Thursday 10 December 2020
[Christina Rees in the Chair]
UK Relations with Qatar
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I beg to move,
That this House has considered UK relations with Qatar.
It is a pleasure to serve with you chairing, Ms Rees. I thank the Backbench Business Committee for making time available for this 90-minute debate. I should, of course, as others doubtless will, refer the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
I am the chair of the all-party parliamentary British-Qatar group, and in February of this year I was privileged to lead a delegation to Qatar. A number of my fellow delegees are present today. I place on record the appreciation of the APPG for the assistance that had been given to it over the years in running those delegations, especially from the UK embassy in Doha. Ajay Sharma, the ambassador, left in the course of this year and will be replaced by Jon Wilks. The assistance that the embassy has given in facilitating meetings outside the programme prepared for us by the Qatari Government over the years has always been exemplary.
We will certainly miss the relationship that we have had with Ajay, now that he has moved on. I very much hope that we will have an equally profitable and warm relationship with his successor; I am pretty sure that we will. Also, the group appreciates the assistance given to it throughout the year, especially during the delegation, by the Qatari embassy in London. His Excellency Yousef Al-Khater, the ambassador, and his staff are staunch in their support, and always willing to go the extra mile, which is appreciated by the group’s members.
Shortly after we returned from Doha, we went into lockdown. It feels like an awful lot longer ago now than it was, but the start of the lockdown period illustrated rather well, in one nice little vignette, the importance of the relationship that we have with Qatar. Qatar Airways facilitated the repatriation of 100,000 UK citizens at the start of lockdown. That illustrates, at a micro level, the importance of what is, at the macro level, a very important relationship, both strategically and economically, for the United Kingdom.
It is well documented that in December 2017, Qatar purchased a number of Typhoon strike aircraft in a contract worth £5.1 billion. That is a lot of jobs in different parts of the country, and good-quality engineering jobs at that. As part of that deal, the RAF and the Qatar Emiri air force have established a joint squadron, based in this country, which is in fact the first that we have had with any other nation since the end of the second world war.
It is therefore not just a transactional relationship; we now have a growing partnership with Qatar that is enormously important. Of course, it should be remembered that in Qatar there are the RAF operational headquarters for the middle east at the Al Udeid airbase, and that RAF operatives there often run joint operations with the Emiri air force. Importantly, Qatar is part of the global coalition against Daesh. In that corner of the world, it is an important strategic ally for us.
Economically, the United Kingdom is the single largest destination for Qatari investment in Europe—something in the region of £40 billion to date. It is worth noting that more than 1,134 United Kingdom companies now operate in Qatar, 993 of which are joint ventures with Qatari business interests. We heard from a number of the people who we met during the delegation about some of the difficulties experienced in furthering those business interests with visas in this country. I know that is not the Minister’s responsibility, but to facilitate good business relations, I hope that the Home Office will hear and listen to that. Of course, this would not be a speech from the MP for Orkney and Shetland if it did not have something to say about energy. Some 80% of liquefied natural gas imports to this country in the second quarter of 2020 came from Qatar.
Several universities now have established campuses in Doha. The British Council continues to work to build links and co-ordinate the higher education presence and, indeed, partnerships such as that with the British Museum in the various cultural enterprises where we work jointly.
Of the universities that operate in Doha, probably the best known with the largest presence is University College London, but I hope hon. Members will forgive me if I mention the presence of Scotland’s premier seat of higher education, the University of Aberdeen, which also has a campus there. I took myself away from the rest of the delegation for an afternoon and I was privileged to meet the management and some of those studying at that campus. It is a very impressive operation and a good example of what can be done by a university seeking to expand and reach beyond its conventional confines. A week or two after we left, the university inaugurated a new master of laws—an LLM course. Nothing makes someone feel old like realising that somebody they were an undergraduate with is now the professor of Scots law inaugurating the new course, as Professor Greg Gordon did a couple of weeks after we left.
For those myriad reasons, it is clear that over the years, the relationship between Qatar and the United Kingdom, which has historically been an important one, has grown at a remarkable rate. The growth has been organic. It is not just the state-to-state relationship that we would expect to find with the defence interests; it is the commercial interests, the energy-related contracts, and the cultural and educational institutions that are building the relationship.
That is where we have got to, but the focus of today’s debate ought to be on considering the issues facing that relationship. Most importantly, we should look at the continuing blockade of Qatar by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt which has been running for three and a half years. At the start, allegations were made about Qatar’s conduct in relation to the funding of terror and some of its other foreign policy efforts. If those allegations were true, they would be very serious indeed. As the chair of an APPG in this House, I am not here to be an advocate for Qatar; it can do that for itself. I identify an important and strategic relationship, but if Qatar and any other state actor goes beyond the bounds of what is acceptable, it has to explain that for itself. However, despite numerous calls for evidence, three and a half years later we have not seen substantial evidence about the funding of terror and other things, which were used to justify the blockade.
I would be interested to know what the Minister makes of the recent restarting of the Kuwaiti-sponsored process to get the blockade resolved. I do not think it is in anybody’s interests and I think we have kind of lost sight of any of the reasons why it might have started in the first place. It is certainly in the interests of the United Kingdom and the European Union that we should have a functioning Gulf Co-operation Council. As long as the blockade persists, we will not have that.
We saw one illustration of the impact on UK interests when we were able to visit the beIN Sports studios in Doha. BeIN is a global broadcasting corporation, which has purchased many of the broadcast rights for UK premiership teams. Its product is basically being pirated by interests in Saudi Arabia, who then re-broadcast it with a very small time delay and different badging. If we ignore that and just turn a blind eye, we risk doing serious damage to the whole idea of intellectual property, especially in broadcast rights. I was pleased when, in June this year, the World Trade Organisation ruled that not investigating or prosecuting that act of piracy was a breach on the part of Saudi Arabia of its duties as a member of the WTO, because that is something that will very much come home to roost here.
It is difficult to think that the situation is not in some way associated with the now looming World cup in 2022. Members of the delegation were able to see a number of the stadiums that have been constructed, which are a remarkable achievement. It is great to see them up and ready to go. Had we not had lockdown, we would have been able to host an event in the House of Commons—I hope we will still find a way to do so—for Hassan Al Thawadi from the Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy to brief Members on the first World cup in an Arab country—an exciting opportunity.
The road to getting here has not been without difficulties. Very serious breaches of labour standards and workers’ conditions in the construction of World cup sites were widely reported some years ago. There was never any excusing those breaches, but it is significant to note that since the sunlight was shone on them, the old line that sunlight is the best disinfectant was shown to be a pretty true one. The construction of workers’ villages has continued and has worked very effectively; the standard of accommodation has improved. The access of workers to healthcare while they are working on World cup projects has also significantly improved.
I have no doubt that an awful lot more still needs to be done. I think it is a feature of all our enterprises there that, in recognising what has been achieved, we always encourage them to do more. With the abolition of the kafala system and new laws introducing a minimum wage for the first time in a Gulf country, it is good to see that sort of progress being made in labour rights. Of course, there is much more to be done. I fervently wish to see the right of workers in Qatar to organise themselves. Our delegation were able to meet a small group of those who organise workers’ rights, and it is significant that the International Labour Organisation has its office now in Doha. That is one area where I would want progress, and we continue to encourage progress in those ways.
It is worth remembering that today is international Human Rights Day. There is clearly still a great deal of progress on human rights to be made in Qatar, but in dealing with those matters, and when we complain about aspects of Qatar’s human rights record, it is always important to remember the way that many such things—LGBT rights, for example—were treated in our own country. Even within my lifetime those things were illegal. The Minister has heard me say that in the past.
The purpose of engagement has to be to encourage progress. What pleases me about engagement with Qatar is that it has been repaid in progress, with improving labour rights and human rights. Of course we want more improvements and we have always wanted those things to happen faster; that is the nature of politics. However, whereas in some areas of the Gulf we engage and things just seem to get worse, the process of engagement—and I think, interestingly, this comes right from the very top, from His Highness the Emir himself—is one by which Qatar is continuing to look outwards, and doing so more rapidly, and taking its obligations on human rights and democracy seriously.
The final piece of progress that I want to mention and welcome, as I want to let others speak, is that I am delighted that the Shura Council itself is now to have direct elections, which will happen next year. That is important and it is an area where progress is probably as meaningful as we could hope. The relationship is important, and I hope that it will continue to progress. It is clearly in our commercial and strategic interest to have a strong relationship with Qatar. It is also in the strategic and economic interest of Qatar to have that strong relationship, and if, as a consequence of that, the rights of Qatari people and those who work in the country continue to improve, surely that is a pretty textbook model of what diplomacy and engagement are supposed to be about.
It is a great pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) because he has said most of the things that I was going to say, so I will not be boring anyone for very long. I entirely agree that the state of relations is truly excellent. The flying back of our people; the joint squadron—how cool is that? Of course there is now a first-class ambassador in the shape of Yousef Al-Khater. There are perhaps more opportunities in connection with the World cup and a partnership thereafter.
The right hon. Gentleman mentioned progress on workers’ rights. We had a fascinating visit—I should say that I was on the same visit—and visited a large complex, where it was really interesting to see how the Qataris have cracked down on rogue employers and, indeed, have put in a minimum wage.
Finally, on the blockade of Qatar, it is clearly in everyone’s interest to make sure that the Gulf Co-operation Council starts to work properly again. I know that the Americans are doing that, and I hope that we shall redouble our effort.
I am going to bore everyone, with a coarse Essex voice, even though the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) has said everything I wanted to say. I will begin by drawing my attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
I echo everything that the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland said about our wonderful trip. I think he left out the name of Ibrahim. In terms of the hands-on organisation, Ibrahim was a real star. By the time I have finished, my right hon. Friend the Minister will wish that he had been with us on our hard-working trip.
I welcome the strong bilateral ties that the United Kingdom has with Qatar, especially in terms of energy, our economic partnership, and our educational and cultural ties. Historically, as we have heard, Qatar has had human rights issues, but I am pleased that the Government there have announced democratically positive initiatives to further develop the population’s quality of life. I welcome those recent announcements and encourage the Qatari Government to continue on that path, and our own Government to maintain and develop our important relationship with Qatar. I say to my right hon. Friend the Minister, this is a really good time to deepen those ties.
The chattering classes talk about the trips that Members of Parliament go on. As far as I am concerned, when we go on these trips we get to know much more about our colleagues than would otherwise have been the case. My right hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Stephen Crabb) learned a little bit more about me many years ago when we went on a trip to Israel.
I have to say, our trip to Qatar was rather special. The highlight was undoubtedly our riding of camels. The House might be interested to know that the Emir took me at my word, and a few weeks later two camels were delivered to the Amess household, and they are grazing very nicely in our back garden. My wife occasionally invites them into the house. The Emir was as good as his word; very generous. There was a wonderful moment when we were in Land Rovers, going up and down sand dunes. It brought home to us all that it is not just about the desert, camels and all that, but, underlying it all, Qatar is a magnificent country that is truly underrated.
As vice-chairman of the all-party parliamentary British-Qatar group, we work closely with the ambassador, who is absolutely first class, and relevant organisations to develop and foster good relations between our country and Qatar. The visit that I refer to was in February 2018. It does not seem possible, but we went again on one of the very last trips before lockdown, in February this year; it seems a long time ago.
I am a sponsor of early-day motion 1093, which was tabled by the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland. That welcomed the announcement by the Emir of Qatar that the country will hold elections for its advisory Shura Council next October, which is an important step on the road to democracy. Three years ago, I felt very strongly that Qatar had an unfair political and diplomatic blockade. I know the Minister has to dance very carefully, as those in the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office always have to do. He would not want to upset any of the neighbours in the region, and oil is all important. I am not constrained by any of that, even though I have been to most of those countries.
I thought the blockade was very unfair. It was placed upon Qatar by a Saudi-led group of Gulf countries. I am pleased that our Government have called for all sides to de-escalate and have pledged our firm commitment to our strategic partnership with the Gulf Co-operation Council. It is positive news that Saudi Arabia and Qatar have confirmed their commitment to reaching a solution and protecting Gulf solidarity. However, that is not a breakthrough, but at least it is a step in the right direction.
Peaceful talks need to be successfully accomplished in the Gulf. The United Kingdom should have an active interest in ending the blockade and protecting Qatar so it can continue to improve the lives of workers and women, and promote democracy. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Jackie Doyle-Price) will have much to say about her engagement in terms of women’s rights.
Workers’ rights have been a big issue in Qatar, with poor working conditions and problems with immigrant labour and human trafficking. I am very pleased that the Government announced a non-discriminatory minimum wage, which is one of the highest in the developing world and the first of its kind in the middle east—that is really good. The Government have also announced the removal of the “no objection” certificate requirement, which means that employees in Qatar can now move between jobs after serving a short notice period. That will undoubtedly inject competition into the job market, incentivise employers to respect the rights of their workforce, and increase job satisfaction.
