Tuesday 17 November 2020
[Sir Christopher Chope in the Chair]
Covid-19: Employment Rights
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the covid-19 outbreak and employment rights.
It is fair to say that the pandemic has stress-tested a great many things across our civic, political and private lives. Day in, day out, jobs are being cut in many sectors across our economy. The jobs market is no exception, and neither, sadly, are employment rights. For far too many people an employment contract offers zero protection and has been rendered worthless, but despite some warm words the Government have not lifted a finger to help.
My interest in fire and rehire stems from my duty as a constituency MP for Glasgow airport, from my role as a transport spokesman and from my membership of the Transport Committee. Firing and rehiring emanates from the aviation sector, and in particular from British Airways. Among our first witnesses when the Committee looked at the impact of covid-19 on transport was Willie Walsh, the then chief executive of International Airlines Group, which owns British Airways. The company had just announced huge job losses—roughly 12,000 from a workforce of 42,000 were to be cut, while the reward, if that word can be used, for those who attempted to remain was a threat that they would be fired and rehired on reduced terms and conditions. For some, the reductions in net take-home pay were simply savage, with cuts of 40%, 50% or 60% not uncommon.
The workforce were understandably traumatised. I received hundreds upon hundreds of emails from British Airways staff. I spoke to cabin crew in tears at the treatment meted out by Mr Walsh and his willing deputy, Mr Cruz, and other BA management. It seems that Mr Walsh tried to make some of these changes a decade or so previously but failed; the pandemic has seemingly given him perfect cover to try again. I could not believe that that was legal. Perhaps naively, I thought that a contract and the law governing it would offer an employee and employer equal protection. Of course, we now see that there is no equality of arms whatsoever.
Following Mr Walsh’s appearance before the Committee, which it would be fair to say was not overflowing with modesty or contrition, further examples of firing and rehiring being deployed against thousands of workers came to light. That should not have come as a surprise to the Government. We and many other Members across the House had warned that without Government action other companies would follow in BA’s footsteps. Centrica British Gas has threatened over 20,000 employees with termination if they do not sign up to new, inferior contracts. Menzies Aviation, a ground handler at many UK airports, including Glasgow, assured me personally that it would not follow the British Airways lead but then copied and pasted its tactics for its own use. Heathrow, which other Members might touch on, is doing the same to its workforce. Unsurprisingly, many have voted for industrial action.
We should be crystal clear about what is happening and has happened. It is reprehensible to treat workers like this. It is counter-productive, self-destructive and flies in the face of what we in society should be willing to accept. In the words of a former Conservative Member, it is the “unacceptable face of capitalism.” Tory Ministers, including the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, have been queueing up to slate firing and rehiring, not least the Minister himself, who said last week:
“The very threat of fire and rehire is totally unacceptable”.—[Official Report, 10 November 2020; Vol. 683, c. 718.]
He slightly blotted his copybook just two minutes later, when he seemed to boast about the UK’s flexible labour markets and how easy it is to hire and indeed to fire workers. On that latter comment, I hope that he misspoke or that that was not what he intended, but that is how it came across to many people. The Minister and I met to discuss my fire and rehire Bill, which would outlaw the practice. He said that while the Government could not support the Bill he remained open to looking at further protections for workers in this area. Perhaps the change in management at No. 10 will allow a new and more collegiate approach on this issue. I know that it is a policy that many of the Minister’s colleagues are not pleased with. When he responds, will he say that he will work with me to strengthen workers’ protections in this area – perhaps in the Government’s Employment Bill? If he wishes to confirm it now, I would be happy to take an intervention, but if he will do so in his summing-up that would be good.
No one denies the unprecedented challenges facing business across the country. Aviation in particular has seen its business model receive its biggest shock since the war. There will be a debate on the issue tomorrow, so I will not go into detail, but as an example, Glasgow airport in my constituency has seen passenger numbers drop year on year by 83%, while some regional airports in England have seen drops of more than 90%. No serious person can argue that this is not a huge hit to an industry that has secured hundreds of thousands of jobs around these isles. The way to meet those challenges is by acting responsibly and being open with staff and trade unions about what the future might hold. In recent months, I have spoken to dozens of union reps, mostly from aviation but many from other industries too, and it is crystal clear that they recognise the position their employers are in. They know that change has to be on the table if their industry is to have a sustainable future. They are not reactionaries who want business and commerce preserved in aspic. They want their members and workers to be treated with respect, dignity and as partners as management come up with plans for the months and years ahead. A temporary problem, albeit for a more prolonged period than we would like, requires temporary solutions. Other airlines have managed to make such agreements with their work force. Threatening staff with the sack is not respectful, is undignified and is certainly not partnership.
I know that many Government Members—perhaps not the Minister—do not like to do so, but we should look at Europe. Partnership working is the norm, not the exception. The idea of management and workers coming together to plan a way forward, with the former working with rather than against the latter, is not some kind of socialist utopia. It is the stuff of advanced economies right across the continent—economies that are in most cases more advanced, wealthier and fairer than ours. That is not a coincidence. There is cross-party support for banning firing and rehiring. Members from every party in the House co-sponsored my Bill and I know that many Government Members are quietly supportive of the principles of the Bill.
Moving on from firing and rehiring, I welcomed furlough when the Chancellor announced it in March and I welcome its extension until next March, although the way in which that extension was announced and the way in which repeated calls for extension were flat-out ignored until the last minute—in fact, after the last minute—were sadly typical of the way the UK Government have handled employment and the economy over the past months. The U-turn has come far too late for thousands of workers made redundant after months of delays and uncertainty. Many good businesses have gone under and millions have been excluded completely. It is clearly still a system with many flaws, not least of which is the power it gives employers over workers, especially when those workers are worried for their jobs and livelihoods.
There is no appeal. An employee is entirely at the mercy and discretion of their employer as to whether to go on furlough or not. That is a lopsided arrangement. An employer can simply say that it is not worth the paperwork, terminate a worker’s contract and leave them to the pittance provided by the benefits system rather than furlough at 80%. The employee has zero rights under law to challenge, appeal or ask a third party to intervene.
Similarly, as we have seen in my constituency, where over 70 people have received no furlough payments due to flaws in the application process, there is no appeal to HMRC for any discretion. Over 70 households, instead of having access to furlough over the past eight months, have had to resort to food banks and the kindness of neighbours to get by, all because their employer was bought over and the change was not recorded by HMRC until one day after an entirely arbitrary furlough deadline was imposed retrospectively.
Returning to the aviation and travel sector and permanent part-year contracts that contain a provision to extend hours through the winter, I have been made aware that TUI is refusing to claim furlough payments for more than 500 permanent part-year employees on the basis that they are not extending the contracts this year due to lack of demand. However, the scheme has provision to claim for such employees, based on the amount earned in the same month last year or an average of monthly earnings for the tax year 2019-20. I hope that the Minister will join me in asking TUI and anyone else planning something similar to think again and to do the right thing. No one is asking for the furlough scheme to be a free for all, but it cannot be beyond the wit and imagination of the Treasury to come up with a system that gives some rights and power to the employee, rather than putting every single furlough egg in the employer’s basket and leaving workers with no recourse except to beg their bosses for some relief.
I welcome the Government’s introduction of bereavement leave for the parents of a deceased child. It is a decent and humane policy, and it deserves recognition. Now it is time to look at bereavement leave across the board and to give workers a right to paid time off at a time of grief and personal loss. That seems particularly pertinent when many have unfortunately lost a loved one to covid-19. It is a policy that would undoubtedly cost in the short term but could very well save money. Sue Ryder states that losing someone can have serious consequences not only for mental and physical health; it also costs the UK economy an estimated £23 billion a year due to presenteeism, absenteeism and reduced employment.
We have a situation whereby the UK’s sick pay system is, by a long way, the worst in western Europe. It is a system that has been shameful for years but is now being exposed as completely out of step with every single one of our neighbours and allies in Europe. Two years ago, the Council of Europe’s European Committee of Social Rights called the UK’s SSP system “manifestly inadequate”. In a sane world, that should have set off some kind of alarm in Whitehall, but here we are in the middle of a pandemic, asking people to self-isolate for the greater good yet providing a system of support that is manifestly inadequate.
Our nearest neighbours recognised the scale of the challenge right at the beginning of the pandemic. Ireland’s enhanced illness payment provides €350 a week to anyone who tests positive or has to self-isolate. Up to 10 weeks of payments can be made to people who have tested positive. It has ensured high compliance with self-isolation and helped provide some financial security for households who would receive a pittance if they lived in the UK.
There is no practical reason why the UK is so far behind our nearest neighbours; it is simply a matter of political choice and ideology. I know the Chancellor and his social media team are busy building the Rishi brand, and he would like to paint a picture of himself as the saviour of the economy, right down to delivering discounted katsu curries to diners’ tables. However, his signature strings are missing from a pledge to keep sick pay the lowest in Europe. His lack of photo ops to promote the UK’s position near the bottom of the league table perhaps says a lot about how well such boasts would go down with voters.
The Citizens Advice Bureau tells me that the current employment rights enforcement system is not up to task for dealing with the challenges exposed by the pandemic. Employees who have been unfairly treated have very few options for redress. For many people affected by the redundancy crisis, employment tribunals are the only place they can turn to in order to protect their rights and seek a fair outcome. There are currently six bodies that enforce employment rights in various ways: Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority, the Employment Agency Standards Inspectorate, the Health and Safety Executive, local authorities and the Equality and Human Rights Commission. The situation is messy and piecemeal. Along with Citizens Advice Scotland and others, I welcome the proposal to set up a single enforcement body for employment rights. Can the Minister tell us when it will finally be introduced? Will it be included in the Employment Bill, and can he give us a timescale for that Bill?
My final point is brief and to the point. Surely the most basic of employment rights ought to be receiving a fair day’s wages for a fair day’s work. The UK Government’s national minimum wage, or the so-called living wage, is not a real living wage; it does not meet the minimum income needed for an acceptable living standard. The different rates of the living wage for young people are wholly unjust and discriminatory, and they do not take account of young people’s needs, responsibilities and living costs. The Chancellor could and should do what is right by increasing the statutory minimum wage and ending the age discrimination within it.
Rebuilding the economy after covid will become the biggest challenge that our society faces once the virus is under control. Workers must be part of that rebuilding and not treated as serfs. They and their families should not be threatened with financial disaster if they do not accept attacks on their pay and conditions. Enhanced employment rights are not just the right thing to do morally; they are the right thing to do economically. They ensure that workers have greater security, and therefore encourage spending within the economy, providing vital income and custom for our retail and service sectors.
The impact of covid has highlighted the fragility of many people’s working conditions—the fact that their family’s future hangs by a thread, which can be cut at a moment’s notice whenever management decides. That has to stop, and a much more equitable balance between employer and employee must be found as soon as possible, for the good of everyone on these islands.
It is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. I thank the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands) for securing this debate. I should first declare an interest. Many Members will know by now that I am a lifelong trade unionist and former regional secretary of Unite the Union. My experience in the labour movement spurred me to stand for Parliament, so I warmly welcome the opportunity to contribute to this important debate.
The British public have been asked to make enormous sacrifices to win the war on covid-19. Livelihoods have been lost, businesses forced to close and families separated. At the same time, people have come together in a newly-found spirit of solidarity and community-mindedness. Across my constituency of Birkenhead, people have given up valuable time to produce and distribute personal protective equipment, deliver food parcels and look after the most vulnerable and isolated. They understand that we are all in this together but, for some, that message has fallen on deaf ears. Instead of playing their part, several large companies have cynically exploited the public health crisis to slash pay and attack working conditions. Despite receiving millions in taxpayers’ money, companies such as British Airways and Sainsbury’s continue to lay off vast swathes of their workforce. Such attacks have shone a spotlight on the many limitations placed on trade unions to hamper their ability to act in support of their members.
Employment rights in the UK are among the worst in western Europe. Our employment laws are the most draconian of any western democracy with the exception of the United States. Over the past 40 years, successive Conservative Governments have introduced restrictions on the right to strike, to picket, to belong to a trade union, to access industrial tribunals, and more besides. Each piece of legislation has eroded the ability of the unions to act effectively. As the Trades Union Congress has highlighted, the Trade Union Act 2016 represented the most serious attack on the rights of trade unions and their members in a generation, yet the crisis has shown how vital it is to have a strong labour movement. With unemployment spiralling out of control and covid-19 hitting frontline workers hardest, trade unions have leapt to the defence of their members.
Shop stewards have fought hard to keep their members safe in the workplace. Members have gone on strike to defend highly skilled, dignified work at sites such as Rolls-Royce, Barnoldswick. The trade union movement played a pivotal role in the introduction of the furlough scheme in March, as well as securing its extension last month, but too many employers regard the unions, to quote a former Prime Minister, as the “enemy within”. The scandalous practice of fire and rehire is a glaring example of why we need to overhaul the employment laws system. The Government must now acknowledge the central role that the trade unions have to play in forging Britain’s economic recovery. The Government have already withdrawn their knee-jerk reaction to banning socially distant picketing during strikes, but only as a result of a legal challenge by Unite the Union. Now they must follow that up. The Trade Union Act 2016 must go for a start, and a new charter must ensure that when bad employers use bad practices and mistreat their staff, the unions have the means and legal right to fight back.
Thank you for calling me to speak in this debate, Sir Christopher. I also thank the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands), my colleague on the Transport Committee, for securing this important debate. It would be remiss of me not to remark on the fact that this is a well-attended debate with representatives from all political parties, apart from the Government party and the Minister, who has to be here. I do not know whether that is a reflection of the importance that the governing party attach to employment rights, but it is a sad indictment.
I declare an interest. I have been a member of a trade union and the Labour party all my adult life, and I have the honour of chairing the Unite parliamentary group. I want to highlight cases of dreadful practices, but I also want to pay tribute to the thousands of employers who have gone out of their way to protect and reassure their employees at a time when they themselves often face unparalleled pressures, stress and uncertainty. However, it is regrettable that some rogue employers have sought to use the covid-19 crisis as an opportunity to force workers to sign up to wage cuts in inferior conditions under the threat of dismissal. While the practice of fire and rehire is not currently unlawful in and as itself, the way in which it seeks to capitalise on people’s vulnerability, particularly at this time during the pandemic, is, in my opinion and in the opinion of most reasonable people, morally despicable and indefensible and cannot go unchallenged. It is noteworthy that these actions are outlawed in most other European countries. My belief, shared by many others, is that that should be the case here, too. I will return at the end of my speech to the Minister’s remarks in our previous debate, as referred to by the sponsor of the motion, the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North.
I pay tribute to the excellent work of my union Unite in successfully arguing and mitigating many cases of employers attempting to utilise this terrible practice of fire and rehire. However, it has not always been possible to reach agreement, as was the case with the British Airways cargo workers based at Heathrow airport, where more than 850 Unite members have balloted and are set to strike in December over pay cuts of between 20% and 25% and threats to outsource the workforce.
At the same time, Unite the union has announced December strike action at Heathrow airport in protest at the loss of employment rights and wage cuts for not just baggage handlers but firefighters, engineers, campus security, baggage operations and operational and air-side workers. Unless the employer acts in a reasonable fashion, it will effectively close our major airport over the Christmas period.
Fire and rehire is not restricted to the aviation sector, although there are some terrible abuses in that sector. ESS, part of the multimillion-pound Compass group, has been branded Britain’s most heartless employer by Unite, due to the manner in which it is treating staff working on Ministry of Defence bases. They are being forced to sign contracts making them hundreds of pounds a month worse off, with the threat of immediately losing their jobs.
Workers in our criminal justice system are being deprived of one of the most basic employment rights—the right to a safe workplace. Court staff are made to attend workplaces that the Public and Commercial Services Union insists are not covid-secure. The alarming number of outbreaks in the courts suggests that the union is correct. Perhaps this is a direct consequence of there being no assessment process agreed with the trade unions, or of the court service’s refusal to publish individual site assessments and only making them available on request.
I am told that in prisons, some governors have tweaked their exceptional delivery models to permit classroom-based education, despite national guidance that says this must not happen while covid threat levels remain high. The University and College Union is seeking urgent clarification about this, as are its members, who are being made to continue with face-to-face teaching and attendance in person in our prisons, despite the new restrictions. Whether in courts or in prisons, a business as usual attitude from managers is putting loyal staff at unnecessary risk, which is quite simply unacceptable.
In conclusion, a business, a government and, indeed, every organisation—even society itself—will be judged on how we get through this extremely difficult period. Only last week, the Minister said in the Chamber:
“The very threat of fire and rehire is totally unacceptable”.—[Official Report, 10 November 2020; Vol. 683, c. 718.]
Will he commit today to outlawing this totally unacceptable practice once and for all?
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. I congratulate the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands) on securing this important debate.
We live in extraordinary times under coronavirus. It has had a huge impact on all of us, and on our businesses and communities. Although we are talking about employment rights, I recognise that it has had a huge impact on businesses, and I have been working with them, doing what I can to support them through this time. However, some have been less than scrupulous.
Too many working people have seen the very real impact that the pandemic and the measures taken to combat the spread of the virus have had on their work, in many different ways. Like so many other hon. Members, my caseload has increased hugely as workers and their family members contact me to seek advice and guidance on the Government’s measures, their employment situation and the effect on their family income.
The furlough scheme has helped, and I was glad to see the most recent announcements. However, for those on the lowest wages, the national minimum wage—who will get 80% of what we already consider to be the barest minimum that they should be paid and can live on—losing 20% of their income is no mean challenge. There is no reduction in their bills, housing costs and other expenses, so this is a real problem for them. Sometimes we underestimate the way in which so many people are living on the edge. They need all the money that they have to survive and do not have easy access to credit or to help from other sources.
I also want to mention those who do not even qualify for furlough or other payments—those who have fallen through the many cracks in the system, some of which we have already heard about. They may have changed jobs recently, may not have made it on to the HMRC records in time, or they may be self-employed. Speaking to these people in my constituency, I know of the devastation that they have felt—the excluded and the forgotten—as their income disappears and they discover the harsh reality of the universal credit system, although many do not even qualify for that.
Looking specifically at the issue of employment rights and the impact that the pandemic has had on working people, I will highlight some specific issues that I have come across in my constituency, as hon. Members will have in their own.
First, I want to talk about the fire and rehire situation, which many Members have already mentioned, and about joining Unite members at Newcastle business park to protest against British Airways’ plans to reduce staff and to dramatically reduce terms and conditions of employment. Those people felt the fear of redundancy, the fear of less well paid jobs—the fear for their future.
This is not a new issue. As a trade union officer in a previous life, I have certainly come across this before, but we have seen it done in a way which cynically uses Government support and then treats staff so very badly. I support those many BA staff who work in the call centre in Newcastle, just across the river from my constituency, and at Newcastle airport and as cabin crew. I was amazed at how many BA employees contacted me. They appreciate the support, and their employer’s approach makes them feel very hard done by.
BA is not the only employer that has treated its staff badly in this way. There is also the present issue with Centrica, or British Gas, where, hopefully, negotiations are now taking place. There must be better way than saying to staff, “If you don’t like it, leave—take it or leave it”. It is a crude form of industrial strategy—I was going to say industrial relations, but I do not think “relations” is a good word for that—and we need to ensure that we end its use, as it has a devastating impact on people facing that situation.
On redundancies, in my constituency there is heavy reliance on the retail sector, which has been massively hit. Early in the pandemic I met workers employed by Debenhams at the Metrocentre, who had lost their jobs. More than 200 people had lost their jobs, and I believe that Debenhams was in administration so there was not the normal consultation. The shop was shut, and that was it. Many of the people who lost their jobs were women. Other redundancies have gone on in the background as well. Sometimes I hear about them and sometimes I do not, but there has been a real impact.
I want to talk a bit about pregnant workers. A number of women have contacted me because they are concerned about their position—their safety and welfare, and that of their unborn child. The Government have issued guidance, which has been supplemented by the TUC and the trade unions—which is welcome—to safeguard individuals. Not surprisingly, my constituents do not want to be named in the debate. They want to keep a low profile, but they want to see that they are protected. Guidance says that at 28 weeks teachers, for example, should be found alternative work rather than being in the classroom, or otherwise should be home on full pay. It sounds great, but on the ground, for that person in a school where there are other pressures, it is much more difficult to see that that is enforced.
Then there are problems with parents whose children are isolated because they have been sent home from school. That means that in many cases one parent must take the decision to take unpaid leave, if they are unlucky. Many of those people are on minimum wage. I am thinking of a constituent who is on minimum wage and cannot really afford that drop in income, but is not entitled to any isolation payments or anything of that kind. Someone in that position must stop work. Some may be entitled to statutory sick pay, but the existing measures just do not cut it for those people. They do not have enough support for their income. It is a real problem, and there is also the concern, “What happens if my child has to be off again in a few weeks?” There are difficult issues for people, and we need to make sure we can help them through what may be repeated bouts of isolation, to meet their bills and, indeed, hold down their jobs.
Last weekend I made the mistake of looking at my emails on a Saturday, as I suppose many people do. I had a flurry of emails on exactly those employment rights issues. Some were about furlough and how the constituent would be affected, where employers might have a Government grant. One was from some care workers who had come into contact with covid-19 and had to isolate. They are minimum-wage workers. They are not entitled to the isolation payments—they have checked that out—and they fear that it may happen again. We need to find a way for those people to be looked after, not just for their sakes but for all our sakes, because it will help to stop the spread of covid-19 if people can safely take time off without feeling that they will go under.
I want to talk about health and safety. Many workers are in difficult situations at work, because of things they are asked to do. [Interruption.] Yes, I shall be winding up now. I will mention specifically the retail sector campaign by the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers, Respect for Shopworkers Week. Shop workers have had to carry on working and have borne the brunt. In responses to USDAW’s survey, 70% said abuse was worse than normal, 85% had faced verbal abuse, and 57% had been threatened by customers, with 9% even being assaulted. That is an impossible situation for people who are trying to keep things going for the rest of us. I hope that the Government will take steps to address all those issues.
Thank you, Sir Christopher, for that warning. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I congratulate the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands) on securing this important debate.
