Wednesday 6 March 2019
[Graham Stringer in the Chair]
Transport Infrastructure: Essex
I beg to move,
That this House has considered transport infrastructure in Essex.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this morning, Mr Stringer. I am grateful to Mr Speaker for having granted this debate, and to his office for having worked with me, as they understood the background to why this debate has been called. I also put on the record my thanks to two colleagues, my hon. Friends the Members for Rochford and Southend East (James Duddridge) and for Colchester (Will Quince), for joining and supporting today’s debate. There is a great deal of interest in this issue not just from constituents across the county of Essex, but from colleagues and representatives from Essex County Council, who have joined us today.
Transport infrastructure across Essex is an issue of major importance. As the Minister knows, I have secured a number of Adjournment debates on the topic and asked one or two parliamentary questions about it. I suspect that in his office and his Department, there might be some filing cabinets containing much correspondence on a number of issues, and about Essex in particular. I have no doubt that, when being briefed by officials for this debate, he had a peek into those filing cabinets and so is well prepared to deal with the questions and issues that will come up.
The debate is about emphasising the need to progress infrastructure across the county of Essex, and addressing some of the serious questions that need answering about how we do so. Before going into details about specific transportation schemes across Essex and projects that need to be progressed, it is important to give the Minister an overview of the economy of Essex. That will demonstrate why investment in transport infrastructure—which naturally brings a return on investment back to the county and to the country—matters so much, and why we need Government support and intervention to ensure that we keep Essex moving and have the right factors and catalysts driving those projects.
The economy of the county of Essex, including the unitary authorities of Southend-on-Sea and Thurrock, is dynamic and innovative. The House has constantly heard that where Essex leads, others follow; that is because we are a county of entrepreneurs, who have seen our county throughout the good times and the bad. I think all Members present who represent Essex have seen some of those good times and bad times. Over the past decade there has been a 25% increase in the number of enterprises across Essex. In 2010, when I became a Member of Parliament, that number stood at 61,540. By 2018 it had risen to 77,365. That is a phenomenal level of growth, and I do not think anybody can say it has just happened automatically; it has happened because of the dynamic nature of our county, and because of the risk takers and entrepreneurs who believe in the county of Essex and seek to invest in it. It has also happened despite our crumbling, inadequate and poor infrastructure, so we can speculate on how much more investment Essex would have seen if we had received infrastructure investment as well.
We have highly skilled firms in Essex. We are fortunate enough to have business groups, including the brilliant Essex chamber of commerce, which champions many businesses across a range of sectors. The Minister will be aware of an organisation that I established and chair, the Essex Business, Transport and Infrastructure Forum—it is a mouthful, so we call it EBTIF. When I established it, we worked with business and the Essex chamber of commerce to engage directly with the Government to highlight the importance of infrastructure investment in our great county, which will be a recurring theme in this debate, and certainly in my remarks today.
The Essex chamber of commerce has an outstanding record. It is proactive, both in mobilising business and in engaging Government. Just this week we met the Housing Minister to speak about transport and housing. We also met the Secretary of State for Transport in the past month, which I am going to come on to when I talk about specific schemes. I invite the Minister to come to one of EBTIF’s meetings and to visit our county, to sit in our traffic jams and see our infrastructure so that he will appreciate the nature of the challenge across the county, even more than he already does from the filing cabinets full of correspondence.
Of course, it is not only individuals who depend on our transport sector, but businesses and everyone else. Essex has a strong advanced manufacturing and engineering sector that employs over 50,000 people in over 4,200 companies. We are host to a range of household names across the constituencies of all right hon. and hon. Members present, including BAE Systems, Teledyne e2v, Fläkt Woods in Colchester, and Crittall in Witham. We have a high-tech cluster; we specialise in life sciences, renewable energies, aerospace, defence, security, biotech, digitech—you name it, we have it going on.
We also have a vibrant agricultural and food production sector. In the county of Essex, farming alone is worth over £400 million to our economy and employs over 8,000 people. We have the famous Wilkin & Sons, Wicks Manor, and Shaken Udder Milkshakes, which is based in my constituency. All those businesses are testaments to Essex. If the Minister would like some more statistics, I can tell him that we produce every year enough wheat to make 1.3 billion loaves of bread, enough barley to make 280 million pints of beer, and 150 million eggs. We also grow outdoor vegetables on 5,000 acres of land, so roads and transport are important to us.
On top of that, we are attracting more and more businesses and professionals across the finance and insurance sectors; we have 66,000 professionals in Essex, so it is important that we continue to grow and support them. We have a dynamic academic and educational sector, with Writtle University College, Anglia Ruskin University and the University of Essex—my former university—with its knowledge gateway. It is an outstanding university with a first-class international reputation.
We have so much going on in the areas of multi-modality connectivity and logistics. We have over 1,000 acres of port-adjacent, tri-modally connected logistics and distribution sites, which are the backbone of our economy, and we are connected by road, rail, sea and air to global markets. We have four major seaports—London Gateway, Tilbury, Harwich and Purfleet—with a fifth major port, Felixstowe, just over the border in Suffolk. There are also six port-side rail freight terminals and three key tri-modal logistic sites at London Gateway and the London distribution park. Of course, we also have our airports: Stansted, which is the UK’s third largest air freight hub by capacity, and Southend airport. Those airports are not just growing, but experiencing considerable passenger growth and, in the case of Stansted, benefiting from private sector investment to the tune of £600 million. Essex is also connected to Heathrow, Gatwick and Luton airports through our connections to the infamous M25.
However, we need to ensure that our roads keep traffic moving. One statistic says it all: it is not surprising to learn that Essex is the local authority with the second-highest traffic level in the country, with 9.68 billion vehicle miles in 2017 alone. That is 2 billion miles more than in 1997, and if the unitary authorities of Thurrock and Southend-on-Sea are included, the greater Essex area has the highest traffic level by distance, with 11.2 billion miles. To put that into perspective, it is equivalent to the distance from Earth to interstellar space, so it is fair to say that we in Essex spend a lot of our time on the roads.
Despite Essex’s strategic location, the importance of ports, airports, roads and rail, and the work of our businesses and local authorities—I pay tribute to my colleagues in Essex County Council, who have put Essex’s transport infrastructure at the heart of their policy making and the representations they bring to Westminster through us, their Members of Parliament—our transport infrastructure, especially our roads, is at capacity. Our roads have reached their limits and it is beyond a joke.
It is important that we grow and take strategic advantage of our location and boost our global trade links—of course it is—but there has to be a recognition in Government that we are being held back by key parts of our strategic infrastructure that are no longer fit for purpose. They need new and urgent investment to boost the economy not only of Essex, but of the country.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on securing this important debate, which is very important to the people of Essex. She is absolutely right to highlight the infrastructure challenges we face, particularly on our road network. She is right to say that Essex County Council, and in particular Councillor Kevin Bentley—he is the deputy leader and looks after infrastructure for the county—have been struggling manfully in trying to cope with all this. The Minister must understand that our main arterial routes—the A13, the A127 and the A12—are bursting at the seams. The Government want more house building in south Essex and the rest of the county. I make it plain to the Minister that he has to pay for the infrastructure if he wants those houses built. If the Government will not come up with the money, for instance to make the A127 the M127, they can forget their housing targets.
I remind Members that, although this is not a well-attended debate, interventions should be short, brief and to the point.
I thank my right hon. Friend for those remarks. He is right on a number of points. First, Essex County Council and my colleague Councillor Kevin Bentley, the deputy leader and cabinet member for infrastructure, have been ensuring that we lean in—I think that is the right term—with the advocacy that has been brought to this place and the Government. My right hon. Friend’s point about roads and housing is timely, because I am just about to speak about key schemes and the whole issue of where the pressure points are.
A number of important projects and schemes need to be backed by the Government and progressed to ease the pressure on infrastructure. The costs of investing in the schemes will be paid back. We can work out the return on investment and the number of jobs that will be created through the investment and the subsequent tax receipts. Dynamic modelling facilitates and enables that.
I want to focus on two particular schemes for important strategic roads in the east of England that traverse the Witham constituency. I think we could all write books on both roads—history books, I dare say. There is a long history of delays and congestion, but their futures are linked. They are also connected to the potential future housing and development growth plans around mid-Essex and the Witham constituency. The delays caused by congestion are worse than inconvenient; they have a devastating impact on local communities and the economy. An additional half-hour delay every day for some of our great logistics businesses can mean a loss of tens of thousands of pounds a year. We hear that all the time as Members of Parliament, but it is no good just sitting and agreeing with my constituents and businesses; we need to put our foot on the gas and do something.
In debates on Brexit, the future relationship, supply chains and border checks, we need to ensure that we also look at how our inadequate infrastructure is hindering basic supply chains in our county and in the country as a whole. The delays caused by traffic and congestion on key strategic roads could be far more damaging to our economy, particularly in Essex, because of the infrastructure. The case for investment in the A12 and the A120 is compelling and has been recognised, but there are some major barriers, and that is what I want to focus on.
Back in the 2014 autumn statement, the Government announced their commitment to invest in and support the widening of the A12 between junction 19 at the Boreham interchange and junction 25 at Marks Tey. It was part of a major announcement that we all welcomed on a number of strategic road upgrades for the east of England. The work was described as an investment to
“begin phase 1 of a major upgrade to the A12, with the addition of a third lane between Chelmsford and Colchester”.
That decision was long-awaited and welcomed by everyone: commuters, businesses and our local authorities. It also opened up the prospect of further widening north of Marks Tey in later phases. It was rightly a phased scheme.
I think all Members here travel on the A12—I travel on that stretch every week. We all see the problems, the congestion and the need to expand capacity. Highways England has stated that
“the road is almost past its capacity. Motorists regularly experience major delays at peak times. Up to 90,000 vehicles travel between junction 19 and 25 every day. Forecasts reveal that the traffic on the A12 will exceed capacity by 2038. Congestion will increase if nothing is done to address this problem.”
Three fatal collisions and 12 serious accidents were identified in a five-year period. Concerns were raised about the eight junctions on this stretch, with problems including
“below standard slip roads and capacity problems which can result in tailbacks.”
The condition of the road is also poor, so a comprehensive widening scheme offers a chance to improve the surface of the road. The widening scheme also comes with the prospect of altering junctions to better suit local needs and alleviate pressures on local roads. For example, a new junction by Kelvedon to better connect to roads into Tiptree has the prospect of alleviating congestion and traffic through Kelvedon and Feering. That part of Essex had been neglected and ignored for too long, so we need to crack on with developing the widening scheme. It was prioritised to get it started in the first road investment strategy, or RIS1.
A range of stakeholder engagement activities took place. I give credit to Highways England for how it worked with us at the time. There were many events where it looked at options through route alignment. Engagement took place with parish—I sat with parish councils—district, borough and county councils, as well as the business community and local residents. It all seemed to be going well. There was consensus on the approach being taken by Highways England. With Braintree District Council and Colchester Borough Council in the process of updating their local plans, there was supposed to be integrated working and engagement to ensure that the widening scheme and local plans complemented each other—that speaks to the point that my right hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois) made about housing—and did not compromise one another. Throughout stakeholder meetings the issue was raised and it was thought that the work between Highways England and the councils would ensure a smooth process and collaboration and joint working would naturally maximise the benefits of the widening scheme. That all made sense.
After that work, Highways England went out to public consultation in early 2017, presenting four options to the public. Option 1 was to widen across the current route alignment. Option 2 was to widen the western side on the current route with a new alignment from just before junction 22 to junction 25. Option 3 was a realignment between junctions 22 and 23. Option 4 was a realignment between junctions 23 and 25. The consultation process was a massive exercise with more than 18,000 people attending public exhibitions and more than 900 responses received. It was backed by our local councils, which raised no objections to the consultation or the options put forward at the time.
The outcome was due a year later in early 2018, when Highways England was scheduled to announce its preferred route alignment. That would have enabled further consultation to take place, a development consent order to commence and diggers to go into the ground in 2020. In fact, the position and timetable were made clear to me in an email from Highways England on 29 September 2017. The email gave an update on the consultation, stating that
“key issues were raised relating to other major developments in the area, environmental impacts, non-motorised user service provision and safety related issues. The independent analysis of the responses received, as well as a Report on Public Consultation will be published when a preferred route is announced.”
The email went on to reference the importance of giving careful consideration to
“emerging and proposed major developments”.
Highways England said that it had
“decided to extend our options selection assessment and expect to announce the preferred route this coming winter.”
It then went on to confirm the timescale, stating:
“Following the preferred route announcement, we will undertake detailed engagement with all affected landowners and hold a further consultation, giving local communities and other stakeholders a second chance to have their say. This consultation is likely to be held in spring 2018 and will include detailed plans of a preferred route...Despite extending our options assessment, the first phase of construction is still anticipated to start in 2020.”
In October 2017, the Minister wrote to advise me that owing to a review of RIS1 and some resequencing of schemes, there could be a three to six-month delay to the scheme. I questioned that and the Minister confirmed that
“the recently announced optimisation of the Road Investment Strategy relates to the start of works and does not impact on the decision about the route. I want to reassure you that the Government and Highways England’s strong commitment to this scheme remains. While the start of construction will get delayed by 3-6 months as part of Highways England’s plans to reduce disruption for road users and businesses, Highway England will work with you and other local partners to ensure that any impacts are minimised.”
At the end of 2017, therefore, the position with the A12 widening scheme was that an announcement and further consultation on the preferred route were to start shortly, with construction likely to start in 2020, probably later in the year owing to some resequencing work. There was no indication from the Government or Highways England of the bombshell that was about to knock the scheme off course.
Two years after the consultation was completed, we are no further forward with this key scheme, so we have to ask where is the delay and where has it gone wrong? We know that Colchester Borough Council made a last-minute change to its housing and development plans: plans that had been in the making for years were abruptly changed. They redrew on the map the garden settlement community proposals in a way that completely blew apart the options in the A12 consultation, adding costs to the scheme and pushing the scheme back into RIS2. It has profound consequences for strategic investment across the region. It pushes back opportunities to widen the A12 north of Marks Tey, and it has an impact on the A120 dualling scheme, which I will come on to shortly. It also means that the A12 widening scheme could take place at the same time as the construction of the lower Thames crossing, putting pressure on construction costs and supply chains. That means adding congestion to the county.
I do not want to go over the past, in particular the local development plans, but constituents living in the vicinity of the A12 and the proposed realignments from the 2017 consultation are in limbo, creating too much uncertainty. According to my postbag, people cannot decide whether to sell their homes or move. Huge inconvenience has been caused by the local plan triggering a chain of events. We need to look at the whole issue. We cannot progress the road until we have the housing scheme in place. In fact, the Minister for Housing was in touch with me in September last year. He also referred to the delays and said the issue
“highlights the need for greater certainty of the funding and feasibility of these two schemes”,
in relation to housing.
A written parliamentary answer from the Department in January this year stated:
“The Department for Transport and Highways England have been considering how best to take forward the A12 scheme, in the light of concerns raised by the Planning Inspector in June 2018 regarding the proposed Garden Community at Marks Tey and its interaction with the A12 scheme.”
The situation is now becoming absurd. The roads will not progress until the housing and development plans have progressed, but those plans will not progress until the roads have progressed. What has happened? We need answers now. What about the principle of alignment and integrated working? The matter must be addressed sooner rather than later.
I have specific questions for the Minister. At what point will the Government step in to take control of the A12 scheme and work with local authorities to provide the leadership that they need to drive the matter forward? When will the Government, the Department for Transport, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, and the Treasury make a decision on progressing the scheme if the local plan is subject to delay? How much longer will we have to wait? Will the Minister ensure that, as a matter of urgency, Highways England brings forward a proposed route alignment that is future-proofed so that housing proposals can evolve around it? We cannot continue to wait.
What assessment have the Government made of the economic impact of the delays, which bring additional costs, and of the impact on other strategic road schemes such as the A120 dualling scheme? What work is being done to support my constituents who live so close to the A12 that they are stuck? They are unable to sell their properties or even determine their futures. They are victims of the failure to get the scheme going.
Does the Minister recognise that the delays to the A12 widening scheme between junctions 19 and 25 are causing delays to widen the A12 north of junction 25, which local people in the county need to see? I want to be part of the solution and we all need to come together, so will the Minister agree to set up a working group that is led by me and brings together Highways England, his Department, MHCLG, the Treasury, our colleagues at Essex County Council, the business community and other stakeholders to get on top of the widening scheme, as well as the A120 proposal? We cannot run the risk of this issue moving into RIS3. The delays are phenomenal and have an enormous impact, which brings me on to the A120, a road of strategic importance not only to the county, but to our country.
The A120 is a strategic economic corridor that cannot be underestimated. The Minister and all Members in the debate today know the history of the single carriageway. The stretch between Braintree and Marks Tey is 12 miles long and is regarded as one of the most dangerous in the country. There is a litany of safety issues. It has been a death trap. Last week I met two parish councils, Bradwell and Stisted, that have highlighted the road safety concerns constantly. We have campaigners, including Save Lives Not Time, whose campaign has been phenomenal, working with the local community to actually do something to reduce speed along the A120.
The road needs to be dualled and it needs to meet the increased capacity. It has been 10 years since the previous Labour Government abandoned proposals to dual the A120. Endless studies have been undertaken, and I pay tribute to my colleagues at Essex County Council who have been instrumental in driving proposals and leading them forward with me and other MPs.
A report from Atkins in 2008 stated:
“The A120...currently constrained by the capacity of the single carriageway section...between Braintree and the A12...is congested and suffers traffic delays.”
Traffic delays result in pollution. They are caused by accidents and have an incredible impact. Evidence from 2005 demonstrated that an estimated 25,000 vehicles used that stretch of road every single day. In 2010, around 14% of traffic—one in seven vehicles—is accounted for by HGVs, compared with an average of 6% across Essex. Had the scheme been progressed 10 years ago, we would have a road that is fit for purpose. We would have integrated roads connecting with the A12. We would have a better and more resilient local road network. The evidence is compelling: the road must be dualled. To be fair, we have all made the case for years and years.
Essex County Council has worked very closely with Highways England. Work was led on developing a scheme and holding a consultation by the county council. It worked with Highways England throughout to ensure that there was a strong and robust case. Options went out for consultation at the same time as the A12 consultation, with a view to securing agreement from the Government to put the A120 dualling scheme into RIS2 and sequence construction on both schemes to maximise the benefits, while reducing the impact that comes from major highway improvements.
The Minister knows about the favoured route, option D from the consultation, which was brought forward by Essex County Council. It has a benefit to cost ratio of 4.5, which is important because it scores far higher than any major projects the Government have invested in. It will help to unlock 20,000 jobs and support housing growth by perhaps as many as 32,000 new dwellings, if needed. The improvements in journey time and reliability are valued at about £48 million, with £350 million of benefit to freight traffic. The overall costed journey time savings could total £1.2 billion. Safety will be improved. Congestion through villages will be reduced, with Silver End set to experience 59% less traffic, Cressing 44% less and Bradwell 43% less. According to the proposals, construction will take around three years and will support about 500 construction jobs.
In total, the scheme can add £2.2 billion in gross value added to the local economy at a cost of £550 million. Few schemes are as attractive as this one. The Minister knows it is one of the best prepared business cases for RIS2 because of the evidence contained in it. The feasibility work was supported by Government funding, for which I thank the Government and the Minister, after lobbying by myself and others to put the project forward. That case has been made consistently.
The Government have committed to dualling the scheme; we now need the backing, Minister. We need to ensure that there are no contradictions between the Department, Highways England or local authorities. I would welcome an update from the Minister on the timetable for submissions for RIS2 and on the decision making. It is pivotal to securing the road, and strengthening our infrastructure across the county. The A12 and the A120 need to be sequential.
I would welcome an assurance from the Minister that the delays to the A12 widening scheme will not hamper or hinder in any way the proposals for the A120 dualling scheme to be included in RIS2. With the road currently operating beyond belief in terms of capacity, people need certainty. We are looking for a fresh impetus so that we can recalibrate both schemes and take a stronger, fresh approach to secure the Government’s national mission to build more new homes. There is a willingness in our county to be resilient and to ensure that we do everything that we can.
I have a few other points to make, and then I will give colleagues time to speak. There are other roads across Essex. The lower Thames crossing will provide a vital link connecting Essex and Kent. I would welcome a progress report from the Minister on that scheme, and on whether there will be connectivity. We are all about connectivity and joined-up, integrated working. We must ensure that the schemes are delivered on time and progress on time, and that Essex County Council is supported in the right way in the work that it needs to do to achieve that integrated approach across the county, so that all road schemes are progressed in the right way. My colleagues will speak about other roads. I think it is fair to say that road investment is pivotal, not just for Essex County Council but for the Government in terms of delivering for the county of Essex.
I will turn to a different modality: rail. I thank the Department for Transport and the Rail Minister for the amount of time that he has spent with me recently. As the Government have recognised, the Great Eastern main line and the West Anglia main line are poor relations to other parts of the rail network. I am chair of the Great Eastern main line taskforce, which was established back in 2013. The then Chancellor of the Exchequer supported the establishment of the taskforce to look at the strategic rail needs of the region. We have been an instrumental voice in putting business cases to the Government. The first business case that went to the Government in 2013 secured some important outcomes, off the back of a very robust rail prospectus that colleagues and I worked towards.
We released a package of investments that were linked to a new franchise, including new rolling stock and timetable changes. The package amounted to £4.5 billion in gross value added to the region’s economy, meaning thousands of new jobs. We are now interested in moving the scheme forward, and are working with the Government on the new process by submitting a revised and updated rail prospectus. We intend to restate the economic benefits, which can of course be multiplied. A multiplier effect in rail can be complemented by a multiplier effect in road investment; I argue that the two must almost be coterminous.
We will clearly restate what investment in the Great Eastern main line should look like, and that it should be focused on as a national economic priority. I know that it is not in the Minister’s portfolio, but I would welcome an update on a number of project schemes for which we are seeking commitments and support, including the introduction of a passing loop in the vicinity of Witham, the redoubling of Haughley junction, improvements to the Trowse swing bridge, resignalling south of Chelmsford, and Liverpool Street station improvements.
Combined, those key investments will increase capacity on the network and, importantly for all rail users, reduce delays. There are some long-awaited new developments, including Beaulieu Park railway station—or, as some call it, Chelmsford parkway—which will support new housing growth. A three-track or four-track option with additional platforms would serve to future-proof the line and to increase capacity.