The workers’ right reforms are linked especially to the 2022 World cup, which will be hosted in Qatar. I must say that our trip to the new stadium was absolutely out of this world. I have never been in a stadium where the doors magically open and it is all air-conditioned—it was state-of-the-art stuff. I was in the royal gallery for the visit of the Emir. One of his wives—they tend to have more than one wife, and I think he has three or five—jumped into the air with great excitement. I thought, “It is utter madness to have the World cup in Qatar,” but I was so wrong. They have really thought of everything, and I think it will be an absolutely fantastic competition. I said to the Emir, “I hope the final will be between Qatar and England.” Of course, I would expect England to win the match. [Interruption.] I know that Scotland is doing a bit better at the moment.
I am pleased that the UK is involved in Qatar’s sporting events. UK-based companies have exported £940 million-worth of goods to Qatar already, supporting projects that are underpinning Qatar’s development and its preparations for the 2022 World cup. If the Minister ratchets up the conversations with the relevant Department —the World cup is under two years away—perhaps we could do even more trade than we are doing at the moment.
The English Football Association has signed an agreement with the Qatar Football Association to promote grassroots football, youth development and women’s football, among other things. I feel strongly about women’s football—I know that as an accomplished athlete, Ms Rees, you feel very strongly about it too—because my youngest daughter once played for Arsenal Ladies. The Amess household is very keen on women’s football. It is welcome to see the United Kingdom play such a crucial role in the development of equal access to sport in Qatar, and hopefully in the rest of the middle east.
The economic partnership between the UK and Qatar is very strong, and hopefully it will continue to develop. It is a mutual relationship, as both countries benefit from the other’s financial investments. As the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland has already said—I will repeat it, but in an Essex accent—the UK is the most popular destination in Europe for Qatari investment, with £40 billion invested to date in sectors such as commercial property, banking and finance. Just like we are involved in supporting the 2022 World cup in Qatar, investment from Qatar funded the London 2012 Olympic village. I was privileged to chair the London Olympic Games and Paralympic Games Bill Committee—coming from the east end of London, my goodness, what a wonderful celebration of sporting activity the games was! Our companies and businesses benefit from operating in the Qatari market as new opportunities become available. As the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland has already said, 1,134 UK companies operate in the Qatari market, and 993 are joint Qatari and British ventures. I hope the strong economic partnership continues.
As we all know—I will not upset the Minister and my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock—Southend is the most important part of Essex, which is why we are going to become a city at the time of Her Majesty the Queen’s platinum jubilee, so I was delighted to welcome Ambassador Al-Khater and representatives of Qatar’s biggest bank and Qatar Airways to Southend in March last year. They were absolutely wowed by the place, particularly the pier. Without upsetting local residents, they are keen—I hope they are still keen—to be involved in some sort of joint venture for a marina. There are many exciting opportunities for investment and development in Southend. As we leave the European Union, I hope that the visit will go some way to strengthening our ties.
Possibly the most well-known opportunity, as the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland said, is energy and oil. Qatar accounted for 80% of the United Kingdom’s liquefied natural gas imports in the second quarter of this year, which represented 51% of total energy imports for the UK between April and June 2020. My goodness, they are important! Qatar is an important energy partner for us and there is an opportunity for co-operation on hydrogen, specifically green hydrogen, which the Government—and I support them—are keen on. Hydrogen is part of the Prime Minister’s 10-point plan for a green industrial revolution and Qatar has an abundance of hydrocarbons.
In the long run, all industries need to decarbonise and there is a potential pathway for that involving sustainable energy. The UK-Qatari energy relationship could be strengthened further as we import green hydrogen to develop the first town heated entirely by hydrogen by the end of the decade—such is the Prime Minister’s goal, detailed in his 10-point plan.
Our relationship with Qatar does not just revolve around business and economic opportunities. It also focuses on education and culture. As has been said, several UK universities have campuses in Qatar. We saw some of them. For example, University College London has signed a 10-year agreement to deliver courses to more than 2,500 students. Similarly, around 3,000 Qatari students are studying in the UK—we want more of them—who benefit from our educational systems and learn about our culture.
As well as encouraging mutual relations in the education sector, there is also collaboration in the air force. The Royal Air Force’s operational headquarters in the middle east is in Qatar, and a joint UK-Qatari squadron has been established so personnel from both air forces can train together. The generous work of Qatar Airways, which is among the best in the world, has helped 100,000 British citizens reunite with their families during the early stages of the pandemic. We should not forget that.
I am very pleased that we have such a strong relationship with Qatar in many aspects of life and business. I welcome the Defence Secretary’s meeting with his Qatari counterpart in October this year to strengthen UK-Qatari defence relationships. I hope our relations with the country continue to grow. Qatar’s energy and financial investments are important to our economy and we should explore trade opportunities for green hydrogen. With our assistance, Qatar can continue to promote democratic practices and human rights advances in a country that has already recognised the importance of its population’s freedom and quality of life.
First, I congratulate the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) on bringing this debate. He and I have been together in a few Westminster Hall debates and Qatar has come up on several occasions. It is an absolute pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess), whose constituency town is soon to become a city. I think those two camels he has will come in handy for the camel rides on the beach at Southend. Perhaps that is a new business idea. It is always a pleasure to be in a debate with him, because I can always put my heart into it.
Qatar and the United Kingdom’s diplomatic relations stretch back some 100 years. We have been friends, partners and business partners for a long time. The annual Qatar-UK strategic dialogue is an important mechanism in aiding the development of bilateral relations between Qatar and the UK. It is not all one-way traffic; it is two-way traffic. We gain and they gain, and we can all work better together. The meetings follow up on decisions and projects, support the bilateral track and explore opportunities for further co-operation that benefits both countries, economically, socially and physically. It is the kind of meeting and co-operation that it is great to see. The UK is the single largest destination for Qatari investment in Europe with, as others have said, £40 billion invested to date. Total bilateral trade between Qatar and the UK was £6.7 billion in 2019—an increase of 21% year on year. More growth is expected and hoped for. UK exports to Qatar include industrial machinery and equipment, electrical machinery, vehicles, aircraft engines, luxury goods, textiles and power generation equipment.
Qatari gas supplies now account for 31% of all UK gas demand and 79% of all UK gas imports. I am not being churlish by any means—I realise that the relationship is very important—but I ask the Minister whether it is always good to have all our eggs in one basket. We do not have all our eggs in one basket for gas supplies at this moment in time, but we perhaps do not trade with the USA or Nigeria as we did in the past. I am not saying we should not do it, but I wonder if it is the best idea.
The gas supplies that the hon. Member is talking about come through my constituency in Preseli Pembrokeshire, which I will refer to in my remarks later on. The point about opening up that facility was not about putting all our energy eggs in one basket. It was to give the United Kingdom new sources of energy supply, thereby diversifying our energy supplies into the country, thereby enhancing our energy security. I believe that is the correct way of looking at it.
I appreciate the right hon. Gentleman’s intervention, but no matter what, we need to have other suppliers and we need to make sure that they are as important. If something were to happen and we had neglected Nigeria and the United States, that would be a very backward step. We just need to make sure that we are doing it right.
There are 1,134 UK companies operating in the Qatari market and some 993 are joint Qatari/British ventures. Defence-wise, Al Udeid airbase is the nerve centre in the fight against terrorism in the middle east and host to the Royal Air Force’s Operation Shader. The RAF’s operational headquarters in the middle east is at that airbase; I was told there were 30 British officers there but, according to the Library pack, there are 160-plus there. Whatever the number may be, it underlines a close relationship, which is critically important.
Qatari and UK forces often participate in joint training exercises, which is a testament to our strong and enduring partnership. Joint training exercises take place regularly between the Qatari Emiri air force and the Royal Air Force, the latest being a joint exercise in early December 2020, in Doha, where the joint UK/Qatari Typhoon squadron participated in an exercise. As part of an ongoing programme of co-operation with the British Royal Navy, Qatari naval forces and the Royal Navy conducted joint exercises in Qatari waters in spring 2019.
In 2018, Qatar signed a letter of intent with the UK for co-operation in the field of combating terrorism, which is so important and vital. I have another question to the Minister. I am not being churlish, but I am asking a question for the record, with the hope that we can clear this up; I am sure the Minister will be more than able to do that.
It has been indicated to me that Qatar has been described as “a big supporter” of Muslim Brotherhood-linked networks in Europe and that the financial vehicle for that is through the Nectar Trust in London. Perhaps the Minister will be able to indicate who is monitoring the relationship between Qatar’s investment with the Muslim Brotherhood and projects that are happening there, to make sure that we are across all those things, when it comes to co-operating in the field of combating terrorism, so that we are all doing the same thing and working together. There is a physical and outward understanding, and working together, but I ask the question for the record and I hope we can get an answer. The letter outlines commitments on information and intelligence sharing—perhaps intelligence sharing is going on there, and perhaps that is what it is all about—as well as on law enforcement co-operation relating to terrorism activities, co-operation in tackling threats facing the transport sector, especially aviation, and co-operation in combating financial crimes. That is all good, positive stuff and what people like to see.
I am very thankful for these positive relations and for the steps taken by the Qatari Government to address labour issues such as those presented by the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland about a year to a year and a half ago during a Westminster Hall debate in which I was pleased to participate. Since then, the Qatari Government have introduced several reforms. I cannot say that that was exactly a result of that debate, but I will tell the House one thing: it probably moved people to think about it. The right hon. Gentleman deserves every credit for that.
In 2017, a temporary minimum wage was set, a law for domestic workers was introduced and new dispute resolution committees were set up. In 2018, a workers’ support and insurance fund was established and the requirement for most workers to get their employer’s permission to leave the country, which was a key issue at that time, was ended. In 2019, the establishment of joint labour committees at companies employing more than 30 workers for collective bargaining was mandated and enhanced guidelines on heat stress aimed at employers and workers were disseminated—that was another issue highlighted in the debate. Although they are positive, those reforms have not gone far enough, and their implementation has been called uneven by Human Rights Watch, which we cannot ignore.
Once we solidify our relationship, I believe it will be appropriate to encourage continued improvement in those aspects while acknowledging that there is much more to be done. It is my belief that we in this great United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland—better together—should use our influence and friendships to make a difference throughout the world. I know that we can do that, and that we are doing that, and I know that the Minister will come back on that. It is important that our friends in Qatar take this in the spirit in which it was intended—as a gentle reminder that we do the best we can for our own families, and that we expect them to do the same for theirs.
I congratulate the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) on securing the debate and reminding us of those days, pre lockdown, when we could travel and go on fact-finding visits. I draw attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. That was a truly fascinating visit to a long-standing ally of this country, but I recognise that there are obviously still many issues about which there are ongoing discussions and challenges.
I highlight the issues that a number of colleagues raised regarding the blockade. It is, of course, illegal, and we strongly hope that those issues can be dealt with in the immediate future. The right hon. Gentleman was right to highlight that the reasons for it are very serious. I gently suggest that terror issues emanate from a number of states across the world, and that it would perhaps be more constructive to deal with them collaboratively, as Governments in dialogue with each other, rather than by taking illegal measures designed to inflict economic damage.
As it happens, the country has responded extremely positively in the wake of the blockade. It is a case of “What does not destroy me makes me stronger.” During our visit, we visited the new port that the Government constructed in order to import supplies directly, given that they cannot get them through their normal established trading routes. As the hon. Member for Thurrock, with the port of Tilbury in my constituency, I often describe my constituency as the ports capital of the UK. In that regard, I have to remind my hon. Friend the Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess) that it is far more important than the so-called city of Southend. That new port was a hugely impressive operation. London built its wealth as a port city, but as trade became more sophisticated and ships ever bigger, ports had to become bigger, and so the port of London moved east to my constituency. We are very much constrained by the available space in delivering a modern port, so it was truly a revelation to see this fantastic new facility. I pay tribute to the engineering feat accomplished there. I look forward to that port building from strength to strength, as well as to some good shipping line links between Tilbury in my constituency and London Gateway, and indeed, Qatar, so congratulations to them.
We have had a number of references to human rights issues surrounding Qatar. I tend to take the view that although it is absolutely important that this country, which prides itself on being liberal and having the rule of law, should be at the forefront of pushing for human rights and tackling discrimination and oppression wherever they occur around the world, equally, we need to be a bit less holier than thou about it. It takes a long time to foster cultural change, and the truth of the matter is we are not as perfect as we like to think we are. Some of the issues come down to how we really tackle behaviour and establish better human rights. It is very easy to pass a law and say, “This is now the law and this is the state of play.” But for that to really filter down into changes of behaviour and good practice takes an awfully long time.
