Wednesday 18 April 2018
[Stewart Hosie in the Chair]
Council of Europe
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the work of the Council of Europe.
It is a great pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Mr Hosie, for this important debate. I thank the Minister, who I know is very interested in this work, as is my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr Mahmood). I also thank all the members of the UK delegation to the Council of Europe, some of whom have worked there for decades—I have worked for just months, so I defer to their knowledge and expertise in this area. I pay special tribute to the hon. Member for North Thanet (Sir Roger Gale), who has been an excellent leader of the delegation and has been very helpful to us all, as has my hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith), who leads the Labour delegation. Much of that work goes unrecognised.
All the parties in this House are represented in the Council of Europe, and the way we try to work together is a great tribute to us all. We do that because we know the importance of the Council of Europe. I was interested in introducing this morning’s debate because I have been in this House for 20 years and, to be frank, before that my understanding of the work of the Council of Europe was limited. The British public’s understanding of it is probably even more limited, which is no criticism of them. We all need to think about how we can raise the profile, not only in this country but across Europe, of the important work that the Council of Europe does. That is the purpose of today’s debate.
The Council of Europe calls itself the democratic conscience of greater Europe, which I think is true. I am not a cynical person—cynicism is the great enemy of politics today. That statement is a fundamental aim of the Council of Europe. Let us be clear: this is not about the UK saying that we have everything right, and that we will tell the rest of Europe and the world what to do. We have our own challenges, as we can see from some of today’s newspaper headlines regarding anti-Semitism and the Windrush generation.
Let us reflect on Winston Churchill, Clement Attlee and the great leaders of the past who set up the Council of Europe in the aftermath of the destruction and terror of world war two. Make no mistake: I am not comparing the situation today to world war two. However, I strongly believe that if Winston Churchill or Clement Attlee were alive today and could see what is happening across Europe, they would think, “Goodness me, there is still a long way to go, even some decades after we proposed the establishment of a council of Europe that would work towards the establishment of democracy, the rule of law, freedom of expression and tolerance across our continent, as well as the rest of the world.” That is why it is so important.
Sometimes such rhetoric—stating and restating the principles in which we believe—is seen as remote, and not dealing with the practical realities of the modern world. I say that we should never take for granted the way in which the Council of Europe stands up for and speaks out on the principles on which democratic societies must be based, which it does exceedingly well.
Yesterday I wrote to the Foreign Secretary about the proposed Polish holocaust law, which revises history and is clearly anti-Semitic. Does my hon. Friend agree that it needs to be raised in the Council of Europe with the Polish Government, as do the issues with the Hungarian Government regarding anti-Semitic tropes in the recent election?
My hon. Friend makes a good point. He is absolutely right about those issues in Poland and Hungary, but there are numerous other areas in which the Council of Europe continues to stand up and speak out. We should not shy away from that, which is why the statement that the Council of Europe acts as the democratic conscience of Europe is important. When the Council of Europe was established by Churchill and others with great words, they believed that within 20 or 30 years some of those problems could be defeated. Yet my hon. Friend reminds us of something that all of us who participate in such debates, both here and abroad, know: battles that we thought would be won are having to be refought. Things that we thought would be taken for granted are having to be fought for again.
Some of this is difficult, and there is so much to discuss. The Minister gave us an exposition of his efforts with Turkey. We in the Council of Europe would think that much of what happens in Turkey is not right, but what did the Minister do? He did not shy away from it. He went there, talked to them, and tried to say, “You are a democracy and part of NATO, and you were talking about becoming a member of the EU. We know that there are difficulties, but you cannot fight what you regard as terrorism or prejudice by resorting to measures that we regard as authoritarian and anti-democratic.” Such measures, however, do not mean that we turn our back on those countries. The Minister was absolutely right to remind us about how he went to speak in Istanbul—he will correct me if I am wrong—straight after the attempted coup, not to support the Turkish Government but to say to them, “Look, you may deal with these things, but you need to deal with them in a democratic way that adheres to the principles we all share.” That is exceedingly important.
As a body, we are looking at and dealing with many issues of real difficulty. I cannot believe that in 2018 I am speaking in this Chamber about how it is still important for the Council of Europe, which may become particularly important post-Brexit as an inter-parliamentary assembly where we can come together, to stand up for democracy and freedom under the law. From research by Amnesty International, we can see how in individual countries across Europe political sanctions are being introduced, people are being imprisoned for what they say, and people are being denied freedom of expression, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights, and gender equality. I am not saying that we all ought to live a life of gloom and pessimism, but part of the role of the Council of Europe is to talk to those countries and stand up for the principles that we hold dear.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate and agree with everything he has said. Does he agree that one good way to raise the profile of the 36 Members of this House and the other place who go to the Council of Europe would be, at the very minimum, an annual debate on the Floor of the House and in Government time to showcase what we are doing as a nation, among the very large number of nations that make up the Council of Europe and its observers?
I could not agree more. The right hon. Lady makes an excellent suggestion. I hope that the Minister can take the idea back and talk to his Whips Office—I am sure that ours will also be agreeable to that. We should all continue to think what more we can do in this country and across Europe to reflect the importance of the work being done. For example, the Minister might like to make a statement to the House after the annual meeting of the Committee of Ministers. I am sure that he would enjoy that.
The truth is that this is important work. To give an example, one of the challenges of our time is the migrant and refugee crisis. Whatever our view on its causes, who is to blame and so on, the Council of Europe reminds us that in the end we are talking about people, in particular children, and that whatever the rights and wrongs of individual foreign policy decisions, it cannot be right that tens of thousands of unaccompanied children are struggling across Europe, often with no prospect of being resettled or relocated.
I went to Jordan recently as part of the Council of Europe delegation. What a phenomenal example Jordan is to the rest of the world in the way it tries to deal with refugee and migrant problems. It is a country of 10 million people. It is not one of the poorest countries in the world, but it is not one of the richest either. Two million of those people are migrants or refugees. I went to the Zaatari refugee camp on the Jordanian-Syrian border, where there are 80,000 people. Hundreds of thousands have been through that camp, which was established in 2012. It is now a small town, as the Minister will know, as I think he has been there as well. The Jordanian people are an example to the rest of us in the way that they have supported the needs of the people in that camp and the rest of the country, and helped them to integrate into their society. They are a reminder and a wake-up call to us all to see children as children, with rights, who need others to speak up for them. It is not their fault that they are fleeing war, that they are unaccompanied or that they do not know where they are going to go. Surely, as the Council of Europe has reminded us time and again, we have a responsibility to stand up, work with them and do what we can.
My hon. Friend is making a characteristically powerful speech. He and I are both members of the Council of Europe’s Committee on Migration, Refugees and Displaced Persons, and there is no better example of why the Council of Europe is about not just the history of our relationship with Europe, but its future. It behoves every nation to address these challenges. Only by being able to talk to our colleagues in other countries will we ever be able to find solutions. What the Council of Europe and that Committee allows us to do is start that process.
I absolutely agree. My hon. Friend has been one of the Members of this House at the forefront of championing the rights of children. That is one example of what the Council of Europe seeks to do. Helped by the hon. Member for North Thanet, I have put down my own resolution on trafficking and slavery, which we hope will help us to make progress.
Is it not also great that we have a body in Europe that has many of the former countries of the Soviet Union as members? We talk to and discuss with them and they are part of a democratic process. There are still issues in some of those countries—I know Members will have been to some, observed elections and seen some of the problems—but we are trying to help and support them and build their democracy. It is just not possible to expect a country that has no democratic traditions or history of inclusion and tolerance, and that still has ethnic clashes, suddenly to pass a constitution and the next day become a beacon of democracy for the world. That is not the real world. The important point is that those countries need help, support and challenge and the Council of Europe can provide that.
Talking of countries of the former Soviet Union that have problems with democracy, one must not forget Russia. Does the hon. Gentleman share my view that jaw-jaw is better than war-war, and that one of the advantages of bringing Russia back into the Council of Europe, however much we disagree with its present Government, is that we could at least engage them in some way and perhaps encourage them into better behaviour?
I think that it is really important that the Council of Europe has standards and says that it will not compromise on its principles. I also believe that it is extremely important to continue to talk and discuss with people. I agree absolutely with that, but not with saying, “We will not worry about that, on the basis that we want to keep talking to you.” We have to be tough and say, “This is what we believe,” but that does not mean it is impossible for us to continue to have dialogue with people even if we do not agree with them. That is what I think about Russia.
It is astonishing that even in Europe—this continent that holds itself up as an example to the rest of the world—there are still examples where we have to defend the principle of freedom of expression. It is astonishing that in some countries in Europe journalists have been imprisoned simply for criticising the Government of the day. It is hard to believe. When the Council of Europe was set up in 1949, would those who went to its first meeting believe that we would be here in 2018 and that there would still be people locked up for what they say or write? I do not believe that they would have. The Council of Europe says to the Governments of its member states that they cannot lock people up simply because they criticise a Government, however much they disagree with what has been written or said. It is a fundamental principle that people can organise, write and demonstrate peacefully for something they believe in. Here again, the Council of Europe is standing up and demanding that.
I do not want to speak for too long, because I know that others want to contribute, but I have a couple of further remarks to make. The challenges that the Council of Europe has faced and is facing should not hide its achievements. Sometimes it is criticised for being a talking shop. There is a lot to be said for talking shops. Where else would we bring that collection of countries together and force them to listen to opinions that they might not agree with?
I apologise for my late arrival to the debate—I was detained by a constituency issue. I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate and making such a powerful speech. I am a very new member of the Council of Europe, so it is fantastic to hear. Does he agree that, given the current geopolitical situation and what we are facing in Syria, talking is one of the most important tools in our armoury?
I thank the hon. Lady for her apology—of course that is fine. I agree that it is about talking, but the Council of Europe also tries to help us understand. Ignorance is not bliss, and in order to solve the problems facing Europe and the world we have to try to understand what is going on. That does not mean that we abandon our principles; it means that we have to try to understand why people are doing what they are doing. I agree with her that that is really important.
The Council of Europe has helped to establish democracy and certain other principles. We should celebrate the fact that it is now a “death penalty-free zone”, as it puts it, which is of huge significance. One of the Council of Europe’s great achievements is the European convention on human rights and the establishment of the European Court of Human Rights. It is important for the country to recognise that, although we are leaving the EU, the European Court of Human Rights is not part of the EU. When we look at some of the cases that have been heard at the European Court of Human Rights, even those relating to our country, we see a body standing up for the universality of a principle and holding even Governments to account. That is not necessarily the most popular thing to say, but I fundamentally believe it. I make that argument in my constituency and tell people that we should celebrate the fact that we have human rights and bodies that stand up for them; we should not abhor them or use populist rhetoric.
As I discussed with the previous Lord Chancellor, we have a magnificent success record at the European Court of Human Rights. Well over 90% of our cases are dropped or turned away. We should celebrate that to ensure that the ECHR is not seen as vehicle for attack by organisations such as the Daily Mail.
I agree. The hon. Gentleman will remember that it was the European Court of Human Rights that ensured that thalidomide victims got the justice they deserved.
Whether it is ending the death penalty, fighting for freedom of expression, strengthening human rights, tackling discrimination, standing up for refugees and migrants, campaigning for and championing gender equality, introducing new laws and conventions, or acting as a forum for debating difficult and controversial issues, we can all be proud of the Council of Europe. I have talked about the challenges that we face in Europe today, but let us remember the challenges that those who established the Council of Europe faced in 1949. We do not face the same challenges, but let us not be cynical. Let us be hopeful and optimistic. Let us believe that by talking to and challenging other countries in the environment that the Council of Europe offers us, we can make progress. In the end, ordinary people’s common decency and desire to achieve what they can for themselves, their families and their countries will move them to believe it is possible to overcome the racism, intolerance and discrimination that still scar our continent today. It is possible to do better. The Council of Europe gives us a real opportunity to make that more of a reality than it is.
I will do my best, Mr Hosie, but I may take a little longer than three and a half minutes.
I congratulate my friend, the hon. Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker), on securing this debate, on his robust presentation and on his kind personal remarks. He said that we work together, and indeed we do. In that context, I thank the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith), the leader of the Labour group, and the hon. Member for Livingston (Hannah Bardell), the leader of the Scottish National party group, for their unqualified support for the work we all try to do. We are collegiate, we work together and we bat for Britain: this is team UK. It is our collective and proud boast that we do not allow our domestic party political differences to interfere with the work we try to do on behalf of the country within the Council of Europe.
I also thank, because they are not present, the Members of the other House, who make a significant contribution to the work of the Parliamentary Assembly as part of our team. I would be failing in my duty if I did not put on the record our collective appreciation for the tireless work of our ambassador, Christopher Yvon, and his team from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in Strasbourg. Their wisdom and support is absolutely invaluable.
Finally on the list of thank yous, and on a purely personal note, during my brief time as the President of the Parliamentary Assembly, under rather bizarre circumstances, I was fortunate enough to have the service of Mark Neville, the chef de cabinet in the President’s office, and his team. Again, the support they offered was superb.
The difference between the UK delegation and some others is that we are not mandated. In the Parliamentary Assembly, we see people rushing out and telephoning ambassadors, Foreign Secretaries and others to take instructions about how to vote. That is not true of this delegation. We make up our own minds and try to work together. We do not always agree—you will find out in a moment, Mr Hosie, that my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) and I have a slightly different opinion about Russia—but part of the principle of British parliamentary democracy is that we have the right to disagree with each other and still respect our friends, and we do. For that we should all be grateful.
When I joined the Parliamentary Assembly for the first time in 1987, there were some 20 members. When Winston Churchill and Jean Monnet founded it in 1947, there were only 12 members. There are now 47 member states. The Council of Europe territory stretches from Azerbaijan to Spain, and from the northern shores of the Mediterranean to Iceland. It has as observers Canada, Japan, the United States, and the Holy See and Algeria, Kazakhstan, Morocco, Tunisia and the Palestinian Legislative Council are partners for democracy—a status introduced in 2009.
The Council covers a population of some 820 million people. It is consistently confused and conflated with the European Union, which in some quarters does us no favours whatever. The European flag was created by the Council of Europe in 1955 and borrowed by the European Union subsequently—as was the “Ode to Joy”, the European anthem. For all that, as my hon. Friend for Gedling said, and I say that advisedly, there is no other organisation in the world that deals in the way the Council of Europe and the Parliamentary Assembly do—the Council is made up of the Committee of Ministers and the Parliamentary Assembly—with torture, racism and the trafficking of human beings. He mentioned, absolutely correctly, the need to give children a voice and protect them from sexual abuse. The Council of Europe tries to do that. It deals with violence against women, the rights of minorities within countries, and the freedom of the press, which at the moment is very significant indeed in the context of countries such as Turkey, where I fear a significant number of journalists languish in prison as political prisoners.
Of course, we should not forget that the Council also deals with election observation. It provides election observation missions to very many countries, to seek to underpin democracy and to ensure that proper democratic processes are followed and that elections are free and fair.
The hon. Member for Gedling said that sometimes we are referred to as a talking shop. That is true; unfortunately, the popular press also describes us as a dining club. In fact, a great deal of work is done by all colleagues present. In my opening remarks, I omitted to thank the leader of the European Conservatives group, my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset (Mr Liddell-Grainger). I would hate for him to go away and sulk, and think that his work was not appreciated, because it is.
The Council of Europe embraces the European Court of Human Rights, which was mentioned. That is a very significant part of our work. I would like to be able to say that everything in the garden is rosy, but it is not. We face a very difficult situation, particularly with the Russian Federation following the invasion and annexation of Crimea and the Federation’s interference in the business of the Donbass, in eastern Ukraine. The Parliamentary Assembly invoked sanctions against the Russian Federation and took away its voting rights. Some will say that it has been suspended from the Council of Europe—that is incorrect. The Russian Federation walked out and has chosen not to present its credentials for the last two years.
Worse than that, we are now being subjected to economic blackmail: the Federation has failed to pay some €20 million that are due to the Parliamentary Assembly. That is designed to impact upon our work. The Federation’s line is, “You give us back our voting rights and we’ll come back and pay.” The Council of Europe is not for sale. The Parliamentary Assembly is not for sale to anybody at any price. That message needs to go out very clearly to the Russian Federation. Yes, if it recognises the transgressions in Crimea, in the Donbass and in the support for the use of chemical warfare both in this country and in Syria, it will be welcomed back. Of course, we need to keep talking—those talks go on behind the scenes.
The world has to understand that there is no place for any country, around the table in the Hemicycle of the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly, that is not prepared to abide by the terms and conditions laid down. We are a rules-based international organisation and we abide by those rules. That message has to go out very clearly indeed. We shall emerge from this process stronger, better organised, leaner and possibly hungrier, but able to play our part in the developing world.
The point has been made but I will make it again: post-Brexit, the Parliamentary Assembly and the Ministerial Committee will be the voice of Britain in wider Europe. It is an important platform now; it will become a much more important platform in future.
It is a real pleasure to speak in this very important debate. I, too, want to start by paying tribute to the fact that we all work together so very well. It is a real privilege to be part of a UK delegation that has agreed jointly to sponsor an exhibition at next week’s Assembly to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday agreement. I pay particular tribute to the hon. Member for North Thanet (Sir Roger Gale) for his amazing work and how he has worked with me and all of us to make sure that the exhibition goes ahead. I am very proud of that piece of work.
There was a practical example of how we all work together at the Assembly in January, when a monitoring report on Bosnia and Herzegovina was very critical of Serbian activity in Bosnia. There was an attempt by Serbian representatives from Bosnia at the Assembly to weaken the report. It was the strength of the UK delegation voting as one that helped to defeat those amendments. That avoided the sending of a very negative message back to Bosnia that it is acceptable to indulge in intimidation and aggression towards other ethnic groups. That totally underlines the importance of the Council of Europe—the fact that we can work together and send out those very powerful messages to member states. The Council of Europe is not just a talking shop—if it is a talking shop, it is a very important one that is capable of sending out the most profound and fundamental of messages across the continent.
I want to echo all the thanks that have been given so far, but I also want to draw attention to the staff who work in the Council of Europe office here in Parliament. They do a fantastic job. Jonathan Finlay in particular has dedicated a great deal of time to putting together the exhibition that we will all enjoy, I hope, next week in Strasbourg. I echo entirely the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker)—or is it right honourable?
He is getting there. I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate, which we are all very pleased to participate in. I will not repeat his comments about the history that led to the foundation of the Council of Europe in 1949, but I do want to say that the Council has certainly played a vital role in defending democracy, human rights and the rule of law since that time. I absolutely echo his comments that it is important at this stage, when we are at a crossroads and face potentially fundamental changes in Europe, that we do not take for granted the values that underpin the Council of Europe. I am concerned about that. It is all too easy to take those values as given, but we must continue to defend them.
We have heard a lot today about the rights of minorities and the need to tackle the problem of political prisoners, LGBT rights, women’s rights, refugees and children. We also need to remember the rights of lawyers—I mention that because I am sitting next to one—to defend their clients effectively, because they are really important, especially when it comes to freedom of expression and dealing with the problems relating to the states that imprison people for speaking out.
I want to talk briefly about some of the problems with member states. Hungary and Poland have elected Governments that are troubling in their attitudes towards minorities. We need to make sure that we keep a very careful eye on what is happening in Hungary and Poland. I also want to mention Armenia, which, under pressure from the Council, signed up to around 70 Council of Europe conventions and reformed its electoral code to ensure that seats in elections were allocated to national minorities. But I read today in The Times about the unrest emerging in Armenia. The President has retired from office and has taken on a prime ministerial role. It looks as though, in effect, he we will transfer the powers that he had as President to his new role as Prime Minister.
Clearly, Armenia is one of those states that the Council of Europe will have to continue to monitor very carefully. What is happening in the country gives me reason to believe absolutely that the Council of Europe has a crucial role in ensuring that it does not waver from the path that leads it to democracy, human rights and the rule of law.
I echo entirely the comments of the hon. Member for North Thanet—I nearly called him “my hon. Friend”, as I think in this context he is—about Russia. We have to be firm in the Russian situation. We cannot be blackmailed by a state that has, in effect, decided that it does not want to abide by the rules relating to international law. It is threatening to undermine financially the work of the Council of Europe. We must stick firmly to our values and send Russia a clear message, but I echo my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling’s comment that the door must always be open to dialogue with states such as Russia and Turkey.
Let me mention the Council’s electoral observation work. I was in Azerbaijan last week for the presidential election, which was an eye-opening experience, to say the least. Ilgar Mammadov, the leader of the main Opposition party in Azerbaijan, is a political prisoner, and many of the main Opposition parties boycotted the election on that ground. Eight candidates were allowed on the final list, and a number of them actually endorsed Aliyev. This was not a free or fair election. There was widespread intimidation, there were widespread crackdowns on free expression, and on election day I observed the stuffing of ballot papers. Some 20% of observations at polling stations reported irregularities, and irregularities were reported at 50% of the counts observed. On those grounds, the Council of Europe, at its meeting the following morning, determined that the election was not free or fair.
That is only the second election observation mission I have participated in—I went to Armenia last year—but election observation is one of the most important aspects of the work of the Council of Europe. As the hon. Member for North Thanet said, it is one of the key means by which we underpin our values and our belief in democracy and free and fair elections. Although, when we observe elections, we cannot stop corruption or the failure of member states that are monitored to observe free and fair play, it is nevertheless important to continue that observation work and to continue to report abuses of electoral processes. For me, that is one of the key means by which we make progress.
I will finish by endorsing the suggestion made by the right hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Dame Cheryl Gillan) that we should have an annual debate on the work of the Council of Europe. I also like the idea of an annual statement on the work of the Committee of Ministers. That is a really good idea and would be a key means for Members of this Parliament to be made more aware of the important work of the Council of Europe.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker). Colleagues have called him their hon. Friend and, given the spirit in which we have talked about the Council of Europe, I completely agree. I find the Council a most relaxing and agreeable place to speak: one can be assured of speaking for three or four minutes without interruption. [Interruption.] I see that the Minister is about to leap to his feet, but I will not take any interventions.
