Tuesday 17 July 2018
[Mr Clive Betts in the Chair]
Non-EEA Visas: Inshore Fishing
I beg to move,
That this House has considered Government policy on visas for non-EEA workers on inshore fishing vessels.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. This is an important issue in my constituency and in other parts of Scotland and the UK. Last Wednesday, the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) led an Adjournment debate on this very issue, but it is important that Members across the House have another opportunity to express their views and opinions.
I am grateful to the Security Minister for responding; to use a fishing term, this has been landed on him because the Immigration Minister is in Cabinet today. I know he will respond on her behalf and I am sure that she will look closely at the points put forward by right hon. and hon. Members. I thank the Scottish White Fish Producers Association, the Fishermen’s Welfare Alliance and the many others who produced briefings for this debate. Given its importance to the industry, many wanted to engage with Members before the debate.
Let me give some background on my own interest. Although this is a big issue on the west coast, the western isles of Orkney and Shetland, and Northern Ireland, it is also an issue in Moray, although perhaps not on such a large scale as in other parts of Scotland. Back in March, I was approached by three fishermen: Douglas Scott from Lossiemouth, Neil Sutherland from Burghead and John Davidson. They visited me in my Forres constituency office in the same week the Government announced their initial findings with the European Union on a future fisheries policy. I assumed that they, like me, were unhappy with what the Government had come up with in Europe and were pushing to put across those views. But despite everything in the news that week about fishing and our links to the European Union, they came to speak to me specifically about the inability to employ non-European economic area workers on inshore fishing vessels.
I met Douglas Scott again on Friday in Lossiemouth, just as he was about to head up to Shetland to go fishing. He made it clear when he met me in March and again this week that unless the Government do something about this situation, there is a real risk to the people who are going out on those boats: they are not crewed in sufficient numbers to ensure that everyone is safe. Indeed, some boats cannot leave the harbour at all. Douglas was unwell for some time and because he had no crew, his boat lay idle in Lossiemouth harbour, not making an income for him and leaving the waters unfished.
This is a hugely important issue for Douglas Scott and so many others. The solution is quite simple, and I will come on to it. Douglas is now a little better and is able to go out on his boat on his own. When I left him on Friday, he was going to spend 24 hours on his own in his boat, steaming up to Shetland—port to port from Lossiemouth to Lerwick takes 24 hours. When he gets up there, he has to go back out almost immediately and start fishing, to start making some money, all on his own. It is a real safety concern if an individual who has not been well recently has to go out single-crewed because he cannot recruit non-EEA workers—who want to work with him: they are calling him on a weekly basis, pleading him to employ them again—because of visa changes and the problems being experienced with visas in this country.
We all remember the extremely successful concession scheme that operated from 2010 to 2012. That is basically what I am calling for: the Government should reintroduce that successful scheme, which worked successfully from 2010 to 2012, in which non-EEA workers were able to work within the 12-mile limit. We should dwell on the 12-mile limit for a moment: why do we make that division? Fishermen can fish 12.1 miles from the shore for unlimited amounts of time and are able to recruit non-EEA workers, yet at 11.9 miles or 12 miles they cannot. Mr Scott, who is currently fishing for squid off Shetland but fishes for many other species throughout the year, is not able to recruit these workers because he fishes within the 12-mile limit.
This Government rightly have concerns about immigration and have targets to ensure that it does not increase too much, but this is not a sector that would cause significant problems to immigration numbers. The catching sector employs 4,000 people across the country, 800 of whom are non-EEA workers and 400 of whom are from the EEA—we are speaking about a small number of workers. Should the Government introduce the concessions that I am asking for, the numbers would not significantly alter the migration and immigration figures that they rightly look at when they determine their future policy.
The Government were right back in 2010 and 2012 to have concerns about the welfare of these workers; unfortunately, there were some instances where the welfare of workers was not as good as it should have been. A briefing from the Fishermen’s Mission for this debate cited a small number of examples about the conduct of employers towards their Filipino or other non-EEA workers that are not good enough. One received only four hours’ sleep in 96 hours and had been forced to sign what was reported to be a contract of employment that stipulated that they would be paid far less than originally agreed.
Unfortunately, there are some examples of the system letting down the non-EEA workers, but I and other right and hon. Members have received representations that reintroducing the scheme with a strong emphasis on the welfare of the non-EEA workers will improve their terms and conditions, rather than reduce them. We could have a better system—not just for the fishing industry and the skippers, but for the people who come to work here. As I said, people want to work on our boats in Scotland, Northern Ireland and around the coast of the United Kingdom. If we reintroduce the scheme properly, we can meet not only the needs of the industry but the welfare aspirations of those who will work in it.
Let me now look at the skills required for the job. In an ideal world, we would have enough people in the local communities to do all these jobs—people born and bred in the local community who want to go to sea. That happened in the past, but unfortunately, as with many other industries, it has dwindled. It may come back again and we all hope it does. To reference another fishing saying, there is a sea of opportunity from this country’s leaving the European Union and the hated common fisheries policy. We will regain control of our fishing waters and fisheries and will be able to ensure that that sea of opportunity allows us to increase the number of local people employed in the industry.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. On skills, does he agree that the topic he has wisely chosen for debate is a perfect example of what we hear discussed quite often in the immigration debate—that we should decide what type, what quantity and what skills we need to try to help our industries here in the United Kingdom?
I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman and I will come on to that point. Skills are important. If a local workforce has those skills, that is great and we want to encourage it. Indeed, the Scottish White Fish Producers Association said in its briefing that this year has been its best year for recruitment, with 30 new people coming from local communities, doing their courses and ready to go out on to fishing boats.
But 30 is not enough to ensure all our boats are properly manned as we get ready to leave the common fisheries policy and the European Union—and, hopefully, to fish far more in our waters with more of our boats. The association believes it will take 10 to 15 years to have enough local employment to be able to fully crew the boats. In that period, we can either decide to do nothing and let the boats lie idle and go out of commission, or we can do something about it. As I said, there was a successful scheme that worked for two years between 2010 and 2012, which we can use in this country.
I want to spend a bit more time talking about skills because fishing has been deemed an unskilled form of occupation. I take great exception to that: I could not leave this place, go immediately on to a boat for several days and successfully deal with catching and processing fish. That is a skill in itself, and we should recognise it as such. As the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell) said, it is a skill we need and one we should be looking for.
After Mr Scott, Mr Sutherland and Mr Davidson visited me in March, I wrote to the chief executive of UK Visas and Immigration about what they had raised with me as well as the skill level of our fishermen and those we are trying to encourage into the industry. I said, “I invite you to spend a day on a fishing boat in Moray to see for yourself the skills involved in the profession,” and was disappointed when the reply came with no answer to that point. Interestingly, the chief executive decided to ignore my invitation—I cannot believe anyone would ignore a kind invitation to come to Moray, let alone one that included a trip on a fishing boat. The reply did say, “We do not consider such workers to be unskilled, but they are not sufficiently skilled to meet the skills threshold for authorisation or permission to work under tier 2 of the points-based system, which is reserved for graduate-level employment.”
I say as a member of the Home Affairs Committee that we must look at that skill level and how we determine skills. I will be careful in my use of quotations, because David Goodhart, who I quoted at last week’s meeting of the Committee when we were questioning the Home Secretary, took great exception to my confusing his words. I paraphrased him in saying—these are not his words—that he believed that some industries where there is a local skills shortage and for which we cannot recruit non-EEA individuals should wither and die.
Afterwards, David Goodhart contacted me on Twitter to say that I had totally confused his position. I will now read out his words precisely to get them properly on the record. We had a conversation in which he said that he believes that if we cannot recruit locally in certain parts of the country, we should not use the immigration system to get people in to do the jobs. I asked whether he meant he wanted to give up on fishing. He said:
“Not on fishing in its entirety, no, but in certain parts of the country perhaps, yes.”
Mr Goodhart was quite clear that parts of the sector in parts of the country should be allowed to stop—basically, that is parts of Moray, with Mr Scott and Mr Johnson, as well as in the Western Isles, Orkney and Shetland, parts of north-east Scotland and other parts of the United Kingdom where they cannot get a labour force and it may take 10 to 15 years to ensure there are enough local people. I am sure Mr Goodhart will be tweeting me right now to say once again that I have confused his position.
I do not agree with Mr Goodhart. We should not give up on these vital industries, which have been the mainstay of our communities for so many years. Many communities in Moray have far fewer fishing boats than I would like, but those who want to be part of this great industry should be allowed to remain and flourish. If they need crew from non-EEA countries for that, we as a Government and indeed Parliament should ensure that that happens.
I mention Parliament, because this is not just a Scottish Conservative issue or Conservative issue. The right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland, a member of the Liberal Democrats, had a debate on it, as I said; the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Angus Brendan MacNeil) has had meetings with the Minister about it; and Democratic Unionist party Members have also been in meetings with representative bodies and others. There is consensus across Parliament and across the parties.
When there is a Scottish debate in this Chamber or on the Floor of the House it can often be rather fraught, with much to-ing and fro-ing and disagreement across the Benches. There may be some disagreement today, but ultimately we all want the same thing: a relatively simple solution to a problem causing significant issues in our industry. Whether on the current problem of skills shortages or many others, it is important that the Minister notes that Members on both sides of the House and from all political parties are all saying, “Let’s get this sorted. Let’s do something about it.”
I also want to focus on my party’s manifesto from 2017. Much has changed since that election, but the points made in our manifesto have not. We said:
“Decades of profound economic change have left their mark on coastal communities around Britain”
and that we want to ensure that that situation changes going forward. We can stand by our manifesto commitment and ensure that we have the right people in the right numbers working on our fishing boats. Without them, we risk losing these inshore fishing vessels and a major part of our fishing industry.
I also want to focus on the arbitrary 12-mile limit, which annoys many fishermen. As I said, they can recruit non-EEA workers to fish at 12.1 miles, but not at 11.9 miles or 12 miles. That means we are fishing based on visa regulations, not on where the fish are or where they should be caught. That is nonsensical. How can it be right that our skippers must determine where they fish based on visa rules for recruiting staff rather than where the fish are and where they should be caught? That is not right, and it must change.
Several right hon. and hon. Members from across the House want to speak in the debate. I am grateful for that and for the cross-party support I had to secure the debate. I also make reference to the Backbench Business Committee, which was gracious in allowing us to have the debate today, which is important.
In response to the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland, the Immigration Minister said she was considering the report of the Migration Advisory Committee, which will not report until September. However, as I have said—I hope the Minister has heard this—we are not looking for a new solution or to consider the points of that committee, because it will surely come up with the same answers we have. This is an immediate problem, so we do not need to wait until September to find out what will happen and whether it will get worse. This problem exists now, and it also has a solution now. We do not need to wait for that committee to tell us the answer, because it is simple: reintroduce the system we had in 2010 to 2012, with caveats ensuring proper welfare standards for non-EEA workers, and allow our fishermen that sea of opportunity they want to use.
The Fishermen’s Welfare Alliance said in its briefing that the new policy would provide for “controlled and limited immigration.” The Western Isles Fishermen’s Association and the Orkney Fisheries Association both say that just 60 experienced fishermen from outside the EEA would be required to crew the inshore fleet to the necessary levels and provide the volume of landings needed for the onshore factories to operate at a sustainable level. We need just 60 experienced non-EEA workers to ensure sufficient people in Orkney and Shetland and in the Western Isles—just one is all Douglas Scott is looking for. When we spoke on the harbour at Lossiemouth on Friday all he wanted was one non-EEA worker to take the strain away from him, to relieve the pressure and to ensure that his fishing boat can operate to the best of its ability.
We are not looking for a huge influx or to change targets. We are looking for the Government to be considerate and to listen to the views of the industry. The industry is crying out for that. It is a small problem in terms of the number of people involved, but it is huge for the communities involved—stretching north to south and east to west. It is a huge problem given the issues resulting from not being able to recruit non-EEA workers: boats tied up and left idle and fishermen going out on their own in dangerous conditions without the necessary support.
The solution to that huge problem is for a small fraction of our immigration policy to be changed. The reintroduction of the policy from 2010 to 2012 could have a huge benefit to our industry, to the Mr Scotts and to fishermen across the country. That is why I was so keen to ensure that this debate went ahead, and why I am interested to hear the response from the Minister for Security. Although the Immigration Minister cannot be with us today, I know she took on board the points raised by all right hon. and hon. Members during last week’s Adjournment debate. We need a solution to this issue—and quickly.
The Immigration Minister has agreed to come to Scotland during the summer recess—she did not agree to get on a fishing boat in Moray, but if the Security Minister would like to take up that offer, he would be most welcome. We need as many people as possible to go to those communities, listen to the Mr Scotts and others, and hear about the problems caused by the policy and the benefits that this small change could make to people’s communities, boats and industry.
As I said, leaving the CFP and the European Union brings great opportunities for Scotland and across the UK. Let us not be brought down by the stubborn refusal of the Government to consider a sensible solution that is staring us in the face. I hope that the Minister and Government will review this policy and come up with a solution that meets the needs of fishermen in Moray, and across Scotland, Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts, and not just on the same football team, which we have done from time to time here in the House of Commons. I congratulate the hon. Member for Moray (Douglas Ross). As we know, he is no stranger to football matches either, because he is our referee and a linesman. He is correct to say that this is a much-needed debate, because we need people, primarily from the Philippines and Ghana, to work in our communities on the west coast of Scotland, as well as other places in Scotland and Northern Ireland. I want those people to come, as do my community, islands, fishermen, processors, bosses and staff. The local council wants them to come, as do development agencies and the Scottish Government. In short, I cannot think of anybody in my community who does not want fishing boats to work with able and skilled fishermen from primarily the Philippines and Ghana, which are non-EEA countries. The men I have met from those countries have been cracking, fantastic people, and we are fortunate that they have chosen to come to our part of the world to work.
About a month or six weeks ago, there was a report on “Channel 4 News”, and Alex Thomson came to my native island, Barra, to do a piece on why fishing boats were tied up. He could see clearly the lack of crew. As he was filming—this was one of the most instructive parts—Donald Joseph MacLean’s phone went off, and it was someone phoning from the Philippines, asking when he could come back. He had worked on Barra before, but he found himself stuck in the Philippines, desperate to return to the Hebrides to work, but he could not. I know of examples of other fishermen who want to return not just to Scalpay and Harris, but to the very boats and fishermen they worked with in the past, yet they are not able to do so.
Families want people to come back. These people are not immigrants; they are migrant workers and there is a huge difference. Their Government want them to come and the Philippine embassy in London wants them to come—I am struggling to think of anybody who does not want them to come. Indeed, these workers are much needed. The underlying case in our communities is that families are smaller. Thirty or 40 years ago, when I was a youngster, I was in a family of three and we were a small family. All the families I went to school with had six or eight children; one family had 14 children, and 10 or 12 was not uncommon. Now families have two or three children, and employment in my constituency is about half the UK average. When young people are trained, they usually do well in school and then go off elsewhere. Young people who get a start on fishing boats soon find themselves with capable handlers. They get a plethora of opportunities elsewhere, and they leave the fishing boats stuck without crew.
In many ways we are a victim of our own success, but unfortunately fishermen and fishing boats are at the bottom end of the pecking order. It is annoying that those boats are often tied up, as they are also the lifeblood of the communities that have enabled so many of us to put down an anchor. That situation of success is causing the current problems for fishing boats.
We need fishermen for the safety reasons outlined by the hon. Member for Moray. Imagine single-handedly taking a boat over 24 hours from the east coast of Scotland to Shetland. There are a number of reasons why, ideally, we do not want anyone to do such a job, but we need people with those skills. Despite what the Migration Advisory Committee says, these are skilled jobs. I will not go out on a fishing boat this summer to do a job that I know people from Ghana and the Philippines can do, and neither will the hon. Gentleman or the Minister for Security and Economic Crime. That is a fact of life.
Given all I have said, and the welcome that we wish to give people who come to the islands, the problem is simply down to a person in London saying, “No”. I have dealt with six or seven Immigration Ministers as, I am sure, has the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael)—the rueful grimace on his face indicates that he has had much the same experience over the years. When the right hon. Member for Ashford (Damian Green) was Immigration Minister, he was not afraid to make things happen, but now what is the fear? The fear is Daily Mail politics. I gave one Immigration Minister an article from The Mail on Sunday that supported the rights of these fishermen to come here, and the tension almost eased from his face. Unfortunately, for far too long this Government have been led by nasty treatment and thoughts towards migrants, which is costing our economies badly.
I encourage the Security Minister, and the Immigration Minister, to realise that they have many allies in this matter, and they should not be afraid of newspapers, or whatever, that might misconstrue what is going on. I will stand full square by the Minister, and if he manages to get a change today, he will find that the first press release will be mine, praising him for his courage in bringing about that much-needed change.
Immigration targets are important and the Government are right to have them, but does the hon. Gentleman agree that in this case the numbers involved are so small that the Government could make a sensible change without it affecting the overall target?
The hon. Gentleman is on the path to righteousness—he is quite right. However, we can go a step further. I raised that point at the Home Office, and I was told, “Oh well Angus, it’s very easy for you to say that, but we’ve got our manifesto in one hand and the economy in the other hand”. I said, “It’s a no brainer; choose the economy”—they have ditched the rest of the manifesto anyway, as we have seen over the past couple of months. In reality, migrant workers come for 10 months and they do not affect the stats—the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (David Duguid) knows that as well and he is nodding. This situation goes beyond worries about stats—I think those stats are spurious anyway, and they have led to many erroneous decisions—because we have a clear economic case. Let us get those people in, and get them fishing.
The hon. Gentleman has touched on this point, but it is worth re-emphasising. These migrant workers are just that—they are not looking to come to the UK and settle. They want to go home to their families back in the Philippines, Sri Lanka and Ghana, and we must make that clear distinction.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. I cannot understand what people prefer about the sunny Philippines when they could be living on a fishing boat in the rain on the windy west coast of Scotland or Northern Ireland, but that is just me.
The Home Office also mentioned welfare, but I would argue that welfare is far better on the west coast of Scotland and Northern Ireland, where boats go home each night. If the Government are that concerned about welfare, they should check every boat outside the 12-mile limit. As the hon. Member for Moray said, those boats are fishing 92 hours on the trot, and giving people perhaps four hours off. We do not know what is happening on those boats. People are illegally working because they are outside the 12-mile limit. Just about the entire west coast of Scotland is inside the 12-mile limit, even though the waters go further than 12 miles. That is a good thing, and we welcomed it when it happened, because we kept those waters for our own boats on the west coast. Now we have been snookered by the Government in London and the Home Office, which are focusing on security rather than the economy. With the greatest respect to the Minister, it is instructive that they have sent the Minister for Security to deal with this immigration matter, and that will annoy many people.
With respect to the hon. Gentleman, I know he is a decent fellow but that is a slightly cheap point. I am here because the Immigration Minister is currently giving evidence to a Select Committee. She responded to the almost identical debate last week, but she cannot be in two places at once. She is incredibly happy to engage with all Members on this subject, and no discourtesy is intended by sending the Minister for Security to respond to the debate. The Immigration Minister cannot be in two places at once—the hon. Gentleman might like to make politics out of that, but it is a simple fact.
The politics to be made out of it are in the way the Home Office does not see the economy and its needs, but sees migration as a security issue. Migration should be seen as beneficial to the economy. The Security Minister being sent to the debate is a totemic point that says it all about our dealings with the Home Office in recent years. I must be straight with the Minister about it. He is a decent fellow and probably means well, but he wears a particular Government hat and it does not help that the Security Minister is here.
The case has been made time and again by all of us—for the economy, jobs and the vibrancy of communities. The matter is a competency of the UK Government. We need them to act; it is their responsibility. They guard the power jealously and will not devolve it. We are not like Switzerland where 26 cantons hold half the visas. Everything is held centrally and it is the Government’s responsibility. The Republic of Ireland has an advantage, as the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) has told me, because it can get fishermen in when it wants.
I am not sure how much progress we will get today but I make a plea to the UK Government, whose responsibility it is—the European Union is not to blame—to move. I am able to put things more strongly than Conservative Members from Scotland, although I am sure they feel the same frustrations. The UK Government—in particular the Home Office—must move, get on with the day job and get it done, so that fishing boats can go out and get on with their day job. The Minister may be smiling, but it is vital for people that the boats get to sea, the fish are caught, and jobs and the economy get going as a result. People in my constituency are frustrated, and I hope that I convey half their anger today. We need the pen to be lifted at the Home Office, to get the boats working and the people in question into the country.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Moray (Douglas Ross) for securing this important debate on fishing fleets around the UK.
The fishermen I have met in Ayrshire and at Westminster have advised me that the fishing industry is having difficulty attracting workers from within the UK to join fleets. It is expensive to operate and maintain a fishing vessel, and few skippers can afford to have their boats tied up at the quayside for any length of time, particularly when that is because of the lack of experienced and skilled crew members. Succession planning for a skilled labour force in the fishing industry undoubtedly has its challenges, particularly given that the younger generation, whether family members or from outwith the family circle, do not always see it as an attractive career. There is a perception among some people, rightly or wrongly, that the current generation is put off by the early starts, the fact that there are no guaranteed return times, the unpredictable weather conditions and the hard graft that is undoubtedly involved in going to sea. It would not be seen by their friends as a “cool” occupation. Yet, as many in the Chamber know, it can be a very rewarding career.
Regrettably, careers advice sessions nowadays are not likely to focus on fishing as an occupation. Perhaps we should encourage people to go to sea and earn a living as their forefathers did. Yet schools focus on healthy eating, and the health service promotes to the public the importance of vitamin D, of which I understand fish is an excellent source. Local workers, across the age range, may turn out in the summer months, when the money is good, the weather is better and it is safer at sea. However, skippers go out in all seasons and need to be able to rely on dedicated, skilled and capable crew members.
Given the succession and recruitment difficulties, many fishermen who own their boats seek to employ migrant workers, often from the Philippines, who have previously gained experience from having worked in their country of origin on tuna fishing boats. They are said to have a can-do attitude to work, and to be skilled and reliable employees. In his recent Adjournment debate on the subject, the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) highlighted the fact that 800 non-EEA nationals are employed in the catching sector in the UK. However, work permits and visas prove problematic for Filipino workers and for others from the Indian ocean and south sea islands.