The unprecedented economic impact of the coronavirus has laid bare the weaknesses of UK labour protections. During the crisis, workers’ rights and public health must be prioritised above all else. Yet the Government have allowed corporate giants, including those in receipt of taxpayer bailout funds, to use the pandemic as a cover for further exploiting their workforce.
Nowhere has this been more apparent than in Leicester. The severe exploitation in sections of our garment industry in Leicester have been laid bare and highlighted by a huge increase in casework received by me, a resurgence of reports, and the coronavirus. Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs reported that, over a six-year period, one quarter of all UK textile factories caught failing to pay the minimum wage were based in Leicester. With some textile factories offering less than £3.50 an hour, workers are forced to endure horrific and unsafe conditions. That is particularly shocking, but Leicester’s garment industry is indicative of the abrupt decline in workers’ rights and living standards since the neoliberal deindustrialisation revolution of the 1980s. The result has been the biggest squeeze on wages since the early 1800s, with pay for the average worker still lower in real terms than a decade ago. In the fifth richest economy in the world, 14 million people are living in poverty, 9 million of whom live in households with at least one person in work. Our workers need a radically fairer offer, which means raising the minimum wage to at least £10 an hour, and investing in our communities and infrastructure to aid the necessary transition to a green economy.
Trade unions are the best line of defence against workplace exploitation. I pay tribute to all trade unions, including my own, Unite, and others, including PCS, GMB and Unison, to name but a few. Yet the collective ability of workers to organise has been systematically eroded by decades of anti-trade union legislation. The latest Global Rights Index from the International Trade Union Confederation placed the UK among the worst violators of trade union rights in Europe. Forty years ago, eight in 10 workers enjoyed terms and conditions negotiated by a trade union. Today, fewer than one in four workers have that benefit. The Trade Union Act 2016 must be repealed. Trade union autonomy and sectorial collective bargaining must be restored, and the right to take industrial action, in accordance with international law, must be re-established.
One of the most nefarious downward trends in labour protections has been employers’ exploitation of the legal status of workers. We must, therefore, crack down on toxic casualisation. Research by the Trade Union Congress found that 3.7 million people—one in nine UK workers—are in insecure work, including those on zero-hours or short-term contracts, agency workers and temporary casuals, as well as those in low-paid, often bogus, self-employment. Every job should be a good job, one that provides security, dignity and a fair wage. Zero-hours contracts must be eradicated, and hours should be regulated so that each worker gets guaranteed pay for a working week. Rights are meaningless if they are not properly enforced.
The Government must urgently reverse the funding cuts to regulatory bodies, including the Health and Safety Executive and Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, to ensure that workers are safe and fairly paid. The Government and sections of big business argue that the mistreatment of workers is inevitable and that rights, fair play and dignity in the workplace are unacceptable costs to the bottom line, yet this free-market race to the bottom has normalised poverty, hopelessness and exploitation in our communities.
I will end by saying that the coronavirus has demonstrated the need for us to build a society built around the principles of solidarity, and in which all of us, regardless of our job, can live in dignity.
Thank you, Sir Christopher. As Liberal Democrat spokesperson for equalities, I want to limit my remarks to disability employment and covid.
This debate is very timely. Last week marked the 25th anniversary of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995. That landmark piece of legislation established for the first time the civil rights of disabled people in the UK, including in employment. We have made some progress since then. The disability employment gap has decreased steadily over the years, falling from 33% in 2013 to 28% in 2020 but that, of course, is not good enough, and the pandemic puts us at risk of going backwards on that trend.
New research shows that disabled people are now facing profound harms to their financial security and job prospects: 71% of disabled people who were working in March have been furloughed or had their work hours reduced. There are clear signs that this pandemic has had had a disproportionate impact on the lives of disabled people. Many of them are clinically more vulnerable to the virus itself. Recent research from the charity Leonard Cheshire suggests that covid-19 has also exacerbated employers’ negative attitude towards disabled people. That is a worrying trend. Just 33% of employers recorded that they employed a disabled person on their staff in 2020, compared with 49% in 2018; 42% of employers reported that they were discouraged from hiring disabled people because they were concerned about needing to support them, especially during the pandemic. One fifth of employers admitted that they were less likely to employ someone with a disability.
Without Government action, there is a real risk that the pandemic will throw away the UK’s progress towards equality in the workplace. A national strategy for disabled people is needed, and I hope that that will be a top priority. It is vital that such a strategy provides a clear plan for addressing the inequalities that have widened as a result of the pandemic, not least in employment.
There are opportunities for the Government to promote inclusive workplace practices. Mandatory reporting on the gender pay gap has been a game changer. It brought much-needed transparency to the inequalities faced by women in the workplace. The same principle can apply to improving equality for those with disabilities. I know that HMRC is already doing that voluntarily.
I ask the Government to consider introducing mandatory reporting for large companies on the number of disabled people they employ, as well as their disability pay gap. Covid-19 has demonstrated that flexible working and working from home are doable. Many offices are already thinking about whether to ask employees to return to the office full-time after the pandemic is over. That is a positive step and it could set a precedent that makes work culture more inclusive for those with disabilities. Flexible working is the future for many offices and workplaces. Embracing it as the culture would create real opportunities for those with a disability and would make our country the inclusive nation we want it to be.
I put on record my interest as a member of Unite and GMB. Work is so gendered, which was brought into the spotlight in May when PwC highlighted that 78% of those who had already lost their jobs due to covid were women. Today, I want to focus my remarks on the impact of covid on women at work.
We know that inequality grows, particularly for working-class women. Think about the fact that only 9% of working-class women are able to work at home, compared with 44% of professional women. We know that women are also exposed to extraordinary risks in the light of their duties and their work. More women, particularly working-class women, have had their hours reduced. In June, that reached 52% of all women. Research showed that working-class women had double the reduction in hours of professional women.
Although the virus is gendered in so many ways, it is in particular weighted against women in the workplace. We know that improvements in employment rights would improve opportunity, in particular around absence payments. Statutory sick pay is a massive issue; the fact that we do not have proper statutory sick pay has a huge impact. We also know that women carry the vast majority of caring responsibilities for children and parents, and therefore need additional support. I am, therefore, supporting campaign group Pregnant Then Screwed’s call for a parent isolation grant. We know that working parents are having to take time off for childcare and, as a result, in many cases they do not get any income at all, taking unpaid leave. A grant would be a real game changer in ensuring that women are not further discriminated against and further disadvantaged in the workplace. It would work simply for the periods that parents are having to look after an isolating child, with them being remunerated for that.
I want to highlight the plight of pregnant women. Again, we know that their rights have been curtailed, particularly in the light of increased risk for women in the third trimester of their pregnancy. Yesterday in the Chamber, we heard the difficulties of that. I ask that the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 be fully extended and provision be put in place to ensure that women in their third trimester can get full payment at home and that that should not trigger their parental leave. Finally, I want to put on record the Pregnancy and Maternity (Redundancy Protection) Bill introduced by the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller); it is vital to support women in the workplace during this time, in the light of the redundancies they have experienced.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher, and also to follow the hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell). I thank the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands) for securing this important debate. One of the commonest ideas expressed in this crisis is that the world, the economy and our day-to-day lives are going to be different when it is over. One of the things, it seems to me, that many of us here are increasingly concerned about is the impact it will have on employment rights, which people fought for bitterly for the best part of a century. Those rights were hard won and then fiercely defended, but now they are in danger of slipping from what seemed a firm grasp but is becoming looser.
No one can deny the unexpected shock felt by our economy and the impact that covid-19 has had on many sectors, specifically, as the hon. Member said, on the airlines and the air sector in general. As the Member for Edinburgh West, I have also experienced at first hand the trauma of the many employees of Edinburgh airport, connected businesses such as Menzies Aviation and specifically British Airways. Many of BA’s employees, who are constituents, have phoned me just looking for some explanation, help and support for the trauma that they are going through as a result of what some euphemistically call “adjusted contracts” and what elsewhere has been branded, quite justifiably, “fire and rehire”.
However, it is not just British Airways that has used this crisis and used redundancy to make a mockery of the terms and conditions of staff. I have had constituents who were working from home and were then forced to take annual leave because their employers’ IT was not working. I have had people whose jobs disappeared because the company was bought and there was no mention of being TUPE-ed. There is also one section of society that we are forgetting and that is the massive gig economy and the self-employed, who have been completely excluded for 10 months from any support. That is why, as the Liberal Democrat economy spokesperson, I want to see furlough extended not to March but to June next year, until we have, by all predictions, a vaccine and we may be able to resume some sort of normalcy and people’s jobs will be protected.
As we come out of this crisis, unemployment and the fall in vacancies could be disastrous for this country. We will need to keep a needle-sharp focus, not just on our economy but on employment and rights. We must we keep at the forefront of our minds and under the scrutiny of the Government the protection of employment rights. They are not bureaucracy, they are not red tape; they are protection for all of us and our ability to keep a roof over our heads and feed our families.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Sir Christopher. A lot of people are self-isolating at the moment; that number could be higher if test and trace worked properly, but we still have hundreds of thousands of people who cannot attend work for two weeks, as the law requires them to isolate. However, they are doing so without any protection from detrimental treatment by their employer, which could be refusal to pay sick pay to which they are entitled, or even dismissal.
I have also heard concerns from constituents that a period of self-isolation could be used to trigger a sickness absence review, or be used as part of a process that is already under way. It is quite possible that if other members of the same household get symptoms or test positive, people might have to self-isolate on multiple occasions. I am sure we can all understand the genuine anxieties people might feel if they have to tell their employer that they are having to self-isolate for a second or third time, so why are there no workplace protections to support them in doing the right thing? The Government could state very clearly, either through guidance or regulation, that a period of self-isolation should be classed as other leave that cannot be called unauthorised leave, sickness absence or annual leave, and cannot be used as part of any disciplinary or capability process. I think that is a very simple ask of the Government.
Fire and rehire is not a new development—it has been around for as long as people have had jobs—but just because it has happened for a long time does not make it acceptable. In fact, it shows that our employment protections are as antiquated as they are inadequate. The current crisis has shone a light on the absolute imbalance of power in the employment relationship, and the way in which so many people feel exposed to the whims of their employer. That powerlessness does not just manifest itself in people losing their jobs: look at everyone on zero-hours contracts, in the gig economy or in agency work. They are literally at the company’s beck and call, so insecurity is baked into the workplace. It is little wonder so many people have a sense of helplessness, but it does not have to be this way. Job security does not have to be an impossible dream, and the first step to understanding that is looking at why rights are so weak, and often illusionary.
That illusion manifests itself in full technicolour with fire and rehire, the very existence of which causes people great concern and bewilderment that they are in this situation. Yes, they are directly employed; yes, they have been there possibly for decades; yes, their terms and conditions have remained constant throughout, and may even have been collectively negotiated by their trade union. Their job has not changed, they have performed well, and the company still makes a profit, so why are they suddenly being asked to come in and do the same job for 20% less? The answer lies in the combination of weak employment laws, opportunistic employers, and an indifferent Government. Together, those factors allow for hard-won benefits to be stripped away through a consultation period that amounts to a box-ticking exercise, followed by the inevitable slide into weakened terms and conditions, which will often make it easier for the employer to do the same thing all over again in a year or two. It is a race to the bottom that has been accelerated by coronavirus, and it is about time that race was stopped.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher, and I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands) for having secured this debate. Let us leap straight in on the point that was just raised by the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders): the issue of asking people to self-isolate, after being traced through track and trace, is vexed when it comes up against people’s right to an income.
As in other parts of the country, Cumbria’s NHS and public health services have been incredibly successful at tracking and tracing people. Their success rate has been 98%, compared with the Government’s failed equivalent programme, which has a success rate of something like 65%. However, if a person is contacted by the NHS in Cumbria, because of the Government’s failed system, they are not able to access the grant. That is an outrage, and for the past month, Cumbria’s Director of Public Health has been raising this as an issue; so far, the Government have failed to answer it. A right to an income is surely something that should be at the top of all of our agendas for our constituents.
I also want to refer to parental leave, particularly maternity leave. When the Government were coming up with the self-employed income support scheme back in March, they put together a scheme that looked at a self-employed person’s income over the past three years. If that person had taken parental leave—most likely maternity leave—during those three years, they ended up with a reduced income. That is a real blow to people, particularly women who have taken maternity leave in that time, and it shows the Government’s lack of concern for those people who have taken time out to raise a family. On top of that, as the hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) said, many people do not feel able to, or cannot, return to work after their maternity leave, simply because childcare is not available. Many of them are not able to be furloughed; many have lost their jobs, and they form part of the 3 million people in this country who have been excluded from any kind of Government support.
Many employers in the Lake district and the Yorkshire Dales have done a tremendous job trying to support their staff, and have kept them going for as long as they could. Despite the fact that 40% of the entire workforce was on furlough at one point and we have seen a sixfold increase in unemployment in the south lakes, they nevertheless kept their employees going for as long as they felt they could, but after that short summer season at the end of August, they let their staff go.
The Government have now announced an extension of furlough after months of most Members in this room urging them to make a commitment much sooner, but they left it so late that many employers in my constituency and elsewhere let their staff go in early September. Guess what? The Government will not backdate furlough to anybody who was let go before 23 September. There will be hundreds of thousands of people in this country whose employers did their best to keep hold of them, but realised they had the choice of losing their business and losing all their other staff or losing some of their staff. They made that difficult choice. Because the Government dilly-dallied for so long over extending furlough, there are thousands in that position. The Government should bring forward the date to which furlough can be backdated to the beginning of September.
I thank the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands). We did look forward to this debate taking place earlier on. Unfortunately, it was postponed but with the chance to return to it today.
The figures of redundancy are extraordinary and frightening for my constituency. In Strangford, despite the furlough scheme and support scheme, which cannot be sustained in the long term, there were almost 2,700 actual claimants for unemployment—1,315 higher than March this year. That is double and it does not even account for those who were furloughed as well. For those aged 18-24, there were 650 claimants compared to 335 back in March, so it is younger people in particular as well.
We are facing what may well be the greatest recession in living memory. It must be remembered that the backbone of our economy is found in the SMEs, and it is for my constituency in particular. These are dire times. People in work are so happy to be in work that there is a danger of exploitation, and we must look at and regulate how staff are treated.
I want to quickly outline the issue for airline staff, who are having terms and conditions altered and have no choice but to accept that. How could they kick up when they knew the alternative was straight-out redundancy? While we received assurances that this was not the case, I was not surprised to be asked to sign a letter to the Minister from those opposed to these grave tactics—that is what they are— and I was pleased to be a signatory to that and also to participate in this debate.
I get a British Airways or Aer Lingus flight twice a week. The staff are courteous, kind and hardworking in the face of adversity. It angers me that they are being taken advantage of when their back is against the wall— when it is unlikely that they can refuse and walk away with dignity into another job. As I outlined at the start of my speech, every sector is in difficulty.
One of my constituents sent me a letter, which said:
“It is shameful that over the past few months major employers have used mechanisms for sacking tens of thousands of workers so that they can reduce terms and conditions”,
This letter refers to
“GMB members at British Gas/Centrica and British Airways”
as well. It goes on:
“The result is a negotiation that can never be conducted in a fair and balanced way. I think we need a change in the law to stop this from happening.”
I, along with every other right-thinking decent person, am asking for urgent intervention and not only for my numerous constituents who have contacted me, but also in the name of honour and decency. We cannot allow unscrupulous shady dealings to go unanswered and we must step up to do our part for the airlines, as we do for other staff as well. We all have moral obligations, for example when companies deliberately hire people for shorter hours and do not give holiday and sick pay in proportion. It is up to us in this place to provide the legislative framework to protect the workers. These are tough times and we must support our businesses that seek to retain staff, but we cannot turn a blind eye to those who are deliberately drawing up new contracts or job descriptions. We can only come through this if we do the right thing on behalf of our workers and those people who need us to protect them, or at least to legislate to provide that protection. We can only come through this if we do the honourable thing.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. I join others in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands) on initiating this important debate. I certainly note that, as the hon. Member for Easington (Grahame Morris) said, the number of Members taking part shows the real importance of this issue. I also welcome my hon. Friend’s Bill—the Employment (Dismissal and Re-employment) Bill—and commend that to Members, as well as the work that he is doing to end the practice of firing and rehiring.
The days of people worrying for their lives when they go to work should be long gone. Gone, too, should be the days when staff have to put up with salaries that do not pay the bills and with exploitative contracts that take advantage of job insecurities. Employers have a duty to look after their staff, and it is even more important in these difficult times that workers are properly rewarded with a real living wage and working conditions that allow them a comfortable life. It was a tough slog to get the employment rights that we enjoy in the UK, and we cannot let them be one of the casualties of this crisis.
One easy step that the Government could take would be to support the private Member’s Bill of my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North to stop firing and rehiring on less favourable terms. They could also ensure that employees understand their existing rights and the working mechanisms to ensure that employers meet their obligations.
It has been clear historically that many Conservative Members are not fans of workers’ rights, as many ex-mining communities such as those in my constituency will testify. More recently, with the Trade Union Act 2016, Conservatives did all they could to undermine trade unions and workers’ collective bargaining rights. Perhaps they prefer working practices to be a little like the way No.10 appears to operate: a wild west where following the rules and showing respect for others goes out the window.
The hon. Member for York Central (Rachel Maskell) referred to the rights of women and working mothers, on which I should like to focus in my comments. There are fears that, without action, this pandemic could set women’s employment back a generation. Unlike previous recessions, many of the sectors most devastated—retail and hospitality—are major employers of women. We know that women are more likely to be in insecure contracts, to have greater caring responsibilities and to be in a precarious position over coming months as jobs are on the line.
A joint report from Maternity Action, “Covid19: new and expectant mothers in the front line”, cites a TUC survey from June, when one in four pregnant women and new mothers surveyed had experienced unfair treatment or discrimination at work, including being singled out for redundancy or furlough. In the same month, a survey by the Office for National Statistics found that parents, at 13.6%, were almost twice as likely to report that they had been furloughed as workers without children, at 7.2%. I am grateful for the fact that the furlough has eventually been extended, but fears remain that many hundreds of thousands of furloughed jobs will be lost, with a new wave of discrimination when the scheme winds down.
Another private Member’s Bill that the Government could throw their weight behind was introduced by the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) on pregnancy and maternity protections. I certainly urge them to do so. This would be similar to the legal framework in Germany, strengthening redundancy provisions for pregnant women and new mothers and ensuring that jobs are less likely to be put unfairly at risk during maternity leave. It could be done swiftly and would benefit thousands.
Why would the Government not embrace such a cost-effective solution? In theory, extending maternity and paternity leave regulations and ensuring that a suitable alternative vacancy is offered when one is available are not without cost, but doing so has so many benefits. Women’s rights and protections when pregnant are in existing health and safety guidance, but it is worth placing that on the record because there seems to be some confusion about it in the comments of some hon. Members.
Pregnancy is not an illness: it is important that we are absolutely clear about that. The guidance, however, is often little known or understood. If pregnant employees cannot work from home, employers should undertake a risk assessment to determine what steps must be taken to make the workplace safe for them. If an employer is unable to provide a workplace that meets those requirements, a pregnant woman must be suspended on full pay.
When the UK Government gravely warned pregnant women about the dangers of the covid-19 virus, they could and should have clarified those rules. Instead, many women report being forced to take annual leave or unpaid leave or to use maternity leave early when the pandemic meant they could not safely perform their roles. Surveys have found that around half of pregnant women have had a risk assessment carried out, and equally few feel confident that their employer will, in accordance with the legislation, accommodate the outcome of the risk assessment. Surely, looking after pregnant women should be a priority of any Government or any civilised society.
The UK Government’s response to pregnant women and mothers who have been unfairly treated has been to advise them to take matters to an employment tribunal. I am delighted by this Damascene conversion to the value of employment tribunals, given that the trade unions had to drag the Government through the courts to get rid of the fees that prevented access to tribunals for those who could not afford it. Tribunals are a vital tool, but early prevention in disputes is a far better cure. So why not get the guidance right in the first place? Why not make these issues legally enforceable and put deterrents in place for bad employers? Why put all the extra stress and pressure on the employees to fight their corner and put extra pressure on a tribunal system already feeling the strain?
So far, from written questions that I have asked on these matters, very few answers have come my way and they do not offer much comfort to tax-paying workers struggling to get by while facing discriminatory practices under the cover of the current pandemic. I urge the Government to improve the commitment to employment rights, tighten up laws where necessary—we have heard a few examples today—and make sure that they really do wrap their arms around everyone by protecting them from unfair employment practices.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Sir Christopher. I congratulate the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands) and the Backbench Business Committee on securing this important debate. I declare my interest as a proud member of Unite the union.
In March the Prime Minister told people across the country that the Government would put their arms around every single worker, but what has taken place in the past eight months has been nowhere close to what he promised. Instead we have had the silent erosion of employment rights and protections without a whisper from the Government. There is no doubt that this crisis has been brutal for working people, who have been laid off and made redundant in their droves and who have seen huge falls in the wages that they take home at the end of the day. It has been a brutal awakening that the rights and protections that they are supposed to enjoy, rather than acting as bulwarks against abuse by their employers, are in reality worth little more than the paper they are written on.
One of the most fundamental workers’ rights is the right to a safe workplace, as set out in numerous pieces of legislation, and the importance of that right could not be more pronounced during this pandemic, where otherwise benign workplaces such as retail have been turned into high-risk places, with high rates of contact with members of the public putting staff at risk from coronavirus. Despite that, huge numbers of workers were told to return to work over the summer, their employers spurred on by the dwindling support and increasing limitations of the furlough scheme, without proper precautions to ensure that a safe workplace was being put in place—effectively rolling back the right to a safe workplace.