We must not be accused of looking the other way when there are human rights abuses, but we also need to give credit where it is due. My hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham (Adam Holloway) mentioned the camp that we visited. It is true that the facilities were very good there. I have visited similar places in the Emirates, and I think we need to be real when we say that lots of countries rely on imported immigrant labour to deliver the jobs that they are not prepared to do. Some countries are better than others at ensuring the rights of those people are protected. Although I am satisfied that the direction of travel in Qatar is extremely positive, there is clearly a way to go.
Obviously, we welcome the minimum wage legislation. At the instigation of the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders), we actually met some workers who clearly acknowledged that the opportunity to work in Qatar was life changing and very good for them and their families. However, there were still some issues where their rights could have been enhanced, so that is very much still a work in progress.
I would also say that there are countries whose economies are entirely driven by sending workers overseas to repatriate money into those countries. Personally, I find that morally obscene. We, as a nation, should be encouraging them to become more sustainable. I consider those countries that benefit from such practice as talent-stripping developing countries. It is all very well to have a good record on dishing out international aid, but if, at the same time, we are taking their best talent to work here, I am afraid that becomes somewhat hypocritical. We need to acknowledge that when it comes to manning the NHS, we do the same to countries such as the Philippines as Qatar does to countries such as Nepal to get workers. We should be a bit more honest with ourselves about that.
We can also do better on some issues. I mentioned shipping. Again, we turn a blind eye to the fact that lots of the crews that work our ships and keep our supermarkets stocked are also working in conditions far worse than those that we saw in Qatar. Let us acknowledge that this is a collective endeavour for the whole world to tackle in ensuring that all workers across the world are treated fairly and are given the rights that they are due to expect.
My hon. Friend the Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess) mentioned the question of women. When we went to see the Emir, I was very pleased to have the opportunity to discuss this. Again, I was the only woman in the room, but I am quite used to being the only woman in the room in this country in meetings to do with politics, as I am sure you are, Ms Rees. It is not peculiar to countries in the middle east. I said that we welcome the fact they are moving towards democratic elections, but I asked what the prospects were for seeing women elected. I was very pleased that the Emir said he was retaining a number of positions that would be directly appointed by him. He gave a very clear commitment that if a sufficient number of women were not directly elected, he would use his power of appointment to make sure women achieved representation. That is an extremely constructive position to take. I put that point to the Minister because I hope that that is something that we will hold the Emir to. Frankly, having women in politics civilises nations. I am sure everyone would agree, so let us make sure we do our bit to encourage that.
As we approach the World cup, everyone is very excited. I share the enthusiasm of my hon. Friend the Member for Southend West for the football stadium. I am not the biggest fan of football, to be quite frank, but it is a major engineering feat and I do not think I have ever been so cool and relaxed sitting in a football stadium, despite the heat outside. It is quite special. I know that a lot of concern has been expressed about the treatment of tourists who go to see the football, with particular concerns about gay rights. Again, these things were discussed and there was some understanding of the issues, but I reaffirm the point made by the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland. In this country, it is only very recently that we have established gay rights in the way that we now take for granted. We can welcome the tone that has been taken about how tourists will be treated as part of the World cup, but we must recognise that there is much more to do.
I have little more to add. I congratulate again the right hon. Gentleman for securing this debate. I look forward to strengthening Britain’s relationship with Qatar and to Britain doing its best to make sure that relations within the GCC are returned to a more constructive position.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Rees. I, too, congratulate the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) on securing this debate. It is the second debate this week in which I have come in on the coat-tails of the right hon. Gentleman. It is an important and timely moment in which to secure the debate and I appreciate the way that he talked about it. He said that he is not here just to be an advocate for Qatar. I am not sure whether he used the phrase “critical friend”, but he certainly spoke in that spirit, and that is the spirit in which all right hon. and hon. Members have spoken this afternoon, which is right. The relationship between the UK and Qatar is a deepening and broad one. It is multi-dimensional and fascinating. It is a good thing that we are here this afternoon discussing that and looking in greater detail at it.
Various Members have referred to the energy relationship, the partnership, between the UK and Qatar, which will be the focus of my remarks. First, let me just say that in my time in this place over the past 15 years I have known and engaged with all of the Qatari ambassadors who have been in London, and I have found them and their teams to be excellent to work with. In my discussions with them, the point that hits home most strongly is their desire to see a genuine, deep partnership and friendship flourish between the United Kingdom and Qatar. Yes, we point to the enormous sums of money invested from Qatar into the United Kingdom, but the relationship should not just be about financial investment. It is cultural, educational and all of the other aspects that various Members have pointed to this afternoon.
As I said, I want to focus on the energy partnership. As I already said in my intervention on the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), the enormously important gas import relationship that we have with Qatar comes through Wales, through my constituency in Preseli Pembrokeshire. One of the first visits that I made as a brand-new Member of Parliament in 2005 was to the construction site in Milford Haven to see the enormous South Hook facility being built. It was one of the largest regassification projects in Europe and a partnership between Qatargas, ExxonMobil and Total, three of the world’s largest and most experienced energy companies.
At that time I also had the opportunity to visit Qatar. Sadly, I was not on the delegation last February, which sounded like a lot of fun, but I have been to Qatar. At the time, I saw the other end of the gas supply chain and the enormous plants at Ras Laffan where the gas is turned into liquefied natural gas. It is a remarkable feat of engineering. That tiny country, Qatar, sits on an enormous energy resource, and engineers and scientists have been able to unlock it and turn it into a tradeable commodity that can be shipped by sea to countries around the world.
I strongly believe that the investment made 15 years ago in the South Hook plant in my constituency has enhanced our energy security. In the same way, the facilities built in Japan to import liquefied natural gas from Qatar, at a time when it had to wind down many of its nuclear plants, have enhanced Japan’s energy security. The Qatar gas fields have enhanced energy security for numerous countries around the world.
My hon. Friend the Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess) talked about the sheer volume of gas that has been coming into the country through the terminal. Last year, it celebrated its 10th anniversary. Up to that point, it had processed more than 65 million tonnes of liquefied natural gas. If it were supplying London alone, that is enough natural gas to keep the capital going for a decade.
As an operation critical to national infrastructure, the South Hook terminal played an important role in our country’s response to the coronavirus pandemic. During the initial lockdown earlier this year, from the end of March to the end of July, the terminal received 35 vessels and processed just under 3.5 million tonnes of LNG. To put that in context, South Hook provided 85% of the UK’s LNG market and almost 20% of the UK’s entire gas market throughout that first lockdown. On most days from mid-June, 100% of the LNG delivered to the grid came from South Hook. The team at the terminal are looking at projects potentially to increase capacity and further strengthen the resilience of the UK’s energy system.
Thanks to the South Hook terminal, the positive benefits of UK-Qatari relations are felt throughout my constituency in not only the investment, skilled jobs and apprenticeships that the terminal provides, but the company’s support for schools, community activities and numerous charities. The relationship is felt in real terms and greatly appreciated.
Another aspect of the UK-Qatari relationship that I would like to draw attention to relates to Cardiff airport, from which, since May 2018, Qatar Airways has run a direct route between Cardiff and Doha. The route was a moderate success in its first year and carried about 82,000 passengers. Since then, its popularity has grown and matured with steady growth, but then came the pandemic with its severe consequences for the aviation industry. I remain hopeful that we will see the redevelopment of the route and the resumption of growth.
I was delighted and encouraged when, in September, the new British ambassador to Qatar, Jon Wilks, visited Cardiff airport and met the interim CEO, Spencer Birns, and the chair to learn more about the exciting opportunities that lie between Wales and Qatar. I was pleased that, following that meeting, the ambassador said that he will be advocating for Wales in Qatar with extra knowledge and confidence in the months ahead.
[Steve McCabe in the Chair]
Several hon. Members have referred to the World cup in 2022. It is not just England that have already qualified—I understand that Scotland still have work to do—but Wales as well. Nothing would fill me with more pleasure and pride than to be on a flight from Cardiff to Doha to watch the Wales team conquer other nations in the World cup in 2022.
We are living in a time of enormous change in the Gulf region. Hon. Members have referred to some of the diplomatic challenges in the region. Of course, the United Kingdom has numerous strategic priorities and objectives there. It is a complicated region, but I hope that the UK-Qatar relationship goes from strength to strength and flourishes. It is a time of change. I sat in on a call with the Israeli ambassador, the Bahraini ambassador and the UAE ambassador a couple of weeks ago. The three of them were talking about their new co-operation and peace agreements, and it was thrilling and really encouraging. My hope is that that change will continue and that the United Kingdom will use its diplomatic strength and networks of relationships in the region to encourage more change; and nothing would fill me with more pleasure than to see Qatar sharing in some of those changes. There is lots of work to be done, but I remain hopeful that better days lie ahead, diplomatically, for all these countries and we will all benefit from the new investments and new co-operation that flow through such relationships.
It is a pleasure to see you in your place and to serve under your chairmanship, Mr McCabe. I warmly congratulate the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) on bringing this debate before us today, and on a speech with which I am in almost total agreement, with the exception of the idea that Aberdeen is Scotland’s premier university when everybody knows it is Stirling—it is important that we get that on the record. But on Qatar at least, we agree. Qatar is an important friend of Scotland and of the United Kingdom, an important player in the Gulf region and an important player, potentially, in building peace in the wider region.
Qatar is a friend and, as friends, we need a dialogue based on honesty and frankness. As we have heard, Qatar has a number of close links with the United Kingdom and with the EU, but, on political reform and respect for human rights, it has a way to go. It is important that we acknowledge progress, but it is also important that we call for more, to build on that success.
Rightly, Qatar was warmly praised in 2018 when it joined the international covenant on civil and political rights. That was very welcome. But in January 2020, a subsequent law amending the Qatari penal code authorised the imprisonment of—I will quote this—
“anyone who broadcasts, publishes, or republishes false or biased rumours, statements, or news, or inflammatory propaganda, domestically or abroad, with the intent to harm national interests, stir up public opinion, or infringe on the social system or the public system of the state”.
That could mean almost anything, and that is a poor piece of legislation that I think deserves criticism.
We have heard also about Qatar’s attitude to the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. As a gay man myself, this issue is close to my heart. The Qatari Government say that everyone is welcome at the World cup in 2022, and the eyes of the world are watching to ensure that that is the case. There has been progress, but there is a lot of progress yet to be made.
At the time of the World cup in 2022, the eyes of the world will be on Qatar and on the middle east. It is an opportunity for Qatar to shine and an opportunity also for the middle east to shine, and, as a friend of the middle east, with close connections to it, I really, truly hope that it does. However, there remains concern about labour rights in Qatar. The concern is less, perhaps, about the laws themselves, because a number of progressive pieces of legislation have been passed. The issue is, as the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) said, the patchy enforcement of those laws, particularly where there are powerful, family-run corporations that need to step up their behaviour.
Amnesty International estimates that perhaps 1,000 migrant workers could have died. We do not know, because there has been a lack of transparency about the numbers, but we do know that many more have worked in appalling conditions without pay for many months, so there is a need for the Qatari authorities to step up and for Qatar to enforce the laws that it has and to be more transparent in that.
I say this to our Qatari friends, who will be paying attention to today’s debate, and I say it as a friend of Qatar: it is very much in Qatar’s interests to abide by and enforce the rule of law, because that will strengthen its case in claiming its own rights against the illegal embargo by Saudi Arabia. We have heard a very powerful—
Sitting suspended for Divisions in the House.
Thank you, Mr McCabe. I have only my concluding remarks left, as I had largely finished my speech before the Division bell rang.
I had been talking about the blockade—the illegal blockade—of Qatar. This is an area where there is a real role for the UK to play, as interlocutor and intermediary between Riyadh and the various other parties. A functioning Gulf Co-operation Council is in all our interests right now; the GCC could play an important role in cohering the region and dealing with other places.
We have seen that the rights of Qatari nationals have been infringed in this situation and what is particularly concerning for me is the infringement of their religious rights; we have seen infringements of their right to travel into Saudi for Hajj and for Umrah. That is very much to be regretted. The blockade is illegal and also to be regretted. It should stop and we can help with that process. The Kuwaitis are doing some heavy lifting in that process, and I would be grateful for an assurance from the Minister that we support those efforts and an outline of what we are doing to help them in the discussions that they are having.
It is, as ever, a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr McCabe, and I thank the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) for securing the debate. He is a long-time advocate of the importance of the United Kingdom’s relationship with Qatar, not least in his ongoing role as chair of the all-party parliamentary group, although I will point out to him that Scotland’s premier university is, of course, St Andrews. [Laughter.]
