Wednesday 6 December 2017
[Mrs Madeleine Moon in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered youth employment.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Moon. This is the first Westminster Hall debate I have led. Providing young people with the opportunity to get a good job has been a mission of this Government, and I am pleased that this debate is set against a backdrop of such positive figures. [Interruption.]
On a point of order, Mrs Moon. Can something be done about the sound system, please?
I will have to stop the hon. Lady. We cannot proceed until the mics are working properly. We have an engineer on the way. I am not sure what this will do in knocking the rest of the day off in Westminster Hall, but we have to wait for the engineer, because otherwise we cannot broadcast the sound.
We have a system that will allow us to record the debate, but we might not be able to broadcast. If the hon. Lady is happy, we may proceed.
Providing young people with the opportunity to get a good job has been a mission of this Government, and I am pleased that this debate is set against the backdrop of such positive figures. From July to September this year, we saw more than half of 16 to 24-year-olds in work and a further third in full-time education. Figures from the Office for National Statistics show that youth unemployment is at its lowest point since 2001, falling by 71,000 in the past year alone. We have experienced that in Chichester, with youth unemployment now less than one third of what it was in 2010.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing a hugely important debate. She mentions the figures. In percentage terms, the figure is 11.9%, and the lowest it has ever been is 11.6%. I invite her to the all-party parliamentary group for youth employment. We meet on the day that the ONS figures come out. Our most recent project is on those furthest from the labour market. If we can unlock that, we can improve the figures even further.
I agree, and I would love to come along. The figures are really good news, as my hon. Friend said, and they are even more impressive when compared with those of some of our near neighbours in Europe, although one should not take the success for granted.
At the start of the last global recession, I was working in Spain. In that time, I saw youth unemployment reach nearly 50% at its peak, and I saw at first hand the devastating effect that can have on young people’s lives. I lived in a block of flats in Madrid, and it was difficult to watch as many of my neighbours were made redundant. Even worse was seeing young people graduate from university or college and applying for job after job with no success. It is heartbreaking to watch talented and qualified young people spend years trying to get on the first rung of the ladder. Being continuously rejected is demoralising for anyone, and I wish I could say that the situation has improved in the eight years since I left Madrid, but it has not. Many of the same people are still out of work and struggling to get by. The youth unemployment rate in Spain remains very high at 38.7%, and the situation has been ongoing for almost a decade. They genuinely have lost a generation of opportunity.
The wider EU average unemployment rate is currently at 16.7%, with Greece at 43.3% at the top of the list above Spain. In the UK we compare comparatively well, with youth unemployment at 11.9%. Although we can celebrate the success we have seen in getting more young people into work, still our goal must be to ensure that all 16 to 24-year-olds are either earning or learning. That is crucial, as we need to increase our skills for growing businesses and raise the career aspirations of the next generation. The priority must be to remove the barriers to young people getting into work. To do this we need to ensure our younger generations have a variety of routes into the workplace.
When I left school at 16 there were no decent sixth-form colleges in the area that I lived in in Knowsley. I had 10 O-levels, but where was I to go and what was I to do? I was fortunate enough to get an apprenticeship. I really was lucky because only five places were available. Many of my fellow school leavers would have benefited from the wide variety of apprenticeships on offer today.
On the subject of apprenticeships, one of the difficulties that we face in Northern Ireland, certainly in my constituency, is that 25 young people will start an apprenticeship but five will finish it. How can we change that mindset?
That is an important point. I would like to put in a plug for apprenticeships, but they need to be high quality.
I commend the hon. Lady on securing this debate. One of the things I was concerned about in the recent Budget was the announcement that the minimum wage for apprentices will go from £3.50 an hour to £3.70 an hour. I appreciate that not all apprentices are paid at that level, but does she share my concern about the pitifully low rate of pay that apprentices are paid under the UK minimum wage?
As the hon. Gentleman says, not all apprentices are paid at the minimum level. I certainly was not when I did my apprenticeship, but an apprentice is earning and learning and the model still works at the minimum wage.
To continue that point, I have experience of meeting apprentices in my constituency. They are hugely grateful for the opportunity to work with businesses. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is the role that business plays that is critical in making apprenticeships a success? It has been the engine driving the remarkable increase in apprenticeships over the past several years. The growth has been miraculous.
I completely agree. I believe I am the only degree-level apprentice in the House—I have not found another one so far—so I know about this from personal experience.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. Does she agree that for apprenticeships to be of a high quality there needs to be a vibrant partnership between business and higher education? In my constituency, Forth Valley College has developed a network of connections with local business and is delivering the talent and capabilities that businesses need to flourish and prosper.
I completely agree that that is the best model.
I spent three years working in every part of the business that I started in, which was a car factory in Liverpool. In parallel I studied business management up to degree level. By the time I moved on to my next job in senior management at NatWest Bank, I had seven years’ work experience, a degree and no student debt. That is the ideal route into the workplace. It has many advantages, particularly for working-class kids such as I was.
I welcome the Government’s recognition of apprenticeships as they are a great way to get into work and learn about business. Since 2010, 3 million apprenticeships are now available, with a target of 3 million more by 2020. That is a significant achievement, but it is not about numbers. It is the good quality training and skills that work for both the employee and employer that are key.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Stephen Kerr) implied, colleges, universities and business are developing successful collaborative relationships across the country. Chichester College—a college of further education —has achieved that with more than 25,000 apprentices who have passed through its doors, and its success continues, with increased participation year on year.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. I know it is extremely important to her to get more young people into good quality jobs. Does she agree that partnerships need to be formed with businesses of the future? Some 50% of all those in the east are in engineering and manufacturing, and West Suffolk College, an outstanding college in my constituency, hopes to launch an institute of technology. Employers with high quality degree apprenticeships and high quality routes up to those is what is really important.
I completely agree. Hearing that kind of message coming from Suffolk is music to my ears, because it is a fantastic model and will provide great opportunities for young people today.
Chichester College has put employability at the heart of its curriculum and has developed key relationships within industry, as we have discussed, over many years. Now it also offers students in-work educational programmes. Many of its courses were designed with some of the 5,000 businesses that it works with. One such example is URT Group, a manufacturing firm that works in a diverse range of industries from defence to motorsport. Its business is centred around apprenticeships in every area. In fact, two former apprentices are now in senior management roles in that business.
Business and colleges working together also ensures that skill gaps in local industry are filled. Chichester College also runs seven different construction courses, with more than 1,000 students. The Government are committed to building more homes in the UK, and the students in Chichester will build the homes of the future. Many of the college graduates go on to set up their own businesses, and they in turn take on apprentices. Others come back to run classes and workshops to share their skills.
There are also people who are not in work. They want to take the first step, and universal credit provides greater flexibility to support that journey. It is important to remember that people cannot move up the career ladder until they are on it. Once rolled out, universal credit is expected to boost employment by 250,000. Importantly, elements such as the in-work progression scheme increase expectation and aspiration to seize opportunities to earn more. We recognise that the transition from jobseeker’s allowance to universal credit has caused some concerns, so I welcome the interventions by the Department for Work and Pensions and the Chancellor to tackle those concerns with the recent announcements in the Budget.
Across the country there is still more to do to enable young people to get into work. In the north-east, youth unemployment is at 18%. By contrast, in the south-east it is 10%. We are also seeing ethnic differentials too, and I would welcome further investigation into why that is the case. Thus far the statistics show that those who do not attain grades at school are more likely to end up not in education, employment or training, as so-called NEETs. Despite 1.9 million more children attending a good or outstanding school since 2010, some young people do underachieve during their educational years, but that should not disadvantage them for life.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this debate. Given the welcome stats that we received about two weeks ago showing the reduction in net immigration into the UK, does she agree that if employment stats continue to improve, as we all hope they will, we will need to see a nationwide retraining of our young people to try to fill what may well be a gap, if we do not do that emphatically and comprehensively across the nation?
Yes, I do agree. As we would say in business, that is a nice problem to have.
Programmes such as “Get into”, which is run by the Prince’s Trust, are fantastic for those who underachieve at school. The scheme works by getting young people on to a four-week placement across a range of industries. It provides an opportunity that for many is a vital life chance, with almost a quarter of those in the programme having been unemployed for more than two years. Many large companies—for example, Accenture, Arvato, and HP—now offer young people opportunities to get into the workplace via the “Get into” programme run by the Prince’s Trust.
One participant, Michelle, was physically and sexually abused for years, and understandably suffered from depression and started offending. After going on the programme, she said:
“Without the Trust’s support, I would have carried on being self-destructive, with no future to look forward to. Instead I’m happy, sociable and I’m actually excited about where my life is going.”
Her words highlight the importance of getting young people into work and giving them the opportunity to build self-esteem and purpose.
Would my hon. Friend recommend that prisons offer more apprenticeships? They have to provide a work focus for their prisoners, and it would be extremely useful if they offered apprenticeships as part of that.
That is an excellent point. I recently visited Wormwood Scrubs, and I think that would be a fantastic programme to help people who, ultimately, have just taken the wrong path in life, but really do want to rejoin the workplace upon leaving prison.
Last Monday, I went to St Pancras church in Chichester, which runs a breakfast for some of the 80 homeless people and rough-sleepers in the city. There I met a young girl who has been through the care system and now finds herself without a roof over her head. She feels that she lacks the experience and support to get into work. Some 24% of those between the ages of 16 and 18 who have been in care are categorised as not in education, employment or training. That is why programmes such as “Choose Work”, run by Chichester District Council, are so important. They help people to access work experience, helping them on to the first rung of the ladder. I am also delighted to say that the young girl I met on my visit is now in supported housing.
One area of concern is wage stagnation. Figures for 22 to 29 year-olds suggest a decline of 5.5% in real-term wages, compared with 2008. Clearly, the effects of the financial crisis are still present. The Government’s policies on the minimum wage and raising the tax thresholds have gone some way to protect those on the lowest incomes; however, the more skills and qualifications one has, the better the wage, so we must enable young people to upskill and increase their earnings and living standards.
The Government’s role is to help people develop. As the proverb says:
“Be not afraid of growing slowly, be afraid only of standing still.”
To ensure that does not happen, the Government have launched several schemes to bring about greater youth opportunity. The adult education budget, for example, provides free training to those who are over the age of 19 and unemployed, up to and including level 2 qualifications. All that is arranged through the jobcentre. Similarly, the youth engagement fund, launched in 2014, aims to improve education outcomes and employability for disadvantaged young people. More generally, education is diversifying, with the first three T-levels now launched, supported by a further £500 million a year, once those programmes are fully rolled out. They will provide yet another path to a career for young people.
The Government do need to do more for some groups, such as those with a disability. Figures from 2016 show that the youth employment rate is only 38% in those groups. I recently met a constituent whose son Josh has autism. She managed to get him on a work experience programme in IT. Some roles, such as those in IT, are very well suited for people with disabilities such as autism. The overwhelming effect of the work experience was positive, and his mum told me that he was less anxious, and over the period began to open up more and more—a significant challenge for young people with autism. We must do more to help that group.
Will my hon. Friend commend the work of charities such as Leonard Cheshire Disability, which does some excellent work in this area, encouraging those who are disabled to get work experience, and from there to get into the world of work as well?
Yes, I think that is an excellent scheme.
The next generation stands at the precipice of the fourth industrial revolution, with big advances in next-generation technology, such as artificial intelligence and biotech. The next generation is also composed of digital natives: those who have embraced completely the power of mobile computing. As a nation, we are preparing to spearhead that advance, and we need to lead in the latest industrial revolution. Businesses can rely on world-class centres of education and research, with a strong digital foundation—18% of all global data flows are already hosted in the UK. That is powerful when combined with our nation’s historic foundations of common law and internationally respected institutions, plus the Chancellor’s Budget announcements of increased investment in research and development, tech infrastructure and skills development. Put together, our potential is real.
Tech waves themselves can provide a mechanism for social mobility. I was young once, and the internet revolution during the ’90s helped me to build a great career. Sitting in my comprehensive classroom in Huyton, in Knowsley, I never thought that I would be negotiating technology deals in Japan just 10 years later—but nobody else knew how to do that either.
To fulfil the needs of industry, we need to ensure that there are opportunities for young people to get high-quality training that meets the needs of business. The fresh food industry in Chichester is worth £1 billion, and currently has a shortage of engineers to handle both the advanced robotics and the chemical elements involved in growing produce. The advanced manufacturing and engineering sector in the Coast to Capital local enterprise partnership represents 4.4% of all businesses, so it is important to upskill young people to fill those roles. Increasing the number of people taking up science, technology, engineering and maths qualifications is therefore vital for industry.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful speech. Does she agree that there is an onus on industries to go into schools and other institutions to tell young people about the opportunities that await them? Sheer effort enabled her to achieve what she did in her career, but lots of people do not get the chance even to know what opportunities might be available to them. It is happening on industries’ watch, and they need to address that.
I completely agree. In my case, without an inspiring maths teacher, who was also my careers teacher, I would not have even heard about the opportunity of an apprenticeship.
The University of Chichester is investing in a new technology park, where they will put a bit of STEAM into STEM, by facilitating the relationship between art, design and sciences. The university is adopting a model of “Conceive, design, implement, operate”, which is supported by the Royal Academy of Engineering. That model has already been adopted by 12 other UK universities, and aims to close the gap in higher-level engineering, creative digital technology, data science and sustainability skills. The investment that we see in our universities is welcome, and that boost in development is very much down to the effects of a guaranteed income, provided by student fees. No longer do universities suffer from underfunding by successive Governments.
Implementing new courses and facilities is key if we are to ensure that we meet the expected needs of industry. The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy estimates that 56,000 level 3 apprenticeships will be needed each year to meet the needs of the engineering sector alone. At present, we have 26,000.
Alongside investment in better education and routes into work, we must put appropriate structures in place to encourage careers in the technology and engineering sectors. Careers services, as we have just discussed, need to move into the 21st century. I therefore welcome the introduction of a new careers strategy, launched on Monday this week. The most important element of the new strategy is the “Good career guidance”. Advice will be forward-looking and in tune with the developments in the technological landscape that we all now live in. I am pleased that the strategy includes industry interacting with our schools, and I hope that that will inspire young people.
The strategy follows the work of Jobcentre Plus, which already works with children in schools from the ages of 12 to 18 to discuss career options and inform them of all the alternative routes into work. I hope that today’s debate will emphasise the importance of a diverse range of routes into work and mechanisms to support the next generation to achieve their aspirations. We will focus on creating opportunity and raising aspirations for young people. I have spoken about people who have turned their lives around by getting into work, including myself. Getting all 16 to 24 year-olds either earning or learning is the right goal for us all.
In preparing for the debate, I looked back on my school years. Almost every one of my classmates in my failing comprehensive school had talent and the potential to achieve whatever they put their mind to. Some of us beat the odds and got life chances, in spite of our schooling. My life chance was my apprenticeship. Others did not get such an opportunity. They were let down in school and not offered enough support, or alternative routes into work when they left school at just 16. If only they were now leaving school, they would have a far greater chance to achieve their potential.
The fourth industrial revolution brings with it opportunity—opportunity for future generations to grow into high-skilled and high-paid jobs. Investing in young people has to be the wisest investment a country can make, as they are the only future we have. The Government have a good record on youth employment, and I welcome their steps to improve it. By creating opportunity and life chances, like the one I got, we can have a future generation that is better educated, more skilled and more highly paid. Investing in the young is investing in the future of Great Britain and will, I believe, make us much greater still.
Order. I advise Members that we are now recording again, and have been for most of the hon. Lady’s speech. We have very limited time. I am not going to impose a time limit, but I advise Members not to take more than six minutes, if they hope to allow other colleagues to get in.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Chichester (Gillian Keegan) on securing this debate on an often neglected but none the less important issue. I also congratulate her on being, I believe, the first female MP to represent her area—well done on that.
When doing research ahead of this debate, I was disheartened, although not surprised, to learn that people aged 16 to 24 are more likely than any other age group to be employed on zero-hours contracts, be in temporary employment, be stuck in part-time employment or be in unskilled work.
The hon. Lady is absolutely right to highlight that issue, but does she recognise that the research briefing shows that, although zero-hours contracts do not suit everybody, they do suit a number of people? Some people study at the same time and welcome the flexibility that zero-hours contracts give them. My son is on a zero-hours contract and it suits him down to the ground. He is 18 and is getting experience he would not otherwise get.
I genuinely appreciate the hon. Lady’s point, but if she is suggesting that all young people benefit from zero-hours contracts, she is on a different planet. If that is not what she is saying, that is fine. That kind of overly positive attitude towards zero-hours contracts is something that we would read in a Tory party briefing, rather than any other briefing.
I suspect that the Government’s response to any criticism during this debate will be to say that the number of young people not in education, employment or training has been slowly falling—magic! We could say, “Well done,” welcome the fall and simply leave it at that, but like all things in life the situation is more complicated than that. That kind of argument completely ignores the quality of the work. Patting ourselves on the back about the falling numbers is all well and good, but if they are falling because people are working in insecure jobs that do not last long, is it really worth celebrating? If the Government have lowered those figures by pushing people into destitution and poverty—that is my experience since I was elected—is that really something to celebrate? That is not to mention the pitiful minimum wage, which my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow East (David Linden) talked about, which starts at £4.05 for those under the age of 18. I do not see how anyone can afford to run a household on £4.05 an hour, especially if we consider the fact that the Government have seen fit to take away housing benefit from 18 to 21-year-olds.
Organisations such as the Resolution Foundation are reporting that the Government’s tax and social security policies will drive the biggest increase in inequality since Thatcher. I know that the Government greatly admire that woman, but perhaps they will look past their ideological nostalgia and look again at how they achieved those falling numbers.
The Government could consider following the lead of the Scottish Government, who achieved their target of reducing youth unemployment by 40% four years ahead of schedule. Going further, the Scottish Government will introduce a jobs grant to help even more 16 to 24-year-olds into work. Funnily enough, I highly recommend the Scottish Government’s work, given that Scotland has the lowest youth unemployment in the UK and one of the best youth employment rates in the whole of Europe.
Will the hon. Lady give way?
I am coming to my concluding remarks.
The Government could consider following the lead of Renfrewshire Council, in the area I represent. Following the implementation of its “Invest in Renfrewshire” scheme, youth unemployment fell by more than 80%. I have met some of the people who have reaped the benefits of that scheme. It has motivated nearly 850 local employers to support young unemployed people and has stimulated job creation, taking Renfrewshire from being the sixth- worst local authority area in Scotland for youth employment to being the fourth best. The hon. Member for Stirling (Stephen Kerr) mentioned the importance of working with business and working outwith the community.
I mention those success stories not for the sake of petty political point scoring. Surely any decent Government should listen to constructive criticism and look for solutions. The reality is that young people leaving university have huge debts and have to take on insecure and unskilled work. They face wage stagnation like we have never known—literally the worst in more than 200 years —as well as the huge uncertainty of Brexit and an impossible-to-reach housing ladder. After all these years of watching austerity push people—particularly the young, the disabled and women—towards food banks and into poverty, surely it is time to reconsider this regime and look at other solutions.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Chichester (Gillian Keegan) on calling this critical debate on an issue that affects all Members of Parliament. I have certainly been inspired by her story. She is a fantastic example of the power of opportunity. When it is presented to a young person, it can enable them to reach their potential. I share the wishes of all Members of this House: all young people in all of our constituencies should be able to access those types of opportunities. I hope this debate will influence the Government’s thinking on the issue.
Work is important because it is not just an economic proposition. It is about more than just earning money; it is also about achieving our human potential and cementing our identities in the world. Who could have imagined that a young girl who grew up in Liverpool and started work at 16 could become a Member of Parliament? There are many more such stories that show the impact that work has on young people’s mental and physical health, and on their capacity to make a difference in the world. It is so inspiring to hear that.
Since I became an MP, I have focused on youth unemployment and worked with businesses and young people in Redditch. I started a Redditch mentors programme, and I am encouraging businesses to work with schools and colleges in my constituency to ensure that young people see what is available for them in the area. That is why I am backing the campaign for an institute of technology in Redditch, which would be a fantastic step forward for our town. Before I came to this House, I set up an education and skills charity, and I worked in Birmingham introducing employers to schools, because at that time we were suffering from the devastating impact of the financial crash, under the Labour Government, which caused record rates of unemployment in that area.
I want to make two major observations. The Labour Government did some very good things for our country—I congratulate them on their focus on higher education—but they neglected to think about the technical, practical and IT skills that our young people need. They missed a massive opportunity. The Government are now rightly focusing on those skills and are putting a lot more effort into careers education, T-levels and institutes of technology up and down the country. That is the right thing to do.
My hon. Friend is making an eloquent point about her constituency of Redditch. I am very pleased that my constituency of Aldershot has experienced a remarkable decrease in youth unemployment: it was 450 back in 2010, and it is now 110. Is there a similar picture in Redditch? I would be very interested to learn whether there has been a similarly remarkable decrease in youth unemployment in recent years.
I thank my hon. Friend for bringing me on to the next point in my speech. I am delighted to hear that youth unemployment in Aldershot has gone down, and I am pleased to say that it is a similar picture in Redditch. In 2010, 620 young people were unemployed and the figure now is 185. That is a significant drop, with 435 fewer unemployed young people.
I want to return briefly to the point made by the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South (Mhairi Black) about zero-hours contracts and flexibility. I accept that they should not be forced on people—I want to put that statement on the record—but they offer flexibility for young people. Apprenticeships give people the flexibility to earn while they learn. The workplace today is changing massively, as are jobs and work. We need to make sure that employers get behind that in a positive way so that it is an opportunity for young people.
I accept what the hon. Lady said for the record, but does she also accept that zero-hours contracts—certainly in the experience of my constituents and even people I know—are forced on people? Not only are they expected to function with a household and often with a livelihood and children; they also live with uncertainty about how much money will be coming in. That, unfortunately, is a reality for far too many people.
I completely accept the hon. Lady’s point. We have a picture of much lower employment across the country, including in her constituency. The Select Committee on Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy is specifically considering cases of exploitation.
Is my hon. Friend looking forward to the Government’s formal response to the Matthew Taylor report, which we hope will go some way towards ironing out some of the inequities that might exist in the issues raised by the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South (Mhairi Black)?
Yes, and I thank my hon. Friend for reminding me about the absolutely brilliant work that is being done. This Government banned exploitative zero-hours contracts that prevent people from taking on other work, so now such contracts can be a solution, although I still recognise that they should not be forced on people or be the only option. We want more opportunities across the board for people of all ages.
I will finish by bringing to the House’s attention another positive story that I heard from my Jobcentre Plus office in Redditch. My constituent, who was under the local authority care system, attended her universal credit appointment and was asked by the work coach why she was making a claim. She said that she desperately needed to get a job; she was not happy in her care home and she needed to earn to move on. The work coach explained that she would not be entitled to universal credit because the local authority was responsible for her until her 18th birthday, but that the jobcentre would help by looking over her CV and advising her about job search sites. At the time there was a provider in the office with whom the work coach worked closely. They discussed what the provider could offer and how people could be helped into work.