The hon. Member for Gedling is absolutely right that we need to do more to promote the Council of Europe. We already promote Select Committees with debates in the main Chamber, and I fully endorse the comment from my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Dame Cheryl Gillan) that we should have a debate about the Council on the Floor of the House. However, the hon. Gentleman missed an important point: the Council of Europe itself needs to sell what it does more robustly. Importantly, it has a number of so-called partners for democracy, who sit around the outside of the Chamber and can speak during debates, among whom are the Palestinians and Israel. I cannot think of another organisation where both are present and both speak regularly in debates. It is important to bear that in mind.
I repeat the comments I made about the European Court of Human Rights. During the Brexit campaign, I think many people thought we were arguing about the European Court of Human Rights when we were actually arguing about the European Court of Justice. There is a tremendous amount to be done to ensure that those Courts are seen to be separate. We should make a point of communicating strongly our success rate with the European Court of Human Rights.
I agree that not everything is lovely at the Council. It has two major problems, both of which we can deal with internally. The first is corruption, which we saw with the previous President of the Parliamentary Assembly. New rules have been introduced that will apply to the Council, and there are more to come: I understand that a 200-page document on corruption in the Council has been prepared. The second problem stems from the Russians’ withdrawal of funds: we need to look at the Council’s finances as a whole. It is no use continuing with the same means of funding. We need to concentrate on what the Council does best and ensure that it is adequately funded to do that. On those notes, I shall leave the floor to others.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker) on securing this timely debate.
I will focus on the Council of Europe convention on the protection of children against sexual exploitation and sexual abuse, which is also known as the Lanzarote convention. The convention requires states to: implement legislative measures to prevent and combat the sexual exploitation and sexual abuse of children; protect the rights of child victims without discrimination; promote national and international co-operation; collect and store data on convicted offenders; co-operate with relevant bodies across international borders; protect children; and support victims. There is no doubt that ratifying and implementing the Lanzarote convention would reinforce the UK’s efforts to prevent British sex offenders from sexually exploiting and abusing vulnerable children at home and abroad.
The 10th anniversary of the Labour Government signing the Lanzarote convention is 5 May. Sadly, we are still waiting for this Government to ratify it. The convention has been signed by 47 countries, and 42 have managed to ratify it—but not the UK. In January, the Government told me, a mere 10 years on, that they are satisfied that the UK is compliant and are aiming for ratification in the first half of this year. Will the Minister confirm that that is still the case and give us the date when ratification will happen? Ratification of the convention would be a crucial step towards deterring those who believe they can abuse children overseas with impunity. Following my questions, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office revealed that from 2013 to 2017 there were 361 requests for consular assistance by UK nationals who had been arrested for child sex offences. However, embassies are informed of an individual’s arrest only if the individual requests it, so that figure is likely to be the tip of the iceberg.
Article 25 of the convention makes specific provision for preventing travelling sex offenders from sexually exploiting and abusing children abroad. The charity ECPAT UK has documented more than 300 cases of British nationals abusing children abroad. UK offenders continue to pose an acute threat to vulnerable children overseas, and we need to strengthen our laws to prevent that. Ratifying the Lanzarote convention would help to promote greater international co-operation, information sharing and use of extraterritorial legislation. I urge the Minister to do all he can to ensure that ratification happens.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie. I congratulate the hon. Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker) on calling this debate.
I begin by paying tribute to my colleagues, particularly my hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Sir Roger Gale), who, in his three days as President of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, did more for the United Kingdom’s international relations than Her Majesty’s Government often do in 12 months. That is no reflection on the Minister.
When we thank people, we always miss somebody out. Before I get into terrible trouble, I should say that it would be remiss of me not to thank, through my right hon. Friend, our secretariat here: Nick Wright and his team, in particular Jonathan Finlay, who, as she said, has done so much to promote our cause. We are indebted to them all the time.
In making a list, there is a danger that we will miss someone out, but I had that on my list. As I will mention later, the redoubtable Nick Wright and his team really look after us.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset (Mr Liddell-Grainger), who leads the European Conservatives, has worked tirelessly to make the European Conservatives—surprisingly enough—now the third largest political group in the Council of Europe. I also pay tribute to all other Members from the other parties, because we truly are UK plc. We are a really good team, not managed by mission control—although we are well served by Christopher Yvon and his team, who provide us with advice.
I do not think that people fully realise what the achievements of the Council of Europe are, so it is worth repeating them briefly. It was responsible for ending the death penalty in Europe by making it an accession condition, which is one of its proudest and best achievements. We are a death penalty-free zone thanks to the Assembly’s efforts. After 1989, it also helped the ex-communist countries move to democracy. When we really think about what has happened over the European territory in that time, what this fantastic institution has contributed is remarkable.
We have already mentioned the hijacking of “Ode to Joy” and the flag, which is a great shame. The organisation has also inspired a host of national laws, pressing for new conventions. It provides a forum to debate timely, really hot and controversial social, political and international topics. It has sought to hold debates on major social issues that have divided Europeans, including advancing the rights of minorities such as the Roma and the LGBT community, and dealt with painful issues such as the relationships between Russia and Georgia and some of the crimes of communism. It is certainly leading the way in terms of gender balance as far as the committees and its operation are concerned.
I do not want to repeat everything that has already been said, but I do want to mention the system of rapporteurs. We have nine committees, and I am pleased to be the vice-president of the Political Affairs and Democracy Committee. In fact, for my sins I am currently the rapporteur on the commitment to introduce rules to ensure fair referendums in Council of Europe member states. I have to say, I achieved the rapporteurship with help from Lord Foulkes, a member of the Labour delegation. I sometimes think it may be a poisoned chalice, but I am honoured to be working with the Venice Commission and with an expert, Dr Alan Renwick, from the Constitution Unit.
Every cloud has a silver lining. The issue is important, particularly because of the referendums we have had in this country, and the Catalonian referendum and others. The rules need updating.
The rapporteurs’ work is broad and far-reaching. For example, we are evaluating the status of the Kyrgyz Republic and Morocco and Jordan as partners for democracy, and we are looking at strengthening our co-operation with the UN, the political transition in Egypt and the dialogue with Algeria—I could go on. There is a really impressive list, and I hope the Government will take that on board and read the reports as they come through, because they contain valuable information.
In addition to calling for an annual debate on the work of the Council of Europe on the Floor of the House in Government time, I will sow another seed. The last time I was at a plenary session, I asked the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority if I could take one of my researchers with me, because it is quite difficult to explain how the Council of Europe operates. It is completely different from here, exceedingly complex and full of layers—and controversies, as it happens, at the moment. Of course, as Members of Parliament, we now have limitless travel in Europe, which is a great improvement, for which we thank IPSA, and our researchers can travel for us, if necessary, on parliamentary business anywhere in the UK.
I ended up supporting my researcher to come for four days to the Council of Europe. I think—I hope—she found it really interesting and rewarding. It was good to work with Nick and the team here and to meet the ambassadorial team and all the Members, and it gave her a greater understanding to support my work as a parliamentarian. I hope the powers that be will look at that, because it is not unreasonable for full-time members of the Council of Europe to be allowed at least one trip for a member of their research team to come with them—to enable us to do a much better job, Minister, on behalf of UK plc.
That said, the UK delegation punches above its weight, because it really is the epitome of a national team from our four constituent nations and both Houses of Parliament working together in harmony in the interests of UK plc —and, more importantly, in the interests of the 47 member states of the Council of Europe. I am proud to be a member of the delegation.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker) on securing the debate. I will not take up much time—I have cut my speech back so that we can get other people in—but I want to make a couple of points.
The Russian Federation joined the Council back in 1996, but it does not send a delegation at the moment because of the imposition of sanctions on it over the invasion of Ukraine, another member state. Russia has stopped its payments to the Council and threatened to leave the institution completely, denying its 140 million citizens access to the European Court of Human Rights. Russia accounts for more than a third of the Court’s case load. That is another example of Russia’s systematic attempt to bully and undermine multilateral institutions, and it is testing the boundaries of what is acceptable in international relations.
We know about Russia’s hybrid activity, which is trying to sow division in other countries, but I want to quote from a journalist from Ukraine—whose name I will pronounce wrongly—Roman Skaskiw, who wrote of the nine lessons of Russian propaganda. I will not quote them all, but we can understand four of them. The first is:
“Rely on dissenting political groups to deliver your message abroad; far right is as good as far left”.
“Destroy and ridicule the idea of truth…Pollute the information space”
“Accuse the enemy of doing what you are doing to confuse the conversation.”
That is exactly what is happening at the moment, and we should consider that.
I have been on the delegation to the Council for a couple of years and have observed that the countries that seem to have more interest in it are the eastern European, former Warsaw pact countries. Whenever a session in the hemicycle finishes, it is their media there; we do not see the BBC or ITN. They seem to have a thirst for the debate. I also understand that the sessions are shown live on the equivalent of BBC Parliament in about a dozen countries around Europe. The idea of a debate on the Floor of the House and a statement on the Council of Ministers is exactly right.
The problem we have at the moment, and the lesson for me in all this, is that the members of the generation who fought the second world war are becoming fewer in number. As a new generation who did not live through the cold war matures—perhaps as a consequence they may experience a new one—perhaps we should remind ourselves of these words: the price of liberty is eternal vigilance.
I am proud to be a member of the Council of Europe, especially as I have been reincarnated. I wear it as a badge of honour that I was sacked by David Cameron for voting for a fair referendum and purdah. Let me say to the hon. Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker) that I want to nail the lie that the Council of Europe is used by the leadership of various parties to dump people who disagree with them. That is an outrageous slur.
The Council of Europe is a noble concept. As we know, it was founded by Winston Churchill, who was clear that although he wanted continental countries to join some sort of justiciable entity, he did not think that appropriate for Great Britain. We are proud of the work that we have done right through the ’50s, and particularly in the 1990s with bringing eastern Europe back into democracy. However, I think that the Council of Europe and the Court of Human Rights have lost their way, and the Court in particular has become too intrusive. It was founded to counter fascism and extremism, but as we have seen, particularly with the row over prisoners’ voting rights, it is becoming too intrusive in the internal workings of democracies. In a sense, the Council of Europe has also lost its way, and we have heard about the corruption scandals and money problems.
Where do we go now? I am not in favour of just letting Russia in after all its depredations in Crimea, Ukraine and Syria. Of course the Council of Europe is not for sale, but it is not just a question of money. Other countries in eastern Europe, and particularly Turkey, have also been playing games with money. It is not just Russia; a lot of people should be criticised for this issue. The trouble with expelling a country such as Russia is that eventually it has to be let back in. The Council of Europe is not like the European Union; it is primarily a parliamentary assembly that enables countries that come from different directions, with different forms of democracy and different problems, to talk to each other. Many countries in the Council of Europe, especially Armenia, Georgia, and Azerbaijan are not shining lights of democracy. Indeed, Azerbaijan and Armenia in particular have really been engaging almost in a state of war.
Where do we go from here? I do not have any obvious solutions, but the Minister is present, and the Council of Europe and the Committee of Ministers is attended—the Russians do turn up. It is not quite true that we have expelled the Russians from the Council of Europe. They do turn up, and I know from speaking to our ambassador that he engages with them. It is a conduit of discussion. I do not know what the solution is, but I understand from my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset (Mr Liddell-Grainger) that the Russians are sending a representative to the Parliamentary Assembly next week. There are wheels within wheels, and ways—without forgetting our principles—to try to bring them back into some kind of democratic assembly. I shall leave it there, because that is what the Council of Europe is surely about: whatever our disagreements, it is better to talk than to make war.
Thank you, Mr Hosie, and I apologise again for my lateness. It is somewhat unfortunate to be presided over by a member of my party and to be late, but constituency matters held me back.
Like others, I pay tribute to Nick Wright, Jonathan Finlay, and the staff who serve us so well. As a new member of the Council of Europe, I lead the SNP group together with my colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard). We were well served by our predecessors, Alex Salmond and Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh, and I pay tribute to their work. Unfortunately, the press were not very kind to them at times, but those who served with them at the Council of Europe know the incredible power of work that they did, and how hard they worked on behalf of the SNP and Scotland. It is important to put that on the record.
I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker) for securing this debate, and for his passion and verve. His speech was fantastic, and I hope that people will watch this debate and understand the work of the Council of Europe. When I was asked to take on this role by our group leader, I took it very seriously. I admit that I was not prepared for the volume of work and the complexity of the issues raised, or for the amount of time it would take up. The suggestion from the right hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Dame Cheryl Gillan) about staff is sensible. We are accountable to our constituents for the use of public money, but we can only promote and do our best in the Council of Europe—and, indeed, with all our work—if the right resources are available to us. The promotion of such work is extremely important.
I wish to reflect a little on what others have said, and on my recent experiences at the Assembly’s first sitting this year. At the Irish ambassador’s reception, he made a powerful speech about the work of the Council of Europe and its importance post-Brexit, particularly for trade and international relations, as well as the continuation of campaigns for human rights and democracy. Many people do not realise that the Council of Europe brought an end to the death penalty in Europe, or that the Council of Europe and the European Court of Human Rights have allowed people to take forward many cases. A number of those cases have been very high profile, particularly on the rights of service personnel who have suffered injury or death, and the rights of LGBT people.
As we leave the EU, we must reflect on what our role in Europe will be. The SNP has a clear position of maintaining membership of the single market and customs union, but as many have said we put politics aside when we come to the Council of Europe and we work together. Towards the end of our time at the Council of Europe, the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) and I had a very interesting discussion about deaths abroad—that is an issue on which I have been working on behalf of my constituent, Kirsty Maxwell, and a matter that I hope to raise at the Council of Europe. The hon. Gentleman and I could not be at more opposite ends of the political spectrum, but we had a shared interest on a shared issue, and the Council of Europe gave us the opportunity to have a discussion about that. He gave me his personal support, for which I was grateful, and I take this opportunity to pay tribute to him and reflect that the Assembly gave us space to have that discussion.
Does the hon. Lady agree that one important point that has not yet been mentioned is that each member of the Council of Europe is a parliamentarian who has been elected in their own country? That cornerstone of democracy is so important to the Council of Europe.
I absolutely agree, and our being able to return to our constituencies and report on the work done by us and the Council of Europe is important. We must look for as many opportunities as we can to do that within this place, and in the media, and there is an opportunity to engage more positively.
I remember returning home on the tube one evening and reading a declaration in the London Evening Standard that it had a new Brussels correspondent. I thought, “Well, isn’t that ironic? Where have they been for the last 10 years?” There was a recent report about the reportage not just of the EU and its institutions, but of Europe in general, and the UK came very near the bottom for quality of reportage and coverage. I do not wish to diverge or digress too much, but the sad truth about Brexit is that people are learning about the EU, what it brings to them and its benefits, only as we leave. We will continue to be a member of the Council of Europe and, for the many reasons that people have highlighted, its work will be extremely important.
Let me reflect briefly on some of my observations from the Hemicycle during the initial days that I spent there. It is completely different from the Chamber of the House of Commons. There is electronic voting. Voting takes merely a few moments; I could not help reflecting on that and thinking, as I put my fingers into the black box and pressed the buttons, how much quicker and more efficient this place would be if we had a similar voting system—[Hon. Members: “No! No!] I know there will be many dissenting voices, but I will press on.
It was also incredible to see the Danish national girls’ choir sweep into the Hemicycle and sing for the Members. It would be difficult to imagine something like that happening in the Chamber of the House of Commons —although perhaps we should consider putting it to Mr Speaker—with people taking pictures of each other and engaging in a lively, democratic way.
The hon. Member for North Thanet (Sir Roger Gale) mentioned the breadth of coverage of the Council of Europe, and the number of people: 820 million people is incredible. He leads us ably and I have enjoyed working with him very much. He has spoken of the breadth of issues dealt with and challenged there, including torture, racism and trafficking. The hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) spoke about child trafficking and her work on that. As to the fact that the UK Government have not ratified the Lanzarote convention on child sexual exploitation, it is important that we continue to press the matter.
Perhaps I can put the hon. Lady’s mind, and that of the hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion), at rest by confirming that our assessment is that we are now compliant to ratify the convention. We laid the means of doing so before Parliament last week, on 12 April, so the hon. Member for Rotherham can dance a little jig of joy.
That is excellent news and testament to the work of the hon. Lady, as well as the work done and pressure put on by the Council of Europe.
For my part, the work of the SNP in the Council will be very much about putting forward Scotland’s voice about its place in Europe, as well as working with colleagues on issues of common interest. I look forward to working with the right hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham in her role as rapporteur on referendums. She will know that, whatever side of the argument—if any—people took in the 2014 referendum in Scotland, it has been held up as the gold standard in terms of process. I hope that we can work together.
I am glad to hear that. It sounds as if the right hon. Lady has the right expertise and credentials. Hers is an important role, and we look forward to working with her on it. I look forward to working with colleagues across the House in our future endeavours at the Council of Europe.
It is always a pleasure to serve under your stewardship, Mr Hosie.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker) for securing this debate, whose importance is testified to by the fact that it has been attended by the leaders of the Labour and Conservative groups, and the leader of the UK delegation, as well as other hon. Members. The people that I should like to thank for supporting me during my period at the Council of Europe are Terry Davis, who was the Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill, and who became the Secretary General of the Council of Europe; Sir Alan Meale, the former Member for Mansfield, who also did great work and supported me; and two current Members, Lord Foulkes and Lord Anderson. They ably supported me while I was there, and they deserve a mention.
Since the day of the EU referendum, almost two years ago, the Government’s approach to Brexit has often been light on substance, but it has rarely been short of a good slogan or two. Hence we hear a lot from Ministers about global Britain, and they reassure us that while we are leaving the EU we are not leaving Europe. If we take the Government’s word for that—and I hope that we can—a post-Brexit renewal of our commitment to the Council of Europe would be a good place to start. Of course, as an institution it is quite different from the EU. It is a much less formal grouping of countries, based on shared values rather than a legal or political union, but it is none the worse for that.
In what I believe was her first speech on the theme of global Britain, the Prime Minister spoke of her belief in the UK as a country with the “self-confidence and freedom” to embrace our international responsibilities and play our
“full part in promoting peace and prosperity around the world”.
Surely one of the best examples of the UK playing just such an independent leadership role is our history as a founding member of the Council of Europe, and, going hand in hand with that, as a lead author of the European convention on human rights. Important as that historic legacy is, it is not enough by itself to guarantee our continued status as a respected leader and staunch upholder of the values enshrined in the European Court of Human Rights. That is especially true given how clear it is that we have not yet reached universal adherence to the Court, even among the membership of the Council. We must continue to strive for that. There may still be some distance to go, but that should not be considered as evidence of the failure of the Council of Europe or the convention itself. The very fact that the membership of the Council remains so large and diverse is testament to the enduring appeal of what we may proudly call European values.
Of course it is true that member states, including, at times, the UK, have not always embraced the implications of membership when they take the form of Court decisions with which we may not entirely agree; but the integrity of the Council and of its membership surely depends on our willingness to lead by example in honouring our obligation to respect both the convention and the Court that enforces it. Only then can we make a forceful case, as surely we must, to member states such as Russia and Turkey—and Azerbaijan and Armenia, which have been mentioned in the debate—that they too must respect the human rights enshrined in the charter.
My mention of Turkey is no coincidence, given the Turkish Government’s refusal to comply with a ruling by the European Court that was rightly cheered by many as a bold endorsement of the principles of free speech. In ordering the release of two imprisoned journalists, Mehmet Altan and Şahin Alpay, the Court made it clear that their continued detention constitutes a breach of their right to freedom of expression. Obviously the two journalists were by no means the only people for whom the ruling was significant. After all, they were just two of some 160,000 people who have lost either their jobs or their liberty in the crackdown that followed an attempted coup. The Minister has taken a huge step in confronting the Turkish Government and I hope that he will continue to do that, because it is important. Such action is what the Council of Europe is based on, and I commend the Minister for the work that he has done.
I have some questions for the Government. Can they give an unequivocal commitment that they will not attempt to undermine, unpick or water down our commitment as a country to the European Court of Human Rights or the Council of Europe? Will they instead seek a stronger, more active and more prominent role for the UK within the Council after we leave the EU? If so, can the Minister share with us any specific plans that the Government may have for us? I wonder whether he would also be prepared to consider the suggestion made by the right hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Dame Cheryl Gillan) about an annual debate, and respond to us formally. This debate is on an important subject, and my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling is to be commended for securing it. Many hon. Members have made thoughtful contributions, and I am sure that the Minister will match them in that.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker), as I think we all are, for securing the debate and launching it with such an excellent speech. I hope that I will not embarrass him too much if I say that I think it is the best speech I have ever heard in Westminster Hall. His enthusiasm is infectious.
I welcome this opportunity to put on the record my appreciation not just of the hon. Gentleman’s contribution, but of the contributions and work of all the other members of the UK delegation, and of all the things they have chieved and will achieve. For instance, the hon. Gentleman has made a significant impact on the Committee on Migration, Refugees and Displaced Persons, and I was particularly grateful for his work in inspiring the Parliamentary Assembly’s motion in October condemning trafficking in human beings. As hon. Members are well aware, there is a great coincidence of passion and effort here, as tackling modern slavery is a major priority for the Prime Minister personally and for the Government more widely.
I am also grateful for the contributions of other hon. Members in the debate. I will set out the UK’s commitment and contribution to the Council of Europe, and share our vision of how, together, member states can overcome the challenges it faces. I will try to respond to some of the points raised, but I am pleased to have already been able to respond to my genuine friend, the hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion), on the Lanzarote convention. I am sure that the House will endorse that without question and very rapidly.