We also need investment in infrastructure to implement digital railway technology for the Great Eastern main line, and to bring in the new 15-minute Delay Repay system, along with new technology to help commuters claim compensation for poor and delayed services, which have resulted in a lack of investment in the past. I know that we are getting close to an announcement on Delay Repay 15. The Minister might be limited in what he can say, because of commercial terms, but any signal that he can give regarding the direction of travel would be greatly welcome, including any improvements on the Witham to Braintree branch line.
I will draw to a close, as I have spoken for a considerable time and there are other speakers. From my perspective as a Member of Parliament for an Essex constituency, the chair of the Great Eastern main line taskforce, someone who has led the Essex Business, Transport and Infrastructure Forum, and someone who has worked—I think it is fair to say—quite diligently with my colleagues at Essex County Council, our deputy leader, Councillor Kevin Bentley, and all Members across Essex, there is a severe need for investment. The business cases have been made consistently to the Department and to various Ministers, including the Minister who is present today.
We are not shy as a county. I am proud of our diligence and our ability to understand economics, business and a return on investment. Essex is a net contributor to Her Majesty’s Treasury, and has been for a number of years—from the days when entrepreneurs sought to move to Essex. Our rail line has been under-invested in. The Minister knows the case for the A12 and the A120. I urge him to clarify the position on the development of both schemes. We cannot have further delay, or contradictions between what the Department says and what Highways England says.
We need an integrated way of working that involves Essex County Council, Highways England, the Department, and myself and other colleagues, so that we are all facing in the right direction and can deliver the economic benefits of jobs and housing, which we all want. It is important that the Government send a strong message to the county of Essex, investors, commuters, businesses, constituents and our local authorities, to say that we will work with them and support them to ensure that, as we say constantly, where Essex leads others will follow.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Witham (Priti Patel) on securing the debate and making an excellent case. I have great admiration for her work in chairing the Essex Business, Transport and Infrastructure Forum, which I find invaluable in bringing together stakeholders across the whole county. Although I, of course, have a parochial interest in Rochford and Southend East, like my right hon. Friend I attended the University of Essex, and follow issues in that area in great detail. No doubt we will hear more from that neck of the woods soon.
Minister, if this were legislation, I would suggest a very simple amendment: delete “A” and insert “M”. I refer, of course, to the A127. We want it to be a motorway. When I say “we”, I do not mean me, or a collection of a few random individuals; the whole of Essex wants it to be a motorway. In November 2018, a group came together—the south Essex A127 taskforce—led by Councillor Mike Steptoe, who is both of Essex County Council and deputy leader of Rochford Council. That group included Essex, Southend, Thurrock, Rochford, Basildon, Castle Point, Brentwood, Chelmsford, Malden, Havering, Transport for London and Highways England. Anyone who knows anything about transport and local politics will know that to get that number of local authority leaders and chief executives in one room agreeing anything is absolutely amazing. They want improvements to the A127.
The A127 carries more than 75,000 people every day. It is the lifeblood not only to the end of the road—almost literally where I live, in Thorpe Bay—but throughout Southend, Shoeburyness and across the corridor, into London. Rather like the c2c line, it is a pipeline of money and prosperity for the area. I am asking for just a small change—a little letter. I am sure the Minister will be able to manage something along those lines.
I have five more detailed asks. We would like the A127 widened, so that it would be at least three lanes along its length. We would like a consistent speed—at the moment, there is bit of stop/start and differential speed limits. We would like the road to be made a trunk road, part of the strategic network. At one point, the Government had a strong case against that because it just goes out to Southend, but now we have London Southend airport—an international airport that has grown massively, with more than 1 million passenger movements and flights to more than 30 destinations. From a transport perspective, that in itself makes Southend a strategic asset for the country, and on that basis alone the road should be trunked.
Fourthly, we need to make sure that all incremental improvements to the A127 do not stand in the way of a future motorway—developments such as the Fairglen interchange between the A130 and the A127 need to be motorway-proof. Finally, I am not a great negotiator, but just in case the Minister cannot offer me the small change of letter, perhaps he might go for another small change and call it the A127(M), while we wait for the full motorway in a few years’ time.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. I echo the comments congratulating my right hon. Friend the Member for Witham (Priti Patel) on securing this important and timely debate. I want to focus my remarks on Colchester, but will touch on a number of the different routes that she has already referenced. It has been a pleasure to serve with her on the Great Eastern main line taskforce, where we have made huge progress, although there is a lot of work still to do, and on the A120 and A12 campaigns.
Colchester is not only Britain’s oldest recorded town, but the fastest-growing town in the country, which it has been for some time. We have had tens of thousands of homes built without the adequate infrastructure to support that. Anybody who has visited Colchester, at peak times in particular, will have seen that there is considerable congestion and regular gridlock. Essex County Council, under the leadership of Councillor Kevin Bentley, is doing its best and there are some significant schemes under way in Colchester, but anybody in Colchester knows that that is not enough, and we need to secure further investment from the Government to keep our town moving.
Colchester has considerable potential: we have unbelievable links because of our location; we are central, for road, rail, air and sea; we are 50 minutes from the City of London, 30 minutes from Harwich international port and 45 minutes from London Stansted airport; we are the small and medium-sized enterprise capital of East Anglia; and we have around 600 creative and digital businesses, and that figure is growing almost by the day.
To unlock our town’s business and economic growth potential, we have to ensure that it does not regularly grind to a halt, as it sadly does at the moment. For that, we need significant infrastructure investment. I want to focus on the large-scale infrastructure projects of the A12, the A120 and the Great Eastern main line, but we should not forget local transport infrastructure too.
The Government want Colchester Borough Council to build around 1,000 homes every year, and so far it has been hugely successful in that endeavour, building more than double of any other district or borough in the county of Essex. For that to be facilitated and for it to work—many in Colchester would question whether we should be building so much—the Government have to provide adequate transport infrastructure funding along with it. As a result, housing infrastructure fund bids are very important, and it is essential that the Government look favourably on those from our borough.
One example is the East of Colchester garden settlement plan. The garden settlement plan is not an uncontroversial programme in Essex, but the garden settlement to the east of Colchester is probably the less controversial of the two. It can work only if we secure funding for a new link road between the A133 and the A120, together with a rapid transport scheme to get people in and out of Colchester, because that will unlock the congestion on the Ipswich Road through Highwoods, St John’s and St Anne’s. That is the only way that the scheme can work, and I ask the Minister to look on it favourably.
My focus today is on the main projects—the A12, the A120 and the Great Eastern main line. While my right hon. Friend the Member for Witham was taking a sabbatical in the Cabinet, I stepped up and took on the chairmanship of the Great Eastern main line taskforce. Tens of thousands of commuters in and around my constituency use our station—certainly 15,000, and perhaps 20,000—and any one of those commuters will know that the Great Eastern main line is operating at capacity between Colchester and London. Given the growth pressure and the housing that the Government expect Essex to deliver, that is not sustainable.
We need infrastructure investment on the Great Eastern main line, and on projects already mentioned by my right hon. Friend—the Bow junction remodelling; the loops between Shenfield and Witham, probably the most important in enabling capacity on the line; the loops south of Colchester; the Haughley junction doubling; and, of course, the digital railway.
I sat on the Transport Committee with you, Mr Stringer, and we looked at the digital railway and the opportunity there to increase capacity by up to 40%. I was disappointed that we were not included as part of the initial pilot, despite the lobbying of every single MP on our line for the Great Eastern main line to be part of the digital railway pilot. I know Greater Anglia, our rail operating company, is looking into other options, but I implore the Government to look at this seriously, as capacity is a major issue and we know that the digital railway is an opportunity to unlock it. We have a brand-new fleet of trains on order, the first of which arrive this year. The equipment is therefore built into those trains already, and it is essential that we get the signalling right. Investment by the Government will unlock huge capacity on our line and, dare I say, enable the housing growth that the Government want to see.
That is part of why we must address capacity, but also, our commuters are not getting value for money. At peak times, they are very often standing. My Colchester commuters pay in excess of £5,000 a year for a season ticket, just to get to and from work. We must ensure that we deliver value for money for them.
My right hon. Friend touched on Delay Repay; I know it is not hugely relevant to the debate, so I will touch on it only briefly. We were promised that it would be delivered within weeks of the Adjournment debate a few weeks ago, so I push the Department for Transport to make that announcement as soon as possible. The eyes of rail users across north Essex and the wider region are certainly on the Department.
I very much welcome the new trains, but they are only part of the jigsaw. They will inevitably lead to fewer delays because we will have fewer train breakdowns and issues, but the Network Rail piece is equally important. I welcome the £2 billion Network Rail settlement, but I ask the Minister to make sure that it is delivered on time and that it is kept under close consideration, because we have to ensure the full jigsaw—the new trains along with signalling and track work—so that we are not suffering the delays we so frequently experience at the moment.
As my right hon. Friend mentioned, the A120 is one of the most important east-to-west roads in Essex, between Braintree and the A12. It is little more than a country lane on many parts of that route. Anybody who has tried to get between Braintree and Colchester and got stuck behind a caravan or a crash will know that people can be waiting there for a considerable period.
The A120 is the only single carriageway road in England connecting a major international airport with a major international seaport. As my right hon. Friend mentioned, the dualling was cancelled under the last Labour Government. Heaven forbid that we have another Labour Government in the near future, but would it not be a huge wasted opportunity if, 10 years on from the cancellation of the previous scheme, some future Labour Government, just as we got round to delivering it, cancelled it all over again? I implore the Minister to get on with this and to make sure that A120 dualling is part of the road investment strategy, RIS2. That is absolutely vital. As eloquently and passionately put by my right hon. Friend, the reason is that the A120 is heavily over capacity.
Around 25,000 vehicles use that single-track road every single day—15% of them are heavy goods vehicles—and traffic volume is set to increase further year on year. Some 24% of the road is regularly congested. For five hours a day, journeys are delayed in both directions. For six hours a day, sections of the road carry more vehicles than it was built for.
As my right hon. Friend pointed out, we have an increasing collision trend, which should worry us all. There is a high rate of serious casualties compared with the national average for a single carriageway trunk road. Even if we park all those issues, which are compelling enough reasons to upgrade the A120, we have the even more compelling ground of economic growth. Essex County Council’s favoured option would see a benefit-cost ratio—my right hon. Friend has already pointed this out, but it is well worth repeating—of 4.5, which means that it would deliver £4.5 million-worth of benefits for every £1 million spent, including unlocking up to 20,000 jobs and £2.2 billion in gross value added to the local economy. It is important to note that this option has wide support from businesses, local authorities, parliamentarians and business leaders. In mid and north Essex, we very much sing with one voice in calling on the Government to invest and ensure that we see that scheme as part of RIS2.
The A12 is another road that is hugely important—it is an artery through Essex. It is already approaching capacity, with the flow-to-capacity ratio on the two-lane sections well over tolerable limits: typically, it is between 70% and 90% in peak hours. From the many tweets I receive from my constituents, I know how many times they get stuck on that road. RIS1 identifies the whole route for upgrading to a three lane standard throughout, starting with the section between junction 19 at Boreham in Chelmsford and junction 25 at Marks Tey in Colchester.
We desperately want the Government to announce preferred route status for that section in RIS1. We accepted a short delay; when the Minister sent us the letter, we met him immediately afterwards and were told that it would be a delay of three to six months, which has drifted somewhat. We wanted that delivered as part of RIS1. Ideally, we then wanted the north of junction 25 on the A12 to be delivered as part of RIS2. That is absolutely vital to our county.
I want Highways England to look at my plan for a new junction at Lexden between junctions 26 and 28, because junction 27 has no southbound exit. There has been much growth in Stanway—mostly housing, but also the huge retail development at Tollgate. That is at junction 26. Likewise, at junction 28, we have future plans for the northern gateway—a huge leisure development. Those junctions will become more and more congested, so my plan for a new junction southbound on the A12 deserves serious consideration. I hope I can meet the Minister to discuss that further.
I have reiterated the points made by my right hon. Friend, but they are so important to our county and my town of Colchester. I want to emphasise that there is huge potential to unlock economic growth across Essex and in my home town of Colchester, but we need investment in our transport infrastructure to realise that potential.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. I welcome this morning’s debate and the case made by the right hon. Member for Witham (Priti Patel) and the hon. Members for Rochford and Southend East (James Duddridge) and for Colchester (Will Quince), who are all rightly standing up for their constituents in making the case for future transport investment. They have highlighted the A12, A120, A127—perhaps I should say M127—junction enhancements and the Great Eastern main line.
The Minister and I have debated transport infrastructure in the past 24 hours, not just focusing on Essex but looking across the country. Getting a national perspective is really important when we look at the microcosm of Essex and the opportunities the county offers. Both the Government and the Opposition see investment in the future of infrastructure as crucial, and it is something to which we are deeply committed. We are committed to transport infrastructure investment because we are committed to widening and unleashing the opportunities for the economy in Essex and across the country, and to ensuring that we get the connectivity right for the future.
Although right hon. and hon. Members have extolled the economic opportunities for their areas and discussed the housing developments that are putting pressure on the infrastructure, which is clearly under severe pressure and needs to be redressed, I urge the Minister to take a more strategic view of how we develop our transport infrastructure. The reality is that we need to plan not just for the next decade or two, but for the long term. Today we are living off our Victorian railway infrastructure, which has lasted for nearly 200 years, but we need a greater vision for how we want to drive infrastructure forward. Instead of hearing a list of pleas—I hear them very loudly—it is really important that we look more strategically at how and where we want to develop our economy, then mesh that with the housing demands across our country and ensure that there is good connectivity between economic opportunity and housing. We need to hardwire that into the infrastructure in order to meet those demands in future.
I heard the frustration of the right hon. Member for Witham when she asked which Department is leading—is it Housing or Transport? It is right to have interdependency, but there needs to be leadership in driving this forward. It is also important to draw together the necessary spatial planning between economic growth and housing, and we therefore need to ensure that transport is hardwired into all spatial planning in future.
As we look to the longer term and beyond the current crisis, we really need to think about infrastructure that will last in the long term. To be kind to the Government, the unfortunate way they handled RIS1 and CP5 highlights that this is still short-term thinking. Although we saw an improvement in year-on-year funding, moving to control periods or the RIS process has meant that we are still talking about short-term cycles of investment. The Rail Delivery Group has highlighted the damaging impact that short-term cycles of funding has created, particularly on the issue of skills—having to create skills, believing we are driving down one path of development of infrastructure, then seeing the cancellations and having to lay off those skills. That adds 30% to the costs for the industry—a premium that, frankly, we could be investing elsewhere.
It is really important that we heed what the sector is saying about planning, which is why Labour is very focused on long-term planning and rolling the money forward to ensure that there are sustained periods of funding. We very much hope that the Williams report will coincide with what we and the industry are saying: it is about removing the cliff edges from different control periods as we move forward on funding. If we can achieve that, we will be able to plan for the long term rather than just the short term. There are real benefits to looking at the infrastructure required to build sustainability for the long term.
The economic opportunity of Essex and the surrounding area is important because of the ports and airports connectivity. We therefore need to hardwire in the freight routes. We need to take one in seven lorries off the road and put them on to lines to ensure that they have priority. We must also ensure that we have the passenger infrastructure in place for the future, which is really important. I urge the Minister and right hon. and hon. Members to think more widely about the opportunities that can be delivered—particularly by rail, but also by light rail, which is being developed across different conurbations. We must certainly not focus only on urban areas; it must stretch into the surrounding rural areas. Great opportunities could be realised if we make serious investment in the longer term. Labour will certainly prioritise that in government.
As we move forward, we must embrace the modern technology that is available to us. I share the right hon. Lady’s disappointment that we have not embraced the opportunity of digital rail. We have heard evidence about its capacity benefits, but we are miles behind. Essex is leading in electronics—it is a major part of its economy—so it surely makes sense to bring digital rail into the region. Other countries are far more advanced than us and do not understand our delays and why we are just tiptoeing forward into digital rail. I share those concerns.
I urge the Minister, as I did yesterday, to justify the scale of the road building programme. Hon. Members will obviously make the case for their own areas, but 50,000 people die each year in the UK as a result of air pollution, so we must address emissions seriously. It is concerning that the carbon footprint of the transport sector, which accounts for 30% of emissions, is increasing. We need a 15% reduction year on year just to reach our Paris commitments, but of course that will not be enough to prevent the catastrophic global impact and the impact here at home.
The Minister will say that the Government are planning to remove diesel vehicles by 2040, but in 41 years’ time more than 1 million people in our country will have died prematurely. That national crisis should be on the front pages of our newspapers daily until the Government address the issue. To date, I have not heard how they are planning to do so with the road building programme. Yesterday he said that I was rude to call it catastrophic, but the damage it is causing is indeed deeply catastrophic. I ask him to reflect more on the impact it is having. We are talking about lives being lost.
I hear right hon. and hon. Members’ pleas, but I urge them to think about the impact on the environment of these road-building schemes. We know from the evidence that, with induced capacity, we will be having the same debate in 20 years’ time. I therefore encourage them to think bigger about the infrastructure they want in Essex.
I want to highlight the opportunities for other modes of transport. Some 80% of journeys are local, so we could see a modal shift into active travel. We have not heard about cycling and walking today, but that infrastructure is important. Fantastic work has been done in Manchester, but it is important to extend that beyond the local vicinity. I ask the Minister why the Highways England budget for building infrastructure for cycling and walking along highways has been underspent. We really need to focus on active travel, so that seems like another missed opportunity by the Minister.
We have a real opportunity to invest in our infrastructure and our country, and to develop skills for the future. We have a skills crisis across the sector. I again ask the Minister to address that issue and ensure that, when bids come forward, we invest in jobs in transport construction so that we have the right skills in place. Although the Government are rightly focusing on unlocking the opportunity of electric vehicles, the investment in the infrastructure to support them is woeful. That does not give confidence to the manufacturers whose production will be driven by the infrastructure. I again ask the Minister to have a laser focus on ensuring that we get the infrastructure right for a future generation of electric vehicles.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. This has been a very interesting debate. Of course, the focus has rightly been on Essex infrastructure, but I am grateful to the hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) for raising some other issues, and of course I will discuss them all.
Above all, I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Witham (Priti Patel) not only on securing the debate, but on her Churchillian 37-minute speech. That is a new record for me in a Westminster Hall debate. It was very wide-ranging and interesting. She has been absolutely tireless in pressing the claims of not merely her constituency but Essex as a county. She gives indefatigability a bad name. If it were not for our relentless desire to maintain efficiency in the Department for Transport, we would have Patel SWAT teams scrambling every time she moves, and cross-modal engagement klaxons going off every time we heard something. If we did that, we would hear an awful lot of noise, because she has been very active in this area.
I am also aware of the work that my right hon. Friend has done elsewhere—my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend East (James Duddridge) touched on this—not just as head of the Great Eastern main line taskforce but as chair of the Essex Business, Transport and Infrastructure Forum, highlighting the importance of infrastructure in building sustainable local communities and strong local economies. That is all extremely welcome.
My right hon. Friend rightly focused on the natural, physical and human endowments that Essex has as a county. It has a very strong local economy and a resident population of 1.5 million-odd people. It has a very entrepreneurial spirit and workforce, and the growing economy reflects that. It is a very exciting place to do business, and that is tremendous. That has drawn on and created a need for transport connectivity.
The nationally important M11 and M25, which colleagues did not mention, and the A12 and A120 run through the county, and there are major local roads, including the A13, the A27—my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend East was very eloquent on that topic—the A100 and the A414. Rail connections ensure that the county remains tightly linked to London, with three main lines, the London underground to Upminster and branch lines serving more than 55 stations. It would be wrong not to mention its international gateway of Stansted and Southend, which is growing very rapidly, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Witham mentioned. Harwich provides nationally important sea connections to Holland and Denmark. There are also Tilbury and the new London Gateway port. It is a very exciting place.
My right hon. Friend mentioned Essex’s agricultural strength. It cannot quite match the astonishing range, diversity and depth of my county of Herefordshire, but it is right up there. As I am sure she will agree, the transport network is not just of critical importance to the economic growth and development of Essex, but of national significance. It is an important piece of infrastructure in its wider economic growth and development benefits across the country.
Let me touch on the issues that my right hon. Friend raised in some depth. She is right to focus on the importance of infrastructure. We have recognised that and have invested in the strategic road network, which is critical to delivering that growth. In December 2014 the Government launched the first road investment strategy, which outlined how more than £15 billion is to be invested in our strategic roads between 2015 and 2021. That is the biggest upgrade to strategic roads in a generation, and it will be exceeded in RIS2 from 2025, which is of the scale of £25 billion.
The hon. Member for York Central rightly drew attention to the importance of combating emissions. We have a very strong air quality strategy and have launched an enormous amount of work not just on emissions but on decarbonisation. We have a lot of work about to come out shortly on future mobility, electric vehicles and the like. It includes not just cars, but the full panoply of electric vehicles that are transforming our streets.
It is important to recognise that some road building is vital, and it would be a poor Minister who did not recognise both that and the validity of claims for road building in counties, not merely as an economic and housing enabler, but as an investment in skills, supply chains and businesses, and one that will prepare us for a green future with electric and, in due course, autonomous vehicles.
Will the Minister give way?
I have so much to get through in only 10 minutes. I will be delighted to come back to the hon. Lady when I mention her remarks later in my speech, but I will make the important point that we must recognise balance and that, even by her lights of supporting skills and reducing emissions in the longer term, this is actually an enlightened policy. Much of it is about maintenance—autonomous vehicles will require high-quality roads—and that process cannot begin too soon. RIS1 and RIS2 place a very high emphasis on maintenance.
To zero-in on Essex, my right hon. Friend the Member for Witham pointed out that the first road investment strategy includes the widening of the A12 between junction 19 at Chelmsford and junction 25 at Marks Tey, where it currently joins the A120. Delivery of that scheme remains a top priority for my Department, as it is an important strategic route for continued economic prosperity across the region. She also highlighted the delays that have affected the scheme. I will not get into the causation, and she has been very delicate in hinting at causation without specifically stating it. As she knows, there was an initial re-profiling delay, but the fundamental delay was not at all of the Government’s making. Local priorities have changed and we are seeking to accommodate those changes. I will respond to her specific questions—we owe her that as she was kind enough to share them in advance—but I can assure the Chamber that we understand the frustration felt by local communities that works will not begin by March 2020 as was originally proposed. We very much understand that.