Redditch Jobcentre Plus has a very high success rate for customers getting training through the provider, the Training Academy. The work coach took my constituent there to introduce her personally and to explain that she was only 16. The contact at the provider asked if he could help my constituent in any way and invited her to enrol at the academy the following day. That day, the work coach received an email to say that the provider had secured an interview on the same day for my constituent, closely followed by an email with a photograph of her holding up a plaque stating, “I got the job”. What a fantastic result for her: she went from being told that she would not be entitled to any universal credit, to securing full-time employment within two days. I have many more stories, but that is a fantastic example of how universal credit is helping young people into employment when provided with a package of full support, as is the case in Redditch.
It is a pleasure to serve under your stewardship, Mrs Moon. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Chichester (Gillian Keegan) on securing this debate and I am grateful for the opportunity to speak on an issue that is so important to my constituency and to the UK as a whole.
According to Eurostat, at 12% the UK has one of the lowest youth unemployment rates in the European Union, ranking us ninth out of 28. Indeed, youth unemployment is a major issue in much of the EU. By comparison, Greece has a youth unemployment rate of 44%, Spain 39%, Italy 35%, Portugal 24%, France 23% and Belgium 22%. As my hon. Friend said, however, that does not happen by accident.
A great deal of work has been done by this Government and the coalition to drive down youth unemployment, because under the previous Labour Government it rose by 45%, creating something of a lost generation. Although this UK Government have made concerted efforts to tackle youth unemployment, it is still higher than we want it to be.
Since May 2010 the UK Government have created more than 3 million apprenticeships, which are keeping more young people in education and giving them the skills needed to excel and make progress in their careers. As a result, youth unemployment has been steadily decreasing and, at a time when so much of Europe is suffering from substantial youth unemployment, I am particularly pleased that the UK is bucking the trend.
That is a record to be proud of, but we cannot simply rest on our laurels. My hon. Friend has referred to those not in education, employment or training. On those 18 to 24-year-old jobseeker’s allowance and universal credits claimants required to seek work, the most recent ONS figures available to the House of Commons Library show that the UK rate is 2.8%. In Scotland the figure is higher, at 3.3%, while in Ochil and South Perthshire that rate of youth unemployment is 3.8%, which is higher still. I am concerned that Scotland has a higher rate of youth unemployment than the rest of the UK. The rate is higher still in my constituency, which is why it is such a big issue for me.
Since being elected I have met youth groups across my constituency, including the Logos project in Crieff and Developing the Young Workforce in Clackmannanshire, to understand the challenges young people face and how employers and politicians can work together to remove barriers to youth involvement in the labour market. When I speak to youth groups, I ask them what the barriers are, and young people identify transport, the range of jobs available and employer recruitment processes as obstacles to employment.
The hon. Gentleman is talking about employment. We all welcome seeing young people go up the ladder—although I do not welcome zero-hours contracts—but a trend has started in the places in Scotland that he is talking about of young people taking jobs in return for work experience. One youth has worked 13 hours for three weeks, but he has not been paid for it because employers know that people want to put such experience on their CVs and job applications. What are the Government doing to prevent that from happening?
Our issue will be a devolved one, but to be fair to the Scottish Government, they are introducing incentives such as the recruitment incentive, which provides up to £4,000 to employers to help young people get rewarded for some of the work they are doing. On the specific point about work experience, employers need to work with the young person’s educational establishment to ensure that they are not just getting free labour and that true work experience is being gained; otherwise, as is sometimes said, some get the work and others get the experience.
As I was saying, young people raise the issue of the range of jobs available and other obstacles in the recruitment process. Meanwhile, employers tell me about the lack of suitable qualifications and work ethic as reasons that they do not hire young people locally. Government have a significant role to play here, as do MPs and MSPs. We must build a bridge between the two groups to improve opportunities for our communities and to progress young people’s development.
The key to such progress, as in so many areas, is education. I have already mentioned the successes of apprenticeships and the impact that such schemes have had on youth employment. In Scotland we have consistently created about 26,000 starts per year since 2011-12.
Does my hon. Friend agree that there is no difference in value in a young school leaver going into work, college or university? Perhaps we have spent too long putting too much emphasis on university as a higher route, rather than looking at all those options as having equal value.
I could not agree more with my hon. Friend and I will develop that point shortly.
That figure of 26,000 starts per year is some credit to the Scottish Government—it is a strong result—but I have concerns about higher education. Only 8% of Scottish 18-year-olds from the most deprived areas enter university, compared with 17% in England, 15% in Wales and 14% in Northern Ireland. Eighteen-year-olds from deprived areas in Scotland are therefore significantly less likely to have the opportunity to attend university than those of the same age anywhere else in the United Kingdom.
Education is, of course, devolved in Scotland, but the existing policy of free tuition fees is clearly not delivering for the most deprived in my constituency. Furthermore, in order to pay for the free university tuition fees, since coming to power the Scottish National party Administration in Edinburgh has cut about 150,000 college places in Scotland, further denying people another route to education. That is a great shame, especially when the staff of colleges such as Forth Valley in my constituency are working so hard to provide opportunities and to adjust to the challenges of lifelong learning.
Academic education and vocational training are not the only answers to youth unemployment. We need more initiatives to improve social capital. In areas of deprivation, young people face not only material shortcomings, but a shortfall in social capital. That means that the boy or girl born on the council scheme does not have the connections to get the work experience that they desire. Those from a workless household do not always have the chance or guide to show them not just what they are, but what they could be. For too many, their background and birth deny them the freedom to pursue their true aspiration and calling. That is why I welcome the Government’s groundbreaking TUC-CBI national retraining scheme, which provides opportunities and skills throughout life. The scheme does not apply in Scotland, but I gently remind the Minister that he is a Minister for the whole of the United Kingdom, and I know that my constituents would welcome the expansion of the scheme to Scotland and, specifically, my constituency.
The UK unemployment rate is lower than most, but the higher average youth unemployment rate in Scotland, and in my constituency, shows that current policies are not as effective as they could be. By recognising this, I hope that colleagues across the House and in the devolved Administration can work constructively and creatively to tackle this challenge and to ensure that young people have the opportunities they deserve.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this morning, Mrs Moon. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Chichester (Gillian Keegan) on securing the debate.
Youth employment in the United Kingdom is indeed a good news story. The overall picture for employment is good, with 32.06 million people in work, reflecting an employment rate of 75%, which is the highest for four decades. Since 2010, the Conservatives—not alone but in partnership with industry—have delivered a staggering 3 million more jobs, giving more people the dignity of work and the security of a pay packet, which may be an old-fashioned term these days. At the same time, the Conservatives have taken millions out of tax altogether, and they have created and increased the living wage.
Many of the beneficiaries are our young people. Since 2010, the number of young people out of work has gone down by more than 400,000. That is a not insignificant figure. In my constituency, youth unemployment has more than halved, from 825 in 2010 to 370 in 2017. For those among us who are not mathematicians, that is a fall of 455 young people. That has to be welcomed, but there are still challenges. We have to focus on those 455 and get them on that ladder to success.
The number of apprenticeships is at record levels, with more to come. New, modern apprenticeship schemes are in place throughout the UK, although there are variations. We are giving people the skills to thrive in a new economy, by launching a partnership of the Government, the CBI and the TUC. As my hon. Friend the Member for Chichester mentioned, we need to try to push that throughout the United Kingdom, and Scotland would welcome that way forward.
Manufacturing growth is at a four-year high—the highest since 2013—and that brings job opportunities for our young people. Despite the growth in manufacturing, the Chancellor plans to invest £31 billion to further rejuvenate productivity. That figure includes an additional £8 billion, aimed primarily at key areas of housing, transport, research and, perhaps more importantly, digital communications, which is our future. In addition to improving productivity, new jobs for young people will be secured by this forward-thinking investment. The industrial strategy is brand-new but it will move forward, and as it gains traction, it will also be a player in securing youth employment.
On education, there are more than 1.9 million pupils in “good” or “outstanding” schools, which lead to better employment opportunities, although I note, sadly, that although Scotland used to have an education system that was the envy of the world, there is still work to do to revive Scotland’s education. The Government are on the case and I am sure that they will succeed, as education is absolutely vital.
However, despite the slashing of 150,000 places, Scottish colleges are doing extremely well. They are working well in partnerships with industry. In my area, Ayrshire colleges have worked well with the aeronautics industry around Prestwick airport, which is in a neighbouring constituency. They supply the young people for apprenticeships in the aviation or avionics industries.
More young people from disadvantaged backgrounds are attending university; Scotland still has some way to go on that, but it is pushing forward in that area. Many of those young people are the first in their family to secure a degree, which opens up new opportunities for them. My youngest daughter is among them—how proud I was on the day that she received a degree.
The number of children in workless households is at a 20-year low. That must be applauded, because it means that children see the opportunities and benefits that hard work brings to that household. They can take that opportunity forward in their own lives.
Does my hon. Friend agree that perhaps there should be some kind of celebration associated with the completion of an apprenticeship, on the same scale as a graduation?
Yes—as a late starter at school, I think we need to celebrate the success of those in apprenticeships. I left school with zero qualifications, but I find myself speaking in Westminster. The journey can be a bit tougher, but I would welcome that sort of initiative.
What I am setting out are not promises or pledges on a political platform or pamphlet, but the facts, and the policy successes of this Conservative Government—a Government who have ensured, and will continue to ensure, that every child or young person in the United Kingdom has the opportunity to get on in life, no matter their background.
The hon. Gentleman has talked a lot about the promises and the future in education, and so on. What children need in life is the real living wage, which should be £10 an hour; a real start in life; and social housing for young ones.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. Although it is a modest increase, I recall that the Budget raised the living wage by around 4% or 5%, which is helpful although it may not meet what we aspire to. My hon. Friend the Member for Chichester said that she was young once; my memory goes all the way back to my first salary. Our wage was £5—not per hour, but for five days a week. We have moved on somewhat. The moral of the story is, for a higher wage, stick at school.
Finally, I wish the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South (Mhairi Black) every success in running for UK city of culture. Hopefully, Paisley will be pulled out of the hat today. I wish it well as a Scottish town and I am sure that success in that will also lead to enhancements in youth employment.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Moon. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Chichester (Gillian Keegan) on initiating a thoroughly brilliant debate.
I stand here with some embarrassment, as the product of three universities, and stand shoulder to shoulder with my hon. Friend in a party that really believes in opportunity and matching those opportunities to the individual. That is a very important point to make. I stand here with some embarrassment also because in my constituency, the number of youth unemployed receiving jobseeker’s allowance or universal credit was 25 according to the November figures. That is 25 people across the whole of the constituency, under the age of 24, who were unemployed. I want to look briefly at some of the reasons for that figure. We have discussed them but perhaps I can draw them together again.
This is all about apprenticeships. First, I will mention a type of apprenticeship that illustrates the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Stephen Kerr), which is at the company DAF Trucks, the truck maker in my constituency. It has established an academic relationship with a university just outside Bristol, and it celebrates the granting of those apprenticeships as if it were the granting of degrees. It is absolutely brilliant that they have done that.
Secondly, there are apprenticeships with semi-government organisations. Examples in my constituency include the work being done at the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy, in electrical training apprenticeships, and at the UK Atomic Energy Authority, which has been running apprenticeships on site for 12 years. I have become very involved with them in the sort of apprenticeships that they run. Thirdly, there are the type of apprenticeships that companies themselves sort out. A very good example in my constituency is the furniture maker StuartBarr, which has organised apprenticeships for a number of young people.
There is a difference in the way in which different schools approach apprenticeships. Some schools have gone out of their way to establish good relationships with business, but others still see going to university as the prime reason for the school. They do their children no favours at all in pursuing that line.
Fourthly, there are apprenticeships in genuine government organisations, such as prisons, which I mentioned in my intervention, where there is an incentive to get purposeful living out of prisoners to ensure that they do not reoffend. The use of apprenticeships there can be quite helpful.
The thing that all those types of apprenticeship have in common is hard work. They are not easy to run. They are not easy for students to undergo—and nor should they be, because this is about getting the skills for a future in life. We MPs can play an enormous role by encouraging apprenticeships and by talking to businesses and explaining the motivation behind the Government programmes that support apprenticeships.
My hon. Friend makes his point very eloquently. Does he agree that the link between business and education establishments is really important? Industry knows what it wants, and if it tells educational establishments what it wants, people will study for apprenticeships with enthusiasm because they know that they will be employed meaningfully at the end. We have had tremendous success with Farnborough College of Technology, which speaks directly to industry in Farnborough. Does he agree that that link is critical to the success of this model?
I totally agree that that link is essential. An example in my constituency is Henley College, which has good networks of relationships and runs apprenticeship programmes that businesses actually want and can deliver for the students who take them. That is a crucial point. It would be pointless to offer apprenticeships that just float about in space and give no benefit at all to the people who take them. We want high-quality apprenticeships that deliver for everyone. Apprenticeships need to be win-win for both the academic organisation and the business. From my experience, that is perfectly achievable.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Moon. I warmly commend the hon. Member for Chichester (Gillian Keegan) on opening the debate. She spoke inspiringly about her experience and background.
I had not planned to, but I want to talk about my own career path. I am proud to be a Cranhill boy who was elected to the House of Commons. I am pretty unusual, in so far as I did not go to university and I did not study politics. I left school at 16. The hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (Luke Graham) talked about growing up on a council estate, as I did. I am incredibly proud of that. I was brought up by a single parent, and going to university was not something that people from my family did. The only person in my family who has ever been to university is my wife—she was the first Linden to graduate. When I was growing up, I always had this idea that I would go and be a police officer. I went and took my standard entrance test and got full marks in English and maths, but I failed the information handling aspect by half a point—so making me a Member of Parliament was perhaps a bad idea.
I remember deciding, because I was quite stubborn, that I would leave school at 16. I went ahead and did that and decided to undertake an apprenticeship with Glasgow City Council. Members will not often find me paying tribute to the Labour party, but that was under the leadership of Steven Purcell, the then Labour leader of Glasgow City Council, who made a bold commitment that we would have apprenticeships that paid a proper living wage. I will come back to that. I undertook my apprenticeship and fell into the job of working for a politician. It is a bit like quicksand—the more you fight it, the deeper you get—hence I am now a Member of Parliament.
Every time we take part in Westminster Hall debates it is incumbent on us SNP MPs to defend the record of the Scottish Government, particularly when our friends from the Scottish Conservative and Unionist party decide they are going to have a go at them, but I have not been shy of criticising the Scottish Government in the House when I think they could do more. Take the International Men’s Day debate about male suicide rates, for example, and some of the other debates I have taken part in. But on this matter, I am afraid that the Scottish Government were given a bit of a bad press by the hon. Members for Ochil and South Perthshire and for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Bill Grant). They were actually the first Government in Europe to appoint a youth employment Minister. I do not know whether the hon. Gentlemen deliberately missed that out of their speeches, but pretty significant work has been done to reduce youth unemployment, as my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South (Mhairi Black) outlined.
I hope the hon. Gentleman appreciates that I paid tribute to some of the Scottish Government’s work, especially on recruitment by smaller employers, but we were critical of their performance on education. Fewer students from deprived backgrounds go on to higher education in Scotland than in any other part of the UK. That is a fact.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I will come back to education, which is important.
I want to touch on apprenticeships. I am very proud that the SNP Scottish Government are delivering 30,000 apprenticeships each year—I should probably declare an interest as I am a product of that—and I pay tribute to them for that. However, we must pay people who do apprenticeships a real living wage. I was very disappointed that, in the Budget two weeks ago, the national minimum wage for apprentices went from £3.50—which is pretty pitiful—to £3.70. I appreciate that not every company will pay that basic rate, but it is pretty disgraceful. Members have mentioned the national living wage. I am afraid that the national living wage that the UK Government talk about is a con trick, because it does not apply to under-25s. I am more than happy to give way to anyone who wants to correct that. If we are genuinely serious about building a country that works for everyone, it has to work for under-25s, too. I very much hope that the Minister will feed that back.
Does the hon. Gentleman think the levy should be used to contribute to apprentices’ wages?
Not necessarily. We need to understand that a fair day’s work deserves a fair day’s pay. I am not sure that we should take that from the levy. If we are serious about treating people equally, we need to do so when it comes to pay, too.
I want to pay tribute to one of the colleges in my constituency. The hon. Member for Stirling (Stephen Kerr) mentioned that we need to recognise that there is a role for apprenticeships. I tend to take the view that if your pipes burst at home, you do not necessarily want a lawyer or an accountant; you want a plumber. Sometimes I think that Governments of all colours have been a bit too obsessed with the idea of just churning out people with university degrees. It is important to understand that we have a diverse economy. That is why I am glad to commend Glasgow Kelvin College, which has successfully invested more in graduate-level apprentices.
The hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire mentioned colleges. The reality is that the SNP Scottish Government have stuck to their manifesto commitment to provide 116,000 college places; I very much welcome that. On the number of people from deprived backgrounds who go on to university, UCAS figures show that, despite a small decrease in the number of acceptances among people from the 60% most deprived backgrounds, the number of acceptances is still 3% higher than it was in 2015. I very much commend that.
I am conscious of the time—I certainly did not intend to speak for this long—so I will close by congratulating the hon. Member for Chichester on securing this excellent debate. I hope that this is not the end of the conversation about how we help youth employment.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Moon. I congratulate the hon. Member for Chichester (Gillian Keegan) on securing this debate on such a vital issue. Finding a first job is part of a young person’s passage into adulthood. It is important that young people get the education and training they need and make the transition into employment smoothly, without spending a long period out of work.
At first sight, the youth employment statistics look like good news. Unemployment among young people has been falling, as has unemployment generally, and the Government have set a target of 3 million new apprenticeships by 2020. In the period July to September 2017, the unemployment rate for 16 to 24-year-olds not in full-time education was 10.3%, compared with 11.7% a year ago. However, youth unemployment remains much higher than unemployment among the working-age population as a whole, which according to the latest figures is 4.3%.
If we look more closely at the picture, we see further causes for concern. Some 12.3% of 16 to 24-year-olds were not in education, employment or training in the second quarter of 2017. That figure is even higher in some places and among certain groups.
A survey by Impetus Private Equity Foundation’s youth job index in June 2017 estimated that 1.18 million young people were not in education, employment or training for six months or more. In addition, the number of young people spending 12 months or more not in education, employment or training increased from 714,000 last year to 811,000 this year. That can have an extremely negative impact on a young person’s mental and physical health and their future employment prospects. About 5% of 16 to 17-year-olds, for example, are not in education, employment or training, despite the requirement that all young people are to be in education or training until they reach the age of 18. A significant number of people—290,000 at the last count—are therefore slipping through the net. I would be interested to hear what the Government plan to do to address that.
The proportion of young people who are not in education, employment or training is about 15% in Yorkshire and Humberside. The Social Mobility Commission’s “State of the Nation” report, published last week, highlighted that some affluent areas such as West Berkshire, the Cotswolds and Crawley are among the worst for offering good education and employment opportunities for their most disadvantaged residents. Some young people can be caught in a cycle between being in and out of employment, education or training, which again can have long-term consequences for their earnings, employment, health and wellbeing.
It is extremely difficult to estimate accurately the number of young people not in education, employment or training in the UK, and the numbers may be much higher than the official figures. Evidence from London and Manchester youth talent match programmes suggests a significant number of hidden NEETs, as they are referred to. London Youth’s talent match found that 35% of its intake from January 2014 to December 2016 were people who could be said to be hidden NEETs. Talent match is funded by the Big Lottery Fund and the European social fund. While the Government have guaranteed funding agreed up to the point of Brexit, there is a question of where funding will come from after that. I should be grateful if the Minister would respond on that point.
How do the Government plan to ensure that those hidden young people are found and given the support that they need? That was once a local authority responsibility but, due to financial pressures, many local authorities have reduced youth services and do not track the whereabouts of the local youth population.
People in certain groups are especially likely to be not in education, employment or training. The proportion of 16 to 24-year-olds not employed or in training or education was higher for some ethnic groups than others: for example, it was highest for those from Pakistani and Bangladeshi backgrounds, at 16%. Thirty per cent of young disabled people are not in education, employment or training, nor are 40% of care leavers aged 19 to 21, compared with 14% of all 19 to 21-year-olds. Those statistics should really concern us. What additional support is being put in place to ensure that those young people are given the same opportunities to progress as other young people?
Last week, the Government launched a new strategy to support disabled people into finding work, “Improving lives: the future of work, health and disability.” However, the Work and Health programme is a much smaller scheme than the Work programme and Work Choice. Overall, there will be an 80% reduction in specialist employment support from the Government—most employment support for disabled people is provided by Jobcentre Plus, but it has adopted a generalist model for work coaches rather than one where they specialise in specific kinds of claimants. The Work and Health programme is targeted at people who are likely to be able to find work within 12 months with much more specialist support. However, the reality is that, for young people with the greatest barriers to finding work, it may take much longer. The Big Lottery Fund’s talent match scheme, aimed at young people who are furthest from the jobs market, has found that it can take up to two years for the people they work with to find employment. It is important that specialist support continues as well once someone starts a job, so that they can continue in it.
We also need to consider those young people more generally who are registered as unemployed and who, with the closure of the Work programme, will be increasingly likely to receive employment support directly from Jobcentre Plus. Some of the same problems with the way that Jobcentre Plus operates in relation to people with specific needs apply to young people more widely. Jobcentre Plus has adopted a generalist model for work coaches, but supporting young people to find employment may require more specific knowledge of the job market and skills.
The Select Committee on Work and Pensions, in its “Employment opportunities for young people” report, published at the end of March, suggested that the DWP might look at recruiting people with experience as youth workers or coaches. It also suggested that the DWP could learn from schemes such as the MyGo employment service in Suffolk, which operates from modern, open buildings that are more welcoming than many jobcentres. In fact, it is open to young people regardless of whether they are claiming benefits or not.
I have spoken in a number of debates in this Chamber to oppose the Government’s programme of jobcentre closures. Will the Minister tell us what consideration the Government have given to using the end of their contract with Trillium to renovate the estate and provide jobcentres with a much better experience for users, rather than simply decimating the numbers of offices? Will he also tell us what consideration the DWP has given to the use of texts and social media to reach out to young people who are unemployed, and whether texts are used to remind them of appointments—as is done for NHS appointments—at all jobcentres, decreasing the risk of sanctions?
As the full service of universal credit is being rolled out, those young people who are registered as unemployed will receive support through the youth obligation, which will mean an intensive support programme from day one of their claim. Young people who remain out of work for six months will be expected to apply for an apprenticeship or traineeship, or take up a work placement. There is anecdotal evidence, however, from organisations in the field that delivery of the youth obligation is patchy, and that some work coaches do not know what it is. Will the Minister give us the DWP assessment of how effective the youth obligation has been so far?
