Tuesday 5 June 2018
[Mike Gapes in the Chair]
Polish Anti-defamation Law
I beg to move,
That this House has considered Polish anti-defamation law.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Gapes. I am pleased that the Backbench Business Committee has given time to this sensitive and difficult subject. I was going to raise it in the general debate on anti-Semitism in the Chamber on 17 April, but unfortunately I was not called, and I felt the issue needed a full airing.
This debate takes place in the context of the fact that the Polish President signed the Bill into law while also referring it to the Polish constitutional tribunal for review. I am pleased that the Polish prosecutor general has issued a legal opinion stating that in part the law is unconstitutional, and I look forward to the tribunal’s ruling, which should come any day now.
It is only appropriate to start this debate by paying tribute to the thousands of Poles who helped the Jews during the second world war and fought alongside allied soldiers, in the Polish free army. The righteous among the nations are a group of non-Jewish people who have been recognised for their great sacrifices and bravery in helping Jewish people during the holocaust. The title is awarded by Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Centre, and Poles constitute the largest national group of the righteous, with 6,706 people listed. We must remember that the punishment awaiting those who provided any kind of help to Jews was death for them and their entire family. At liberation, around 50,000 Jewish survivors were on Polish soil. It is estimated that about 30,000 to 35,000 Jews, only about 10% of Poland’s Jews, survived, and around 1% of all Polish Jewry was saved with the help of Poles and thanks to the devotion of the righteous among the nations.
I will start by paying tribute to a few of those Poles listed at Yad Vashem. First, I pay tribute to Jan and Anna Puchalski and their children, Irena, Krystyna and Sabina. They were a poor Polish family with five children, living in a tiny house. Jan supported his family on his small salary from working in a tobacco factory. On 13 February 1943, a Jewish family of four, who sometimes stayed in the area during the summer, and two other people, turned up at their door, having escaped a Nazi raid on the ghetto. Despite their lack of resources, the Puchalskis hid five Jews in a shelter under their floorboards for 17 months.
Secondly, I pay tribute to Jan and Antonina Żabiński. In the 1930s, the Warsaw zoo was one of the largest in Europe. When the war broke out, part of the zoo was bombed and many of the animals were taken to Germany. The zoo’s director, Dr Jan Żabiński, was allowed to visit the ghettoes because he was an employee of the Warsaw municipality. Using the excuse that he was going to tend some trees in a small public garden in the ghetto, he visited his Jewish friends to offer them help. As the situation worsened, he offered them shelter in his zoo. Around a dozen Jews lived in the couple’s home, with others staying in former animal enclosures around the park. He also helped them to get documentation and find accommodation elsewhere. The couple’s story was turned into a film, “The Zookeeper’s Wife”, just last year.
Thirdly, I pay tribute to Leopold and Magdalena Socha. Leopold Socha was a sewer maintenance worker in Lwów. When the Nazis occupied Poland, Leopold witnessed the suffering of the Jewish people and decided he was going to try to rescue at least 20 Jews from the ghetto. He enlisted the help of his co-worker Stefan Wróblewski. Together, they hid 21 Jewish people in the sewers. Initially the Jews paid Socha and Wróblewski, but as they ran out of money, Socha and his wife provided for them. They stayed in terrible conditions in the sewers for 13 months. Sadly, only 10 of the group survived until the liberation of Lwów. Leopold also saved the life of my great-uncle, Yehuda Mildiner. I pay tribute to Leopold and the 6,706 righteous who did so much for families like mine.
Poland was the only occupied country to set up a committee to aid Jews, Żegota, which provided food, shelter, medical care, money and false documents to Jews. Most of Żegota’s funds came directly from the Polish Government in exile here in Britain. In particular, the children’s section of Żegota, led by Irena Sendler, saved 2,500 Jewish children with the co-operation of Polish families, the Warsaw orphanage of the Sisters of the Family of Mary and Roman Catholic convents. Polish forces also gave exemplary service to the allied effort in the battle of Britain, the battle of the Atlantic, the north African campaign, particularly the battle of Tobruk, the Italian campaign, including the capture of the monastery hill at the battle of Monte Cassino, and the French campaign. We all have much to thank the people of Poland for, securing the freedoms we value today.
However, I return to the law passed on 26 January by the Polish Parliament and signed into law by the Polish President in early February. The fact that the President referred the law to the constitutional tribunal for review has not stopped the first case being brought. If nothing else, the nature of this case needs to make us stop and think about the nature of the law and its potentially far-reaching consequences, not just in Poland but globally.
The case was brought on 2 March 2018 against the Argentine newspaper Página/12 by the Polish League Against Defamation. The lawsuit focuses specifically on a photograph that accompanied an article about the 1941 massacre of Jews in the Polish village of Jedwabne. The Polish League Against Defamation claims that Página/12 was being “manipulative”, as the image is of four Polish anti-communist fighters in 1950, while the article is about the 1941 pogrom while Poland was under Nazi occupation, and that by linking the two events the publication was
“harming…the reputation of Polish soldiers”,
and trying to make Poland appear anti-Semitic. Página/12 has changed the photo of the partisans to that of a monument in Jedwabne vandalised with a drawing of a swastika, a proportionate response to what was clearly an error by the newspaper.
The lawsuit was brought by the right-wing nationalist Polish League Against Defamation, an independent organisation formed out of the Patriotic Society Foundation. Although the article was published in December, before the law took effect, and may not be admissible, it clearly shows the dangers the law could pose. The Argentine Government agree, stating:
“No law can limit, condemn or prevent freedom of expression or limit research”.
Even more concerning is the reaction of the Polish Government. The deputy Justice Minister expressed his hope that the Página/12 case would go to court, saying:
“If the court decides the complaint is admissible—and it should do so—then there will be a court case.”
In 2012, Barack Obama used the phrase “Polish death camp” during a Medal of Freedom ceremony for Jan Karski. He was clearly referring to a Nazi death camp in Poland, and the White House press secretary clarified that he had misspoken after Donald Tusk, then the Polish Prime Minister, complained about his use of the phrase. Will President Obama now face a lawsuit under the law? There is a much bigger picture here. When laws are passed that are regressive in nature, they have a wider societal effect than just the intended function of the law. When section 28 was passed in this country, it created a new wave of acceptability around homophobia.
My fears have already been realised, as can be seen from the actions of thousands of individuals against the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum. The staff were subjected to a wave of, in their own words,
“hate, fake news and manipulations”.
The brother of Piotr Cywiński, the museum’s director, posted on Facebook criticising the
“50 days of incessant hatred”
targeted at his brother. He said:
“For 12 long years he’s worked in one of the most terrible places in the world, in an office with a view of gallows and a crematorium. Dozens of articles on dodgy websites, hundreds of Twitter accounts, thousands of similar tweets, profanities, memes, threats, slanders, denunciations. It’s enough to make you sick.”
All this came after the law was passed.
Protesters have also been targeting the museum’s guides. They claim that the guides are trained to promote “foreign narratives” and that only Polish people should be allowed to work as museum guides. Videos of protesters, including convicted anti-Semite and local politician Piotr Rybak, harassing guides during the tours have been posted online. In March, the home of an Italian guide was vandalised with graffiti on his door that said “Poland for the Poles” and graffiti equating the Star of David with a Nazi swastika, with “Auschwitz for Poland guides!” daubed on an adjoining wall. To think it is acceptable to abuse those working to keep alive the memory of one of humanity’s most horrific death factories—a machine of genocide operated by Nazis—is, to me, beyond comprehension.
After my letter to the Foreign Secretary and after applying for the debate, I have not been immune from such abuse, giving me first-hand experience. As well as posting abuse on Twitter and in the comments sections of websites, people have taken to emailing my parliamentary email address. I will read one example. I apologise in advance for its language and its anti-Semitism, which is some of the worst I have ever seen. I want to be very clear that I am quoting; these are not my words. It says:
“You Talmudic piece of shit…Fuck off—leave Poland alone. Keep your Talmudic noses out of Polish affairs, Satan’s Brood. The Synagogue of Satan will go down in flames”.
Another email had pages and pages of graphically anti-Semitic images. On Twitter, I received this comment:
“People like you are the very reason we have the need for this legislation. Jewish Amnesia Syndrome is back. Denying there were Jewish perpetrators is after all denying one Holocaust Narrative.”
“Of course this guy is not antisemitic”—
I thank them for that—
“he is a Jew and takes a profit from his MP status for lobbying against Poland and support the state of Israel which obviously needs new financial sources”.
“Sobel is a member of the lobby. A liar, fake news spreading provocateur insulting 6 Million Polish victims murdered by Nazi Germany”.
One account now suspended by Twitter sent me 10 tweets accusing me of being in a worldwide conspiracy and on George Soros’s payroll, and saying that I should be banned from Poland, as well as including a homophobic insult.
If the Polish Government’s intention is for the law to minimise the false reporting of the holocaust and minimise anti-Semitic feeling, the exact opposite has been the result. I am sure that, as I speak, people are taking to their keyboards to send me more hate. I will not be able to press refresh on my Twitter account today, as it will just be filled with abuse.
I am very sorry that the hon. Gentleman has received those comments. Unfortunately, all Members suffer vile abuse on Twitter, as I am sure he will recognise. There are crackpots in every society. Has he managed to speak to the Polish ambassador, or to visit Poland during the course of this year, to get a first-hand account of the situation on the ground there? A lot of misinformation on this subject is coming out of the country.
I intend to visit Poland later in the year, but I have not managed to yet. The Polish ambassador invited me for a meeting, but I did not arrive into London until quite late yesterday, so I responded that I will meet him after the debate. I have not been able to meet him, but I intend to. I understand that there are lots of different views, but I think the evidence is quite clear that the passing of this law has given an acceptability to things that were not acceptable before. It is about the consequences of the law and the atmosphere that it has created. People of Polish-Jewish descent and people from Poland have told me about their fears as a result of the law.
To conclude, I thank the Minister for Europe and the Americas for his letter, dated 8 May, in which he stated that the issue has been raised by the Foreign Secretary with his Polish counterpart at two meetings. He referred the issue to Eric Pickles, as the UK’s special envoy on the holocaust. Although I welcome Sir Eric Pickles’s involvement, I think this is a matter for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to take up, rather than leaving it to a special envoy with a limited role. I ask the Minister and the Foreign Secretary to take the matter up with the EU through all the meetings and institutions that they and their colleagues will attend, including the Council of Ministers, and to report back to the House on the results of those discussions.
I know that a number of Members are members of the Council of Europe, and I know that this issue has been raised there. I hope that they keep looking at ways to engage with Polish colleagues and gain support for the law to be dropped.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gapes. I rise as the chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on Poland and as the first ever Polish-born British Member of Parliament.
The hon. Member for Leeds North West (Alex Sobel) alluded to the terrible suffering of Polish people who helped their Jewish neighbours and friends. I will start by giving a very personal account of what happened to my family. Jan Kawczynski, the brother of my grandfather, knew, as has been alluded to, that Poland was the only country in occupied Europe where helping Jewish people carried the death penalty, but he took that risk anyway. For those of us here who are fathers, I argue that it takes an exceptional man to put at risk the lives of his daughter and his wife. He took that risk, and he hid various Jewish friends and neighbours on his estate in western Poland.
He was coming back home to his farm one day when his neighbour stopped him and said not to go back because he would be walking back to his death. The Germans had realised something was afoot and had surrounded the farm. He said he had to go back because his daughter and wife were there. When he went back, the Germans first made him take off his officer’s boots. They then made him dig a grave, informing him that they would shoot his daughter and his wife, and then they made him watch as they shot his 12-year-old daughter and then his wife. Then they shot him.
I have never spoken about that in the House, although I have been a Member for 13 years, but a lot of emotion has already been expressed in the debate, and I hope hon. Members will realise from what I have said just how strongly I feel about this situation. I am grateful and pleased that I can pay tribute to Jan Kawczynski for the sacrifices that he made to do the right thing—to help his Jewish friends and neighbours.
Last year, I went to the zoo that the hon. Member for Leeds North West mentioned for an award ceremony at which my family was recognised for helping Jewish families. That ceremony was organised by a very good friend of mine, Mr Jonny Daniels, who runs a foundation called From the Depths, which is partly financed and supported by the British Government and which seeks to bring together Jewish and Polish communities in the modern era.
However, although my family have been recognised, we are typical of so many different Polish families who suffered as a result of helping their Jewish friends and neighbours. In actual fact, I have to say that the Polish underground resistance actually punished Poles who committed crimes against Jews. Of course, as has been said, Poland has the most members of the righteous among the nations for all the suffering that they went through in helping their Jewish friends and neighbours, as was recognised by the state of Israel.
Poland has great concern about the international media’s lack of care as to what happened in world war two. Poland was invaded in 1939 and brutalised by its German occupiers; 6 million people were slaughtered. Warsaw, the city of my birth, was completely destroyed, with 98% of the city flattened in 1944 by Adolf Hitler’s forces as punishment after the Warsaw uprising.
The United Kingdom suffered greatly during the second world war, and we made terrible sacrifices as well, but Poland uniquely suffered the abject brutality of the German invasion. Tensions and emotions still run high as a result of what happened at that time. Of course, being trapped behind the iron curtain after the second world war with an illegitimate Communist regime who tried to distort history through school rooms did not allow Polish society to discuss and debate these issues properly.
I hope that the BBC picks up on this point again, because I have a thick file of my correspondence with the BBC—the British Broadcasting Corporation—in relation to my numerous complaints to it about its misrepresentation of the situation in Poland during the second world war. I have to say that the BBC, which sells itself as a paragon of virtue and enlightened journalism, and with all the resources that it gets from the British taxpayer, should know better. I have counted many occasions when the BBC has referred to “Polish death camps”. Think to yourselves for a moment how you would feel as a Pole about a reference to something as a “Polish death camp”. There is no such thing as a Polish death camp. They were concentration camps set up by Germans in German-occupied Poland; they were run by Germans, maintained by Germans and initiated by Germans. Let us get that straight. However, despite my numerous requests to the BBC to show a little sensitivity and understanding on this issue, it continues to refer to those things as “Polish death camps”.
The narrative has moved on and there are constant references to Nazis doing these things. The hon. Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound) and I have just returned from Minsk; we were part of a parliamentary delegation to Belarus. Of course Belarus, as we found out in the course of our visit, suffered enormously from similar types of brutality against Jewish people by the occupying German forces. I had the honour and pleasure of going round the museum of the second world war in Minsk with the hon. Gentleman, and we saw at first hand evidence of the appalling brutality and death meted out to Jews in Belarus by German forces. The guide repeatedly referred to Nazis, as if this was some sort of third entity descended from outer space—some unknown factor of people. They were German soldiers under the instruction of the German Government, the German dictator.
Germans invaded and persecuted Poles and Jews and killed millions. I want to say also that, as the Polish Prime Minister said very eloquently, “Arbeit macht frei” is not a Polish expression. Let us remember those sinister words at the entrance to the death camps: “Arbeit macht frei”. It still sends a chill down my spine when I read out those words, as I am sure it does to everybody in the Chamber. When I hear the words “Arbeit macht frei”, I think of the suffering and misery that those poor defenceless people went through. But “Arbeit macht frei”, as everybody here knows, is a German phrase.
We need to work together. I say to the hon. Member for Leeds North West that I have every sympathy for him. As I listened to him, the emotion and sincerity with which he spoke impressed me greatly. The all-party parliamentary group on Poland has a visit to Poland coming up in July. It will involve nine Members of Parliament. I very much hope that the hon. Member for Leeds North West might join us on that group. We are making a three-day visit to Poland, where we will be meeting Ministers and many others—media outlets and all sorts of civil society organisations. I very much hope that he will join us on that and that he will take the time to meet members of the Polish diaspora in the United Kingdom with me. One million Poles now live in this country. We have many events for the Polish community here in the House of Commons. Despite the hon. Gentleman’s concerns, I very much hope that he will give them the opportunity of giving their side of this very sad story.
I am conscious that other hon. Members wish to speak, but let me make just a couple of additional points. Paragraph 3 of article 55a of the law under discussion specifically ensures that scientific publication or research and artistic activity are exempt from the legislation. The law is not designed to protect individuals who were involved in crimes against Jews. As I have said, it is designed to ensure that Poland’s reputation is protected and to recognise the suffering of Poles who helped Jewish friends. That is very important to remember.
The Polish Prime Minister, Mr Morawiecki, and the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, have met on several occasions to discuss this issue, and a commission has been established to discuss how the two countries can go forward to ensure that it is resolved amicably and satisfactorily for both sides.
The hon. Gentleman has talked about forthcoming meetings. Does he agree that there needs to be clarity and certainty about what happened in the past and that what is currently happening in terms of anti-Semitic behaviour across the globe but particularly in western Europe needs to be highlighted? We need to get more information so that people can eliminate the perceptions and the paranoia that sometimes exist when talking about both Israel and Jewish activity; others seem to want to believe that there is a worldwide conspiracy, and the reality and the truth must be brought to bear on that perception.
Absolutely. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. There is a huge lack of information about what happened during the second world war. I saw yesterday some shocking figures about young people in the United States of America: many of them do not even know what the holocaust was. That is extraordinary when we consider that in my grandparents’ generation, millions of people were killed under fascism—purely because of their religion or background. In that sense, this debate is very important, and it is important that we continue to have these debates, because we have to keep re-educating the next generation on the barbarity and brutality of what happened and, of course, warning them—teaching them the lessons of what happened before. We must never allow a situation to occur in which people are discriminated against because of their religion or background—but we see it happening again. We see the rise of anti-Semitism in certain countries, which is breathtaking. We see the rise of far-right parties in certain European countries. I believe that in Austria now, a rabidly right-wing party is part of the coalition. That is extraordinary. One would have thought that Austria, of all countries, would have recognised and remembered the appalling difficulties created by voting for excessively right-wing people.
The law that we are discussing has been referred to the constitutional tribunal by the President of Poland, as the hon. Member for Leeds North West said, and we look forward to the outcome of that.
I am very proud to be the first ever Polish-born British Member of Parliament. Our bilateral relations with Poland are getting better and better. It is an incredibly important NATO partner of ours, and in the post-Brexit world we need to utilise and harness the million Poles living in our country to improve understanding between our two countries, increase trade and increase bilateral co-operation. I very much look forward to working with the hon. Member for Leeds North West in the coming weeks and months to ensure that he and his colleagues get a first-hand opportunity to engage with our Polish friends and allies on this very difficult subject.
Politicians nowadays are often accused of being bland, anonymous, anodyne figures. It is on an occasion such as this that we realise that we have here, in our Parliament, people with a unique range of references, sources, backgrounds and histories. I deeply respect the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) and his background, his family connection and his blood tie. However, the speech from my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds North West (Alex Sobel) was quite simply one of the most impressive that I have heard in Westminster Hall. He spoke from the heart; he spoke with absolute passion and with truth; and no one who heard him could be unmoved by his comments. Regrettably, having said that, I have to come to a conclusion that is completely opposite to the one that he has reached.
The Act submitted to the Sejm on 26 January 2018 was not intended, nor can it be seen, as an act of anti-Semitism. It is an Act specifically to address a concern that is viscerally agonising for the Polish people—the constant repetition of that inaccurate, brutal, cruel phrase “Polish death camps” or “Polish extermination camps”. That was the reason for the legislation. The fact that it has been referred to the constitutional committee suggests to me that it might have been, in certain circumstances, appropriate for us to have delayed this debate.
Having listened to my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds North West, however, I entirely understand why he felt it necessary to bring this matter to the House even while that process is in play. I also have no doubt that I speak for every person inside and outside this Chamber in expressing our deepest sympathy to him for the foul, vile, scatological filth that he has suffered. Sadly, it is not unique, but there certainly seems to be a particular strand and trend, which is deeply regrettable. I would not say that this is indicative of attitudes in Poland. Of course there are Polish anti-Semites—no one could pretend otherwise—but to say that these comments are somehow reflective of all Poles, and that this issue is about the Polish League Against Defamation or various other groups, is to give them more strength and power than they actually deserve.
This process was not sought by the Polish Government or the Sejm. It was a reaction to a circumstance that seemed to be gathering in pressure and strength. Many are concerned, as my hon. Friend implied, that this legitimises and opens the door to anti-Semitism. In Poland, however, exactly the opposite applied. It was felt that the constant reference to Polish death camps opened the door to something even worse—revisionism, an attack on Polish history and an assault on the contributions that the Poles made.
Let us never forget that there was no Polish Pétain or Quisling. If we want to see the Poles in the second world war, we need to look to General Bór-Komorowski, the people who fought with the Warsaw rising and the people in the Government in exile who introduced the death penalty for confiscating, stealing or abusing Jewish people or their property. There was no anti-Semitism in the structural sense. Of course there were, inevitably, such individuals. I have them in my constituency, Mr Gapes, and I am sure you have them in yours.
The Polish Government introduced this legislation as a response to a gathering storm throughout the world. I am disappointed that the reaction of the current Israeli Government has been unusual in its strength. The Israeli ambassador to Poland, Anna Azari, was involved right from the beginning in these discussions with the Government in Poland, the Sejm and the committee that structured and drafted this.
Article 55a, paragraph 3 was specifically introduced into the legislation to avoid any accusation that this legislation would close down debate, because there were some people who felt that this legislation, unamended, would not allow scientific analysis. It is said that only the future is certain; the past is always changing. Well, we are not afraid of the past. This amendment was brought in specifically to exclude not just scientific and academic research, but artistic research, to avoid any accusation that this matter was being closed down. We have to respect and understand that.
The hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham mentioned the discussions that took place between the two Prime Ministers, Mateusz Morawiecki and Benjamin Netanyahu. I think that is a positive sign. We see too much, in this place and on this planet, of people striking postures, beating their chest and issuing absurd Twitter comments in the middle of the night. I mention no names and I point no fingers—even if it was with a very little hand. There are those people, however, who think that we need to discuss and debate these issues. The two Prime Ministers are the appropriate people.