It is important that the Government—and it lies with them, as the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Angus Brendan MacNeil) said—should consider liaising with, and building on the previous involvement of, the relevant foreign embassies. I understand that those embassies assisted with seaman’s books to facilitate migrants’ compliance with the law. In the past, discretionary visas, which I believe were issued for two years, attracted those workers, who were happy to come to the UK, including Scotland. On visas, skippers of boats were obliged to provide onshore accommodation and confirm the condition of their boats, as is quite right. They should be safe—and they are, in the majority of, if not all, cases. I understand that the issuing of such visas may have ended simply because a small minority of workers failed to respect the requirement to return home. However, why should that failure condemn the majority who did faithfully comply and whose services proved to be an invaluable asset to the skippers and the fishing industry? Transit visas are currently available, but they restrict such non-EEA nationals to working outwith the 12-mile limit. The very term “inshore fishing vessels” reflects the fact that not all vessels are suitable to go further afield. Also, the best catch at any given time may not be beyond the 12-mile limit.
If the fishing industry is to survive—that opportunity awaits—and, indeed, prosper and more boats are not to languish in harbours, we must take action. That cannot be tomorrow or the next day, or in September or October. We need that action now, to facilitate such workers’ entry, employment, safety and welfare. Yes, of course it must be policed, regulated and enforced, but not to the detriment of our fishing fleet or of a great opportunity to sustain but also expand it. To do that, we need the workers in question to be able to join fleets in Scotland and throughout the UK. In the long term, thought should be given to encouraging young people to make a career in the industry, as used to happen. As the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar said, the numbers in fishing communities in the islands of the west coast may be dwindling, but fishing could still prove an excellent career in future. I ask the Minister to recognise and resolve the issues we are debating, without delay.
It is always a pleasure to speak on this issue, and it is always good to see the regions of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland agreeing on something. It is one of many issues that unites us; we can all sing from the same hymn book about it.
I thank the hon. Member for Moray (Douglas Ross) for bringing the matter to the House and clearly setting the scene. I was a member of Ards Borough Council and I have represented Strangford in the Northern Ireland Assembly and do so now as a Member of Parliament, and the issue we are debating has been a key issue throughout. Fishing is in my blood; I never worked on the boats, but my brother did and I understand the issues clearly. When I was introduced to the fishing fleet in Portavogie, I became aware of the heightened level of danger affecting fishermen and fishing boats. That reinforces the importance of fishing to people in Strangford, and in Portavogie in particular, as well as in Ardglass and Kilkeel.
With all the Brexit talk and the decisions over deal makers and deal breakers, there is no one among us who does not think about the subject during most of the hours of the day. Probably we all do: it is Brexit in the morning for breakfast, then for lunch and dinner and before bed—and on getting up in the morning it is all Brexit. We shall have more Brexit before the day is out, and I hope our appetite for it will be as strong as it was when it started. None of us wants to face the prospect of a no-deal exit from Europe, but there are things that are deal breakers, and to me the exclusion of non-EEA fishermen needs to be one of the things that is gone with the wind.
We need security of employment for the fishing fleet in Portavogie, Ardglass and Kilkeel. We understand there is a need for Filipino fishermen in particular, because they are dependable and they work hard. The whole thrust of their life is to do the job, which is why the fishing fleet owners in Portavogie, Ardglass and Kilkeel want them. Other Members have made a similar point about wanting Filipino fishermen to be able to come here. It must be possible to hire crew based on who can do the job, and not what someone’s passport says. Fitness for purpose is something that has often been lost in the eurozone as we focus on nepotism as opposed to ability. We must ensure that, going forward, that is not the case and that if possible our vessels can be filled with home-grown crew, but otherwise with whoever can do the job and fit in best within the vessel.
We in this Chamber are all aware of the issues at play here. It is good to see the Minister in his place; I know this is not his direct responsibility, but we look forward to his response. There are five tiers to the points-based system. The tier 2 or general visa is the main category for bringing skilled non-EU or non-European Economic Area workers to the UK. Generally speaking, the tier 2 visa caters only for jobs that are classed at graduate level with a minimum pay of £30,000 per year, and for jobs that are on the official shortage occupation list.
Tier 3, for low-skilled workers, has never been used. It has always been assumed that any need for low-skilled workers can be met from within the UK or European Economic Area, but it cannot. That is why this debate is important and why the fishing fleets across the whole United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland need the opportunity to introduce this new tier system, enabling the Filipino fishermen to come to all the fleets across the UK and in Northern Ireland.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way and I congratulate the hon. Member for Moray (Douglas Ross) on bringing this debate. My hon. Friend will know that we have a lot of people working across the wider spectrum of the agri-food industry from other parts of the European Union and from outside the European Union. Surely, if accommodation can be reached there, it can be reached on the fisheries side. It does not make sense.
I agree wholeheartedly with my hon. Friend and colleague. To reiterate the comments of the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Angus Brendan MacNeil), I must say that the hon. Members here who met the Minister are united on the simplicity of what we are asking for. It cannot be any more graphic or easily put together than it is.
The hon. Gentleman is putting the case a lot more calmly than I did, because I am so frustrated by this. Was his heart lifted when he saw a few weeks ago, when the new Home Secretary came in, that the Financial Times raised the issue of doctors and nurses on the Monday and, by Friday, the pen was lifted and it was sorted out? It is as easy as, “Lift the pen. Sort it out, Home Secretary.”
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. It is that simple. If we have a willingness to do it, let us just do it. We do it for the right reasons—not just because it feels good but because it helps the industry, as those of us who represent fishing villages know. My local fishermen cannot speak highly enough of the ability and work ethic of those from the Philippines, and yet they have been prevented from utilising people who, while they may not be highly skilled on paper with degrees and letters after their name, undoubtedly have the ability and fitness for purpose that is needed.
I often quote my mother in this House. I do so because she is a very wise woman, not because she is my mother and I am her son. She is very wise. My mum often says, “Letters after your name don’t mean anything to someone whose house is flooded and needs a plumber.” Letters do not mean anything in that trade; experience and know-how do. Fishing is the same. Degrees will not be able to read the sea or the sky, but experience will. A degree does not tell someone how to catch fish, to follow fish on a boat or to stand without falling over. This is one of the most dangerous jobs in the world, and we need the people to do it.
In my discussions with local fishermen, I have found that they particularly value the Filipinos who come as migrant workers. They are far beyond labourers; they bring in immense skills, whether in engineering, safety or dealing with vessels. They bring important skills to the fishing fleet in Scotland, Northern Ireland and throughout the United Kingdom. They are more than simply labourers. They bring great skills to the fishing fleet. Does my hon. Friend agree?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right that they bring skill; I think if the Home Office looks at this issue it will see the skills that the Filipino fishermen have. They should fall into tier 2, where we can enable them to be accepted. I think the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar is right when he says it is a simple issue. I read the same article in the paper that he did. The Home Secretary accepted that there was a methodology that justified the right for doctors and so on to come in. By the same logic, that should happen here as well, and I would like to see it take place.
We want to see the Filipino fishermen allowed in. Under the transit visa provisions, non-EEA nationals cannot come to work on vessels that operate wholly or mainly within the 12-mile limit. People who work, or employ people to work, on inshore vessels after they have come to the UK on a transit visa or sought to enter at the border to join a ship are breaking immigration law.
Even more important, prawn trawlers, for example, operate by dragging a trawl net across the seabed to catch prawns, so only certain parts of the sea can be fished. The sea off the west coast of Scotland, containing the sea of the Hebrides, the Little Minch and the Minch, is a particularly good fishing ground for langoustines, but these areas are also well within territorial waters, as is most of the sea around Northern Ireland. Prawn trawlers have one of the highest demands for non-UK crew. Therein lies a key issue for my constituents and for the constituents of other hon. Members present. The difference is down to geography and, as usual, the postcode lottery does not work in favour of my constituents.
I, along with other interested MPs— the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael), the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar and the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (David Duguid)—met with the Minister for Immigration and had a very forthright meeting, in which we tried to press collectively, from our four different parties, the importance of this issue. I know that the fishing organisations in my area are currently working hard to address the fact that, despite the demands of their difficult and often dangerous job, fishing vessel crew members are not deemed to be sufficiently skilled to fall within the ambit of tier 2. We need these workers to be elevated to tier 2, or tier 2 to drop down to that level. I feel the frustration that the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar expressed; I am not always cool, but I try to make the case in such a way that people can understand the need to do it.
The Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, which I sit on with other colleagues and hon. Friends, is doing an inquiry into fishing. One of our recommendations is that the issue of Filipino fishermen should be addressed. I am conscious of the time, so I will make one last comment. The Department for Infrastructure in Northern Ireland did a trawl—if I can use that pun—across the whole of the UK and Europe for 150 job vacancies. That is the Department, not Jim Shannon or the local councils; it was the Northern Ireland Assembly when it was functioning. We got some 30 replies to that from the whole of Europe, and only 10 applicants were suitable for interview. Eight attended the interview; six were chosen, of whom one did not turn up; five took the jobs. We have 145 jobs that Northern Ireland’s DFI cannot fill.
We have done everything we can on this. The local Assembly has tried. We now look to the Minister and the Home Office to do the same thing as for the doctors and nurses—to bring in the Filipino fishermen who would help our industry to thrive. When we are out of Europe, on 31 March 2019, we will need an industry that is able to respond to what we can do when we advance. I thank the hon. Member for Moray again for introducing this debate. Everyone is united in this. All we need now is for the Minister to say, “Yes, let’s do it.”
I have two more hon. Members who wish to speak. Some hon. Members have not quite followed the guidance, and we have to finish Back-Bench speeches by half-past 10, so it would be helpful if the remaining speakers could look at that and split the time between them.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Moray (Douglas Ross) on securing this important debate, one that is significant to his constituency and to my own. He has been a champion of the fishermen and the fishing industry in the north-east.
The fishing industry in the UK is a key component of our economy. In 2016 alone, the value of landings by the UK fleet was worth approximately £l billion, with more than 10,000 jobs resting on the industry, and many others in the supply chain. Just last month, the Secretary of State for Scotland and I had the pleasure of visiting the Dawnfresh Seafoods site in Angus, a thriving business and a key employer in the region. That business demonstrates every day how fishing touches every corner of Scotland. Drawing its stock from the north-west of the highlands, with processing in both Uddingston and Arbroath, sustainability is at the core of what it does—a reflection of how Scottish fish management has improved dramatically in recent years.
Unfortunately, it is undeniable that the UK fishing industry has faced its difficulties over the last few decades, but our fishing fleets are largely family businesses that have devoted many generations of service to the industry, and we must do all we can to harness the potential going forward. In the wake of the recent difficulties, and given the importance of this industry to the UK Government, the Government must do everything possible to encourage and nurture this important sector. Ease of access to suitable labour is one area where change is desperately needed. We need a system that reflects the skills that this country needs.
As it stands, non-EEA workers play an indispensable role in assisting UK fishing crews in delivering fish from the ocean to our dinner tables. These foreign workers, frequently from south-east Asia, possess a level of skill and knowledge unmatched by potential workers already in the UK. This is skilled work, necessitating years of experience, but it is wrongly classified as unskilled.
We must not suggest that local workers must take up these jobs, as other Members have said. Just as for the soft fruit industry in my constituency, we need to bring in that labour in order to secure the long-term future of the industry. As I said before, if a job is available in the UK, it goes without saying that any British citizen should have the opportunity to apply for it. However, there are all too frequently not the candidates or even the necessary numbers to allow UK fishermen to carry on their trade. I hope the UK Government will take the necessary steps to ensure that non-EEA labour is made more readily accessible to the UK fishing industry, not only to protect our economy but to allow this vital sector the opportunity to enjoy fully the benefits of leaving the EU and the common fisheries policy.
All the evidence suggests that the current situation is having a detrimental impact on our fishing industry, and I urge the Minister to give a glimmer of hope that the Home Office is seriously looking to mitigate the issues unnecessarily posed towards it. We need a resolution sooner rather than later.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Moray (Douglas Ross) on securing the debate. I recognise many of his concerns, as well as those of other right hon. and hon. Members, and they are shared by fishermen in my constituency.
The confirmation in the Government’s fisheries White Paper that the UK will become an independent coastal state and will take back control of its waters is welcome. It lays the groundwork for the revival of fishing communities long neglected by the EU and by Governments of all parties. However, leaving the common fisheries policy is the start of the process, not the end. If the Scottish fishing industry is to achieve its full potential, it needs the full support of both our Governments. It would be painful to see the industry unshackled from the CFP, only to be held back by UK immigration rules. However, we face that risk if the Government do not act urgently to ensure that the Scottish inshore fishing fleet can access the non-EEA labour that it needs.
Of the roughly 4,000 crew working in the catching sector around Scotland, around 800 come from non-EEA countries, with a further 400 from within the EEA. After Brexit, 1,200 fishermen—30%—will need to be sourced from overseas. The industry has not always been so dependent on migrant labour; traditionally, almost all crew came from local coastal communities, with few coming from inland, let alone from further afield. Due to the constraints of the CFP over the years, there were simply too many UK vessels chasing too few fish, leading to decommissioning schemes at the start of the century that cut the number of jobs.
However, the industry is already working to encourage the resurgence of fishing as an attractive career, as other Members have said, and it must be encouraged to do so. Foreign crew rarely settle in the UK or climb through the ranks to become skippers, even though in many cases they will have been merchant seafarers or captains of larger vessels in their home countries. The talented skippers of tomorrow are the local recruits of today. Young locals leaving school today are probably not as inclined to join the industry as their younger counterparts, who will progress through their education with more certainty of a bright future in fishing, assuming that we make the most of the opportunities presented by Brexit.
The Scottish White Fish Producers Association says that, as we leave the CFP, even with Government support, greater innovation and further improvements in training and upskilling, it will take at least a decade or longer for the Scottish industry to close its current local labour shortage. Our coastal communities cannot afford to wait 10 years. Without access to experienced crew members, vessels will lie idle, as they do currently. We will take back control of our waters only to let them go unfished; in many areas, there will simply be no more fishing industry.
Access to skilled migrant labour—these people are skilled—is necessary if the industry, in Scotland and across the United Kingdom, is to truly reap the benefits of exiting the CFP. After Brexit we must work on increasing the capacity of our fishing fleet, but we can only do so if the industry has enough crew to cope with the increased supply of fish. Currently, as other Members have mentioned, the industry relies on transit visas, which are conditional on non-EEA crew working outside the 12-mile limit of UK waters. That adds unnecessary complexity to the job and limits activity to where workers are allowed to fish, rather than where the fish are. For smaller vessels, which tend to fish closer to shore, these visa rules are more restrictive, if not completely unworkable.
The UK Government previously operated a concession that allowed some visas to be issued to non-EEA fishermen to work on the inshore fleet. The re-establishment of such a scheme would be most welcome, at least until a longer term solution can be developed. Since 2012, demand for experienced crew has actually increased, which we hope to see continue as we leave the CFP. Such a concession would guarantee workers the same employment protections as anyone else. As the Fishermen’s Welfare Alliance has made clear, any new scheme must have these protections. We must ensure that the sector can access the labour it needs and end the bizarre idiosyncrasies of the 12-mile limit while ensuring the welfare of the non-EEA workers in the sector.
However, there is perhaps a simpler solution: recognising that fishermen are skilled workers and adjusting our visa regime to reflect that. The industry faces not only a labour shortage but a skills shortage. Fishing is most certainly not unskilled work, and many of the non-EEA crew working in the industry here are talented, seasoned deck hands. Like the home-grown fishermen of the past, they were born into, or least grew up in, a fishing or seafaring culture. As I mentioned, crew members from marine nations such as the Philippines, Sri Lanka and Ghana generally do not look to settle in the UK. In fact, much inshore fishing activity is seasonal, so a similar approach to that currently being considered for seasonal agricultural workers could be possible.
My constituents in Banff and Buchan, including in the increasingly busy ports of Peterhead, Fraserburgh and Macduff, elected me on a manifesto commitment to not only leave the CFP but to work to ensure that coastal communities enjoy the vitality and opportunity they deserve. That means ensuring that the fishing industry gets the access to the skilled non-EEA labour it needs. The industry cannot cope with the current restrictions any longer. If our coastal communities and fishing industry are to enjoy the revival offered by our leaving the CFP, we need change now.
While I am thankful that the UK Government have been willing to engage on this issue, I stress, as have other Members, the urgency with which we need that change. It is an issue that could make or break the future of our fishing industry and our coastal communities, and I look forward to the UK Government’s swift action on it.
I thank hon. Members for their co-operation in making their speeches in a timely way. We now move on to the Front-Bench spokespeople. They have roughly 11 minutes each in which to speak, which will leave a bit of time for the wind-up speech at the end of the debate.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Betts. I commend the hon. Member for Moray (Douglas Ross) for bringing this important debate. I will mention a few points raised by him and by other hon. Members.
The hon. Gentleman highlighted the concerns he had received directly from fishermen. Those personal testimonies and experiences illustrate for us—better than the very good briefings we have received on this matter—the precise nature of the problems, including the Government’s policy on the 12-mile limit and their attitude to migration. I will come on to that later. The fishermen also called for the more customised approach for which the Scottish Government have also called for some time.
My hon. Friend the Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Angus Brendan MacNeil) is an excellent constituency MP, and he spoke with his usual passion on how much support there is across the board for non-EEA workers coming here, and of their being in many ways the lifeblood of fishing communities up and down the coast. He also mentioned how many allies the proposal has, and insisted that the UK Government begin to act on it.
The hon. Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Bill Grant) highlighted the difficulties that the industry has experienced in recent years in attracting local youngsters to the profession. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) gave us the Northern Irish perspective, as always, but also a personal viewpoint, given his family associations with the industry. He called for the UK Government to acknowledge the industry’s simple point: that it needs people who can do the job now, not in 10 years’ time. He also said that all in the UK are on the same hymn sheet.
However, it is worth remembering that Ireland is a part of the British Isles, and because of its independence it can in many ways make better choices specific to its own requirements; that contrasts with the situation that we are discussing, in which it seems that one size fits all. As I said, that is worth remembering. The hon. Members for Angus (Kirstene Hair) and for Banff and Buchan (David Duguid) reminded us of the UK Government’s role, still, in turning on and off the tap of this vital labour source for Scotland and other parts of the United Kingdom and Great Britain without due regard for the devastating impact on small coastal communities.
It is very good to see cross-party consensus on the need for concessions on visas for non-EU crew to keep our fishing fleets safely on the seas. A sticking plaster over a rotten immigration policy it may be, but it is a much-needed one. My hon. Friend the Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar, along with others in this place, has been championing this cause for some time, and it is good to see more recognition now of the absurdity of boats being tied up for lack of crew when people are available to do the job.
One of the things that sticks in my craw most about the rules on transit visas is that they squeeze hardest the smaller boats—those with one or two crew members, fishing daily from local ports. They struggle the most when staff are hard to find. The recent fishing White Paper said that the Government would encourage growth in the small boat sector. If they mean what they say for once, fixing this issue would be a good start.
I hope that the Security Minister and, through him, the Immigration Minister will reflect on the strength of the evidence that has already been presented and the importance of the fishing industry to Scotland and will act with greater urgency than they have indicated they are willing to do so far. It is clear from the figures that we have heard how dependent the whole industry is on non-EEA staff, so concessions should be the easiest decision that they have ever made. There are precedents: the offshore wind farm sector has a concession to allow non-EEA crew to operate inside 12 miles.
There is surely no need to wait for the autumn report from the Migration Advisory Committee, particularly as the MAC does not seem to be flexible itself when it comes to recognising shortage occupations and sectoral needs in Scotland. The issue seems to be that deckhands are not regarded as skilled by the great and the good who decide such things. I suggest to anyone who defines being a member of a fishing crew as unskilled work that they take time out this summer and get some work experience on a Scottish fishing vessel. When they have successfully mended a torn net in the face of a howling storm, they can come back to us and tell us that it is unskilled.
Fishing is not an industry that easily fits into a tick-box system for staff, but it clearly takes unique skills, experience and a certain type of character to do this job. The Scottish White Fish Producers Association, which knows a bit more about it than we do in this place, identified the need to recruit fishermen from outside the EU and found a similar skillset in fishermen from the Philippines, Sri Lanka and Indonesia. Skilled fishermen who are willing to leave their families and come to do a tough job over here should be welcomed and given all the rights and protections of our EU workers.
My hon. Friend is summing up the debate fantastically well. I want to reiterate that I have prepared a press release into which I will insert the name of the Minister who lifts the pen and makes the change, with high praise. I hope that a Government who need some good news will at least grasp this one little straw and ensure that what we have asked for happens, and this summer. This is not a question of reports; we know what the arguments are. It has just got to happen.
I absolutely agree. I certainly hope that something will happen along those lines, although I remind my hon. Friend that last November the then Immigration Minister, now the Minister without Portfolio, promised to look into the possibility of running a pilot scheme in which seasonal workers coming from non-EEA countries could work for nine months to help the fishing industry on the west coast of Scotland. As of yet, I think, we have heard nothing further about that proposal.
I do not know how many Immigration Ministers we have dealt with and had this same discussion with. We have to educate them, tell them, inform them—whatever. We get the promise of jam tomorrow, and before we know what is happening, they have been promoted, sacked, moved on or whatever and we are dealing with another one. It is groundhog day on this issue with each and every different Immigration Minister; and in a few months’ time, given the rate of attrition in this Government, we will probably have someone else again.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. It is very difficult for the industry to deal with the revolving door of Ministers who constantly have to be informed of the important parts of their brief that they need to get up to speed with and deal with. Then they need to go round and visit all the different and important stakeholder groups and get to know them. Things are very difficult for the industry in those circumstances.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on the contribution that she is making to the debate. Does she agree that the pilot scheme that has been intimated to us on a number of occasions—indeed, the last occasion was the last meeting that we had—is something that we are all very eager to see coming into place? It is one that the industry and the sector will work with, as the hon. Lady said, and elected representatives will also endeavour to ensure that it works. All the safety and all the employment rights that are important for it to go forward are things that the industry is committed to. If ever you wanted a good scheme, do the pilot scheme now.
