Wednesday 7 February 2018
[Mike Gapes in the Chair]
European Free Trade Association
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the European Free Trade Association.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gapes, and to see so many colleagues from across the House here so early on a Wednesday morning, when there are so many Select Committees and other things going on.
We all know that this country voted to leave the European Union, and we accept that result. However, what that referendum did not say was how we should leave the European Union. That is what today’s debate is about. One of the great myths of that referendum was that this country also voted to leave the single market and the customs union. It did not. Leaving the European Union was the only option on the ballot paper. How we leave the European Union is the most difficult challenge facing this country, and it is up to us, the Parliament of this country, to decide how we do it.
I think both sides of the House agree that we need an exit and a deal that allow us to trade freely with our former partners and to sign new free trade agreements, and that provide a level of economic certainty to businesses and economic and security certainty to our citizens. I want to discuss an option I think should have wide appeal across the whole House—indeed, it was consistently supported by Brexiteers prior to and during the referendum debate.
There are a number of misconceptions about the European Free Trade Association that need to be addressed. Those misconceptions, I say frankly to those on my Front Bench, were repeated by one Minister last week. It was not the Minister who is answering the debate, but the level of miscomprehension in evidence was concerning.
Crucially, EFTA membership gives the opportunity to have, but does not automatically entail, membership of the single market. It does not envisage political integration. It is economically motivated. EFTA does not issue legislation or establish a customs union, and decisions are made by unanimity.
If we examine EFTA, there are three distinct benefits to the UK as we leave the European Union. It brings significant free trade benefits. On joining EFTA, we would automatically become part of the free trade area between the current EFTA four—Norway, Switzerland, Liechtenstein and Iceland—which covers trade in most goods and services and eliminates tariff barriers. In addition, we would be able to benefit from the free trade agreements they have already signed with third countries. We should not underestimate that; EFTA has 27 free trade agreements covering 38 countries and 900 million customers.
In text and context, many of those agreements are more modern than some of the deals the EU is signing with third countries now. Some of the analysis, certainly around services, would suggest that some of the free trade agreements being signed by EFTA and some of its existing free trade agreements are a much better fit for the UK economy than some of the EU’s, and are more comprehensive. For example, EFTA has a free trade agreement with Singapore and Hong Kong—two incredibly important markets for the United Kingdom, and areas without a completed EU deal.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. Did he see the recent coverage in The Daily Telegraph noting that South Korea, and possibly other nations with which we have trade deals through the EU, would be looking to use our exit to potentially renegotiate the terms? Does he agree that, were we in EFTA, it would surely be in our favour that EFTA has trade deals with those countries, which would make the process far simpler for us?
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend, and I want to make a point in a moment about some of the Government’s ambitions regarding their Trade Bill.
Joining EFTA would be a significant help when it comes to making up for the loss of EU free trade agreements. It would demonstrate to the world that the United Kingdom is not leaving Europe as it leaves the EU, and it would highlight our commitment to global trade. Joining EFTA does not in any way stop the Government’s plan to negotiate a deep and special bespoke arrangement with the EU. Indeed, if that is the Government’s ambition and they wish to achieve it, they should consider joining EFTA, because it would greatly assist that goal by framing it within an institutional set-up that the EU is familiar with.
The negotiations on the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement show how difficult and time-consuming a UK-EU deal could be. CETA took seven years. It was the most ambitious EU free trade agreement so far negotiated, and the Government’s stated ambition is to go some way beyond it. The chances that they will be able to fulfil that ambition without a framework that the EU is familiar with strikes me as laudable but potentially difficult to achieve.
The EFTA court, the surveillance authority, the council and secretariat are all institutions understood and trusted by the EU, with well-established systems for information access and consultation. They can be used as part of any future UK-EU deal, to strengthen our commitment and avoid creating new institutions.
As a fellow London MP, I am sure the hon. Gentleman receives numerous representations from constituents on EU citizens and financial passporting rights. Those people probably think the best course of action would be not to leave at all. Since that is not realistic, will he do all he can to exert pressure on the high command of his party and his namesake the Chancellor—sadly, he is not in the high command anymore—to ensure we have a pragmatic, not a purist Brexit? That way, if the arrangements are ready-made, some of the bumps can be avoided.
I see the hon. Gentleman also wishes to intervene. If he does so at this stage, maybe I could answer both points.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way, and he is making a powerful speech. Is it not the case that the European economic area option ticks many of the leave boxes—no European Court of Justice jurisdiction, the ability to control the inward flow of immigration and the ability to strike trade deals with third countries—but also delivers the certainty that business is so desperately calling out for, because it is a well-established, well-understood agreement that has existed since 1993, but with no ever closer union built into it? Is it not by definition the form of Brexit that ticks the boxes in line with what the vast majority—we might call it the silent majority—of the British people want in this debate?
In response to the hon. Member for Ealing Central and Acton (Dr Huq), it is, of course, not my decision who is in the high command, but I understand her sentiments. I absolutely hear her point about financial services. That is why I was very pleased to see the Government taking the initiative and offering unilateral passporting to financial services. Of course, that will work to the greater benefit only if we are able to ensure that the European Union agrees the terms as well, but it was a good start. I wholeheartedly agree with her that the Government’s commitment on EU citizens must be made real and be part of the deal.
The hon. Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock) is absolutely right. In terms of my hon. Friends who are Brexiteers—a few of them are in the Chamber today—I was discussing with one of them last night that the EFTA arrangements are something we can build a consensus around in this country. That is a sensible option, suiting both sides of the argument, and I would welcome any of the pragmatic leavers, including a number who advanced this case during the referendum, joining the cause and arguing for EFTA.
This is a really important debate and I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing it. I completely agree with his point that EFTA is understood by all parties; that is one of its great strengths. Does he agree that its true strength, and the one that could be the basis for our negotiations and unite all parts of the debate, is the fact that it has great flexibility within it?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right that it has great flexibility. That is why I am putting it forward. There is not only one option. I had a chunk in my speech about what one colleague said in response to the question last week from my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury (Antoinette Sandbach), which cited the Switzerland option. Of course, that still allows for bilaterals, and some of those are still available, but there is a panoply of options within the EFTA arrangements.
There is some misconception about whether we would be welcomed back into EFTA, and I make the point that it is not only a flexible arrangement but one we would be welcomed back into.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this timely debate. Is it not the case with EFTA that it does not have the pooling of sovereignty that is currently a big issue in our relationship with the European Union? Most importantly, it affords the flexibility of excluding agriculture and fisheries. We all know that the CAP does not fit well with our large farm structures and that the common fisheries policy has proved very contentious. Those two important industries would benefit from greater flexibility.
My right hon. Friend is completely right. I am grateful to her for making that point, because such points need to be heard loud and clear so that the misconceptions can be fought off.
I was a bit concerned when the hon. Gentleman referred to pragmatic Brexiteers and pointed at me; I may be pragmatic, but I would certainly not call myself a Brexiteer. I am interested in his suggestion that the UK would be welcomed into EFTA. Can he give us his basis for that? Three expert witnesses appeared before the Exiting the European Union Committee yesterday—I understand three more will appear today—and all of them thought it extremely unlikely that the four EFTA members would want the UK to join, partly because the UK’s population is about four times bigger than the current total population of EFTA, and there would be significant concerns about upsetting the balance of EFTA. What indications has he had from the four Governments of the current EFTA countries that they wait with open arms to welcome the United Kingdom in?
I apologise if I, with a sweeping hand gesture, put the hon. Gentleman into the Brexit camp, which he does not wish to be in; that was certainly not my intention. I have had lunch with the president of the EFTA court, and I had lunch with the ambassador to the United Kingdom of one of those countries yesterday, but let me quote the Norwegian ambassador to the EU:
“We would maintain an open-minded stance in the event of an application for EFTA membership. Overall, it is in Norway’s interest to maintain as close trade policy cooperation with the U.K. as possible”.
There is a lot of scaremongering about this point, yet it is clear from speaking to any of the ambassadors that the reality is that they would welcome our application.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. Does he propose EFTA membership as a transitional or a permanent state?
I certainly see EFTA more as a potentially permanent state, rather than transitional. I know a number of my Brexiteer friends would probably see it as more of a transitional arrangement, but I see it as potentially long term, partly because of the point I have been making—that membership in no way undermines the Government’s ambition to secure a long-term, bespoke deal with the European Union. There is nothing within the EFTA structure that would prevent that. Given that our ambition is to be global Britain, we should take every opportunity we can to be so, and EFTA will fulfil those ambitions and objectives.
Does my hon. Friend agree that there is, as I think he alluded to, a cultural element to this as well? The UK is making it quite clear that, while we may be leaving the EU, we are not leaving Europe. This would send an absolutely clear statement of that, and that we are still very much European and very much committed to our friends and neighbours in Europe.
My hon. Friend and I must be of the same mind, or he must have read or have had foresight of my speech. I was going to make the same point in a few moments’ time, but given he has made it for me, I shall cut my speech down. He is, of course, absolutely correct.
The hon. Gentleman is making an interesting and strong case for EFTA and the EEA. Does he agree that there is a fundamental issue at stake: that the kind of potential end state he talks about, and indeed many of the others we have debated, show that there are many options for how we leave the EU? There is not just one way. That is the real issue at stake. Unfortunately, there are some in this place who would like to close the debate down and say there is only one alternative and no others. In fact, there are many ways in which we could go forward, and it is up to us as a country and as a Parliament to choose.
The hon. Gentleman knows that I do not always agree with him, but he is absolutely right on this matter. That is why it is important that there is a consensus from us, as a Parliament, when speaking to the British people, pointing out that there are a range of options. We should not close any of them down as we look for the best solution for this country.
It is implicit in what my hon. Friend says that he is against our remaining in a customs union. Switzerland, which is in EFTA, is outside a customs union and has the freedoms that go with that. Do I take it from my hon. Friend’s speech that he accepts that we should leave the customs union?
First of all, nothing in EFTA implies a customs union; there is no customs union with EFTA. That myth is being perpetrated. My hon. Friend is absolutely right that Switzerland is not in a customs union, and nor are any of the other EFTA members. I accept that we are likely to leave the customs union, but as he will know, it is the Government’s stated policy, in the Prime Minister’s Lancaster House and Florence speeches, that the possibility of a customs union is left open. Nothing has changed in terms of Government policy, so I am entirely in line with Government policy on that.
On that point, it is also clear that the first-stage agreement that we reached in December, concerning the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, must imply the maintenance of a form of customs union. What form that might take is clearly open to some level of debate, but as my hon. Friend may agree, it is quite explicit that it must follow that there is regulatory alignment to prevent the need for customs checks.
As ever, my right hon. and learned Friend makes the point rather better than I can. It is absolutely clear that that is implicit and, based on the evidence we heard in the Treasury Committee, explicit in what the Government signed or agreed to at the end of phase 1 of the negotiations in December.
EFTA provides a great deal of flexibility, as we have explored in a number of interventions. It keeps open the option of joining the EEA agreement, which I think would be the right thing to do. However, it must be right that, as we leave the EU, we keep our options open. I say to the Minister in all sincerity that there is a lack of clarity over exactly what type of deal the Government want. We talked about CETA and beyond, and as I said a moment ago, CETA is the most advanced trade agreement that the EU has yet signed with a third country. I understand that the Government want to go beyond that, but the clock is ticking, and in trying to spend a huge amount of time carving out a middle ground between CETA and the EEA, the chances are that we may end up with nothing at all, or with something well below the Government’s ambitions.
It seems to me that an EFTA-style EEA relationship—the Norway option—could be achieved rapidly and will go much further than CETA goes at the moment. That is a route we could pursue for the UK’s best interest, and it must not be allowed to be dismissed without proper analysis and consideration.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate. First, with regard to CETA, one reason why that kind of relationship would not be appropriate for the UK is that CETA substantially covers goods, whereas 80% of our economy is services. Secondly, as he may come on to, one of the objections raised to our being part of EFTA, and using that as a way of accessing and being part of the EEA, is that we would be a rule receiver as opposed to a rule maker. Does he agree that it is wrong to say that EEA and EFTA members have no influence on the rules that apply? Does he also agree that if we want to access the single market, we will have to comply with its rules, and that we are more likely to be able to frame those rules if we are part of the EEA, through EFTA, than if we are sitting outside and simply accessing the single market through a free trade agreement?
I of course agree with the hon. Gentleman. I am about to make exactly those points, because it is important that they are made loud and clear. As he will know and will have observed, I have spent a lot of time in the Chamber over the last two years making the case for services, which is one of our biggest tax generators. The public services that we all enjoy will not be able to be funded in the same way if we do not protect those services. As he will have wanted to point out, the EFTA arrangement covers services in many cases, whereas CETA, for instance, does not. That is a clear issue that the Government will have to confront.
The EFTA-EEA framework is motivated purely by the economy and not the pursuit of a political objective such as ever closer union. It is crucial that people remember that. The EEA would give the UK the same access to the single market as it has now for most goods and services. It is an off-the-shelf, already tested model that would provide businesses and our citizens with the most certainty that we can give them as we leave the EU. Yes, we would be subject to EEA regulation, but as my right hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Dame Caroline Spelman) pointed out, it does not cover the controversial common agricultural and common fisheries policies or justice and home affairs. From the outset—to allay the concerns of some of my hon. Friends—we would have control of those policy areas.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I will just finish the point, because it is relevant to what the hon. Member for Streatham (Chuka Umunna) said. He is of course right: regardless of any deal with the EU that we choose to do, domestic businesses hoping to trade with the EU and the rest of the world will have to comply with what are often called laws but in reality are trading standards, and most of those are international trading standards, so there would be no change there.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that a further advantage of the EEA-EFTA arrangements is access to EU programmes such as Horizon 2020 and Erasmus, which is of crucial importance to science and research and the universities sector?
The hon. Gentleman has clearly read the EFTA arrangements correctly. I concur with him.
Can my hon. Friend also confirm that EFTA/EEA does not cover taxation, so we would have an independent VAT policy, for example, if we joined EFTA/EEA?
My hon. Friend has clearly also read the EFTA agreement and arrangements, and he is of course correct. There is no principle of direct effect with EEA-EFTA membership. As he has pointed out, that means that all laws must be approved by domestic legislatures. The UK would participate in drawing up proposed EEA legislation by serving on relevant committees. That is more of an input than is currently planned by the Government for their transition or implementation period—call it what you will. And certainly EFTA would have more of an influence collectively over the process with the United Kingdom as a member. We would regain our seats on global regulatory standard-setting organisations, on which much of EEA law is based, and ultimately we would retain a right of reservation.
This would all be supervised by the EFTA Surveillance Authority and the EFTA court, not the EU institutions. That would preserve for the Government the red line of avoiding ECJ jurisdiction.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on his excellent speech. I am sorry that I cannot stay for the full duration of what I anticipate will be an equally excellent debate. Has he explored whether it is possible for any arrangement that we come to with the European Union by way of a free trade agreement to be in effect docked? If we join EFTA, it could be docked in EFTA and therefore the EFTA court could have some role in relation to that agreement, which, again, gets away from any of the concerns that many right hon. and hon. Members have about the ECJ.
My right hon. Friend is of course a lawyer and I am not, but I have had conversations with the president of the EFTA court, Mr Baudenbacher, and he would agree that her interpretation is correct and what she describes would be possible. That is only one opinion, but it is that of the president of the EFTA court and therefore it clearly carries some weight and some merit.
The EFTA court has made divergent decisions from the ECJ on numerous occasions. In fact, because the EFTA court deals with cases more quickly, it often hears the novel cases first, and in some cases the ECJ follows the EFTA court. The EFTA court’s rulings are only advisory domestically, so it cannot overrule our sovereign court, the Supreme Court. Again, the point is that we would be heavily involved in influencing.
I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this very important debate. Does he agree that one reason why many people voted to leave the European Union was that they wanted the UK to take back control? He has just brought up the very important word “sovereignty”, which for many people in the debate is at the heart of why they voted the way they did in June 2016; many people wanted to go back. Of course, the UK was a founding member of EFTA in 1960, so does he agree that the EFTA-EEA arrangement would meet the test of looking back to a day when we were happy with our relationship with the European Union and, of course, the UK would take back control?
My right hon. Friend, the Chairman of the Treasury Committee, is right. One great virtue of what we are talking about today is that we are looking at where the UK is at its best, in that we are looking at the economics rather than becoming obsessed with ideology about some of the political points. This proposal solves many of the legal arguments and gives economic certainty to businesses and citizens, which is clearly what the House wants.
I, too, congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate, and I thank him for his generosity in taking so many interventions. Can he clarify that his position is to join EFTA in order to remain or be part of the EEA, or does he contemplate being part of EFTA without EEA membership?
One point that I am making is that there is a range of options for us as a Government and a country to consider. Personally, I would argue for the EFTA-EEA arrangement, which I think gives us a huge number of advantages. It gives some certainty to British business. It allows us to do what the Government want to do in having a bespoke EU-UK deal and would allow that to be negotiated in a timely way. It would give us advantages in relation to free trade. We will not be in “the” customs union. If we chose to do so, we could establish “a” customs union. It seems to me that the EFTA-EEA arrangement is absolutely a good place for the United Kingdom to start as we leave the EU. Whether that is the choice of the House, if it comes to be discussed on the Floor of the House of Commons, is another matter. My point is that there is a range of options. Personally, I will argue for the EFTA-EEA arrangement; I think that is the best arrangement.
Let me deal with the point that the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Nigel Dodds) may have wished to come on to—I am getting close to the end of my remarks, Mr Gapes, but you will have noticed that I have taken a fair number of interventions so that colleagues can be heard.
Understandably, free movement of people will be a concern for many, notwithstanding the fact that EU migrants are net contributors to our economy and that the last set of figures available—official statistics—showed that net EU immigration was down to about 9,000 a year. It is true that, under protocol 15 and articles 112 and 113 of the EEA agreement, EFTA states can suspend free movement of people on a reciprocal basis. It is important to remember that. Some will say that that is only theoretical, but it is important to remember that the European Commission agreed, during the pre-referendum negotiation, that the UK would be justified in applying the proposed emergency brake for similar reasons. Therefore, the protections enshrined in articles 112 and 113 of the EEA agreement would undoubtedly apply should we choose to join EFTA, because the precedent has already been set.
As for EU budget contributions, which would be another concern, they would of course be subject to negotiation, and we have already conceded the concept of paying for access if we deem that to be in our interest. The EFTA-EEA countries make a financial contribution to the EU in two ways. They contribute, first, towards European cohesion efforts and, secondly, towards the programmes in which they participate. The House of Commons Library has been frequently quoted by hon. Members on both sides of the House to justify their position, so I would guide people to the Library’s estimate that if the UK were to join the EFTA-EEA arrangement, the contributions to the EU would be 25% less than any contribution that we make now or would make during any transition period.
The concern has been expressed that the current EFTA members might have reservations about one of the big G8 economies joining. However, as I said in response to an intervention, the indications that I have had, from quite powerful authorities, are that we would be welcome in EFTA. It would be a chance for EFTA to be renewed and revitalised, with better prospects and new aspirations for arrangements with other countries. The argument that the EU is trying to tell Norway not to move forward—as we have seen from what the Norwegian ambassador to the EU has said—may be a bit of a game and role play, but the reality is that the United Kingdom would be welcomed back into EFTA.
I ask the Minister to ensure that the Government keep open the option of re-joining EFTA. I see no reason why it would not fulfil the Government’s ambition. It provides the Government with the flexibility they say they require—and I agree—in negotiating to get the best deal for Britain, but I remind hon. Members that there is nothing in EFTA membership that seems to go against any of the plans the Government have set out so far.
Finally, in a national crisis—and this is a national crisis—the British political class has always had the ability to put aside ideology, reach a national consensus and act in the national interest. Surely that is in the ability of this generation’s political class. We must be able to stand up and show that we can match our forefathers. We should be seeking to build that national consensus and achieve the best outcome for Britain. It is abundantly clear to me that there is no model that will satisfy all sections of the British public. I believe—I have said this many times—a no-deal scenario would be bad for our economy. However, this approach would fulfil the result of the referendum. It would satisfy a large—I think overwhelming—majority of the British public and perhaps, importantly, this House of Commons, and go a long way to healing the divisions that were there. I recognise that EFTA is not a universal panacea, nor does it have all the benefits of membership of the single market and the customs union, but I believe, and I hope this whole House believes, that Britain’s negotiating position and its economic position post-Brexit will be improved by joining EFTA.
Before I call Back Benchers, I would like to make clear that I have to call the Front Benchers at 10.30 am. We have very limited time if all three Front Benchers are to get their full time and we are to give Mr Hammond time to make a brief comment at the end. I implore you to be brief, minimise your interventions, and if you have already intervened, please do not intervene again if you can avoid it. Hopefully, I will be able to call all those who are indicating they wish to speak.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Mr Gapes. We normally sit side by side on the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs, so the roles are slightly changed this morning. I also pay tribute to the hon. Member for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond) for bringing this timely debate to the Chamber.
I say to the Government, at this time of national crisis and debate, it should not really be for Back-Bench Members of Parliament to have to bring debates to Westminster Hall on so critical a matter. If it is about taking back control, Parliament should be debating this every single day of every single week, so that the public can have a real view about where we are heading as a country in exiting the European Union. We are clearly no longer in a debate about staying in the EU; instead, we are talking about the least worse option when we leave.
The hon. Gentleman’s arguments clearly demonstrate that EFTA is one of the options the Government could choose to ensure we have the least worse exit from the EU. Whether it is leaked, not leaked, written, not published or whatever, the Government’s analysis shows that this is the least worse option, so why would they not take it? I have consistently said in the main Chamber, in Westminster Hall, and indeed in newspaper articles, that whether one agrees with these arguments or not, the fact that the Government have taken them off the table shows that their direction is towards a place that will fundamentally damage the UK economy for generations to come. It is also clear to anyone who follows this debate in any kind of detail that the goals, aims and objectives the Government have set themselves when leaving the European Union are completely and utterly incompatible—incoherent—with the red lines they have set themselves.
A trade deal with the European Union. Maintaining tariff-free, frictionless access. Ensuring the issues around Northern Ireland are resolved. Achieving regulatory harmonisation. Staying in European programmes such as Erasmus and Horizon 2020—Edinburgh University has issued its annual report, the back pages of which show where it gets its research funding from, and there is page after page showing tens of millions of pounds that come from the European Union. If the Government want to achieve all of those objectives—I have no doubt that they do—I suggest they reach out, keep everything on the table and say to Parliament, when taking back control, that the best way to achieve all of those objectives is through EFTA, the EEA, a single market or a customs union. Whichever way we want to look at it, let us keep those options on the table and have those arguments.
EFTA is important because it is about economic integration between its members. The EEA allows that economic integration between the EFTA members and the European Union. That seems to me to be very similar to the Prime Minister’s goals and objectives in both her Lancaster House and Florence speeches. We want free, frictionless trade. We want regulatory harmonisation. We want goods and services to be included, as my hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Chuka Umunna) said. As the hon. Member for Wimbledon said, this is not CETA, but is it CETA plus plus plus, which the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union mentioned a few weeks ago?