The ability to demand this return to work, and the failure to put proper protections in place, putting staff in great danger—as we have seen in the health and social care sector—are a direct result of gutting local authority resources and in particular the Health and Safety Executive, which has been left powerless to enforce the rules that it was formed to uphold, with almost £150 million in real-terms cuts between 2010 and 2018 and about 500 inspectors let go. As we have seen at British Airways and Centrica, or British Gas, unscrupulous employers have been using this crisis—as my hon. Friend the Member for Easington (Grahame Morris) said—as cover to unilaterally push through dramatic changes to employment contracts and to water down staff pay, terms and conditions. These unfair, unethical and underhand fire and rehire tactics, used by some of the largest and most profitable businesses, are essentially a legal loophole for blackmail that leaves workers worse off, as employers know full well that, in an increasingly uncertain employment market and under the threat of redundancy, workers cannot say no.
Such tactics also allow bad employers, who are happy to chop away at rights and pay or to let staff take the fall for poor business decisions and mistakes while sitting on vast financial reserves and still paying bonuses and dividends to flourish, while good employers, who care about and invest in their staff, are punished as a consequence. These are the last things that people in our economy need in the middle of a recession. The Government should be helping businesses to boost wages, improve productivity and invest in their work force, not to shed staff and cut wages and employment rights. While they are at it, they could end the scourge of zero-hours contracts and insecure work.
Just look at Optare in North Yorkshire, where a last-minute concession was drawn from the Government to ensure that workers had the right to picket, as my hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mick Whitley) said. Look at Ark Academy school trust, whose cleaning contractor, Ridge Crest, told the reps from United Voices of the World to drop their union and they would get PPE and the London living wage. Look at the Leicester garment workers, knocking out fashion for Boohoo at record speed, having their pay withheld and otherwise being paid half the national minimum wage. Where is the enforcement from the Government?
Then there are workers whose rights have been breached and who have been put at risk by their employer over this period, but who actually know the rights and protections that the law affords them. They still have to overcome the hurdles that are put in place by an enormous backlog in the employment tribunal system. The figures have soared to over 450,000—an increase of almost 50%. Even if a worker has been forced to return to work in an unsafe environment, has had their wages and conditions cut or has been unfairly dismissed, they are not likely to get justice for the best part of two years, if not longer.
Justice for such basic matters that takes two years to be served is not justice. Rights that cannot be enforced are not rights at all; they are just gestures of good will that employers can readily ignore on a whim. Vital and fundamental employment rights that were built over years of what were extraordinary struggles, often in the face of huge adversity, have been demoted to little more than platitudes, rather than real, meaningful and enforceable rules and protections.
While this takes place, the Government look on. Although they have set out guidance for workplaces to be made covid-secure, they have failed to make it clear that the guidance does not circumvent or replace the statutory protections that are currently in place, thereby reminding employers of their legal obligations towards the health and wellbeing of their staff, even within the offices of the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.
The Government have refused to back the Health and Safety Executive and to give it the teeth it needs to hold bad employers to account for their unsafe workplaces, putting staff in danger from covid by returning only a measly £14 million out of what has been a £150 million cut since the last Labour Government. It is simply illogical that the Government brought in new powers to restrain citizens from putting others at risk in the public sphere, while at the same time neglecting the enforcement of workplace protections, thereby allowing employers to flout the law in the workplaces they control and to put at risk the health and safety of workers and, in turn, the wider public.
In discharging his duty to keep safe all who work in this place, the conduct of the Leader of the House has been woeful and reckless in the extreme. On the outrageous tactic of firing and rehiring, the Government’s record is no better. They tell us that they expect all employers to treat their employees fairly and to follow the rules, and they have made it clear that they regret some of the decisions that have been taken. The Prime Minister had the audacity to tell BA staff in an email that employers should not be removing staff or changing terms and conditions, yet the Government have still allowed employers such as BA to take the taxpayer’s money and to lay off huge numbers of staff without consequences. They have refused to commit to stand up against such exploitation by bad businesses and to legislate to ban this tactic for good, as the Leader of the Opposition has rightly called for them to do.
Such outright indifference to the struggle of workers to keep their jobs, wages, rights and conditions takes place against a backdrop of the Government undermining the strength and bargaining power of trade unions that are fighting to protect jobs. However, we should not expect anything less from the same Government who sought to curtail the ability of working people to do that, though imposing employment fees.
President-elect Joe Biden said in his campaign:
“Today, however, there’s a war on organising, collective bargaining, unions, and workers. It’s been raging for decades, and it’s getting worse with Donald Trump in the White House.”
That is exactly the position in the UK after 10 years of Tory rule. After a decade of brutal austerity cuts by the Government, they have undermined protection for people at work and increased the risk to their health, safety and welfare. However, the pandemic has exposed just how much damage austerity has done, and how far these rights have been eroded.
The excuses offered by the Minister will be that such concerns are commercial issues—he has said it before—and that they are to be resolved by employers and workers. That is not good enough, and it shows just how far removed from reality the Government have become. It also demonstrates just how inadequate and unenforceable our current employment rights and protections are, and why, more than ever, we need a new employment rights settlement that can properly protect working people across the country.
I urge the Minister to confirm that the Government will never again put obstacles in the way of working people upholding their rights and seeking redress, and to guarantee that the protections afforded to working people will be strengthened in the employment Bill that has yet to appear before Parliament, a year after being promised. Their boast was that the employment Bill would
“Protect and enhance workers’ rights as the UK leaves the EU, making Britain the best place in the world to work.”
Well, let’s see it.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. Like everyone else, I congratulate the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands) on securing today’s important debate. This is a really important matter—a collective matter—and we have heard a number of excellent contributions from across the Chamber detailing individual issues within the overall, encompassing issue of workers’ rights.
Clearly, covid-19 has had a massive effect; it reaches deep into our economy and society. It has required us, as a country, to wrap our arms around the economy and around businesses and employees as well. The Government have acted decisively to provide an unprecedented package of support to protect people’s livelihoods.
I appreciate that the Minister is under siege, so I will just ask a simple question. If we are truly wrapping our arms around workers and employees, will he take steps to ensure that the awful practice of fire and rehire is outlawed, because it is unnecessary and is having an appalling effect?
The reason why I am limiting interventions is that I want to leave the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North time at the end of the debate to sum up. I will clearly cover fire and rehire in a second.
Before doing so, I want to look at just some of the ways in which we have wrapped our arms around the economy and around businesses and employees. We have done that through the furlough scheme, which has allowed 1.2 million employers across the UK to furlough 9.6 million jobs. As we have heard, that scheme has been extended to the spring. With regard to the self-employment income support scheme, there is an increase under the third instalment of the grant, covering November to January.
It is also important that we help to get people, and particularly young people, back into work; we have heard about that from other hon. Members today. That is why, as we have announced, more than 19,000 jobs have been created so far through the kickstarter scheme, helping young people from across the country into the workplace and into a variety of sectors. In addition, 1.3 million businesses have had a Government-guaranteed loan to support their cash flow through the British Business Bank. That is delivering £8 billion to more than 98,000 SMEs—something close to my heart.
The hon. Gentleman talked about fire and rehire tactics. A key aspect of building back better is to continue championing a flexible and dynamic labour market, which gives employers the confidence to retain and hire staff, while maintaining a framework that protects individuals. For those who, sadly, lose their jobs, clear laws about unfair dismissal will ensure that their rights are protected. We have tightened the protections throughout the covid-19 pandemic. For example, we have made sure that statutory redundancy pay, statutory notice pay and unfair dismissal compensation are based on a furloughed employee’s normal pay rather than furlough pay. People who, sadly, are made redundant will receive the same level of financial compensation as they would if they had not been furloughed.
To understand better the issues in relation to fire and rehire, the Government are working with ACAS, and we are bringing together a number of roundtables with businesses, employee representatives and other bodies to discuss these issues in more detail. The House should be left in no doubt that this Government will always continue to stand behind workers and to stamp out unscrupulous practices where they occur.
We have responded swiftly and effectively to the pandemic.
I am grateful, and I will keep my intervention brief. Can the Minister confirm, if he is having roundtable discussions about the practice of firing and rehiring, whether something might be brought forward in the employment Bill, when that Bill is eventually brought forward? If that is the case, will he work with me and others across the House to ensure that those provisions are good enough for the workers of this country?
I will gladly work with the hon. Gentleman in continuing to discuss workers’ rights in this area and other areas. It is important that the employment Bill, when it does come, not only extends workers’ rights in the way that we talked about in our manifesto, but does so in a way that fully reflects the situation we are going through and the lessons learned from the pandemic.
Some hon. Members talked about pregnancy and maternity discrimination. That is not acceptable under any circumstances. We have continued to remind employers of their existing responsibilities under current legislation. Equalities legislation requires that employers must not discriminate in the workplace based on gender, pregnancy or maternity. Following the Government’s consultation in 2019, we are extending the redundancy protection period afforded to mothers on maternity leave to six months, once the new mother has returned to work, and to those taking adoption leave and shared parental leave.
We have taken steps to support new parents by passing emergency legislation that ensures that parents who are furloughed during the period, and are determined to be entitled to maternity, adoption and other family related statutory pay, do not lose out.
I am happy to write to the hon. Lady fully to outline those details. The legislation entitles parents to a rate of pay based on their normal earnings, not their furlough pay.
Employment rights enforcement is as important as ever during this pandemic. We already spend £33 million a year on state enforcement of employment rights. Enforcement bodies continue to protect vulnerable workers and have worked with businesses to promote compliance throughout the pandemic. As has been mentioned, we have committed to go further and establish a single enforcement body for employment rights, to better protect vulnerable workers and create a level playing field for the majority of employers that comply with the law.
I will not because I want to leave time for the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North to respond.
The Government have acted decisively to protect the health and safety of workers who cannot work from home during the pandemic, including by providing tailored guidance on social distancing in the workplace to enable sectors to reopen and, where exemptions apply, to trade through the new English national restrictions. To date, the guides have been viewed over 3 million times. Where the Health and Safety Executive identifies employers that are not taking action to comply with the relevant public health legislation and guidance to control public health risks, it will consider taking a range of actions to improve the control of workplace risks.
The hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North made a powerful argument about fire and rehire. When I spoke in the Chamber recently, I was absolutely clear that it is not acceptable to use that as a bargaining or negotiating tactic. When I talked about flexibility for firing people, I was not talking about adding any extra power to Goliath over David. Indeed, it is clear that we must have a level playing field.
Small businesses need to be able to thrive, but when employees in big businesses are concerned about collective bargaining and the power of the large employers, that shows that we need to strengthen workers’ rights and not weaken them in any way. We will continue to work with hon. Members across the House. Any sensible employer should know that investing in and working with their people is the biggest strength that they have. I say that as someone who ran small businesses for 25 years.
We have talked about bereavement. I am glad that we introduced the right to bereavement pay for people who have lost a child. There is day-one right for unpaid leave to respond to other forms of bereavement.
The Low Pay Commission recommends the national minimum wage and the national living wage to Government. We will always respond to the collective view of that body, which encompasses union, independent and employer representation, rather than just taking a Government view, to come up with what is best for the economy, but not on the basis of the lowest paid in this country. We want to make sure we include our manifesto commitment to allow people to benefit as we level the playing field for people aged 23-plus as well.
The hon. Member for Blaydon (Liz Twist) talked about retailer abuse, on which USDAW, with whom I have had regular discussions, has had a good campaign. The retailers themselves have raised issues most recently about the closure of pubs and restaurants. In Nottinghamshire, for example, there has been an increase in reported abuse of retailers around the sale of alcohol, so we need to reflect and act on that quickly.
We have heard about zero-hours contracts from a few speakers. Some 3.2% of workers are on zero-hours contracts, and they work an average of 25 hours a week. The Taylor review recommended not scrapping zero-hours contracts. We have got rid of exclusivity clauses in zero-hours contracts, but he said that banning such contracts
“would negatively impact…more people than it helped.”
To conclude, I thank the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North once again for securing this important debate. I want to reassure workers across the country that we will continue to stand shoulder to shoulder with them throughout the crisis as we build back better. As soon as parliamentary time allows, we will introduce an employment Bill to reflect everything that we have learnt, and we will deliver the Government’s manifesto commitments. The legislation will make workplaces fairer by providing better support for working families and new protections for those in low-paid work, and will encourage flexible working. It will balance the needs of both employers and workers, ensuring that everybody benefits from flexibility. It will also create a new enforcement body for labour market abuses and give greater protections to vulnerable workers.
The hon. Member for Leicester East (Claudia Webbe) talked about the situation in Leicester, which is so important for us all. The taskforce set up in Leicester has visited 140 premises. There are a significant number of live investigations, and we want to do more to make sure we get to the bottom of any reports of abuse in Leicester and beyond. The Government have a proud history of protecting and enhancing workers’ rights. We are committed to making the UK the best place in the world in which to work.
I thank the Backbench Business Committee for allowing today’s debate. As a former member of that Committee, I could feel the virtual slap on the wrist from the hon. Member for Gateshead (Ian Mearns), who is hundreds of miles away. I am grateful to Members for their attendance. The debate has been very well attended. It is a shame that the only Government Back Bencher was not able to speak this morning. I am grateful to Members’ support for the many issues discussed this morning, including the support for action on firing and rehiring.
The Minister pointed out that he had spent many years running small businesses. I also ran businesses and spent time as a business analyst, so I understand and support the need for flexibility, but that should not be at the expense of workers’ rights. There has to be an appropriate balance, and we do not have that balance in this country at this point in time. Although I remain perhaps naively hopeful for the employment Bill, if the Government continue to refuse to act, will they please devolve employment law to Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast? The Prime Minister seems to have dug himself a rather large hole on devolution at the moment, which is grist to the mill for the cause of Scottish independence. I bring that up for the benefit of the hon. Member for Edinburgh West (Christine Jardine), because she is a big, big fan of independence. [Laughter.]
I implore the Minister, as I said in my intervention, to listen and work with Members across the House when shaping the employment Bill. That work should include the abolition of firing and rehiring, and making sure we have appropriate protections for all workers in the United Kingdom. I thank hon. Members again, and I thank you, Sir Christopher.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the covid-19 outbreak and employment rights.
Disabled Access: Leisure Facilities
I beg to move,
That this House has considered disabled access at leisure facilities.
It is a pleasure to be here under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. I am delighted to have the opportunity to make the case for fairer inclusion for disabled children at leisure facilities, and particularly theme parks. We are here to talk about Sebby, a very brave little boy, who suffered a horrible experience on what should have been a happy day. Yet rather than feel defeated, he and his family have chosen to fight to stop other children going through the same thing. Our petition for fairer inclusion for disabled children at theme parks has more than 26,000 signatures. In a year dominated by the global covid pandemic, which has certainly made this place much quieter, the high number of signatures, and media interest from around the country, shows the strength of feeling about this issue.
Sebastian, or Sebby, is six years old. I have spent time with Sebby and his sister. They are warm, happy and engaging children, who brought their own toys to calm down my screaming little baby when she was crying at our meeting. Yet Sebby has been through more in his short life than most of us in this Chamber put together. He is disabled with gross motor delay, with symptoms that are shared with cerebral palsy. He has had spinal surgery and double hip replacements, and he undergoes regular intensive therapy to improve his mobility. He uses an electric wheelchair and sometimes crutches. I urge colleagues to look up his Facebook page, “Sebby’s Adventure”. It is heartwarming, but they will also see his extensive work for often painful physiotherapy, and the amount of effort that he and his family are putting in, to improve his mobility. They impress me all the time.
It is with this brave child in mind that we think about looking forward to going to a theme park—a very simple thing. Indeed, that visit to a theme park was promised to get him through a number of tough surgeries in hospital.
I thank the hon. Lady for bringing this debate to Westminster Hall. Perhaps I may quickly mention the case of one of my constituents, who is totally disabled—born disabled—and needs a wheelchair to get about. He asked the council to provide wheelchair football for him and a group of people. The council was hesitant initially but then responded very positively. That did two things: it improved his physical abilities and opportunities, but it also improved his mental wellbeing. Does the hon. Lady feel that the issue is not just physical but mental wellbeing?
That is absolutely key. This is not just about physical but about mental wellbeing. Such children and families are fighting and challenging all the time, and have to make their voices heard. Small acts of kindness or small changes to policy can make all the difference for mental and physical wellbeing.
In September 2019, Sebby, who was then five years old, entered Legoland looking forward to going on the Ninjago ride. Sebby’s parents had engaged with Legoland for months before to arrange the correct pass. They let the park know about Sebby’s disabilities and provided multiple items of the proof required to show that Sebby is disabled. The Ninjago ride that he wanted to go on is for trainee Ninjas—I am sure we all want to achieve trainee Ninja standards—because it was clear that it could be accessed by a wheelchair lift.
So far, so good, I can hear Members saying, but unfortunately not. As Sebby and his family got to the ride, a member of staff awkwardly intervened to say that he needed to show that he could walk before going on a ride. Other members of staff then joined in the discussion and they decided between them that he needed to show that he could take three steps, holding on to one parent with one hand.
This all took place in front of a busy queue of people. Anybody who has queued at theme parks knows that they are not the most harmonious of places, and Sebby was forced with considerable discomfort to take his three steps. He just about managed it and sat down on the ride. Despite this action, the ride manager then inexplicably required him to do the steps all over again. This drew more attention from people in the queue and Sebby was really unset. His mum described the whole episode as humiliating for him. Sebby—aged five, remember—was crestfallen and asked his mum and dad why anybody would ask someone disabled to walk. He said: “It was so hard and it upset me”.
Not wanting to ruin the day, his parents were positive, but they were both shocked and distressed. They then encountered the same problem on another ride, where Sebby was told he needed to walk again. Eventually, in order to avoid that problem, at other times Sebby left his wheelchair outside the ride and went in on his parents’ shoulders so staff could not tell he was in a wheelchair, and he was not challenged any more.
Sebby’s family were informed that he needed to walk the three steps as there was a short staircase that would be used in case of an evacuation. However, it is clear to Sebby’s mum that the evacuation could be adjusted with a ramp. The family has also seen the resort accessibility guide, which they believe shows that about 80% of rides are inaccessible. Under ride restrictions, the guide sets out the requirement to walk unaided for not just three steps but at least 10 metres,
“without the assistance of a mobility aid or a person to access the ride unit, which may include navigating stairs…In the event of an emergency, you will be required to walk down up to 80 stairs and walk sometimes over an uneven surface without assistance.”
Wheelchair users would, of course, therefore be challenged in respect of both access to rides and evacuation from them. Sebby’s family believe this is discriminatory.
What can be done? My hon. Friend the Minister may feel there is no need for Parliament to investigate this matter nor act, as legislation is already in place. He is right, but only to a point. Pursuant to section 6 of the Equality Act 2010, Sebby is disabled and his disability is a protected characteristic. Under section 29 of the Equality Act, theme parks, such as Legoland, are service providers. As a result, they are obliged to make reasonable adjustments to improve access so that disabled customers of all ages are not placed at a substantial disadvantage compared with non-disabled customers.
The reasonable adjustment duty is an anticipatory duty. This means that there is an expectation that businesses, including theme parks, should anticipate the reasonable adjustments that customers with disabilities may require. This serious and well-established legislation, passed more than 10 years ago, did not protect Sebby or improve his experience that day, nor is it working elsewhere.
Reading through the heart-breaking stories from other families around the country made Sebby’s mum completely determined to take action. They certainly made me very determined to make some changes in this area. This is not just about Legoland. It is clear that many other leisure parks need to make improvements. Before I read out some of the stories from other families, please note that I have not spoken to any of the parents mentioned. They have sent comments on social media and in response to the petition. I am willing to get in touch with them if necessary and welcome hearing from any of the companies mentioned. I think it is important to say that upfront.
I will read a few comments, so that we can see what is happening around the country. Ellen said, “My sister Abie has cerebral palsy and I have cried at Alton Towers before, when we had a problem getting on a ride. Don’t get me wrong, some places are great, but some just make everything a challenge.”
Jessica said, “I had a similar experience with a girl I care for, who is in a wheelchair, at Blackpool pleasure beach. They turned around in a crowded line and shouted, ‘Oh, you can’t walk well. The only rides that you can go on are in Nickelodeon land.’ This made me so angry. And yes, I did cause a scene, because nobody should be treated like that. They need to make these rides more accessible for wheelchair users so they do not always have to miss out.”
Chris said, “We had a similar at Thorpe Park in the disabled parking area. They would not believe my brother-in-law was disabled until he took off his false leg and waved it at them.”
Kate said, “My son was five. We only wanted to go on the small rides. A woman said that if he couldn’t walk, he couldn’t go in—bearing in mind, someone in front of us was holding a baby under one, who couldn’t walk either. They stood in front of us and told my son that he could not walk. He was paralysed by a drink-driver and he didn’t really understand what was wrong with him at that point. She had no damn right to say that, but we sucked it up for my son’s sake, only for this to happen at every ride. I sobbed so much that day that when I phoned to complain I couldn’t even get my words out.”
Anita said, “We had a similar experience at Chessington for our son, with him being made to get off a ride. He was so humiliated that he never wants to go to a theme park again.” She added lots of angry emojis.
Claire said, “Every ride has to step up, down or both—no lifts or options for anyone in a wheelchair to get even to a ride station on many occasions. If you spend £16 million on rollercoasters, then surely you can arrange for rides to be accessible for all.” I have pages and pages of this stuff. It is just awful.
Gemma said, “My little boy, aged 10, has cerebral palsy and autism. He is a real adrenaline junky. We visited Alton Towers a few weeks ago and had the same problem. We were supposed to be going to Disney, but due to covid we obviously couldn’t. I felt heartbroken seeing him look at all of the big rides and being unable to access them. In Florida, it isn’t a problem.”
Donna said, “My son is neurodiverse. I was told by a member of staff that he didn’t look disabled and, if he was, why would I come to a place like this?”
Katie said, “A very similar thing happened to us with my daughter at Legoland in London. They let her get on rides, then humiliated her in front of everyone by telling her to get off and she only has one leg. We were not told about any of this at customer services. She was nearly nine. She loves rides and always has. We were all so angry. She was living a perfectly normal life, then got cancer and had to have an amputation. It is so unfair. In this day and age, they should be able to make more things accessible for disability.” As I said, I can provide copies of those comments if necessary.
It is worth noting that a number of the families have mentioned that Disney parks in America and around the world are incredibly inclusive and have got this stuff right, so I do think it is achievable.