I absolutely agree. There is nothing to be lost by looking at this proposal. There is a general will across parties and across the industry to make the pilot scheme work. I am sure that if a Minister fronted up and actually committed to it, all of us would be cheering to the rafters, as my hon. Friend the Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar points out.
I was referring to skilled fishermen and the fact that they are willing to come here to do this very difficult job. They should be welcomed and given all the rights and protections that EU workers have. The SWFPA chief executive, Mike Park, says that people have presented the case to the MAC and to various Immigration Ministers over the last few years, but on each occasion they were
“basically told to go away”.
A new scheme for non-EEA workers would be lifeblood to our fishing fleets—we have heard the evidence that it could take 10 to 15 years to get fully staffed from local sources—but it would of course be even more sensible for the Immigration Minister to accept that the one-size-fits-all immigration system is not the right solution. If she is worried that any sensible concession for fishing might open the floodgates for other shortage occupations, the solution is not to bolt the door and hope that they go away. Perhaps she ought to ask how the MAC compiles its list, why so many sectoral cases can be made and whether the committee’s approach to immigration is working in the best interests of the economy. Reducing dependency on migration by killing an industry that wants to employ people hardly seems a sensible way to go about things.
The root cause of the problem is surely inflexible, old-fashioned British bean-counting bureaucracy. The UK Government cannot blame Brussels. As has been pointed out, this mess was made entirely in Whitehall. Defying logic, the Conservatives continue to pander to those who want to cut the number of foreigners in the country, setting policies that satisfy those who blame immigrants for all the economic woes that this Government have presided over. That approach is a disaster for the Scottish economy and the demographic challenges that we face. As an inquiry by the Select Committee on Scottish Affairs found, the populations of more than one third of Scotland’s local authority areas are projected to decline, and future population growth in Scotland is expected to depend entirely on inward migration. We have the space and the need to welcome more people who want to live and work here, yet we are enforcing net migration targets that are entirely counterproductive.
The ever more hostile approach to immigration has not only been damaging economically; it has been distasteful and inhumane and it reeks of racism. Despite all the evidence of the benefits that migrants bring, the Tories have doggedly stuck to the notion that cutting numbers is more important than meeting need. I continue to hope for a change of heart from the Government, or for devolved control of immigration policies so that we can do that better in Scotland, but this concession for fishing would not even ruffle the feathers of the people counters in the Home Office. The number of skilled fishermen affected would be some 1,200 or so—a number far too small to make a dent on its silly targets, yet crucial enough to have a massive knock-on impact for coastal communities across Scotland.
I urge the Government to do the right thing for the fishing industry for once. Our fishing communities need flexibility from the immigration system if they are to survive. They need support from this Government through their currently reserved powers on immigration, not intransigence. The need and the solution are clear. Decisive action would be welcome.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Moray (Douglas Ross) on securing the debate.
Fishing is an economically as well as culturally important sector for the UK. The UK fishing industry employs approximately 12,000 people, of whom an estimated 20% are non-EU migrants. As demonstrated by the passionate speeches in this debate, the sector faces an acute labour shortage. This is a common thread in a number of sectors: agriculture, care work, hospitality and the NHS are all already suffering from labour shortages. The net migration target, delays in the immigration Bill and lack of clarity in the Brexit White Paper all contribute to uncertainty and potential exploitation in these areas. The Government must get past Cabinet infighting on Brexit and provide these vital sectors with clarity and security for the future.
For the last eight years, the Government’s migration policy has been driven by a wrong-headed net migration target. Reducing numbers is put ahead of the concerns of business and our economy. Fishing is a prime example of a sector that has suffered under this target. The Home Affairs Committee found that the net migration target undermines public confidence,
“because it acted as a quarterly reminder that the Government was unable to control immigration in the way it had promised.”
As the Institute of Directors and many other business groups have pointed out, it is a completely random number, plucked out of thin air because it sounds good, absent of any understanding of the needs of our economy. Recent concerns around the quality of data underlying the target should be the final nail in the coffin for the net migration target. With such serious doubts around the data underlying these net migration figures, an immigration policy that drives only towards reducing the net migration numbers is impossible to defend.
The immigration Bill that was originally promised last year has been pushed back to the autumn, brought forward to this side of the recess and pushed back again to the end of this year. The Government have been saying for months that all migration concerns will be addressed by the Migration Advisory Committee’s report. I found it astounding that the Government do not feel the pressing need to address this issue. While there are, of course, concerns about migration post Brexit, a number of sectors, such as inshore fishing, are suffering labour shortages now, even with access to the free movement of labour. These sectors cannot wait for the vague promises of clarity in the MAC report in September. The MAC’s remit is broad. There is no guarantee for fishing, agriculture or any other sector.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely correct: we cannot wait until September for that. Although some of the newspapers might not be here, this debate is being watched outside. I have just received a message from my constituent. Christina MacNeil said:
“Surely this will be resolved as soon as possible—it’s not rocket science to see the benefits that will be gained.”
I thank the hon. Gentleman for making that point.
I agree with that comment. The sectors that are suffering will be central to the MAC’s recommendations. Even if they are, we will have to wait for a Government response and it will take time to implement whatever the proposed scheme turns out to be. The Brexit White Paper published last week contained only 20 paragraphs on immigration. They are very narrow. There is no mention of what the proposals will be for low-paid, so-called low-skilled workers, often found in the inshore fishing industry. At this point, there is no time for the Government to bring an immigration Bill before the recess. I hope that when we come back in September they will move quickly to provide clarity and reassurance to sectors already suffering from shortages.
I would like to address briefly the risk of exploitation in this sector. In the last 10 years, deeply concerning reports of slavery and human trafficking aboard British fishing ships have come to public attention. Isolated working combined with poor regulations makes fishing workers particularly vulnerable to abuse. Remedies are often out of reach. Living conditions are often poor. Many migrant workers live aboard their vessels while in port. These vessels are not designed for long-term living. This sector is already hard to regulate. Certain visa arrangements are leaving workers at a higher risk of exploitation. The current transit visa system and 12-nautical-mile exemption leave loopholes open for exploitation. Without the opportunity to build a network in the UK, workers are less resilient. It is vital that whatever scheme we end up with, workers are not tied to their employers in the way that we have seen with domestic workers.
The Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority has done good work in the area of labour inspection and enforcement, but its remit is very narrow, covering only food processing, agriculture, horticulture and shellfish gathering. The UK’s enforcement model is complex and confusing. A number of different bodies are responsible for different parts of the labour market. According to Focus on Labour Exploitation, the UK has one of the poorest-resourced labour inspectorates in Europe. The International Labour Organization recommends a target of one inspector per 10,000 workers. The UK falls well below that target, with one inspector for every 25,000 workers.
It is vital that proactive inspection efforts are increased as we leave the EU and new opportunities for exploitation arise. Self-identification among victims of exploitation is low. The most vulnerable to abuse are the least likely to come forward. This includes migrants, who, faced with a hostile environment, are fearful about their immigration status and potential immigration repercussions for them coming forward.
In conclusion, the Government’s migration policies have, so far, been driven by the net migration target and Tory infighting on Brexit. The inshore fishing sector provides stark illustration of the damage of this approach. The Government have again delayed the immigration White Paper. Sectors such as fishing cannot wait another year for clarity on their future workforce. The Government must get on with announcing their future migration policy and ensure that it provides adequate protection for vulnerable workers.
Thank you, Mr Betts; it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Moray (Douglas Ross) on securing this debate. I noted earlier the point made by the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Angus Brendan MacNeil) about the Security Minister answering the debate. The Home Office means no discourtesy by asking me to answer the debate. The Minister for Immigration, my right hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes) is attending Cabinet—not a Select Committee, and she answered a debate here only last week. She will always be available to do it.
I think they probably sent me, the Security Minister, because I represented north-east Scotland in the Scottish Parliament a long time ago. I have many fond memories—
No, we do not have time. I am afraid the hon. Gentleman’s Front-Bench spokesperson spoke for way longer than the other two so the Scottish National party has used up most of its time already.
I lived in Donside, with an office in Stonehaven, and have fond memories of meeting with the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation, the Scottish White Fish Producers Association and the Scottish Pelagic Fishermen’s Association. I remember learning the differences between pelagic and demersal fish and so on. I have some experience. Indeed, I sat on the European committee and looked at reform of the Scottish fisheries policy when I was in the Scottish Parliament. At that time, the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar was probably down here in Westminster. That may be why they sent the Security Minister; he has some experience and knowledge of those things. My grandmother’s family actually hails from Keith in Moray. A large part of my family, on both sides, are from Keith and Aberdeenshire. They were Unionists, I hasten to add, and still are.
I have listened carefully to the points that were made by all hon. Members and have noted the many concerns. It is tempting, as the Security Minister, to ensure that the Immigration Minister always attends these debates by simply going off script and just giving a commitment—I guarantee they will never ask me again.
I hear the strength of feeling, which is cross-party and deeply felt. When there is a skills shortage, whether in agriculture, fisheries or aerospace—which employs 6,000 workers in my constituency—it is incredibly important that skills requirements are met. Skills are like oxygen to an industry. We can debate regulation and tax, but skills are needed. That is not to say that we have to let employers off the hook for investment in their workforce. We should bear it in mind that while we remain members of the EU, we have a pool of 500 million people to recruit from. Youth unemployment in other fishing countries, such as Spain and Greece, is well over 30% or even 40%. It is interesting that we have been unable to recruit people from those countries. Employers have to ask themselves about wage rates and the Government have to ask themselves how we can do more to recruit people.
Sorry, we do not have a great deal of time. I am happy to speak to the hon. Gentleman afterwards.
Otherwise, we are in danger of constantly undermining employment rights and the basic standards that we expect by grabbing people off the shelf from further and further afield to meet demand. That is something that we should not take lightly. We have to ask why only 10% of the English fishing fleet’s workforce are from the European Union or non-EEA countries, but 35% of the Scottish workforce and 53% of the Northern Irish workforce are. There must be a reason for the difference.
I referred to the Department for Infrastructure, which is responsible for this in Northern Ireland. It did a Europe-wide recruitment programme and filled only five out of 150 jobs. Clearly, a lot of effort has been put in by the Northern Ireland Assembly and by other bodies in the United Kingdom. With respect, that proves that we need to trawl more widely to recruit fishermen from the Philippines, because that is the only place potential workers are coming from.
The Northern Ireland Assembly has to be commended for making that effort, but we also have to mention salaries. Margins in fishing and agriculture are not large, which is a big challenge, because people cannot rustle up a high salary if they are not making much profit, but basic economics says that if someone cannot recruit, they have to look at terms and conditions, and obviously salaries.
My right hon. Friend the Immigration Minister and I have looked carefully at some of the good ideas put forward by the Fishermen’s Welfare Alliance. I am open to the idea of the temporary scheme that existed between 2009 and 2012, and I will press the Immigration Minister, and the Government more broadly, to explore that to allow some of those issues to be addressed. We have also had representations from the trade unions, which wrote directly to the Home Office to express their concerns about proposals to lower the bar for the admission of fishermen working in the inshore fleet. In their view, that might weaken our commitment to increase employment opportunities in the UK’s domestic maritime sector.
As a Home Office Minister, I understand the industry’s pressing need, but I also understand that that need is not unique to fishing but is clearly present in agriculture, whether that is soft fruit or other parts. It is also extant for other skills. When I was a Northern Ireland Minister, there was a need for skills in the tech and digital industries, because firms were moving from Northern Ireland to the Republic of Ireland because they could find the skilled workforce more easily there. We have to tackle the skills issue in a way that reflects the pressing need, and invest in our domestic workforce at the same time. The Home Office should be open to looking to relieve some of those pressures temporarily, however, as it has in the past. I will press the case for doing that for fishing in the Department and to the Immigration Minister, as they are doing for other parts of the economy that face those issues.
As we approach leaving the European Union, it will be easier to strike the balance between immigration policy and domestic skills policy. The Government will obviously be listening to the industry and stakeholders about that to inform a new immigration Bill, in line with the new fisheries strategy that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs published, which looks at what we will do with our fisheries after Brexit to ensure that we have the skills to match.
In the past, there have been successful short-term schemes, but we need to stimulate our domestic skills base as well and ensure that the terms and conditions are met in a way that looks after people who come here to work. In offshore fishing, where there has not been that restriction, we have seen considerable exploitation of workers in some cases. Border Force has stopped factory ships, where people are part of the human slavery that has been going on. We have to be alert to that position. [Interruption.] It is not independence, by the way.
We have to listen to the independent Migration Advisory Committee, which has previously looked at the issue. It is looking at several factors again as we approach Brexit, and we will be open to its research-based views and suggestions. The Immigration Minister has obviously heard the previous calls from hon. Members, and I will ensure that this debate is reflected to her when I see her later today.
Hon. Members should not think that the Government do not take the importance of the fishing industry seriously; we absolutely do. We do not think that people working on boats are unskilled—clearly, they are. I have been up to some of the fishing boats at places such as Fraserburgh and Peterhead, and my seat neighbour Fleetwood has one of the main fishing processors in England, so I am not blind to the industry. The tier 2 visa is for work at a graduate level. As a non-graduate myself, perhaps there is something to examine in the way we define skills after Brexit.
It is a serious matter, and we should be trying to get on and deal with it. We will listen to representations from all hon. Members, but we have to bear in mind the wider immigration picture, no matter which party is in government—the rules were set in 2008. It is true that immigration and skills affect the constituencies of the hon. Members present, who predominantly represent north-east Scotland, but also Northern Ireland and the Western Isles, but they also affect all industries, and we have to address that in future.
There is no substitute for long-term planning for skills. I am acutely aware that employment, long-term planning and education in Scotland have been the Scottish National party’s responsibility for a very long time. If the fishing fleets are desperate for workers, what have the Scottish Government been doing for the last 10 years to prepare their workforce and people to come forward and fill those places? The answer is that education in Scotland has declined under the SNP’s leadership, which is tragic, because my forefathers in Keith were teachers. That is potentially why there is a big problem. [Interruption.] Although they are crowing from the side lines, the SNP—
The best way to approach a skills problem is through long-term investment, coupled with short-term measures to fill the gaps. At the same time, we need to address conditions and workforce problems so that people want to work in industries such as heavy industry, fishing or agriculture. I have listened to the genuine concerns constructively expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Moray, and I will take forward his ideas to my right hon. Friend the Immigration Minister and into Home Office policy.
It has been a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts, and I am grateful for the way you have chaired the debate. I thank all right hon. and hon. Members who have contributed.
The hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Angus Brendan MacNeil) made a good speech, in which he described his local constituency issues and the issue that he has raised many times. In intervening on the hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Afzal Khan), he mentioned some messages that he had received during the debate. I also received a message asking, “How many times will Angus Brendan MacNeil mention his pre-prepared press release?” It was a big part of his speech. I hope that he will be able to send that press release one day, and we are all able to see it.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Bill Grant) was right to highlight the skills of young people who want a career in the industry. We have to ensure that there are opportunities for young people in our communities to join the industry if they want, but there are not enough of them at the moment.
The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) spoke passionately about the issue, which he has great experience of and has been dealing with for so long, as a council member, an Assembly member and now a Member of Parliament. It was useful to hear his experience of all those areas.
My hon. Friend the Member for Angus (Kirstene Hair) made a call for mitigation sooner rather than later, which was echoed by hon. Members across the Chamber. My hon. Friend the Member for Banff and Buchan (David Duguid) mentioned his considerable experience in the area, and rightly talked about the irony of taking back control of our waters, only to leave them unfished if we do not have enough people to work in them.
I am grateful that the Security Minister is present, and I understand why the Immigration Minister could not make it, because of a conflict with Cabinet. Like him, I served in the Scottish Parliament before I came down here so he has experience of the industry, having represented the north-east of Scotland. I was grateful to hear him say that he would press for a temporary solution and take back what has been said in the debate by hon. Members of all parties to the Immigration Minister and the Government. That is all we can ask for. An immediate solution would be great, but a temporary solution is one we would like. I am grateful for everyone’s contributions.
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).
Construction Industry Training Board HQ
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the Construction Industry Training Board proposal to move its headquarters from Bircham Newton, West Norfolk.
Thank you very much indeed, Mr Betts, for calling me to speak. It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for a debate on an issue that may not be of crucial national importance but is extremely important for my constituency.
The Construction Industry Training Board has been based in Bircham Newton in west Norfolk since 1964. CITB took over a disused RAF station—RAF Bircham Newton—and when the then Government gave it the base, which comprises about 300 acres, the quid pro quo was that it would move the National Construction College and the training activities to Bircham and, basically, take over the jobs that had been supplied by the Ministry of Defence and the RAF. Today, about 600 jobs are based at Bircham and they are spread in roughly four ways, among the headquarters, the National Construction College and other colleges, the card scheme call centre and the awarding body.
CITB raises about £300 million in income every year—in fact, the amount for the current financial year is £307 million—of which I believe 63% comes from the levy, authorised by Parliament, allowing CITB to raise money from the industry. That money is used on the grant scheme and charitable activities; in fact, CITB is a registered charity.
I am delighted to see that it is the Minister for School Standards who will respond to this debate, because although he is not the Minister responsible for this issue, his position means that he takes a great interest in the whole apprenticeship and skills agenda. The construction and civil engineering sector is a vital part of our economy. In order for it to be able to compete internationally and deliver the highest possible safety and skills, it is necessary to have an organisation such as CITB and, indeed, a levy, without which CITB would not be able to raise money from the industry.
I will not go into too much detail about why we need CITB, because I want to concentrate on its “Vision 2020” and what will happen in the future. Before doing so, however, I will just say a word or two about the proposal’s profound impact on my constituency. King’s Lynn in the centre of my constituency is a town of about 40,000 people and it is surrounded by many remote rural villages. Bircham is about 10 miles from King’s Lynn and CITB is a very big employer in a remote rural area. It provides high-quality jobs, and the links to the community, which have been established over all the years that CITB has been at Bircham, are extremely significant, because CITB has been excellent in its outreach to the community and in putting in place its community social responsibility.
Of course, there is also the multiplier effect, because an organisation employing that number of people on good wages in a remote area will have a profound impact on suppliers and on the small and medium-sized enterprise sector. That multiplier effect underpins probably at least as many jobs as CITB offers directly, possibly many more.
There has been a really important link between the community of west Norfolk, my constituency and CITB. I also suggest that there has been a covenant, as it were, between CITB and the local area, because we have supplied it with a truly excellent place to do business, to carry out its training and to locate its headquarters; in turn, CITB has made investments in the area. That covenant between CITB and the local area is based on trust and partnership.
As the Minister will be aware, in 2017 a consensus process was carried out and, furthermore, Her Majesty’s Government carried out an industrial training board review. One of the conditions of CITB raising the levy, through statute and under parliamentary control, is that it needs to build consensus with the industry and get its support.
Obviously, the consensus process takes place regularly, and in 2017 consensus had to be built with the industry at a time when many smaller firms were finding the levy onerous, and a number of larger construction and civil engineering businesses were making it very clear that they wanted CITB to change. They all took the view—and I think the Government did, too—that CITB was underperforming, had rather lost its way and needed a new vision. The result was last year’s CITB’s “Vision 2020” paper and recommendations.
CITB submitted a business plan to adopt a simpler and more streamlined way of working, and described it as “levy in, skills out”. It wants to become an oversight body and an enabler, rather than a direct provider of different services. Part of the process of building “Vision 2020” is to exit direct training. At the moment, CITB provides the training itself through the National Construction College and other colleges, which are incredibly impressive. They operate out of a number of buildings in Bircham Newton, some of which are former RAF hangars and ideal for different types of training, including bricklaying. Outside those hangars—indeed, on the airfield itself—CITB can provide scaffolding training and heavy plant training. There is a huge amount of space and the National Construction College is a world-class college.
I certainly find it regrettable that CITB is going to exit direct training, because there is a cadre of really impressive instructors and support staff at the National Construction College. I understand the arguments—although I do not agree with them—that the CITB should exit direct training to become an overseer and an enabler.
The second part of “Vision 2020” is to hive off CITB’s non-core activities, such as the card scheme and the awarding body, and the third part is to co-locate the headquarters. Currently, CITB’s headquarters are split among Bircham Newton, London and a few satellite offices. Let us look at each of those in turn.
I have already mentioned the National Construction College and the world-class activity that goes on there. Any Minister who visits it can only be impressed at the calibre of the instructors, the ethos of the place and its reputation for delivering top-class training. Furthermore, a lot of money has been spent on the college’s training facilities, the hangars and the other support facilities, as well as on the student accommodation, which is obviously vital. If the aim is to attract students sponsored by the different construction firms, those students require good accommodation and a lot of money has been spent on that in recent years.
I think that moving away from direct training is a bad decision and I believe that a more confident, better-run and better-managed organisation would have had the presence of mind to have made the case for retaining the direct training provision. However, that argument has now moved on, leaving, unfortunately, a great deal of uncertainty among the cadre of instructors and support staff, who feel they have been very badly let down. On the other hand, there are many construction and civil engineering businesses out there that I think will consider taking on that contract. I have spoken to plenty of firms that have great trust in Bircham and I think they will put in a bid to take on the contract to provide training.
Let us have look at the other parts of “Vision 2020”. The card scheme and the awarding body are non-core activities and will be sold off. In fact, the awarding body has already been sold off to a larger business, which has moved it to an innovation and technology centre in King’s Lynn. That is very good news indeed and there is no reason why the card scheme, which is based near a call centre, cannot stay in the area, too. The prospects are promising and I am working with CITB to ensure that that process makes progress.
As I have said, the headquarters are currently split among mainly London, Bircham Newton and a number of satellite offices. There has been a consultation on moving the headquarters, and CITB says that it wants to co-locate them. I absolutely get that argument because split headquarters do not enable the best possible streamlined management that we would expect. Unfortunately, the consultation has been extremely badly handled and the staff have been let down in many ways. Had there been a better consultation, the current situation of really poor staff morale might well have been averted. For example, at the start of the consultation process, incorrect letters were sent to a number of employees. According to middle management and the unions, which have proposed an alternative plan, that has led to a huge amount of stress and confusion. I certainly believe that that could have been avoided.