My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. Does he agree that the problem the Government have got themselves into is that instead of keeping all the options open, the Prime Minister is having to respond to the extremists in her own party on a reactionary basis and close off options, exactly when we should be exploring the possibilities of all the options and the best way forward for the country?
My hon. Friend hits the nail on the head. This Government are not looking at the best possible option for exiting the European Union. They are trying to resolve a decades-long problem in their own party, which is now raising its ugly head again, as we have seen in the newspapers in the last few weeks. I firmly believe that many senior members of the Government and influential Members on the Government Back Benches would rather see the UK fall off a cliff, to achieve their ideological goals and take control of their own party, than do what is in the best interest of the country.
I will wrap up, because I am aware others want to speak. EFTA is the ninth largest trading partner in the world in goods and the seventh largest in services. It is the third largest trading partner with the EU in goods and the second largest in services. If that deal was put on the table to the United Kingdom by Michel Barnier today, we should bite his hand off to take it. It is on the table, it is here and it is ready made. The Government would be committing a massive dereliction of duty if they did not at least consider the option of staying in EFTA.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gapes. Last week at DExEU questions, the Under-Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr Baker), challenged me to table a debate on EFTA. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond) for having the considerable foresight to have already done so. I know that he and others have been at the forefront of the push to get EFTA onto the Government’s agenda. I listened carefully to his contribution and share most—in fact all—of his perspective. His timing could not have been better, because it is vital that we have an evidence-led debate on this subject and on the broader subject of the UK’s relationship with the EU.
The main focus of my remarks will be the transition and how best to manage our departure, should a deal not be achieved before Brexit day. At the end I will address EFTA membership in the longer term and how this can be in our national interest. I will be brief, because I have discussed this recently. If hon. Members wish to know my thoughts in more detail, they can check the Hansard record of the debate on 22 January.
The Government do not have much time left to strike a deal, as Michel Barnier reminded us all yesterday. The time is coming when the Government must make tough choices, and those need to be based on evidence rather than on ideology—particularly an ideology that can be seen at the fringes of our party. The Government are also delaying several key pieces of work that will prepare us for the world post being in the EU. The road haulage Bill has been delayed, and the immigration White Paper has been delayed and may not be published until the end of the year.
I have consistently called for Ministers to be given the time that they need to think through their decisions. This is, as others have said, one of the most complex tasks the country and its Administration have faced in decades, and the timeframe for making decisions should reflect that, but under the current arrangements, we will have to restructure our entire relationship with the world in just a couple of years. Roy Jenkins once compared Tony Blair’s approach to winning high office to that of a museum curator carrying a Ming vase across a polished marble floor. I cannot help but think that Ministers may sympathise with that image as they hold on to something as precious as the democratic choice of the public while having to deliver Brexit in a manner that does not harm the economy, wear away at the social fabric of this country or damage our standing abroad. To do that, I ask Ministers to make up their minds on all the best available options, and to respect the wishes of all our constituents, not just either the 52% or the 48%.
There are considerable merits of EFTA for a longer transition period. I support the Government’s ambition for a deep and enduring partnership with the EU. Given our shared history and geography, it would be wrong to adopt CETA wholesale. To propose an entirely new arrangement is ambitious, but I welcome that ambition. Our partnership must be deeper than the EU has with any other third party, and it must include a deal on services, which make up almost 80% of our economy and are therefore essential to our prosperity.
I am aware of the pressure that the Government are under to strike a deal soon, and this is where the first benefit of EFTA should become apparent. If we were able to expedite rejoining EFTA it would provide a soft landing should the Government fail to strike a deal before the deadline. Currently, failing to strike a deal would see us ejected from the EU with no alternative to WTO terms. EFTA should be that alternative. Last week’s Treasury estimates, which are the best data we have at this point, suggest that WTO terms would cost us 8% of GDP growth over the next 15 years.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. To take her back to her earlier comments on a transition: is she proposing this scenario as a transition or a permanent state?
It is the option that gives us the leeway to negotiate. It is an important staging post. Given the severe impacts that the WTO alternative would have, it is a safe harbour, if I can put it that way, with all the benefits that my hon. Friend the Member for Wimbledon has already outlined.
The reality is that if we do not take advantage of the opportunity that EFTA membership would give us, we are facing a cost of 8% growth in our GDP. That is a very significant cost that will have a significant impact on tax revenues and employment prospects in this country. By comparison, EEA membership through EFTA would allow us to recoup 6% of that lost growth, which is important for the Government to consider. I note that this month the UK Trade Policy Observatory has published an important briefing paper on the sectors most vulnerable to Brexit, looking at the different options. Perhaps those who are not convinced by the Treasury analysis can look at independent analysis—although I think the Treasury analysis is independent—published by a third source.
EFTA also allows the Government to meet their existing commitments, particularly around having no hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. It seems to me, from the provisions in paragraphs 49 and 50 of the agreement made in December, that that is a crucial ambition that we need to step up and achieve. We need to examine whether EEA membership and continuing membership of the customs union is the only way to deliver that promise. Even if it is not, it gives us the time to look at what other options are available.
I listened with interest to the concerns expressed by the noble Lord Bridges in the debate on the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill last week that transition needed to be a bridge to the future, not a gangplank into thin air. EFTA offers that bridge: a graduated transition that sees us leaving the EU, regaining control of swathes of policy areas, but retaining the vital trading and economic links that have built up between the UK and Europe, until a better deal can be struck. I know that some Members are concerned that this is a route to allow mischievous remainers to get back into the EU, but that is not correct: it is not the intention. Leave won; some leavers still need to get used to that. Those who have fought for decades to secure our departure from the EU have far more to fear from a badly executed Brexit than they do from using EFTA to bridge any potential gaps.
Like my hon. Friend the Member for Wimbledon, I think that the long-term benefits of EFTA will become clear should we apply to rejoin, as I hope we will. He has already outlined the potential market access to more than 900 million people. From a sovereignty perspective, EFTA decisions require unanimity; we would still have the power of our veto. We would take back control of farming and fisheries. We would be rid of ever closer union and there would be no prospect of the single currency. EFTA would address a huge part of the public and political concern about the EU, while still allowing the UK to benefit from the single market.
I do not want to revisit the details I discussed a fortnight ago, but I do want to add two points. I have faith in the Prime Minister’s ability to strike a deal, but if we do not reach agreement with the EU regarding the Irish border, EFTA would allow us to extend the existing commitment we have made into the longer term. The breathing room that EFTA arrangements provided would strengthen the Prime Minister’s hand in negotiations. In the event of no deal, the UK faces significant detriment from WTO terms.
EFTA offers a route that will allow Ministers to respect the referendum result, our commitments on the Irish border and the needs of our economy. In a number of areas, it would allow considerably greater freedom of action than we currently enjoy. It would ensure that the most complex parts of our negotiation with Brussels—the issue of the Irish border—is resolved in the short term, and it would provide more time to create a bespoke solution. It allows us to minimise the risks of no deal and strengthen our hand in negotiations. If Ministers disagree so vehemently with the Treasury analysis, what are their own assessments of the impact of no deal? What deficiencies do they identify in not only the Treasury analysis, but much of the analysis by independent think-tanks that are external to the UK civil service?
EFTA constitutes the best arrangement for a plan B in the unlikely event that plan A fails. I believe that it is a good deal for Britain in the longer term, and ask that colleagues rethink this issue and recognise how EFTA can offer us a safer, more secure route out of the EU and into the world.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gapes. I will be very brief so the other two speakers have a chance to get in.
From the conversations I have had across East Renfrewshire in recent months, people are increasingly fed up. They do not want to hear any more about a hard Brexit, a soft Brexit, a red, white and blue Brexit, a “Brexit means Brexit” Brexit or even a “Brexit means Breakfast” Brexit. It is time for practical, workable solutions to be put forward in the national interest. They do not want ideology. If we have to give it a name, they want a “smart Brexit”, as my hon. Friend the Member for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond) put it in a recent article.
We must be pragmatic, sensible and honest about the situation that faces us. Should we be optimistic? Yes, we can be and we should be, but that optimism has to be grounded in reality. It is far too simple an argument to say that the Germans need us to buy their cars and the French need us to buy their brie so it will all be great.
Just as Government contingency planning for all scenarios must cover a no deal, it must also cover us entering EFTA with the EEA bolt-on. I simply ask that that option is not taken off the table. Let me be clear, that is not necessarily a final destination—although we should not rule that out—but a safe harbour or staging post that would give us a suitable and workable framework from which to work while the free trade agreement is thrashed out and formalised.
EFTA guarantees to people who voted leave that we are implementing their democratic will to leave the European Union. If anything, it finds that sweet spot in reflecting that the EU referendum result, although decisive, was not overwhelming. We will be in the single market but not members of the EU. We will leave the EU sensibly—even conservatively—if we recognise that trade is only one part of our integrated and co-operative relationship that needs to be unpicked.
In EFTA, from day one, we will be outside the broken CAP system and the hated common fisheries policy, which are totemic issues that lie behind the largely ignored but sizeable minority leave vote in Scotland. Any question of ever closer union would be gone; we would not be under the direct jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice, as there is no direct effect and no supremacy of EEA law, and our membership dues would be significantly reduced. Freedom of movement can be dealt with flexibly within the EFTA system because, contrary to what is commonly asserted, Schengen is not part of the EEA agreement.
EFTA will also give us scope to form trade deals across the world from day one and to take advantage of the bloc’s existing FTAs while we create those bilateral agreements. Preferential access to EFTA’s markets while we finalise our new global trading relationships would provide a good basis for British business. Arguably, EFTA’s suite of trade agreements are a better fit for the UK than the EU’s, given our trading patterns, and they are more comprehensive. EFTA’s size and nimbleness as a bloc has allowed it to adapt its approach to free trade agreements to cover trade in services. EFTA would ultimately allow us to start our journey to our destination, while giving us the flexibility to ready ourselves for what may lie ahead.
If the referendum was not just about the economy but about increasing national sovereignty, I believe EFTA would tick that box too. That is why it is an option that also finds favour among many moderate leavers and it should not be dismissed out of hand by the Government. When we look back in 10 years’ time, we will not regret taking the time to get what was needed, but we will regret rushing to leave the European Union as quickly as possible to meet an arbitrary, self-imposed hard deadline.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gapes. I will follow my hon. Friend the Member for East Renfrewshire (Paul Masterton) in being as brief as I can.
To my hon. Friend the Minister, I say that I, like most of my hon. Friends, want the Prime Minister to achieve a successful, bespoke deal, but the clock is ticking. To put it bluntly, levels of agreement are not optimal on the internal flank. I hope he can answer one question: if EFTA-EEA is such a bad idea, why are its four constituent countries among the richest and most successful on the face of the planet?
This is not project fear. We talk about hypothetical scenarios, such as what would happen if we left without a deal or under a soft or hard Brexit, but those countries are out there in the real world, not gazing at their navels, but negotiating trade deals and making a success of a trade bloc that we created with them in 1960. They have found a way to be sovereign countries, to deal with the huge behemoth of the European Union on their borders and to somehow retain that combination of prosperity, security and, yes, sovereignty.
Back in Westminster, we are in a hypothetical realm where we keep talking about all the possibilities that may emerge. If one were to be hypothetical and ask, “What deal could we possibly construct on which we could conceivably unite as a country?” it would have to do the following. It would have to please those on the Brexit wing by enabling us to negotiate our own trade deals from day one of leaving. EFTA does just that. For the Mayor of London, who wants us to stay in the single market, for the Scottish Parliament, which also wants us to stay in the single market, and for the many of us who think that that would be right for the City of London and services, we would have to stay in the single market. In EFTA-EEA, we stay in the single market. For everyone, there would have to be a control on unsustainable migration. In EFTA-EEA, we have the control that should migration surge again, article 112 and, importantly, article 113, which guarantees our right to negotiate free movement, would apply and have applied in practice in the real world.
The free movement issue is very sensitive. In the EFTA relationship, Liechtenstein has a cap on the total number of EU citizens it allows in each year. It is a much smaller country, but the principle is there.
Yes, the principle is there. The powers are there in black and white and they can be used unilaterally. There is simply no way to dispute that.
To return to the hypotheticals, from a Brexiteer point of view, we would want something that gives us visible signs of power back on day one. We would be out of fisheries, which is why Fishing for Leave supports membership of EFTA—it knows that next year, it could get power back for fisheries. We would be out of the common agricultural policy. We would be out of the serfdom of the ECJ and under the EFTA court.
I will finish by referring to the transition. Even as someone who campaigned for remain, I think the Government’s current proposal would mean a vassal transition where we had absolutely no control. To people in the Brexit camp, I say that surely the proposed transition, where we have literally no say in future laws, is far inferior to one where we go into EFTA next April, have powers back, and have the security of staying in the single market. That is the best transition, which would enable us to have a safe harbour to secure our long-term future, as other hon. Members have said.
A range of continental lagers are available, but if Carlsberg did an off-the-shelf, last-minute Brexit deal that pleased everybody, it would probably look an awful lot like EFTA-EEA.
It is nice for a leaver to make just a brief contribution—perhaps you have heard enough from leavers, Mr Gapes. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond) on securing this important debate. It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk (James Cartlidge), who made a powerful case from his point of view in relation to EFTA.
My view is that we should get behind the Government. We on this side of the Chamber should certainly be supporting the Prime Minister and the Government. To say that this is a Brexit-dominated Government, when the Prime Minister, the Chancellor, the Deputy Prime Minister, the Home Secretary, and the excellent Minister were remainers, paints an unfair picture. I think the Government are working in the interests of all the British people.
The Government decided to delegate the decision about whether we remain in or out of the European Union to the British people. There was a massive democratic process and we had the leave result. We are leaving in 413 days, so as my hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk said, the clock is ticking.
In the referendum, the British people voted to end free movement, not to spend billions and billions of pounds each year with the EU, and to make our own laws in our own country that will be judged by our own judges. Within all that, Parliament should debate what Brexit looks like—quite rightly—and this debate is part of that.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I cannot, because I have very little time.
It is right that the Government are saying, “Hang on. We’re the fifth biggest economy in the world. We want to make a bespoke deal.” The Brexit Secretary has described the deal as Canada plus plus plus, but he is really saying that it is a bespoke model. From that point of view, how can people object? We are in a unique situation. We already have a free trade arrangement with the European Union. It sells us £80 billion more of goods than we buy from it, so it is in its interest to have a deep and special relationship.
In conclusion, I hope the whole House will get behind the Government to achieve what must be in the British interest: a bespoke deal and a special relationship with the European Union. I urge my Conservative colleagues to stop carping at the Prime Minister, to get behind her and to support the Government, not vote against them. They should argue their case and let the Government take us out of the European Union in the best possible way in 413 days’ time.
I am grateful for the opportunity to begin the winding-up speeches. Scotland’s preferred option was not to leave the European Union at all. It is dangerous to conduct this debate on the basis that all the arguments have been lost. I sympathise with a great deal of what hon. Members have said today, but their starting point seems to be, “We have now lost the argument—we are in for a hard Brexit and for coming out of the customs union and the single market, but let’s see how much we can salvage.” It is not too late for the Government to come to their senses and decide not to leave the single market or the customs union.
It is important that we continue to compare the benefits and disadvantages of EFTA membership not with the hard Brexit that we are heading for, but with where we are now. As hon. Members have said, we had a referendum over membership of the European Union but nobody in the United Kingdom has ever voted in a referendum on the single market or the customs union, so none of us has the right to say that we know how people feel about our membership of them.
I must remind hon. Members of the likely economic impact. Some have decided that the economic forecasts are not worth the paper that they are written on. Presumably they think the billions of pounds it costs to run the Department that produces those forecasts are not worth it either, so I look forward to the Estimates debate in a few weeks’ time—I can think of a big saving to our spending on the Treasury. The Scottish Government’s paper “Scotland’s Place in Europe” indicates that over the 10 years after Brexit, GDP in Scotland is likely to fall by £11 billion a year and public spending is likely to fall by £3.7 billion a year, on top of any reduction imposed from Westminster. That is twice Scotland’s total expenditure on further and higher education, which demonstrates the scale of economic damage that we face.
The UK Government say that they have not done any impact analysis, but they have done analysis of the impact, which is not the same thing. I have not yet seen those papers in their Fort Knox establishment on Parliament Street, so I can only quote from what has already been put in the public domain. The Buzzfeed papers show that the Treasury think that at best we will see a 2% reduction in economic growth, even if we remain in the single market, and at worst we could face an 8% reduction, which would be a recession like none that we have ever seen or ever want to see. We are talking about a serious threat to the economic and social wellbeing of these islands.
I recognise that membership of EFTA—if we are allowed in, although it is still not guaranteed that the four existing members will want us to join—would not be as bad for us as falling off the cliff edge, but it would still be significantly worse than where we are now. I hope that all hon. Members who have argued for EFTA today will not accept that the argument about full membership of the single market or the customs union has been lost. EFTA countries are not in the customs union; we heard evidence from several witnesses in the Exiting the European Union Committee yesterday about what that means for Switzerland. In some ways, the Swiss position appears to be closest to what the Government want, because officially it does not include free movement of people, although in practice it pretty much does.
I will give way once, but I am conscious of time.
I understand the note of caution that the hon. Gentleman articulates about EFTA, but I also understand that Scottish National party policy is to remain in the single market. If his party does not favour remaining in the European economic area by staying in EFTA, how does it propose to remain in the single market?
As I said, our best option is to respect the wishes of the 62% not to be dragged out of the European Union, but if that option is taken off the table—
I note that Scottish Conservatives want to pooh-pooh the idea that 62% of the population of Scotland can just be ignored. My concern about EFTA is not that I do not like what it offers, but that it does not offer nearly as much as we have now. In particular, it does not involve membership of the customs union.
Switzerland does not have what it regards as a hard border with the European Union. Apart from its border with Liechtenstein, it is completely surrounded by land borders with EU countries, but most people travelling in and out do not notice anything like a hard border. Nevertheless, it estimates that approximately 2% of vehicle traffic is stopped and searched. Applying that model to the only land border that the United Kingdom will have with the European Union would result in 200 stop-and-searches a day near the border on the island of Ireland. That is simply not acceptable, and it cannot be allowed to happen.
Even the most favourable—or least unfavourable—scenario for leaving the customs union is likely to create significant security problems in Ireland. It is not just about having a hard border. We have an agreement on all sides that there will be no infrastructure on the Irish border, but it is very difficult for somewhere inside the customs union to have a border with no infrastructure whatever with somewhere outside it. There will be significant repercussions for the whole of Ireland if the United Kingdom leaves the customs union.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way on that point?
I really do not have time.
Those repercussions are among the reasons—they are possibly the single most pressing reason—why we have to persuade the Government that they have got it wrong. The unilateral and politically motivated decision to leave the customs union was a mistake, but there is still time for it to be rectified. There is still time for the Government to accept that they got it wrong and that they do not have a referendum mandate to take us out of the customs union or the single market.
I was interested in the point made by the hon. Member for South Suffolk (James Cartlidge) that the four EFTA countries are among the wealthiest in the world by GDP per capita. It is not only EFTA countries that are in the top 15 or 16, and certainly above the United Kingdom; so are Luxembourg, Ireland, Sweden, Belgium, Finland and Denmark, none of which are in EFTA but all of which are in the single market. Membership of the single market and the customs union may be a factor, or it may be that all the countries I mentioned and all four EFTA countries have the status of being small, independent, modern European nations—perhaps that is what we should be looking at, but that is an argument for another day.
I must sound a final word of caution. Although hon. Members have referred favourably to the Norwegian and Swiss situations, we were told yesterday in the Exiting the European Union Committee about the Swiss People’s party, which is a bit like UKIP with a Swiss accent but is the biggest single party in the Swiss Parliament. It has initiated the process of calling a referendum—a popular initiative, as the Swiss constitution describes it—to extricate Switzerland from EFTA and pull out from agreements with the European Union. Although a lot of countries originally saw EFTA or the European economic area as part of an accession process to get from nowhere to full membership of the European Union, it appears that there is a big danger of the hard right in Switzerland treating EFTA as a way of cutting its links with the European Union. So let us be careful: we may think that the minority in this House who want a hard Brexit will be satisfied and let things lie if we somehow persuade the Government to go for EFTA, but it will not be long before they seek to follow the Swiss example. They will agitate for a referendum as they did before, not on leaving the European Union this time but on the hardest of all hard Brexits.
As I have said before, and as I think the vast majority of hon. Members believe, a hard Brexit would be economically and socially calamitous for the people of these islands. It is still not too late for the Government to give a guarantee that they will not go for that kind of Brexit. They should not simply say that they want to join EFTA, but go further and say that they want to remain in the single market and the customs union—not for two or three years after we leave the European Union, but for as long as we possibly can.
It is a pleasure to wind up for the Opposition and to see you in the Chair, Mr Gapes. I join other hon. Members in congratulating the hon. Member for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond) on securing this debate and on the considered way in which he framed the issue.
The Labour party has continually made clear that we want to seek a deal with the European Union that secures all the benefits of the single market and the customs union and that involves no diminution of the EU-derived rights—employment rights and equality rights—health and safety standards, and environmental protections and standards that we currently enjoy.
Jobs and the economy must be the Government’s priorities in the next phase of the negotiations, so it is absolutely right that Parliament debates in detail the pros and cons of any and every means of potentially securing a departure from the EU that protects both. I echo what many hon. Members have said in the debate this morning: every option must be kept on the table.
It reflects poorly on the Government that Back Benchers have to bring Ministers to Westminster Hall and have only an hour to speak on issues of this importance. We should be debating the pros and cons of European Free Trade Association arrangements and other arrangements in great detail on the Floor of the main Chamber; that we are not doing so is a missed opportunity.
I very much welcome the attempt by the hon. Member for Wimbledon to convince the Conservative party to ditch the ideological baggage, and to drag with him the Government and the small group on the Government Benches who favour—for ideological reasons—the hardest of departures from the European Union.
There are misconceptions about EFTA, and they need to be challenged. We need to have an honest debate about what the trade-offs and the compromises involved in an EFTA arrangement, or other arrangements, would be. However, all options must be considered and, as other hon. Members have said, nothing should be taken off the table.
In the brief time I have available to me, I will sound a few notes of caution about the trade-offs when it comes to EFTA, or at least examine some of them. I will start with the transition period, because a number of different views have been expressed this morning about whether EFTA would apply in the transition or afterwards and about the variants that it might cover.
I fail to see how EFTA could work in terms of a transitional arrangement, and that is for two reasons. The first is that, as we have argued for some time, the Government must pursue transitional arrangements on the same basic terms as those that apply now, which includes membership of the single market and the customs union, and would involve the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice. That is supported by businesses and trade unions, and—if people pay any attention to what the European Commission has been saying on the EU27, they will know this—it is also the only option that is available. I cannot see how EFTA, as a transitional vehicle, could be realistically negotiated.
Even more importantly, an EFTA transition would in a sense entail what the Government—and we agree with them on this—have explicitly sought to avoid. Businesses and individuals do not want two points of transition towards the end state. They do not want a situation whereby they would depart the EU and go on to EFTA terms, and then go on from EFTA terms to the final end state of a bespoke deal.
