Tuesday 24 May 2022
[Hannah Bardell in the Chair]
FCDO Diplomatic Staff: Funding Levels
I beg to move,
That this House has considered funding levels for diplomatic staff in the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office.
It is a pleasure to open the debate with you in the Chair, Ms Bardell, and I start by thanking Mr Speaker for granting it, and the House of Commons Library for producing a debate pack on this extremely important subject.
The debate is about the United Kingdom’s place in the world—the new global Britain—and it is important because it takes place against a background of huge uncertainty for those who work in the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office. The Library debate pack is extremely useful in setting out the various media reports, and we have had previous debates, Select Committee inquiries and questions, but those have elicited only a simple response, which is, “We’ll let you know in the spring.” The last time I looked, May still counted as spring. As the saying goes, “Ne’er cast a clout till May be out.” When May is out, we can plant our geraniums—I say that only because I have just been to the Chelsea flower show; I was on a fact-finding mission.
The debate is timely because the Foreign Office is one of the great Departments of State and it is in a state of uncertainty—so uncertain that on 15 December, as the news trickled out of a 10% cut, the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, the hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat), questioned the Prime Minister about that, only for the Prime Minister to say that it was “fake news”. Here is my first question to the Minister: is it fake news? Is there a 10% cut to the Department, and if not, what is it?
What we have had is a reorganisation, and I am not clear—I am not sure whether other colleagues are clear either—whether that reorganisation has been factored into the cuts. Effectively, we have a new Department, which is undergoing a seismic shift through the merger and reorganisation of two Departments, although some would say it is three: the Department for International Development, the Department for Exiting the European Union and, of course, the Foreign Office, which does the core work.
DFID has already lost 0.2%—effectively £4 billion—of its budget. That involves the vital work of helping those who need our support the most, whatever the historical reason for their being in that position. DFID is important for aid and for development; those are two separate things. Development can mean sharing experience, such as what is the best local crop to grow to feed people, rather than to service a debt.
My next main theme is the funding of outside organisations. We are an outward-looking nation—that is what we want to be—and we need to think again about cuts to outside organisations that have expertise and connections with civil society. The Government’s strategy for international development, which was published on 16 May, stated that the Government aim to cut the portion of the budget spent through multilateral organisations such as the United Nations from 40% to 25%. The United Nations is a worldwide organisation, and the last time we heard such a thing the President of the United States became the former President of the United States. The United Nations is important to the world coming together, and it will be vital not least as we rebuild Ukraine and in Yemen—the place I was born—where it has a huge input. Will the Minister tell us the figure for the cut to the United Nations part of the budget, and when is the cut likely to be made?
Another organisation I want to mention is the British Council, whose role is to promote arts, culture and education, strengthening our relationships with other countries. It has said that it intends to close offices in 20 countries, just when we need to promote global Britain, and to make a 20% cut in staff. Will the Minister tell us what further cuts there will be? Last night, the chair of the British Council all-party parliamentary group, the hon. Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron), wrote to us all to ask for the cuts to stop. Some £13 million has been made available to the British Council, which means that it is not going to close its offices in New Zealand and Australia.
What about the BBC World Service? That is also an important, outward-looking organisation. As I said, I was born in Aden, and I grew up listening to “Lillibullero”. Anyone who has listened to the World Service will know that tune, which still goes round in my head. My parents would have the radio on at breakfast as we got ready for school and they got ready for work. It is important for listeners around the world to have that impartial organisation, which is a trusted news source. Daw Suu said that she used to listen to the World Service. It was a lifeline for hostages such as Terry Waite, John McCarthy and Brian Keenan, as it is for everyone who listens to it while living under autocratic Governments around the world.
I am not clear from the Minister whether the World Service has yet received its funding, or whether that will increase every year. A flat rate is effectively a cut, and we need to ensure there is no cut. The Government learned the lesson when they made cuts to the World Service in 2010, when I first came here. They realised how important it was to project a proper, trusted source of news. It is needed ever more so now, especially in Ukraine.
We had a debate on the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, in which the Minister announced funding for that organisation, and I thank the Government for that. However, there was a 29% cut during the pandemic, and the increase now is only 25%, which still means a cut. This organisation does vital work in ensuring that democracy is promoted around the world, and will have to do much more, because there are many failed states, which have been ravaged by war.
What the Foreign Office does best is diplomacy, and diplomacy matters. That is why it is essential to have a strong Foreign Office for our global Britain. I saw diplomacy on the ground at first hand during a Speaker-led visit to Burma. We saw how embassies reached out to organisations in civil society. We did not meet just the great and the good at the embassy; we met those who were arrested on the street. It was good to speak to them and to see that the Foreign Office was not taking over what the countries have to do but supporting the move to democracy, which made a huge difference.
The work of the Foreign Office is different from that of DFID. There were people from DFID there, but it is important to keep that work separate. Former ambassadors have said that missions need to be able to travel and engage with people. The concern is that, if staff are cut from the Foreign Office, they are unable to do that core work, which is what they do best.
I want to raise the cases of Morad Tahbaz and Mehran Raoof, two British citizens who are still in Evin prison. They have not been released, despite the debt being paid. Will the Minister look into those two cases? That is how diplomacy works. It takes time, and people are skilled at that job. When we were part of the EU and had shared interests, all that work could be divided up, but now the UK is effectively alone. It has been suggested that, by leaving the EU and making cuts in the east Europe office, we might have missed some of the signals regarding the invasion of Ukraine.
This is the time to strengthen democracy and the work of the Foreign Office, not to cut it back. Even after elections, we still see what we call democratic dictators, and people do not have a chance to hold to account the Governments they have perhaps elected.
The right hon. Lady is making a powerful speech. We are seeing the Government push all Departments to make significant cuts to headcounts, and civil service salaries have been stagnating for years. Does she agree that putting our diplomatic services under too great a strain severely risks our ability to build on our international relationships?
I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. As she will know—she has clearly been listening to what I have been saying—it is so important for the future of the staff and the country that we make sure those staff are properly skilled and are still in place. The world is in turmoil, and we must make sure that people with level heads are still there, with the abilities and experience they have.
I pay tribute to the acting high commissioner in Delhi. When the pandemic first started, Jan Thompson was there, available for all Members. I think she physically saw every single one of my constituents on to the plane. She was absolutely exceptional: she answered every email and made sure that every constituent who had a medical issue was on the plane back. That is the kind of public interest work that our diplomatic service personnel undertake for us.
I have some important questions to ask the Minister. We have assets around the world—our embassies—and she will know that our embassies in Bangkok and Japan have been sold off. Those are public assets; they belong to the people of the UK. Could the Minister confirm that no more embassies will be sold off? Could she also publish an analysis of where the cuts have fallen so far, and will she confirm that the extra staff announced in 2020 are not a rehash of the staff who had previously been announced? Sometimes, when announcements are made, we cannot keep track of whether the same announcement is being made over and over again.
In its pack, the Library helpfully enclosed a letter that was sent to the Chair of the International Development Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion). It is a public letter from the Foreign Secretary, dated 21 March, in which she helpfully set out how many staff there are and what the directorates of the organisations are going to look like. Could the Minister confirm which regions will see these cuts in staff? Will that be decided by the directorate or the Foreign Secretary? There is a board; will the policy be set by the Foreign Secretary and signed off by her, or will it be a matter for the board?
Would it be possible to have an organogram of all the staff who are affiliated to each of those directorates? Many staff were taken on during the pandemic. We are told that they are not needed now, but more and more are needed post pandemic and post leaving the EU. The work is actually increasing. Having been a civil servant, I know that as soon as someone leaves, someone else is given the bunch of files they had and has to do more work. It is important to think about our staff. I also ask the Minister whether a voluntary exit scheme is now in place.
Our staff should not be left in limbo or in the dark about their jobs. We now have a position in the Foreign Office of hiring, then firing, and now possibly rehiring, given the work that is going on. As President Zelensky said this week, diplomacy is going to end the war. We saw that intractable position in Northern Ireland, and resolving it required diplomats, including Jonathan Powell, to name just one, and people around the world such as Senator George Mitchell—those with whom we have built up relationships, who have looked at the UK and seen the strong diplomatic service we have. That was so important; it is a beacon of hope around the world. I talked about it when we were in Burma, and we should never forget the important things we did in Northern Ireland.
In “Global Britain in a competitive age”, under the heading “Global Britain in Action”, the Government speak of
“an approach that puts diplomacy first.”
The essence of democracy requires that this great office of state survives and is enhanced.
It is an absolute pleasure to speak in this debate, Ms Bardell. It was a pleasure to hear the right hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz) put forward her case. She asked me last week whether I would be here; I said, “Does night follow day? Yes, of course I will.” I am very pleased to participate. The right hon. Lady made some good points about the diplomatic staff in the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, which I concur with. We should put on record our thanks to all the staff; I know I have conveyed those thanks on many occasions to this Minister and other Ministers, but we could not survive or do many of the things we do if it was not for the interpretation of events by those staff, and I want to speak a wee bit about that.
I also want to comment on the right hon. Lady’s reference to the progress that diplomatic staff made in the Northern Ireland political process—the right people were in the right place at the right time with the right attitude. Many diplomatic staff were part of that; they were maybe not household names, but they were behind the Mitchells of this world, Prime Minister Tony Blair and Clinton. Many others made it happen, and we should never underestimate the good work that these people do.
As chair of the all-party parliamentary group for international freedom of religion or belief, I want to sow into the debate the importance of diplomatic staff being aware of all the issues. When it comes to the Minister, I know that I am pushing at an open door, because she always comes back to me. I watch her in the Chamber, and I know she understands this issue really well, but just for Hansard and for the record, I would like some understanding of where it features.
This July there will be an international ministerial conference on freedom of religion and belief, headed by the FCDO. That shows a real commitment from Government and Ministers, including the Prime Minister, to this issue. I am very hopeful about the conference, and I will play a small role in it, but I give credit to the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce), who has been very active in this matter. The conference will provide an opportunity to cast a light on the good work that the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland does to promote freedom of religion or belief for all, and on what can and should be done by all countries everywhere to protect this fundamental human right. The Government’s sponsoring, helping and promoting of the conference in July will help to do that and show the good things that the FCDO does across the world. The invitation list includes people from all countries across the world, which will energise the conference and be to the benefit of everyone.
One area of impact is each state’s diplomatic service. All too often, freedom of religion or belief is considered a peripheral concern to human rights or a humanitarian crisis in a given country, rather than integral to achieving not only a country’s strategic objectives but the overall state of freedom. As long as states fail to understand the centrality of freedom of religion or belief in the wider political context, and fail to give full exterior support and backing in diplomatic circles, stable Governments and peaceful co-existence will remain a far-off dream.
Just this morning there was a news story about China. There is an evidential base documenting China’s suppression of the Uyghurs. That goes as far up as the President of China himself. I know we try to do things diplomatically, but sometimes we have to be critical of what other Governments do. We need to be critical of China, as we are of many other countries across the world. This is an example of the Chinese Government failing to look after their minorities—not just the Uyghurs but Christians, whose churches are destroyed or who are unable to worship. Members of the Falun Gong, a small religious sect in China, are not able to express their views in the way they should. There is the systematic removal of organs of Falun Gong members and many others who just happen to have a different opinion from the state. Those are the things that the FCDO highlights across the world and that FCDO diplomats and officials have a responsibility to highlight.
A constituent who works for the FCDO in East Kilbride wrote to me. He is unbelievably stressed about the rising cost of living and his minimal annual pay award, and he tells me that he may be forced to leave his job. Does the hon. Member agree that tightening the budget impacts not only on frontline diplomatic services, but on everything that FCDO officials do behind the scenes to make things work?
I thank the hon. Lady for, as always, bringing very wise words to the debate. Yes, it is important that staff are remunerated in such a way that they can continue to do the job. I often think that diplomatic staff are perhaps called to it as a vocation because they have a really deep interest in the subject matter. But any person who does any job deserves to be remunerated correctly. I thank the hon. Lady for that point.
It is vital also that diplomatic staff in the FCDO receive adequate funding so that key elements of its work do not suffer. Corners must not be cut; the service will suffer and be reduced. For example, the highest level of training for desk officers comes at a price. We do not produce great officers and great staff on a low budget or a low wage. And when they come with the quality that we have, there is good reason to spend the money on their training. It is through that bespoke training, not through complacency on religious literacy, that British diplomacy can truly lead the way in promoting democracy and the rule of law. I believe that soft power has a really strong role to play; I am talking about the soft power that the FCDO staff display in their engagement. I wanted to mention that as well, because I think it is really important.
The issues where we need this diplomacy range from the heartbreaking advance of the Taliban in Afghanistan and neighbouring countries’ responses, through to Russia’s use of the Orthodox Church in its own soft diplomacy. I have watched that happen in a very perverse way, if I can say that, because I think the way it does it is wrong. The fact that the Ukrainian and Russian Christian Orthodox Churches have divided themselves and the Ukrainian Church has come away from the Russian Orthodox Church tells me that many of the churches and priests are unhappy with what is happening.
We need diplomats who understand the intricacies of these situations and are literate in religion, so that Britain can be relevant in resolving today’s conflicts. I am always greatly amazed and encouraged by what the staff do. That is why, in my role as chair of the all-party parliamentary group for international freedom of religion or belief, I urge our Government to consider religious literacy training as a top priority for funding when it comes to considering the FCDO spending levels. We need diplomats who understand religion, so may we have an assurance from the Minister that that training will take place among our diplomatic staff, and that it will be a priority? I understand that the Government have given it a priority, along with other things, but I think it is important that we know that our role as the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is a role that can help to resolve problems across the world.
We need diplomats who understand the centrality of religion and belief to geopolitical dynamics, international security and overall governmental stability. It is really important that we get this right, and that we then can portray it across the world. And if we want our diplomats and civil servants to advance freedom of religion or belief for all, and therefore contribute coherently to the overall human rights situation in any given country, we need to ensure that the training of civil servants in freedom of religion or belief is funded adequately. I should perhaps say that I have been on the road since half-past 3 in the morning, so my voice may be a wee bit dry after the plane flight.
I receive regular emails on this matter each week. Many of my constituents follow the issue daily and weekly, and they contact me about it, so I seek from the Government and from the Minister an assurance that there is a commitment to these standards, and that these roles will continue to be key roles for the FCDO across the whole world.
I conclude by acknowledging that this is merely one of the many demands on the FCDO budget. I understand that we are constrained by moneys and we cannot expect to spend moneys ad infinitum, but whenever we see something good that can deliver for us, it is money well spent; that is how I look at it. It is no surprise that we want more, not less, funding for the key roles that our diplomats play. It is vital that the Government fund their work sufficiently, so that they may be an asset to our country and to our promotion of human rights and democracy abroad.
As the world becomes increasingly Zoom-friendly, feet on the streets, building relationships and face-to-face contacts are important. During the two years of covid, Zoom meetings were a useful way of contacting people, but they were never ideal. It is nice to come and see people again and shake hands. We have events across our constituencies, as I did last night, and it is nice to shake hands and press the flesh. It is important to do that, so face-to-face contact, shaking hands and having a meal and a chat are really important, as is taking time to understand the culture and nuances that can be understood only by living somewhere and not doing it from a distance.
It is essential that we retain our diplomats in the right places and invest in a support structure for them that reaps benefits for international relations and the strengthening of relationships. With that in mind, I fully support what the right hon. Member for Walsall South has said. It is important, and we look to the Minister for an adequate response to our concerns.
It is a pleasure and a pleasant surprise to see you in the Chair, Ms Bardell. I thank the right hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz) for securing this important debate today and for raising really fundamental concerns; and it is always a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon).
The Prime Minister’s foreword to the integrated review boasts:
“The UK will continue to be renowned for our leadership in security, diplomacy and development, conflict resolution and poverty reduction.”
What a boast that is. Since it was published just over a year ago, we have seen the UK abandon that leadership in a number of the areas mentioned.
To begin with, in development, the UK Government have doubled down on their tragic decision to cut lifesaving aid spending from 0.7% of GNI to 0.5%, ensuring that that supposedly temporary cut will be in place for years to come owing to the fiscal tests required to return to 0.7%.
In addition, poverty reduction was barely touched upon in last week’s international development strategy, with trade and investment opportunities proving to be the focus and driving force behind that strategy, rather than the globally agreed UN sustainable development goal No. 1 of removing poverty. Secondly, commitments to conflict resolution have been undermined by cuts to the conflict, stability and security fund, significantly so by cuts to programmes in the middle east and North Africa, and also by cuts to other programmes in fragile and conflict-affected states. All that has undermined the UK’s own national security in the process and damaged the UK’s ability to lead and be trusted on the global stage.
The FCDO has also been guilty of several gross diplomatic miscalculations, including the shambolic military and diplomatic withdrawal from Afghanistan—indeed, the Foreign Affairs Committee is calling for the resignation of Sir Philip Barton today—as well as the diplomatic fallout that resulted from France being excluded from the AUKUS security pact, and the UK Government’s renewed antagonism of the EU over the Northern Ireland protocol, with threats to unilaterally end that legally binding agreement. Rather than projecting an image of a stable, reliable international partner, the UK looks impulsive, short-sighted and removed from reality.
Diplomacy cannot be the next victim of cuts, particularly if the UK wants to repair its damaged reputation on the world stage. In December, the Prime Minister told the House that a reported FCDO staff cut of 10% across the board was, in Donald Trump’s famous words, “fake news”. That was reiterated by the then Minister for the Middle East and North Africa, the right hon. Member for Braintree (James Cleverly), who said:
“There will not be a 10% staff cut and Ministers will make the final decisions on workforce changes in the spring.”—[Official Report, 16 December 2021; Vol. 705, c. 1155.]
Yet within the last weeks, the Government have revealed their target of cutting 91,000 civil service jobs. Will the Minister address how many of those jobs will be cut in the FCDO and how that will affect diplomatic staff?
Over the weekend it was reported that the Cabinet Office was poised to write to all permanent secretaries, asking them to model what would be required to slash staffing numbers in three different scenarios. The fascinating bit about that is that when working out the 91,000 figure, the answers should be there before any asking is done. But no; let us have a look at this. What scenario does the Minister expect for the FCDO? The cuts, according to the different scenarios, are 20%, 30% and 40%. That is like the back of the proverbial fag packet. Are those figures not in excess of the 10% cut dismissed as fake news by the Prime Minister in December, or will the jobs within the FCDO be ringfenced—yes or no?
The Foreign Secretary said in March that her staff would not be cut, and would instead be redeployed to key geostrategic areas. There is no coherence in the Government’s statements or certainty for FCDO staff, with a spokesman for the PCS union stating:
“Morale is incredibly low, and there’s a feeling of understaffing in some areas, with people being shifted from crisis to crisis.”
So we go to the very heart of the question: when we are still in the midst of a global pandemic, threatened by a potential global food supply crisis, facing a climate catastrophe and witnessing war in Europe once again and across the world, is this really the time to be considering cuts to diplomatic staff? All those challenges are international in their scope and consequence, so diplomats should have as much funding and resources available to match the UK’s ambition to be a force for good in the world alongside allies, rather than being hampered by cuts to staff and funding.
I should have said this in my contribution, but I wish to make the point that the hon. Gentleman is outlining the importance of the staff. I am not sure whether people read the obituaries in The Times, but if they do and they look at the diplomats who have contributed across the world, they will find their commitment, interest and knowledge, and the way that they have used their positions on behalf of this good United Kingdom, incredible. The hon. Gentleman is very right in what he says: the importance of diplomats can never be underestimated.
I thank the hon. Gentleman. On that important point, institutional memory stretches across years—decades, in fact. With Governments coming and going, whether Labour or Conservative, diplomats are a continuing presence and the mainstay of the voice for the UK. So cutting staff is short-sighted; it is brutal, and most of all it means that our reach in the world is fundamentally more short-sighted, so that we go from one crisis to another.
To add insult to injury, efforts to address global challenges have not been helped by the deeply mistaken merger of the Department for International Development into the Foreign Office. The fundamental fear that the expertise that had made DFID world-leading would be diminished as a consequence is now coming to fruition. Earlier this year, it was reported that nearly 100 former DFID technical directors left the FCDO between September 2020 and November 2021, with no one hired to replace them. In fact, there are recent reports of how the German Government have benefited from some of those people, who have gone over to help with their international development. The Institute for Government director Bronwen Maddox recently told a House of Lords Committee that it was frequently heard that DFID people were not convinced that the Department was the place for them.
Furthermore, an FCDO official told Politico:
“The department is so unwieldy right now. It’s like three departments shoved into one, with all the responsibilities of DfID and [the Department for Exiting the European Union] DExEU and now a war.”
Not only has the merger resulted in death-sentence cuts to millions in the world as a result of an erosion in the aid budget and the focus on poverty reduction; it has also caused talented staff to leave and added to the confusion and lack of direction within the Department. That simply cannot continue. Funding levels for diplomacy need to be maintained, with funding for aid and development restored, at the very minimum.
Another area of expertise that has not been touched on so far, but which is just as important and needs sufficient investment, is linguistic capabilities. For example, the number of fluent Russian speakers in the Foreign Office fell by a quarter in the years before the most recent invasion of Ukraine—let us not forget that the invasion of Ukraine began in 2014. Given the security challenges of today’s world, it is essential that across Government, staff are equipped with the correct skills to predict and handle the myriad international security problems. The UK Government must address those linguistic shortcomings as a matter of urgency. What assessment has been made of staffing cuts and the FCDO’s ability to operate across languages?