The Work and Pensions Committee highlighted evidence of concern from employers about compulsory work placements. Will the DWP ensure that the Work programme’s rigid approach to placements is not repeated? In particular, will it ensure that there is flexibility in the youth obligation for young people, especially those facing the greatest barriers, so that, where necessary, steps to prepare for employment may be given priority rather than a placement? I think here of basic skills such as literacy, numeracy and IT skills, as well as other steps, perhaps to improve social skills and build self-confidence.
It is clear from the “State of the Nation” report that the unequal opportunities that young people face have roots in the poverty and inequality they experience as they grow up. In the north-east and south-west, young people on free school meals are half as likely to start a high-level apprenticeship. The Government’s target of 3 million new apprenticeships by 2020 is laudable but, in the first quarter following the introduction of the levy in April this year, there was a 59% fall in apprenticeship starts, and the majority of starts were at higher levels for older workers. What will the Government do to ensure that young people under the age of 24 do not lose out as a result of businesses using the levy to upskill their existing workforce and recruit staff at level 4 apprenticeships?
Beneath the apparently improving youth employment figures lies a more complex story. Evidence from specialist organisations suggests that there are schemes that are working well and producing results for young people with the greatest barriers to finding work. Those young people need support tailored to their specific situation and experience but also time for that support to make a difference. I hope the Government are listening.
What a great pleasure it is to see you once again in the Chair in Westminster Hall, Mrs Moon. I congratulate my constituency neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Chichester (Gillian Keegan), on bringing this important debate to Westminster Hall. I know how important youth employment is to her, and it is important for us to have opportunities to debate it. We are all grateful to her. That is reflected in the attendance—we have had eight full speeches and this is the ninth. Seventeen Members have taken part in the debate, reflecting its importance. I also welcome the opportunity to set out the targeted support and reforms to vocational education we are implementing to give every young person the best start—an ambition we will achieve only with the help of employers large and small. We need businesses to be prepared to take a chance and offer more young people, whatever their background, valuable work experience and vocational training.
We have already made significant progress on youth unemployment. As my hon. Friend the Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Bill Grant) reminded us, youth unemployment is down by 422,000 since 2010. Youth unemployment is now at a record low: just 4.8% of under-25s are both unemployed and not in full-time education, and the UK now has the second-highest youth employment rate in the G7.
My hon. Friend the Member for Chichester reminded us of the reality of youth unemployment in some other countries, using her experience from Spain as an example. Around one in 10 16 to 24-year-olds are not in employment, education or training. While some of those have actively made a decision to take some time out before starting a career, others struggle to overcome complex barriers and multiple setbacks or have had their expectations and ambitions damaged, in turn damaging their confidence. The Government are committed to encouraging young people to be in education, training or employment and giving them the chance to progress and achieve. That is critical if we are to improve productivity, promote intergenerational fairness and tackle poverty and disadvantage.
The right support in school is critical, and if young people are to make the best choices at school, good advice is essential. It is important to widen children’s expectations, and broaden their understanding of the range of jobs and career opportunities available. My hon. Friend the Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (Luke Graham) spoke about the importance of social capital, and if there is an absence of that, the role of the school becomes even more important when trying to fill that gap. My right hon. Friend the Member for Mid Sussex (Sir Nicholas Soames) spoke about the importance of getting companies and industry into schools to present their opportunities directly, and I could not agree with him more. Some industry programmes, such as Feeding Britain’s Future, seek to widen people’s understanding of the range of careers in those industries, and STEM ambassadors talk about where people can get to if they knuckle down and do their maths and physics, including things like engineering, an apprenticeship or a degree.
To help young people make decisions about their future, we have introduced Jobcentre Plus support for schools. Working in partnership with the Careers & Enterprise Company and professional careers advisers, Jobcentre Plus advisers in schools help young people in a variety of ways. They set up work experience opportunities, offer advice on the local labour market, CV writing and interview techniques, and promote vocational routes into employment. We are also reforming the post-16 skills system and introducing T-levels. Employers want young people to have better vocational skills, and we want everyone to recognise that a technical education is as valuable as the traditional academic route for a successful career. We must keep pace if we are to drive the benefits to the UK economy: an estimated 1.2 million new technical and digitally skilled people are needed by 2022 if we are to compete globally. The Government are embarking on a major reform of the post-16 skills system in England, focusing particularly on technical education and lifelong learning.
My hon. Friend the Member for Chichester spoke of the high reputation of Chichester College, of which I am aware. She also spoke about her own experience, and what a great illustration her story is of where an apprenticeship can take someone. We have invested more in apprenticeships than any previous Government, and by 2020 we will have increased annual apprenticeship funding in England to £2.45 billion—double what it was in 2010. There have been 3.5 million apprenticeship starts of all ages since May 2010, and 1.1 million apprenticeship starts in England since May 2015.
My hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell) spoke about the importance of quality apprenticeships. He is absolutely right, and the Institute for Apprenticeships is important in that regard. We are also improving access to apprenticeships for those who are disadvantaged or who have a learning difficulty, health condition or disability.
FES in Stirling has set up its own training academy and is working in partnership with Forth Valley College. What more can the Government do to encourage more businesses to take that progressive attitude to investing in their talent?
That is something we are constantly engaged with, and Members of Parliament can play an important role. More and more companies are doing such things. With employment at its current level, and unemployment at its lowest level since 1975—some people in this room were not born the last time unemployment was lower than it is now—it is a competitive market for talent, and more and more companies are seeing that part of having the competitive edge is exactly about investing further and doing bold things with recruitment and development.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Ochil and South Perthshire reminded us, too many young people leave school without a place in further education or training, or an apprenticeship or job go to. To tackle that head on, in April we introduced a new programme of intensive support for unemployed 18 to 21-year-olds who were making a claim to universal credit full service. The programme starts with a 71-hour curriculum of workshops and exercises that encourages them to think more broadly about their skills and job goals. It helps them to identify any training they need, and supports them to improve their job search, job application and interview skills.
Young people also receive intensive work-focused coaching, and referral to additional support drawn from a wide variety of locally available provision. That provision is tailored to address specific needs and can include mental health support, employability skills, basic skills training in maths, English and IT, work-related skills training, mentoring, and a short work experience opportunity. We anticipate that many young people who receive that valuable intensive support will move quickly into further education, vocational training, an apprenticeship, or a job. Those who are still unemployed after five months on that programme will have an extended stock-take assessment to review their learning and progress, and identify additional barriers to work that need to be addressed quickly. At six months, if the individuals remain unemployed, they will be offered a sector-based work academy placement, which is a short period of vocational training, and work experience in a sector with a high number of vacancies, or encouraged to take up a traineeship. Every 18 to 21-year-old on the programme who does not take up work-related training will be offered a three-month work experience placement to help them achieve their job goals.
Universal credit also offers, for the first time, in-work support for young people on a low income to help them progress in work. Young people are better off in work under universal credit. Most young people were not entitled to claim working tax credit until they were 25, but under universal credit they continue to receive benefits while in work and on a low income.
The rate of the national minimum wage for young people is a balance. It is, of course, important to ensure that people are properly remunerated, but we must also protect their employment prospects. The rate for people aged 18 to 24 has risen by between 7% and 8% since 2015, and from April 2018 the apprenticeship rate will be at a record high in real terms. Overall, the national living wage—such a key reform—has meant that the lowest-earning 5% of the population have recently had the biggest rise in their annual incomes since records began.
The hon. Member for Wirral West (Margaret Greenwood) asked about our use of texts and other forms of communication. Yes, we absolutely use those things in jobcentres these days. It is an important part of our communication.
As our industrial strategy set out, we need to boost productivity and earning power across the country, improve the quality of work and ensure that everyone has the right skills to progress. As I hope my hon. Friend the Member for Chichester will agree, when businesses give a young person a chance of employment or the valuable opportunity of work experience, it is not only the job-specific skills that they gain that make a difference. Through work experience, young people broaden their horizons, learn how to work with others and gain confidence. That in itself can be instrumental in changing their job opportunities and life chances.
Employers say that one key reason why they do not employ young people is a lack of work experience, so getting that experience is important. If any Member has difficulty with putting local employers in touch with jobcentres and creating those work experience placements, they should get in touch with me and I will help to facilitate that. This is such an important subject, and I thank my hon. Friend for securing this debate. This is a partnership approach between the Government, MPs and educational employers.
Our performance in youth employment is strong, and as my hon. Friend the Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Bill Grant) said, this is a good news story. That news is especially welcome when compared with our European neighbours. That is not an accident, but the result of the right policies, and we must not take it for granted. Improving school standards, high-quality apprenticeships, investment in tech and digital skills, and high-quality colleges and universities, all working more collaboratively with business—that model is working, but we still have more to do to ensure that all young people have a decent future, and not a future on benefits. Labour Members talk about benefits a lot, but for young people that is not the workplace. I thank all hon. Members for taking part in this debate, and I look forward to working together to increase opportunities and earnings for young people today and in the future.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered youth employment.
South Middlesbrough: Traffic Congestion
I beg to move,
That this House has considered traffic congestion in south Middlesbrough.
It is a pleasure to have the opportunity to debate the Marton crawl. Contrary to what people might think, at the time of year when “Strictly Come Dancing” is all over the news, that is not our local equivalent of the Lambeth walk or the Harlem shake. It is the name that has been awarded over decades to the two-mile stretch of the A172 that runs due south from James Cook University Hospital to the top of Dixons Bank in Marton, Middlesbrough. It comprises Marton Road, Stokesley Road and Dixons Bank, and is the traffic bottleneck to end all bottlenecks. It is the source of misery for thousands of my constituents every day.
The A172 is the principal route in and out of Middlesbrough town centre from the south of the town, and it serves almost all the wards in the Middlesbrough South section of my constituency—Nunthorpe, Marton West, Marton East, Stainton and Thornton, Hemlington, Ladgate and Coulby Newham, as well as the small towns and villages of East Cleveland, for which Middlesbrough is the nearest urban centre, and the place where many residents work. The route is also used by people coming in from places such as Great Ayton and Stokesley, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond (Yorks) (Rishi Sunak), where the same logic applies.
I propose to take the Minister on a virtual journey along the Marton crawl, so that he can picture the situation for himself. The A172 is largely a single-track road, with some short exceptions where it widens to two lanes. Heading out of town the congestion really starts to bite outside the excellent James Cook Hospital. That is a 1,024-bed major tertiary referral hospital, which houses the regional major trauma centre. As can be imagined, it is a scene of well-nigh constant activity, with ambulances racing to and from A&E and thousands of vehicles carrying staff, patients and visitors to and from the car parks. Middlesbrough Council estimates that approximately a quarter of all the traffic on the Marton crawl relates to the hospital in some way. The junction where cars pull in and out of the hospital site is the first point where traffic starts to build up, and the second follows a few hundred metres on, where the A172 crosses the east-west axis of Ladgate Lane.
After passing over that junction, the road runs up the side of the busy Stewart Park, the treasured green space that houses the Captain Cook Birthplace Museum and the exciting new Askham Bryan College, which I opened earlier this autumn. By that point the traffic is properly nose to tail. I know it well, because I grew up just beyond Stewart Park on the Grove, in Marton. Since 1984 I have spent more time sitting in that section of the crawl than I have any wish to think about. Passing Marton cricket club on the right, traffic next comes to the old Marton hotel and country club, which, sadly, closed in October.
I will stop the metaphorical car here, and get out for a moment. The country club site is a big one; the hotel was large and sprawling, and accompanied by a sizeable car and coach park. It would be a prime target for housing developers. I want to repeat here what I told Middlesbrough Council in a letter last month: that it would be unthinkable for new homes there to be approved until the Marton crawl is resolved. New houses are the last thing that residents want at the country club site, and should any such plans be put forward I will oppose them fiercely. One of the main reasons is that the moment someone leaves the country club, they hit the slip road on to the main dual carriageway running out to the coast and Teesport, the A174. It is an immensely busy interchange, particularly at rush hour, and cars often back up right down the slip road as they attempt to get on to the A172 and the crawl itself. The fact that vehicles sometimes end up tailing back almost on to the Parkway, a 70-mph road, is a safety risk and suggests how congested the Marton crawl is at that point.
At that point, a journey may well have taken plenty long enough, but the worst pinch point is yet to come. It comes in the form of Captain Cook Primary School and the adjacent Marton Shops, a 1960s shopping parade that houses lots of well loved local stores. Traffic parking for the school drop-off and pick-up, and queuing to enter the shops, forms a huge blockage serving to inflame the entire route. Once that is escaped, the final leg of the crawl winds up Dixons Bank to the A172’s crossroads with Stainton Way in front of the popular Southern Cross pub. That junction was redesigned, badly, a few years ago, to replace the existing roundabout. The roundabout seemed to allow traffic to move more freely. The current lights, with only one lane heading south, are not helping the situation. Only once someone is over the crossroads do they escape, out towards the countryside. However, of course they know that they will face the same set of problems in reverse when they head back into Middlesbrough.
That is the reason why I have campaigned since before my election for action to be taken to tackle the Marton crawl. Local people agree. This summer I received more than 800 replies, representing more than 1,000 people, to the survey I ran on how the crawl affects their lives. More than half of those responding said they spend up to 20 minutes on a typical day caught in the crawl, and a third said they spend half an hour or more. My constituent Anthony Hopson used a powerful article in the Evening Gazette to describe a particularly nightmarish journey in September:
“As a resident of Marton I am well used to the misery of the Marton crawl…I caught an early morning bus from the Southern Cross into Middlesbrough; the bus that was already 10 minutes late…took 30 minutes to travel the length of one bus stop from the Southern Cross to Marton Shops and another 30 minutes to get to James Cook Hospital.
In all a journey scheduled to take about 20 minutes lasted well over an hour and 20 minutes”.
Mr Hopson continued:
“I believe one lady was due at Middlesbrough Court at 8.45am. Had the bus been on time she would have been half an hour early. Instead she was at least half an hour late.
A gentleman was so worried that he photographed the queue of traffic in front of us to show his employer.
The misery of bus passengers and the many hundreds of car drivers…and the loss of productivity can only be imagined.”
“It would be interesting to know the level of air pollution along Marton Road—where there are two primary schools, at least one care home and our major hospital—due to the never-ending stop start traffic.”
Mr Hopson speaks for many of us.
The frustration that people feel is so great because the problem has been developing for such a long time. A bypass scheme, known locally as the “Marton motorway”, was first mooted as far back as the 1960s, shortly after my grandparents moved to Middlesbrough. The route was proposed to run parallel to the railway from Longlands to Swans Corner in Nunthorpe, spanning land that falls within both the Middlesbrough and Redcar and Cleveland council areas. It was never developed and the Nunthorpe end of it has recently been rendered undeliverable by the building of new homes. That amounts to an unforgivable multigenerational failure of town planning by two councils, characterised by the inability to find a common way forward in the interest of local people and a lack of political willpower to drive a solution through.
In 2002, Middlesbrough’s controversial then Mayor, Ray Mallon, announced that he would solve the problem—and how could Robocop fall short?—but he was never able to deliver on that promise. Many people doubt that the Marton crawl will ever, or can ever, be gripped. After so many decades and so many false dawns, I understand why. The problem is worsening every year because so much new housing is being added in the south of Middlesbrough. It has long been seen as a very attractive place to live, with easy access to the beautiful north Yorkshire and east Cleveland countryside. I should declare an interest here in that my family and I are house-hunting in Nunthorpe at the moment—new developments have been added at an extraordinary rate in recent years.
I will be clear: those new developments are largely very handsome and bring much-needed council tax revenue into the town. However, in their pursuit of additional council tax, both my local councils, particularly Middlesbrough, have essentially ignored the impact of all that new housing on our local services and, most seriously, on our road network. I know that part of Middlesbrough better than I know almost anywhere in the world, and I can state definitively that the traffic has never been worse in my lifetime than it is today. That blind approach to permitting development regardless of the consequences is irresponsible and must stop until our roads are fit for purpose.
With all that in mind, it is beyond timely that the Government have announced their new £1 billion-a-year fund to improve or replace A roads across England. I warmly welcome the announcement, just as I welcome the word that the Secretary of State will be visiting my constituency on Friday to see the problem for himself. The departmental and ministerial team could not have been more helpful in addressing the Marton crawl, and I want the record to show how much their support is appreciated, not only by me, but by thousands of people in Middlesbrough.
While it is right that the Government are committed to delivering major transport projects of transformational national significance, great economic and social benefits can also be unlocked by resolving local road problems, and Ministers understand that. I would be grateful if the Minister, in his reply, would set out when applications to the new fund will open, what criteria will be used to assess their merits, what information local authorities will be asked to supply and when applicants will find out whether they have been successful. I would also appreciate it if he would agree to meet me and a delegation from Middlesbrough Council in the new year, so they can set out the plans in detail.
Those plans are in the process of being finalised. I am grateful to the officers of the council for the hard work they are devoting to drawing them up, just as I am encouraged by the way in which the council’s political leadership is now working with me on a cross-party basis to promote them. The plans include a series of redesigned junctions, as well as a new relief road from the Longlands roundabout to Ladgate Lane, which will cut out a key stretch of the crawl past the hospital and allow a second point of access to the rear of the hospital complex, which I believe will make a great deal of sense.
It is important that those plans carry the maximum level of community support. We will only have one shot at getting this right. Quite reasonably, it is an issue that arouses strong feelings, particularly where planning is concerned. I want to thank everybody who joined me at the packed Marton West Community Council a few weeks ago, and I know there will be a large turnout at the meeting this Friday night at Nunthorpe Methodist church, where I will provide an update on the latest news.
One of the key debates is over the planned redesign of the Southern Cross junction, the first element of reform proposals that has been brought forward for public consultation. Concerns have been raised about aspects of those plans, in particular whether they will simply displace some of the current traffic congestion into Coulby Newham, and whether homes on Dixons Bank will be blighted by access difficulties or by the removal of trees screening properties where the road will be widened.
I pay tribute to Marton West councillor Chris Hobson, who is chairing the Marton crawl steering group. Together with other local councillors, she is providing a strong voice for those affected by the proposed changes. I stand ready to raise issues with the council, and I want a solution that recognises the legitimate concerns of affected residents. With that in mind, I emphasise to Middlesbrough Council that, in the words of our EU negotiations, “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed”. Proposals should not be brought forward piecemeal, but as part of an overarching solution that can be presented to the Middlesbrough public and the Government in turn. Only if the Council brings forward a package in the round can we assess properly how the different component parts will impact the Marton crawl and interact with each other.
This is a good chance to emphasise that I believe public transport should form an integrated part of the solution. That obviously includes buses, but it is also well worth considering a park-and-ride scheme in conjunction with Northern Rail, given that the railway runs right through south Middlesbrough on its way to the main train station. Middlesbrough is unusual in being an urban conurbation where commuter and light rail is used so comparatively little. An imaginative solution would find a way forward. That would require co-operation across the local authority boundary into Redcar and Cleveland, which would be the only viable site for a park and ride, but the prize seems well worth seeking and I am ready to play my part in delivering it.
This debate has been a welcome opportunity to talk about the situation in Middlesbrough, and I am grateful for the opportunity to bring it to Parliament. My constituents have been waiting almost 50 years for a comprehensive package of improvements to be delivered. The Government’s new fund represents a suitably golden opportunity to prove that Ministers are listening, and that this Government will act where so many others have only talked. Working together with both central and local government, I am determined to do everything I can to mitigate the Marton crawl, strengthen my home town’s economy and make life a little bit easier for so many local people. If politics is the art of the possible, those goals seem distinctly achievable, and few matter more to me.
I look forward to hearing the Minister’s reply, and hope to have the opportunity to sit down with him and his officials again in the new year.
What a delight it is to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Moon. I want to place it on the record that I am an admirer of my right hon. Friend, or rather my hon. Friend—he is not yet right hon., but I am sure it is only a matter of time. It is wonderful to see him as—I think I am right in saying—the first Conservative Member of Parliament ever in his constituency, and the first for a long time in Middlesbrough. It is also a delight to have him speak today with the intelligence, energy and advocacy he has brought to his job. I congratulate him on that and on the powerful speech he has made.
It is a slight shame, if I may say so, that there are no Opposition Members here in this debate, no other Members of Parliament for the region and no one from the Opposition Front Bench. These are locally important issues, and my hon. Friend’s speech speaks powerfully not just to his constituency, but to the needs of the city and region as a whole. I congratulate him on that, and I think his words deserve a wider hearing. I am sure they get a wider hearing in his own council, neighbouring councils and the combined authorities, but they deserve a wider hearing from his fellow MPs.
My hon. Friend has been tireless in raising awareness of the Marton crawl, and I know he will be discussing it with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State when he visits the Tees Valley on Friday, as part of a properly choreographed process of putting the matter on the Government’s radar screen. I would also be delighted to meet my hon. Friend and a delegation of local councillors and officials in the new year, so that we can discuss some of the propositions he has made today, some of the schemes the Government are bringing forward and how those things can be brought together.
Transport, as my hon. Friend knows, is enormously valuable not merely to the Tees Valley, but to the whole of the north and the country as a whole. It is an important priority of this Government, and we agree with local partners that good transport infrastructure is essential to economic growth and social development. That is why we are investing so heavily in transport infrastructure across the north, with precisely that goal of opening up bottlenecks and delivering sustained economic growth. I hope, just as my hon. Friend gave a virtual tour of his constituency with regard to the Marton crawl, I may be allowed to give a virtual tour of Government policy in this area before looking at specific ways in which we may be able to help him in his constituency.
The Government are committed to creating a northern powerhouse, rebalancing the economy and supporting the north in its economic and transport aspirations. That is part of the long-term goals we have set ourselves, and it is one that is widely shared across the country, certainly across the north of England. We are investing £13 billion in transport in the north precisely to advance that agenda and to connect the region, so that there can be greater pooling of strength and greater economic development.
To that end, we have created Transport for the North to develop and drive forward the transport plans that are central to local needs, and we are taking legislation through Parliament, as my hon. Friend will be aware, that should see Transport for the North established as the first of the statutory sub-national transport bodies from 1 April 2018, with a key role in advising Government on the north’s priorities for rail and road investment.
The Tees Valley is a key part of the northern powerhouse and has a major contribution to make in building a stronger economy. It is a region of 660,000 people, a renowned industrial centre with major global companies such as ConocoPhillips, Huntsman, Mitsubishi and others operating there. Of course, through the devolution deal, we now have Ben Houchen in place as the first directly elected Mayor of Tees Valley, with more autonomy and control to drive forward the economic transformation as a whole that the area needs.
Getting the right road infrastructure in place will be a crucial part of that transformation. I am taking another step in my virtual tour, as we zero in on the road transport needs of the local economy. That is why the Government are investing record amounts of money in improving and maintaining highways across the country, to help motorists. That includes £15 billion on our strategic road network and, crucially, £5 billion for local schemes through the local growth fund historically. That is designed to improve growth, support communities and the wider economy and inhibit the effects of the congestion that comes with economic development.
