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Westminster Hall

Volume 710: debated on Wednesday 16 March 2022

Westminster Hall

Wednesday 16 March 2022

[Mr Peter Bone in the Chair]

Peace and Stability in the Balkans

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the maintenance of peace and stability in the Balkans.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has sent frightening shockwaves throughout the European continent, and there is particular concern in Finland and Sweden; in the Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia; in Moldova, regarding Transnistria; and in the Balkans.

I well remember, as we all do, the terrible bloodshed in the western Balkans following the break-up of Yugoslavia. I visited Bosnia in 2013 as part of an inter-parliamentary delegation. I recall the harrowing stories I heard from people belonging to all ethnic groups, and I will never forget travelling by bus through the Balkans and visiting Sarajevo. We passed through numerous communities in the Balkans and saw graveyard after graveyard in every community.

A little later in the conflict, only the intervention of NATO in Kosova and Serbia prevented even more appalling bloodshed when Serbian nationalists, led by Slobodan Miloševic, tried to ethnically cleanse Kosova of Muslim Albanians. Whatever our views and our differences in this Parliament, we must all be united in our resolution to stop that happening again.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for bringing this matter to the Chamber. He is talking about the exclusion of aircraft and an exclusion zone. Perhaps he agrees that today, when we think of Ukraine, we do so for the very same reason that a no-fly zone was wanted in the Balkans—because it would stop the murder of children, babies and elderly people, the killing of innocents and the destruction of property. Does he agree that if we want to make sure that the Russians cannot win, we need a no-fly zone so that we can protect people?

I certainly understand the sentiments the hon. Member expresses so strongly, and I am sure we all agree with those sentiments, but we must look carefully at what a no-fly zone might mean in the situation we face in Ukraine. A no-fly zone would be easy to do, but it is wrong to draw exact parallels between what happened in the western Balkans and what is happening in Ukraine today.

Even before the invasion of Ukraine, there was growing concern that Bosnia and Herzegovina could once again be engulfed by ethnic bloodshed of the kind that we saw in the 1990s. The fragile Dayton peace agreement had been under strain for some time, and the President of Republika Srpska had advised of his goal of fracturing the Bosnian state. The Bosnian Serbs had announced that they were going to boycott key institutions of the state of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Serbia has lent implied support to Dodik and his supporters in Bosnia—a country that is already seeing real unrest. I would be interested to hear the hon. Member’s views on the risks associated with an emboldened Dodik and how those risks might spread across the region.

That is the essence of my speech, and I shall come to that point, but the hon. Member has put her finger on the centrality of the issue and the difficulties that we face.

That withdrawal from the state apparatus of Bosnia and Herzegovina, including the ending of Serb involvement in the tax system, the judiciary and, crucially, the army, is tremendously important. After meeting with the President of Serbia in January, the leader of Republika Srpska, Dodik, stated that a return to Bosnian state institutions could occur only if reference to genocide by Republika Srpska entities were prohibited. The boycott of Bosnian state institutions began in July last year after the EU High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina outlawed the denial of the 1995 Srebrenica massacre. That is worth remembering, because in July 1995 over 8,000 Bosniak men and boys were massacred in cold blood. There can be no attempt to forget that or erase it from history. To attempt to do so is fundamentally wrong.

There is no doubt that for some time the Kremlin has been supporting the destabilisation of Bosnia and Herzegovina. For a number of years Putin has been encouraging Serb nationalism, putting arms into Serb hands and stirring up ethnic hatred. In November last year the EU’s High Representative wrote that the country was facing

“the greatest existential threat of the postwar period”.

That was true when it was said in November 2021. Unfortunately, it is even more true today.

Recently, the United Kingdom, the European Union and the United States have reaffirmed their support for the territorial integrity of Bosnia and Herzegovina. There has also been condemnation of the decision by the Parliament of Republika Srpska to start planning for the withdrawal of the republic from the state institutions and apparatus of Bosnia. Following a United Nations Security Council mandate, EUFOR, the EU-led force, has been deployed in Bosnia and Herzegovina for some time. I am pleased to say that its strength has been increased from 600 to 1,100, but that increase is woefully inadequate given the scale of the crisis that is unfolding.

I am pleased that the British Government have appointed Sir Stuart Peach as special envoy to the western Balkans. Sir Stuart is a former chairman of the NATO military committee and UK Chief of the Defence Staff, and I am sure he is already making a difference, even though his appointment is relatively recent. Not only is he demonstrating Britain’s commitment to maintaining peace in the region, but he is helping to address some of the more important issues that have to be confronted if long-term stability is to be achieved in the region.

His task is enormous, not least because there can be little doubt that Dodik is now very close to President Putin. Dodik and Putin met in Moscow in December, and Russia has refused to endorse international statements that have expressed concern at Dodik’s actions. Dodik has also stated that if the European Union were to impose sanctions, Republika Srpska would declare itself an independent state. The situation is extremely serious and demands our attention.

I have focused on the situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina, but we should also be concerned about the developments in North Macedonia, Serbia itself, Kosova and Montenegro. I do not have time to go through all of those situations, so I will simply refer to the situation in Kosova. Since the NATO intervention in 1999, there has been acute tension between Kosovans and Serbians, and between Kosova and Serbia itself. It is particularly worrying that Putin has cited NATO’s intervention in Kosova in 1999 as some kind of justification for the Russian invasion of Ukraine. That is absurd and should be absolutely rejected.

As the hon. Member may be aware, I and other members of the Select Committee on International Development visited Bosnia only last month and discussed the situation with parliamentarians there. Does he share my concerns about any future aggression from President Putin in the region, and will he press the Minister on what steps this Government are taking to safeguard the security of the Balkans in the light of the current geopolitical crisis?

Absolutely. As I move towards my conclusion, that is precisely the point I want to emphasise, because our Government have to do more than they have already done.

Earlier this month, the Kosovan Prime Minister visited London and warned of Russian influence over Serbia. He warned that, as the hon. Member for Mid Derbyshire (Mrs Latham) suggested, there could be a proxy war in the western Balkans. He made particular reference to tensions that erupted in Kosova in the border area with Serbia only last year. There was a seemingly insignificant dispute over what number plates should be displayed on cross-border journeys, but one thing led to another and Kosovan special forces were deployed to the border area. That was followed by the deployment of Serb military jets and tanks. That clearly highlighted how tensions are simmering below the surface and do not take a lot to boil up. That demands our attention to the situation.

To be honest, over the past few years the United Kingdom and other western countries have not given the western Balkans the attention that they deserve. I am pleased to say that is changing, but change must happen more radically and quickly. The UK has given logistical support to EUFOR but needs to do much more. We must consider allocating our own forces to strengthen EUFOR, possibly even deploying forces ourselves in a peacekeeping role. That option should be carefully examined by our Government.

We also need to work more closely with our European allies, to ensure that there is a co-ordinated and sustained diplomatic and economic strategy in place. It is all too easy for us to say, “Well, we have left the European Union. We are not going to be so engaged with these issues.” That is a profound mistake. Brexit is one thing, but it does not remove the need—it is greater than ever—for us to have foreign policy and military co-operation with our European allies. The situation in the western Balkans highlights that dramatically.

We need diplomatic initiatives with all our European partners, because it is clear that the Russians like to play off one country against another. If there is any fracture in solidarity among western nations, we see the Russians play on that. We must ensure that, wherever humanly possible, Britain, its western European allies and the United States speak with one coherent and concerted voice. That must be a diplomatic priority.

We also need to look at what economic tools are available. We are all aware of the situation in Ukraine and how the British Government have gradually increased the deployment of sanctions. We also need to look carefully at the situation in the western Balkans but, again, we must do that in concert with our European allies.

Those are the points I make in conclusion. It is important that we do not see this as a party issue that divides us. We must find common ground and work together to give solidarity to Bosnia and Herzegovina at this crucial time.

It is a pleasure to speak in this debate, Mr Bone. I thank the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Wayne David) for setting the scene with expertise, knowledge and a deep interest. I know he intends to retire at the end of this Parliament and we shall miss him; his contributions are always significant and helpful, due to his years of experience, for which I thank him. I also thank him for leading today’s debate on such an important issue.

There are so many things happening in the world, and I will talk about Ukraine, as we probably all will. I am ever mindful of the responsibility that the Minister and the Government have on their shoulders. We pray for our Ministers every day, because we think it is really important that our Prime Minister and Government have the wisdom and knowledge that they need when decisions are made. As I mentioned in my intervention, I support the introduction of a no-fly zone. That is my opinion, but I understand the issues and what the implications are. Maybe I see things too simplistically sometimes, but I want to know how we can protect the Ukrainians, because we need to be doing so.

We have heard so much in the media and in this House about the recent invasion of Ukraine by Russia. There is not a morning or evening that I do not feel cut to the very core of my heart when I see the things that are happening and feel powerless to physically help people—sometimes it overcomes me. We must focus on the priority to help the Ukrainian people to fight the devastation. However, this debate is about the Balkans, particularly Bosnia and Herzegovina, and we must not forget the smaller non-NATO states, which have the potential to be targeted as well. The Minister and others might agree that the fight in Ukraine today is a fight in the Balkans tomorrow. It is a fight in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania and Bulgaria, and on the doorstep of west Germany and France. Maybe the fight will be on the white cliffs of Dover at some time in the future, so the fight today in Ukraine is a fight to which we have to be physically, mentally and emotionally committed in every way we can.

Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, concerns have rightly been raised about the impact that it will have on the Balkan states. Historically, Russia has maintained rocky relations with different states in the Balkans, playing politics with them all. The Russians have been friends of some and enemies of others, and then they have changed their minds a few weeks later and entered into different relationships.

The Kosovan President has previously accused Russia of using Serbia to destabilise the Balkan region, and the Kosovan Prime Minister has said that Putin wants the state of Kosovo to fail in order to show that NATO success was temporary. Does the hon. Gentleman perceive there to be a risk to the stability in Kosovo and a need for it to join NATO?

I do think that, because Russia thrives on instability. The hon. Lady is absolutely right, and I thank her for her intervention.

Historically, Russia has maintained rocky relations. I also understand that Putin has a very clear relationship with the Bosnian Serbs. There is an Ulsterism that is particularly relevant. Back home, we would say—forgive me if this is rather graphic, but it is the way we see it—that Russia and Serbia suck off the same hind tit. It is very clear what the Ulsterism means: they both think the same, they both feed off the same person, and they both act together. As the hon. Member for Caerphilly said, Russia and Serbia are hand in hand in their aspirations and goals.

Regardless of whether small states such as Kosovo and Montenegro are part of NATO, we have a responsibility to protect their citizens from Russian invasion and violence. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has stated that, as of 14 March 2022, there have been more than 2,000 civilian deaths as a result of Russia’s military attack. Looking towards Bosnia, we have to consider what could happen in the Balkans in the light of what is happening in Ukraine. A further 1,500 people have been injured in Ukraine, and I am mindful of the picture of a lady being carried on a stretcher after the Russians attacked a hospital in Mariupol. It seems that she and her baby did not make it. It is very obvious that the lady was physically and mentally traumatised. The impact of Russian aggression will be the same in the Balkans if they can get away with it.

Ukraine has been crippled by greed and evil, and we must assume that Putin does not intend to stop at Ukraine; the EU, NATO, the UK and the US must be prepared to respond if the current situation deteriorates. I want to put on the record—something that we do not do often enough, but need to—my thanks to the Secretary of State for Defence, the right hon. Member for Wyre and Preston North (Mr Wallace). I know about some of the battles that he has fought in fulfilling our commitment to supply anti-tank missiles. Incidentally, those missiles are made at Thales in Northern Ireland; we have a talent for many things in Northern Ireland, but we seem to have a special talent for that. The now 4,000 anti-tank weapons are proving to be very effective against Russian tanks and armoured vehicles. So we want the support, and the Secretary of State has done that. I put on record my thanks. He has fought, through the obstacles that civil servants throw up, to help. We are asking today for that same commitment to preserve peace in the Balkans.

We must also employ atrocity prevention tools and policy, especially in the states of Bosnia and Herzegovina where society is full of tension and division. The hon. Member for Caerphilly said he had seen a small thing. It looks like a small thing, but it could very soon become a large thing—a confrontation and a battle over that issue. While we maintain the focus on Ukraine, having wider diplomatic engagement across the Balkan states ensures that we are able to practice mitigation tactics further. Protection Approaches, a charity based in London, has stated that the situation in Ukraine must not limit our capacity to respond appropriately to the risks in the Balkans, as the hon. Member for Caerphilly has outlined. We cannot allow the violence and terrorism to be mirrored in the areas surrounding Ukraine and risk more death and loss of life.

Today I look to my Minister and my Government and ask, where does the responsibility lie in co-ordinating the United Kingdom’s approach to the atrocities and ongoing risks of further potential devastation in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, and the western Balkans? In addition to this, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Albania have been added to Russia’s list of “enemy states.” My goodness me, who has Russia not made an enemy of today? They hate the world; they hate their very own people—there is absolutely no end to it. It frustrates me greatly when I think that here is one person—Putin, along with his army—who are pursuing death and destruction; and their plans and their eyes are set on bigger things. They refer to those countries as “enemy states” for aligning themselves with sanctions against Russia, causing direct concern for potential invasion.

Everyone in this House was encouraged by that media lady on Russian TV who took her stand; We are very conscious that she is a person with tremendous courage, and she will be in our thoughts.

We must come to terms with the fact that Putin does not intend to stop. Only a few days ago, a Russian missile was launched, and landed some 10 miles from the Polish border. It is crucial that we pave the way to protect other small states while we can. We have a big job to do; the Minister has an incredibly big job to do; our Government have an incredibly big job to do. We look to them, and support them in their methodologies, moving forward. The talk of war has already been discussed in Bosnia and Herzegovina and they are already at risk of facing a resurgence of secessionist tendencies.

While the protection and refuge of the Ukrainian people must be at the forefront and pinnacle of our efforts, as has been said we must not forget the smaller states, which are also at the hands of Russian terror, destruction and murderous thoughts. I urge the Government and the Minister to have plans in place, should there be a future invasion into the Balkans. I think the hon. Member for Caerphilly was right to set the scene today—I thank him for it. We all know that there are many things in the world to keep an eye on, and the responsibility of our Ministers and our Government is one of overbearing pressure at times. I support our Ministers and our Government in the policies that they are taking forward, although I would like to take them forward a wee bit harder, perhaps—but that is just me talking. Others have a different opinion, and I understand that.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Bone. It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon)—it is always a pleasure to be in a debate with him. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly (Wayne David) on securing this debate and on his opening speech, which was based on his extensive expertise on the region. He rightly called for additional time to be given to talking about securing and maintaining peace and stability in the Balkans. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s comments. I am glad that we are able to discuss this subject, and I think there is a lot of unity across the House that we want to see peace maintained in the region; we need to look at other areas affected by the Ukrainian war, including those where there was already a fragile peace before the war.

No one wants to think that there will be war in their area. When I worked as an aid worker in Bosnia, I spoke to many communities. I asked when they thought there would be war in their villages—when they thought they would have to flee. All of them knew it was very near—there were soldiers in the next-door valley—but they never thought it would come to their home, until it did. We see that in Ukraine. We hoped that the conflict would not come to this. We need to look ahead at what could happen in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

I am co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group for the prevention of genocide and crimes against humanity, and vice-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on Bosnia and Herzegovina. I was a humanitarian aid worker during the war in Bosnia, living in Belgrade and then in Banja Luka. Four years later, I returned with my baby to head Christian Aid’s Bosnia office, rebuilding villages in north-west Bosnia and supporting the return of refugees. So I knew a bit of what it feels like to live amongst a war in a region—the chaos that ensues and the uprooting of people’s lives—and how long it takes to rebuild afterwards.

This House is united in support for peace, and for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all the states in the region, including Ukraine, and Bosnia and Herzegovina. However, I think that unfortunately the Government’s policy on the Balkans could go further and I will focus on three points—Russia, sanctions and civil society.

If any Member here or anyone reading the debate in Hansard thinks that Putin does not have designs on the Balkans as well as Ukraine, they need to think again, and if they think that peace is not very fragile indeed in the Balkan states, especially in the Republika Srpska, they need to think again. The violence in Ukraine makes clear Putin’s intention to fuel instability and division across the whole region. The Balkans is no exception.

The UK still has no atrocity prevention strategy for any of its offices, including those in this region, or as part of its policy towards Ukraine. Such a strategy would mean looking at early warning systems, training civil servants, learning from best practice in other areas, and specifically taking action to prevent atrocities.

The risks have already been increasing, particularly with regard to Bosnia and Herzegovina, as my hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly noted. Six months ago, there was talk of potential war. Piece by piece, Milorad Dodik, the leader of Republika Srpska, is dismantling the Dayton peace treaty. That cannot be allowed to happen. Lines must be drawn.

For years, Dodik has been advocating the separation of Republika Srpska from Bosnia—for it to be part of Serbia. With support from Russia and Serbia, he has recently intensified his secessionist campaign. On 10 February, Republika Srpska lawmakers voted to create a high prosecutorial judicial council, which will have the power to choose its own judges and prosecutors. He is also working on creating a Bosnian Serb army, a separate judiciary and tax system, and is continuing with genocide denial. It cannot be said often enough that there can be no denial of the genocide in Srebrenica. In July 1995, more than 8,000 men and boys were killed in Srebrenica. To deny that it happened, and to fuel nationalist sentiment within the region, is almost an act of war.

The hon. Lady and others in this Chamber will have heard the right hon. and gallant Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) recall in graphic detail some of his experiences of genocide and murder in the Balkans. There is not a time that I do not listen to him and feel incredibly moved. I think the hon. Lady has heard him as well. For those who perhaps have not heard his story—few in the Chamber have not—it will always bring back the cold, brutal reality of what happened, which the hon. Lady is referring to.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising that. I have met many of the relatives of those who disappeared that day in Srebrenica, and I have spoken to many who, even years afterwards, hoped that their relative was not there because they had not had the proof, which it was absolutely heartbreaking to know. The reverberation carries on not only with all those directly affected but through the generations. When we say “never again”, we must ensure that it is never again, and that we note the build-up of potential war and conflict and a fragile peace being shattered in the region. We can have no excuse for not seeing it coming. We have no excuse for not taking action to prevent anything like Srebrenica happening again.

The Foreign Secretary said that the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office knew Russia was going to invade Ukraine, but made no preparations for the human rights crisis that would follow; and we have seen chaos ensue in the last few weeks. Preparations need to be made in Bosnia now. So I would like to question the Minister today, and hope he will tell us what preparations are being made to ensure that peace is built and created, and that any moves to war are being stopped in the Balkan region.

We are seeing terrible scenes as millions of people leave Ukraine, but it must also be our concern if conflict re-erupts in the Balkans and we also see large numbers of people moving into western Europe from the Balkans. We have to be aware of that and must put in place preparations should that happen. It underlines the fact that we need to do everything possible to stop conflict erupting in the first place.

Absolutely; I thank my hon. Friend for that reflection. Given the history of the region, if someone has already endured conflict and already fled with their family to another region of Bosnia, or to Germany or another country during the war, they might have returned and now be seeing the threat arising again. As they see what is happening in Ukraine, they will think, “Shall I stay? Is it safer to leave?” So we must prepare for that, and for more numbers on top of the huge numbers affected by the Ukraine crisis.

Sanctions is another area where we could take action. A smart and creative sanctions policy for the western Balkans, designed and implemented as soon as possible, would help to mitigate the rising risks, and could be that line in the sand that we can create. We could say to Dodik, as the EU and the US have, “You have already gone too far to undermine Dayton, so we are going to sanction you.” We have not yet said that to Dodik and other members of his regime. Is this the time to say it? What talks are being held? Perhaps the Minister can tell us.

Finally, I want to speak about civil society. If we are to maintain peace and stability in the Balkans—maintaining it is the key issue—strengthening civil society is crucial. The price of eternal peace is not just eternal vigilance but eternal peacebuilding. Dodik does not have the massive support among the Serbs in Bosnia that he likes to appear as though he has. There is an opportunity to support moderate voices on all sides who want to see peace in their country and community, including those from civil society. It is important to remember that genocide and crimes against humanity are usually well planned and organised. They are preceded by a polarisation of views and caused by a manipulation of public fears and grievances, and sometimes even deliberate and targeted attacks on moderates, political and civil society leaders and freedom of the press. All of the signs are there and can be watched over.

