Wednesday 20 December 2017
[Mrs Cheryl Gillan in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the situation in Ukraine.
I thank you, Mrs Gillan, and Mr Speaker for this opportunity to debate the situation in Ukraine. I also thank the Minister for Europe and the Americas for coming to respond to the debate, and my colleagues from the all-party parliamentary group.
Some people might ask, “Why should we be interested in what is happening in Ukraine?” Some might draw a comparison to what Chamberlain said about Czechoslovakia, that it is a “far away country” about which we know little. If they do, they make the same mistake Chamberlain made. Ukraine matters to us. It is a country in mainland Europe whose territory has been violated by an aggressive neighbour, and one that is on the frontline of what is becoming a new cold war.
I first visited Ukraine in 2008 with the all-party group, including, I think, the hon. Member for Keighley (John Grogan). At that time, Ukraine was under the leadership of President Yanukovych, a corrupt leader who was inclined toward Russia, but who nevertheless, at the time, was committed to Ukraine signing an association agreement with the European Union as an eastern partnership country. As is well known, in November 2013, President Yanukovych was instructed by Putin to reverse that position and drop the policy. Within a few weeks, Independence Square in Kiev was filled with thousands of protesters, the beginning of what was known as Euromaidan. Two months later, the shooting began. Over 100 people were killed, and they are known as the heavenly heroes.
The Revolution of Dignity led to the overthrow of Yanukovych and the installation of a new Government, but it also provided the pretext for Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its stepping up of support for separatist movements in Donbass. Doing so was a clear violation of the Budapest memorandum, signed by America, Russia and this country in December 1994, which guaranteed the territorial integrity of Ukraine in return for its agreement to give up its nuclear arsenal, at that time the third largest in the world. For that reason alone, I believe that we in the UK have a responsibility to Ukraine.
What my right hon. Friend is saying makes perfect sense, particularly his description of the Russians’ involvement. Those of us who serve on the Council of Europe are determined that Russia’s bid to come back to the Council should be accompanied by concessions. The biggest concession I want to see is its removal from Donbass. Does he agree with that?
I agree very much with my hon. Friend. I want to see the entire territorial integrity of Ukraine restored, including not just Donbass but Crimea. In the immediate future, I believe he is right and I am delighted to hear of his work on this question in the Council of Europe. We need to put maximum pressure on Russia to withdraw its support from the terrorists in east Ukraine, and I will say more about that.
As well as our obligation through our signature on the Budapest memorandum, we also have a strong interest in supporting a country in mainland Europe that, as I have said, has had part of its territory occupied, in which a conflict continues between the Government and pro-Russian separatist groups, armed, supplied, led and reinforced by Russia. The evidence of Russian involvement is overwhelming. We have seen the so-called humanitarian convoys coming from Russia into east Ukraine: white lorries that appear to contain no humanitarian assistance, but which mysteriously lead to a sudden increase in the amount of shelling and gunfire shortly after their arrival. Of course, we also saw an outrageous act, the shooting down of the Malaysian airliner MH17, in which 298 people died. The latest evidence of the telephone intercepts between the separatist leader and a character called “Dolphin” suggest that he was indeed a Russian general.
Just over two weeks ago, I visited Donbass with my hon. Friends the Members for Huntingdon (Mr Djanogly) and for Isle of Wight (Mr Seely). I particularly thank my opposite numbers, the co-chairmen of the UK friendship group in the Ukrainian Parliament, Svitlana Zalishchuk and Alex Ryabchyn, who organised the visit and accompanied us throughout it. I also thank the Ukrainian ambassador, Her Excellency Natalia Galibarenko, and Denys Sienik from the Ukrainian embassy, who helped us.
It was an extremely valuable, informative and often moving visit. We went to Avdiivka, the biggest coke-producing plant in Europe, built by the Soviets to supply the Mariupol steelworks. It was subject to heavy shelling during the conflict and still sees occasional shelling, but despite that, it is operating at something like one third of its original capacity. I pay tribute to the people there who continue to work under such pressure.
We also met students from a language school, who had had to move out of their homes—mainly in Donetsk—which are now under occupation. They are attending the language school in Bakhmut, outside the occupied area, but most of them have relatives left in Donetsk. We heard from one young girl whose grandmother is still living in Donetsk, and whose mother felt she could not leave her and so stays in Donetsk. The girl goes to visit them, but in doing so she has to go through checkpoints, and she described the intimidatory nature of that experience. We went to visit the rehabilitation unit for soldiers who had been injured or wounded in the conflict, and we saw the work done by a small team of dedicated doctors to help them with both mental and physical wounds incurred as a result of participating.
Unlike some of the frozen conflicts across Europe for which Russia is responsible such as those in South Ossetia, Abkhazia or Transnistria, this conflict is not frozen but ongoing. Since its outbreak, over 10,000 people have died and about 1.5 million people have been displaced. Two days ago, Russian troops fired Grad multiple launch rocket systems on Novoluhansk. Over the last week, four Ukrainian servicemen have been killed and nine have been wounded. The UN has said that the humanitarian crisis in east Ukraine is
“worse than it’s ever been”,
and has called for support for the humanitarian response plan, which amounts to $187 million, to help 2.3 million people in east Ukraine.
I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. He has mentioned young people and humanitarian matters. Could he give us insight into the circumstances surrounding health and hospital provision for the people of Ukraine?
The military hospital we visited is one of the main ones in Dnipro, and it is under tremendous stress. The people living in occupied east Ukraine are struggling to survive, in terms of both basic necessities like healthcare, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned, and things such as pension payments. The Ukrainian Government are attempting still to provide support to those people, but in terribly difficult circumstances, which is contributing to the humanitarian crisis.
The UK gives support to Ukraine; I understand it is in the order of £42 million, from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Department for International Development, but to be honest it is not enough. I hope that we look again at increasing our financial aid, particularly for humanitarian purposes.
We also need to step up the diplomatic effort; the Foreign Secretary is going to Moscow this weekend, and I know that my right hon. Friend the Minister has only recently returned from Moscow. We first need to urge Russia to abide by the terms of the Minsk II agreement; I very much echo what my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell) said about that. We need to allow proper monitoring by the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe and the removal of all foreign-armed formations, military equipment and mercenaries, as set out in Minsk II.
In particular, I hope my right hon. Friend the Minister will condemn Russia’s recent decision to withdraw from the Joint Centre for Control and Coordination, which is a direct violation of Minsk II and will also increase the risk to the OSCE monitors there. I hope my right hon. Friend will raise that, or will ask the Foreign Secretary to raise it during his visit. As I said, I believe that Ukraine deserves our support, but that support has to be accompanied by further reform. It is a sad truth that, as in most post-Soviet countries, corruption is still endemic in Ukraine, although I recognise that Ukraine is only a 25-year-old state.
My right hon. Friend is right to say that corruption in Ukraine is endemic. However, to give that some context, it is also true that corruption has been a deliberate policy of the Russian state, in order to hollow out the Ukrainian state and to undermine and subvert Ukrainian statehood. Does he agree that that is an important point to understand?
That is a very important point and I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. He is more knowledgeable than I on Russian hybrid warfare, and this is undoubtedly a component. I am sure he will say a little more about that in his contribution.
While there are still big problems, we should recognise that progress has been made. In the last three or four years, the Ukrainian Government have set up three institutions to tackle corruption—the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine, the Specialized Anti-Corruption Prosecutor’s Office and the National Agency for Prevention of Corruption—which have brought something like 319 proceedings.
The Ukrainian Government have also brought in an advanced electronic system for the disclosure of assets, income and expenditure of public officials and politicians, which has led to 910,000 declarations from top officials. I have to say that I have seen the declaration requirements on Ukrainian MPs, and they go considerably further than the declaration requirements on Members of this House. There have also been reforms to public procurement.
However, while progress is being made, there are worrying signs that it is now stalling. While proceedings have been brought against public officials, none have really come to a conclusion; indeed, most are stuck somewhere in the judicial system. An anti-corruption court, which is an essential part of the reform package, has yet to be put in place. We heard on our visit to a non-governmental organisation, Reanimation Package of Reforms, that something like 25% of the recent appointments to the Supreme Court, which has been newly established with a fresh set of judges, failed the integrity test.
There is huge frustration among the people of Ukraine that no one has really been brought to justice, either for the crimes committed during the Maidan or for the massive theft of public assets that has been going on for many years. Most recently, and perhaps most worryingly, Reanimation Package of Reforms has identified the fact that the National Anti-Corruption Bureau has been attacked in Parliament, with attempts to curtail its operation through legislation. Its operations have also been disrupted by the Ukrainian security services, which are probably acting on behalf of the Government.
Those are worrying signs, and we must press the Ukrainian Government to continue with their reform package. That is essential if the Government are to re-establish confidence in Ukraine, which will unlock the investment that will give it an economically viable future.
I am reluctant to interrupt the right hon. Gentleman’s flow; he speaks with such authority that he commands the respect of the Chamber. In terms of our bilateral relationship on anti-corruption and good governance, does the right hon. Gentleman agree that a great deal of the UK’s credibility at the moment comes from our being a member of the EU? If, possibly, we withdraw from the EU, how will we be able to maintain that relationship? What does he think a post-Brexit bilateral relationship between Ukraine and the UK might look like?
As the hon. Gentleman knows, I do not share his views about our membership of the EU. The requirement is on all the western nations. The truth is that the biggest contributor to the future stability of Ukraine in both military and financial assistance is likely to be the United States of America. Canada, too, is playing an extremely important role. Yes, the EU is involved, but a country does not have to be a member of the EU to want to help Ukraine. I hope we will put together assistance packages in order to do that, and that is almost bound to be led by America. That should apply during our remaining time in the EU and also when we have left.
There is an interesting proposal from the Lithuanian Parliament, and I met Mr Andrius Kubilius, the former Prime Minister of Lithuania, to discuss it. It proposes what is essentially a new Marshall plan—a massive investment package—but it can only be contemplated if it is accompanied by the kind of reforms that I think everybody who looks at Ukraine, and its people, most of all, want to see.
As the right hon. Gentleman is discussing a new Marshall plan for the region, does he agree that anti-corruption measures must take priority and precedence before significant and hopefully worthwhile investment takes place? We need a climate of which we are reasonably assured, in so far as anyone can be, that the anti-corruption measures have been successful.
I completely agree with the hon. Gentleman. If we are to expect the international community, particularly the business community, to invest in Ukraine, it has to have guarantees that the system is fair, that it will secure a return on its investments, that it will not be suddenly be hit by mysterious taxes that have been invented overnight or that it will have to bribe public officials to get contracts. Those things have to be put right, and that is widely recognised.
The only other issue on which my right hon. Friend the Minister, who I know is aware of this, can help is the particular concern expressed by Ukrainians about the difficulty they experience obtaining visas to visit this country. I have just sent my right hon. Friend a letter signed by 21 Members of the Ukrainian Parliament that sets out their concern that the refusal rate for visa applications to come to the UK has risen over the last three years from 9% to 25% with no real explanation. Not only are a lot of visas refused, in cases where they have been granted they have actually been issued after the flight to bring the applicant to this country has left, requiring them to rebook at considerable expense.
The Ukrainians believe that part of the reason for that is that Ukrainian visa applications are dealt with in Warsaw. Something is clearly going wrong. I recognise that this is not the direct responsibility of my right hon. Friend, and I know that he has talked to the Ukrainian Parliament and Government about this, but I urge him to talk to his and my colleague in the Home Office who is responsible. Ukraine is worth supporting.
For the record, does the right hon. Gentleman recognise that, during the Russian onslaught in eastern Ukraine, many Christian churches have been destroyed, Baptist pastors have gone missing, never to be seen again, and people have been displaced? When it comes to human rights, does he accept and agree that we need to see a softening of Russian attitudes towards those with religious beliefs, who have been persecuted specifically because they speak out on social issues on behalf of people and are very vocal in their areas? People are going missing and disappearing. That is wrong.
I agree. The role of all the Churches in Ukraine is very important. The Ukrainian Orthodox Church plays a leading role. I was due to meet the Chief Rabbi of Kiev the other day, since there is a Jewish community there that is also important. Clearly the Churches have a role and can assist in the humanitarian effort in east Ukraine—I very much agree.
I want to finish by saying to the Minister that Ukraine is worth supporting, first because it is a country of huge economic potential. It has a population of 45 million, with 99.7% literacy, and it has the biggest reserves of black soil in the world. If that could be exploited, it could feed most of Europe. We should support Ukraine because it is our frontline against Russian aggression. We are facing an expansionist, resurgent Russia that is using military, economic, information and cyber attacks in an attempt to steer Ukraine away from the pro-western path of development. If Russia succeeds in Ukraine, we should be in no doubt that its ambitions will not stop there. It is very much in our interests to give Ukraine our support.
Order. About five Members have put in a request to speak, and others are now indicating that they want to speak. I am not proposing to put a time limit on speeches, but I ask you all to keep an eye on the clock as you speak. I call Douglas Chapman.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Gillan. I sincerely thank the right hon. Member for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale) for bringing such an important issue to the Chamber.
As we all know, Ukraine has been an independent nation since 1991, following the break-up of the USSR. Like other former Soviet states, starting a new state has been difficult and far from a pain-free process for Ukraine. The fledgling state has also had to deal with living in the shadow of a powerful near neighbour, the Russian Federation, which in 2014 annexed Crimea and eastern Ukraine in a clear violation of international law.
The situation is at best tense and fractious, and at worst violent and murderous. Some of the headlines from just the past week outline the severe difficulties that Ukraine faces and the almost impossible and violent situation that has developed in eastern Ukraine and Crimea. For example, Reuters reported this week that the OSCE says that fighting in eastern Ukraine is the worst since February. It also reports clashes in Kiev as protestors demand Poroshenko’s impeachment. The TASS news agency says, “Russia warns US and Canada against weapons supplies to Ukraine.” The BBC reports, “Ukraine Crisis: Russian truce monitors to leave,” and yesterday the Financial Times reported, “Reforms to root out corruption must continue if the independent state is to flourish”. There are a range of headlines from various news sources. From just one week of headlines, the situation seems solution-free and the problems intractable.
Our driving force to create peace and find solutions must take account of the fact that since 2014, more than 10,000 people have lost their lives in eastern Ukraine, 1.5 million people have been driven out of their homes and an estimated 800,000 people remain under threat in the area affected by fighting, including 100,000 civilians who live in the “grey zone” that sits between Ukrainian forces and Russian separatists. From a UK perspective, the relationship with the Russian Federation must be improved. Although its disregard for Ukraine’s borders and international norms makes progress difficult, refusing to engage with Moscow is not a feasible foreign policy option given both that the UK and Russia are nuclear powers, have a place on the UN Security Council and have a hand in the security of Europe. One good thing that the current Foreign Secretary has done is to thaw some of the relations between London and Moscow; the previous incumbent made a point of not speaking to his equivalent number in Moscow or even the Russian ambassador in London for months on end.
The real pain is being felt by Ukraine and its citizens. I have fairly regular and good contact with the Ukrainian ambassador and her staff in London and have sought regular updates on the political situation in Kiev and especially in what is effectively a warzone in eastern Ukraine. During my time on the Defence Committee, we considered the issue of hybrid warfare, which is designed to confuse, create misunderstanding and blur lines of responsibility.
There is no doubt in my mind and in that of the international community that those are the tactics employed by the Russian Federation in Crimea and in eastern Ukraine. They allow the aggressor to simply shrug their shoulders and say, “But they’re not our troops. It’s not our fault. They’re nothing to do with us.” In reality, we all know that they are. The Scottish word for that kind of behaviour is “sleekit”, but where thousands of people have lost their lives, sleekit is not quite strong enough a description of Russia’s behaviour, and its actions should be condemned.
We need to work harder in three areas. The first is with Russia on its abuses of human rights, freedom of expression and the rules-based order. Secondly, the Government should exert influence by utilising civil recovery powers to seize UK-based assets of Russians. In those circumstances, the London housing market may take a hit, but that price is worth paying to make Russia wake up to its international responsibilities. Thirdly, imposing on Russia tougher sanctions than are currently agreed to and applied by EU member states would be another way of ensuring that Russia understands how seriously the west is taking the situation in Ukraine. An issue for another day might be to see how the UK would impose such sanctions post-Brexit, what changes would ensue and how much it would cost to apply UK-administered sanctions in those circumstances.
Ukraine, as an independent country, must be allowed to build its own future. Internal problems such as political corruption are being tackled positively, but it is more difficult in an unstable political environment to see through the required changes. The west needs to provide more support to develop resilience to further Russian encroachment and focus on creating social, economic and political infrastructure to enhance engagement with the west and allow Ukraine to engage on a level playing field with Russia. We must also maintain the level of UK and EU funding to support that infrastructure and offer closer links to Europe.
Finally, Ukraine and Scotland have trade links; we could do more, especially in agriculture imports and exports and agribusiness research. The Scottish Government have established a good working relationship at an official level with the Russian Federation through the consul general in Edinburgh, and we raise such issues as human rights concerns and the annexation of Crimea, which we see as illegal. We support the European Council’s firm commitment to the full implementation of the Minsk agreement.
Today we ask the Government to be more influential in working towards a lasting agreement between the parties in the Ukraine conflict as a member of the Council of Europe. We must protect minorities in eastern Europe and Crimea who remain unprotected. We need to do much more. We must work with our European partners on holding Russia to account and on the maintenance of existing sanctions.
More generally, the Government should suspend all arms sales where it is thought or suspected that violations of human rights exist or where violations are contrary to international humanitarian law. The UK is well aware that creating power vacuums allows instability to fester, and we all have to work towards a meaningful and lasting political solution in Ukraine, even if that task appears to be mission impossible at the moment.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale) on securing the debate and on leading the recent delegation to eastern Ukraine, which I had the privilege of joining. That was not my first visit to Ukraine, but it was my first visit to the Donetsk region. To see the challenges posed in places such as Kramatorsk and Avdiivka next to the Donetsk airport, where so much blood was recently spilled, was an eye-opening experience.
This is still a hot war, and Ukrainians are being killed on a weekly basis, with shelling happening more days than not. We visited a coke coal plant near the separatist lines, which had half its water tanks blown up, severely impacting production. The people who work there just get on with running the plant. I very much agree with my right hon. Friend that they are very brave people indeed, not least given that they are living under the threat of invasion, death and displacement—we are talking about some 1.5 million internally displaced persons who, if they are permitted or dare to go back to the occupied zone at all—say, to visit relatives—suffer the humiliation of rough border searches and poor treatment from separatist militia, many of whom are criminals or mercenaries.
Much humanitarian and foreign aid is getting to free east Ukraine, but that is a very poor area and its economic and infrastructure needs are extremely pressing. Like my right hon. Friend, I was very moved by the dedication of the students and staff of the Gorlovka institute of foreign languages at the Donbass State Technical University, which has been re-established in unoccupied Bakhmut. Those displaced young students were making the best of a very basic building and facilities. We had a meeting and question-and-answer session with about 100 of them, and I found moving and inspiring their desire to educate themselves, to develop their country and to look westwards to the values of EU countries. It was also a reminder that although media interest may have moved on from Donetsk, the underlying issues have not.
I appreciate that the UK is giving Ukraine a lot of assistance, not least in terms of non-lethal military help and training, and also on governance issues, but I ask whether more of our Department for International Development resources could be spent helping those on our own continent who are clearly in real need.
As my right hon. Friend said, it may be that for many of our citizens, Ukraine, let alone east Ukraine, is a distant place that they have little thought for or, if they do think of it, there is little feeling of common cause. At this point, I need to refer to the elephant in the room: Russia and its vicious warmongering and anti-humanitarian actions along its borders. Ukraine has 20% of its territory occupied, and so does the republic of Georgia.
Many other neighbouring states, not least the Baltics, have the same fear of Russian aggression. It is not for no cause that British troops, planes and ships have been moved east of Germany for the first time in more than a century. Of course, Estonia is in NATO and Ukraine is not yet a member, although I hope that one day it will become so. What is clear, however, is that Russia is using Ukraine as a test case for trying out its latest hybrid warfare techniques. That has involved the use of everything from agents provocateurs or little green men and the mass use of propaganda and cyber-warfare, right through to drone technology and the development of conventional military tactics.
To those who are still wondering what this matter has to do with the UK, I say this. It is unlikely, although by no means impossible, that Russia will wish to invade more of the lands to the west. That is because garrisoning and paying for the failing economies in the lands that it has already occupied have badly stretched Russia’s already weak economy. However, it also seems increasingly clear that what Russia really wants is a series of weak and corrupt vassal states surrounding it that it can control and bully and that it believes will act as a buffer against western European economic and cultural advancement.
Sadly, however, that is not where it stops, because Russia also seems intent on using the skills that it picks up while abusing its neighbours in order to disseminate destabilisation, hatred, corruption, criminality and fear among NATO countries. I am talking about things such as the mass use of false accounts on Twitter and Facebook to polarise society through the spreading of fake news—for instance, by propagating anti-Islamic messages after recent atrocities or by trying to affect campaigns such as that for the EU referendum. I am sure that that will be the subject of another debate, but I mention it here because UK citizens need to realise that Ukraine’s fight for its right to live as an independent sovereign nation is also our fight. Ukraine is our ally in dealing with that threat, and we should be helping it more. In my view, that should be help in rebuilding its society and infrastructure and in building up its defences. It should also include providing Ukraine with defensive military equipment, not least Javelin anti-tank missiles capable of dealing with the huge Russian tank build-up in occupied Ukraine.
Of course, the UK will not solve this issue working alone or just militarily. In that context, I congratulate the EU on deciding last week to maintain sanctions against Russia for a further six months. We must remain united with the EU and robust on sanctions post Brexit.
I was aware, but that fact needs to be well publicised; it is not known widely enough.
We must also be welcoming here to Ukrainians. The Schengen area has just awarded visa liberalisation to Ukraine. I accept that that is unlikely in the UK until we know where we stand post Brexit, but the bitter complaints that I heard from Ukrainians about the lack of efficiency in the existing process demand a review now.
The other key issue that came up during our visit related to the development of Ukrainian civil society. At this point, let me recognise that that is a different society from our own. Ukraine suffered greatly under communism; and, with its early-stage capitalist, oligarch-controlled economy, it is prone to corruption and political stagnation, in a way that can be unnerving and sometimes shocking to many of us in the west.
Reforms are being made, not least to liberalise and regulate the economy, and that has sometimes led to hardship for people—for instance, in relation to energy prices. However, it was made clear to us by many whom we met that although the Ukrainian Government keep saying that change must be gradual, large numbers of Ukrainians are getting impatient with the slow state of reform. I did not get the feeling that that will result in another Maidan-scale revolt at the current time, but it will be important that we do what we can to encourage accelerated reform.