Much of that funding is not ring-fenced, and therefore it is for local authorities to determine how best to use it, based on their needs and priorities. In the current spending review period, we have allocated a total of £6.1 billion to local highways maintenance between 2015 and 2021, and £1.5 billion through the integrated transport block for capital investment in smaller transport improvement projects. For the Tees Valley, that funding is worth about £14 million a year. As it forms part of the combined authority’s single capital pot agreed in the devolution deal, there is flexibility to use the funding in the most effective way to meet the area’s needs. I am sure that the Mayor and councils will reflect on my hon. Friend’s speech as they think about the different pots of money they can bring together to create an integrated plan, of which he has so eloquently spoken.
The Government have also supported transport improvements through local growth funding provided to the Tees Valley local enterprise partnership, through the three growth deals. That includes such projects as providing access to the Central Park enterprise zone in Darlington, making improvements to the Teesside Park and A66 interchange, and dualling Ingleby Way and Myton Way, with further schemes in development.
The Government have recognised the importance of good connectivity and accessibility to improving productivity by providing additional funding through the national productivity investment fund, for all the reasons we have described. The first £185 million of that fund was allocated to local highway authorities by formula in the present financial year, so that work on the ground could be started quickly. Within Tees Valley, it was agreed that the funding would be used to improve the area’s key route network, by delivering local interventions on the A66 and its connecting routes to improve the strategic connection between the A1(M) and Teesport. The Government allocated a further £244 million through a competitive bidding round. In Tees Valley, that has supported three schemes, with funding of more than £8 million, including £3 million to Middlesbrough Council for the A66 and A171 cargo fleet roundabout scheme to improve access to the port, and £2 million for Redcar and Cleveland Council to remove a congestion bottleneck at the A171 Swans Corner roundabout in my hon. Friend’s constituency.
The Government recognise that local areas can have strategic priorities that require funding beyond the scope of their local growth fund allocations to deliver. We are getting closer to the nub—the central roundabout, if I can put it that way—of my hon. Friend’s speech. That is why we set up our large local majors programme to enable local areas to develop and bring forward proposals for very large schemes. In Tees Valley, we have provided development funding for the combined authority to work up business cases for two of its strategic road schemes: the north Darlington bypass, to provide a better route to the A1 and release land for housing; and a second Tees crossing, to relieve congestion on both the A19 and the local road network. Those are likely to be very large schemes, so we will need to see rigorous business cases—I emphasise that they need to be rigorous—from the combined authority before considering whether they are able to proceed.
It is not just local roads that require investment. We are taking action on the strategic road network as well. The present road investment strategy outlines how we are investing in the strategic road network until 2021. In total, we are investing something like £15 billion in more than 100 major schemes, and that significant investment is being used to develop major new schemes, as well as to support asset renewal and maintenance.
We are taking a much longer-term approach to the acknowledgment, understanding and maintenance of our assets, and that is reflected in all the investments we make. Within Highways England’s Yorkshire and north-east area, which includes the Tees Valley, we are investing £1.4 billion in new road schemes. That includes a major new scheme on the A19 in the Tees Valley—the Norton to Wynyard scheme—that will benefit local residents and businesses by relieving congestion and improving journey times. Both carriageways will be widened to provide three traffic lanes, and the replacement of the road surface is designed to reduce road traffic noise. The scheme will promote local growth and allow new developments to be brought forward in the Tees Valley area. The scheme will complement two earlier Highways Agency pinch-point schemes at the Wolviston interchange and the A174 Parkway junction on the A19, and will smooth the way along the entire route. The Norton to Wynyard scheme is currently under development and is still on track to meet the committed start-of-works date of March 2020.
As my hon. Friend said, a very important part of this is sustainable and public transport. That needs to be a crucial part of the way that not just Middlesbrough but all our cities and potentially rural areas think about the change to a genuinely multi-modal transport system of the 21st century. I want to talk about that in some more detail and the priority we place on encouraging people to get out of their cars and take the train or bus, and to cycle or walk.
I was pleased to learn that the Department has provided funding for the new station at James Cook Hospital on the Marton Road, as my hon. Friend acknowledged, which opened in 2015. We also provided £37 million towards the Tees Valley bus network scheme—an innovative package of bus lanes, junction improvements and improved passenger information systems that was also completed in 2015. More recently, the combined authority has taken forward a programme of schemes using local growth funding to support public transport, cycling and walking. Last year, the Department awarded the combined authority £3.3 million for its “Connect Tees Valley” project, to increase the number of children travelling sustainably to school. We are providing technical support to help the authority to develop a local cycling and walking infrastructure plan. Through those initiatives, I hope that people will be encouraged to consider other options for travelling into Middlesbrough and across the region.
I hope I have reassured my hon. Friend that the Government are supporting the growth of the Tees Valley by providing investment to improve connectivity across the area and beyond. We continue to bring forward new initiatives that may address some of the problems he has described. In the Budget the week before last, the Chancellor announced a new £1.7 billion fund to improve intra-city transport with projects that drive productivity by improving connectivity, reducing congestion and using new mobility services and technology. The transforming cities fund is part of our commitment to place cities and city regions at the heart of the industrial strategy. Half of the funding is being allocated to the six combined authorities with elected metro Mayors on a per capita basis. That means that Tees Valley will receive £59 million over the four years between 2018-19 and 2021-22. We are aiming to say more about the fund shortly, but the intention is that it will empower the Mayor to take strategic decisions about the interventions he wants, very much along the lines that my hon. Friend described.
My hon. Friend mentioned the major road network. As the Government announced in the transport investment strategy, we have accepted the case made in the Rees Jeffreys report of October 2016 to give special recognition to the most strategically important local authority roads. The major road network will receive dedicated funding from the national roads fund. We will consult on our proposals for the creation of the MRN before the end of this year. The consultation will consider all the questions that my hon. Friend raised, such as how we define the MRN, how we plan for investment in it, how schemes are brought forward for funding and the timetable.
It is too early to say whether the routes we have discussed today would be eligible for MRN funding, but I urge my hon. Friend and all those who support the powerful agenda for change in transport in south Middlesbrough that he has advocated to put forward their views through the consultation process and to continue to make the case with all the force he has brought to the debate and the wider initiative. I hope I have been able to demonstrate the Government’s commitment to improving connectivity, and I thank my hon. Friend for his energetic and timely intervention.
Question put and agreed to.
Palestinian Communities: Israeli Demolitions
[Mark Pritchard in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the effect of Israeli demolitions on Palestinian communities.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. Before beginning the debate in earnest, I will make clear a couple of things, which I hope will ensure that this and subsequent debates can proceed in a constructive manner.
First, nothing that I or, I hope, others will say is about religion or ethnicity. This is not an issue of Arab, Muslim or Jewish people. It is about upholding our basic values of justice and human rights, and it is about holding to account those states, Governments and duty bearers that violate those principles and laws. While the debate will, of course, discuss Israeli Government policies, with regard to the demolitions, this is not about being pro-Israel or pro-Palestine; it is about being pro-justice and pro-human rights. At a time when there seems to be a growing number of countries facing conflict, upheaval and political uncertainty, it is not a question of which is more important to talk about—they are all important.
Palestine has been in a perpetual—some would say declining—state of all of the above for more than 50 years. Indeed, the Israel-Palestine conflict is one of the most protracted in the world.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. On the issue of decline, does he agree that, in the three years since that particular aspect of the conflict ended, conditions are actually getting worse in the Gaza strip? Many constituents have contacted me about that declining humanitarian situation. We need to redouble our efforts internationally to tackle it.
I agree, and I point to a recent UN report, which declared that Gaza will be “unliveable” by 2020 due to the degrading infrastructure there, which is degrading for reasons that we know well. My hon. Friend is absolutely right on that point.
My hon. Friend is very generous in giving way. On the comments he has just made, does he accept that Hamas recently rebuilding the terrorist tunnels can regrettably only make the prospect of peace recede even more?
I agree that fault can be allocated on all sides of this conflict. The point I make—I hope to illustrate it further during my speech—is that Israel holds the whip hand in this situation; it is in its gift to make some progress and move forward. It is important to see the balance of the relationship in that context.
Does my hon. Friend think that the encroachment on Palestinian lands, the demolitions and the sanctions on the Palestinians are leading to a situation in which a two-state solution may not be viable any more?
I personally remain absolutely committed to the two-state solution, but I recognise, as I will set out in my speech, that there has been a 600% increase in settlements in the illegally occupied territories in the west bank. It becomes increasingly difficult to see how a two-state solution could work with that level of occupation taking place.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate and on his considered comments. Does this not underline the importance of people in positions of influence taking a measured response? The comments that the President of the United States will make later this afternoon, in which he will recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, are therefore highly regrettable and highly dangerous.
The hon. Gentleman may well have seen a draft of my speech, because I was about to come on to that very point. The expected announcement later today by the President of the United States on recognising Jerusalem as the capital of Israel has sent shockwaves across the world. If that announcement happens, it may well be the death knell for any prospective peace process. However, I will talk a bit more about the changing facts on the ground, and what that means for peace, in a while.
The second point I make on the framing of the debate is that I want to be as clear as possible that I am deeply ashamed of the fact that, due to the actions, views and behaviour of a minority of persons in my party, a perception has grown that Labour has a problem with anti-Semitism. I have no truck whatsoever with anyone who expresses or excuses anti-Semitic views, and any member of the Labour party—or any party, for that matter—who does should be expelled as fast as possible. That applies whoever they are, be they the former Mayor of one of the great cities of the world, someone who has just delivered some leaflets or an otherwise inactive member. If they are an anti-Semite, or a defender or excuser of anti-Semites, they are not welcome in our party. They never have been and they never will be.
My hon. Friend is very generous in giving way again. In relation to his comments, how does he view the statements from Labour members who claim that allegations of anti-Semitism are simply smears against the leader of the Labour party?
We need to remain absolutely clear that anything that looks to defend, excuse or promote anything that could be remotely perceived as anti-Semitism must be treated as grounds for expulsion from the party. We need to hold very true to that principle.
On that point, it has to be recognised that the people of Israel would gain from a solution and peace and from not having to expend so much energy, and the energy of their young people, on security. They need to be able to move forward. This is not only about a solution for the people of Palestine; it is also about a solution for the people of Israel.
The hon. Lady is absolutely right. There can be no peace without security and there can be no security without peace. That rule applies universally. With that in mind, I hope that we can have a constructive debate, finding common ground and advancing the cause of peace, justice and security for the peoples of both Israel and Palestine.
Next year will mark 25 years since the signing of the Oslo accords. That moment was meant to represent a turning point, heralding a new and lasting era of peace and co-existence—the beginning of a genuine and complete two-state solution. However, what has a Palestinian approaching his or her 25th birthday today actually seen? An increase in the number of illegal settlers, from 258,000 to more than 600,000, despite countless international rulings that the settlements violate international law. The Oslo generation have seen nothing but the increasing fragmentation and annexation of their land.
I am struck by what my hon. Friend says about the situation of children and young people; it is something I saw for myself when I visited the west bank. According to the Norwegian Refugee Council, there are 55 educational facilities in Area C of the west bank with outstanding demolition orders against them. Will he join me in sending a strong message to the Israeli Government that demolishing schools is completely unacceptable and is counter to any effort to achieve peace in the region?
I add to my hon. Friend’s point that we in the international community have for many years been telling the people of Palestine that, with politics and constructive engagement, a solution will be found. What hope do we give to those young people in those educational establishments if that seems to not be happening?
Will my hon. Friend give way?
I will just make a little more progress and then I will give way.
The Oslo generation have also seen 50,000 homes and properties demolished, often resulting in the forced displacement of families and entire communities, and the construction of an illegal separation barrier, which carves up the west bank and brutally disconnects towns, cities, families and communities from each other. They have also seen, for the first time in history, the separation of the historic cities of Jerusalem and Bethlehem.
On Jerusalem and the unfortunate and misguided announcement from the US President, will my hon. Friend comment on the restatement of British policy at Prime Minister’s Question Time today that Jerusalem should not be dealt with in the way the US President suggests?
I thank my hon Friend. I very much welcome the Prime Minister’s comments at Prime Minister’s questions. That was a very important restatement of very important principles. Let us just hope that she may be able to have some form of constructive conversation with the President of the United States about that, although having a constructive conversation with that particular gentleman seems to be a difficult thing to do.
Jerusalem, the city of three faiths, is under constant threat as a political pawn. There is the separation of the west bank and Gaza, with a 2 million population trapped in the tiny Gaza strip, in what some have called the world’s largest open-air prison, thanks to the land, sea and air blockade of Gaza. One third of the 2 million people crammed into Gaza’s 139 square miles are under 15, and almost half are under 25. A 10-year-old child will already have lived through three major wars. That is no way to grow up. In short, any young person born at the time of the Oslo accords has seen only diminishing rights and freedoms, less security and a fragmented territory that pushes the possibility of a two-state solution even further away.
I draw attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I visited Susiya on a delegation with Caabu—the Council for Arab-British understanding—in 2015 and heard at first hand how people living there were terrified of the threat of demolition. Does my hon. Friend agree that we need to redouble and intensify our efforts to stop the demolitions?
I thank my hon. Friend. I, too, have visited Susiya, and it is a moving experience, particularly when we see what needs to be done to avoid the risk of creating a construction that could be considered as a target for demolition. Buildings are built with tyres, for example, to avoid that position.
I thank my hon. Friend for the way he framed the debate. Just over three weeks ago, I was in the Bedouin village of Khan al-Ahmar and took time out to see the school there. That school, built with the support of the international community and the village, faces demolition, apparently to make way for further illegal settlements, and apparently the Israelis are upping the preparations for that demolition to happen within the next few weeks. Does my hon. Friend agree that the Minister, whom I understand has also visited the village, should in his response commit to redoubling the Government’s efforts to prevent that demolition from happening?
I thank my hon. Friend. In my speech, I will talk about the other communities under threat of demolition. I very much look forward to hearing the Minister’s response and hope that it will not just be rhetoric and that there will be some reality in there as well.
One of the strengths of Israel is the independence of its rule of law and the way in which the courts fearlessly impose decisions on occasions, but what is particularly tragic about the schools that are being threatened with demolition—I have seen them myself, as many other people have—is that they are in the shadow of illegal settlements. The contradiction and imbalance that exists does not help Israel and the perception of Israel in the rest of the world.
I thank my hon. Friend. The juxtaposition of the young people in those communities seeking to get an education with, right on their doorstep, those illegal settlements is a metaphor for the terribly challenging situation in which we find ourselves.
A moment ago, my hon. Friend was talking about Gaza. Is it not the case that Israel signed an agreement on movement and access in relation to Gaza with the Palestinian Authority; gave the Palestinians control over the borders for the first time in history; allowed imports and exports; planned for the construction of a sea port and an airport; and pulled out of Gaza and removed the settlers? But Hamas took over; expelled Fatah; murdered rival Palestinians; armed itself with hundreds of thousands of rockets aimed at Israel, which were provided by Iran; and dug tunnels to attack civilians on kibbutzes? That is what happened in Gaza. What responsibility does my hon. Friend ascribe to Hamas for the situation in Gaza, and how does he think it is possible to resolve it?
I agree that many of the things that my hon. Friend listed have taken place, but the fact remains that there has been a land, sea and air-based blockade of the Gaza strip throughout that entire period. Gaza is now described as the largest open-air prison in the world, and the UN has declared that it will be unliveable by 2020, so there is a humanitarian crisis that has to be resolved, and it is in the gift of the Israeli Government to take that forward.
I have described the harsh reality of the facts on the ground. I met the commissioner-general of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency yesterday, and his message to the international community was clear: conflict management is not enough, and we must do more to support an actual resolution to the conflict. I agree that we cannot continue with a wait-and-see approach. Where has that got us over the last 50 years, 25 years or the 10 years of the Gaza blockade? We are where we are because of choices that have been made—choices on both sides of the conflict. Foremost among them has been the active choice to continue the expansion of illegal settlements on Palestinian territory and the forcible transfer of Palestinian families and communities from their homes. Both those policies have created a coercive environment that seeks to undermine the ability of Palestinians to continue living where they are. They are at great risk of forcible transfer, which is a clear violation of the fourth Geneva convention.
Just over a month ago, a UN report found that Israel’s role as an occupying power in the Palestinian Territories has
“crossed a red line into illegality”.
International law is clear. An occupying power cannot treat occupied territory as its own or make claims of sovereignty. Occupation must be temporary, and the power must act in good faith and in the best interests of the protected or occupied population. However—these are the findings of the UN and its special rapporteur—that has been the repeated pattern of behaviour of successive Israeli Governments over the 50 years of the occupation.
A central plank of the occupation and spread of settlements has been the demolitions. It is estimated that almost 50,000 Palestinian structures have been demolished since 1967, with 1,500 homes demolished in Rafah alone between 2000 and 2004. That is despite warnings in 1968 from Theodor Meron, later the president of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, that the demolitions, even on security grounds, broke international law and the fourth Geneva convention. Article 53 of that convention prohibits the destruction of private property by an occupying power, and it is unequivocal, so how do the Israeli Government respond? They respond not by denying the substance of the claims of demolition, but by claiming that Palestine is not a party to the Geneva convention because it is not a state. Astonishing! Stepping beyond the fact that the policies of the Israeli Government are the main obstacle to Palestinian statehood, that is an utterly specious argument, because a basic and fundamental principle of human rights law is that international human rights treaties apply in all areas in which a state exercises “effective control”, and the occupation clearly constitutes such control.
My hon. Friend mentioned the UN report and international structures. Is he aware of the EU report from March of this year that condemns the fact that, over six months, €311,692-worth of EU aid structures have also been demolished? I think that last year it was 182 structures. These are meant to be for humanitarian projects. The EU has condemned the destruction of its structures, and eight countries are putting together an approach to recover the moneys. That is seen as a very blunt diplomatic move, but desperate times possibly call for desperate measures.
I thank my hon. Friend. We have talked about all sides losing out from what is happening on the ground, and clearly Israel is not doing itself any favours with the international community when it is destroying structures that have been built with European Union aid money.
Clearly, Palestine is treated as an exception to the laws to which I was referring. Currently, 46 Bedouin communities are at risk of forcible transfer in Area C of the west bank. Why? For the implementation of Israel’s controversial and outright illegal E1 plan, which would allow Israel to connect its mega-settlements from north to south, in effect splitting the west bank in two and cutting off Jerusalem from any further Palestinian state.
I visited one of the communities during my last visit to the region with Caabu. The residents of Khan al-Ahmar told us how they lived under constant fear and threat of forcible transfer, not knowing when the bulldozers might arrive and raze their homes and school to the ground. A huge campaign is under way in the occupied territories right now to protect the school—the only one for miles—from demolition. While we were there, we were told how the children’s swings in the playground were uprooted because they violated Israeli planning laws. According to reports, there are at present more than 50 schools in the west bank with demolition or stop-work orders.
In August, on the eve of the new school year, the Israeli authorities requisitioned nine education-related structures in Area C and demolished a newly established kindergarten in the Bedouin community of Jabal al-Baba.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful case for the importance of maintaining international humanitarian law. Does he share my concern that if these demolitions go ahead in the coming weeks, as we fear, it will be the middle of winter, potentially putting families and young children at great risk, as they could be without not just their schools and playgrounds but their homes, at a time when they will face incredible hardship and real destitution?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We are clearly in the midst of a potential humanitarian crisis, which may seem small-scale purely in terms of the number of children who use that school, but is potentially catastrophic for the lives of those children. We should appeal to the humanitarian instincts of all hon. Members today.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful case about the day-to-day disruption of the lives of ordinary Palestinians. Does he agree with this central point—that none of this can be justified by reference to Hamas or general references to the security situation? Everybody present for this debate must agree that security is fundamental for Israel, but it should not erode the day-to-day rights of Palestinian men, women and children.
I thank my hon. Friend. We know that there can be no peace without security and there can be no security without peace, and we have to find a way out of this vicious circle. I believe that it is in the gift of the Israeli Government to make the progress that is so desperately required.
It seems that nothing is off limits. During August and September 2017, the Israeli authorities demolished or seized a total of 63 Palestinian-owned structures, affecting over 1,200 people, all on the grounds of lack of Israeli-issued permits, which are nearly impossible to obtain. The Supreme Court of Israel, the role of which is to protect the rule of law, has, in a peak of irony, ruled that demolitions can be carried out without any right to appeal if the Israel defence forces judge that advance warning would hinder demolition action. Accordingly, the Israeli non-governmental organisation B’Tselem has said:
“It seems that Israel is so confident in its ability to expel entire villages without incurring judicial or international criticism that it is no longer bothering to create even the illusion of legal proceedings.”
Israel is often portrayed as a lonely beacon of democracy and pluralism in the middle east. Well, it is time the Israeli Government began to live up to that, because there is nothing democratic or pluralistic about demolishing homes, community infrastructure, schools and kinder- gartens, and there is certainly nothing democratic or pluralistic about denying due process and undermining the rule of law.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way and I apologise for being late; I had a meeting with the Bahraini ambassador.
I was rather bemused by this debate, because although I know that the hon. Gentleman regularly speaks at the Centre for Turkey Studies, I have never heard him speak about Turkish settlers from the mainland in north Cyprus—200,000 people who invaded north Cyprus—yet he wants to talk about Israel. Should not he, and indeed some of his friends at the Centre for Turkey Studies, actually consider that?
Order. This debate has been clearly advertised and it is about a particular subject, which the hon. Member has chosen to submit to Mr Speaker; Mr Speaker has seen fit that it should be selected for debate, and we will have a debate on this subject and this subject alone.
I thank the hon. Gentleman and would be delighted to discuss that at another time, following the ruling of our Chairman.
It is impossible to separate the demolitions from the illegal policy of annexation and settlements, because for settlements to be constructed, existing property or land has to be cleared. Because of these two interconnected policies, Israel is in violation of 40 UN Security Council resolutions and over 100 General Assembly resolutions. These violations harm not only the Palestinian people and the standing of Israel but all of us, by serving to undermine international law and prospects for peace. They are a scar on the conscience of the international community. The latest US move to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel supports this undermining of international law and validating of the illegal policies and practices of the Government of Israel.
I thank the hon. Gentleman, who is making a very informed case. He is absolutely right that the illegal settlements and the demolition of Palestinian property are a major roadblock to peace in that region. As we have heard from hon. Members, the announcement by President Trump will have a devastating impact on the region and the process. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that we need a united response from the international community to condemn this move?
I certainly welcome the Prime Minister’s comments earlier today. I hope there can be cross-party support for restating the clear and long-held position of the British Government on this matter.
As we speak, a swathe of communities remain at risk of forcible transfer. Susiya, Khan al-Ahmar, Ain al-Hilweh, Um al-Jamal and Jabal al-Baba are under imminent threat—824 people, 464 under the age of 18, reside in these communities. Just a few days ago, 35 UK rabbis wrote to the Israeli ambassador regarding the impending demolitions in Susiya, to urge the Israeli Government to stop and think. Demolition, displacement and forced transfer in Susiya and other Palestinian communities in Area C would constitute a war crime under international law.