In its paper of 25 June, CITB makes the case for new streamlined headquarters. I get that, but I do not understand why it says that they cannot be at Bircham. It says that they need to be moved to a new location, away from Norfolk, that has better communications and a better pool of skills, and which clients, industry and the Government are able to reach more effectively and efficiently. Middle management and the unions made an alternative case for keeping the headquarters at Bircham, which I support 100%. At this juncture, for CITB to move from headquarters that it owns and has recently spent a great deal of money on makes no sense whatsoever.
I will go through the main arguments for staying at Bircham. If an organisation owns somewhere and then sells it to move to another office it owns, I get that, but CITB says that it will sell the entire Bircham site and rent an office, preferably at Peterborough. I have nothing against Peterborough. My constituency has great economic links with the city and, indeed, with Cambridge and Norwich, but Peterborough is about 40 miles away. Yes, it has good communications, being on the A1 and having a main line rail service, but King’s Lynn also has a good rail service and, with modern working practices in place, and with the power of the net and more flexible working, there is absolutely no reason why the headquarters cannot stay at Bircham. Furthermore, the headquarters staff are trained up, highly motivated and know the area. They work in extremely congenial surroundings, on a former RAF base in beautiful countryside with the most fantastic views. Job satisfaction is incredibly high. They do not have far to drive to work—some probably cycle. It is a very happy atmosphere, which has been completely poisoned by CITB’s suggestions. What is worse, in the collective consultation’s supporting information the organisation has the nerve to say that middle management and the unions have not put forward an alternative location. They have, and it is Bircham. That statement is completely and utterly insulting.
Furthermore, staff must be kept on side. The process will be difficult and tough. If CITB moves out of direct training, it must have supportive and loyal headquarters staff who are motivated and who understand the organisation. What it has done so far is to collapse staff morale, creating real anger and bitterness, and I am very angry myself about how this has been handled. The organisation has been extremely badly managed at the higher level—middle management has done an excellent job—with an absolute absence of strong leadership and, indeed, proper vision. It keeps talking about “Vision 2020” but there has been no proper vision regarding how the organisation should move forward and, as a result, the staff are extremely angry. A new chairman has come in, Peter Lauener, for whom I have great admiration, but he has his work cut out. If the organisation is to recover in any way, shape or form, the decision must be reversed.
There are other arguments for staying at Bircham, which I will briefly put to the Minister. The first is that it is important to have a positive, constructive relationship with the new training provider, whoever that might be—it could be one of the large civil engineering companies, or a further education college. The training contract is worth many millions of pounds—possibly hundreds of millions. If the headquarters move to Peterborough and all the current staff are either contracted out, as some will be, or do not move—the staff surveys show that very few want to—there will be new management and historic knowledge will be lost. The current staff will not be on hand to manage the important relationship with the new provider. There are bound to be teething problems with the new provider, with the protocols and the specifications, but it needs to be a partnership. If the headquarters are moved to Peterborough or elsewhere—such as Milton Keynes, or even down to the south coast—that staff will not be on hand to oversee and work alongside the new training provider.
Another important reason why CITB must stay at Bircham—in the short term, at any rate—is the oversight of the masterplan for Bircham Newton. I will not go into details, but my right hon. Friend the Minister can talk to my right hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton (Dominic Raab)—I am glad to say that he is now right honourable—who, when he came to Bircham the other day, as Minister for Housing, which includes responsibility for planning, was incredibly impressed by what he saw. I think he was amazed at how modern and impressive the buildings were, and really blown away by the site and all it had to offer.
The site is more than 300 acres and is divided in half by the B1153. The eastern part, which is probably half of the total acreage, has been completely underutilised historically and it has the most phenomenal potential for all sorts of exciting, dynamic possibilities. There could be some new housing or a science park, and there is no reason why we could not have an offshore wind farm academy. Along the Norfolk, Lincolnshire and Suffolk coast there are vast numbers of offshore wind farms and there is a burgeoning onshore service sector. However, we need skills and training in that sector, and what better place to locate a college than Bircham Newton? There could be demonstration eco-homes on that part of the site, provided by different construction and housing companies that would bring their trainees from around the country to work in an environment that would be highly conducive to improving those skills. There could also be supply chain centres of excellence.
To oversee such a great programme of reform and innovation, we need a strong input from CITB itself; it needs to be on hand to oversee the masterplan. We have in place a taskforce of which I am a member, chaired by CITB and with the membership of the local councils, the borough council, the county council, the local enterprise partnership, the further education college and all the other bodies that really want to make the masterplan work. If we get that plan right, we will have something to be proud of. As the Minister knows, Norfolk and Suffolk have far too many disused RAF bases that have not had a masterplan and have been subjected to inappropriate development with no proper oversight or consistency, and all the things that can go wrong with ad hoc development on a brownfield site have gone wrong on some of those airfields. They are not places to be proud of. If we get this right we will have something we can be really proud of, but we need CITB on hand to work alongside the MPs—my right hon. Friend the Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb) and me—and the local councils, the LEP and so on. Getting it wrong does not bear thinking about.
What I suggest to CITB is a compromise arrangement. I will go along with plans to diversify training and sell off non-core activities, and I also support the plan to co-locate the two headquarters, but what I am saying to the incoming chairman, Peter Lauener, is that he needs to keep the headquarters at Bircham for at least three to four years. If he does that, he will not hollow out senior management, lose a huge amount of historic knowledge, go through very costly disruption or spend a lot of money that CITB probably does not have on renting new offices, and he will be on hand to oversee the training partnership and the masterplan.
What I find depressing is that the state of mind of CITB senior management seems to be such that it has made a decision and is determined to go, even though it says in letters that there is ongoing consultation on Peterborough and the preferred location for the joint headquarters. It says that is not a final position and that collective consultation remains open for the unions, middle management and elected employee representatives to submit for consideration any proposal that includes an alternative location. We have submitted exactly that—staying at Bircham.
Peter Lauener has two choices. He can either go ahead with this ill-thought-out, illogical move now—in other words, take a decision later this year and move towards the end of next year or in early 2020—or put things on hold and we can all see what the position looks like in, say, three years’ time. That would enable us to see how the training partnership and the masterplan develop. If the jobs are secured, would it be the end of the world if CITB then said, “We have overseen this great success story and we are going to move to somewhere that is nearer to our client base”?
Alternatively, it can carry on with the current policy, which will result in the organisation going into meltdown. There will be a further, complete collapse in staff morale and a withdrawal of co-operation and good will from the staff. There will also be a significant backlash from MPs in the region and county, the local councils and the LEP. There will be a dissipation and destruction of that good will, which will make life very difficult for CITB. It will be difficult to continue its current “Vision 2020”. If CITB carries on like this, MPs will say that the organisation is not fit for purpose, does not deserve the levy and deserves to close down completely.
Will the Minister make it very clear that although he supports “Vision 2020”, Ministers do not have a strong view on the organisation moving to Peterborough or any other new headquarters? Ministers should listen carefully to what I am saying, call in the new chairman and make clear to him that he is in danger of presiding over a complete disaster area. A once proud organisation will fail completely, unless action is taken.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North West Norfolk (Sir Henry Bellingham) on securing this debate.
At the heart of our industrial strategy is having a skilled workforce that supports the continued development of our economy. The construction workforce is fundamental to that development—to building new homes, hospitals and schools and creating new jobs across the country. The workforce needs to be of a high quality, and the Construction Industry Training Board plays an important role in ensuring that the construction workforce grows and is trained to a very high standard.
I appreciate my hon. Friend’s concerns about CITB selling Bircham Newton as part of its wider reform plans, and I have listened carefully to what he has said. He made a compelling case for the CITB HQ to remain at Bircham Newton in his constituency. I can confirm that Ministers do not have a preference for where the HQ should be located. We support the reform programme and “Vision 2020”, which emerged from the industrial training boards review. I also appreciate that the local community is understandably apprehensive about the impact the reforms and this particular proposal will have on them.
CITB is an industry-led statutory body established under the Industrial Training Act 1964. It has a central role in training the construction workforce. It provides a range of services, including setting occupational standards, funding strategic industry initiatives and paying direct grants to employers who carry out training to approved standards. CITB is funded by a levy on British construction firms in England, Scotland and Wales. The levy is approved every three years by a consensus vote of industry federations. There is a serious risk that without that levy-funded training, there would not be enough skills training in construction and the sector could face a serious skills shortage. Construction has a weak track record of investment in skills and is characterised by high levels of self-employment and the use of subcontractors. Indeed, those are two fundamental reasons why we have a levy and why CITB was established.
In the autumn Budget and the housing White Paper, the Government announced a target of building 300,000 new homes a year by the mid-2020s. That relies on having a skilled, highly trained workforce. The UK construction sector needs highly skilled people with the capacity to carry out that scale of work. CITB’s strategic oversight of construction skills training is critical in ensuring that.
A recent Government report on industry training boards concluded that industry training boards with levy-raising powers remain the right model to support the construction and engineering construction industries. It recommended that CITB reforms its operating model and re-focuses on addressing the market failure to train enough skilled staff. It saw the need for CITB to concentrate on driving improvements in skills and training outcomes in line with its statutory purpose.
The industry itself recognises the need for change. The 2017 levy consensus consultation saw equally clear calls from the industry for CITB to reform. In response, CITB announced a major reform programme on 15 November 2017. Its aim was to reposition and repurpose itself to deliver the skills required by the industry. The reform programme has three key elements: the divestment of CITB’s skills training sites; the outsourcing of back office facilities in line with public sector activity—including human resources and IT, among others; and the creation of a single, centrally located headquarters.
CITB will no longer directly train construction workers in its network of training centres located around the UK or run the industry-led construction skills certification scheme, as my hon. Friend referred to. At present, CITB has significant conflicts of interests as it is the provider of training and the body responsible for setting standards. Leaving the training market will allow CITB to focus on its core functions of market sustainability, quality and standards. Outsourcing back office functions will enable CITB to make substantial savings. It is standard practice. CITB will work with future providers to minimise any effects on staff.
CITB’s head offices functions are currently spread over seven sites. Unsurprisingly that results in duplication and inefficiencies, as well as creating an unwieldy decision-making process. Creating a single head office will streamline CITB’s decision making, as well as increasing business co-ordination and continuity. The location of the head office is important. CITB covers the whole of the UK. A central location therefore makes sense for practical and business reasons. As I mentioned earlier, as Ministers we have no view on where that central location should be.
On 27 March 2018, CITB opened a consultation on the creation of a single head office and its location. All parties that could be affected have been involved. CITB is consulting a total of 133 head office staff from the sites in London, Bircham Newton in Norfolk and Thurmaston in Leicestershire. The Norfolk site has the largest number of head office staff, as my hon. Friend said. There is local concern about the future of the site, and the consultation process is still open. On 4 July, CITB discussed its intention to proceed with the head office relocation with its affected staff. CITB remains open to any proposals that meet its long-term requirements.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for highlighting the issue. There is a strong public interest in having a highly skilled and efficient construction industry. The country’s economic success and social progress rely on building more homes and delivering key infrastructure projects. We need a highly skilled construction workforce with the capacity to carry out the Government’s house building ambition and key infrastructure projects. CITB has a vital role to play in delivering that skilled workforce. It is crucial that CITB is able to deliver its reform programme to undertake that role and to retain the trust and support of the industry it serves.
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).
Homelessness among Refugees
[Sir Henry Bellingham in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered homelessness among refugees.
It is an enormous pleasure to lead the debate under your chairmanship, Sir Henry. I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests on the financial support I received for research capacity in my office in relation to my work on asylum seekers, refugees and migrants. I apologise that that notification was not given in advance of the debate—I very much regret that omission.
Many of the debates that we have in this place regarding refugees and asylum seekers concentrate on the process of applying for refugee status. Prolonged delays, poor decision making, the irrational and cruel use of immigration detention, and the meanness of financial support provided through the National Asylum Support Service all rightly attract fierce criticism. However, what receives less attention—and this is the issue I wish to raise in today’s debate—relates to what happens when someone has the good news that they have been granted refugee status.
It is deeply concerning that even once asylum is granted, many refugees continue to experience homelessness and hardship. The homelessness charity Crisis reported that in 2016-17, 478 people—7% of those who approached it for help—had nowhere to live after leaving asylum accommodation. That was more than double the number in 2014-15. In a sample of night shelters over the winter of 2017-18, the No Accommodation Network report, “Mind the Gap”, which was published in May, found that 48 out of 169 people requiring emergency accommodation were refugees. In one shelter, 50% of the refugee guests had left asylum accommodation within the previous six months.
The hon. Lady raises a list of things that surprise people regarding how refugees are treated. Does she share, as I do, the concerns expressed by the recent Jesuit Refugee Service report on the discredited nature of information about refugees’ home countries? Given the breadth of our Foreign Office’s reach, how does she think that has come about?
It is obviously not the same for every single country or every individual asylum case. It is important that we recognise that our obligation to give refuge is shaped by international treaties and conventions that we are long signed up to, and which look on a case-by-case basis at the danger that an individual faces in their country of origin. We need to be clear that we have a robust decision-making process that properly assesses that danger, and be confident in presenting to the country that our process works well. Sadly, at the moment, delays and poor decisions mean that often it does not.
For those who gain refugee status, there is an issue of becoming homeless once they are recognised as refugees. The Refugee Council interviewed 54 refugees for a study in 2017, and found that none had secured accommodation by the time they left asylum accommodation, and that more than half had slept rough, or in a hostel or homeless shelter, after being granted status. The decision to grant status—a moment that should represent relief from fear and the chance finally to rebuild a shattered life—can instead become the start of a new nightmare.
The problem lies fundamentally in the incredibly short move-on period, which allows refugees a mere 28 days to leave Home Office accommodation after they have been granted refugee status, and to move from NASS to mainstream benefits. In that time, they must obtain their national insurance number, open a bank account, receive their biometric residence permit, navigate a complex benefits system, and find somewhere to live and, if they are able to work, a job, while settling into their new life. For many—mentally traumatised, struggling with poor English and disconnected from mainstream services—it is simply too much to cope with.
The hon. Lady is making entirely the right points. In 2015-16, Northern Ireland had more than 100 refugees who we believed were in destitution. Is she aware that Belfast City Council commissioned the Law Centre of Northern Ireland to produce a refugee transitional guide? The Select Committee on Work and Pensions recognised that guide as describing best practice, and asked the Department to distribute it right across the United Kingdom so that when people find themselves navigating that system and process they get the best advice and help possible.
I am aware of the work of the Northern Ireland Law Centre, which was one of a number of organisations that helpfully briefed me for the debate. As the hon. Gentleman says, that guide is an extremely useful resource.
Although voluntary groups are providing such resources, the system is fundamentally making things harder for refugees. Their first universal credit payment will not be made for more than a month. Although advance payments are available, they cannot be paid until someone has a national insurance number and a bank account, and their availability appears not to be well signposted by either the Home Office or Jobcentre Plus. Meanwhile, local housing allocation rules may not give priority to new refugees, particularly those who move into a new area to be with other members of their community. Those factors are placing refugees at grave risk of homelessness and destitution.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing today’s debate. It must have struck all of us in the Chamber that any of the challenges she has outlined that refugees face in beginning to engage with life in the UK—whether it be opening a bank account, getting a national insurance number or accessing appropriate healthcare—would be difficult for a British citizen to do within a 28-day period, let alone somebody who may not have English as a first language and who may well have a number of complex needs and family needs related to the reason they were granted refugee status in the first place. Does she agree that the key, take-home message from the debate is that the 28-day period needs to be reviewed, and the Government need to do more to facilitate extra support for a very vulnerable group?
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. I am glad that she mentioned the 28-day move-on period, which the all-party parliamentary group on ending homelessness also recommended scrapping. Does she share my hope that the Minister will accept that recommendation for inclusion in the strategy, which is due by the end of the month?
I do, and I will be very interested to hear the Minister’s response.
I am grateful to charities and individuals who have shared stories to illustrate what it means for those who become refugees without either the resources or the home they need to rebuild their lives. The Boaz Trust, with which I have had the privilege of working in Manchester, told me about what happened to Mohsen, a 28-year-old man from Iran who arrived in the UK in 2015 and was found asylum accommodation in Manchester. He says:
“I left NASS in January 2018. They let me stay on for two more weeks because they knew I didn’t have anywhere to go. Then I stayed outside for 2 nights. It was very cold. After that I stayed in a shelter. After 3 weeks the NASS support stopped. Then after maybe three weeks my money came in from the Job Centre…When I left my NASS accommodation, I went to the council and registered with housing. I knew to do this because I have been here a long time. They said I am not priority, and I cannot have any hostel place. I applied for housing and I waited two months…At first the Council say there will be something in 4 weeks, then 8 weeks. In that time, I stayed at Boaz night shelter. Now I am in hostel and I am waiting for a house. I am bidding every week. It was hard staying in the night shelter, staying in different areas every night. During the day I have nowhere to go”.
Sadly, that is far from an untypical story.
My hon. Friend is describing a situation that we certainly experience in Sheffield. Voluntary organisations and charities that work with refugees have identified another growing problem that is contributing to homelessness, which is an increasing number of people getting discretionary leave to remain. They are falling through the middle—they lose out on the support they were getting as refugees but do not have recourse to public funds. Does my hon. Friend recognise that that is another serious problem that the Government need to address?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that matter. It cannot be right that we allow anyone to be destitute in this country, whatever circumstances they find themselves in.
Mohsen’s story is far from untypical and the situation is even more dire for families with children, sometimes creating serious safeguarding issues. Asylum Matters told me about Bao, who was originally trafficked from Vietnam and received refugee status in November 2017 after going through the national referral mechanism. Less than one month later, his daughter was born. The family survived on £35 per week in asylum support, but that stopped and he did not know how to apply for benefits. When he tried to find a home, the council told him he would need to find private rented accommodation. The private landlords all wanted a deposit or guarantor, which he could not provide because he had no savings. An integration loan could have helped him, but he was refused a loan by the Home Office, which claimed he was already integrated because he had been here for such a long time. That meant he could not secure a private tenancy because he had no money to pay for the deposit. He and his baby daughter were destitute for nearly four months, forced to survive on the charity of friends for food and milk and somewhere to sleep—on their floor.
Such cases are cause for enormous concern. I am glad that the Government have accepted that there is a problem and have attempted a number of measures to deal with that, but although it is a pleasure to see the Minister in his place this afternoon, I am a little disappointed that the debate is not being answered by a Home Office Minister as I requested. Fundamentally, we need cross-governmental action to address a mismatch of policies across different Government Departments and the failure of any one Department to own the problem. I believe the Home Office should be taking the lead in joining up policy and procedures. I hope the Minister will share the breadth of my concerns with all of his ministerial colleagues.
The hon. Lady is making some excellent points. Does she accept—I am sure she does—that a contributory factor to refugees being in severe hardship once they have been awarded status is that they are not permitted to work during the time that they are here? Would it not be better, not just for them and their families, but for the country, if they were able to potentially build up savings and contribute and pay taxes during the time they are waiting for their asylum case to be heard, so that they are ready to be fully fledged members of our society at the point at which they are given status?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making that point. I strongly support the right of asylum seekers to work when the Home Office has singularly failed to meet its own obligations to process cases and make a decision within the given timescale. As the hon. Gentleman says, allowing them to do so would enable them to maintain their skills, build up some savings and remain connected with the wider community. Although that may not be a matter for today’s Minister to address, it is certainly one that I strongly support.
Let us consider what action has been taken to date by the Government, because some initiatives have been welcome. The Home Office is rolling out the post-grant appointment service to smooth the referral to Jobcentre Plus for making an initial benefits claim. That follows a pilot in two regions last year, but there were some reports of problems. During a two-week period in February, the refugee support team at the British Red Cross asked 20 individuals in South Yorkshire about their experience of the warm handover pilot. Only one individual stated explicitly that they had received a phone call from Migrant Help, which provided the service. Eight individuals said they had not received any contact, while 11 were unsure whether they had. It may be that those are isolated cases, or that problems have since been resolved, but in a parliamentary answer to Baroness Lister on 29 June, Baroness Buscombe refused to publish the results of the Government’s evaluation of the pilot.
Although the commitment to provide advice and support to new refugees in the move-on period is a welcome addition to the new advice, issue resolution and eligibility contract, charities have seen communication from the Home Office that suggests that the support will be limited to operating the post-grant appointment service only. Advice and guidance in the move-on period must be more comprehensive if it is to address the issue of refugee destitution. In particular, closer working between the Government and third-sector providers is needed. I urge the Minister to encourage ministerial colleagues to publish the evaluation report on the post-grant appointment service pilot and to ensure that the lessons about the wider advice needs of refugees are acted on.
Of course, I am pleased that 35 asylum support liaison officers are now being appointed in a number of local authorities, funded by the controlling migration fund, but it is not clear how their work will be monitored and evaluated. I hope the Minister will say more about that this afternoon. The Government’s integrated communities fund is also intended to provide support for refugees, but again there is little detail as yet on how it will do that. Perhaps the Minister will be able to enlighten us.
It is welcome that national insurance numbers will now be included on the biometric residence permits that refugees receive. Usually, though not invariably, they arrive within a matter of days. That is helpful, because a national insurance number is required for payment of universal credit, although it is not necessary for making an application. The payment is essential for new refugees to pay for, among other things, their accommodation.
Significant problems continue with the issue of national insurance numbers. Some 65% of the new refugees seen by the British Red Cross in South Yorkshire over a two-week period in February during the move-on period had not had an application made to the Home Office for a national insurance number. Those who do not have one must complete the application process over the phone, which often takes 40 minutes. Apparently, 10 questions are asked at the start of the process before the individual is offered the services of an interpreter. Following that phone conversation, the new refugee has to attend a face-to-face appointment before the national insurance number is issued.
Those who lack a national insurance number include people who have joined a partner in the UK under the Dublin rules on refugee family reunion. The result is that sometimes quite large families are struggling to survive on the income from one single parent’s jobseeker’s allowance claim for six weeks or more, while their partner awaits their national insurance number. I have raised this issue previously with Home Office Ministers, but the problem remains unresolved.