By the way, I was very impressed by our embassy’s resolve and action to do exactly that. Let me recognise also that there are a number of excellent, reform-minded new and younger Ukrainian MPs, who see a better future for their country and are determined to fight for that future. We also saw some very impressive reforms, not least the local government and police permit one-stop shops, where permits can be applied for under one roof: because the issuing department does not directly interface with the applicant, corruption is largely stopped. So credit where credit is due.
It does sometimes seem, however, that it is one step forward and then one step back. The appointment of new Supreme Court judges was for the most part seen by civil society activists whom we met as a win against corruption, but reports came through a few days ago concerning the attempted suppression of the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine and its head Artem Sytnyk, which points badly. Given the problems with corruption, I would say that establishing a system of anti-corruption courts and ensuring clean judges for them should be a priority for Ukraine next year. Those concerns are shared by the EU, the US, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. If we are to help Ukraine, we must also insist that Ukraine help itself. Of one thing I am convinced, however: this is our continent, and Ukraine’s battles are our battles and part of the UK’s future. We should not be neglecting them.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Gillan. I welcome this debate initiated by my right hon. Friend the Member for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale) on the situation in Ukraine, but I wish to go back in time a little and speak about the tragic legacy of the Ukrainian holodomor, from 1932 to 1933, which continues to have an enormous impact on the Ukrainian people today.
The holodomor was a forced famine orchestrated by Joseph Stalin’s communist regime and it resulted in the deaths of millions of Ukrainian people. It was a crime fuelled by a repugnant political ideology. Stalin wanted to starve the so-called rebellious Ukrainian peasantry into submission and force them into collective farms. Subsequently, the Ukrainian countryside, once home to the “black earth”—some of the most fertile land in the world—was reduced to a wasteland. The holodomor stole away between 7 million and 10 million people. Entire villages were wiped out, and in some regions the death rate reached one third of the population.
Inevitably, the events of the Ukrainian holodomor undermined national confidence. It continues to have an impact on the consciousness of current generations, as it will future generations. Indeed, the many descendants of Ukrainian people in this country are still very concerned about what happened. Last month, I held a Westminster Hall debate on the issue, in which I called for the Government to recognise the holodomor as a genocide. As the hon. Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound) said so pertinently in that debate:
“No one can visit Ukraine today without seeing that it is still a live wound, a bruise and a source of pain.”—[Official Report, 7 November 2017; Vol. 630, c. 551WH.]
My hon. Friend mentions the word “genocide”. Does she recognise that without Ukraine, we would not have the term “genocide” or, indeed, “crimes against humanity”? As Philippe Sands pointed out in his book, it was the invention of those at the time of the second world war that has prompted all our subsequent activity in this area.
Yes. I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention, because I will come on to that. It seems ironic that that is where the term “genocide” came from, yet this country does not recognise it.
On 7 December it was the 85th anniversary of this atrocity. I was pleased to see that the UK was represented by the British embassy’s chargé d’affaires during the commemoration service held by President Poroshenko on 25 November. The Ukrainian people have suffered for so long. Following the 85th anniversary, now is an appropriate time to officially accept that the holodomor was a genocide. Acknowledging that would be in accordance with the Ukrainian people’s wishes.
In 2006, the Government of Ukraine passed a law recognising the disaster as genocide against the Ukrainian people and have sought for the international community to follow suit. Many countries have recognised this, including the US, Canada, Australia and many others. Since the formation of the convention on the prevention and punishment of the crime of genocide, which was adopted by the UN Assembly in 1948, it has been possible to designate events. This has strengthened the hand of the international community, if it wants to take action in those cases.
The Government’s current position is that international law cannot be applied retrospectively unless subject to a legal decision. I understand that the holocaust, although it took place before 1948, has an exclusive status, since it was the basis for the legal determination of genocide by the convention. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell) said, it was actually the holodomor that started it. It should be noted that the holodomor was directly referred to by Raphael Lemkin, the author of the convention, as a classic example of genocide. We recognise the Jewish holocaust retrospectively, so why do we not recognise the holodomor, which started before the second world war, nearly two or three years before the holocaust?
If the Government maintain their position, I ask again: will they consider initiating an inquiry or judicial process to help ensure the Ukrainian holodomor is given its rightful status as a genocide? I understand that the 1994 killings in Rwanda and the 1995 massacre in Srebrenica were both recognised as genocides as a result of legal proceedings. It is only right that the UK accepts the definition of the Ukrainian holodomor as a genocide. It would be a mark of our respect and our friendship with the Ukrainian people today. We must expose violations of human rights, preserve historical records and help to restore the dignity of victims through the acknowledgment of their suffering.
I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale) for calling this debate. To give a bit of background, I lived in the former Soviet Union and then Ukraine from 1990 to 1994. I have been conducting academic research into Russian warfare on and off since, and in the last couple of years I have made four or five trips to Kiev and to the east of the country to interview academics, soldiers and other people involved in the current conflict.
My right hon. Friend is correct to ask why we should care about Ukraine. It has had only a modest impact on our imagination and for much of the modern era it has been part of the Russian empire, although Ukrainians point to earlier periods in their history as proof of historic statehood, such as Kievan Rus’ and the republican, egalitarian Zaporizhian Cossack Host, the Hetmanate.
I think we should care about Ukraine for the following reasons. The creation of an independent Ukrainian state was probably the single most important thing that happened after—or accompanied—the collapse of the USSR. It removed from the Russian state a population of approximately 50 million people, its main agricultural base and one of its industrial and defence heartlands. It completed the journey towards statehood begun by the Ukrainians in the 19th century.
More broadly, in the east Slavic world there are three states: Russia, Belorussia and Ukraine. Russia is now an authoritarian state and its population is fed a daily diet of illiberal and anti-western propaganda. Belorussia, sadly, is an external colony of Russia and Russia’s recent troop movements into that state are likely to reinforce that. Then we have Ukraine. Out of the three, only Ukraine makes any real pretence at being anything approaching a functioning democracy. Ukraine is the only country in the east Slavic world that seeks a role as a European state within a European fraternity of nations. Ukraine is the only country in the east Slavic states with a civic society that is neither being actively oppressed nor co-opted by the state. In my mind, much depends on the future of that civic society.
There are undoubtedly problems. Post-Soviet corruption has been as endemic there as anywhere else. We under- estimate the appalling impact of socialist totalitarianism on the destruction of human societies; my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire (Mrs Latham) spoke about holodomor, the genocide of the Ukrainian peasantry, which is only one example.
However, it is worth pointing out that corruption has been fostered, in part, as a means of Russian subversion and control. The purpose and the intent of Russian activity in Ukraine, sadly, is to undermine Ukrainian statehood, and, indeed, a Ukrainian identity that exists separately from Russia. For many people in senior positions in the Kremlin, Ukrainian statehood and a Ukrainian identity separate from Russia is the cause of something approaching apoplexy, and touches significant raw nerves within the Russian psyche.
We see some of that Russian subversion in our own state, and I suspect we will be discussing it tomorrow, but in Ukraine—as various speakers have pointed out, including my hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr Djanogly), who spoke with great eloquence on this—they are subjected to a much greater degree of that pressure. That includes the compromising of individuals and classes, and the diet of media control and messaging, which is not just up-market PR, but a kind of violence against the mind, designed to demoralise and disorientate.
In Soviet days, such disinformation, espionage, sabotage and occasional assassination were known as “active measures.” We are still reaching for a new name; some of us are calling it “full-spectrum effects”. It is the combining of these active measures, which used to be run by the KGB and the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, with other forms of violence, including conventional military work. Under President Yanukovych, for example, NATO assistance programs were halted, and the Ukrainian defence establishment hollowed out, which explains why the Ukrainians did so badly at the beginning of the war. Attempts were made to rewrite Ukrainian identity in new historical textbooks. Oil and gas were used as a means of control and bribery. Russian businesses were used to exert indirect control over the Ukrainian state.
On top of that, in the past few years since the Maidan revolution, we have had direct violence via proxies, some of which were local, but many of which have been controlled by the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation and the Glavnoye razvedyvatel’noye upravleniye—the Russian Main Intelligence Directorate. Pro-Russian demonstrators as well as violent thugs, the so-called Titushky, were used or bused in.
It is worth remembering that Russia’s plans at the time were ambitious and it was co-ordinating a series of uprisings in almost all the Russian speaking countries: Odessa, Nikolayev, Dnipro, Kharkiv and Zaporizhia. In many of these places the uprisings failed and were put down by the Ukrainians—not always particularly well, but they were. One should remember that outside Donetsk and Luhansk, the Russian attempts to subvert and undermine Ukrainian statehood largely failed. Crimea was clearly an exception to that as well.
There are some people who say, “Let’s understand Russia,” which I think is too often a code for appeasing Russia. I think one should always understand Russia, talk to Russians as much possible and engage with them, but I do think it is important to stand up to them and not appease them. If we appease them and effectively give them a sphere of influence within eastern Europe, there will be years and decades of instability, which will threaten us and cost us a great deal in time, effort and money. The peoples of countries such as Georgia and Ukraine, as my hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon pointed out, are not just pliable entities. They do not aspire to be under the thumb of the Russians. There is a direct link between democratising and the desire to move out of Russia’s orbit, to be part of the west, to be part of a global society, to be wealthy and to be free.
Russia’s response is too often to blame the west, fascism or the CIA, which runs the internet, blah, blah, blah; it is never to examine the reason why people would want to be out of the Russian yoke or to move away from what has historically been seen as brutal and somewhat arbitrary control. Russia’s response to this, as we have seen in Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine, is to increase the levels of destabilisation and violence to force countries back to accepting Russian suzerainty. However, there is hope. Many Ukrainians now see their future in the west. Vladimir Putin’s greatest achievement in the east Slavic world may be the creation of a single, Ukrainian political identity.
There is a grand bargain here. I very much encourage the Minister to consider it, although I suspect that the Government will not make it. That grand bargain is as follows. We spend vast sums in war zones and they have produced little; I have lost count of the number of ridiculous and failed DFID projects that I have patrolled past in Afghanistan and Iraq, which stand like monuments to the vanity liberal imperialism. There is an opportunity as part of this Marshall plan to offer significant funding and support for a country that is near us and the stability and prosperity which would yield not some generalised warm and fuzzy feeling, but significant geostrategic dividends in terms of peace, locking in the post-cold-war world and extending the EU’s influence.
I am a Brexiteer, but I accept that many people in eastern Europe look to Britain and the EU as models—I do not doubt that at all. We spend billions on Africa and ridiculous sums on the EU. Can we please spend some bilateral aid to do something that will significantly encourage stability in eastern Europe and specifically in Ukraine?
I will wind up in the next minute or two, as I am aware that others wish to speak. The quicker that Ukraine reforms, and it has been pitifully slow, the stronger it and its people will be, and the better able to resist Russian active measures Ukraine and eastern Europe will be. The Ukrainians need to help themselves, but I believe that as part of a grand bargain with that important strategic country there is much more that we could be doing.
I recommend greater involvement, including greater DFID involvement, and working with the EU, the US and our Canadian allies, who are very influential in Ukraine because of the Ukrainian diaspora—it is not only in Derby, but in many parts of the Canadian plains—to increase our leverage and to offer a grand bargain to the Ukrainians as part of a significant geopolitical victory in eastern Europe.
It is a pleasure to speak under your stewardship, Mrs Gillan. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale) on securing this debate. I will keep my comments short this morning for fear of repeating something that other hon. Members have raised.
As hon. Members across the Chamber have recognised, Ukraine has been a proud and independent country since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, and before the uprising in 2014 there was little evidence of widespread support for separation in either Crimea or Donbass. As we have heard, in February 2014 a pro-Russian militia, later confirmed to be Russian troops, seized control of state institutions in Crimea and installed a pro-Russian Government. That was followed in March 2014 by another pro-Russian militia seizing control of the Donbass region.
Since then, a number of developments have taken place. One of the most significant is that more than 10,000 people have died in the Donbass region alone. Russia has been accused of providing the militias with equipment, training and intelligence support. We have heard about the number of tanks that have mysteriously appeared throughout the territories—Russia claims that it is a humanitarian convoy—and retired Russian servicemen and volunteers have bolstered the ranks of the separatist forces. Meanwhile, the international community, including the United Kingdom, still recognises Crimea as part of Ukraine.
The international community is right to be deeply concerned by these developments. At a time of globalisation we must respect the integrity of sovereign states and international law, and the sovereignty of Ukraine must be respected. That is why I support the actions of the United Kingdom Government with others since 2014 to impose sanctions on individuals, businesses and officials from Russia and other associated separatists.
What we are seeing in Ukraine is an example of some of the worst excesses of strident nationalism. I am not comparing one country’s nationalism with another, as no two nationalist causes are exactly alike, but I have spoken before about the rise of nationalism throughout the world and how it is a negative force—nothing we witness in Ukraine demonstrates otherwise.
Sanctions are only one tool that we have to support Ukraine. We must also encourage and strengthen cultural and diplomatic ties so that we can provide the hope and help that the people of Ukraine truly desire. As has been mentioned, we must also engage with Russia—less through RT, and more through diplomatic means—and Ukraine, so that we work together as one country, through this place, to enforce sanctions and provide constructive options as well. I hope that this crisis will be ended soon by the full implementation of the Minsk II protocol and that there will be a full ceasefire and the reintegration of separatist-ruled territories so that they return to Ukraine and peace and international law reign supreme.
It is obviously a pleasure to serve under you, Mrs Gillan.
The right hon. Member for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale) asked at the beginning why we are concerned about Ukraine and why it is an issue. Well, we have heard many reasons why Ukraine is important. The fact that it is significant in this Parliament is very much to his credit, that of the hon. Member for Mid Derbyshire (Mrs Latham) and her holodomor debate, and—if I am allowed to mention him—the noble Lord Risby, who has been a consistent voice for Ukraine in both Houses.
During the holodomor debate I referred to my chairmanship of St Michael Mission Trust, which renews and rebuilds churches mostly in western Ukraine, around Fastiv and in that general area. I was asked whether I should have declared that. May I just point out, for the sake of the record, that I received absolutely no financial remuneration whatsoever from it? In fact, if anything, it cost me quite a bit of money, but I am absolutely delighted to do that. I am proud of the work that we do in Lviv and the Kiev oblast, and we work through the Dominican fathers.
The hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr Djanogly) referred to the elephant in the room. I see a more ursine creature. I see a vast bear in the room—a bear with sharp claws that is looking westwards at the moment. He and I have been in the region and have seen the influence. That is why it is all the more important that with the influence that this country has and, please God, will continue to have even after Brexit, we place on record our concern about what is happening there. If sunlight is the best disinfectant, we have to shine the sunlight through the mist of battle and this current murky war.
I have a couple of questions that I specifically want to put to the Minister. May I say that I am delighted that the right hon. Gentleman is in his place? There could be no better Minister to respond to this debate than a man who has shown his knowledge, expertise and humanity in this area, and that is very much to his credit.
We heard earlier about the fact that the Russian Federation has withdrawn its military officers from the Joint Centre for Control and Co-ordination. That happened this week; it happened only yesterday. This is a shifting situation. What possible signal does it send, in particular to the Minsk process, if the Russian Federation unilaterally, without any discussion or negotiation, withdraws its military officers from that? That sends a very obvious signal. I sincerely hope that it is not so that they have denied any opportunity to participate in the peace process, but it looks to me as a neutral observer as though they are simply walking away from a war that they are contributing to, funding, stimulating and facilitating.
This was the first time I have heard the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr Seely) speak. I was massively impressed by the depth of his knowledge and his passion and commitment, and it was a real privilege to hear that. We have heard about the projects that the United Kingdom is involved in by giving assistance through the FCO and DFID. I think that we have actually given about £42 million in the last two years. I would like to hear some commitment from the Minister to a continuation of that financial support, because that money is multiplied by a factor of 10 at the least when it comes to its effectiveness within Ukraine.
The Foreign Secretary is heading for Russia. I think all hon. Members feel a certain trepidation when they hear about the Foreign Secretary heading out to countries—who knows what may happen? I profoundly hope that, as the first Foreign Secretary to visit Russia in about five years, he will not forsake this opportunity. He is a man of great generosity of spirit—of great breadth and depth of learning—but he needs to speak truth to power on this occasion and to make some of the points that we have heard today. The FCO has not yet made a public statement on Russia’s withdrawal from the Joint Centre for Control and Co-ordination; this would be an ideal opportunity for one.
A draft Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Bill is wending its way through the upper House. It would be interesting to see whether, in the light of the Russian Federation’s current aggression—not just the military aggression but the human rights violations in Crimea—that Bill might include additional sanctions.
We heard that nothing stirs the bear into an apoplectic fit more than the expression of Ukrainian nationalism. There is a hope in some dark quarters of the Kremlin that Ukraine will go away and be quiet—that it will be absorbed into greater Russia. The extraordinary success of Ukrainian athletes at the last Olympics and their achievement of rising so high up the medal table inspired passion throughout the world, not just in the Ukrainian diaspora, although they were dancing in the streets of Sheffield. I mention Sheffield because it is the home of Marina Lewycka, one of our more famous members of the Ukrainian diaspora, who wrote the magnificent and very serious book, “A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian”, which I recommend to everybody.
Anyone who saw that Olympic success will know that Ukrainian nationality, pride and recognition of its own identity is absolutely unbreakable and irrefragable. It will never be destroyed. People can do their best—or their worst—but Ukraine will be Ukraine. Debates such as this are so important for putting those markers down. I look forward to hearing from the Minister. In the words that the right hon. Member for Maldon and I heard in the Euromaidan, “Slava Ukraini!”.
I will make four points in about two and a half minutes. I have heard every word of this debate, Mrs Gillan. I would not miss the introductory oration of the right hon. Member for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale); one of the best things I have done in Parliament was to introduce him to Ukraine some years ago.
We heard about the diaspora and the Ukrainian athletes. As the grandson of an Irish migrant in Yorkshire, my first contact with Ukraine was on the football fields with the grandsons of Ukrainian migrants. I remember that they tackled hard. The next contact was in the 2005 Orange revolution, when I thought that there was only one side to be on—that of freedom and of democracy. That is why I got involved.
We heard about the withdrawal of the truce monitors. The Foreign Secretary is going to Russia at a fortuitous time because even more than my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound), I worry that that will precede additional violence at Christmas. That has happened before when the world’s eyes were looking elsewhere. Over the next few days, we have to be careful that the world’s eyes are on Donbass. It may be time to revive the idea of peacekeeping forces, which the Ukrainian Government have argued for in the past. It would not be acceptable to have Russians as part of that force, of course, because as Ukraine has argued it would have to be stationed across the whole of Donbass and at the border. That needs to be looked at.
On corruption and the economy, the Ukrainian Parliament has an important decision to make on Thursday. I hope that it will confirm the new central bank governor. That decision is on a par with the publication of assets, which recently meant that about a third of judges resigned immediately. That sort of bold measure is needed to tackle corruption.
I disagree with the hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr Djanogly) who argued that Ukraine should join NATO. I think that would divide the Ukrainian nation. Even now, opinion polls do not suggest huge majorities for that; they suggest divisions.
On language, it is important that the Russian language is cherished in Ukraine; someone can be a proud Ukrainian with Russian as their first language. In recent years, one of the great symbols was when Shakhtar Donetsk played at Lviv. Obviously, they could not play at their home ground, so they played in west Ukraine. There was a recognition that although the teams came from different parts of Ukraine, they shared that Ukrainian identity. Long may that continue.
It is good to see you in the Chair, Mrs Gillan. I thank the right hon. Member for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale) for bringing this important debate to the House and congratulate him on reminding us about the progress that the Republic of Ukraine has made in taking its place as one of the world’s modern liberal democracies. That progress may sometimes seem painful and slow, but liberal democracies are not built in a day. I pay tribute to the hon. Members for Mid Derbyshire (Mrs Latham), for Huntingdon (Mr Djanogly) and for Isle of Wight (Mr Seely), who again mentioned a Marshall plan for Ukraine. If that proposal were brought to the Floor of the House, I might agree with him about it, although not about leaving the European Union.
I shall begin with a quick precis of my position, which is also that of my party and of the Scottish Government, on the situation in Ukraine. The illegal and illegitimate annexation of Crimea by the Government of the Russian Federation—I say that deliberately; it is not by the Russian nation but by the Government who lead it—has been the biggest challenge to European security since the Balkan conflicts. The current destabilisation of eastern Ukraine must be similarly condemned and we must be robust in our defence of international norms. As such, the Scottish National party and Scottish Government support the European Council’s firm commitment to the full implementation of the Minsk agreements. Although we may not always agree, we firmly support the UK Government’s efforts in tackling Russian disinformation and propaganda.
Despite the Minsk agreements and various ceasefires, eastern Ukraine is certainly not a place of peace today. This week, I was sorry, as I am sure other hon. Members were, to see evidence of some of 2017’s worst violence: the settlement of Novoluhanske was shelled, which caused the death of at least eight civilians. It seems clear that the shells were of a type prohibited under the Minsk agreements and were fired from around the town of Horlivka, which is under non-governmental control. It is indescribable that almost 1 million people are approaching their fourth Christmas with the spectre of this conflict hanging over them. We must make it clear that the Government of the Russian Federation and their proxies must respect those agreements and stop the violence.
Although that which I describe is a reminder that we may not have left the horrors of 20th-century Europe behind, I am more worried by the developments in modern warfare that have resulted in the Government of the Russian Federation using Ukraine, as it has Syria, as a testing ground for a very 21st-century version of electronic and cyber warfare. We have heard reports of jamming and spoofing of devices used by Ukrainian forces in Donbass and Luhansk. Attacks have targeted the cyber infrastructure of energy networks and other businesses in the rest of the country that some people have described as a “digital blitzkrieg”—as the Member for West Dunbartonshire, I would not use the word “blitzkrieg” lightly.
I will try to be quick, as I am aware we are cutting it fine for time. That is most worrying because those attackers are doing that almost at will. Their controlled, heuristic manner suggests that they are testing the limits of their technical capabilities and seeing how much the international community will tolerate without responding. That worry was echoed in my conversations with state officials all along the Russian periphery. The SNP believes that we must stand up fully for the sovereignty not only of the Ukraine, but of other Baltic and eastern European states that are on the receiving end of those unattributable hybrid attacks.
Last month, my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South (Stewart Malcolm McDonald) and I met the Ukrainian ambassador, whom I am glad to see in the Public Gallery. We agree that there is much work to do and that Ukraine must be given all the support it can be given to become a full member of the European family of democracies. Although such discussions are difficult, we cannot discuss the sacrifices of the Ukrainian people to bring their country towards the goal of European Union membership, which I agree with, whether at the 2014 Maidan or in eastern Ukraine now, without reflecting on the disaster of Brexit.