I am sure that all hon. Members here will wish to join me in urging the Israeli Government to think again and withdraw its threat to demolish and displace these communities; these are violations of international law that set back the cause of peace and security. I believe we must respond to these illegal acts of occupation, as we would have done to other such acts around the world. The UK and the European Council prohibited the trade import of all goods from Crimea after the Russian illegal occupation and annexation in 2014. We should follow that precedent when it comes to the illegal settlements. This is land that has been illegally seized and annexed. Palestinian property and homes have been destroyed and seized. Communities have been uprooted, displaced and destroyed. Therefore I see no way in which we cannot cease to trade with the illegal settlements. I categorically do not propose an end to trade with the state of Israel, of course, but let us be clear: the illegal settlements are not part of Israel proper; they are part of occupied Palestinian territory. How can we continue to support this illegal settlement enterprise? Surely that makes us complicit in illegal activities. Continued trade with illegal settlements creates an economic incentive for more illegal acts. It encourages the demolition of homes and communities to make way for settlements, simultaneously denying Palestinians access to economic opportunities.
Tamir Pardo, the former head of Mossad, has said that in that coercive environment, which is so insidious and dangerous,
“Israel faces one existential threat,”
and it is not external—Iran or Hezbollah—but rather “internal.” It is the result of a divisiveness in Israel, resulting from a Government that has decided to bury its head
“deep in the sand, to preoccupy ourselves with alternative facts and flee from reality”.
Those are the words of a former head of Mossad, who makes clear that the existential threat facing Israel is one of its own making, namely the occupation. As Pardo has gone on to argue, the blockade, the occupation, the demolitions and the aggressive annexation of Palestinian land are matters that we should all be concerned about, not because it is a pro-Israeli or pro-Palestinian position, but because they undermine peace, as well as the moral, political and legal fabric of Israel.
How can my hon. Friend argue that the existential threat that Israel faces is one of its own making, when on day one, the day of Israel’s establishment in 1948, the country was invaded by five Arab armies, when the Palestine Liberation Organisation and Hamas have been dedicated to Israel’s destruction for the past 70 years, when Iran is committed to wiping Israel off the map of the earth and is arming Hezbollah and Hamas with rockets to do that?
I thank my hon. Friend for that question. I remind him that I am quoting Tamir Pardo, the former head of Mossad, who has named that as the existential threat.
That is not what you think, but you are quoting it.
I agree with Mr Pardo—
May I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate and thank him for making such powerful points? In December 2017, a Palestinian reflecting on the 100 years since the Balfour declaration will find that only half the deal has been done and that the Palestinians have got nothing. There have been millions of refugees over a period longer than any other relating to refugees all over the world. Palestinians cannot access their land because it has been taken systematically and there have been demolitions and planning restrictions. On top of that, Donald Trump has declared, illegally, that Jerusalem is Israel’s capital. The situation for Palestinians must be awful and dark. What hope do they really have?
I agree that the situation looks bleak. The question is: how can we ensure that the next generations of young Israelis and Palestinians see any merit in supporting the rule of law and democracy and believe in peace with the other side? With the wall, the demolitions, the continuing land grab, the forced displacement and the isolation of Gaza, both sides seem to be further away from peace and security than ever before.
In my opening remarks I mentioned that this year is the 25th anniversary of Oslo, but there is another anniversary that we must recall, which is that 2017 marks the centenary of the Balfour declaration. One hundred years on from Balfour, I urge every hon. Member of this House to recall the particular responsibility that our country bears for what has come to pass. With that in mind, I would implore us all to revisit the historic significance of the declaration’s words, which acclaimed that
“the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people...it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.”
Does my hon. Friend agree that the comments of Economy Minister Naftali Bennett a few months ago that they “returned” to the west bank
“in order to stay forever, without conceding land and without foreign sovereignty”
are at variance with the Balfour declaration?
I think that a number of statements from senior Israeli Government officials are not helping and are not making a constructive contribution to the peace and security that we want to see for both Israel and Palestine.
My contention is twofold. First, not only are the Israeli Government failing to uphold the principles and stated aims of the Balfour declaration; they are actively undermining them on an almost daily basis. Secondly, our Government are utterly failing to live up to the responsibilities bequeathed on them by Balfour. Therefore we must, working in partnership with our international allies, deploy every diplomatic and commercial tool at our disposal to put pressure on the Israeli Government.
It is 100 years since Balfour, 50 years since the beginning of the illegal occupation and 25 years since Oslo. There have been moments along the way when it looked like things might change and that negotiations might forge a path to peace. Tragically, those moments proved to be false dawns. Rather than be disheartened, we should learn from those experiences and mistakes, rather than continue to do the same thing expecting different results. Just recently, Tony Blair admitted that our policy of isolation and disengagement with Hamas in Gaza was wrong. We should embrace that view and actively look for ways to support the present reconciliation efforts between Fatah and Hamas.
Another lesson to learn is that condemnation alone is not enough. What has decades of condemning illegal settlement expansion led to? A mushrooming of settlements across the Palestinian territory and 600,000 illegal settlers. We have to disincentivise the settlement enterprise and put a cost on the violation of international law. We in this House can no longer stand by and do nothing. We, as international actors, have a duty to act, and part of that is holding duty bearers to account, whether it is the PA, Hamas or Israel as the occupying power.
Generations of Palestinians have grown up with diminishing rights and freedoms, so how can we expect them to have faith in conventional politics, believe in the rule of law and continue to hope for peace? Let us not forget that beyond the statistics and legal arguments, these are ordinary communities and families who have the same basic aspirations that we do: to live in safety and security, to protect their families and loved ones and to enjoy their basic rights, whether in education or economic opportunity. But we will also see the continued pollution of the Israeli body politic by divisive figures and ideas with no interest in peace, unless we speak up for, and assert, norms of internal and international decency and justice. Otherwise, injustice, on both sides of this conflict, will escalate and spiral out of control. So let us stand and speak up today, and let us make our voice heard.
Order. Given the interest in this debate and the number of Members who want to speak, I was originally going to restrict speeches to three minutes, but restricting them to two minutes will get everybody in. At three minutes, not everybody will get in, so I am making the judgment that it will be two minutes, because I think it is important that all Members have an opportunity to say at least something on the record, even if they do not have much to say. I am sure it will be pregnant with meaning from both sides of the House. I call John Howell.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I am very grateful to the hon. Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock), who opened this debate, for his clear statement that the Labour party is not anti-Semitic. That is a very useful thing to have put on the record.
This region is one of the most contested in the world, with extremely complex land ownership issues. It is important to contextualise those before discussing the issue, rather than simply inferring from the debate’s title that all Israel wishes to do is to destroy Palestinian homes. We need to go back to the Oslo accords of 1993 and how they split Areas A, B and C. I have seen in press reports from the Palestinian side that the Palestinians have admitted that the structures they have put out in Area C are in fact illegal. There is no getting away from that—that is exactly what they have admitted. I have spent years trying to reform the planning system in the UK; I am not going to try to reform the planning system in Israel.
The Oslo generation needs to move away from what we have seen so far. It is that generation that has participated in the stabbings, shootings and car-ramming attacks during the recent waves of terrorism. The institutionalised radicalisation behind those attacks is perhaps the most significant obstacle to a lasting peace in the generations to come.
It is time that we put more effort into a reconciliation deal, but that deal must include the demilitarisation of the Hamas terror group, and the Palestinian Authority must deliver on their commitment to end incitement and hate education, as they agreed to in the Oslo accords. If those obstacles can be overcome, the issues of borders, settlements—which have been discussed today —and security can finally be negotiated in direct peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians.
I was going to make a number of points, but my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock), who opened the debate, focused on settlements, so that is what I will address in the time available.
Settlements are obviously not making things easier, but the truth is that they can be dealt with. Some 85% of the settlers live on the Israeli side of the security barrier, on 8% of the west bank, in areas largely adjacent to Israeli urban areas. That can be dealt with by land swaps, which were the basis of the talks as far back as Camp David and Annapolis and which have been supported by the US, the EU and the Arab League; by moving settlers, as happened in Gaza; or by allowing others to stay under Palestinian sovereignty, just as there are, always have been and always will be Arabs living in Israel too.
Far from concreting over the whole of the west bank, as has been suggested, the settlements beyond the major blocks account for just 0.4% of the territory of the west bank. They are not mushrooming and do not represent a permanent physical barrier to a viable Palestinian state. Of course I am worried about settlements, but to say that they are the only or biggest issue is clearly absolute nonsense.
The truth is that, over many years and many negotiations, the issue of the settlements and land has the broadest agreement on how to solve it. Instead of demonising one side in what is a complex conflict, we should promote dialogue, because the alternative to negotiation and compromise is more conflict and more violence. Instead of pretending, as my hon. Friend’s speech does, that all the fault lies with one side or the other, Britain must play a role in working towards peace, promoting co-existence and doing what we can here in the UK to develop a lasting solution. We should support co-existence projects, increased economic ties between the Israelis and Palestinians, and measures to bring people together, like the International Fund for Israeli-Palestinian Peace, which I hope the Minister will tell us today he will do more to support.
It is 50 years since Security Council resolution 242, which was based on two principles. The first was the withdrawal of Israel’s armed forces from territories occupied in the six-day war—the Gaza strip, the west bank and east Jerusalem, and parts of Syrian Golan heights. That has largely happened. The second principle was the confirmation of sovereignty and the territorial integrity of all states in the region. That has not happened, and 50 years later the failure to implement resolution 242 has resulted in some of the things on the ground we are describing today.
My position is that I fully support Israel’s right to exist. It is a thriving democracy and I want it to continue, but I also support the right of Palestinians to have their own state. I am very surprised at the way in which Israel sometimes deals with Palestinians, particularly in the west bank. Removing people from their homes in the middle of the night—often, and by force—is utterly unacceptable, and so is the immediate bulldozing of their homes and giving them no place to live. I very much support Israel as a sovereign, independent and democratic state, but its actions in demolishing Palestinian and Bedouin communities, particularly in Area C, comes perilously close to some of the stuff I witnessed in the Balkans in the early 1990s. Israel must stop those actions, because I want fully to support Israel. Please, Israel, consider what you are doing and stop the process happening.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock) on securing this debate.
Given the time restrictions, I will not go through what I had written, but I will echo what my hon. Friend has said. This debate is not about Palestine and Israel and the religious side of things. It is really about the children of Palestine enjoying the same rights as the children across the wall. It is about the Oslo accords and the agreements that were supposed to be a tool to liberate the Palestinians and give them rights, but have been used as a method to strangulate the Palestinians. That method has been used through jurisdiction, through the changes of law and through the application of planning processes, whereby less than 2% of planning applications have been granted in that area.
This is not the first time Israel has done this: the House needs to realise that Israel—this so-called thriving democracy—is the only country that continues to commit acts of war. That is what the demolition of settlements is. It breaches international law; it is a war crime. That is what people call it—that is what Amnesty International is calling it—and that is what we need to recognise. What Israel is committing is a war crime. These are children who will be displaced from their families in the middle of winter with nowhere to go. It is an illegal act.
How much longer can we carry on just having these debates, trying to talk about it, but nothing is done? What is the Minister going to do when he leaves this debate? Will he put pressure on Israel to stop the demolition of Susiya? Will he give hope to those children who will not have a roof over their heads, despite the fact that these are their homes, not Israel’s?
I congratulate the hon. Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock) on securing this important debate. I refer hon. Members to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
I had an opportunity to visit Israel and the west bank last year; I believe it is only possible to properly understand the challenges of the conflict by visiting there oneself. There is still support for a two-state solution on both sides of the conflict, but it seems difficult to see how that can be realised in the current climate.
There remains a great gulf between Gaza and the west bank, not only geographically but ideologically. Hamas continues to publicly condemn dialogue with Israel and remains committed to its destruction. Hamas and Fatah still cannot agree on the final terms of an Egypt-brokered reconciliation deal, and until Hamas renounces violence and disarms, it can be no partner for peace with Israel.
We have a duty not to exacerbate tensions between both sides by failing to comprehend vital aspects of the conflict, which other Members have articulated. Just as Israel enforces planning laws against Palestinian residents, so too does it remove Israeli homes built on private Palestinian land in the west bank. It is true that both Israel and the Palestinian Authority can do more to help facilitate the building of infrastructure crucial for a future Palestinian state. Like other Members, I welcome the recent fall in the number of house demolitions by the Israeli authorities. That makes everyone more amenable to a peaceful outcome.
Ultimately, we all want to see a two-state solution giving sovereignty to the Palestinians and safety and security to Israel. Let us use this debate as an opportunity to encourage both sides to return to the negotiating table, where the issue of land borders can finally be resolved and demolitions are a thing of the past.
I am opposed to any action by any side that makes the achievement of a two-state solution more difficult to achieve, so I welcome the fact that the demolition of most encampments at both Khan al-Ahmar and Susiya has been halted while matters are considered by Israel’s High Court, and that, uniquely in the middle east, Israel’s independent judiciary can scrutinise, challenge and, where appropriate, overturn the decisions of the Executive branch. I note that illegal Israeli structures and settlements have been demolished this year at Amona, Ofra and Netiv Ha’avot. I have repeatedly made clear my opposition to increased settlement building in the west bank, and my desire, which I have expressed directly to Benjamin Netanyahu, that Israel should freeze settlement building.
Listening to today’s debate, I am deeply concerned that the intention of some might be to bring more heat than light to the search for peace. Surely Britain’s role is to support those on both sides who support peace and co-existence—people who will inevitably have to make difficult decisions and brave compromises. The vital support that we can provide requires balance, empathy and moderation in the language that we deploy. We do not advance the cause of peace with a narrative that pours blame on to one side and absolves the others of responsibility or any sense of agency.
We fool ourselves if we believe that settlement building is the sole obstacle to peace. As the former Secretary of State, John Kerry, suggested last December,
“settlements are not the whole or even the primary cause of this conflict”.
We have seen in the Clinton parameters and the Geneva initiative that the problem is overcomable. Peace is not just about land borders, but anyone listening to today’s debate would not think that to be the case. Alongside the condemnations of Israel’s settlement building, I want some of the other problems to be addressed, such as incitement, payment of salaries to prisoners, and naming schools after terrorists.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock) on securing this very important debate. I accept many of his arguments and respect the tone in which he put them, although I take issue with one point. This matter has been an issue for successive Governments and it is important that we work across parties to try to resolve the problems.
The issue was brought to my attention by one of my constituents, a chap called Anthony Glaister, who visits the region regularly to work with charities for the disabled. One particular story that he told me sticks in my mind. It was about Nuha, a Gazan mother of 10 who was nine months pregnant when she was killed after the house next to hers was destroyed by Israeli troops. It was reported that in the explosion the walls collapsed; the husband managed to find most of his children, but sadly his wife remained trapped when the wall collapsed on her.
House demolitions have stood at the centre of Israel’s approach to the “Arab problem” since the state’s conception. The policy goes far beyond mere administrative and military means to contain or force out an entire population. From 1948 to the present, it represents a policy of displacement, with one people dispossessing another, taking both their land and their right to self-determination. Many justifications are given. The Israeli authorities claim that the demolitions are intended not as punishment, but to deter Palestinians from future aggression and getting involved in attacks. It seems to be an ill-conceived concept to think that they could possibly be a deterrent to aggression. Clearly, it is an issue, and Netanyahu recently said so on “The Andrew Marr Show”. It is time to try to resolve it, to remove one more block to peace. I have no doubt that there are faults on both sides of the conflict, and that leads to justifications being given; but to my mind it is time to get around the table with the moderates, ideally with the support of an independent moderator, to try to resolve the issue.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock) on securing this important and timely debate. It is a debate that is close to my heart as the chair of Labour Friends of Palestine and the Middle East. I want to concentrate on one issue: the importance of upholding international law.
We have covered many of the statistics, but I will remind right hon. and hon. Members that between 2006 and 2007 Israel demolished at least 1,299 Palestinian residential units, and almost 3,000 children lost their homes as a result of the demolitions. In the same period the Israeli civil administration demolished 462 non-residential structures, including schools, denying many Palestinians access to basic utilities and any viable hope for their local economies. The important point is whether that action helps or hinders the movement towards peace. Clearly, proceeding with the demolitions is nothing close to a blueprint for peace.
Residents of Susiya are begging the international community to highlight their case. Some 20 buildings are expected to be demolished, leaving entire families exposed to winds and freezing rain. The Israeli administration has argued that the villagers of Susiya did not have permission to build their homes—an argument that other hon. Members have repeated; but the Israeli authorities rarely give such permissions, so that is a completely false argument. Forcible transfer of protected persons is illegal; it is a war crime under both the fourth Geneva convention and the Rome statute of the International Criminal Court. The confiscation of land to build or expand settlements in an occupied territory is a violation of international law; and we must support international law.
As a Member hailing from Northern Ireland I have a real understanding of complex cases as we have moved forward to try and find a solution there. I was a proud celebrant of the anniversary of the Balfour declaration and I am proud of the role that our predecessor MPs in these hallowed halls took in bringing the state of Israel back home.
In more recent history, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators agreed in 1995 to divide the west bank into Areas A, B, and C. It was agreed that Area C would be under full Israeli control. In reality the only way to resolve the issue of land borders is to secure a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians, which will come about through the resumption of direct negotiations. The Israeli people must be brought into peace negotiations, and that is hard to do when they are constantly being vilified and criminalised in the media and through propaganda. This is not the way to pave the way to peace; this is a path that is strewn with bitter resentment and choking thorns.
In accordance with Oslo II, the Palestinian Authority dictates the planning laws in Areas A and B of the west bank, just as Israel enforces the planning and zoning laws in Area C. The fact of the matter is that the EU has built more than 1,000 homes in Area C of the west bank without planning permission, flying EU flags above those structures in what is surely a defiance of Israeli jurisdiction. The flagrant disregard of zoning laws would not be tolerated in any one of our constituencies; not one MP here would take it. I can somewhat understand why tension has been heightened. However, I can never condone or offer excuses for the actions that happen when tensions are heightened on either side.
It is our job to approach the matter in a reasoned and reasonable way, and that approach appears to be sadly lacking. I will speak out for a long-term solution that does not include heavy-handed attitudes, but includes working closely with all the parties involved, to attempt to find a way to peace and hope for the people of every community in the west bank. That is the only way to move things forward.
To get peace, so that we do not have another generation of Israelis hating Palestinians and Palestinians hating Israelis, let us get the two sides to a negotiation table and bring about a peaceful solution. I think that is the thrust of all the speeches today, and we should try to move towards that.
My hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock) has drawn attention to a disturbing situation. At its base is the failure to resolve the tragic conflict between Israelis and Palestinians on the basis of setting up two states. It is worth remembering that the reason Israel is in the west bank, and used to be in Gaza before its unilateral withdrawal, is that it survived the aggressive 1967 war when the Arab states invaded Israel and threatened to throw the Jews into the sea, before there was a single settlement in that area. Following Oslo it was the Palestinians who rejected negotiated offers of a Palestinian state alongside Israel, in 2000, 2001 and 2008. Former President Bill Clinton was absolutely clear that it was the Palestinians, and Yasser Arafat in particular, who were at fault.
We need new direct negotiations. That is the only way to resolve this tragic conflict. A new initiative is possible, given recent developments in the middle east, and we should grasp those opportunities very strongly indeed. There are concerns, however. There is concern about the influence of Iran, through its activities in Syria and Lebanon through Hezbollah. Iran seems determined to prevent peace in the region. There is also ongoing concern about incitement from the Palestinian Authority, who should be partners for peace. As recently as 10 November, Palestinian Authority TV broadcast a music video entitled “Break the Jews”, which featured the terrorist Dalal Mughrabi, who murdered 37 Israelis including 12 children.
Does my hon. Friend agree that perhaps next time we debate Israel-Palestine we might hear some words of concern about the manner in which the PA is poisoning the minds of another generation of Palestinian children? I have concern for those children because of such activity, as much as any other.
I agree with my hon. Friend. If the PA is a real partner for peace it should be promoting co-operation and co-existence, not engendering hate. However, whatever our views on that, and on relative culpability for the situation that we are in, there is no doubt that both Israelis and Palestinians deserve peace. The only way to bring that about is through direct negotiations to set up a Palestinian state alongside Israel.
Order. The hon. Lady was given an extra minute; those are the rules of the game, as hon. Members know, in the Chamber, so interventions are probably not advised at this point.
I add my congratulations to those that have been offered to my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock).
Let us be clear: what we are discussing is the forcible transfer of a civilian population protected under the fourth Geneva convention; and under the Rome statute of the International Criminal Court that is a war crime. The issue for us today is what we are going to do about it. The first thing to say is that international pressure has an impact. It is no accident that the postponement that the state of Israel requested for the demolition and evacuation of Susiya came after a joint EU demarche, to which I am pleased to say the UK was a party, on that issue. The Obama Administration’s opposition to the El plan and, in particular, to the destruction of Khan al-Ahmar school, is one of the reasons it is still standing today, despite continued threats. However, if we had any doubts about the current US Administration stepping in to warn Israel off egregious breaches of international law, the announcement by Donald Trump today will dispel them. That means that we have an even greater responsibility ourselves.
I want, if I have time, to put four suggestions to the Minister. The first is to use precise terminology referring to forcible transfer in public statements about demolitions, and to state the UK Government’s expectation that any individual responsible for the commission of that war crime will be held legally accountable under the Geneva conventions. The second is to instigate and support the establishment of an expert observation and investigation team to document apparent criminal offences linked to demolitions. The third is to seek compensation for the destruction or damage of any structure, whether funded in whole or in part, and whether directly or indirectly, by the UK Government, including through the EU. The fourth is to call for Israel to end its discriminatory and unlawful planning policies and laws by amending its planning legislation and processes clearly to ensure planning and construction rights for Palestinian residents in Area C of the occupied west bank.
I join colleagues in thanking my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock) for securing this timely debate, and for his powerful opening remarks.
I have been on delegations to the developing world and seen real poverty, but there is nothing harder to witness than people being deliberately denied access to the very basic freedoms, opportunities and human rights that are so abundant to others who live within just a stone’s throw of that poverty. That is what I saw in the Occupied Palestinian Territories when I visited Susiya and Khan al-Ahmar earlier this year, and I refer Members to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests regarding that visit.
The community at Khan al-Ahmar belongs to a Bedouin tribe, originally from Tel Arad, who were expelled by the Israeli military in the 1950s. They have been moved on several times since then, relocating again to where they are now, and living with no running water, sanitation or electricity. There are such communities all over Area C who are being perpetually moved on from their homelands.