Legoland wrote to me last night, saying, “We recognise the importance of issues such as these being subject to public scrutiny. That is why we welcome the Westminster Hall debate that you have secured and hope that not only will it put these issues under the spotlight but also provide the Government with an opportunity to set out how it can work with the industry to support continual improvement to provision, support and access for disabled guests.” Legoland explained that since Sebby’s family reported these matters, it has created an illustrated guide to help guests understand step-by-step ride evacuation, and it can also create bespoke plans for families. Legoland has engaged in further staff training specifically to address ride restrictions and guest communication of ride evacuation processes. It has also made other changes in the last few years. I am happy to make this letter available to anyone who is interested. I have passed a copy to the Minister.
This was never about one company. As we have heard, there are theme parks around the country that should look to their policies and to the law. Theme parks are also an excellent source of fun. I enjoy them myself, as do many people, and they are an integral part of our tourism industry. However, brave children already battling disabilities should not be made to feel different or be excluded from leisure parks and rides. Parents of disabled children should not always have to fight, challenge and complain. The majority of those parents will not have access to legal advice and will not always understand their rights and what steps to take. I therefore ask my hon. Friend the Minister to use his experience to help us consider ways that we in this place can assist children like Sebby.
Leisure parks should not be able to set policies that effectively undermine a disabled child’s being able to use a ride that claims to be inclusive. Families should not have the surprise of a walking test on arrival, having previously been led to believe that the park is inclusive. It is unclear what training staff in the parks have had to understand policies and legislation and how they can help disabled people. The Ninjago ride is relatively new, having been built in 2017. I want to ensure that theme park providers are required to procure and commission new rides that are completely inclusive for disabled people. There should be no excuses.
I therefore respectfully request that the Minister arranges a stakeholder meeting, along with a Minister from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and the disability Minister from the Department for Work and Pensions. I also request that he commits to reviewing any codes of practice. I am open to other ideas on how we can make improvements.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Siobhan Baillie) on securing the debate. She raises an important issue, following a disturbing experience of one of her constituents at a leading tourist attraction. It does not surprise me at all that she raises this issue with the compassion and professionalism that her constituents have come to expect from their excellent Member of Parliament. I will briefly respond to the issue raised before moving on to talk in more general terms about what the Government are doing in this area.
The specific case raised by my hon. Friend was a very unfortunate incident, and I sympathise with her constituents, the 26,000 people who signed the petition and the families who have written to her to articulate their concerning cases and experiences. I understand that Merlin, which owns Legoland and many other visitor attractions in the UK and around the world, has been in contact with the family. My hon. Friend will be aware that I am unable to discuss this particular incident or the specifics of the case in detail. However, my officials have also been in contact with Merlin, and I understand that it is looking into further operational changes, including staff training, which is so important to the visitor experience and the overall visitor experience for guests with disabilities. I am glad that it is also focusing on accessibility issues more broadly across its attractions, and I appreciate that it has also written to my hon. Friend directly.
My hon. Friend will be aware that, as the tourism Minister, I do not have direct responsibility for disability discrimination law. Ultimately, disability discrimination is governed by the Equality Act 2010 and is the responsibility of the Government Equalities Office, so I hope she accepts that I may not be able to give her complete chapter and verse on all the legal particulars of the case she raises, but I hope I can give a reasonably detailed response. The Equality Act requires service providers, including tourist attractions such as theme parks, to make “reasonable adjustments” to improve access for disabled customers of all ages. Fundamentally, disabled customers should not be placed at a substantial disadvantage to non-disabled customers. Ultimately, the question of whether there has been a failure to comply with the Act hinges on what does or does not constitute a “reasonable adjustment.”
The Equality Advisory and Support Service can be contacted—via its website, telephone or textphone—by anyone who believes that they or their children have been discriminated against during the provision of services, and it can contact a service provider on the customer’s behalf to discuss any particular concerns raised. It also liaises with the Equality and Human Rights Commission, which has powers to enforce the provisions of the Equality Act. I am happy to take this up in writing with the relevant Equalities Minister if my hon. Friend would like a more detailed response.
In the meantime, I will set out more broadly what the Government have done and are doing to make tourism and leisure more accessible. In 2019 we published the tourism sector deal, which set out an ambition to make the UK the most accessible destination in Europe by 2025. There were several reasons we wanted to pursue that goal. First, and most importantly, it is simply the right thing to do. Our amazing visitor economy—attractions, accommodation and transport—should be open to everyone. Secondly, it makes business and economic sense. According to Visit Britain, 43,000 British adults with a disability did not take a domestic holiday in 2017, when figures were last available. If they did take a domestic holiday, that would equate to a £117 million boost to the British economy. Thirdly, we have an ageing population. Projections indicate that in 50 years’ time there will be an additional 8.6 million people aged 65 and over in the UK. We must ensure that our tourism sector is fully developed to take account of the needs of those older tourists, many of whom will have access requirements, even if they do not consider themselves to be disabled.
The fact that we made that commitment does not mean that we are not already undertaking action to make the UK’s tourism offering more accessible. For example, VisitEngland has a dedicated web portal, providing tailored business advice to tourism businesses. Among other things, that includes detailed guidance on how businesses can welcome people with autism, dementia or hearing loss. I know that the tourist boards of the devolved Administrations are similarly engaging on those issues. VisitEngland has also ensured that its promotional and marketing activities are inclusive. For example, its “Escape the Everyday” campaign—it is currently on hold due to national restrictions, but we expect it to be revived shortly—has worked in partnership with Channel 4 to launch the “Mission Accessible” series, which follows comedian Rosie Jones as she participates in activities from the perspective of a disabled person with accessibility requirements.
In the Budget earlier this year, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced a £30 million Changing Places fund to increase the provision of changing places and toilets in public buildings. Those are just a few examples. Furthermore, I know that many businesses in the private sector also provide excellent services to disabled customers. There are some standout examples, such as Eureka! The National Children’s Museum in Halifax and the Titanic exhibition in Belfast.
The hon. Member for Stroud (Siobhan Baillie) mentioned Disney World and Universal Studios in Florida as two examples where they enable profoundly disabled children in wheelchairs to travel. I have seen that when I have been there. Has the Minister had the opportunity at short notice to ascertain whether we can do that? If they can do it in America, we can do it here.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. Prior to becoming a Member of Parliament, I worked in the tourism, hospitality and leisure sector, working with theme parks around the world, including the major theme park operators in the US and elsewhere.
There are leading global best practices and, to be fair, we have some in the UK. We should not belittle the progress that has been made, but we see with incidents, such as those mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud, that we have further progress to make. We all need to learn from the best practices and there are outstanding examples throughout the world that we should learn from. Here on our own shores, with Halifax and the Belfast Titanic exhibition, we do already have some fantastic examples, but it is not consistent and it is not everywhere.
I know that many businesses wish to make further progress. There are also many charities, social enterprises and not-for-profit organisations doing great work in the area as well, such as Nimbus Disability and the Family Holiday Association. Despite all that activity, there is more to do and I am keen to look at the issue of accessible tourism in more detail. I will raise the issue directly with Merlin, the Association of Leading Visitor Attractions and other relevant tourism bodies, which I meet regularly as part of the Tourism Industry Council. I will be happy to facilitate further meetings with those bodies with my hon. Friend directly.
As we make further arrangements to make venues, attractions and other sites, such as sports stadiums, covid-secure, it is also important to ensure that they are accessible for all. I know that the sports sector is considering how to improve accessibility in sports stadiums, which was the topic of a recent report by the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee when I sat on it.
The Government’s ambition is to ensure that we all work towards an even more accessible tourism and leisure industry. As I said, the sector itself and the companies involved also realise their responsibilities in this area. Their purpose is to bring joy to people and families. We need to ensure that everybody is included in that. Although great strides have been made, there is still much more to do. I look forward to playing my part in ensuring that happens.
Question put and agreed to.
International Fund for Israeli-Palestinian Peace
[Clive Efford in the Chair]
I do not intend to read out all the instructions because there are not so many of us in the Room that we are over-spilling the horseshoe. Please clean your microphones and the area around them before and after use, and note the access and exit doors. We circulate around the Room. You can speak only from the horseshoe. I call Catherine McKinnell.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered UK support for an international fund for Israeli-Palestinian peace.
It is an honour, Mr Efford, to serve under your chairmanship. I am pleased to have secured this debate as a recently appointed chair of Labour Friends of Israel and a member of Labour Friends of Palestine and the Middle East. During this very challenging period that we are living through, this debate today could not be more timely. The impending departure of the Trump Administration in January will provide an opportunity to reassert international consensus in favour of a two-state solution to the tragic conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. Britain should seize that opportunity by supporting the establishment of an international fund for Israeli-Palestinian peace.
The obstacles to a two-state solution are well known: settlement building by the Israeli Government, which threatens both the viability of the Palestinian state and, over the long term, the democratic character of the state of Israel itself; the actions of the Palestinian Authority, for example through its school curriculum, which threatened to instil hatred and violence in another generation of young people; and the refusal of terrorist groups such as Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Hezbollah to accept Israel’s right to exist. The prospect of a two-state solution is threatened, too, by the growing belief among both the Israeli and Palestinian public that, even if desirable, it is no longer possible. Most worryingly, support for a two-state solution is weakest among Israelis and Palestinians under the age of 30.
Over the past 25 years, the high hopes of Oslo have given way to fear, mistrust and pessimism, and that pessimism is understandable. It is more than six years since the last serious and substantive effort to restart the peace process. Ultimately, the international community can facilitate a two-state solution, but it cannot impose it. Only direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, which will inevitably involve painful compromises on both sides, can bring it about. We should not, however, see the current hiatus and barriers to a two-state solution as a cause for inactivity and passivity. Instead, we should think creatively and boldly about how we can best foster an environment in which peace negotiations and a two-state solution might resume and succeed. We should consider how any future settlement can best be sustained. Although the two conflicts are very different in both their causes and their character, the example of Northern Ireland provides important lessons.
In the mid-1980s, during the darkest days of the troubles, when the prospects for peace and an end to violence seemed so distant, the International Fund for Ireland was established. Over the past three decades it has invested more than £700 million in peace-building work, bringing together nationalist and Unionist communities in more than 5,800 co-existence projects. That investment provided the vital civic society foundations that underpinned the drive towards peace in the 1990s. It provided widespread popular support for the Good Friday agreement, and then helped to sustain it through the many challenges that it has faced in the subsequent years. Northern Ireland’s example teaches us that it is never too early to begin investing in and building constituencies for peace. In short, peace building is a vital prerequisite to peace making.
Since the advent of Oslo, a plethora of grassroots groups that bring Israelis and Palestinians together have sprung up in a wide variety of fields—sports clubs for children and young people, as well as cultural interface and tech and environmental projects. There is now a strong evidence base from both academic research and government evaluations to suggest that such projects work. A 2019 academic study carried out for USAID—the United States Agency for International Development—which evaluated four programmes in which the US had invested found that, three to five years after their involvement, the project participants continued to hold positive feelings about those from the “other” side of the divide, had an increased belief that peace was possible and reported that their perceptions had been altered by the programme. That study reinforced an earlier USAID evaluation that suggested that those participating in people-to-people work had higher levels of trust and co-operation, more conflict resolution values and fewer feelings of aggression and loneliness.
USAID studies are supported by the findings of a 2017 report by Ned Lazarus, a professor at George Washington university whose work drew on 20 years of evaluation data and extensive field work. It found that peacebuilding projects create peacebuilders and constituencies for peace, change attitudes and create empathy and trust between the two peoples. For example, nearly one fifth of participants in a programme by the NGO Seeds of Peace went on to dedicate their careers to peace-building work, and 90% of participants in a Near East Foundation project said that they trusted the other community more after being on the programme. A programme led by Parents Circle-Families Forum found that 80% of participants were more willing to work for peace and 71% felt more trust and empathy towards the other community.
Despite widespread and correct recognition, and the importance of laying the economic foundations for peace, such civic society work has too often gone unacknowledged by the international community and it has suffered from huge under-investment. Indeed, thanks in part to cuts by the Trump Administration, international investment in people-to-people work has fallen since 2017 from an already pitiful £37 million a year to £26 million a year now.
An international fund for Israeli-Palestinian peace would provide that much-needed focus and investment to enable co-existence projects to operate at scale and to amplify their impact. Designed by the Alliance for Middle East Peace, a coalition of more than 90 Palestinian and Israeli grassroots organisations, the fund would seek to leverage and increase public and private contributions funding joint economic development and civic society projects that promote peace, co-existence and reconciliation between the two peoples. It would be an independent organisation, supported by public and private donors, and it explicitly does not seek to replace any support that would otherwise be provided either directly to the Palestinian Authority or to Israel. Its goal is ambitious—to raise levels of investment nearly tenfold to $200 million a year. Those contributions would come from the US, Europe and the rest of the international community, including the Arab world, and the private sector.
I commend Labour Friends of Israel for their tireless campaigning, which stretches back nearly a decade, to increase UK funding on co-existence and their work over the past five years in support of an international fund. Indeed, nearly four years ago I was delighted to join a cross-party group of sponsors who backed a Bill presented by the former Member for Enfield North, Joan Ryan, which called on the Government to promote the international fund for Israeli-Palestinian peace. Televised campaigning persuaded the Government in 2017 to establish a new three-year programme—People for Peaceful Change—which invested £3 million in co-existence work. It also succeeded in securing a commitment from the Government in 2018 to support the international fund, making the UK the first country to endorse this concept.
Sadly, however, the Government have allowed the People for Peaceful Change programme to lapse and with it the UK’s investment in peacebuilding work in Israel and Palestine. The Government have also failed to follow up on their commitment to support an international fund, despite positive developments in the US, where the Middle East Partnership for Peace Act is expected to become law at the end of this year. This legislation, which passed the House of Representatives in July and is now progressing through the Senate, has strong bipartisan support and will establish a middle east partnership for peace fund. The fund will provide $110 million over the next five years for peacebuilding projects, with a new joint investment for peace initiative providing an additional $140 million in support to Palestinian-owned small and medium enterprises. The legislation not only provides two seats for international partners on the middle east partnership for peace fund advisory board but includes provisions that allow it to evolve into a new, truly multilateral institution. The arrival of the Biden Administration, together with the recent exciting moves we have witnessed in the middle east towards normalising relations with Israel, provides a huge opportunity which, if the UK is to live up to the Government’s global Britain ambitions, we should surely seize.
In closing, will the Minister provide three undertakings today? First, will he meet me and other colleagues to discuss reinstating the UK’s financial support for peace-building work and reinvigorating support for the international fund? Secondly, will he ask his officials to explore the possibility of the UK requesting one of two international partner seats in the new middle east partnership for peace advisory board? Thirdly, at the earliest opportunity after 20 January, will he discuss with the Biden Administration how the middle east partnership fund for peace might evolve into a truly international institution?
This week marks the 35th anniversary of the signing of the Anglo-Irish Agreement which set in motion the establishment of the International Fund for Ireland and set us on the path to the Good Friday agreement. We know the transformative impact of peace-building work and we know we have seen it in Ireland. I urge the Government to draw on this experience and commit to establishing this international fund for Israeli-Palestinian peace.
May I say what a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Efford, and to be back in Westminster Hall after it was closed for so long. I congratulate the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) on securing a debate on this important issue.
Like the hon. Member, I welcome progress in the US Congress towards establishing a new international fund for projects to promote peace and reconciliation between Israel and the Palestinians. It makes sense in this context to reflect on some of the experiences in Northern Ireland, albeit that is a very different situation to the one that prevails in the middle east.
As Northern Ireland Secretary, I saw for myself the incredibly important role played by grassroots community projects aimed at bringing people together across historic and long-lasting divides. I saw how they helped to embed the peace settlement resulting from the Belfast Good Friday Agreement. Looking back in history, it is clear that they played a role in securing that agreement.
Over the years, we have seen groups such as the WAVE Trauma Centre, Healing Through Remembering, the Corrymeela Community and the Fitzroy-Clonard Fellowship. Such organisations cannot on their own resolve deep-seated conflicts—that requires political leadership from all sides. We have seen that from Israel, but sadly lacking from the Palestinian side. Grassroots groups of this nature, promoting peaceful co-existence, can be part of the momentum for peace and help to create the conditions in which political leaders feel confident to come together and find common ground and compromise.
Those Northern Ireland projects received support from many sources, including successive UK Governments, but also from the International Fund for Ireland, which has clearly provided inspiration for the ideas we are considering today. I certainly encourage the Foreign Office to deploy part of its aid budget to this new US-inspired international initiative on promoting projects aimed at securing peaceful co-existence between Israel and the Palestinians.
It is crucial that all funding, whether for this programme or others operating in the middle east, goes to worthwhile projects that are genuinely trying to bring people together. It is a concern for me and a number of my constituents that some UK charities and NGOs take a highly politicised and partisan approach to the middle east. For example, I have raised concerns about some of the activities in the past of War On Want with the Charities Commission. I hope those running any new fund will learn lessons from the problems that have beset existing aid programmes operating in the West Bank.
Just over 16 years ago, in my former role as an MEP, I first raised concerns about the abuse of aid money given to the Palestinian Authority. Those were the days of the flagrant misappropriation of cash by Yasser Arafat and his cronies—problems that, I am afraid, continue to some degree to this day.
I appreciate that successive Conservative Secretaries of State have tried to clean up the system. Those efforts were well intentioned and made a real difference. There are now far more effective controls to save taxpayers’ money than there were in the past. The issue remains, however, that the UK makes substantial contributions to UNRWA, which distributes aid on the basis of perceived entitlement rather than humanitarian need and whose definition of “refugee” as passing down generations perpetuates division rather than bringing people together.
I accept that UK aid money, thankfully, does not fund extremist or antisemitic curriculum content, but it does pay the salaries of teachers who use such materials. Thankfully, UK aid does not fund the appalling salaries paid to terrorists, but salaries were increased dependent on the number of Israelis killed. I am worried that while, thankfully, our taxpayers’ money does not go directly to fund these salaries, it indirectly enables such payments by the PLO by releasing money that otherwise would have to be deployed to cover the costs of the salaries of public sector workers that are currently met by the United Kingdom taxpayer.
Whether it is a new international fund for peace between Israel and the Palestinians or the UK’s existing programmes to support the Palestinian Authority, I urge the Minister to ensure that taxpayers’ money is always rigorously scrutinised and spent only on projects to bring people together rather than push them apart and on projects working for peace and not perpetuating conflict.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Efford, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) on securing the debate. It is a particular pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers). I knew her before coming to the House and I have worked closely with her on Northern Ireland matters since being in the House.
It is poignant that the debate is taking place so soon after the death of Saeb Erekat, Secretary General of the Palestine Liberation Organisation. He was firmly committed to his people’s rights, unwavering in his pursuit of a just peace, and committed to a two-state solution.
It is cause for optimism that the debate is taking place in the shadow of the election across the Atlantic. We cannot underestimate the significance of that, and if, like me, you believe in the ability of the United States to lead and be a force for progress in the world, you will share the hope that this will mark a new approach to its role in the middle east, particularly in using its influence to re-establish the basis for a lasting peace between Israel and Palestine.
If the last four years show anything, it is that you can be a friend to a country and its people without supporting its Government. I have felt like that about the United States and Israel. In fact, I have felt that, to be a good friend, you have had to oppose their respective Administrations, while continuing to advocate the development of strong links and co-operation between our countries and peoples.
The dire state of political relations and the breakdown of relations—the unilateralism and illegality of occupation, settlements and annexation and its effect on the Palestinian people, and the continued terror, threats and denial of Israel’s very right to exist—should not mean that we allow inertia, let the UK’s response and involvement be set by the recalcitrant, or abandon our role in the historic mission to find a just and lasting two-state solution.
A fund for Israeli-Palestinian peace is one such way in which the world can provide tangible support for advancing the cause of peace and improving the lives of Israelis and Palestinians. As the Alliance for Middle East Peace says,
“With the suspension of coordination between the Palestinian Authority and Israel, civil society is one of the only remaining channels for cross-border contact between Israelis and Palestinians. This places an undue burden on peacebuilding organisations”.
This work is vital and dangerous. Earlier this year Hamas arrested Rami Aman, a peace activist in Gaza, and seven other Palestinians for taking part in a Zoom call with Israelis. Hamas said that it amounted to a
“betrayal of our people and their sacrifices”,
and that any joint activities, co-operation or dialogue with Israelis is unacceptable—just because ordinary people wanted to talk to each other about their lives. I am pleased that Rami Aman was released from prison a few weeks ago, after spending six months there awaiting trial. It is another example of how Hamas, far from advancing the cause of Palestine, is through its violence and intransigence, hindering it.
The peace fund proposal is to increase public and private contributions worldwide, funding joint economic initiatives and civil society projects that improve social and economic conditions in Israel and Palestine. Following a successful campaign spearheaded by Labour Friends of Israel—I pay tribute to them for the work they do alongside colleagues in Labour Friends of Palestine and the Middle East—the UK Government provided £3 million of funding for a project that ran from May 2017 to March 2020, as outlined by my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North. It is a shame that the funding has ceased and that the Government have stopped that support for people-to-people work.
I hope the Minister will recognise that consistent investment to enable programmes to achieve long-term results is vital to the success of coexistence work. It cannot be a tap that is turned on and off; it must be sustainable, because without sufficient funding, from either Governments or private philanthropy, coexistence projects can currently have only a limited impact. Operating at scale and properly funded, however, they could help to build powerful constituencies for peace in Israel and Palestine, forcing leaders in both countries to return to meaningful negotiations and provide the vital civic society underpinnings for any future agreement.
The main inspiration for that is, of course, the International Fund for Ireland, which was put in place by the Irish and British Governments after the 1985 Anglo-Irish agreement, which, as has been said, celebrates its 35th anniversary this week. The objective of the IFI is to promote economic and social advance in Northern Ireland and the border counties and to encourage contact, dialogue and reconciliation between nationalists and Unionists throughout the island. The fund has done enormous work across Northern Ireland and in border areas for over 40 years, evolving its activities over time, but always focused on cross-community reconciliation, with over £750 million in funding being generated over the last 44 years.