I also thank the hon. Members for Gravesham (Adam Holloway), for Southend West (Sir David Amess), for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and for Thurrock (Jackie Doyle-Price), and the right hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Stephen Crabb), some of whom are no longer in their place, as well as the Scottish National party spokesman, the hon. Member for Stirling (Alyn Smith).
The hon. Member for Southend West is not in his place, but I would mention that normally after visits people are given a book, a cake or a bottle of wine. To get camels is quite extraordinary and something I shall not forget.
British relationships with Qatar go back more than 100 years, prior to, during and after the protectorate period of the early and mid-20th century. Potentially, that relationship has deep and significant diplomatic, security and economic benefits for the people of Qatar and the people of the UK—and, indeed, the people of Wales—as well as for the region. As an example of that partnership, I had the pleasure of studying alongside representatives of Qatar at the Royal College of Defence Studies a few years ago. We enjoy crucial co-operation, not least with respect to the Royal Air Force, and indeed other allied air forces, at the Al Udeid airbase.
It would be remiss of me not to reflect on the particularly special relationship between Qatar and Wales, not least through the air link with Qatar Airways, facilitated by the Welsh Government and our Economy Minister Ken Skates, which helped to connect Cardiff international airport directly to the world. That link is suspended because of the pandemic and low winter demand, but I hope that as things improve into the spring, we can re-establish that important route, given the aspirations we have heard about for Wales in relation to the 2022 World cup.
We also heard about a crucial link with the South Hook LNG terminal. I had the pleasure of visiting that facility, on a visit with the Welsh Affairs Committee when I was first elected. It was fascinating, given the critical role that the terminal plays in the diversity of our energy supply in the UK. Will the Minister reflect on how the relationship is developing, particularly ahead of next year’s commitments that we need to make on climate change and moving away from fossil fuels? How he perceives the transition we must make, which is being implemented in our country at such facilities and in Qatar, is critical.
We have heard lots about security and co-operation, and earlier this year the Royal Air Force and Qatar Emiri air force Typhoon squadron, No. 12 Squadron, commenced flying—the joint squadron that we heard about. We also heard about the acquisition by Qatar of the nine Hawk aircraft, which could lead to a new squadron. Given the ongoing threat posed by Daesh and other extremist groups in the immediate and near region, joint defence and security improvements are significant steps in protecting security in the region. That is reflected in our relationships in many other key locations, including the Duqm port in Oman and the Royal Navy facility we are developing there.
We have heard about crucial economic co-operation. We have an ever-deepening economic relationship, and since 2017 the UK has been one of the most significant, if not the most significant, destinations for Qatari investment—£35 billion-worth. Significant announcements were made at the Qatar-UK business forum in March 2017. The UK’s important wider diplomatic relationships with Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Oman and Egypt, among others, mean that it can play a critical role with international partners such as the United States, Kuwait and others to work to ease the ongoing diplomatic crisis, which has lasted three and a half years. I would appreciate—I am sure other Members have asked for this as well—an update on how the Minister sees the dispute, how he sees it being resolved and what role the UK Government are playing in facilitating candid conversation.
Given the complexity of the political and security situation in the Gulf and the wider middle east, we must always consider the implications of our engagement, particularly when it comes to military and security arrangements. There are attempts to influence policy and behaviour by the larger powers in the region, such as Iran and Saudi Arabia, and we must always be conscious of that. Given the ongoing conflict in Yemen, for example, and the devastating humanitarian disaster, will the Minister give us his latest assessment of Qatar and other regional powers in relation to that conflict, and say what we are doing to resolve it? Indeed, what are the prospects for wider peace within the region, which is something I would hope for? We have seen a number of peace deals recently with Israel, so how does the Minister see Qatari-Israeli relationships?
This has been mentioned in a number of speeches, but it is critical today to recognise international Human Rights Day. Today is the anniversary of the adoption of the universal declaration of human rights on 10 December 1948. A former Labour MP and trade unionist, Charles Dukes, later Lord Dukeston, played a critical role in drafting that document, although tragically he died before its adoption. Britain was one of the key players that insisted that a moral principle on human rights was not enough, but that legal force and action were needed to defend basic human dignity worldwide. As I have said on many occasions, I regret that some of the Government’s recent actions have undermined those commitments on the global stage and caused the loss of our influence in some key UN human rights bodies and others. That is after a proud tradition of defending human rights and the rule of law globally under Governments of multiple colours in the last few decades.
On the comments of the hon. Member for Thurrock, it is not about being holier than thou. It is about accepting that, because the dignity and rights of human beings are universal, when we have frank and friendly relationships with countries such as Qatar, we use those relationships to be candid.
Surely one of the good things about having the relationship that the UK has with Qatar is that a good friend can be critical and constructive, and can say things in a way that the person can take on board. People do it with me; I do it with others. It can be constructive.
As ever, the hon. Gentleman makes an important point that I agree with.
The UK can never turn a blind eye to those challenges. Our relationship should be based on mutual respect for human rights, inclusive democracy and the rule of law. That particularly affects the issue of workers’ rights. We have heard about the World cup. Since Qatar bid successfully to stage the World cup, there have been serious, ongoing allegations of exploitation and labour abuse of millions of men and women, mostly from Asian and African countries, who migrated to Qatar for work. In 2013, a shocking report from the International Trade Union Confederation estimated that up to 1,200 people may have died, mainly poor migrant workers from Nepal and India. Indeed, Amnesty International reported in March that hundreds of migrant workers were rounded up and detained by police across Doha for the stated purpose of covid testing, only to find themselves forced on to planes and sent back to their country of origin. That is obviously of deep concern. What assessment has the Minister made of those allegations?
It is important to recognise that there have been substantial changes since the partnership with the ILO in 2017, such as the regulation of the employment of domestic workers, a partial abolition of the exit permit, a mandatory minimum wage, a Government-run shelter for survivors of abuse, and the significant labour reforms passed on 8 September to deal with the abusive kafala system. Those are all important, but there is still a significant distance to travel. Will the Minister comment on how he sees those developments progressing?
There are also significant concerns about the Qatari legal system. There are allegations of arbitrary travel bans and detentions, such as the cases of Najeeb Mohamed al-Nuaimi and Mohammed Yusuf al-Sulaiti. Have those been raised by the UK Government with counterparts in Doha?
We heard about the situation for women and girls. Unfortunately, despite some progress, there are still significant disadvantages and inequalities for women and girls in Qatar, including within marriages and within families, and, of course, with respect to domestic violence and shocking sexual violence. We have also heard about the situation for the LGBT+ community with the law as it stands. That has implications. I am a Welsh football fan. I am also a gay football fan. I would love to be able to travel to see Wales in a World cup, but I would have to make those considerations before I could make that sort of trip. I hope that we can ensure that the World cup is an open and welcoming environment for all fans, regardless of their sexuality or gender identity.
Indeed, there are minority groups within Qatar as well, including the al-Ghufran clan of the al-Murrah tribe, which have ongoing issues around statelessness. Can the Minister comment on that? There is also the situation regarding the death penalty. I accept that Qatar has not carried out death sentences in recent times, which is welcome, and a contrast to President Trump fast-forwarding executions in his remaining days in office—what an absolutely shocking situation. What progress have we made working with the Qatari Government on abolishing the death penalty?
We have also heard about the planned elections to the Shura Council. I hope that those go ahead. Similar promises have not been fulfilled in the past, so I hope they are this time. Can the Minister provide us with an update on that?
In an increasingly unstable world, with challenges of terrorism, conflict, climate change, and, of course, the pandemic and economic contraction, the UK’s relationships with countries around the world, particularly in the Gulf, are vital for the security and safety of the British people and the global community. Qatar can and should be a valued partner in the region, but close friendships come with the responsibility to be honest and frank, and to seek constructive change. I hope that the UK Government’s engagement with Qatar will continue to be productive and friendly in that vein.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr McCabe, and I am grateful to the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) for securing the debate and giving me, on behalf of the Government, as well as other right hon. and hon. Members, the opportunity to speak positively, openly and frankly about the UK’s relationship with Qatar.
I pay tribute to the all-party parliamentary group for the work it does and the commitment of its members to building on what is already a strong UK-Qatari relationship. Qatar is one of our closest allies in the region, and the group plays a crucial role in fostering those links through open and constructive dialogue. I had the pleasure of visiting Qatar in October as part of my first official visit to the Gulf. My time in Doha emphasised to me the deep-rooted nature and the dynamism of our bilateral relationship, from trade and investment to energy and defence, from sport and culture to education and healthcare.
We have heard a number of speeches from right hon. and hon. Members on those important areas and I will touch on a number of them shortly. My dear and hon. Friend the Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess) speaks almost as passionately about Doha as he does about his great soon-to-be city, Southend. I do hope that I get an official invitation to the twinning ceremony between Doha and Southend, were that to happen. He made the important and very true point about UK-Qatari relations that the person-to-person relationships matter hugely. On my visit, I was warmly welcomed by Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Sultan bin Saad al-Muraikhi and Lolwah al-Khater.
I was reminded that over 16,000 British nationals live and work in Qatar, and the UK is a second home to many Qataris. There were a record 175,000 visits from Qatar to the UK in 2019, worth over half a billion pounds to the UK economy. I am particularly pleased to note that, since last month, travellers from Qatar can come to the UK without the need for quarantine on arrival. I hope that, in the near future, UK travellers will be able to visit Qatar under the same circumstances.
I echo publicly the thanks that I made privately to Akbar Al Baker, chief executive officer of Qatar Airways, to acknowledge its invaluable support during the repatriation of British nationals. In the intervening period, Qatar Airways has become the biggest international airline for passengers and cargo. It played an essential role in the repatriation efforts of British nationals earlier this year.
The Minister is right to highlight the role of Qatar Airways. He will also be aware that, as things stand in relation to covid, the contribution of Qatar in respect of the Gavi summit has been significant. Will he recognise that contribution and see how we might build on it as the vaccination programme goes live in this country? We need to share that expertise around the globe.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for highlighting that. As I have said both publicly and privately, I was struck by the fact that, during these times of intense difficulties, the strength of these bilateral friendships has really come to the fore. That is particularly true, as he says, in relation to the vaccine summit, and I have no doubt that it will continue to be true for the distribution of the vaccine, or vaccines, as we collectively—globally—take the fight to covid.
During my visit, I was fortunate to build on recent engagement by my right hon. Friends the Foreign Secretary, the Defence Secretary and the Home Secretary, all of whom have met Qatari Ministers in recent months. Those close ties allow us to engage on difficult topics and influence change. In line with many of the comments of colleagues today, the UK Government do not shy away from raising human rights concerns whenever and wherever required, in public as well as in private. We welcome the announcement of elections to the Shura Council and look forward to watching those go ahead.
We also welcome the concrete steps that Qatar has taken to date on workers’ rights, with significant reforms, including the abolition of exit permits for almost all workers, as has been mentioned, and a non-discriminatory minimum wage. We hope for full implementation of those measures. Everyone deserves the right to work safely and securely, whether in Qatar, the UK or anywhere else. We continue to engage regularly with international labour organisations and explore areas of their work where the UK can add particular value. We stand ready further to assist and support Qatar’s continued efforts to implement change.
On reform and labour relations, I referred to the reforms not going far enough. Will the Minister give some indication of what the Government are doing to ensure that the reforms go that stage further and give workers’ rights the protections that we all want?
This is an area that we discuss regularly. Indeed, I have discussed it with my interlocutors from Qatar, and I think they understand—I will come to this shortly—that hosting the World cup means that the eyes and attention of the world will be directed towards them, which gives them an opportunity to demonstrate progress. I very much get the feeling that they embrace the opportunity to make progress and to demonstrate that progress, which the World cup provides.
Many Members spoke of the strong trade and investment links between our two countries. I am pleased that we have representatives from all the home nations of the United Kingdom, because our bilateral relationship provides jobs in all corners of the UK and could help to support the Government’s levelling-up agenda as we build back better post-covid. Trade between the UK and Qatar stands at just over £7 billion, of which £4.3 billion is from UK exports. Qatar is the third largest export market in the region for British firms.
Qatar is also a major investor in the UK, playing a huge role in a variety of developments, from Chelsea Barracks, just a short walk from here, to Middlewood Locks in Manchester and Get Living’s build-to-rent scheme in Glasgow. Direct investment is estimated at £40 billion and growing. In October, Qatar Petroleum announced a long-term contract with National Grid for capacity on the Isle of Grain natural gas import terminal east of London. As with the South Hook terminal in Wales, this agreement will help to secure jobs in that area and strengthen the UK’s energy security. The hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) talked about the importance of renewable energy.