What the hon. Gentleman talks about as a transition is not really a transition; it is an extension of existing membership, and there is no point in trying to deny that. EFTA can be a transition in this sense—that we go into it, as others have said, as a safe harbour. However, he seems to be ruling out the idea that, once we are in EFTA, there would ever be any further change, when it would clearly be in our national interest to look at how we might, for example, strengthen co-decision making or consider divergence within parts of the single market. The point is getting to a safe position to do that. That is what a transition is—not an extension of our existing membership.
I disagree, because I do not see a transitional arrangement on those terms as an extension of membership; we would lose our voting rights and our representation in the European Parliament. However, that is the only transitional arrangement on offer, and the one that the hon. Gentleman is suggesting is not a serious possibility. Also, as I have said, it would involve two points of disruption for businesses and individuals. For that reason, we favour a transition on the same basic terms as now. However, if we are talking realistically, and we are talking about a post-transitional arrangement, EFTA membership is clearly something that the Government should consider.
I will just probe a bit of the argument that the hon. Member for Wimbledon made in terms of there being a range of viable options open to the UK within EFTA, each of which warrants consideration. It is difficult to see what would be gained by EFTA membership alone. I take the point that obtaining it would secure for us access to the EFTA free trade area and the four EFTA states, as well as participation in trade agreements with the 27 countries in the EU, but in no way would that make up for the loss of trade that would come from losing the 50 preferential trade deals that the EU has with third countries or the many other trade deals that it is negotiating. Moreover, EFTA membership alone would not secure for the UK preferential access to the EU internal market.
In the same way, it is difficult to see how the Swiss model, or a variant of it, would work for the UK. As hon. Members will know, Switzerland has only partial access to the EU’s internal market. We must also consider services, the future of which is integral to our country. I know that the hon. Gentleman has real concerns about them, and we both do, because of our constituencies. Services are covered only to a limited extent by the Swiss model. Crucially, Swiss bilateral agreements do not provide for cross-border access in financial services. So it is difficult to see how the Swiss arrangement would work for the UK, notwithstanding the issues that it has in terms of its sustainability or the length of time that it has taken to negotiate.
The hon. Gentleman is, of course, laying out the range of options I said were available and making the point about all their pros and cons. However, I think it was pretty clear from my speech that I think that the EFTA/EEA arrangement, which is what I argued for consistently throughout my speech, is the option, one, that I prefer and, two, that the Government should look at.
In a sense, the hon. Gentleman reinforces my point, which is that the realistic debate that we should be having is about the EEA/EFTA option. I do not think that the other options are particularly practical or desirable, for a variety of reasons, so that option—the EEA/EFTA one—is what we should concentrate on.
When it comes to the EEA/EFTA model, the Opposition recognise that it undoubtedly has a range of advantages.
Earlier in his remarks, the hon. Gentleman mentioned the customs union. Is it the Opposition’s policy that we must remain in the customs union?
The Opposition’s policy is that a full customs union with the EU remains on the table; it should be an option that we explore, and I will come to the reasons why.
Despite the advantages that EFTA provides, it also has some inherent limitations. One of the most serious, which we have to grapple with if we are going to seriously consider and debate the advantages of the EEA/EFTA model, is what it would mean for the border in Northern Ireland. Unless that model is complemented with a customs union or customs arrangement of some kind, I do not necessarily think that EFTA alone would solve the problem in Northern Ireland.
That is because the agreements that the EFTA members have struck with third countries involve the collective dropping of tariffs. I do not think that those agreements can be supplemented with a customs union or customs arrangement in a way that would solve the problem in Northern Ireland. Earlier, the right hon. Member for Meriden (Dame Caroline Spelman) mentioned agriculture. There are issues within EFTA where there is explicit freedom to diverge, which I think makes the Northern Ireland border situation complicated, and it is certainly not clear that it would be solved by straight-up EFTA membership.
In addition, there are the concerns that have been raised about freedom of movement and payments into the EU budget. Neither of those issues is insurmountable, but we need to have a really honest debate about how we would reconcile the concerns that were raised in the referendum, and that undoubtedly lay behind the vote in the referendum, and the economic conditions that are required in the country going forward.
There are also very practical reasons why the EEA/EFTA option could be challenging. It is clear to me that the majority of the legal opinion on this shows—Professor Baudenbacher would say this himself—that the UK ceases to be a member of the EEA when we leave the EU. We cease to be a contracting party; article 1.26 of the EEA agreement says that very clearly. It is not clear—this needs further explanation—whether we could seamlessly join EFTA in a way that allows us to remain a member of the EEA agreement continuously. As a number of hon. Members have said, there are also real questions about whether the EFTA states—in particular, Norway—would be happy to have us join.
Well, they might be. I think there is a range of opinion out there about it; I have spoken to a number of different people with different views. The hon. Member for Wimbledon said that he had spoken to the ambassador and the professor himself. I note the comments of the Norwegian Prime Minister in August last year, when she said that the UK joining EFTA, even for a temporary period, would be a “challenging and costly” undertaking. Again, those concerns are not insurmountable, but we need to grapple with how realistic this option is and, in particular, with whether EFTA’s institutions—especially its court—could cope with the volume of cases that would land in them if the UK was to join EFTA.
All of that speaks to a wider point, which is that the four EFTA economies are very different from the UK economy. The size of the EFTA countries and the nature of their economies make UK membership of EFTA a challenging prospect.
All of that needs to be debated, and it cannot be debated in an hour and a half in Westminster Hall. The EFTA option should not be taken off the table, but there are real reasons why the Labour party believes that a bespoke deal following a transitional arrangement on basic terms should be what we are aiming for, and therefore EEA/EFTA would not be our first preference. However, as I say, the key point is that that option should not be taken off the table. In the end, it is up to Parliament to decide, which is why it is so important that we have a meaningful vote—
Is the hon. Member bringing his remarks to a conclusion?
The issue should be for Parliament to decide, and this option should not be taken off the table. The Government need to give serious consideration to it or at least to provide time for debates about the pros and cons to allow us to explore why—if they have—they have ruled it out.
I start by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond) on securing this important debate on the European Free Trade Association, to which I am delighted to respond. I note that he beat our hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury (Antoinette Sandbach) in securing this debate, but as my hon. Friend and colleague at DExEU, the Member for Wycombe (Mr Baker), said in the House on 1 February, a number of colleagues have suggested EFTA membership as a possible option, and it is important that we debate it.
Although we recognise the benefits of ensuring continuity in our relationships with the EFTA states, we do not plan to seek membership of EFTA, for four key reasons. First, EFTA membership in and of itself does not deliver any market access to the EU. As my hon. Friend the Member for Wimbledon pointed out, there are some misconceptions. It is important to delineate the difference between the EFTA agreement and the EEA. EFTA is a trading bloc between four European countries: Switzerland, Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein. Three of them participate in the EU’s single market through the EEA agreement, while Switzerland participates in some areas through a series of bilateral arrangements with the EU. As such, joining EFTA does not say anything about our future economic partnership with the EU.
Those calling for us to join the EFTA need to be more specific, as my hon. Friend was, about whether they mean joining the EEA, or attempting to copy the Swiss agreement, or negotiating a different bespoke agreement. The Prime Minister has been clear that participation in the EEA agreement would not work for the UK because it would not deliver on the British people’s desire to have more direct control over the decisions that affect their daily lives, and it would mean accepting the continued free movement of people, which both the Conservative and Labour manifestos pledged to end at the last election. Switzerland, on the other hand, has a patchwork of agreements with the EU that fall short of the ambitious economic partnership we are seeking. Neither model strikes the balance of democratic control and mutual market access we want for our future partnership with the EU.
Secondly, our ambition as a global trading nation goes beyond the scope of EFTA’s existing free trade agreements with third countries. Leaving the EU offers us an opportunity to forge a new role for ourselves in the world, to negotiate our own trade agreements and to be a positive and powerful force for free trade. Alongside new FTAs, we are also committed to achieving continuity in our existing trade and investment relationships with third countries by transitioning the EU’s free trade agreements. It is worth noting that EFTA’s network of preferential trading arrangements falls short of our ambitions.
Thirdly, EFTA membership means accepting free movement between EFTA members—that principle is underpinned through the legal framework of the EFTA convention. While we do not regard the referendum result as a vote to pull up the drawbridge, it must be a priority to gain control of the numbers of people who come here from Europe.
Finally, while we want to maintain our deep and historic relationships with EFTA states, the UK is in many ways different from those countries, as the hon. Members for Greenwich and Woolwich (Matthew Pennycook) and for Glenrothes (Peter Grant) pointed out. Our population is around 65 million, while the EFTA states together make up roughly 14 million people. In 2015, the EFTA bloc’s collective GDP amounted to £710 billion as compared with the UK’s £1.9 trillion. The UK’s participation in EFTA would fundamentally change the nature of that group and would not be an appropriate model for our future relationship with the EU or those countries.
Some have proposed that EFTA should be a plan B in the event that the Government do not achieve the ambitions they are outlining, instead of WTO rules. What does the Minister say to that?
We are absolutely focused on achieving a deep partnership between the UK and EU. Of course we need to look at our contingency plans, and I am sure Ministers will take note of this debate in that regard, but we want to focus on achieving a partnership that in many ways goes beyond the EFTA arrangements we have discussed.
Will the Minister give way?
No, I need to make a little progress because I have got quite a lot to try to cover.
Membership of EFTA alone does not automatically guarantee UK access to the EU single market, and EFTA states have the different trading relationships I have described. In this debate, most people have spoken about the EEA and EFTA. The EEA, which is sometimes referred to as the Norway model, would mean the UK having to adopt automatically and in their entirety new EU rules over which we would have little influence and no vote. As the Prime Minister has said, such a loss of democratic control could not work for the British people. It would also involve continuing to pay substantially into the EU budget.
Does the Minister not accept that if we are to do the free trade agreement that he and his colleagues in government keep talking about, we are going to have to comply with European standards anyway? We have much more chance of having some influence—albeit, I accept, not a vote—if we do so through EFTA and EEA membership. The hon. Member for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond) has been clear he is arguing for that.
The Government are ambitious about the extent of the trade agreement we can do with the EU. The EU has a number of trade agreements with other countries where there is mutual recognition and regulatory alignment, but not the absolute harmonisation of rules. I do not accept the premise of the hon. Gentleman’s argument.
I will not be able to cover all the comments, so I want to focus a little more on international trade. Members have asked why we do not plan to rejoin EFTA as a way of continuing our trading relationships with its members and trading with the wider world through the adoption of its existing free trade agreements. As I have already stated, EFTA has a network of 27 free trade agreements as compared with the EU’s 40 FTAs. While many of those agreements significantly overlap, EFTA agreements still focus on traditional areas of market access and therefore tend to be less comprehensive and more goods-focused than those of the EU. It is also notable that some EFTA FTAs specifically exclude trade remedies that the UK may seek to have as part of our independent trade policy. The UK is in many ways different from those countries.
Will the Minister give way?
I will give way for the last time.
Is the point not that by joining EFTA, we can roll into the existing EFTA trade agreements and agree a new bilateral trade deal at the same time? We would be protected while striking out our own trade deal.
My hon. Friend makes an interesting point. It is certainly true that a number of the EFTA states have those bilateral arrangements, but it is important to note that even if EFTA members were to welcome us back—as the hon. Member for Glenrothes pointed out, that is not a certainty—we would not have immediate or automatic access to their 27 FTAs. Our entry into each one would need to be negotiated individually with the third countries involved. That process would take time, with no guarantee of success. EFTA is not an off-the-shelf model that would deliver ready-made trade deals, as some have suggested. Instead, as I said earlier, leaving the EU offers us an opportunity to forge a new role for ourselves in the world: to negotiate our own trade agreements and to be a positive and powerful force for free trade. As Members know, we are committed to delivering continuity in the EU’s existing trade relationships with third countries.
Will the Minister give way?
I will not right now. We want continuity, rather than the replacing of agreements with their mostly shallower EFTA counterparts. We are already in discussions with third countries over how to put the arrangements in place upon exit, and I will come back to that point.
Will the Minister give way?
I cannot give way right now because I have to cover a few more points.
Another important drawback of EFTA membership is that it requires free movement between its members. A number of Members have touched on that. It is true that Liechtenstein has a derogation from the principle of free movement of people under the EEA, but Members will agree that the UK is in many respects different from Liechtenstein, which is a country with a population numbering less than most of our constituencies—in 2016, the population totalled some 37,000. It is also worth noting that in 2016 more than a third of Liechtenstein’s population were not Liechtenstein citizens.
We of course want the UK to remain an open and tolerant country. It is important to note that the Prime Minister has written to EFTA citizens and EU citizens to assure them that we want to reach agreements that protect their right to achieve settled status in the UK.
Finally, I reiterate that there can be no question of our ties of friendship with our EFTA friends and neighbours, nor of our commitment to them. Taken together, the EFTA bloc of states is our third largest export partner in goods and services after the EU and the USA—that is larger than India and China combined. We receive 5% of our imports by value from them, making EFTA our fourth largest import partner. Norway and Iceland were also founding members of NATO. I reassure Members that we are seeking to maintain our excellent relations with EFTA states, with whom we have long-standing cultural and economic ties, as well as crucial trading relations. The Prime Minister wrote specifically to EFTA nations.
I do not have a great deal of time to go into the implementation period, but it is important to note, as the hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich said, that we are seeking only one set of changes. It is crucial that business does not face two sets of changes. With that, I give my hon. Friend the Member for Wimbledon the floor for a chance to respond.
I thank the Minister for his response. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone), I of course support the Government’s ambition to have a bespoke deal. Nothing I have set out this morning would in any way prevent that. The Minister, whom I regard as a thoughtful politician, will understand that I am disappointed by his response. Although this Chamber has had the chance to consider the motion, the feeling I detect from the Chamber is that the whole House would like to have a chance to reflect on the matter. I therefore say to the Minister that I have decided to provide that by tabling later today a number of amendments to the Trade Bill to be debated on Report. That will give the whole House the opportunity to discuss EFTA on the Floor of the House.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the European Free Trade Association.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the introduction of an agriculture GCSE.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gapes, I think for the first time. As Members may recall from previous debates, my professional background is in agriculture; I draw Members’ attention to my declaration in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. My background and experience have naturally made me a passionate advocate for UK farming. British agriculture is the essential foundation of the UK food and drink industry, which as our largest single manufacturing sector employs one in eight people and contributes more than £100 billion to the economy each year, including through a growing volume of exports. Farming also plays a vital role in protecting our environment, maintaining and conserving the land, soil and landscapes that make up our precious natural heritage.
So why a GCSE in agriculture? One of the foremost functions of our education system is to equip young people with the necessary skills to contribute to the social and economic life of our country. I firmly believe that, given the significance of agriculture to our economy, environment and society, the education system should ensure that the younger generation are able to flourish in the sector, and should give them the option of doing so at the earliest possible opportunity by offering an agricultural GCSE in schools across England and Wales.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for securing this debate. Bearing in mind that the average age of farmers in the UK is approaching 60, does he agree that a new lease of life is needed and that the GCSE will give those who are perhaps not from a farming background but who have a love of the land the opportunity to gain an understanding and to get involved in farming? We in Northern Ireland have done that so far.
I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman. I have not quite reached the farmer’s average age yet, which is around 59 at the moment. I was going on to mention that Northern Ireland already has a GCSE in agriculture, which started in 2013.
I really hope the Minister will answer this when she responds later: why is it good enough for GCSEs to be provided to young people in Northern Ireland, but not in North Herefordshire?
It is up to the Minister to respond to that, and I hope she does, but I do not want to see a GCSE in agriculture only in North Herefordshire. I want to see it in England and Wales and perhaps Scotland as well.
We do not have a national 5 in agriculture in Scotland, so it would be a positive move to introduce it there and to get further behind apprenticeships as well, so that students have room to develop from national 5 into an apprenticeship when they leave school.
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend, who makes a valuable point.
My support for the agriculture GCSE is based on two central arguments: first, the course would offer great benefits to GCSE pupils in helping to equip them for a skilled and fulfilling career that agriculture can offer; and secondly, it would support the farming sector by providing a better and larger pool of young, educated and skilled workers. I have already mentioned Northern Ireland. It is important to re-emphasise that Northern Ireland has had a GCSE in agriculture since 2013. I could not get the figures, but I would be interested to know what the take-up has been in Northern Ireland.
My hon. Friend will find that 17 schools already offer the GCSE in Northern Ireland, with an average of 10 students per class. Agriculture, horticulture and animal care is the fastest growing degree subject, with an increase in applications of 117%, so clearly the demand is there.
I am glad my hon. Friend has brought those figures to this debate. I can always rely on him to bring facts to the table. It is also worth mentioning that there is an opportunity for those who are privileged enough to have the advantage of taking an IGCSE qualification in agriculture offered by Cambridge Assessment, but it is clear that opportunities are limited to a small cohort of students in the UK, so I do not think that that really qualifies. We have to make sure that it is offered right across the board.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for securing this debate. Does he envisage the GCSE being provided in secondary schools or will he broaden his remit to encourage organisations such as the Duchy College in my constituency to provide the GCSE, so that the college can broaden its remit?
My hon. Friend makes a valid point. It is important to ensure that all education facilities have the opportunity to offer a GCSE in agriculture. It should be available to all—that is the premise of the argument—and not a limited few.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way very briefly?
The hon. Gentleman is being very generous. I actually taught rural studies, although I look too young. Does he accept that the wider rural economy is crucial to the relationship between agriculture and the rural hinterland?
Again, I entirely agree. I will go on to mention that this is not just about agriculture. The wider rural economy, the environment and food security link back to agriculture and food production.
I understand that the Department for Education has recently introduced changes to secondary qualifications and wants a time to allow those to settle down, but a model exists for how to design and teach the subject at GCSE level, which suggests it would be straightforward for the Government to make it available. Has there been any consideration of replicating the content of the GCSE syllabus available to those in Northern Ireland for students in Britain?
I have been sympathetic to an expansion in GCSE options for some time, but I was encouraged to argue for this more publicly by the intervention of the BBC “Countryfile” presenter, Adam Henson, who publicly called for the introduction of an agriculture GCSE in September last year. He said:
“You can get a GCSE in religious studies and business, so why not in agriculture?”
That is a fair question. A GCSE in agriculture has a strong claim to feature among current non-core science and mathematics options, which currently include geology, astronomy and psychology. Expanding the offer to include the option of a GCSE in agriculture would be a sensible and logical development of the Government’s welcome plans to expand the provision of vocational and technical education in order to create a better skilled and more productive workforce, enjoying higher wages and better living standards. That is recognised in the Government’s industrial strategy, which made the claim of
“putting the UK at the forefront of this global revolution in farming.”
I am old enough to remember when there was an O-grade, or an O-level, in agricultural science in Scotland—I am substantially older than my hon. Friend the Member for Angus (Kirstene Hair), who is far too young to remember it. An agriculture GCSE has to be about food production and what the countryside is really about, as opposed to the countryside as a national park. The best thing that could come out of it would be that people connect again with food production and the countryside.
I entirely agree that it is about connecting with food production, and ensuring that we understand where our food comes from, how it works in the chain, the environmental impacts, and how we manage production. I cannot say that I am old enough to remember the O-level; my year was the last to take O-levels, but I cannot remember having the opportunity to take that one. The point is that we have to ensure that we move forward, and the GCSE would be one way of doing that.
I am watching with interest the development of plans for T-levels, as a full technical alternative to A-levels, but if there is truly to be the parity of esteem necessary to boost the take-up of vocational and technical skills, the option of a vocational or sector-linked qualification needs to be offered to pupils as soon as possible, at the time they first select the qualifications that they will take—that is, at GCSE level. Have the Government considered the effects of boosting the number of students taking the agriculture, environment and animal care route from 2022 by introducing a dedicated pre-16 qualification?
In Parliament, we are all familiar with employers saying that schools do not do enough to prepare our young people for the world of work. Offering an agriculture GCSE would go some way to respond to those concerns, by allowing pupils to equip themselves for work at an early age. GCSE-age children could learn about a practical and essential subject, directly linked to a varied and dynamic field of employment.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way; he has been very gracious. As we move towards leaving the EU on 31 March next year, the opportunities for agri-food business to increase across the whole world are magnificent and large. Does the hon. Gentleman feel that now may be the time to focus on them? There are opportunities in farming here, and in exports overseas.
I could not agree more with the hon. Gentleman; he makes the point very well. As we move forward with Brexit, now is the time to push the boundaries and take agriculture to new levels. To do that, however, we will need the skills base for the future, and we have to enthuse young people. A GCSE in agriculture gives us a real opportunity to do that.
Sadly, there is plenty of evidence that young people do not consider agriculture as a potential career path at the moment, which is unfortunate considering its vital role in the UK economy, and in addressing the huge global challenges of world hunger, food security and environmental conservation. Only 4% of UK workers would ever consider farm work or going into agriculture. Statistics show that about 20,000 students opt to study agriculture at university each year. As my hon. Friend the Member for North Herefordshire (Bill Wiggin) said, that is a growing number, which is very encouraging. However, some 280,000 school leavers sign up for business-related degrees. Introducing agriculture as an option early on, at GCSE level, would give young people a chance to understand the huge opportunities that the sector offers them, and would do something to correct the imbalance.
The comparison with business studies in those statistics, along with Adam Henson’s comments that I quoted earlier, are important because it is essential that we remember that farming is a business, and therefore offers exactly the same opportunity for entrepreneurship and innovation as urban enterprises, as well as addressing huge environmental and humanitarian concerns. Moreover, it is a business sector that will be at the forefront of unfolding technological developments and exciting scientific advancements. A GCSE option would be a useful way of alerting school pupils and school leavers to those opportunities.
Agriculture is being, and will be, transformed by the fourth industrial revolution, and it is important to alert pupils and parents to the option of pursuing a career in a high-tech, high-skill industry, utilising the latest scientific innovations. School leavers entering the farming sector in the next few years could expect to use GPS technology to harvest wheat, to use driverless tractors, to use drones to deliver herbicides to weeds on a precision basis, to grow wheat with nitrogen-fixing bacteria, and to use other new technologies that will drive up animal welfare, such as robotic milking parlours. The industry needs entrants with sound scientific understanding and applied skills.
In the next few decades, robotics, biotechnology, gene editing and data science will become increasingly established in the farming sector. Our country is home to some of the best agri-science research in the world, such as at Rothamstead Research in Herefordshire—
Sorry, Hertfordshire—once again, I thank my hon. Friend for giving the correct details. Other examples include Fera Science, just outside my constituency in North Yorkshire, and Stockbridge Technology Centre in North Yorkshire. We should be trying to fire the imaginations of our young people by engaging them in the classroom with such examples as soon as possible, just as we try to inspire pupils with the achievements of British scientists and astronauts and the richness of British cultural and literary achievements in their science and English GCSE courses. The development of indoor vertical farming using hydroponics will also expand the opportunities for growing food in urban areas, which could make agricultural knowledge just as relevant to pupils in urban areas as in rural ones.
An agriculture GCSE would also encourage school- children to grapple in a practical manner with the huge practical, humanitarian and environmental challenge of global food security. The growth of the global population means that, as a world, we have to produce 70% more food over the next 30 years to keep pace with demand, and to ensure that people do not go hungry. Moreover, we have to do so in an environmentally sustainable way that makes the best use of our finite resources.