I have some specific questions for the Minister. Most pertinently, will he provide some clarity on how the United Kingdom will continue to support sanctions against the Russian Federation after we leave the European Union? I make a plea to him to consider changing the UK’s position on refusing to engage with the Russian Government. I do not excuse the Russian Government for one minute; as a gay man, asking for engagement with Ukraine or the Russian Federation does not come easy. [Interruption.] I am talking about myself; I would never make assumptions about anyone else.
It was sadly overlooked, but 2017 marked the 50th anniversary of the Harmel doctrine. I may be showing my bias when I point out that it was a policy that was promoted by a smaller European state and that mixed hard deterrence with the opening of a diplomatic track that offered a way out of strategic impasse. I am glad that the right hon. Member for Maldon mentioned it in his speech.
The United Kingdom has serious obligations, because it was a signatory—along with the former Soviet Union and the United States—to the Budapest memorandum, which has been conveniently forgotten by many. I ask the Minister to be very clear about how we take forward our role as a signatory and ensure that, having worked with the European Union on sanctions, we continue to hold the Russian Federation to account after we leave.
It is always a pleasure to serve under your stewardship, Mrs Gillan. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale) on securing this debate. Its importance has been demonstrated by the number of speakers and the quality of contributions.
The current crisis has its roots in the so-called Maidan revolution, which began in late 2013 when crowds gathered in central Kiev’s Maidan Square, or Independence Square, in protest against the decision of then President Viktor Yanukovych not to sign an association agreement with the EU, reneging on an earlier commitment to do so. The focus of the protests shifted, however, after riot police began a violent crackdown on the protests. Early scenes of brutal treatment prompted the crowds to swell in size to more than 500,000, with protesters demanding Yanukovych’s resignation. The turning point came in February 2014 when dozens of protesters were killed by the security forces. Despite the last-minute efforts of the Polish, German and French Foreign Ministers to hammer out a diplomatic solution with the Russians, Yanukovych buckled under pressure as police throughout Kiev abandoned their posts. It became clear that the President’s authority had crumbled. He subsequently fled to Russia.
The Ukrainian Parliament, the Rada, promptly voted to remove Yanukovych from office and appointed an interim Government ahead of elections for a new President and Parliament, which were held in May and October 2014 respectively. Moscow cried foul, declaring the new Government to be the result of an illegitimate coup d’état and withdrawing the Russian ambassador. Within a few days of Yanukovych’s Government being toppled, Russian troops began arriving in Crimea to bolster the military presence there. Removing their insignia, they spread across the peninsula and started to take over other military sites as well as Government buildings, including the Crimean Parliament. As hon. Members have mentioned, the Tatar community, a Muslim community with its own legislative structure, has had a long history as an integral part of Crimea. That community seems to have been completely forgotten in this process; there has been no consideration of what we need to do to support them. The agreements have neglected to mention their rights or how we should further engage them in discussions and negotiations.
Amid the chaos, Russia occupied and annexed the Crimean peninsula in March 2014 and began fomenting an uprising by pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk provinces, an area collectively known as Donbass. Following months of fighting between heavily armed separatists and Ukrainian armed forces, supplemented by private militias and Russian troops, a truce was brokered by France and Germany and agreed in Minsk on 5 September 2014. Fighting nevertheless continued largely unabated. Following a major separatist offensive in January 2015, a second ceasefire agreement, known as Minsk II, was reached in Minsk on 12 February 2015. The February agreement continues to provide a framework for international diplomacy on the situation in Ukraine.
According to the UN, as of 12 March 2017, at least 9,940 people had been killed since the fighting in eastern Ukraine began three years ago. That figure, which the UN describes as a
“conservative estimate based on available data”,
includes more than 2,000 civilians. A new ceasefire was announced on 18 February 2017, following talks between the Foreign Ministers of Ukraine, Russia, France and Germany at the Munich security conference. The German Foreign Minister, Sigmar Gabriel, said that the agreement aimed
“to do what has long been agreed but never implemented: to withdraw the heavy weapons from the region, to secure them and enable the OSCE monitors to control where they are kept.”
A number of hon. Members raised the significant issue of corruption in Ukraine. We need to consider how best to support democratic institutions to overcome that problem. We should consider carefully the comments of the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr Seely), who brings phenomenal expertise to the debate; I do not necessarily agree with everything he said about Brexit, but I commend the rest of his speech. The structure is really important. The international Ukrainian diaspora seeks to work with Ukrainians to establish a better anti-corruption structure and restore the status of the Ukrainian community. We are trying to help and support that work, and we will see how it goes.
Hon. Members also mentioned DFID’s humanitarian support efforts, which are very important. As the hon. Member for Isle of Wight said, it is not just about putting money in, but about seeing how projects are implemented and delivered on site.
I would also like to raise the miners’ dispute. Miners have had no bonuses since August, and their average wages are €231. It is important that we examine that issue, particularly since 94 miners are going through the judicial process. They are being prosecuted for what they stand for. Does the Minister have any words of support for the 94 miners on trial?
As my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound) asked, what role will the Government play post Brexit in securing the influence that we need to exert to move forward? Germany and France have played a pivotal role, but our role has not been significant. We need to ensure that we continue to contribute and consider the moves we need to make. Sanctions are an important part of that, and we need to consider how to continue to reinforce them. I thank the right hon. Member for Maldon again for securing the debate.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Gillan. I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Member for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale) for initiating this debate. I congratulate him on his valuable work as chair of the all-party parliamentary group and in particular on forging links with counterparts in the Rada. I also thank him and his colleagues for briefing me yesterday on their recent visit. I am also grateful to Members of all parties who have contributed to today’s debate. I am particularly grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr Seely). He has direct experience of living in Ukraine. He can list the names of people and cities in such rapid succession that we can but take pity on Hansard.
Ukraine faces two separate battles: one against internal vested interests seeking to hinder vital reforms and the other against Russian aggression and intrusion. Success in both is essential if Ukraine is to fulfil its great potential and become a stable, transparent and prosperous state. The UK Government are working hard to help it achieve that aim and are determined to persist in doing so. I can assure everyone here and the House more widely that our involvement and engagement will continue after we have left the European Union.
Putting an end to decades of corruption in Ukraine was never going to be easy. The problems Ukraine is wrestling with today are the result of the legacy it was left after the fall of communism—a system that had no concept of democratic institutions or the rule of law. Those institutions now need to be firmly established and those values ingrained in the modern Ukrainian state. It is easy to see why tackling corruption would be the No. 1 issue raised by the people of Ukraine in polls. Under the old system corrupt individuals stole millions, perhaps billions of dollars from the state.
Since independence, Ukraine’s potential has been stifled from within by vested interests and from without, as my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight mentioned, yet it possesses the people and resources to become a strong, vibrant economy that can attract significant foreign investment. The good news is that Ukraine has made more progress with reforms since 2014 than it perhaps did in all the preceding years since independence. However, it is deeply frustrating that the fight against corruption is still far from won, and indeed there are active attempts to undermine it. That includes attacks against the National Anti-Corruption Bureau. That body was set up with UK help and had begun to make great strides. We have made clear how seriously we view these attempts to block progress, and alongside the US, the EU, the IMF and World Bank we are pressing the Ukrainian Government to continue with the reforms their people expect.
Challenges to the reform agenda have also come from within the Ukrainian Parliament, with the dismissal of the head of the National Anti-Corruption Committee and the emergence of some very unhelpful draft laws. That is why it is so important that we as parliamentarians express our concerns to our friends in the Rada and encourage them to play a constructive role on reform. It is vital that those in positions of authority show leadership and ensure Ukraine’s fight against corruption continues. Ukraine’s leaders have a choice. Their legacy can be to take Ukraine down their chosen European path or to go backwards and take the path of their predecessors. Having come so far and achieved so much, it would be heartbreaking if Ukraine were to revert to past mistakes.
The UK is doing everything it can to prevent that. This year we are investing £30 million in helping the Ukrainian Government and their people fight corruption, improve governance and deliver critical reforms in the defence and energy sectors. We are also taking a lead internationally, so that it can be much more of a collective effort. In July, the Foreign Secretary hosted the inaugural Ukraine reform conference, which brought together Ukraine’s international partners, built political support for its reform agenda, and secured Ukraine’s commitment to reform over the next three years. At next year’s conference in Denmark, we and the wider international community will be watching. We very much hope that Ukraine will be able to demonstrate further progress.
Ukraine’s other battle is in overcoming Russia’s attempts to destabilise the country. My right hon. Friend the Member for Maldon referred to that specifically. Even as we debate the issue today, there has been a sharp increase in ceasefire violations, reaching levels this week that were last seen in February. There has been an attack on the Novoluhanske area by Russian-led forces. Fighting has also resumed around the Donetsk filtration station. That is extremely dangerous, because it houses hundreds of thousands of tonnes of chlorine gas.
The conflict in the Donbass has killed more than 10,000 people and maimed almost 25,000. The UN estimates that almost 4 million people need humanitarian aid and around 1 million have been internally displaced. It is a sad irony that many of those affected are Russian-speaking Ukrainians, the very people whom Russia claimed they were trying to protect. Ukraine, Russia and indeed the UK are bound by the commitments we have undertaken in the UN, the OSCE and the Council of Europe—commitments to ensure human rights and the rights of minorities are upheld, but also to respect each other’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. The violation of Ukraine’s territorial integrity by Russia, including its destabilisation of eastern Ukraine, continues to cause untold suffering for the population there, and it jeopardises wider European security.
The UK Government are helping to alleviate suffering by providing aid, improving access to healthcare and helping the displaced get into work. UK aid is also providing psychosocial support to survivors of sexual and gender-based violence and to those affected by trauma. All sides of the conflict must do more to alleviate the suffering by unblocking the delivery of humanitarian supplies. The Ukrainian authorities must also enable internally displaced people to gain access to social support and other services.
It is clear that the conflict can be resolved only through negotiation. If, as Russia claims, it truly cares about the people of the Donbass, it should end the fighting that it started, withdraw its military personnel and weapons, cease its support for the separatists, and abide by the Minsk agreement commitments it signed up to in 2015.
I do not have time.
I can assure the House and Members who have raised the matter that until the fighting ends, sanctions against Russia must and will remain in place. Our resolve on that is steadfast, and we continue to work with our partners in the EU and the G7 to maintain a united international position.
In direct response to the question asked by the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes), we will engage with Russia. I was there 10 days ago, and the Foreign Secretary will be there tomorrow. We will uphold sanctions, and in order to ensure that, we will pass the Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Bill, which has already completed most of its stages in the other place. It will come to us in the Commons in the spring.
In talking about Ukraine, we should not and must not forget about the situation in Crimea, which has also deteriorated. Ethnic Ukrainians and Crimean Tatars have been particularly singled out. On behalf of the UK Government I again call for the release of all political prisoners by the de facto and Russian authorities and the immediate return of Crimea to Ukraine.
There were a few points raised that I will have to scoot over quickly because of time. On the question of the holodomor, there was an Adjournment debate on 7 November, to which I refer my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire (Mrs Latham). In short, the issue has to be determined by the courts, rather than by us. On the Joint Centre for Control and Co-ordination, we very much regret the Russian withdrawal. It has done some very good work that we would like to continue. On the question of visas, I have been in vigorous correspondence with the Home Secretary. So far I have been rather disappointed by the response we have received in the Foreign Office to our detailed comments about the deficiencies of the visa system in respect of Ukraine. On that note, and leaving a mere 30 seconds to my right hon. Friend the Member for Maldon, I hope I have answered the debate.
I thank all Members who have taken part in this debate. The fact we are squeezed short of time at the end is an indication of the strength of feeling that exists in all parts of the House. I hope we have sent a strong message today to Ukraine that we will give them support. I hope the Foreign Secretary will take the message to Russia that we expect it to abide by the Minsk agreement and to respect the territorial integrity of Ukraine. We will continue to press it until that happens.
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).
Torre Post Office
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the closure of Torre post office.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Gillan, and it is great to hear you pronounce “Torre” perfectly. I am particularly pleased to see the Minister, and also her PPS, my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond (Yorks) (Rishi Sunak), who I suspect are pleased to be in their places today. I had applied for this debate to be an Adjournment debate on the last day, so it is certainly welcome to have it here in Westminster Hall today.
I want to pay tribute to the Torre and Upton Community Partnership, particularly its chair, Margaret Forbes-Hamilton. They have campaigned hard on this issue, along with hundreds of residents, the many businesses based in Torre, and local elected representatives who have supported the campaign on a cross-party basis. I will cover a few key points. For example, where is Torre post office and why does its location matter? Why does it matter to local people? What are the benefits of its current location and what alternatives are there to the plan put forward by Post Office Ltd to close Torre post office? This is about closing Torre post office, not moving it to another location, and I will outline why.
This is an opportune day to secure a debate on Torre post office, given the announcements about the Post Office this morning. It is welcome to see the network back in profit for the first time in 16 years and a commitment to £370 million of new Government funding. Little did I realise when I applied for this debate the effect it would have. It is particularly pleasing to see the references to village post offices and to money being invested to bring in new services and technology. Torre is an urban village, so I hope that some of the funding will be able to assist in ensuring it can keep its post office.
The news today is a long way from the era of a decade ago, when the size of the network was cut, with the lowest point coming in the quarter ending on 30 September 2008, when there was a net reduction of 641 post offices in that one quarter, according to the Library. In 2008-09, nearly 12% of post offices disappeared: 12% of the whole network. Thankfully, since 2009, the network has been stable, and I really hope that today’s announcement will confirm that that will be the case for the people of Torre.
Some watching this debate will wonder where exactly Torre post office is and why it is so important for local people. There has been a post office in Torre since before 1832, and today the area retains its village feel, despite Torquay having expanded around it and to the north of it since then. Torre still has its own railway station and Christmas lights display, but sadly no bank, as the last branch, Lloyds, closed recently. Interestingly, it told its customers it would be okay as they could bank at Torre post office just down the road, but now that is under threat as well. Removing this brick in the local infrastructure of Torre makes no sense, particularly now that there are two recently approved developments that could bring more trade to it. There is the long-awaited regeneration of the B&Q and Zion church site nearby where planning was approved by Torbay Council earlier this year, and recently the council approved planning permission for 75 new apartments at Torre Marine. Assuming both developments are completed, they will help to create a significant increase in local resident numbers and boost the status and energy of the area generally.
There are signs that the area is starting to regenerate. Although the consultation is based on the premise that the branch is moving, not closing, the site suggested in Lymington Road is outside the Torre village shopping centre, meaning it is a closure for the local community. The location where it is proposed to move to is where a previous sub-post office closed a decade ago, partly through a lack of footfall, which was the reason cited for its closing.
So why does it matter to local people? More than 600 residents have written letters objecting to the Post Office’s plan. I must compliment the excellent one from Dr Patrick Low, which sets out perfectly the reasons for keeping the post office where it is and protecting the service in Torre. As he outlines, some traders and businesses will lose considerable time and income if the post office moves to Lymington Road, owing to the distance for posting and collecting parcels, and people will not use their local shops where the post office is not part of the district’s centre.
Most of the businesses based in Torre are small and independently owned. The time deficit would amount to a significant number of productive working hours, in some cases requiring smaller shops to close while staff are out. That might also cause queues at the site in Lymington Road, which would be a sub-post-office as part of a shop, because Torre traders would probably need to prioritise similar times of day for posting, with additional loss of time and productivity. It is worth noting that in Torre the post office is now the sole provider of banking services, with its free ATM heavily used by businesses and other customers. Again, that links to the closure of the nearby bank, since the post office is now the key provider of counter banking services in the area and the only provider of a reliably free ATM as a place to take out money. My goal, and that of local residents and the council, is to regenerate Torre, and the retention of post office services is a key part of ensuring it remains a viable district centre. That is why it matters to local people.
What are the benefits of the current location? Parking is far superior in Torre than at the suggested new branch in Lymington Road. Parking at Torre is available directly outside the post office and in the nearby car park, where Torbay Council allows people to park for 20 minutes for nothing to allow them to use services such as the post office. The increase of internet businesses in the area makes that especially important for traders and customers posting and collecting parcels. Some of the strongest feedback in the consultation was from those who rely on the post office for making deliveries in connection with businesses that they run from nearby homes. It goes without saying that the ability to park easily and safely is very important for the disabled, the elderly, and mothers.
Torre has a car park and on-street parking as well as facilities nearby to easily access the post office. Lymington Road is a busy road with limited parking. It certainly does not have a car park and at many times during the day it can be awkward to park. Accessibility is better at Torre post office than at the proposed location, not only because of how people get in and out of the shop, but because it is in walking distance for many more customers and businesses than the site at Lymington Road. There is also a bus stop just across the road, which is served by one of the most frequent buses in the bay, the No. 12, and wheelchair access is available via a ramp. In terms of accessibility, the current location is far preferable to the new location suggested by Post Office Ltd.
A slightly smaller concern, but still a big one, is that the location suggested on Lymington Road is a busy cut-through route for the area and it is not a place where anyone feels particularly safe getting out of a vehicle, especially with young children, whereas the area outside Torre post office is a semi-pedestrian zone with very light traffic. That re-emphasises why the current location is the right place for a community post office. We also have to look at alternatives to the plan put forward by Post Office Ltd. I am conscious that we cannot simply come to a debate bemoaning someone else’s plan; we have to come along with our own plan. Too often I sit in this Chamber hearing people bemoan proposals and have a go at things, and when challenged on their own proposals, they seem somewhat lacking in ideas about exactly how they would solve the problem they are complaining about.
When I first met the Post Office, it indicated that the reason for looking at the closure in Torre was the lack of alternative options: something I was very sceptical of. If Torre post office was in an isolated location, with no other businesses nearby, I could perhaps have seen the argument, but it is part of a reasonably vibrant local shopping centre, with many local businesses that depend on footfall, and presumably welcome the footfall from a post office coming in and out of their businesses. It was therefore really hard to believe that no one on that street would be prepared to pick up the service and provide it in the interests of the local community.
A number of alternatives were suggested. Again, I praise the work of the local community partnership in actively contacting local businesses to see if they would help put the matter to bed by expressing an interest in providing a post office if Post Office decides not to consider continuing with the stand-alone facility, which would be my personal preference. If it is determined not to do so, the question is whether another business is prepared to pick it up.
I was therefore very pleased to receive an email today from Stuart Taylor of Post Office, outlining a meeting that Post Office’s network operations manager had yesterday with Barney Carter and his family. The name Carter may not mean much to people in the Chamber, but in Torbay, Carters is a well-known local chain of convenience stores. Helpfully, it has a branch a few doors down from the current post office location. That store is regularly used—it is actually where I regularly buy my newspaper, because my office is based in Torre.
Although my preference would still be a dedicated Post Office branch, if the proposal outlined in that email can be taken forward it would at least fulfil the vital criterion for local people of keeping a service in Torre’s shopping centre. I urge Post Office to enter any talks with Carters in a positive spirit, looking to get a result, rather than conducting the talks in a way that might be used to justify its original proposal. For me, this morning’s news is very welcome, and I hope it will go from being a suggestion to a reality.
This morning, the Secretary of State for Business said that Post Office is
“at the heart of communities across the UK, with millions of customers and small businesses relying on their local branch every day to access a wide range of important services”.
I hope that the Minister will agree that Torre post office is a perfect example of how a post office can be more than just a place to buy a stamp or post a parcel. It is a service that sits at the heart of the Torre district centre, providing a range of financial services and access to facilities and opportunities that would not exist if the post office disappeared.
The point I made to Post Office when I met its representatives is that its brand is so strong that the phrase in the English language for what it provides is “a post office”. The very words that define what they do are their brand. I therefore hope that the Minister will relay the view of the whole community in Torre that 2018 should not mark the Last Post for Torre post office.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Gillan. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) on securing this debate on the closure of Torre post office, and on his comprehensive and well-argued contribution to the proceedings. He clearly set out the importance of Post Office services for the Torre community dating back to 1832, and the concerns that he, the community, business representatives, and local residents across the board have raised in respect of the proposed new location on Lymington Road. I fully appreciate the concerns that he has outlined.
The Government recognise the important role that post offices play in communities across the country. Between 2010 and 2018, the Government will have provided nearly £2 billion to maintain, modernise and protect a network of more than 11,500 branches across the country. Today, the Government announced a further £370 million to be made available as an investment over the next three years for Post Office to continue its successful modernisation, and to meet the challenges of a changing market. Today, there are over 11,600 Post Office branches in the UK, and the number of branches in the network is at its most stable for decades. That is because Post Office is transforming and modernising its network, thanks to the Government investment.
More than 4,400 branches are now open on Sundays. Nearly 1 million additional opening hours per month have been added to the network. The modernisation has also meant that losses in the business, excluding any subsidy, have reduced from £120 million in 2012 to a profit of £13 million, announced today—the first profit in 16 years. That has allowed Government subsidy to be reduced by more than three quarters since its peak back in 2012. The Conservative party has committed in successive manifestos to securing the future of the Post Office network, which is now at its most stable, with customer satisfaction remaining consistently high.
I understand that my hon. Friend has benefited from 422 additional opening hours across his constituency, with 11 of the 18 branches in his constituency now open on a Sunday. Post Office is offering more for customers, doing so more efficiently for the taxpayer, and ensuring that its services remain on our high streets throughout the country. Make no mistake about the Government’s commitment to Post Office.
Turning to the situation in Torre, I fully appreciate that there can be uncertainty and disquiet in communities when a change to Post Office services is proposed, and that those communities, like the community in Torre, hold strong views and perfectly valid concerns regarding planned changes. My hon. Friend has spoken passionately about his concerns regarding the existing proposal to relocate to the McColl’s store on Lymington Road. I fully understand the many points that he has made, including about the local area having many elderly and vulnerable people who will find it difficult to travel to the new location, especially given the limited direct bus services and parking in that area.
Of course, Post Office needs to continue to take steps to ensure that its branches remain sustainable for the future, as it is doing for Torbay. It does not propose such changes if it does not consider them necessary, and I want to make a couple of points about why some change, at least, is necessary. The current post office in Torre is run on a temporary basis, following the resignation of the previous postmistress. It is costly to maintain, and there are concerns about its long-term viability given its limited supporting retail offer and the fact that its lease is up for renewal in 2019. The relocation proposal seeks to find a permanent and more sustainable way to provide Post Office services to the community, which I am sure my hon. Friend will agree must be the best outcome for all concerned.
I am finding the Minister’s comments very interesting. Does she agree that given that the lease is not up until 2019, even given interim arrangements that would give an opportunity for Post Office to engage properly with other providers to keep the service in Torre? As she said, we need to keep the services on the high street.