Finally, the SNP will of course continue to push the UK Government to adopt a foreign policy akin to the good global citizen policy proposed in the Scottish Government’s recently published global affairs framework. That framework aims to amplify marginalised voices, share experience in policy making and learn from others on global issues, such as global inequality, migration, human rights, biodiversity and, of course, the changes in climate that are looming ever closer. Scotland is looking out to the world to build friendly and socially conscious relationships with others, while the UK is retreating and looking inward, viewing aid and diplomacy as a profit and loss exercise.
Faced by the own goals of Brexit, departmental mergers and budget cuts, alongside the global challenges of conflict, climate change and health and food crises, it is ever more urgent that the UK has a full-scale rethink of how it conducts itself on the world stage. Cuts to FCDO diplomatic staff funding would simply be another own goal, and another indication that “global Britain”, as they call it, is nothing but a worn and ragged slogan.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms Bardell. This debate is very timely, so I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz) for securing the debate. It comes at a time when our country’s place in the world, and the influence we possess as a democracy, is under attack from authoritarian forces around the globe. My right hon. Friend made some important points. She thanked the House of Commons Library; where would we be without our wonderful Library and the important briefings it regularly gives us? She said the debate was timely because that mighty office of state—the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office—is now in a state. Will there be a 10% cut to FCDO budgets? We will let the Minister tell us more.
My right hon. Friend rightly pointed out that DFID had lost £4.2 billion from its budget through the temporary cut of 0.2% of GDP. I have seen, as have many hon. Members from across the House, the good that our development aid money does all across the world. We have seen the schemes that relieve poverty and push people into self-reliance when they have not had that before, thanks to our expertise, our knowledge and the money we can give through our development and aid budget. My right hon. Friend rightly said that development and aid are two different issues, but they came under that one Department. It was praised throughout the world, not only for value for money but for the expertise and the development that it helped give to so many of the poorest communities across the world.
My right hon. Friend rightly said that the UK is an outward-looking nation. We have always been an outward-looking nation, and we have always tried to maintain our place in the world and the reputation that we have rightly earned. The cut to the budget of the United Nations is, as she said, a deeply serious issue. She asked what the actual cut would be; we await the answer.
I have heard from many British Council workers that the British Council, for which I have shadow ministerial responsibility, is closing its offices in 20 countries—just when we need it the most. I also have shadow ministerial responsibility for the BBC World Service. I have had a connection with the World Service almost since I was first elected as an MP in 1997—nearly 25 years ago. I used to listen to the World Service as a child growing up in London and Essex; my right hon. Friend listened to it in Yemen, the country of her birth, where she grew up and went to school. All across the world, the BBC World Service is trusted as a source of news that is balanced and neutral. It is not fake news—it is real news.
I recall the veteran broadcaster Baqer Moin, who was head of the Persian language and Farsi service many years ago—he won an award for his work—telling a story about going to Afghanistan after its first liberation from the Taliban in the early 2000s. He went into a local shop, and they asked him in Farsi—in Dari, I think it was—“Where do you work? Where are you from? Your accent is different.” He said, “I am actually Persian-Iranian, but I work for the BBC World Service.” They said, “Ah, the World Service—the radio that kept us going and gave us hope throughout the dark years of the Taliban. What’s the weather like in BBC World Service today?” They thought it was a country on its own.
My right hon. Friend spoke about the Westminster Foundation for Democracy. It is really good that the funding was announced during the debate, but it is still a cut, as she said, and that resource is essential for failed states. Diplomacy matters more than ever today. She mentioned the two remaining British citizens in Evin prison in Tehran—let us not forget them. My right hon. Friend and I met one of the released prisoners at Speaker’s House last week; he still has nightmares, and will do for many years to come. I hate to think what Nazanin is going through and what the two prisoners, and the others who are still in Evin jail, are suffering. As my right hon. Friend said, now is the time to strengthen the FCDO, not to cut it.
We should never forget about the excellence of our diplomats. The hon. Members for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and for Dundee West (Chris Law) drew our attention to that important point. Our diplomats are praised throughout the world, and we cannot threaten that excellence. I always call the hon. Member for Strangford my hon. Friend, because he always attends these debates and makes really important points. His contribution to the debate was not just to thank all our diplomatic staff, but to point out the importance of FCDO staff in protecting freedom of religion or belief—something for which he has been an unswerving spokesperson for all the years that I have known him and, I dare say, many before.
FORB, or freedom or religion or belief, is essential to democracy in any country, and, by implication, the FCDO is essential to protecting and promoting it. The hon. Member for Strangford said that it is vital that staff in the FCDO receive adequate remuneration, or we will not continue to see the high-quality diplomacy that we have grown used to and for which we have rightly had such a good reputation. He also said that soft power is essential, but comes at a price.
What the world needs to see from Britain right now is the confidence to be outward-looking and to engage with our international partners, which is why maintaining and improving our diplomatic service is so vital to restoring Britain’s place in the world. I spent 10 years on the Foreign Affairs Committee, from 2001 to 2010, during a time when my party was in Government, and I saw at first hand how brilliant our diplomats were—not just how good they were and how well they spoke languages in locations from Japan through to Tibet. We went to Tibet with the person who I think is now our ambassador in Beijing, and she not only spoke fluent Mandarin, but was able to contradict the official interpreters, who were giving us a false view of what was happening in Lhasa, by translating from the Tibetan, because she spoke fluent Tibetan. That is so brilliant, but it costs money. We must not cut back on language training, because it so important.
I have just got back from Cyprus, where our brilliant high commissioner has gone into all the communities to listen to the dialogue that is taking place between Turkish and Greek Cypriots. As a guarantor power, we have such an important role in Cyprus. Our diplomat is looked to by all parties to try to bring people together. He is nearing the end of his term of office there, but what a brilliant job he and all his predecessors have done to try to ensure that violence never returns to that divided nation, and that once again we can have a reunited Cyprus. It is our diplomacy that makes a difference in such places, where we have had a huge influence over the years, decades and even centuries.
Let me turn to Turkey, where the ability of our diplomats in Ankara to speak fluent Turkish, which is not an easy language to learn, means that they can appear on national television and give the British point of view in fluent Turkish, so that the public can understand where we are coming from and that we want to help Turkey to be better, more democratic and more open. We also want to encourage Turkey to ensure that there is a solution in Cyprus.
British diplomats have historically been revered for their professionalism and their passion for the values of this country that we hold so dear. It is time to empower them further, not subject them or their institutions to cuts and further squeezed budgets. Last December, it was extremely disturbing to learn that many FCDO-funded British Council diplomatic staff were trapped in Kabul, where, having been left behind during the evacuation, they were subsequently living in fear of reprisals from the Taliban. Our diplomatic staff and associated FCDO contractors deserve so much better than that, and it simply cannot be allowed to happen again.
Instead, we have heard worrying reports that the FCDO is to undergo another major restructure. The idea that the Government would pursue such a restructuring at a time of unprecedented international crisis is, quite frankly, staggering. The war in Ukraine rages on; now cannot be the best time to begin a complex restructuring of the UK’s most outward-facing Government Department. I would be grateful if the Minister could put those reports to bed today and, if there is to be a restructure, if the Government could reconsider the timing.
I also ask the Minister about her plans to extend the UK’s soft power, to which our diplomatic staff at the FCDO are central. Alongside the British Council and the BBC World Service, they form a vital part of our presence and influence abroad. While reports of this restructuring include the creation of two roles focused on security, which is completely welcome, it is worrying that there is still no official whose role is focused on harnessing the UK’s soft power. With staffing cuts apparently looming, it seems that that extremely important part of our strategic foreign policy could be further neglected.
The integrated review recognised that it was the Government’s role to assist organisations in
“building mutually beneficial international relationships”
“create a conducive enabling environment in which that independent organisations, assets and networks in every part of the UK can flourish.”
With that in mind, will the Minister tell us what proportion of the FCDO staffing budget will focus on extending the UK’s soft power?
Although it is clear that there will be cuts to the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, as laid out by the Government in the spending review, it is not clear what form those cuts will take. As has been quoted during this debate, the FCDO last year told staff that there will be at least a 10% cut to staffing. The Prime Minister called that fake news, but several members of the Cabinet have failed to rule it out. For the sake of our international partnerships and FCDO staff livelihoods, the Minister really should make clear today what those plans are. This lack of transparency is needless and irresponsible.
Staffing cuts at the FCDO will cause unnecessary disruption to and dismissal of our obligations to the world’s most vulnerable. They will undoubtedly damage the UK’s reputation abroad and do nothing to strengthen our democratic values where they are needed most. Should the Government go ahead with cuts to our diplomatic service, it would serve as a slap in the face to our brave diplomatic staff who risked their lives to evacuate British people from Afghanistan. I urge the Minister to guarantee today that the enormous potential power and influence of the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office will not be blunted as part of the Government’s huge cuts to our civil service. Britain’s place in the world, no less, is at stake.
What a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship this morning, Ms Bardell. I thank the right hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz) for securing this important and wide-ranging debate. I will endeavour to cover many of the points that have been raised.
There is a commonality in many of the remarks made today—on the importance of the diplomatic service as an essential arm of the UK Government. As hon. Members have mentioned, our diplomats play a key role in protecting and promoting British interests around the world. They help us to establish and maintain strategic partnerships with our allies and partners, and address some of the major global challenges we face—everything from covid, climate change and the conflict in Ukraine to the protection of endangered species, and the control of arms and weapons of mass destruction. They help us to strengthen the defence and security partnerships that make us more safe and secure, and to alleviate the suffering of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable. They stand up for British values, open markets and the rules-based international order. They support British citizens abroad who get into difficulties, and champion British culture, science and technology. They bring prosperity and jobs to these shores by helping British exporters, attracting investment and negotiating trade agreements.
Our 280 overseas posts—coupled with our aid and development budget, which is one of the largest in the world—and our P5, G7, Commonwealth and other multilateral networks give us unrivalled global reach and influence. According to the most recent figures, the total net cost of our diplomats and permanently employed FCDO staff was less than £829 million. In the light of what they achieve for our country, that strikes me as good value for money.
I want to pick up on a couple of points that hon. Members have raised. We have all experienced the diplomatic network in post; we have heard about a number of different posts today. If I were to rattle of the list of posts I have visited in the past few weeks, it would probably be quite a long list and I would feel quite dizzy again. I want to place on the record my enormous thanks to our diplomatic network for all their tremendous work, including in incredibly challenging times—for example, the repatriation of British citizens at the beginning of covid; the 15,000 Afghan citizens who have come here; and the work of the diplomatic post in Ukraine. It has been a real pleasure to meet our diplomats in post to see what they actually do on the ground, because their work is wide-ranging. It is not just meetings with Government officials; it goes much further.
A core part of the debate was a discussion of levels of cuts to the Department, with a specific reference to the geographical and estate impact. The Foreign Secretary and her ministerial team will be making careful choices to ensure that we target the resources that we have secured through the spending review to deliver on the UK’s international ambitions. That includes ensuring that we expand capability in areas to reflect the new priorities, including our geographical strategic partnerships in the Indo-Pacific, the US and other key alliances that are most critical to the UK. In addition, we look to further our ability to understand and influence China and, more widely, to further our country and regional expertise, global insights and analysis around the world.
As the Prime Minister and my right hon. Friend the Member for Braintree (James Cleverly) set out in the House on 15 and 16 December respectively, there will not be an across the board 10% reduction in FCDO staff. The Foreign Secretary also made that clear in her letter to the Foreign Affairs Committee on 10 January. There has been a public announcement that the civil service will look to reduce staffing to 2016 levels. No decisions have been made and I am not in a position to comment on specific impacts on the FCDO ahead of the work being completed by officials over the next few months, but the Foreign Secretary and the UK Government are committed to ensuring that we have the right people in the right places to deliver on the UK’s international priorities. That means that we must be agile and ready to use the fantastic resources of our UK civil servants and overseas country-based staff in our many embassies and posts, as needed.
We have no current plans to change the overseas network significantly with regard to staffing or estates. Our regional footprint will continue to evolve and change, so that we modernise and update our overseas property estate. The mission of the FCDO is to pursue our national interests abroad and to project the UK as a force for good in the world. With that in mind, we want to ensure that we maintain a world-class platform from which we can promote UK interests while maximising value for money for the British taxpayer.
The Government advance national interests and champion the UK’s many world-leading assets, including our much-envied democratic institutions, businesses, financial services sector and the City of London, schools and universities, NHS, scientists, researchers and innovators. We have just over 16,700 staff around the world, including the country-based staff employed by our embassies and posts in addition to the UK civil servants based in the UK and overseas.
The size of the workforce has increased by 8% since the 2015 general election, as the Government strengthened our relationships around the world in order to take advantage of our post-Brexit freedoms. Earlier this month, the Prime Minister set out the need for the civil service to focus on controlling expenditure and delivering the best possible value for taxpayers. In the normal way, the Cabinet’s Efficiency and Value for Money Committee will work with the civil service departments to agree key parameters and workforce plans within the next spending review period.
As a Department, we have an ongoing dialogue with Her Majesty’s Treasury, the Cabinet Office and the civil service’s human resources experts, and we will set out our staffing requirements in the usual robust way. As the Prime Minister is a former Foreign Secretary, I assure Members that he fully understands the vital role played by UK diplomats and the FCDO.
I want to pick up on some specific points that were raised in this wide-ranging debate, including on the UN and multilateral channels. Spending more through bilateral channels will allow us to have more control over how taxpayers’ money is used to achieve our goals. Multilateral channels will continue to be key to achieving our objectives and tackling global challenges that we simply cannot solve alone. Regarding the World Bank, we have reduced our commitment by 54%, but it is important to note that we remain its third largest funder. We have not yet finalised any decisions on allocations to specific institutions.
The BBC World Service was mentioned a number of times. We are providing it with a flat cash three-year spending review settlement of £94.4 million per annum for the period from 2022 to 2025. In 2022-23, we will provide an additional £1.44 million to counter disinformation in Russia and Ukraine. That settlement represents a good outcome for the BBC World Service.
Despite the challenging financial context, the Foreign Secretary agreed to provide the British Council with a total of £511 million of grant in aid funding across the 2022-25 spending review period, including £10 million to enable the British Council to avoid further closures.
The Westminster Foundation for Democracy is a key partner in delivering our objectives on open societies and democracy. That is why the Foreign Secretary agreed to increase its grant in aid from £5.1 million in 2021-22 to £6.5 million a year from 2022 to 2025.
Turning to the FCDO pay awards, we are in dialogue with Her Majesty’s Treasury to establish a process for pay controls. Officials are highlighting the significant variation in global inflation rates and the need for flexibility to react to labour market pressures in our strategically important posts. On language capability, I am always astonished by the excellence of our diplomats and their language skills, which are truly phenomenal—many of them speak numerous languages. We have more than 16,700 staff around the world, with a number of them engaged in full-time training, and we are committed to that training and the essential support it provides to the FCDO’s diplomatic and development work.
A debate would not be the same if the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) were not here. I thank him for all the work he does in advocating for freedom of religion and belief. We are committed to defending FORB for all and promoting respect for different religious and non-religious communities. Promoting the right to FORB is one of the UK’s long-standing human rights priorities, and we will drive that forward through our international efforts at the UK-hosted ministerial conference that the hon. Gentleman rightly mentioned, which is taking place in July. Regarding training on FORB, Lord Ahmad and the Prime Minister’s special envoy on FORB, my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce), launched the core training unit in July 2021. That training is essential for FCDO officials in relevant posts, and is highly recommended for all FCDO staff. It is also accessible across Government. I reassure Members that the Department and the embassy in Tehran continue to engage with the Iranian authorities on behalf of the British nationals who seek consular assistance, and those in detention.
The temporary reduction in the official development assistance budget does not drive workforce allocations, but it is worth noting that, as set out in the spending review statement, the Government remain committed to the International Development (Official Development Assistance Target) Act 2015, and to spending 0.7% of gross national income on ODA once the fiscal situation allows. The international development strategy that was published last week is about helping partner countries, and low-income countries in particular, to build their economies sustainably through honest, reliable investment in infrastructure and trade. It is not about providing tied aid, or aid in return for trade. The UK wants to offer a clear alternative to malign actors, so that low-income and middle-income countries are not burdened with unsustainable debts and strings attached.
To conclude, some of this Government’s most important achievements have been built on the work of our first-class diplomatic service—from the global collaboration that has helped us put the worst of covid behind us, to the agreements forged at COP26 in Glasgow, which can save the world from the most serious impacts of climate change, and our unflinching support for the brave people of Ukraine. I reassure right hon. and hon. Members that this Government will not do anything that undermines the UK’s effectiveness on the world stage.
I will not take the full amount of time available to me; everybody can go and have a cup of coffee or something afterwards, given the early start.
I thank everyone who has taken part in this vital debate. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) is an amazing institution in Parliament, and he is absolutely right about freedom of religion and belief. We must support everyone’s religion, throughout the world, and ensure that they can practise their faith, whatever it is, or no faith at all, in freedom, and that they should not face persecution or have to leave their country in order to do so.
The Front-Bench spokespersons—the hon. Member for Dundee West (Chris Law) and my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds North East (Fabian Hamilton)—have touched on two different angles. We need to reward our staff or they will go somewhere else. With all of their expertise, there are many other demands on their time. As we have all said, they have not only the language skills but the diplomacy skills, and that is so important. It is time that we reward them and make them feel that they are wanted in this country.
My hon. Friend the Member for Leeds North East touched on aid. I recall that when Justine Greening was Secretary of State, she made sure that there was an audit of the aid given around the world. It was nice to see the UK aid branding on the backpacks of girls going to school. That was an amazing sight, and people do notice that.
I still come back, however, to the central point that this is about two different things: diplomacy and aid. We must be very careful about mixing the two, because they involve two different skillsets. In my view, if we start giving aid, it hampers the work that the diplomats do. We must be careful that we are not seen as funding certain organisations that then may be slightly subversive to a country’s democracy. That is why the two separate skills are very important.
It is also important to acknowledge that, looking at this issue in the round, it is part of why people leave their war-torn countries. By ensuring that we do not reduce the skills of the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, and by support people in their own countries, the migration issue will not be at the fore. We need to consider that in the round.
I thank the Minister for some of the commitments that she has made. I understand what it is like to stand up in a debate and make a commitment. I was warned, when I was a councillor, “If you say something, that is basically committed expenditure.” However, I did not quite get an answer, other than, “It is not a 10% reduction”, and “No decisions have been made yet—they will be made in the next few months.” I hope that does not mean that we will be back again with a further debate to find out exactly where the cuts, if any, will be made.
The Minister said that we need to have the right people in the right places. Well, that is the point about this debate and about the Foreign Office—because we do not know what is going to happen throughout the world. We do not know where the next flare-up will happen. It may be Russia and Ukraine now, but that is why we have the diplomats that we have. I do not feel that we actually got an answer from the Minister. I am pleased with the £94 million for the BBC World Service and that there will be an increase. The Minister said that it was flat cash, but there is £1.4 million extra for Russia and Ukraine, which is important.
I hope that, as a result of this debate and all Members taking part in it, people will realise what a wonderful Foreign Office and international development Department we have, that the expertise continues and, more importantly, that we need people to come in. As I have said, having worked in the civil service, I know that there are people who come in at ground level who are then trained up. We must not lose that. Very often, when there are cuts in Departments, people forget about the training aspect.
The point about the language skills, which my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds North East made so eloquently, is that someone has to be in the country to pick them up; they cannot just go to a school. They can learn it for GCSEs and A-levels, but it is better to actually be on the ground. I know that the Foreign Office has now taken the decision to have people who work and live in the countries as part of the team. I hope that that will continue, because it will certainly make our presence felt.
At the end of the day, while this has been an excellent debate, I have not felt that we have actually pinned the Minister down to say that there will not be a 10% cut. I appreciate what she has said and that some of the outward organisations have received funding, but we should not have to wait until the last minute. There are two elements to this: we must be able to support our staff and our reputation throughout the world. I again thank everyone who has taken part in the debate, and I hope that everyone feels that it has contributed to that.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered funding levels for diplomatic staff in the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office.
Potential for a Hydrogen Village
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the potential for a hydrogen village.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Ms Bardell. Many Members in the north-west and north Wales have mentioned the genuine interest in, and support for, the HyNet project. Speaking as the Member for an area where industry consumes about 5% of the whole country’s total energy consumption, I am only too conscious of the need for us to change if we are to meet our climate commitments. Faced with that fact, the companies that are responsible for a lot of those emissions have been working together to address the future and are working on a whole series of projects that will contribute to our reaching net zero while also enhancing the local economy.
We were very pleased to have the HyNet project approved for the first industrial cluster last year. With our unbeatable combination of industry and geology, we believe that we can transition to a hydrogen-based economy with carbon capture more quickly than just about anyone else. Our current infrastructure can be easily converted to operate with hydrogen, and HyNet believes that it can capture up to 800,000 tonnes of CO2 every year.