It is hard to overstate the importance of civil society in winning over hearts and minds for peace in such situations. There are abundant examples in conflict settings, through investment in social cohesion and peace education work. Around the world, we can see in South Sudan and the Central African Republic that community-based prevention work has led to young people handing in their weapons and working together across identity groups. Mothers are setting up groups to say, “No more war in our society. We want to see peace.”

I want to pay tribute to two inspiring women from Republika Srpska who I recently met and spoke to online, who have been doing magnificent work in this regard. The first is Velma Šarić, who is an investigative reporter, researcher, academic and peacebuilder. She is the founder and CEO of the Sarajevo-based Post-Conflict Research Centre, which was established in 2010. She lived under siege at the start of the war, and she told me about all the peacebuilding work that that organisation is doing. The second is Tatjana Milovanović. She has been a peacebuilder in Bosnia for 10 years and is now a programme director at the Post-Conflict Research Centre. There are peacebuilders. We can work with them and support them, and that should be a crucial intervention by the British Government, the British people and Members of Parliament.

I say to the Minister: can we have an atrocity prevention strategy for our teams in the region? What work are we doing to actively support civil society? We cannot take peace and stability in the Balkans for granted—none of us in this room do. We need to have these conversations much more widely, and I hope the FCDO does as well. As someone who has lived in the region during its darkest days, I have seen how quickly hate and polarisation can infect people’s hearts and minds and turn a peaceful, multi-ethnic integrated society into an extremely divided one, where one side is actually shooting into the town they were living in. Personally, I feel this is the closest that peace has ever been to unravelling in the region. The UK has a very important role to play in ensuring that it does not. Let us act now before it is too late.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Bone. I thank the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Wayne David) for securing this vital and timely debate. I also thank the eloquent speakers who have contributed to the debate for their experience and insight into the Western Balkans. Next month the world will mark the 30th anniversary of the beginning of the Balkan war—a war that resulted in up to 100,000 people being killed, caused 2 million people to be displaced and saw, horrifically, the first genocide in Europe in 1995 since the second world war, where over 8,000 Bosniak men and boys were massacred in Srebrenica by Serb forces.

I too have memories of that time, not because I was in Bosnia, but because I was living in the Netherlands. I lived with a community of refugees who came from each of the six states of the former Yugoslavia, who were all fleeing for the same reason: because on the ground it was unbearable to live. Neighbours were fighting with neighbours, and family members were fighting with each other. They saw horrific consequences, so this subject touches me.

It is a great tragedy that, as we speak here today, there is war in Europe once again. Images of Russia’s brutal, bloody and barbaric invasion of Ukraine, with the systematic targeting of civilians and public infrastructure, have been incredibly distressing to see. The suffering of innocent people, including pregnant women, children and newborn infants, must never be normalised or accepted. Our urgent and completely justified focus on the war in Ukraine must not distract our attention from other conflict areas of concern in Europe, and we must not lose sight of the precarious political climate in the Balkans.

Just three days before Russia began its invasion of Ukraine, the EU Foreign Ministers had to meet to discuss crisis-averting in Bosnia and Herzegovina, with EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell commenting:

“The nationalist and separatist rhetoric is increasing…and jeopardising the stability and even the integrity of the country”.

In November, the international community’s High Representative of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Christian Schmidt, warned that the country is in imminent danger of breaking apart and there is a “very real” prospect of a return to conflict. The Dayton accords, which brought the Bosnian war to an end in 1995 and created a complex political system for Bosnia and Herzegovina to manage ethnic tensions, are being undermined. That poses a huge danger to the stability of the region.

As we heard, threats by the Bosnian Serb leader, Milorad Dodik, to boycott the country’s major institutions—including the armed forces, top judiciary body and tax administration, to be replaced by several new bodies—and secede the Republika Srpska, are a clear violation of the peace accords. The fact that that was in response to an announcement, by a former High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina, that anyone who denied that genocide or war crimes had been committed during the 1990s would face jail time, is huge cause for concern.

Yet, despite increasing tensions in Bosnia and Herzegovina since summer 2021, the UK Government have been slow to respond. That is indeed alarming. The Magnitsky sanctions are a powerful tool in the UK’s diplomatic arsenal, but the Government’s web- page devoted to UK sanctions relating to Bosnia and Herzegovina has not been updated since December 2020. The US Treasury sanctioned Dodik for significant corruption and destabilising activities in January of this year, and a leaked internal document from the EU has recommended that sanctions are imposed on Republika Srpska and that financial support is withheld, if the crisis continues in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Moving on to some questions, will the Minister commit to increasing the Magnitsky sanctions regime against hostile actors within Bosnia and Herzegovina? If so, will the UK Government commit to making those decisions through scrupulous discussions with international allies? As with the war in Ukraine, it is vital that we maintain close alignment with the EU on matters of European security, as has already been suggested here today.

We also cannot ignore the malevolent role of Russia in fuelling the instability in the Balkans. It has been argued that Vladimir Putin considers NATO intervention in Kosovo a most important recent international event, and wants the state to fail to show that NATO success was temporary, as it was in Iraq and Afghanistan. Russia has not recognised Kosovo’s independence and has blocked it from joining the United Nations.

Russia has allied itself with Serbia on this issue, and has been accused of using Serbia to destabilise the region. Although Serbia has declared support for the territorial integrity of Ukraine, and voted in favour of the UN resolution condemning Russia’s actions, it has not aligned itself with EU sanctions against Russia.

Given that context, it is not surprising that there have been reports that Milorad Dodik tried to prevent Bosnian officials from voting to condemn Russia’s actions at the UN. It has been alleged that Dodik sent a letter to the UN Secretary-General, through the Russian mission, stating that the Bosnian UN ambassador should not vote, as the Bosnian presidency had not agreed a joint stance on the matter.

There is evidence of Russian interference in the Balkans from the recent past, when it condemned Montenegro’s accession to NATO. I should also point to news reports yesterday that the Russian-backed parliamentarians in Montenegro are pushing for advance elections to try to turn their minority into a majority in Parliament, so that it can leave NATO. Two pro-Russian politicians and nine Serbs were subsequently sentenced for staging that coup, with two alleged Russian agents tried in absentia.

Balkan leaders have made stark warnings. Šefik Džaferović—I hope I have pronounced that correctly—the Bosniak member of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s presidency, said,

“Dodik is trying to take advantage of the fact that the attention of the west is focused on Ukraine”.

Kosovo’s Prime Minister, Albin Kurti, added,

“I fear that the longer the war lasts in Ukraine, the greater the chances of spillover in the western Balkans. And that is because it is in the interest of the Russian Federation to have new battlegrounds.”

We need to heed those warnings, as any proxy ethno-nationalist war in the Balkans would be devastating, as history has shown us repeatedly.

The Minister for Europe and North America has previously said,

“we see the hand of Russia at play here”.—[Official Report, 9 November 2021; Vol. 703, c. 178.]

If that is the case, we need to know what the FCDO is doing about it. What assessment have the UK Government, along with our EU and North American allies, made of that influence, and how has that changed since the invasion of Ukraine? Do we have a strategy for a proxy conflict scenario erupting? Are the UK Government actively investigating Kremlin-linked entities in the UK contributing to political destabilisation in the Balkans? Will there be a broader sanctions package to sanction Russian individuals promoting or enabling conflict in any part of Europe?

A return to violence is not inevitable but the warning signs must be responded to. For years, voices in civil society and Select Committees of this House have called for a cross-governmental atrocity prevention strategy, yet it still does not exist. The integrated review promised that this would be prioritised, yet in December the UK Atrocity Prevention Working Group wrote to the Prime Minister, voicing concerns that the UK systems capabilities and policies toward Bosnia and Herzegovina still lack a focus on atrocity prevention, grievance and political marginalisation.

Protection Approaches has stated:

“Bosnia is the test case of the promise made in the Prime Minister’s Integrated Review to prioritise atrocity prevention. The UK is well placed to lead a coalition of Bosnia’s allies in a coordinated preventative effort and fulfil its promise made.”

Where do the responsibilities lie for articulating and co-ordinating the UK Government’s approach to the atrocities, and the ongoing risk of further atrocities in Bosnia and Herzegovina and the western Balkans? How is the UK mapping the motivations and interrelations of potential perpetrators and the coalitions that can help to prevent violence? Do the embassies in Sarajevo, Pristina and Belgrade have emergency communications protocols in place? When will the UK publish a national atrocity prevention strategy?

I recommend that those responsible for answers to those questions read the book “Architectures of Violence” by Dr Kate Ferguson. It was published just a few months ago, and shows that when these acts of mass atrocities happen, it is systematic and calculated, not spontaneous. It is also preventable. It is clear that we still do not yet have a strategy mapped out.

Finally, I visited Bosnia and Herzegovina last month with the International Development Committee. I returned last night from a visit to Derry, where I was joined by a Bosnian delegation. The Bosnians I met were shocked and surprised that we actually have our own challenges and tensions within these islands. The message was clear that peace and security is only achievable with those on the ground working in partnership, and putting in the hard work and steely determination to resolve the issues. I pay tribute to all the women and men on the ground at grassroots level who work hard to build peace and solidarity across the divides in their communities, often risking their own security in the process. Without them, we have no peace and security.

I also pay tribute to all those in British embassies working in partnership with local NGOs and volunteers to strengthen peace and security in the western Balkans. I pay tribute to the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, which through its fellowship programmes has created opportunities for people from the western Balkans to see for themselves the hard-won victories that have built peace on our own islands. We have a duty and responsibility in our own national interest and security to work for and invest in peace and security in partnership across the western Balkans for now and into the future.

Conflict and instability are neither innate nor inevitable. Equally, peace and security are not easy—there is no quick fix and they do not grab headlines—but one thing is for sure: failure to invest will come back and bite us all badly. The world’s eyes are quite rightly on Ukraine right now, but this war has been going on for eight years, not the three weeks that the media and UK Government keep repeating. There is an invaluable lesson in this: prevention is far better than a cure, and the early signs need to be acted on coherently, strategically and, most importantly, continuously. The alternative is unconscionable.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairpersonship, Mr Bone, and to speak in this debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly (Wayne David) on securing it. There have been powerful speeches, largely based on hon. Members’ personal experiences. It is particularly a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Dundee West (Chris Law), who gave a passionate speech.

My hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly is right to highlight the worries we should all have about events beyond the terrible situation in Ukraine, whether that is in the Baltics, Moldova or the western Balkans. Many of us have been asking the FCDO questions, and I raised them with the Minister the other day. It is crucial that while our attention is rightly focused on what is happening with the atrocities in Ukraine, we do not ignore or fail to recognise the very serious risk that events elsewhere in our own continent could descend into chaos, violence and conflict.

My hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly spoke powerfully of his own experiences in the Balkans. The horrors of the 1990s are seared into the minds of many people across this country, including many British servicepeople who honourably and bravely served in many stabilisation missions across the continent, such as those involved in the operations in Kosovo and elsewhere. Indeed, members of my own family served in operations in Bosnia and there are Members of the House who served in a military capacity and in humanitarian organisations; my hon. Friend the Member for Putney (Fleur Anderson) and others loom large among those with such experiences. The right hon. and gallant Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) is not with us today, but he has spoken to me personally and very powerfully on many occasions about his own experiences during his time with the United Nations in Bosnia.

The current risks are indeed huge. The High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina wrote last November that Bosnia is facing

“the greatest existential threat of the post-war period.”

Of course, the invasion of Ukraine and the events emanating from that have only heightened the risks for Bosnia.

Much has been said in this debate about the threats and machinations of Dodik. Of course, he has threatened to follow the Russian example; many fear that he seeks to break Republika Srpska away from the settlement that has endured for decades now in Bosnia and Herzegovina. We know that he has the support of, and close links to, the Kremlin. By his own admission, he also apparently has links to China. I hope that the Minister will say in his remarks what he makes of the serious allegations about weapons supplies supposedly coming through to the Republika Srpska, the close ties to the Kremlin and the allegations of links to China. What discussions he has had with international counterparts about those issues?

It is correct that much of the focus this morning is on Russia, but we should not forget that, as my hon. Friend has mentioned, China has a malign role in much of this as well. We need to take note of that, because Chinese influence is growing, as is the use of their resources, in a number of the Balkan states, particularly Serbia.

My hon. Friend makes an important point. Of course, we have seen Chinese influence across other areas in which Russia seeks to cause instability. For example, we know of the Chinese influence in the Baltics and elsewhere. It is crucial that we take full account of that and have strategies to respond.

Quite rightly, there have been many questions about sanctions. I know that the Minister will not want to get drawn into the detail either of existing sanctions or of others that have not yet been proposed, but it is important to note—this point has been made strongly—that there have been sanctions from the US. I hope that the Minister can say something about the apparent differences in the approach, particularly given the steps that have already been taken, very publicly and vocally, by Dodik and others to undermine the Dayton agreement.

Beyond Bosnia, we cannot forget the situation in the other countries in the western Balkans, particularly given the alleged Russian-sponsored coup in Montenegro in 2016. Of course, Montenegro, Albania, Kosovo and North Macedonia have followed the EU and others in sanctioning Russia over the situation in Ukraine. It is welcome that we see that unity of purpose and the position that they have taken—boldly and bravely, given the risks that they face. I hope that the Minister will tell us how we will support them as they seek to respond to attempts by Russia to undermine their politics and societies. They have now been designated as enemy states by Putin and Russia. We need to recognise the inherent risks for them. It would be good to hear what the Minister has to say about that, and when he last met representatives of those countries in particular, not least given the domestic political goings-on that the hon. Member for Dundee West raised in relation to Montenegro and the risks to its domestic politics.

My hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly and others quite rightly highlighted that there cannot be any justifiable attempt to deny the Srebrenica massacre or the many other atrocities that took place in Balkans in the past. Those who seek to do so are simply speaking outwith the overwhelming facts. Many of us who have worked closely with Remembering Srebrenica and other organisations in the past, and declare our interests in relation to our associations with that organisation, know the reality of what happened in those terrible days in the 1990s—of course, not just in Srebrenica, but in many other places.

I absolutely agree with the points that my hon. Friend made about the territorial integrity of Bosnia and Herzegovina, the risks posed by those who seek to undermine it, and the importance of the role that EUFOR is playing, and I join him in commending the appointment of Sir Stuart Peach.

One point that came out quite strongly in a number of contributions was that although we may no longer be a member of the European Union, we remain one of the crucial guarantors, with a key role to play in this situation. Therefore, we need to work closely with the EU and the other guarantors to ensure we have a coherent and joined- up approach to what is an increasingly worrying situation.

A couple of weeks ago, I met with Miroslav Lajčák, the EU special representative for the Belgrade-Pristina dialogue, formerly the Slovak Minister of Foreign Affairs, and EU special representative and High Representative to Bosnia. We discussed the crucial role that the UK plays, working alongside him and other representatives, including the current international High Representative. The EU special representative is working to achieve the normalisation of relations between Serbia and Kosovo, and to improve relations and reconciliation between partners across the western Balkans as well as in that specific situation.

Could the Minister say when he last met with the EU special representative, and how he sees us working closely together over these difficult months? I completely agree with the points that have been made; we need to speak with one coherent voice. In that regard, could the Minister also tell us about his recent discussions with the High Representative, Christian Schmidt, and where the Government see the relationship between all those different, interlocking parts going in the months and weeks ahead?

As always, the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) made a very strong speech containing some powerful points. He was absolutely right to highlight, as many have, the concerning links between many in Serbian politics and Russia. In recent weeks, we have seen some deeply worrying scenes of Russian flags being waved in the streets of Belgrade. Are attempts being made there to whip up even more of a fervour in the current, very difficult times?

My hon. Friend the Member for Putney spoke from her immense personal experience of, and dedication to, the people of the region, which I commend her on. She was right to give similarly stark warnings about Russia’s involvement in undermining this situation, and to raise the case for an atrocity prevention strategy, as did the hon. Member for Dundee West. I welcome those calls and hope the Minister can say what the Government are actually doing. They do not seem to have moved forward on this issue, but it is critical, not just in the Balkans, but in so many other situations globally.

I could not agree more with the points that my hon. Friend also made about peacebuilding and civil society. It is the people in the western Balkans—people who have been through a great deal over recent decades—who could be the foundations for peace and, crucially, provide resilience against the forces who would attempt to break apart their country or return it once again to chaos and conflict. I hope that the Minister can set out what the FCDO is doing to fund those projects.

As we have said many times in multiple debates in this place, the Government’s cutting of the aid commitment from 0.7% to 0.5% has undoubtedly had an impact on many different programmes, some of which were funded under these measures. I would like the Minister to explain what the FCDO is doing to fund peacebuilding and civil society strengthening programmes. Such programmes could provide a crucial bulwark against the forces I have referred to—Dodik, Putin or others—who seek to undermine these countries and regions and take them back to very dark times.

Lastly, the Scottish National party spokesperson, the hon. Member for Dundee West, was absolutely right to highlight how the Dayton settlement was being undermined, the domestic political events in Montenegro, and the need to make progress on the atrocity prevention strategy.

At the moment, the focus is rightly on Ukraine. We will be having further events on Ukraine—we had an important debate on it yesterday—but as the Minister will know from his extensive military experience, at times like these we also have to watch the flanks and the rear. We have to watch what is happening elsewhere, and we all know that the warning signs in the western Balkans were there well before the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

We have a particular duty and responsibility, not only because of our extensive involvement in the 1990s, but as one of the key guarantors in the region. It is crucial that we play that role to the utmost at this time—that we have resources in the FCDO attuned to the western Balkans and ministerial time attached to this region, and that we are making those contacts, having those conversations and funding those projects. We need to make sure that we do not end up in an even worse situation in the weeks and months to come, which we would deeply regret and, most importantly, would have devastating impacts on the people of the western Balkans. We have a critical role to play and we must continue to play it.

It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Mr Bone, and I genuinely thank the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Wayne David), my former Labour Front-Bench shadow, for initiating the debate. As we have heard, recent developments demand our attention, and they demand our action. He is right to use the debate to bring those issues to the attention of the Chamber.

Unresolved tensions in the Balkans serve only to embolden those who seek to foster division and hamper progress. The UK is leading efforts to counter destabilising activities, especially from Russia. Putin is no friend to these countries—not a friend to the people of the Balkans, not a friend to the Slavic brethren and not even a friend to the people of Russia itself.

Putin’s barbaric invasion of Ukraine is casting a dark shadow across Europe, and across the Balkans in particular, and we are seeing the full breadth of Russian tactics: violations of sovereignty and territorial integrity, brazen breaches of international law, and devastating attacks on civilians and civilian infrastructure. The UK has been at the forefront of political and diplomatic efforts to stop this. We highlight and criticise Moscow for its actions on the international stage. We expose its untruths. We seek with partners to deter Russia from going further. We are building international resolve on sanctions, and supporting Ukraine with £394 million of aid, both humanitarian and other, plus military equipment and the training that we provided for the Ukrainian armed forces for many years through Operation Orbital.

The tragic situation in Ukraine underlines the need to pay close attention to the Balkans, which is the point made by the hon. Member for Caerphilly and others. That tragic situation is not unfamiliar. There are those in the Balkans who know only too well the horrors of war, and Putin’s aggression has given the Balkans deep and genuine cause for concern. That has, unsurprisingly, generated huge passion, as we have seen today, and I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Putney (Fleur Anderson) for her direct, first-hand experience in Bosnia during and immediately after the most difficult period in that country’s recent history.

The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) is beautifully elegant in his self-deprecating way, but he sees with clarity and speaks with passion, and he is universally respected across the House for that. He calls on us all to do more and go further. I assure him that we will always look at what options are available to us to help the people of Ukraine and to help prevent the atrocities that everyone in the Chamber has highlighted as a concern.

We of course support Bosnia and Herzegovina in its territorial integrity. I assure the hon. Member for Dundee West (Chris Law) that the UK has been robust in its condemnation of the dangerous moves led by presidency member Milorad Dodik, and we will not be passive in our response. Dodik’s attempts to withdraw unilaterally from state institutions, as the hon. Gentleman highlighted, threaten to undo 26 years of hard-won peace and stability. Dodik is supported by Putin, so we will continue to work in close co-ordination with our partners and allies in our response. I hope hon. Members will forgive me if I do not go into further details on what that might look like.