The hon. Gentleman is, as usual, making an eloquent speech. At all these award ceremonies where Poles are recognised for helping Jews—certainly at the one I attended—the Polish Prime Minister, Mr Morawiecki, is present, as is the head of the Law and Justice party, Prezes Kaczyński. They want to send a strong message about the strength of feeling among the Polish state about reconciliation and harmony between Poles and Jews.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who speaks with authority on these matters. He and I have stood together at the Katyn memorial. We have spoken at many of these occasions. We have been at RAF Northolt on the day on which, every year, we recognise the heroic contribution of the 303 Squadron—the most successful fighter squadron in the Royal Air Force—when the bonds between our two countries were forged in blood. He knows, as I know, the depth of the contribution that the Polish people have made. I am not Polish. I do not have a drop of Polish blood. I lack that honour. When I hear this expression about Polish death camps, however, I feel for Poland and I weep for the Polish people.
Look at what is happening nowadays in Warszawa and Kraków. There is a holocaust memorial museum and the complete rebuilding of the ghetto, where there are Jewish restaurants and a whole Jewish quarter. In fact, they do not use the word ghetto any more, which is probably just as well. South of Kraków, at Auschwitz-Birkenau, the air falls still. In the forest there is no birdsong. Something so terrible happened there that the weight of history still presses down on those people who approach it. Something has sucked the energy out of the air. Visitors pass beneath that awful sign, which the hon. Gentleman referred to.
I hope that no one in the world thinks for a second that this was anything other than the planned, industrial and mechanised extermination of a people by the Nazis—not by the Poles. There may have been some Ukrainians who worked in the death camps. We know that. The legislation that went through in January specifically refers to the Ukrainian actions in this particular area. That is not to imply, however, even for a passing second, that the Polish people were complicit in, supportive of, involved in or responsible for that appalling crime—that spreading stain of agony that still disfigures our history, and that marks and shapes our future as it so brutalised our past.
I accept some of what my hon. Friend is saying. Does he agree that, while it is certainly untrue that the Nazi extermination camps were in any way Polish death camps, there are still graphic examples of Polish complicity in the atrocities that took place against Jewish people in Poland at that time?
I acknowledge the expertise of my hon. Friend, but I would need to see the evidence for what she says. I would also need to understand and be educated as to the realities of life under occupation—the second occupation, because Poland was occupied twice—and what it must have been like in those days. I am not aware of Polish complicity in Auschwitz-Birkenau, but I will not say that I know everything about the subject and I am more than happy to speak to my colleague. I do know for certain that to try to tar the whole of the Polish nation with the brush of anti-Semitism on the basis of a few lunatics, a few foul anti-Semites and some obscene Twitter users is unfair, wrong, painful and hurtful to the Polish people.
The hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham referred to Polish heroism. We do not have enough time—there would not be enough time in Parliament—to list all the Polish heroes: Poniatowski, Dąbrowski, Kościuszko, Piłsudski and on and on. We know about Polish courage. I would like to bring the Chamber to a place that you know, Mr Gapes, as does the hon. Gentleman: the village of Cassino, south of Rome, which was occupied for the whole of the second world war up until 1944 by German Panzer battalions and airborne troops. It was finally captured by the Poles. There, in the shadow of the monastery of Monte Cassino, which has been referred to, there is a Polish cemetery.
All the allies, including those from Ireland, Australia, South Africa and so many other countries who fought there—even a Maori regiment from New Zealand—have their cemetery. There is something exceptional and special about the Polish cemetery. I am referring not to the grave of General Anders at the front, but to the grave markers. There are three types of grave markers in the Polish cemetery of Monte Cassino. There is the Suppedaneum cross, which is the sign of the Serbian or Russian Orthodox Church. There is the ordinary cross, which we Roman Catholics simply see as the cross. The third grave marker is the star of David. A section of the Polish war memorial—the Polish cemetery—at Monte Cassino is proudly and unashamedly dedicated to the Jewish soldiers who fought with General Anders, who fought from the camps in Siberia, who walked across Iran, who fought in El Alamein, in Libya and in the invasion of Sicily and who fought their way up the spine of Italy. Although those Jewish soldiers were cruelly betrayed by the allies—forgive me for saying so—after their huge contribution, and there was not to be a free Poland in 1945, the army recognised, cherished and valued the contribution of the Jewish soldiers who fought with them.
Would those Jewish soldiers have fought with an anti-Semitic army? Would they have fought with General Anders if they had felt that there was a strand of anti-Semitism running through the army? Sometimes silent witness is more powerful than the vocal and the verbal. To see those stars of David in the Polish cemetery tells me that Poland protected, defended and respected its Jewish population, and it will continue to do so.
This legislation is a reaction to misinformation. It does not in any way open a door to anti-Semitism. I profoundly hope that the constitutional tribunal will clarify the situation. Whatever happens, every one of us is better informed and possibly emotionally stirred by the extraordinary, unique and priceless contribution of my good friend, my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds North West.
We can learn a lot from cemeteries. When I visited eastern Poland with a Jewish family to look at their historical roots there, we visited the Jewish cemetery. It was not in a particularly good state—I do not think anybody had visited it for many decades—but what struck me was how big it was, because the village had been largely Jewish.
I had research done into that family’s history, and I got photographs that showed the village. They raise the question about what happened to the properties. Three million Poles were murdered, which means 3 million properties disappeared, plus the communal buildings such as the synagogues. What happened to them? We can learn a lot from looking at cemeteries about what happened and who did or did not do what at any time.
There are plenty of people living in that village, but none of them are Jewish. That is not a surprise. There were 3 million Jewish Poles; there are now under 1,000. It is a thriving rural village, like many others in Poland, with a Jewish graveyard. People live in the same village, on the same streets, sometimes in the same properties, and certainly on the same land.
History can be interpreted in different ways. Let us be quite clear: this law has not come from nowhere, so those who have been protesting about it, such as Netanyahu, should have opened their mouths when the first such law was brought in by Hungary in 2010. That law criminalised the wrong interpretation of history and came with a three-year maximum prison sentence.
As Hungary attempted to legally define its history in 2010, Lithuania did too. Its law was more generous, with only two years’ imprisonment, but at the same time, Lithuania attempted to arrest two women over the age of 90: Fania Brantsovsky and Rachel Margolis. Most people, including me, would describe them as war heroes. They fought with the resistance in the Lithuanian forest. They undoubtedly killed people, but they were fighting alongside the Soviets, who came in and eventually liberated that country as part of the war effort. In 2010, Lithuania attempted to arrest those two war heroes for being war criminals. They were fighting for the resistance—it is unambiguous; there is no argument about what happened—but they went from war heroes to war criminals, and Lithuania attempted to jail them.
In 2014, Latvia brought in a law that came with five years in prison. In different ways, Ukraine and Estonia brought in criminal laws in advance of Poland, so this legislation has not come from nowhere. In Austria, there are people who attempt to describe Mauthausen as a Polish camp. Actually, I disagree with my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound): it is very rare to hear the Nazi death camps in Poland described as Polish, just like it is very rare to hear death camps elsewhere described as anything other than death camps by their names, but it happens and it has happened for a period of time. Why were those camps there? They were where the Jewish population was.
There were differences in Ukraine. Ukrainians took the jobs and murdered the people. That did not happen in Poland. They did not recruit Poles to do that. They did in Lithuania. They did not bother with the camps. The Lithuanians took Jewish people out into the forest and shot them to save time and money. They did not need the Germans to do it. But who were the Nazis in all that? Who were the Nazis in Lithuania? Who were the nationalists? Who was on the side of Lithuania?
Starting with a conference in Hungary in 2008, with the European Parliament as a conduit, a group of politicians has co-ordinated and drawn together other nationalist politicians, including from Poland, to rewrite history. That is what has been going on. The example of Lithuania, and the rest of the Baltic states, is the simplest one, and in essence it says, “We weren’t fighting for anyone, other than fighting the Communists. There was a double genocide”—that term was created at the 2008 conference. “The Nazis and the communists are equally bad. The communists controlled our country and did many evil things under Stalin and beyond.” That is true; that is factually the case.
I was the first person to leave Poland with a Solidarność badge in 1980—that is a different story, which I will leave for now—so I am very aware of what the Soviets and the communists did in eastern Europe, but the problem is putting together those two genocides and describing them as if they were equal and comparable. There is an academic in Latvia who has taken it further and brought in blood libel as well. The logic goes, “My grandfather did nothing wrong, because my grandfather was a patriot. He was not supporting the Nazis. He was fighting the communists. By the way, who speaks Russian? The communists. Who speaks Russian in our country? The Jews speak Russian. Rachel Margolis speaks Russian.”
Therefore, it is possible to distort history so quickly and so easily—rewrite your own history and the history for every country, including our country and our role, as the country that failed to take in Jewish migrants in the ’30s and, indeed, after the war, in the ’40s. This country turned them away. We can all rewrite our history, sanitise our role in things and glorify what we were good at—the little bits. “Oh, we had the Kindertransport here. Weren’t we brilliant?” We let a few Jews slip in. What about the rest?
Well, that is what is going on in Poland—an attempt to rewrite history—and we should not accept that. Yes, it is true that the Poles did not run those camps—that is a fact—unlike in some neighbouring countries; but we can also look at the language. I keep reading and hearing about the 3 million Jews in Poland—the 3 million Poles; the 3 million of our citizens who were Jewish, who were murdered and lost everything. It is not a surprise that there is not much of an eyewitness record there compared with anywhere else, because few survived. It is harder for the dead to be eyewitnesses.
I will end on this. When I look at what is going on now, I take the Albert Camus view of the world—to see the world through the eye of football. In Poland at the moment, if someone goes to see a football match in Łódź—once a massive Jewish community; now no Jews live in Łódź—what is the insult used in the Łódź derby? “Jew”. From one Łódź team to the other Łódź team, for both sets of fans their term of insult is “Jew”. And what happens in Kraków when Cracovia play Wisła? Do the tourists there go on the nice, sanitised route to Auschwitz-Birkenau? My advice to anyone going there is to go on the suburban route. If they do, I will tell them what they will see on every station: Wisła Kraków graffiti saying “Jews Out”.
Albert Camus was obviously a great goalkeeper, and I understand my hon. Friend’s analogy. However, I am sure that he has seen Spurs play at home as many times as I have, so he will know the insult that is used against Tottenham Hotspur players. Does he agree that that sort of language—that sort of foul anti-Semitism—should be a matter for criminal law and prosecution? It should not be perceived as indicative of a nation or even a group of football supporters.
Of course it should be a matter for criminal law—it is in many countries—but my point is not that Poland is any worse than any other country, but that anti-Semitism remains and this law plays to that sentiment. That is the danger of the law.
I will end with a recent quotation from a radio reporter in Poland, Marcin Wolski of TVP2. What did he describe? He said, “Let’s rename the death camps. They’re not ‘Polish death camps’, they’re ‘Jewish death camps’.” He said that on Polish radio recently—because the Sonderkommando ran the death camps, we should therefore rename them “Jewish death camps”. Bring in this kind of law and that kind of racism and anti-Semitism is unleashed. But this is not something that started in Poland; it started elsewhere in eastern Europe. People have been too silent about it—about trying to use the law to rewrite history. The law is not the way to rewrite history.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds North West (Alex Sobel). He has raised a very important issue at a very apt time, and I agree with what he has said.
This is a time of great concern, because there is an increase in both holocaust denial and anti-Semitism right across Europe. Given that background, it is extremely concerning that legislation has been passed in a European country that could be seen as trying to stifle debate, discussion and research about the holocaust.
It is certainly true that Nazi death camps—Nazi camps of extermination—are not Polish death camps. That is clear; that is unambiguous. However, the legislation about which we are very concerned goes much wider than that and could make it illegal to discuss any Polish association with the extermination of Polish Jews. That extermination and persecution took place not only in those Nazi death camps—those Nazi camps of extermination. It also took place within Polish communities in civil society, and it is extremely wrong to try to shut down debate and knowledge about those activities.
The hon. Lady says that this law is not the right way for the Polish Government to tackle this issue. However, when we bear in mind that I have been writing to the BBC for over seven years to ask it to be more sensitive about this issue, and the BBC continues to refer to “Polish death camps”, what is her advice to the Polish Government and other organisations that worry about the intransigence and lack of sensitivity of the BBC?
I appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s concern and that of others about a description of Nazi extermination camps as “Polish death camps”—an erroneous description—but the answer to that is not to try to shut down discussion about the holocaust and its depravities.
The relationship between Jewish Poles and the wider Polish community is indeed very complex. At Yad Vashem, which I visited in Jerusalem only last week, 6,700 Polish people are recognised as righteous among the nations. They were Polish non-Jews who supported Jews in those terrible times, on many occasions risking their own lives. They are rightly recognised and honoured there.
However, there is also a lot more in that complex history to be recognised—for example, the massacre at Jedwabne in 1941, when all but six of the town’s Jewish inhabitants were set upon by their non-Jewish neighbours and burnt alive in a barn. That was truly horrendous, and it was not an isolated occurrence. Before the Nazi extermination began, the Jewish communities in Poland were very strong. They were majorities in significant areas of Poland, yet today there is hardly a Jew left. I have heard first-hand testimony from a relation of mine, who has now passed away but who was born and brought up in Kraków, about the shock and horror at their non-Jewish neighbours, who they had regarded as friends, turning against them in those terrible times. So the relationship is complex and the full history needs to be known.
It should be a matter of great concern that Yad Vashem itself, the Holocaust Educational Trust and some Polish historians have registered great concern about the potential impact of this legislation shutting down debate and research about what happened in Poland during the holocaust.
I bow to my hon. Friend’s experience and the depth of her knowledge of this issue. However, I have already made the point, as I believe the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) has, that paragraph 3 of article 55a of the new law specifically and explicitly allows discussion of this matter within all scientific papers, artistic papers and academic papers. That measure was specifically and explicitly placed there to avoid any remote possibility that there would be an accusation that anyone was seeking to shut down debate. It is there in black and white.
I have listened to my hon. Friend’s comments with interest, but what he says is not borne out in what is happening. Indeed, since the legislation was introduced, the Polish Education Minister has denied the massacre of Jedwabne, and there have been efforts to strip the Polish-American historian, Jan Tomasz Gross, of his order of merit and even to prosecute him for his comments about Polish involvement in the persecution of Jews in Poland.
The situation is very troubling. I am pleased that discussions about what happens now are taking place within Poland, and outside, and I hope that common sense and justice prevail and that the legislation is either withdrawn or severely amended, so that there can be no shutting down of legitimate discussion about the horrors of the holocaust. The people of Poland deserve no less.
Mr Gapes, it is a privilege to be able to contribute to the debate. I cannot go as far as to say it is a pleasure, because it is a difficult debate to take part in and to listen to. The testimonies we have heard will, I hope, continue to be heard in hundreds of years’ time because there is a story here that we cannot afford to forget.
I commend the hon. Member for Leeds North West (Alex Sobel) on securing the debate and on his contribution, and also the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski), who followed him. It strikes me that we have two people here whose family histories bear remarkable similarities and yet who have used their personal stories to come to completely different conclusions about how we should address what is clearly a serious concern for those in Poland and for many other people. That might be something we should point to—that it is possible for people, with great sincerity and integrity, to come to opposing views about something and be able to air those views such that they disagree without having to get disagreeable. That is too often lacking.
We should also bear in mind that we have heard stories about people—only about a tiny fraction of such people—who did what they believed to be right, knowing that it would cost them their lives. How often in this place does a whole system try to get people to do what it hopes might be politically advantageous to their careers, regardless of what they, in conscience, believe to be right? A clear example has been set by some of the stories we have heard today. It does no harm for Members of Parliament occasionally to look in the mirror and ask ourselves whether we would risk not our lives but our popularity within our party to stand up and speak and vote for what is right.
An earlier speaker said that there was not time in the debate to do justice to the part that the people of Poland and their then Government played in standing against the evil of Nazism. I do not think that the war would have turned out as it did had it not been for the contribution of those people. The truth about many of the things that happen in war gets distorted at the time and continues to be distorted afterwards. We have heard examples of how the Soviet regime tried, and continues to try, to rewrite history completely. I cannot imagine there ever being a time when we will discover that Poland did not play the part it is given credit for. I cannot imagine that the historians will ever find evidence to suggest other than that millions of people in Poland ran horrendous risks and suffered the horrific fate they did to protect friends and neighbours at a time when many other European countries were turning in on themselves. Poland stood against the holocaust at a time when, shamefully, few other countries in occupied Europe, and even in non-occupied Europe, were prepared to do so. I see that as an accepted historical fact and I cannot imagine a time ever coming when it is challenged.
The hon. Gentleman is making a powerful speech. I want to get on the record something with which I hope he agrees. Poland welcomed more than 3 million Jews to live there before the outbreak of war, and the two communities co-operated and got on very well. I am proud of how the Poles accepted so many outsiders into their country and of the harmonious society they created. It was the travesty of war that created the problems.
I am grateful for that intervention. Clearly, I cannot speak with the hon. Gentleman’s authority about the detailed history of Poland, but I certainly look at it from a common-sense point of view. Surely the Jewish population in Poland was so big because Jews were comfortable there and felt that they would be treated better than in many other countries in Europe.
I find offensive any suggestion that the Polish Government, either directly or indirectly, collaborated with the Nazis, and I well understand why the people of Poland today find such suggestions greatly offensive. However, I am not convinced that criminalising the actions of a newspaper or a television programme is the right way to deal with that offence. That is where the nub lies. I think we must accept that Polish citizens will have collaborated in crimes against humanity—a tiny minority of the Polish population—as, if the full facts were known, there would no doubt have been Scots who collaborated, just as there were Scots who risked their lives to help. People of all nationalities committed acts of great courage, and people of all nationalities will have collaborated in acts of great evil. If we lose sight of that, we do a disservice to all those who risked and lost their lives.
I apologise for interrupting the hon. Gentleman’s flow. Holocaust denial is a crime in many parts of the world. Does he suggest that we should repeal all legislation on holocaust denial?
Absolutely not. I was coming on to that. One of the first steps towards being prepared to allow a repeat of the holocaust is to deny that it ever happened. We also must be careful about denying that it could have happened in other places. I take issue with the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham on one point. He repeatedly referred to the crimes and actions of Germany. It is a fact that Nazism was born and developed in Germany, but the holocaust was not a battle of nationalities; it was about an ideology of sheer evil that was able to spread across Europe so quickly because it had its proponents in many more countries than we might like to think. It was certainly born and brought up in Germany, but it could have been a child of almost any nation in Europe and, it must be said, it could have happened in the United Kingdom. There were periods in the United Kingdom’s past when anti-Semitism had become so virulent that it would have been possible, if the right group of people had got together, for Nazism or something very like it to take hold. When I talk about the dangers of holocaust denial, I am talking not simply about the denial of a clear historical fact but about the denial of a clear acceptance that it could have happened in other places as well. That is why it can happen again—it has already happened again on a smaller scale—and it will continue to happen if we are not prepared to speak out and act against it.
I am aware of the time pressure and I want to leave time for the winding up. The hon. Member for Leeds North West also deserves a bit of time. I get the point that academics cannot be prosecuted but, as has been pointed out, a law of this nature not only opens a door to legal action in the courts but can sometimes be seen to legitimise actions that no one would want to see legitimised. I do not see where the line could be drawn between an academic publishing something in a journal and a newspaper reporting on that publication. At what point would the law come into play?
However difficult some parts of any nation’s history might be, we must be prepared to face up to the bad parts as well as the good. I have to accept that Glasgow—the city close to which I grew up and which I consider almost a second home—was built on the slave trade. I am not proud of that. I am proud of Glasgow, but I cannot be proud of the part that the city, and Scotland, played in the slave trade. I cannot be proud that the great ancient university town of St Andrews has monuments built into the pavements to show where devout Scottish Christians burned other devout Scottish Christians to death because they were the wrong kind of devout Christian for the time. Those things are parts of our history that we have to face up to, and the more we are willing to face up to the evils that have been done in all our countries and communities, the more we can hopefully ensure that they become much less likely to be repeated.
I have spoken before about Fife’s enormous debt of gratitude to our Polish community. Scotland and the United Kingdom owe an enormous debt of gratitude to the people of Poland not only for what they did during the war, but for what they have done since. We owe Poland an enormous debt of remorse for what we did to them after the war, when we handed Poland over to Stalin, and we should never forget that either.
There is a serious issue that has to be addressed. I simply do not think it is right to clamp down on one of the most precious freedoms we have—the freedom of the press to report things as they see them, and sometimes the freedom of the press to print things that we find offensive. That freedom needs to be protected. It can never be correct or acceptable to accuse Poland of collaboration with the holocaust, but I do not think the law as it is currently framed in Poland or in other European countries is the correct way to go about it. I hope that the Polish Government can be persuaded that there are other ways to prevent their new good name from being besmirched. At the end of the day, if idiots accuse someone of ridiculous things that did not happen, that someone should ignore the idiots and listen to the vast majority.
It is a pleasure as always to serve under your stewardship, Mr Gapes, particularly given your great knowledge of foreign affairs and your former chairmanship of the Foreign Affairs Committee. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds North West (Alex Sobel) for securing this debate, which has been an emotional and personal one. I think he wanted to have it elsewhere, but because he was not able to do that, he brought it here. He secured the debate because of his personal history and his family’s history. It has particularly focused on the law that has been introduced. That is a serious issue, and we have to think about how it will proceed. A number of Members have raised different views of the law.
In April 2016, the Polish Government approved a new Bill allowing for terms of up to three years’ imprisonment for anyone using phrases such as “Polish death camps” when referring to Auschwitz and other camps operated by Nazi Germany in occupied Poland during world war two. That in itself is correct. Those were Nazi war camps. They were extermination camps. They were the most hideous form of genocide in the second world war. It is right to condemn that and it is not right to implicate Poland in that—that point I understand. The law goes further, however, and allows the state to give people a three-year sentence for talking about Polish camps and debating Poland’s role. That is the sticking point. How will that law be interpreted and used by different people to stifle debate?
That debate has great significance and it needs to happen, particularly given where we are at the moment. The debate is being used by the far right in Poland. In 2017, more than 60,000 nationalists took part in a march in Warsaw to mark Poland’s independence day. Slogans included, “White Europe of brotherly nations”, “Pure Poland, white Poland” and “Refugees out”. That is what we are concerned about. It is not in any way about the form of the Polish nation or the people of Poland, who worked terrifically well during the second world war and after. The Polish community served valiantly in Birmingham in support of the Spitfire pilots and as mechanics. We commend the heroic acts of the Polish people, as the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) said. He spoke about his great-uncle, Jan Kawczynski, who made a huge sacrifice and ultimately paid the ultimate price.