The challenge is as significant in its own way as that of climate change, and I argue that, like climate change, it should be included in school curricula. Putting an agriculture GCSE on the curriculum would also widen opportunities for students, by giving them the option to learn about a sector that relatively few of them will have knowledge of, or have considered as a career choice. The majority of farms are family businesses, mine being no exception, and the routes to getting involved if someone is not directly from a farming background can, sadly, be quite limited. That is to the detriment of both the sector and school leavers, who are restricted in their ability to get a taste of a sector in which they could well thrive.
As chair of the all-party parliamentary group on science and technology in agriculture, I was pleased to host the UK and Ireland delegates to the global agricultural summit here in Parliament last November. All the current entrants were university students. I was hugely impressed by their knowledge, their enthusiasm for the latest advances in agriculture and their desire to contribute solutions. However, what was most telling was that not a single one of them had a family background in farming. They had all been drawn to the sector by developing their own independent interest and research into agricultural questions. That certainly emphasised to me the capacity of agriculture to challenge and inspire young people, but I would also highlight that it is relatively rare for children to become independently interested in it, which reinforces the value of having the option at school so that they can make informed choices on the basis of a comprehensive array of available options.
As well as being of benefit to younger people, having an expanded pool of educated and enthusiastic young people would also be very useful for the sector and the wider UK food and drink industry. As has already been mentioned, the age of the farming workforce is ever increasing. Farming is challenging and changing. In the race to keep up with the pace, we need a high-skilled workforce entering the industry with applied capabilities and an awareness of the breadth of available opportunities. I commend the Government for pushing ahead with a substantial reform to post-16 education, but its effectiveness could be limited if measures are not introduced to expand the opportunities in secondary education to include a GCSE in agriculture.
I ask the Minister to look closely at this issue going forward. There is a great opportunity for our economy, as well as an opportunity to give young people the skills in what is, to me, an incredibly vibrant and exciting sector.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gapes. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer (Julian Sturdy) on securing this debate. He spoke passionately and emphasised the need for people—not just young people—to know about careers in all aspects of farming. He also mentioned agri-tech. In my role as Minister for Apprenticeships and Skills, I have met a number of people in that sector about the opportunities. My hon. Friend and I have spoken at length before about grazing horses. This is a new subject for us to discuss, and I heard everything he had to say.
I am mindful that with apprenticeships and T-levels there is a tendency for the focus to be urban-based and for rural areas to be forgotten. I assure my hon. Friend, as well as the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) —who has now left—my hon. Friends the Members for North Herefordshire (Bill Wiggin), for Angus (Kirstene Hair) and for North Cornwall (Scott Mann), and the hon. Member for Stroud (Dr Drew), that I will not forget that, because it is important.
My hon. Friend the Member for York Outer raised the issue of food production across the world and the international aspects of farming, which is equally important. It is also important that the sector gets the workforce it needs. He will be aware that a number of subjects taught at key stage 4 and earlier include some core knowledge about food production and the environment. Those have been recognised in the changes that have come about to GCSEs. There have also been a number of changes to GCSEs that make the content more rigorous. Whatever someone does after 16, it is critical to have a good foundation in maths, English and digital skills. My hon. Friend mentioned the importance of understanding that farming is a business. Business skills are important, and such skills are predicated on a solid grounding.
In geography, for instance, pupils are expected to learn about changing weather, climate change, global ecosystems, biodiversity and resources, including an overview of how humans use, modify and change those ecosystems and environments in order to obtain food, energy and water. In the nutrition GCSE, pupils are required to understand the economic, environmental and socio-cultural influences on food availability. That is quite important. There is also content in some of the science GCSEs. I suspect that that will not be enough to satisfy my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer, or indeed my hon. Friend the Member for North Herefordshire, who spoke with his usual passion, but material in the core reformed subjects provides a general background, which forms an important grounding in some of the knowledge needed to go on and run a business.
Schools can also do outdoor learning and there is a certain amount of freedom, which many schools use. I gather that there are more than 100 schools with farms in the UK, a fact I was not aware of. They bring pupils from both rural and urban areas to understand a little bit more about farming. Also, there is a City & Guilds technical certificate in agriculture for 16 to 18-year-olds, so some opportunities do exist. In addition, apprenticeships and T-levels—technical education that will be on a par with A-levels—will change the world. To some extent, it is in the hands of hon. Members to go out into their schools to highlight the opportunities that exist.
The first teaching of T-levels will start in September 2020, with the remainder launched in two phases in 2021 and 2022. The agriculture, environment and animal care route will be rolled out in the second phase, which gives it a degree of importance not afforded to all. The content of the T-levels will be decided by employers, professionals and practitioners, which will mean they have real market relevance and real currency within the sector. We are currently consulting on T-levels and I am sure the farming sector and the broader agri-tech sector will have input.
My hon. Friend the Member for York Outer is right that early introduction to the issues is important. I launched our careers strategy in December last year. The strategy recognises that young people’s interaction with work is absolutely critical—not just doing work placements, but employers coming into schools. There are now duties on schools to bring people in and there are clear benchmarks about what they have to achieve in terms of introducing young people to the wide range of careers and the routes to getting there. Entrepreneurial, talented new entrants are needed to encourage the next generation of farmers.
There has been wide-scale reform of apprenticeships. There will be some farmers who pay levies, but there are opportunities even for small and medium-sized enterprises. Apprenticeship standards for land-based service engineer and land-based service engineer technician are already live and a number of standards are in development, including crop technician, farrier, poultry technician and stockperson. The Institute for Apprenticeships is working with employers to ensure that quality standards are high. I recently met some students in a school for young people with special needs. I was very impressed with the work that they are doing to encourage those children, who are going on to do level 2 apprenticeships in agriculture, farming and animal care. It is very impressive.
We want to make sure that the sector has the right skills, but what is absolutely critical is overcoming a not insignificant degree of parental and teacher prejudice about the options that are open for young people. It has been a pleasure to have this debate. I am sorry I did not have longer, but I assure my hon. Friend that I am on the case. It is very important that the tendency with these changes for an urban focus is spread out into rural communities. National Apprenticeship Week is coming up. He will have the opportunity—
Will the Minister give way?
It is critical that we have an academic qualification for people in urban areas in this subject, rather than making them do apprenticeships that they cannot reach because they live in the towns.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, because it is also about attracting people back into the countryside. One of the issues for rural communities is that people leave and go elsewhere. There are high-level qualifications too—it is not just about levels 2 and 3; it is about levels 4 and 5. The degree opportunities were mentioned, and degree apprenticeships are really taking off. There is not much not to like—
Motion lapsed, and sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(14)).
Palestinian Children and Israeli Military Detention
[Graham Stringer in the Chair]
The debate is highly over-subscribed, so I will impose a time limit when Sarah Champion sits down. If hon. Members intervene on her—she says she is willing to take interventions—they will go down the order of speakers, because it looks like, even with a time limit, there will not be sufficient time to call everybody who has requested to speak.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered military detention of Palestinian children by Israeli Authorities.
It is a genuine pleasure to serve under your chairmanship in this very important debate, Mr Stringer. I strongly welcome the fact that the Government addressed the issue of Palestinian child detainees during the third universal periodical review of Israel at the UN Human Rights Council two weeks ago. They recommended that Israel take
“action to protect child detainees, ensuring the mandatory use of audio-visual recording in interrogations with all child detainees, ending the use of painful restraints, and consistently fully informing detainees of their legal rights.”
That important statement signals a positive intent to engage constructively with this issue.
I called this debate in the same spirit: I want to support and encourage Israel to meet its international obligations regarding the rights of children. It meets them fully for Israeli citizens but, alas, does not do so for Palestinian children. To be clear, I am not making a judgment about the crimes Palestinian children are alleged to have committed or about Israel’s right to uphold the law. This debate is specifically focused on Palestinian children in military detention.
Two years ago, I secured a similar debate. I would love to tell the House that many of the issues discussed then have now been addressed, but sadly the situation remains largely the same. In March 2013, UNICEF published a report entitled “Children in Israeli Military Detention: Observations and Recommendations”, which concluded that
“the ill-treatment of children who come in contact with the military detention system appears to be widespread, systematic and institutionalized throughout the process, from the moment of arrest until the child’s prosecution and eventual conviction and sentencing.”
Is there any evidence that the Israeli Government have taken any notice of the British Government’s request?
There is some evidence. I will come on to the recommendation that the Government made when the UK sent over some lawyers a number of years ago. I am grateful that the Minister is engaged in dialogue at the moment, and I hope he will update us on the current situation.
Last year, the authoritative west bank non-governmental organisation Military Court Watch found that, four years after the publication of the UNICEF report, only one of its 88 recommendations—No. 21, on access by lawyers to medical records—had been substantially implemented.
Military Court Watch reported that 79% of children detained in 2017 signed a confession or a statement in Hebrew. Does my hon. Friend share my concern that the majority of those children would not have had a guardian or responsible adult with them, and that they probably would not have understood the language they were committing to?
I share my hon. Friend’s concern, and I will address that point. Arabic is an official language in the state of Israel, so why are the documents presented to children in Hebrew? I will let my hon. Friend draw conclusions.
Before the hon. Lady leaves Military Court Watch, will she give way?
That was quite a rude interruption. Please go ahead, though.
What evidence is there that NGOs such as Military Court Watch and other Israeli NGOs that perform this valuable function have themselves been subject to a measure of harassment at an official level?
I am afraid I cannot answer that, because I do not know the data. I hope that any organisation that is trying to speak on the basis of facts does not suffer harassment, but as the right hon. Gentleman knows, too often, when we put our head above the parapet, it gets shot off multiple times.
A year before the UNICEF report, a group of senior UK lawyers published an independent study entitled “Children in Military Custody”. Published in 2012 and funded by the Government, it found that Israel was in breach of at least eight of its international legal obligations under the UN convention on the rights of the child and the fourth Geneva convention, due to its treatment of Palestinian children held in military detention.
I thank my hon. Friend for securing this very important debate. As she knows, Palestinian children as young as 12 are routinely taken from their homes in night-time raids, blindfolded, bound, shackled, interrogated without a lawyer or parent present and with no audio-visual recordings, put into solitary confinement and forced to sign confessions. These are children we are talking about. What part of that is not plainly and simply wrong?
It is hard to argue with my hon. Friend’s passionate intervention.
The UK report set out 40 recommendations on arrest, interrogation, bail hearings, plea bargaining, trials, sentencing, detention, complaints and monitoring. Military Court Watch stated last year that only one of the UK report’s recommendations—No. 33, on the separation of children from adults in detention—had been substantially implemented. The empirical evidence is clear: half a decade after the publication of the UNICEF and UK lawyers’ reports, which contained dozens of recommendations to bring Israel’s military system of detention of Palestinian children in line with basic international legal standards, there has been limited implementation by the authorities.
Perhaps the hon. Lady would like to take this opportunity to explain to the House why Israel uses military courts.
I can do, but that is quite a big topic. Because of the, in my opinion, illegal occupation, people have to go through a military system, rather than a civilian system. The unfortunate thing is that that is applied to the Palestinians, who rarely have parity with the Israelis.
Although I praise the Israeli Government for allowing the studies to go ahead, it is disappointing that that leading international democracy has largely not acted on the recommendations, which were made in good faith. I now turn to the specific areas I would like the Minister to focus on.
I was last in the west bank in November—I have declared that in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests—and I visited a family whose young son had been seized in the middle of the night and detained. He was in administrative detention. Does my hon. Friend agree that, in one respect, things have got worse since our last debate, because Israel has started using administrative detention—detention without charge for unlimited periods? That must be wrong on any basis.
Yes. That technique is not used often, but it is used. It allows the child to be held in detention without any charges being brought against them, and without their having the right to respond to the charges.
The prevalent practice of night-time raids by Israeli military personnel causes a huge amount of distress to children and their families. Inevitably, night raids on civilian population areas by any military tend to terrify those communities. After 50 years of use, they can become hugely debilitating. Although conducting night arrest operations reduces the potential for clashes with local residents, the practice cannot be said to be in the best interests of the child—a primary consideration under the UN convention on the rights of the child.
The UK report recommended:
“Arrests of children should not be carried out at night save for in extreme and unusual circumstances. A pilot study of issuing summonses as an alternative means of arrest should be carried out.”
UNICEF made similar recommendations. Following those recommendations, it was most welcome that Israel announced the introduction of a pilot scheme in February 2014, whereby summonses would be issued requiring attendance at police stations for questioning, in lieu of arresting a child at night. That was to be similar to the practice for Israeli children. Military Court Watch reports, however, that the use of summonses in lieu of night arrest has been very low. It found that 6% of the children affected in 2017 reported being served with a summons as an alternative to a night arrest; in 2016 the figure was just 2%.
Even in cases in which summonses are used, Military Court Watch identified a number of issues: in most cases, the summonses were delivered by the military after midnight; relevant parts of the summonses were frequently handwritten in Hebrew without Arabic translation; relevant information, such as the nature of the accusation, was missing; and no reference to the child’s legal rights was included in any of the summonses. Military Court Watch further reports that, in the 80 cases it documented in 2017, 65% of children still reported being arrested at night, in what are frequently described as terrifying raids undertaken by the military.
There is some good news, but overall, since the summons scheme has been in operation, it has been apparent that, first, it is infrequently utilised and, secondly, arrests in terrifying night raids continue to be the norm. Furthermore, the indications—yet to be confirmed—are that the pilot scheme may now have been discontinued altogether. Will the Minister therefore please request from his Israeli counterparts confirmation as to whether the pilot scheme is still operational? Will he also request data on the use of summonses since the pilot scheme was announced in 2014, and will he urge that children should not be arrested at night except in extreme and unusual circumstances?
Next I would like to speak about the right to silence. As we all know, the right to silence is an ancient and fundamental legal right, granting protection against self-incrimination. Significantly, that right is also enshrined in Israeli military law. When implemented properly, it provides vulnerable children with some protection against undue pressure during interrogations, which may lead to false confessions. Military Court Watch notes that 84% of children continue to report not being informed of their right to silence. It further notes that in the 16% of cases in which
“children were informed of this right, the manner and circumstances in which the information was conveyed raises serious questions as to whether the notification is sufficient.”
Another fundamental legal right is timely access to legal representation. International legal standards provide that interrogations should take place in the presence of a lawyer to protect against self-incrimination and to provide safeguards against potential ill-treatment or coercion. Israel’s highest court has confirmed the fundamental nature of the right to consult with a lawyer during the interrogation stage of an investigation.
In the 2015 update to its report, UNICEF noted that Israel’s military prosecutor highlighted that Israeli military order 1651, issued in 2009, provides a detainee with the right to meet and consult with a lawyer. Although military law is silent on when such a consultation should take place, it is accepted that it must occur before questioning, subject to limited security exceptions. As in many situations, however, there is a large gap between the law and what happens in practice.
Does my hon. Friend condemn the dangerous and short-sighted rhetoric of the President of the United States at the recent Davos conference, when he threatened to cut off Palestinian aid? Does she agree that, should that happen, the UK must ramp up its financial aid to Palestine so that Palestinians, especially children, do not pay for Trump’s fanatical world view?
I agree with my hon. Friend. As with the debate today, I think we forget that we put such statements on the public record, and they can have a direct and immediate effect. We hope that today’s speeches have a positive one, but in the case of Donald Trump, I can only say that he has had a very negative impact on the relations between the two countries.
On legal representation, this geographical area has two separate sets of rules applied to it. Under the civilian code that applies for Israeli children, there is a requirement for a parent to be in attendance during interrogation, and an undertaking that interrogations not occur at night, but the same is not reflected in the military rules. Is it not a great shame that those rules could not be matched up?
I agree with my hon. Friend. There are many, many examples in which there is no parity. That is one of the things that I urge the Israeli Government to look at, because it is blatant discrimination and is not necessary.
Military Court Watch reports that, in the 80 testimonies it collected in 2017, 81% of the children reported not having access to a lawyer before interrogation. As a result, most children still consult a lawyer for the first time in a military court, after the critical interrogation phase is over. Given that context, the UK legal charity Lawyers for Palestinian Human Rights has implemented a Know Your Rights campaign in partnership with Defence for Children International-Palestine to empower and educate Palestinian children in the occupied west bank to secure their basic rights if detained in Israel’s military detention system.
The campaign started in 2014 and is ongoing, due to the Israeli authorities’ continuing non-implementation of basic human rights and due process safeguards. I therefore ask the Minister to engage with the Israeli authorities to ensure, as a bare minimum, that: first, all children are, at the time of arrest, informed in their own language of their right to silence, and relevant documents are provided to them in that language; secondly, all children are able to consult a lawyer of their choice before their interrogation and, preferably, also during interrogation; and, thirdly, in order to ensure compliance, a breach of those principles results in the discontinuance of the prosecution and the child’s immediate release. I further ask the Minister to urge the Israeli authorities, as my hon. Friend the Member for East Lothian (Martin Whitfield) suggested, to allow a parent or guardian to accompany the child during questioning—a right afforded to Israeli children when questioned by the Israeli police.
Audio-visual recording of interrogations is a practical safeguard. The UNICEF and UK reports recommended audio-visual recordings of all interrogations of children. Such recordings provide an essential further safeguard against potential ill-treatment or coercion; they also provide protection to interrogators against false allegations of wrongdoing. One would assume that that would be a win, win outcome. Perhaps in response to the recommendations, the military authorities issued military order 1745 in September 2014, requiring the audio-visual recording of all interrogations of minors in the west bank. However, the order limited that protection to non-security offences, thereby rendering it largely redundant, as most offences involving Palestinian children, including stone throwing and protesting, are classified as security offences. I ask the Minister to urge the Israeli authorities to remove the security offence exception from the military order providing for audio-visual recording of detainees and to ensure that all interrogations of children are audio-visually recorded and the tapes made available to the child’s lawyer before the first hearing.
I will now say something about the prevalence of confessional evidence in the military court system, and the process by which those confessions are obtained. It is extraordinary and disconcerting that Israel’s military court system has a conviction rate of 95%, according to its own figures. Confessional evidence is central to securing convictions in that system, whether direct confessions or confessions by others. Effective scrutiny of those confessions is virtually impossible, due to the lack of basic legal safeguards to which I have already referred. There is compelling evidence that the lack of legal protections for Palestinian children is destructive of their safety and welfare. An expert psychiatric opinion from Dr Carmon, commissioned by Physicians for Human Rights Israel, considered the emotional and developmental factors that lead children to make false confessions during interrogations. The implications of such confessions should be understood by all of us. Dr Carmon says:
“The violent arrest process and psychological interrogation methods mentioned…lead to the breaking of the ability of the child or adolescent to withstand the interrogation and flagrantly violate his or her rights. These interrogation methods, when applied to children and adolescents, are equivalent to torture.”
Will the hon. Lady give way?
Let me finish the quotation first—it might answer the right hon. Gentleman’s question.
“These methods deeply undermine the dignity and personality of the child or adolescent, and inflict pain and severe mental suffering. Uncertainty and helplessness are situations that can too easily lead a child or adolescent to provide the requested confession out of impulsiveness, fear or submission. It is a decision that is far from free and rational choice...These detention and interrogation methods ultimately create a system that breaks down, exhausts and permeates the personality of the child or adolescent and robs him or her of hope. These methods are particularly harmful to children and adolescents who live in poor, isolated populations, in a state of conflict, political tension, and/or severe social stress, such as the occupied Palestinian population. The harmful effects on children can also harm the society to which they belong.
Every child has the right to be a child, to his or her dignity, and to protection from all forms of violence.”
A retired Israeli soldier told me that the explicit instructions for night operations were to carry them out in such a brutal manner as to achieve exactly the effect that the hon. Lady refers to.
I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman of making that point. I too have spoken to retired Israeli soldiers and have, sadly, heard similar tales.
My hon. Friend is making a very powerful case. I have witnessed the military courts in process. At the end of November 2017, 313 Palestinian minors were being held, so given the scale of the problem, not addressing it is likely to have longer term consequences for getting a proper and peaceful solution to the Israel-Palestine issue. Does she agree that it would be helpful if the Minister gave an update on commitments the Israeli Government have made?
I agree, and I look to the Minister to respond.
My hon. Friend will remember that a year ago she and I both served on a delegation with Members from both sides of the House. She is quoting some horrific statistics and powerful testimony, but does she not agree that the terror experienced in military court by the kids who threw stones is often more powerful than the statistics in isolation? Sometimes people cannot get a grip on them. This debate should not be about the wider geo-political situation, but the wellbeing of children.
I completely agree. That is what I want to focus on: we are talking about children. Regardless of the crime that they have or have not committed, they should still be treated with dignity and within the constraints of the law.
The arrest process and interrogation methods referred to by Dr Carmon were described in great detail in the UK and the UNICEF reports. It is deeply disturbing that two years after the release of the UNICEF report that concluded that ill treatment appears to be “widespread, systematic and institutionalised”, the UN agency issued an update that found
“reports of alleged ill-treatment of children during arrest, transfer, interrogation and detention have not significantly decreased in 2013 and 2014.”
I thank my hon. Friend for securing this debate. In the light of what she says, would it not be appropriate for our Government to demand an independent inquiry from the Israeli Government into what is going on? That would help everyone.
The reality is that we are not in a position to demand. The purpose of this debate is to reach out a hand of friendship and to offer the skills and expertise that we have in this country on this topic, to work in partnership with Israel.
Although UNICEF is yet to release any further updates, reports issued by the US State Department, Military Court Watch and others indicate that the situation today remains substantially unchanged. It is worth recalling that the UK report noted that if the process of arrest and interrogation is occurring to a significant extent as described, Israel would be in breach of the absolute prohibition on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.
As a bare minimum of protection, I urge the Minister to make representations to ensure that no child is subjected to physical or psychological violence, no child is blindfolded or painfully restrained, and no child is subject to coercive forces and threats. Any statement made as a result of torture or ill treatment must be excluded from evidence in proceedings. I ask the Minister to make inquiries to UNICEF about when the agency will release its next update, and to commend it on the important work it has done.
Two years ago, in a debate on the same subject, I referred to Israel’s policy of transferring Palestinian detainees—adults and children—from the west bank to prisons located in Israel, in violation of article 76 of the fourth Geneva convention. International law classes this activity as a war crime. In UK domestic law, the Geneva Conventions Act 1957 and the International Criminal Court Act 2001 class this activity as a war crime. The latest data released by the Israeli prison service indicates that in 2017, 83% of adult detainees and 61% of child detainees were transferred and detained unlawfully. This practice affects approximately 7,000 individuals each year and it has continued for 50 years. Strikingly, however, Israeli military authorities informed UNICEF in late 2014 that they have no intention of changing this policy.
That rejection undermines the credibility of the international legal order, and therefore harms the security of us all. I have been to Ofer military court and spoken to parents. Because of the restrictions on movement and the requirement of permits to visit their children in Israel, some parents never get to see their children in prison. The unlawful transfer and detention of children in Israel is not just a legal issue but one of basic humanity. Has the Minister or anyone in his Department had any conversations that would shed light on Israel’s decision to explicitly reject the specific UNICEF recommendation? What further steps does he intend to take to encourage Israel to meet its international legal obligations on the transfer of prisoners out of occupied territory? Can the Minister ascertain how many UK citizens are currently involved, directly or indirectly, with the unlawful transfer and detention of Palestinian prisoners outside the occupied territory? What measures will he take in respect of those individuals in accordance with the law?
