Tuesday 7 November 2017
[Ms Nadine Dorries in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered funding for community policing.
Policing in our communities and neighbourhoods is
“the cornerstone of the policing model in England and Wales”—
not my words, but the judgment of Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary in March this year.
Good community policing responds to the needs of local people with a consistent, visible police presence; it involves working in partnership to gain trust, gather intelligence and get to the heart of a community’s concerns, in order to prevent and fight crime. Yet cuts to community policing across our country have stretched most local police forces to their limit at a time when crime is rising significantly. My constituency has lost more than 40 police officers since May 2015, so it should not surprise us that last year, Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary found that
“local policing is the area of operational policing that shows the greatest decline in performance”;
that is linked to the budget cuts. For those reasons, I feel that Ministers need to be held to account for the growing crisis in community policing.
I have three arguments to make, which I hope the Minister will address in turn. First, it is clear that crime is rising. We need to recognise that fact and act. Secondly, the falling police budgets were set before the emerging trend of rising crime took hold; the facts have changed, however, and so must police budgets. Thirdly, a good part of any significant increase in police funding must go to community policing, given its vital role as the cornerstone of policing.
First, I want to persuade the Minister to accept in this Chamber that crime is rising, and alarmingly so. There can be no dispute about recorded crime, which is up 13% in the year to June. What should worry us in particular, however, are the categories of crimes with the largest recorded rises: the rise of 19% in violent crime, of 8% in murder and manslaughter, of 26% in knife crime, of 27% in gun crime and of 19% in sexual offences. Recorded crime is what the police have to deal with, and what they have to investigate and clear up, and it drives their activity, so when Ministers counter accusations of rising crime by pointing to the crime survey, which is the other main way that we assess the level of crime, they should be careful.
While it is true that the crime survey suggests that crime last year fell, Britain’s top statisticians at the Office for National Statistics make interesting comments about how we should interpret the mixed signals from recorded crime and the crime survey. John Flatley, who heads on crime statistics and analysis for the ONS, said on the release of crime stats last month:
“Today’s figures suggest that the police are dealing with a growing volume of crime. While improvements made by police forces in recording crime are still a factor in the increase, we judge that there have been genuine increases in crime—particularly in some of the low incidence but more harmful categories.”
My right hon. Friend is making some excellent points. Will he acknowledge that the police themselves are often victims of crime? Recently I was in my local police station in Kendal; three officers were on long-term sickness because they had been sent single-handed to dangerous incidents, when normally they would have been sent as a pair. The cuts in police numbers meant that those officers could be sent only one at a time, and they are off sick as a consequence. Last year alone, 5,000 hours were lost to police sickness in Cumbria. Does he agree that that paints a picture of the police bearing the brunt of the rise in crime and the reduction in resource?
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. As the number of police officers declines, they have to work overtime and, as he described, put themselves in greater danger, which is not acceptable.
When Mr Flatley, the ONS’s leading crime statistician, says
“low incidence but more harmful categories”,
he means murder. He means rape. He means knife crime. He means gun crime. Those relatively low-volume crimes—relative to, say, burglary—are poorly reported in the crime survey but reasonably well recorded by the police. In other words, it is a fact that the most serious crimes have risen steeply in incidence in the past two or three years; Ministers cannot hide from that.
The ONS makes another key policy and evidence point about the comparison between the crime survey and recorded crime: recorded crime is much better at spotting emerging trends—short-term fluctuations in crime that can easily become long-term trends if action is not taken. Police-reported crime rose by 13% in one year alone, and I hope that Ministers will not dismiss that. They need to ask themselves and their officials some deep questions about that trend, because if it continues and they wrongly dismiss it, people will pay a heavy price.
Another reason why the recent upturn in crime demands urgent action is the complexity of the rising crime we are seeing. Complexity can demand significant police resource for just one difficult crime. Counter-terrorism is the obvious example. The record spate of terrorist attacks and plots this year clearly marks a shift in terrorist activity, and the intensity of the demand that that makes on the police requires a response from Government. It is no good Ministers saying that police reserves can sort that out, as the Home Secretary claimed recently. First, some police forces have very small reserves; secondly, those with large reserves have them because they have so many unfunded and unpredictable cost pressures, from unfunded pay decisions to terrorist attacks.
The police also face other examples of similarly resource-intensive complex crimes: cyber-crime, child sexual abuse, fraud, modern slavery and human trafficking. The UK has among the highest proportions of complex reported crime in the world, demanding ever more resource, yet police resources have been cut.
I fully admit that those cuts are not new. The Prime Minister, when she was Home Secretary during the coalition, presided over cuts, which she continued after the 2015 general election. As a result, today we have nearly 17,000 fewer police officers and more than 4,500 fewer police community support officers.
A recent poll that included my local police force showed that more than 70% of officers were stressed, many citing excessive workloads because far fewer officers are on the street. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that we should bear in mind the impact of the cuts on police officers, as well as on the communities they serve?
I totally agree. As my hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) said, police officers are bearing the brunt, not only because they are stretched and having to do more, working longer hours and overtime, but because they and their families are facing the impact of the cuts. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Barnsley East (Stephanie Peacock) for making that point.
Recently the chief constable of Bedfordshire police said that the funding cuts had left him without enough officers even to return 999 calls. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the situation is so serious that the Government need to look into the funding urgently, so that the police can at least attend 999 calls?
I agree strongly with the hon. Gentleman. I had an example of just such a case in my constituency recently. The gentleman concerned phoned my office because he was getting no response from 999. We answered the phone, I am delighted to say, and got on to the police. The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point, and those fewer police officers and PCSOs are what the debate is about.
When we look at the history of the cuts, and the reduction in police officer numbers—over a long time, as I said; this happened during the coalition—it is worth remembering that for the first four or five years of the cuts, during the coalition, crime was falling. Crime, whether measured by recorded crime or by the crime survey, went down during the first few years of the cuts, but it is not going down now; that is the point that Ministers have to grasp and act on. Crime up and police down will not keep people safe.
I have been doing the tour in my constituency of the local area commanders, as all new MPs do. They tell me that burglary is up, especially in the south-east, but that local people do not feel that the police have the resources they need. An email I recently received from a resident in Yarnton says:
“I'm afraid the only beneficiary is the criminal and their chances of arrest are slim, the insurance companies who have to increase premiums and the Government who gains additional tax on the insurance premiums.”
Is not how local people perceive the police just as important as whether they can respond, and should we not recognise the intense resource pressures that they are under?
My hon. Friend is right in so many ways. She pointed to the issue of burglary; I have knocked on doors in my constituency, and it is the rise in burglary that has most hit people. In many ways, burglary has the largest impact on ordinary people, and it can be quite dramatic, so she is right to say that. The example I gave of the police not responding was to a burglary, and the impact that has on the fear of crime is amazing. When the police do not respond, because they are so stretched, that has an impact on people’s view of the police, and their concerns that the police are not there for them when they expect them to be. She is absolutely right to say that the public want more local police to respond to their needs and to deal with the fear of crime, but we are seeing quite the reverse.
The right hon. Gentleman’s point was about falling crime when numbers were being reduced, and about that trend apparently changing. That implies that the two are not directly linked, but surely we have to try to understand the factors causing that trend to change. Will he outline the steps that he thinks should be taken to ensure that, if we increase numbers, there is still productivity and crime is reduced?
I agree with the hon. Gentleman’s point. To say that only police numbers are related to crime is clearly not true, and the figures that I mentioned suggest that.
It is fair to say, from looking at police budgets and how the police have reacted to this difficult time, that they are becoming more effective. In response to the recent debate on Metropolitan police funding, the Minister talked about the efficiencies that the police are already making, including through technology; the use of cameras on lapels has a good impact on reducing tensions when making arrests. In my experience, the police are being more effective and efficient, and are thinking of new ways of doing things, and of smarter and more intelligence-led policing, but we still need the officers; that is my fundamental point.
The right hon. Gentleman makes an excellent case. The demand on our police service comes not just from the increase in crime. The assessment of police resources by the National Police Chiefs Council and the Association of Police and Crime Commissioners, which was sent to the Minister, talks about non-crime demand, including increasing 999 calls, incidents involving people with mental health issues, missing persons, suicides, ambulance-related police demands where problems in the health service have an impact on them, and police demand from unexpected death in care homes. Do all those things not need to be taken into account in looking at the demands placed on our police forces?
The hon. Lady makes an excellent point. Budget cuts in social services, the health service and local authorities and the impact on youth services are all part of the picture that right hon. and hon. Members will see in their constituencies.
The police settlement of 2015 was a real-terms cut—flat cash. When a budget is frozen, the compound impact of inflation bites harder and harder over time. In other words, if the Chancellor does nothing in this Budget, we ain’t seen nothing yet.
However, the 2015 police settlement was agreed by the Prime Minister, as Home Secretary, before the emerging trend in recorded police crime really took hold, before the rise in serious violent crime, before the step change in terrorist activity and before the rise in gun and knife crime. In other words, the assumptions on which the 2015 police settlement was made were wrong. The Liberal Democrats are offering Ministers a chance to change their minds, because the facts have changed. I sincerely hope that the Home Office makes that case to the Chancellor and sets out what it would do with the extra hundreds of millions that are urgently need. The Liberal Democrats are clear that one of our top police funding priorities is more funding for community police, and we are not alone. The National Police Chiefs Council set out four clear priorities for additional funding before the Home Affairs Committee just two weeks ago, one of which is neighbourhood policing. That is because chief constables view community policing as essential to their counter-terrorist effort, because of the police’s role in helping to prevent crime and because the public expect and demand the police to be proactive and responsive.
When I came back from my enforced sabbatical from this House, I was struck by how incredibly stretched the police in my constituency are—far more than they were even just two years ago—and this picture is widespread. Liberal Democrats in Kingston upon Hull told me earlier this week that additional community police were the top priority for more than 70% of the residents whom they recently surveyed. My right hon. Friend the Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb) told me of the shock in his constituency when it was announced that every single police and community support officer in North Norfolk was going.
We should always remember that our police do one of the toughest jobs imaginable, with courage, skill and dedication. We have seen time and again, especially in the recent terrorist outrages, that the police do not run away, but put themselves in harm’s way to defend our way of life. That imposes a heavy responsibility on all of us in this place, and especially on Ministers, to make the right calls for the police and for the public. When crime rises, especially violent and complex crime, police budgets need to rise, too, starting with those of our local community police. To do anything else in the face of that evidence is just wrong.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Ms Dorries. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Sir Edward Davey) on his timely and important debate. I do not think that anyone would dispute its importance, given how the election and terrorist attack in Manchester focused the nation’s attention on policing, police numbers and the key priorities that we face for policing.
I want to primarily give the Suffolk perspective. When we talk about funding in Suffolk, we always talk about the way the pie is divided more than the overall pie. Whether it is school funding, early years or other areas, we seem to be a long way down the league table, and that is certainly true in police funding. The Minister will know that, because he has received a letter from the chief constable and the police and crime commissioner setting out the fact that we are one of the lowest funded police forces in England. It is not a coincidence that we inevitably compare ourselves with Norfolk, a county in many ways very similar to us. If we received the same spending as Norfolk, our budget would be up by £3.5 million per year, which is a significant sum. We receive 44p funding per day for policing compared to a national average of 50p.
The hon. Gentleman mentions Norfolk, but I wonder if he is aware of the comments from Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary about the role of PCSOs in the area. It says:
“Where dedicated local policing teams exist, too often the warranted police officers on them are routinely taken away from their local policing duties to handle immediate tasks elsewhere. That leaves police community support officers…as the mainstays of these teams.”
Is it not extraordinary, therefore, that the chief constable of Norfolk has chosen to completely disband the PCSO workforce?
I was referring to the broader pay settlement, and how the chief constable spends that is obviously his decision. I will come on specifically to PCSOs very shortly, but I think that the message from the Suffolk police and crime commissioner in particular, who came to Parliament recently to meet Suffolk MPs—unfortunately I was not able to attend—is that we want to see a fair share of funding or some very difficult decisions will have to be made.
We have to be even-handed in this. We all know the financial pressure that the country is under—there is no point pretending that we are not. The national debt is still extremely high, and despite the declining deficit, all the Office for Budget Responsibility’s public spending predictions for many years hence show that it will go only one way, partly because of changing demographics. A responsible approach would balance those things.
I am interested in parish policing—I do not call it neighbourhood policing—which is the idea that rural communities might fund their own PCSOs. I accept the point that the hon. Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner) made about the importance of PCSOs. I would not rationally expect the chief constable of Suffolk to take on lots of fully warranted officers to prioritise shed theft. Shed theft sounds fairly unglamorous, and it is; it is certainly not as important as terrorism or cyber-crime. However, in rural communities that suffer from it—sometimes many sheds are targeted at once—it is a cause of great concern, particularly to farmers. A farmer near my village recently had a brand new vehicle stolen from a shed. That does not sound like a headline crime, but it is distressing for the communities concerned. Realistically, the chief constable of Suffolk is not about to get his officers to prioritise that sort of crime, so we need to look at the idea of communities being able to fund their own PCSOs.
I have liaised with Suffolk constabulary about that idea. We could do it on a ward basis; parishes could come together along ward lines. It would cost £10 per voter per year—in other words less than £1 a month—for Brook ward, which is one of my largest wards, to have a dedicated PCSO. That would provide very visible policing. Parish councils commonly complain that the police no longer go along to parish meetings. When I was a district councillor in a rural ward in my constituency, the police tried to come along. They do their best, but that is obviously a big burden on their time—as it is, by the way, for district and county councillors. The point is that if we pursued a parish policing model, we would empower communities at least to have the choice to think about how they could sort this issue out themselves and have a greater police presence, in the form of someone who could prioritise matters such as shed theft and reassure rural communities.
When I was first elected, we had a spate of lead theft from churches in Suffolk. South Suffolk has some of the most beautiful churches in the country, a prime example of which is Lavenham church, where I walked on the roof to see for myself the way the lead had been stripped from it. I am pleased that there was recently a significant arrest—of a Romanian gentleman, I believe—in connection with lead theft in East Anglia, but the point is that these are specific crimes in rural communities.
My concern—I add this caveat—is that I have not detected a great deal of enthusiasm from Suffolk constabulary about communities recruiting PCSOs. One of the reasons they give for that is that they struggle themselves to recruit. We can talk about how wonderful it would be to get those extra police and so on, but as far as I can see, Suffolk police are struggling to recruit. My point is that if we had a more local focus, we could attract people to apply—people who live in and know the community—who would not apply for a more regional post.
I really have two points. I emphasise again to the Minister—I know that he has heard about it many times—the dire funding position in Suffolk relative to other counties. This is not about the overall allocation; it is about the way that allocated funds are divided. I would also be interested in his thoughts about what more can be done to allow communities to fund their own officers, who would provide reassurance and deal with lower priority crimes that the warranted force will never be able to prioritise. There are those of us who recognise the funding pressures and acknowledge that there is no magic answer, but there are reforms that can make a real difference in rural communities.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Sir Edward Davey) on bringing it forward and setting the scene.
I want to bring a Northern Ireland perspective to this issue to give a flavour of what is happening elsewhere, although I know that Northern Ireland policing is not the Minister’s responsibility. I also want to back up what the right hon. Gentleman said, which I believe is correct. I will give some examples of what we are doing in Northern Ireland—or perhaps of what we are not doing in Northern Ireland; that is a better way of putting it—and thereby underline the importance of community policing.
I have always been a strong advocate of community policing. Seeing police on the beat helps people to feel safe. When a police officer is able to come to a school, youth group or event, that helps young people to create bonds of respect and appreciation, and to build up a rapport with officers. On many occasions in the past, people came to be on first name terms with officers, as I found before I came here during my time in local politics as a councillor and a Member of the Northern Ireland Assembly. It is also useful for people who are intent on doing wrong to be aware that there are police officers on the streets who are able to respond in short order. There is a twofold purpose to community policing: building up relationships and reminding people of police officers’ role.
Our local Police Service of Northern Ireland officers used to be able to attend youth groups, church groups and mums and toddlers groups, they used to be well-known figures in local residents’ associations, and they were accessible, but funding cuts have left us with a community policing team that simply does not possess the time to be part of the community. That is a central theme, which almost everyone who speaks in the debate will mention. Relationships with the local PSNI meant that more people felt able to give anonymous information. That was one of the great things about such relationships in Northern Ireland; on many occasions, young people and adults were able anonymously and confidentially to pass on information to the police that was important to catching people who were involved in criminal activity, because they knew the officers and were happy to trust them. That is one of those things that takes a bit of time to build up; it is hard to do when contact is by phone and someone is unsure about their anonymity.
There really can be no reasoned argument against community policing. The issue is not the need for community policing but how to fund it. If we revert to direct rule—there is the spectre of that happening, if I may use that terminology—the general issue of police funding in Northern Ireland may well be before us all soon. Back in May, the news was full of reports that the PSNI was to lose 238 officers over the next two years due to severe budget cuts of £20 million. We cannot ignore the financial reality.
To give an example of how that issue was portrayed, one news article stated that those cuts are the equivalent of the annual cost of all the region’s neighbourhood policing teams. Why did the newspaper mention the issue in that way? It was because people needed to understand the impact. Every one of us in Northern Ireland and, I suspect, across the whole of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland understands what a neighbourhood or community policing team is and the presence and availability that it provides on the ground. Community policing is vital to most people. Funding cuts that mean less community policing get a reaction in the media and across the board. It was therefore important for the media back home to give that explanation.
The number of officers in Northern Ireland will drop by 138 in the next year to 6,700, and the resilience level will fall to 6,600 the following year. That is in direct opposition to the review of police strength in 2014 that concluded that a minimum of 7,000 officers were needed for a resilient and effective PSNI. The community policing team will be the first thing to go; community police will feel the brunt early on. It is easy to say that we should do away with them or cut their numbers without knowing the full implications of doing so.
The hon. Member for South Suffolk (James Cartlidge) referred to the need for officers who are able to respond to rural theft. My community has a mixture of urban and rural areas, but I live in a rural area, so I understand the issues of agricultural and rural crime. The crime prevention officers in my constituency have a good scheme for marking vehicles such as tractors. He might suggest that traceability method to his police, if he has not done so already. That has been effective in my constituency, and other Members might consider it if they do not already have it.
I am blessed in my constituency with a fantastic police team who seek to attend the meetings they are called to and who seek to build rapport, but all too often I am told, “Jim, I simply don’t have the manpower to attend, but please let me know how the meeting goes and what the outcome is, and then I can respond to that.” I do not believe for a second that officers cannot be bothered to attend an annual general meeting of a community group; they just are not able to. That does not foster good relations. Too many communities feel ignored and unable to access police help and guidance. That alienation means that there is less possibility of compromise in scenarios where there is tension, and more communities feel that they have to take things into their own hands. I am not sure whether that scenario occurs on the mainland, but in some of my communities in Northern Ireland it sometimes falls to others to take action. I do not condone or support that in any way, but people are frustrated whenever things are not seen to happen.
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point that in many ways goes to the heart of the debate. Of course we do not want people to start resorting to vigilante action, but that is what can happen when we face the loss of legitimacy of community policing. It is deeply worrying, and he is right to raise it.
I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention. She understands the point clearly and what can happen whenever police are not available to respond in the way that perhaps they should.
The people who are losing out are the police officers, who want to do what they are capable of doing in the communities but are prevented from doing so, to the detriment of all. While this debate is specific to England and Wales, it is clear that community policing does work if it is funded and allowed to work. The situation in Northern Ireland shows that.
Ms Dorries, I am conscious that you are looking at me in relation to time, so I will try to come to a conclusion as quickly as I can. To bring us back to England and Wales, I read a report that highlighted that the police workforce has reduced by some 36,800, with workforce reductions ranging from 23% in Cleveland to 1% in Surrey. It is clear that, no matter what the postcode, the sweeping cuts must be reconsidered. The cuts are not sustainable and cannot continue.
While we must cut our cloth to suit our needs, and I am all for trimming the fat, the cuts are not trimming the fat or the excess of the cloth; they are comparable to making a hat with no head covering. For me, as someone who is follicly challenged, it would be a great disappointment to have a hat with nothing on the top. A police force that has no community links does not possess the ability to police properly.
Quite simply, with respect, I ask the Minister that the matter be looked at. I will continue to address the issue with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, as I have in the past. It is a matter of ring-fencing additional funding both on the mainland and in Northern Ireland. For the safety and security not only of the community but of the police officers themselves, I urge the Minister to pledge to undertake a real and serious review of community policing funding as a matter of urgency.
I congratulate the right hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Sir Edward Davey) on arranging the debate. I want to make a couple of points because the debate is timely, given the approach of the autumn Budget in a couple of weeks’ time.
In the west midlands, our police force has lost £145 million in real terms from its budget since 2010. That has resulted in a loss of 2,000 police officers and a further loss of a considerable number of civilian non-uniformed policing staff. Crime in the region is up 14% in the latest figures, and some crimes are up by more than that. Burglary is up 31% and car crime by a similar amount, all at a time when the country is having to cope with a significant terrorism threat, which requires significant police resources.