I will answer that question directly. I agree that the timing of the lease renewal affords a little more time to get the best possible outcome for my hon. Friend’s constituents, but I slightly take issue with the implication that Post Office has not been properly consulting to date. I know it has been working very hard to find the best possible solution, and is taking on board the concerns that he and his constituents have raised.
For example, my hon. Friend mentioned the latest positive development, which is some interest expressed by a shop called Carters. Post Office has visited Carters twice. The management at Carters initially did not want to take on a post office counter, but it is marvellous that they are now undergoing a change of heart, and Post Office will conduct meaningful discussions with them.
Given the challenges faced by the current branch, Post Office acted proactively by putting out advertisements looking for operators willing to take on the post office. Advertisements have been running intermittently since October 2016, but sadly there have been no applicants from the Torre community. Post Office tried its best to make people aware by visiting local businesses and engaging with the community but, as with many such situations, the implications of the proposed outcomes are often realised only belatedly by others in the business community. Post Office recognises many of the points that my hon. Friend made and is delighted at the increased level of interest from the community.
McColl’s Retail Group showed interest and successfully completed the application process, and that is why it was selected as the proposed retail partner for the Torre community. The selection was not for want of trying to find a retail partner that met the aspirations so well put by members of the Torre community and by my hon. Friend this morning.
I am glad my hon. Friend has put that on the record. There may well be a case for Post Office to undertake more contact, certainly with colleagues, prior to issuing consultations, but considerable work was done behind the scenes and during the consultation. It has run a consultation process because it does want people’s views; that is why it organises meetings and attends public events—to engage with the community to help it shape its plans. It consults in line with its code of practice on changes to the network, and that code has been agreed with Citizens Advice. I am aware that Post Office representatives have met, albeit possibly belatedly in his view, with my hon. Friend to discuss the matter, as well as with business and community leaders.
The consultation period on the proposed change has now ended and Post Office is now carefully considering all feedback received, of which I know there was a considerable amount in relation to this proposal, before it finalises its plans. I very much agree with my hon. Friend that it is vital that Post Office engages with the local community when planning for the future, but the decisions must ultimately be commercial ones for the business to take, within the parameters laid down by Government, to ensure that we protect our network across the country. Post offices operate in a highly competitive retail environment and we need to allow the business to assess how best to respond to the challenges it faces and secure Post Office services for communities in the future.
I understand that interest has been expressed by community partnerships and other interested local businesses in taking on the post office, including the example of Carters that we have already discussed. I am delighted to announce that Post Office has decided to pause its process in order to explore that interest fully, without prejudice to anyone involved. I reassure my hon. Friend that, thanks to his efforts and those of his community, no final decision has yet been made on the proposal to relocate the service to the McColl’s store.
I thank my hon. Friend for his remarks, and I am sure Post Office will be delighted to hear them as well. Post Office has been undergoing a successful transformation programme across its network. The consultation process has been a positive and effective way of engaging with local communities. Current discussions between the Post Office and the community show that that process is working, and I am delighted that it is working in Torre.
Citizens Advice recently reported that the process has become increasingly effective, with improvements agreed or reassurances provided in most cases. In the last year, that has been the case after nine out of every 10 of Post Office’s consultations. I assure my hon. Friend that Post Office is committed to maintaining services to the community and to finding a permanent solution that best meets the needs of the business, its customers and the overall community.
I echo the note on which my hon. Friend started his speech and congratulate Post Office on the fact that it is now at its most stable for years. More than 3,000 “last shop in the village” branches in rural areas have been protected. After a decade of underinvestment and closures up to 2010—my hon. Friend detailed several of those years—the network is now increasing its number of outlets. As I reported earlier, it is now in profit and able to make the investment in new technology that it will need and in new banking services that it now offers by virtue of an arrangement with Lloyds Bank.
Post offices will now be able to meet 95% of the banking needs of small and medium-sized enterprises and 99% of those of consumers across the country. That is a huge achievement. I pay tribute to the hard work of Paula Vennells, the chief executive, her leadership team, members of the Communication Workers Union, sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses and all staff working in the Post Office, who have effected that marvellous turnaround over the last decade.
Question put and agreed to.
Corrosive Substance Attacks
[Mr Adrian Bailey in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the Government response to corrosive substance attacks.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey. I welcome the new Minister to her post. From the little I know of her, I trust that we will have a good and constructive debate today.
Sadly, Newham has been labelled as the acid attack capital of Britain, and the extent of the problem has made headlines not only locally, but nationally and internationally. It is not a reputation that my right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) or I embrace for our borough. The challenge posed by the attacks is undeniable, and an effective response is urgently needed. There have been 82 attacks using corrosive substances in Newham in the past year; in the whole of London, there were 449 attacks. Since January 2012, the number of acid attacks in London has gone up by a horrifying 550%.
The police have flagged 14% of the attacks this year as being gang-related, 22% as robberies and 4% as being related to domestic abuse, but even my maths tells me that the data is therefore incomplete and we do not have a full picture. We need a clear picture of what is going on and the motivations behind the attacks if we are to create an effective remedy to them.
Members will not need to be reminded of the horrifying damage that corrosive substances can do to the human body or the psychological trauma that inevitably follows. We should not forget the fear of attacks, which can be corrosive within communities. Throughout this year, I have heard from constituents whose lives have been blighted by fear. Some have told me that they are afraid to leave their homes. They tell me stories about home invasions or carjackings where corrosive substances have been used to terrible effect. Whether such stories are an accurate reflection of events or simply urban myths is almost irrelevant; people are living in fear, and that is utterly destructive.
I want to start today by talking about victims. Katie Piper was attacked in 2008 by an accomplice of her then boyfriend Daniel Lynch. He was driven by misogyny, narcissism and a dangerous need for control. He had previously raped, assaulted and imprisoned Katie in a hotel room for more than eight hours. Lynch conspired with his accomplice to attack Katie with acid in the street. She was approached and high-strength acid was thrown directly over her head. Katie’s face had to be completely rebuilt by cosmetic surgeons. How she felt is encapsulated in this quote:
“When I held the mirror up I thought someone had given me a broken one or put a silly face on it as a joke. I knew that they’d taken my face away and that it was put somewhere in a bin in the hospital, but in my head I assumed I’d look like the old Katie, just with a few red blotches…I wanted to tear the whole thing off and make it go away. There was nothing about me that I recognised. My identity as I knew it had gone.”
Katie’s courage and her will to survive and thrive are simply amazing. She has had to undergo more than 250 surgeries since the attack. Understandably, she still has bad days, but she has transformed her life. She now dedicates herself to improving the lives of other acid attack survivors, partly by telling her own story of survival and partly by funding groundbreaking cosmetic procedures through her charitable foundation. I wanted to start by revisiting Katie’s story, because victims like her need the Government’s help. It is important that the policy response to the issue should be comprehensive and effective. I ask the Minister to remember Katie’s story, because the use of acid as a tool of the misogynist could be forgotten as we talk about access to corrosives, the concentrations they can be sold at and the legal responses to this crime. Our policy responses have to be broad and preventive, but we also need a victim-focused strategy.
The Government have made a number of policy announcements in the months since we last had the opportunity to discuss corrosive substance attacks in this place. Consultation has just finished on several proposed new offences, all of which are designed to bring the law around the possession and use of corrosive substances into line with the law on knives. That is exactly the right principle; I and other colleagues have been calling for that, and victims want to see it put into place quickly. I strongly welcome the announcements, and I hope the Minister will be able to tell us when the new offences will be brought on to the statute book.
An area where more action is necessary is the sentencing of those found guilty of these horrific crimes. In late July, the Crown Prosecution Service announced that it would be seeking much tougher sentences for offenders who use corrosive substances across every category of the existing law, and that is welcome. As we know, sentencing is a matter for judges, based on Sentencing Council guidelines. Campaigners have argued for years that the sentences handed down are inconsistent and often far too light. Will the Minister clarify what is happening in that area? I know it is not in her brief, but unless the Sentencing Council takes action, the welcome shift by the CPS may not have the intended effect.
The first steps that the Government have taken have been promising, but they are playing catch-up. A number of changes to the law were made in 2015 as part of the Deregulation Act 2015—the red tape bonfire. The Act scrapped the obligation on sellers of dangerous substances, including acids, to be registered with their local council. That was despite opposing advice from the medical experts and the Government’s own advisory board on dangerous substances. I fear that those changes are partly responsible for the rise in acid attacks. Removing the licensing system allowed the big online retailers and a wider range of small shops to sell these dangerous products, making it easier for corrosive chemicals to be accessed by criminals and children alike. It would be appropriate for the Minister to comment on that abolition of regulation. Does the Home Office stand by it, or does it now accept that there perhaps were unintended consequences?
Let me help with the thinking. The Minister must be aware that it is currently extremely easy to buy the corrosive chemicals, such as concentrated sulphuric acid, that have done so much damage. They can now be bought by anyone from any kind of retailer, subject only to a standard labelling instruction and a requirement to report “suspicious transactions”. There are a number of practical problems with that requirement. It is unlikely that it has any success at all in preventing attacks. The responsibility to report suspicious purchases exists for all retailers, including massive and impersonal online retailers. As a matter of practicality, how are such companies going to assess whether a purchase is suspicious?
The guidance that the Home Office has produced does not contain any specific recommendations for online retailers that would solve the problem. The general recommendations it offers are not realistic for online sellers. The current guidance is in the “Selling chemical products responsibly” leaflet, but that was published in 2014, so it does not reflect the changes made in the 2015 Act. It contains a list entitled “How to recognise suspicious transactions”. The signs listed include noticing that the customer
“Appears nervous, avoids communication, or is not a regular type of customer”,
“Is not familiar with the regular use(s) of the product(s), nor with the handling instructions”.
How is an online retailer supposed to use that guidance? They do not have access to face-to-face communication and do not ask detailed questions before accepting an order.
It is equally unclear how the Home Office checks that the reporting requirements are being complied with, even by local retailers. I asked the Home Office about that previously, and the Minister’s predecessor said that test purchases are a tactic sometimes used by the Home Office. The Government are vague about whether any test purchases have actually taken place; I think they should have done some to monitor compliance with the regulations after two years. There is also no evidence that the law has ever been enforced by the taking of a retailer to court for failing to put procedures in place to stop suspicious transactions.
The Government implied that answering my written questions properly would jeopardise operational security. Really? I honestly cannot see how that can be true. I do not want names and dates. I just want an indication of whether there is a programme of test purchases to monitor the suspicious purchases requirement. I do not expect that information this afternoon, but I hope the Minister will provide more information about it soon.
Thankfully, Newham Council is taking steps to address this issue in the absence of legislation. It is working with the Met and local retailers, and recently launched a scheme encouraging shops voluntarily to restrict the sale of acid and other noxious liquids to young people by challenging their age. Some 126 retailers are participating in the scheme thus far, and I hope it will provide an effective stopgap to prevent easy local access to corrosive chemicals. The Minister will be aware that such schemes have limits—they are voluntary, they are restricted to a relatively small geographic area, and we cannot rely on the force of the law to enforce them—so I fear that stronger regulations are needed quickly.
The Poisons Act 1972, as amended following the bonfire of 2015, creates a category of substances known as “regulated poisons”, which require a licence for purchase. Sales must be restricted to those presenting a photo ID. The simplest and most effective way to limit access to dangerous corrosive chemicals is to move them into the regulated poisons category. I am sure that can be done simply through a non-contentious statutory instrument. The Government say that they plan to move concentrated forms of sulphuric acid into the regulated poisons list. I welcome that, but when will it be done?
Furthermore, as the Minister will know, sulphuric acid is far from the only corrosive substance that can inflict serious trauma. The British Burn Association advised me that the strongest-level restriction should apply, at a minimum, to phosphoric and hydrochloric acids and to the alkalis sodium hydroxide and ammonia. The Met performed forensic testing on 28 samples from corrosive incidents between October 2016 and March this year, and 20 contained ammonia, which is not regulated. Hydrofluoric acid is also extremely dangerous. Exposure to it on as little as 2% of a person’s skin can kill. It, too, is currently not subject to licensing.
All the chemicals I mentioned can currently be bought without a licence and from unlicensed retailers. The evidence about exactly which chemicals are being used in corrosive attacks is not fully clear. Even if most recent attacks have involved a smaller range of chemicals, such as sulphuric acid or ammonia, a broad approach is obviously needed. The regulations need to cover every corrosive substance that poses a threat to our communities; otherwise, those wishing to use corrosives as a weapon will simply switch from one chemical to another. I accept that there might be a problem with definitions—we faced that problem in relation to the Psychoactive Substances Act 2016—but we need to look at this issue properly and in the round.
Campaigners have suggested a number of promising reforms to the regulations. For example, purchasers of poisons could be restricted to those willing to use a bank card, which would link purchases to individuals and aid criminal justice professionals with investigations and prosecutions. Raising the chance of being caught after committing an attack would hopefully increase the deterrent effect. I would like to hear from the Minister whether that is one of the changes that the Home Office is considering. Given the extent of the increase in attacks and their impact, we cannot be content with token changes to the rules that make no difference to the availability of dangerous chemicals to perpetrators. Any new restrictions have to be effective in practice.
I am sure hon. Members know that there is no age restriction on purchases of dangerous chemicals. As news reports and Met briefings have indicated, many of the suspects identified in connection with corrosive attacks in recent months have been under the age of 18. I am pleased that the Home Office is now consulting on a new offence of supplying people under 18 with certain corrosive substances, but sadly it has been unclear about three essential elements. We have not heard yet which substances the Government have in mind in connection with under-18 sales or what the process will be for putting that list in place, and as with other issues I have raised today, we have no timescale.
These decisions need to be made clearly, transparently and in a way that allows for parliamentary scrutiny. The system we use for implementing and amending the schedules for illegal drugs might be a good model, because it allows for scrutiny on the basis of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs’ expert advice. Before the 2015 deregulation, there was a permanent advisory body on toxic chemicals called the Poisons Board. If it had not been bonfired, it could have played a similar role to that of the drugs advisory council.
I hope the Minister will reflect on the need to maintain scientific expertise and links with victims’ advocates to ensure policy keeps apace with the situation on our streets. If the Government do not want to re-establish the Poisons Board, they need to ensure they have a team within the Home Office that has the resources, time and expertise necessary to keep track of the situation and do this important work.
We also need to consider the effectiveness of our first responders—our police officers, ambulance crews and fire fighters. Thanks to changes made by the Met earlier this year, rapid-response cars are now more likely to carry bottles of water, and the fire service is more likely to be called on to help with corrosive injuries in London. Quickly applying water to a corrosive injury can make a big difference, but specialist rinses, such as Diphoterine, are designed to do that job better than water alone. I want that option to be fully considered. Victims of such attacks deserve the best possible chance of a full recovery from their ordeal. Just to be clear, Diphoterine is not cheap, so that change would cost money.
Before I finish, I want to return to my point about the impact of the changes made in 2015. I genuinely cannot see any reason not to have licensing on both sides of the transaction—for sellers as well as buyers. That seems a straightforward way to maximise public safety. I believe that a comprehensive review of the regulations is needed to answer the questions I have raised, so that future changes are timely, realistic and effective, and to ensure that every aspect of the problem is considered.
As Katie Piper’s case should remind us, corrosive substances have long been used as a tool of misogyny against women and girls. Although stronger regulation and improved criminal laws should help with such crimes, unfortunately they will not solve the problem on their own. We need a longer-term strategy to deal with the root causes of the recent upsurge in youth and gang violence. We also need a strategy to deal with the violence within relationships, primarily against women and girls, which has long been a common feature of corrosive substance attacks in the UK and around the world. Survivors of such attacks deserve to know that the problem will be understood, that the Government will see it resolved and that people in my community will no longer live in fear.
I look forward to hearing from the Minister about her plans to make changes and her timescales for them. I commit to working with her to ensure that effective improvements to policy can be made quickly and in a way that works for our communities. I accept that she might not yet have considered some of the things I have raised this afternoon and so might not have a note in front of her, but I am happy to receive something in writing at a later date.
For your guidance, I intend to call the first Front-Bench spokesperson at 3.30 pm, subject to any interruption from votes in the main Chamber. That should give ample time for Back Benchers who wish to contribute to do so, but take more than 12 or 13 minutes and I might start to get a little fidgety because that would take time from subsequent speakers. Bear that in mind.
It is a pleasure to speak in Westminster Hall at any time, but especially so after the hon. Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown). She compassionately, directly and consistently puts forward her point of view. We have had Adjournment debates in the main Chamber and we have discussed the matter with Government in the past. We all feel very strongly, which is why I want to add my contribution.
It is nice to see the new Minister in her place—I wish her well—and the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh), in hers. I hope we can look forward to a contribution from us all that is of one mind and one voice, and I hope that the Minister’s reply will be of that one voice. We look forward to that.
The issue of corrosive substance attacks is one that seems foreign to me, to be honest, and I cannot understand for a minute the things described by the hon. Member for West Ham. She has had direct experience through her constituents, but it seems a bit like “The Twilight Zone”, happening somewhere else and not real—but it is real. That is what the hon. Lady has described.
I cannot begin to understand how anyone might think of going out with acid, intending to throw it at someone. I cannot fathom that evil or understand how anyone can feel in any way that that is what they should do when the after effects are so gross. I do not understand the hatred that someone must feel to consider taking an action that will so horribly disfigure someone for life—I am thinking here of the lady whose story was told by the hon. Member for West Ham, because that story is very real for me, on paper if not in reality, after she told us about it. I cannot fathom how on earth someone could be so despicable as to want to burn through other people’s flesh with acid and watch them suffer. Just because I cannot fathom it, that does not mean it does not happen. It does happen, it is happening more and we need to do our part to legislate against it.
The hon. Lady clearly outlined a number of issues that the Government should respond to, and I suggest they would be good ways to take the legislation forward and are what we might wish to see. I will mention some of my thoughts as the debate proceeds.
In the past, before acid attacks became more prevalent in London and parts of the UK, my knowledge of them came through my position as chair of the all-party parliamentary group for international freedom of religion or belief. I have had occasion to have direct contact with some of the groups in Iran that were, unfortunately, able to supply some very graphic evidence—pictorial and video—of attacks on people there. Those people were subject to acid attacks simply because they had a different religious opinion, simply because they were women and simply because they spoke on behalf of other women for equality and human rights. How can anyone feel justified in attacking those ladies, disfiguring them for life, with some of them losing their eyesight as well? I just cannot come to terms with the horribleness and brutality of it all.
I want to have this on the record, although again it is not the Minister’s responsibility, but through her good offices she will make my comments known, and perhaps those of other Members, that we are very concerned about Iran and what is happening there. The attacks are brutal and painful.
I recently highlighted the acid attacks in Iran and was appalled at the damage caused. Then to learn that acid attacks in England and Wales have more than doubled since 2012 certainly reminded me that evil is restricted to no postcode and that those attacks are happening worldwide. We need to address them in whatever way is necessary.
Figures from the Metropolitan police, which the hon. Member for West Ham referred to in her introduction, show that men are twice as likely to be victims of acid attacks in London as women. The attacks have been linked to gang crimes—there is a gang culture that sees acid purchased as a weapon. People do not need to have a gun or a knife; they can use acid, which will leave lasting physical and visual effects, which are another way of scoring, so to speak, but the others respond as well.
The vast majority of cases, however, never reach trial. Again, this is not the Minister’s responsibility, but I pose the question: why is that the case? Is it down to evidence? The evidence may be very clear, but perhaps it is down to those who wish to make complaints, or it is the response of the police. We need to ask ourselves why such cases are not reaching trial and what we must do to facilitate the successful trial of someone who makes the decision to carry out that heinous act. Today, at long last—thank the Lord for it—we had a sentence that equals the crime, with 20 years for a person who blatantly, directly and without any recognition of the people, attacked a number of them in a nightclub in London. The sentence gave me, and I suspect all of us, heart.
In the news, Dr Simon Harding, a criminologist and expert on gangs at Middlesex University, commented that acid is fast becoming a “weapon of first choice” and:
“Acid throwing is a way of showing dominance, power and control, building enormous fear among gang peer groups”—
the hon. Member for West Ham referred to that in her speech. When I read that, I was horrified, but even more horrified to realise that to use acid is becoming a calculated move. The debate today is therefore very timely, and it is appropriate to discuss the subject. We look to the Minister and to the Government for how best to respond.
Many people have the idea that there are advantages to using acid to hurt someone rather than a knife: they will not kill someone, but disfigure them for life, disadvantaging them in what they can cope with and leaving women especially with a disfigurement, which means vastly more to them—I mean no disrespect to men. We must look at the fact that the charges are more serious for someone caught with a knife and the tariff for prison sentences much higher. As I said earlier, we are very pleased about the sentence from the courts we read about today—perhaps that is the start of something. Will the Minister respond to that?
I also put on record my thanks to my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown) for securing this very important debate. The hon. Gentleman was talking about such cases and the courts, and I have some concerns. First, the CPS has new powers to produce community impact statements. Fear goes through the community whenever this sort of attack happens, so it is important to get such assessment reports before the courts so that when they sentence, they take them into account. Secondly, the figures from the London boroughs show a large number of incidents in areas that are ethnically very diverse. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the CPS and the police should pay attention to that and consider whether they are therefore aggravated offences, pressing charges that will take that into account?
I agree with hon. Gentleman. I asked the Minister in an earlier comment where we are with the trial process, and why it seems that many cases do not get to trial. Is there a problem with the police, or with the CPS? Whatever it is, the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right and we need to put that on record.
Dr Harding added that,
“acid is likely to attract a ‘GBH with intent’ charge”—
in other words, not the same seriousness—
“while using a knife is more likely to lead to the attacker being charged with attempted murder”.
We need to have hard court action and the sentencing that is necessary. We perhaps need a new vigour from the police and from the CPS. The fact that that could be case—that an acid attack would be grievous bodily harm with intent, and would not be equalised to using a knife and attempted murder—disgusts me. It is clear that we need to legislate for that.
Times have changed, and in the same way as we are legislating for online offences, we need to move with the times and legislate accordingly for the sort of crime we are discussing. Online offences were never on the books, but unfortunately, the way of hurting people is changing. We need to legislate so that no gang member thinks, “I will use acid so that it will be easier on me if I end up getting caught”. We need to make changes and make sure that he or she understands that what they are doing will have repercussions.
I was greatly touched by the courageous tale of Katie Piper, as I am sure all hon. Members were. I know her story from having read about it in the press. I could not read that story and not be touched by it. She showed intensely personal and private images in order to highlight the sheer horror of an attack and the length of time that it takes to even begin the healing process physically and emotionally. It has shown that we need to change the legislation and we need to represent those people who are attacked.