It is exciting that my constituents potentially have a big part to play in this endeavour, and it is hoped that the area of Whitby in Ellesmere Port will be confirmed next year as the location for a hydrogen village programme. The natural gas running through local pipes in the area would be changed to hydrogen from 2025, and Whitby has been identified as an ideal place to host the hydrogen village programme, largely due to its closeness to HyNet:
“The Hydrogen Village is a really exciting project where local homes and businesses would be able to reduce their emissions—while continuing to build the North West’s reputation as a leader in the hydrogen economy”.
It also means that we can back UK manufacturing jobs, but as always with these things, the maximum benefit will be found if we can take the maximum number of people with us.
That means not only showing people that it is a good thing for everyone if they are at the spearhead of a new way of heating our homes, and that they can play a big role in meeting our net zero targets. It also means ensuring that people feel that things are being done with their consent and agreement, rather than them being done to them. Of course, a big part of that will be communication, and I know that Cadent has already begun working on ways to advise residents about the project and will be opening a new shop in the town in July, so that residents can find out more.
Obviously, residents will have legitimate questions, and I imagine that they will want to know about the potential costs, their safety and the level of disruption they will face. From the information I have had to date, I think that all those concerns can be dealt with. With the rapidly increasing energy bills that we all face, I would hope that the cost issue will be a positive for my constituents, with at least a guarantee that they will not pay any more for their energy. I hope that there is scope for us to go further than that and be able to offer them a discount. It is early days, but the only inquiries that I have had so far from constituents are about why people have not been included in the trial, which demonstrates the positive spirit of the people of Ellesmere Port, their willingness to embrace the future, and their eagerness to play their part in tackling climate change.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for bringing this issue forward. Does he agree that we have a clear obligation to fully explore the use of hydrogen, which is more beneficial than carbon emissions, and that the proposed trial village in Whitby reflects the needs of an average community? Does he agree that such trials are imperative and essential for the drive for clean energy, and that they should be shared with all regions of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, so that we can all learn from them?
I agree with the hon. Gentleman. Indeed, when we get to the carbon capture element of the project, we will be joined together, because the Irish sea will play a major part in the storage of carbon emissions.
Let me return to the trial itself. There will always be some people who, for perfectly legitimate reasons, will not want to get involved, and one can imagine that, for some, the fear of something new will be too much. It is fair to say that no amount of persuasion will encourage them to participate, and it is important that if people cannot be persuaded to take part, they are not forced to do so. The old saying is, “One volunteer is worth 10 pressed men,” and it applies to hydrogen as much as to anything else. I think the number of those who do not want to take part will be small, but if the past couple of years have told us anything, it is that an element of compulsion will not make those with misgivings change their minds; indeed, it often has the opposite effect.
I think take-up will be significant, based on the early response, and if the trial proves a success, there will be a national change because approximately 23 million homes and businesses in the UK rely on natural gas for cooking and heating. To put that in context, that represents a quarter of the UK’s carbon dioxide emissions, so we need to act on the whole of household infrastructure if we are to get to net zero. What better way to do that than an initiative that maximises support for UK jobs and enhances the principle of “make, buy and sell more in the UK”?
As much as that principle applies to anything, it applies to the 1.6 million boilers made in the UK each year, supporting jobs in places such as the north-west and the west midlands. Furthermore, a huge supply chain serves those manufacturers, and I am sure that building on that talent base is central to any levelling-up strategy the Government want to introduce. We also have tens of thousands of skilled gas engineers, which is why I welcome the support expressed by trade unions such as Unite and GMB whose members work in the sector and which support the move to hydrogen. I declare for the record my membership of both those trade unions.
UK boiler manufacturers truly are world leaders in the research and development of hydrogen-ready boilers. Critically, all have committed to sell hydrogen-ready boilers at the equivalent cost of a current gas-burning boiler. That commitment is key for households that are understandably concerned about the cost of converting to low carbon. We know, for example, that electric vehicles are substantially more expensive than traditional combustion-engine vehicles. That is one of the major barriers to consumer-led change, but we will not have to contend with it in this field.
I am aware that boiler manufacturers have written to the Prime Minister to confirm their commitment on that cost issue. Will the Minister say what consideration has been given to that commitment from boiler manufacturers to make in the UK and sell at the same cost as current natural gas boilers, which I hope he welcomes? What consideration has been given to comments by the trade unions on their view that it is not possible to achieve the large-scale workforce shift from boilers to heat pumps? Where is the hydrogen-ready boiler consultation? There was a commitment made to publish it last year.
Some people out there will say that we should not be doing this at all because it involves the wrong type of hydrogen, but the project has the potential to cut CO2 emissions by at least 80%, which is a pretty good start. It will not deliver us to the promised land of net zero, but it is an important—I would say probably inevitable—stepping-stone for getting us there.
The Climate Change Committee, which is the Government’s independent adviser on climate change, has recommended that significant volumes of blue hydrogen be produced by 2030 to help the UK to meet its climate targets, help industry to cut emissions quickly and ensure that there is a market for green hydrogen once it becomes cost competitive. The committee’s analysis found that blue hydrogen could save up to 85% of emissions compared with unabated use of fossil gas.
The committee has also concluded that blue hydrogen is the right first step to take because the technology available now will help emissions-intensive businesses that cannot electrify their processes to get on the road to reducing their emissions this decade. Critically, that will help to preserve jobs in the UK’s industrial heartlands and in my constituency as we target net zero further down the road. We want to get our industry powered and our homes heated by green hydrogen, but if we take a hard-line approach and insist on going for the zenith of green hydrogen immediately—all or nothing—I fear that it will probably not happen at all, which means we will have missed the opportunity to reduce our emissions now.
In some industries, those technologies are just not ready to go at a competitive price, and if we do not take those first steps now, over the medium term we will see those industries and jobs move abroad, and they might continue to emit the same levels of CO2 that they emit now. We would end up in a lose-lose situation. We would lose our chance to reduce emissions and lose the chance to preserve and increase the number of highly skilled, well-paid jobs that go with those industries. We know that there are voices out there that are only too ready to claim that protecting the environment costs jobs. We cannot give those voices any opportunity to gain strength. Our focus must be on delivering a just transition. Along with the need to bring people with us on the village itself, there is a wider need to bring the country with us and win the argument that, if we get the balance right, it will be a win-win rather than lose-lose situation.
Before I finish, I have a few further questions for the Minister about hydrogen more generally. Are the Government still on track to make a decision on heat by 2026? What will that decision look like? Will it unlock a hydrogen for heat industry in the UK, and unlock genuine choice for UK households in how they heat their homes in future? Can the Government match the ambition that has been expressed here about moving towards a hydrogen-based economy? Germany is investing 10 times the amount we are in the quest to deliver the same amount of hydrogen by 2030. I pose the question: is more support needed?
There could be more ambition in the number of hydrogen villages the Government can support. I do not see any benefit in the Government limiting the ambition to one hydrogen village trial. We will no doubt shortly hear about another one. Why not advance two schemes and double the learning? That would be in two different parts of the country, with two separate pieces of infrastructure. It seems the obvious way to go. The endless bidding wars and competitions that the Government specialise in do not always mean that the best projects succeed. They also mean that a lot of effort is expended on presentation, when we should all focus on delivery.
The potential of hydrogen is big enough to fit in two projects. If we do have a competitive process, I would be delighted if the Minister agreed to visit Whitby, possibly in July, to open the new customer centre, meet with Cadent and hear more about the hydrogen village project, as well as the many other innovative projects the company is delivering, not just to progress hydrogen for heat but in the wider hydrogen ecosystem.
I will conclude by saying why all this matters. I am sure we all want our planet to have a future, and I genuinely believe that we have the talent and innovation as a species to stop climate change overwhelming us. I am not so sure that we have the political will. It is through projects such as this that we will address that head-on and meet the challenge.
I want my constituency, because of where it is and because of its geology, history and industry, to be at the heart of this revolution, so that the people of Ellesmere Port can in future enjoy secure, well-paid jobs, on which they can raise a family, in a manufacturing industry that has enjoyed a renaissance, thanks to the advances we hope to make in carbon capture and hydrogen. I hope we end up living in a town where emissions have gone down but wealth has gone up, and that Ellesmere Port becomes a byword for innovation.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Bardell, and I thank the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders). This will be a brief contribution, because I agree with everything he has just said. I do not know whether that will be politically unpopular for him. He is completely right that the HyNet project, led by Cadent, is helping to lead the world in the hydrogen revolution, just like the H21 project in Teesside and Yorkshire, led by Northern Gas Networks, and the H100 project in Fife in northern Scotland, led by SGN.
We must consider why hydrogen works as an alternative to other ways of decarbonising our homes. The hon. Member said that 85% of homes are connected to the gas network. We need to think of a way to decarbonise that. Let us be under no illusion that both ways end with significant costs, whether we go down the route of heat pumps in every home or hydrogen boilers, or a different one. Every way comes with a significant cost.
I should say that I am chair of the all-party parliamentary group on hydrogen, so I have a vested interest in this field. The reason I am so passionate about the hydrogen village project is that hydrogen represents an opportunity to take the consumer and the taxpayer along with us on the journey towards decarbonisation. With heat pumps, we will have to say to the owners of a terraced house in Middlesbrough, who are on a low income, that they will lose a large portion of their garden because they have to put a borehole in it for a heat pump; they will have to refit all their radiators; they will have to insulate the insides of their home differently; they will have to buy new furniture, because none of their furniture will fit anymore; and, on top of all that, we will charge them £5,000 for the pleasure, even with the Government grant. They will then have to change the way they heat their home altogether, because using a heat pump is more like using an Aga than a boiler. That is why I see hydrogen as representing an opportunity to decarbonise home heating, while taking the consumer along with us.
The hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston mentioned the significant benefits of a hydrogen village project in Ellesmere Port. There are also significant benefits in doing it in Redcar, which is fast becoming the centre of excellence for green technology, whether it be carbon capture and storage, wind power, solar energy, hydrogen production or nuclear power—Hartlepool’s nuclear power plant is on the north side of the river. A hydrogen village project in Redcar will allow someone to wake up in a hydrogen-heated home, go to a hydrogen-heated college, then perhaps go for a swim in a hydrogen-heated pool at the local leisure centre, get a hydrogen-powered ice cream, and even visit the hydrogen-powered office of the MP, because my office in Redcar is included in the proposed trial area.
This represents an opportunity for us to demonstrate decarbonisation, while taking people along with us in the long run. The hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston is right that next year we have an opportunity to decide between Redcar and Ellesmere Port, or we have the opportunity to choose both. That is my argument—it should not be an either/or. Ultimately, we do not want a hydrogen village in the UK; we want a hydrogen UK. To get to that stage, we need as much evidence as possible. To get that evidence, we need both Redcar and Ellesmere Port. We need the Government to focus on how we can take that forward for the whole of the UK. I commend the hon. Member for what he has said today, and I leave the Minister with that thought.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Bardell. I thank the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) and congratulate him on securing this debate. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Redcar (Jacob Young) for making some powerful points. We are on the cusp of an exciting opportunity for the hydrogen economy, and the pilot is about making sure that we get the infrastructure right to roll it out across the country.
I will start by framing our hydrogen commitments within the broader context of clean energy, and then deal with the specific points that have been made. I am responding today on behalf of the Minister for Energy, but also as the Minister for science, research and innovation. We see the hydrogen revolution in the heating of homes and the powering of vehicles—in particular heavy goods vehicles, trains and planes—as a fundamental part of our clean energy revolution. That is why, as Minister in charge of our science, research and innovation budget, I am strongly supporting the net zero transition and innovation. I say that as a former Minister of State in the Department for Transport, where, in addition to the electric vehicle revolution, we have now stepped up fast to support hydrogen roll-out in the transport sector.
That is all part of our green industrial revolution plan—the 10-point plan set out by the Prime Minster. The key commitment is to double our ambition of low-carbon hydrogen production to 10 GW by 2030. Further work is required to understand the feasibility, costs and convenience of transporting 100% hydrogen in the gas grid and using hydrogen for heating and cooking. That is what this trial is about. We want to establish the costs, logistics and practical issues as quickly as possible, so that we can then deal with them in a wider roll-out. We are working closely with industry, regulators and other stakeholders to deliver a range of research, development and testing projects for hydrogen heating.
Last year, I was pleased to see that HyNet North West, in north-west England and north Wales, which I know the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston has long championed, was selected to progress within track 1 of the industrial decarbonisation cluster sequencing process. That puts the region at the forefront of the industrial “SuperPlaces” we are supporting in this revolution. In the Government’s 10-point plan for a green industrial revolution, we set out the goal of supporting industry to deliver a neighbourhood trial by 2023, a village-scale trial by 2025 and a potential hydrogen-heated town before the end of the decade. Fundamental to our approach is the development of hydrogen hubs: centres of expertise that drive forward and accelerate the adoption of hydrogen as an energy source. The plans for a hydrogen neighbourhood trial are already under way, as colleagues know. That trial in Fife will supply hydrogen to around 300 homes, with hydrogen distributed through pipes laid parallel to the existing gas network. The trial of hydrogen for heat on a large village scale will be the first of its kind globally. It is a groundbreaking project.
It is an exciting time for the hydrogen village trial. Ofgem recently published its decision to take forward two proposals to the next stage of development. As my colleagues will know, Whitby in the Ellesmere Port area was one of the potential locations, alongside Redcar. The village trial will be led by the gas distribution network and will convert 1,000 to 2,000 properties to hydrogen instead of natural gas. Unlike the neighbourhood trial, it will involve the complete conversion of existing gas network infrastructure in the local area, repurposing it 100% for hydrogen.
We believe the hydrogen heating trials will encourage local employment opportunities and investment, along with the culture change that is required, as was mentioned by both the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston and my hon. Friend the Member for Redcar. The trials represent another opportunity for us to build back better with investment in green jobs and new technologies, while reducing the cost of energy for consumers. I understand that the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston is closely engaged with the proposal in his constituency, which is all to the good and hugely welcome. It is important that we support the proposals at this stage, because they have the potential to both generate the diverse, quality evidence that we need and drive that culture change.
Ofgem and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy will assess final proposals for the networks in spring 2023 and make a decision on where the trial will be located. Without prejudice to my ministerial colleagues’ decisions next year, the points the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston and my hon. Friend the Member for Redcar have both made today about scale are well made and on the record, and I will pass them on.
We are working closely with Cadent and Northern Gas Networks, the gas distribution network operators responsible for the short-listed projects, to develop their detailed plans for the trial. Strong community engagement is key and I hugely welcome the comments of the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston in that regard. The gas distribution network operators are working with local consumers to encourage as many people as possible to participate in the trial. It is important for me to say that nobody would be forced to use hydrogen and nobody would be required to pay extra. I think those two messages will help drive public adoption.
I want to touch on consumer protection, because it is key. Our first duty must be to the safety of consumers, so before any community trial can go ahead, the Health and Safety Executive will need to be satisfied that it is safe. As with natural gas, measures will be needed to ensure that hydrogen is stored, distributed and used safely. As part of our world-leading research into the subject, we have gathered evidence on the safety of using hydrogen in homes. The BEIS-funded Hy4Heat programme has shown that the use of 100% hydrogen can be made as safe as natural gas when used for heating and cooking in the types of houses that were studied. However, research is one thing; practical roll-out in the real world is the key. That is why the pilot is so important.
I reassure hon. Friends and Members here, as well as those listening, that we are 100% committed to safety and that we want to make sure that protecting the rights and interests of consumers is at the heart of the trial. It is the first of its kind in the UK. We are therefore committed to a framework of additional consumer protections, which we set out in our consultation last year, including transparency of information, fair treatment and quality of service. We hope that they will enhance the existing protections in energy and consumer legislation, which already apply to consumers and will apply for the trial. We are clear that nobody taking part in the trial will be required to pay any extra.
With regard to multiple hydrogen trials, colleagues can see the logic of our next step, which is the village and neighbourhood trials. That combination, alongside the wider programme of research and testing that we are running, is designed to provide the Government with the necessary evidence to take big strategic decisions on heating within a matter of two or three years. I know the ambition that colleagues have shared today to go further and faster is shared by the Secretary of State, the Minister for Energy, Clean Growth and Climate Change, and the Prime Minister. It is not lack of political will that is holding us back; we simply need to make sure that we have the practical realities of roll-out and conversion of the gas network clear.
Colleagues have raised the issue of blue versus green hydrogen. I want to make it clear that our hydrogen strategy sets out the Government’s twin-track approach to supporting both electrolytic green and carbon capture-enabled blue hydrogen production. We see blue and green hydrogen as complementary and not as an either/or choice. Our new UK standard for low-carbon hydrogen production will ensure that the technologies we support—green, blue and other potential production routes—make a real contribution to our decarbonisation goals.
We are on track to make a decision on blending in 2023. We are exploring whether to enable the blending of up to 20% of hydrogen by volume into GB gas networks, and we are on track to make the policy decision next year, subject to the outcomes of the ongoing economic and safety assessments, and wider strategic considerations about the energy market. If the decision to proceed with blending is positive, we will look to start the legislative and regulatory process to enable blending, as well as the process to make any physical changes that are required to gas networks. Given the timelines on that work, officials do not anticipate blending on a commercial scale to commence before 2025.
We are looking to publish the hydrogen-ready boiler consultation as soon as possible—“in due course” is the official phrase. I cannot speak for my ministerial colleague, but I know that is very high in his in-tray. The consultation will consider the case for requiring newly installed domestic-scale gas boilers to be hydrogen ready, which would be a step change. The consultation will also include proposals to improve in-home boiler performance, building on the existing boiler efficiency standards of boiler-plus in England.
On manufacturers’ commitments to make hydrogen-ready boilers in the UK and sell them at the same cost, we absolutely welcome the commitment to maintain gas boiler prices at current levels in the case of a widespread roll-out of hydrogen-ready boilers. We look forward to working with manufacturers to ensure that that is possible at scale, because it is fundamental to adoption.
On the trade union debate about whether it is possible to achieve a large-scale workforce shift from boilers to heat pumps, we absolutely think it is possible. I was grateful to hear the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston, with his strong union background, make it clear that his unions are supportive of that. It is important that we send a signal that this is not a massive challenge, but a part of the upskilling of our broader workforce and economy. Existing heating engineers can train reasonably simply to install heat pumps in one week or less, and thousands of new heating engineers have already seized the opportunity to learn those skills.
I reiterate my thanks to the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston and my hon. Friend the Member for Redcar for raising the issues today. I hope they can see how committed the Government are to making sure we protect consumers and get the practical logistics right. They would be the first on their feet if we rushed into something that had not been properly thought through. We want to make sure that the trials lay the foundation for a wider nationwide roll-out. The aim is not to have one or two world-class trials; the aim is to prove what we need to do to roll out hydrogen at an industrial scale across the country as part of our net zero targets.
As was outlined in our consultation last year, we are including legislative measures to facilitate the trials in the landmark energy security Bill. I very much look forward to working with colleagues here. More importantly, the Energy Minister looks forward to working with colleagues across the House as the Bill goes through Parliament. This is an exciting time not just for the UK hydrogen economy, but for the communities that are in the vanguard, and we are keen to make sure that that public support continues to grow.
Question put and agreed to.
Fly-tipping and Illegal Dumping
[SIR MARK HENDRICK in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the matter of tackling fly-tipping and illegal dumping.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Mark. I am grateful for the time to discuss this important issue.
“And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England’s mountains green:
And was the holy Lamb of God
On England’s pleasant pastures seen!”
My choir-singing days are long behind me, but that famous hymn and poem appropriately captures the idyllic nature of our beautiful nation. However, I dread to imagine what William Blake would think today if he could see the mattresses strewn along our country lanes, the rubbish along our high streets or the old, broken televisions and fridges dumped at the side of the road, which is what we are here to discuss today. I asked for this debate because I have been shocked by the level of littering and fly-tipping, and I am sure every colleague will agree that it is a blight on our environment and undermines our communities.
I thank the hon. Member for that intervention, and I hope she will be pleasantly surprised as I progress through my speech.
We can all agree that we ought to be able to enjoy wherever it is we call home without the scourge of fly-tipping scarring our landscape. In 2021 alone, there were more than 1.1 million fly-tipping incidents in England, which is more than 129 a minute and a 16% increase on the year before. This is a crime that feeds antisocial behaviour and can lead to serious environmental and public health damage, especially when something such as medical waste is dumped.
I congratulate the hon. Member on his opening speech and thank him for giving way. Not only does fly-tipping cause issues for the environment, but there is the cost to local authorities, which have to pay to get the rubbish removed. Does he agree that we need more preventive and deterrent mechanisms? Local authorities could have services to remove waste, and we could have more CCTV so that we can catch fly-tipping offenders.
I worry that the hon. Member has seen a copy of my speech, but I am sure that she, too, will be pleased to hear what I call for.
Fly-tipping is indiscriminate. In my constituency, for example, the northern, more urbanised parts experience fly-tipping as much as the southern, more rural areas. This crime has serious economic costs, with the total cost of fly-tipping to the taxpayer estimated at £400 million. The number of large fly-tipping incidents, or tipper lorry loads as they are called, is 39,000 in total. The cost of clearance to local authorities last year was £11.6 million—an increase from £10.9 million in 2019-20.