EUFOR, the peace stabilisation force, has increased its presence in Bosnia and Herzegovina to ensure that it is mobile and visible right across the country. We work hard to prevent Russia from closing it. EUFOR has a remit across the whole country, which it must continue to fulfil, from north to south, east to west. The UK also supports NATO headquarters in Sarajevo with personnel, and we are calling on allies to send more. We will give practical support to the armed forces in Bosnia and Herzegovina. At the same time, we are promoting progress—

I want to press the Minister slightly on that point. I hear what he says about giving practical support to EUFOR, but will he give any commitment at least to looking at the possibility of British soldiers going there to stabilise the situation, in partnership with others?

I hear the points made by the hon. Gentleman. Obviously, our formal membership of EUFOR stopped with our departure from the European Union, but that should not be read in any way as a downgrading of our support for peace and stability in this region. We will, of course, look at further ways we can act to support the international community, in what should be—I believe it is—the aim of us all in this House and across the continent, to prevent the region slipping backwards into the bloodshed and violence we saw sadly in the recent past.

We will continue to promote progress towards normalising relations between Serbia and Kosovo to that end. We strongly support the EU’s role in facilitating the Serbia-Kosovo dialogue. The Government in Kosovo has a strong electoral mandate, and elections are fast approaching in Serbia. The opportunity to reach an agreement is there to be grasped, and we must help both countries to seize it. A deal would be transformative, not only for them but for the entire region’s security and prosperity.

The hon. Member for Caerphilly spoke about the UK working with our European allies. I can tell him and the hon. Member for Cardiff West—

Sorry; I mean the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty)—my knowledge of Cardiff geography is not as strong as it should be, lovely city though it is—who asked about our liaison with representatives of European institutions. I had an excellent meeting last week with Miroslav Lajčák, the EU special representative for the dialogue. He rightly said at the time:

“Standing up for our shared goals and values in the western Balkans and elsewhere is now more important than ever.”

I had the privilege of meeting heads of Government from western Balkan states when the Prime Minister hosted them recently on their visits to the UK. The UK will, of course, continue to support reforms to promote peace and stability, freedom and democracy across the Balkans. Our embassy in Sarajevo supports programmes that promote security and citizen-centred reforms.

We have seen divisive and inflammatory rhetoric from Russia and some others in the region, and we wholeheartedly condemn it. The dangers of ethno-nationalist language are clear, as are concerns across the region at moves by proponents of a Serbian world approach. Reconciliation and positive relations between neighbours are essential. Through our work and engagement, we support that across the Balkans.

When I visited Bulgaria last week, I welcomed its Government’s commitment to improving their relationship with North Macedonia. Romania has mobilised as a NATO ally against Putin’s aggression. I applaud the warm welcome and support it has offered to those poor people fleeing the war in Ukraine.

As part to the Dayton agreement, Croatia plays an important role in maintaining peace and stability. We are also grateful to Slovenia for its long-standing support for peace, as demonstrated during its recent EU presidency. Sir Stuart Peach has been mentioned by a number of hon. Members, and I am very pleased that he has been appointed the special envoy to the western Balkans. With his characteristic alacrity, he has already visited all the countries in the region since his appointment in December last year. I had the opportunity to meet him when the heads of Government for the western Balkans visited the UK. I have no doubt we will continue to liaise closely as the Minister and envoy, respectively. He recently discussed the dialogues with political leaders in Serbia and Kosovo. He is maintaining close contacts with our partners in the US and in Europe as we work together to pursue an agreement.

It is essential to ensure the security and defence of all our allies that we continue to work in close co-ordination. What happens in the Balkans affects the whole of Europe. We have a long-standing interest in the security of the region, and we will continue to work to protect that. We will do so by contributing to peace support operations, strengthening democratic institutions, combating organised crime and corruption and promoting international justice. That includes UK personnel supporting KFOR, the Kosovo Force. Our UK military training hub is active in North Macedonia for the whole region. From April, we will finance a new international security program to boost resilience across the western Balkans to defend against cyber-attacks and disinformation.

Economic opportunities also play a crucial role in supporting stability. Co-operation and trade are increasing between the UK and the whole region, and that benefits us and the region enormously. They will help to create jobs, improve quality of life and reduce emigration and the loss of talent that, sadly, a number of countries in the region have experienced. We are building on the partnership trade and co-operation and agreement that we signed with Albania, Kosovo, North Macedonia and Serbia. Energy diversification will improve the region’s energy security, help to deliver on our climate objectives and help to provide liberation from a reliance on Russian gas supplies. We have quadrupled the UK’s export finance availability to the region to support that.

Politically and diplomatically, the UK remains at the forefront of efforts to stop destabilising activities in the Balkans, especially those supported by Russia. We are working hand in hand with partners in the region and our allies more broadly.

On that point, some have suggested that Turkey has a crucial role to play in the area. Turkey is well respected by Bosniak Muslims, for example, but it also has significant investments in Serbia and Republika Srpska. Turkey might therefore be well placed to play a significant role in helping to stabilise the situation. I wondered if the Minister has any views on that opinion.

Turkey is a significant country in the near neighbourhood of the western Balkans. It is a NATO ally. I enjoy a good relationship with my opposite number in the Turkish Government, and I have a call scheduled with him in the near future. I have no doubt that maintaining the stability in the western Balkans will be one of the things that we discuss. We will continue to work hand in hand with our partners and allies to promote and maintain peace, security and prosperity for the people of the western Balkans.

This has been an important debate. We are all focused on the terrible situation in Ukraine, but I think it is also extremely important that we cast our minds towards developments closer to home. I hope this very important debate will not be a one-off but will lead to others on the Floor of the House. It is important that we maintain the dialogue that exists among Members of all parties to ensure that this Parliament speaks with one strong voice.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House has considered the maintenance of peace and stability in the Balkans.

Sitting suspended.

South East Strategic Reservoir Option

I will call Layla Moran to move the motion, and I will then call the Minister to respond. As is the convention for a 30-minute debate, there will not be an opportunity for the Member in charge to wind up.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the proposed South East Strategic Reservoir Option.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. I am very grateful to be able to bring back to the House the issue of what is actually called the Abingdon reservoir, in common parlance. At the outset, I thank all the local campaigners who have been fighting alongside me on this issue, including Derek Stork and all the members of the Group Against Reservoir Development, Councillors Sally Povolotsky and Richard Webber, and local campaigner Richard Benwell. I also thank Thames Water and Sarah Bentley, whose team have engaged with my office on this issue on a number of occasions.

The last time I was here in Westminster Hall to speak about this issue was in December 2018, in a debate called by the former Member for Wantage, the now Lord Vaizey. Three and a half years later, here we are again. In fact, many campaigners are telling me that the campaign already feels like groundhog day, because the proposed Abingdon reservoir has been looming on the horizon for the people of South Oxfordshire for the best part of 25 years. In 2010, community campaigners were successful, as the Planning Inspectorate determined that there was “no immediate need” for a reservoir of this scale. In 2018, following the Westminster Hall debate, we defeated the monstrous project again. This debate is especially timely, because the public consultation on the regional plan put together by Water Resources South East closed on Monday. It is fair to say that the proposal has mobilised the community, with one constituent writing to me to say that

“these plans are frankly scary and have prompted me to try and take some action.”

It is important to make it clear that I fully accept that continuing to meet rising water demand is of utmost importance. Those in the industry refer to the point at which demand outweighs supply as “the jaws of death”, and I have no desire to find out what that means. They are warning, however, that we are on this path and that something needs to happen—on that, let us agree. Climate change means there is a reduction in water supply, and population growth will continue to increase demand. There is clearly a gap in supply and a growing need for drought resilience. I therefore understand the drive to plan for the worst but hope for the best.

Water Resources South East, which is an alliance of six water companies in the south-east of England, has a proposal to fill the gap: the Abingdon reservoir. For those who may be less familiar with the project, let me paint a picture. The Abingdon reservoir is a fully bunded—that means walled—raw water storage reservoir in the upper Thames catchment area. It is near the villages of Drayton, Steventon and The Hanneys, but it also affects Garford, Frilford and Marcham. During periods of high flow, water would be taken out of the Thames and pumped into the reservoir. When flow in the Thames is low and the water is required in London and the rest of the south-east, water would be released to the Thames in order to be taken out further downstream.

It sounds good, but it is worth noting that this not just a reservoir. It is a mega-reservoir. It would be the largest walled reservoir in the UK and hold 150 megatonnes of water, with a footprint of seven square kilometres—that is ever so slightly smaller than Abingdon itself. The entire city of Swindon—by which I mean every person, car and house—weighs five times less than the water that would be contained in the reservoir. Its concrete walls would be between 15 and 25 metres high—equivalent to three double-decker buses stacked on top of one another—and all of this would be built on a floodplain in the River Thames, in an area that was heavily affected by flooding in 2007.

It is understandable that my constituents are concerned, first, about the disruption that will be caused by eight to 10 years of construction and, secondly, about all the local infrastructure that will be put under water. Local people may draw a comparison between this reservoir and the Farmoor reservoir. The Farmoor reservoir’s walls are only 1 metre to 2 metres high and it is about a third of the size. People can sail on Farmoor; we certainly will not be able to sail on this one, and nor is it going to be a nature reserve. This reservoir will cost the taxpayer billions of pounds and will have a huge environmental impact. In my view and that of the campaigners, it is imperative that Water Resources South East does due diligence and reassures the public, at this early stage, that the proposal is absolutely necessary. That reassurance is wholly lacking at the moment.

My constituents are challenging some key assumptions. A cornerstone of the argument for the reservoir is population growth. WRSE predicts a population increase of 4 million by 2060. The Office for National Statistics puts the figure at 1.13 million, less than a third of that prediction. Water companies have pointed to growth in the Oxford to Cambridge corridor as a factor in their need to create extra resources, but the Oxford-Cambridge Arc appears to have been scrapped. Which number is it? Overestimating population growth has a huge impact on planning for future water demand. The WRSE estimate overstates the required water output by 150 million litres a day.

The case for an infrastructure project of this size should have no holes, but one appears to be leaking already, and it is not the only issue. If the project were to go ahead, the impact on the environment would be monumental. The submission to the Regulators Alliance for Progressing Infrastructure Development—RAPID—claims that the reservoir would have a moderate adverse environmental impact but that the plan would increase biodiversity by 10%. How can the report make such claims, when the initial environmental impact assessment scoping studies will not be carried out until gate three? We have just passed gate one. That will be in spring 2023, with construction due to begin in 2025.

An initial background environmental impact assessment was conducted by Thames Water. When it was released—under pressure—it was almost entirely redacted. That is simply not good enough. Campaign groups have raised concerns that there will be a total loss of habitat and biodiversity. The size and depth of the reservoir will be unsuitable for nesting waterfowl, and it is highly unlikely that species pushed out during construction will ever return. The project will also have the largest construction carbon footprint of any strategic water project, which we know from Thames Water’s own figures. Thames Water has refused to give any breakdown of the figures in the gate one review.

If the requirement for the project seems in doubt, and the consequences for the local area are so catastrophic, but we accept that there is a problem, it is fair to ask whether there are alternatives. The short answer is yes. The reservoir is one of many strategic resource options open to water companies. There are the Severn Thames transfer, Grand Union Canal transfer and London effluent reuse schemes, desalination schemes and, of course, important leakage reduction measures and water demand reduction.

In its submission to the regulator, to which Thames Water contributed, companies argued that the proposal to link the Severn Thames transfer scheme to the Abingdon reservoir via a pipeline would have “no material…benefit”, but in conversations with my office, Thames Water has said that the Severn Thames transfer depends on the reservoir, as the River Thames does not have the storage capacity for the additional water. Both things cannot be true at the same time. What are they telling us? Why is what they are telling us different to what they have submitted?

Local campaign groups further argue that the Thames does not in fact store the water transferred from the Severn, but that the water simply flows down the river and then gets extracted elsewhere. There is no point in supplying the water from the Severn and pumping it to the Abingdon reservoir, because it can be extracted and stored locally, where it is needed. The common misconception about all these schemes is that they will be supplying large amounts of water all time. That is not true: for the majority of the year, neither scheme would supply more than a trickle flow to keep the pipes clean. When there is a likelihood of shortages, developing schemes will be called on to put water into the Thames, and even then, it will not necessarily be at the maximum rate. The point is that the two schemes are, to a large extent, interchangeable. The Severn Thames transfer is, however, more flexible and more adaptable. It will be delivered earlier at a lower cost and a lower construction carbon footprint. It takes up less land and leaves workings underground, not threatening surrounding villages.

As the justification for the reservoir looks flawed and there appears to be a better alternative, we have to ask how we have ended up debating this proposal yet again. One answer lies in the make-up of Water Resource South East, which is a body of six water companies—that is, six organisations interested in maximising their profits. Thames Water pay-outs in dividends to shareholders of parent companies amounted to £57 billion between 1991 and 2019, nearly half the sum it has spent on maintaining and improving the country’s pipes and treatment plants over that period. With Thames Water’s record of pumping sewage into our rivers and failing to fix leakage problems, how are customers expected to trust it to deliver this new infrastructure project? Water companies in the south-east of England appear to have free rein to implement these plans and projects, with little public scrutiny or engagement. Moreover, they are operating under a veil of secrecy, with one quango being under a non-disclosure agreement to another for a scheme that uses public money. That is surely not right, and when an organisation is permitted to operate in this way, it is unsurprising that an element of group-think pervades it.

However, there is another model. Water Resource East has board members not just from the water companies, but from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, local councils and the Rivers Trust. Engaging local stakeholders at all levels of the organisation is the way to maximise local engagement and improve planning, rather than box-ticking exercises and cursory public consultations.

My constituents’ feeling on this issue runs deep, and it is a campaign that some have been fighting for nearly a lifetime. I therefore urge the Minister to thoroughly interrogate the proposal for this reservoir, especially as the Secretary of State has sign-off for the regional plan in spring 2023. I ask her to look again at the population estimates, ensure sufficient environmental impact analysis, reconsider the structure of Water Resource South East, and make it clear to Thames Water through a written warning that releasing wholly redacted environmental studies is simply unacceptable. As the plan for the reservoir progresses to gate two, £29.8 million of taxpayers’ money has been committed to further feasibility studies. We have been here before, and millions of pounds and copious amounts of time were spent fighting it. All I ask is that before we go around this merry-go-round again, we pause, reflect, properly consult, and make sure every available option is considered fully and transparently.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. I congratulate the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Layla Moran) on securing the debate. I realise that she had a similar debate in the past; I was not Environment Minister then, but I have looked at the transcript—it was in 2019, wasn’t it?

I think we are all agreed that water is the most basic, yet vital, resource. It is needed for everything we do and is essential for a healthy environment and a prosperous economy. A reliable water supply should not be taken for granted. I say that because we have not experienced significant shortages of water countrywide since the 1970s, although in April 2012, following two dry winters and just weeks before the London Olympics, water availability in the south-east was reaching record lows. We only avoided significant shortages thanks to a very wet summer in 2012, which highlights how important our water supply is. We have to consider not only a growing population but the effects of climate change, especially in drier parts of the country where it is causing increasing challenges to our water supply. Water companies have to take account of those factors in their future planning in order to provide a reliable and sustainable supply of drinking water. It is our job in Government to work with the water regulators to ensure that the water companies do their job effectively.

The Environment Agency’s national framework for water resources, published in 2020, identified that between 2025 and 2050 about 3 billion to 4 billion extra litres of water a day will be needed for the public water supply—that might surprise a lot of people. We must therefore take a strategic approach to future water needs and work with regional groups and water companies to take account of climate change while protecting the environment. We want to preserve our iconic valleys and water bodies such as chalk streams. Indeed, we welcomed the Catchment Based Approach’s chalk stream strategy, published in October 2021.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has worked closely with our chalk stream restoration group on its development and to drive forward a future vision for chalk streams. I do not know whether the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon engaged with any of that, but some of her neighbours did, and a lot of people, myself included, want to re-establish and restore our amazing chalk streams. That includes having to reduce unsustainable water abstraction from chalk streams and aquifers. We have measures in the landmark Environment Act 2021 to do just that.

The EA’s national framework also reflects the Government’s commitment to a twin-track approach to improving water resilience by investing in new supply infrastructure where necessary. Leakage will be tackled by our water companies as they crack down on water wastage. Up to two thirds of our additional water needs can be made up by water demand improvement. By 2050, we expect to see leakage levels halved and average per capita consumption at 110 litres per person—more than 30 litres less than we currently use in our homes. We are consulting on legally binding demand management targets under our new powers in the Environment Act. The issue is so critical that we are looking at it from every angle.

We must expect all water companies, including Thames Water and Affinity Water, to act on customers’ needs for a resilient water supply, as well as to manage the pressures. I hope that the hon. Member will appreciate that collaborative regional water resources groups, including Water Resources East, which she mentioned, have been consulting on their emerging plans—that consultation closed yesterday—and will publicly consult again to improve them. That will be used to inform water companies’ draft statutory water resources management plans, which will require further public consultation at the end of the year. There will be opportunities for her to feed into that.

I gave Water Resources East as the example of best practice because it has the councils, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and the Rivers Trust sitting on the board, as opposed to their being simply consultees. Does the Minister agree that that is a better model? Local accountability feeds into the plans at the highest level, as opposed to in the Water Resources South East model, which does not include any local democracy whatsoever.

The hon. Lady makes a valid point. We expect water companies to work with their local authorities. She touched on the point about population in her speech. That is where working with the local authority on its local growth plans is valuable, because the local authority will be aware of what new housing there will be and how the population will expand in its area. On those grounds, water companies need to plan for sustainable growth, which is very important.

There will be an opportunity to feed into the management plans. The reservoir would be in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (David Johnston), so I urge him to get involved. He was vociferous about the need for transparency in the process, as is the hon. Lady. He stresses the importance of making sure that there is a need for the reservoir. He would have spoken in the debate, but he has covid, so we wish him well. Perhaps he is at home listening.

The consultations will help inform future decisions on the right way to secure water supplies, including for Thames Water’s 10 million and Affinity Water’s 3.6 million customers. To support the robustness of water resources planning, as well as the national framework, the water regulators issue detailed guidance to water companies on their water resources plans. If water companies forecast a water supply deficit—as we will see in the south-east—they should study all the available options fully to justify the preferred solutions in their plans.

The Environment Agency and Ofwat have both helped to shape the regional plans and are statutory consultees on the water resources management plans. The EA’s national framework sets out that regional groups must be strategic in planning their water needs. There needs to be more effective collaboration between water companies to manage the supply and demand, the resilience and, indeed, the environment, all of which have been clearly flagged. The Environment Agency also advises the Secretary of State on the draft plan before it can be finalised following consultation, so there is a set and clear process.

Water companies are also using the £469 million made available by Ofwat in this price review period properly to investigate a range of potential strategic water resources options, such as new reservoirs, big reservoirs, small on-farm reservoirs—which we potentially need more of—water recycling projects and inter-regional water transfers. The hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon criticised the use of money for investigation, but I would argue that it is critical to know that the right projects are being focused on.

As the hon. Lady mentioned, the work is supported by RAPID, or the Regulators’ Alliance for Progressing Infrastructure Development, a joint team made up of the three water regulators: Ofwat, the EA and the Drinking Water Inspectorate. It is working with industry on the development of strategic water resources infrastructure that is in the best interests of water users and the environment to inform water company plans. She is absolutely right that a range of schemes are being very closely looked at. It is possible that a combination of these big national infrastructure projects will be needed, and options such as the Severn-Thames transfer and the reservoir are not necessarily mutually exclusive. All of that will come out through the consultations, the investigation and the data.

Recently, I went to visit an enormous pipe that goes from the Humber, where there is a lot of water, right down to Essex. That pipe is one example of the huge water transfer projects necessary because of the critical water situation in the east of the country. The planning for that huge project was put in place some years ago, so that the investment could be made and the project could get under way. I am sure that the hon. Member will not disagree that such projects will be necessary in the future.

I agree with the hon. Lady that we need robust plans and transparency but we do have a system to enable that. The need for new infrastructure is, again, set out in the draft national policy statement for water resources infrastructure under the Planning Act 2008. The statement applies to nationally significant infrastructure projects, and I would expect the proposed reservoir scheme to qualify as one such project. I can assure her that extensive pre-application consultation and engagement must be undertaken by applicants using the Planning Act 2008.