We have been considering how best to take forward the A12 scheme in the light of the interaction with the proposed garden community in Marks Tey, as my right hon. Friend touched on. That interdependency was of course raised by the Planning Inspectorate, which examined those housing proposals in June 2018. We believe—as I think she does—that it is important to find the right long-term solution for the local community and to support delivery of the proposed housing at Marks Tey, which would mean the delivery of up to 24,000 much-needed homes.
Highways England is working with partners in Government, local planning authorities and promoters of the new housing development. The next step is for Highways England to consult on the revised route options for the A12 between junctions 24 and 25. The route options will have regard to the housing proposals and—we hope—ensure that the improvements are right for those who use the A12 now and in the future. In the light of the recent delays, Highways England’s latest delivery plan, which was published in July 2018, proposes that works for the A12 begin in the second road investment period, from 2020 to 2025. I wish that were otherwise, but we have had our hand forced somewhat and are scrambling to make the best of the situation.
As I am sure my right hon. Friend will also know, Essex has ambitious plans for housing delivery. The housing White Paper set out the Government’s wider vision to address issues such as unaffordable housing and the provision of proper transport infrastructure, and the Department works closely with the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government in that area. My hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Will Quince) mentioned housing infrastructure fund bids. They are a crucial part of Essex’s further development, and I say good luck to any hon. Member in the Chamber. Trying to tie in the response to those housing bids with local and strategic transport links is part of the importance of our wider strategic approach, unlocking new housing developments with good transport connections in places where people want to live. Essex is delivering that kind of substantial housing growth in major sites such as Braintree, Chelmsford and Marks Tey, which are critical to meet housing demand. Of course, we recognise the centrality of transport to making them happen.
Well-planned, well-designed and locally-led garden communities can play a vital role in helping to meet this country’s housing needs well into the future. That is why the Government recognise and have invested in the development of capacity towards 23 places across the country as part of our garden communities programme. We are pleased that Essex County Council has decided to further support North Essex Garden Communities by submitting a HIF bid. That has the potential to make an enormous difference, including by releasing funding that ensures that the proposed A12 improvements can accommodate and allow access to the garden communities at Marks Tey, subject to further public consultation.
There has been some concern that the delay to the A12 scheme will compromise the proposal to dual the A120 between Braintree and Marks Tey, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Witham mentioned. Essex County Council is developing that scheme for potential inclusion in the second road investment strategy. I can confirm that, from our perspective, the A12 delay does not affect or compromise consideration of the A120 scheme and that, although we cannot make announcements on the fly, I expect us to make a consolidated set of announcements on this area and others later in the year.
The A120 is recognised as an important route in the wider transport network, but currently the single-carriageway section between Braintree and the A12 near Colchester is regularly a bottleneck, as has been pointed out. The heavy traffic passing through the area is a burden on the local villages and towns. We have supported Essex County Council with a contribution of £4 million to the development work for an affordable and deliverable improvement scheme for the A120. I thank the council and take my hat off to Councillor Kevin Bentley, who is sitting in the Public Gallery, for their excellent work in developing those proposals, including taking them through a non-statutory public consultation on a range of options.
The council’s favoured option for the A120 scheme, which was announced in June 2018, is supported by a strong analytical assessment and has gained the backing of both the public and the local business community. It forms the foundation for consideration of the scheme as a candidate in the competition for the bidding process of our second road investment strategy, which focuses on the period between 2020 and 2025 and has been subject to enormous competition, as colleagues will understand. It is in the nature of politics that everyone regards their own bid as the only one that the Government should ever meet and do so as a priority, and this debate has been no different. I remind colleagues that that can be said for every single Member of this House, and across all parties.
Submissions in favour of the A120 upgrade have been received but there was also support for the schemes that were originally included in RIS1 for development in RIS2, such as the A12 Colchester bypass widening that we discussed and the improvement of the A12-M25 to Chelmsford. They are all being considered for inclusion in RIS2, alongside other proposals from across the country.
Beyond the upgrades and improvement schemes, the Government continue to invest in essential maintenance of the road network. For the period 2018-19, £34.8 million was allocated for Essex road maintenance, with a further figure of almost £700,000 earmarked for pothole action funding in the area. Through the local growth fund, we have also allocated £15 million to the proposed £28.7 million improvements to the A127-A130 Fairglen interchange, which will improve traffic flow, journey times and road safety at an important local junction. Essex County Council is developing the final business case and, if the scheme is approved, work could start in the summer of 2020 and be completed in early 2022.
My right hon. Friend rightly mentioned the lower Thames crossing. If ever there were a scheme that underlined—contrary to the shadow Minister’s suggestions —the genuinely strategic nature of the investment that this country is making, that would be it, with between £4.4 billion and £6.2 billion-worth of investment to increase capacity by 70% for drivers crossing the Thames to the east of London. That investment is orientated absolutely towards the longer term. A Government preoccupied with the short term could not make an investment of that scale or magnitude, or with such a degree of planning. It will almost double the road capacity across the River Thames to the east of London. It is the largest single road investment project in the UK since the M25 was completed more than 30 years ago.
Obviously, there is a need for better road connectivity between Essex and Kent, and we believe that the benefits of the lower Thames crossing are clear. We expect it to have a positive impact on the major road network, contribute to a reduction in the number of vehicles using the Dartford crossing—releasing some of the pressure on it—and assist and support local communities.
The other strategic connection is of course rail. My right hon. Friend mentioned the importance to the Essex economy of the Great Eastern main line and the West Anglia main line. The Government recognise that and—again, contrary to the imputation that we are not being strategic—are pursuing the biggest railway modernisation programme since Victorian times, with investment continuing at record levels. That was announced by the Secretary of State within the final statement of funds available—approximately £47.9 billion will be spent during the period 2019 to 2024, which is a run rate of about £10 billion a year. That is an astonishing level of investment. Greater Anglia is committed, through the franchise, to delivering an entirely new train fleet, which will increase passenger capacity with new high-quality rolling stock. The first of 169 new trains are on course to enter service from the end of May 2019, with the full roll-out expected to be completed by the end of 2020. That £1.4 billion train replacement programme is the most significant investment in new trains for East Anglia.
I would like to take this opportunity to acknowledge the work done by the Great Eastern main line taskforce, chaired now by my right hon. Friend and previously by my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester. It is working to complete the study undertaken by Network Rail, which will help to prioritise future rail enhancements on the main line to meet predicted growth, and updates to a previous route study. My right hon. Friend mentioned a number of other rail schemes. If I may, I will refer those via officials to the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Andrew Jones), as he can respond in more detail to her questions.
The hon. Member for York Central asked if we would take a more strategic view. I refer her to the work we are doing on intermodal connectivity, the link between transport and housing and the longevity of the investment scheme. Let us not forget that there was no five-year investment programme before 2015. We are now preparing for a second five-year road investment scheme. We are extending that to major roads, and I hope that in due course we will extend it to a five-year investment scheme to support local authorities on local roads. We take these things very seriously. She mentioned light rail, and I am delighted that we announced a consultation on it a few weeks ago. I look forward to her contribution and those of many others. She rightly mentioned active travel, in which we have significantly improved investment since 2010, and I hope that will continue to do that.
On Highways England designated funds, RIS2 is not yet completed so it is too early to say that money has not been spent, but we welcome further bids from local authorities and other interested parties. I am taking steps to increase the availability of designated funds in future.
I was referring to RIS1, not RIS2.
Yes; RIS1 has not yet completed so it is premature to suggest that the money has not been used.
My hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend East seductively enticed me towards a tiny change of one letter to another—a wafer-thin change. I am grateful to him for that. He pointed out the importance of widening for consistent speeds, with the impetus on re-trunking with a focus on the airport. I understand that, but the key question is whether either the A127 or the A13 should be trunked. Discussions are happening, or are about to happen, with local councils on that question. I can make no judgment on the merits of the case—that is a matter for official scrutiny and discussion—but I would have some worries about the potential environmental impact. It is important that there be a properly wide-ranging conversation, and we are engaging on that. If my hon. Friend wishes to discuss that further, I would be happy to meet him.
My hon. Friend the Member for Colchester rightly pointed out the importance of HIF bids and the centrality of the new link road between the A133 and the A120, which he has called for. I cannot comment on the road, but his emphasis on road safety is right. I have addressed many of the other issues he raised already. I would be delighted to meet him to talk about the A12. It is important that we adopt a strategic approach when we have such meetings, not least because there has been a lot of discussion with Essex MPs in any case on roads. We can have one-off meetings, but it is helpful to have them in the context of a wider strategic conversation.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Witham asked at what point a Government Minister will give leadership. I have explained that we are still reliant on a series of local decisions. I would be delighted to meet her to discuss the best way to take forward the A12 scheme. Once those housing proposals are settled, we will be in a much better place. Highways England, which works closely with Essex County Council and other district councils in promoting garden communities and developing the realignment options for the A12, is not in a position—neither are we—to commit now to a realignment of the A12. That is potentially a very significant additional cost, but may prove not to be needed in the event that the housing proposals do not go ahead. She is right to maintain the tempo and we will meet her on that, but we are reliant on decisions made locally. I understand that the council has agreed to undertake the work requested by the inspector; that is scheduled to be completed by June 2019, with a public consultation expected in autumn 2019. With luck, decisions on route alignment can be made in a co-ordinated fashion after that.
My right hon. Friend asked what assessment the Government may have made on the impact of the delays on the economy and on other strategic road schemes. We are acutely aware of the economic impact, which is why it is a priority for us to ensure that we get the right solution across all the considerations. The Government have made it clear that we are committed to strategic road schemes such as the A120 dualling and the delays. We also believe that the A12 scheme delays should not affect the prospects for the A120 proposal or compromise its consideration for inclusion in RIS2.
My right hon. Friend asked what has been done to support constituents who live close to the A12 and are unable to sell properties, and the victims of blight. I have massive sympathy for people in that situation—it goes with uncertainty about these decisions. We have not been the cause of that uncertainty. There are established rules about property and compensation for residents affected by major infrastructure proposals. They apply in this case, but I understand the human cost of the delay.
My right hon. Friend asked whether I recognised that the delays to the A12 widening scheme might delay plans to widen the A12 north of junction 25. The scheme to widen the A12 Colchester bypass was included along with the Chelmsford bypass in RIS1. These are being developed as potential candidates for RIS2, along with the proposed A120 scheme and other proposals across the country. We are determined to run a fair process on the merits, but the merits of Essex are considerable, so we hope they will be successful.
I recognise the importance of the county of Essex as a driver of growth and a source of much-needed housing. However, there are also further opportunities for the region to take advantage of Government funding and investment, such as the housing infrastructure fund, and I urge colleagues and Essex County Council to renew their excellent work in developing a robust, evidence-based case for the inclusion of their schemes in the second road investment strategy.
I thank all colleagues for their contributions, and the Minister and his team for his very considered and detailed response. I do not need to press him on anything in particular, but I thank him for the opportunity to meet and follow up with him on the need for a working group, to ensure that we stay on track and pursue the integrated way of working across the Department, Highways England, local authorities and Members of Parliament. There is a lot of work to do, and we are all committed to supporting each other to deliver for our communities and for the county of Essex.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered transport infrastructure in Essex.
Civil Nuclear Constabulary: Pensions
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the pensions of Civil Nuclear Constabulary officers.
This is an opportunity to set out the case for the Civil Nuclear Constabulary’s pension age to be set at 60. That is not just a common-sense position but an urgent issue of national security. I am sure we can all agree that the effectiveness of the Civil Nuclear Constabulary is essential for maintaining the UK’s nuclear security.
The job with which the CNC is charged must be clearly understood as part of any discussion about the retirement age of its officers. In partnership with the civil nuclear industry, national security agencies and regulatory bodies, the CNC deters any attacker whose intent is the theft or sabotage of nuclear material, whether static or in transit. It defends such material and will recover it should it be seized. Such dangerous work means that all CNC officers are heavily armed and are required to meet demanding levels of physical fitness. In addition, they are employed as armed officers alongside other UK armed police, as we have seen in recent operations following terror attacks. They play a crucial role in keeping us—the public—safe, and theirs is one of the most dangerous professions to enter.
The prospect of a retirement age of 67, rising to 68, is causing real concern to CNC officers. The chief constable of the CNC has warned that the change to the retirement age would render the service “unsustainable” and is undoubtedly creating “insurmountable” difficulties for CNC officers and the mission they seek to fulfil. Indeed, that unrealistic retirement age is already damaging recruitment. Police Oracle reports that turnover among CNC personnel has deteriorated, rising to 12%. The Civil Nuclear Police Federation says that the force is 142 authorised firearms officers under strength and has seen 79 unscheduled leavers since April 2018, with 32 signalling their intention to quit recently and recruitment numbers decreasing by half. Alarmingly, one in every eight CNC officers is leaving for another force or heading for civvy street.
The hon. Lady is making a powerful speech. Does she agree that the CNC’s size means that if an officer were injured or unable to carry the equipment it would be practically impossible, or certainly very difficult, to redeploy that officer within the force? That has to be considered as a factor in arguing that the default pension age should be 60.
Absolutely. That is a very important point. When any of these officers suffers an injury in the line of duty, the service has a duty of care to look after them until they are fit to return to duty. They will not necessarily be on sick leave the whole time, but it is difficult to redeploy them because of the nature of the work they undertake.
It is not difficult to see why the number of CNC officers has been eroding. CNC officers have been categorised as public sector workers for the purpose of their pension, meaning that full benefits kick in only at age 67 or 68, whereas conventional Home Office police officers are able to retire at 60. Does the Minister think that disparity fair, given that CNC officers are expected to carry five different weapons and 30 kg of heavy equipment at the age of 65-plus, as they are charged with protecting UK nuclear assets and act as a vital armed reserve force? If these officers’ retirement age is not given parity with the rest of the police service, there can be little doubt that it will continue to damage the recruitment and retention of CNC officers.
I congratulate the hon. Lady from the bottom of my heart on bringing this debate forward. Although I represent the far north of Scotland, this issue is every bit as big to my constituents who serve in the force at Dounreay. I recognise the contribution they make, which she outlined, in assisting Police Scotland in its endeavours. Surely, the loss of skills as people leave the force represents a misuse of money. A lot of money is spent training these officers up, so it seems to me that public money is poured down the drain if they leave altogether and go to civvy street.
Absolutely. That is a very important point, which I need not add to. I am sure the Minister is listening. That loss of skills is extremely concerning.
The damage to the recruitment and retention of CNC officers can only compromise, perhaps dangerously, the effectiveness of the force, and it could have extremely serious consequences for public safety. In addition, if we expect such exacting standards of CNC officers, while demanding that they wait until 68 to retire, of course there will be a temptation for ageing officers who know their job could be under threat to mask health conditions that may undermine their performance.
We all know that most public sector workers are now expected to work for longer. However, there are exceptions for certain classes of worker, and it seems obvious that CNC officers should be included in those exceptions. Perhaps the Minister can explain why conventional police officers will continue to retire at 60 but CNC officers will not. What is the logic for that? Despite that fact, CNC officers must meet much higher standards of physical fitness to keep their jobs. Conventional police officers perform firearms duties as an optional part of their duties and can relinquish them as they get older. Every single CNC officer is required to be fully trained in firearms, and they cannot relinquish firearms duties as they get older; they are an inherent part of their duties. In addition, the requirement for CNC officers to retain a very high standard of fitness until the age of 67 or 68 discriminates against women, since only an elite standard of fitness is expected to be sufficient for those aged over 60 to continue their duties.
The vast majority of public servants will be able to draw down a full pension. Should a public service employee choose to retire early, they will have 6% of their pension deducted for each year they retire early. The problem for CNC officers is that they are not choosing to retire early; they are being forced out because of physical inability to maintain obligatory standards of physical fitness and weaponry skills. CNC officers are likely to have their careers terminated as they approach the higher retirement age, and they will see their pensions reduced, perhaps by up to 25% to 30%, as a result. That considerable financial penalty is proving a major career disincentive. In such a situation, how can the CNC stem the decline in recruitment and retention?
I hope the Minister does not respond by telling us that we are all living longer and that keeping the CNC retirement age at 60 would set a dangerous precedent. The CNC is asking only for the same provisions that are in place for conventional Home Office police officers.
Let us turn our attention to costs. Perhaps the Minister will find it reassuring to learn that the CNC has done its own cost modelling, which shows that the gross cost of a retirement age of 60 versus the current plans would be only £4.4 million per year from 2023 to 2030 and £5.2 million a year in the long run. In the short run, those costs would be more than offset by extra case management costs, early retirement and compensation costs, so keeping the retirement age at 60 would produce a net saving of £4.3 million a year. In the long run, once compensation costs were paid, the net saving would be around £1.9 million per year.
Make no mistake, the Civil Nuclear Police Federation has accepted the potential for increased employee contributions to cover increases in costs. That means there is no real financial obstacle to correcting the unfairness between police services created by the Public Service Pensions Act 2013 and securing the UK’s nuclear safety.
I say to the Minister that increasingly this fine service has been rendered ineffective, due to the dithering and delay from his Government’s unwillingness to resolve the issue.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this important debate. Does she agree that with the addition of the £40 million CNC training facility at Sellafield, where we have the biggest CNC employment base, and with the nuclear future we are looking forward to, it is more important than ever that we ensure we have a CNC fit for the future?
Absolutely. I applaud the new training facility that the hon. Lady mentions, but I am sure that many CNC officers would see an irony in investing in training when there is a serious recruitment and retention crisis. There has to be more joined-up thinking.
We know that potential recruits are looking elsewhere and serving officers are voting with their feet. If the UK Government are not willing to listen to CNC officers and continue to deny the truth that everyone in this Chamber can see, perhaps the Minister will explain why his Government have set a pension age for this service which he and they know full well cannot be realistically reached by those who put themselves in harm’s way to keep us safe. Does he accept that if this service continues to be eroded as it has been in recent years—the Government were warned that it would be three years ago and the truth of that is becoming clearer every single day—it will be for his Government to explain its decisions if there is a situation where nuclear security in the UK is compromised? The service will continue to erode unless action is taken.
As this service is eroded, every single CNC officer’s job becomes more unsafe and more dangerous. As the Minister’s Government dither and delay, the welfare, wellbeing and morale of our 1,250 CNC officers is being undermined. That is simply unacceptable. In today’s context, nobody needs to be reminded of the increased importance of the role these officers play in keeping us safe.
CNC officers do not want the Minister to stand up and pay them compliments about their bravery and the value of their work. They do not want platitudes; they want action, commitment and parity with conventional officers. I know that the Minister is sympathetic and that there is sympathy on the Government Benches for CNC officers. It is time to get this matter sorted. It has already dragged on for far too long and every day is doing more damage to the service.
If the Government do not see, or will not pay attention to, the evidence that is staring them in the face, they should not be surprised if we see serious and catastrophic consequences for national security. The CNC will undoubtedly struggle increasingly to fulfil its important mission of protecting the UK’s civil nuclear sites at home or in transit, and to supplement the resources of armed conventional officers as a part of the strategic armed policing reserve and Operation Temperer.
I urge the Minister to be mindful of the fact that this debate is not just about pensions. It is not about pounds and pence. Ultimately, it is about whether or not his Government think nuclear security, public safety and national security are worth paying for and valuing, and how much he and his Government believe they matter. I know that those things matter to everyone in the Chamber and to my constituents in North Ayrshire and Arran, in which the nuclear site of Hunterston sits. We all know it matters. What are his Government willing to do, in the face of a mountain of evidence, to show that they too believe that the work, health, wellbeing, careers, and, ultimately, the safety of our CNC officers matter?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this morning, Mr Stringer, as, indeed, on other mornings and afternoons.
I thank the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) for securing the debate. I know that is a platitude and she asked me not to use platitudes, but I felt I ought to say that. She and I have been involved in quite a few things together, always on opposite sides, but I hope we have a mutual respect and she knows I am doing my best to resolve the issue. I cannot disagree with a lot of what she said—that is the last platitude, I promise.
The other Members who intervened showed their commitment to everything that goes on with nuclear in their areas. I mention first my hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Trudy Harrison), not because she is on my side of the House, but because rarely a week goes by without us meeting two or three times, including the night before last, when we met the Secretary of State. I have had discussions on these matters with the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Jamie Stone) and the hon. Member for Liverpool on many occasions, and I am always available to them for further discussion.
Will the Minister give way?
Of course, although I was just getting going.
I thank the Minister for giving way. There is a level of frustration. I appreciate the kindness of intent in his having discussions, but, as the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) said, there is frustration over the continuing delay, which has gone on for years. Could we all keep it our mission to try to reach a positive conclusion?
I utterly accept that point. I must apologise to the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mike Hill) for mixing up Hartlepool and Liverpool; I do not know why I did it. I hope the hon. Gentleman is not too offended. Perhaps it is because I come from Leeds, which is between the two. I got mixed up.
I am not going to say how important the Civil Nuclear Constabulary is to the nuclear industry, because everybody knows that. One of my early visits, and one of the most significant I have had in this job, was to Sellafield, where I saw the training centre. I did not just have a tour; I also saw how heavy the kit is, I spoke to a lot of officers and I heard about the training regimes they undertake. I do not think I could walk around all day and be fully mobile with the kit they have to wear and carry. I fully accept the level of fitness that is required. Chief Constable Mike Griffiths, who is about to leave the force, explained it clearly to me. He transformed the CNC so that it has become the modern force it is today.
The CNC is moving to the new pension scheme on 1 April next year. I have been keen to hear evidence and representations on the effect of the higher pension age on the effectiveness of the force. We engage with the CNC and the Civil Nuclear Police Federation, which I met last year, and I am well aware of their views. As soon as those views were brought to my attention, I contacted the Treasury and others in Government to try to resolve the issue. The least I could do was hear their representations—that is my job, as I am doing today—but I fully accept the importance of getting the matter resolved as quickly as possible.
I have contacted the Cabinet Office, because it administers the civil service pension scheme. The Treasury is responsible for public pensions policy and I have set out the arguments to officials there. It is easy to regard the Government as one collective group—that is perfectly reasonable and I understand that—but it is my job to support the causes within my Department within Government, and this issue is a top priority.