The fund effectively resides with the Irish and British Governments, but crucially it has an independent board. People on all sides trust it. It has no political agenda; its only agenda is peace and reconciliation. It was originally funded by the United States, the European Union, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. That international support gave it further credibility, and all those countries still have observer positions on the fund’s board. The Irish and British Governments have also re-dedicated themselves to continuing the funding through the “New Decade, New Approach” agreement. Importantly, the board of the fund is scrupulously objective in how it decides which project to support. Its composition is evenly divided between the nationalist and Unionist communities and includes members from border counties in the south. These symbols of balance and even-handedness matter.
The lessons to be learned for any Israel-Palestine fund are almost all good; the even-handedness dimension is the most important. In that spirit, the International Fund for Ireland has for some years now made itself available to share experience and knowledge with organisations promoting reconciliation in other locations, including in Israel and Palestine. I know that Paddy Harte, the new IFI chair, is committed to this work, and I urge the Government to use his expertise and that of the board.
For me, peace must fundamentally be built on equality, opportunity and partnership. The international community cannot do all of those things, but it can help to create the conditions for them. I hope that we will be able to play our part.
It is good to see you in the Chair once more, Mr Efford.
I thank my hon. Friend for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) for securing the debate and for an excellent speech. Like others, I believe that an international fund for Israeli-Palestinian peace would aim to help any future peace process by promoting co-operation, dialogue, joint economic development and reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians. As the chair of Labour Friends of Israel, I am delighted that we are able to have this debate today; this is something we have argued for for some time.
It is important that the concept of an international fund, as we have heard, has been designed by the Alliance for Middle East Peace, because it is an independent organisation with extensive experience in this area. Therefore, I think some of the concerns raised by the right hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers) about other group initiatives would not apply here, because ALLMEP has an almost impeccable record in this field.
Like my hon. Friend the Member for St Helens North (Conor McGinn), I am pleased that the UK became the first country to endorse the concept of an international fund when, in 2017, it introduced the People for Peaceful Change project after lobbying from LFI and others.
There have been several mentions of LFI, and I welcome the work that has been done on promoting the idea of funding peaceful co-existence projects. However, does the hon. Gentleman not find it sad that the leading MP who championed this idea, Joan Ryan, then MP for Enfield North, felt so intimidated and bullied by people in the Labour party, especially on the antisemitism issue, that she actually had to leave the party? We cannot ignore that significant problem within the hon. Gentleman’s party when referring to the LFI.
I am grateful to the right hon. Lady for that, because it is probably as well to clear this issue up once and for all. LFI battled through the whole of the crisis of antisemitism in the Labour party, and I certainly do not want to in any sense pretend that it did not happen or that it was not a dark stain on our history. What I would say about my former colleague Joan Ryan is that I am immensely grateful to her for the work she did during that period. I hope that the changes that Labour is experiencing under a new leadership will herald the day when someone like Joan will feel perfectly comfortable sitting alongside me once more.
While I welcome that UK Government programme, it is important to acknowledge that, astonishingly enough, the UK Government had spent nothing on supporting co-existence projects prior to that programme. The US bipartisan and bicameral proposals, the middle east partnership for peace, is now making real progress. It aims not just to grow economic development, but to tackle the incitement and dehumanisation that has plagued both sides of this conflict. The legislation establishes a fund to improve economic co-operation and people-to-people exchanges. I think that is how we breathe life into the two-state solution. ALLMEP should be congratulated on its success in building an enormous, unprecedented coalition of support, making the fund one of the only bipartisan Israel-Palestine priorities in Congress.
In February 2018, the then Middle East Minister Alistair Burt announced the UK’s support for the concept of an international fund. However, since then the Government have failed to follow up on their warm words. The Biden Administration now present a huge opportunity for the UK to seize this moment and play a crucial part in this multilateral initiative. Our experience in development finance and in Northern Ireland means that we are ideally placed. We have heard about how we could claim one of the two international seats and use our experience to good effect.
This September, in response to a parliamentary question about plans to allocate funding to support the US fund, the Minister for the Middle East and North Africa said:
“We welcome efforts towards peace…We will continue to monitor the People-to-People Partnership for Peace Fund”—
as it was then known—
“as it progresses through the US legislative system.”
It is making great progress. Let us act now, to show that we are determined to get involved. Without funding from Governments and private philanthropy, co-existence projects can have only a limited impact but, operating at scale and properly funded, they can build powerful constituencies for peace, forcing politicians to return to meaningful negotiations.
As we heard from my hon. Friends the Members for Newcastle upon Tyne North and for St Helens North, Northern Ireland has shown that this work can provide vital underpinnings for any future agreement. That civil society dimension of peacebuilding is about practical politics, building and embedding public support for any future agreement and ensuring that it can weather the challenges ahead. Just as we found in Northern Ireland, broad-based popular support is a prerequisite for any successful peace process.
The International Fund for Ireland spent about 8% more per head daily than is currently available for grassroots co-existence work in Israel and Palestine. Over the two decades since the signing of the Oslo accords, a growing network of NGOs has worked at grassroots level to foster values of co-existence, peace and reconciliation. The international fund would bring together public and private donors, nations, corporations and private foundations and individuals. It would focus work on supporting joint initiatives and co-operation between Israelis and Palestinians and between Arabs and Jews. As my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North said, it would lead to empowerment, civic activism and a host of other activities. It is envisaged that that $200 million per year fund would receive contributions from the international community, including the Arab world, but importantly it would be independently managed and additional to any existing support already provided directly to either the Palestinian Authority or Israel.
This work is more critical than ever because, as elsewhere in the world, Israel is suffering the economic as well as health consequences of the pandemic. It is about to enter its first recession in more than two decades. The economic crisis in the west bank is even deeper, as it was already in recession. The Palestinian economy has shrunk by an estimated 7.6% during the pandemic, pushing an existing recession into a deep depression. This raises the prospect of increased tensions, which suits those who have no investment in building for peace.
The peacebuilding sector provides essential services to many communities, but it is dependent on global donors and support from foreign Governments. We must develop greater co-ordination among major funders so that donor states improve their efforts with regard to civil society. Increased co-ordination will lead to a more efficient and effective use of resources, as well as opportunities for cross-pollination and deeper partnerships. That is why this international fund is so important and why this country must play a leading role.
As we have heard, there is a growing body of evidence showing the benefits of co-existence projects, even though most of this work has been achieved in the face of considerable challenges, most notably the collapse of the peace process and the second intifada.
Four years ago, Labour Friends of Israel was proud to launch its campaign “For Israel, For Palestine, For Peace” in pursuit of the very international fund that is now within our grasp. I acknowledge the important intervention of the British Government with the people for peaceful change fund, but I urge the Minister to build on that today by confirming that we will play a leading role in supporting this international fund.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Efford, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) on securing this important and timely debate.
As the late, great former President of Israel and Nobel peace laureate Shimon Peres said,
“we should use our imagination more than our memory”.
His words ring truer today than ever before, as progress in Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations has stalled, despite genuine efforts over the years to secure a two-state solution.
It was revealed last week that His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales placed a private donation to the Peres Centre for Peace and Innovation, an organisation founded by President Peres. This is excellent news, and it is not difficult to see why His Royal Highness was so impressed by the organisation’s indispensable work, including programmes that pave the way for mutual understanding between all of Israel’s citizens and for a lasting peace between Israel and its neighbours.
I join others today in calling on the UK Government to support the new people-to-people partnership for peace fund. I recall that the former Minister for the Middle East, Alistair Burt, endorsed the initiative a few years ago, and I sincerely hope that the Minister today will take this opportunity to reiterate the UK’s support.
The UK is rightly regarded as a world leader in the field of international development, and British taxpayers would, I am sure, take great pride in knowing that our aid is going directly to those on the ground in Israel and the Palestinian Territories who are working every day towards establishing stronger inter-community relations. Following the creation of the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, I can think of no better way to display the UK’s newly stated commitment to use our international aid to advance our foreign policy goals. An outward-looking global Britain should be at the forefront of multilateral efforts to promote peace and co-existence, which lay the groundwork for a much sought after peace deal.
Beyond the region, our investment in the US Middle East Partnership for Peace Act, which is working its way through Congress with widespread bipartisan support, would send a clear signal to the incoming Biden Administration that the UK believes in its multilateral approaches to making the world a better place. It offers a welcome new channel for co-operation with our closest ally. This new vehicle for delivering aid directly to peaceful co-existence programmes, as well as supporting investments to small and medium-sized Palestinian-owned enterprises, promises to transform the region.
In recent years, the UK Government have begun to realign their aid to the Palestinian Authority away from donations to its general budget—which led to widespread misuse of aid, including the reprehensible payment of salaries to convicted Palestinian terrorists—and instead towards paying the salaries of specifically vetted healthcare and education civil servants. DFID’s announcement a few years ago of a further £3 million fund for co-existence projects marked a further step in the right direction, following growing concerns over aid abuses by the Palestinian Authority.
Constructive dialogue is possible. At the start of the covid-19 pandemic, we saw extensive co-operation and co-ordination between the Israelis and Palestinians, developing shared solutions to the problems jointly faced. I myself have visited the region and have seen the positive work in bringing both sides together. This international fund offers a viable pathway forward to ensure that aid goes directly to projects that bring Israelis and Palestinians together, all of which is overseen by a transparent system of scrutiny and review. It is a path that we must seize and support.
I congratulate the hon. Lady for—I just need to find it—Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell). Sorry for not knowing her constituency; I should know it very well, so apologies for that hesitancy. It is also a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for West Bromwich East (Nicola Richards) and to hear all the other contributions.
In her former role as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, we had occasion to invite the right hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers) down to my constituency, and we can all marvel at how Northern Ireland has changed. I am a recipient of that, because my attitude has changed as well. I now look back on all those years. My hon. Friend the Member for St Helens North (Conor McGinn)—he is my hon. Friend—comes from a different part of the country and probably from a different tradition as well. None the less, we can both see how Northern Ireland has changed. And that happens only if people make the effort—only if people decide in their own mind that they want to change.
I was just sitting here when the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North referred to the Anglo-Irish agreement; the Belfast agreement has also been mentioned. I can remember exactly where I was in 1985. I was out on the streets—fact of life—protesting against an agreement that sold us short; I was making my point. Along with thousands of other people, I felt quite agitated—I am trying to pick my words very carefully—about the whole thing. There was a pathway of change that came to us.
I got married and had my children, and I can remember the first Orange parade that was stopped in Drumcree in Portadown. I remember very well what I said to my wife, Sandra, as I left that morning. I genuinely felt that I was on a train that had left the station and I could not get off it. That was how I explained it to my wife; I am not sure whether she really understood what I was trying to tell her. I was trying to tell her that we were on a road going in a certain direction and I did not think we could stop it. That was where we were at that time; it was a very difficult time.
As it turned out, Chief Constable Flanagan let the people walk down to Drumcree. I think that defused the situation and was for the best, because I genuinely did not think that we were ever going to come home from Drumcree—or we might come home in a very different position from the one we were in when we first left. As I said, that defused the situation.
I just want to say that I can really see the benefits of understanding. I supported Dr Paisley. Not all my party did, but I did, because of what I realised at that stage. When I came home from Drumcree, I said to my wife, “Sandra, you know something? I think we’ve got to look at things slightly differently. I think we’ve got to find another way. I understand that the nationalists have a very distinct constitutional position. I have a very different position as a Unionist, but we’ve got to find a way forward. We’ve got to find a way forward for my boys and for all the other wee boys and girls across the whole of Northern Ireland.” And I think we found that way to take things forward.
When Dr Paisley and Martin McGuinness got the Assembly up and running, I supported them wholeheartedly, and the rest of my colleagues then came round and started to see the benefits of what we were doing. That happened only because, ever mindful that constitutionally we were so far apart, we were prepared at least to enter into some discussions together.
I am going down through the years here, Mr Efford, and my apologies for doing that, but I remember I was on the Committee for Culture, Arts and Leisure—this is a true story—and the chair of that committee was of a different persuasion from me. When it was over, I went up to him, shook his hand, told him who I was and said to him, “You know something? Constitutionally, you will always want a united Ireland, but as a Unionist I will do my darnedest to make sure you don’t get it.” Barry McElduff was the chair of the committee, by the way. And I said to him, “But when we are here, your people and my people will want the same things, so how do we make that happen?” I said, “I’m going to recognise your position as chair and I hope you give me a chance to participate in the debates”—as if he could stop me, by the way. But he was very kind and we got on well, although we were from two totally different traditions. I am waffling a wee bit, so I apologise for that.
The process in Northern Ireland was supported financially and physically by the EU, the USA and across the world. By the way, I met Michel Barnier in Brussels—I think it was last year—and at that time he was able to tell me all the places in Northern Ireland where EU funding had got to. I had had a different opinion of Michel Barnier—I am speaking as a Brexiteer now—and I remember that when I came home and told my colleagues about meeting him, I said, “Guys, I don’t know how to put this to you, but he’s quite knowledgeable and he’s not a bad man, you know.” I think I could almost see the daggers coming from all my colleagues at that time, but I said, “I’m just telling you, observationally.” He made things happen.
I have been a friend of Israel for many years, in both the Northern Ireland Assembly and Westminster. My leader here, my right hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson), has been chosen to be a speaker in many places. He has spoken in Palestine and Lebanon, in South Africa when the process was taking place there, and in Colombia and South America.
Peaceful co-existence projects between Israelis and Palestinians lay the foundations for a lasting two-state solution, which I fully support. Such projects include Save a Child’s Heart, which provides life-saving heart surgery for children from the developing world and the Palestinian territories. It recently conducted its 5,555th surgery—wow, isn’t that fantastic? It is incredible that that can happen.
Whether we like him or not, we cannot ignore the fact that President Trump was the instrument of the Abraham accords and he did move things on. We also have to recognise that Joe Biden has won the election and perhaps US influence will, hopefully, change as well.
Regrettably, some Palestine participants have been criticised—including when Prince Charles gave a private donation, as the hon. Member for West Bromwich East mentioned—for taking part in activities that normalise relations with Israel. If we do not normalise relations, we do not move forward. We have to do that.
In 2017, the Department for International Development announced unprecedented funding of £3 million towards peaceful co-existence. Again, I ask the Minister: is there any chance that money could be added again? A statement published by the Department said—I am coming to a conclusion, Mr Efford, and am conscious that two other Members want to speak—that the partnerships
“will bring together Israelis and Palestinians to cooperate on issues which can have a positive impact on social, political and economic life”.
That project ended in June 2020. It had a health pillar, a religious pillar and a youth pillar, which involved Israeli, Palestinian and Jordanian health officials doing an exercise simulating a collaborative response to a potential cross-border infectious disease outbreak. How good it was to have that.
The religious pillar brought together some 1,219 young Israelis and Palestinians who took part in holy site tours aimed at increasing understanding of religious tolerance. It did not make any person less a Jew or less a Palestinian. It did not change their religious opinions, but it brought them together to understand that people of a different religion can have that religion. As chair of the all-party parliamentary group for international freedom of religion or belief, I say that every day—Members here will know that, and it is where we should be coming from.
The youth leaders’ groups, women and political, business and community leaders participated in workshops and built the capacities—it is really important to have the capacity built in these communities—to identify opportunities to improve peace in local communities.
We all say we want peace in the middle east, but we need to put money into the right projects to achieve it. I look forward to hearing how we can move things forward in this House to bring real reconciliation, as I believe there can be, in Israel and Palestine.
I apologise for being late to this debate; unfortunately, I was serving on a Delegated Legislation Committee at the same time. I thank the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) for bringing forward this incredibly important debate. I refer right hon. and hon. Members to my declaration in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, because earlier this year I went to Israel and the west bank on a fact-finding mission through Conservative Friends of Israel. It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for the first time. He made some very poignant points. I think he must have read my speech, because I will echo some of therm.
I join colleagues from both sides of this Chamber in supporting the international fund for Israeli-Palestinian peace, and I echo calls for the Government to take up one of the available seats on the board. For many years, we have heard concerns raised by UK taxpayers that their aid is perpetuating the conflict rather than helping to resolve it. This year we have given £51 million to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, which delivers aid to recipients who meet problematic criteria based on entitlement rather than humanitarian need. UNRWA uniquely extends refugee status beyond the UN’s 1951 refugee convention, to all descendants of Palestinian refugee males.
Although UNRWA carries out important work, including the provision of healthcare and education, defining its recipients as refugees sends a troubling message to Palestinians living in the west bank and Gaza that they have a right to relocate to Israel. This undermines the viability of a two-state solution and runs counter to our policy on the middle east peace process.
We fund the salaries of teachers who use the official Palestinian Authority curriculum, which teaches Palestinian children that Israel’s existence is merely temporary, and which promotes violence against Israelis and Jews. Our aid frees up funds for the Palestinian Authority to pay salaries to convicted terrorists, with higher salaries paid to those who have killed more Israelis. I could go on, but the points have been made time and again, and have been made already in the debate. The PA has not made the changes we have called for, and that leaves the international community with no choice but to rethink its strategy. Peace is essential to prosperity for both Israel and Palestine.
The international fund that is being discussed today would be a step in the right direction. Peaceful co-existence projects lay the foundations for a lasting two-state solution, making peace more likely. Yet in the past some Palestinian participants have been criticised, even by leaders in the Palestinian Authority, for taking part in activities that normalise relations with Israel. Does the Minister agree that that is counterproductive, and that we must urge the PA to facilitate such projects, not oppose them?
I visited Israel and the west bank in February, as I said earlier, and was stunned by the incredible entrepreneurship and ambition in the region, despite the challenges of the conflict. Meeting young Palestinian businesspeople at an intelligence start-up in Ramallah was an eye-opening experience. It was clear that, like many young people, they have ambition and strive for success and growth. They seek peace, recognising that conflict restrains expansion, but they have achieved what they have in spite of the political leadership, not because of it. We also made an inspiring visit to MATI, the Jerusalem Business Development Centre, in East Jerusalem. The centre helps Arab women to set up and expand their businesses, as well as providing mentoring and training for job interviews. The deputy Mayor of Jerusalem, Fleur Hassan-Nahoum, is doing phenomenal work supporting job creation and organisation through the work of MATI.
We visited the Israeli charity Save a Child’s Heart, as the hon. Member for Strangford highlighted, and met many children from the west bank and Gaza, and the developing world, who have received life-saving heart surgery free of charge. Palestinian surgeons are trained to carry out life-saving heart surgery by Israeli doctors, so that they can save countless lives back home. Every Tuesday, Palestinian children from the west bank and Gaza travel to Israel for the weekly cardiology clinic with their parents. It is the first time that many of them have met an Israeli in a positive setting.
Not only is that experience of having surgery life-saving; it creates a bond between people that cannot be broken. “They fought for my son’s life. They gave us everything we needed. They are like family to me”. Those are the words of the mother of Mahmad, a two-year-old Palestinian boy from Gaza whose life was saved by the charity earlier this month in its 5,555th procedure. Does the Minister share my view that the UK should be supporting that incredible work? Will he join me in congratulating Save a Child’s Heart on reaching that epic milestone? Does he agree that such interactions truly lay the groundwork for future peace? Joining the international fund for Israeli-Palestinian peace as a board member will massively increase our capacity to support peacebuilding efforts such as Save a Child’s Heart, and I urge the Minister to consider doing so.
I conclude by pointing out that there have been many positives but also many negatives in relation to UNRWA, which have been discussed many times in this Chamber, including in today’s debate. We as a nation cannot fund antisemitism in a foreign nation while we try to stamp it out in our own society, so while we continue to fund UNRWA we need to make sure that it is reformed.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Efford. I echo the congratulations that have been given to the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) on securing the debate.
I welcome efforts to establish the multilateral international fund to help build a lasting Israeli-Palestinian peace. Anything that helps to bring countries together and focuses hearts and minds is a positive step, although we have to recognise that there are clearly other issues that need to be addressed on the ground to get things moving in that direction. I would certainly welcome diplomatic support from the FCDO to help establish the fund and ensure buy-in from the other nations, too. As we have heard from other Members, a very similar fund was established to help bring peace in Northern Ireland, but according to the Alliance for Middle East Peace, £1 billion was spent on those efforts over two decades. That is almost 10 times the amount that has been spent on similar efforts between Israelis and Palestinians to date.
Of course, the concerted efforts that brought results in Northern Ireland remain a beacon of hope for all of us. For those who grew up in that time, nobody could have imagined they would ever see Ian Paisley senior and Martin McGuinness not only sharing power, but being friendly and having a rapport together, earning themselves the nickname of the “chuckle brothers”. I sincerely hope that hard-won peace is not undermined by the reckless Brexit actions that the Government are currently undertaking, and that the UK belatedly recognises the importance of sticking to international law, for chaos falls when Governments unilaterally decide which international laws to follow and which to simply ignore, as we have seen in the middle east.
Like my Scottish National party colleagues, I speak as a friend of Israel, but a critical one. I absolutely understand and support Israel’s right to defend its territory against aggressors where there are undoubtedly threats from militant factions in Palestine, but I cannot support actions that undermine international laws by extending territories beyond internationally agreed boundaries, such as the 53-year-old Israeli occupation of the west bank. I cannot support actions that impose such brutal living conditions on a civilian population in Palestinian territories and cut off access to vital healthcare, albeit I am very impressed by the programme outlined by the hon. Member for Bury South (Christian Wakeford), which sounds like a step in the right direction.
I hope that now that a new President is on the way in the United States, there may be a chance for some reflection, and for the de-escalation of tensions that could permanently threaten the viability of a two-state solution by continuing to erode Palestinian rights. I welcome the fact that the Israeli annexations of the west bank have been put on hold through the signing of the Abraham accords. It is also positive to see some progress in normalising the diplomatic relations between Israel and the surrounding Arab states of Bahrain, Sudan and the United Arab Emirates, but at what cost? As with everything in the region, there is a more nuanced and complex story behind the smiles and warm words of these agreements, and much more to be concerned about than the top line of a story might suggest.