The effect of all that is obvious, deep and profound. If people do not feel safe in their community, on their streets or in their homes, they are not free to go about their lives. Fear of crime destroys liberty. Nor does it apply equally: lower-income communities and people on lower incomes suffer the most, because they do not have the options available to some wealthier citizens. They cannot live in a gated community. They do not have the option sometimes of moving to a more expensive property, perhaps in an area with lower crime levels. Crime is therefore an issue not just of safety but of liberty and of equality, too. That is why we should be deeply concerned at the juxtaposition of falling police numbers and rising crime, which is what the country now faces.
I want to stress my support for what the right hon. Gentleman has just said. It is an argument that is not heard enough that policing and police resourcing is an issue about social justice and freedom. We have to make that argument, because whether it is the newspapers, the House or the establishment, there is not an understanding of the significance of extra police in our communities for the poorest and most vulnerable in our communities.
I wholeheartedly agree with the right hon. Gentleman. As I said, this is an issue of liberty and it is an issue of equality, too. I want to make an obvious political point. Let us imagine the roles were reversed here and we had a Labour Government presiding over a huge cut in police numbers and a significant rise in crime. Do we honestly think that Conservative Members would be saying, “It’s got nothing to do with police numbers”? I do not think so. I know that opposition can do strange things to a political party and the conclusions it sometimes reaches, but so too can government make Government Members—particularly Back-Bench Members—end up defending the indefensible.
It is simply indefensible to continue with police cuts after what we have had in the past seven years, in the light of both the terrorism threat and now the recorded crime figures showing the rises that I have set out in the west midlands. I want to use today to make my appeal to the Minister to consult with the Chancellor, to say, “Enough is enough.” Cuts in policing have gone too far. They are affecting people’s liberties, and it is an issue of equality, too. We want to see fair funding for police forces right around the country so that we can give the community both the visible presence and the real protection against crime that they deserve.
It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Sir Edward Davey) on bringing this important debate forward. I will try to keep my comments concise. I want to look specifically at community policing in Scotland and draw a few comparisons with the rest of the UK. As many Members will know, policing is a devolved issue in Scotland, but that does not mean that we should not consider how policing is handled in Scotland, draw conclusions and perhaps pull out a few lessons from Scotland for other parts of the United Kingdom.
As many Members have already said, community policing is an effective way of tackling antisocial behaviour. It helps to build community relationships through officers’ visits to schools, local businesses and local community groups, and it means that police officers are not a faceless voice of authority when dealing with troubled people in our communities. They are known, they know the individuals and their backgrounds, and they can often recommend a more informed course of action than many centralised or unknown police forces. Crucially, as has been stated, we can steer away from having a police force controlled by politicians many miles away.
In Scotland, we used to have eight regional police forces, which were centralised into one: Police Scotland. Sometimes, centralisation does make sense. When we are looking at issues of national security—we have touched on terrorism—we need to co-operate across the entire country, so a centralised force makes sense. That is also right in transport, with the British Transport police—it is important that we do not change forces at certain parts of the country when trying pursue a criminal from one area to the next. However, it is far less effective when we are talking about policing in our towns and villages, especially in rural constituencies such as mine. In Ochil and South Perthshire, I have a number of small towns and villages, which require a car and a fair bit of journey time between each. Therefore, having local officers who know the towns and streets is very important.
A lot of the people and officers who work in Police Scotland are very hard-working, as I am sure they are in other parts of the United Kingdom. They give their best, working under stressed conditions, and they have to deal with many difficult situations on a regular basis. However, since the centralisation of Police Scotland, it has unfortunately faced a number of high-level blunders. There have been address mix-ups, especially when it came to the closure of the Aberdeen control centre. There was also a horrific incident near my constituency where a call handling error left a couple in a car wreck on the side of the M9 for three days. That is not acceptable.
When Police Scotland started out, it had the Strathclyde model—it was very centralised—and I am pleased that gradually we are moving back towards more of a community-based model. However, it has not been embraced quite as fully as some community policing measures have been down in England and Wales. We have heard examples of where that is effective.
A couple of weeks ago I had the great fortune of accompanying two officers in Clackmannanshire, which is part of my community. I shadowed them on a Friday evening, and we walked through the high-street in Alloa and the estates in the Hillfoots, and I was able to see at first hand some of the challenges that they face, and some of the issues that blight our communities. Some of those issues are more extreme, such as the increase in knife crime, but others include lighting and the use of CCTV, where through underfunding—that is not necessarily all the Scottish Government; it is local government as well—some of our CCTV cameras are not working in the town centres, and police officers do not have the support and coverage that they require when dealing with situations, especially on a Friday night.
One major cause of crime, certainly in my constituency, is mental ill health. Again, community policing can help with that—this does not need to be a devolved or centralised matter, and it is probably something that colleagues across the United Kingdom will experience. In almost every situation that we encountered on that Friday night, whether talking to young people or attending incidents in residential flats, it came back to issues of mental ill health. When I asked the officers whom I was lucky enough to be accompanying, they told me time and again that the biggest cause of crime was mental ill health.
Mental ill health was not just the cause of crime; it also had a knock-on effect on community policing because of resource restrictions in the area. If a person who has committed a crime has mental health issues, they might require some form of medical treatment, and the officer will have to accompany them to the local hospital, taking the officer off the beat for two to four hours that evening. Mental ill health is an enormous issue, and I encourage the Minister—I would be more than happy to engage with colleagues in the Scottish Government and in Westminster—to consider what we can do for community policing across the whole United Kingdom to try to improve mental health services and prevent crime, and to consider how we can help the treatment of mental ill health once a crime has been committed so that we do not put a further drain on frontline police forces in our communities.
One of the downsides of centralisation as part of Police Scotland is that there are now no local cells in Clackmannanshire or Stirling. Police officers in my patch have to go to Falkirk to take someone to a cell, and if they have to queue that takes them off the beat for a considerable time. On a busy night—we were out on Halloween weekend, although I was not dressed up—with eight to 10 officers out for the evening, if one or two had to take someone to the cells or deal with a mental health issue, the rest of the team was put under significant pressure.
Community policing is incredibly important. It is not just about money—I know a lot of colleagues in England and Wales are facing money constraints, but in Scotland the block grant has gone up by £612 million in real terms—it is about choices. The SNP Administration in Edinburgh chose to centralise all police forces into one. They were warned about the impact that would have, and the fact that a centralised police force would incur VAT payments, but they still went ahead and did it. That took upwards of £25 million from Police Scotland. Instead of focusing on community policing as we should, they are fast-tracking the scrapping of the British Transport Police which, as I said at the beginning of my speech, is one area where centralisation and co-operation across our country is incredibly important.
As I have said, I have seen community policing first hand with officers in my constituency, and as colleagues have said, it is incredibly important and must be correctly resourced. However, this is not just about money; it is about where the police forces put the resources. I hope that we can work together as MPs, MSPs and councillors to find solutions that ensure not only the right frontline resources, but the right policies to look at the causes of crime, especially those involving mental ill health.
Since 2010, Avon and Somerset police has had to make drastic savings in services, including £65 million of cuts and the resulting loss of more than 600 officers. The way it has dealt with that challenge has been exceptional and is to be commended. Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary has judged Avon and Somerset to be “outstanding” at understanding demand and delivering efficiencies, and it has done all it can to try to cope with the level of cuts that has been imposed. It has tried to innovate where asked, and to make all the back-office savings required. Despite a strict curb on pay increases, police officers and staff have shown tremendous resilience, professionalism and commitment in carrying out a really tough job in increasingly difficult circumstances.
In a major conurbation such as the Bristol area, sometimes even the strictest financial planning can be disrupted. All too often we have major traffic incidents on motorways around Bristol, which require a substantial clean-up and a huge amount of police time. Tragic cases, such as the murder of my constituent, Becky Watts, involve a long police investigation, and obviously a lot of police time. The volatile nature of police work sometimes makes it difficult for the police to plan financially, but nevertheless they have managed to cope with that.
Avon and Somerset police has been impressive in the way it has dealt with these challenges, and that adds a lot of credibility and weight to the concerns raised by Sue Mountstevens, the police and crime commissioner, and Andy Marsh, the chief constable, in their recently published report, “The Tipping Point”. The force is now being asked to make another £17 million of cuts by 2022, which is the equivalent of another 300 officers. The report states that that is simply unsustainable without extremely serious consequences. They are stating clearly to the Government that their ability to prevent harm, keep the public safe, protect the vulnerable, and respond to escalating threat levels depends on having enough resources to do so. Having done all they can to try to manage within tight budgets, they cannot go on like this.
We have heard from other speakers about the more complex problems facing police services across the country, with new priorities such as tackling child sexual exploitation, modern slavery, and technological advances that provide new challenges. I recently spoke to the chief constable and the police and crime commissioner about the huge rise in online fraud. That is not easy to police and often requires a great deal of expertise. We also have the ever-present threat of terror and the need to keep us safe. The way that police work is conducted has changed.
I pay tribute to the police’s recent efforts to highlight modern slavery in the Bristol area. Police officers were ridiculed on the front page of The Sun for wearing bright blue nail polish in an effort to draw attention to the fact that many young people in nail bars are being exploited, but that was important and a good example of community policing, and as a result, people have been arrested. Serious work is also being done on female genital mutilation. We have not yet seen a prosecution, which is sad, but it involves a lot of outreach work and knowing communities, and communities being able to trust the police enough to go to them and say what is going on.
The problem is that most people’s experience of policing now is a less visible police presence, an inadequate response to less serious crimes, and in many cases, the closure of their local police station. I am concerned that we are seeing a real erosion of community policing as we understand it, but it is a core part of how policing works. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton South East (Mr McFadden) said, this is about people trusting and feeling safe in their communities, feeling valued and protected, and knowing where they can go to voice their concerns.
In the past, some communities have had strained relationships with the police, and we cannot underestimate the value of community policing. I do not represent the area of St Pauls, which saw riots in Bristol many years ago in the early 1980s. However, I know how important it is for community policing to be visible and proactive in that area, and police and community support officers have played a crucial role in that.
In conclusion, in “The Tipping Point”, the police and crime commissioner and the chief constable stated that the situation is simply unsustainable and will have extremely serious consequences. They have written to the Home Office, but they were not happy with the response, which pretty much just outlined the current financial situation. I urge the Minister to listen to them.
It is good to see a Bedfordshire Member of Parliament in the Chair, Ms Dorries. Bedfordshire Members from all parties have always worked together, under Labour, coalition and Conservative Governments, to stick up for Bedfordshire police; and I hope that we shall carry on doing that.
For many years, Bedfordshire police were adversely affected by what the Home Office called damping. That meant that they got between £3 million and £4 million a year less than the Government’s funding formula said they should receive. Bedfordshire is in the lowest quartile, for both budget and officers per head of population, of all police forces in England and Wales. It also has one of the smallest budgets in England and Wales, at £102 million. As a Bedfordshire Member of Parliament, I am not happy that residents of Hertfordshire and the Thames valley area receive higher levels of protection and response from their police forces than the people of Bedfordshire get from theirs.
In meetings over the years, we have met five, six or perhaps seven different police officers, and you have commented in the past that I make the same speech every time, Ms Dorries. I am frankly getting tired of wasting my breath. Enough is enough as far as the people of Bedfordshire are concerned; things are getting serious. Comparing the period from 1 April 2016 to 31 August 2017 with the same period for the previous year, there was a 48.9% increase in the number of burglaries of residential homes and dwellings in Bedfordshire. That is a massive increase. There has been a 24% increase in the number of calls to the police requiring immediate response by officers, and a 12.2% increase in crime. On the increase in calls requiring immediate response, a businessman in Leighton Buzzard was recently threatened with a metal bar, but when he called 999 no officers were able to attend. As the Member of Parliament I am not happy for that situation to continue in my area.
As I mentioned in an earlier intervention, the Bedfordshire police chief has said that he does not have enough officers to attend 999 calls. In his interview with The Daily Telegraph he also mentioned that he does not have enough officers to protect children and vulnerable adults. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that Ministers need urgently to look into the funding of Bedfordshire police? If we do not do something about it, the people of Bedfordshire will really suffer.
I am grateful to my county colleague for his points, and would simply return to my point that the effect of damping on Bedfordshire police—the £3 million to £4 million every year that the Government’s formula said we should get, but which we have never received—has come home to roost in an ugly and unacceptable way.
Something I want to say to the people of Bedfordshire is that a couple of years ago we all had the opportunity to do something about the situation, because we had a vote to increase the police precept. I voted for it, because I want more officers on the streets, and I know that it must be paid for. I do not want to go over ancient history, but unfortunately the vote was probably not put to the people in the best way, as they were charged and then asked for permission. I do not think that people liked that; we were not able to get things the right way round. However, I voted for it, and if the vote had gone through there would be more funding for Bedfordshire police, and more officers. To be fair, I think that the people of Bedfordshire need to think about that, should the opportunity come around again. In Leighton Buzzard, at the police station that we used to have, many more sergeants and officers than now used to be based there on a regular basis; yet we are all paying more tax as a nation.
In 2011-12 there were 1,264 police officers in Bedfordshire. There are now 1,124. That is a decrease of 140. We used to have 128 police community support officers; we now have 53. That is a decrease of 75. There used to be 864 police staff; there are now 758. That is a decrease of 106. We need to remember the stresses on police officers. There is burn-out and real strain; and people leave the force as a result. I give credit to our current police and crime commissioner, Kathryn Holloway; in her project of boosting the frontline, she managed to get an extra 96 officers on to the streets last year, and another 100 this year. That is the right thing to do.
I want to tell the Government, however, that things are serious. A few days ago, I saw that they had allocated £5 million for a 100th anniversary celebration. The event in question is worthy, and I am not quibbling as to its worth. However, I should like the Minister to take the message to the Treasury that we are now in an era of hard choices. I am sure that the anniversary is worth while; but the £5 million is half of the £10 million that Bedfordshire police need. Other colleagues present would fight me for it, and of course there must be a rational and fair way of allocating sums; but in an era of hard choices, when we need money for frontline police forces, can we really afford £5 million to celebrate a centenary, however worthy it may be? I should say that we cannot; we need to put the money where it is really needed.
We have wonderful officers. I want in particular to give credit to Inspector Craig Gurr. He is a terrier on behalf of my constituents, and I rate him highly. I take the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk (James Cartlidge) about the efficiency of officers. A few years ago Bedfordshire police were one of the first forces to issue officers with BlackBerrys. I remember hearing from the chief constable and the Police Minister at the time that issuing those BlackBerrys led to a 12.5% increase in the time that each officer could spend on the streets. Of course efficiency and productivity are important. However, the figures show that recorded crime is rising in Leighton Buzzard, Dunstable and Houghton Regis. I am also well aware of the crime that isolated rural communities face; so I welcome the new rural crime force that our current commissioner has brought in.
I shall return to this issue, because I have a half-hour Adjournment debate on the funding of Bedfordshire police on Monday evening, when I shall expand at further length on their needs. However, I am grateful for today’s opportunity to stand up for my constituents.
I thank the right hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Sir Edward Davey) for bringing the debate to the Chamber this morning. I pay tribute to my local community police in Partick and Drumchapel police stations, who work together with police across Glasgow to get to know the communities, and attend community council meetings and local events. That is all about building relationships, which is important in dealing with local issues.
The right hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton painted a picture of rising crime and budget cuts, and some Conservative Members seemed to suggest that possibly those two things are not linked. I think there is probably a delay: when budgets are cut it takes time for crime to build up, and when they are reinstated it will take time for it to disappear. I suggest that something must happen now if we want a reduction in crime over the next 10 years. The right hon. Gentleman also mentioned violent crimes and high levels of complex crime, and the fact that many police forces in England and Wales are stretched operationally.
The hon. Member for South Suffolk (James Cartlidge) talked about parish policing, which is an important point. Across the UK there are many diverse communities and one size certainly does not fit all. An urban police force will not have the same expertise in particular areas as a police force in his constituency, or indeed in many areas of rural Scotland. It is important that communities are not defined necessarily by geographical boundaries but by the demographic issues particular to them.
The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) mentioned that budget cuts have meant that the Police Service of Northern Ireland is less able to attend the community events that I have already spoken about. He also talked about the importance, especially in Northern Ireland, of members of the public being able to pass on information confidentially and the fact that relationships had to exist for that to take place: we all understand the seriousness of that. He mentioned that dropping police numbers were affecting police resilience and wanted to see some ring-fencing of police budgets to ensure there was no further erosion in that area.
The right hon. Member for Wolverhampton South East (Mr McFadden) talked about the massive budget cuts in the West Midlands, coupled with massive cuts to the number of officers on the beat. I think he mentioned a figure of 2,000 officers being cut. He made an important point about the fear of crime that some people experience and how that affects their liberty, especially in less affluent areas. That is something we can all understand. In possibly one of the best points of the debate so far, he also asked what would happen if the tables were turned, his party were in government and the Government were in opposition. That certainly made a number of hon. Members sit up and think, so I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that.
I was surprised to hear the hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (Luke Graham) start with some positive comments about Police Scotland; that was good. I am also glad that the police have now shown him around his constituency. However, he struggled to stay positive, and started to get caught up in minutiae. I will talk a little more about the picture in Scotland—
I was not referring to that particular incident. We can all agree that that was a failure, and obviously bereaved families were left extremely upset and angry about that particular incident.
The hon. Gentleman made some good points about local and community police dealing with the challenges of mental health, and how that took them out of action for a period of time. That is very important work that they do. He also mentioned that he did not see centralisation as a success in Scotland. I argue that the centralisation in Scotland has brought the crime rate down to its lowest level in 43 years, and I would say that is a massive success.
The hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) talked about how Avon and Somerset police have made all possible efficiency savings and are now finding that their ability to keep the public safe is in jeopardy. That is a serious claim, but from listening to other hon. Members I think it is one we can all accept and understand. The hon. Lady also mentioned the great work that Avon and Somerset police were doing on dealing with modern slavery and raising issues on female genital mutilation.
The hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) talked about damping and how Bedfordshire is now in the lowest quartile for budget and officer numbers. I think he quoted a figure of a 48.9% increase in burglaries, which is deeply concerning. He also made an important point about the operational stress on the remaining officers, and the increased pressure that that puts on them.
In Scotland, we are committed to supporting our police service and have protected the police budget in real terms. We have also committed £61 million to support the transformation of the service. The Scottish Government have set out strategic policing priorities, which seek to strengthen the focus on community policing. I have said that we are reaping the benefits of that in Scotland. We have 1,000 additional officers in Scotland since 2007, and recorded crime is the lowest that it has been in 43 years—a great success story. Of course, there is always more we can do but, crucially, people in Scotland feel safer and police officers are visible out and about in the local community.
I was pleased that the hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire raised the fact that Police Scotland is the only authority in the UK that is unable to recover VAT on its expenses. That is something that we have been pushing for, and I hope we will see some shift from the Government on that.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries. I too congratulate the right hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Sir Edward Davey) on securing the debate. I concur with him and with my right hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton South East (Mr McFadden) that policing and tackling crime are fundamental issues of social justice and equality. People are far more likely to be victims of crime if they are poor, an ethnic minority or living in a vulnerable community.
Crime and antisocial behaviour can make people feel under siege in their community. We cannot tackle, prevent, investigate or bring to justice offenders without a robust, well-resourced neighbourhood policing presence, as we have heard clearly today. If we speak to chief constables and policing leaders across the country, as I have done, they tell us exactly that. The model for policing in this country was developed on that basis, and it makes us the envy of the world.
Is that not precisely why the very people my hon. Friend talks about—police chiefs and police and crime commissioners—write:
“The legitimacy of policing is at risk as the relationship with communities that underpins all activity is fading to a point where prevention, early intervention and core engagement that fosters feelings of safety are at risk of becoming ineffective”?
Is that not precisely why we need today’s debate, and why we need the Minister to respond to their calls for extra funding?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The neighbourhood policing model, which I will come on to, is not just a “nice to have”. It is a fundamental component of our policing model in this country. It is therefore completely disingenuous for the previous Home Secretary, now the Prime Minister, to tell the police that their only job is going out there and reducing and attacking crime. The police do much more than that, as I will come on to shortly. Our police, and our police staff, who are often excluded from the debate around police officers, are the eyes and ears of the fight against crime and terrorism. Neighbourhood policing is an irreplaceable component in the battle to keep our communities safe and prevent crime.
Norfolk has been mentioned a couple of times. Other police forces across the country looked on in horror as Norfolk announced that it would be abolishing every single one of its police community support officers in the new year. I hope that Norfolk will look to examples such as my force in South Yorkshire, which merged neighbourhood policing with response two years ago, effectively abolishing it. It now has to divert resources away from response and restore neighbourhood policing because of the disastrous effect of abolishing it. The police chief and police and crime commissioner did that without consultation. Does the Minister think it is appropriate for such a major change to a police force, and such a divergence from a police and crime plan, to happen without consultation? It sets a dangerous precedent for changes to other forces.
