Tuesday 19 October 2021
[Mr Clive Betts in the Chair]
Post Office Closures
I remind all Members of the guidance from the House of Commons Commission and the Government to wear masks and to give other Members appropriate space when entering or leaving the room.
I recognise that the House rightly paid tribute to Sir David Amess, given the tragedy of his killing last week, but we should also remind ourselves that Sir David was a highly respected and long-serving member of the Panel of Chairs. In other circumstances, he might have been in my place today. Without getting formal, we will all want to think our own personal thoughts about the contribution that Sir David made as a Chair and in other ways as a Member of this House, about the incredible loss and grief felt for him, and about his family at this time.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the effect of post office closures on local communities.
It is a real pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts, and I will add my own tribute to Sir David. He was a wonderful man and will be sadly missed by everyone across Parliament.
I extend my thanks to the Backbench Business Committee and to all the Members present. I am sure they will be speaking about how important and valued their local post offices and post office staff are, and about the effect of post office closures on their communities. This debate on the effect of post office closures on local communities is important.
I thank the Minister for attending. I am glad that he is still in post. It is imperative that the UK Government have someone overseeing the Post Office brief who understands it, who can see that the Horizon scandal is concluded satisfactorily, with all its victims and their families compensated, and who will ensure that the post office network continues unabated.
Post offices are at the heart of our communities. They are used most regularly by the most vulnerable members of society—the elderly, people with disabilities and those who are unable to work, for example—and more than nine in 10 people agree that post offices provide an essential service for them or others. Communities suffer when post offices close, whether temporarily or for good. Local residents and businesses suffer serious inconvenience. For some, the withdrawal of perhaps their only regular human contact causes real misery and hardship.
As chair of the all-party parliamentary group on post offices, and on behalf of all its members, I thank postmasters and post office staff—those key workers— across the UK, who have served us well throughout the pandemic. They have been a lifeline to many people through their work at the heart of our community.
The APPG on post offices is close to my heart, as the plight of sub-postmasters in Motherwell and Wishaw was one of the first campaigns I was involved in. We have no secretariat for the APPG and I am very grateful for the additional work that my staff put in to ensure that the APPG runs smoothly. We are a big-tent APPG, with MPs and peers from all political parties and none, and diverse organisations such as the National Federation of SubPostmasters, the Communication Workers Union, Citizens Advice, the Association of Convenience Stores, and the Countryside Alliance. All those organisations are testament to the importance of the post office network across the UK.
That broad range of stakeholders my hon. Friend has just told us about reflects the fact that a broad range of communities are still focused on the need for post offices in their local areas. Does she agree that we must heed the asks of community organisations? Broom, Kirkhill and Mearnskirk Community Council is keen to secure post office services in its local area, because it knows how much they matter for the most vulnerable in our society, as she said.
I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention. What she says is absolutely true. I am sure that all of us present and further afield would vouch for the real feeling for post offices across the entire UK. In fact, I have been known to say in the APPG that the reason I took on its chairmanship was to ensure that there was a network of post offices in an independent Scotland—that network is right across the UK.
We have also spoken to franchisee representatives, and we hold regular meetings with the CEO of Post Office Ltd and the Minister. Recently, the APPG decided to be less reactive and more proactive in its approach to sustaining the network. The APPG is currently compiling a Post Office action plan, to provide an outline vision for the network going forward. I hope the UK Government and Post Office Ltd will carefully and seriously consider the proposals put forward by members.
I am extremely grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way, for securing this debate and for the work that she does on behalf of our post offices. I am sure that, like many hon. Members, she has received representations over recent weeks from charities based in her constituency that are very concerned about commercial banks levying charges on their activities. For many of those charities and community groups, those charges are going to be prohibitive. Does she believe that the Post Office could fill the void that is being left by the commercial banks by providing a community banking service, expanding banking services, safeguarding the Post Office and helping to improve the lives of our communities?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for what he has said. Yes, I think that it could. Although the Post Office was almost coerced into taking on banking, it is something that we need to seriously look at. There are models in other countries’ post office networks, and there have been studies. That is an excellent suggestion.
As we all know, the UK Government are the owners of the post office network; they cannot sit idly by, allowing closures and the impact that they have on local communities and economies. The public expects the Government to play a proactive and direct role in preserving and growing the network. Post offices may not be the first things that spring to mind when thinking of public services, but whenever a post office closes it is always missed. Post offices are, without a doubt, valued public assets and must remain so. Closures not only create an inconvenience but harm local businesses and the welfare of local people, given that the most vulnerable people rely on post offices for access to cash.
I thank the hon. Lady for giving way and for her work with the APPG on post offices. In my constituency, which is facing four closures, the answer in the short term seems to be mobile services. Does she agree that those are simply insufficient for communities and that we should be urging the UK Government and the Post Office to look for longer-term solutions?
Absolutely. I thank the hon. Lady for intervening. Her constituency was one of the most affected by the SPAR closures in Scotland, to which I will refer later, as well as outreach services.
It is devastating for everyone when a branch is closed, especially when it happens in a rural community where the post office may be not only the last shop in the village but also the last bank.
I am really grateful for all the hon. Lady does on behalf of post offices. In York, in my short time in Parliament, we have lost post offices in Acomb and Tang Hall, we have lost two in Clifton and we have lost our Crown post office—it is now placed in a WH Smith, which is far more inaccessible than it was previously. Does she agree that, before any post office closure, there should be a community consultation about how that estate could be repurposed as a community service?
Absolutely. I know how hard the hon. Lady has worked for her constituents in York and with regard to the Crown post office closure there.
Post offices support local businesses. Half of those who started selling online during the pandemic have used the post office to post items, while three in four marketplace sellers say that if their local post office were to close, it would become difficult to send items to their customers. In my constituency of Motherwell and Wishaw, communities have experienced both temporary and permanent closures, notably the permanent closure of the Brandon Street Crown branch in Motherwell town centre. Sadly, many Crown branches have been closed—decisions typically opposed by the communities affected. Unlike smaller branches, Crown post offices offered a wide range of services, which made them service hubs at the heart of communities.
While post office closures present a real issue for local communities, some initiatives have the potential to provide great support to those communities. Cambuslang in my constituency is home to a post office bank hub, which has massively increased access to banking services, and I was delighted that the Economic Secretary to the Treasury visited the constituency last week to hear all about that fantastic initiative. Does the hon. Member agree that the focus should be on rolling out these multi-purpose initiatives?
I thank the hon. Member for her intervention. I, too, visited Cambuslang a number of months ago, and it is a great initiative. The local community council fought hard for that pilot, and it was doing great work. I think there is a way forward through that kind of initiative, which again I will come on to.
There are multiple reasons for branch closures, but at the root of many of them is the issue of sub-postmaster remuneration. Post Office Ltd must agree a fair deal with sub-postmasters. The Horizon scandal has undoubtedly damaged the relationship between Post Office Ltd and sub-postmasters and staff, and the ongoing work to repair that relationship must continue. Now more than ever, it is essential that sub-postmasters are properly remunerated. Many of the sub-postmasters I have spoken to have said that they have handed in their keys because they simply cannot afford to live on the income they make from running a post office. Some sub-postmasters have even reported that they have been earning less than the minimum wage.
That is simply not good enough. Citizens Advice has found that the number of temporarily closed branches has doubled since 2013, and that two in three remain closed for over a year and two in five for over two years. Poor remuneration is not just forcing sub-postmasters to retire or postpone retirement; it is preventing a new generation from taking up the role, as they see no value in it. The UK Government must provide the funding, and Post Office Ltd must agree to guarantee a minimum income for every sub-postmaster so that their hard work pays off and running a post office can be an attractive opportunity.
Another reason for concern is the over-reliance on franchise postmasters—not independent sub-postmasters, I hasten to add, but large retail chains. Only this year, SPAR announced the closure of 31 of its 48 Scottish counters. If a larger retail partner were to go into administration or decide that having a post office counter was not worth their while, that could leave hundreds of communities without a local branch. I fear that Post Office Ltd is fighting a losing battle with large franchisees and putting all its eggs in one basket to meet the national access criteria. CJ Lang has said that it made more money from putting a Costa machine into a branch than it did from running a post office. That is an outstanding critique of what is wrong with the post office network at the moment. Can the Minister outline what the Government’s contingency plans are in the event that a large partner decides to close its branches, or close altogether? It is not just up to Post Office Ltd to sort this issue out.
As banks leave high streets and town centres, post offices are filling the gap. Over 4,300 bank branches and building societies have closed since 2015—over a third of the entire network. In fact, post office branches now represent 60% of all the UK’s branch-based cash access points. Banking and access to cash must therefore be part of the long-term vision for the network. In September, Post Office Ltd announced that it had taken in £2.9 billion of deposits, with that figure expected to rise to over £3 billion this month. Many local businesses are using post office branches to make deposits, and others who rely on cash are using those branches for withdrawals. As post offices take on a greater financial role, the security of branches and staff must be reviewed. In my discussions with sub-postmasters, they have raised concerns about security. I hope that the Minister will elaborate on what steps he has taken and what discussions he has had, or will have, with Post Office Ltd on the issue of branch security.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for being so generous. When a company in the rail industry cannot operate, an operator of last resort is backed by the Government. To maintain these community assets, surely we need a model whereby the Government step in; and would that not also be a step towards what is really needed, which is to look at nationalising the Post Office, which we know our communities really do want?
I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention; again, she hits the nail right on the head. I welcome the pilot of the post office banking hubs. However, I am aware that many sub-postmasters are concerned about the impact they will have on existing branches, and I share their concerns. We cannot have branches in competition with and cannibalising each other. The full impact on existing branches must be watched closely.
However, I give full support to the private Member’s Bill in the name of the hon. Member for North Norfolk (Duncan Baker), who unfortunately cannot be here today. It aims to establish in law that major banks will be obligated to provide banking services through local post office branches.
Banks have been let off the hook. They are abandoning town centres, villages and customers. Not only should banks be mandated to provide their services through post offices via the banking framework, they must be made to pay for the outreach and banking services that the post office network provides. At present, many sub-postmasters are subsidising the running of these services. That cannot be allowed to continue. Will the Minister confirm today that the Government will back the Bill from the hon. Member for North Norfolk and, if not, what alternatives will be put in place?
Post offices are just one means of accessing cash, and losing a bank branch can make it much more difficult for people to access cash. The UK Government previously committed to an access to cash Bill, which has not yet been forthcoming. We are hurtling towards a cashless society, which will undoubtedly impact the most vulnerable people. Measured action is needed so that cash can be available free of charge to those who prefer it. Can the Minister confirm whether it is still the Government’s intention to introduce a Bill in the coming parliamentary term?
I understand that some of this is under the auspices of the Treasury, but we cannot keep passing the buck and going backwards and forwards, nor can we have the silo mentality whereby one Government Department is responsible for the money to post offices and the Minister has to say, “Well, it’s not my job, it’s the Treasury.” We need joined-up thinking on this.
The Post Office has massive potential to provide not just banking services, but a range of services. The UK Government have previously committed to making post offices the front office of Government. With over 11,500 branches across these islands, they are perfectly placed to be that, but the UK Government have pulled service after service from the network, most notably the Post Office card account. One million people used a POCA in 2019 and this has fallen since the forced migration of recipients to bank accounts.
However, for many, a bank account is still out of reach. It is also an additional and unnecessary hoop for people to jump through to receive their benefit payments or pensions. It makes no sense that when banks are leaving and post offices remain, a greater emphasis would be put on banking.
Other services, such as biometric enrolment and HMRC payments, have also been removed. Whenever the UK Government remove a service, that means less income for the post office network and its sub-postmasters, which makes closures more likely. The income derived from these services can be small, but proves how important it is to encourage people to use their post office services.
The Minister has heard me speak many times on post offices, as has everyone else in this Chamber. That is because they are an important service that people across the UK recognise, use, value and need. It is vital that the post office network continues in spite of the difficulties that Horizon has forced on to Post Office Ltd. I appreciate that the Government have given money, but I and many others are concerned that the situation will lead in the end to a diminution of post office services. I plead with and urge the Minister to make sure that the post office network continues, grows and thrives, and that those who run post offices on our behalf are suitably recompensed.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this morning, Mr Betts. You paid tribute earlier to Sir David in another of his roles here, and it occurred to me as you were doing so that this is exactly the sort of debate he would have loved, because it is about championing essential services in our constituencies.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows) on securing the debate. This is an important issue—it has been for many years, and it is a shame that we have watched the decline of the post office network over that period. It should not really need saying that post offices are essential services and that they are part of our communities, but sometimes I think Post Office Ltd needs to be convinced of that. Association of Convenience Stores public surveys have shown that post offices are considered the most essential services in the community. There is also the work done by Citizens Advice. Most of all, there is the response from our constituents when offices close permanently or temporarily. That should tell us all, lest there be any doubt in the Minister’s mind, that post offices continue to be absolutely vital to sustaining communities.
It is true that there was a downsizing in the network in the 2000s and that many branches closed. I represent a constituency in a fairly small borough where there were eight proposed closures. After a very vigorous campaign, we managed to keep five of those open. Across the country, many hundreds of branches did close then. If there was any silver lining in that cloud, it was that we were told that it would make the network sustainable and able to stand on its own feet and that that would be the end of it.
There was still a sustainable network left at that point. However, a bit like with court closures, the Government seemed to get the taste from that, and we have continued to run down the network in what has really been death by a thousand cuts. We have seen a complete reduction of the Crown post office network. Whenever there is a retirement or a redevelopment, which happens quite often in my constituency, it is difficult to sustain the service and keep the office open.
I want to come on to the plague of the so-called temporary closure. I have two town centres in my constituency, in Hammersmith and Shepherds Bush. They both used to have thriving Crown offices—substantial public buildings. Hammersmith’s post office had been there for a century, since 1920, and was important not just for the functions it carried out, but as a notable public building. There were three Crown post offices in the constituency at one time and they have all gone now. We have only a third of the Crown network that we had 10 years ago.
In many cases, the product of this situation has been the rather unhappy liaison with WHSmith. It is quite easy to see why Post Office Ltd saw the attraction of WHSmith. It tends to provide space for no rental, because it is not a thriving business and wants to draw custom into its stores. In a way, it has become a marriage of two failing enterprises trying to support each other, and not a very happy one.
In Shepherds Bush, I lost the town centre Crown post office, which went into a WHSmith in the Westfield shopping centre; similarly, Hammersmith’s post office went into a WHSmith there. But at least they were continuing, and Post Office Ltd conceded that we needed town centre offices. Two years ago they told me they would find a new office for Shepherds Bush centre, but that has never materialised. That is partly, I am sure, because of covid but it shows that there is no follow-up when these things happen.
A year ago, the main office in Hammersmith closed. These are extremely busy and thriving town centres. They both had a huge throughput because of office workers during the day and they are busy shopping centres seven days a week. We know that there is a need for a continuing post office service, because the surrounding small branch offices, even when they are half a mile or a mile away, have queues outside because the main offices have closed. That is all the more extraordinary, given that most of the major banks have substantially reduced their branch networks. I used the example of Shepherds Bush, where NatWest, Barclays and Santander have all closed branches. The last remaining bank, HSBC, has reduced its hours. The post office was the only financial institution providing a great variety of services there, and it is certainly sustainable.
I am interested to hear the Minister’s views on this question. Why does he think there are so many closures? If he says, no, that the network numbers have remained stable over the past years, that would ignore the new practice of temporary closures. I have five temporary closures in my constituency and three of those offices have been closed for more than five years. They are all very important branches. The one in St Ann’s Road, on the border with Kensington, serves the Edward Woods estate. I say that as I see that the hon. Member for Kensington (Felicity Buchan) is here in her role as Parliamentary Private Secretary. The one in White City is in one of the most deprived parts of my constituency. I declare an interest in that one is just round the corner from my constituency office in the Fulham Palace Road, which we used heavily, as the Minister can imagine. Those three have been closed for more than five years. On top of that we have new closures. There is the one that I mentioned in Hammersmith, which has been closed for a year, with plans for that now abandoned and a return to the beginning with the search for a new sponsor, and there is one at Stamford Brook.
With one promised branch not opened, five branches in temporary closure and the loss of all the Crown offices we had, this is a parlous state of affairs. I ask the Minister specifically to look at the issue of temporary closures. I do not know how a closure of more than five years can be called temporary. Why is it impossible to find locations or postmasters for these places? I think the answer stares us in the face. It is that the terms and conditions that the Post Office is prepared to offer and the efforts it is prepared to put in are not sufficient to regenerate the network. We are being sold a myth that we have a stable network that is continuing at the same level as in previous years. In reality, we see more and more temporary closures that turn into permanent ones.
I hope the Minister agrees with that analysis and that he can respond to it, at least in part. This is a problem that demands his attention and that of the Government if the post office network is to survive into the future.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I also associate myself with the comments made about Sir David Amess. I congratulate the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows) on securing this important debate. Post offices are the lifeline of communities, especially those in rural areas. The services they provide are vital, including keeping people and loved ones connected. They also provide financial services, which is particularly important in the light of the closure of many high street banks.
I am grateful to have this time to talk about a live issue in my constituency, where Post Office proposes the closure of the Haworth Main Street post office. That is causing a huge issue for many of my constituents in Haworth, the Worth valley and the wider area. In July 2021, Post Office served notice on the sub-postmaster of the Haworth post office that it was to close the service, before launching a consultation. I want to delve deeper into that issue, because I think it is worth noting.
The Post Office informed my sub-postmaster that it would be closing their service and at the same time opening just a desk-based service at the local Co-op at the other end of the village. For those that may not know Haworth, topography and accessibility is a huge issue. The Haworth post office is located at the top of Main Street, right at the top of the village, and the Co-op is located right down at the bottom of the village, down two very steep hills. That makes the service offering very inaccessible for the elderly population living at the top of the village, particularly when a much lesser service offering is proposed at the Co-op.
It creates huge challenges for many businesses along Main Street that use that post office service, including the Brontë Parsonage. Many other locals come to visit Haworth and use the only cash machine, which is located in the Haworth Main Street post office. The consultation process over the summer has been a complete sham. It has not looked at all at the needs of my community. It has not looked at all at the accessibility issues of many of my residents, who will be struggling to use the Co-op service.
I want to pick up on a point eloquently made by the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw on the issue of Post Office Ltd putting all its eggs in one basket. If it is going down a route where it specifically looks at putting all its post office services in WHSmith or the Co-op, what if those big service providers decide to cut those services? What does it say for the independent providers, such as the one at the top of Haworth Main Street, that are able to service their communities, who they know best?
The campaign in my constituency has been rolling at a huge pace. We have a fantastic local campaign team. Our parish council and the three district councillors have been very supportive in putting weight and pressure on Post Office Ltd to listen. As a result, I submitted a petition in the Chamber signed by over 7,000 of my constituents, putting pressure on Post Office Ltd to listen. We must maintain our service offering at the top of Main Street, so that my residents feel engaged with the process and can access a good post office service.
To summarise, the message from my constituents in Haworth and the wider Worth valley is very clear. We want to see our Haworth post office at the top of Main Street open, so that residents are able to access that facility and so that we do not feel disengaged. I hope that Post Office Ltd is listening, and that the Government use their weight to put pressure on the Post Office to maintain that service.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I congratulate the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows) on bringing forward this important debate, which is very pertinent to my constituency. I want to touch on the tragic death of Sir David. When I arrived four years ago, I remember that he was one of the very first to be a friendly face and greet me. That is all I will say, but that sort of thing stays with you the rest of your days. I mourn his passing, as does my party.
In 1616 it was under the rule of a Scottish king, King James VI of Scotland and I of England, that the Scottish postal service was set up, so we rather led the way. Shortly after the restoration of his grandson King Charles II in 1660, the network of post offices in England was set up. So, once again, a Scottish king showed the way. We have had huge trouble with closures of branches, as others have said, but I will not repeat their remarks. I am going to use one example—the village of Balintore in Easter Ross. When the aforementioned retail business pulled out, we were left with the prospect of having no post office whatsoever. I say to the Minister that I give absolute credit to the people working at the post office for their valid attempts to secure some other arrangement, and they have done it in conjunction with the local Seaboard Memorial Hall. We are going to have a post office—thank God—once again in the village of Balintore. It is not just Balintore but Shandwick and Hilton, and a lot of people live there—believe you me.
It was great that this particular community had a vibrant hall committee that was willing to step in and see whether it could meet halfway with the post office in order to take up the service. They did that, but the trouble is that, looking at my vast constituency—if the Boundary Commission for Scotland has its way, it will get vaster still—not every community has a whole committee or some sort of organisation that is willing to step into the breach to take on that role. Therefore, it is patchy. To use a hackneyed phrase, it is a bit of a postcode lottery in terms of where people live. For the record, I say, “Well done, Balintore,” but it is not so easy to replicate that.
The final point I want to make in my brief contribution is that in a remote part of Scotland, such as my constituency, the post office network is part of the fabric of society, as others have mentioned. People say, “Oh well, the young people can go online,” and so on, but it is not quite as simple as that. Post offices are important to young people as well, and I think we have come to appreciate the value of the face-to-face aspect of the post office through the pandemic.
The hon. Gentleman is making a really important point. The post office has a place right at the heart of our community, especially in difficult times, in my constituency, which is not remote. Tariq Chishti of Netherlee post office has received an award for going above and beyond during the pandemic to support people who were having real difficulty. The staff at Barrhead post office, which I visited recently, have done the same. The Minister should really take heed of the hon. Gentleman’s point about the community at large—all of the community—requiring this service and benefiting from it. That is at the heart of the debate.
Further to some of those points, I have been quite fortunate in my constituency, where the Post Office has innovated and placed a sub-post office within the community centre. A common theme of the debate is that it all comes down to remuneration and whether we can make that sustainable. That is the vital point that we need to get across to Ministers.
My final point is simply this: where there is a post office service being conducted in a retail premises that is not a post office—a newsagent or some other business—there is an issue. I can think of an example in my constituency, where privacy tended to be invaded. Someone would be queuing up and talking to the lady about his or her pension or whatever, but the people behind wanted to buy a copy of the Daily Record or whatever. The person at the counter was uncomfortable with the feeling that the person behind could hear what was being said. That is perhaps an issue for another day, but I say to the Minister that we must remember that for some transactions in post offices, or however we do it in the future, there is a confidentiality aspect. I have no doubt that the Seaboard Memorial Hall in my constituency will do an excellent job and will tackle that privacy aspect of the work as well.
There are many things that interest me.
I thank the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows) for securing the debate. She has been a real champion of this issue, and we thank her for giving us all the opportunity to participate. It is a real pleasure to see the Minister in his place, because he understands the importance of post offices. I am sure that he will encapsulate our feelings about post offices, so I look forward to his reply.
Historically, post offices have been central hubs of both rural and urban communities, but. like others, I want to draw attention to their importance to rural communities. I am fortunate that, over a period of time, I have had the opportunity to engage with post offices directly and may be able to chart a way forward. The hon. Lady referred to the closure of Spar shops; I am going to speak about the Spar shops that have given opportunities to the post offices across Northern Ireland. My hon. Friend the Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell) will also be able to contribute to the discussion. I am absolutely sure that post offices in rural communities and in housing estates have been a vital point for social interaction and accessibility. I will give some examples of just how important this is for people.