The United Nations Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs cites forced displacement as one of the key humanitarian concerns in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. It states that the justification for the demolitions is that those buildings and structures were erected without building permits—I use the term “buildings” loosely because no serious construction is involved at all. In its Global Humanitarian Overview 2016, published this year, the UN states that a restrictive and discriminatory planning regime makes it virtually impossible for Palestinians to obtain the requisite Israeli building permits. To contrast that against the backdrop of the expansion of Israeli settlements and outposts across the west bank is an outrageous demonstration of the double standards that characterised what I saw during my time in the region. I urge the Government to do all they can to ensure that planning and building programmes in Palestine are undertaken on the basis of fairness, basic human rights and the urgent requirement on the ground.
As many people know, I spent almost a year and a half as a volunteer in Gaza in 1991 and 1992, and I declare an interest in that I was back there last Easter, and indeed in September, operating as a breast surgeon, teaching, and running clinics. I can therefore vouch that conditions in Gaza are absolutely appalling. The first thing that hits someone when they get through Erez is the stench of sewage. Hospitals and people have four hours of electricity a day; 100,000 people were made homeless during the attacks of 2014; and 30,000 of those are still homeless.
We are predominantly talking about punishment demolitions, and those are focused around the west bank and east Jerusalem. To create the two-state solution that this country always says is our aim, the west bank has to function. Sixty per cent. of the west bank is in Area C, and less than 2% of permits will ever be granted for building there. It is therefore inevitable that most structures are illegal. Eighty per cent. of all Bedouins live in the Jordan valley, and the threat of demolition hangs over them at all times. Of the more than 350 Palestinian communities in the Jordan valley and Area C, a quarter have no access to health facilities, and half have to travel more than 30 kilometres. There is not one single permanent health facility in that area.
Money is going from the EU or the UK to build schools and clinics that are often destroyed in an act of de-development. At the same time, settlements are being built with all amenities. The IDF produced a report in 2005 to suggest that demolitions do not work and just generate hatred. It was right. We need to turn this around. It is more than a quarter of a century since the peace process, and we must be part of bringing both sides together.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock) on securing this debate. The timing has proven rather apposite given the announcement that we know to expect at 6 pm this evening from the American President —I will say a little more about that in a moment.
I will start by focusing on the humanitarian aspect of what we mean when we talk about demolitions, and I will read from a letter from Nasser Nawajaa, who is leader of the village council of Susiya—a village east of Jerusalem in the South Hebron hills. He writes:
“On 22 November 2017 the Israeli State Attorney’s Office announced that within 15 days they plan to demolish 20 buildings, which represent one-fifth of our village. This will violate the fundamental human rights of around 100 villagers, half of them children. The 20 buildings are our homes and also provide shelter for our animals. The timing of the demolition—in the middle of winter—could not be more devastating.”
That is one of many villages now under threat from a demolition order. As hon. Members have said, there is nothing new about structures being demolished by the authorities. That has been going on for many years and, in a legal sense, because Israel has administrative authority over Area C, it is true that those structures have been built without permission. However, that authority seems to be somewhat undermined by the fact that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Central Ayrshire (Dr Whitford) said, only 2% of applications by Palestinians for building permits have been approved in the past six years—only 2%! People who are living in desperation with their farms and houses collapsing, and who have a desperate need to build new structures, have little opportunity but to try to build them unlawfully and without permission.
That is the situation we are facing, and it does not happen on the other side of the equation. If a settler living in one of the settlements wants to put an extension on their house or build a swimming pool, they have to apply for permission in the same way, but those permissions are granted. That is a gross unfairness. After the Oslo accords the creation of zones A, B and C was meant to be a transitional phase before a final settlement and a two-state solution. However, it has now become an impediment to that two-state solution, and a means of seemingly keeping it more and more distant.
Was the hon. Gentleman surprised, as I was, to hear hon. Members comparing planning in this country with planning in what is an occupied country? The settler enterprise takes up 40% of the entire west bank, not the 2% or 3% that is often alleged.
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point.
We are discussing these demolitions now because there is a new dimension to it—this is not the same thing that has been happening over many years. Consider the situation to the east of Jerusalem in the segment of the central west bank. The demolition orders now in place on those villages are part of a strategic plan in that area to depopulate it of Palestinian villages so that Israeli settlements can be created. There is the distinct purpose of extending Jerusalem to the east and the Ma’ale Adumim area, and creating a residential corridor that will effectively bisect the west bank as it is today. That that is part of a strategic plan and involves the forcible displacement and relocation of people who are living under occupation is, according to many legal authorities, a violation of international law and, as colleagues have described, a war crime. When the Minister responds to the debate, will he say whether that is also his assessment? Does he believe that what is happening with the forcible displacement of civilians within a militarily occupied area constitutes a war crime? If that is not his view, why not? If it is his view, what on earth will we do about it?
If these demolitions go ahead, and if those within the Israeli Cabinet get their way and bisect the west bank, that puts even further into the distance any prospect of a two-state solution. It puts a sustainable, peaceful, long-term agreement far beyond the horizon, and that is bad not just for the human rights of Palestinians, but for the long-term security of Israel. There is every reason why we should be concerned and see this as a different phenomenon to what has happened in the past.
Let me turn to the announcement that we are expecting at 6 o’clock from the leader of the free world. It was trailed yesterday that the American Government intend to state their policy of recognising Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. In my view, that is a horrendous mistake. Everyone knows that Jerusalem is a city of great significance for the three major Abrahamic religions —Islam, Judaism and Christianity. Everyone knows that it is disputed, and everyone has a claim. If the President goes forward with this policy, he will be seen to be taking sides in that debate, and there is a great possibility that this conflict will escalate to become more of a religious conflict than it has managed to become so far. I fear for the region and I fear for the world if that is allowed to happen.
Another aspect is that if the President makes this statement and is seen to be so partisan in his dealings with the area, he will pull the rug from underneath the feet of many people on both sides who are desperately trying to find a solution, to compromise and to accommodate one another. It will create a further problem for our Foreign and Commonwealth Office because, until now, we have looked to America to be a broker in this situation—to sponsor peace talks and to try to move things forward. If the President takes this action, he will effectively be absenting America from that process and leaving an international vacuum. That means that this country needs to step up and recognise its historic responsibilities. We need to talk with the other permanent members of the UN Security Council and try to get a fresh initiative before it is too late, because this 6 o’clock statement will take us immeasurably backwards and make this world a much more dangerous place. That is the context in which we should consider this debate.
I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s accommodation.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. We have had a number of debates on the middle east in recent months; the most recent was around the centenary of the Balfour declaration. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock) on securing this important debate. I welcome the opportunity to focus on the specific issue of demolitions, especially following a recent trip to the area in which I visited two villages that had been served with demolition orders.
I could not start my summing up today, however, without reflecting my sheer disbelief at the White House’s decision to move the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, as other hon. Members have mentioned. That reckless and provocative act not only sets back the road to a political settlement for the Israel-Palestine conflict by a generation, but threatens to escalate tensions at a time when international efforts should be focused on reducing tension, upholding the rule of law and promoting peace.
We heard some remarkable contributions from 13 different hon. Members in the two minutes that each was allowed, due to the popularity of the debate. My hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon, who introduced the debate, told us about the difficulties of a two-state solution, given the current level of settlements and occupations. He also told us about the increase in illegal settlements over 25 years and urged the Israeli Government to think again. He mentioned that, in his view, the Israeli Government were undermining the Balfour declaration. My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden) talked in his contribution about the fact that demolitions are indeed a war crime, as many other hon. Members mentioned too.
Although I welcome the fact that the number of demolitions this year has fallen from record highs in 2016, that number is still unacceptable.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
Sorry, I will not, because I have very little time. I hope the hon. Gentleman will forgive me.
Figures from the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs show that from January to early October 2017, 349 structures were demolished in the west bank, leaving 542 people displaced. It is not just homes that are being demolished; the Palestinian Authority’s Ministry of Education has stated that there are at least 50 Palestinian schools in Area C with a demolition or stop-work order pending.
We on this side of the House are very concerned that Donald Trump’s lack of interest in this issue has been taken as a green light by some in Prime Minister Netanyahu’s Administration to behave as they please. An article written last summer by the Defence Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, made it clear that he does not see the current White House as a barrier to their demolitions policy. In the absence of any leadership from the USA, the UK must play an active role and continue to work with our EU partners to place pressure on the Israeli Government. EU figures show that from January to October 2017, 72 EU or EU member state-funded structures were targeted for demolition. What assessment have the FCO and the Department for International Development made of the cost of those recent demolitions and property seizures to UK taxpayers? Can the Minister tell us what representations have been made to the Israeli authorities to recover any costs?
The issue of demolitions is inextricably linked to the heavy restrictions on building permits for Palestinians, which make it virtually impossible to build legally within Area C, which makes up 60% of the west bank. An EU report published earlier this year stated that approximately 1% of building permit applications by Palestinians have been granted in recent years. Does the Minister agree that the current building permit system is unsustainable and incongruous with the idea of a viable Palestinian state? How can Palestinians living in those restricted areas picture the future of their communities, when any attempts at development carry the risk of being destroyed?
Four weeks ago, I travelled to the Occupied Palestinian Territories with the shadow Foreign Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry). We also visited Israel. In the occupied territories, we saw some shocking examples of demolitions in the village of Susiya in the Hebron hills, where even the dwelling caves had been destroyed by the Israeli authorities for no obvious reason.
Will my hon. Friend give way?
I am sorry; I cannot. I have very little time left.
We visited the Bedouin settlement of Khan al-Ahmar, where we met residents and one of the Bedouin campaigners, Abu Khamis, who leads the resistance to his village being forcibly relocated to another part of the west bank with which villagers have no connection.
The World Bank’s figures show that if the Palestinians were given permission to develop, the west bank has the potential to grow into a successful economy. Ultimately, the Palestinian people do not want to be reliant on international aid. They must be given the chance to stand on their own feet. The inconsistency in the Israeli Government’s policies towards Israeli settlements and Palestinian development is staggering. The Israeli Government are now in a position where they feel that they can be seen to boast about the development of settlement homes. The Prime Minister’s office recently claimed that,
“12,000 settlement homes…were advanced through various planning stages in 2017”.
On my recent trip to Israel, I looked at maps of settlement activity and was deeply concerned by the pace of development. UN Security Council resolution 2334, which was passed last December, reaffirmed that the establishment of Israeli settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories has no legal validity and is a violation of international law.
The settlements and demolitions are not the only barriers to peace in the region, so let us be clear that rocket and terror attacks are completely unacceptable and must be condemned by everybody. On this side of the House, we cautiously welcome the recent talks between Fatah and Hamas, and we hope that they will help to ease some of the security challenges posed by Hamas’ control of Gaza.
I welcome the British Government’s interventions about the impending demolition of the village of Susiya. Reports by the Israeli press suggest that British representations on that matter prior to Prime Minister Netanyahu’s visit to the UK helped to postpone the demolition of Susiya. That shows that when we speak out about such issues, we can have a positive effect. I thank the Minister for the excellent work that he has done. However, I remain concerned about the Israeli authorities’ announcement on 22 November that one fifth of Susiya will be demolished within 15 days. Can the Minister reassure us that the UK Government continue to raise objections to the demolition of Susiya? More broadly, can he outline his Government’s overall strategy for opposing demolitions and settlements?
In conclusion, I am pleased that the contributions from hon. Members across different parties have made it clear that British parliamentarians are strongly interested in this issue. It is important to convey the message that we are following this matter closely, especially at a time when the US seems to be retreating from its leadership role. I hope that the Minister will take note of the opinions voiced in the debate and ensure that they are raised in any future representations to the Israeli Government on this issue.
It is a pleasure, as always, to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I thank the hon. Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock) for securing this debate. Although I do not agree with everything he said, I appreciate the measured and thoughtful way, which is familiar to all of us, in which he addressed the topic. The interventions and contributions by other hon. Members have been ably summed up by the hon. Member for Leeds North East (Fabian Hamilton), so I will not go into detail about them, but the speech of the hon. Member for Aberavon reminded us once again of the difficulties in dealing with this issue. Each side has real challenges for the other based on physical clashes, conflict and loss of life, sometimes in unclear circumstances.
I doubt whether I can move any particular set of entrenched views, but I try to represent fairly the UK Government, who have long experience—as I do—of having friends across the divide. We understand both sides of this difficult issue, offer criticism and support for actions in considered response to them and, above all, seek with increased urgency to press the case for a negotiated peace as the only way to resolve many of the matters that hon. Members have raised today before it is too late.
Concern about the general should not obscure specifics. Glorification of and incitement to terror is wrong, despite the background of occupation. Illegal settlements are wrong, notwithstanding the origins of the war of ’67 and its consequences. The general can be dealt with only by the overall settlement, but specifics can be addressed now; I shall address the specifics, because there are many general matters and I shall not be able to cover everything. In the time available, let me deal with one or two particular issues that have been raised that relate to demolitions and settlements.
According to the UN, Israel has demolished more than 390 buildings in the west bank since the start of this year, displacing more than 600 people. Furthermore, the Israeli military has issued demarcation orders that signal the intention to evacuate a number of communities, both in the Jordan valley and in E1. The Israeli Government have made it clear that those include the Bedouin villages of Susiya and Khan al-Ahmar, which are familiar to many hon. Members present. On 22 November, as the hon. Member for Leeds North East said, they notified the courts of their intention to demolish buildings in Susiya within 15 days. That deadline expires tomorrow. While the community’s lawyer is challenging that ruling, we are further concerned by reports that on Monday the Israeli Government announced an additional 13 demolition orders for the village. All told, that leaves about 40% of the village’s structures, including its only school, at risk of immediate demolition.
The UK position on demolitions, and what we do about them, is clear: we consider them entirely unacceptable. In all but the most exceptional cases, they are contrary to international humanitarian law. Every single demolition or eviction of a Palestinian family from their home causes unnecessary suffering and calls into question Israel’s commitment to a viable two-state solution. I am particularly concerned by the proposals to demolish Susiya and Khan al-Ahmar. When I visited the Occupied Palestinian Territories in August, I met members of the Susiya Bedouin community and we discussed the grave threat of forcible transfer and the understandable stress and anxiety that it was causing them. Some years ago, I also visited the Khan al-Ahmar community. Demolitions in Khan al-Ahmar are a particular concern because they appear to pave the way for a future settlement expansion in E1. Many hon. Members present know the geography pretty well, so they understand what that would mean: it would directly threaten a two-state solution with Jerusalem as the future capital for both states.
The UK has repeatedly called on the Israeli authorities not to go ahead with these plans. I urge them again to abide by international humanitarian law and reconsider the remaining demolitions planned for Susiya and Khan al-Ahmar.
(Warwick and Leamington) rose—
If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I will not give way on this occasion, because I have such a short time left and so much to deal with, and I have not got to President Trump yet. [Interruption.]
Order. May I remind members of the public who may be tempted to take a photograph that photographs are not permitted anywhere in the House of Commons?
The British Government support Bedouin communities and Palestinians whose homes face demolition or who face eviction in Area C of the west bank. To answer a question asked by the hon. Member for Bradford West (Naz Shah), we do so principally through the funding of £3 million over three years that we provide to the Norwegian Refugee Council’s legal aid programme. This practical support helps residents to challenge decisions in the Israeli legal system; as the hon. Member for Wrexham (Ian C. Lucas) mentioned, there is a legal system, which on occasions has stood for the rights of those whom it feels have been unfairly and illegally treated. Some 79% of cases provided with legal representation through the Norwegian Refugee Council have resulted in the suspension of demolitions and evictions, allowing Palestinians to remain in their homes. I hope that that serves as a demonstration of our practical measures of support, beyond the representations we make to the Israeli Government and authorities, to help the rule of law in the area.
We are gravely concerned that Palestinians continue to face severe difficulty in securing building permissions— a matter that has also been raised by hon. Members. Between 2014 and summer 2016, just 1.3% of building permits requested by Palestinians in Area C were granted. Between 2010 and 2015, only 8% of all building permits given in Jerusalem were given in Palestinian neighbourhoods. Practically, that leaves Palestinians with little option but to build without permission, placing their homes at risk of demolition on the grounds that they do not have a permit. In answer to the hon. Member for Leeds North East, we continue to urge the Israeli Government to develop improved mechanisms for zoning, planning and granting permits in Area C for the benefit of the Palestinian population, including by facilitating local Palestinian participation in such mechanisms. We have allocated £900,000 to support essential infrastructure for vulnerable Palestinians in Area C.
The grave situation that Palestinian communities face, particularly in Area C, demonstrates the urgent need to make real and tangible progress towards peace. We are in close consultation with international partners, including the United States, about how to encourage the parties to reverse negative trends and engage in meaningful dialogue. The British Government are committed to making progress towards a two-state solution. We are clear that that can be achieved only through a negotiated agreement that leads to a safe and secure Israel alongside a viable and sovereign Palestinian state. It must be based on 1967 borders with agreed land swaps, Jerusalem as the shared capital of both states and a just, fair, agreed and realistic settlement for refugees.
Our policy on settlement remains the same: the viability of the principle of two states for two peoples is being undermined by the increased pace of settlement. The challenge was raised that we talk a lot and do not do enough, but UN resolution 2334, which the United Kingdom supported last December, was pretty clear in its degree of condemnation, saying:
“Condemning all measures aimed at altering the demographic composition, character and status of the Palestinian Territory occupied since 1967, including…the construction and expansion of settlements, transfer of Israeli settlers, confiscation of land, demolition of homes and displacement of Palestinian civilians, in violation of international humanitarian law and relevant resolutions”.
That resolution was criticised in some quarters, but it is clear evidence of the United Kingdom’s determination on that side.
On the other side, as hon. Members have said, we have been very clear that settlements and demolitions are far from being the only problem in the conflict. As the Quartet set out in its July 2016 report, terrorism and incitement undermine the prospects of a two-state solution. That point cannot be passed by in any debate we have on the subject. We deplore all forms of incitement, including comments that stir up hatred and prejudice. We therefore encourage both the Palestinian Authority and the Government of Israel to reject any hate speech or incitement and to prepare their populations for peaceful co-existence, including by promoting a more positive portrayal of each other. As the hon. Member for Dudley North (Ian Austin) and other hon. Members said, promoting peaceful co-existence projects really matters now, at a time when we need to make progress.
Before I conclude, it would be wrong not to mention the events of today. As the Foreign Secretary said in Brussels this morning, we are concerned by reports that the US is considering recognising Jerusalem as the Israeli capital before a final status agreement. Like our international partners, we believe such a move could inflame tension in the region. Our position is clear and long-standing: the status of Jerusalem should be determined in a negotiated settlement between the Israelis and the Palestinians, and Jerusalem should ultimately form a shared capital between the Israeli and Palestinian states. I hesitate to say more until we hear what the President actually says and listen to the context in which he sets it. Tomorrow we will have a better opportunity to set out where his statements and commitment stand in relation to other aspects. The United Kingdom has no intention of moving its embassy from Tel Aviv.
If the hon. Member for Aberavon would like the last minute of the debate to wind up, I am pleased to offer it to him.
I thank the Minister. I certainly welcome his comments on a range of issues. He gave a very balanced, reasonable and pragmatic overview of what has been said today and where we need to go from here. He rightly recognised that nobody is perfect in this situation and everybody needs to get to the table. What I really hope is that the Government will close the gap between rhetoric and reality and follow up on the Minister’s statements. I am sure we can rely on the Minister’s belief in them, but we now need to turn that belief into concrete action and finally start to make progress on the desperate and challenging situation in the illegally occupied territories of the west bank.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the effect of Israeli demolitions on Palestinian communities.
Terror Attacks: Government Financial Support
[Geraint Davies in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered Government financial support for victims of terror attacks.
I believe this is the first time I have spoken with you in the Chair, Mr Davies. It is nice to see you. We do not have long this afternoon, so I want to focus on recent attacks within the UK and especially in my constituency, the immediate financial support available from the Government and the Government-backed Pool Reinsurance Company system.
Six months ago, on 3 June, my community was attacked by murderous cowards. Three men killed eight innocent people and injured many more before being shot by the police. The response of all our emergency services was absolutely phenomenal. It was a genuine honour to attend the tri-forces commendation service earlier this week, which acknowledged the valour and bravery of many of the police officers from the three forces and from members of the public. The wider public response was equally overwhelming. It included offers of somewhere safe to hide, somewhere to charge a mobile phone to keep in touch with loved ones, and free rides to safety from local cabbies.
There was also a huge effort to reclaim the area as quickly as possible and make it once again the most vibrant and dynamic food and drink venue in London. The whole team at Southwark cathedral and other local organisations deserve praise for their efforts to bring the community back together as quickly as possible after the attack. The Prime Minister talked about the attack on the night. She chaired Cobra the next day, but it took 26 days before the attack was officially certified as a terror incident. That had important ramifications for local businesses. The certification process must be updated. Given modern communications, that kind of delay is simply unacceptable.
In contrast, the police cordon was necessary for their investigation, but it meant that local businesses lost access to their premises for 10 days. The latest estimate is that their losses reach almost £2 million. That is due to direct loss of stock and produce, lost orders and at least one firm that lost a contract to supply restaurants and hotels across London. The cordon and the attack itself meant the loss of bookings and reservations at local restaurants and at the London Bridge Experience, for example.
The Borough Market Trust has done a huge amount. It has been a vast, incredible effort. It is running incredible events and has raised £50,000 from other member businesses to support those affected. A similar sum has been raised from public donations and £16,000 has been raised from #LoveBorough merchandise. The trust directly supports new and small start-up businesses and has been pivotal in keeping some of those microbusinesses afloat after the attack, with at least one person’s personal mortgage being covered through trust funding due to a lack of compensation available from central Government. The trust also suspended rents and worked with other local employers to drive up trade.
It will not be often that you hear Labour MPs praising News UK, Mr Davies, but its head office is at London Bridge, and some of its staff were affected on the evening of the attack and were locked in the building overnight. Since the attack, it has provided £25,000 through lunch vouchers for its staff to directly support Borough market. That has been incredibly well received by market traders, who are directly affected. My local Labour council has provided rates relief of £104,000, and the Mayor of London, Labour’s Sadiq Khan, has provided close to £200,000 in help.
The response from the public, businesses, councils and City Hall is very welcome, but is in stark contrast to our national Government. In the six months since the attack, I have met Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and Treasury Ministers, local traders and other representatives—I am grateful to the Minister for his time in those meetings—and the Prime Minister visited the area with me and the Australian Prime Minister, but sadly to date the Government have still not provided a penny of support to those directly affected.
Businesses are not currently covered for the consequent losses that my hon. Friend is talking about. There have been calls for that insurance gap to be closed. Given that the situation could be so substantially changed by such a small change to the Reinsurance (Acts of Terrorism) Act 1993, does he think that the Government should act? Are insurance companies doing enough to help the situation?
I will come on to talk about that point directly. The short answer is that yes, the Government should act and no, some insurers have not done all they could and should do to rectify the issue.