My officials have been working with the constabulary to gather additional evidence of the impact on national security, which the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran mentioned, of the higher pension age. I have also facilitated a meeting this week between special advisers from No. 10 and the constabulary, in which these matters were discussed. I am trying to bring all these things together to resolve the problem.
However, like most things in life, the problem is more complex than it would appear on the surface. We know, as I have said, that the tests and weapons are very important; I do not think anyone who visits or sees pictures of them could deny that. On the question of why CNC officers are not treated as police officers in the normal way, a judicial review in 2016 determined that they are employees of the Civil Nuclear Police Authority, so they come under the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and are not defined as police officers for the purposes of the Public Service Pensions Act. That is the legal position.
Fitness standards were rolled out, as the hon. Lady said, in 2015-16, and authorised firearms officers must meet College of Policing mandated standards.
The Minister has set out his understanding of the challenging and important job that CNC officers do. I put it to him that perhaps the reason for the dither and delay across Government is because there appears to be, as I know from questions I have asked on the Floor of the House, a real lack of understanding at the heart of Government of what these officers are required to do, the challenges they face and the importance of the role they play.
I must respectfully disagree with the hon. Lady, if only because I have tried it myself. I have been there and seen that, so my understanding is not just based on representations. I hope she accepts that I understand this; there may be others who do not, but it is my job to make sure that they do. I accept that—it is my responsibility and my job.
The capabilities are very complex. The two tests of fitness and firearms capability determine whether an officer is deployable. It is the officer’s capability, rather than age, that is the determining factor, and I think that must be the right approach. Being in the age range of those who would be in such a position, as I was explaining to the hon. Lady before the debate started, I admit that, although some people are vastly fitter than I am, I would find it very difficult myself at my age of 61. I know it is harder for older officers to attain the fitness standards, but the College of Policing independently determines the standard that authorised firearms officers must achieve to do their job effectively and safely. That is a matter of national security and I accept that it cannot be compromised.
The Public Service Pensions Act legislated to introduce the link between scheme normal pension age and state pension age for most public service pension schemes, to ensure that the cost over the long term remains sustainable. I will not go further into that, because the hon. Lady marked my card that I might, and she does not want platitudes about people getting older. She is quite right, so I will not say it, but we must accept the fact that, in the end, all public service schemes have to be funded and public service employees have to work for longer.
In certain areas—prison officers are another case—there are not a lot of back-office jobs that people who are older can do. In the police force generally, there are plenty of those functions; I do not just mean some back-office clerical function, because there are many things that are less active but still fully contribute to the objectives of a particular police force. I accept that nuclear is one sector where that is less possible, because there just are not many similar functions.
The equality analysis accepted that it is harder for older female officers to attain such high fitness standards. A pension scheme has to be fair to females too, because they have a flatter career trajectory for that reason. The proposed pension scheme, alpha, is a career average earnings scheme rather than a final salary scheme. Changed contribution rates under this scheme will help employees with shallower career trajectories, which historically means women rather than men, although, obviously, male officers in the same position will also benefit.
I will also highlight the ill-health retirement provisions. We recognise that CNC officers have a higher rate of musculoskeletal disorders from carrying the heavy kit. The ill-health retirement provisions in their current pension scheme are quite strict and allow an ill-health retirement only where the officer is not capable of any other work. Consequently, officers who gain an ill-health retirement are not allowed to do any work after their exit from the force.
The alpha scheme, however, gives its members choice and recognises that it is desirable for people to continue working if they are able. It affords a lower tier of benefit to those who are unable to continue working in their role or a comparable one, so an officer could leave the CNC with an ill-health pension but still gain employment elsewhere to supplement their income and have a full working life in a more suitable job.
I am very aware of the current retention issues affecting the constabulary. I have been informed that there have been an unusually high number of resignations—in the last month alone there were 26—and that 19 officers are moving across to the Ministry of Defence Police. I do not think that the evidence presented is strong enough to draw a direct link between the current retention issues facing the CNC and the move to a different pension scheme, since many of the officers resigning are moving to a force that has the same pension scheme that the Civil Nuclear Police Federation is resisting.
I also do not consider the current retention issues facing the CNC to be a national security crisis. The CNC has assured us that it can operate with its current force strength, albeit officers are being asked to do overtime. If that changes, I will reappraise my position, but the CNC is still policing our nuclear sites to its required regulatory strength and our nuclear estate remains secure. I am grateful for the explanation and arguments that the hon. Lady and other colleagues have given today.
I thank the Minister for his response, but can I ask him to explain something? I know that a lot of CNC officers do not understand this, and I do not either: why has a retirement age for CNC officers been set that, realistically, they cannot reach?
I do not accept the hon. Lady’s premise that realistically those officers cannot reach it. I accept that some of them cannot, but obviously some people can and some cannot; I mentioned myself, but many people are far fitter than me in doing that job and other dangerous jobs in society.
The hon. Lady told me—I know this is not your fault, Mr Stringer—that she had applied for this debate quite some months beforehand. I am glad we have had the debate, but if that happens in the future, she is welcome to contact me directly to discuss issues such as this. That would perhaps not be in such a public forum, but if she finds the system frustrating and she cannot get a debate, she is welcome to contact me.
In summary, I have met everyone concerned in this matter. I am pushing colleagues in the Treasury and the Cabinet Office, and I would like to see it resolved as soon as I possibly can.
Question put and agreed to.
Housing Associations and Public Contractors: Freedom of Information
[Mr Clive Betts in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered extending the Freedom of Information Act 2000 to housing associations and public contractors.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. This issue is very dear to my heart and, I know, to those of several colleagues. I am pleased to see the hon. Members who have attended, particularly the Scottish National party spokesperson, the hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard), who is here on his 60th birthday. I will try to keep my remarks on this complex and interesting topic within reasonable bounds.
I start by referring to a report from BuzzFeed News this morning on the specialist police unit that investigates crimes against MPs, which has received 558 complaints since it was set up after the tragic death of our colleague Jo Cox in 2016. Those complaints include four assaults, five bomb threats, seven hoax noxious powders, four reports of trespassing and 20 reports of criminal damage. There has been a threefold increase in reporting in the second half of that period since 2016, compared with the first part. I would have thought that was of great interest to many people, and particularly to Members.
Those details were obtained under the auspices of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 and are just one topical example of the importance of that Act, which was one of the great successes of the last Labour Government. It is used by individuals, campaign groups, journalists and Members to obtain information that the Government and public authorities have been unwilling to disclose voluntarily. In a 2012 report, the Justice Committee described it as
“a significant enhancement of our democracy.”
In a Supreme Court judgment of the same year, Lord Mance said the Act
“reflects the value to be attached to transparency and openness in the workings of public authorities in modern society”,
while Lord Phillips said it
“adds to parliamentary scrutiny a further and more direct route to a measure of public accountability”.
It is therefore sad that some former exponents of the Act have in the past 20 years sought to limit its scope, usually on one of two grounds. The first is on policy grounds, saying that they believe the Act restricts the ability of the Government to debate freely, because sensitive matters might be disclosed, which is at least honest. Secondly, and more commonly, it is on resource grounds by trying to restrict the amount of money spent by public authorities on responding to inquiries inquiry, which is ostensibly to save public money but is really to restrict the right of the public and others to freedom of information.
I am afraid that that still goes on. The excellent Campaign for Freedom of Information published a report only this week on the variation between London councils’ response times to freedom of information inquiries. I will not go there, because that is not the topic of the debate, but that report bears a lot of scrutiny, as all its reports do. Interestingly, the establishment of the Independent Commission on Freedom of Information, chaired by Lord Burns, by the coalition Government was widely believed to be paving the way for new restrictions; I believed that it was. However, having looked at the merits of freedom of information, it ended up recommending the opposite. Its 2016 report found that freedom of information had “enhanced openness and transparency”, and called for the right of access to be strengthened, not restricted.
Indeed, one of that commission’s recommendations for strengthening the Act was to address the problem of obtaining information from contractors, which would also be addressed by my private Member’s Bill, the Freedom of Information (Extension) Bill, which is still before the House but is rapidly running out of time.
However good the legislation, in the 20 years since its passage, as it will be next year, we have fallen behind other countries and some of the limitations of the Act have been exhibited, which we probably now need to correct. I hope to hear from the Minister that we will attend to that. I am sure that my friend, the hon. Member for Edinburgh East, will tell us that things are done better in Scotland, but they are also done better in Brazil, Estonia, Macedonia, New Zealand, South Africa, Ireland and Hungary, some of which have incorporated some of the measures I propose. That is a rather eclectic group of countries.
It is right that there have been some changes to the Act, but they have been limited; a certain number of bodies that were perhaps in a grey area are now subject to the Act. The only ones that have been added since the Act’s passage are—I think this is an exhaustive list—the Financial Reporting Council, the Association of Chief Police Officers, the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service, the Financial Ombudsman Service, Network Rail and, most recently, the National Police Chiefs’ Council. It is inarguable that any of those bodies should have been within the ambit of the Act, but it took two years to designate the NPCC in that way. I will come on to this in more detail in a moment, but there are essentially two ways to expand the ambit of the Act: by adding bodies to the schedule or by incorporating different types of bodies, such as contractors, under the powers granted by section 5 of the Act. No use of those powers has been made at all, so far as I can see.
An enormous range of public services are now delivered by private companies, charities or not-for-profit agencies under contracts with public authorities, ranging from the running of prisons and immigration removal centres to the provision of meals on wheels, social care visits and parking services. The Information Commissioner estimated recently that more than £284 billion—a third of all Government spending—goes on the purchasing of public services. Some of the main recipients of that spending have become household names; some are perhaps better known than certain Government Departments, including Serco, G4S, Capita and the now infamous Carillion. Unfortunately, under FOI, those contractors are significantly less accountable to the public than the authorities that previously delivered the services directly.
Here the story becomes a little more complicated. The Freedom of Information Act applies not only to information held by a public authority, but to information held by someone else on an authority’s behalf. But when is information held on an authority’s behalf? The test applied by the Information Commissioner and, on appeal, the information rights tribunal, is whether the contract between the authority and the contractor empowers the authority to demand that information from the contractor. If it does, that information is considered to be held on the authority’s behalf, and is available, via an FOI request, to the authority. If it does not, the information is considered to be held for the contractor’s own purposes and is not subject to FOI.
The FOI requests that have been refused because the contract gave the authority no right to the information form a long list. That list includes a request for information on fire safety defects in the CT scanner room of a hospital that the NHS trust leased under a private finance initiative contract that did not give it the right to such information from the PFI body. When the request was made, the trust could not obtain the information, so neither could the requester. The list also includes a request for information on the number of complaints made against court security staff, and the number of those staff with criminal convictions. The staff were provided by G4S, and the Ministry of Justice’s contract did not entitle it to such information.
There was also a request for information on the number of prison staff at the privately run HMP Birmingham, and the number of attacks at the prison. Again, that information was held only by G4S and was not covered by the MOJ’s contract. A request for information on the value of penalty fares issued by London Overground and docklands light railway was also refused, as the information was held by private sector inspectors, as was a request on the cost of bringing TV licensing prosecutions, because the information was held by Capita and was not even known to the BBC.
I will add two examples that are close to home. Last Friday, I attended a demonstration outside Hammersmith Hospital in my constituency by porterage, cleaning and catering staff, who are on very poor terms and conditions and, in many cases, the minimum wage. They are all employed by Sodexo—another large multinational company—and I heard horrific stories of the conditions that people had to work under and what happened when people were sick. If they had been directly employed, I could have made inquiries to find out the truth of the matter about at least some of those terms and conditions, but I know there is no possibility of that. I could try to talk to Sodexo if it would talk to me; I could try to talk to the trust about the contract, but I would like to be able to get access to information of that kind. I have only praise for the workers, who provide an essential public service, and for the GMB union, which is representing them in the dispute. It is difficult to do that when one hand is tied behind your back.
The other example is from the neighbouring constituency of Kensington and relates to a tragedy with which we will all be very familiar—the Grenfell Tower fire. For some time, the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation, which managed Grenfell Tower, refused FOI requests on the grounds that it was not itself a public authority. The Information Commissioner upheld such a refusal in 2012.
KCTMO latterly accepted that it held information on behalf of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea and began to reply to requests, but in July 2017, after the fire, it refused another request, again on the grounds that it was not subject to the Act. That was in relation to a 2005 consultant’s report documenting the failure by KCTMO and one of its contractors to maintain the Grenfell Tower emergency lighting system. The extraordinary risk of allowing such information to be withheld from the public is obvious. We need to remove the uncertainty that led to that thoroughly unsatisfactory and dangerous situation.
It is common to find contracts containing some impressive-sounding clause such as: “The contractor undertakes to assist the authority in complying with its obligations under the Freedom of Information Act.” That sounds fine until we realise that the authority’s obligations are to deal with FOI requests for information that the contractor holds on its behalf. What information is held on the contractor’s behalf? Such clauses take us no further in establishing that.
One answer is to introduce into contracts an umbrella clause saying that all information relating to the performance or planned performance of the contract is held on the authority’s behalf for FOI purposes. All such information will then be accessible under the FOI Act or under the Environmental Information Regulations 2004 via a request to the authority. That is what my private Member’s Bill would do. The Freedom of Information (Extension) Bill would insert into the FOI Act a new section 3A stipulating that all contracts entered into by public authorities for the provision of services are deemed to include such a disclosure clause. The clause would also apply to the contractor’s subcontracts. It would cover existing as well as future contracts.
The result would be that all information about the planned or actual performance of the contract would be subject to the FOI Act or, in the case of environmental information, to the parallel EIR. That does not mean that all such information would automatically be released. Disclosure would depend on whether exemptions applied—for example, for information whose disclosure would be harmful to the contractor’s or the authority’s commercial interests, or be a breach of confidence. I stress that the measure is not intended to guarantee disclosure of contractors’ information. Its aim is to ensure that the FOI process applies, so that information is disclosed unless there is good reason not to disclose. The advantage of that approach is that it would not require contractors and, in particular, small bodies with few staff to spend time learning how to deal with FOI requests. The request would be answered by the public authority.
The Freedom of Information Act itself contains a separate, but so far never used, mechanism for bringing contractors directly within its scope. Under section 5(l)(b), contractors can be designated as public authorities in their own right for FOI purposes and required to deal directly with requests. The procedure can be used only where the contract is for a service that it is the authority’s function to provide, which is not the case for all contracts. The Scottish Government have brought contractors that run prisons and their subcontractors under the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002 via such a mechanism. I regret that that has not been done under the UK Act as well.
There is substantial support for action to deal with contractors. In 2012, the Public Accounts Committee said that
“where private companies provide public services funded by the taxpayer, those areas of their business which are publicly funded should be subject to the Freedom of Information Act provision.”
In 2018, the Committee on Standards in Public Life urged the Government to consult on extension of the FOI Act to cover information held by public service contractors. The Burns commission, which I have mentioned, recommended, in relation to larger contractors, that
“information concerning the performance or delivery of public services under contract should be treated as being held on behalf of the contracting public authority. This would make such information available to requestors who make requests to the contracting public authority.”
Most importantly, this January the Information Commissioner, Elizabeth Denham, published her report entitled “Outsourcing Oversight? The case for reforming access to information law”, which calls for changes in the FOI Act similar to those proposed in my Bill. It is not the first time that the commissioner has indicated that that is what she wishes to see, but this weighty and authoritative report makes the case far more stringently than I can, with the resources available to me.
The report calls for, as one option, greater use of existing powers under section 5 of the FOI Act. It recommends—this is what I was explaining earlier—that the Government should:
“Designate contractors regarding the public functions they undertake where this would be in the public interest”.
It also recommends that they:
“Designate a greater number of other organisations exercising functions of a public nature, and do so more frequently and efficiently.”
The report states:
“Designation orders under section 5…would give the public the right to make requests directly to these organisations and require them to proactively disclose information in line with a publication scheme.”
The alternative would be to amend the primary legislation. Given the 20-year gap, that might be a more sensible course. It would allow for amendment of the environmental regulations as well.
The Government often plead lack of time for this, but given that there are at least three routes to reach the same objective, as I have explained, one of those must suit the Government’s purposes. As I have said, there has been no attempt at all to bring private contractors within the remit of the Act so far. There have been some additions—I read out the list earlier—to the schedule of bodies that are subject to the Act, but that has been, if not grudging, rather nugatory in its effect. Some of the leading contenders are not yet on the list, and perhaps the leading contender—this is the second part of the debate today—is housing associations.
Housing associations are not covered by freedom of information, although many of them have inherited local authority housing stock. This will be a matter close to your own heart, Mr Betts, given that you chair the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee. In some cases, the tenants, and therefore the public, have lost freedom of information rights that they previously enjoyed when those homes were under council control. I have examples of such estates in my constituency. The Grenfell fire has highlighted what I would say is the irresistible need for a right of access if only on safety grounds, yet when Inside Housing asked 61 housing associations for copies of their fire risk assessments in 2017, only seven provided them.
Let me give just a few more examples. A housing association tenant who asked for information about the cause of a fire in his premises in 2009 received no answer. A tenant who asked whether the water supply to his premises was provided through potentially toxic lead pipes received no answer. A tenant was refused a copy of an electricity bill, which led to his being charged £1,200 to cover the cost of six communal light bulbs. Another unsuccessfully asked for the make and model of estate street lighting that he found “overpowering” at night. He wanted the information in order to contact the manufacturer to see whether it could suggest a remedy, but he was refused. Requests for the number of repossession orders served since the bedroom tax came into force and the number of those tenants who had no arrears before that date were also refused.
Those are hardly state secrets; they would be available to any council tenant. It seems entirely anomalous and illogical that they are not available to other social landlords’ tenants as well. In 2011, the coalition Government announced that they would consult housing associations on bringing them under freedom of information. Regrettably, they failed to consult or act, and the current Government show no sign of doing so either.
I will refer briefly to the National Housing Federation. I ought not to have a go at the National Housing Federation, because it generally does a good job in representing its members. However, its arguments for not coming under the Freedom of Information Act, which it barely puts forward in its briefing, are thin. I think it knows in its heart of hearts that it should just give in gracefully, which actually would be to its advantage. The NHF’s arguments, whether commercial confidentiality, the ability to purchase land or the idea that housing associations might need to be reclassified as public bodies, are chimeras and fabulous tales. I believe that the legislation has been passed in Scotland and housing associations there will come under the equivalent Act later this year. There seems to have been no problem there.
As for commercial confidentiality, there are exemptions in the Act, which are there to be used. All institutions, including universities, have used the excuse of financial burden. Any public body or a quasi-public body of this kind will have expenses. It will have to do consultations, run democratic organisations and be subject to more regulations on the whole than individual private citizens. That is just a fact of life, and freedom of information is another fact of life along those same lines. There is no barrier to charities—universities are a good example—coming under the Freedom of Information Act. There is no reason why they will be reclassified as public bodies simply by coming under the Freedom of Information Act. I cannot even say “good try” to the NHF on this occasion. It cannot actually bring itself in the document to say what it wants us to do. It just leaves it there. I think another push might take it on to the side of the angels on this one, but we will see.
For completeness, in the Information Commissioner’s report and in my Bill there are some other anomalies that we ask the Government to address as a matter of simple logic. One such anomaly is electoral registration officers and returning officers. At one stage the Government agreed with us on that, so why it has not been done is a mystery. Local safeguarding children boards are another anomaly. They are not the subject of this debate and therefore I will not say a great deal more about them. However, it is an indication that, rather than being entirely resistant, having to be pushed every time and taking their time over it, it would be nice if the Government had a proper review and decided what would bring the Freedom of Information Act up to date in some of the ways that have been indicated.
To conclude, I believe that a consensus is growing. The Information Commissioner is doing an excellent job not only of clearing the backlog of complaints and administering the scheme, which was the primary function, but of championing the cause of freedom of information. Equally, Maurice Frankel and the Campaign for Freedom of Information, which was instrumental all those years ago in getting the Freedom of Information Act passed, are constantly scrutinising and pushing it in an exemplary way. I thank them in particular for their assistance with my Bill and with this debate.
There have been previous attempts at legislation. My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh), the shadow Policing Minister, is ably ploughing the same furrow. There is even some support from the Government Benches. The hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies), after talking out my Bill, assured me that is was nothing personal; he was actually talking out another Bill at the time, and he commended my Bill and said he will fully support it next time there is an opportunity. What more rousing recommendation does one need than that? Not only my party, but the Scottish National party, the Liberal Democrats and the Green party support this measure. The Minister might begin to cotton on to the fact that she is in a small minority here, constantly being pushed in the right direction.
I will end by putting the following questions to the Minister. Given that the situation that I have outlined—in respect of contractors and the work that they do, and in respect of housing associations and other organisations—is exactly analogous to those public sector bodies that are fully subject to the Freedom of Information Act, so that there could be two institutions next to each other operating under completely separate regimes, this is not really a question of the Government making concessions, but simply a case of the Government correcting anomalies. Whether they do that through secondary legislation, by supporting my Bill or through primary legislation, the time has come for it to happen.
I hope the Minister is grateful for this opportunity to indicate where the Government’s thinking is on this matter, in respect of the individual examples that I have given and in respect of reviewing the Freedom of Information Act generally. I hope that there will be enough time for her to reply in detail.
It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Mr Betts. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) on securing the debate and making an extraordinarily persuasive case, as he always does. It was so persuasive that, were the Minister not constrained by her place on the Government Front Bench, I am sure she would agree with it entirely.
This is not a new issue. I should declare at the outset that when I worked for the public services union Unison before coming to this place, it was already a matter of great concern to us. We could see the way the world was changing and the potential pitfalls that lay ahead. We were delighted that through our work with the Labour party, via our Labour link, we were able to secure a commitment from the then shadow Front Bench that freedom of information would indeed be extended to all public service providers.
The coalition Government at the time did not agree with that and sadly—2015 did not see the return of a Labour Government—this woefully out-of-date position persists. As my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith said, the Information Commissioner agrees. In the weighty report—we have all been carrying it around—entitled “Outsourcing Oversight? The case for reforming access to information law”, the commissioner makes a compelling case. The argument is essentially that the Freedom of Information Act should be extended to all public services, even when they are carried out by private companies.