By now I am sure everyone is aware of the case of Ahed Tamimi, a now 17-year-old girl from the west bank village of Nabi Saleh. In December, she was arrested in the middle of the night after being filmed confronting and slapping Israeli soldiers in her village following the shooting of her 14-year-old cousin. Like all Palestinian female prisoners, Ahed has been transferred to a prison in Israel. The case is polarising: on the one hand, there are those calling for her immediate release; on the other, Israel’s minister for education calls for the military courts to impose a life sentence.
It is important that we all recall that Ahed is just one of more than 800 children arrested each year, according to the most recent data released by the military authorities. Most of these children are arrested in the middle of the night, frequently brutalised and systematically denied their legal rights. We need these children and their parents to have faith and confidence in a political solution and in due regard for the law. History has taught us that if politics and the law fail to meet the needs of the people, people turn to other solutions. The treatment of Palestinian children during arrest and detention is an issue that has been allowed to fester for too long and needs resolving. It concerns us all, because when Israel—our friend and a democratic state—breaks international law and obligations, it makes it that much harder to enforce them in respect of other countries around the world. Israel’s decisions have a global impact.
Two years have elapsed since the Minister’s predecessor explained to me and other MPs in this Chamber that the Government would fund the UK lawyers’ return to Israel to review progress on the implementation of their report recommendations. Allowing the UK lawyers to enter into constructive technical dialogue with their Israeli counterparts, where they can share the UK’s good practice, should expedite the implementation of the practical reforms that are urgently required to protect Palestinian children.
My hon. Friend is making a very powerful speech about a lot of very complex issues. Before she sits down, will she tell us what role she envisages for non-governmental organisations and human rights organisations in some of the discussions that she thinks the Government could have with the Israeli authorities? She has talked a lot about the research they have done, but does she see a role for our human rights organisations in practical matters such as prison visits?
My hon. Friend makes a fantastic point. I have worked, as I am sure have many people in the House, with both Israeli and Palestinian organisations and international ones. They are trying to stabilise the situation and to help people come up with a practical solution that meets the needs of children and the broader needs in both countries.
I have asked many specific questions of the Minister. I know that a lot of people want to speak, so I understand that he may not be able to answer all my concerns here and now, but I would be most grateful if he wrote to me with his thoughts about those things.
Order. I am going to impose a three-minute time limit. The Scottish National party spokesperson, the hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady), has kindly offered to give up three or four minutes of his time, so I will call him at about 3.34 pm.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. I refer Members to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
Let be start by giving some background. In 2011, in the face of riots, more than 3,000 arrests were made and more than 1,000 people were issued with criminal charges. Around half were under 21, and 26% were juveniles aged between 10 and 17. Some 21% were arrested for bottle or stone throwing. One hundred and fifty-eight male youths aged 16 or under were given custodial sentences. That is not a description of Israel; it is a description of the UK following the 2011 riots. Why has there been no Westminster Hall debate on the treatment of minors by the Palestinian authorities, the allegations of rape in Egyptian custody or the death sentences imposed on minors in Saudi Arabia?
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
No, I will not.
The singling out of Israel ignores the fact that Israel faces extensive acts of terror on its territory. It ignores the fact that Israel has established military juvenile courts, shortened the period of initial remand, stressed the rights of minors, raised the age of minority to 18, enacted a statute of limitations for the prosecution of minors, given parents legal standing and strengthened legal representation for minors. It also ignores the co-operation of Israel in the light of the 2012 Foreign and Commonwealth Office-funded report. The British embassy in Israel said:
“We welcome Israel’s focus on the particular needs of this more vulnerable category of detainees”.
As far as I am aware, the pilot programme in the west bank to issue summons, easing the need to arrest at night, to which the hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) referred, continues. If Israel were to use civil courts instead of a military one, it would be accused of simply annexing the west bank.
Nevertheless, we must recognise that 30% of attackers against Israel—fuelled by intimidation that denies Israel the right to exist and glorifies terrorists and Nazi sympathisers—have been Palestinian minors under the age of 18. The majority were between 16 and 18. The youngest was an 11-year-old, who said after being arrested for stabbing an Israeli that he wanted to die a martyr.
Just over 300 minors are in custody after 400 violent, ideological terror attacks. That is not to be deprecated. The effect on wider civil disorder can be seen from the attack in Jerusalem on a 70-year-old Palestinian man who was mistaken for an Israeli. The use of minors in this way, driven by hate and incitement, is nothing more than the abuse of children.
Before I call the next speaker, may I ask the hon. Gentleman to give a full and clear indication of his interest?
I referred to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, which contains the fact that I went on a trip to the area.
Thank you very much.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) on securing this important debate and on the comprehensive way in which she introduced it. I also commend the Minister and the Government for the leadership that they showed on this issue during Israel’s third universal periodic review at the UN Human Rights Council.
A range of bodies have made a number of core recommendations in the past six years that are relevant to the issue of military detention. The Foreign Office-commissioned “Children in Military Custody” report published in 2012 found that Israel was in breach of at least eight articles of international human rights law and international humanitarian law. In 2013, as my hon. Friend said, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child expressed concern in a report that recommendations it made in 2002 and 2010 had been fully disregarded, and UNICEF published a report with 14 core recommendations, again reflecting concerns that had been raised time and again.
The Minister will know that the vast majority of those recommendations, the recommendations made in a debate in this place seven years ago and the recommendations made in the debate that my hon. Friend led just over two years ago remain unfulfilled. He will also know that in February 2016, a follow-up mission by UK lawyers to investigate the situation was cancelled because the Israeli authorities withdrew co-operation.
I know that the Minister cannot magically fix the world’s problems, even though I am sure he would like to try, but I ask him to do two specific things as a result of this debate. First, will he push for a thorough review of the implementation of the recommendations of the 2012 report commissioned by his Department, which should include seeking from Israel an assurance that it will facilitate a return mission so that those independent lawyers can assess whether, and if so how, things have changed since their first report and what will happen in the future? Secondly, will he follow through on the Government’s approach to Israel’s third universal periodic review last month? I would appreciate it if, as part of that, the Minister outlined how he intends to follow up on the recommendations I mentioned. The Government were absolutely right to call for Israel to put right these problems. The question is what is done about them.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. I thank the hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) for securing the debate. I draw Members’ attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, which includes a trip that I took to the region in 2016.
I believe in human rights for all people around the world, and Palestinian children are no exception. Israeli authorities, be they military or civilian, have a duty to uphold those human rights and to ensure that their justice system is fair and proportionate. The UK Government were therefore right to raise concerns with the Israeli authorities, and we should continue to engage with Israel to improve its practices. As ever, the ultimate solution to these problems is a comprehensive peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, and I welcome the fact that this Government continue to advocate for both sides to return to the negotiating table and resume peace talks.
However, we should be careful not to fall into the trap of accepting the simplistic narrative of anti-Israel propagandists. This complex issue cannot be solved with a round of Israel bashing. The Palestinian Authority rules over a society where it is easy for a child to be led into accepting terrorist ideology. The Palestinian Authority—not Hamas, but the so-called moderates in the Palestinian Authority—name schools after terrorists, give them honours and pay them monthly salaries. At the same time, they delegitimise the existence of the state of Israel and the Jewish presence in the region, and deny the Jewish connection to much of the region’s history.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
No, I only have three minutes.
Is it any surprise, then, that some young Palestinians are becoming so radicalised that they are willing to engage in or incite terror? Since 2015, dozens of terrorist stabbings have been perpetrated by Palestinians under the age of 17. If we criticise Israel, we must also criticise the Palestinian Authority, whose security forces’ record with children leaves a lot to be desired. In that region alone, we must also criticise Saudi Arabia for executing children, Iran for executing people who were arrested when they were children, and Egypt for—according to Human Rights Watch—allegedly torturing children.
Yes, let us call for Israel to improve its practices and uphold the human rights of Palestinian children, but let us also acknowledge the complexities that Israel faces. Let us stand up for the rights of children worldwide. Let us also call for the Palestinian Authority to stop honouring terrorists and build a society where children are less easily radicalised. When we act with respect and consistency, we may find we get better results.
It is a pleasure to speak in such an important debate, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) on securing it.
It is important that this debate is grounded in, and based on, human rights for children. The glaring gaps in basic human rights protection for Palestinian children held in Israel’s military detention system damages respect for the international rule of law and creates an environment that enables routine ill treatment and lack of justice. As we have already heard, the majority of children are taken from their homes in the occupied west bank during the middle of the night. Heavily armed soldiers take the children away and several hours later they turn up in detention or interrogation centres alone, sleep-deprived, bruised and scared.
Interrogations tend to be coercive and include verbal abuse, threats and physical violence that ultimately result in a confession. Even if we argue that 16 to 17-year-olds are not children, which is incorrect, we must accept that any form of human rights abuse is abhorrent and should not be condoned in any way. Most Palestinian minors arrested by Israel claim to have experienced physical violence during detention. Recently the Defence for Children International Palestine detailed the scale of incidents and the type of abuse experienced by the Palestinian children whom they managed to speak to during around 60 visits to Israeli prisons in 2017.
Some 75% of children were subject to physical abuse, 25% were denied adequate food and 100% were denied the right to have their families at their interrogation. That is not something new. According to the latest data provided by the Israeli prison service, at the end of November, 313 children—I am talking about children—were held in military detention. Data for December 2017 have not been provided, but I suspect there will be a bit of a spike following Mr Trump’s decision to move the embassy to Jerusalem.
As a grandma and a mum, it shocks and disturbs me that people, never mind children, are treated in such an appalling way. Colleagues need to ask themselves whether they think it is acceptable to label a child as a terrorist, and I urge the Minister to use all his powers—
I am grateful to be called to speak in this debate on a very important issue about which hundreds of my constituents in Edinburgh South West write to me on a regular basis.
In October 2016, I visited the west bank on a cross-party parliamentary delegation with the Council for Arab-British Understanding and Human Appeal. I refer to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests in that regard. I visited the military court at Ofer. As a lawyer of 25 years’ standing, I was not impressed with what I saw there, because of the lack of due process and the lack of respect for basic human rights norms.
To give one example, we observed the trial of a young Palestinian man for allegedly throwing stones at a settler car. The man’s interrogator, who the defendant claimed had assaulted him during interrogation, was in court as a witness, with his gun casually slung in the back pocket of his jeans. It was claimed that the interrogation was conducted in Arabic and that alongside the statement an audio recording was taken. However, the audio recording was nowhere to be found, and the level of the interrogator’s Arabic was revealed to be insufficient to be able to obtain and record a fair and accurate statement. The only transcript of the interview was in Hebrew. In a fair trial in a democracy that respects the rule of law, that case would have been thrown out. It was not, and that is the gravamen of the issue here.
The issue is not about military law, because sadly the west bank is under a hostile occupation, and occupations require military law—although they are meant to be temporary, and this one has lasted 50 years. However, having military courts is no excuse for disregarding the proper rules of justice and legal safeguards, particularly for children, but also for adults. There should be proper accounting for the physical and mental maturity of the detainees and an awareness of the long-term consequences of actions on children. That is not the case for Palestinian children in Israel’s judicial system under military law in the west bank, and something needs to be done about it. I have been an MP for less than three years, and I remember when the hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion), whom I congratulate, secured a debate on this issue two years ago and we seem to be absolutely no further forward.
I know the Minister is an honourable man and that he takes his duties very seriously, particularly in this area. I am not speaking as a result of what I witnessed, but on behalf of hundreds of constituents who write to me about this matter regularly and feel passionately about it because they believe in human rights, due process and the rule of law. I look forward to hearing what the Minister is going to do about it.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. I congratulate the hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion), whom I know well and like a lot. The way in which she presented the debate this afternoon was in many ways consensual. She acknowledged there had been changes in Israel. However, I would take her to task on some of the things she did not say. The frustrating thing about debates on this subject is that they become divisive—you either believe in human rights or you don’t. On this particular issue, we have to understand not only what is happening on the ground, but the context in which Israel operates the military courts.
As the hon. Lady said, there have been some changes, such as establishing the juvenile military courts and piloting a programme of issuing summonses to minors instead of arresting them in their homes. Those are things we should encourage. I know the Minister will seek to encourage such things, but we should also understand that those are not simple things to implement in a hothouse part of the world.
Many people raise the issues that have been roundly denied and debunked, such as the issue of statements being made only in Hebrew, as mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell). There have been plenty of examples of the improper conduct of investigations resulting in cases being thrown out, and any claim that a confession has been gained incorrectly results in an independent review, which is exactly as the process should be.
I do not have long to speak, so I will talk about context. There are a couple of things that the hon. Lady did not talk about. My hon. Friends the Members for Henley and for Aberdeen South (Ross Thomson) mentioned earlier how children and juveniles are being used in the conflict. If it were in any other part of the world, we would call some of those people child soldiers and we would be concerned about how they were being wound up and forced towards violent behaviour.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
No. I do not have time.
We must tackle the issue of Palestinian incitement as part of the debate, and the same goes for the lack of engagement from the west bank authorities for non-custodial sentences. We should also talk in these debates about what we can do as parliamentarians. I am proud to take a pro-Israel position. I am not anti-Palestinian—I consider myself to be pro-both—but those of us who take a more nuanced view on Israel should also talk about what we can do as parliamentarians, using our aid budget and all the rest of it, to bring people together, because that is the best way to bring an end to the conflict. I used to be a teacher and I know young people are quite positive and open-minded. Yes, there are concerns, which I hope the Minister will address, but things have happened, and we also have to remember the difficult context in which Israel is operating.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer.
The detention and trial of a child is a tragedy whenever it occurs. However, I am concerned that this debate is symptomatic of the disproportionate and unfair focus on Israel that is all too prevalent in the media, international institutions and this House. As my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) said—I congratulate her on obtaining the debate—this is the second debate in two years. However, we have not debated the fate, for instance, of child prisoners in Iran, where Amnesty International estimates there are at least 80 individuals on death row for crimes allegedly committed when they were under 18, or indeed the fate of others in Egypt, the Maldives, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Sri Lanka, Sudan and Yemen, which have all sentenced juvenile offenders to death since 2010. Israel is, of course, a liberal democracy, and should be held to a higher standard than the likes of Iran, Saudi Arabia and Sudan. We have also never discussed the fate of the 60,000 children locked up in juvenile detention facilities in the United States—many for truanting, under-age drinking or consensual sexual conduct—or the fact that, adjusted for size of population, 5.5 times more minors were arrested in 2015-16 in England and Wales than in the west bank by Israel.
None of that is to suggest that the plight of Palestinian children in the tragic conflict there is not important, but we must make clear our deep and continuing concern at the Palestinian Authority’s policy of inciting violence —a policy intentionally aimed at children and young people.
Will my hon. Friend give way?
I will not.
We see that policy in the naming of schools and sports tournaments after terrorists; in the newly revised curriculum, which asks students, as a maths exercise, to calculate the number of martyrs in Palestinian uprisings; and in the countless examples of anti-Semitism that litter children’s TV programmes on official Palestinian Authority TV.
Will my hon. Friend give way?
I will not, at this point.
We must register our deep and continuing concern at the Palestinian leadership’s attempt to recruit children into committing acts of violence. In December Fatah posted a photograph to its Twitter account of a young boy hurling rocks with a slingshot, together with a guide to how best to throw a rock. Let us remember that Yehuda Haim Shoham, one year-old Jonathan Palmer and three-year-old Adele Biton were all killed as a result of stones being thrown at cars they were travelling in.
Finally, it is important that we show our deep and continuing concern at the recruitment of children into Palestinian armed groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad. As Child Soldiers International has stated:
“Children received military training and are used as messengers and couriers, and in some cases as fighters and suicide bombers.”
If we do not acknowledge and address those very serious issues, we run the risk of this debate being seen less as a matter of the welfare of Palestinian children and more as simply another opportunity to attack Israel.
It is important to provide some context to the issue. Many things have been raised this afternoon, but I shall concentrate on just one. The hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) raised the case of 17-year-old Ahed Tamimi. We all know what has happened to her now that she has been imprisoned, but I wonder whether hon. Members know what she said on Facebook straight after slapping an Israeli soldier. Out of earshot of the soldier, Ahed turned to the camera and said in Arabic:
“I wish that everybody all over the world would unite, so we can liberate Palestine...Be it stabbings, martyrdom-seeking operations, throwing stones, everyone must do his part and we must unite in order for our message to be heard that we want to liberate Palestine”.
I know what “martyrdom-seeking operations” means, and I am sure many other hon. Members do; that is why she was charged with inciting violence on social media.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I will not, at the moment.
I hope that the Minister shares my concern at the fact that a key part of that sad incident has gone largely unreported, and that such sentiments are a product of the hate-filled rhetoric of the Palestinian Authority, rather than being those of a 16-year-old child.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
No, thank you.
Ahed was 16 when she was arrested—[Interruption.] It is quite sad that some hon. Members find this amusing. I certainly do not. She was 16 when she was arrested in December. As far as I am aware, it is official Labour party policy to extend the vote to everyone over 16. Do Opposition Members believe that 16-year-olds should be held accountable for their actions or not? Whether it is stone-throwing, incitement to hatred or martyrdom operations—those are terrorist acts.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way, as I gave way to him?
I will not give way.
Those are terrorist acts. There is a judiciary in Israel, and it is better for politicians in this country, and indeed in Israel, not to involve themselves in the judicial process. As has already been stated, there have been occasions when cases were thrown out because the evidence was not there. We must leave Israel to decide its own future, live in peace and security, and have its own laws of the land. We do not need hon. Members who are taking part in this debate to tell Israel how to live its life.
It is timely that you have called me to speak now, Mr Stringer, because I too want to speak about the case of Ahed Tamimi. I met her in her home at Nabi Saleh in November, a few weeks before she was arrested. She is an ordinary teenager who has not been groomed as has been suggested by some speakers. [Interruption.]
Perhaps hon. Members will hear me out. She is an ordinary teenager living in extraordinary circumstances, to which we need to pay some attention.
Nabi Saleh, an ancient village nestling among the citrus groves on the hillside north of Ramallah, dates back hundreds of years. It was recently joined by the illegal Israeli settlement of Halamish, which has taken much of its land. Someone standing in Nabi Saleh can look across the valley to Halamish on the neighbouring hilltop and begin to understand the sense of grievance. Halamish is well irrigated, with swimming pools and a proper water supply, which come at a cost to the people of Nabi Saleh, whose water has been rationed to a few hours a week. At the bottom of the valley is a spring, which has traditionally served Nabi Saleh, but which was requisitioned by the settlement. That has led to weekly protests by the villagers over the past four years.
Last December, during a protest, Ahed’s cousin Mohammed climbed a ladder to look over a wall. A soldier immediately took aim and a bullet passed through Mohammed’s head. When the same soldier turned up in the courtyard of her home on a night raid at 3.30 am on 19 December, Ahed and a cousin went out and shouted at them. The BBC broadcast a film of the incident last week on the main news. The soldier pushed her aside, and in retaliation Ahed slapped him. It was for that that she was arrested and charged with assault. She has been in jail ever since—for the past seven weeks. She was 16 at the time of her arrest. She marked her birthday in jail and is now 17. Yesterday the case was due in court. It was postponed again and will be heard next Tuesday, so now is the time to act.
I know that the Minister knows the Tamimi family and has, like me, visited Nabi Saleh, and shares many of my concerns. In answer to questions, he has said that the Government have made representations. I should like him to outline what action the Government will take in the next week and to demand Ahed’s release. [Interruption.]
Order. I ask those in the Public Gallery not to intervene either vocally or by applause.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer.
The failure of Israelis and Palestinians to negotiate a two-state solution to their conflict has resulted in a disturbing situation, including what we are discussing today; but the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will be resolved only by direct negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians —not by the Palestinian Authority’s incitement of young people to hate and kill, as is happening on the west bank today. Such incitement is specifically in breach of the Geneva conventions.
We must remember that 75% of the offences committed by Palestinian minors are violent crimes, including murder, attempted murder, shooting, making and throwing Molotov cocktails, and attacking soldiers. Thirty per cent. of assailants in the terror attacks of 2016 were under 18 years old. The youngest was 11. For example, in June 2016, 13-year-old Hallel Ariel was stabbed to death by Nasser Tarayrah, a 17-year-old Palestinian, who climbed into her home and stabbed her repeatedly in a frenzied attack in front of her younger siblings.
Such violence has been encouraged by the Palestinian leadership, in direct contravention of the Geneva convention, which specifically prohibits the recruitment and involvement of children in terrorist activities. Fatah recently tweeted a practical guide to show young people how to throw rocks, which were euphemistically called “stones”. That has resulted in the murder of young people, including Yehuda Haim Shoham, aged five months. The Palestinian Authority incites hatred towards Jews and Israelis. In its October issue, the Palestinian youth magazine, Zayzafuna, claimed that Mohammed sanctified the throwing of rocks at Jews. Terrorists are glorified. A recent report by the Institute for Monitoring Peace and Cultural Tolerance in School Education—IMPACT-se—shows schoolbooks that glorify violence and martyrdom. The Palestinian Authority’s rewritten 2017 curriculum teaches children about its support for people who carry out terrorist attacks. In May 2015, a PA TV programme, “The Best Home”, showed a girl who recited a poem that called Jews
“barbaric monkeys who murdered Allah’s pious prophets.”
If young people are continually told that murderous terrorists are heroes, it is not surprising that they try to emulate them. Nobody can be content with the current situation, and all individual allegations of any injustice must be investigated. However, the answer is to negotiate peace, not to glorify hatred and violence by telling young people and children that murdering Israelis is justified resistance.
It is a pleasure to speak in this important debate, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) on securing it.
At the end of November 2017, 313 Palestinian children were held in Israeli prisons, and three out of four of them will have experienced violence during their arrest. The majority of children will be arrested in the middle of the night, when heavily armed police break into their homes and drive them to a military detention centre where they will be interrogated. Many report being beaten and abused after their arrest and while in detention. Children are often interrogated without their parents or a lawyer present. Under military law children can be held in detention for 90 days without seeing a lawyer, and as of this year two children are held under administrative detention, which is indefinite imprisonment without trial. Currently, more than 180 children are held in detention without having been convicted. Under the occupation, children can be held for one and a half years before their case goes to trial.
There are two legal systems in the occupied territories. If an Israeli settler is arrested, they will be tried under Israeli civilian criminal law; if a Palestinian is arrested, they are tried in a separate military court. Access to justice is segregated. A child’s nationality and ethnicity determine the type of justice that they receive under Israel’s occupation. After sentencing, nearly 60% of Palestinian child detainees are transferred from the occupied territories to the prisons of Israel, in violation of the fourth Geneva convention. That means that most will be unable to receive family visits, due to the freedom of movement restrictions placed on Palestinians and the long time that it takes to issue a visiting permit.
Will the hon. Lady give way?
I will not.
If, step by step, we go through the journey of a child living under military occupation and what they will endure—the physical violence, the fear, the complete interruption of their life, and the huge swathes of time spent in detention—one thing become clear: this system is designed to repress, crush and intimidate generation after generation of Palestinians.