I sincerely urge the Government to take all the arguments into consideration and put acid attacks on a par with knife violence crimes, to ensure that the sentence fits the crime. This crime leaves a life destroyed and a person undergoing perhaps 20 operations or more and still unable to breathe or walk without horrific pain. I applaud Katie Piper and others like her for putting their face to this crime and I stand with all victims who say that the attitude towards this crime must change. That must begin as a matter of urgency in this House.
It is good to see you in the Chair, Mr Bailey, and to see the Minister in her place. Most importantly, I congratulate the hon. Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown) on bringing this important and timely debate to the House, and on her comprehensive and passionate analysis of where we are and where we need to get to.
On a Saturday night back in October, three men in Abronhill in my constituency suffered life-changing burns during an attack with corrosive liquid, after the front door to their flat was kicked in and they were confronted by two men in dark clothing with their faces covered. It was a shocking reminder that this type of appalling attack can happen anywhere. Until then, I was probably in the same twilight zone as the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) in thinking that this happens somewhere else. Although, as we have heard, this new phenomenon so far has wreaked its tragic consequences most significantly on the good people of London, it is only a matter of time before we see those consequences more widely spread, unless urgent action is taken to stamp it out now.
Hon. Members have set out the scale and the nature of the issue we must address, with 454 crimes related to noxious or corrosive fluids in London alone during 2016. The UK now has one of the highest rates of acid attacks in the world. As has been said, these attacks very often appear to be gang-related, which is a distinct feature of the challenge we face in the UK. What needs to be done? I very much welcome the steps that the Home Office has already taken to try to combat the recent increase in acid attacks in the UK. A proposed ban on the sale of the most corrosive substances to under-18s is certainly a step in the right direction, considering that the majority of acid attack suspects in the last couple of years have been aged between 10 and 19, if I am correct. The hon. Member for West Ham raised some very sensible questions in that respect.
The Government review on corrosive substance attacks and associated punishments is welcome. That review explains that, given the mixture of devolved and reserved competencies potentially involved here, the UK Government are working closely with the Scottish Government on this issue. Indeed, as Annabelle Ewing, the Minister for Community Safety and Legal Affairs in the Scottish Government, has said, it makes sense to adopt a
“consistent approach across the UK”
with regards to corrosive substance attacks.
I believe that the immediate priority must be to further clamp down on access to these substances. The hon. Member for West Ham said that that could be done in a fairly straightforward manner, by identifying the most harmful corrosive substances that are currently considered only reportable substances, such as sulphuric acid, and reclassifying them as regulated substances. That means that members of the public would require a licence to purchase such substances. Other options have been highlighted that would allow purchases of substances to be more easily traced, such as requiring the use of a bank card. We need research to be conducted to establish whether those corrosive substances that are found in everyday household items can be deconcentrated but maintain effectiveness. That could be an important contribution to what we are trying to achieve. We also need to think about online sales, perhaps requiring a collection point where age and licensing requirements can be enforced.
We need to examine the criminal law on possession and I look forward to seeing what evidence has been submitted to the Government review. Ultimately, there is a persuasive case for changing the criminal law so that the onus for proving the reason for carrying a corrosive substance lies on the carrier to provide an innocent explanation, rather than on the prosecution to have to uncover criminal intent, thus bringing the offence into line with knife crime legislation. The precise changes that should be made, and the range of responses that are required, should be informed by what comes out of the consultation.
As the hon. Lady highlighted, the final word must be with the victims, such as Katie Piper. Action to ensure appropriate support, including the immediate medical response and the long-term recovery plan, is necessary and absolutely is the right thing to do. Let us act quickly to ensure that the number of future victims is as close to zero as we can get. Ultimately, prevention is the best response and must be our priority. Obtaining a dangerous corrosive substance should not be as easy as it currently is, when one can just walk into a shop and select it from a shelf. Let us change that as quickly as we can.
I congratulate my constituency neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown), on securing this debate and I agree with every word of her informative and wide-ranging speech. I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald), who made the rather startling claim that we now have one of the highest per capita rates of corrosive substance attacks in the world. I think that he is right about that—I noticed that Rachel Kearton, the assistant chief constable of Suffolk police and the National Police Chiefs Council lead on corrosive attacks made exactly that point just a couple of weeks ago:
“The UK now has one of the highest rates of recorded acid and corrosive substance attacks per capita in the world and this number appears to be rising”.
That highlights the need for a rapid and effective response to this growing problem.
I have had a number of discussions with representatives of moped delivery drivers. They say that there are now parts of London where their drivers are not willing to go, because of the danger of attacks. I think that we would all regard it as unacceptable that there are no-go areas in parts of London and the UK. Significant action will be required to deal with the problem, as others have said.
On 17 July, we had an Adjournment debate on this subject. My hon. Friend the Member for West Ham contributed to that debate, as did the Minister’s predecessor—I welcome the new Minister to her post. I called for three specific actions: first, a review of sentencing for tougher, more consistent sentences when people are convicted of acid attacks. Secondly, I called for sulphuric acid—others have made this point already in this debate—to be reclassified under the Control of Explosives Precursors Regulations 2015, which amended the Poisons Act 1972, so that it would be a regulated rather than a reportable substance in the two lists that those regulations identify. That would mean that people who wanted to buy sulphuric acid would have to have a licence for that purpose. Thirdly, the possession of acid should in itself be an offence in exactly the same way that possession of a knife is an offence.
I was pleased by the Minister’s response in the previous debate on this subject. In fact, by the time we got to that debate the Government had already committed to a review of sentencing for acid attack convictions. At the Conservative party conference in October, the Home Secretary committed to act on the other two measures and to take some other actions as well. I welcome those responses but, like others in this debate, I am starting to get a little anxious about when these things are actually going to happen. Perhaps the Minister can reassure us about that when she winds up the debate.
On the review of sentencing guidelines—my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham referred to this—we have had new guidance from the Crown Prosecution Service to prosecutors, but not, as far as I know, any new guidance on sentencing. As my hon. Friend said, it is sentencing guidelines that determine or influence the decisions that judges make about sentencing. As far as I have been able to tell, we have not heard anything on that front since the Government made their commitment before our summer break. Will the Minister tell us when new sentencing guidelines will be issued, hopefully to enable more consistent and indeed tougher sentences for these offences when people are convicted of carrying them out?
On the other two measures, as my hon. Friend has said, reclassifying sulphuric acid would be a fairly straightforward thing to do with a statutory instrument in secondary legislation. I hope we can look forward to that coming forward quickly. Can the Minister indicate when that will happen? A new offence that made possession of acid an offence would, I think, require primary legislation. I do not know when a vehicle for that is likely to become available. I was under the impression that we were expecting a criminal justice Bill at some point quite soon. If there is a Bill, I hope this measure will be in it. Any information the Minister can give us about when we will get that much-needed change in the law would be of great interest to the House. In responding to the previous debate in July, the Minister’s predecessor said she would
“seek the earliest possible legislative opportunity.”—[Official Report, 17 July 2017; Vol. 627, c. 688.]
I am keen to know when that will be.
In her speech, my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham referred to our local borough’s acid sales scheme. As she said, 126 Newham retailers have participated in the scheme, which underlines the fact that retailers are very concerned about what might be done with the acid products that they sell. They are eager to take part in a scheme such as Newham’s or in other arrangements to limit the damage from the acid products that they sell. Under the Newham scheme, shopkeepers are asked to sign up to an agreement to challenge any customer who is under 25 and to refuse to sell to anyone under 21. I think the Home Secretary suggested that people could not be sold acid if they were under 18, but I think there is a strong case for making that 21. Might the Minister consider that in taking that proposal forward?
The Newham scheme involves retailers committing to challenge people under 25. It is not a ban on sales to under-25s, but a Challenge 25. Would the Minister consider such an arrangement being introduced nationally in line with the Newham scheme, which is proving a useful mechanism for starting to tackle the problems we are considering in this debate?
I have one final point to make. In opening the debate, my hon. Friend referred to Diphoterine. I have certainly seen evidence in recent months that if we can treat an acid wound with Diphoterine within literally a few minutes—a very small number of minutes—we can potentially completely eradicate the damage. If someone can get treatment with that substance within 24 hours, it can significantly reduce the damage. As my hon. Friend said, it is a costly chemical, but the benefits of its being available perhaps in police cars and certainly in hospitals would be considerable. I hope we see that initiative taken forward in response to the worrying and troubling increase in attacks that we have seen over the past two or three years.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Bailey, and I welcome the Minister to her place. I also welcome the opportunity to take part today and I give credit to the hon. Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown) for securing a debate on a subject that is obviously so important to her constituency.
It has been a good debate during which we have heard many powerful points. The hon. Lady started by speaking about the impact of these outrageous attacks on families right across the borough. She really brought that home by telling us about the experience of Katie Piper and of the inspiring work that she has done since her attack to highlight the issue. The hon. Lady made a strong case for how the abolition of licensing has led to it actually becoming easier to obtain corrosive substances.
The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), a Westminster Hall season ticket holder, made an excellent contribution. He said something that we can all emphasise with: how he failed to understand the motivation to carry out these sick and vile attacks. He also mentioned that evil was restricted to no postcode. The immediate priority of my hon. Friend the Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald), was to clamp down on access to the most corrosive and dangerous substances. I agree with him entirely that the burden of proving a good reason for carrying a corrosive substance should lie with the person in possession; it should not lie with the prosecution to prove intent.
The right hon. Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms), who has spoken on this subject before, told us, rather shockingly, that moped delivery riders and others now feel that there are no-go areas in London, and he had three key asks of the Minister, which I wholeheartedly support. He also said that some of the action required might need primary legislation and he inquired when the time for that might be available.
Some of the stark statistics bear repeating. The Metropolitan Police confirmed that the number of acid attacks in London has risen sharply in recent years. Noxious or corrosive fluids were used in 454 crimes in 2016: an increase from 166 in 2014. Figures also suggest that violent acid attacks increased by more than 500% between 2012 and 2016. It is deeply concerning that Newham in East London, which has been mentioned, had three times more acid attacks than the next highest borough. As the hon. Member for West Ham stated, it is known as the acid capital of the UK. It is vital that local police services and politicians understand why this crime is more common in Newham than in other parts of London.
I am aware that the right hon. Member for East Ham has spoken about the “cracks of austerity” and how reducing police numbers could be key influencers in the rise of acid attacks. I think there is a lot of sense in what he says. Yesterday’s announcement that the police service in England and Wales, which is already stretched—at times beyond capacity—will be financed with a flat cash core settlement from central Government will do nothing to help in the fight against such abhorrent crimes.
As we have heard, the UK has one of the highest rates of recorded acid attacks in the world and, disappointingly, of the more than 2,000 acid attacks recorded for the years 2011 to 2016, only 414 resulted in charges being brought. I hope the Minister can explain, as others have asked her to, why so few cases end up in court. We should remember that acid attacks are not limited to Newham—or even London for that matter, although they may be more prevalent there: there have been reports of those horrendous crimes taking place throughout the UK.
However, the issues in this country are different from those faced by countries such as Bangladesh and Pakistan. The reporting of the crimes highlights a lack of understanding about what is really happening. The BBC published an article last month, which it says provides the most comprehensive data to date on acid attacks in London. It suggests that three fifths of the suspects and more than two thirds of the victims were male. That is an important distinction in relation to other countries. Another point to note from the findings is that those who commit such horrendous acts are not confined to one religion or ethnicity. We should therefore reject the notion, often cited, that acid attacks involve only the Asian community. That bears no relationship to the evidence and our efforts to tackle acid attacks will be undermined if we follow that prejudiced approach.
A feature common to acid attacks committed here and elsewhere is that all too often those violent offences go unreported; the majority of those that are reported will never reach trial. I share the concern of the hon. Member for Strangford about attacks overseas. The Acid Survivors Trust International correctly points out that acid attacks are a worldwide problem. Although the UK may be a slightly different case, those grotesque crimes disproportionally affect women—80% of attacks are on women.
The United Nations has also recognised the gender aspect of attacks. UN Women supports the efforts of female parliamentarians in Pakistan who back new legislation to put a stop to a horrendous crime. I am keen to learn what discussions the Minister is aware of the Government having with the United Nations about efforts to eliminate acid attacks overseas, and what lessons that we can learn from that.
Like most gender-based violent acts, the crimes in question go largely unreported; as many as 60% of acid attacks do. In addition to taking action to punish the perpetrators, we must listen to the experiences of those who have survived attacks. We need to know what they think can be done to eliminate the problem and how can we help them to overcome the barriers that prevent so many victims from reporting the crimes.
Although the gendered nature of the attacks is more prevalent in other parts of the world, we cannot, as the hon. Member for West Ham said, ignore the fact that a proportion of attacks that happen here continue the violence that far too many women experience at the hands of a male perpetrator. One effort that would help to deal with the problem would be tackling the inequality and discrimination that women still face on a daily basis. A report by the Avon Global Centre for Women and Justice at Cornell Law School states that Governments must do the following to eradicate acid violence:
“(1) enact laws that adequately punish perpetrators of attacks and limit the easy availability of acid, (2) enforce and implement those laws, and (3) provide redress to victims”.
I believe those basic, simple recommendations would be a good starting point for the UK Government.
For their part, the Scottish Government welcome further steps to limit the harm from crimes involving corrosive materials. In October, the Scottish Justice Secretary Michael Matheson pledged that views on tackling the corrosive substance attacks will be carefully considered by the Scottish Government. That is in the context of a consultation announced by the UK Government in October on an approach to tackling the issue effectively. The Scottish Government have been in dialogue with the UK Government since an action plan to tackle the use of corrosive substances in attacks was announced in July. The two Governments are committed to working together on those important issues, and part of the work will include considering whether, following the consultation, there should be a UK-wide approach to legislation. A consistent approach across the UK would be better, so that there will be no loopholes to take advantage of.
Owing to the increasing frequency of acid attacks, there have rightly been calls for the Government to introduce further restrictions on the sale of acid—particularly sulphuric acid—and to criminalise the possession of acid without good reason. That would be somewhat akin to the current law on knives, as has been mentioned. It is an undeniable fact that it is still far too easy for the wrong people to get their hands on those dangerous substances, which cause life-changing harm to people. Of course, restricting access to dangerous acids will in many cases simply force the perpetrator to find a different method of continuing their violence, so in addition to a commitment to efforts to end acid violence, we must pay equal attention to preventing the violence from occurring in the first place.
I trust that the Government will analyse the responses with the attention that they deserve. However, I hope that the UK Government will deliver on previous commitments and take action to restrict the availability of acid for sale. I urge them to introduce a new offence applicable to those who look to cause harm through the possession of a corrosive substance. Acid attacks are instant attacks with life-changing consequences for the victims, and there is a need for drastic and urgent action.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey. I shall not detain the House for long, as the Minister has been asked many questions and I want to leave plenty of time for her to reply. There has been unified support from right hon. and hon. Members for regulation and licencing, and for acid possession offences. My hon. Friend the Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown) made a compelling case for restrictions on and licensing of acid, including what she said about the implications of the bonfire of the quangos in 2015, and the consequences of that deregulation. She also spoke compellingly about Katie Piper and her bravery—it was a powerful contribution—and about the importance of putting victims at the heart of all we do in response to such horrific crimes. I should be grateful if the Minister updated us on what has happened to the victims law promised by David Cameron in 2015, of which we have since seen nothing.
There has been strong support for tougher sentencing and the sending of a message from the courts and from this place about the abhorrence of the crime in question. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham on keeping the issue firmly on the agenda. She and my right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) have led the way and are largely responsible for the good progress that has been made by the Government so far. This is the first Westminster Hall debate that I have taken part in with the Minister in her present role, and I congratulate her again and welcome her. I look forward to working constructively with her, particularly in the area that we are considering.
I pay tribute to the brave victims who gave evidence in the most recent trial, which resulted in a man being sentenced to more than 20 years for an attack in a London nightclub, in which he indiscriminately sprayed acid over a dance floor packed with people on an Easter bank holiday. He injured 22 people and 16 of them suffered serious burns. Their courage in facing up to their despicable attacker ensured that justice was done. It is encouraging that he was charged under section 18 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 and received a significant sentence. However, sentencing in acid attack cases is inconsistent, which is probably because there is an array of selectable charges for prosecutors to consider. Acid is not explicitly considered an offensive weapon, so I echo the request for clarification on the updates and on progress at the Sentencing Council. Will the Minister’s Department work with the Crown Prosecution Service to gather data on what charges are successfully prosecuted, so that the public can have clarity as to how offenders are being punished? As my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham said, the data is incredibly incomplete, so it would be helpful to have an update on the progress of research about the motivation for attacks, and, indeed, on test purchases.
Emerging evidence is clear; individuals are making use of corrosive substances because of the difficulty of tracing them back to the perpetrator, and the looser laws on possession. The proposed offences mirroring existing knife laws, on which the Government have consulted, will have our full support, and I commend my right hon. and hon. Friends for putting the issue firmly on the Government’s agenda. I would also welcome clarification on timings.
On the matter of sales, there is not the same harmony between the Government and the Opposition. The Government’s proposal to restrict the sale of acid to over-18s is of course welcome and will gain our support, but it is nowhere near enough. I am equally interested in the proposal of my right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham with respect to sales to under-21s, and what is happening in Newham at the moment. First, the data return from 39 forces showed that only one in five offences was committed by someone under 18. How many of those people bought the substances for themselves is up for debate. That is a critical point, because until now the Government’s response on the restriction of sale has, I regret to say, been weak. We need a comprehensive approach to restrictions on sale, and a focus on under-18s entirely ignores the evidence and fails to consider the issue in the round. The Government need to put that right because the changes made under the Deregulation Act 2015 were clearly a mistake.
Previously, the most dangerous substances could only be sold by a pharmacist in a retail pharmacy business, and sales had to be recorded on a register. Substances in part II of the poisons list could only be sold by retailers that had registered with their local authority. Under the previous system, acids could be purchased only from registered retailers, usually hardware or garden stores. According to the Government’s explanatory notes, the Deregulation Act 2015 intended to
“reduce the burdens on business. The Poisons Act 1972 and the Poison Rules 1982 were highlighted as adding burdens to businesses”.
The Minister at the time, the right hon. Member for West Dorset (Sir Oliver Letwin), referred to retailers being unable to sell “perfectly innocuous” substances because of red tape.
We also know that the Government rejected the views of the now abolished Poisons Board during the 2012 review, which suggested tighter controls on the sale of corrosive substances. Those changes mean that “reportable substances” such as sulphuric acid, hydrochloric acid and ammonia can be bought by any person in any retailer, and that that retailer does not even need to register. Answers to my parliamentary questions have shown that at least 69 attacks have been from ammonia and therefore from “reportable substances”.
We would like the Government to go much further in this area. We would like the reform of individual licences, so that where there is clear evidence that an acid is causing harm, it is designated as a regulated substance that will require retailers to enter the details of any sale. That would include substances such as sulphuric acid, hydrochloric acid and ammonia, which have no place on general sale.
Some have said that such a measure would be excessive, but it has been proposed by the British Retail Consortium, whose members have agreed voluntarily to stop selling sulphuric acid products. It points out that under the Control of Poisons and Explosives Precursors Regulations 2015, which are intended to restrict the supply of items that could be used to cause an explosion, sulphuric acid is covered but it is found under the lesser “reportable substance” category. The consortium proposes that sulphuric acid be promoted to the “regulated substance” category. Regulated substances require an explosives precursors and poisons licence, and a member of the public needs to show a valid licence and associated photo identification before making a purchase. That proposal is also supported by the Association of Convenience Stores.
I was extremely concerned to read in an update letter from the Minister’s predecessor that the limit of the Government’s action for retailers was to consider a series of “voluntary commitments”. Will the Minister update Members on what those voluntary commitments will be, and what use they will be?
I have been out with Operation Venice, which is a team in Islington and Camden that tackles moped crime. It is a real credit to the Metropolitan Police. One issue that the police and the Police Federation raise with us consistently is the current law on pursuits. I know that the Home Office is looking into that, and the hon. Member for North West Norfolk (Sir Henry Bellingham) made a compelling case yesterday in a ten-minute rule Bill. I would appreciate an update on that review.
Finally, the Opposition will take a constructive approach to this issue. Where the Government warrant our support, they will have it, and where we feel they should go further we have been clear about what changes we would like to see.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey, and I thank hon. Members for their kind comments about my new position. It has been a pleasure to listen to the debate initiated by the hon. Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown), who has run a concerted campaign on this issue, together with the right hon. Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms). Sadly, that campaign has been through necessity: we heard today about the terrible incidence of acid and corrosive substance attacks in the borough of Newham. I put on the record my appreciation of the efforts to which they have gone to represent their constituents and try to ensure that we address this issue as quickly and effectively as possible. I am grateful to all other Members who have contributed to the debate. Its tone has been one of agreement, which I hope will continue through our dealings on this matter.
Sadly, there is increasing evidence of a growth in the number of corrosive attacks, many of which are in London. It was also interesting to hear from the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) about the international perspective. We are not the only country to experience this issue, but we must recognise that a particular problem is emerging in parts of London. These appalling crimes can result in huge distress and life-changing injuries for victims and survivors—and, of course, their families; if a loved one suffers those injuries, that impacts on their family members as well.
No one can have failed to be moved by the experience of Katie Piper. The hon. Member for West Ham cited Katie as saying that she felt as though her face had been taken away and was in a bin in hospital, and that those people had taken her identity away. That is heartbreaking, and sums up the issue in just two sentences.
The Government are determined to work with the police, retailers and local authorities to stop such things from happening, but we cannot pretend that that will happen overnight, or that there is just one solution. That is why in July the Home Secretary announced an action plan based on four key strands: ensuring effective support for victims and survivors; effective policing; ensuring that relevant legislation is understood and consistently applied; and working to restrict access to acids and other harmful products. The Home Office, police, retailers, local authorities and the NHS have been working hard since the launch of that action plan to bring those four strands into action.
Let me consider the last of those four strands, which is restricting access to these substances in the first place. By definition, if we make it as hard as possible for young people to get hold of acid and other substances before they go out on the street or into a night club, that will prevent the harm that follows. We have reviewed the Poisons Act 1972, and on 3 October the Home Secretary announced the intention to include sulphuric acid on the list of regulated substances. That will mean that above a certain concentration, it will be available for purchase only with a licence held by a member of the public.
Colleagues have pressed me about when that will happen. I am told that it will be as soon as possible, subject to parliamentary time, but I am conscious of the need to move this matter forward as quickly as possible. I am grateful that this debate will show that there is the will in the House for that to happen. We will continue to review the Poisons Act 1972 to ensure that the right substances are controlled in the right way. We have also developed a set of voluntary commitments for individual retailers.