The Minister mentioned transparency, but there is a real issue with the redacted environmental impact assessment. I say “redacted”, but the document is gobbledegook and I cannot make head or tail of it. The water company would get much further if it took a much more constructive approach to local campaigners, so that they could be reassured that their numbers were right. Does the Minister agree that the company ought to release the unredacted paper so that we can look at it?

I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention, but I did hear her at the beginning of her speech praising her relationship with Thames Water, so she could use that relationship to urge it to do just that. We are still consulting and there is a long way to go in the process.

I want to touch on a couple of points about the carbon impact. The hon. Lady obviously made a good point when she said that if the project went ahead it would be huge, but regional groups and water companies have to show how their overall contribution to the sector’s 2030 net zero commitment would line up, and how it would line up with the Government’s targets and our net zero commitment. All our big infrastructure projects have to take those things into consideration.

Similarly, on the environmental impact, the water companies will have to continue to develop their proposals and their evidence surrounding any kind of footprint on the environment and habitats, and on the requirements for biodiversity net gain. As nature recovery Minister, I would certainly want everything possible to be done in any scheme that came forward to add to the sum total of our nature recovery.

I hope that the hon. Lady and my hon. Friend the Member for Wantage, who potentially is joining us from his sick bed, see that there is a robust process in place, which is critical. The other critical thing is that we must provide the nation with a reliable source of water. The solutions that are finally selected must go through the right due process and we must know that they are the right system for the right purposes.

I thank the hon. Lady for introducing the debate, and I thank you, too, Mr Bone.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.

In-work Poverty

[Christina Rees in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered in-work poverty.

It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Rees. Before I start, I want to pass on our best wishes, from all sides of the House, to the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Mid Sussex (Mims Davies), who I am sorry to hear has covid. I am sure that her colleague, the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Macclesfield (David Rutley), will do an admirable job in her place.

Work should always be a pathway and route out of poverty. The fact that the phrase “in-work poverty” even exists is a damning indictment of successive Conservative Government policies over the past 12 years. The Government are clearly making life harder for working people, as I will illustrate with a number of examples. I am conscious that a large number of Members want to participate in this important debate, so I will truncate my remarks, but I want to illustrate my argument with some examples from a number of sectors.

Clearly, one of the issues is the increase in taxes and national insurance, which is in direct contravention of a commitment that the Conservatives made in their last general election manifesto. We are also having to deal with the problem of the huge increases in energy prices that the Government, via Ofgem, have allowed to take place. Members may recall that I had a question for the Prime Minister last Wednesday in order to contrast the position of the French Government, who have capped energy price rises at 4%, with that of our Government, who have capped energy price rises at an incredible 54%. That has had a huge impact on people who are in work.

Fuel poverty, food poverty, energy poverty, housing poverty and child poverty are all measures of economic failure, and they are all on the increase. According to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, one in eight workers are struggling to make ends meet. If work guaranteed a decent standard of living, the UK would be going through a golden age of prosperity. Instead, the Conservative party has delivered successive year-on-year policies of austerity over a decade. The social security safety net has given way, after a decade of wear and tear.

Without the most basic protection, a decade of pay cuts and wage stagnation has left working families ill prepared. Many have no savings at all, and people certainly have far less resilience to cope with the current cost of living crisis. In the workplace, we have seen employment rights deliberately weakened, a dramatic increase in the number of zero-hours contracts, and an expansion of the gig economy, with a growing proportion of working people in insecure employment.

I also want to mention the appalling employment practices. Poor employment practices, such as fire and rehire, are rife, even with very profitable and long-established companies, some of which are household names. Despite recent and repeated assurances from Ministers at the Dispatch Box—often condemning the practice—they have done nothing to outlaw the practice of fire and rehire by rogue employers. The Government have disregarded the interests of working people and dismissed the private Member’s Bill brought forward by my hon. Friend the Member for Brent North (Barry Gardiner).

The key workers we all clapped for and honoured during lockdown are bearing the brunt of our low-wage, poverty-pay economy. Figures produced by the TUC reveal that 43% of north-east key workers—over 173,000 people —earn below £10 an hour. Personally, I do not think that £15 an hour is an unreasonable ask in this day and age.

I thank my honourable comrade for giving way. Is he as surprised as I am at a recent article, published by The Herald newspaper and The Ferret website, showing that 20% of jobs advertised on the Department for Work and Pensions website paid under the national minimum wage rate of £9.50? The Department really needs to launch an inquiry into why that is the case.

Absolutely. It should concern us all when the DWP is advertising jobs that fall below the minimum standard and even the limited protections afforded to working people.

We know that even a modest increase in the minimum wage to £10 an hour would transform the lives of key workers, including one in three care workers—so many of us applaud care workers for their contribution, particularly during the pandemic—and 173,000 childcare workers. It would raise the incomes of over half a million people.

Workers across the country are struggling to feed their families and heat their homes. I will give some examples, including one I received from the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers. Like many of us, I have met the cleaners employed by the Churchill Group who are fighting for a real living wage of £15 an hour. I will also highlight the fact that the GMB trade union is campaigning against real-terms pay cuts for nearly 150,000 ASDA staff, and the ongoing University and College Union strike in the university sector. The pattern is the same: terms, conditions, wages and pension rights are being eroded; workers who try to negotiate are blocked, ignored and blamed; while well-paid directors shrug their shoulders with uninterest, often while picking up huge bonuses.

The workers who kept our supermarket shelves stacked during the pandemic are now struggling to feed their own families. I was shown a survey by the Bakers, Food and Allied Workers’ Union, which was very illuminating; it was conducted by the union of its members, who are in the food sector. It found that between February and March 2021, 40% of those surveyed had eaten less than they should have eaten because they did not have sufficient cash; 35% had eaten less than they should have to ensure that other members of their household got a meal; and 21% relied on goods and contributions from family and friends to make ends meet. These are people who are in work—shift workers who supplied the country with bread during the pandemic.

I will also highlight the excellent Right to Food Campaign, which was mentioned in this very Chamber yesterday. The campaign was set up and promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Ian Byrne), and it has been endorsed by my own union, Unite. It seeks to make the Government responsible for addressing the raging income inequalities and the broken benefit system that have pushed so many people into a spiral of poverty.

I saw a quote on social media just before this debate and thought how relevant it is to what we are discussing, because we are talking about the cost of living crisis. The country has more than enough resources and more than enough money to keep everyone warm, housed, free from hunger and properly clothed; in fact, the country has enough wealth to do that a hundred times over. So it is not really a cost of living crisis; what we have is an inequality crisis.

I think the Government should scrap some of the provisions that currently apply to those in receipt of universal credit. Let us not forget that a substantial number of those in receipt of universal credit are in work—they are the working poor. The five-week wait before they can receive a penny is a major contributing factor to the huge increase in the number of people having to turn to food banks.

We need to start putting people before profits. Sadly—it is lamentable, really—poverty has become the norm in Britain; it has become normalised. Yards away from where we are having this debate, homeless people are freezing on the streets and sleeping rough for want of a home. Children go hungry. We see Members of Parliament, particularly Members of the Conservative party, posing for photographs at food banks, and I think the irony must be lost on them that those food banks exist only because of the policies that this Government have promoted.

To return to energy prices, the French Government have capped cost rises at 4%, Germany has cut tariffs and Spain has introduced a windfall tax on the energy companies. But here in Britain, standing charges are doubling and the energy price cap will see energy bills rise by 54%—that is £700 more on average—for our families. Peterlee is the biggest town in my constituency, and EDF, one of the big six energy companies, has many customers there. It is interesting to contrast what is happening in Peterlee with what is happening in Paris. Will the Minister explain why French state-owned EDF can cap cost increases at 4% in Paris while my constituents in Peterlee face a 54% increase in their bills?

Tax rises are exacerbating the cost of living crisis as many in our nation struggle with rising prices. I happened to meet a farmer last weekend, and we chatted about a number of issues. He grows oilseed rape and wheat, and he said that the price of wheat is doubling, and that the price of fertiliser is doubling as well, which will cost him an extra £10,000 a year. He reliably informed me that the cost of wheat, which was £150 a tonne, is now £300 a tonne. That will filter through into dramatic increases in food costs for staples such as bread. The prices of many basic staples, including margarine, tomatoes and apples have increased by as much as 45% in the past year.

Figures from the Trussell Trust and the Independent Food Aid Network show that more than 3 million food bank parcels were distributed in 2020-21. I tried to get the figures for the food banks operating in my constituency —at the community centre in Dawdon and at the East Durham Trust in Peterlee—but they are not part of the Trussell Trust, so the excellent work that they do is not included in those statistics, meaning that the figure is even bigger.

Average petrol and diesel prices are £1.61 and £1.73 per litre respectively, but regional public transport is expensive and unreliable after a decade of neglect, meaning that families have no alternative to protect against increasing fuel costs. The energy cap is up at 54%, and further increases are in the pipeline. The Conservative party once promised to be the “greenest government ever”, but the Public Accounts Committee recently described the green homes grant as a “slam dunk fail”.

House prices are rising beyond the reach of first-time buyers; sky-high rental costs leave little at the end of the month for deposits and savings; and we as a country have abandoned council housing, which is quite disgraceful—that social housing delivered low-cost homes for the post-war generation.

Nelson Mandela said:

“poverty…is man-made and can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings… Overcoming poverty is not a gesture of charity. It is an act of justice. It is the protection of a fundamental human right, the right to dignity and a decent life… While poverty persists, there is no true freedom.”

Once again, we see that poverty is a political choice. It is a Conservative political choice, and one that this Government should be ashamed of.

Order. The debate is well subscribed, so I am putting in place a formal time limit of four minutes. I call Peter Gibson.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Rees. I congratulate my County Durham colleague, the hon. Member for Easington (Grahame Morris), on securing the debate. He called for a 58% increase in the minimum wage, which would have a massive inflationary impact. He cannot complain about inflation and the cost of living crisis that we face while advocating policies that would create further problems. If levelling up is to succeed, we must tackle poverty. I want to make it clear that I believe that one person or family in poverty is one too many.

As we all know, employment is the best route out of poverty. Evidence shows that full-time work substantially reduces the chances of living in poverty, and I am proud that the Government have taken an approach to tackling poverty that has employment at its heart. We have seen the Government accept the four recommendations of the Low Pay Commission, which will see the living wage increase to £9.50 an hour—an increase of 6.6%. We have seen the Government extend the national living wage to 23 and 24-year-olds, who will also benefit from the increase to £9.50. Improvements have been made for those on universal credit and in work, with an increase in the work allowance and a reduction in the taper rate, making work pay. Across the country, we have seen massive improvements in our pension savings for working people, with auto-enrolment securing a pension income for millions. I am hopeful that this can be extended to younger people and those working part time, to help ensure that they save for their futures too.

I appreciate that some people do not have the skills to get the job that they want, including those who left school at an early stage and those who have caring responsibilities. That is why the Government’s lifetime skills guarantee is designed to transform the adult education system, helping people of all ages to develop the skills that they need to get better jobs and supporting businesses to find or develop talents to fill the skills gap. Last week, I visited the marvellous Darlington College and saw with my own eyes the incredible learning and training opportunities on offer, from plumbing, plastering and public service to catering, car repairs and childcare. As T-levels will be introduced later this year, the college also offers courses in robotics. These are incredible opportunities to learn and improve skills for the economy of the future.

We know that our economy has record vacancies. From ambulance, bus and taxi drivers to doctors and nurses, we know that there are opportunities out there. The simple law of economics means that wages are increasing in order to attract people into these roles. We help our constituents in the long run by ensuring that they have the chances to improve their skills and employability. I hope that one day we reach a point where wages from employment provide enough, so that in-work benefits are not necessary. In the meantime, however, I believe that increasing wages, reducing the amount taken from those on benefits who work, and giving people the chance to learn in order to improve their lot is the best way to tackle the issues raised in today’s debate. I look forward to the Minister’s response and to hearing an update on the cross-departmental mechanism on in-work progression.

The cost of living crisis is biting deep into the lives of my constituents in North Ayrshire and Arran. In-work poverty ought to be a contradiction in terms, but it is at an all-time high. Two thirds of working-age adults in poverty live in households where an adult is working, and 75% of children in poverty live in a home where at least one person is working, which shows that work offers no guaranteed route out of poverty. In-work benefits, such as universal credit, are simply not enough to lift people out of poverty, and cutting the universal credit uplift and the working tax credit of £20 a week was not just folly on the part of the Government; it was also cruel in the extreme, because it was done in the full knowledge of the hardship it would cause.

Despite the doubling of the Scottish child payment, the universal credit uplift cut has caused untold hardship in our communities. What can the Government do? They need to raise the statutory minimum wage in line with the real living wage, and they need to remove the age discrimination that it inherently contains. They need to understand that increasing the national minimum wage to £9.50 per hour next month is simply not enough to compensate the people who are suffering because of soaring costs in every direction, and it does not compensate them for the £20 cut in universal credit that they have already suffered.

The Government could ditch the national insurance tax rise, which is set to kick in next month and will disproportionately hit those in the lowest-paid jobs. They could increase statutory sick pay—we have one of the lowest sick pay rates in the OECD. Even so, one in five workers are simply not eligible for it, which, again, disproportionately impacts on women. They could support my Bereavement (Leave and Pay) Bill, because we know that beyond the emotional impact of bereavement, there are significant financial costs as well, without the bereaved having to worry about lost earnings. They could reverse the £20 per week universal credit cut immediately and abolish the electricity standing charge, which amounts to about a quarter of consumer energy bills for the less well off.

We all understand that global fuel prices are increasing, but motorists pay 58p per litre on fuel duty and then additionally pay 12p in VAT on that charge, so around 70p per litre of petrol goes straight to the Treasury in tax. As fuel hits £1.80 per litre, the UK Government must cut the tax take on fuel, as it does not just hit motorists who rely on their cars to get to work, but adds to business costs and impacts the whole economy, and increases the costs of goods and services. Cutting the tax on fuel could help prevent inflation reaching double figures. It makes complete sense to do that at this time.

The scandal of in-work poverty cannot be simply tolerated. The current cost of living crisis demands direct and urgent Government intervention right now, to support those in work who are no longer even just about managing—the group that the Government say they care about. The Government must respond to the needs and demands of those they purport to serve. I hope the Minister will not simply regurgitate what has already been done, because what has already been done is simply not enough in the face of a cost of living crisis that grows by the day. I hope he will be able to give us some hope that in the spring statement there will be a prospect of some respite for people across the UK, and for my constituents in North Ayrshire and Arran.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Rees. I congratulate the hon. Member for Easington (Grahame Morris) on securing this debate. Although we might disagree on the ways of tackling poverty, I think we all agree on the need to do so.

I want to start by defining what I mean by in-work poverty. It is important that when we talk about poverty we use the correct definitions. The Work and Pensions Committee’s report on children in poverty goes into different definitions and how they are used and misused. I will use the standard definition of relative poverty. Many have focused on financial poverty, but I do not think that is the best definition. I prefer multi-modal models because I think poverty is about more than just money. It is also about educational and societal resources, but this debate has very much veered into the financial side.

On the financial side we look at inputs and outputs. Inputs are about wages, benefits and benefits top-ups, and outputs are about living costs. I want to focus on the outputs and what I call the two big beasts, which I have been campaigning on for some time—affordable housing and childcare. For affordable housing we need to sort out affordable rents. It horrifies me that in my constituency the No. 1 cause of someone being at risk of homelessness remains affordable rents, which we need to get sorted and fixed.

Childcare is also a particular challenge in terms of a big beast. It costs a lot. It is difficult for people to administer, particularly the requirement to pay up-front costs and then claim retrospectively when one is on benefits, as opposed to directly invoicing the Department for Work and Pensions. The 85% cap for people on benefits is not enough to cover childcare costs for many people. For those in receipt of 15 to 30 hours’ free childcare, certainly if they live in my constituency, lots of childcare providers require top-ups, so the idea that it is 15 to 30 hours of free childcare is illusory. Many people need financial top-ups over and above that provision. The provision is very generous, but it could be more generous still.

Childcare is also a barrier to in-work progression. Lots of people who work part time face childcare costs. When they want to increase their hours, there is a diminishing return in terms of the taper. I welcome the reduction of a taper in terms of UC payback, but that on top of increasing childcare means that when someone moves from 36 to 40 hours a week, they see relatively little return for the extra hours of work. That acts as a substantial disincentive; we need to look carefully at how we can support people who want to work—and make sure that work always pays.

Besides cost, availability of childcare is a huge problem; it remains a disincentive to work for people who are not on the breadline. I speak to lots of people on the doorstep who tell me about the challenges of childcare provision and costs when returning to work—people previously in quite high-flying careers. There are some areas where we can fix that. We can look at ratios of childminders to children. We can look at increasing school hours; I would support a move to a more continental model around that. Reducing the cap on benefits and providing more childcare support for people who are on benefits is another area we can look at.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms Rees. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Easington (Grahame Morris) on securing this important debate. This debate takes place in the context of a sustained attack on the living standards of ordinary people in this country. Energy bills are rocketing. There are tax rises and real-terms pay cuts for millions of people, as well as cuts to universal credit, benefits and pensions. That does not happen in a vacuum; it comes after a decade of austerity, cuts to public services and the tightest squeeze on wages in 200 years. Experts warn that this could be the biggest drop in living standards in many decades.

What does that mean in reality? The daily reality of this crisis for families in my constituency of Leeds East and throughout the country is grim. How, in the fifth-biggest economy on Earth, can we have families who cannot turn the heating on? How, in the fifth-biggest economy on Earth, can we have a situation where parents are missing meals to make sure that their children can eat? How, in the fifth-biggest economy on Earth, do we have more food banks than branches of McDonald’s? I recently met staff at the Chapeltown Citizens Advice in Leeds; their data shows that already, more than one in seven people in my constituency cannot pay their energy bills without cutting back on essential spending.

At the same time, the richest are getting richer. While millions suffer, the millionaires are doing very well. British billionaires have increased their wealth by £290 million per day. The Government have been slashing the taxes of bankers and the gas and oil giants that make £900 profit every single second. Let us be clear: the right to be warm is more important than the right to make super-profits. It is a rigged economic system, which is failing ordinary people. It is a crisis made in Downing Street—let us not be scared to say that.

The Government are trying to shift the blame; they are trying to say that the cost of living crisis is due to the horrific war on Ukraine. It is not. The Government’s plan is to make working people pay the costs of the pandemic, just like they made ordinary people pay for the bankers’ crisis. Poverty is a political choice, and the Tories are choosing to push people into poverty through the cost of living crisis.

What do we do about it? We need an emergency plan to tackle the situation. I will make five suggestions. First, the Government must scrap the national insurance hike that is coming in next month and replace it with a wealth tax on the richest 1%. Secondly, we need a windfall tax on energy profits, to be immediately used to lower energy bills, and a huge home insulation programme to save people hundreds of pounds a year. Thirdly, we need a national minimum wage of £15 per hour. Fourthly, we need the restoration of the universal credit uplift, and its expansion to those who are denied it. We need to uplift benefits by the 8% that the Resolution Foundation and others are calling for to meet inflation pressures. Finally, we need to tackle child hunger, with free school meals for all schoolchildren—learning from what Labour is doing in power in Wales.

We cannot allow the Government to yet again force working people to pay for a crisis. They have made a political choice; our political choice is to fight back with a set of proposals that will make a real difference.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Ms Rees. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Easington (Grahame Morris) on securing this incredibly important debate.

Poverty is a scourge that devastates lives. In today’s debate we are focusing on in-work poverty, but the Government should address poverty however it arises. A report by the Institute for Public Policy Research in May 2021 highlighted that the UK’s poverty rate among working households was at a record high this century. The report also found that in 2019-20 the majority of those living in poverty were in households that had some form of paid work.

That is also reflected in the Government’s statistics, which show that of all the working-age adults in poverty, both in the UK and in the north-west, 65% are in working families. In some areas, the figure is even higher. For the east of England, that is 70%, and for the south-west, 72%. That is truly shocking, and completely dispels the Conservative myth that work is the best route out of poverty. I am so disappointed that we have already heard that myth chanted today.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. We have just listened as my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds East (Richard Burgon) came out with all sorts of suggestions, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Easington—such as increasing the minimum wage, tackling insecure work, banning zero-hours contracts and so on. I will return in my speech to the issue that the hon. Gentleman raised.