The military detention of children is a legal issue, and Israel is in breach of international law—namely the UN convention on the rights of the child and the Geneva convention. There is, of course, a deeper problem, because such detention is part of the cycle of humiliation and violence that characterises the continued illegal occupation of Palestine. That is a disgrace and should be condemned.
Finally, I wish to show my solidarity with Ahed Tamimi. Yesterday we celebrated the brave women in the UK who fought for their rights, often suffering the brutalities of the police and state as a consequence. Ahed Tamimi carries that flame forward for all young children such as her across the world—solidarity.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer, and I congratulate all Members who have contributed to the debate, and especially the hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) on her powerful and detailed speech. I will leave the Minister as much time as possible to respond to her concerns.
As my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry) pointed out, this issue is of huge concern to many of our constituents. We are dealing with basic questions about the rights of the child and the importance of the global conventions that govern them, as well as with specific questions about the role and actions of the Israeli Government.
The SNP condemns the arrest, detention and prosecution of Palestinian children by the Israeli Government, and we are deeply concerned about the increase in the number of children who have been detained as a result of the escalation of tensions in the territory. Estimates for the number of cases vary, but they are clearly into the hundreds, and the reports of people’s experiences—night arrests, strip searches, blindfolds—are extremely concerning, as are reports of children being denied access to due legal process and lawyers. As the hon. Member for Rotherham said when opening this debate, such treatment is unacceptable on a basic human level, even before considering conventions and international human rights obligations.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I am not giving way.
Israel has ratified the UN convention on the rights of the child and the optional protocol on children and armed conflict, but it has been slow to incorporate the principles and provisions of the convention into its domestic legal system. In 2013, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child was clear that Israeli actions constituted
“violations of the rights of Palestinian children and their families, feed the cycle of humiliation and violence and jeopardise a peaceful and stable future for all children of the region.”
Constituents have raised with me the specific case of Ahed Tamimi, and the hon. Members for Rotherham, for Hendon (Dr Offord) and for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) all spoke about that case in different ways. In some ways that shows why this case has become symbolic—perhaps even metaphoric—for the broader conflict. It involves well-resourced, heavily armed and armoured soldiers on one hand, and, on the other hand a young, unarmed girl who is causing a bit of a nuisance and slapping those soldiers about. That has ended in her arrest, and the polarised views that that has caused. I agree that violence never solves anything, but a relatively minor incident has spiralled into something much bigger and triggered many further consequences and polarised perspectives.
Amnesty International, and others, are clear that the treatment of Ahed does not respect her human rights or fulfil Israel’s obligations under the UNCRC. Indeed, Amnesty says that nothing she has done can justify her continued detention, and it has called for her immediate release. It is clear from my mailbag, and from Members who have spoken in this debate, that the public want action from the UK Government, and for them to use their influence to call for action by the Israeli Government. I know the Minister does his best, and we are not expecting him to resolve a conflict that has been going on for decades, but it is important that the Government condemn in the strongest possible terms the mistreatment of children all around the world. They should also guarantee that UK funds will not support the military detention, interrogation, abuse or ill-treatment of Palestinian children. What dialogue are the Government having with the Government of Israel about how they intend to incorporate their obligations under the conventions into domestic law? More specifically, how will the Israeli Government take forward the recommendations in the various reports that have been referred to?
The SNP accepts that the Palestinian conflict is complex, and there are real sensitivities on all sides. However, the rights of the child are enshrined in international law and convention, and as the hon. Member for Blackburn (Kate Hollern) said—these days I do not see her on the train heading south as often as I used to—children are the victims of conflict, not parties to it. The rights and dignity of children in conflict must be upheld and protected.
Some Members asked about children involved in conflicts elsewhere in the world. Of course we should look at that, and if Members want to secure a debate on the human rights situation in other countries, I know that other Members—I have taken part in enough such debates—will speak out and condemn the situation in those countries.
The Government of Israel have a duty to live up to the protocols and conventions they have signed, and if progress is to be made in reaching a peaceful solution, surely a starting point must include taking children out of the equation. It is clear that there is a global public outcry against the detention of Palestinian children by the Israeli Government. The Israeli Government must act, and the UK Government must use their influence to help bring that about.
We have had a passionate and wide-ranging debate on an issue that affects children. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) on securing it. She started her speech with an important statement when she said that she was not making a judgment on the alleged crimes that a Palestinian child may have committed, or on Israel’s right to act to uphold the law. This debate has been about the way that children have been treated by a democracy that is widely respected around the world as open, democratic, and subject to the rule of law.
My hon. Friend said that half a decade after the UNICEF and UK lawyers’ report was published, there has been limited implementation of its recommendations by the authorities, which I am sure we all agree is regrettable. She mentioned that there is another fundamental legal right that Palestinian children arrested by the Israeli authorities do not have: timely access to legal representation, which we would all agree is an important aspect of the rule of law in any nation. She also said it is both extraordinary and disconcerting that Israel’s military court system has a conviction rate of 95%, according to its own figures. We must then question whether justice really is being done.
My hon. Friend urged the Minister—I add my voice and that of Labour—that, as a bare minimum of protection, no child, whether in Israel, Palestine or anywhere else in the world, should be subjected to physical or psychological violence, blindfolded or painfully restrained, or subjected to coercive force or threats. That should be universal. I hope that Israel, above all countries in the world, would adhere to that.
We have heard powerful contributions from many right hon. and hon. Members, including the hon. Member for Henley (John Howell). My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden) has a strong record in upholding the cause of a Palestinian state living side by side with the state of Israel. He asked the Minister to press for a review of the recommendations of the 2012 report, and I hope the right hon. Gentleman can offer us something on that.
The hon. Member for Aberdeen South (Ross Thomson) said that we must criticise the Palestinian Authority if we criticise Israel on its treatment of children. Yes, of course we must, because this is universal. This is not just about Israel; it is about every country in the world that supposes itself to uphold the rule of law upholding the rights of the child, too. My hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Kate Hollern) made a good speech, as did the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry). The hon. Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy) pointed to the context in which Israel operates its military courts and mentioned child soldiers. I suggest to him that the way in which children are treated by Israel in the Palestinian territories is rather different from the recruitment of child soldiers in parts of Africa we have seen in recent decades.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Enfield North (Joan Ryan) rightly talked about the detention and trial of a child being a tragedy wherever it takes place, and she compared the situation in the occupied territories with that in Iran and Saudi Arabia. We have had debates in this Chamber on human rights and especially the rights of the child in Iran. The hon. Member for Hendon (Dr Offord) knows a great deal about the subject, and my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) set out the tragic case of Ahed Tamimi, who he met in Nabi Saleh, her own village. He made clear the context in which her arrest took place, which to me and others seemed a gross overreaction to her behaviour.
My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs Ellman) always makes a rational contribution to any debate on Israel and Palestine. She pointed out that 30% of terror attacks on Israelis are carried out by Palestinians under 18, and that the Palestinian authorities incite hatred against Israelis and Jews. Finally, my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Marsha De Cordova) made a powerful contribution.
I will be as brief as possible because we want to hear from the Minister, but from the official Opposition’s point of view, as in any debate on issues relating to Israel and Palestine, it is important to think about the context in which these children find themselves. I ask the Minister and hon. Members to consider this question: how much has changed since my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham introduced her first debate on this issue in December 2016 in Westminster Hall? Have things got better, or have they got worse?
We have heard about the 50 years of occupation of the Palestinian territories and the increasing expansion of settlements that are illegal under international law. We heard that there is no plausible ongoing peace process, and of course we know about Donald Trump’s attempts to help the situation as he sees it by recognising Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, which has sparked the resurgence of tensions all over the region—not just in the occupied territories and Palestinian areas but in Jordan and other countries. There have also been cuts by the United States to United Nations Relief and Works Agency funding, which has jeopardised the schooling and healthcare of Palestinian refugees all across the middle east, including around 500,000 children who are being educated in UNRWA schools.
The prospect of a two-state solution, which I am sure every Member in the Chamber supports, seems to be increasingly far off. As hon. Members will know, the Labour party has a strong policy of recognising the state of Palestine as an attempt to help the process of a two-state solution. Back in November, when I visited the region with the shadow Foreign Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry), we met Israeli and Palestinian politicians, who are struggling to engage with young people in the area. A generation is being badly let down by their own leaders.
Members have reflected on the numerous problems in the system that allow child prisoners to be kept. My hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) was with us when we met children in the occupied territories last November. He referred to arrests, which are often made late at night, and often in Hebrew, which is traumatic for the families concerned. There is a disparity in the treatment of Israeli and Palestinian children in the way in which evidence is collected, and many other disparities between the treatment of settler children, who are Israelis under Israeli law, and Palestinian children, who are treated under military law.
Finally—I want to give the Minister enough time to respond to the many questions—there is a long-term problem in the increases in hostility between the Israel defence forces and Palestinian children under 18 years old. When I was in Qalandiya in November with the shadow Foreign Secretary, we heard first hand from a 14-year-old girl who had been arrested for posting critical comments on Facebook, having witnessed her brother’s arrest in the middle of the night. Those children are the future leaders of a Palestinian state. What future awaits people on both sides if they grow up to fear and despise their Israeli peers for the treatment they received? Following the 2012 report, will the Government commit to make funding available for another report? What progress has been made since 2016 to press the Israelis to allow those lawyers to make a return visit?
Before I call the Minister, the proposer of the motion has waived her right to reply, so the Minister has until 4 o’clock.
Thank you, Mr Stringer. As a fellow Manchester man, it is as always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I thank the hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) for initiating the debate and all colleagues who spoke. I will not be able to refer to each speech in the manner of the hon. Member for Leeds North East (Fabian Hamilton), who did a remarkable job to cover as much ground as he did, but I will refer to what I can.
The hon. Lady made a comprehensive and forensic speech. I will take her up on the offer of responding to a number of questions by letter, which I am happy to make available to any colleague. I also thank her for referring right away to the United Kingdom’s position on the universal periodic review and to note what we have sought to do in this instance. Some very hard things have been said today. Colleagues speak for themselves and must justify their own words, but suffice it to say there is an element of truth in almost everything that has been said on both sides. That should be salutary to all of us. We are talking about incitement, killing, the death of children and the loss of land—in short, the catalogue of despair and misery that has haunted these lands for much too long. We set all that in that context.
Although I will devote most of what I say to the specific issue raised by the hon. Member for Rotherham of the rights of children, let me not ignore the issue raised by a number of my hon. Friends and by the right hon. Member for Enfield North (Joan Ryan) and the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs Ellman), relating to incitement, and set my comments in that context right at the beginning. The UK strongly condemns the use of racist, hateful language that can stir up prejudice. We frequently press all sides on the need to refrain from provocative actions, incitement and inflammatory rhetoric. Israel and the Palestinian Authority need to prepare their populations for peaceful co-existence, including by promoting a more positive portrayal of each other. Engaging in or encouraging incitement and hateful action or language makes it more difficult to achieve a culture of peace and a negotiated solution to the conflict. We frequently press all sides on the need to refrain from those things; there are too many on each side to bring up individual occasions.
There has been a suggestion in the past of a trilateral forum in which Palestinians, Israelis and a third party can discuss specific incidents. I hope we might be able to return to that idea.
Will the Minister give way?
I will not, if the hon. Gentleman does not mind; there is a time limit and an awful lot to get through.
As I said in the House on 9 January, Israel’s treatment of Palestinian minors, particularly the practice of holding them in military detention, remains a human rights priority for this Government, as set out in the universal periodic review. Clearly, the whole situation is inextricably mixed up with Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories, which is also why there are no civilian detention facilities. The situation will not be resolved until a settlement is negotiated that serves the interest of both sides. I will return to that later.
Children are entitled to special protections and due process under international humanitarian law. Those protections are reaffirmed in the UN convention on the rights of the child, to which Israel is a state party. Many of the issues raised today come fully within that convention. To take a phrase from its text:
“States Parties recognize the right of every child alleged as, accused of, or recognized as having infringed the penal law to be treated in a manner consistent with the promotion of the child’s sense of dignity and worth”.
That covers quite a lot. I do not stint in making very clear that Israel needs to live up to what is in conventions that it signs. We are talking here about everybody who is responsible, and everybody who bears the need to respond to obligations, and that is one right there.
We recognise, as a number of Members said, that Israel has made some progress toward fulfilling those obligations. It has reduced the number of detainees aged between 12 and 14, increased the age of maturity from 16 to 18, established separate juvenile courts and enacted a special statute of limitations for minors. However, our assessment is that Israel is still falling short and needs to do more to safeguard vulnerable people in its care.
In 2012, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office sponsored an independent report, “Children in Military Custody”, by leading British lawyers, as has been mentioned. It made 40 specific recommendations for protecting child detainees, including that Israel should make audio-visual recording mandatory in interrogations, that it should stop using painful restraints and that it should inform detainees fully and consistently of their legal rights. To our knowledge, Israel has only implemented one of those recommendations. We have repeatedly and publicly called on Israel to fulfil its international legal obligations, and I do so again today.
In answer to the question of what we can try to do about this, I raised our concerns during my visit to Israel last summer, and our ambassador in Tel Aviv raised the issue with the Israeli Justice Minister as recently as December. We have a regular dialogue with Israeli authorities on legal issues relating to the occupation, as part of which we discuss the treatment of Palestinian children in military custody. Our “Human Rights and Democracy Report 2016” explicitly referred to Israel’s treatment of children in detention and this year’s report does likewise, as colleagues will see when it is published shortly. We also raised the issue at the United Nations universal periodic review last month, as I said, and while welcoming the positive steps that Israel has taken since the last review in 2012, we urged the Israelis to take further action to meet their obligations. We also continue to urge them to implement in full the recommendations I mentioned earlier.
Significantly, the hon. Member for Rotherham spoke about an understanding, particularly given her background, of wanting to help in this situation. It serves no one’s purpose to use the detention of minors as a weapon in this long-running dispute, and it serves nobody’s interest to defend a situation if minors are treated wrongly. It serves us all to work toward a situation where those who are engaged in detaining people for infringement of law do so only in a manner that absolutely conducive to fulfilling their obligations.
It is in that spirit that the United Kingdom continues its efforts. We are committed to helping the Israeli authorities to make the necessary changes. Last year, we invited them to attend expert discussions with the Metropolitan Police to share more than 30 years of UK experience of implementing regulations designed specifically to protect the rights of minors in detention. Do we have to arrest young people? Yes, we do, but it is all a question of how we do it and in what context. We were disappointed when our invitation was declined. It is not a threatening invitation or a condemnatory invitation, but an opportunity to put something right. It still stands, and we hope it is taken up in due course.
Turning to Ahed Tamimi, as the hon. Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) said, I do indeed know the family. I cannot recall whether I met Ahed Tamimi when I was in the village, but I know the Tamimi family. Although I cannot verify absolutely everything the hon. Gentleman says, I recognise the description of the village that he gave. It is absolutely correct. From the village people can see the settlement on the other side, and see the water that is the source of distress and discontent in the area. This case has rightly kept the issue of the mistreatment of child detainees in the spotlight. Footage of Ms Tamimi’s arrest, aged 16, for slapping an Israeli soldier has been shared widely online.
None of us was there to hear everything that was said. I know that remarks from Ms Tamimi, quoted on television in Arabic, have not been translated in a manner that her lawyer recognises, and we are not entirely sure of what was said, but the language is there. It is on television for people to hear. Her case is of concern to all of us here who know of it. I said in the House the other week that it was a sad case, and I repeat that. In answer to the many letters I have had since making my comment in the House, I do not in any way wish to excuse Ms Tamimi’s behaviour, but nor do I condone her treatment. As I said in the House, I believe that she should not have needed to do what she did, because the soldiers should not have been there. Let me explain that still further. These flashpoints are a direct consequence of the failure to reach an agreement, as the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside, in her wisdom and long experience of this subject, rightly said. They are more evidence of how the unresolved conflict continues to blight the lives of all those involved.
It is a tragedy that each new generation, which should be growing up together in peace, continues to be divided. It is not that the Israeli soldiers did not have a right at the time to be in land they are occupying; they did. It is not that the young lady should have done what she did; she should not. But the circumstances just should not now be arising, because we should have settled this. That is as important for Israel as it is for the Palestinians. We are following developments on Ms Tamimi’s case closely and, while it is ultimately a matter for the Israeli authorities, we have raised our concerns with the Israeli ambassador here in London, and with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Justice in Tel Aviv.
Let me conclude as I have previous debates. I find these debates incredibly sad. We should not be having them, because the situation that gives rise to them needs to end. That can only happen with the resolution of issues by direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian people. I do not find it incompatible to believe passionately in the existence and the security of the state of Israel and in justice for the Palestinian people in lands I first visited 40 years ago, based on the efforts of peacemakers over the years. I also believe passionately that it is never too late, although it might soon be so.
The UK will do it all it can. It will make every effort and strain every sinew to work, upon the resumption of the middle east peace process, to support those who wish finally to bring that conflict to an end. Israel is a close and trusted friend of the United Kingdom. As such, we do not shy away from raising our serious concerns about the detention and treatment of minors in military facilities, but we understand the context in which Israel works, as everyone in this room does. However, the situation we have described today is just one of the many compelling reasons why we will continue to support progress toward a two-state solution. I want to see a situation in which it is no longer the case that a young IDF conscript and a Palestinian youngster have the options that they seem to have at the moment, so that they have a better chance of a better future together.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered military detention of Palestinian children by Israeli Authorities.
Credit Cards: Cost Regulation
[Steve McCabe in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered regulation of the cost of credit cards.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr McCabe. I hope that by the end of the debate we will actually have done more than consider the cost of credit cards. This is a familiar place for me to come to raise concerns with Ministers about personal debt in this country. However, I hope that I get a better hearing today than I did several years ago, when I came here repeatedly to warn the Government about the dangers of payday lending, because I believe that we are again on the cusp of another massive personal debt crisis in this country. There are proactive things that we can do to tackle that, one of which is dealing with credit cards.
We have to be honest: this is a nation in debt up to its eyeballs. Individuals actually owe more than the Government, with total household debt standing at £1.23 trillion. Most of that total is mortgage debt, but £117 billion of it is from credit cards and loans—a 15% increase in the last couple of years alone. The average UK household now has £14,000-worth of debt, and that is expected to rise to £19,000 of unsecured personal debt by the end of this Parliament. It is little wonder that the number of people going bankrupt in this country is soaring. Indeed, the number of people taking out individual voluntary arrangements is also soaring.
I thank the hon. Lady for securing this pertinent and important debate. Does she agree that credit card companies must play their part in ensuring that small retailers are still able to use card machines as a payment option? It must be the credit card companies, not the small businesses, that pay the bill.
I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman has a particular concern. I hope I can convince him that the regulation of credit cards that I am interested in is about their cost to the consumer in the first instance.
I do not think the reason we have such a personal debt crisis in this country is rocket science. There is simply too much month at the end of the money for too many people. We now know that economic insecurity is the new normal, with at least 70% of Britain’s working population defined as “chronically broke”. Some 32% of UK workers have less than £500 in savings, and 41% less than £1,000. Almost 30% are desperately concerned about their debt, because it is not just about everyday living costs; it is about the financial shock that might come because someone loses their job or their relationship breaks down. Too many people live on that edge now.
It is worrying that, unlike in previous years when insolvency rates have increased so much, unemployment rates are still dropping. That tells us that people are in full-time work, but are still unable to pay the basic costs of living, such as utility bills and rent. Combine that with inflation increasing at about 3% a year and stagnating wages, and it is not hard to see why personal debt is booming in this country.
On credit card debt, a lot of people are suckered in with introductory interest-free periods and their credit limit being increased, to a degree where they end up putting a noose around their neck. Ultimately they are unable to repay because of their lack of savings, as the hon. Lady has already identified, and as a consequence they end up paying at exorbitant interest rates once the interest-free period runs out.
The hon. Gentleman prefigures much of what I will say about who I believe are the new Wongas in our society.
It is not possible to make the argument that the millions of people on zero-hours contracts and in temporary work can manage their repayments and can be confident about the amount of money coming into their households. With millions of people now self-employed, and more people in England likely to be employed in the gig economy than working for the NHS in a few short years, it is clear that insecure, precarious work and precarious finances are the new norm for millions of people in our country.
I thank my hon. Friend for securing this important debate. Many of my constituents rely on organisations such as Citizens Advice to support them when they are in dire credit card debt. At the West Hampstead Women’s Centre in my constituency, bespoke Citizens Advice surgeries often lead to referrals to specialist services, such as the face-to-face disability and debt service. However, since 2010, Citizens Advice has seen its funding slashed from £178 million a year to £99 million a year. Does my hon. Friend agree that, in addition to taking on credit card companies, we need to ensure that debt management services are protected as well?
I completely agree with my hon. Friend. The idea is that this is just a problem for a few hundred thousand people, but debt, worrying about debt and the causes of debt are mainstream concerns in this country. Debt management, debt advice and the work of Citizens Advice is very important, but I also believe that, when we see these problems growing again, there is a role for us to step in before they get any worse. I made a call to action several years ago about payday lenders. We did not listen then until it was too late. I hope the Government will listen now.
We know that not everybody is struggling, and that Britain is a nation of contrasts, where some people have seen their wealth balloon because of property and pension rights. However, we also know that there are too many for whom debt is just everyday life. It is debt on basic payments—on food, rent and travelling to work costs. We know that 25% of the UK population now struggles with debt. Not everybody is in trouble, but enough are, and the reason is the nature of the products they use to deal with their debt, particularly credit cards.
I hope the Minister will understand why we need to act, because credit cards are the acceptable face of modern debt for people. All of us have one; I am sure if Members were to open up their wallets and purses, they would have, if not one, then maybe two or three with them. There are 30 million cardholders in the United Kingdom. Indeed, the Financial Conduct Authority has been investigating the credit card market.
The hon. Lady has been very gracious in giving way. I appreciate that very much. Does she appreciate, as I and many others in the House do, the good work of Christians Against Poverty, church groups, Citizens Advice and those who step into the gap to give advice and help people to manage their affairs when they get into debt?
I happily join the hon. Gentleman in supporting Christians Against Poverty, which very kindly came and ran a workshop for activists in my local community not a few weeks ago, to help residents to understand what they should say to somebody who is struggling with debt.
People often do not see credit cards as debt because they are just a fact of life. We know that the Financial Conduct Authority will tell the Minister that the market is working well for most, and that people shop around when getting a credit card, are able to compare rates and understand what they are buying. However, the problem comes when we look deeper and see the connection between those who struggle with debt and the nature of the credit cards they have.
Credit card debt is £263 billion—about 15% of total household debt—but it accounts for half of all interest payments made each year. That is the first signal that we need to look more closely at the interest rates on these cards. A whopping £28 billion is repaid each year, which accounts for 41% of all consumer debt, up from 33% in 2008. The average balance of those making just minimum repayments—the zombie debtors, who are paying off the interest but not the capital—is about £5,000; that is what they owe. However, 15% of zombie debtors owe more than £10,000. Crucially, when the FCA looked into this, it found that 20% of the people who ended up paying interest on their credit card did not expect to do so when they took it out. The reason is that life does not always go the way we expect it to. Jobs disappear. Relationships break up. The cost of living gets higher and higher.