I will say a bit more about the report and give some examples of where this creates problems in my constituency—I suspect that similar cases would be found across the country. The Information Commissioner recently came to Parliament to launch her report at an event, which I was very pleased to be on the panel for, organised by the parliamentary internet, communications and technology forum. Her team has done an excellent job of highlighting the problem, which is central to the issues that my hon. Friend has pointed out.
The key point is to understand how different the world now is from the world of the late 1990s, when the Freedom of Information Act was first introduced. Government now spend almost a third of our total expenditure with external suppliers—some £284 billion a year, which is an extraordinary amount of money. These external suppliers deliver services on behalf of public authorities. They are often private companies, charities and other not-for-profit organisations, which are not necessarily subject to freedom of information, thus massively diminishing the accountability of public service delivery.
As we have heard, the Information Commissioner uses the examples of the Grenfell Tower tragedy and the collapse of Carillion to show the consequences of a lack of transparency and accountability. They are both particularly awful examples. I have raised that concern with Ministers before. The answer was that extending the Freedom of Information Act would have made little difference, but I disagree. I think there is an essential problem with delivering public services in an opaque manner.
When councils run services, if we think they are doing a bad job, there is a simple solution: we vote them out—we get rid of them. That concentrates minds. Sadly, however good the service delivery may be through housing associations or public service contractors, or local charities providing social services and so on, when questions are asked it is much harder to know what to do about them. Extending the Freedom of Information Act hands that power of exposure and transparency back to citizens, and that ultimately is how to drive up standards. It reduces the risk of narrow or neglectful practices in the delivery of those services.
As constituency MPs—I am sure colleagues have the same experience—residents write to us about all manner of issues, some of which we have more control over resolving than others. In Cambridge, where the cost of living is extremely high, housing makes up a significant part of my postbag. For example, Montreal Square is a small area of housing—a delightful oasis of calm in the busy Romsey part of the city. Cambridge Housing Society, a local housing association, proposed to replace the 18 existing homes with 45 new, affordable, energy-efficient homes. Understandably perhaps, it wants to modernise existing homes on the site, and add more. Equally understandably, some of the residents who live there—some have been there for more than 35 years—are very unhappy about that fundamental change to their local community.
I pay tribute to Cambridge Housing Society and its chief executive, Nigel Howlett. It is an excellent organisation doing a great job, and Nigel is an outstanding leader in the sector. It is a charity that aims to provide the maximum amount of housing possible, but it also wants to take into account the concerns of the local community, so it is in a difficult position. It is trying to balance the needs of existing tenants against potential future tenants who do not have homes at the moment. That is a hard choice, but essentially it is a political one and, in my view, it should be taken by people who are democratically accountable. People come to me and ask, “Who makes the decision? What can be done about it?” If it was a council decision, the answer would be very clear.
Extending freedom of information to housing associations would not automatically solve the problem, but it would be a significant step forward. It would allow far greater accountability for residents and members of the wider community. It would give them a much stronger lever to question how decisions are being made and, most crucially, to get the information behind the decisions. I know that the Minister will say, “We are putting out more and more data.” It is not more data we want; it is the key data that they do not want to share that we want. That is what freedom of information gets to.
My hon. Friend already referred to the National Housing Federation’s briefing. I am delighted to say that there has been no collusion, but my reaction was exactly the same—my office colleague will testify to my reaction. The briefing states that extending freedom of information legislation could put
“not-for-profit providers at a disadvantage against commercial bodies in bidding for land...reducing housing associations’ ability to obtain private investment.”
As my hon. Friend so eloquently put it, those are fairly woeful excuses. The Information Commissioner has assured me that the Freedom of Information Act already has mechanisms in place to deal with such issues. It is a flimsy set of arguments, frankly. I certainly want to find ways of helping housing associations in their battle against developers for land, but diminishing public accountability is the wrong way to go about it. It would be much better to address the very real problem of secrecy in the commercial land market. It should not be forgotten, of course, that huge amounts of public money goes through housing associations, and has done so in the past, to provide essential homes for people. We must protect the democratic accountability of our public services.
I have two further examples in other sectors, which show how freedom of information can make a difference. Across the country, and in Cambridge and Cambridgeshire, we have seen mass academisation of schools, which is often unpopular. Parents, children and local communities feel very strongly about this issue. In my city there is currently a proposal for a merger of a local multi-academy trust with a large national one, which has caused some upset among my constituents, who are concerned—rightly, in my view—about the potential consequences.
Both academies and multi-academy trusts are subject to FOI, but the position is far from clear. Academies were brought under the FOI Act in 2010 and have to answer FOI requests. With multi-academy trusts, the situation is a little more complex. I sought advice from the Information Commissioner’s Office, which told me:
“MATs will be covered by the FOI Act (and are ultimately responsible for the FOI obligations of all the academies)”,
“the information requested must be held ‘for the purposes of the proprietor’s functions under Academy arrangements’. It’s very likely that the information held will fall into the purposes specified”.
However, it is not hard to imagine that if a multi-academy trust wanted to, it could use the FOI exemption for information that is a trade secret or
“would be likely to prejudice the commercial interests of any person or body”
in some of those cases. Where questions have been asked locally regarding the merging of academy trusts, I have been assured by the MAT in question that it is releasing as much information as it is permitted to through the current FOI regime. I commend them for that, but it is easy to see that less scrupulous trusts may not always choose that course of action.
This is not simply about the facts of legislation; it is also about how it feels to the public, and the need for communities to feel that they have genuine ownership over the services that their taxes fund. After all, whose schools are they? I think they are our schools, but all too often it does not really feel like that. Extending the Freedom of Information Act in the way suggested might help a little, although I would argue that a much more substantial overhaul is needed.
This is not my first foray into arguing with the Cabinet Office about extending the Freedom of Information Act. I have an excellent exam board in my constituency, Cambridge Assessment, which is a major local employer. As Cambridge Assessment is a department of the University of Cambridge, it is subject to freedom of information requests. Other exam boards are not. That issue was first raised with me, astonishingly, as long ago as 2010, at a public hustings event hosted by Cambridge Assessment and chaired by the inestimable Simon Lebus, then chief executive. He challenged each candidate to declare whether they would pursue the issue and help him resolve it before his retirement, which at that point he thought was still some way off. As happens at public hustings events, we all pledged to pursue it. Little did we know that it would be quicker to build the fantastic new buildings that those visiting Cambridge see on the railway line—a huge set of buildings—than to get the Cabinet Office to move on this question. The skewed playing field for exam boards does a major disservice to Cambridge Assessment, because it is treated differently from its competitors. It argues that the Act should be extended to all exam boards because they use public money to perform a public service.
The Minister has been good enough to sit down with me and her officials on a number of occasions on this issue, a while ago. The letter I received from her this week was profoundly disappointing. She told me that she had had discussions with the relevant Education Minister, with the conclusion that although
“the Minister of State agreed in principle that there are other awarding organisations that carry out functions of a public nature”,
“the Department for Education has undertaken significant reforms of A Levels and GCSEs, which has placed significant additional burdens on awarding organisations, the Government is currently not in a position to being another process of consultation and possible legislative change”.
That is a dreadful argument, even by this Government’s miserable standards—I am cross about this. They have made some woefully unpopular and regressive education policy changes, and they are using that as an excuse for not being prepared to make some that might actually improve the accountability and transparency of the way we educate our young people.
My hon. Friend has a long track record of campaigning on FOI—far longer than mine—and I am grateful that he is here for the debate. Does he agree that the decision to move freedom of information to the Cabinet Office—I do not mean this to reflect on the current Minister—was a mistake? It has been put in with data protection, which is often about restricting access to information, for the right reasons. In the Ministry of Justice, and with the Justice Committee, there was a far more robust approach to calling out the Government’s questions. A reassignment of Department and Committee might be a suitable step.
My hon. Friend is far more of an expert than I am on the matter. He has made an interesting observation that might be worth pursuing further. He may well have a very strong point there.
To return to my quest that is now nine years on. In fact, it is probably more than nine years, because I know that my predecessors, Julian Huppert and David Howarth, pursued the matter. I fear it might go back as far as Anne Campbell’s time. As I have said, I made a pledge to Simon Lebus that we would try to resolve the issue before his retirement. Sadly, it has not been achieved. I fear it might have to wait for a Labour Government, which I am sure will be along soon.
Freedom of information is sometimes considered a slightly nerdy issue—no apologies to colleagues present—but it is an incredibly important mechanism to secure proper accountability and democratic oversight. It is disappointing that we have not yet had a proper Government response to the Information Commissioner’s report, although, to be fair to the Minister, she has said that they are considering it carefully and will respond in due course, which of course is wonderful civil service speak. We will await events. We cannot let private companies get away with always doing their dealings out of the public eye when their decisions have a serious impact on the lives of all our constituents. We need the tools to provide the checks and balances. Too often it seems to be a carry-on behind closed doors and it cannot continue.
We will now move on to the Front-Bench speakers. The first is the SNP spokesman, the hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard), who will be pleased to know that it is not the Chair’s responsibility to sing him happy birthday.
Thank you, Mr Betts. I can think of no finer way to celebrate my 60th birthday than to be here arguing for an extension of the rights of people to information from the companies that do things for them or sometimes to them. I had hoped the debate would be a little better attended; we are somewhat thin on the ground. I assume that that is not to do with the importance that colleagues attach to the topic, but more to do with the bizarre timetabling of this week in Westminster where we have a faux tranquillity—the calm before next week’s storm—because there is not much going on in terms of debates and votes. Perhaps that has led colleagues to make a beeline for their constituencies to do important work there, rather than being available to participate in this discussion. We will have to make up for absent colleagues, but that does not undermine the importance of this subject.
My purpose here today on behalf of the third party is to support the arguments of the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) and to advocate for a change in the law. Also, I will try to use this brief presentation to suggest some of the things that have already happened in Scotland, from which colleagues here might be able to learn.
Before I go into that, I want to put on the record a first-principles argument as to why freedom of information is important, because sometimes that gets lost in debate when it becomes technical and legalistic.
The greatest advocates for freedom of information are journalists—the press. That is correct because it is impossible to have a free press without the people who look at and scrutinise public institutions having the right and the ability to gain information about what the institutions are doing. If barriers are put up against that process, we diminish the role of a free press and undermine one of the pillars of our democratic system.
Freedom of information is also important for campaign groups that seek a change in how things are organised in our society. For me, the most fundamental importance of freedom of information relates to the individual: it gives the individual citizen, who is often the client, the consumer and the user of what is provided by corporations and companies, the right to understand what is being done to them or for them. It is very much about the contract between governors and the governed and making sure we live in a democratic society. Information flow and the ability to get it are absolutely central to that.
There has been debate about who should be covered by freedom of information legislation. The purpose is to try to look at organisations or institutions that operate in the public interest or at the behest of the public. They provide a public service. Even before the complexities of today’s modern governmental apparatus, it was the case for decades and for generations that the purpose of Governments was not always just directly to provide things. Often, the purpose of Government was to regulate or mandate other independent organisations to provide things. So, if we do not cover those organisations that are directed by public bodies, as well as the public bodies themselves, we get only half the picture.
In this world in which we live, where over the past 10 to 20 years we have seen an awful lot of debate about whether a public service should be provided directly or put out to the private sector to provide on behalf of the public, as that debate has got more and more complex so our legislation and its reach need to become more complex. If the privatisation of a service can be used to deny people the right to information on how it is run, that is a process where one Government policy—privatisation—leads to the undermining of another, freedom of information. So it is right that we review that situation.
In Scotland, the situation has been different. The UK passed the Freedom of Information Act 2000 and two years later the fledgling Scottish Parliament passed the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002, which had many of the same provisions and many of the same abilities in terms of the Parliament being able to extend the reach of the legislation. Of course, the Scottish legislation applies only to Scottish organisations. Organisations that operate in Scotland but are headquartered here are covered by the UK legislation, which is another reason it is in our interest to share information and let colleagues benefit from the experience that the Scottish Government have in this area, and a reason it is important for us to try to see the legislation here at Westminster improve—because Scotland is still, for the time being, part of the UK, and we therefore wish to benefit from any improvements that might be made at UK level.
The Information Commissioner, Elizabeth Denham, is fairly clear—scathingly so in many ways—about the fact that the current legislation is not fit for purpose. She also commends the experience in Scotland. I will quote from her recent speech. The hon. Member for Hammersmith compared us to other countries, and she said:
“Closer to home, the Scottish law provides greater coverage than our own.”
On page 7 of the report, she states that
“we are falling behind our counterparts in Scotland... who have done more to expand the reach of information access”.
In Scotland, we have already extended the scope of freedom of information provision to a range of bodies operating on behalf of the public sector—for example, private prisons, private contractors providing public services, and some private contractors or organisations that provide an important component within the matrix of social services where services are provided by a number of different providers. I think, for example, of independent special schools, which provide a vital service and to which the reach of the law now applies.
In Scotland, we have spent much of the past year debating the proposal that is in front of us today: to extend freedom of information legislation to registered social landlords, principally to housing associations. I recommend that colleagues look at not only what happens, but the process by which we got there and by which the Scottish Government and Scottish Parliament got there. An 11-month consultation took place throughout 2018, a lot of it with the housing associations—either individually or collectively—that were going to be affected by it. A lot of complex aspects of this debate came to light, but the important thing is that they came to light, were considered and were resolved. They were not barriers to moving forward. I hope the Minister will take it upon herself to be the champion of navigating this process and these reforms, rather than seeing what are perceived as difficulties or anomalies, or things that need to be exempt, and regarding those as a reason for inaction.
I will give a couple of examples from the consultation. There are specific requirements in the Scottish housing legislation—and, I think, in the equivalent English legislation—on providing accommodation for particular groups. Gypsies and Travellers are mentioned, for example. Some housing associations did not think it was right for freedom of information to apply in that case, because what they did would be specific to the client group, not a matter of general public interest. The matter was debated and the Scottish Government came to the conclusion that it probably was in the general public interest for anyone to have the opportunity to know what was happening with regard to Gypsies and Travellers, because the consequences if something went wrong, or if the action in question was not taken, would be borne not just by Gypsies and Travellers but by the wider community. The Scottish Government identified and defined a wider community interest, which meant that the area in question should be included.
Housing associations in Scotland spend a lot of time not only directly managing housing, but providing services to other landlords—sometimes in the private sector—through the process of factoring, which might include cleansing or environmental services. The housing associations argued quite strongly that factoring for third parties should be excluded from the legislation because it was a private contractual matter between them and a third-party organisation; it was not a matter of the public interest. After a long period of debate, which is written up in the report that was published two weeks ago, the Scottish Government came to the conclusion that they were minded to agree in this instance with the housing associations that factoring was a specific additional service that need not come within the scope of the legislation.
Finally, some housing associations argued that the scope of the information should be limited to what they were directly providing, by way of a contracted or legislated public service, and that people should not be able to ask questions or get information about the financial or constitutional governance of the organisation. They argued quite strongly to put blinkers on the legislation so that it would be possible to look only in certain areas. Again, after a long process of debate and consultation, that argument was rejected and it was felt that the public have a right to know about the general financial governance of housing associations because that is so critical to their ability to do the job that the public expect them to do.
The report process has concluded in Scotland, and many concerns were not only listened to but taken on board. Some were agreed and some rejected. The Government are now in a position to go forward with genuine broad consent and do exactly what the hon. Member for Hammersmith proposes should happen in England—extend the scope of freedom of information legislation to registered social landlords and housing associations. That will happen in Scotland in November, and I hope that when it does it provides further information and assistance to colleagues here, in ensuring that the rest of the United Kingdom does not lag behind and that where Scotland has pioneered, the rest of the UK will catch up.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts, and to follow the birthday boy, the hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard)—I wish him the best on his special day, and many more of them to come.
The debate, obtained by my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter), follows on from his work on his private Member’s Bill, the Freedom of Information (Extension) Bill, as well as from work done by my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner). It also follows the report from the Information Commissioner’s Office, which has been referred to. This is clearly not a case of the Information Commissioner making a power grab, or of mission creep. The report is based on evidence showing where the current situation is not working, or where the ICO does not have sufficient power to challenge bodies that undertake work on behalf of public authorities, such that the balance needs to be redressed. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith for his persistence on the matter, but I cannot help thinking that at some point the change he proposes will become inevitable.
I, too, received a briefing from the National Housing Federation, and I gave it a read. I confess that my response was similar to that of my hon. Friends: “Is that it?” The reasons given for not adopting the proposals seemed pretty thin. I wondered why such bodies might not want the change. Perhaps it is because of concern about a regulatory workload and burden. However, it is clear to me that, where freedom of information operates, there is a possibility of change in the culture of the organisations operating under its auspices. They realise that they can no longer hold on tightly to information or act in a secretive manner, and so they become more open to the people whom they exist to serve. Their manner of doing business, internally and externally, therefore becomes more open, and perhaps they become better and more efficient organisations as a result. That culture change should be embraced and welcomed.
My hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith discussed occasions when freedom of information requests were denied, such as requests regarding the number of attacks at HM Prison Birmingham, and the number of prison staff there—figures that G4S declined to provide. G4S also declined to provide information on the number of complaints from the public against court security officers. My hon. Friend discussed television licences and Virgin Care providing NHS services—something that has recently happened in my area, where increasingly community health services are delivered by private sector contractors. That has been a deliberate policy of the Government, and we have a philosophical difference about that privatisation. However, as the hon. Member for Edinburgh East said, the law must be able to keep up with changes in the way society is structured.
I noted something that my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge said about public money being used for public services. That is at the core of the issue, and there cannot be any real argument about it. Where public money is being used to provide a public service, there should be no hiding place, and neither should there be any desire to hide from the necessary and, I think, welcome scrutiny that freedom of information provides.
Under the current Conservative Government there has been a clear trend in favour of large outsourcing companies, which tend to operate with little accountability or public responsibility. Carillion, Interserve, Capita and G4S are names that we regularly see. The reach of those companies is huge. I think I am correct in saying that Interserve had construction contracts to build motorway junctions, and it was running the probation service. Those companies’ reach goes right across society. The Opposition believe that the lack of responsibility and openness can amplify the possibility of problems. As the companies in question have less responsibility to act openly, they tend to clam up—for want of a better expression—hunker down and try to conceal any problems. We are clear that public services need to be transparent and accountable to the people who use them, regardless of whether they are delivered by the public sector or by private companies. We were clear about that in 2017, when our manifesto stated:
“We will extend the Freedom of Information Act to private companies that run public services”.
That will also be in our next general election manifesto, whenever it is required. We shall also extend the Freedom of Information Act to cover housing associations and other social landlords, as well as tenant management organisations, and we will consider extending it to cover contractor-held information.
The housing point is important because of the dreadful example discussed by my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith: the tragedy at Grenfell Tower. We shall never know whether openness might have prevented the tragedy. The public inquiry under way at the moment will consider those issues. We know, however, that residents were battling for several years beforehand to try to find information that was consistently denied to them—I will say no more, because the matter is currently under consideration by the inquiry.
The Freedom of Information Act does not generally apply to information held by contractors about the public service they provide to local and central Government—for example for social care, health, public transport, school inspections and privately run prisons—and that is because of a loophole in the system. Section 3(2) of the Act states that information held “by the public authority” also includes information
“held by another person on behalf of an authority”.
The information that a contractor holds on behalf of a public authority is therefore within the scope of a freedom of information request, even if the authority never physically holds that information as its own hard copy or electronic files. However, that does not include all information that may be held by the contractor in connection with the performance or proposed performance of a contract.
The kind of information that has been withheld from the public includes some examples that have already been mentioned, such as the cost of TV licence prosecutions. As my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith reminded us, not even the BBC is allowed to receive that information, even though it always takes a battering from the general public for prosecutions undertaken by Capita.
The Freedom of Information (Extension) Bill contains provisions to ensure that all information about the provision of public service under contract could be obtained via an FOI request to the relevant authority. It seeks to provide legal certainty on the position of contractors and subcontractors by requiring all contracts between a public authority and a contractor to be deemed to include a provision that all information held by the contractor or sub-contractor in connection with the performance, or proposed performance, of a contract is held on behalf of the public authority and therefore lies within the scope of the Act. My hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith stated at the time:
“The general public has a right to know as much about Carillion or Serco when they are given public contracts or providing public services as we do about public authorities doing the same work. My Bill would bring freedom of information into line with the way public services are now being delivered in 2018”.
The report by the Information Commissioner’s Office states:
“In the modern age, public services are delivered in many ways by many organisations”—
the point made by the hon. Member for Edinburgh East—
“yet not all of these organisations are subject to access to information laws. Maintaining accountable and transparent services is a challenge because the current regime does not always extend beyond public authorities and, when it does, it is complicated. The laws are no longer fit for purpose.”
The ICO recommended that private contractors should be FOI-able where that is in the public interest,
“whether because of the scale, duration or public importance of the contracts”.
The report continues:
“Without information to understand how public services are performing, how levels of service compare and how problems are tackled, the public will be left in the dark about the operation of public services. Access to information legislation is essential to democratic accountability and helps to create what we all want to see—better public services”.
In the case of Carillion, that lack of transparency prevented small businesses from making informed decisions as to whether to enter into contracts with it, at a time when it was financially risky to do so.
A recent TUC report recommended a number of steps to improve transparency in outsourcing. Those included, among other things, the creation of a so-called Domesday Book for all contracts. A new public body would be set up to operate at arm’s length from central Government, and it would have statutory powers to require both commissioners and contractors from across the public sector to supply it with data. It should maintain a Domesday Book for all contracts, including performance on the outsourcing of services. At the moment there is no centralised place to find a list of contracts for a specific company. I tried to find a list of contracts for Capita, but that information seemed to be fractured and diffuse across Government.
Tenants and the public have the right to information about councils under the Freedom of Information Act, but not about housing associations, which provide the same essential housing services and receive significant public investment. In my area almost all public housing is provided by three or four housing associations, and they were stock transfers previously owned by Chester City Council. The previous Labour Government and the Conservative-led coalition proposed that the legislation should cover housing associations, but that has not yet been achieved. Obtaining information from contractors, including on fire safety, can prevent a problem, and my hon. Friend’s Bill seeks to correct that serious omission by making housing associations public authorities for the purposes of the Freedom of Information Act.