There is always a little feeling of dread when I get an email detailing amendments to post office services. I dread the news that services are going to be cut, although, thankfully, such news has not been prevalent recently, probably because of the engagement between post offices and major supermarkets in Northern Ireland to ensure that that we can defer potential closures and cuts. The co-operation with the Spar Henderson group in Northern Ireland has meant that there are many more basic post office functions available in our petrol stations and stores. I am incredibly thankful for that, but they do not provide the full range of services or the same expertise as dedicated post offices. It is clear that demands for the service require the retention of stand-alone post offices, as well as these smaller, satellite offices.
On the issue of not providing a full range of services, does my hon. Friend agree with me that we need to look to the future? In the past, the Post Office did innovate to some degree with the support of previous Governments, but just as we see credit unions evolving in terms of financial services, we now need to look ahead to the bigger picture over the next 10 to 15 years, and to allow post offices to innovate and evolve to serve the community better in financial services.
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention, which encapsulates what we all feel about how post offices have an integral part to play in the future. We look to the Minister for indication of his vision for the future of post offices, and the importance of having them as an integral part of local communities.
One of the issues in my constituency is that when one post office closes, rumours start about all the other post offices; I am sure we all feel that. Because of the uncertainty and the precarious environment that post offices are operating in right now, it is very hard to get anybody to invest in them and keep them going. Talking about the long-term future, the Government either have to accept and admit that there is no future for post offices, or they have to legislate to protect the long-term future of the post offices in all our constituencies.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. When the Minister sets out his vision for post offices, as I hope he will, he has to retore confidence in the post offices so that they can see a future for themselves financially and viably.
Yesterday morning I had a lady in my office thanking my staff for persevering with her attendance allowance form. She had been notified that her appeal had been upheld. I listened as my staff members reminded her that this additional money was hers, and that she should use it to make her life easier—to get a cleaner or to help pay for a taxi rather than walking everywhere. She said something that struck me and was very important: “I will get a taxi to get my post office money.” It was very clear what she was saying. “I can’t use this card stuff, and they help me to get my cash where I can get all my bills sorted. I don’t know what I will do when they don’t do cash anymore.”
This is replicated dozens of times across my constituency, and I know it is replicated across all of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. The availability of the help and support that post office staff provide to vulnerable people in our communities cannot be overstated. That lady also said that her life would be turned upside down if she could not get her pension and her money sorted. She said, “The girl in the post office put some money on my gas and electric, and my TV licence bill. She does it all.” This lady is in close contact with the people in the post office. I am so thankful for all those staff who take the time to do what those in a busy petrol filling station simply cannot; I mean no disrespect to them, but it does underline the importance of post offices.
With more and more bank branches closing down, the role of the post office for vulnerable people and for businesses that cannot lodge cash easily without it is more vital than ever, so I urge the Government to ensure that we play our part in the retention of post office services. We should remember that although a large number of people operate online for the majority of things, there is also a large vulnerable section of society who do not operate online and who are frightened to do so because of security concerns. Again, I seek the Minister’s reassurance in relation to this security issue. I will give him another example, which concerns one of my constituents, because I do not believe that the vulnerability of some elderly people to scams can be underlined enough.
Only last month, a man in my constituency lost a substantial amount of his savings because he was scammed through an online system. Many of our older people and other vulnerable people are increasingly refusing to try any online payments, just because they are not sure whether they have the security that they need so much. My parliamentary aide’s mother had a discussion with her private pension provider regarding the transfer of a bulk payment. Coincidentally, that afternoon she received a message on her phone, apparently from HMRC, regarding an outstanding tax bill. Let us be quite clear—HMRC does not make telephone calls to tell people about tax bills. If someone receives such a call or message, it is a scam, and that is a fact. Indeed, I received a phone call here at Parliament just before the recess, telling me to contact a particular number immediately in relation to something similar. I contacted my accountant and asked him about it, and he said, “Jim, HMRC do not contact you about any HMRC business by phone. They will contact you by letter. If you get a phone call supposedly from them, it’s a scam.” He was quite clear about that.
The mother of my parliamentary aide, Naomi, rang her, and Naomi told her mother to do nothing about the message until she had looked at it. It was a scam, but one timed in such a way as to be believable. Not everyone has a child who understands the tax system so well that they can spot a scam, which perhaps underlines the importance of this issue.
Fears about these issues make people’s ability to head to their local post office and have a local, friendly staff member help them to pay their bills safely and to get things sorted out vital. How important it is to have the accessibility to that service from someone an individual knows and who has a face they recall and trust—trust that has been built up over many years. I believe that every speaker today will endorse that.
The post office is vital. It is okay to have all the other shops and petrol stations where people have access to a post office service, but people also need to have someone they know. Post offices give that reassurance, so they are vital, and we must do our part to protect them. In doing so, we must protect our service provision, which is even more important for our elderly community, who rely on it and cannot do without it.
—but I am very happy to speak and to wax lyrical about my local post offices. As you have called my name, Mr Betts, I ask for your indulgence to speak briefly.
This is an incredibly important topic, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows) for asking for this debate, and to the Backbench Business Committee for allowing us to have this discussion. We often talk about post office closures in the all-party parliamentary group on post offices, which, as my hon. Friend said, is a wide-ranging APPG. That really speaks to the great significance of post offices in all our communities.
I do not want to labour points that others have made, but as a Member representing a constituency with a number of population centres, all with their own diverse needs and geographies, I know that the importance of post office services to my constituents cannot be overstated. I have constituents who live in rural areas where it may be difficult for them to get to a post office, and the closure of post offices in some of these outlying areas has created significant difficulty, particularly for elderly and vulnerable people.
My hon. Friend the Member for Inverclyde (Ronnie Cowan) raised the issue of the “stop-start” nature of post office services and the impact that has on communities. It has caused significant concern in Clarkston in my constituency, for example. We have a post office operating there now, which is very welcome, but it has been something of a movable feast over a number of years.
I mentioned that I had visited the post office in Barrhead. I will dwell on that briefly, because it was really fantastic to go out and meet the people working in the post office, and to see what they do day to day in terms of helping people and providing access to cash. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) talked about constituents receiving real individual support from the people working in the post office, and I saw that for myself when I visited the post office in Barrhead, which is a great shop as well as a post office—if anyone is in the area, I absolutely recommend going along. That human contact and personal knowledge of customers was evident there. We cannot afford to lose that. Even in that big, thriving town, access to cash is an issue. We have many elderly and vulnerable residents, and we need the support that the Barrhead post office provides for our community.
I mentioned the support that Tariq Chishti provided from his post office, Netherlee Post & News, and I think it is telling and well deserved that he received an award for his work during lockdown. Many of our communities relied on the people who became focal points of their local area by going above and beyond what could ever be reasonably expected of them to ensure that people were okay in those difficult times. It is no surprise that post offices were at the centre of that. They are at the centre of our communities, and the functions that they provide are so very important. I am keen to hear from the Minister about the various actions that Members have asked for to try to secure the position of post offices, to ensure that they are sustainable, and to deal with issues overhanging from the Horizon scandal, which make it very difficult for people to see this as a sustainable business opportunity for them.
It is, as always, a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts, although I must say that I miss seeing my friend Sir David Amess sitting in that chair, here in Westminster Hall. If the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) is a season ticket holder for Westminster Hall, then I am an aspiring season ticket holder. Of course, another Member who was in here very often—if not in the chair, then on the Benches opposite—was Sir David.
As this is the first opportunity I have had, I place on record my sincerest condolences to Sir David’s wife Julia, to his children, and to his staff—particularly Gill, who worked for him and has been such a support to the all-party parliamentary group on fairs and showgrounds, which David led superbly. I know that we will all miss him enormously.
I also want to acknowledge and thank my hon. Friend the Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows) for initiating this morning’s debate. She is a tireless campaigner for post offices, whose work has shown their importance to our local communities right across these islands.
I crave everyone’s indulgence; I lost the last five pages of my speech, but I really must use this opportunity to raise a couple of issues. A moratorium on the closure of Crown post offices, which was negotiated by the Communication Workers Union, is due to end next year. Will the Minister please confirm that it will continue? Will he also speak to other Departments within Government to find out what other services they can put into post offices, with charges that will help sub-postmasters’ remuneration?
I congratulate my hon. Friend on being so versatile as to ask questions to the Minister through me. I feel like the Cilla Black of Westminster Hall here in pulling people together, but she is right to place on record those questions to the Minister. I join her in paying tribute to the Communication Workers Union, which has campaigned tirelessly on Crown post offices. We very much reaffirm to the Minister the need to see more progress.
Over the course of this debate, we have had 11 contributions from Members in all four constituent parts of the UK. That in itself shows that this is not an issue that affects only Scottish MPs, but that there are wider issues around the sustainability of the post office network right across these islands. In my own consistency of Glasgow East, even in my short time as an MP we have seen the closure, both temporary and permanent, of post offices in Cranhill, Garthamlock, Tollcross and Parkhead. That is four post offices in the four years I have been here.
The closures have had far-reaching consequences for my constituents, and many have felt the absence of the postal services in their local area. Post offices provide essential services for local communities across these islands, from mailing and posting to accessing pensions and benefits. On the subject of benefits, the decision by the Department for Work and Pensions to move away from the Post Office card account is particularly damaging for the sustainability of post offices. As I have said many times before in the House, we must ensure that vulnerable people and particularly our older constituents still have access to cash. I will return to that point later.
Despite all the vital services they provide, post offices are routinely being shut down across these islands. In 2001, there were just over 1,900 post offices in Scotland; pre-pandemic, their number had dipped to 1,300, and we know there have been further casualties in the network since then. In August alone, my small urban constituency saw the closure of not one, but two post offices, in Garthamlock and Parkhead. Though there may be light at the end of the tunnel for residents in Parkhead, the broader picture suggests that local services in the east end are being decimated, with communities being abandoned as the post office network collapses like a pack of cards. Put simply, it leaves my constituents and I continually worrying about which post office will be the next to close. I have a lot of time for Mark Gibson at the Post Office, but every time I see his name in my inbox it spells out that yet another closure is coming.
As part of the campaign to save Garthamlock post office, I and a hard-working local councillor, Ruairi Kelly, met with CJ Lang & Son Ltd to better understand how the situation came about and continues to crop up. I also met with Calum Greenhow from the National Federation of SubPostmasters. I have raised this issue in the House before, but through my meetings it has become clear that Post Office Ltd struggles desperately to get sub-postmasters to take on branches and indeed keep them on. For many, it is an inescapable fact and a financial reality that branches are not economically viable, forcing them into the difficult decision of closing down. For operators such as CJ Lang, which at the end of the day is a private enterprise, that is a black and white commercial decision, which I understand from a very crude profit/loss perspective.
I think it was my hon. Friend the Member for Motherwell and Wishaw who mentioned that in many cases, it is more profitable for CJ Lang to have a Subway store or a Costa machine. That highlights some of the major problems. Clearly, there are problems with the fundamental business model for post offices, which needs addressing. That is something that I and many other Members have raised with the British Government, but it appears thus far to have fallen on deaf ears. As we see post offices being closed, we risk inflicting huge and long-lasting damage on local communities, which rely heavily on post offices and the services they provide, particularly after banks have long taken flight.
The importance of post offices in providing access to cash is a particularly prevalent issue in my constituency in the east end of Glasgow. The consumer group Which? has recently undertaken research that identifies 259 communities from across the UK with poor cashpoint provision or no ATMs at all. The Federation of Small Businesses has reminded us that when an area loses cashpoints, it has real impacts on surrounding small businesses: sales fall as customers who want to pay with notes and coins are left in the lurch, and footfall drops as shoppers head to other areas with greater access to cash. The recent decision by Barclays to continue allowing customers to freely access cash at post offices was the right one.
We need to see continued support from banks for the post office network, not least because we know that banks, when—I was going to say when consulting, but actually more often when giving us notification of closures in our constituencies—often say to us, “Oh well, the Post Office can step in and backfill,” only for the post office network to be eroded further after that.
In the 2020 spending review, the Treasury announced £227 million worth of investment in the Post Office, including a subsidy of £50 million to protect customers’ access to essential services in commercially challenging locations. I question whether £227 million of funding is enough, but it is a step in the right direction. I hope the Minister can provide an update today—specifically on which locations have been deemed to be commercially challenging, how the money will be allocated and what the timescale will be. Given that I lost not one but two post offices in the space of the month this summer, I suggest the east end of Glasgow ticks the commercially challenging box without a doubt.
Thus far, the British Government are failing way short of meeting their responsibility to provide and uphold postal services in our communities. As a constituency MP, I am clear that the continued threat to post offices puts vulnerable and older constituents in Glasgow at grave risk of losing yet more vital services in an area that has already been hit extremely hard. To be blunt, Ministers in Whitehall must stop viewing post offices through a narrow commercial prism; instead, they must see them as pieces of vital community infrastructure that need protection and investment. I say to the Government very clearly that they cannot level up communities when shutters are being pulled down.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I want to echo your tribute to our friend, Sir David Amess, who was tragically and horrifically murdered. As you said, he could well have been in the Chair for today’s debate. As my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) said, this is the kind of debate that Sir David would have truly appreciated. I am sure that there would have been a reason why post office closures showed that Southend needed to be a city, and I am so glad that that is to be realised. This is also the sort of debate that he would have appreciated because Members on all sides have conducted it with affability, civility and respect. I want also to pay tribute to the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows), not only for securing the debate but for the great cross-party work that her APPG does to support post offices.
As we have heard, for 361 years the Post Office has been at the heart of the community, and post offices have established themselves as the backbones of local economies across the United Kingdom. My hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith, the hon. Members for Keighley (Robbie Moore), for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Jamie Stone), for Strangford (Jim Shannon), for East Renfrewshire (Kirsten Oswald) and the SNP spokesperson, the hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden), have spoken of the contribution that post offices make to our constituencies. The network provides over 170 essential services to 17 million customers and one third of small businesses each and every week.
More recently, the pandemic has highlighted how vital a reliable postal service is—I am sure that we all appreciated that during the pandemic. A survey by the National Federation of SubPostmasters found that 97% of post offices that remained open during lockdown did so to support their local communities. Sub-postmasters stepped up as key workers, not only keeping us connected but going above and beyond their job descriptions by offering services such as grocery deliveries for vulnerable customers. I thank them for their work during the pandemic, and also pay tribute to the CWU for its support and campaigning on post offices.
As this debate has shown, postal services matter to everyone, but customers and businesses in the most rural and vulnerable communities are paying the biggest price for closures. A 2015 freedom of information request revealed that, out of the 20 north-east branches marked as temporarily closed, 17 were closed for more than a year and seven for more than five years. To put that in context, the north-east has 499 open branches, already the lowest number in any UK region. Hon. Members have spoken of concerns about closures in their constituencies. In my own constituency of Newcastle upon Tyne Central, we have seen a number of closures, often in deprived areas such as Kenton, where I grew up. Other branches have moved into private sector operations, despite opposition from local MPs and residents. For example, the Gosforth high street post office was moved to a convenience store on a secluded residential street, without nearby bus stops or non-permit parking—a decision made with complete disregard for accessibility. We have heard from hon. Members of similar experiences in their constituencies. In 2019, the former Minister, the hon. Member for Rochester and Strood (Kelly Tolhurst), stated to the BEIS Committee that it was a Government commitment to maintain the post office network at 11,500 branches. Does the Minister plan to uphold that commitment in our post-pandemic economy?
With only 1% of branches managed directly by the Post Office, many sub-postmasters are relying on the Government’s subsidy to remain financially viable. However, sub-postmasters are resigning at a faster rate than they can be replaced due to the difficulty in making a decent living. That has been a major driving force in the decline of the network. In 2019, the National Federation of SubPostmasters found that 76% of members were struggling to earn the national minimum hourly wage, resulting in an estimated 22% planning to downsize or close their post office in the coming year. What recent discussions has the Minister had with Post Office Ltd on the incomes of sub-postmasters, and what steps he is taking to minimise the risk of further closures?
During the pandemic, reduced footfall and post offices’ inability to access many coronavirus support packages saw many temporary closures become permanent. Between March and April 2020, the number of open branches fell by 651 from 11,638, and 388 of those closures were of outreach services in the most remote parts of the UK. In August, the BBC reported that 260 temporarily closed branches were still closed as of 30 June 2021. What steps is the Minister taking to ensure that the number of open branches returns to pre-pandemic levels?
The post office subsidy provides a fixed amount of remuneration to an estimated 5,000 post offices, including 1,600 outreach services operating from mobile vans and village halls on a part-time basis. But the Government have ignored the importance of the subsidy, which has decreased from £210 million in 2012-13 to £50 million in 2020-21. Two years ago, the hon. Member for Rochester and Strood told a Select Committee that the Government would look to continue to support the post office network, sharing this responsibility with Post Office Ltd. Much has changed since this pre-pandemic statement. What assessment has the Minister made of the ongoing impact of covid on post offices, and how does he plan to fulfil that promise in the future?
Last year I welcomed the announcement of a £227 million investment, including a £50 million subsidy to support the rural post office network. However, the CWU rightly stated that it is unlikely that this investment will be sufficient given the amount the post office will have to raise to cover future legal claims associated with the Horizon scandal, which remains the greatest public scandal that our country has suffered, and the implications of which are still being felt by many current and former sub-postmasters who are struggling to gain the compensation the Minister seemed to promise. The more than 900 false prosecutions resulting from the Horizon scandal destroyed lives, families and reputations, and we have yet to see public confidence restored. Indeed, I do not believe that public confidence will be restored without justice for those whose lives were ruined. The Government must ensure that this justice does not come at the expense of our post office network’s survival. What steps is the Minister taking to maintain the financial viability of the Post Office, and will considerations be made for the continuation of the subsidy beyond 2022?
Finally, many Members have spoken about the importance of access to cash. It is worth noting that the subsidy I have spoken about is for the rural networks, but with 55 banks closing every month and up to 8 million people relying on cash daily, the impact of closures on access to cash in both rural communities and urban ones such as my own must be considered. The post office network provides financial services to individuals who are digitally excluded, are ineligible for a bank account, or use cashless services. In 2019, a report by LINK found that 47% of the UK population believes that losing that access to cash would present real challenges. Despite that, 10% of free-to-use ATMs were disconnected during the pandemic, further exacerbating the lack of access. Post offices have been left to pick up the slack, with recent figures suggesting that they will shortly exceed £3 billion a month in cash deposits and withdrawals for the first time in history, so I ask the Minister what assessment he has made of the impact of bank closures on the importance of the post office network, and what plans he has to ensure that banks offer support to post offices that take up their services.
As we have heard, post offices across the country offer more than commercial services: they are a source of social interaction for the vulnerable and lonely, a key touchpoint between people and Government services, and a vital part of local communities. The Post Office is a great British institution that has fulfilled a social purpose for centuries, but it is also an institution that the Government are failing to support. Managed decline is the story of our times under the Conservative Government. Labour is committed to protecting our post office network, and will fight to ensure that postmasters are given the support that is needed to guarantee that network’s survival. I hope the Minister will join us in that mission.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I congratulate the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows) on having secured today’s debate, and on all the work that she and other Members do in the APPG on post offices. It is a very vibrant and diverse APPG, and I always enjoy speaking with its members and sharing thoughts with them.
I thank you, Mr Betts, and others for the tributes that have been paid to our friend and colleague Sir David Amess. In giving my tribute, I want to respond to the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who talked about the Government’s social vision for the Post Office, because two of the three things in our vision really chime with what Sir David did and what he stood for. The main building blocks are to deliver a convenient and trusted local service offer that meets customers’ needs—working closely with postmasters, who play a hugely important role in their communities—and to ensure that the Post Office’s services continue to be easily accessible to all consumers, particularly the vulnerable groups that need them most. The third, which perhaps does not relate directly to Sir David but is so important for the Post Office, is to support the Government’s access to cash and financial inclusion agenda by ensuring that basic cash and banking services are available throughout the network to meet the needs of individual customers and small and medium enterprises. We have heard about the importance of those services throughout the debate.
The post office network is unique. With more than 11,500 branches, the Post Office is the biggest retail network in the UK: there are more post offices than bank branches and building societies combined. Thanks to Government funding, we have ensured that we have the most stable post office network in a generation, with 99% of the population living within three miles of their nearest branch. As I go through my speech, I will try to cover some of the issues that have been raised about the network, but over the past decade, while the country’s high streets have undergone a significant period of change, the number of post office branches has remained broadly stable. As we have been discussing, that business has continued, and must continue, to evolve to meet customer need. What has not changed, though, is how undeniably important post offices are to communities. Our local post offices have never been more important or more valued than in the past 19 months, as the country has faced the unprecedented challenges of responding to the pandemic.
I think the hon. Gentleman has a fair point. As I will try to develop a little, we need to do more to diversify and change the network to make sure it evolves, not only to use those mileage figures, but to make sure it meets demand and what is required by communities.
We wasted no time in March 2020 in announcing that post offices were an essential business and postmasters were key workers, so that post offices could stay open and provide the lifeline for businesses and customers everywhere that we have already heard about, and to enable loved ones to keep in touch at such a difficult time. Post offices have changed, because there is no Post Office without postmasters. While high streets grew quiet through the pandemic, postmasters across the UK went the extra mile to support their communities.
I was delighted to see Sara Barlow, the postmaster for Rainhill branch, and Luke Francis, postmaster for Bude branch, recognised in the recent Queen’s birthday honours for their services to local communities. Thanks to the tireless efforts of postmasters and their staff, those vital post office services continue to be available to communities across the country—an incredible 90% of the network remained open. I think there are many Saras and Lukes across the country who deserve our recognition.
However, the network was not immune to the challenges of the pandemic and branch numbers were clearly impacted. Some postmasters had to close their branches for health reasons, but other post offices were closed because of their location—for example, if they were in a university, community centre or library. The Post Office worked hard on a case by case basis to resolve any practical issues to keep as many post offices open as possible, but obviously it was not always possible.
I discussed the issues affecting the network on a regular basis with the Post Office’s chief executive, Nick Read, throughout the difficult time. His priority and that of the Post Office was, rightly, to protect vulnerable customers. The Post Office acted quickly to designate 1,000 branches as priority branches based on socio-economic criteria. These were branches that the Post Office considered would have the most detrimental impact on vulnerable customers should they close. That ensured that the Post Office’s efforts through the pandemic could be targeted. When any of those branches were forced to closed, the Post Office could implement a range of mitigations, including deploying mobile vans, the “post office in a box” kit and even redeploying trained staff from Post Office HQ itself. The Post Office also worked closely with Government to set up two cash delivery services, designed for self-isolating or shielding customers.
We have been monitoring the network situation very closely and working with the Post Office to understand further the impacts on postmasters and how we can support them throughout that period. Post offices were eligible to be awarded financial support through many of the Government’s measures to support business and were able to access other business support schemes, such as the VAT deferrals.
We also stepped in to put in place a temporary waiver for the requirement for the Post Office to provide those 11,500 branches. It was clear that despite postmasters and the Post Office doing everything they can to ensure services were available through the pandemic, it still was not possible to provide full network coverage. However, I am pleased to report that the waiver expired in June this year and that the post office network is above 11,500 again and with increased stability.
The pandemic helped to demonstrate what an incredible contribution post offices make to our communities. This confirmed, as we have heard, what we all know to be true. Many of us see first hand the impact that post offices have on our communities and how much constituents value their post office. That is widely backed by research, not just our own eyes and ears. The Association of Convenience Stores consistently finds that post offices are valued by customers and have a positive impact on the local area.