As we have heard, crime is up. The crimes that most concern the public are once again on the rise: knife crime, gun crime and all violent crime are up, as is acquisitive crime. What angers us is that all of that was foreseeable and foreseen. If we look across Europe, only three other countries chose to cut their police force by proportionately more than we did. Two of those—Lithuania and Iceland—were reeling from chaotic and deep depressions. It was a political choice to preside over the erosion of neighbourhood policing, and when the police raised the alarm, it was a political choice to attack them for crying wolf, rather than listening to their legitimate concerns.
Only last week, we saw the Home Secretary castigating policing leaders for problems she had created, accusing them of not grounding requests for additional resources in evidence. As we have heard, there is a wealth of evidence. The country’s top counter-terror officer, Mark Rowley, told the Home Affairs Committee that there had been a 30% uplift in counter-terror work. He said that with the huge growth in the number of investigations,
“frankly…we have a bigger proportion of our investigations that are at the bottom of the pile and getting little or no work at the moment.”
It is not enough to say that funding has gone into counter-terrorism, because as we know, for every £1 spent on the Met’s counter-terror budget, £2 has to be spent by that police force on mobilising officers. On top of that, there is an £85 million funding shortfall in the armed officer uplift that the Prime Minister promised the Government would cover, which means that forces are picking up 50% of that cost. Is that the kind of evidence that the Home Secretary was looking for?
How about the document written by the Association of Police and Crime Commissioners and the National Police Chiefs Council, which my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood) mentioned, and which laid bare the perilous state of neighbourhood policing in this country? Does the Minister accept that the funding settlement means accepting “higher risk for communities” and
“a reduction in the services resilience to cope with major emergencies”?
Will the Minister confirm, as the document laid out, that proactive crime prevention policing is down 25% on the last year alone; that local policing is fading to the point where it is ineffective, due to degradation in local intelligence collection; and that emergency 999 systems are failing too often? When exactly were Ministers planning to tell the public that the funding settlement risks a further 6,000 police officers being cut over the next three years?
The Minister knows the pressures the police are under; he has exactly the same conversations as I do. We have heard this morning about a wide range of forces— from large forces to smaller, rural ones—having record 999 and 101 calls, record levels of unsolved crimes and record mental health and missing persons call-outs. I was a special constable in the London Borough of Lambeth just five years ago, and policing has already changed drastically from what I experienced on the frontline.
As hon. Members have said, the facts have changed since the last budget settlement was agreed. It is time for the budget to change as well. Before the Minister responds and tells us that the police are sitting on reserves of £1.6 billion, £1.7 billion or £1.8 billion—it depends on which side of the bed he gets out of in the morning—will he take this opportunity to correct the record and confirm that, for all 43 forces across the country, just £363 million is genuinely usable and is not earmarked for capital spending? Will he also take the opportunity to tell us what models of local policing he has seen work across the country, and how important he sees neighbourhood policing as being to the fundamental British model of policing?
As I have said, neighbourhood policing is not just nice to have; it is vital to our policing system. It underpins the police’s ability to police by consent. It is almost wholly responsible for building and maintaining relationships with communities, and if we reduce our police to nothing more than a blue light that arrives only when the absolute worst has happened, we risk rolling back all the progress that has been made in police accountability and trust over the last generation. We have heard about the erosion of trust in officers and the police if they do not turn up when something as serious as a residential burglary—one of the most invasive and intrusive crimes someone can fall victim to—happens.
Finally, I refer to comments made to the House less than two weeks ago by the Policing Minister:
“we will…ensure that the police have the resources they need to do the job”.—[Official Report, 25 October 2017; Vol. 630, c. 132WH.]
We have heard categorically that the police do not have the resources they need to do their job. Will the Minister finally take this opportunity to announce that we will see an end to real-terms funding cuts, which have left our communities exposed?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Ms Dorries. I join others in congratulating the right hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Sir Edward Davey), not only on securing the debate but on framing it in a typically thoughtful way.
I start by completely agreeing with the right hon. Gentleman about the importance of community policing. As constituency MPs, we all know what matters to our constituents. He quoted Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary. I thought Matthew Scott, the police and crime commissioner for Kent, put it very well:
“Neighbourhood policing is fundamental to delivering policing in the county. By focusing on local problem solving, together with partners and local communities, it improves the quality of life within those communities, helps keep people safe, and importantly builds public confidence and trust.”
The right hon. Member for Wolverhampton South East (Mr McFadden) also made the connection between local policing and the counter-terrorism effort, and he was right to do so.
Neighbourhood policing matters enormously, and I agree with the right hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton that it is obviously under a great deal of pressure at the moment. My hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) made a powerful case on behalf of Bedfordshire, which I know you will have listened to carefully, Ms Dorries. His example of Leighton Buzzard was powerful. The system is under a great deal of pressure. As the shadow Minister pointed out, we have a devolved system, so these are local decisions about how to allocate inevitably finite resources in very difficult circumstances.
However, I have to say to colleagues that, having just completed an exercise of speaking to or visiting every single one of the 43 forces in England and Wales, I am struck by the degree to which police and crime commissioners and police chiefs are absolutely determined to keep the community policing model as core business, as it were, and I join my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire in saluting Kathryn Holloway’s work in Bedfordshire. However, as a London MP, I am also pleased to note that the Met, in its business plan for 2017-18, states it will ring-fence 1,700 officers to neighbourhood policing, providing two officers and one police community support officer to all 629 wards.
It is also striking how much creativity police chiefs and PCCs are showing to challenge and redefine the local policing community model under very difficult circumstances. My hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk (James Cartlidge) had some interesting ideas about parish policing, and across the system forces are looking again at the model. For example, Durham has had success in blending safeguarding teams with neighbourhood teams. The inspector rated Durham “outstanding” for effectiveness and efficiency, and noted that
“Neighbourhood policing remains the hub of the constabulary's problem-solving activity”.
There is a huge amount of effort across the system to maintain and improve the community policing model.
I agree with the right hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton that the system is very stretched, but I do not think it is broken. The local police chiefs, in my conversations with them, have made that point: they are very concerned about sustainability and stretch—that is very clear—but no one is saying this model is broken at this point.
I believe that the Bedfordshire police chief has written to the Minister and other Ministers, and has also met them. He is really concerned that the system in Bedfordshire is not working, and he is worried about the safety of people in Bedfordshire. Will the Minister urgently look into the funding of Bedfordshire police and meet the chief constable again?
I have been to Bedford, been on patrol in Bedford, sat down with the police chief and have had numerous conversations with the police and crime commissioner. I assure the people of Bedfordshire that the case for its policing is well understood, as it has been for years; my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire has been a tireless champion of this cause.
The context has changed. My hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk reminded the House that we are still in an environment in which public finances remain constrained; we know the reality of that and so do the police chiefs. This is what we have to manage our way through. However, we are also in a situation in which the operating context has changed in a striking way in recent years. The right hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton is right that demand on the police has risen, but it has also shifted. As the right hon. Member for Wolverhampton South East mentioned, we have seen the escalation of the terrorist threat.
We have also seen a big increase in digitally enabled crime and increases in areas of high complexity, where frankly, as a society, we are now at long last turning over the stones. On modern slavery, sexual abuse and domestic violence, people are at long last coming forward, which we should welcome, but it means increased demands on police time in areas of greater complexity and required resource. As my hon. Friend the Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (Luke Graham) said, an increasing amount of police time is being spent safeguarding the vulnerable, particularly those on the mental health spectrum.
That is the reality of modern policing that we must be sensitive and tuned to in this House, and it raises some powerful questions. First, are the Government on top of emerging crime? I could take the House in painstaking detail through all the new laws on knife crime, domestic violence and modern slavery. I am proud of what we are doing to try to stay on top of emerging crime, particularly in some of the murky areas where what we find when the stone is turned is very alarming in terms of the reality of life, particularly in some of our great cities. For example, I saw yesterday the statistics on modern slavery in Manchester, and they were very powerful.
In terms of what Government can do through regulation and law, I think we are on top of emerging crime. We have to ask ourselves whether the police have the resources they need, which I will turn to, but we also have, on behalf of the taxpayer, to continue to be rigorous in pushing the police and asking, “Are you making the best use of the resources you’ve got?” That is not just about efficiency. Police have done an incredibly impressive job over years on taking out unnecessary cost, but HMIC is very clear that there is more to go for, through procurement and collaboration. There is still opportunity.
There are questions about demand management and workforce planning, but there are also tough questions about whether we are really embracing the full power of technology, which can be transformational. I have seen in Lincolnshire and Surrey, and I saw yesterday in Manchester, the power of mobile working, game-changing technology such as body-worn video and changes to operating systems that give police much better information and therefore the scope to make better decisions. Those are areas where we will continue to probe and push the police and support them in their capability-building, to stay on top of this change.
In relation to resources, which is the focus of the debate, the reality is that this year, the taxpayer will be investing just over £11 billion in our police system, through direct force funding. That is an increase of just over £100 million on 2015. The way that that money shakes down is that some of it is held at the centre for strategic investment through vehicles such as the police transformation fund, where the taxpayer invests to upgrade the capability of the police and to fund innovation. Avon and Somerset police were a recent beneficiary of that funding, I am delighted to say.
I am listening carefully to what the Minister is saying. Would the Home Office consider having a look at what the Department for Education did in managing to take quite a lot of money from the central functions of the Department and get it out on to the frontline? I do not know if there is scope to do that in the Home Office, but it would be hugely welcome.
I will return to that.
We invest strategically from the centre. We have a system of 43 individual police forces. It makes sense to have a strategic investment capability to invest in things that can have an impact across the system, and we must continue to invest in innovation, not least given the context we are dealing with. The settlement at the moment is flat cash for all police forces. We recognise, as I have said publicly, that demand has grown and is changing. We are also extremely sensitive to the strain that the police are under. This is a can-do organisation that is saying, “We are very concerned about stretch and sustainability.” I have heard that directly from police commissioners and cops.
Flat cash is flat cash, which means there are cost pressures that police forces have to absorb, and I will come back to that. However, there is no getting away from the fact that the overall amount of money that taxpayers are investing in the police system has grown, not shrunk.
May I push the Minister on the difference between what the crime survey and police recorded crime are telling us and the lessons that he, as a Minister, is drawing from that? I sought to argue in my contribution that there is a real concern that the previous trend of declining crime that we saw for quite a number of years has changed. If it has, that demands that this House and this Government change policy.
I could not have been clearer in my remarks; demand on the police has grown. We have two sets of data, which is sometimes confusing. We track people’s experience of crime through the crime survey. That shows a long-term decline in people’s experience of crime, which I hope every Member will welcome. In terms of police recorded crime, which is trying to capture something different, we are seeing an increase. Part of that is a genuine increase in crime, which I totally accept, as the Office for National Statistics does. Part of it—I know the right hon. Gentleman will welcome this—is people feeling more comfortable to come forward about crime, particularly in some of the murky, difficult, complex and often tragic areas, and police getting more effective at recording crime. It is confusing. People’s experience of crime is down, according to the official survey that has run for many years, but recorded crime is up. There are two sets of data trying to do different things.
I want to address the point about stretch. Whenever I visit a police force, I have a meeting with frontline officers, and the message from those officers could not be clearer: they feel extremely stretched. They are working very hard under very difficult circumstances indeed. As I say, the fact that that message is coming out of a can-do organisation means we have to listen to it.
That is why we are conducting a demand and resilience review, led by myself. I will be visiting or speaking to every single force in England and Wales. The review will update our understanding of demand and how it is being managed, the implications of flat cash force by force and the strategy for reserves, which are public money. The last audited numbers in 2016 showed reserves of £1.8 billion. That figure is now down a bit, to perhaps around £1.6 billion, but it is still public money, and we need to know the plans for it.
If the hon. Lady will forgive me, I will not, because I want to finish my remarks.
That review will be assessed in parallel with the fair funding review that colleagues will have tracked and that is of particular interest to Suffolk, Bedfordshire and other counties that feel they have been on the wrong end of the allocation in recent years. It will come together as a piece of analysis and work with the provisional grant report and provisional settlement for 2018-19, which I expect to come to the House before the year end.
I would like to assure colleagues who are concerned about whether the Government are listening to the messages from their local police chiefs and police and crime commissioners that we feel strongly that we have to take decisions based on evidence, not assertion, and that is feeding into the review. We owe that to the taxpayer. We are determined to ensure that the police have the resources and the support they need, without giving up on the challenge we have to give them to ensure they are using that money in the most effective way.
For this Government, as for any Government, public safety is the No. 1 priority. I assure the House that in the work we are doing, we are determined to ensure that hard-working police forces up and down the country doing incredibly difficult work under very difficult and often dangerous circumstances have the support they need. With that, I close, in order that the right hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton can conclude.
I thank all Members who have contributed to the debate. The Minister will have heard concern from Members on both sides and from the grassroots and our constituencies that this is having a real impact on people’s lives and our communities. He will also have heard that there is huge support for the model of community policing; and, to be fair to the Minister, he acknowledged that.
Many of us have listened to the Minister over many years in different guises, and we know his support for strong, healthy communities. I end the debate by saying that community policing is fundamental to that strength. I saw in my constituency the impact that more investment in community policing had on tackling low-level crime and antisocial behaviour, helping on the estates, driving out serious crime and being really strong against the drug pushers and so on who make the lives of some of our constituents a misery. Community policing is a fundamental part of what this House, this Government and this country should be about, and I hope that in the forthcoming Budget later this month we will see extra support for our community police services up and down the country.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered funding for community policing.
Wales and Borders Franchise
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the devolution of the Wales and Borders franchise.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries, for what I believe is the first time.
The comedy of holding a debate on the delayed devolution of the Wales and Borders rail franchise will not be lost on the thousands of passengers who rely on the consistently tardy rail operator in Wales. In reality, however, it is no laughing matter. It is a tale of how an uncaring Westminster and incompetent Welsh Government have already cost taxpayers millions of pounds and could derail the whole franchise procurement process.
My speech will have three central elements. First, I will outline the development of a distinct Welsh rail franchise. Secondly, I will trace in, I hope, forensic detail how we got into the current mess. Finally, I will seek clarity on the next steps for the franchise and what passengers can expect.
Let me begin by setting the scene. Until the current franchise started in 2002, Wales was covered by myriad different operators. One franchise covered south Wales and south-west England, while mid-Wales and north Wales were linked to larger franchises based in Birmingham and Manchester respectively. Three inter-city franchises also served Wales.
Despite rejecting the idea of devolving the franchise, the British Labour Government did recognise that the Welsh rail network should form one unified system. The 2002-03 franchise competition was managed by the UK Government and the now defunct Strategic Rail Authority. In 2002 the British Labour Government awarded the first Wales and Borders franchise to the German state-owned train operator Arriva, and for the last 15 years we have been stuck with a service unfit for purpose. The Arriva Trains Wales-run Wales and Borders franchise has been dubbed the “no growth” deal. In effect, the poorly procured franchise failed to account for any growth in passengers. It was a franchise procured on the cheap and fundamentally not fit for purpose.
As would have been obvious to anyone with the semblance of an understanding of transport policy, passenger numbers continued to grow, and in the desperate scramble to keep up with the growth, money meant for devolved services was ploughed into the franchise. Sprinter units from the 1980s were bought using the Welsh block grant as a substitute for the increased UK Government subsidy that Arriva had originally envisaged. In fact, passenger numbers continued to grow, with overcrowding becoming “a daily struggle”, according to Transport Focus. In the last four years, 250,000 extra commuters have been using rail services in south Wales alone.
The 2002 franchise agreement is widely seen as one of the worst and most unimaginative since privatisation of the railways. It is unsurprising, therefore, that support for devolution of the franchise is overwhelming. The 15 years of chaos on Welsh railways lies at the door of the Department for Transport, and if something is not done soon, the next 15 years could be the same.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the previous franchise emphasised punctuality above all else in terms of success, and that for the next franchise to be a success, it must also include customer satisfaction in its criteria?
I am grateful for that intervention. My hon. Friend, who is the parliamentary leader of our party, serves on the Select Committee on Welsh Affairs, which has done very detailed work on this issue and specifically on the initial franchise procurement. The Committee, which consists of members from across the House, was especially damning of how that franchise was constructed.
Let us fast forward to 2015, when the story of this not-so-great train robbery steps up a gear. The then Prime Minister, David Cameron, and his deputy, Nick Clegg, graced Wales with their presence to announce a new devolution deal. As part of the so-called St David’s day agreement, we were told that powers over the procurement of the next rail franchise would be devolved. The cheers at our national stadium, where they made the announcement, were reminiscent of those at a Six Nations match. Finally, we thought, Wales would get the power to create a rail system fit for our people. Sadly, as is often the case, that optimism was misplaced.
In the next section of my speech, I will try to piece together what is a complex picture of confusion, chaos and ineptitude by Governments at both ends of the M4. As is often the case with such matters, each individual element of the story seems unremarkable—inconsequential even. However, in the round, we see an intriguing episode of incompetence, which has already cost millions of pounds and could mean chaos for rail users in Wales.
The story starts just over a year ago, in September 2016. Combing through what was then the Wales Bill—it is now the Wales Act 2017— I spotted what I assumed was an error. Despite the Government’s boy scout promises, devolution of the franchise was not included in the Bill. Being the assiduous and diligent parliamentarian that I am, I decided to flag up that omission to the Secretary of State for Wales. Following the appropriate procedures, I tabled an amendment to the Bill that would devolve the franchise. On 12 September, in a Report Stage debate on the Wales Bill, I sought the Minister’s assurance that the error would be rectified. I said:
“Before I get into my speech, may I say that I will gladly not say a word”—
regarding devolution of the franchise—
“if the Secretary of State or the Minister intervenes to say that they will proceed with that promise and if they outline the legislative vehicle whereby these powers will be devolved to Wales?”
The Secretary of State replied:
“We are negotiating with the Welsh Government over the use of a transfer of functions order under the 2006 Act.”—[Official Report, 12 September 2016; Vol. 614, c. 671.]
The more naive may have thought that that was job done, but as a veteran of many a Wales Bill, I know that devolving powers is not such a simple task, so we continued to push. During the Welsh Affairs Committee inquiry into procurement of the next Wales and Borders franchise, my hon. Friend the Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts) repeatedly asked how the Welsh rail responsibilities would be devolved. Every time she asked the question, whether to a UK or Welsh Government representative, she met with the same complacent response, “It’s just a technical thing; it will all get sorted,” yet everything seemed not to add up. Why wait to devolve the franchise if we could already do so? Why risk waiting? Why circumvent parliamentary scrutiny? Why be so complacent about the powers required for a multibillion-pound contract? Was the reason ignorance, incompetence or something more sinister?
Thanks to my hon. Friend’s excellent work, people will find on page 13 of the report two recommendations calling on the UK and Welsh Governments to update the Committee on the progress of the talks on the transfer of functions and to ensure that there is effective scrutiny of the transfer of functions and the way in which the Governments have agreed to devolve the powers. Of course, neither of those recommendations has been followed.
On 13 October 2016, despite still not having any powers actually to procure the franchise, the Welsh Government announced four shortlisted operators for it: KeolisAmey, a joint venture between French transport giant Keolis and public service provider Amey; MTR Corporation, which has interests globally from Australia to Sweden and is based in Hong Kong; Abellio Group, which operates bus and rail networks across Europe and is the international arm of the Dutch national rail operator; and the existing German state-owned operator Arriva. Those were the only four to enter a bid to run the next franchise.
According to the original plan, the four bids would be assessed by Transport for Wales, a Welsh Government-owned company. Through a process of “competitive dialogue”, the four bidders would work to create one of the most ambitious franchises ever, with the south Wales metro and the rest of the Welsh network covered by a single operator.
I am listening carefully to what the hon. Gentleman is saying. He referred to the 2016 Bill. He will remember that both he and I supported amendments for a not-for-profit franchise. Does he believe that that is now possible? In 2017, both his party and mine, in our manifestos, asked for that. The Conservatives were soundly beaten in Wales, so they should not pursue this. There should be secondary legislation to add that to the Bill, so that Wales can have a fall-back situation.
As ever, the hon. Gentleman speaks with great experience and makes a very valid point. With the two major parties supporting such a policy, it is clearly the will of the National Assembly. I am not sure whether that is the reason why the UK Government are delaying the transfer of functions. Is ideology driving what we are seeing at the moment?
Let me reiterate that on 13 October 2016, when the shortlist was announced, the Welsh Government had no authority to procure a Welsh rail franchise. That still remained in the gift of the Department for Transport and the Minister. Now let me pull focus back to Westminster for a moment. On 6 December 2016, I asked, in Transport questions,
“now that the UK Government are devolving responsibilities for the Welsh franchise to Wales, is it not logical to devolve responsibility for the Welsh network?”