I apologise for intervening—I realise time is short—but my hon. Friend raised an important point. He referred to slogans used by some far-right groups. Surely he would recognise that the shambling, stumbling, mono-browed knuckle-draggers of the far right of this country do not speak for our nation. They exhibit these foul, ghastly slogans, but we do not judge this country by those people. Let us please not judge Poland by a few of these unpleasant lunatics.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. To clarify, I was not saying that such people represent Poland as a nation. I went further to clarify the role of the Polish people against the Nazis and the actions they took. In that sense, I fully agree with him. The rally was also attended by Tommy Robinson, the former leader of the English Defence League, who is in prison at the moment. Roberto Fiore from Italy also attended. Those people tend to gather at these things. The real issue is how we deal with that.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) made the key point that there were 3.3 million Jewish people living in Poland who had property and assets. Most of the descendants of those Polish Jews now live in the United Kingdom. Clarification is still needed about the property that was originally taken by the Nazis and then nationalised by the Communist Government that followed. That issue has to be addressed if we are to address all the issues post-Nazi occupation. The law that the Polish Government have passed does not recognise the heritage of those people who live in the United Kingdom in relation to their families’ assets and properties. In that respect, a resolution calling for restitution has been passed by 46 other nations and endorsed by the US and the European Parliament. That is important, because that resolution confirms the history of the Jewish people in Poland.
The hon. Gentleman is talking about reparations and dealing with property rights, but will he recognise that the key stumbling block to all this is the fact that Germany has not yet paid war reparations? My friend in the Polish Parliament, Mr Mularczyk, is heading a taskforce to look at the feasibility of Poland claiming war reparations against Germany. Some estimates put the cost of the destruction at more than £900 billion, and yet Germany has still not paid a penny.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman about German responsibility for reparations, but before we get to the issue of any payments there has to be recognition of the lands that were taken away from people and the communities that lived there. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw said, those places are now empty with no Jews living there. That is their hereditary right.
On 12 March my right hon. Friend the Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry), the shadow Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, wrote to the Secretary of State to ask a significant question: what action have the Government taken to press for the restoration of property seized by the Nazis in Poland? To date, he has not replied. Perhaps the Minister will pass on the message about the significance of that question when dealing with the issue as a whole. The Government just saying things does not help; action speaks much louder than words. It is important for them to start dealing with the issue.
We must do something and move forward in addressing matters, but time is short, so again I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds North West for securing the debate. It is a crucial issue of the law and what is allowed. This is not about the people of Poland—it has nothing to do with them—but about how the issue can be used, and how further persecution of the Jewish community will be allowed to continue if we do not look at it properly.
I add my congratulations to the hon. Member for Leeds North West (Alex Sobel) on securing 90 minutes in Westminster Hall to debate this important issue. Who cannot be touched by the moving way in which he made his case? In fact, we have heard a range of incredibly moving speeches and oratory from colleagues, and I am privileged to have been able to represent the UK Government on behalf of my right hon. Friend the Minister for Europe and the Americas. He sends his apologies as he is involved in other ministerial duties. I will set out the UK Government’s views on the issue. We have heard different descriptions of the historical background. In the interests of time, I will take it as read that all Members here are aware of the timeline of Poland’s anti-defamation law, and I will set out the Government’s response.
The Government understand how painful any false attribution of Poland’s culpability in Nazi crimes may be, whether explicit or implicit. As we have heard from various hon. Members, some of the most infamous sites associated with the holocaust were located in what is now Polish territory. Many of us have visited Auschwitz-Birkenau with the Holocaust Educational Trust, a programme that we have recently expanded to include UK university campuses. As we have heard many times in this debate, it is a matter of historical fact that, of the more than 3 million Polish Jews living in Poland in 1939, fewer than 400,000 were still alive in 1945. It is also well known that many Polish citizens risked their lives to save them and the nearly 2 million non-Jewish victims of the Nazis. We have heard very moving personal testimony today. I particularly want to put on the record our recognition of the heroism shown by the great-uncle of my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski). That act of heroism has now been recorded for all time in Hansard.
We heard other very moving speeches from the hon. Members for Ealing North (Stephen Pound), for Bassetlaw (John Mann), for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs Ellman), for Glenrothes (Peter Grant), and for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr Mahmood). It is clear that the horror and pain of the holocaust are still deeply felt in Poland and around the world more than 70 years on. That is why the desire to reject any misleading attribution of Nazi crimes to the Polish nation or state is entirely understandable.
However, as the UK Government have made clear in our private discussions with our Polish partners, we believe there are risks to criminalising any aspect of free speech, because it is through debate and analysis that we enhance our understanding of any issue. Rather than risk closing down debate, our preferred approach is to preserve the collective memory of the holocaust and to use that knowledge to learn the lessons of history. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary made that clear in his discussions with the Polish Foreign Minister, Jacek Czaputowicz, in February and March this year. Our officials in London and diplomats in the British embassy in Warsaw have delivered the same message to Polish Government officials.
The UK’s special envoy for post-holocaust issues, Sir Eric Pickles—soon to be Lord Pickles—has made numerous visits to Poland over the past year to discuss concerns about the revision of history. We understand how the anti-defamation law could be seen as an attempt to redefine the past. Lord Pickles has made it clear in his meetings with Polish Government officials and with representatives of the Jewish community that responsibility for the holocaust rests with the Nazis, and that those responsible, regardless of their nationality, should be held accountable.
It is testament to the historical and enduring relationship between the UK and Poland that we have been able to speak frankly with our Polish colleagues about the anti-defamation law. We will never forget the role played by the Polish armed forces in our own fight against Nazi tyranny in the second world war. We have heard how Polish and British soldiers fought alongside each other throughout the war. Today the enormous contribution of the Polish diaspora community to our economy and society is abundantly clear. It is the driving force behind the deepening relationship between our two countries in business, science and culture, and it is the driving force behind the growth in trade, which reached some £15 billion last year.
We face many more challenges in the future, including some that could threaten the liberty and security of our citizens in the UK and Poland. That is why it is so important that we encourage future generations to study and to remember the horrors of the holocaust. We must use the painful lessons of the past to teach us to avoid repeating the same tragedies in future. That is why we work hard to keep the holocaust firmly on the global agenda. Future generations will not learn those lessons if we stifle debate today. That is why freedom of speech is so important. We will continue to make that argument with our friends and partners in Europe and the wider world. We will continue to encourage them to embrace open debate, not fear it, so that the lessons of history are remembered from generation to generation.
I thank everybody for their contributions to today’s difficult debate. It is a testament to our Parliament that we can have such a debate in an open way. I thank the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) and particularly his family for all the things that they did for Jews in Poland during the war. I am happy to speak to the BBC about its use of language, which is important. We should refer to the camps as Nazi extermination or Nazi death camps. I will see whether I can come to Poland with the hon. Gentleman and the all-party group in July. I take issue with his referring to Polish Jews before the war as “guests”. I do not feel like I am a guest in this country. I do not think my hon. Friends the Members for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs Ellman) and for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr Mahmood) see themselves as guests. I do not know whether the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham sees himself as a guest. We are not guests; we are citizens. Jews who lived in Poland before the war should be viewed as part of the Polish nation, not as guests of the Polish nation.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound) for his kind words. He is always very kind to me, but he probably needs to look a little more into the issue, particularly the involvement of individual Poles in the holocaust. Barbara Engelking, founder and director of the Polish Centre for Holocaust Research, has written a book, “Such a Beautiful Sunny Day”, about this. She is also the chair of the International Auschwitz Council, but she said recently that there had been an attempt to remove her as chair. The Deputy Prime Minister of Poland went to Israel this week and said that the composition of the International Auschwitz Council should be guided by “Polish sensitivity”, which I interpret as an attack on Barbara Engelking and I am very concerned about it. I hope that the Foreign Office can also look at raising that as an issue in its discussions.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann), who, in his typical style, raised a wide range of issues related to the holocaust and anti-Semitism. As the chair of the all-party parliamentary group against antisemitism, he highlighted all the similar laws across Europe. I considered doing that, but time did not allow, so I am grateful to him for raising that. We need to tackle such matters right across Europe. There is, I am afraid to say, a contagion that is spreading.
My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside has given me much support in these areas. I was not aware of her own personal family history and how that memory will be affected by the anti-defamation law. I thank her for her support. I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr. I did not intend to raise war reparations as an issue. On a personal level, I am not seeking war reparations from the Polish Government. I am concerned, however, that the letter of 13 March that the shadow Foreign Secretary sent has not had a response. I will pass on a copy of the letter I received from the Minister for Europe, which was helpful but needs to go further.
The Minister of State, Department for International Development, the hon. Member for West Worcestershire (Harriett Baldwin) is subbing for the Minister for Europe and the Americas. I thank her and him for the letter and for raising the issue of criminality of debate. We need to raise it at every opportunity in every European institution. I hope that the Foreign Office will redouble its efforts so that we can apply pressure and also talk to other EU member states, some of whom I am sure have similar concerns about this issue. We must impress on the Polish Government the effect that the law is having not only within their own country but globally.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered Polish anti-defamation law.
Potholes and Road Maintenance
I beg to move,
That this House has considered potholes and road maintenance.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gapes, in discussing this vital issue.
On the surface, potholes and road maintenance may not sound like the most appealing or urgent of concerns. However, roads are a reflection of a country’s infrastructure and ability to provide essential services. Good roads are the lifeblood of our country. They connect communities, families, livelihoods and industries. They allow ambulances to reach their destinations faster, citizens to spend less of their already busy lives in traffic, and the police to reach those in need more quickly.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on introducing the debate. Does she agree that potholes not only present a cost, an inconvenience and sometimes a delay to motorists, but are a severe risk to life and limb for people riding bikes? Some 390 cyclists have been killed or seriously injured in the last 10 years as a result of potholes and bad road surfaces.
I entirely agree, and I was going to come on to that point in my speech a bit further down the road.
Today, our roads are unarguably in a state of disrepair that worsens by the day. A brief survey of the facts reveals that the challenges that we face will increase if the Government continue to ignore concerns.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on introducing today’s debate. Does it not just show the mess the country is in that the Labour party has had to call a major parliamentary debate on potholes? Does it not also show what a false economy the Government’s seven years of austerity have been? They have made £200 million available to local councils to sort out potholes, when in the north-east alone we need £1 billion.
I entirely agree, and I will touch on that point later.
The Local Government Association recently stated that we are facing a “roads crisis”. That is demonstrated by the worst findings that the LGA has found since it began measuring potholes in 2006. The Royal Automobile Club Foundation for Motoring has found that pothole faults have worsened for the fourth consecutive quarter. An estimated 24,000 miles of road require repair in the next year, and 20% of local roads are thought likely to fail in the next five years.
Those issues are not being dealt with anywhere near fast enough, culminating in an extraordinary backlog of work that needs to be done. It is estimated that a one-time catch-up on that backlog would take 14 years to complete and cost £9.31 billion. That figure is alarming, but it will, of course, only get bigger if action is not taken right now.
Does my hon. Friend share my concern about the amount of taxpayers’ money being spent on compensation as a result of the damage caused by potholes?
Absolutely, and I will come on to that point later.
The decline has been noted by drivers, with 51% of motorists saying that the conditions of local roads worsened between 2016 and 2017. Only 7% said that they had improved. An overwhelming majority—92%—attributed that to road surfaces and the numerous potholes on the roads. Most significantly, the situation is extremely dangerous for those travelling by bus, bike and foot. In 2016, poor or defective road surfaces were found to be the key contributing factor in 598 road traffic accidents, 12 of which produced fatalities.
I, too, congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this important debate—it is a shame it is only 30 minutes. Three massive sinkholes have appeared in recent weeks in my constituency, causing road havoc and other inconvenience to my constituents. Does she agree that local authorities and other stakeholders must put people and safety first—above the various organisational arguments about who pays and who does the corrective work?
I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention. Of course, one of the problems is that local authorities’ budgets have been slashed consistently over the last eight years, to the point that local authorities are often left able to deal only with their legal obligations, and potholes and road repairs have to be put on the backburner.
Such worries are particularly serious for cyclists, as my hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Ruth Cadbury) mentioned. Between 2007 and 2016, Government statistics show that at least 390 people were killed or seriously injured as a direct consequence of potholes and other road defects. More than 15 times that number of people are reported to have had less serious crashes because of them.
As a cyclist, I sympathise with my hon. Friend’s excellent speech. Does she accept that one of the biggest dangers is the poor repair of trenches? Public utilities coming in and doing an inferior repair is the most dangerous thing of all for cyclists.
That is absolutely correct; I cannot disagree with that.
Damaged roads are also a serious concern for the elderly and for children. Some roads in my constituency of Bolton South East are particularly problematic. The potholes in Westland Avenue are so big that when it rains, the rainwater stays. That has caused damage to people’s homes. At least four families have had to be taken away from their homes to be rehoused elsewhere, and two other families are living in the upstairs part of their home.
I thank the hon. Lady for giving way; she is being very generous. I just want to pick her up on a couple of points. We are spending about £23 billion a year on fixing potholes and roads. The amount that was given in the last Budget to my own county to fix the roads was close to £20 million. We must put pressure on local councils to do the job properly.
I will come on to the blaming of local councils, but first I will finish talking about roads in my constituency.
Bridgewater Street has Maxton House, a supported home for the elderly and people with dementia, on it. Over a number of months, there have been six accidents alone on that particular road. Again, the work has not been done. A recent RAC survey found that the condition and maintenance of local roads was the second-ranked motoring issue in an extensive list that also included safety, cost and mobility concerns.
Local authorities have paid more than £70 million in pothole compensation since 2013. That amounts to unnecessary wastage of more than 25% of the £250 million the Government announced in its 2013 pothole action fund. Collectively, the AA calculates that potholes are costing drivers and insurers £1 million every month. That situation is not normal or acceptable. It is a result of a perverse funding system, as was highlighted by a respondent to the House of Commons Facebook page. Discussing today’s debate, Rob commented:
“England’s roads are just one big pothole; the councils have neglected them through lack of cash”.
That is the important point: it is about a lack of cash. My local authority has had its budget slashed by 54% in the last eight years. Since it has to satisfy its legal obligations, such as looking after the elderly, the young and the vulnerable, there is no money left. I do not know where hon. Members expect it to find the money. I know there is a magic money tree for the Democratic Unionist party, but there is not one in Bolton for the roads.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for securing this debate and making a very strong case. My own authority, Conservative-controlled Lancashire County Council, is out there measuring reported potholes to decide whether they are deep enough to repair. Many do not satisfy the requirement, but what we find is that small potholes become big potholes, which become trenches. It is a total false economy.
That is absolutely correct. In 2015-16, my local authority spent £6.5 million on repairing roads. It had to find that money. Continually to blame local authorities for the fact that they do not have the money is completely wrong. I do not know where the £23 billion for potholes came from, because I can assure hon. Members that none of that money has made its way to my council in Bolton. My council now needs at least £108 million to fully repair the potholes across the borough. The Government repeatedly argue that this is a local council issue and that it is down to local councils to allocate more money. How are they to allocate money they do not have? Where are they expected to find that money from? Most parts of Bolton do not have massive, expensive homes. Bolton does not have loads of businesses it can raise local rates from. It needs national Government settlement funding, which has been cut for the last eight years.
I reiterate the point on cycling that other hon. Members have made: 64 cyclists were killed or seriously injured in 2016, so it is a serious issue.
On the value-for-money point, would the hon. Lady agree that using a Jetpatcher to repair a whole section of road, as Central Bedfordshire Council and other councils are doing, can sometimes be more efficient and a better use of taxpayers’ money than filling individual potholes that then just continue to develop?
I am sure there are good ways of trying to repair roads, but they all require money. Even the cheaper option that the hon. Gentleman suggests requires money to be made available. The problem is that the money is not there.
One of the purposes of today’s debate is to highlight to the Minister and the Government the importance of the issue. I do not know why people here seem to be in denial about the fact that there is chronic underfunding and cutting of grants to local authorities. I know some constituencies and parts of the country are very wealthy and can raise enough rates to meet all their needs, but my local authority needs assistance.
So do many others, such as Burnley. Chronic underfunding has led to extremely worrying short-termism on the part of local councils. They have opted for the inexpensive, short-term solution, which of course fails to tackle the actual issue of repairing the whole road. We know that at some later point, there will be problems on that road.
It does not have to be that way. I urge the Government to increase funding to local authorities. They have said that they gave some money in a package in March, but that was not new funding; it had already been announced. A huge funding gap still exists, and the backlogs are still there. We need that money.
The Government need to understand a simple point: if they keep doing the same thing, we will see the same result: we will have to endure worse and less safe roads. We will have to pick up the personal costs of damage to our vehicles and the collective cost of wasted taxpayers’ money on compensation. On top of those fees, we will have to endure more years of this Government deflecting blame and refusing to take responsibility, when their miserly approach has come back to bite the people that they purport to represent.
The hon. Lady is being very generous with her time, and I am grateful to her for giving way. My constituency in west Oxfordshire has a similar great problem with potholes, on both major and rural roads. I declare my interest as a cyclist. Potholes are a danger to me, but they do damage to vehicles too. Does she agree that prevention is better than cure? Would she encourage utility companies, as the Government are doing, not to put their facilities in roads, so that when those facilities have to be fixed, damage is not caused to the roads? Potholes are much more likely to reoccur where there is a structure in the road, rather than on the side.
There are many things that local authorities, working collectively, can do to try to mitigate the problems, and I am sure there are constructive ways of working, but—I am sorry that I sound like a broken tape recorder—how are they to do that? To be able to meet its legal obligations for social care, my local authority had to raise rates by 3% so it could meet the shortfall in social care funding for vulnerable people in my constituency. When the choice is between potholes and elderly, young or disabled people, the decision is obviously going to be for the vulnerable person. We need extra money. Not to have our roads properly repaired and not to have safe roads is counterproductive, for all the reasons I already stated.
There is a win-win here. A massive, extensive road-building programme will create jobs. There will be more production of the raw materials; there will be, for example, more factories producing cement and tarmac and all that is required for roads, and that will boost the manufacturing sector. It is a win-win.
I hope the Minister has heard what I have had to say. We need more money. I know this is not the sexiest subject in the world, but it is very important to my constituents and to the country.
It is a delight to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gapes. I am very grateful to the hon. Member for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi) for securing this debate. She describes the topic as not sexy, but I regard it as extraordinarily important and alluring. Its importance has been well brought out by the number of colleagues from across the House who are sitting here for a half-hour debate to register their concerns. I am sure many will wish to intervene on my speech, as they have already done during the hon. Lady’s speech.
In her speech, she ran two things together: the general question of funding for local authorities and the question of roads funding. I am not going to engage with the wider issue; she can raise that in a different debate if she so wishes. I will engage with the questions raised under the heading of the debate. Both are important—it is not just about potholes; it is also about road maintenance. I hope I will be clear in my remarks that far from nothing being done, an enormous amount is being done. I will set out exactly how.
Let me start by saying that I think everyone recognises the great importance of the local road network to the British economy—the Government certainly do—and it is going to become more important in the future as we see autonomous vehicles come in. After all, local roads form something like 98% of our national highways network. As the hon. Lady says, local authorities have an existing legal duty to maintain local roads under section 41 of the Highways Act 1980. Responsibility lies with them in the first instance, but I absolutely recognise, as I said in Transport questions the other day, that there is a case for a more long-term, strategic approach to local roads.
The Minister talks of the need for a long-term solution. Will he consider what the Local Government Association has proposed, whereby the Government would reinvest 2p per litre of current fuel duty into local road maintenance so that we have a consistent stream of funding long into the future?
One of the many reasons why it is wrong to characterise the Government as not investing in infrastructure is that we have, for the first time in decades, created a roads fund, to be funded by vehicle excise duty. It is subject to negotiation with the Treasury, of course, but we hope to continue on the path of increasing investment across our road network and supporting not just strategic roads but local roads. Investment already runs at a little over £1 billion a year. I will of course take the Local Government Association’s suggestions to heart, but my hon. Friend should be aware that, over the next few years, we will be investing on a more hypothecated basis at a very high level.
On the funding of road maintenance, does the Minister agree that prevention is far better than cure? In my authority of Lancashire, eight years of neglected road maintenance, due to a lack of funding, has led to a very expensive problem. Does he agree that lessons need to be learned for the future?
I agree with the hon. Lady, and she has accurately reproduced one of the central principles of the 2012 potholes review, which was widely endorsed by everyone. Later in my speech, I will talk about how seriously we are taking that point.
I am very grateful to the Minister for giving way. I know that he takes these issues seriously. Will he ask the Department for Transport to have a serious conversation with the Treasury about the severity of our winters? In central Bedfordshire, we have had 90 salt runs this year, compared with an average of 50. As he knows very well, salt does a great deal of damage to our roads. There is a case for enabling the Treasury to flex the additional money it gives to councils in response to very long, severe winters like the one we just had.
Of course that is right. Flood resilience and other funding has been made available, and can be tweaked in response to that. Many local authorities were not prepared for the severity of last winter and the repeated freezes that damaged our roads. My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The wider point is that, as part of a strategic and longer-term view of local roads funding, we can create greater resilience in the network as a whole so that those kinds of events can be better dealt with.
I am very grateful to the Minister for giving way. He is being very generous with his time. He spoke of a strategic approach to funding, but will he also consider a strategic approach to rural roads? In many parts of Oxfordshire—particularly west Oxfordshire, where I am—we are essentially dealing with cart tracks that have been tarmacked at some point and need long-term maintenance. Will he consider that point?
I very much do consider that point. I live in a rural consistency that has urban roads in Hereford and lots of rural roads around it, so I take both sides of that argument extremely seriously. The facts are interesting. Although there has rightly been a lot of concern about the recent effects of the winter, A and B roads have gradually improved, by and large, as our annual road conditions survey work shows. It may well be that, as we look at the effect of the last quarter or two, that picture will have changed due to the severity of the winter, but that is the overall picture. However, that does not address the issue of C and U roads, which are a further cause of concern, and my hon. Friend quite properly raises it.
I have taken a lot of interventions—
Will the Minister take one more?
I will take one more in half a second, but I want to be sure I can leave a minute to the hon. Member for Bolton South East.
You do not need to do that.
If I do not need to do that and can just run through to the end, that gives me time.