I also asked for this debate because I want to recognise the social damage of fly-tipping. If levelling up is to mean anything, we require investment in our communities, while also instilling pride and empowering local organisations and our parish councils to tackle fly-tipping. Nothing says “We don’t care” more than when we let communities descend into becoming havens for fly-tipping and the related antisocial behaviour. Ultimately, that disenfranchises whole communities. Our communities need to know that we stand for them. That is why I stand here today calling for us to reinvigorate our war on fly-tipping.
I want to take a moment to recognise the fantastic contributions of organisations across my constituency, which continuously remind me of the community spirit that protects our villages, towns and homes. In particular, I thank my parish councils, which have continuously raised this issue with me, including Barston, Hampton-in-Arden, Castle Bromwich, Chadwick End, Tidbury Green, Dickens Heath, Balsall Common, Berkswell, and Bickenhill and Marston Green. I also thank Catherine-de-Barnes Residents’ Association, Clean & Green, the Knowle Society, the Balsall Common Litter Pickers, the Hampton-in-Arden Wombles and Love Solihull, which all supported and took part in my Keep Meriden Tidy initiative last year. In addition, I thank the litter-picking groups in Dorridge, the Marston Green Wombles and the many individuals and organisations up and down the constituency that take time out and volunteer to make their villages and town centres beautiful and safe places to live, work and play. These organisations and people need our support. In fact, when I went around picking litter as part of my Keep Meriden Tidy initiative last year, numerous bags were filled. Shopping trolleys were extracted from streams, and there was a real risk of finding unsavoury items such as knives, syringes or worse.
That brings me to my first ask of the Minister: has she considered the role of community organisations in dealing with fly-tipping? Has she considered working with the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities to examine whether further powers could be given to parish councils to deal with fly-tipping and litter? I am aware that she takes this issue incredibly seriously, and I know that the Government are also serious about tackling fly-tipping, recognising the social, economic and environmental risk that it poses.
I welcome the establishment of the Joint Unit for Waste Crime, which is designed to disrupt serious and organised crime around fly-tipping. It works jointly with the National Crime Agency, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, the Environment Agency and the police. Moreover, I recognise the great achievement that is the Environment Act 2021, which introduced new powers to gain evidence and enter sites.
I am also aware of the consultation on fly-tipping, which is ongoing. Can the Minister reassure my constituents and others affected by fly-tipping that the consultation will lead to serious and meaningful change? Of course, I implore everyone to take part in it and to share their ideas, which leads me to ask the Minister and the Department what thought has been given to providing more fly-tipping education for the public? I ask that because that was a specific request from some of my constituents when I visited Balsall Common.
Of course, we have fantastic campaigns, such as Keep Britain Tidy, but the more, the merrier. That is why I will embark on another Keep Meriden Tidy campaign, not least because we have the Commonwealth games in my constituency. With over a billion eyes watching our beautiful region, I intend to play my part in keeping it that way.
One aspect of dealing with fly-tipping I have not yet touched on is enforcement. The greatest source of frustration for many of my constituents is the feeling that they can do everything they can, including reporting the fly-tippers, but the level of enforcement in no way matches their hard work, and prosecutions that would deter fly-tipping are just too rare. In short, Minister, too many fly-tippers are getting away with it.
Recently, I was pleased to see that there was a fly-tipping intervention grant, but I must ask whether there will be more rounds and more money, because I am keen for my constituents to benefit from any future rounds. Can the Minister also confirm that she is talking to local councils, or the relevant Department, to ensure that local councils have the means to tackle fly-tipping? In addition, can she confirm that she is talking to the policing Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for North West Hampshire (Kit Malthouse), to beef up enforcement by the police? One of my greatest fears is that my law-abiding constituents are put at risk by dangerous fly-tippers, who are sometimes involved with organised crime, and that the police are not able to do enough to tackle the problem. For example, farmers in my constituency are often at particular risk, because the very nature of rural areas means that it takes longer to get police support. They are particularly worried about confronting these criminals and about the personal risk to them and their families if they do intervene.
Of course I understand that the Government have many demands on their resources, so one suggestion I have for the Treasury is that if fines are issued to fly-tippers—frankly, there should be larger fines—the money should be fed back into parish councils so that they can have the resources to deter further dumping of illegal waste.
I thank my hon. Friend for securing this important debate and for his important contribution. However, does he recognise that one of the problems is fly-tipping on private land, such as that owned by Network Rail or the Highways Agency? We need the Government to put pressure on those agencies to clear up more quickly. The frustration for a lot of my constituents is that when they want Network Rail to clear up fly-tipping, it takes me three months to get it to do that. That is why we need some help from the Government.
My hon. Friend makes a valid point, and I am sure the Minister will have taken note of it.
The village of Barston is a particularly beautiful part of my constituency; it was recently voted one of the most desirable villages in the country. The parish council bought its own automatic number plate recognition cameras, and it monitors who enters Barston, with the data being shared with the police when fly-tipping incidents occur. I am also aware of private businesses working with other parish councils to help fund ANPR cameras. Will the Minister consider incentivising private business to work with parish councils to empower them to tackle fly-tipping? When fly-tippers are identified, our hard-working police need to have the resources to go after the criminals so that they can meaningfully deter fly-tipping.
I am pleased that the Government are looking at electronically tracking waste. The majority of fly-tipping is household waste, but we could still go further and make it easier for residents to dispose of rubbish. One idea that intrigues me is the use of mobile recycling vehicles, which play a positive role in other communities in increasing recycling rates and reducing fly-tipping. The Minister’s support to engage in that would be greatly welcome.
The next time we hear about walking upon England’s mountains green and England’s pleasant pastures seen, let us make sure that they are seen and that this country is seen for the beautiful place it is, rather than as one covered by the eyesore of fly-tipping and illegal dumping.
Thank you, Mr Bhatti. I am conscious of the number of Members who want to speak, so I will bring in a time limit of four minutes. I ask that anybody who wishes to make interventions should make them short and sharp so as not to take too much time away from others who want to make a contribution.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Mark. As a newly elected Member, this is my first time speaking in Westminster Hall, and I am very pleased to be here. I congratulate the hon. Member for Meriden (Saqib Bhatti) on securing this important debate.
I have come here to do what lots of people accuse politicians of doing every day: to talk rubbish. But on a serious note, fly-tipping and illegal dumping are a huge problem in my constituency: Slade Road in Stockland Green, Frederick Road in Gravelly Hill and Farnborough Fields in Castle Vale are particularly badly hit, to name just a few.
My hon. Friend is making an important point about just how much fly-tipping there is across her constituency. It is also a massive issue in my constituency, whether in Radford, Chapelfields or Allesley. I am sure she also receives dozens of emails from constituents who are tired of rubbish being thrown on the floor. Given that it has become increasingly difficult for local authorities such as my council in Coventry to adequately fund the removal of fly-tipping waste because of the budget cuts over the past 12 years, does she agree that the Government need to do more to support local councils to ensure that they have the necessary resources to address this important issue?
I absolutely agree that that needs to happen.
Reports of fly-tipping are increasing across the country. In Birmingham alone, the council received 38,142 reports of fly-tipping between May 2021 and May 2022. Fly-tipping is against the Brummie spirit. Our Labour council has been right to take a zero-tolerance approach, introducing a £400 fixed penalty notice for everyone caught dumping rubbish illegally. It has successfully taken some of the most serious offenders to court, but the increasing demand for enforcement action is coming after almost a decade of austerity-driven cuts. Those have created the most challenging period in the council’s history, as funding for vital services has been cut by a staggering £775 million since 2010.
We have some amazing local organisations in our community, such as the Erdington Litter Busters, who are doing their bit to tackle illegal dumping, but we should not have to rely on community groups to make our streets cleaner and greener. It is clear that councils need more resources, and I hope the Minister will be able to outline today specific support to help our local authorities tackle fly-tipping, because it has become an epidemic.
I want to turn to a specific issue blighting our constituency, which indirectly leads to fly-tipping and illegal dumping. In Erdington, the community has seen an alarming increase in houses in multiple occupation and exempt accommodation, with the second-highest level in the city. One example is Kings Road in Stockland Green, where more than 27 out of 85 houses are in multiple occupancy. With such a high concentration of properties, which can often be full of strangers, some in large families or with complex mental health issues, it is no surprise that we have seen an increase in antisocial behaviour, drug dealing and fly-tipping.
Birmingham City Council has once again done what it can, by applying for a selective landlord licensing scheme to be introduced in 25 of the 69 wards in the city. The largest landlord licensing application in the country, Birmingham’s scheme has not yet been approved by the Government. I hope the Minister will indicate today that the Government will give it the green light, as that will greatly help the council to tackle rogue landlords and, in turn, reduce fly-tipping in our area.
I would like to finish by saying something positive. I welcomed the Government’s announcement in March that they plan to introduce minimum standards for properties in the private rented sector, and new powers for local authorities to clamp down on rogue landlords. As ever, the devil is in the detail, and I hope the Minister can elaborate on those plans in today’s debate, as all those measures will help to reduce fly-tipping.
As a former councillor in Birmingham, I know how much the local authority is crying out for more powers and funding to help it beat the curse of illegal rubbish being dumped in our communities. It is such a huge problem in my constituency that tackling it will be one of my key priorities in Parliament. Today, we need the resources from the Government, not hot air and empty promises.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Mark. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Saqib Bhatti) for securing this important debate. We can see from the number of Members in attendance how significant this issue is across our constituencies. This debate is important for me because certain areas in my constituency are plagued by fly-tippers. As many have said, fly-tipping and illegal dumping can ruin the experience of residents and visitors.
The Worth valley in my constituency, one of the most beautiful parts of the country, is the place that inspired the Brontë sisters and is home to some of Yorkshire’s finest tourist attractions. Too often, when one drives through this rural landscape, bin bags, discarded objects and even hazardous material can be seen dumped and discarded at the side of the road.
Only in April this year, hundreds of dumped tyres were found on Nab Water Lane in Oxenhope in the middle of the Worth valley. In November last year, a large number of household waste items, such as mattresses, cots and bags of rubbish, were dumped in East Morton cemetery, near Riddlesden, where Captain Sir Tom Moore is buried. It is an absolute disgrace that individuals feel they can get away with that. In April 2021, 225 tyres were dumped on the top of Ilkley Moor. That illustrates that we are not talking about little bits of rubbish being dumped here and there. This is organised crime, which we must get on top of.
This is not just happening in the rural parts of my constituency. In the centre of Keighley, some of the back streets, particularly the back lane to Cavendish Street, are hard hit, with residents finding numerous bits of dumped rubbish. That causes huge amounts of havoc and distress for many people living and working in the area.
The figures stand out. Nationally, 1.13 million incidents of fly-tipping have been recognised over the past year. Within the Bradford district alone, last year there were 2,000 fly-tipping incidents, with 50 fly-tipping fixed penalty notices given out and five vehicles that had been involved in environmental crime seized. In Keighley itself, 2,500 fly-tipping incidents have been reported over the past two and a half years. Keighley Central ward had the highest number, with 771 recorded; it was closely followed by the Worth valley—one of the most rural parts of the constituency—which saw 522.
We have to get to grips with this problem and get on top of it. Funding is absolutely vital, but we also need a name-and-shame strategy. To hold these individuals to account, let us have the names of anyone who gets a fixed penalty notice branded across the constituency. We have had Travellers visit Ilkley and leave behind huge amounts of vegetation—green waste. They have clearly gone around the town, approached residents and asked how much they can pay to get rid of their green waste, and then they have left it on private and council property so that the taxpayer has to pay to get rid of it. This cannot continue.
We also need to be smarter about installing more CCTV cameras and using technology to investigate and explore the rubbish that has been dumped so that we can work back and hold those criminals to account, in order to get on top of this horrendous issue that blights us all.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Mark, and a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Keighley (Robbie Moore). I congratulate the hon. Member for Meriden (Saqib Bhatti) on securing this important debate. It is nice to see my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mrs Hamilton) in her place.
In the past year, more than 5,500 reports of fly-tipping were submitted by people across Barnsley—almost double the number from the year before. Fly-tipping does not just ruin local communities; it can be hazardous and toxic and can feed into serious organised crime. Thanks to the efforts of Barnsley Council, its #EverybodyThink campaign and local residents, fly-tipping has decreased in recent months. However, if we are to tackle this issue at its root, more must be done at a national level to support local authorities.
Barnsley’s council budget has been devastated by some of the largest cuts in the country; it has been subject to cuts of 40% since 2010. Although the council is already stretched, the removal of fly-tipped waste is costing it nearly £200,000 a year. It might sound good for the Government to speak of transferring power to councils to deal with problems such as fly-tipping, but that is futile if, in reality, councils are left without the resources to provide proper solutions. I ask the Minister what the Government are doing to ensure local authorities get all the support they need.
For private landowners who fall victim to fly-tipping, funding the proper disposal of waste can be really expensive; if it was not, the waste would likely not have been dumped in the first place. This can lead landowners to resort to poor methods of disposal—such as setting fire to or burying rubbish—which can cause damage to local habitats and local people’s health.
To prevent that, the Government might look at encouraging other areas to replicate the successful pilot carried out by the Hertfordshire police and crime commissioner. His annual fund of £20,000 supports private landowners with paying for the removal of fly-tipping, using funds from the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002. That allows waste to be processed properly for the benefit of the whole community. I also echo the calls that have been made in the debate for tougher enforcement.
The problem with fly-tipping is that it can easily snowball. The more people see it, the easier it is to believe that it is acceptable behaviour and the less incentive there is to maintain cleanliness. To stop this problem from spiralling, we need to make proper disposal as easy as possible and offending as difficult as possible. That could start with ensuring that houses in multiple occupancy have enough wheelie bin space for all who live there. It could also mean placing obligations on those who sell large household items to offer or direct to services that dispose of old fridges, mattresses and the like when customers buy new ones.
Education is crucial. People should be fully informed about how everything in their house should be thrown away, as well as how to check for a proper waste carrier licence; that would prevent unsuspecting households from funding illegitimate services run by criminals. We are all familiar with what a driver’s licence or a registered taxi looks like, so there is no reason why we cannot be taught to recognise a waste carrier licence. In that vein, steps should be taken to strengthen the process for obtaining a waste carrier licence, so that background checks are carried out in more cases and licences are less easily replicated. If we make offending hard, dealing with waste through simple, proper disposal will not feel like such a burden for businesses or homes.
Fly-tipping is a blight on communities such as Barnsley but, fortunately, solving it is in everyone’s best interests. There are lots of local groups across Barnsley who work hard, mainly with volunteers, to keep Barnsley tidy and clean. I take this opportunity to pay tribute to them all, because we all lose when the hard-earned money that we pay in taxes goes towards removing dumped rubbish. We all lose when habitats are lost and our environment becomes dirty, and we all lose when criminals are allowed to run riot in our towns. With the right support from Government and the right changes across the country, there is no reason why we cannot put an end to this terrible practice; we need to do so.
It is a delight to speak in the debate, Sir Mark, and I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Saqib Bhatti) for securing it. I had quite a long speech, but I will cut it down to just a few pertinent points. I ought to declare that I am still a borough councillor with Charnwood Borough Council. I will talk about some of the good things and some of the bad things happening in our area with fly-tipping.
First, I want to focus on farmers. Farmers in my area are blighted by fly-tipping, particularly on the margins of the constituency and the county—I am on the edge of the county. There is frequent fly-tipping on Charley Road in Shepshed, for example, which causes farmers great distress and rather a lot of expenditure. Betty Hensers Lane in Mountsorrel is also frequently blighted. Incidents like those that my hon. Friend described involving lorry loads—he referred to them as tipper trucks—happen often throughout Charnwood, both in my constituency and in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Charnwood (Edward Argar). To deter fly-tippers, farmers are resorting to drastic measures such as blockading gates and field entrances with machinery and other items, and installing lights and security cameras—all at their own expense. That is something I would like to look at with the Minister, please.
There is good news, however. Charnwood Borough Council has been running a campaign called “Don’t muck around”, and I was the lead member for four years. We did all sorts of things. We had posters where dogs were, dare I say it—am I going to be the first Member to say “pooing” in Hansard?—pooing, to show that people should pick it up and take it away themselves. We had 38 flags in Sileby football pitch identifying pieces of dog poo across a pitch that kids were playing on every weekend; it was terrible.
The council does wonderful things to do with littering, fly-tipping and dog mess, and I absolutely take my hat off to the street management team, who work very hard. The council holds a rubbish amnesty day at the end of every student year. As the students leave, a rubbish truck comes round and takes the rubbish away, which is great. That does not happen in all cases, but it does in the majority. At the beginning of the year, during freshers’ week, the council gives out advice on what to do with rubbish, because people come from different parts of the country, where rubbish is dealt with differently.
There are those kinds of concerns, but I am most concerned about the impact on farmers. Aliens do not come down and fly-tip rubbish on our country. I therefore ask that everybody deals with their own rubbish as much as possible. If everybody did that, we would not have fly-tipping, littering or dog mess across the country.
A point was made earlier about ensuring that carriers do, in fact, have waste licences and are not dumping waste elsewhere. I suggest that littering from moving vehicles, including from the backs of open trucks, should be heavily fined to deter people from leaving detritus in our towns and on our highways.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Mark.
I want to tell a story. It is the story of a constituent who wrote to me recently, and it is about a lovely spring morning of the sort we all dream about. The weather was beautiful, as it always is in Lancashire, and there was not a single cloud in the sky. The weather was so wonderful that my constituent and his wife decided to take their daughter and their dog for a walk in our wonderful countryside. They found a route they liked and headed out into nature. After a time, they saw a road in the distance. They ambled casually towards a hedge next to it and climbed a stile out of the field. They looked around them at this unspoiled bit of rural Lancashire, and they saw an old sofa, three broken kitchen units, piles of old, empty paint tins, and many bags of building waste and other rubbish, some with flies and rotting smells coming from them. They were appalled. The family’s outing had been spoiled by a blight that impacts us all.
That story is a composite of many emails and letters I have received about this subject. Not a day goes by without someone dumping something in a country lane or back alley, and my office estimates that almost 20% of our casework relates to fly-tipping of one kind or another. That is shocking, and it highlights the sheer scale of the problem we face as a society. It is not just rural areas: our towns, cities and villages are also blighted by this horrendous crime, but what is the solution?
There is no doubt that the steps the Government are taking to allow materials to be recycled at tips more easily will certainly help, but that will not stop the problem altogether. At its heart is laziness, and a lack of care for others and for the communities in which fly-tippers live. The only solution is enforcement, deterrence and prosecutions, and I am sorry to say that councils simply to do enough. I have constantly called on Rossendale Borough Council and Hyndburn Borough Council to take more action on fining the people who blight our communities, but unfortunately they have not done that. After our great local election, we now have a cabinet member in control who is on our side—Steven Smithson—so I hope more action will be taken.
Councils need to increase the use of covert recordings and invest in drones, static hidden cameras and other technologies to record fly-tippers and catch them in the act. They also need to increase their investigations into fly-tipped material and pursue every single fly-tipper relentlessly. There should be a disproportionate response to fly-tipping, and fines should reflect that. At present, we are simply not issuing enough and we are not putting other punishments in place. I also believe that the vehicles of all fly-tippers should be seized as proceeds of crime. We need a zero-tolerance approach. I agree that we need to look at licences, and there needs to be more enforcement action when rubbish is dumped on private land.
That is my contribution to the debate. We need more action and we need more from the Government, such as an education campaign. We must work together to improve our local communities.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Mark. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Saqib Bhatti) on securing this debate. Although these issues are devolved, it is right that in our UK Parliament, Members representing all constituencies have the opportunity to raise concerns about their local areas.
Fly-tipping is a major issue in Moray, as it is in other parts of the country. In 2016-17, there were 139 reported incidents of fly-tipping in Moray, but the most recent figures show that in 2020-21 the number had risen to 402. For a very remote and rural area, that is a high number of incidents. Local people rightly complain about them, and, as we have heard, people have to pay for them.
At the same time, according to freedom of information figures from Moray Council, in 2016-17 seven people received fixed penalty notices. Despite the fact that the number of incidents has more than doubled in the period to 2021-22, only 16 fixed penalty notices were issued in the most recent year. It is a serious concern that the people responsible for these illegal dumping and fly-tipping activities are not being held accountable for their actions.
My hon. Friend spoke about mattresses, and others have talked about more toxic items that are illegally discarded. That is important, because although any material discarded in this way is unsightly, in some cases it is also extremely dangerous. Some time ago, in Tugnet near Spey bay in Moray, people dumped a large amount of asbestos, which is clearly dangerous for anyone who goes near it and hazardous to the officials from the council who had to go along to clear it.
I am pleased that we had excellent local government results at the start of this month in Moray, where the Conservatives are now in charge—every one of our candidates was elected, while the SNP went backwards. In response to another FOI request, Moray Council could not tell us how much is spent on clearing up this waste, so I hope the new administration in Moray will put out more knowledge about the cost to the council. The public deserve to know how much their local authority is spending on clearing up waste in their area.