The Government are committed to enabling people to realise their potential. Protecting and promoting human rights is central to that objective. More broadly, it is an essential aim of our foreign policy. That is why the Council of Europe is so important to the UK. We recognise and appreciate the valuable role it plays in advancing work on human rights, democracy and the rule of law across Europe.
As the UK prepares to leave the EU, the Council of Europe will be just as important to us. Indeed—perhaps this is the main point of the debate—it will become more important to us. Our continuing commitment to the Council of Europe is one of a number of examples to which I could point that give meaning to our message that, as we have heard this morning, although we are leaving the EU, we are not leaving Europe. We will have the same friends and the same objectives, but a different structure. Our membership provides a platform to pursue common values and aspirations, alongside our many and continuing European friends.
We were, of course, a founding member of the Council of Europe; we were there from the very start. We helped to shape and draft the statute, which originally was the treaty of London, and we were at the centre of efforts to draft the European convention on human rights. Since those early days, as we have heard, Council of Europe membership has increased from 10 to 47, encompassing almost all of Europe. Its core activities of setting standards, monitoring compliance and providing assistance help to advance human rights and democracy across all those member states. It will and it must continue to do so.
A multitude of Government experts support the work of the Council of Europe, and its numerous bodies, including the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities and the Parliamentary Assembly, play a vital role in holding member states to account. I am grateful for all the work of the UK delegation to the Parliamentary Assembly, which is a wonderful example of cross-party co-operation and shows the strength of our commitment. I hope that all those who are involved feel that there is a good working relationship between the Council and those of us who are Ministers taking an interest in the work being done.
The bedrock of the Council of Europe is of course the European convention on human rights. There have been questions, here and in Strasbourg, about our commitment to the convention. As my ministerial colleagues have made clear in recent debates in the House, the Government have absolutely no plans to withdraw from the ECHR. As I assured Secretary-General Jagland in November, we remain committed to the Council of Europe.
The European Court of Human Rights has raised human rights standards across Europe. In the UK, few of us would question its rulings in cases such as Dudgeon or Tyrer, which turned the tide on the criminalisation of homosexual acts and on corporal punishment respectively. However, to protect the long-term credibility of the Court, we must enable it to concentrate on the most serious human rights violations. The Danish Government, who currently chair the Committee of Ministers, share that vision. We worked closely with them on the recent Copenhagen declaration, which advances reform of the convention system, building on our own Brighton declaration of 2012.
There are also conventions covering areas beyond human rights and the rule of law. As part of our anti-corruption strategy, we intend soon to sign two new sports conventions on match fixing and safety at football matches and other sporting events. UK experts played a major role in shaping those conventions.
The Council of Europe, as we have heard, deploys a range of monitoring mechanisms to assess implementation of the standards that members have signed up to. It also assists member states to meet their commitments, including through the work of the Venice Commission, the Commissioner for Human Rights, expert groups and co-operation programmes. Working through multilateral organisations such as the Council of Europe addresses the sensitivities of some member states about receiving foreign assistance.
Through our Magna Carta fund for human rights and democracy, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has supported a number of Council of Europe projects. Those include projects supporting judicial reforms in Ukraine, countering violent extremism in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and strengthening the ombudsman service in Russia—perhaps a slightly more challenging task. Through our conflict, stability and security fund, we have contributed almost €600,000 to a Council of Europe project to strengthen human rights standards in the armed forces in Armenia, allowing it to meet its obligations under the ECHR and to help its army attain modern standards and values. We have also provided £150,000 to support Council of Europe work on strengthening the cyber-crime convention. The UK-supported convention moves us further away from calls for new treaties that would regulate cyber-space in a way that was unacceptable to the UK.
As we have heard, however, there are a number of challenges facing the Council of Europe. For instance, for many years the organisation has had difficulty in allocating its budget to core priorities. It has also struggled to keep up with the bulging caseload of its Strasbourg Court. Some will want to put pressure on Turkey to strengthen its judicial system, and we have heard some compelling arguments why. One of the advantages of doing so is that it will avoid a wave of new applications that might put further strain on the Strasbourg Court.
I share the secretary-general’s goal of keeping Turkey engaged. As we have heard, I have personally been working on that pretty well since the first day I became a Foreign Minister, which coincided with the attempted coup in Turkey. Indeed, I will be there next week representing the former entente powers at the 103rd annual commemoration of the Gallipoli campaign—a significant moment illustrating that, whereas a century ago we were enemies, today we can look across at each other as friends. I look forward to continuing to work with Turkey through the Council of Europe to support its judicial system, not just because that is the best way to minimise further strain on the European Court of Human Rights, but because it matters in itself.
It is not just the Court that is under pressure; so too is the Council’s budget. While it is disappointing that Turkey has rescinded its grand payeur status, it continues none the less to pay its basic contribution, as it is obliged to do. However, Russia’s withholding of its budget since July last year, in retaliation for sanctions imposed by the Parliamentary Assembly following the annexation of Crimea, looks much more intractable. That failure will be a long-standing issue that we must resolve in the context of our opposing Russia’s overall belligerence and aggression. I understand the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) about the importance of engaging in that context. The significant budgetary pressures faced by the Council of Europe increase the urgency on the secretariat to implement the necessary reforms and efficiencies to deliver a more efficient organisation, focused on core activities. The UK Government stand ready to support those reforms.
I can assure the House that the Government will remain fully committed to the Council of Europe. I urge all my hon. Friends on both sides of the House to continue in the very good work that they do.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the work of the Council of Europe.
Leaving the EU: Veterinary Profession in Wales
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the effect of the UK leaving the EU on the veterinary profession in Wales.
Diolch yn fawr iawn, Mr Hosie. It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I am grateful for the opportunity to debate the future of the veterinary sector in Wales, and particularly the impact that leaving the European Union will have on it. It is a profession that does not always receive due attention, but it is nevertheless hugely important, not only to my constituency of Ceredigion and other rural areas in Wales but to the whole of the country.
I begin by emphasising that, regardless of one’s opinion of the UK’s membership of the European Union, we can all agree that that membership has significantly shaped the veterinary sector in several ways, including through legislation on animal health and welfare standards, the invaluable contribution that freedom of movement has made to the veterinary workforce, and the accessibility of safe, rigorously tested veterinary medicines to name but a few. Those are key pillars of the sector and will undoubtedly be impacted by the Government’s decision to leave both the EU single market and the customs union. As such, it is important that the Government address these challenges, to ensure that preparations are thorough, so that the veterinary sector is in robust health and is able to operate effectively in a post EU-membership climate.
I know that those of us here acknowledge the importance of the veterinary profession and its particular contribution to making rural communities sustainable. A strong veterinary workforce is vital to maintaining high animal health and welfare standards, food safety standards and overall public health in Wales. We should not underestimate the role that local vets play in their communities.
I should declare an interest: my wife works for Carmarthen Veterinary Centre and Hospital back home in the motherland. I was recently at a leaving do for Mr Phillip Williams, who founded the practice 40 years ago. One of the farmers—Mr John James of Tŷ Llwyd, Felingwm, who is a very famous farmer in Carmarthenshire —made a tribute speech and said there are only two people he trusts in the world: his GP and his vet. Does that not show how important vets are to the rural Welsh economy?
On that point, there was always a theory that if something was doctored it was slightly suspicious, but if it was vetted it was generally considered to be sound.
The hon. Gentleman succinctly makes the same point. It is true that, in rural areas, whether in Wales or any other part of the UK, the vet is very much a pillar of the local community. Whether by bringing solace to weary pet owners, safeguarding standards in the meat processing sector or supporting farmers to rear healthy livestock, they perform a crucial service.
We often hear about the function of the financial services sector and how it helps to keep the economy of London and the south-east ticking, but just as important, although seldom commented on, is the role played by the veterinary profession in rural areas and how it keeps the very heart of those areas beating. Whether in times of tranquillity or turbulence, the local vet is the very foundation of the agricultural community—a constant and dependable figure, as perhaps best conveyed by the books of James Herriot. I must declare that I was not alive to witness at first hand the scenes depicted by those books; in fact, I was not around to witness the first TV series based on the books. However, the role that vets play in sustaining communities in Wales—as the backbone of the rural economy—is just as indispensable now as it was in the 1930s.
I thank the hon. Gentleman, who is my constituency neighbour, for bringing the debate. I know about the veterinary profession not from books but from having managed a veterinary practice employing 14 vets before coming into this place. On the basis of what I have so far heard from the Government about their plans to allow vets into the country, if I was still running that practice I would not be concerned. However, he is right: it is a vital industry.
I thank the hon. Gentleman, who is my constituency neighbour, for his intervention. I very much hope that I will today be as reassured and convinced as he is that the Government’s plans to ensure a robust future for the veterinary profession are well founded.
It is true that, given the volatility that the agricultural industry all too often faces and the likelihood that further changes are on the horizon, safeguarding the veterinary profession must be a priority. Plaid Cymru has consistently maintained that continued membership of the single market, customs union and other EU agencies would be the most constructive way forward to do that. I will elaborate on that later.
The agricultural and food sectors are underpinned by veterinary services—I know I am labouring the point, but it is important—which contributed £62 million to the economy of west Wales alone and £100 million to the economy of Wales in 2016. In Wales, 3,500 people are employed in the sector, almost 1,400 vets having graduated in the EU and settled in Wales, benefiting from the ability to live, work and study in 28 countries as part of single market membership.
The veterinary sector is not the only one in Wales that is supported by a workforce from the EU, but leaving the single market, and potentially losing the ability to easily attract the vets that we need, will have serious repercussions. The profession is relatively small, but its reach and impact are significant. The ramifications of losing just a small percentage of the workforce could be substantial. For example, the British Veterinary Association has detailed the profound consequences of losing official veterinarians from slaughterhouses, where up to 95% of vets registering to work in the meat hygiene workforce graduated overseas. That would potentially increase the risk of food fraud and animal welfare breaches and would undermine a level of public health reassurance to consumers at home and overseas, which could indirectly jeopardise our trading prospects.
I congratulate my hon. Friend and constituency neighbour on securing the debate. I note the contribution that vets and farriers make to our home lives, and possibly the contribution they have taken from my bank account in the past as well. Does he welcome past comments from Ministers from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs that emphasise that technological methods of oversight, such as CCTV cameras, can in no way replace official veterinarians in safeguarding animal welfare and food standards in our abattoirs?
My hon. Friend and constituency neighbour makes an important point—it is not an either/or situation; it is a matter of enhancing confidence in animal welfare and animal hygiene standards. It is not a matter of having one or the other; it is about having both. These are serious concerns, so I would welcome reassurances from the Minister that they are being addressed, and that measures will be in place in good time before the UK leaves the European Union.
Another, perhaps more long-term challenge that we face in the veterinary profession, and one that has a particular relevance to Wales, is our capability to educate and train our own vets. Given that Welsh agriculture is overwhelmingly constituted of animal husbandry, it beggars belief that we still do not have a centre for people to undertake veterinary training in Wales. Rather like traveling from north to south Wales by train, for somebody to become a vet in Wales, they have to go through England first.
I am pleased that plans to bring veterinary medicine training to Aberystwyth University in Ceredigion are being discussed with the Royal Veterinary College in London. Unsurprisingly, I wholeheartedly support that endeavour, and I hope that the agricultural industry and Welsh Government support the realisation of these ambitious plans. I strongly believe that doing so would ensure a continuous supply of high-quality vets in Wales and would also encourage more individuals from areas such as Ceredigion to enter the profession.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for being so generous with his time. I should put it on the record that I am delighted and honoured to be an honorary associate of the British Veterinary Association. On this very point, I was in Hong Kong last week, and when I quizzed Hong Kong’s Minister of Agriculture on veterinary services, she said Hong Kong and China and many other parts of the world look up to our academia and training for veterinary surgeons in this country. Those are held on a pedestal right across the world.
I again thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I wholeheartedly agree with him. It is a real asset to the United Kingdom that we have such high-quality veterinary training and research. I just hope that Aberystwyth University can, in the very near future, contribute to that revered status and reputation.
Research conducted recently by the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons has shown that nearly one in five EU vets are now actively looking for work outside the UK. Fulfilling demand for veterinary surgeons will be essential not just to maintain animal welfare standards and hygiene, but to our trading prospects. The BVA has warned that in the short to medium term, it will be impossible to meet the demand with UK nationals alone, so the profession does face the possibility of a workforce shortage and Wales faces a significant new barrier to trade.
The import and export of animals to third countries requires veterinary certification, and that in turn depends on having sufficient numbers of adequately trained vets. Official veterinarians both certify and supervise the import and export of live animals and provide official controls at food exporting premises and border inspection posts. Should the UK leave the single market and customs union and subsequently fail to enter into a form of customs union with the EU, administrative checks would apply to UK imports from and exports to the EU, as well as to any other countries that the UK trades with. The demand for veterinary certification is already increasing, and if that becomes our default trading position, the demand will only grow exponentially.
Nigel Gibbens, the UK’s former chief veterinary officer, recently warned that such a scenario could mean that the volume of products requiring veterinary export health certification would increase by as much as 325%, at a time when our ability to recruit the very vets that we need to issue certificates was significantly hindered. I therefore urge the Government to maintain the working rights for non-British EU vets and registered veterinary nurses currently working and studying in Wales, and the rest of the UK, and that the veterinary profession be added to the shortage occupation list—a call that the BVA itself has made.
Before concluding, I must stress the importance of a strong veterinary profession to the continuance of Welsh agricultural exports. Any prospect of a thriving agricultural export market will be realised only if we have enough vets to maintain the high standard of Welsh produce. Confidence in animal welfare and hygiene standards bestows a premium on Welsh products, and we cannot allow that to be undermined.
I appreciate my hon. Friend’s giving me the opportunity to raise something that is a particular source of concern in Wales. We suffer from the fact that 70% of Welsh cattle are exported to England for slaughter. We need to maintain our slaughterhouses, our abattoirs, as effectively as possible, with veterinary backing, but the side effect of exporting 70% of Welsh cattle is that we are losing out on the Hybu Cig Cymru red meat levy, which is currently going to England. That needs to be addressed; it has been waiting to be addressed for a number of years now.
I thank my hon. Friend for raising a very important point, which has been under discussion and close scrutiny in Wales for quite some time. Successive Welsh Affairs Committees have raised it as an important point to be addressed quite urgently by the Government. I hope that perhaps it can be addressed now, before we leave the European Union, because a considerable amount of money is going out of the pockets of Welsh farmers, essentially, that could otherwise go towards marketing the premium product that they have to offer.
It is a strong veterinary workforce that minimises the risk of food fraud, promotes animal welfare and provides public health reassurance, making our produce attractive and thus helping to preserve the viability of Welsh agriculture. To conclude, therefore, the role of the veterinary profession in facilitating trade and protecting public health, food safety and animal welfare is essential. The immediate challenges facing the workforce require the Government to ensure the continued flow of trained professionals from the EU and overseas. To prevent future shortages, however, we must also increase the number of UK veterinary graduates. As I have said, I very much hope that Aberystwyth will be considered as a location for one of those centres. The value of the local vet to our communities, and of the veterinary profession to our agricultural and food industries in particular, mean that we cannot turn a blind eye to the challenges facing the sector. I therefore urge the Minister to ensure that whatever agreement the UK reaches with the EU, the role that the profession fulfils to enable trade, protect animal health, safeguard animal welfare and retain consumer confidence is recognised and addressed. Diolch yn fawr, Mr Hosie.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie. I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Ben Lake) on securing the debate on what I agree is an important issue.
In Wales, and indeed the rest of the United Kingdom, EU nationals make a significant contribution to the veterinary workforce, and the Government are committed to ensuring that EU nationals can continue working in the UK post EU exit. This debate is therefore timely, as preparations continue apace towards our exit from the EU in March 2019. As the hon. Gentleman points out, the work of the veterinary profession is crucial in so many aspects to our economy and society. Whether they are working in private practice, industry, research, government or a host of other roles, members of the profession play a vital role in protecting animal health through surveillance and treatment to prevent, detect and control disease outbreaks, and in safeguarding public health by similarly addressing the threat of animal diseases that affect humans and by encouraging and supporting the responsible use of antibiotics in animals to reduce the spread of antimicrobial resistance.
Vets maintain, improve and assure our world-leading animal welfare standards. As has been eloquently pointed out, vets also facilitate trade and, we hope, the growth of trade in animals and animal products through the process of certifying, verifying and inspecting export and import consignments. Finally, they ensure food safety, especially by carrying out statutory official feed and food controls, which guarantee consumer confidence.
The Government recognise that certainty and continuity are of great importance as we leave the European Union and are keen to seek a constructive and beneficial working relationship with the EU as we go forward. I am talking about certainty on the high standards of animal health and welfare and on the ability to trade animals and animal products, the continuity of a thriving veterinary profession and continuity in our world-class research and development. We will look to enhance existing animal health and welfare standards and international commitments on food safety, transparency and traceability, while securing our position at the forefront of the global agri-food industry. We are a nation that trades on a reputation for reliable, good-quality and fairly priced products, and we have an opportunity to enhance that.
In all areas of veterinary work, I fully recognise, and want to place on the record, how much we owe to members of the profession from outside the UK. A fundamental part of ensuring the future success of the veterinary profession in the UK and the successful delivery of the vital roles that I have outlined is ensuring that we continue to have access to a talented workforce, both in Wales and in the rest of the United Kingdom.
The hon. Gentleman will know that almost one quarter of all practising vets in the UK are from the rest of the European Union, as are 50% of all new vets joining the RCVS register to work in the UK. I can assure him that the Department is fully aware, in relation to veterinary public health roles, that about 95% of the official veterinarians who are contracted to work in meat hygiene roles are non-UK EU citizens. For Government, industry and the profession itself, it is vital that after we leave the European Union non-UK nationals currently based here continue working in veterinary roles in the UK; we want them to continue to do so. That is particularly important because, based on current numbers, we cannot rely solely on our domestic graduates to fill the demand for veterinary surgeons.
A key point that we want to ensure the House is aware of is that we are absolutely focused on mutual recognition of professional qualifications. The Government are seeking a negotiated deal with our European partners within which we want to continue arrangements for mutual recognition of those qualifications. As part of that, two significant agreements have recently been reached. First, agreement was reached at the December 2017 European Council that existing rights under the mutual recognition of professional qualifications directive, under which EU nationals can register to work as vets in the UK, will be retained, so that existing EU nationals in the UK veterinary workforce will be entitled to continue working in the UK after withdrawal, and vice versa.
Secondly, agreement was reached at the March 2018 European Council on the transition—the implementation period—until the end of December 2020. That means that between the end of March 2018 and that date, EU nationals will continue to be registered to work in the UK as vets, in accordance with mutual recognition arrangements that will be incorporated into UK law. Those two agreements, if incorporated into the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill, will go a long way towards securing a veterinary workforce that meets existing requirements. However, that will depend, understandably, on the continued desire of EU nationals to remain in the UK and to seek to come here to work after we leave the EU.
As I have already indicated, the Government’s long-term aim is to build a sustainable, thriving, diverse and modernised UK veterinary infrastructure, which is resilient to workforce impacts and able to take opportunities upon leaving the EU. To achieve this, the veterinary capability and capacity project has been established as a collaborative initiative in which the Government, through DEFRA and the Animal and Plant Health Agency, are working in close co-operation with the Food Standards Agency, the devolved Administrations, including the Welsh Government, and key stakeholders, specifically the regulator of the veterinary profession, the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons, and the representative body of the veterinary profession, the BVA. We want to develop a flexible and skilled workforce that meets the UK’s needs to fill essential roles in Government and the private sector.
The chief veterinary officer for Wales, Christianne Glossop, represents the Welsh Government on the board of this partnership, along with the chief veterinary officers for the UK, Scotland and Northern Ireland Governments. This ensures that issues specific to Wales can be addressed, although many of the same concerns about vet shortages and reliance on EU national veterinary surgeons are shared. The FSA uses the services of 258 such vets in meat inspection roles, and around 40 of those are in Wales. I pointed out earlier that 95% of officials across the UK are non-UK EU citizens, but in Wales all 40 are non-UK EU nationals. Wales also relies on EU national vets as part of its bovine TB eradication programme. We fully recognise that any future restrictions on EU migration could therefore have implications for the functioning of the food supply chain in Wales and bovine TB eradication measures. The partnership is looking at a range of initiatives, in addition to ensuring that processes are in place to secure non-UK veterinary resources, including strengthening retention of existing vets in the workforce and increasing the longer term supply of UK-qualified vets.
On the question of increasing the number of home-grown graduates, I am aware—the hon. Member for Ceredigion is too—that there are currently no university veterinary schools in Wales that are accredited by the RCVS. However, I am very pleased—I am sure that he is particularly pleased—that Aberystwyth University has been exploring possibilities for achieving such accreditation with the RCVS. A few years ago, a small number of universities had veterinary graduates or courses. That is gradually increasing, but I am very conscious of the substantial costs in creating new courses to achieve that. I really hope that this partnership, which Aberystwyth University is progressing, succeeds. Encouraging more people into the veterinary profession is not a new issue, particularly into the farmed and agricultural environment, rather than the domestic animal environment, but together we recognise the challenges and we will keep working at it.
I am really grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising this matter. It is a really important aspect of our withdrawal from the EU.
Will the Minister briefly comment on what the British Government are doing to work with European partners on disease surveillance post Brexit? At the moment, data can be shared across the EU. How will that function after Brexit, to ensure that our livestock are protected?