The Secretary of State’s response was dumbfounding. He said that
“we are not devolving responsibility for the whole Welsh franchise as he describes; we are doing so in part. I have said to the Welsh Government that I am happy with their taking control of the Welsh valleys lines, with a view to developing the metro system that they hope to put into service, but the Welsh franchise is not purely Welsh; it runs through large parts of England as well. We cannot have a situation where we, the Government in Westminster, give up control over services in England to the Welsh Government without checks and balances. That is not going to happen.”—[Official Report, 6 December 2016; Vol. 618, c. 128.]
Whether it was ignorance or incompetence, the UK Government and the Welsh Government were saying and doing diametrically opposed things. In fact, the UK Government, in the form of the DFT, and another bit of the UK Government, the Wales Office, were saying and doing diametrically opposed things. The Transport Secretary’s response set alarm bells ringing in Cardiff. As a result, later that day, Plaid Cymru forced an urgent question in the National Assembly. On 6 December, the very same day, the Welsh Government Cabinet Secretary responsible for railways, Ken Skates, assured the Senedd that everything was on track. He said that the Welsh Government
“have agreed with the UK Government that all services operated under the current Wales and Borders franchise will be included in the next Wales and Borders franchise and that we”—
the Welsh Government—
“will lead in the procurement of these services.”
Mr Skates’ response clearly stated that the Welsh Government continued to believe that responsibility for the procurement and management of the whole of the next Wales and Borders franchise, which covers all of the existing routes, will be devolved in time.
It is clear that the Wales and UK Governments have a fundamental difference of understanding. I wrote to the Secretary of State to notify him of this confusion and continued to raise the issue in Westminster, and my colleagues did the same in Cardiff Bay, in the hope of shunting them along the track, but still there is nothing: no clear plan, no public timetable, no parliamentary scrutiny of how the devolution of rail was—or more correctly, was not—happening.
It was only a few months before the snap election. Over this period we continued to raise concerns regarding the devolution of the franchise with questions in the National Assembly. From our conversation with industry we knew that deadlines were drawing closer. On my return to Parliament, I therefore tabled written question 3534, seeking clarity on when the devolution of powers over the rail franchise will take place. This clearly acted as a catalyst, as a few days later, on Sunday 13 July, Pandora’s box was opened. The UK Government confirmed that the necessary transfer of functions will not take place until autumn 2017. This meant the 18 August date set for the official tender submissions would be missed. However, the Department for Transport said that all would be resolved by moving that date to 26 September. What transpired, however, was hardly a simple procedural matter. An exchange between the Secretary of State and the Cabinet Secretary in the Welsh Government came to light, which showed a plethora of unresolved issues, including disputes over the ownership of the valleys lines infrastructure and how the Welsh Government will exercise powers over English railway stations served by the Wales and Borders franchise.
Most startling, however, was a £1 billion dispute over funding. A rebate, which is linked to track charges, is passed to Network Rail via a grant for improving railways. For the Wales routes, that amounts to £1 billion over the 15-year span of the contract. Due to a catastrophic breakdown in communication, the Welsh Government had been procuring the franchise in the belief that this was there to be used as they wish, but the Department for Transport believed that as the Welsh Government had no responsibility for the actual rail infrastructure, this money should remain in Whitehall. You could not make it up, Madame Chair, but what does all that mean for Welsh passengers?
According to Welsh Government, the delay in procuring the franchise in August cost around £3.5 million. Further delays could cost tens of millions of pounds and put the whole procurement process at risk. Surely that was all resolved by the time we got to the later September deadline I referred to earlier. Not this time. In a committee meeting with the Cabinet Secretary and his officials at the National Assembly for Wales on 27 September, it was confirmed that powers necessary to decide who runs most of Wales’ rail services may not be given to Wales until 2018. In fact, the official tender published the same day was made by the Department for Transport and not by the Welsh Government.
I appreciate that this is a long and complex narrative, but only a few twists in the track remain. Eight days ago the latest bombshell dropped: Arriva, the current franchisee, pulled its bid. Few tears will be shed at this revelation. Some commuters might even rejoice at the news, but it speaks to a deeper problem with the handling of the procurement process. The only reasonable conclusion is that Arriva’s decision to pull its bid to run the next Welsh rail franchise is largely due to the whole bungled process. Rumours are circulating that other companies are also teetering on the brink of pulling out of the franchise bid. To be fair, who can blame them? They do not know who they should be dealing with, the timetable of the process and, to put it frankly, whether this franchise will even go ahead.
In this final part of my speech, I want to understand what the next steps might be and seek clarity for commuters, train companies and perhaps even for Labour Ministers back home, as they seem incapable of getting these answers from the Department for Transport themselves. Devolution of the franchise was first on the list of hurdles in the Welsh Assembly Infrastructure Committee’s June report. Let us be frank: we are approaching a situation where the whole thing could collapse. I do not want to see that and I am sure the Minister does not want to either. I hope in his response he will be able to offer assurances that the powers will be devolved in the coming days, but contingencies must be made clear. Can the Minister confirm whether there has been any exploration of an interim arrangement with the existing operator to continue running their franchise under a direct award or—as is written into this franchise contract—there is an extension of seven “reporting periods” at the end of the franchise, which could take the existing franchise into spring 2019?
The option which I prefer, and I am sure the hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) would prefer, and which has always been the policy of my party, is a truly nationalised rail operator. Under the Railways Act 1993, it falls on the relevant authority to run franchises where there is no franchise agreement in place. These are known as the operator of last resort powers. The botched devolution job means there is no clarity on who exactly the relevant authority is in this case. Can the Minister confirm whether he understands the Welsh Government or Westminster to be the relevant authority?
On a more general point, my speech has been peppered with technicalities, dates and jargon, but the events surrounding the devolution of the franchise are symbolic of a wider and more fundamental symptom suffered by my country. Westminster does not care about Wales and a lethargic Labour party passively watches our managed decline. The examples can be technical, but the effects are tangible. Our society suffers at the hands of an apathetic Westminster and an inert Labour Welsh Government. The handling of the devolution of the franchise is yet again a reason for Wales to wonder why Westminster clings so tightly to our reins, when all we want is the ability to stand on our own two feet. Diolch yn fawr.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries. I congratulate the hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr (Jonathan Edwards) on securing this debate. He has taken a long-term interest in this issue, as indeed have the hon. Members for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts) and for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen). I hope that I can provide some reassurance. I realise it is tempting to provide a running commentary on these issues, particularly when one is not involved in the negotiations, but I hope that I can set the mind of the hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr at rest. He has asked many questions on the issue, both of me and in the House more generally, so I know he is very knowledgeable on these matters.
I start by reassuring the hon. Gentleman that we are committed to devolving rail powers to the Welsh Government, as we stated in 2014. The devolution of these powers takes forward one of the Silk commission’s recommendations and is an important part of the St David’s day Command Paper that he referred to. Like him, I want improved rail services for passengers in Wales. I always focus on the output for the customer, not just the input into the train set.
Last month, we saw the launch of the invitation to tender for the next Wales and Borders franchise. I agree with the hon. Gentleman’s comments about the previous franchise. It was a very good example of some of the flaws of the earlier franchising models, and one that we hope to learn from in setting out what we aim to do with this franchise. I am sure he will recognise that it is one key milestone among many on the journey towards a new franchise.
It may help if I set out the other milestones that we seek to achieve. First and foremost, we hope that bidders will respond by 21 December this year to the ITT. The evaluation will take place over January and February, and between March and June 2018 there will be a contract award by the Welsh Government, signed on 13 June 2018, we hope, with a new franchise commencement date of 18 October 2018.
We have a clear set of timelines ahead that we are looking to achieve. I remain committed to supporting the Welsh Government in progressing with the procurement of the next Wales and Borders franchise to make sure that it does indeed commence in October 2018. I also repeat our commitment to progressing with the procurement of an infrastructure provider for the south Wales metro. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would agree that devolution cannot be a simple task, and it is worth reminding ourselves of what the Government are actually doing. We have seen tireless work by officials, both here and in Cardiff, to give effect to the formal transfer of powers, which had required the resolution of a number of very detailed policy and practical considerations, particularly around cross-border services, but I am pleased that we have been able to agree the broad principles under which that devolution should happen. This will see Welsh Ministers’ statutory powers in Wales supplemented by powers exercised on behalf of the Secretary of State.
These proposed arrangements will, for the first time, enable Welsh Ministers to procure a franchise that, like the current one, includes important cross-border services to and from parts of England, as well as services entirely within Wales. I am sure the hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr will agree that it is in Wales’ economic interests to have a strong set of cross-border connectivity, not least to Manchester airport to the north of Wales, and to London along the Great Western main line to the south of Wales.
Both the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Ynys Môn raised the point about not-for-profit services. As they will understand, because this franchise involves cross-border services, the nature of the contracting vehicle cannot be a decision solely for the Welsh Government. That is why a not-for-profit solution, tempting though it may be to hon. Members, is not necessarily appropriate in this case.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. Can he explain why, if it is indeed his Government’s intention to improve the transport links between Wales and England, they have taken the treacherous decision to cancel the electrification of the main line all the way to Swansea?
The hon. Gentleman is almost tempting me to give another 10 minute speech on how to improve rail services for passengers. I am afraid, as ever, that he falls into the trap of focusing on how we power the trains, and not the benefits for the passengers. As he will be aware, if the 40 miles from Cardiff to Swansea were to be electrified, that would have a cost-benefit ratio of less than 0.3, with no added benefits for passengers—not a single extra seat, mile per hour of the train, or minute off the journey time. As he will also be aware, the National Audit Office and the Public Accounts Committee have been clear that the Department needs to consider each electrification project in isolation to ensure that it still represents good value for money.
It is my duty as Rail Minister to focus on how to deliver the benefits for passengers in south Wales, including in his constituency, and to bring those benefits forward as soon as possible. That is what we are doing with the Intercity Express Programme trains that are already in operation. When electrification to Cardiff is complete, that will save 15 minutes on the existing journey time. Electrifying further to Swansea would not reduce that journey time by a single minute; nor would it add a single seat to any one of those journeys.
The Minister makes an important point on the not-for-profit issue. He will know that the Secretary of State for Transport has the power, if a franchise were to go wrong, to operate it directly from the Department for Transport, which would run the franchise. Are those safeguards in the devolution settlement, so that the Welsh Government could take over if the franchise were to go wrong? That is very important. They could be a not-for-profit organisation, and that could lead to investment back into the railways.
The hon. Gentleman is right to identify the importance of the operator of last resort. Discussions are still ongoing with the Welsh Government, but those will need to be concluded before we lay the transfer of functions order before Parliament, which I am about to come to. If he bears with me, he will find out the answer shortly.
I reiterate the importance of ensuring that the Secretary of State has some duties relating to journeys in England. English passengers will be travelling on those trains, perhaps even between two English stations, so it makes sense for the Department for Transport to have a degree of oversight. It is worth further recognising efforts on both sides, in Cardiff and Whitehall, to make sure that we continue to draft the transfer of functions order appropriately. This very detailed set of functions—I gather more than 40—will need to be transferred under existing railway legislation. Technical work is progressing well, and I anticipate that the order will be laid before Parliament early next year. The proposed order will be subject to the affirmative resolution procedure in both Houses, so Members of this House can be assured that they will have the opportunity to scrutinise the detailed provisions. I am confident that we are on track to complete the transfer of franchising powers in Wales and other necessary agreements over the next few months, in good time for Welsh Ministers’ planned award and commencement of the new franchise contract.
Much positive and practical work has been done by both Governments in readiness for these responsibilities. As the hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr identified, Transport for Wales has been established to help deliver both the new franchise and the south Wales metro project. As a Department, we are providing extensive support to help to progress all its aims and ambitions. He will no doubt be aware that the procurement process is already well underway. He referred to some of the bidders, and mentioned Arriva. It might be worth my explaining to hon. Members that every owning company in the country has only one bid team. When there are multiple franchise competitions at any one time, it can stretch the resources of individual owning groups, which may be participating in more than one competition at any one time. So I would caution against reading too much into Arriva’s specific decision on the Welsh franchise.
Both our Governments have worked together to deliver a series of milestones, most recently the ITT. Importantly, this has been facilitated by an agency agreement with the Secretary of State, whereby the Welsh Government published the ITT on behalf of the Secretary of State. Over the coming months, my officials will continue to work with Transport for Wales to develop the day-to-day franchise working arrangements to ensure that they are fit for purpose under the new contract.
I recognise the ambition that many stakeholders in Wales have to discover more about what the invitation to tender will contain and what the likely shape of the future franchise will be. I share that ambition; I am always keen to look at what the outputs for passengers are, and not just at the inputs might be. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the Transport for Wales document, “Rail Services for the Future”, gives some indication of the future direction the franchise will take; but I am sure that like me, he would welcome more information from the Welsh Government about service enhancements that may or may not be proposed as part of the future vision.
I recognise that concerns exist that the rolling stock is not as good as it could be. That is always an important part of any part of franchise consideration, but I must reiterate that decisions about rolling stock will now be taken by the Welsh Government. I share the hon. Gentleman’s frustration about the fact that Pacers remain on our network. I very much hope that we take this opportunity to see the back of them, as we are doing on the northern franchise, for example. They are long past their sell-by date. I recognise the need for new rolling stock, but that will have to be a decision taken by the Welsh Government.
I continue to urge a collaborative approach with the Government in Wales. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman, as a Plaid Cymru Member, will judiciously judge both sides’ performance with equal criticality of eye. All options need to be considered in the development of future services, and I remain optimistic that passengers will see big improvements delivered in the next franchise, which will have to include devolution of the core valley lines infrastructure in some way, shape or form. We are committed to £125 million of investment as part of the wider deal in south Wales. I recognise the importance that the Welsh Government attach to their ambitions in this regard, and hope that we do all that we can to support them in that. I also recognise the ambitions for Cardiff station. Although predicted passenger numbers to 2043 show an increase, there is a particular issue in Cardiff around sporting and entertainment events, and I know that more thinking is going on in that regard.
We have already discussed Cardiff to Swansea, but it was important that our decision on that be accompanied by a commitment to work with Network Rail on how we can deliver further journey time savings both on the line out as far as Pembrokeshire and on the north Wales line, and to look at what other improvements we can make around the Swansea-Cardiff corridor.
It is worth stating clearly that we recognise that electrification can bring benefits to passengers; therefore, we do not rule it out on any stretch of the network, but it has to deliver benefits for passengers. There has been a tendency to regard electrification as the gold standard, but that is not always the case. Often, the benefits that accrue from electrification are because parallel infrastructure works deliver the journey time savings instead. I caution all hon. Members about assuming that if somewhere is not on an electrified line, it is a second-class destination in some way. That is very far from the case. Anyone who has travelled on the new IEP trains will see that they are very much state of the art. I do not think passengers on them notice when they change from diesel to electric power. They are high-quality rolling stock with 130 more seats per service and, when electrification is complete, journey time savings of 15 minutes.
I hope I have explained where I believe the process of the franchising and devolution to be. I have no doubt that the hon. Gentleman will come back with more questions in due course—I would expect no less from him—but I hope that that gives him enough to work on for the moment. I thank him for his time, and thank you, Ms Dorries, as well.
I thank the Minister for his comments. There was one area of concern in his comments: he said that the franchise would be devolved but under the supervision of the Department for Transport. That indicates to me that there would be a Westminster veto over the actions of Welsh Ministers. I am sure that that would be an area of high contention back home in the motherland.
Question put and agreed to.
[Mr Charles Walker in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the Ukrainian Holodomor.
What a delight it is to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Walker, and it is even better that the Minister managed to make it here, having been very busy in the Chamber until this point. The motion is that the House has considered the Ukrainian holodomor, but I hope that we can widen the scope slightly to, “That this House is aware of the panorama of horror of the Ukrainian holodomor, and recognises this man-made famine as genocide.”
I recognise that because everybody is on a one-line Whip and we are about to go into a short recess, not many people will speak in today’s debate, but that does not mean the issue is not of great historical, social and political significance. In 2013, I spoke in this Chamber about the Ukrainian holodomor. Since then, I have repeatedly called on the UK Government to recognise the holodomor in Ukraine as genocide. I stand here today to remind colleagues of that atrocity, which occurred in Ukraine from 1932 to 1933, and to ask again that the Government recognise that politicised act of evil as genocide.
Holodomor literally means “death by starvation”, and the Ukrainian holodomor was a campaign purposely orchestrated by Joseph Stalin to decimate a large segment of the Ukrainian population—the peasants. The Soviet Government tried to requisition as much food out of Ukraine as possible at that time. It is broadly understood that the genocide began in 1929 with mass deportations of prosperous farmers and the execution of Ukrainian religious, academic and cultural leaders. In the 1930s, Stalin’s food programme called for peasants to give up their land and join collective farms. Stalin was particularly opposed to the Ukrainian kulaks, who were slightly more prosperous and therefore thought to be more dangerous than poor peasants. Kulaks were turned out of their homes, forced to give up their land and sent to labour camps.
It is clear that Stalin’s regime wanted to teach Ukraine’s farmers a lesson they would not forget for resisting the collectivisation. Soviet authorities set unachievable goals for Ukraine’s basic grain production of 44% in 1932. That was exceedingly high, and achieving it was even more difficult given that the communists had already ruined the nation’s productivity by eliminating their best farmers.
In 1932, not a single village was able to meet the impossible quota, and under Soviet rule, no grain could be given to a peasant until the quota was achieved. Men, women and children—we must not forget that they were fathers, mothers, daughters and sons—were slowly starved to death through the implementation of a policy intended to put an end to the Ukrainian aspiration for independence. Stalin believed that the Ukrainian ethno-cultural self-assertion was a threat to the pre-eminence of Russian culture in Soviet affairs, and to the centralisation of all political authority.
Ukrainian peasants had their basic freedoms stripped away. They were banned from leaving their home towns and villages. There was no escape. The ways to rescue were intentionally blocked. Soviet troops detained hundreds of thousands of farmers, 90% of whom were forcibly returned to their hungry villages to die. Although the exact number of those who died during the holodomor is not known, it is estimated to be between 7 million and 10 million Ukrainian people. At the height of the famine, 17 people died each minute, 1,041 people died each hour and 25,000 people died each day. More than 3 million children born in 1932 and 1933 died of starvation. Many people died of starvation in their homes, with some trying to end the process by suicide, if they had the strength for it.
While that was happening, the Soviet Government injected 1.7 million tonnes of grain into western markets. That grain, which could have saved millions of lives, was processed into vodka.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on bringing this debate forward and thank her for doing so. Although I had a little knowledge of this part of history, I did not know entirely about it. Does she agree that the Ukrainian holodomor stands as a reminder to the entire world that a nation can rise up from the ashes of hatred to take its rightful place, and will she join me in applauding the Ukrainian people for the indomitable spirit that remains within them to this day?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. Hundreds of thousands of people in this country are descendants of people who were part of and who died in the holodomor, so they do have an indomitable spirit, and even now in Ukraine they show that they will not be bowed by the people of the Soviet Union.
The historian Dominic Sandbrook recently wrote in the Daily Mail about the brutality of this “Marxist experiment”. He said that there were
“Starving children, mass graves, vigilantes, even cannibalism: the famine saw human nature stripped to the bone.”
The disregard for the life of the Ukrainian people was abominable. The corpses of those who had died seeking food lay on the roadside. In the winter, many of the bodies were concealed by snow until the spring thaw, at which point they were callously dumped into mass graves by communists. A third of all Ukrainian villages were put on blacklists, and those villages were turned into ghettos of famine. There was no chance to survive. People started to eat corpses. At the peak of the crisis, in 1933, policemen barged into farmhouses and seized everything that could be eaten: not just grain but potatoes, squash and peas—everything in the cupboards.
It is our duty not only to raise awareness of this historic atrocity, but to acknowledge this event as what it was: genocide. The dictionary describes genocide as
“the deliberate killing of a large group of people, especially those of a particular nation or ethnic group.”
As I stated, the Ukrainian holodomor saw the systematic starvation of a huge proportion of the Ukrainian nation, particularly of the peasant class, as a consequence of Stalin’s dogma. In the same way that the holocaust is an example of genocide perpetrated by an overtly racist, fascist regime, which had as its avowed purpose the annihilation of the Jewish people, the Ukrainian holodomor is an example of a crime deliberately perpetrated by a communist regime contaminated by Russian chauvinism, targeting one nation of people.
As the Government acknowledged in response to my 2013 debate, the fact that during the famine Stalin closed the eastern border of Ukraine to stop starving peasants entering Russia in search of food is perhaps one of the strongest indications that his policies were at least in part motivated by hostility to Ukraine as a nation with an identity, tradition and culture of its own. Today, that would be called ethnic cleansing. Members may be interested to learn that Dr Raphael Lemkin, the author of the convention on the prevention and punishment of the crime of genocide—adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1948—called the destruction of the Ukrainian nation a “classic example” of genocide. He noted that the intention of the holodomor was to eliminate Ukrainian nationalism and tackle the Ukrainian national resistance, and in an attempt to achieve that, the peasantry were sacrificed.