Although these accords were, in principle, supposed to halt further occupation and annexation of occupied territories, they contravene the terms of the 2002 Arab peace initiative, in which the establishment of an independent Palestinian state was given as a precondition for full, normal relations with Israel. This deal may have put further annexation on the back burner for now, but it has not removed the threat. It also disregards existing breaches of international law in occupied territories and Palestinian sovereignty rights, which could have major implications for reaching any lasting settlement between Israel and Palestine. Khaled Elgindy, a political analyst and author on the conflict, wrote,
“As many of us have argued from the start, Arab Gulf states’ normalization with Israel is not about normalizing bilateral ties as much as they’re about normalizing Israeli occupation & the settlements.”
That cannot be allowed.
We also know that settler violence and the forced displacement of Palestinian people in the occupied west bank has continued. On the night of 4 November, as the eyes of the world focused on the US election, 70 more Palestinian structures were demolished by Israeli forces in the Bedouin hamlet of Khirbet Humsah, making 74 Palestinians, including 41 children, homeless. Forcibly confiscating land and demolishing homes is not the way to make peace a realistic option. This has to be stopped.
The diplomatic role the UK has played in harbouring peace should not be undermined by continuing to sell arms that may be used in unlawful killings by any regime, whether friend or foe. The UK has massively increased the sale of arms to the Israel Defence Forces at a time when there has been rightful international condemnation of indiscriminate airstrikes and credible reports of unlawful killings, including of children and medics. The human rights record of Israel against Palestinians is woeful, and the UK should not turn a blind eye to its potential role in supplying these weapons. Arms sales should be suspended until all such reports of human rights violations are independently investigated.
I know that the term “ethical foreign policy” went out of fashion with the late Robin Cook, but it is certainly time that we brought it back, for without that, what do we stand for? I want Scotland and the UK to be a force for good in the world, not an enabler of human rights abuses. I am sure everyone in this House is united in wanting to see progress towards sustainable peace and stability for both the people of Israel and the people of Palestine, based on mutual recognition and the rule of law. I hope the proposed fund will help those efforts, but it is not in itself enough to move things beyond warm words.
The UK has an important diplomatic role and responsibility in the region, so I look forward to hearing from the Minister about any measures being brought forward. Recognising the issues on the ground for the people of Palestine and speaking out against human rights abuses, without fear or favour, is central to helping progress to a meaningful, sustainable peace that can meet the aspirations of all.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Efford. I begin by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) on securing the debate and on giving such a clear exposition of her case.
We have had a very good debate this afternoon. It is also important to stress that the debate has not only been good but it has been conducted in the right kind of spirit. That is so important when we talk about the emotive issue of Israel and Palestine. We need to have mutual respect among ourselves and understand that it is a complex issue that requires sensitivity and understanding.
One thing that unites most people in this House—certainly in this Chamber—is that we believe in the two-state solution. That is the only way to bring real peace to Israel and Palestine. We need to recognise that a safe Israel alongside a viable Palestinian state can be achieved only through negotiation, and for that negotiation to be successful, there inevitably has to be give and take. It also has to be recognised that it is important to pay attention to the climate in which those negotiations can take place and their overall context.
That is why this debate is so important. It is vital to have co-operation between the Israelis and Palestinians in a daily, practical sense. It is important that they understand where each other is coming from. It is important that they respect each other and that there is reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians.
It is important to recognise, as a number of Members have said this afternoon, that we have a great deal to learn from the experience of Northern Ireland. That was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for St Helens North (Conor McGinn) and the right hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers). The contribution this afternoon from the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) was particularly moving, because he accurately talked about two traditions in Northern Ireland: the nationalist tradition and the Unionist tradition, historically a long way apart from each other with different histories. What is significant about the 1980s and 1990s is that people began to talk and to understand where each was coming from. Eventually common ground was found, and, hopefully, a secure way has been mapped out to have lasting peace in Northern Ireland.
I remember well the mid-1980s and the 1990s and the troubles. I was a Member of the European Parliament at the time and I remember talking to my good friend John Hume. John passionately believed in the need for a well funded international fund for Ireland. Through negotiation with others, he was able to establish that fund, which made a huge contribution towards bringing people together and establishing through civic society the very firm foundations for a Good Friday agreement. That fund in Northern Ireland—the international fund for Ireland, as it was called—brought many people together, not just in Northern Ireland but from the southern part, too. It was the great unsung hero of the peace process.
From all of that, we have so much to learn. I believe that the fund we have been talking about this afternoon, in the context of Israel and Palestine, offers the way to take forward many of the principles underpinning that fund in Northern Ireland. We have heard about the international fund for Israeli-Palestinian peace, and hon. Members have accurately described the process in America, whereby the House of Representatives has approved legislation that is now progressing through the Senate. Significantly, the legislation has bipartisan support. It is not just Republicans or Democrats; people drawn from both parties in the United States are supporting the initiative. I, like other hon. Members, am hopeful that when the new Biden-Harris Administration takes office in January, it will take up the idea and make it a reality.
The fund is important because eventually it will become an institution—one that will have helped lay the bedrock for the peace process. However, it will not simply be an abstract institution. It will also be a fund that will encourage practical initiatives that bring people together. It will encourage entrepreneurship and—who knows?—it might even help the establishment of joint schools for the children of Israelis and Palestinians. It will provide spaces for people to talk about their common problems.
The hon. Gentleman is very gracious in giving way. There is much that I agree with in his speech, but there is—sorry to use a cliché—an elephant in the room. He is a member of a party from which advocates for Israel such as Ian Austin and Ivan Lewis resigned their membership because saying anything in defence of Israel within the Labour party—a political party that they had supported for their entire adult life—was howled down and met with intimidation and antisemitism.
With all due respect, we are not talking about the internal politics of the Labour party here today. Frankly, we are talking about something far more important than that: we are talking about peace being established between the people of Israel and Palestinians. That is the important thing. That is not to underestimate what has been said about antisemitism inside the Labour party, but there is a time and place for everything. Today, we are talking about peace in the middle east and peace between the people of Israel and Palestine.
I believe that the fund, if it is established by the United States of America and others rally behind and support it, will be a huge step forward. However, I must say too that it is not an alternative to UNRWA funding but is something that must be introduced as well as that. It is not an excuse, as some people have suggested, for supporting settlements on the west bank. It is important to recognise that the fund is something quite different and it requires cross-party support from all good people who support peace in the middle east, coming together to find common ground.
I pay tribute, as a number of hon. Members have already done, to the Alliance for Middle East Peace. ALLMEP has being plugging away for a long time on this. At last, we are seeing real fruition coming about today and there is tremendous optimism. I must say that a lot of optimism is required from time to time in the middle east, but I believe the fund really offers that. All tribute to the alliance for championing that so consistently.
We are talking about the United States, but I emphasise that the fund must not be for the United States alone; we require multilateral international support. The Europeans have given support and the British can give support as well. It is vital that we do. There is a huge opportunity for the Prime Minister, when he talks about global Britain, to be proactive and to give the lead even to the Americans to encourage them to move forward quickly. I hope the British Government will be unambiguous and emphatic in supporting the fund as quickly as possible, but I want them to go further. I do not want only rhetoric from the Government; we are used to plenty of that. I want them to come forward and say that they want one of the two seats that will govern the fund when it is established. I also want them not only to say that will they support the Abraham accords that have been established between Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, but to go further and say that the fund must be used for Arab support for such an initiative. That would be a huge step forward.
Finally, we all need to recognise that the fund will potentially make a huge contribution to peace. A lasting peace has to be seen as a process and not a single event.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Efford, and a pleasure to be back here in Westminster Hall. Life can be a bit soulless when sitting in an office or a back bedroom making Zoom calls and so forth. This debate has demonstrated the value of physically being in the House. Perhaps you will thank the Speaker for facilitating that. I think all hon. Members would approve of extending that.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) for securing this debate and to everyone who has participated, including the groups. I particularly welcome her as chair of Labour Friends of Israel and as a member of other organisations. I apologise; I am promoting her because of her talent, which is an easy mistake to make. I also apologise on behalf of the Minister for the Middle East and North Africa, who is not here today. He had a long-standing commitment to appear before a Select Committee, but it is a pleasure for me to represent Her Majesty’s Government here today.
The hon. Member for Caerphilly (Wayne David) talked about how respectful the debate has been, and I would like to carry on in that vein, but it would not be out of place for me to follow on from my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers) and draw attention to the excellent work that Joan Ryan, Ivan Lewis and Ian Austin did in this Chamber. They were all friends across party lines, although I campaigned in Ian Austin’s constituency to get him out of Parliament. I am happy with the robust nature of politics, but I know that really was not what happened. I know that there is a meeting going on as we speak to move things on slightly, but there clearly is a process for this type of debate, and engagement is a part of that process.
I echo the condolences expressed by the hon. Member for St Helens North (Conor McGinn) on the tragic passing of Saeb Erekat last week. He was a true champion of dialogue and of Palestinian rights, and his passing is a great loss to us all. Through you, Mr Efford, we pass on our thoughts and sympathies to his family and the people of Palestine.
The middle east peace process continues to be complex, as was demonstrated during this debate. There are sensitive issues that divide the House, although I am minded to report back to the Minister of the Middle East the similarities in the contributions. They were not identical, but there were things that we agree on, as well as things that might divide us. The Government will remain active in looking for progress on peace in the region. We welcome, as others have done, the normalisation of relations between Israel, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Sudan. The agreements represent a profound shift within the region, but we must now proceed in parallel with steps to resolve the underlying conflict.
My hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich East (Nicola Richards) demonstrated that there is an opportunity for the FCDO to work together. I know there is some concern about the merger, but this situation is perhaps typical of where the FCDO can add more value as one rather than as two, because development and politics are so tightly fused as to be almost indistinguishable. If the matter is not moving forward, it is not because of political or development reasons.
There is much to be done to rebuild trust. The suspension of the threat of annexation was a welcome first step, mentioned by a number of Members, but it must be made permanent. It is vital that the Palestinian Authority resume co-operation with Israel and that the Israeli-Palestinian leaderships come together to pursue the pathway to peace. Her Majesty’s Government believe that the two-state solution is the only viable long-term solution and the only way permanently to end the Arab-Israeli conflict, to preserve Israel’s Jewish and democratic identity and to realise Palestinian national aspirations.
The Government are aware of ongoing discussions, specifically around the international fund for Israeli-Palestinian peace, which I understand, despite the slight contradictions of other hon. Members, the US Senate will consider in 2021. We know that there is considerable flux in the US system, and as parliamentarians we know of the complexities of other systems, so it might be slightly further away than was thought before the debate. The Government support the objectives of the international fund, but Members will understand that Ministers tend not to make announcements about future funding from the Dispatch Box or in Westminster Hall. I can confirm that we have no plans to commit financial support at this stage, but we will continue to engage with the Alliance for Middle East Peace. It and its 100-members have a strong relationship with the FCDO and officials.
I hear a very clear message that one of the rationales for involvement is to secure a seat. I think that the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North pressed me to commit officials specifically to providing advice, and when the decision point comes I shall be happy to do that. She also pressed me to promise the time of the Minister for Middle East and North Africa. As she knows, even in covid times he is omnipresent here and on Twitter. I do not agree, having made a contribution and agreed to have a conversation with him, to commit his time at this stage, but I am sure he will make himself open to discussion at the right juncture.
Members spoke of the importance of projects that seek to promote peace. The UK remains committed to the middle east and to the occupied Palestinian territories, providing a vital role in helping to improve the lives of Palestinians and supporting the commitment to maintain the viability of the two-state solution. Our ongoing work includes humanitarian support to meet immediate needs in Gaza, support to key services such as health and education in the west bank, promoting economic development across the occupied Palestinian territories, and helping to meet the needs of Palestinian refugees across the wider region. To give a concrete example, the UK Government are providing £20 million this year to support the salaries of teachers, nurses and doctors. That will help the Palestinian Authority to support their health workers, especially in their frontline battle against covid and in delivering life-saving medical services. I am conscious of the celebration of 5,555 operations. It sounds like excellent work is being done. I am not sighted of the programme, but I am happy to receive more information.
The Minister mentions £20 million being set aside to fund the salaries of teachers and doctors. Would it be possible to encourage those teachers and doctors to perform some cross-community work? It might be a small method of bringing people together. It is just a thought.
I fully appreciate that £20 million is going to fund teachers and healthcare workers, but part of the problem is the curriculum that is being taught. If we are funding teachers to teach that curriculum, we perpetuate the problem. If we are funding it, can we do some meaningful work in reforming the curriculum so that we can truly bring about peace?
I am conscious that this has been the subject of a number of debates. There is no funding of textbooks and there is careful selection of teachers. There is also a review, through our European partners, of some of these issues. I am happy to engage with the hon. Member in more detail outside this debate.
The UK is also a key supporter of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency in providing aid and development assistance to the Palestinian refugees.
It is very good to hear about the UK Government’s financial commitment to this work. Given that the role of global Britain is enhanced not just by the strength of its arguments and values but by the fact that it puts its money where its mouth is, does the Minister worry that continuing speculation about draconian cuts to the aid budget undermines the good work that is being done and gives rise to concerns about the sustainability of that work in the future?
The UK is committed to spending its money on global Britain force for good development work across the board. I will not be led into a debate just before a fiscal event. We maintain a commitment and we want to be known as a force for good in the world. We want to punch great weight as global Britain, and the cash in the development budget is important to that.
Talking of cash, the £51 million provided through UNRWA has helped to educate about 500,000 girls and boys so far. It will pay to access healthcare for 3.5 million Palestinian refugees and create a social security net for more than 250,000 of the most vulnerable people across the region. In 2019, we also provided more than £16 million in humanitarian assistance to Gaza, supporting the health system, trauma care and emergency food supplies to more than 1.2 million people.
On the people-to-people programmes, hon. Members will intuitively know how civic activism and connections work. With other Members, I compliment the hon. Member for Strangford—you were very liberal with him, Mr Efford, for which we were all grateful—on the strong personal stories that he told about how one goes through pathways over time. I was amused to think that while the hon. Gentleman was on the streets, I was sitting my O-levels. It is good that he is passing on the baton of experience.
The people-to-people programme ended recently. It was a £3 million programme that brought together Israelis and Palestinians to co-operate to have a positive impact on communities and improve understanding between people on both sides of the conflict, and so build a basis for peaceful negotiation and resolution. The programme was also planned to have a research component that would inform any future work in the area. I will certainly speak to the Minister for Middle East and North Africa about contextualising that review with the requests from this debate and the opportunities through UNRWA.
We shall remain in close consultation with the United States and our international partners to encourage all parties to reverse negative developments on the ground, including by working regionally for peace and encouraging meaningful bilateral relationships. Ultimately, we shall succeed only when these are conducted by Israelis and Palestinians and supported by the international community.
I thought I had done that, but obviously not clearly enough. I will ask officials to look specifically at whether we should take one of those seats and at the timing of commitments. There is no point deciding late in the day that we do want to commit and that we would have liked a seat. There is a certain amount of timeliness. I sense that certain hon. Members are moving at the pace of the US, which I think will be slightly slower. However, I am more than happy to receive submissions on that and to pass them on to the Minister for the Middle East. I am happy to make that commitment, and I apologise that I was not clearer in terms of a commitment to see whether that would be advantageous and to do that at the right time.
To rebuild trust, we must see an end to detrimental actions on the ground. We consistently call for an immediate end to all actions that are likely to undermine the viability of a two-state solution. That includes terrorism, incitement, settlement expansion, the demolition of Palestinian property in the occupied Palestinian territories, including in East Jerusalem. The eviction of Palestinians from their homes causes unnecessary suffering and in all but the most exceptional cases is wholly contrary to international humanitarian law.
We are also concerned about further settlement advancements. Settlements are illegal under international law and damaging to peace efforts. The UK regularly urges the Government of Israel to end this counterproductive policy, most recently in an international statement alongside other international partners on 13 October.
However, we are also clear that Israel is a close friend, and it has many close friends in this Chamber, who reach out as part of friendship groups. The people of Israel deserve to live free from the scourge of terrorism and free from antisemitic incitement, all of which gravely undermines the prospects of a two-state solution, which is in everyone’s interest.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet talked about prisoner payments, and we have raised that at the highest levels with the Palestinian Authority. With that, I will resume my seat.
I thank the Minister for that response. This debate is incredibly important and gives me great hope. The power of the possibility that this international fund holds is in the fact that it is not a party political issue. All parties have spoken in favour of working together for our shared ambition to build peace where currently that is a big challenge.
People-to-people work is not a fluffy afterthought. The civil society dimension of peacebuilding is about very practical politics. It is about how to garner public support for any future agreement and ensure that that agreement—the speech by the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) was very powerful in this respect—can weather the challenges that it will inevitably face in the medium to long term.. Peacebuilding is essential for peacemaking. Nobody believes that co-existence by itself is going to create that lasting peace settlement, but it is absolutely necessary to ensure that it will last. It is up to politicians and Governments to have the will to make difficult compromises and reach an agreement. Ultimately, it is the people who will sustain that peace, who will benefit and who will reap the rewards of peace, security and co-existence.
I look forward to the Minister conveying the specific asks that have been made: that we put ourselves forward for a seat on the international fund that the US is leading, that we look at how we can contribute to it and be pioneers in leading this effort, and that we do so without delay.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered UK support for an international fund for Israeli-Palestinian peace.
Integrated Rail Plan and High Speed 2
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the integrated rail plan and High Speed 2.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Efford. I am grateful that this important issue has been selected for debate. Like many Members of this House, I am a passionate advocate for social mobility, a fervent supporter of the levelling up agenda and wholly committed to securing a carbon-neutral future. There is no doubt that I am seized by this matter, as MP for Broxtowe, hoping to foster benefits from a High Speed 2 east midlands hub at Toton.
I entirely agree with the Prime Minister that we must build back better and invest in an infrastructure revolution to recover from the unprecedented challenges and economic pressures caused by the covid-19 pandemic. HS2 is central to fulfilling all those aims, connecting our great towns and cities, accelerating our recovery from covid-19 and creating a prosperous, productive economy. Although it is most welcome that phase 1 of HS2 is under construction and that the Bill for phase 2a is making its way through the House, I want to focus on phase 2b of HS2, the scope and delivery of which is currently under review.
I understand that the National Infrastructure Commission’s rail needs assessment is being published this month and that the Government’s integrated rail plan will follow in the next few months. On this point, it is essential that the importance of the eastern leg of phase 2b is brought to the fore.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for mentioning the eastern leg of the integrated rail plan. We have great representation in the room from the eastern leg. It stretches 500 miles from London to Aberdeen and Inverness, but in its current state it is sadly holding back the communities that it is intended to serve. That is why local authorities have come together to launch their Invest East Coast Rail campaign this Thursday. Will the hon. Gentleman join me in calling on the Minister to bring the Government’s support for that campaign to the fore and to ensure that the east coast main line is absolutely key in their thinking about investing in future rail for this country?
I thank the hon. Member for her intervention. It is quite right that the Government invest in dependable rail lines that are quicker to their destination.
The connection from Birmingham to Toton, in the east midlands, and to Chesterfield, Sheffield and Leeds must be delivered in full. The council and business leaders in my area, and indeed in the north, have raised serious concerns with me that the eastern leg of phase 2b might be scaled back.
I congratulate the hon. Member on securing this important debate. Does he share my concern that, with the pressure of this pandemic and the subsequent costs, Government finances are such that there will be real pressure on the delivery of capital projects, and that it would be worth having a debate in the main Chamber on these schemes?
I thank the hon. Member for his intervention. They are certainly worthy of a debate, but we need to make sure that we make the argument for future prosperity and for the potential of the people of this country, and not just for spending in the short term.
Should that scaling back come to pass, it would be counterintuitive, short-sighted and, frankly, unacceptable to communities in the midlands that have suffered from decades of chronic under-investment. Indeed, over the past five years, the east midlands region has had the lowest total public sector capital expenditure per person on transport on two occasions: in 2016-17 and then in 2017-18. In 2018-19, the east midlands received around 4% of the total capital expenditure across the UK—the second lowest after only Yorkshire and the Humber.
Despite those statistics, I wholeheartedly believe that the Government are committed to righting the wrongs of inequality and to levelling up and investing in the legacy of a green transport network. In the midlands, the new hub station at Toton will create thousands of highly skilled jobs, spark a huge improvement in local transport links and establish the east midlands region as a centre of innovation and renewable energy generation. It will provide green, carbon-neutral travel for the next century. It must go ahead, as the Prime Minister and numerous other Cabinet Ministers have repeatedly promised. Critically, the case for levelling up the eastern leg is more pronounced than for any other section of the railway.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. He is passionate about the levelling up agenda, and not just for the east midlands. Does he agree that it will not just be the likes of Sheffield and Leeds that will benefit from the eastern leg and that towns in Yorkshire and the Humber, such as my local town of Huddersfield, will also benefit? Will he ask the Minister directly to commit the Government to deliver the east leg of HS2 on time, in full and at the same time as the western leg, to show their commitment to levelling up?
I agree with my hon. Friend’s point, which is central to my argument. Towns and cities in Yorkshire, such as Huddersfield, Leeds, Sheffield and others, are all part of our levelling up, as are towns in the midlands, because levelling up cannot be done in part; it must be done in full.
It concerns me to read reports that communities surrounding the eastern leg have suffered from lower productivity and less investment, and are home to a number of social mobility coldspots, compared not just with the UK average but with communities on the western leg of phase 2b, from Crewe to Manchester. I draw the Minister’s attention to a recent study, “Mind the gap”, which highlights those inequalities. It shows that, despite housing 23% of England’s population, the east midlands is home to over 42% of England’s social mobility coldspots. It outlines that children born poor in these areas are more likely to stay poor. They are less likely to gain qualifications, and they are isolated from opportunity. Crucially, these areas are almost perfectly aligned with those experiencing high levels of transport poverty.
To be clear, it is not the east versus the west. We need the whole of phase 2b to be delivered, but the evidence is clear that communities on the eastern leg cannot and must not be left behind. As part of the levelling up agenda, the Government have said that they want to reduce regional disparities in the country. I welcome that, and I agree with the Prime Minister that we must build back better.