I fully appreciate and recognise the impact a post office closure can have on a community. I know it can be disruptive, particularly for those rural communities that do not have nearby alternatives, as we have heard. I can reassure hon. Members that we are confident that the post office network is stable and that the Government continue to be as fully committed as ever to ensure the long-term sustainability of the network.
However, it is inevitable that, with a network the size of the post office network, there will be variations, as we have heard, in the number of branches open at any one time. The post office network can and does fluctuate and change over that time, as postmasters move on, branches close, and new ones open. The Government’s access criteria ensure that however the network changes, services remain within local reach of all citizens. Churn in the network is part of the modern, dynamic, franchising business that the Post Office is.
A postmaster can resign for a number of reasons. They might be retiring, and the new business owner does not want to take on that post office. The postmaster might want to turn their shop back into a home. With partners who operate multiple post offices, businesses might make a commercial decision to resign from operating a post office. The reasons behind the post office closing might be varied, but I assure hon. Members that the Post Office’s response is tried and tested and it works. It requires operators to provide six months’ notice of a branch closure to allow it time to identify alternative ways to provide services.
We have talked about specific examples. That requirement applies to all franchising partners, whether it is a multiple retailer or an individual postmaster. Where notice is given, Post Office works hard with communities to make sure that the service is maintained. When it is not possible to open a full-time branch due to lack of retail premises in the local area, maintaining the service can include innovative solutions, such as mobile or outreach services. It is important that we make sure that those are temporary and that we look to more permanent, long-term solutions.
I am listening very carefully to what the Minister says, but how does he explain the circumstances that I set out? I have just totted up in my head—I have half the number of branches open that the Post Office thinks should be open. I have six open, five temporarily closed and one that was due to open two years ago that never has. That is a system that is not working. I am sure I cannot be the only MP in this situation. How does he address the problem of temporary closures?
Temporary closures do not feature in the network figures. The 11,500 does not include temporary closures—trading has to have taken place within that month to be included in those figures. I understand the hon. Gentleman’s position. This is part of the churn that I am talking about. He and I both represent city seats, where branches tend to be closer together and can be more easily lost compared with rural communities, where there is a massive, immediate hit that everybody notices. Whether it is in Hammersmith or Sutton, there is probably more fluidity and churn, but the services are no less important for the most vulnerable in our society and we need to work through that.
We are not blind to future challenge. The hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw and others have talked about the Horizon scandal. It is a scandal. The vast majority of comments today have been about the future of the network. We cannot fully address the future of the network without addressing the past. I am really pleased to be back in my place after the recent reshuffle because it gives me the opportunity to continue the work to make sure that everybody affected by the Horizon scandal gets justice and gets fully compensated, and that we can work towards that. It will take time. It will not happen as quickly as those who are badly affected will want, but I will make sure I redouble my efforts on this issue, through the statutory inquiry and our considerations around it.
Turning back to the future, the retail sector has clearly gone through a significant period of change, which covid has accelerated. Post Office is continuing to explore new business opportunities to ensure a thriving national network for the benefit of communities, businesses and postmasters up and down the country. As the e-commerce market continues to grow, accelerated by covid-19, it is expanding its pick-up and drop-off offering. In the last few months, it has signed click-and-collect deals with DPD and Amazon. A new partnership has been forged with Yoti, a global leader in digital identity services—that is a clear demonstration of the Post Office embracing new technologies. Alongside those new partners, it is strengthening existing relationships. A landmark deal with Royal Mail was agreed at the end of last year to solidify what has been a long and successful relationship.
Finally, Post Office continues to work to secure the third iteration of the banking framework agreement, a vital partnership with all of the main UK banks and building societies to provide free-to-use cash services for those that need them right across the UK. The hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah) talked about the record amount of cash withdrawn from post offices in August. That is an opportunity for the Post Office, as it has more branches than banks and building societies put together. No bank wants to be the last bank in town—they want to be the second-last bank in town—because the pressure and the spotlight are put on them. Only too often, the post office is there to work through. The Post Office is continuing to innovate through its bank hub trials, which are shared retail spaces where high-street banks can hold appointments with their customers on specific days of the week, in addition to the usual post office banking services available either at the counter or in the new self-service machines.
The hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw talked about Government contracts and about POca. It is for the Department for Work and Pensions specifically to work out who the contract is with. I speak to my colleagues there on a regular basis and I am due to speak to them and, indeed, to the chief executive about that. Yes, we look at what we can do for the Post Office, but clearly, we need to make sure that contracts are tendered on a commercial basis and deliver value for money, alongside that social purpose, through whoever provides the service.
A number of Members raised CJ Lang’s commercial decision to resign from operating 31 post offices. As with all post office closures, we regret the commercial decision and recognise the disruption that will cause to affected communities. I speak with the Post Office regularly about that because I know how concerning it is for our Scottish colleagues across the House and the communities they represent. The Post Office continues to make significant progress in finding the solutions to mitigate that customer impact and I understand that it is in discussions with both independent postmasters and various retail groups. The Government will continue to monitor the situation closely to ensure the access criteria continue to be met in the affected areas.
Similarly, my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Robbie Moore) talked about Haworth, and I will certainly take that away. I know that the petition he has raised has been heard. I assure those Members who are wondering whether the Post Office is listening that I will have a message for it about the debate when I get back. It is listening and will respond, but I will take that away and make sure my hon. Friend’s work standing up for his constituents is heard.
I thank hon. Members for their contributions to the debate. I cannot do justice to all the things they have raised, or I will be here way beyond time. To make one last point about postmasters’ remuneration, again, that is an operational matter for the Post Office, but we have to recognise the importance of supporting postmasters to give them the future we talked about. I was pleased to see that it listened carefully to the feedback it received on the proposed changes, and I welcome the recent improvements it announced last month. We will continue to monitor and work with the all-party parliamentary group and the Post Office to make sure postmasters feel they have that vibrant future. I thank hon. Members once again for their contributions. It is encouraging to see everybody come together to ensure that a vital national asset continues to serve our constituencies for many years to come.
I thank everyone who has taken part in this debate. As ever, it has been cross-party and hon. Members have put passion and experience into their contributions, and I welcome that. I also welcome the Minister’s comments. He and I are old comrades in arms; he has visited the APPG and will be coming back soon, as will Nick Read and others, because this has to go forward. I am concerned that the Post Office has been put on a path of managed decline and that the Horizon scandal will affect that. We must not lose sight of Horizon. People deserve justice and just compensation but it cannot be at the expense of the network. It is vital that we recognise the work of people in post offices: sub-postmasters, Crown post offices and those independent retailers who do so much to enliven and help their local communities. I see that I am running out of time but this is important. I have written on behalf of the APPG to the Chancellor demanding that he give money to post offices so that they continue to be a vital part of our local communities and also help in town regeneration and levelling up.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the effect of post office closures on local communities.
Regenerative Farming and Climate Change
I beg to move,
That this House has considered regenerative farming and tackling climate change, restoring nature and producing nutritious food.
I start by thanking the Backbench Business Committee for granting me the opportunity to debate this issue. I also declare my interest as a Conservative Environment Network regenerative agriculture champion, whatever that means.
Farming is at a crossroads in the UK. This is a seminal moment, perhaps the greatest in 70 years, and it offers opportunities, challenges and the chance to rethink and reform our agricultural way of life in a manner that is harmonious to producing healthy, high-standard food, reaching our climate goals and enhancing biodiversity, and tackling rural issues.
To start, the method through which we subsidise and support our farmers is undergoing a complete revamp. The basic payment scheme, which rewarded farmers based on their landholding, is to be phased out and replaced by an entirely new scheme. This new Government proposal—the environmental land management scheme, known as ELMS—promises to be a fairer, more tailored subsidy initiative to help British farmers produce food at the same time as asking them to work increasingly at a landscape scale, to improve biodiversity, reduce air and water pollution, protect our landscapes from environmental hazards and adapt our agricultural ways in response to climate change.
ELMS is undeniably ambitious and what is wrong with that? At its core, it seeks to provide public money for public good. A combination of climate change and decades of intensive farming have had an impact on UK agriculture, land and environment. More frequent flood events, topsoil loss from erosion, pesticides and antibiotic resistance, and plateauing yields, despite higher inputs, are increasingly making farmers’ jobs even more financially challenging, incurring lasting damage to our shared environment. Agriculture accounts for 10% of UK greenhouse gas emissions, and it is in our interests to address that.
British farming faces a new subsidy scheme, the need to address climate change, the requirement to upskill and retrain, the need for standards to measure carbon sequestration, as well as having to ensure stability around food security. Those crossroads—that challenge—might well be described as a spaghetti junction. The complexity of what we must do is huge.
Over the past two years, since I was elected, I have been fortunate enough to spend a great deal of time with the farmers of Totnes and south Devon. In doing so, I have noted the manner, method and diverse ways in which many of them now farm. Some use the practices of the generations before them—a hyper-intensive farming regime, the “Dig for Britain” mentality, in which the land is worked and squeezed from every angle, for every nutrient, to produce food for a growing population through the use of chemicals and intensification, and where yields are a priority at all costs. Others have changed and adopted an organic farming model, where food is no longer produced at any cost, standards are raised, chemicals are reduced and, at the end, the product can display a label that denotes high quality, infallible welfare standards and, of course, a price to go with it—premium quality for those who can afford it.
It is perhaps worth remembering that there are 9.34 million hectares of agriculture landscape in the UK, of which only 489,000 are farmed organically. Then there are people who have long recognised and understood the need to return their land entirely to a more balanced and natural state of affairs—the rewilding brigade, whose efforts have been so neatly captured through the work of Isabella Tree and Charlie Burrell at Knepp. They have been returning land to its natural state and making space for nature to take over, which has captured the imagination of millions.
The wide spectrum of farming methods all have their own pros and cons, but the focus for the UK has now shifted towards working with nature. We must pluck what works from these methods and encourage their use through a new initiative. In recent years, a growing number of farmers have come to rethink their operations—quite literally from the ground up—by placing renewed emphasis on the few inches of earth beneath our feet, known as topsoil. In a healthy system, topsoil holds the nutrients, biodiversity and biological matter that allows life on Earth to thrive. It is no exaggeration to say that we owe our existence on this Earth to those few vital inches. For decades, however, we have been treating it like dirt.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for securing the debate. He is making a very knowledgeable speech, and I support what he is saying. Does he agree that there needs to be a big cultural change in order to move away from consuming high quantities of low-nutritious food and towards consuming lower quantities of food that is more nutritious?
It is almost as though the hon. Gentleman has read my speech, because I will come on to these points. Yes, the issue is about improving the quality of the food that we produce from the soil that we use. We can meet so many of our targets on food security and environmental challenges, but also on the health of the nation, through the food that we produce.
The farms that we are talking about are rethinking their operations according to a set of principles known as regenerative agriculture. Simply put, regenerative agriculture involves producing food while restoring the land. It consists of the following five principles. First, soil should not be disturbed. Secondly, soil surface should be covered. Thirdly, living roots should be kept in the soil. Fourthly, a diversity of crops should be grown, and there should be an end to monoculture crops. Fifthly, grazing animals should be brought back on to the land through mob-stocking processes. Although those five principles are well known within the regen community, they are not so widely recognised within the farming community.
Such a method of farming moves away from the agrochemical model that relies on environmentally damaging and expensive chemicals. It provides a solution to improve biodiversity, carbon sequestration of soil and food production, to reduce inputs in costs and to create a symbiotic model that is sustainable, effective and necessary. By freeing the farmer from their dependence on the chemicals salesman, they are able to reduce their costs and take control of their finances. That becomes all the more prescient as the cushion of the basic payment scheme is reduced.
At this point, one might wonder: if it is such a fantastic method, why are all farmers across the world not upending their ploughs and moving to regenerative agriculture? Unfortunately, like many beneficial steps, it takes time. Regenerative agriculture marries old techniques with new technology. Although it is proving successful where practised, farmers are still required to take a leap of faith, both financially and educationally.
We have so many fantastic farmers who are practising regenerative farming right across the UK, concentrating on improving soil health, biodiversity and water quality. I think of Jake Freestone, who was declared environmental champion farmer of the year at this year’s Farmers Weekly awards. I wonder whether we politicians could learn more from leaders such as Jake. Will my hon. Friend congratulate Jake?
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. I suspect that congratulations from the Minister might mean more, but I would like to congratulate Jake Freestone, because he is exactly the sort of person who we need to be co-operating with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and private organisations and helping people to learn and upskill—something that I will touch on in a second.
As I was saying, the enormous mind shift requires farmers to update and modernise their approach to farming, as well as including that financial risk. The challenge is great, but so too are the opportunities for DEFRA. The agriculture community and the private sector have a role to play. With a national initiative, they could have truly global results. For regenerative agriculture to make a difference, it needs to be supported and accepted by the Government, the private sector and the agricultural community. To achieve that, DEFRA has the opportunity to facilitate and enhance co-operation and understanding between farmers, to share practices, skills, machinery and understanding and, above all, to support farmers to do more for climate, nature and the environment. The sustainable farming incentive, part of the environmental land management scheme, which launches from 2022, will incentivise regenerative farmers to address the key points of soil and pest management. But the details at present remain somewhat opaque. Many in the agricultural community are still confused or in the dark about how the new ELM scheme will operate or practise.
Businesses that include farmers—of course, all farms are businesses—need certainty. The sooner we can be clearer about how public money for public good actually operates, the better. DEFRA through the ELM scheme is changing the method of support after 40 years. It is not about pitching farmers against one another, but instead bringing them together and using Government, private sector and farm bodies to provide the required support and action to adopt these regenerative farming principles. Perhaps a Jake Freestone policy could be adopted; we could use him as an example.
DEFRA, the Secretary of State and the farming Minister have constantly been clear about the need to listen to the agricultural community; now is our opportunity to do so. Agricultural initiatives are already underway that are leading the national debate, such as Groundswell, the Oxford Real Farming Conference and FarmED, but DEFRA needs to step up and lead to help translate those discussions into action and policy. We need a bottom-up approach that seeks to engage and co-operate and action that will ensure that regenerative agriculture leads to results that will benefit producers and consumers alike, including our environment.
My second point is about upskilling and training. Co-operation will play its part in delivering a new UK farming model fit for the 21st century. To get there, we must focus on how to change mindsets, update knowledge and offer training, retraining and upskilling courses. Much talk is made of the levelling-up agenda in this Parliament, and I can think of no better example of it landing and being effective than the Government being able to provide the necessary support for the agricultural community to update its practices. DEFRA funds have been and are available for agriculture charities that are focused on providing support to farmers.
I ask the Minister specifically about the steps that the Government are taking to encourage agricultural colleges and university courses to include soil health and regenerative practices. What opportunities are in place to help those already in farming to train, retrain or upskill? If we can go further, I encourage the Minister to do so, because within our educational bodies there is an enormous opportunity.
My third point is about the independent carbon assessment point. Healthier soils mean greater levels of carbon sequestration, meaning that the most effective carbon sink is not a man-made invention but the ground beneath our feet. However, measuring and verifying soil carbon is fantastically difficult and requires Government involvement. As a matter of urgency, DEFRA should be considering what the standards and requirements to measure soil carbon are. The technology might not have to come from Government, but the standards and the level that we wish to see can. We have committed 2.4% of GDP into research and development, and I suggest we stake our claim in this area before a myriad of straw men claiming to measure carbon sequestration are touted.
I understand that DEFRA’s natural environment investment readiness fund is proposing to develop and pilot a UK farm and soil carbon code to create a market for carbon offsetting. The technology to do so is being developed already by Agricarbon, as I understand it. With that in mind, how scalable is the technology to date? What steps is DEFRA taking to set a national carbon sequestration standard? What support are we providing for private and public sector bodies to help create the technology required?
I move on to my fourth and almost final point. Much has been written in recent weeks about food giants and commodity brokers dipping their toes into the regenerative field. Nestlé, Cargill, Walmart and Kellogg’s have been none too shy in promoting their regenerative agricultural efforts. As mentioned by the likes of Sustain’s Vicki Hird, we should be very wary of large private sector multinationals claiming great green credentials while other arms of their businesses continue to pump greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. I am not ruling out their efforts, but unless Government can set the standards and tools of measurement, we will likely be lobbied and led into a position that is not of our own making and is not as beneficial to our farmers, who we want it to be beneficial for.
We need to explore and consider how we can bring the private sector with us and how it can help and support our agricultural community. There are already some fantastic initiatives taken by water companies to encourage environmentally friendly farming practices. For instance, Anglian Water’s “Slug it Out” campaign saw the removal of the chemical metaldehyde from water courses. That showed the positive impact that co-operation between farmers and private enterprise can have, and led to a dramatic decline in water pollution. Water companies are an example of what we can do by co-operating and ensuring that private enterprises can work together. Of course, cash grants to support the purchase of machinery and move away from deep ploughing, skills and training funding, and incentives to utilise fewer chemicals are just a few suggestions.
Finally, I ask the Minister: how can we encourage water companies and other businesses to take that step, co-operate with farmers and provide that support? What consideration has been given to creating a fair and accurate verification system around offsetting?
I have taken up far too much time. Farming is hard; one need only watch an episode of “Clarkson’s Farm” to recognise that. It requires long hours; it is dangerous work. All that is combined with the devastating prospect of not even breaking even without a subsidy. We want our farmers to be successful. We want them to be recognised for the vital role that they play as the stewards of our land, for the service that they provide in ensuring that good, high-quality food is produced in the UK, and as part of the answer to climate change and nature restoration. I welcome the changes announced by the Government, but we now have the opportunity and duty to do more for our farmers, to provide clarity, to help retrain, to support and judge private sector involvement, and to create the harmonisation in the agricultural community to provide the results that we need.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this morning, Mr Betts. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall) on securing today’s debate. Indeed, it is good to see him on dry land. I have been following his exploits over recess on the trawler that left his constituency, and on which I am told he worked very hard. It is good that he survived that recent experience. I think that he learned a great deal from it, and I am looking forward to hearing all about that in due course.
I know from our many conversations that my hon. Friend is very passionate about regenerative farming as well as about his local fishing industry. He set out the challenges that are facing us at this crossroads of agricultural policy very thoughtfully—if rather quickly. It is true that there is a great deal to do. Part of the problem, which he identified, is that we have to do this at both a strategic level and a very practical and granular level, because that is what farming is all about.
We are introducing a new system that is tailored to the long-term interests of our farmers. As my hon. Friend said, this is the most significant change to farming and land management in 50 years. It is designed to move away from area-based payments or headage-based payments and to deliver a renewed agricultural sector. We are working with farmers at all stages of the design and development of this programme to ensure that it works for them in the future.
Very briefly, our programme is divided into three delivery systems at the moment. The sustainable farming incentive is being piloted actively at the moment, and those pilots are seeking to answer the specifics of many of the questions identified by my hon. Friend. Local nature recovery strategies are all about collaborative working across clusters or groups of farms, perhaps within a geographical area and perhaps to sustain a specific form of biodiversity or a geographical monument that we are trying to protect. We have learned a great deal about how co-working can help with nature recovery. Finally, there are the landscape recovery schemes, which my hon. Friend touched on.
Taken together, these schemes will provide our main delivery mechanism for projects that we hope will mitigate the impacts of climate change, support nature recovery and biodiversity, which is very important to our future plans, and, very importantly, support sustainable farming and the production of food, which is of course what our farmers do.
It is exciting and it is challenging; it is a seven-year transition during which we will work very hard with industry to make sure that we get it right. This is not a normal way of making policy; we are setting ourselves up to fail in some respects, and changing things as we go along—both of which give the civil servant in me pause for reflection. However, I think collaborative working with people such as Jake Freestone—who I am very pleased and proud to congratulate—is the right way to go. I always enjoy reading about the Farmer’s Weekly champions in all sectors, and he is a really great example of what is being done at the moment. We should not forget that a lot of farming is regenerative; I think my hon. Friend’s future relations are great proponents of regenerative farming, in a way that has been happening for many years in many parts of the country. It is important that we bank what is good and learn from it, as well as trying to encourage the great mass of us who farm into these regenerative techniques.
Is the Minister not slightly concerned with the policy we are seeing in trade negotiations with countries from around the world? We are doing deals with countries that have farming systems that seem to be the polar opposite of the vision set out by the hon. Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall), and of what the Minister is arguing for now. Is it not a problem that, if we are pursuing a trade policy of that nature, it completely undermines what we are trying to achieve domestically?
I am very keen to promote the consumption of British food and drink wherever possible. I was delighted to go to Wales to look at the first geographical indication awarded under our new domestic system, which, I am proud to say, is in the Gower with salt marsh lamb. While it is right, as the hon. Gentleman states, that we have an ambitious trade policy, we need to do everything we can to make sure that truly sustainable food in the country is as local as possible, frankly.
It is worth briefly touching on the way in which our new schemes will support a series of regenerative techniques. My hon. Friend the Member for Totnes mentioned topsoil regeneration. I am particularly excited by the use of winter cover crops: fast-growing plants such as buckwheat, fodder radish or rye, which are established very soon after the harvest and create a green, living cover for the soil. We know now that these techniques reduce soil erosion risks and prevent nutrients from being washed out of the soil. We know that they really improve the living roots within the soil and soil microbiology, which is very much promoted within our new schemes. Integrated pest management—for example, growing flower-rich areas alongside or within arable crops to attract predators for pests—is not pie in the sky; these are real techniques that are being used on real productive farms at the moment. We are doing everything we can to promote that.
We have very exciting examples of general mixed agriculture coming through, such as cultivating crops alongside rearing livestock to fertilise the soil. As a former oilseed rape grower, I am particularly excited by the new learning we have about the winter grazing of sheep, and what that does for pest management. My hon. Friend has heard me enthuse about herbal leys in the past. I feel that these are good, basic techniques that, while old fashioned in some cases, with new technology can really help the way our soil structures work in the future.
We know that we need to refocus to tackle the environmental challenges that are facing us, both on climate change and on biodiversity. We have the opportunity to show the world how this can work. Yes, it is frightening. Yes, it is an experiment. However, we will and can work with industry, slowly, until it works properly.
I like the phrase “spaghetti junction”; it took me straight to Clarkson’s farm, which I had the privilege of visiting just before the recess. Jeremy Clarkson showed me some extremely impressive durum wheat, used for making spaghetti, which he was growing on his farm.
I do think that that programme has been useful in explaining to the general public quite how complicated farming is. It has shown how we, as DEFRA, farmers and, indeed, the general public have to balance all the competing claims on a minute-by-minute basis as we make decisions about how we grow things and what we grow.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Robbie Moore) for his review of land-based colleges. He is reporting to the Department for Education, but has kept me closely involved. I also mention in passing the Institute for Agriculture and Horticulture. We are about to launch it formally, and a great deal of work has been going on to get it all organised. Upskilling and training are very much part of this brave new farming world.
We will set out our policy on new entrants formally at some point this winter. We have talked about how we will encourage those who want to retire from the industry to retire. We need to ensure that new entrants can put regenerative practices at the heart of all they do.
I will close with a piece of breaking news. It may not sound exciting to the general public, but for those of us who are involved in regenerative agriculture it is right up there. We laid a written ministerial statement at 9.30 today on the soil health action plan. It will include details on the development of healthy soil indicators and a proper methodology for soil structure monitoring, as well as setting out the basics of a soil health monitoring scheme. Some of the future farming policy pilots have been working on the details of that, and I am pleased that we have got as far as the WMS today.