I am very grateful to the Minister for taking an intervention. Potholes do not stop at the border. In Scotland, where the Conservatives are not currently in charge of road maintenance—I hope that changes, with Ruth Davidson as First Minister—we have more than 153,000 potholes, so it is a problem no matter which Government are in charge. Does the Minister agree that my constituents in Moray would be better served if local authorities repaired the potholes, rather than paid out millions of pounds in compensation? In the end, the taxpayer has to pay one way or another.
It is certainly preferable, as the potholes review and other survey work recognised, that it be done right first time. Roads should be reinstated in a way that allows the changes to be durable, and road surfaces should be able to stand inclement weather.
Our overall approach is based on principles of asset management, increasing over time. The Government are investing about £6 billion in the network between 2015 and 2021—about £1 billion a year—including through the pothole action fund. That money is increasingly being used as part of a more strategic, asset management-type approach to the roads, which is important. As part of that, we have looked very hard at how we can help highway authorities to adopt planned and preventive maintenance that treats the asset as such, rather than just respond reactively to problems that emerge. Those principles are already demonstrating benefits in terms of financial efficiency, improved accountability, value for money and improved customer service, and we want to continue to work on that.
As matters are presently handled, there is a formula, and rightly so. We do not think councils should constantly have to apply for the vast preponderance of the funding that they receive from the Department for local roads. They should be funded according to an easier and fairer formula.
Does the Minister agree that the £43 million and the officer time spent because 156 local authorities have to deal with claims from motorists and other road users as a result of pothole damage and injury are a waste of money?
I certainly think that is true. I do not know whether it is a waste of money; it is perfectly proper to spend that money on people who have claims, but it would be nice if those claims were as low as possible, and improvements to the local road network can ameliorate that. The point is that the formula is in place and is a fair and equitable way of allocating funding.
I note that the Department has given about £6 million to Bolton through the Greater Manchester Combined Authority. The hon. Member for Bolton South East is concerned about the wellbeing of her own constituents, but the GMCA covers a very wealthy part of the country.
Will the Minister give way?
I will, but I am very short of time and I have a lot of material to cover. In fact, I will not give way—I am going to crack on.
I have touched on the potholes review; let me talk very briefly about a few other things. Members mentioned the effect of poor road reinstatements by utility companies, and they are absolutely right to do so. There are powers to deal with such issues, and we are currently reviewing and updating the rules, known as the specification for the reinstatement of openings in highways, to ensure that the most innovative new techniques are adopted and that reinstatements are treated properly so that disruption is minimised wherever possible.
Hon. Members will be aware of something called lane rental, which we have pioneered in London and Kent. It is applied to the most congested 5% of the network and requires funds to be spent on ways of reducing congestion caused by street works, and not on general road maintenance. We have announced that that scheme will be used more widely over the next year or two. We will issue bidding guidance later this year for local authorities that want to take advantage of it.
The new street manager scheme, which we have set up, is a piece of software linked to a digital service that allows local authorities and other registered bodies to put in accurate and up-to-date data on live and planned works. It should enable utilities works to be better co-ordinated to put less pressure on roads. It is a very important long-term scheme.
Local authorities can choose whether to have permit schemes, which are a very effective way of planning and co-ordinating works to reduce the impact on congestion and on the roads. About 65% of local authorities have them. We are about to publish an evaluation of permit schemes, which shows that they are superior to the passive notices schemes used by the other 35% of authorities.
In the minute and a half I have left, let me touch on new technology. There are plenty of ways in which new technology can make a difference in this area. We are pioneering pothole spotting, using new technologies in partnership with the councils in Thurrock, York and Wiltshire. It involves high-definition cameras attached to vehicles to gather rich data about the highways and assess levels of road deterioration. That project, which has already won a national award, has enormous potential.
We are starting to work even more closely with the sector and key stakeholders, including the Highways Term Maintenance Association, the Association of Directors of Environment, Economy, Planning and Transport, the RAC Foundation, which has been mentioned, local highway authorities, contractors, consultants, academia and others to try to improve the work we do and to ensure “right first time” maintenance and higher quality road surfaces.
We all acknowledge the importance of this issue. I hope colleagues will understand my level of engagement as a Minister with this question and that of some of my officials. I have outlined my interest in having a longer-term, more strategic approach that covers urban and rural roads. I hope that the hon. Member for Bolton South East shares my optimism as we continue to work with local highway authorities on a wide range of initiatives, including the ones I have described, to improve our local road network.
Question put and agreed to.
Public Sector Pay Policy
[Albert Owen in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered public sector pay policy.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Owen. I refer to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests and my position as chair of the Public and Commercial Services union parliamentary group.
I shall focus entirely on the pay of civil servants. A few months ago the Government declared—to great fanfare—that the public sector pay cap had been lifted, but is that really the case? On 2 May I asked the Prime Minister:
“Can the Prime Minister confirm that every UK Government Department has budgeted for a derisory 1% pay rise for all its civil servants? Is it fair that workers who collect tax, and who try to make a broken social security system and a broken immigration system work, are getting a real-terms pay cut and are still subjected to a public sector pay cap?”
The Prime Minster responded:
“As the hon. Gentleman knows, we have been very clear that the blanket 1% cap that has taken place over recent years on public sector pay is not an approach that we are taking in the future. Obviously, Departments are funded at a certain level, and it is for Departments then to come forward with their proposals in relation to pay within their Department.”—[Official Report, 2 May 2018; Vol. 640, c. 312.]
In other words, yes. UK Departments have budgeted for only 1%, and it is therefore reasonable to assume that the 1% public sector pay cap still exists and applies to our civil servants. Perhaps the Minister will confirm that the public sector pay cap is in reality still in force.
As the Minister knows, on 19 January 2018 the PCS pay claim was submitted to his colleague the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Minister for the Cabinet Office. However, the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s spring statement gave no indication that the Government’s position had changed significantly. To date, all further indications have been that the Treasury’s remit guidance, imminent this month, will in effect retain the 1% pay cap for civil servants.
Following the submission of the PCS claim, meetings have taken place with the Minister and Cabinet Office officials, who stated that, in their view, where no pay cap is in place, there is no additional funding for pay, so any increases would need to come from existing departmental budgets.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way and for keeping the 1% pay cap issue alive. Not only have public sector workers had to put up with the cap for several years, which in fact has meant a pay cut, but there have been job losses, including in the probation services. The Government are using the oldest argument under the sun: Departments must find the money. But it is the Treasury that should find the money, rather than cutting departmental funding further.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman. I was a trade union rep in local government before I arrived in this place, and when the public sector pay cap was first put in place, I remember that the argument used to sell it to public sector workers was that the freeze would protect jobs. As he has said, however, we have instead seen job losses in the Departments and elsewhere in the public sector.
I have a copy of the letter that the Minister wrote to PCS reiterating the position that he had stated in the meeting. However, independent research undertaken by the Centre for Labour and Social Studies on behalf of the PCS came to the following conclusions:
“Any increases in public sector pay would have to come out of Resource Departmental Expenditure Limits”,
which are Departments’ current budgets. It continued:
“departments as a whole will continue to suffer real term cuts to their RDELs up to 2020. In the departments of interest covered by our analysis, only the Ministry of Defence will see an increase…This falls way short of what is needed for a 5% nominal pay rise in each year, and also fails to accommodate annual pay rises of 1%”.
In particular, it said:
“Given current projections of departmental expenditure limits, we conclude that any pay rise for public sector workers across…departments would have to come from cuts to jobs or to public services.”
Delegated pay talks are a key part of the problem on pay in this area. There are—this is staggering—in excess of 200 sets of pay negotiations throughout the civil service and its related bodies. The trade unions require proper talks on pay claims, including exploration of the scope for a more coherent approach to pay throughout the civil service and its related bodies. As I understand it, tentative talks on coherence have been under way for years, but progress has been slow. PCS has had a meeting with the Minister, who I believe agreed to reflect on the points made to him and has responded by leaving the door open to such discussions. However, there is frustration that no further progress seems to have been made.
I hope the Minister can today update the House on the Government’s approach to delegated pay, providing for more coherence for the pay structure for civil servants.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that when pay bargaining is delegated to Departments that are being cut by the Treasury, the whole process is an absolute sham? There is no possibility of getting rid of the 1% pay cap because the Departments have themselves been cut.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman. He makes a valid point. One difficulty arising from having 200 sets of pay negotiations is to do with the Equal Pay Act 1970. How does it operate for civil service pay with so many pay schemes across the board? The Government should reflect on that.
On equal pay, does the hon. Gentleman agree that we should be celebrating the 150th anniversary of the TUC and taking heed of its recent finding that the gulf between the earnings of younger and older people has increased by 50% in the last 20 years, especially in the private sector but also in the public sector?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that, and as a proud trade unionist myself I look forward to signing the early-day motion that celebrates 150 years of the Trades Union Congress. The point he makes is absolutely right: there is a growing pay gap between the older and younger generations. In addition, there is a real challenge on the gender pay gap.
The hon. Gentleman is making an excellent speech. I want to draw attention to another inequality in having a 1% pay cap. The lowest earners who get 1% see only a little increase in their pay, compared with the top of the civil service, where they see a massive increase. Surely that inequality must be addressed.
I agree with the hon. Lady. As someone involved in the trade union movement, I was particularly of the view that we should look at flat-rate claims as well as percentage claims, so that the low-paid got a bigger pay increase. I will touch on some of the issues around low pay for civil servants later.
I hope that the Minister will agree, however, that having more than 200 different sets of pay negotiations for civil servants in UK Departments is frankly nonsense. Towards the end of May, PCS received correspondence from the Cabinet Office seeking a meeting to discuss the pay claim. In May, the PCS annual delegate conference, which I attended to give the PCS parliamentary group report, discussed the issue of pay.
There are different approaches in these islands, such as those of the NHS and the Scottish Government. Funded pay rises have been made available in those two bodies. In the NHS, an agreement for public sector workers has been reached with unions: a funded increase that will see staff offered long overdue pay rises of between 6.5% and 29% over the next three years. Additional funding of £4.2 billion for that has been agreed by the Treasury, meaning that the increase to the NHS pay bill will not come from within existing budgets.
Policy on public sector pay is devolved in Scotland. In the Scottish Government sector, the PCS is moving towards agreed settlements with the employer across all bargaining areas, which include: those earning under £36,5000 receiving 3% plus progression, or 3% plus 1% non-consolidated for those on the maximum pay rate; progression payments of 2.5% plus an additional top-up to the maximum for those five years in the grade; maternity pay increased to 27 weeks of full pay; paternity pay increased to four weeks of full pay; occupational sick pay extended to include all staff on entry; no compulsory redundancy guarantees being extended; and assurances on equality impact assessments.
The Scottish Government have been flooded with applications from civil servants who are employed by UK Government Departments and see a vacancy for the Scottish Government. In Scotland, people who happen to work for a UK Government Department will see many of their colleagues leave to get a better pay rise by working for the Scottish Government. I hope that as part of the competition in many areas between Scotland and England, the UK Government will increase their pay rises to match those of the Scottish Government.
Civil servants deliver cradle-to-grave services daily, from driving test examinations to collecting tax, running our prisons, supporting our armed services, administering our justice system, staffing our borders, renewing our passports, looking after our museums and galleries, supporting the unemployed into work and maintaining our transport system. The civil service is the engine room of the country. Brexit is a key challenge faced by the country. Clearly, it is essential that the civil service is robust and resourced effectively to face that challenge.
The trade union undertook a consultative ballot of members towards the end of last year. The mandate was clear: members in the civil service are against a continuation of the 1% cap and are willing to take industrial action to demand that. In a 49% turnout, 99% of PCS members voted to reject the pay cap and 80% supported industrial action if required. That campaign will continue apace in 2018 in workplaces and in PCS branches and groups.
The hon. Gentleman is making a powerful case on behalf of public servants. Does he agree that one of the issues is that public servants increasingly feel undervalued? It is very hard for people to give their best at work, particularly when we need them to do the important jobs that he describes, if they feel they are not valued by their employer. That is almost inevitable, given the pay restraint they have suffered over many years.
I agree with that entirely. I will list the views of civil servants on the public sector pay cap a little later. The hon. Lady is absolutely correct that public sector workers across the board feel undervalued because the 1% pay cap has been in place for so many years.
I am intervening as a member of the associate and retired members branch of PCS and as part of the parliamentary group. Further to what the hon. Gentleman said in response to the last intervention, does he think it is ludicrous that there will be civil servants and public sector workers in receipt of universal credit who will be under scrutiny by the Department for Work and Pensions to increase their income to comply with UC rules?
I agree with that entirely. The vice-chair of the PCS parliamentary group makes an excellent point. A recent survey at the Department for Work and Pensions showed that more than 70% of its staff have experienced financial difficulty in the last 12 months.
With the introduction of universal credit, the point has been made that civil servants who will be in receipt of universal credit due to low pay or being a part-time worker will be under scrutiny by their own Department to increase their income to comply with those rules. That is important, because 18 months ago I secured an Adjournment debate on low pay in the Department for Work and Pensions, which pushed the Department to act. At that time, incredibly, 40% of civil servants employed in the Department for Work and Pensions were in receipt of tax credits. I hope the Minister will look at that.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making a powerful case on behalf of public servants. Does he share my frustration that we hear the Government talk in reverent terms about the need to tackle poverty, but almost in the next breath they talk about the need for continued pay restraint? There is no understanding of the connection between those two things.
It is an entirely false economy. According to research by the Scottish Trades Union Congress, 70p in every pound of public sector money ends up in the private sector economy. It would follow that pay restraint in the public sector harms not only public sector workers and their wages, but spending power in the private sector economy. I hope the Government will look at that.
Will the Minister publish the percentage of employees in each UK Government Department who are in receipt of tax credits? I am sure I am not the only Member of this House who will want to know how low civil servants’ pay is across the country. If we had an indication of the percentage of civil servants in each Department who are in receipt of tax credits, we would find out exactly how low pay is in the public sector.
Hon. Members have mentioned the views of public sector workers. I want to list just some of the comments received by the PCS union from across these isles. Fiona works in the Department for Work and Pensions, and this is how she felt:
“The government is seeking to divide us into deserving and undeserving. Our colleagues in universities are seen as deserving, but those who work for government are not. It’s atrocious. If the government expects us to go into the civil service, they can damn well pay us for it.”
Neil, in the Office for Students, said:
“We need to get back to where we were. The cost of living is not waiting for us to catch up.”
Tracey, at HM Revenue and Customs, said:
“We are not getting paid enough to keep up with increases in the cost of living. People are doing the same job as colleagues but they are being paid less because there have been no incremental pay rises.”
Wilfred, who works for the Ministry of Justice, said:
“Civil servants are overworked and do the most important jobs for society. In the MoJ we work for judges and deserve respect for the jobs we do. Our skills should be reflected in our remuneration.”
Nicole, who works for the Department for Work and Pensions, said:
“The question should be ‘Why don’t I deserve a pay rise?’ We deserve a better quality of life. DWP is still one of the lowest paid government departments. The fact that we are office workers doesn’t make it less important that we can't afford to live.”
Richard, who works for the Marine Management Organisation, said:
“I’m now earning less money than I was 17 years ago. Prices have gone up but wages have not kept up.”
Susy, who works for Ofgem, said:
“We work hard to achieve results, otherwise what’s keeping us going? There has to be more than job development - we are not shown respect.”
Gordon, who works for the Department for Work and Pensions, said:
“Since the pay cap was imposed my standard of living has fallen every single year. We are falling behind the private sector and people are leaving the department because of low pay.”
Scott, who works in DES Student Loans, said:
“We provide a vital service to students. The cost of living is not in line with our wages. We want a fair day’s pay a fair day’s work.”
Those are the real concerns of civil servants who work across the UK Government Departments.
There are other concerns, too. Some Departments have been reshaping their services, resulting in office closures and staff moving to other locations. Will the Minister confirm that not all those Departments compensate civil servants for office moves? Does he appreciate that some civil servants experience a double whammy of a 1% pay rise and an office move that causes additional travelling costs?
As the Member of Parliament with a higher percentage of public sector employment among those in work than in other constituencies in these isles, I have campaigned vigorously for the public sector pay cap to end. I listed many reasons for that earlier, such as the fact that 70p in every pound goes into the private sector economy. Increasing pay for civil servants will boost the whole economy and increase spending power. We cannot go on with a system where the Government advocate pay restraint but then spend money propping up low pay in the public sector via the benefits system.
Is the hon. Gentleman aware of how much private sector employees get in his constituency? There is a risk in certain parts of the country, where the public sector is so dominant, that the relative spending power of public sector workers will make it difficult for private enterprises to flourish, because they cannot attract the correct employees to their business.
I take the opposite view. In areas of high public sector employment, public employees’ spending power keeps the private sector economy alive. They keep jobs going in the private sector with the money they spend, so I am afraid I do not agree with the hon. Lady’s analysis.
It is an honour and privilege to speak on behalf of millions of people employed in the civil service on these islands. I look forward to the Minister responding positively to the issues raised today.
It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Owen. I congratulate the hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens) on securing the debate. I am sure that he will agree with much of what I say.
Public sector pay has been a hot topic for parties across the political divide over the past few years. The 1% public sector pay cap, which was introduced in 2010 by the coalition Government, was seen at the time as a reasonable approach to help to reduce the deficit while keeping pay increases in line with the very low rate of inflation. The cap, which formed part of the Government’s long-term economic plan, helped to get this country’s public finances back under control and ensure that the finances that keep the public sector running got back on to a more sustainable footing.
In recent months and years, with some of the deficit costs having come down and the Government having met some of their targets, we have seen some of that effort and sacrifice bear fruit. That necessary process allowed the UK Government to protect public sector jobs and services, which I believe is why the Scottish National party Administration in Scotland and the Labour Administration in Wales also implemented the 1% pay cap policy.
However, as I am sure hon. Members across the Chamber would agree, that was never intended to be a permanent or even a long-term solution. That is why I am pleased that the UK Government are moving away from the 1% public sector pay policy in favour of a more flexible approach. It is more than fair that that shift in pay policy comes now. However, as one of my hon. Friends mentioned, the policy helped to address some of the issues that were emerging between private and public sector pay. As a result of the great recession, we saw a decrease in private sector pay that was not reflected as severely in public sector pay. We have since seen a divergence, and then a convergence.
My hon. Friend makes an interesting point. Is the situation he describes not exacerbated by pensions differences? The fact is that the pensions of public sector workers are far more valuable than those in the private sector.
That is right. We need to look at pay, but we need to look at overall packages as well, including pensions and other rights and responsibilities that both public and private sector employees benefit from. I am really clear that the public sector should always be as competitive and attractive as the private sector in both pay and packages, and I certainly do not argue that there should be any decrease in that.
The hon. Gentleman appears to be outlining a case for the end of public sector pay restraint. Will he advise us what he feels the Government could do to ensure that Departments are able to fund the pay rises that my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens) talked about? Might that include the Treasury investing in those Departments?
Yes, that is the point I am making. Recommendations will be forthcoming as part of the delegated pay reviews. I will come to the NHS shortly, but some of the NHS pay increases that were put forward have been funded. I am sure that the Minister will talk about funding in further detail.
I am sympathetic to the points my hon. Friend raises, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens) on securing the debate. The pay review bodies historically have had their hands tied by the Government’s 1% pay cap. Is it time that the Government listened to those independent pay review bodies and implemented the meaningful increases they recommend, given that they have regard to recruitment and retention issues throughout the public sector and particularly in the sectors in which they recommend increases?
I am a Back Bencher, not a Minister, so I am wary of committing the Government, but yes. My point is that where pay increases are recommended, the Government should fund them. Given that inflation is now increasing after a period in which people had to make sacrifices and we had to have more financial control, it is only fair that we ensure that there are sustainable pay increases across Departments and the different sectors of public life to reflect the increases in the private sector.
As real wages grow across the United Kingdom—much like the economy as a whole—I am glad that some hard-working public sector staff are reaping the benefits of the UK Government’s new, more flexible approach. For example, the pay rises of between 6.5% and 29% over the next three years in the NHS in England represent great progress. I welcome the fact that pay increases will be larger for lower-paid staff and smaller for those on the highest salaries. The hon. Member for Glasgow South West mentioned that those increases compare with increases of 3% plus 1% in Scotland.
We should be really clear, because sometimes we do not get the full story on Scottish issues. We speak in favour of some of the pay increases, but it is clear that the increases have been between 6.5% and 29% in the NHS in England, and 3% plus 1% in Scotland, as the hon. Gentleman said. We all face challenges—I just wish the Scottish National party would be more honest about those challenges.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I will, but let me complete this point.
It is right that pay increases have been directed more at people who are just about managing and at those on lower incomes. They should benefit those who really need a pay rise. I note that the devolved Administration in Scotland mirrored the UK Government’s 1% pay policy when it was in place, and I am glad that public sector workers in Scotland will now also receive increases. I hope they are as generous as the ones afforded by the UK Government.
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the pay differential between the NHS in England and the NHS in Scotland is 1% in favour of employees in Scotland?
We have to be very careful about making generalisations. On a case-by-case basis, especially for some lower-income workers, that 1% differential does not apply. I would be more than happy to talk to the hon. Gentleman elsewhere and go into that level of detail.
We are talking about pay, but the other side of the equation is tax. I am disappointed that the SNP Administration in Edinburgh have decided to increase income tax in Scotland. Anyone who earns more than £26,000—slightly below the average wage in the United Kingdom—is now a so-called high earner and has to pay more income tax than their English and Welsh counterparts. That includes teachers, nurses and doctors. Importantly, it also includes armed forces personnel stationed in Scotland, who now pay more tax than any other British armed forces personnel stationed around the world.
That is not true.
I will let the hon. Gentleman intervene, but I will come back on that point.
I am sure the hon. Gentleman understands and appreciates that the terms and conditions of armed forces personnel ensure that there is an even playing field between different areas of deployment. That means that if there are spikes or drops in taxation or any other cost of their employment, they do not have to suffer those themselves. They will get the pay rise, but they will not have to suffer the tax rise.
Order. Mr Gray will respond to the debate from the Front Bench, so he will have protected time. I ask him to be a bit more disciplined and allow Back Benchers to have their time, too.
Thank you, Mr Owen. I always welcome a lively debate.