As I said, those figures completely dispel the Conservative myth that work is the best route out of poverty. It is clear that low-income households are likely to be disproportionately affected by the cost of living crisis. The Trussell Trust has warned that, for people already struggling to afford the essentials, the cost of living crisis can mean parents going without meals in order to afford to feed their children. That, sadly, is nothing new, but the situation, instead of improving, is getting worse.

Food prices have been increasing since the middle of 2021 and are expected to increase in coming months. The domestic energy price cap will increase by 54% from 1 April for approximately 22 million customers. Energy prices are likely to continue to rise beyond that, as a result of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Some economists have suggested that the inflation rate in the UK could hit 10%.

I have given way once and am short of time; I am sorry. The increase in national insurance contributions from next month, opposed by Labour, will increase the pressure on working people and businesses even further.

The full impact of the coronavirus pandemic on levels of poverty is not yet known, but early analysis suggests that poverty will increase over the next few years, and that low-income households are particularly vulnerable to the economic effects of the pandemic. The Government must end the scourge of in-work poverty, by tackling the structural causes of poverty and inequality, such as low pay and high living costs. At next week’s spring statement, the Government have a chance to make a real difference to the lives of working families. There are plenty of steps they could take.

The Government should never have cut universal credit by more than £1,000 a year, and they should reinstate the uplift. They should also scrap the two-child limit, which the Child Poverty Action Group has called for, and the benefit cap. They should increase child benefit by £10 a week, and call a halt to the rise in national insurance. They should also initiate a one-off windfall tax on oil and gas producers, to cut household energy bills by up to £600, as Labour has called for.

Those are all measures that this Conservative Government could take; it is simply a matter of political will. I ask the Minister to set out today what action the Government will take to eradicate poverty.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. Ms Rees. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Easington (Grahame Morris) for securing the debate and for his comments.

In-work poverty undermines the social contract that evolved in this country after world war two with the establishment of the welfare state. The whole purpose of Beveridge was that people would work and pay national insurance, which would provide for their sickness and retirement. Those who fell through the gap would be dealt with by supplementary benefit. Work was the route out of poverty. That is no longer the situation.

We now have in-work poverty, as others have said—something that is unprecedented in recent times. That is not an accident; it is an economic model that has come from the United States. It was brought in—established perhaps—by Clinton. For those who have not read it, I recommend the book by Barbara Ehrenreich, “Nickel and Dimed”. She refers to the United States that came into being after the reforms brought in by Bill Clinton in 1996 with the Welfare Reform Act. That created a low-wage economy. It might have created many jobs, and Clinton dined out on that for a long time, until people began to drill down into what was actually happening. It was a low-wage economy. Ehrenreich talks about people having to do one, two or three jobs simply to survive—not to pay medical bills or school fees, but simply to live—because the cost of living made it impossible. We perceived that to be a problem for people in the United States, which did not have a welfare state, and that it would not apply here. We still have a welfare state, but it is beginning to fall apart—not just fraying at the seams, but being eroded, corroded and, indeed, torn down from within.

The whole concept of work being a route out of poverty no longer applies. That simply is not the case, as we can see all about us. It is not simply about the statistics that have been mentioned; we are conscious of other aspects. The problem hits every corner of this country and applies to every sector. The movie “Sorry We Missed You” highlights how the issue affects social care and distribution, but there is hardly a sector that is not affected.

The problem is not restricted simply to those who work on zero-hour contracts because, as in the United States, we now have people who cannot live on the hours they get in one job; they have to do two or three jobs simply to survive, and we have to make sure that that changes. It is simply unacceptable, and a breach of the social contract that was supposed to be the benefit of world war two.

We still see risks, so what can we do about them? First and foremost, we have to recognise that this was an issue even before coronavirus and the cost of living crisis. It was, as others have correctly testified, predicated on high rents. People were unable to earn enough to meet their rent, and they had to choose between paying their rent and eating. That is now compounded by a cost of living increase, especially for fuel, and inflation is hammering food costs. Now, the situation is not just about people managing to pay the rent, but deciding whether they can heat their homes before even indulging in feeding themselves and their children. Society has to change, but how can we do it?

Fundamentally, we must ensure first of all that we have a living wage. Our current minimum wage is not enough; it needs to be a national living wage. We need to empower trade unions, because workers are being driven right over. We must regulate, so that people can afford their rent. Finally, as we face escalating fuel costs, we need a social tariff and an end to the abomination of standing charges, which are impoverishing people. There is a better way. This is not the society that was anticipated by the generations before us.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Rees. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Easington (Grahame Morris) for securing this important debate and for his passionate speech.

More than half of those who live in poverty are in working households. Indeed, the Institute for Public Policy Research found last year that since 2010 the situation has deteriorated steadily, leaving working families at the highest risk of falling into poverty since the welfare system was at its most generous in 2004. That was before the current cost of living crisis that we face.

Now, the Government’s proposed national insurance contributions increase will affect more than 2.5 million working households on low incomes, inflation is expected to hit at least 7.25% in April—pushing food and everyday costs through the roof—and energy prices are expected to rise by a whopping 50%. If we add the Government’s proposed benefits uplift of 3.1%, which, in the light of the anticipated rates of inflation that I have just mentioned, actually amounts to a dramatic benefits cut, we have the makings of a poverty crisis the scale of which we have not seen in our lifetimes.

Things do not need to be like this. In fact, it makes no economic sense at all, because in economies where incomes are supressed, it is not just living standards that suffer; growth is suppressed, too. I am sure that we have all heard the saying, “A rising tide should lift all boats”—as the economy expands, everybody should reap the rewards—but we cannot successfully expand the economy without two things—industrial strategy and demand. If consumers have no money to spend, there is no demand—unless we export everything we produce in the UK.

I urge the Minister to take a number of urgent actions. First, the Government must set about setting out a far more detailed and comprehensive industrial and skills strategy. Secondly, the Government must take the reins on liveable wage levels. They must reform corporate governance and industrial policies to promote healthy wage growth. They must strengthen the workforce voice and roll out sectoral collective bargaining to give working people more power in the workplace, and they should examine the concept of a universal basic income for all. Thirdly, they must introduce the long-promised renters’ reform Bill, to give renters the security and protection that they deserve.

Finally, on providing support to households during the cost of living crisis, I urge the Minster to scrap the proposed NICs increase and to help struggling households on energy bills by cutting the rate of VAT for household energy bills, and levying a long overdue windfall tax on oil and gas companies to generate income. This plan should include expanding the warm home discount, significantly increasing universal credit to offset soaring inflation, and increasing public sector pay and the living wage to push further wage growth. I know that this suggestion goes against every ideological principle that the Minister probably has, but he must finally address the fact that privatisation of our energy system has failed, and acknowledge that public ownership is not just a pragmatic way to solve the energy crisis, but essential to securing our energy security.

There is much that I disagree with when I study the economic principles of Adam Smith, but I will leave the Chamber with one final quotation, which I hope the Minister will agree with:

“A man must always live by his work, and his wages must at least be sufficient to maintain him.”

I hope that the Minister bears that in mind when he sums up, and that he will address the points that I have raised.

It is a pleasure, as ever, to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Rees. I congratulate the hon. Member for Easington (Grahame Morris) on securing the debate.

In the course of the last few weeks, we have been speaking about issues such as the cost of living crisis and in-work poverty almost as if they are new concepts. However, it would be remiss of any of us in this House to allow that to pass without saying that the cost of living crisis and in-work poverty are not new; they are the result of 12 years of Conservative government and austerity.

Many of my constituents, particularly those in Wellhouse, raise three main points with me regularly, and I will come them in a minute. First, I want to discuss the issue of the national insurance hike, which a number of other hon. Members have mentioned. I must be one of the many people in this House who find it a bit bizarre to be told that we need to hike national insurance on the youngest and lowest earners in society, when only in 2016 a bus was going around the UK that said that if people voted for Brexit, there would be £350 million a week extra for the national health service. I find it a little bit odd that, having committed the act of economic madness that is Brexit, we now find ourselves being told that national insurance has to be hiked to pay for changes in the health system.

The national insurance hike will disproportionately hit the youngest and the lowest income earners in our society. To put that in context, particularly for my constituents back home in Scotland, that means that 20% of the pay increase for a band 5 nurse will go on the national insurance hike. We can all stand there and talk about clapping for carers and that kind of thing, but the very people who we are seeking to reward and recognise for their work during the pandemic will be clobbered by this national insurance hike.

I will raise three other issues today. First, I want to see proper statutory sick pay. If the pandemic has highlighted anything, it is that making people choose between adhering to public health guidance and having enough money to heat their homes and put food in the fridge is a nonsense. The Government will say that now is not the time to look at statutory sick pay, but I would turn that on its head: the pandemic has magnified why statutory sick pay needs to be reformed. Statutory sick pay in these islands is the equivalent of about 17% of average weekly earnings, according to the Office for National Statistics. The Government must revisit the issue.

Secondly, let me turn to the idea of removing age discrimination. The hon. Member for Darlington (Peter Gibson) talked about the living wage. Let us be clear that the living wage is a con trick. The Government talk about the living wage, but it is not a real living wage that is set in line with the recommendations of the Living Wage Foundation, and age discrimination is baked in.

We celebrated Scottish Apprenticeship Week just last week. I do not know whether Conservative MPs are aware that an apprentice in the UK can be paid as little as £4.30 an hour. Indeed, the UK Government website states:

“An apprentice aged 21 in the first year of their apprenticeship is entitled to a minimum hourly rate of £4.30.”

I served alongside many apprentices when I was an apprentice at Glasgow City Council. Apprentices do not get a discount on their fuel when they go to the pumps, they do not get a discount on their energy bills, and they do not get a discount when they go to Asda or Aldi for their food. If the UK Government want to talk about equality and making sure that work pays, let us start by ensuring that everybody gets a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work.

Finally, I want to talk briefly about the importance of childcare. The hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Dr Spencer) made a thoughtful speech. He is right to say that we can by all means provide childcare, but the universal credit childcare offer is not enough. The Government must do so much more to help people with in-work poverty, which is a stain on this society.

As always, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Rees. I thank the hon. Member for Easington (Grahame Morris) for setting the scene so well. He has a passion for the subject, as we can tell from the way he introduced the debate.

Like others, I have been contacted by countless constituents who are not only concerned about the increase in the cost of living, but struggling to make ends meet on a daily basis. It is as simple as that, unfortunately. It is important to highlight these issues and discuss what steps we can take to help working families who are in need.

It has been estimated that 14.5 million people—some 22% of the population—were in poverty in 2020. If they were in poverty in 2020, they will unfortunately be even more so today. In addition, some 11% of families where one adult is in work are in poverty. Although the cost of living and some other issues remain devolved, they have an impact on the whole United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Consumer rates were 5.4% higher in December 2021 than they had been a year before, making the inflation rate the highest recorded since 1992.

We all know the issues that I want to focus on. I want to focus on working-class people, who are impacted the most. I am not saying that the middle class are not impacted, because they are, but the hurt and anxiety are larger for the working class. Fuel prices are up 50%, and food prices are up some 25%. Almost 60% of people in the UK are termed working class, and in Northern Ireland 220,000 working-age adults are in poverty. We have seen the prices of petrol and diesel soaring with little or no hope of a reduction, although they have stalled today. The price of heating oil has gone up, like the price of diesel or petrol for the car.

I want to make a genuine request to the Minister. The Republic of Ireland—I do not think it is the greatest country in the world, by the way, as people know—has responded to its people by reducing VAT on household energy and fuel, as a short-term measure to help constituents. Why can we not do the same? I put that very gently but very firmly to the Minister, because I think we should do something about this.

I want to highlight the problems with the child benefit cap. I am conscious that many working families feel unable to take a pay rise from their employment, because they could lose their child benefit and be worse off. That is not the Minister’s responsibility, but we need to address the issue for those who juggle their wage with the child benefit cap.

The people of the United Kingdom deserve more when it comes to housing rental prices and food prices. In the Department for Communities back home, Deirdre Hargey has brought forward some support in the Northern Ireland Assembly for those on benefits at this tough time. Whenever I see that being done, I look to the Government here to do the same. My staff have taken numerous calls from those in unemployment who cannot afford the cost of living, and unfortunately there does not seem to be any answer. More must be done to support them.

What is sure is that the issue with living costs will not de-escalate any time soon. Prices are set to rise even further in April, and we cannot and must not sit idly by and watch that unfold without knowing that we have taken all steps possible and done everything practicable to combat it. I know that this is not directly in the Minister’s portfolio, but it is important, and he is the man here today responding to the debate. We need to have some measures in place and take some steps in the right direction, so that we can go back to our constituents knowing that we have done our darndest for them in Westminster Hall today. I urge the Minister to ensure that all the comments are taken on board and that the devolved nations are communicated with, so that we in Northern Ireland, and in the Northern Ireland Assembly, can benefit from whatever steps are taken to try to address the issue.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms Rees. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Easington (Grahame Morris) for securing this debate, which is absolutely vital but should not be necessary in 21st-century Britain.

My constituency of Bolton South East is the 38th most deprived constituency in the United Kingdom. We have a jobs crisis, a wage crisis and a poverty crisis. Every single day, constituents write to me, outlining the most tragic circumstances. The stories include the inability to get a job, an unexpected benefits freeze and, more recently, a collective panic about how to pay for food, heating and bills. These are not the make-believe people that Cameron and Osborne dreamed up in 2010—the “shirkers” or “scroungers”—but the strivers that the coalition supposedly championed. They work long hours in tough jobs to provide for their families, put food on the table and give their children the best chance in life.

The 800 taxi drivers in the borough of Bolton are an example. Many of them live in my patch, and work long, hard hours, but because of rulings about the gig economy and their self-employed status, they often fail to make even the minimum wage on some shifts. We need to factor in the continuing restraints on licensing by local authorities, insurance costs, and other rules set by local authorities that make life even harder for them.

So many hard-working people are living in poverty. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation found that 56% of people in poverty are working; that represents a rise of 17% from 1998. Additionally, almost 40% of people on universal credit are working. That tells us that our economic model and wage system are fundamentally broken. We are told frequently by the Government that work is the best route out of poverty, as if that is an irrefutable fact, but clearly it is not the case.

Real wages were revised down again on Tuesday and are collectively lower than at the height of the financial crisis in 2008, yet the pay of chief executives of big companies has ballooned. The rich have actually got richer over the years. House prices are up by 150% in some areas of Bolton. Of course, there is also the rise in national insurance for the lowest paid, just to make things even worse for them. We need the Chancellor of the Exchequer to top up universal credit and take it back to the rate that it was at during the pandemic. The removal of the £20 uplift is not only morally bankrupt, but economically illiterate. It affected 14,000 of my constituents, and £20 per week is a lot of money for them.

Another reform that the Government could support is in relation to public transport. Only 30% of households in my constituency have a car and therefore rely on public transport, at significant cost. Thankfully, the Mayor of Greater Manchester has brought the buses into the public sector. As a result, no one will have to pay more than £2 per journey, which will make life so much easier for people. The Government could also quite easily implement a windfall tax on the £31 billion-worth of profits from oil and gas companies—above the ordinary profit that these companies make. That could be used to help to alleviate people’s problems, yet what does the Treasury say? “We’ll give you a £200 loan that you must pay back to us.” That is an insult to our constituents.

Many of my colleagues have today suggested practical steps that the Government could take. Bearing in mind that we are the fourth richest country in the world, we should not have constituents in poverty. I hope that the Minister listens to the suggestions put forward today and acts on them.

It is a delight to see you in the Chair, Ms Rees. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Easington (Grahame Morris) for securing the debate.

If anything proves how broken the current economic model is, it is the extent of in-work poverty—it does just that. I have listened carefully to the remarks from Government Members. You would not think, Ms Rees, that they have been in power for 12 years. The hon. Member for Darlington (Peter Gibson) talks about work being the best route out of poverty. Are cleaners not entitled to a decent wage? Are security staff who keep our hospital staff and patients safe not entitled to a dignified life? Are care workers not entitled to the decency of a wage that they can live on? Are the shopworkers who we applauded not entitled to be able to make ends meet? Or have people got to leave those jobs and get “better” ones? What an indictment it is on this Government that they say such a thing.

It is a fact that one in six working families is now in poverty—a record high. It puts paid to all the Tories’ boasts of job creation when the jobs that they are creating still confine people to destitution. The latest employment figures, published by the ONS yesterday, show that real wages dropped by 1.5% over the past year. That is the worst fall in real pay for eight years.

This is clearly a situation that the Government are actively pursuing. The motion they passed last month—effectively cutting pensions and social security payments by 3% to 4% in real terms—along with their slashing of the universal credit uplift, the rise of the energy price cap and the increase in national insurance contributions all point to the simple conclusion that this Government are knowingly pushing more and more families into circumstances where they have to choose between staying warm and putting food on the table.

Just as with the coalition Government’s austerity programme after the financial crash, we hear from this Tory Government that it is those in most need who will have to bear the biggest brunt of the fallout of the covid crisis, and now the illegal and atrocious Russian invasion of Ukraine. The Government’s argument is that the cost of living crisis is a sacrifice that must be made to oppose Putin’s actions—it is nonsense and must be called out. Poverty is a political choice, and the Government are choosing for that sacrifice to be made by working people instead of the wealthy. In fact, despite the ongoing crises, billionaires have never had it so good.

Would my hon. Friend comment on the level of profits being generated by the energy distribution companies for gas and electricity, and what alternatives there are in windfall taxes on those companies?

My hon. Friend makes a pertinent point. Those transmission companies are enjoying a scandalous rise in profits; if ever a case was made for public ownership of the transmission of energy, that is it. The time is absolutely now.

There are also a number of longstanding factors that have caused the spiralling levels of in-work poverty. Above all is the fact that the so-called national living wage of £8.91 an hour is significantly below a wage that people can actually survive on. I have said it time and again: we need to raise the minimum wage to a level that allows people to live fully flourishing lives, not just get by. The planned rise to £9.50 an hour next month simply will not cut it. In the midst of a cost of living crisis, with inflation soaring, the national minimum wage is nothing but a poverty wage. The time is right for a £15 an hour minimum wage—in fact, it is way overdue.

Different categories of workers are going to work with different types of employment rights. We need to consolidate those categories into a single status of worker so that people have the same full employment rights from day one. I am pleased to have introduced to this House the Status of Workers Bill, which was guided through the other place by my noble Friend Lord Hendy. I implore the Minister to allow the Bill the necessary time to pass through this House, so that it can make the fundamental change to workers’ rights that could do so much to turn the tide of in-work poverty.

It is a pleasure to see a friend of the worker in the Chair, Ms Rees. I thank my good friend and comrade the hon. Member for Easington (Grahame Morris) for making an excellent speech to kick off the debate. The contributions—with the possible exception of one—have been very impressive indeed.

I want to make a number of points. First, in-work poverty and inadequate living standards remain the norm for far too many people on these islands. We urge the UK Government to look at the minimum wage rates in the country. They need to not only amend the definition of a worker, but go further by strengthening protection for workers.

The UK is experiencing the highest levels of in-work poverty this century, which disproportionately impacts groups facing high living costs, such as lone parents—the majority of whom are women—disabled people and people with caring responsibilities. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation report that was mentioned earlier shows that around two thirds—the actual figure is 68%—of working-age adults in poverty in the UK live in a household where at least one adult is in work. The figure has never been higher since records began in 1996, so we now have the highest ever levels of in-work poverty. For too many people, low-paid jobs offer no opportunities to progress to better work and better wages, and far too many people are in insecure work with unpredictable hours and incomes, which is something that I want to touch on. That is, of course, in stark contrast to the situation in Scotland.

The hon. Member is making some excellent points, but I wonder what impact the Government’s decision to close jobcentres will have on constituencies such as mine and perhaps 60 others. What impact will that have on alleviating in-work poverty and on encouraging people who are out of work into paid employment?

It will increase in-work poverty. As the hon. Gentleman will know, the Government tried to close half the jobcentres in the city of Glasgow. People there are having to spend more money and go further in order to get to a jobcentre to see whether they can get better work.