In summary, I am grateful for this useful debate and thank my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes for his interest in this area.
If I may, I will add a few concluding comments. I thank those who have taken part by intervening on me and the Minister. I also thank the Minister for her comprehensive answer to my rather long list of questions, for which I apologise. I think I did share some of the questions ahead of time. It is nice to be back on firm ground after my two days with the Brixham trawlers.
The Minister is absolutely right: when we can marry old techniques with new technology, we have the potential to turbocharge—as the Prime Minister might say—our farming methods and ensure that we continue to produce high-class agricultural produce in this country.
As I sit on the International Trade Committee, I would just say that we have the highest standards in the world. It is, of course, incredibly difficult to do a trade deal with any other country when our standards sit at the very top, but there is an expectation that British produce will be able to reach the shelves of our friends in New Zealand, Australia and Singapore, because it is a sought after product. I hope to scrutinise those trade deals further in Parliament so that we can have more debates about food security and about how we are exporting, as well as how we are importing. I do not know whether that provides any reassurance to the hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr (Jonathan Edwards), but I am trying.
It is fantastic to hear about the ministerial statement on soil health. As any good agronomist knows, good soil health is measured by the quantity of worms, so I look forward to going out with my shovel, along with the Minister, to count worms and see how this policy has had an impact.
There are big challenges and huge opportunities here. All I will say is that the Minister has a strong reputation for engaging with and listening to the different groups in Parliament and outside. I hope that she will continue to do so and hear us out.
Question put and agreed to.
Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action: Iran
[Caroline Nokes in the Chair]
Before we begin, I encourage hon. Members to wear masks when they are not speaking, in line with current Government guidance and that of the House of Commons Commission. Please also give each other and members of staff space when seated and when entering or leaving the room.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered Iran’s compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.
May I start by saying what a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Nokes? I refer colleagues to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I am grateful for having secured the time for this important debate, which is timely given Iran’s escalating nuclear violations and the continuing uncertainty around negotiations on the JCPOA nuclear deal. This is one of the most serious and most pressing foreign policy challenges of our time.
Before I get into those arguments I would like to take a moment to recognise the contribution to this Chamber made by our dear friend Sir David Amess. As we heard yesterday, Sir David never missed an opportunity to use whatever debating opportunities were available to press Ministers on the causes and issues that were close to his heart. He certainly used Westminster Hall to its fullest. As a member of the Panel of Speakers, he chaired many of the debates that took place here. I know that colleagues will miss seeing him in the chair, masterfully overseeing proceedings in a way that one can only do with 40 years of service under their belt.
There is every chance that Sir David would have sought to speak today. Last December, I had the pleasure of following him in a debate on this very subject. As ever, he spoke with great authority about Iran, his hopes for real, positive change in that country, and its need for true democratic revival. In his own words,
“I am now, unfortunately, in my fourth decade of saying negative things about the Iranian regime; it would be good to still be here in Parliament when I can say something positive about it.”—[Official Report, 9 December 2020; Vol. 685, c. 431WH.]
How sad and how tragic that he is not here to contribute today, and that he will not be able to say something positive about the country that he knew very well and loved. As a man of faith and strong conviction, a man who loved history, he had a deep interest in and affection for the wider middle east. He demonstrated that being a friend of Israel is no barrier to being a friend of Arab nations, too. In many ways, he was an embodiment of the Abraham accords long before they were signed.
Just a few weeks ago, Sir David tried to bend my arm into joining his delegation to Qatar. He knew of my interest in and desire to visit that country, and we both spoke in a debate on UK-Qatar relations a year ago. Unfortunately, constituency activities meant that I could not go, but I knew that travelling with Sir David would have been a very enjoyable experience. He was on the delegation on my first visit to Israel with the Conservative Friends of Israel, and I can say from first-hand knowledge just what a wonderful, funny, kind and generous travelling companion he could be.
Sir David was clear-sighted about the true nature of the Iranian regime and its malign influence throughout the middle east. In his speech last year, he spoke about Iranian terror activities in the region and here in Europe, and he warned of Iran’s ballistic missile programme and uranium enrichment activity. When it came to Iran, Sir David was simply someone who got it. Yes, he was hopeful, and almost romantically he longed for positive change for the Iranian people, but make no mistake: he was hard-head and clear-sighted about the immediate threats and challenges posed by Iran, and the need for strong countermeasures. That is very much my theme for this afternoon as we return to the subject of Iran’s compliance with JCPOA.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on sponsoring this important debate. Does he agree with me that if our colleague’s concerns were correct then—they certainly were—they would be even greater now, since a difficult Government in Tehran have been replaced by a Government who are simply beyond the pale in their principlist agenda, and in their view, as articulated by President Raisi, that sanctions are an opportunity for Iran, rather than something to be feared? Does my right hon. Friend fear, as I do, that dealing with a man who deservedly has the title of the “Butcher of Tehran” is going to be murderously difficult, notwithstanding the fact that the Biden Administration are far more positive than their predecessors when it comes to advancing the JCPOA?
I thank my right hon. Friend for that intervention. He is entirely correct. The truth is that the situation has moved on at some pace in the 10 months since we last debated this subject, which is why it is so timely to bring it back to the House this afternoon. It is an uncomfortable truth that Iran can now be described as a threshold nuclear weapons state. The regime is enriching uranium to greater purities than ever before; it is in retention of ballistic missiles that can deliver nuclear and conventional payloads; and it continues to impede the International Atomic Energy Agency’s access to sites, personnel, and even monitoring equipment and data. The director general of the IAEA has spoken about this very subject today. That has far-reaching and serious consequences for UK foreign policy, for our national interests and for international peace and security. Given Iran’s well-documented systematic non-compliance with JCPOA, it is unsurprising that there is widespread apprehension about the future of the nuclear deal. Make no mistake, the reason that talks have stalled is that Tehran prefers to build more leverage through its nuclear violations.
While much of the focus of commentators on the JCPOA talks in Vienna has been on the intentions of the Biden Administration and the actions of Tehran, questions need to be asked now about whether the JCPOA is even capable of addressing the realities of Iran’s nuclear programme in 2021. Accordingly, I believe it is essential that the UK works with international partners to utilise the remaining diplomatic levers available to curtail Tehran’s nuclear belligerence before the situation deteriorates even further.
Aside from Iran’s continuing nuclear violations over the past year, it is worth pointing out that Iran has also engaged in a shadow bombing campaign against oil tankers navigating international waters, with one such attack involving the killing of a British national. Iran and its network of Shi’ite ally militia groups have routinely attacked military personnel in Iraq with dozens of drone and missile strikes, again killing a UK serviceperson. Iran has plotted the kidnap of foreign nationals and continues to hold British citizens and dual nationals hostage. An Iranian diplomat was sentenced in February for his involvement in a bomb plot against an Iranian opposition rally in Paris, which was attended by a number of our colleagues from this place, including Sir David Amess. Mercifully, that attack was foiled just in time.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the original purpose of the nuclear agreement that the west made with Iran was that it would reduce Iranian terrorism around the world and ensure that Iran moved towards becoming a democratic state? We were told at the time that those would be the beneficial effects of the agreement, but none of those things has happened. In fact, terrorism, particularly around the middle east, has got worse, funded and sponsored by Iran.
My right hon. Friend is correct. The JCPOA has done nothing to dissuade the Iranian regime from conducting those wider activities in the middle east, undermining democratic states and the social and economic order of countries in the region, and sponsoring proxies. Last week, the scenes of street battles that we saw in Beirut raised the distressing possibility of a much-feared civil war in Lebanon. That should serve as a reminder of revolutionary Iran’s legacy. Wherever Iran exerts influence, it destroys the viability of the fragile but sovereign nation states that it preys on by fanning the flames of ethnic, sectarian and political division within each society for its own gain.
My right hon. Friend makes an important point. When we talk about destabilising nations, we always think of China and Russia, but Iran, especially in the middle east, plays a fundamental part in failing the peace process, whether through Hezbollah or Hamas. We should proscribe every single group linked with the revolutionary guard, including the political wing of Hamas.
Unsurprisingly, I agree with my hon. Friend’s remarks. Wherever Iran seeks to operate and influence, it creates roadblocks to peace and long-term prosperity for peoples throughout the middle east.
Against that backdrop, Tehran has also spent the last year systematically and aggressively advancing its nuclear activities. Iran’s nuclear programme is now deep into uncharted territory, and its new hard-line Government have thus far shown no inclination or intention to stop. That represents a comprehensive breach not only of the JCPOA but of safeguards obligations, as well as the non-proliferation treaty. Iran is openly enriching uranium to 60% purity for the first time ever, meaning that it is just a short jump to the level required for a nuclear weapon and a world away from the 3.67% permitted under the JCPOA.
Iran has installed advanced centrifuges, capable of enriching uranium at greater purity levels and in greater quantities, including at its controversial underground nuclear facilities. Iran now has stockpiles of enriched uranium far in excess of the limited amount permitted by JCPOA. The IAEA has confirmed that Iran has produced hundreds of grams of uranium metal, which is a significant component of nuclear weapons and has no credible civilian application. Iran has also repeatedly stonewalled the efforts of the IAEA to monitor its nuclear activities and investigate worrying discoveries of nuclear materials at previously undeclared sites. Many of those advancements are irreversible. The international community may yet—I believe it is unlikely—reach agreement with Iran to remove some stockpiles of enriched uranium out of the country. However, the technical knowledge, the know-how and the advancements cannot be rolled back and those are the very building blocks of a weaponised nuclear programme.
My right hon. Friend is being very generous and is right to say that technical understanding and knowledge cannot be unpicked. That, in a sense, is more important than the quantum of enriched uranium. Does he agree with me that Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid are right to be deeply concerned about what is going on? I am sure my right hon. Friend agrees with me that the state of Israel has to be protected against an existential threat from what is happening in Iran.
My right hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the position of Israel and the fears and concerns within Israel. However, it is not just Israel; numerous other countries throughout the region live in fear of an Iranian regime armed with nuclear weapons.
It is a view widely held in security and academic circles that Iran’s breakout time—the time required to produce enough weapons-grade uranium for one nuclear weapon—may now be as little as several months. Some analysts are even talking in terms of a matter of weeks. That is an alarming decrease from the estimated 12 months’ breakout time that was at the heart of the JCPOA in 2015. By extension, a return to the JCPOA would not represent a return to the JCPOA of 2015. The situation has fundamentally changed for the worse and there is a new baseline.
I recognise that the ongoing negotiations will make it difficult for the Minister to touch upon specifics, but I encourage him to ensure that the UK considers the implementation of supplementary nuclear restrictions by the UK, our E3 partners and the US to compensate for the reduction in Iran’s nuclear breakout time. I particularly hope that restrictions such as the destruction of advanced centrifuges or components and a moratorium on centrifuge R&D and production are under consideration. The IAEA still has an essential role to play in the enforcement of the restrictions. Accordingly, I urge the Minister to ensure that the IAEA continues to have the UK’s full support and that it is empowered to finally verify the full extent of Iranian activities, both declared and otherwise.
I feel the international community keeps missing opportunities to hold Iran accountable. I believe that the Biden Administration have miscalculated by choosing to ease political and economic pressure on the Iranian regime, and that the expectation that doing so will lead to Iran renegotiating a stronger and longer JCPOA is misguided. I understand Iranian officials have already flatly rejected the idea. Conversely, the deliberate failure to meaningfully respond to Iranian non-compliance has led the country to commit ever greater acts of defiance and escalation. It seems that the collective failure to reprimand Iran for each acceleration of its nuclear programme simply underwrites its next transgression.
I strongly welcome the Foreign Secretary’s comments this month about working
“night and day with our friends and allies across the world to stop”
Iran from becoming a nuclear power. That is unmistakably an important commitment. I have said that the UK needs to be clear-sighted about its policy towards Iran. I have also reflected that the belief shared by some in Government back in 2015 that the JCPOA and our re-establishment of diplomatic ties with Iran would lead to rapprochement was not well founded. The regime has long since stopped warranting the benefit of the doubt. The Iranian Government have a consistent track record of banking any concessions they are given and using whatever means are at their disposal to push for more concessions, while never really altering the fundamental trajectory of their foreign policy and military goals.
I have heard it said—in fact, I read it in an article just last month by a former UK diplomat—that Iran is effectively posturing to secure maximum economic and diplomatic concessions, and that actually it has limited interest in seeking to acquire nuclear weapons. I regard such views as dangerously naïve, reflecting a long-standing desire on the part of some in western diplomatic circles to keep giving Iran the benefit of the doubt. There is a misguided and dangerous notion that if we keep showing more love and give more concessions to Iran, that will trigger a fundamental change of posture in Tehran, and it will emerge as a responsible member of the international community. I fear that Iran is continuing to play the international community like a fiddle.
As I listened to the Foreign Secretary’s recent remarks about Iran and the need for a network of liberty, I could not help but think that now—[Interruption.]
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
I do not wish to take up too much of the time left for this debate, as I would like other colleagues to have a chance to speak. I have taken a considerable amount of time to set out some of my arguments and concerns around the strategy that Iran appears to be pursuing.
I spoke of my encouragement from comments made by the new Foreign Secretary. I spoke about the importance of being clear-sighted about Iran and my concerns that the international community is at risk of being played by the Iranian regime, who constantly seek further concessions. They bank them and fundamentally do not alter their trajectory in any meaningful way when it comes to their military and foreign policy goals.
I will close my contribution with an appeal to the Minister, who I know has been listening very carefully. He was in the debate that we held in this Chamber 10 months ago on the same subject, and he is intimately knowledgeable of the details of the subject matter. We have a key moment coming up towards the end of next month with the board of governors of the IAEA meeting in Vienna. The option of censuring Iran for its continuing violations of the JCPOA is, I think, an option diplomatically that we need to keep in play. I do not expect the Minister to comment fully on that, but I ask that he listen, because we need to show as an alliance of freedom-loving nations that we continue to consider the full range of options in response to Iran’s strategy—diplomatically, economically and, yes, ultimately militarily, but that is not a subject for this afternoon.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms Nokes. The objectives of the JCPOA are obviously hugely important in and of themselves, but it cannot just be seen through the lens of Iran’s nuclear capability, as it is in many ways a proxy for our wider relationship with Iran and the way that western countries engage with it. Developments around the deal can often have unintended consequences for other UK interests, and I want to talk about the unfortunate links between the JCPOA and Iran’s hostage taking, especially the high-profile detention of my constituent Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe.
Before I get to the bulk of my argument, I want to pay tribute to Sir David Amess, who always supported me in my campaign for Nazanin’s release. Despite us being from different political parties, he would always ask me about her, lend me support and put pressure on the Government to ensure that she was released. I was especially grateful that Sir David went to visit Nazanin’s husband, Richard Ratcliffe, when he was on hunger strike outside the Iranian embassy, and spent an enormous amount of time with him. Sir David did not have to go the extra mile, but he did. I am very grateful that he showed me that support.
I start my argument by condemning in the strongest possible terms the behaviour of the Iranian Government in jailing Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe for crimes that she did not commit. There can be no excuse whatsoever for jailing an innocent woman, depriving her of her child and separating her from her family in London. When I met with the Prime Minister and Richard Ratcliffe, the Prime Minister said to me that he would leave no stone unturned in making sure that my constituent was brought home. Despite all of these words, Nazanin is still being held in jail and put through hell, having spent over 2,000 days in detention. Other British citizens, including Anousheh Ashouri, have been taken hostage since Nazanin was captured.
It is very difficult for me as a constituency MP constantly to explain to Richard Ratcliffe why his wife has not been released and why our Government have not managed to release her, when he points to other countries, like Australia and the US, that have had much more success in securing the release of their citizens. It is something for which I constantly have to answer, and for which I do not really have a proper answer.
If we are to stand any chance of bringing Nazanin back to West Hampstead, back to her home, in the near future, we have to understand the motives behind Iran’s hostage taking, as unjustified as they are. The JCPOA and the sanctions it concerns are hugely important in determining Iran’s approach to foreign policy with the west. I am afraid that the JCPOA process has not helped Nazanin at all. Her husband, Richard, who has—I am sure that everyone in this House will agree—fought fearlessly for her freedom, argues that the way the process has been handled has compromised his ability to fight for Nazanin’s release by encouraging Iran to look for leverage in the negotiations.
No effort appears to have been made to use the JCPOA process to secure an end to hostage diplomacy, and there has not been a robust enough response from our Government to British citizens like Nazanin being taken as leverage. At the same time as an Iranian presidential candidate explicitly and publicly proposes, in a TV debate, an expansion of hostage diplomacy to gain leverage over the west, members of our Government are still refusing to state that Nazanin is a hostage.
We saw the latest manifestation of the political game that Nazanin is caught up in this weekend, when she was told the devastating news that her new one-year sentence and one-year travel ban, on yet more trumped-up charges, has been upheld in court. She is now waiting anxiously for a call to say that she even has to return to prison, where she has been for the last five years.
When it comes to Nazanin’s case, the biggest factor in this awful game is the historic £400 million debt that we as a country owe Iran. She has been told repeatedly by Iranian officials that that is the reason for her imprisonment, and Iranian leaders have all but confirmed that to be true. Over the last five years, I have dealt with countless Foreign Secretaries and countless Foreign Ministers who have repeatedly refused to acknowledge the link between our failure to pay that debt and Nazanin’s imprisonment. That is the reality of the situation. I really hope that the Ministers involved will recognise the link, because otherwise we will not bring Nazanin home.
I am very grateful to the new Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs, the right hon. Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss), because she seems to have put Nazanin’s case at the top of her agenda and has already made an effort to contact me about it. I cannot express how grateful I am to have received a call and talked through the case, because unless we all work together, my constituent is not coming home anytime soon.
Clearly, we need a new approach. As hon. Members might imagine, I could talk about this subject forever, but I will not because time is short. We need a credible strategy to deal with Iran’s hostage taking. I want to ask the Minister a few questions. First, will the UK Government recognise Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe as a hostage of the Iranian state? Secondly, will the Government punish the perpetrators of this hostage taking, which they could do by placing Magnitsky sanctions on those involved, using Nazanin’s diplomatic protection status that we gave her to challenge Iran at the International Court of Justice? Thirdly, will we keep the promise to settle the UK’s debt to Iran? That is key to my constituent’s release. Fourthly, will we secure a commitment to end hostage taking in the JCPOA negotiations, to stop Nazanin and other hostages being used as tools?
How many more innocent British citizens does Iran have to imprison before our Government start to call out the hostage taking for what it is and take action in response? How many more years does my constituent have to be imprisoned before we change how we deal with Iran, including over the JCPOA, and pay the debt that we owe them? Things are getting more dangerous for British citizens, not less. I am afraid that our approach to foreign policy on Iran has exacerbated the risk. I urge the Minister to rethink. I know he knows the case well; he has spoken with me about it many times. Unless we have a robust challenge of hostage taking and stronger action, my constituent will not be coming home.
I am delighted to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Nokes. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Stephen Crabb) on securing this debate. It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq), who has a close interest in these matters, given the plight of her constituent.
Before the JCPOA, the international community had built up one of the most extensive arrays of sanctions against Iran ever imposed on any country, ever. That pressure brought the Iranian regime to the table. While some of those sanctions remain in place, many were lifted the moment the nuclear deal came into operation. That gave a significant boost to Iran’s oppressive theocratic regime and to its enforcers, the Iranian revolutionary guard. It meant even more money to fund its violent proxies in Lebanon, Iraq, Gaza, Yemen and Syria, and left it free to pursue its genocidal intentions towards Israel, which its supreme leader is clear he wants to destroy utterly. Yet, as we have heard, the deal did not include Iran’s ballistic missile programme, its international sponsorship of terrorism or its shocking abuse of human rights. No wonder the Prime Minister called it a “bad deal”.
In August, the E3 coalition of the UK, France and Germany confirmed that Iran is in flagrant breach of its obligations, taking what it described as
“key steps in the development of a nuclear weapon”.
Its statement was clear that Iran has
“no credible civilian need”
for the measures it has taken. What more belligerent violations are needed before the international community wakes up and snaps back those sanctions that have been lifted? I would appeal to the Minister, please, not to reward Iran for breaking its promises and for stepping up its rush to nuclear weapons. I appeal to him to accept that trying to revive this deal in its current form amounts to appeasement. It pains me to use such a loaded term, but that is what we are talking about.
The last time we debated Iran in this Chamber, our late colleague Sir David Amess expressed his regret that he was in his fourth decade of criticising the Iranian regime. For those many years, he campaigned bravely and forthrightly for a free and democratic Iran. All of us involved in the cause will miss him greatly. On this issue, as on so many others, he called it like it is. Time and again he denounced the appalling human rights record of the mullahs’ regime. Hundreds died in the November 2019 protests, when savage reprisals were meted out to peaceful protesters. Hostage taking leaves dual nationals trapped in Iranian jails for years on end. Journalists, bloggers and opposition activists are subject to intimidation and arbitrary detention. Women are deprived of basic freedoms and members of the LGBT community can face the death penalty just because of who they are.
Let us stop the pretence that the JCPOA can still be made to work. It is fatally flawed. It was always far too weak in what it asked Iran to do. All sanctions should be reimposed with Magnitsky measures applied against regime leaders, including those involved in the mass killings of 1988. It is time to stop appeasing this pariah regime and instead apply all the pressure that we can to ensure its economic isolation, so that we have a chance of delivering a deal that has a real impact, constraining its malign and brutal activities both at home in Iran and around the region.
I congratulate the right hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Stephen Crabb) on securing this excellent debate. It is good to see you in the Chair, Ms Nokes. I acknowledge the right hon. Gentleman’s comments about Sir David Amess, who I worked closely with on Iran. I miss him, too, and I am reminded of the wisdom and eloquence that he would bring to a debate such as this.
I have always been sceptical about the JCPOA because I feared that the Iranian regime could not be trusted to comply. Reluctantly, I came to accept the view that at its best it might buy a decade in which we could hope to slow Iran’s potential for developing a nuclear weapon, while the search for a better political alignment across the middle east could be pursued.
I am not sure about the wisdom of the Trump presidency’s decision to withdraw from the deal unilaterally, but I do think there were already many questions at that time about Iran’s compliance. The deal, as we have heard, involved a 15-year period over which it said it would reduce its stockpile of uranium and limit its work on centrifuges. We now know that by May 2019, and probably earlier, it had decided to lift the limits on its stockpile of enriched uranium, and that by September 2019, and probably earlier, it had also decided to lift limits on the research and development of centrifuges. By August of this year the IAEA was able to verify that Iran has produced enough enriched uranium metal for some to believe a bomb is imminent.
We are now in a position where Iran says it wants to resume talks on the JCPOA, but appears to be doing everything it can to prevent any real progress while continuing its nuclear weapons programme. Since the summer of this year we have also witnessed, as we heard earlier, the coming to power of Ebrahim Raisi, the mass murderer behind the massacre of political opponents and many others back in 1988 who refused to accept the regime’s extremism. It seems almost certain that he has lost none of his ambition to purify Iran of internal dissent and bolster the position of the IRGC, the brutal and sinister Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
We know Iran is tempted back into talks because of the dire state of its economy and the fear of the impact of further sanctions. We must not give too much too soon and we should be wary of the advantage of a new JCPOA that once again fails to tackle the role of Iran in producing ballistic missiles, and fails to address the regional threats resulting from its arming of Hamas, Hezbollah, and the Houthis in Yemen.