To be clear, that pay rise will not come from the devolved Administration that imposed the tax; it will come from the UK Government, who will have to cough up to bridge the gap. It was not me who said that Scotland has the highest rate of tax for armed forces personnel; it was Lieutenant General Nugee at a hearing of the Public Accounts Committee just yesterday. That is fact. It is clear that it will be left to Her Majesty’s Treasury to try to bridge the gap and ensure that people are not disadvantaged.
Scotland was already the most taxed part of the United Kingdom, and nurses, teachers and other public sector staff have been forced to pay, at least in part, for the pay rises they have been given. Money that they have been given through pay rises has been taken away through more tax. That is happening at a time when Scotland badly needs to attract more public sector workers to deal with the horrendous staffing shortages that have developed in the NHS and schools in the past 10 years. The UK Government and the devolved Administration should do as much as possible about that.
Let me make one more point about tax, which is a topic that generates lively conversation across the Chamber and will—and should—continue to be debated during this Parliament. The tax increases in Scotland, which were meant to be a progressive move, deliver only 38p more per week for those on the lowest incomes. That is not progressive; it is pathetic. It shows the contrast between the UK Administration and the SNP Administration in Edinburgh: the SNP does not have a grip on our public services in this day and age, and plenty of people in Scotland are being disadvantaged as a result. The UK Government have shown that it is possible, through a strong economy, to give public sector workers a sustainable pay rise without them having to pay for it through increased taxes.
Can I bring the hon. Gentleman back to reality? Each and every UK Government Department has budgeted for a civil service pay rise of 1%. The Scottish Government have taken a different approach. Does he not acknowledge that in reality the public sector pay cap is still in place for employees who work for the UK Government?
I will not speak for the Minister, who I am sure will cover this, but the pay rises of 6.5%-plus in the NHS are being fully funded. I am sure that as recommendations from other pay review bodies come through, they will be funded, too.
I am sorry; I am finishing. I am sure the Minister will come back on that. The simple point is that the public sector does deserve a pay rise. It should be one that is sustainable but one that we constantly review. I 100% agree with the Government’s more flexible approach. We should maintain those public sector pay rises and always ensure that, especially as the Government go into more challenging circumstances and we try to be truly global Britain, public sector pay and the packages that surround it are just as attractive and rewarding as every private sector role, no matter where in the United Kingdom.
Order. Four Members are indicating that they wish to speak. I will bring in the Front Benchers at half-past three, so if Back Benchers take about seven and a half minutes each, they will have equal time.
Thank you for your courtesy, Mr Owen. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I thank my good friend the hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens) for securing this timely and important debate and for setting out with such clarity the arguments on public sector pay and properly funding the Departments. He did a fantastic job.
During the Whit recess I visited my local HMRC tax office in Peterlee. I thank Linda Hughes, the full-time officer, and the Public and Commercial Services Union local branch reps and local management for facilitating my instructive visit. Valuable work is done at the office in Peterlee, but it is threatened with closure. Almost 500 workers will be relocated, some temporarily to the Washington office, and some will face a considerable additional commute to Newcastle, where jobs are to be centralised, if they want to maintain their employment.
The purpose of my visit was to listen to the concerns of PCS members—the employees—but I saw in the office on the PCS noticeboard a sample of the figures for workers who had lost income because of Government pay restraint. On average, they had lost about £3,000 a year directly as a result of the imposition of the civil service pay cap. Perhaps if the Minister were to visit my constituency and meet some of the workers, he might understand the value of public sector workers and consider paying them properly.
Since the economic crash in 2008, public sector workers have been subject to unjustifiable pay constraint policies designed to make them pay for a financial crisis not of their making. A Government Back Bencher said earlier that that had made a substantial contribution to deficit reduction, but surely if we properly funded Departments—HMRC in particular—we could have achieved that deficit reduction through many other avenues, not least closing tax loopholes and making individuals and corporations who are avoiding their taxes pay their fair share.
Does the hon. Gentleman share my frustration that there are 4,000-plus employees chasing DWP social security fraud, estimated at £1.2 billion, and in HMRC’s wealth unit there are fewer than 500 employees chasing tax avoidance of £70 billion?
The hon. Gentleman is correct. I hope the Minister reflects on that and applies resources appropriately so that we can recover for the Treasury the maximum revenue from those who are avoiding paying their fair share of tax.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I will. I cannot refuse the hon. Gentleman as he gave way so many times.
I thank the hon. Gentleman. I acknowledge that there is still work to be done on our tax code, but does he recognise that since 2010 a number of measures have been brought in to close tax loopholes, which have yielded some £5 billion in extra tax returns and tax revenue?
I recognise that efforts have been made to close the tax gap, but the publication of the Panama papers and various revelations indicate that it is much larger than had been previously estimated. In my humble opinion, it is counterproductive to get rid of skilled and experienced tax collectors employed at offices such as Peterlee in my constituency who have expertise in this field. We would be better off retaining that expertise and allowing those collectors to get on with the job we have trained them to do.
The imposition of pay restraint has compounded issues raised by the hon. Member for Glasgow South West and my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Dan Carden) such as the generational pay gap and equal pay. The system includes discriminatory practices nearly 50 years after the Equal Pay Act 1970 and any Government should be ashamed that such problems are still evident.
It is clear from independent research undertaken by the Centre for Labour and Social Studies on behalf of the PCS that any increases in public sector pay would have to come from the resource departmental expenditure limits—the departmental budgets for current spending. It is disingenuous of Government to suggest that pay claims—even those recommended by independent pay review bodies—will be funded when the departmental expenditure limits do not reflect those awards. Departments as a whole will therefore suffer real-terms cuts to their resource departmental expenditure limits up to 2020. That falls way short of what is needed for a 5% nominal pay rise in the current year, and it fails to accommodate annual pay rises of 1%.
Given current projections of departmental expenditure, the research concludes clearly that any pay rise for public sector workers across listed Departments would have to come from cuts to jobs or to public services. It is a great deception. We must be careful with our language in terms of deliberately misleading anybody, but we should be straight about this. It is a cause of instability to promise constantly that the public sector pay cap is temporary when it is applied year on year. Eight years down the line, we still have effectively a public sector pay cap. In that time, prices have risen by 22%, but public sector pay has risen by just 4.4%. Wage freezes and the Government’s pay cap have lasted throughout that time, bringing financial misery to public service workers and their families and causing huge damage to services.
Will my hon. Friend give way?
One last time, and then I will draw my remarks to a close.
Does my hon. Friend recognise that many public servants have been down-banded and as a result given up more money and experienced even more detriment than that from the increases of only 1%?
I call Grahame Morris to wind up.
I will be quick, Mr Owen. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell). There have been numerous surveys. A recent one by Unison showed that almost 73% of respondents have had to borrow money from family and friends to get by. We know anecdotally about civil servants using food banks, and workers in my constituency are struggling to support themselves and their families. I do not think we can run public services on the backs of poorly paid public sector workers. Something must be done to lift the cap and properly fund Government Departments.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Owen. I congratulate the hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens) on securing this important debate.
Let us first get something straight about the British civil service in devolved Administrations and in England and Wales. According to the international civil service effectiveness index, this country is fortunate to have the finest civil service in the world. Sometimes in our surgeries we have little problems come to us, but we have to realise that for every situation we see, things might not be so bad and there are thousands of cases that civil servants get right and the decisions made are in many instances spot on. Compared to many other countries, as we travel around the globe and become involved in political discussion with people from other nations, the UK civil service is incredibly honest and has a code of ethics that is an example to the world. It is important to recognise that fact here today.
Over the past decade both Labour and the Conservatives have had to make difficult decisions about how to prioritise public spending while reducing the deficit. However, we are now in a position to lift the pay freeze and make the investment needed to help the service maintain its world-leading position.
According to the Treasury, roughly £1 in every £4 of public spending is spent on pay. After the crash, therefore, politicians of all parties, including Labour and the Scottish National party, recognised that restraints on public sector pay had a necessary role to play in bringing the deficit under control. That was absolutely the correct choice to make at that time. We have to put this into context. A GDP debt of 11% is enormous. We can cope with that for a year or two, but not for a sustained period. We have to get it under control. If we do not, the markets go against us, the country ends up borrowing at far higher rates of interest, and we end up going down the road of Greece and Spain where we have seen public sector pay actually cut: I do not mean in real terms, but actually cut by up to 40%. People’s old-age pensions and fixed pensions were cut at the most vulnerable time.
Will my hon. Friend give way?
I will give way, although I am conscious of the time.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way. I totally agree with him. Although there has been a public sector pay cap over the past years, that does not tell the whole story. Does he agree with me that across much of the public sector during those years, pay increased automatically with every year served because it had been contractually agreed before the cap came into force? Also, staff could move between bands, so it is not the case that there was completely flat pay. It is more nuanced.
My hon. Friend makes a fair point, but it is right and proper that the Government now take into due consideration the independent pay review bodies so that the 1% cap is dispensed with over time. However, I take my hon. Friend’s point in its entirety.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I am really conscious of the time. I apologise.
Not only must the public sector modernise to keep pace with the evolving needs and expectations of modern Britons but it is absolutely essential that the civil service is equipped to take on the new responsibilities that will fall to the Government as we exit the European Union. It is worth remembering that the pay freeze has allowed public sector managers facing tough budget constraints to save jobs. I have a problem with the statement made by the hon. Member for Glasgow South West. If Departments pay more than 1%, there will be job losses. In fact, if there had not been pay restraint, we would have had more job losses. The point is that that pay restraint meant we were able to keep more people in employment. That is an important point to make. Many people in the public sector have taken that very much on board, but I know that over time patience has worn thin. I will make one other point about the hon. Gentleman’s speech. I imagine the 200-plus pay negotiations are inefficient, and I want to convey that to the Minister today
Of course, the purpose of austerity is always to return the public finances to a point where we can safely and responsibly start making the investments that Britain needs, and I am glad that the Government are now in a position to reconsider the public sector pay freeze. Nor is pay the only way in which Ministers are investing in civil servants. In a speech on 24 January, John Manzoni, the chief executive of the civil service, set out the sheer scope of the modernisation programme currently under way, and a key part is investing in the people who make the service what it is.
For example, the Digital Academy is equipping 3,000 civil servants a year with new skills that will help to transform the way we deliver services, and the new Data Science Campus in Newport is going to train up to 500 fully qualified data analysts for the Government. That is absolutely crucial at this particular time. A concerted drive to streamline the number of Government buildings will help to ensure that the great majority of civil servants are able to work in modern, collaborative environments that will help them to fulfil their potential. The Assessment and Development Centre, launched in 2016, has assessed more than 1,000 people to help them progress in their careers and make sure that the civil service meets the same professional standards that prevail in the commercial sector.
Such long-term investments will benefit not only service users but civil servants. Providing modern working environments, clear career pathways and strong development support is as important to attracting and retaining the best people as competitive pay.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Owen. I congratulate the hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens) on securing this important debate and commend him on his work in championing workers’ rights.
It is particularly relevant, as we celebrate 150 years of the Trades Union Congress, to mark the vital work that our trade unions continue to do in fighting for the rights and pay of public sector workers across the country. On this note, I refer members to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests and I declare an interest as a proud member and former officer of the GMB trade union.
We have heard about the impact that the Government’s damaging pay cap has had on our incredible and hard-working public sector staff in the civil service and beyond. The Government decided to make cuts off the backs of committed staff who are vital to keeping our public services up and running, and that has continued for far too long. I want to describe the impact that the pay cap has had in my constituency of Barnsley East.
Average wages in Barnsley are around 10% less than the national level. Child poverty is significantly higher and social mobility is much lower than the UK’s average. For years now, the pay cap has forced even greater strain and pressure on an area that often finds itself struggling to get by. As a former teacher myself, I know the impact that that can have on the frontline. Inflation results in real-terms pay cuts. Staff struggle to get by and morale reaches rock bottom. It is no surprise, therefore, to see an exodus of public sector staff.
Between 2010 and 2016 the Yorkshire and Humber region lost around 47,000 public sector employees. That is 9% of the total public sector workforce in the region, and it is much higher than the UK average loss. We have seen a retention crisis in our schools as teachers leave in droves. More and more crucial posts in our NHS services are going unfilled.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. The new pay deal for NHS staff is a rise of 3% next year, and for the following two years it is 2% and 1%. If inflation continues as it is now, that will effectively be a pay cut for NHS workers. Does she agree that that will make the situation worse?
I do agree with the very important point that my hon. Friend makes. My mum worked in the NHS for nearly 40 years and she has seen the impact that the cuts have had on the frontline. It is not only our NHS that is affected. Our local police forces are doing their absolute best with what they have, but numbers have decreased considerably. Right the way through our region and locally in Barnsley, public sector workers have been forced into leaving the sector as their pay packet does not stretch as far as it did and their morale is not as high as it was.
The public sector pay cap is not the only reason for the exodus, but there is no denying that it is a considerable part. Importantly for an area such as my own where times are already hard enough, the cap impacts not only on the employees, but on the services as a whole. As talented, committed and hard-working staff leave, our public services suffer. In my area of Barnsley, much like in the rest of the country, the pay cap is an attack not just on workers, but on our vital public services that they help to provide.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Owen, and I thank the hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens) for securing this debate.
There has been a public service pay freeze for seven years, held at 1%. Now the Government say there can be a pay rise, but only according to budgets, and it may damage the Chancellor’s Treasury plans. Already the Government are playing worker against worker, telling some workers they can have a pay rise, but others they will need to wait.
When the word “budget” is used, what we are really saying is “job losses”. We have already seen what happens when job losses are created: for those staff who can keep their jobs it creates more work and pressure, and they are told, “Be grateful you have a job.” Is it any wonder that stress levels and illness at work have multiplied? The trade unions are right to ask for a bigger rise. It is their duty to speak up for workers, and I say again, as I have said since I came to Parliament last year: join a trade union today. People’s rights at work are important. Workers have a voice in the trade union movement and I urge all workers to join.
In conclusion, public sector workers need a decent pay rise, not a token gesture. They should not be used as the bargaining chips of austerity. They do us proud as public workers, they protect our public services and they stop the private profiteers.
I remind Members that the debate will finish at 4pm, but the Minister has agreed to give a couple of minutes at the end for the hon. Member for Glasgow South West to wind up.
I am in awe at my constituency neighbour, the hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Hugh Gaffney), for enabling us to have more protected time for the Front-Bench speeches, given what you said earlier, Mr Owen. It is a pleasure to take part in the debate with you in the Chair, and I must add my congratulations to those given by others to my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens) on securing this debate, and on his detailed and passionate speech. My hon. Friend’s advocacy in this place and his previous trade union role, as has been acknowledged in the House already, make him ideally suited to lead such a debate. My wife is a local authority primary school teacher and is therefore impacted by public sector pay policy, although, thankfully, not that of the UK Government.
My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South West made a valid point regarding the ability of the UK Government to adhere to the Equal Pay Act 1970 when they are engaged in 200 pay negotiations, and the hon. Member for Solihull (Julian Knight) expressed his alarm at such a notion. My hon. Friend also highlighted the incredible statistics on low pay in the Department for Work and Pensions—the irony is not lost, I am sure—and the proportion of staff receiving tax credits. The fact that those workers will now be under additional universal credit conditionality from their own employers represents an incredible state of affairs.
A public sector pay rise, as outlined by my hon. Friend, is helpful for the economy and the private sector, as well as providing workers with the ability to enjoy a fruitful existence. When we add the fact that we are living through the worst decade for pay growth in 210 years, that is a major concern. My hon. Friend also touched on low pay and the situation in Scotland, and the more generous Scottish Government pay offer. He made a good, detailed and passionate speech, and I commend him for that.
I was reprimanded by you, Mr Owen, for jousting during the speech of the hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (Luke Graham). He made a point about the need to end pay restraint. Of course the Scottish Government were the first in these isles to lift the pay cap and fund the pay offer to the workers for whom they are responsible, and the hon. Gentleman appeared to support my call for the Treasury to fund Departments to bring about an end to the 1% cap. I look forward to his next appearance at Treasury questions when he will make that strong point to the Chancellor. He also spoke about the 6.5% pay offer to the NHS in England. That, of course, is spread over three years—a point that has already been made from the Labour Benches. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman was not trying to suggest that that offer is comparable to the 3% being offered on an annual basis in Scotland. My point about the 1% pay differential between England and Scotland is that it includes those in band 1—the lowest paid as well as those in higher brackets.
The hon. Member for Easington (Grahame Morris) made a good speech, advocating for the Treasury to fund an end to 1%. He also talked about the apparent temporary nature of the pay cap. He was right to say that where the UK Government, not the Scottish Government, have responsibility, the pay cap is in effect still in place.
The hon. Member for Solihull also made a good speech. He was right to say that civil servants in Whitehall and across these isles are incredibly talented and do a fantastic job. He also appeared to acknowledge that pay restraint should have been temporary—and should have ended. I challenge him, as I did the hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire, to challenge their Treasury colleagues to fund UK Departments to end the 1% cap.
The hon. Member for Barnsley East (Stephanie Peacock) spoke from experience, as a former teacher and also given the impact of public sector pay restraint in her area. What she said was absolutely right. My constituency neighbour, the hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill, made a typically impassioned, if pithy, speech, and we were grateful for his contribution.
As has been alluded to, we have made a far more generous offer in Scotland to our fantastic public servants. We look to reward them for the work that they do for us all. To tackle low pay, the Scottish Government have committed to paying the real living wage of £8.75 an hour, as opposed to the UK Government’s minimum wage premium of £7.83 for over-25s and their minimum wage of £7.38 for those between 21 and 24, £5.90 for those between 18 and 20, and £4.20 for under-18s. This year they have also offered a graduated pay rise starting at 3% for workers earning up to £65,500. That rise will benefit three quarters of all public sector employees in Scotland.
I praise some of the devolved Administration’s moves to make sure that there is correct funding for people on lower incomes, but does the hon. Gentleman recognise that the national living wage was brought in by a Conservative Government and it would not exist otherwise? As well as criticising, he should give a little praise, too.
My problem with the so-called national living wage is the fact that it is not national, because it is not available to under-25s, and it is not a living wage, because it does not get near the real living wage. Its branding was clearly an attempt to make it look as though it were the real living wage; that is massively problematic. I acknowledge that it is a large pay increase for some, but not all, of those on the minimum wage. It is important for the UK Government to acknowledge the fact that under-25s in particular are still being penalised.
Mr Owen has already reprimanded me for jousting during the debate and has indicated that I should wind up. [Interruption.] By all means I shall give way to the hon. Member for Solihull.
While the hon. Gentleman is being so generous and giving such fulsome praise, will he also be generous in recognising that the Government and the coalition Government raised the personal allowance to such an extent that the very lowest incomes have risen considerably?
I have already stated—this is probably for another debate—that interventions in the tax system are not the most efficient way of targeting people on low incomes. A far more efficient and effective way of targeting them to ensure that they have a proper quality of life would be to increase the rates of the work allowances of universal credit and tax credits. [Interruption.] I think we have said enough on that, and perhaps it is a debate for another day.
The Scottish Government have protected public sector jobs and services for the people of Scotland by delivering on our promise of no compulsory redundancies and an affordable public sector pay increase that reflects the cost of living. It is difficult to compare the pay offer with that in areas for which the UK Government have responsibility, because there is not the same universal pay offer as there has been in Scotland, as outlined by my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South West. We see a piecemeal approach from the UK Government, because Treasury Ministers have consistently and belligerently refused to fund a public sector pay rise for all UK Government Departments. That means it is up to individual Ministers to find the money to pay for awards from existing, squeezed budgets.
While this Government rightly praise our emergency services for their response to the likes of Grenfell or the various terror attacks, and they rightly and routinely praise NHS staff, teaching staff, prison officers, Jobcentre and tax office staff, and other public sector workers, they do not match that praise with fair reward. Hopefully, in the summing-up speech, we might finally find some movement from the Minister. The UK Government must follow the Scottish Government’s progressive lead when they publish their civil service pay guidance. They must fully fund an expansion in public sector pay, rather than just lifting the 1% restriction. If the UK Government agree that our public sector workers deserve a pay rise beyond 1%, they need to put their money where their mouth is, as the Scottish Government have done, and fund it.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Owen. I offer my congratulations to my good friend, the hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens), who has been a consistent advocate against this disastrous policy. I also thank my hon. Friends the Members for Easington (Grahame Morris), for Barnsley East (Stephanie Peacock) and for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Hugh Gaffney), who have all given clear real-world examples of the effect of the public sector pay freeze.
The hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (Luke Graham) and my good friend and, dare I say it, fellow Cestrian, the hon. Member for Solihull (Julian Knight) talked about the genesis of the public sector pay freeze policy, which dates back to the financial crash. I will simply make the point that it was not public sector workers who created the financial crash, but they are the ones who still have to live with the detriment of it, seven to 10 years afterward, while it took Wall Street and the City of London only a couple of years to get back on the big bonus trail. But we are where we are.
The slogan is, “A country that works for everyone”, although that slogan has not aged particularly well. The country is on its knees, facing the largest inequality and division since the 1980s and early 1990s. As we have seen with failures such as Capita, G4S and Carillion, commercial failure is rewarded with more public funding, while our public sector services at the sharp end are being taken for granted.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
Just the once. The hon. Gentleman was very generous with his time, which is why I cannot be too generous with mine.
Understood. I have a quick question: the hon. Gentleman said that inequality had increased and was the worst since the 1980s. Can he quote the source of that data, please? I would dispute it.
First, I do not necessarily trust the figures from the current Government, because they are well known for cooking the books, but I genuinely suggest that the hon. Gentleman comes down to any food bank—
That is not answering the question.
I suggest that the hon. Gentleman comes down to any food bank and finds out whether its recipients believe that equality is greater or worse.
The Government talk of lifting the public sector pay cap, but that is nothing more than a politically cute headline. After seven years of crippling pay freezes, the real-world consequences of the Government’s policies are half a million children of public sector workers in poverty, while Ministers have dished out a £70 billion tax break bonanza.
I want to make a point about the children. I have had many constituents come to me raising concerns about school assistant teachers. Some of them in the academies are earning £12,000—a poverty wage—while bosses routinely get salaries of £150,000. Does my hon. Friend agree that that injustice requires action and that we should look at instituting a maximum ratio for boss to worker pay in the public sector?
That would be a very interesting exercise, and we could certainly look at some of the sky-high pay for the bosses of some of the academy chains, but I will not go into the detail of that just now.