I am pleased to hear what the Minister is saying, but I ask her to commit to look again through my speech after today—on Christmas day, obviously!—and note down some responses to my more detailed questions. I genuinely welcome her commitment on sulphuric acid, but in reality, if we restrict only sulphuric acid, those who are using and weaponising corrosive substances will find a different poison of choice with which to continue their campaign. Acid can be carried through a knife arch or in an innocuous water bottle. Just restricting sulphuric acid will not be enough.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her intervention, and I will move on to the more detailed points of her speech. My speech is a bit of a patchwork, and I am conscious of time. I want to allow her to respond formally to the debate, but I hope that she will glean from parts of my speech the intention of the Home Office at this stage.
We hope to announce a set of voluntary commitments shortly. They have been developed with the British Retail Consortium and tested with the Association of Convenience Stores and the British Independent Retailers Association to ensure that they are proportionate and workable for any size of retailer: large, medium and small. I encourage all retailers to sign up to those commitments once they are in place—indeed, I would be grateful if hon. Members would encourage retailers in their constituencies to sign up to them.
I also commend those retailers who have created their own voluntary initiatives. The right hon. Member for East Ham mentioned 126 in Newham, and I commend and thank them for taking such steps. But we know this has to be co-ordinated, which is why we have not only voluntary commitments but other plans further down the line. We hope that that will make a real difference on the street.
Let me put it this way: I listened to the right hon. Gentleman with great interest, and I will certainly go back and discuss that with my officials. I will leave it there. We will work our way through that. However, I take his points, particularly about gang membership. Last week, I visited an amazing organisation called Safer London, which does a lot of work with gangs and their victims. The age profile of the people it works with is striking. I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that point.
I also thank the hon. Member for West Ham for her point about online sales. The voluntary commitment we are developing will apply to both over-the-counter and online sales. We are also in discussions with online marketplaces about what action they can take to support our action plan and restrict access to the most harmful corrosive products.
The hon. Lady and several other hon. Members asked about the licensing system. In 2015, the Home Office introduced a cohesive licensing regime for explosive precursors and poisons, including substances such as hydrochloric acid, nitric acid and sulphuric acid. We continue to review whether the restrictions in the Poisons Act 1972 need to be extended to cover other substances and, as I said, we are developing a set of voluntary commitments for individual retailers in relation to access to those products. I listened with care to the hon. Lady’s points about licensing.
The hon. Lady and the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh) concentrated on the Deregulation Act 2015. The Government did not remove controls on sulphuric acid through that Act. Prior to the 2015 amendments to the Poisons Act 1972, no checks were required when a business was registered with its local authority to sell sulphuric acid and other poisons. The 2015 changes placed a mandatory requirement on retailers and suppliers to report any suspicious transactions involving the listed poisons and other substances, and introduced a requirement for members of the public to obtain a licence to purchase higher-risk regulated substances. Restrictions on who could sell the most dangerous poisons, and requirements for details to be registered when they were sold, were retained. However, we understand why hon. Members posed those questions. We are all talking about trying to restrict access to these terrible substances.
We are also looking at what manufacturers can do to help, which includes looking at packaging. We have spoken to the UK Cleaning Products Industry Association and the Chemical Business Association to see how they can support the action plan. We fully recognise that we need the help of manufacturers and retailers to stop these substances from getting into the wrong hands. However, we must ensure that there is effective support for victims and survivors in the event that they do, and the action plan puts them at the heart of our response.
It is vital that appropriate support is available to victims, both through the initial medical response and beyond. In the critical moments after an attack, victims must be treated quickly and correctly. The hon. Member for West Ham made interesting suggestions about various substances that may help. We have tried to ensure that the emergency services’ response is co-ordinated. The police, fire and rescue and ambulance services have developed a tri-service agreement on responding to this sort of attack. That means that the control room has an agreed checklist to provide advice, which ensures a consistent response from all three emergency services. That agreement has been trialled in London and will be rolled out nationally. The National Police Chiefs Council has also developed training and advice for first responders and police officers about how to treat victims at the scene. The situation is very dynamic in those vital first minutes, so the more we can do to help them, the better.
We also want to try to help the public to understand what they should do if they are on the scene of this sort of incident. NHS England, along with the British Association of Plastic, Reconstructive and Aesthetic Surgeons, has launched advice to the public about what to do in the event that they are caught up in an acid or corrosive substance attack. That advice is three words: report, remove and rinse. People should report an attack to the emergency services as soon as they can, remove any garments that may be storing or have soaked up corrosive substances, and then rinse, rinse, rinse with water. Obviously, the emergency services can do more when they arrive.
This is, of course, not just about the few minutes after an attack—it is also about aftercare. The Department of Health and NHS England have mapped the specialist burns services that acid attack victims can access for treatment, which helps to ensure that there is consistent national provision for victims and their families. NHS England is also working with the British Burn Association to review all national burn care standards and outcomes to try to ensure that people are treated consistently and properly. However, as hon. Members explained, such attacks have a psychological impact as well as a physical effect. The Department of Health is engaging with NHS England’s lead commissioner to ensure that psychological support is provided to victims through all referral routes, including hospital emergency departments, GPs and ophthalmic services. We are conscious that we need to help people not just in the short term but in the longer term.
Putting the difficult medical aspects to one side, we need victims’ help to bring criminals to justice, so we want to try to ensure that victims feel as confident as possible about coming forward to report crimes and to support prosecutions. Hon. Members mentioned the disappointingly low prosecution rate. It is incredibly difficult for victims in such circumstances to find the wherewithal to stand up in court and give evidence. That is why my predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton), wrote to the Director of Public Prosecutions and the National Police Chiefs Council lead, Assistant Chief Constable Rachel Kearton, about the importance that police and prosecutors should place on identifying the potential need for special measures in court, to try to make victims as comfortable as possible so that they give the best evidence they can. The National Police Chiefs Council has also produced a strategy, which has been disseminated to all forces.
I was asked about Crown Prosecution Service guidance. The service has issued new interim guidance, which helps prosecutors to assess which charges to bring and how to manage such cases, and emphasises the importance of victim personal statements in all cases involving attacks with acid and other corrosive substances. I have a background in prosecuting. Although I did not prosecute this type of case, I cannot stress enough how effective a victim personal statement can be in ensuring that the victim’s voice is heard in court in the moments before a judge delivers their sentence.
We are told that the final CPS guidance will be issued in the new year. The police are also being encouraged to prepare community impact statements, which the hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Afzal Khan), who is no longer in his place, mentioned, to ensure that courts are fully aware of the impact of these offences on individuals and communities.
Finally on justice, the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley asked me about the victims law. I am told that that is a matter for the Ministry of Justice. That is not a terribly satisfactory answer, so I will write to her after I learn the status of that from the Ministry of Justice.
I thank the Minister for her comprehensive response. One issue I do not think she has touched on so far is the possible timing for the new offence of possession of acid. The Government made the welcome commitment to introduce that, but when can we look forward to it coming forward?
We have committed to a consultation, which has just closed, and we are reviewing its results. This debate is helpful in showing the concern Members have about the need for such an offence and getting it on to the statute book as quickly as possible, but at the moment we must concentrate on reviewing the results of the consultation.
Justice cannot be secured without effective policing. The Home Office is working closely with the National Police Chiefs Council lead, Assistant Chief Constable Rachel Kearton, and the Metropolitan Police Service to ensure that the policing response is effective in preventing these crimes from happening in the first place, but, if they do happen, to ensure we provide a strong and robust response and appropriate support to victims.
In addition to the policing strategy and medical training I have already mentioned, specialist investigative guidance has been developed for officers regarding conducting the forensic search. We want to help officers understand how to recover substances and any exhibits safely and to handle them in a way that helps provide the evidence to build a case for prosecution.
The National Police Chiefs Council lead has also commissioned data from all forces to develop our understanding of the scale and extent of attacks. I know data collection has concerned hon. Members. In addition to that, the Home Office has commissioned academic research to develop our understanding of the motivations of those who carry and use acid and corrosives in violent attacks and other criminal acts. We want to use the findings from that research to help inform our prevention and enforcement responses. We very much hope to have the findings available in the middle of next year.
The last category in the four-point action plan is that of ensuring that legislation is understood and consistently applied. We have reviewed the current legislation to ensure that everyone working within the criminal justice system, from police officers to prosecutors, has the powers they need to punish severely those who commit these appalling crimes.
Hon. Members will be aware that, as we have discussed, this autumn we launched a consultation on new laws on offensive and dangerous weapons, which included proposals to prohibit sales to under-18s and to make it an offence to possess a corrosive substance in a public place without good reason. I can tell from the contributions of those present that that offence would meet with a lot of agreement in the House of Commons.
We also looked into the proposal of introducing minimum custodial sentences for those caught carrying corrosive substances repeatedly. Of course, we hope that an offender would receive a custodial sentence on the first offence anyway, but we want to make it clear that the continued carrying of such substances is not acceptable. The consultation closed on 9 December and officials are working on it carefully and quickly. We will consider the responses to that consultation in the proposals.
We have also been clear that the life sentences should be not just for the victims of these horrendous attacks. Anyone using acid or other corrosive substances in an attack has committed a very serious offence of assault and, depending on the severity of the injuries, can be prosecuted with offences attracting substantial custodial sentences on conviction, including life imprisonment for a section 18 assault—grievous bodily harm. Indeed, mention has been made of the sentence delivered yesterday to Arthur Collins of 20 years’ imprisonment and five years on licence for his appalling attack in a nightclub. May that sentence ring loud across the streets of London—the judiciary will not accept that sort of conduct in their courts.
I was asked about the Sentencing Council. It is currently developing a new guideline on possession of dangerous weapons and threats to use them. The guidelines will also take into account offences involving acid, which would be categorised as a highly dangerous weapon, given the significant harm that it is likely to cause victims. Possession of, and threats to use, a highly dangerous weapon would place the offender in the highest category of culpability. We hope to have those guidelines soon, but in the meantime the Sentencing Council has confirmed that the use of corrosive substances shows high culpability and should attract higher sentences.
I thank hon. Members again for their contributions and want to make it clear that the Government are committed to tackling the use of acid and other corrosives in violent attacks. It is vital that we work together to protect the public and prevent attacks, which is why we are working so closely with a range of partners including the police, the CPS and retailers. We will continue to review and monitor the implementation of the action plan. In addition to the action plan, the Government are committed to tackling serious violence, and that is why the Home Secretary has announced a new serious violence strategy, which will be published in early 2018. I very much see acid attacks being included as part of that strategy.
I hope that hon. Members are reassured about the progress being made with the action plan and about our continued commitment to tackle and prevent these terrible crimes. The words of Katie Piper and other victims ring loud in our ears. We will not allow these people to take victims’ identities away.
I am grateful for what has been a really good debate. I thank all hon. Members who came and contributed. The substantive contributions by everybody to a person were valuable, so I thank everyone, especially on effectively our last day of term. That goes to show the commitment and work ethic of hon. Members.
I say gently to the Minister that I am not currently reassured that we are making sufficient progress in a timely manner. I am not reassured that the voluntary processes she outlined will have the kind of impact I would like to see for my constituents. What Newham Council—this little red dot in the east of London—is doing is wonderful, but as she will know we have massively good transport links in London. If other local authorities will not take their responsibilities as seriously, it will not be hard for some little tyke in Newham to access those corrosive substances from elsewhere.
The Minister has made a good fist of it, given that this is her first time out. I gently ask that she reviews the content of the contributions. We heard a number of questions that have remained unanswered and I would be so grateful to her if she looked at those. I thought I dealt with the weaknesses around suspicious substances reports with irony and gentle humour. Perhaps next time I will be a little more direct and say, “It’s rubbish, and frankly it needs to be properly looked at.” Frankly, one can buy anything one wants online without having to be asked by anybody what one’s intentions are or having good eye contact and so on. I must admit that the leaflet reminded me a little of the ones put out about a nuclear explosion.
Nevertheless, I wish everybody here a merry Christmas and a happy new year. I look forward to hearing in due course a substantive comment on my speech from the Minister.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the Government response to corrosive substance attacks.
International Human Rights Day
[Ms Nadine Dorries in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered International Human Rights Day and the UK’s role in promoting human rights.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries. I am very pleased to have been given a Westminster Hall debate this year to mark International Human Rights Day, which was on Sunday 10 December, and to discuss the UK’s role in promoting human rights, including on the international stage.
Highlighting the fundamental importance of international and universal human rights to each and every one of us in the UK and abroad, and of the UK remaining a human rights champion on the international stage, is still vital. The international human rights framework, much of which emerged out of the destruction and the depravity of the second world war, with millions killed, destruction and despair widespread and those deemed undesirable led to the gas chambers, is under considerable threat. Authoritarian regimes the world over are trampling over hard-won rights such as freedom of expression, assembly and association, the rule of law and judicial independence, the right not to be arbitrarily detained or tortured, and even the right to life itself.
I thank the right hon. Lady for bringing this debate to Westminster Hall. Unfortunately, half an hour is not enough, but that is by the way. Does she share my share my concerns that, according to the Pew Research Centre, approximately four out of every five people on this planet live in countries where their right to freedom of religion or belief is significantly and violently restricted?
Yes indeed, and I thank the hon. Gentleman, who is always about on these issues, and is very often heard in the Chamber.
Principles, processes and people are unfortunately viewed as expendable if that is justified by the needs of the ruling elite: national security, state unity, the fight against terrorism and/or the quest for greater development or prosperity. That is increasingly apparent in a growing number of countries, such as Russia, Egypt, Turkey, Bahrain, Ethiopia, Cambodia, Burma, North Korea and Venezuela. Of course, that list is not exhaustive; I could go on and on, unfortunately, as I have not even mentioned those countries being ravaged by violent conflict.
My right hon. Friend and I have taken part in other debates in this Chamber relating to Turkey. Does she agree that we need our Ministers to speak truth to power in Turkey and in Sri Lanka—two countries I am particularly involved with? It seems to me that trade comes before human rights on many occasions, and that is of great concern.
I thank my right hon. Friend very much for making that point; I absolutely agree with her, and I will come to that in the course of my speech. I have not talked about countries being ravaged by violent conflict, where, as well as human rights, basic principles of international humanitarian law meant to protect civilians from the worst effects of conflict are disregarded every day.
As always, my right hon. Friend makes a compelling case. Does she agree that one of the biggest threats to our world is the growth of slavery? To be fair, this Parliament and this Government have done what they should do, but I attended a film yesterday about the return of a slave, a woman named Mende Nazer, who went back to the Nuba mountains in South Sudan, a place I know very well. It is horrifying to know that, as a result of the conflict there, slavery is—dare I say it—alive and well.
Again, I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point. I know the Government have been particularly active on that matter. I have been to South Sudan myself in the past, looking at aid agency distribution to the very many starving people in that area. I was not able to go to the Nuba mountains, because I was not allowed to go there at the time. I am glad he raised that issue.
In the countries I have already mentioned, civilians and civilian infrastructure, such as hospitals, schools and markets, are targeted either deliberately or through negligence. Citizens who are not involved in the fighting are held under siege and starved. I would also add Libya, Afghanistan and the Central African Republic as conflict hotspots where civilian suffering is widespread. I am very concerned that we in the UK, and those who support and believe in fundamental human rights, are not doing enough to push back. We have to raise our game.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on securing this important and timely debate. Staff from the Department for International Development and many from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office do fantastic work in defending and promoting human rights around the world, but sadly the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs has severely harmed the human rights of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe by his mistakes. My hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq) has been more effective in helping Nazanin. I would like to put on the record my thanks to her and to suggest—
I understand the point my hon. Friend makes. I have raised the case of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe on several occasions. I have spoken to a number of people: Iranian Members of Parliament, the Iranian Foreign Minister and the vice-president. I think we have all made the same case: that we would like to see Nazanin and the other dual nationals released as soon as possible.
We must work together to ensure that human rights obligations, which most states have signed up to, are respected, and that serious and systematic violations of, and wholesale disregard for, the international framework are addressed. We must do that by ensuring reform and punishing the perpetrators, because bad practice is spreading, particularly on the limitation of space for legitimate civil society activity. The labelling as foreign agents, criminals, terrorists or traitors of those who are critical of the state or try to call it out on its failure to respond effectively to the needs of its citizens, or on the ill-treatment, or worse, of its citizens is also disturbing.
We must do more to identify the spread of this contagion, and to confront it. The path to dictatorship and serious, systematic human rights violations is often a series of less drastic events, which ultimately culminate in brutal repression or horrific atrocities. It can start with a few people being arrested for opposing land grabs or for anti-corruption drives, in an attempt to silence brave human rights defenders, whether community leaders, journalists, opposition politicians, lawyers or representatives of non-governmental organisations. Those people may inconveniently report on or condemn missing Government funds, the eviction of neighbourhoods to make way for luxury developments, appalling conditions in prison, or a Government’s narrative aiming to scapegoat a disadvantaged community.
My right hon. Friend is an outstanding campaigner on human rights. Does she recognise the work of the University of York’s Centre for Applied Human Rights in supporting human rights defenders who come here to have some space and gain knowledge? Does she also recognise that York is the first human rights city in the UK, and does she see that as a platform from which to promote human rights across the UK?
I of course pay great tribute to the activities in York, which have been going on for a long time; they are nothing new. I know exactly what has been done there, and I congratulate York on that.
If the populations are sufficiently cowed in those countries, worse often follows, including systematic torture, long-term, indefinite detention, disappearances and extra-judicial killings. As the chair of the all-party parliamentary human rights group—the PHRG—which has worked cross party since 1976 to raise greater awareness of these matters, I have seen this kind of pattern repeat itself time and again.
Take Burma. We have been raising concerns about the Rohingya for at least a decade. This is nothing new. They have been cruelly persecuted and ruthlessly dehumanised for a very long time. Despite, or perhaps even because of, limited attempts to democratise recently, minority communities in Burma remain very vulnerable—and none more so than the Rohingya, who are denied citizenship and vilified by many in Burma, who have come to believe that they do not belong in that country, and that they can be abused, chased out and killed.
Although the international community did not commit the terrible crimes culminating in the crisis we now face, we bear some responsibility. We did not do enough to prevent the situation from escalating. We did not do enough to call out officials and hold them to account, whether that be the military, which is carrying out the campaign of ethnic cleansing—it is perhaps even genocide—or the elected politicians, such as Aung San Suu Kyi.
Many of these issues were raised in a recent report from the Foreign Affairs Committee, of which I am a member. Its summary says:
“This crisis was sadly predictable, and predicted, but the FCO warning system did not raise enough alarm. There was too much focus by the UK and others in recent years on supporting the ‘democratic transition’ and not enough on atrocity prevention and delivering tough and unwelcome messages to the Burmese Government about the Rohingya.”
Take Yemen, where there is a humanitarian crisis of extraordinary proportions, much of which is man-made, caused by ongoing armed conflict. The UK and others continue to sell arms to Saudi Arabia, but have frankly not done enough to ensure that the Saudi-led coalition complies with international humanitarian law and does not actively prevent desperately needed aid from getting through. The Houthis are also responsible for breaches of international humanitarian law and human rights violations, and we must work with them, too—but the UK is not selling them weapons.
Take Turkey, where last year’s attempted coup has been used as another pretext to further curtail many rights and silence many peaceful critics. The UK and others in the international community have been far too ready to buy into the Turkish narrative that the threat of Gülenists—or terrorists, or whatever—is so dangerous that it justifies the shutting down of the independent media, the hollowing out of opposition parties and the arrest and detention of tens of thousands of academics, journalists, judges, lawyers and political activists, as well as non-governmental organisation representatives, including some from Amnesty International.
Amnesty International’s “Write for Rights” campaign raises such situations of concern by focusing on individual cases that illustrate wider problems. The campaign also serves to highlight the importance of taking action to protect individual defenders, for they are like the canaries in a coalmine: when they are being attacked, it must serve as a warning sign and a wake-up call that the Governments concerned are on a downward path so far as human rights are concerned.
For example, the Istanbul 10 are 10 people who have dedicated their lives to defending human rights in Turkey, and are now themselves in danger. They include Idil Eser, of Amnesty International, and Özlem Dalkıran, of Avaaz and the Citizens’ Assembly, who are under investigation for terrorism-related crimes—an absurd accusation intended to put an end to their human rights activism.
There is also prominent Egyptian lawyer Azza Soliman, who has dedicated her life to defending victims of torture, arbitrary detention, domestic abuse and rape, and who is now labelled a spy and a threat to national security. She has been put under surveillance, targeted by smear campaigns and harassed by security forces and pro-Government media outlets. She faces three trumped-up charges, as part of the politically motivated “case 173”—the foreign funding case, which targets NGOs—and, if found guilty, she will be sent to prison. The PHRG has had the honour of hosting Azza Soliman in Parliament and will continue to follow her case closely.
Prominent Palestinian human rights defenders Issa Amro and Farid al-Atrash face prison sentences for their peaceful campaigning against illegal Israeli settlements in the city of Hebron in the occupied west bank. Award-winning housing activist Ni Yulan, who has defended Beijing residents against forced eviction for nearly 20 years, faced harassment, surveillance, restrictions on her movements, detention and physical attacks. She has used a wheelchair since being badly beaten by the police in 2002. LGBTIQ activists Xulhaz Mannan and Mahbub Rabbi Tonoy were killed by members of the armed group Ansar al-Islam, which is linked to al-Qaeda in Bangladesh. Little progress has been made on bringing the perpetrators to account.
What tools does the international community, including the UK, have to end violations and to ensure that those instigators, facilitators and perpetrators of abuses are held to account? First, there is the UN Security Council, which remains an important mechanism. I am aware that the UK, with its permanent seat and through our indefatigable ambassador, Matthew Rycroft, has raised a number of important issues, such as serious humanitarian crises in Syria and Lake Chad basin, with a view to getting the international community to take action. However, as all my hon. Friends know, the UN Security Council so often does not work for the benefit of those in desperate need—at least, in part, because we cannot get states with veto powers to refrain from preventing initiatives from getting off the ground.
Secondly, international justice, such as through the International Court of Justice, was also a great hope of ensuring that the perpetrators of serious international crimes are punished, particularly when the states where the crimes were committed either would or could not do so in their own courts. That should also have a significant preventive effect, by getting those thinking of carrying out such crimes to think again, in the knowledge that they would someday be held to account.
The international community has had some notable successes in assisting in obtaining justice, particularly in connection with the Balkans, Rwanda and Sierra Leone, but far too many people with blood on their hands are able to walk away freely with little if any concern about having to stand before a judge any time soon. Many states, including the US, China and Russia, are still not state parties to the Rome statute, and a number of African states are threatening to pull out. Referrals to the International Criminal Court by the UN Security Council are very difficult to secure.