The hon. Gentleman will be aware of the laws we have in place and the reporting lines, although some of those might have a slightly different agency responsible for them straight after leaving the European Union. It is in our collective interest, where we want to have free and straightforward access to each other’s markets, to continue that collaboration. I am not in a position to provide a detailed assessment of where that is, but in all the relationships I have had with EU member states, at ministerial and commissioner level, the issue of biosecurity and animal safety is absolutely paramount. I believe that there is good intent to ensure that some of those issues that could become a barrier do not do so. The hon. Gentleman might wish to contact Lord Gardiner in order to get further details on that issue.
In closing, I hope that the hon. Member for Ceredigion and the House recognise that the Government are focused on the issues, challenges and opportunities that the veterinary profession faces. I again thank him for bringing this important matter to Westminster Hall. I assure him that the Government are actively involved and committed to ensuring that these challenges will be addressed and resolved.
Question put and agreed to.
UK Digital and Tech Industries
[Siobhain McDonagh in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the future of the UK digital and tech industries.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McDonagh. This is an important debate on a sector of the economy that has been incredibly vital for this country and will become even more important in future. The UK’s history as a global leader in technological and digital innovation is well known. From the invention of the telephone by Alexander Graham Bell in the 1800s, and the creation of the television by John Logie Baird in the 1920s, to the relatively recent introduction of the world wide web in 1989 by Tim Berners-Lee, the UK has always been at the forefront of technological advancement for the rest of the world. Today we continue to see incredible innovation and growth across the country, which puts the UK at the forefront of global technological advancement.
The turnover of digital and tech business in the UK has reached £170 billion. That is an increase of £30 billion over the past five years alone. We should recognise that the digital sector is creating jobs twice as fast as the non-digital sector. It is important to note that this is not just a London-centric industry, as many seem to think it might be. We have seen incredible growth in this sector all across the UK. There are digital clusters thriving in Belfast, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Newcastle, Cardiff and many other places in the UK. In mentioning all those regions, I thought that people from them might feel urged to jump up and say so. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) will save his ammunition for later. We should welcome the huge growth in the number of individuals setting up businesses online, many from their own homes.
One of the many benefits of the digital industry is to take advantage of the opportunities for business and trade that exist online: the ability for people across the country, and the world, to be connected at just the press of a button. The aim of my speech is to push the Government for assurances that, alongside the recent digital strategy, we will continue to invest and encourage this sector of the economy to grow and, crucially, strive to be world leaders in this industry—tech UK.
Imagination Technologies in my constituency is at the cutting edge of this exciting sector. I visited its offices a couple of weeks ago and witnessed at first hand some of its fascinating, advanced work on computer chips and artificial intelligence. As I am sure the Minister knows, Imagination was recently acquired by Canyon Bridge, a US venture capital firm, for close to $1 billion. That is $1 billion of confidence invested in the UK. It is the largest such investment in UK tech since the referendum, so “Project Fear” should be well and truly dead. That was a huge investment of confidence in my constituency.
I am sure that the Minister will welcome that investment and the massive vote of confidence in the UK tech industry, and I hope that she will visit Imagination to see for herself this jewel in the tech crown. I extended that invitation to the Prime Minister at lunchtime, and she thought it a bit of a deviation from her way to Carlisle. To save her from that deviation, I will say today that the Minister will be more than welcome to my constituency to see what the world can learn from St Albans.
There has been so much good news coming out of the tech industry in recent years and months. The UK ranked in the top three in KPMG’s 2018 global technology innovation report. The report detailed the record level of venture capital investment into UK tech firms, which totals $4 billion. That is more investment than the combined amounts in Germany, France, Spain and Ireland. The UK is mopping up more of that vital investment than those four countries combined. KPMG’s report also highlighted the strength not just in large tech firm investment and growth in the UK, but in the investment going into emerging UK tech firms. However, we cannot rest on our laurels. We must see the UK emerge as the No. 1 location for global tech innovation in the near future—not just in the top three, but No. 1.
I absolutely agree. We are having to look to a model where the great big factories and industries of the past are not necessarily going to be the voice of the future. Many of these companies are set up in people’s bedrooms. Mark Zuckerberg might have a few issues of his own at the moment but, as he said, who would have thought three geeks in a bedroom would set up a company that would become so big? That is the future. Many of these companies start off small and then grow. That growth is part of the success, but also part of the issue that I want the Minister to address.
Funding Circle, a FinTech company founded in the UK, is another great example of success in the UK tech sector. Established in 2010, Funding Circle is now the world’s largest lending platform for small businesses and has offices across Europe and in the United States. In such a short space of time it has come to be a global leader. Lending from Funding Circle loans has supported the creation of approximately 80,000 jobs in the UK. It is a wonderful example of the thriving FinTech industry that we now have.
Across Europe, the UK is leading the way. The latest European digital city index ranked London as No. 1 for supporting digital entrepreneurs. The UK is also No. 1 across Europe for inward investment into the digital sector. We should be incredibly proud of that. As we look to the future, the Government must do everything they can to support the continued growth of this industry. That includes listening to its concerns and planning for potential regulation.
The hon. Lady is painting a very rosy picture of the current situation. I suspect that she will soon move on to some of the challenges. As a representative of a city that is a well-known tech hub, I will just ask: does she agree that many of the people who work in the tech sector come from other countries, particularly European Union countries, and that it is important that the Government bring forward their proposals on migration and immigration as soon as possible so that we get some certainty for the future?
I do agree with the hon. Gentleman about getting certainty on migration. Other companies I have spoken to recently say that they want to be able to bring in the brightest and the best. I absolutely understand that. Interestingly, many of the brightest and the best who are coming in, including Dr Li, who has taken over as the chief executive of Imagination Technologies, are from outside the European Union. Many are saying to me that they want a level playing field on the ability to bring in the brightest and the best, and not just because someone happens to have a blue passport. It is important that we recognise that this is a global industry with global resources that may wish to come to the UK.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman that we need to get our immigration strategy fit for purpose, but we also need to ensure that we have people in our own country who are entering the tech industry. Another company I visited in St Albans said that it was bringing in many highly qualified technicians. It had not employed a single person from the UK in the past three years. Why? Because it could not get them; they are in such demand. There are issues we need to address with ensuring that we are growing home talent for the future, as well as those around immigration. It is a double-sided issue that we need to be looking at.
These are some of the key priorities being raised by firms and trade associations in the industry. First, there is the adequacy agreement with the European Union as part of our future trading relationship. I do think that the future is rosy and bright, but no future, wherever we were, would not have its issues. The adequacy agreement is being asked for, and I would like the Minister’s views on that. The free flow of data between the UK and the rest of the EU is extremely important to both sides during the negotiations. It is so clearly in everyone’s interests for the flow of data to be unhindered, so that needs to be prioritised. I am sure it is being, but I would like to hear more about it from the Minister.
The implementation of the general data protection regulation in May and the Government’s commitment to the framework is encouraging and must help the case for the adequacy agreement to be reached. I would also be pleased to hear what further work the Government are doing to ensure that the adequacy agreement will be reached as we leave the European Union. There will be serious concern among the tech industry if it is not battened down as an agreement that everyone has confidence in when we leave.
Secondly, companies stress the importance of access to talent for their industry, which goes back to what the hon. Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner) said. Of the 1.64 million jobs in the digital sector, about half a million are done by foreign-born employees. That means that half a million people are importing, so to speak, their talent into the UK tech industry. Even so, the industry demands more talent, which comes in through the tier 2 visa route, to support growing businesses that are looking for particular skills.
Many companies, including those in my constituency, report being extremely limited when trying to recruit talent from non-EU countries. This is a golden opportunity, despite Brexit being given a bad press—I hate the phrase “despite Brexit”—for us to craft an immigration policy that will not leave highly skilled jobs unfilled because of the difficulty of recruiting talented individuals from around the world.
As we leave the European Union, we will be able to set our own immigration policy, with fuller control over who can come into the country to work. The Government must ensure that any future immigration policy is agile and flexible to allow that international talent to come to the country and support growing industries, such as the tech sector. I would be glad to hear what preparations the Department has made to ensure that the tech sector can access that international talent after we leave the EU. Given that there are many small businesses in the tech sector, I would like to ensure that there is a conduit for their voices and concerns in future.
Finally, our education system is crucial to the future success of our tech and digital sectors. With the best will in the world, the brightest and best talent comes and wants to work in the UK tech sector, but I would also like our young people to want to join it—not to say it is not for them. It is important to welcome foreign talent, but we must grow our own.
Policy Exchange reported that 65% of today’s students will end up working in jobs that do not even exist yet—that is 65% of future jobs that we cannot even imagine. By 2022, 500,000 highly skilled workers will be needed to fill digital roles, which is three times the number of UK computer science graduates in the past 10 years. That shows the amount of upskilling we have to do and the need to make tech a sector that our young people go into. That huge mismatch must be addressed.
Educators must provide children and young adults in the UK with the skills and training needed for the jobs of the future. We need a curriculum fit for the future, access to teaching staff to inspire our young people, and careers guidance that narrows the gender gap. Women and girls can and do flourish in the tech industry, but we need greater encouragement. When I visited Imagination Technologies, I asked a lady there how many women go into that sort of industry and she said, “Not enough.” It is not enough.
I am encouraged by recent Government announcements about the digital strategy and the Department for Education’s announcement that a further £177 million will go into maths education, which is a crucial STEM subject for the jobs of the future. However, we need to do more to encourage our brightest and best to enter the world of teaching. Teaching is at the core; to get young people enthused and motivated, we must get the teachers in. There are some difficulties in recruiting teachers for certain subjects, and I would like to see a strategy to address that.
When I met Dr Li, the new chief executive of Imagination Technologies, he spoke about the significant support the industry receives in China. Rather cleverly, I said that we are in the top three, but China is No. 1. I will give hon. Members some reasons why—to say that the state is helping is to put it mildly. To promote talent in the industry and, crucially, to retain it, the Chinese Government provide subsidies for teaching tech subjects and offer financial incentives around pay and housing for those working in the sector. Although I am not advocating that approach, it shows that our competitors are determined to win the global tech race. They will not export their talent to other countries if they can possibly help it.
We need to ensure that tech UK is heading for the winning line, but with that exciting world of opportunity comes a dark side. Online security and safety are extremely important issues for the industry to deal with. The protection of the personal data that is being used by online companies is a current issue. For people to have confidence in the programs and applications they use, they need to know that their personal data is secure. I hope that the Government will continue to put pressure on companies to safeguard user data, and to consider how we can future-proof personal security and police industry behaviour.
UK businesses are increasingly subjected to cyber-security threats, which is another topical issue. A recent report by the National Cyber Security Centre found that more and more businesses are being threatened with data breaches, ransomware and cloud theft. Unfortunately, the criminals of this world—the malcontents and ne’er-do-wells—are one step ahead of the game. What are we doing to ensure that we are getting ahead of the game in cyber-security?
The growth of the internet of things, in which many household devices and other objects are interconnected, presents a worrying openness to hackers, as many of those devices lack even the most basic security defences. Some hon. Members will have seen the horrific case of a driverless car being hacked into. The idea that the machines could suddenly take over is horrific, but of course it is not the machines; it is the hackers behind the machines. The exploitation of data in attempts to influence other countries’ elections is another current topic.
As we migrate more of our lives into the digital world, we need to ensure that rogue companies and rogue states are prevented from corrupt or sinister behaviour. I hope that the Minister will touch on what the Government are doing to strengthen our cyber-security and to increase public awareness about safety in a high-tech world.
The industry has incredible potential. Some recent technological advancements are staggering and the UK is proudly at the forefront of that success. On my visit to Imagination Technologies, it was inspiring to hear from those in the industry about how technology will improve our lives in future. The ability for artificial intelligence and the internet of things to combine to assist with healthcare and care for the elderly is especially exciting. Wearable tech will enable the user to be notified of potential health irregularities and will be able to alert medical services when a user’s condition requires it. AI will also be able to help elderly people who need assistance with basic tasks, although there will never be a substitute for interaction with people.
To conclude, tech can improve our future lives in many ways: not just through healthcare or social connectivity, but by making everything in our lives easier. Tech UK is the future for us all. This country has an incredibly exciting digital industry and global Britain should strive to be not just in the top three, but No. 1.
They are all on my list. I am glad hon. Members think about them, because we in York have a fantastic history, but York is also the UNESCO city of media arts. It is part of the Creative Cities Network and hosts the Mediale festival. It leads our country in the digital creative sector and has created the first guild of media arts—the first guild for 700 years. It is also home to the digital signalling centre, which is at the heart of the next generation of rail.
The film industry is on our doorstep with Screen Yorkshire. The British film industry is the UK’s fastest growing sector, and Yorkshire leads the way. Our university is at the heart of that.
On the issue of the hon. Lady’s constituency and elsewhere in the UK, does she agree that one of the potential beauties of the tech industry is that it is not confined to the UK’s economic hotspots, such as the urban conurbations of London, Belfast, Edinburgh and Cardiff? It offers advantages to urban and rural areas, provided that the connectivity is there and the demand to promote the industry is met by the Government.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. The digital and technological industries break boundaries in many ways, not least by providing alternative forms of employment. They certainly do not have any rules about where they are located. It is a 24/7 industry, so it includes individuals in their own homes and small businesses with global impacts. It is an exciting sector to be involved in.
The University of York is also at the cutting edge of digital technology and has its own digital creative labs, which I had the real pleasure of visiting earlier this year. I should say that I am on an apprenticeship with much of this, and I am learning: they are at the heart of the video-gaming industry, which has its home in York. Many businesses—start-up businesses, new companies, small tech companies—surround our city. We have 250 such businesses in York alone, and all that activity is building into the future of our economy, as we search for a new identity in a new era.
What also really excites me is that old is blending with new, as we move forward in our city. The new gives new opportunities. At the heart of our city, we have the biggest brownfield site in Europe, waiting for businesses to land. Rich heritage surrounds where people live. I say to any digital tech or digital creative company, “Come and see if your future is in York, and you will be most welcome to make it your home and make it your own”.
As I have said, I am on a bit of an apprenticeship in this industry and I thank the Industry and Parliament Trust for giving me the opportunity to explore this sector—to have placements across the sector and to learn more about the cutting edge that the industry is providing our economy and our nation.
I have learned that our gaming industry is one of the fastest growing in the world because of the skills base that we are able to provide. The potential is huge if we really embrace that wider economic opportunity. In York itself, we are seeing how this industry—both alone and standing alongside other industries—is so cross-cutting and how the skills acquired around video-gaming can then be applied right across the curriculum. Education is certainly at the forefront of that. I saw programmes that provided individualisation of tutoring. For instance, I undertook a French course; I will not say how I got on. Such programmes can track an individual’s learning, taking them back over their weaknesses, improving their skills and ensuring that they are the best that they can be at that particular skill.
I also saw how the Yorkshire Museum has embraced virtual reality, to take visitors into a Viking village and enable them to experience life in that settlement. I saw 3D modelling technologies, pioneered in the games industry, that now help companies such as Rolls-Royce to design better engines. I saw artificial intelligence—machine learning—and how that work is advancing and the technology is progressing. This is in my city, this is in our country and we must be so proud of that.
The academic world around this work is so strong. Along with other cities, York hosts the Intelligent Games and Game Intelligence—IGGI, for short—programme, which hosts 60 PhD students. An absolutely global standard is being set around academia and looking at the future technologies that will drive our country’s engine forward. Gaming will be really important to us, and not just for the sake of playing games; there is also the application of the skills that many people working in the industry will go on to develop.
What is going on before us—spread across the country, including in my city—is a quiet revolution that is transforming all our lives, with massive opportunities for the future of our country and my city. However, there are some issues that I want to talk about today. First of all, there is skills. We have good skills in our country, but we need some changes. The narrowing of the curriculum is not helping, particularly with regard to the digital creative sector. The arts have been downgraded and yet they could really be at the forefront. I ask the Minister to go back and have a look at that and make sure that the creative subjects are at the heart of our curriculum, too: it is when the technical and the creative join that we see this explosion of opportunity coming to our economy.
There are also the tech skills of kids to consider. We narrow people into boxes around a traditional learning curriculum, which is fit for a different era. We need to ensure that our children are embracing the new technologies of the future, because children are doing so elsewhere in the world and we really need to ensure now that we embed digital and technical skills right into the heart of our curriculum.
My right hon. Friend makes an absolutely excellent point, because that is our heritage—how we drove our economy forward through the Victorian years. We have that opportunity again today. The digital signalling centre in our city—the rail operating centre, or ROC, as it is called—is now at the heart of how trains are driven. They will not be driven in the cab of a train any more; the digital tech sector is now driving forward, so it is like having a train set in front of a screen. That is completely radicalising the way that our country works. It is cutting-edge, 21st-century technology, and we have to see more of it in the future.
As I was saying, whether someone studies history, literature, medicine or maths, the digital and technical industries will play a vital role in their future. Just last week, I had the opportunity to take a tour of another York University department—the archaeological department. Archaeology digs into the past, but I also saw how the department is using technology to provide access to artefacts, by displaying them in a unique way, so that people can explore them and manipulate them on screen, to connect with artefacts dug up all over the world. They are put into context and it is possible to understand the history surrounding them: the experience was mind-blowing. That is because through technology the past has met the future, and there are very exciting opportunities in that regard.
The tech industry will also provide the breakthrough for telehealth, which will improve all our health. Again, I was exposed to some of those opportunities when I looked around the University of York, but so much more can be done, even when it comes to issues such as our mental health. We are massively struggling for resources in our health sector, including in mental health, so to have technology that can support us—technology can work against us, but also support us—and improve our wellbeing, we must embrace that technology as we move forward. It is so important that we consider the scope of where this technology is leading us and understand why the investment in our schools and education is so important.
I turn to research and innovation. We are talking about a very disparate sector, with lots of different companies scattered around. They do not have the capacity to build up much resource to get funding for research. We need to find a breakthrough on research, so that companies can network, to come together and draw down research funding, because we have a real future in this area, not least in the field of artificial intelligence, where we can really drive that technology forward. Of course, such technology is not about replacing humans; it is partly about doing things quicker, but also about pioneering breakthroughs in how we work. However, we need support for that.
I want the technology to have a social impact as well. York itself is brilliant in every stretch of the imagination, but it is also a very divided city. Some of the most deprived areas in the country are in my city and we are seeing exclusion being built in around it. I ask the Minister to consider whether the digital and tech sectors can be used to reduce the inequality in our country, not only through opportunities and skills but through the outcomes that the sector can bring. For me, that will be the win-win of the sector.
Finally, I want to say that the arts enrich all of us. In closing, I want to talk about Mediale 2018. Will the Minister meet me to discuss it? It will run from 27 September to 6 October, and it will be the nation’s creative digital festival. It is a platform for innovative art and technology, showing what can be done in this modern age, providing art to everyone as an enhancing experience. Mediale will be a springboard for this sector of our economy and how the arts are projected across our country, blending the old and the new. I am sure the Minister will want to ensure that the sector has a major footprint not only in York, but in the whole nation.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairwomanship, Ms McDonagh. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for St Albans (Mrs Main) for calling this important debate. I will talk briefly, but first I want to put in context the importance of the digital sector to our country’s economic output. We must bear in mind that the digital industries make up 4% of all employment and 7% of economic output, which is remarkable and represents remarkable growth in recent times.
One successful growth story is UKCloud, a very large company in my constituency. Just a few years ago, it was a start-up of six people. Under the amazing leadership of Simon Hansford, it has grown to now employ nearly 200 people. This month, it will take on another 50 employees. It has been remarkably successful, and it represents some of the recent explosive growth we have seen across the sector. As the name would suggest, UKCloud is a cloud storage business. It has successfully delivered cloud solutions for: central Government, including the Cabinet Office, the Home Office, the Ministry of Defence and other bodies of Government such as the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency and Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs; many local authorities; health organisations; and other private businesses.
UKCloud’s unique offer is that it can scale up and compete with large multinationals. The offer is extremely cost-effective, so it can punch above its weight. That has come about as a direct result of the Government’s drive to open up cloud procurement through G-Cloud. I am sure the Minister will agree in her closing remarks that that has been a commendable success in encouraging British small and medium-sized enterprises to get into that space, punch above their weight and compete with the large multinationals.
Another significant thing about UKCloud is that it has a very important offer when it comes to national security. This year it is establishing a high-assurance cloud platform, which will basically be a secret facility known as UKCloudX. It will enable the Government to fulfil an important intelligence function, which is the ability to share intelligence across a number of different Government bodies and achieve the doctrinal intent of fusion. It is all very well when different intelligence agencies or bodies have information and intelligence, but unless they can share and fuse it in a highly secret manner, the intelligence cannot achieve its best effect in support of our national security.
UKCloudX is an important development, which has a direct impact on our national security at the highest level. I am delighted that that work will be taking place in Farnborough this year. No one in this room needs reminding of the importance of this country’s having a cutting-edge approach to the handling of intelligence and data, given the recent domestic challenges we have faced with our national security in Manchester with the atrocity just a year ago and the recent developments in Salisbury. UKCloud is playing an important role in our national security.
The other important aspect is data sovereignty. Due to recent developments, especially with regard to Facebook, which has already been mentioned today, the importance of the secure handling of data is clear to us all. Whether it is Government data or the personal data of citizens, the way that is handled and the total control we need to have over that to guarantee security are of the utmost importance. Data sovereignty should be a strand that runs through the Government’s approach to the industry as a whole, but particularly when it comes to the procurement of cloud storage facilities. I would be grateful for the Minister’s reassurance that when the Government consider procuring future cloud storage for their work, they will guard against any tendency to prefer US hyperscale offers—the big US providers—and instead prefer British SMEs, which not only offer 100% data sovereignty, but also offer the immediate economic benefit of the jobs and growth we have discussed today. I commend the Government for their attitude in terms of the G-Cloud, which has been a great success, but I would welcome the Minister’s reassurance on preferring UK SMEs in procurement.