The last thing I want to speak about today is a consultation that has just closed in Scotland on a new fly-tipping Bill, which is being brought forward by my Scottish Conservative colleague Murdo Fraser MSP. The legislation in Scotland has not changed since 1990, and we have seen no action from the SNP on this issue over their 15 years in power. That is why the Scottish Conservatives are leading this charge. The consultation closed last night with 190 responses, which were overwhelmingly positive about new legislation coming forward. The Bill would ensure better data collection and reporting mechanisms for fly-tipping in communities, and it would ensure that the land or property owner is not responsible for clearing it up. We have heard time and time again today about the cost to innocent people, and therefore we as Scottish Conservatives want far more onus to be placed on finding the perpetrators and making sure they pay for clearing up.
My plea to the Minister is that she joins the growing list of people supporting this legislation in Scotland. Scottish Land & Estates has said:
“We were pleased to help Mr Fraser develop his Member’s Bill and strongly support the Bill’s intentions to rid Scotland of fly-tipping once and for all”,
and Robin Traquair, vice-president of National Farmers Union Scotland, has said:
“Fly-tipping is such a major issue across Scotland that action needs to be taken to change the law when it comes to dealing with those responsible. Such positive action to tackle fly-tipping, through this Private Member’s Bill, is something NFU Scotland would fully support.”
I hope that today, we also get the support of a UK Government Minister, because this is legislation that we need in Scotland.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Mark, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Saqib Bhatti) on raising this issue. From the speeches we have heard, it is clear that whether we are in an urban or a rural setting, we are all facing the same problem: the pernicious crime that is fly-tipping. It happens in my constituency, and it has happened to a greater degree over the pandemic. The statistics are stark; figures from across the country show that over the past two years, fly-tipping has only got worse. In the east midlands, it has got 20% worse; in the east, it has got 29% worse; in London, it is 6.9% worse; in the north-east, it is 26.7% worse; in the north-west, it is 21.8% worse; in the south-east, it is 34% worse; in the south-west, it is 9.2% worse; and in the west midlands, it is 27.9% worse. The only area of the country that has seen an improvement is Yorkshire and the Humber, with a reduction of 1.6%. Surely, there is a lesson we can learn from that.
There has also been a 24% reduction in the number of fixed penalty notices issued for fly-tipping, so we need to seriously address the questions of who is disposing of waste and where they are disposing of it. The people who use such services have some responsibility for ensuring they are disposing of their waste through a safe and responsible organisation; they, too, have a responsibility to make sure that their white goods, mattresses and furniture go where they should. It was interesting to hear Opposition Members talk about the responsibility of local authorities. Of course, some responsibility rests with local authorities to take action, but this also relies on individual businesses behaving responsibly by making sure they put their waste into tips, and on responsible behaviour from people who are getting rid of waste.
One of the biggest problems I have found in my constituency is how we document this crime, because it is incredibly difficult and expensive to so. We can talk about putting up CCTV cameras everywhere, but the reality bites: people in rural areas do not want CCTV cameras all over the place. In order to stamp fly-tipping out, we will have to find a way to bring together councils, individuals and businesses, with a register and hard-level fines to punish people who commit this crime. We will not always be able to rely on documenting it with big-state CCTV.
The fines are the biggest problem. According to the notes I have and the “Panorama” documentary “Rubbish Dump Britain”—my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Paul Bristow) and I referred to it in a debate that we held last year—it costs £1,500 to £2,000 for a council to investigate and prosecute fly-tipping, but the average fine is £170. Clearly, when there is such an imbalance, we will not discourage people from fly-tipping. We have the added problem of what happens if we employ someone to take our waste away and they subcontract the service to someone else, so there has to be a register or a measure in place.
My hon. Friend the Member for Meriden started and finished his speech with the words of “Jerusalem”. We might also add some Shakespeare, and say that
“this sceptred isle…set in the silver sea”
is worth protecting. It is worth ensuring that we can bring to justice those who commit the crime of fly-tipping. We must ensure they are brought before the law and dissuaded by punitive fines. If we can do that, we will see an end to it.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Mark. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Saqib Bhatti) on securing this important debate.
Fly-tipping is a consistent problem in Peterborough. Two years ago I raised the local issues in my constituency at length in an Adjournment debate. I am sick to death of seeing hotspots in my constituency. The junction between Norwood Lane and Newborough Road is a particular problem. As many hon. Members have said, the question is not whether this is an urban or rural issue—it affects both settings. Urban communities such as Bretton and Ravensthorpe in my constituency are plagued by it, as are rural villages such as Thorney and Newborough.
I will not take up Members’ time by talking at length, not least because the issues from two years ago have not changed. We need more powers to combat fly-tipping. Along with others, I called for higher fines beyond the current fixed penalty notice limits, argued for a zero-tolerance approach, made the case for new Government guidance, and suggested better tools and resources for local authorities. The Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow), expressed lots of sympathy, noted that the legal issues involved were complicated, cited some positive-sounding statistics, and urged patience. To her credit, since then enforcement action has risen, but so have incidents of fly-tipping. We need the online fly-tipping toolkit. Much of the guidance still offers less than zero tolerance.
Since taking over this brief, my the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St Edmunds (Jo Churchill) has announced that people will no longer have to pay to dispose of DIY waste, which will make a real difference. She has also advanced the move towards digital waste tracking, with powers and penalties to match. I gather that the first element of the toolkit is near to launch, which is music to my ears. She has also questioned whether fixed penalty notice fines are high enough to act as a deterrent. I welcome what she has done, but I also pass on to her the desire of my constituents in Peterborough for the Government to keep going, and to go further.
One easy step would be to revise the two guidance documents that I cited two years ago: “Fly-tipping: council responsibilities” and “Household waste duty of care: fixed penalty notice guidance”. They have not changed. The language and direction could be far more robust, and they are far from the only instances. Moreover, I understand that that upping the penalty limits would require legislation, so I hope that the Minister will look at whether that can be done.
As has been said, fly-tipping is often the result of organised crime. That is absolutely right. It is often the case in rural settings and we need to crack down on it. Enough is enough. Our communities should no longer be used as dumping grounds. We need zero tolerance, stricter fines, CCTV enforcement and stronger guidance from the Government. Fly-tipping blights too many of our communities. It is time for us to act and to start driving the number of incidents down.
It is a real honour to speak in this important debate, Sir Mark. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Saqib Bhatti) on securing it. I should declare an interest as a former councillor for many years.
I think we are on a journey. When I first got elected as a lowly parish councillor in 2004, recycling was nowhere near as good as it is today, so I congratulate constituents up and down the country for doing the right thing. My own council, the Three Rivers District Council, is the third best performing council in the country for recycling, so I wish to put on the record my thanks to my constituents for doing the right thing.
As others have said, illegal fly-tipping can cause significant damage, especially to local wildlife but also to the perception of communities. My hon. Friend the Member for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond) referred to Network Rail. The speed at which fly-tipped waste is collected can have a detrimental effect. If we do not encourage all actors to quickly resolve the issue, there can be a spiral of disrepair.
I represent South West Hertfordshire, a beautiful constituency that is about 80% green belt. Others have spoken about the cost to private landlords when fly-tipping takes place on their land. This Government and previous Administrations have done a lot of work on this issue, such as confiscating vehicles found guilty of crime, but more can be done. Part of that, as others have said, is education. I had a constituent who was a victim of beer barrels being fly-tipped. The local council claimed that it was investigating, but it ended up that the constituent spoke to the offender, during a time when they were undergoing radiotherapy. That should not have had to happen. There is always a human victim at the end of this crime. The land can be blighted, but it is the landowner or occupier who has to deal with the issue.
The private sector is also affected. Waste collectors that do the job properly get targeted or associated with the poor performers. I know that they are proud of their industry. I am really keen for the cost base to remain low; we need to make sure that where businesses are doing the right thing, we congratulate them. This place is one of many where we are able to do so.
I welcome the Government’s April announcement on new council grants and a specific focus on new technology, the use of CCTV and ANPR cameras, and education. The hon. Member for Barnsley East (Stephanie Peacock) mentioned the police and crime commissioner in Hertfordshire. Buckinghamshire, just across the way from me, has extended its funding to local councils. I hope that Hertfordshire councils—district, borough and the county council—can look into doing a bit more.
The Government have adopted new technology with new applications coming out. I look forward to investigating that more. I am a firm believer that the world evolves and it is right that the Government lead those conversations. The consultation published last month on the change in household waste recycling centres is really important. The past two years have seen a lot of homeowners redevelop their own homes. Having a cheap and easy way of making best use of waste facilities is good.
I am conscious of time, so I will wrap up. I congratulate the Minister on the excellent work that she continues to do in this area.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Mark. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Saqib Bhatti) on securing this debate.
We have heard already about the impact of fly-tipping right across the country. We have heard how it blights communities and disrupts people’s lives. In South Staffordshire, sadly, we often have to deal with industrial-scale fly-tipping—not just a mattress, sofa or small items of building products, but large truckloads abandoned in woods and on the roadside. That has an enormously high cost, be that for the landowner or the local authority. Even more importantly, it blights the local community in such a dreadful way.
We know that the cost of disposal is high. For an individual or an authority that has to dispose of fly-tipped goods, the average cost is £800. The Minister will probably talk about the large fines that can be levied on fly-tippers—she will probably mention that a fine of up to £50,000 can be levied. If she does, I hope she also mentions how many individuals have been charged that top fine of £50,000. I know that in the past it has been exceptionally rare, so I hope she will cover that.
A few years ago, the Government made an important move by giving local authorities the ability to levy on-the-spot fines. That had an initial impact, but it does not go far enough. The largest fine they can levy is £500. As has already been touched on by my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall), the cost of actually bringing a prosecution averages between £1,500 and £2,000. The investment that needs to be made by local authorities to catch these criminals can often be substantial.
I would like to make a suggestion to my hon. Friend the Minister. As she will be aware, the Queen’s Speech included the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill. What better way to level up and improve communities than by having that Bill address fly-tipping? I suggest to the Minister—she could go back to the Department and claim that this is all her own work—that the limit for on-the-spot fines levied by local authorities should be increased dramatically to £5,000. People who dump rubbish would then feel the pain for causing disturbance, nuisance and vandalism to our countryside.
Will the Minister also consider amending legislation so as to enable local authorities to make better use of closed-circuit television in a concealed environment? So often, fly-tipping occurs regularly in spots across the countryside because they are conveniently located close to main arterial roads. Changing the legislation to enable local authorities to make better use of concealed CCTV would have an enormous impact by increasing the number of fly-tippers they could catch. It would allow local authorities to keep those fines, creating the incentive to go after the fly-tippers.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Mark. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Saqib Bhatti) on securing this debate on an issue that is so important to his constituents and to all of us here.
Fly-tipping is a perennial problem in Sevenoaks and Swanley. In the last year alone, we have had 1,600 incidents —one of the highest numbers I have heard today. Some of them have been dangerous. Similar to the example given by my hon. Friend the Member for Moray (Douglas Ross), we have had asbestos dumped in Ash, which led to a road being blocked off for two weeks. We have had dangerous waste dumped in Shoreham Lane, leading to farm animals eating it and dying. We have had horse corpses dumped on land. On some occasions, they were dying horses, which was very distressing for everybody involved. We have had rubbish dumped in Horton Kirby and Fawkham, which obviously caused huge issues for people just trying to go about their daily business. This is an issue that absolutely needs resolving.
The good news is that, in Sevenoaks and Swanley, Sevenoaks District Council has done a huge amount of very good work focusing on enforcement. I am pleased to say that we are, I think, the only district council in Kent that has a dedicated fly-tipping enforcement agency, which has worked very hard to secure prosecutions this year. We have had eight criminal prosecutions, I think, and about 50 fixed penalty notices and lots more statutory warnings.
Just last Friday, a case was prosecuted against someone who had fly-tipped five times. He received a 12-month community order and was ordered to pay £3,000 in compensation to Kent County Council and £250 to Sevenoaks District Council. These fines are not enough to deter people, especially repeat offenders such as the one I just mentioned. My right hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Gavin Williamson) and my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall) were absolutely right that we need to focus on not only the maximum level but how much local authorities are able to get back from people who carry out these irritating crimes that are causing such a blight on our communities.
We also need to focus on the role of the Environment Agency. According to the National Audit Office, the number of Environment Agency prosecutions for waste crime has dropped from nearly 800 a year in 2007-08 to about 50 a year in 2017-18. The Minister will tell us whether that trend is reflected in the current figures—I do not have those for this year—but it seems worrying and we should act quickly to address it.
I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes about compensation for councils so that they recoup their fees when they prosecute such cases. It is just not economical for them to do so, because they recoup only 40% of their fees on average. Sevenoaks District Council spent £23,000 on this matter last year. We need to do more to support councils that are trying to do the right thing by addressing this blight on our communities.
I will leave my remarks there. I am grateful to the Minister for all her work—I know that she is focused on this matter—but the strength of feeling in the debate shows that more needs to be done.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Mark. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Saqib Bhatti) on securing the debate, and I welcome the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mrs Hamilton) to Westminster Hall for the first time.
I speak as a former Cornwall councillor and as the Member representing Truro and Falmouth in Cornwall, where fly-tipping is a major concern, as it is in the other constituencies we have heard about in the debate. I regularly hold beach cleans and litter picks around the coastline and throughout the countryside—we are deeply saddened to see our beauty spots stained by the irresponsible dumping of household goods—and I thank my parish and town councils and the volunteers who take part every day. In Cornwall, it feels like it is in our DNA to pick up litter where we see it.
Fly-tipping is a significant blight on the environment. It is a source of pollution and a potential danger to public health, and it costs council tax payers vast sums every year. Every year, Cornwall Council spends an estimated £250,000 on clearing up waste that has been tipped around the duchy. It is no wonder that the people of Truro and Falmouth have had enough.
Unlike some who have spoken, I will not name our hotspots, and I hope that hon. Members will understand why. My hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall) spoke about the national trend, but in Cornwall we have seen a decrease in our instances of fly-tipping since the pandemic. In 2018, we had just over 4,500 instances throughout the whole of Cornwall, while last year, we had just over 3,000. I am pleased to say that that is because we now have a Conservative council that is actually tackling the issue, and I thank everybody involved at the council—the officers and the councillors—for their incredible hard work.
The council’s strong joint-working relationship with the waste contractor means that it now has many individuals on the ground to help to gather evidence. The council has also trained town and parish councils on how to report instances of fly-tipping, ensuring that they provide sufficient information for cases to be investigated and that partner organisations are credible witnesses when they identify fly-tipping.
Council officers also undertake surveillance operations in known fly-tip hotspots, using camera equipment. The council successfully prosecuted a persistent fly-tipper in February 2022 following a surveillance operation—the prosecution resulted in fines and costs of £7,348—and further operations are being organised. Although that is positive progress, nobody should fly-tip at all, and that is why we still have much work to do.
I will not repeat the calls for the Government to act, because I know that we all feel the same way, but I support the calls from the National Farmers Union for effective punishments to deter criminals from dumping waste illegally. That could be achieved by developing further guidance so that effective punishments can be delivered when prosecuting, which would support our farmers and landowners. That would include raising awareness of offences that affect rural and coastal communities in particular, and working with those who bring cases to court to ensure that they make full use of the range of sentencing powers available to them.
In addition, I support the NFU’s calls for the development of a single reporting mechanism so that farmers and land managers have to report a fly-tipping incident only once. Currently, victims often need to report incidents to multiple authorities, which is frustrating and time-consuming for busy farmers. Such a mechanism would ensure that the correct authority is informed and that feedback is available following each report. I stress that I also support the call for increased fines, but I will let the Minister address that because I know that she has already heard the call from colleagues today.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Mark. It is good to see so many colleagues in the Chamber, especially Government Members who are joining us in our plea for the Government to go further and faster in tackling the crime of fly-tipping and illegal dumping.
This is the first time I have spoken in the House since the election of a Labour Government in Australia, and I know the Minister will join me in wishing the new Prime Minister well on such a fantastic result. He is a friend to many in this place, including Adam Jogee in my team. Focusing on tackling the climate emergency worked down under, and I look forward to seeing the same thing happen here—and, of course, I am hoping for the same result here in the next election.
I thank the hon. Member for Meriden (Saqib Bhatti) for calling this debate and providing the House with the opportunity to address our collective responsibility for preserving our country, protecting our environment and leaving our planet for the next generation. His predecessor, Dame Caroline Spelman, was of course Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in the coalition Government, so his constituency has a keen interest in these matters. It has been clearly highlighted that many other constituencies across the UK do too, and the public are keen to do whatever they can to help. We have already heard about the Wombles and the litter-pickers across the UK. In Newport West, Malpas, Duffryn, Rogerstone and Graig all have litter-pickers out in regular occurrence. Our “road to nowhere”, which was a fly-tipping nightmare, has now been transformed into a road to nature, which is brilliant.
Hon. Members have rightly raised the scourge of waste in their communities, not just today but in many previous debates. Until Ministers step up and give councils the resources they need to keep our communities clean and safe, Members will continue to raise this issue and seek help, change and assistance. Thanks to a lost decade of Tory austerity, plastic waste is piling up on high streets and street corners, and in our green open spaces. Moreover, it is being exported to some of the world’s poorest countries, where what was supposed to be recycled material ends up in landfill, polluting our oceans. It is then shipped back to Britain for us to deal with. This is a very real problem, and it requires speedy, comprehensive and properly funded solutions.
The hon. Member for Sevenoaks (Laura Trott) highlighted the decrease in prosecutions by the Environment Agency. There is a reason for that: these agencies have been underfunded and understaffed for many years, and they have struggled to tackle waste crime and monitor waste exports because of the cuts to their budgets and staff numbers. We all know the impact that austerity has had on local government.
Hon. Members from across the House, including those who represent areas such as Meriden, have stories of how their local councils are struggling to deal with waste effectively, while being forced to cut waste collections. Labour believes that we need a more circular economy in the United Kingdom. The raw materials used to create our products should increasingly come from recycling our waste. Indeed, a Labour Government would take on the global waste crisis by investing in a new plastics recycling and remanufacturing industry, creating thousands of jobs, ending exports of plastic waste and reducing our contribution to ocean pollution.
I am sure the Minister knows that in England, the total volume of aggregate waste increased by 12% between 2010 and 2018. I speak to the House from a Welsh perspective: recycling must outpace the growth in consumption. That is a very simple sum that must add up.
Despite the new powers on waste targets in the Environment Act 2021, I am afraid that the Government have delayed the roll-out of important areas of extended producer responsibility, including the scheme administrators and fee modulation. The current inadequacies of waste collection and recycling systems mean that used compostable packaging tends to end up in either landfill or incineration, or it messes up recycling plants because some of the materials used can be as resistant to degrading in the sea as conventional plastics.
I do not want to show the Minister up, but I have to talk about the Welsh Labour Government, because Wales has been a standout performer in the UK when it comes to recycling rates and tackling waste pollution. The Welsh Labour Government have invested £1 billion since devolution in household recycling, and that has helped Wales’s recycling rates catapult from just 4.8% in 1998 to over 65% in 2021. The latest national recycling figures for Wales showed that we recycled 65.4% of our local authority-collected waste in 2020-21. Eighteen of 22 local authorities in Wales exceeded the statutory minimum target, and 13 reported an increase in performance on the previous year. The next statutory minimum target of 70% by 2024-25 has already been achieved by Pembrokeshire, Ceredigion, Conwy and Vale of Glamorgan. If the hon. Member for Meriden is hoping to find solutions to tackle waste pollution in his constituency, I urge him to look to Wales.
There are a couple of further points of interest. On the international dimension, since China banned the import of waste, illegal exports to other countries appear to be on the rise. I wonder why that is. England does not have the necessary waste and recycling infrastructure. I am afraid that has been made much worse by the soft-on-crime Conservatives, whose savage cuts have caused Environment Agency inspections and enforcement action to plummet since 2010.
When trying to stop waste and fly-tipping in our communities, it is worth looking at the provision for a deposit return scheme in Environment Act. That is limited to certain materials, rather than creating a framework that could be broadened to include more types of plastics or bioplastics in future. We know that deposit return schemes work successfully in other countries. We made it clear throughout Committee stage of the Environment Act that Labour supports a scheme funded by retailers and producers that collects plastic bottles, metal cans and single-use and reusable glass.
This is about pride and who we are as a country. For all the points we have raised about how to tackle the issue, we cannot ignore behaviour change. Waste does not just appear; it is caused by us all—everyday people going about our lives. That is why it is key that alongside all the enforcement, policies and decision making here in this place, we keep the focus on educating people. As my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley East (Stephanie Peacock) said, education is key. That starts with how we preserve our planet by disposing of waste properly and safely, and includes why we all benefit from seeing and living on clean streets.
I hope the Minister will provide some answers to my questions. What are her plans to extend the deposit return scheme in the way Labour suggested? What discussions have taken place with the Treasury and the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities about ensuring that councils have the resources they need to tackle waste pollution? What lessons have been picked up from Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland about their approach to tackling toxic waste, fly-tipping and waste pollution? Those are simple questions and I hope the Minister will be able to give some answers.
I thank you, Sir Mark, for an interesting debate, and I am grateful to the hon. Member for Meriden for bringing it to the Chamber.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Mark. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Saqib Bhatti) and all right hon. and hon. Members who have come to this Chamber to tell us forcefully that we need to keep our foot to the floor on fly-tipping. It blights all our communities across the country, from Wales to the east of England and from Scotland to Cornwall, but we have heard glimmers of where working together can start to deliver change.