Ultimately, this all places unnecessary barriers in the way of enabling new refugees to settle, receive benefits or wages and access suitable accommodation. Can the Minister say anything about what conversations are taking place across the relevant Government Departments to streamline and support refugees and to ensure that national insurance numbers are always issued swiftly and smoothly?
The Minister will be glad to know that I am now firmly in his ministerial territory. The Homelessness Reduction Act 2017 should be helpful, but its operation needs to be clarified and extended for refugees who are homeless or at risk of homelessness. Under the Act, from this October public authorities will be required to refer those at risk of homelessness to the local authority. That provision should be extended to cover providers of asylum accommodation.
I am glad my hon. Friend has mentioned the Homelessness Reduction Act. I led for the Opposition on that. There was a healthy degree of consensus then, as there seems to be in this debate. Is she, like me, looking for an assurance from the Minister that that consistency will now apply to extending the 28-day period to 56 days?
In a moment, I will ask the Minister exactly that.
Newly homeless people can get easement from job search requirements, being asked to focus instead on basic actions such as finding accommodation. That is at the discretion of their Jobcentre Plus work coach. It is not clear whether new refugees will be able to access a similar concession. In addition, refugees are treated as tier-two priority for alternative payment arrangements under universal credit. Alternative payment arrangements would mean, for example, that rent could be paid directly to their landlord, potentially making it easier for them to secure a tenancy. Will the Minister confirm whether any discussion is taking place between his Department and the Department for Work and Pensions on reprioritising refugees as tier one for alternative payment arrangements and on granting them easement from work search obligations so that they can concentrate on looking for accommodation?
Although the changes made to date are welcome, more is clearly needed to make them fully effective. The most important policy change to make, however, as has been alluded to around the Chamber this afternoon and which would ensure that newly recognised refugees do not end up destitute and at risk of homelessness, is to maintain Home Office support until mainstream benefits are ready to start, by extending the 28-day move-on period.
I am aware that on 3 July Baroness Williams claimed in a written answer to Baroness Lister that NACCOM’s “Mind the Gap” report
“does not show that these problems will be resolved by extending the 28 days period”,
but Ministers must be aware that there is widespread agreement among campaigners and, it would appear, in this House that it would do so.
At the very least, the move-on period should not start until someone receives all documentation, including a national insurance number, but I invite the Minister to be bolder. The Homelessness Reduction Act extends to 56 days the period during which someone can be deemed threatened with homelessness, and the universal credit waiting period is five weeks. The move-on period should be extended in line with those timescales—to have it otherwise is perverse and illogical.
In conclusion, the Government have more to do to ensure coherent, whole-system support across national and local government for those newly granted refugee status. We can be proud to give refuge to those who flee persecution and seek safety here and proud that refugees are welcome in our country, but too many begin their lives here in penury, and the system is to blame for that. Today, I hope that the Minister will take the chance to tell us the steps the Government will take to improve things.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Henry.
I commend the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) for securing the debate. I also pay tribute to my intern, Gillian Hughes, who is working with me for a few weeks and helped to prepare for this debate.
Given the complexity of Home Office procedures and the conscious decision of this Government to create a hostile environment, it is not surprising that so many asylum-seeking constituents come to me for support with their cases. However, it is even less palatable to know the new range of problems that refugees often face after going through the harrowing process of achieving leave to remain, not least the loss of their financial support and accommodation within only 28 days of a successful decision from the Home Office.
I am in the process of moving house and I can testify that it is a stressful event, even when done voluntarily and with the chance to prepare financially, so imagine trying to do it within 28 days, after having been restricted to not working, while surviving on an income of £37.70 per week and despite language barriers, unfamiliarity with the area and often no support network. In such circumstances, homelessness is a real threat.
It stands to reason that support from the National Asylum Support Service ends when someone is no longer in the process of claiming asylum. However, that should be a managed transition over a reasonable period of time. To end support abruptly makes it extremely difficult for new refugees to move forward, and places a burden on other Departments, local authorities and charities that are already at breaking point.
Last month, I held a special asylum and refugee surgery in Cranhill in my constituency in conjunction with a fantastic Glasgow charity called Refuweegee. It provides practical support in the form of donated clothing, food, toys and other necessities, and it collects welcome letters written by people from all over the city to our newest Glaswegians. One such letter that struck me recently was from a wee girl called Kiera. Kiera had written a beautiful note: “Please don’t worry, you are safe now.” How do we explain to Kiera that of 54 refugees interviewed by the Refugee Council in September last year, not one had found secure accommodation by the time their asylum accommodation was withdrawn, and half of them had been forced to sleep rough or in a night shelter?
Local authorities normally consider homelessness to be imminent if someone is within 56 days of it becoming a reality. Refugees, however, are expected to be able to move on within only half that time. It is not a practical timeframe to impose on some of the most vulnerable within our communities, especially if the Government are serious about their pledge to halve rough sleeping by 2022 and to eliminate it by 2027.
A secure home, as I am sure everyone in the Chamber agrees, is the cornerstone of building a new life and establishing roots. Housing insecurity is a major barrier to education, employment and integration. For example, at the weekend I met a Baillieston constituent, Agatha Mazengera. Recently Agatha was granted refugee status. She has already passed her 28-day mark, but she has not yet been able to secure a permanent home.
Agatha and her daughter have been moved, temporarily, to a bedsit in the opposite end of the city to where their asylum accommodation was. Agatha was very active in her former neighbourhood, as part of the parent council and parent teacher association at her daughter’s school, and as a member of the local church. She tried to keep some sense of familiarity for her daughter by continuing to travel across the city for school each day, but sadly, after a while, that became unworkable. Agatha’s daughter Mychaella therefore had to leave behind her friends at a crucial time in her education, and had to start again at a new school. The ongoing uncertainty about their living conditions means that Mychaella may have to move school yet again. A managed transition, with some professional support would have enabled that family to continue to contribute to the community of which they had become such valuable members.
A leave to remain decision might enable someone to stay in the country, but as the system stands, a clock starts to tick, giving a mere 28 days for people to find work and leave what has been in essence their home. That is a tall order when they have been living hand to mouth, have no savings and often do not even have a bank account, and are learning a new language. I have no doubt that the majority of new refugees are as keen to move to a stable home and into work as the Home Office is for them to do so. We must therefore move away from the culture of hostile practice and provide a bit of support to do that.
We must take some simple, common-sense steps to reduce unnecessary incidences of homelessness or transient housing caused by that unrealistic timescale. Allowing 56 days to move on and providing access to mainstream homelessness prevention services could dramatically increase people’s chances.
Even when refugees play by the rules and do the right thing, Home Office error often leads to complications that end up with people being made homeless. That happened to Mr Musari and his family in my constituency. It took two years to overturn a mistake by the Home Office. Would it not be simpler to reverse the retraction of legal aid under the coalition Government, so that civil legal aid was available to refugees and others subject to Home Office decisions or affected by Home Office policy?
The hon. Gentleman’s intervention chimed with some of what I see in my constituency, such as issues with legal aid, in particular in devolved areas. It can only be even more difficult for the Home Office if it is not following its own procedures. That is a very valid point to make.
Allowing 56 days to move on and providing access to mainstream homelessness prevention services could dramatically increase the chances of people finding a suitable longer-term property. Being awarded refugee status should, at the very least, mean a fair chance of having a place of refuge. As Refuweegee in Glasgow states, “We’re all fae somewhere”, but right now our asylum accommodation system is failing people and leaving them with nowhere in the world to call home. I think everyone in this place would agree that we must do better.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Henry, and thank you for calling me to speak. It is pleasure to speak in this debate, and I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) for her powerful speech.
A local Member could pick up many issues to champion in this place. As well as fighting for workers’ rights, for a better deal for the people of my constituency and for a Labour Government, I have chosen to focus in part on refugees and the crisis that they face throughout the world. Earlier this year, I led a Westminster Hall debate about refugee family reunion. It was a good debate, with colleagues from across the House making sensible and at times moving contributions about the situation that refugees, often women and children, are facing here and in other parts of the world.
Let us be clear that those seeking refuge are fleeing violence, famine, disaster and oppression, and they deserve the right to something that we all have and that we fight for for our constituents—a safe, secure and long-term home. The crisis facing refugees has many elements, and the homelessness element is key. The Refugee Council noted that for many years the refugee sector has highlighted the high rate of homelessness among new refugees who have recently been granted status in the United Kingdom.
Almost 160,000 households experience homelessness across the United Kingdom, and around 9,000 people sleep rough on our UK streets on any given night. We see that in London and in Westminster, and I have seen it across Scotland. The high rate is caused by the short period in which new refugees are expected to move into mainstream accommodation. That is made far more difficult by the pressures on local government and housing associations, which have seen an increase in homelessness across the board. There are delays in accessing the social security system that is there to support those without.
We have all seen the Tory Government’s sustained and at times inhumane welfare policy, which has simply made things worse. Let us look at personal independence payments, universal credit, the cuts to housing benefit and the sanctions dished out for not turning up to work or an interview. Brexit chaos—a disaster made in Downing Street and in the office of the hon. Member for North East Somerset (Mr Rees-Mogg)—will make it even more difficult for refugees to secure the support and training needed to enter the workforce. Getting a job at all will be difficult if we crash out of the European Union as many on the Government Benches would like us to.
We have to act; we have to deliver; we have to do more. Members from all parties will agree that we need improvements to the way we support refugees and honour our responsibilities to the most vulnerable. I would like the Government to give this House and millions of people in our United Kingdom and across the world the assurance that Britain will focus on our responsibility to vulnerable women, men and children who come to Britain seeking peace and safety.
I wrote to the Minister for Immigration following the debate I led in February 2018, but I still have not had any reply, despite sending several follow-ups. No response. That is disappointing, and I hope my requests for information and answers will not be ignored today. In the context of the Government’s recent integrated communities Green Paper, what specific measures will they take to address refugee homelessness in this country? What discussions have taken place with the devolved Administrations in Cardiff and Edinburgh and with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to ensure that there is a co-ordinated response to this crisis across our United Kingdom? What discussions have taken place with housing associations to see how they can assist with the provision of safe and affordable homes for those who need one? What discussions have taken place with the Local Government Association to identify what support local government needs to be able to play its part? Finally, what thought has been given to introducing rent controls so that rogue landlords cannot lead us in a race to the bottom?
The housing crisis in our country needs addressing immediately. Hon. Members from all parties in this House know that this Government can act. I see a lot of young people sitting in the Public Gallery; they know what the housing crisis is like. Let us give them all a chance.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) for opening the debate. Many people have been shocked by the recent report from the No Accommodation Network, which found that 28% of guests of its night shelters were refugees. But that statistic is not surprising when we consider what this Government have done to restrict and dispossess refugees in this country.
I am not surprised by the statistics, since asylum seekers are not allowed to work and are forced to rely on state support of just £36.95 a week. I would be unable to live on that and I suspect that many people present would be unable to live a decent life on that, either. When claiming asylum, refugees are given no choice of accommodation or location; they are nearly always placed in hard-to-let properties where other people do not want to live and conditions are poor—damp and mould are rife. They are not the kind of conditions in which I, hon. Members or members of our community would expect to live, so why on earth do we put some of the most vulnerable in those kinds of properties?
The Home Office gives those newly granted asylum fewer than 28 days to start a new life, to leave accommodation and find housing, benefits, employment and a national insurance number. I am not surprised by that, because this Government have a hostile environment policy. The report found a direct link between this Government’s failed move-on policy and the high amount of homeless refugees in the UK. There is a direct link between this Government’s inaction and the more than 17,000 people who approached the charity Crisis last year with nowhere to live after leaving asylum accommodation. That figure has more than doubled in the three short years since 2015.
I am not surprised by the report, because the end game of this Government is an immovable commitment to the politics of restriction. Restrictive policies are designed to prevent and deter individuals from seeking asylum, and to be less welcoming and deny safety to those who need it most. It is precisely because of those policies that we need to have this debate. Why do refugees account for 28% of those in night shelters for the homeless, when refugees account for just 0.25% of the population? Why do refugees deserve less?
Some people claim that refugees do not deserve the same rights as British-born people. Some people say that refugees present a threat to our sovereignty and our security, because anyone who reaches the border is clearly a threat. The reality, however, is that it is the dangerous fanatics who are a threat, so why are this Government pursuing policies that those fanatics would applaud? Rights are not claimed by virtue of being British born or even of having citizenship, but by being a human being. The UK has signed up to commitments that we must fulfil. As a human right, the right to a decent place to live is no exception.
The Government must take steps to ensure that the Homelessness Reduction Act can be extended to refugees and that it is properly enforced, particularly in respect of support for an extra number of days. The Government’s inaction is drastically out of sync with the efforts of certain Departments to prevent homelessness and reduce rough sleeping in other parts of the population. How can we claim we have made progress if we have not supported the most vulnerable in our society? Refugees escape war, torture and see the most horrific things imaginable. They deserve to be welcomed and to be given decent accommodation.
Under the last Labour Government, the refugee integration and employment service offered 12 months of support for refugees’ access to housing, education, social security and the job market.
I thank my hon. Friend for mentioning the last Labour Government’s refugee integration strategy and the comprehensive plan for employment and support. Is he aware that that strategy was cancelled by the Liberal Democrat-Tory coalition Government in 2010?
Exactly—it was cancelled by the Conservative-Liberal coalition, to treat some of the most vulnerable in our society worse. The refugee integration and employment service was not perfect, but rather than building on it and improving it, the Conservative-Liberal Government scrapped it entirely, in a disgraceful move. I add my voice to those asking the Minister: will he ensure that people who are granted asylum are given the 56 days outlined in the Homelessness Reduction Act to find accommodation? If he commits to that today we will have started to take decent steps forward.
Over many years, Conservative Governments have given in to the demands of their populist right and the UK Independence party. They peddle the same myths and scare stories about migrants, refugees and people who claim asylum. Let us have an end to that. Why do the Government not stand up to that today? Last year we gave 10,000 people refugee status. Every minute that they wait in poor accommodation is a minute too long. We need change and we need compassion. We need to enable refugees to contribute to our society, and the way to do that is to contribute to their wellbeing and provide decent housing. It is not too much to ask. I beg the Minister to take action.
It is truly a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Henry, and to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Lloyd Russell-Moyle) and others who have all made such great contributions. I will not repeat what others have said. I will move on to a specific aspect, which, I am afraid to say, is possibly outside the Minister’s area of responsibility. None the less, it is entirely relevant to the topic under discussion: the right to work.
First, I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green), who is chair of the all-party group on migration, for securing this important debate and for working so closely with me as chair of the all-party group on refugees. We work closely together and I am very pleased about that.
I launched the “Refugees Welcome?” report just before the general election last year. The APPG on refugees produced it after an inquiry of many months. We took evidence from refugees, refugee organisations, local authorities and health organisations. There are copies available: my office has paper copies, but it is also online. We looked at various things, some of which the Government have now taken up. I am pleased about that and I thank them for doing so. For instance, the issue of national insurance numbers—my hon. Friend mentioned their inclusion in documents—was holding up many refugees needlessly and pointlessly, but that is supposed to have been sorted out now. I am still getting evidence that it is not completely fixed, but at least the intention is clear.
On the 28-day move-on period, we kept finding more and more egregious examples of how it ended up turning into destitution and homelessness. The impact of detention and the two-tier system between the resettlement scheme and refugees who come via the asylum route have also been mentioned. That is not directly relevant today, but some of the things we picked up had a specific impact on homelessness. As my hon. Friend has said, the 28 days turns from delirium to despair. The news that someone is being given refugee status should be a day of joy and celebration, but for many refugees it very quickly turns to despair when they realise that they will become either homeless or destitute—or both—within 28 days, for reasons that others have mentioned.
Our report recommended a move to 56 days, which would be coterminous with the universal credit timetable, so it makes sense. I urge the Minister to urge his colleagues at the Department for Work and Pensions to reconsider the matter, because that would be most useful. I must thank Jon Featonby, previously of the Refugee Council but now of the Red Cross, for his help with the report, particularly the careful drafting.
On the right to work, I thank Forced Migration Review for its June 2018 edition on refugees and economies. Such a focus would really help to prevent refugee homeless. Even though the issue is a DWP competence, it is relevant to the Minister’s work at the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government. I also refer him to the fact that the integration strategy—it is not a refugee integration strategy, which I would like—is part of MHCLG’s competence, and I want him to re-examine that strategy’s specific impact on refugees.
The 1951 convention relating to the status of refugees affords refugees the right to work. I want to be clear: our legal obligations require us to give refugees the right to work. When we give refugee status, they are able to work. However, there are problems with waiting until that point. Nearly half of the 145 states that are party to the convention declare reservations in applying the right to work. Even those that do apply the right to work usually impose conditions and limitations. There is very little consistency in implementing the right to work and there are significant variations among those countries.
We should consider some examples of good practice in order to help prevent refugee destitution and homelessness. Jordan, a non-signatory country, provides a quota of work permits. Turkey is not a particularly wealthy country, but it has 3.3 million refugees and they can apply for work permits after six months. In Chad and Uganda, refugees are allowed to settle in host communities and some are granted arable land for agricultural purposes. In Ethiopia, the International Labour Organisation, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the Government of Ethiopia collaborate on an out-of-camp policy, which relaxes conditions of residence and movement so that refugees can work. They can set up their own businesses both inside and outside camps.
In Kenya, community organisations help refugees with language classes and links to employment and support. In the UK, various businesses are active, including Starbucks, Ben and Jerry’s, IKEA and, I am sure, others. I declare an interest, because I hosted a dinner recently for Starbucks to discuss its refugee employment programmes. I urge right hon. and hon. Members to consider the role played by private industry. When private industry wants to take a responsible role, we should welcome that, and I do.
In Bristol, as in countries across the United Kingdom, volunteers and campaigning groups such as Bristol Refugee Rights, Borderlands, Bristol Hospitality Network and others do fantastic work to prevent refugee homelessness and to help refugees into work in order to prevent homelessness and destitution. Yet refugees and asylum seekers tell me of their frustrations at not being able to work sooner and of the gaps that that imposes on their CVs. They tell me of the limitations on volunteering.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention because he has saved me from making that point later. I absolutely agree with him. I urge the Minister to take that key recommendation to his colleagues. There is a 12-month limitation and then they can work but only in a job on the reserved list. That includes being a professional ballet dancer, by the way, which is not exactly a route to employment for most refugees. Without wishing to stereotype, it has not yet come to my attention that there are out-of-work ballet dancers among the refugees that I have met.
The policy is very unhelpful. It is contrary to refugee integration and, as I have said, integration is the Minister’s departmental responsibility. Good integration is in all our interests. Homelessness prevents integration. Lack of money, gaps in employment, and language difficulties all increase the risk of homelessness. The 28-day move-on period increases the risk of homelessness. Cuts to English classes make everything harder. Lack of documents increases the risk of homelessness. All of those are fixable problems; most of them fixable without a large amount of money. In fact, it would save us money. If we got refugees into volunteering, employment and training, it would be good for everyone.
Will the hon. Lady join me in paying tribute to the many faith-based groups that help homeless refugees? They work not only among the refugees, but with other groups such as ex-service personnel, many of whom suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, to try to get them to restart and build a new life.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. Like magic, he has anticipated my next paragraph. During the inquiry, when we asked Jonathan from Survivors Speak OUT whether he felt that refugees were welcome in the UK, he said that the asylum system did not make him feel welcome. He was traumatised and angry during the entire five years it took to get status, but he also said that during that time he was made to feel welcome by the people of this country. When he was destitute and homeless while stuck in the process, he was supported by a church. He was given a home by a family and was welcomed into the community. So I ask—not for the first and probably not for the last time—for this country’s systems to live up to the shining example set by this country’s people in truly welcoming refugees.
The all-party group would like the Government to improve on the following, all of which would help to end or prevent refugee homelessness. We would like a national refugee integration strategy, or, if not that, for the integration strategy as a whole to have a dedicated aspect that should be expanded, particularly with regard to refugees. We would like the restoration of full legal aid for all asylum seekers. We would like to introduce the provisions for refugee family reunion that are contained in the private Member’s Bill promoted by the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Angus Brendan MacNeil). I love saying the name of his constituency. We would like an end to indefinite immigration detention—28 days is quite enough, and ideally it should not ever happen to pregnant women. We would like full restoration of English language classes. Refugee after refugee told us about their sterling efforts to learn English and how hard it was when classes were cut. One told us he could not afford buses to get around London, so he walked from class to class, wherever he could go to learn English. He told us all that in immaculate English, so the method worked, but it should not be that hard.
We should reform the rules on the right to work and volunteer so that, at the very least, asylum seekers can apply to work and start to try to look for work at six months. If the Home Office cannot meet its own service standard, why should refugees have to suffer a gap in their employment, which will affect their future ability to get work? We would also like the principles of the global compact on refugees to be integrated into UK law when the process is completed later this year.
I want to end by quoting another refugee, whom I would like to speak of as a friend—Kolbassia, of Survivors Speak OUT. Giving evidence to the inquiry of the APPG on refugees, he said:
“I’m part of this country. I need to make this country great. And that is the case for most refugees who are here. We are grateful for what is given to us and we want to do everything to repay this country. But we need help and that help will come from policy makers.”
Sir Henry, what a call to action that is. If we heed it we can end refugee homelessness and make refugees feel truly welcome.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) on setting the scene for us very clearly. There have been some significant and helpful contributions on an issue that we all feel strongly about. I have been very clear about the need for a manageable number of vetted refugees. It is not enough to tell people that they are free to live in the UK without also giving them the tools to begin their new life, find work and integrate into the community that they have been moved to. For every refugee whom we agree to take, there must be funding and the will in the community to integrate those people. If those things are not there, we are failing them, and we need to do something about that. I am clear that we have a duty to help, which does not mean simply moving them from a refugee camp in Europe to one in the UK. We must move them into communities, and we cannot do that when we oversubscribe.