Little wonder that there are 5 million accounts that, with people making just minimum repayments, it is estimated it will take 10 years to pay off the balance. It is no wonder that four in 10 British adults are worried about their credit card debt. They understand that what seemed like the best way to manage their finances has quickly got them into a situation that they cannot get out of. Forty per cent of adults in this country say that they struggle to make it to payday and, of those, 30% say that credit card repayments are causing them the problem. The FCA has identified that; it has identified those people whom it would say are in difficulty because of their credit card debt. It considers more than half those people to be “potentially vulnerable” because they have few resources to fall back on, even if they are managing to make some repayments.
The FCA has also identified that one third of people do not really understand the interest rates that they are paying on their credit cards. Again, it is the point about interest rates and what it will actually cost people to use these cards, even if they are flipping between zero-rate-interest cards. It identified that people who switch are switching because they think that they are getting a better balance offer—crucially, they are not getting out of debt.
The point of today’s debate and raising this issue with the Minister is to ask him not to wait until the situation gets worse, because we know the consequences of waiting until it gets worse. Let us learn the lesson from those legal loan sharks, the payday lenders—the people who were lending £100 to people who were ending up paying an average of £260 back. They were using payday loans when they were unregulated to pay for their basic living; 53% of them were using them just as people are using credit cards—to pay for groceries and utility bills. They were paying for things that they could not go without. Three in five borrowers on a payday loan said that they could not go without the item for which they had taken out the loan.
Let me tell the Minister that when we do act—when we recognise the consequences of leaving a situation to fester, as we did with payday loans—it makes a massive difference. Bringing in a cap on the cost of credit saw a 45% reduction in the numbers of people going to the citizens advice bureau in difficulties with payday loans; indeed, there has been an 86% reduction since 2016.
These credit card companies are truly loan sharks pretending to be the good guys. We know that what matters is in the small print. Many of us may have looked at our own credit card interest rates and seen that they vary from between 0.8% and 2% a month, but we also know that those basic interest rates on credit cards have been rising over the past 11 years, from an average of 15% to 23% now. As the hon. Member for South Antrim (Paul Girvan) pointed out, the zero balance transfer deals have been lengthening, but what is happening is that the credit card companies are making up for competing to get people to switch, by increasing the interest rates. And that is before we get on to the credit cards for people who are in bad credit—the new Wongas: the Vanquises, the aquas and the Capital Ones, which offer interest rates of 30% to 60%.
The Minister will point me to the research by the Financial Conduct Authority that shows that about 45% of people borrowing on cards for those with bad credit have found them useful for building up a credit history, but let us think about the other 55%—those who, as the FCA has identified, are in severe or serious arrears as a result of getting these cards. I see Vanquis in my town centre in Walthamstow, preying on people.
The hon. Lady mentions the FCA. In December 2017, it published revised proposals that would see lenders reduce or even cancel credit card interest and charges for customers who are in persistent debt, so positive work is going on.
I thank the hon. Lady for pointing out the research that I am quoting and the paper that I have read. This is my concern. Having read exactly what the Financial Conduct Authority is doing, I think that it is missing a trick, and I am appealing to Ministers to intervene. Let me explain why.
We can look at companies such as Vanquis, which offers people £1,000 straight off—no credit checks, no questions asked. It is owned by Provident, which is a high-cost-credit legal loan shark. It targets people with the blithe claim that as long as they can afford the minimum repayment every week, they can rebuild their credit. Alternatively, we can look at the aqua credit card, with an interest rate, superficially, of 3.9%. If someone borrows £1,000 from that company and makes the minimum payments, they will have paid £480 within one year, £680 within 18 months, £800 within two years and £1,000 in interest by 28 months. Those figures reflect exactly the sort of lending and patterns of repayment and costs of interest that we recognised were wrong for payday lenders, yet now that is happening in the credit card industry.
There is a simple principle at issue here. We recognised that it was wrong to ask people to pay back more than they had borrowed; up to 100% was a fair amount of interest to be charging. Why have we intervened and said that that was wrong in the payday lending industry, but are letting it happen with credit cards? That is exactly what is happening: people are paying back in interest double what they have borrowed.
Yes, the FCA conducted a market study, and yes, parts of the market are working well for some consumers. Therefore, if we act where the market is not working well for the other consumers, we can stop these problems before they get worse. I do not understand how the FCA can justify not bringing the same lessons that we have learned from payday lending, about not asking people to pay back in interest double what they have borrowed, to the credit card companies, even though we recognise that that is wrong in the payday loan industry—but that is what has happened.
All the FCA’s remedies at the moment require people to have the cash to be able to act—to be able to make quicker repayments and to be able to pay back earlier—when actually what we are seeing is a nation that does not have spare cash in its pocket, let alone when facing economic shocks. These companies are entering into voluntary agreements with the Financial Conduct Authority. We are not learning the lessons of asking legal loan sharks, like turkeys, not to speak in favour of Christmas. These companies are making millions of pounds from pushing people into debt in exactly the same way as the Wongas of this world did, yet still the FCA is standing by.
There are things that we can count on in the coming months. We can count on the fact that the economic situation will still be uncertain for people, that there will still be precarious work as the new norm, that people will not be able to plan. We can count on the fact that the cost of living is still going to go up—that if we want to put food on the table, keep a roof over our head and put petrol in our cars to get to work, it is going to get more expensive. We can count on divorce, house moving and redundancy still being facts of life. And yes, we can count on the fact that some parts of these markets work well, but not enough of them do, so I am asking the Minister to learn from history. Do not wait until millions more British people are stuck in spirals of debt with credit cards. Do not think that credit cards are acceptable and high-cost credit and payday lending are things of the past. This market is mutating, but it is still firmly focused on exploiting communities such as mine, exploiting people in financial difficulty, exploiting people who have few options. If the FCA feels too timid to be able to act, then just as we did before, let us give it muscle. Let us bring in a cap on the cost of credit cards, just as we did with payday lending, and recognise legal loan sharking in this country for what it is. I look forward to what the Minister has to say.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr McCabe. I thank the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy) for raising this significant issue with characteristic passion. I will seek to answer the specific questions she has raised about the role of the FCA and how fluid the situation is.
Consumer credit, including credit cards, plays an important role in our economy, helping consumers to smooth their income, spread costs over time and cope with unexpected financial shocks. However, risk is inherent in any credit product, so it is vital that consumers are treated fairly and protected from unscrupulous or predatory practice. The Government recognise that and are working with the regulator to ensure that such activity is curtailed.
I think it will be helpful if I set out first what the Government have already done on consumer credit. Our vision is of a well functioning and sustainable consumer credit market that responsibly meets the needs of all consumers. That is why we fundamentally reformed regulation of the consumer credit market, transferring regulatory responsibility from the Office of Fair Trading to the Financial Conduct Authority on 1 April 2014. The Government have given the FCA a robust set of powers, designed to protect consumers, in three key areas. The FCA assesses every firm’s fitness to lend and it has put in place a binding standard on firms. The FCA requires all firms to assess each customer’s ability to repay. The hon. Lady gave the example of Vanquis being able to lend £1,000 without any checks. I repeat: all lenders must make that assessment of their customers’ ability to repay. Firms must also treat customers who fall into arrears fairly. Thirdly, the FCA monitors the market. The characterisation of the FCA as passively waiting for a crisis does not do justice to the actions it has taken. I will go on to set those out and describe how they are still under review.
Focusing on the areas that are most likely to cause consumer harm, the FCA has a broad enforcement toolkit to punish breaches of its rules. The FCA’s enforcement arm supports its objectives by making it clear that there are real and meaningful consequences for firms and individuals who do not follow the rules. There is no limit to the fines it can levy. Crucially, it can force firms to provide redress to consumers. For example, in October 2017 the FCA announced that BrightHouse, a rent-to-own firm, will pay over £14.8 million in redress to customers in respect of agreements that may not have been affordable and payments that should have been refunded. That is just one example of the effectiveness of the FCA enforcement action. In total, the FCA issued fines of nearly £230 million last year, and as of December 2017 it had secured £734 million in redress for more than 1.47 million customers in the consumer credit market.
I turn now specifically to credit cards. When the Government gave the FCA responsibility for consumer credit regulation in 2014, it sought to build a sound understanding of the credit card market and to assess whether it was working well in the interests of consumers. To that end, as the hon. Lady mentioned, the FCA conducted an extensive study of the credit card market between 2014 and 2016. It found that competition within the industry was working well for the majority of consumers, but identified concerns about the scale and extent of problematic credit card debt. Last year the FCA consulted on remedies to tackle persistent credit card debt and proposed a robust package of remedies to tackle the issues—
Order. There is a Division in the main Chamber, so we will have to suspend the sitting and you will all have to come back to conclude. We will suspend for 15 minutes.
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
As I was saying, last year the FCA consulted on remedies to tackle persistent credit card debt. It proposed a robust package of remedies to tackle the issues that it identified in the market.
The Minister mentions that the FCA consulted on persistent debt. The FCA defines persistent debt as paying 100% in interest and charges on top of the principal repaid over an 18-month period. Given the evidence that that is exactly what people are doing on these credit cards, and the fact that we intervened and capped the cost of credit through payday loans when we saw that, will the Minister explain why it is acceptable not to do that for credit cards when it is okay to do it for payday loans?
I will come on to that. As ever, the hon. Lady is eager to intervene. Let me finish what I want to say, and I will give her the answer that she wishes to hear.
The remedies include requiring firms to take steps to encourage customers to repay debt quicker and to avoid getting into persistent debt in the first place. Where customers are not able to repay their debt in a reasonable period, firms will be required to offer forbearance. Firms will also be required to use the data available to them to identify customers at risk of financial difficulty earlier and to take appropriate steps.
The FCA’s rules apply to all credit card companies, including those that lend at the higher interest rates, some of which the hon. Lady mentioned, to customers with poor credit ratings. All lenders have a duty to treat customers fairly and to lend only to those who can afford to repay. We expect the FCA to publish a final policy statement soon, and I will look carefully at what it says to see how we can take this forward. It seems a bit unreasonable not to wait for the final policy statement before we conclude where the FCA has got to with it.
As an additional weapon in its armoury, the FCA has worked with the industry’s leading body, UK Finance, to secure a voluntary agreement with its members to restrict unsolicited credit limit increases, giving customers more control over their accounts. All customers will be made aware that they can choose not to receive offers, and customers in persistent debt will not receive any unsolicited credit limit increases at all. New customers will be given the choice of how credit limits will be applied to their account, and firms will make it easier for existing customers to decline offers of a credit limit increase by reminding them of their options.
The combination of existing FCA powers and the proposed package of remedies is a very robust arsenal.
Will the Minister give way?
No, I will continue.
The measures are a demonstrable commitment by this Government, the regulators and the industry to tackle structural issues within the credit card market. [Interruption.] If the hon. Lady did me the courtesy of listening, as I did to her, it would be quite helpful.
Thinking about the limits that should be put on the cost of credit card borrowing, which I think the hon. Lady referred to, it is important to note that the Government have already given the FCA the power to cap all forms of credit, and the FCA can do that if it thinks it is necessary to protect consumers. However, it is neither this Government’s mandate nor our role to intervene in a functioning and competitive market. In addition, a credit card cap would be inherently more complex than the price cap introduced on payday loans in 2015. Payday loans are fixed-term, discrete loans, whereas credit cards provide a revolving credit facility—they are quite different.
What the Government can do, and already have done, is ensure that there are regulatory checks and balances in place to ensure fairness. The FCA has said that it will keep the issue of a mandatory cap on the cost of credit, including credit cards, under review. The FCA will monitor the effectiveness of its credit card remedies, and can take further action if necessary.
Will the Minister give way?
No, I am not going to give way.
The Minister has not answered my question. With the greatest respect to the Minister, I asked him a very specific question about the disparity between it being unacceptable for people with payday loans to pay double in interest what they had taken out, and those 5 million people who are stuck in 10 years-worth or more of credit card debt continuing to pay those rates. I would like his specific answer on that unacceptability.
I did directly explain that there is a distinct difference between the nature of a payday loan and a credit card facility. I explained that very clearly and I am sorry the hon. Lady did not hear it.
It will be helpful to set out some of the things that the Government have done with respect to dealing with people in financial difficulty. The Government are delivering on their manifesto commitment to implement a breathing space and debt management plan. The call for evidence on the breathing space scheme recently closed, and the Government have committed to consult on a policy design proposal in the summer.
We set up the Money Advice Service, which spent close to £49 million on providing 440,000 debt advice sessions last year. We are now going further to ensure that consumers can gain easier access to financial guidance and debt advice by creating a new single financial guidance body, which will bring together the Pensions Advisory Service, Pension Wise and the Money Advice Service. The new body will make it easier for consumers to get help with all aspects of their financial lives, as well as having a statutory duty to improve financial capability and to commission free-to-use debt advice. The Bill to create the new body is currently before the House of Commons.
I thank the hon. Lady for raising this issue—I acknowledge that it is very important—and for speaking with such fervour. I share some of the concerns that she has expressed. Millions of people in this country use credit cards regularly, and the Government are committed to ensuring that they are treated fairly and not encouraged to fall into persistent debt. I hope the hon. Lady understands that a cap on the cost of credit card borrowing is not an effective solution. It is a blunt, interventionist approach to a complex issue. The Government have given the FCA strong powers to take action, and the FCA is putting in place measures to tackle persistent debt in the credit card market. This is not a static issue, however, or one that I and the Government are not interested in examining on an ongoing basis. The Government and the FCA are committed to ensuring that it remains under constant review.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered regulation of the cost of credit cards.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the upgrade of the A5 between junction 18 of the M1 and junction 10 of the M42.
The A5 is one of our oldest roads. It was commissioned during the reign of the Emperor Claudius, after his successful invasion of Britain in AD 43. It is also one of our most strategically important roads. The stretch that we are discussing goes past the geographical centre of England, which is near Higham on the Hill in my constituency. More than ever, it is an essential road because of the circumstances around it, in terms of the growth of proposed housing and business. There is a very pressing need for an effective relief road when there are problems on the M1, M6, M42 and surrounding motorways in this golden triangle.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this timely debate. Right now, there are 90-minute delays on the M6 between junction 1 at Rugby and junction 3 at Nuneaton, where two out of three lanes are closed for repairs to an expansion joint. Highways England is advising drivers to use other routes. In this context, the other main route is the A5, which is one of the reasons why we need the upgrade to deal with traffic that gets moved when there are hold-ups on the M6, as is often the case.
My hon. Friend, who is ever quick out of the stalls in a debate, makes a very good point. I will touch on the problems of congestion.
There is an historical perspective to this 30-mile stretch of the A5. Near this road, the governance of our country has changed not once but twice. At the battle of Bosworth Field in 1485, the man who became Henry VII defeated Richard III. Most of us are familiar with that, not least because of the publicity around Richard III’s re-interment a couple of years ago.
Less well known is the battle of Watling Street, which took place 1,400 years earlier. In AD 60, when Nero, the adopted son of Claudius, was on the throne, the 14th legion of the Roman army was moving down the country after defeating the druids in Anglesey. Somewhere near Witherley in my constituency or, more likely, further south at Mancetter, the legion met Boadicea, queen of the Iceni—her statue is not far away—and the united English tribes, and roundly defeated them; this led to Roman dominance in England south of that area for many years to come. According to the historian John Higgs, Tacitus said that 80,000 Britons were killed in that battle. If that is true, it would be the most people killed in a single day in history before the first world war.
Those anecdotes about the two battles and the geographical centre emphasise the point that this is no ordinary A road. It is right at the heart of our country. It has been crucial and has played its part in troop movements—Henry VII moved down Watling Street to London after his success at the battle of Bosworth Field.
The road has lost its pre-eminence—or had lost it, I should say—since the building of the M1 between 1959 and 1968, and the building of the M6 from north of junction 18 of the M1, which was finished in May 1972 and opened by Prime Minister Harold Macmillan. After that, the A5 lost attention and was no longer the great north-west road that it had been. That has all changed. I will now turn to the arguments for making it an expressway and expending £10 million, a relatively small sum of money, to take that project forward.
Along this 30-mile section of road and beyond, my hon. Friends the Members for North Warwickshire (Craig Tracey) and for Nuneaton (Mr Jones), and other colleagues, have an incredibly fast-growing corridor of movement and of economic growth. There are significant proposals for 60,000 new homes—a staggering amount—to be delivered along that corridor between Northampton and Stafford via Warwickshire and Leicestershire up to 2031. I cannot see how that can take place without investment in the A5.
There is also the impact on the sub-regional economies of Staffordshire, Leicestershire, Coventry, Warwickshire and Northamptonshire. In addition to housing growth, more than 500 hectares—more than 1,000 acres—of new employment land is planned that will contribute £1.5 billion gross value added to the economy and generate thousands of jobs over 20 years. That is a staggering investment.
The golden triangle in the midlands is bounded by the motorway system. I could go through a list of business parks in or near my constituency, including Sketchley Meadows, Magna Park and MIRA Technology Park, that are set to expand in a staggering way. Yesterday I spoke to MIRA, which got the go-ahead to become an enterprise park in 2011. There were originally about 600 jobs there, and there are now 1,200. In five or 10 years’ time, according to our conversation, there will be between 2,500 and 3,000 high-value jobs there.
MIRA is working with Warwickshire Council on a proposal for an additional development on the 92 acres of land on the south side of the A5, Watling Street, which I am sure comes as no surprise to the Conservative Members present—my hon. Friends the Members for Nuneaton, for North Warwickshire, for Rugby and for South Leicestershire (Alberto Costa). That development will be massively affected by what happens on the A5. MIRA tells me that it is trying to bring entirely new technology to the region, including projects that relate to the environment, such as the development of electric batteries for cars. It is advertising internationally right now to take that forward.
My hon. Friend the Member for Rugby was quick off the mark in mentioning congestion. The economic prosperity of the midlands relies heavily on the performance of the strategic road network because of its central location and the connectivity with routes, including no less than four motorways—the M1, M5, M6 and M40—and the A14, A46 and A5 trunk roads. The standard of the A5 is shocking. It is mostly a single-lane road, with some dualling, and it regularly gets clogged up, as we all know. It will be impossible for the economic corridor to develop unless we act now. For the sake of resilience, a proper relief road for the motorway system is critical. The M1 and M6 are frequently closed because of traffic problems, bridge changes and all kinds of other problems; I am sure my hon. Friends present could name many more.
The A5—the old great north-west road—is the obvious candidate as a relief road, because it goes straight through the triangle of motorways. Our case is that that 30-mile stretch of the A5 should be upgraded to expressway standard, with priority given to the section between the M1 and the M42. I understand from Highways England, which is responsible for the A5, that £10 million would be required for completion of detailed studies to secure early delivery of the expressway over the next route investment strategy periods. I hope that the Minister will address that in his reply.
Let me set out what action has been taken so far. A transport partnership was formed in 2009-10 and has representation from 18 local authorities, including local highways authorities and the local economic partnership. It has grown to cover a much longer stretch of the road— the 72-mile section from Gailey in Staffordshire to Stony Stratford near Milton Keynes—and has produced its first report. It seeks delivery growth, support for network resilience, management of freight impact and the delivery of a safe, secure and sustainable A5.
This is what others have said about the matter. Sir John Peace, Chairman of Midlands Connect and Midlands Engine, said:
“The Midlands Connect Strategy demonstrates that to improve the economy of our region, rebalance the UK’s economy”—
we in the midlands often feel that sometimes we are neglected—
“and accommodate growth we must upgrade the transport infrastructures”.
He said that we need to
“see the A5…playing a key role”,
“upgrading the route will dramatically improve access within our region”,
and that the A5 is
“a vital component to strong economic growth for the Midlands, and our region’s contribution to the UK economy.”
Andy Street, Mayor of the West Midlands, said that
“we recognise the significance of the Midlands A5 Expressway in the larger Strategic Road Network…indeed, Midlands Connect have highlighted the A5 Expressway as a corridor of strategic and economic significance…which is a statement we also advocate”.
Highways England has undertaken four studies and concluded that there is a strong economic case for an A5 scheme, with a range of credible options for further study. Four options have already been tested and shown to offer high value for money. The housing infrastructure fund bids that have been submitted for key priority work in the north Warwickshire stretch of the A5 will have a huge impact.
I must raise a couple of parochial matters. A long headache in my constituency and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton has been the fact that two national highways—the A5 and the A47, which runs through Hinckley and beyond—share a stretch of road. He and I have campaigned for years to improve that tiny stretch at the Long Shoot junction where the two roads become one.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for North Warwickshire for providing me with information about his meeting with the Secretary of State; no doubt he will raise that today if he catches your eye, Mr McCabe. I also thank Councillor Brian Conway, lead councillor of the A5 parish councils contact group, who has highlighted problems with the rat runs through Witherley and Fenny Drayton; the notorious A5 Woodford Lane junction, which has the worst accident record of any intersection between the M42 and Milton Keynes; the anomaly of A5 traffic having priority over traffic already on the Mancetter island; and the Department for Transport’s reliance on old data.
To use modern slang, this is a no-brainer. We will not be able to deliver the terrific expansion at MIRA, the huge housing developments that I am sure other hon. Members will raise, or a solution to the pressure from Birmingham if we ignore the A5. We have to do something about it—the A5, the old great north-west road, Watling Street. That would be terrific value for my hon. Friend the Minister, because a proper relief road is essential when there is trouble on the motorways. I rest my case.
As ever, Mr McCabe, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Bosworth (David Tredinnick) and congratulate him on securing this debate, which is a very important one for my constituents. I am delighted to see my hon. Friends the Members for Rugby (Mark Pawsey), for North Warwickshire (Craig Tracey) and for South Leicestershire (Alberto Costa) present.
The part of the A5 under discussion is a vital part of the national strategic road network and the UK distribution and logistics network. All the constituencies represented by the hon. Members present are part of what is known in the logistics industry as the golden triangle, because of its excellent links to the rest of the country. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bosworth has identified, the A5 is a vital resilience route for the operation of the west midlands section of the M6 and the east midlands section of the M1.
My speech will address the particular challenges facing the route along the northern boundary of my constituency. This is often a heavily congested part of Watling Street, where there are challenges associated with heavy volumes of local traffic meeting heavy volumes of traffic travelling long distance along the A5. This section of road also includes a number of busy junctions, which are not just traffic bottlenecks; at times, there have been significant accidents, and there has been a very sad history of fatalities.
On the positive side, the A5 between the Royal Redgate junction and the MIRA Technology Park, which my hon. Friend the Member for Bosworth mentioned, has been upgraded in recent years to dual carriageway. That was done under a £17 million regional growth fund grant in 2014. Since then, as my hon. Friend also said, over 600 jobs have been created at the MIRA Technology Park, and it is thought that another 1,500 to 2,000 could be created on that site.
We are therefore seeing economic development as a result of that comparatively small investment, but my constituents have also seen significant safety improvements. That is because the once lethal Royal Redgate junction, where people have to cross the A5 to go north or south on the A444, has been significantly improved and is much safer than it was.
My constituents also have significant issues in relation to the Woodford Lane junction, which my hon. Friend mentioned. I have a number of constituents in the Hartshill ward who use Woodford Lane. It is a minor but extremely busy junction, where it is possible to turn both left and right on to a very wide part of single carriageway. In recent years, there have been a series of minor accidents, some major accidents and, regrettably, several fatalities. Although there have been some very minor upgrade works there, we have not seen anything approaching the type of major upgrade scheme that is needed to make the area much safer. I must also say that a number of my constituents have contacted me recently about the quality of the road surface on the A5 in the area; currently, it is far from ideal.