I hope to go over some of the things that my hon. Friend raised and to outline a little more how we are driving forward in some of these areas. As many Members touched upon, and as the head of the Environment Agency said, waste crime is the new narcotics. There is a lot of money in it, and it drives antisocial behaviour. While I am here, I congratulate the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mrs Hamilton) on her powerful contribution, and her council on being one that really does drive forward those enforcement measures and ensure that people receive the full force of what we are able to do, in telling them that it is not good enough to litter communities and to fly-tip.
The Government have been taking significant action and are committed to stamping out fly-tipping. I share everyone else’s abhorrence of it. It blights communities and the environment. It is extremely impactful on animals and, as we have heard, on human health on occasion. As my hon. Friends the Members for Sevenoaks (Laura Trott) and for Moray (Douglas Ross) said, some of the things that are dumped are completely unacceptable.
Fly-tipping has been debated in the House in previous years. Since then, we have made significant progress and we have given local authorities and regulators new tools to tackle the menace, but we need them to use their powers. It is not enough to keep a cookery book closed; it has to be opened for the joys to be discovered. If councils really want to help us with fly-tipping, they must take every ability we have given them to beat it. We have strengthened powers to search and seize the vehicles of suspected fly-tippers. We have legislated to introduce fixed penalty notices for fly-tipping and for householders who give their waste to fly-tippers. The hon. Member for Barnsley East (Stephanie Peacock) mentioned the need to make sure that licences are checked. Actually, that is a householder’s responsibility, but not everybody knows that they have to do that. As that system becomes electronic, it will be considerably easier for people to go online—like we do with other things—and check the licence. If somebody does not have the appropriate waste carrier licence, they should not be used for waste disposal.
It is important to ensure that everybody is up to date. For example, if a kettle breaks down, as a small electronic good it can be taken back to the retailer and they will get rid of it. Not everybody is aware of that, so they can be seen littered across our countryside. I am due to meet with manufacturers of mattresses on 6 June, because of mattress mountains—I think it was my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Paul Bristow) who mentioned mattresses being dumped. It is a problem up and down the land. Extended producer responsibility is slowly going through, but I want to see manufacturers coming forward and voluntarily saying what they will do with their items. The paint manufacturing industry recently came to me because it has developed a scheme in Cambridgeshire, which I hope to see, where paint can be taken back to any retailer.
Along with things like the DIY consultation, which we will be completing shortly, it is important that people have options with what to do with their waste. The majority of fly-tipping is the size of a small van or the boot of a car. It is small scale, notwithstanding what my right hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Gavin Williamson) said was happening in some areas of the country. My hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Robbie Moore) mentioned tyres. With particular items, we are having to drill down on how we tackle them.
The Minister made the strong point that it is important for local authorities to take responsibility and to use the powers that they have as effectively as possible. Is she willing to consider the prospect of increasing the amount of the fixed penalty fine that they can levy? I think it is currently set at £500. Could that be increased substantially?
Fixed penalty notices are currently set at £400. Local authorities can issue fines of up to £400 to fly-tippers and householders who pass their waste on to those who are not licensed. I will take that point away, because my right hon. Friend is not the first to say that perhaps the fine is not high enough. However, some councils do not even use the powers that they have to fine people up to £400. I really urge people to use everything we have given them.
I am sorry to interrupt the Minister, but just to go back, she was talking about the need for licensing for waste clearers. However, in some instances, it is quite easy to get a licence. It needs to be more rigorous. How do we make sure it is not too easy for someone who commits a crime, or actually fly-tips, to apply and be given a licence?
It is about building blocks and making sure that we have the proper ability to investigate whether waste carriers and brokers are suitable to hold a waste licence. That is part of what we are trying to do. I commend the MSP, Mr Fraser, for driving this forward among the Scottish Conservatives. It is really important to all our constituents.
I was pleased to see that Aylesbury Crown court recently sentenced a serial fly-tipper, who had dumped rubbish in multiple local authorities, to 21 months in prison and seized his van. That is important, because it shows what many Members present have asked for: a deterrent and a strong, firm approach.
The Government outlined how we intended to strengthen enforcement powers through the passing of the landmark Environment Act 2021. We have fulfilled that commitment. The Act ensures that agencies and authorities can work effectively to combat waste crime through better access to evidence and powers of entry. The Environment Agency was granted access to the national automatic number plate recognition service in 2021, giving it the ability to better trace those using vehicles for illegal waste activities.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden acknowledges, this issue is not something that my Department can tackle on its own. It is not enough for us to provide the tools; the tools must be used. It is also important that we work across Government, which is why I have spoken to Baroness Vere in the Department for Transport about National Highways. I note that my hon. Friend the Member for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond), who is no longer present, asked for a similar approach with Network Rail. It is about us joining up. My hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth (Cherilyn Mackrory) spoke about her council, which has joined up at multiple levels, including parishes and so on. We can get on top of this problem.
I agree with the hon. Member for Newport West (Ruth Jones) that this is about education. We do fund education through WRAP, Keep Britain Tidy, Recycle Now and others. This year, I have secured funds to drive our education campaign work forward. I will be looking at how we can best target that and what we can do with it. I know many voluntary organisations already do phenomenal work and, although it is not a laughing matter, have tremendous names—the Rubbish Friends, the Wombles, and so on. They are encouraging young people, Scouts groups and many other parts of our community to get involved to clean up the areas that they love. It is really commendable.
I urge the councils of all Members present to feed back to us as much enforcement data as possible. My records show that Solihull Metropolitan Borough Council has not issued any fixed penalty notices or brought forward any prosecutions since 2014-15. In total, 19 local authorities in England reported no action taken in 2021. Councils keep the proceeds of fixed penalty notices, so they can use those to step up enforcement efforts. There is something cyclical here. The hon. Member for Hyndburn (Sara Britcliffe) is no longer present, but neither Rossendale nor Hyndburn has, in fact, issued any FPNs. As I say, it is good to hear about the joint working, but I need councils to work with us so that we can do more.
Does the Minister agree that the Government should name and shame councils that are not issuing fixed penalty notices when concerns are being raised by their constituents? Does she also agree that the individuals who are fined and receive fixed penalty notices should be named and shamed in the public domain?
We are straying into sentencing and so on, which does not come under my Department. Much of what has been spoken about today involves me talking to colleagues in the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities and so on. However, I will take away those questions, because I think it is right that the fine should fit the crime. Those discussions are ongoing.
We are looking to improve the environmental quality of all our communities. We have more ambitious plans, such as introducing the deposit return scheme to ensure that billions more drink bottles and cans are safely returned and recycled, and to ensure that the recyclate coming from that is of a better quality, so that it can enter a circular economy. I fully agree that that is what we should be aiming for. As I say, we have spoken to National Highways to tackle the scourge of roadside litter, and to the Ministry of Justice to support the community payback schemes that have been so fantastic at cleaning up some of our communities. We also want to explore what more can be done on sentencing for more serious waste-related crimes.
As part of wider reforms, extended producer responsibility will move the cost of the disposal of packaging in street bins from local taxpayers and residents on to the producer. I am sure that that strikes us all as fairer. These measures will have an enormous impact on plastic and other litter that we see on our streets, in our and in our waterways. To support innovative local action, in 2012 we commissioned the Waste and Resources Action Programme to administer the fly-tipping intervention grant scheme on our behalf. That was the grant of £450,000, which many Members mentioned, to enable a number of councils to implement a range of measures to tackle fly-tipping. Projects being funded include a combination of artificial intelligence and APNR cameras in Buckingham, the trial of “No bags on the street” in Newham, CCTV enforcement in Durham, and directing offenders to a digital education tool. I am pleased to say that we are looking to extend that grant, and I will be giving more details. It has been very popular, and many councils wish they could have availed themselves of it.
We also recognise the importance of local residents being able to dispose of rubbish in a responsible, simple way. We are working with councils on legislative powers to bring in consistent collections to make the system easier. We are consulting on preventing charges for DIY waste because, as many Members have said, that is a problem that blights neighbourhoods. We are also seeking views on household waste recycling centres because, again, some behaviours have changed over the past two years with the covid pandemic. As we have seen, that has led to a rise in some of the behaviours that we want to drum down on.
The Minister talked about recycling centres, and earlier somebody mentioned mobile recycling centres. Has the Minister done any evaluation of mobile recycling centres? In Birmingham, they have proved exceptionally successful. It would be interesting to find out what work is being done to support local authorities to expand that type of scheme.
I thank the hon. Lady. I made notes during the debate and can see everybody’s constituency highlighted, but I cannot see who mentioned mobile collections. That is a fascinating idea to explore a little more, particularly for items that are difficult to recycle, such as lithium batteries. Having a small van where those items can be left might work very well. Was it my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden who mentioned mobile collections?
I am sure I will pick that up with my hon. Friend after the debate.
DEFRA continues to chair the National Fly-Tipping Prevention Group, through which we work with a wide range of interested parties, such as local authorities, the police, the Environment Agency and the National Farmers Union, to disseminate good education and learning. My own farmers have spoken to me at length about it, so I know they will be pleased to hear that my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden highlighted how farmers’ land is blighted across the country. This is a rural crime, and many of us understand the impact it has on farmers and businesses, because they are obliged to clear it up when it is on their land.
We are currently working with the NFTPG to develop a fly-tipping toolkit to share best practice. That toolkit will ensure that people can present robust cases to the courts to support tougher sentences. We intend to deliver that shortly. We have already started working on the next element of the toolkit: how councils can set up and run an effective fly-tipping partnership. We expect to have that published before the end of the year.
We recently concluded two online consultations on how to tackle waste crime while supporting people and businesses to manage waste correctly. I fully agree with my hon. Friend the Member for South West Hertfordshire (Mr Mohindra) that we must support businesses that are doing the right thing. Those are the ones that we do not want to be penalised because others do things badly. We will reform and strengthen the waste carriers, brokers and dealers regime by moving it to a permit-based system, increasing competence and the background checks required to move or trade waste. We are taking forward the introduction of mandatory digital waste tracking, which will also help us to detect, enforce and prosecute, as the hon. Member for Barnsley East pointed out. I hope that it is clear that we are taking extensive action to tackle the scourge of fly-tipping. That action, along with the tireless work of local authorities and many other community organisations, will deliver significant results.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden once again, and I also thank the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington, my right hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire, and my hon. Friends the Members for Keighley, for Loughborough (Jane Hunt), for Hyndburn, for Moray, for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall), for Peterborough, for South West Hertfordshire, for Truro and Falmouth and for Sevenoaks. They are literally from the top to the bottom of our beautiful country—
“This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself.”
That is the rest of the quote given by my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes. Let us ensure that we sort this out and do the right thing.
Thank you for your chairmanship, Sir Mark. I hope that you found the debate as important and fascinating as I did. Clearly, we have a range from William Blake, to Shakespeare, to poo today, which is quite poetic in itself. I thank hon. and right hon. Members from across the House for their contributions to the debate. I am sure that their constituents will be incredibly proud of how they have stood up for them today.
I welcome my neighbour, the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mrs Hamilton), to her first Westminster Hall debate. She talked about austerity, but I would gently remind her about the negotiations around the bin strikes that happened, and what that led to. However, I am sure we will have lots of sparring time in the Chamber, and I look forward to that, as I am sure she does.
I thank the Minister for her response. In the research that I did, there were plenty of Hansard contributions that demonstrated her determination to deal with this issue, and I thank her for that. I am pleased to hear about the further funding intentions, and that she will also think about the mobile recycling units, which I am very keen to pursue for my own council.
I will keep my remarks very short, but given the strength of feeling, I am sure the Government have taken a strong steer and that the message will go back. I thank my very noble and committed parish councils and the community groups I have named. They inspire me every day to keep Meriden clean and tidy.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the matter of tackling fly-tipping and illegal dumping.
Great British Railways Headquarters: Swindon’s Bid
I beg to move,
That this House has considered Swindon’s bid to host Great British Railways’ headquarters.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Mark, and to see the Minister of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Wendy Morton), in her place. I am grateful to the House for allowing me the opportunity to address it on a matter of significant importance to the town I have the honour of representing. I speak today as the Member for South Swindon. My hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson) is on paternity leave—he recently had the good news of a second daughter, so he is well and truly outnumbered in his house. He strongly supports not only this debate but the bid that Swindon has made to be the headquarters of Great British Railways. I am grateful that the bid is also supported by my right hon. Friend the Member for Chippenham (Michelle Donelan), in her constituency capacity, and by my hon. Friends the Members for North Wiltshire (James Gray) and for Devizes (Danny Kruger)—all constituencies near to or bordering Swindon.
My hon. Friend the Minister will have spent the past several months fielding increasingly plaintive and perhaps strident requests from a large number of parliamentary colleagues and others, extolling the relative virtues of their local bids. I thought I would start not with the merits of Swindon’s bid, but with what it is that we are bidding for. For me and those who think like me, this is more than just an argument about where to cite a cadre of civil servants. It is more than deciding which building to use or what configuration things will take. It is more than something that looks little different from the existing Network Rail. In short, this is not Network Rail with a rebranding. The business model that governs railway service delivery is—I think by common consent—a flawed one.
We are at 72% of pre-covid passenger levels, but something has changed forever. Saturday is now the busiest passenger travel day, followed by Sunday and then Friday. Commuters are still travelling for business purposes, but the era of the annual season ticket is almost completely dead. Why, in the light of this newly acquired knowledge, do we persist with engineering works on weekends and holidays? That is one question that the new body will have to answer. It will also have to build on the work of the Williams-Shapps report. In my strong opinion, a complete and fair review is needed.
A system where the rest of the country, including Swindon, subsidises fares in the south-east is neither fair nor sustainable. A system where a peak-hour ticket from Swindon to London is one of the most expensive tickets in Europe is certainly not fair or sustainable. That is why we need not just a building, but a hothouse of innovation, designing the railway network of tomorrow: its installations, equipment, people, systems and structures. That is the very first of the core goals set out by the Secretary of State in the Department for Transport’s framework document: changing the culture of the railways, rather than merely replicating Network Rail. I put it firmly on the record that we in Swindon understand that better than anybody.
The second core goal is to think like customers and put them first. With thousands of rail users coming through Swindon every day, that is frankly our default position. We have no choice but to think like them and think as them. The third goal is to grow the network and get more people travelling, and the fourth goal is to make the railways easier to use, and I will go on to address those issues.
The fifth goal—an important one—is to have greater accountability, to drive down costs and to increase efficiency. No. 6 is to have a can-do, not a can’t do, culture—again, something that is in the blood of what we are about in Swindon. Then, there is harnessing the best of the private sector, and I will enlarge on that. Finally, there is the critical role to be played in the shift to net zero. In summary, it is Swindon that encapsulates all those core goals.
Let us take the private sector. For a long period now, we have enjoyed the presence of major engineering firms, such as Atkins, Amey and Hochtief, all of which are based in our town. That immediately provides the potential headquarters with excellent proximity to partnership opportunities that will not exist elsewhere.
The net zero commitment has been exemplified by the electrification project that has transformed the Great Western Railway in our region and seen Swindon play a key role not only in the construction of that new electrified railway but in training—through the training centre that we have—to ensure that electrification was a success, and it is a success, with rail journeys to London now being reduced by an average of five to 10 minutes.
As I have said, in everything we do in Swindon we are a can-do economy. We find solutions to problems, we get on with the job and we often work so hard that we do not really signal our own qualities as well as we might do. Well, today, and in this bid, there is a chance for those qualities to be recognised.
Let me turn to the six selection criteria set out by the Government. I would argue that Swindon matches up magnificently to them all. First, there is:
“Alignment to Levelling Up objectives”.
Levelling up is not about simple geography; it is not about north, south, east and west. It is about disparities of income, disparities of opportunity and disparities in the quality of life. The Government have already acknowledged, through the towns fund initiative and the future high street initiative, which is benefiting Swindon, that the regeneration of our town centre is a key national priority. Siting the new Great British Railways headquarters right in the heart of the town, next to the railway and in buildings owned by Network Rail or the local authority, would entirely align with that objective. Moreover, it would align with the skills objective that is a key part of levelling up.
Recently, the Government made Swindon an education investment area, which means that we will get extra support to address the skills gap and the need to equip our young people for the jobs of the future. We are addressing those challenges by really focusing on science, technology, engineering and maths—STEM subjects—and technical education. The £21 million Swindon Institute of Technology, based in the town, provides technical qualifications and now offers higher apprenticeships for technical and digital roles. Right next to where the new headquarters could be is a university technical college, which was set up 10 years ago to provide youngsters from 14 to 19 with STEM skills and which provides particular apprenticeships to Network Rail. That is already happening, so we have a supply line of the talented young people that GBR will need if it is to survive.
I have mentioned training. We already have the £10 million state-of-the-art Network Rail Electrification Training Centre right next to the station in Swindon. There is so much going on—so much potential—and so much more to be done.
I apologise to my right hon. and learned Friend and to the House for being a few minutes late at the beginning of the debate. I am very sorry. May I assure him that the talent that will be required for this great new headquarters could come from not only Swindon but the rest of the county of Wiltshire as well? May I also assure him that he has strong support not only from myself and the people of North Wiltshire but from our hon. Friends the Members for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson), for Salisbury (John Glen) and for Devizes (Danny Kruger), and our right hon. Friend the Member for Chippenham (Michelle Donelan)? Indeed, he has the unanimous support of all the Wiltshire MPs for his bid, and we very much hope it is successful.
I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend; with his powerful words, he has exemplified the point that boundaries are not important here; it is the talent that we want to encourage. As a hub of excellence and economic activity, Swindon is so important to the regional economy and—I would say—the national economy as well.
The second criterion for a successful bid is connectivity. It must be:
“Connected and easy to get to”.
Swindon’s key position on the Great Western Railway is self-explanatory; we are an hour from London, Cardiff, Birmingham and Southampton. We have the M4 corridor, and the A34 is nearby. We have the A419 and A417 corridor —soon to be further improved by Government investment. All those make our connectivity in Swindon second to none.
The third criterion is about the opportunities for Great British Railways and how the location can enhance engagement with customers, the private sector and the wider rail industry. I have already outlined some of the outstanding engineering firms that are based in Swindon, but the proposal set out in the document that has been lodged by the bid outlines a very exciting opportunity for the new headquarters to be located in a railway works building right at the heart of the Swindon railway conservation area. This building—what we call the Workshed—is already a seedbed of innovation and new technologies. It is an incubator of new ideas.
Frankly, I cannot think of anywhere better for Great British Railways’ headquarters to be sited than in an historic environment with strong links to Brunel’s wonderful railway and with all that potential for the future. The situation in Swindon will not require complicated land acquisitions. As I have alluded to, the land is already either in the possession or ownership of Network Rail or the local authority, Swindon Borough Council, which wants to work constructively with Network Rail to provide a complete package. We already have an almost tailor-made site for the headquarters.
The fourth criterion is about railway heritage and links to the network. Where do I begin? We have the outstanding STEAM museum—the Museum of the Great Western Railway. It is a shrine to Isambard Kingdom Brunel and, most importantly, the great locomotives of the past and the history of the railways in Swindon. Some supporters, in particular the Alfred Williams Heritage Society, have described the railways as being as important to Swindon as, for example, shipbuilding was to Belfast. They were the reason the small market town of Swindon grew in the 19th century to become the major centre that it is now. Without the railways, Swindon would be a very different place. It would have a completely different quality. I believe it would have been diminished, because the railways made Swindon the powerhouse that it is today. We are all proud of that connection and continuing link.
The network does not just go from east to west. The Kemble line, dualled by this Government some 10 years ago as a result of a campaign by me, my hon. Friends the Members for North Wiltshire (James Gray) and for The Cotswolds (Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown) and others demonstrates the importance of north-south links as well as the links down to Chippenham and the south of the county. These links make Swindon an important and integral part of the railway network.
The fifth criterion is value for money. As I have already said, there is no need for difficult land acquisitions that cause delay to major projects. There is no need for negotiations with rapacious land agents. This is an opportunity that will provide outstanding value for money for the Government.
The final criterion is public support. The Swindon community enthusiastically backs this bid.
There has been mass activity on social media and from a wide range of major local organisations, including Wiltshire Council and Cotswold District Council, as well as major private and public sector organisations within the local area. Some 30 or 31 major local organisations—I will not list them here—have all signalled their support in writing. That support is backed up by a letter signed today by hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire, which will be sent immediately to the Secretary of State.
The online survey launched by Swindon Borough Council in March has received nearly 3,000 responses. Just under 95% of those respondents have shown their support for the bid, and there have been some excellent comments of support. One reads:
“My grandparents and great-grandparents worked on the railway. There is a historic passion that has been passed down through the generations”.
“Swindon is a dynamic, forward-thinking place with a rich railway heritage”.
One respondent said:
“Swindon is the home of the Great Western Railway. It was Brunel’s choice. If it was good enough for him, it is good enough…plain and simple.”
Another respondent wrote that Swindon is:
“The Railway Town! Without the railway, there would be no Swindon.”
Finally, one person wrote:
“What better place to be situated than in the town that was once home to one of the largest railway engineering complexes in the world.”
It employs tens of thousands of people creating the completed article: locomotive, right through to carriage and beyond.