I recently spoke to the inspector who had the task of settling refugees in my area. He said they integrated into communities best when they were in small family units that the neighbourhood wanted to help. An example of that is happening in my town, Newtownards. Four Syrian families were relocated together. It was important that they were together; they were clustered in one area, and had houses together where they had contact with each other. My colleague and hon. Friend the Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell) referred to the importance of faith groups, and they are important in my constituency. It was faith groups who came together to help the refugees when they arrived in Newtownards. It was the Minister and people of Strean Presbyterian church, and the Link group in Newtownards, which brings together a number of churches. Whenever—I say this gently—Government Departments were not as quick off the mark as they perhaps should have been, Link helped, physically, with getting furniture and giving clothes and food, and with being someone to talk to.
I met the Syrian families. I thought it was important to do so, first to welcome them to the area, and secondly to show them that politically they had support at the highest level. There was no bother about relocation in Newtownards. There never would be; but there is a language barrier and it is important to deal with that early on. Other hon. Members have referred to it and I know how important it is. Being able to speak the language is necessary to get a job and do the shopping, and so that children can go to school. The children are going to school, and we have many good people working together to make those things happen.
My hon. Friend the Member for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson) has a Red Cross group in his constituency. It does excellent work. I met someone from the group at Westminster last week, and have met others locally. They do tremendous work on integrating people and helping them to settle across the area.
I am glad that my hon. Friend has mentioned the role played by the Red Cross across Northern Ireland. It is still a profound regret to me that not one of the Syrian refugees who relocated to Northern Ireland has been housed in East Belfast. There is a barrier to the provision of houses to those individuals, who desperately need them. There is a welcoming community that wants to host them if they come to my constituency. Does he agree that the situation needs to change?
I am almost flabbergasted by that news, Sir Henry. Given that we have been able to relocate four families close together in Newtownards, with the support of the local churches in making it happen, I am really disappointed by that. It is a big issue to be addressed, and that should be happening now. I am sure when my hon. Friend phones those concerned to remind them about it, their ears are burning.
I thank the many sterling workers who think long and hard about, and put hours into, making the transition into British life easier for those who come, and the community where they are placed. The hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston mentioned Law Centre NI, and I shall quote a briefing it produced. It is important to set out the changes that it wants, and how they would make integration a wee bit easier. I promised that I would raise the matter on its behalf, and bring it to the attention of the Minister, whose response I look forward to. Refugees are given 28 days to leave Home Office accommodation and find housing, benefits and employment. If it had not been for the people of Newtownards—the churches, committee groups and Link group—coming together for local individuals, we would not have had the smooth integration that was needed, when it was needed. If people are far from home in a community that they are not familiar with—a different culture and tradition—they will all of a sudden feel very much on their own. What has helped those people has been their faith and their integration into church life in Newtownards town.
In the 28-day period, people are expected to apply for social housing, but single adults are rarely found to be in priority need and there is a shortage of social housing, as my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast East said. If they want to find private rented accommodation, they have in reality less than 28 days to arrange it. There can be delay in relation to their notification of status. We can see how problems multiply. The law centre said:
“The move-on period for people granted status should be extended from 28 days to at least 56 days to reduce risks of homelessness amongst refugees and bring Home Office policy in line with changes recently introduced under the Homelessness Reduction Act and that the impact of procedural adjustments within the move on period introduced in recent months are unclear so a full evaluation of the Post Grant Appointment Service and the pilot that preceded it should be published urgently.”
Law Centre NI is clear about what is needed:
“Learning from this should shape the support that refugees receive around housing and benefits across various government departments.”
Its experience, and the importance of that, are clear.
People who have been financially supported by the Home Office on £37.70 per week during their asylum claim, and who have not been permitted to work, will have been unable to save the funds needed to access private rented housing in advance. Having been placed in no-choice accommodation during the asylum process, they will also often have limited networks to rely on after they move in. There are significant obstacles to getting access to essential support such as benefits and universal credit, such as proof of address and incorrect advice from the jobcentre. Law Centre NI points out that integration loans should be adjusted and monitored to reflect the private rental market more accurately. It refers to the
“public body with a duty to refer”
refugees to local housing authorities under new regulations under the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017.
There are those who say that we can help, and clearly we must. We must help and put our money where our mouth is, like the man with the starfish. We all know that story, about the man picking up stranded starfish and putting them back, who when told “You can’t help them all,” says “I can help this one.” That is what we are doing—“Helping this one.” It must be done in a manner that provides security, hope and a future. If that means that we limit the numbers that we have, to ensure the care that we give people is appropriate and worthy of the British name, that must be the case. Homelessness in the UK is not what we want to offer; we want to offer hope, community, education, healthcare, friendship and freedom to live and work. We must seriously consider the requests of Law Centre NI on behalf of the Refugee Council, the No Accommodation Network, Crisis and Asylum matters.
Sitting suspended for Divisions in the House.
[Sir Edward Leigh in the Chair]
Thank you, Sir Edward, for calling me to speak. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) on securing this debate. As we have already heard, those who have been granted refugee status are given 28 days to receive the required identity documentation, to secure a source of income and to find somewhere to live before any current support from the Home Office is terminated. For most, this proves absolutely impossible and, sadly, the majority of people without children become homeless. As we have heard, if someone has claimed asylum and been given refugee status, asylum support will stop 28 days after the decision and in the case of section 4 support it could stop as early as 21 days after.
I echo the words of the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston, of my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow East (David Linden), and of others, who have stated that the 28-day period is simply not sufficient and that a review of it must be undertaken.
I will also touch on the comments about the support that the Home Office provides. The outsourcing of that support—asylum accommodation—to private companies could have made the process more seamless, on the basis that there would be more opportunity for different types of accommodation to be provided. In reality, the system does not work quite like that. That has meant, for example, that local authorities such as Glasgow City Council, which had expressed an intention to submit a bid, realised that the system was far too unwieldy and the tender process would have made things impossible. Essentially, we are stuck with exactly the same providers and a very similar model, despite the criticisms of the system in a Home Affairs Committee report last year.
Move-on support has been mentioned. Too often, those who are granted refugee status are evicted from their asylum accommodation and simply left to get on with things. To anyone, that would be challenge enough, but to someone who is an asylum seeker or who has been granted asylum in this country, simply having 28 days to start to review their life and to bring everything together is undoubtedly a challenge.
The Government should be providing more extensive support with a new scheme called the warm handover, but in practice this scheme does not appear to be working. Also, it takes a long time before the handover to the benefits system actually happens. We have heard instances of constituents who have waited for three to six months, or for even longer, and that is simply not good enough. For those who are unable to work, because the right to work has not been granted, that delay can leave them in destitution and potentially in dangerous situations, either living on the streets or relying on temporary accommodation.
The Home Affairs Committee recommended that the 28-day move-on period to transition between Home Office support and housing to mainstream benefits should be extended, and that view has been echoed throughout the Chamber today. It is a sensible suggestion, particularly given the delays in benefits such as universal credit being sorted out; it is the only way in which people can move forward in their lives.
At the end of the day, refugees are people and they deserve to be treated with respect. Discretionary leave and humanitarian protections are eligible for allocation from a council to refugees, so they can get the help they need if they become homeless, including helping them to claim housing benefit. Obviously, however, that is constrained and across this country local authorities are doing the very best they can, but ultimately people are reliant on the third sector—the charity sector, faith communities and others—and the good will of people generally to ensure that they are not left homeless or destitute.
That means that many who are seeking asylum or are in a period of move-on support are often heavily reliant either on local government or on charity sector providers such as Refugees at Home and Room For Refugees. Those organisations offer help in finding a spare room, volunteered by a member of the public, to those who have been granted refugee status following a successful asylum application but then have only the 28 days, those whose application for asylum is ongoing, and those who have been refused asylum and are appealing.
The reality, as outlined by the hon. Member for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire), is that those who have not been granted the right to work or who have been caught in the bureaucracy of the process are stuck in that limbo for longer than anyone would wish them to be. It is a mantra of the Government that everyone should want to get back into work, but there are people who want to work and provide for themselves but are not being granted the ability to do so, and that is a barrier to progress and integration.
As we heard from the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Lloyd Russell-Moyle), the poor conditions of the accommodation and the limited financial support is seriously damaging life chances and opportunities. Room For Refugees, which has hosted a total of more than 61,000 nights of shelter and has transformed thousands of lives, has seen a 279% increase in the numbers hosted in the last year, which alone should tell the Government that there is a problem they need to do more to address. As the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) outlined, Northern Ireland has led the way with the transition guide provided by its law centres. That could be rolled out nationally and be one way in which to signpost people through, whether it be the 28 days or a period voluntarily extended by the Government, giving people a step for a hint about where to start.
The asylum process is complex and its causes often extreme. It requires the difficult task of collecting convincing evidence of an ongoing threat to life or freedom in a person’s country of origin. During that period, many who have sought humanitarian protection, due to circumstances such as forced marriage, female genital mutilation, domestic violence and human trafficking, live in fear of being returned to their country. They are often traumatised, and some have experienced torture, rape or imprisonment. Many have lost family, homes and livelihoods and some have serious physical and mental health problems. They are granted asylum and are then forced into myriad bureaucracies. It is simply untenable to say that in 28 days they can turn their life around. Facing refusal and subsequent homelessness and destitution greatly exacerbates their difficulties, as they become unable to meet basic needs. I challenge anyone to try to live on £37 a week—it is unrealistic. How torturous must it be for those who have been stuck in the system for a long time, knowing that they want to work, and could work, but are simply not allowed to?
Those who receive a positive decision on their application —which is after appeal in about 50% to 60% of cases—are then permitted to work and must move on to find their own accommodation. That sounds laudable in reality, but if they have already had to go through an appeal process how much longer will it take them? Without support, it can be a difficult process, and it can be one of the reasons refugees find themselves homeless.
The purpose of this debate is to consider homelessness among the asylum community, but those who are seeking asylum and are refugees require support and encouragement and the Government could do more. Ultimately, this is producing costs in many other areas. I hope that the Minister will take on board all the comments from across the House and consider what further action can be taken.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) on securing the debate. The question she asked at the outset is absolutely right. Without any disrespect to the acting Minister, why has the debate been bumped to the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government rather than the Home Office? With the best will in the world, the acting homelessness Minister will not be able to comment on some of my hon. Friend’s fundamental points relating to the reasons why those granted refugee status find themselves without funding or housing. He cannot take action on national insurance numbers, the minimum level of expected treatment of refugees and respect for their status, the responsibility of the state for those vulnerable people who have fled war or persecution, or the post-grant appointment service. He cannot tell us what has happened to the pilot. He cannot tell us where the review is, or anything about access to interpreters to help asylum seekers and refugees navigate our systems. He cannot respond to the important points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire) on work permits for refugees.
As he is unable to assist with all those things, I hope that the Minister will undertake to hold a meeting with the relevant Home Office Minister, have discussions and feed back to my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston the Government’s thoughts on these important issues, or facilitate a joint meeting. It would be a fine example of the Government working cross-departmentally to tackle the gaping holes in Government policy, which will ensure that the very good Homelessness Reduction Act 2017 will not meet its stated aims. The Minister must agree that the Government’s failure of process, exacerbating a problem elsewhere in government, is ludicrous.
However, there are some things on which the Minister can comment. He can say something about prioritisation on housing waiting lists, and whether the systems—particularly local connection requirements for refugees—are fit and fair for purpose, from his experience and understanding of them. I am interested to know whether he recognises that some people in category 3 or 4 on waiting lists will be left there for years in limbo—usually single people and those at highest risk of homelessness.
The Minister can also say whether he believes that the Homelessness Reduction Act properly covers refugees and providers of asylum accommodation. There was very little discussion of that aspect of the Bill during its passage, with most of the consideration focusing on the roles and responsibilities of local government. Perhaps the Government intend to say that asylum seekers are covered because everyone who is homeless is covered, and that it is the local authority’s responsibility to deal with it in the best way for their local area. That would be a wholly inadequate response.
We know that the implementation of the Act will prove very challenging. Local authorities are already stretched to meet the needs of their local areas. Indeed, just before the debate I had a meeting with representatives of Centrepoint, who told me that, in the year 2016-17, 86,000 young people presented as homeless. They have concerns about how addressing that will be funded, let alone meeting the specialist needs of refugees who may be traumatised, face language barriers, and have little or no knowledge of our less-than-straightforward systems. If the Government are truly concerned about the prevention of homelessness, what action do they plan to take to tackle the immobility of people in accessing housing, and not leaving them for excessive periods hoping for a home? Will they review the funding settlement for local authorities before the expected October implementation date?
The Minister can also tell us where the Government’s rough sleeping strategy is. The Opposition heard rumours that it would be published last week. Surely it is not the intention that it will be slipped out on the final day before Members leave Parliament for the recess.
Indeed. Whenever that is.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Hugh Gaffney) rightly said, refugees are people who have gone through the trauma of leaving their home and possibly their family. Yet rather than offering a safe haven for those vulnerable people, our current system creates further difficulties and challenges at a time when many would think that their troubles were over. Given all that, it is little surprise that there are calls from the all-party parliamentary group on ending homelessness, the all-party parliamentary group on refugees, St Mungo’s, the Refugee Council, NACCOM, Crisis and others to extend that 28-day grace period to at least 56 days, and to implement a number of other recommendations.
In response to the Home Affairs Committee report, the Government pledged to introduce a new vulnerable persons service. Yet data from the Combined Homelessness and Information Network revealed that the number of new rough sleepers in London with refugee status increased in the period 2017-18 compared with the previous year, and is up nearly 75% from just two years ago. My hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Lloyd Russell-Moyle) said just how disproportionate was the number of refugees in the homeless population and that, when we do house them, they end up in sub-standard, low-quality, poor housing. The Government must recognise that and take account of it. That is consistent with NACCOM’s findings that nearly 30% of people requiring emergency sheltered accommodation last winter were refugees. It bears repeating that those people are fleeing persecution, war and possible famine. All those things often come with health complications that would make a harsh winter extremely difficult for a rough sleeper to withstand. It is not Government policy to track the deaths of rough sleepers, so we do not know how many refugees have lost their lives as a result of rough sleeping. The Government aim to end rough sleeping by 2027, but if they want to get anywhere near that target, they must realise that their current reforms and actions are nowhere near enough.
More than half the people in the Refugee Council study have endured a period in a hostel, night shelter or on the streets, and the reality is that someone who has been granted asylum in the UK is only 28 days from the possibility of homelessness. That is half what the Homelessness Reduction Act prescribes as the period after which councils must step in if someone is threatened with homelessness. Why are refugees who have been granted asylum given less state intervention and support than other citizens threatened with homelessness?
Guidance in the application and roll-out of the 2017 Act has not been openly consulted on, so I am not clear who the acting Minister has spoken to. Has he considered extending the list of public bodies with a duty to refer to include those that provide asylum accommodation? Undertaking to do that would go some way to easing the concerns of those operating in the sector.
The UNHCR definition of a refugee states that a refugee has the “right to safe asylum”. The UK has a proud history of providing that, but we must ensure that it is a genuine safe haven for refugees and does not contribute to stigmatisation through lackadaisical policy-making or an unwillingness to make things right. We need a cross-Government approach to ensure that no new refugee ends up on the streets, and I hope that the Minister will tell us how he will do that.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) on securing this crucial debate. It was a little interrupted, and I am grateful to hon. Members for coming back to the Chamber to hear a response from the interim Minister—I guess we are all interim Ministers in this job, as it is ultimately down to the will of the electorate.
I have no intentions in that regard.
I thank the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston for her work in this area. Her important work with the all-party group on refugees has raised the profiles of issues that impact on refugees, and I thank all right hon. and hon. Members for their contributions today.
We have a proud history of providing protection for those who need it, and the Government are committed to ensuring that all refugees can take positive steps towards integration and realise their potential. This country should work for everyone, especially the most vulnerable in our society, and we remain committed to ensuring that everyone has a roof over their heads and receives the support they need to rebuild their lives.
As hon. Members have said, our manifesto pledged to halve rough sleeping during this Parliament and end it altogether by 2027, and that is in addition to an ambitious homelessness reduction programme. We are making good progress on our refugee resettlement commitments. Last year, more than 6,000 vulnerable refugees received protection under one of our resettlement schemes, and we are now more than half way towards meeting our commitment to resettle 20,000 refugees fleeing the Syrian conflict by 2020. There is much good practice from the Syrian vulnerable person resettlement programme, and we will build on that as we go forward.
A key commitment in the Government’s integrated community strategy was to work with civil society, and others, to increase the integration support available to those granted refugee status after arrival in the UK. That is a significant development in our approach, which recognises the importance we place on integration for all refugees. We agree that for newly recognised refugees, securing accommodation and accessing benefits or employment are crucial first steps without which longer term integration simply cannot happen. That is why we have introduced a number of initiatives to support refugees during the 28-day move-on period, to which the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston rightly referred.
The post-grant appointment service is a joint initiative with the Home Office and the DWP, which helps refugees access benefits by arranging an appointment with a local DWP office—a jobcentre. The process is now being rolled out across the UK. Hon. Members referred to the pilots and issues that have been found in them. It is crucial that we monitor the progress of this work. I am sure that my colleagues at DWP have heard such comments and will follow up on them. The process has been rolled out. We plan to publish information about the schemes shortly, but the indicators are that, provided refugees attend the appointment, benefit claims can be processed quickly and a payment can be provided, before the 28-day move-on period expires.
MHCLG is currently funding the first year of a two-year pilot of 35 local authority asylum support liaison officers in 19 local authority areas in England with some of the highest numbers of asylum seekers. They will offer tailored support to newly recognised refugees. That will include working closely with the local authorities and a range of third-sector agencies during that 28-day move-on period, to secure accommodation for new refugees to move into, following a successful asylum decision. That should thereby reduce this vulnerable cohort’s risk of homelessness and rough sleeping. We want to work with civil society, local authorities and other partners, to consider what more could be done to support newly recognised refugees in the move-on period and the longer-term journey to integration.
More broadly, homelessness and rough sleeping is a key priority for the Government. As I have mentioned, we have allocated more than £1.2 billion to tackle homelessness to 2020. That funding will assist people to get the help they need and prevent homelessness and rough sleeping in the first place. Newly recognised refugees are entitled to homelessness assistance from their local authority and will benefit from the changes we are implementing through the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017, which many hon. Members have referred to. That came into being in April. We believe it is the most ambitious legislative reform in decades. Some of the changes introduced in the Act should mean that more people, whether they have priority need or not, are receiving the right support. For clarity, the new duties in the Act include providing and developing personalised housing plans based on an assessment of that person’s need, help to find accommodation and to access debt advice, and, potentially and crucially, help towards finding work.
For refugees, I recognise that the 28-day move-on period is less than the 56-day prevention duty in the Act. Home Office accommodation providers for asylum seekers already have a contractual duty to notify the local authority of the potential need to provide housing where a person in that accommodation is granted status. Combined with support from LAASLOs, the post-grant appointment service and the strengthened multi-agency approach to preventing homelessness, this referral by those providers should mean that the refugees get a range of support to access mainstream accommodation and services within the 28-day move-on period.
In order to deliver the new duties under the Act, we have provided new burdens funding of £72.7 million to ensure that local authorities can deliver their new duties. Funding, however, is not enough to ensure the Act is implemented correctly. That is why we have created the homelessness support and advice team. They have worked with authorities over the last year on a range of issues, but in particular they have supported them in the implementation of the Act.
We are going further on homelessness by committing to halve rough sleeping, as I have mentioned previously, in this Parliament and ending it entirely by 2027. In answer to the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Melanie Onn), the Opposition spokesman, we will be publishing the rough sleeping strategy this summer, to set out our plan on how to achieve this. We are taking action now through the rough sleeping initiative. It is providing £30 million this year and the money has been allocated to the local authorities with the highest numbers of people sleeping rough. It is the product of many months of work by our cross-governmental rough sleeping and homelessness reduction taskforce, supported by an advisory panel of experts from across the sector and local government.
We have announced £28 million for Housing First pilots in Greater Manchester, the West Midlands and the Liverpool city region, which will focus on housing around 1,000 people with some of the most vulnerable and complex needs. The pilots will provide individuals with stable, affordable accommodation and, more importantly, intensive wrap-around support, which will help them to recover from complex issues such as substance abuse and mental health difficulties, and to sustain their tenancies. We expect the first people to move into the accommodation in the autumn. I very much look forward to the positive impacts of those pilots being realised.
To help local authorities support non-UK national rough sleepers, the controlling migration fund has funded projects that are working to support rough sleepers into accommodation and employment, and to return home voluntarily where that is appropriate.
I would like to respond to a number of points raised by Members. I apologise if I do not manage to respond to them all, but I will write to everyone who has contributed today with full answers to the points raised.
The hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston asked whether refugees would be given priority in housing services. Newly recognised refugees are eligible for assistance under legislation for homelessness and must be provided with accommodation if they have priority need, for example, if they are pregnant or have children. If they have been supported by the Home Office, they are deemed to have a local connection with the local authority in which they have been accommodated.
The hon. Lady asked about local authority asylum support liaison officers and the assessment of how they are working, and tier one classification and national insurance. Each of the 19 pilot areas will produce a report at the end of the first and second years. My Department is in the process of deciding how the evaluation of the pilots will fit into a broader evaluation of the controlling migration fund. On conversation with the DWP regarding reclassification to tier one, I do not know the answer, but I will ensure that the hon. Lady is written to and that she is updated.
On national insurance cards, refugees do not need to have a national insurance number to claim benefits because DWP centres provide one if an individual does not have one. From January 2018, procedures were put in place that mean that the national insurance number is now printed on all biometric residence permits provided to refugees.
The hon. Lady talked about social housing allocations. Certain people must be given reasonable preference under social housing allocation schemes, including people who are homeless. That is to ensure that the priority goes to those who need it the most.
In the time I have left, I will try to respond to hon. Members who are here in the Chamber. The hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Hugh Gaffney) mentioned the integrated communities strategy. The Green Paper, published in March, recognised the importance of integration for all refugees, as well as committing to working with civil society. The consultation closed on 5 June and we are currently considering the responses. Last week, we launched the £7 million integrated communities fund.
The hon. Member for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire), who does fantastic work on the APPG, asked about access to English classes. English language tuition is fully funded for refugees who are unemployed and looking for work. I know she raised lots of other points and I will certainly write to her on them. I am conscious that I want to give the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston a short period to sum up.