There has been an absence of immediate financial support and compensation for those affected. Were it not for business-to-business support and public donations, some of the businesses would simply have gone under and people would have lost their jobs. The lack of support has dismayed and distressed local employers. After terror attacks on British tourists abroad, compensation systems were updated in 2012. If we can update systems to ensure that innocent British civilians attacked abroad are better protected, we must be able to better protect British businesses and employers from terror attacks here. Terrorists should not be able to put British jobs at risk or force companies under owing to inaction on compensation. I hope the Minister will confirm today how the Government will compensate businesses still affected by June’s attack and those involved in any future incident.
Future incidents are relevant. On the many screens in this building, we are told every day that the threat level remains severe. We are told that another attack remains very likely, yet no effort has been made to ensure that businesses are protected in the event of a future attack. The Government have yet to act to prevent delays to the certification process. In relation to the point my hon. Friend raised, some insurers used the 26-day delay in certification to avoid making payments initially. That was unacceptable. Some refused to make payments initially due to the way legislation and associated insurance clauses are drafted. Most insurers have now paid out, following interventions from me and the Borough Market Trust acting as a broker. AXA and RSA and others have made payments to some of those affected. The only insurer I am aware of that has failed to pay out is Aviva. It has let my community down, and that has left a nasty, negative stain on its corporate conscience. I hope it will re-examine that.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right that the UK’s current insurance framework dates back to the Reinsurance (Acts of Terrorism) Act 1993, which established the Pool Re system. That system was built following Provisional IRA attacks on infrastructure that were designed to hit the UK economically. The Act was deliberately drafted to cover physical damage to property and buildings following such incidents as the Manchester Arndale and Canary Wharf attacks. Today’s risks are very different. The kind of terrorism we have seen more recently is designed to target how we live and who we are, and specifically targets innocent civilians and uses vehicles and knives. We know this—sadly, we have seen it—and the Met, the Home Office and wider Government know this, yet for two years Ministers have apparently ignored requests to update the system. Government action is required. Where Pool Re can act on its own, it has. It has extended terror insurance to cover cyber-attacks from next year. It can do that within the powers it has, but to change the definition of physical damage requires legislation and Government action.
Physical damage is not the only thing that needs to be covered. Knife attacks must be incorporated. When introducing legislation, I hope that the Government will look at defining what represents terror and what represents business interruption more tightly to distinguish between payments. The Government could also oblige large employers or those with higher turnover to have better or more extensive coverage, and look at why many small and medium-sized enterprises do not have terror insurance coverage, even in high-risk areas. However, none of those issues can be addressed if legislation is not introduced. I should add that introducing legislation and making those changes will not result in new costs to taxpayers, who would be covered by the pooled system.
For my part, I commit to helping to close this loophole in any way I can. Sadly, I have seen the impact on local businesses of the current inadequate system. I am really grateful to the Association of British Insurers, the British Insurance Brokers’ Association and all others who have worked with me on this issue since June. There is widespread acknowledgment of the need to close the loophole. However, just as public and other financial support for the area should be matched by Government compensation, recognition of the outdated insurance model should now be matched with the political will for modernisation from the Government.
As things stand, if another attack occurred today, six months after London Bridge and Borough market were so brutally attacked, employers would face exactly the same problems. In failing to act, we have a Government that risks undermining their rhetoric about not letting terrorists win. If terrorists truly are not to win, action is needed. I hope the Minister will be able to tell us today that the Government will introduce measures to deliver belated compensation to those affected in my constituency. I hope he can also tell us how the Government will administer future compensation, improve the certification process to prevent future delays, and improve the Pool Reinsurance system. I look forward to the Minister’s response.
It is a pleasure, as always, to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I thank the hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Neil Coyle) for introducing this important debate. The House is united in our condemnation of the atrocity that was committed against his constituents and those of a number of other colleagues.
The hon. Gentleman expressed his understandable concern about the number of days taken in responding to the certification of terrorism, and what he perceived to be a delay by the Treasury. To clarify, the Treasury responded to the certificate within 48 hours of its receipt. Clearly the police were focusing on the investigation, and that may have played a part in the number of days that it took for the Treasury to receive that certificate, but the Treasury did respond within 48 hours of doing so.
I am very aware of the impact on businesses in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency following the attacks—indeed, he and I met to discuss it with a number of his affected constituents. As he set out, traders in Borough market have had a number of difficulties, particularly in accessing their insurance payments.
Accessible insurance is vital for businesses and individuals. It protects them financially from life-changing losses and gives firms extra security and confidence when going about their regular business. That is why, in 1993, when the insurance market stopped offering terrorism cover following the IRA attacks, the Government stepped in to establish Pool Re. That move was made to provide reinsurance cover, to stimulate the private market and to ensure that businesses could access protection again. Pool Re is now widely regarded as the global leader in the sector, shaping international standards for terrorism insurance cover. Since its launch, Pool Re has successfully reinvigorated the terrorism insurance market in the UK. Pool Re has also protected businesses, paying out more than £600 million, including for the recent attacks in Manchester, for example. The Government are committed to ensuring that Pool Re continues to protect businesses and enables effective terrorism insurance cover. We regularly monitor Pool Re in that context, and agree that in recent years a gap has appeared in its coverage. That is the legitimate point which sits at the core of the hon. Gentleman’s rationale for calling today’s debate.
The gap means that some businesses may not be insured for a loss of income in specific circumstances, where losses are incurred due to a terrorist attack but there is no physical damage. The lack of physical damage is particularly material in this instance. The Government recognise the need to address that, and I can therefore confirm that we are exploring options, including legislation, and aim to confirm our next steps early in the new year.
We have already shown that we are prepared to take action to modernise Pool Re and to support businesses in the UK. We recently finalised changes to the scheme, meaning that it will include cover for physical damage caused by a cyber trigger. That precautionary measure helps to future-proof Pool Re, and demonstrates our commitment to maintaining the UK’s position at the forefront of those nations reinforcing their economies against terrorism risks. In terms of Government funding in response to terrorism, we are ensuring, across Government, that affected communities have the right support in place to rebuild and recover from such attacks.
I thank the hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Neil Coyle) for securing the debate. I am the Member for Manchester, Gorton, and this year we experienced an attack in which 22 people were killed. Manchester then set up the “We Love Manchester” emergency fund in conjunction with the council, which raised millions of pounds. Communities and faith groups provide assistance after attacks, not just the Government and non-governmental organisations—something that will be highlighted in the all-party parliamentary group on British Muslims’ upcoming report on faith as an emergency service. What support is being given to those groups to continue their work, and what is the Minister doing to combat fake charities set up to raise funds after attacks or tragedies?
The hon. Gentleman raises a legitimate point. None of us wants to see charities being set up to defraud by exploiting the good will of our constituents in response to such atrocities. He may be aware that the Prime Minister has established a Cabinet Office taskforce to co-ordinate the cross-Government response, to oversee progress and to expedite payments when necessary. She has recognised the issue and is engaged in addressing it.
I am also pleased to confirm that NHS England has made money available to the NHS north region to reimburse it for its efforts in respect of the Manchester attack. Unfortunately, some of the health effects will be long term, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman recognises. That is why another £1.6 million will be made available to provide mental health support for those affected. NHS England has also provided £1 million to the NHS London region for 2017-18 to assist the health system with meeting the costs of the additional mental health support required following the unprecedented level of major incidents that have occurred in London recently, including, of course, Grenfell—a further tragedy that we have debated in the House.
Although we must respond and have responded robustly to the immediate fallout of such atrocities, we must also focus on reducing the terror threat. Cross-Government spending on counter-terrorism is increasing by 30% in real terms from 2015 to 2020, and £700 million has been allocated to counter-terrorism policing this year. Furthermore, the Treasury has provided £24 million of additional funding to help meet costs arising from this year’s terror attacks that have affected police forces.
To conclude, I commend the hon. Member for introducing the debate, and for campaigning on behalf of the affected businesses in his constituency. The Government recognise the issue and are working closely with the relevant bodies to reach an appropriate solution. We always hope that we will never have to deal with yet another atrocity, but we must be prepared so that our communities, and the businesses and individuals who make them, do not unduly suffer from horrific attacks on our democracy.
Question put and agreed to.
Unduly Lenient Sentences
I beg to move,
That this House has considered unduly lenient sentences.
It is a pleasure to have this debate under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. The debate can be no surprise to the Solicitor General or to the Ministry of Justice. We have an hour, so I will keep to a couple of points that I have been making for the nearly 12 years I have been in the House, and I will leave it to other colleagues to raise other issues. I have purposely worded the motion so as to allow as many colleagues as possible to join the debate. The subject is not a controversy or party political in any shape or form. Some of this could have been addressed under the previous Labour Administration. Indeed, they tried to address it, as did the coalition; I certainly tried to address it when I was the Minister with responsibility for police, justice and, in particular, victims.
I come at the subject from the point of view of the victim. If the criminal justice system is to do what it says on the tin, it has to side with the victim. What worries me is that parts of court sentencing make victims feel, quite rightly, that the system is not on their side. There are two obvious anomalies. Anyone who has been found guilty has the right to appeal against the severity of their sentence. There is no argument about that. In a civilised society, that is right and there is a procedure for it.
In our courts, however, the procedure for victims, a victim’s representative or someone such as their MP to appeal against the undue leniency of a sentence is quite perverse. The guidance on the Government’s website, under “Ask for a Crown Court sentence to be reviewed”, is vague:
“Only certain types of case can be reviewed, including…murder…rape…robbery…some child sex crimes and child cruelty…some serious fraud…some serious drug crimes…some terror-related offences”,
and—without the word “some” this time—
“crimes committed because of the victim’s race or religion”.
The word “some” leaves things open in anyone’s mind, making it enormously difficult for the public we represent to understand what can and cannot be appealed against.
When I was a Transport Minister, I noticed the classic example of death by dangerous driving. Death destroys a family, and if drink and drugs are involved in the case, the sentence is appealable. A sentence for death by careless driving, however, is not. Although really serious offences are tried in the juvenile courts, my understanding is that it is not possible to appeal against undue leniency. If I am wrong, I am sure the Solicitor General will tell me.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on securing this important debate. Is he aware that more than 40% of sentences referred to the Attorney General are refused simply because they fall outside the scheme, and that has included at least one case of rape from the youth courts? Does he agree that that explains the clamour from the public to widen the scope of the scheme?
My hon. Friend hits the nail on the head. I congratulate him on the work he has done to address the law in this area. If we work together across the House, we can address what he wanted his Bill to do with regard to other anomalies. When we talk about the juvenile courts, we think about really young people, but I could have been prosecuted in a juvenile court—had I committed an offence—while I was serving in the Army, which I joined when I was 16. It seems to me that we are removing a whole plethora of cases—with victims who still desperately need to feel that they have been heard and listened to—simply because they were tried in a certain type of court or involved a certain type of offence.
I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend for securing the debate. He has mentioned his time as a Transport Minister. I completely agree that one should do everything one can to support victims, but at the same time one should prevent people from becoming victims in the first place. Does he agree that, in certain circumstances—such as sentencing for driving while disqualified or drink-driving, for which only a six-month custodial sentence can be given by the lower courts—we need not only that review of unduly lenient sentences, but a review of sentencing in the wider context, including for such transport matters?
Absolutely. Colleagues across the House will bring up such anomalies during this debate. I am enormously proud of the very few drug-related driving offences that were prosecuted—I had the honour of being the Transport Minister when we introduced the drugalyser at the roadside—as well as of the first prosecutions that took place, although that took nearly four years and I was in the Ministry of Justice by then. But the sentencing also needs to be a deterrent. People need to realise that when they commit certain offences, the penalty will fit the crime. If people go before magistrates courts—I think this is what my hon. Friend was talking about—knowing that they will get only six months, they will not opt for trial by jury or to go up through the system to be tried before a judge in the Crown Court. I agree—though this is not something I will concentrate on today—that we need a much wider debate on the types of sentencing to which I am referring.
Before I became a Minister, I did try—I appealed against the leniency of sentences, particularly those to do with paedophiles. I had real concern about some of the sentences for paedophiles who not only did not plead guilty, but did not think that they had done anything wrong, and I have always had concerns about racially aggravated offences. I think such offences are an abhorrence to our society.
I appealed successfully. One of my constituents was murdered by a man called McLoughlin, who was out of prison on day release. He attacked my constituent’s neighbour and my constituent did what I hope I would do, which was defend their neighbour, but they were murdered. McLoughlin was found guilty in the courts and given a sentence of something like 20 years—don’t quote me on that. We all knew what would happen—it would be three years or something. Nor was that the first offence, because he had murdered before. I appealed to the then Labour Attorney General that the sentence was unduly lenient. He should have got a much more severe sentence, or at the very least an indeterminate one.
In court the judge had said, “I cannot give an indeterminate sentence, because the European courts will strike it down.” That was like a red rag to a bull. The sentence a judge in our courts gives has nothing to do with a European court. We subsequently won the appeal—the Attorney General agreed with me, as did, eventually, the Court of Appeal. McLoughlin was eventually given the right sentence, which was an indeterminate one. Hopefully, he will spend the rest of his life in prison. That will never bring back my constituents’ husband and father, but the original sentence was wrong.
When I got into being a Minister, in particular for policing in the Ministry of Justice, I kept asking: why are we not addressing those anomalies in the law? It is fundamentally unfair that victims do not have the same rights as the perpetrators. The Ministry of Justice is not represented in the Chamber today, but I know that the briefing would be that the cost implications of having more people in our prisons are disproportionate.
I am afraid that that is tosh. I have seen no physical evidence for that—not in the whole two and a half years I was in the Department, and I asked for it several times. The Attorney General and I debated it around the ministerial table and with the Prime Minister, who was then the Home Secretary. We never got to the bottom of the great opposition in the Ministry of Justice to more people going to appeal. In actual fact, from the other end of the telescope it looks like fewer people go to appeal because they do not all opt to go to the Crown Court, opting instead for their defence to be heard by their peers in a magistrates court. There is no evidence and we do not know exactly what is going on.
Surely one solution is to ensure that the sentencing is correct at the beginning. The Select Committee on Justice is a statutory consultee of the Sentencing Council. It has to give opinions on the sentencing proposed in the council. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Committee should take a much tougher line?
My hon. Friend is a member of that Committee and it should take a much tougher line and a much closer look at the issue of fairness or unfairness. I may be wrong—I may be banging my head against a brick wall. Perhaps victims do not want their voices heard. Perhaps they do not want to feel that they are equal in the courts.
In the past few weeks I have taken up the biggest anomaly, which really upsets me. I appealed recently against the sentences given to a group of gentlemen—I use that word advisedly—who were involved in the sex gangs in Newcastle. I can say that because they have been convicted. When I saw the sentence, I was very surprised that the judge had not taken into consideration that the crimes were obviously racially motivated. All the girls but one, I think, were white, and nearly all the perpetrators were of Asian extraction. That is not casting aspersions on the whole community; they are simply the facts.
I wrote to the Attorney General, to ask whether he would kindly look into this, whether he agreed that the sentences were unduly lenient and, if so, whether he could refer the issue to the appeal court. To my astonishment, a very polite letter came back from the Attorney General that said, “I’m really sorry; I cannot look into this, because you are outside the 28-day limit. You have to appeal within 28 days to the Attorney General.” I said, “It was only in the papers the day before yesterday”. “Ah”, said the Attorney General, because the judge had put a restriction on reporting the sentencing. The sentence had actually taken place about two and half months beforehand. The victims did not know that and neither did we. No one knew, so it was not possible to appeal against the leniency.
From conversations that I have had with the Solicitor General, I know that he will come up with some ideas. The situation, however, is an insult to those victims whom we are supposed to represent, not just here but in our courts, so that justice is seen to be done. I ask the Solicitor General: is there an answer? A pretty simple answer would be that, if the judge puts a restriction on court reporting, the Attorney General should be informed of the sentence and be able to look into it. Even though that is a step in the right direction, the problem is that the victims do not know, so their legal representatives are not able to appeal on their behalf, and neither are we. We need to do something about that. I have previously discussed with the Attorney General the issue of how to get justice for victims and I got quite an interesting response. It was very different from that which I received form the Ministry of Justice. The simplest way for victims to get justice would be to make it possible to appeal against unduly lenient sentences in the Crown court. That option is available to the perpetrators—those found guilty of a crime have those rights—so why is it not available for victims?
Will the right hon Gentleman give way?
I will just say one last thing and then I will give way, as I am conscious of the time. I am absolutely passionate about this issue. I believe that we have the greatest criminal justice system in the world, but it needs to learn from what it is doing wrong. This is one example of that.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for giving way and I congratulate him on securing the debate. Does he agree that the 28-day limit is in all probability against the spirit in which it was introduced? Does he agree that a way around that would be that any time limit, be it 28 days or more, should be applicable from the time when any relative or victim becomes aware of the leniency of the sentence given by the court?
I completely agree with the hon. Gentleman. The appeal system states that it is not just the victim or their MP who has the right to say that they think there is an anomaly and that something has gone wrong. Anybody can appeal. The only way that they can do that is if the 28-day period starts on the day that the sentence becomes public. That is the only way it can work. We can consider other ways to do that, but I think that is the only way. It should be possible to appeal against all unduly lenient Crown court sentences. I have not seen any evidence of exactly what that would cost. We all understand the issue of cost, but it is important that the justice system is fair.
The 28-day period has to be addressed. There is something fundamentally wrong. There are cases where people have been unwell following the loss of a loved one and have not had the opportunity to appeal in time. The judges have a very limited power and once the 28 days are over, the Attorney General cannot do anything. That has to change.
I will get lots of letters tomorrow morning saying that I should have brought up lots of different subjects. One particular subject I want to raise is cruelty to animals, which is fundamentally wrong. I think that sentencing for cruelty to animals is really wrong and it needs to be addressed. There are human victims of that crime, as well as the animals subjected to cruelty. There are lots of other issues, too. I wanted this debate to concentrate specifically on the victim, and I hope that I have done that.
Order. I am aware of the number of people who want to speak, so I am introducing a time limit of four minutes for speeches.
I congratulate the right hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Sir Mike Penning) on bringing this issue to the House. Over my 30 years as a councillor, as a Member of the Legislative Assembly and now as an MP, I have seen literally thousands of cases, but these cases are different. They stick in my mind because of what happened. In the short time I have, I would like to mention the heartbroken mothers whose lives were torn apart when their children were killed by a drunk driver, and the knife being twisted further at court when the judged passed a sentence that came nowhere close to natural justice.
My heart aches when I think of those scenarios, as it does in the case of sexual abuse of children. They are the most difficult cases that I have ever dealt with as an elected representative. They are very emotional because I become intertwined with the person telling the story. When those abused children become adults and they speak out about what was done to them, the nightmare comes back—something triggers it and I do not know what it is—but all of a sudden their memories of what took place when they were children become part of the living hell that they are in. There is the physical and emotional turmoil of taking the step of reporting their abuser to the police. They then go through the interview process and finally, the intrusive court case, which, no matter how sensitively the judge handles it, inevitably causes more wounds and scars.
After putting themselves through all this, in the hope of finding justice or some form of closure, they find only heartache and even feel dismissed, as if they are not worth the trouble. I understand that it is hard for judges who wish to do more but find that their hands are tied. In Northern Ireland, the Public Prosecution Service offers the following guidance on unduly lenient sentences:
“In certain cases, the Director of Public Prosecutions for Northern Ireland, who heads the Public Prosecution Service (PPS), has the power to ask the Court of Appeal to review a sentence on the grounds that it is unduly lenient. An application to review a sentence must be made within 28 days from the day when the sentence was imposed.”
The right hon. Gentleman mentioned that. It continues:
“If the Court of Appeal agrees that the sentence was unduly lenient it may increase the sentence…The court also takes account of the fact that the offender has been put through the sentencing process a second time. It will not intervene unless the sentence is significantly below the sentence that the judge should have passed.”
There is a big if in the process. A victim is once again looking at a long drawn-out process to have their justice and this is not guaranteed. They must again take the steps to make contact, retell their horrific story, wait to be judged to see if what happened to them is bad enough to be reviewed, and wait to see if another court will uphold, increase or decrease the sentence of the person who destroyed their life. All the while, it is the victim who is suffering in silence, as my hon. Friend the Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell) said, while the perpetrator goes through a further sentencing process. Something seems a little wrong with that. The right hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead said that, too, in his introduction.
I understand that our prison service is at capacity. I understand that it is impossible to hand out custodial sentences for every crime and indeed it would be insane to do so. I also understand that the punishment must fit the crime and there are certain crimes that are not punished accordingly. There is an appeal system in place but it is up to us to legislate, to enable judges to make the punishment fit the crime, rather than putting the onus back on the victim and almost re-traumatising them. There has to be a better way.
The right hon. Gentleman mentioned sentencing in animal cruelty cases. I have asked for sentences to be reviewed in cases involving the horrific abuse of animals and, to be fair, the Public Prosecution Service has looked at those sentences again and increased them. But there has to be a better way, and this House is tasked with finding it. I ask the Minister, with great respect, how this will be accomplished through legislation, rather than through the appeals process.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Sir Mike Penning), who hit the nail on the head in securing this timely debate. Under-sentencing has a number of effects—it causes outrage for the victim, it demoralises the police and it may cause public danger, but more important than all those things, it hinders the development of a rational sentencing procedure in the courts. It is important to bear that in mind.
We heard from my right hon. Friend that the subjects covered by the unduly lenient sentences scheme were extended in August to include terrorist activities, so it is open for them to be further extended in the way that he suggests. I presume that the Solicitor General has some sympathy with that view. I know that he is working hard to try to bring charges against people who have received unduly lenient sentences, and he has had some success with that in the courts.
Let me return to the point that I made in an intervention on my right hon. Friend. The Justice Committee is a statutory consultee of the Sentencing Council, which produces guidelines for judges about what sentences should be applied in individual cases and how they should be applied. I understand, having reviewed some of those things, that this is difficult because the issues are complex and challenging. For example, the Select Committee looked at intimidatory offences and domestic abuse, which would be ideal for inclusion in the scheme, but our efforts to give concrete examples were bedevilled by the complexity of the issues involved.
However, we should put more emphasis on this issue. We ought to give a firm steer to the Justice Committee that it can take as hard a line as it likes and give a good, rational steer in this area. One of the things I was most taken aback by when looking at domestic abuse cases was the mitigating factors that were brought in, which included good character, provocation, self-referral for treatment and so on. They have their place, of course, but there seemed to be too strong an emphasis on them rather than on getting sentencing right in the first place. Unless we get sentencing right, we will blunt the deterrent effect of the criminal law. That would be a disaster for us and a disaster for the judicial system.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Sir Mike Penning) on securing this debate. I echo what he said about the importance of the victim being at the centre: victims and their families should absolutely be front and centre.
It is completely right that it is open to victims and their families, and to the general public, to make complaints about undue leniency to the Attorney General. However, as my right hon. Friend said—he hit the nail on the head—the current system is less clear than it should be, if I may use that phrase, and the threshold for referral seems pretty high.