In the debate I held on this topic in 2013, my right hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Mr Lidington), then the Minister for Europe, argued that since the UN genocide convention was enacted in 1948, the holodomor could not legally be defined as genocide retrospectively. He argued that it is necessary for judges, rather than Governments, to make a designation of genocide, as courts are better placed to make decisions on essentially criminal matters. If that remains the case, I ask the Minister to consider the following questions. What needs to happen for the UK judiciary to consider the question of whether the holodomor was genocide? Is there a UK legal precedent that could be used by a potential prosecuting body as a route map? Which of all the UK courts, from the Supreme Court down to magistrates court, is most competent and best placed to evaluate the holodomor question? Would the Government consider initiating an inquiry or judicial process?
It is important to acknowledge that 17 nations have already recognised the holodomor in Ukraine as genocide, including Australia, Canada and the US. The Australian Senate recognised it as genocide in 2003, and the European Parliament identified the holodomor as a crime against humanity in 2008. It is only right that the UK should follow suit, and I fail to understand why we have not done so.
Interestingly, sociological research shows that 80% of Ukrainians consider the holodomor an act of genocide. In 2006, the Government of Ukraine passed a law recognising the disaster as genocide against the Ukrainian people. In the vote in the Ukrainian Parliament, pro-western parties voted in favour of the law. Ukraine has sought international recognition of the holodomor as an act of genocide, and says that Russia should accept responsibility for the famine as the Soviet Union’s legal successor. Russia says that it cannot be classified as a genocide, as millions of people from various ethnic backgrounds across the Soviet Union suffered.
Members might ask the significance of raising the issue today, 85 years after the event. There are a number of reasons. I stress that this is not simply a Ukrainian issue; the event had global implications. The Ukrainian holodomor is an example of a crime caused by a political ideology and fuelled by prejudice. It is a tragic and extreme example of the impacts of dictatorship and the dangers posed by a regime whose rule removes freedoms from individuals. Important lessons can be learned from it, including ensuring that the world is never again blind to such a wide-scale atrocity.
Since 1932, using starvation to control people has become standard among communist regimes. We have seen it in China, North Korea, Ethiopia, Cambodia and Zimbabwe. We must send the strongest possible signal that it can never happen again. Furthermore, it must be understood that memories of the famine underlie much of the current tension between Russia and Ukraine. Our understanding of the issue is central to our grasp of current affairs.
It should be noted that Russian officials’ questioning of Ukraine’s right to exist as an independent nation and continued denial of the holodomor are troubling and dangerous developments, not only for Ukrainians but for all of us in this Chamber and around the world who love and value our liberties. People in Ukraine note that their current political and social troubles arise from boundless fear as a consequence of the holodomor. They fear reverting back to their national roots, because there have been times when being linked to those roots caused the deaths of millions of people. However, they also look at events positively. In a speech in 2015, the Ukrainian President said that Ukrainians must remember their past and draw conclusions from it. They are keen to get rid of the “nation-victim sentiment” and be proud that they defended their place on the European political map when up against great adversity.
It is vital that we commemorate those whose lives were stolen; we must remember them and reflect on the tragic way in which they were taken. I am sure that Members will appreciate that the holodomor is a never-ending trauma for Ukraine that had a catastrophic impact on Ukrainian national identity. Every year, Ukrainians mark a holodomor remembrance day on the fourth Saturday of November. This year, it will fall on Saturday 25 November, so it is appropriate to be discussing the holodomor at this time of year. It is our duty to the millions of victims to remember them and make their story known throughout the world, as one of the most tragic pages in mankind’s history in the 20th century.
There are still those who deny the famine. For example, in Russia, it is illegal to commemorate the holodomor. By commemorating these events, we are taking a stand against that unjust stance. Ukrainians hope to establish a comprehensive social dialogue of memory, while moving on and developing as a fully free and democratic nation. In 1991, after Ukraine gained independence, the first memorial book was published. After 60 years of taboo imposed by Soviet authorities on this tragic subject, the family of Ukrainian journalists Lidia Kovalenko and Volodymyr Maniak collected and arranged testimonies from all over Ukraine. According to the book’s authors, the survivors had reached their final stage in life and hastened to tell the terrible truth that haunted them all their lives. The totalitarian regime had tried to trample the memory of the terrible famine into the ground. Even today, there are still graves in yards and gardens in some villages where the living had no strength to take the dead to the cemetery, and buried them where they had lived and died.
As we are sadly aware, the 20th century was a time of great human tragedies. Although most British people know about tragedies such as the holocaust of 1939 to 1945, few British have heard about the horrors of the holodomor, and until recent years, world awareness was minimal. The crimes of Bolshevism and Stalinism are identical to those of Nazism. The very nature of those regimes is one and the same. In the Soviet Union, the holodomor was a taboo subject that was denied and covered up. In addition, Soviet authorities attacked western journalists who wanted to inform the public about the scope of the famine. It is hard for us to believe today that a large international power could keep an atrocity of that size secret for decades, but the holodomor nearly disappeared from world awareness.
On raising awareness, I support hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians in the UK and millions all over the world in calling on this Government to include the holodomor in the British school curriculum. I recently wrote a letter to that effect to the Secretary of State for Education, my right hon. Friend the Member for Putney (Justine Greening), but have yet to receive a response.
Close to my constituency in Derbyshire is a Ukrainian national campsite that has been running for many years. It enables descendants of families caught up in the holodomor to come together to ensure that their roots and culture live on. I have the privilege of visiting the centre most summers; children come from across the country to participate. Quite a few people who went every year as children have ended up marrying each other in the church there, which is a rather nice end to their childhood relationship. Many volunteers go year after year to remember what it was like for their forebears and keep the Ukrainian community together.
I have built up a relationship with many of the young people and the organisers over the past 10 years or so, which is why I am concerned that this part of history is not being taught in our schools. I know that it would mean a great deal to them if their ancestors’ stories were told and more people had a greater awareness of the horrors of the holodomor.
To summarise, I appeal to the Government to finally give the Ukrainian holodomor its rightful status as a genocide, just as many other countries have done before us. Stalin’s weaponisation of hunger in Ukraine highlights the true evil of his communist regime and the impact that it had on the people quashed beneath it. We must highlight this historical wrongdoing, and raise awareness by taking affirmative action and showing our solidarity with the people of Ukraine, for whom that act of evil has had an intergenerational impact. Moreover, it is our duty to the millions of victims of the holodomor and their ancestors to remember them and to make their story known to the world as one of the most tragic pages of 20th century history.
I conclude with the words of a holodomor survivor—words that the Ukrainian President cited in 2015 in a speech commemorating the holodomor:
“Children do not run, they do not play, but sit on the roads. Their feet are so skinny, drawn up, and there is a big belly between them. The head is large and the face is bowed to the ground. And there is almost no face, only teeth. A child is sitting and rocking with its whole body…An infinite moaning song…And it demands—neither from a mother or a father—and pleads into the empty space and the world for only one thing: ‘Eat, eat, eat.’”
It is an honour and a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Walker. It is a common courtesy to pay credit to the hon. Member who introduces the debate, but on this occasion I emphasise and underline that it is more than a courtesy: the hon. Member for Mid Derbyshire (Mrs Latham) has done a great service to this House not just today but on past occasions on which she has spoken on this painful, agonising subject. She is absolutely right that, as we approach 25 November, it is entirely appropriate to speak of these subjects.
The hon. Lady referred to the fact that there may not be a huge number of hon. Members here, but believe you me, Mr Walker, this is an issue that resonates throughout the world. We are fortunate to have Natalia Galibarenko, the ambassador of Ukraine, present. She is here because this matters to Ukrainians today, and not just to Ukrainian people but people who love humanity and decency and who want to correct and at least recognise some of the horrors of the past.
I apologise for the absence of the right hon. Member for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale), who is the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on Ukraine. He has been summoned to Brussels to meet Monsieur Michel Barnier. It will have been difficult for him to choose whether to go or stay. As a stalwart friend of Ukraine, he would have wanted to be here to join me in paying tribute and credit to the hon. Member for Mid Derbyshire.
Famine comes in many guises: the Bengal famine, the Irish famine, the Highland clearances. When Lemkin spoke of genocide in 1943, he referred to two specific instances: the holodomor and the Armenian genocide of April 1915. Those two genocides—I think the hon. Lady is right to use that word—are particularly terrible, each in their own special way.
Let us try to define our terms about the holodomor. There is some confusion as to the exact number of people who died, as the hon. Lady said. In 2010, a court of appeal in Kiev figured that the actual number was nearer 10 million, especially if Kuban, a very large region bigger than a Ukrainian oblast, is included. Sometimes we have to pause and think of the significance of that number—10 million people.
We have to ask ourselves why it happened. It was not because of a failure of the grain crop. Ukraine was and is the bread basket of Europe. It has been the greatest producer and supplier of high quality grain and bread throughout the centuries. Hitler always said that his main point in invading the east was to seize that bread basket and get the waving fields of corn—the grain of Ukraine. It must be the impact of collectivisation—I hope that that is not controversial anymore. Joseph Stalin perceived the kulaks as enemies of the state. Collectivisation resulted in nothing quite as serious as Ukraine, but there were similar crises in the 1930s in four other provinces such as Uzbekistan.
Anyone who has read “And Quiet Flows the Don” by Mikhail Sholokhov will know that when collectivisation was forced on villages, the commissars would come round every few months to see what was happening. Sholokhov writes so brutally in that story that when the commissar inspects the horses in the village and asks the groom, “Is everything was going well, comrade?”, the groom says, “I fear not, comrade commissar, because every day I have to water the horses. I have to brush the horses. I have to feed the horses. And every day, one horse gets more food, more water and better attention because that was my horse and I can no longer loose those bonds that I had with that one horse.” The commissar shoots him. That was the extent to which human nature was being forced against the grain in Ukraine.
A most successful people were suffering in that brutal way. I hope it is not controversial to say that the holodomor was, by any definition, a man-made famine and a genocide. The individual spirit and courage of the Ukrainian people that we have seen over and over again was a threat to the Comintern and to the Communist party in the 1930s. Anyone who was in the Euromaidan or who has seen the heroic reaction to the annexation of Crimea and the invasion of Donetsk and the Donbass region will recognise their immense courage and strength.
Another aspect was the brutal anti-clericalism—the attack on organised religion. One of the actors in the holodomor was Yemelyan Yaroslavsky, who ran an organisation called the League of the Militant Godless. Stalin could never quite come to terms with how the Ukrainian people clung to their faith, whether Catholic in the west or Orthodox in most of the country. Stalin could not cope with that and, although he moderated his anti-clericalism—his brutality, his slaughter of the bishops—after he came to some accommodation with the patriarch in the late 1930s, there was a distinct anti-clerical aspect to the slaughter in Ukraine.
Ukraine was considered an awkward place. As we all know, the word in old Russian means “borderland”. It was perceived as the borderland between Europe and Russia. Of course, Ukraine is far greater than a borderland—it is a great nation in its own right with its own language, culture, poetry, music and football team—but that was how the Russians saw it and they wanted to keep that border safe and sanitised. That meant crushing the religion, crushing the people and crushing the nation, but it absolutely did not work.
For 20 years, I have chaired an organisation called St Michael Mission Trust. It is committed to rebuilding churches mostly in and around the Kiev oblast, Fastiv and Lviv, where we have rebuilt a number of churches. To our amazement, we discovered that faith survived in Ukraine even through the equivalent of penal times when it was pretty awful—in this country we are looking back to the horrors of the gunpowder plot in 1605 so we know what penal times were like. The churches were still there, as were the priests and thriving religion. It is my duty, and I am proud and delighted to be able to say, that we continue to work with people in those churches to re-establish the churches in western Ukraine. I thank my colleague, Małgorzata Zajączkowska, who has worked with me for many years and who represents the finest spirit and emotion.
I hope that hon. Members will indulge my talking about the wider issue of genocide, in particular the Armenian genocide. It was unfortunate that on the hundredth anniversary of that genocide in April 2015 we were distracted by a general election and could not mention it on the floor of the House, but I have had many debates about it there. I sympathise with the hon. Member for Mid Derbyshire—I reach across the Chamber to clasp her and say that I, too, have suffered from miserable pettifogging bureaucratic Ministers who are incapable of opening their hearts and recognising the full horror. In my case, it was a Minister called Geoffrey Hoon who said that there could be no such thing as “genocide” before 1943. People died of cancer before anybody called it cancer, and that did not make it any less painful.
This was genocide—race murder, by Lemkin’s definition, which was adopted by the United Nations on 9 December 1948. The Ukrainian word “holodomor”—famine genocide—is more specific, but still refers to genocide. When 1.5 million people in Armenia were systematically slaughtered, murdered and driven into the desert to die by agents of the Ottoman empire, particularly in Aleppo and all along the Anatolian coast, that was another genocide. When Lemkin referred to those genocides, he noted the famous statement in Hitler’s speech: “Who now remembers the Armenians?” The Armenians were slaughtered, and so were the Ukrainians.
Is it not extraordinary that until very recently, whenever we in this country spoke about genocide and famine, we did not mention the holodomor in Ukraine? That is because we did not understand it—we did not appreciate the full horror of it. It is much to the credit of the hon. Member for Mid Derbyshire and others that we are finally able to confront the issue. I join her enthusiastically, vehemently, powerfully and as strongly as I can—I hope my Front-Bench colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr Mahmood) will agree—in urging the Government to accept once and for all that the definition of genocide applies to the holodomor. For a nation’s people to be slaughtered and made the victims of genocide is a terrible thing, but the fact that that is not recognised with the word that we all understand as applying to it makes it even worse.
The Minister has had the busiest of days. His Front-Bench duties this afternoon have covered Israel, Yemen and Ukraine, and he is probably exhausted by the number of times he has been called a great, good and decent man on the Floor of the House. I do not resile from that; he is a good man, and I hope that that does not curse his political ambitions. He is flanked by some of the finest brains in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and has a great weight of intellect behind him. However, I urge him: let us stop pettifogging about exact etymologies and chronologies. Let us simply say that what happened in the holodomor in Ukraine was genocide—nothing more, nothing less. It was a specific, targeted genocide that destroyed the best of a generation. It never destroyed the Ukrainian people; it never destroyed their pride, courage and strength; but it took away a generation and it left a painful scar that people still suffer today. No one can visit Ukraine today without seeing that it is still a live wound, a bruise and a source of pain.
Recognising that genocide is the proper description of the holodomor will not bring anybody back, but it may make people feel a little more assured that the rest of the world feels the pain that their ancestors and their families suffered. It may make them feel slightly more vindicated in what they know. We can argue about the origins, argue about Stalin or throw stones at the Communists, but whatever we do, nearly 10 million people died in the most abject agony.
The hon. Member for Mid Derbyshire quite rightly read out the paragraph that we all know so well. We have seen the photographs and we know what it was like—but we cannot feel what it was like. We know through the prism of history, the pages of our textbooks and the screens of our computers—but we cannot know what it is like for people whose grandparents and great-grandparents starved to death. Perhaps they did resort to cannibalism—God forbid, but in moments of desperation, people do desperate things. Is it too much to ask that today we should say, “The Ukrainian people have suffered long and hard. Today we will accept and acknowledge that suffering. We will give it its proper title, its proper name: genocide.”?
There can be nothing more harrowing for parents than watching their children slowly die in front of them over many weeks and months. I congratulate the hon. Member for Mid Derbyshire (Mrs Latham) on securing the debate and on her work on the subject; she painted a picture of horror, brutality and oppression. She is absolutely right to call on the Government to recognise the holodomor as genocide. As we have heard, between 7 million and 10 million people died; the hon. Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound) said that it is now recognised that the number is closer to 10 million than to 7 million. As the hon. Lady pointed out, the holodomor did not simply happen over two years; it was an ongoing oppression that started in 1929 when peasants had their rights stripped away.
One thing that the hon. Lady mentioned made me think of our own islands: the grain that was grown but taken and shipped away from the peasants. This part of the world has also suffered from a man-made famine in which nature had a part to play. In the 1840s, there was a potato blight across the north of Europe. It affected the highlands of Scotland, but it more brutally affected Ireland, particularly in areas such as Donegal and west Cork. While the potatoes that people relied on were being ravaged by the blight, crops were being grown and shipped away to other parts of Britain. Even in our own islands, we have some experience of man-made famine.
The hon. Gentleman spoke about famine and genocide and mentioned a number of famines across the world. He described Ukraine as the breadbasket of Europe and made the point that there was no shortage of grain; the famine was caused by oppression. It was about crushing the people—attacking the peasants. He mentioned the particular targeting of the faith community. He also said that Ukraine was not a borderland, but a nation in its own right—a concept that my party recognises and respects. He raised the important point that some people believe that there was no genocide before the 1940s. We recognise that other genocides have taken place, and it is only right that the holodomor is put in the same category.
May I say a few words on behalf of Scotland? The Scottish Parliament notes the day of remembrance of the holodomor and will recognise it on 25 November. We recognise that it was an entirely avoidable tragedy—a deliberate act of genocide committed by the Stalin regime against the people of Ukraine. I completely agree with the hon. Lady and the hon. Gentleman that the UK Government must recognise that, as other European Governments have. That recognition is important, not only for people who want to find out more about history, but for relatives of the victims of the holodomor, including in the Ukrainian community in Scotland.
I apologise for interrupting the hon. Lady’s flow, because she is speaking well, powerfully and passionately, as always. I sometimes despair of the way we tie ourselves in knots. Barack Obama referred to the Armenian genocide as the meds yeghern, which simply means “great crime” in Armenian. It seems to me that we are going round and round the houses with these expressions. Surely genocide—from “genus” and “-cide”—is the murder of a race. It is perfectly simple. Let us once and for all stop the obfuscation and the nonsense of trying to justify things with different names. Genocide is genocide. Until we call it that, we cannot be justified in addressing it, attacking it and—most importantly—preventing it.
Absolutely. Work has been done by many campaigners who want to raise awareness of the holodomor. Recognition is important if we are to avoid making the same mistakes again.
The present-day political situation in Ukraine remains tense and the Scottish Government continue to extend their support and solidarity with the people of Ukraine. We look forward to a time when tensions in Ukraine are significantly eased and dialogue is used rather than oppression. I will reiterate the words of my colleagues here: we must recognise the genocide. We must call it out as genocide and we must make sure that history is not repeated.
It is a pleasure and a privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Walker. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Mid Derbyshire (Mrs Latham) for securing this important debate, in which, as has already been expressed, a huge amount of concern has been raised. She has helped to raise awareness of an issue that is generally under-discussed in this country, including in Parliament. I congratulate her on raising our awareness. She has also given us a timely reminder of why our commitment to helping to resolve the ongoing ethnic tensions in Ukraine remains important.
It is absolutely right that we recognise the famine of the 1930s for the humanitarian catastrophe that it so clearly was. As the writer Anne Applebaum documents in her recent book, “Red Famine”, roughly 13% of Ukraine’s entire population are likely to have been wiped out in the famine. Even today, the full extent of the death toll may never be known, in part because of the inevitable difficulties involved in determining whether deaths were caused directly by famine or by the widespread malnutrition and disease that inevitably came with it. Whether or not the famine came about because of the deliberate policies of the Stalin regime, it is surely undeniable that it was a man-made disaster that could and should have been avoided. As Anne Applebaum’s book reminds us, the highly emotive and sensitive question of whether the episode amounts to a genocide against the Ukrainian people remains unresolved.
The Opposition share the Government’s view that the definition of genocide is necessarily a matter of law. All three speakers in today’s debate have raised that issue with a great amount of passion, and the substance of the debate has recognised that. The matter must be tested in a court of law for us to be able to move forward and deal with it. Until that is done, it is difficult for Parliament to do anything, and whether the Government want to do that will be an issue for us in future. The question of whether the precise legal threshold for a classification of genocide has been met in any particular case must be left for the courts to decide.
That said, we must try to avoid becoming so preoccupied with the legal questions that we risk losing sight of the very real consequences of the tragedy for the Ukrainians of the time and of today. Entrenched divisions in the region, most predominantly but by no means exclusively between ethnic Russians and Ukrainians, continue to drive the ongoing conflict in eastern Ukraine and to hamper efforts to resolve it. We should remember that, in Ukraine, debates about whether the 1930s famine constitutes a genocide often play out as debates pitting the ethnic Ukrainian majority against the Russian-speaking minority, who have often felt marginalised by Kiev.
We should also remember that, more than any other factor, it is the Russian Government’s outrageously reckless and irresponsible efforts to fan the flames of grievances, particularly by continuing to provoke separatist sentiment in the Russian-speaking eastern regions, that continue to prolong a devastating conflict that has so far claimed more than 10,000 lives. As we remember the tragic events of Ukraine’s past, we must also redouble our efforts to help to resolve the challenges of the present. In this regard, we must first and foremost re-focus attention on the need for a peaceful resolution to the conflicts in eastern Ukraine and in Crimea under Russian occupation.