There will also come a point where any gains from the JCPOA will become meaningless if Iran’s research and development passes the threshold beyond which the original agreement was designed to hold it. I do not say that our Government should not continue to work towards a new agreement, but I hope we will make it clear that it does not exclude international bodies from pursuing Raisi for his crimes against humanity, and it must be clear this time that the regime’s enrichment programme must be stopped completely and its nuclear sites closed. There must be verifiable inspections anytime, anywhere. It must also address regional activities and ballistic missiles, and it cannot ignore the behaviour of Iran when it comes to democracy, human rights or hostage taking, like Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe. It cannot ignore the regime’s view that Israel does not have a right to exist.
Our Government should not agree to any conditions that seek to protect the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which I believe should be proscribed in its entirety under our terrorist legislation, as previously recommended by the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Nokes. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Stephen Crabb) on securing this important and timely debate.
Listening to some of the contributions, I was reminded of my time on board HMS Kent in 2009. When we sailed through the Strait of Hormuz, there was the ominous sight of two Iranian vessels, shadowing us and watching us every step of the way from the opening of the strait up and into Bahrain, out of which we were based. This was at the time of the green revolution, which people might remember, when there was a brief flicker of hope that a better future for Iran might be achievable. Government supporters were burning Union flags and the stars and stripes, and castigating the west for involving itself in internal Iranian affairs, which, of course, it was not doing. The movement was a sign that the Iranian people wanted a better future for themselves and their country.
Sadly, the Iran of today is about as far removed from a better future and from those days as it is possible to get. One need look no further than the supreme leader installing Raisi as President, as has already been spoken about—a man who started his political career in the regime’s mass murder of political opponents back in the 1980s. Not only is Raisi subject to sanctions, but 12 individuals in his Cabinet are sanctioned, which is the highest number ever in the history of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Following the signing of the JCPOA, Tehran was welcome to take a different choice. It could have taken the hand of prosperity, stood up for itself and fostered itself into the family of peaceful nations, but its commitment to destabilising the middle east is absolute. Not only do we and our allies suffer for it, but the Iranian people, who we have spoken about today, are worse off for it.
At the nexus of Iran’s regional destabilisation sits the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. The UK Government have already underlined the threat that the IRGC poses not only to the region but to countries such as our own. The UK Treasury lists the IRGC and its infamous Quds force, as being subject to UK terrorism and terrorist financing sanctions. Although that is welcome, I believe it is time that the UK followed the United States of America in proscribing the IRGC. I urge my right hon. Friend the Minister to follow that up with his colleagues in the Home Office.
Sanctions work. We see that around the world, and history tells us that they work. After all, Iran’s decision to enter the JCPOA in the first place was the direct result of an unprecedented framework of sanctions imposed by the UK and other allied nations. The Biden Administration previously estimated that Iran’s trade dropped by 40%, or some $18 billion, during 2019 and 2020, as President Trump’s sanctions hit. They inflicted significant harm on Iranian Government finances and caused a collapse in the Iranian currency.
Despite the effectiveness of these sanctions in bringing Iran to the negotiating table, the new President’s team has taken a different approach, and it is understood that Iran’s financial position has already improved as a result of lax sanctions enforcement against its elicit oil sales. This will have secured Tehran invaluable revenue to stave off fiscal collapse, while emboldening it to continue destabilising regional policies and to continue its nuclear escalation.
In recent weeks, there have been reports that the Biden Administration may be willing to provide significant sanctions relief and release frozen assets. Some reports even suggest that sanctions could be lifted on banks, human rights abusers and those with links to terrorism. Does the Minister share my and other Members’ concerns at these reports? What assessment has he made of the effectiveness of the UK’s existing sanctions against the Iranian people who are already listed? What does the UK intend to do about the list of entities that have previously supported Iran’s nuclear and missile programmes, which are stated to be delisted in 2023 by the EU and the UK pursuant to annexe II and annexe V of the JCPOA nuclear deal?
Even if the JCPOA is resurrected and re-enforced, delisting these persons and entities will mean that, as the deal lurches on, Iran’s network of proliferators receive sanctions relief in the EU and the UK without being required to undergo a change in behaviour. I encourage my right hon. Friend the Minister to consider the UK leading an international effort to compile an exhaustive list of those responsible for human rights abuses in Iran and to hold them accountable through additional waves of sanctions. It should be a concern for us all that we have reached this point. Whether with our presence in the region or sanctions from Westminster, we must continue through free debates such as these to let the Iranian people know that we are speaking for them and Iran’s leaders know we are watching them. The Iranian people must know that their plight and the plight of the whole region has not been forgotten.
I thank the right hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Stephen Crabb) for bringing this debate and giving us all a chance to support it and be part of it. I will miss my colleague, Sir David Amess, as others have also said. He undoubtedly would have been here and standing up for democracy and justice, alongside us, as he always did in these matters.
I want to put on record some words which I did not have the chance to say yesterday, but that want to say today, if I may. I know that David was a man of faith and would have appreciated these words, which I believe would have been true of David, from 2 Timothy, chapter 4, verses 7 and 8:
“He has fought the good fight, he has finished the race, he has kept the faith.
Henceforth there is laid up for him the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to him on that day and not only to him, but also to all who have loved his appearing”.
We mourn his passing, but also celebrate his life and pass on sincere sympathies to his wife, children and family circle.
Few of us can plead ignorance of what is happening in Iran. We can all see the fact that life continues: the race for nuclear arms continues in violation of the joint comprehensive plan of action and, unfortunately, global inaction will allow this to continue to the detriment of us all.
I am sure that many of us have read the IAEA report, which makes clear that the regime has 10 kg of uranium enriched to near weapons-grade level, at a very dangerous point. In addition, Tehran has stockpiled more than 120 kg of 20% enriched uranium, also ready to go. Under the terms of the 2015 nuclear deal—the JCPOA—the regime is not allowed to enrich uranium above 3.5%. The maths are clear—you do not need to be an Einstein to work it out, Ms Nokes: Iran is above the threshold and in violation, and steps must indeed be taken, not just words. That is not a criticism, by the way, but we need something better than words.
In February, the IAEA inspectors confirmed that the regime had produced 3.6 grams of uranium metal at the Isfahan nuclear plant. The IAEA also warned that its verification had been seriously undermined since February by Tehran’s refusal to allow inspectors access to the IAEA monitoring equipment. One of its recent reports also stipulates:
“The presence of multiple uranium particles of anthropogenic origin at three locations in Iran not declared to the agency, as well as the presence of isotopically altered particles at one of these locations, is a clear indication that nuclear material and/or equipment contaminated by nuclear material has been present at these locations”.
These things could not be more serious or worrying, as others have said. What is not needed today—I say this with respect—is a strongly worded statement by the E3: the Governments of France, Germany and the United Kingdom warning this is a key step in the development of a nuclear weapon. We need action. The National Council of Resistance of Iran, which I think everyone of us here has probably been invited to speak or has spoken at—Sir David was one of the speakers at every event held here—made five recommendations. I will make them here to the Minister, because I support them.
The six UN Security Council resolutions must be reinstituted and implemented. Secondly, the regime’s enrichment programme must be stopped completely and its nuclear sites must be closed. Thirdly, anytime, anywhere inspections must be carried out and the regime’s missile programme must be brought to a halt. Fourthly, the Security Council must recognise the regime in Iran as the main threat to global peace and security and place its nuclear programme under chapter VII of the UN Charter. Fifthly, the Government must proscribe the Islamic revolutionary guard, the IRGC, in its entirety under the Terrorism Act 2000, as recommended by the Foreign Affairs Committee.
In conclusion, this House must seriously consider the steps that we take. This is a matter of life and death, and the security of this great nation and of every nation in the world. Words are not enough; we must act, and act soon. Do the five things that the National Council of Resistance of Iran have said to do, and we are going somewhere.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Nokes. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Stephen Crabb) on securing this debate.
I rise as someone who thought that the JCPOA was a mistake in the first place. It was a mistake because we cannot trust Iran. We have the evidence; we know that they have the ballistic missiles to deliver a nuclear weapon. The evidence for that is clear. We know that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps is responsible for terrorist acts around the world, attacking shipping in international shipping lanes and sponsoring terrorism across the middle east. That evidence is quite clear, and I agree with hon. Members across this Chamber that have supported the proscription of the entirety of the IRGC. I would go further: their assets should be sequestered and used for the benefit of the people of Iran.
The central point is whether we can trust Iran if we are going to negotiate with it. This is where we must remember my good friend, Sir David Amess. He was the leader of our delegation each year to the annual conference of the NCRI. He led Parliament, and in many ways the world, with his position on securing the ability of refugees from the regime of the mullahs to find safety in Camp Ashraf and beyond. The reality, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers) mentioned, is that in 2018 there was a bomb attack planned on the NCRI conference. Sir David Amess, myself and others—including my right hon. Friend—were present at that conference. Had they succeeded, we would have all been killed—no question whatsoever.
The evidence is clear that it was a diplomat who smuggled that bomb from Iran into Belgium, using diplomatic bags and then passing it to two terrorists who would then insert it at the conference to destroy many world leaders. I predict that, had they succeeded, there could have been another world war—it was as serious as that. Can we trust people who use diplomatic channels in that way? There have been no consequences for Iranian diplomatic channels. I ask the Minister: what action is going to be taken? That diplomat has been found guilty and imprisoned. What action is going to be taken against the Iranians for their breach of diplomatic channels? It disregards every element of what should happen.
Equally, there is a pressing case in the not too distant future at COP26. The Iranian President, Ebrahim Raisi, is expected to participate in COP26 and come to this country, to Glasgow. This man, who was elected—or appointed—as the President of Iran by the regime of the mullahs, was the chief prosecutor for the 1988 massacres. He personally authorised the execution of nearly 30,000 individuals, including pregnant women and children, when the attempted purge of the minority parties in Iran was taking place. That was to eliminate people, and he still says that it is God’s command that this action should be taken, just because people do not agree with the exact terminology of the regime of the mullahs. This is the President who is going to be invited to our country to participate in important talks across the piece. The reality is that we cannot trust him, we cannot trust the regime, and we must take strong action.
I end with one aspect that I ask the Minister to reflect on. We cannot allow the Iranian Government to secure a nuclear weapon, because the threat to peace in the middle east is too great. We must say that they will not be allowed to secure nuclear weapons—ever.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Nokes, and I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Stephen Crabb). I should declare an interest: the Conservative Friends of Israel paid for accommodation at the Conservative party conference, and it will be on the register shortly. I am also chair of the all-party parliamentary group on Kurdistan.
It is with depressing predictability that these debates on Iran’s malign activities occur. The contributions of Members have been remarkably consistent. I have long held the belief that Iran can best be described as the Soviet Union of the middle east. I first made that observation in December 2011 and almost a decade later, it rings as true today as it did then. Iran continues to oppress its citizens at home, just as it uses its notorious Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps to export violence and instability abroad. Domestically, thousands of Iranians have been executed and hundreds more killed for daring to promote democracy. It is known for financing Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Hezbollah, as well set out by right hon. and hon. Friends and Members.
The JCPOA nuclear deal was presented to the world as a game-changing moment, a new nuclear framework that would restrain Iran’s nuclear programme and lay the ground for a reformed Iran. Far from it: Iran has retreated within itself, terrorism has increased and the dictatorship has continued. Iran appears to be deliberately raising the stakes in a belligerent effort, not only to advance its nuclear capabilities but to strongarm ever greater concessions from the P5+1.
The UK Government have previously likened the JCPOA to a hollow shell and recognised that it has failed to curtail Iran’s nuclear violations. The JCPOA also does not address Iran’s repression of internal minorities such as the Kurds, nor does it address the aggressive and expansionist activities of the state. The hope of western signatories is that the nuclear deal would come to discourage that bad behaviour, which has included missile attacks against Iranian Kurdish parties in the Kurdistan region, as well as support for and direction of the proxy Shia militia forces in Iraq. Under the direction of the late al-Quds leader Qasem Soleimani, that included participation in the violent seizure of Kirkuk on 16 October 2017 following the peaceful independence referendum in September. Of course, the Kurdistan Regional Government support diplomatic relations with all their neighbours, but the Iranian regime cannot be trusted by its own people or the neighbouring countries.
Does the Minister think that the return to the JCPOA framework will alter Iran’s behaviour and does he intend to tackle Iran’s egregious human rights abuses and support for terrorism, which was so mistakenly omitted from the JCPOA? The UK has a proud record of placing human rights at the centre of our foreign policy and sanctions. Why not consider introducing Magnitsky-style sanctions against Iran? I have warned before that a nuclear Iran would not just mean a nuclear Iran; it means a nuclear Hezbollah, a nuclear Hamas and so forth. It sickens me to the stomach that we now stand on the edge of that becoming a reality.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Nokes, and I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Stephen Crabb) on securing the debate.
It is regrettable that, despite the best of intentions, diplomatic efforts over many months have failed to bring Tehran back into compliance with the JCPOA nuclear deal. Since the dispute resolution mechanism was triggered by the UK, France and Germany back in January last year, Iran has accelerated the enrichment of uranium to near weapons grade and is now producing uranium metal. It was hoped that Tehran would engage constructively with the DRM process, but it quickly became apparent that Tehran had no desire whatsoever to re-join negotiations, even triggering the DRM itself in July of last year in an act of defiance.
Yet instead of notifying the UN Security Council of Iran’s non-compliance and triggering a vote on the snapback of sanctions, the E3 have repeatedly pledged that they are committed to preserving the JCPOA. By refusing to accept that the agreement could no longer be resuscitated, the P5+1 allowed the UN arms embargo to expire last year and sent a clear message to Iran that no matter what its transgressions, it will not face any consequences. That is particularly troubling given that a further sunset will end in 2023 on the UN ban on Iran’s missile programme. We must be clear-sighted on this. Our failure to act has given Iran the green light to further develop its nuclear capabilities and harmful regional influence.
Just as so many feared at the time the agreement was signed, Iran’s network of terror proxies is the principal beneficiary of sanctions relief. From reportedly providing the Hamas terror group with $30 million per month, to cajoling the Hezbollah terror group in Lebanon, Iran’s terrorist network reaches far and wide. Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps directs this activity, and it really is time that the UK proscribes the IRGC to send a clear message that Iran’s malign activities will not be tolerated. At a time when Israel faces greater threats from terror groups than ever before, the support of its neighbours and the international community is paramount.
By separating Iran’s nuclear programme from its other destructive and oppressive actions, the JCPOA failed to address Iran’s goal to destabilise the region, with a nuclear weapon as its ultimate insurance policy. To finally hold Iran to account, we must accept that the JCPOA simply cannot be revived. I hope that the Minister will provide some clear red lines and assure me and colleagues that the UK will rule nothing out to prevent Iran from gaining nuclear weapons.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Nokes. I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Stephen Crabb) for securing this important debate on Iran’s compliance with the JCPOA. Many hon. and right hon. Members have perfectly articulated the dangers of Iran obtaining a nuclear weapon, and I add my voice to their concerns. For the sake of the safety of our close allies in the middle east, this issue must remain at the forefront of our foreign policy agenda.
However, I am also going to highlight a different issue from those raised by my colleagues: the mendacious and pernicious Iranian regime being a real threat to Jewish communities in my constituency and beyond. Every Member participating in this debate and all right-minded Members of the House must continue to be shocked and appalled that a community here in the UK requires synagogues, schools and community centres to be behind gates, with security guards. I pay credit to the Community Security Trust for its work in keeping the Jewish community safe and secure. One of the many reasons it exists is that Iran remains a state sponsor of terrorism; the US Government designated it as such in 1984.
Iran directly and indirectly promotes terrorism against its perceived adversaries, which includes Jewish and Israeli interests worldwide. Iran and its proxy Hezbollah operate globally and possess international terrorist capabilities. The 2019 intelligence assessment of the US office of national intelligence stated that both Iran and Hezbollah will continue to develop global terrorist capabilities. In 2018 and 2019 alone, authorities in Poland, Albania, Denmark, France and Germany arrested or expelled Iranians or blamed Iran for engaging in assassination and terrorist-related activities in their countries. Iran and Hezbollah have been responsible for numerous anti-Jewish terrorist attacks, plots and operations for over 40 years. The highest profile incident was the appalling bombing of the AMIA community centre, which was ordered by Iran and executed by Hezbollah. CST’s reports have detailed more than 30 examples of executed, failed or foiled Iranian and Hezbollah attacks worldwide, directed at Jewish communities and Israeli interests across the globe.
Here in the UK, there have been many outspoken rallies and public displays of support for the Iranian regime and Hezbollah. Who could forget the awful antisemitic chanting through the streets of London during the annual al-Quds Day march? More recently, the al-Quds Day march has been organised by the Islamic Human Rights Commission, which has a direct link to the Iranian regime through one of its co-founders. When General Soleimani, the commander of the Quds Force, was killed in an American drone strike, there were vigils in Luton, Manchester, Birmingham and London. At one such event, the chair of the Islamic Human Rights Commission stated:
“we hope and we pray and we work hard to make sure that there will be many, many more Qassem Soleimanis.”
There are many more example I could give, but I am precluded from doing so by time constraints.
In conclusion, this is an organisation based here, in our streets, in this country. It is hardly surprising that Jewish people feel anxious. Iran must not be allowed to develop a nuclear weapon, but its mendacious actions across the UK and abroad must also be stopped.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Nokes. I warmly congratulate the right hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Stephen Crabb) on securing this debate, and also commend him on a very measured and serious speech, which I entirely agreed with. I also strongly agree with his point—I am conscious that I am paraphrasing, but it is useful for some Members to be reminded of this—that not everything that happens in the middle east is about Israel. Plenty of other countries across the middle east have a great deal to fear from a nuclear Iran. As friendly outsiders to all communities in the middle east, it is incumbent on us to look at a wider prism than the interests of just one community or country.
My party’s standpoint on any matters nuclear is that we abhor nuclear weapons. We do not want to see proliferation around the world. We also want to see the UK rid of nuclear weapons, and we want them out of Scotland’s soil. That is, of course, a different discussion, but my party’s proposition is that, as an independent state, we will get rid of the nuclear weapons and employ more people in conventional defence, which will be more effective and better suited. It will also be a better example for the world. If we are serious about cutting back on nuclear proliferation, let us consider our own role in encouraging these weapons. That is a different discussion for a different time, which I look forward to.
However, there is much agreement on both sides of the House today, and I would like to focus on that. We all agree that a nuclear-armed Iran would be a massively negative influence in the middle east and the wider world. My party supports the JCPOA. I take on board a number of the criticisms and concerns that have been expressed on both sides of the House, and we are not naive about its failings or the failings and, indeed, mendacity of the Iranian regime. However, we do favour talk, and I would Members what their proposition is if they are not in favour of the JCPOA. If they are not in favour of talks and an internationally binding legal agreement, what are they proposing? We are open to Magnitsky sanctions, and we are open to other embargoes, but we do believe that the JCPOA, with its faults, is the best chance of bringing Iran to the table.
We therefore support the UK Government’s efforts. Indeed, I suspect I am more supportive of their efforts than some Members on the Government Benches in today’s discussions. I commend the Minister for what he has been doing, because—I agree with the concerns that have been expressed by Members on both sides of the House—the signs are not encouraging. The IAEA’s report confirmed that Iran has stepped up enrichment of uranium. There is absolutely no justification for the levels of enriched uranium that Iran now has and its capacity to make more. There is no civilian purpose for such a product. It is simply an effort to achieve nuclear weapons, which must be resisted and stopped.
The news yesterday that there will not be a Brussels meeting to try and push on the JCPOA efforts is dispiriting, but we must continue. We must push on these efforts. We need to give more impetus to these efforts, not less. We cannot be seen here to be undermining efforts at talks when they are under way. I urge the Minister to continue his efforts, to get stuck in and to breathe some impetus into these talks. I would be grateful for an update if he can give one, given the confidential nature of those discussions. He can be assured of Scottish National party support for his efforts and indeed those of the wider Government.
Having expressed that support and demonstrated, I hope, bipartisanship, can I also make a plea? Can the riot act please be read to UK Government Ministers to stop them playing fast and loose with respect for international law? The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland said recently that the protocol would be breached in a “limited and specific way”. Those are not the words of a serious Government that respect international law. It sets a bad example for the bad actors who already exist in the world. Then, an unelected Lord, a member of the UK Government—it is telling that many do not like unelected bureaucrats and decrees by high muftis or whoever else in Tehran—absolutely disingenuously said that elements of the EU withdrawal agreement were contingent or would somehow fall away, when that was not the intention of the UK Government, and it certainly was not the intention of anybody else.
Over the weekend we then saw, most egregiously of all, the Lord Chancellor, no less, floating the constitutionally and legally illiterate idea that the Government will somehow intervene in and overturn decisions on human rights where the judges get them wrong. It is this Parliament that changes the law, not the Government. That sort of statement would not be out of place in Tehran, and we must be conscious of the examples we are setting.
Where the UK Government are serious about breathing life back into these talks and stopping nuclear proliferation anywhere in the middle east, but especially in Iran, they will have SNP support. I encourage the Minister to make more efforts in that regard.
It is a real pleasure to serve under your chairpersonship, Ms Nokes. I had hoped to speak yesterday about Sir David Amess. He was a man of great knowledge and experience, and he had a great interest in this area. I got to know him very well during the last few days of his life. He was a very decent and honourable man, and we all regret his passing.
I congratulate the right hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Stephen Crabb) on securing a debate on what he says, quite correctly, is an extremely important issue. As has been made clear this afternoon, the multilateral negotiations with Iran have stalled. Progress had been made when President Rouhani of Iran was in power, but a deal had not been concluded before he left office in August this year. Since then, President Raisi has come into office and the talks have stopped. I am sure we would all agree that this is a worrying situation, as my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Steve McCabe) said very clearly.
According to the Tehran Times, the Iranian Foreign Minister said to the Iranian Parliament that the United States
“must certainly take serious action”
before any new negotiations take place. According to some commentators, it seems that President Raisi is adopting a hard approach. That is extremely worrying. Because of Iran’s violations of the JCPOA, Iran could, if it was so inclined, produce enough nuclear material for a nuclear bomb literally during the next few months. In the past year, Iran has successfully enriched uranium to a new threshold just short of the grade needed for a nuclear weapon. In addition, there are other weapons-related activities that are currently prohibited by the JCPOA that Iran might develop under the guise of civil nuclear necessity. These reports all make the situation very concerning and raise the question of how the international community should respond. We know that both the United States and Israel have threatened to use force to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons—I would suggest that it is in the back of the minds of one or two Members here that that might happen. However, we should be acutely aware of the huge risks involved in military action. We should be cognisant of the fact that as Kelsey Davenport, director for non-proliferation policy at the Arms Control Association, has said this could
“backfire in the long run”,
“larger-scale attack could push Tehran to consider abandoning its Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty commitments”
and developing nuclear weapon production
“in order to deter further attacks”.
An alternative option has been suggested, and I ask Members to think about it. That would be to restore the JCPOA talks on the basis of an interim agreement or a gesture-for-gesture arrangement that reduces the proliferation-sensitive activities of Iran in exchange for certain and very limited sanctions relief for Iran. If that approach was successful, it could take us beyond the current impasse and allow for new negotiations to be mapped out that would take us beyond the confines of the JCPOA, which many Members have accurately pointed out, and give us scope for sanctions relief. That could provide the opportunity to address other concerns about Iran’s activities—namely, as Members have mentioned, the development of a ballistic missile programme designed to deliver nuclear weapons, and Iran’s support for terrorist groups and militias throughout the middle east. Those must be placed near the top of the agenda. In other words, perhaps there needs to be a short-term approach but also a longer-term perspective if we are serious about dealing with the issue of Iran in the long term.