The UK continues to support the ICC’s work, not least with funding, but international justice all too often is not working for the victims, such as those in Syria, Sudan and Yemen. For instance, Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir continues to be at liberty, despite having been indicted by the ICC for genocide and war crimes in Darfur. When al-Bashir visited South Africa in 2015, Zuma’s then Government ignored their legal obligations and refused to arrest him. That was powerfully highlighted in The Observer’s editorial last Sunday, headed “World justice is failing the innocent when tyrants kill with impunity”. It quotes the current ICC chief prosecutor, who released her annual report this month. She believes it is imperative to close the “impunity gap” and says:
“What is required, today more than ever, is greater recognition of the need to strengthen the Court and the evolving system of international criminal justice. It is up to States Parties, first and foremost, as custodians of the Rome Statute, to stand firmly by its values and further foster its positive impact in practice.”
I return to the UK’s role specifically. It does not help that the UK Government often undermine their status as an international human rights champion by turning a blind eye when one of their allies or competing national interests are involved. Continuing to sell arms to Saudi Arabia does not help us when we are trying to get others on board to improve the situation in Syria. It does not help the UK either when at the UN Human Rights Council, the UK Government try to water down resolutions against Bahrain because they want to continue believing that Bahrainis are on the path to reform, despite mounting evidence to the contrary, such as the ongoing judicial persecution of Nabeel Rajab, the reprisals against family members of human rights defender Sayed al-Wadaei, continuing reports of the use of torture by state officials and the resumption of military trials against civilians.
With the UK Government and Parliament preoccupied by the reassessment of our relationship with the European Union, I worry that we are taking our eye off the ball. The term “global Britain” keeps being bandied about, but what does it actually mean? There is a lot of talk about Britain becoming a pre-eminent trading nation, pushing for trade agreements with many countries across the globe, but we have to ask, trade at what cost and to what effect? The PHRG meets too many people from around the world who are negatively impacted by the operations of mining and other resource extraction companies, some of which are based in the UK. Those people are lobbying for clean water, against land expropriation and for better local services, and they are often threatened, attacked and stigmatised for being anti-development and anti-patriotic.
Finally, I look forward to the UK Government talking a lot more about values that will contribute to making the world fairer, less violent and more humane and, even more importantly, taking concrete action with members of the international community to ensure that those values—our values—are at the heart of our relations with other states and are a reality for many more people.
I thank the right hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) for initiating the debate and commend her for all her work as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on human rights.
It is perhaps trite simply to observe that human rights matter, but they do matter, because they, and they alone, are guardians of fairness and opportunity for all. They reflect the widespread belief in freedom, non-discrimination and the innate dignity of each and every human being. Human rights are more than simply articles of international law, although that in itself would be reason enough to defend them. They also protect collective opportunities and freedoms that are the key to achieving long-term prosperity and security.
On the issue of the Rohingya, the right hon. Lady knows that as a Minister of six months’ standing, these matters are incredibly close to my heart, and they more or less give me sleepless nights. I want to work as far as I can with NGOs across the world to ensure that, as she rightly says, those who commit these crimes are not able to do so with impunity. As I said on the Floor of the House, we can be very proud of our humanitarian work, but if that work somehow crowds out the diplomatic and political work that needs to be done, we are simply saying to the next set of dictators who wish to rid themselves of an inconvenient minority within their own country that they can get away with it with impunity, if they look upon what has happened after August 2017 in Burma. I hope I will work closely with her and many others across the political divide and the world to ensure we have genuine progress and to make sure not only that there is justice in Burma for the Rohingya but, more importantly still, that we set a template for the future in this very important area of human rights.
My time is very limited, but I will say a little bit about the Government’s policy on human rights. We believe that this fight is central to foreign policy. I understand why the right hon. Member for Enfield North (Joan Ryan) said what she did in her intervention. There are times when we seem to be compromised by elements of trade and trading relationships. I very much hope, at least in my role as a Minister in the Foreign Office, that we will put human rights at the top of the agenda. I will not pretend that there will not be moments when we feel slightly compromised. The right hon. Member for Cynon Valley was correct when she said that Matthew Rycroft, our man at the UN—I have just come back from there on Friday and am going for two days in January—does a terrific job in addressing these issues and ensuring that our agenda is at the top.
We recognise that all rights set out in the UN declaration of human rights and in international law are of equal importance, but to achieve maximum impact, we prioritise certain issues. We want to tackle modern slavery, to defend freedom of religion or belief and freedom of expression, to end inequality and discrimination and to promote democracy. I would like to briefly give hon. Members a quick insight into some of the FCO’s work in each of those areas.
Modern slavery is one of the great human rights challenges of our time. It is appalling that it still exists in the 21st century. Eradicating it through concerted and co-ordinated global action is one of our top foreign policy priorities. Freedom of religion or belief matters because faith guides the daily life of more than 80% of the world’s population, whatever their faith may be. That freedom also applies to those who do not have a faith at all. The issue of apostasy is also something I wish to look at in my time as a Minister. Freedom of religion or belief also matters because promoting tolerance and respect for all helps us to have inclusive societies that are more stable, more prosperous and better able to resist extremism. We can be very proud of our record in the UK. It is not perfect, of course, but we have a pretty good record. I see a number of London MPs here. Our capital is a rich city of such diversity, and that sense of tolerance is something of which we can all be very proud.
We promote and defend those values in a variety of ways, including by directly lobbying Governments, as I do regularly when I see high commissioners and ambassadors. I do so privately sometimes, which is the right way. We always make the case repeatedly, and I never resist that, because the moment we do not mention human rights when talking about trade and other connections, the message is misconstrued that we somehow care a little less for it. That topic comes up in every conversation I have, but they will sometimes be private conversations, and I hope the right hon. Member for Cynon Valley understands that.
We need to maintain great consensus on the issue by working with international partners and by running a list of projects that promote understanding and respect and celebrate diversity. Many of those projects are run in co-operation with a range of civil society groups. The freedom of individuals and organisations to discuss, debate and criticise—to go through what we go through each and every day—or to hold their Governments rightly to account is an essential element of a successful society. That is why we believe it is another universal human right that we work very hard across the globe to uphold.
I could say so much more, but I fear my time is limited. The right hon. Lady understandably wanted to have her say, and she made heartfelt comments. In the 70th year since its adoption, the UN declaration of human rights remains the most powerful statement of hope and aspiration for us all. There has been tremendous progress in the past 69 years, but we know there is still so much more to do. This Government will continue to lead the way on promoting human rights, as they have always done, to ensure that human rights are truly enjoyed equally in every corner of the globe by the whole of humankind.
Question put and agreed to.
Delivery Charges (Scotland)
I beg to move,
That this House has considered delivery charges in Scotland.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries. Unfair delivery charges to Moray and other parts of Scotland are not new. The despicable practice of hiking up prices to deliver to mainland UK has been going on far too long and people are fed up. That was one of the key themes that I mentioned in my maiden speech when I came to this place and it follows on from the work of my predecessor and other hon. Members who have been seeking a solution to the problem. I welcome the true cross-party approach to tackling this injustice, to calling out the unscrupulous companies that think they can treat people in the north as second-class citizens and to highlighting this shoddy behaviour for what it truly is—an inexcusable rip-off of consumers in Moray and across Scotland.
What is the issue that we are seeking to resolve? First, I have to commend the work of Royal Mail, which continues to deliver parcels anywhere in the UK for the same price. When I visited my local delivery office on Monday morning, I spoke with the manager, Mike Sinclair, and the huge number of parcels to be delivered by our local posties over the next few days was clear. People who use Royal Mail can do so with confidence that a parcel going from Moray to Manchester will cost the same as one going from Manchester to Moray. Sadly, the same cannot be said for other companies and couriers.
So often I am contacted by local people who are frustrated because they have tried to buy something online, only to be let down at the final stage. They have browsed the products, made their choice and selected a delivery option that clearly states “delivery to mainland UK”, only to be told when they put in their postcode that the IV or AB postcodes in Moray are in fact on some island offshore the mainland. If that were not so duplicitous, it might be funny, but it is not. It is a lie these companies peddle to hike up charges, and we will not stand for it any more.
I asked the hon. Gentleman before the debate for permission to intervene. He will know that the Consumer Council for Northern Ireland has brought this issue to the attention of people in Northern Ireland, where consumers are affected by it greatly. Some 33% of UK retailers apply a delivery restriction to Northern Ireland and 26% of Northern Ireland consumers are charged additional delivery costs. They are asked to pay 41% more on average than consumers anywhere else in the United Kingdom; the average charge is £11.89. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that Scotland is important, but Northern Ireland is equally important? We want fair play as well.
I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that point. Before the debate, the parliamentary digital team created a video illustrating it and asked for people’s responses, and one response came from Northern Ireland. Sandra Dean said:
“I have been refused delivery from England to Northern Ireland, too. It is cheaper with some couriers to get a parcel delivered from UK to the Republic than to Northern Ireland!”
I therefore fully agree with the very valid points made by the hon. Gentleman.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the picture of delivery charges across the country is inconsistent? When couriers or retailers advertise free delivery to the UK mainland, that should obviously include mainland Scotland and mainland Northern Ireland.
I fully agree. I will come in a moment to the fact that the Advertising Standards Authority is looking into that specific issue, because I want now to talk about some of the research that has been done on this matter.
As hon. Members will know, Citizens Advice Scotland issued a report on delivery surcharges in Scotland, and I raised that report directly with my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister recently. It highlighted the fact that up to 1 million consumers in Scotland are affected by excess delivery surcharges; the incidence of refusal to deliver at all has increased; and in the areas of Scotland affected by this problem, people are asked to pay, on average, at least 30% more than people elsewhere on the British mainland, rising to more than 40% in places such as Inverness and the rural mainland highlands and 50% on some of the Scottish islands.
That was excellent research from Citizens Advice Scotland. I welcome the follow-up work that it has proposed, including the establishment of a parcel delivery forum, support for pilot projects to test innovations that may reduce the need for surcharging, clarification of the information available to consumers, and evaluation of current consumer protection in the parcels market to determine whether it needs to be improved.
The Advertising Standards Authority has also been involved, and I welcome the action that it has taken to enforce the ASA rule on advertising parcel delivery charges: the advertising must be clear and not mislead. That is the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries and Galloway (Mr Jack) was making. In its briefing for today’s debate, the ASA says:
“We consider that it is reasonable for consumers in Scotland to expect a definitive claim about ‘UK delivery’ to apply to them wherever they live, even if they are located in a remote village or island. So, if there are delivery restrictions or exclusions then these need to be made clear from the outset.”
I particularly welcome the view that information in an advert must complement the main headline claim, not contradict it. For example, one advert said
“Free delivery on all orders”.
However, there was a link to another page on the website that had additional information. It said that anything north of Glasgow or Edinburgh would incur a surcharge of £20 to £50, depending on the products and the postcode. In the ASA’s words,
“This information contradicted the main claims, rather than clarifying them, so we upheld the complaint on grounds of misleadingness and qualification.”
We need more of that type of action. If companies get the message that they will not get away with that type of behaviour, we can start to right this wrong.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. He has been at the forefront of this campaign, standing up for his constituents and, indeed, all residents of the highlands and the northern part of Scotland who have been affected by this practice. Is he aware of the additional problem that affects cross-border communities in my constituency? Postcodes on the Scottish side do not get deliveries from courier companies based in England, and Scottish courier companies do not often deliver to postcodes south of the border, because of the cross-border nature of some postcodes. I wonder whether that is also an issue for some parts of the highlands.
My hon. Friend raises a very important point; I would expect him to highlight this crucial issue for the borders, as he has done so ably. I think it is something we have to address as we progress this campaign.
The final piece of research that I want to mention is by Ofcom, which has now completed a two-year study of this issue. I welcome the confirmation that I recently received from the Minister that she will work with the Consumer Protection Partnership to establish a review of the evidence collected by Ofcom so far on excessive delivery charges and see what can be done to protect Scottish consumers from excessive charging. I would welcome further comments from the Minister on that point in her response today.
For me, the most important part of today’s debate is sharing just some of the examples that I have received from constituents and others through Parliament’s digital engagement team since I secured the debate. Their testimonies speak far better than anything that we politicians can put forward.
For example, Lynn from Moray was going to order a product from Groupon, but was disgusted to discover that the shipping does not cover her IV36 postcode, with the company saying that it delivers only to mainland UK. On its site, it had a map showing in red the areas to which it would not deliver. However, that red covered hundreds of square miles and included two cities—Aberdeen and Inverness—all of which are most definitely on the UK mainland. When the delivery company said that it would not deliver because it would have to take a ferry to reach Lynn’s address, she made the very valid point that it would not have to do so and, crucially, someone could continue to drive for another three hours north, east or west and still not require a ferry. We are definitely part, and an integral part, of mainland UK.
Lynn finished her correspondence to the company by saying:
“This is a blatant, lazy, cost saving exercise on the part of whichever delivery company this producer is using and is factually incorrect. This is disgusting and insulting.”
I absolutely agree with Lynn.
I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman will make that point again as the debate progresses. However, I think that using a ferry to get to Moray would incur a greater surcharge when we can use the road, rail and planes as anyone else would.
Marion from Speyside bought a new shower earlier this year. She knew the design that she wanted; she knew the model, the product, but she ended up buying it from Germany with free packaging and postage. That was cheaper than using other firms that advertise free UK mainland carriage, because of the large surcharge on AB and IV postcodes. She added in her email to me,
“It is this type of pricing that really annoys me as you are often at the final stages of paying before you find out. I am glad you and Mr Lockhead are highlighting this issue.”
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for securing this debate. Having worked for Parcelforce for 27 years and been a union rep, I am well familiar with the surcharge debate, because we have been arguing about this for 20 years.
This is the problem: these companies, which the hon. Gentleman is referring to and his constituents have talked to, advertise postage and packaging and they make a massive profit out of it, but the final mile is left with Royal Mail. These companies charge a fortune for the parcel, take a piece of the postage and packaging, and make a massive profit by only handling the parcel once; the parcel is given to Royal Mail and we do the final mile. That is why our wages have been under threat, because that is a cost efficiency that costs Royal Mail a lot of money. These people need to be exposed and I thank the hon. Gentleman for doing that today.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. The discussion I had at my local sorting office on Monday suggested that these companies pick all the low-hanging fruit. They are quite happy to deliver to the more urban areas where they can get these parcels out very quickly, but they leave the more challenging areas to Royal Mail, or, as we are speaking about the private couriers, they just refuse to deliver to some of these areas at all. That is unacceptable.
I have spoken about a number of products that I expected to speak about in this debate, such as showers. I did not think I would be speaking about pigeon racing, but I have a constituent from Elgin, whose hobby is pigeon racing. He is a member of the North of Scotland Federation and the Elgin and District Racing Pigeon Club. He tells me that all the members of the Elgin club send away for various products for their pigeons and most of the companies that sell to them believe that Moray is not attached to the UK mainland. As soon as you punch in “IV30” to the address section, up pops an attachment saying that special terms apply. He tells me that there is in fact a website from Spain that will deliver cheaper to Scotland than the biggest online pigeon supplier in the UK, which trades from Scarborough. That is surely not acceptable.
Finally, I want to mention Rebecca from Stacks Coffee House and Bistro in John O’Groats, who started a change.org campaign in July to help bring to light the widespread issue of delivery costs to the highlands and islands, and Scotland as a whole. As of this afternoon, that petition had attracted 13,600 signatures. The website they have set up is a great way of presenting the case against these rip-off charges and to show people that the politicians are taking their views seriously. One quote on the website summed up the situation well. It said:
“If a company can deliver to Land’s End for free…they can also deliver to John O’Groats.”
A gentleman called Alan, who had seen me raising this at Prime Minister’s questions, contacted me. He had tried to get a kitchen worktop delivered to the Kyle of Lochalsh. The delivery was £475. However, when he put in his in-laws’ address in Fife, it reduced to £40.
Someone I know from Wick contacted me about how it was cheaper to get something for his business delivered further south in Scotland, but it also had a delivery guarantee for the next day. When it did not arrive on time, he complained and sought a refund. The company refused. When he said he would pursue this, he was told that they would cancel his whole order and take back all the goods. In other words, a very blatant threat of blackmail: “Don’t speak up about delivery prices and standards, and if you do, we will punish you.” It is simply not good enough.
This does not just impact individuals. I have heard from a small business in Moray, which regularly gets better service from a supplier in Lower Saxony, Germany, than from the United Kingdom. The point is that high delivery charges contribute to a relatively high living cost in remote and rural areas. It acts as a disincentive to entrepreneurs setting up businesses, which could mitigate depopulation caused by declining employment opportunities in traditional sectors. I hope that the Minister will agree with me that this should be of concern to Highlands and Islands Enterprise and I am very keen to work with it to ensure that we can move this campaign forward.
In the last few minutes, if hon. Members will allow me, as the mover of this debate, I will finish with some personal experiences. My wife is celebrating her birthday today in the north of Scotland, separated from me by 500 miles. While I cannot be with her, I was hoping that if I mention her in the debate tonight, that may make up for my absence. That allows me to say that given that her birthday is on 20 December, it is difficult for me, like any man, to come up with present suggestions. She is always very efficient. She gives me a list and does not trust me to use my own initiative; I have a list of the presents I have to buy her for her birthday and Christmas every year. But like all of my Moray constituents, when I purchase these presents for her and I put in my IV30 postcode, I get charged a fortune to have it delivered.
She’s absolutely worth it! I thank the hon. Gentleman for that clarification, just in case there was any doubt. While it is worth it, I was thinking about this recently when I bought my easyJet flight down from Inverness to London, as I do on a weekly basis. As ridiculous as this may sound, when I paid for the flight, it turned out that rather than getting parcels delivered to my home in Moray, it would be cheaper for me to get them delivered here to the House of Commons and then for me to buy a seat for that parcel on an A320 aircraft, to get it home to Moray. That is a ridiculous situation and just shows how much people are taking advantage of my constituents and others who suffer in this way.
The Minister has heard from me, and will hear from other hon. Members, just how significant this problem really is. She will be aware from the meetings that I have had with her and the Secretary of State earlier this week that this is an issue I will pursue until consumers in Moray are treated the same way as those elsewhere in the United Kingdom. I am keen to hold a roundtable in Westminster with companies that believe they can take advantage and impose these rip-off charges on Scotland, and I have requested an inquiry on this issue with the Select Committee on Scottish Affairs.
In the last 18 months or two years we had exactly that roundtable, hosted by the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Nick Boles), who was the Minister’s predecessor. It was a very successful engagement. Many companies go the extra mile and the extra cost to ensure that the hon. Member for Moray (Douglas Ross), those of us in Northern Ireland and others in the Channel Islands are not disadvantaged, but many do not. Rather than do exactly the same thing again, I suggest to the Minister that now is the time to start talking about how we encourage and force companies to recognise that in this United Kingdom, we should all get exactly the same service.
I fully agree with the points made by the hon. Gentleman. We have had discussions in the Scottish Parliament and we are now discussing this for the first time in this Session, but I do know, and I did accept at the beginning, that this is an issue that has been raised time and again.
We get to the point where the public are fed up of politicians speaking about it; they are looking for action. That is certainly something that I am considering going forward. I am grateful for the support I have received so far from the UK Government on this issue, and I hope that both of Scotland’s Governments can work together with the companies that treat Scotland so badly and deliver what has been called for: quite simply, fair treatment for consumers across the UK, including those in Moray and across Scotland.
Today I am wearing my “We heart Moray” badge. It is inscribed with towns and villages that make up our wonderful community. Those of us who are fortunate enough to live and work there know how lucky we are to stay in such a wonderful part of the country, but we should not be punished for choosing to live there, as we currently are with delivery charges. It is time to end the parcel rip-off. It is time to deliver the message loud and clear to the companies that impose those charges. We can deliver a Christmas boost to Moray and to Scotland, by calling time on this deplorable behaviour.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries. I congratulate the hon. Member for Moray (Douglas Ross) on securing this debate. This is an issue that I have pursued over many years; I think it is fully 15 years since I first initiated an Adjournment debate on this subject. In that time, I think that, if anything, the situation has got worse.
In 2002, it was myself, the then hon. Member for the Western Isles and some colleagues from Northern Ireland who were interested in a debate like this. Since then it appears that the contagion has spread, so that it is now as far south as Moray—indeed, we have heard that communities and conurbations as significant in size as Inverness and Aberdeen can often find themselves excluded.
We have heard also, from the excellent piece of research done by Citizens Advice Scotland, “The Postcode Penalty,” that the cost of delivery to island communities can often be more than 50% higher than to other parts of the country. That is why I say to the Minister today that a market that operates in such a way that it excludes this number of people, our own fellow citizens, from any meaningful access to it, is an instance of market failure.
The problem is that, as the hon. Gentleman said, these are all private companies, and they are doing what private companies do; but when a market fails, it ceases to be a matter just for the private companies involved and it becomes a matter for Government. When a market has failed there is a duty on Government and on the competition authorities set up by them to ensure that it is made to operate in a way that is fair to everyone. That is not happening at the moment and there is an opportunity now for the Government to initiate these discussions and to say to this industry, “You are operating in a way that is not fair to too many of our fellow citizens, and if you are not going to put your house in order, as manifestly has been the case for some years, the Government will take some action to make you do that.”
One of the things I always say when people bring me examples of this situation is that there are many local businesses that can often provide the same thing at a comparable price once the delivery charge is taken into account. But there are often many things that are not available for people to buy, especially in our smaller towns and more remote communities.
Ahead of this debate a magazine, Culture Vulture Direct, was given in to my office in Kirkwall. It included a piece of furniture that I thought could grace the Carmichael living room this Christmas. It is a lovely little piece of furniture: a two-drawer cabinet, painted grey, with a soft whitewashed finish. Who could resist such an idea? What really sealed the deal for me was that it is called the Orkney narrow two-drawer cabinet. Ideal! Who on earth could possibly not want to have that in their living room in Orkney? Unfortunately, it comes from culturevulturedirect.co.uk, which in relation to this piece of furniture states that delivery is to the UK mainland only. That tells you all you need to know, Ms Dorries.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Moray (Douglas Ross) on securing the debate. My input is not going to be as romantic as his, but I was 47 years married yesterday, on 19 December; I remembered late last night, but I did make the phone call this morning. [Laughter.] There was a lovely minister; he must have been very good at his job.
A number of people have contacted me regarding surcharges, but at a recent surgery one of my constituents from a lovely village called Barrhill, raised concerns about delivery charges imposed by various private companies. Barrhill is an Ayrshire village with a small population. It is 12 miles inland from Girvan, which sits on a busy artery, the A77, which my colleagues from Northern Ireland will be familiar with. For the inhabitants it is an idyllic part of the countryside for them to call home; for the delivery companies it is apparently a remote rural location attracting, in some cases, a significant surcharge, which is often disproportionate to the value of the goods being delivered.