Various invitations have been mentioned today. The Minister would not forgive me if I sat down without warmly extending an invitation to her to visit Farnborough and UKCloud. It is extremely convenient, being just off junction 4 of the M3. I am sure we can provide a very good lunch. I know she does not need that kind of incentive, however, because her commitment to her brief is such that she will want to see things at first hand. On that note, I conclude my remarks.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McDonagh, and to speak in this debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for St Albans (Mrs Main) on securing this debate and on passionately setting out the issues that we all subscribe to and wish to speak about.
The UK’s digital tech industry turned over an estimated £170 billion in 2015 and is growing at twice the rate of the rest of the economy. It is key to boosting the UK’s wider economy, making a contribution of £97 billion in 2015. The hon. Lady clearly set out the situation in relation to the digital tech industry. She was confident on the way forward and Brexit. I will be equally confident, and I also want to say a wee bit about what we have done back home, which has been excellent for job creation and for boosting our local economy.
The digital tech industry generated a further 85,000 jobs between 2014 and 2015, going from 1.56 million jobs to 1.64 million. It is creating jobs at double the rate of the rest of the economy. That indicates how important the sector is. All the contributions so far have mentioned that, and I am sure those who follow will do the same. Since 2012, there has been a 13% increase in the advertised salaries of digital tech posts, compared with only a 4% rise in those of non-digital jobs. Tech investment in the UK reached £6.8 billion in 2016, which is more than two times higher than any other European country and significantly more than its closest rival, France, which secured some £2.4 billion of investment. That is about a third as much, which indicates the strength of our digital tech industry.
“Tech Nation 2017” shows that the average advertised salary for digital tech jobs has now reached just over £50,000 a year, compared with £35,000 for the average non-digital salary, making it 44% higher than the national average. Again, not only are we creating jobs; we are creating well-paid jobs. Along with the well-paid jobs we have to provide the quality employee as well.
As a Northern Ireland MP, I look to the Minister, who I know has a particular interest in this subject, not just because she is a Minister but because she has a personal interest. I am sure the replies to our queries and questions will be positive, as I am sure the shadow Minister will think of some similar things to say as well. Tech City UK’s “Tech Nation 2016” report found that the digital and tech sector in Northern Ireland was burgeoning, and outside of London and the south-east made the largest contribution to the regional economy.
The hon. Lady is absolutely right. It is tremendously exciting. I discussed it with Invest Northern Ireland, which was given the task of finding new jobs. One of the things that it was able to describe—I will come to this shortly—was the quality of graduates that we have in Northern Ireland, which is one of the attractions of Northern Ireland. The hon. Lady is absolutely right that people do not have to go to London to get a big wage. They go for different reasons, whatever they may be, but people can have a job back home and they can stay there. That is what it makes it so exciting.
In the words of my party colleague, Simon Hamilton, in his role as Economy Minister:
“From the North West Science Park in Londonderry through to the Enterprise Zone in Coleraine and down to Newry, the home of some of our leading high-tech companies, with Belfast— Europe’s leading destination city for new software development projects—at its heart, bit by bit we are building a Northern Ireland-wide tech industry that we can be proud of.”
That is what we are doing in Northern Ireland, and that is what we hope to continue over the next period of time.
In Belfast and other cities in Northern Ireland, global tech names such as Citi and Allstate, working in the sector with Silicon Valley firms such as BDNA, are all recognisable. Each of us here will speak passionately about our own constituencies, as the hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) did, and as other Members will as well. As MPs we love our constituencies and want to do the best for them, so the opportunities need to be there. Not only is our highly skilled workforce attracting global investment, but we have indigenous tech firms such as Kainos, Novosco and First Derivatives growing in size and becoming global leaders in our region of Northern Ireland. We can be excited about what is happening across the whole of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. As I often say to my hon. Friends in the Scottish National party, “Better together”: all the four regions doing all the same things together day by day and making things better for everyone, and we should continue to do that.
It is clear that much of our attraction is the skills base supported by international-standard research facilities, such as the Centre for Secure Information Technologies at Queen’s and Ulster’s Intelligent Systems Research Centre: education and big business working together. We have done that very well through Queen’s University. The Minister might respond to that because that is a key factor to our moving forward. We will have the education, the big business, the opportunities, the quality of graduates and all those things together. We have a range of support and programmes in place, such as StartPlanet NI and Propel, aimed in particular at early stage and high potential technology-based start-ups. Perhaps most crucially, we have a fast developing ecosystem including the likes of Catalyst Inc., Digital DNA and Immersive Tech NI, which combine to create a vibrant tech community across Northern Ireland.
Northern Ireland is consistently the top-performing region of the UK in national exams at age 16 and 18. The fact is that we have the graduates. People want to stay and the technical and digital firms want to invest because the skills base is there. We have the highest percentage of qualified IT professionals in the UK and Ireland, with more than 77% holding a degree-level qualification. I say respectfully to all the other regions that Northern Ireland as a region is leading the way—from a small base of 1.8 million people, we are up there with London and other parts of the United Kingdom. Some 77% of high school graduates, post A-level, go on to further and higher education compared with the UK average of 71%.
Government, industry and academia have implemented collaborative initiatives in training and education, such as cyber and data analytics academies, to ensure that the workforce continues to meet the needs of the global ICT industry with competitive salary costs, low employee attrition rates and lower operating costs, including low property costs. All those things make it attractive to come to Northern Ireland. Labour and property costs for a 200-person software development centre in Belfast are 36% less than in Dublin, 44% less than in London and 58% less than in New York. It is clear that we are an attractive place to do business and we must sell that more globally.
I will conclude with this, Ms McDonagh. I am conscious of time and there are two others to follow me. I read an interesting article in the Belfast Telegraph in which David Crozier, part of the commercial team at CSIT, was quoted. I want to cite his comments because it is important to have them on the record. He said:
“Belfast has a strong hi-tech industry as it is and cyber security is a subsection of that so you have transferable skills in terms of software engineering roles that can transfer over into cyber security. We’re working towards a target of about 5,000 jobs by 2026.”
While other sectors are facing uncertainty following Brexit, Mr Crozier is bullish about its impact on cyber-security investment:
“It’s really high-value stuff, companies have a demand for it globally and to a certain extent that does make it”—
I use these words; I know the hon. Member for St Albans will be happy—
We are looking forward to good times.
“It’s not going to have a detrimental effect for sure, it may actually lead to more demand if you see a hardening of UK national positions around trade tariffs and those sort of things that’s naturally going to drive investment into types of technologies to protect sensitive information, sensitive networks. It possibly produces even greater opportunity.”
An industry that is yet again embracing the opportunity Brexit presents, an industry that is able to compete globally, is an industry that we must invest heavily into, and the benefits will be deeply beneficial. Brexit-proof: what could be a better reason than that?
It is my absolute pleasure to serve under your chairpersonship today, Ms McDonagh. I congratulate the hon. Member for St Albans (Mrs Main) on securing this debate. I declare my interest, as set out in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
The United Kingdom punches above its weight in the global digital marketplace, with £170 billon of turnover and £7 billion of tech investment—twice the amount of any other country in the European Union. However, as we have heard, this is not just about profits; it is also about good-quality jobs, with the average advertised salary for a digital job 44% higher than for a non-digital average. That benefit is shared by an enormous 1.6 million workers in the UK’s digital sector, and it is a benefit shared by those seeking work, either young people or those in retraining, to get access to higher pay and higher quality jobs.
Such jobs are good, but much more needs to be done both on gender equality and class inequality in the technology and digital sectors, with many start-up businesses pioneered by those with the safety net of a family who can provide for them when inevitable failures occur. I do not criticise them for having that safety net, but the stark reality in my constituency of Bristol North West is that I have some of the most affluent and some of the most economically deprived suburbs in the city right next door to each other. Many of the young people have fantastic ideas but are not confident enough to take on the risk to try them. We need to try to find solutions to ensure that there is an equality of access to the opportunities and excitement of the digital market.
As we have seen recently, there are still gender inequality issues in some aspects of the technology and digital marketplace, so gender bias is as important an issue in this space as it is in others. I absolutely agree with the comments made today about the digital skills needed for young people. It is also important to show why the basics around science, maths and English can lead to such exciting jobs so that young people can see what they are aiming for and understand why getting that maths GCSE, which they might find slightly boring at the time, is a really exciting route through to some fantastic jobs. It is also about reskilling. An example that I gave in the House in the debate on autonomous vehicles was about when all of our taxis become driverless taxis and we have a load of taxi drivers who will need to find new work. This is not just about young people; it is about reskilling older people to access the marketplace.
On the whole, the Bristol and Bath region does really well. We have £8 billion of digital turnover. We had 87% growth from 2011 to 2015, which now accounts for 35,000 jobs in our region in the west of England. That is an enormous part of our economy. I will take this opportunity to pay tribute to the likes of the Engine Shed, TechSPARK, Business West and others in Bristol who have been pioneering for many years.
One key aspect of driving the regional presence is access to finance. That has been one of our problems in Bristol, which it has been getting better at. However, start-ups that want to scale up and get financial backing through serious funding and other avenues still need to come and have a presence in London. The networking that they need to do is in London. The people who have done this and know how to do it are in London. In my view, we need Government action to take that knowledge and experience out to the regions so that companies are able not only to start up in incubator spaces, but to scale up their businesses in the region.
That is why our industrial strategy is important, and why significant efforts should be made not just in relation to the vast productivity gains that digitisation can make, and not just in the digital economy, but in standard industries and public services. There is also a need to continue to push the benefit out to the regions, creating incentives and environments that allow digital businesses to start and be staffed. Opportunities to work in those businesses are important, given the skills deficit outside London and the major conurbations. That cannot just mean DFLs—“down from Londons.” Bristol is pleased to welcome, on average, 80 families a week from London. It causes a bit of an issue with house prices, but apart from that they are very welcome. But we must remember that young people born and raised in Bristol, and especially in Bristol North West, need access to those jobs too.
There is no denying that London benefits from being the digital capital of Europe. That position is put at risk by the Government’s approach to Brexit. Our access to talent from across the European Union, the attractiveness of London and other parts of England as a place to call home, our access to capital through our dominance in financial services, and the regulatory harmony and access to the European single market that come with being able to sell digital goods and services to one of the largest trading blocs in the world, are all potentially being thrown to the wind by the Brexit strategy, which is a great shame. The digital single market that the European Union is pushing is part of that situation. It will take time to resolve, but it will be a lost opportunity if we do not have access to it, through at least maintaining our position in the single market and customs union.
On the disagreeable basis that we leave the European Union entirely, we must turn our minds to maintaining Britain’s digital strength in a global digital marketplace post Brexit. In many other areas of industry, such as law, which was my profession before I became a politician, Britain has a reputation around the world for playing a fair game, with clear rules and enforcement. That is a British brand that is trusted and reliable. Britain is renowned as a country that people want to come to in order to do business and reduce risk—and, as I said, to get access to the European Union. We should seek to build that recognition in our digital marketplace too. Our historic geopolitical position between the United States and the European Union will be relevant to the digital market. As we have seen from the Senate hearings on Cambridge Analytica and Facebook, United States legislators are now looking to the European Union to see how to regulate technology and digital business.
That is an area where British MEPs and British commissioners and staff have played an important role in defining such things as the general data protection regulation, the network and information security directive, and components of the digital single market. In building that trusted global brand as the best country in which to start and run digital businesses, we now need to be much clearer about how we will apply the old rules in the new, modern digital world—how we will protect consumers who are buying goods and services that are digital.
We have made good progress, in the Consumer Rights Act 2015 and the implementation of European legislation such as the digital content directive, but there is more to do, not least with respect to making citizens and consumers aware of what is happening, and their rights, and how we regulate dominant companies in uncompetitive marketplaces. In the old world of utilities there are regulators to ensure consumer fairness. In the new world of the ownership and control of data Ofcom plays an enforcement role, but what is the competition role in that space? That is something we need to talk about more. We also need to deal with how we guarantee old civil liberties in a modern setting, including the role of the state and public services, the use of big data, and ensuring the cyber-security that we have heard about today.
That is why yesterday I was thrilled to kick off a scoping event, here at the House of Commons, on a new parliamentary commission on technology ethics, building on the work of colleagues in the other place—the report of the Lords Select Committee on Artificial Intelligence came out this week and it is very good. The Minister’s new data ethics body in the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport is excitedly anticipated. Also there are issues such as the control, security and monetisation—with patient consent—of assets such as NHS data sets, as identified by Sir John Bell in the life sciences industrial strategy as new ways of funding public services.
Working with the hon. Member for North East Derbyshire (Lee Rowley), my Conservative co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on data analytics—the parliamentary internet, communications and technology forum—and others, we shall engage with all stakeholders externally, and with the Minister and her Department, to create an environment in the United Kingdom that is good for digital businesses and consumers in the digital world, and hopefully a beacon for best practice around the world. There is a balance to get right, between the vast opportunities that come with driverless vehicles, the internet of things and digital public services, and the risks. It will be important to build trust with consumers and citizens, partners around the world, and businesses, to create a digital economy in the UK that we can all be proud of.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McDonagh. I congratulate the hon. Member for St Albans (Mrs Main) on securing this important debate.
A couple of months ago I was in this Chamber debating ethics and artificial intelligence, and I suggested a code of ethics for people working in data, perhaps to be named the Lovelace code of ethics. I was delighted, two months later, to see that the Nuffield Foundation recently set up an Ada Lovelace Institute to look into data ethics. That is a think-tank with £5 million of investment, so I have new respect for the power and reach of Westminster Hall debates.
I was also delighted to see the House of Lords report on artificial intelligence on Monday. It is right for Parliament to discuss those new technological frontiers. In fact, they should be at the forefront of our debates. I want to touch briefly on data, accountability, skills and inequality. There is a huge issue about who owns our data. The new general data protection regulation is welcome in helping to give consumers control. When I was Consumer Affairs Minister, a fledgling project called “midata” was all about the principle that people’s data should be their own; if they wanted it from companies, they should be able to get access to it in a machine-readable format, so that it could be used for their benefit.
The world has obviously moved on somewhat in five years, and that was a fledgling effort, but the issue of data as currency will become more important in years to come. The Consumer Rights Act 2015 recognised that data could be treated as consideration: if someone had exchanged their data to get a product, they should still have some consumer rights and protections, for example if the product damaged their equipment. The business models that we are talking about in the tech sector require a greater level of consumer choice and transparency about the transaction that people make when they hand over data. The current model is one where people give their data away willy-nilly for free services, often with little control for the individual. In the future, initiatives such as private data accounts could be a mechanism giving people more control over their data. I am interested not just in whether the public sector can monetise large data sets, but in whether individuals might be in a position to have their own data monetised much more explicitly.
As for accountability, there have been all sorts of scandals, from fake news to online abuse, and the polarisation of debate coming from social media companies. Yet Facebook is only 13 years old, and Twitter, Snapchat and Instagram are all younger, so perhaps it is no surprise that innovation has outstripped regulation in that area. However, those platforms are changing much about society and need to be held to account. Many of those companies have huge monopoly power, and the network effect makes that almost automatic and inevitable for new platforms that are set up, but I do not think the Competition and Markets Authority has yet grappled sufficiently with the issues. The European Commission is perhaps one of the few organisations to have been able properly to stand up to those corporate giants, whether on tax, data issues or competition.
We need to do more about skills, in schools and through retraining. I agree with the hon. Member for Bristol North West (Darren Jones) about diversity in the technology workforce and that situation leading to bizarre decisions, because it is even less representative than most other sectors. I also agree about constraints on skilled workers coming to the UK. That is a problem that I fear will get worse after Brexit. We have just seen the cap for tier 2 visas for skilled workers from outside the European Economic Area and Switzerland reached for an unprecedented fourth month in a row. Until last December, that quota had been reached only once. There is concern about whether companies in the UK can get the skills they need. I declare an interest as a very minor shareholder of a data start-up, Clear Returns, on whose board I served while I was out of Parliament. I can attest, from that experience, to how difficult it is for tech companies to get access to the skills of data scientists and analysts that they need.
Finally—I am conscious of the time, Ms McDonagh—I want to speak about inequality. Inequality in technological skills needs to be addressed, as does inequality in access to broadband in different parts of the country. I am still astonished that a new development in my constituency, which was built in the last few years in Woodilee, does not have adequate broadband. That was entirely predictable, and I have written to Ministers about it. There is also a wider issue of the huge opportunities that technology provides for solving problems in society, and the real risk that that will entrench existing inequalities, particularly economic ones. If we do not do something about it, those with capital to invest in tech companies will be those who reap the rewards. Instead, we should be using automation to take drudgery out of jobs and strenuous heavy lifting out of the care sector, so that we leave more time for humanity and for those job areas to which we as individuals can contribute with creativity and higher skills.
We must also allow people to build more relationships outside work. Given the way that taxation works with the larger, global tech companies, and the way that the benefits will be accrued, I fear that we could risk driving serious increases in inequality, and that those who lose out by losing their jobs will not be compensated in appropriate ways. That risks division in wider society more generally.
I know that we have little time in this debate, so I will bring my remarks to a close, but I hope I have flagged up some key issues that the House will return to when discussing these matters, which I hope we will do more often in future.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms McDonagh.
I must congratulate the hon. Member for St Albans (Mrs Main) on three things. First, I congratulate her on securing a debate on this important topic. The hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) is right to say that we do not speak enough about this issue, and we need a lot more discussion about the sector in this place. Secondly, I am pleased that the hon. Member for St Albans began her history of creative thinking in the UK by mentioning two Scotsmen: Alexander Graham Bell and John Logie Baird. Thirdly, I congratulate her on securing a debate on the future of the digital and tech industries while Cambridge Analytica and its various chums are busy whirling away, trying to pretend that there is nothing to see, and Mr Zuckerberg is singing “je ne regrette rien”. I am in awe of that forward planning, and I congratulate her most heartily on that.
The hon. Lady mentioned the spread of digital clusters around the UK. I welcome that, and it was excellent to hear about various cities, such as York, that contain those important clusters. There is still a considerable concentration of elements of the sector in London and the south of England, however, and I hope that is noted by the Minister and the continuing pull to that area resisted; the substantial benefits of this industry must be shared around the nations and regions of the UK. We boast tremendous talent, and opportunities need to follow.
The hon. Lady also mentioned the importance of the free flow of data between the UK and Europe in the forthcoming negotiations, the express desire of companies in the tech sector for access to international talent, and the part that the immigration system must play in that. Topically, she also mentioned cyber-security and education—a few Members have said how essential it is for STEM subjects to be pushed to the forefront, and I commend the Scottish Government for their STEM strategy, which is now starting to reap some benefits.
The hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) made a tremendous contribution and mentioned many things that I did not know about York. I knew some of them—I have been there—but the fact that it is UNESCO city of media arts was news to me. She spoke at length about many exciting developments in her constituency. For me, however, the most important part of her contribution was her talk of that essential marrying of creative arts and technology.
I once sat on the board of Creative Edinburgh, an umbrella organisation for creative industries in Edinburgh, and that point was made time and again: one cannot have a computer game, for example, that people want to play if the story is boring. The contribution of writers is essential, and creative thinking is so important in those industries. We must remember that and be clear that neglecting the arts is very short-sighted when trying to push the sector forward. The hon. Lady also touched on telehealth and the importance of inclusiveness in the development of the tech sector, and I entirely agree.
The hon. Member for Aldershot (Leo Docherty)—he is no longer in his place—reminded us of the explosion of growth in this sector, and it still staggers me when I reflect on that. I hate to age myself, but to someone whose house possessed only a small black and white TV for most of their formative years, the sort of digitech on offer today is still a little mind blowing. He emphasised the importance of security, particularly with cloud storage facilities, which is certainly worth noting.
The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) gave his constituency an impressive plug, as always, and mentioned the high quality and pay of the jobs on offer in this sector. I recently visited two cyber-security firms in my constituency. They moved there not simply because of the lower living costs that the hon. Gentleman mentioned, but because of access to high-quality graduates from Edinburgh’s variety of universities, and in particular the informatics centre at Edinburgh University. They also spoke about the shortage of qualified graduates across the UK, and the fact that as a result, salaries in the sector are higher than average and conditions are excellent. We must make more of that to our young people when they are choosing what professions they wish to enter.
The hon. Member for Bristol North West (Darren Jones) spoke about the extra support needed for equality of access, which is important, and about the equality of opportunity that must be made available to everyone. He also mentioned STEM subjects, and reminded us of the importance of reskilling employees—the Scottish Affairs Committee also considered that in some depth in our most recent inquiry into future work practices in Scotland. The hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire mentioned the transactional nature of data, which was extremely interesting, and raised the possibility of private data accounts, which is certainly worth considering. She also spoke of innovation outstripping regulation.
Let me return to my important point about Cambridge Analytica, Mr Zuckerberg, and so on. It is natural that people’s suspicions rise when they hear of potentially nefarious deeds and the questionable morals of companies operating in that sector, but we must take time to remember that good things also come from the digital and tech sector, and that they outweigh the bad. Even the bad lads have done many good things: Facebook helps to keep families and friends in touch across oceans and continents, for example, and it is one of the few things for which I do not have to ask my daughters for advice on how it works.
Youngsters are, of course, far ahead of the game when it comes to dealing with new technology—that has been the case since a woman invented the wheel—and we look to them for much of what we understand about how the sector will develop. I often worry that many younger folk do not appreciate how often they are the product rather than the consumer in the virtual world, and I am concerned that many do not appreciate the dangers of sharing too much of their lives online. Why would they? They are young, and I suppose they can get old and cynical in their own time.
The public alarm often raised about how our youngsters interact with IT is that too often they are closeted in their bedrooms playing games on the computer. Adults previously worried about TV, rock music, radio—in my father’s case, his father worried about him listening to jazz—and, for all we know, books. Although we should take such concerns on board, it should not make us believe that video or computer games—I will focus on them, although I am not always certain of the terminology —are, in and of themselves, bad or corrupting. Scotland has a vibrant computer gaming industry, and my constituency boasts not only creative incubators and tech centres for digitech companies, but a number of people employed in the computer gaming industry. We can be sure that they have been in frequent touch.