Finally, we are all extremely concerned about the widespread human rights abuses occurring in Iran as we speak. Hostage taking is absolutely deplorable. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq) on her determination in championing the case of her constituent, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, but also those of the other dual nationals who are held illegally in Iran. I look forward to the Minister’s response to that specifically, to see whether any progress has been made.
Our country must go beyond its current approach of discreet pressure on Iran regarding human rights abuses. We should be actively considering extending Magnitsky-style sanctions against key Iranian perpetrators of human rights abuses. I would like to hear the Minister’s response to that suggestion specifically.
Iran is an ancient country. It has a rich culture, is capable of developing a strong and diverse economy, and has the potential to be a positive member of the international community. However, that will happen only if we are firm in our goals and determined to work in partnership with the United States and the European Union by insisting that firm objectives must be realised.
It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Ms Nokes. I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Stephen Crabb) for securing this incredibly important and timely debate. I am also grateful for his recognition, and that of a number of hon. and right hon. Members, that I am in many ways constrained in terms of how much detail I can go into in this important and sensitive debate. I thank hon. Members for their understanding.
We have heard thoughtful, balanced and significant contributions by a number of hon. and right hon. Members this afternoon. Iran’s nuclear programme is, sadly, more advanced and worrying than it has perhaps ever been. That is why we are so focused on negotiating a deal that returns Iran to full compliance with the JCPOA commitments and doing so as soon as possible. Between 2015 and 2019, the joint comprehensive plan of action demonstrated that it could deliver results. For the UK and the international community, it restricted Iran’s nuclear programme to civilian use and supported the global non-proliferation system. For Iran, phased sanctions relief offered a more prosperous future for its people.
However, Iran has failed to comply with its JCPOA commitments for more than two years now. It continues to upgrade its nuclear capability, permanently and irreversibly. There is no doubt about this. The International Atomic Energy Agency, the UN’s nuclear watchdog, has verified Iran’s actions. Today, Iran’s nuclear programme is more advanced and worrying than ever before. The IAEA confirmed in August that Iran has produced uranium metal enriched up to 20% for the first time, and Iran has significantly increased its capability to produce uranium enriched up to 60%, as a number of hon. Members have mentioned in the debate.
It is impossible to overstate the severity of Iran’s actions. It has no credible civilian need to take such steps. It is unprecedented for a state without nuclear weapons to enrich uranium to 60%. Meanwhile, Iran has withdrawn from the JCPOA-agreed monitoring arrangement. That means that the IAEA has lost crucial insight into the status of Iran’s nuclear programme, precisely at the time that Iran is escalating its activities. There is no credible reason why the IAEA’s access should be restricted. There has never been a clearer imperative to halt the nuclear escalation and for Iran to return to the JCPOA commitments.
The diplomatic door remains—currently—open, but Iran must urgently return to talks in Vienna and engage in good faith. We remain committed to delivering a successful deal. A restored deal could also pave the way for further discussions on regional and security concerns, including in support of the non-proliferation regime.
While the JCPOA is not perfect, it is currently the only framework for monitoring and constraining Iran’s nuclear programme. We have fully upheld the JCPOA commitments from our side, including the lifting of sanctions. From April this year, we engaged in negotiations in Vienna, in good faith, alongside the US and other partners. Iran stepped away from those negotiations in June, after 10 weeks and six rounds of talks.
The UK, France, Germany, the US, Russia and China all stand ready to resume negotiations with Iran. We want to conclude the deal that is on the table. There is a substantial offer from the US on the table—to lift sanctions inconsistent with the JCPOA in exchange for Iran’s return to full compliance with its nuclear commitments. That is a both fair and comprehensive offer, but Iran has, thus far, failed to seize this opportunity.
We should be clear on this—time is running out to conclude a deal, and we may soon have to reconsider our approach. Every day that Iran delays talks and escalates its nuclear programme, it hurts its own economy and its own people the most. Iran’s current action is not in Iran’s best interests. With the diplomatic door still open to restore the JCPOA and lift sanctions, Iran must come back to the negotiating table, as a matter of urgency, to pick up where we left off. In the meantime, we will continue holding it to account for its nuclear escalation and wider destabilising behaviour.
A number of Members have spoken about British dual nationals in arbitrary detention in Tehran. The UK Government remain absolutely committed to securing their full release and returning them to their families and their loved ones. We will not rest until that is done. All Members should recognise that that incarceration is the fault and responsibility of the Iranian regime—no one else, nowhere else.
A number of right hon. and hon. Members mentioned the sanctions regime. We currently have more than 200 UK sanctions designations in place against Iran, including those related to human rights abuses and against the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in its entirety. Right hon. and hon. Members will understand that it is not useful to discuss or speculate on future sanctions regimes, as that might undermine their authority. We will continue our approach based on a combination of engagement, pressure and incentives.
As the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Wayne David) said, we want to see a prosperous and peaceful Iran that feels secure within its own borders, and does not pose a threat to this country, our interests, or our allies. We are ready, willing and able to reach a negotiated settlement to that effect. It is now up to Tehran to engage seriously in that process.
I am grateful to the Minister for his remarks and those clear statements of his understanding of the position regarding Iran’s nuclear programme. I am pleased that there seems to be agreement in the Chamber this afternoon on the facts on the ground. We have independent verification of those facts. I believe there is a strong measure of consensus in the room about just how serious the crossroads is that we have now reached with Iran. There is widespread concern, as expressed this afternoon, about the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran, and the consequences not just for the middle east region but for international stability and the whole world.
I believe there has been a strong message this afternoon to Ministers and the Government on the need to be robust and keep all options on the table—we completely understand why the Minister cannot comment on some of the detailed specifics that have been put to him. I believe that Iran’s regime responds only to strong pressure, and I remain sceptical about moves to give further concessions to the Iranian regime when it has shown so consistently in the past that it banks them and then seeks further concessions.
The hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq) has reminded us just how sensitive some of the issues around hostage taking are, and of the links between those issues and some of these big, strategic questions that we have discussed this afternoon. I am grateful for a very constructive and interesting debate.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered Iran’s compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.
Greenbelt: Local Plans
Before we begin the next debate, I again encourage Members to wear masks when they are not speaking, in line with current Government guidance and that of the House of Commons Commission, and to give each other and staff space when seated and when entering and leaving the room.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered inclusion of greenbelt land in local plans.
It is my absolute pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Nokes. I applied for this debate as a number of my constituents quite rightly have written and spoken to me over recent months with concerns about potential building on green belt, in particular in the ward of Carpenders Park. Although it is my understanding that as a Member of Parliament I am not allowed to interfere in the planning process, nor do I have any control over housing targets or a planning authority’s local plan, I would like to confirm that with the Minister today. I have several questions, and some context to those questions, as we go through, to see whether there is anything I can do as the Member of Parliament to ensure that green belt in Carpenders Park is not included in the local plan.
I would be grateful to the Minister if he could confirm that that is indeed the case. I must say I am deeply concerned by the inclusion of green belt in the local plan during the recent consultation process. As the MP for Watford, I am acutely aware of where we are situated: we are not in London, but we are inside the M25, and the ever-growing expansion of the capital over decades has rightly led to Government intervention to protect our local green spaces and our great town from being swallowed up in the metropolis.
My constituency covers two distinct local authorities, Watford Borough Council and Three Rivers District Council, and it is the latter that I will focus on today. Within Three Rivers we find Carpenders Park; I invite the Minister to visit at some point, and he will see it is a wonderful part of my constituency, with beautiful open green spaces. However, most at the heart of the community are the people. I have had the luxury of witnessing over the past two years how the community comes together and works together. In particular, in this instance I will illustrate that with the work the community has done to protect its green space in the face of the local plan inclusion.
I have had the opportunity to meet local residents, most recently in a community meeting organised by Councillors David Coltman, Donna Duncan and Shanti Maru and others, where I was able to speak to them about their concerns about the green belt and the local plan consultation. In addition, I went to a meeting with a campaign group set up in response to the local plan consultation, which included Rue Grewel, Terry Voss, Ketul Patel, Lester Wagman, Ross King and Jack Eliades, and Pandora Melly, who was unfortunately unable to attend on that night.
Since then, Rue, Terry and Lester have set up their own campaign group, which is called “Can’t Replace Green Space”. I do not think anyone could get more on the nose than that statement. Going out through old-fashioned engagement they have knocked on doors, spoken to people, helped them to fill out the consultations and done an enormous amount of work to encourage local residents to respond to the local consultation.
We have seen an incredible response, with thousands on thousands of signatures of people saying, quite rightly, that they do not want that patch of their area to be built on with housing. I should note that this is not about nimbyism; the campaigners have incredibly powerful reasons why the area should not be included. There are potential brownfield sites that could be built on in other areas, so looking at this area is not a last resort.
In my efforts to understand whether I as a local Member of Parliament can do anything to stop the inclusion, I have spent many hours researching local planning rules extensively—more than I am expected to understand as an MP. I hope Members will bear with me as I share these points. As I understand it—I would appreciate confirmation of this—the national planning policy framework provides the framework against which local planning authorities draw up their local plans and determine applications for planning permission. Chapter 13 of the framework, the NPPF, deals specifically with protecting green-belt land and it states clearly that established green-belt boundaries should be changed only
“where exceptional circumstances are fully evidenced and justified”.
The NPPF is also clear that inappropriate development that is harmful to the green belt should also only be approved “in very special circumstances”.
Paragraph 141 states:
“Before concluding that exceptional circumstances exist to justify changes to Green Belt boundaries, the…authority should be able to demonstrate that it has examined fully all other reasonable options for meeting its identified need for development.”
I fully understand residents’ concerns that Three Rivers has not yet been able to demonstrate that in its local plan consultation. Paragraph 149 also lists exceptions where building on the green belt will not be considered inappropriate.
Since being elected I have raised multiple times in private meetings with the former Secretary of State and the current Housing Minister my concerns about over-development across Watford in general, particularly about tall towers, but given that this debate is about the green belt I will not cover those right now. In the Chamber a few months ago I asked whether it is the case that housing target needs are not set in stone and that they are a starting point for negotiation. Will the Minister confirm whether that is still the case, and that a planning inspector can accept a lower housing need target for the green belt to be protected if a local plan sets out clear criteria and presents a credible and reasonable alternative? I have seen articles recently in my local area saying that no local authority can challenge the housing need set by the standard method for assessing housing need. However, if the local plan is the starting point for determining the planning process, it would be most appropriate to use that as a mechanism to challenge the standard method in order to protect our precious green belt. It is possible, in my view.
Indeed, House of Commons Library research has concluded that the inspector can challenge local authorities on their desire to build on green-belt land, where they fail to challenge the housing need in the local plan. I found many examples, but these two come to mind. In Barnsley Metropolitan Borough Council, where 77% of the borough is found within the South Yorkshire green belt—similar to Three Rivers, where 76% of the district is classified as green belt—the planning inspector found that exceptional circumstances did not exist to justify altering the green-belt boundary, which highlights the importance of local authorities considering adjusting the boundary only as a last resort. That was also the case for Rugby Borough Council, where the inspector found that green-belt expansion would
“breach the existing strong, clearly defined boundary which would cause significant harm to the purpose of the Green Belt in this location.”
At this point I want to clarify that I am not attempting to do point-scoring politics. This is not about me trying to challenge the council to be difficult—to do political point scoring or get into a blame game. I want to be supportive and for the debate to help support it as regards removing the green belt from Carpenders Park. I want to highlight that this issue is about local people having a say in their local area, and through the process of consultation making sure that their voices are heard. I hope today’s debate will enable that even further.
I have also raised the challenge that engagement for the local plan absolutely has to come from people putting in petitions as well as individual comments. One thing that I have found—I do not know whether it is a Government or a local policy, so perhaps we will get clarity—is that thousands of people sign a petition, but that is accepted only as a single entry in a consultation, rather than as representing the thousands of signatories.
I have chatted with Alex Hayward, the leader of the Conservatives—not currently in control—on Three Rivers District Council. She confirmed that she would remove the area of green belt from the plan, so there is not a lack of political will to do so. Something that has been covered so much in the mainstream press and locally, which I will not going into detail on, is the charge that the Government are inflicting national targets on local areas, causing the green belt to be at risk. Until recently I could see that argument. In their manifesto, the Conservatives had a target of 300,000 new homes; I believe Labour had 1 million over the Parliament and the Liberal Democrats had a target of 300,000. However, I am led to believe that at the recent Lib Dem conference they voted to increase the national housebuilding target to 380,000 a year. I doubt that that political argument holds weight any more, given the fact that the parties have all increased the house building target. I do not want to get into that political battle, other than to say it is important that local residents are heard, irrespective of the national politicking that goes on.
Could the Minister confirm that the planning White Paper is just that—a White Paper? There are press reports that a Bill is passing through Parliament, with various announcements, leaflets and press coverage about what that Bill includes. Actually, nothing has gone through Parliament yet. Anything talking about the planning Bill is not factual, and the White Paper is just the White Paper. Therefore, it is not yet in the public realm what that might include. I would be grateful if the Minister could set out the reasons why the 2014-based household projections continue to be used seven years later to determine housing need according to the standard method, and whether that is likely to change? Residents have raised that issue with me.
Above all, I am keen to stand up for residents in my constituency and for our green spaces. I cannot state enough how important it is to ensure that Carpenders Park remains the beautiful place and community that it is today. I want to make sure that continues for many decades to come. I am grateful to have the opportunity to speak about this incredibly important issue. The residents of Carpenders Park deserve to have their voices heard. As their MP, I have been led to believe that I cannot be involved in the planning process; however, if I am able to be, I would like the Minister to let me know. If I cannot be, I would like to do anything else I can do to help local residents. I would like answers to their valid concerns, so I can ensure that Carpenders Park continues to be the beautiful place and community that it is. I thank the Minister for his time and I look forward to any further guidance on how we can protect our local green space in Watford.
It is a huge pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Nokes. It is also my particular pleasure to be able to address hon. Members as the representative of the new Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities. Levelling up is about empowering local leaders and communities and creating nice places to live, both of which are highly relevant to this debate.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Watford (Dean Russell) for securing this important debate. His constituency, as he said, includes areas governed by two local authorities—Watford and Three Rivers. His constituents are hugely fortunate to have my hon. Friend as their MP. He is a relentless, articulate and learned champion for them, particularly on this issue. He asked me to confirm that he cannot interfere in the planning process. He cannot control the numbers the local authority chooses to go for—I am happy to confirm he is correct on that.
Let me reiterate the Government’s absolutely unwavering commitment to protecting the green belt. There has been no greater advocate for the green belt and for our valued countryside than the Prime Minister. He could not have been clearer in his address to the party conference two weeks ago. Homes should not be built on green fields if we can possibly help it. Instead, we should focus on boosting construction on brownfield sites. I will talk about both of those today.
I am naturally very sympathetic to the concerns of local residents, but hon. Members will appreciate that the Secretary of State has a quasi-judicial role in the planning system, so I cannot comment on individual planning proposals. While the Government set national planning policy in England, local authorities are responsible for local planning matters, including the distribution and density of development across their areas, the designation of land as green belt and co-operation with neighbouring authorities on matters that cross boundaries. Local plans are the key documents through which local planning authorities can set out a vision and a framework for the future development of their area but, crucially, planning must be carried out in democratic consultation with local residents so that everyone can have their say. The community’s voice must be heard. My hon. Friend talked about the central importance of consultation and democracy in his speech and the good work being done by some of the groups in his constituency. I am sorry to hear that he feels that in his constituency there has been a tremendous democratic failure on the part of the council to listen and act on residents’ concerns. He mentioned a couple of particular sites where that was the case.
On the green belt, as my hon. Friend knows, the manifesto on which the Government were elected was unequivocal in its commitment not just to protecting the greenbelt and the countryside, but to enhancing it for future generations. The green belt is vital in preventing urban sprawl and stopping encroachment on our beautiful countryside. That is why national planning policy delivers strict protections for the green belt, along with strong safeguards against boundary changes and development.
Councils must meet two clear tests to make any changes. The first test outlined in the national planning policy framework ensures that local authorities are prevented from changing a green-belt boundary other than in exceptional circumstances. They must show that every other reasonable option has been exhausted, and that includes using brownfield land, optimising the density of development and discussing whether neighbouring authorities can take some of the development. In addition, local authorities must consult local people before submitting a revised plan for examination by an inspector. If a local authority finds that it really cannot avoid removing land from the green belt, it is expected to offset the loss of that land through environmental and access improvements to the remaining green belt.
The second test sets out that, where there is a green belt, local authorities should regard the construction of most types of new building in that green belt as inappropriate. They should be refused planning permission unless there are very special circumstances. Let me use this opportunity to reassure hon. Friends and Members that we will continue to afford maximum protection to our green belt. We stand squarely behind that commitment as we take forward our important agenda to level up the country. It is important to stress that national policy sets the expectation that local planning policies and decisions should enhance as well as protect green-belt land. Most of the green belt is countryside, often containing valuable biodiversity soils and attractive landscapes.
As the Prime Minister has made clear, we must reduce pressure on green fields by focusing on delivering beautiful homes on brownfield land, particularly in urban areas. The national planning policy framework strongly encourages regeneration and the reuse of brownfield sites, especially for development to meet housing need and to regenerate our high streets and town centres, as we all want. Local plans should support opportunities to remediate contaminated land or identify underused sites as the first priority—and we were the first Government to require councils to make registers of all their brownfield land.
Of course, brownfield does not just mean derelict plots; they are obvious brownfield. We have already widened permitted development rules, allowing extensions, adaptations and even demolition of unwanted commercial buildings such as boarded-up shops and warehouses, which are natural candidates for new homes. The framework also makes it clear that by achieving the right density of development, a neighbourhood can ensure that urban land is used efficiently. Minimum density standards, in a sort of gentle densification—not tall towers—encouraged by the new national design code guidance, will help to save brownfield land. There is a big difference between gentle density and tall towers, and I highlight to any council the pioneering work of Create Streets on the subject.
We recognise that brownfield sites are harder to deliver, and in some circumstances councils require additional support to maximise their use, so we are helping to fund regeneration, as well as favouring it through legislation and guidance. Only last week, we allocated £58 million to 53 councils through our brownfield land release fund, and that funding will boost local areas by transforming unloved and disused sites into vibrant communities for people to live and work in. With the demolition of unsightly derelict buildings and disused car parks and garages, that is levelling up in action and a clear example of our restoring local pride in place while building the homes this country needs. Crucially, this funding will help to protect the countryside and green spaces. We expect another 5,600 homes to be built on those brownfield sites, supporting young people and families across the country into home ownership.
That is just the latest instalment. Government have made significant investment to unlock brownfield sites—for example, the £4.35-billion housing infrastructure fund, the £4.95-billion home building fund, the £400 million brownfield housing fund and the £75- million brownfield land release fund. Furthermore, through land remediation relief, the Government provide a deduction of 100% from corporation tax, plus 50% for any qualifying expenditure incurred by companies as a clean-up of contaminated land acquired from third parties. No Government have ever invested in brownfield-first regeneration such as this. I hope the councils in my hon. Friend’s constituency will avail themselves of all this help to do brownfield first.
In 2018, we introduced a new standard method in the national planning policy framework for assessing local housing need. My hon. Friend referred to that in his speech. It helps communities to gain a clear understanding of the minimum number of new homes required to inform local plans. I must be clear, however, that the local housing need calculation is by no means a top-down imposed housing target, nor does the method dictate where the new homes go. It is just a starting point when measuring an area’s housing need. A local authority still has to set its own housing target, after taking account of local constraints, including, of course, the green belt, and plan for the right mix of housing type and tenure and in the right places.
My hon. Friend asked me to confirm, as I can, that the use of the standard method in plan making is not mandatory. If it is felt that circumstances warrant an alternative approach to using the standard method, a local authority can put it forward for examination as part of its local plan, although that comes with the caveat that it will be scrutinised closely. Last year, we improved the standard method further, which resulted in an uplifting of the previous figure by 35% in our 20 most populated urban areas, a further move to support a brownfield-first, regeneration-led approach to development.
That enables us to plan for enough homes in a way that maximises the use of existing infrastructure and supports development that is close to shops, schools, local services and good transport connections, and reduces the need for long journeys by car. It will also help drive the regeneration of our high streets, while levelling up our town and city centres across the country.
I thank my hon. Friend for raising this issue today. To raise our sights a bit, the main purpose of the green belt is to ensure that our towns and cities grow in a sustainable way. In the lead-up to the UN climate change conference—COP26—the enormous potential of the green belt and other greenfield land is very visible, helping to support climate change resilience, as part of our green infrastructure, and as an aid to help the natural world to grow and recover. That makes it all the more important for communities to be able to engage with the planning process, making full use of the new digital tools available, to ensure that councillors and planning authorities make the right decisions when they come to balance homes and jobs with protecting our precious countryside for future generations to come.
Question put and agreed to.
Before we begin, I encourage Members to wear masks when they are not speaking, in line with current Government and House of Commons Commission guidance. Please also give one another and members of staff space when seated and when entering and leaving the room. You will all have seen that it is a very heavily subscribed debate, so I will impose a time limit. Janet Daby will move the motion.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered support for UK high streets.
It is a pleasure to serve under you as Chair, Ms Nokes.
I am grateful to be granted today’s debate at a time when the UK’s high streets are collapsing. They are collapsing under the weight of pandemic closures and unreasonable taxation. Shopkeepers, their staff and customers alike are experiencing a poorer standard of living. They need the Minister to step up and promise to give them the support that they need. They need to be able to breathe a sigh of relief after 19 months of uncertainty and fear. They need to believe that things can indeed get better.
We all have memories of our favourite shops when we were younger—I know I do—whether a favourite bakery, sweet shop or joke shop. However, sadly, many of those places are no longer around for my children to enjoy. Some of the most iconic, big-name retailers even of the last decade have vanished from our high streets: Woolworths, British Home Stores, Debenhams and Littlewoods all spring to mind.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing today’s debate. Over the past few years, as the hon. Lady has said, we have seen an increase in businesses moving away from physical retail space to an online model. The move has benefited retailers at the top levels of their companies, as it comes with associated savings in areas such as business rates or, for us Scots, non-domestic rates. Such moves, however, have a heavy impact on local communities: fewer jobs, for example, or a lack of accessibility.
I thank the hon. Member for a really important and significant intervention. All the points that she has mentioned are very pertinent. There is a lot that the Government could do to make improvements.
Even big household names could not operate under the Conservative Government’s business rates. No one 20 years ago would have been able to fathom the end of Topshop—never mind the collapse of the entire Arcadia empire, leading to over 700 job losses and units being left to decay. The growth of online retail has slashed footfall in high streets and town centres, benefiting online giants like ASOS and Amazon and crushing local independents. There is still no commitment from the Government to an online sales tax, which would level the playing field. While major online businesses pay only nominal taxes, bricks-and-mortar small businesses are taxed into extinction. How can the Minister justify that?