As we have a Minister from the Department for Work and Pensions in front of us, I want to point out that a number of people claiming universal credit are in work. We have a situation—the Minister responded to a written question on this issue—whereby half of DWP claimants have their universal credit claims deducted. I would argue that that is a poverty tax. In some cases, £60 a month is taken away from someone’s universal credit claim. Universal credit is supposed to be a subsistence benefit that is paid at a rate that people can live on. If we take £60 a month away from them, people have to choose whether to heat or eat. That really needs to end. Advances need to be replaced by an up-front grant or a starter payment, as we argued on the Work and Pensions Committee. The recovery of tax credits needs to be at a lower level, and I would say that debts of more than six years should be written off entirely. There are a number of lawyers in the Chamber and they know that if I try to sue them for a debt that is over six years old, a sheriff in a Scottish court would write that off and absolve the debt.

I also want the Minister to respond to a point that I made earlier during my intervention on the hon. Member for Easington. In the jobs advertisements on the DWP website, 31% of full-time jobs and 50% of parti-time jobs pay less than the real living wage of £9.90 an hour. Some 20% are advertised as paying less than the national living wage of £9.50. I will give three examples: Burger King pays £6 an hour, Pizza Express £6.56 an hour, and Farmfoods £6.66 an hour. None of the adverts clarifies wage rates for different ages, and all the companies have made substantial profits in the last year or two, so increasing the wage rates and asking them to pay more certainly would not harm those businesses all that much. I am talking about multinational companies, and I would like to know what the DWP is going to do about the adverts. Will it refer itself to the national minimum wage compliance unit, which has a number of vacancies? Perhaps we can advertise those jobs on the DWP website.

I want to touch on what my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow East (David Linden) said about discrimination in the national minimum wage rates, because he is absolutely right. There is a nonsensical argument that somehow young people are not active participants in the labour market. If Burger King has a 17-year-old next to a 37-year-old and they are both flipping hamburgers, they are equal participants in the labour market and should be paid the same rate for doing the same work. That is what I call equal pay. The equal pay legislation always encourages people to get the same rate for the same job, the same work.

What would happen if we increased wages? People would spend money. A false argument is also made about public sector pay—that somehow it takes money out of the economy. But that is not how it works. When people get a wage increase, they do not put it in a shoebox and hide it under bed; they go out and spend it in the economy. It means that they can afford things that they could not afford before, so they spend more on food and other items.

To touch on the contribution of the hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Andy McDonald)—I support his Bill and I know that he supports my Workers (Definition and Rights) Bill—there needs to be a definition of “worker”, so that we can strengthen workers’ rights. For four years the Government have been sitting on the Taylor report, which sought to address the issues, but at the last Queen’s Speech we were told that it was no longer a priority for them. That is scandalous. We need to take a real look at protection for workers and at eliminating zero-hours and other unfair contracts.

Employers are currently able to text four people to say, “The first one here gets the shift.” That has to end. People phone taxis and run out of the house to get there first, spending money as they do so, only to end up as the runner-up and get nothing. That is completely and utterly scandalous. I have included that in my Bill, because we need to address it. We also need to look at flexible working and at strengthening parental, neonatal and miscarriage leave for workers.

SNP MPs have consistently sought to strengthen workers’ rights and have promoted Bills to do so. I commend the Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union for its Right to Food campaign. I will welcome that in Glasgow, because it has identified Glasgow South West as one of the constituencies in which it wants to do work. There is much that the Government need to do to address in-work poverty, before it gets even worse.

It is a pleasure, as ever, to serve under your chairship, Ms Rees.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Easington (Grahame Morris) for, and congratulate him on, securing this debate in Westminster Hall. The passionate contributions from all, particularly Opposition Members, have made it clear that this is a crucial discussion. At the heart of the debate is a simple truth: we all want to get on in life. Many of us know the feeling of receiving our first pay packet—that sense of finally releasing our parents from the stress of having to afford us and from that worry about money. There is a feeling of ease—not of great wealth, but of having enough—and that is what we want every person in our country to feel. With hard work, that should be available to all. The truth, however, as we heard in so many countless examples, is that that feeling is not available to everyone.

The hon. Member for Darlington (Peter Gibson) described the simple law of economics that a high number of vacancies increases wages. If that were the case, real wages ought to be shooting up, but they are not. The fact is that economics does not have simple laws—if it did, a lot of economists would be out of work.

Things do not work like that; they are much more problematic. This is the challenge: there is a rocketing number of vacancies, but people are not able to get on in life. That is the problem. The Government themselves know that that is the case. They know we have a problem. They commissioned the in-work progression review by Ruby McGregor-Smith.

As a former employer of a substantial number of people in a very competitive industry, I frequently had to recruit people when demand was greater than the supply available. It was often the case that employers such as myself had to increase wages to make those jobs attractive and to bring people in from other employers. I was speaking from my own experience. Having spoken to employers in my own constituency who have vacancies, I know that they too are increasing their wages to attract people.

Perhaps the hon. Member could ask those other employers why real wages are not increasing, because that is what the data tells us is happening. Unfortunately, it turns out that the rules of supply and demand are not so simple when an economy has as many problems as those experienced in Britain.

The Government themselves—the hon. Member’s own Government—know that this is a problem. They know that people are stuck in low pay, because they got Ruby McGregor-Smith to investigate and ask why people are simply not able to get on in life, earn a better pay packet and look after their family. She found that there were myriad issues with the cost of childcare and transport, and that people are unable to get the right skills to move on and move up. In certain professions, including care, a culture of low pay means that people are not able to move on and get a well-paid job to look after themselves and their family.

Last February, the Secretary of State told me that she was the reason that the response to Ruby McGregor-Smith’s report was being held up. My first question for the Minister is: when will the Government respond to that report? When will practical steps be taken to help working people get better pay? As the review found, there are myriad reasons why it is not a simple matter of supply and demand. It also showed that single parents have only so many hours in a day, and that if someone lives in a town whose bus service is so chronically bad that it limits their job choices, it is not their fault that they cannot get a better paid job. We need the Government to reply to that report.

My second question to the Minister is time-sensitive. Working people are facing a national insurance rise. If ever there were a time for such a tax rise, it is not now. People are dealing with truly horrific increases in energy bills and other costs. The Government really must rethink this. I want to quote an organisation that has spoken on this issue and on the underlying reason why this tax increase on workers is being brough about. It said:

“There is a large, unjustified and problematic bias against employment and labour incomes”.

That quote comes not from Marxism Today, but from the Institute for Fiscal Studies. The Government must rethink their whole approach to working people and how we make sure that people have decent pay.

To conclude, I want to come back to the point made by the hon. Member for Darlington about the iron law. As I have said to him on several occasions, it is not a matter of simple supply and demand. We only need to look around the economy today in Britain to realise that we can have rocketing vacancies while real pay does not go up. That is what is happening now. I ask myself what could possibly have gone wrong. The economics textbooks say it should work. What could have possibly gotten in the way of working people and a decent income?

Since 2010, the Tories have done the following: presided over a massive increase in zero and short-hours contracts; overseen a pandemic of low pay in key professions such as social care, which has driven chronic staff shortages; put charges on employment tribunals, so that working people find it much harder to get their rights confirmed; put roadblocks and bans in the way of trade unions, so that organising is harder; got rid of Unionlearn, which helped many working people get on; and overseen a labour market with a skills crisis and in which 20% of people have to work below their skill level, making it impossible for them to get on.

Rishi Sunak has put taxes up more times in two years than Gordon Brown did in 10 years, and he is landing working people with a devastating tax rise at the worst possible time. We have seen child poverty rise and food bank use explode, and 1 million experienced destitution in 2019. That is the problem. It has been a decade of doom for people trying to get on in life—a Labour Government is required.

It is an honour to serve with you in the Chair, Ms Rees. I congratulate the hon. Member for Easington (Grahame Morris) on securing the debate. I recall having had a similar debate with a similar cast list recently, so some of the arguments are familiar but some have been amplified. I take all of them seriously and will endeavour to answer some of the questions. No doubt others will be addressed separately, but I look forward to responding to them. Like the hon. Member, who is very kind, I wish the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Sussex (Mims Davies) a speedy recovery and return to good health. She would have been keen to be here had she had been able to.

Prior to this debate, I had just come out of a meeting with Communities that Work, a group of housing associations that help people into work and to progress in employment. I am grateful for the work it is doing. One of the participants was Helen Johnson, a livin futures manager at Livin Housing in the north-east, who is doing great work in Country Durham. Despite party political differences and different views on policy, we can all applaud the work those people are doing to help literally thousands of people—in this case, tenants—to achieve their potential in employment opportunities. I congratulate them on that work. All hon. Members present want to see everybody have the opportunity to progress in work, improve their earnings and realise their potential.

We hear with unerring regularity the mantra that the only way for someone to progress and live a good and flourishing life is to progress out of their current job. It will then be occupied by somebody else, who will be paid a low wage. Where is the dignity or decency in that philosophy, which does not have regard for the people doing the key jobs we applauded all the way through the pandemic?

I understand the hon. Member’s point, and that is why we have taken steps in that direction. I was going to come on to that in my speech, but I will come to it now. The national living wage, which we have already talked about, is projected to increase to £10, and other steps are being taken. [Interruption.] If the hon. Member for Easington would have the courtesy to let me respond. He raised that question earlier in the debate. Another important point is that policies, such as the increase in work allowances and the reduction in the taper rate for people on universal credit, are helping people in work to progress, do better and flourish.

We have already seen the creation of exiting job opportunities in the north-east, including through the industrial zone at the UK’s largest freeport, Teesworks, which is expected to create 20,000 jobs. Many of them are in green energy, establishing literally a green industry revolution in a region that many hon. Members participating in the debate represent. We should not forget that 6,000 jobs will be created as a result of Nissan’s plans for the UK’s first large-scale battery factory, as part of a £1 billion electric vehicle hub in Sunderland. That is alongside Stockton being on the frontline in the battle against covid, with the Novavax vaccine being made in Billingham later this year.

Opportunities abound in the north-east. Of course, we need to go further. I am disappointed that we are not hearing about these opportunities. So often we recognise that there are challenges, but there are also opportunities, and this Government are working hard to create them.

I would not dream of not giving way to the hon. Member, because she is always so polite with her questions.

I want to press the Minister on something that has been in my inbox—in all of our inboxes, I am sure—in the last few weeks. One of the big outlays for people who are in work and suffering is the cost of petrol or diesel to get to work. We pay 58p per litre in fuel duty and 20% VAT on that—it is a tax on a tax. The Minister will know that the cost of petrol drives up the cost of goods and services across the whole economy, and that drives up and feeds inflation. Does he agree that if we cut the tax on petrol, we can stop inflation driving up into double digits?

I understand the point that the hon. Lady makes; she makes it well and she makes it long. Perhaps we could do an Adjournment debate on the subject later. I recognise her point—I was trying to bring in a bit of humour there. With the fuel duty freeze that has been put in place we have been able to keep that cap over time. I recognise that we are in challenging circumstances; that is why the Chancellor has put in place a three-point plan. We have £20 billion set out in this financial year that is designed to help vulnerable people facing challenges and to deal with rising energy costs, £9 billion of which goes to the Chancellor’s three-point plan.[Official Report, 23 March 2022, Vol. 711, c. 2MC.] We are doing substantial work to try and address those challenges, and we will continue to review the situation. As hon. Members will appreciate, throughout the pandemic we looked at what the challenges were and we responded. We responded well in the Department I work in—universal credit was particularly resilient.

I want to address the questions raised during the debate. The hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens)—a good man who understands a lot of those matters—asked about jobs being advertised on the DWP website. They go through a process and are checked to make sure that they are at the minimum wage or above—there are obviously some exceptions. If he has further information on that, I will gladly follow up because I know he takes the issue very seriously.

I will send the Minister the articles from The Ferret website and The Herald, which found 10,000 such jobs in Scotland alone. Does that not suggest that there is a problem?

I will take a look at the hon. Gentleman’s point. I am not familiar with all those issues, but he knows that I will follow that up.

Other points were raised about the health and social care levy, the purpose of which is to deal with backlogs in the NHS and the future costs of social care. Those with the broadest shoulders will rightly pick up the bulk of the cost, with the highest earning 14% paying around half of the revenues.

The hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden), who is no longer in the Chamber, spoke about statutory sick pay. That is just one part of our welfare safety net and the wider Government offer of support for people in times of need. As we move on from the pandemic, the Government are continuing to take a broader look at the role of SSP—we are keeping the system under review.

The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) always contributes well in these debates; I hope I have addressed some of his points about energy costs. We will continue to take a look at those issues.

The hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Andy McDonald) was concerned about uprating, but we have followed the time-worn process of looking at inflation in the year to September. All benefit ratings since April 1987 have been done on that basis; the Opposition could have changed that approach when they were in Government. However, in recognition of the challenges we face, we have a £20 billion package of support this year to help people.

The hon. Member for Glasgow South West also talked about deductions. I remind colleagues that we have put a spotlight on dedications, and we have reduced the maximum amount from 40% to 25%.

Will the Minister look at the issue of pursuing debts that are over six years old? It seems a nonsense that we still pursue people who have had a debt for longer than that period, and then taking a deduction.

I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point, but as a member of the Work and Pensions Committee he will also realise that we are experiencing record levels of fraud, and we are absolutely determined to bear down on that. We need to get the balance right, because it is taxpayers’ money that we are talking about.

Of course, we recognise that we need to do more on in-work progression. The hon. Member is right to highlight that and we will respond shortly, and the response will be important. We are already taking action in this area, and I did not focus on that today because it was focused on in a previous debate. The hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) wanted to know what we were doing differently on progression, and I confirmed then and confirm now that we are working to put in place progression champions across the country who will make connections between employers, local authorities and skills providers and help more people to progress in work, which all of us across this Chamber want to achieve.

I believe passionately that we need to help people to see the opportunities before them and realise their potential. The plan for jobs helps people into work and also provides lots of mechanisms to enable people to progress in work. The progression work coaches will be a vital tool to help with that agenda. We know there is more to be done, and we are working hard to deliver on it.

I thank everyone who has participated in the debate. I particularly thank the Minister for his courteous responses to the points put by Labour Members, and I thank the hon. Members for Darlington (Peter Gibson) and for Runnymede and Weybridge (Dr Spencer), who made some excellent points. I thank my hon. Friends the Members for Leeds East (Richard Burgon), for Wirral West (Margaret Greenwood), for Salford and Eccles (Rebecca Long Bailey), for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi), for Middlesbrough (Andy McDonald) and for Wirral South (Alison McGovern). I also thank the hon. Members for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson), for East Lothian (Kenny MacAskill), for Glasgow East (David Linden), for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens).

Some really good points have been put forward as a critique of existing policies in relation to a raft of things that I hope the Minister has taken note of. We look forward to such issues being addressed in the spring statement.

I conclude by saying that there are young people across this country subsisting on poverty pay with little hope or prospect of home ownership or a decent pension. They are crippled by student debt and long for a standard of living above the breadline. We look to the Government to come up with policies to address that. If the Minister and his colleagues cannot, there are people willing and waiting to take up that challenge.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House has considered in-work poverty.

Future of Soft Power

I will call John Baron to move the motion and will then call the Minister to respond. There will not be an opportunity for the Member in charge to wind up, as is the convention for 30-minute debates.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the future of soft power.

It is a pleasure to be called to speak, Ms Rees. I thank the Speaker’s Office for selecting it and the Minister for Asia and the Middle East, my right hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Amanda Milling), for attending. I know she is very busy.

It is fair to say that the west has relaxed its guard and enjoyed a peace dividend following the cold war. We thought the concept of democracy would sweep the field—that the very righteousness of the cause would sweep all before it—and it therefore required little investment. But democracy is a fragile concept; it needs nurturing, encouraging and protecting. Many in this world do not share our values. As Ukraine has shown, we are engaged in a new battle for democracy. If there was any doubt about that, we need only look at the recent UN vote on the cruel invasion of a sovereign country, where more than half of the world’s population as represented by their Governments did not condemn it.

In this new era, this new cold war, we need to talk softly and carry a big stick, if we are to defend our values. Our values have stood the test of time but, at times, have required defending. I suggest that we now require a significant and sustained increase in spending on both hard and soft power capabilities. Soft power was a key factor in our victory in the cold war.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. It was President Roosevelt who said, “Talk softly but carry a big stick”—I understand it is an African proverb. If we are going to have soft power, we need to have hard power behind it to back it up, otherwise it does not work. I think we are at the stage where we have learned from our mistakes in the west. It is time to get it right.

I completely agree with the hon. Gentleman. We have to do more to realise that democracy needs defending. We have to step up to the plate—not just this country, but the west generally—and commit sufficient resources, to ensure that we can talk softly, which we should always do first, but carry a big stick, because the big stick reinforces the weight of the soft diplomacy. We live in a hard world, but people will listen if they think we have assets that could be committed. I am an ex-soldier. War should always be the measure of last resort, but we need to talk and have the assets behind us to reinforce the weight of those talks.

This country should be proud. We have the BBC World Service, the British Council, our music industry, our culture, our values and the rule of law. There is little doubt—in fact, it has been shown through various measurements—that the UK is the world’s soft-power superpower, and we should be very proud of that.

During the invasion of Ukraine, the number of listeners to the BBC World Service in Russia went up three or four times. Listeners to the Ukrainian service went up to 5 million. Yet we are still debating whether the BBC World Service and BBC Monitoring budgets should be ringfenced. There is a question mark over their funding.

The British Council last year was in touch with more than 750 million people worldwide for education, arts and the English language. That is a phenomenal achievement. On the UK music industry, I will share with colleagues that I am not very good at contemporary music, but I am reliably informed that three of the top 10 artists came from these shores. That is punching above our weight and helps to create the positive view of this country—there is a lot to be positive about—but it also reaches out and makes contact with people globally.

There is, however, growing competition for influence. We cannot stand still. Individual states, many of them not democratic, are looking to invest and are investing to enhance their soft power around the world. Cultural institutes such as the British Council are an effective way of doing so, and one which truly global nations all employ. As chair of the British Council all-party parliamentary group, I will confine my remarks to that wonderful organisation.

I remind the Minister that other cultural institutes of other countries receive far greater amounts and proportions of public funding, between 40% to 50% of their total income. Whether it is the Goethe-Institut, or Confucius Institutes, or whatever, they get around half their income from the state. The amount is only around 15% from the British Government, because the British Government have said that the British Council must rely on its own commercial activities to help fund its endeavours. That is fine, except when those revenues fall through the floor in a pandemic year. It is, therefore, with regret for many of us—across the Floor in this House, but also in the other place—that the Government did not fully compensate for the loss of commercial income by the British Council as a result of the pandemic.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for taking an intervention, and for his fantastic work for the British Council. Its work is crucial—he is highlighting the loss of revenue—but we often forget about the revenues it generates through its great work and the number of people it introduces to British education and infrastructure. People who go through the British education system become allies of the United Kingdom, and continue that in their businesses and the posts that they hold, including Chevening scholars. The British Council does a tremendous amount of work that is rarely recognised, particularly in terms of funding.

I completely concur with the hon. Gentleman’s comments. Sometimes we talk about figures and percentages too much in this place. We need to step back and realise that the British Council does an awful lot of good work that reaches into people’s lives on a global basis.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate and on his work chairing the APPG, of which I am a member. He makes the point around soft power and the value we get from that. The British Council really does punch above its weight, as does the whole UK, in terms of soft power, but there is a price for liberty, which we are seeing all too clearly around the world at the moment. That price is eternal vigilance. That means we need to invest in those assets, such as the British Council. Does my hon. Friend agree that that is vital?

I completely agree. I have been remiss in not thanking APPG members for being here today and contributing to the debate.

I am conscious that others want to contribute. I know we have half an hour, but I do not want to speak for the full 15 minutes. I want to address the issue of funding with the Minister, because funding the British Council was one reason I applied for this debate.

Let me be clear: the Government were generous in increasing the budget to the British Council during the pandemic, but the problem is that it was still £10 million short of fully compensating the British Council when it came to its commercial activities. For those who do not know—I do not think anyone here does not—its commercial activities essentially centre on teaching English in the far east.