It is key to emphasise that when we speak of levelling up we are speaking of not merely one sector but a cross-departmental effort to build back better. Again, High Speed 2 is central to fulfilling that agenda, connecting our great towns and cities, accelerating our recovery from covid-19 and creating a prosperous, productive economy.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. Does he agree that Birmingham is much closer to Nottingham than London, but the travel time from Nottingham to Birmingham is not that much shorter than it is to London? Although we often talk about improving north-south travel, improving east-west travel is also important, and schemes such as the eastern leg of HS2 will help to achieve that, and more.
I completely agree with my hon. Friend. It is not just about speed, but about capacity to be able to achieve our aims.
There is no doubt that levelling up cannot be done in part. As I have said, it must be done in full. That includes levelling up communities, businesses and housing, and linking them with viable and efficient transport, thereby fostering true regeneration in regional communities such as the east midlands.
HS2 is so much more than a railway. It is important that we communicate its wider benefits. It is essential that the importance of the whole of the eastern leg of phase 2b is brought to the fore. Moreover, I want to press the case that Toton must remain as the HS2 east midlands hub in the Government’s integrated rail plan.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate. He may not have been an MP at the time, but back in 2012 the options for phase 2 of the high-speed rail network ran to 347 pages and, after rigorous analysis, concluded that Toton was the right place for the station. That was not just because it had the potential to offer great interchange across our region, which local councils and other partners have now spent eight years developing, but because it provided the opportunity for regeneration—for housing and jobs. Does he agree that Toton beat other alternatives, including East Midlands Parkway, for those precise reasons?
The hon. Lady is absolutely right. She is supportive of Toton, as are colleagues across the House, including my hon. Friend the Member for South Derbyshire (Mrs Wheeler) and others. Toton is really important to the story of regeneration. At Toton, there are plans for a high-tech innovation campus with 6,000 jobs, as well as garden villages and 4,500 homes. The site of Ratcliffe-on-Soar power station in a neighbouring constituency will be redeveloped into a national centre of excellence for green energy generation. The Government have supported the creation of a development corporation to oversee this huge regeneration project. It will change the lives of a generation of young people in and around my constituency.
Regarding potential alternatives for an east midlands hub, as HS2 Ltd’s March 2012 report describes,
“the intuitive interchange option for serving the East Midlands was potentially incorporating an HS2 station with the existing East Midlands Parkway station.”
Its viability was compared
“directly with the proposed East Midlands Hub station at Toton”—
the hon. Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood) will recall that from her time in Parliament, as she mentioned. Here, an initial appraisal conducted by HS2 Ltd noted engineering and sustainability issues with East Midlands Parkway, concluding that development around the HS2 station would not be supported.
[Ms Nusrat Ghani in the Chair]
In contrast, Toton is ideal and already functions as the centre point of a local transport strategy to connect over 20 villages, towns and cities across the region. On this point, I am excited to report that there are plans for tram extensions in Nottingham and Derby, new rail links—including reopening the Maid Marian line to Mansfield—more buses and better connections by road. This access to Toton strategy has the backing of the whole region, and would deliver the benefits of investment sooner. Therefore, it is critical that these plans and the wider Midlands Engine Rail programme are given the investment they deserve in the Government’s integrated rail plan, ensuring that we make the most of HS2 and connect as many people to it as possible.
To suggest that the station in the east midlands should move away from Toton would reflect a fundamental misunderstanding of what the Toton proposition has become. Toton will be a super-connected artery intended to pump new blood into a levelled up economy, a vision of the future and a blueprint for new ways of living and working.
Let us think for a moment. There are young people in communities such as the one I represent and in towns in the midlands and the north who are in school today. They are growing up with hand washing, wearing face masks, working in bubbles and learning online. For them, the investment that comes from HS2 is not about a railway. It is about hope, aspiration and a positive future: a future where their playing field has been levelled up, and where their potential can be untapped and harnessed. We all know covid has not affected everyone or every economy equally. The areas that were already left behind can now barely be seen in the rear-view mirror.
Economic recovery is not an option. Economy renewal is the key. HS2 runs through the centre of those left-behind towns and cities in the midlands and the north. There are compelling and comprehensive plans in place to harness the investment for the benefit of communities and businesses across the region. To give one example, two years ago, the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government invited the Midlands Engine to bring forward this new form of development corporation to generate transformational economic, social and environmental change. That work, almost ready for submission, would result in 84,000 new jobs and £4.8 billion productivity for our economy.
The plans are not just for an extension of the old economy. The plans are for jobs for the next generation, and that is now. As the sun sets on industries such as coal-fired power stations, investment in infrastructure will bring forward sunrise industries: next-generation zero-carbon technologies developed by industry and universities, designed and built on the site of the former coal-fired power station at Ratcliffe-on-Soar; an innovation campus focusing on health, MedTech and biodiversity, alongside next-generation forms of living in a zero-carbon community, around the HS2 station at Toton; and next-generation forms of making and moving in the UK’s only inland air-based freeport around East Midlands Airport, which is already the UK’s largest dedicated freight airport. It is important to stress that these plans are not just compelling; they are credible. The Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government said so in the planning reform White Paper.
Set those benefits from HS2 in the east midlands alongside benefits across the whole stretch of the eastern leg up through Leeds to Newcastle. The impact will be breathtaking: over 150,000 new jobs and more than £60 billion added to the national economy. The benefits extend beyond jobs: 2.5 million lorries will be taken off the road, reducing carbon emissions by 76%, and 1.2 million cars every day will be replaced by rail, reducing carbon emissions further still.
No, I will not. I need to make some progress.
There is no doubt that hard investment choices need to be made in this country, but we cannot lose sight of the long-term benefits by focusing too much on the short-term costs. It is not a question of whether we can afford this. That misses the cold, hard logic of investing in long-term strategic infrastructure. The Victorians knew what they were doing, and we are still generating economic benefit from their investment today. The question is whether we can afford not to do this. Over 13 million people are standing ready to benefit from this new infrastructure.
I am asking, first, for assurances that the eastern leg of phase 2b of HS2—from Birmingham to Toton in the east midlands, to Chesterfield, Sheffield and Leeds—will not be cancelled. Secondly, I would be grateful to meet the Minister to discuss progress on the eastern leg in my capacity as co-chair of the midlands engine all-party parliamentary group. Specifically, I hope to have productive discussions with the Minister to provide reassurance to my constituents that Toton station and, more generally, the eastern leg of phase 2b will happen.
In conclusion, recovery from covid-19 means investment is more important than ever. My concern is that communities along the eastern leg of HS2 have been left behind in the past. I urge the Minister to look at the evidence provided and ensure that the east midlands and, specifically, Toton station, will not be forgotten in the integrated rail plan. There is no doubt that levelling up cannot be done in part; it must be done in full.
It is a pleasure to see a former Department for Transport Minister in the Chair. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Darren Henry) for securing this important debate. I also thank the hon. Members for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell), for Warwick and Leamington (Matt Western) and for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood), as well as my hon. Friends the Members for Colne Valley (Jason McCartney) and for Gedling (Tom Randall) for their contributions. An honourable mention goes to the Whip, my hon. Friend the Member for Erewash (Maggie Throup), who cannot speak, but I am sure that if she could, she would tell me off and be bending my ear about this exact subject.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Broxtowe (Darren Henry) on securing the debate. The Minister will be aware—he has heard the views expressed this afternoon—that splitting the Bills into two has given rise to concern about potential for delay or worse in respect of HS2 east. My constituents in Leeds, who really want this, for better transport links and for jobs, would be grateful for a specific commitment from the Government, namely, that they intend to proceed with HS2 east—I am backing up what the hon. Member for Broxtowe had to say—to Leeds, at the same time as the western leg to Manchester.
The right hon. Gentleman makes a good point. The reason why we have talked about doing this in more than one Bill is to speed up the process and deliver the benefits sooner. It was a recommendation that came from the Oakervee review. We acknowledge that the phase 1 Bill was introduced to Parliament in 2013 and did not get Royal Assent until 2017; similarly, the phase 2a Bill was introduced in 2017 and still does not have Royal Assent to this day. Hopefully, the idea of splitting it up is a good idea, put forward by Douglas Oakervee in his review, in order to speed up delivering the benefits of both the eastern and western leg.
Since the announcement of the integrated rail plan in February, I have met local leaders, Members of Parliament and business groups to hear their priorities for major rail investments in the midlands and the north. In all these meetings, regional representatives made it clear how important the potential economic benefits of HS2 are to their local communities. I will therefore address the concerns expressed today and reported in the media about the Government’s commitment to the eastern leg. I will try to respond to all the points raised in the four and a half minutes I have left.
In February, following the Oakervee review, the Prime Minister confirmed that HS2 will go ahead. He also committed us to delivering an integrated rail plan to determine how best to deliver phase 2b alongside our other major rail investments in the midlands and the north. As things stand, communities on the eastern leg will be waiting until 2040 to realise the benefits of HS2. That is clearly too long to wait, which is why our integrated rail plan is working on ways to scope, phase and deliver phase 2b alongside other transformational projects, such as the midlands rail hub and Northern Powerhouse Rail, with a view to not only bringing down costs but delivering the benefits of those major investments as quickly and efficiently as possible.
The integrated rail plan will be informed by a rail needs assessment for the midlands and the north by the independent National Infrastructure Commission. The NIC’s interim report was published in July, and we expect its final report to be published before the end of this year. I am aware that there are concerns about what the NIC is likely to suggest in that report, but as an independent body it is right that it looks at all available evidence when undertaking its assessment. Once the report is published, it will be for Ministers to consider the NIC’s conclusions and make final decisions on the integrated rail plan.
I will briefly mention the western leg of phase 2b, as I know that there have been rumours that the Government have scrapped the eastern leg in favour of focusing on the western leg. I confirm that that is simply not true. I made the point earlier to the right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) that the reason behind this was simply in order to smooth the parliamentary passage of the legislation. We think that delivering phase 2b in more than one Bill, subject to what the integrated rail plan says, is a sensible way to move forward. The only reason why the western leg came forward before the eastern leg is that the western leg is shorter than phase 1 or 2a of the eastern leg. The design of Manchester Piccadilly is absolutely crucial for how we deliver Northern Powerhouse Rail, which is the only reason why we have started a design refinement consultation on the western leg rather than on both legs simultaneously.
As the Prime Minister said, it is not “2b or not 2b”. We have to get on with levelling up across the country. As my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe said, this is not about east versus west. Many Members here and many stakeholders want to see the full network delivered, as promised for many years. However, we will not know what that will look like until the integrated rail plan is published, which will hopefully be soon.
My hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe makes a compelling case for his constituency, for levelling up and for wider regeneration that could happen around the Toton site. As the Prime Minister recently said, as we build back better from the pandemic, we will be doubling down on levelling up, and HS2 can play a major part in that. While covid-19 has not stopped us from pressing ahead with HS2, it has made levelling up even more important, to help ensure that no part of the country is left behind as we work to recover from the impact of the pandemic.
By improving capacity and connectivity, HS2 will give people better access to jobs and businesses access to larger markets and suppliers. Growing local economies and levelling up the north and the midlands is at the heart of what we are trying to achieve, and for that reason I am happy to confirm that Ministers from the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government and the Treasury will be closely involved in drawing up the IRP. We know that it is not only about building a railway but about taking a holistic view of how to capitalise on our investments to help to boost regional economies.
Earlier this year, I had a very useful and informative visit to the proposed site at Toton with my hon. Friend. I also had good discussions with the leader of Nottinghamshire County Council, Kay Cutts, on this issue. I will continue that dialogue. I am more than happy to agree to my hon. Friend’s request for a meeting with him and the all-party parliamentary group. This railway is not just for the short term; it is a long-term investment that will bring our cities closer together. I hope to be able to provide certainty to my hon. Friend as early as possible.
Question put and agreed to.
SMEs and the Net Zero Target
I beg to move,
That this House has considered support for SMEs and the net zero target.
It is an absolute pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ghani. I draw hon. Members attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests on all things small business.
I am very supportive of the push to get to net zero as soon as possible. I absolutely believe that business will help to deliver that solution even faster than 2050. My principal concern in bringing forward this debate is that, in the headlong rush to get to that point, we must not treat businesses as collateral damage. We have done that in the past. When we had a change of emphasis in lending back in 2008, that happened to some good businesses, as well as to some businesses that had probably borrowed inappropriately.
I want to give an example of a business in my constituency. There is a very good business a few miles away from where I live called the York Handmade Brick company. It makes wonderful, handmade bricks, that look like old clamp bricks, for lots of houses around the country. It is a fairly small business employing about 20 people and is an award-winning company. Its processes use fossil fuels—natural gas—to fire the bricks. Now, I can see a situation where, in future, banks may look at this business and say, “That business does not sit with our ethical and sustainable goals portfolio. Therefore, it is perhaps not a business we want to support.” If that business needs to borrow some money to invest to move away from fossil fuels, for example, and move to other processes—biogas being an obvious one—what that company will need as it moves, down the line, to a different process, is money to invest. It is absolutely critical that our banking sector takes such businesses forward with us. Hon. Members might say that that is blooming obvious, but that is not always what we have seen in the past.
If we are going to get to net zero, it is absolutely vital that the private sector is taken with us. It will provide the cash and capital to invest in new processes and new techniques. We know for an absolute fact that the private sector is much better at allocating capital than the public sector—I might point to Croydon council in that regard, if Members have seen some of the recent news reports. The private sector is much better at allocating capital; in the past, the public sector has misallocated capital.
Of course, that investment will contribute towards innovation, and the solutions to climate change are about innovation. The more innovation and the more competitive free markets we have, the more our consumers get a better deal at a better price. We are seeing some interventions from shareholders in banks, who are saying, “We do not want you to invest in these kinds of industries anymore.” Shareholder action groups will get increasingly vociferous, which could be to the detriment of small and medium-sized enterprises, and even bigger companies. This is not just about SMEs: bigger companies will remember that last year, for example, there were some protests by actors from the Royal Shakespeare Company regarding BP’s sponsorship of that organisation, which led to a parting of the ways between the RSC and its sponsor. That is despite the fact that BP is working within our overall regulatory framework, and will be incredibly important in the future in making the investment we need to move from a dependence on fossil fuels to a greater dependence on renewable energy.
We have seen this with recent shareholder action in terms of things like the covid corporate financing facility, which is dispensed by the Bank of England. Again, there has been pressure from certain shareholder groups, saying that at this crucial time, when lots of businesses are in trouble because of covid, support for those businesses should have been linked to environmental objectives. How unfair would it have been, when hundreds of thousands of businesses employing millions of people are in crisis, to link those supportive measures to sustainability goals at such short notice?
My key message for this debate is that any intervention by the Government and our financiers, who are so critical to the UK economy, must be comprehensive, well considered, strategic and stable. Our interventions should be consistent over a long period of time to get to that long-term goal. Again, one example I might give is the recent news that we will bring forward the date on which we move away from fossil fuel cars—diesel and petrol cars. It was 2040; it has been brought forward to 2035, and has now been brought forward again to 2030. The motor manufacturers, of course, are gearing up for that, although it presents some real challenges for that sector during what is a difficult time anyway. What about the other businesses in that supply chain? Lots of other SMEs will have to make that change as well: those could be parts manufacturers, but they could also be forecourts. They are going to have to make massive changes over a very short period of time, so we must make these decisions in a strategic fashion.
My hon. Friend makes a really good point about giving sufficient notice. He also points out that businesses will always overachieve, and he might recall that back in 2015, the announcement was made that we would be taking coal off the system by 2025. It has indeed been the case that businesses have overachieved, because coal is almost off the system and it is only 2020.
Does my hon. Friend agree that there could be some merit in the UK Government doing what many G7 countries have done, which is to create a development bank that brings in some offer of Government funding to help with the transfer towards net zero that we all want to see, and from which all SMEs could benefit?
I absolutely agree with my right hon. Friend, and commend her on the work she did when she was in the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy as energy Minister, providing a long-term framework that businesses can work within to phase out coal over that period of time: she was very far-sighted with her interventions. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Gareth Davies) will talk about a development bank in his remarks in a few minutes.
One other area in which we need to look at a more strategic framework is that of the green homes grants. In our manifesto, we committed to about £9 billion for retrofitting, and I think we have committed about £2 billion so far through those grants, which is very welcome. One of the difficulties, as I have communicated to the Minister, is finding installers in our area. A lot of installers are thinking that £2 billion will go very quickly and, therefore, what is the point of applying?
The Federation of Master Builders has some data on that. There have been 180 inquiries to the Federation of Master Builders and only three have completed the paperwork because it was seen as too short a timescale. If we have a longer timescale, businesses will be more likely to invest in the training and the necessary other actions they need to take to qualify as a registered installer for that grant. A long-term, stable framework will encourage much-needed investment.
I will go back briefly to 2008. I am representing here, as I often do as co-chair, the all-party parliamentary group on fair business banking. Much of our work of the past 10 years—including the three years I have been involved—has been around trying to clean up the mess of 2008, when we withdrew support from lots of SMEs, unfairly and far too quickly, and did not give them the chance to transition into a different kind of business or even rebroker their finance.
We need to learn from that in terms of a timescale and a structure for that change and forbearance, in which the APPG has much experience. We need to learn from history. Warren Buffett once said,
“What we learn from history is that people don’t learn from history.”
It would be good to have a focus on that particular episode in our banking history.
With regard to banking, I mentioned before that banks are seeing some shareholder action in the businesses and sectors they will support in future. Access to capital being the most fundamental requirement of any business, this is a hugely important topic. As such, the APPG has come up with a project called Bankers for NetZero. It is engaging with the banking sector and others. It is supported by Volans, the sustainability think-tank, and Re:Pattern, who specialise in business transformation social impact. It is developing policy recommendations to lead to COP26, looking at the regulatory environment and the part banks play in financing; engaging with businesses on net zero challenges; and looking at opportunities and obstacles for banking, while trying to formulate some evidence-based, targeted policy, and to make recommendations on legislation and regulation, in accordance with the United Nations environment programme finance initiative, or UNEPFI, for short. The key objective is that no willing SME is left behind in this vital change to our economy.
One big issue over the next few years is the expected transition of lots of businesses from dependence on fossil fuels to a completely different model. That will be at a time, of course, when a lot of those SMEs are burdened with a significant amount of debt. TheCityUK recapitalisation group report said that SMEs are currently burdened with around £35 billion of unsustainable debt, which will put around 780,000 businesses at risk.
As a result of the covid crisis, it will be very difficult for the two thirds of businesses whose leadership is more focused on being greener and better to make that transition. We know how important SMEs are to our economy: 99% of all businesses are SMEs and they employ 61% of private sector employees, that is, 5.9 million businesses in total. That is a business environment that has been a huge success under this Government.
SMEs are disproportionately positively represented in our levelling-up areas. That also fits into the Government agenda. A very high proportion of SMEs are in construction; 99% of all construction businesses are local builders. They are going to be vital to retrofitting and other measures that we require to modernise our housing stock. They employ hundreds of thousands of local workers and 70% of all apprentices. Other sectors that have a high proportion of SMEs are transport and retail.
I know the Minister’s Department is looking carefully at the next few months. In terms of immediate business support, we need to think about things such as bounce back loans. Not all businesses can access bounce back loans, which is a huge issue. Lots of our businesses are with non-bank lenders, such as Tide, which do not have access to the Bank of England’s term funding scheme for SMEs and therefore do not have the capital to lend to them. Businesses already face that challenge.
Many businesses are struggling to get the new top-ups that the Department has brought forward, which is welcome. As for the businesses that can access that liquidity, many are swamped with applications or are closed to applications from new customers. We are locking some SMEs out of support right now, and we are going to need them to provide us with the solutions to our economic challenges moving forward. There are also issues with the new measures to allow businesses to pay this debt over a longer period of time—the “pay as you grow” guidance. That will be key, as it will allow businesses to pay back the loans over 10 rather than six years.
I welcome the Government’s focus on moving forward to a greener future. The Pension Schemes Bill that was before the House yesterday certainly moves us towards the net zero horizon. Last week, the Chancellor announced a taskforce for climate-related financial disclosure for large companies and financial institutions by 2025 to report on their progress in those areas. We also have the new green taxonomy and a plethora of policies in my right hon. Friend the Minister’s Department on the clean growth strategy.
In terms of where we need to go, first we need to ensure that we have diversity in finance provision. We need to solve the non-bank lender problem. However, I would also like us to invest in a new type of bank: a regional mutual not-for-profit bank that has a much more patient approach to providing finance to SMEs. During the financial crisis of 2008 and all the way through to 2013 in Germany, lending rose by 20% because of the regional banks. In the UK, lending to SMEs dropped by 20%, showing that patient capital works much better when it is provided by a diverse range of providers.
We need a sector-specific just transition road map that looks at every different sector. If some of the current provisions for hospitality, such as the VAT cut, were extended or made permanent, that would be welcome. The British Business Bank needs a role in supporting and advising SMEs. We need to standardise just-transition restructuring, so that if businesses are seen as being in a sector that banks do not want to support, there is a proven standardised process for taking those SMEs from where they are today into the greener future. The shared prosperity fund should be used to support SMEs to make the transition and we should have a fiscal policy that is conducive to allowing SMEs to make the transition, with tax breaks, for example, to decarbonise.
My final point to the Minister—and I know he gets this—is please, please, please let us have no cliff edges, but a strategic approach and a long-term stable framework towards that net zero future.
It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Ms Ghani.
I thank the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake) for securing the debate on this vital subject. In 2019, the business sector accounted for 18% of total carbon emissions. It is one of the biggest contributors of greenhouse gas, along with energy production and transportation. SMEs make up 99% of firms and 61% of the private sector workforce, and contribute £2.2 trillion in turnover, which makes them indispensable to the UK economy. They are extremely innovative, generate vast amounts of employment, and deliver economic prosperity and social cohesiveness. They are also disproportionately present in deindustrialised areas, and therefore present a unique opportunity to build back better.
