Baca, a refugee charity in my Loughborough constituency that works with young refugees who are not yet ready to work because they are completing their studies. Does he recognise that the need to ensure that young men who come here, particularly, but also young women, do not lose out on their studies is also an issue?
My right hon. Friend makes a very good point. This is about making sure that we give easier access to people, who may also have health or mobility challenges, which can make it hard for them to have that kind of access.
When I have met refugees, one point they make to me, which was also made in our debate, is that children in school pick up the language phenomenally quickly—especially where they have access to really good provision, such as a few hours a week doing a much more intensive programme, which some people will want to do to more quickly develop their skills. I do not want to give anybody particular a plug, but with online learning facilities in the modern world, we must be capable of looking at how we work with local authorities and providers to give much wider access to those who want to do that kind of informal work—some of our communities and voluntary groups are doing really ground-breaking work on that—then share that best practice in a much better way, learn from it and deliver it more widely.
Will the Minister give way?
No, I am not going to take any more interventions.
We should be very proud of what we do, but that does not mean that we cannot be better. I am determined to make sure that we do better and share that best practice better, and that we do everything we can to break down those barriers to access wherever we find them.
We have had a good debate. I thank all colleagues for contributing—particularly the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss). I liked her point that people of different nationalities become friends for life at these classes. That is life-changing for them.
I also thank the hon. Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) for highlighting the importance of the settled community being able to communicate with the incoming community, so that they can live and work among them, and that that is a two-way process. The hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald)—I probably need elocution lessons to pronounce his constituency right—gave inspiring examples of people who come to Scotland being embraced by communities.
We want to make sure that rhetoric matches reality. I, for one, am really keen to reach out to the Muslim community in this country and find what will work for them. We need to work together to reach those in the community who cannot speak English; there is no desire to stigmatise but to integrate and be helpful. We need to listen carefully to what will work.
The Minister made the important point that it is not only about the money but about how we spend it. I am very receptive to that. We need to look at best practice where it exists—he has a great heritage in local Government—and we can point to local authorities that were cited earlier that are doing a good job. My local authority is in a dispersal area for asylum seekers. I will never forget the transformation of an Afghan child seeking refuge in this country who went on to become the BBC national children’s story-teller of the year. That is just one highlight of the amazing contribution that migrants make to our country.
I will end on a sobering note. Those of us who are in this room have a big job to do. The social media comments my right hon. Friend the Member for Loughborough (Nicky Morgan) and I received on an article released today that we co-signed are salutary reading. I will read one out to impress upon the Minister and the Government how much work has still to be done:
“Taxpayers money should not be used to help immigrants speak English. If they cant or wont learn English, how/why are they here?”
That tells me and every person in this room who supports the consensus on the need to facilitate learning English that many of our countrymen and women do not understand the positive contribution that migrants make to this country, or that refugees come here to be safe. There are countries that have signed up to international treaties to provide safe haven to people coming from unsafe countries, and learning English is a part of that.
The Minister is right. However, I ask him to take away this message and to make the case for the benefits of migration, what it brings to our economy and society and why learning English is such an integral part of making that a success.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered English language teaching for refugees.