The creativity involved in making a game is intensive. It is no longer just the classic “space invaders”, and it involves multi-disciplinary working. Someone writes that music, someone creates those images, someone programmes the game, and someone writes the storylines, as I mentioned. That is an industry that grew itself. It has simply moved too fast over the years for the Government to catch up. Government can at times be quite glacial; the IT sector is the river rapids.
I had imagined, before I found out more about the industry, the average “gamer”, as I have heard players are called, to be a child, adolescent, teenager or—at most—a young adult. In fact, it is common for all those whippersnappers under 50 to be gamers, and not even uncommon for crumbling MPs such as many of us to be engrossed by such games. We all have a stake now that gaming is a cultural norm. I have been told that the phenomenon is almost global. The opportunities are immense, and it is time for the Government to catch up with the industry.
Video games tax relief has helped to advance some parts of the sector, but it has given an advantage to the larger studios at the expense of smaller and more innovative ones, which have closed in recent years. I would like to see that reversed. It is perhaps time to look at expanding the tax relief and offering upfront funding, even in the form of loans, to help games development. I encourage the Minister to address some of those points in her response.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Ms McDonagh. I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for St Albans (Mrs Main) on securing the debate.
I recognise the enormous progress that many of us have celebrated this afternoon, but I want to sound a note of warning about becoming complacent. For all the progress that we have talked about in our constituencies and around the country, the truth is that, across the horizon, others are moving much faster. We have heard about some of the big technology firms that are troubling us from the west coast of the United States, but look east, to Alibaba, Tencent, and Baidu.
Look at the fact that China is now not only the country that invented paper currency, but will soon become the first cashless society, where everybody pays for everything on WeChat. That country is now backed by the biggest science spend on Earth. There are countries around the world moving much faster than us, and if we want to ensure that this great superpower of the steam age does not become an also-ran in the cyber age, the Government will need to make a number of important policy reforms and changes of direction, three of which I will touch on very quickly.
First, we have to ensure that the digital economy in this country has a much more robust foundation of trust. Trust is the foundation of trade; it always has been and always will be. However, as we have seen in the debate surrounding Cambridge Analytica and Facebook, that trust is evaporating very quickly, which is why we need a clear statement of principles and a clear Bill of digital or data rights for the 21st century.
The truth is that we are going into a period of rapid regulation and re-regulation. That is perfectly normal and sensible. There was not just one Factory Act during the course of the 19th century; there were 17. We regulated again and again as the technology and the economics of production changed. That is what we are about to do in this country, yet if we do not have a clear statement of principles, that regulation will be difficult for anybody, frankly, to anticipate.
It should not simply be about our rights as consumers; it should be, as the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) said, about basic equalities. In South Korea, they want to use wearable technology to increase life expectancy by three years. How do we ensure that those new privileges are not simply the preserve of those who can afford the technology? How do we ensure that we democratise both the protections that we need and the progress that we want to share? That is why a Bill of digital rights is so important.
It is important that the Government pick up on one crucial component of trust: the electronic ID system—a public choice for EID—that we currently lack. At the moment, public data is scattered between the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency, the Passport Office, the Department for Work and Pensions, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, and the Government Gateway, which I see the Minister’s Department has now claimed. At the moment, that information is so disjointed that we cannot use it as citizens to create a secure public EID system, as they have done in Estonia. That has been the key to Estonia’s creation of 3,000 public e-services and 5,000 private e-services. It is the foundation of what is now the most advanced digital society on Earth. The Government need to put in place those important foundations of trust.
The second point is on infrastructure. It is not just here in the Houses of Parliament where the digital infrastructure is appalling. I do not know about you, Ms McDonagh, but I certainly cannot get a mobile signal in my office, on the fifth floor of Portcullis House, and I know that frustration is widely shared, but it is not just a problem here. In fact, the areas of this country that Brexit will hit hardest are those where download speeds are slowest. The parts of the country that will be hurt most by Brexit are therefore the least prepared to prosper in the new digital society that we are all so much looking forward to.
Other countries are racing ahead of us in terms of the targets that they are putting in place for broadband access. I was privileged to visit South Korea last week, where they have 60% fibre to the premises. What is it here in Britain? It is 3%. Not only do they have much greater penetration of fibre than we do, they have not one but three mobile networks delivering 100% broadband access, and they will commercialise 5G not in 2020, but this year. That is why the Government should be far more ambitious about universal service obligation for broadband access. We proposed 30 megabits per second, and proposed putting £1.6 billion behind that. The Government should be more ambitious than they are today. We will soon go to consultation on what it would take in terms of public investment to commercialise widespread 5G. We hope that the Government will look closely at our results.
Through the confidence and supply arrangement that the Democratic Unionist party made with the Conservative party, we secured £150 million for broadband to take us up to that level, so we can continue to be the leader in regions across the whole of the United Kingdom for economic development and delivery.
Well, lucky you! If the west midlands had enjoyed a per capita bung on the same level as Northern Ireland, an extra £600 million would be coming into my region; I know I am not the only one to look at the deal that the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues skilfully struck with some jealousy.
The final component is skills. My hon. Friends the Members for Bristol North West (Darren Jones) and for York Central (Rachael Maskell) made brilliant speeches about the importance of skills. I come from the city that is home to Soho House. Soho Manufactory was the first great factory, built in 1766. People have heard, of course, of James Watt, but many forget Matthew Boulton. It was Boulton who put together not only the best engineers in the world, but the best designers in the world. Where did he get them from? He brought engravers and artists from France, Germany and central Europe. That was the strength of the business; it married design brilliance and technical brilliance.
What do we have today, 250 years later? In Jaguar Land Rover, we have a company producing vehicles where the infotainment system is now worth more than the engine. Design brilliance and technical excellence need to go together, but design brilliance is being smashed out of the curriculum at the moment. I speak as a father of a boy going through his GCSEs, so I see it first-hand when I go home.
Young people are at the sharp end of the jobs risk of automation—that was confirmed by the International Monetary Fund yesterday, and by the OECD a week or two ago. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol North West mentioned, older workers are also crucial. By the age of 52, a working-class man in this country has paid £103,000 in national insurance. What happens if he loses his job? He gets sent down the job centre like everybody else, with no extra help, retraining or reskilling for the digital economy. Yet this is the country of the Open University, the Workers’ Educational Association, Unionlearn, and great education entrepreneurs such as Dr Sue Black and Martha Lane Fox. We should be bringing those players together to create a different kind of lifelong learning for the 21st century.
This is a nation of scientific genius. We have been burying our sovereigns with our scientists since we interred Isaac Newton over the road in Westminster abbey. We are the only country in the world that could make films about great scientists such as Turing and Hawking. We are the nation of the industrial revolution, but if we do not change course soon, this foundation of the industrial revolution will not be the leader in the fourth industrial revolution.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McDonagh. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for St Albans (Mrs Main) on securing this debate and on her interesting, comprehensive and inspiring speech. The impact of the digital and tech industries on the UK economy is a vast subject. I will try to respond to as many points as possible.
We heard from many Members about the staggering growth and exciting opportunities that the sector offers our country. The digital economy here is growing 32% faster than the wider economy. I took note of the statistics that my hon. Friend quoted about her constituency. St Albans has access to more than 400,000 digital and tech jobs in and around the surrounding areas and clusters. She mentioned Imagination Technologies in Kings Langley. I am delighted to accept her invitation to visit it to learn more about that exciting new company.
In March 2017 we published our digital strategy, which set out the key pillars of a healthy ecosystem for technology. The foundations can be met when we achieve nationwide access to world-class digital infrastructure. Although London is the capital of European tech investment, almost 70% of that investment is in regional clusters outside London. I find that an encouraging statistic.
In the Budget, we unlocked more than £20 billion of capital funding for digital enterprises through the enterprise investment scheme and the British Business Bank. I very much take on board the point, raised by the hon. Member for Bristol North West (Darren Jones), that it has been easier for start-ups or scale-ups to raise capital if they are located in London. We want to build on that for the regions, so that SMEs no longer have to keep coming to London to raise capital. We announced a further £4.7 billion for the national productivity investment fund, which will benefit the sector, and £75 million of investment to take forward recommendations following the independent review on artificial intelligence and the artificial intelligence grand challenge, which was announced in the industrial strategy.
Several Members mentioned the huge importance of data ethics. The hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) mentioned the debate that she secured a few months ago. I hope the newly announced centre for data ethics and innovation will have discussions with the Nuffield Foundation and will benefit from its Ada Lovelace centre for ethics. Such measures are vital to ensure public trust, which, as the shadow Minister said, is a vital plank of success.
A number of hon. Members mentioned cyber-security and safety. The safety of our citizens and businesses is absolutely crucial. There is an increasing number of risks, which can have damaging implications, as we live and operate online. The digital charter aims to increase public confidence and trust in new technologies and create the best possible basis on which the digital economy can thrive.
Our work on keeping the UK’s cyber-space safe is clear. As we stated in the “Internet Safety Strategy” Green Paper, what is unacceptable offline should be unacceptable online. I look forward to bringing forward the response to that consultation in the next month or two. All users should be empowered to manage online risks and stay safe. Technology companies have a responsibility to their users. We fully understand that it is vital to have strong data protection laws and appropriate safeguards in that area to enable businesses to operate across international borders, as well as empowering citizens with full control over their personal data.
Several hon. Members mentioned digital skills, which are crucial, particularly as we approach Brexit. We need to build a digital economy that works for everyone, and we can do that only if we equip people with the skills that are needed. We are not only looking at training and skills in schools and among the older population, but we want to maintain our position as a go-to country for new talent, so we announced a doubling of the number of tier 1 exceptional talent visas last year. We have introduced an entitlement for adults who lack basic digital skills to enable them to undertake fully funded basic digital skills training from 2020.
I was struck by the statistic about salary levels that the hon. Member for Bristol North West offered. He said that in the digital sector people can expect to be paid 44% more than the average for other employment. We want to open that up. The hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) also made the point that the tech and digital sector can be a great force for social mobility, but only if we ensure that everybody has access to skills training.
Hon. Members talked about young people. We have a big commitment in schools, and we have the benefit of corporate support for our programme of education. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) talked about the importance of bringing together companies, civil society and everyone with an interest in promoting tech education and improving the technology curriculum. We now have coding classes for children as young as five, with the support of wider society.
Accelerating the growth of the digital tech sector across the country is important. We are supporting 40,000 entrepreneurs and up to 4,000 start-ups as they scale up their businesses. As Tech City UK becomes Tech Nation, we will deliver support in 11 cities across the UK, including Belfast, Cardiff and Newcastle. Our digital skills partnership is central to the skills provision across the whole of the UK.
Several hon. Members were kind enough to invite me to their constituencies. I do not know whether it is rude to say that I am going where I have not been invited, but I am actually going to York. As the hon. Member for York Central said, it is also known for fibre. TalkTalk is investing hugely in connecting fibre to premises in the whole of the city of York. A very interesting piece in the Financial Times just this morning said that York is taking the lead in piloting the use of digital technology to map traffic congestion in realtime, so that traffic signals can be adjusted to improve the flow of traffic, with all the additional benefits that that brings. I was interested to hear about the digital creative labs there and about the importance of the gaming industry, which is absolutely crucial. That industry engages young people, so it has a double advantage. I shall endeavour to visit it while I am there.
My hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Leo Docherty) talked about procurement opportunities for UK SMEs, which are very important. In some respects, it will be difficult to secure a preference for UK SMEs in contracting. It will depend on the final terms of our relationship with the EU when we leave, and on any new trade deals that we are successful in negotiating. With that proviso, I certainly share his desire to see better opportunities for SMEs in procurement.
The constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for St Albans is at the centre of a great number of exciting developments in technology, and it is terrific that she is taking the lead in her constituency and making her contribution to the rest of the UK’s development. The Government are committed to making Britain a world leader in the digital and technology sector.
It is fantastic that so many colleagues made excellent contributions this afternoon. I apologise for running over slightly.
I am delighted that the Minister is coming to St Albans. I shall be ruffling through the diary with Imagination Technologies. This debate was so valuable because, apart from the odd barb here and there, everybody was in agreement. I completely agree with the shadow Minister—I do not usually say such things—that broadband access is vital; it absolutely needs to be rolled out. We have to lose the concept that everything is London-centric. I am delighted that this is the way forward. This is the world of the future. I am pleased that so many colleagues took part in the debate. I thought their speeches were excellent. The hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) talked about learning online. We will have to have some new excuses to replace “The dog ate my homework” in a digital world.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the future of the UK digital and tech industries.
Fishing: East Anglia
[Mr Ian Paisley in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the Renaissance of East Anglian Fishing campaign.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley. I am very pleased to have secured this debate, as it provides an ideal opportunity to highlight the work getting underway in Lowestoft, in my constituency, and along the East Anglian coast to launch the campaign to deliver the renaissance of East Anglian fisheries. I am delighted that my neighbour, the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey), is responding for the Government.
REAF was launched last month, on 15 March, at the East Anglian fishing conference at the Hotel Victoria in Lowestoft. Up to 150 people attended, predominantly local and many from the local fishing industry. Many of the speakers were local, the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, my hon. Friend the Member for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice), gave a keynote speech and we had a productive workshop in which some very good ideas were put forward for how best to revitalise the industry. Brexit provides a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to do that—to start again with a clean sheet of paper and to have a complete rethink of how we manage these fisheries.
Fishing has taken place along the East Anglian coast for more than a thousand years. Lowestoft was previously the fishing capital of the southern North sea and was the hub of an industry that included many other ports, such as Kings Lynn, Cromer, Sheringham, Yarmouth, Kessingland, Southwold, Aldeburgh, Orford, Felixstowe Ferry, Maldon, Colchester and Southend. East Anglia sits next to one of the richest fishing grounds in Europe, but today little local benefit is derived from that. Most of the UK vessels registered in East Anglia and fishing off our coast are smaller than 10 metres and many of them target shellfish or fin fish in the inshore areas.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving me permission to intervene beforehand. The bottom line is that, while UK vessels land 40% of their catch from UK waters, Norway and Iceland land 83% and 90% respectively in theirs. That shows the indisputable fact that the European Union has never given us our fair share and never will. As such, does he agree that it is imperative that we regain full control of our waters and do not accept anything that does not bring the control of fishing in British waters back into the hands of the MPs here and the people who we represent?
The hon. Gentleman’s point is well made.
It is important that our region derives the maximum possible economic benefit from Brexit. REAF is seeking to achieve that goal, with the local industry taking the lead in planning the future of East Anglian fishing. The intention is to set out our stall, and to work with Government, to make the most of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. That approach is consistent with the Prime Minister’s desire for the Government to work with the fishing industry to secure a better deal for coastal communities.
I shall briefly outline what I believe are the three ingredients to deliver REAF. First, East Anglian fishermen must be given the opportunity to catch more fish. The region’s catch sector predominantly comprises the inshore fleet, which, as has been well documented, does not get a fair slice of the cake. The six vessels in the Lowestoft Fish Producers Organisation land their catches in the Netherlands and Peterhead. We need to be in a position whereby fish caught in the exclusive economic zone off the East Anglian coast are landed in local ports, thereby benefiting local people, local businesses and local communities.
If the quota system is to continue, there needs to be a radical reallocation in favour of locally based fishermen, so that they can earn a fair living and the full benefit of their hard work, which often takes place in extremely harsh conditions, can be secured for the ports and communities in which they live and work and for allied industries, such as local processors, merchants, ship repairers and maintenance services.
Secondly—this goes hand in hand with landing more fish in East Anglian ports—there is a need to invest in infrastructure, skills and supply chain businesses in those ports and their surrounding areas. Although in many respects it is surprising how much of the supporting sector remains in Lowestoft and other East Anglian ports, there is concern that it does not have the capacity to cope with a significant increase in landings. There must be a whole-industry approach from the net to the plate.
Thirdly, a new management system must be put in place that has the full confidence and respect of all those working in the industry. The system must be based on science and be local, sustainable and collaborative. Being based on science means making decisions that are established on scientific evidence, not political expediency. The Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science, which has its headquarters in Lowestoft, should be at the heart of that locally, nationally and internationally. The Government are to be commended for their foresight in investing in the redevelopment of CEFAS’s Lowestoft headquarters, which is now getting under way.
The system must be truly local and tailored to ensure the bespoke management of individual fisheries—a bottom-up approach to replace the top-down strategy. The new system must have sustainability ingrained in its DNA, it should guard against unsustainable practices such as electric pulse fishing, which is having a particularly devastating impact on local fisheries in the southern North sea, and it should ensure that those working in the industry can plan and invest for the future. Fisheries management must be a tripartite partnership of fishermen, scientists and regulators, collaborating and working together. We must do away with the current “them and us” approach that pervades much of the current regulatory system. That will mean fishermen taking on new responsibilities and regulators working with them.
People left the conference of 15 March in an upbeat mood. The following week, the Government published the implementation agreement for leaving the EU, which provides for the UK to leave the common fisheries policy on 31 December 2020, rather than at an earlier date, as so many had hoped. As a result, that positive outlook was replaced by anger and despair. Helpfully, the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State subsequently have made assurances that on 31 December 2020 the UK will resume full control of the seas in our exclusive economic zone, that we will decide who can access those waters and on what terms, and that no deals will be done beforehand that use fishing as bargaining chip as part of the wider Brexit negotiations.
That said, there are issues arising from the implementation agreement that need clarifying. Notwithstanding the wording of article 125 of the implementation agreement, which sets out the specific arrangements on fishing opportunities during the implementation period, there is a real worry that the best interests of the fishing industry will be irretrievably compromised during this period. We will be subject to the common fisheries policy and the landing obligations with the maximum sustainable yield target, but we will have a significantly reduced influence on the annual negotiations. The discards ban will be implemented during this period and its negative impact on the inshore fleet will be significant, yet we will have a very much diminished opportunity to promote measures to alleviate its impact. In effect, we will be bound by the CFP during this period, but only consulted on fishing opportunities in UK waters.
There is also a concern that the provisions of article 125 may set a precedent for future policy and negotiations with the EU. There is a worry about paragraph 4 of that article, which refers to maintaining
“the relative stability keys for the allocation of fishing opportunities”
during the implementation period. The main challenge for East Anglian fishermen is that they are unable to land enough fish to earn a fair living or supply the local processing industry. “Relative stability” in many respects underpins the status quo, and it is important that, after we leave the CFP, we start again with a clean sheet of paper for allocating fishing opportunities. If we do not, any gains will be enjoyed by the few, not the many.
As I mentioned, the East Anglian fishing fleet is predominantly inshore, comprising what have become known as the under-10s. That part of the industry is hanging on by its fingertips, and there is a worry that it will struggle to survive to the end of the implementation period. Action is needed to address the situation. It is important that we use the additional preparatory time wisely, and I make the following suggestions for how we might do so.
First, on 29 March 2019, the UK will become an independent coastal state with duties and obligations under the United Nations convention on the law of the sea. We must be fully prepared to discharge those rights and responsibilities. Secondly, the fisheries White Paper and fisheries Bill should be published as soon as practically possible so that the industry and parliamentarians can help shape a future policy framework, which should have the flexibility to respond to local needs and demands.
Thirdly, East Anglian fishermen need to be able to land more fish so they can earn a fair living. In the short term, that can be achieved by reallocating a share of existing quota to the inshore fleet. In the longer term, we need to tackle the situation that fish caught in UK waters are not landed in UK ports. Much of Britain’s quota is currently held by overseas businesses. The economic link requirements of vessel licences must be reformed and then enforced. Fourthly, the UK will withdraw from the London fisheries convention on 3 July 2019, providing us full access rights to our fishing grounds in the zone between 6 nautical miles and 12 nautical miles from our coast. Consideration should be given to how best to take advantage of that opportunity.
Last Friday, Waveney District Council submitted REAF’s application for a European maritime and fisheries fund grant to the Marine Management Organisation. The proposed project will enable us to develop a long-term strategy for the future of the East Anglian fishing industry. It is a bottom-up initiative with widespread local and industry support. It is an exciting, innovative and compelling proposal that is a beacon of positivity at a time when the fishing industry is under intense pressure and there is anger and disappointment about the Brexit transitional arrangements. The project is designed to help shape a positive and profitable future for the industry as a whole, from the net to the plate. Its objective is to establish how the economic and social benefits of the fishing industry in East Anglia can best be captured and optimised locally and regionally.
There are three elements to the project: data and information gathering and analysis; a forward look at the prospective changes and the development of possible options for bringing benefits to the region’s fishing industry and coastal communities; and the preparation of a regional fisheries strategy. The project will examine why, despite the profitability of the UK fleet overall having increased year on year for the past 10 years, that improvement has bypassed Lowestoft and East Anglia. It will analyse the fishing fleets across the region to provide a starting point for developing a regional strategy. At local level, it will look at how a new management system can be put in place that takes into account the different sections of the fleet and ensures that they are managed in the most efficient and effective way. The project will assess the catch potential for East Anglian vessels and what changes should be made to the economic link requirements, and analyse the whole supply chain to establish how best to maximise the opportunity presented by Brexit.
In short, this is prudent and long-term strategic planning at its best. It is estimated that the project will cost approximately £160,000 and take nine months to complete. The application is for 75% of the cost of the project to come from the EMFF, and we are looking to the Government to contribute the remaining 25%. There is sound justification for them to do so, as the proposal has collective interests and beneficiaries and is highly innovative. We have looked at other sources of funding, such as councils, the coastal communities fund and the New Anglia local enterprise partnership, but those options cannot be pursued, either because the money is not there or because a bid would not satisfy the various eligibility criteria.