Nowhere is that more evident than in Leeds, where we have a multitude of SMEs meeting social and environmental responsibilities. For example, Seagulls Paint was awarded a five-year contract by Leeds City Council for the collection, reprocessing and distribution of unwanted household paint, collecting and reusing more than 170 tonnes of paint a year. Other SMEs have been set up with the express intention of protecting the local and global environment, and they include Last Mile Leeds, Revive IT, the Phoenix Works and Revive Leeds.
It is not just a matter of businesses that have a sole environmental focus. Many are leading the way in taking steps to make their businesses more environmentally friendly. A recent opinion poll found that more than half—54%—of SMEs said that they had taken steps to green their business in the past 18 months. When asked whether the transition to a green economy would be financially positive or negative for their business, 61% were optimistic, and just 8% said that the overall impact would be likely to be negative, on balance. Participants pointed to net zero legislation, the ongoing war on plastics, climate activism movements and the green recovery movement as drivers of the transition, so SMEs are rising to the challenge. There are huge benefits and opportunities in the transition.
The hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton mentioned retrofit, and the opportunities suggest that we could create 100,000 new jobs in as short a time as 18 months if the actions in question were taken. In addition to the action that the Government have taken, there should be a reformation of the single-household approach of the energy company obligation, perhaps with the launch instead of area-based, street-by-street programmes supported and supervised by local authorities. There are areas in my constituency that still do not have external wall insulation, although it was planned more than 10 years ago. Another possibility is support for the development of community-led retrofit schemes and co-operatives, such as the Carbon Co-op in Manchester.
Those are all opportunities for SMEs, but many SMEs will come out of the pandemic burdened with debt, as the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton said. To contribute to a net zero transition, they will require capital investment and business support. It is important that the Minister responds to my question about what support SMEs will be given to ensure that they have appropriate information, incentives and targets to be able to pull together to contribute to our collective ambition of net zero. What business support will they receive and, as the hon. Gentleman said, what financial support and investment can they receive?
As the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on net zero, I want to finish by talking about our action plan, which looks at building an expansive and ambitious covid-19 green recovery package that focuses on green job creation and workforce retooling, especially in disadvantaged areas. That includes looking at the growth of solar installers and the reintroduction of the feed-in tariff. Decarbonisation through heat pumps, electric heating or hydrogen would also present opportunities for SMEs as installers. All those things present a huge opportunity to create new SMEs and new jobs within them, but they need the business support, investment, incentives and targets, and an ecosystem that creates the opportunity for net zero for SMEs and business at large.
It is a pleasure to speak in the debate, Ms Ghani, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake) on securing it. I shall not repeat the statistics about how critical SMEs are to the national economy, but just point out that behind every business is someone who had an idea, stuck it out, saw it through and made it happen. As the son of a small businessman I know exactly how hard it is, so it is right to have a debate about how to support them to tackle one of the great challenges of our generation.
The debate is, of course, about support for SMEs and the net zero targets. I do not think that it is controversial to say that SMEs are both a cause of and a potential solution to climate change. The Federation of Small Businesses has said that about 16% to 18% of emissions are caused by SMEs, but also, given their might, they are a huge potential solution, with a view to our meeting the targets set down in legislation. We should be proud of that. Their role in our communities, as well as the knock-on effect on their customers and people who interact with them, can have a great impact.
Climate change is a risk and an opportunity for SMEs. As the hon. Member for Leeds North West (Alex Sobel) said, when surveyed SMEs say that they believe climate change is a significant risk, whether to the supply chain or because of extreme weather. However, it is also a huge opportunity for SMEs to show great innovation and to capture the opportunity of a changing climate. We should encourage and embrace that.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton said, much of this comes down to money. It is clear that in the UK we have a financing gap for SMEs. Only 30% of SMEs use external capital and financing. Many more would like to use it, but are unable to do so. Although the figure is a couple of years out of date, I understand that the National Audit Office has stated that there is a £22 billion financing gap for SMEs.
What should we do about the fact that SMEs need to get ready for climate change in order to mitigate the risk and capture the opportunities? How do we fix that financing gap? I have two potential solutions. First, I applaud the work of the British Business Bank. It is a great innovation as a financial institution and it works with 98,000 business in our country. It has £8 billion of financing and it has proved its worth through the coronavirus crisis. I believe that it should have more money.
The Government have shown, in their latest innovation for meeting our net zero targets, that they are willing to hypothecate the gilt markets with a green gilt. What a good idea that was. We could use the proceeds from that green gilt to help finance the British Business Bank to hypothecate its funding to help SMEs prepare for climate change and our net zero targets, and also to help them innovate and capture the opportunities.
Secondly and finally, as my right hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire (Andrea Leadsom) so eloquently said, we must now look to a British development bank, rolling in the CDC as our international finance arm and rolling in the British Business Bank, to create a huge balance sheet from which we can issue bonds that will target not only regions but SMEs to help them meet the challenges of tomorrow and finance a future that is net zero.
Thank you for your chairmanship today, Ms Ghani. I echo the thanks to the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake) for introducing this important debate.
Given that SMEs employ more than 60% of the private sector workforce, it is right that they play their role in this defining issue for our generation. I believe that our vibrant private sector businesses and entrepreneurs, with the right guidance from Government, are the key to meeting our climate change obligations. Green businesses are setting up across the UK, with the aim of reducing our climate emissions and getting them under control. Some of those products and services are playing their part in removing and stopping the release of far more CO2 emissions than they are creating, and as parliamentarians we must bang the drum for those businesses. I will therefore shamelessly plug businesses in my constituency in this debate.
Water Powered Technologies in Bude has created the Papa pump—a pump that is lighter and smaller than the alternative options available. It uses no electricity and, with no moving parts, is probably the world’s simplest and most cost-effective water pumping solution. Balaena Offshore Utilities is creating unique solutions to island and coastal communities’ water needs. It works out of the Gaia Energy Centre in Delabole, a facility that was built to celebrate the UK’s first wind turbine firm in Delabole—a revolution in 1991.
CleanEarth Energy in Wadebridge is helping people to refit their homes to provide energy-efficient solutions. Also playing its part is the Bude ReFILL shop—a brilliant shop that is designed to eliminate the need for plastic packaging by encouraging customers to bring their own containers to refill. Bude Cleaner Seas is working on a couple of brilliant solutions to cut plastic pollution. Reuse eliminates the need for plastic packaging, which can litter our planet indefinitely, and cuts the CO2 emissions that would have been released had the products needed to be produced.
There are other examples of great local businesses and community groups in North Cornwall that have set up to protect our climate, and I am sure that colleagues will have similar experiences in their constituencies.
The post-covid, post-Brexit period will provide an opportunity fundamentally to adjust the way in which our economy works, and I suspect that many consumers will look at products and services for the future. We can cut supply chains and ensure that local businesses are supported. A simpler supply chain will help us to cut our emissions but will require investment in new equipment and lending support for green finance investment. As my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Gareth Davies) suggested, new lenders, banks, crowdfunders and other organisations can look at investment.
I should like to raise with the Minister an issue that has recently become a phenomenon in Cornwall: houses being knocked down and rebuilt. Materials have been shipped to other parts of the country, only to be shipped back down. Will the Minister look at that? If we recycle some of our aggregates in Cornwall, we will reduce our carbon footprint quite quickly and help small and medium-sized builders to reduce their emissions.
It has been a fantastic debate and a pleasure to take part.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ghani. I congratulate the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake) on securing the debate and commend him for the work that he does through the all-party parliamentary group.
The hon. Gentleman made a number of points about the importance of innovation in the role of banking. In the aftermath of the 2008 banking crash, a number of banks looked to rebalance their balance sheets off the back of their SME clients, and we must make absolutely sure that does not happen in the aftermath of this crisis.
The pressures on SMEs and the difficulties in ensuring they play a full part in the pursuit of the goal of net zero are well understood. The goal of many SMEs will understandably be to ensure their survival, often week to week and month to month, rather than to focus on the wider goal of net zero.
There are two roles for the Government, the first of which is to help to ensure that the businesses are still there and to help them to transform through the legislative environment, as well as facilitating change and innovation through grants and investment. On ensuring that businesses are still there, it is unfortunate that, even with the extension of the furlough, the owners of so many SMEs find themselves on the list of the excluded—those remunerated through dividends. That sends out a poor message that we are not helping them to do what they do best and grow their businesses and position them for recovery. The Minister needs to hear that, and although I am sure he has heard it many times, I make no apology for repeating it. I wish him strength in making that argument where it needs to be made.
The other role for the Government is in helping businesses to transform. It will help if there are no cliff-edges and no surprises. The Government have intervened through the bounce back loan scheme and the coronavirus business interruption loan scheme. The hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton spoke of the difficulties that businesses in his constituency faced, particularly if they operate through non-traditional lenders, in accessing CBILS and BBLS. A number of businesses in my constituency face the same difficulties and needless obstruction to what was intended by the schemes.
Croydon Council was mentioned, not necessarily in dispatches, but let me speak up for the role of local authorities. As a former council co-leader, one of the things of which I was proudest was being the first authority in the UK to introduce a carbon budget, which stood alongside the revenue budget and the capital budget so that decisions could be taken on an equal footing. What became very apparent very quickly was the difficulty, once the low-hanging fruit had gone, with some of the decisions that had to be taken to make progress and operate within the resource envelope. That was in the context of an annual revenue budget of £500 million and a capital budget of £100 million, so the difficulties for SMEs are well understood.
We have heard points made about the shared prosperity fund. I could have a debate all to myself about the bumpiness and uncertainty around devolved funding at the moment. I will not go down that particular rabbit hole at this point, except to say that it helps if there is clarity on investments and no cliff edges from the Government. That will enable the making of strategic, tailored decisions to get us to our goal.
To draw my remarks to a close, the Scottish Government have their own programme for Government, which has strategic, targeted aims to embed generational equality and regional prosperity. A part of that is about investing £100 million in a new green jobs fund over the next five years to support businesses to provide sustainable and/or low carbon products, and a £60 million youth guarantee to provide increased opportunities for green apprenticeships. That is on top of the investment that needs to go into broadband. The £600 million R100 programme will bring broadband to all parts of Scotland, which will be of particular benefit in helping SMEs in rural areas to survive and thrive, and there is also the investment of £62 million in the energy sector. Many companies, big and small, in the oil and gas sector have an enormous role to play in the big strategic transition that we need to meet, and that is important.
To wrap up, it is imperative that the Government prioritise the SME sector. We need sector-specific roadmaps with clear goals and deadlines. We need to extend the mandate for British business banks’ support for SMEs making the transition, and make specific provision for SMEs in the shared prosperity fund. We need a more expansionary fiscal policy to support SMEs, and we need to encourage the diversity of supplies to SMEs.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ghani. We always state this as a courtesy when opening our remarks in this place, but I am genuinely grateful that the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake) secured this debate, because the subject deserves far more attention in this House than it has received to date. When we talk about decarbonisation of the kind required by the net zero target, the focus is invariably on either big market trends or the action that the Government must take to drive emissions reductions across the largest emitting sectors of the economy. Although it is recognised that SMEs will be impacted by both, the assumption is always that they will simply adapt to any change made. To some extent, that will no doubt be the case, but, given that SMEs are the backbone of our economy, they need to be much more than an afterthought in our thinking about net zero, and much more thinking will need to be done about what targeted support they will need to ensure that the transition to net zero is as orderly as possible. The hon. Gentleman made very good points about the risks entailed when that does not take place and the need to learn lessons from history.
I intend to touch on three specific areas where there is clearly a need to do more to support SMEs in transitioning towards a local carbon economy. Before I do, I want to make two general points about the Government’s approach to climate action that have implications for them. The first is the need for a clear and credible net zero strategy. Setting a net zero target was an essential first step, but hitting that target requires a plan for its delivery. Despite having legislated for it more than a year ago, the Government have still not brought forward such a strategy. Indeed, core building blocks of it, from the national infrastructure strategy to the energy White Paper, have been repeatedly delayed. Although there will need to be a sector-specific component for SMEs in it, the most important thing is that the Government bring forward that comprehensive strategy as a matter of urgency to provide clarity and certainty for SMEs and other sized businesses, and a framework within which they can make investment decisions. The test of the announcement expected from the Prime Minister tomorrow will be whether it moves us forward towards that comprehensive strategy.
The second general point is that there is a real need for the Government to prioritise decarbonisation in any coronavirus stimulus package, and in particular a need to bring forward significant investment in low-carbon infrastructure. It is no good providing targeted net zero support for SMEs if the systems that they are embedded in and the infrastructure that they rely on are not transformed.
On the targeted support that SMEs require to make the transition in an orderly fashion, there are three areas, as I said earlier, that require more focus. First, SMEs clearly need more information and guidance on how to progress towards net zero. That not only means better access to tailored business, financial and legal advice; we need to do more to ensure that SMEs are persuaded of the commercial importance of planning for the transition to net zero early and the detrimental implications of not doing so.
The Government should look at what more they could do to support innovation in relation to SME business models and manufacturing processes. There are good examples of where this is happening in other countries across the world. The Dutch green new deal, for example, provides government-backed institutions to offer free technical advice to help businesses in Holland become more efficient. More could be done to augment and enhance the role of local government and local enterprise partnerships in engaging SMEs on the issue of net zero and helping them understand the business and supply chain opportunities that exist as part of it.
To date, while organisations such as the Carbon Trust and the Federation of Small Businesses have stepped in to provide SMEs with support along these lines, the Government themselves have done very little. Will the Minister outline in his response what plans, if any, the Government have to help inform and advise SMEs about how best to decarbonise their businesses? Secondly, as many hon. Members have said, SMEs undoubtedly need more help to access financing. Many have spoken about the pressure that SMEs are under as a result of the pandemic; the fact that they are struggling with high levels of debts and substantial losses of revenue. Many have also spoken about the financing gap that exists, not least the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Gareth Davies) in his succinct and well-argued speech.
Other countries have created institutions to address this problem—the KfW in Germany, the Small Business Administration in the US, the Business Development Bank of Canada. I would argue that we do not have anything that does the same thing. There is a need to look again at what the British Business Bank could do, but also to establish a national investment bank with a clear green mandate—as we called for as part of our green economic recovery last week and challenged the Government to bring forward. Such a bank could provide low-cost, long-term financing to SMEs to help their transition in the way that the KfW has provided in energy efficiency loans to SMEs in Germany. Crucially, a national bank could be integrated into a network of regional outposts to ensure local delivery. We know that the Government have been discussing this for some time. Will the Minister confirm whether they have finally decided to establish such a bank? What sort of timeframe are we looking at for when it might be operational?
Lastly, SMEs need support with skills for their workforce. The Confederation of British Industry has estimated that nine out of 10 employees will need to reskill by 2030. That will require a national low-carbon skills strategy that embeds sustainability and net zero across the whole education system. We called for the Government to bring forward a national retraining strategy to deal with the immediate jobs crisis, while meeting the longer-term needs of a low-carbon economy. Much more could be done in this respect. Will the Minister explain what thinking the Government have done, if any, on a net zero skills strategy that will provide SMEs a workforce that is capable of successfully transitioning?
SMEs will be an essential component of the green transition, but to meet the challenge ahead, they need clarity, certainty, a wider package of investment and targeted support for information and technical advice, financing and skills. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s thoughts on all those areas.
I am very pleased to be conducting this debate under your eagle eye, Ms Ghani. I am also pleased to welcome my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake), who did a terrific job in outlining the issues. He has long been a champion of small businesses in this House and a very effective advocate for those interests and businesses which, as many hon. Members have pointed out, are absolutely essential to our economy. I will address a number of his points and then turn to points made by other hon. Members in this debate.
We have to make clear our absolute 100% commitment to net zero as a Government. The Prime Minister has shown many times that this is at the centre of our strategy. We also feel that, given where we are with covid, it is absolutely necessary to build back better. As my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton said in the first part of his speech, the 2008 crisis was extremely difficult, but one of its bad features was that we did not as a global community look at climate change and think about building back greener and better in the aftermath. People in this Government, in the Opposition and in Governments across the world are much more focused on building back greener and building back better as a consequence of this covid crisis.
As my hon. Friend said, SMEs are the backbone of our economy and will have a key role in driving economic growth. He described a headlong rush to net zero; others might take a different view. However, we cannot assume that the push to net zero will be imposed on businesses. We have to take our people and our SMEs along with us. I fully accept that we should engage with SMEs. I do this fairly regularly, as I am sure he and others do as local MPs. If he has SMEs in his constituency that he wants to talk to about net zero with me, I urge him to engage with me on that. It is a two-way street, and I look forward very much to engaging with many of the excellent businesses in his constituency. My hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall (Scott Mann) gave us a flavour of the many SMEs engaged with net zero in his constituency. He said that net zero and the covid-19 crisis would “fundamentally adjust” our economy, which was an excellent and well-made point.
On SME engagement, we have a net zero small business engagement strategy that seeks to strengthen our approach to working with SMEs, which is particularly relevant in the context of COP26 in Glasgow in November next year. I have made it a specific cause of mine to make sure that SMEs can play a part in COP26. We are also developing a small business energy efficiency scheme, which is obviously related, in some measure, to the green homes grant that we are pioneering at the moment.
My hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton will know that finance is a huge area of development. Thanks in small part to my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Gareth Davies), the sovereign green bond is finally something that we will engage with. I was delighted that the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced that, and I know that my hon. Friend will be particularly happy, given his background and the campaign for that development that he promoted. Along with the sovereign bond, that clearly creates a space in which green finance is something that we are all engaged with. I speak to bankers, people in the City of London and investors, and there is huge appetite for these sort of green assets.
The fear that my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton raises about SMEs being shut out of the market is legitimate. We can try to create a culture in which SMEs are looked on more favourably, but we cannot, I have to say, buck the trend of the market. I am afraid, for people who are not adapting, that investors are voting with their feet. It was only a few weeks ago that the market capitalisation of Ørsted, a Danish offshore wind company, was bigger than BP. That is a case of investors voting with their feet; it was not Government legislation that gave it that value in the market. My hon. Friend is a great champion of market forces, although perhaps in another context, but he will understand that if banks are keen to look at the green credentials of companies, that can make the climate more difficult for companies that are slower to adapt. However, that is definitely something that we should look at.
My hon. Friend was right to mention the British Business Bank in this context. I am keen—I have been driving this within the Department—to get a net zero remit for the British Business Bank. He will remember that the British Business Bank was set up years before the net zero legislation, so we have to do a degree of reverse engineering to ensure that the net zero challenge is at the centre of the bank’s remit.
The hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Matthew Pennycook) gave us a number of challenges. I would like to say a few words about them all, starting with his third point, relating to skills. I am very proud to have announced a green jobs taskforce. This is the first time that I, as the Energy Minister sitting within the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, have got together with the Skills Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Chichester (Gillian Keegan) to create something. We have come together and created a forum in which we are discussing green jobs. I am sure that the hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich will be pleased to learn that we have not only academics, business people and one or two small business representatives but we have trade unions coming together to discuss the immense opportunities that we have, as a country, in this space. There are something like 460,000 jobs already in the green economy in Britain, which is a figure that we want to see increase up to 2 million by 2030, so there is huge opportunity and ambition in the context of green jobs and green skills.
In the second part of his remarks, the hon. Gentleman talked very well about the need for finance and for some sort of national institution. He, as well as others in the Chamber, will know that there is plenty of discussion about that within Government. As we leave the EU, we are leaving the European Investment bank. Hon. Members have mentioned KfW Development Bank and we also have our own UK Green Investment Bank.
There is clearly an appetite in certain quarters, as well as a wide debate, for a national institution that may emerge as a consequence of our leaving the EU, focusing particularly on net zero. These are ongoing discussions, but my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton cannot believe that I would be so naive, even if I knew the answer, to blurt out our plans in the context of a Westminster Hall debate. He can rest assured that this matter is being debated and discussed very seriously at the highest levels of Government.
The first point that my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton made was very pertinent. If we are to try to bring people along with us on the journey towards net zero, we have to engage. Engagement means supplying information, exchanging ideas and providing guidance, as he suggested. We do that all the time and, of course, we could do more. Debates like this, dare I say it, are excellent ways in which we can broadcast and encourage our engagement with SMEs on the vital question of net zero.
There were many other remarks that I have not been able to fully address one by one. Broadly, I would say that this debate is absolutely key. Within the debate there were slightly different voices. If he will permit me to say it, my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton is a brilliant champion of local business, but he did stress the fact that we must take people with us. There is no point in our hurtling to a net zero endpoint and leaving vast swathes of the economy and business behind. The hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich stressed that there is urgency, and I fully agree; there is a real need for further impetus. These are balancing arguments, and I can assure hon. Members present that the Government are taking all their remarks seriously.
We discuss the issue all the time and we are open to ideas. Ministers do not often say that, but we are open to ideas about how best we can engage with local businesses and small and medium-sized enterprises in our quest to reach net zero by 2050.
I am really heartened by my right hon. Friend’s comments on this issue. It seems that the House is in accord. I am grateful for all the contributions. There is a lot of consensus.
I love the word “ecosystem”, which the hon. Member for Leeds North West (Alex Sobel) used in this context, to describe this whole situation. What we need is a 30-year ecosystem in order to take the business community with us. There were some great examples, such as the British development bank, through to Papa Pump and whatever else—two ends of the same scale. There are lots of banks that are supportive. There is the Bankers for NetZero project. We have Barclays, Tide, Handelsbanken and Triodos, which are all keen to have a conversation on this issue and try to take businesses with us. It is so easy to look at shiny new innovative businesses, rather than businesses that currently exist and that want to make a contribution. I am very heartened by my right hon. Friend’s comments that he wants to take business with us.
When someone is in the world of business and has their own SME, it is not just a job and a business—it is their life. It is so critical to everything they do and stand for. I urge again, and I am reassured by the Minister’s comments, that there should be no cliff edges. There should be a stable framework. If we leave no one behind here, the SMEs can lead from the front—if that is not too much of a mixed metaphor—towards a net zero future.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered support for SMEs and the net zero target.