The problem with the modern Conservative party is that it is not at all modern. Old habits die hard. In addition to selling off public assets, they have now turned their attention to asset stripping our public sector workforce itself. As we know, the NHS is currently going through a mass exodus, with 10% of nurses leaving last year alone and over 100,000 vacancies across the service. The decision to scrap the pay freeze should have been made years ago. Landman Economics and the Trades Union Congress—I join colleagues across the House in paying tribute to the TUC on the 150th anniversary of its founding—estimate that there were real pay cuts and a loss of 13.3% between 2010 and 2018 for health and education workers, and 14.3% for public administration workers. Those figures have been reiterated by the Royal College of Nursing, which says that this has,
“damaged the morale and finances of NHS staff”.
Having spoken to numerous public sector constituents living from pay cheque to pay cheque and having to choose between heating or food, I suggest that that is a polite understatement.
The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point. I draw attention to my declaration in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests in making this intervention, but there has been great reliance on agency and temporary staff in both the education sector and the NHS as a result of the failure to retain and recruit staff in many areas. Does he agree that improving the terms and conditions and the pay of NHS staff would help to address that and would improve NHS finances overall, and that it is a short-sighted Treasury that does not take note of that point?
The hon. Gentleman is very experienced in matters of health and the NHS, and I suspect that what he says has real merit. Frankly, there are private companies offering bank staff across the NHS and making a large amount of money that would be better spent on frontline services and on paying staff more than the 1% pay cap. I thank him for his contribution.
We have all heard the heart-wrenching stories of public sector staff having to work two jobs to pay their bills or having to use food banks just to eat. This is modern Britain, where our greatest national treasure and our most valuable assets are treated with the same contempt and disregard that tax-dodging conglomerates have for our country. The Chancellor agreed to a below-inflation pay increase for NHS staff of 6.5% over three years on the condition,
“that the pay award enables improved productivity in the NHS”.
In real terms, that means forfeiting a day’s holiday each year for less money. Public sector workers have been cheated out of thousands, have had their pensions negatively affected and have now had their workload increased for less money.
If hon. Members visit any hospital, such as the Countess of Chester hospital in my constituency, they will see the NHS running on the goodwill of its staff. I know of health care assistants on wards who will work a 12-hour shift with barely a 10-minute break. They do that because they believe in what they are doing, but they are already working to maximum capacity and productivity, yet the Government still demand more to earn a pay rise that they have, in reality, already earned several times over. If hon. Members visit any school, where cuts still bite despite Government promises of more cash, they will find headteachers worried that any pay rise granted by the Government will have to be found from existing school budgets—the usual Conservative tactic of passing the responsibility on to someone else.
The hon. Member for Glasgow South West and my hon. Friend the Member for Easington referred to the study by the Centre for Labour and Social Studies on the terms of civil service pay rises. It is the same tactic. We have heard that the pay rise would have to come out of resource departmental expenditure limits for current spending; yet, as we have also heard, Departments as a whole will continue to suffer real-terms cuts to their RDELs up to 2020 and, of the principal Departments covered, only the Ministry of Defence will see an increase in this area of its budget. They made that point clearly, and it calls into question whether the Departments will be able to award pay rises of more than 1%; in fact, they might not even be able to raise that 1%.
Our police and prison service staff were offered a 1% increase and a 1% bonus, which will leave them with, yet again, a below-inflation increase. The chairman of the Police Federation said that staff had been left “angry and deflated” and had experienced a 15% decrease in real spending terms compared to seven years ago. Prisoner numbers are up and are increasing by an average of 3.5% per year, while the number of frontline prison officers, who have been offered a below-inflation 1.7% increase, has remained static.
The pay cap may have been verbally ended, but there is no evidence of its ending in the real world. Take-home pay, in real terms, has not increased. The quite shocking reality is that less than 4% of public sector workers will benefit from the Government’s decisions last September, and no further spending or new money has been made available in the autumn or spring Budgets. What makes one part of the public sector more worthy of being paid fairly than another? Even if the pay cap was genuinely lifted, it would not make up for the loss of thousands of pounds in the past—and indeed in the future, as a knock-on of the pay freeze now. One advantage of the pay cap is that, by keeping wages low, it makes it easier for parts of the public sector to be privatised, and for the privateers to make bigger profits off the back of low-paid but hard-working employees.
I will finish on a point also made by the hon. Member for Glasgow South West, first about pay in the private sector. For many positions in the private sector, public sector roles and pay increases are used as a comparator. Squashing public sector workers’ pay keeps some private sector pay deals flat as well. By crushing the pay of several million public sector workers, billions of pounds of spending power is taken from the private sector, as the hon. Gentleman said. I imagine that very few civil servants, school dinner ladies or police officers salt away their money in offshore tax havens. They spend it here in the UK in the private sector, which then pays the taxes to support public services. The pay freeze is therefore not just unfair—it is bad economics.
For the record, I will wind up by suggesting that the next Labour Government will lift the public sector pay cap for all public sector workers. We demand nothing less from this Government. In “Funding Britain’s Future”, Labour set aside a costed £4 billion to ensure that every public sector worker will get an above-inflation pay rise. The pay review bodies have been operating under the constraint of a Tory 1% cap for eight years. The Government must now lift the pay cap across the whole public sector, rather than playing one group of workers off against another.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Owen. I congratulate the hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens) on securing the debate. I know that, in his role as chair of the PCS union parliamentary group, he takes a keen interest in matters relating to the civil service—as do I, as a responsible Minister.
This has been a valuable debate, with intelligent contributions from most—not all—hon. Members. I think I will be able to address most of those points in my speech, so if hon. Members will forgive me, I will not go into detail at the beginning. However, I shall try to cover any remaining points at the end of my remarks, because I am conscious of how much time we have left.
The starting point has to be the role of civil servants. I know from my experience—both recently as a Cabinet Office Minister and in the five years I spent in Downing Street as an adviser—the standard of our civil service. I have worked with some of the most genuinely committed, talented and hard-working public servants in our country, and I pay tribute to every one of them. At a time when our country faces many challenges, not least how we deliver Brexit, we can rely on our civil servants to help us. I see that every day in my role as a Minister, whether in the groundbreaking work of the Government Digital Service or the critical work of our civil contingencies team. Day in, day out, I see the tremendous quality of the work that they deliver.
The starting point for me and the Government is that all civil servants deserve to be rewarded for the work that they do, so that we can attract the brightest and the best. At the same time, that has to be balanced against the wider constraints faced by our public finances. I will set out some context. The shadow Minister spoke about who caused this situation, so let us remember. When we came into government in 2010, the UK had the largest deficit in its peacetime history. We were borrowing £1 for every £4 or £5 that we spent. Who caused that? It is quite clear: the last Labour Government. We had to deal with that legacy.
In that context, I make no bones about the fact that we had to take some very difficult decisions. As has been said by many hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull (Julian Knight), one of those difficult decisions, given the proportion of public expenditure accounted for by public sector pay—about a quarter—was that public sector pay had to be restrained, which is why we introduced a pay freeze for the first two years of the Parliament, followed by the 1% pay cap.
I am most grateful to the Minister for giving way; I will only intervene once. If what he says is the case, can he explain how the last Labour Government were responsible for the crash of the sub-prime mortgage market in the United States, which caused the crash here?
The problem was that the last Labour Government did not fix the roof while the sun was shining. We entered this situation as the least well prepared of any G7 country, so that when we faced those challenges, instead of having a robust fiscal situation, we were already borrowing.
I want to deter the Minister away from this Tory buzzword bingo, so will he explain to us what that has to do with public sector pay?
Forgive me; I thought I made that very clear at the beginning. When we inherited such an enormous deficit, we had to constrain public expenditure. Given that public sector pay accounts for a quarter of public expenditure, public sector pay had to play its part. That is why we initially introduced a freeze, followed by a 1% cap from 2013 to 2017.
Those were difficult decisions, and I genuinely pay tribute to all our civil servants who had to live within that constrained pay deal. However, it is worth making a few points in relation to that. The first is that the median civil service salary has increased by 15% since 2010, which is actually the same as in the private sector. Indeed, it is greater than other parts of the public sector.
Many hon. Members also raised the gender pay gap, which is important. Clearly, more progress needs to be made, but again it is worth looking at the figures. The pay gap for full-time employee civil servant salaries is 7.2% for the mean salary and 11% for the median. That compares with 13% and 15.4% in 2008, so we are making progress, but I do not deny that we need to progress further.
Adjusted for age, sex and other determinants, the pay gap is actually about 3%. I am sure my hon. Friend will want to clarify that point.
I thank my hon. Friend for that helpful intervention; I am absolutely sure that he is correct.
Inequality was also raised, but again let us look at the actual figures. Income inequality is down since 2010, and is lower than at any point under the last Labour Government, so let us start with the facts of the situation. Not only that, but we have helped the lowest paid. For example, when the freeze was introduced, we ensured that anyone earning under £21,000 received at least a £250 increase in their pay.
In addition, as many of my hon. Friends have mentioned, we introduced the national living wage, the effect of which has been to benefit more than 2 million people, leaving them more than £2,000 better off since its introduction. As a result, figures from the last two years show that the lowest paid in our labour market received pay rises almost 7% above inflation, and many of those who benefited were our lowest-paid civil servants. Indeed, the overall picture shows the salaries for junior grades of civil servants remaining comparable to private or public sector equivalents, and in total remuneration both administrative assistants and administrative officers—the lowest paid in the civil service—are paid more than their private and public sector equivalents in London.
My hon. Friend is making a strong case for the reasoning behind the Government’s decisions. However, many of us are concerned that we are now seeing false economies. For instance, restraining public sector pay is leading to increases in agency costs and a loss of talent, which has reduced productivity in some sectors. We now need to look at what those costs are. What analysis has he done of those costs versus the costs of increasing pay?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and in a moment I will come to the fact that we have actually lifted the 1% pay cap across the board.
However, I will make one further point on the measures the Government have taken to help the lowest paid—and, indeed, all workers. I am referring to the increase in the personal allowance. When we came to power in 2010, the personal allowance—the tax-free allowance—stood at £6,475. It now stands at £11,850. That is near enough a doubling, and it means that any basic rate taxpayer will be more than £1,000 better off compared with 2010. Through a combination of ensuring that we have a national living wage and tax cuts, we have ameliorated many of the impacts of the necessary public pay constraint, which we had to introduce. In addition, we have frozen fuel duty, saving the average driver £850 compared with pre-2010 plans.
The Minister has stated that the Government have ended the 1% pay cap, but he has not yet argued for the Treasury fully to fund that for Departments, so perhaps he can explain this point to the House. If he advocates an end to the 1% cap, what percentage pay rise does he think would be acceptable to our public sector workers, and will he argue with his Treasury colleagues to see that properly funded for all Departments?
The hon. Gentleman talks about the Treasury paying for it. The Treasury does not have any money of its own. It gets money only in three ways: it taxes people, borrows or cuts spending elsewhere. We need to be honest about where the money will come from to pay for any rise.
I will come on to it in a moment, but briefly, we set this out in the spending review; we budgeted for a 1% pay rise across the board. We have now removed the requirement for a 1% rise. That creates two further opportunities. The first is that there will be flexibility, if further efficiencies can be found, to further increase pay, above 1%. In addition, if there is a significant change in working practices that can justify a significant pay rise, a full business case can be made, and that will allow the funding of a larger pay rise.
The Minister now appears to be suggesting to the House—I just want to double-check that what I heard him say was what he said—that each Department has budgeted for 1%. If that is the case, surely those of us who are arguing that the public sector pay cap has not ended or been lifted are correct. Is that the case, Minister?
The cap has been removed; it is no longer the requirement that public sector pay rises be limited to 1%. The situation in the spending review was clear: there was a budget for a 1% rise. If Departments wish to go further than that, they need to find efficiency savings. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer was perfectly clear about that in the autumn Budget.
My final point in relation to the overall terms and conditions for civil servants is about the amount of pension contribution that is made. This point was made by my hon. Friend the Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (Luke Graham). If we look at the figures, we see that for a civil servant on the median salary of £25,900, the Government provide £5,400 in pension contributions. That is the equivalent of an extra 23% on their basic pay and it is something that is not available to most people working in the private sector.
Difficult sacrifices have been made, but as a result we are finally starting to live within our means. Rather than borrowing £1 for every £4 we spend, we are borrowing £1 for every £10. That means that we are still living beyond our means, but it gives us some scope to remove the blanket ban, although that does not mean that we can suddenly fund huge increases in public sector pay. My right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary to the Treasury made it clear in September that the across-the-board 1% cap would be lifted. That means that the Government are no longer pursuing a one-size-fits-all policy for public servants.
In 2016, the Government set out five priority areas in the “Civil Service Workforce Plan”. Those areas are expected to have the greatest impact on readying the civil service workforce to respond to the challenges that the United Kingdom will face now and in the years to come. One priority is a commitment to develop cost-effective and flexible reward structures that enable the civil service to attract, retain and develop the very best talent within the pay systems in place.
In practice, there are two elements to civil service pay. I am sure that many hon. Members will be familiar with this, but I will set it out briefly. The pay of senior civil servants, who make up 1% of the civil service, is subject to an independent pay review body process, which is conducted by the Senior Salaries Review Body. Its 2018 recommendations are expected later this month, and we will respond to them in due course.
The second and by far the larger group, and the group to which most hon. Members were referring, is the rest of the civil service. Its pay and grading arrangements have been delegated to Departments and agencies since 1996. The effect of that, which hon. Members touched on, is that each Department makes decisions. As has been alluded to by the hon. Member for Glasgow South West, I continue to discuss this with the PCS, but the flexibility that it gives us is that it enables each Department to determine its own pay levels so that it can meet the needs of its own Department.
The 2018-19 pay remit guidance, which will set out the overall parameters for any future pay deal, will be published shortly. It will provide the range of average awards available to Departments, but it is for each Department to decide how to structure its pay award, and those decisions will be made in the light of their own priorities and affordability and must be discussed and negotiated with their trade unions.
I am conscious of time, but I will give way briefly to the hon. Gentleman.
The Minister has been generous. Could he just answer this one question? He and the PCS have had some discussion about addressing the 200 sets of pay negotiations. Is it his intention to continue that discussion to look at whether that is actually an adequate way of funding civil service pay?
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. As he says, I have both discussed and corresponded with the representatives of the PCS on this. I will continue that discussion; I remain open-minded on it, but the point I am making is that one has to balance against that the flexibility that allows each Department to tailor to its own needs. I agree that there is an issue about 200-plus sets of negotiations, but hon. Members will understand that there was a reason for that in the first place.
I should move towards a conclusion in order to give the hon. Member for Glasgow South West an opportunity to respond. I genuinely am confident that as we approach the 2018-19 pay remit guidance, we will continue to strike the clear balance between an appropriate reward for hard-working civil servants and the need to live within our means as a nation, so that we do not continue to borrow more and load up more debt that will burden our children and grandchildren.
I thank everyone who has contributed to the debate. It has been a good-natured but serious debate, an excellent debate, on behalf of the civil servants who work right across these islands. We should commend them for the work that they do across all Departments.
The purpose of these debates is to test the Government and to test policy, and I think that what we have discovered again this afternoon is that each and every Department has budgeted for 1% pay rises. That suggests that the public sector pay cap has not ended. I hope that the Minister will commit to negotiating to see the end of the public sector pay cap. Civil servants were not responsible for the economic crash 10 years ago and should not be suffering for it. I hope that the Minister will address low pay in every single Department, because that is of very real concern to many Members of this House.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered public sector pay policy.
Conflict in South Sudan
[Sir Graham Brady in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the conflict in South Sudan.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate under your chairmanship, Sir Graham. I thank my colleagues from the all-party parliamentary group for Sudan and South Sudan, as well as Will Archer, who provides the secretariat, for their hard work to raise issues of peace, social justice and human rights in both countries. I would like to use my time in this short debate to set the scene of the horrific conflict in South Sudan and urge our Government to stay the course of peace in the world’s newest state.
In the world of international crises, competition to be the worst humanitarian catastrophe is tough, to say the least. According to the UN, today we have the worst refugee crisis in the world since Rwanda in Syria, the worst humanitarian crisis in 50 years in Yemen and the worst man-made disaster in the world in Myanmar. There is the return of Ebola in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the renewed bloodshed led by child soldiers in Central African Republic, and the growing African slave trade in Libya. Yet sadly, in the grimmest competition of all, South Sudan is up there with the worst.
Will the hon. Gentleman join me in welcoming the announcement in the last few hours that the President of South Sudan and the rebel leader have agreed to meet for talks to try to restore the 2015 peace negotiations?
That is good news, indeed. We all need to work together to help peace to prevail. Sadly, in the history of South Sudan, we have been here before. That is not a reason for us not to make better progress this time. I know the Minister is focused on this issue, because I have heard her speak on it many times. She will want to ensure that the British Government do everything they can to encourage a positive process.
Born in 2011 after decades of conflict with Sudan, South Sudan became the world’s newest country and a beacon of hope for post-conflict societies. The eyes of the world watched as a brand-new state was formed with the help of millions of dollars from the international community. Barack Obama said proudly at the time,
“Today is a reminder that after the darkness of war, the light of a new dawn is possible.”
Sadly, the jubilant scenes of July 2011 quickly faded into violence. In December 2013, conflict erupted between warring factions of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement party, quickly escalating into a national crisis, which divided communities along ethnic fault lines. The regional Intergovernmental Authority on Development—IGAD—brokered a peace deal in 2015, to which the hon. Member for Henley (John Howell) alluded, but by July 2016 conflict had kick-started again and the last two years has seen escalating violence and tensions across the country.
My hon. Friend knows I have a passionate interest in the country. One sad aspect of this is that while some said that once the south got freedom, peace would ensue, what happened was, of course, anything but that. Those who did not help by outside intervention ought to hold their heads in shame. It is about time the world community focused back on this bedevilled nation.
My hon. Friend has had a strong, passionate commitment over many years to the situation in South Sudan, speaks with great perception and is to be listened to.
Humanitarian statistics rarely tell the whole story of a conflict, but the latest figures coming out of South Sudan are truly staggering. Some 1.8 million people are internally displaced, with a further 2.4 million seeking refuge in neighbouring countries. That is over a third of the country’s population forced to flee their homes, with 85% of those fleeing being women and children. South Sudanese refugees can be found in Uganda, Kenya, Sudan and Ethiopia. It is testament to the horrors of the conflict in South Sudan that refugees are also seeking safety in countries ravaged by their own civil wars, such as the DRC and Central African Republic. At various points in the conflict, the Bidi Bidi camp in Uganda was receiving more than 1,000 refugees every single day. Now covering an area bigger than Birmingham, it is the largest refugee camp in the world.
We all remember the famine that spread through east Africa last year and the remarkable response from local NGOs, aid agencies and ordinary people in the UK who gave money to the fundraising appeal. This year the UN predicts that famine will return and food insecurity will be greater than last year, with starvation being used as a weapon of war.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on bringing this issue to Westminster Hall. I have the good fortune to have in my constituency the headquarters of The Leprosy Mission Scotland. With other partners in The Leprosy Mission International, it is doing tremendous work in South Sudan in incredibly difficult circumstances, which the hon. Gentleman is highlighting in his powerful speech. One aspect of its work is that the relief workers and aid workers are now themselves targeted for extortion and violence. What more can our Government do to protect these people and their good work, so that their influence can help in a very difficult situation?
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point, which I will pick up later in my speech. I am sure the Minister will want to come to it when she responds.
In statistical terms, more than half the population in South Sudan is facing severe hunger right now. The conflict has devastated educational infrastructure in South Sudan. Almost 1.2 million children aged between three and 18 have lost access to education because of conflict and displacement. Almost a third of schools have suffered attacks. The destruction of educational opportunities is trapping South Sudanese kids in inescapable cycles of poverty. An adolescent girl in South Sudan right now is three times more likely to die in childbirth than to complete primary school.
As ever in stories of conflict, women and children pay the highest price. A recent study from the International Rescue Committee and the Global Women’s Institute at Georgetown University revealed that more than 65% of women and girls have experienced some form of gender-based violence. That is double the global average. The UN has found
“massive use of rape as an instrument of terror”.
Amnesty International has reported sexual violence as “rampant”. Those abuses are perpetrated not solely by fighters from the army or rebel groups, but by UN peacekeepers and sadly, on some occasions, by aid workers too. For women in places such as South Sudan, there are few safe places left. It is no surprise that a report from Plan International last week revealed that one in four South Sudanese women has considered suicide.
South Sudan also holds the grim title of the most dangerous place in the world to be an aid worker, as the hon. Member for Stirling (Stephen Kerr) pointed out. While delivering life-saving assistance to 5.4 million people in South Sudan in 2017, 30 aid workers were killed. Their work is routinely obstructed by both Government and opposition. Aid workers are intimidated, supplies are looted and arbitrary fines are applied to those seeking to travel around the country.
Through those statistics, we glimpse the horrors facing South Sudanese people, but I want to tell the story of a woman who lived in Malow village in the north-west of the country, as reported by the UN Human Rights Commission earlier this year. When the army of the Government of South Sudan arrived in Malow in July 2017 it destroyed the schools, the water points, the local hospital and even the local church. It abducted local aid workers and destroyed humanitarian compounds. The village had seen women with their eyes gouged out by soldiers as they sought to protect their children and mutilated men lying in the mud. This woman watched as her husband was castrated in front of her, trying to shield her new-born child from the violence. Three Government soldiers then raped her 70-year-old mother and forced her 12-year-old son to have sex with his grandmother at gunpoint. This is a truly horrific, true tale. The soldiers later shot her mother, and the new-born child and her husband would later die from their injuries. The report makes for very grim reading as it details countless tales of brutal violence from all parties to this conflict, inflicted on innocent civilians.
The violence led the Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan to draw some stark conclusions, of which two stood out for me. The first stated:
“Rape, mutilations of sexual organs and other forms of sexual violence, targeting girls, boys, women and men, are often committed in front of children”.
The second stated that all parties to the conflict are
“deliberately targeting civilians on the basis of their ethnic identity…Those acts constitute war crimes and crimes against humanity.”
The South Sudanese people know better than anyone that the only sustainable route to preventing human rights abuses and providing security and prosperity is through peace.