Public authorities are suffering from the difficulties of austerity and cuts, and they will find it onerous to provide responses to freedom of information requests. However, the 2000 Act does contain provisions to prevent mischievous or repetitive requests from the same residents. Perhaps that has given public contractors a sense that they do not want to take on the same burdens, but if they are happy to take on public contracts they should surely be happy to take on the responsibilities of being a public contractor.
We have seen in the Government’s approach to public contracting what I believe to be a form of reverse redistribution that takes large amounts of public money and puts it into the pockets of big public contractors. From there it goes into the pockets, bank accounts, or indeed—dare I perhaps inject an unwelcome political element into the debate?—the offshore bank accounts, that belong to some of the owners of those public bodies.
Listening to the contributions from my hon. Friends, it seems that when public money is being spent on delivering public services, there can be no reason why the same public scrutiny should not be applied. It is a matter of time. Let us hope that it is only a matter of minutes, while the Minister responds, but if it does take longer to introduce such a measure, that will be achieved when the next Labour Government take office.
I call the Minister. I hope that she will allow a couple of minutes at the end for the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) to wind up the debate.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts, and I thank you for that reminder. I thank the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) for his points. I know that his thoughtful presentation follows on from the work on his private Member’s Bill. I also thank the hon. Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner). As he noted, we have looked in some detail at an issue regarding one particular examination board, but if he will forgive me, this afternoon I will focus on responding to the more general points that have been raised.
Freedom of information is, of course, one of the pillars on which open government operates. The Government are committed to supporting the effective operation of the Freedom of Information Act 2000. That Act has been in operation for more than 10 years. It received post-legislative scrutiny by the Justice Committee in 2012, and it was reviewed by the Independent Commission on Freedom of Information in 2016. One of the key questions raised by the hon. Member for Hammersmith is whether the time is right for an overall review of the Act, and I point him towards that work from 2016. It considered whether the Act still ensures an appropriate balance between transparency and the need for a private space—for example for advice and discussion—as well as whether the costs of freedom of information are proportionate to its many benefits.
The Government welcomed the commission’s focus on enhancing transparency, which went a little wider than just the 2000 Act. The Information Commissioner’s Office has added an important piece of research to the scrutiny of that Act with its recent report, and I am grateful to the commission and the commissioner for their work on a significant and complex matter. I will respond to that report shortly—I am sure hon. Members look forward to having that response on their bedside tables, just as they did the report itself.
As the Information Commissioner identified in her report, since the passage of the Freedom of Information Act, the UK has been at the forefront of opening up data to allow the public and press to hold public bodies to account. The Government are among the most open and transparent in the world and remain committed to the principles of transparency and openness. We launched updated transparency principles in 2017 and it is a fact that we are publishing more data than ever. We will continue to support the effective operation of the Act as part of that.
On the question of how housing associations ought to be dealt with, we fully share the view that landlords, including housing associations, should be accountable and transparent in their dealings with tenants, and should be responsive to their needs. I am not necessarily persuaded, however, that the extension of FOI to housing associations is the sole best means of achieving that. As landlords, housing associations are private sector bodies that deliver a social benefit, rather than exercising
“functions of a public nature”
or providing public functions under contract on behalf of a public authority, as the Act says. It is important to maintain that distinction; I do not think the analogy is as simple as the second key question of the hon. Member for Hammersmith suggests.
If any Government were deemed to exercise too much control over private bodies, there would be a significant risk that they could be classified as public sector bodies. That would mean that, in this case, their private debt of about £70 billion would be added to the Government’s debt burden—the public’s debt burden. Housing associations would also be subject to public sector borrowing constraints, which would limit their ability to finance the development of new social and affordable homes. I note that housing associations deliver 93% of all new affordable homes, so it is not a small matter.
In terms of accountability, the vast majority of housing associations are voluntarily registered with the regulator of social housing and if they seek public funding, they must be registered and subject to that regime. That means that they have a duty to comply with the standards set by that regulator, including making information available to tenants about the running of the organisation. The key point is that last summer, the Government announced a review of social housing regulation that will look at how transparency and accountability for tenants can be further improved, including better access to landlord information.
As with every hon. Member, I add to the record my sympathy and personal anguish at the tragedy at Grenfell Tower. As the hon. Member for City of Chester (Christian Matheson) acknowledged, the inquiry is looking at some of the issues, including communications with residents, which specifically covers whether there was a formal system for recording concerns, what concerns were raised at the time or after the recent renovations, how and to whom any such concerns were expressed, and what was done in response.
I gently say to the Minister that there are two weaknesses in her argument. First, disclosing information voluntarily, however laudable the aim or honestly done, is not the same as giving citizens the power to interrogate an organisation. Secondly, if the Minister is right—I think it was the policy of a previous Conservative Government to put the onus on housing associations, rather than councils, to deliver the lion’s share of social housing—and they are standing in the shoes of councils, there is all the more reason for them to be accountable in that way. If Scotland and other charities can do it, why does the Minister appear to envisage the risk of a housing association suddenly being classed as a public body, just because it is subject to FOI?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for those points and for the way he has put his arguments. I am simply saying that such issues should be considered through the review.
I am also grateful for the points added by the hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard), to whom I wish a happy birthday. I add two points in relation to the situation in Scotland. First, we are looking to see the record that will develop there. As I understand it, the provisions have not yet come into force, so we will look at how effective they are in increasing transparency. Secondly, as the hon. Member for Edinburgh East mentioned, the Scottish Government laid the planning for the consultation on these matters in 2016 and began it in 2017, so it is not a short process. I would like to think that all hon. Members present recognise that the provisions of the 2000 Act mean that such things are not necessarily quick, simple or short. I will come on a little later to how the Act may be used to extend the scope, if desired.
On contractors—the other half of the case made by the hon. Member for Hammersmith—I remind hon. Members of the arguments made by my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Cabinet Office last year about why we as a Government use outsourcing. I say “we”, but successive Governments have used it. I will use his arguments as context in response to the contextual points that have been made today. As the hon. Member for City of Chester said, we may have philosophical differences, but this is why one would look at outsourcing as a benefit to the public.
As the Minister for the Cabinet Office said,
“you can have both good and bad in both the private and the public sectors”,
as we all know from what we get in our constituency mailbags every week. He continued to say that
“what matters is that the service works for the people who use it in their everyday needs”
and that it provides
“value for money for the taxpayer.”
It is the case that
“the private sector has a vital role to play in delivering public services,”
and the Government continue to support that position, as have successive Governments since at least the 1980s, as I said.
As my right hon. Friend said, outsourcing can deliver “economies of scale” that can mean greatly better value and lower costs for the taxpayer. It is also the case that
“open and fair competition…encourages creativity and innovation”
that simply would not otherwise come about. Again, that benefits the user of that public service. The private sector can also bring
“a range of specialist skills, world-class expertise and deeper knowledge to bear on what can be complex issues.”
His argument is really that the Government
“cannot do everything by itself”,
and should not, because
“It needs the…innovation that only a…marketplace of suppliers can provide.”
In another speech last year on the subject, my right hon. Friend made the argument that small businesses and the third sector have a great appetite for taking part in providing those public services, and for a good reason. In many ways, they are often “closest to our communities” and are
“in the best…position to deliver social value”
through those contracts. That is an important further argument to think about when we look at outsourcing.
Because the Government remain committed to supporting that position, we are sceptical about the introduction of additional reporting burdens on those small organisations. We think that it would weaken the resilience of the delivery for the taxpayer, reduce the value for money that the Government can deliver for the taxpayer, and affect the support that the Government can give indirectly to those jobs when we use such suppliers.
In respect of contractors, the Government have certainly considered how best to balance the competing interests of transparency and burdens. As I have said, we recognise the importance of transparency in how public money is spent, but we are concerned about a disproportionate burden, because we do not want to discourage smaller organisations from serving the public.
I am listening to the Minister’s argument, but again, I thought I had dealt with that point in my speech. The majority of inquiries will be about the major contractors that take the lion’s share. I entirely take her point about small contractors, but my Bill would put the onus and the responsibility for the cost on the public authority to do that, so there is a way round it.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that clarification, and before I finish today I will talk briefly about that relationship between a contractor and the supplier, which is relevant to the proposal.
I will make one further general observation about the position of contractors; actually, I think the hon. Gentleman made it himself in his remarks. Of course, the Act exempts all organisations from providing information in certain ways, for example on grounds of commercial confidentiality. There are other exemptions as well. Extending freedom of information to another category of organisation does not necessarily change that fact, which is set out in the Act. I do not think the case can be made that extending freedom of information would have prevented supplier failure, of which some examples have been given this afternoon.
Let me move on to what is already done to provide information, because it is important to assess where we are working from. It is already policy for Departments to publish information during and after the awarding of a contract, with the exception of information that is commercially confidential, as I have said. That information includes a range of details. The Government’s model services contract includes clauses that reinforce that increased transparency.
The Government are now going even further and we will publish information about how our most important contracts are performing against their contractual targets. That will, of course, hold both Government and our suppliers to account. As well as increasing transparency for citizens to monitor outcomes, we think that this change will drive behaviour and improvements in delivery where they are needed. In addition, Departments are now required to publish their own commercial pipelines twice yearly, which is important to the public.
Since the Information Commissioner first published a report on this subject in 2015, the Government have introduced a range of measures to increase transparency. No doubt hon. Members have made use of the Contracts Finder website, where data can be found, and data.gov.uk, where details on spend can be found. In 2016, the transparency principles were also introduced, which make it clear to suppliers what information from bids will be released, and that any genuinely sensitive information should be highlighted with procuring Departments. That all ensures that citizens can see a clear public record of how Government money is spent on public contracts, and with what results.
I said I would turn to where information is held between the public authority and the contractor. Again, the Independent Commission on Freedom of Information looked at the issue of private contractors providing public services. First, it concluded that
“extending the Act directly to private companies…would be burdensome and unnecessary.”
However, it went on to say that
“information concerning the performance or delivery…should be treated as being held on behalf of the contracting public authority.”
Our amended freedom of information code of practice sets out that public authorities should agree what information is held on their behalf with private companies when entering into contracts, that those arrangements should be set out clearly and, indeed, that requests made to private companies providing public services should be passed to the relevant authority to answer. At present, therefore, the Government feel that the Freedom of Information Act strikes broadly the right balance.
Before I close, I will deal briefly with how the Act currently functions. Of course, the point has been made by the hon. Member for Hammersmith that secondary legislation is easy to use in this space. As he knows, orders can be made under section 5 of the Act, if it appears that particular bodies are exercising functions of a public nature; a number of other specifications are also made in that section. Such an order must be preceded by consultation with every person to whom it relates or with persons appearing to represent them.
I come back to the point that, although it may appear that section 5 orders are a straightforward and quick way to bring particular bodies into scope, the provisions in the legislation require consultation with all affected parties, and they further require a careful definition of what information that is held should fall within the Act. That is complex to do, and carries risks.
Adding to the scope of the Act through section 5 also requires a debate in both Houses. Some examples have been given of where these provisions have been used most recently, but I raise this matter to emphasise that the process is not necessarily a quick or straightforward one, and indeed that it is a virtue that such a process is set out in the Act already. Although the process is neither quick nor simple, it is the process that we should use to assess questions about scope.
To conclude, before obviously leaving time for the hon. Gentleman to sum up the debate, I say again that the Government are committed to the principles of transparency and openness across the public sector. We are proud of our reputation as a leader on data transparency. Indeed, we have evidence of that from one particular index that ranks the UK as eighth in the world for transparency, which is an important record. Transparency is crucial to deliver the public value for money, to assist taxpayers and to get the best services for citizens. However, proactive publication needs to be balanced with the other considerations that I hope I have set out for the Chamber today. The Freedom of Information Act is a very important tool in that box of transparency and the Government are absolutely committed to it. We want to see freedom of information used widely, but I hope that it has helped the Chamber today that I have set out some additional considerations in response to the hon. Gentleman’s arguments.
I am grateful to all those who have attended and taken part in this debate.
My hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner) used some very good examples from his constituency, but he also exhibited his encyclopaedic knowledge of this subject and his long track record of pushing for freedom of information. I think that he and I feel that we may be getting somewhere at last.
I also thank the shadow Housing Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey), for attending the first part of the debate. He did not speak because of his elevated status, but I know he has a particular interest in housing association issues and particularly the issues around Grenfell. I am grateful to him for his support.
I also thank the two Opposition Front-Bench spokespersons, my hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester (Christian Matheson) and the hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard, for their comments and associate myself with them.
The Minister, in her usual gracious way, put the Government’s argument as best she could, but it is wearing a little thin on these issues, as she conceded when saying, in response to my request for a fuller review, that there was the Burns commission. She quoted the matters relating to private contractors’ rights, but on the whole the Burns commission was sympathetic to the points that we are putting forward today. I hope that, when the response to the Information Commissioner’s report comes through, we may at last see some movement.
I remain hopeful, as always. I have noticed that there have been three private Members’ Bills in the past two years that would not perhaps have been expected to receive Government support: the Homelessness Reduction Act 2018; the Homes (Fitness for Human Habitation) Act 2018, which was put forward by my hon. Friend the Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck); and the equal civil partnerships Bill, which I believe is shortly to be enacted, once it has completed its stages in the House. Indeed, there are more recent examples of the Government taking over the Bills on upskirting and female genital mutilation. I am sure that that must be happening in so many cases because of the Government’s generosity and not because of their lack of a majority.
I therefore remain hopeful that—perhaps not in this Session and perhaps not even in the form of a Bill sponsored by me—a Bill of the kind that I have brought forward to extend freedom of information in the way that I have indicated will be achieved, and in the very near future.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered extending the Freedom of Information Act 2000 to housing associations and public contractors.
Rail Services: South-east London
[Sir Henry Bellingham in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered rail services in south-east London.
It is a particular pleasure to speak in this debate with you, Sir Henry, my long-term friend and colleague, in the Chair; it is a real privilege to do so.
I am grateful to be able to raise an extremely important issue that affects my borough of Bexley, and north-west Kent—indeed, it is a common problem across south-east London and north-west Kent—and that issue is rail services. I had hoped that I would not need to raise it again, but, unfortunately, improvements have not been forthcoming. It therefore remains a real concern for my constituents and for the constituents of my neighbours, who I am particularly pleased to see in their places: my right hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Sir Michael Fallon), my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford (Gareth Johnson), the hon. Member for Eltham (Clive Efford), and my neighbour and fellow campaigner for better rail services in Bexley, the hon. Member for Erith and Thamesmead (Teresa Pearce).
My constituents, and residents across the borough of Bexley, are entirely dependent on Southeastern when travelling into central London to commute and to work, or for social or other reasons. However, that operator has a poor reputation in our area. Bexley has endured a terrible rail service, with delays and cancellations occurring regularly. In our area, we have no underground services that could be used as an alternative, so Southeastern has a monopoly, but it is failing its customers on a regular basis. Warm words and apologies will not suffice when action is required, although I apologise that I did not mention the hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Matthew Pennycook); I had thought he was here for the previous debate, but it is great to see him as well, because we all suffer from this appalling rail service.
The 2018 rail passenger survey found that just 78% of commuters were satisfied with their journey—a 2% decrease from the previous year. A mere 39% thought they got value for money, which is 5% below the average for London and the south-east. Only 72% were satisfied with the punctuality and reliability of trains, which represented no improvement from the autumn of the previous year. That shows that Southeastern is not heading in the right direction. Trains are constantly delayed, even if only for a short time. Between 2010-11 and 2017-18, Southeastern achieved its right time measure for only 62% of its main line and metro services. I regularly travel to London from my home in Barnehurst, which is in my constituency, and we recently suffered as a consequence of the Barnehurst landslip. While I appreciate that these things occur and cannot be predicted, that was the fourth landslip along the same cutting in the past 10 years, which is totally unacceptable.
I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on having secured this important debate. He is absolutely right: when a landslide last happened along that line, questions were asked in this House about surveying the infrastructure to ensure it would not happen again, yet it keeps happening.
The hon. Gentleman is quite right. We have been ignored, which is unacceptable. Travellers have faced huge disruption, with little or no support from the operator, Southeastern.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on having secured the debate. He, and every Member in this Chamber, is a veteran of the campaign to improve rail services for our constituents. Does he agree that one way to improve the reliability of the service would be for a decision to be made about the franchise, which seems to be a never-ending process? I understand that a decision needs to be made by April. The making of that decision is imperative, so that investment in future services for our constituents can be forthcoming.
I totally agree with my hon. Friend, and I will be coming to that point later.
Network Rail, of course, is responsible for the tracks and for the problems that we have had with the landslip. I recently met with its route managing director, John Halsall, to discuss the situation, and he understood that it was unacceptable. There is nothing new in that; it is unacceptable.
Network Rail has regularly let down rail users, but it is not just that: Southeastern has been unable to act when contingency plans are required. It never seems to have them, and it does not provide information to our constituents about what is going on. It supposedly put extra trains on to the Erith and Sidcup line during the Barnehurst landslip, but many of us used that service when the Bexleyheath line was out of action, and when we got to Charing Cross or wherever, those trains were cancelled. The extra trains that Southeastern put on did not exist, so it is no good Southeastern saying that it is looking after the customer, because it most certainly is not.
As I have always said, Southeastern’s timetable is a work of fiction at the best of times; it was even more so on that occasion. The overcrowding, the cancellations and the distress caused to constituents who were trying to get home, pick up children from childcare, get to meetings or whatever were appalling.
Southeastern is full to busting at the moment, and given all the new development in my patch and in the right hon. Gentleman’s patch, does he share my concern about how on earth Southeastern is going to manage when it cannot manage at the moment? Does he believe that those developments will increase the risk of critical failure, given that the system will be overworked?
The hon. Lady makes a good point. Our area is ripe for further development, which is what we want. We want jobs, houses and opportunities, but we cannot have those without infrastructure. If the infrastructure cannot cope with that development, more problems are going to occur.
The Minister may be able to tell us different, but I believe no other rail network has had as many problems as ours. The excuses for delays and cancellations beggar belief: bad weather, leaves on the line, snow, low-level sunshine, overrunning road engineering works, and even drivers not turning up at Dartford because their taxi from Gravesend did not arrive on time. Southeastern could not run the train from Dartford because the driver did not turn up—it is really appalling. There have been breakdowns en route and doors that will not close—the list goes on and on. In my view, older rolling stock is the cause of some of these issues, not maintenance.
Many of my constituents have been appallingly disappointed that no decision has been made about the new franchise, as was mentioned earlier. That ought to have been in place by now, but we have just extended the existing franchise, which is one of the worst possible options that we could have chosen. If the operator cannot invest for the future, it is not going to do anything.
The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. There have been two extensions to the franchise; the latest, I think, takes us up to 22 June. Does he agree that our constituents at least deserve to know pretty soon who the new operator will be, so they can have some confidence that, going forward, that new operator is going to improve the service?
I totally agree with that. The sooner we know, the better, so the new operator can get cracking on what needs to be done to improve the service.
The new franchise contains some good proposals. Working more closely with Network Rail will be a great improvement, because I do not think the operator and Network Rail work together terribly well at the moment. We welcome the fact that there will be direct services from Bexleyheath to Abbey Wood, tougher demands for reliability and more frequent services to Charing Cross. However, with no decision having been made and no action, we suffer more and more, and our constituents have had enough. I know that the Minister is relatively new to his post, but I have a high opinion of him, and he is well respected across the House. I hope he will take some action within his Department.
On the point about the new franchise, commuters in the right hon. Gentleman’s constituency and in mine have journeys that are meant to be about 30 to 40 minutes, but Delay Repay kicks in only if people are 30 minutes late. Under the new franchise, it will kick in if they are 15 minutes late. Does he agree that as Southeastern has opted to bid for the new franchise, it should bring in that change now?
That would show good faith to the public, who are suffering from that situation now, would it not? I totally agree with the hon. Lady, and I hope that a 15-minute Delay Repay policy will motivate whoever holds the new franchise to operate a better service.
As the Minister will know, we have been blighted by endless signal failures at Lewisham, which again have caused misery, delays and cancellations. Sometimes, once those signals start to go wrong, they go wrong all through the day—it is unbelievable. We have already suffered from the London Bridge development, which caused considerable distress and disappointment. I understand from Network Rail that it is going to fix the signalling problems at Lewisham; it is going to start this Easter and finish next Easter, in 12 months’ time. Do we have to continue to suffer over the next year? Frankly, that is not acceptable.
There is also the problem of Crossrail. We were hopeful that Crossrail from Abbey Wood would give us an alternative and be part of what we need, but, regrettably, that has been delayed. It should have happened last December, but we do not yet have a date for when it is expected to be operational. That is a huge disappointment for our constituents. I know that it is not the Minister’s responsibility, but that of Transport for London and the London Mayor, but he should put more pressure on to get a date, at least, for when it will start. We have no date.
The other thing I want to raise is something we have been campaigning for. Originally, Crossrail was not going to stop at Abbey Wood, but would go to Ebbsfleet, and we are really keen to see that happen. We have had meetings with the Secretary of State. He came down, along with the hon. Member for Erith and Thamesmead and me, to have a look at what could be done and to have discussions with the council. An extension there would be so welcome. Other parts of the capital have Crossrail going out much further. We, who do not have an underground and have a poor rail service, have been put on the back-burner.
My right hon. Friend mentioned Ebbsfleet. Does he agree that this is not so much about an extension out to Ebbsfleet as it is about completing the project as originally envisaged? We have High Speed 1 there, but it is increasingly overcrowded for my constituents who use it. Having Crossrail go out to Ebbsfleet as originally planned is exactly what the Government’s policy should still be today.
My hon. Friend makes a good point. Solutions are what are needed. I therefore hope that the Crossrail to Ebbsfleet campaign proposals will go forward to a full business case, allowing for a detailed engineering design, land and financial modelling, and a legal framework to be progressed, because then we could get the plan on the books to look at it. Extending Crossrail is not just for commuters; it would allow a redevelopment of our area for jobs and houses eastwards along the south Thames.
The right hon. Gentleman is being generous in giving way. I agree with absolutely everything he is saying about transport infrastructure. He has already referred to this, but I want to underline the fact that south-east London is a desert when it comes to infrastructure. If the rail service breaks down, we have no alternative. There is no direct access to the underground for those who are slightly away from the river. That is a real problem for south-east London and it needs to be addressed.