This week, the Lord Mayor of London has been in Doha, furthering the financial services link between the two countries and the City of London. That builds on the recent groundbreaking decision by Qatar National Bank to issue its first green bonds—a first for Qatar. That green bond issue was done on the London Stock Exchange. As we do with all countries around the world and in the region, we encourage Qatar to be bold in its nationally defined contributions ahead of COP 26 later this year.
Qatar and the UK also share an enduring defence partnership, most notably through the joint Typhoon squadron, as has been mentioned—the first joint air squadron since the second world war. Only yesterday, we saw the completion of Exercise Epic Skies—a good name for an air exercise—which is a joint exercise between the RAF and the Qatari Emiri air force. Similarly, we maintain close working relationships with the Qatari law enforcement agencies. Fighting the scourge of terrorism is a global and shared challenge, and we welcome the steps that Qatar has taken in recent years, including a new law on combating money laundering and terrorist financing.
Unsurprisingly, much of our co-operation in recent years has been on the World cup. The World cup has driven collaboration across commercial, defence and security areas. During my recent visit, I had the opportunity to tour the Education City stadium, one of the World cup venues, and saw for myself Qatar’s ambition for the tournament, and the obvious pride that it takes in hosting it. British creativity will be front and centre, from the Al Janoub stadium, designed by the late British-Iraqi architect Zaha Hadid, to the role that UK company Techniche plays through its cooling vests for construction workers.
Speaking about engagement, I specifically raised the issue of LGBTQ football fans with the head of the World cup Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy, Hassan Al Thawadi. I was very pleased that he engaged fully and properly with that issue. It is something that the Qataris take seriously; they want to demonstrate to the world the progress they are making. In all, the 2022 World cup has led to over £1 billion of UK export wins, and I hope that the home nation football teams that qualify—I am a Minister for the whole UK, so I will be agnostic as to which of the home nations do better—do well.
Beyond sport, many Members have noted the important role that Qatar plays in regional and global issues. We commend Qatar’s support for peace in Afghanistan, acting as the host for ongoing Afghan peace negotiations. Qatar is an important development and humanitarian partner for the UK. We are keen to deepen and further this as we look forward to 2021 and beyond. We are encouraging our Qatari counterparts to play a leading role in tackling climate change ahead of COP 26.
Following encouraging signs of progress over the weekend, I reiterate the UK Government’s position on the Gulf dispute. As the hon. Member for Stirling (Alyn Smith) mentioned, the Gulf Co-operation Council is very important to us. GCC unity matters for the security and stability of the region; it is an issue that I bring up with all our regional partners. We continue to engage with our Gulf friends on this issue, and we firmly get behind and praise Kuwait’s mediation role in this issue. Qatar is a close friend and important ally to the United Kingdom. As we approach Qatar’s national day next week, and the 50th anniversary of our official diplomatic relations, the UK stands committed to work with Qatar in pursuit of all our shared objectives and solutions to global challenges.
I thank the Minister for his reply, and all Members who have taken part in what has been a very good and balanced debate. It is clear that the relationship is strong, and that there is still much work that can be done. In the time that I have engaged with Qatar, it has been fascinating to see the way in which the country has developed and continued to look outwards. That is not an accident. It is down, almost exclusively, to the influence of His Highness, the Emir, right from the top. If that commitment continues, then I have no doubt that the strength of the relationship between the United Kingdom and Qatar will continue to grow, and that we will continue to see the progress we all so devoutly wish for.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered UK-Qatar relations.
Future of the Coach Industry
[Dr Rupa Huq in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the future of the coach industry.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dr Huq. I record my thanks to the Backbench Business Committee and my good and honourable Friend the Member for Gateshead (Ian Mearns) for allocating time for this important debate. I thank my own trade union, Unite the union, for providing background information and briefing.
I particularly thank my constituents, Jillian Nicholson and Michael Pearson of TM Coach Travel and Northeast Coachways. The coach industry could not have two better advocates. For nine months they have asked for nothing more than fairness and justice, and a chance to survive covid, so that theirs and other small and medium-sized coach companies, often decades-old family businesses, can return to work post-covid.
The industry has a simple message to Government, and it has been delivered thousands of times in postcards from the edge. It reads, “Wish you could hear.” The Government are running out of time to listen and act. Coach operators are already going bust; employees, drivers and mechanics are being made redundant; and, the sector is losing capacity. That capacity will be vital to the recovery of the coach industry and to the whole economy, and to thousands, potentially millions, of jobs, supported by UK leisure and tourism.
Coach companies are the backbone and the supply chain for UK leisure and tourism. According to the Confederation of Passenger Transport, more than 23 million visits were made by coach in 2019, contributing £14 million to the UK tourism economy. The sector has more than 2,500 coach operators, directly employing some 42,000 people. Of course, there is then the ripple effect. Vehicle maintenance and upkeep supports an army of mechanics and garages involved in servicing and repairing vehicles.
The argument today is simple: the Government should stand by British businesses—companies that support our economy and do the right thing. The most responsible coach companies have invested in the newest clean fleets in our economy and are implementing the Government’s zero carbon climate change policy. However, ironically, they are facing the greatest loss, having to manage higher debt levels at a time when they have no income and the industry is shut down.
It is not a crisis of their own making. The number of Members of Parliament here who are concerned about this issue is worthy of note. Several who were hoping to speak have had to leave, unfortunately, because of delays to the votes and speaking in the main Chamber. This is an important issue that affects every constituency.
I put my name down for the debate, but unfortunately I was not called. Is the hon. Gentleman aware that in Northern Ireland, the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment has a bespoke package of grants of £8,000 paid for the first bus and £4,450 for the second, up to a total of £100,000? That underlines the importance that the Northern Ireland Assembly has put on the bus sector, including Giles Tours and Billy Brown’s and others in my constituency. Does he feel that the Northern Ireland example might be one for the Minister to replicate here?
I believe there is specific support in Scotland and Wales as well. We are calling for the Minister to act and provide some sector-specific support to the coach industry in England. We are not asking for special treatment; we are asking for parity and an equal chance for the sector to survive, with support that recognises the specific impact that covid has had on the sector.
The coach sector was the first hit, the hardest-hit, and will be the last to recover. The fall in demand and income has been absolutely catastrophic—in excess of 90%. Unlike some other industries that have had the opportunity to diversify or even continue operating during covid, the coach industry has experienced a near total shutdown. Even if venues were open, such as concert venues, shows and sporting events, or holidays were still taking place, the social distancing requirements would make such coach trips unviable.
The industry needs support and the Government excluded coach companies from the rates relief support by failing to recognise them as part of tourism, leisure and hospitality or essential travel. I expect many in the industry would agree with Jade Cooper-Greaves of Henry Cooper Coaches in Annitsford. When she was interviewed by the BBC, she said:
“I have never written a job down in my diary that wouldn’t be classed as tourism, leisure, hospitality or essential travel.”
The lack of sector-specific support is crippling and the Government are failing to recognise the scale of the crisis.
In a letter on 23 November, the Minister responsible, who sits in the other place, said:
“We continue to work closely with representatives from the coach sector, including the Confederation of Passenger Transport, and with other Government Departments to understand the ongoing, specific and unique risks and issues the sector faces and how those could be addressed.”
There are many and obvious risks and challenges facing the sector.
It is not true that the sector has had support. Certainly, there has been the furlough scheme, which assisted with the employees—the drivers and so on. That was welcome, but it did not help operators with ongoing business costs, loan payments or vehicle leasing fees. And the coronavirus business loan interruption scheme has failed the industry, with the majority of the businesses in it—80%—unable to access that support.
Let us look at some other sectors. Arts, culture and heritage received £1.57 billion. I am not against that; I am simply pointing out the inconsistency. There has been a bail-out for buses and trams—£700 million. Rail—£4.5 billion, and actually it is even more than that when we take into account the emergency measures. For the voluntary and charitable sector—£750 million. Eat out to help out is estimated at £500 million. For the sports bail-out for rugby union, horse racing, women’s football and the lower tiers of National League football—£300 million.
The Chancellor said that he did not want to pick winners and losers, but that is precisely what the Government are doing by offering sector-specific support to some sectors and not to others. Let me be clear—I do not begrudge any of the sectors that I have mentioned the support that the Government have given them. But there is no transparency as to why some sectors are favoured and others ignored.
Sports are struggling without crowds, but it is the coach sector that transports those crowds. Arts, heritage and culture, hard-pressed though they are, have had some retail opportunities during covid, and in some cases are able to open now, with restrictions, in certain areas. Eat out to help out was an untargeted scheme that benefited large chains with large floor space that could accommodate more customers. Again, that support targeted businesses that were able to continue trading through covid, perhaps via takeaways or with limited capacity.
We must question the value of these bail-outs, particularly those to the bus operators, which have received £700 million. As public subsidised companies, it would be reasonable to expect them to understand the plight of the coach sector. Instead, many of these bus companies are taking the last remaining contracts, which are often travel-to-school contracts, from the coach companies. I am aware that subsidised bus operators in my own region are undercutting coach companies on already undervalued home-to-school transport contracts.
I have coach operators who rent vehicles from Arriva Bus and Coach Ltd. When they asked for a rent holiday, they were refused, even though they had no business. They were forced to return the coaches because they were unable to maintain payments of up to £20,000 a month, having no work and now also being hit with early termination fees of £80,000. I must ask the Minister—is that fair?
With all due respect, if the Minister cannot grasp the scale of the challenge after nine months, I must question their interest or competence in this matter. Indeed, I challenge the Minister. The industry is warning that, without urgent support, four in 10 companies could go bust, with a loss of 27,000 jobs, and that is not counting those jobs in the supply chain and the service sector that rely on the coach industry. We risk losing companies of good standing, and coach operators risk losing their homes due to the personal guarantees they gave on their vehicles. We cannot abandon good businesses that invest in our economy. The Government must explain why they are excluding coach companies from the sector-specific support that they have provided to other sectors.
This is a popular debate. I think that I have counted 13 bodies, with 37 minutes available; the time for the debate has been slightly stretched, because of the earlier votes in the main Chamber. I am not proposing to have a formal time limit; if everyone sticks to two and a half minutes each, we will get everyone in.
It is a pleasure to serve under you today, Dr Huq.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Easington (Grahame Morris) on securing this debate on an issue that affects so many small businesses right across the country. In normal times, their industry is worth about £7 billion, and it is fundamentally a healthy and profitable industry. I could go down the list of all the things that it does, but I will not do so, for time’s sake.
Operators—small-scale entrepreneurs who spent years building up their businesses—are doing everything they can to stay afloat. However, bookings are not expected to return to pre-pandemic levels until the summer of 2021. Many operators face a drop in income of around 90%—for example, Jewels Tours faced a revenue shortfall of that amount. At the same time, their fixed outgoings remain the same: payments on vehicles, monthly maintenance and so on. The summer months provided some respite, but they could hardly be profitable, because of the social distancing requirements.
Those businesses have made significant investment in their infrastructure. They have high fixed costs in servicing their financial investment. For instance, over the past six years, Grange Travel has invested over £6 million in upgrading its fleet to satisfy regulatory demands. One operator applied through their bank for a coronavirus business interruption loan. Despite having an excellent credit score and the scheme being Government backed, they were declined, leading them to go to a broker and have a debenture attached to their business. As a result, they are having difficulty getting other finance. They now face a winter with hugely suppressed demand, the liability of a high fixed-cost base and little or no support outside the furlough scheme. They face going out of business. Yet this is a viable industry, which supports our own domestic hospitality and tourism sectors.
The key asks on behalf of this suffering industry, as voiced by businesses in my constituency, are as follows. First, the Government should stand as guarantor with finance companies. Secondly, they should come to an arrangement with the industry to provide further finance holidays. Thirdly, grants should be made available to the several thousand coach operators in England, as has been done for big players like National Express. This industry is fighting for its future. We must support it.
I recently had the pleasure of speaking to Roderick Thompson from Regent Travel in Hartlepool, a family-run independent travel agent with over 30 years’ experience in the travel business. He told me not only that covid-19 has impacted his business and the travel industry as a whole, but that for many of his regulars the potential demise of the coach tour industry would have a devastating effect. He told me that many of his customers prefer to pay cash and were not used to the world of computers. When holidays got cancelled due to the pandemic, he and his staff spent most of their time recovering deposits for them.
That brought into sharp focus the magnitude of the hit the coach industry is taking. The Confederation of Passenger Transport UK has warned that, without urgent support from the Government, thousands of family businesses are at risk because, despite mothballing coaches and furloughing staff, they still face costs averaging £1,900 a day.
The owners of another local family business wrote to me recently. Paul’s Travel has been operating for 18 years in the minibus trade. In their own words, they sit between taxi companies and large coach companies. They, too, have suffered similar experiences, with private hire down and the number of regular weekly contracts down from 16 to two. They also rely on the hospitality and leisure industry. They are hanging on by the skin of their teeth.