I do not stand here today in dreamy nostalgia but am hard-headed and clear-eyed about the future. Inevitably, Brunel’s name will come up many times, but as I have said, it was no accident that the greatest engineer and innovator of his age chose Swindon to be the home, heart and hub of the Great Western Railway 180 years ago. He was not wrong then and this bid is not wrong now. Swindon is the railways, past, present and future, and that future must, I strongly submit, include the headquarters of Great British Railways.
It is a privilege and honour to be in Westminster Hall today. I want to start by thanking my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for South Swindon (Sir Robert Buckland) for securing the debate. I note the support from my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (James Gray), who has also reiterated the point that this particular bid, like so many, comes with the support of many neighbours and colleagues. In this instance, we have my right hon. Friend the Member for Chippenham (Michelle Donelan) and my hon. Friends the Members for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson), for Devizes (Danny Kruger) and for Salisbury (John Glen). I think they were the ones mentioned.
I thank my hon. Friend for that correction. Just last month, I was here in Westminster Hall to debate the merits of Derby as a potential location for the Great British Railways headquarters. Indeed, this is the sixth debate on the subject, with the previous ones for Crewe, Darlington, York and Carnforth. Not only has it been heartening to see how hon. Members up and down the country have engaged on this important conversation about the future of our railways, and in doing so been able to highlight and support their bids for their towns and cities, it has also felt like we have had a tour of a little of the heritage of the railways across this country.
As I have said on previous occasions, and at the risk of repeating myself, the railways are close to my heart. Both my paternal grandfathers worked on the railways, one in Wensleydale and the other in County Durham. Not long after I had been appointed as the Minister for rail, I discovered that my dad was born in a railway cottage, so I would like to think I have a little railway stock and heritage in my blood. I certainly understand the importance of the industry and this country’s amazing heritage.
As my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for South Swindon has set out, Swindon has a proud rail heritage. When Great Western Railway transformed a greenfield site into one of the largest railway engineering complexes in the world in the 1840s, Swindon’s railway heritage was solidified. Swindon became one of the most important manufacturing centres for the railways through the famous Swindon works, which we heard about this afternoon. Like many other historical railway sites, the influence of the works has not been lost, with it becoming the home of STEAM, the museum of the Great Western Railway, in 2000. From the earliest days of the railways to the modern day, Swindon has played and will continue to play an important role and, no doubt, continue to have an impact on rail innovation.
My mailbox provides great evidence that there are many other towns and cities across the country that have played an important part in our proud rail heritage and I know hon. Members are proud to represent them. The response to the competition has been positive and I am pleased to say that, by the time it closed on 16 March, we had received an amazing 42 applications.
Hon. Members will be well aware that the Williams-Shapps plan for rail, which was published in May 2021, set out the path to a truly passenger-focused railway, underpinned by new contracts that prioritise punctual and reliable services, the rapid delivery of a ticketing revolution with new flexible and convenient tickets, and long-term proposals to build a modern, greener and accessible network. Central to the Williams-Shapps plan for rail is the establishment of the new rail body, Great British Railways, to which my right hon. and learned Friend referred. It will provide a single familiar brand and strong unified leadership right across the network. It will be responsible for delivering better value and flexible fares, and the punctual and reliable services that passengers want and deserve. It will bring ownership of the infrastructure, fares, timetables and network planning under one roof, and will bring today’s fragmented railways under a single point of operational accountability. It will ensure the focus is on delivering for passengers and freight customers.
Great British Railways will be a new organisation with a commercial mindset and a strong customer focus. It will have a different culture from that of the current infrastructure owner, Network Rail, and very different incentives from the beginning. It will have responsibility for the whole railway system, with a modest national headquarters and several regional divisions. The national headquarters will be based outside London, and will bring the railway closer to the people and communities it serves, ensuring that skilled jobs and economic benefits are focused beyond the capital, in line with the Government’s commitment to levelling up.
The Secretary of State launched the competition for the headquarters on 5 February 2022, and it closed for applications on 16 March. The GBR transition team has analysed the 42 submissions we received from towns and cities across Great Britain against a set of criteria for the national headquarters. As my right hon. and learned Friend said—he has clearly been doing his research, but I would expect nothing less—the criteria are: alignment to levelling-up objectives; connected and easy to get to; opportunities for GBR; railway heritage and links to the network; value for money; and public support. The GBR transition team will recommend a shortlist of the most suitable locations, which will go forward to a consultative public vote. Ministers will make a final decision on the headquarters’ location based on all the information gathered.
I have been so pleased by the number and high quality of the bids we received. I am sure that, wherever we choose, the headquarters will go somewhere truly deserving. We will announce the shortlist early next month, so Members will have to wait just a little longer to find out who has been successful.
Alongside a new national headquarters, GBR will have regional divisions that are responsible and accountable for the railway in local areas, ensuring that decisions about the railway are brought closer to the passengers and communities they serve. GBR will be made up of powerful regional divisions and will be organised in line with the regions established in Network Rail’s “Putting passengers first” programme, which reflects how passengers and freight move across the network today.
Cities and regions in England will have greater influence over local ticketing, services and stations through new partnerships between regional divisions and local and regional government. Initial conversations are starting with local stakeholders about how those partnerships can best work together.
The reforms proposed under the Williams-Shapps plan for rail will transform the railways for the better and strengthen and secure them for the next generation. They will make the sector more accountable to taxpayers and the Government. They will provide a bold new offer to passengers and freight customers of punctual and reliable services, simpler tickets, and a modern, green and innovative railway that meets the needs of the nation. Although transformation on that scale cannot happen overnight, the Government and the sector are committed to ensuring the benefits for passengers and freight customers are brought forward as quickly as possible. We have already sold over 250,000 of our new national flexi season tickets, offering commuters savings as they return to the railways, and to help passengers facing the rising cost of living, our Great British rail sale offered up to 50% off more than 1 million tickets on journeys across Britain. It is the biggest sale of its kind, with over 1.3 million tickets being sold—added together, that is equivalent to 128 million miles of journey, which I am reliably told would get a passenger all the way to the sun and beyond.
The transition from the emergency recovery measures agreements to national rail contracts is also under way, providing more flexible contracts that incentivise operators to deliver for passengers. GBR will be an organisation that works alongside the local communities it serves. Integrated teams within GBR’s regional divisions will push forward design and delivery for their partners, supported by new incentives that encourage innovation, partnership and collaboration. It will be designed as, and will have the structure to become, yet another example of this Government’s historic commitment to levelling up the regions across the nation. We have often talked about the heritage of the railways; we often talk about the future of the railways, too.
Both the Government and the GBR transition team welcome my right hon. and learned Friend’s interest and his advocacy of his city and area, and welcome his participation in the competition for GBR’s headquarters, so that together we can deliver the change that is required. We look forward to building this new vision for Britain’s railways in collaboration with the sector and communities, and the GBR headquarters is one of many steps we are taking to achieve that.
To conclude, I again thank my right hon. Friend for having secured this afternoon’s debate.
Question put and agreed to.
Georgia and the War in Ukraine
I beg to move,
That this House has considered Georgia and the war in Ukraine.
During the Easter recess, the all-party parliamentary group on Georgia sent a delegation to Georgia, which I was pleased to be a part of. I declare my related interest as set out in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I am also pleased to have the opportunity to discuss issues that arose from the visit and also to thank the Speaker and MPs in Georgia, the Georgian ambassador to London, Sophie Katsarava, whom we are honoured to have here with us this afternoon, and also our ambassador to Tbilisi, Mark Clayton, all of whom made it a very useful, fascinating visit. We had meetings with the Prime Minister, many other Ministers, Select Committee Chairs, Opposition Members, and civil society activists.
I will start with a general observation: I doubt that UK-Georgia relations have ever been as good as they are at the current time. Under the Wardrop dialogue, bilateral discussions have improved relations in the diplomatic and ministerial spheres. I am very pleased to report that parliamentary-level relations are also excellent. During our visit we saw great potential for improved economic ties, with our post-Brexit free trade agreement in place, and also cultural ties—for instance, going with my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby (Mark Pawsey) to visit the Georgian rugby headquarters. They are crazy for the sport, by the way.
There is no doubt that Georgia is a country that faces west and wants to be part of the wider family of free and democratic countries with western values and economies. It is a young democracy and has a somewhat politically polarised society, but united, with huge polling majorities in their wish for membership of the European Union and also NATO. In fact, both aims have now been written into the constitution. As with Ukraine, a formal EU membership application has been made. That builds on Georgia’s existing EU accession agreement and its three-month EU visa, which it entered into at roughly the same time as Ukraine.
In practice, the EU often looks at developments with those two countries together. Russia, before its 24 February wider invasion of Ukraine, occupied roughly 20% of both countries and in practice runs the puppet regimes that it props up in both from the same Moscow office. Whenever President Putin warns against Ukraine membership of the EU and NATO, he usually simultaneously warns against Georgian membership. We can debate the rights and wrongs of the EU and Russia lumping Ukraine and Georgia together, but in practice we need to acknowledge that it happens to some degree.
As far as NATO is concerned, both Ukraine and Georgia have been forming closer links over recent years. Georgia, for instance, provided significant detachment operations in Afghanistan. Our delegation took the opportunity to visit the NATO-Georgia joint training evaluation centre, which was set up after the 2014 NATO summit in Wales. Georgia’s troops are trained in NATO tactics by NATO troops and, clearly, the ground is being set for ever-closer NATO compatibility, whatever the speed of Georgia’s membership application may be.
Of course, the threat presented by Russia hung over much of our delegation’s meetings in one way or another. It is important to realise that the intransigence, brutality and violence expressed by Russia under Putin did not start with Ukraine in 2014. Rather, it started with the Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008. As a result, to this day, 20% of Georgia—Abkhazia and South Ossetia—is occupied by Russian troops, and Georgia supports some 250,000 internally displaced persons from those regions.
The pattern of Russia’s use of disinformation and cyber-warfare and its escalating use of agents provocateurs, special forces and devastating slash and burn techniques have consistently recurred where Russia has meddled. So we should be horrified and disgusted by Russian actions in Ukraine, but we should not be surprised. As with the occupied Donbas, post occupation, Russia puts virtually no investment into these places, other than garrisons. They are effectively left to rot, in a kind of limbo. Sokhumi, the capital of Abkhazia and once the pearl of the Black sea, is now an empty ghost town of tumbleweed. Mariupol—need I say more? This is Russia’s plan: to have weak, corrupt and malleable puppet states, that it preferably does not have to pay for, to act as buffers on its borders.
In the case of Georgia, every few weeks Russia stages some farcical provocation action in the occupied territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, such as moving the barbed wire fence forward a few metres, or closing crossing points, or arresting shepherds rounding up their sheep—always to stir the pot and maintain tension and leverage. The United States calls these occupied territories, “occupied territories”. Can the Minister explain why the UK Government still refuse to do so?
We should recall that the year 2008 was a difficult time, with the global financial crisis. Standing up to Putin was not the No. 1 priority in the west. The west, led by the US, refused to intervene on behalf of Georgia, while in the UK Russian investment was being actively encouraged as one way of propping up our failing economy and banks. In 2008, Putin received his first of numerous free passes from the west. Sensing the west’s disinterest and lack of cohesion, onward he marched to Crimea and Donbas, not to mention with the stamping out of democracy in those countries directly in Russia’s ambit such as Chechnya, Belarus and Kazakhstan. Each time, more or less, he received a free pass.
During this time, the UK failed to arm Ukraine and Georgia. Yes, we gave army training and other aid, but not guns. Of course, the UK did more than most other countries and that should be recognised, as should our very significant contribution of weaponry after the start of the recent war, but the question does need to be asked: would Putin have attacked if Ukraine had received the means to fight back then, as it has now? Would so many people—some 8,000 civilians so far—have been killed? Would such physical and cultural disruption as we have seen have happened?
Both Ukraine and Georgia have been receiving high-level assistance from the UK to counter cyber-warfare. We must not forget that the prediction in the first days of the February war was that Russia would wipe out Ukraine’s infrastructure through the use of cyber-attacks. That has not happened. Frequent Russian cyber-attacks on Georgia have also failed. We gave help on cyber before the war started and it worked. Why did we not do so with weapons? Surely, we need to learn the lesson here: prevention is better than cure. The US has provided the Javelin anti-tank system to Georgia, but we have not sent arms. Let us not make the same mistake again. Let us give Georgia the weapons they need.
Georgian public opinion is pro Ukraine’s fight for survival and liberty to an overwhelming extent. In Tbilisi, every third house I saw flew the Ukrainian flag and there were huge rallies held in support. I understand that hundreds of Georgians have unofficially volunteered to fight in Ukraine. The Georgian Government have been very vocal in their support for Ukraine. They have been supporting anti-Russian motions at the UN. They have sent a very significant amount of non-military aid to Ukraine and are hosting some 25,000 Ukrainian refugees. Georgia has not adopted the western sanctions directly, although it is applying them indirectly, for example in financial services.
Georgian opposition parties and Ukraine have been demanding a tougher position on sanctions and military intervention. Against this is Georgia’s proximity to and partial occupation by Russia, with a population of only 3.5 million and without the cover of being a NATO member. The pain of being left alone against Russia in 2008 remains raw with the Georgian governing party and so the Government tread carefully with Russia. This approach has resulted in varying degrees of friction with Ukraine.
The recent arrival of some 30,000 Russians to Georgia is contentious. They tend to be young, middle-class Russians who do not want to be involved with the war. They can live in Georgia for a year and set up businesses there. The practical if not official position taken by the Georgian Government is that this is a welcome benefit to Georgia of the Russian brain drain. Opposition parties tend to be less charitable towards these Russians and there can be tension in public when Russian is heard spoken. Given that huge numbers of Russians are fleeing—there are another 200,000 in Istanbul alone—I would be interested to hear the Minister’s view on them and whether we know how many are in the UK.
It is also important to recognise that the strategic issues for the UK and the west go beyond Ukraine and into the wider Black sea region. Possible Ukrainian neutrality—subject to a referendum—was apparently mooted by President Zelensky at the Istanbul peace talks. A heavily-armed Swiss-type neutrality might work for a large and very populated country such as Ukraine, but that is not the case for Georgia, which is small geographically and has a small population. Indeed, the ground taken by Russia on the first day of its February offensive was more than exists in the whole of Georgia. Georgia’s long-term security is considered by the Georgians to be effectively bound up in joining the NATO umbrella, not in neutrality. If Ukraine were to go neutral, Russia’s attention would be drawn to Georgia—possibly with disastrous implications for Georgian security.
Although the UK Government’s security documents seem to be slowly coming around to recognising the importance of the wider Black sea strategic balance, the 2021 integrated review, “Global Britain in a competitive age”, mentions the Black sea only once. Britain conducts £21 billion-worth of bilateral trade in that region. That makes up 3% of our exports and it is significantly expanding. I believe that we still have the largest Navy in Europe. In April 2021, HMS Defender was deployed to challenge illegal Russian claims around Crimea, and was very much welcomed in Ukraine and Georgia. In the current war, we have started to provide Ukraine with our anti-ship missiles.
Let us assume that Ukraine prevails in this war. How, Minister, are we going to get trade going again in the Black sea region? Will we help to get rid of the mines? Will we work with Ukraine, with Georgia and, importantly, with Turkey, to keep the lines open and uphold maritime law? What kind of post-war planning is going on?
Let me state the obvious. The Georgians, like the Ukrainians, will always tell people that they do not want war and they do not want instability in their region. They want recognition of their sovereignty and the democratic freedom to embed themselves in the European family, encourage free trade and improve the economic lot of their people. The sacrifices and suffering of the Ukrainian people since 2014—as for the Georgians since 2008—have been immense and totally unjustified. I hope that our Ministers are looking at the clear pattern established by Russia and are learning the lessons of our earlier years of relative inaction, so that we can stop the rot from Russia spreading further.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr Djanogly) on securing the debate, on his excellent speech and on his enthusiastic chairing of the all-party parliamentary group on Georgia. I refer Members to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests as I was also on the delegation that visited Georgia recently. We all learned a lot from that visit and would like to pass on our thanks to the Georgian ambassador in London for all the work that was put into it. I wholeheartedly agree with the hon. Member for Huntingdon that the excellent parliamentary relations between Georgia and our Parliament were improved as a result of that visit.
I also point out that the links between Wales and Georgia remain strong. That is evidenced not just in our shared national love of rugby, but through the ongoing success of the really active Newport-Kutaisi Twinning Association, which has maintained the bond between Newport and Kutaisi for over 33 years—many deep and enduring friendships have resulted from it. The twinning association owes a great deal to the work of individuals such as the late Caroline McLachlan from Newport—a former chair of the association who was deeply involved with the twinning from the start—and her very dear friend, Professor Madonna Megrelishvili, the former chair of the sister Kutaisi Newport International Association, who sadly passed away last year.
As the hon. Member said, few countries will have watched the horrific scenes that have unfolded in Ukraine over recent months more intently than Georgia. Like Ukraine, Georgia has suffered the consequences of Russian aggression before, as has been laid out. The brutal 2008 assault on Georgia that claimed 700 lives and displaced thousands of Georgians was, in many ways, a warning bell that the west ignored—emboldening the Kremlin ahead of the illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014.
Much like Ukraine, Georgia also incorporates two breakaway regions with close ties to Putin’s regime, Abkhazia and South Ossetia—the latter of which has declared its intention to hold a referendum on joining Russia this July. The presence of Russian troops in Georgian territory ensures that tensions remain high. The people of Georgia live in fear that the country’s territorial integrity and sovereignty will be further impinged on by an expansionist Kremlin. In an interview with CNN last week, one Georgian diplomat expressed his concern that Putin is sufficiently unpredictable that he may invade Georgia at any time, for any reason—or for no real reason at all—regardless of the outcome of the war in Ukraine. That diplomat is certainly not alone in his concern.
In that context, the rationale for Georgia applying for NATO membership is understandable. Georgia has already developed a strong working relationship with NATO. It contributed troops to the Kosovo force, and was one of the largest non-NATO troop contributors to the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan. As a result of the 2014 NATO-Wales summit, the substantial NATO-Georgia package was signed to strengthen Georgia’s defence capabilities in line with NATO standards. During the recent APPG visit, it was really interesting to see the NATO-Georgia training and evaluation centre at work, not least because it was a product of the package agreed at the NATO summit in Newport. There we are: I got Newport in there.
Georgia has participated in Operation Active Endeavour—the counterterrorist maritime surveillance operation in the Mediterranean sea—and has engaged closely with the NATO Parliamentary Assembly in hosting the Georgia-NATO interparliamentary council. That was, at one time, chaired by my very good friend Madeleine Moon, the former Member for Bridgend, whose insight on geopolitics and defence issues is very much missed in this place. She visited Georgia, and the same border with South Ossetia that we visited.
Georgia’s ambition to join NATO is clearly not just a matter of military assurance. Georgia and other aspirant NATO countries see the prospective membership of the alliance—and, indeed, the EU—as a vital signpost of a journey towards democratic governance, the rule of law and an embrace of human rights. None of those values chime with Vladimir Putin’s regime. Russia stands in the way of freedom of choice for the people of Georgia and their Government. The fear is that if they move too far towards NATO or the EU, then Russia will invade. The truth is that the Georgians have been there before, and they have no desire to return. The question facing Georgia is how to meet its population’s desire to strengthen its democratic foundations without generating Russian aggression.
Our Government, working with international counterparts, should work to strengthen Georgian resilience and help prepare the country for any future aggression. The UK should also firmly confirm its support for Georgian sovereignty. Closer to home, our Government must finally get serious about cleaning up the dirty money that props up Russia and other authoritarian regimes. They have not taken enough action over the last decade, and failed to respond swiftly when the Intelligence and Security Committee warned about London being used as a laundromat for money tied to the Putin regime. That cannot be allowed to continue. The Government should follow Labour’s call for urgent reform of Companies House, so that it can crack down on the shell companies hiding cash. Sanctioning oligarchs will be effective only if we know where their wealth is hidden.
I want to finish by reiterating the strong support for the people of Ukraine that exists in Newport East and across the country. Although we may be on different sides if they are Wales’s opponents in the World cup finals play-off in Cardiff next month, we are all on the same side when standing with the Ukrainians in the face of Russia’s actions. The courage and resilience of the Ukrainian people in the face of such barbarism and untold human suffering will never be forgotten. Our Government must continue to support Ukraine and its people, including through the swift and comprehensive disbursement of humanitarian aid.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Mark. I pay great tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr Djanogly), not only for the informed way he spoke, but for leading a successful all-party delegation to Georgia, as declared in my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
We found that the Georgian people are not only extremely hospitable, but very pro-European. In 2020, the chairman of the ruling Georgian Dream party announced plans for Georgia effectively to apply for EU membership in 2024, but the geopolitical situation changed. Russia invaded Ukraine on 24 February this year, and Georgia responded by expediting a full application and submitting it on 3 March for EU consideration.
This month, further documentation was submitted, with the Georgian Government’s answers to a 2,600-point EU questionnaire on the country’s political, economic and institutional readiness to begin the process of joining the EU bloc. A response from the EU is expected in the next couple of months. During our visit to Georgia, as others have said, we visited a training and evaluation centre organised by NATO, where the level of military co-operation with Georgia is increasing. The Georgians seemed incredibly grateful to us as British Members of Parliament for visiting their country and showing our support.