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. I have been in the House a long time. In 1981, Mrs Thatcher introduced a windfall-profit tax on the banks. Is my hon. Friend thinking of a similar windfall-profit tax on the people who have profited in the covid years, to get them to pay proper levels of tax to invest in our local communities?
I was in primary school at the time that my hon. Friend Gentleman mentions, but I thank him for the intervention. We need a fair tax system, and I will address that in my speech.
I see the effects of the system of business taxation play out in my constituency of Lewisham East. Taxation is simply too high for small and medium-sized enterprises, especially after an insurmountable fall in revenue since March 2020. The current system of business taxation is outdated and unfair. It punishes small businesses aspiring to serve local communities and allows online empires to grow only stronger. In 2019, it was estimated that the eight largest tech companies operating in the UK avoided a combined total of £1.5 billion in tax.
A House of Commons public survey found concerns for our high street and ideas for improvement. Clair said that
“it’s sad to see so many town centres looking deserted, as many shops have been forced to close due to rents and rates.”
“There are empty units which make the town look dead”.
Nobody wants a dead town. Jags was concerned about antisocial behaviour rising on high streets when shops are boarded up. When asked what the Government could do to turn around prospects for high street businesses, Jane simply said:
“Slash taxes for small businesses. Make it worth our while to work the hours we do.”
I agree and Labour agrees.
We need a Government who demonstrate that they are pro-workers and pro-business. A review of all tax breaks needs to happen. The Government need to be serious about investing in a sustainable way that allows home-grown businesses to flourish and ensures the best value for the taxpayer. The local high street is for leisure, but for some it is a lifeline. Almost half of the people living in London use their local area daily. My constituents rely on local shops. They do not want to have to do a laborious journey on public transport or drive through busy London to run their errands. This applies especially to those living with disabilities or pushing prams, or to elderly people struggling with walkers. Why should their lives become more difficult when people wish to shop local and local people wish to work local?
It is not just a problem in cities. High streets that are a centre point for towns across the country are being neglected. A thriving high street can be a source of great pride and a declining one can be shameful. When an area is in decline, property prices fall, the young professionals move out of the area and the local environment begins to decay. We see poverty intensifying and becoming more visible.
The recent trend of high-street bank closures is especially concerning. According to the House of Commons Library, in the past nine years almost 40% of high-street bank branches have closed their doors. In the year between March 2020 and March 2021, 700 branches have closed. That is staggeringly high. I can see the effects in my constituency. The Catford HSBC branch always has queues going out the door, yet it is due to close, which is absurd. The branch is needed because not everyone can adapt easily to online banking. Not everyone has broadband or the support to make the transition to online. It excludes a huge swathe of vulnerable people. All of those customers now need to go into the centre of Lewisham, adding pressure to that branch. A branch of Barclays in the area has already closed. I wonder why the Minister thinks this trend is developing and whether he agrees with it. Will he support my call for HSBC to reconsider this closure?
We should not expect the general public to be comfortable with doing everything online. Local places closing means familiar and trusted people and services are disappearing. It also deprives people of those small moments of human contact, which may seem like nothing to one person, but to another are the tipping point into social isolation. It is essential to people’s wellbeing that in-person services continue. I would be grateful to hear from the Minister what can be done.
While I want to focus today on the burden that the Government’s tax rates place on our struggling businesses, we cannot ignore the impact of the shortage of HGV drivers on our high streets. This is a Brexit-induced crisis that was completely foreseeable. Coupled with the lack of workers to tend to our crops and farm animals, shops have experienced dire product levels on their shelves. High-street cash and carries are struggling to serve their customers. We are also hearing reports of pressure building towards Christmas. When it comes to Christmas, we know it is serious. Most British households want a turkey—I want a turkey—but not every family that wants one will get one, and that is the headline. This comes at the same time as the shocking news of a labour shortage, meaning that pigs are being slaughtered and their meat is unsellable. We all need supply chains freed up and workers trained up so that the embarrassing lack of stocks can be resolved and a Christmas dinner crisis averted.
The Mayor of London has put vision into action to inject new life into our high streets. He is creating vibrant shopfronts for vacant properties, supporting start-ups and keeping the streets clean and appealing. However, there is only so much that local leaders can do. We need a Government to show up and show that they back businesses, workers and communities.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Nokes, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Lewisham East (Janet Daby) on securing this debate. I am fortunate enough to represent a number of thriving towns and high streets across my constituency of Truro and Falmouth. Recently, I was delighted and proud to see Truro jump an incredible 72 places to be named one of the best high streets of 2021, despite the coronavirus pandemic. That means that our little city has had a vitality ranking that beats the likes of Brighton, York, Exeter, Oxford and Taunton—all those having exceptional high streets.
Within my constituency I have two high streets that benefit from business improvement districts: Truro and Falmouth. Both have exceptional teams and are worth their weight in gold. Both of the BIDs do so much for the high street businesses and for the shoppers. High streets have struggled, but the BIDs do everything that they can to keep it lively, thriving and pretty. For example, if there is an empty unit on the high street, they are on the scene to cover it over with bright and helpful graphics. Their branding is second to none, particularly in Falmouth, and they did Cornwall proud during the G7 summit earlier this year when it was showcased by the world’s media. I put on record my thanks to the BIDs of Truro, Falmouth and Newham.
As we emerge from the pandemic and the high streets bounce back, the reopening high streets safely fund and the welcome back fund have proven to be instrumental. In Truro, we are currently going through our towns fund process, where an injection of £23.6 million is set to regenerate and transform the city centre. That will be huge for the high street, and will help to reconnect Truro with its water.
As I mention the towns fund, I would also like to make an appeal to the Department and to the Minister, as I look forward to further details being released about the next tranche of the towns deal so that I can lobby, making a similar case for Falmouth.
The hon. Lady is making a very good speech, but she may not know that in my constituency we declared Huddersfield a sustainable town and a sustainable community under the United Nations sustainable development goals. We are building a network of 500 towns and cities; would the hon. Lady consider taking the message back to her communities that we would love to work in partnership with her?
I am very happy to take that message back, and hopefully we can connect—I think that is very useful. Falmouth is a town that often gets overlooked because of how well it does with the limited resources it has. A towns fund deal for the port of Falmouth, which is the gateway to the Atlantic, would absolutely unleash this town’s potential. Falmouth’s bid is already leading by example; their proactive engagement tools have supported a brilliantly diverse business events and engagements scene, and have welcomed the regional leads for the south-west in for bids. I would encourage the Department to look closely at the Falmouth bid as a case study for a thriving high street. There needs to be much greater representation on rural and coastal issues pertaining to high streets at the central debating table. On too many occasions, the debate is dominated by the captains of large businesses and of large urban areas, and the points of micro, independent and small businesses in this landscape are largely missed. The high streets taskforce is a good example, as Cornwall has absolutely no representation on it.
During the pandemic the high street had to adapt. In both Truro and Falmouth al fresco dining became the norm, allowing local bars and restaurants to make use of public open spaces to host punters, and continue to deliver a quality service and product. The red tape around the legislation on pavement licences, which has been granted an extension to September 2022, must be cut to allow businesses to extend trading space outside their curtilage. In Cornwall that has opened up opportunities for more imaginative place-shaping, ideas for encouraging visitors and greater collaboration between the small business sector and local councils. Falmouth has been on the front foot with this; by liaising proactively with Cornwall Council, car parks, less used pavement spaces and quiet areas have been transformed into al fresco dining and event options. That has helped to support their summer season as we bounce back from covid.
Lastly, in Cornwall our larger towns, like Truro and Falmouth, are picking up big devolution packages—which is fantastic. However, those packages include public services such as car parks and libraries. The House has made excellent progress by, for example, taking away business rates on public toilets, but we can go further than that; I would love to see business rate relief extended to public services such as car parks, libraries and council offices, encouraging them to relocate to our high streets and giving people more of a reason to visit them. I could go on and say much more, particularly about supporting our high streets to make them low-carbon. We must do more to encourage the green transition: there has to be greater guidance, support and investment for green schemes. As it stands, we rely too much on individual businesses to make such changes, and that puts more pressure on them as they tread water on the back of the pandemic, particularly when we take into account listed buildings and conservation areas, as we have seen in Cornwall.
Although I am a green champion, there is much to consider in this complex area. The future of the high street is exciting and I, for one, will continue to champion high streets in this place.
I send my condolences, and those of the people whom I represent in Barnsley, to the family, friends and constituents of Sir David Amess. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms Nokes. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham East (Janet Daby) on securing this important debate.
Our high streets have had a difficult 18 months. As footfall recovers, we need to look more closely at how the impact has been distributed across the country. In Exeter, Aldershot and Reading, for example, at least two-thirds of neighbourhoods are likely to have been able to save through the pandemic. That is true for fewer than 25% of neighbourhoods in Hull, Blackpool and Barnsley, however. That will have a real impact on consumers’ ability to spend money in their local economy. In reality, the pandemic has hit poorer areas harder, and we need to consider how we address that.
The demise of our high streets did not begin with covid, but with a decade of austerity. Over the last 10 years, 10,000 shops, 6,000 pubs, 7,500 banks and more than 1,100 libraries have closed. That is felt particularly acutely in semi-rural areas such as the one I represent in Barnsley East. I represent a collection of towns and villages around the centre of Barnsley that do not benefit from a strong local transport network, so the closure of the local bank or library has a huge impact on the local community. We need to ensure that we reverse those figures and do not allow the continued demise of the high street.
In the last year alone 180,000 retail jobs have been lost, and 200,000 more are at risk this year. We need to look at bringing empty commercial properties back into use for new and existing businesses. We need to level the playing field between high-street and online businesses, because the tax system, which was mentioned earlier, is simply not equal. We need to promote entrepreneurship and innovation on our high streets so that they reflect the needs of our local communities.
The challenge faced by our high streets is a good example of why the concept of levelling up is needed. The problem is that we are yet to see the reality. Barnsley Metropolitan Borough Council has seen some of the worst cuts in the country. The Government talk a good talk about the idea of levelling up poorer communities, but in reality, that is simply not happening. Earlier this year, the Chancellor’s constituency of Richmond (Yorks) was prioritised for funding over Barnsley, and even though Barnsley is more deserving according to every categorisation of need, it did not get funding. We need to make a change to ensure that levelling up is not a slogan, and that we improve our high streets.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Nokes. I thank the hon. Member for Lewisham East (Janet Daby) for securing this important debate.
As chair of the all-party parliamentary group on the future of retail, and as a former “Woolies” worker, this is an issue about which I care passionately. During the pandemic, while many retreated to the safety of their own homes, our retail workers rolled up their sleeves and got on with the job. For that, we owe them a huge debt of gratitude.
The challenges faced by our high streets are not new; we have been debating them for decades. The events of the past year have amplified and accelerated those difficulties. I know that the Treasury threw the kitchen sink at supporting businesses during the pandemic, whether through the furlough scheme, the rates holiday or the grants scheme. Those measures have been a life- line for many businesses in my patch.
The role of our high streets is changing, and to help our town centres adapt and change, the Government have rightly been flooding them with funding, including the future high streets fund, the town deals, the levelling-up fund and any other such schemes. In my part of the world and that of the hon. Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham), Stockton has received £16.5 million of funding to build a high street that is fit for the future; Thornaby has received a £23.9 million town deal that will, among other things, help tear down a defunct hotel that has been an eyesore in the town centre for years; and our levelling-up bid for up to £20 million would help to improve Yarm’s high street. I remain incredibly grateful for that, but there is more to high streets than slick buildings and shiny objects, and that is the businesses that give our high streets a soul.
This afternoon, I met the British Retail Consortium and the CEOs of a huge number of retailers. The biggest single issue raised, which is life or death for many stores in our high streets, was business rates: 83% of retailers feel that they are likely to close stores in the near future if the burden of business rates is not reduced. The business rates regime is simply not fit for purpose. Business rates are outdated: they strangle growth and smother investment. They disproportionately whack the retail and hospitality sectors. Retailers account for 5% of the economy but are subject to 25% of all business rates.
We must do more to tackle crime in our high streets and town centres. Last year, there were 455 assaults on shop workers not every month or every week but every single day. That is the young student in their first job or the semi-retired person topping up their income. I am delighted that the Government have recognised the issue and are looking at it, but we need action and we need it now. We must do more. Many in the retail and hospitality sector are innovative and optimistic. They are ready to meet the challenges of the 21st century, to grow, to provide jobs and to breathe life into our town centres. They can only do that if the Government reduce the burden of business rates, ensure that retail crime is tackled and support innovation in the sector.
It is a pleasure to serve under you, Ms Nokes.
We need recovery and reform. Anyone who has been to York will know that our high street offer is incredible, yet now, like elsewhere, we are battling empty shops, labour shortages, logistic challenges and offshore landlords more interested in the financial portfolio generated from their property ownership than invested in their high street. This perfect storm sucks the life out of not only our communities but local finances.
With changes to the system, life can be brought back to our urban cores. A few pleas from my local businesses: we need to move away from a property-based tax––I am glad that that is echoed across the House––and build one predicated around profit or turnover. York’s extortionate property prices make business rates unsustainable. Businesses are also calling for the reduction in VAT to be sustained. Recovery takes time and when your high street is dependent on the visitor economy and the visitor economy is dependent on the high street, time to recover is needed.
Currently, venues are shutting part-time due to labour shortages and less demand, each compromising the other. In summing up, will the Minister say what discussions he has had about introducing the youth mobility visa for EU citizens so that labour supply can continue? In York, labour vacancies are up 10% from August, with 3,400 jobs needing filling. Skill shortages are hitting York’s offer.
We do not just want recovery; we want reform. The hope lies in indie York: 65% of York’s retail offer is by independents. The challenge is that the retail space vacated by the big chains occupies 9.3% of the city. We need these large empty spaces repurposed for independent social enterprises and what Labour in York has envisaged: a family-friendly York. A family-friendly York demands reform. Since being elected, I have campaigned for York to be a family-friendly city. Local families do not visit: it is too expensive, with too few child-friendly spaces, unless you have the means to pay, and too few public toilets. Worse, the night-time economy clashes with the day, so parents simply do not want their children to come into town.
Imagine Government steering local authorities to become family-friendly places where children can play and parents can relax. Urban95 or the UN child friendly cities initiative can drive this. It is good for families, good for economies and good for our environment. York is perfect for that. Imagine safe routes in, so that children can enjoy the journey and the destination. Imagine the urban landscape designed for children and families. Imagine no hen and stag as they are planned out. Imagine spaces to play, explore, learn and create. York Explore, our libraries, have their Lego tables and cafes. York Museums Trust, now with free entry, has created spaces. York Archaeological Trust is launching digs for families to learn together. We have churches, empty shops, and even Parliament Street, just waiting to hear the laughter of children and welcome families. I trust that the Government will look at family-friendly York as an example of how we can really invest in the future generation and the future of our high streets.
It is a pleasure to serve under your watchful chairmanship, Ms Nokes. I must first put on record how brilliant my local businesses across Hyndburn and Haslingden are—I have had the pleasure of visiting quite a few of them in my campaign to shop local—but there is no doubt that our high streets have struggled.
The decline of high streets across the country in the last few decades is well documented. As our shopping habits have changed, first towards shopping at supermarkets and megastores, and then online, many of our high streets and their small shops have been repeatedly battered by the headwinds.
In my part of the world, beautiful Lancashire, the decline of the high street has been felt particularly hard by local people. Many of our high streets, which used to teem with independent stores, have been unable to innovate with the new reality, and have become shells of their former selves. In some places, charity and betting shops are now the most numerous, while other shops sit empty or change hands frequently. Along with that loss of amenity, the decline in our high streets has been enhanced by an equal loss of civic pride by some.
We now stand at a crossroads. Down one path lies a continuing decline of high streets and the inevitable conversion of many shops into flats or houses. That will be an acceptance that there is simply nothing that we can do but manage the decline and death of our high streets. The other path leads to a new, innovative model for the high streets, which sees them thriving once again. It is down that second path that I believe the Government are heading.
I know that today’s motion states,
“That this House has considered support for UK high streets”,
but that is incomplete. A more appropriate motion would be, “That this House has considered support for UK high streets and the effort and investment made by this Government in saving them”, for that is a reality.
I have witnessed, all too much, how my Labour councils have let down and ignored my high streets and town centres. We need to review the support that has been given to local councils. There is the £3.6 billion towns fund, including a £1 billion pledge for the future high streets fund, £4.8 billion across the country in the levelling-up fund, the coronavirus job retention scheme and business interruption loan scheme, bounce back loans, business grants, the establishment of a retail sector council and a high streets task force to provide expert advice to adapt and thrive. That is just a snapshot. There are many other measures, such as business rates relief retail discounts, that I have not even mentioned.
I am confident that, when we get to the spending review, even more will be announced by the Chancellor to help businesses and our high streets. When people ask me what levelling up is, in practical terms, this is it. In my area of Hyndburn and Haslingden, these packages of support are having a real impact. I have been working with Hyndburn Council to prepare a levelling-up fund application to regenerate our town centres. That will translate into real improvement on the ground, felt by shoppers, shopkeepers, and visitors to our towns. I hope that bid will be looked on favourably.
However, it is not just about the money. To me, levelling up and supporting our high streets means supporting them to change their thinking, giving businesses the tools and support to innovate and embed a culture of enterprise, new thinking and competition to challenge the online retailers. To help with that, I have lobbied hard for Hyndburn Council to employ an economic development officer to support businesses. That has finally been accepted. With that post now in place, we have someone at the council dedicated to supporting our local businesses and high streets. That is vitally important.
Equally important is restoring the sense of civic pride and community responsibility for our high streets and town centres. It is vital that we combine localism and levelling up to take advantage of the investment and help from Government to restore civic pride and create unique and vibrant high streets that people choose as their destination, rather than always just clicking a mouse.
I thank the hon. Member for Lewisham East (Janet Daby) for securing this debate. It is a great opportunity for us all to highlight our amazing local high streets.
The last debate that I led in this place, back in March 2020 before the pandemic, was on the impact of bank branch closures on the high street. Town centres were already struggling to remain vibrant in the face of changing shopping habits, reduced services and falling footfall. Nobody could have predicted the covid tsunami that they were about to face, making tackling those challenges far more urgent. Sir John Timpson, who led the high streets experts panel in 2018, said that we have seen 10 years of change in one go, with all the negatives but without the positives. It has been absolutely brutal, with well-kent names falling like dominoes and nothing to replace them.
As spending on online retailers accelerates, whatever plans we have to boost the high streets need to be turbocharged—something that maybe one of Jeff Bezos’s rockets could help with. It matters for the spirit and quality of our towns, but it is also important for our covid recovery. We know that money spent locally in high streets is money that stays in the local economy and is not left to languish in some offshore tax haven.
There is a need to level the playing field. I welcome one measure being explored by the Scottish Government—the possibility of a national digital sales tax, which would be well worth exploration much wider afield. Much work needed on support for high streets is, rightly, devolved—the more local the better, for finding solutions that work for any given town.
Scotland’s share of any funding pot for town centre regeneration must be devolved to the Scottish Government, so that they can pursue their well-considered plans. These measures include the town centre action plan, the “Scotland Loves Local” campaign and the focus on developing more 20-minute neighbourhoods—liveable, accessible places where people can meet their needs within a 20-minute walk. Direct funding, as this Government seem so increasingly keen to pursue, reduces the impact and cohesiveness of that kind of work, muddying the field to no one’s benefit. We need much more local decision making.
Although our high streets must evolve and adapt, the good news is that we see many towns successfully bucking trends and local businesses thriving, but in a time of crisis, we need decisive action, support and strong local leadership. Above all, finding the best way forward must involve the community. There is not a one-size-fits-all solution, as every town will have its own unique history and its own strengths and traditions. Communities must be consulted meaningfully and involved in plans at every stage. We need leadership from ourselves and from our local councils.
In my local area, in Penicuik, we have seen local leadership driving forward the business improvement district, which has been highly successful. We have seen a real change in that community over recent years, although there is much still be done. In the county town of Midlothian, Dalkeith—as a former council leader, I should declare an interest—we had a vision when I was council leader. I used to have meetings in the office. People would come into Midlothian House and would look out the window at the centre of Dalkeith and everyone would pretty much say, “Is there not something we can do about that?” We eventually said, “Yes, let’s do something about it. Let us start with a blank sheet of paper.” We started looking into feasibility studies. Unfortunately, it was opposed by the opposition at the time. Subsequent to the change of administration after the 2017 council elections in Scotland, those plans were effectively burned. The importance of looking at what we can do now is even more critical.
The town centre in Dalkeith has been neglected for years and urgently needs a clear plan to support its regeneration. Instead, something that resembles a dog’s dinner is being taken forward by the current council. Ideas have been developed by a local community group, One Dalkeith, which has genuinely reached out to the local community to engage and to take on board its thoughts and views. I urge the council to look back at what the community wants to see happening, rather than following through on its current plans to abandon Dalkeith by closing all the council offices there, in a move that would ultimately devastate the town centre.
Midlothian is a fantastic place. It is little wonder that it is one of the fastest growing parts of Scotland, if not the fastest growing. We need more homes—that is absolutely true—but we also need proper consideration of public spaces and facilities and the needs of our communities. The energy and talent of people who live and work in our communities must be harnessed as we rebuild, to make sure that our town centres and our communities can continue to thrive.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Nokes. I thank the hon. Member for Lewisham East (Janet Daby) for bringing forward this important debate. The hon. Member for Midlothian (Owen Thompson) has said something of the Scottish context, and it is within that context that I address my first remarks. What happens when it comes to our high streets in Scotland is largely the responsibility of the Scottish Government. My party and I are keen on a policy that tackles the impact of non-domestic or business rates, as mentioned by the hon. Member for Stockton South (Matt Vickers). These charges are making high street businesses simply not competitive with online ways of buying and selling.
Under devolved powers, rates could be reduced dramatically or abolished altogether for particular forms of retail businesses on our high streets. The Scottish Government set the business rates for businesses centrally and we know the rates are an incredibly important income for Scottish councils. If they were unilaterally got rid of or reduced, Scottish councils would face a terrible funding problem. In the Scottish context, I suggest there should be a discussion between the Scottish Government and the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities. That could be echoed in the UK context, with a discussion between Her Majesty’s Government and the Local Government Association. There is genuine potential here.
As the hon. Member for Midlothian very wisely said, the income generated in our town centres is, in turn, spent in our town centres. It is banked in those town centres. In the highlands, we rely greatly on our tourism product. If town and village centres in the highlands are looking decrepit, run down or full of empty properties, frankly the tourists will not be enthused by that.
I had an alarming email today. Although it is not about a matter that is a direct responsibility of the Minister, I will share it. It is from Mr Andrew Mackay, the owner of three hotels in Caithness: The Norseman in Wick, The Pentland in Thurso and The Castletown in Castletown. Last year, his electricity costs for these three high street hotels were £76,764. In September, he had a quote that increased the cost of that electricity by £25,000, which is 33%. Today, he had a quote of an increase of £53,000, which is a 70% increase. Can you believe that, Ms Nokes? That takes his electricity bill for those three important town centre businesses from £76,764 a year to £130,000. He is faced with a problem that he does not know how he will cope with.
In fairness, that matter is not the Minister’s responsibility, but I will be writing to Her Majesty’s Treasury to say that we have a huge problem. We need to park party politics on this subject completely and utterly, because this is about power and the cost of power. If that is happening in my constituency, in a remote part of the highlands, it could be happening in constituencies all over the UK. We have to be very careful about this; it is a serious issue. One has unwelcome emails from time to time; this was one for me today.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Nokes. I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham East (Janet Daby) on securing the debate.