I will now turn to the ongoing peace process, which the hon. Member for Henley gave us some encouragement about earlier, before asking the Minister a few questions about where we go from here. I acknowledge the commitment and skill of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s South Sudan unit, which is ably led by the UK special envoy Chris Trott. It faces an incredibly difficult task, but the UK is rightly at the forefront of the international effort to promote an inclusive peace in South Sudan. The Intergovernmental Authority on Development, which is made up of regional Government representatives, has convened the high-level revitalisation forum in Addis Ababa since June 2017. Last month, the last round of those peace talks achieved little, with no sign of an agreement.
The cessation of hostilities agreement, which was signed in December 2017, has been repeatedly violated by all sides, and the monitoring mechanism that was set up to find and punish spoilers has failed to do so. As it stands, leaders on all sides of the conflict have refused to make the compromises necessary to make peace in South Sudan, but hopefully, if they say they will make it different, they will follow through with those promises, otherwise those promises have no value to the South Sudanese people.
Faced with this truly desperate situation, I would be grateful if the Minister would respond to the following questions. First, following the breakdown of peace talks in Addis Ababa last week, what concrete steps will the UK Government take to punish the spoilers through sanctions, arms embargoes and other measures?
As well as imprisoning his own parliamentarians, President Museveni of Uganda has promised to supply the South Sudanese regime with arms, in spite of the arms embargo imposed by the EU, including us, the US and other countries. Does my hon. Friend think that the Government also need to act on Uganda?
I am sure that the Minister will have heard my hon. Friend’s intervention and will quite appropriately want to pick up on that in her response.
Specifically, how will the UK Government use the powers in the Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Act 2018 to increase pressure on key individuals to encourage them to participate seriously in the peace process talks?
Secondly, how will the UK Government leverage their political capital in the region, which is not insignificant, to bring about decisive change in the conflict? In particular, will the Minister outline how the UK intends to escalate its diplomacy with President Museveni, including through direct discussions with the Foreign Secretary?
Thirdly, how is the UK supporting the Church’s peace-building work in South Sudan? The South Sudan Council of Churches has been invited to lead a new peace initiative in South Sudan. How can the UK best support those efforts?
Fourthly, what support are the UK Government providing to the ceasefire and transitional security arrangements monitoring mechanism? It is vital that that body is responsive to violations to ensure that perpetrators are held to account.
Fifthly, what steps are the UK Government taking to ensure that the hybrid court is set up as soon as possible in South Sudan? Tackling the culture of impunity for South Sudanese leaders will be crucial in preventing future atrocities.
Finally, what is the UK’s view on the current plan of the Government of South Sudan to hold elections in the near future? It is impossible to imagine free and fair elections taking place in South Sudan, and the result risks conferring credibility on the Government of South Sudan while they continue to commit human rights abuses.
In closing, I pay tribute to all the activists and campaigners in South Sudan who are rising above the dreadful violence to fight for peace in their country. After decades of conflict, their resilience is truly inspirational. They risk their lives on a daily basis to speak out against the horrors that they have sadly witnessed. They have been let down by their leaders for far too long and have paid too high a price for a conflict they do not deserve to be caught in the middle of. I look forward to the Minister’s response, and to working with her to help to bring about a long overdue peace in South Sudan.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Graham. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin) for the eloquent way in which he described the situation in South Sudan and for the work that he does as vice-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on Sudan and South Sudan. I add my appreciation for the work done by Chris Trott and the team on the UK’s role in the peace process.
Last summer, the Prime Minister decided to combine the role of Minister for Africa with the role of Minister in the Department for International Development, which makes enormous sense when we are discussing matters such as this. We completely agree that the grim situation in South Sudan, as outlined by the hon. Gentleman, is an entirely man-made crisis.
As always in such situations, however, the UK is at the leading edge in terms of the humanitarian response. We have consistently been one of the top three donors in South Sudan. Our drinking water package alone reached almost 700,000 people. More than 400,000 people received food, and almost 400,000 received nutrition support. More than 6.5 million health consultations were delivered in South Sudan, of which 2.5 million were for children under five. We have funded almost 4,000 schools to deliver basic education. At a time when the population of South Sudan is suffering from this terrible man-made violence, UK aid is providing that life-saving support.
Clearly, however, the question that we need to discuss is what more the UK can do to try to ensure peace in South Sudan. It is only through peace that we will be able to move beyond providing aid to trying to build a stronger economy in South Sudan. I will outline some of the events of that peace process, which is timely because there have been recent developments, as reported during the debate.
Clearly, the only way we can move forward without the escalation of suffering and without consequences for generations to come is through putting as much effort as we can into the peace process. Since my appointment in January, one of my top priorities has been to see what more we can do in South Sudan and in the Intergovernmental Authority on Development peace process.
In terms of UK support, we welcome the work that IGAD has done so far to deliver the peace talks, but the failure to impose consequences for violations of the ceasefire has been a major blocker of progress. We strongly urge IGAD to take action against those who have violated the cessation of hostilities agreement before the final round of discussions. Spoilers of the peace process must be left in no doubt about the region’s commitment to peace.
The UK has been committed to tackling impunity, and we continue to explore all avenues for action against those who undermine peace. So we have been pushing hard for action by the EU. We announced some sanctions in February, through the EU, and we have also been pushing in the United Nations Security Council. That is why we much very welcome last week’s Security Council resolution, which commits to consider sanctions and an arms embargo if violations continue; that is a welcome development.
I also pay tribute in this debate to our armed forces, because the UK deploys nearly 400 troops in South Sudan as part of the United Nations Mission in South Sudan, or UNMISS. And may I pass on the praise of David Shearer, the UN’s Special Representative for the Secretary-General, who recently visited the troops in South Sudan and praised them for their achievements?
I can reassure the hon. Member for Scunthorpe that the UK will also continue to support the important work of the South Sudan Council of Churches. We regularly discuss that work with the Archbishop of Canterbury. We believe that the council has a vital role to play in fostering open and honest dialogue.
Hon. Members asked specific questions about Uganda. I can confirm that we have regularly raised the issue of South Sudan in our discussions with President Museveni of Uganda. For example, the Foreign Secretary discussed South Sudan with the President at the UN General Assembly in September last year and followed up by writing to him in December, encouraging Uganda’s positive engagement with the peace process in South Sudan. Also, during the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting, I met Uganda’s Foreign Minister and was able to discuss the situation in South Sudan, as I have done on all the occasions when I have met Ministers from neighbouring countries. There is a consistent theme that regional players are keen to see a resolution of this conflict.
The hon. Member for Scunthorpe specifically asked whether there was the opportunity for elections in South Sudan. We do not believe that elections are the answer to South Sudan’s political problems. The conditions in South Sudan are not conducive to elections. Can you imagine, Sir Graham, holding elections in the country when over a third of its population—some 4 million people—have been forced to flee their homes? In fact, it is likely that elections would only serve as a catalyst for further violence, exacerbating the humanitarian crisis. Clearly, South Sudan must first focus on achieving a sustainable negotiated political settlement before the conditions necessary for credible elections can be created.
The hon. Gentleman also asked about the role of the new powers that the UK has as a result of the recently enacted sanctions legislation. Of course, that legislation will give us more flexibility in the future, but it is also incredibly important that we try to work alongside other partners for peace as much as possible and that we send a consistent message in terms of our actions.
Regarding the ceasefire and transitional security arrangements monitoring mechanism—that is not a phrase that readily trips off the tongue, but the mechanism is very important—we strongly condemn all the appalling violence in South Sudan. The hon. Gentleman read out some examples from the UN’s report on the violence against civilians. The information in the report reflects the ongoing and widespread violence and human rights abuses, and the ongoing and appalling levels of gender-based violence in South Sudan. The people of South Sudan are bearing the brunt of this terrible conflict, so the UK continues to support the ceasefire and transitional security arrangements monitoring mechanism, to ensure that it can report on ongoing violations in a timely manner.
I believe there is an African Union summit meeting coming up. Will the Minister ensure that these points are reflected in that meeting in some way?
Well, as my hon. Friend knows, the UK is obviously not a member of the African Union, but I do know from my discussions with countries that are members of the African Union how many of them share our concerns and how keen they are to support the peace process in South Sudan. So I would very much welcome it if the African Union was able to discuss South Sudan at its forthcoming meetings.
Will the Government also commit themselves to doing what they can to bring to justice those who have perpetrated these terrible crimes?
I can certainly give my hon. Friend that assurance. As he will know, because the work continues to this day, Lord Hague of Richmond, the former Foreign Secretary, was very much at the forefront of the UK’s leadership in making sure that we are able to gather and retain the evidence of such crimes, so that those who perpetrate these kinds of outrageous examples of violence know that justice will follow; even if justice is delayed, it will be inevitable. So I pay tribute to Lord Hague’s work to keep this issue at the forefront of the international agenda.
The UK Government are fully committed to working towards peace and security for the people of South Sudan. We will not stand idly by while the South Sudanese suffer in these appalling conditions. UK aid continues in an environment where, as has rightly been pointed out, in the last year alone 30 aid workers have lost their lives. It has been incredibly difficult for the teams delivering aid on the ground, so I pay tribute to those brave aid workers who are able to get life-saving assistance into communities. We will continue with our commitment on that front, as well; we will continue to address the most acute needs of the people; and we will continue to do all that we can to support the region as it pushes for peace.
Question put and agreed to.
Stonehenge: Proposed Road Alterations
I beg to move,
That this House has considered proposed road alterations around Stonehenge.
The hon. Gentleman is entitled to make a speech at this point, if he wishes to do so.
Thank you very much, Sir Graham; it is a pleasure to serve under your careful and kind direction.
I know that it is slightly unusual for an MP from Essex to call a debate on improvements to a road that is not in Essex; indeed, the A303 does not run through Essex and Stonehenge is not within Essex. So I apologise to Members who represent constituencies in the area around Stonehenge that are affected by this road and I also apologise to the Minister, because I know that there is a due process under way that the Government must religiously and necessarily stick to, and that there is a limit on what he can say in the debate today.
However, I also know that at the end of that process it is Ministers who will have the final say on whether this project goes ahead. Consequently, I would like to put a few things on the record now, to ensure that the Minister has heard the concerns that have been raised with me by the archaeological community, who have themselves made submissions to the appropriate consultation.
We find ourselves in the position of having a world heritage site on a rather awkward transport route in Wiltshire. The need to improve the transport network is running up against that of preserving the site known as Stonehenge, making the debate necessary. My personal interest stems from the fact that for a long time I was a teacher and lecturer in history, admittedly medieval history. I began my studies at about 500 AD— [Interruption.] Even by my own standards, that makes my period modern rubbish, as my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) so kindly puts it.
I grew up in the locality of the site and have spent a great many happy hours within its confines, viewing the stones at sunset and sunrise and taking great pleasure in seeing them in their natural setting. The proposals do not affect the stones themselves. The extraordinary craftwork that is at least 4,000 years old has given us so much insight into the Neolithic period in which the stones were built. A few years ago, the eminent archaeologist Mike Parker Pearson revealed that underneath the perimeter stones were the cremated remains of inhabitants of Britain, dating from about 3,000 BC. Those remains have been analysed and shown to be of people who grew up in many disparate parts of our island. That is to say that even 4,000 years ago, Stonehenge was a meeting place and in some senses a sacred site, where people brought their ailing, or brought their dead to be interred. We all know about the extraordinary bluestones that appear to have been brought from mountains in Wales, as perhaps either an offering or a spoil of war, and which are among the most striking and iconic elements of the assemblage.
The world heritage site itself is considerably larger than the stones. As it was set out in 1986, it covers a wide area, ranging from the long barrows in the west to the Countess roundabout in the east. Some road change plans for within the periphery of the stones are now being consulted on, and I will briefly talk about what we are dealing with.
In the west, we have an extraordinary collection of Neolithic long barrows, and this grouping in a small area is unique in the world. There are eight early Neolithic long barrows across this part of the western valley, where a new cutting for the road is proposed. The grouping is not just unusual; it is entirely of its own. To the east, we find a remarkably precious patch of boggy ground called Blick Mead, the full significance of which has only recently been revealed: a monograph published earlier this year lights on excavations over the past decade.
In its wet environment, Blick Mead keeps organic matter in a deoxygenated state, meaning that the matter does not rot. That creates the most extraordinary catalogue of human activity, going back not just to 3,000 BC when the stones were erected, but to 4,000 years before that, to our Mesolithic hunter-gatherer ancestors. That is to say that the Stonehenge stones are the mid-point of activity between now and the earliest phases of known occupation on the site. I was once told that the lifetime of Cleopatra was closer to the modern day than to the building of the great pyramid at Giza, and this is almost exactly the equivalent—4,000 years back to the stones of Stonehenge and 4,000 years further back to the beginning of Blick Mead. We are only skimming the surface at the moment, but the catalogue enables us to trace the extraordinary transition from a hunter-gatherer society to a settled farming one. It is wholly extraordinary to find any such site anywhere in northern Europe. The site is completely remarkable and must, whatever plans go forward, be preserved. We must seek not to damage it but to protect it. I am sure that there are many ways of doing that, but it must be done.
In the words of the great rock band, Spın̈al Tap:
“Stonehenge! Tis a magic place”
“No one knows who they were or what they were doing”.
Blick Mead will enable us to answer the important questions raised by Spın̈al Tap.
Will my hon. Friend give way?
I give way to the chair of the all-party parliamentary archaeology group.
I apologise for arriving slightly after the beginning of the debate, which started early, uncharacteristically for my hon. Friend. Notwithstanding the archaeological academic prowess of Spın̈al Tap, I go back to his point about the extraordinary and unique concentration of barrows at the western end of the site. He referred to eight. Does he acknowledge that two new long barrows were discovered as recently as 2016-17, during surveying work for the potential new road? That is just those that we know about. The archaeology that could be destroyed if the scheme were to go ahead could be even more considerable than he has outlined so far.
I thank my hon. Friend for his remarks and will turn in a moment to what we do not yet know about Stonehenge.
My hon. Friend should not be at all sorry that he does not come from Wiltshire. Those of us who do are very grateful to him for taking the interest that he has. Does he appreciate that the sensitivity of the matter is demonstrated by the fact that we are going to the extraordinary expense of constructing a tunnel past the stones, which will undermine, so to speak, archaeology that may be explored in the future? That cost should not be underestimated, as logic would dictate that we did a cut and cover, at the very most, or simply had a dual carriageway. Instead, we have gone for a tunnel, which will leave the great bulk of the archaeology that may as yet be undiscovered uninterrupted and undisturbed.
I thank my hon. Friend for that excellent point. There is no doubt that a tunnel under part of the site will protect that very part. Notwithstanding the concerns that have been raised about toxic gases that could be released by tunnelling through chalk—not something I am fit to comment on—I believe that part of the site will be preserved by digging deep down for a tunnel. However, regarding the tunnels, the widening of roads into dual carriageways and particularly the flyover on the eastern end of the site, I seek reassurance that at the very least we are doing everything in our power to ensure that we do not damage this precious environment and that, if we find we are doing so, we take other steps.
I wish to make three points in connection with the issues I have raised. The first is about the academic, archaeological response that has been made to the consultation, which it is only right to put on record. The second is the response of UNESCO and the International Council on Monuments and Sites to the proposals as they stand. The third is about the relationship we have with world heritage sites and how we might seek to develop that relationship in the future.
I, too, am a medieval historian, so I welcome my hon. Friend’s presence. I welcome the interest he has shown and some of the fascinating things he is saying about the stones. As well as considering those three reports, will he also consider the interests of the people of Wiltshire, Somerset and neighbouring areas who have for many years spent large parts of their time in a traffic jam alongside the stones? It has become entirely intolerable. Will he also consider the question of the way in which the stones are ruined by the presence of vast quantities of traffic above ground? Although we have, of course, listened to what he has to say about archaeology, surely we have to find a way of easing the traffic for local people and improving the environment of the stones.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his comments. I am one of those people who have sat on the A303 on a hot summer’s day in stationary traffic with an agitated child in the back and a wife looking at me as though to say, “We should have taken a different route.” The last time I went on the A303 in summer, we were in stationary traffic for two hours because the President of the United States had decided he would visit Stonehenge that day. The security forces of the United Kingdom and the USA had bilaterally decided to stop everything going east and west without telling us what was going on. I fully acknowledge that there is a traffic problem on the A303 and that local residents have a right to ask for that problem to be solved. I am an Essex MP; I do not wish to go into alternative routes. I am seeking assurances from the Government that, whatever decision is made about where the road does or does not go, we have foremost in our minds a determination to preserve this completely unique environment.
First, I turn to the comments made by the group of 22 experts who have worked at Stonehenge over the past 10 years. They have raised particular concerns that the
“creation of new sections of dual carriageway and slip roads at each end of the tunnel, within the boundary of the WHS, would set a dangerous precedent by allowing large-scale destructive development within a WHS”.
I will turn to that point again in a moment. They also said:
“The construction of the portal at the west end…and new sections of road in its vicinity, would damage an area with an unusual and nationally important concentration of long barrows”
belonging to the millennium prior to Stonehenge. They said:
“The proposed new road would cut across the site of a settlement from the time of Stonehenge’s construction, perhaps where the builders of its Bronze-Age phase once lived…At the tunnel’s eastern end, construction of its portal may affect groundwater conditions which could harm nationally important Mesolithic remains at the site of Blick Mead.”
The 22 archaeologists are employed by UK universities. Many were employees of various universities or English Heritage when doing research at Stonehenge. Seven of them are members of the A303 Scientific Committee at Stonehenge. It is a very good thing, which was set up to ensure that the process gets good advice on limiting the damage of the current proposals. However, its remit does not extend to looking beyond that; those are the terms of engagement. Seven members of the scientific committee were sufficiently concerned to make their own submission to the consultation.
I do not know the best way of doing this, as I do not wish to read out all 22 names, but I hope they can be in some way included in the Official Report. [Interruption.] I am being told to read them into the record. They are: Professor Mike Parker Pearson, University College London; Dr Umberto Albarella, University of Sheffield; Dr Mike Allen, Allen Environmental Associates; Dr Barry Bishop, University of Buckingham; Professor Nick Branch, University of Reading; Dr Christopher Chippindale, University of Cambridge; Professor Oliver Craig, University of York; Dr David Field, formerly of English Heritage; Professor Charly French, University of Cambridge; Professor Vince Gaffney, University of Bradford; Paul Garwood, University of Birmingham; Professor David Jacques, University of Buckingham; Dr Nicholas James, University of Cambridge; Dr Joshua Pollard, University of Southampton; Professor Colin Richards, University of the Highlands and Islands; Dr David Robinson, University of Central Lancashire; Professor Peter Rowley-Conwy, University of Durham; Professor Clive Ruggles, University of Leicester; Dr Colin Shell, University of Cambridge; Professor Julian Thomas, University of Manchester; Professor Christopher Tilley, University College London; and Professor Kate Welham, University of Bournemouth.
They have concerns, and further concerns have been raised by a different body that worked on the Blick Mead archaeological site in the east. The principal concern there is about the water table, since the deoxygenated environment, as I have explained, is extremely helpful in preserving organic matter from a long time ago. They are concerned about two aspects of the proposed route: that the extension of dual carriageway could create additional weight on the road, squeezing water out of the site; and that the weight of the flyover could squeeze the soil down, again pushing water out.
Such concerns are understandable from a professional viewpoint, given that in 2000, an extraordinarily important Mesolithic site in North Yorkshire called Star Carr was damaged when drainage ditches—which, I believe, had been approved by heritage organisations—were cut through. That has caused irreparable damage to a truly remarkable site. For the record, the academic paper charting what happened at Star Carr can be found in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, November 2017, “Lessons from Star Carr on the vulnerability of organic archaeological remains to environmental change”. Within a short period from the changes being made to the Star Carr environment, irreparable and irreversible damage was done to its archaeology.
I was pleased to see in chapter 11 of the Highways England preliminary environmental information report that the potential impacts of the construction of the scheme at the eastern end—over the Countess roundabout—were being looked at. Some opportunities to avoid or mitigate the impacts by influencing the design of the proposed scheme were noted. However, from the information given in that document, it is very difficult to see exactly how Highways England has reached its conclusions. There is no account of what it envisages the weight of the road being, or the weight of the flyover. It is very difficult—indeed, impossible—to tell what minimisation looks like in this context. Does minimisation mean an absolutely negligible impact? I sincerely hope so. Either way, we deserve to have that information, so that we can ascertain whether the conclusion that the
“proposed scheme would have no likely significant permanent adverse effects”
is true, and if so, the extent to which it is true.
My hon. Friend is being very generous. Would he acknowledge that there is a clear and present danger, not only to people who live and breathe in villages such as Chitterne, with the rat-running that currently goes on, and Chicklade, which sits along the route of the A303 and is blighted by that road at the moment—their lives are being adversely impacted by the A303—but to the built environment, which is also being adversely impacted? We need to do something about that. The proposals for Stonehenge would go some way towards improving those settings, the lives of those who live there and the built environment in the sorts of villages I have described.
I thank my hon. Friend for those remarks. As I said to my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (James Gray) a moment ago, I fully understand the need for some form of road improvement in the area. All I am asking for is an assurance that we are doing everything in our power to protect the archaeological environment.
I am so sorry to interrupt once again. It really is the most interesting speech, and we are learning a great deal. My hon. Friend says in passing that some form of road improvement might be necessary. That matter has concerned the road traffic authorities and the people of Wiltshire for two or three generations. It goes right back to the first world war—that was the first time people started talking about what we were going to do about Stonehenge. Therefore, simply to say, “Oh, I’m very worried about the archaeology, and if we can’t save it we must find some other way of doing it,” is not enough. If he does not like the flyover at the Countess roundabout, what else does he propose?
I think I made it clear to my hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison) that I am not a road engineer. I am a simple Member of Parliament with a historical and archaeological bent. The experts should find a means of answering such questions. It may be, for all I know, that they have already done so, but from the information that I have seen and that has been made available to the public, my concerns have not been allayed. Clearly, the archaeological community and international community have not had their concerns allayed either.
UNESCO and its sister group in the UK, the International Council on Monuments and Sites, have said on a number of occasions that the current proposals are not what they would wish. To quote UNESCO from earlier this year, the project is
“not adequate to protect the authenticity, integrity and Outstanding Universal Value (OUV) of the property.”