Georgia is at a crossroads, linking Europe and Asia. It has, over the centuries, been partially or completely conquered by many different powers, including the Persian, Ottoman, Mongol and Russian empires. They have all left their mark on the country, culturally enriching it. It is an incredibly beautiful country, with the Caucasus bordering the north, the Black sea to the west, and the wine regions of Kakheti to the east.
One reason we were invited was to assess the current situation with Russia, which, as others have said, occupies 20% of Georgia’s internationally recognised territory. Unfortunately, as the Georgians reminded us many times during our visit, that occupation, which began in 2008, happened with hardly any protest from the rest of the world. Many would argue that that event, combined with Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, led to Putin’s boldness in Ukraine today. We visited South Ossetia, which is one of the two occupied areas, the other being Abkhazia. Standing on the line of control from Russian occupation, peering through binoculars into the mist and seeing no life at all—most, except some of the elderly, have been driven out—was a very eerie feeling.
The only parallel I can draw is with standing on the demilitarised zone between North and South Korea, again peering into the mist through binoculars into the Kaesong joint industrial centre. The only difference in South Ossetia is that the Russians have purpose-built military forts about every 7 kilometres along the border. There is a direct link road through the Caucasus into the former Republic of North Ossetia, which has also been annexed by Russia.
The democracy of Georgia, after years of occupation by the Soviet Union, is nowhere near as well embedded as ours. Although there is a free press, the majority of the press and media usually toe the Government line. In the Parliament, which we visited, the Government exercise control and the opposition do not have anything like the opportunities for criticism in holding the Government to account that we do. There were allegations, though we were provided with no proof, that the judiciary tends to find in the Government’s favour in the most serious cases.
Having said all that, and to put it into perspective, it is considerable how far the country has come since it was occupied by the Soviet Union. There are free elections, and the former President Mikheil Saakashvili admitted defeat in the parliamentary elections in 2012, allowing the first peaceful transition of power since Georgian independence. So, it is possible for people to exercise democratic power. For instance, demonstrations outside Parliament are a common feature, and they are allowed to go ahead unhindered by the Government.
The war in Ukraine is worrying on a number of fronts, because of the human tragedies that have occurred, with the prospect of future trials for war crimes and even genocide. It is essential that we keep up all the pressure against President Putin through sanctions, disruption of the Russian banking system, trade, continual resupply of lethal equipment to the Ukrainian military and, finally, reinforcing the generous British offer to take in Ukrainians affected by war.
No one yet knows how the war will end. It may even become a prolonged low-intensity war. One thing is certain: the military and political landscape of Europe has changed. That is what the Georgians hope—that somehow, in future negotiations, Russians can be pressured to leave the occupied territories, and that the people and families who lived there for so many generations can return to their homes.
As a farmer, I hope that the west will take control of the supply routes through the Black sea, allowing grain to come out of Ukraine and into some of the poorest countries in the world that are most in need of it. Otherwise, various things will happen. Obviously, the people in those countries will suffer hugely. The Ukrainians will also suffer further, because their grain stores are currently full and, unless they can get the grain out of those stores, they will not be able to put into them whatever new harvest they have to prepare for next year.
I left Georgia with a feeling of hope. The Georgians are a wonderful, hard-working and hospitable people who have endured so much over the years—not least because Stalin was born in the country and it was the location of some of the most brutal purges. The Georgians are determined to build it into a prosperous, modern and democratic country. Historically located at the crossroads of Europe and Asia, right at the heart of the old silk route between east and west, they have huge opportunities to trade.
In closing, I pay tribute to the Georgian ambassador to London, who went to huge trouble to organise our trip. We learned a great deal on that trip, and I hope that relationships between Georgia and this country have been, and will continue to be, improved by similar exchanges of views.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Sir Mark. I commence by warmly praising the hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr Djanogly) for securing this debate, and I congratulate him on an excellent speech. We often say that, but it is nice to mean it today; he gave a genuinely balanced introduction to the subject. It is also a pleasure to take stock of the many contributions about where Georgia is at present, where it has come from and the wider pattern of behaviour from the Kremlin and the Russian state.
I was particularly struck by the hon. Member’s introductory comment that there is no doubt that Georgia faces west. That was my very strong impression on my first visit to Georgia, back in 2007. Georgia aspires to membership of the international order and to be a western country. It has its own legacy dealing with the toxic impact of empire, after many empires have left legacies, good and bad, within its territory. The Georgians are a fantastic people. They are very hospitable, and they have some of the best wine I have ever tasted. They also have some of the most beautiful scenery—for a Scotsman to say that is really a compliment indeed. It is a wonderful country that should be doing so much better; without outside interference, I suspect it would be.
I always strive for consensus, so let us all agree that Georgia has a right to its independence and a right to live without fear of its neighbour. I hope we can all unite on that point. I hope we can also unite on the fact that it has the right to choose its own associations and to apply for NATO and EU membership. There is a clear demos within Georgia that wants western adhesion and co-operation to rebalance its history and the interference that it is suffering. I am glad there is widespread support around the House for that today.
During my time at the European Parliament, I was always strongly in favour of a wider European Union. I was strongly in favour of the EU accession process as a huge impetus for peaceful democratic reform, transparency and financial reform within applicant countries. I am still strongly of that view today, especially for Georgia and its neighbours. There could be a huge advantage in the UK being a voice—albeit from outside, because we are not going to change geography—for that accession and the wider European project.
Sadly, the Georgians are victims of a wider pattern of behaviour; the playbook from which the Kremlin is operating is pretty clear. I endorse the comment, made by Members on both sides of the House, that we sold the pass with the annexation of Crimea and with the initial invasion of Georgia. Because the international community did not provide a unified front and did not act on the facts, there was extreme moral hazard, and that is why we are in the mess that we are today with Ukraine.
We see the Kremlin’s activities in Ukraine and Georgia, but we also see moves in Bosnia and elsewhere in the Balkans. Sadly, Russian state and non-state actors interfere in the internal politics of many other countries, always with the aim to destabilise, and to create and foment division. I strongly echo the calls made by the hon. Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden) for stronger action on dirty Russian cash in our own domestic discourse. We have had many discussions about that in relation to Ukraine, but I suggest it is a good thing to do for a lot of reasons beyond what is happening in Ukraine. We see far too much dark money and money laundering in UK politics and property, and we need much stronger action on it.
A couple of points have been made that I hope the Minister, for whom I have great respect, will address. Surely, we need to be much clearer on our definition of the territories occupied by Russia in Georgia, and the consequences of that continued occupation. Work is going on to support to the Georgian authorities against disinformation by Russian and non-state actors, but I think we need to do a lot more. That applies to Bosnia and other places as much as it does to Georgia, but I think in Georgia there is a need for more.
My party’s position on the integrated review is fairly clear. The Scottish National party does not believe that an Indo-Pacific tilt makes a lot of sense for Scotland. I do not think it makes a lot of sense for the UK, either. I can understand why the US is doing it, but an Indo-Pacific tilt has been shown to be a toothless tiger in international affairs with the invasion of Ukraine. We submitted a lot of constructive suggestions—we do try to be constructive —to the integrated review. I reiterate that it is badly out of date and needs to be reassessed wholesale in the light of the situation in our European neighbourhood. I am glad that there has been wide agreement on that today, and I again commend the hon. Member for Huntingdon for securing this debate.
It is a pleasure, as always, to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Mark. I thank the hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr Djanogly) for securing this crucial debate at a critical time for Georgia and Ukraine, and I thank everyone for making excellent contributions.
Three weeks ago, I was proud to attend the celebrations for the 30th anniversary of the re-establishment of diplomatic relations between Georgia and the United Kingdom. I have been honoured today, and on many occasions recently, to speak for the Labour Front Bench in defence of the people of Ukraine, who continue to endure Russia’s barbaric invasion with heroism and great bravery. As has been mentioned, there are very warm relations between Georgia and the UK, but particularly with Wales. I have enjoyed some excellent conversations with the ambassador here in London in recent months since taking this position.
I reiterate Labour’s resolute commitment not only to NATO, but more broadly to defending the values of peace, democracy and liberty, which are being courageously protected in Ukraine and which I know are the aspirations of the people of Georgia, too. That has been demonstrated in their great sacrifice and huge contribution alongside us all in Afghanistan, which my hon. Friend the Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden) referred to. That must be remembered, and the sacrifice acknowledged.
Our support for the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Georgia is as solid as it is for Ukraine. There are marked parallels between the two countries’ experience in recent years at the hands of Russia, and that has made the UK’s diplomatic solidarity, support and engagement with all the countries in Russia’s near orbit all the more essential.
When it comes to the need for unity across the west in the face of Putin’s malevolent and clear intent to re-establish the wider territorial bounds, as he sees them, of the Soviet Union, or some sort of historical claimed area of influence, the alarm has been sounding for well over a decade. Russia’s war against Georgia in 2008 was dubbed by many the first European war of the 21st century. That was a haunting premonition that more would follow if that illegal and unjustified belligerence went unchecked and if other countries dared to seek their own paths and destinies, as they should be able to do. It must now be absolutely clear to all of us that the collective western reaction to those events in 2008 provided Putin with one of the green lights that he sought. We are monitoring his character and intentions intently today, but his playbook—as the hon. Member for Stirling (Alyn Smith), speaking for the SNP, said—has been implemented time and again. As Russia invaded Georgia illegally in 2008, the world largely watched on in silence. Hundreds of people died in that illegal annexation of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. We know how this works: Putin and his cronies heighten tensions, exploit and enable so-called secessionist movements, sow discord, spread misinformation, provoke chaos and capitalise on the ensuing turmoil.
I, too, should declare an interest as one of the recent visitors to Georgia—and a great and enlightening visit it was as well. During our trip, I spent some time in the main museum in Tbilisi, where there was an exhibition about the Soviet era. We often forget that Georgia has long-standing experience of the naked violence and aggression that comes from across the Russian border. While it enjoyed a few years of independence after the first world war and the break-up of the Russian and Ottoman empires, it was brutally reinvaded by the Soviets and people were mercilessly murdered in cold blood, so this is not the first time that Georgia has experienced what can come from its neighbour across the border. We often forget the lessons of history there.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to point to that history. It is of course the history of many others in the near orbit of Russia, including in the Baltics. Now, yet again, we see a false, so-called referendum being used next month to attempt to formally bring one of those illegally occupied regions into union with Putin’s Russia. The ceasefire agreed back in 2008 was undoubtedly tipped in favour of Putin and, in the weeks and months that followed, I am sorry to say, the west went back to a business-as-usual approach in its dealings with Moscow. We failed to implement tough enough sanctions or to punish such egregious behaviour. Indeed, the US led the way in “resetting” relations with the Kremlin, and continued to treat Russia as a wayward partner rather than a belligerent adversary.
We cannot continue to make these mistakes if we are to end this diabolical trend of interference and invasion. And, of course, let us not forget the human cost. We saw the persecution of ethnic Georgians in Russia, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, the indiscriminate killing of civilians and the deliberate targeting of urban centres, the waging of a concerted information war to skew and misrepresent the actions of the invaders, and the displacement of 200,000 people. Does any of that sound eerily familiar? It is exactly what we are seeing yet again, so the warning signs were there and it saddens me greatly that we ignored them. We cannot afford to do that again and again.
Rightly, since 2008, Tbilisi, under different Governments, has pushed strongly for closer links with the EU and NATO, to attain the diplomatic and military assurances that it would be protected should it face such threats again. Obviously, membership of either organisation is unlikely in the immediate future, despite the clear attitudes of the population, which have rightly been referenced, and the passion there for close alliance with us. We need to do all we can to facilitate that dialogue and direction.
Georgia has been forced into a very difficult position when it comes to the war in Ukraine, but, despite the expected tension between Kyiv and Tbilisi, I was encouraged to see Georgia’s support for the 2 March UN General Assembly resolution condemning Russia’s illegal attack; support for Russia’s expulsion from the Council of Europe; and backing for the International Criminal Court probe into war crimes against the people of Ukraine. Those are encouraging signals, and we should absolutely recognise their significance. I certainly hope that Georgia can go further, but that requires us also to get involved and to proactively and consistently support all those who face these very difficult choices, particularly in the near neighbourhood of Putin’s Russia, and who need our support economically, diplomatically and in security terms.
I read the article by the hon. Member for Huntingdon that gave us a preview of his speech. It was a very interesting and important article. Fundamentally, if Georgia is to have the confidence to definitively support Ukraine’s resistance, and if the international community is to speak with one voice, clear assurances must come from countries such as the United Kingdom and others of support in multiple domains. If we want to ensure a network of liberty, democracy and peace, we have to invest in it urgently. With that, I have three questions, in conclusion, for the Minister. Can the Minister say what additional measures the UK is taking now to support Georgia diplomatically, economically and, crucially, in terms of security guarantees?
The focus has rightly been on Moldova in recent days, given the imminent threat that country faces. However, we know that the threat can be anywhere in the near neighbourhood of Russia at any time, as seen in Putin’s actions. What is our medium and long-term strategy for the likes of Georgia or, indeed, as mentioned, the western Balkans? What are we doing to reopen the Black sea fully? It cannot be right that Russia alone is able to dominate that crucial maritime domain.
We have heard about the impact on grain and trade, which affects Georgia and other countries bordering the Black sea. We have seen the despicable alleged theft of Ukrainian grain by the Russians in recent days, which has much wider consequences for the rest of the world, as rightly identified by the hon. Members for Huntingdon and for The Cotswolds (Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown). What are we doing to block the sale of that illegally seized grain, get the Black sea back open for trade, and ensure that Ukraine and others, including Georgia, can access their trade routes? Finally, what are we doing to build on and enhance the historic friendships and bilateral trade between the UK and Georgia? We have heard so much about that positive relationship. It is clear, in all the relationships that many of us have enjoyed, that the appetite is there from the UK and Georgia, and it is needed more than ever in these difficult times.
The hon. Gentleman has not quite been saved by the bell. A point that was put to us several times throughout our visit was that one of the things that could facilitate greater trade between the United Kingdom and Georgia would be to establish a direct air link between the two countries. In intervening on the hon. Gentleman, may I press the Minister on what she can do to help in that respect?
The hon. Gentleman puts an important question. I hope the Minister can address that point, because we must have those links open—not only for trade, but for relationships based on culture and friendship that we know are there—to enable people to travel easily between the UK and Georgia. I hope the Minister has something to say about that.
Today we have covered two important countries and the implications of Russia’s actions towards both. The United Kingdom has to stand united and resolute with our allies and friends around the world, be that Ukraine or Georgia.
It is a real pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Mark. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr Djanogly) on securing this important debate. We have some real experts on Georgia, and it is marvellous to see the ambassador with us in the Public Gallery. I also thank my hon. Friend for chairing the all-party parliamentary group on Georgia, and welcome the recent visit about which we have heard from several hon. Members.
The Minister for Europe and North America, my right hon. Friend the Member for Braintree (James Cleverly), would have liked to have taken part in this debate, but he is currently travelling on ministerial duties. It is therefore my pleasure to respond on behalf of the Government, and I am grateful to hon. Members for their contributions and the points raised.
The United Kingdom fully supports Georgia’s sovereignty, territorial integrity and Euro-Atlantic aspirations. Diplomatic relations between our countries are the strongest they have been since they resumed 30 years ago. As my hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon and others have mentioned, we enjoy excellent political, parliamentary, security and economic co-operation. Our landmark agreement on strategic partnership and co-operation was the first the UK concluded with an eastern European country after leaving the European Union. The agreement, which sets out our unwavering support for Georgia, and our joint commitment to peace and security, also provides the framework for deepening our economic and business ties. It is testament to the strong bonds between us.
We continue to stand shoulder to shoulder in the face of Russia’s illegal, unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, which has had such dire consequences for the Black sea region. Russian aggression against its neighbours is nothing new, but the scale, speed and brazenness of Putin’s assault on Ukraine has underlined the threat that countries such as Georgia continue to face. On the first day of the invasion, Russia took territory greater than the size of Georgia. It is of course true that heroic Ukrainian resistance has driven Russian forces back from Kyiv, but Ukrainian suffering under the Russian attack and occupation has been catastrophic. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has therefore confirmed Georgia’s view that it will never be safe until it joins the EU and NATO, as Members have mentioned.
Of course, Georgia does not need to look at Ukraine to understand Russian aggression. For decades, Russia has tried to exert control over Georgia and the region by fuelling conflict and division. Following the 2008 war, which resulted in Russia’s recognition of the Georgian breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Georgia has faced relentless pressure and hybrid attacks from Russia. Today, roughly 20% of Georgia’s territory is under Russian control, with Russian troops just 30 minutes from Tbilisi. In parallel, Russia deploys trade restrictions and other forms of economic and political pressure to try to break the will of the people of Georgia. Despite all that, Georgia has bravely stood with the people of Ukraine in their hour of need.
As the Minister for Europe highlighted during his call with the Georgian Foreign Minister on 28 February, the UK remains a steadfast supporter of Georgia’s sovereignty, territorial integrity and Euro-Atlantic aspirations. The UK will also continue to use our influential role in the Council of Europe, the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe and the UN to call on Russia to withdraw its troops from Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Like the overwhelming majority of the international community, the UK does not recognise those breakaway regions.
As colleagues have asked questions in relation to the breakaway territories, it is worth clarifying that the UK does not refer to them as “occupied” due to the wide-ranging implications that would have for UK policy. Any acknowledgment of occupation would provide additional powers, in law, to the Russian Federation. The UK’s position is consistent with the position of the UN, OSCE and EU as conflict mediators, with NATO institutionally, and with most international partners.
Russia’s support for the breakaway regions’ so-called independence demonstrates contempt for the very foundations of international relations—sovereignty, territorial integrity, and the right of nations to decide their own future, free from aggression and fear of invasion. We condemn the recent announcement by the de facto authorities in South Ossetia of their intent to carry out an illegal referendum on membership of the Russian Federation. We also consistently call on the Russian Federation to fulfil its clear obligations under the EU-mediated ceasefire agreement of 2008. It must withdraw its forces to pre-conflict positions and meet its other commitments to dialogue under the ceasefire agreement.
Despite Russia’s constant threats and interference, the Georgian people have bravely chosen the path towards Euro-Atlantic integration, with more than 70% of the population in favour. The UK remains steadfast in our support for Georgia’s aspirations, including its recent EU membership application. EU membership is a sovereign choice for Georgia and EU member states. This Government support that choice and strongly believe that no third country should have a veto over Georgia’s decision. We also believe that further integration with the EU and NATO will deliver greater prosperity and security for Georgia and for Europe.
The UK will continue to support Georgia in its implementation of the EU association agreement and its NATO commitments. We are leading calls in NATO to step up practical and political support to Georgia as a matter of urgency. We continue to encourage all allies to deliver on commitments made under the substantial NATO-Georgia package, including assisting Georgia in the implementation of reforms and enhancing resilience, accountability and transparency. During the April NATO Foreign Ministers meeting, the Foreign Secretary agreed a package of additional support to Georgia, boosting work to build resilience and defence capacity. We will continue to develop this with the Georgian Government ahead of the Madrid NATO leaders summit in June.
Colleagues mentioned security. We are supporting Georgia in cyber-space and at sea. On cyber, along with international partners, we are supporting Georgia’s cyber-security strategy and wider work in this realm. In these times of hybrid warfare, Georgia must have the strongest possible defences. When it comes to security in the Black sea, the UK routinely provided a maritime presence before the recent Russian invasion of Ukraine. That includes, as colleagues have mentioned, HMS Defender’s visits last June to Odesa in Ukraine and Batumi in Georgia. We are keen to re-establish that presence and to expand co-ordination among international allies.
We are encouraging Georgia to accelerate democratic reforms and overcome polarisation in the political arena, as that is crucial to achieving its ambition of greater Euro-Atlantic integration. Genuine, far-reaching reforms will anchor Georgia’s democracy against those who would seek to undermine it.
Let me conclude by reaffirming the UK’s unwavering support for Georgia. Drawing on our strong and enduring relationship, and with our international partners, we will continue to help Georgia boost its security, strengthen its democratic institutions and achieve its Euro-Atlantic goals.
This is a good and appropriate debate to have had at the current time. Let me first thank the Back-Bench contributions of my fellow delegation members: the hon. Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden) for bringing in the local community aspect, which is important and something we should be building on; my hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds (Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown) for his astute observations from his visit and his assessment of the political situation; and my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), who discussed the historical context, which is always appropriate in that part of the world.
It would be fair to say that there was a clear degree of cohesiveness and unanimity from the Front Benches of the Government, Labour and the SNP, and that has been consistently shown in this place, within the main Chamber and outside it. Given the precarious nature of the part of the world we have been discussing, it has been good for MPs and the Government to state their various positions, and it was probably time that we did that.
Rightly, there is overwhelming support in this place for Ukraine and its people. The message today is that issues arising out of the Russia-Ukraine war—supporting democratic values, Black sea security, addressing Russian intransigence, addressing the need to secure grain supplies, and many others mentioned by hon. Members—are important for many countries beyond Ukraine. Britain’s strategic interests require us to stand back and look at the wider picture coming out of the Russia-Ukraine war, and Georgia should and must form part of that picture.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered Georgia and the war in Ukraine.