I have chosen to highlight the plight of two local Hartlepool companies, but it must be recognised that on a national scale coach travel is a major player in the leisure industry. It directly employs 42,000 people, with thousands more jobs dependent on the sector. Without Government support, those jobs will simply go.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Easington (Grahame Morris) for securing this debate and giving an excellent speech. The coach industry is a vital part of our society, which we take for granted. We have probably not appreciated until now its full value and its true worth to our communities and our enjoyment. For many working-class kids of my generation, the highlight of the summer holidays was a day trip to Blackpool or north Wales on what we called charas, which was our take on charabanc—a coach. Of course, they have changed a lot since then. We have all experienced it over the years.
I want to draw the attention of the House to something that people probably forget—the role that the coach industry played at the beginning of the pandemic. Given that so much has happened since, it is easy to forget that when British nationals came home from China in February and March, it was coaches that transported them from London to the Wirral. We all have coach companies, or involvement with coach companies, in our constituencies. They are very much part of the community.
My area has a number of such businesses. I have spoken recently to Anthony’s Travel, which is a local company, and to Richard Bamber, who is one of the partners there. He told me just how much they are feeling the pinch. They also feel excluded, particularly when the Government are making decisions about what sector they fall into. These local businesses form part of the backbone of our communities, but it seems that the coach industry falls into a grey area between the transport and leisure sectors, and no one in Government seems to be brave enough to make a decision when it comes to defining it.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Easington mentioned, the Government have just tried to ignore the points and arguments that are continually being put across. They then try to cover that by saying, “We are helping industry. We are providing support.” But they will not answer the actual points, and they need to do that. It is about time that they came clean and said what they are doing and what they intend to do.
There are potentially 27,000 jobs being lost. The Government may have taken the view that something will be needed well after the pandemic. They may have thought, “Well, it’s a bit tough if people lose their jobs and industries go bust, but someone will come along after it.” It is probably going to be the bigger companies. That is not the point; the point is that these companies are trusted local companies that are very much involved in their community and really want to serve their community. We want them to survive. They are trusted companies.
These companies provide improvements and help to vast areas of the economy. Just take coastal towns, which are suffering at the moment, and how much they rely on coaches to bring tourists and day trippers to them. These are really important businesses.
I have little time left—I am going to stick to your advice, Dr Huq—so I will just say this. We have to have proper support for the coach industry, and particularly for those local businesses that we all have in our constituencies. They are a vital part of our communities. We must have that support given to them.
I thank the hon. Member for Easington (Grahame Morris). I agree with everything he said—that avoids some degree of repetition.
I want to talk about the impact on the sector in my own constituency. Every July, coach drivers from across the country travel to Blackpool for the coach driver of the year awards, parking their luxury vehicles on the comedy carpet outside the tower. This year, they could not do that. Instead they came as part of a blockade along the M55 for the Honk for Hope campaign.
This is not about one single bus company in my constituency—although Members are right to support companies in their areas. It is about the existential threat to the private sector economy in my constituency. If people travel the Blackpool coast from south to north, they pass hotel after hotel after hotel, each of which depends on coach visitors coming to the resort. Those hotels have seen their business collapse: there were 80% fewer bookings even before the most recent lockdown, and they are now at crisis levels. I know of one coach company that brings 120,000 people a year to Blackpool, putting £30 million into the local economy. That is replicated up and down the coast. I have had hotel after hotel after hotel coming to me and saying, “We don’t know how we are possibly going to survive.”
This is not just a summer-only phenomenon; it is a year-round part of our local economy. We have the tinsel and turkey season right now, but it simply is not happening, because the hotels are closed. Even if the hotels were open, the coaches could not come, because they cannot make a profit, as a result of the social distancing rules that are part and parcel of what has to happen at the moment. We have just missed the illuminations season, which is three weeks solid—particularly in the half-term—of coaches coming in, driving through the lights and, yet again, putting money into not just local hotels but the small cafés, the restaurants, the entertainment venues and the piers. Every single part of our private sector economy in Blackpool is affected not just by the loss of visitors, but by the loss of the coach visitors, who underpin it and have done for decades. As the hon. Member for Halton (Derek Twigg) pointed out, they are part of what Blackpool is.
I therefore urge my hon. Friend the Minister to listen to this sector carefully. There has been a glut of coaches coming on to the market that are second-hand; many existing companies are struggling to make the finance payments. I know that she is the Decarbonisation Minister, so she ought to be enthusiastic about ensuring that we have more and more Euro 6 coaches throughout the network. Here is a chance to “build back better”, to support the finance payments for these firms and to allow companies to use Government subsidy to improve their fleets as part of the decarbonisation strategy. Then it will not just be this sector that survives—Blackpool as a coastal resort might have a chance as well.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Dr Huq. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Easington (Grahame Morris) for securing this debate and for the really strong case that he made. Coach companies, operators and staff up and down the country will be relieved to hear their concerns played out so strongly. Two companies—Skills and Hammonds—are in my constituency; I have worked with them throughout the pandemic, and I hope to be a voice for them here today.
The coach industry is worth £14 billion to the tourism industry. Some 600,000 children regularly rely on a coach to get them to and from school. During the pandemic, the coach industry has stepped up to provide 50,000 more spaces to make sure that travel can be done safely. It is not a question of whether we can afford to support the coach industry, but what support we can get to it and how quickly we can do that. Some of the schemes the Government have done so well during the pandemic simply have not fitted the coach industry. It is hard to do these things, but there is an obligation to fill the gap. We must understand that the coach industry is distinct from the bus industry, and the support must be distinct too. I know that Scotland has announced support recently, as has Wales, and it is now time for England to do the same. [Interruption.] The fact that Northern Ireland has also announced support is news to me.
Coach businesses have big overheads. Fleet insurance, liability insurance and rent can be more than five grand a month before companies have even thought about vehicles or maintenance. Despite being such an integral part of the tourism sector, these businesses have been unable to access support packages. For example, local authorities have decided on a case-by-case basis whether coach operators ought to fall within the leisure and tourism elements of support. We need formal recognition from the Government that coach operators are clearly part of the leisure and tourism sector, so that they can consistently get the support that is supposed to be there for them and so that we can end the postcode lottery. As colleagues have said, the Government could also, at a minimum, encourage the extension of finance holidays by another year to ensure that no coaches are repossessed over this winter. The point about underwriting loans was very well made too.
With the vaccine, we have had a glimpse of the future and of getting to a semblance of normality, but if we want normality—day trips, tours, and children going back to school and back on school trips properly—we need to make sure there is still a coach industry to do those things. The industry is fundamentally healthy and profitable, but it has been hit hard by circumstances well outside of its control. The Government must put in place short-term aid to ensure that the long-term future of the sector is sustainable.
Golden Boy Coaches in my constituency is a family business. It has been run not for decades but for generations. The owners have never darkened my door before. They have got on with their lives and grown their business. They have provided services to generations of my constituents. Such businesses are part of our communities, as we have heard so eloquently from many other speakers. Now they face a lifetime’s work—generations’ work—going under because high maintenance levels, high debt levels and the high costs of compliance do not sit easily with no customers. No business sits easily with high fixed costs.
We have to get the economy moving again. Coach providers do the school run in the morning and in the evening, and the only reason that those two activities paid was because the providers did things in between. After the school run in the morning, they did trips to matinees and racecourses, and after the evening school run they went to the theatres and restaurants. These companies are absolutely on their knees. Golden Boy has a future, but that future does not look rosy. It could be a very small future without more Government intervention.
We in this place are excellent at spending money—we are brilliant at it. We are great at borrowing it; the Chancellor is fantastic at borrowing it, and we are really good at spending it for him, but we do not want to spend money that has already been spent. Money was spent on giving rate relief to the supermarkets, but well over £1 billion of it has come back. As far as the Chancellor was concerned, it had gone out of the door. He has got it back, but he did not expect to see it back, so I say to the Minister: can we not use some of that money—that £1 billion—to throw a lifeline to coach companies?
As I said at the start of my very brief speech, coach operators are the people we never heard from, who got on with their businesses, built their businesses and employed our constituents. They never troubled us, and now they need us, so we need to be there for them.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Dr Huq, and I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Easington (Grahame Morris) for securing the debate. I have to say that it is always a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Broxbourne (Sir Charles Walker).
This is the third time that I have raised concerns about the coach industry, and I thank the Treasury Minister who met me and industry representatives last week. I hope the strength of feeling in the House today conveys the fact that that should be the start of the conversation, not the end.
In the brief time I have to make my remarks, it is important to myth-bust or fact-check some of the statements that the Government have been making with regards to the coach industry. We cannot address the problem properly unless we clearly and transparently understand the support that the industry has had and the difficulties that it is facing.
The first point I want to make is that the Secretary of State for Transport claimed in the House that additional financial support has been announced for school transport, and that this would benefit 30,000 idle coaches. That has proven not to be true. To give him the benefit of the doubt, that could have been his intention, but it has helped only 1,000 coaches—the rest of the money has been deployed to buses, which has not directly helped the industry.
My second point is that I was informed that the Chancellor stated at a roundtable meeting he had with the industry that the industry had benefitted from VAT cuts and deferment. Again, that could have been his intention, but passenger transport is free of VAT, so I cannot see how deferring VAT has helped the industry.
Thirdly, the Government claimed that grants for businesses in tier 3 would help, but they have not. Coach companies are not listed as businesses that have to close, so the only funding available to them is discretionary support, which, by its nature, is discretionary. That means there has been a postcode lottery around the country, with some councils choosing to support the coach industry, and some not. If the Minister wishes to ensure that operators have support, he needs to make that discretionary support a little less discretionary.
The Government’s fourth point is that coaches have had access to the coronavirus business interruption loans. Again, that is not completely accurate, because only 20% of coach companies have been able to access that money. I hear that that is partly because coach companies are seen as high risk, and partly because they are unable to provide the six-month business plans needed. In a previous debate in which I spoke about coach companies, I mentioned specific problems around Lloyds Bank refusing to lend money for coronavirus business interruption loans.
I will stop there, but I hope the Minister’s responses will not refer to not completely factual statements about the financial support for school transport, the VAT support, the grants for businesses or the coronavirus business interruption loans. Unless we are honest about the lack of support the industry has had, we cannot get an effective solution.
Like my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne (Sir Charles Walker), I have coach companies in my constituency that have never darkened my doorstep; they have just got on with their business. However, they have contacted me recently about an issue that nobody has raised so far: whether they should be compliant with the public service vehicles accessibility regulations.
To be PSVAR-compliant suggests that there is a distinction between making coaches available for disabled people and retrofitting those coaches to make them suitable for taking disabled people, but that is a false distinction, and I was pleased that, as a result of covid, Baroness Vere extended the time that coaches had to be compliant.
The reason I say that that is a false distinction is that in the home-to-school business, coach companies receive—in advance of setting off in the morning—a passenger list that identifies the people who are getting on the coach. It identifies the people who need disability assistance in order to make that coach ride. Many companies tell me that, in 20 or 30 years of being in business, they have received no requests for assistance for people with a disability. I wonder whether we can change the PSVAR rules, because I am absolutely behind ensuring we have coaches that are available for disabled people. If a list is provided in advance that makes it clear who is disabled and who is not, companies are prepared to put on coaches to pick up those people. This is an important issue. Many transport providers have been taken by surprise at the news that home-to-school service providers will have to comply with these regulations, as they previously thought the service would be exempt. The source of that confusion links back to the existence of pre-known passenger lists. I will leave this important issue on the table for the Minister to pick up.
Many of my colleagues have referred more generally to the situation of companies in their areas. Representing a coastal area, I think it is particularly important, as my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard) said, that we get these coach companies back up and running, and visiting our towns and resorts again as soon as possible.
Rather than dwelling on the general points, as others have done, I will read a quote from one company in my area that sums up the impact on a well-run family business that—this is similar to what my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne (Sir Charles Walker) said—has never darkened the door of its MP previously. Mr Radley, based in Barton, writes:
“As you know, we have had zero income for months now during the lockdown period. After you visited us in the summer, we cautiously reopened on 8 September. Since that date, we have managed to operate just a handful of day excursions and two five-day tours. The average load on these occasions has been 18 passengers.”
That emphasises the fact that, even if we can get these coach companies up and running, social distancing means that their load is only a third or a quarter of normal, which is simply not viable. Mr Radley goes on to say:
“Never in our previous 29-year trading history have we feared for our future existence as we do right now.”
That sums up the impact on individuals.
I am sure that we will shortly hear from the Minister about the success that the Government have had in ploughing money into furloughs, bounce back loans and so on, all of which the companies we represent have taken advantage of and are grateful for, but the fact is that they do not want to hear a repeat of what we have done; they want to hear what we will do to maintain their viability over the next year or two.