I totally agree with the hon. Gentleman. I hope that the Minister will look seriously at other alternatives we could also have, such as going into Thamesmead or wherever with the docklands light railway or something. That could help not only our regeneration, but the existing population who live there and need to commute.
I will not go into all the benefits that an extension of Crossrail to Ebbsfleet would bring, other than that it would help to deliver the Government’s housing and industrial strategies, directly unlocking 55,000 homes and 50,000 jobs, as well as supporting thousands more across the sub-region. It would also deliver a vital strategic link between HS1 destinations, Canary Wharf and London City airport, and onwards to the City of London and Heathrow. With our roads so congested in south-east London, it would be a godsend to travellers and commuters. The Department has certainly procrastinated a bit on this matter and we need some action.
The Thames gateway has huge potential for economic growth and development. It has huge opportunities for the development of brownfield sites, yet connectivity is significantly holding things back. In pushing forward the original plans, we would have a unique opportunity to transform our area. When the Secretary of State visited Bexley, we highlighted the problems with our existing rail service, the problems with there being no decision on the franchise, the problems with Crossrail and the problem that when things break down, we are in difficulty.
We need the new franchise. We need Crossrail to open. We need the finance to pursue the business case for the Crossrail to Ebbsfleet campaign. I hope the Minister will respond positively.
I know that my right hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks wants to say a couple of words, if that is acceptable, Sir Henry. He has a slightly different perspective, being somewhat further out into Kent. We are suburban south-east London and Dartford, and we are a little region.
It is a privilege to be able to raise these matters on behalf of my constituents and my borough, and neighbouring boroughs and constituents. Their Members of Parliament have worked tirelessly together, across parties, to get things done and to improve the facilities and services for our constituents.
We have just heard a superb example of how to present a Westminster Hall debate. With the permission of the right hon. Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford (Sir David Evennett) and the Minister, I call the right hon. Member for Sevenoaks (Sir Michael Fallon) to make a brief contribution.
I am most grateful to you, Sir Henry. I, too, congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford (Sir David Evennett) on securing this important debate. Others may want to contribute, and we want to hear from the Minister, so I hope in two minutes to cover three points very briefly.
First, in recent years we have had fare increases that are too high, but they are also unfairly constructed. For Harlow and Sevenoaks, the cost of a weekly season ticket is over 15% of average weekly earnings. There is no reason why that should be the case there when the cost is less than 11% in Brentwood, Barking and Reigate. We need to look again at the fare structure and ensure some reasonable level of equity for our respective commuters.
Secondly, I hope the Minister will be able to dispel the rumours circulating about the franchise and say that it will not in fact be delayed again. There are even darker rumours about the faster service from Maidstone East stopping at Otford and Swanley, after already being postponed for a year. Will that still go ahead this December?
Finally, there is the whole issue of accountability. We learned during the timetable chaos of last May, as we pursued the two train operators—Southeastern and Thameslink —Network Rail and Ministers in the Department, that overall no one was actually in charge. As we look at implementing the Williams review when it comes up with its findings, we need to move to a better system where it is clear to all of us who is in charge.
I believe that our commuters deserve better. They are suffering from ever higher fares every January and unnecessarily complex fare structures. They need services that are more reliable and more fairly priced. Above all, they need a railway system that is properly accountable.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his brevity.
It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Henry. I, too, congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford (Sir David Evennett) on securing this important debate. Many important issues have been raised, and I will be scampering through trying to answer all the comments from colleagues, including on the landslip that my right hon. Friend raised with me before the debate, as he is a vigorous champion for his constituency. I will also talk about the infrastructure works, Southeastern’s performance, Crossrail and Ebbsfleet.
I will start with the landslip at Barnehurst. Landslips cause significant delays and cancellations, as trains obviously have no real capacity to deal with any kind of small obstacle. If there is debris on the track after a landslip, Network Rail will often need to re-route services to enable the landslip to be cleared and the infrastructure to be checked to ensure that it is safe and operational. There are always concerns, even after a small landslip, that the slope may be permanently weakened. Some of the slopes, or cuttings, on the side of the tracks may need to be strengthened as a result. That may include improved drainage or adding stronger materials to the slope, such as steel rods or soil nails, and that work can take some time.
The landslip at Barnehurst took place on 11 February and the service was not fully reopened until the following week on Monday 18 February. That was a significant inconvenience for the travelling public in the area, but work has been done to mitigate future landslips. I know that it has been a regular problem in the area, and to help to prevent further landslips Network Rail has installed remote sensors and cameras that send its monitoring headquarters regular information, including visual information, about the condition of the cutting.
While removing the debris and the slope, Network Rail has taken the opportunity to put in place some further mitigation. It has taken away 300 tonnes of earth and trees, and built a 30-metre retaining wall with steel beams piled six metres into the ground to stop another landslip. Network Rail has also removed and replenished the contaminated ballast, and tested all the signalling. If any slips occur again in the area, the wall that has been erected should prevent any further disruption to the line.
I know that my right hon. Friend the Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford met representatives of Network Rail to discuss the issue, and that they have explained to him what is going on. That work includes geotechnical surveys to understand the cause, not just to deal with the symptoms. Network Rail also plans to carry out more intensive remediation work at the site over the next two years. That underpins the wider investment that is being put into the south-east through a Network Rail funding settlement for the next five years. That will allow for a significant increase in expenditure on maintenance and renewals, all of which is designed to reduce the frequency of serious incidents and to provide a more reliable service. That underpins the comments we heard from Members across the Chamber.
I note the clear concerns about Southeastern’s performance in the recent passenger survey. I fully understand, and strongly agree, that passengers want a timetable that they can rely on. Their days and working careers are built around predictable structures, and timetables matter. The May 2018 timetable changes caused some unacceptable disruption, but important lessons were learned and implemented. The December timetable change was introduced successfully. The industry has significantly reduced the timetable changes to minimise the risk of severe disruption, and has introduced a phased, more gradual approach to enhancements.
Many changes were focused on improving performance and reliability for passengers. It might be of interest that in the next control period, starting only next month, we will introduce a new “on time” performance measure to assess the reliability of every journey. That will provide greater transparency about performance at every station along the route, not just whether trains reach their final destination on time. It is part of a much wider commitment by the industry, and by Government, to provide a rail service on which passengers can rely.
If train operating companies are unreliable, we must hold them to account. We have worked closely with consumer groups and the industry to create an independent rail ombudsman. That scheme is free, easily accessible and simple to use. It is designed to be a one-stop shop for passengers on issues to do with complaints handling, customer service and compensation. Of course, we want to get to a place where we do not have to worry about compensation; we just want the trains to be on time, every time. That is the purpose of our investment.
As the right hon. Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford (Sir David Evennett) mentioned, rolling stock is key to reliability. The rolling stock on this line is, I think, 25 years old or more. Is the Department working with the operator to introduce new rolling stock in the near future?
I am coming on to the next franchise, but I should point out that we are seeing a fantastic change to the rolling stock right across our nation. We are going through a change that is equivalent to when we went from steam to diesel, with about 7,000 new vehicles entering service across our nation.
There were clear concerns about Southeastern’s performance. It has been improving recently and remains stable. Cancellations are reducing. A key change has been the improved collaboration between Southeastern and Network Rail. The latest statistics on the public performance measure indicate that 88.1% of services arrive at their final destination within five minutes of the planned arrival time. Today, it is 96%—I checked just before coming into the Chamber. However, we recognise that there is much to do, and we want the trains to be on time every time.
The issue of Lewisham signalling was raised, which is a significant piece of work. More than £130 million-worth of work will take place between now and Easter 2020. This Easter, £55 million will be invested in the Lewisham, Woolwich and Charlton area. In Easter 2020, £81 million will be invested in the Hither Green area. All of that will upgrade the signalling to provide a more robust service.
I cannot announce to the House when a decision will be made on the next franchise. The current franchise was extended in December, and the agreement will now expire, as was said, on 23 June. We are still in the process of evaluating the agreement for the next franchise. It has taken longer than anticipated because we want to ensure that passengers get the best possible deal. The invitation to tender is expected to bring some significant benefits in the new franchise, including longer trains, more space for passengers, increased availability of staff and improved communication with passengers, especially during periods of disruption. A comment regularly made whenever there is disruption is, “Just tell us what’s going on.” That is the voice of passengers, and it has not been as strong as it should have been.
As the Minister will know, I was very pleased to have the Oyster card extended to Dartford. Does he agree that the provision of smart ticketing must be included within any new franchise agreement?
I strongly support smart ticketing, and it will be in the next south-eastern franchise. It is popular with customers, and helps them with the convenience of their journey, though it is tough to deliver. We have also had requests regarding Delay Repay compensation. The next south-eastern franchise will include Delay Repay compensation kicking in from 15 minutes of delay. Alongside that we will see new services on Sundays, and wi-fi and mobile connectivity. I am keen to bring that significant range of customer benefits to the constituents whom the Members present serve as soon as possible. I have heard what has been said about the urgency of delivering it, and I will update the House as soon as we can.
I share both the excitement about the scale of Crossrail and what it will deliver for the country and the frustration that it will not be delivered on time. The Crossrail board decided to delay the opening on 29 August last year, and informed the Government of that. We do not yet have a new date for the opening. I have met representatives of Crossrail to press the case. I want to see the scheme out there as fast as possible. It will increase capacity and rail transport in London by 10%, and bring an extra 1.5 million people within 45 commuting minutes of London’s key business districts.
On extending Crossrail or, as my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford (Gareth Johnson) said, completing it, I am instinctively sympathetic to the idea that transport investment is a driver of economic growth. It unlocks potential for commercial and residential opportunity. I fully understand the strategic importance—not just in the areas represented by the Members present, but nationally—of the potential of the Thames estuary. A strategic outline business case has been submitted to the Department, looking at options to extend Crossrail to Ebbsfleet. We are considering those proposals and will respond to the promoters in due course. I cannot give a date yet, but I recognise the urgency.
I will look at the points made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Sir Michael Fallon) regarding fares. The Government want to help people to keep more of their own money. That is why we have increased the personal allowance, and why we are in our sixth year of freezing the regulated fares, or capping them so that they can increase only in line with inflation. However, I will look at the specific points mentioned. I will also look at the point about Maidstone. We are certainly committed to improving regular services between Maidstone and the City as soon as possible, and we are working very closely with the industry to finalise plans for the remaining stages of the Thameslink timetable. That work includes future services from Maidstone East.
I fully recognise the importance of rail to the constituents served by colleagues present. Work is taking place to strengthen the area around the Barnehurst landslip, and we are working to bring the matter of the franchise to a conclusion as quickly as possible, so that people know where they stand and the travelling public receive the benefits. I thank right hon. and hon. Members for their contributions. I hope to leave the travelling public watching the debate with the clear impression that we are working to give them the rail service that they deserve.
Question put and agreed to.
Kurdistan Region in Iraq
I beg to move,
That this House has considered bilateral relations with the Kurdistan region in Iraq.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Henry. It has been nearly two years since our last debate on bilateral relations with the Kurdistan region of Iraq. The political context has changed dramatically and is now improving quickly for the Kurds and for Iraq more widely.
When we last debated this matter, we were weeks away from a referendum on the principle of eventual and negotiated independence from Iraq. I supported the referendum, whereas the all-party parliamentary group for the Kurdistan region in Iraq, which I chair, broadly took a neutral position but supported the Iraqi Kurds’ right to self-determination. The APPG sent observers to the referendum, including the former UK security envoy, Sir Simon Mayall, who disagreed with the referendum. We observed it in Irbil, Kirkuk and Slemani on 25 September 2017. It was clearly a joyous and colourful day, and the result was also clear: a 93% vote for independence on a 72% turnout.
Nothing changed much on 26 September, the day after the referendum, and the Kurds hope to keep negotiating with Baghdad—maybe not for full statehood, but for confederation or genuine federalism. The referendum was a reaction to the failure of federalism and the feeling that the Kurds could no longer rely on Baghdad, which had grown increasingly hostile to them. After the referendum, Baghdad quickly realised these fears by blockading the airports for six months and issuing punitive diktats to stop international money transfers. Worse than that was its use of the army to seize Kirkuk—that violated the constitution, which bars the use of the military to settle internal conflicts. Some 100 peshmerga were crushed to death by Iraqi army tanks and Iranian proxy militia, using the same tanks that were sent there to help deliver the defeat of Daesh.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate, and I am following his speech with great interest. Given the fact that if it had not been for the Kurds, Daesh would have been all over Iraq, does he agree that the reaction of the Iraqi Government was even more extraordinary? When the Iraqi army was in full flight, it was only the Kurds who prevented Kirkuk from being taken by Daesh, and they also saved Irbil. Without the Kurds, Daesh would probably still be in control of Iraq.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that the Kurdish peshmerga saved Iraq. When the Iraqi army dumped its weapons and ran, the peshmerga took up arms and helped contain Daesh. They were then instrumental in pushing them back. I will come on to that later in my remarks.
As my hon. Friend just said, Kirkuk had been saved by the peshmerga in 2014, but Kirkuk turned against the Kurds after the referendum. Their language was banned and their flag torn down, and Shi’a militia displayed photos of Ayatollah Khomeini in the governor’s office where we met Najmaldin Karim, who only just escaped with his life thanks to an American tip-off. Arson, rape, murder and extortion fuelled a mass exodus of Kurds from Kirkuk, and the situation there is not yet back to how it was in the past. I ask the Minister to make it clear that Kirkuk and other territories are still disputed and should be subject to article 140 of the 2005 Iraqi constitution, which promised resolution of the Kurds’ final status by 2007. I ask the Minister to encourage the UN mission in Iraq to make that a much bigger priority.
The Iraqi forces then sought to invade the Kurdistan region but were repulsed at several battles. France, Germany and the Holy See broke the diplomatic blockade by sending an invitation to the Prime Minister of the Kurdistan Regional Government, Nechirvan Barzani, who was able to transit via the land border—obviously the airports were out of use. Thankfully Baghdad backed down, and the KRG has parked the referendum result for now. I put on record that whatever the tactical or strategic wisdom of the referendum, I am disgusted by Baghdad’s violence, which was carried out, ironically, in the name of upholding a constitution that it had flouted. Its opening article states that Iraq is a “voluntary union”.
Fortunately, the supposed strongman in Baghdad, Haider al-Abadi, lost the premiership. His successor, Adel Abdul Mahdi, who once fought alongside the peshmerga, seems to be a much more reasonable character. A host of positive measures have now been agreed. Stranded oil in Kirkuk will eventually be piped via Kurdistan, and there seems to be a deal in the offing that finds a third way between total Kurdistani or Iraqi control of Kurdistani oil. Some will be sold by Baghdad in return for guaranteed salary payments to KRG civil servants and peshmerga, and some will be sold by the KRG. Internal customs posts are being demolished, which means that Shi’a militia can no longer extort duties and that Kurdistan can again become a dynamic gateway from the world to Iraq.
I think that is a positive and a potentially win-win position for all sides. Baghdad and Irbil are finding myriad ways to rebuild their relations, and we can do much more to make a strong KRG within a unified and fully federal Iraq. The Kurds might one day seek independence, as is their right, but not for now and perhaps not for a very long time.
The Minister will know that the UK is highly respected in Kurdistan. Many political leaders hold British passports, English is the second language and there is a strong Kurdish diaspora here in the UK. Four Kurdish universities teach only in English, and our active consul-general, Martin Warr, ably flies the flag and looks after and promotes our interests there. I praise the work of the British Council.
The UK Government are assisting the KRG’s reform programme by encouraging a modern Finance Ministry and the professionalisation of the peshmerga. I pay particular tribute to our servicemen and women at the Zorbash base in Irbil for their work. I visited their camp on two or three occasions and have always been impressed by their professionalism and what they are doing to help train the peshmerga in things like counter-improvised explosive device measures and how to train their own troops and keep a cohesive military force.
I was with my hon. Friend on the APPG’s delegation. I congratulate him on securing this debate and on leading that successful delegation. We were there to monitor the referendum, but, as he said, we also had an opportunity to visit the Mercian Regiment, which was working alongside the peshmerga. Does he agree that that is another strong link between this country and the Kurdistan region in Iraq, and that it was a delight to see our troops working so hard, side by side with the peshmerga?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It was an honour and a privilege to see our people making such a contribution there by training the peshmerga in vital skills such as counter-IED measures, the conduct of war and the cohesion of a modern military unit. It was inspiring to see our forces and theirs working so closely together.
I am pleased to honour the sacrifice of the peshmerga, who lost 2,000 soldiers and had 10,000 injured in defending themselves—they were our frontline against the monsters and fascists of Daesh. We owe them a massive debt of gratitude and respect, and their efforts will never be forgotten. From my four visits to Kurdistan, I can say that it is a hospitable, beautiful and relatively safe place. They have significantly advanced women’s rights: nearly 40% of their MPs are women, which is a higher proportion than in Iraq and the UK. Christians, other religious minorities and ethnic minorities are respected.
The Kurdish Parliament has asked British MPs to help train its MPs in order to make it a more accessible institution and to instruct them on how better to hold the Executive to account. However, Kurdistan needs further and faster economic and political reform to take advantage of its better relations with Baghdad and its central position in the middle east. The peshmerga should be a single-state force. No political party should control security or have armed militia. The oil-dominated and state-centred economy should be diversified, and more efforts should be made to build a strong private sector so that economic pluralism underpins political pluralism and the agricultural, tourist and light-industry sectors are strengthened. We can help with that. I hope the Minister will reiterate the Government’s position on favouring direct flights, and thereby encouraging a commercial carrier service to establish such routes. That would send a very strong signal indeed that Kurdistan is open for business, and would fortify our good relations.
Will the Minister look at amending the Foreign and Commonwealth Office travel advice, which currently says that people should visit Kurdistan only for essential purposes? That raises insurance costs and presents liability issues to British companies and institutions that want to operate there. With new advice, it would, for instance, be easier for British universities to set up campuses with accredited UK degrees, which are in demand and can improve the quality of higher education there.
British companies also need to invite Kurds here for training, but as the Minister knows, there is a very high visa rejection rate—over 70%, often for what seem to be spurious reasons. That does us great harm and hinders our ongoing relationship. Of course we need to control our borders, but we could do that better by reinstating interviews so minor details can be ironed out. We should allow our Ministers and diplomats to exercise their discretion in our national interest. Trade and investment will be much more important after we have left the European Union, so we need to put Kurdistan back on the map. I suggest that she encourage an official trade mission.
We are honoured that the Kurdish Parliament has decided to set up an all-party group for the very first time, and that it will be on the UK. Kurdistan could be a hub for companies that want to help rebuild Mosul, as their personnel could be placed in relative safety in Irbil or Dohuk. We already have a small military base in Kurdistan, which is doing fantastic work, but I ask the Minister to consider the possibility of expanding our military presence there more permanently.
I welcome the Bishop of Truro’s review, and suggest that the Minister and the Foreign Secretary examine the good treatment of Christians and other religious minorities, including the Yazidis, in Kurdistan. I encourage them both to go there.
There is still some unfinished business. My very good friend, Karwan Jamal Tahir, who is in the Public Gallery, said only yesterday in an email:
“Four years have passed since the crimes of genocide committed against Yazidis but as yet we have seen no justice for the victims and survivors, despite many efforts made internally and internationally. The KRG highly values all the efforts made to recognise these acts as genocide, we acknowledge that British public opinion, MPs, Lords are all asking for justice and prosecution of the perpetrators. The KRG thinks that, if previously there was no international basis for the trial, well now—there is an international and legal base in place—and that is UN resolution 2379 to collect the evidence and bring the perpetrators to justice. The KRG highly value and appreciate the British Government in initiating this resolution, lobbying to get it passed and dedicating budget for it.”
The UK took the lead at the UN, but there has been slow progress in bringing the Daesh perpetrators to justice, so further action is required. Does the Minister agree that, given that the KRG has collected evidence, we should consider an international tribunal? I also ask the Minister to make plans for an official visit of the KRG President and Prime Minister. I hope that, in the very near future, they will meet our Prime Minister.
I am very pleased about the new state of relations with Baghdad. I ask the Minister to keep encouraging that and the full implementation of the Iraqi constitution. None of the all-party group’s requests are about trying to encourage statehood. That is and has to be a matter for the Kurds. Next week, we are organising a unique briefing with the Minister, the Iraqi ambassador and the KRG high representative. I do not know whether I made it clear at the beginning of my remarks that I chair the all-party group for the Kurdistan region of Iraq. I draw Members’ attention to that.
March is a month of many memories for the Kurds. Yesterday marked the beginning of the 1991 uprising against Saddam Hussein. We protected them thanks to public outrage and the actions of John Major and our RAF through the no-fly zone. Another anniversary is 16 March 1988, when Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons against the civilians of Halabja, killing 5,000 men, women and children in an instant and injuring 10,000 more, as part of his appalling genocide, which the Commons officially recognised in 2013.
As 21 March is the Kurdish new year, Newroz, the Minister can give the Kurds an early new year greeting by making progress on the points I have raised, and building a better, bigger bilateral relationship with a pivotal autonomous region that is our friend and ally in defeating extremism and helping make the middle east safer and more pluralistic. The Kurds in Iraq keep surviving and thriving, but could do so much better with a bigger, deeper bilateral relationship with the United Kingdom.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Henry. I congratulate the hon. Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke (Jack Lopresti) on securing this important debate. He is the excellent chair of the all-party group for the Kurdistan region of Iraq, of which I am pleased to be a member. Although I have not visited the region yet, it has been an honour to meet representatives of the Kurdistan Regional Government, MPs and others from Kurdistan through my involvement with the group. It has been enlightening and valuable to learn about the region and its past struggles, and particularly about its pro-western values, its immense religious tolerance, which is unique in the middle east, and its role as the primary force in defeating Daesh.
I want to focus on early-day motion 2122, which I tabled last week, on establishing direct flights between the UK and the Kurdistan region. It focuses on an issue that the hon. Gentleman has raised and which has been pursued by the all-party group with Ministers over a number of years. We tabled it following the news that the KRG high representative to the UK, Karwan Jamal Tahir, recently met representatives of British Airways, which is considering establishing direct flights to Irbil from Heathrow from next summer.