The bid is compelling. It is exactly the sort of sensible long-term planning that should be done as we leave the EU to open up new and exciting business opportunities. It would be unfortunate if this highly innovative project stalled at a time when the industry is badly bruised.
Special thanks are due to the local community champions who came together to form REAF, some of whom are here today. There are many of them, but I pay special tribute to June Mummery and Paul Lines, whose passion and determination have been so important. REAF provides a great opportunity to revitalise a uniquely East Anglian industry for the benefit of local communities that feel they have been dispossessed and ignored for too long. In policy terms, the Government need to provide a national framework for fishing that has the flexibility to respond to different local demands and allows the industry to flourish all around the coast. REAF is looking to provide the cornerstone for that in East Anglia, and I hope that the Government can work with and endorse its locally derived, innovative and well thought-through initiative, which has strong local backing.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley. I congratulate my constituency neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous), on securing this debate. I know that our fishing industry is of huge importance to him, his constituents and the many other coastal communities around the UK. His has been an important voice in the wider fisheries debate, particularly at the recent REAF conference in Lowestoft.
Unfortunately, the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, my hon. Friend the Member for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice), cannot be here because he is in the Faroe Islands discussing potential future fisheries arrangements. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney pointed out, the Fisheries Minister spoke at the recent REAF conference. As the MP for an East Anglian coastal community—there are fishermen along the Suffolk coast—I am delighted to be able to reply to this debate about the REAF campaign. As my hon. Friend knows, this issue is not only of great importance to my constituents, but arguably one of the most totemic issues following the decision to leave the European Union.
The Government absolutely recognise that leaving the EU presents us with a once-in-a-generation opportunity to reshape the future of fisheries in the United Kingdom. I am encouraged by the passion and enthusiasm of people throughout East Anglia to build up the industry for the benefit of their communities. The REAF campaign is strong and inspiring evidence of that passion.
I congratulate the applicants on submitting their initial bid for EMFF funding to support the REAF campaign, and I understand that it will be considered through the normal processes. I hope my hon. Friend understands that I cannot make any commitments to funding in this debate—most of all because I would probably have to declare some kind of constituency interest. However, I am sure he will be aware that the bid will be considered carefully. I understand the apprehension of some hon. Members during this period of uncertainty, but we recognise that the drive of the people in Waveney and other fishing communities around the country will be one of the main determining factors that will result in a thriving and prosperous local industry.
I know the outcome of the implementation period negotiations was not the one that many hon. Members of this House wanted; it was certainly not the one the Government sought, either. We were clear at the outset of negotiations that specific arrangements should be agreed for fisheries during the implementation period. We pressed hard during negotiations to secure the outcome, and we were disappointed that the EU was not willing to move on that point. When the UK leaves the EU on 29 March 2019, we will no longer be a member state, and we will formally leave the common fisheries policy. However, as my hon. Friend pointed out, under the agreement current fisheries rules will continue to apply during the implementation period.
In regard to the annual negotiations of fishing opportunities, the agreement clarifies that the UK’s share of quotas will not change during the implementation period and that the UK will be able to attend international negotiations. That means we will continue to follow existing CFP rules for technical conservation as well as total annual catch and quota. Furthermore, the agreement includes an obligation on both sides to act in good faith during the implementation period. It is really important to recognise that while there may be a perception that all of a sudden UK fishing will be done down, we should not accept that assertion—not least because there is a dispute resolution mechanism where we can make a challenge if we feel the EU is not acting in good faith. However, I stress again that such arrangements will apply only to negotiations in 2019.
By December 2020, we will be negotiating fishing opportunities for 2021 as a third country and an independent coastal state, and at that point we will be completely outside the common fisheries policy. Any decisions about giving access to our waters to vessels from the EU and any other coastal states will then be a matter for negotiation.
The Government’s future vision for fisheries will be laid out in a White Paper, to be published in due course, which will be followed by a fisheries Bill that will give us the legal powers necessary to manage our fisheries in the future and enable us to develop a truly UK fisheries policy, in particular by controlling access to our own waters and setting fishing opportunities. Arrangements are well under way to put in place domestic preparations to ensure that we are ready to take advantage of the opportunities from leaving not only the EU but the London fisheries convention.
In general, the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill will ensure that that we will have the necessary rules in place on the day after exit. That provides the maximum possible certainty and continuity to businesses, workers and consumers across the UK. The fisheries Bill will then enable us to develop a truly United Kingdom fisheries policy—in particular, as I said, by controlling access to our own waters and setting fishing opportunities.
When we think about the future, it is important to ensure that we have a sustainable fishing industry. It is helpful to reflect that overall many aspects of the UK marine environment are improving. About 30% of fish stocks are now at sustainable levels, and the proportion of large fish in the North sea has climbed steadily since 2010 to levels not seen since the 1980s. That is a valuable reminder of what we can achieve to help build a sustainable resource for future generations.
While our role in fisheries management will change, we remain committed to working with the EU and other coastal states to manage those shared fish stocks sustainably, in line with our international commitments. We want to be a responsible coastal state and to develop a collaborative working relationship with our international partners. We are proud of our record of championing sustainable fisheries and the end of wasteful discarding. However, we fully recognise the need to ensure that the future UK discard policy has the necessary flexibilities to avoid the problem of choke with species such as cod and saithe.
As I pointed out, we will shortly set out our vision for sustainable fisheries management in our White Paper. During that time, the Government and the Marine Management Organisation will work together in closer partnership with industry, scientific organisations and other stakeholders as well as our colleagues in the devolved Administrations to help shape our future management strategy and ensure it is evidence based. That is a strong point that my hon. Friend affirmed is necessary.
My hon. Friend pointed out concern about the article 152 precedent and relative stability. Our advice is that the implementation period and what is agreed then will not set a precedent for the future. I assure him that we are committed to ensuring that, as I have set out, we will be able to shape our future management strategy and negotiate on who is in our coastal waters and the fishing opportunities there.
We absolutely want to safeguard the long-term profitability of the industry. Through the ongoing negotiations, we will work hard to ensure the best deal for the whole of the UK fishing industry and support the needs of inshore fleets and coastal communities such as those in East Anglia. Since 2012, to help support the under-10-metre fleet, the Government have realigned quota that had not been fished, leased, gifted or swapped by processor organisations and was considered unused. My hon. Friend will be aware of the huge court battle that ensued, but the Government won, and that has delivered a 13% increase in quota for the under-10-metre fleet. In 2016, that equated to almost 700 tonnes of additional quota.
Our new fisheries policy must be forward looking, responsive, sustainable, resilient and competitive. We should all look towards the innovation and diversification taking place in other coastal communities in order to help build a profitable and stable career choice for a new generation of fishing businesses in East Anglia. As well as changes in quota, I agree that investment in vessels, infrastructure, skills and the wider supply chain will be needed to improve fisheries management and the sector’s profitability.
In October 2016, the Chancellor announced that all projects funded from the EMFF approved before March 2019 will be fully funded, even after the UK has left the EU. It is expected that the EMFF will continue to be open for new projects until 2020. I am aware from my hon. Friend that the valuable information he gathered at the conference in his constituency will be used to shape the design of any possible future funding schemes.
I am conscious of the local community where fishing is totemic. It is more than that; it is the livelihoods of many people there. It is about people who fish, people who process and the ongoing economic security that brings to their families. I am aware that alternative careers have been developing at Lowestoft and surrounding ports to support the offshore wind farm, but my hon. Friend and I agree that that should not be at the expense of a secure future for fishing in East Anglia. We want to ensure that.
With more than 10,000 miles of mainland coastline—quite a lot of it is in my constituency and that of my hon. Friend—the UK has some of the most varied marine habitats of any coastal waters. He is right to pay tribute to CEFAS, which undertakes a strong role, and I am pleased that investment is under way.
Our habitats in coastal waters make a critical contribution to biodiversity. Our seas support the national economy and our local economy with jobs, providing us with food, raw materials and beautiful, irreplaceable recreational destinations. I am sure my hon. Friend will agree that in leaving the European Union we must take the opportunity to create a world-class fisheries management system based on the principle of maximum sustainable yield and help to restore and protect the marine ecosystem. Both ends are compatible. It is our ambition to take the opportunity presented also to reflect our proud maritime heritage in policies that create a stronger, resilient, more productive fishing industry—for the next generation in East Anglia, and for generations to come.
Question put and agreed to.
Austerity: Life Expectancy
I beg to move,
That this House has considered austerity and changes in life expectancy.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley. Life expectancy is the statistical analysis of that most basic feature of health, life itself. Through these linear annals, since the early years of Queen Victoria’s reign, the health and wellbeing of this nation have been catalogued. Life expectancy serves as the statistical testimony of the social history of our country. Through it are revealed the national crises and epidemics, the giant leaps forward in public health and the great workplace, environmental and social reforms that have marked the last two centuries of change.
In the first collection, published in 1841, the English life table gave female life expectancy as 41 years and male as 40. The changes that followed in the subsequent 180 years have seen those doubled. The turn of the 20th century saw a dramatic drop in infant and childhood mortality as sanitation and living standards improved. Improvements in the treatment of infectious disease, the creation of the NHS, the Clean Air Act 1956 and improvements in maternity care, living standards and incomes followed, and with them rises in life expectancy that were sustained for almost a century. Neither wars nor global convulsions could stem the inexorable upward rise.
That was the great era of a remarkable revolution in public health. By 2011, women’s life expectancy had reached 83 and men’s 79. With three months added with each passing year, a little girl born in Sheffield in 2011 had every right to expect to live to be 100 years old. Those assumptions were not based on any great improvements or medical discoveries, but simply on the fact that our health was improving and would continue to do so.
However, since 2011, something unusual and, in modern British history, unprecedented has happened to life expectancy: it has flatlined. For the first time in well over a century, the health of the people of this nation has stopped improving. It is of course axiomatic that life expectancy cannot increase forever, and that a slowdown in growth would eventually occur, but it is the sudden and sustained rise in mortality rates that has so concerned public health professionals and should concern us as parliamentarians.
The period from July 2014 to June 2015 saw an additional 39,074 deaths in England and Wales, compared with the same period the previous year. While mortality rates fluctuate year on year, that was the largest rise for nearly 50 years, and the higher rate of mortality was maintained throughout 2016 and into 2017. Provisional figures on the number of weekly deaths indicate that winter mortality was higher than usual in early 2015, 2017 and 2018.
Those recent trends contrast starkly with the long-term decline in age-specific mortality rates throughout the 20th and 21st centuries. Now, research published in The BMJ has revealed the shocking fact that 10,000 more people died in the first seven weeks of 2018 than in the same period in 2017. The study finds no external factor that might have caused the 11% rise: no unusual cold snap, natural disaster or flu outbreak outside normal expectations. The Office for National Statistics has gone so far as to revise down its official life expectancy projections by almost a whole year, compared with the projections of just two years ago. That means 1 million further earlier deaths are now projected over the next 40 years.
The Financial Times has reported that the deceleration of previous rises in life expectancy has cut £310 billion from future British pension fund liabilities. As Professor Danny Dorling of the University of Oxford has noted, what is happening with life expectancy,
“is no longer being treated as a temporary decline; it is the new norm.”
Dorling and Dr Hiam have looked at other extraneous factors to explain those projections. A rise in birth rates? No—birth rates are falling. More migration? The ONS now projects less inward migration over the next 40 years.
How then to explain an increase of 40,000 deaths on what was projected for this year, and an extra 25,000 deaths for next year? We can only conclude that there has been a sharp deterioration in the collective health of this country. Dominic Harrison, Director of Public Health for Blackburn and Darwen, and an adviser to Public Health England, has said that the figures are a “strong and flashing” amber light that,
“something is making the population more vulnerable to avoidable death.
We know that in some areas the picture is even more concerning, with higher death rates and life expectancy falling. Research has pinpointed 29 areas where we see falling life expectancy for women; chief among them are seaside towns and post-industrial areas.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. Barnsley, the area I represent, has one of the lowest life expectancies in the country. Does she agree that post-industrial towns such as Barnsley need more funding and resources to tackle the inequality between north and south?
I could not agree more with my hon. Friend. She makes an important point, because it is exactly those post-industrial towns and regions that were invested in so heavily under the last Labour Government and have seen a fall in life expectancy over the last seven years.
Regional and class inequalities in health, as we know, are nothing new, but there is a more distinct change now taking place. In my city of Sheffield, the healthy life expectancy for women of 57.5 years has dropped by four years since 2009, while healthy life expectancy across the country has basically held steady. There are already too many areas in our country where healthy life expectancy is unacceptably low. The average baby girl born in Manchester between 2014 and 2016 will live to be 79, but only until age 54 will she be healthy. That is almost one third of her life spent grappling with health issues that will not affect the average woman born on Orkney until she is 71 years old.
One of the factors, if not the sole factor, is that when we look at the past recession, most of the burden has been inflicted on women generally. We all know that. That is an anxiety factor, and there are good examples of it. One good example is the women of the Women Against State Pension Inequality Campaign. A lot of them were due to retire and had plans; those plans have gone now, because they will not get their entitlement. There are a number of factors that affect women more than men, particularly during a recession.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It has particularly hit older women, and I will come on to that disproportionate impact shortly.
Something is adversely affecting the health of our population, and as my hon. Friend has just said, none of it is happening in a vacuum. The observation is unavoidable that these patterns coincide with the era of austerity. It is simply inconceivable that the state of our public realm, welfare system, housing, fuel poverty, child poverty and our NHS have nothing at all to do with it. The number of NHS trusts with budget deficits has increased sharply since 2015, as have waiting periods for elective surgery and waits for urgent care. Hospitals are now warning of an “eternal winter”, as records show the number of patients receiving urgent care within four hours fell to a record low in March 2018. Almost half a million patients waited longer than 18 weeks for planned care.
This week, the Royal College of Physicians raised the alarm, writing to hon. Members to tell us that hospitals are “underfunded, underdoctored, overstretched”. That will not be news to anybody who has been anywhere close to the NHS in recent years. However, the shortage of doctors and consultants revealed by the RCP is systematic and shocking; 43% of advertised consultant posts last year in Yorkshire and the Humber were not appointed to. In acute medicine, only five out of 26 posts were successfully appointed to. The RCP concludes that these workforce shortages have direct implications for patient safety. Although our hospitals still provide expert care, relentlessly drawing on the good will of staff—who cannot possibly provide the best possible care when under such pressure—is unsustainable.
Issues within the NHS are being compounded by problems with the provision of adult social care. According to the King’s Fund, in 2016-17 there were 380,000 cases of a delayed transfer of care due to patients’ awaiting a hospital assessment. A similar number were waiting for a place in a nursing home. It is little surprise that the sorry state of our social care system should be linked to a fall in the life expectancy of older women living in the poorest parts of the UK, because that cohort has seen a disproportionate fall in their life expectancy. For the first time, health inequality is rising because the most deprived are suffering with poorer health.
I have often heard it said that the elderly have been protected from the worst ravages of austerity, but the elderly who live in deprived communities have been hit many times over. Relevant to this debate, they have been hit first by the cut in pension credit for lower-income groups and then through the funding pressures on adult social care. Of course, it is in the local authorities serving the most deprived areas that these effects have been felt the most.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech, especially on the impact on the elderly. However, does she agree that more and more children are now being impacted by austerity? Slough Foodbank has noticed an increase in the number of families attending its food bank, saying:
“When we checked the vouchers, we discovered that there had been an increase of 16% in the number of children we helped in 2017 compared to 2016.”
Does my hon. Friend agree that it is important that child poverty is addressed now? There are lifelong implications for those who grow up in poverty, such as poorer academic results, employment prospects and life expectancy.
I am glad that my hon. Friend raises that important point, because I am not able to address all the factors behind declining life expectancy. The British Medical Association raised that point this week, saying it is very concerned about the 5 million children growing up in poverty and the implications that that will have in the future on life expectancy.
I do not want to divert my hon. Friend from the main course of her speech, but she knows that, over the past 30 years, infant mortality has fallen by 60%, yet from 2015 onwards it has risen in England and Wales each year. Holywell Central and Flint Castle wards in my constituency have child poverty rates of 43% and 42%. We have seen an increase of 100 children in poverty in my constituency in the last year. This is a long-term issue, which we need to address.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right: these are long-term issues, which need addressing. They are all the more heartbreaking because we have seen decades of progress, and we all assumed that that would only go in one direction; little did any of us imagine that we would see a rise in infant mortality in the sixth-richest country in the world. These figures are, quite frankly, inexcusable.
On social care, care homes in deprived communities often no longer receive enough to cover the costs of care, which inevitably compromises the quality that they are able to provide. For those in such communities who cannot afford private care homes, that reduction of quality, and in some cases the lack of any available residential care at all, has had a punishing effect.
All Members present will have received casework regarding those still in their homes in the community who rely on care packages. Their care is simply unacceptable, relying on care workers who are paid far too little and who often do upward of 25 care visits every single day. There is not a chance, even by unsustainably drawing on the boundless good will of those care workers, that visits could last for 30 minutes, as defined by official guidance. It is beyond the realms of possibility. Those millions of hours of lost contact time for the 470,000 vulnerable—predominantly elderly—people who use home care will have undoubtedly compromised their long-term care and support needs and the management of multiple conditions.
It perhaps should not be a surprise that the rise in mortality and the fall in life expectancy came from precisely that cohort—older women living alone in poorer areas. In many senses, they were the early-warning sign of the deeply troubling trend in increasing mortality. This cohort, more reliant than any other on a functioning, effective, compassionate state providing quality support, have been badly let down in recent years. It should be a source of national shame that elderly women in some of the most deprived areas of our country are living in isolation, not properly cared for, and are losing their lives because the state has not supported them. However, it is not just that cohort of women. Some 7% of the extra deaths in 2016-17 were of people aged between 20 and 60. Almost 2,000 more younger men and 1,000 more younger women have died than would have if progress had not stalled.
I am sure that the Minister cannot look at the evidence presented here today, or at the research undertaken over the past two years, and not want to take steps to tackle those shocking statistics and to prevent those lives from being cut short. It is therefore critical that Ministers and the Government take seriously the fall in life expectancy and the evidence behind the growth in mortality. Up to now, Public Health England has regrettably tried to attribute it to the greater prevalence of flu. However, as Loopstra noted in her report:
“If Public Health England’s attribution of rising mortality to cold weather and flu is correct, then it should lead to an elevation of mortality in regional swathes across the nation. However…trends have varied considerably across local authorities, with no apparent geographic patterning consistent with regional outbreaks.”
The rise in unexpected mortality and the concurrent fall in life expectancy represents a significant moment in the history of public health in this country, yet the Department of Health has so far rejected the call from public health professionals for an inquiry into the sharp rise in deaths. I repeat that call today, and ask the Minister to look very seriously at the evidence presented on the link between life expectancy and austerity.
I will end on the words of Danny Dorling and Stuart Gietel-Basten, who have undertaken so much of the research in this area:
“demography is not destiny. Projections are not predictions. There is no preordained inevitability that a million years of life need be lost…but only through politics comes the power to make the changes that are now so urgently needed.”
The Minister has that power in her hands, and there can be no more pressing question for her than to ask why the citizens of our country are dying sooner than they should. I hope she leaves no stone unturned in pursuit of that answer.
I do not intend to put a formal time limit on speeches. However, there are two Opposition spokespersons as well as the Minister, and I would like to start calling the Opposition spokespersons just after the hour, so if Members could speak for about five minutes each, that would be helpful.
I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh) for bringing this important matter before the House.
I will start with the economics, because the debate relates to austerity and life expectancy. Government Members would probably talk about living within our means and would put to the hon. Lady the argument that the consequences for the poor and the vulnerable of a country continuing to live beyond its means are very grave. Economic history tells us that when countries lose control of their finances, it is not the well-to-do or the comfortable who suffer, but the poor and the vulnerable. That needs to be put very firmly on the record.
It is also worth noting that the Commonwealth Fund, which is an independent body, last year pointed out that our NHS was the best health system of the 11 different health systems it looked at. If we look at our outcomes on strokes, heart attacks and cancer, we see that they are getting better—there are 7,000 people alive today who would not be alive had we not seen that improvement in cancer outcomes.
Looking at the data across Europe, we see that what is happening in the UK is part of a trend, because life expectancy is also falling in Italy, Spain, France and Germany. Some of those countries spend quite a lot more on health than we do. France and Germany spend one percentage point of GDP more on health than we do, yet they have also seen that downward trend.
I will in a moment. There has been no austerity in Germany, because the Germans live within their means and run a big budget surplus. They have a trade surplus with China. However, life expectancy is falling in Germany as well. We need to look at these wider factors and at the European context. I will now of course give way, with great pleasure, to my former colleague on the Health Committee.
Does the hon. Gentleman also recognise from the data that there is not a similar fall in life expectancy in the Scandinavian countries and that it is wrong to look narrowly at health services, because the biggest driver in relation to life expectancy is poverty?
I will come on to those very important public health issues and what we need to do about them, because I care passionately about them, as probably everyone in the Chamber does. As the hon. Lady is from Scotland, it is also worth looking at what is happening there, because Scotland offers free adult social care and spends a higher amount on healthcare per head than England, yet still has a lower life expectancy than England. We need to get those issues firmly—
If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I am going to make a bit of progress, because I am mindful of your admonition, Mr Paisley, not to take too long and I want all the Opposition Members to have their say as well.
What do we need to do about this situation? We have 25% more nurses coming into the system—that training has started—and 25% more doctors coming into the system. We will get the social care Green Paper in July; we cannot get it a second too soon. I for one, as a Conservative Member on the Government side of the House, put up my hand: I want to see increased spending on health and social care, probably through a hypothecated tax. I think that is necessary. If we want quality, we have to pay for it.