I apologise for interrupting the hon. Lady, but I did not manage to mention this point. I know that she is keen for the Home Office to engage with this matter and I will ensure that the relevant Minister from the Home Office meets her and interested colleagues to take these issues forward.
I am very grateful to the Minister. I am sure that the all-party parliamentary groups that my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire) and I chair will be very happy to facilitate that meeting.
As we heard in the debate, what refugees, in common with all of us, need to be able to settle and build their lives is a chance to be in contact with their families, a chance to have a decent job if they are able to work and, importantly, a chance to have a secure home. As the Minister, I think, has acknowledged, that requires a response right across Government, and I am very grateful to him for his offer to pass on details of this debate to his colleagues in other Departments.
We have obligations—international obligations and human rights obligations—to ensure that we care for refugees here properly, and that will require an approach that extends right across national and local government, as I have said. I hope that the promises that the Minister has made of new policies and strategies delivering an improved service for refugees will come to fruition and will mean that some of the problems identified in today’s debate become a thing of the past. I can assure him and his ministerial colleagues that if that is not the case, we will be back here again to press the case for action in the best interests of refugees.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered homelessness among refugees.
Green Belt (Penistone and Stocksbridge)
I beg to move,
That this House has considered planning policy relating to green belt and green space in Penistone and Stockbridge.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. My constituency of Penistone and Stocksbridge is a cross-border constituency, taking in north Sheffield and everything west of the M1 in Barnsley. In fact, it crosses the M1 in Dodworth to go right into the heart of Barnsley itself, with the boundary lying just west of the district hospital. One third of the constituency, on the western flank, sits in the Peak District national park. Even the eastern flank is for the most part made up of small towns and villages separated by farmland, green open spaces and woodland. I am sure that my constituency is the sort of place that those who originally devised green-belt policy had in mind when they wanted to protect areas from urban sprawl in the early post-war period. Indeed, it is estimated that approximately 70% of the land in my constituency enjoys green-belt status.
I think that everyone agrees that this country has a housing crisis. We simply do not have enough stock to supply today’s needs, never mind the needs of future generations. It is not a new problem: successive Governments have failed to get new homes built and to reform the broken housing market.
As we know, under the former Labour Government, housing requirements were calculated at national level and targets were set for each regional planning authority. The regional planning mechanism had then to allocate numbers from that target for each local planning authority, with land set aside by the latter authorities to satisfy the target. Of course, once land had been zoned for housing, individual planning applications were more likely to be approved—a principle that is still in place now.
That all changed with the accession to power of the coalition Government and the subsequent abolition of regional spatial strategies. Decision making was, apparently, being returned to local level and democracy was being restored. I remember well the debates here on the claim made by the Conservatives when they were in opposition. Despite the abolition of housing targets, local authorities were still required, under the new arrangements, to set aside enough land to satisfy housing demand. The mechanism for doing that has been dubbed the local plan. Part of the planning process for that requires the development of a strategic housing market assessment to assess housing need. In other words, local authorities have been required through the national planning policy framework to identify enough land for housing growth.
The impact of that policy change is already being seen. According to the Campaign to Protect Rural England, the number of planning applications approved year on year both on greenfield sites in the green belt and for largescale housing development within areas of outstanding natural beauty has nearly doubled since the national planning policy framework came into force in 2012. The impact of the planning process is therefore significant. In Barnsley, for example, meeting the target would involve building 20,000 new homes. In 2017, the CPRE identified 5,700 threats to the borough’s green belt, and we shall soon see what the allocation for Sheffield looks like, as the draft local plan is imminent. I need to point out, however, that in 2017 the CPRE reported 6,100 threats to green-belt designations in the city.
As I said, we all recognise the need for more housing. Despite the Government’s pledge that green belt land will be protected, the truth is very different. Indeed, in both the authorities that cover my constituency, the green belt has had to be examined during the process of putting together a draft plan for publication and consultation. Those reviews have taken place, though, alongside a call to developers for suitable sites for consideration in the local plan. In effect, that has had a dramatic cumulative impact. High target numbers have combined with green belt review and the traditional call to developers to put previously out-of-reach sites within the grasp of those who want to put shovels in the ground. Thus it is that our green belt protection is in danger of being eroded in my constituency.
Worse still, the idea that brownfield sites should come first has been downgraded. Brownfield sites unfortunately often require intensive preparation and—I acknowledge—soak up significant resource. Local authorities have to be proactive to get such sites fit for market as housing land. No wonder developers tend to go for the easy option—I do not particularly blame them for that—which in any case offer better returns.
In the Barnsley part of my constituency, the local plan is almost complete. As I said, we are about to start the process in Sheffield. We are told by the Government that democracy is at the heart of the process, but the experience of my constituency is somewhat different. Indeed, a criticism made in 2016 by the Campaign to Protect Rural England was that the Government’s local plan expert group completely failed to grasp the need for meaningful public involvement in the development of local plans. It was clear to the CPRE, and very disappointing, that the Government preferred instead to consult on a fully drafted plan, rather than allowing sufficient time for focused consultation on issues and options. In other words, the plans are developed in private, behind closed doors, and then put out as a complete draft, with no significant involvement of local communities.
Even in areas where local people have spent many hours working up their own neighbourhood plans—a concept encouraged and legislated into place by this Government and one that I support—we have seen those plans ignored by the Government’s inspectors. In one example in my constituency, a neighbourhood plan made reference to an area of green-belt land that local people thought should remain designated. The strong local view was based on an acceptance of the need for more housing, and the plan incorporated more housing, but it was to be affordable and located on the developed site of the Don valley.
That aspiration was completely ignored at public inquiry by the inspector, in effect forcing Barnsley Council to put the other sites in the next draft plan. They were totally contrary to the neighbourhood plan. Only when the unelected Historic England intervened were the sites removed, because their development would have threatened the historic setting of a listed packhorse bridge that crosses the River Don. “Thank God for Historic England,” I say—but where is local democracy in all of this? Neighbourhood plans are supposed to represent the best of local democracy, but planning inspectors are riding roughshod over them. As I have said, Sheffield is about to embark on its own formal consultations, as required by the local plan process. The city’s population is approximately twice the size of Barnsley’s and the urban area much more densely populated, but it is nevertheless a city where green spaces are enormously important. Indeed, a significant proportion of the city lies within the boundary of the Peak District national park.
I must say that the early signs are worrying. The city council is adamant that brownfield sites are to be prioritised and that only by having a robust plan will we be able to keep the right balance between the ambitions of developers and the best interests of the city. I believe the council is genuinely committed to those outcomes, but history tells me that it will have to work very hard to achieve them, especially after what we have seen in Barnsley, where the planning inspector insisted that significant extra sites in our villages were included in the plans that Barnsley submitted. In this case, as with Barnsley, the odds are somewhat stacked against success, yet CPRE informs me that there is no need to build on green belt or green spaces in Sheffield. It has five years of deliverable land supply on brownfield land, and 11 years of land supply on brownfield in total—land for 13,145 homes.
In view of Government policy, I remain sceptical of Sheffield’s ability to avoid that outcome. Past experience has also shown that all too often affordable housing plans are overturned in favour of houses that deliver a higher profit margin. Promised infrastructure upgrades are seldom completed, and green sites are used instead of brownfield sites that are more expensive to develop. In evidence, I turn again to CPRE, which reports that,
“nearly three-quarters of the housing proposed on land to be released from the Green Belt will be unaffordable for most people living in the local area”.
“planning consultants Glenigan found only 16% of homes built in Green Belt since 2009 were affordable”.
I started this contribution by making it clear that we all understand that more housing needs to be developed, in order to meet the current and future demand, but I reiterate the key point that it must be the right housing in the right places. A significant proportion of the new housing we need should be affordable, whether it is for sale or for rent, and as much as possible of that new stock must be provided in urban areas, on brownfield sites.
What are the chances of achieving that, given the current shape of Government policy? The calculation of housing need, for instance, is opaque, but CPRE says:
“The Government should make the method for calculating housing need clearer, but this should also be more clearly integrated with what is realistically achievable”.
It then goes on to say:
“One of the key flaws of the…approach is an over-emphasis on market signals”,
as part of objectively assessed need assessments. That is exactly the problem. The provision of new housing promotes valuable economic activity, yes—as I say, I do not blame developers for pursuing attractive green-belt sites—but it also meets an extremely important social need. We need a policy that delivers the housing necessary for our young people, for people on low incomes and for single-person households, but we will not achieve that crucial social outcome within the current policy framework.
What we will see, if we are not careful, is over-development in small towns such as Penistone in my constituency, which is threatened by a 30% increase in size—a small market town facing a 30% increase. That will destroy the character of Penistone, and the houses that will be built will not be the ones we need for local people, but rather more expensive offerings that will change the social mix of the communities that make up my largely rural constituency. The social divide in the county is huge, and there is a 14-year discrepancy in life expectancy between one part of Sheffield and another. How can we justify a policy that threatens to destroy the reasonable, well-balanced social mix that we enjoy in those areas, and will make that divide even deeper and more difficult to deal with?
At the heart of green-belt policy is a desire to stop urban encroachment.
Sitting suspended for Divisions in the House.
The interruption was welcome, because we are now joined by my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis), who is also the elected Mayor of the Sheffield city region. I am pleased that he has joined us.
As I was saying, at the heart of green-belt policy is a desire to stop urban encroachment and to preserve our smaller towns and villages. Although I appreciate that green-belt land sometimes does not serve that purpose any longer and should be changed, the majority of the green belt still fulfils that important role. It is also worth noting the potential impact on our natural environment. Our green belt covers 53% of farmland subject to environmental stewardship schemes and 30% of the local nature reserves created between 2009 and 2015. How on earth can we expect to meet our biodiversity targets—the Government’s targets—if we pursue our current trajectory? Worryingly, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government is consulting on a weakening of protection for local wildlife sites in the NPPF. I would appreciate his comments on that key point, which is a source of great concern for the Sheffield wildlife trust.
Time and again, we have heard this Government talk about protecting the green belt, but its “call for sites” approach to local plans effectively encourages reviews of green-belt land by local authorities, such as Sheffield and Barnsley, with a significant proportion of green belt. In Sheffield’s case, that proportion is 63%, and Barnsley’s green-belt coverage is 79%. Will the Minister give us assurances that green-belt policy is more than just warm words, and that “brownfield first” really means that?
Local democracy and involvement should be at the heart of the process of creating a local plan, yet in my experience the opposite seems to be the case. Time and again, constituents have told me that they feel outside the process, and I applied for the debate because they asked me to bring the matter up in this place. They tell me that consultations feel like tick-box exercises, and that they often feel faced with faits accomplis. Can the Minister give us assurances that local people’s views matter, and will he instruct councils that they should take local people with them when forming their plans? Will he also tell his planning inspectors that the same standard is expected of them?
Will the Minister look at reviewing housing policy to ensure that we deliver the homes we need where we need them? A large number of my constituents have lived in small villages and towns for generations. They love their communities. All the research by the Countryside Alliance demonstrates that one of the key factors for people living in rural areas is their genuine love of the communities they live in. It is not nimbyism to want to preserve the integrity of those places. They accept that new housing is needed. In Oxspring, the village I referred to earlier, the neighbourhood plan reflected the need for new housing. Indeed, most of my constituents recognise that their children will benefit from a proportionate increase in housing stock in their communities.
When will the Government drop their ideological approach to this policy area, adopt the mantle of Macmillan and previous Tory Governments, and deliver the housing we need rather than the housing that developers think we need?
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. Apologies if I delayed proceedings during the Divisions.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith) on securing this important debate. I am delighted to be able to respond to the points she raised, not least because I, too, represent a beautiful rural constituency and they are close to my heart. It is clear from everything she said that both the green belt and green spaces are important to her and her constituents. I am grateful for the opportunity to speak about those issues and to underline the Government’s commitment to maintaining strong protection.
I should first point out that, as Members know, the Secretary of State has a quasi-judicial role in the planning system. I am sure they understand that it therefore would not be appropriate for me to comment on the detail of individual decisions or plans. However, I can talk about the broader issues raised. I shall set out what more we are doing to protect our natural environment while building the homes we need, as well as our national policy on the green belt and green spaces.
The Government are committed to protecting our precious environment and place great importance on striking a balance between enabling housing and commercial development, and continuing to protect and enhance the natural environment, minimising the impact on biodiversity. In particular, our planning reform package, which includes the revised draft national planning policy framework and reforms to developer contributions, is fundamental to ensuring that we are improving the environment at the same time as delivering the homes we need. The revised NPPF will be published shortly.
One of the key ways we are continuing to protect the environment is through the provision and protection of green spaces, which are part of our natural heritage. They provide balance in urban areas and improve the quality of life for all. Safe and accessible green infrastructure can play an important role in addressing health and wellbeing needs, which is particularly needed in our local communities, and indeed, in modern society generally.
The Government recognise the development pressures that areas such as green spaces face, particularly in the current housing crisis, but we are committed to their continued protection. To do that, the NPPF sets out that planning policies relating to open space, sports and recreation facilities, and opportunities for new provision should be based on robust and up-to-date assessments of need. That means that existing open space, sports and recreational buildings and land should not be built on unless an assessment has been undertaken. The assessment should show that they are surplus to needs, or that there the loss will be mitigated by making equivalent or better provision in a suitable location.
The framework also encourages communities to use their local and neighbourhood plans—an issue that is important to me, too—to identify green areas of particular importance to them. They can then be given special protection by designating them as local green spaces, which means that they cannot be affected by development. Hon. Members will be pleased to know that the draft revised NPPF maintains those protections.
The hon. Lady may not know, but as a Back Bencher, I, too, had that experience in a village called Oakley in my constituency. As a result, the Neighbourhood Planning Act 2017 strengthened neighbourhood plans in the considerations of planning inspectors, particularly prior to referendums. One pledge that I can make to her is that in my tenure in this job, however long that may be, I will do my best to promote, enhance and strengthen neighbourhood plans. I agree with her that they enable local communities to feel that planning is done by them, not to them; that very often, they result in more housing, not less; and that we should use them more across the country.
The green belt is another key feature of our natural heritage that fundamentally aims to prevent urban sprawl by keeping land permanently open. It is a national policy, but it is applied locally, with green-belt land defined and protected by local planning authorities. By providing strong protection for the openness of green-belt land, the NPPF prevents inappropriate development. It makes it clear that most new building is not appropriate there, and should be refused planning permission except in very special circumstances. That sets a high bar for developers, and is part of the reason why protection of the green belt has proved so effective over the past half century.
The draft revised framework remains committed to that protection. It states that changing green-belt boundaries is possible only in exceptional circumstances, using the local plan process of consultation and rigorous examination by the Planning Inspectorate. It proposes a clarification of the exceptional circumstances test and sets out that a strategic plan-making authority will be able to alter a green-belt boundary only if it can show that it has examined all other reasonable options for meeting the development needs it identified. That means that an authority’s strategy should take into account several different factors.
For example, planning policies and decisions should give substantial weight to the value of using suitable brownfield land in settlements for homes and other identified needs, and support opportunities to remediate degraded or underused land. Another factor to be considered is the optimisation of the density of development, to ensure that authorities have significantly raised minimum densities in towns and city centres, and in other locations well served by public transport. Furthermore, the authority’s strategy should be informed by discussion with neighbouring authorities to see if they can take some of the necessary development.
Sometimes, exceptional circumstances may require land to be removed from the green belt. However, that does not mean that we are concreting over the beautiful landscapes for which England is known around the world and to which the hon. Lady referred.
The Minister’s words are very welcome. He is being very generous with his time, and is very well-meaning, but the point is that 425,000 new homes are proposed on the green belt in local plans as things stand now. How can that represent exceptional circumstances?
Proposed they may be, but the point is whether they will make it through the inspection procedure. It still remains the right of the Secretary of State, of course, to call in proposals where they are of national importance. There are particular safeguards.
I would point to the fact that the decisions are made by local democratically elected politicians. The hon. Lady raised an issue about engagement and the decisions that are made. I urge her to take that up with her confrères and colleagues on the councils concerned. She should be raising her concerns with them as well, as I hope and assume she has.
She asked about local housing need. A further consideration to green-belt policy is the calculation of local housing need. House prices are simply unaffordable in many places, meaning that too many people are unable to get on the housing ladder. Each local authority should assess local housing need and plan to meet it in full where possible. As part of the package of planning reforms, we have introduced a more transparent standard method for calculating housing need, which aims to make sure that we take the crucial first step of planning for the right number of homes. Although green belt acts as a constraint, the draft revised framework sets out that the calculation should be carried out before assessing where the need could be met. That is because constraints such as green belt are relevant when assessing how to meet need, rather than when assessing the scale of need.
Once again, let me thank the hon. Lady for securing this valuable debate. Before I close, I want to raise one issue she talked about. Local wildlife sites are of particular importance to me. The revised national planning policy framework will clarify protections for local wildlife sites. My predecessor as Minister for Housing met with the Wildlife Trusts and wrote to MPs confirming that. We can dig out a copy of that letter for the hon. Lady.
Finally, I emphasise the importance to me personally of neighbourhood plans. In my own constituency, I have been at the forefront of promoting those plans as a way of controlling and directing the right kind of development, in the right place, which suits local people and is responsive to their needs. As I say, I will do my best in this job to try to promote them in the future.
Question put and agreed to.
Nord Stream 2
I beg to move,
That this House has considered Nord Stream 2.
I am grateful to Mr Speaker for granting me this debate and it is a delight to hold it under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. It might seem intriguing or even peculiar to discuss Nord Stream 2—the construction of a 1,300 km gas pipeline so far away from British shores—in this place, in this House, in this Parliament. I hope over the next few minutes to set out why Nord Stream 2 matters to Europe’s national interests and the strategic interests of the United Kingdom, as well as to our NATO allies and partners in the European Union and in European neighbourhood countries as well.
If it comes on stream, Nord Stream 2 will provide 12% of the EU’s energy demand. On the face of it, that sounds like good news, but it will remove about $1.8 billion of transit fees that currently benefit the Ukrainian economy, from the Progress and Trans-Siberian pipeline systems. I also understand why Germany wants to increase its imports of external energy. Again, on the face of it, that is a very laudable aim. Certainly, as Germany switches off its nuclear power stations and seeks to reduce its coal consumption to meet the EU’s climate change targets, it will invariably find itself more reliant on imports of foreign gas and oil, although I note that those sources of energy are also fossil fuels.
It is also understandable to believe that the Ukrainian objections to Nord Stream 2 are commercial in nature. I am sure that, in large part, that is true; I have already mentioned the transit fees. However, is the $3 billion of transit fees alone enough of an incentive for its objections? I do not believe it is.
Pre-eminent in Ukraine’s objections are the geopolitical levers Russia could—would, in my view—deploy should Nord Stream 2 go ahead. That is not geopolitical guesswork but a fact-based opinion reliant on Russia’s actions over the last decade, during which it has deliberately and systematically misused the supply of energy to Ukraine and other parts of Europe as a stick to beat any state that seeks to be closer to the European Union and NATO.
Notwithstanding that reality, Russia’s current transit dependency on Ukraine affords Kiev some protection from further Russian aggression. Yes, Russia may have its stockpile of nuclear weapons and its exports of oil and gas, but its economy is not in good shape and is no larger than that of Spain, despite Russia’s geographical mass. Moscow is therefore all too aware of its reliance on an uninterrupted revenue stream from its gas exports. At present, Ukraine is an inconvenient transit country to Russia, but it is a transit country. While gas prices are comparatively low, Russia is prepared to moderate and tolerate some aspects of its expansionist foreign policy against Ukraine. I should say moderate. I do not think tolerate is the right word; the Ukrainian population certainly do not tolerate it.
Russia’s reluctant restraint, owing to its reliance on energy transit adversaries, as it would see it, is exactly why it sees the diversification of its gas transit routes as a top foreign policy priority, and as a possible stepping stone to further annexation of Ukrainian territory in the future and to attacking the Ukrainian economy through a major loss of its transit fees. In short, the completion of Nord Stream 2 will allow Russia to pursue an even more aggressive foreign policy towards Ukraine.
The clock is ticking. The agreement between Russia’s Gazprom and Ukraine’s Naftogaz is set to expire on 1 January 2020. Set against the 2019 completion date for the Nord Stream 2 project, the time for German platitudes and, dare I say it, the UK’s apparent unwillingness to come to a firm and fixed view on Nord Stream 2, has to end. Surely the key question for the UK Government is: “Will the development of Nord Stream 2 be in the UK’s medium and long-term strategic interests, and the strategic interests of our friends and allies in the European neighbourhood and in NATO?”
I know that several EU countries have a financial stake in the pipeline—or, at least, companies from countries including France, Austria, the Netherlands, and Germany. I also acknowledge that British interests are at stake. However, there is always a political risk with international and large-scale energy projects. My primary concern is not the potential commercial losses for those private companies, or even the success—or lack of success—of former German Chancellors in their deal making, but the strategic interests of the United Kingdom and our friends and allies. That is why I welcome Chancellor Merkel’s recent comments at the EU-Ukraine summit, at which she said
“it is not just an economic issue…there are also political considerations”.
However, actions, not just words, are now needed. I am happy that the Minister of State is a man of action, not just words, and I look forward to his—as ever—informed and detailed response.
Of course, Ukraine can take its own action. Ukraine should not just be reliant on supportive EU partners for its economic and energy outlook, or debates like this taking place in Parliaments throughout the European Union. Ukraine can and should take action on, for example, replacing its ageing energy infrastructure, deregulating its over-regulated energy market, examining its own pricing structure, liberalising its own internal energy market and further diversifying its energy suppliers.
Another point for our German partners to recognise is that Nord Stream 2 will undermine the EU’s own energy strategy and energy union. Nord Stream 2 is incompatible with the objectives of the EU’s energy policies. Moreover, the pipeline will undermine other EU projects that seek to diversify energy supply markets and locations. Indeed, Donald Tusk, the President of the European Council, has previously said that Nord Stream 2 goes against the EU’s wider energy security interests. He has called for, at the very minimum, the pipeline to be regulated, and he repeated that at the recent Ukraine-EU summit. He went on to call for the pipeline’s construction to be halted in a joint statement with the President of the Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker.