It is disappointing that, under this Government, the UK has largely been an observer of the diplomatic process led by France and Germany, rather than an active participant. Can the Minister therefore tell us what specific steps the Government are now taking to support that process? What plans does he have to secure more active participation by the UK in efforts aimed at resolving the crisis peacefully?
Secondly, as the Government’s Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Bill moves through Parliament, what guarantees can the Minister give that, when we leave the EU, there will be no attempt to revoke or otherwise water down the sanctions that we have in place against Russia with regard to its actions in Ukraine and, specifically, that those sanctions will remain in place until the Minsk agreements have been implemented in full?
Finally, given that we are leaving the EU, it is important to remember how valuable the ability to co-ordinate on foreign policy with our European partners has been both for the UK and for the rest of the EU. This is particularly the case with regard to Ukraine, from co-ordinating sanctions between 28 EU member states to providing trade and other incentives for the political reforms that the Government of Ukraine must continue to pursue. Securing a formal set of arrangements on continuing close co-operation when we leave should be one of the Government’s top priorities. As far as I can tell, no plans have been made and there has been no progress on this issue in the negotiations, either. If I am wrong, I would be very happy for the Minister to correct me.
We need more than just warm words from the Government. We need an actual plan—a detailed and credible one—for securing a framework for the foreign policy co-operation that is so vital to sustaining British influence in places such as Ukraine. Seventy-five years on from a devastating famine, the country once again finds itself in a crisis. Just as we must commemorate the events of the past and give them their due recognition, so we must also bring our renewed commitment to healing the divides that are still very much with us today. I look forward to hearing from the Minister how the Government intend to do that.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Walker. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire (Mrs Latham) for securing this debate, which, for her, is not just a matter of routine. She spoke eloquently, and with emotion and passion, about the difficulty of the events we are describing today. It was one of those speeches, like that of the hon. Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound), that I wish there were more people around to hear; but I have no doubt that, through the miracles of modern science, more people will get the opportunity to hear the speeches. I congratulate hon. Members on what they have said.
I apologise on behalf of the Minister for Europe and the Americas, my right hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Sir Alan Duncan), whose portfolio includes Ukraine. He is travelling on ministerial duties, but would have been pleased to answer the debate. It therefore falls to me to do so.
The powerful opening speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire and the contributions of other hon. Members have brought home the immense suffering and brutality of the Ukrainian holodomor. I remember my own contact with the Ukrainian community in north Manchester very well. My wife and I visited the Smedley Lane community centre numerous times. We went one year at Eastertime to decorate the eggs. I think my children, who are now 30 and 32, still have them somewhere in a corner of the bedroom. We watched beautiful dancing, and we enjoyed being with the Ukrainian community in Bury and north Manchester. It is nice to have the opportunity to pay tribute to their courtesy and friendliness towards one of the local MPs, and to thank them.
The hon. Member for Ealing North spoke as fluently as he always does. He puts us all to shame. There is never a note in sight, and he speaks with a fluency clearly based on deep general knowledge and understanding of the situation. He represents his community very well, and, having travelled with him to eastern Europe with the Inter-Parliamentary Union, I know that those patterns are very deep. He spoke with immense clarity, on the Armenian issue and on Ukraine, and other issues; it was a powerful speech. His kindness towards me is appreciated, particularly when, as I am sure he knows, I am unable to agree with his conclusion and change the Government’s position. I appreciate the way he put things.
The hon. Member for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan), speaking for the Scottish National party, drew attention to a part of British history—the Irish famine and the highland clearances—with echoes in the present context. My ancestors, the Robertsons, are buried in a common grave on Culloden field, and the story of the highland clearances and the writing of John Prebble have influenced many of us to try to understand more about rather forgotten elements of British history. Scots brought up in England do not hear a lot about Scottish history. However, history and memory more than a legal definition are at the heart of the matter. Definitions matter, and names and what things are called matter; but memory probably matters more—how communities remember what happened in the past, and recognising atrocities for what they are, whether a particular label is put on to those things.
When a community survives such a thing, the things that are highly pertinent are the development of tight relationships, as well as commemoration through poetry, song, dance or—particularly in the cases of communities that move abroad—spending time together and continuing the language and affection for the region. The debate must focus on the legal definition of genocide as the United Kingdom sees it, and the fact that, as I shall explain, the UK cannot change its position; but that does not detract from the understanding of memory on which this afternoon’s speeches have been based.
My hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire movingly quoted a poem, but there are others, such as “Through the Eyes of a Child” by Halia Dmytryshyn. The poem describes Ukraine as a land of song and plenty whose soil is enriched with minerals, and all the food that is available, and then moves on to death and famine stalking the land like ravaging wolves. Such language in a way does more than a legal definition of genocide.
Having made those general remarks, let me return to the issue that my hon. Friend has raised. She certainly made clear the immense suffering and brutality of the Ukrainian holodomor. It was a devastating chapter in Soviet and Ukrainian history. My hon. Friend and the Ukrainian community in her constituency—and throughout the country—deserve credit for keeping the memory alive. In doing so, they honour the victims and strengthen our resolve to ensure that such horrors never happen again. The famine, which reached its darkest depths during 1932 and 1933, was a tragedy of such magnitude that it is difficult to comprehend; 85 years later it remains a shocking reminder of the deadly consequences of the policies and political goals of the Soviet Union. As the hon. Member for Ealing North made clear, it is hard to comprehend how such an event would be covered today when, with modern communications, we would be able to see much more of what was happening, or to know what the impact of that awareness would have been.
There is still some debate about the exact number of people who died during the holodomor and the extent to which Stalin and his Government set out systematically to destroy Ukraine alone. However, it is not in question that the famine caused appalling suffering, and that responsibility for it lay squarely with the leaders of the Soviet Union. My hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire has called on the Government to recognise the holodomor as a genocide. I understand the basis for her request. I remember dealing with a debate in this Chamber with similar aims, about what happened to the Kurdish community under Saddam Hussein, and how difficult it was to respond. As the hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr Mahmood) mentioned, there are certain legal requirements that successive British Governments have believed we must follow. It was hard, in responding, not to give the legal recognition that people would want. However, we believe that there are sound reasons to refrain from doing so.
The matters in question are essentially criminal ones, and we believe that the appropriate courts are best placed to make a judgment on them, taking all the evidence into account. My hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire asked in particular about direction to UK courts; but it is not necessarily for UK courts to decide. The legal definition can be decided by any court anywhere. Our approach has guided successive UK Governments in relation to other atrocities. The decisions to recognise as genocides the holocaust, the 1994 killings in Rwanda, and the 1995 massacre in Srebrenica came about only following judgments by appropriate courts in line with the definition set out in international law. Having been to Rwanda and Srebrenica and seen the after-effects, and spoken to people, I am aware that the definition matters. The definition was found appropriate in those circumstances, and used.
Earlier the Minister mentioned the contribution that Ukrainian people have made to this country. They made a huge contribution to coal mining and steel; there is a huge Ukrainian community in Sheffield. There was even a Member of Parliament—Simon Danczuk, who is no longer in the House—of Ukrainian origin. Many Ukrainian people will be listening today. Does the Minister agree that if the holodomor took place today, there would be no doubt that it should be called a genocide?
It is a good question, but I am not sure that I know the answer. As I have said, that is how the Kurdish community regards what happened to it under Saddam Hussein, and the chemical warfare inflicted on its people in relatively recent times. Because most, though not all, countries have recognised that the definition of genocide is a legal one, rather than a political act, I am not necessarily certain about what the hon. Gentleman says. I should hope that the world’s response would be not to allow something of that magnitude to happen, but I have spent the past couple of hours dealing with events in the middle east, from Yemen through to the activities of Daesh in Iraq. It would be nice to say that we live in a world where “never again” means never again, but I do not think for a moment that we do. I am not sure what the definition would be.
However, the world might be able to stop such events, and action might be taken against the perpetrators. That is now possible, as it was possible after Srebrenica, when people were taken to court through the work of the International Commission on Missing Persons, which identified those who had died. The identifications of the dead and of the places where they had died led to the identification of those who had killed them, so justice could be done. That is certainly something that would probably happen in the modern day. The purpose of today’s debate is the world’s recognition of the atrocity for what it was. That is the reason for the work of those who keep its memory alive—whatever dates are most appropriate for commemorating it.
The Minister mentioned what happened in Rwanda. That was never known as a genocide while it was happening, although the population talked about a genocide; it came afterwards. Does the Minister have an answer to the question why the world does not want to recognise something as genocide while it is happening? There is the Rohingya crisis at the moment, and there have been continuous genocides happening, but the world does not want to recognise them until they are over, which is too late to do anything about them.
I honestly do not believe that it is too late to do anything about them; the definition or designation of events, whether at the time or afterwards, does not prevent Governments of the world from taking appropriate action to deal with them. The fact that since 1948 it has been possible to designate events, and to strengthen the hand of the international community if it wants to take action in those cases, is important. Rwanda and Srebrenica were dealt with by a legal definition, and that is what the United Kingdom still depends on when dealing with more contemporary events. That the Ukrainian holodomor happened some 85 years ago makes no difference to the depth of pain and suffering endured, or to the horrors that my hon. Friend rightly described.
I am afraid that the Government remain convinced that recognition decisions should be based on credible judicial processes, and the hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr agreed with that. Our stance on the holodomor will continue to follow that approach. He asked a couple of questions, to which I would like to respond. On our engagement with Ukraine, the UK stands shoulder to shoulder with the Ukrainian people in upholding Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, and we remain committed to providing political and practical support to Ukraine over the long term. The UK has been at the forefront of international efforts to hold Russia to account for its aggression in Ukraine, and the EU, NATO, the G7, the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe and the UN will continue to do so.
We remain clear that sanctions are linked to the full implementation of the Minsk agreements and the end of Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea, and we will continue to push for that commitment to be upheld. We believe that sanctions should continue until the Minsk agreements are fully implemented, and I have seen no suggestion that that should change in any way as a result of our leaving the EU.
As Members will know, my view is that our political relationships with the EU should be as close as possible. The United Kingdom has benefited enormously politically from our relationships throughout the EU when dealing with common crises in a common and united way. One of the more unfortunate consequences of the people’s decision to leave the European Union is that that is called into question, but I see no need for that to be the case. It is clearly in the United Kingdom’s interests, following March 2019, to ensure that political relationships remain close. We will not be at Council of Ministers meetings in future, but Ministers in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office are particularly concerned to find alternative ways of ensuring the sorts of relationships that one could develop in the margins of those meetings.
Although I recognise the point made by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr, which it is perfectly fair to raise, my sense from the Department for International Development and the FCO, both of which I represent, is that there is determination to ensure that those close relationships with our friends and partners in the European Union are not broken in any way by our decision to take a different path in the future—a future in which they will be partners, but in a slightly different manner.
Before I ask my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire to conclude the debate, let me say that our approach to the legal definition should in no way diminish the importance or enormity of the Ukrainian holodomor and what the Government think about it; nor does it diminish the horror that we feel about it. It remains vital to remember and reflect on such tragedies, and to recommit to working to ensure that they do not happen again. The importance of that cannot be overstated. In the 85 years since the beginning of the holodomor, countless people, both inside and outside Ukraine, have fought to keep alive the memory of those millions who died, and the Government pay tribute to their efforts. This chapter in Europe’s history is too important to be forgotten, and it is vital that it be commemorated, so that lessons can be learned for generations to come. We are indebted to all colleagues who have taken part in the debate for doing just that.
I am disappointed, to say the least—I am sure that the Minister recognises this—that we will not recognise the holodomor as a genocide. We recognised the holocaust as a genocide retrospectively, so surely we should do the same for the holodomor, given the wealth of evidence out there. I hope that the Minister will refer my thoughts to the Minister for Europe and the Americas, who is unable to be with us today.
I am really very disappointed—I cannot express how disappointed I am—that although this is the second debate that I have initiated in the House on this subject, we have not moved anywhere. I am also slightly disappointed that the Minister did not answer my four questions. Perhaps he or his Department will write to me with guidance about how the Ukrainian people can progress this matter, and in which courts, and on the best route forward. I thank the hon. Members for Ealing North (Stephen Pound), for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan), and for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr Mahmood), for participating in this debate. The more people who speak about this issue, the wider the awareness will be among people in this country, who will recognise it.
Finally, lots of books have been written about this genocide, but I recommend the latest one by Anne Applebaum, “Red Famine: Stalin’s war on Ukraine”. One has only to look at the photographs of the people in that book, or any photographs from that period, to recognise that those people starved to death. We must never forget that.
I thank the Minister for responding to the debate; I am delighted that he was able to, as I know it was a bit of a push. I also thank other Members, including the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who had to rush to catch a plane home. I thank Members for participating; we must not forget this issue.
Property Management Company Fees
[Mr Nigel Evans in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered property management company fees.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Evans. I am delighted to have the opportunity to lead this debate on an issue that has affected a number of my constituents in Rochester and Strood and that has no doubt affected thousands more across the country. Over recent years, we have seen a model being used by developers where development sites are managed by management companies after the delivery of freehold and leasehold properties. A rising proportion of residents of such properties are left having to deal with property management companies when they have issues.
Some property managing agents do take the work out of owning a flat and offer great value for money for residents. Everyone acknowledges that property management fees are a standard part of owning a flat, but when people buy a freehold house on a large development, those fees are not something that always comes to mind. Management companies will typically cover repairs to the communal areas of a development, including to the windows, drainage and the roof. Often they will also cover recreational spaces within grounds, such as children’s play areas or gyms. In some cases, the fees are also used to pay for other shared services, such as gardeners, landscapers, concierge services or cleaners. Understandably, service fees can differ between developments. Fees can be a flat rate for all premises, or they can be determined by the number of bedrooms or a property’s floor space. However, some agencies can charge high fees and evidently do not necessarily offer a service worthy of the amount, even by modern standards.
Research last year found that the typical annual fee for new build homes is £2,777, while for older properties it is £1,863. For many families and individuals that is a significant added living cost, and it is understandable that residents become concerned and irritated when there is no value for money. I therefore want to use this ideal setting to highlight the impact that unjustified property management service charges have on local homeowners. A number of constituents have got in touch regarding exorbitant charges from local housing associations and property management companies for services that are simply not carried out.
In my constituency, many residents of the Chimes and the Pastures estates in Hoo are having ongoing disputes with their new property management company, SDL Bigwood. When householders on the estates bought their properties, they were informed that only when the whole of the estate was handed over from Taylor Wimpey and Bellway would they incur property management charges. Until then, Taylor Wimpey and Bellway would pay them. Unfortunately, the companies failed to communicate with residents as to when any handover would be made. In fact, residents were left completely in the dark over the reality, which was that the handover of the whole estate would no longer happen. Instead, only a few parts would be handed over. It then became apparent that SDL Bigwood tried to bring forward debts from its former business for services that residents did not see being implemented.
Currently, there is no onus on the property management company to provide any evidence of the services they are charging for being carried out. They merely need to provide end-of-year accounts long after the end of the year. Some residents face paying thousands of pounds for a backlog of fees passed on from one of the former companies, with payment demanded by the end of the year. That is all despite the estate being in surplus. However, as the huge sums are still needed in advance, and as all this is legally tied up in title deeds and TP1 property transfer papers, residents find themselves having to pay with no right of challenge. It is wrong that so many people who only want to provide a roof over their families’ heads find themselves trapped and helpless and see their money wasted.
I thank the hon. Lady for securing this debate. I recently had a case raised with me where a couple purchased a leasehold flat from a developer. Once they had completed on the purchase, they were informed that the advertised service charge was going to be doubled. They were given no explanation, and when they asked questions, the company could not explain why it was doubling its fees. Does she agree that we need to clamp down on that kind of practice? We need to tackle rogue landlords who prey on people, including a number of my constituents in Barnsley East.
I agree with the hon. Lady. I will come to some more examples from my constituency where charges are not transparent, but this debate is about leaseholders and freeholders in particular, as opposed to people who are renting their properties. That is what I am talking about today.
To give another example, one of my constituents reported that in the past financial year, their estimated service charge increased from £85 a month to £128 a month. If that was not already bad enough, the housing association, Hyde Housing, failed to get its figures ready for the April payment. As a result, the charge the individual paid in May increased by more than 100%.
The breakdown of Hyde’s figures makes for astounding reading. For example, there is a charge for “Fire safety, including servicing and inspections” of £34 a month. The building in question consists of a block of 24 flats. If all properties are charged similar amounts, the charge brings in more than £800 a month. However, the actual inspection takes just 15 minutes, in addition to the time taken for paperwork, and only occurs annually. I understand there are fire extinguishers and a sprinkler system to maintain over the years, but £800 a month seems excessive to many of the families and individuals. In addition, there are charges of around £90 a month for grounds maintenance. I am familiar with the plots around the block, and it is clear that any maintenance is minimal, and certainly worth nowhere near a value of £90 a flat a month. My constituent’s block is also paying nearly £250 a month collectively for unspecified provisions that many residents do not understand, and those provisions are not disclosed by the association.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. She raised the issues of uncertainty and hidden fees. Does she agree that those are exactly what frustrates our constituents? If the fees were abolished and there was a higher up-front cost in terms of the house purchase price, that would be preferable, because at least people would then know with certainty what they had got themselves into.
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. I completely agree. When I speak to my constituents, they say they want to be clear about the costs when buying a house or a lease on a property. Some of the management charges that are levied bring people into difficult situations. My hon. Friend is absolutely right: people would much rather have that up-front cost than the threat of the charges changing over time.
To return to the example I was discussing, it is regularly reported that simple repairs on things such as faulty lighting are not carried out and communication with energy suppliers seems to be non-existent. For instance, residents were issued a letter from E.ON informing them that the electricity for the building would be switched off. That would bring everything in the block to a complete standstill, and Hyde did not rush to the rescue. In that instance, my constituent took Hyde Housing to the Lands Tribunal, but unfortunately they met technical stumbling blocks when presenting the case, in particular around providing alternative quotations for the work involved, which no lay person can comprehend.
I will give one final example, which involves London and Quadrant Housing. It was given the right to levy service charges on all properties on the estate, which was formerly part of the Ministry of Defence land at Lodge Hill. I am sure the Minister will know it well. Another constituent has brought a grievance case to me on London and Quadrant’s totalling of the amounts charged. The final figure for each property is based on expenditure and the management fee across the estate, which is divided by the number of houses. However, residents have argued on a number of occasions that the wording in the schedule relating to the original sale of the land only gives it a right to levy a service charge where there is a benefit to the parties involved.
All bar one of the items for which charges were levied related exclusively to older properties that predated the sale of the land—for example, the blocks of flats. However, London and Quadrant tried to charge for street lamps and street cleaning, which were both undertaken by the local authority, Medway Council. Similarly, charges around sewage collection—later deemed to be out of the association’s remit—were also questioned. In fact, of the full list of initial charges, the only one that could vaguely be charged to the houses built in 2001 and 2002 was the play park on the estate, but given it is always in such a poor condition, it is rarely used.
What, then, is the management company there for, and how can residents be certain that they are paying fairly for the correct things? In that last example, some residents were so fed up that they refused to pay charges any more, and apart from their yearly statements there was no attempt to collect the money. I wonder whether that was simply incompetence or, more likely, because they knew full well that the charges were unjustified, and they would probably lose if challenged in court.
Those examples are from my constituency alone and I could, of course, go on, but it shows that something needs to change. This is an industry with too much room to rip off those with few options. The room for manoeuvre that leaseholders have to take back some control remains limited, and such action is not viable for a number of families and individuals. Ultimately, the best way to proceed if someone is having issues with their property management company is to buy the freehold. However, that may not be possible for a number of reasons, such as not having the minimum number of leaseholders in the block of flats to take over the management of the block, not to mention collective action challenges. Furthermore, as I have already outlined, the issue does not only affect leaseholders; it affects freeholders as well.
Some families and households are already struggling with rising bills and the like, which makes purchasing a freehold a more remote possibility. Those families and households are trapped under the direction and reliance of property management companies. We need a recognition of the flaws in the property management company sector when it comes to service charges. We are talking about people’s livelihoods, and in too many circumstances they are being ripped off by a service that does not respect value.
Serviced residences throughout the country are being subjected to this unregulated scandal, and with the ongoing increase in house building, more and more people will be subject to the unfair will of private companies without any course of redress. I hope the Minister has heard enough to see that regulation is needed to protect families and individuals, many of whom work hard to put a roof over their heads. This Government have a proud record of standing up for fairness when it comes to families and workers, and I hope that we can lead the way in this area.
In my constituency of Rochester and Strood, in the local authority of Medway, we face high numbers of new homes being built over the next 15 years—something that I suggest is slightly unrealistic. However, if large numbers of houses are to be built under the current model, where people can buy freehold properties and leasehold properties on large estates that are run by property management companies, the problem that we are talking about today will only become greater for people in my constituency, and all those who want to buy homes across the United Kingdom.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Evans. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Rochester and Strood (Kelly Tolhurst) on securing this incredibly important debate, on an issue which matters to her constituents and those of many Members across the House. She has highlighted a number of individual cases with organisations. As a result of the debate, they will no doubt have heard the concerns that she has very publicly raised. I hope that those organisations will reflect and communicate with her.