In April of this year, ICOMOS said:
“ICOMOS-UK wishes to register a strong objection to these proposals in view of the substantial negative and irreversible impact we believe that the dual carriageways at both ends of the tunnel would have on the attributes of OUV of the WHS of Stonehenge, Avebury and Associated Sites.”
Unless we can allay those fears, there is a danger that the status of the world heritage site will be affected. That would be extremely bad for us all, and is something that I am sure none of us wants, although I acknowledge that local MPs and local constituents will want improvements in the area.
I must put on the record the fact that my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (John Glen) is here. As a Minister, he is unable to speak. I am very sorry he is in that position, because I know that he would want to raise a lot of issues on behalf of his constituents.
Does my hon. Friend acknowledge that it is not just local MPs in Wiltshire who want the dual carriageway to be built, but MPs from across the south-west, particularly in Cornwall, Devon and Somerset, where we rely heavily on tourism? The fact that we have only one main trunk road linking us to the rest of the country is a real barrier to the growth of the tourism industry. The establishment of a second dual-carriageway link would be a huge boost to our local economy, and is vital to our economic future.
I thank my hon. Friend for his comments. I was on my way to Cornwall when President Obama so rudely interrupted my holiday, so I appreciate my hon. Friend’s point.
My third and final point is broader. It is about the nature of world heritage sites and us, and it goes beyond what I have been saying about the Stonehenge site. We all know that we are bound by the world heritage convention of 1972—in particular, I am thinking of article 4. As someone who is more of a historian and archaeologist than an expert on travel policy, in looking at the papers I have been struck by the impression that when dealing with road improvements, or indeed any changes, around a world heritage site, the case seems to be back to front. If somebody wants to build a road, a dual carriageway or a motorway through a field, and it is clearly in the public interest to do so, the onus is on others to prove that it should not happen. In the case of a world heritage site, it seems to me that we have already established that the site needs to be preserved and protected. I am sure it is too late to do it in this instance, but in future I would like us to put the question the other way around.
It ought to be incumbent on developers to show that they are not harming the fabric of such a site. I say that for one simple reason. Anyone who has worked in archaeology knows the importance of the Rumsfeldian dictum that there are “unknown unknowns”—one simply does not know what one has not yet found. However, we know that at this site, everywhere we look, every time a new technique is developed, we find something more—something that we did not expect to find, and that tells us something else about our deep and significant past.
We have to think very carefully about our obligation to the past—our obligation to retain extraordinary and unusual things that have been left to us, so that we can pass them on. I hope that there is a way of doing that while satisfying the real concerns of people in the south-west, and in Wiltshire and the surrounding area, about the traffic problems. However, it is important for us to think very hard about protecting a site such as Stonehenge.
Order. I call Mr James Gray.
Thank you, Sir Graham, for calling me. My intention was not to speak in the debate at all, not least because I am the MP for North Wiltshire, which is some 20 or 30 miles away from Stonehenge. My constituency therefore does not face the direct impact that will be suffered by, for example, the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (John Glen). He is, of course, prevented from speaking because of his rank as a Minister. Sadly, that rank has never come my way, although there is plenty of time left. One can never tell—it could be on its way.
I enjoyed immensely listening to my hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Alex Burghart) introduce the debate. Even having studied Stonehenge for 20 years as an MP, and as a medieval historian for a great deal of time before that, I learned an enormous amount from his speech, and I congratulate him on it. There was a huge amount of interesting information there that I, for one, simply did not know, and he made some incredibly important points.
I think my hon. Friend spoke for the people as a whole, and for everyone who is concerned about the issue. Of course, I suspect that hardly anyone wants to destroy or damage the archaeology around Stonehenge. We all want to do everything that we can to preserve it; there is no question about that. We do not want one blade of grass that is of historic interest to be damaged by the proposal, and of course we must do everything that we can to preserve the site. That is why so many experts have been involved in the project for so many years.
I think my hon. Friend has missed two things. First, we have to do something. He mentioned that he has been down to Cornwall on holiday on a couple of occasions, and was once stuck in traffic thanks to President Obama. From listening to BBC Radio Wiltshire, I can tell hon. Members that the A303 at Stonehenge is chock-a-block, morning, noon and night, seven days a week. It is the most extraordinary piece of traffic congestion in the country. That does not only affect local people and tourists trying to get down to the south-west—I very much agree with my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double) that it is an important traffic link to the south-west—but the stones themselves.
Secondly, of course it is right that a UNESCO world heritage site should be preserved in the way my hon. Friend describes—no one denies that, but I find it hard to imagine that UNESCO could allow a site such as Stonehenge, one of the finest sites in the world, to have a traffic jam through the middle of it. Quite rightly, we decided to close the branch road that goes up towards Devizes. That road was closed because it damaged the site; it went right through the middle of it. Closing that road has actually made the traffic problems worse, but the A303 is within a yard or two of the heel stone. We are talking about the most appalling traffic jam right beside the stones. We may have traffic jams here, outside the Tower of London or Westminster Abbey, but what we see at Stonehenge is significantly worse than that. I cannot imagine why, from a heritage standpoint, anybody could do anything other than welcome the fact that this road is going to be moved. It has to be moved. It is an absolute bunion—a carbuncle, in the words of His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales. It is an appalling sight and we have to do something about it.
My third point was missing from the speech given by my hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar, which was extremely well thought through. Of course we have to preserve the archaeology, but we have to do so in a way that modern people can appreciate, and in such a way that they can live their lives. At the moment, that is not happening.
Something has to happen and people have been considering the matter for generations now. The proposal we have come up with seems to me to be the least bad of the options available to us. Of course, there may be some downsides and a bit of impact from the weight of the flyover and one or two other things, which we will try to make better, but we have got to do something. In reply to an intervention, my hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar said that that was not a matter for him—he comes from Essex and does not know anything about road engineering. He knows about wetlands and things of that kind, but he does not understand the realities of the place itself. He does not understand the misery that local people and tourists to the west country are currently going through.
In considering my hon. Friend’s very fine and important archaeological points, it is also necessary to consider at the same time how those things can be sustainably maintained—in other words, kept in their pristine condition in a way that allows modern people to live their modern lives.
Will my hon. Friend give way?
Of course, I am happy to give way to my hon. Friend from Essex.
Or indeed, Sussex. I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I am sure that everyone here would agree that the imperative is to make sure that when he inevitably gets his ministerial car, it can speed without any encumbrance across the A303 to his constituency. Will he acknowledge that the Stonehenge UNESCO world heritage site was in place almost 5,000 years before the invention of the internal combustion engine? While we absolutely need to make sure that modern life can be compatible with its preservation, will he acknowledge that the problem with the scheme is that it does not sufficiently take account of the heritage value of the site? The site is not just the stones themselves. It is a much wider area that is of significant archaeological importance, as recognised in the wider UNESCO world heritage site—one of only 31 such sites in this country.
I am most grateful to my hon. Friend for his intervention, but I must correct him on two small points. It shows how little he knows of the geography of the area. If someone were to travel in their ministerial limo from north Wiltshire to London, they would not go anywhere near Stonehenge—they would be some 30 miles away from it. One of the first things he ought to do is to take a glance at a map of Wiltshire and find out exactly what is affected by this proposal.
Secondly, when he says that the UNESCO world heritage site was in place 5,000 years ago, I suspect that UNESCO was not around 5,000 years ago. None the less, that is a small oversight on his part.
Of course, we are all ad idem. We are in agreement. All of us in this room are in agreement on these matters, and it is quite wrong to try to make it into an argument. We are all in agreement. There is no question about that. Of course we must do absolutely everything in our power to preserve the archaeology, the heritage, the wildlife and the biodiversity of the area. It is an incredibly important area. We in Wiltshire are more proud of Stonehenge than almost anything else, apart from perhaps Salisbury Cathedral and Malmesbury Abbey—just to throw them in. Of course we must do those things, but we must do them at the same time as allowing modern people to live their lives.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful and well thought out speech. Does he agree that we have got to come to a balanced position, where we balance preservation against progress, and protecting the past against allowing the future to take place? The one option we cannot allow is doing nothing. Something has to be done, but it has to be done in a balanced way that embraces both sides of the argument.
My hon. Friend makes an extremely good summary of my points. He is absolutely right that this must be balanced.
I hope that the Minister will take account of the important points that my hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar made in his speech. Of course we must take account of every single archaeological detail. We must do what we can to preserve this hugely important site, and we must improve the UNESCO world heritage site by removing the traffic from the middle of it. Of course all those things are true, but we must also find a way of allowing people in Wiltshire and throughout the west country to enjoy their way of life.
I personally believe that the conclusion we have come to with regard to the tunnel and the approaches to it is the least bad of the options available. Nothing is great and there are problems with it, but I think we have taken account of most of the issues as best we can. I very much hope that those who are responsible for these matters will have listened very carefully to the important points made by my hon. Friend, and where improvements can be made, I am certain that they will be, but I would be extremely concerned if those kinds of concerns were to cause the delay or, even worse, the failure of the scheme as a whole.
I remind hon. Members that we need to move to the wind-up speeches by 10 past 5. I call Dr Murrison. If you would exercise a little restraint, that would be welcome.
I shall be very brief. Like my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (James Gray), I did not intend to speak in this debate. I will start by declaring an interest. My home and a small piece of land that I own runs down to the A303, although much further west than Stonehenge.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Alex Burghart) on his speech. He did a great job in trying to steer that middle course between serving the interests of people who live and breathe today and our interest in archaeology, which we hold to be extremely important in Wiltshire. It is very much the repository for archaeology, and I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (John Glen), who is unfortunately prevented from speaking because of his ministerial position, agrees with me that we must preserve all we possibly can. However, it is important to say that we cannot make an omelette without breaking eggs. It would be very foolish for any of us to suggest that archaeology is not going to be disrupted by the proposal for the A303.
My hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double) is absolutely right to say that a balance must be struck. In my opinion, the right balance has been struck. The tragedy would be if the project was delayed any more because we were concerned that we should not disrupt any piece of archaeology in this extremely cramped—in archaeological terms—site in Wiltshire. I regret to say that that would be impossible. In the event that it was shelved, my constituents, who live alongside the A303 and who have their lives blighted on a daily basis by this extraordinary road, and those in all the villages roundabout that are used as rat runs when there is congestion on the A303, which is pretty much all the time, would have their lives blighted for years and years to come.
I have my own concerns, which the Minister will know about, about the choreography of some of the work, particularly in relation to the village of Chicklade. I will continue lobbying on behalf of my constituents to make sure that we get the second phase sorted out very quickly indeed. However, none of that should delay this crucial piece of work through Stonehenge. At this particular juncture, I think we need to just crack on with it.
I admire very much the extraordinary account by my hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar of the history of the site. It seems to me that tunnelling under most of the archaeological remains is the most sensitive way of dealing with that, notwithstanding the poisonous gases to which he referred and of which I have to confess I was not aware. I understand his concerns about either end of this tunnel—particularly the Amesbury end—and I hope very much that we are able to approach the work in as sensitive a way as we possibly can, but it would be foolish for any of us to suppose that some of it will not be disruptive. That, I am afraid, is the price that we pay.
My hon. Friend referred to Stonehenge as a Mesolithic destination. Stonehenge was sited there for a reason: it was because it was accessible by tracks and by river. That is part of the reason Stonehenge is where it is. I think we sometimes have to give a little respect to the much-maligned A303; the part it has played in our history is sometimes understated and underestimated. It is important and is part of the overall Stonehenge story.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Graham. I thank the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Alex Burghart) for opening the debate in such a fascinating way and drawing us into so much of the history, which he clearly has such a passion for. His sharing that was a privilege for all of us. He was absolutely right to remind us of the importance of our past and the still undiscovered past, which we will learn so much about. That is why today’s debate is so important and timely, given the proposals, as an opportunity to reflect once more on how to preserve our heritage to ensure we still have the opportunity to dig into our past—literally—and understand our history.
This is also about our future—hon. Members made that point well. The air quality along the A303 has an impact not only on the site itself but on the residents living in the area. Air quality is a real challenge in many areas of our country. Road users are among those who experience the worst air quality. It causes 40,000 premature deaths in our country every year, so we urgently need more action on that front.
I recognise the importance of the site—I remember going there as a child, back in the days when people could run around the stones—but this is not just about the stones. The point was made eloquently this afternoon that the whole of the site is significant—not just its aspect, but its richness and depth. It is important that the proposals preserve the site, because once it is damaged we cannot get it back. We really need to reflect on those considerations.
Several communities use the space. The local community, which uses it for commuting and obviously lives along the site, needs to find a resolution too. It is important that Wiltshire County Council looks at how to prevent rat runs, which hon. Members mentioned, and ensures that villages are not disturbed by traffic charging through them. There is more it can do to step up in that area.
Then there is the tourist traffic. I understand that about 1.58 million people go to visit Stonehenge every single year, which is of huge significance. We therefore need to understand how best to accommodate tourists. They do not have to park right next to the stones, and obviously there have been developments over time to pull that traffic further back. We need to think about how tourists approach the area and about whether we can do more to reduce the traffic using the area for that purpose. The Minister knows I am a keen advocate of modal shift. I have looked at the maps, and it is very doable on a bicycle—he and I are both cyclists. We must find alternative ways for people to reach the site and take that journey into Stonehenge. That is really important for the future.
There is also the east-west traffic, which moves down into the south-west. We want to see a significant modal shift in that area, so we have to think creatively. There are real opportunities: proposals are being put forward for peninsula rail—there is an aspiration for it to reach the south-west with Great Western. There are opportunities for a modal shift in the regular commute of those who use the road. We need to look at how to draw traffic off the road. One thing we know about road-building expansion is that it can lead to induced demand. Major expressways can suck traffic off other routes and leave us facing similar challenges.
I am listening very carefully to what the hon. Lady is saying, but can she clarify whether the Labour party supports the development of this new road and the solution of the tunnel under Stonehenge? It is important that those of us in the south-west understand what the Labour party’s position is.
I will get to that point shortly. I want to talk about the other opportunities we must explore to ensure a modal shift. That is at the heart of the Labour party’s transport policy: we do not believe the future should be taken as it is now. We need to get people on to public transport, whether for leisure or business.
I accept the hon. Lady’s point about modal shift, but people will be going on holiday to Cornwall and Devon in the next six weeks, and our population is likely to double. At the moment, they are stuck going down the M5 and the M4. Any alterations to the A303 will make a huge difference to the people coming to visit Devon and Cornwall, so I would really like to know what the Labour party’s position is.
As I said, I will come to that point shortly. In York, we get 7 million visitors a year, so I understand the challenges that the hon. Gentleman faces. We believe the Government can do far more on modal shift. Obviously, there has been a bit of a crisis in rail in the past week or so, but we know that rail is a significant player in moving people around our country. We want public transport to be the mode of choice for the future. That will have a significant impact on people travelling by car. That is at the heart of our policy.
The Government’s proposal is a compromise. They are trying to do something to move traffic away from the current road location and take it through a tunnel, but it is a compromise and there are risks to their strategy. We recognise that there is a compromise on the resources. The question is not about the tunnel itself but about its length and the impact that cutting the throughways will have on either end of the tunnel. I learned a lot about water tables from the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar this afternoon. I did not realise the effect they can have on the moisture of the land. I will certainly go back and have a look at that issue. The Government need to look again at where the tunnel is cut and where it is placed. My response to the hon. Members for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double) and for North Cornwall (Scott Mann) is that that point needs to be reviewed. We understand the significance of the site, and cutting the western end of the tunnel could have a significant impact on the long barrows, which we have heard about this afternoon.
Just to clarify, is the hon. Lady saying that the Labour party does not support the current plans and would not support the development of this road?
I am saying that we believe there are other alternatives, which would be far more significant in reaching the right balance, which the hon. Gentleman talked about earlier. We certainly do not believe that the solution that is on the table at the moment is the only one that needs to be looked at. There are opportunities to get this right for everybody.
Serious concerns and objections have been raised about the proposal, not least by the archaeological community. We note that English Heritage and the National Trust support it, but English Heritage also supported making a change of real heritage significance in my constituency, and it was only prevented by pressure from the community. We wanted the right solutions to be put in place. Our focus must be on getting this right for the future.
We must also scrutinise the Government’s decisions. In Transport questions just before the recess, I talked about ancient woodlands, and the Minister said that many ancient woodlands were planted only a couple of decades ago. The way he dismissed something that is important to the community of Arundel on the A27 puts doubt in my mind about whether proper work has been done on the detail, and about whether we have reached the ultimate conclusion. We clearly have concerns about the impact of the proposals on the archaeology. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s reflections. I hope he will give us all confidence that everything is being done to ensure that the wider Stonehenge site is preserved.
May I say on behalf of us all, Sir Graham, how brilliantly you have chaired today’s proceedings with your normal aplomb and energy?
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Alex Burghart) on securing the debate and on his excellent contribution. I was interested to learn that in his previous lives he has frolicked around the stones—I am sure not defacing but enjoying them, and I hope not breathing too close to the road—celebrating his druidical background. As such an erudite and scholarly man, he is a great adornment to the Commons. He has brought that bookish sentiment to this debate. If I may mis-quote John Osborne, with the current Member, there is no “book lack in Ongar”. I will allow the Chamber to enjoy that.
My hon. Friend quoted those famous experts in the area, Spın̈al Tap. It would be wrong of me not to remind him of this important moment in the lyrics of “Stonehenge”, as he will recall from the film:
“Stonehenge! Where the demons dwell
Where the banshees live and they do live well
Stonehenge! Where a man’s a man
And the children dance to the Pipes of Pan.”
Unfortunately, as matters stand, the children will not be able to dance, because they will probably get run over, and in any case they would not be able to hear the pipes because of the noise of a road travelling so close to the ancient ruins.
To engage with the point made by the hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell), I thought her phrase the “undiscovered past” was a brilliant one and perfectly captured the proper concern that she and my hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar framed. She was right to draw attention to air quality and the community-use aspects of the site. Her joy in cycling, I am pleased to say, will be enabled and furthered by the greenways planned as part of the renewal of the site, alongside the removal of the A303. I must, however, put it on the record that I am very surprised and, frankly, sorry that the Labour party’s position is not to support the project. [Interruption.] I invite the hon. Lady to correct me. If the Labour party is ready to support the project, she is absolutely welcome to intervene and say that it will.
I have made it very clear that we need to ensure that we have done absolutely everything possible to preserve the site. As I said, I was looking forward to the Minister’s speech to convince me that that is the case.
I am grateful for that clarification—if it was one—so let me say this. If the hon. Lady wishes to intervene before I finish to say that I have given her such assurances, that will reassure the many people in Exeter and Plymouth who might be worried about whether the Labour party supports the project.
Let me frame the proposals in their wider context. As hon. Members know, the A303 is the most direct strategic route between the south-west and the south-east and indeed the east of England. That makes it a vital arterial corridor, as has been noted throughout the Chamber during this debate. Several sections of the road, however, are single carriageway, causing congestion, delays and greater risk of accidents.
Would it were the case that only a visit from a serving President of the United States of America was required to interrupt the traffic and cause congestion. Tragically, as has been pointed out, congestion is absolutely an everyday feature—I visited the stones recently and sat in a traffic jam. The experience is a rotten one for all involved, awful for the site and not good for the stones themselves. Those points are sometimes forgotten.
One of the congestion points is precisely at Stonehenge. The distance of the road from the stones when it passes near them is 165 metres, or less than 200 yards, which is an astonishing fact. The sight, smells and sound of stationary traffic are brought directly into the centre of a unique prehistoric environment. That is bad for road users and local communities, while a world heritage site is cut in half and the setting of that iconic landmark is harmed. After many delays and many years of prevarication, therefore, the Government have decided that we need to take the chance to enhance the setting of such an extraordinary monument and to improve access to the surrounding landscape, while opening the south-west for further tourism and other business.
In the 2014 road investment strategy, the Government committed to a scheme at Stonehenge, and we are following through on that. The project is part of a longer-term strategy to create better links between the M3 in the south-east and the M5 in the south-west by upgrading the entire A303-A358 corridor to dual-carriageway A-road standard, thereby transforming it into a continuous high-quality route to the south-west, with significant benefits for tourism, jobs and the economy. As the House knows, we have already committed funding to three schemes: Stonehenge; the Sparkford to Ilchester stretch; and Taunton to the Southfields roundabout. The hope is to commit to the full upgrade of five other sections of road along that corridor in ensuing investment strategies.
The A303 and the Stonehenge site suffer significant congestion because of additional traffic. Given how little time I have remaining—I think only two minutes—I shall cut straight to some of the key points. The proposed road alterations include a twin-bore tunnel of at least 1.8 miles in length and other features mentioned today, such as the Longbarrow and Countess junctions. Both the Department for Transport and Highways England very much appreciate that the world heritage site contains an abundance of early prehistoric monuments. They are committed to minimising the impacts of the planned scheme. The heritage monitoring and advisory group, which includes a range of prestigious organisations, provides advice to ensure that heritage is at the fore of scheme design decisions, advising on archaeological surveys and the like. The scientific committee has directly influenced the scope of the archaeological evaluation strategy adopted for the scheme.
On Blick Mead, Highways England is carrying out an extensive heritage impact assessment to ensure that the scheme does not create unacceptable effects for important heritage features. It must be pointed out that Blick Mead is a full half-mile from the proposed entrance to the tunnel. The proposed use of a tunnel-boring machine means that the tunnel will be constructed in a sealed and watertight environment. There are a range of other mitigations and a great deal of work being done on the water table and the hydrology, as my hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar knows. The Star Carr site is in many ways not a relevant comparison, although it may serve as a warning, precisely because it was the victim of ill-thought-through land drains and acidification of the site, which I am afraid reduce its value as a comparator.
To round up, there will always be trade-offs of incommensurables of the kind that we have seen—between the history and value of a site, the economic, community and air-quality benefits to be had from it, and the like. The nature of politics is that we have to make such trade-offs, but only of course with the most careful expert advice and scrutiny, for the minimisation of the impacts, as we have discussed. In this case, we must be philosophers in practice. I would like to think that the Government have done everything that they can to strike the right balance along the lines that I have described.
I thank the Minister for his comments, and I thank all my colleagues for coming and defending the interests of their constituents. I hope that I made my point in defending the interests of the archaeological community, and that the Minister and all the interested parties do everything they can to ensure that the inherent value of the archaeology of the Stonehenge world heritage site remains at the forefront of all our minds.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered proposed road alterations around Stonehenge.