My hon. Friend is making a strong speech. Does he agree that it should not matter what size the village or town—everyone should have equality when it comes to these payments? In my constituency, people in the PH and FK postcodes have the same disadvantage; does he agree that that is something they should not have to endure?
I do indeed agree with my hon. Friend about the equality—that is the key word—aspect of deliveries.
The term “remote” is open to interpretation. Could the issue be the centralisation of distribution hubs? Could the dispatch hubs look seriously at the bulky and excessive packaging for small items, where a ballpoint pen is delivered in a box the size of a shoebox, and thereby either increase the delivery capacity of their vehicles or permit the use of smaller, more fuel-efficient vehicles for rural, remote deliveries? Some company websites confirm that a surcharge is applied to remote location deliveries, with “remote” defined as highlands and islands, a postcode that is difficult to serve or a suburb or town that is distant and inaccessible or infrequently serviced. There is a whole range of excuses.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way and congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Moray (Douglas Ross) on securing this debate. As many of my colleagues on the Conservative side of the Chamber will remember, I have an issue with the word “remote”. Does my hon. Friend the Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Bill Grant) agree that it is the lack of these services or the disproportionate removal of them that makes our rural areas remote?
I fully agree, and we need to do more to secure the vibrancy of these remote locations.
Citizens Advice produced a short report entitled “The Postcode Penalty”. It was done a few years ago, and a number of the respondents to the survey were from my constituency in Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock. The report appeared to conclude that some online retailers are disadvantaging Scottish consumers. I think that we could extend that to consumers and our neighbours in Northern Ireland and those elsewhere in our United Kingdom. At that time, approximately 63% of retailers that charged extra for delivery to remote locations did not offer delivery by Royal Mail, which was referred to by the hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Hugh Gaffney), as an alternative. It may be prudent to offer the customer this lower-cost and very trusted service.
I understand that it is a breach of consumer protection to add an additional charge after purchase, with the Consumer Protection (Distance Selling) Regulations 2000 providing that prior to the conclusion of a contract from distant sellers—that is, a transaction that is not done face to face—they are required to disclose delivery costs so that the purchaser is not caught unawares by what are, in some cases, very significant charges. However, such transparency does not detract from the often disproportionate and unfair charges for those who, for a variety of reasons, may not be free to choose or change where they live, and so become embroiled in this delivery postcode lottery.
It may be prudent to look at the proud founding principles of the Royal Mail, which was established in 1516. The introduction in May 1840 of the penny black postage stamp paved the way for the prepaid one-price-goes-anywhere postage system that we love and value in the UK today. This system applies—the hon. Gentleman will keep me right— to 30 million addresses in the United Kingdom, including 2.5 million addresses in Scotland. It is a six day a week service and caters for parcels up to 20 kg. Royal Mail’s sister company—this is like an advert for Royal Mail—Parcelforce Worldwide has a single Scotland-wide tariff for all mainland deliveries and has limited surcharges to highlands and islands contract customers only.
In closing, we must bear in mind the fact that in many cases rural incomes tend to be less than their city counterparts, and that surcharges are a financial burden on a limited income. I ask the Minister to strive to let us have some fairness and equality when it comes to delivery charges in rural areas.
I am delighted to participate in this debate and build on the excellent work carried out by one of my former colleagues, Mike Weir, the former MP for Angus; former MSP, Rob Gibson—no relation—of the Scottish Parliament; and Kenneth Gibson—relation—in the Scottish Parliament.
As an MP who represents two islands, it is very important that I speak in this debate, as some of my constituents on the island of Arran are expected to pay a postcode lottery of 50% more on some occasions than the rest of the UK, based purely on where they live. We know that the cross-party Scottish Parliament group on postal services, of which Kenneth Gibson was chair, has been relentlessly lobbying the UK Government for five years to no avail. This issue truly has been going round for a long time and it is time that it was properly addressed.
Regarding the point that if ferry journeys are needed to deliver parcels that will increase the price, the fact is that because the Scottish Government have fully funded the road-equivalent tariff going on a ferry should not incur any additional delivery costs. That is clearly a con and it has to be addressed.
It really is time that the UK Government addressed this issue and stopped the discrimination against my island constituents and all those constituents who live in rural areas.
I cannot give way because of the discourtesy that has been shown to Members by speakers taking far longer than was advised.
It is essential that a set of standards are adopted for deliveries to every single corner of the UK, just as we have for the universal service obligation. I am keen that the Minister should tell us today that this will somehow be addressed by the UK Government, because it has been going on for too long and my constituents, and constituents living in rural communities across the UK, deserve better.
I will keep my remarks brief as a courtesy to colleagues who wish to speak. The issue of fair delivery charges to Scotland has had no greater champion in this place over the last two and a half years than my hon. Friend the Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Drew Hendry). It is an issue not just for this Parliament but for the Scottish Parliament, and I pay tribute to the work of my Scottish National party colleague, Richard Lochhead, the MSP for Moray, who launched the fair delivery charges campaign and who led a debate in the Scottish Parliament a couple of weeks ago.
In preparing for today’s debate, I sought examples from my constituents and I was deluged—almost overwhelmed—with the examples from the people of Argyll and Bute. The one from Alex Samboerk from Lochgilphead was notable. Lochgilphead is not on an island; it is 88 miles from Glasgow and it takes less than two and a half hours to get there. Alex went online and bought a case of 28 healthy fruit and cereal bars. The cost was £17.81. When he went to check out, he was astonished to see that for the PA31 postcode in which he lives, the economy service was £90 for delivery. Alex is not alone. I have been inundated with people complaining about such things.
My wish is that this is the last time we have to debate this issue. I hope that the Minister can say that she and the Government will take on board the anger and frustration that has been felt throughout rural Scotland at this unscrupulous and outrageous practice by some delivery companies. As I said, I will cut my comments short as a courtesy to other speakers, but let us never have this debate again.
I, too, will cut my speech short as a courtesy to everybody else. Along with the hon. Member for Moray (Douglas Ross), it is my mother’s birthday today. I send her a happy birthday—her card is in the post.
In conclusion—I will make it short—Scotland and Northern Ireland are not in isolation. We have roads, bridges, boats and aeroplanes where needed. We—I am talking about the Royal Mail, given my connection with it—deliver six days a week. We keep the universal service obligation—the USO. To those private companies, it is a UFO. Some private profiteers believe that we have UFOs, but we do not. They should stop ripping off customers with these surcharge prices. We can do it; we do it six days a week. We give a fantastic service. I ask Ofcom to look at the prices. If it can set them, we can deliver on time. Then when we talk to customers, we can talk about the quality of service, not the surcharge price.
Finally, on behalf of Santa Claus, I thank all postal workers for the hard, dedicated work that that they do for us, and wish them all a merry Christmas.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Moray (Douglas Ross) on securing this debate. Across my vast and very remote constituency—the remotest on the UK mainland, although it is part of the United Kingdom—my constituents face iniquitous delivery charges. It is a scandal. Rebecca from John O’Groats is quite right to establish that petition, and I support her all the way.
As has been said, the cost of delivery charges has a knock-on effect on every other cost in my constituency because it is passed on to other services. Surely the mark of a civilised society is that it looks after everyone on the same level terms, independent of where they actually live. It is completely and utterly wrong that somebody is disadvantaged simply because they happen to live in a very remote part of the United Kingdom.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that constituents who live in rural areas are being left behind, not just with regard to delivery charges, as some areas of my constituency are, but with slow broadband speeds? Time and time again, residents in rural areas are penalised for choosing to live where they do.
I wholeheartedly endorse the hon. Lady’s comments. The argument for the interest of the remotest and most rural parts of Scotland is one on which we can unite, regardless of party political divisions. I look forward to working with her on this issue.
I have only a short time left, so I will be brief. Governments on either side of the border have looked at this issue—even, in my own case, once upon a time when I was part of the Government in the Scottish Parliament. We did not deliver on either side of the border. We have to work together to sort this problem out once and for all.
We must remember why the penny post was put in place. Rowland Hill was moved to found it because he saw a young lady who was too poor to pay the charge for a letter from her fiancé—at the time, people had to pay money when they got a letter. That was how sad it was, and that is why we have a universal charge for Royal Mail deliveries, which is something that we should be rightly proud of in this country. It is absolutely essential that we try to deliver on this. I will repeat myself and say that it is wrong for anyone to be disadvantaged because of where they live.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries. I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Moray (Douglas Ross) on securing this important debate. It is worth noting that he acknowledged the work of his predecessor, Angus Robertson, and, through his constituent, of Richard Lochhead MSP, who has worked very hard on the issue.
The right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) rightly described this as market failure. My hon. Friend the Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) talked about the long-running nature of this issue and the failure of action by the UK Government. It has been going on too long. I hope the Minister is paying attention; we need this sorted out now.
My hon. Friend the Member for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O'Hara) mentioned the long-running campaign by Richard Lochhead and many others. He spoke about being deluged with examples, which is a common experience for anyone who has tackled this issue. To be inundated with requests for help over sharp and unfair practices is all too common. It should not be the case.
The hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Hugh Gaffney) rightly said that it is time to end this rip-off. It is time to get it done, not to wait any longer. Let us just get something done about it. The hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Jamie Stone) was right about the problem, but this is not an issue that the Scottish Government can directly deal with. This is a reserved matter for the UK Government and it is important that they take action.
We hear a lot about a UK single market in political exchanges and banter, but the reality is that my constituent wanted to buy five radiators and it was £350 to deliver them to the Isle of Lewis—£10 more than the actual order. A boiler, which was quoted as £24 on the website, ended up at £200. Where is the single and fair market there?
That is a good example—one of many—of what affects people across the whole of Scotland, particularly in the highlands and islands. Rural shoppers are one of the largest markets for online shopping, so it is particularly unfair that they are penalised. The lack of transparency that people face is deeply unjust.
There is an alarming lack of understanding of Scotland’s geography. When I introduced a ten-minute rule Bill in early 2016, I described one of the mysteries of my constituency in the highlands—not whether the Loch Ness monster exists, but why Inverness is somehow not on the UK mainland. It is outrageous that that myth is still being perpetrated by delivery companies.
The SNP has led a campaign for fair delivery charges. We are delighted that there is now such cross-party agreement that something has to be done. I welcome the fact that we seem to have the momentum together to get a response from the UK Government about what will be done, but that has to be something meaningful.
I mentioned Richard Lochhead, but I will also talk about the exemplary work of Citizens Advice Scotland, as other hon. Members have. I pay tribute to the work it did with the trading standards department at the Highland Council. I was honoured to be leading the council when it did some groundbreaking work on challenging unfair practices. Its officers deserve a lot of praise for their work. I also commend all the constituents who have highlighted the issue. There are far too many to mention individually, but I would have loved to have time to run through some examples.
Richard Lochhead’s work has highlighted thousands of cases of injustice. Anybody who has read it will have seen that it costs Scots consumers £36 million more than the rest of the UK. That is not good enough, and something has to be done to change things once and for all. In September 2015, when we were tackling the issue together, the hon. Member for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson) secured an Adjournment debate on it, as a result of which we had a roundtable. He is absolutely right: let us not hear about any more roundtables that do not achieve anything. We need solid action to get this sorted out for consumers once and for all. Let us see something being done.
As I said, I would have loved to go through some examples, but time is extraordinarily limited, so I will conclude. I welcome the cross-party approach. I hope that the hon. Member for Moray will have a word with his council group. If consumers have a Christmas wish, it is for the UK Government to use their power to deliver. Let us hear from the Minister about how the UK Government will make this the last Christmas in which sharp practice, dodgy geography, false claims and unfairness are visited on shoppers in the highlands and throughout Scotland and other rural areas.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries. I will be brief, because we have all had a long week. I congratulate the hon. Member for Moray (Douglas Ross) on securing this debate on a very important issue for his constituents, and I applaud his eloquent speech. The residents and businesses who have campaigned against huge and often arbitrary surcharges and delivery delays deserve much praise for bringing the issue to public attention and forcing the Government to respond. Much credit is also due to the research done by Citizens Advice to draw together evidence of the very patchy picture.
This is not simply an issue that affects a few people on remote islands. According to a Citizens Advice Scotland report, the average delivery charges for customers are at least 40% higher in the highlands than in the rest of the UK, and in the Scottish islands and Northern Ireland they are approximately 50% higher. One million people live in the affected areas in Scotland, despite often living in sizable cities and towns. Being charged up to five times the standard delivery cost is a huge issue, especially for businesses with frequent orders and low-income residents.
It is very welcome that the Government are finally investigating the issue, but Ofcom needs to be empowered to clamp down on geographic discrimination in the provision of deliveries. Ministers would not tolerate it for a minute if delivery charges were higher in their country piles than in inner-city locations, so why should they tolerate it for Scottish families, who are as much a part of the UK as people living at any other address?
Citizens Advice Scotland has recommended that the public and private sectors co-operate to reduce costs. It suggests exploring the possibility of extending Scotland’s network of pick-up and drop-off locations in places such as parcel lockers, convenience stores and post offices, which can reduce costs for delivery companies. Has the Minister considered Citizens Advice Scotland’s recommendations? If so, will she give us a timeframe for responding to them? I would also welcome her response to the suggestion from my hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Hugh Gaffney), who has had an extensive career in the postal service, that Ofcom could be given the power to cap surcharges.
I look forward to swift recommendations from Ofcom for protecting Scottish customers and businesses from higher charges and slower services. Labour is committed to a high-quality delivery network that provides a timely and cost-effective service for all customers. I conclude by expressing my support for Royal Mail and its deliverers at this busy time, and wishing them all a happy Christmas and new year.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries, and to respond to this important debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Moray (Douglas Ross) on securing it and echo the comments of the hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Gill Furniss) about his eloquent speech. I know that he first raised the issue at Prime Minister’s questions two weeks ago and that he met my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State earlier this week to reiterate his concerns.
Let me start by reminding hon. Members of the Government’s general approach. We are committed to promoting growth in the UK economy, and empowered consumers are vital to that. Consumers who demand quality products and services, and are prepared to take their custom elsewhere if their needs are not being met, drive competition, innovation and productivity. The industrial strategy we published last month reminds us that consumer choices are key to a productive and efficient business base. It also recognises the importance of the local economy and infrastructure.
If consumers feel that they are being unfairly treated because of their location, they can challenge retailers, particularly if they are aware of a particular courier or delivery company that is known to deliver to it more cheaply. It is not unreasonable for businesses to seek to cover the legitimate costs of delivery, but customers in remote areas all too often face charges that go beyond a reasonable rate of return.
The Minister says that consumers can complain, but often when they do, nothing is done and they have absolutely no recourse. As we have heard today, the companies offering to deliver can just say, “Well, I won’t deliver to you.” How does she answer that? What will she do about that unfairness?
I will come on to the rights that consumers have, but from the strength of feeling that has been expressed in the debate, I recognise that things are clearly not working for consumers in certain parts of our United Kingdom. I have great sympathy for the case made by my hon. Friend the Member for Moray, because it is unfair that consumers in some parts of Scotland and Northern Ireland should be treated so very differently from consumers in other parts of the UK.
I would like to take this opportunity to state that the Government welcome the ongoing activity to address the problem. The work of parliamentary colleagues and consumer bodies to consider local public and private sector solutions, as outlined in the Citizens Advice Scotland report, could result in ideas suitable for all parts of the UK.
The Minister mentions ongoing activity on this campaign. We have heard some passionate speeches from SNP Members, presumably about the work of their Scottish Government. Will she confirm what contact her Department has had with the SNP Scottish Government on the issue and what actions they have asked about?
I am not aware of any contact. My office has not had any, but I will find out whether any other offices in my Department have had any contact and write to my hon. Friend with the answer. Obviously this is not a devolved matter, but since he has asked, I will give him the answer.
Online shopping is an increasingly important part of our economy.
I will give way in a minute, but I want to cover a lot of points made in the debate and I have only 10 minutes or so.
Retailers have legal obligations to be up-front about their delivery charges—where they deliver to, what they charge, and any premiums that apply—before an order is placed, so that consumers at least have the information they need under consumer law and can make informed decisions before purchasing online.
Does the Minister agree that it is frustrating that Sir Robert Smith, the then MP for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine, introduced a private Member’s Bill to address this very issue back in 2013—yet here we are, four years down the line, and no progress has been made?
I certainly understand the hon. Lady’s frustration, and the frustration felt and expressed by other Members of Parliament this afternoon. I was not aware of that, although I was a Member at the time. I missed that private Member’s Bill, but clearly this issue has a lot of history, and is all the more frustrating for that, as the hon. Lady says.
Consumers must have the information needed under consumer law. At the same time, if retailers are to exploit fully the vast market potential of online business, they will need to listen to and respond to the needs of consumers in all parts of the country, developing effective delivery solutions throughout the United Kingdom.
The Government strongly encourage businesses to provide consumers as far as possible with a range of affordable delivery options. It is really up to businesses to determine the most appropriate delivery options for their products.
I understand from my colleague, the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), that the situation in the Republic of Ireland is not the same as in Northern Ireland or Scotland. Would our Government perhaps take the time to look, as they are responsible for this matter, at what the situation is in the Republic of Ireland, and to perhaps learn from Ireland?
I did hear the intervention from the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), and I will look into that.
Businesses have a choice through the universal service obligation, which the hon. Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Bill Grant) reminded us about. Royal Mail can deliver parcels up to 20 kg, five days a week, at uniform rates throughout the United Kingdom. Regrettably, some businesses and retailers choose not to use that option, and the Government are not in a position to oblige business to choose a particular delivery supplier. There are no regulations that prevent differential charging for deliveries by companies other than Royal Mail. A competitive market should be a sufficient incentive to put pressure on charges applied by retailers and delivery operators, and consumer law requires traders not to mislead consumers or partake in unfair practices.
The Minister comes to the nub of the matter: a competitive market should provide the solution. In fact, the way this market is operating now is the problem; competition will not be the solution. Will she look at the issue of market failure, on the basis that courier companies are now a quite different and discrete market from Royal Mail?
If the right hon. Gentleman will allow me, I will come on to what I propose to do before I close.
We already have legislation in place under the general Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008 and the Consumer Contracts (Information, Cancellation and Additional Charges) Regulations 2013, which apply to online purchases. They make it clear that information given by traders to consumers regarding delivery costs must be up front and transparent before a transaction is entered into. Any consumer who believes those rules are being breached should report it to trading standards through the Citizens Advice consumer service.
If misleading advertising about the cost of delivery is an issue, the Advertising Standards Authority, which has responsibility for ensuring compliance with the code of advertising sales, promotion and direct marketing, will act to ban or amend advertisements that have the potential to harm or mislead the public. Decisions on complaints are made public, and where necessary the ASA will report persistent offenders to trading standards for further enforcement action.
The Government’s view is that regulating prices, or intervening in how businesses and retailers establish their pricing structures, would not overall be in consumers’ best interests, because they are commercial matters. The market is highly competitive and innovative, with many different types of companies being selected by online retailers to provide delivery solutions. That has given rise to new ways of receiving packages, such as collecting them from more secure and more convenient locations and post offices.
The issues involve a three-way relationship between consumers, online retailers and delivery companies. As Members stated in the debate, the postal sector regulator, Ofcom, has just concluded a two-year study of parcel delivery surcharges that reflect the cost to operators and go beyond them. It found that some retailers apply a surcharge to consumers for delivery to certain locations, while others do not. It is therefore not clear that surcharges applied by parcel operators to online retailers are automatically passed on to consumers in all cases. The Government will consult Ofcom further on what might be done to improve competition. As highlighted by my hon. Friend the Member for Moray, the Consumer Protection Partnership, which brings together enforcement bodies and advice providers and is chaired by my Department, recognises that this is a priority that requires further work. It brings together a number of important bodies with an interest in this vexatious matter.
A number of Consumer Protection Partnership members, including Citizens Advice Scotland, the Consumer Council for Northern Ireland, the ASA and other enforcement bodies, along with Ofcom, are working together to undertake a review of parcel surcharging. That review is looking at the existing research, evidence and legislative framework, with the aim of improving compliance by online retailers with consumer protection law. It will also consider further proposals relating to concerns about the level and fairness of parcel surcharging, about which we have heard so much this afternoon.
I will certainly ask the partnership to take into consideration the petition to which the hon. Gentleman refers.
Recommendations will be considered by the Consumer Protection Partnership in early 2018, with the intention of agreeing a co-ordinated package of activities for organisations across the UK. I look forward very much to receiving that advice, and considering its recommendations as to what further action we can take to enforce the law and ensure fairer treatment of consumers—something which we have heard so much about this afternoon.
I am convinced by the strength of feeling expressed by hon. Members that some action is required, so the Government will publish a consumer Green Paper next year that will look at issues such as transparency and fairness across a range of markets. I expect that those responding to that paper will want to comment on how business treats customers, including in respect of delivery charges, and how it reacts to their complaints. That, too, will inform the Government’s approach.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Moray for dramatically raising the profile of this issue, and I will be interested in further input from him and other colleagues across the House in the future. I end by adding my thanks and Christmas wishes to all staff at Royal Mail, as mentioned by the hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Hugh Gaffney). We wish all our posties a very merry Christmas. I thank hon. Members and, as it is my last debate of the year, I will also say that I have enjoyed debating with the hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough, and I wish her a merry Christmas as well.
Thank you, Ms Dorries, for the way you have chaired today’s debate. I thank all right hon. and hon. Members for taking part in it. As we have heard, we have had a lot of discussion on this issue up to now, but that does not mean that we should stop speaking about it. It will remain on the political agenda only if MPs continue to raise the issues on behalf of their constituents. I welcome the speeches made by the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael), my hon. Friend the Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Bill Grant) and the hon. Members for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson), for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O'Hara), for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Hugh Gaffney) and for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Jamie Stone), as well as the very valuable interventions Members made during the debate.
I echo the comments that everyone made about our appreciation of the dedication of each and every member of Royal Mail at this incredibly busy time of the year. When I visited them on Monday, I took some home baking to keep them going. That seemed to be totally ignored when they started on their bacon and egg rolls. I am not sure if the hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill followed a similar diet, but it was certainly getting the posties in Moray through the very busy final Monday prior to the Christmas period.
This is an extremely important issue for constituencies, particularly in the north of Scotland, but as other Members have said, across Scotland and in Northern Ireland, too. I hope people watching at home today can take comfort from the fact that their politicians, their elected representatives, are raising this issue. I particularly welcome—I want to put this on the record—the commitment from the UK Government given by the Minister to publish a Green Paper next year. I think I heard acceptance across the parties that that is an important move forward. I know that consumers will want to use it to ensure we get the best possible deal on delivery charges in Scotland.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered delivery charges in Scotland.