The Government are committed to fairness in the housing sector. We recently committed to improving consumer choice and fairness for leaseholders, which I will come on to. We are also now doing the same in the property management sector, in recognition of the growing concern about the quality of service that some managing agents provide to leaseholders, which my hon. Friend highlighted. I am aware that she has received representations from her constituents, and other Members have received similar representations from theirs. Clearly, we have to act to address those issues and create a housing market that ultimately works for everyone and has fairness at its heart.
As the number of leasehold and private rented homes in England has grown, so of course has the market for property managers. According to one estimate, annual service charges alone now amount to as much as £3.5 billion. All property agents, no matter their size or the type of property they manage—whether working with private landlords or indeed housing associations, as my hon. Friend mentioned—have a significant level of responsibility in the jobs they do. My hon. Friend is right: if one pays hundreds of pounds for a service, one expects the person providing the service to be a competent, experienced professional who will deliver what has been agreed.
Currently, however, anyone can set up a business as a property agent, even if they have no experience. Agents are not currently required to have any qualifications, undertake training or indeed be accredited, so unsurprisingly some experts believe that agents are overcharging by as much as £1.4 billion every year, with reports of poor service or even, in some cases, no service provided at all, as my hon. Friend has highlighted today. That is totally unacceptable, and I appreciate the frustration that my hon. Friend’s constituents must feel when paying service charges over which they have little or no say and then, on top of that, finding it extremely difficult to challenge overcharging or a lack of delivery.
Existing processes for leaseholders to seek redress or decide to carry out their own property management are often lengthy and complex, leaving them at the mercy of agents who are not doing their jobs or, if they are doing them, doing them pretty badly. That is why the Government are committed to doing more to protect leaseholders’ consumer rights. The housing White Paper of February this year promised to tackle abuse of leasehold—something that has struck a real chord with consumers. We saw that in the 6,000 responses that we received to the public consultation. I can confirm that we aim to respond to that consultation before Christmas.
It is also right that we now take action to raise standards in the property management sector. To that end, we have issued a call for evidence on whether we need to regulate property management agents, and what approach would have the most positive impact. In doing so, our focus is on protecting and empowering those who pay for managing agents’ services, including leaseholders. We want to make it easier for them to stop unfair fees and exorbitant service charges, and to access effective redress. We also want to make the process for removing or switching agents much easier.
With that in mind, the call for evidence poses questions about minimum entry requirements, promoting financial transparency and different regulatory approaches, such as a professional body for property agents, or perhaps a Government-established body to enforce standards and best practice. We want to hear the views of everyone who has an interest in those matters, and I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Rochester and Strood will take that message clearly to her constituents. The call for evidence closes on 29 November. The easiest way to take part is online, by entering the title of the call for evidence—“Protecting consumers in the letting and managing agent market”—into the search box at www.gov.uk. We will listen carefully to feedback from those who know the market best to find the right way forward.
The sector has taken some encouraging steps towards self-regulation and sharing best practice. There are a number of industry bodies who champion high standards. However, poor practice undermines those laudable efforts, so it is vital that we root it out and raise standards across the board. We want to give agents a clear and consistent framework to operate in, and leaseholders confidence in the way their homes are being managed, which will ultimately create a fairer, more transparent system where professionalism is the norm. I know that is what all Members want to see.
Question put and agreed to.
Family Planning Clinics: Public Order Legislation
I beg to move,
That this House has considered public order legislation relating to family planning clinics.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Evans. I thank all the people who helped me to come up with the content of my speech, including the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, Marie Stopes International and our local campaign group, Sister Supporter.
I have been the MP for Ealing Central and Acton since the year before last, but I have been an Ealonian for 45 years, and this issue has been bothering me on my patch for the past three decades. It had the eyes of the world on Ealing just last month.
The Marie Stopes clinic in my constituency provides legal NHS abortions. It is on a busy thoroughfare, Mattock Lane, which borders a park. There are a prep school and an amateur theatre on the road, and West Ealing and Ealing Broadway stations are on either side of it, so a lot of people walk through it. In recent years, it has become simply impassable because of the pro-life protesters outside the gates of the clinic, who proposition women on their way in and out with distressing imagery. They have had me seething with rage since the ’90s. For the past two years, Sister Supporter, a counter-protest group, has been added to the mix. I am cheered to see those young women in their pink hi-vis tabards, because at a time when we are told that young people are not interested in politics, they are a shining counter-example of what people can do if they get active.
I find it uncomfortable to go down that street. I take my son to his theatre group there, and when he says, “Mummy, who are those people? What do they want? What are they doing?” it is quite difficult to explain. I will make a confession: I would rather none of those groups be there, because it is the women clinic users who are made to feel degraded.
I thank my hon. Friend for her excellent work on this very sensitive issue. Has she considered the additional psychological impact that the anti-choice protesters have on those women, who may already be traumatised by having to go through the process of a termination? Some of those protesters hand out plastic foetuses and rosary beads, and tell women who are about to go into the clinic that they will be haunted by their baby. Does my hon. Friend agree that that has a significant extra psychological effect?
I completely agree with my hon. Friend’s powerful point. It is perhaps the most difficult decision that those women have to make, and then they have all that moral guilt heaped on them. She rightly describes the visual aids that the protesters bring along. The women’s path is barred and their access is blocked; they are caught up in the crossfire.
This week, there has been talk all over the media about the harassment of women in Westminster, so some of these arguments are familiar. No woman should be in fear of going about their legal daily business, whether that is going to work in the Palace of Westminster or anything else.
Does my hon. Friend agree that this is not just about the women going into those clinics to seek advice about their medical situation, although they are the primary victims? It is also about the staff, who find it extremely intimidating and unpleasant to fight their way through those people.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. I went to the other side of the barrage to speak to the staff of the Marie Stopes clinic, and people call out to them, “Mum, mum!” in a blackmaily type of way. They are caught up in all this, too. They cannot get to work. As we have been saying in relation to the harassment scandal, no woman should be in fear of going to their daily workplace in Westminster, and the same applies to the Marie Stopes clinic and BPAS clinics all over the country. Those women are trying to access totally legal healthcare, and the staff are trying to deliver it.
Last month, Ealing Council passed a motion to prevent harassment outside our clinic, which has been going on for 23 years—I was not keeping count. Women have been subject to intimidation and harassment in what are called vigils. As my hon. Friend the Member for Dewsbury (Paula Sherriff) said, they are told that they will be haunted by the ghost of their baby and are presented with misleading faux-medical leaflets. In the age of social media, the activity has been ramped up. Women are Facebook live-streamed as they come and go from the clinics. Those actions cross a line. They are not about changing the law. That is not protest but harassment.
My local police have long told me that public order legislation is insufficient to do anything about what they describe as a stand-off between the two groups. My friends from Sister Supporter would completely agree that they should not have to be there. If the first part of the problem went away, they would, too.
I am pleased that the Minister is before us today, because as he said on social media yesterday,
“Decisions on future police funding will be based on evidence, not assertion. Thx to all CCs and PCCs who have helped us update evidence.”
I hope he extends that to police practice. I have got some quotes from my local police force, which I will bring up later. I know that he has visited every police force in England and Wales as part of the Home Office’s demand review. I urge him to pop over to Ealing nick—it is not very far away from his seat of Ruislip. He is a near neighbour, constituency-wise.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way one more time. Am I correct in thinking that some of the anti-choice protesters have taken to protesting outside the offices of MPs who are pro-choice, bringing very distressing images and handing out leaflets and other alarming literature? Does she agree that such behaviour is reprehensible?
I completely agree with my hon. Friend, as always. At my office in Acton, a group called Abort67 unfurled huge graphic images of dismembered foetuses, so speaking out against abuse invites abuse. I was in Westminster on that day, but parents complained to me because there are two primary schools in the vicinity of our office and they did not want to walk their kids past all that. My hon. Friend makes an excellent point.
Rather like with the Westminster scandal, there is a sense that things cannot go on as they are. It is unsustainable. The evidence pack that Sister Supporter compiled for the 8 October Ealing Council meeting is a powerful document. It includes statements from residents, photographic evidence, video transcripts and the leaflets that have been distributed by the pro-life lobby, which includes groups such as Abort67, the Good Counsel Network and 40 Days for Life. Their claims have been meticulously fact-checked, and they have been found to be lying, frankly.
I went to the other side of the barrage to speak to the people at Marie Stopes Ealing. The clinic logs every incident. Comments such as “God will punish you” are made to service users. People have been grabbed, their entrance has been prevented and they have been called “murderer”. The plastic foetus dolls, which my hon. Friend the Member for Dewsbury described, are wildly inaccurate. The groups use graphic images designed to shock, and teddy bears—pink for a girl and blue for a boy.
It is not just me who thinks this. Abortion has been legal in this country for 50 years. The week before last, with the help of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, I compiled a letter that was signed by 112 other MPs from five different parties, including four party leaders. It called on the Government to take action in the wake of the historic Ealing decision. The fact is that 50 years on, women daily have to run a gauntlet to have that procedure done. This is not simply an Ealing issue. It happens in Portsmouth, Doncaster and many other places. It is one of the few issues that has united MPs such as our leader, my right hon. Friend the Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn), and the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith). Lots of people were queuing up to sign the letter. Anyone who has a clinic in their constituency is supportive of it, because they know what goes on there. The present system is unsustainable.
Make no mistake: the protesters are implacably opposed to abortion under any circumstances. Their tactics are emotive. As an illustration of the cross-party support for this issue, when the motion came to Ealing Council, every one of the 61 counsellors present, representing three parties, supported it, and just two people abstained. There was a reassuring degree of unanimity. Two Conservatives, who are medics—one a vet, the other a GP—and who fought me tooth and nail in the general election, pointed out that their anatomy classes have told them that the foetus drawings and the dolls are completely wrong, and ditto the bogus science in the information leaflets thrust into people’s hands. The mistruths include the description of how developed the foetus is at 24 weeks—it is shown as having fingernails and things when that is just not the case—and the statement that women get breast cancer as a result of an abortion, which is completely unproven.
I completely get the point about public protest. We have a long and honourable tradition in this country of many legislative changes coming about through protest by people such as the suffragettes, on the right to vote for women—the Levellers and the Diggers. If the Ealing protesters really want to make a point through public protest, surely they should stage it here at Parliament where there are 650 legislators, or at the town hall or somewhere similar. Harassment is not protest; it is unacceptable. Buffer zones are needed to stop the gendered intimidation that is going on. With this debate, I am calling for a durable and lasting solution, because the Ealing idea only goes so far. It is being talked about as a test case, but it must be more than that; it should be the start of a national answer to the problem.
The Home Office identifies three pieces of legislation that cover harassment and intimidation outside clinics, but each of them has gaps and problems; there are grey areas that we need to turn into black and white. The Public Order Act 1986 covers words or images that are “threatening, abusive or insulting”, or people behaving in such a way as to cause “harassment, alarm or distress”, but it does not apply to every case or individual, and does not account for the stress or the coercion of women into non-attendance; women have been found to be simply delaying the decision and having to come back another day when the protestors are not there. That Act is wanting.
The Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014 allows dispersal of individuals causing harm or distress, but only for 48 hours. If that had to be done every 48 hours over 23 years, there would be a total of 4,198 police actions; we came up with that with a calculator. That Act is also unsatisfactory.
A public spaces protection order, as proposed by Ealing Council, is more of a local byelaw type of thing that is used against antisocial behaviour, to move on street drinkers or drug dealers. Again, it is temporary and applies only to a certain number of streets. Imaginative use has been made of the order, and I salute Councillor Aysha Raza, who is in the Public Gallery, and Councillor Julian Bell, the council leader: they introduced a PSPO as a last resort to stop the 23-year campaign of harassment, but doing so was a long process. All the evidence had to be gathered, such as videos, clinic logs and testimony, through several years of work by committed volunteers, such as those from Sister Supporter, who would not take a no from central Government. We can do better.
My local police have said that they cannot wait for the PSPO to address the gaps in their powers, but they foresee problems. The pro-life people are often well endowed—from America, we believe—and they have said that when the order is implemented they will stage mass incursions and mount legal challenges. Furthermore, sections 12 and 14 of the Public Order Act have quite a high threshold to demonstrate “serious” damage or disruption and violence.
The Saturday after the council decision, I went with Sister Supporter to Mattock Lane. Many expected some kind of overnight change, but it had not happened because we are at the stage of the eight-week statutory consultation. Instead, there was an almost—I am sorry to put it like this—“West Side Story” stand-off, something like the Montagues and Capulets. There were six police who said to me that they would rather be doing other stuff than guarding women who should be able to go about their legal business in safety. The police recognised the physical and emotional trauma suffered by the women, and said that they would rather be dealing with shoplifting on the nearby high street, engaging with young people on neighbouring estates or carrying out weapon sweeps.
In January 2017, when I asked a question in the main Chamber, I was told that any such situation would inevitably require local police judgment of some sort. Our police in Ealing say that they have limited resources per ward—six police officers ties up the two Walpole ward officers plus four from outside, so that whole neighbourhood team is deployed to that one place. They say they would rather the protests were moved away from the gates of the clinic so a woman could get a taxi there and go straight in. With a radius of 150 metres or something like that, the protestors could not stop everyone at the perimeter.
The officer I spoke to said: “I recognise the right to protest. It is not an offence, but the turmoil from calling ‘mummy, mummy’ to someone at the 11th hour is not constructive or useful.” He said that both groups have perfected what they can and cannot do. The argument is often that no prosecutions have taken place for 23 years, but that is because people know how to operate within the law. Also, women often do not want the hassle of giving evidence for a prosecution, which is similar to what is happening in the Westminster harassment scandal.
The police want the protests moved away from the venue so that the “angst” would not be there and so that they would not be policing the two sides from “coming to blows”. They also raised the issue of better funding and resourcing: in the words of that same beat officer, “It is difficult to pull your boots on if you don’t feel supported and appreciated.” The Minister wished for evidence on the ground, so I have brought him some today.
When the Minister responds, will he address the fact that his Government recently awarded an anti-choice charity called Life £250,000 from the tampon tax fund in what I believe is the largest award? Life’s website previously referred to termination as “murder”. I understand that the award is for specific activities, although one of the chief executives of the charity told me that if they were helping a woman who decided to go on and have a termination, they would withdraw any support from her, including housing. Particularly given the language that Life uses, is it helpful for the Government to fund such charities?
I am interested to hear that. I have seen the story on social media—although I have not seen the detail—and like my hon. Friend, I am waiting to hear what the Minister says about that anomaly.
Ealing has been talked about as a test case, yet local government has suffered in the past 10 years. Ealing Council has had a cut of £168 million—half its operating budget—since 2010. Everyone is trying to do more and more with less and less. That is why we need a national solution at a time of unprecedented austerity in local government. The attacks on the budgets of police and local government make me think that the best solution is a national one, with new legislation to tackle this ongoing gendered street harassment—that is what it is. It is about shaming women for choices they have made. No outside person can know why they made that choice; it may be for myriad circumstances. It is about controlling women in a horrible, public, misogynistic fashion.
Other criticisms I have heard of PSPOs is that they involve an arduous process. The burden is on the council to introduce the order and the police to enforce it. The conditions must be clear and well worded, so some direction from the top would be ideal.
The weight of expert opinion is substantial, even for a Government some of whose members have at times said they have had enough of experts. The law journal Legal Action concluded:
“Speaking to both sides on this issue, it is apparent that there is little or no common ground…The vote by Ealing Council, though, is one clear indicator of how out of step with mainstream…public opinion”
the anti-abortion protesters are. It cites precedent from Victoria in Australia, where there is a 150-metre radius zone around such clinics. There are also examples from 14 American states, France and Canada.
The BMA wrote to me only today to raise its concerns about intimidation of patients and staff outside facilities. That is the British Medical Association, not the Socialist Workers Party or anyone like that. It says that it has raised the issue with the Home Office and the police, but continues:
“Unfortunately, their responses have not reassured us that the situation is being adequately addressed.”
It talks about the “intimidating manner” in which views are professed outside abortion services, especially as women may feel vulnerable already. It says that the staff are providing a “lawful and necessary service” and continues:
“We are…pleased…that you have secured the debate this afternoon, and we hope it will provide an opportunity”
to address the issues.
Other groups that support the campaign include the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, the Royal College of Midwives, the End Violence Against Women Coalition, Women’s Aid, Mumsnet, the Family Planning Association and, as might be expected, Marie Stopes International. In fact, in a YouGov poll released today, 57% of MPs supported the Ealing approach to exploring the options for introducing a buffer zone, and only 24% were against. Petitions need to have 1,500 signatures to be brought to the council and debated; this one had an unprecedented 4,000 signatures, which shows the weight of public opinion in Ealing.
As a civilian in Ealing I have witnessed the situation for 43 years, and since becoming an MP, many people have contacted me. One said, “These protestors have become a permanent and unwelcome intrusion into our close knit, diverse and tolerant community.” Cars hoot their horns in support of Sister Supporter. Someone from a house opposite said, “I’m trying to put my baby to sleep”—we do not necessarily think about such things. People now swerve to avoid that road—that is what it has turned into. People do not want to go there because of this ugly situation. How are we doing for time?
I will assist the hon. Lady. Two people have indicated that they would like to speak. The wind-up speeches will start at 5.08 pm with Diane Abbott and ten minutes later the Minister will speak. You will have two minutes to conclude, so perhaps you could give enough time for the other two speakers.
I am grateful for that advice, Mr Evans. I will dispense with most of my remarks on the Human Rights Act. One of my constituents, who is a lawyer, believes that the condition of article 10 of the Act would be satisfied because freedom of speech can be curtailed if there is evidence of harm to others. This particular, very well-educated constituent tells me that in this case clearly there is, but I will not go into that in detail.
Given how difficult and stressful the decision is, it is vital that women are able to access confidential medical and psychological advice and support without fear of harassment or intimidation. There is anonymity in any other medical procedure, so why not here? People have used Facebook Live to shame women in this way.
The Home Office eagerly awaits the outcome of Ealing’s action, but the extensive work to get to the council motion—working around antisocial behaviour legislation—should not be the norm. As a society, we should not be forced to rely on good Samaritans such as the valiant Sister Supporter and grassroots campaigners. It should be the job of Government to protect our citizens from gendered harassment—that is what these protests are. The Home Secretary is very supportive, and there is a clinic in Hastings. On Sunday I was with her at the Sky TV studios, and I was being “unliked” and she was being “liked”, but she said, “Let’s wait to see what happens in Ealing first”. I think we can go further.
There are other people who want to speak and I can make further remarks later, so I will finish for now.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Ealing Central and Acton (Dr Huq) for how she has spoken on this very difficult and sometimes emotional issue, but I believe that it is my duty to offer another point of view, so that Parliament hears both sides of this difficult issue. I would hope that the hon. Lady would listen to women who have benefitted from help from groups outside abortion clinics, who would be denied that help if buffer zones were imposed around those abortion facilities. I want to ask the hon. Lady whether she has talked to those women who say that they have benefitted from the offers of help by those groups outside the Marie Stopes abortion facility. If not, surely both sides of this story deserve to be listened to. It is very important that we listen to both sides. How does the hon. Lady account for the fact that if harassment were really occurring outside these facilities, it would be perfectly possible for Marie Stopes to call the police, yet we see no ongoing prosecutions for harassment or instances where police powers to disperse crowds have been used? I would have thought that it would surely be easy and common for the police to intervene if harassment were indeed occurring.
The hon. Gentleman is very generous in giving way. Has he considered that the women going into those clinics will have spent many weeks, and potentially months, making their minds up? I am not aware of any specific help that they are given outside those clinics by people holding things such as rosary beads or giving them pictures of dismembered foetuses and things like that. I would be surprised if that would aid them in coming to a different decision.
That is a perfectly fair point. I know that it is an agonising decision for women. I remember talking to one of the women who stands outside those clinics. She was an elderly lady, the kindest, most gentle person that one could possibly consider. So many children call her granny, because they feel that this lady, who is the kindest and gentlest person—admittedly, a religious person; there is nothing wrong with that—would never hurt a soul. She is simply trying to express a point of view.
I agree that harassment is quite wrong. Given that the current law allows for individuals who harass others to be reported to the police, yet does not affect others who protest peacefully, does the hon. Member for Ealing Central and Acton not think that it is unwisely illiberal to introduce a measure that would simply exclude all vigils of this sort, regardless of individual behaviour? Surely, that is a sledgehammer.
In the case of Annen v. Germany—I know that the hon. Lady dealt with this point, but I am not sure she did so adequately—a pro-life advocate, Klaus Annen, engaged in peaceful protest outside an abortion clinic and was found by the European Court of Human Rights to have a right to engage in such activity under article 10, the right to freedom of expression. If so, and given the precedent, how does she expect the European Court of Human Rights, which we are fully signed up to and continue to support, to treat a legal challenge to buffer zones?