Despite the fact that the Cleethorpes constituency is very dependent on the hospitality sector, my constituents have overwhelmingly supported the restrictions that the Government have put in place. In the recent lockdown, the infection rate in my area has gone down from 650 to about 120 per 100,000, so there is recognition that lockdowns have worked. However, if a democratically accountable Government decree that someone cannot go about their law-abiding business, they must act and support those people.
It is clear from the contributions so far that the hon. Members here feel that the UK Government have to date not really understood the importance of the coach industry to the wider travel and tourism industry, or that sector support is vital for the industry to survive. In response to a written question on sector funding, the Minister advised me that the Department of Education has provided more than £70 million to local transport authorities, as if that was somehow a silver bullet that would help coach companies survive. It is not.
I spoke to Milligan’s Coach Travel in my constituency, which confirmed that, while school transport is important—it could be argued that it is its bread and butter—it is only 20% of its trade, with the rest made up of its own day tours, holidays and theatre trips, private hire, tourism and cruise ships and football coach hire. I have enjoyed a football bus many a time myself, having run a sports club for 25 years.
The Confederation of Passenger Transport (Scotland) estimates that 80% of the coach industry’s income is derived from tourist-related activities. That market is decimated. Hotels all over the United Kingdom rely on bus tour companies bringing tourists and visitors to them. If the coach industry collapses, hotels the length and breadth of the UK will not open, so a lot more jobs are at stake than just those in the coach industry.
We have heard about the jobs that are at risk, but it is not just jobs. Many coach companies, as we know, are family-run businesses. It is estimated that 32% of operators have personal guarantees and stand to lose their homes if their businesses fail, so personal bankruptcies are a risk. Imagine the strain on people’s lives, and what they are trying to manage and weigh up. The stark reality is that coach businesses are facing a more than 90% drop in income for 2020, 40% of coach operators expect to reduce staff, and 7,100 coach industry professionals have already been made unemployed.
The good news in Scotland is that yesterday the Scottish Government announced a £6 million grant fund pot for the coach industry and £5 million for travel agents, which has been warmly received by the industries. Of course, if the UK Government step up and provide money for the coach industry as well, that will provide Barnett consequentials for Scotland, and we will be able to do even more to support this vital industry.
It is a pleasure to be able to speak in the debate, which I congratulate the hon. Member for Easington (Grahame Morris) on securing. I speak on behalf of all the Devon MPs who were unfortunately unable to get on to the call list.
The Government understand the importance of the tourism sector, which is valued at £106 billion, the hospitality sector, which is valued at £130 billion, and the leisure sector, which is valued at £200 billion, so they must surely understand the value that coach companies and services play in those sectors in their supporting role. That is what I want to speak about today. Coach companies, in all our constituencies across the whole country, play an integral role in supporting those sectors, and if we wish our economy to bounce back in the coming years, it will be essential to support businesses that play a supporting role to those major parts of our economy.
I hope that the Government will look very carefully not at what they have already done, but at what they can do in future. There is no doubt that the Government have been extraordinarily generous in their support schemes to businesses across the country, from the grant schemes to everything else, but loans alone will not secure the future of businesses. We need a forward-looking approach to ensure that they have the economic breathing space to thrive in the months to come.
I hope that the Government will look at the CPT’s requests of extending finance holidays by 12 months, ensuring that greater access to support packages is made available to the tourism and hospitality sector, providing an aid-to-trade grant to operators to help boost the return of the coach sector towards tourism—hopefully working with VisitBritain to encourage a new era of domestic tourism would achieve that—and topping up the home-to-school payments to meet the true cost of the work for so many of the coach companies that have struggled over the years.
I am very fortunate in my constituency to have AB Coaches, Tally Ho and Millmans, all of which have struggled through the last seven months. I hope that in looking at how we can support them now we might also look at historical issues that have blighted the sector. Let us see if a suspension of fuel duty for two years to allow companies to reinvest that money into an environmentally friendly new fleet of vehicles would be beneficial. Let us look at ways in which we can rework the working time directives to allow people to work more hours, and to go out there for business and opportunities. I want to see us stand up for businesses that are here today so that they are there tomorrow, and I hope that the Government will act on that.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Dr Huq. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Easington (Grahame Morris) for securing this important debate.
Three months: that is how long a family-run business in my constituency has left before it goes bust. For the benefit of the Government, who have shown little interest in the plight of small, family-run businesses so far, I will explain what that means. It means that more than 30 people will lose their jobs, livelihoods and sense of purpose. It means that vital transport for key workers and schoolchildren in the constituency will be cut off. It means that finances will go unpaid and the debt crisis will rise.
I have not one but two family-run coach companies in my constituency of Erith and Thamesmead: Phoenix Tours and Abbey Travel. If answers are not provided today on how the Government plan to support the coach industry, the consequences for my constituents will be devastating. Phoenix Tours revealed that it has sadly already laid of six members of staff during the pandemic, and is struggling to keep up with its monthly outgoings. Its future continues to look bleak. The business was unable to access any form of Government grants, as it is not considered to be in the retail, leisure or hospitality industries. It has taken advantage of the bounce back loan scheme, but this loan was used in a mere month due to the huge costs of its outgoings—costs that have only increased due to insurance providers forcing prices for coach companies during the pandemic. I therefore ask the Minister, given that most of our towns and cities are staring tier 3 restrictions in the face, what measures will the Government put in place to ensure that the coach industry receives a respite from the insurance and finance payments?
Abbey Travel has also laid off 50% of its staff, after 99% of its bookings were cancelled. It lost £400,000 of bookings from Thomas Cook alone. I also know that it is not through irresponsible decision making that these companies have lost all of their business and are now struggling financially. This point has been echoed by many Members today. In fact, both companies have acted with the utmost social responsibility in the past few years, investing millions back into their businesses to ensure that their vehicles are environmentally friendly and accessible for disabled people. The Government have relied on businesses to take action to help us achieve environmental targets. Now, when businesses are on the brink of collapse, the Government really need to take time to support them.
It is with great sadness that I am taking part in this debate. I have heard from constituents about the huge struggles they have faced this year—both professional and personal. I need a commitment from the Minister that she will call on insurance providers to act responsibly to support coach companies during this time. I need a commitment that she will call on her own Government Department to set out a plan to address the needs of coach companies in my constituency of Erith and Thamesmead.
I absolutely welcome the unprecedented level of support that the Government have put into supporting businesses. However, it is clear from this debate that the coach sector has fallen through the cracks and needs further support. Businesses such as Masons Coaches in Cheddington and Countrywide Coaches in Princes Risborough in my constituency are losing frightening amounts of money every single month, and they need support. We can be in no doubt that UK coach operators are facing the very real prospect of going bust all over our country.
First and foremost, we need recognition that the coach sector is an integral part of the leisure sector. Home-to-school transport is an important part of its business, but until it gets the recognition that it is part of the leisure sector, too many businesses will go under. Indeed, one business in my constituency is operating home-to-school transport, but without any of its other usual activities it is still losing in excess of £30,000 a month. That is just not sustainable.
I was struck by recent survey data completed across the sector, which shows that there has been a 90% reduction in operational mileage from April 2020 to October 2020, compared to the same period last year—2019 saw UK coaches cover some 130 million miles in this country, whereas in 2020 the figure was 13 million miles. There has been an 80% reduction in vehicle hires—equivalent to 3.6 million days in 2019, down to 758,000 in 2020. The numbers speak for themselves.
We cannot presume that carrying on with just saying that home-to-school transport is enough will be the answer for our coach sector. We need a whole-Government approach, because this is not just a problem for the Department for Transport. We need to bring in the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and the Treasury to ensure that our coach sector gets the support it needs.
I particularly add my voice to those calls to give those businesses the support they need on vehicle finance. They are all debt-leveraged up to their eyeballs, but many are also indebted, as my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell) said, because they have taken on considerable debts to meet the PSV requirements. They need support on that and support in grants, and then we will have a healthy coach sector to return to after this crisis.
Many thanks to the hon. Member for Easington (Grahame Morris) for securing the debate on what is clearly an important matter across these islands.
I have spoken in defence of the coach sector numerous times in debates in the main Chamber, in relation both to the economy and to tourism. If we have heard nothing else today, we know that coaches have sadly fallen between two stools when it comes to highlighting the support required. Early-day motions have been raised, yet here we are still talking. The point for the Minister is that this is not just the abstract hobbyhorse of a few Members; this is a grave and immediate threat to a major element of the economy across these islands.
Many coach operators are family enterprises, which has been touched on already, reinvesting their profit in their fleets, businesses and employees. They are wealth-creating enterprises that have paid significant sums into the Exchequer, while never burdening the taxpayer for any financial assistance, prior to the covid pandemic, making them something of an outlier when compared with air travel, rail or buses.
Coach is a vital element of national infrastructure; it is no exaggeration to say that. It is unlike any other element of mass public transportation, such as rail, which cannot survive in normal times without public subsidy, or air, which fills its aircraft with fuel and in so doing leaves not one single penny with the Exchequer. Coach will fill its buses with £540 of diesel, and leave 66%, or £360, with the Exchequer every time they are filled up. The coach industry is surely entitled to a wee bit back in these times of extremis.
As the CPT has warned, the collapse in the coach and tourism sector will wipe 10% off the value of UK tourism, but by guaranteeing loans and covering the interest costs for 12 months, the UK Government could, at a stroke, help operators secure finance holiday extensions that would provide the industry with the breathing space until the return of business in the spring, just a few months away. Many hon. Members of all parties in the Chamber, and others besides, have been making that point to Government for many months.
With every passing month, disaster looms ever closer. I am grateful that businesses in my Angus constituency, such as JP Mini Coaches in Forfar, Black’s of Brechin or Wisharts in Friockheim, will now be benefiting from £6 million of specific support from colleagues in the Scottish Government, recognising as they do that they cannot delay any longer while waiting for the UK Government to act.
The UK Government must accept that that is not a good look. To stand by and not give any support for the English sector, while the devolved Administrations are supporting coach companies in Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland, is not a good look. It is important for the whole of these islands, because English companies cannot fail for the interests of the Welsh, Northern Irish and Scottish tourist sectors. It is a self-fulfilling multiplier.
Finally, I say to the Minister that there is no room in the summing up for listening to what we have done before. What we need is something new, and we need it very urgently.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Dr Huq. I thank colleagues for taking part in the debate. It has been heartening to see how much interest there is in this key sector, especially at a time when Government support seems to be somewhat lacking. I extend a special thanks to my hon. Friend the Member for Easington (Grahame Morris) for his work in securing the debate and to all those who have facilitated it.
Coach firms, a huge number of which are small, family-owned businesses, are great contributors to local economies. They play a crucial and unfortunately somewhat overlooked role in our national transport network. In normal times, coaches and their drivers travel hundreds of thousands of miles every day, and for a huge variety of journeys. They take thousands of school children to school every day, who would otherwise have no reliable means of getting to their place of education. They make educational trips possible and they help sports teams to compete across the country. When our railway networks are delayed, they take passengers to their destination.
As has been said by a number of hon. Members, coaches play a crucial part in the tourism and cultural industries. In fact, as the experts at the Confederation of Passenger Transport have calculated, over 23 million people visit UK attractions every year by coach, generating nearly 10% of the tourism sector’s total contribution to the economy. That point was well made by a number of colleagues on the Government Benches. That is to say nothing of the economic boost provided by the tens of thousands of people employed by coach firms, the multiplier effect, the supply chains or the thousands of people who travel by coach because other forms of transport are not available to them.
In the very near term, the Christmas travel period could shine a further light on the importance of coaches. Labour has warned of the potential dangers posed by travel chaos as people use our road and rail networks over the festive period. Indeed, we have asked the Government to take special care at this time and to pay more attention to the potential difficulties during the pandemic.
It is clear that the coach sector is incredibly important in the immediate context and in the longer term for our economy as we transition away from the coronavirus pandemic and return to some form of normality. Sadly, it is equally clear that there has been a lack of adequate support over the last year, which has threatened the viability of many wonderful family firms. The furlough scheme, as we have heard, has often been the only source of support for many companies until recently, with industry experts estimating that 80% of coach companies were unable to access the coronavirus business interruption loan scheme or other business support over the summer.
The Government have argued, somewhat misguidedly, that schools returning has provided companies with business, but many firms run home-to-school journeys at a loss in the absence of other work, as we have heard. Many difficulties, as hon. Members have said, arise from coach financing. Companies have rightly been incentivised to purchase newer, more efficient vehicles, which are greener and better for the environment. Some firms have been able to negotiate payment holidays during the crisis, but they will soon come to an end. As my hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Thamesmead (Abena Oppong-Asare) said, in some cases, companies may be just months away from going out of business.