We also need to consider issues such as obesity, exercise, air quality and housing quality. If we look at the obesity epidemic in our country, we see that it is now the poor who are much more obese than other social groups, and we know what a massive impact obesity has on health through diabetes and so on. We have to do better there. Why are only 2% of journeys in London made by bicycle? In Amsterdam, it is 30%. The children there cycle, there is much less childhood obesity, and that feeds into better health outcomes and better life expectancy. I chaired the Health Committee’s Sub-Committee that looked into air quality. We need to do a lot better on air quality, and we need there to be good- quality housing.
I salute the intentions of the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley. She is right to bring this issue before the House. But I would tell her to think of the broader economics and to look at the European comparisons and those important drivers of public health as well.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh) on securing the debate. The issue of stalling life expectancy, and indeed of falling life expectancy in some areas, is very serious. The hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) talked about living within our means, but people in my constituency are dying early without their means.
We must reach out across the party political divide on this issue, because the constituencies affected are in poorer areas of the country, as has been mentioned, but they are not anomalies; many different parts of the country are affected. I will give an example. Life expectancy for females at age 65-plus has fallen over the past five years by 0.8 years in Stevenage and by 0.6 years in Cheltenham. Life expectancy for males at birth has fallen in my county of Denbighshire by 0.6 years and by 0.9 years in Bromsgrove. This issue affects a great many of our constituents, across the political divide and across the country. There must be the political will for us to understand the root causes of what has resulted in this debate.
Does my hon. Friend agree that what is responsible for this situation is not just the restraint in spending, but the way in which spending restraint and austerity have played out on the frontline? The issue is the withdrawal of mental health services for people living at home. It is the teaching assistants who have all but been removed. In particular, it is the impact on services that help people to stay at home and manage conditions and the cuts to frontline policing that have led to the evisceration of not just life chances, but life expectancy itself.
I am afraid that I must move on, because I have been getting eyes from the Chair and I do not want to upset Mr Paisley.
The Government have said that the situation is a blip because of flu or the cold weather. The Department of Health has seemed to downplay fears about life expectancy, pointing out that smoking rates have gone down and cancer rates have gone down, but that is all the more reason to be worried. If those indicators are going down and life expectancy is going down, what is causing that? Those are good indicators, but there are some bad outcomes for certain people in certain areas.
A report by Professor Martin McKee, whom I had the pleasure of meeting yesterday, notes that the most recent period
“has seen one of the greatest slowdowns in the rate of improvement”
in life expectancy
“for both sexes since the 1890s”.
The relative data on life expectancy today is comparable to a time before workers’ rights, advancements in medicine and technology, and the welfare state. That slowdown, as reported by the Office for National Statistics last July, shows that the increases in the previous period, before 2010, meant that for every five years that a woman was living, she could expect to live one year extra. Now it is the case that for every 10 years that a woman is living, she can expect to live one year extra. The rate has been halved.
Let me add to those figures some of my own, which I received through parliamentary questions that I tabled in January. Between 2009-11 and 2014-16, 19.8% and 20.3% of local authorities reported a decline for females at birth and at 65-plus respectively. There are certain areas of the country, certain demographics and certain genders—women—who are feeling this the most. That is no surprise, because 80% of the austerity cuts made since 2010 have fallen on the shoulders of women. The link between life expectancy and cuts to social care budgets has already been highlighted.
The hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire mentioned Scotland. I do not want to stick up for the Scots: they can do a good job themselves, especially the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire (Dr Whitford), with her medical background. However, there are national and regional variations within the United Kingdom. If we look at local authorities in England, we see that 22% of them have seen a decrease in life expectancy.
In Wales and Northern Ireland the figure is 18%. In Scotland it is only 6.2%. In the north-east of England, 27% of local authorities have seen a decrease in life expectancy. There are regional differences. What we can draw from that is that where there has been devolution and kinder, gentler Administrations, there has been a less sharp decline.
Hope is a powerful motivator in the way we make decisions. Messages of hope won historic victories for my party in 1945 and 1997 and denied the current Government their majority last year. What the Conservatives proposed at the last election, after seven years of austerity, was another 10 years of austerity. There is learned helplessness out there. People are sick and tired, and they are dying because there is no hope. They have lost income—£2,000 for most people and £5,000 for teachers. Austerity is biting, not just in medicine but in social care, and affecting mental health and physical health. In the short time I have left, Mr Paisley, it is worth noting—
There is very little time, so I will draw my comments to a close by saying that Professor Martin McKee and other academics, from Oxford and other universities, want the Health Committee to have an inquiry on this issue. It is complex. I have mentioned some of the causes, and other MPs, from both sides of the Chamber, have mentioned some of the other causes of the decline in life expectancy. It is a complex mix of issues and deserves an inquiry by the Health Committee.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mr Paisley. I shall keep my comments brief because many other Members wish to speak. I also take the opportunity to congratulate the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh) on securing a debate on this important matter.
When people think of the rolling hills of west Oxfordshire, I appreciate that poverty is not one of the things that immediately springs to mind, but that is to ignore some of the very real issues present in my constituency. There are real factors and pockets of deprivation, and rural poverty in particular is a real concern, so the issue is very live for those of us in the green shires, as well as for those in urban environments. I would like the House to bear that in mind.
The hon. Lady made some important points today, but I suggest that it is simplistic to look at a straightforward line between necessary control of public spending and an impact on life expectancy. As we have heard, a whole range of factors affect life expectancy and mortality—quality of life, mental health, obesity, housing, air quality—and simply to draw that straightforward causation line is to make things far too simple, when in fact we are dealing with a complex issue.
The hon. Gentleman talked about it being simplistic to talk about the cuts, austerity and so forth, but let us talk, for example, about the cost of a pupil going to a pupil referral unit being 10 times more expensive, or the cost of someone in prison being £35,000 per year. If we invested such money earlier in education, mental health support or support for our young people, we would save money. Indeed, he is the one coming out with the simplistic argument.
The hon. Lady will not be surprised to hear that I do not agree with her. She made a number of points, but I am simply suggesting that the issue is complex. Saying simply that necessary control of public spending leads to an increase in mortality, as is being suggested, is too simplistic.
Let us look at the example of Scotland—this is a simple and important point—where free adult social care is offered and more is spent on healthcare per head than in England. However, life expectancy there is still lower than in England. That simply underlines my point, which I make in response to the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley, that it is too simplistic to say that that link between spending and outcomes is as straightforward as she would make out. That cannot be the case, or the situation in Scotland would not be as it is.
For that matter, let us look at the outcomes across Europe. The Public Health England figures are quite striking, particularly in graph form. They show that not only do we have a slight dip in life expectancy figures over the course of the past year or so, but so too do Italy, Spain and, strikingly, France—a dip almost identical to what we have seen in the UK, despite the fact that I understand the French spend the highest amount in Europe on healthcare. We are clearly dealing with a much more complicated situation, and lifestyle factors are crucial. Those are not restricted to the UK.
I am glad that the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley has accepted that life expectancy cannot be expected to increase forever. That is of course common sense and a point that she readily accepts, but the point bears repeating and remembering. For a number of reasons we have had extraordinary success in increasing healthcare over the past few years, but we are now faced with the results of that—an ageing and increasing population, therefore with increased complexity of morbidity factors.
I therefore applaud the approach being taken by the Government. We are not only investing as much as possible within the constraints of sensible Government spending, but ensuring that we address the lifestyle factors that can affect life expectancy in the round. However, as I continue to speak, I can see you looking at me with concern, Mr Paisley, so I will confine myself to those remarks.
The hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh), whom I commend for securing the debate, spoke a lot about the impact of austerity on health and social care. To pick up on that, I should say that austerity has a triple impact. Spending on health and social care ends up being strangled, as we have seen: the reduction of the annual climb in expenditure from 3.5% to approximately 1%.
Of the two other impacts, one is the economic impact that we have faced ever since the crash at the end of the 2000s and which has been felt throughout Europe—I have a German husband, and I can tell you that while Germany itself may have a surplus, there are people there who are struggling and have not seen the wage rises that they would have liked. Also, in this country especially, we have seen welfare cuts, which have removed social security from people, creating particular areas and populations of poverty. That has particularly hit the disabled, children and pensioners.
There has been a lot of talk about healthcare. After 33 years as a doctor, I have to say that we can have far too much faith in what medicine can do to change overall life expectancy. We have some impact, but the biggest driver of ill health and the biggest impact on life expectancy is poverty and deprivation. That is something we have seen increasing in this country.
For example, over the past 20 years the rate of pensioner poverty dropped 28% to 13% by 2011-12, but it has now come back up to 16%. Twenty years ago in England, child poverty started out at 33%, got down at best to 27% in 2011-12, and is now back up at 30%. In fact, Scotland has the lowest rate in the UK: we started at a similar level, got down to 21% in 2011-12, and are still the lowest, at 24%. However, we have seen the same uplift, and that is because of aspects of social security and the impact of things such as the removal of child tax credits or the cuts to all the various social security supports. Over the past few years, similarly, poverty in general has risen slightly in England, Wales and Scotland, although Scotland has the lowest poverty rate, at 19%.
Important impacts of poverty on health include housing and fuel. People in the lowest 20th will be spending a third of their income on housing and, in the north of Scotland, another third on fuel. People are literally being squeezed and are struggling to eat well, which of course impacts on their health. We can see big differences in wealth across the UK. There is approximately twice the wealth in Kensington and Chelsea as in Glasgow—as well as more than 10 years’ difference in life expectancy.
As has been mentioned, the improvement in life expectancy has halved, from three months to approximately six weeks, although in Scandinavian countries the improvement continues, because social support and the social fabric is something they invest in. In Scotland the life expectancy deprivation gap has narrowed from 13.5 years to nine. That gap can, in the raw sense, be influenced by healthcare—we manage to keep people alive—but we are not keeping people healthy. They are surviving but accruing more and more diseases. In Scotland, therefore, the healthy life expectancy gap has increased from 22.5 years to 26 years. People are struggling with all of that, and it results in a much higher health spend and much more pressure on the NHS. That is exactly what Members have been saying: there is no sensible saving of money if it ends up being spent somewhere else.
Infant mortality is a measure of the impact of poverty on health that is used right across the world. For three decades, infant mortality had been dropping; it has now taken a small uptick. In Scotland, again, we have the lowest infant mortality rate—0.5 per 1,000 live births lower than in England—but it too has gone back up. Look at the contrast between the wealthiest and poorest areas: in the wealthiest areas, just over 2.5 babies per 1,000 live births will die within a year; and in the poorest areas the rate is more than double that, at 5.9 per 1,000 live births. Read Professor Marmot, and we cannot escape what we have known for 20 years: that the biggest impact on survival, quality of life and outcomes is poverty—and the biggest driver of poverty is austerity.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh) for securing this important debate and for her excellent and well-informed speech. It is of great interest—not only to me, but to the public, who I am sure will be listening closely to the Minister’s response today. I also want to thank the hon. Members for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) and for Witney (Robert Courts), my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane) and the Scottish National party spokesperson, the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire (Dr Whitford), for their thoughtful and passionate speeches, even though I do not necessarily agree with all the things that were said.
As we heard, life expectancy has always gradually increased. Between 1920 and 2010, it increased from 55 to 78 years for men and from 59 to 82 years for women. However, the improvement began to stall in 2011 when the coalition Government came in. That cannot be just a coincidence. Since then, for the first time in over a century, the health of people in England and Wales has stopped improving, and has flat-lined ever since.
I must emphasise that researchers do not believe that we have reached peak life expectancy. The Nordic countries, Japan and Hong Kong all have life expectancies greater than ours and they continue to increase, so why is life expectancy flat-lining in the UK? Why is Britain being left behind and fast becoming the sick man of Europe? I know that the hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire said that that was not the case, but academic research by Danny Dorling, published in November 2017, which I have here, said:
“Life expectancy for women in the UK is now lower than in Austria, Belgium, Cyprus, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Malta, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, and Switzerland. Often it is much lower. Men…do little better.”
I think the hon. Gentleman needs to check his facts.
The life expectancy gap between the richest and poorest in this country is nothing less than shameful. According to the Institute of Health Equity, the longest life expectancy in the country is, not surprisingly, in the richest borough: Kensington and Chelsea. Men in Kensington and Chelsea can expect to live to 83 and women to 86. Unsurprisingly, you will find the lowest life expectancy in my part of it: the north and Scotland. In Glasgow, life expectancy for men is 73 and in West Dunbartonshire it is 79 for women—10 years of difference for men and seven years for women. The difference within the richest borough, Kensington and Chelsea, is even more stark. Despite living in the richest borough in the country, the most disadvantaged within it can expect to live 14 years less than their most advantaged counterparts. Does the Minister agree that this is completely unacceptable?
The north-south divide remains as relevant as ever when we look at healthy life expectancy—the years that people can expect to live a healthy life. In the south-east, the healthy life expectancy is 65.9 years for men and 66.6 years for women. However, people can expect a shorter healthy life expectancy in the north-east, where men have a healthy life expectancy of 59.7 years and women 59.8 years. That is significantly lower than the England average. Looking after those people during that unhealthy part of life means a huge cost to the NHS. It also means that the inequality gap in healthy life expectancy at birth between the south-east and the north-east is 6.2 years for men and 6.8 years for women.
What will the Minister do to address the life expectancy and healthy life expectancy gap between the rich and poor, and the north and south? It is simply unacceptable that the least advantaged in our society bear the brunt of this Government’s policies—wherever they live. Austerity is not a choice. It is a political ideology, which harms the poorest and the most vulnerable in our communities.
It is not rubbish. Professor Sir Michael Marmot warned:
“If we don’t spend appropriately on social care, if we don’t spend appropriately on health care, the quality of life will get worse for older people and maybe the length of life, too”.
Sadly, we have seen this across the board. Despite the growing pressure on our health and social care service, the Government are responsible for spending cuts across our NHS, social care and public health services. While demand continues to increase, the Government have taken away vital funding, which could close the life expectancy gap.
Since local authorities became responsible for public health budgets in 2015, it is estimated by the King’s Fund that, on a like-for-like basis, public health spending will have fallen by 5.2%. That follows a £200 million in-year cut to public health spending in 2015-16. Further real-term cuts are to come, averaging between 3.9% each year between 2016-17 and 2020-21. On the ground, that means cuts to spending on tackling drug misuse among adults of more than £22 million compared with last year and smoking cessation services cut by almost £16 million. Spending to tackle obesity, which the hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire mentioned as a cause of shorter life expectancy, has also fallen by 18.5% between 2015-16 and 2016-17 and further cuts are in the pipeline. These are vital services for local communities and could benefit their health and lifestyle, but sadly they continue to be cut due to lack of funding.
How does the Minister expect to close the life expectancy gap without investing properly in vital public health services? An ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure. The Government must invest in public health and prevention services, as that could play a significant role in closing the life expectancy gap that we are discussing.
When the Prime Minister made her first speech on the steps of Downing Street—the Minister is nodding, because she knows the quote—she said:
“if you are born poor, you will die on average nine years earlier than others.”
We were all pleased that the Prime Minister highlighted that issue, but I have been left disappointed with her Government’s lack of response to tackle it. We on this side of the House are committed to ensuring that our health and care system is properly funded, so that all children are given the best possible start in life and older people are treated with the respect and dignity that they deserve. I hope that the Minister will clearly outline what the Government will do to close the life expectancy gap.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Paisley. I thank all hon. Members who have contributed. Clearly, we all want the best possible outcomes for all our constituents, and it is in that spirit that we approach this debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh) on securing the debate. I know her constituency well. Actually, looking at hon. Members opposite, I know the constituency of the hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Vicky Foxcroft) well, also. That really brings into stark relief some of the issues we are talking about, because at the heart of the issue of life expectancy is the issue of inequality. I can speak from personal experience in my own constituency. The hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) talked about the differences between north and south, and rich and poor. Within my constituency there is a 10-year difference in life expectancy in the two-mile trip from the north of my constituency to the south, where it is poorest.
We are all acutely aware that inequalities lead to lower life expectancy. It would be a poor Minister for Health—indeed, a poor Member of Parliament or anyone involved in public life—who did not think that was important. It is important that we address it and we are determined to do so. I will run through some things, which tell a better story than the stark figures we have heard today. I will also address some of the points made about those figures, because I think it would be premature to draw too many conclusions at this stage about the causes of those and whether this is a long-term trend.
My hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) also made some wise points. Ultimately, we can only spend what we collect from taxpayers. We are having an active debate on the extent of the funding we need to make available for health and social care. In this 70th anniversary year of the founding of the NHS, it is appropriate to focus on that. We will continue, notwithstanding the fiscal challenges that we face, to prioritise spending on health.
It is important to emphasise that this dip in life expectancy is not unique to the UK. We have seen it elsewhere in Europe. We need to be circumspect about drawing too much by way of conclusion.
The hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West mentioned the Prime Minister’s speech. I want to supply the context of the Government’s approach against the background of that speech. The Prime Minister made it a priority to fight injustice and inequality. Ultimately, we know that by focusing actions on the people, communities and localities with the greatest needs, we will achieve the best health outcomes. As the hon. Lady said, we will also reduce long-term demand on the NHS and social care services, so it is smart to focus our strategy on tackling inequality.
We need to be honest about facing up to what the sources of inequality are. Sometimes, those will make us uncomfortable. One of the most disadvantaged groups in our society is those with learning disabilities. They will live 20 years less than the rest of us. For me, that is a very uncomfortable truth to live with. Successive Governments have tried to direct resources to help that group of people, but it is still not working. That leads to the realisation that this is as much about behaviour and leadership as it is about money.
Putting that aside for one moment, could the Minister explain to Members of the House why infant mortality rose for the first time in 30 years in 2016 and 2017? If it is not linked to the issues that my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh) mentioned, what is it linked to?
The right hon. Gentleman knows that we have made tackling that a priority. It is too early to draw any conclusions. It is the case that poverty is a big source of inequality, but we need to do more work before drawing conclusions. Having developed the evidence, we will act. There is a reason that we have developed a national maternity safety strategy. There is a reason we are focusing resource on the perinatal phase, because we recognise it is critical. We will also continue to spend money on the healthy living supplements to give children a better start in life and to tackle some of those inequalities.
The Minister accepts in her speech that poverty is a big driver of these changes and talks about doing more, but we expect that over the next few years another quarter of a million children will be driven into child poverty. It is not a matter of doing more. In fact, the policies at the moment are making the situation worse.
I do not accept that. The real issue for us as a Government is being able to make those interventions that address the sources of inequality. It is about giving practical steps, which I will come to in more detail.
The hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley referred to the article in The BMJ by Hiam and Dorling about the spike in mortality and winter deaths. She was absolutely right to highlight that. We must pay attention to emerging studies. However, using the total number of deaths can be misleading and needs to be put in the broader context. It does not take account of the ageing population and the fluctuations in population numbers. We use the age-standardised mortality rate as the accepted measure, which looks broadly stable. Clearly this is not something we should be complacent about, and we should continue to keep a very close eye on trends in those numbers.
I mentioned people with learning disabilities living for 20 years less than the rest of us. It is good that that figure has come down since 2000. Their life expectancy has risen by seven years since the millennium. We must encourage that direction of travel by supporting them to live full, healthy and independent lives. That goes to show that having better health is not just an issue for the NHS and health services, but is about having more support to get people into work and to help them to live in the community. We need to use every interface with the state to achieve that.
If we take a lifestyle approach to securing the best possible health outcomes and tackling inequalities, an individual’s start in life is the beginning of that. We are focusing on pregnancy through early years and into old age to ensure that every child gets the best start and journey through the rest of their life. Public Health England is leading programmes to ensure that women are fit during pregnancy. It is leading programmes to ensure that children are ready to learn at two and ready for school at five. We want to continue to support smoke-free pregnancy, which leads to better health for children. Central to that is local commissioning driving best-quality service and interventions as appropriate.
We are obviously very concerned about childhood obesity. If we do not tackle it, it will set people up for poor life expectancy in the longer term. It is worrying to see the number of children entering school at the age of five who are already obese. We need to leave no stone unturned to achieve early intervention. Broader public education about the impact of sugar is helping, but there is much more we can do to encourage people to adopt healthier lifestyles.
I cannot give the hon. Lady that information now, but I will write to her.
Alcohol is a source of poor health outcomes, so we are also doing much to tackle that. I am in dialogue with Members on both sides of the House about supporting the children of alcoholic parents, recognising that they are a particular need group. I thank those hon. Members who have been associated with that.
I am grateful for that point, which consideration is being given to in the Department. There are any number of tools that we could use to tackle alcohol. Probably the most important thing is to give the message that unsafe drinking is bad for the health. It is always interesting to learn from Scotland’s experience, and we will keep an eye on that.
Tobacco is a major cause of poor health. It is worth noting how much progress we have made over decades to reduce the prevalence of smoking. That should lead to better health outcomes, but that has yet to be seen.
Rates of premature deaths in Hartlepool and the north-east are among the highest in the country. Other issues such as poor-quality housing, food poverty, fuel poverty and unemployment are also factors. Does the Minister agree that those factors also need to be taken into consideration?
I agree. That is exactly the point made by the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire (Dr Whitford). Housing is probably the single most important ingredient in good health. We often talk in this place about there being a housing crisis and about the need to fix the broken housing market and get more supply. Amen. The fact that we have failed to manage the supply of housing effectively for decades is bringing bigger health challenges. We really need to crack that if we are to tackle some of these issues.
I could go on, but we are running short of time. We are seeing very good rates of improvement in health for things such as cancer, and much better outcomes for people. The direction of travel means that there are good things to report. I am grateful to all hon. Members who have approached this debate with real thought about the very serious issue of the decline in life expectancy. I am sure that we will revisit the issue, but my lasting message is that we see the method of tackling this being tackling inequalities. That is what I pledge to do.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered austerity and changes in life expectancy.