As things stand, there is no choice but to travel via a third country. I am sure hon. Members agree that there is no incentive for companies from the UK or from across the Atlantic to explore the business opportunities that are available, especially as the region’s economy improves due to the increased stability between the Kurdistan region and Baghdad, if there is no opportunity to fly there directly. I know from my airport, Newcastle International, about the importance of seeking new markets, particularly after Brexit. Connectivity is a primary factor for businesses, as it enables them to trade abroad.
A survey has deemed Irbil the fifth safest city in the world, and direct flights would surely encourage more tourism to that beautiful region, which has a wealth of cultural history. A lift in tourism would strengthen the region’s economy and help to diversify it away from reliance on oil reserves. I am quite able to fly to Chicago—the most dangerous city in the whole world, in terms of murders—to visit my daughter, but not to a safer country. We should perhaps bear that in mind when considering where is safe for people in the UK to go.
I am listening to the hon. Lady’s speech with great interest—she makes a powerful point. Is she aware that Kurdistan attracts 2 million visitors per year for its tourism industry? Although it has a well-established tourism industry, very few of those tourists are westerners. Given that 95% of the economy is dependent on oil, she is absolutely right about the urgent need to diversify.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for emphasising that particular point. I think it adds fuel to the fire of why we want that situation to change.
The prospect of enhanced business connections and increased tourist travel depends on whether the Foreign and Commonwealth Office will consider revising its travel advice to UK travellers. At present, the advice means that UK travellers have to buy extra travel insurance, on top of their ordinary annual global insurance, to travel to Kurdistan. That sends out completely the wrong message to would-be travellers, who might question why they have to go for that extra insurance, and perhaps suggests to them that there might be more safety problems than there actually are. We do not want to deter would-be travellers from visiting that beautiful country.
Although the Government have to be cautious and do all they can to ensure the safety of all UK citizens, wherever we may be or are travelling to, in the light of the increased stability in the region—the hon Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke referred to it—which boasts English as its second language, I hope that the Minister will tell us that her Department will give serious and urgent consideration to revising advice for travel to Kurdistan, and that many more people will be able to enjoy all the delights that that wonderful region in Iraq has to offer.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Henry. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke (Jack Lopresti) for his speech introducing the debate.
I want move away from the areas that my hon. Friend covered to look at some of the capacity-building and humanitarian aid issues that occur in the country. If one thinks back, only a few years ago the humanitarian aid made available to Kurdistan was not reaching its target by around 63%. The UN could manage only 37% of its aid fund target. We have to ask why, and maybe the Minister will be kind enough to give a take on that.
It is crucial, in the light of the history of warfare with Daesh and the huge number of people who have been caught up in it, that the humanitarian aid for the crisis is more prevalent there than in other regions. The area’s need for humanitarian assistance is much greater and we should therefore mention that there is and has been a major short-term funding gap in the provision of humanitarian aid for the country. That need for humanitarian aid is not finished—it is still growing because of the result of the conflict; the aid needs to be predictable; and improvements need to be seen and appreciated on the ground.
A number of things are putting enormous pressure on the provision of that humanitarian aid, one of which is the mass movement of people. Where there is a mass movement of people, there will always be a need for more humanitarian aid. As to a country where there is such need for that aid, it is difficult to talk of the need for capacity building, but I will mention five points in no particular order. They are not ordered by priority, but are just my thoughts on a number of issues.
First, I want to stress the need for capacity building in the provision of gender equality. There are two aspects to gender equality: the provision of humanitarian aid and the way women and girls have been treated as a result of the prevalence of Daesh in the area for so long. The number of vulnerable women is quite large, and they are vulnerable whether or not they are the female heads of their households. There is an enormous risk of gender-based violence and there have been absolutely horrific reports of sexual and gender-based violence throughout the region.
We need to concentrate on a number of things to improve women’s ability to survive and function in that society. A larger point on that, as we look to build an area with a great deal of capacity in future, is to ensure that women can use their skills to the best of their ability and that they play a full role, whether in politics, the economy or whatever it may be. We need to make sure that there is a tremendous amount of activity on that.
My second point on capacity building, which may seem a little strange in that these aspects are chalk and cheese, relates to cultural heritage. The UK has an enormous capacity in archaeological and cultural artefacts. In fact, I must admit that I am a product of that, having spent most of my early years as an archaeologist. I am not volunteering to go out to Kurdistan to provide the information and the training that people need, but I think we should make use of the skills that we have in the UK to deal with the tremendous trashing of cultural heritage in that region. One has only to look at the activities of Daesh there to see the effect it has on many people.
The third area is education, which my hon. Friend the Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke mentioned in the context of further education. We should be building capacity not just in further education, but in education throughout the lives of young people in the area. We should not necessarily concentrate solely on academic education, but we need to provide the skills that people need to ensure that the programmes of placements can be improved enormously—I have seen in other parts of the world how our concentration on education can achieve enormous results.
The fourth area is in the medical field. We have already heard that 10,000 people were injured in Kurdistan, and they need treatment. We need hospitals and qualified doctors to be able to provide that, and I think that a tremendous amount of capacity building could take place there to improve that situation.
The last point that I will raise, which encompasses all those things, is about dealing with corruption. I have a lot of experience of dealing with corruption—I am the Prime Minister’s trade envoy to Nigeria, after all. The way corruption is dealt with needs to be tackled and made specific to each country. Corruption is not corruption is not corruption is a much broader picture there. Where there are not effective institutions that can function properly, there will always be a risk of corruption. Corruption is corrosive on everyone. It needs to be tackled head on.
Those are the five areas that I would recommend that the Department for International Trade and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office concentrate on. That does not take away the need for humanitarian aid, but those are the areas we need to concentrate on next as we develop.
It is always a pleasure and a privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Henry, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke (Jack Lopresti) on introducing the debate. My first contact with Iraqi Kurdistan was in 2010, when I received a telephone call from the then Chief Whip of my party, asking me whether I would be willing to fly via Vienna—no direct flights even then—to Irbil in order to speak to the Kurdistan regional Parliament about the importance of opposition parties. That was a good introduction to being in opposition in 2010, which was fairly new to us after 13 years in government. I had been to Iraq once before, in 1980, but I had never been to the north, to Irbil.
As the hon. Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke said, what a surprise it was to arrive in a region of a middle eastern Arab country that I had visited so long ago—it was quite progressive in 1980 and went downhill after that—and to see the progress being made. What a surprise to see how that Parliament was developing, and to see the Kurdish values that I already know from my constituency, where we have a small but substantial population of Kurdish refugees in the city of Leeds, who sadly are now increasing. I saw for myself what was going on, and it felt like a separate nation. It felt like a region that was going to secede from the Republic of Iraq any time soon, because the values seemed so different. We were told that a visa was needed to go from Baghdad to Irbil at that time.
I was fortunate to go back to Irbil and Slemani just a year later with the all-party parliamentary group, under the leadership of the hon. Gentleman’s predecessor, and with the secretary, Gary Kent, who knows the region and the country very well. During that visit we learnt more about the Anfal—the terrible slaughter of Kurds because they were Kurds under Saddam’s presidency. We learnt what the Halabja gas attack really meant for men, women and children. We heard more about that in a conference two or three years ago in London on the anniversary of the 1988 atrocity. The Labour, coalition and Conservative Governments have since learned—we have agreed—that was genocide.
There is no doubt that the violence by the then leadership of Iraq was aimed at the Kurds. The Kurds always seem to attract the wrath of the regimes in the region. Let us look at what is happening in Turkey—nothing like what happened in Iraq, but quite a lot of oppression—and in Syria and Iran. But it is in Iraq that there has been the only regional autonomy, until the referendum—as the hon. Gentleman so clearly stated, until the disgusting attack and oppression by the Iraqi army in Kurdistan. We were all shocked by that violence. I was in regular contact with Gary Kent at the time.
The Opposition believe in people’s right to self-determination, in whatever part of the world. I know the Minister will emphasise that too. If they have cultural integrity, linguistic individuality and cultural separateness, no matter the religion, they have the right to self-determination, to decide for themselves what their future as a nation should and could be.
In talking to the families of the victims of the Anfal in 2011, I was struck by the comparison they made to the holocaust of the Jewish people in the second world war. I come from a Jewish background—it meant a lot to me; it meant a lot to me. My family died in the holocaust and in the concentration camps. To hear people of the Muslim faith, who are Kurds, talk about their empathy with the Jewish people and the state of Israel was a revelation. One MP said to me, “You know, if Israel opens an embassy in Baghdad tomorrow”—unlikely, but perhaps more likely today than it was seven or eight years ago—“they will open one the next day in Irbil. We would welcome an Israeli presence here.” I had never heard anybody in the region say that before, and I was struck by it.
When we drove from Slemani on that road route back to Irbil, I took a number of photographs—we were delayed by a whole load of sheep crossing the road. I was struck by the similarity of the countryside to my native Yorkshire, which I have represented for 22 years. When I showed the photograph to my wife, she asked if it was Ilkley moor. I replied, “No, this is an area you won’t visit. This is Slemani to Irbil.” She was as shocked as everyone else.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising such an important issue. He said that the Kurds could no longer rely on Baghdad. He pointed to the army seizing Kirkuk after that referendum was crushed. He talked, most importantly of all, of the Kurdish peshmerga saving Iraq. The Opposition would certainly concur with that. They contained Daesh through their bravery and extraordinary organisation. Their army contains men and women—something unseen and unheard of in the region.
My hon. Friend the Member for North Tyneside (Mary Glindon), who has considerable experience of Iraqi Kurdistan and Iraqi Kurdistan and the Kurdish cause, talked about the direct flights issue. Anyone who has been to Irbil knows what a struggle it is to have to change in Vienna, or whichever third country, but it is much more important than that. If they are going to develop tourism, as she said, there must be direct flights. The contrast with Chicago was a brilliant one, because I got that feeling too. I am sure every other right hon. and hon. Member who has been to Irbil, and had the pleasure of seeing school children in Slemani dancing the local dance and of listening to the music of the region, will know that it is a safer, more accommodating and more welcoming city than Chicago or many other American cities. They will have felt safer and not vulnerable, and that nobody was out to attack them. That is very important to the development of business and communities, and to economic development in general.
The hon. Member for Henley (John Howell) talked about the need for humanitarian assistance. We should never forget how important that is; that need may well still be growing, as he indicated. Gender inequality and the risk of gender-based violence is something we need always to be aware of and to combat.
Between 1986 and 1989, about 180,000 people—the numbers are disputed—perished in the Anfal. The UK supported the creation of the Iraqi constitution after the invasion of Iraq in 2003. The Kurdistan Regional Government were formalised in the present constitution of Iraq in 2005. The UK has given military and financial assistance to the peshmerga, especially during the ISIS surge. I hate to quote him, but the former Foreign Secretary, the right hon. Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson), stated that
“we owe a great debt to the Peshmerga for their bravery and sacrifice. What they are doing is on behalf of all of us.”
That is perhaps one of the few things I have agreed with him about over the years.
Governments of all colours have agreed that it is important to have a strong Kurdistan region of Iraq, within a strong, successful, unified Iraq. We know that would ensure stability in the country and the whole region, which is why we are so concerned about the destabilising effect of what happened a couple of years ago. The Select Committee on Foreign Affairs stated in a report on the subject in 2018 that
“the FCO should support meaningful political participation and representation for Kurds, as well as cultural recognition, equal rights, and economic opportunities for them, underpinned by national constitutions and achieved through negotiation, as a means of fulfilling Kurdish aspirations. It is not in the UK’s interests for any state to deny Kurdish identity through law or force.”
I am sure that the Minister will refer to that.
The UK Government have played a diplomatic role in attempting to reduce tension between the Kurdish and the Iraqi federal Government. I pay tribute to the Foreign Office and to current Ministers for that. However, bafflingly, as my hon. Friend the Member for North Tyneside said, the Foreign Office still advises against all but essential travel to Iraqi Kurdistan, putting it in the same category as Baghdad and southern Iraq. That needs to change, and I hope we will hear more about that from the Minister.
In February 2019, one of the people I shadow, the Minister for the Middle East, announced £30 million in funding to help rebuild Iraq and to aid the economy. He visited the region in January 2019, and he gave particular support to policies preventing sexual violence in conflict areas in Iraq. As we know, since 2014 the Department for International Development has provided more than £250 million towards humanitarian assistance in Iraq, the vast majority of it in and around the Iraqi Kurdistan region. I hope that I have not stolen the Minister’s thunder—she is also a DFID Minister.
The United Kingdom gives indirect support through international bodies such as the United Nations Development Programme funding facility for stabilisation, which has focused on areas liberated from ISIS. The UK trained more than 9,000 peshmerga in infantry, counter-IED, engineering and medical skills, and provided—I believe it continues to provide them—arms and ammunition to the peshmerga.
As we know, there are still no direct flights from the UK to Irbil in Iraqi Kurdistan. As Members have said, there have been rumours that British Airways will commence flights next year. Let us hope that happens and that the Government can encourage that. As I mentioned, the authorities in Iraqi Kurdistan are particularly proud of the religious tolerance in the region. The Kurdish authorities launched a commission to investigate crimes by ISIS, particularly against the Yazidis, during the conflict. I think we all welcome that.
I again congratulate the hon. Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke on bringing this important issue before us. Let us hope that we can continue to work together to ensure that the people of Iraqi Kurdistan have a truly autonomous future, that they can govern themselves, and that we can look forward to Irbil, Slemani and the many other cities of Iraqi Kurdistan being tourist destinations for everybody from Europe.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Henry. I add my congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke (Jack Lopresti) on securing this debate and on his long-standing passion and interest in this area. I am probably the only person to speak in the debate who has not had the pleasure of visiting the Iraqi region of Kurdistan. Obviously, my colleague the Minister for the Middle East would usually have responded to such a debate, but he is travelling. He sends his apologies for not being able to take part.
We have heard a range of really interesting and enlightening speeches. I will start by trying to address some of the common points that were raised before recapping the UK’s long-standing partnership with the Kurdistan region of Iraq.
Some important issues have been raised. We heard questions about the UK’s position on the 2017 referendum for independence. Colleagues will want to know that we continue to support the unity, sovereignty and territorial integrity of Iraq. That is why we did not support the Kurdistan region’s referendum and do not recognise the results of the referendum. We believe that any referendum or political process towards independence must be taken as a result of an agreement with Baghdad and in line with the Iraqi constitution. We continue to help Iraq to build a more stable, prosperous and inclusive Iraq in which all Iraqis, including Iraq’s Kurds, have the security, jobs and opportunities they want and deserve.
The UK continues to encourage the Iraqi Government to resolve outstanding disputes with the Kurdistan Regional Government, and we continue to encourage the Kurdistan Regional Government to respect the Iraqi federal court ruling that the referendum was unconstitutional. At the right time, when both parties are ready, we would want both sides to return to substantial negotiations to resolve all outstanding issues, in line with the Iraqi constitution, including making further progress on oil and revenue sharing and the status of the disputed territories, so the Baghdad-Irbil relationship is placed on a more sustainable footing within a unified Iraq.
Turning to the specific question of Kirkuk, as my hon. Friend the Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke noted, in 2014 Daesh captured large swathes of territory in northern Iraq that were disputed between Baghdad and Irbil. As the Kurds pushed Daesh back, they controlled many of those disputed territories, including the oil-rich city of Kirkuk. Following the referendum on 25 September 2017, the federal Government of Baghdad reasserted control over those areas. The UK wants to see a long-term, peaceful and sustainable solution to the governance of those territories, in line with article 140 of the Iraqi constitution.
A number of colleagues raised the question of flights. Of course, individual airlines will want to make their own commercial decisions. I certainly thought that a range of colleagues made some powerful points in support of direct flights. The Foreign Office, the Home Office and the Department for Transport keep the issue under constant review, as indeed we at the Foreign Office keep travel advice for the Kurdistan region of Iraq under constant review.
My hon. Friend also raised the question of visas. He may want to raise that question more directly with colleagues from the Home Office, but the Foreign Office can commit that we will continue to work with Home Office colleagues to ensure that the requirements for visas to the UK are clearly, simply and effectively communicated to those applying for them.
My hon. Friend raised important issues to do with the atrocities committed during the conflict. The UK took action in 2017 to secure United Nations Security Council resolution 2379, which established an investigative team to gather evidence of Daesh’s crimes in Iraq. That team has now deployed. It has the full support of this Government, and we continue to encourage the UN to make rapid progress on that important work.
My hon. Friend raised the question of an inward visit from Kurdistan to the UK. He will know that the Prime Minister herself visited Iraq in 2017, and he will appreciate that she had a bilateral meeting with President Salih last week in Sharm El Sheikh. We would be very glad, at the appropriate moment, to welcome a delegation from the Kurdistan region of Iraq to the UK.
The UK has long and historic links with the Kurdistan region of Iraq, which colleagues alluded to. My hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell) raised the important work we have been doing on the humanitarian side through the Department for International Development. I did not realise that he had such an interesting experience of archaeology. I think he will be very interested in the British Museum’s Iraq scheme, which is funded by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and trains Iraqi archaeologists. It brings them to London for two months and then gives hands-on training in Iraq for a further two months. I think we can all agree wholeheartedly how important that is.
Successive British Governments have enjoyed a close working relationship with the Kurdistan Regional Government since its formation in Iraq in 1992. As a number of colleagues noted, we stood by the Kurdish people in 1991. We introduced safe havens, we policed no-fly zones, we protected thousands of lives in the Kurdistan region and we provided a refuge from the brutality of the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein for many years. We also stood by the Iraqi people in their fight against Daesh, and I take this opportunity to pay particular tribute to the courage and tenacity of the Kurdish peshmerga and the Iraqi security forces in the face of the barbaric assault by Daesh on their livelihoods and their cultural identity.
I pay tribute to the incredible generosity of Iraqis from across the country, including the Kurdistan region of Iraq, in supporting millions of people displaced from their homes by the brutality of Daesh in Syria and Iraq. As an integral part of Iraq, the Kurdistan region is a natural partner for the UK. We share many strategic interests. We respect the Kurdish people and our relationship is strong.
The strength of our partnership was evident during the recent visit to Iraq, to which the hon. Member for Leeds North East (Fabian Hamilton) alluded. During the visit, the Minister for the Middle East met senior politicians and leaders in Baghdad, as well as the Kurdish Prime Minister, Nechirvan Barzani, and Chancellor Masrour Barzani. He reiterated the United Kingdom’s deep and unwavering support to all Iraq. He also met representatives from Christian and Yazidi communities, and stressed that all groups, regardless of religion or ethnicity, should be treated equally. We continue to emphasise to our partners the importance of upholding and protecting the human rights and fundamental freedoms of all minority communities in Iraq.
It is clear that Iraq, including the Kurdistan region, continues to face significant challenges. The UK remains committed to working in partnership with the Kurdistan Regional Government to ensure a successful Kurdistan inside a thriving, multicultural, multi-ethnic and multi-religious Iraq.
As colleagues have noted, since 2014 the UK Government have committed over a quarter of a billion pounds-worth of humanitarian support to Iraq, including to the Kurdistan region. That money has provided vital food, shelter, medicines and clean water to millions of people. In addition, we have committed over £110 million to Iraq since 2015 to help to stabilise the liberated areas and to enable internally displaced persons to return to repaired homes, with rebuilt water supplies and restored electricity networks.[Official Report, 12 March 2019, Vol. 656, c. 2MC.] To be sustainable, that infrastructure support needs to be underpinned by an ongoing commitment to reconciliation and security. That is why we are supporting community-level reconciliation in the liberated areas of Iraq through our conflict, stability and security fund, which we believe will play a vital role in building long-term stability.
While Daesh no longer holds territory in Iraq, it continues to pose a security threat to the Kurdistan region of Iraq, and to other parts of the country. The UK is committed to working with the Iraqi Government and Kurdistan Regional Government to counter this security threat, through our ongoing support to the Iraqi security forces and to the Kurdish peshmerga. The success of the Kurdistan region of Iraq requires much more than security capabilities. It also needs political and economic stability. We are encouraged by some early signs of a rapprochement between Baghdad and Irbil, and we will continue to support the strengthening of this critical relationship.
The formation of a Government in the Kurdistan region is crucial. The people of the Kurdistan region need a stable and functioning Government who can attract business and investment, grow the economy and provide much-needed jobs. Reform will be important too—not only to strengthen the economy, but to improve public services. The current leadership recognises that and we stand ready to support it in its efforts. We will continue to urge the political parties to conclude their negotiations as soon as possible, and set a forward-thinking programme of government focused on building prosperity and security for the people.
The UK’s commitment to the Kurdistan region of Iraq is long term, and we will continue to work with the Government of Iraq and the Kurdistan Regional Government to strengthen our partnership. Our defence and security support is helping to strengthen and reform the peshmerga; our humanitarian and stabilisation efforts are helping to rebuild communities; and our political support is helping to bring politicians closer together, so that trade and investment can grow the economy and bring the prosperity that the people of the Kurdistan region of Iraq want and deserve.
I thank all hon. Members who have contributed to this important debate and offered their support, from across the political divide.
I will not list all the Minister’s points, but I thank her for addressing important matters to do with disputed territories, religious freedom and tolerance, and giving hope on direct flights. I will take her advice and bring up matters about visas with the Home Office.
There were some kind comments from the hon. Member for Leeds North East (Fabian Hamilton). I agree with what he said when he reiterated what some of us had said about the peshmerga saving Iraq. Not only did they save Iraq; they also helped to a large degree in keeping our own streets safe and defeating some of our enemies. We owe them a huge debt of gratitude.
I was intrigued by my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell) and his past in archaeology. I would be happy to spend some of my summer with him, because there are lots of artefacts, historic battlefields and great historical places to visit in Iraqi Kurdistan, where he could have a good dig around. I would implore anyone who has not yet done so to visit the region, for all the reasons we have discussed. It is a fantastic, wonderful place, with wonderful people, where people are always made to feel welcome and, as others have said, safe and secure.
Gary Kent would normally be here—it is rare to be at event that has anything to do with Kurdistan and find he is not there—but I hope he does not mind me saying that he is on a pre-arranged family holiday in Madeira. He has still been emailing this week and I have spoken to him most days. He has been very helpful indeed and he epitomises what we are doing in the all-party parliamentary group for the Kurdistan region in Iraq in his running of the secretariat.
I thank hon. Members again and I thank you, Sir Henry, for your chairmanship.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered bilateral relations with the Kurdistan region in Iraq.