Despite that, there has been no sector-specific support for the coach industry, unlike other parts of the transport sector, such as bus, rail or light rail operators. I am afraid to say that industry experts estimate that four in 10 companies could go bust, which would mean the loss of 27,000 jobs across the country. Some firms have seen a drop in income of up to 90% this year, so it is not surprising that they are facing such financial difficulties.
Even in the context of good news about vaccines, it is clear that social distancing measures will continue for some months, which means that coach companies will be simply unable to operate at their normal capacity, as several hon. Members mentioned. Coach firms have historically been very responsible borrowers, and they have been profitable businesses. They simply need short-term help to tide them through the crisis.
I will refer to some of the comments made to me by companies. Acklams Coaches is a small business in Hull that my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Emma Hardy) introduced me to. It said:
“Until the pandemic we were a growing business and had invested in new environmentally friendly vehicles but to date our income has dropped by 70% with all our leisure work having stopped. We employ 110 staff, which has already reduced during the pandemic and we are now having to look to offer reduced hours, which means more staff are having to leave.”
Berrys Coaches in Taunton said:
“It feels like the coach industry has been the forgotten sector.”
Time and again in the debate, we have heard similar stories from hon. Members from across the country.
That is why we are calling on the Government to explain why they have excluded coach companies from the sector-specific rescue packages arranged for bus, rail and light rail. Indeed, what plans do the Minister and the Government have in place to tackle the looming financial crisis that has been eloquently talked about this afternoon by many hon. Members from both sides of the Chamber?
I urge the Minister to address three critical points in her closing remarks. First, the Government must publish a plan to tackle the looming financial crisis for coach firms to protect jobs and the viability of those wonderful family businesses in future. Secondly, I hope that she will explain why the Government have not committed to providing targeted support for coach companies, despite that being accessible to other parts of the economy. Thirdly, I hope that she will outline what steps the Government are willing to take to protect the tourism and cultural industries so that they can reopen safely as we transition out of the pandemic. The Government must now provide clarity and act with swiftness after months of inaction, otherwise we could face the loss of thousands of small businesses and thousands of jobs.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Easington (Grahame Morris) on securing this vital debate. I thank all hon. Members who have spoken. We have heard a vast number of contributions, including from my hon. Friends the Members for Gravesham (Adam Holloway), for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard), for Broxbourne (Sir Charles Walker), for Henley (John Howell), for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers), for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall) and for Buckingham (Greg Smith), and the hon. Members for Hartlepool (Mike Hill), for Halton (Derek Twigg), for Nottingham North (Alex Norris), for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Emma Hardy), for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown), and for Erith and Thamesmead (Abena Oppong-Asare). I think it is crystal clear that there is a strength of feeling in the Chamber today from all parts of the country on this vital issue. We have heard many eloquently expressed, first-hand stories from Members explaining the impact of the pandemic on their constituents and the businesses they run.
I am delighted to have this opportunity to assure Members that the Government are absolutely committed to the future of the coach industry. Members have made clear to the Government—to me as a Minister and to other Ministers responsible for these decisions—the strength of feeling on this matter. We have heard it very clearly. Members have set out the vital role that coach companies play in their communities and constituencies. We have heard time and again that these are small, hard-working family businesses. As many Members said, these constituents had not darkened their doors—I did not want to use that phrase, but that is how Members described some of the people they talked about today. They are hard-working people who have not turned to their MPs before. Of course, as an MP myself, I recognise the strength of feeling on this issue.
I will come to the points that Members have raised. I want to respond to a specific point from my hon. Friend the Member for Henley about the public service vehicle accessibility regulations, which others also raised. I will ask my noble Friend in the other place to come back to him on that specific point. I want to reassure Members that all the proposals that have been presented on behalf of their constituents are being carefully considered by Ministers.
We have discussed at length the future of this industry. It is my belief that it continues to have an important role to play and I see no reason why it cannot have a bright and prosperous future. It is a resilient and diverse sector, and its contribution to our leisure, tourism, public and home-to-school transport systems is long standing and vital.
Normally, coach operators up and down the country are connecting people every day of the year. Members have referred to numerous small, family-run businesses in their constituencies. Whether it is a tour to Blackpool or a coach package ticket to the Glastonbury festival, coaches have played a huge part in opening up all parts of the UK and enriching all our lives.
Of course, 2020 has been very different. This year, the covid-19 pandemic and the necessary national and local restrictions to protect public health that have come with it, have taken many of these experiences away from us. With people necessarily spending so much of 2020 undertaking only essential journeys, demand for coach services has reduced dramatically.
I know that, as a result, this year has represented an unprecedented challenge for all coach operators. In these difficult times, the Government’s commitment to supporting businesses cannot be questioned. Many Members discussed this and recognised that fact. Since the onset of the pandemic in the spring, we have paid wages through the job retention scheme and supported the incomes of self-employed workers. We have also provided significant support in the form of loans and grants. Coach operators have been able to apply for the coronavirus business interruption loan scheme.
I want to reinforce a couple of points. First, coach companies are telling me there is a high chance that their businesses will end before the furlough scheme runs out. Although the scheme has been welcomed, it is not going to be the answer if the business no longer exists. Secondly, in contributions from Members across the Chamber, it was reiterated that only 20% of businesses were able to access the coronavirus business interruption loans. The majority of coach companies have not been able to access that fund.
I thank the hon. Lady very much for those points. I recognised and heard the points that she and others raised. It is important to recognise the amount of support that has gone to those businesses, although I accept that many have not been able to access the support. However, a significant amount of support has been made available. On her point about the furlough scheme, she will know that the Chancellor extended it at a number of points when the public health situation required it. All the measures are kept under constant review.
We have had a number of schemes, including the coronavirus bounce back loan scheme. Of course, the Government have also extended guidance for local authorities on administering business rate relief. Eligible businesses will not have to pay business rates for the year 2020-21—that list of businesses could and does include coach operators—and it is for local authorities to determine which businesses are eligible.
As the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Emma Hardy) said in her intervention, the furlough scheme and the business rate relief are welcome, but the Confederation of Passenger Transport reckons that it costs something like £200 a day for a bus just to sit in a yard. Those are the kinds of overheads that we are talking about. Even businesses that have access to CBILS, which is a loan and a debt that must be repaid, are looking for grants. The CPT estimates that £50 a day per coach would be enough for those coach companies to survive. We are looking for responses to those asks.
I recognise and understand the points that the hon. Gentleman has raised about the specific business conditions and challenges that coach companies face. As he will know, all the measures are kept under review by the Chancellor, responding to the evolving course of the pandemic across the country. I will come to the CPT later in my remarks.
The diversity of the coach industry is such that different operators have been eligible for different types of support. There was never going to be a one-size-fits-all package for the sector. My colleagues in Government have worked closely with coach operators to understand the issues that they have faced in accessing particular schemes, which hon. Members have mentioned, As a result of that, a support finder tool has been developed to help businesses quickly and easily determine what financial support is available to them.
We kept in mind throughout that the key to the recovery and the future of the coach industry is reopening business and generating demand across the economy. I know that all hon. Members will welcome the positive news about vaccines; mass immunisation means that we are getting ever closer to being able to lift the tough but necessary restrictions. That will create opportunities and further open up the economy, which will, in turn, help to generate demand.
The Minister is being very generous in giving way. She says that the industry is viable with a successful future—I am sure everyone in the Chamber agrees with that—but I really want her to take on board the point about the coach companies’ overhead costs. The cost of a new coach is about £250,000. The coach companies were told that those were the coaches that they needed to buy because they were greener and more environmentally friendly, and they still have those bills to pay. One way in which the Government could make a real difference to those companies would be by looking at their finance problems. Those are the kinds of answers that the industry wishes to hear. As so many hon. Members have said, those companies have, so far, fallen through gaps in the support that the Minister has mentioned. They need something else.
I thank the hon. Lady for eloquently setting out the issues—I absolutely understand her points. I will speak a bit more about the way in which we are working with the coach sector.
Obviously, I agree with the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle about wanting to get the coach sector back up and running. We believe that demand in the economy is what is needed to help the sector. When there have been safe and viable opportunities to create that demand, we have utilised them. In the autumn, the Government committed more than £70 million of funding to ensure that the coach industry could maximise the potential of the full return to education, and an additional £27 million has been allocated for the spring term. As more vehicles are needed compared with previous years, that funding has provided additional dedicated school and college capacity in our transport system, including coaches, to combat reduced demand on existing public transport.
As hon. Members will know, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport is the lead Department for tourism and leisure. It is now considering how the new global travel taskforce might help to remove barriers to international travel, and potential event opportunities for the coach sector. As many hon. Members have pointed out, that is one of the main sources of revenue for the sector.
Going forward, we will continue in the vein of our flexible and adaptable response to the pandemic, keeping all current support under review while exploring opportunities to aid long-term recovery. One of those opportunities was the student travel window; we worked with the Department for Education to encourage students to plan their return journeys from universities carefully and to buy tickets in advance.
I want to be clear with Members that this has been an unprecedented global crisis; none of us could have predicted the scale of the challenges. The Chancellor has stated that in his view it is not possible to preserve every job and every business, and I do not ever underestimate the impact on anybody of these types of circumstances, which have hit us all out of the blue. This is something that the Government take incredibly seriously and my ministerial colleagues have met individual coach operators and heard from them directly. We are well aware of the impact on the sector and on people’s jobs and businesses, which they have built up over many generations. We never underestimate the impact on our constituents’ lives and livelihoods.
We continue to work closely with the CPT. As many Members have said, this organisation has been very helpful in representing its members to Government, so we have a good understanding of the challenges that the industry faces.
I am very grateful to the Minister for giving way; she is being very generous. I am conscious—indeed, concerned—that she seems to be getting to the end of her summing-up, and I am also very conscious that the CPT and many of its members are watching this debate. It would be very helpful if we could get clarity on whether the Government will support the English sector with money that will provide consequentials for the devolved Administrations.
I thank the hon. Gentleman very much indeed, and if the CPT is watching this debate, I want to say to it that we are grateful for its work. We work closely together, so it will know that my colleagues have had a number of discussions with people in the sector and with the CPT itself, and we will continue to have those discussions. We keep under close review all the measures we provide, not just for this sector but across the economy.
I do not mean to eat into the time left for the hon. Member for Easington, but I just want to make the point about the economic viability of these businesses. The fact is that if we support them now, it will pay dividends long into the future. I appreciate the level of support that has been given, which really makes a huge difference to all those sectors that pay so much into the Treasury, but action now will help us to bounce back quicker.
My hon. Friend makes that point incredibly well, and it is the thinking behind all the support that has been given, is being given now and that will be given in the future, because we want all these businesses to come back in the future. Also, we absolutely want them to come back in a green and decarbonised way. Many Members referred to that point, which is at the heart of the Government’s agenda in the transport sector more broadly. However, I will come to my concluding remarks and allow the hon. Member for Easington to come in.
This has been a year like no other, and I thank all the transport workers in the coach sector, who have shown remarkable resilience over the last 10 months, and I hope and believe—as I am sure that everybody does—that 2021 will be different from 2020. I am encouraged by developments in the production of vaccines against covid-19. There are no certainties associated with that process, but it seems that there may be some light at the end of the tunnel.
In the meantime, I assure anybody who is watching this debate, and of course people in the Chamber, that we will continue to work with the coach sector. We will continue those conversations; this is not the end of them. We want to understand and provide the best available support that is necessary.
As we have discussed, we have an ambitious and achievable long-term environmental plan to deliver on greening our transport sector and reducing and removing vehicle emissions, and the coach industry is a very important part of that plan.
I want to reassure coach operators and their employees, and all hon. Members present here in Westminster Hall today, that we remain committed to safeguarding the future of the coach industry. I know that the concerns that have been raised today are being heard by Ministers, by the Chancellor and by Members across Government.
We have had an excellent debate. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Reading East (Matt Rodda), who is on Labour’s Front Bench, for his intelligent and thoughtful exposition of the arguments; the hon. Member for Angus (Dave Doogan), who is on the Front Bench for the Scottish National party; and indeed the Minister, for listening to the points that were put. On occasions today, the debate was a bit like that quiz game, “Fifteen To One”, or maybe it was even 20 to 1, because the Chamber has been at one in putting forward the arguments in support of this sector. All the sector is asking for is fairness, consistency, some sector-specific support, a chance to survive this winter and an opportunity to get back in business in the spring. After nine months, the coach industry needs hope.
For many people who are watching the debate today, this is the final opportunity. They will have been listening the Minister’s response, so I implore the Government to take this opportunity to save this vital industry and deliver some Christmas cheer to those hard-pressed community-based coach businesses.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the future of the coach industry.