I want to end by reading out the testimony that was given to my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce), who cannot be here, from Kate—she does not want to give her full name, which is fair enough, for fear of retaliation. This is her testimony:
“I never wanted to go through with an abortion but I felt a lot of pressure from people around me who offered it as a no brainer solution.
On the way into the clinic at the Marie Stopes clinic at Ealing I was offered a leaflet by a woman who I spoke to briefly. She just told me she was there if I needed her. I then went into the clinic, still not happy about being there for an abortion, but under immense pressure from a group of people that were with me to go through with it.
Once in the clinic, while the group were distracted I leapt out of the ground floor window and cleared 3 fences to escape. I talked to the woman on the gate again, who offered any support I needed to keep my baby and this gave me the confidence to leave where I was supported by the group that this women worked with.
I didn’t find any aggression from the people offering support outside the Ealing clinic at all. They did have leaflets documenting the development of a baby, a fetus, in the early stages.
The potential introduction of buffer zones is a really bad idea because women like me, what would they do then? You know, not every woman that walks into those clinics actually wants to go through with the termination. There’s immense pressure, maybe they don’t have financial means to support themselves or their baby, or they feel like there’s no alternatives. These people offer alternatives.
I had my baby who is now three and a half years old. She’s an amazing, perfect little girl and the love of my life. I want MPs here today calling to introduce buffer zones to realise, that she would not be alive today, if they had their way.”
On 27 October, I received a delegation at my Ipswich surgery from a rights of the unborn child group. I believed it was right for me, as the MP for Ipswich, to listen to what a section of my residents believe. Six women, with varying degrees of confidence, spoke to me about their reasons for opposing all abortions at all times. They wanted to know whether I shared their beliefs and I think I made it clear that I do not, but I am glad that I gave them the opportunity to speak and I listened carefully to what they had to say.
I agreed with them when they expressed their anxieties about very late terminations, but as soon as I suggested some of the ways that such late terminations might be prevented, they made it clear that they were opposed to almost all of those remedies. Their view appeared to be that all sex was wrong, except in the context of wishing to create a new life; that contraception was wrong because it enabled and encouraged sexual activity without such a purpose; that once conception had taken place, the life of the foetus was every bit as precious as the life of the woman in which it was growing; and that anything that interrupted that growing life—even on the morning after—constituted murder. They appeared unwilling to contemplate situations where a woman’s life depends on having a termination, and they claimed that a woman who has been raped can gain a sense of closure from giving birth to the baby that results from that rape.
I believe that there are good reasons for wanting to minimise abortions, and that the best ways to achieve that are providing good sex education in schools; ensuring that girls and women are confident about making decisions about their own bodies; educating boys and young men about treating women with respect and as equals; making various forms of contraception, including male contraception and the morning-after pill, freely and easily available; and ensuring that good-quality, non-judgmental and timely counselling is available to support women who are uncertain about whether to have an abortion.
I believe that if a woman decides to have an abortion, the swifter that abortion takes place, the less trauma it will cause to her or her relatives. However, it is also important that she feels confident in the decision she takes and knows that she has had the chance to change that decision, so she needs to know how to access immediate counselling. She also needs to know how swiftly after that counselling she will be able to receive a termination.
It is right that arguments and discussions should take place at hon. Members’ surgeries, at public meetings and in this place, so that all views can be aired and all issues can be explored in an objective and constructive manner. But all these difficult discussions and decisions are a world away from the binary arguments and confrontational persuasion techniques that demonstrators use with women who are usually in an emotionally traumatised state and have often come to one of the most difficult decisions of their lives. If we do nothing to protect those women at that sensitive time, we expose them to risks to their mental and physical health, and I believe that the time has come to act.
Abortion was made legal in this country 50 years ago, public opinion supports its current legal status and there is no majority in this House for doing away with a woman’s right to choose. We have had debates about time limits and so forth, but I think that every Member knows that if this issue were debated again on the Floor of the House, we as a Parliament would still want to ensure a woman’s right to choose. So what are these demonstrators doing? They are actually setting themselves up against the settled view of the House of Commons and, more importantly, of the public. Theirs is a sort of guerrilla attack on a woman’s right to choose. That is what is so problematic about it.
I first raised this issue some years ago. In 2015, I tabled an early-day motion about it and I went to visit clinics, including the BPAS clinic in Blackfriars, where, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing Central and Acton (Dr Huq) described, activists carrying enormous, disturbing and graphic posters were menacing staff and patients. People talk about patients being menaced, but I spoke to staff at that clinic and the demonstrations are very upsetting for them, too. Activists hand expectant mothers horrifying leaflets and film conversations with members of the public without asking for consent. At urban advice clinics, that is particularly troubling for women from minority communities, who will feel particularly ashamed and conflicted about what they are doing. Someone who tries to walk peacefully into a clinic to get advice has to face those threatening demonstrations. Activists try to disguise their activism as prayer vigils or peaceful protests, but in reality they take advantage of the protections afforded to those activities.
These demonstrations are problematic partly because, as I have said, it is as if activists, through guerrilla actions and threatening activity, are trying to roll back 50 years, but they are also problematic because they are modelled on American tactics. A growing number of family planning clinics in America have been closed following demonstrations, attacks and even bombings. I am not saying that demonstrations here go that far, but let us remember that there have been bombings in America and that medical staff, including doctors, who offer women this sort of support have found themselves threatened and attacked.
On family planning, we have seen cuts to the NHS and the closure of family planning centres across the country. We need to look at education—not just family planning support but education in schools, too. This debate is about protecting women who have made the most difficult decision of their lives. They will seek support in advance rather than doing so as they go into the clinic.
Yes, and the idea that people can be offered practical help from behind a horrible poster of a dismembered foetus as they go into a clinic is clearly false and disingenuous.
Of course people should have a choice. My generation of feminist activists did not march about this issue to impose a particular set of decisions on women; all we said was that women should have a choice. They are better offered that choice with proper family planning advice and with sex and relationships advice in schools. That is where people should be shown their options and shown how they can genuinely have a choice—not outside clinics by people holding banners and shouting at them.
We heard a story about a lady who says that demonstrators saved her baby’s life. I wonder. I do not say anything about the speech by the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh), but I do wonder. What I have seen—I went to see it for myself—and heard about these demonstrations tells me that they are not a way to offer people practical advice.
Many of the groups involved also oppose contraception, sex education and even IVF treatment. The Society for the Protection of Unborn Children is running a homophobic campaign against kids being taught about sexual orientation. Other groups have links to the far right. So-called pro-life people had a “march for life” this year in Birmingham. They flew in speakers from the US. They brought in Jim Dowson of Youth Defence, who is linked with the British National party; he was a partner of the march for life. Sadly, although there are genuinely devout people in groups such as SPUC and 40 Days for Life, they have a history of using harassment and intimidation, because they have failed politically to win round public opinion. One leader of an anti-choice group calling itself Precious Life was convicted of harassing the director of a Marie Stopes clinic in Northern Ireland.
This is not about people expressing an opinion. I am a Member of Parliament; I believe in healthy and vigorous debate. This is about people trying to threaten, intimidate and harass staff members and women—members of the public—who seek desperately needed advice, and perhaps making those women too frightened to step over the threshold of a clinic to get the advice they need. It would be entirely wrong if, 50 years after it agreed that women should have a right to choose, this House failed to say now that that right to choose should be meaningful and should not be disrupted or opposed by these demonstrations. We have to look at ways of making women seeking advice and staff members in clinics safe, and there is no doubt that we have to look at the question of zones.
It is a huge pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Evans. I join others in congratulating the hon. Member for Ealing Central and Acton (Dr Huq) on securing the debate, and on the way in which she framed an argument that she clearly feels passionately about and has done for a number of years. If I heard her rightly, she informed the House that this has been going on for 23 years—an extraordinarily long time. I should say, I have sat and participated in some rubbish debates in this Chamber, but this has been a good one, in the sense that both sides of a highly sensitive argument have been presented with both passion and dignity. I congratulate all Members who have participated.
I say to the hon. Lady—she will know this from a brush-by in the Sky studios on Sunday—that the Home Secretary takes a personal interest in this issue and has made it quite clear that she will monitor closely what is happening in Ealing and consider whether further action is needed, if that is where the evidence points us. The Government are absolutely clear that it is unacceptable that anyone should in any way feel harassed or intimidated simply for exercising their legal right to healthcare advice. She put it well: harassment is not protest. I think we all agree on that, so let us send that message clearly.
Where such behaviour occurs, I am clear that the police and local authorities should take action to deal with it, making full use of their powers to protect both patients and staff; that goes to the important point made by the right hon. Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott). As well as ensuring that full use is being made of existing powers, the Government will explore whether any further action is needed to ensure that clinic staff and patients can go about their lawful business free from harassment, offence or alarm. I will go on to talk about existing powers; I was interested in what the hon. Member for Ealing Central and Acton said of her doubts about whether they are fit for purpose.
The Government are clear that the rights to share views and to peaceful protest do not extend to harassment. We believe that the law provides protection against such behaviour, but we are open to the argument. All protestors are subject to the law, and the police should act when they have evidence that crimes have been committed. It does seem clear that few complaints are made to the police by those attending healthcare clinics, which is the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh). However, my feeling is, and I recognise, that the reasons for that may include those who access the clinics wanting to maintain their privacy, and that having to give evidence in a court of law may be a deterrent in this situation.
I strongly urge anyone—as I hope all Members would—who suffers any kind of harassment or intimidation at the hands of protestors to contact the police. I also call on abortion clinics to contact the police if they witness such behaviour towards patients and their staff. Information provided helps the police to take action. I know that the national police lead, Deputy Chief Constable Rachel Swann, has previously written to forces to remind them of the importance of investigating such alleged crimes sensitively.
I totally understand that point, and I think I was sensitive to it in my remarks, but it is still the responsible thing to remind people that if we want the police to take action, they need information. This is absolutely not easy because of the context, but it is still a point worth making.
I would like to say a few words about the actions of pro-life groups, which have received criticism here. I should say that everything we have heard about accusations of intimidation and harassment is a million miles away from the experience I had, which was similar to that of the hon. Member for Ipswich (Sandy Martin). Three ladies came to talk to me in Harefield library in my constituency about their deeply held views on the other side of the argument—the pro-life side—which were rooted in their deep faith and conviction and presented with great calmness and dignity. That was a million miles from what we are talking about happening on the pavements of Ealing, and was rooted in faith that I am sure all Members would want to respect.
However, it seems that in recent years there has been an escalation in the adoption of extreme tactics by pro-life groups in the UK; the right hon. Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington was right on that. Tactics such as those used by the American anti-abortion movement—displaying graphic images, the wearing of video equipment to film locations and direct engagement with individuals entering health clinics—are a feature of that. The police recently assessed that pro-life demonstrations do not ordinarily result in crime or disorder, and it is rare that police intervention has been called for. I am also aware that pro-life groups deny harassment and intimidation.
I thank the Minister for considering the point. However, whether or not a member of a pro-life demonstration intends to harass, the fact that they produce leaflets and push forward their views to women who are entering these clinics at a moment of extreme emotional vulnerability constitutes harassment. The only way to avoid such harassment is not to have demonstrations at such locations.
I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point. I simply place on record something he has already heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough: pro-life groups deny harassment and intimidation and claim that they seek only to dissuade and offer support to those seeking the services of family planning clinics. There are clearly deeply held views on this. I have no doubt about the upset some of those actions can cause, which have been expressed powerfully, not least by the hon. Member for Ealing Central and Acton, but by other Opposition Members as well.
In terms of police powers and management of protests, the police have a duty to facilitate peaceful protests by providing a lawful and proportionate policing response that balances the needs and rights of protesters with those of people affected by the protest. Rightly, Ministers have no power to direct or control police operations, but I am absolutely clear that women seeking medical advice or interventions in such circumstances should not be harassed or intimidated by the illegal actions of protesters.
As I said before, we believe—but we are open to the arguments on this—that the law provides protection against such behaviour, and the hon. Lady referred to the legislation. Sections 4A and 5 of the Public Order Act 1986 make it an offence to display words or images that may intentionally or unintentionally cause harassment, alarm or offence. The Protection from Harassment Act 1997 includes criminal offences that protect individuals conducting lawful activities from harassment by protesters. That Act also allows for a person to take civil proceedings in respect of harassment.
The Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014 provides the police with dispersal powers in public places, which can be used to disperse individuals or groups who are causing others to feel harassed, alarmed or distressed. The police also have powers under the Public Order Act 1986 to place conditions on the location, duration or numbers attending a public assembly. They can use those powers if, in their professional judgment: the assembly will result in serious public disorder, serious damage to property, or serious disruption to the life of the community; or the organiser’s intention is to compel others to act against their own rights. How and when any of those powers is used is an operational judgment for the police; there is no getting round that. They will judge each case on its merits, and will ultimately decide whether to use the powers available to them.
However, as part of our work to ensure the existing powers are used to the full, I will ask the relevant national police leads to ensure that the most appropriate tactics and best practice are being used. I will go further than that and extend an invitation to the hon. Lady: if she has good arguments and good evidence to support the argument that that package of legislation, which reads robustly to me, is somehow not fit for purpose, I am open to listening to her and the right hon. Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington, if they want to make a case.
I thank the Minister for the tone he is adopting. Does he agree that it is imperative that, given that we are celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Abortion Act 1967, the Government of the day adopt a pro-choice position, so that women are given a range of options if they have an unplanned pregnancy? By giving a charity that is firmly anti-choice a huge sum of money, they are in fact adopting an unfortunate bias.
Let me push back on that gently. As the right hon Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington, who speaks for the Opposition, said, we have a settlement in this place that we have come to. We have found a balance and a compromise, and I think any shift in that will be subject to personal votes in the future. To the point about the funding for the charity Life, that falls outside my Department, so the hon. Lady will forgive me if I read from the brief. It is basically set out in the grant agreement that Life will not be able to use the tampon tax grant of £250,000 to fund its counselling service or its Life Matters education service, and it is prohibited from spending the money on any publicity or promotion. The grant—as I think the hon. Lady mentioned—is for a specific project in west London to support vulnerable, homeless or at-risk pregnant women who ask for its help. All payments will be made in arrears and on receipt of a detailed monitoring report, but I will make sure that the hon. Lady’s concerns are expressed directly to the Minister responsible.
I will say something about public spaces protection orders because, as the hon. Member for Ealing Central and Acton says, the local authority in Ealing has decided to consult on issuing such an order outside the Marie Stopes UK healthcare clinic in the borough. Public spaces protection orders, under the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014, can be used by councils to stop people committing antisocial behaviour in a public place, applying restrictions on how that public space can be used. I apologise for the dryness of the prose, but there are clear legal tests that must be met. In particular, the behaviour that the order is seeking to stop must: have had or be likely to have a detrimental effect on the quality of life of those in the locality; be likely to be persistent or continuing in nature; be or be likely to be unreasonable; and justify the restrictions imposed.
It is for the London Borough of Ealing to determine, in consultation with the local police and any other community representatives, whether a public spaces protection order is justified. The Home Secretary and I will watch developments, and the response to them in the consultation, with interest.
I would like to give the hon. Member for Ealing Central and Acton a chance to respond and close the debate, so I will conclude. It has been a good debate on a highly sensitive issue. As I have made absolutely clear, the right to peaceful protest should not extend to harassment or intimidating behaviour.
I think I have made that clear. The right to peaceful protest is incredibly important and is fundamental to our democratic process, but it cannot extend to harassment. The hon. Gentleman said so in his remarks, and there is agreement in this place. It is unacceptable that women seeking their legal right to healthcare, advice and support encounter such situations, and I expect any such cases to be robustly investigated and dealt with by the police.
The bottom line is that we are talking about vulnerable women at a point of very high vulnerability. The last thing we should want or accept is for them to feel any more vulnerable at that point in time, and when protest creeps into harassment, that is completely unacceptable. As I said before, it is essential for any democracy that individuals have the right to peaceful protest and freedom of speech, but with those rights comes a responsibility to ensure that individual views and protestor actions do not cross the boundary into criminal acts.
Finally, I assure hon. Members who have taken part in the debate that both the Home Secretary and I will carefully consider the important points made. We will monitor developments in Ealing to see the outcome of the decision to grant a public spaces protection order. I will ensure that the national policing leads responsible for the issue are made aware of the concerns expressed, and ask that they and local authorities make full use of their existing powers to prevent that kind of behaviour. I will also explore with my officials and the police whether any further action needs to be taken to ensure that clinic staff and patients can go about their lawful business free from harassment, offence or alarm.
I listened carefully to the Minister and was encouraged by the way he is on side regarding tactics and practice. We have had a good debate. I am grateful for contributions from my hon. Friend the Member for Dewsbury (Paula Sherriff), who was very thoughtful, and my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Sandy Martin), who described a real-life case in which the other side came to visit. The hon. Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) asked me whether I had spoken to the other side. I took a leaflet from them the other day and I was horrified by the factual inaccuracies in it. If that advice is lying leaflets, I do not think it is useful or constructive. I have also been pitted against the other side in TV studios several times. I think that they peddle emotion. It is an emotive subject, with strong feelings on both sides, but we need some factual basis to arguments here, and that is often lacking.
We are conflating different things. We should take out the wrongs and rights of abortion, which has been legal for 50 years, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) pointed out. The debate is about the safety of women; surely we can all agree that women should be able to access confidential, NHS-provided facilities without loads of people in their face, annoying them. It should not be about the nuances of the number of weeks or about abortion, because that is legal. It is a given, and by the time those women get to the clinic they have made that decision. They have been through the agonising other stuff, maybe at the GP’s surgery or somewhere else. As my beat police officer said, weaponising rosary beads at the 11th hour is not really useful or constructive. I think there is a bit of a myth about the number of women who have been “saved”; figures show that this only delays their going to the clinic, and that they come back on another day, although there may be some cases where it happens.
I have spoken to both sides, because I am MP for both sides and represent both. I do not think these women are protesting; they are trying to impose their view on the women who are trying to access services, and are trying to stop a termination at any price. We do not know why those women are there; they may have been raped. No outside observer can know those things.
This has been done in America, Australia, Canada and France. I have enormous respect for Sister Supporter, so I do not want to diss the organisation, or want what I am about to say to be misinterpreted, but as the police officer said, “In some ways, the sides are both as bad as each other.” The thing is that one side feels that it should not have to be there at all. It is the pro-life people who will not budge, and do not accept that their actions are harassment. Harassment is in the eye of the beholder, and if someone is made to feel uncomfortable, then it is harassment; these things are legally drawn up.
In summary, I ask the Government to bring forward legislation to introduce buffer zones outside clinics and pregnancy advisory bureaux, not to stop protest. The protesters can take their protest elsewhere: there are Speaker’s Corner, the House of Commons and other places. The women accessing clinics are not seeking debate. They are just trying to have a medical procedure done. Any other procedure would be done in complete anonymity, but they are filmed on Facebook livestreams, or their ex-partners are told, “This is what she’s up to.” There are some horrible, threatening examples that I do not want to go into the details of here.
Religion is often dragged into the debate. I bumped into the vicar of St Mary’s church, Acton, the Reverend Nick Jones—Nick the Vic—in the street on Sunday, and he said, “Good on you for the stuff you’re doing.” He reminded me that David Steel—Lord Steel as he is now—is a devout Christian. There is nothing Christian about the way the anti-abortion lot have spoken about me on social media and elsewhere. They are anti-abortion, yet they keep saying about me, “I wish her mum had had one.” But I am a big person and quite robust—sticks and stones and all that.
The Government should look at what further action can be taken to ensure that women can attend sensitive healthcare appointments, and that healthcare workers can do their jobs without fear of harassment or abuse towards patients or staff; my right hon. Friend the Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington put it very well. In particular, I believe the Government should consider the experience of other countries; this issue is not unheard of.
Returning to section 10 of the Human Rights Act 1998, it is unclear whether we will remain subject to that; I think some on the other side do not want us to. A legal opinion that I have says:
“if the evidence collected by Sister Supporter about the distress caused to women using their clinics stands up to scrutiny, this could persuade a court that the anti-abortion activists’ rights under articles 10 and 11 are outweighed by those of the users of the clinic”,
oddly under article 8, the right to a private and family life. Privacy has gone out of the window when protests are livestreamed on the internet. The Government should consider examples from elsewhere and consult with health service providers, patients and police about the potential to offer buffer zones around clinics.
I was a little disappointed that the Minister did not really address the points about the savage cuts to police and local government budgets. He will probably say that that is for another Department and not him, but I hope he has heard those words.
The courage of Sister Supporter and the queen of the suburbs, my home borough, where I have been for 45 years, have led the way. Let Her Majesty’s Government and the nation follow by finishing the job. Whatever happened to “Thou shalt not judge”? That is where I will end.
I thank hon. Members for the common courtesy and moderation shown throughout the debate, and I thank everyone attending.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered public order legislation relating to family planning clinics.