Let me use a specific case from my constituency, in which there are no ongoing legal proceedings, to illustrate that. Tragically, Aiden Platt, a young constituent of mine in North Devon, was killed when his motorbike was hit by a driver under the influence of drugs. Aiden was just 20 years old. That hit the family and the community of North Devon extremely hard. The driver, a woman called Laura Ward, had cannabis, diazepam and amphetamines in her system when she hit Aiden. At the subsequent court case, she admitted causing death by careless driving while under the influence of drugs. Between the crash and the court case, a further factor arose: Laura Ward became pregnant and had a baby. The judge at Exeter Crown court gave her a 20-month suspended sentence. He specifically said that the reason for that suspension was:
“Your son is five months old and I am…persuaded for that reason and that reason alone I can properly suspend this sentence.”
I have met Aiden’s mother, Mandy, on a number of occasions and she knew that I would raise this case today. I have also been contacted by friends and members of the local community. Frankly, they all express astonishment at this case. For them, not unreasonably, justice has not been done. Yet when Mandy sought a referral by the Attorney General on the ground of undue leniency, she was advised that the case was not within the scope of the current scheme. Aiden’s family think that that is wrong, and I agree: it sets the threshold too high. The other point that they make, after suffering the trauma of the loss of their young son and then the trauma of reliving it all during the subsequent court case, is that 28 days is actually a pretty short period in which to, as Mandy put it to me, “get your head together” and get around to making a formal referral to the Attorney General. That time period ought to be extended.
For those reasons, I ask the Solicitor General not just to give consideration to what offences are within the scope of the unduly lenient sentencing rules, but to consider widening the Attorney General’s ability to refer cases where the offence is already within the scope of the rules but the “gross error” threshold for referral seems to set a pretty high bar. My constituents would take great confidence from knowing that those matters were being reviewed. They believe that the sentence that the woman who killed their son received sends out the wrong message. I hope that, in reviewing the rules for unduly lenient sentencing—I welcome the fact that that is being done—we can put that right, and I very much look forward to the Solicitor General’s comments.
One of the good things about our last manifesto was our clear commitment to extending the unduly lenient sentences scheme, which was a continuation of our clear commitment in our previous manifesto. I just wish we would get on with it. The scheme has been modestly extended to include some terrorism-related offences, but we need it to cover far more offences.
I regularly criticise the justice system, but one of the good things about it is the ability to challenge sentences that fall outside the normal bounds of leniency. I have successfully used that provision a few times, and I congratulate the Solicitor General, who has done a brilliant job in appealing many unduly lenient sentences with great success.
One recent example of the power of the scheme is the case of Safak Sinem Bozkurt. She was a prison officer who smuggled phones, SIM cards and drugs into prison. She avoided prison because of her children. When the case was appealed, counsel on behalf of the Solicitor General said that her children could not be used as a “trump card” to avoid jail. The judges agreed that the sentence was too lenient and she was rightly sent to prison.
It is frustrating when cases cannot be appealed because they do not fall within the scheme. Ironically, there can be variation where the same offence is charged differently. For example, where someone is charged with sexual activity with a child, their sentence generally can be appealed, but where they are charged with sexual activity with a child while in a position of trust, it cannot be.
I wanted to cover this point. Actually, the legal profession have to look at themselves as well, because often they advise clients to plead guilty to one offence, knowing that it is outside the scheme, rather than defending themselves inside the scheme. The legal profession are telling them what to do to beat the system.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I am grateful to him for highlighting that point. The inability to appeal a sentence based on charging and not the facts has led to some very low sentences. One example involved a transsexual called Gina Owen, whose case was before the court last year. She pleaded guilty to two counts of causing or inciting a child to engage in sexual activity 12 years earlier, before she underwent sex reassignment surgery. She only pleaded guilty on the day of the trial when the charges were amended.
Gina Owen was employed as a taxi driver by the local council to drive children to a special school in Somerset. During the six-month period of abuse, I understand that Gina Owen made the victim tie her up in bondage sessions, urinate in her mouth and humiliate her by hitting her then-male genitals. Gina Owen was 61 when the matter came to court and the abuse was of a boy who was around 13.
I raised the case with the Solicitor General, who wrote to me to say:
“The CPS has now considered the amendment to the indictment and concluded that counsel’s approach was wrong. Their clear view is that…he was at all times under the age of 16. Therefore, there was a realistic prospect of conviction for the under 16 offence. This is clearly a more serious offence than the position of trust offence, carrying a maximum penalty of 14 years, as opposed to 2 years. It is also in the unduly lenient sentencing scheme. The CPS’s view is that it would also have been in the public interest to prosecute”—
for that more serious offence—
“notwithstanding the possibility of a plea to the position of trust offences.”
As a result, the defendant received a conditional discharge, which was wholly inappropriate given the circumstances—no punishment at all, to be perfectly honest. What kind of justice is that for the 13-year-old boy who was abused? The whole saga was made worse by the fact that nothing could be done to appeal the sentence because of the charging of that offence. This is an obvious anomaly that needs fixing, and it could be easily done. It is accepted that the scheme has grown in a haphazard fashion and that that has given rise to inconsistencies. I therefore hope the scheme will be widened further.
I also hope, like my right hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Sir Mike Penning), that the time limit for the scheme will be changed, because 28 days is very little time for someone to find out about a case and get their objections to the Attorney General. Sometimes, victims do not find out in time about the sentence or they may not be aware that it can be appealed until it is too late. I know that Families Fighting for Justice supports the change, and I have previously tabled amendments to Bills to try to achieve it. I appreciate that the period cannot be indefinite, but the very strict 28 days has meant that some criminals have certainly evaded real justice.
Jean Taylor, the campaigner from Families Fighting for Justice, has had some terrible examples. People have been convicted of serious crimes such as murder and not been able to have their cases considered again because of the strict 28-day limit. I therefore hope that the Government will revisit the scheme, and I congratulate my right hon. Friend for bringing this matter to the House’s attention.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies; I apologise for arriving two or three minutes late for the debate. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Sir Mike Penning) on securing this important debate and bringing his expertise to bear.
Upholding the rule of law is one of the fundamental duties of any Government. It is essential that every citizen knows that the law is on their side and that public safety is the top priority. Solihull has recently experienced a rise in crime, especially so-called acquisitive crimes such as aggravated burglaries, car crime and carjacking. Although our community is a safe and friendly one, we face a real challenge of criminals driving into Solihull from elsewhere in the west midlands. I have heard it said in many parts of my constituency there is frankly a loss of faith in the criminal justice system at this time, facing this rise in crime and also perhaps in seeing some of the sentences handed out.
An excessively lenient sentence lets down not only the victim of the original crime but everybody put at risk when somebody is left on the streets who should be behind bars. Indeed, a short sentence can be the worst of all possible worlds, exposing the convict to hardened criminals and imbuing them to a life of crime, without serving as a proper, efficient deterrent.
Of course, an independent judiciary is the foundation stone of our justice system, and rightly so, but the law is laid down by Parliament and, through Parliament, by the people. It is therefore right that mechanisms such as the unduly lenient sentence scheme exist to allow the Attorney General’s Office to intervene where sentences do not properly reflect the strength of public feeling about a particular crime.
I echo the views of hon. Members about the much wider scope. Let us take one example. One area talks about “some serious fraud”. How do we decide how much of something is serious fraud? Is it about the impact on the individual or just about the scale in monetary terms? What about an old lady who will not answer her door or answer any correspondence and becomes a recluse because of what she has suffered? She may have been through a small financial theft or fraud—perhaps a few hundred pounds—but that has a significant impact on her life. How do we decide on the seriousness in those respects? The system needs to be tidied up and based on more clarity, with better openness for the public so that they can regain and boost their confidence in the judicial system.
As my right hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead suggested, the 28-day period for appeal seems arbitrary. Although I realise there has to be an end date, it should not be scuppered by reporting restrictions. It seems obtuse in many regards that we have a situation where criminals are effectively beyond the reach of the system because of something put in place potentially to protect victims.
I hope that the message from this debate is loud and clear: although the system is welcome, and the Attorney General’s work in it is to be praised, I passionately believe that we need to look at this again and see how we can amend the definitions and improve the system to bring about greater confidence. In many respects, unduly lenient sentences need to be clamped down upon as soon as they occur. That sends a message to the judiciary as well: that the public have frankly had enough of unduly lenient sentences and it needs to act.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I, too, congratulate the right hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Sir Mike Penning) on securing this debate. He makes a powerful and persuasive case.
To cut to the chase, clearly the point the right hon. Gentleman makes about unreported sentences and the strict application of the 28-day rule is unanswerable. That definitely needs fixing. However, the main question he has asked us today is: why should the category of case in which a prosecution can appeal against unduly lenient sentences be limited? As hon. Members have set out, the Attorney General can refer unduly lenient sentences to the Court of Appeal, but only where offences are triable on indictment or are one of a restricted number of specified “either way” offences. The right hon. Gentleman made a powerful case as to why that should change. There seems little logic in such restrictions, so could they be lifted?
I know there are always dangers in comparing the two legal systems, but let me briefly mention the position in Scotland, which I think is relevant and may assist the right hon. Gentleman’s case. The right to appeal against sentences in Scotland is contained in the Criminal Procedure (Scotland) Act 1995.
I am a great advocate of devolution—I was a Minister involved in devolution. This is a devolved matter; this is about English courts and Welsh courts. I do not really understand why, in the limited time we have for this debate, the hon. Gentleman is going to talk about what is going on in the Scottish courts. We can have a debate on that another day. This is about English and Welsh courts.
Order. This is a matter for the Chair. The Scottish National party is entitled to respond to the debate. I invite Mr McDonald to continue.
Thank you, Mr Davies. If the right hon. Gentleman is patient, he will hear that I am trying to support his case by saying that there are no restrictions in Scotland, and the system works. I will also explain changes made there that may provide some ideas for how it could be made to work in England.
As I said, the right to appeal against unduly lenient sentences in Scotland is contained in the Criminal Procedure (Scotland) Act 1995. On the face of that legislation, there are no limits to the class of cases on indictment where the prosecutor can appeal sentences on the grounds of undue leniency. However, in summary cases, the right applies only to a class of case specified by order made by the Secretary of State.
On the face of it, exactly the same situation applies in England and Wales. However, for whatever reason—I do not know what the reasons were at the time—when the order was made in 1996, the class of case specified was effectively “any case”. In short, all sentences, whether on indictment or summary proceedings, can be appealed by the prosecutor. In fairness, that has not clogged up the courts there or indeed the prisons, so I think that is a separate issue. As far as I am aware, it has never been suggested since that limits be applied to such rights to appeal unduly lenient sentences. Some more recent reforms may also be relevant to the current debate; they were designed to make the court processes more sustainable, with significant changes taking place after wide-ranging reviews of both civil and criminal court processes.
In fact, it was a review of civil procedure that prompted the introduction of a new appeal tier, a Sheriff Appeal Court. To assist in ensuring that the High Court and Court of Session focused on the work it truly needed to focus on, the new Sheriff Appeal Court established in 2015 was given the task not only of taking on civil appeals work, but of hearing summary criminal appeals, including appeals against sentence, from both sheriff and justice of the peace courts. Whereas, in the past, sentencing appeals from summary cases would go to the High Court of Appeal, they now go to the new national Sheriff Appeal Court. In short, to answer the right hon. Gentleman’s point, what the Government should consider is whether, at the same time as extending the prosecutor’s right of appeal in “either way” cases, one way to make it work more effectively and efficiently without clogging up the Court of Appeal is to look for an alternative forum for such appeals against unduly lenient sentences.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I refer Members to my relevant entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, indicating that I am a non-practising door tenant at Civitas Law in Cardiff.
I congratulate the right hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Sir Mike Penning) on securing the debate, and on the considered way in which he introduced it. I know he has carried out a number of ministerial roles; I remember in particular his role that combined both justice and policing. While I might not always have agreed with him, I always thought he carried out the job in extremely good faith, and it is good to see him making this contribution from the Back Benches today. He described well how the system works, with the right of appeal for defendants and the unduly lenient sentence scheme as it stands. I wholly agree with him on the question of public understanding of, and confidence in, the working of the scheme and of how victims are communicated with throughout the process, whether by the courts system, the Crown Prosecution Service or their lawyers. The need for clarity is vital, and I am sure the Solicitor General will be able to touch on it in his closing remarks.
There was also a good contribution from the hon. Member for Henley (John Howell). I know the job he does on the Justice Committee, on which I served briefly in 2015, and he identified well the role of the Committee as a statutory consultee as we set the sentencing framework. That is important, and it is crucial that the Justice Committee makes its views known at that stage, as it can only assist with consistency in sentencing.
I thought there was a thread running through all the other contributions to the debate, whether from the hon. Member for Solihull (Julian Knight), the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies), the hon. Member for North Devon (Peter Heaton-Jones) or the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald). The real sense was about clarity, consistency and public understanding, which are vital to our criminal justice system. If I may say so, it was also a pleasure to hear from the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who spoke powerfully about his 30 years of public service and the thousands of cases with various sentencing decisions that he has dealt with in Northern Ireland.
Coming to the issue of the unduly lenient sentence scheme, the Solicitor General will be aware of the 19 terror- related offences added to the scheme on 8 August this year. The statistics are instructive, and I looked them up prior to the debate. There is no doubt that the number of requests is increasing, although that is partly due to sentences being added to the scheme. In 2010 there were 342, in 2015 there were 713 and last year—the most recent set of statistics available—the figure was up to about 837. In 2015, of those 713 requests, 136 were referred to the Court of Appeal—[Interruption.]
Order. The sitting is suspended for 15 minutes for the Division. If there is a second vote, it will be suspended for a further 10 minutes.
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
I was referring to the statistics about the number of cases that have been referred to the Court of Appeal and subsequent increases. In 2015 there were 136 referrals, and 102 sentences were increased. In 2016, which is the most recent year for which there are statistics, 190 cases were referred and 141 sentences were increased.
I raise those statistics to put the debate in context. Each year, there are about 80,000 Crown court cases. I agree that there is a need for clarity and confidence in the system, which has come through powerfully in all the contributions. We need that at the police and investigation stage, at the charging stage—a number of Members referred to charging issues—and when cases are proceeding through the courts, as well as in the trial process, in the sentencing process and in terms of the options available at sentencing. It is vital that all those things are communicated. The hon. Member for North Devon raised the issue of reporting restrictions. There have to be ways to ensure that victims and their families are still aware of what has happened and get an explanation for why a particular sentence has been imposed.
All those things are very important, but I come back to the fact that in 2016, there were 141 increased sentences and 80,000 Crown court cases. We have to look at where there have been issues with sentences that fall outside the reasonable band.
Using statistics is a wonderful thing. As a Minister, you get them thrown at you all the time. With all due respect, the shadow Minister is not comparing like with like. We can only use the figure of how many sentences are appealed if every one of those 80,000 cases is appealable, and they are not. That is the problem. I understand where he is coming from. We do not want the courts swamped. I do not think they would be, but I am still looking for the evidence from the Justice Department. We are not comparing like with like.
As a matter of fact, it is obviously the case that the unduly lenient sentence scheme does not cover the entire 80,000 cases. I totally accept that. That is absolutely correct.
The hon. Gentleman seems to be running away with the idea that, of all these cases, only very few are deemed unduly lenient. We must make it clear that these sentences can only be appealed if they are unduly lenient. Sentences may well be lenient, but they cannot be appealed. There could be many more sentences that are lenient. These are just ones that happen to be unduly lenient.
The hon. Gentleman is quite right, but that applies the other way as well. If the defendant appeals something, as long as it is within a reasonable band, it will not be appealable the other way either. The reasonable band exists to bring certainty and consistency to sentencing, which all of us in this House who believe in the rule of law should want.
I take the point entirely that the unduly lenient sentencing scheme does not cover 80,000 cases. None the less, there are thousands of cases where the judiciary, within the sentencing framework it has, does a good job, and we should not lose sight of the fact that we should be backing our judiciary.
Before inviting the Solicitor General to respond, I point out that the debate will end at 5.42 pm.
Thank you, Mr Davies. Diolch yn fawr iawn. It is a pleasure to speak in the debate and I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Sir Mike Penning) on securing it. He and I worked together in Government on a number of issues relating to victims, and I pay tribute to him for his sterling work during his years of service. He continues that work as a senior Back Bencher, bringing important issues to the attention of the House. I thank all right hon. and hon. Members for taking part in the debate.
I think it was actually my right hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead who quite rightly said at the beginning of the debate that this is not a party political issue. In that spirit, I welcome some of the comments by the hon. Member for Torfaen (Nick Thomas-Symonds), who was right to remind us that, in the majority of cases, judges apply the law as consistently as they can, but that they are applying it on a case-by-case basis in an independent manner. I think all of us in the House and beyond want to see that when it comes to upholding the rule of law.
My hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell) mentioned sentencing guidelines, which are a very important development in the law. That now means that, regardless of whether someone is sentenced in Truro or Merthyr Tydfil, there should be a consistency of approach; there sometimes was not in the past, quite frankly, and I think sentencing guidelines are helping to change that approach.
On the ambit of that scheme, I should remind hon. Members of its origins. It is only about 30 years of age, and it arose as a result of the famous Ealing vicarage case, in which the late Jill Saward was the victim of a horrendous rape. As a result of the outcry and the campaign that was launched, the law was changed in 1988 and the scheme was developed. It was originally very tightly constrained and applied only to a few very serious indictable-only offences, such as murder.
However, over the years it has developed in a somewhat piecemeal manner, and I readily accept that there are anomalies, inconsistencies and matters that need clarification, because the system, although I think it attracts a high degree of confidence from the public at large, could do with strengthening. I can think of no better way of strengthening it than by giving it more consistency, and therefore accessibility to members of the public who might wish to use it.
The scheme’s introduction was not without controversy. It is unusual, if not exceptional, for a member of the Executive, such as the Attorney General or me, to be able to request the judiciary to reconsider a matter that has been dealt with by a court. Rightly so; that needs to be carefully circumscribed. It is not a right of appeal; it is a right of referral, and I beg to suggest that there is a difference between the two. A referral is, if hon. Members like, like a safety valve that exists in the system to make sure that, where there has been gross error or the sort of sentence that no reasonable court should have passed, there can be intervention from a higher court in order to correct it.
Much has been made—I accept the comments by my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon (Peter Heaton-Jones)—of the threshold applied by the Law Officers in dealing with unduly lenient sentences. I think the threshold should be rigorous and should be high. My concern is that if we departed from the degree of information and evidence that is currently needed, we would end up in a situation in which judges would be routinely second-guessed in a way that I think would encroach on their independence. We have to be very careful about that when dealing with this system.
I take great pride in my work with regard to unduly lenient sentences. It is difficult work, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) for his work on it. There are cases in which something has quite clearly gone wrong and needs rectifying, and the Court of Appeal assists in that regard.
I find the most difficult cases to be the sort that my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon raised, in which, for example, a bereaved family have suffered the shock and horror of losing a loved one in a road traffic incident. As a result of that tragedy, nothing the court can actually do could restore that family to the position they want to be in. However, I accept his point that there is an inconsistency when offences of careless driving cannot be referred, yet an offence of careless driving where there is evidence of impairment through drink or drugs, for example, can be referred. He made his point very powerfully, and we are listening.
Similarly, my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley made the point about sexual offences committed in breach of trust. That is a very important and concerning anomaly, which again is one of the reasons why I prefaced my remarks by speaking about the need for clarity and consistency. Attractive though it might be to go down the line advocated by the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald), to extend the scheme in England and Wales to all offences in the Crown court and magistrates courts would be a step too far. That is why I am attracted by arguments that create consistency in the Crown court.
Let me look at the figures. It is the case that 12,800 or so indictable-only offences were sentenced in the Crown court last year. That is probably a pretty reasonable benchmark to start looking at the incidences of unduly lenient sentences. It does not include the either-way offences that might come to the Crown court or might be the subject of references, but it gives us an indication of the proportion of cases that are successfully referred.
The hon. Member for Torfaen went through some of the figures that we have. He is right to say that in the last year for which we have full figures, 837 cases were drawn to our attention and 190 of them were taken to the Court of Appeal, with an increase in 141 of the sentences. It seems to me, looking at the figures and doing the best I can, that over the last few years there has been a dramatic expansion in the number of cases brought to our attention and a roughly proportionate increase in the number of cases then successfully referred, so I do not think that my Department can be accused of playing politics with the role that we occupy. We apply the law very carefully, and I think that that important and proportionate rise indicates that we use our powers, as you would expect, Mr Davies, in a way that is consistent with our adherence to the rule of law.
I am glad that awareness of the scheme has been growing, because both the Attorney General and I, supported by our office, work very hard to ensure that that awareness increases. It is consistent with the principle of open and transparent justice that we work to ensure that news about successful references is publicised, particularly in local media. We undertake a round of interviews with local media and use social media to discuss these issues. As a result, the scheme’s profile continues to rise.
Both the Attorney General and I personally present cases in the Court of Appeal. Only a few months ago, I presented the case of Paterson, the breast cancer surgeon who was responsible for the mutilation of victims who were supposed to be in his care. In a week or so, I will go to the Court of Appeal to present another case of an unduly lenient sentence. I think it is important that the Law Officers, whenever they can, personally attend to present cases before that Court. I take particular pride in that role.
I remind myself that I was a sentencer. I sat as a recorder of the Crown court for years before I became Solicitor General. I therefore know the particular challenges that face judges who have to pass sentence, which allows me to understand in a particularly helpful way their position and the delicacy of the balance that needs to be struck.
I take the opportunity to remind everyone that of course anyone—any member of the public—may contact our office about an unduly lenient sentence. No special connection with the case is needed, and it only takes one request for a case to be considered. If there is a victim referral and I decide not to refer the case, a personal letter will be sent to that person, explaining carefully the reasons why. Communication is a very important part of the process, as the shadow Solicitor General said.
Let me move on to deal with reporting restrictions. Obviously, the starting point in all criminal proceedings is the open justice principle. In a very limited number of cases, as we heard, there are reporting restrictions, so in the new year, for a period of six months, we will pilot a trial of the Crown Prosecution Service referring all cases in which there is a restriction on the reporting of the sentence or sentences. That will allow the Attorney General or me to consider personally each case in which there is potentially unduly lenient sentencing, so that no sentence slips through the cracks in the way that my right hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead outlined.
For those reasons, I commend the unduly lenient sentence system to the House and ask that hon. Members carry on supporting it and promoting its effectiveness.
I thank the Solicitor General for moving significantly on this matter. I know how difficult that may have been, given the negotiations with other Departments, some of which I may have been a Minister in myself. I know that in relation to some of the things that I have asked for, there are real concerns in other Departments. But I come back to the victims. The victims do not want the thresholds changed. They just want a level playing field. They want to know that justice is being served—that the system does what it says on the tin. It is vital, when they go to court, that they are being represented and they know what is going on. I—
Motion lapsed, and sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(14)).