Being £10 million short, it had to close 20 country operations, which is an ongoing process. Those countries were Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the USA, Slovakia, Slovenia, Malta, Switzerland, Belgium, Croatia, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, North Macedonia, Afghanistan, Chile, Namibia, Uruguay, South Sudan and Sierra Leone. That is a long list of countries, including the Five Eyes and others, where we should not be closing the British Council’s soft power operations.

The British Council wants to be ambitious about what it delivers for the UK, in partnership with the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, when the world reopens for business and manages the shock of Russian aggression in eastern Europe. However, looking at the CSR—the comprehensive spending review—budget going forward, having the 20 closures in train, we were delighted to see a 21% increase in funding for the FCDO over a three-year period. The Minister will recognise that figure. Yet, we now find that further cuts are being proposed to the British Council, below the £171 million of annual public funding that the council needs to carry on its sterling work across the global network, when it put its bid in to the FCDO.

In other words, despite the FCDO receiving a 21% funding increase over the three-year period, the British Council was going to be cut. Those negotiations are ongoing. I implore the Minister to have a look at the figures and to try and ensure that there are no further country closures, because the British Council is already having to deal with 20 from the previous cuts. Any more would hardly fit with the ambition and concept of global Britain. We need to show solidarity with our friends and allies, not only to counter the rising threat of autocracy around the world, but to secure much needed trade deals for the UK. We stand less chance of doing that if we are cutting our soft power capabilities in key countries, many of them strong allies of the UK.

In conclusion, my questions to the Minister are threefold. First, will she confirm when the British Council will receive notice of its full allocation for the spending review period? I ask that because the organisation cannot be expected to make any plans given the uncertainty created by this lack of notice; it needs to know sooner rather than later.

Secondly, will the Government confirm that the current negotiations will not result in a further cut, itself resulting in further country closures? I hope the Government get it, in the sense of understanding that we need to strengthen the UK’s soft power capability during this moment of global stability.

Finally, will the Government stop touting the figure of a 26% funding increase? I have heard it bandied about so often, but it is misleading because it is comparing a pandemic year with a non-pandemic year. It is not comparing like for like. Despite a 26% increase in funding, the figure was still £10 million short of fully compensating the British Council for its loss of commercial revenue during the pandemic year, which is why it had to close 20 country operations. Hiding behind percentage increases does not mask the truth that we withdrew from the world stage, because there was a £10 million shortfall that resulted in those 20 county closures. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response.

Order. This being a 30-minute debate, we do not usually take contributions from other Members unless they have permission from the Member in charge and the Minister.

Very briefly, there is never a reason to speak after the chairman of the APPG has spoken, because he is always so eloquent, particularly in describing the needs of the British Council, and some great work has been done for a long time in support of it.

The hon. Member talked with passion about the British Council, and I agree with him, because as I said in my intervention, it is not just a financial organ. I would caution the Government against knowing the cost of everything and the value of nothing, because value is what the British Council has provided. In Russia, for instance, it has provided a huge amount of access to education. In Commonwealth countries in particular, it provides a huge amount of access for people who would not otherwise have access to the type of education that those countries need to become better democracies and to build better communities and societies that we want to engage with. That is the value of the British Council: supporting people to do that and to go on to higher and further education. But on top of that, when people enter into education their mindsets change, away from other doctrines and towards democracy and valuing human life. That is one of the really important things that the British Council does.

The British Council also does a huge amount to support our trade, because when we have people understanding English and coming here to get their education at our universities, they build up links that they want to retain when they go back, whether they are in private or Government jobs, and the amount of connection that creates is of huge value. The £10 million shortfall over the covid period was a horrendous loss for those countries and their people’s education. It has had a huge effect on those people, who we want to be able to support.

I will be quick, Ms Rees, because I know that time is limited. We have to understand the value of this work. This is why we are all so passionate about it. We have to understand that it is not just about what we put in to keep those offices open; it is also about the value we get in return, because the soft power that the hon. Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron) spoke about is hugely important.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who indulges me by allowing me to intervene a second time. Does he agree that it would be wonderful if there was some way of assessing the value of institutions such as the British Council, which is so much more than the money that goes in? If only the Treasury had a way of assessing the overall value to the United Kingdom, rather than just looking at the pounds going in, we would appreciate those institutions all the more.

I totally agree with the right hon. Lady, who makes a valid point. That sort of assessment could be made if we looked at the number of people who come to our universities to be educated and who then keep in contact when they go back home, and also through our embassies and our imports.

The hon. Member for Basildon and Billericay made an important point about Brexit and having new deals and contracts with different countries. Once we have that heritage, people want to talk to us. Once we have that connection, people want to come back and talk to us, and to make sure that they retain that connection. That is really important for us. Certainly in the Maghreb countries, there are people who are moving away from France and want more English classes in order to understand English, so that is another issue we should look at. That would mean an incalculable amount of finance coming back into the country, so we need to look at that.

I will reinforce the case made by the hon. Member for Basildon and Billericay by urging the Minister to ensure that we get a clear indication of the budgets that will be set, bearing in mind the losses there have been, and hopefully those will now be increased. Such an investment would be well made not just for the British Council but, most importantly, for us as the United Kingdom.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Rees. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron) on securing the debate, which I am pleased to respond to, and I thank him for all his work as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on the British Council. I am also grateful to the other Members who have contributed to the debate through speeches and interventions. I will try to address some of their points as well as answering the questions put by my hon. Friend.

The UK’s soft power is rooted in who we are, our democratic values and our way of life. It is central to our international identity as an open, trustworthy nation. Our strength in this area is widely recognised. In a recent British Council study, we ranked as the most attractive country for young people in the G20. Only yesterday, the latest global soft power index was published, placing us second out of 120 countries. Other countries trust the UK; they appreciate our values and they want to work with us. They are enthusiastic for our culture, from our premier league football to our music. Of course, there are our brilliant products, from cars to fashion and food.

We must never take our soft power for granted, especially now that freedom and democracy are under attack and we see disinformation all around. We will continue to build our influence and seek to inspire; to forge links with people around the world to promote our values. This is how we will champion freedom and rights on the international stage, and challenge those who seek to tear down democracy. We are blessed with many wonderful and powerful tools in that regard.

My hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay mentioned what I will describe as the battle of the values. Our international leadership, which we demonstrate every day, is crucial in the battle for hearts and minds. We are showcasing it through our unwavering support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity in the face of Putin’s barbaric illegal invasion, and in our steadfast support for our democratic partners, through the UN Security Council, NATO, the G7 and partnerships such as AUKUS. Beyond that, we are championing open societies and promoting the rule of law through our economic, security and development leadership.

The British Council is another vital instrument for our influence overseas. It demonstrates our strength and values in practical ways, building trust and opportunities between nations. The British Council, which has been a trusted partner for more than 85 years, teaches the English language and promotes UK education, arts and culture across the globe; operates in more than 100 countries and reaches 76 million people; promotes UK higher education through Study UK; showcases British creativity through arts such as the current UK/Australia Season; and provides English language and teacher training. The British Council delivers for the whole UK, forging theatre connections between Wales and Nigeria, and cultural networks between Northern Ireland and India. Building on the success of COP26, it has connected young people in Glasgow with its global schools network.

My hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay referred to the British Council’s offices. In a digital age, it would be a strategic mistake to judge the British Council’s impact in a country purely and solely by the physical presence of an office. During the covid crisis, the British Council embraced new technologies, including online teaching platforms, which were vital to its operations—as they were to all our operations as we sat in front of Zoom and its equivalents. The British Council has ambitious growth targets: by 2020, 30 million people will experience UK arts each year, an increase of 800 million in five years; and one in 10 people globally—more than 140 million people—will learn English through the council.

I look forward to receiving the answers. Of course we live in a digital age, but a physical presence is still important and very symbolic. Presidents and Prime Ministers of countries that we are pulling out of raise it with our own ambassadors. The fact that they are upset by that is a mark of the importance that they attach to the British Council. Will the Minister reflect on that?

I will talk a little more about the offices in a moment, if my hon. Friend will bear with me.

Since the start of the pandemic, we have allocated more than £560 million to the British Council to support our shared goals—that is a generous deal in the current financial climate—including £180 million in grant and aid funding for 2021-22, which is an increase of £40 million over last year. The British Council’s non-official development assistance allocation was £39 million, which is triple its 2020-21 baseline. Although we have had to make difficult decisions in other areas, we have increased the money that we have made available to the British Council. The challenging fiscal environment continues, and we are working closely with the council on final allocations for the coming settlement review period. They will be confirmed at the conclusion of the Department’s financial and business planning process. As we look to the future, our partnership will continue to be vital.

On the operational structure and offices, the country presence remains an operational matter for the British Council. As I say, we are working closely with it on the final funding settlements.

I also want to mention the BBC World Service, if I have a bit of time. That is another organisation that is really important in promoting our values.

I take on board what the Minister says about the budget being operational, but when a budget is cut—it was cut, in effect, because there was not full compensation for that loss of commercial revenue—these are the decisions that come out at the other end of the sausage machine. The funding is not there. I support everything she said about the British Council—she has spoken very eloquently about it—but those are just words unless we fund it appropriately. Will she address my second question, which is perhaps the most important? At a time when the FCDO budget is increasing by more than 20% over the three-year CSR period, why are negotiations ongoing that, as I and colleagues understand it, suggest a cut to the British Council? That does not make sense when we have this fight on our hands in the battle for global democracy.

My hon. Friend is a very powerful champion for the British Council, but, as I say, we are working closely with it while we reach the final funding settlements following the spending review.

May I please have a couple of minutes on the BBC World Service? It brings high-quality impartial news to global audiences across the world, including in regions where free speech is limited. It reaches 364 million people every week with an increase in audience numbers of more than 40% since the FCDO-funded World 2020 programme began in 2016. It delivers in 42 different languages, and the licence fee currently funds English and another 29 from a commitment of £250 million a year. The FCDO World 2020 programme funds an additional 12 language services across Serbia, India, Africa and Asia, with additional funding provided to existing services in Russian, Arabic and English.

I probably do not have time to go into that in much more detail. We have talked about the importance of the British Council and of the BBC World Service, and I also want to talk about the overseas network. Another huge soft power asset is our diplomatic network, which is one of the largest in the world. We have 282 posts in 179 countries and territories staffed by 4,500 staff from across Government. Our network promotes our values and delivers our priorities with positive impacts right across the world.

In conclusion, I once again thank my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay for securing the debate and for everything he does to promote the British Council and fight its cause. He is a real champion for the British Council. I reiterate that we are determined to use every soft power tool we have to promote open, democratic societies across the world. We will to cherish and sustain our assets, from the BBC to the British Council, championing education, culture and diplomacy, making a positive difference, standing up for our values and demonstrating the international leadership that is so vital in these incredibly challenging times.

Question put and agreed to.

Local Enterprise Partnerships

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the status of local enterprise partnerships.

It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Ms Rees, and I thank everyone for attending the debate.

I am delighted to have secured the debate at such a critical time for local enterprise partnerships, when strategic, business-led, local economic growth remains in rather a state of suspended animation following the LEP review. In East Sussex, we have been well-served by LEPs over the past 10 years and I am delighted that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Levelling Up recognised and affirmed the vital role that LEPs can continue to play in the recent levelling-up White Paper. It would have been all too easy for him to have looked for a headline and to have announced the creation of successor bodies, so I congratulate him for the leadership and common sense that he has shown on the issue.

That said, the sector is in limbo as it awaits clarity on its future role and, critically, confirmation of the funding it needs to fulfil it. That is creating an inability to plan, and the continued uncertainty has seen some of our most talented people leave LEPs. It is also having an impact on our business leaders, who give their time and experience in support of their local areas. They will not stay at the table for long if the uncertainty continues or if they do not feel valued.

It is six weeks to the day since at the levelling-up White Paper was published and LEPs have very much welcomed its conclusions. The value of LEPs is based on an array of evidence about their impact across the country, and a visit to any of their websites or social media platforms will demonstrate the huge amount of work that is under way. Only last week, the Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South (Chris Philp), who is the Minister with responsibility for the digital economy, was in Hull to launch the latest LEP local digital skills partnership, which equips people across Hull and East Yorkshire with the skills needed to support the region’s digital jobs boom and to ensure that more residents can benefit from the thriving local tech sector. LEPs are also home to, and work closely with, world-leading sector champions, from creative industries, cyber and net zero through to defence and space. LEPs are already bringing together critical clusters to support innovation and turbocharge growth.

In research and development and innovation, LEPs are making groundbreaking advances based on high-tech economic clusters. They are demonstrating their value in a way that is crystal clear, whether through cell and gene therapy in Hertfordshire, the first test flight of a hybrid electric aircraft in the south-west, developing new agri-tech systems in the midlands, strengthening cyber-security technology in Gloucestershire, automation and robotics in Oxfordshire, or building new supply lines for future electric vehicles in Coventry. Some of the largest stand-out examples of innovation are driven by LEPs, which was also cited in the White Paper.

In my own beautiful constituency of Hastings and Rye, the South East local enterprise partnership, or SELEP, has had a major impact thanks to its ability to convene partners, build strong relationships and help to put the required structures and processes in place to help local businesses thrive.

I commend the hon. Member for having secured a debate on LEPs, because the LEP in my own Thames valley region does a great deal of work to bring together businesses, local government, the third sector and higher education so that they work collectively not just for our region but for UK plc. Does she agree that when those groups are all talking in unison and agreeing with the likes of myself that we need to build a western rail link to Heathrow, which is the No.1 infrastructure priority in our region, the Government should agree to such work rather than delaying it, as is currently the case?

The hon. Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi) makes a good point about partnership working, but I cannot comment on the western Heathrow link as I do not know enough about it.

Turning to skills, LEPs have significant success in the sector, in particular through skills advisory panels. Business feeds directly into that SAP data and relies on the cross-co-operation and capacity of LEPs to gather and deliver that level of information at scale. No other organisation does that locally and it connects directly with the aims of the Government’s proposed unit for future skills. LEPs also co-fund the Careers and Enterprise Company’s enterprise adviser network, which has brought nearly 3,000 business volunteers into schools to support and stimulate vital career choices for students. The convening role of the LEPs has boosted the benefits, scale and reach of that partnership, enabling more business stakeholders to connect directly with local schools.

Furthermore, LEPs work in cross-partnership to deliver solid results for their skills boot camps and institutes of technology, addressing skills needed in green technology, the heavy goods vehicle and logistics sector, digital, advanced manufacturing and the construction sector. Again, that helps to deliver on another White Paper ambition to resolve acute national and local skills shortages.

Only last week, the Higher Education Commission launched its latest report on innovation, again highlighting the central role that LEPs can play in driving innovation across our regions. More broadly, LEPs have played a critical role in supporting our local small and medium-sized enterprises through the pandemic and the recovery, too. That is absolutely right in East Sussex.

I was delighted to hear my hon. Friend refer to the work of the Coventry and Warwickshire LEP in supporting suppliers of the electric vehicle supply chain. She talked about SMEs, and the Coventry and Warwickshire LEP has supported 5,500 businesses, organising a whole range of roundtables. Is not the great strength of LEPs that they bring private sector expertise into an area that was originally only for the public sector?

I completely agree with my hon. Friend. The commerciality of the minds in the LEP adds to the local authorities, giving that broad cross-section of expertise.

In the past year alone, 1.6 million businesses turned to their local LEP growth hub for advice and support. During the most challenging times of the pandemic, LEPs designed and delivered more than 100 local initiatives, targeting help and support to give local businesses the best chance at survival. They played a similar role in preparation for exiting the EU. They are now looking at how global challenges are impacting on local business. The intel is fed into central Government weekly, providing real-time data and insight. LEPs have shown it, the White Paper confirms it, and I am confident from my discussions with my local LEP that they have a unique role to play in the future.

The LEP structure, however, of regional collaboration with public and private organisations and individuals, with a unique focus on improving local economic growth, is potentially under threat. Six weeks on from the review, LEPs have no confirmation of their future role nor, more critically, how or whether they will be funded to fulfil that role—hence I am here today to ask the Minister for clarity on that important issue. We must turn the words of the White Paper into tangible policy. Action is now a matter of urgency.

In conclusion—though quite a long conclusion—I would welcome the Minister’s consideration of the following points. The Government must please clearly define and establish the future functions of LEPs and make them clear to all parties. If the functions are not clear, or no obligation to consult them is made, any meaningful role will simply be lost to posterity in future structures.

It is vital that the local independent business voice of LEPs is safeguarded for it to be engaged in local economic planning and decision making, and that the LEPs’ local government partners recognise that. More than 2,000 local business leaders offer their time and expertise through LEPs to support their local economies. They are an asset that we cannot afford to lose. Involving that local voice in devolution agreements will help to keep business around the table. The private sector expertise and investment has many regional benefits and we need to encourage a culture of enterprise and engagement.

We also need to recognise that LEPs’ business acumen is already helping to identify and drive some of the biggest groundbreaking economic clusters in the country, generating jobs and pulling in more private sector leverage than public finance alone. In one example, a LEP’s brokering capability generated an investment ratio of 12:1 for a local sector cluster, and it is still increasing. That capability, at minimal cost to the public purse, could simply disappear if we do not clearly establish their function now. It is not the number of allocated capital pots that counts; it is about LEPs having the ability to influence how that capital is spent. That is really fundamental.

For many, the journey to devolution could be a lengthy one. The White Paper suggest that it is a decade-long ambition, and some suggest even longer. In some areas, there may be no greater appetite for Mayors or county deals than we currently see, and the focus on immediate mayoral combined authorities reflects only about 32% of all areas, because approximately 68% of LEPs are not covered by MCAs. LEPs rely on European funding to support skills and deliver projects, so they will therefore need to access the UK shared prosperity fund to do the same, as the vast majority will not be in MCAs. Ultimately, we need to identify the functions and pathways for LEPs outside MCAs.

Through their unique collaboration and local business voice, LEPs broker investments that deliver the jobs, environment and local taxes that local communities need and depend on. It is now vital to ensure that LEPs have the teeth and funding, so that they can continue to develop the opportunities that play such a significant part in levelling up the entire country from north to south and east to west, including our coastal communities.

I would like to start the wind-ups at 5.12 pm in order to give Sally-Ann Hart a couple of minutes to sum up at the end. I do not think there is any need to put a time limit on speeches, as long as you are kind to one another.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Rees. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye (Sally-Ann Hart) on securing an important debate for all local enterprise partnerships up and down the land. Indeed, since 2010, local enterprise partnerships have been integral to growth. The contribution that LEPs make to the prosperity of the nation is invaluable, and I want to make the case as to why nowhere is that more clear than in the country of Buckinghamshire.

The Buckinghamshire local enterprise partnership has played a vital role in determining local economic priorities and driving job creation, workforce skills and growth. It is quite a startling statistic that 55% of all new commercial and industrial employment space in the county of Buckinghamshire over the past five years has been delivered on the local enterprise partnership-managed enterprise zone sites at Westcott, which is wholly in my constituency, Silverstone Park, which is roughly half in my constituency and half in that of my right hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire (Dame Andrea Leadsom), and a further site next door, which is in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Rob Butler).

With 14,000 active members, the LEP’s Buckinghamshire Business First growth hub has filled the void and delivered a unified business voice across the county. Let me give a few examples. Over the 12 months from the start of the covid crisis, it provided 65,000 essential business assists. Ahead of any of the Government support that was announced and delivered, the LEP covid recovery fund provided £1.6 million directly into business survival and it was the first LEP in the country to act in such a way. The impact is clear: all 62 businesses supported are still trading, 197 new jobs have already been created and 258 have been safeguarded.

The LEP skills hub in Buckinghamshire is ranked No. 1 in the country by the Careers and Enterprise Company. Buckinghamshire is the first area in the country to have enterprise advisors active in every state school in the county, and the LEP’s annual skills show is the biggest single skills event in the south-east of England. The LEP has supported transformative projects such as Pinewood Studios in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Joy Morrissey), which has helped the UK film industry grow by 18% in the last five years. Those are some incredible examples. I could give more, but time is against me. By working more closely together, local enterprise partnerships will continue to maximise job creation, growth and real investment right across the country, delivering long-term, meaningful results, particularly for communities outside London.