The EU could also do more to ensure the diversification of its energy supplies. For example, it could get on with building liquefied natural gas storage areas in Lithuania, Latvia, Slovenia and other EU countries. Europe is perhaps also over-reliant on gas from the middle east. Perhaps it is time to look westwards across the Atlantic for a more secure and reliable energy partner.
For all the criticism of President Trump, much of it justified in my view, he has made the US into a net exporter of energy again. He has reduced America’s reliance on foreign energy supplies. That is clearly to its geopolitical and economic advantage, but it is an advantage, and it is one that we need to replicate.
In conclusion, it is clear that there is a lot of unease among our European partners about the Nord Stream 2 project, as the Prime Minister noted in her NATO statement yesterday. At a recent energy conference in Europe—I refer Members to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests—I met a former Prime Minister of Italy, a former President of Poland and the current President of Latvia, all of whom expressed strong views on the need to increase, not decrease Europe’s energy security. In fact, all the Baltic countries oppose Nord Stream 2, as do many other countries, including Slovakia and Slovenia. The Prime Minister of Poland was perhaps the most perceptive when he called Nord Stream 2
“a weapon of hybrid warfare”
“a poison pill for European security”.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. I agree that the issue is not just the geopolitical leverage the pipeline gives to Russia or sorting out Germany’s dependency on Russian gas. If the Foreign Office can take the lead in discouraging Germany from the scheme, it would send a clear message about the enthusiasm of all European countries to decarbonise. With that comes greater energy security through a better mix of renewables and the energy security that brings.
My hon. Friend makes a very good point. As someone who sat on the Environmental Audit Committee many years ago, I remember a report we did called, “Keeping the lights on”. He is absolutely right that the whole of Europe, and in many ways Britain, has led the way on renewables. Germany, which prides itself as being green as a nation and being green politically—perhaps more so than some in Chancellor Merkel’s party would want—needs to ensure that it diversifies its energy supplies and its energy mix. That is good for energy security, the environment and reaching our climate change targets.
Bringing things back to the United Kingdom, I am also aware of the comments made by the former Foreign Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson), in a letter to some colleagues. He apparently wrote that he feels that Nord Stream 2 is divisive and could leave the EU’s supply reliant on “a malign Russian state”. Is that the view of the Minister of State?
Sweden and Finland have both reluctantly given the go-ahead to the project, given that they had little choice but to do so, because, as colleagues will already know, Nord Stream 2 passes through those countries’ economic zone waters rather than their territorial waters. My hon. Friend the Member for Wells (James Heappey) just intervened and what I say next might address some of his question. The pipeline passes through Denmark’s territorial waters and, if the Danish Parliament and/or Government object to the pipeline, they could block the project. The pipeline could then be diverted, but with a significant delay, which might also give Poland a greater say in the project and might help Ukraine in negotiating a new transit agreement with Russia, given the timetables that I set out earlier.
I accept that the Danes are under pressure, both from those opposed to Nord Stream 2 and those in favour of it. In that regard, can the Minister say what representations the UK Government have made to the Danish Government on this issue, and what the precise nature of those discussions was?
I am sure that colleagues will be aware that Denmark’s Prime Minister Rasmussen is the same Danish Prime Minister who gave the go-ahead for the Nord Stream 1 project in 2009. However, times have changed, not only in the political balance and make-up of the Danish Parliament and the Danish Government, but in Russia’s overt, asymmetric, hybrid continual aggression throughout the European Union and the European neighbourhood. It is clearly understandable that Denmark wants to avoid confrontation with Russia over its disputed Arctic territory and the countries’ overlapping areas of the continental shelf, but Denmark must also decide whether Russia is a reliable and trustworthy energy partner.
Some suggest that Nord Stream 2 falls foul of the EU’s third energy package and in some respects that is true. However, both Russia and Ukraine are regarded as third countries, and in legal terms the third energy package is predominantly, as the Minister will know, an internal market policy and directive. So it is perhaps less of a defence against Nord Stream 2, although the project completely undermines Europe’s stated policy of an energy union; I think that is quite clear for all to see.
I accept that Nord Stream 2 is an economic project—I am not arguing against my earlier point, which I made in my introduction—and indeed a commercial prospect. However, it is also and predominantly a political project—a Russian geopolitical project. That must make European capitals wake up and count the cost of ending construction of the project now, rather than potentially counting a far higher human cost and territorial cost in the future.
The question that Germany and EU partners, and I would carefully suggest, the UK, need to ask themselves is this: can Russia be trusted to supply over the medium and long term affordable, reliable and secure gas to the peoples and businesses of Europe? If there is any doubt or hesitation in formulating a positive reply to that rather simple question, surely Europe’s security and economic competence will be put at high risk by this project.
I begin by warmly congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) on securing this debate, which covers a matter of considerable concern, both in this country and across Europe. I think we saw evidence of that yesterday, when the Prime Minister gave her statement following the NATO summit. In the questions that followed, five hon. Members raised the issue of Nord Stream 2 and expressed concern about its consequences.
That concern has been echoed in Governments across Europe. My hon. Friend said that he had spoken to the President of Latvia, the former President of Poland and to Italy. As he knows, I chair the all-party parliamentary groups on Ukraine, Moldova, Lithuania and Belarus, and when the Moldovan and Lithuanian Foreign Ministers visited London they raised Nord Stream 2 as a specific concern and potential threat to the security of their countries. Last week at the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly in Berlin, I participated in a meeting organised by the Ukrainian delegation to highlight many of the points that my hon. Friend made so forcefully.
When my right hon. Friend the Minister has discussed Nord Stream 2 in the past—I have raised it with him—he has suggested that it is primarily a commercial matter and, because the UK is at the far end of a long pipeline, it is of less concern to us. However, I hope he will recognise the security implications that we must take seriously. First, is this a commercial matter? It is hard to see any commercial justification for the massive investment that Nord Stream 2 will require. The existing pipeline, which crosses through Ukraine, does a pretty good job. It is highly flexible, allowing fluctuations in gas pressure, and it has spare capacity. It may need some investment to bring it up to modern standards, and that could cost an estimated $100 to $300 million a year.
On a recent trip to Brussels, I spoke to the Commission about its plans for a net-zero target, which would bring a significant reduction in gas demand across north-western Europe. One would think that that would revise yet further the commercial case for a new pipeline such as Nord Stream 2.
My hon. Friend makes a good point. The more one looks at the economic case for the investment, the harder it is to see. The cost of building Nord Stream 2 is estimated at $17 billion, and it will not add to capacity as there is spare capacity in the existing pipeline. Ukraine moved about 94 billion cubic metres of gas last year, which left 55 billion cubic metres of spare capacity. It difficult to see any significant increase in demand—in actual fact, as he points out, there may well be a reduction.
The commercial justification simply does not add up. In a recent analysis of the economics, Sberbank said, “The Power of Siberia”—another gas pipeline—
“Nord Stream-2 and Turkish Stream are all deeply value-destructive projects that will eat up almost half of Gazprom’s investments over the next five years. They are commonly perceived as being foisted on the company by the government pursuing a geopolitical agenda.”
We are extremely familiar with the idea that Gazprom is used by the Russian Government as an instrument to deliver their political objectives. In the last decade or so, we have seen the Russian Government use gas as a weapon on numerous occasions—particularly in 2009 and 2014—either reducing the amount or, in some cases, cutting off supply altogether.
The Russians use gas because they have the overwhelming supply for most of Europe, and they do not hesitate to deploy it as a political weapon. The new chairman of the Ukrainian gas company Naftogaz, Clare Spottiswoode, will be familiar to many of us here, as for a long time she was the regulator for energy markets in the UK. She did a fantastic job in the UK of fostering competition among gas suppliers, because she believes, as I do, that the way to provide the best service to consumers is by increasing competition, yet she points out that Nord Stream 2 will have a detrimental effect on competition. It is anti-competitive and it will increase the monopolistic stranglehold of Gazprom, and behind it the Russian Federation.
As my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin pointed out, Nord Stream 2 is essentially a political tool. The Polish Prime Minister has described it as a new hybrid weapon. If it replaces the Ukrainian gas pipeline—I think all of us believe that is the long-term objective—the consequence will be for Ukraine to lose up to 4% of its GDP, with an effect on government spending of a cut of about $2.3 billion. This is an economy that is already suffering, with Ukraine having part of its territory under occupation, notably its manufacturing heart in the east. The loss of the pipeline would be a further economic blow to a country that is already finding things difficult.
The consequences for Ukraine, however, are not only economic. The building of Nord Stream 2 and Europe no longer having to rely on Ukraine as a transit country for its supply of gas would remove one of the critical obstacles that stands in the way of further Russian aggression against Ukraine. The need to preserve the existing pipeline has to some extent acted as a disincentive to Russia; removing that disincentive could allow it to increase its military aggression against Ukraine.
As my hon. Friend said, Germany is phasing out nuclear power and, in all likelihood, we shall if anything increase our dependence on Russian gas, and yet at the same time we are engaged in hybrid warfare, as has been pointed out in debates in Parliament on a number of occasions: Russia occupies a part of Ukraine in the Crimean peninsula; it supports separatist movements in eastern Ukraine; it interferes in elections, in particular in the United States and in France; it runs a disinformation campaign through black propaganda; and of course our Government hold it responsible for the murder of a British citizen on UK soil and for the attempted murder of several others. This is not the time to make ourselves more vulnerable to Russian pressure by allowing Russia to increase its stranglehold on gas supply into Europe.
I therefore very much agree with my hon. Friend, and I congratulate him. I hope that the Minister will express—perhaps in stronger terms than we have heard before now—the concerns that exist in the British Government should that project go ahead.
I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) on securing this debate. I can only lament that more Members are not present to take part in it, because it is without doubt important, and the timing should be on all our minds. We sit here on the fourth anniversary of the shooting down of MH17. Four years ago to the day, 298 people were killed, and only last week G7 Ministers said that Russia needs to account for its actions in that murderous affair. In May of this year a Dutch-led investigation concluded that the Government of Russia were, without doubt, responsible for the incident.
In his opening remarks, the hon. Gentleman said that it might seem peculiar that we are having a debate about a pipeline that is many hundreds of miles away, but in the rest of his speech he outlined why it is not peculiar at all. Indeed, the chair of the all-party parliamentary group, the right hon. Member for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale) followed up on that. The debate is an important one for all of Europe and, indeed, for anyone who believes in western democracy and democratic institutions—to which I shall return later.
Earlier this year, just a couple of months ago, I had the pleasure of visiting Ukraine with colleagues from the Scottish National party. We spent time in the capital and in eastern Ukraine, going as far as Avdiivka, much to the horror of the British ambassador in Kiev—I can see the Minister looking at me disapprovingly, but I made it back. Nord Stream 2 came up all the time—in fact, literally from the first meeting we had—with the Deputy Speaker of the Parliament, the Foreign Relations Committee, the British-Ukrainian friendship group, several other Members of Parliament and civil society activists. All of them wanted to talk about Nord Stream 2, very much in the same terms used by the two previous speakers.
The big question is: where will the money go? What will it be used for? What will this instrument of hybrid war be used to do? Yes, of course it will be used to deteriorate further the situation in Ukraine—there is no doubt that it will be used economically and politically against Ukraine—but I believe, as does the Speaker of the Parliament of Ukraine, that the money will be used to further undermine western democracy and democratic institutions across the western world.
It is popular in some quarters to be anti-western, but I think that western democracy is something worth fighting for—[Interruption.] I rather suspect that I am about to be cut off, but I shall keep going until you tell me otherwise, Sir Edward. The Government must have made an assessment of the situation. It cannot simply be the case that they believe that Nord Stream 2 is not really a matter for them. It must be, given the clear and obvious danger that the Government of Russia present.
Sitting suspended for Divisions in the House.
Well, that was worth it, Sir Edward. Before we stopped for the Divisions, I was saying that the Government must have taken into account what the money that the Russian Government gain from the Nord Stream project will be used for. The Speaker of the Parliament of Ukraine believes it will be used to finance right-wing groups all across the continent of Europe that seek to undermine democratic institutions, national Governments and Parliaments, and the big international institutions on which we all rely, such as NATO and, of course, the European Union.
I will bring my remarks to a close, because I am conscious that more votes are coming up, but the line that we would like the UK Government to take is very clear. They should oppose the Nord Stream 2 project and be at the front of an international campaign to halt it in its tracks. It was somewhat galling to see the US president at the NATO summit leading on that issue in the way he did. It deeply pains me to say it, but what he had to say was absolutely right. However, given the scenes that followed in Helsinki, it cannot be left to the White House to stop this project in its tracks. I say to the Minister, who is eminently qualified, highly experienced and a former oil trader, no less—I cannot think of a Minister in the Government who is better placed to do what I am asking—to show us some muscle and ensure that this project stops now, before it is too late and we all regret it.
It is always a pleasure to serve under your stewardship, Sir Edward. I thank the hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) for raising this important debate. It is a much-needed debate addressing the security of the whole of eastern Europe and the region around there, particularly the fears those countries have regarding the current security climate.
The Nord Stream 2 line will have a capacity of over 110 billion cubic metres per year, or 70% of the total gas from Russia to Europe—quite a significant supply. Currently, the only permits obstacle it faces is from Denmark, which is refusing to allow it. Obviously, there are concerns in relation to the Black sea and how that will work. Ukraine, as the hon. Gentleman mentioned, has significant fears about the situation. It currently has the Brotherhood line going through it, which earns about 2% of its GDP; if that lifeline is taken away by the Nord Stream 2 scheme, it fears that it will face serious economic consequences. Having the Brotherhood line protected in a certain way would allow a far better situation in Ukraine, and would allow Russia to work on it.
The debate is based on the export of Russian gas to Germany, which Germany needs to look at very seriously. It cannot just be about its need. When it decided to move to green energy from its previous energy generation mechanisms, the calculation was not made in terms of gas. That is why these issues have arisen. It is very important that we see that.
A number of European countries are currently opposed to the project and have huge security concerns about their future, including the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Poland, Slovakia, Romania and Lithuania. They have significant concerns about what has gone on. Germany needs to look at the way it has handled its energy supply.
We need to look to Russia to see how it can be a corporate partner and a political friend to Europe, rather than antagonising the whole of the EU. If it wants to do such trade across Europe, it has a responsibility to behave in the manner of somebody who wants to work with Europe rather than against its interests. It should certainly be aware of those interests, because of the need to export. Germany also needs to look at what sort of alternative energy it has access to, rather than relying on this pipeline.
The issue will continue. The hon. Member for The Wrekin rightly pointed out the EU’s current role. It is good to see him recognising the fact that the European Union has a function of stability in Europe and is therefore able to put pressure on Russia. I accept the point he makes.
The right hon. Member for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale) raised some serious issues about some of the countries I mentioned. He has a huge amount of experience in that region. His words are very wise and should be listened to. A number of countries, and the EU particularly, have tried to regulate the energy transfer to Germany. It has not yet quite succeeded and we need to know what is going on.
The American line is very strong on this issue. At the moment, we have not had a consistent line. We need to make sure that we can move forward and try to resolve some of the issues. It is a very important issue and a very important debate, and it is important that we pay it attention. I know that the debate has taken a significant amount of time and we are under time pressure because of today’s votes. I would like the Minister to address the steps that we are taking to secure our energy in the UK. The Government have refused the Welsh wave power project and other green energy projects, and I hope the Minister will look at those.
I express my gratitude to my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) for securing this debate. I recognise his long-standing commitment to foreign policy and security issues, particularly in this region. I am also very grateful for the very constructive comments made by other hon. Members. I will try to respond to the points.
I start by saying that President Trump’s criticism of Germany’s energy relationship with Russia at the NATO summit drew the world’s attention to the proposed Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline. Hon. Members who have followed the issue will know that the Government have been clear about our own significant concerns, which we have expressed both in public and in private.
From a domestic point of view, and that of sheer national interest, Nord Stream 2 would not particularly affect the flow of gas into our own homes. The UK has a diverse and dependable gas supply. The vast majority comes from our own production and from imports from stable producers such as Norway and Qatar. Only about 1% comes from Russia. If we were faced with an interruption to our current supply, we would not be dependent on Russian gas. In such circumstances, we could increase imports of liquefied natural gas and import from many different alternative producers. So Nord Stream 2 would not have a direct impact on the energy security of our own country, but it could have serious implications for other European countries and for Ukraine in particular. There are also serious, wider, strategic implications around the proposed construction of the pipeline.
Last year, 37% of the European Union’s gas imports originated in Russia and some member states were wholly dependent on Russian supplies, so we recognise that Russia will remain a major player in the European gas market. However, we do not believe that Nord Stream 2 is necessary to meet future European demand for gas.
A number of our European partners have raised concerns about the potential impact on European energy security if 80% of Russian gas supplies were to be concentrated through a single entry point into the EU. The Government share those concerns. At a time when Europe should be diversifying energy supply, Nord Stream 2 risks entrenching dependency on Russian gas in the European energy market for decades to come. It would increase Russia’s ability to use energy as a political tool in a manner that could go to the heart of certain countries’ economic wellbeing.
To counteract that, it is essential that European countries support initiatives that diversify and strengthen the wider European gas market. To that end, we support, for instance, the southern gas corridor that would bring gas from Azerbaijan into the EU. That project offers increased diversity of supply to south-eastern Europe and it would contribute to enhanced energy security across the wider continent.
Proposed amendments to the EU gas directive, which are under discussion, would also help to alleviate the risks associated with Nord Stream 2, as they would require Nord Stream 2 and all other interconnected pipelines between EU member states and third countries to be fully compliant with EU rules. We support efforts to implement those amendments, as they will help to ensure a level playing field and a competitive market for gas in the EU.
As has been mentioned, the potential impact of Nord Stream 2 on Ukraine is a particular concern and has come to dominate the strategic assessment of this proposed project. Ukraine hosts the largest existing transit pipeline for Russian gas, and transit fees made up 2.3% of Ukraine’s GDP last year. If constructed, Nord Stream 2 would divert supplies away from Ukraine, with significant consequences for its economy. Furthermore, Russia has historically used gas as a political tool against Ukraine, for instance causing serious gas disruptions in 2006, 2009 and 2014-15. At one point, Russia threatened to do so again this year. So Ukraine’s energy system would only become more vulnerable if it was replaced by Nord Stream 2 as a transit route.
The current gas transit agreement between Russia and Ukraine expires in December 2019. It is essential that there is a new agreement in place beforehand, to provide long-term certainty for the Ukrainian Government and the Ukrainian people. I welcome Chancellor Merkel’s statements in April that Nord Stream 2 has a political dimension and would not be possible without clarity on the future transit role of Ukraine. I also welcome the EU Commission’s efforts to facilitate gas transit negotiations between Russia and Ukraine.
I take this opportunity to reiterate our long-standing and unwavering commitment to Ukraine. The UK is, and will remain, one of Ukraine’s strongest supporters. We provide political and practical support that strengthens Ukraine’s sovereignty and resilience. Over the next year, we will provide another £35 million in technical and humanitarian support to Ukraine. We will press on with training the Ukrainian armed forces, to strengthen their ability to defend their country. We will help Ukraine to counter Russian disinformation; we will help Ukraine with reforms to its energy market; and we will work closely with the Ukrainian Parliament’s fuel and energy committee.
Forgive me, Sir Edward; this question is certainly related to the debate, although it may not seem so on the face of it. Can the Minister say whether any of the support that the Government plan to give, now and in future, involves resolving the ludicrous visa situation that exists?
That is slightly tangential, as the hon. Gentleman admitted in his first sentence. Wherever I go, visas are a serious diplomatic problem. They cause a lot of upset in many countries when people, quite rightly and with reasonable intent, wish to travel here, but find that it is very expensive, it takes a long time and it is sometimes very inefficient.
The Minister may be coming on to make some remarks about Denmark, but I hope that he will be able to address the question I set out in my speech: what representations have the UK Government had with the Government of Denmark over Nord Stream 2, and what was the precise nature of those discussions?
I can answer that straightaway. I am fully aware that Denmark has not yet issued the relevant permits for the construction of Nord Stream 2—which would be in its territorial waters, as has been mentioned. We have raised our security of supply concerns with Denmark, and we anticipate its decision in the autumn. The former Foreign Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson), raised the issue with the Danes, and I have discussed it in the margins of foreign affairs committees in Brussels in the past.
We give all that help to Ukraine because it is essential for Ukraine’s future security and prosperity, and because it is essential for upholding European values and the wider security and prosperity of Europe. I fully recognise the concerns that hon. Members have expressed and I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin for drawing attention to this important issue by securing the debate.
Let me be clear: Nord Stream 2 represents a risk to European energy security and to Ukraine. Existing pipelines already provide enough capacity to meet the European demand for gas. We do not believe that Nord Stream 2 is necessary and we remain concerned that its construction will be harmful to European interests and those of Ukraine.
For that reason, we will continue to express concerns in discussions with partners across Europe, as I did with the German Minister, Michael Roth, last week. As the Prime Minister noted yesterday, she has been discussing it around the EU Council table for some time. We back amendments to the gas directive to ensure that all interconnector pipelines operate within EU internal energy market rules, and we will continue to support initiatives that strengthen and diversity the supply of gas to the European market. I assure hon. Members that we will play our full part in defending the interests of Ukraine, and we will not shy away from having a strong opinion about such an important strategic proposal.
The Minister’s comments are the most robust that I have heard from any Government Minister, including the Prime Minister yesterday. They are welcome remarks, although perhaps more in Ukraine than in the United Kingdom. He uses the word “risk”, which I also used in my speech, and said that he felt that Nord Stream 2 was not necessary because of the existing supplies in the European Union.
Notwithstanding the Minister’s comments on Denmark, I encourage him to go further, given that he is also the Minister for the Americas. The British Government may have had some differences with the White House—in particular, with President Trump—in the last few hours vis-à-vis our policy on Russia; none the less, on this issue we can agree with the White House and even with President Trump. I hope those discussions will prove fruitful—not only for our bilateral relations with the United States, but for Ukraine’s future.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered Nord Stream 2.