Our high streets, the beating hearts of our neighbourhoods, are in danger, threatened by low footfall, an outdated model for business rates, the impact out out-of-town and online shopping and a Government who have failed to tackle the growing crisis. Against that challenging backdrop, I have a small kernel of hope to share, thanks to the visionary work of our Labour-led Stockton council and the odd handout from the Government as well.
To quote my good friend, Councillor Nigel Cooke:
“This is an existential threat we are facing. If people are not coming into town to shop at Debenhams because there is no Debenhams, there is no Marks & Spencer and so on, what are they going to come in to do?...You have to be proactive and have some ambition.”
Fortunately, Stockton council has ambition in bucketloads. It has bought the old Castlegate shopping centre so that it can be torn down, opening up space in the town centre to build a vast urban park, a library and a leisure centre, linking Stockton town centre with the beautiful waterfront of the River Tees.
I agree and I am sure the hon. Gentleman is about to tell us that it is a great thing that the Globe is reopening and coming back to the old high street, but would it not have been better if it had opened in 2012 and cost £4 million rather than opening this year and costing the best part of £30 million? Public money needs to be well spent.
Public money does need to be well spent, and it was not exactly all public money that went to it, but that is another matter. I will not have anyone talking down my town and the ambition of our local council. The Globe is one of the finest art deco theatres in the country, and it has hosted everyone from the Beatles to Stevie Wonder—I know that appeals to my generation, rather than to some of the younger Members here. It has been refurbished and reopened, and it is the biggest venue between Newcastle and Leeds, so all the big acts are now following us into town.
Just a couple of weeks ago I visited Drake the bookshop to support Bookshop Day. Thanks to Stockton’s ambition, the bookshop has been able to expand. The council’s vision puts the wellbeing of our constituents at its heart, with the focus on supporting events, green space and independent shops more than paying off. Other local authorities are now knocking on Stockton’s door for the blueprints. Even Tory Ministers come to Stockton to see how it is done.
However, councils cannot be left to do it on their own. They should not have to spend so much time bidding to centralised funding pots. The administration of the £3.6 billion towns fund, for instance, still causes me serious concern. I can understand why Billingham in my constituency was deemed to be in greater need than Tory MPs’ towns, but I cannot understand why it has missed out.
No, I will not give way.
Many of the people who actually make our high streets great are crying out for urgent business reform, which is something the hon. Member for Stockton South (Matt Vickers) and I very much agree on. Again, here Labour has the necessary vision that the Government lack. Labour would scrap business rates altogether, and in the meantime we would freeze them and extend the threshold for small business rates relief next year. Labour would pay for these measures by increasing the UK digital services tax to 12%, making a more level playing field between online and bricks-and-mortar shops. There are solutions out there to make radical change, and I would be very pleased to show the Minister around my home town of Stockton so that he can see how it is done.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate. I thank the hon. Member for Lewisham East (Janet Daby) for leading the debate, and I thank Members for the incredible contributions that have been made. It will come as no surprise that I wish to speak on behalf of my constituency, and indeed my home town of Newtownards. I am sure that the Minister is very keen to get over and have a look around. The previous Minister, the hon. Member for Rochester and Strood (Kelly Tolhurst), visited Newtownards and was greatly impressed by what she saw.
This is a much-needed debate, given the impact of the past 18 months on our high streets. Many sections of society have suffered and seen financial losses, and unfortunately our local high streets most certainly fall into that category. I warmly welcome any action to help our local shops. Topshop, Thomas Cook, Peacocks and Edinburgh Woollen Mill are just a few examples of the companies that have gone into administration, and indeed the latter two had branches in my constituency. I am pleased to say that we have been able to fill those gaps and retain our position as a high street that many people want to come and see. It is full of independent shops and family businesses. It has an array of shops that many people wish to visit, and they will keep coming back.
It has been noted that over 726,000 people have lost their job since the start of the pandemic. Many people have become a little too handy with online shopping, and they forget about the jobs that are lost as a result. I know that the Government have set out a strategic plan for how we can move forward. The Government are also committed to the levelling-up process, and I have asked the Minister many questions about that in the Chamber. They are very keen to ensure that the process happens not only down here in the south of England, or even in the north of England, but across the whole United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and it should do because that is what we wish to see.
I will take a moment to talk about what we are doing back home in Northern Ireland to help our high streets. I hope that others can take note and discuss similar schemes. The Economy Minister, Gordon Lyons, who is responsible for enterprise, trade and industry, has introduced the “Spend Local” voucher scheme, allowing those over 18 to apply for pre-paid cards worth £100, which must be spent on the high street and not online. So we go out of our house, walk down the path and spend the money on the high street. People are allowed to use this in shops on the high street and across the whole constituency, so I hope that those cards will be used in shops that have struggled throughout the pandemic and I greatly welcome the step taken by the Minister in Northern Ireland. It is my understanding that some people have already started using their cards. A lady came into the office the other week and she was one of the first ones, with card number 2,011—there are potentially cards for 1.3 million people. It is quite a massive scheme.
My office has helped many elderly people register for their cards and has encouraged them to shop locally on our high street. The money was designed to rejuvenate the independent businesswoman who has taken a hammering in the last year and I am excited to see the dividends of the scheme, which will remind people of the joy of spending locally, and to see local people putting their money back into our economy rather than into Amazon’s offshore tax havens, which grieves me greatly. Get it back into the high street, get it back into the local shops and make sure that happens.
In my constituency of Strangford, Newtownards won high street of the year 2020—a brilliant achievement given the challenging times. We have a fantastic high street, which needs support from the Government locally in the Northern Ireland Assembly. It is not the Minister’s responsibility, but we have been able to do something very specific and helpful and he may wish to comment on that. People’s livelihoods and jobs depend on this and we must do more to encourage people to spend in our local high streets as opposed to online. Whether that is through retail, travel, hospitality, theatre and so much more, it is crucial that our local businesses know we are there for them and they have our full support.
I also welcome the Government’s levelling-up agenda, which is set to answer the plea of left-behind towns. The strategy also aims to invest more finance in cities, towns and rural areas and give businesses more scope as to how investment is made. When the Minister sums up, I look forward to hearing how he can help high streets through the levelling-up process across the whole of this great United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and provide the reassurance that the Government will do all they can to get our high streets back up and running, and introduce schemes to allow them to diversify and do what some of my local shops have done and set up parallel online shops based in the high street. That has happened on several occasions in the past year. I think there is a dual method. We want to see people back on the high street and the footprint again. When we see that and people spending their money, the shops will rejuvenate. That is what I would love to see. In our town, we have that—thank the Lord for it—but I look forward to hearing what the Minister says.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Ms Nokes. I thank the hon. Member for Lewisham East (Janet Daby) for bringing the debate to the Chamber and all hon. Members who have contributed for championing their local places. I have certainly picked up a few more places that I would like to visit. The play that the hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) mentioned certainly has a lot of appeal for me with my family. I am sure they would enjoy coming to that. The hon. Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham) spoke so passionately that he could not help but sell his city, which is also going on the list of places to visit in the holidays.
I am sure that all hon. Members will be visiting my constituency very soon when they come to COP26, which is being held in Glasgow Central. Many of the local businesses in Glasgow Central are a bit nervous about that and about the road closures and the disruption that may be caused within the city. So that is all the more encouragement for hon. Members, when they come to Glasgow Central in a few weeks, to go out and spend their money in the local high streets round about. Finnieston is on the doorstep of the SEC complex, with many excellent independent shops and restaurants where it will be easy enough for hon. Members to spend money. Lots of local high streets in Glasgow have seen an uptick in visitors, as people have stayed more at home in the pandemic and have not been travelling, either further away to other parts of the UK or into the city centre.
Of course, there is a different challenge for city centres and how they rejuvenate after covid, having lost many big shops such as Debenhams, which is a huge retail space in Glasgow city centre. It is now a challenge for all of us to decide how to refill those spaces and rejuvenate the city centre. I am glad that Glasgow city council has a strong city centre strategy that looks to bring people back in to live in our city, but we need the services that come with that as well—the schools, the nurseries, the access to medical services and all those local things that make a community a home. That, and how we make it work properly, is the challenge for all of us at the moment.
I am glad to see that part of the city centre that has long been neglected—the historic High Street of Glasgow, the heart of Glasgow—has its own high street action plan. If anyone happens to be in Glasgow this weekend, ‘Mon The High Street Day is a series of events down Saltmarket and the High Street to promote that historic part of the city and see it come back to life. But there needs to be a whole strategy and approach to make sure that that can happen in each of our towns and cities. It will not happen on its own; it needs a wider framework.
Some of that is about changing how we move around our cities—getting people cycling and walking rather than driving through. Govanhill and Victoria Road have recently had cycle lanes installed. Some traders were upset about the loss of parking spaces but actually it has allowed businesses such as the Transylvania café to offer food and music, so people stop, stay and spend their money. We need to reimagine how those spaces in our towns and cities work to encourage people to stay and enjoy them, because it is about more than just retail.
The SNP supports the digital sales tax; for many years we have had the small business bonus scheme, which has removed many businesses from the business rates system, allowing them to start up, develop and grow their businesses. We are very keen on the 20-minute neighbourhood solution, which will allow many people to use their neighbourhoods more. All that is seen in the wider economic context. My hon. Friend the Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross was quite right to point out the impact on businesses of increased electricity and gas bills. I was speaking to the Federation of Small Businesses just today about that. The FSB is looking for support from the Government in the coming Budget not just for individuals, for whom this is very serious for heating and eating, but for businesses, which need to be able to open their doors, produce the materials that they sell and operate their businesses on our high street. They face a very difficult winter and need all the support they can have.
The Government have the opportunity to keep the VAT reduction. They reduced VAT during covid but many businesses in tourism and hospitality did not get the benefit because they were closed. If the Government keep the reduction rather than increase VAT, that would boost our hospitality and tourism sector. I will also make a plug for an issue close to your heart, Ms Nokes, of adding the beauty and hairdressing sector, because it could do with that VAT boost to bring people into towns and cities.
We have seen the £20 universal credit cut, which will take money out of local people’s pockets and out of their high streets. The national insurance rise is a tax on jobs, too. I challenge the Minister to respond to those issues, to help out the high streets and to make sure that people have money to spend in their local shops this winter.
It is a pleasure to speak under your chairship, Ms Nokes. I warmly congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham East (Janet Daby) on securing this debate and on setting out so powerfully the impact of online retailers on high streets and the lack of a level playing field. It was a pleasure to hear from my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley East (Stephanie Peacock) about the long-term challenges that high streets have been facing since before the pandemic. My hon. Friend the Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) spoke about pleas from her local businesses to change the taxation system, and my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham) spoke with great passion about his local independent shops and the work of his local Labour council.
Members from all parts of the House have spoken about the personal importance of their local high streets, and I will not be any different. The high streets in my constituency are at the heart of our communities. The people I represent value and benefit from the shops at Oldfields Circus, Greenford Broadway and Greenford Avenue, to name but a few; and Pitshanger Lane, which deservedly won the title of London’s best high street at the Great British High Street competition in 2015, is home to more than 50 independent traders. The chair of the local traders association, John Martin, is a tireless advocate for them and high streets across Ealing and beyond.
As we have heard here and I am sure Members in the main Chamber are making clear as we speak, the health and vitality of our high streets is worth fighting for, but the Government are ignoring pleas from many high streets across the country for the support they need to thrive, and in some cases, simply to survive. High street businesses and those who work in them need the Government to act. As USDAW has made clear, that is crucial to those working in high street retail, who have experienced job insecurity for some time, only made worse by the covid-19 pandemic. USDAW has called for an urgent recovery plan for the retail sector that involves Government, retailers and workplace representatives working together to address the structural challenges facing the sector. It is absolutely right to make it clear that a key part of any plan must be fundamental reform of the system of business rates.
It should serve as an urgent call to action for this Government that the British Retail Consortium’s retailer survey found that business rates were a factor behind two in three store closures in the last two years. While high-street stores are feeling the burden of business rates, their online competitors, which typically pay far lower business rates on their warehouses, have seen their profits boom, especially during the pandemic. The current system of business rates is simply not fit for the 21st century. It punishes investment and entrepreneurship and it hits the high street.
We thought that the Conservatives might have realised this, as their manifesto at the last election promised that they would
“cut the burden of tax on businesses by reducing business rates.”
They promised that that would be done via “fundamental reform” of the system, yet we read reports in the newspapers that the Chancellor has been too busy to pursue a business rates review. Rumours abound that the Government may even abandon the promise of a fundamental review of business rates altogether, so I would welcome the Minister taking this opportunity to quash those rumours. I urge him to confirm that the review of business rates is still going ahead, that its conclusions will include proposals for fundamental changes, and that those changes will be announced in the coming weeks.
We need that change because the business rates system is antiquated and not fit for the current economy. That is why, as my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves), the shadow Chancellor, has set out, if we were in government today, as an intermediary step we would freeze business rates until the next revaluation, benefiting sectors such as retail and hospitality that are hit the most by this tax. We would raise the threshold for small business rate relief to give small businesses a discount on their business rates bills for 2022-23, ahead of more fundamental reform, and pay for that in the short term by increasing the digital services tax to 12% for one year and, in the longer term, with a higher global minimum rate of corporate tax for large multi- nationals.
Beyond that, a Labour Government would scrap business rates and introduce a new system that would incentivise investment, promote entrepreneurship and reward businesses that move into empty premises—and yes, it would involve large online tech giants contributing more. Both the immediate support we propose and our approach to fundamental reform would shift the burden of business tax towards the online giants. It would target the greatest support at high-street businesses that need it most, and it would support jobs for people across our country. That is what it looks like to tax fairly, spend wisely and get the economy firing on all cylinders, and that is what our high streets need.
It is a huge pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Nokes. I congratulate the hon. Member for Lewisham East (Janet Daby) on securing this debate on the future of our high streets. I thank her for speaking so passionately on behalf of our constituents. I strongly agree with her comments about the importance of our high streets in tackling loneliness and connecting communities.
Without a doubt, the covid pandemic has wrought some heavy blows on both our high streets and our wider economy. As the hon. Member for Midlothian (Owen Thompson) said, changes that were already taking place before the pandemic have been magnified. We have seen profound changes to the way we shop, live and work right across the UK. None the less, we know that our high streets are resilient and adaptable, and we are committed to helping them not just recover but thrive and flourish in the weeks and months ahead.
That is why we have committed unprecedented levels of support and funding for high-street businesses throughout the pandemic—£352 billion in total, to help those negatively impacted by covid-19. That package includes £60 billion of business rates relief, business grants, the coronavirus loan schemes and the coronavirus job retention scheme, which has supported more than 90,000 jobs in Lewisham East, as well as the deferral of income tax payments. Another £2 billion was made available to local authorities in additional restriction grants, with councils encouraged to focus that support on the sectors that remained closed the longest.
Does the Minister think that the Government missed an opportunity when they introduced the plastic bags charge, which has produced millions? We were promised that the money would flow into communities and the regeneration of local towns, so why has most of that money flown into the back pockets of the supermarkets? Why can we not have that money to regenerate local businesses?
I fear that the hon. Gentleman is going to take us on a diversion. The tax has been hugely successful. It has eliminated billions and billions of plastic bags from our planet. We can take some of the other points that he raises offline.
In Lewisham, the support that we have introduced has equated to about £40 million in business grants to small businesses as well as those in the retail, hospitality and leisure sectors. Lewisham council estimates that it will have awarded £55 million in business rate relief to local businesses between March 2019 and March 2022. A further £34 million has been provided to the council in local restriction support grants and Christmas support payments. I am sure that the hon. Member for Lewisham East agrees that that funding was invaluable for businesses during an incredibly difficult 18 months.
Earlier this year, we also announced the £56 million welcome back fund, building on the success of the reopening high streets safely fund, to give people reassurance that they can shop and socialise in a covid-secure way. The hon. Lady is, I am sure, aware that more than £250,000 was awarded to Lewisham council through the welcome back fund. I am delighted that the local authority and businesses themselves have been able to take advantage of that support. My hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth (Cherilyn Mackrory) talked about the benefits it brought in her constituency, too.
That funding has been complemented by a commercial property eviction moratorium, which has now been extended to 25 March 2022, helping high street shops hit hard in recent months to stay afloat and weather the storm. To provide more certainty to tenants and landlords, the Government plan to legislate for a process of binding arbitration, following a call for evidence launched in April and engagement with business owners. The legislation will ringfence debt relief accrued from March 2020 for commercial tenants impacted by covid-19, and it will introduce a system of binding arbitration for landlords and tenants that cannot agree between themselves on agreeing, deferring or waiving rent arrears.
All that adds up to a concerted effort to protect businesses and livelihoods during and after the pandemic. As my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton South (Matt Vickers) said, the Treasury has indeed thrown the kitchen sink at backing our high streets over the past two years. Even before covid-19, however, it is important to stress that the Government had demonstrated their commitment to supporting our high streets to embrace change, to respond to the evolving patterns of consumer demand, to create a vibrant, mixed-use town and city centres, and to drive investment in parts of the country that historically have been underserved.
Our future high streets fund, for example, supports 72 places from Wolverhampton to Woolwich, just down the road from the constituency of the hon. Member for Lewisham East, with a share of more than £830 million. That funding is being used by councils to deliver ambitious plans to regenerate high streets while helping them to recover from the pandemic.
More broadly, our towns fund is supporting 101 places to bring forward schemes to spur growth and to breathe new life into communities, while creating thousands of jobs. We can already see some brilliant examples of how that fund is helping to transform those towns across the country. Southport has turned its old theatre into a convention centre, a state-of-the-art venue, in an attempt to bring in more than 1 million new visitors every year.
Despite being a Huddersfield boy, I cannot take further interventions, because we are pushed for time.
In Worcester, support from our future high streets fund is being used to renovate several iconic and beautiful buildings, including the local corn exchange, driving footfall and preserving the community’s heritage. My hon. Friend the Member for Hyndburn and Haslingden (Sara Britcliffe) also talked about the good that such schemes are doing in her constituency. Those are the kind of transformative projects that hold the key to restoring local pride and laying the foundations for our long-term economic recovery. That is exactly what underpins our levelling-up fund, which will be available to local areas across the UK.
I am afraid I cannot take further interventions as I am a bit pressed for time. I am so sorry.
We will invest £4.8 billion in the levelling-up fund to build the next generation of roads, bridges, railway stations and 5G networks to connect communities and businesses faster than ever before. However, significant though such interventions and all that spending are, I think we all agree that, no matter the scale of Government investment, money alone cannot solve all the problems that businesses on our high streets face.
That is one reason why my Department has recently published the “Build Back Better High Streets” strategy, which has a bold and imaginative vision for the future of our high streets—a future in which businesses and communities have the freedoms and flexibilities to innovate and adapt to a new post-covid world. The strategy forms a key part of the Prime Minister’s plan to level up. It will deliver visible changes to local areas and communities across England, transforming derelict buildings, supporting businesses, cleaning up our streets, improving the public realm and supporting a renewed sense of community pride for future and current generations.
To enable places to adapt and to reinvent their high streets, the strategy builds on some of the earlier planning changes that we have already made. We introduced the temporary permitted development right for moveable structures so that pubs and restaurants could move the indoors outdoors using marquees and canopies. I am sure hon. Members across the UK will have seen the effects of that. We have acted to make it easier to host market stalls, car boot sales and fairs for longer, without needing a planning application. We are consulting on making those changes in relation to marquees and markets permanent.
In 2020, we made a use classes order creating a new class E, which gives businesses the freedom to adapt and reinvent themselves. An office can easily become a café, a shop, health surgery or nursery without requiring planning permission. To support high streets to become places where people shop and spend their leisure time but also live, we have created a new permitted development right that allows the creation of much needed new homes in the hearts of our towns and cities. This right helps to repurpose vacant buildings, avoiding premises being left empty for long periods. Our further permitted development rights allow buildings to be extended upwards to create new homes and the demolition of vacant and redundant shops and offices so that they can be replaced with quality homes right in the hearts of our towns and cities.
I again thank the hon. Member for Lewisham East for her excellent speech and all the other Members who contributed to this excellent debate. The Government remain steadfast in our commitment to help our high streets adapt and thrive as they recover from the pandemic so that they can play their part in levelling up communities across the country. Indeed, my Department, the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, has a fundamental role to play in delivering this agenda. I know that I speak not just for myself but for the whole of our ministerial team in saying that we are committed to working with Members from across the House to create the stronger, fairer, more united kingdom we all want to see as we emerge from the pandemic. We also want to work hand-in-hand with local authorities and businesses to make that vision a reality.
I have not had time to pick up on every point that hon. Members have made or all the excellent projects that they promoted during the debate, but I will be happy to do so offline afterwards. I hope that, together, we can ensure that our high streets remain the beating heart of our communities for generations to come.
I am grateful to everyone who has contributed to today’s debate. Many vital concerns have been raised. The hon. Member for Truro and Falmouth (Cherilyn Mackrory) talked about her thriving high streets, while acknowledging that there have been struggles and the need to improve rural and coastal areas. My hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley East (Stephanie Peacock) talked about the impact of the support that is needed for high streets because the pandemic has affected poorer areas, which cannot be denied, but also about the cuts that her council has experienced and the impact that that has had on her area. Lewisham council has also experienced significant cuts of £200 million since 2010.
The hon. Member for Stockton South (Matt Vickers) spoke about the decades of challenges for high streets and agreed about the need to tackle the outdated business rates regime and crime in high streets where shops have closed down. My hon. Friend the Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) spoke about high streets, closed shops and the need to bring life back to those areas. She spoke passionately about bringing families back into the area; where there are families and children, there is always a lot of spending because children make the wonderful demands that they do.
The hon. Member for Hyndburn (Sara Britcliffe) spoke about the well-documented decline in high streets, which are a shadow of their former selves, and the loss of civic pride. I hope that those areas win the levelling-up funding they have bid for. The hon. Member for Midlothian (Owen Thompson) spoke about bank closures and said that money spent locally stays locally; I could not agree more. The hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Jamie Stone) also spoke about money needing to be spent locally; more significantly, he spoke about the astounding increase in electricity bills that hotels have received and how that desperately needs to be addressed. Again, I could not agree more.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham) spoke about his excellent Labour council and the ambitious urban park development that is going on there—all gratitude to the council. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) spoke about how high streets have suffered and how unemployment has increased. The hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss), whose area I know quite well, spoke about the loss of many big shops, but is confident that the city has a strong strategy for improvement.
There has been much agreement in the Chamber on many of the issues that I and others have raised, and we agree there is a need for the decline not to spiral out of control. The BBC reported that, in the first six months of this year, about 50 shops were closing every single day on our high streets. I sincerely hope that, when the statistics come in for the second half of this year, the circumstances will have changed.
I had hoped to hear the Minister talk about business rates and the review of business rates. That theme was very obvious in many of the speeches and in the questions that were asked. I hope that he will return to his Department and review this, because we need a modern form of taxation—one that means that businesses do not just survive but soar. I would like him to go back and produce measures to ensure that jobs are on the increase and strengthened and that entrepreneurs are rewarded. We all have high streets that we want to be proud of, in towns and cities and rural areas and coastal areas, and we all want to see continued improvements in our area.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered support for UK high streets.