Brexit was about removing the distortions created by European Union membership, doing things differently in ways that work better for the communities we serve and promoting productivity and prosperity. LEPs are an integral part of that vision. There has never been a more exciting time to be involved with local enterprise partnerships, not least in Buckinghamshire, where our LEP has invested wisely. Its capital programme funds have been recycled. Investment loans have been repaid and enterprise income secured—all to enable Buckinghamshire to operate independently of taxpayer support if necessary. As my hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye said, LEPs need certainty. I hope my hon. Friend the Minister will give us some reassuring words and actions.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Rees. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye (Sally-Ann Hart), who made some valid points. We are all here seeking certainty, and I hope to hear more information from the Minister, as many of our LEPs have contacted us asking for clarity.

I work closely with the GFirst LEP in Gloucestershire. My patch is Stroud. Even before my election, the LEP was really helpful. It was easy to approach and had a helpful team. It is packed full of a diverse range of skills and made up of local businesses across Gloucestershire. I find that it shares my attitude that, in Stroud, it is getting things done that matters to people. That means working with everybody, regardless of party politics, and making sure that the people they are engaging with can make a difference. I find that an effective, pragmatic approach—and one that is not always present in all aspects of an MP’s life as we try to move things forward.

I have inherited many projects that are decades old and need some attention and a bit of a kick up the backside. The LEP assists me with that. A key aspect of the LEP and the work I do with it is in harnessing the power of businesses in the private sector, as my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby (Mark Pawsey) mentioned. Private sector businesses are our job makers and wealth creators and are vital in getting things done. If we do not have their brains and aptitude on certain issues, things fall down, particularly when they get mired in long-term squabbles.

It is important that we think carefully about the future of LEPs. I have no issue with that. I know from speaking to colleagues across the House that not all LEPs are performing brilliantly and we have to acknowledge that. The word “patchy” comes up when people talk about local enterprise partnerships and there are questions about the value that they bring to some areas—not mine, but others.

It is also safe to say that not all work with their local MPs and their local community champions of councils and councillors. Some operate as mysterious benevolent bodies doling out millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money. They make no reference at all to the Government or local businesses and community champions that could give them some guidance about the best place to spend that money. I understand why the Minister and his team are looking at LEPs, particularly as we are looking at new models of devolution, but I do not want the Government to throw the baby out with the bath water.

I will go through a few of the projects that we have been working on locally. We have growth hubs in our college. It is an ambition of our Skills and Post-16 Education Bill work with the Department for Education that we bring businesses into our further education colleges. We are already doing that through the work of the LEP, including by providing net zero advice and supporting businesses. I have some fantastic local businesses in my area, such as The Boys Who Sew, which have valued the advice and support. We have a huge bid request in to host the world’s first fusion power station in my patch, which has involved every single aspect of local enterprise; a LEP is certainly a big part and player in that. The GFirst LEP chairs in the western gateway area are all members on the gateway board, so we work closely together.

I want to give credit to my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk)—he would be here, but having been elevated to Solicitor General, he is not allowed to join in these debates—who, working closely with the GFirst LEP, has worked tirelessly to create the cyber-cluster for Cheltenham, Gloucestershire and the western gateway. It was one of the discussion topics at the inaugural meetings for the western gateway and it is now actually happening, so we can certainly chalk that up as a win.

On skills, we have a joint portal between the county council and the GFirst LEP, and an employment charter, which is being piloted across the county at the moment, involving about 20 employers and a number of schools. We also have 10 business sector groups. As my hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye said, if we delay making decisions or giving those groups certainty, we will lose those busy people. They are not going to stick around; they will go and join another group if they can see that that is worth while.

In essence, LEPs can improve by being more transparent and helping more people to understand what they are there for. They can do better at showing where the money is coming from and why they are spending it, and they can work better in some areas with their MPs, councils and councillors. However, I support what they are doing—certainly in Gloucestershire—and I hope we are able to give them certainty so that they are able to plan and continue doing good work. As Government work with the levelling-up fund and the prosperity fund comes along the line, we have a lot to do. LEPs are a big part of that.

I thank you for your chairmanship, Ms Rees, and I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye (Sally-Ann Hart) for securing this debate. The debate around LEPs is of particular interest to me because when I was leader of Derbyshire County Council from 2009 to 2013, I was there, in the thick of it, when the old regional development agencies were dissolved and the new concept of local enterprise partnerships was created. I helped to create D2N2 and sat on the board of that LEP for some years, so I had a ringside seat in terms of the strengths and weaknesses that the new organisation brought to the table.

One great weakness was that there was a lot of overlap: different areas were in all sorts of different LEPs, which caused all sorts of problems. There was, perhaps, a weakness of political will in the centre, with that sort of washing machine salesman theory of politics: someone creates something exciting, and for six months Ministers talk about it as the great solution to everything; then, something else comes along and interests fade or distractions happen.

I got a sense of that when I was the Member of the European Parliament for the East Midlands, where I was the European Conservatives and Reformists group co-ordinator for the Committee on Regional Development. It was certainly clear there that regions were still where it was at, whatever we had decided to do in England. From 12 months after the creation of LEPs, the background of a lack of central focus and drive was sometimes quite apparent.

Since my election as Member of Parliament for Northampton South in 2017, I have worked closely with SEMLEP, the South East Midlands Local Enterprise Partnership, on a range of issues such as local town regeneration, company growth funding pots and larger, more ambitious investment programmes—it is almost a sort of Voldemort moment—such as the Oxford to Cambridge arc. Over the past 12 to 13 years, I have seen what works well and what does not work so well, and I have some general observations to make from my experience, given the current time and context. Policy initiatives such as levelling up are hitting the ground just as the economically damaging covid emergency finally recedes and just in time for a whole new set of economic pressures. This fits in well with my time and role on the Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Committee and as chairman of the devolution all-party parliamentary group.

First, LEPs are not perfect. There are issues around geography; not all LEPs fall very neatly within boundaries. There are some perceived overlaps, and in the case of the Oxford-Cambridge arc, we could see some perceived underlaps. It is worth noting that the Oxford-Cambridge arc LEPs tried to adapt and co-operate with other LEPs to meet the milestones. That has been encouraging, but the arc is not in the levelling-up White Paper, and now there is an explosion of question marks around it and its future.

The LEPs themselves are not perfect, but they are there. They have a pool of critical knowledge, expertise and relationships to draw from. The machine works pretty well, so I would like the Minister to speak about the changes and whether growth funding pots will go through LEPs henceforth. Now, at this critical juncture, might not be the time to mess around with organisational architecture, tempting though it may be. We should not make the perfect the enemy of the good.

There are always risks. When Northamptonshire Enterprise Partnership dissolved a couple of years ago, not only the senior leadership but almost the entire staff—with their deep wells of knowledge and, critically, their interpersonal relationships—disappeared overnight. It has taken time for those gaps to be filled, a phenomenon that my hon. Friends the Members for Stroud (Siobhan Baillie) and for Hastings and Rye have referred to. I have personally had a good relationship with SEMLEP, and I am loth to start all over again when my focus in this instance is not so much on the vehicle as the destinations, looking for progress, not perfection.

My constituency has many challenges, as do the greater geographies of counties and regions, but they also have great opportunities for improvements, which is what our focus should be on. LEPs have the economic expertise, relationships, knowledge and history of public-private partnerships that we can draw on heavily. As my noble Friend Lord Lilley said many years ago, I have a little list, but I will simply say that Northampton has seen some great achievements through the LEPs, including the Vulcan ironworks, MAHLE Powertrain, Northampton College’s advanced engineering centre and digital skills academy, and MK:5G. Of course, there is displacement theory in the economy—just because money has been spent here, it does not necessarily mean it would not have been spent better by companies themselves, or elsewhere. This is spending packaged as investment; it is still taxpayers’ money. Nevertheless, that is a list of positive projects.

The LEP investment independent evaluation said that the return on investment for the whole programme will be £9 for every £1, so there is some good stuff there. I am always slightly suspicious of ROI figures—it always seems slightly like the Del Boy theory of investments: “Next year, we will be millionaires”—but nevertheless there is some good ROI there that can be effectively demonstrated. LEPs often operate on a larger scale than a local authority, but are obviously smaller and nimbler than central Government. They therefore have an important part to play in the delivery of our local growth and investment plans, imperfect as they are—imperfect as we all are.

It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Ms Rees. I congratulate the hon. Member for Hastings and Rye (Sally-Ann Hart) on securing this important debate and on the case she made, particularly for the value of LEPs. Many of her points about the role of LEPs in skills, business development and attracting inward investment were well made, but I particularly liked her point about their power in terms of convening. That is one value that has been harder to quantify, but it is absolutely important, and when the Minister closes, I hope he will talk about the need for greater certainty —I will make some points about that myself—because that is a clear message that is coming back to all of us. LEPs have shown the value of bringing business together and giving it the chance to help shape a place and the future of local economies. That has been a real success of the model.

I tried to keep pace with the hon. Member for Buckingham (Greg Smith). In the end, I wrote down “sheer volume” for the wonderful achievements in the Bucks LEP. I was struck by 55% of new starts being in the enterprise zones, which really shows the impact in that community. That relates to the point made by the hon. Member for Stroud (Siobhan Baillie) about getting things done, which is what our constituents want and what we all want for our communities. We talk about long-term projects, but we want to get things done, get the economy moving, get people in work and get them the right skills. Those points were well made.

The hon. Member for Northampton South (Andrew Lewer) sold himself short. My LEP is Derby, Derbyshire, Nottingham and Nottinghamshire—D2N2—and the hon. Gentleman was a founder director. It is widely accepted across the patch that it has done a very good job. Those things were very difficult at that time; looking back, it seems a lot easier. He made some points about geography, which was a contested issue in our part of the world at the time, as was the structure. The transition from regional development agencies to the LEP model was quite painful. The hon. Gentleman is widely considered to have done a very good job. That shows that, as well as the value of business in these bodies, there is still, and always will be, an important place for local politicians in shaping a place, whether that is leaders of councils or economic development leads on councils. We should always want them to be part of the work, because the value is in the rich partnership between the public and private sector. There is real opportunity in that.

I do not want to go past the point about geography and overlaps and underlaps, because we are going to go through that now—on steroids—as we move now into the next phase of the levelling-up White Paper and the different plans around devolution. There was some interest when it was about local economic partnerships, but in reality we knew that most of our constituents would not particularly connect with the issue. But they are going to when it starts being about mayoralties and combined authorities, and we are really going to have those conversations, so some of that insight and experience will be very welcome.

Local economic partnerships have been an important forum. In my own community, D2N2 covers 2 million people with an output of £45 billion, and it aims to add another £9 billion. That is the scale of the ambition. The LEP has brought real expertise, and a co-ordinating role, as the hon. Member for Stroud said. That has been particularly clear during the pandemic, where it has pulled the partners together to assist people back into work, to steer local investment and to support businesses to grow. We have been very lucky to have it.

It would be remiss of me not to mention the predecessor bodies. For us, that was the East Midlands Development Agency. In general, regional development agencies were good bodies. I know that the hon. Member for Northampton South does not like the ROI stats, but the evidence for RDAs was very good in that regard, and I feel that the changes were a false economy—a cost-cutting measure. I am not advocating a return to that system, but the governance model we have today, with a partnership between local politicians and local business, plus the heft of the support that RDAs had, might be a better way forward. I would be interested to hear what the Minister foresees.

We face significant challenges in our economy. We have had anaemic growth for a decade. We can have a big argument about why that is, but it is still the reality. When we look at wage growth, I do not even think it would qualify even as anaemic. The Bank of England is predicting economic growth to be as low as 1% by 2024. Whatever our economic plans, LEPs have to be there to jump-start our economy. There are elements of the levelling-up White Paper that start to address the situation, in concept and rhetoric, and there is lots that we would all agree with, but we now need to hear from Ministers about more than the concept, and about how we are going to tackle the failed model of over-centralisation and genuinely shift power from the centre—from Whitehall to town hall, and then from those town halls to communities themselves. We know that that is what communities want and that when people are treated well and are given the opportunity, they do well. I fear that, in the long journey between now and 2030, if we go on another trip around the deal-making process and the piecemeal model of devolution, it will be very slow and will frustrate progress. I think we can go faster and I hope the Minister might reflect on that.

The White Paper says that the Government are

“encouraging the integration of LEPs and their business boards into MCAs, the GLA and County Deals”.

Many LEPs have welcomed that but, very much in the spirit of the comments of the hon. Member for Hastings and Rye in opening the debate, they want to know more about that transition. The White Paper said that further detail would be provided in writing to LEPs, Will the Minister say when that happened or will happen?

I will finish with a couple of quick questions. We are moving into an age of more individual, personalised government. I have to say, that is not to my taste. I think the superman model of leadership is a dated and failed one—and they are virtually always men. I like a Cabinet Government; I think more heads are better together. The value in the LEPs was that they brought together a rich mix of partners. They are very busy people with very important day jobs, and they are going to need to know that their work is valued. If they are downgraded to a business sounding board for a Mayor, then that will be a challenging process. Otherwise, if we are putting all accountability on an individual personage, where will LEPs fit in to that? I am keen to hear what the Minister has to say about that.

The White Paper announced three new innovation accelerators. Can the Minister provide some detail on how LEPs and local government are expected to interact with those? Will they have genuine power and a say in them? Similarly, how will LEPs engage with the new levelling-up directors and the Levelling Up Advisory Council, and how will they provide feedback? We have seen a general sense of enthusiasm for sub-regional business and political leadership on important matters of developing the economy. Saying that sounds almost facile, but that is what we are all saying. We are now moving into a new context through the levelling-up programme. There are many questions that need to be answered, so I hope that we might start to hear answers from the Minister today.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Rees. I start by thanking my hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye (Sally-Ann Hart) for securing this important debate. It has been inspirational to hear the many varied things that LEPs are doing across the country: in the south-east, Thames valley, Coventry, Warwickshire, Buckinghamshire, Gloucestershire, and D2N2 in Northamptonshire and the south midlands. They are doing everything from heritage to digital skills and, indeed, fusion power. They have a very exciting agenda and are playing an important role.

The short answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye is that, through the White Paper, LEPs now have certainty about their overall role in the future and how they will fit together with mayoral combined authorities. LEPs will continue to exist where there are no MCAs; where MCAs exist, they can be folded in as the business sounding board where they are co-terminus. Where there is a part-in and part-out LEP, we will respond to whatever the desires of local partners are. They will also shortly have the funding certainty that a number have Members have asked about, because we will be writing to them very shortly.

The longer version of the answer to the great questions that colleagues have asked today is that LEPs have played a very important role in unlocking local economic potential and growth over recent years. Using the convening power that so many Members have talked about, partnerships have forged lasting and productive relationships between business, education and local government. At the same time, they have brought that crucial private sector perspective into local decision making, and indeed into combined authorities. They have delivered major capital investment schemes, some of which have been mentioned today, such as the £12 billion local growth fund and the £900 million Getting Building fund.

LEPs have been really instrumental in supporting businesses through the twin challenges of leaving the EU and responding to the pandemic. As if that were not enough, a lot of businesses are now turning to their LEP and growth hub for guidance and support regarding the current situation with the Russian invasion of Ukraine. As my hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye said, that is just part of what is driving the 1.6 million visits that she talked about.

Over the past two-year period we have seen LEPs implement a series of actions to strengthen their governance and accountability, and it has made a big difference. In the most recent assurance review we found that every one of the 38 LEPs met our expectations on strategic impact and delivery, and all but one met our expectations on governance. The National Audit Office has noted the progress that LEPs have made over time. In its 2019 report, the NAO highlighted the marked improvement in LEPs’ financial transparency between 2016 and 2019. My hon. Friend the Member for Northampton South (Andrew Lewer) touched on the marked progress we have seen on the removal of boundary issues between LEPs—an issue that the Government recognise can blur accountability and transparency. Although there is further to go, the majority of those boundary issues have now been dealt with.

I want to thank the people working in LEPs who might watch this debate or read the transcript, because the Government place a huge value on the contribution that they have made and will continue to make to their local economy. We are grateful to the talented, busy people who serve on LEPs for giving their skills, knowledge and expertise to the community and to improve the functioning of LEPs over time. We look forward to the next stage in our partnership with LEPs.

In some areas of the country, such as the Liverpool city region, West Yorkshire and Greater London, business leaders are effectively integrated into local decision-making structures through combined authorities and the GLA. As Members know, LEP partnerships extend beyond their immediate combined authorities. In a LEP census in 2016, nine out of 10 LEPs reported that they have full engagement with businesses of all sizes and LEPs reported engagement with higher education bodies, so it is not just about the interface with local politicians.

The bigger geographical scale—beyond the council scale—which a number of hon. Members have pointed to, gives LEPs a unique vantage point to bring people together on lots of different subjects. For example, one of the reasons why we use and resource them is to develop local industrial strategies, which have flowed into such things as innovation accelerators. Where innovation accelerators exist, we hope that LEPs and the equivalent bodies in the devolved areas will play a role in shaping what they do.

There are lots of other such examples but today, in 2022, the local growth landscape looks very different from when LEPs were first launched. We have seen the introduction of combined authority Mayors and a number of funds, such as the towns fund, which involves local stakeholders potentially at a sub-local authority level, bringing together lots of partners in the most deprived half of towns. For example, through the local growth fund and the forthcoming shared prosperity fund, we are empowering those in lower-tier local government. Of course, LEPs still play a crucial role in all the different things that they are running and their wider role is also a crucial part of the local growth story.

We are in the process of continuing on the journey of growth in the number of mayoral combined authorities. In the White Paper, we talked about nine new areas that have started talks with Government, including a combined authority deal for York and North Yorkshire and widening the geography of the north-east deal, as well as deepening the deals that have been done for the west midlands and Greater Manchester. Even as we do that, LEPs will continue to have a crucial role outside the areas where there are not electively accountable mayoral-type figures operating across a strategic geography. As my hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye said, in many parts of the country there will be no other body on that kind of scale with that kind of strategic overview of the wider economy, straddling a number of different local authorities.

Following the LEP review, which has concluded, we have clarity about the end state that we want to get to and why we want to continue to have LEPs: for that convening role, the private sector expertise, and the ability to broker lots of different local stakeholders and drive forward a wider strategic vision for the area. That is why we have chosen to keep LEPs and why I pay tribute to them today.

We appreciate the urgent need for certainty of the kind that various hon. Members have raised. We are working to provide that clarity to LEPs at the earliest opportunity. I am sure that Members will appreciate some of the wider pressures that the Government are facing, given the international situation. It has been useful to have this debate today and to be able to express my thanks and pay tribute to the work of LEPs. We will be in touch with our colleagues in LEPs in the very near future.

One strength of LEPs is that the functional geography was delivered by the LEPs themselves. It was left to people in their own areas to determine what makes a sound economic unit. Does my hon. Friend intend to retain that autonomy within the LEPs, so that we keep that geography rather than relying on historical local government boundaries?

Yes. My hon. Friend has given me a good opportunity to recognise that there is, I think—from my conversations with Coventry and Warwickshire—a strong desire to continue to work together. Without prejudging the outcome of anything, we have said that we will respond to what local places want to do where LEPs straddle areas, being partly in an MCA and partly outside. I am conscious, from all my conversations with those involved in Coventry and Warwickshire, that they have found it useful to work together. I was very impressed by the list of projects that my hon. Friend reeled off that they were leading in Coventry and Warwickshire. We are absolutely conscious of what local people want—yes, absolutely. Let me end by saying that we will continue to respond to what local places want and how they want to work together to drive forward their local economy and get more good jobs in all these different parts of the country.

I thank the Minister for his fantastic response and the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Alex Norris) for his contribution, as well as my hon. Friends the Members for Buckingham (Greg Smith), for Stroud (Siobhan Baillie) and for Northampton South (Andrew Lewer) for their excellent contributions, and my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby (Mark Pawsey) for his contribution through interventions.

LEPs clearly have a role to play and are an asset to all the constituencies represented today. They are not perfect, but they have the ability to harness the power of businesses and they have a commerciality about them that local authorities just do not have. When it comes to decision making on the if, why, how, when and what of spending money, it is really important that we have the LEP voice in our regions. LEPs really do encourage business growth. If we want to develop a culture of enterprise in this country, LEPs really do play an important role in that. They really do manage to convene partnerships, which is one of their strengths. I was therefore delighted to hear the Minister’s confirmation that LEPs will continue and will be funded and that clarity will be provided soon.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House has considered the status of Local Enterprise Partnerships.

Sitting adjourned.