Probably the most difficult area for the majority of my constituents who use this stretch of the A5 is the Long Shoot junction, where the A47 meets the A5. Despite upgrade works undertaken in 2015, which have been relatively successful, the sheer volume of traffic at this junction at peak times creates huge delays for my constituents on the A47 and the A5. Also, for those living at the top of the Long Shoot junction and on that stretch of Watling Street that runs alongside it, there is a significant problem with pollution from standing vehicles, given the length of time it takes them to get through.
The Minister will know that an upgrade is planned for the short section of the A5 between the Long Shoot junction and the Dodwells island, where Nuneaton meets Hinckley. He will not need me to tell him that, given the challenges in that area, that upgrade is very much a short-term fix. It is important and it is required, but it will not deal with the fundamental issues. I also understand that the work to upgrade that short section of road has been put back slightly, to facilitate the important upgrade of the M6.
Although this debate is not about the M6, there is the issue of resilience to consider, and I am glad that the Government are investing significant money to bring smart motorway to junctions 2 to 4 of the M6. That will hopefully cut down significantly on the accidents there, which have the knock-on effect of causing gridlock for my constituency, as people see fit to get through to the A5 and the M69. As my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby has said, we can absolutely guarantee even today that the people of Nuneaton will suffer absolute gridlock as a result of the closure of the M6, so we need to consider resilience.
As I have outlined to the Minister, there are challenges but they are set against the backdrop of a very positive economic story around the A5. We heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Bosworth of the plans that exist. As I understand it, there are 500 hectares of new employment land being planned along this stretch of the A5, which could deliver £1.4 billion in gross value added to the regional economy of the midlands and create thousands of jobs in the next 15 to 20 years.
There will also be significant housing growth, with 15,000 new houses being built in my constituency and in the neighbouring Bedworth part of the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for North Warwickshire. Although many of my constituents are concerned with that development—I myself am concerned, because much of it is taking place on the north side of Nuneaton, in one large block—it highlights the necessity to find a better solution to the A5 problem, so that we can facilitate the new development.
I have explained the challenges; I will now turn to the solution. I am enthused by the concept of the midlands expressway. It will transform the A5, fully dualling the highway from Tamworth right down to Crick. As I understand it, there are several options to achieve that transformation, which would open up the potential for growth and, above and beyond that, transform the lives of many of my constituents, improving their quality of life tremendously.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Bosworth has pointed out, there is a partnership of local authorities, and I pay tribute to the excellent work of the Conservative-controlled Hinckley and Bosworth Borough Council. It is a medium-sized district council, but it has been instrumental in the work of this A5 partnership. On my side of the A5, it is being very well supported by Warwickshire County Council, and on the side of my hon. Friend the Member for Bosworth, it is being very well supported by Leicestershire County Council.
All those authorities are backed by a number of business organisations and businesspeople. Sir John Peace, the chairman of the Midlands Engine and Midlands Connect, is backing this project, as is Andy Street, the West Midlands Mayor, who sees the value of the works being proposed for this area.
Considerable feasibility work has already been done, as the Minister will know. Highways England has looked at this project and, encouragingly, it has concluded that there is a strong economic and strategic case for a scheme of this type on the A5. It has also concluded that there are a number of credible options and that the project would deliver “high” value for money.
The Minister is currently working on roads investment strategy 2. My ask is that the A5 scheme is acknowledged as part of RIS2 and that our request for the resource to develop more detailed work on a specific route for early implementation is looked on favourably. My hon. Friend the Member for Bosworth said that £10 million is needed to take that initial work forward, so I will just impress on the Minister that this is an important matter for my constituents. If we are to achieve this transformation, it needs to be thought about now—even if the work itself is carried out several years from now—because this route needs safeguarding. That is because there is a lot of new development in the area, and the last thing we want is for that new development to take place where the route of the A5 should be.
I am sure that, throughout this roads strategy process, my hon. Friend the Minister will have colleagues from across the country knocking down his door to try to get a response on the road projects that they want. However, I just say to him that, on this stretch of the A5, there is clearly a solid business case, and the project will help to deliver significant numbers of new houses and significant amounts of commercial development and new jobs, allowing the midlands to fulfil its economic potential.
Finally, the time for quick fixes and sticking plasters along this stretch of the A5 is over. We very much need to take a more substantive approach. We need to make this once Roman route fit for the 21st century.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr McCabe. I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bosworth (David Tredinnick) on securing this hugely important debate and on his thoughtful speech, which was excellent in covering the sensible and reasonable A5 improvements that are much-needed. Watling Street and Fosse Way cross in my constituency. I often wonder what my ethnic ancestors would think if they were to look at that stretch of the road today, with its high level of traffic. When the Romans first built that junction, it was busy, but it was never heavily congested. Perhaps we have something to learn from my ethnic-Roman ancestry.
Many Members will no doubt be aware of the huge strategic importance of the midlands to Britain’s thriving industry. Whether it is logistics parks, rail freight terminals or international airports, the midlands is a beacon for British industry and innovation. I am proud that much of that industry can be found in my constituency of South Leicestershire. As my hon. Friend said, the area is known colloquially as the golden triangle. That refers to the intersection of major motorway networks in the local area, which provide crucial links for commercial and residential traffic.
The A5 shares that commercial and residential importance. As my hon. Friends will be aware, the A5 is a major road in my constituency and theirs. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton (Mr Jones), I have experienced the long queues of traffic on the A5 at various times of the day. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bosworth correctly stated, unless the Minister takes into account the strategic needs of the road, the problems will only be exacerbated by the further planned industrial and housing developments.
Further consideration should be given to the villages in the vicinity of the A5, particularly those in and around my constituency. I am thinking of the Claybrookes, Ullesthorpe, Wigston Parva, Sharnford, Cotesbach and Shawell, to name but a few. Having listened to the chairman of the Leicestershire Fosse villages neighbourhood plan group—a voluntary organisation that speaks for constituents in the south Leicestershire villages of Sharnford, Stoney Stanton and Sapcote—I think we need to take account of the ever increasing traffic demands in and around those areas. These rural, idyllic villages already suffer from a swathe of large HGVs and other commercial traffic. While I have been working closely with constituents in Sharnford, for example, to help to remedy the problems, I fear that the issues will only get worse if we see the increase in development outlined by my hon. Friends without any significant increase in the associated infrastructure, in particular the improvements on the A5 that we seek.
My hon. Friend is making an important point about ensuring we get infrastructure before development takes place. The A5 acts as a boundary between his constituency and mine. In the same way that his villages are affected, people from Pailton, Monks Kirby, Churchover, Clifton and Newton are in many cases reluctant to go on to the A5 because of the large number of HGVs using it as a consequence of the industrial development that has taken place. That will only get worse if development continues.
I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. My family use a dentist in Pailton, so we are familiar with travelling along the A5 to get to that wonderful village.
The Magna Park logistics park is one of the largest in Europe and is located in my constituency. Given its proximity to the market town of Lutterworth, my constituents are often subject to unreasonable amounts of commercial traffic clogging up the area. However, as we heard from my hon. Friends, the A5 does not have an impact only in my constituency. I am glad to say that it is also important and significant for my hon. Friends here today. My hon. Friends the Members for Bosworth, for Nuneaton, for Rugby (Mark Pawsey) and for North Warwickshire (Craig Tracey) have been instrumental in pushing the matter to the very top of the Department for Transport’s agenda, and I pay tribute to their excellent efforts. Like me, they recognise the plight of their constituents and are cognisant of the A5’s huge importance. For that matter, I thank Conservative-led Blaby District Council and Conservative-led Harborough District Council, which have also been pushing efforts to help to improve infrastructure on the A5 and surrounding areas.
In closing, it is important to note that the concerns I have expressed about the A5 are not simply local concerns; they are regional and national. The A5’s strategic importance should not be underestimated, but to keep up with economic growth and our nation’s industry, vital infrastructure improvements such as those proposed to the A5 must be prioritised. The road stretches through four counties and multiple constituencies and encompasses hundreds of thousands of our constituents, so the A5’s inclusion in the road investment strategy 2 is not only a must for my constituents and those of my hon. Friends; it is a must for the people of the midlands. It is very much a big picture project, and the road needs big improvements right away.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr McCabe. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bosworth (David Tredinnick) on securing this important debate and on the versatility he showed in starting with a history lesson and ending with modern slang. In between, he put together a powerful case. I echo the comments of colleagues, which I completely agreed with. A strong business case has been put forward today as to why the development is needed as soon as possible.
The A5 is a key route in the heart of the country. We have an ambition as a Government to push forward the midland engine, so the route is going to become even more important. From my perspective, it is important to North Warwickshire. We have a central location right off junction 10 of the M42. We attract many types of business because of our location. Ocado, Aldi, TNT, 3M, UPS and Euro Car Parts all have significant bases along the A5 in my constituency. The borough has a proud record of creating jobs. We have an incredible record: my constituency provides 1.22 jobs for every working age person. Some 18,386 people from across the west midlands come into North Warwickshire every single day to work.
As my hon. Friend the Member for South Leicestershire (Alberto Costa) just mentioned, this debate is not just about North Warwickshire, but about the wider west midlands infrastructure. The current situation is that this stretch of road is not fit for purpose. Were Members to go on the road at this time of day—my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby (Mark Pawsey) made this point, but it has been echoed by all colleagues—or in the morning, we would see complete congestion in such areas as Dordon, Grendon and Atherstone. That frustrates local residents and puts off future investment by companies. If there is an accident on one of the roads that the A5 connects to, such as the M42, the M1 or the M69, we have complete gridlock. As I have said, there is a strong business case and need for this. If we are to unlock the potential of the area, it is important that we take urgent action.
I would like to raise three specific points with the Minister. My hon. Friend the Member for Bosworth mentioned that I have already put them to the Secretary of State. I brought members of North Warwickshire Borough Council along to the meeting, and the Secretary of State was very understanding. He knows the area well, particularly in relation to the first point that I will raise, but obviously I would like to hear the Minister’s view.
The first point is about the impact of HS2 on the area. I will not dwell on this too much, but anyone who knows me will not be surprised to hear me say that I am not a huge fan of the project and it is not something that I particularly support. It is worth reiterating that we are the most affected area outside London. We will get 31 miles of track, with disruption to the area potentially lasting for about 17 years. Critically, HS2 will run straight through junction 10, where the M42 meets the A5, so we will see further upheaval on an already busy junction.
HS2 provides a threat and an opportunity. The threat is quite clear: huge disruption to a key area of road, which is the gateway to not only the north Warwickshire borough, but large parts of the country. If there is no access through that area, traffic will be displaced on to other routes. The opportunity is to make substantial improvements that would not only mitigate some of the disruption that people will face over that long period as a result of HS2, but create a more freely moving road network, which will bring benefits and, as has been said, investment to the local area. From the discussions I have had, I think that the solution is to create a partnership with HS2, Highways England and Warwickshire County Council, which is the local highways authority. There is precedent for that being done along phase 1 of the route, where those partnerships have worked well. I do not support the development of HS2, but if it is to go ahead, it is important that the traffic offering to local residents is enhanced. This would seem the perfect opportunity to do that.
My second point, which has also been made by colleagues, is about local development in the area. North Warwickshire Borough Council is having to revise its housing figures from 3,150 to 9,070, and 42% of that is to accommodate the Greater Birmingham housing area. The challenge is that more than two thirds of the borough is green belt, so we can develop only in limited areas, the majority of which are along the A5 corridor, which, as I have said, is already at tipping point. There are significant areas of single carriageway, and there has been a lack of thought among previous councils when approving commercial developments, in that they did not upgrade the local infrastructure to accommodate for them.
Without significant improvements, it will clearly not be feasible to deliver the housing. However, the other side of the coin is that if we get it right, there is the potential not only to alleviate the current issues and provide new housing opportunities, but to unlock ambitious employment opportunities across North Warwickshire. Warwickshire County Council’s transport assessment backs that up, highlighting the importance of the A5 growth corridor. I have supported its bid to the housing infrastructure fund, but I cannot stress enough that, without the right infrastructure, housing simply will not be delivered in North Warwickshire.
The third point might seem small, but I urge the Minister to visit and judge for himself the rather interesting Mancetter island. It is right in the heart of the A5 and has really odd rights of way. Residents in a number of properties that front on to it have to reverse either on or off their drives to gain access to moving lanes of traffic that do not have to give way as they come down the A5. It is difficult to explain, but I urge the Minister to look at it.
There is danger to both residents and people using that route on a daily basis. There have been some really significant accidents, in particular involving HGVs, because of its logistic nature, and the fact that there is an adverse camber on the road. A number of constituents have had their garden walls demolished as a result. Residents fear that it is only a matter of time before we have a fatality and somebody walking down gets hit. The issue has been raised with Highways England, which has agreed to look at it. Residents have every right to be worried about the issue, which is regularly raised with me. Without amendment to that part of the road, it is unlikely that we will be able to make the most of this important road network.
To sum up, my view, and I think that of colleagues, is that the A5 is currently underperforming, but offers huge opportunities for the area, the west midlands, and potentially the country as a whole. If the ambitions of our local MPs, councils, the action groups that we talked about earlier, and the resident groups are matched by those of the Government, the possibility of a substantial solution, which would greatly benefit the lives of my constituents and people living in communities along the A5, can become a reality. This is about not only the future of the A5, but how we improve the present. I echo the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton (Mr Jones), particularly in what he asked of the Minister. Clearly action is needed as an urgent priority. I look forward to the Minister’s response.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr McCabe. I congratulate the hon. Member for Bosworth (David Tredinnick) on not only giving us an incredibly good history lesson today, but extolling the virtues of all that is planned for his constituency and the surrounding area.
When we are talking about the scale of 60,000 new homes, we have to have a serious discussion about whether we are just talking about development of a new express way, or if we need to look at other modes of transport that are available for local communities as well. If we are talking about that scale of economic opportunity, particularly with the developments that we have heard about this afternoon and the potential of 3,000 new jobs, we need to think about how people are travelling to and from work. While the road provides one option, I think that where we are building significant new developments we also need to start exploring other modes, particularly the future of rail.
As the hon. Member for North Warwickshire (Craig Tracey) just highlighted, HS2 should be about creating new opportunity, as opposed to limiting choices for people in the area. If HS2 does not open up new opportunities and does not connect, we have to ask serious questions about what the point of it is in the first place. Although we can see that new stations in places such as Toton will provide new economic development, we need to make sure that everybody along the route benefits from greater connectivity. That will be absolutely essential as we scrutinise the route’s development, the plans moving forward, and the connectivity.
I believe that a very strong case has been put forward this afternoon by hon. Members. I wonder if the costing of £10 million will be the final sum proposed. It sounds like a rather small amount of money, so I was a bit confused by that sum. We know that improvements to roads are incredibly important. The hon. Member for South Leicestershire (Alberto Costa) spoke about removing the rat runs from the villages, as they create such a nuisance. We heard about the distress of constituents over delays, which the hon. Member for Rugby (Mark Pawsey) highlighted. Delays do not just eat into a person’s evenings, night after night; they also affect whether someone gets the chance to get home to see their kids in the evening. For some, it will mean whether they can chose to go for a particular form of employment. It is therefore really important that all factors are considered when looking at new developments.
The other important point made by a number of hon. Members was on safety. Although capacity is vital and should be looked at in the future, travel safety has to be the prime consideration. Road improvements, whether changing the camber on the road or providing safe access on and off the highway, are vital. I am sure the Minister will hear that.
I also want to draw out the process of decision making. I have several concerns about phase 1 of the road investment strategy. Although hon. Members may well have put forward a strong case today, we know that a number of projects have been delayed in phase 1. Nineteen schemes have been pushed back into RIS 2, which means that resource that could have been dedicated to the project highlighted today—the expressway—could be delayed in further planning and payment processes. We need to look at that. Six schemes have been cancelled altogether—or, I should say, “paused for further review”. Sixteen projects have been delayed within the RIS 1 period, and there is a bunching up of 54 projects at the end of the phase. That clearly has an impact on the ability to deliver the programme at the end of the phase, in 2019-20 in particular.
In recruitment and skills, we are also seeing feast and famine across the construction sector that we really need to look at. We also need to make sure that we are able to recruit and train locally. The feast-and-famine approach means that people have to go further afield, and as a result, the costs of projects go up.
I would like the Minister to commit to moving on from that feast-and-famine approach—not least because it builds expectations from constituents. When the de-electrification of the trans-Pennine route was announced, I know from my own constituents how hope in the project plummeted. It is really important to do due diligence now, to make sure that every mode of transport has been explored to bring the best economic value into the midlands area. If there is a commitment, it is important they are adhered to in a timely way. We cannot have overprogramming and overpromising, then a deletion of expectation. I trust the Minister will speak to that in his contribution.
It is a delight, possibly an honour, to serve under your chairmanship, Mr McCabe. I start by thanking my hon. Friend the Member for Bosworth (David Tredinnick) for this useful, important and timely debate, which ties into a wider pattern of effective and successful lobbying from Members and colleagues from the same area.
My hon. Friend will know that this is an important area not merely for its road transport connections but for its history. He referenced the battle of Watling Street in AD 60-61, tragically not referring to my hon. Friend the Member for Clacton (Giles Watling), at the opposite end of whose constituency one would hope the road would ultimately end, but referring to the great Roman victory. Of course, the day after celebrating the suffragettes and the suffragists, I note the tragedy of our greatest suffragette, Boudicca, suffering her untimely defeat at such a moment. I thank him for the historical reference.
In order to respond to the comments from the hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) about RIS 1, I will start by laying out the Government’s overall approach. The debate has been interesting in the way that it has blended national and regional concerns relating to the road investment strategy’s second phase and the question whether this project should be a candidate for an expressway, with specifically local concerns, such as Mancetter island and so on, which Highways England might be invited to consider as part of its local responsibilities. It is important to keep those two balanced.
As hon. Members will know, in recent years, the Government have taken a much more long-term, phased and planned approach to investment in the strategic road network, including our motorways and main A roads. That has been a very important development over the last five to seven years. We do so for a specific reason, which is that when there is more longevity in the system and greater visibility of funding in the overall envelopes, there can be better planning, costs can be driven down in relative terms and productivity can be improved; overall, there should be greater certainty of delivery.
I thank the Minister for outlining the reasonable position of the Government in taking a long-term view when it comes to financing, but my South Leicestershire constituency has one of the largest logistics parks in Europe, Magna Park, and there is a proposal to double its size. That is not a long-term proposal—it is an immediate one. Given the problems we have expressed about congestion, noise, air pollution and so on, would the Minister look sympathetically at how the Government’s policy can be linked with the infrastructure proposals outlined by my hon. Friends and others from my constituency?
I am rather regretting giving way to my hon. Friend, because his intervention was of such a length and repeats information he already put on the record through his speech. I have very little time to make a quite a lot of points that I know he and other colleagues will want to respond to. Needless to say, of course the Government are sensitive to great and fast-breaking developments. We have schemes, including the large local major transport scheme, that are designed precisely to assist local government to petition where there are important local developments that can require new infrastructure on shorter term notice.
Highways England is making good progress according to the investment strategy launched in 2015, which brought with it a very large increase in funding for the strategic road network—more than £15 billion in the five years between 2015 and 2020. Highways England has already delivered something like 18 schemes that are open for traffic. Work on the £1.5 billion A14 Cambridge to Huntingdon scheme is advancing well.
My hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton (Mr Jones) mentioned the interaction between the M6 junction work and the work at Dodworth. He is of course right about that. What it shows—I use this to respond to the hon. Member for York Central—is that work has got to be phased, and sometimes the acceptance of bids is not consistent with the intelligent structuring of investment. As a result, Highways England routinely and quite properly slightly overprogrammes the amount of investment it is making, knowing that some of those schemes will not hit the correct benefit-cost ratios, some local authorities in some cases will not have their bids and other work ready on time, and there will be local opposition in some cases that may delay a scheme. Therefore, it is important to understand that some balancing out will be required, and that is what has happened in RIS 1. There has been some delay for all of those reasons. That does not, unfortunately, mean that the money that has not been spent can be redeployed, because it is overprogramming within an overall envelope that has been used for purposes of investment.
This represents significant progress, but we recognise that there is more to do, and it is in that context that it is important to think about the second phase of the road investment strategy, which has been highlighted by colleagues today, and the Government’s investment in the strategic road network between 2020 and 2025. It will be funded by the new national roads fund, an important development that is designed to assist planning, remove the potential for disruption and ensure that all money spent by taxpayers on vehicle excise duty in England will be reinvested back into the roads network. There will be a much closer link between the money people pay and the investment that is made, which will allow us and Highways England to take a co-ordinated, long-term approach to investment in the network.
It is vital that the strategy’s potential is realised, and that we use RIS 2 to unlock wide-ranging benefits for the whole nation. The RIS 2 system deploys and relies on proper input from local authorities, and we are very pleased with the work that has been done by those who have submitted bids and expressed interest in RIS 2 schemes across the country. That crucial feedback will help us to make and Highways England to implement the right investment decisions for our strategic roads.
I thank my hon. Friends the Members for South Leicestershire (Alberto Costa), for North Warwickshire (Craig Tracey), for Nuneaton, for Rugby (Mark Pawsey), and for Bosworth for their co-ordinated approach to considering this road, which is entirely appropriate for a regional bid. I also thank them for the letter they jointly signed supporting the proposed upgrade between the M42 and the M1 near Rugby. I note that the scheme is backed by 18 local authorities and has been endorsed by the Midlands Connect strategy.
It is important to understand that Highways England is taking careful note of the bid—I want to put that on the record clearly. We are grateful for that. Highways England has proposed the conversion of the country’s busiest A roads to what it calls an expressway standard. It has provided evidence to suggest that that could provide users of those roads with improved performance and safety benefits, and a motorway-standard experience. As hon. Members know, the Department is consulting on the proposals, and the consultation closes, as luck would have it, today, having been open for two months—again, serendipity for my hon. Friend’s debate.
I assure colleagues that the case Highways England made for investment in the A5 has been recorded as a formal response to the consultation, and I have noted it in this debate. The Department will publish its response to the consultation in the spring. Officials—those present and those in the Department—will have been noting all the advice given today, which will be taken into account as part of the consultation.
The hon. Member for York Central was right to raise a quizzical eyebrow about the £10 million that my hon. Friend the Member for Bosworth said would be the total cost of the scheme. If I understand it right, that £10 million will be required for the next phase of work into a study of the options. We are not quite in the world of Linda Evangelista, but £10 million does not go far when we are building roads. The research phase concludes after the Department’s response to the public consultation, after which decisions will be made about the content of RIS 2.
My hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton rightly identified the importance of avoiding accidents and pollution wherever possible, and of getting the full benefit from investments. I share that view. The reason for treating this as a route is so that a holistic view can be taken across all those issues—
You said we would finish at 5.46 pm, Mr McCabe.
I said 5.43 pm.
In that case, I apologise.
I am very sorry, but the clock has beaten you on this occasion.
Motion lapsed, and sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(14)).